"Then there's no point in our being logical, is there?" said Jonathan...
"What do you mean?" said Lewis and Mrs. Zimmerman at the same time.
"I mean," he said patiently, "that we're no good at that sort of game. Our game is wild swoops, sudden inexplicable discoveries, cloudy thinking. Knights' jumps instead of files of rooks plowing across the board. So we'd better play our way if we expect to win."
John Bellairs, The House with a Clock in Its Walls
EDITED BY JEREMY TENENBAUM AND KEVIN TRAVERS
“The Pleasant Light of Day”
Canadian Citizens in France (As of October 15) -- J --
Audrey Jackson (Ottawa), Cooper Jackson (Victoria, British Columbia), Robert Jackson (Ottawa), Paule Jaume (Montreal, Quebec), Hong Jiang (Vancouver, British Columbia) Longxing Jiang (Vancouver, British Columbia), Lily Jiang (Vancouver, British Columbia), Missy Jiang (Vancouver, British Columbia),
Derek Johnson (Alma, Quebec), Rebecca Juetten (Toronto, Ontario), Karl Jung(Montreal, Quebec), Gretchen Jung (Montreal, Quebec)
Canadian Citizens in France (As of November 15) -- J --
Missy Jiang (Vancouver, British Columbia), Rebecca Juetten (Toronto, Ontario)
December 5, 2047 -- Msg: "Rebecca Juetten of Toronto alive. Am in Paris."
December 11, 2047 -- Msg: "Rebecca Juetten of Toronto alive. Am in Paris."
December 16, 2047 -- Msg: "Am in Calais. Tryng 2 get 2 Englnd."
December 20, 2047 -- Dear Chrissie: I am in Margate UK and in good health. We walked through the Chunnel and got into Britain before they closed the borders, but they were already turning people away. A soldier in Dover said I sounded American and he wanted to put me on a boat going back to the Continent, but I sang O Canada and drew our maple leaf on my hand and he let me stay. There are boats going to the Continent every few days. A bus rolled over my foot in Paris and I think my toes are broken. There are other Canadians in the dorms where I am staying. They are Greg and Susan McCain from P.E.I., Bob and Michael Harvey from Montreal, Jean-Paul and Haruhito Leclerc of Montreal, Gary McDuff from near Trois-Rivières, Donald Laird of Ottawa, Donald MacLean of Ottawa, Britten and Eric Traughber Ottawa, Clay Campbell from Port Hope, Rainbow Zhu of Victoria, Missy Jiang of Vancouver, and me.
January 5, 2048 -- Dear Chrissie: Am in dorms in Margate and in good health. Greg McCain from P.E.I. passed away this morning, but he was warm and comfortable. The Canadian survivors in Margate are Susan McCain from P.E.I., Bob and Michael Harvey from Montreal, Haruhito Leclerc of Montreal, Gary McDuff from near Trois-Rivières, Donald Laird of Ottawa, Donald MacLean of Ottawa, Britten and Eric Traughber from Ottawa, Clay Campbell from Port Hope, Rainbow Zhu of Victoria, Missy Jiang of Vancouver, and me.
The British government is being very generous to us. We have warm blankets, running warm (not hot) water, and the soldiers are civilised. It’s important that people know Britain is being humane.
It’s loud all the time. Maybe we’re stir-crazy because everyone has to stay inside. There are some Caribbean families and they’re really loud. Like it’s their culture to be loud. It echoes off the concrete walls. Other people are loud, too, not just Caribbeans. That came out wrong.
January 13, 2048 -- Dear Chrissie: Am in dorms in Margate and in good health. The Canadian survivors in Margate are Bob Harvey from Montreal, Gary McDuff from near Trois-Rivières, Rainbow Zhu from Victoria, and me. All the Caribbean survivors have passed away. The British government is being very generous to us and treating us well.
January 15 2048 -- Dear Chrissie: I wonder if you’re getting these letters. They say North America is intact- that’s the word we’re using, “intact”- but I don’t think that’s likely. There are so many airports in the States.
If you’re okay please write to me. Tell me what things look like. What’s intact. I keep thinking no matter how bad it is there must blue sky and trees and grass. Flowers. Clear water. Maybe all that stuff will actually get better now, with nobody around to pollute it.
The Canadian survivors are Bob Harvey of Montreal, Gary McDuff of near Trois- Rivières, Rainbow Zhu of Victoria, and me. Gary McDuff has family near Toronto. Bob Harvey is supposed to be taking BP medication so he is red-faced and won’t get out of bed because he is afraid he will have a heart attack. Rainbow Zhu from Victoria is nice.
The British soldiers are treating us very well- we are warm and clean. I’ve been asking about boats going to North America, but the borders are well and truly closed now. I heard they’re locking down port cities to prevent people stealing ships.
Jan 18, 2048 -- Dear Chrissie: Doctors came to see us yesterday. They don’t have any medicine but they can do simple surgeries. Rainbow Zhu held her arms around me tight and a doctor broke my three bad toes and splinted them to make them straight. He said they’ll be more comfortable in about two weeks if I’m very careful and don’t put any weight on them. Before he did it, he asked me what my hobbies are, and the funniest thing happened, Chrissie. I can’t remember. What are my hobbies?
January 21, 2048 -- Dear Chrissie: Bob Harvey from Montreal passed away this morning. The Canadian survivors in Margate are Gary McDuff from near Trois-Rivières, Rainbow Zhu from Victoria, and me. Please write soon and let me know what is intact.
February 2, 2048 -- Dear Chrissie: The Canadian survivors in Margate are Gary McDuff from near Trois-Rivières, Rainbow Zhu from Victoria, and me. The British government is being very generous to us. We have lots of warm clothes and bedding, warm running water, and the soldiers are civilised.
We eat a lot of peanut butter, and MREs of all kinds- especially French ones. Rainbow says the diet is sound but too spare. I think it’s okay. I miss eggs.
Mom sewed these traveller’s pouches for each of us before we left home. I made fun of them because they’re ugly but they hide under your shirt and they’re what I have left. I have Mom’s & Dad’s and Jeremy’s. Dad’s has a picture of all of us in it, so I have a picture of us. Jeremy’s has his phone (broken), watch, and condoms. Mom’s has lots of stuff in it like tampons, Gravol, Paracetemol, tissues, Chapstick, and a map of the Paris subway system. Ha ha, maybe it’s the last one left! Maybe it will be in a museum.
There’s money, but nobody cares about Euros except sometimes the soldiers will trade for the coins, but not often. I don’t like looking at the money anymore. It makes me tight all over like I’ll throw up. Rainbow says she feels the same way about her husband’s watch.
February 14, 2048 -- Dear Chrissie: Yesterday the soldiers asked if anyone wanted to interview for positions in work programs. I said I did. Rainbow Zhu said no, but when I told her what happened she said she’ll volunteer if they ask again.
A soldier sat with me in the cafeteria where it’s quiet and asked me what my work experience was. I started babbling about working at the Apple store and then when I realized how useless that is I got embarrassed and didn’t want to talk anymore. So the soldier asked questions and I answered them as briefly as I could. Do I know any chemistry, kind of. Do I know any physics, not really. Do I know how to build things, work on machines, no, no. Do I know about farming, I said kind of. She asked me what I think will happen after I die. And it’s funny, I said, I think about that a lot, I hope it’s like when you’ve just woken up but you don’t have to get out of bed yet. She said that if I wanted to leave the dormies here in Margate I could go on a convoy to find farms that need light labour. She said she’s from farm country and it’s beautiful and did I ever see English farm country and I said no. She said the benefit of doing farm work is there’s always food and it’s got low population density.
Rainbow was a perfumer. Did I tell you that before? She knows a lot of chemistry, apparently being a perfumer means you make synthetic molecules. I thought it was like botany, like drying flowers, but Rainbow says the best molecules are all synthetic. That synthetic molecules tend to be safer and hypoallergenic. That made me laugh and laugh. So Rainbow thought, if they asked me about chemistry, they might need people who know chemistry to do something and that would be a nice change.
March 3, 2048 -- Dear Chrissie: I’m sorry I haven’t written, but I am alive and in good health. Herefordshire only does mail service 4x a month, so I don’t know how often you’ll get letters or how often I should send them. I’m at a dairy farm owned by the Acker family, in a place called Wormridge near Whitfield. The closest public road is Stone Street. Mrs. Acker told me all this, but actually I haven’t left the house since I got here except Mrs. Acker made me get up and go for a walk the last few days after supper.
The family is Mrs. Acker, her son Geoffrey and his wife Edda. None of the Ackers are survivors; they don’t have the boil scars. It makes me nervous. At least if someone has the scars you know they’re not going to die. There is another foreigner here, a Polish girl named Johanna, but I don’t think she speaks English.
March 9, 2048 -- Dear Chrissie: I am in Herefordshire, living on the Acker dairy farm, and I am in good health. I miss you.
They have been extremely good to me. The first day when the military dropped me off, Mrs. Acker showed me to my room and I started to cry because I hadn’t been alone in such a long time, I couldn’t believe that there was a room, small, but it’s all mine and nobody else will come in unless I invite them. Mrs. Acker put me to bed right then and I slept, and I just kept sleeping. It felt like the more I slept the more I found fatigue that my body’s been hiding, crammed in my organs. First I slept through the fatigue in my eyes, and when it was gone I cried for a whole day. Then I slept through the fatigue in my bones, and I could stretch and stand up straight. When I slept through the fatigue in my stomach I was suddenly ravenously hungry. Nobody minds; they keep making wonderful rich food and telling me to have seconds. They have heifers but there’s nobody left to buy the milk, so we have a lot of butter, cheese, and full cream milk. Every morning Edda cooks oats with two soft eggs on top, and she makes a kind of Scotch egg with oats around it instead of sausage for snacks. They have a vegetable garden and are feeding me a clover with big floppy leaves that smells very sweet and green and tastes nice with vinegar. I also eat the seeds sprinkled in my oats, and a multi-vitamin the soldiers left with me that I have to take 6x a day with food. Apparently the clover helps you gain weight- I’ve gotten so scrawny you wouldn’t recognize me.
March 16, 2048 -- Dear Chrissie: Remember I told you there’s another foreign survivor here? Her name is Johanna, and she actually speaks very good English. She invited me into the vegetable garden today and we weeded together.
Johanna’s so mild I almost think she’s in a daze. Everyone fusses over her, telling her where to sit and when to eat, and Johanna does it but she’s smiling like she’s happy to be told what to do. Once she walked past my open door and stood in the doorway watching me. It felt a little creepy, but there was nothing threatening or strange about her posture or her expression. It seemed like she had been wandering around the house, had found another living thing, and was just standing near it. After a while she wandered away again.
I think there’s another survivor. I mean to say, I know someone is living in the milking stalls. I only saw her from a few yards away when Edda walked me around after breakfast. The milking stalls are attached to the big barn where all the heifers stay, and there are windows on one side. I saw this girl’s face through one of the low windows, a plump very brown face with big brown eyes. I think I asked, “Who is that?” but I may have just thought it, or Edda may not have heard me.
March 23, 2048 -- Dear Chrissie: Today the fog made everything the color of old socks. I kept rubbing my eyes, but still couldn’t see well and felt close and uncomfortable. It put me in a mood like a cracked egg, with nothing spilling out yet but still not much good to anybody. Geoffrey took me away from baking and made me go outside to see the heifers. When we got to the barn he started speaking in a low voice that they find soothing. He said, “See how calm they are, they don’t have a care in the whole world and everything they need is provided for. Feel how soft they are,” and we pressed up against them. “They are so heavy and so placid. Feel how warm and soft her skin is. She’s so comfortable. Not hungry, not tired, not sick. Isn’t that nice?”
I said I thought it was very nice, and Chrissie, the funniest thing happened. Geoffrey put his arms around me and held me, and he ran his hands down my back over and over. It felt so good. I can’t think the last time I was hugged. You know Jeremy didn’t die of Flu- did I tell you? He was burned when we set a cooking fire in the hotel and it got out of control. He hugged me some time before that and said I was a good sister. Mom and Dad both died of Flu.
March 30, 2048 -- Dear Chrissie: I miss you. I was outside today picking radishes and I felt I couldn’t stand being alone one more minute. The vegetable garden is closer to the cow barn than it is to the house, and I had such a nice time there the last few days visiting it with Geoffrey that I walked over by myself. I went into the first stall and stood next to one of the heifers. She sniffed me and even let me lean against her. They won’t tolerate anything being done to them they don’t like. I think that’s why Geoffrey is so good to them, because if a heifer gets upset she could hurt him. They even smell good, like grass and, just… like a cow. Sweet, earthy.
When I looked up I realized there was someone else in the stalls with me. It was the African girl I’ve seen before through the window. She didn’t see me at first, but when I moved she picked her head up and watched me.
I said hello and asked what her name is, but she didn’t answer me. After a while she dipped down below a side wall and I couldn’t see her anymore. I felt a little out of place, so I left and went back to the house. She seemed to belong there. I mean to say, she doesn’t look like she’s hiding.
But why doesn’t she stay in the house?
April 6, 2048 -- Dear Chrissie: Last week Johanna moved out of her bedroom downstairs by the kitchen and has started sleeping in an empty milking stall. Geoffrey needs her to keep vermin out of the food stores and away from the heifers. I told him there was already someone living in the barn, but Geoffrey explained that the African girl I told you about, Olivia, has moved to another farm where they need more labour. He said, “She’s a good girl” and that was it. I’m sure if anything bad were happening, Geoffrey would have been angry that I knew about Olivia, or he would have tried to keep her secret.
Now I’m sleeping in the room by the kitchen and Mrs. Acker has moved back into her own room (where I was). It’s very warm and cozy down here, really just a big closet with a bed in it.
April 13, 2048 -- Dear Chrissie: This morning I woke up early in pain. I guess it was startling because, really, so many things have hurt since last fall. My first night here I burned my hand on the stove and it hardly felt like anything. But this pain was sharp on both sides of my stomach and a hot ache in my chest. I was so uncomfortable I had to wake Mrs. Acker up and tell her, and I guess she didn’t mind because she was fussing and cooing at me right away. When she pulled the covers back to put me into bed again we both saw what was going on- I’ve got my period for the first time since before Christmas.
I was embarrassed and started to cry, but Mrs. Acker was so happy. She changed the bed like it was nothing and when I lay down she even brushed my hair and braided it for me. She said it’s a sign that I’m getting healthy again and that everything will be all right. I can’t think the last time someone said that. She sat next to me for a long time, kind of rubbing my back and talking to me about how good things are going to be. How the weather is getting warmer and I’m getting strong and healthy. And how everything will be all right now.
April 20, 2048 -- Dear Chrissie: Sometimes I dream about you reading these letters, and it makes me happy. Maybe there is a pile of your letters somewhere waiting for me, and when things get better they will be delivered. Won’t that be like Christmas?
Really I am happy to live here. I am in good health and the Ackers are so kind to me. I can’t figure out why my chest is so sore, though, like someone’s punched me with their two fists. For weeks it’s been a growing soreness. At first I thought of the people who got Flu in their
lungs, and they coughed up pus and blood until they drowned, and I was so scared. But Edda reminded me I had Flu in my skin, not my lungs. And I survived. It’s all over, and I won’t get sick like that ever again.
Edda said being around the cows might influence my body to start producing milk, like how our menstrual cycles match up with other women over time. Haha, maybe I’m just getting fatter than I’ve ever been before, and my skin is stretching.
April 27, 2048 -- Dear Chrissie: The Ackers accepted another foreign survivor from a convoy. Filza is our age, but she’s so skinny and small she makes me feel massive. She cries a lot, then drinks milk and cries some more. Since she’s in the room upstairs where I used to be, I can hear her at night and a couple of times I’ve gone up just to lie in bed with her and hug her. Because she’s Arabic some people said she was responsible for the Flu, and they beat her, so she can’t see out of one eye and she limps badly. I said, “In the Dormies they told me it was the Koreans who were responsible, not the Arabs” and we laughed and laughed. Filza’s whole family and everyone she went to school with are dead. She’s the only person she knows who
survived, just like me.
May 4, 2048 -- Dear Chrissie: A few mornings ago Edda asked me to help Geoffrey with milking while she did the dusting. I tried, but my chest has been so swollen I couldn’t lean down to get at the udders. Geoffrey noticed I was uncomfortable, and like it was nothing he said, “Why don’t you let me take care of that for you?”
He showed me this thing called a bucket milker, about the size of a car engine and made to milk just one cow. I was so embarrassed. But Geoffrey explained how I would feel so much better if I weren’t full of milk. He made it seem like there was nothing to be embarrassed about and that he just wanted to help me. I made him turn around while I attached the little hoses to myself, and I kept my coat draped over me while the machine worked. I was starving afterwards but it really felt so much better. And when it was over, Chrissie, the funniest thing happened. Geoffrey opened the collection vessel and drank from it just like it was real milk. I thought I must be dreaming. He said it was delicious and perfectly healthy, and that babies nursed by Flu survivors aren’t getting sick. That nobody can build a vaccine for an engineered disease, but our bodies are making one without us even trying. So he was very thankful that I let him drink it, and I’m helping him and I am a very good person.
May 11, 2048 -- Dear Chrissie: Today I found the box where Geoffrey keeps my letters. He explained that the postal convoys aren’t operating anymore, and maybe they haven’t delivered mail outside of Britain for a long time. He hid the letters to keep me from being disappointed.
I miss you very much, but I’m not angry at Geoffrey and I even think I’m glad, because now I don’t have to worry why you’ve never written me back. Because I’ve been so afraid that you’re not there.
I went down to be with the heifers again this morning. Geoffrey put the little bucket milker next to me and helped me get the hoses attached. I told him originally that I wanted to do it myself, but he’s much better at it, I keep pinching myself when I do it. So he rubbed lanolin on me, and tugged at me to get the milk going, and then slipped the hoses on. Simple. And I’ve felt so much better since Geoffrey had the good idea of letting me use the milker. I only get that pain in my chest when I’m too full, and then I just walk down and he takes care of me.
While I was lying on my side and letting the machine work, Geoffrey stroked my back and talked to me about how nice the weather is and how happy he is that I’ve gotten stronger and healthier. He said I’ve been needing the bucket milker more often, and maybe I would be more comfortable living in the cow barn. I guess Johanna must have gone somewhere else, because I haven’t seen her for a while, and the little stall where she slept is clean and empty. I said I’d be very happy to sleep with the cows. They’re so peaceful all the time, enjoying their comfortable lives. They don’t have a care in the world.
There are traces of gunpowder on your teeth.
I want to believe that you joyfully exploded
inside my sinew, but really, it was the kickback
that threw you into the thicket of my arms.
The buckshot is still there, just under the flesh,
protruding like a stone, a forceful possibly-maybe --
artless ricocheting of bead, stone, munition.
When the wrappings of my sheared flesh
catch in the sharp places, I weave them
into your simulacrum.
I am meat twisting in the wind after hunting season.
I gathered pebbles for shooting in treetops and streams,
rifle ammunition for shooting the color of fire through air,
a target with buckshot caught fast,
invisible after the hard planting, even though
nothing grows except dirt mounds.
My mouth is filled with stones,
blessings for a finite life, a small nick in wild wood.
All the while, your plastic alter ego casts pebbles into the forest.
A bird falls.
Jaw, beak, bone -- set into the earth for tree-tending.
“Oh, Dissolute Youth!”
The night was riddled with stars. Sue was walking to Kate’s for dinner. The air smelled of damp fallen leaves and wet pavement.
Kate answered on the first ring with a semi-bright hello -- an incandescent bulb warming up.
How’ve you been? asked Sue.
Oh, fine, said Kate.
Sue emptied her bag of vegetables, opened a beer.
I bet the person who named the eggplant isn’t allowed to name things anymore, Sue said.
A smile flickered on Kate’s face as she washed the zucchini beneath the faucet. Sue began clearing the table of magazines and junk mail.
What is the relationship between capitalism and sex, would you say? she asked, seeing a trend piece headline.
Both of them describe fucking people, Kate said, taking down the little bottles of dried and powdered plants.
Sue didn’t have it in her that night to discuss either of their jobs -- the picked-over salad days of a newspaper fact-checker and entry-level coder -- or the respective chafings of their families. She chose the ultra-personal turn as diversion.
What’s a greater violation, she asked, reading someone’s texts or emails or looking through their browser history?
Texts, Kate said, igniting the burner for the sauce she was re-heating. Because it’s compromising multiple people’s privacy at once.
Don’t you think what someone searches is more revealing? asked Sue.
Kate considered. It depends on what the person considers more private, she said. Conversations between minds, confessions, apologies, or --
Porn preferences, said Sue.
Corny YouTube montages, said Kate.
Celebrity gossip blogs.
Kate said she tended to search individuals, their profiles and work and personal accounts, and to follow those as far as they went.
Which could reveal a kind of fascination with particular people, she said, their thoughts and ideas -- portraits of inner lives -- that I would probably consider more private than what I say to people in texts and emails.
Except for writing in moments of crisis, she went on. Expression of fears or regrets.
Love, said Sue. Or attempts to repair rifts.
To seduce someone, said Kate. Win someone back.
Talking shit about people to other people, said Sue. Or praising them, thinking you’re speaking only to one person.
Amused, suddenly thoughtful, Kate stirred the sauce. Shortly, the meal was ready and they sat down to eat.
Later, having a last drink on the couch, Sue found she felt safe and invulnerable. Something about the direction their talk had gone. It was as though Kate had remembered other selves might exist, as textured as her own, with their own intensities of judgment and opinion.
What do our friends say about me when I’m not around? Kate asked, at a lull.
Oh, the usual things, said Sue.
Like what, said Kate.
You know -- it’s a discussion. ‘Kate, she’s intense. Is she pleasant to be around, or isn’t she?’
Sue watched Kate receive this.
Kate had curled in on herself on the cushions like a singed slug.
How about an arm in the air? Sue said, taking Kate’s from where she’d tucked it and lifting it above her head.
Despite herself, Kate began to feel better.
The night was matted with stars, but few were visible, obscured by light pollution and opaque storm clouds.
Kate was walking to Sue’s -- brooding, verging on sulking, as was typical. She thought she was in for a night of vacuous company after dinner, and she didn’t keep up relationships with those she didn’t like, either romantically or in friendship. When she reached Sue’s, she asked about her life quickly, spoke little. When they left for the party, the clouds had evaporated or moved on.
Glutted with stars, the sky embarrassed the lovers beneath it, Kate said.
Overkill, they thought, and didn’t kiss, said Sue.
The sky teemed and swarmed with stars, said Kate. They blinked, like light glinting off roaches’ shiny brown wings -- reflecting Broadway’s neon as it enters the sewers through the bars of a sidewalk grate.
I wish I had a guarantee I would experience some sort of ecstasy at this party, Kate said.
You hope someone will have Ecstasy?
No. I want to experience some variety of awe or elation. Something beyond the quotidian pleasures of eating and drinking, working, and talking with you.
Beyond the rapturous euphoria that is talking with you.
There might be some sort of disaster, said Sue. An attack or explosion.
Meteorite. Asteroid hit.
Climate-caused apocalypse day one.
We can hope.
Just then, a massive car accident took place. A taxi ran a light and collided with two other, traffic-law-abiding vehicles. Rubber screamed against concrete, metal scraped and splintered. A plume of flame and sour, chemical smells spurted in their direction. Then the human, but animal-seeming sounds took over --
Very funny, said Kate.
Thanks, said Sue.
They had reached the door and Kate pushed past her, not chastened, but not unamused.
At the party, Sue experienced a higher degree of removal than usual from what was taking place around her, stoned on the power of her stupid trick. Inventing the crash in speech, creating it in the world. Or was it just that Kate was free and easy, flirting with the whole of the room, outside of herself.
“Some Days You Wake”
The day I’m meant to pack the car and move halfway across the U.S., I’m saying goodbye to Simon. I’m in sweats and a tank top, barefoot outside, poised on the balls of my feet to get my arms around him. Just then, the door slams behind us, wind-tunneled, and I haven’t got my key.
The daylight is fluorescent-bright, the sidewalk blown-out white. I’m instantly crying, now sitting on the pavement, warm from the sun. He’s saying my name over and over, apologizing.
“I don’t have a key?” I don’t. “Can’t I get in the back way?” It’s locked. “We can call a locksmith?” Suddenly, furiously, I assume he doesn’t have his phone, but he does. He reaches into his pocket for it, and instead takes out the spare key I had given him the day before. We had both forgotten it was there. We go back inside.
“It’s so good you had given me this key,” he says.
“It’s like a fucked-up parable,” I say.
In the public library, in the weeks before I leave, two Jenny Holzer banners hang from the rafters. One reads, “WORDS TEND TO BE INADEQUATE.” The other: “LACK OF CHARISMA CAN BE FATAL.”
My second to last day in the city, I had said Simon could stay with me, because he happened to be passing through town, and I hadn’t seen him all summer. We had dinner and then he met up with Tom and drank and played pool until the small hours of the morning, before coming back to slip under the covers with my warm and dozing body. (Thus the spare key.) The lockout had been that next morning, and, before the mishap, I had woken up for no good reason in a black and dour state of mind.
Lying there, the two of us, he had been saying things. “I wish you well,” was one. He could tell my mood was dismal. I got up and started getting dressed. He stood and wrapped his arms around me from behind.
“I’ll be sending good energy and positive thoughts through the channels we’ve carved in spacetime,” he said. He was acting a dork, messing around, but he knows it’s the kind of thing I like to hear.
When we were still in the sheets, in each other’s arms, he had told me he loved me. I told him I loved him as well. It was still true. The summer apart had done nothing.
“Let’s lie down for another civil moment,” he said, pulling me backwards. And we did.
Embrace complete, clouds parting, I turned onto my side, face to the windows. He adjusted to hold me again, doggedly, his big wingspan at work.
“Follow your dreams,” he said then. I elbowed him a little. “My warmest regards.”
“God bless them, every one,” I said.
“Yours always and sincerely, x-o-x-o, Simon.”
“Forever and ever, world without end, amen.”
In the new city, early days, I walk around the free art museum, blessedly air-conditioned on a punishing August afternoon. Between two floors, an out-of-place bronze plaque seems unattached to any other work. The words, in raised type, spaced in the signature Holzer style, read: “YOU CAN MAKE YOURSELF ENTER SOMEWHERE FRIGHTENING IF YOU BELIEVE YOU’LL PROFIT FROM IT. THE NATURAL RESPONSE IS TO FLEE BUT PEOPLE DON’T ACT THAT WAY ANYMORE.”
Between the gift shop and the special exhibit, a second plaque materializes. “SOME DAYS YOU WAKE AND IMMEDIATELY START TO WORRY. NOTHING IN PARTICULAR IS WRONG. IT’S JUST THE SUSPICION THAT FORCES ARE ALIGNING QUIETLY AND THERE WILL BE TROUBLE.”
I take a photo of the plaque and send it to Simon.
“That last morning in New York,” I write. He doesn’t reply for a few days, and then he does.
what is the task?
we are repeating
we do forget
how the story started
ghosts, the former us
we all know how they feel about
(don’t think about the)
pleather seats and rubber
Go on, creeps. Look
search for curse of
cauled and mewling
coded and naked
savage closed around a girl
a blinking wreath
we mourn our turning on and off.
no breath, no thought
become the wounded person
a third place
after we stop the pills
when we arrive there
I’m trembling now
my hair fell out
my whole life is my curse of
ready for winter and risk
a broad protest
but failed anyway to stand on our feet (that’s what they say)
they can’t wait to be shocked one more time
soaked with vinegar
unhinged wistful alone
intimacy with the ghosts
where is that angel?
different angles of approach
please teach me lessons
pigment released on the board
as I talk to you all day whatever day
want and gloss
the only animal
where is that angel?
“HOW TO FIX HUMAN COMPUTER”
I don’t go home much anymore.
I feel bad about that. Mostly because of my grandmother. She’s 85 now. I was always her favorite, which she never tried to hide from my little sister. Or my dad and uncle. And she always hated my mother. But she loved me.
There are reasons why my grandmother is the way she is. According to my dad, she was very close with her father, my great-grandfather. When he died, she never got over it. He worked on boats, doing I don’t know what. One night, while the boat he worked on was stationed in New York, he fell off the dock and into the water and drowned. At least that’s what the reports said. My grandmother told me stories of how she went on that boat and sailed up and down the Hudson River, as the police waited for my great-grandfather’s body to turn up. Finally, it did, after a few days. My grandmother was there when they pulled his bloated corpse onto the boat. They told her not to look at him, because of what a few days of being in the water had done. But she refused to look away.
My grandmother is a very strong woman.
That’s why she has what some might think of as an unhealthy attachment to the men in her life, and anyone who tried to come between her and them. She married my grandfather, and they had two sons, my dad and my uncle. She hated her mother in law, my great-grandmother, with a passion. I remember when my great-grandmother got too old to live by herself, my grandfather wanted her to move in with them. But my grandmother said no. So, they put her in a nursing home instead and waited for her to die. I was just a little kid then, and I hated it when my mom and dad made me go to the nursing home to visit my great-grandmother. Every time we went it was exactly the same. My great-grandmother would lie in the nursing home bed and tell us the story of how she found her son, my grandfather’s brother, dead one morning. It was always the same story, word for word, and she would cry while she told it. My grandfather would cry too.
My grandmother would stand in the corner of the room and roll her eyes.
My uncle never married, and my grandmother is the reason why. When I was about ten, my uncle got engaged. He asked me to be the ring bearer at his wedding. He was the happiest I’d ever seen him. My grandmother hated my uncle’s fiancée and talked shit about her to anyone within earshot. Then, all of a sudden, my uncle wasn’t engaged anymore. My Dad told me later that my grandmother had paid the fiancée a visit, and after that, she and my uncle broke up. Nobody knows what my grandmother said to her.
After that happened, I watched my uncle give up. He and I were really close when I was a kid, he was a lot of fun. But after his wedding got called off, my uncle withdrew inward, stopped smiling, stopped trying. He never had another relationship after that. But he still has dinner with my grandmother every Sunday night, like a puppy whose spirit had been broken.
My grandmother thinks of my uncle as her good son.
My dad is the black sheep. That’s because he actually did get married and had a family of his own. My grandmother could never stand my mom. Her hatred was barely concealed, and obvious to my sister and me from a very young age. My grandmother was never shy about making her opinions about other people well known.
I was extremely close with my grandmother growing up. I spent almost every weekend at her house. I loved spending time with her and my grandfather, even though was grandfather could be a hard, strict man. He was a lot like my great-grandfather, my dad told me once.
I remember when I was twelve, my grandmother called my mom on the day after Christmas. I was in the kitchen when my mom got the call. My grandmother had finally decided to tell my mom exactly what she thought of her. My mom started yelling back at my grandmother over the phone, calling her “Lady.”
“Listen, lady -- you think I’m such a bad mother, well you did a great job of raising your son. A man who punches holes through doors and walls, you sure did a great job of raising him!”
I didn’t see my grandmother for six months after that. I took my mom’s side, of course I did. But eventually I started going over to visit on the weekends again, although it was never the same. My mom never went over to my grandmother’s house, and my grandmother never came over to ours. At Christmas, my grandmother would leave the presents for my sister and I on the front steps and drive away. Then a few hours later, my dad would take my sister and me over to my grandmother’s house for Christmas dinner, and we would thank her for the presents and pretend that nothing was wrong.
When I was fifteen years old, I realized I was gay, but I couldn’t tell anyone in my family. I came out to my mom once I had moved away to go to college, and she told my dad, who did not take it well. Naturally, my grandparents were never allowed to find out.
In college, I would come home for winter, spring, and summer breaks. I became very good at lying.
After I graduated college, I only went home for a few days once a year, usually around Christmas. Eventually, I even stopped doing that. It was too painful to be back there and pretend to be a person I wasn’t.
The last time I went home was when my grandfather died.
When my grandfather died, my grandmother was devastated. Everyone else was kind of relieved.
My grandfather had always been a strong, active man. But he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and for years had slowly wasted away. He’d been a hard man in my childhood, but for the last few years he shook and sobbed uncontrollably every time I saw him. Like he was afraid he would never see me again. Like there was something important he wished he’d told me.
My grandmother would treat him horribly those last few years, openly mocking him while he sat just a few feet away from her, as if he couldn’t hear her. Maybe he couldn’t. Towards the end, his mind was completely gone, so my dad told me.
I didn’t go see my grandfather when he was in the hospital. I couldn’t see him like that.
After my grandfather died, my grandmother talked about him as if he had been a saint.
I came home for his funeral. I gave the eulogy, and I didn’t cry. Not crying during that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. In spite of everything, I had loved him. Even though he never knew who I really was.
My uncle had wanted to give the eulogy, but my grandmother refused to let him do it. She said he would just stand up there and cry, and nobody needed to see that. She wanted me to do it, and that was that. My uncle had been promised the gold ring with four inlaid diamonds that my grandfather always wore on his right hand, the ring he got for forty years of service at his job. But at the last minute, my grandmother said no, my uncle couldn’t have it. That gold ring was going to be buried with my grandfather.
All through the funeral, my uncle cried so hard he couldn’t say a word, could barely stand. My dad never shed a single tear.
Four months after my grandfather’s funeral, my mom called me, and said that they needed me to come home. There was something they needed to tell me. Something about my grandmother.
I wondered what it was. She was 85, but still pretty sharp the last time I’d seen her. It was only recently that she started sometimes repeating herself when you talked to her, or told you a story she had told you many times before as if it was the first time she had shared it with you. But that’s what happens when you get old, I thought.
When I got home just before Christmas, my mom and dad sat me down. They said they didn’t know what to do, and they needed my help. They thought maybe there was something I could do, since my grandmother always loved me best.
They told me they thought my grandmother had dementia. That she didn’t think my grandfather was dead at all. She talked about him like he was still alive. Whenever they tried to tell her what had happened, she would say, “No, he’s just busy on the front porch. He’ll be back in a minute.”
Other than that, she was the same as ever, they said.
They said they thought my uncle knew something about what was going on, but he wouldn’t tell them anything. But there was something in his eyes. Something he would never say.
My dad showed me some papers that he’d found at my grandmother’s house.
The first page looked like a printout of things my grandmother had searched for on the internet:
“HOW TO FIX HUMAN COMPUTER”
“THE GIFT OF THE GEE” --
(In my family we always called my grandmother Gee) --
“WAKE UP DEEP SLEEP”
“STAIN REMOVER GOOD”
The three other pages were printed out from an old dot matrix printer that was still upstairs in my grandmother’s spare room. One page had the title:
“THE OLD MAN WHO DIED IN A DREAM”
And the three following pages were a narrative, told in the first person.
My Dad said he hoped that maybe my grandmother’s mind wasn’t completely gone. Because she wrote that, so she must know somewhere that my grandfather was dead and in the ground. She was just in denial.
I looked at the pages for a long time, and then I looked at my dad. His eyes were burning, and he looked like he might cry. My mom was holding his hand, which was the first sign of physical affection I had seen between them in years.
“She didn’t write this,” I said. “I did. This is a story I wrote when I was a kid. I wrote it on her old computer and gave it to her. She must have saved it.”
My grandmother always saved everything I wrote when I was a child. I was always her favorite.
My dad told me that my grandmother was expecting me over at her house. Just for a quick visit. Since I hadn’t seen her lately, they wanted to know if I noticed any change in her.
I drove over to my grandmother’s house, afraid of what I was going to find.
She greeted me at the door and gave me a big hug. She’d always been really good at hugs. Her house smelled very strongly of apple cinnamon candles, just like it always had around Christmas. She seemed smaller than I remembered her being, but she seemed as sharp as ever. We talked in the living room for a while as her cat Norman went back and forth from her lap to mine. She only repeated herself a little bit, no worse than she had been for the past year or two.
It was a big, two story home with four bedrooms. I asked her how it felt being in the house all by herself now. A shadow crossed her face, and I immediately felt bad for saying it. But she just kept petting Norman, who was purring loudly in her lap.
“I’m not alone,” she said.
Norman jumped off her lap and came over to me, and I leaned over to pet him. “Of course, you’re not,” I replied, and smiled.
There was a long moment of silence, only broken by the steady purr of the cat and the ticking of the clock. Then my grandmother said she just had to go into the bedroom for a second to get something, and she would be right back.
I watched her walk down the hall to her bedroom, and I sat in the dim light of the living room waiting for her to return.
After a few minutes had gone by, I thought I heard her call my name from the bedroom. I took Norman out of my lap and walked very quietly down the hall. My grandmother’s bedroom door was open just a crack.
Through the crack of the bedroom door I could see my grandmother’s bed.
And on her bed, I saw my grandfather, lying on the left-hand side where he had always slept.
He was covered by blankets, but I could see his head and his feet poking out from under the white covers. Even though his body was in the advanced stages of decay and putrefaction, I could still recognize his face. His brittle white hair had been recently, lovingly combed. His skin was discolored, almost black in places, seemed to be separating, sliding away, and falling apart. The bedspread was sickeningly stained wherever his rotting flesh had touched it. Beneath his gold-rimmed glasses, his eyes had fallen in. His lips were two smears of dark, stinking jelly.
My grandmother was leaning over him, and I watched her kiss him deeply on the mouth.
Gee thought her husband was looking better every day. He would get better again. He was getting better. He had always been such a handsome man. It had all been a mistake, she knew that. They had tried to put him in the ground, but she knew it wasn’t right. She knew he wasn’t really gone. She had called her good son, the one who came to dinner every Sunday night, and told him what he had to do. He’d always done exactly what he was told, not like the other one. “You still want your daddy’s gold ring, don’t you,” she’d said, “Bring him back home where he belongs, and then you can have it.”
She looked at her husband now, caressed his face, and found herself wishing that he would make love to her again. Even though it had been years since he had touched her that way. She thought about trying again, maybe if she took off his catheter, and was very gentle, they could do it. But he smelled bad now. She’d get used to it eventually, Gee thought, and then maybe she could feel his strong arms around her, his body on top of her, like they had done when they were younger.
His feet had always smelled bad, no matter how often he washed. But they were worse now. They could never be made clean. Maybe he doesn’t need them anymore, Gee thought. She looked at his feet sticking out from under the blanket, and thought maybe if she pulled hard enough, they would come off. She probably wouldn’t have to pull very hard to do it. Not now. And then she would bandage him up and give him his medicine so it wouldn’t even hurt.
Yes, when they were alone again, she would do it. She would bury them in the garden, under the rosebush out back where she watched the hummingbirds come and go in the mornings. And then he wouldn’t smell so bad anymore, and he would want to touch her, and he would finally be well again. Everything would be all right, Gee knew it. She knew it in her bones.
She leaned over and gave her husband a long, deep kiss. Then she went back to her grandson.
When my grandmother came back, I was standing in her living room with my coat on. I told her it was getting late and I had to go. I had to wake up early for the drive back to the city. My grandmother said she understood. And she said she had things to do before she went to bed.
“I’m sorry you can’t see your grandfather right now, but he’s busy on the front porch. I love you. Be good. Call me sometimes,” she said as she slipped two wet, slimy twenty-dollar bills into my right hand.
My grandmother hugged me goodbye, so tightly.
And I told her I loved her.
And I tried not to see the rotting black filth that covered her lips, teeth, and tongue.
Papercuts & Coal
My village was ruined by coal. A black ruined whore, sitting amongst the unspoiled sisters of the farm.
The coal-owners ploughed up the land; getting rid of the peewits’, the skylarks’, the rabbits’ burrows, the foxes’ dens, wild orchids and brooks, and the ancient trees; to sink their mines.
They remake the landscape in their crooked image; a tangle of zigzag canal bridges, and loops of railway cuttings, encircling the land, like electric fences.
Coal rubs out our natural history; the unsociable houses of the mineworkers, the slagheaps, spilling a new tilth of scrap iron, bits of glass and tin clippings and dust.
In time, the canals turned green, their wharves sprouting grass; ruined red and blue barges lay in rows, a purple and yellow cascade of dandelions and elderberries grew in the cuttings.
In this dangerous place, I went in for catapult games: hiding in buildings with their roofs removed, abandoned wages books blowing on windy days, like little sparrows.
I took shelter there, dodging 8mm ball bearings that could kill a man; I dived for cover under the cast iron train trucks, like a soldier in a B-movie, while the steel pellets came down, one, two, three like summer rain.
Three Prose Poems
Police nowadays consider a gathering of three or more people a riot. I try desperately to speak out, shriek like someone warning of an approaching fire, but can’t, because of a sudden terrifying lack of breath. All these events, crises, dramas, convulsions – literature pales by comparison. When I cross any border, there is always an uneasy moment when I feel myself automatically an enemy. We are surrounded by murderers. Like those jellyfish on the beach. Children stab them with sticks without realizing they are living creatures. Life is nothing but being stabbed, knifed. We are the wound.
The opening speaker, the sole surviving member of a suicide cult, walks on stage to generous applause. Very soon, a few of us in the audience are shifting uneasily in our seats as she offers what sounds like praise for Hitler, eugenics, and antimatter. The floor, I now notice, is littered with discarded gloves and face masks. This might not be hell, but it definitely isn’t heaven. I smile at my own wry humor. And though the smell of smoke chokes us, and the heat scorches our eyeballs, we’ll stay to watch victims of police brutality in their last moments.
A former beauty queen has been found in her bedroom decapitated, limbless, a chainsaw nearby. On the wall, a decorative wooden sign says, “Breathe deeply and calmly.” How do you do that? We need a plan, an intervention, something. In Hiroshima after the bomb, they piled the bodies in the swimming pool at the college and cremated them with scrap wood. Last night when my mother finally managed to fall asleep, she dreamed she was walking through a ruined city in a hospital gown left behind from her cancer surgery. Sirens screamed in the distance. Assume the monster is everywhere.
“A Piece of History”
Farmers on tractors were singing to their favorite crops, and the bearded lady was beautiful in her own way. A love suicide stopped drowning for a minute to pose for pictures. Then it was finally my turn to speak. I’d barely begun when the judge interjected, “Spare us your life philosophy.” I remember thinking, “What’s there to say, anyway?” Everything was glowing. People, birds, dragonflies, grass, trees – everything. Although Hitler was presumed dead, the screams from the gas chambers went on. Neighbors, when later questioned, said they thought it was just the collection of Hummel figurines above the fake fireplace.
“My American Dream”
My old grandmother is being forced by a mob to climb a tree and chirp like a bird, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I’ve already been expelled from my job and apartment and required to register with the police. People like me are forbidden to go to the cinema or theater or even sit on a park bench. Any moment now an officer will stick a gun in my face and order me to strip naked and crawl on all fours across the grass. Children will point and laugh. Grown-ups will struggle to get a better view.
“Life Reckoning with Alien Autopsy”
At ten, my friend Cliff and I decided
his family’s barn was the best place
to delve the Southwest Michigan UFO
scene. Tween telescopers, we’d depart
headquarters an occult Hall and Oates.
Lately, Cliff’s a freelance bouncer
and I’m exasperated to the point of,
if an offer was made to vanish
my nebula-inquiring ass to some
bunker that tracks insidious UFO
statistics the rest of my life, I’d say
box me up; I’m good for crop circles
after lunar fact. There’s a SETI sports
coat, coffee-table conspiracy magazines
-- beige sunning The Soviet Roswell --
Zenner cards a busker gifted to me
because my thoughts on interplanetary
fishermen go from subtle to bluster.
They found Alien Autopsy clips hunting
for Elvis reels, the unexplained filling
a marimba that pays for withdrawals by
my 2000s OCD. Paranormal DJ Art Bell
wasn’t cure, more like azure for agoraphobia
radioing the popcorn bucket known as Nevada.
Move me there, cryptograms and all, those
bunker profilers claxoned by rhinestone stargate.
“Fragments with Momo the Missouri Monster”
Tuesday a larynx transplant ebbs between throat and threnody.
Chauffeur weds mobile library driver,
partitioned window slicing their card-catalogue cake.
Geneticist inherits his cryptid-hunter uncle’s van. Clandestine
Linnaean, Momo decoy’s slow-boiling sales.
“Mothman Charity Appeal”
The museum runs on creature cash.
Donations -- we’re partial to cocoons,
silk salvaging the locus of a Podunk.
Macabre embroidery, legends you purchase
online. Donations? We’re partial to cocoons
said an entomologist during the telethon,
a ratings broiler. Alleged macabre, purchased
with insect education. My eye fatigue,
said an entomologist during the telethon,
has me hedging for tenure so I curate
a diagnosis with insect elucidation. Fatigued
words metamorphose. Moth becomes month,
had me hedging for ten years so I curated
this fundraiser -- the boogeyman’s upkeep --
metamorphose my words. Moth becomes mirth,
larva tax-exempt. Patrons oblige the
boogeyman’s upkeep. Fundraiser
silk saves a locus from its Podunk.
Patrons oblige exemplary larva,
the museum’s rung of cash creatures.
“Three Songs For Coney Island”
In the early ‘60s, my Aunt dated the Snake Boy at Coney Island. She married him in fact. Then my grandfather shot and killed the Snake Boy.
My mother tells the story. “My sister’s always been a little wild. You know how now she has that red hair that she dyes? Well, she was always like that, but inside. So when she was a teenager (I was just a little girl), she’d go down to Coney Island and dance with all sorts of boys under the boardwalk. They’d sing doo wop around trash cans on fire and dance to the music. Our mother used to call the dancing they’d do in those days ‘Fraelich like a cockroach!’ Fraelich means, like, lots of energy in Yiddish, I think. One day, she comes home and wakes me up in the room we shared, she’s packing a suitcase! I’m so sleepy, I ask her where she’s going, she says, ‘I’m getting married.’ Now I’m all awake, I ask ‘To who?’ she says ‘The Snake Boy down at Coney Island!’ I started to cry, so she picked me up and spun me around until I hiccoughed, then she teased me about hiccoughing until I laughed, and then she said she’d send me a present if I went to sleep right then, so I did. It wasn’t until she hadn’t come back for three days that I told your grandfather what happened, and so he stormed right out of the house. They came back together, to our apartment in Sheepshead Bay, and that night she told me that your grandfather had shot and killed the Snake Boy. I asked her if she was sad and she just shook her head, but she was crying! The next week we moved to Levittown.”
For the few years I knew him, before he died, when I asked my grandfather about this story, he’d sigh, and then he’d say, “Y’know I love you?” and I’d say “Yeah Zaydie, I know you love me!” and then he’d say “Good. Now shut up.”
For years, when I asked my aunt about it, she’d shake her head and change the subject. Then one day, I asked “What was the Snake Boy like?” and she said, “Lithe and lovely.” Then she’d smile, a sad smile, and shake her head at any further question.
Then a few more years passed, and I asked my aunt again. And she told me.
*........ Under the Boardwalk, the Drifters
“My best beloved nephew, my godson, my dear,
You have been to Coney Island, and you have ridden the Cyclone, felt its rush and whirr and racket, and so, in my heart, you are the 4th generation of Brooklynite in our family, despite your tragic and unseemly birth and youth in New Jersey and your insouciant insistence on living in Queens for the last 5 years. Perhaps it is your right to hear the story of my first marriage, at 17, to the lithe and lovely Snake Boy of Coney Island, who was called Ricardo the Sinuous but who I knew as Tommy.
I first saw him undulating next to the parachute jump, as a man beside him breathed fire. I first kissed him under Luna Park, amidst the clang of machinery and the grunts of carnies and the screams of children. In between there was a motorcycle. Details escape me, and you do not want your old aunt telling you how to seduce herself at 17. But remember the golden and cotton candy hues of summer at Coney Island and how they affect us. The dangerous wholesomeness that pervades the air and masks our intentions, the panting, lusting heart that beats in each of us as we breathe in the beach and the ocean and each other.
He was not Jewish. I do not know what he was, besides a specialty act. That is what he preferred to be called, as opposed to the Oddities and Prodigies, who were his contemporaries in the Sideshow. He said the difference between them and him was that they were naturally gifted, and he had come by his scales and his forked tongue through tattooing and an operation.
At 17, I had long lost the habit of looking for parental approval. My mother’s eternal question of what the neighbors would think, the ice of her concern for society could not cool the fire of my passion for Tommy. And my father . . . my father’s own passions racked his body. He was a volatile man, always shouting, always laughing, always swatting us on the bottom for small offenses, always threatening worse for bigger ones. He seemed to be always and entirely there, wholly present. But I knew he kept secrets, kept parts of himself in reserve.
When I was 13, I snuck into his room and looked at the box that I knew was kept under the bed. It was full of postcards. Oh, it’s not what you’re thinking. Some of the cards had naked ladies, yes. But most of them simply said, “Italy, 1942.” And that’s when I knew that men hide their hearts, for your grandfather never talked of the War, but he clearly kept mementos.
In any case, this was the year he had not gotten out of bed, grieving over his mother’s death a few months before. We would hear a cough from his room, some swears, weeping. To disturb his misery was to rouse him to shouting, and shouting, as it disturbed the neighbors, was forbidden by my mother. So he languished, and I was fatherless.
Perhaps, I too, missed my grandmother, the last remnant of the old world, a garlic-smelling warmth that kept silent, terrified that I would catch the Yiddish language from her like a disease, like old age. Perhaps I sought the comfort of her arms in the Snake Boy’s twisting limbs and doubly-clever tongue. It is impossible to say at this remove. When you are young, you are raw, and when you are old, you are scarred, and the scar does not resemble the rawness.
*........ You Never Can Tell, Chuck Berry
The marriage itself was sudden. There was a night by the beach. And a motorcycle, and a marijuana cigarette, and a proposal. Head swimming I returned to Sheepshead Bay to pack my bags, to run away, to be forever his girl. Head swimming, I stood before a justice of the peace he had found somewhere. The old man trembled and eyed Tommy nervously as he said the words. Tommy made it worse by sticking his terrible tongue out and twisting it around itself. I was floating somewhere, and I do not know if I said I do. Perhaps I never married the Snake Boy. Perhaps it was all some strange dream.
If it was, it lasted three days.
On the first day we went to Manhattan. The train ride he kept his arm around me, firmly. Children would stare at him, as always, and he’d stare back. Even without his special contacts in his eyes to give him slit pupils, his stare was intimidating. But he’d tighten his arm if any boy my age looked at me, and I felt distrusted and embarrassed and owned.
In Manhattan, he performed at a party in Greenwich Village, and then we went to Chinatown and ate a Chinese food feast. He kept saying, “Eat, my wife. Eat things you’ve never eaten before.” I ate it all, but it seemed to be the usual fare, dumplings and noodles and duck and pork. I think then is when I began to suspect that the dream was over, that the exoticism of a Snake Boy was shabby and forced. But I rode back to Coney Island and slept in his bed, and said nothing.
On the second day, we played house. He went to work and I cleaned and cooked. He told me not to go into his closet before he left, but I had to, for something or other. Possibly I was looking for a broom. I hesitated only briefly. Surely whatever embarrassed him couldn’t be so bad, I thought. And there is a chance, I think, that already I was probing the disappointment that was growing in me, looking for ammunition against this husband with whom I anticipated conflict.
The closet was full of his suits and shirts hanging haphazardly and unironed from a bar that ran across it, but above the bar, at eye level, was a shelf, on which there were the jars; jars upon jars of a clearish liquid and small pictures suspended in them, against pink backgrounds. The jars had little labels next to each of them. They said things like “Mary, Thigh, 1st” or “Carol, Back, 3rd”. Some of the pictures were quite beautiful. Here, a rose. There, a mermaid.
I didn’t know what to make of them, but then my eye fell on a machine, hidden under the suit-jackets. It was a bit smaller than my mother’s sewing machine, and at first I thought that was what it was. But then I remembered where I had seen its like before, up and down the boardwalk, in the tattoo parlors. It was a tattoo gun and small electric engine.
I realized that the small pictures in the jars of liquid were tattoos, preserved, disembodied tattoos.
Would you have been frightened, my nephew? It certainly could be considered an eerie sight, all that human skin, suspended in formaldehyde or God knows what chemical. And now, knowing what I know about Tommy the Snake Boy, and how he came across those pieces of skin with their immaculate decorations, I suppose I should have been scared. But then, I only knew what I knew.
I closed the closet door on my husband’s odd collection. That is all I thought of it. Didn’t my father keep his postcards and heart secret under his bed? So too, I guessed, Tommy had some private reason for hiding his grotesque little art gallery in his closet. I’d seen enough medical oddities in jars at the sideshows of Coney Island to know there was a perfectly legitimate trade in these items. He must have procured them that way.
I cleaned. I cooked. Tommy came home, and I fed him. He looked at me with a strange look. But all of Tommy’s looks were strange. He asked me something over that dinner, I forget what, and I gave an answer, I forget what. It may have been an accusation and a denial. Tommy was often accusing me of looking at other boys. Or it may have been about a rent collector. Tommy lived in great fear and loathing of his landlord. It may even have been about the closet. But I do not remember. We went to bed, and I slept soundly, one last night, in the arms of the Snake Boy.
*........ It’s Easier to Cry, the Shangri-Las
The last day was a good day, would you believe it? It was the last day of my most monstrous marriage, and until it soured in the evening, it was beautiful. Tommy woke me with a kiss, like a fairytale princess, and we went to the beach, early, before it filled with families and young people and hawkers of hot dogs and sellers of souvenirs. I only splashed in the waves at the edge of the beach, but Tommy went for a swim. I can remember him walking up to me through the surf after swimming as far as he could, laughing, buffeted by waves, the sunlight and the water making his scales sparkle. He was beautiful then.
We ate breakfast at a diner up the parkway a bit, and then came back to Coney Island. Tommy started work, and I watched him admiringly, his muscles writhing underneath his skin, his tongue flicking out expertly to the startled squeals of children and gasps of women. In those moments, I could forget the possessive pinch of his arm around me when another boy was near, I could forget his rudeness and strangeness and shabbiness. I wanted him then, and in the eternity of youth, believed I wanted him always. Yes, I loved the Snake Boy, for his serpentine ways. It was as a man that he failed me.
After lunch at Nathan’s, Tommy suggested I go home and make dinner. I kissed him goodbye. Just a peck on the cheek, but it was our last kiss, and the last moment of tenderness between us.
When I got home, I watched TV and smoked and luxuriated in the feeling of adulthood that comes from leaving home at 17. As I cooked dinner, I thought about Tommy lovingly, and decided there’d be no secrets between us. After dinner was done, I took out his collection of tattoos in jars and placed them on the table. The front door opened into the kitchen, where we ate. It would be the first thing he’d see, and right away, I’d explain to him that I loved him, and that I didn’t care what he collected, that he had no reason to be ashamed.
When he walked through the door, my face lit up. His fell.
There was no shouting. Tommy wasted no time on shouting. Instead there was just the horrible flurry of him, the lightning fast lunge for me. Then the pain. What to say about the pain from the fists of the man you thought loved you? What to say about what it awakens in you? In that moment of shattering and ache, I noticed something I had refused to admit before about Tommy’s cramped, decrepit apartment, the place I had called home for three days. It reeked. It smelled of formaldehyde and ink. It smelled like dead skin.
In the daze that followed the violence, Tommy managed to tie me to a chair. It was then I saw how terribly calm he was. There was none of the ferocity of when he accused me of sleeping around. There was no disdain, like when he talked about the people who stared at him on the subway. He was a little out of breath from beating me, but mostly, he was just . . . Tommy. Totally himself. Perhaps, more so even, than any time I had seen him before.
He pointed to the jars, “So you found my exes, I see.” he said. I looked at him, confused, and then, as realization dawned, I opened my mouth to scream. He shoved in a rag and I nearly gagged. He explained that I had moved up his time frame. Usually he waited a week. A week of marital bliss, and then the ritual. Restrained or sometimes drugged, he’d cover them with drawings. Then, when they were covered with art, when they were, as he said, “his masterpieces”, he’d kill them, and in killing them, preserve his work forever. “I usually have longer to explore the canvas,” he said, “I’m afraid this will be a rush job.” He got up and went to the bedroom. When he came back, he had the tattoo gun. Through the gag I screamed.
And that is when your grandfather, my father, kicked open the door, took one quick look at the scene before him, raised the shotgun he had borrowed from a friend, and shot the Snake boy in the head, killing him instantly.
The next week, we moved to Levittown.”
A 2020 Love Letter
HEATHER BOWLAN is proud to rep Northwest Philly. A former editor for BOAAT Pres and Raleigh Review, her poetry and criticism have appeared or are forthcoming in the anthology Feminisms in Motion, the journals New Ohio Review, Nashville Review, the Anarchist Review of Books, and elsewhere.
EZRA BRITE is a short story writer and confessional poet with a dark imagination. He is currently working on a book named All Monsters Are Human, featuring five autobiographical tales of familial terror, as well as a poetry collection called Lazarus in Love. He lives in New York City with a puppy named Bela.
HOWIE GOOD’s latest poetry collections are Stick Figure Opera: 99 100-Word Prose Poems (Cajun Mutt Press), The Death Row Shuffle (Finishing Line Press) and The Trouble with Being Born (Ethel Micro-Press). He co-edits the online journals Unbroken and UnLost.
IRIS JOHNSTON used to live in Shanghai and she can't shut up about it. Once a linguistics student with dreams of writing a dictionary, she now focuses mainly on painting, embroidery, and the occasional zine. She lives in Scranton without her cat.
CORA LEWIS is a writer and reporter whose fiction has appeared in Epiphany, Racket Journal, and TINGE Magazine. Her nonfiction has appeared in BuzzFeed News, among other outlets.
MORDECAI MARTIN is a fifth generation New Yorker who has lived in Jerusalem and Mexico City and currently resides in Philadelphia. He writes about Jews, miracles, and cities. He blogs at mordecaimartin.net and tweets @mordecaipmartin.
CORAL O’LEARY, hailing from rural Western New York, is a lake-effect snow ex-pat, current New Yorker, queer writer, cultural worker, and asexual aromantic-spectrum lesbian. Her Pushcart Prize-nominated work has appeared in Toho Journal, Minnow Literary Magazine, Baby Teeth Journal, and is forthcoming in other publications. She is currently working on her first chapbook, tentatively entitled Love Poems for Friends, which parses traditional and nontraditional modifiers attached to the word “love.” Find Coral at ohcoralpoetry.
JON RICCIO received his PhD from the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. He serves as a contributing interviewer for the University of Arizona Poetry Center’s 1508 blog. Recent work appears in Cobra Milk and Redactions.
SOPHIA LATORRE-ZENGIERSKI is writer and photographer based in Princeton, NJ. Educated at the University of St Andrews and the University of Pennsylvania, her work explores themes of place, identity, and magical realism. Her work has appeared in Wizards in Space, Underage, Clash by Night, and the Penn Review. When not creating, she enjoys reading, swimming and horseback riding.
ABI WHITEHOUSE is an illustrator whose area of interest is dreams and the unconscious mind. She likes to take ideas from words found inside instruction manuals and non-fiction books and then create a poetic narrative from the found words. She then uses this as an inspiration to create dream-like images using a combination of techniques such as drawing, painting, embroidery, paper cutting. ceramics, and collage. All her pieces are a response to emotion, be it joy, happiness, security, love, sadness, or loss. You can find her work on Instagram @abi_whitehouse.
GRAPHICS: The decorative pattern accompanying Sophia Latorre-Zengierski's “Chestnut Street” is by visnezh, freepik.com.
Support Philadelphia Community Fridge
A lot of community groups are asking for money right now; there are too many critical causes and it's hard to know where help is most needed and effective.
SORTES supports many local, charitable, and community-based groups -- including Philadelphia Community Fridge:
...a community-centered, volunteer-based organization dedicated to giving all Philadelphians access to fresh and healthy food, combatting food insecurity and inequality in our city through mutual aid.
Studies show that nearly 1 in 5 Philadelphia families struggle with hunger, and food pantries' demand for fresh produce has increased 3x since 2019.
[They] partner with local grocers and restaurants to stock this fridge with perfectly good produce, pantry staples, and prepared foods that would otherwise be thrown out.
The people who have worked on this publication support this cause and we urge you to as well.
Submission & Contact
SORTES is a spinning collection of stories, poems, songs, and illustrations to help while away the wintery June nights. It’s an oddball grabbag wunderkammer mixtape offering distraction and refreshment.
Each issue is its own creature. We have neither theme nor scene. We like whatever makes us shiver, plotz, turn on, and/or freak out. We've published what might be called magical realism, dirty surrealism, fantastical biography, experimental poetry, tender balladeering, elusive allusive elliptical poetry, and sweet ol grainy photography.
We will periodically host contests, readings, calls for entries, and other spry gimmicks to keep things interesting. Previous issues are available via the site’s Archive link.
SORTES considers unsolicited submissions of poetry, prose, illustration, music, videos, and anything else you think may fit our format. Feel free to poke us; we’d love to find a way to publish dance, sculpture, puzzles, and other un-literary modalities.
SORTES is published quarterly. Each issue includes approximately ten works of lit, visual, or performance art. We like a small number of works per issue: artists and readers should have a chance to get to know each other.
SORTES, you’ll notice, is primarily a black-and-white publication, and we like to play with that (by featuring monochrome videos and photography, for example), but we’ll happily consider your polychrome submission.
Submissions are ongoing throughout the year. We consider artists with both extensive and limited publishing experience. We accept simultaneous submissions but please inform us if your work has been accepted elsewhere.
There’s no need for an extensive cover letter or publication history but please tell us who you are, what kind of writing or art you do, and a bit about what you’re sending us. There are no formatting requirements for text submissions. There is no fee to submit. Please send submissions as email attachments whenever possible; multimedia submissions may be sent as links.
SORTES is edited by Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum and Kevin Travers. We live in Philadelphia but we invite writers and artists everywhere to read, contribute, and adore us.
To submit -- or to send us comments, questions, or suggestions --
please email the editors at
SORTES regularly offers readings and performances. For upcoming events, please check here and our Facebook page:
A Reading to Which You Are Invited:
DEAR SORTES — WITH LOVE, PEGGY GUGGENHEIM
Friday, December 18, 2020
7pm to 8:30pm
On October 30, 2020, the Radio SORTES players presented a live Halloween Eve special: two programs of classic old time radio horrors. The shows -- including dialogues, music, and sound effects -- were performed for a live Zoom audience.
The Suspense episode “The House in Cypress Canyon” (originally broadcast December 5, 1946) was performed by:
Announcer: Kevin Travers
Ken Niles: Sean Finn
Sam: Britny Perilli
Jerry: Don Deeley
Jim / Robert Taylor: Brian Maloney
Ellen / Cathy Lewis: Betsy Herbert
Agent: Kyle Brown Watson
1st Officer: Nicholas Perilli
2nd Officer: Emma Pike
Dr. Westleaf: Kyle Brown Watson
Radio Dispatcher: Susan Clarke
Man In Crowd: Kyle Brown Watson
2nd Man: Jeremy Tenenbaum
Music & Sound: Jeremy Tenenbaum
Between episodes, we presented an original commercial in period style written and performed by host Kevin Travers.
The Inner Sanctum Mysteries episode “Voice on the Wire” (originally broadcast November 29, 1944) was performed by:
Host: Kevin Travers
Announcer: Sean Finn
Doctor: Emma Pike
Geraldine: Britny Perilli
Voice: Nicholas Perilli
Harvey: Don Deeley
Laura: Susan Clarke
Trio - 1st Person: Brian Maloney
Trio - 2nd Person: Betsy Herbert
Trio - 3rd Person: Kyle Brown Watson
Trio - 4th Person: Jeremy Tenenbaum
Music & Sound: Jeremy Tenenbaum
Suspense, "The House in Cypress Canyon"
Inner Sanctum Mysteries, "Voice on the Wire"