Thursday, November 4, 2010

Gabriel, by Deborah Poe

Gabriel looked down at his hands. They were gnarled and scarred. He began to mentally compare his hands to Nora’s but stopped himself. Not a living thing moved in this mammoth building, except for him. What these 10-foot mirrors must have witnessed throughout the years. He imagined certain ghosts lived behind the glass. Even when he watched Nora from across the street over the last year, the enormous mirrors—of which he could only make out the edges depending on his location at the park—spooked him.

Younger, he lumbered by here with his parents. His mother and father had always looked woefully at this building, his father near seething. His mother had never set foot in there. In fact, her only connection to the place was upkeep of people’s houses, those esteemed citizens who were welcome to frequent the Society’s establishment.

Gabriel turned up his collar and adjusted his slacks. It was still dark as he pressed his lean body against the heavy front door. He was exhausted from all night’s work. It wasn’t how he had imagined him and Nora finally meeting. Not at all. He clutched the heavy bag tighter and breathed in deeply as he stepped into the empty street and quickly transported his figure through Central Park. It was only a couple of miles to the river.

Gabriel, with teeth clenched, wove his way to the Hudson as the city woke up. A woman that reminded him both of his mother and Nora rang a buzzer on the porch of an apartment building. He shuddered when she scrutinized him head to toe and paused at his laces, which he now noticed were near untied. He shifted the bag to the other shoulder and laughed out loud at her until, embarrassed, she turned to the building’s face. He had used this tactic before. He was never going to be bullied by people, least of all by the ones who thought themselves better than him.

Gabriel arrived suddenly at river’s edge. He sat at the bench to gather himself, wanting to ensure no one would ask questions or pay attention to him tossing the bag in the water. Just as he suspected—he had found his father many times at this very spot—there was no one. He pitched Nora’s superiority and alarm into the Hudson and studied the bag as it sunk like a rearing, brass, warhorse sculpture.

Gabriel tripped over a small patch of grass into which he had accidentally wandered and returned his soles to the sidewalk. When Gabriel reached Penn Station, he veered drastically into the light. The sun is violently hidden, he thought, the dark sky tears it apart. Gabriel looked back down and scanned the station.  Dizzy, the rise of the windows gave him the same kind of feeling his father’s facial expression had exhibited many years ago when perched at great heights. Gabriel carried himself back to the street.

The shoe shiner was a welcome apparition, tucked next to the building. The boy moved quickly around an elderly gentleman’s expensive shoes. His hands, Gabriel examined more closely, were smudged black and brown. The shoe shiner peered up at Gabriel and then inspected the lower quality, splattered lace-ups Gabriel wore. He stared at Gabriel intently, his eyes obviously well versed in a spectrum of questionable activity on the city’s streets. Gabriel stuck his hands deeper in his pockets and glared back unrelenting at the shoe shiner. The shoe shiner looked away.

Penn Station, the towering edifice, made the boy’s face appear like the visage of a menacing leprechaun. Gabriel remained rooted. There was some connection to this boy, some moment of recognition they shared. It made Gabriel feel less lonely, though Gabriel didn’t articulate it to himself that way. Rather he meditated on what he’d do with the remainder of his day. When the wealthy old man sauntered off, Gabriel thought he saw Nora’s reflection in the man’s eyes. The man’s shoes were bright and practically brand new. Gabriel brought his coat in closer and arched one leg, setting it down on the cube-like box before him. Gabriel stood absolutely still. He felt his muscles untangle like clothes drying on a long line stretched above the city. The boy mumbled a “How are you sir,” and Gabriel, already relieved, ignored him.

Gabriel summoned memories, like playing Swing the Statue with the neighboring children. They always picked the boy upstairs to swing, and Gabriel was always chosen to be swung first. The older boy would take the children, hold them by a wrist or hand, swing them in a circle and then let them go. Gabriel, spinning or tumbling, would freeze. He was smallest but also able to hold strange positions for the longest period of time. Gabriel was a patient boy. He could wait and wait.

Gabriel watched the abhorrent city cacophony begin. Cars blasted their horns incessantly; it gave him a headache. The passers-by, with Madison Avenue wardrobe, fixed their haunted gazes ahead as their heels clicked by. Those less fortunate walked with heads hung low. As the shoe-shine boy wore away the blood stains on the shoes, Gabriel measured tomorrow’s transportation options.

The shoe-shiner hovered above Gabriel’s toes. Just as Gabriel solidified plans to take a Cleveland-bound bus the next day, he noticed another man taking a photograph. These tourists. The city—he ached to seize that camera. Gabriel focused on movement to his right. Backs of cars rode away seemingly in slow motion. Left, the photographer, like someone frozen, remained nearby staring up at the station.

Gabriel regarded the entire view and contemplated the seagull party hovering near the building’s edge above him. His mother used to say the seagull flies between earth and heaven with messages to mortals. Acknowledging her prescience, Gabriel nodded the birds’ direction. Gabriel handed the shoe-shiner money, surprised when the bills rested in the recipient’s hand. Looking down, the boy’s palm looked translucent, unworldly or invisible—as if anything solid could slip through. 

DEBORAH POE is the author of the poetry collections Elements (Stockport Flats Press 2010) and Our Parenthetical Ontology (CustomWords 2008). Deborah’s writing is forthcoming or has recently appeared in Fact-Simile Magazine, Peaches & Bats, Jacket, Sidebrow and Colorado Review. Deborah Poe is fiction editor of Drunken Boat and guest curator of Trickhouse’s “Experiment" door 2010/2011. For more information, visit

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Doe, by David Ryan

Somewhere along the drive home it occurred to Wayne that science had rendered sixty the new middle age — or would, by the time he reached a-hundred-and-ten. He knew, too, that this improvised errand his wife had sent him on was the setup to a benign trap, that a surprise sixtieth birthday party waited for his return. Of this he was confident. Wayne was known for his confidence, and for his far more appealing wife. A year into early retirement, he had taken up watercolors and already claimed himself a superrealist. Several lessons into his piano playing he began to liken himself to a young Bud Powell. This lack of self-reality provoked in friends an odd endearment, a kind of compassionate pity. And so at the garden party at home the crowd screamed Happy Birthday! And Wayne shrieked a bit too enthusiastically: I can’t believe this!

The party had been going well for an hour or so, when a doe entered the middle of the yard from behind a magnolia tree. As if just another guest. Wayne assumed this was a prank by his brother-in-law. That someone might jump out of the deer. But her flank was badly scarred, perhaps from a car. Her impossibly authentic looking eyes had locked on Wayne’s. He felt something tug and flush in his chest, a small seizure, the air around him rupturing. And then Wayne lifted.

Lifted over the crowd, where now he saw his father standing over the kitchen counter of their cabin in Michigan where there lay the body of another doe, hit by the car that day so many years ago. Butchered and put into the freezer, she would last two seasons. Participating in her death made her taste sacramental, even if Wayne did not understand the complexity of her taste each time. And Wayne, seven or eight, was now in the rowboat on their small lake, skimming shallows for turtles; holding the medium snapper he had snatched from beneath a clutch of pond grass close to his face, little Wayne asking his newfound friend’s retreated red and yellow head to show itself, pleeeeeese; the head darting out to bite Wayne clean through his cheek, blood running down his face, a lifelong v-shaped scar (later attributed to a college fencing incident). Ice fishing with an uncle who would die in a car accident someday. A badger that looked like stole strewn with teeth, rasping back at that barking dog. Wayne falling down the stairs, failing a hearing test, hitting ice during winter football. And then Wayne looked much as he looked today. He saw the canvas on his easel, unfamiliar, brushstrokes smeared, limited to pinks, blacks, grays. As if he had used his fingers. His wife in the doorway watched Wayne enter the room like a damaged child. His wife seemed frail. Now Wayne was banging the piano with his fists. His wife weeping into the phone, he could see her soul hovering grayish, parting from her body slightly, rubbing against the warmer air of her flesh. She was leaving him. And suspended in the air, all Wayne could hear himself thinking was My fingers, eating keys. She had taken his paint away. Wayne was walking crabwise, backwards, sometimes forward, confused. His wife on the phone again, her soul lifting of her warmth altogether, her shadow shaking Wayne free of her. Wayne was surrounded by extraordinarily old people. Light from a window bleached the room. The thermostat set high, compensating for the gathered lassitude. Muttering to himself. No one asked his opinion.

Wayne descended from this vantage, possibly created by a prank-deer. Planted possibly by his wife’s brother -- who always sang harmony when it came time to sing the Happy Birthday song, and insisted on trick candles for the cake. Now the lawn again supported Wayne’s sixty-year-old feet at the party thrown on their behalf. The deer was gone, his wife was leading him through thickly-peopled applause. The soft grass, the terra firma. Clustered friends parting for Wayne and his wife, allowing passage to the cake ahead. The sixty lit candles. Were these people just another trick? Were the candles supplied by his brother in law?

His wife, tugging his hand, pulling him through the crowd. These people appeared to wish him well. There ahead sixty candles flickering. His brother-in-law, smiling off to the side. The son of a bitch has drugged me, he thought. All the clappers and smilers and laughers and pitiers, with their well-wishering Happy Birthday to you.... His beautiful wife’s smile — she will leave me to only myself when I become too difficult to love. And like the child he had just revisited for a time Wayne thought, this is the worst birthday ever! He could hear roofers and their percussing nail-guns far off, as if keeping time like a maniacal idiot against the ongoing birthday song. Happy Birthday Dear Wayne, Happy Birthday To You.... Wayne’s brother-in-law now supplying the dread single contrapunt of harmony of the song’s cadence, the major third, the look-at-me augmented fourth -- when Wayne expected to see all the neighborhood’s dogs leaping into trees -- and then the final major third and his brother-in-law’s outstanding “. . . and many more.”

To which Wayne expelled, scanning the cake with his breath, his wind leveling miniaturized devastation, the sparking smoke, the collapse of this dioramic empire of sixty lights. The crowd’s Whoas and clapping splattered as Wayne, center of attention, blew out every candle.

Then inhaled and blew again. The crowd half-chuckling because there really was not anything left, Wayne. His breath now battering these smoldering wicks, and he felt very dizzy, breath begging Please of the withering sticks. Please, to the timepiece in front of him. He recalled the venison had tasted, each time, like it had been hit by a car. You could taste the adrenaline of its last moment on earth. Sixty lights down, how many remaining? He inhaled, blew again, nail-guns spitting off a roof not far away.

David Ryan’s fiction has appeared in BOMB, The Mississippi Review, 5_Trope, Denver Quarterly, Cimarron Review, Tin House, Alaska Quarterly Review, Hobart, New Orleans Review, and the Norton anthology, Flash Fiction Forward, among others.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Disruption of Memory, by Stephanie Cornell

“I told him four times already.”

“He doesn’t remember anything,” said my mother. “It’s from his accident.” Of course. The accident. I had missed so much in two years.

“Oh, did he hit his head when he fell off the roof?” I replied, suddenly trying to put together how a broken heel might result in memory loss.

“No, the bicycle accident.” She said it so casually, as if this was common knowledge. Not once in twenty-eight years had this been mentioned, but now she was recklessly tossing around the possibility as if it were fact. As if we all made this association, as if it were regularly inserted into conversations at family functions or pulled out among friends as the punch line to a joke.

I remember the warm spring afternoon we gathered to celebrate Colin’s first birthday. I remember the Fritos and vegetable dip, the bottles of birch beer soda, and how quickly the laughing stopped when the slideshow abruptly shifted from California landscapes and group photos at dinner to my father smiling weakly from his hospital bed, half of his face as black as obsidian, swollen and taut. His shoulder the color of eggplant. That photo, in an instant, sucked all the air from the room, holding our breath hostage until a collective exhale resumed the balance of oxygen. My father chuckled uncomfortably, allowing a breathless “Wow” to escape his mouth. He hadn’t seen himself like that.

I had not seen him like that either. When he arrived at Logan Airport the previous November, the thing I was most concerned with, more than anything in the whole entire world, was not the condition of my father’s face, but that my mother not cry in public. “Please. Do not cry,” I’d insisted more than once on the way to the airport, and again while we waited at the TWA gate. It was vitally important to me that these tanned, radiant strangers from California not see my mother cry. Before the first passenger exited the jetway, my mother was breaking every rule and allowing tears to fill her anxious eyes.

It was my grandfather I saw first, his tall frame popping up from the crowd of the passengers. When my father finally emerged, his face was the color of mustard, a pale mossy green lining the edge of what now revealed itself to be the remains of a bruise covering the right side of his face. The white of his eye a deep crimson; the skin around it a dark mauve. His right arm was suspended in a sling to support the broken clavicle. And if this were not enough to bear, my father – upon first seeing us – began to cry in public. My mother fell into his chest and also cried in public.

At home, he would show us his purple hip and the platter-shaped bruise that ran down the side of his thigh. He would give us presents from California, like he always did when he traveled on installations. For me, a copy of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, not because he liked them – I’m not sure he even knew who they were -- but because I had started playing flute the previous year. In many ways, it was no different than the other times he came home after a long work trip. This time simply included a sling and adults crying in public.

I was eleven years old that October in 1983. As a child already prone to worry, it was my misfortune that I be the recipient of the first phone calls from Palo Alto. I didn’t sense anything at first. Steve, my father’s coworker, was a close family friend. I’ll try again in an hour. Just tell your mom that I called, ok? To me, it was still a novelty to take a message and carry it around like a secret until I could report it to my mother when she would return home. It made me feel responsible, like a grown-up. I carried three or maybe four of the same message around that afternoon, ready to burst when she finally came through the door. But it was immediately clear from my mother’s reaction that three or four phone calls from Steve was not something that should feel like a privilege but something that should make you worry.

My mother would soon learn about the bicycle tire that turned at ninety degrees, how my father had flown through the air and landed on the pavement. I would soon learn that the initials I.C.U. meant Very Badly Injured and that teachers and guidance counselors will treat you a bit differently when your father is admitted to one. I would not learn any details other than “blood clot near the brain” and subdural hematoma, but those words don’t mean anything to an eleven-year-old. It was through the behavior of the adults around me that I understood it was Serious. When one’s family never takes phone calls behind closed doors, the sudden onset of whispered conversations from the bedroom is terrifying.

It would be ten years before I learned how close to death my father had been; five years more before I learned that he had slipped into a coma. And still another twelve years to learn that my father’s memory had suffered as a result of the accident; that he suffered toxicity from the Dilantin he’d been prescribed to prevent further seizures; that there had been seizures at all; and that it was perhaps my mother, and not my father, who suffered the most. My father’s memory of the entire day and those that followed has been erased forever. It was never written to his hard drive. My memory and that of my sister’s is written based not only on limited information but limited understanding.

My mother remembers everything. The date comes without hesitation: October 25, 1983. It was a Tuesday. He returned on a Saturday. She almost lost her husband. We almost lost our father. She remembers everything.

Stephanie Cornell is a gypsy with too many hobbies living in Asia, where she has worked as a copywriter, marketing consultant and television producer in Seoul, Tokyo and Singapore since 2007. A Boston native, Stephanie's photoblog documents her life overseas, travels around the continent and a love of bicycles.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Dhonai Tells a Story, by Nitoo Das

It is best not to look at the crow now. With its five-fingered blast of wing, it can summon you into the geometric trickery of trident, cross and circle. And then, there is no escape. It is best not to look at the crow because this story is not about it. This story is about a man and it took place some time ago. Do not ask me when because I will be unable to answer truthfully. Let me clarify further. This story is about me and in those days, I was a man. Not too tall, dark-limbed, wiry. A man who was called Dhonai by everyone who knew him. Some people say my name was Dhonokanto, but I do not remember anybody ever calling me by that name. So, Dhonai I was, all through my life.

From the time I was a child, I was taught the craft of my parents. They painted gods, birds, suns, trees heavy with fruit, colourful brides and much more on mud-wet walls. When I was around eleven, my father started drawing on cloth, but we were poor and did not have much cloth to spare. My mother drew only on walls and always thought father’s desire to draw on cloth was a strange modern corruption. My uncles and neighbours laughed at him. But father was stubborn in a way only artists can be and he sat sullen and sorrowful whenever he was confronted with a wall that needed painting. He stared at the blank, brown space for hours together and finally, after much contemplation, he would scratch the lampblack with his neem-stalk brush and draw a crow. Always one solitary crow. Sometimes flying, sometimes on an austere branch, sometimes just staring out at nothing.

Father grew increasingly aloof. Whenever he found a piece of cloth, his imagination pounced on it. But still, he drew only crows. More crows. Crows that were fluttering scratches on the rags he found. All his colours--pollen, turmeric, sap of leaves, indigo, palash flowers-- crowded around them. Colours for the trees, margins, skies, in-between spaces. Everything else was soot, cowdung, charcoal and lampblack for his crows. Thousands and thousands of them. Sometimes, he drew them with great care. Perfect lines, round eyes, clear claws. At other times, he drew them like they were sounds--cawcawcaw of black. People grew wary of him. He did not get too many jobs. The burden of drawing for the whole family fell on mother and we grew poorer.

One day, some months before he died, father called me to him and told me a story:

Dhonai, when I was your age, I heard a voice crying out to me. It was a full moon night and I could see the fields around me. I walked towards the voice shouting, “Who are you? What do you want?” There was no response, just a wild moaning and wailing. After a while, I started shivering in fear, but I kept walking. My clothes were wet with my sweat and my feet felt each pebble on the road. I saw a cow approach from the left. After a while, I realised it was not a cow, but a big, white bird and it carried a crow in its beak. The crow was dying and it had tears in its eyes. I reached out to touch it, but at that very moment, the white bird flapped its wings and disappeared into the night.

After telling me this story, father went back to his habitual silence and I went to the forest to brood. It was not easy having a father like him. I was almost relieved when he was found dead by the water hyacinth pond. But this story is about me and I should get back to it. I wanted to draw on cloth like my father. It was easier for me. The new cotton mill in our village threw away a lot of cloth and I went there every week to pick up the ones I wanted. My mother sometimes looked at me with worried eyes. Perhaps she feared I would turn out like my father. I did not talk to her much; did not explain things to her. I was certain this was the way to be…the new way to draw. I did not have to rush against time; paintpaintpaint without thought while the walls dried fast and furious.

When I turned twenty-five, crows began to interest me. I remember the day well. Sharma Master had asked me to come and paint his son’s nuptial room. I was given tea in the cup kept aside for people like us. The whole day I painted the usual: mating snakes, cooing doves, butterflies on scarlet hibiscus, young couples garlanding each other. And just before I ended, just as the day drew to a close, a few crows. Sharma Master flew into a rage when he saw them and shouted at me, “You’re as mad as your father. Erase the crows, you lowborn bastard!” 

I walked home. Inside me, I felt the need to draw more crows. I knew I could not do it in my mother’s presence and went off to the forest whenever I heard the crowbite in my fingers. It was a longing I could not control. In fact, I did not want to. Approximately a year later, I saw the first changes in me and soon, Dhonai, the man turned into Dhonai, the crow. I embraced the change with blue-black wings. My mother never found out. She had always been rather shortsighted; all those years of poring over colours, fussing over brushes had done that to her. I sometimes cawed when she was near me to see if she noticed. She never did.

I went wherever I wanted to. I looked at people’s eyes and knew their secrets. I sang songs with the fishermen. I bathed in the sacred river and flew away from their temples before they could throw stones at me. 

Nitoo Das teaches English at Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi. Das is one of the featured poets on Poetry International Web's page on India. Her poetry has been published in online sites like Pratilipi, Eclectica, Muse India, and Poetry with Prakriti, as well as in several anthologies. Her first collection, "Boki", was published by Virtual Artists Collective, Chicago, in September 2008.

Monday, August 23, 2010


I walk gingerly along the catwalk.  The boards bend and sway beneath my feet with each step.  I move along the edge of the boat, the smell of varnish heavy in the air.

"Careful not to raise any dust," she calls out from the other side of the boat where she is laying on the final brush strokes.  "That varnish is still fresh.  Don't want to have to start over."  

I nod in agreement. I hold each rafter I pass under, still unable to gauge my weight against the give of the boards. I hold firmly. But carefully.

She smiles at my caution, wiping her hands on a clean corner of a towel she has pulled from the waste of her pants.

"So, you built this," I state, the magnitude of what I am seeing still settling in.

"Yes,” she nods.

"From scratch?"

She nods again.

The sides are newly painted, too.  White, with royal blue trim.  It reminds me of the boats I had seen docked along the coastline of the small fishing towns I had visited in Greece twenty years ago, my friends and I invited by men who spoke no English to sit at their tables and share bowls of olives and bottles of Greek wine, the invitations made obvious by toothy smiles and broad sweeping gestures over the empty chairs beside them. We responded each time with one of the very few Greek words we knew, "Epharisto," and sat most afternoons, eating and drinking, listening to these men talk, their voices arching and falling from somewhere we had no access to.  The cafes faced the shores where octopi fisherman unloaded their catch.  One man outside one cafe tenderized his octopi on a large stone.  He smiled when he noticed us watching.  He winked then slapped a new octopus down against the stone. He continued this way until he had made his way through his entire catch, emptying one basket and filling the other.

She walks around the bow, catching up to me quickly, her feet sure of themselves over the graying boards. The board we stand on together bows under our weight, then settles.  

"See?" she asks leaning toward me, pointing, her shoulder grazing mine.  I lean forward, too, trying to see what she is showing me. She glides her finger slowly from one end to the other.  I look at her in amazement.

"One board?" I ask, unable to find a crease or a hem from hull to stern.  She simply smiles.  I look at her hands.  Her fingers are long, like a musician's. Slender.  Smooth.  Not the hands I expected. Not the hands I imagined for this kind of work, for sanding and planing.

A man pokes his head around the wall, eyes us attentively, suspiciously, as we slowly make our way around the entire boat. She shows me where the sail mast will rise, the setting for the wheel and rudder.  We stop only once we have come full circle and are standing at the bow again. She leans her head to one side and smiles.


I glance at her once then turn my gaze back to the boat.  "It's beyond my means."  We stand in silence for a moment.  "Any others?" I ask, still eyeing the boat in front of me.

She pulls me along with the sideways nod of her head. We descend the buoyant ladder, each rung giving a little with each downward climb. She reaches a hand up to my back to assist me through the final rungs, her fingers spread and pressing through my shirt as I back down into them.  Her hand is strong.  Direct.

She opens the door directly behind us.  The room is filled with machinery and long tables filled with tools.  Sawdust and shavings cloud the floor. Sunlight drifts through the big windows tucked tightly beneath the roof high above us. The air is heavy here. The boat here is half the size of the other.  She motions me with the pull of a finger to the far side, the side closest to the wall with the windows.  Without saying a word, she points out the work, the sanding, the breaking down of old paint and water damage. She leans in again, this time I can feel the heat of her body, the cradle of her shoulder resting against mine.

“When did you know this is what you wanted to do?” I ask turning to face her. She reaches and wipes away some loosened paint from the boat’s side with a slow downward brush of her hand.  She lets out a short, abrupt laugh. Then breathes in.

“I’m not sure.  But I knew when I knew.” She rests her hands on her hips, tossing her elbows back just a bit. “I usually do. About everything.”

She places a hand in the small of my back and urges me forward with the other hand.  We stop when we are on the complete other side.

“This is a remodel,” the man who had poked his head around the corner while we looked at the first boat says. “We don’t nearly do as much of this kind of work, but work has been a little slower this year.”

He stands just behind us and between us. We each look straight ahead.  “I prefer to build than repair,” he says finally, breaking the silence. “Wouldn’t you?”

I nod slowly. I ask him how long he’s been building.  As we talk, she turns and walks away, out the door we came in, without a word. I stare straight ahead, listening to her footfall over the dusty floor grow fainter until she is out of range. We talk until he is done and there is nothing left to tell me about how the contours of his life led him here.

“Stop by again when you’re back on the island,” she calls down from the catwalk as I duck out. She says it without looking, staring deep into the hull.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

How Queen Saowapha Holds a Snake, by Jennifer Marcus Newton

From the moment we emerge from the cool dark of the Atlanta Hotel into the dead end of Soi 2 Sukhumvit Road, we are soaked—first from the heat and humidity, and then from the sudden downpour that quickly overcomes drains, backing up gray rainwater and oily residue into the street. The rain arrives with its own peculiar odor, while muting the stench of rotting garbage and decaying organic matter piled under the highway overpass. Traffic chokes streets as we make our way single file past the garbage and decay, umbrellas taut overhead, muddy pant cuffs rolled to knees, and toes sliding across the surface of perpetually slick flip-flops.

Bangkok isn’t actually our destination on this journey—it’s a way station, a meeting point, a gateway to a more remote, reflective trip to a Tibetan village inside Shangri-la in the Yunnan Province of southern China. But Bangkok’s vivid nature refuses to stay reticent, as it masterfully weaves and twists colorful fibers into flamboyant tassels on either end of our trip. Ribbons of taxis painted the bright colors of summer pedicures speed down roadways and side streets. Swarms of whirring scooters flow around cars and trucks at stoplights to collect closest to the intersection, then take off en masse at the hint of green. Tuk tuks belch and sputter tourists from market to wat to tailor and back again. Water taxis thrust the city’s workforce through filthy waterways, outlined by shanty structures and vibrant textiles drying in the midday sun.

Really, it’s the smell that never fails to stick with me when I think about Bangkok. Photos and journal entries are steeped in the pungent, reassuring scent of citronella inside the private courtyard gardens of our hotel; in the odor of farm-fresh vegetables and noodles cooking up at May Kaidee‘s vegetarian cooking school and restaurant; and in the most repugnant a smell I’ve ever encountered—the stagnant puddles inside the fish market after a long, hot day of mongering, with castoff fish parts collecting in floor drains and pooling to each side of the walkway and mangy, flea-ridden cats asleep atop boxes and tables, bellies full of gut.

And, of course, there’s the acrid smell of shame craftily sewn into the tight seams of Bangkok.

I take full responsibility. I’m the one who can reliably say “no” in any language and mean it. My flashy American smile is quick to fizzle at the first suggestion of street trickery. Bamboozlers, who soon sense that I’ve actually been around the block and won’t be easily swindled, back away from me with eyes darting to and fro and body rigid like a spooked stray dog.

So I struggle to piece together the string of events leading up to our moment of weakness on this now perfectly cloudless afternoon. I can’t fathom how a ruse this obvious can play out on me, a seasoned traveler. My disappointment hangs heavy from my shoulders. My shame drains the color from busy markets. My sadness silences the sounds of horns and bells. I suddenly realize that I’m neither clever nor streetwise. I’ve easily been used up and tossed aside with the rest of Bangkok’s trash.

Maybe my usually steadfast suspicions have been lulled by the miles of tree-lined streets with plump orchids clinging provocatively to trunks, or by the blocks of fruit vendors showcasing sticky towers of exotic mangosteen, rambutan, and lychee, or by the restorative foot massages outside the dusty courtyard of Wat Pho, just a stone’s throw from the Reclining Buddha, or by the hauntingly familiar Atlanta Hotel, with its timeless writing desks, well-equipped library, and dozing housecats.

Then again, perhaps it’s simply the nauseating stench of the tuk tuk’s exhaust that’s deprived me of oxygen. Or maybe it’s the cunning tale delivered in a mesmerizing Thai-British accent by the friend of the tuk tuk driver, the brother of the monk inside the temple where we’ve just prayed, that poisons my better judgment. Or maybe I place too much trust in government officials who kindly flag down, on a busy street no less, a well-timed tuk tuk driver to whisk us to a little-known wat, free of the glut of wide-waisted tourists. But whatever it is on this ill-fated afternoon, we become the proverbial fools soon parted from our money.

Maybe I should have paid more attention to the signs at the snake farm. In the heart of Bangkok sits a century-old laboratory called Queen Saowapha Memorial Institute. Oddly enough, it’s a popular stop for most tourists, the draw being the dramatically paraded king cobras, Malayan pit vipers, and banded kraits through crowds of white faces. Of course, this is not the main order of business at the snake farm. Workers here put life and limb in daily peril as they extract venom from some of the world’s deadliest snakes. Their work accomplishes two very good and noble things. First, regular milking renders these deadly snakes as harmless as the children who beg tuk tuk-exhausted parents to let impeccably dressed Thai workers drape a Burmese python around their tiny, sunburned necks. Second, the poison is spun into life-saving, anti-venom serums.

The message I overlook, of course, is that one never knows what lurks below the surface; in Thailand, the potential for danger is everywhere. I am late to see the parallels between the snake farm and the venomous network of dollar hounds lurking in front of government buildings, holy temples, and tailor shops. And this is my undoing.

And so we retreat down the now-dark soi to the cool calm of the Atlanta Hotel. Silently we pass the front desk and trudge up concrete steps to finish packing by rolling freshly stitched, grossly overpriced suits alongside muddy khakis and t-shirts in travel-weary backpacks. As we enter our deluxe room that comes with air conditioning and hot water for a few extra dollars a day, I flip the light on and catch a glimpse of an 18-inch reptile as it slips behind a pipe in the bathroom.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Two Girls For Every Boy, by Mary Biddinger

They lied to you, and they lied to me, and they lied to the store clerk that nobody needed a gun around there, to every housewife in a long skirt who lingered too long at the front window, not checking her hair but adding up the dimensions of the property for rent. They lied into their own mouths and then they swallowed it. Back then such things were possible, the same way a carload of losers could unload and unload until half the school was on the lawn and everyone tangling to the point that limbs couldn’t be identified.

Imagine a job behind a counter with three dusty mini fans blowing up-skirt and still that did nothing. All local girls learned to make a potholder on a small plastic rack. It was a rite of passage, the girl with the most even potholder weave assured a life that involved crying over the wrong size plastic bags or a sudden desire to drive a car into a grocery store. The girl with the second-most-even potholder weave was guaranteed a place at the bottom of a ravine somewhere out of town. After that, they stopped awarding ribbons. It was unseemly. Everything was. The way a girl would have to lie about thinking armpit hair was sexy on a man. The photographs mandated by Town Hall, everyone lined up as if in a family reunion, except the few sent to stand behind the library and eat shaved ice out of paper cups.

One day a man just wanted to destroy a bathroom, and who could stop him? When he was a boy his grandfather took him fishing in all the places where it was forbidden, and he thought of this when he decided against bailing the toilet before shattering it with a sledgehammer. It was an upstairs bathroom, and outside the window he noticed a pear wedged in the gutter of his neighbor’s bungalow. This was not his favorite body shape on a woman, so he ignored it completely and wondered how much the antique tiles could fetch at a swap meet. Only he was not the type to attend a swap meet, and this word was not in his vernacular, but slipped into his mouth somehow like somebody’s pinkie, a faint taste of lime on it.

His favorite body type on a woman was the type that kept falling from the trees every mid-April, and he would have to sweep her up and burn her, and even when she burned she was the same shape, which was somewhat like the song the lady downstairs played on her piano in 1978 when she had too much vodka on Wednesdays, only halted when the cabbage started to boil over and the whole building became a crypt. When she wasn’t issuing from the trees, the favorite worked at the liquor store, proud of the gradual glaze she was impressing upon her corporate-issue polyester apron. She made a point of ringing up all of his items incorrectly, to be playful. When she saw his car pull into the lot she’d start warming a penny in her hand. As a transfer student from upstate, she had never learned to make a potholder on a rack. Sometimes the penny got pretty hot.

The new toilet was in the living room. They had lied to him about it. It wasn’t supposed to be some modern low-flush contraption, but in reality they didn’t make them any other way. As a child he tested his demons by accompanying his father to the hardware store and doing his best not to try out the floor model toilets, projecting a stream onto the wooden floor below. That floor looked like the one they ripped out of the historic one-room schoolhouse when somebody spread a rumor about radon. All of the mothers got out the nit comb, not knowing what else to do. Of course it was a lie, but the gas station built in its place had both men’s and women’s restrooms, where sometimes a veneer of blood would shimmer in the toilets of both at the exact same time. Nobody considered this to be a miracle.

He most despised the shape of an eggplant, and would make no mention of it, but it existed. Sometimes it was the color of a birthmark on a cheek, or a wine stain on a wall in the stairway. His neighbor had a variety of vegetables in his yard, but no eggplant. If you followed the same alley north, you’d reach the commercial district, and not that he considered romance in terms of plumbing, but there was something majestic about certain external fittings, even if his favorite type was the opposite of a standpipe. Once in a while, she who was not a standpipe stepped out the back of the store for a cigarette, because isn’t the favorite always doing something with mild peril, like dropping her new purse into a fountain? The favorite would have her own catalogue of imperfections. She’d tell lies sometimes. That she was from somewhere other than upstate, and had an uncle who was her exact twin. That she had no idea how to define the word finials.

At this point the woodgrain pickup truck filled with losers stopped circling the block and halted in front of an ice cream joint blocks away. Still, in his mind he revisited the martial arts of his youth. The favorite teetered near the standpipe, in the way that favorites are always about to tumble into something blunt. On his way down the alley he’d passed the real estate office, its humble offerings scanned daily by so many potential housewives. Some day he would take his whole house apart, and then leave it. Perhaps he would sell the best brass embellishments to an antique dealer, because something had to be saved. That pear would grow no tree in the gutter, and the oaks wouldn’t come back in April. They would be long gone and goodbye.

Mary Biddinger walks the line between good and evil in Akron, Ohio, where she writes, edits, teaches, and takes pictures of inanimate objects. Her photographs interrogate everyday items in the hope of finding their hidden motivations and passions. She has a particular interest in standpipes, tissues posed like swans in the grass, and traffic cones that have trouble hiding their excitement. You can find more of her pictures (and words) at

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Naming of Things

We walk slowly.  Buying time. The studio is not far from here.

We are huddled close under one umbrella, shoulder against shoulder, hands stacked one on top of the other, gripping the handle. Rain is tapping and tapping just above our heads.  Henry, her English pointer, is in the lead, nose to the ground, pulling hard against the leash. We have been talking about family.  Heritage. Names. The naming and not naming of things. Testing our own resistance.  

"Counselor of Wolves," I say, "My name means counselor of wolves."  I can tell she has raised her head up from watching the sidewalk to look at me. 

"It fits," she says, still looking at me, still thinking about what I have told her.

"My dad had a book on the origins of Anglo-Saxon names," I continue, without looking up, answering the question that always follows at the announcement though she has not yet asked. "On hot summer days, my sister and I would to go down into the basement and lie on the floor in my dad's study to read to each other from his books.  Once, we looked up the names of all our friends and wrote them down and memorized them.  When we saw our friends the next day we called them by the meaning of their names.  We didn't tell anyone why we did it until the next day and we showed them the book. I don't know why I still remember that."  We walked in silence for a few more yards. "We tried to teach ourselves Latin, too."

She laughs.  I smile.  "It's true," I say, after a brief pause.

"I know it is," she says.  And I know she knows by the way she says it.  In earnest. It catches us both off guard that we have managed to come this far so fast. She laughs again, to break the silence.  To take our minds off what we've both been thinking.

She's been bottling things.  Mostly beetles.  A "friend" of hers sent her a bottle of Paris air for her collection. She keeps it in her purse.  She has her hand in her purse and is holding the bottle now.  I can hear her rings rattling on the glass as she moves her palm over it. A dream deferred, of sorts.

She stoops down to eye a beetle Henry is sniffing at on the sidewalk before us. She hands me Henry's leash and gets down on her hands and knees and nudges the beetle with her finger.  It takes a couple of steps away. The giant mandibles jutting from its head are menacing looking.  I stay standing. She rises to her feet, fists punched to her sides. 

"Still alive," she says, unable to mask her disappointment, eyeing the beetle intently, as if it might roll over on its back if we watched just a little while longer. She is considering taking it with us. But we have nothing to carry it in. I can tell she is thinking about the bottle in her purse.  

She's obsessed with Joseph Cornell. Compartmentalizing the world around her. It is a way to feel safer in the world.  To see how easily it fits in little jars. Her studio is lined with them.  The windowsills.  The shelves.  The desk.  The chairs. She's even begun to line them against the walls on the floor. Most of the jars are clear.  Some are light blue or light green. We stopped at a garage sale just a few blocks earlier.  She eyed some old mason jars but bought none.

Looking back behind us, in the direction of the sale, she fights the urge to take the beetle with us, and with the wave of her hand, she brushes the thought off, as if to say,  It's just as much about the jar as what's inside.

She turns to look at me, the rain beginning to mat her hair down.  She is smiling.   We are smiling.  I nod my head to the side, to usher us forward. Henry, anticipating my move, tugs on the leash, pulling my arm out before me.  She looks back down at the beetle then back at me. She pulls the jar from her purse, unscrews the lid and holds the jar upside down to let the air out, shaking it after holding it inverted for a second or two, to get every last drop out. 

She squats down, placing the container before her prize and nudges the black creature forward into the jar. I am amazed at her boldness. I always have been.  She holds the jar up for me to see, then fastens the lid, glancing at me for my reaction.  I am peering into the jar, turning my head one way, and then the other, watching the beetle try to climb the slick glass walls.

"Shall we?" she asks, slipping the bottle down into her purse. She takes Henry's leash in one hand and my hand in the other. It is the first time we have walked like this. "You don't think that was cruel?" she asks moments later, addressing my silence. She is looking at me.  Waiting. 

"No," I answer, after a moment's pause.  "I do not." Her hand relaxes in mine.  She swings our arms the rest of the way. 

When we reach the studio, we hang our wet things over the radiator to dry. The heat emitted is low because of the time of year.  She lifts the jarred beetle from her purse and sets it on the floor.  No signs of life.

The rain is finally letting up, the sun drifting cautiously across the floor to where we stand. Henry shakes himself dry, then sprawls his wet body out on the cot against the wall, urging us to rub his belly. And we do. Our hands touching Henry, our eyes fixed on each other.

"We will soon drift off the edge of the map," she says, nodding matter-of-factly, prophetically. "We will be insatiable."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Collective Bargaining, by Jay Robinson

1. Intersection

Economy, she told him, is synonymous with evanescence. At the intersection of Main Street and Liberty, four blocks from their apartment, nothing behind their reflection in the window shops’ windows. Once upon a time, he wanted to say, there was this thing called industry. Once upon a time, it was a different time. Now it was Saturday, early spring. No desks at the GM dealership. Only a red phone placed in the center of the showroom floor, and left off the hook. Spreadsheets balled-up like dust in the corner. I hope they’re not on hold, she said, plucking a blonde hair off her shoulder. For a moment, she flew it like a kite in the breeze. Above them, no hawks hovered in the cloudlessness. And all the manikins one block north, he added, have filed for unemployment. She looked at him dubiously, auburn eyebrows titled at the angle of exhaustion or sudden unfamiliarity, he couldn’t tell which. Did  it matter? It is what the newspaper reported, he insisted after a pause. He turned a quarter over and over between his thumb and forefinger. But she wasn’t buying it. Because she didn’t have patience for other people’s humor, couldn’t admire the crocuses. Because even her hyacinths mocked her with their bald resiliency. So she stared at the steaming cup of coffee in her hand as if she could only see her reflection in silhouette, or when she expected someone else’s. Where were we walking to again? he wanted to know. But she was thinking of the abandoned steelworks on the other side of the city, and had been for weeks: If she moved in there, she wondered, would she need to redecorate? Would she want to? Lemon sheets to match the blast furnace! A bright orange duvet to soften the mill train! Tiger lilies like sparks in all the windows! Even the ones that hadn’t been shattered by the baseball-sized hunks of quartz she would stack into a pyramid as a monument to indifference. Sometimes their affair was as volatile as the stock market. Sometimes he was as unaware of it as the weather. It didn’t make sense, therefore, when he started short selling in the fall, which–he would say to anyone on the other end of the phone–is another of the ways we see ourselves. Was it even an affair anymore, he asked his secretary, after you married? And by winter she had resorted to insider trading, which meant mojitos with Chad from Accounting after hours at the Sheraton. Once upon a time, we believed in fairy tales. Once upon a time, he liked to say, a story wasn’t just something we were telling ourselves. But nobody wears those slippers anymore, she wanted to tell him. Rain boots are all the rage now, no matter the weather. Neither, though, was saying anything at the moment. The cold breeze lifted their hair at the same angle. They stared down Main Street at the lack of Main Street. And without a glance, they started walking in the same direction. Away from home.

2. Absence

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the Winter of Their Discontent? No. It was more than that. It was the Winter of Their Plunging Portfolio. The Dawning of The Great Separation, and it all started in the spring. Some of the best minds of their generation, she told herself, staring out her window, had filed for bankruptcy. Some of the best minds of their generation, he thought, popped pills to stave off their madness. But for every pound she lost, he felt more bloated. As if someone had inflated his body with the space hers no longer required. Or the value of his client’s mutual funds. His diet, she claimed, resembled a Bull Market. But he said the question of whether or not to Supersize it was rhetorical, and every time she ordered a Cobb salad, called her The Incredible Disappearing Woman. Even though she was only a size four to begin with, unemployment had leveled off. Why don’t you ask for the burger on the side? she told him. She slid another packet of ketchup across the booth. He hoarded the salt. According to a recent survey, he joked with his boss, she protested these and other nicknames. Then she didn’t come home for two nights, and he called her The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy instead. She chopped her hair; he didn’t shave. Every time she peed in the second floor bathroom at her mother’s ranch house in Kalamazoo, he suppressed a gag reflex sitting on their re-upholstered couch in the basement, Coke can on the ottoman. He watched re-broadcasts of Tigers games he couldn’t remember watching as a teenager. Bottom line, he liked to say, There are only losers. Back at home, she laughed, told him it was impossible for a building to be evacuated, grammatically speaking, when the smoke detector shrieked. Something was burning, but they couldn’t locate the smell. Was it indoors or out? he wondered. He excused himself and walked across the hall to answer the phone at his desk, and she burped in the mailroom at her office three miles away. One night she claimed symbiosis was all that was left of collective bargaining. Didn’t she have it backwards? he decided. Then again, she’d had two martinis, and he knew exactly how many Buttery Nipples he’d had. I made him sign a contract to solidify the details of our intimacies, he heard her joking with Pam when he came back to the bar. And he forged his father’s signature on the bottom line. When this baffled him, she completely understood. By the next afternoon she’d packed up and left. But in the absence of sense and each other, he kept talking on the phone. One sentence following another. He liked the comfort of talking dirty, even if he couldn’t do it correctly. What aren’t you wearing? he would ask. What can you afford to take off?

Jay Robinson teaches Creative Writing and English Composition at the University of Akron. He's Co-Editor-in-Chief / Reviews Editor of Barn Owl Review. Poems have recently appeared in 32 Poems and The Laurel Review, among others.