Monday, August 30, 2010

The Banshee

At night he drinks pints of black and throws spit from the mountaintop, cupping his hands at his mouth, the old dirt of the ridgeline pinched beneath his fingernails. Hours spent digging for ginseng.

The ridge is his property line, is the edge of his world. The family pushed him off the porch years ago, boot-toed him across the yard until he could stand and make his way into the hills.

When he speaks, the words leave him as spring rain leaves the clouds in sunlight.

And when he speaks it is with words tied by strands of wind. He says mostly these words in this way – love, hurt, mother, father, babies, mine, marriages, children, babies, woman, mine, women, hurt, alone, nothing, mother, father. The words weave into one another and in the end they become a single wail across the valley.

To the knuckles he pushes his fingers into the overgrowth at the base of the cliffs. The roots are there. He pushes into the old earth with his muscles, the bones of his arms and shoulders, tearing away the bloodline of the plant.

It's how he gets to sleep before daybreak, tiring himself out before the stirring moon has a chance to remind him again of all he has lost.

And when he remembers, it is the throwing up again of sunlight words in the darkness. Love, hurt, mother, father, babies, mine, marriages, children, babies, woman, mine, women, hurt, alone, nothing, mother, father.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sweet Sour

Most warm nights our first year married I played songs for Kendra in the front yard.

Barefoot, we sat in lawn chairs, the cutlery of untended grass scraping our toes and the tops of our feet. She would tuck her legs under her, braid magnificent loops of such long, clean hair into twists, swinging my song out into the hot dark.

Then she started dancing some in the living room and drinking some in the kitchen, at the sink. I always found small clues, the clumsy splotches of light brown stains on the kitchen table, an old memory scent of sour mash.

She kept a fifth of Jim Beam in a cubbyhole behind the exhaust pipe above the stove and ate mustard greens and onions and sauerkraut to cover her breath.

Everything became bitter and gray. Everything became loud. Everything became, "It's always some kind of shit with you."

Time passed, as it will, slowly, painfully. More dancing and drinking and then some getting home at 2 a.m., Kendra falling from the passenger door of cars and trucks I'd never seen before.

Last night, it was a full-sized Ford F250, fire engine red with glass packs.

I met her in the living room and steadied the swaying with a hand on her hip. I kissed her mustard green mouth and held her hair between my fingers, twisted it into a loop that might have been rope just strong enough to hang myself.

Everything became that moment. Everything became silent. Everything became.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I Am Hiding in Plain Sight by Roxane Gay

Everything I write is true or perhaps it would be better to say there is truth in everything I write.


I have worked a number of soul-destroying jobs. Most people have. This does not make me unique or special. We all have to shelter and clothe and feed and entertain ourselves. Compromises must be made. I have done outbound telemarketing and Gallup polling. I truly know darkness. I have also done other kinds of phone work revealing an altogether different kind of darkness. I’ve worked the graveyard shift and had to go to school the next day for months on end. I’ve had an office with a door that closed and locked and I have taken advantage of having a door that closed and locked. I’ve worked in a cubicle where I was privy to the terribly intimate details of the lives of others. I have worked behind a cash register, at the door of a nightclub, and behind a bar. There was a brief stint, in high school, where I washed dishes in the dining hall of my boarding school because my parents wanted to teach me humility and the value of a dollar. I learned and promptly forgot those lessons. I don’t enjoy work but I have a good work ethic. When a job needs to be done I will do it. I will do my best.


I have lived a charmed life. I am well educated. I am loved and I am respected, I think. I was raised in a country where I’ve never wanted for anything and have taken for granted the most basic of necessities—clean water, clean air, fresh food, adequate healthcare and have spent a great deal of time in a country where most people don’t have any of those things. I am lucky enough to know I should never complain. I have endured difficult experiences with my sanity and emotional infrastructure fairly intact or at least I can fake survival pretty well. Every day is a gift. I am probably wasting that gift.


In junior high, someone wrote the word slut on my locker. I had no idea what the word meant. I was not a slut. I was twelve. I still believed in things. I knew who wrote the word and why. It made me so angry but like I said, I was twelve so I didn’t know what to do with that anger other than to swallow it. For the entire day, I heard people whispering. In class, everyone stared at me and snickered. I sat there trying to reconcile what I didn’t know about that word with what I knew about what had precipitated that word being written on my locker. I grew angrier. I slid lower in my seat. I tried to fold myself until I disappeared. My classmates thought they knew something about me. They knew nothing. They knew nothing at all. It took hours for the janitor to wash my locker clean but it didn’t matter. The word was always going to be on my locker. It was going to follow me. I didn’t know what the word meant but I knew I would never get away from it. When I went home that afternoon I looked the word up in the dictionary and learned that slut meant a promiscuous woman or a saucy girl and I didn’t really know what promiscuous or saucy meant so I looked those words up too. I have always loved the dictionary for the clarity it provides. I learned a lot that year.


I must confess there are days when nothing bores me more than writers talking about writing. It’s all so solipsistic the way we go on and on. When I talk about writing I bore myself. It is important to talk about writing, but anytime I say something about writing, I feel about as useless as the most useless thing I can imagine. Still, there is the question: why do we write? Why do we write? Why do we write? There was a time when I said I wrote because I needed to, because it was so vital to my continued existence. That was true but it wasn’t the whole truth. I was young. I didn’t know any better. I didn’t have to pay rent. I’m older now. I’m calmer. I’m less ridiculous. If I had to stop writing, my life would go on. My life would be lesser. My life would be hollow, but it would be. We’re writers. It is in our nature to be melodramatic when we are faced with an interrogation about our writing existence. The existential is too tempting. We have to make grand statements. We have to prove our commitment to the craft. We have to prove we are not just writers. We are Writers. We are true to the word. We are true, we are true, we are true. I love writing and reading. It feels empty to say that. I’m a writer. I’m supposed to love writing and reading. Nobody cares about the intensity of my love for these things. It’s personal and therefore rather uninteresting but it’s also real and strong and abiding. Writing has been my best friend for my whole life.


My parents will not consider me a real writer in a way they can truly understand until they can go to Barnes & Noble and find something I’ve written, not in an anthology, but with my name alone on the spine. My writing career is the least relevant thing about me when it comes to my family and friends. It’s not that they don’t care but honestly, they do not care.


When I publish genre fiction, I am generally paid $50 a story. I was paid $300 for a story in Best American Erotica and felt like I had received a six-figure book deal. I cannot pay my bills with these payments but I can buy my favorite books and magazines. Those payments used to subsidize my smoking habit. I don’t smoke anymore, unfortunately. When I publish literary fiction, it is rare I am paid cash money. Compensation always shocks me. I have gotten so used to “writing for free” it makes me a bit uncomfortable when an editor asks how I would like to be paid. It’s not that I don’t want to be paid. I do. I embrace capitalism. It’s simply that I have become accustomed to the reality that there isn’t a lot of money in writing short stories. I made my peace with this a long time ago, that I would not be able to write to earn a living. My love for writing would have to be compensation enough. It is.


I have been writing stories as long as I can remember. The first stories I wrote were simple, pastoral tales. I would draw a little village on a paper napkin (and I have no idea why) and then I would write stories about that village on the other side of the napkin. My parents grew concerned about the rate with which I was using napkins and got me a typewriter. I loved typewriter paper. It was thin, felt like there was a fragility to it. I loved my typewriter because it allowed me to write as fast as the stories came to me. The stories have always come very fast. I think in stories and sometimes, I can’t even catch my breath as I try to put a story to screen before I lose it. I hate losing a story that I’m trying to write. It makes me feel I’ve lost something more important than the words.


I was angry but I was impotent. I couldn’t do anything with that anger. I was too shy. I was too much of a lot of things. I didn’t know I should have done something more external with that anger. Writing is the only thing that made sense. After I understood what the words slut and promiscuous truly meant, I started writing stories about slutty, promiscuous girls. These girls were brassy and strong and fucked up and interesting and like writing, they too were my friends. I wrote these stories every day. I am still writing these stories. I decided I was a superhero. At school, I was Slut. I wore that name day after day. I accepted it. I answered to my new name in all kinds of ways. I wore glasses. I was smart and awkward. I was Clark Kent. After school, when I wrote, that was the real me. That’s when I could wear my real name. That’s when I was Superman. I could do something amazing with words and it didn’t matter that no one knew. It didn’t matter that everyone ignored who I really was beneath who they believed me to be. I was hiding in plain sight. Why do we write when most of us will never be able to make a living from it? I suppose it depends on how you define making a living. I was a superhero. I am a superhero. I have always been hiding in plain sight. I knew it. I know it.


Everything I write is true or perhaps it would be better to say there is truth in everything I write. I wrote a story about a year ago about a woman with gray skin who only wore pink dresses. When she was a young girl, her father liked to keep her in a glass box. She had to stand in that box while her father charged passersby money to get a closer look at the gray girl wearing the pink dress in the glass box. She hated it, how everyone stared at her, how she couldn’t move, how she had to just stand there. Their curiosity suffocated her and yet, when she ran away from home, she joined a roadside attraction, a traveling carnival. That’s what she knew. All day, she would sit on a garish stage, her gray skin shiny with oils. She wore a pink band of silk across her breasts and another around her waist. As she sat there, this gray girl, her name was Rosa, she would remember sitting in her father’s glass box, the weight of the stares of strangers, how by the end of the day her little box was filled only with her breath and sweat. Sitting on the stage, with the open air on her skin, it felt different for Rosa. She had a choice.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

UPCOMING GUEST POST: An Essay from Roxane Gay

I'm more than pleased to let you folks know that tomorrow I will offer a guest post here from Roxane Gay, an essay called "I Am Hiding in Plain Sight" about life and writing and writing and life and how for some of us the two are not separate at all.

So, see you tomorrow cats and kittens. Write hard.

Monday, August 16, 2010

No Instructions

In my dream, Cassie didn't so much cheat on me as she cheated in front of me, with three truck drivers while we ate breakfast at Clay's Kitchen. The four of them did so casually at our booth while my eggs sat untouched in a dirty plate.

I knew certain dreams could be visions from God. Dad dreamed of his own future, had witnessed to it, claiming it a vision, and these gifts were often inherited, the church said. Dad told everyone that his family would be taken from him and that he would not live long, his heart crushed.

There were no instructions in this vision, Dad told the stunned congregation, only the understanding that the Lord will not abandon me during this time.

I came away with no instructions and no understanding, but the Cassie in my dream was the Cassie of my past. And that could never happen.

I met her while playing in a punk-rock band during my rebellious years away from the church. There was mostly pot and then more Budweiser and Old Fitzgerald and Jack Daniels on top of that, but a few years in, the band switched to cocaine. Rooms were left spotted with foul clues that humans might have spent time there, hard and strange time, warped time. I dabbled less with cocaine than some of the others, but during this period the music became a phantom excuse.

The few times I did take part, pinching my nostrils afterwards until it seemed the soft bones might push through the skin, I did so only because Cassie was there, staring at me with warm hair and killer eyes. Two three four times she would bend over the coffee table in tight denim and take lines, that warm hair splashed out from her head, a giant dark hand, a claw with thousands of needle-thin fingers, clutching and pushing her head down from above, through the ceiling from some kind of heaven-hell, cheekbone against wood, throat stretched tight.

It was how she had looked in my dream in front of me and my cold eggs.

I decided to take action after my dream, but I spoke to no one about it. Mysterious, mysterious ways. A fanatic, an addict, believes in the excuse more than he believes in anything else. And when I prayed, I prayed very quietly while Cassie slept beside me, the easy sound of her breathing steadying my thoughts like something holy, something wrathful.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

His Dance, His Remembering Dance

Larry listens to a song in his head while hocking newspapers on the corner. The voice, his voice, the singing voice inside his head, is baritone beautiful. His life is not adjusted.

He wakes in the afternoon and sleeps in the morning and visits downtown like a dark ghost, like a stinking cloud between the buildings. The night is saved, pennies tossed on the nightstand. Saved for hurting, but only saved like pennies or scraps of paper, reciepts handed to him by outstretched arms when he can get a burger at Stan's Greasy Spoon. Tossed on the nightstand and blended into the broken wood.

Loose change. Rolled down windows. Ink stains lost in the circles of his fingerprints. Heartache and backache and hunger and thirst. He hardly has time for anything else. The skin around his knees droops down his shins. He stomps, twists, turns, his head singing, and it slides downward still and more. His whole body is like this, an old suit he tries all day to slip away from.

He can feel alive, though, when he flags drivers and does his dance. While they fish for quarters, parked at his corner, he gives them a newspaper, a dance, listening to the song inside his head. The song is his woman's.

There was a women once, a good woman who cared for him, doted on him. She was that and all that and more. Her name is written in muddy water. Her name floats away from him, lost in lily pads dark and ringed as a placenta.


The Vonnegut Train

"When I taught at Harvard for a year, for example, that was because students had asked for what they called 'a creative track.'

Chuffa, chuffa, chuffa.

Choo choo. Woo woo."

– Kurt Vonnegut

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Day Izzy Lawrence was Judged in the Calvary First Freewill Baptist Church

Katie Justice was to be baptized today, the first of many that would have occurred during the revival. Katie was crouched under a pew, thirteen years old, clutching her mother’s dress. Her breathing, I could tell, was the same as all of them, pushing and pulling from her chest, pinwheeling in her throat, both tragic and blessed.

The complete silence that dropped on the church when I pulled the 9mm from the waist of my pants had been the emptiness and wonder left in the air from an echo.

Izzy closed her eyes when I pressed the barrel just above her eyebrow, made a halo on her forehead. It looked out of place. Too small and too holy of a thing to be on that skin.

When the baptistery glass broke, the waters came in one great wave, slamming to the floor and jumping into wave again, rimmed white and dark at the ripples.

I heard the people making for the door, pushing pews aside. The water took very little time to splash and lap and spread through the whole church.

Izzy was gone and the deacons, too. I turned slowly in a half circle and watched the people crowding the front doors, turned again and faced the altar and held my arms out. The gun jerked inside my hand and dropped, black and dead, alive only under the shifting movement of the water.

To my knees and then down, the water holding me in place. Stretching myself tight, arms, legs, stomach, everything inside me floating there and forgotten, a pebble knocked around in a dark river’s silt. And there, too, floated my heart, safe from the burning places of my mind, broken piece upon broken piece.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


It's dead relatives people get hung up on when they start thinking about dying, particularly when they start thinking about dying in the self-inflicted sort of way.

No need to analyze this as the connection is obvious, and I mention it only because this evening I will kill myself. No worries. It's not a big deal, really. The thing is, now that I'm going to do it I realize I'd not thought much about Virginia in the days leading up.

But I'm thinking about her now. This moment, duct-taping the garden hose to the muffler of my car, trying to figure out the best way to tape off the two inches or so left open from running it through the driver's side window. By the time she went, I could have carried her under my arm.

And it also occurs to me that there is nothing original about my actions in the least. Typical. Boring, even. I suppose I could skip the letter and that might show a flash of creativity, encourage at least a month of curious speculation. Add to my mystique.

When I settle in behind the steering wheel, the first thing I do is grab the pen and paper from the dash. And then I can't imagine why I care at all, so much of a big deal it's not.

I write things.

There are certain things I can know about how I'm going to die. In this order, I will get a headache, then vomit, then fall into an alternate state of awareness, lose awareness and then death. The trajectory seems boring as I go over it again, and fleeting regret of chosen method skirts through before I remember the best detail.

They say after this sort of death there is often a cherry-red color to the skin, much like the meat at the grocery store which is treated with carbon monoxide for preservation. A pound of hamburger meat. Ribs. Pork chops. I like this idea. It's seems, healthy.

I spend a long, long time deciding exactly where to place the letter.

Yes, I googled myself. But look what I found!

I googled myself yesterday. It wasn't the first time and it won't be the last. I have a busy online life and so I like to see what...