Morning Walk: September 11, 2018

Amelia Martens

Because you are five, I say airplanes crashed
and you say where is our flag and I say look

at those roses, breaking open—little mouths
on our walk to school. You scuff and work

out the equation: if airplanes crashed
on a surface like this—you drag the concrete,

then there would be fire. Yes, and now
I walk through a curtain of printer paper

a flock of fallen paper people, arms spread.
Yes, I say—there was fire and I mean is.

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by Jason Fowler, curated by Dana Lyons.

Amelia Martens is the author of THE SPOONS IN THE GRASS ARE THERE TO DIG A MOAT (Sarabande Books, 2016), and four poetry chapbooks, including URSA MINOR (elsewhere magazine, 2018). She is the recipient of a 2019 Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council; her work has also been supported by the Kentucky Foundation for Women and a SAF fellowship to Rivendell Writer’s Colony. She is mom to two awesome daughters.

Two Poems

Jake Skeets

Red Running Into Water

 

tsi’naajinii nishłí
pronounce the ł as water whistling through shadow
               on black bark
the í as boy wearing only yucca
               lake colored

tábąąhá báshíshchíín
the í is now mouth of narrow stream
               inside a pink mobile home with white skirting
the ą sounds like pulling hair
               from the throat
shaped like the á

táchii’nii dashícheii
the á now a head busted open
               red running into water
the í is the boy now naked
               red running into water

tódik’ǫzhí dashinálí
boy has the ó for mouth
               washed with memory of salt water
pronounce this á as rain cloud
               belly up
the í still the boy floating on the lake
               except it is a field
his mouth left ǫ

Drift(er)

 

                    after “Benson James, drifter. Route 66, Gallup, NM 1979” by Richard Avedon

 

Drift

to drift is to be carried by current of air or water

                                        but men are not the teeth

of their verbs

they pry nouns open with a belt buckle

to take a sip

Drifter

a drifter carried by a current of air or water

                                                                                         makes his way from one place to another

see vagabond, see transient, see

drunk

see a man with shoulder-length hair

dollar bills fisted standing before a white screen

see his lips how still

how horizon

how sunset

a train

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

passing through

 

I try to hug him

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

through the spine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

left on the white space

                    his face becomes a mirror

if I stare long enough

                                         my face

charcoaled

                    pursed squinting

at the camera

 

train horn

                    punch shatters

the mirror

 

                                         frees him from the page

my uncle leaps from the

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

 

Jake Skeets is Black Streak Wood, born for Water’s Edge. He is Diné from the Navajo Nation and holds an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts. His work has appeared in Boston Review, Waxwing, and elsewhere. He is a winner of the 2018 Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. His first collection, EYES BOTTLE DARK WITH A MOUTHFUL OF FLOWERS, won the 2018 National Poetry Series and was published by Milkweed in 2019.

In the Embassy of Silence

Tina Carlson

My mother fills paper

boats with pastel mints,

juice glasses with bourbon.

The room shimmers with lit

cigarettes. We watch

the perfumed players sneak

peeks at other hands, bet

and bluff . Out back my father

beats hedges with rusted shears,

says god damn shit ass.

Glasses empty. My brother

puts frozen peas on his bruises.

My mother hums in her new

blue party dress. Ladies praise

her close-to-perfect white cake.

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Tina Carlson is a poet and a psychiatric healthcare provider. Her poems have appeared in many journals and blogs. She was featured in the 2017 Nov/Dec Poets & Writers ‘5 over 50.’ Her book GROUND, WIND, THIS BODY (UNM Press) was published in March 2017. She recently completed a collaborative manuscript called WE ARE MEANT TO CARRY WATER with Katherine DiBella Seluja and Stella Reed which will be published by 3: A Taos Press.

Four Monologues from Winesburg, Indiana, a small town between Fort Wayne and South Bend and not that far from Warsaw

Michael Martone

Mario Talarico’s Peonies

My favorite variety is the Eleanor Roosevelt. I am very conscientious in the spring. I stake and cage the plants. I am careful to deadhead the side branching buds to lessen the weight. I know, you are thinking about the ants, but I don’t mind the ants. The ants are as drunk as I am on waiting for those buds to bloom. In the winter I review all the catalogs but I always go back to the Eleanor Roosevelt. Most people think the peonies wilt in the heat, but that is not the case. Peonies are heat tolerant. No, what they need is cold. The crowns need to be frozen, frozen solid. I take no chance. I mulch my peonies through the winter with snow and more snow. All the snow that falls I shovel onto the dormant beds. When it doesn’t snow, I’ll head down to Ed Harz’s Standard Station and retrieve bags of ice to pile on the crowns. It’s the tradition in Indiana to plant peonies in rows along the drive way or next to the white siding of the garages and they do look good that way, that peony green of the leaves, that exploding splatters of red. But I have planted my peonies in drifts, the icy pale pink blossoms piling up together, a dream of winter.

Sue Johnson, Parking Enforcement Officer

I have one of those new digital wearable fitness devices that counts the number of steps I take each day. If you aren’t moving enough there is a tiny picture on the tiny screen, a frowning face. If you are moving the face changes to a smile that gets bigger and bigger as you take more and more steps. That’s all I do is walk. I chalk parked car tires, circling the downtown parking spaces of Winesburg every two hours. That’s all you get of free parking, two hours. I time my walks. I have been doing this long enough I can mark the time by the number of steps I take. The marks I make with the chalk look like smiles too, smack dab on the treads of the driver’s side rear tire. Tire after tire. Two hours later, my pedometer smiling its biggest smile, I come back around. I mark the more recent parked cars, the tires a blank slate. But then there are the ones with the telltale mark from two hours before. I have to write them up. I can do that while I am walking, writing up the summons as I circle the infracting vehicle. I leave the ticket under the windshield wiper blade as I march in place. You can say I am motivated to move even as I enforce the sustained periods of standing still.

Maurice Milkin, Eraser Carver

I go to the Pink Pearl factory store at the factory and buy the ones, discounted, beyond their expiration date. Stale erasers. I have been sculpting for years. Sculpting is about seeing what is not there, the negative space, the foil, the relief. It isn’t lost upon me that in my way I am erasing the eraser, whittling it away one rubber sliver at a time. In the end I have a rubber stamp embossed with a word. I use the stamp to stamp. It stamps STAMP. I have turned these erasers of flat language, turned them into these words with enough depth, a lip. It’s a slug of spongy type. I tool these one-word stories, use blue impermeable ink. MOM for instance. DAD. GRAM. YOU. DEAR. LOST. GONE. ?.

The Weeping Willow Windbreak of Winesburg

FDR himself came to Winesburg and planted the first few saplings. Well, he didnt actually plant them himself but sat up in the Sunshine Special and directed things. He wanted to build a grand shelterbelt from Canada to Mexico. We wanted to do our bit. The President motored away in that big old Lincoln, and he left a contingent of the CCC behind to finish the landscaping. That was years ago, and the shelterbelt was never really realized in the aggregate. But here in Indiana there is this little baffle of depression-era willows. Roosevelt was haunted by the roiling clouds of dust, dreamed of something to knock the dirt out of the thin air. Well, the wind is with us here. We always say there is nothing to slow it down, the wind, as it slides off the mountains out west. There was an oracle in ancient Greece where the priests got their instructions in the rustle of the breeze in the leaves. Oak leaves, I believe. The lachrymose leaves of the willow are all muffled, mumbling mostly. They are pretty to look at, I suppose, this memorial copse, this limping crippled orchard smudging the horizon.

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Michael Martone’s new books are BROODING and THE MOON OVER WAPAKONETA: FICTIONS AND SCIENCE FICTIONS FROM INDIANA AND BEYOND. He lives in Tuscaloosa and teaches at the university there

Repeating Island

Yan Fécu

“I’m not supposed to talk to you anymore,” Maile said. “Not like this.”

She and Tav sat on a sequestered patch of black sand beach. They were far enough away from town that its lights glittered like some forgotten constellation.

You can’t ignore me, he said without speaking. Who else would put up with you?

She made a face at him. “My mother says it’s the law.”

But it doesn’t make sense.

“Laws don’t make sense.” She fingered the hem of her scarlet tunic. “They make people.”

Tav kept his gaze trained on the horizon, where one ever-changing blueness touched another. So, I’m just supposed to pretend you can’t hear me?

She forced a small laugh. “Are you hurt? How sweet.”

He used his right hand to sign a single word: go.

Maile paused, still too clumsy when it came to thinking in sign. He never teased her for her slowness, but in that moment she wished he would. She edged closer to him.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “We’ll still see each other, but it won’t be easy. They don’t want us … acting familiar, my mother called it,” she finished with a roll of her eyes.

On the surface, there wasn’t much of a difference between them. Her skin was a bit darker; his hair was a bit curlier. But her people were masters, and his were slaves.

 

Not far from where they huddled on a gray linen blanket, two sea turtles ambled towards the tide. Foam washed up closer and closer to the four of them, leaving thin, silvery threads as it drew back towards its source. Maile thought about that morning.

The house had been quiet. Her father wouldn’t be returning until evening. Officially, he was away on business. Unofficially, he was visiting his other family. The children were all illegitimate, all slaves through their mother’s bloodline. They couldn’t inherit or lay claim to anything he owned. Maile thought it was right that he provided for them. Tav’s own father was some rich planter he had never met. He rarely spoke of it, but the man’s absence tore at the edges of him.

That morning Maile had found her mother sitting at a large silkwood desk, sifting through financial accounts.

“There’s no need for conversation,” she had said. “Just orders. And if it’s important, go to Kamda.”

Kamda had raised Maile alongside three of her own children. She looked indistinguishable from her mother, with brown skin and coppery hair braided around her head like a crown. A couple had sold her to the Suranse household soon after she reached puberty.

Maile hadn’t replied, only sighed.

“I know you and Tav have always been close.” Long pauses like this one were rare. They meant that her mother was making an effort. “But you’re older now. There can’t be any confusion. The law will never punish you, my sweet girl. But it will punish him. Believe me.”

And Maile did.

 

Fifteen.

Maile looked at Tav expectantly.

That’s the magic number, he continued. And now we pretend we weren’t raised under the same roof.

“We pretend with them. Not with each other.”

He let out a slow exhale. Maybe it’s time. Maybe we need to find a way to stop this. If every master could hear what we thought, they’d skin us alive.

“No.” The word came out strangled. She swallowed and tried again. “Please. This is different. I like hearing you and …” She stopped. “It’s like how the waves are always there, too. Anywhere you go on the island. If you stopped the sound it would feel wrong. You’re like that. Do you understand?”

Tav didn’t react immediately. Maile felt more words scrambling up her throat, but she waited. After a moment he reached into one of his tunic’s large pockets and pulled out a small, cardboard box. It had been neatly taped shut, though the tape itself was smudged with dirt.

Happy birthday.

She smiled. She held the box up to her ear and gave it a shake. The sound was hard to pinpoint but reminded her of clinking coins. Her smile grew bigger. She scratched off the layers of tape and removed the lid. Sunlight caught on the miniature scrap heap assembled before her. It was a collection of metal parts—iron, copper, pewter—that Maile could put to good use. Much to her father’s chagrin, she spent much of her free time dismantling machines in a makeshift workshop set up in one of their guest rooms.

“How did you get a hold of all this?” she asked.

A little bit at a time. Started last year, I guess. Saw a bit of clockwork I knew you’d love.

She looped her arm around his and briefly let her head rest on his shoulder. “Thanks, Tav.”

I almost got you something pretty. Flowers. A necklace. One of those art books.

“I’ve never seen anything prettier,” she said.

Sitting back, she reached for her rucksack and rummaged through a pile of papers until she reached the bottom. There, tucked beneath her school supplies, was a thin, rectangular package. She offered it to him with a satisfied grin.

He gently tore open the delicate, green wrapping paper. The tin container contained fifteen colored pencils. Their hues—crimson, cobalt, jade, violet—were so rich he imagined he could transform every grain of black sand overnight. He threw his arms around her.

When they had put away their presents, Maile drew her legs up to her chest and hooked an arm around her knees. “Do you ever think it’ll erupt again someday?” she asked.

Tav’s eyes flicked up and away, toward the smoke-colored mountain. It’s been two hundred years.

Even when his voice was lodged in her head, she couldn’t always read the tone. “I hope it does,” she said.

He peered at her with furrowed brows.

She repeated herself by signing, her thin fingers touching each other and touching air.

Everything would be destroyed.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s what it takes to start a new world.”

He peered at her, as if she were a third moon that had suddenly appeared in the night sky. Then, without breaking eye contact, he unhooked the leather and gold embossed collar he wore. Placed on the ground like that, it seemed smaller, duller. He dug out two fistfuls of coal-black sand and buried the only piece of gold he would ever possess.

She had never seen him without the collar before. His neck was long and paler brown where his skin had been shielded from the sun.

That’s what it takeshe mouthed back.

 

Maile rinsed Tav’s collar in the sea, and he wiped off the residual salt with the linen sheet folded under his arm. As they walked back toward the town, they passed the small, iridescent pools that only bloomed at low tide. All kinds of brightnesses filled them: brittle starfish radiating and regenerating outward; sea anemones fluttering their many limbs; and barnacles clinging to every surface.

Maile felt her chest tighten with every step.

This was what the world was like. Tiny tide pools, teeming with every type of life, appearing and disappearing overnight.

How did you get a thing to stay?

Tav stopped beside one of the pools and crouched. I’ll stop here for a while. You should get back first.

She nodded. Every so often she would glance over her shoulder and see him by the pool, growing smaller. She kept looking back until his body melted into the sand and sea.

 

○ ○ ○

 

Maile knew what it was like to realize she was dreaming in the middle of a dream. On occasion, she had been able to use her newfound awareness to shape the dream. Her mind was a blunt instrument in these situations. She could never do anything with precision, but she could conjure simple desires: massive banquet tables piled high with her favorite foods; a large bed with silk sheets that rubbed against every bit of exposed skin; and safe, quiet corners where no one could find her. Best of all was the ability to fly so high that the whole island became little more than a splinter of wood.

This dream wasn’t like the others. It was as if she had become suddenly conscious of the fact that she was part of someone else’s dream. Her own life, her needs and wants, didn’t exist outside of a stranger’s imagination. If that stranger awoke, she would vanish with the first flicker of an eyelid. That morning, her body felt thinned out, like watered-down paint. She had woken up on the floor. Her wrists and ankles, the hollow at the base of her throat and the small of her back, they all seemed to pulse with a second heartbeat. A second life. But she had no time to think about what might have happened or why. It was already light out, which meant she had somehow overslept. She washed her face at a dusty basin and dressed quickly, all the while expecting someone to rush in and punish her. No one came. She slipped on her collar and hurried to the main house. As she cleared the breakfast dishes and set about sweeping, no one remarked on her lateness.

The sun showed no mercy out in the fields. The canecutters felt its rays on their exposed backs like long fingernails, scraping and scorching. The laborers were mostly men, but a few women worked alongside them. Maile was grateful she didn’t have to. Still, whenever she had a free moment, she carried well water out to them. The overseer, who the slaves called just in comparison to other bosses, didn’t stop her.

The grand farmhouse where Maile worked had been in the Calypse family for at least a century. It was two stories high, with a wide veranda, and six stately columns. There was a cellar that remained cool despite the heat, and there they stored alcohol, smoked meats, and root vegetables. There were one-room log cabins adjacent to the main house, where she and several others lived, as well as more slave quarters scattered around the edge of the plantation. Most of the 800 acres were dedicated to harvesting sugar.

On her way through a covered walkway, Maile saw men in tattered, wide-brimmed straw hat hauling bags of feed for the animals. When she entered the cookhouse, Nerjuli was elbow deep in freshly caught fish. Fresh lemon juice razored through their briny scent. A large vat of boiling plantains set the whole place steaming. The woman nodded her head towards the pantry, her private domain, where Maile could fetch extra sugar for the mistress’s tea.

She poured a small amount into a shallow dish and returned the canister to its proper place. The shelves were stacked full with dried beans, rice, cornmeal, flour, salt, nuts, vinegars, jams, and all manner of hot peppers. Higher up she glimpsed more luxurious items stowed away: rare spices and roasted seeds and cured bird eggs. She swallowed and felt the gold and leather collar heavy against her neck. After a moment, she backed out of the pantry. She shut the door and, when Nerjuli caught her eye, signed her thanks. The cook nodded and returned her full attention to the slippery, scaly creatures that, sensing any weakness in their executioner, would have flung themselves back into the sea.

Maile rushed to the main house, conscious of time. The kitchen was a separate building; humidity would have made cooking in the mansion itself unbearable. She gripped the dish of sugar and ran up to the second floor.

“You.”

Only Salmir refused to call her by her name. He was their wealthiest neighbor, and the Calypses invited him and his family over regularly. The couple often asked him to check on the house when they traveled. Salmir waved for Maile to move closer. She took two steps forward. He looked down to see what she carried in the dish. Smiling, he licked the same finger, pressed it against the sheening whiteness, and licked it again.

Maile kept her sight focused on a spot over his right shoulder.

“I imagine running back and forth like this, you must be tempted to do the same every now and again,” he said.

She hesitated. Nodding yes meant admitting to theft. Shaking her head to say no meant implying she was more honest than he was. Never mind that the truth was she had no sweet tooth.

She chose instead to lower her gaze and give a shy smile. As she imagined, he read her ambiguous reaction in the way that pleased him most. Lifting her chin with a finger, he asked, “How do you like working here? I’ve been thinking of taking you off their hands.”

Maile blinked several times, keeping her face passive.

He sighed. “I forget that yes and no questions are best for your kind. Perhaps you’ll teach me some of that crude sign language.”

She gave a non-commital nod.

A flutter of impatience. “Well, then,” he said. “Carry on.”

She gave a deep bow before darting away. As she turned a corner, she caught sight of a scarlet streak and turned just quickly enough to avoid a head-on collision. Tav’s startled expression faded, and Maile kept her head lowered, making all the signs of apology that she could with her one free hand. He dismissed her gestures with a strident one of his own. When she realized the corridor was empty except for the two of them, she sized him up. Then she pushed him aside.

Always in my way! She couldn’t keep from smiling. Don’t you know who I work for?

“Of course,” he said, glancing at the ornate double doors down the hall. “Tell her I take full responsibility for the delay.”

Maile scrunched her nose. Tell her yourself.

Neither one of them moved.

“How are you?” he whispered.

Des-ni, ni-lim. Burning but alive. A common saying among masters and slaves alike.

He opened his mouth to ask another question then closed it. They turned their heads to listen. When the sound of footsteps had faded, he signed as a precaution: see you tonight?

She nodded and, without the bow expected of her, hurried away. Maile was very careful around the Calypses, but she wasn’t afraid. Her master was rarely home. Her mistress—Tav’s aunt—was just as unlikely to rise from her chaise lounge as one of its cushions. She was a slim, dark trinket of a woman, constantly plagued by fatigue. She would have been beautiful were her facial expression not so vacant.

Maile was thinking of the tea and whether it would be too cold for the sugar to dissolve. But then she remembered: everyone knew the mistress’s tea was really straight liquor. Deathface gin sprinkled with dried tea leaves for show.

As she spooned and stirred sugar into a dainty blue cup, she thought of Tav and his signing. His gestures were stiff but elegant. She knew he practiced often with Nerjuli’s youngest son; he wanted to talk to her in all the ways he could, he said.

Maile wanted the same. But she hadn’t built up the courage to ask him for what she now dreamt of daily: learning how to write. They would meet just before dusk as they did on every shared birthday. This time she would ask him. If she didn’t start learning now, at sixteen, she never would.

Instead of meeting on the beach in the open as they tended to do, Maile and Tav met in a grotto. The sun was beginning its slow descent. Around them the walls seemed to iridesce. Near the entrance ferns and flowers trickled out of every crevice. Deeper inside the cave, only moss flourished in the dim light. Pale stone walls sheltered them on three sides but couldn’t mute the sea. Sitting across from each other, they felt the waves resound all around them, like a bell or a mouth.

Tav held out a thin, circular package tied with a plum-colored ribbon. “Happy birthday,” he said.

Maile tugged one end of the bow to unmake it and removed the lid. Against the box’s deep purple interior lay rows of chocolate shards. They glittered with decorations—shredded coconut, swirls of pink salt, delicate gold leaf filigree.

When she didn’t reach for one right away, he said, “They’re not sweet. I promise.”

She gave him a wide smile. She lifted a single specimen dusted with fresh lime zest and took a bite. It snapped perfectly between her teeth. The cacao had a bitter, charred taste; an unexpected burst of moonpepper prickled her tongue as the chocolate dissolved. Tav laughed at her, and she knew her face must’ve looked absurd. She didn’t care.

She nudged the box towards him. Have some.

When she had eaten four more pieces, she made herself pause.

It was hard. She rubbed her fingers against a patch of moss. Figuring out what I could give you that you didn’t already have.

He cleared his throat. “You didn’t have to get me anything.”

I know. The pleasure of my company is its own gift.

He conceded this with a grin.

Still. She had a rucksack with her, and from it she pulled out a stack of paper bound tightly along the righthand side with twine. The cover was gray cotton stretched over a thin slice of wood. I made you a book.

Tav’s eyes widened. He took it from her and opened it.

It doesn’t have words or anything. She felt her face starting to burn. But it has pictures. From other books and postcards and old photographs. All kinds of things people have lost. There are diagrams, too. I did those. Of different machines. Some real, some imaginary.

She swallowed. He flipped through the patchwork pages with a focus she had only seen when he was drawing. When he reached the last page, he left the book open and gently placed it to the side.

I know a book’s meant to have words. Even though all this was being said in her head, she felt her throat constrict. So, I was thinking that maybe, if you have time, you might be able to teach me some things. Things to spell. And after, I could fix the book.

“It doesn’t need fixing,” he said. “And I’ll teach you everything I know.”

She drew in a deep breath. Thank you.

He took her hand and squeezed. Then he slid the book back into his lap. “The images don’t seem random. There’s a story here, isn’t there?”

Surprised, she nodded.

“Will you tell it to me?”

She moved to sit beside him and placed half of the book onto her own lap. It begins with a woman who can hear stones singing and another woman made of pearl.

Partway through, Tav had leaned back against a wall to listen without looking. He balled up his own rucksack to use as a pillow.

When Maile reached the end of the story, she tilted her head. Are you having a happy birthday?

“The happiest,” he murmured.

She reached for the plum-colored box and, after careful consideration, chose a ginger-laced slice that made her lips pucker. I had the strangest dream on my last birthday. She licked a smear of chocolate off her finger. Did I ever tell you?

Tav didn’t answer.

She watched his sleeping form. It was similar to his waking self except for a curious lack—of worry or fear or anger, she wasn’t sure. She rested her arms on her knees and her head on her arms. She would wake him in a little while. Their families would be expecting them. Soon, but not yet.

 

○ ○ ○

 

We’ll be switching soon.

It was late. Two moons swam in the sky and gave off just enough light to make out Tav’s face. Maile barely recognized the voice in her head. It was tight and gutteral, as though he were in pain. Damp, black sand stippled their tunics. She had forgotten to bring a blanket.

“It’s getting worse,” she said.

You mean harder to remember. 

Her eyes scanned the sky as though answers might be found there. “But why?”

The morning after her seventeeth birthday, Maile knew she hadn’t been dreaming. She, along with four other house slaves, had gone to sleep on thick mats of woven rush grass on a dirt floor. Seven hours later she had woken up, alone, in a large, canopy bed with a lace-edged sheet pulled up to her waist. Before she could puzzle anything out, someone had knocked on the door and asked, “Miss Suranse, may I bring in breakfast?”

In her mind two worlds lay on top of each other like layers of silk. There were two sets of street names, two sets of religious rituals, two sets of monuments to one great revolutionary leader.

There’s only one of me. And only one of you. Tav’s lips didn’t move.

“That doesn’t matter,” she said.

It does. One of me. One of you. 

She leaned against him and closed her eyes. She heard his heart pulsing through bone and velvety skin. She heard streams of air spill in and out as he breathed. Beneath all that, she heard the waves gnashing like teeth. She opened her eyes. “The sea,” she said.

What about it?

“It doesn’t change.”

He raised an eyebrow. The sea is always changing. That’s what makes it the sea.

“But its name doesn’t change, I mean. Kassouine. That’s not a word in my language or in yours.” Maile paused, thinking. “In both versions of our world, we revolted against the colonizers and chased them out. But then what happened? We fought each other, enslaved each other, same as they did to us.”

He nodded slowly. It’s like they never left.

She sat up. “What if you’re right?”

What do you mean?

“What if they’re still here? What if they still control us?”

Tav’s jaw clenched. He shook his head in disbelief. If they could do that—make a whole civilization forget themselves—they’d be gods.

“I don’t know about that,” she said. “Sounds too human to me.”

Well, whatever’s happening, we’re the only ones who see it.

“I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” she whispered. “Everyone around us … They know who I am, but they don’t.”

He didn’t know what to think.

“Tell me again,” she said.

Tell you what?

She took his hand.

One of me. One of you.

 

○ ○ ○

 

It will end. They don’t know it, but I do. Today’s master is tomorrow’s slave.

Salmir couldn’t hear Maile, but he could see her. Something about her sealed-tight expression unnerved him.

“You weren’t cheap,” he said, unable to hide his self-satisfaction. “But nothing worth having is. You’re here, and you’re mine.”

She didn’t flinch. For now.

He blinked. It was as though he had heard her. The slap took them both by surprise.

She stumbled backward. She felt heat rising in her face.

For a moment he considered her.

Maile realized he was waiting—checking for signs of resistance, inaudible or otherwise. She stood dumbly and turned herself into a thing.

His limbs loosened with relief. He moved to the bed that took up much of the floorspace in the small room. He yanked at the tight tucks until the gauzy white blanket trailed on the floor. “More inviting,” he said, turning to face her again. “Did you think I bought you for myself?”

She stared.

His face twitched; he seemed amused. A timid knock broke the silence. “Come,” he said.

A boy, no more than a year or two younger than Maile, shuffled in. He was a replica of his father in build only. Like a rabbit, he had only two instincts: to freeze or to bound away. When he spoke, she could barely make out a word. After a moment, Salmir returned his attention to his merchandise.

“My son doesn’t like girls,” he said calmly. “That wouldn’t be a problem, except he doesn’t like boys either.”

Maile’s face crumpled with confusion.

“He’ll inherit all that I have some day,” Salmir continued. “But no one will work with a man they can’t trust. And no one will trust a man who refuses to choose a side. So, I’ve chosen it for him.”

He turned to his son and gripped his shoulders. “Try to enjoy yourself. I’ll be back soon.” Salmir smiled as he said this, but the boy could not meet his gaze.

When the door closed behind him, Maile backed away. She held up her hands in a silent plea.

“He’ll know if I don’t,” the boy said. He tightened his fingers into fists to stop them from shaking. “I don’t have a choice.”

She realized that her father, who visited his other family and sent the other woman money every month, had been the same kind of man as Salmir. The same kind of terror.

No slave could choose a master. You couldn’t say yes to anything if saying no meant nothing at all.

 

Maile walked to the black sand beach in a daze.

“What happened?” Tav had arrived before her.

When she looked at him, she couldn’t make sense of his face. It seemed familiar but out of place. She also couldn’t keep still. She paced and pulled at her hair and scratched at her forearms. Her breathing grew erratic. There was too much air one second and too little the next. She felt tears beginning to gather, and she crushed her palms against her eyes.

He moved to touch her then stopped. His arms hung by his side. “Maile, please. What’s wrong? What happened?”

She stared at him, her eyes wet and unblinking. Then she opened her mouth and let out a low, rasping moan. It rose from deep inside her and sent him scattering.

He listened to her voice echoing in his head, but language was no longer part of it.

She wasn’t speaking to him, but she also wasn’t shutting him out. She was feeling too many species of pain at once. He put a tentative hand on her shoulder before embracing her. He held her until her throat swelled shut. Finally, exhausted, she let her body collapse against his. Supporting her weight, he gently sat her down. He left an arm around her waist to keep her upright. She swayed with the inhale and exhale of the tide.

She couldn’t tell him what happened—not straight out. He slowly plucked fragments of thought from the memories that flooded in and out of her.

“I’ll kill them both.” Tav’s voice was fl at.

You won’t.

“You want to show Salmir mercy?”

No. She was the quietest she had ever been in his head. I want to keep you safe.

For the first time, he found himself closing his mind to her voice. He hadn’t known it was possible, but it happened with little effort. He could still hear her, but there were a series of doors between them now, dampening the sound.

Sensing the distance, she turned to study him. Her face remained impassive.

“I know how you feel,” he said.

She stopped swaying. How could you possibly know?

“I wish I didn’t.”

The anger drained out of her. Who—she stopped.

“My aunt.”

The woman who drank herself adrift every other day. The woman who did not notice, did not have to notice the dozens of slaves under her watch who moved and kept her life moving like gears made of flesh. The woman who Maile fetched sugar for.

She felt Tav brace himself, but for what? Her disgust? Her rage? The sand beneath them, creased into the lines of her hands and feet, suddenly felt like sugary beads. She drew closer to him. If we can’t stop what’s happening to us, maybe we can escape it.

“And go where?”

Anywhere we want. The sea doesn’t change. If we get off the island, things will be different. I know it.

Tav considered this. “Would you really leave everything behind?”

Every year for the last three years I’ve had to leave everything behind. Everything except you.

He sat back on his heels and touched the sand with his index fi nger. He began to draw. “We can go before we switch back.”

Gives us just under a week.

“I can gather supplies. Food, water, clothing. No one will say anything.”

What can I do?

“I’ll give you gold. You can go down to the docks and buy passage for two on a ship leaving for the northern coast. Confirm with the seller that it’s under my name.”

She bit her lip. That’ll be an easy trail to follow.

“That’s the idea. We’ll buy the tickets, but we won’t be getting on the boat.”

Okay. She gave a sigh of relief. And we won’t need two tickets. Just one.

“But what about you?”

I’d be traveling as your personal property. They just pile us up in the cargo hold.

He rubbed his neck as though it were sore. “Right,” he said. “I forgot. I’m sorry.”

Don’t be. You’ve seen the other side for yourself.

“There’s one more thing.” He hesitated. “If we leave now, you won’t have your voice. Do you want to wait?”

Next year they would be turning eighteen. Maile glanced down at what he had sketched in the sand. It was a simple outline of their island, with a river running through its middle and a long tongue of land extending eastward. She looked towards the sea and back to the drawing. Around it the black sand beach extended in every direction. She had to believe this is what the world was like: not tiny, evanescent tide pools but an endless unfolding.

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Yan Fécu is a Haitian-American scholar and writer. She received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University and held a pre-doctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. She was a fellow at the VONA/Voices of Our Nations Arts writing residency in 2017. She is currently an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

 

No Tomorrow

Brad Rose

It’s a circular night and my blood is itchy. As soon as the now is over, I’m going to
disentangle the amnesic kilowatts nestled inside these invisible particles. The house is
still as a sleeping animal, and I’ve had it up to here with working the swing shift. Before
we moved in, I used to frequent this neighborhood every now and then, but nobody
told me about the trans-galactic data replication. It’s worse than the ground water. I
told Janine, You’d need a handwriting expert to detect that secret scenario, but she said,
Eugene, you’re no fool. Nobody pulls the wool over your eyes. I said, I’m still going to
monitor my immune system, whether they’re watching or not. I might even download the
ambient collateral vacuity organizer. You can’t trust anything you hear, and only about
a third of what you know. Just then Janine passed me the gravy boat. It was like nothing
had happened. I told her, Next week, when I get a few minutes to myself, I’m going to put
the dog to sleep. She flashed me a smile like there’s no tomorrow.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Brad Rose was born and raised in Los Angeles and lives in Boston. He is the author of a collection of poetry and flash fiction, PINK X-RAY (Big Table Publishing, 2015). His two new books of poems, MOMENTARY TURBULENCE and WORDINEDGEWISE, are forthcoming from Cervena Barva Press. Brad has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize, and once nominated for Best of the Net Anthology.  Selected readings can be heard here.

 

Muertos

Gabriela Denise Frank

On the Day of the Dead, souls of the departed return to earth to commune with loved ones. But I wasn’t at my mother’s grave in Phoenix, I was at a bar in Tucson, waiting for the parade. The silver blare of trumpets, the thud of drums, would rouse Catrina the way I wished my mother would quit her dirt bed. I pictured Catrina’s onyx eyes blazing in the dark, their spirit light catching flame. Did she enjoy the warm press of human hands as her attendants, plump and alive, thrust the shriveled stubs of her hobbled feet into shoes, and lay her body on the silk pillow to clothe her skeletal form of old driftwood and corn husks? Did she sense how gently they placed her arms, her hand bones, chipped and scattered, held together by steel wire, through the rough cloth of her dress, before stringing her up on the parade float? Did she mind the scratch of yellowed lace? La Catrina, Zombie Bride, had been revived thousands of times—could she remember what happened when they removed her from the casket, year to year? Had rats and insects gnawed her nose away? Were her mandibles reduced to desiccated straps of sinew? I imagined Catrina’s withered green tongue licking at the stringy pain of rebirth into her brittle skin, her blackened lips stretched back into a horrible smile. Could Catrina sense the burgeoning decay on the marigold wreath they placed atop her head?

Is this how you look, Mom?

I imagined death as blissful oblivion from the tedious pain and heat that was living in Arizona. Falling into cactus. Burning myself on the seat belt. The lick of my father’s belt lashing my legs. To be alive was to smell the stink of melted wax and rotting flowers at funerals.

Did my mother’s limbs ache, her lungs burn, in passing from life to death? Could my mother see me from the other side?

The day we buried her, it snowed in Phoenix. I was sixteen. Powder falling in the desert, a sonorous silence of white. A dream, yet I lived it. Six years later, the memory still troubled me: tiny snow drifts gathered in the gravel, in the shrugging shoulders of saguaro cactus, inside the tiny cups of sage-green mesquite leaves reaching skyward. Silent, and unnatural. The crystals melted with the warmth of my hand.

Six years after her passing, I missed my mother enough to hug her dead body, embrace her even if she were nothing but gristle, hair and bone. A ghastly thing. Love turns us desperate. And faithful.

 

To my boyfriend, Alan, Día de los Muertos in Tucson was merely another party, another reason to meet our best friends, Kurt and Luke, at a bar on Sixth Avenue.

“I’ll get the first round. You guys in?” Kurt asked when we arrived at Che’s Lounge.

Yeah-yeah, we nodded.

At 230 pounds, Kurt had the best chance of pushing his way to the packed bar. Alan went along to pay and carry while Luke and I held the table. Kurt and Luke were roommates, an odd couple—the hefty, tattooed ex-Marine and the over-educated ex-English teacher-slash-visual-artist—but they were both monastic in their housekeeping and got on well. The four of us had formed a close-knit party squad in college.

“You seem jumpy, Grasshopper,” Luke shouted in my ear against the din. He called me that despite being a mere two weeks older.

“I just wanna get to the parade.” I fidgeted with a snag in my secondhand jeans from Buffalo Exchange.

“You sure that’s it?” Luke said, pressing his thigh against mine beneath the table. Luke’s brazen flirtations reassured me that I was wanted. I couldn’t tell whether he actually loved me, or how serious I was about him. For years, we tiptoed at the edge of making moves on each other, laughing off our coquetry.

“Maybe,” I shrugged, sweeping the frizzy ends of my bob behind my ears.

Like me, Luke had known tragedy growing up. His dad ran off with another woman, leaving his mom with six kids to raise. His siblings, even his mother, turned to Luke, the responsible middle child, age ten, to hold them together. The side of him drawn to suffering embraced the never-ending demands of his family—the sort of obligation we Catholics revere.

“Anything I can do to take your mind off things?” he said, stroking my knee.

I fought the fuzzy, excited flutter between my legs and tried to see whether Kurt and Alan made it to the bar. There were too many people and too much clutter. Even without the crowd, Che’s was a messy labyrinth, a tumbling of cheap wicker chairs,wobbly glass-top tables and olive-drab canvas couches. The red walls made me dizzy.

“I don’t know,” I teased, running my nails up the inside skin of his thigh. “You tell me.”

“Hey now,” he said, pushing himself straight in the chair. “Watch it, Grasshopper.”

My gaze flicked to Alan, who was laughing with the bartender at something Kurt said. How long did it take to get a round of drinks?

That day, everything irked me: the high-pitched chatter of freshmen with fake IDs, the Beavis-and-Butthead heh-heh-heh of muscle-head jocks, the jostling of elbows and knees as people passed our table, the speakers squelching the opening notes of “Bittersweet Symphony,” and the squawk of waitresses shouting, “Whaddaya want?”

“Here we go,” Kurt said. He set down two pitchers. Alan followed with shots of whiskey on a tray, two for each of us.

“Día de los Muertos!” Kurt said, thrusting his into the air. His white teeth gleamed against his skin, tanned the shade of burnt sienna from the past four years at the University of Arizona. We hoisted our shots, clinked glasses and tipped the Jack Daniels into the thirsty hollows of our throats, slamming pints of beer behind it.

Alan pounded on the table, hooted and brought my chin forward to plant a sudsy kiss on my lips. I ignored Luke’s sideways glance and fell into Alan’s embrace.

 

Alan and I began as drinking buddies, always last at the bar, spouting the sort of cockeyed philosophy that only makes sense to blitzed liberal arts majors. First, we drank because we made it through finals, then we drank because we had graduated, then because we were young and bored and living in Tucson. We would have gone on trading inebriated doctrines and light flirtations, had I not broken up with my controlling boyfriend and unwittingly moved into Alan’s apartment complex the summer of ’96.

“Hey you,” he called from the second floor.

I looked up, sweaty from schlepping boxes in the blistering heat. “What are you doing here?” I said, skinning a lock of mouse-brown hair behind my ear.

Alan leaned over the stuccoed balcony, sweaty pint glass in hand, and laughed. “I live here. Wanna come up for a beer?”

He pushed his wire-frame glasses up his nose, beaming down a lopsided, friendly grin. He was funny, cute, smart. I was newly single, seeking attention—and a drink. This was damned convenient. My mild crush on him tripled right there.

We never acknowledged our dependency on good times with Kurt and Luke, the unwitting co-conspirators in our well-lubricated relationship. We didn’t speak much about anything serious. Alan was sweet and lighthearted. We partied, blacked out, never thought twice. Nothing could be worse in our small college town than sobering up to admit that, by getting serious with Alan, I was making the wrong choices.

 

Kurt insisted the view of the parade was best from Sixth and Alameda where the tunnel came up from beneath the railroad tracks. We’d have a clear vantage of LaCatrina and her tuxedoed groom waking from the dead to dance the herky-jerk with their skeleton posse.

The once-familiar street was strange with drum beats. Blue-black dusk fell hard, crushing the last sliver of orange sunset beneath billowing bullet-gray clouds. The parade route was lined with torches and policemen, the air expectant with frenzy. Hoots from drunk college kids went off like firecrackers amidst rapid conversations in Spanish, children’s shrieks, and grumbled impatience from Tucson’s elderly residents sprinkled throughout the crowd. Little girls, their heads wreathed in orange marigolds, danced to mariachi music, their dresses fluttering in the chilly air as they spun. Vendors sold frybread, popcorn, hotdogs, tacos, nachos, and cotton candy. The sweet-sick aroma of street food was set off by black plastic trash bags burping hot garbage from the alleys. Beneath the cacophony lay a harried silence; the pause before a jagged crack of lightening.

The kettle drums, skins stretched to the verge of breaking, throbbed in my chest, blunt bellows of force meeting resistance. My innards vibrated inside my wet gut, soft tissue tremors rolling with the tympani. At five-foot-four, I could barely see above the throng lining the roadway. Given the press of the crowd, which extended miles in both directions, a couple hundred thousand people had gathered.

I always felt twitchy this time of year. Halloween of eighth grade was my last night of childhood normalcy, sneaking out with my two best friends. Mom’s diagnosis came November 3.  Three years later, she went into the hospital for the last time on November 13. By Thanksgiving, she lost the ability to speak. On December 18, she died.

Years didn’t matter; it was the entire season.

The air felt splintered and dry, like it would never rain again.

“Here they come!” Kurt bellowed. The parade crew, a squadron of undead attendants in skeleton body suits, bore Catrina’s litter, leading the way with flips, cartwheels, and walk-overs that made us Oooo and Aaaah. We chanted to welcome her,“La Calavera Catrina!”

Emboldened by a sip from his flask, I grabbed Alan’s hand and pushed past a gigantic man wearing a black “IRON MIKE / IRON BITE” T-shirt with a growling photo of Tyson on the back. Tattooed on his biceps were two writhing anacondas. He seemed oblivious to the cold.

“Hey, wait!” Alan called.

I squirmed to the front of the barricade, losing his grip. My head spun from drink; I tried to focus my eyes. We called her to join us in the world of the living, to dance: ¡Despierta, Catrina! ¡Levántate, Catrina! ¡Baila, Catrina!

Catrina turned, arms raised, to survey the crowd. She howled like a wolf, long and piercing, up into the black sky. Her laughter reverberated against the concrete walls of the one-story warehouses surrounding us. Eyes searching, she was now alert, awake,baring her skeletal teeth. Her undead husband swooned her into a dip to our cheers. In life, they were Bride and Groom; in death they remained verged on their wedding night.

La Catrina shook off the stiffness of her death sleep and threw sprays of pastel candy into the crowd. I prayed for her to throw a handful at me—evidence of life beyond the grave, the sort of skulls I could catch and keep. My hands outstretched, the swell of the undulating crowd pushed my body forward, my spine threatening to snap against the wooden barricades, the force of hundreds of bodies pressed on mine as we fought for the same cheap prizes.

The crowd chanted, “Awake! Awake!” ¡Viva! ¡Viva! ¡Viva! Live, live, live! I chanted, too—privately, to my mother: Live!—through hot, fat inebriated tears. I searched the crowd, wondering if she heard me, if she had woken from her grave. She had promised, long before she was sick, that she would never leave me.

“Do you know how much I love you?” Mom said to me, slung in her lap. We curled up to read books together in bed at night.

“How much?” I asked. I loved it when we repeated these lines.

“I love you more than anyone in the world. Did you know that you’re my favorite person?” I looked up into her eyes and saw she meant it. Her words, a protective charm; her love, more home than home. “I will always take care of you,” she promised, hugging me to her chest.

There was no reason to doubt her, even in death. If I was patient, she’d find me.

On passing, Catrina’s glittering eyes met mine. “Viva Catrina!” I shouted, sparking the grace of her undead smile. The pink skulls she tossed landed softly in my hand.

 

I let Alan rescue me from the crowd after Catrina’s float went by. “Are you okay?” he kept asking, putting his arm around me. “Yeah,” I said, pulling away to wipe my swollen eyes. I wanted to hit him when he treated me like glass.

“Wanna go to The Buffet?” he asked. Our favorite dive. My cure-all.

“Nah. Let’s hit it on the way home,” Kurt said. “I’m in the mood for someplace new.”

“A place on Congress just opened—Divine or Velvet,” Luke said. “Something with a V.” He always had a line on the new clubs; per usual, we followed him.

The flat desert air made me wish I had worn something warmer than a T-shirt and denim jacket. I pulled the edges closed with the hand Alan kept trying to hold and quickened my pace. Though my head felt thick, I wanted another drink, fast.

Crossing Sixth, I glimpsed a woman who resembled Mom—tall, dark brown curly hair, olive skin. I stopped cold. Had my prayers worked?

It wasn’t her, of course. This woman laughed and put her arm around some guy. My mother lay buried, surrounded by dead senior citizens in Sun City, a 50+ master planned community, three feet away from my grandfather in the soldiers’ section. We didn’t know where else to put her; burying her by herself seemed lonely.

How the hell could I ever explain depressing, random thoughts like this to Alan, whose life revolved around music, movies, and drunken foreign exchange adventures in Europe?

There was a line outside Velvet or Divine, whatever name hung in hot purple neon script in the club’s window. Alan was entertaining Kurt and Luke with a story about getting drunk and throwing up on his sergeant during the first day of basic training in Georgia. Normally, his tales amused me, but I moved away to stand against the storefront glass of the dark stationery shop next door. I could feel the chill of my mother’s hospital room like I was still there. The cold glass at my back was reminiscent of the hard, wooden visitor chairs, impossible to get comfortable in, and the icy air conditioning of Mom’s room where I spent every night after school.

“You okay, Grasshopper?” Luke asked, putting his arm around my shoulders. His body warmed me where his torso met mine.

“Mm-hmm,” I said, trying to smile.

“Don’t believe you.”

“Not trying to fake it,” I sneered.

“Jesus. Why are you always such a bitch?” he laughed, shaking his head.

“Comes naturally,” I said, though I didn’t really want him to go.

He shrugged and returned to where Kurt and Alan stood in line. I lit a Marlboro and marveled at the lightheaded detachment that carbon monoxide conjured, watching Alan’s eyes twinkle as he launched into his next story, about partying in Koblenz: at the sight of the full moon, he peeled off his clothes and ran up a grassy hill, howling like a werewolf until his squad, unable to dissuade him, joined in. To be free like that.

Eventually, the line moved and we made it inside. I was glad the pulsing music was too loud for conversation. I tapped my feet to “Semi-Charmed Kind of Life” without the slightest desire to dance. Fuck this. Fuck the trendy blonde girls spilling drinks on me, slinking by in slutty black dresses, with their doting parents who drove down on weekends with care packages and clean laundry. I needed a cocktail. It must have been apparent. Alan brought me a Long Island Iced Tea, which I drank in one steady guzzle before polishing off his.

“Bloody hell,” he said. “Want another?”

“Sure.”

“Seriously,” Alan said, pulling his chair close, his hands on my knees. “What’s wrong with you?”

I hated his sympathy. When I was in a bad mood, his addle-brained kindness always made me feel worse. “What’s wrong with poor old me?!” I slurred. “Are you kidding? You’d never understand.”

“You always say that. Why don’t you try me?”

“You wouldn’t know what to do! You’re a—” I stuttered. How cruel did I want to get? “You’re a spoiled Mama’s boy,” I said finally. “You’ve never had it hard.”

“Well, fuck you!” he said, sitting back. “Whatever’s eating you, get over it!”

I was thrilled to see him in distress. I half-hoped he would hit me. He generally handled me better than anyone, except Mom, and for him, like her, I mostly behaved. As much as I thought I wanted a good guy, particularly after my last boyfriend, a year of Alan’s nothing-but-fair-skies love made me feel trapped. Sometimes I liked dwelling in the tidy cage of his affection, but I’d be lying if I said it always fit. It’s like he didn’t know bad things happened to good people, and that good people sometimes did shitty things. He wouldn’t like the real me. I hated him for not knowing who he was dealing with, and really, whose fault was that?

“What’s wrong with me?” I spat, my heart racing. “It’s you, with your perfect family! You grew up with everything, and you don’t even know it!”

Whenever Alan’s parents visited, they took us out to fancy dinners with expensive wine. Alan got his storytelling capabilities from his dad, an airline captain, who loved to talk about the big, drafty old Craftsman they renovated in the suburb of Chicago where Alan grew up.

His dad regaled us with tales of TITS—Tennis Invitational Tournament Spectacular—for which he made custom baseball hats with plush pink boobs on them for their otherwise buttoned-down friends. Alan’s mother told the cute stories, like about Alan’s paper route: he had rigged up a sled to their Husky dog who pulled it through the snow. Alan spent summers at camp and had more gadgets and clothes than a kid could want—plus three colleges that his parents paid for, which he partied his way out of prior to joining the military. He didn’t return to school until he turned thirty, which is where I met him. Life did not demand much from him, it seemed.

I didn’t realize until that moment how jealous I was.

“What are we even fighting about?” Alan sputtered.

“Nothing! Everything!” my voice cracked. “You have no idea how hard it is for me,” I choked. “You don’t get what it means to have no one—to have nothing.”

“You have—”

“I’ve got no mother, no father, no one to take care of me. I don’t have the luxury of screwing up. You’ve had chance after chance, and your parents always save you. Even now, at thirty-three!”

I shattered my glass on the concrete floor and stormed off, shoving the bodies of strangers from my path. They swayed back and forth, a gauntlet of human sandbags. I elbowed through with a savagery that shocked the nugget of my normally quiet self, now cowering deep in my gut.

I made my way to the front of the club, the ejaculations of, “Ow!” and, “Hey!” splashing in my wake. My eyes narrowed on the glowing green EXIT sign hovering above the front door. I wanted to punish Alan for being stupid enough to love me and I wanted to punish my mother for dying, but I mostly wanted to punish myself because pain seemed to be the one thing I could feel. Everything else—even love and sex—was dull.

I broke the portal and stepped into the night.

 

I turned off Congress, not wanting Alan to find me too easily; I was sure he was right behind me. I walked left and then right down dimly lit streets, through stagnant puddles of dumpster sluice and pools of sulphur lamplight. A volcanic rage propelled my legs into the south of downtown Tucson. I crossed lots I didn’t recognize, my mind focused on one mantra—Alan doesn’t understand, he can’t understand—pounding bruises into the meat of my thighs.

I could never really talk to my friends in junior high and high school about my mother’s death, either. They didn’t probe; maybe they thought they’d hurt my feelings by asking. I wasn’t about to offer stories about her sobbing in a ball on the bathroom floor, mourning over the loss of her breast, the ugliness of her baldness, the burnt skin of her chest from radiation treatments. When I hugged her, the gadgetry of the IV port stemming from her aorta poked me. Did she know that I backed off so I wouldn’t tug or displace it? Did she think I was repulsed by her, too?

Her last night alive—should I talk about her blue-gray pallor? Her cold, sallow flesh, spiny with dark brown hairs that pushed through the skin of her legs? That last hasp of breath, the sound of her fogging an invisible mirror? Did Alan want to know that? Did he want to hear about my father’s rage after my mother was gone? His calloused mechanic’s hands on my face, my body? Asking me to take him to the emergency room the night he thought he broke his hand swinging at me, only to punch a hole in the drywall instead? On the drive to the hospital, he told me to lie if the nurses asked me how it happened. “They’ll take you away from me,” he warned. As if that would be a bad thing.

Alan’s parents loved and cared for him above all.

I was afraid he’d see how much more I wanted them than him.

 

After Mom died, I fantasized about killing myself. Not slitting my wrists or taking pills like the Jennifers and Jessicas in high school. I wanted something awful to happen to me, outside of my control. I wanted the permission to give up, to lose, to be put out of my misery.

I started smoking when she went into the hospital, fishing used butts from the ashtray at Thunderbird Samaritan. I drank at parties until I passed out; I don’t know how I got home some nights. I dated controlling guys, went off with strangers I met at parties, had unprotected sex and a pregnancy scare my senior year of high school. An abortion my freshman year of college.

Storming out of the bar, alone, at night, drunk, on the Day of the Dead, in order to punish my goody-two-shoes boyfriend and put myself in danger—in context, what I did was understandable.

 

The spring before I turned eighteen, I stood in my bedroom, thigh-high in a herd of cardboard moving boxes, making difficult choices. Most of my beloved books lay at the bottom of the larger ones. I had reserved five favorites—The Pie and the Patty-Pan, The Pushcart War, A Light in the Attic, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and The Stand—in a smaller box.

“You’re behind,” my father growled during his stop at home that morning. He had come from his girlfriend’s apartment to shower and change clothes; he lingered at the door of my mostly unpacked room. “We move in three weeks. You’d better get your butt in gear.”

He remained at the doorway.

“And do the laundry after school,” he spat. “It’s piling up.”

I flipped him off after he walked down the hallway.

He slammed the front door, rattling it in the frame.

My father didn’t notice that I had spirited away a few pieces of my mother’s jewelry in the sealed boxes, as well as travel photo albums from her single days, a tie-neck purple blouse that still smelled of Chanel No. 5, and a hand-sized prayer book inlaid with mother-of-pearl—a present for her first Communion. After Mom died, Dad had packed away these belongings. Proof of her existence disappeared; to walk through our house, you’d never guess that she had lived with us—or lived at all. He started dating Sandy that spring. Shortly thereafter, he donated or tossed most of Mom’s things, except for three boxes at the back of his closet from which I pilfered.

Two weeks later, a van pulled into our driveway while Dad was at work. My grandmother—his mother, who we called Nanny—hired movers to transport my clothes and a few boxes containing my entire life into her house. She urged the men to move quickly. Nanny didn’t have much extra space at home; my piano, which she had bought for my tenth birthday, went to Uncle Don’s for safekeeping. My beagle, Sheba, I had to leave behind.

That day, my lineage was effectively erased. The remaining proof of my childhood, my mother, and our family of three resided in the scant memorabilia I took.

It wasn’t until that afternoon at Nanny’s house, unpacking my boxes in her guest room, that the sense of fucked-upedness descended. Neither of us said it aloud: she helped me run away from home for fear my father would beat me—or worse. The move felt sudden, though we had plotted my extraction for months.

Despite my fear of and hatred for him, I left Dad a note. I didn’t want him to think something horrible had happened to me when he returned to an empty house. Why I felt obliged to alleviate his worry says something about my sense of childhood debt, I suppose.

That evening, upon discovering my letter—when he realized that I had pretended to pack those boxes, that I had left him—he phoned Nanny in a rage. His rambling howl, recorded on her answering machine, was more animal than human. The words we could make out were, “You think you can get away with this? You’ll fucking regret it, both of you!”

That night, at Nanny’s ranch-style house in Sun City, I could only worry about the two of us: Dad was armed. A Colt .45 in the glove box of his red Trans Am, a .38 Special and a Winchester rifle in his closet. My body stiffened when a car rumbled past, its headlights sweeping yellow-white beams across the walls of what was now my bedroom. For many nights that summer, I anticipated the thud of his fists beating down the front door. Mom, buried in Sunland Memorial Park nearby, could no longer protect me like she promised.

 

I had been walking for hours. I was somewhere in South Tucson; it was past one or two o’clock in the morning. There were few areas in our college town where a woman alone would be in trouble, and I was in it. I kept going.

Nothing looked familiar. I didn’t have a clue where my anger had taken me. I was exhausted and drunk. I had to pee. I paused at the lip of an alley, looking around. Not a soul. Metal music played a few streets over, a late-night bar that I probably didn’t want to find.

I looked up at the black sky. No moon. I stepped into the alley a couple of feet, unzipped my jeans and squatted next to a stack of cardboard boxes. A warm flood of relief splashed between my feet.

Without warning, the silhouette of a man stepped into a pool of downcast lamplight at the far end of the alley.

I sucked in my breath and crouched deeper, squat-walking back against the grimy wall. Did he see me? I stretched out my legs and pushed back into the bricks so that I could stay low while zipping up my jeans. Dashes of urine wet the inside of my underwear.

I had nothing on me—no weapons, not even car keys—except my driver’s license, a pack of cigarettes, and the candy skulls inside my pocket. Cell phones, a new thing even for business people, were out of reach for broke receptionists like me.

“Hey!” the man shouted, his voice bouncing off the walls of the narrow passage. His silhouette was massive, his face cast in shadow.

I stood slowly, my legs trembling.

We stared each other down across the distance of the alley, perhaps a hundred and fifty feet. His wet eyes shone within the dark void of his face, two flashing mirrors. His hands wavered at his sides. Was he lost? Homeless?

My blood iced in my limbs as he began to walk towards me. In that moment, I felt just how far from home I had come.

Walk, whispered my mother’s voice. Go. Now. Turn and step the other way.

I pivoted, slowly, to the left and stepped one foot, then the other in the direction I had come. No sudden moves. I stepped through broken concrete and gravel where the sidewalk used to be. From behind, a heavy rhythm of sneakers slapping on asphalt—the man was chasing me.

I took off.

His grunts echoed off the shuttered storefronts. I ran, my breath jagged, my legs on fire, turning one corner and the next. I just needed to get to Kurt’s house and I’d be okay. Alan would be there. I’d fix everything.

“Hey! You! Girl!” the man boomed. He was closer than I thought. Faster! my mother urged. I ran harder, my legs surging with adrenaline. The sulphur street lamps blurred past.

Slap-slap-slap-slap!

He was behind me, gaining.

I ran up one street and down the next, 20th to Scott to 19th, turning sharp corners, hoping to lose him by zig-zagging towards the lights of the university district.

Slap-slap-slap!

How much longer could I keep this up? A searing pain bloomed in my asthmatic lungs; I regretted every cigarette I had ever smoked.

“Get back here!” he shouted again.

I ran and I ran and I ran.

 

Death was the door to a world that held my mother. It wasn’t until I ran for my life that I realized my death wishes were actually about an ease from suffering rather than a call for it.

I ran harder than I thought possible, no breath for stopping or screaming. Who would hear me, anyway? The storefronts were papered up, the office towers dark. I had a sick laugh at the four years I nearly failed P.E. for not being able to run the mile in less than fifteen minutes. If only Coach Youngberg could see me now.

My chest ached as I imagined La Catrina’s lungs burned, too, from breathing more air than a dead body can rightly exchange. Is that how my mother felt in her final breaths going down, the wretched, jagged exhales of the comatose? Don’t worry, her nurse, Michael, said in between sucking rasps, she can’t feel anything.

I cut a vacant corner and nearly ran right into a few kids my age. They had spilled out of the side door of Club Congress, their skin glistening from dancing in the small, crowded room.

“Hey!” one of the girls said when I brushed her arm.

“Sorry, this guy—” I turned around and he was gone.

I hung my head between my legs, a gurgle of sick rising in the back of my throat. The girls blew smoke and laughed at me.

“What the fuck is her problem?”

“What-ever. Freak.”

I panted, unashamed, until my heart slowed.

My hands trembling, I walked past the mumbling junkies slumped inside the Fourth Avenue Tunnel on my way to Kurt’s. Compared to what I had just been through, their gauntlet didn’t frighten me like it normally would. I kicked a path through their jetsam and turned right on Ninth.

Most of the duplexes and motor court apartments were dark. Their weedy yards, eerie in the moonlight, held graveyard scenes leftover from Halloween. The one bright spot was The Buffet Bar and Crock Pot where three men flopped face-down out front where the doorman had bounced them. The Buffet stayed open past two a.m., although God knew what time it was. The place reminded me of Cannery Row; if Mack and the boys had transformed the Palace Flophouse into a bar, it would have been The Buffet. It was one of few places in town I felt happy.

This is where Alan and I had kindled our friendship, where he taught me to hold down my first shot, where we played thousands of games of air hockey, where—on a dare—I tossed my bra over the moldering buffalo head mascot on the shiplap wall above the bar. A person could get properly drunk at The Buffet at nearly any hour of day for a reasonable price. They served hot dogs, cooked in a crock pot, plated on coffee filters with sides of chopped onion, pickle relish, and champagne mustard. On slow nights I lingered in the ladies’ room, deciphering sage advice from decades-old graffiti carved into the wall.

Ninth Street grew darker as I carried on, or maybe it was my eyes; the adrenaline ebbed from my body. Shadowed row houses paraded by slowly on the walk east, like a rotating canvas backdrop in a school play. With every footfall, I felt my moment of choice arrive.

I could dump Alan for Luke, who had no assured future beyond his art, whose affections were thrilling but uncertain as my own—or I could be smart and marry Alan, like he had been hinting at for the past few months. With my mother gone, I needed someone to save me, and he was the only person who kept volunteering for the task.

 

With Alan I knew I had the upper hand. The night of the homecoming game, that year we actually won, on the walk back to Kurt’s, I pulled off the weedy sidewalk to light a cigarette. Poof. I cupped my hand to shelter the shivering shard of bright, dipping my Marlboro into the fire. Alan and Kurt ambled on, shouting lyrics to “Bear Down Arizona.”

Luke put his arm through mine. We pushed at each other, pretending to squabble, knocking hips. He tickled my armpits. Child’s play.

Luke put his arm around my waist. I watched for Alan’s glance. I sort of wanted him to be jealous. To fight for me. I leaned into Luke’s humid body. It was too early to be as tired as I felt. The temperature hovered at 85 degrees after sundown, after we had been jumping up and down for three hours shouting bawdy cheers.

Hot air rushed out of Kurt and Luke’s side of the duplex when we opened the door.

“Wanna see something?” Luke asked. I shrugged.

“Want another beer?” Alan called at me from the kitchen.

“Yeah,” I said, “I’ll be right there.”

I followed Luke into his room. He closed the door. It was a little cooler in his cell, albeit crowded with boxes and luggage stacked waist-high. It reminded me of my childhood bedroom, only Luke was coming rather than going. Luke had returned that week from a two-month backpack tour of Africa with old school chums during which he had lost thirty pounds. He looked cuter and blonder than I remembered.

He cleared a place for me at the edge of his bed. I imagined what it might be like if he threw me down and made love to me right there. My heart beat faster. Is that what he wanted to show me? I hoped he would crush me with desire.

He dug inside a box, tossing crumpled newspaper out of the way, and extracted a soft flat package tied with string. He unrolled the parcel slowly, turning it over and over until the brown paper fell away. A small handwoven tapestry lay in his hands. He held it out to me.

Giraffes, lions, antelopes, and cheetahs, sewn in black and gold thread, lounged at a watering hole beneath a large round circle of sun. Mouth thrown open mid-roar, the lion’s red tongue held the sole dash of color. “It’s beautiful,” I breathed. He looked me in the eyes, the way guys do when they’re going to plant one on you—a queasy expression. The idea of actually kissing Luke was like going over a waterfall. I clung to the tapestry; I needed to grab hold of something. After years of build-up, he gave me the quickest of pecks, a testing kiss.

That was it?

I searched for something witty or sexy to say.

“You kissed me,” I stuttered.

“You noticed,” he said.

He broke the spell by drawing the underside of my chin to his. He leaned in, his breath passing inside my mouth, his warm, wet lips mashing mine.

Without warning, my stomach churned.

Shots of rum and tequila were fighting with the lukewarm beer I drank during the game. My hand flew to my face; I fled to the bathroom, slamming the door. Vomit sputtered out of me in slushy chunks, partially missing the porcelain.

“You okay in there?” Alan knocked. “Can I come in?”

“Yeah,” I burped, sinking to the tile while my guts churned.

Alan stroked my hair, wiped my mouth with flimsy toilet tissue, rubbed his hand on my back in circles like Mom used to do.

“She okay?” Luke asked from the hallway.

“Yeah,” Alan said. “I got her.”

 

Relief flooded through my body when I saw the front yard of Luke and Kurt’s place, painted in golden porch light. Alan’s car was out front. I had made up my mind. He would give me the family I desperately needed; besides, didn’t everyone say that you should marry your best friend?

I ignored my intuition, which said that our I-do’s would likely come undone—that I would be the one to break them. Like Catrina, I buried myself that morning, along with my desires. It never occurred to me that I had another choice that involved neither Alan nor Luke.

The shadowy man had run down a part of me, even though my body escaped. He made me feel how unsafe I was on my own. I sloughed off my independence right there in the yard, a moth-eaten fur coat left atop the trash with the rest of the dead things.

My mother was never coming back—not through magic or prayers. Her voice, conjured in the dark spells of the night, was gone. It was November 2, the red fingers of dawn beginning to scrape across the sky. I was tired of fighting and too scared to face the world alone.

Without knocking, I stepped inside to find Alan on the phone with the police. He was furious and happy to see me, hugging me and yelling at me for running off . I had to affirm for the cops that I really was okay; they were sending a squad car by to be sure.

After we hung up, I had a hard time meeting anyone’s gaze. Kurt’s scolding, followed by a bear hug, was the easiest to take; Luke mumbled that he was glad I was okay, then slunk off to his room. Alan took me into his arms with a roughness that gave me hope.

Alan kissed me, and I felt the long-ago spark from when we first dated. That exciting newness when it was just the two of us, before we revealed our romance to our friends.

Maybe it will work, a part of me thought. His protective embrace felt more home than home, or I told myself it did. That’s what I wanted more than anything. It was the first time I understood that something wrong and something right could be the same thing.

The pink candy skulls, now crushed, remained in my pocket.

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Gabriela Denise Frank is the author of CIVITAVERITAS: AN ITALIAN FELLOWSHIP JOURNEY. A writer of fiction and essays, her work has appeared in True Story, Crab Creek Review, Gold Man Review, Lunch Ticket, The Rumpus, and Front Porch Journal. Her writing is supported by fellowships, residencies and grants from 4Culture, Jack Straw Cultural Center, Mineral School, The Civita Institute and Vermont Studio Center, where this story was composed. Special thanks to Sigrid Nunez who contributed critical feedback on MUERTOS.

The Good Shepherd

Michael Nye

Every eight weeks, a Fayetteville Farms truck delivered dogs to the Sullivan farm. A six-man crew unloaded crates of canines, each worker filing into the four industrial size barns and herding the dogs into neat rows and stacks of steel cages. Pruitt Sullivan’s job was to fatten the tens of thousands of dogs, keeping them warm and fed and hydrated, fattening them up until Fayetteville Farms returned to collect them for slaughter. It was a routine Pruitt knew well, one that defined the rhythm of his grandfather’s, and then his father’s, chicken farm here in rural Arkansas for as long as Pruitt could remember.

They came in a series of semitrucks with long trailers, and from his porch, Pruitt could hear the frenetic barking. He knew he was not to interfere while the Fayetteville Farms men unloaded the dogs, but it always struck him as something he should interfere with. The men got out and didn’t mill around; they went straight to the back of the trailer, entered an electronic keycode to unlock the doors, opened it up, and led dogs out, the large ones on leashes and the smaller ones in crates. The dogs trotted with merry curiosity as if they were stars of a small town parade. These were dogs of all sizes and breeds but the majority were mutts with obvious pit bull in them.

But what really unnerved Pruitt was that the Fayetteville Farms men wore baggy green suits with thick, rotund helmets, their skin protected from the air. Like they were delivering something toxic.

The dogs were led to what had been his grandfather’s chicken houses, now converted into appropriate storage for the dogs, a series of low buildings with studded round silver ventilation fans every fifty yards in order to properly ventilate the barn during the hot Arkansas summers. On both sides of each barn was a massive bay door that could slide open like a loading dock, and this was where the men entered with the dogs.

Today, the green men were followed by a Kia sedan and from this car stepped a man of medium height, medium build, and nondescript clothes. He stood erect, hands held directly to his side. He spun and scanned the entire farm before walking briskly toward Pruitt, taking the steps to the front porch two a time. He offered his hand to shake; he wore neither a watch nor a wedding ring.

Mr. Sullivan? I’m Dr. Thomas Cook with the Fayetteville Farms Company. I’m a vice president of research and development. I was wondering if you had a moment to talk.

Of course. They shook hands and moved down the porch away from the front door. What can I do for you, Mr. Cook?

Please. Call me Thomas. How’s your operation going?

Fine. Nothing to add. I send in my weekly reports via the server. Everything I observe and record is there.

I know. I’ve read your reports, Pruitt. Very detailed. Very thorough. Is there anything you want to add? Something that you felt uncomfortable about putting in a written report?

No. Why?

Cook shrugged. Sometimes with our farmers, I find it helpful to speak in person. More of a connection, an understanding.

Pruitt frowned. His reports, using a proprietary software provided by the company, detailed the weight, body fat percentage, and heart rate of each dog, along with twenty-six additional metrics of their health. His report also included information about the water filtration system, air temperature and quality, stool consistency, and other details that were measured daily and broken down in his weekly reports with an executive summary, spreadsheets, pie charts, and bar graphs. Pruitt didn’t miss a thing. Including the fact that since Cook had stepped on his porch, the dogs, who normally barked off and on all day long, had gone silent.

You should get more exercise, Cook said, studying Pruitt’s face. You should run. Every morning. It’s just like basic. Get up, head outside, and run.

Pruitt wondered how this man knew he had served. I don’t remember enjoying that.

Running is glorious. Cook turned. He smiled out at the yard like a preacher beaming at his congregation. With our work, it’s easy to forget the simple things that make our lives so beautiful. Like the dawn. Feeling our bodies warm as we move through the world. I love to run, Pruitt. I love it so much. The way your legs burn with the effort and the steady sound of your breathing in your throat and ears. You used to run, I can tell. You should get back to it.

I’ll think about it. Pruitt cleared his throat. He sensed that Cook knew something about him, something about who he had once been and who he was now, and that this pale man was peeling something back that Pruitt wanted to remain hidden and unearthed.

You do that, Pruitt. Cook reached into the left pocket of his pressed, clean chinos and withdrew a business card. If you have any problems or concerns, you give me a call. I’m happy to help. But the most important thing, Pruitt, is that you buy a pair of running shoes and get outside every morning. I promise this will be a big help.

Pruitt said sure, took the card, and looked over Cook’s shoulders. The Fayetteville Farms green men were coming back from the dog houses, free of leashes, carrying the empty cages, their delivery work finished. They climbed into their trucks and when they turned the ignition and shifted into gear, Thomas Cook said goodbye and walked toward his Kia. Pruitt watched them leave, then stood on the porch staring into the distant Ozark hills for several minutes. Then he went inside, opened a beer, drank it greedily, sat down at his computer, and spent fifteen minutes comparing running shoes before ordering a pair that would arrive on his doorstep in just two business days.

 

The morning after Cook’s visit, the dogs started to die.

Pruitt found one of the dogs nearest the door dead, keeled over on its right side, unmoving, the fact that he was no longer alive so obvious and factual that Pruitt wondered if it was real. He moved down the rows and found that eight other dogs were dead, collapsed on their sides, their mouths and eyes rigidly open. Pruitt pulled his shirt collar up above his mouth and nose and then beelined for his dilapidated garden shed.

He returned to the dog house wearing a white surgical mask and yellow latex gloves that stretched up his forearms. The dogs bayed and barked and howled as he searched for the dead bodies, detaching their catheters, dumping their shit and piss on the stainless steel pan into the mixture of blood and pus that had come from their mouths and paws, and sliding the body out from the cage, careful not to spill their waste on the dogs below. Their rotten bodies were like deflated balloons, their tails sloughing off the body when he tried to scoop them out of the cage.

The dogs were housed in cramped wired cages stacked six high in six rows running the entire length of the house. Vulcanized bags for urine and fecal matter, coated with a chemical designed to prevent sores, were attached to each dog, and directed into a trough behind each cage where the waste poured down to a massive treatment vat at the end of the building. The dogs barked wildly at the sight of Pruitt, not, he believed, with joy or fear but with the simple awareness that his presence meant food and they were always hungry.

The food that Fayetteville Farms provided Pruitt to feed to the dogs was a formula, created in research labs using the best of modern science to synthesize the appropriate combination of proteins, carbohydrates, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals to maximize muscle growth and density in the dogs. It was also laced with a material that coated the dog’s stomachs to encourage them to eat more. All around him, stacked above his head, these dogs were overweight; if they weren’t in cages, organized by genetically tested breed and size, Pruitt doubted these dogs could run, or maybe even walk. Their bodies were both muscular and blob-like, whales with snouts and tales. Far worse than their barks was the rhythmic clatter of their stupid tails banging against the cages, a trilling drumbeat of bone on metal that amplified their state of confinement.

Pruitt dumped the bodies in a wheelbarrow. He looked up at the fans, pictured the pathway of the air pushed through the ventilation system, and wondered if the room was somehow too hot or cold. Per the company’s instructions, he kept the room at sixty- one degrees. He didn’t know how they reached this calculation. He didn’t know what was in their food, what clear chemical treatment he added to their water, why the regulations for the cages’ width, length, and height were so specific, why he wasn’t allowed to have five or seven stacks of cage. It had to be six. Which was roughly the same number of dogs he could drop in a wheelbarrow before it was full and he had to cart the dead out into the yard.

He picked a spot downwind from his house, dug a large and deep grave, spread a tarp along the bottom, and then dumped the bodies.

Despite his daily, insistent phone calls, Fayetteville Farms didn’t come any earlier. They continued to arrive every Tuesday morning. They continued to unload dogs and lead them into the cages.

Don’t y’all wanna take a look at this? Pruitt asked the man with the clipboard.

Pruitt led the foreman to the pit. Flies hovered above the rotting, chemical stench of the bodies. When he looked down, all Pruitt could make out were the teeth, twisted and grinning, like happy snarls.

Did you put this tarp down? the foreman asked.

Seemed like the smart thing to do.

Sure was. Okay. We’ll collect the bodies, and bring you a fresh tarp.

What’s the problem?

Don’t know until we get them to the lab.

Want me to change anything?

The foreman looked down at his clipboard, squinting at as if the words were written in a foreign language. He then spoke slowly, as if he was uncertain of the pronunciation of his words.

No, don’t make any changes. Average dog weight and mass are in-range. Chemical elements in the food and water are all clear. Could be the temperature, I suppose.

Pruitt pointed down into the grave. Temperature explains that? Them dogs are bloated and purple. Look like goddamn grape jelly.

The foreman looked directly at Pruitt. We don’t yet know what’s going on. I want you to keep everything the same. Same foods, same cleaning process, same temperatures.

So I get paid the same amount?

The foreman clucked his tongue. You’re paid based on the weight of the dogs we pick up for slaughter. Not for the dogs that are dead.

This ain’t my fault!

Frankly, Mr. Sullivan, we don’t know that yet, now do we?

Pruitt looked down at the grave, and made a quick calculation of how much money this was going to cost him.

My margins are already slim, he muttered.

The foreman laid a hand on Pruitt’s shoulder. It’s gonna be fine, Pruitt. You’ll see. Gonna be fine.

Not to Pruitt it wasn’t. He was up all night, sitting on his porch, the beers under his feet, shotgun leaning against the house, drinking and watching the dog houses. There was no howling, just the occasional scratch of claws against the cage, a dog shifting in place in their presumed sleep. He half expected those dogs to come barreling out of the house, a pack of Cujos, to tear his skin and muscle from his bones with their sharp, devilish teeth. Sometimes, he wished they would.

 

Three years ago a chicken flu swept across America, and even today no one could identify what caused this specific strain of H5N1, why it only attacked chickens rather than starlings or chickadees or cardinals, why it only attacked the birds that the average American ate 94 lbs. of every single year. What was clear was that chickens were unsafe and Congress was not about to export a product that could be unsafe, despite no one getting sick from American chickens in Europe or Asia.

Instead, the chicken companies just decided to change products. That three thousand dogs were executed daily struck someone as a market inefficiency that could be made profitable. The political machinations of this shift never much interested Pruitt. That’s not what he remembered about those turbulent six months when legislation was whipped and rammed through, when rebranding of food from the same people that rechristened chicken as poultry occurred, when Americans dissociated their beloved pets from the food on their plate.

What Pruitt remembered about this time was his father’s suicide. His father, the fourth generation of Sullivan men, a family that had moved from Providence to Arkansas for a large swath of land and the opportunity to live somewhere other than city slums, had at first treated the paperwork from Fayetteville Farms with earnest focus. After all, Sullivan men had a standing relationship with the company, going back decades, long before their financial contracts effectively made the Sullivan’s tenant farmers. The living room table was soon covered with paper, first slim white envelopes, then large manila envelopes, then stacks of paper filled with legal jargon and threatening letters from law firms. The pure amount of paper that corporations, banks, and law firms could generate to someone as insignificant as Pruitt’s father was spectacularly cruel.

It always struck him as peculiar that he could not remember the sound. What woke him was this sound he couldn’t recall, a single shot from his father’s .38, a shot fired by his father into his temple, standing out in the backyard in a spot that, to Pruitt’s knowledge, held no significance. It was a Saturday morning, the light creeping around the blinds of his window, and though he couldn’t locate the sound, he continued to look around his bedroom in search of a source, as if his body knew something his brain did not. It was as if his father walked outside that morning, started to walk toward the chicken coops, and then thought, why bother? His father did not leave a note. Pruitt figured that his father, who never liked to trouble anyone for the simplest of things, hadn’t wanted to burden him with one more piece of indecipherable paper.

 

Cook returned exactly one week after the first dogs died, right after Pruitt had finished a run. He had waited until the day’s heat was at its peak, the humidity pressing into his body like a hot iron, flattening him out. He found that he couldn’t run as far as he wished but that each day he ran a little bit farther, a little bit faster, and that skipping a
day of running made him feel squirrely and on edge.

You’ve been running, Cook said, staring at Pruitt’s shoes.

Every day.

It’s quite addicting, isn’t it? And invigorating. Nothing makes you feel more alive. Pruitt, I could talk about running all day long, but I received a message that you have some concerns about the dogs.

Pruitt scanned the yard, checking his 25, 50, and 100 yard markers as if he was still in Iraq. There was no one. There was a Kia sedan in the driveway and no other cars. The world was still and the dogs had ceased barking.

If I’ve interrupted your dinner, Thomas said, I can come back another time.

Pruitt thought about the pretzels he had been munching on last night while he drank beer and listened to the Cardinals game on the radio.

Now’s good. Would you like to come in?

It’s nice out. Let’s sit on the porch.

Beer?

Yes, thank you.

Pruitt pulled what remained of the case from his fridge and came out to the porch. He took a seat and handed Thomas a beer, which he opened but did not drink. Pruitt opened his beer and took a deep gulp.

So, Pruitt. What’s wrong with the dogs?

Isn’t that what your green men are for? I don’t know. I’m following protocol.

Temperature is set correctly, A/C is working. Their food is the formula y’all give me and they’re getting the right amounts. Water is filtered, unpolluted and clean, just like y’all demanded.

Cook turned and looked at the chicken houses. Pruitt still thought of them this way—chicken houses—though they hadn’t had chickens inside them in almost two years. The only noise was the steady hum of the fans that cooled the buildings.

That’s spooky, Pruitt said. Usually them dogs are barking and howling.

Dogs are different from us. They understand things instinctively that we do not.

Cook turned back to Pruitt and stared at him. Were you in the service?

Three tours.

And now you’re home.

I did my part. Now I got a chicken farm without chickens.

The food industry has changed.

My granddaddy started our family farm. Couple of chickens in a pen, and next thing you know, boom, he’s got this great big business. My daddy is who sold to y’all.

Do you ever talk about the war with anyone?

Not much to say. Thomas crushed his beer can and opened another. People always ask shit like, Did you kill anybody? Or really general stuff. What’s it like over there? They don’t really wanna know the answer. They just like being near soldiers, pretending they’re heroes, too.

Tell me.

Pruitt stilled. You know, there’s actually a lot of downtime when you’re just sitting there waiting for the next assignment, when nothing happens, and all you do is play Call of Duty and shit. And you’re not really thinking about going out there, but you’re also not not thinking about going out there. Just keep playing that game, moving your hands over them buttons, and if it goes bad, you just start a new mission. We played for hours.

Tell me more, Thomas whispered.

He could feel it, then, the way the world zeroed in on the monitor, the way he could ignore the heat and the tent flaps and sand that seemed to embed in his skin. Just keep playing those games until the sergeant said it was time to move out. Not peaceful, exactly, but cocooned off from a world that required his full attention.

Pruitt wasn’t sure how long he talked but when Thomas said, Well, Pruitt, thanks for talking to me, I’ll be seeing you, it was like a trance had been broken. On the floorboards were eight empty cans of beer; Thomas’s remained untouched on the railing. Pruitt staggered upright and watched the Kia pull out of the driveway, and once the car was around the bend, the dogs began to bark and howl.

 

Soon, Dr. Thomas Cook appeared on Pruitt’s porch every Wednesday night. He would knock on the door and politely decline to come in, preferring to remain outdoors. He asked Pruitt to turn on the Cardinals game, though he otherwise never showed any interest in baseball. Pruitt would open a beer and hand it to Cook, and he would always graciously say thank you, then never fail to not take a sip. He always stood, his ramrod posture like a sentry. And Pruitt would talk.

He talked about his deployment. He talked about the desert, the inexplicable heat, the weight of all that gear he had to carry on his back. He talked about the first time his squad was attacked, and how chaotic it was to have bullets zipping around his body, to not know who was firing at him, or from where, or when there was an explosion, there wasn’t fire and bright oranges and reds but just dust, so much dust, clouds of it rolling over him, coating the back of his throat. Pruitt had never been wounded in combat, a fact that always seemed to surprise people back in the States. His friends had died, some immediately from an explosion, one moment there and the next gone in that cloud of dust, others slowly in triage from shrapnel or bullets that couldn’t be dislodged from their pale, skinny bodies. I don’t feel lucky, he said to Dr. Cook, or blessed or anything. The whole thing made no sense.

Not that it made any sense when he received his honorable discharge and returned to Waldron, Arkansas, to discover that his family no longer owned a chicken farm, but a dog farm. His grandfather, oxygen tube in his nose, dying from the lung cancer brought upon him by a lifetime of Marlboro Reds, explained that Fayetteville Farms offered more money, a lot more, if they signed a contract to provide their chickens exclusively to the company.

So we’re tenant farmers? Pruitt asked, running his hand across his still military short hair.

We’re partners, his grandfather wheezed. Not the same thing.

Contract don’t read that way.

Your father and I agree. This is the best thing to do. We can’t afford the land we’re on and we can’t afford to compete in the market as individuals. This is a guaranteed income.

You sure?

Goddammit, you weren’t here, were you?

Pruitt shrugged and spit tobacco juice off the porch. His grandfather shook his head, the tubing around his nose remaining firmly in place. He had a blanket over his legs despite the fact that it was early summer.

We will be fine, his grandfather said. Your father knows what he’s doing.

Three months later, his grandfather was dead, and Pruitt and his father were the sole proprietors of a chicken farm, where every eight weeks, a Fayetteville Farms truck would come to pick up chickens for slaughter, the terms and conditions of the chicken houses built to their specifications based on the best science. Fayetteville Farms, of course, did not pay for the necessary upgrades: that was on Pruitt and his father. They took out bank loans and for a few years, the money was good, the work was straightforward. Everything about their financial arrangement was just fine. Until one day, like high winds and storms that suddenly form into a tornado, it wasn’t.

 

What happens to those dogs? Pruitt asked.

Thomas smiled thinly. They’re slaughtered.

I know that, I mean, you know, how.

I see, Thomas focused on a point over Pruitt’s shoulder. It’s quite elegant. We control all facets of meat production now. We collect dogs from shelters all throughout the region, check their health, then bring them to you. We genetically test their breed, or breeds, as it usually is with mutts, and scientifically determine the best food for their size in order to optimize growth. That’s why your houses are so different, why particular breeds are taken to particular houses. We want to make sure they are eating the proper mixture of carbohydrates, proteins, and amino acids. We transport these dogs to you, you feed and care for them for eight weeks, and then we bring them back to the plant, where they are funneled into chutes.

Chutes? Like a slide?

It’s beautiful to see, the efficiency. Thomas’s eyes were glassy. The dogs are hung upside down on hooks and decapitated, then skinned. They travel down a line for disassembly. People in hairnets and white aprons and white masks and white hats cuts them apart by hand. Then we take the meat and batter it, cook it, and freeze it, sealing the product in airtight bags. Then we ship them to the appropriate markets.

Don’t seem right. Thomas stood very close, towering over him, and a tremor of fear bubbled through his chest. I just want to live in peace.

And you will, Thomas said. You always will.

He was lightheaded, feeling weightless and unsteady. He set his beer can down on the arm of the chair.

Something ain’t right, Pruitt said.

That is so true, Pruitt. That is very, very true.

The dogs were quiet. No scratches, no sounds. Pruitt rolled his head back. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, it was dawn. Thomas’s car was gone. Around his feet was a larger collection of beer cans than Pruitt remembered drinking; there was even an empty bottle of Old Crow floating in the cooler water. Did they drink whiskey? Pruitt’s vision fogged, and he stumbled into the kitchen and made toast and drank orange juice and tried to shake the visions from his head, the visions of dogs attacking him, his legs churning, feeling teeth grip his flesh and pull the muscles from his bones.

On the morning of his father’s suicide, Pruitt had slid out of bed and tugged on the jeans and t-shirt he found on the floor directly next to his bed, the discarded pile of a drinker. He thumped barefoot into the hall and down the stairs, his mouth dry and cottony. He drank two glasses of water from the kitchen sink and then went to the coffee machine, freshly made but only half filled, and assumed his father had been up for a while. His father had always been an earlyriser. Pruitt poured himself a cup and set it down on the counter. He stared at it for a moment, chewing over the idea of pouring a splash of bourbon into it, aware that his was the behavior of a drunk, and yet the idea gripped him like a fist, and he didn’t quite know what to make of this desire, this need.

He picked up his coffee. No bourbon. He stepped out on the back porch and took a long gulp of the hot coffee, savoring the way it almost burned his throat. He held the chipped Razorbacks mug with two hands and leaned against the railing. It’s pretty here, he thought, a thought as clear and sonorous in his mind as the desire of bourbon had been just a moment ago. Funny how the brain works. He shook his head and lifted the mug to his lips. When his eyes were over the mug’s lip, he saw something in the yard that didn’t look right. His thoughts slowed. This was a shape. This was the shape of a man. This was the shape of a man that resembled my father. This is my father. What’s he doing in the grass? Why isn’t he moving?

Pruitt always came back to, this moment of indecision. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had known his father shot himself; the bullet that went into the right side of his father’s skull had killed him instantly. And the grief he felt, the type of terrifying bone wrenching he would feel for months, even now, sometimes, as he walked away from the dogs and back to his father’s home, would always remain, would always be unavoidable. There was nothing to do. Yet, Pruitt could not shake the belief that his hesitation, his inability to see his father in that moment, was a character flaw so deep and intractable into who he was that he could not help but puzzle over it, turn it in his hands, feel the hardness of this enigma, and study this flaw with inexhaustible patience.

 

As the summer dragged into autumn, Pruitt watched his bank account dwindle. Fayetteville Farms set the price for its dogs based on weight, and when there were fewer dogs, there was less money. The men in the green toxic waste suits continued to collect the dead dogs, continued to deliver new ones, continued to get their data reports from the computers that helped control the dog houses. All of it was programmed by Pruitt: the automated feeders, the ventilation systems, the water lines, the thermostats, and he had been following the guidelines with precision. And still dogs were dying.

Pruitt hadn’t been sleeping. He might as well be in the desert again. Now when he brought the dead dogs out, he knew the living are barking and growling not at the corpses, but at Pruitt. It was his fault. All of this was his fault.

It was late October and Pruitt sat at the dining room table, the entire surface covered in paper—bank statements, legal threats, credit card statements, torn envelopes, foreclosure warnings—and in front of him was a plate with a half-eaten Pop Tart. He didn’t know what to do: his mailbox was filled daily and his phone rang all day, always unanswered, from numbers he didn’t recognize. His voicemail was filled; he didn’t even bother with his email. All across the area, chicken farmers had gone bankrupt. His father had seen that coming for years. But the dog farm was supposed to be the way out of his problems. How did he not see this coming?

 

When the dogs stopped howling, Pruitt knew that Cook was here. He sat upright and listened carefully for the sounds of the Kia crackling along the gravel, of footsteps, of a doorbell. There was no noise. He had a sudden, powerful wish to have his gun. When Cook knocked, Pruitt took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and then said as loud and calm as he could, Come in.

Cook entered, the screen door batting once against the frame, and he looked down the hallway into the darkness before turning and facing Pruitt. He smiled at Pruitt, then smiled at the papers covering the table. He stepped closer and stood tall and true at the opposite end of the long table, and wrapped his fingers on the nearest chair. It’s not over yet, Pruitt.

I’m broke, Thomas. Can’t make the payments.

There is always a solution, Pruitt. Always. You just have to think through your problems, consider the possibilities. Look at Fayetteville Farms? Chicken, beef, pork. What to do, where to go. Why not dogs? Why not a different type of meat? Who would have thought of that? Only a company unwilling to break, unwilling to say ‘It’s over.’ Do
you see my point, Pruitt?

The dogs are dying, Thomas. It ain’t my fault.

Cook released the chair and walked along the side closed to the windows. He ran a finger along the table as if checking for dust and when he was close, he stopped and made a fist.

Did you really do everything you could, Pruitt?

Sweat ran down his face; he was hot and cold at once, his skin sticky. Yet, he could not move, as if his limbs were no longer a part of his own body. Fear gnawed at him. He thought about the papers he would have to sign to declare bankruptcy. All of it would be gone: his grandfather’s land, his father’s business, his entire life. It had been just six months, barely a half year, since the first group of sick dogs had arrived.

I’m lost, Pruitt said.

Thomas smiled cruelly at Pruitt. He raised his fist, uncurled his fingers, and placed his hand on Pruitt’s shoulder. His touch was shockingly cold and a tremor of shame ran through Pruitt’s chest. I’m sorry, Pruitt blubbered, I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.

I know you are, Pruitt. But what I want to hear is what you’re going to do about it. Break down to build up. Do you see? Do you understand?

Pruitt raised his head and looked the length of the dining room table, across the hallway, beyond the dark family room, and out the window into the woods. With a calm whose source he could not find, he said, Yes, I understand.

Good. Pruitt released his shoulder and without another word turned away, crossed the room, walked out the front door, and drove away. Pruitt sat with his hands in his lap, listening for a long time to the silent night, before rising and walking through his house to turn off every light. He showered, shaved, and then slipped naked between his sheets and stared unmoving at the ceiling until he fell asleep.

In his nightmare, there were shadowy figures outside his blinds. The silhouettes moved toward his air conditioner, lifted and opened a sack, and tilted its mouth down into the vent. The air conditioner kicked on and the machine blew a thin white powder into the room. Poison. Pruitt knew it was poison. Yet his legs were paralyzed. He kicked and kicked and they refused to move. The cloud drifted toward him, swimming like it had arms, like it was gently paddling over to his face. When he opened his mouth to scream, no noise came out. He tried again. Nothing. He stretched his jaw as far as he could and screamed from the pit of his stomach, a burn rippling through his throat, and an ear-piercing silence filled his ears.

Pruitt sat up. He was awake. Sunlight laddered through the blinds. He was soaked in his own sweat. He bolted to the window, fingered open the blinds, and saw the driveway was empty. He pressed his forehead against the pane, the cool October air making the glass soothingly cold. Pruitt tapped his skull against the pane. Then he did it again, harder. He heard the glass crack.

Pruitt pulled on his jeans and work boots and went into the living room. He took his shotgun from the closet, loaded the weapon, and pocketed extra shells. He ripped open the front door and aimed the barrel out into the yard. He checked his 25, his 50, his 100, and the treeline. No one. The stench of his own sour breath filled his nostrils. He stepped outside, and when he was certain there was no one waiting for him, he raced to the nearest dog house.

He entered and immediately the barking began. He logged into the computer and tapped in his code. The lights turned on. Pruitt keyed in his command. The monitor stated, Are you sure? Pruitt confirmed it, and all the low level cages sprang open. Pruitt scrambled between the rows, and reaching behind each dog, unlatched the catheters from their hinds. The stench was horrible. The dogs staggered out of their cages and snarled. Pruitt went from cage to cage, unlatching each dog. He climbed up the ladder and detached each and every dog. His hands were covered in shit, piss, and blood, and he wiped it off on his jeans and jacket until it no longer did any good.

Still carrying the shotgun, he strode to the CAT and turned the key. He turned the forklift toward the cages and brought them down as many at a time as he could. The dogs stumbled out of the cages; some fell out, some limped, some collapsed on the concrete floor, their tongues panting out. Some of the dogs in the cages were already dead. A few dazed dogs stumbled out through the open barn door and stood sniffing the Arkansas air.

Run! Pruitt screamed. He fi red two shots into the ceiling. The dogs howled and scattered into a semicircle, staring at Pruitt. It didn’t matter. They would know. They had to know. Pruitt raced to the second house, looking back over his shoulder at the pack of dogs standing uncertain on the field.

He kept thinking he heard sirens—police cars, fire trucks, he didn’t know what— but no one came. Nothing stopped him from dislodging all the dogs, from emptying all the cages, and then there were thousands of dogs, thick and muscular like small bulls, not running for their freedom but standing in confused groups surrounding their cages. Pruitt, covered in the waste of dying and deceased dogs, stood and watched as their muzzles turned up toward the sunless sky, their nostrils tremoring with the distant smells of the Ozarks. Not a single one barked. The silence of the dogs was unnerving and Pruitt knew he stood with his mouth open, that he wore an incredulous expression of amazement and fury and horror. Why did they stand there? Why didn’t they run?

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Michael Nye is the author of two books, the story collection STRATEGIES AGAINST EXTINCTION and the novel ALL THE CASTLES BURNED. His writing has appeared in American Literary Review, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Epoch, Kenyon Review, and The Normal School, among many others. He is the editor-in-chief of Story.

The Real Housewife of Orange County

Paul Tran

He forked a cube of tofu and stuck it in
his pretty mouth. The sound of him
chewing. Clink of metal against the ceramic
I later cleaned, have always cleaned, can
already see me cleaning, like the good wife
I am. I listened to the ceiling fan—loud, then
soft, then loud again—above us, its blades
cleaving hot June air. Air so dry and mad
that it ignited everything it touched.
He’ll remember this. His hand slamming down
like a gavel when I said his friend can’t stay
with us. When he said divorce. When I said no.
When he shoved himself away from the table,
lifted his body, full of kindling and want
for smoke, into the heat threatening the hills,
casting its glare on little houses like ours,
and went to bed because he needed to lie down.
And I, still sitting where I was, where I’ve been
all my life as a woman, thought
how only part of everything he says is true.
Lie down? No. My husband needed a lie.

So I emptied his plate. I ran the hot water.
I poured dish soap onto the sponge and began
my immaculate work. Holy Mother.
Blessed Virgin. I waited for the Ambien to kick in,
for his ragged, roaring snores
to disrupt my silent devotion, and then, only then,
did I wash my hands. The judge said I was callous,
calculated, cold. Like my husband, he only got some of
it correct. I’m not callous. It was too hot to be cold.
Calculated? Indeed. I counted. Each yard of rope,
each knot I tied, and then I tied the knot once more.
I’m careful. Men don’t appreciate that shit.
Men like words like bitch. Cunt. They say
Honey, I’m home. Immediately a dog runs stupid—
breathless to their feet, licking the muck
off their shoes. Did the prosecutor think about that
when he demanded for me a life sentence?
Revenge. Aggravated mayhem.

My husband woke. I removed his pants. I took
a ten-inch knife and hacked off his dick.
I carried it into the kitchen. I almost kissed it
goodbye. I remembered each time he forced it
in me. Men who learn to be men from men
never learn. You want be man? You want hole?
Here hole for you.
I shoved every inch
of him—which wasn’t much—into the garbage
disposal. I turned it on. There was blood and skin
and what sounded like a throat opening, choking,
but, of course, no cum. There’s hardly ever any.
Pity. I should’ve known, all those years ago,
when I mistook union for love and love for
someone willing to push my hair
away from my face in the dark when we turn
back into animals, that marriage would be just
that: two animals in a cage, starved
for the other’s meat. I’m not afraid of death.
I have been born twice. First as Que Anh.
Second as Catherine. Saint of Alexandria.
Saint of the Wheel. Saint imprisoned and scoured
until the streets ran red as my hands. I wiped
my hands and reentered our bedroom. There
he was. Crying. He cried the whole night.
Whole? He’ll never be whole again.

                                                            For Catherine Kieu

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Paul Tran received a Ruth Lilly & Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship and the Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. A Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow in The Writing Program at Washington University in St. Louis and Poetry Editor at The Offing Magazine, their work appears in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, and elsewhere.

Benediction as Disdained Cuisine

Jihyun Yun

Give me now

what scalds and reeks.

Give me chilis and garlic raw.

Give me dropwort

and chrysanthemum greens.

Buckwheat and tea. The bite

of a well ripened kimchi.

Let me wrap my meat

in what others mistake

for spoil. Let me unearth months

-old jars of ponytail radish,

turned just so, and bless

rice with its sunny juices.

Give me that funk and meju pungency.

Give me fried corvina that stares

vacuous as I eat, its mouth lolling

and toothen. The egg-sac nestled inside,

give me that too. Pouch of possibility,

multitude and sweet. So crisp the

oil-puff ed dorsal fi ns, the tail fi ns.

How good the fl esh off the cheeks.

The grease off blistered scales.

Give me now what disgusts.

Grilled tongue and entrails fat

with what you call digestive gunk

and I call gold. Fiery chicken

feet with the nails neatly trimmed.

Minutia of bone. Spit and keep eating.

Give me stink. Give me pig skin

dipped in powdered grain. Give me krill

and pickled octopus: blood-hued,

suckers up and gaping. Food

that makes you honor what was killed

in your name. Vein of the cod roe.

Blistered hair of the intact hock.

Evidence of bodies carved from.

What makes you clasp your palms

to your nose is the bell that calls in

my hunger. I don’t care anymore

what you think. Give me sesame oil

and fat. Give me bloodied and raw.

The white broth of famine food.

Food made to last. To transform

with the seasons. To survive

other nations. Give me all

I avoided so long for your sake.

Give me my heritage back.

Give me refuse and I’ll make it

worthy. Let me suck meat off the shell

of every animal you won’t eat.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Jihyun Yun is a Korean-American poet from California. A Fulbright Research Fellow, she received her MFA from New York University in 2016. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bat City Review, Adroit Journal, Poetry Northwest, and elsewhere. A winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, her full-length collection SOME ARE ALWAYS HUNGRY will be published by The University of Nebraska Press in September 2020.

Birth of Cool

Rita Banerjee

Lauren played her Gibson on the phone for me. Voodoo Child. Learning Hendrix one blistered finger at a time. Stairway to Heaven. A poster of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant hung on her bedroom wall. Plant made love to the microphone in his too-tight jeans and denim jacket. His threads hadn’t been washed in decades. Neither had he. His hair was a total mess: wastrel, lion, drunken boat. His stance suggested everything hot and sticky and full of sweat. Plant sang as if his life depended on it. As if Page were a living siren: all dark curls and velvet. Soft everywhere. And cool where it mattered. Who was the devil and who the angel here? Their hair, their dishabille, their guitar riffs, their primal screams. What were Plant and Page selling to us, neo-nostalgic teens of the ’90s? Was it sex or something else? A taste of barely contained passion or total apathy? Whatever it was, it became the object of our attraction, our envy. Could a woman ever be so decadent? So illustrious? So free?

Lauren bent over her guitar and strummed, as if she were searching for an answer, as if the metallic edge of her Gibson could vibrate to the right pitch of cool. Her mom had immigrated from Hong Kong and her dad came from nowhere Zen, New Jersey. They spoke Cantonese on the phone together when they wanted to keep their secrets secret. But Lauren, always listening when she shouldn’t have, found out that her mother was pregnant anyway. Her father played in garage bands. He was born with an electric guitar. And so was she. When our history teacher went around the class and asked what kind of music do you listen to? I said, “Garbage,” and Lauren, “Hendrix.”

At her sweet sixteen, we sang “Landslide,” in an improvised, acoustic harmony. Her living room, surrounded by turn-of-the-century Qing chests and miniature lacquered paintings, felt like a recording studio that afternoon. Red cushions, low lights, and dark walnut furniture. A makeshift cabaret for a bunch of girls, barely legal. Gillian with her dark hair and half-smile, belting out the lyrics louder than anyone else. As if she were Stevie Nicks, herself, and knew the truth about pain. Her parents had divorced. Ours just seemed to fight all the time. So Gillian held the honor of being part mystic, part witch in our tribe.

At another sweet sixteen, Maddy sang, “I Will Survive,” and we girls danced primitive, like women, as if our lives depended on it. What heartaches had we experienced? What did we know about life at sixteen? Most of us hadn’t seriously been in love yet. With a man or a woman. We were just beginning to learn what it meant to come of age. To gaze into the future. To gaze back, an old crone, towards all the mistakes and milestones of our life. And what we saw, at sixteen, frightened us. We were experienced. We sang Fleetwood Mac, Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin together in Lauren’s living room, as if classic rock could keep the future at bay. As if these staged rebels in their infinite costumes, postures, and expressions of cool could save us. Save us from becoming adults. Save us from becoming women. Save us from a million taboos and stigmas and haunting forms of socialization.

“Darling go make it happen,” Lauren’s voice picked up tempo on the phone, “take the world in a love embrace.” Her guitar kept up the song’s dirty rhythm and twanged just when it mattered. I tried to impress her by playing back Joplin, Brubeck, Bach, Beethoven, Yann Tiersen, different time signatures, and chord progressions on the piano. In the ’90s, we spent so many afternoons like that. On the second line just for us: chatterboxes, klutzes, not yet agents of our lives. Girls. Our songs fused and interrogated one another. They hardly made sense. But that’s how we were. She and me. Latchkey kids. Part-time musicians. Like a true nature’s child. Our jams short-circuited every style in history.

I’ve been obsessed with cool as long as I can remember. Of all the things I’ve desired and chased in my life—an education, a lover, art, independence, a room—no, a voice of my own—the thing I’ve chased the most has been cool.

Casually during office hours, Harriet Davidson once told me, as she looked up from a sheaf of Langston Hughes poems she was studying, that she’d made a realization. “These poems, you can’t study them according to the metrics of Anglo-Saxon verse or literary theory.”

I faltered as I made my way across to her desk. “No?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “they belong to another category. Another language. Another body. Something much more—”

“Cool?” I offered.

“Yes, cool.” She looked back at the poems, and then up at me in my fitted red and black striped shirt over boot-cut blue jeans. I wore my favorite embroidered bottle green velvet jacket to complete the ensemble. There was a pin on the lapel. The flat circular button had a large earth in its center—all blue ocean, green-gold land, and wisps of clouds. Around the globe in big black letters was the chant: War on the World—Not in Our Name. It was, after all, early Spring 2003. The wars on Afghanistan and Iraq had just begun.

“What does that word mean to you?” she asked me quietly.

“Cool?” I looked at her, surprised. My fingers brushed against the edge of her desk. There were stacks of paper everywhere. She was neat and tidy and organized and quiet. What did she know that I didn’t? What did cool mean to me?

Everything,” I wanted to say. But after a beat, I threw back the challenge. “What’s cool anyway?”

Professor Davidson looked back at the Langston Hughes poems under her hand. For a moment she looked as if she were scanning them for the feet that were just not there.

And then, as if she stumbled across an answer to a problem she didn’t know she was solving, she said that declaring someone or something as cool was another way of saying, “I like your artifice.” That cool, whatever it was or is, depended on what was artificial. That cool was something totally constructed, totally manicured. But cool’s very existence suggested effortlessness. To be cool meant to perform for the world. The performance could be outrageous or the epitome of restraint. Cool meant being aloof. Cool was striking. Cool meant being more animal than human. Cool suggested carelessness and a loss of control. But cool never lost control. Cool was much more clever. Cool had energy, attraction, and passion to spare. Cool was always just an arm’s length away. Everyone wanted Cool. Everyone wanted to be Cool. Cool was used to it. Cool knew what it meant to be an object of desire, to be desired every time, but to never be owned.

My grandfather was the epitome of cool. He would cruise around the courtyards of St. Xavier’s College in his glossy black Ambassador. Driving in-slow motion like a gangster in a rap video—only this was 1953—he left his windows open, his fedora askew, his dark-rimmed glasses covered by the tilt of the brim. He kept his cigar, half-burnt in his left hand. As he turned the wheel, his watch slid out from his checkered cuff. Elbow cocked out of the window. Dark suede shoes. A three-piece linen suit. Always pressed. Perfect. Whatever cool was, he had it. The Ambassador rolled through the gardens of St. Xavier’s College like a panther on the prowl, waiting for the kill. He showed up each morning exactly five minutes before the eight a.m. bell. His students loved him. He knew how to do it well.

During my first semester studying Comparative Literature in Cambridge, we found ourselves knee-deep in theory. Everyone we studied had something to say or deconstruct about empire. One day the debate in class centered on the influence of literary theory and criticism on culture studies, media, and the American political sphere.

“When we study these theorists, we see how broad their shadow of influence can be,” Christopher Johnson nodded, astute and angular, in front of the class. “In comparison to these critics, who have introduced the language of conceptual thinking into our contemporary art and media, artists rarely change our daily vocabulary, themselves. Few, if any, artists have given us the critical language necessary to study and understand culture. Romanticism. Modernism. Postmodernism. Structuralism. Postcolonialism. These movements have been named by critics. From Plato to Aristotle to Spinoza and Freud, theorists have given us the language and tools with which we understand the world: epistemology, catharsis, ethics, eros, thanatos. Artists, though they may be visionary creators of content, rarely, if ever, name the world.”

As Christopher finished his speech, a slow, sinking silence filled the room. None of us, nearly all in our early 20s, dared to speak after his pronouncements. And as if we were in a scene from an old Hollywood movie, the wind came in from the open seminar windows and taunted us by shifting through our notebooks and papers. It was as if the death-knell for art was being rung, without reserve or irony, in one of the most powerful universities in the country.

As a recent MFA grad and closet writer, I raised my hand in that wordless pause. My arm moved up in a jerky and hesitant motion like it was more android than human.

“What about Miles Davis?” I said.

“Excuse me,” Christopher looked up from his notes, and his dark-rimmed glasses focused on me across the room.

“Miles Davis is an artist who changed the world,” I said, filled with all the quiet determination and naïveté of youth.

“Meaning?” Christopher tapped his dark-blue pencil on his lecture notes, signaling it was time to move on.

“His album, The Birth of the Cool, it changed our lexicon forever.”

“How?” My opponent leaned back now, ready to watch me make a fool of myself.

“Davis introduced to us a taste for cool, and made us crave it. He may not have been the first to use the term. There was Lester Young with his hipster chic and Theolonius Monk with his dissonant, even sorrowful jazz. But Davis and his album made cool a household name in America. A swag, a style. His music shimmered with playfulness, passion, and restraint. As a trumpeter, who improvised but knew the tricks of his craft well, his music walked the line between danger and daring. Listening to his music speak, he made us want to walk that line, too.”

Christopher crossed his arms.

“Everything we value, from Marx and Coca-Cola to MTV and ‘Image is Nothing’ is posited on cool. Postmodernism. The Cult of the Author. The Death of the Author. Chomsky. Foucault. Theory, itself. Aren’t all these forms of modern knowledge propelled by our desire to be and capture what’s stylized, artificial, beyond reach, and thus, cool?”

Christopher did not nod in encouragement.

“Jazz, grunge, hip-hop, reality TV, 24-hour news, commercials for the Super Bowl, war and superhero movies—aren’t these forms of modern media standing in the house that Miles Davis built? Davis gave us a means to define 20th-century style and its 21st-century remix. He gave us a name for our yearning, for everything seductive, familiar but not enough, of the moment, changeable, and thus, essentially cool.”

Except for my odd outburst, the classroom remained eerily quiet.

“Aren’t we all living in the shadow of artists like Miles Davis? Aren’t we all living with the vocabulary and taste for cool they gave us?”

“Yes,” he said, ever so quietly, after a beat, as if he were conceding, reluctantly, to the idea that a single artist, an experimentalist, an individual who had played consciously with aesthetics and form, could indeed affect world culture. As if theories of art and culture were made, not by the Académie française or at Harvard University, but by ordinary players, whether they were from the streets or from the suburbs. Who could be equally articulate with their art. Who could spend an evening jamming in a studio, a nightclub, or a garage, and create a sound that could alter the behavior of a crowd. Whose aesthetic could question a value system. Who could turn art into a language, in and of, itself.

A few years earlier, when September was still kissed by summer, we found ourselves equally free and bored.

That morning the sky gleamed topaz. Not a cloud in sight, true, but all I could think of was a film. I was headed to my journalism class. That autumn, I was moonlighting as a journalist after quitting my engineering program, and I’d spent my entire summer trying to convince my parents that a life dedicated to writing was a good idea. My father was convinced I’d end up a pauper.

“You’re as far away from Bohemia as you can get in this country,” he said over a particularly fraught dinner one night. “This isn’t Paris in the ’20s, this isn’t Kolkata in the ’60s. Nobody wants to starve here. Just look at the people around you.”

My eyes flickered to the evening news humming on the TV. The clip featured a series of interviews with New Jersey and New York locals who were all complaining about the unexpected surge in gasoline prices over the summer.

“Did the surge have something to do with Bush and his cronies in the oil industry?” a particularly portly man in dad jeans and a moustache wondered.

“See,” my father continued, not paying attention to the politics playing out on the screen, but to the people, and what he saw on their round faces. “They’re not thinking of starving. They are not even thinking about creating art.”

My dad, ever practical, was worried that I’d fall off of the bourgeoisie bandwagon and land, instead, in dead space as a writer. When I told my journalist professor about my parents’ concerns during office hours, the same one who was lecturing us on cool that morning, he asked without hesitation, what I wanted to do after I graduated.

“My dream job is to be a writer,” I said.

His eyes brightened. “Great, a journalist?”

I shook my head. “I’d really like to be a literary writer. A novelist or an essayist. Maybe even a poet.”

“I was a dreamer in college, too,” he chuckled, “good luck with that, kid.”

And just like that our heart-to-heart was over.

So while I fought over my future with my parents and advisors, and compromised by telling everyone that I’d get a “real job” in journalism, Lauren, my Voodoo Child best friend, spent her summer much more chicly. She’d had her first internship in New York City. On Wall Street. And spent her whole summer in pencil skirts and fitted blouses. Tailored jackets and pussy bows. Her father’s best friend, who worked in finance in Lower Manhattan, took her out to lunch often. They’d have sushi on Tuesdays, fresh éclairs on Wednesdays, and dined at the best Italian restaurant last week. All this while watching the hustle and bustle of New York from their large window seats in Lower Manhattan. Life had never been so delicious or thrilling.

If envy had a name, I would’ve called her Lauren, especially that summer after our freshman year. My ears turned red when she told me her stories about the elevator ride up to her company office on the twenty-first floor. Lauren interned at a hedge fund there. Wall Street was full of stockbrokers and businessmen, sure, but there were also lawyers in her building. She told me how several of the young men in their sharp suits would strike up a conversation with her. The gilded lobby and art deco elevator of her building were places to mingle and to meet-and-seek.

And by the time college started back up again, Lauren was breathless.

When I told her about my crush on Tom, a tall but scrawny senior and English major, who was a writer and also in my Japanese class, she simply waved her hand in dismissal.

“You should have seen this guy in New York, Rita,” she whispered, her feet stretched out against the wall as she lay on my dormitory bed the night before, “he had these ripped arms. Like an orangutan.”

“And were they equally furry?”

“Rita!” Lauren laughed. “I didn’t get that close a look!”

“But you wanted to.”

“Hmm,” she paused, rolling to face me. “Kinda, because you could see his biceps through the buttoned-up shirts he wore. Sometimes even through his jackets.”

I chewed on my pen and looked at my chicken-stick arms, and then turned back to the notebook open on the floor. “Intriguing.”

“He asked me out!”

“He did?” I dropped my homework. She had my attention now.

“Yeah, he got off the elevator and came to my floor one day.”

“In search of a court case?”

“No, silly! In search of me.”

“Same thing.”

“Rita,” she growled.

“Do go on.” I feigned sincerity, like my best impression of Jon Stewart, badly.

Lauren had been the object of scrutiny at her office the whole summer. When her boss wasn’t looking, one of her co-workers, a portly, over-the-hill IT specialist, who was losing his hair faster than he was losing the pounds, had taken to walking by Lauren’s desk during coffee breaks and lunch hours. A slightly younger man with brown hair, who might have been single, had been caught doing the same. Lauren never got tired of talking of these two fawning co-workers. And to a girl stuck in New Brunswick the whole summer, duking out her future with her parents, these stories from the glittering City were meant to be kept and pondered over like vaulted gems.

“Well, when I came back to the office from my lunch break, he was there at the elevator as if on schedule.” Lauren’s voice interrupted my train of thought.

“Was he stalking you?”

“No,” Lauren’s eyes seemed more cross than her voice, “it was romantic.”

“Uh-huh,” I yawned and stretched out on my back.

“He was really cute, Rita, I wish you could’ve seen him.”

“You have no idea,” I said under my breath.

Another pillow flew past my head.

“Okay, okay, tell me more.”

“Well, he was being really flirty in the elevator, asking when I’d be getting off of work and stuff. He knew that I worked for a firm in the building.”

“And?”

“That day he got off on the twenty-first floor with me. He just had so much to say.”

“I get it, he was hot.”

“Yes,” she smiled, cat-like, to herself. “He thought I was a regular employee there.”

“Did you let him know you were just a lowly intern?”

“Rita,” Lauren sounded stern. “Yes, I let him know I was just interning at the firm that summer. And do you know what he said next?”

“No, tell me, I’m literally dying over here.”

“He said that it didn’t matter to him if I was just an intern.”

“Prince Charming.” I turned back to my work.

“Because we were the same age.”

“What?” I paused over the poem I was scribbling next to my kanji charts. “How old did he think you were?”

Lauren paused, watched me as I watched her smile that smile that only knowing women had. That siren smile. That vixen.

“He thought I was in my mid-twenties like him, I think.”

“How old was he?”

“Twenty-eight.”

“Twenty-eight! Do you even know the definition of mid-twenties?!”

“Of course!”

She sat up cross-legged on the bed. “When he told me his age, I had to tell him mine. He’d practically followed me to my office already.”

“And did you?”

“Yes, Rita. I told him that I was nineteen.”

“Did this happen before or after your birthday?”

“Just two weeks ago when my internship was about to end.” After her birthday then. So she was technically nineteen. Just like me.

“Good, at least you weren’t a decade younger than him,” I muttered and looked back at my kanji. 大好きです。I love you.  好きです。I like you. ちょと。。。I’m busy.

“Actually, when I told him my age, he kinda stopped asking me out.”

“What?”

“Yeah, and he just left me at the door of the firm and walked back to the elevator.”

“Ouch.” Japanese and poetry could wait.

“And I never saw him again.”

“I’m sorry, Lauren.”

“Never passed him in the elevator during my last week there either.”

“Harsh.”

“Yeah. C’est la vie.” Lauren was minoring in French.

“Well, there’s more fish in the sea. Plus, he might have been a tad old for you.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“Maybe?” I picked up a pillow and threw it back at her.

Recovering from our late night pillow-fight, I was heading to my journalism class the next morning. We were about to watch a documentary film about advertising, marketing, and manipulating teens. Teenagers, the documentary, promised, were important specimens of study because they were early adopters. They spotted and sold marketing trends like the Insane Clown Posse and trousers that hung below the knee and new ways of being coquettish while touting virginity. The documentary seemed to say that we, the Great American Teens of the early 21st Century, were in the same category as Jane Goodall’s Great Apes. We looked familiar to the generations much older and wiser than us, but somehow we were still barely human, barely belonging to the earth on which we roamed. The documentary suggested that the best use of teenagers was to deconstruct their desires. We were meant to be prodded and poked at, like a science experiment, by the adults surrounding us. And if the experiment was successful, the ones poking us could figure out how to turn our desires into cold, hard cash.

The film was, thus, aptly called The Merchants of Cool. When I finally watched it several years later on one sunny autumn day in Berkeley, I would realize that the film captured something of the late ’90s Y2K Zeitgeist. But despite its provocative title, the film felt rushed, its argument hastily formed, and its commentary on cool seemed clownish, bricolage, and barely held together. It was as if the PBS Frontline documentary dared not ask the most threatening questions:

“What did it mean to be young and moneyed in America today? Who were these fools in their baggy jeans and halter tops, listening to Nine Inch Nails, the Wu-Tang Clan, or Britney Spears? Suggesting sex through every gesture and sway of hips even though they had barely tasted it? Would these teens, ‘the children of our future,’ the Class of 2000, those who drank in music videos on MTV like they were laced with morphine, become the inevitable arbiters of this country, its fate, its lifestyle, its politics, its cool?

“And if these kids were the architects of our collective American future, would they uphold the American Dream, or would their laptop-obsessed-fingers just dance over the country’s self-destruct button?”

The film flirted with these questions but never directly asked or answered them. The Merchants of Cool. This would be a phrase and film that would haunt me for years as I sped through all those foundational years of adulthood. A documentary film, a classroom exercise, a name that came to signify so much more than it should. An omen.

Later that evening, on the day that we were supposed to watch the documentary in class, I would get a call from my grandfather. It would come, like so many important things seemed to, out of the blue, after several weeks of silence: long-distance from Ranchi, India, to my home in New Jersey. No phone cards would be used. The call would not even be made collect. It would start off with a hysterical question and last for hours. It would be one of the last times I would ever talk to my grandfather, merchant, cool, for any length of time before his death. At that time, I would not realize how closely beauty and artifice could intertwine with death.

দিদিভাই Didibhai,” he would say when I answered the phone, “কি হলো? What happened?

In film class, we learned about silence.

Silence 1: In this form of cinematic technique, all dialogue, monologue, and speech on screen stops. But sound in the film does not. That is, all other diegetic sound remains constant. In the scene, you can still hear the rustling of paper, a professor coughing at the podium, a projector screen scrolling down, a large jet roaring towards mach one. The pop in the air it makes sounds like breaking glass. Its thundering motion echoed by the straight and sudden white streak of jet fuel in the sky. All diegetic sound continues. Even nondiegetic sound like a song overlaid on the scene: Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” for example, can be played over the hush of the character’s speech, the quietude of their words, their mutual full-stop.

Silence 2: This is a different kind of beast. In Silence 2, all dialogue stops, all monologue doesn’t matter, and voice-over finds itself suddenly dead. But so too does all the in-scene and overlaid sound and sound effects. The car pulling up to the curb does not rumble, its screeching halt is never heard. The young man who jumps out—all copper hair and sweat—runs across the open field, panting but not making a single noise. His sneakers do not slap on the asphalt pavement, his breath does not hitch. When he pulls the heavy doors, of first the academic building and then the lecture hall, the ancient pre-fab wood does not shutter and groan. His sweaty fingers do not slip noisily off the scratched brass knobs. When he finally enters the lecture hall, the whispering of students does not suddenly stop. Their voices are already dead even as their heads turn, one by one, then dozens by dozens, in his direction.

Scene: Here is a young man crying. He has wild red hair and wears a sloppy flannel shirt and baggy khakis. He might be your prototypical early adopter. He even has something like a beard on his face. He’s growing it out. Hipster chic before we even have a name for it. He should be in his early twenties but looks so much younger. Especially as he runs through the auditorium like a little boy. He is crying. A grown man crying like a phantom, flitting through our journalism class. All chatter stops. Thoughts suspend. Words drop into silence from our lips. This is the closest I’ll ever get to witnessing a total stranger unraveling.

On Diamond Harbour Road, in the three-story house my grandmother grew up in as a teenager, my great aunt keeps our ancient family photo albums. In the thick books with marbled covers, the pictures are tucked away within sheaves of black paper and thin, opaque contact sheets.

In these dusty tomes, one summer in grad school, I would spy my grandmother as a very young girl. Surrounded by her four younger siblings, all sisters except for one brother. All would grow up to be legends in my regard, except for the youngest one in the photo. The baby girl with the charcoal eyes and jewel in her hair. She was the only one in the frame looking away from the photographer, as if she didn’t want her image to be caught on film for too long. Of all my great aunts and uncles, I would never get to know her, or know her name. Nani never talked about her youngest sister. The one she’d missed throughout her life. The one who had died one day, playing unattended by herself in the kitchen with an open fire.

The other faces, though, are familiar. I would scan over the pictures of my great-grandmother and marvel at how dainty and feminine she looked as a young woman, standing next to my grandmother, her teenage, no-nonsense, robust, hyperintelligent, writer of a girl.

Later in the album, I would find a picture of Nani as a newlywed bride. She is standing next to her new husband, whom I recognized as Dadabhai, my grandfather. Dadabhai is decked out in a three-piece suit but still manages to look skinny and uncertain and very young indeed.

The picture, in sepia tones, does not indicate the color of Nani’s sari. But it appears to be a rich maroon color in the print with sparkling diamond-like designs, catching light from the tiny mirrors sewn into the fabric. The anchal is bordered with shimmering threads. While my grandfather smiles and lets his hands rest on my grandmother’s shoulders in a warm gesture, my grandmother, though she appears youthful and full of peace, has a cool and tempered look in her eyes.

Both my grandparents wear dark-rimmed glasses. But my grandmother’s, like those worn by Faye Dunaway, are rounder and broader. Hipster chic before Kerouac and Brooklyn thought they had invented it.

In another photo I’d find in the album, my grandmother wears a dark velvet gown over her sari, which peaks out over her shoes and by her collar. Her golden earrings brushing over her cloak like tassels. In this image, her hair is pulled back, but braided at the side. Her expression is much more playful than in her post-wedding photo. My grandfather stands beside her. Beaming with now a more debonair, tousled look.

In this image, they are just a few years into their marriage, and my grandmother in her monk’s robe and cool glasses is proudly holding a framed degree in her hand. She who graduated with Honors in Sanskrit from Dav University in Jalandhar, Punjab. She who knew more Indo-European languages fluently than I’ll ever be able to speak. She who wrote creatively in many.

My grandfather poses as if he is her proud tutor behind her.

But really, he is beaming because of something else. Two reasons, perhaps. First, because he had recently landed a prestigious job as Professor of Mathematics at St. Xavier’s College in his hometown of Ranchi, and left his former life in law behind. And second, Nani, who looks regal and worldly in her graduation gown, is hiding a secret. She may have been memorizing ślokas and impressing her professors with her knowledge of the Upaniṣads in college, but what she hadn’t told them was that she had been engaged in another sport during the past few months as well. Nearly nine months pregnant, she travels back from Ranchi to Punjab, and takes all of her final exams reclined. And here she is on graduation day, passing her bachelor’s exams with honors, and pregnant with her first child, whom she will name, of course, after that famous female sage and provocateur from the Upaniṣads: Gargi.

Rita: Should I digress? She looks up at the computer screen.

Michael: Totally. He leans back in his chair.

Rita: Okay. I was on my way to my journalism class, the first and last one I ever took in college, and we were supposed to watch this film, The Merchants of Cool, it’s this documentary about advertising and early adopters and—

Michael: I think I know it. Spins his pen.

Rita: It’s not the best documentary but I was so excited to see it.

Michael: Right.

Rita: And as we’re going to the media center on Livingston Campus, one of my friends from high school, who attended college with me, was watching the TV in a small common room. There were just a hand full of kids there, and I remember my high school friend Joanne, standing at the center of the crowd, staring up at the television screen in amazement.

Joanne, who is Filipino-Chinese, stands with a large book bag and a makeshift breakfast bun in hand in the middle of a crowd. Four other students surround her. The student center is quiet and sleepy otherwise. Her breakfast is forgotten. 

Rita: Hey, Jo, what’s up? Looks up at the small overhead TV in the corner of the room.

Joanne: Oh, they’re saying that a random accident happened in New York. A small passenger plane, a private jet like the one JFK Jr. used or something like that, flew straight through one of the towers of the World Trade Center.

Rita: That’s weird.

Joanne: Yeah, a freak accident. First time a plane hit a building in New York since World War II. Look at all that smoke.

In the screen, a silver-white building with glittering windows is standing next to its pristine twin against a backdrop of solid blue. And in the middle of all that glass is a small puncture wound. The wound is expelling large puffs of dust and gray smoke into an otherwise clear sky.

Michael: Wow. Stops playing with his pen.

Rita: Yeah, so I watched the screen for a little bit. The anchorwoman on-screen assured the audience that it was just a bizarre accident. She joked with the weatherman next to her. Their voices dropped to a whisper when they discussed how eerily similar it was to JFK Jr.’s plane accident.

Michael: Mm-hm.

Rita: And I looked down at my watch. It was almost 9 o’clock, and I was almost late for my journalism class. So I hurried across campus, and found a seat next to my friends, who were twins.

Rita sits down next to Lika and Yuka, friends from her Japanese lit class. Lika, who’s the closest to Rita, turns to her.

Lika: Guess what?

Rita: What? Looks at the professor who is about to introduce the film.

Professor: Remember this story is about you. It’s about cool. It’s about why aesthetics and style and individuals matter. It’s about what made you, you.

Lika: I got an internship at MTV! Claps her hands.

Rita: Really? Shut up! Turns to fully face her.

Yuka: That’s what I always say. Yuka is the evil twin. Yuka turns to the audience and takes out a cigarette, lighting it discreetly. She takes a puff, blows it in the direction of Lika and Rita, and then after a beat. That’s true, I am.

Lika: Shh. She fans the smoke from her face. It starts in January, at the beginning of next semester. I’m going to work on film production.

Rita: Wow, that’s awesome. Someone in the row in front of them says “ahem.”

The professor continues his drone.

Professor: Advertisers, media heads, spin doctors, broadcasters, journalists, they’re all interested in you. You’re in the 18-to-64 year-old group. You’re their target demographic. Laughs. And surprisingly me, too.

He hits a button on the podium and the projector screen descends creakily.

Rita: Will you get to work on music videos?

Lika: No, probably not. They’re phasing those programs out. I’ll probably work on shows like Total Request Live or something like that.

Rita: Wow, teenybopper music for a live pre-teen audience. Stellar.

Yuka snorts next to them and coughs after taking a whiff of her cigarette.

Lika: Hey, it’s MTV!

Rita: The American Dream.

The door at the back of the auditorium pulls open, them slams close. The girls don’t look up.

Lika: Yeah, I know—

Michael coughs on screen. Behind dark frames, his eyes glitter.

Rita: Looks back at her monitor. Sorry, got carried away. Anyway, the professor is just about to start the tape for The Merchants of Cool and we’re settling down to watch it And then, this young boy—he’s probably eighteen or something, he just comes in crying. He’s balling, and he runs from the exit at the backend of the auditorium all the way through the entire classroom. He’s running through the lecture hall like it’s a marathon course and there are 200-300 people all watching him.

Michael: Wow.

Rita: He says something to the instructor and everyone is wondering what’s going on. We have cell phones but not smartphones. And so we were just wondering what had happened. And the professor says, “If anyone has family in New York, you are dismissed, you can leave.” And a third of the students jump out of their seats, grabbing pens, bags, and cellphones.

Michael: Wow.

Rita: And he says to the rest of us, “Please allow them to go first. And everyone else, please stay in your seats.” It was like the weirdest thing because you’re thinking, What’s going on, what just happened?

Michael: It was such a dumb thing to say.

Rita: Yeah, and then this whisper goes around the auditorium. Someone says it first, and it spreads like wildfire: “America is under siege.”

Michael: Wow.

Rita: So we’re stuck in the auditorium without cell phone reception, sitting in the dark for what feels like hours, but what probably was only twenty minutes. We’re not allowed to leave. The whole auditorium is rumbling with rumors, noise, and nerves. And then someone’s voice is heard above the fray. It’s another young boy, and he stands up to announce, as if he’s practicing to be a politician, that “two planes hit the Twin Towers,” and that “they both went clear through both of the buildings.”

Michael nods.

Rita: And the first thing that runs through my mind, is that my father used to work in the World Trade Center.

Michael: I forgot that.

Rita: Yeah, for the Port Authority. I think he stopped working there just a few years before when he transferred back to New Jersey.

Michael: Mm-hm.

Rita: But his entire office—secretaries, very close friends were there and some of them didn’t escape. He knew this Indian coworker who made it out of the towers before they actually fell. But at the last moment, this guy decided to go take the PATH train from the World Trade Center home, and he got into the subway, but couldn’t get out in time. In the days and weeks after 9/11, my dad couldn’t stop talking about this guy whom he barely knew, and his favorite secretary, and all these bosses he used to work with at the Port Authority. All of whom had disappeared, as if into thin air.

Michael: Wow.

Rita: And one of my good friend’s Lauren—her father’s best friend who worked in the Twin Towers and who used to take her out to lunch during her internship in New York that summer—he died that day.

Michael: Whoa.

Rita: Yeah. So when we were all finally dismissed from class, and found out what had actually happened, everyone was trying to frantically call friends and relatives in New York. My cousin, who had just moved to America from Bombay, was supposed to arrive at the World Trade Center at nine a.m. for a job interview. He was literally a few blocks away when he saw the first plane hit the North Tower. But I couldn’t get through to him. All the phone lines were dead. If you can imagine. The calls just wouldn’t connect. Either you called and got a busy message or the recorded voice of an operator saying that the number you dialed was not in service, or you got nothing at all. Just white noise.

Michael: Wow.

Rita: And the only way we could get news, because so many of the TV and cell phone antennas had fallen with the towers, was to turn on the radio and listen to the New Jersey AM stations about their reports on what was happening in New York in real-time.

Michael: Right.

Rita: And that morning, between the news reports and the rumors, we found out that the towers were probably going to fall. The experts in engineering and architecture were predicting two possible outcomes. Either the steel bars would fume and hold or they wouldn’t.

Michael nods on screen.

Rita: Around 9:30 a.m., I finally got a hold of my dad on the phone. He’s a mechanical and nuclear engineer and he’d worked on building and systems design before.

Michael: Uh-huh.

Rita: And he knew shortly after the second plane hit, that the towers would not hold.

Michael nods.

Rita: So we decided, some of my friends and I to go to downtown New Brunswick. My friend, Tom, who was in the same Japanese class as Lika, Yuka, Jeff, and me, and who was an early love interest of mine, had an apartment downtown.

Michael: Sure.

Rita: He basically lived in the tallest building on campus in downtown New Brunswick. So we decided to climb to the rooftop of his building. And on that clear September morning, we had this crazy clear, bird’s eye view of New York City. We could see the skyline and the smoke, and we watched what happened to the towers in real-time.

My grandfather had a certain kind of charisma. He had style, of course, a certain mid-century finesse. But there was also something to the way he approached devastation and tragedy in life. Even though he could be playful and sometimes even melodramatic, especially around the little humans he called his grandkids, he still maintained the cool assurance of a detached observer.

The viewing deck of the World Trade Center is on the 107th floor. South Tower. The glass-encased area is called the Top of the World. Yellow, corporate overhead lights wash over the lobby and the walls, making the slivers of wall between large glass windows look vaguely like macramé. The carpet in the lobby and the 107th floor is a deep rust color with crisscross diamond designs in gold on it. It seems almost red carpet worthy.

On a bright summer day in the early 1990s, my mother, named after the Vedantic philosopher Gargi, and nicknamed Gulshan, which means “garden of flowers” in Persian, by Dadabhai, will bring us to see the sights of Manhattan. Our first, and what will be our final stop, revolves around the World Trade Center.

On the elevator ride up to the “Top of the World,” it will be either my grandmother, Nani, or my grandfather, Dadabhai, who will spot the words first. They will be, even in their old age, trying to outwit each other.

सुस्वागतम। Suswāgatam. স্বাগত। Svāgata.

The words are etched in gold in the interior of the elevator of the South Tower, going up, up, up.

“Both are words for welcome,” my mother speaks brightly in Bengali on the phone, “out of all the languages scrawled in the elevator, we could only read the words for ‘welcome’ in two.”

“Other than in English, of course,” she laughs. “Ma and Bapi were so happy to see those words in Hindi and Bengali. It’s like New York was saying hello to them.”

Her mood is contagious.

“You know your grandfather had height issues. He nearly fainted while climbing up the Qutub Minar when we visited it during a family road trip to Delhi and Agra in the ’60s.”

“Oh?” I say.

“So he hadn’t ever enjoyed seeing the world from such a height before,” she continues. “He sat on the concrete bench with you near the rooftop edge. He could see all of downtown New York that way. In every direction, there were bridges, buildings, and even the Statue of Liberty there in the middle of the water. He enjoyed it so much that we had to drag him off the rooftop!”

This time I laugh.

“We had arrived in the early afternoon and it was evening by the time we finally were able to get Dadabhai to leave. He loved watching New York light up in the setting sun.”

“That’s beautiful,” I say.

“Yes, that’s probably why Dadabhai called us on September 11,” she says, “because of his dear attachment to the World Trade Center. Because of the great time he had had there. And once Dadabhai formed a strong attachment, it would be nearly impossible for him to get rid of it.”

We both laugh, and I think how strange memory can be. I was so impatient when I was nine and we visited the Twin Towers with my grandparents. What I remember best about the visit were the snaking lines in the lobby, the heavy red velvet rope guards, and the black security officer in a khaki suit who kept telling us kids to “stand back.” My mother tells me that she had had to give me a whole bag of M&Ms to keep me quiet while my grandparents and she munched on sandwiches at the restaurant next to the observation deck. But I do remember my grandfather’s awe. For someone who seemed so self-possessed, observant, critical, and yet still kind, it was fascinating to see him watch an American city with such childlike eyes. There was no artifice in his surprise or admiration. After pointing out whichever monuments and buildings we could identify in the cityscape below and debating why one tower was considered taller than the other, Dadabhai and I spent the afternoon naming clouds. There were walruses, queens, and whole merchant ships passing by us on the roof of the South Tower. The high winds that day made them move faster. And the clouds and their shapes danced and mesmerized us. From that great height, they looked close enough to touch.

Funny how even such fond memories can be linked to the World Trade Center, when it’s most remembered in the collective imagination for its spectacle of violence, its destruction, and its complicity in America’s unraveling project of late capitalism.

On a recent program recorded for Al Jazeera, Slavoj Žižek sits at a café at Ground Zero and asks his intellectual sparing partners: “Where does the urge to look for an external enemy come from? This is also the important lesson of antisemitism in Europe. Why did capitalism need the figure of the Jew? It needed it to cover up our own antagonisms, and it’s the same here. The point is not: Is the other, the enemy, really as bad as we think? The point is why do we need that figure of the enemy we should ask ourselves.”

Žižek continues, “Empires practically never fall apart because of the external enemy.”

That afternoon, on Top of the World in the South Tower, I have no doubt that my grandfather was dazzled by what he saw below him. But as he watched the city glitter under the afternoon sun and sparkle with light in the early evening, what did he really see? A picture of heaven? The American Empire in all of its principal glory, fashionable and seductive all at once? Or did he think of home—Ranchi—and the red-dust roads of India? And all the poverty there. And the young men and women speeding to work on their motorcycles and mopeds ignoring the beggars lighting fires and cooking their meals on the side of the roads. Did the office workers notice those other men and women who had nothing to call a home? Not even a place to eat.

Did Dadabhai see those two disparate images in his mind, and consider if they were linked? For so long he sat on that concrete bench and looked and did not speak. My mother and Nani gossiped in Bengali behind him, and I tried to engage his attention when he seemed too cool or too distracted. But how could any one of us know what the other thought? We were family, yes, but there were distances between us. So many experiences, memories, and wisdom left unspoken and unknown. On that day, everything seemed to have a double meaning. The gilded elevator cheerfully beckoned, but in Hindi, suswāgatam suggested “auspicious welcome,” and in Bengali, svāgata: “well-being.”

Just twenty minutes after that crying young boy, the sky, outside, gleams a devil’s blue. There is not a plane in sight. No jet-streams. No overhead noise. Everything is too bright, too quiet for comfort.

In the quad, students and staff wander and crisscross each other. Many in the mall are crying. Others, embracing friends. And most, trying to get their cell phones to connect to New York.

In all of those forms of unwanted silence and stasis, we find out that New York and New Jersey are dangerously entangled together. Joint at the hip really, in all manners of communication, longing, and cool.

On the bus ride over to College Ave, Lika, Yuka, and I talk over each other and speculate wildly like everyone around us. The pundits on the cable TVs in the student centers and bus radios give their expert opinions. At least half say “not to worry,” and the other half “unbelievable.” When my phone finally reaches one of my parents at their office, my father says in a soft and tired voice, “The way those towers were built with their frame tube structure, the frame holding everything together will not be able to withstand the heat. The towers will fall.”

And by the time Lika, Yuka, and I reached Tom’s apartment on Easton Ave and Jeff joins us in the lobby, the South Tower, the one that had been hit second with a passenger jet, the one whose attack was caught crystal-clear on tape, is already crumbling and disintegrating to the ground.

In the lobby, Tom buzzes us in. We can’t swipe our cards and pile into the elevator fast enough. On the fourth floor, we make a pit stop to drop off our bags in Tom’s living room. His coffee table is littered with novels about the Vietnam War and well-thumbed issues of Penthouse and Playboy.

His roommates, naturally, seem to match his reading tastes. The nice one, Indian like me, is quiet, and is crushing on a Spanish girl down the hall that I had introduced him to. A few years later, they will get married. His other roommate, whose name for the life of me I can’t remember, snickers when I enter. Half of our entire Japanese class has gathered in the apartment. There is Lika, Yuka, Jeff, me, and Tom. But this roommate likes to single me out, muttering “Daria” under his breath. Boxing me in as one of those smart aleck, sarcastic, MTV-weaned girls, who happens to have an unrequited crush on his roommate, Tom. Tom, in turn, only has eyes for girls already in relationships and fellow Catholics like him.

This morning, I roll my eyes as Tom’s roommate fails to say my name correctly, and I fail to remember his. Tom is already urging all of us out the door, so we leave our books and bags and quarrels in his living room behind, and instead focus on racing up to the 12th floor. Jeff decides to keep his yellow, brick-sized Nokia in hand. In case of emergency, of course.

On the 12th floor, at the end of the long, white, hospital-like hallway, there is an emergency exit sign. We aren’t supposed to use it but when we hit the metal bar on the door, no alarm sounds. No siren, no emergency lights. And so we break free.

Outside, the sun catches on everything. The air ducts, the laundry vents, the silver aluminum piping. Everything gleams in clay and white and startlingly iridescent hues.

In the direction of New York City, against the clear blue sky, there is smoke. The bricolage brick and beige architecture of New Brunswick seems to disappear as we stare at the skyline of New York.

The green flatness of New Jersey, its infinite trees, the slinking Raritan River, the rolling Atlantic disappear from our focus. All of those forms of beauty mean nothing in that moment. As we face beauty much more terrifying.

For teenagers raised on video games, this is the closest we’ll ever get to roleplaying one.

Soon after my grandfather’s call, Jon Stewart in a charcoal suit, bright dress shirt, and silk tie, looks equally elegant and tired.

He tries to introduce the events of the day but ends up pounding his fist on the desk instead. He composes his face.

“One of my earliest memories was that of Martin Luther King, Jr. being shot. I was five. And if you wonder if this feeling will pass—”

His voice wavers. He places a finger on his lips, waits.

“When I was five and he was shot, here’s what I remember about it. I was in school in Trenton and they shut the lights off, and we got to sit under our desks. And we thought it was really cool. And they gave us cottage cheese.”

The audience, off-camera, laughs.

“Which was a cold lunch because there was rioting on the streets. But we didn’t know that. We thought, ‘My God, we get to sit under our desks and eat cottage cheese.’”

The audience rumbles. Jon tries to collect himself again, as if trying to jibe his sense of childhood cool and comfort with the realities of the day.

“The reason I don’t despair is because—” he gestures like a politician would, “This attack happened, it’s not a dream but the aftermath of it, the recovery, is a dream realized.”

He pauses and takes a quick breath.

“And that’s Martin Luther King’s dream.” He sniffs. Watching him watch the camera in that moment, again after so many years have passed, I wonder if he really believes what he says.

“Whatever barriers we’ve put up are gone, even if it’s just momentary. And we’re judging people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

He leans forward on the desk.

“Any fool can blow something up. Any fool can destroy. But to see these firefighters, police men, people from all over the country rebuilding—that—that’s extraordinary. That’s why we’ve already won. It’s light. It’s democracy. We’ve already won. They can’t shut that down.”

His voice cracks.

To me, on that evening of 9/11, and then over seventeen years later when we’re living in a world of open police brutality and militarization, racial violence, gun violence, gender violence, rising nationalism, surveillance, classism and class warfare, our democracy seems anything but light.

“They live in chaos and chaos can’t sustain itself,” Jon continues on the screen. “It’s never good. It’s too easy.” He looks aside, as if to hide a growing sense of righteousness, a growing sense of anger. “It’s too unsatisfying.”

In Ranchi, when Dadabhai and Nani’s house has been demolished in favor of the new skyscrapers sprouting up all over town, I find, in a dusty blue velvet photo album, a more recent image of Dadabhai.

Most of the pictures in this photo album look like they are from the ’60s to the late ’70s. Both Nani and Dadabhai have gray hair now and look more recognizably like my grandparents.

This image, taken when Dadabhai was in his mid-to-late fifties, features him and his good friends seated at a round table. As a child, I knew that table in my grandparents’ living room well. It’s where Dadabhai and his cronies would play rummy and bridge. Often with lit cigars and hot tea nearby. My grandmother, also retired by the mid-’80s, was often exiled to the kitchen on those card-playing afternoons. In the dark of the kitchen, she would have to make the spiced tea, the fried treats, and the samosas. Needless to say when she passed the food and tea onto the tray for me to carry into the living room where Dadabhai sat languorously playing cards “with the good old chaps” as he liked to call them, Nani would be sure to utter an explicative or two about her husband in Bengali before passing the food onto me.

In any case, this image of Dadabhai and his friends looks to be a dress-rehearsal for their later card-games; perhaps taken just as Dadabhai was about to retire from St. Xavier’s, and shortly after my mother had gotten married and moved to the States.

The table is littered with cards and gin and tonics with lime (my grandfather’s favorite drink). And while the other men in the picture stare at the camera with semblances of smiles on their faces Dadabhai’s looks strangely fierce. For a man who was always so cool and collected about everything, this expression sticks out.

When I pick up the old black and white photo and study it further, I notice Dadabhai’s calligraphy on its back. The message, written in black ink which has turned a dull rust red with time like the tones of the photograph, itself, is written surprisingly in English and not in Hindi or Bangla. As if the words are a missive for another time, meant solely for someone like me to read. The epigraph on the back, in looping clean letters, reads: “Lord, please take me away.”

The message is quiet and desperate and devastating.

The inscription is dated 1978. My fingers trace Dadabhai’s words and the date. I would only be born just a handful of years later. No way to meet him then when he had written these words.

After that strange phone call we shared on September 11, 2001, in which my grandfather and I talked about the World Trade Center and his favorite view of all of New York from its observation deck, I resolved to return to India. After a seven-year absence, I bought my tickets to arrive in Ranchi for the winter holidays in late 2002. Dadabhai knew about my plans, but before his birthday during the following September, shortly after the first anniversary of 9/11, he would pass away unexpectedly before I ever got a chance to say good-bye. That phone call on September 11 would be one of the last times I would ever get a chance to talk to my grandfather so candidly for any length of time before he was gone. And in that conversation, as we analyzed what was happening to America, what democracy and capital meant, and where we could go from there, we shared emotions, intimacy, and philosophy openly together. In those whispered conversations, there would be no room for artifice, for posturing, for cool.

Sitting in an empty bedroom in Ranchi, many years later, when I would find this uncanny image of my grandfather surrounded by his friends and cards and drinks, I would think how very alone he looked. Flanked by all of these markers of comfort and cool.

My fingers would trace his face and slide over the inscription on the back. And alone, I would say out loud, to no one in particular, “But you haven’t met me yet.”

None of us have a camera to freeze frame the moment. On the cable TVs downstairs, the Spanish television networks are showing people leaping from fifty, sixty stories up to their death. CNN blocks the coverage.

And we, college kids and card-carrying members of Gen-MTV, stand as close as we can get to the edge of that rooftop and watch what remains burn to the ground. We stand and wait and watch. Voyeurs to our very core.

In high school, we read A Tale of Two Cities, and Maribeth Edmunds makes us recite that scene where Charles Darnay is finally declared free. Just at that moment, outside of the courthouse, a passerby is struck down by a carriage as the trial ends. Rather than help the poor victim of the accident, the spectators from the courtroom stream out and gather around the fallen body, waiting until that living, breathing thing of beauty becomes a corpse. Blue flies gather in search of carrion.

Someone makes a joke to cut the tension. And we laugh as we wait. From our vantage point, the second tower will take nearly thirty minutes to burn to the ground. Destruction takes so much longer than expected when you’re waiting for it.

The anticipation feels almost erotic.

I glance away from the beautiful tableau destroying itself, right in front of us, and turn to Tom. Only his profile is visible in the brilliant light. His eyes are trained on New York. I look over at my other friends, some shivering under the bright sun and holding their jackets close to them against the rapid wind, others engaging in strained conversations and nervous laughter.

I think how beautiful they all look. How very young we all seem to be all of a sudden. Tom’s hair curls in the wind. At my side, he is nearly a foot taller than me. I look at him, and think I should be in love. Because that’s how crushes work. But me, obsessed with cool, I do even my crushes badly. I can’t seem to feel or express any emotion authentically enough.

Today from our great distance in New Brunswick, everyone on that rooftop, standing or sitting on perches like we’re posing for a band photo, will do all of our emotions badly.

There will be no moral compass left in us that day. Stupefied, when the second tower will finally fall in slow motion, we will be unable to look away. But we will not be able to process the hurt, the trauma, the disbelief, the anger, or the love we will feel that day for each other, for those we know and knew, and for what we thought our country could be.

Later in our dorm rooms, when we’d switch on the radio, the shows will be filled with rants from witnesses and listeners calling in. “How could they do this?” “Attacks like this simply don’t happen in America.” “We’ll get revenge on those towel-headed bastards.” “This is war. This is an act of war.” “We need to go out and bomb them.” “God, I love this country so much.”

The interviews, the phone calls, the words of support, anger, revenge, patriotism, shock will pour in that day and for the weeks that follow. And we, the children of the children of Marx and Coca-Cola, will soak it all in. Our emotional barometer will flicker from anxiety and disbelief to righteousness and anger to unbelievable grief. We will let the words of others wash over us. We are, after all, young. And although we are supposed to be early adopters of fashion, of function, of political beliefs and personas, we are also easily influenced. We are part of the target demographic.

Are you experienced? Jimi Hendrix taunts with his stride and regal threads and careless sensuality on stage. Just over three decades and two generations later, the answer, as we watch the World Trade Center fall, will be no. No, we are anything but experienced.

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Rita Banerjee is the director of the MFA in Writing & Publishing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, editor of CREDO: AN ANTHOLOGY OF MANIFESTOS AND SOURCEBOOK FOR CREATIVE WRITING, and author of ECHO IN FOUR BEATS, which was nominated for the 2019 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Her writing appears in Poets & Writers, Nat Brut., LARB, and VIDA. She is the co-writer, with David Shields, of Burning Down the Louvre (2020), a film about race, intimacy, and tribalism in the US and France.