Note: This is an excerpt from Peter C.
Ormerod’s first novel, the story of Rachel
Porcher, a 27-year-old with sterling credentials and prestigious job at the
White House, who’s increasingly convinced she may be more machine than human. Examining
the age-old question of what makes us human—refracted through the lens of the
digital age, Ormerod has set the book in a near future dystopian America, where
average Americans have been decimated by corporate greed, automation,
ineffective policy, and globalization. All three branches of the U.S.
government have been crippled and corrupted; and the Silicon Valley technology
bubble has popped, leaving only two rival technology titans, FrienDexx and
Brickster, stronger than ever, aggressively expanding to all corners of modern
life, including the defense industry. Against this backdrop, THE REVOLUTION
BLUES follows the members of an as-yet uncorrupted DARPA program tasked with
creating the first Sentient Machines, an enigmatic domestic anti-technology
terrorist group’s attempt to topple the broken government and the corporate
parasites it hosts, and the CEO of FrienDexx’s desperate attempts to obtain the
ability to create his own Sentient Machines.
It was a
surprisingly short period of time before Rachel Porcher appreciated all too
well why residents of the nation’s capital derisively referred to it as “The
Swamp.” Some genius had decided to build a city — one to contain the H.Q. of a country by no means short on
geographic landmass — in a swamp.
The banal platitude
that “it’s the humidity, not the heat” actually seemed like it had some truth
to it, here in The Swamp. Having spent the past decade of her relatively short
existence on the planet in the Bay Area of northern California, the phenom of
feeling as though the late spring air may as well have been the deep end of a
swimming pool was utterly foreign to Ms. Porcher. Nor were her days prior to
Stanford much help: the mountains of Western Carolina kept things really rather
temperate. The Swamp’s humidity, though, that was the real kicker; inhalation
felt akin to plugging one’s nose and breathing with lips wrapped around a
humidifier containing boiling water.
Rachel found it mind-boggling
that her twenty-minute walk from her DuPont Circle area apartment — straight down
Connecticut Avenue to that confusing block where a pair of 17th Streets bound
Farragut Square to its east/west, where Connecticut vanishes only to rematerialize
having switched east/west positions with 17th, and finally a left onto
Pennsylvania Avenue, through a security apparatus and then beyond to her “office” — that she could
perspire so much. She’d never perspired like this ever before — not on a bike,
treadmill, sauna, nothing. Her pair of daily commutes seemed to generate a
greater volume of brine than she’d generated in the first twenty-seven years
her life combined.
And, Christ, the
effect the weather had on her hair was a constant source of consternation. Never before had Rachel Porcher had hair that
anyone’d fairly described as frizzy—or even, really, wavy. But in The Swamp? She felt locked in a perpetual battle against
the humidity’s effect on her long, dark hair.
She spent maybe two weeks trying different strategies to blunt or
counteract the frizz, but truly, it was futile.
So up into a ponytail or bun it went—out of the way and off her
neck. It’s not exactly like the
Executive Branch’s a beauty contest, after all.
And really now, who
builds a city on a swamp?
Nor did it take her
long to understand the Old Executive Office Building’s security apparatus’s
toad-woman’s hostility towards Rachel on her first day reporting to the job.
The memory still sends pangs of anxiety through her, forcing some weird kind of
involuntary tic-like response — e.g., quietly humming a
foreign melody, sharply inhaling through her nose, blowing out her lips like a
horse, & c. These anxiety-memory-tic-things would draw unsubtle sideways
glances from her coworkers, so Rachel tried her best not to let her mind wander
on over to anxiety corner. But of course there’s that truism about there being one thing and one thing only that you can’t avoid thinking about right
after you command yourself not to
think about that thing — be it vampires or a locust infestation or whatever. Still,
as far as White House staffers go, Rachel tended towards the well-adjusted end
of the spectrum. Government workers were a queer bunch, it seemed.
The first week on
the job had been mind-numbingly brutal. Training this and training that. Even
pain seemed like it’d be preferable to this all-consuming abject lack of
stimuli. Once the training sessions tapered off, that’s when Rachel gleaned a
real understanding of the toad-woman and her kin. Though to be totally fair to
toad-woman, Rachel hadbeen naïve, there’s just no two
ways about it. But naïveté, it seems, isn’t a vice, per se. It can have
unfortunate effects, sure — see, e.g.,
anxiety pangs and tic-like responses — but it wasn’t like Rachel, in her naïveté, had any malice
And who could blame
her, really? She’d had no previous experience navigating a byzantine
bureaucracy, only to be thrown into the deep end of the bureaucratic hierarchy.
One of the many appealing aspects of working at FrienDexx had been the very
loose approach to hierarchy and rigidity. Which could make things seem a bit
chaotic at times, sure, but getting too rigidly set in your ways was a
guaranteed way to get disrupted into non-existence — that’s what Matt
Anyways, once, it
seemed, the new job actually got under way in earnest, that’s when it became
abundantly clear to Rachel Porcher why the OEOB security personnel’s hostility
was triggered by a string of mere numbers and letters. Stanford and FrienDexx
had been competitive, obviously, but in a much different way; toad-woman’s
hostility was, essentially, a product of the cruel, crystal clear reality that
Rachel’s deep end was in the stratosphere, while toad et al.’s might well have
been a lengthy trip down a mineshaft, comparatively. The competitive aspect in
D.C., at least in the circles Rachel frequented, was all about “Proximity to
the President,” a.k.a. “POTUS Prox.” Access, access, access. Toad’s mineshaft
reality almost certainly had some pecking order of its own, like, say, Rachel
mused, whose job wouldn’t be automated out of existence first.
quickly that there was nothing to be done about the hostility issue, vis-à-vis
the rigid hierarchy of the federal bureaucracy. Because there was, frankly,
nothing that Rachel’d done or could do about the facts causing the hostility.
So as her own personal mother had always said: Kill ’em with kindness.
Though Rachel had
no reason to go anywhere near the security apparatus’s hostile toads, in the
rare event she had reason to interact with a federal employee unconcerned with
POTUS Prox, Rachel Porcher made certain to be utterly and completely polite,
beaming so hard her cheeks ached. Much of this behavior, of course, was just
interpreted as another loathsome layer on a rotten onion, this
“gee-whiz-smiling-as-I-slide-the-blade-between-your-ribs” shtick. But, alas,
this too couldn’t be helped, so Rachel resolved to stick with it. After all, if
she were rude, that would only reinforce the conclusion that the onions in
closest proximity to POTUS really were rotten from layer to core.
Nor did it help
that Rachel Porcher was really quite physically attractive. This too couldn’t be
helped or changed. But Rachel was nothing if not perceptive, which many would
probably describe as enabling the manipulation of others — especially male
humans — as revoltingly
So too rang true
the trick Rachel had picked up frosh. fall semester, one she previously had no
reason to know she possessed. See, there was something terribly intoxicating
about subtly slipping into her particular sub-Mason Dixon mountain folk speech
When people call it
a drawl, there really is some nugget of weird truth to it, the way certain
pairs of words seem to lose their distinct identities — “y’all” of course
being the most obvious but least subtle example. More effective—i.e., subtler but no less intoxicating—was
dropping a “reckon” to denote any marginal degree of uncertainty; following any
remark that anyone could possibly interpret as disparaging with complimentary
verbal tics such as “Bless her heart”; this queer and exceedingly difficult to
imitate emphasis on the first syllable of some words —e.g., “cement” becomes
“SEA-meant” and “insurance” becomes “IN-shurins”; & c.
It was something
about these speech patterns that made people reared outside the historical
Confederacy assume the speaker lacked a certain degree of sophistication. Which, when it comes to Rachel
Porcher, not only fails to accord with reality, but also proves fatal in the
getting-her-way department — even more so when a homo sapien possessing a Y-chromosome is
“Fear” is far too
strong and nefarious of a word, but subsequent to accepting the White House
job, it did indeed occur to Rachel that this little speech technique’s utility
might well diminish in The Swamp — given, of course, its geographic location south of the
Not so. Still like
individuals seemingly both aware and capable of resisting the southern drawl
were other females from the historical Confederacy, especially if they too were
considered physically attractive. There were more women in D.C. who fit these
criteria than in Palo Alto, and Rachel quickly got the impression that there
was some type of unwritten code w/r/t, e.g.,
dropping a “reckon” to get your way — at least within earshot of an attractive Southern-reared
female sharp enough to know what Rachel was doing.
So to Rachel’s
understanding, this unspoken code consisted of something like three axioms: (1)
Don’t flaunt it; (2) Don’t abuse it; and most critically, (3) Bless whomever’s
heart dares trying to fucking use it another
code-knower. Fair enough was Rachel Porcher’s approach. Limits she understood — not just the
in the fourth dimension’s rearview mirror, along with the fading temporal lag
to getting settled in a new location, establishing and adjusting routines,
& c., and it turned out that Rachel Porcher quite enjoyed her new job thus
far, aside from The Swamp conditions, of course. The title, however, was quite
the mouthful: “Principal Deputy Special Adviser to the President for Technology
and Intelligence.” Rachel memorized getting it right by staring at her
reflection and repeating it over and over in her apartment’s lone wall fixture.
It, the job, it was
different than anything she’d done at FrienDexx, yes, but Rachel enjoyed the
challenge and there was little that could be considered rote, boring, or
routine about her slate of assignments, at least so far. She was still awaiting
final confirmation of her security clearance — these things can and do take months and months and months,
she’s been told, repeatedly — so there’s still some lingering uncertainty what all
she’ll actually be doing, post-clearance final confirmation.
The whole idea of
having to accept a job without really knowing what, exactly, the job entailed — given the
position’s portfolio was itself classified, Top Secret (‘TS’), Sensitive
Compartmentalized Information (‘SCI’), No Foreign Nationals (‘NOFORN’), in the
compartment referred to only, thus far, as ‘VVFSI.’ This struck Rachel Porcher
as the zenith of absurdity.
But Matt had really
encouraged her to take the opportunity, to go try her hand at something
different, work in service to the homeland, & c., and he’d assured Rachel
that she’d always be welcome back at FrienDexx. Paralyzed by the equally likely
implications of the CEO’s personal encouragement to depart FrienDexx — Was she going to
get up getting pushed out sooner rather than later, with or without the White
House job? Or did Matt trust her enough to think she’d go to D.C. for his and
FrienDexx’s benefit? — taking the White House gig seemed like the prudent move,
since doing so eliminated the former concern, and she’d have
three-thousand-plus miles and a good bit of time to formulate a strategy for
dealing with the latter.
So Rachel accepted the White House position in January— reservations about the position’s portfolio’s existence
within the VVFSI compartment notwithstanding.
Peter C. Ormerod is a twenty-eight-year-old licensed attorney, who, over the course of a twenty-month career at a large corporate law firm in Washington, D.C., recognized that practicing law could not provide the opportunity to pursue his passion for writing. A voracious consumer of literary fiction and follower of developments in contemporary literature since college, he began creative free writing after law school, and since leaving his law practice, has dedicated himself to writing his first novel full-time.
It’s too easy to make the mountain shatter into its constituent tears. This year the ducks fled north into ice-melt while fish flopped in confusion at the headwaters
of several legendary rivers, but no rain came to rescue them. Travelers called on hand-cranked radios but that help desk was out-sourced to hell seven years ago.
What’s left is our sense of supremacy – dominance without responsibility for amelioration, or even cleaning up. Remember frogs when they had just four limbs?
Now ask the lizard on vinyl siding how it feels about house cats, spayed or not. Better yet, start making up names for roaches, or use the ones that used to serve for snow.
M. A. Schaffner has had poems published in Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, Agni, and elsewhere – most recently in Hermes, Modern Poetry Review, and Pennsylvania Review. Long-ago-published books include the poetry collection The Good Opinion of Squirrels and the novel War Boys. Schaffner spends most days in Arlington, Virginia juggling a Toshiba laptop and a Gillott 404.
There’s a sensuality I find difficult to access. It’s like finding my way around a hospital with its five linked buildings and seventeen levels and eighty-eight elevators and corridors beyond count. I think it might be in neurology, but an old friend says it’s more likely in psychiatric gerontology. Wheelchairs roll by, and strolling, shining doctors young as gods, for whom all is accessible. In the Brain Fit Club, the women are beautiful and wear fetching outfits except for the receptionist who, like a lot of old bats, looks mean as a least weasel, but says to me as I wait for a printout, “Glad they decided against the Olympics?” “Yes.” “I would’ve left town.” “I think a lot of us would,” I say, adding, “There’s a sensuality I find difficult to access.” She looks up. “Tell me about it.”
Alec Solomita has published fiction in The Adirondack Review, The Mississippi Review, Southwest Review, and elsewhere. Recently, his poetry has appeared in 3Elements Literary Review, MadHatLit, Turk’s Head Review, Literary Orphans, and, forthcoming, Bloodstone Review, Silver Birch Press, and Fulcrum: An International Anthology of Poetry and Aesthetics. He lives in Somerville, Mass.
The camera delves into the doctor’s pockets, zooming in toward a dark, cavernous space wherein are contained various items.
They are, first: some loose change, akin to 30 pieces of silver. Deals made with the devil.
Within the pocket of his scrubs is also (the camera cuts back to the doctor’s pocket innards):
– An oversize bulging black wallet: leather, orotund, turgid with bills, credit cards, and secrets. Secrets about hookups, mistresses, nurses and secretaries of choice. – A Robocop-style DROID smartphone because he emulates the 1980s version of ROBOCOP; lint; chewing gum, peppermint, sugar-free. The camera cuts to a shot of Robo-cop from the 1980s: his doppelgänger, the doctor’s muse? – Used tissues. Used…for what? – The turgid black wallet holds pictures of all his estranged children. – Business cards from associates–the not-so-trusted ones.
The camera wiggles and wobbles—follows sea-green hospital scrubs, old phonebooks, and a red bra—they fly in all directions.
Cut to the trunk of his silver 1989 Mercedes 560 SEL, which might as well be his pockets. The Mercedes is—like his children—an extension of him.
A man doesn’t keep much in his pockets, I suppose, when he has an entire car trunk to contain his junk.
The keys? Where are the keys? He can never find them. It’s cause for ire (his).
2) The Doctor Fasts: He Eats
When he ‘fasts,’ because he thinks it’s en-vogue and because his deepest vision of himself is to be a waif-like but mentally tough stick of a blonde amazon woman, he prefers a dish of edamame from a Japanese restaurant, some green tea, and nothing else. The edamame are steamed and still incubating in their pods, much like the vessels of women carrying his unborn children, or the inchoate dreams he has held onto and pursued only into the tardy aftermath of his life.
He picks up one edamame pod and, between what my mother likes to call his “tapered fingers” (which are long, dry and of an intellectual, cultivated shape—a surgeon’s and not a laborer’s hands), he applies pressure to the pod. Pod pops open, releasing a minuscule pocket of steam and some goo-of-edamame bubbles. The doctor places implement [hand] to mouth, and the fingers, like one of those plastic claws attached to a pole, open and close with a flex/touch and release of the sinews of his wrist. The edamame pod goes flying into the doctor’s mouth and bypasses his thin, almost nonexistent lips.
3) Physical Details of the Doctor:
A surgeon’s slight stoop—a curved slingback that manifests in most sartorial forms, save when he chooses to wear a collared shirt, which somewhat disguises and effaces the effect of his curved posture.
A funny way of running, like how I imagine a jackal would run or a coyote if he was running on hind legs… I think of Wiley Coyote and Road Runner, zooming through a Looney Tunes excerpt.
The aquiline nose that is not-so-aquiline. More in the vein of Jewy. Sadly, Fagin-like, if I want to think of the worst parts of him.
Roman, if I want to think, arrogantly and problematically, of the best. Or of how he might imagine himself (in his best of days): in the ‘greed-is-good’ era that was his heyday.
Stick-thin bowl-legs with ‘docksiders’ attached. His dowdy footwear choice is a perma-appendage. Otherwise, the day calls for New Balance.
4) Things that The Doctor has Said
He stooped over—he looked smaller. He said something that I don’t remember, except that he was smiling. My fear of him melted away to pity, sadness.
I thought about the spectrum, running hot to ice-cruel, of all the things he has ever said to me—all the things that I remember:
Age 7: “You’re a fucking idiot” over Celestial Seasonings Lemon-Zinger tea with honey (over not-so celestial, ethereal or honeyed commentary—more base and pithy) and in front of a second-grader’s multiplication tables and division.
Age 16: “I love you the most,” pointing a finger at me from the distance of the driveway, sunglasses on like a boss.
I remember all the times I cried in conversation with him over something he said or the spaces of distant silence in between.
Age 26: “Our ancestors sacrificed themselves for others” at a Passover dinner at his sister’s—my Aunt’s—trying to induce his captive audience to feelings of shame. He is standing, lording over the others at the table like a madman—Moammar Gaddafi trying to squelch the weak, the vacillating. I can only think of the Ayn Rand quote (yes, Ayn Rand) that says that those who want to talk of sacrifice are really talking about slaves and masters—a toxic binary. Not so sophomoric on that one, Rand.
Slaves and masters. Me and my dad. "Daddy, Daddy, I hate you,“ Sylvia Plath says.
I met my father for the first time, again, when I was 23, greeted with: "You’re a sneaky bitch.” He circled like a wolf around a freshly-hunted kill, the camera reeling toward and away from him, making me, the viewer, dizzy.
Kirkley Mehndiratta is a graduate of Oberlin College where she majored in English and Cinema Studies. After graduating from Oberlin, Kirkley lived, worked, and studied Mandarin in China for two and a half years. She has two Master’s degrees including one in English from Temple University, where she studied Creative Writing with Samuel Delany. While at Temple, she won the Greater Philadelphia Women’s Consortium Conference paper prize for her work on John Donne and Gender. Kirkley is a recipient of a Banff Leighton Colony Artist Fellowship Award at Banff Arts Center in Banff, Canada. She has been waitlisted for a Vermont Studio Center Fellowship, and she was awarded a scholarship to attend the Wesleyan Writers Conference in 2012 as well as being accepted to workshop with Melissa Bank at the Aspen Summer Words festival in 2014. She is currently at work revising her first novel while living in Boston.
He glowed in the giddy flow of endorphins– biceps still swelled with blood near the skin, tight stomach smug under crisp white shirt. To the hum of caffeine, he looked around the meeting–felt lucky to be himself, to have been at the gym at the break of dawn, to have sipped coffee and slipped on a clean, grey suit.
But then the vent above his seat whirred whirred into life–he shifted his back, furrowed his brow. And the caffeine hum came down a decibel or two, as a steady stream of air conditioned breeze teased at the growing bald spot on top of his head.
Jonathan Cooper’s poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including The New Plains Review, The Statesman Journal, The Commonline Journal, and Poetry Pacific. He lives with his family in Vancouver, Canada.
Dr. Marcie’s pool through the ten-foot security gate. A huge, curved teardrop, or half a yin yang, made of gunite and plaster. The clear water shimmers in the California sunlight. Poolside, Shirley the goat chews the cushion of a chaise lounge.
A luxury sedan hums down the street behind me. I grip the iron bars and wait. Unseen birds chirp in the trees; a cool breeze blows. Now I’m up and over, agile as a lynx, but the Tony Llama on my left foot catches the top of the gate. I hang there, midair, long enough to wonder what time Dr. Marcie will be home. I tug at my boot, struggling to dislodge it. Instead, my foot slips out, and I land in a rosemary bush.
I limp across the deck to the water. Shirley pauses mid-mastication and stares at me. I reach up to scratch my head at the mystery of it, only to notice my black felt Stetson is missing. Maybe I lost it in the fall? I imagine myself wading into the water and slowly sinking to the bottom, only to realize I’m already there. So I dig a raft out of the shed and slide it into the pool. On the first step, my right boot filling with water, I lie back onto the raft and push myself away from the side toward the deep end.
Shirley gives me a tinny bleat.
I once wrote, “Have little thought of self and as few desires as possible.” Have the people forgotten? Did they ever know? Because except for a few Buddhists, they seem to think only of the self and its desires. People are bloated with desire, a many-headed hydra of emptiness and longing.
Far indeed is this from The Way.
“Mr. Tzu,” she says. “Or is it Mr. Lao? Forgive me; I never can get Chinese names right. Anyhow, do come in.”
I step into her rectangular office. She sits facing the door in an ergonomic leather swivel chair, light pouring in through an immense window behind her. I can’t see her face. A vanilla candle burns at the corner of her desk. Bookshelves filled with heavy tomes line three walls, floor to ceiling. Between the Persian rugs, the hardwood floors gleam.
“Please,” she says, waving me toward a couch near her desk.
I step toward it but remain standing.
“So you say you’ve lost your way, Mr. Tzu?”
I wait and watch. The candle’s syrupy perfume makes me lightheaded.
“That’s perfectly natural, Lao. May I call you that?”
“In this day and age, we all lose our way from time to time. If I didn’t have GPS in the Lexus, I’d never find my way home. I’m kidding! Only not. What I mean is, you’re not alone, Lao or Tzu. You’re in good company, meaning 99.9% of Americans. That’s an estimate. But just between you and me, if I had a dime for every celebrity or actor wannabe who wandered in off the street after a three-day bender telling me they’ve lost their way, well, I could play the slots in Vegas for a long, long time.” Dr. Marcie forces a smile, then pivots and crosses her shapely legs. “Incidentally, did Patricia have a chance to review our fee schedule with you before you came in?”
I nod, though I have no idea what she’s talking about.
“Good, excellent, perfect.” She makes a tent of her hands and stares at the ceiling, as if she’s making calculations. “Have seat,” she says. “Kick back and relax. That’s what this is all about, after all.”
I don’t move. Muffled street noise leaks into the room.
“Or not,” says Dr. Marcie. “Stand if you like. It’s a little weird, but whatever. Creeps me out, makes it more difficult for me to do my job, which, after all, is to help you. But, really, whatever makes you comfortable.”
So much babble.
“You don’t say much, do you?” she asks.
“To use words but rarely is to be natural.”
When I see her again, I say, “I have lost The Way.”
“You’ve lost your way,” she says.
“Are we going to split hairs? You don’t have many left! Just kidding. Only it’s true, and I mean that in a good way. Makes you look wise. Wizened.”
“Are you not a sage to the people?”
“Of course, I am. I’m a psychiatrist.”
Dr. Marcie turns a copy of my book over and over in her hands. “But it says as much right here in this book you say you wrote,” she says. Then she thumbs through, loses her place, scans with her index finger, then reads: “‘In all probability, Lao Tzu was not a historical figure at all.’ Also: ‘We have no reason to believe Lao Tzu was a real person.’”
“Yet here I stand before you. Lao Tzu, philosopher. Author of the Tao te ching.”
Dr. Marcie waves her hand as if shooing away a fly. She flips the pages, finds what she’s looking for, and reads: “‘Lao Tzu literally means the old man.’ What do you think of that, Old Man?”
“To know yet to think one does not know is best.”
“What the heck’s that supposed to mean?”
In our next session, I stand in front of Dr. Marcie’s desk. She tries to hide her annoyance.
“I’ve been reading your book, Old Man,” she says. “It’s so cryptic I don’t understand most of it, but I think I’ve found your way.”
“A way back. For you. To The Way.”
I wait and listen. The phone rings.
“Excuse me,” says Dr. Marcie. Then, into the receiver, she says, “Yes? Okay, put her on. What is it, Ana? I’m with a client. No, you let her. Yes, you let her. I don’t care if she gnaws your shoes off, Ana. Shirley eats what she wants. Goodbye.” She slams the phone down, takes a breath, and swivels my direction. “Forgive me,” she says. “Goat problems.”
“It’s so hard to find good help, don’t you think?” Dr. Marcie brushes the stray hairs out of her face. “Now, where were we?”
“Yes, of course.” She takes a drink and clears her throat. She reads, “‘Highest good is like water.’”
Her breath smells like Stolichnaya. I nod.
“Because water excels in benefiting the myriad creatures without contending with them and settles where none would like to be, it comes close to The Way.”
I nod again and almost smile; I wrote that. Twenty-five hundred years ago, but still.
“That’s it,” she says. “Your way back to The Way. Or wherever.”
She probably just wants to get rid of me. Without knowing it, though, she may be onto something.
“Were I possessed of the least knowledge,” I say, “I would, when walking on The Great Way, fear only paths that lead astray.”
Dr. Marcie offers no indication she’s heard me. “Think fast!” she says, tossing my book to me, then slipping around her desk. Ushering me to the door, she says, “Bon voyage, Old Man, and good luck.” She shoves me out. “And don’t worry about my fee for the time being. This is You Time. We’ll settle up later.”
Although I head for the beach, there’s no one in the water. No swimmers, no surfers, no one. Instead, people play volleyball in the sand or ride skateboards and bicycles along the boardwalk. A dozen or more gigantic men bench press huge plates of steel or curl giant dumbbells, their oiled muscles like knotted rope.
“Why isn’t anyone in the water?” I ask.
The responses vary:
“It’s toxic, man.”
The breeze is heavy with the scent of oil, seaweed, and ammonia.
A bikini-clad woman on roller skates suggests I try Raging Waters Water Park. I’m not sure I like the sound of it, but I don’t have to travel too far.
I give the ticket clerk some currency and make a beeline for the nearest pool. It reeks of industrial-grade chlorine, which burns my eyes even though I keep them clamped shut, but it’s cool and washes away the film of sweat and grime that covers my skin.
I dive off the diving boards and tube down the water slides and wonder if this might not be The Way. But what about the entrance fee? I wonder. Also, the concrete and steel and chemicals? The screaming children laughing and whining and peeing in the water? And I witness arguments outside the Tiki Lounge, skirmishes in the line for The Surge, and full-blown physical altercations in the Lazy River.
So I relegate myself to the Wave Pool Surf Lagoon, which I hope will be calmer and more relaxing. But as I swim underwater, the edge of my robe lodges itself in a water pump intake, sucking me down to the pool floor. I frantically untangle myself and swim for the surface, gasping for air.
Mothers scream and cover their children’s eyes when I emerge from the pool, while their husbands heehaw and point at my pruned, naked flesh. A security detail forces me into an oversized terrycloth robe and escorts me to the front gate. They threaten me with criminal charges and banish me from the park.
When I first set out, I intend to travel by paddleboat, catamaran, and skiff, kayak, canoe, and outrigger, punt, pirogue, and gondola, sloop, ketch, and yawl, raft, barrel, and inner tube. I face several challenges, including the fact I have no idea where to obtain any of them. People here (not unlike those in ancient China) place a high value on property, and no one offers me a loaner. It wouldn’t matter anyway. Very few of the waterways connect, so I’d be faced with portage after portage. I could never shoulder a yawl.
Mostly, I travel by big rig.
I head across the desert, in search of the Colorado River. Nothing but sand and dust and scrub for three-hundred miles. The trucker who gives me a lift, a burly, barrel-chested man with a gray braid down his back, doesn’t say a word the entire time, not even about my terrycloth robe. I’m asleep when he pulls into a giant asphalt parking lot filled with cars and tour buses and RV’s. “Here’s where she starts,” he says. I climb out, and he rumbles away.
Tourists swarm, but the focus isn’t on that mighty river. Instead, everyone goggles the giant concrete dam built across the canyon. They snap photos of the massive structure, then go inside to buy souvenir key chains, magnets, and post cards in the gift shop. What do they think? Highest good is like a concrete arch-gravity dam?
Sour, I hitch another ride. As we lurch across the bridge, I glimpse a tiny trickle of water in the canyon far below.
On the other side, a huge, stagnant lake.
I climb out in El Paso, where I pick up the Rio Grande. I’m not sure about the name; I can only assume it used to be a beautiful, fast-moving river. Now it’s sluggish and muddy and smells of sulfur. It takes me forever to get anywhere, especially since I start out on a makeshift stockade fence raft. Before I’m out of El Paso, though, I wise up and borrow (without asking) a little johnboat with a motor. It does the trick.
On the starboard side are haggard women hanging laundry, their children running naked across dirt lots or playing in the mud on the bank. On the port side, men in brown uniforms and black SUV’s stand guard, automatic weapons at the ready. They fish out a dozen people attempting to swim from one side to the other before I’ve been on the water an hour.
Yet when I make it to a place called Big Bend, I think I might have rediscovered The Way. Although the river’s still murky, the landscape takes my breath away. I float through deep canyons, cliffs towering up on either side of me. The panoramas of nearby mesas and distant mountains, the multicolored striations of geologic time illuminated by the midday sun, are stunning.
I refuel and motor on.
Just outside of Laredo, the sun dipping into the sky behind me, I’m almost shot. I zip down the middle of the river, an unseen force pulling me toward the Gulf. The port bank is thick with black SUV’s, while on the starboard side, men in black vests and ski masks skulk behind rusty pickups and washer-dryer combos. I can’t tell where the first shot comes from. Rifles explode like fireworks in the night, sending bullets shrieking past my head in the darkness. I was dead wrong about this river, I realize, for The Way of Heaven benefits and does not harm. I kill the engine and duck for cover in the bottom of the boat, which reeks of dead fish and mildew. The firefight intensifies, so I crank the motor and gun it. As soon as I clear the death zone, I land the boat and sprint for the city.
While they’re on my itinerary, and I’ve marked them on the map in blue highlighter, I never make it to the Puget Sound or the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I miss out on the Willamette River and the Columbia River and Multnomah Falls. I don’t see the Great Salt Lake. Likewise, I miss the Missouri River and the Mississippi River and all the Great Lakes. I never lay eyes on the Atlantic Ocean, not even the one time Brad sends me to Atlantic City to promote my book. I’m within striking distance of the Gulf of Mexico, but I hear there’s no point, since it’s a giant ecological disaster, more oil and dispersant than water.
I catch a lift with a trucker heading north. He sports a salt-and-pepper handlebar mustache and cowboy duds: starched Wrangler’s, a gold belt buckle, and a pressed, plaid button-up shirt. His Stetson hangs upside down from the headliner in a hat hanger. I imagine that, down in the floorboard, his feet are shod in armadillo skin boots. The man has style.
“You ain’t from these parts,” he says. “Where you headed?”
“Just up the road a piece,” I say. It’s an expression I picked up, and it seems to comfort truckers.
“Take you far as Austin.”
“Well, climb on up if you’re coming.”
For the first two hours, he doesn’t say a word. He tunes into a Country & Western station, and we both stare out the windshield into the black void. I try not to wonder why he has a six-inch buck knife in a sheath on his belt.
Then, for no discernible reason, he says:
“How you doin’ there, Tzu?”
“You look a little down at the mouth, is all.”
“I was almost killed, if that’s what you mean.”
“One of those days, huh? Well, a wiser fella than myself once said, Sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes, why, the bar eats you.”
I have no idea what he’s talking about.
“That some kind of Eastern thing?” I ask.
“Far from it, Tzu.”
The cowboy recognizes the next song, Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Tzu.” He turns it up and hums along. I lean against the door and fall asleep.
A woman screaming from the side of the pool. She’s on all fours, slinging water at me with her cupped hand. “Who are you, Señor? Where you come from?”
From the other side of the pool, Shirley bleats, then tears off a mouthful of chair cushion.
I shade my eyes with my right hand and try to focus. My face feels sunburned, and everything but my shirt and the front of my Wrangler’s is soaked through. The breeze rustles the expertly landscaped foliage and smells of peat moss, chlorine, and money.
“The Way that can be spoken of is not the constant Way,” I say.
I feel a little drunk. I may be.
“Señor,” says the woman, whose name I eventually learn is Ana, “what you doing?”
“Wu-wei,” I say, and it’s the truth.
“You can’t be here! Not when Dr. Marcie comes.”
“But she’s expecting me.”
Ana’s uniform is black and white and buttoned up to the throat. She seems to be weighing her options, wondering if any harm could be inflicted with the pool skimmer.
“Dr. Marcie say nothing to me.”
I pull off my boot, then roll into the water and let myself sink to the bottom. When my feet touch, I push myself back to the surface, emerging into the golden sun as if from a cocoon. I brush water from my eyes, then swim toward Ana.
“It’s a surprise,” I say.
Ana folds her arms across her chest. She looks down at me like I’m an insect she’s about to squash.
“You are not so smart.”
I shield my eyes from the sun, but I still can’t see her face.
“If is surprise, how she can expect?” she says. She smells like wood polish and corn meal. “If she expect, how is surprise?”
I push away from the wall and float on my back, gazing up into the azure emptiness. “Mystery upon mystery,” I say. “The gateway of the manifold secrets.”
“You want I call police?”
Shirley rears and bucks, knocking over a small patio table, her hooves clopping against the concrete pool decking.
At Take Two, a vintage store on Guadalupe and 32nd, I browse for blue jeans and boots. A twenty-something with long hair and a bushy beard, dressed only in a serape, cut-offs, and sandals, strikes up a conversation. I think he works here.
“Need any help?”
I tell him what I’m after. He points me to a rack of Western shirts with pearly snaps, multicolored embroidery, and horseshoe pockets. He watches me for a couple of minutes, then says:
“You look familiar, man. What’s your name?”
“The name that can be named is not the constant name.”
“Huh,” he says, scratching his beard. “That’s deep. You’re one of those Eastern philosopher dudes, right?”
“I seek The Way.”
“I know the city pretty well. Maybe I could help?”
I explain my quest and what it means. I don’t know why. He suggests I start a blog.
“To get the word out,” he says. “I’m interested in your travels, and I know a lot of other people would be, too. We’re all on the same journey, man.”
After I make my purchases, the bearded man, whose name is Stevie, sets the whole thing up for me on his laptop in the office. We choose a style and layout, even a title: The Water Way. He shows me how to access the blog no matter where I am and tells me the kinds of things people might want to read. He suggests I start at the beginning of my travels and write something about each place I’ve been.
“That all make sense?” he asks.
I nod. He pats me on the shoulder and goes back up to the front. I think about my travels, considering what might be said of them. I have to hunt-and-peck on the keyboard, but eventually I manage to write:
One who excels in traveling leaves no wheel tracks.
I’m still at the motel on South Congress when Brad shows up. It’s taking me much longer than I anticipated to formulate the travel narratives Stevie says will interest my readers. I’m more inclined to verse, riddles, metaphors. So I mull and write, word by word, sentence by sentence. It’s much more difficult than I expected.
But I post enough entries to attract Brad’s attention. He comes pounding on my door late one night while I’m playing with the Magic Fingers. I’ve just plugged my coin when I hear him outside: “Low Sue,” he says. “Open up! We have business.”
He’s a slight man in his late-forties, with short hair and a diamond stud in his right ear. He introduces himself as a “talent agent” and promises to make me a star.
“I do not seek fame or fortune,” I say, easing back against the headboard. “I seek The Way.”
“Unbelievable!” He gives me an awkward pat on the thigh. “And I love the cowboy getup. Whole East-meets-West shtick. People are gonna eat you up!”
I’m at a loss. The bed vibrates and squeaks. The room is too warm.
Brad examines the lamp shade and bedspread and framed black-and-whites on the walls. He pretends to be impressed. His gold pinky ring catches the dull yellow light.
“Dr. Marcie showed me your book,” he says.
“You’re in therapy, too?”
He chuckles. “We used to be married.”
“Then why do you call her Dr. Marcie?”
“That’s her name.”
The Magic Fingers machine grinds away. Brad fiddles with his pinky ring, grinning down at me.
“Here’s the situation,” he says. “You owe Dr. Marcie big bucks, right? I can help you with that. All you have to do is go on being yourself, plus listen to me and follow my advice. I already have a new name in mind: L. T. Turner. What do you think?”
I say nothing.
Brad doesn’t need encouragement, explaining his vision at great length. When I begin to nod off, he slips another quarter into the Magic Fingers, which jolts me awake. And he goes on talking well into the night, hands gesticulating, eyes gleaming, drowning me in words I no longer care about or understand.
“So?” he asks. “What do you think?”
“One who knows does not speak,” I say. “One who speaks does not know.”
Brad’s eyes go wide with wonder. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about!” He adjusts his earring, then rubs his hands together. “You keep that up, and we’ll make a killing.”
I kick my feet up onto the bed, lean back against the pillows, and fold my arms behind my head, waiting for him to leave.
“I’ll make the calls first thing tomorrow, set the wheels in motion. ’Kay?”
“The Way never acts,” I say, “yet nothing is left undone.”
Neon light pours in through the open door. Brad points at me and winks. “Big Star, Mr. Sue, mark my words.”
The bed groans and shudders beneath me, then goes still.
Brad’s true to his word. He has my book redesigned and reprinted, with my face on the cover, and he sends me out on the lecture circuit. I continue writing my blog; Brad insists. “It’s free publicity,” he says, “helps with buzz.” He clearly knows his business because the book takes off, and hundreds, maybe thousands of people come out to hear me speak. At a two-hour lecture, I might say: “Not to know yet to think that one knows will lead to difficulty.” No one seems to mind.
Do they, too, seek The Way?
In places like Dayton, Lansing, and Springfield, I sell and sell. Maybe not as much as Brad hopes for, but I have plenty to pay Dr. Marcie’s bill. Only when I hint at dropping the lecture tour, Brad acts as if I’ve suggested we sell his daughter into prostitution. He doesn’t even have a daughter.
“You can’t quit now, Low Sue. You won’t. That’s not how it’s done.”
So I wind up in Terre Haute, Topeka, and Lincoln, peddling my wares. But my audiences dwindle right along with my enthusiasm for the project. Most of these people probably never even read the book. In the beginning, that sad fact didn’t matter to me, but now I find it disheartening. Depressing, even. There’s no point to it anymore. I still haven’t found my way back to The Way; how can I encourage others to seek it?
A pep talk one Sunday afternoon before a lecture. Brad keeps dipping a tiny spoon into a bag of white powder, then sniffing it. I’ve never seen this before. I watch him as he speaks a mile a minute, not listening to a single word. When he lifts the tiny spoon from the bag again, I grab his hand and guide it to my nose. When he resists, locking his arm, his face a knot of disapproval, I lean over and sniff the powder. Brad relaxes and says, “This is new.” He licks an index finger, dips it in the bag, rubs it over his gums, top and bottom, then smacks. “At least it will give you a lift,” he says.
The crowds begin to swell. I carry my own bags of white powder now, which don’t come cheap, and my demeanor has changed. Although my delivery might be different—I speed-talk and tell lots of jokes—the message is still the same. The book sells out; Brad convinces the publishers to print more. We play Las Vegas and knock ’em dead three Sundays running. That’s when Brad institutes The Seminar and finagles a regular gig for me at Caesar’s Palace. Tickets sell out, even when Brad doubles, then triples the price. I develop a powerful affinity for single-malt scotch.
Apparently, whiskey and white powder are volatile bedfellows. One time I wake up in a hot tub at one of the fancier hotels, naked, surrounded by three beautiful young women. From his third-floor balcony, a man in nothing but a sumo wrestler’s diaper yells, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas! Right, Old Man?” Another time, I come to out in the desert among the snakes and scorpions, curled up in the shade of a Joshua tree. It’s the middle of the afternoon. Luckily, it’s only a ten-minute stumble to the city limits.
All Brad says is, “Careful, Sue.”
I don’t eat or sleep much, so I’m not exactly surprised when I pass out, mid-sentence, during one of my seminars. A couple of meaty Midwesterners revive me with slaps and ice water before anyone calls the paramedics. I try to carry on, but, oddly, Brad won’t let me. “This isn’t about today,” he says. “It’s about the future.” I spend the afternoon in my suite flipping through TV stations and sipping single-malt.
I do my utmost to attain emptiness, but it’s not the right kind.
I cannot hold firmly to stillness for more than a three-minute stretch.
Yet I haven’t forgotten: To retire when the task is accomplished is The Way of Heaven.
So when I wake up in the back of a pickup hurtling down the highway in the middle of the night, I’m almost relieved. I have no idea who’s driving or where we’re going, but does it make a difference? I’ve left Vegas and Brad and, most importantly, L. T. Turner far behind. I gaze up into the star-filled, desert sky. I reach out to the Supreme Palace Enclosure and White Tiger of the West; I can almost touch them.
I’m in and out of consciousness as we bump and swerve along the highway. Time passes. Soon the glow of spotlights and searchlights outshines the stars, and the sky goes hazy. The air reeks of exhaust, industrial waste, and abandoned dreams.
Welcome to the City of Angels.
I’m afloat on my raft in the pool when Dr. Marcie comes home. Ana trails behind her, saying, “Very sorry, Señora” as they step out the back door. I sip from the fruit smoothie I convinced Ana to bring me. Shirley the goat munches on the bougainvillea.
Dr. Marcie stops at the edge of the pool deck, hands on her hips, and glares at me.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“Wu-wei,” I say.
“What?” she says. “Where?”
“I don’t know what you’re asking.”
“You fornicate in my pool shed with some Chinese tramp? This is how you repay me?”
“You misunderstand, Dr. Marcie. Wu-wei is action that requires no action.” I study her expression; she’s impossible to read. “You might call it ‘inaction.’”
“I always took you for a lazy bum.” She watches Shirley climb up on a chaise lounge and begin decimating the crepe myrtles. “Why aren’t you on tour?”
I take a drink of smoothie. “Tour’s over.”
“Does Brad know about this?”
Before I can respond, not that I intend to, sirens wail in the street out front. Soon a mob of police crash through the house and over the fence.
“Thank you, officers. Everything’s fine here. Just a misunderstanding.”
An older man with a mustache and pot belly says, “A Ms. Ana Rodriguez, domestic, reported an intruder.” Ana stands by the back door, her head down. “Do you know this man?”
Dr. Marcie’s eyes light up with possibility. I’m convinced she’s going to have me arrested when she says, “Yes, Sergeant. He’s a client—a, uh, patient. You know, a friend.”
“I apologize for the inconvenience,” she says. “It won’t happen again, I assure you.”
“Sir,” he says, pencil point to notebook, “could I get your name, please?”
“Don’t you recognize him?” says Dr. Marcie. “That’s L. T. Turner.”
“The self-help guru? You gotta be shittin’ me! ’Scuse my French.”
“The one and only,” she says.
“It’s an honor and a privilege,” says the sergeant. “I read your book twice! Would’ve attended your seminar, too, if it weren’t for the missus.”
I wave him away and slurp my smoothie.
“He’s very grateful,” Dr. Marcie says. “We both are.”
As the sergeant rounds up his men, Shirley bucks and bleats. When they’re gone, Dr. Marcie dismisses Ana, possibly for good, then steps around the pool and takes a seat on a chaise lounge. Shirley comes over and Dr. Marcie cradles the young goat in her lap.
“Maybe you should have told me?” I suggest.
She strokes Shirley’s head and ignores me.
“What you had in mind, I mean.”
“There was no plan, Old Man. I mentioned you to Brad, then he saw your blog. It’s just the way things worked out.” Dr. Marcie watches Shirley meander off toward the hydrangeas. “Only it sounds like things didn’t work out.”
“I am no guru. But I needed to pay your fees.”
I stare at my pruned fingers. “No.”
We listen to the crickets chirp and the jets scream.
“Well,” she says, “did you find your way?”
“I didn’t think so, until I came here.”
“To Beverly Hills?” She looks around, her gaze taking in the palatial homes and well-manicured lawns. “I find that hard to believe.”
I suck the last of my smoothie through the straw. Shirley glances up when she hears the gurgling sound and lets out a loud bleat. Then I toss the cup onto the pool deck; the breeze catches it and rakes it across the concrete into the grass. I gaze up into the sky, which is slowly darkening to indigo; the night’s first stars are out, the Purple Forbidden Enclosure and Azure Dragon of the East. I fold my arms behind my head and say:
“Without stirring abroad one can know the whole world. Without looking out the window one can see The Way of Heaven.”
J. T. Townley has published in Collier’s, Harvard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other magazines and journals. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and he teaches at the University of Virginia. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.
When Andrew encountered
Rosemary it was mostly déjà vu. He could not reason why. It was the morning of
the Spring Equinox, in East Campus Parking. Piles of grimy snow leaked onto the
pavement and students wended their way around slippery ice patches and stagnant
puddles. Andrew strode, oblivious to the grime and to the notion that the sun’s
illumination was equal to southern climes. He carried, in his brown leather
case, a copy of Civilization And Its Discontents, a tattered article on Thomas
Aquinas Revisited and an Egg McMuffin wrapped in moisture proof paper
Brown hair, soft curls. That’s what he noticed.
“Today is my day for gratitude,” she said, “so I have a gift
“Uh, I think I need my coffee. Your name has slipped my mind.”
“Rosemary,” she said. “And I can’t tell you how much I love
your class. I’m just auditing, in case you don’t know.”
“Ah. That explains it. So what is this?” He dangled the gift,
sprigs tied together with a yellow ribbon, in the air.
“Herbs,” she said. “With meaning.”
“Parsley, sage, rosemary and Marjoram
“Not parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme?”
“Oh, and basil too. Ha ha, thyme. I get you. Well, thyme can
give you courage, that’s for sure, but not what I wanted to convey.”
“Marjoram is a symbol of joy and happiness. It is one thing I
wish for you.”
Andrew considered himself lucky, even if not joyful. Lucky
because his mother Grace died when he was only four and he remained convinced
by his brother Eddie that they had been spared the tyranny of careless
mothering. As a result they had learned the value of independent thinking and
logic, suited to the dialectical
methods of Plato. They both, as professors, employed
dialogue successfully in their classes.
He had just one photo. The black and white picture revealed
nothing about Grace’s health. Light and shadow evoked a vulnerable woman with a
generous mouth and smiling eyes. Her hair fell down in soft waves. He couldn’t
remember the color. Their father gave no explanation; a muted witness so it
Grace held Andrew in her arms and out toward the camera so you
could see his eyelids shut in baby bliss. Eddie stood right at Grace’s extended
elbow, looking straight into the camera and their sister Margie was on the
other side, leaning on her mother’s leg and looking offside. The brothers always
wondered at the wayward paths that Margie took back in Buffalo before her own demise.
It is therefore inexplicable that a man who prided himself on
academic thought, who was perhaps stoical about his early life, a man with tenure
and a wife and three kids, after four days of resistance, lifted the limp aromatic
posy from his middle desk drawer and began to google the meaning of each sprig.
He remembered to search for parsley, apparently a symbol of useful knowledge, for
sage, obviously a symbol of wisdom, and for rosemary, meaning remembrance. Oh
and basil: something about love spells.
The sun is three quarters up and a jet stream curves up and
over to the west, to encapsulate sky and earth together, then disappears to
nowhere. Andrew studies the narrow gravel road more intensely than he would
city pavement. There are ruts to negotiate and they are sometimes obscured by the
grassy shadows of east side ditches. Yes, there are open fields of grain, green
tinged with brown, alternating with sections of yellow canola but bushes along the
wooden and barb wire fences probably harbor mice and snakes and he’s not sure
what to expect over each rise of a hill as vehicles tend to favor the middle of
There is the dead end sign that she described. He stops on the
hilltop to solidify his view. There is the red barn with green shingles and a
cluster of smaller sheds to match but one shed defies convention. It is painted
white with turquoise door and window frames and shutters. The house is fifties
style two-tone, with brown on the lower half and cream above. There is no
movement: no cattle grazing, no animal of any kind wandering in this yard yet
it must be the right place.
He eases downhill to where large tractor tracks have dug up
the grass and soil, and where a steel gate is secured with a padlocked heavy
chain. The trees are thicker here and the farmyard is out of sight. There is a
second wooden gate inside joining a second barbed wire fence and serving entry
to a dirt road with grasses and clover in the middle of the tracks. He gets out
of his car. What the hell is he doing here anyway?
Suddenly dogs are barking and coming down the lane with them
is Rosemary on a bike. He can hear her voice but can’t tell what she is saying.
He feels a rush of excitement. There is no turning back.
“Hello!” she calls, slightly out of breath.
“How are you?”
“Country style security.” she explains as she opens
the wooden gate and proceeds to unlock the metal one.
“What are you keeping out? Wild animals?” he jokes.
“Just unwanted traffic. It’s not my arrangement. Just
following through for Jill and Otto.”
He nods. “The owners I presume.”
“Yes. Go ahead, bring your car through.”
He drives through the gates and waits for her to lock up
“Meet you at the house,” she says as she leans into
the car window then pedals down the lane. The black lab bounds parallel to her
and the border collie circles ahead and back as though Rosemary is the center
of the universe. Andrew idles slowly behind. Her buttocks move rhythmically against
khaki shorts.. He is oblivious to everything else along the way.
She stands at the top of the wooden steps and motions with a
The dogs bounce around him, scrutinizing him willy nilly.
“Thelma, Louise, stop that.” she orders and the dogs
“Very funny,” he says. “Thelma and Louise?”
“Oh, you have to know Jill and Otto,” she laughs.
“It’s their sense of humor.”
“Am I safe here?” he jokes.
“Safe as anywhere. Come on in. I’m just making us a
lunch. We can take it on our hike.”
She resumes preparations at the kitchen counter, assembling
and wrapping up egg salad sandwiches, oatmeal cookies, green apples and bottled
ice tea. “Hope you like all this.”
“Sure, fine. Anything’s fine,” he says as he eyes the
V-neck of her T-shirt downward to hidden cleavage.
She moves quickly from counter to sink and back again and
looks over at him periodically to confirm their conversation. They talk about
the fact that Jill and Otto are not really farmers; they are artists who
maintain the farmyard and lease the fields out to neighbors.
The city, more specifically the university, recedes in a flash
as does Lois, his wife. This kitchen, with its oak table and pink cupboards and
smooth black counters, possesses him. There is room for a large family and
extras at harvest time but it is now just allotting for two. He needs to make a
move but something holds him back.
Birds sing a cantata through the window, punctuated by the
sound of flies jotting on the screen. Time ticks away with the clock on the
stove and floats out the door, swirls around the sheds and sails over the open
fields and down to the creek that apparently runs at the property’s bottom edge.
Life as he knows it, his immersion in books and constant family dilemmas, the
strain of appeasing Lois, it all floats away.
“Are you ready?” she says.
“I’ve got a couple of back packs. Here you take the lunch
in this one. I need mine for flowers.” She drops a pair of blunt end
scissors into the bottom of her pack.
“That’s all you’re taking?” he says.
“I’ll have plenty to bring back.”
They head down a mowed path toward the tree line where the
creek is hidden from view. They reach an open meadow. Butterflies, radiated by
sunlight, flit from a stack of logs to grass and back again. They walk past dry
ant hills and listen to skretching grasshoppers then hear water trickling
further down. They look down a steep bank to the muddy creek and negotiate
their way through low lying scrub and young poplars where wild raspberries and
strawberries and mushrooms abound.
“Have a raspberry.” It sits like a gemstone in her
He drops it in his mouth. “Barely a taste. A teaser!“
"Oh here, forget-me-nots!” She pulls out her
scissors and snips a stem. The flower is composed of sky blue petals and a
“There’s a legend about them,” she says.
“And what is that?”
“Well, there was this woman and her lover walking along a
river when she spied a beautiful blue flower and she asked if he would get it
for her, and of course he wanted to please her. However, he lost his footing
and fell in, crying out with his dying words – forget me not, forget me not.”
“Aren’t you the romantic.”
They move closer to the water, on boggy clay, amongst
horsetails and a crop of white daisies. They have to watch their step. A beaver
dam explains the delay of moving water. She pulls out her scissors again.
“I want the best daisies I can get. Here let me hand them to you.”
They move further down where larger rocks create a gentle
rippling in the water and flat rocks invite them to walk across to the other
side. “Shall we try it?”
He hears movement in the bushes. Some small creature. It
causes him to pause.
“Come on. Don’t be shy.” She heads across the water.
He lurches after her and slips, losing balance, his arms
flying with daisies in one hand, his legs slashing the water, his bottom resting
on the rocky bed.
“Are you alright?”
“Jesus.” he replies.
She sounds like a pan flute when she laughs.
He pulls himself out of the water holding the sopping daisies
up to dry air. “Here, come and get your flowers.” He is looking full
of mischief now. Egging her on.
She reaches for the bouquet while he takes a step away. Her
foot slips, just as his had, and she takes the plunge. They giggle like
teenagers and splash each other with uncoordinated swipes. Daisies float in all
“Hey, what about our lunch?”
“Oh yeah.” he replies. “Better save our lunch.”
And he gives her one last dose of water in her face. “Here, take my hand. I’ll
help you out.”
“No way!” She scrambles out herself. Her clothes cling
They move to higher ground.
“So much for daisies,” he smiles and takes off his
shirt. His khaki pants cling heavily on his legs. “Well enough of
this.” He takes off his pants, his boxers still dry in places. “Feel
free to do the same.”
“No, that’s alright. The sun will dry me.”
He hangs his pants over a branch and clenches his arms in a
body builder’s pose.
“Oh you.” She zips open the back pack and pulls out
the bag of food. “It seems okay.”
They sit side by side and look back across the creek to steep
banks. It is like someone with a giant knife has sliced straight down,
revealing layers of clay and rock and coal and eroded soil.
"It must have been a deep river eons ago,” he says.
A bird interrupts, horning in on all the others with two clear
long whistles followed by three quarter notes. It repeats itself.
“You hear that?”
“That whistling?” He whistles out the tune.
“White throated sparrow,” she says, “Dear old
Canada Canada Canada, he’s saying.”
“You’re sure about that?”
He smiles to himself and listens some more. “Could be
saying dear old America America America you know.”
“Absolutely not. Too many syllables.”
“Hmph. And I suppose you want to look for daisies
“I am counting on them.”
“Or counting them. Isn’t that what you do? Count daisy
petals? He loves me, he loves me not.”
“Ha. Actually those aren’t really petals. Each white
so-called petal is an individual flower and the yellow center is made up of
tiny florets that contain both stamens and pistils. When you pick a daisy you
pick a bouquet.”
“Just the same. I’ll bet you’ve done that.”
“Well, sure, when I was young. Until I learned that, like
many things, it can be fixed.”
“There are usually an uneven number of white
“I thought you said they weren’t petals.”
“Just for the sake of communication.”
“As I was saying there are an uneven number so if you
start with ‘he loves me’ you end up with ‘he loves me’. Kind of takes the fun
out of it, don’t you think?”
“Well I wouldn’t be counting on that sort of thing
anyway. How about you? Any big romance in your life? Seems a woman like
“Want to know more about daisies?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“The name comes from day’s
eye because a particular English variety closed at nightfall and opened
again at sunrise. It was also called ‘thunder flower’ because it was always
around during spring showers and was thought to be protective. People hung
daisies indoors for protection from lightning.”
“Thunder flower. I like that. Now I know why you’re
really collecting them.”
“Definitely. Protection from any storm. You might want to
take some home for yourself.”
“Oh ho. You think my home life is stormy? You think I’ll
be struck by lightning?”
Time shifts in unknown currents. Memory, caught in a sluggish
pool, is suddenly released. Visions of Grace with tender eyes and ephemeral
embrace flash uninvited. Grace, his mother, appears like lightening. This is
simply trumped up memory, he thinks. Childish wishful thinking. He is not taken
in by it. Truth trickles like water down the creek, sometimes resting stagnant
in a pool, sometimes bubbling into eddies and ripples of light, always on the
She smiles and looks somewhere far away. “A little bit like
heaven here, don’t you think.”
“Yeah,” he whispers and turns his head away. A tear
drop is forming unannounced. He quickly wipes it away.
“Something on your mind?” she says. “Anything I
She offers another forget-me-not that she has plucked from the
grasses just within her reach. “There’s another story. You might like it
“And what is that?”
“It’s an old German folk tale. A young man spots a little
blue flower in the mountains. He veers from his path to get it which then brings
him to a cave of treasures. As he stuffs his pockets full of gold and jewels, a
beautiful lady appears. Why she has to be beautiful is beyond me. However, she
warns him by saying, ‘Forget not the best.’ He, of course, leaves the little
blue flower, the forget-me-not, behind not realizing it is the best treasure of
all. As he leaves the cave, rocks from the mountain come crashing down, killing
him and closing up the cave forever.”
“Well that’s very uplifting.”
“You talked about Plato’s cave in your class. Consider it
another cave story.”
“I really would like to get more of those daisies since
they are in such good form right now.”
They gather up the remains of lunch. Andrew pulls his pants
back on even though they are still damp and they head back to the creek, moving
in unison, offering a hand when it is needed, reaching and clipping and
gathering day’s eyes in abundance.
They head to the white shed, the one with the turquoise trim,
with daisies peering out of their open back packs and cradled in their arms. It
is cool and shadowy inside. The windows are shuttered but some light manages to
creep in. Along the walls flowers are hanging upside down, bundled together
with twine and hanging on protruding nails.
"Here, bring those over here.” She sets her daisies
down on an old chrome table. “I need to prepare them for drying right
away. Have to preserve the freshness.”
“Kind of contradictory, don’t you think?”
“Drying to preserve freshness?”
“Well nothing lasts forever. I’m just preserving
something at its peak.”
“Is it really the same though?”
“Of course not. But it has its own beauty. When you think
of it books preserve someone’s ideas, and even if they become outdated they can
still illuminate a certain truth. It’s all fleeting but some moments in life
just need to be preserved.”
“Here you, I’ll put you to work.” She demonstrates
the trimming of stems and the binding together of small bouquets with twine for
hanging from the ceiling. “See you just clean off the lower part.” She
holds a daisy up for him to see, her eyes searching his.
He must make a move but he feels short of breath, a little
tipsy. He is nervous but he can’t figure out why. “I’m going to have to run,”
“Of course,” she replies. “I’ll open up the gates.”
He plays Arrowsmith’s Dream
On as he makes his way back to the city. Steven Tyler is singing his own lyrics
and Andrew tries to sing along. “Half my life’s in
books’ written pages. Lived and learned from fools and from sages.”
night he dreams that he is at a restaurant with Eddie. The restaurant has
private booths laid out in labyrinthine fashion. They choose a booth that is
isolated from both customers and staff. There are copies of The Republic of Plato at each table. The brothers seem to be waiting for
someone. They have not ordered any food. A woman finally arrives and focuses
her attention on Andrew although she remains standing closer to Eddie. As they
talk the woman becomes more and more like Rosemary. She is Rosemary. Suddenly Andrew
realizes that she has arranged to meet Eddie, not him. Then Eddie says,
“Are you my mother?” Andrew realizes, with clarity, what he should
have known all along. This mother abandoned Eddie and now has agreed to meet him
again. “I’m so sorry,” says Andrew. “I didn’t realize that you
have been without a mother all this time.”
He woke up with the strangest feeling. The picture book, Are
You My Mother?, is on his bedside table. He read it to his children the
night before. The little bird, who had fallen out of his nest and become
separated from his mother, went around asking the strangest characters both
animate and inanimate, “Are you my mother?”
It became an ear worm, like a pop song being recycled on the
radio. He made a game of it in an effort to control his thinking. Like the
little lost bird he chose the strangest objects and said under his breath,
“Are you my mother?” He asked the Manitoba maple at the end of his
driveway, the neighbor’s pregnant Irish Setter taken out for a short morning walk,
the girl pumping gas at Turbo on the boulevard, the poplar being pruned in
front of St. Anthony’s, the traffic light at the intersection, and the gas
light on the main drag with its never-ending flare.
He listened to certain predictable melodies of Mozartand
Haydn to drown out details of the dream but it persisted and haunted him for
Was it was all a mistake, dallying with a student, even if she
was mature and had simply audited his time? He easily had affairs in the past
but this time it remained platonic. For days in a row tears appeared at the
oddest moments which made his behavior unpredictable. He finally decided to revisit
Rousseau and Kant with his summer students, persuing the notion of
self-contradiction. Rosemary didn’t attend. At the end of the day, as he headed
to Parking, he stopped to observe skittery sparrows as they flew out from green
hedges, down to patches of water and back up again. And a white throated
sparrow, which he now could identify, whistled Rosemary Rosemary Rosemary. He
was certain of that.
Barbara Biles lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She is a graduate of the University of Alberta and a member of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta. Her stories have appeared in several Canadian and international magazines. Her latest publications were in FreeFall, The Steel Chisel, (WPN) Words, Pauses, Noises and one is upcoming in The Nashwaak Review. This is a second appearance in Turk’s Head Review.
The subway car rattles, whipping me side
to side in my orange, flimsy plastic seat. It screeches to a halt. All trains
in New York have the same howling brakes. A soggy newspaper sticks to the
I focus on the
positive. It’s only noon. I’ve already applied to ten jobs. I can apply to ten
more tonight. I’ve written twenty pages of work already, which I did before I
applied to jobs. God created me to write. Creating stories happens so naturally
to me that I have to write them down or they’ll swell up inside my head. It’s a
mental anaesthetic. An escape from this world to a place where I can control
things. And I’m good at it—better than any published author. I can weave
sentences together to awe. I’m going to be remembered millennia from now. I
know this in my bones. It’s a certainty I’ve built my life around.
To distract myself, I read over the
texts I sent to Laura.
So we doing the career fair?
there be McDonald’s?
McDonald’s will be there.
Meet me at the Kimmel Center.
A Hispanic woman in a brown coat boards
the train. She stands at the center pole, eyeing everyone in the car. Harsh
wrinkles curve around her frown. The doors shutter shut; the car jerks forward.
She speaks out in a prepared drone.
“Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry for bothering you, but I’ve just
lost my job and become homeless. I have two beautiful daughters, and I’m trying
my best to support them, but times are very hard, and we’re living a shelter
with little food to eat.” Her voice wavers as she realizes that everyone is
doing their best to ignore her. People with headphones close their eyes and nod
their chins to a rhythm. Others just stare out the window at the darkness
flashing past. “Fact is, I’ve not eaten at all today. I’m just trying to keep
my girls okay. So if you could find the kindness in your heart, please donate
anything you can, a quarter, a nickel, a dime, anything to please help me feed
my girls. Once again I’m sorry for bothering you all but I really need help.”
She starts meandering slowly through the car.
My stoicism quivers, and I look away.
She keeps going down the car.
She gets out at the next stop. As the
subway car stutters forward again, a recorded announcement plays from the
speakers. A friendly man’s voice reluctantly says, “Ladies and Gentleman,
asking for money on the subway is illegal. We ask you not to give. Please help
us maintain an orderly subway.”
At 42nd Street, I transfer to
the N train and take it down to 8th Street. I weave through the
tight blocks that surround Washington Square Park until I cut through the park
itself. Crowds conglomerate around street performers drawing murals in sidewalk
chalk. The circular fountain flushes out water in a wide spray. The grass
smells like spring. The Kimmel Center is a beige, smooth building across the
street from the park. Like all college buildings, it has the sleek sheen from
Laura appears down the street wearing an
orange-knitted beanie, a smatter of scarfs, and a black t-shirt. She carries a
blue folder under her shoulder.
“What is this?” I gesture to her general
“This is the
just-rolled-out-of-a-dumpster look I’ve been sporting this week,” she replies.
“That’s hardly professional.”
“Exactly. All these dumbasses are
wearing formal attire, whereas I will stand out with my grungitude and Oprah
Chai-scented body odor.”
“You should’ve at least come here Classy
Casual.” I dress in a smart black-and-grey-striped shirt with a black vest and
windsor-tied tie. Unlike most boys, I understand fit.
“This fashionista phase is adorable.”
Her eyes sparkle with a sibling’s mischief.
“This is how I dress now. Like an adult.
A fashionable adult. I’m a new person.”
“Sometimes I straighten my hair and
become a new person.”
I roll my eyes. “I roll my eyes. I roll
my eyes at you, Laura Donoghue.”
She scoffs. “I scoff. I scoff at you,
We enter the Kimmel Center. Students
herd inside a stuffy meeting hall compact with tables topped with corporate
displays. Grinning HR people advertise their company. They spread pamphlets,
free pencils, buttons, and business cards over their tables. Video
presentations play on Macs. Long lines hound the biggest names—Starcom, Morgan
You can taste the awkwardness. The kids
dress in uncomfortable suits and dresses. Their suits are baggy and sloppy.
They try to appear formal, but their faces are pinkish red. They speak
hesitantly with quivering smiles. Their arms move stiffly at their sides. Each
movement has slow trepidation. They shuffle through the aisles of tables in a
lethargic, laborious procession.
Laura folds her arms over her chest.
“You lied to me. You said there’d be McDonald’s.”
I point across the hall. “McDonald’s has
a display right here. I didn’t lie. I mislead you. It’s like lying, but more
Laura glares at the red-polo-shirt-clad
men manning the McDonald’s stand. “It’s just a mass of sociopaths.”
“No, that’s the HR department.”
“Like I said. Mass of sociopaths.”
We join the slow Bataan Death March.
Laura opens her blue folder. Her resumes stuff the right pocket. “I spent an
hour formatting this thing. I had no idea what I was doing. Professors need to
get their heads out their asses and realize they need to teach us more about
“Especially at $50k of debt a year,” I
reply. “I get the frustration. I apply to 20 jobs a day.”
“It’s bullshit. Such bullshit.”
“We go to college because we’re promised
high paying jobs, but all we get is a mountain of debt.”
She brushes a dark bang off her eye. “Our
parents valued a degree so much because it was rare in their day. Now it’s so
common it’s useless.”
The herd slows to a near halt as it
winds around a corner.
“And the only difference is where you
got it from,” I add. “Yale’s better than Indiana. Harvard’s better than
“The rich will always find a way to put
themselves above the rest.” She rubs her palm over her cheek. “God, I need an
espresso. This is why we are a wasted generation, Calvin. We are more educated,
intelligent, and better off than anyone in the past, yet all our potential will
be wasted in cubicles, making money for some dying old man.”
A dozen kids wait to hand a clumsy resume
to an overstressed HR coordinator for Cheerios. We angle our way around the
long line disrupting the aisle.
“Maybe that can change.” I slide through
two people. “Technology is going to automate most jobs, and surely there’s
enough money to provide a basic income. Maybe, in like, 30 years, we’ll only
work for what we want.”
She shrugs. “Calvin, the rich will
squeeze the blood from the poor like leeches. That’s the way it’s been since
“I don’t know about that.”
Laura smirks. “Let’s say for
illustrative purposes that I am wrong. That is ridiculous. I am right. Nothing
I pause as I squeeze through more crimes
against formal fashion. I brush into Laura’s shoulder. “Back in Waukegan, I
needed a job. So I applied to every store—Hot Topic, American Eagle, Best
Buy—got none of them. Those managers relished it when they turned me down. Seeing
a college grad apply to be their employee justified their decision to settle
for a high school diploma. I got a job in Whole Foods’ meat department. But
that didn’t pay enough, so I looked around for months, and got a full time job
at EconoLighting. You know how boring it was to field call after call from
moronic electricians trying to order lights? But I did get $15 an hour. And I
got to play around with my phone cord. It was the fun spiral kind. I got enough
to move to New York. I kept trying. I moved forward. Things change.”
She returns her signature shit-eating
grin. “And as you know, I just transferred to another Starbucks and was totally
fine. I get it, Calvin, you’re got this epic story of yourself, but you’re just
as mundane as everyone else.”
“Most people live within fifty miles
from where they were born,” I reply.
Laura groans as we’re separated again by
the panicky seas. “Let’s divide and conquer. Meet you outside in a bit.”
I nod, and we part ways. I survey the
displays as the crowd moves forward in stuttering paces. Most tables just
advertise the company, but not actual jobs. Barclay’s display discusses vague
things about Corporate Culture, accompanied by the office basketball team photo.
I don’t fancy just working for a corporation because it has a big name.
Just for the hell of it, I approach the
woman at the Pepsi table, who’s standing alone by herself. “Hi, so what sort of
jobs are you offering here?”
She wears a pixie cut, a nervous smile,
and a generic white sweater. She holds a clipboard against her stomach. “Well,
I’m Pat. What’s your major?”
“Calvin. I majored in English.”
Here face scrunches in reluctance.
“English? Well, I don’t have anything for an English major. You can maybe be a
truck driver and check on the displays in stores and make deliveries.”
I stare flatly at her.
She withers in the silence.
“Not interested, thanks.” I leave. She has
no idea how much she insulted me. I didn’t go to school to be a truck driver.
I walk to the conference hall’s fringes.
I watch the students’ nervous faces and the stoic expressions the HR people
offer in reply. A frustrated rugby player nearly pushes me into the wall. He
storms through the crowd, using his physicality to nudge aside anyone in his
way. Even still, he ends up stuck in a winding line behind the American Express
table. The gyre crawls through the hall, widening and tightening in between the
I edge my way to the door. I cross the street and collapse in a bench in
Washington Park along a path winding through the greenery. I toy with the my
Five minutes later, Laura collapses onto
the bench beside me. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life or when
I’m going to graduate and this whole ‘Career Fair’ thing is just rubbing it in.”
“I need drugs,” I reply.
“Let’s get McDonald’s.”
We both get McWraps.
holds more nostalgia for me than any food. I always remembered that warm French
fry and McNugget scent coming from a greasy bag.
sit at a tiny plastic table with green and red seats. I down my wrap’s last
bite and start on the fries. Laura isn’t orderly in her eating like I am. She
has half the wrap eaten and half the fries consumed.
you read my short story yet?” I ask her.
it was okay,” Laura replies. “I’ll send you a Word doc with all the comments
later tonight. I don’t know how I feel about it being present tense.”
wobbling back and forth between that and past tense.”
can tell. There are a few tense errors. I pointed them out.”
I just feel like, the character is experiencing all of this right now, so it
needs to happen in the present tense. Past tense only works when you’re
narrator is coming from a future point.”
if he was looking on it from the past, he definitely would be viewing the whole
situation in a different light. He might be blaming himself for leaving her alone.”
The story would be a whole regret, about leaving his mom alone, and there would
have to be more foreshadowing. It would just be natural.”
also get way too abstract in the scene where he describes finding the body.”
was hoping to show how his mind couldn’t process it. He’s grasping for ways to
compare it to his established knowledge, but he can’t.”
do that. Go Hemingway. Be extremely stark and matter of fact. That way, it’ll
seem like he’s detaching himself from the event. The detachment will suggest
that he can’t process the emotions around it, so he only describes the feeling.
Remember, you’re not in your character’s subconscious. You’re in his conscious
mind, which, from what I can tell by his actions, means that he only focuses on
the facts of the situation.”
right, I’ve been feeling like I need to rewrite that scene.” I twirl a pale
yellow fry in the blood red ketchup I’ve pooled on my napkin. “It’s good that
my instincts can start picking out my mistakes ahead of time. I guess that
means I’m getting better.”
Laura continues, though. “There was one
part I really didn’t like. You said ‘Mom’s alone tonight because Ryan’s out
driving an Amazon shipment up to Madison, but at least she has Macaroni to keep
her company,’ and you don’t really go into describing the situation. You just
act like the audience knows she’s divorced and has a pet French bulldog and a
boyfriend who drives truck.”
“Yes they will. When you say, Mom and
Ryan, people know that’s the situation, otherwise you’d say Mom and Dad. And
Macaroni is clearly a pet. It’s too weird a name to be anything else. And the
audience knows they’re not wealthy because Ryan is a trucker. It’s subtext,
“No one’s gonna understand it.”
“Just because you need to be spoon-fed
doesn’t mean everyone else does. I’ll assume my reader is intelligent, not
“That’s a bad assumption.”
“Well, you’re not a writer, so just let
She scoffs at me, but eats a
ketchup-dappled fry instead of responding.
I feel the need to apologize. “I
appreciate the advice, though. I know you’re straight up with me. It’s why I
can’t really value anyone else’s opinion. I feel like they’d just compliment me
to avoid offending me, or skip over the flaws, thinking they’re not smart
enough to understand that section or something.”
“Then take my advice.”
“I’m taking your advice, just not all of
it. And if the section about Ryan and Mom is shit, you can tell me you told me
“It’s shit. Do you want my
opinion or not?”
“I want your opinion, but I’m
writing the story, not you. If you want to write the story, go write it
Laura locks eyes with me. She’s on the
verge of replying, but then, she grits her teeth. She looks down at a fry,
stabs it into the ketchup, and swallows it.
I take the 1
train one hundred blocks to one-hundred sixteenth street. I pass by a Duane
Reade on the way to my apartment. Generic cucumber music plays over the speakers.
I think it’s Sara Bareilles. I make things quick. I nab milk, bread, cheese
slices, and bologna.
I head through the liquor aisle towards
the coolers, looking for a soda. A tag catches my eye. Jägermeister is on sale
for only five bucks. I debate whether to get it or not. Really, I mean, it’s
the cost of two sodas, and I’m already planning to buy a soda, so if I just
don’t buy another tomorrow, I’ll equal the cost. I buy it and leave with a
The cashier rings me up for $15.91. I do some quick math. 15 times 5 is 75, plus
$1 for a banana at Starbucks to get to use its Wi-fi every day, 106, and plus a
$113 monthly Metrocard is $219. 2,000 divided by 219 is about ten months. May,
June, July, August, September, October, November, December, January, February.
March 1st is D-Day. But by then I’ll have a job. Even if I’m making
sandwiches for middleclass white women in under five minutes at Panera Bread.
My apartment is a creaky building. The
lobby’s marble flooring is cracked. The elevator has an old black gate behind a
thick blue door. It’s mostly seniors and Columbia students here. I’m subletting
for an Indian grad student, Amey, who’s off interning for Facebook this summer.
I approach the apartment door, and the
closer I get, the stronger nasty Indian spices burn my nostrils. When I enter
the apartment, it’s almost overwhelming.
The apartment is a one bedroom. The
bedroom has two beds, each with a makeshift desk and dresser. I sleep in the
living room on a cot. Another roommate, Jai, sleeps in the cot across the room.
There’s no furnishings. My bulky suitcase is the only decoration. The walls are
dull white. The wood floor is dusty. I take out my groceries and grab two
bologna slices from their package. The rest I stack up. I’ve carved out a niche
in the fridge for myself, a small corner on the top shelf. Spoiled meat,
dripping juices, and crusty stains fill the rest of the fridge. I stuff the
bologna in the corner and shut the door, but the smell wafts into my face. I
tear off a paper towel to use as a plate. The plates in the sink are weeks
dirty and colored in yellows and oranges from Indian dishes. Fruitflies hover
around the sink. I open a tightly packed bread loaf and slide two slices out.
I pull my laptop out of my backpack and
sit on my cot’s edge. I start searching through jobs, moving my cursor with one
hand and holding my sandwich in the other. I think while I chew.
As the sun sets, my insect roommates appear.
I wasted an entire Raid can my first night here. The roaches sneak along the
ceiling and walls. I know they like to hide in the cupboards, so, with Raid
held tightly in my hand like a revolver, I snatch open the drawers and spray as
the roaches wildly try to crawl away. I’ve become quite good at exterminating
them. Maybe it’s the German in me.
I’m thirsty and sick of the metallic
tinge in the water from the kitchen faucet. I unscrew the Jägermeister bottle.
The drink tastes like a sharp mint—not at all what I was expecting. I take
another sip out of curiosity. I return to my nineteenth application of the day,
arduously filing out my contact info, work history, references, and phone
numbers, knowing full well they’ll be ignored. I don’t even have references. I
list my stepdad as a “mentor,” as well as a few of my friends as “former
coworkers.” I also throw in a few coworkers from my internships who honestly
might not even remember who I am. I type out a cover letter with help from a
little Jägermeister. I attack my resume. I hit some Jägermeister. I upload my
resume. I take a hit of Jäger.
I click “Send.” Instantly, I’m
overwhelmed with the feeling that I just sent my resume into space’s black
void, where it will float undisturbed for eons. I open a document called “List
of Applications.” I scroll down to the bottom.
add #303, Account Executive, Sawyer Studios, to the list. May 18, 2014.
I take a hit of Jäger. I’m lightheaded,
and thoughts flow weightlessly through my mind. I sip on Jäger rhythmically as
I lay on my cot. I have no idea where my roommates are. They often disappear
for days. I close my eyes.
had a small mental breakdown ten days ago, and I wasn’t able to look at an
application for a while. I got so discouraged that it swallowed me whole.
I wanted to be a copywriter. And not because I’ve seen every season of Mad Men.
I’m a writer, and writing for a living would work for me. I think getting a
career is simple—you find a skill and you become elite at that. Whether it’s
plumbing or sales or writing, you find what you like, develop it, and become
exceptional at it. That’s how you get money.
breaking into copywriting is next to impossible. You need a dense portfolio to
get an internship at a major ad agency. At the very least, maybe I can get a
job that’s in advertising that’s not that stressful, like an account executive
or something, where you just talk with clients and leave at five. There has to
be a job out there that I’ll enjoy. I used to think I’d just have to buy my
time at a job and write in my breaks and afternoons, but now, I think I can
actually have something that makes me feel fulfilled.
I see the horde turning and turning
around the career fair. The confused, frantic expressions.
I open my eyes. I run my hand through my
hair. My forehead feels warm. I take Jäger. I sit up. I’ve only applied to 19
places today. One more. I search Indeed, weave my way through purple links
until I find a blue one. It’s a copywriter for Huge. I saw it posted a couple
weeks ago, and I applied to it. I guess they didn’t find anyone, so they’re
trying again. I click through.
Their career page begins with “Get paid
for giving a shit.” I give a shit. I have a plethora of shits to give.
I start filling out my cover letter
using the same old forced formal writing.
am writing in regards to your copywriter posting. I believe that I have the
writing ability and marketing experience that makes me the ideal candidate.
you can see from my resume, I am a very experienced writer. I have written for
everything from a theater blog to an ad agency. Although I am still a recent
graduate, I have spent the last four years honing my craft in creative writing
classes and internships. My wide variety of experiences means that I can come
to Huge with a fresh perspective that an older copywriter will not have.
is my dream job, and I will work hard to become an asset to creative team at
Thank you for considering me.
I stop. I hold down the backspace button
until the whole thing disappears. I start again.
writing again to apply for your copywriter position. I applied before, but I’m
doing it again. I shouldn’t be overlooked.
college, I barely qualified for financial aid, and I worked 40 hours a week. I
biked between class, internships, and work day after day (Even in the snow.
It’s worse in the Midwest). I can do this job. It’s just writing
advertisements. I’ve dealt with much heavier things in life.
written every day of my life for the last four years. I’ll have a class taught
about my works in every university 500 years from now. I know that my writing
experience isn’t what you want on paper, but I know that I can be a great
copywriter. It takes hard work to master a craft, and I put in those hours
every day of my life. No one you have on staff writes as well as me or is as
strong a writer as I am. That is a fact. I’m developing early carpal tunnel
because I write so much by hand.
give a shit. I should get paid for that.
I stab the submit button. I feel clarity
wash over me. I toss away the empty Jägermeister bottle. I shower. The summer
heat dries me almost immediately. I decide to go to bed, but really, I just lie
there, my mind racing with thoughts. Finally, I can’t bear it, and I reopen my
laptop. I find the cover letter I sent to Huge and read it five times.
Reluctantly, I swivel to my side and
I wake differently in the morning. I
swiftly pack up my notebook and laptop into my shoulder bag. I make another
meager sandwich. I wear my blood-red shirt, with my black hat, and
black-and-white-dotted tie. Black jeans match everything else. I step outside,
my Converse vigorously taking the sidewalk beneath them.
Laura meets me at Herald Square.
Broadway and 23rd and 4th cut together into an awkward
intersection beside Madison Square Park. The Wafels and Dinges cart takes over
a curb by the Flatiron building. We munch on chocolate-bathed Belgian waffles
“You’re in a good mood.” Laura has
become eternally frazzled. I can’t tell if it’s from late nights or early
mornings at Starbucks.
“Yeah,” I reply with a mouthful of
head down Broadway. I want to ask her opinion of my Huge application, but it bubbles
up within me and doesn’t release. I know she’ll think it was idiotic. I just
don’t want to deal with the reality. Broadway opens to a short street before
reaching Union Square. We whip around the corner and into the four-story Barnes
and Noble, which, despite its size, seems to contain the same amount of books
as any Barnes and Noble.
“Don’t you feel weird in here?” Laura
asks as we pass by the new releases table, which is layered with books that
have minimalistic cover designs, following the latest design trend.
I reply, “It’s a little masochistic, but
seeing all these crap authors reminds me that I will be published, since I’m
better.” Of course, if I’m in the right mood, they discourage me rather than
Laura picks up Factotum from a table. She flips through the thick pages and smells
them. “I have so much nostalgia for Barnes and Noble. Even the smell. Remember
when Mom would drop us off here while she ran errands? We would take books off
the shelf and read them in the back because we thought it was stealing.”
“We were hardcore.”
I sigh and just get it off my chest. “I
got drunk last night and sent an emotional breakdown of a cover letter to
Laura shrugs. “We’ve all been there,
don’t feel bad about it. You haven’t lived until you’ve sent a resume coated in
your own dried tears.”
I pluck On Writing off the table just so I have something to play with.
“Their HR motto was, ‘Get paid for giving a shit.’” I flip through the pages,
letting them swiftly run under my fingertips. “I give a shit. I give so many
shits I have diarrhea.”
Laura chuckles. She holds the Slaughterhouse Five’s edge and leans it
out from the shelf. “But they don’t want diarrhea. They want a ninja coder.”
“A rockstar designer.”
“A social media guru.” She releases the
book, and it plops back into the row. “Somebody wrote that with a straight
face. I can’t fathom the lack of soul it requires to do that.”
“But I’m proud I did it.” I say, “It was
me. It was desperate, awkward, painful, but it was me, and when HR reads that
letter, they’ll know I’m a real person.”
Laura shrugs. “They might even give you
advice on being a copywriter.”
“Exactly. I’m sick of business-speak
because it takes away who you are as a person and replaces you with this
“You’re not afraid it’ll embarrass you?”
“That business-speak lands people jobs. Business
is built around turning humans into capital. By showing you’re a real, feeling
person, you probably won’t get it.”
“They’re not corporate. They definitely
want people, not androids.”
“I guess. I don’t really know. I work in
“Corporate structures are changing. Look
at Facebook. They value their employees as people. It’s totally going to be a
Laura looks me in the eyes. “You’ll be
I sigh. “I’ll believe that when I’m
dead, after living a fulfilling life.”
We head for the second floor. Laura
leans against the escalator’s side, holding the sliding railing. “A four year
degree and 50k in debt, and all I can get is a job as a barista.”
I stand on the step below her. “I’m
“How much savings do you have left?”
“Enough to last until March. Then I’m
kaputt here and return to wonderful Illinois.”
“At least rent is cheap. Dave even said
we could stay at his new place.”
“But the boredom withers you away into
nothing.” We reach the second floor. It’s only pastel children’s books. We head
up the escalator to the third floor. I pass by Laura and stand on the step
above her. “I mean, there is always the money from the policy.”
Laura looks down at the YA shelf as it
disappears beneath us. “I don’t want to touch that money.”
“Her debt barely took a chunk out of it.
We even splurged on the ceremony and still have a lot left.”
She keeps staring at the white wall
below us. “Then have it all, Calvin.”
“I’m not going to use it unless I’m
really desperate. And I’ll get something, even if I have to work two jobs.”
She looks up at me. “Be prepared for it.
I roll my eyes. “You haven’t even
graduated yet, and you’ve given up.”
not like you’re a ringing endorsement for post-grad life. How many applications
is it now?”
“318. Not a single interview.”
We aimlessly wind through the nonfiction
aisles. My phone vibrates. A new email.
“Shit.” I stop. I sit down in a
Laura looks over her shoulder. “What?”
“Calvin, Thank you very much for your
interest and enthusiasm in Huge. At this
time, we do not have an ideal role suited to your experience and skills. Please check in with us from time to time as
our needs evolve. We will keep you in
our records for future potential opportunities. We wish you the best of luck in
your job search and please feel free to apply again in the future. We’d love to
keep in touch, you can find us at: Twitter.com/hugeinc. Facebook.com/huge. Linkedin.com/company/huge_1 . Warm regards, The Huge Recruiting Team”
“What did you expect?”
“A human being.” I start reading over
the email again.
“Despite their legal status,
corporations aren’t humans.”
“I don’t think they even read my letter.
They probably put my resume into a filing program, saw that it didn’t have
enough keywords, and booted it out.”
“I’m sure someone read it.”
“And if they did, then they ignored me.
They couldn’t just help me out with a little job search advice?”
“Nobody cares, Calvin.”
“Maybe if I bomb their offices, they’ll
give me attention.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. They can’t hire
you if they don’t have an office. Send anthrax to the senior copywriter.
Assassinations create job openings, not terrorism.”
I tap my phone against my forehead and
groan. “Now I need liquor, and job applications blew my budget.”
“I’ll pay. But next time make sure to
budget for the pre- and post-application binges.”
move towards First Avenue, where we find a tiny corner liquor store on 15th
street. Laura buys me a small Jack Daniels flask. She purchases Jim Bean for
herself. Brown bags cover both bottles, expect for the cap. “The liquor nulls
the pain in my legs after a shift,” she adds. An old customer lingers, talking
to the old cashier behind the counter. Regulars always mill about these delis
and shops and bodegas.
we turn down narrow 15th Street. Laura quickly glances around,
unscrews the cap on her bottle, and, clutching the brown bag tightly around the
bottle’s neck, leans back for a swift, but deep, swig.
a quiet street, for New York. There’s only five people on it. We pass by a
corner bar, then apartments, whose window lights are vivid in the night.
“I’m sorry I bitch a lot. It’s just that
I want things so badly.” I decide to join Laura in the no-fucks-given party and
unscrew my Jack Daniels. “Especially just getting published. It burns in me. Do
you, like, have a passion?”
“I have goals and a passion.” Laura
takes another sip before shuttling across the street.
I catch her as we hit the next block.
“What are they?”
“I don’t really want to tell you.”
“You can trust me.”
“I don’t feel like it.”
“But we’re twins.”
“We’re supposed to open up.”
Laura stops. She stuffs the brown bag
under her arm as she fishes out her lighter and Marlboros. She lights a
cigarette. She puts her lighter and cigarette box into her pocket. She holds
her brown bag against her chest. She takes a deep drag.
She stares at a faraway place.
I’m about to talk before she cuts me
“I feel like my leg is cut off, and I’m
begging for death so that the pain and agony and bleeding can finally end.” She
falls back against the brick wall behind her. Her head cocks to her shoulder,
and she stares at her sneakers. “The whole world isn’t at our feet. It’s out of
I shake my head. I know where she’s
going. “I can’t quit. I can’t entertain the thought. I’ve had to scratch and
claw for every shred of happiness in my life, and I’m becoming very good at
scratching and clawing.”
Laura looks up, her head still cocked to
I pace, burning off energetic
frustration. “I just want to end the struggle. I’d love to be mundane. I’d love
to be normal and have a wife, two daughters, and a big house in the suburbs.
Just live in financial and emotional security, never really having to struggle
for anything anymore.”
Laura traces her cigarette like a crayon
on the bricks. “I just want a peaceful oblivion.”
We walk in silence
back to Union Square. It gets busier. Now, there’s swarms on the sidewalk. A
homeless man prowls the curb. He chucks incoherent babble at passerby. He
throws his entire will into each scream, his body rippling as his voice gutters
out from his throat. “YOU. I SEE YOU KID. I SEE YOU. YOU DON’T WALK AWAY FROM
ME. YOU HAVE A RED SHIRT ON. YOU DON’T GET INTO ANY TROUBLE.” Laura and I join the
crowd in passing him without a glance.
Tommy Partl has been published in Illumination Magazine and The Pennsylvania Literary Journal. He also writes for A Place To Hang Your Cape and NY Theatre Guide.
Dr. Nathaniel Minton provides a glimpse of the poet Ted Hughes’ inner circle (Hughes called them “the gang”) from his Cambridge days. Dr. Minton knew both Hughes and Sylvia Plath throughout their creative and personal lives, and he writes with an informal intimacy of style sometimes lacking in other memoirs about Hughes. Minton also shares abiding memories of Hughes and the women in his life at the time: wife Sylvia Plath, and lovers Assia Wevill and Susan Alliston.
He shares his perspective on the fateful night at the St. Botolph’s Review launch party, when two oceans converged (Hughes and Plath), but cannot recall whether he actually witnessed their meeting. Plath notably did not like Minton and treated him disrespectfully when he saw her last. She wrote ill of him in her journals in unkindly terms.
Whilst confessing that he lacked the literary background of others in Hughes’ circle, Dr. Minton admits that he harboured a liking for Gerard Manley Hopkins and knew some lines of Shakespeare and Blake. He touchingly recalls how an Irish Muse flitted away across the Irish sea, leaving him with an enduring love for Irish culture, its mythology and the poetry of W. B. Yeats.
With Hughes he shared an interest in the Jewish Kaballah and suggests that it was Assia Wevill who drew him to it, though he would already have been familiar with Jewish mysticism and folklore before her appearance in his life. Minton argues that Wevill was, in fact, psychologically disturbed and tormented by Plath’s death (a few years later she too would commit suicide as Plath had done), and as has been reported elsewhere, she seemed to be haunted by Plath’s ghost. He points out that Hughes’ work in art therapy has gone largely neglected and proposes that it be seriously studied among psychiatrists and psychotherapists.
This memoir was one of the books proposed as part of a commemorative volume in celebration of the tenth anniversary of Hughes’ death. The project never came to fruition, however, due to disputes over copyright, but individual memoirs by Hughes’ close friends such as this one, are well worth a read.
Rehan Qayoom is a poet, editor and translator educated at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has featured in numerous literary publications and performed his work internationally. He has published 2 books of poetry.
The Hostess – Adam Kluger Adam Kluger is a New York City born street artist & writer. A direct descendant of famed British sculptor Jacob Epstein and a past art student of renowned artist, Ion Theodore. Kluger went to the same high school as Jack Kerouac, and spent some time studying the great artists throughout…