May 242010

burroughs1William S. Burroughs & James Grauerholz in Lawrence, Kansas


When I was in grade school, William S. Burroughs visited my house. At least I think so. Strange old men with secrets were fairly commonplace in Lawrence, Kansas.  Old Man Puckett, our octogenarian next door neighbor on Delaware Street, lived alone in squalor for all the time we knew him, until he was robbed and murdered in his home. The men who killed him found little of value, but it was obvious they were looking for something. After the crime, police searched his house extensively, and after removing the floorboards they found just shy of $100,000 hidden. Old Man Puckett came to our door once trying to get us to sign some sort of petition. When he tried to come in the door without my parents’ permission, my bulldog just about ripped his arm off. My mother brought him in and wrapped his arm in gauze, but he refused to go to the hospital.

Old Man Burroughs was better prepared when he came knocking. When mother opened the door and my bulldog growled, he simply waved his cane at her and she slunk back away from him. He spoke slowly and lucidly to my mother, accusing me of trespassing on his property and chasing his cats. This was probably true – I chased every cat I saw, and so did my bulldog. My father glowered in the corner, but didn’t open his mouth.

Old Man Burroughs didn’t say a word directly to me until he’d laid out his case to my parents. He then looked directly into me. “You should know,” he said, “that I’m quite proficient with a handgun.”

Burroughs and I came into Lawrence from opposite ends. He was at the end of a life lived fuller than most, and I was just beginning mine. Both of us were bewildered. He arrived in 1981, when I was eight years old. He seems to have spent most of the eighties fluctuating between the peace of an old warrior retiring to his cottage and deep depression.  His friends had left him and the anti-establishment movement he’d helped found had been co-opted by the establishment. He grudgingly accepted his induction into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983, and went home broke.  He tried to get Ginsberg, Gysin, Giorno, and the rest of them to come visit him, but they mostly scoffed, referring to his new home in Kansas as Nowheresville.

For the life lived outside the communal graces of religion, family, and conventional sexuality, he was now paying in loneliness. His closest friends were the brood of cats he gathered around his house on Learnard Street. By 1987 he’d finished The Western Lands, the final volume of his Red Night trilogy, in which he supposedly gathered the loose ends of his previous work into a cohesive mythology. I haven’t read the trilogy. I have, however, read The Cat Inside, a brief and surprisingly tender volume he published in 1986 about his beloved brood. In one passage he recounts a series of dreams he has about Ruski and Fletch, his first cats, in which their heads are on the bodies of children. He doesn’t know how to take care of children but he vows to protect them, saying, “It is the function of the guardian to protect hybrids and mutants in the vulnerable stage of infancy.” I’m now very sorry if I tormented his cats.

When I left home at 17, I discovered William S. Burroughs – the writer, not the old man. It wasn’t until I heard a recording of him reading that I made the connection between the two. I read Naked Lunch three times, desperately trying to make heads or tails of it. Like most other male college English majors, I became obsessed with the Beats. But mostly, I loved, still love, the voice of William Burroughs. It was at once weathered and sarcastic, two attributes I assumed of myself way too early. But that’s what it was – William S. Burroughs was who I wanted to be, the literary tradition I wanted to come from, and I’ll even say it – the father I wished I had. His death in August of 1997, just a couple short months after Ginsburg’s, officially ended the Beat Generation, though it had long been usurped and bowdlerized by its own legend. I eventually wrote my graduate thesis on the influence of Naked Lunch on film and popular culture, but I wanted much more than that to write about the influence of William S. Burroughs on me.

Burroughs had a son of his own, Billy Burroughs. I’m continually surprised at how few people know this – or even believe it – when I mention it. But it’s easy to understand why, really.  Not even taking into account his homosexuality, Burroughs just doesn’t seem like father material. He had, after all, shot the boy’s mother. And he in fact wasn’t much of a father to Billy, mostly allowing his own parents to raise him. Billy went to stay with his father in Tangiers where,  according to an article Billy wrote for Esquire, Burroughs allowed at least one of his friends to molest his son. Billy wrote that article shortly before he died at age 33, saying that his father had poisoned his life. He did, though, read and reread his father’s books – I imagine this was a way to feel close to his shadow-father – and cherished every scrap of affection his father threw him, like the Rimbaud copy mailed to him when he reached puberty, the glass-cased Amazonian butterflies , and the shrunken heads mailed from Africa. Billy also wrote two novels. While his father was recovering from his heroin addiction, Billy became an alcoholic of the most extreme sort, vomiting blood while having dinner with Ginsberg, needing an experimental liver transplant, and eventually dying alone in a ditch in Florida. William Burroughs was in New York when Ginsberg called and told him. That was 1981, the year Burroughs moved to Lawrence. Burroughs fell back into methadone and/or  heroin use around that time, and was addicted for the rest of his life.

My Grandpa Light, my mother’s father, died in 1997, a few months before Burroughs. I loved him, but I didn’t cry at his funeral the way I cried in my apartment  that August. My Grandpa Proctor, my adoptive father’s father, died just last October.  He’d had lung cancer for about a year. I hadn’t gone back to see him because he wanted me to reconcile with his son, whom I’d chosen not to see since my mother divorced him. When I said I couldn’t Grandpa Proctor disowned me, via email. But I went back to Kansas when he was pissing blood and treatments were stopped. I didn’t know if he’d let me in when I showed up on his doorstep. But he did. He was old, and broken, and wanted to talk. So we talked – about his job as the first union projector operator at the theater downtown, and how all his sons got smallpox the same summer when they lived on 19th Street and they had to quarantine the house and have the rest of the family stay out at the shack on Lone Star Lake. I remembered that shack – we used to spend our summers there when I was in early grade school. It was only about half the size of the loft apartment my wife and I were sharing when my grandpa got cancer, but somehow my grandparents fit all three of their sons, parents, siblings, and their families into it. I asked him what happened to that old place.

lone-star-lake-crewAt Lone Star Lake – my grandpa (far left), adoptive father (middle), and uncles (photo courtesy of my Aunt Carol)

“Oh, we sold that place sometime round ‘85, to some old artist type, name of Burroughs. You probably heard of him.” He then told me how this artist type didn’t even do much out there after he bought it, just rowed out to the middle of the lake and sat all day. “And get this,” Grandpa told me, “I sold it to him for under $30,000. Now just two years ago the owners sold it for $160,000 to some guy in England, just because that old Burroughs lived there.” I didn’t believe him when he told me, but I googled it and found the eBay listing. I even found a journal entry from Burroughs himself about our shack:

I got me this cabin out on the lake. Got it cheap since I was able to put up cash, which the owners needed to put down on another house they is buying out in the country. Could easy sell it now, but what for? A few thousand profit? Nowadays what can you do with that kinda money? My neighbor tells me right in front of my dock (I’ve got access, and that is the thing matters here on the lake… a dock, see!), well, my neighbor tells me that right in front of my dock is the best catfish fishing in the lake, but I don’t want to catch a catfish…I could cope with a bass, or better, some bluegills — half pound, as tasty fish as a man can eat — fresh from the lake, and I got me an aluminum flat bottom boat, ten foot long, $270…a real bargain. I likes to row out in the middle of the lake and just let the boat drift…

So there it is. Burroughs spent the last years of his life in the middle of the lake of my youth. I won’t even venture a guess as to what he thought about out there, but I do know that less than a month before he died in 1997 he wrote in his journal:

Mother, Dad, Mort, Billy – I failed them all –

And I don’t know what conclusions to draw from that, what lesson there is to be learned, what connections there are to make. I’m now 36 years old, three years older than Billy Burroughs was when the weight of his father’s legacy ravaged his liver and landed him in a ditch in Florida, but less than half as old as William Burroughs was when he exited the world addicted, without a family, and adrift alone in the middle of a lake so muddy my wife refuses to set foot in it. I have a daughter now, who will be a year old in just a couple of weeks. Somehow I’m glad she’s not a son.

burroughs-rowingBurroughs, rowing in Lone Star Lake

— John Proctor


May 212010

Here’s a poem by John B. Lee, a poet who lives in Brantford, ON, just along the highway from the farm where I grew up and which my family still owns. For a while, John even taught at the high school I once attended. One nice coincidence: The first time I co-judged (with the novelist Lisa Moore) the Winston Collins/Descant Best Canadian Poem contest, we picked John Lee. The judging was blind, so the convergence of fates was particularly appealing. “Burning Land” is written, yes, in Canadian. “Stoneboat” is a word I grew up with: a flat plank sled on low iron-shod wooden runners, drawn by horses, used to haul stones out of the fields. (See also “tobacco boat”–a tall narrow sled on steel runners, drawn by a single horse between tobacco rows during harvest.)  James Reaney was a massively influential and inspirational southwestern Ontario (Sowesto, as we call it) poet and mythographer. Raymond Knister was an early modern short story writer and novelist who died young in a drowning accident. His was the first Canadian novel I ever read that was about my home territory–he even talks about tobacco growing (we raised tobacco from the 1920s on). Raymond Knister’s daughter still lives in Waterford, my home town. I ran into her in the drugstore last fall.



Burning Land

“talk farmer …”
my mother chastens me
in conversation, for
though I have been to school
I’m still her wayward son
and what shall I say
shall I say
clevis and gambrel
sheaf and stook
shall I limit my earth
to the matter of mud
the matter of water and loam
or lambing in April
or driving a spile in the bloat of a cow
or the bark of maple in spring
what shall I tell her
concerning the Georgics of Virgil
the shearing of ewes, the keeping of bees
of Piers and his plough
of Jefferson’s science
of the three sisters of the Iroquois
or of Clare who wept at the closures
of the Idylls and eclogues of Spenser
of old or the pastoral beauty
of Eden and Eve
of her murdering son
and the land where he roamed

how David the King was a poet
with his lyre and his psalms, how he sang among sheep
how Wendell Berry walks on Sunday
with his pencil to the page
how Frost came appling out of orchards
blunt and rubbling at his dry stone wall
how Reaney
lost his Milton in a furrow
how his father
pierced a gasy rumen with a fountain pen
how Knister came to wintering after horses
writing “the horses will steam when the sun comes”
and how I listen for such lines
how I learned my Greek on shoulders
my mind much like a stoneboat with a single earth-heaved stone
how I came to Latin
in a cowflap, Latin fallen from the paper cows of Rome
how I told myself such stories
with a clay clod in my hand
I might have been Prometheus
with my breath of ancient words
while the ashes of my forehead
burned like burning land.

—John B. Lee

May 152010

Herewith it’s a huge pleasure to introduce my friend  Bill Gaston, a writer of poignant and sometimes Rabelaisian family stories, plays, novels, and a fine sports memoir Midnight Hockey. He teaches creative writing at the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island (way to the left if you’re looking at a map of Canada). “The Night Window” can be found in print in Bill’s story collection Gargoyles. It’s a story I know well because I included it in Best Canadian Stories the last time I edited the annual anthology (during my ten years as editor, I picked Bill three times).


The Night Window

By Bill Gaston


Tyler’s librarian mother has brought two home for him. He hefts them, drops them onto his bed. One is on fly fishing. The second is Crime and Punishment. Tyler suspects Dostoevsky is a writer he will read only if made to, for instance if it’s the only book he brings on this camping trip.

Tyler knows that what he is actually weighing here is his degree of insubordination. Yesterday his mother’s boyfriend–Kim–went through all their gear, inspecting wool sweaters and cans of food. Peering into Tyler’s hardware store plastic bag he shook his head and pointed in at the new reading-light with its giant dry cell battery.

“It’s a natural-light camping trip,” he said, unpointing his finger to waggle it, naughty-naughty, in Tyler’s face. Tyler saw how he could fall to an easy hate of his mother’s boyfriend, except that Kim was just always trying to be funny. His mother had explained this early on.

“Umm…no lights?” his mother began, half-coming to Tyler’s defense. “If I have to pee in the middle of the night? Kim, you want some on you?”

It was this kind of statement (which had Kim laughing over-loud) that made Tyler turn away blank faced, that made him not want to go camping, and let his mother go wherever she wanted without him. It must be exactly this sort of statement that offends her co-workers at the library; it’s the reason she fits nowhere, and dates someone like Kim Lynch.

Continue reading »

May 132010



This past  month I’ve read and re-read fifteen short pieces, each of which  might be called a list essay. I say this with the confession that before last month I didn’t even know such a form existed. I did, though, find myself writing in it and blindly starting to lay out some basic precepts as I wrote, then trying to identify them in other essays. I can’t precisely identify  the methods I used in finding the essays I chose, except to say that I searched through my non-fiction anthologies for essays that looked like the ones I was writing (and I mean “looked” in the most physical sense – I tried to find essays that resembled lists), googled the term “list essay,” and asked everyone I knew if they could think of possible examples. Perhaps rather haphazardly, I found and read the following “list essays”:

  • Leonard Michaels, “In the Fifties
  • Wayne Koestenbaum, “My ’80s
  • Jonathan Lethem, “13, 1977, 21” [from Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist; also the anthology The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction]
  • Susan Allen Toth, “Going to the Movies” [from Harper’s Magazine, May 1980; also The Fourth Genre anthology]
  • Carol Paik, “A Few Things I Know About Softball” [from Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Volume 9, Number 2, Fall 2007, also The Fourth Genre anthology]
  • Debra Marquart, “Some Things I Know About That Day”
  • Wendy Rawlings, “Virtually Romance: A Discourse on Love in the Information Age”
  • Nancy Lord, “I Met a Man Who Has Seen the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and This Is What He Told Me” [from Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Volume 9, Number 1, Spring 2007, also The Fourth Genre anthology]
  • Michele Morano, “Grammar Lessons: The Subjunctive Mood” [from Morano’s Grammar Lessons, also The Fourth Genre anthology]
  • Meriwether Clarke, “The Grimm Brothers: A List Essay
  • Sei Shonagon, “Hateful Things” [from Shonagon’s Pillow Book, also The Art of the Personal Essay anthology]
  • Christopher Smart, “My Cat Jeoffry” [from Smart’s Jubilate Agno]
  • Brenda Miller, “Table of Figures” [from Miller’s Blessing of the Animals, also The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol.3]
  • Anonymous, “(names have been changed)” [from The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol.3]
  • Dawnelle Wilkie, “What Comes Out” [from The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol.3]
  • Tim Bascom, “Community College”

In reading at these essays I tried to establish certain “rules” that the pieces seemed to share, and found that in fact this motley crew did have some common characteristics.  I also should note that I’m looking at the pieces in terms of their connections to this form, not as individual pieces, so all references to them will be in terms of how they illustrate the precepts of the form. So here’s what I learned:


That the term “List Essay” might not be precisely correct. David Blakesley wrote a review of Reinventing Rhetoric: The Dialectic of List and Story by John D. O’Banion, in which he sums up O’Banion’s admixture of the list story like this:

List is the form of discourse utilized by logic or systematic thought; story is the form utilized by narratival thought… In their application, “List records scientific truth, with logic providing tests of a List’s accuracy and universality. Story embodies aesthetic ‘truth’ (meaning), with narration providing guidance in revealing and discovering such situationally bound meaning.”

It’s important to point out here that the list essay is a different entity than the list story, since technically the essay is a non-fiction form that usually contains elements of both systematic and narrative style. So by this reasoning, almost every essay is to some degree  a systematic-narratival or list-story essay – the only “list essays” would be the ones that don’t employ any narrative. With this in mind, I’d propose the title systematic narrative essay. Aesthetically it’s not as concise as “list essay,” but I think it actually rolls off the tongue quite nicely. And the process itself of reading a bunch of unrelated essays and attempting to delineate precepts that they all follow is itself an example of the tightrope walk between narrative thought and systematic application, as each of these essays does tell a story, most of them intensely personal, and my attempt here is to figure out some analogous connections between their systematic methods of telling those narratives.


That the force that drives the essay is at least as much concept as plot. The list essay could be called a non-fiction concept story. In eleven of the 15 essays I read, the concept was even stated in the title:

“Community College”

“Table of Figures”

“Grammar Lessons: The Subjunctive Mood”

“A Few Things I Know About Softball”

“I Met a Man Who Has Seen the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and This Is What He Told Me”

“Going to the Movies”

“My ‘80s”

“In the Fifties”

“The Search for Marvin Gardens”

“The Grimm Brothers: A List Essay”

“Virtually Romance: A Discourse on Love in the Information Age”

And in the other three the concept was subtly, almost secretly  implicit:

“A Few Things About That Day” [about an abortion]

“What Comes Out” [about an abortion clinic]

“(names have been changed)” [about an 11-year-old girl with HIV, presumably from her stepfather or uncle)

The importance of this is that not just the action, but the structure itself of each essay revolves around the concept. And “revolve” is a good word for it, as very few of the list essays I’ve read follow a linear narrative, and even the ones that generally do, like “A Few Things I Know About Softball,” “Community College,” and “The Grimm Brothers: A List Essay,” break up the narrative with systematic stylistic devices. In “…About Softball” Paik breaks up the sections with headings like “Lesson1: Put your body in front of the ball,” “Lesson 2: Catch with both hands,” and so forth. “Community College” reads like a log book of a college lecturer, with headings for each of the 16 weeks of the semester. “The Grimm Brothers” injects social, literary, and historical critique into a skeletal summary of the brothers’ lives, attempting to draw conclusions as to how they wrote the fairy tales that have become part of Western culture’s collective unconscious.. In Jonathan Lethem’s “13, 1997, 21” he tells the story of watching Star Wars twenty-one times at the age of thirteen when it came out in the summer of 1977, and even the form serves the content – it’s told in twenty-one short, concentric sections.


That they can be panoramic in scope or ultra zoomed in, sometimes both at the same time. The panoramic view  allows essayists to think of their subjects  on a macro level. In Michaels’s “In the Fifties” and Wayne Koestenbaum’s “My ‘80s,” both writers use the decade to frame events in their own coming-of-age stories. Both relate literary and cultural touchstones associated with the respective decades – Michaels using Dylan Thomas, McCarthyism and Greenwich Village bohemians and Koestenbaum using Tama Janowitz, AIDS, and the Greenwich Village gay subculture – to private events in their own lives. This juxtaposition gives these private events an epic scope. Conversely, in “The Grimm Brothers: A List Essay,” Meriwether Clarke uses 53 ultra-short paragraphs (1-3 lines each) seemingly to remove the epic-ness of the Grimm Brothers’ legend, simply relaying fact after fact about their lives and work. I’ve found the zoomed-in approach less common in list essays. But, like on Debra Marquart’s “Some Things About That Day” in which she lists everything she remembers about the day she had an abortion, the process of listing everything one remembers about one event can reveal to the writer and the reader why this event has defined the writer. The essay is only two pages, eleven paragraphs of 4-6 lines each. In the third paragraph, she finds it “difficult to remember the order in which things happened.” In the seventh paragraph she recounts telling her husband she was pregnant and him asking, “Is it mine?” And in the last paragraph she arrives home from the procedure to find him watching the NBA playoffs and telling her how brave she is. This isn’t the only action of the short essay, but I point it out because it reveals the importance of this day as a reflection of the days before and after it. Also, in “13, 1977, 21” Lethem attempts, through the prism of the systematic retelling of his pre-teen obsession with Star Wars, to come to grips with his mother’s death at the time and his own budding sexuality. Which brings me to the next thing I’ve learned:


That the form is a great way for the writer to get grip on material, how it fits together. So many of the essays I read seem to be working themselves out either implicitly or explicitly in the process of listing and arranging all the individual parts. In “Going to the Movies,” Toth, in three brief numbered sections, tells of three different men she goes to the movies with, how they watch movies, and how she watches movies with them. Each of these is reactive, starting with the men’s names (“Aaron takes me only to art films.” “Bob takes me only to movies that he thinks have a redeeming social conscience.” “Sam likes movies that are entertaining.”) and portraying herself only in her semi-romantic relationships to them. Then, in the fourth and final section, she tells of going to the movies alone, putting her feet up, and singing along to musicals with happy endings, where “the men and women always like each other.” It is through the systematic, quantified analysis of the men she goes to the movies with that she finds her own place in the narrative. In “The Subjunctive Mood” Morano employs a 2nd-person perspective to simulate a Spanish language lesson, which she beautifully interweaves with her on-and-off relationship with a suicidal man while living in Spain: “This is the when, the while, the until. The before and after.The real and the unreal in a precarious balance…But at least the final rule of usage is simple, self-contained, one you can commit to memory: Certain independent clauses exist only in the subjunctive mood, lacing optimism with resignation, hope with heartache.” “Community College” also uses this teacher’s perspective to frame his narrative in time and space, logging his students’ actions strictly from their interactions with him as their writing teacher. By Week 16 – Finals Week – he knows probably more about the students’ personal lives than he wants to, and the Week-by-Week log of their failures, excuses, and minor triumphs shows as well as any essay I’ve read the unique relationship a college professor has with his or her students.


That they’re generally pretty short. The title of one, “I Met a Man Who Has Seen the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and This Is What He Told Me,” is nearly as long as any of the nine sections. The longest essay here by far, “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” clocks in at a whopping eight pages, and is by far the shortest piece by John McPhee I’ve read. I’m going to test this precept this summer in reading what seems like a book-length systematic narrative, The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs, in which he writes about reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica for a year and arranges the book as A-Z mock entries.


That the language of the form is generally spare, implying connections that the reader must infer from the systematic framework the essay sets up.  A good example of this is the pair of essays, “What Comes Out” and “Some Things About That Day.” As stated earlier, both center conceptually on abortion. But they deal from opposite sides of the plate glass window, Marquart recounting her own experience getting an abortion and Wilkie recounting the life of the health care worker assisting with the abortions. Both are short, unassuming, and quietly heartbreaking, and neither says what is implied. Wilkie even starts the essay by telling the reader, “We do not talk about What Comes Out,” then clinically and unsparingly  takes the reader through the process the health care workers go through in removing and disposing of it. Marquart, in two brief pages, reconstructs from hazy memory the same process , stating that “My friend tried to soften it for me afterwards. Just say you had a procedure, dear.” So, for both, perhaps the United States’ most heated contemporary political debate becomes simply a procedure to get something out. The human narrative is embedded in the systematic procedure.


That the form, while contemporary, is not without antecedents. I recently discovered “Hateful Things” from the “pillow book” of 10-Century Japanese matron and snob Sei Shonagon, which as advertised is a list of things she hates, including pretentious people, inkstones that malfunction, and men who leave after overnight trysts without saying goodbye. She even states, “Sometimes one greatly dislikes a person for no particular reason – and then that person goes and does something hateful.”

“My Cat Jeoffry,” a poem, is perhaps the piece I remember most from my undergraduate early English literature survey course.  Its systematic structure is rigid – 74 lines, every one starting with “For,” all praising his beloved cat. Smart was obviously insane and did in fact spend a good portion of his life in an asylum, but the 74 lines of “My Cat Jeoffrey” do give a loose, loving, altogether unique narrative portrait.


I went out to lunch this week at Hunan Delight, my new favorite place in Park Slope for cheap Chinese, and when I opened my fortune cookie at the end of lunch it read:

Digital circuits are made from analog parts.

I’m not usually one to assume meaning in mass-produced slips of paper, but this one spoke to me. I come from a family of electricians and mechanics, and though I can barely keep the oil changed in my car and frequently need my wife to help me operate my Macbook, I know this much: Digital circuits work in bits of information, each bit working into the systematic logic of the circuit; if any bit doesn’t logically fit, the circuit will malfunction. Each bit, though, works in a continuous  strain, and thus has its own infinitely variable narrative order. I teach a class on convergent media, and one of the things we talk about is how digital (online) media have changed the way we read, and think. With the rise of non-fiction as a predominant form in publishing market, perhaps the systematic-narrative, or list essay, is both a response and a reflection of this change.

—John Proctor


May 122010




Hazlitt said, “Every word must be a blow.” And that’s the way Victoria Redel writes. Every word and phrase a hammer blow, crafted along the edge of a twisty syntax that is taut, teasing, emphatic and lascivious.

Swoon is something else, is gorgeous, a complex triptych of a book, a classic three-step structure held together by the strings of eros and femininity and point of view (that woman poet) and the technical threading–the repetition of the italicized “Such Noises” prologue poems and the smaller linguistic and image parallels (see, for example, how “…bend into the microphone…” on p.4 in “Somewhere in the Glorious” transforms into “And with that she’d sing, tilting and leaning into/ the purpled head…” on p. 71 in “Tilted Woman”; and how Akhmatova, the “Russian woman” and “my mothers” in “Such Noises” on p. 3 return as the “old Jew” who kvelts in “Noisy Woman” on p. 77). And so, though the book moves through its sequence–the young lover in the throes of eros the bittersweet, to the mother, to the multiple female characters of the austere, Chekhovian prose poems in the last section–it is one complexly woven whole.

In Swoon, Redel has hit her form in a spectacular fashion. She is alive in language. She’s a mature poet, a knowing poet, a wild, romantic poet. But, in the end, what she is most besotted with (what the poet in the poems is besotted with) is language itself.

Look at that second poem already mentioned “Somewhere in the Glorious”; two lines in the middle go: “I have only all my waiting. For what have I waited/ by cross street and elbow, for what gadget of transformation?” Then, two poems later, in “Cabin Note”: “We are still waiting./ But for what?” And then in the next poem “Damsels, I”: “If not for paradise then for what/ do I rut, incorrigible in the palm of your hand?” Nevermind that I’d give anything to have written any of these sentences myself with their insistent and erotic parallel constructions, their open-ended and endless interrogatives, their theological and sexual weavings, their surprising turns of phrase. But Redel has actually managed to thread and suspend the thought through three different poems over several pages so that the mind of the reader, in the middle poem (with its acute exploitation of white space, the emptiness of waiting, quite specific to this poem), is really suspended, in suspense, unconsciously waiting for the syntactic pay-off. And the pay-off is spectacular, not because of the thematic surprise (the connection between desire for spiritual transformation and for love is an ancient theme) but because of the language, the bull’s-eye perfect “what”/”rut” rhyme in the third poem. It goes straight to the heart and the mind. It’s what makes Redel a masterful poet.

I love things like this: “What we do we do in this life with our clothes still mostly on.” A line I could write an essay on, an epigram made poetry by the atypical verb placement. Think how a line like this gets built up. It starts with the idea: We do what we do in life with our clothes on. (A slightly anti-romantic, pretty realistic view of what life is like after you’re grown up.) Redel inverts natural word order–“We do what we do” to “What we do we do”– to make the line surprising, give it rhythm and zing. What we do we do in life with our clothes on. An interesting idea but still not a line Redel would write. She adds the word “still” so that we get: “What we do we do in life with our clothes still on.” Which builds in the antithetical picture of what we do with our clothes off which, accordingly, is not what we really do in life. And finally she adds the amazing “mostly”–“our clothes still mostly on” which twists the whole sentence with a wry, ironic tweak. The epigram becomes story, it becomes the image of a couple doing what they do in life but half-in or half-out of their clothes, that sad, comic moment of struggling, half-dressed transition from passion to so-called real life.

—Douglas Glover

See also “Swoon.”



May 112010

I recently started reading Steven Heighton’s essay collection, The Admen Move on Lhasa, after discovering his writing on Numero Cinq.  The title essay elegantly compares a work of art to a “living and visionary” city, in this case, Lhasa, Tibet.   He contrasts art (and Lhasa) with advertising and schlock (and modern, planned cities.)  There were many illuminating points which I will not be able to do justice to here.  The following are just a few quotes, the ones I underlined and double starred.

…art usually involves an invitation and solicits the entry and collaboration of the audience, while advertising usually implies a threat.  Or, to continue this meandering trip towards Lhasa: art invites you into the city along any available road, while advertising dictates where you enter.  And when.

Perhaps artists can begin to suspect they’ve created a memorable city, a god-haunted world or visionary town—some site worthy of a repeated pilgrimage—only when responses to the work are unpredictably  and ungovernably divergent, diverse, off the wall, missing the point that good artists do sometimes try to make but without ever quite succeeding—always seeming instead to convey something else.  Something impossible to signpost.

Schlock makes us understudies loitering in the wings of our own lives.

It’s not that art cannot be entertainment, the way schlock is, or is advertised to be, but rather that art, while entertaining us, also unsettles.  For whatever sedates us is shuffling us off towards the great sleep of death.  Art, on the other hand, is a persistent wake-up call, the setting off of a quiet siren in the heart.

This entire collection is filled with great essays, insightful, honest and so well-written.  I hate to be simple-minded and say, This is really good, go read it, but…This is a really good collection.  Go read it!

See also Heighton’s poem and novel excerpt on Numéro Cinq.

May 052010

I’m pleased here to present the first  few pages of Steven Heighton’s new novel Every Lost Country, published just yesterday (really! May 4) by Random House in Canada. Many Numéro Cinq readers will already be familiar with Steven, having read his poem “Herself,  Revised” published here a couple of weeks ago. The poem is from his recently published collection Patient Frame. It is not my intention to flood the market with Steven Heighton prose and poetry, but the man is a walking definition of the word “prolific” and ambidextrous and a compatriot and his words are good companions in the long summer evenings.


from Every Lost Country

Air this thin turns anyone into a mystic.  Dulling the mind, it dulls distinctions, slurs the border between abstractions—right and wrong—or apparent opposites—dead and alive, past and present, you and him.  The brain, rationing oxygen, quiets to a murmur, like a fine-print clause or codicil.  You’re at high altitude for the first time and this mental twilight is a surprise as rewarding as the scenery.  This recess from judgement, sedation of the conscience.  How your sleep here seems too shallow for the nightmares that await you at a certain depth.  You and the rest of the party are basically drunk.  Till now you’ve had to treat others for minor problems only, small cuts and contusions, headaches, insomnia, so this intoxication remains a luxury, not a medical challenge.  Or a moral one.

To you, right and wrong are not abstractions.

Still, think of the freedom of those summit squads dreamily bypassing climbers fallen in the Death Zone—the strange luxury of that.  What Lawson himself has done.  You might have thought twice about joining his expedition as doctor, and bringing along your  daughter, if you’d known his story when you signed the contract.  But at this altitude your numbed mind has to wonder.  Camp One.  Put yourself in his boots if you can.  Now say for certain what you’d have done, or will do.

September 20, 2006, 4: 17 p.m.

She sees the trouble coming because she knows her father.

Sophie sits where she has sat for the last few afternoons, on the flat top of a concrete cylinder rebarred into the glacier, her backside in Nepal and her boots in China—Tibet.  The seat of her favourite ripped jeans covers the line of Chinese characters inscribed in the concrete.  Beside her stands a lightweight aluminum flagpole not much taller than she is and skewed some degrees off vertical.  The breeze cooling her back can’t stir the small Chinese flag, because monsoon winds or, more likely, mischievous Sherpas like Kaljang and Tashi have spooled and tangled the flag tightly to the pole.  Come to think of it—and the notion pleases her on a number of grounds, playful, political—she is likely seated a dozen steps or more inside China now.  Chinese border patrols have to hike up the glacier and adjust the markers from time to time.  A week ago, she and her father and Kaljang and Amaris stood at the edge of base camp and watched the Chinese set up a device on a tripod and take readings and untangle and lower the flag and remove the flagstaff and pry out the marker and roll it laboriously upslope and core new holes in the ice and slot it in.  Some of the men were in blue coveralls and black toques like a SWAT team, others in olive down vests over camouflage gear.  They trudged from chore to chore and said little.  They ignored their audience, though one of the men in camouflage, maybe eighteen or so, waved shyly and blew kisses to her and Amaris.  Amaris ignored him.  Sophie waved back.  Beside her, Kaljang’s eyes narrowed merrily in his brown face and he showed his nicotine teeth.  She snuck a glance at her father on her other side, but he too seemed tickled by the scene, rubbing his salt and pepper stubble, shaking his head affably.  He seemed almost himself again up here.

Read the rest!

May 042010

kate_waterKate McCahill on the Ganges

It’s a huge pleasure to introduce Kate McCahill who is a former student of mine at Vermont College of Fine Arts (she hasn’t graduated yet). Before coming to VCFA, Kate traveled in India, and when she came to work with me, she was writing a series of essays about that experience (with a book hovering in the near distance). These essays were remarkable for their structure and verve, their plots and their attention to character and detail. This is one of my favourites.

The big news for Kate, though, is that she’s just been awarded the Mary Elvira Stevens Traveling Fellowship, funded by Wellesley College (Kate’s undergrad school). Kate expects to get about $15,000 to finance a writing trip from Guatemala to Patagonia.



The day I met Teddy, the heat and the grimy streets of Pune had mixed a muggy haze outside, which leached its way into the bookstore, slicking our foreheads and necks. As I examined the travel section, the bell above the door clanged and Teddy came in, stood for a moment in the doorway, backlit by the sun, and then walked over, close to where I stood, so close I could hear him breathing. I watched from the corner of my eye as he scanned the horror novels and selected an old hardcover. I caught a glimpse of the curling binding: Carrie, by Stephen King.  The bell above the bookstore door clanged again; hot wind blew in.

Teddy was a tall black man with close, tight curls and white teeth save for a brown one towards the molars, which he’d learned to hide by keeping the left side of his mouth closed. Because of this, he talked with only half his mouth, and that, combined with the rotting tooth behind full lips, gave him a sly, crafty look. We were four hours northeast of Mumbai, in a city known mostly for an ashram, built by the guru Osho.

Teddy’s eyes sidled to mine as we browsed, but I looked away. Aman had warned me of certain people on my first night in Pune. There were those who came to Pune for the money there could be made selling drugs to hippies at the ashram, or slipped pills into their coffees at the German bakery, or took them away by motorbike into the night. Aman was a friend of a friend, a second cousin of a farmer I’d met while still in Dehra Dun, and I figured he was exaggerating a little, trying to scare me into being extra-careful. But I took the horror novel in Teddy’s hands as a sign nevertheless. The books on the shelf before me bore beaten bindings and dated titles, and I set my attention on those. The USSR Today, one stated gloomily. Myanmar: Temples of Splendor, read the cracked yellow spine of another. When I tugged it down, opening the long cover that drew stickily back, a flattened moth broke off and spiraled to the floor. The pages showed Technicolor tourists admiring a crumbling, sunlit temple.

Those books were like the maze-like, rutted streets outside, the old men on rickety gray bicycles, even the street-children, their cries at once pitiful and joyful, and the beggars with their practiced wheedling. I would remember each one as an enduring, Indian staple: worn by time, accustomed to crowds, doggedly resilient. Teddy, on the other hand, was fresh, with pearl buttons on his Western shirt and pointy shoes on his feet. “Have you read this?” I heard him ask. I looked up; he waved Carrie. I couldn’t help it: I smiled, shook my head, and pretended to look grim. He wasn’t like the enduring things of India, standing so tall in the bookshop, and speaking English, too.

“What’s wrong?” Teddy asked, seeing the look on my face. “What’s it about?” His question was mockingly innocent. Even if you knew nothing about Carrie, the cover, with her body stained red, told you everything. “Just joking,” he said at my raised eyebrows, and flipped fast through the pages like he was just seeing how long it was, how closely set the type.

“So, you can’t stand the gore?” he asked after another moment. When I looked at him, he winked. Be careful, Kate, a little voice said. But Teddy continued talking, and I kept listening. “That Stephen King—he’s something else,” he remarked, lowering his voice a little as an elderly Indian couple brushed past us. “He’s American, like you?”

I could tell by the way he said it that he knew the answer, but I nodded anyway. His own accent sounded imprecise—a little off-kilter, rolling and round. He was from South Africa, if I had had to guess.

He looked at me like he was waiting to hear me ask where hewas from, but I remembered Aman’s warning and said nothing. When I looked up from the Myanmar book again, he’d bent to examine the rest of the Stephen King section. I slid my book back beside the others on the shelf, and as I walked towards the door to leave I ran my fingertips along the soft spines once more. Just before I reached the end of the stack, the pad of my first finger caught on the broken coil of a spiral-bound book, and I drew my hand back. I thought I felt a tiny spark as my fingers left the book. I stopped, peered at it, then eased it out from between the other books. It was a loose-leafed notebook, the kind you buy in American drugstores. I felt Teddy glance over, but in that moment, nothing could keep me from lifting the cover and looking inside. There was something funny about that notebook, I just knew.

Handwriting choked the inside cover and the very first page: all Sanskrit and all in pencil, delicate marks made by a trembling hand. The words spilled onto the next page, and then the next and the next. In places, the writing ran over itself, and as I turned the pages the characters grew smaller and began to march up and down the margins and snake between each coil of the binding. It was as if the writer had had the book as his only source of paper for a very long time.

“Someone’s journal,” I heard Teddy whisper beside me.

“Maybe,” I said. Put it back, the little voice said, and leave Teddy. That’s what Aman would want you to do. But I just couldn’t take my eyes from those pages. The notebook felt both heavy and flimsy, like the words were weighing the cheap paper down. Teddy didn’t try to take the book, didn’t say anything else, and together we looked at the pages the way little kids look at picture books without reading the words. The tightness of those words; their growing frenzy.

Towards the very end of the notebook, we came across a nearly clean page, startling and white like a flat, smooth stone in grass. The lines resembled the veins on a wrist, and the only other thing there was a signature at the lower right. The signature was both scratchy and looping, if that can describe it: hard at its points, but soft in its curves. How had it happened, this page? I heard Teddy’s breath quicken a fragment. Had the writer waited as he filled up every other page for the person who would sign their name on the only blank one? I imagined a prisoner, or someone exiled. Someone banished. Was it a hastily scribbled prayer?

Teddy brushed the signature delicately with one calloused thumb. I reached out myself and felt the way the writing cut into the page. It was impossible to tell whether the signature was a man’s or a woman’s, in the way it both rolled and cut into the page. I glanced at Teddy; he shrugged. When I looked down again I felt a little chill, even in the hot store: looking at that page was like seeing a secret.

I felt guiltier and guiltier as I held the book in my hands. What was it doing on these shelves, anyway? I glanced towards the counter at the young shopkeeper, who was typing into her cell phone intently, perched on a stool with her legs crossed. I closed the book, knelt down, and slid it onto the lowest shelf, taking care to tuck it in so that it wasn’t easily visible to a browser. Teddy didn’t protest. It didn’t occur to me to even ask whether the book was for sale: I simply assumed it was not. For one selfish second I imagined waiting for Teddy to leave, and then slipping the book into my purse, hurrying back to Aman’s and holding it open again, this time alone.

We stood there for a while, looking at the place where I’d slid the book back. Teddy finally broke the spell. “Want to grab a chai?” he asked, and I felt relieved that he’d broken the strange book’s spell. What could be said, after all, except that those pages had held a mystery? All of a sudden I was aware again of the shouts of chai-wallas outside and the shotgun explosions of motorbike engines in the street. No, I didn’t have time to drink chai, meditations started in an hour and I still had to meet Aman beforehand. I shook my head.

“Can I at least get your name?” Teddy asked, and I gave it to him. What the hell; we’d already shared one secret. “I’m Teddy,” he replied, and plucked Carrie back up off the shelf. “I’m taking this one,” he added, grinning.

“Good luck with that,” I said, and without looking again for the spiral-bound book on the shelf, I left the store and went back out into the sunshine.

The ashram wasn’t like the rest of Pune, which was built, as far as I could tell, around the wide, trash-littered, dried-up river that divided the city. Aman lived on the northern side, opposite the ashram, up a little street lined with apartment buildings built in the seventies. Most of Pune’s streets were unpaved—except for the wide avenues that circled the city center—and were crowded with vegetable stands and bidi shops, vegetable-wallas and munching cows. If you walked from Aman’s flat away from the river and up the hill a ways, it was like stepping back in time: no cars, just cows and bike rickshaws and a crumbling red temple, centuries old. Strings of marigolds for sale. But the ashram was always gleaming, always manicured, perpetually gated to keep in the scented flowers, the shining floors, and the servants in their clean white linens.

Beggars gathered at the ashram gates, but of course they could never go in; two guards planted there day and night made sure of that. You could feel the shift as soon as you entered; gone were the noisy cars, the shouting hawkers, the trash on the ground. Fake waterfalls obliterated all unpleasant noise. Neatly shaven grass; tall, carefully-planned stands of trees.

I was late to meet Aman after the bookstore, even though I’d been rushing. It always took longer than I thought it would to race back to the flat and change into my red robe. Everyone at the ashram had to wear the red robe, even the guards and front-desk agents. The robe was to keep us all looking the same, all equals I suppose, but when you walked around the city you sure could tell who was part of the ashram and who wasn’t. The most devout in the ashram wore their red robes everywhere. Personally, I hated my robe, which chafed against my skin and made me sweat profusely, but when I didn’t wear it to the ashram Aman took offense. He’d given it to me as a gift, and wore his each day, washing it carefully in the evenings and putting it out on the little balcony to dry in the night.

I didn’t tell Aman about Teddy as we sat sipping our tea before meditation. I didn’t mention the notebook either. I wanted to keep it a secret, preserve the mystery. I held it in my mind like a precious stone, something to be guarded and saved. Instead, Aman and I just drank our tea and talked about our schedule: noon meditation, another at two, and then the White Robe ceremony in the evening.

Aman had taken great pains to ensure that I attended at least one White Robe ceremony. In the first few days I’d arrived, we’d both been too exhausted; meditation at five AM followed by afternoons of touring Pune tired us both out. But today, Aman was determined. The morning before, he’d sent me across the street to his neighbor’s, a woman who lived with her teenaged daughter. They lent me a white robe stamped with cream-colored flowers. Aman laundered it again for me after I brought it home – just in case, he’d said. In case of what? I wanted to ask, but bit my tongue. Deep down I knew why. While Aman’s apartment was clean right down to the shoes lined up by the door, the neighbor’s house was really a two-room flat, smaller than Aman’s and stinking of cigarettes, the windows shut tight to preserve the air conditioning. I didn’t mind the smell, just the close, freezing air. The television blared.

Aman drank down the last of his tea now and we made our way to the meditation room. It was just as the website pictured: the whole room sparkled with mosaics made of mirrors. Aman and I showed our ID cards at the door, removed our shoes, and went in; thirty people or so already sat cross-legged on the low, wide steps that rose toward the back of the room, their eyes closed. Silently, Aman and I joined them, and he settled into a cross-legged position. His breathing soon deepened and slowed. I closed my own eyes.

I tried to let me thoughts slip from me, but my legs fell asleep right away, still unused to the position. I cracked my eyelids open: everyone around me kept their backs straight and their hands folded. Someone dimmed the lights and a gray-haired woman wearing lots of turquoise jewelry lit a candle up front, clicked two little chimes together, and the room fell into an even deeper quiet, steady breath the only sound.

But I couldn’t keep my mind still. This wasn’t like the yoga I’d practiced up in Rishikesh, in an old man’s living room that became a studio every afternoon. In this glittering space, thoughts crowded in on me and raced around. Little twinges in my muscles and on my skin grew into itches, cramps, and I wanted to stretch so badly but knew that if I did, I would bump the people around me, break them from their trances. The candle smelled sickly sweet, and the room grew very warm with all of the bodies. Notice your breath, I reminded myself, but my thoughts just shot away from me again like little film reels. I was hungry. What were my parents doing, right now? And where was that scarf I bought in Thailand? I hadn’t seen it lately. My mind circled over itself, and then I remembered the journal. I thought of the words that filled the pages, and then startling empty one. I settled on the thought of slowly turning the notebook’s pages. I imagined touching the penciled words. Teddy’s breath on my neck. When the gray-haired, turquoise clad woman touched the chimes together again, I blinked in the light with everyone else, like waking up from a dream. I hadn’t emptied my mind, but I’d come close, had thought only of that creamy blank page for the final long minutes of the session.

Aman never spoke about his actual meditation. When I tried to ask him, on our second day together, what he tried to think of when he meditated, where he tried to send his mine, explaining that I was struggling with the concept, he’d shrugged. “We each find our way,” he’d said, and though he was never short of words anywhere else, we both avoided further discussion of the hours we spent in inward silence. After this meditation, we talked of yoga later on, of his adopted son who was planning a visit later in the week, and of where we’d take our lunch. We ambled to the German bakery, still in our robes, and ate soup together at a long table where other soul searchers, also in their robes, talked and ate too. Outside the German bakery, vendors displayed long racks of red and white robes for sale. I tried not to meet their eyes on the way out.

Aman liked to wash before the White Robe ceremony, so after we’d attended the second meditation and eaten dinner, which Aman purchased in tins from the same neighbor who’d lent me the robe, he went into the bathroom. I could hear the water running as I took off my red robe and slid on the white one. At least it was cooler, sewn of thin cotton instead of the red robe’s scratchy polyester. Aman emerged from the bathroom eventually, his hair slicked back with water, his white robe cloaked over him. He’d ironed the robe that morning; I told him it looked nice. He told me mine did too. Then we walked back across the river to the ashram, where a hundred other people in white robes waited outside of the big auditorium, its silhouette reflected in the meditation pool that lay before it.

You weren’t allowed into the auditorium until right before the White Robe ceremony, so while Aman chatted with old friends who’d donned the white robe for years, I recognized an Israeli girl, Eti, that I’d met in a yoga class the day before. She, too, was looking around, standing a little apart from everyone, so I went over to say hello. She always toted a huge backpack, and it was no wonder, with the number of robes we needed here. She smiled when she saw me coming over, and we talked about the mall, where she’d been that morning. “I just could not get up for this morning meditation, you know?” she said. “Maybe tomorrow!” And then the doors were opening and people began flowing in along both sides of the meditation pool.

It took quite a while to get to the door, because everyone needed to remove their shoes and place them in cubbies, then grab a handful of tissues for when the breathing meditation got started. People murmured and mumbled in line, but no one spoke too loud or laughed, unwilling perhaps to break the stillness of our reflections in the meditation pond. Slowly we made our way up the stairs and into the cavernous auditorium lobby. I unlaced my sneakers and tugged them off, tucking my socks inside, and stuffed them beside Eti’s in an available cubby. We started to follow the other white-robers inside.

“Miss,” I heard a woman call from behind me. Eti and I turned; the woman was talking to me. “Miss,” she said again, and beckoned with her hand for me to come back. Eti and I looked at each other; I shrugged, and she found a place on the floor.

“I’m sorry, miss,” the woman was saying, as I pushed back through the doorway, against the flow of the white robes. “You can’t attend the ceremony today.” She glanced at my robe. “It’s the flowers, these little flowers here. The robe needs to be totally white, just plain.” She shrugged her shoulders and legitimately tried to look sympathetic. Sorry, they’re the rules, her look said.

“Are you serious?” I asked her, and a few heads turned. I was making a commotion, but I just could not believe it. After Aman washed the robe? After the neighbor lent it to me? The woman nodded. “Sorry,” she said, out loud this time, and then coolly moved her gaze from my face to monitor the others who still trickled in. I glanced through the doorway; Eti had craned her neck from where she sat and was watching me, confused. I didn’t see Aman anywhere. I held up my hands at Eti, the universal gesture for who knows? Eti waved, smiled a little smile that genuinely seemed sorry, and I was at least grateful for that as I laced my shoes back up and left, taking the stairs two at a time, my face aflame.

Mostly, I was annoyed—after the initial shock of being banished wore off—that I didn’t have a change of clothes. I figured, as I tried to steady my breath and slow my beating heart, that I had two choices. I could go home, or I could wait for the White Robe ceremony to end so I could still walk back with Aman. After pondering the walk home alone, across the bridge beneath the dimming sky, I chose to wait, and so I walked out the ashram gates, white robe and all, and down to the German Bakery, where I thought I’d get a coffee and try to find a magazine, or a person to talk to, that would take my mind away from this mess.

Stupid white robes, I muttered as I walked past the beggars, who must have sensed my frustration because they didn’t even bother to approach me. Or maybe they just figured I was stingy. Or, maybe even beggars hold off when someone’s having a conversation with herself. Damn freaking flowers, I mumbled as I entered the German Bakery, and what finally stopped my cursing was the sight of Teddy, standing there at the counter plain as day and talking with the girl serving coffee.

He turned and grinned, recognized me immediately, then took a moment to look at my white flowered robe. He studied my face. “Everything okay?” he asked carefully. I must have still been red in the face.

“I’m okay,” I said, then blurted it out. “I got turned away from the White Robe ceremony just now.” He grimaced.

“Was it the flowers?” I nodded. “How’d you guess?” I asked, half sarcastic.

“I’ve been to a few of those White Robe’s in my time,” Teddy said. He put on a grim doctor’s face: “I’ve seen this a few times before.” I laughed at his tone, which compared the ceremony to a serious condition that lacked a cure.

“It’s silly,” I admitted, “but I was so embarrassed! It really sucked, you know?”

“Let’s have a coffee and make fun of the ashram,” Teddy said. I couldn’t help but laugh, and nodded yes. A coffee was what I needed, all right. For those moments I forgot all about the empty page in the journal and the little voice that warned me about Teddy, and instead just felt happy that Teddy was there, for sly as his half-smile was, he was being kind. He bought two coffees, and we looked around for somewhere to sit. All the chairs were full, tables littered with dirty cups and newspapers.

“Let’s go outside,” Teddy suggested, so I followed him out the door and we sat down on the sidewalk outside of the coffee shop, lowering ourselves carefully so as not to spill the steaming contents of our mugs.

“So what do you do here, Teddy?” I asked him as we sipped. I could smell chocolate emanating from the bakery.

“I’m a PhD student,” he answered. I was surprised, but then I knew nothing about him. “Anthropology,” he added, anticipating my next question. “I’m especially interested,” he paused, put down his books, stretched his hands out before him, “in the palms.”

“You read palms?” I asked, before I even realized the words were out of my mouth. Sure enough, he looked offended.

“I don’t just read palms,” he insisted, like he’d dodged the question all his life. “I read them in the traditional, voo-dooey way, yes,”—he wiggled his fingers in the air to emphasize voo-doo—“but my degree has many levels. Astrology, physiology, human biology, psychology…” the list petered out. He set his coffee down beside him and leaned back on the heels of his hands. “It’s a complicated degree,” he finished, and drew a pack of cigarettes from his pocket.

I watched him strike a match and light a cigarette. As an afterthought, he offered the pack to me. I shook my head. “So, what can you see in the palms?” I asked him. I looked at my own; they were sweaty, for one thing, with a few scooping lines.

“Oh, you can read many things,” he finally said vaguely, maybe still miffed at me. He drew on his cigarette and blew the smoke out into the street. He took another drag, exhaled.  “Many things,” he said again, this time as if to himself, drawing the words out like swoops of honey pulled from the jar. I guessed he’d decided to make me beg. He turned and looked at me for a long moment, his gaze uncomfortably piercing. I looked away.

“You don’t have to tell me,” I said. I reached for his pack of cigarettes and took one out. He struck the match.

“It’s not that I don’t want to tell you,” he finally said. “It’s that…” he paused, dragged. “I’m afraid to tell you what the palmist sees.” I waited for him to explain. The cigarette tasted smooth and had a thick gold filter.

“Everyone wants their palm read,” Teddy said, “but when they hear what the lines mean, they often see them as…” he waved his hands, looking for the right word. “As ugly,” he finished. “People are afraid of the truth in the lines.” He looked over, down at my hands. I was touching the lines of my left hand with my right fingers. When I noticed the movement, I lifted my cigarette to my lips.

He grinned at that. “Do you really want me to read it?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, and then I realized that I meant it. I guessed I wanted to hear what was so bad, the way we’re compelled to stare at car accidents we pass on the freeway.

“You sure?” he asked. “Because I will. I’ll tell you what it says.” His voice was still lighthearted, and I nodded.

“Okay then, hand it over. Ha, get it? Hand it?” He snickered. I fake-laughed. “I get it,” I told him, and stuck my left palm out.

He flicked his cigarette into the gutter. “Get rid of yours, too,” he said. “I need to see both.” I obeyed, tossing the golden butt in behind his. He rubbed my outstretched palms with his thumb, as if to draw out the lines. For a very long time he stared at them, looking back and forth between my two hands.

“It’s a very interesting hand,” he muttered finally. “A very, very interesting hand.” Again he went quiet, pressing my palms again with his thumbs. Then he let both hands fall.

“You will have an ordinary life,” he said with a shrug. He wouldn’t meet my eyes.

“That’s it?” I checked my palms again myself; what was so wrong with them? “Tell me, Teddy,” I urged. “I won’t be hurt.” Even then I think I knew that was a lie.

“Yes, you will,” he affirmed, and inhaled deeply, let the breath out slowly. “This is why I never read the palm of a friend,” he said, and went for his cigarettes again. “They never leave me alone, after that.”

But I wanted to know! I had to know. “Please tell me,” I said, and now I really was begging. What could be so terrifying in the lines?

“Okay,” he finally said, after a few long drags on his new cigarette. “Okay. I can tell you about here, because the hand is always changing to show the present. Here,” he reached for my right palm and poked a finger into the longest line, “in India, you are afraid. You are suspicious. And, you are often alone?” he looked at me. I nodded. “But, you feel as though you are searching for something here?” he continued. “And,” he added, “you worry you’ll go home without it.” Again he looked at me, confirming. I nodded yes. “You’re expecting something. Not expecting,” he laughed, “as you Americans say, but expectant. You’re waiting for something.”

“That doesn’t sound so horrible,” I said. It was all I could think to reply. Only later would what he’d said would really sink in; all throughout India, I felt challenged by the constant eyes upon me, the crush of people always.

“There’s something else,” he told me. “Something happened, before you were born.” He let the words sink in for a moment, then continued. “Maybe something happened with your parents, or in your family, or something. I think,” and he paused, took a drag, let the cigarette fall. “I think it was something bad.”

Ever since that moment, I’ve wondered what he meant when he said that. My parents lost a child before me; is that what so darkened my palm? But Teddy was standing now, his coffee cup empty. He stretched his arms high and glanced down at me. I must have looked bewildered, because he said, as if to comfort me, “Don’t worry, Kate. Luck will be on your side.” He mumbled something about how he had to meet his friend inside. “You okay?” he asked. I nodded. “See you, Teddy,” I called softly as he walked away, but I can’t be sure whether he heard.

Instead of returning to the ashram, I walked towards the city center, letting my mind wander into everything I passed. I just couldn’t think too much of what Teddy had said, I just couldn’t. Yet his words were like the empty page of the journal we’d found together: meaningless without context, yet important too, somehow. The most frightening thing was his hesitation, and what he withheld. I thought of the meditating rooms, and tried to send my mind to the quiet tranquility they claimed to hold. I took in the world around me, and walked for miles.

The walk to the city center was always rich for the senses. Food-sellers tended stands from dawn until dusk and the cigarette and sweet shops stayed open through the night. Boats on the river pulled up to the banks, and bums and sadhus slept on the shores, shaded by day and protected from the wind by night with trees and boulders.  Taxis pulled up from the train station; buses came through from Bombay and sometimes from as far away as New Delhi.  The wealthier, more modern side of Pune came next, with paved roads and expensive restaurants, a shopping mall and a university. Aman’s side of the river had bumpy, narrow streets, the buildings alongside crumbling from a dozen layers of paint. I thought that old paint made walls more beautiful, because you could see every color of paint ever used on the place—cream was popular, and yellow and blue. The paint told a history of the building it clung to, and judging by the number of layers around here, that history was usually long. Thin old men pedaled bike rickshaws as I approached the city-center, their sandals flapping on their feet.

The center, when I reached it, pulsed with people bicycles, a score of buses, cars that slunk through the crowds. The visitors ambling around the mall were dressed in Western clothes; almost everyone wore sunglasses, their skin tanned. I forgot about my white robe and let myself observe: the women walking here could have stepped onto Fifth Avenue and would have been admired for their beauty, their cutting-edge style. I hadn’t seen Louis Vuitton since Hong Kong, and suddenly I was surrounded. There was Jimmy Choo and Vera Wang, draped over the wrists and arms and heads of the women who glanced at me, taking in, I guess, the silly robe and the sweat at my hairline. Clearly what they thought of me was not much; they didn’t interrupt the flow of chatter into their cell phones, just raised curved eyebrows or half-smiled to themselves and turned their eyes down, amused. Still, I liked the walk, a striking contrast to the crowd Aman’s street. The woman here picked their way along in stilettos, the men in polished loafers. I imagined them pausing for a bag of mangoes or a pack of American cigarettes before hurrying on down towards the bridge to catch a rickshaw that would rush them back to the city center’s magnetic glitter.

I remembered the wealth I’d encountered in America: a few friends with houses like mansions, a ride in a limousine, dinner at an elegant restaurant with my parents, one night in a four-star, silk-sheeted hotel with my boyfriend.  Here in Pune, amidst all this downtown glamour, I felt a pang at the disconnect. How strange it seemed to have known such comfort, in a place where such a level was now inaccessible to me. I had little money, and my pack at Aman’s contained everything I’d needed, this whole time I’d been traveling. It struck me that everything I had could fit in one bag and meant nothing.

I got lost in the winding streets of Pune, and it was dark before I took a rickshaw back to Aman’s flat across the river. He’d been worried sick about me, it was clear; when I knocked on his door, he opened it immediately, relief in his eyes. His hair was greasy, like he’d run his hands through it over and over. He’d changed out of his white robe, but still had his black sneakers on.

“Oh, Katie,” he gushed, before I was even inside. “I heard about the robe.” He looked me over. “I guess I should have known. They’re very strict about the white robe.” He went to the stove to start tea. “Oh, Katie,” he went on as he filled the kettle, “Where were you? Oh, I’m so sorry. I apologize. What a long night you must have had.” He turned to look at me, to check whether indeed I’d had a long night, and perhaps to hear where, exactly, I’d been. But I couldn’t think of an excuse. How could I tell Aman that a palmist had seen something bad in my hand, and I’d wandered the city as a way to escape? I apologized, explained that I’d gone to the library and lost track of time. As we sipped our tea, I thought of being banished from the White Robe ceremony, but spared Aman the details.

Aman and I resumed our routine. For three more days we rose in the morning, walked across the river to morning meditation, then sipped tea at the ashram. I walked around the city again, this time with Eti, and together we strolled through the mall. Malls are universal things, I realized in Pune. The shops are just an excuse to gossip, to waste time, to escape from whatever burdens your home life brings to you. Each shop window was painstakingly decorated, the costumed models thin and exuberant. Aman and I did not attempt the White Robe ceremony again; we didn’t ever again speak of the night I’d been turned away.
But the ashram wore on me. Beyond the issue of the flowers on my robe, there were the fees, and the guards at the door, and the aging hippies who floated around, seeking nirvana. There was the overpriced tea, the glittering meditation room, the pristine, manicured lawns. This was not what I’d come to India to find; the closest thing to peace I’d encountered so far was the illicit blank page in the journal, the one I could settle my mind upon. After my seventh day in Pune, I told Aman I’d be leaving. I told him while we both stood in the kitchen that night, preparing tea. He was sorry, wishing I would stay so as to more fully experience the ashram, but in the end he relented, helping me to book a train ticket online to Goa, where I planned to meet a friend.

That night, Aman and I went out to dinner, I guess to commemorate my final night in his city. Aman selected a touristy place in the city center, where he was practically the only Indian man ordering dinner, but we had a fine time in any case. We both grew jolly with Kingfisher beer, and I paid the tab in order to thank Aman once more for his hospitality. We took a rickshaw back home, and then Aman lay down in his hammock and I shut out the lights. I packed the rest of my things; my train left at five the next morning. I wished, right before sleep came, to see Teddy again, of all things, and then my alarm was going off, and it was time to wake up and get going.

Aman still slept as I crept out the door. I scribbled a note on the pad beside the phone: Aman: thanks for everything. Will call when I get to Goa. Then I let myself out, closing the door quietly behind me, and then I saw the envelope on the ground.

Whoever had left it had tucked it halfway under the door. I thought it was an electricity notice, or some apartment document, but when I picked it up and lifted the open lip, I saw that it wasn’t anything Aman was meant to see. I drew the page that was inside from the envelope, knowing what it was and at the same time hoping it was anything but.

It was the empty page, with the signature in the lower right corner.

The edge of the paper was ruffled from where it had been torn from the notebook. Now ripped from its context, it had clearly been folded and smudged. It resembled trash. I held the envelope and the piece of paper with trembling hands. I remembered my train. With the papers still clutched in my hands, I ran down the stairs, through the gate, and out into the main road, where I caught a rickshaw that would take me to the station.

I don’t have the empty page anymore. When I got to Goa, I looked up the address of the bookstore and mailed it back. I don’t know why Teddy tore the page from the book, or how he knew where to leave it. But the story has stuck with me, even as my time in the ashram has fallen away. That ashram was a place where I failed, spiritually and logistically, but Teddy and the empty page remain unanswered questions in my mind. Maybe, holding that book in my hands, with Teddy looking over my shoulder, I did find what I was seeking in India. No, the memory of that moment has never left me. I think of Teddy now, his sly half-smile, and realize that perhaps its purpose was both sad and true: the gesture’s most basic intent was to hide something ugly from the world. And I can only hope that whoever wrote that journal will someday come to claim it again. I’ve prayed that they will open the cardboard cover, checking for the scrawled name, and find that page just where they left it, torn from the spiral rings but still intact, blessed in its comparative bareness.

—Kate McCahill