Nov 162010


Mike Barnes and dg met years ago at The New Quarterly WILD WRITERS WE HAVE KNOWN CONFERENCE (see the famous 400-page double issue Volume XXI, Numbers 2 & 3) in Stratford. He appeared twice in Best Canadian Stories during the decade dg was editor (which tells you what dg thinks of his fiction). He is the author of numerous books—novels, story collections, a book of poems and a stunning memoir of his own struggle with psychosis The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis. He writes occasional entries in a blog called 2009 which nowhere mentions his name. But if you go there you can find links to readings and talks he gave based on The Lily Pond, also gorgeous poems and photographs. What dg is printing here are three excerpts from a work-in-progress, a sneak preview of a dystopian future, not to be missed.


These excerpts are from a novel-in-progress, a future-fantasy about an ever-expanding world-hospital, or “medically based consumer imperium” as the resistance movement terms it. The world-hospital is part “real” (e.g. concrete and steel) architecture and part mass consensual hallucination. It is “total architecture.” The novel is a mosaic of dispatches sent by telepathic scribes, assembled by central collators in the aftermath of a disastrous battle between the resistance and the world-hospital. This phase of resistance—what happened? amid the wreckage—thus consists of attempts at accurate polyphonic reportage and archeology. The name in small letters below each dispatch is the moniker, or “scribesign,” of the scribe that submitted it. Sometimes multiple scribes collaborate on a dispatch. Two of the bits (“Mixer” and “Little People”), show the world-hospital’s furthest extension, beyond life itself, and feature the same character, for continuity, and the other (“Blowback”) is a short comic glance at the resistance movement.

—Mike Barnes


Steve and Randy meet each other at a mixer for the newly dead. They went to the same high school but are a few moments placing each other before they break into grins of startled recognition.

“It’s you!”

“Yo, Steve.”

So much has changed, so many reversals, in the passage across. Randy, a depressive back in the warm world, has taken to the après-vie like nobody’s business and is already doing well for himself. Steve, a doctor’s son who except for an ill-advised romance in his senior year has mostly had a blast, is having trouble finding his footing.

“It’s a whole new ballgame, Stevie,” says Randy, a shy stutterer so recently but now empowered by fluent clichés. “Look at me.” Steve is looking. “I used to have trouble carrying off a change of sweater and a haircut. Here, though. Here I’ve given myself a brand-new name and not one person has laughed. “I’m”—he hesitates a moment, a hiccup of life reflux; it’s little Randall Maggs for Chrissakes talking to SH the football captain—then declares confidently, “I’m Randy Raven.”

Steve doesn’t laugh. Doesn’t even feel like it. At first he heard razor, Randy Razor, and even that seemed possible. Doable. Like any good athlete, Steve is a fast study of the field, and he sees that Randy really can be anything here. He can stop the identity wheel on any slot he likes.

It reminds him of changing schools when none of your friends comes with you. You can carry on as before—the old game in a new location—or you can find yourself holding a brand new hand of cards, getting strange new urges to bluff, bet, fold. It’s not always symmetrical. Losers can win, winners lose, sometimes it’s a yawning steady-on, and there’s every sort of mix and halfway state.

In his new, bullet-spray voice, gaining confidence the way a rocket gains swerve and speed with altitude above the launching pad, Randy Raven disabuses Steve about any myths he may be clinging to about their present circumstances. Not about sin. Punishment. Purgatory. Not reward either. It really is an afterthought, a nowhere zone into which the fastest, sleaziest operators naturally move first and grab hold.

“Your dad. That hospital project with St. Bar-Laz. I’ve seen some pictures of it here.”


“Sure. The smart advertiser goes to where the clients will be, not where they are. Be there to greet them. Who knows what kinds of postcards they’ll send back.”

“Send back?” Steve’s head is whirling. All around the room he sees pairs of people in the orientation postures he and Randy have assumed: the leaner-in, the knower, crisp, assured; the dazed recipient, wobbly of stance and expression.

“It’s a two-way street, man.”

As Randy goes on rapping, his eyes lambent with the newfound pleasure of holding forth, Steve tries to distract himself with thoughts of unbuttoning Cathy’s blouse, but the well-worn grooves of erotic revery don’t work so well here, the fantasy feels tackily remote, its old allure now discordant—like memories of a piñata party in solitary—and Randy’s patter keeps breaking through, and by the time he’s unzipping Cathy’s Levi’s Steve is hardly even surprised by the hard-veined icy cock that springs into his hands.

“By the way”—Randy is smirking, the ghost of an Old-World Randall peephole- in-the-girls’-changeroom leer—“telepathy is the rule here. You have to learn to shut it down. I’ve almost nailed it. No one can show you. It’s a knack, like wiggling your ears.”

Randy fills Steve in on the basis of the afterlife as a credit scam and protection racket, a Ponzi/pyramid scheme on a vast scale of interlacing levels.

In a pause, Steve says, “I thought it would be, I don’t know…pure. Or something.” Now it’s his turn to pause as he realizes he had no opinions about the afterlife, he was 18 when he sailed his father’s Buick LeSabre off the mountain brow, the girl, Cathy, with her top off screaming beside him.

“Nothing pure about it, man. It’s the oldest and dirtiest neighborhood there is. No wonder Wardworld set up shop here. Stands to reason. It’s poorly regulated and mostly out of sight. Hell, not even many people believe in it anymore. That’s an added bonus.”

Steve doesn’t get the Wardworld reference, but there’s something else he needs to know first.

“What do I need protection for? I’m dead.”

“Which means you’ve lost your last line of defense. You’re like a snail evicted from its shell. And”—Randy leans close, lowers his voice—“the universe wears big boots.”

“What could happen to me?” The involuntary quaver in his voice used to be in Randall’s all the time.

“What couldn’t? If you can dream it up, it’s probably here. And if you can’t, it definitely is.”

Steve buys a basic protection plan from Randy with the only currency he’s got—time. 10,000 years to start, with a vig of 2% (“for a friend”). He’s soon in way over his head. The pyramid scheme is the usual bucket brigade of downhill pain. A guy tells you you’re on fire and hands you a bucket to put it out. But the bucket is the fire, and the only way to turn it into water is to hand it off to another sucker. On earth it ends with a bottom layer engulfed in flame, roasted alive. But with infinite time the wall of flame expands forever. Steve understands how it works, but can’t rouse himself to find a newbie to pass the bucket to. (Self-immolation from inertia/apathy causes certain local collapses in any downward construction.) He holds on to the pain bucket, staying on his level.

Leaving the mixer, he wanders dispiritedly down streets that are also like corridors, wide spaces that close high overhead, and which with their gradual curves, inclines and declines, give an impression of a vast architecture he’s treading. It’s twilight or it’s dawn, he can’t decide about the pearly gleams. Through gaps between the storefronts, he sees other corridors, semi-opaque tubes, slightly below or slightly above the level he’s on, with dark bars above and behind them which may be yet other passageways. The impression is of a labyrinth, but not a conventional labyrinth, rather a maze that swallowed other mazes, incorporating their twists and turns into its own, the way an engulfing bacterium ingests its prey’s genes, or a colleague’s, which alter and complicate and enlarge its own blueprint. He’s not alone, but he might as well be. The many people he passes, of all types and ages, share a single facial expression of faintly frowning preoccupation. And yet, it’s weird to say, but this face of inescapable concerns looks settled into, almost relaxed. It formulates a resignation verging on peace. As if they’ve finally found their way to a narrow band of tolerable strife, a treadmill of hassle and hustle…but it’s the treadmill they know. All they’ve really lost is the desire to escape it. Could lost without the desire to be found be…found?

Envy is immortal, Steve learns. Just as status is. Steve’s car crash was fiery front-page news, a crater in someone’s lawn and in many hearts; Randy’s pill-and-vodka exit in his room—in June, after graduation, when not even the principal needed to react— was “sadly missed” by elderly parents and a sister in Florida who couldn’t get home for the funeral. But now he’s—Randy the Raven. And I’m….

Steve takes to watching the living, a pastime of only the most insolvent dead. It’s every bit the declaration of bankruptcy that, in life, is signified by sitting around thinking of vanished times and faces, fixing your gaze on the departed.

Glass Union


LIn six-foot-high brown letters, spray-painted on an exterior wall of a Gerontology hub:

200 IS THE NEW 90

Local Medcrimes takes the case, which looks an obvious if spectacular instance of patient breach. The lab report identifying the brown paint as human excrement confirms the investigation’s routine progress in the direction of vandalism and/or dementia.

But complications (“wrinkles, ha ha”—Constable Tippett) soon emerge. First is the location of the graffiti on the 22nd floor, a billboard-sized slab of concrete bordered by a few small windows and distant from any doorway. “How would a wacked-out Gero even get up there?” (Constable Warren, Tippett’s senior partner)

A second lab report adds the details that the excrement a) came from at least 27 different bodies, and b) was fired with enough force, perhaps from a high-pressure hose, to fuse it with the concrete by embedding it deeply in every pore and fissure. Effacement is expected to be costly and protracted.

Copies of the reports forwarded to Administration, attention Budgeting and Long Term Planning.

Bill Richards

Little People

LIt feels strange to watch your lover when you’re dead. Not nice, not not-nice, necessarily. It isn’t anything necessarily. Just…strange.

The strangeness comes, Steve thinks, from not knowing or feeling anything you didn’t know or feel before, with one exception: you know and feel you’re dead.

You’ve gained and lost. What you’ve gained is knowing and feeling you’re not alive. What you’ve lost is not knowing and feeling you’re dead.

And it’s that trade or transfer, he thinks—that switch from non to on, on to non—that adds the weight you feel around the dead. A kind of heavy fluid sense of accrued density. Not age, since you no longer exist in organic time, but it feels like old, old age might feel to the living.

That seabottom sort of pressure makes a newly dead fetus twice as old as the oldest ever living person. Without being in any sense wiser. Without being wise at all. The dead fetus doesn’t even know what a nipple is, it never got to find out. Yet it’s ancient.

Passing these wizened pygmies, Steve sometimes thinks with a shudder, That could be my son or daughter for all I know. I had a few girlfriends, we weren’t always careful….

One of them is his child. Something he can’t know because the only person who could tell him is on the other side. On the side of the non-dead.

“You have to size death up, same as any other opportunity,” says Randy Raven. “Sure, some doors close, but others open wide.” Steve relates Randy’s growing tendency to speak in brassy bromides to the shadowy corporate entities he’s seen him talking to (or listening to), dark oily vapors, like congealed smoke, who have given up maintaining organic semblances (which takes an effort of will as well as recall) in favour of drifting in stormcloud congeries down streets and corridors, sometimes massing in a front that hangs in the sky, low and oppressive, curtailing views and moods. These heavy new friends give Steve another reason, besides his mounting unpayable debt, to duck down alleys at the approach of his earthly classmate, who is as gormlessly attracted to power as ever, but who power has now perhaps decided has something to give back.

Since he no more occupies the space of organic life than its time, when he visits it, Steve can assume any vantage point large or small.

One morning he watches Abigail from behind a walnut, chewed on his side by a squirrel, near the park bench she is sitting on. She looks unwell. Listless and without expression. Two canes lean against the bench and she wears braces on her lower legs. A thick white bandage covers her left eye. When he goes through it, he is shocked to find not a damaged eye but no eye. He explores the spongy black socket, touching its cauterized nerves and vessels.

Another time he is stretched across the winter sky. It’s a nice thinned feeling, being everywhere, noplace more than any other. She breathes him in, sucking the cold air through her teeth. Her lungs are pink, but more mucusy than they should be. He’s no doctor—not even a dead one—but from pictures he recalls from his dad’s textbooks, or maybe a health class—the smoking lecture—these bronchial trees have too much gummy fog, some thick drippy liquid, oozing between their branches. Yet he doesn’t smell smoke.

On his next visit, he doesn’t see her smoking, though he stays with her through what a wall clock says are several hours, sitting on the roof of a barn in an ugly oil painting on the wall of the crowded waiting room she is stuck in. Why are doctors so cheap? he wonders, floating out from the barn to take in the tacky farmscape. Two hundred grand a year, and what? Crappy paintings a flunky found at a yard sale. Old Reader’s Digests, again probably brought in by a secretary. Lumpy chairs with torn upholstery. Abigail deserves to wait for their verdict in at least minimal comfort.

It’s like the musty Used Books and $1 Charity Bake Sales at banks. $1. From a bank. Maybe $42 on a busy Friday, the tellers cranking out the Rice Krispie and date squares with curses the night before. Wherever money pools, life dries to a trickle. Even the dead feel it. The dead more than anybody.
Lost in these thoughts, he looks out to find the clinic dark, everyone gone.

This kind of thing happens often. He has a guess why. He’s too attuned to Abigail’s welfare to keep up with her comings and goings, her biography. He thinks that could be why his visits to her skip about so randomly, and seem to come about independent of his will. He’ll want to visit her, but can’t. Then suddenly, he’s there.

She’s in a single bed in a dingy bachelor, fucking a skinny, balding man with a bad tattoo of a leprechaun on his shoulder. The movements of his shoulder blade make the leprechaun kick in a spastic jig. Abigail seems into it, she’s moaning with her eyes pressed shut, but Steve, sitting with his back against the base of the bedside lamp, watching the shadows jerk and tremble on the wall, grows disconsolate.

Abigail has some silver hairs threaded in with her brown. When is this? he starts to wonder, but the question falls like a pebble dropped down a bottomless mine shaft or canyon. No plink or echo.

She doesn’t think she can do any better, he thinks.

Glass Union

—Mike Barnes

Mike Barnes is the author of Calm Jazz Sea, shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, Aquarium, winner of the 1999 Danuta Gleed Award for best first book of stories by a Canadian, The Syllabus, a novel, and the short fiction collection Contrary Angel. His stories have appeared twice in Best Canadian Stories, three times in The Journey Prize Anthology, and won the Silver Medal for Fiction at the National Magazine Awards. He lives in Toronto.


Nov 162010

Henighan in Romania

Hot off the presses (actually not even off the presses yet), here is the first chapter of Mihail Sebastian’s novel The Accident, translated into English from Romanian for the first time by Stephen Henighan and about to be published by Biblioasis (in just a few weeks). Numéro Cinq readers are already familiar with Stephen’s fiction (see his story “After the Hurricane” earlier published on NC). He is also an indefatigable globetrotter, critic and translator. Here is his own short intro to the chapter that follows.


Mihail Sebastian (1907-1945) was one of the major Central European writers of the 1930s. Born in southeastern Romania, he worked in Bucharest as a lawyer, journalist, novelist and playwright until anti-semitic legislation forced him to abandon his public career. His long-lost diary, Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years, was published in seven countries between 1996 and 2007, launching an international revival of his work. Sebastian’s novels and plays are available in translation throughout Europe, and also have been published in Chinese, Hindi, Bengali and Hebrew.

The Accident is Sebastian’s first work of fiction to appear in English.

In spite of what his death date might suggest, Sebastian was not liquidated by the Iron Guard (Romania’s Nazis). He survived the Holocaust (in gruelling circumstances), resumed his public career in early 1945 and was run over by a truck in May 1945, at the age of thirty-seven, while on his way to give a lecture on Balzac. On the basis of the four novels and five plays he left behind, it’s hard not to conclude that Europe lost one of its major writers.

—Stephen Henighan


The Accident

By Mihail Sebastian

Translated from the Romanian by Stephen Henighan


Chapter 1

She didn’t know how much time had passed. A few seconds? A few long minutes?

She felt nothing. Around her she heard voices, footsteps, people calling out, but all muted and grey, like a sort of auditory paste, from which occasionally a tram bell or a shout shook loose with unexpected clarity, only to fade away again into the suffocated commotion.

They’ll say it’s an accident, she thought very calmly, almost with indifference.

The thought made her feel neither alarmed nor hurried. She had a very vague impression that she must be stretched out next to the sidewalk with her head in the snow. But she didn’t try to move.

A stupid, senseless question passed through her mind: What time is it?

She strained to listen to the tick-tock of her wristwatch, but couldn’t hear it. It must have been smashed. Then, in an effort to concentrate, as though immersed in herself, she observed that in fact she heard nothing of her own being; not her pulse, not her heart, not her breath.

I’m…, she reflected. I’m like a clock. And it seemed to her that she was smiling, although she couldn’t feel her lips, for whose outline she searched in vain somewhere in that familiar yet vanished space that was her unfeeling body.

Continue reading »

Nov 132010

A deeply shocking and poignant “What it’s like living here” from Court Merrigan in Torrington, Wyoming. Neither a former student, nor a VCFA graduate (he doesn’t have an MFA), Court is just a writer and a human being who joined the conversation and became part of the NC community. DG wishes there were more like him, more nominal outsiders who join the blog just because they like writing and a supportive camaraderie. We’re not a closed shop. This text reminds dg of something Tomaso Landolfi once wrote: “…is not this a world in which incredible things take place and, I would say, only incredible things?”


by Court Merrigan


Four extra bedtime stories for your daughter, five.  She grows fidgety and irritated, wants to be left alone to sleep.  Once she would have stayed up all night with you.  Now she’s three and those days are gone.  You trudge upstairs.  Your wife is in bed.  She goes to bed early nowadays.  It’s too early for you.  Time to get yourself occupied.

Two weeks it’s been.  Two weeks of closing your eyes to see Todd.

1.5 miles up Laramie Peak Trail

At first Todd looked like he was taking a nap, or had just leaned against the warm rock on that perfect seventy-degree day, looking across Friend Creek through a golden-leafed bough of aspens to the sheer mountain slabs across the rift valley.  I thought he was on the lookout for mountain goats.  He really wanted to see a mountain goat, kept on asking if we thought we’d spot one.

“Well, this is about where we expected to catch up with him,” my father said.

Irritated, I thought that he ought to be further along than this, that he was going to start talking about the goddamn mountain goats again – all he wanted out of Wyoming, it seemed – and at his trudging pace, it would be hours before we got back to the trailhead.  He was semi-retired and at his leisure, but I had a pregnant wife and a kid to get back to.

Then I noticed the odd angle of his neck, the wrist twisted behind his back, legs folded in an Asian posture he could not possibly have adopted at sixty years of age.  I began to run.  His face was slack jawed, sunglasses askew, lips a pale violet.  When I knelt and touched his face a skein of spit dribbled onto his new denim shirt, so new you could see the store creases, smell the store shelf.

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Nov 122010



I knew about the stories for years but had relegated them to that mental stack of things I never get around to for one reason or another. Only a series of accidents a few weeks ago induced me to buy a copy. I had no expectations when I started reading, which may be the best way to begin any book, perhaps to encounter other people.

The first five stories are set in the middle of almost nowhere, the Imperial Valley in Southern California, a place of deserts and fields and irrigation, the time around the ’60s. This is a good place to begin, too, with almost nothing, then see what you can discover, what you can add, as Ariel has done.

“Hunter,” below, is my favorite. It begins quietly, slowly, maybe innocently, and from that ground builds into a story that has engaged and haunted me as much as any I’ve read in a while. I didn’t expect that at all. The story is told in its images and in something else Ariel touches I’ll never be able to explain. Each time I reread I see small lights I missed the first time through.

I ran into Ariel a few weeks ago, and she gave what is the most compelling reason to write I’ve heard. She said she didn’t feel right inside when she wasn’t writing. It was this comment that moved me to buy the book.

Ariel Smart, in fact, grew up in the Imperial Valley, was born at the Green Lantern Motel, mentioned in this and other stories, and writes and teaches now in the San Jose area. “Hunter” was first published in Love and Sex in the 21st Century (New Mexico University, 1988), then in the collection The Green Lantern and Other Stories (Fithian Press, 1999). She has another collection, Stolen Moments and Other Stories (Fithian, 2003). Both are available, of course, at Amazon.

—Gary Garvin





by Ariel Smart


Cabin Number 1 of Frank Harper’s Green Lantern Motel smelled of the after-breakfast aromas of fried bacon and eggs and smoky-tasting coffee. The sound of a bulletin being read from the California Farm Labor Bureau droned from a radio placed on top of the refrigerator. Delia Harper put aside her book, Lad, of Sunnybank, and watched her father prepare the lunch she would take with her to her fourth-grade class at Acacia County School five miles from El Centro. His dark face, browned from the sun, was intent and purposeful at a perfunctory task. With a steel-bladed butcher knife, he carved cold beef from the Diamond Jim pot roast he customarily simmered on Sundays with fresh tomatoes, green Anaheim chili peppers, yellow onions, cloves of garlic, and red beans.

He placed an ample wedge of sliced meat between two thick slices of bakery bread. “Want horseradish?”

Delia turned up her nose, shaking her head vigorously. Her dark, brown hair, which her father had plaited into one thick braid, swung behind her neck down to her waist.

“Okay for you. More for me,” he said good-naturedly.

“Tell me again about Uncle Les’ work horses.”

“Not about his twenty-six milking cows? Named alphabetically, Alice through Zelda.”


Continue reading »

Nov 122010

 Dave Margoshes is a poet, novelist and short story writer from Saskatchewan. I won’t go on about him or my long and checkered past with Saskatchewan because Dave has already appeared on these pages and I would be repeating myself. The last time I saw him my son Jonah was about six and he and I went on a reading tour of Saskatchewan, driving up and down the province in a little  rented car, meeting old friends, exploring abandoned homesteads, peering at distant bison, clattering around cluttered wayside museums. I miss Saskatchewan sometimes. Its astringent landscape is always exciting to watch and the people are delightful. When I used to edit Best Canadian Stories, I seemed to put a Dave Margoshes story in just about every other year. And now he has a new poetry collection just out with Black Moss Press (which published my first little book of stories, yea, these many years ago). “Theology” is from the new collection Dimensions of an Orchard and is particularly apt as it dovetails nicely with my Bible-reading thoughts these days. I love, here, God’s refolded tour map and “the illusion of unintended routes” and “against his own idea of tide.”





A quarter moon hangs low in the morning sky,
a thumbprint reminder that night is not through
with us, oh no, not yet. Day, night, light, dark,
the cycle carries on with tedious regularity, each
extreme laying a trail of clues leading inextricably
to the other. The seasons too pass in their cycle,
and the ages, infancy to infirmity and through
the transmigration of souls into infancy again
if that’s what you care to believe. The tides rise
and fall, the leaf buds, greens, browns, withers
all according to plan. And where is God in all
this? Puppetmaster, enmeshed in his own strings,
or tourist, folding and refolding a map? The creases
are worn thin from this incessant folding, creating
the illusion of unintended routes, a false cartography.
Like any man, God is reluctant to ask directions.
He batters on, against his own idea of tide,
seeking a way.

—Dave Margoshes

Just for fun, see also “The Persistent Suitor.”

Nov 112010

Annie Dillard, self-portrait

Annie Dillard’s “Seeing,” a philosophical, literal, and historical romp through the seemingly simple act for which the piece is named, is packed with but-constructions.  They appear in nearly every paragraph, sometimes two-to-a-graph.  They fall into two clear types: “action/description buts” and “mood change buts.”  It is easy to distinguish between the types because, almost without fail, the action/description ones appear within a sentence, while the mood change ones are the initial word in a sentence.

The action/description buts don’t particularly stand out.  They occur within sections of basic storytelling, rather than in the more philosophical passages of the essay.  Some examples:

I wandered downstream to force [the blackbirds] to play their hand, but they’d crossed the creek and scattered.

I bang on hollow trees near the water, but so far no flying squirrels have appeared.

When you see fog move against a backdrop of deep pines, you don’t see the fog itself, but streaks of clearness floating across the air in dark shreds.

In all these examples, the ‘but’ is necessary to accurately relate the action or accurately describe something.  They make for nice sentences, but don’t have great symbolic value.

Dillard’s other type of but-construction, the “mood-change but,” is the main method she uses to swing the essay from the thrill of seeing something new to the despair of not being able to see something, and back.  This “ocean swell” rhythm, from optimism to pessimism, hinges on the ‘buts,’ which occur at the crests and troughs. These “mood-change buts” typically also employ a more complex grammatical structure, which effectively breaks the flow of the essay and turns it in a different direction.

There are numerous examples, but the two discussed here include more than one “mood-change but” in rapid succession.  The essay begins with a short section about how a young Dillard used to hide pennies in the public realm.  The second section flashes to the present and, within the first two paragraphs, there are four “mood-change buts.”  The text begins (after the section’s two opening sentences):

The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.  But – and this is the point – who gets excited by a mere penny?

Then a sentence that introduces some natural elements into the mix, then:

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny.  But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.

Then a few short connecting sentences, then:

I used to be able to see flying insects in the air…. My eyes would focus along that column of air, picking out flying insects.  But I lost interest, I guess, for I dropped the habit.  Now I can see birds.

Then several sentences about nature and Thoreau, then:

I cherish mental images I have of three perfectly happy people.  One collects stones.  Another – an Englishman, say – watches clouds.  The third lives on a coast and collects drops of seawater, which he examines microscopically and mounts.  But I don’t see what the specialist sees, and so I cut myself off, not only from the total picture, but from the various forms of happiness.

The first “mood-change but” turns the mood down, from the happiness of a world studded with pennies to pennies being worthless.  The 2nd turns the mood back up (pennies can be valuable); the 3rd turns it back down (Dillard can’t see flying insects any more); and the 4th — an instance that actually packs two ‘buts’ into one sentence — brings it into a deeper trough (the inability to see as specialists do).  In each case, the ‘but’ begins a sentence.  It is an abrupt change of course from the previous sentence: one mood, full stop, second mood.  Even reading only the ‘but’ with the end of the preceding sentence, the impending mood change is apparent: “…generous hand. But….”  “…won’t stoop to pick up a penny.  But….” “…picking out flying insects.  But….”  The period and the big capitalized ‘B’ serve, in written form, as the verbal inhale-and-pause people use when delivering news (either good before bad or bad before good).

The second example of “mood-change buts” occurs in the last paragraph of section 4 (page 700 in Lopate’s book).  The grammar here is even more complex, and an initial reading might not make clear whether the ‘buts’ are meant to turn down the mood or turn it up.  Here is the text:

Oh, it’s mysterious lamplit evenings, here in the galaxy, one after the other.  It’s one of those nights when I wander from window to window, looking for a sign.  But I can’t see.  Terror and a beauty insoluble are a ribband of blue woven into the fringes of garments of things both great and small.  No culture explains, no bivouac offers real haven or rest.  But it could be that we are not seeing something.  Galileo thought comets were an optical illusion.  This is fertile ground: since we are certain that they’re not, we can look at what our scientists have been saying with fresh hope.

The feel here is dreamlike, and both sentences that have a ‘but’ also contain a negative.  The first, however, transforms the hopefulness of the first two sentences into dejection.  It concludes “looking for a sign” with “terror.”  The second ‘but’ sentence looks pessimistic, and read alone it could be interpreted as such (as in, we’re missing something important).  This little sentence, though, moves the passage from a scary dark place (with no “haven or rest”) to the possibility of understanding (“fertile ground”).  By suggesting that “we are not seeing something,” Dillard is stressing the “something:” there is something there to see, and that’s a positive thing.

But, says Dillard throughout the essay, it’s not always easy to see, and this paragraph grammatically parallels that challenging journey.  There are adjectives after nouns (“beauty insoluble”), an expected second verb (in the first sentence) that never appears, vague descriptions (“things both great and small”), and the sudden introduction of a real person (Galileo).  This is a tricky paragraph (including the five following sentences not transcribed above), and the “mood-change buts” reinforce its up and down tone.  The tension is resolved after the section break that follows this paragraph, when Dillard turns the narrative to a long discussion of a book about blindness and sight by Marius von Senden.  That entire section contains not a single “mood-change but.”

It is worth noting one more use of ‘but’ in this essay.  Near the end of the piece there are two sections that begin with the word.  These are the only two sections that do so, and both deal with the same topic: seeing by letting go.  This, Dillard admits, is the most difficult type of seeing.  To introduce it, she creates the shortest section in the entire piece, and begins that section with ‘but’ (“But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go”). Then she writes a section with a specific experience of seeing fish flashing in the sun in the creek; a section that contains not a single ‘but.’ Then the idea returns in the next section with another initial section ‘but’ (“But I can’t go out and try to see this way”).  If the “mood-change buts” as described above are the inhale-then-pause, these section-beginning ‘buts’ are the inhale-then-pause-then-look skyward-then-sigh.  They physically jump out from the page and create the most prominent moments in the essay (especially the first, short section).  They are used to begin the essay’s conclusion and to highlight the most true (say Dillard and Thoreau) way of seeing.

Interestingly, the final one-paragraph section includes two “mood-change buts,” both turning the mood up.  Unlike all other “mood-change buts,” the ‘buts’ here are inside their sentences, perhaps signaling an end to the rise and fall of the essay:

The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power.

And, three sentences later, the last sentence of the essay:

The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.

Adam Arvidson


Nov 092010

Philip Hartshorn as Dior; Juan Carlos Tapia as Celegorm

A lot goes into writing a fight scene – sometimes.  Our challenges for the fight scene in this film came in many forms, the first of which was the source material’s ambiguity concerning the situation surrounding it.  The following is Tolkien’s text in The Silmarillion concerning the final outcome of the Sacking of Doriath.

“…Celegorm stirred up his brothers to prepare an assault upon Doriath.  They came at unawares in the middle of winter, and fought with Dior in the Thousand Caves; and so befell the second slaying of Elf by Elf.  There fell Celegorm by Dior’s hand, and there fell Curufin, and dark Caranthir; but Dior was slain also, and Nimloth his wife, and the cruel servants of Celegorm seized Dior’s young sons and left them in the forest to starve…” -Tolkien, 242

This book in particular is written in a similar fashion (stylistically) to the Norse Myths (Kevin Crossley Holland’s translations come to mind).  The story of Dior is expanded in The Book of Lost Tales 2, but this draft was very clearly “un-canonized” by Tolkien before his revisions of the former book, so the above is all we had to work with.  I interpreted the scene into the screenplay as a confrontation between Dior and the three brothers as Dior is attempting to get his family (namely his daughter) out of the burning city.

The text from my first draft of the script concerning this scene was equally vague.  I scrawled out something about Dior killing Curufin and Caranthir, then dueling Celegorm.  I knew this wasn’t exactly how I wanted it, but I was afraid to go further, for the reasons of A) I knew I was going to let my brother choreograph the movements, and B) How was all of this going to happen?  Where is Nimloth, and how can I incorporate what happens to her?

I decided to write the death of Nimloth as a separate scene, which gave attention to the characters involved and built up the tension and relationships – both sympathetic and antagonistic- of surviving characters before the end.  This worked very well in terms of sets, locations and the focus of the actors.

Take a look at this video, which concerns my brother(our fight choreographer)’s enthusiastic efforts to materialize this scene.

Production Report: The First Stages of Fight Choreography

Putting this thing together was a tall order.  The above video was filmed in the later parts of summer when we were brainstorming just how the hell we were going to pull off any of this.  As our final weekend of shooting ended this past Sunday, the fight has been done and awaits the cutting room in a currently-crowded lobby.  Here are a few sneak peek photos (I’m keeping the fight relatively under wraps) of what came out of the final product.  Please note that these photos are captured from the raw footage of the film: nothing has been added or edited (yes, the sparks are real).

What we’ve got is a high-risk, quick-paced, colorful, 360-degree spectacle involving real swords, acrobatics, drama, and gorgeous mountains below.  At least, that’s what we’ll have after a few good days at the editing desk.

See also:

Nov 082010

DG realizes that this may be a stretch for some of you. A couple of weeks ago NC published Jacob’s poem “After Reading Heidegger and Seeing a Dead Rat” which has proved amazingly popular, partly because it’s a witty poem and partly because it gets a certain number of hits every day from people searching “dead rats” on Google (who would have thought this was an underground hot topic?). DG took off the “rat” tag, but that hasn’t stopped the deluge. In any case, this is neither here nor there to Jacob who wrote the poem for fun and who has since translated it into Latin for fun. The fact that he has a mind for this is a continual delight to his father.


After Reading Heidegger and Seeing a Dead Rat

Vidi id in bestiolam via
Secundo die autumno
Bestiola, quae bestiolae fuit, sed
Nunc nihil non fuit, sed
Aliqua non Ens
Bestiola habuerat, sed nunc
Tenebras firigidas rigidarumque habet.
In via, secondo die autumno
Enti cinctus est, in Ente,
Idquod bestiola, non iam ens, fuit
Olim, Ens in Bestiola fuit
Olim Ens fuit hac bestiola, quando ea
Fuit ens.
Sed nunc, Ens nihil non est, abfuit,
Ex hac bestiola, utique, ergo abisset.
—Jacob Glover

Nov 072010

Lynne Q summer 2008

Lynne Quarmby is an old friend, an eminent gene biologist with a lab at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, an outdoorswoman, and a painter. She paints with water colours and what comes out often looks genetic, looks biological, looks like an image of life filtered through a microscope, rhythmic, patterned, explosive.


focal plane high res

Focal Plane (14”x10”)

Star Island

Star Island (14”x10”)

Continue reading »

Nov 072010

cindy2 019_2_4

Cynthia Newberry Martin takes time from her writing and from her splendid writing blog Catching Days (one of Powell’s Books “Lit Blogs We Love”) to let NC know what it’s like living in Columbus, Georgia. Catching Days is a fascinating site with links to Cynthia’s own publications, reviews, and an ongoing series of posts in which noted authors describe a typical working day. See the latest, “A Day in the Life of Bruce Machart,” here. Cynthia has been commenting on NC from the very beginning, a generous, helpful presence.


What it’s like living here

From Cynthia Newberry Martin

in Columbus

Dear DG,

In Columbus, the seasons change, but they take their sweet time about it. First summer doesn’t want to let go, and then the leaves cling to the trees. Not until late October do the golds, oranges, and reds sprinkle this over-green world with color.



The river and Carson McCullers

The Chattahoochee River, the western border of Columbus, floods the city with the mood that gave rise to Carson McCullers:

I want – I want – I want – was all that she could think about – but just what this real want was she did not know.

And to Ma Rainey:

Thought I’d rest me, I couldn’t hear no news. I’ll soon be there ’cause I got the walking blues.

The words and the blues flow together and join the river. And these days, you gather your want and walk your blues for miles and miles on the Riverwalk, a narrow park that edges the banks of the river. You spend a lazy day beside the water, your thoughts swirling with the current. You see Alabama on the other side, and you imagine the rest of the world out there somewhere. You cross the bridge and look back at Columbus with perspective—not a lot but enough.

Red brick

Columbus wears its clay-red brick well. The old buildings, only two or three stories high, allow plenty of light to reach the sidewalks and plenty of air to breathe. Downtown streets are divided by a grass median the width of what could have been another lane. Statues hide benches inside. The place of art in the world is valued, as is a good place to rest and watch that world go by. And downtown, the train still chugs through the middle of the street, right in front of the modern eleven-storied Government Center. You hear the whistle and stop to watch. Each time, it’s hard to believe.

Row houses and the wash

Columbus used to be a mill town, but most of the factories now lie in empty disrepair. Living here you become fascinated by the beauty of abandoned buildings, the simplicity of row houses, and the openness of laundry hanging on lines to dry. These images stay with you and recur in your stories.

The people

Friends bring supper when you’re sick—pimento cheese and egg salad, country captain, fried chicken. The people who come to your door care about you too. Dale is your FedEx guy. He gives you a package and shows you a picture of his twin granddaughters, Layla and Dakota. He gives you his cell phone number so if you need to sign for a package, you can call and find out where he is. The UPS guy is a real person as well, knocking on the door to ask if you’re supposed to receive a new printer three days in a row. It’s a long story, you say. He smiles.

foxThe little fox

Sitting at your desk, you watch deer graze—whole families. The doe, the buck and the fawns. You take a picture, and their white tails flash through the woods. A hawk lands on top of the old wooden swing set where no one plays anymore. But it’s the little fox who wins your heart. He doesn’t know he’s not supposed to play for hours in the middle of the grass right in front of your window, distracting you from the words. You look up from your computer more often, hoping to see him. You watch him learn to sit like a fox is supposed to sit. And then, one day, he doesn’t come out. You miss him. Back to the words.


Your husband is the reason you’re here. Long ago he sweet-talked you into moving to the town where he grew up and where he plans to stay. Your children live in other places now—Texas, Scotland, California. Only one left at home. You’re hoping for the Northeast.

And in Columbus, the unhurried life is the perfect soil for words. Take your time, it says. You have plenty of it. Fall is your favorite season, the harsh heat of summer behind you and nothing but cold mornings and dark, early nights ahead. Bare branches. Fires inside and out.

—Cynthia Newberry Martin

Nov 052010



I only know Goran Simic by reputation and by the power and beauty of his poems (which is to say that at a certain level I know him well). Since he came to Toronto from his native Bosnia  in 1996, a year after the war ended, he has been a stalwart of the poetry scene, that rare thing in North America, a man-of-letters, an indefatigable  promoter of other writers and their books, and a moral beacon. He has won numerous awards including a Helman/Hammet grant (for writers who have been victims of political persecution) and a PEN USA Freedom to Write award. His poems and stories about the war he lived through and the Siege of Sarajevo are incredibly stark and moving.

The river carries the corpse of a woman.
as I run across the bridge
with my canisters of water,
I notice her wristwatch, still in place.

Someone lobs a child’s shoe
into the furnace. Family photographs spill
from the back of a garbage truck;
they carry inscriptions:
Love from …love from…love …

(from “The Sorrow in Sarajevo”)

It’s a great pleasure to display here seven poems from Goran’s new book Sunrise in the Eyes of the Snowman which will be published by Biblioasis in December.

(And for Goran’s poignant essay on coming to Canada, on being an immigrant and on becoming visible, click here.)


What I Was Told

When I was born everybody rejoiced.
This is what I was told.
I was also told that in his notes my father the King
described hundreds of tents in front of the castle
for the common people’s celebration of my birth.
For months wine flowed and roasted quail were eaten
until the wine started to sour
and quail started smelling of wine.
My father the King invited the best fortune tellers in the country
to read my kingdom’s fate from my baby palm.
Some of them were richly rewarded.
No trace of the unfortunate others was found in my father’s notes.
When I grew tall enough to touch my father’s shield,
he issued a state decree ordering
the people of our kingdom to build a castle for me
on the hill. I could smell the sweat
of those who pulled stone slabs up the slope
while I lolled on my throne.
Those who survived the ten years of work
are mentioned in my father’s notes. This is what I was told.
Those who didn’t were buried in the castle’s foundation
and were not recorded in my father’s notes.
I forgot the name of my bride.
The taste of matrimonial wine lasted no longer
than the wedding night
when I had to lead my army to war with our neighbours.
My father told me to follow the tradition
and that I will find reasons once I learn how to read.
Sitting on my black horse, watching graves being dug in our wake,
I wondered why people called my army the Virus of Death,
why the sunset scares me
even after the leaves under my horse’s hooves
changed colours ten times.
Once my sword acquired the scent of burnt homes and rotting flesh,
I returned to my kingdom in a golden carriage.
But when I arrived
nobody was there to decorate my exhausted soldiers with garlands.
Only wretched old men and witches were begging forgiveness
for failing to predict my return.
The plague had eaten my father the King,
and my darling whose name I lost in the roll call of my generals.
All I had left from my kingdom were neglected fields
and a notebook that I couldn’t read.
Now I sit in my tower with a crown on my head.
I watch storks leaving the cold chimneys of my kingdom,
while I listen to the wind riffling the sheets of my empty bed,
leafing through the pages of my father’s notebook.
In this very moment I would happily exchange
my glory and my golden crown,
for someone who would teach me to read.

Continue reading »

Nov 022010

Micheline Maylor comes from Windsor, Ontario, but lives in Calgary where she writes poetry, teaches writing at Mount Royal University and edits FreeFall Magazine. Some of these names may be familiar to you. Apparently, Micheline is quite good at getting dg to do things. He is judging a fiction contest for FreeFall and Micheline’s student Gabrielle Volke recently interviewed dg for an essay she is writing and the resulting dialogue appeared on Numéro Cinq and will appear in FreeFall. Micheline Maylor is also an accomplished poet. Her first collection Full Depth: The Raymond Knister Poems was published in 2007. (Raymond Knister was an early 20th century Ontario poet, story writer and novelist, something of a cult figure in Canadian literary circles for his early promise and the tragic way he died. His daughter used to live in Waterford, dg’s hometown, and he chatted with her there in the drugstore, oh, maybe three or four years ago now.) It’s a pleasure to be able to introduce you to Micheline and print one of her new poems, a kind of memento mori, a stern vision of death,  in Numéro Cinq.


Bird at the University

By Micheline Maylor

Four months, it takes, for the sinew
to release bones from skeleton.
A whole semester.

From August, I walk back and forth past the bird
one hundred and twenty-two times.

I think of me and you, us,
while this elegant architecture called bird

He’s belly-up, beak to the north,
wings splayed to the poles.
In two days, his eyes are sockets,
in four days, his under-feathers scatter to the east.
The gentle wind detonates
a downy bomb on still, green grass
only a few stray flight-feathers cling to the skeleton
in the mud beside the late pansies.

November snow covers everything.
Stray footprints press him tighter to the earth.

Much exists in my lexicon that was not there yesterday,
last week, last month, last year.
In this new normal, grief accumulates
with that first rime
with that first staying snow.

Yet, like the bird,
I learn to relax,
wings open,
to all these elements.

—By Micheline Maylor

Nov 012010

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a four-part series of essays on Montaigne.

To read the entire series, CLICK HERE.


I teach writing to college students. It’s a great job – only two or three days on campus, I get to teach what I do, and I’m paid to talk about things that matter to me. I teach at a small liberal arts college, so by necessity I teach writing in many of its variants – media writing, academic writing (the Art Formerly Known as Composition), creative writing – and, partially because of this, I tend to see many overlaps in these disciplines. Take the personal essay, for example – as a form of creative writing it was given, about 20 years ago, the nomer “Creative Nonfiction (CNF)”; in the media world it wears such hats as “literary journalism” and “immersion writing”; the realm of academic writing (populated primarily by wide-eyed freshmen) it usually gives it lip service as “personal narrative,” usually the only assignment freshmen find remotely enjoyable to write.

As I read more and more personal essays, creative nonfiction, literary journalism, what-have-you, I’m finding the overlap to be instructive. The separation between these forms comes not from fundamental differences in the writing, but from the need – in both academia and the publishing marketplace – to categorize and delineate. Perhaps due to this realization, I find it almost a rebellion to concentrate more on the similarities. This search for common ground, for conversation, is in fact the taproot of the personal essay. The form is essentially a written conversation between the essayist and the world, the essayist’s sources, and the essayist’s self.

To give this argument a touch more humanity, indulge me in an analogy: I think of the world of the essay as a big party, and reading an essay as mingling. As a reader I think of every writer as a person at this big party, and each essay as a conversation with this person. The first thing to turn me off to an essay is essentially the same prompt for me to excuse myself from polite conversation – listening to people talk only about themselves is boring. This could be why I’ve never liked Proust, or to be more specific why I once threw Swann’s Way across the room after 90 pages. There’s one guy I’d never want to corner me at a cocktail party – I can imagine him over a tray of hors d’oeuvres , explaining in excruciating detail what childhood trauma each piece of food reminded him of. Just as boring, I suppose, is just talking about the world – small talk.  While many times the beginning of a substantial conversation, it’s never a replacement for it, at least if you’re looking for anything but small talk. And of course, the blowhard who only talks about what he’s read tends, in the short term, to seem pretentious, and after awhile makes the reader/listener wonder if he has anything original to say.

So, then, the most successful essays are the ones that converse organically with all three of these things, engaging the reader on each level. Another challenge for the essayist, as with the conversationalist, is to make it seem natural, like all of these conversations come easy.  I say all of this to introduce the element of Montaigne’s work that he’s perhaps best known for – his conversational style –  and to contextualize it with the trifecta of interlocutors I’ve mentioned – his world (including the reader), his sources (primarily drawn from his voluminous library), and himself.

The essayist is a student of the world; for reinforcement of this, one need look no further than the first of Montaigne’s Essays, “We reach the same end by discrepant means,” in which he compares many of the conquering heroes of his time, using the term “assay,” a cognate of essay, three times, not in relation to himself, but to his subjects:

The soldier, having assayed all kinds of submissiveness and supplications to try and appease him, as a last resort resolved to await him, sword in hand. (6)

Now these examples seem to me to be even more to the point in that souls which have been assaulted and assayed by both these methods can be seen to resist one without flinching only to bow to the other. (6)

None was so overcome with wounds that he did not assay with his latest breath to wreak revenge and to find consolation for his own death in the death of an enemy. (8)

This introduces a key element of Montaigne’s writing style that was different from the styles of any of his contemporaries I’ve read, which has become a seminal characteristic of the personal essay form –just as a soldier or leader assays his courage and fortitude in battle, the essayist assays his ideas in conversation with other ideas. This example may seem a bit feudal, but keep in mind that Montaigne writes mostly about soldiers and leaders in this essay – including Prince Edward of Wales, Emperor Conrad III, Dionysius, and Alexander the Great – as heroes who became noble through testing, or assaying, their mettle in physical attack and rebuttal with other heroes (or potential heroes). Analogously, the essayist tests the value of his ideas, conjectures, and stories most thoroughly through direct discussion with other ideas.

This bring us to sources, which in Montaigne’s case were primarily readings from his prodigious library. In “On solitude,” Montaigne expresses an opinion on choosing sources that can best be described as alternately cautionary…

Spending time with books has its painful side like everything else and is equally inimical to health, which must be our main concern; we must not let our edge be blunted by the pleasure we take in books: it is the same pleasure as destroys the manager of estates, the miser, the voluptuary and the man of ambition. (105)

…and lackadaisical:

There are branches of learning both sterile and prickly, most of them made for the throng: they may be left to those who serve society. Personally I only like pleasurable easy books which tickle my interest, or those which console me and counsel me how to control my life and death. (106)

Of course there is considerable cheekiness to be read into each of these passages, as there is in the voices of most personal essayists after him. Essaying oneself in conversation with other writers, to Montaigne, is built on associations rather than formal transitions. As a telling example of this pellmell in-and-out assaying of ideas in relation to each other, his 64-page “On some lines of Virgil” spends the first eleven pages citing and/or referring to Ovid, Martial, Plato, Seneca, Cicero, Horace, Catullus, Pseudo-Gallus, Bishop Caius Sollius Apollinaris, George Buchanon, Ravisius Textor, Plutarch, Erasmus, Nicephoros Callistos Xanthopoullos, St. Augustine, Origen, Hippocrates, Diogenes Laertius, and Aristotle before actually getting to any lines of Virgil! But in “In Defense of Seneca and Plutarch,” for example, he reveals  a sincere appreciation for the sources he assays himself against, defending Seneca from what he sees as false analogies to King Nero and faulty characterization by the historian Dion (186-187) and, in response to what he sees as egoistic responses to Plutarch, he takes to task those who either can’t or won’t transcend their own subjective prejudices when reading or encountering others:

We must not judge what is possible or impossible according to what seems credible or incredible to our own minds…It is nevertheless a major fault into which most people fall…to make difficulties about believing of another anything which they could not or would not do themselves. It seems to each man the master Form of Nature is in himself, as a touchstone by which he may compare all the other forms. Activities which do not take this form as their model are feigned and artificial. What brute-like stupidity! (190-191)

In segueing into Montaigne’s conversations with himself, it’s worth noting an analogy he makes between fatherhood  and writing towards the end of “On the affection of fathers for their children”:

Now once we consider the fact that we love our children simply because we begot them, calling them our second selves, we can see that we also produce something else from ourselves, no less worthy of commendation: for the things we engender in our soul, the offspring of our mind, of our wisdom and talents, are the products of a part more noble than the body and are more purely our own. In this act of generation we are both mother and father; these ‘children’ cost us dearer and, if they are any good, bring us more honour. In the case of our other children their good qualities belong much more to them than to us: we have only a very slight share in them; but in the case of these, all their grace, worth and beauty belong to us. (165)

This correspondence with the self that produces writing, then, is not necessarily a challenge or assay like the conversation he creates between himself and his sources, or even himself and the world – it’s intimate, consummate, and capable of producing a life that proceeds from the intercourse in the form of the essay. Then, carrying on the metaphor of Writing as Family in “On three good wives,” after telling the story of Seneca’s wife finding that her husband was to be bled to death and arranging the same fate for herself, Montaigne cites the essay as the Good Wife who gathers man’s stories together and making them beautiful:

If any author should wish to construct them into a single interconnected unity he would only need to supply the link – like soldering metals together with another metal. He could by such means make a compilation of many true incidents of every sort, varying his arrangement as the beauty of his work required. (200)

*            *            *

In “Remember Death,” a not-as-morbid-as-the-title-implies essay in Patrick Madden’s 2010 collection Quotidiana, Madden refers to the skull in St Jerome’s study, a symbol many writers of the Renaissance and probably earlier always kept nearby to remind them of their own mortality. That same skull, or one nearly identical, adorns the cover of my copy of Montaigne’s The Essays: A Selection. Madden follows his mention of St. Jerome’s skull with the same quote (different translation) from“Of Three Good Wives” by (his nomer) Papa Montaigne. The connections to Big Papa don’t end there. Like Montaigne’s essays, Madden’s flow like cream, so that the reader finishes a twenty-page essay in roughly a half hour (longer, if you’re as slow a reader as I am), then realizes how rich and full the prose was. His style, like Montaigne’s, is conversational in the best sense. His voice  – learned but not stuffy, confident but self-effacing – holds the reader’s interest by letting us in on the conversations he’s having with the world.

Take, for example, “Panis Angelicus,” his essay that gets its title from recording he has of his grandmother singing an old Catholic hymn in Latin. He sets up the discourse of the essay by defining Catholic mass as a process of spiritual transubstantiation:

In the Mass, transubstantiation is the change from bread and water into the body and blood of Christ…But transubstantiations happen all the time: food into muscle and blood and bone, water to vapor to snow back to water, ideas and images into words and images and ideas in another head.

I’ll be the first to admit that my idea of transubstantiation was fuzzy at best before reading this, but Madden manages to not only define a relatively opaque term but to include the reader in the discussion on whichever level we choose – spiritual, physical, or academic. The connections he then makes in the essay, between listening for the first time to his grandmother’s  voice as an adult with his children and extended family, to his father’s survival of Vietnam, to a busker he hears singing “Panis Angelicus” on a bus in Uruguay while on a Fulbright Fellowship. Everything in the world, he implies, is connected, as are we.

Madden’s choice of sources is just as varied than Montaigne’s. He juxtaposes literary, critical, and historical references with mathematical formulas, condensed narratives, lists, quotations, and pictures (including one of Montaigne himself) – and that’s all just in the essay “Gravity and Distance.” Another essay, “Asymptosy” (another new vocabulary word for me), essentially about words and numbers and images and the relationship between them, is set up in sections that seem to be a set of riddles and puzzlers. And the essay “Singing” starts each section with a general statement, sometimes aphoristic, sometimes personal – that he then expands on, including:

Singing is at once natural and unnatural.


One time I and two other motorists, whom I could see in my rearview mirror, were singing the same song at the same time.

And my personal favorite:

Cantar es disparar contra el olvido.
[To sing is to fight against forgetting.]

Each of these is a sort of call-and-response, like a musical convocation or a work holler. And as always, he’s finding connections – my personal favorite is his discovery that “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and the ABC song share the exact same tune, a discovery that I made as well recently with my daughter. We were sitting outside a coffee shop and I was humming “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to her, when a little girl next to us who must have been four or five years old started practicing her ABC’s.

And finally there are the conversations Madden has with himself, most notable (for me, at least) in the final and longest essay of Quotidiana, “Finity,” which he starts by relaying his obsessive-compulsive counting of the grapes he bought at his local supermarket:

There are 172 grapes in the bag I bought from my local Smith’s supermarket. One-hundred-sixty of them look to be in good shape, four of them are undeveloped, six of them are deflated, and two were hiding underneath the drain in the sink where I washed them yesterday, thus upsetting the nicely round number (a prime number multiplied by ten!) I thought I had.

In itself, this literal recounting of his inner compulsions might be offputtingly Proustian, but Madden uses this compulsion to numerate the stars in the sky; possible grains of sand in the world; the progeny of Abraham, Brigham Young, Niall Noigiallach, Genghis Khan, and his own forefathers; surnames of his family; and the world population. But he also interjects this numeration with the stories that underlie them – of Abraham’s struggles with his own faith, for example – and punctuates the juxtaposition by reminding the reader that we no longer need to count grapes, people, or grains of sand:

Once we see the expanse of this vast world, once we can know, almost instantly, the tragedies our brothers and sisters are facing halfway around the globe, once our fruits come to us no matter the season and from far away, more temperate places that grow things we could not have otherwise, we no longer wonder, at least not so much, how many there are of things.

If this all sounds a lot like the dialectic of list and story I covered in Part II, I’ll chalk that up to another level of the conversation.

—By John Proctor

See also

Montaigne’s Motifs, Part 2: The Dialectic of List and Story, with Joe Brainard in Tow

Montaigne’s Motifs, Part 1: Integrating Universal Ideas with Personal Narrative (With a Glance at Joan Didion as a Contemporary Example)

Oct 312010

Institute for Southern Studies,


Ah, you useful little “but.”  You have been discussed at length in craft books, lectures, advisor phone calls, and, of course, critical essays.  So much is embodied in your unassuming three letters.  You can almost stand alone (and in French you often do: “Oui, mais…” [insert pursed-lip ‘pfffssst’ here]).  You are king among conjunctions.  You are worthy of an ode:

Oh, but, inherent contradiction,
You give my work such pleasing friction….

I won’t go on.

Recently, I looked at how but-constructions operate not just poetically or grammatically, but functionally, through the course of entire essays.  I examined : Wendell Berry’s “An Entrance to the Woods,” which is about a two-day hiking trip into Kentucky’s Red River Gorge.

In “Entrance to the Woods,” Wendell Berry uses but-constructions to bring himself and his own thought patterns into the narrative.  Out of necessity, he spends a great deal of time describing the landscape through which he hikes, but that landscape triggers his own musings on the interface between civilization and wildness.  The essay, therefore, moves back and forth between rote descriptions of nature, such as, in the 2nd paragraph:

It is nearly five o’clock when I start walking.  The afternoon is brilliant and warm, absolutely still, not enough air stirring to move a leaf.  There is only the steady somnolent trilling of insects, and now and again in the woods below me the cry of a pileated woodpecker.  Those, and my footsteps on the path, are the only sounds.

And more inward-looking sections that are essentially philosophical, such as, midway through the 2nd section:

Wilderness is the element in which we live encased in civilization, as a mollusk lives in his shell in the sea.  It is a wilderness that is beautiful, dangerous, abundant, oblivious of us, mysterious, never to be conquered or controlled or second-guessed, or known more than a little.  It is a wilderness that for most of us most of the time is kept out of sight, camouflaged, by the edifices and the busyness and the bothers of human society.

Thirteen times, however, Berry explicitly uses the word ‘but’ in very close conjunction with the personal pronoun.  These could be considered “But-I” constructions.  Some examples:

That sense of the past is probably one reason for the melancholy that I feel.  But I know that there are other reasons.

And now, here at my camping place, I have stopped altogether.  But my mind is still keyed to seventy miles an hour.

Perhaps the most difficult labor for my species is to accept its limits, its weakness and ignorance.  But here I am.

And so I have come here to enact – not because I want to but because, once here, I cannot help it – the loneliness and the humbleness of my kind.

Notably, most of these thirteen instances even have sentences that begin with ‘but’.  (There are two other instances that fall into this same “but-I” category but use ‘though’ as their contrast word.)

Berry uses “But-I” constructions to introduce a questioning, a lack of assurance, into the essay as a whole.  It seems Berry is puzzling out the answer as he writes.  Though he may be on sure footing with the calls of the woodpecker, he is communicating that he is less sure about the broader questions of wilderness in the context of human culture.  In the above examples, note the use of ‘probably’ and ‘perhaps’ and ‘I cannot help it.’  These words note a less clear-cut view of reality and they appear in nearly every “But-I” circumstance.  The use of “But-I,” therefore, especially when ‘but’ originates a sentence, signals an entry into Berry’s mind’s eye, where the answers are less sure.

In one interesting dual contradiction, Berry uses the “But-I” (in the 8th paragraph) to suggest confidence in his knowledge: But here it has a quality that I recognize as peculiar to the narrow hollows of the Red River Gorge.  Several pages later, however, he introduces the construction again, to essentially contradict that confidence: But I am in this hollow for the first time in my life.  I see nothing that I recognize. He even repeats the word ‘hollow’ in both passages.  The second example introduces a philosophical section about the transience of his presence and doubt about the importance of his very existence: the lack of assurance, again.

There are, however, four instances where the ‘but’ is not accompanied by the first person.  These happen in two pairs – one pair near the beginning of the piece, and the other about two-thirds of the way through.  Both pairs deal with nature, but in different ways.  Here is the first:

I pass a ledge overhanging a sheer drop of rock, where in a wetter time there would be a waterfall.  The ledge is dry and mute now, but on the face of the rock below are the characteristic mosses, ferns, liverwort, meadow rue.

Five following sentences further describe the ravine into which Berry is hiking, concluding the paragraph.  Then:

Finally from the crease of the ravine I am following there begins to come the trickling and splashing of water.  There is a great restfulness in the sounds these small streams make; they are going down as fast as they can, but their sounds seem leisurely and idle, as if produced like gemstones with the greatest patience and care.

In contrast to the “But-I” constructions described earlier, these are far simpler.  They include point and counterpoint within the same sentence.  They further describe the natural elements at hand by establishing the contrasts inherent in them. What seems to be one thing is in fact another.

But there is another message to this pair (to use a but-construction of my own).  These two passages signal the two inherent contrasts that Berry discusses throughout the entire essay.  They introduce the two key themes of the piece.  The first (about the ravine) references the passage of time. The ledge is dry, BUT was once wet.  Berry deals with this theme in addressing the changing landscape.  He begins four paragraphs later by saying the landscape he is in is “haunted” by the ghosts of “ancient tribesmen,” “white hunters,” and “seekers of quick wealth in timber.”  Later, while on the high ridge the next day, Berry sees an inscription on the rock from 1903 and begins to imagine the history of the view he sees.  He addresses the change (over time) in wilderness from being dominant to subservient in relation to human culture.

The second ‘but’ in the first pair (about the stream) references the pace of life. The streams move quickly, BUT they sound leisurely.  Berry regularly brings up the contrast between the expressway and the woods, for the first time just six paragraphs later.  Through the essay, Berry gradually transitions from the high-speed world of his office and the highway to the slower world of the wilderness, and he thinks at length about that transition.

The second pair of nature-centered but-constructions bring the discussion of the passage of time, the pace of the world, and the interaction between humans and wilderness together, thereby forming the crux of the essay (even though there are still pages to go).  The text reads:

On a day like this, at the end of September, there would have been only the sounds of a few faint crickets, a woodpecker now and then, now and then the wind.  But today, two-thirds of a century later, the continent is covered by an ocean of engine noise, in which silences occur only sporadically and at wide intervals.

From where I am sitting in the midst of this island of wilderness, it is as though I am listening to the machine of human history – a huge flywheel building speed until finally the force of its whirling will break it in pieces, and the world with it.  That is not an attractive thought, and yet I find it impossible to escape, for it has seemed to me for years now that the doings of men no longer occur within nature, but that the natural places which the human economy has so far spared now survive almost accidentally within the doings of men.

There are a few things of note here.  Though the first person appears in this passage, it does not appear in direct relation to the ‘buts.’  The contradiction refers to culture and nature, not Berry’s mind’s eye.  There are specific mentions of time (“the end of September” and “two-thirds of a century later”) and speed.  These, of course, refer back to the initial pair of nature-centered but-constructions.

Following this passage, Berry concludes a long paragraph with what can justifiably be called a rant.  This is the height of the essay’s anti-civilization, pro-wilderness rhetoric, even concluding with the unusual (for this piece) mention of specific human evils: “the poison spray, the hugging fire of napalm, the cloud of Hiroshima.”  The ‘buts’ that introduce this section are used to describe today’s wilderness by contrasting their former glory with their current demise.  Long ago there would have been only crickets, BUT now there is engine noise. Once, man was enveloped by nature, BUT today it is, sadly, the other way around.

Interestingly, just as this rant is about to spiral out of control (at Hiroshima), Berry reins it in by using another but-construction – even though he employs a ‘though/still’ combination here instead of ‘but.’ After Hiroshima there is a section break, then Berry returns to the “But-I” technique to, as he has done throughout the essay, cast doubt on his own train of thought.  That passage reads:

Though from the high vantage point of this stony ridge I see little hope that I will ever live a day as an optimist, still I am not desperate.  In fact, with the sun warming me now, and with the whole day before me to wander in this beautiful country, I am happy.

 Where the preceding paragraph was nearly devoid of the first person, instead delivering a treatise on the ills of civilization, the introduction to the next section, in which Berry returns to the pure happiness of being in the woods, presents the ‘I’ several times in rapid succession.  And, to mesh with the dismal viewpoint right before, the contrast moves from pessimism to optimism, low to high.  I am a pessimist, BUT I am still happy.  From this point to the end of the essay, the mind’s eye grows silent, perhaps exhausted, perhaps indicating the author’s final transition to the wilderness.  There is only one “But-I” construction left, and it deals with Berry being physically tired at the end of the hike.

In essence, then, the two pairs of nature centered but-constructions open and close the philosophical section (the opening two-thirds) of the essay.  Within this section are numerous “But-I” constructions that explore both sides of the nature/civilization discussion.  After the 2nd pair of nature ‘buts’ is a long denouement during which Berry simply revels in being in the wilderness.  He lets his mind rest, seeing only nature as it is.  He puts the ‘buts’ away.

—By Adam Arvidson

Oct 302010

Herewith a startling and idiosyncratically romantic Steven Heighton short story “A Right Like Yours.” Many of you know Steven from previous appearances on the pages of Numéro Cinq, including his lovely poem “Herself, Revised” (very popular here), his novel excerpt from Every Lost Country, his book of essays The Admen Move on Lhasa, which Rich Farrell wrote about here, and his handful of Horace odes in translation, which you really ought to take a second look at for their grace and intricacy. Of these odes, David Helwig wrote to me in an email: “They seem to me technically brilliant. And therefore moving.” (Remind me to ask him if I can quote him.)



By Steven Heighton


He is short but he has shoulders and I think he wears the flattest shoes going, cheap sneakers of some kind, and that is attractive, that he doesn’t try to elevate himself in any way. His look is shy though, maybe cold, with green eyes that don’t meet your eyes but look at your mouth or chin in the same way as, when you’re in the ring, the other girl will stare a little below your eyes. So maybe he does it to practice. Always be in the ring, Webb Renton tells us.

I choose to think he is just somewhat shy.

It started because I was training for my fifth fight and my sparring partner had hurt that ligament in the knee that’s called, I think, cruciate but we just say crucial because that’s what it is. The other girls at the club are either on the little or the huge size and Trav is about the same weight as me, though he is shorter, and toward the end of a workout Webb yelled at him to get in there and give me a couple rounds. Trav’s face then—like someone told him to throw himself on a grenade. People started gathering ringside. Like I said, it was the end of the night, and I would have been interested too. I don’t think the coach had ever put a girl and guy in to spar that way.

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Oct 292010


Another Numéro Cinq What-it’s-like-living-here piece, this time by Shelagh Shapiro, a Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate, short story writer, author of that lovely Novel-in-a-Box Contest entry Infinity Falling,  and producer/interviewer for her own amazing radio show Write the Book. Listen to her latest show, an interview with Richard Russo here.


What it’s like living here

From Shelagh Shapiro

The View From The Baby’s Room

You moved here – out to the country – nineteen years ago. One-year married and seven months pregnant, you slid the moving boxes around and directed other people where to carry the furniture. The mosquitoes got so bad with doors open all that day, you took to vacuuming them out of the air. When you first looked over the property, you woke up a raccoon in the barn. Groggy and comfortable, he didn’t bother you. That night, you and Jerry slept in the baby’s bedroom at the back of the house, because the water bed wasn’t filled yet in your room. (All the next day, the bed would fill, that sixty-foot hose snaking up through the bathroom window.) The baby’s room faced the pond—as it does still—and the peepers lulled you to sleep.

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Oct 282010


Alan Michael Parker is an old friend and colleague from my stint as the McGee Professor of Writing at Davidson College in North Carolina. (Coincidentally, we have two Davidson graduates who appear frequently on Numéro Cinq—Contributing Editor Gary Garvin and Cynthia Newberry Martin of Catching Days.) Among his many claims on my affection, Alan had the good taste to marry a Canadian, the painter Felicia van Bork. He is a prolific poet and a novelist, a poet-novelist, a wry, energetic presence with a gift for teaching and satire. His most recent book of poems is Elephants & Butterflies (BOA Editions) and his most recent novel is Whale Man (WordFarm Books) which is due out February, 2011. It’s a great pleasure and delight to introduce him to the pages of Numéro Cinq. These three excerpts are from a new novel in progress, The Committee on Town Happiness.



All Swimming Pools

No diving. No skipping. No three-legged competitions. No talking to the lifeguard from behind the lifeguard stand. No eating in the shallow end. No keys in the water. No unlabeled towels. No food dyes.

All swimming pools are to be skimmed daily with the use of skimmers attached to telescopic poles, those good ideas made better. All swimming pools are to employ regulation geometric symbols: triangles for fish, circles for rescue rings, squares for the Snack Hut, rectangles for chaise lounges, etc. Color coding may apply. Primary colors may apply, given the recent popularity of goggles.

No hiking boots inside the fence. No pets in water six inches above their heads. All swimming pools offering consumer services shall employ kitty corner entrances and exits—the latter through the gift areas, to encourage community. When we buy together, we are together. No indecency. No metal belts.

All swimming pools shall appoint a Wildlife Officer who shall successfully complete Level Three Wildlife Training. All swimming pools shall post the hours of All Swim. All swimming pools shall offer shallow ends and deeps, to remind us of our progress in life, with demarcations clearly marked in graduated units, to remind us of all we trust.

In case of emergency, all swimming pools shall be prepared to accept displaced persons; all Snack Huts must be equipped with sleeping bags and hurricane lamps. Sterno and a flare gun, safety cones. One torch per every three employees. In case of inclement weather, T-shirts may be awarded. “I Survived…” slogans are acceptable. No underwater lighting. No realistic inflatables.

The Marching Band

Petitioned by the Active Mothers in Support of the Marching Band (AMSMB), we considered previously undirected funds. Granted, the timing of the request seemed carefully timed, raising more than one eyebrow, our fiscal year concluding, earmarked monies marked for non-displaced expenditures and needing to be spent. We saw there were expenses, naturally: the unfortunate state of the glockenspiel, for example, and the need for eighteen sets of snap-on straps. No one mentioned the excessively woolen caps. Was it all so serendipitous? Is serendipity to be believed? We wondered, when the AMSMB was joined in an amicus motion by the Pre-Holidays Happiness Sub-Committee (M. Barriston, W. Weiss). Of course, every petition has petitioners, every dollar its admirers.

If only. In the subsequent filing period, the “cooling off,” due diligence and discoveries. Around the practice field, an empty trombone case, a bell. Two uniform shirts balled in the trash behind the former Sewing Notions store (now boarded up with cardboard, tightly X-ed with tape). Then there was the unfortunate bassoon that no amount of cleaning would unclog. And the note intercepted from the clarinetist: such antipathy between a first and second chair.

After four, we could still hear the muted, brassy airs from far away, drums quick as a rabbit’s heart. Not that anyone would deny a child music, but. Who was that playing, considering the recent losses? The AMSMB appeared perplexed. So we voted, 5-2, to wait. “Maybe they can march in place,” quipped F. Czerniwicz, not all that helpfully.

Report from the Committee on Town Happiness

It would not have been feasible to keep adding members to our ranks, even though we had our feelings and our losses, so we voted, 4-2, not to open up the rolls (S. Avumito and W. Weiss abstaining, since they were so new). When the vote was tallied, we were wide-eyed. There was the outside prospect of a pall.

But on to business: the Committee on Town Happiness has been thinking about the Community Garden. All those mirrors of our personalities; who grows the cukes, who the cosmos, who the daffodils, who the ornamentals; who comes to dig at night rather than go home. Who composts, who sprays and with what. Who shares. We have voted, 6-1 (M. Barriston recused, due to her portfolio) that Community Garden plots shall hereby be awarded based on the applicant’s commitment to the Community Garden Market. We have voted, 6-1, to establish a Community Garden Market, staffed by volunteers who already work for the town. Not strictly “in this time of need,” although the phrase was entered into the minutes.

We think that growing and marketing vegetables and flowers together will bring us all together. Our bodies are what we have in common, after all. The organism business, the willingness to participate as people. We voted, 5-3, to recognize the relationship between togetherness and happiness—and maybe, as M. Espinoza said, the tightness of the vote was telling, but maybe not.

We, the Committee on Town Happiness, would like to thank the three representatives from the Community Garden who came so promptly despite the sirens, and who shall henceforth be recognized as the three representatives of the Community Garden Market. We thanked them formally, 8-0. The smiles accompanying our unanimity were what we most encouraged all to see.

–By Alan Michael Parker


Oct 252010

LR & S Umbagog


Herewith an essay on the techniques for indicating thought and emotion in prose while avoiding the pitfall of sentimentality. Laura-Rose Russell is a former student and a recent Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate and a spectacular nonfiction writer. Please read her piece “Scented” in the Gettysburg  Review and you’ll see what I mean. This craft essay is Laura-Rose’s graduate lecture at VCFA, a terrific example of the genre, at once fiercely intelligent and passionately engaged and packed with craft information, a lesson on reading, and a narrative of her development as a writer. She does something in this lecture I’ve never seen anyone try before. She actually takes an example text and strips out the representation of emotion, motive, etc. to further clarify the profound effect these techniques have on a piece of writing.


There’s a Reason They Call it Show AND Tell: How to Reveal Thoughts, Emotions, and Motivations Without Sentimentality

By Laura-Rose Russell


Sentimentality is an excessive expression of emotion, one that goes beyond what is warranted. The problem with sentimentality is that it actually diminishes the impact of events it is meant to enhance. Sentimentality also reduces the credibility of the writer or character that expresses such emotion. Debra Sparks says, “Sentimentality and coldness are falsehoods, two extremes of dishonesty. Sentimentality gives a moment more than it has earned, coldness less.” Sparks, in an article called “Handling Emotion in Fiction Writing,” points out that the word “sentimental” didn’t have a negative connotation until the 19th century, when it came to mean, not only excessive emotion, but emotion period. To be sentimental meant “to be governed by sentiment in opposition to reason.”

But when we say that writers should avoid sentimentality, we don’t mean they should avoid emotion altogether. Tolstoy says, “Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them” (qtd. in Sparks). What, then, is excessive emotion? Is there a chart somewhere that we can refer to? How much emotion am I permitted when I lose my car keys? How much when I lose a loved one?

We are all familiar with the advice to show rather than tell, and nowhere is this emphasized more than regarding emotions. “Good writers,” John Gardner says, “may ‘tell’ about almost anything in fiction except the character’s feelings” (Burroway, 80). Janet Burroway discusses how Stanislavski, the founder of “Method” acting, “urged his students to abandon the clichéd emotive postures of the nineteenth century stage in favor of emotions evoked by the actor’s recollection of sensory details connected with a personal past trauma . . . Similarly, in written fiction, if the writer depicts the precise physical sensations experienced by the character, a particular emotion may be triggered by the reader’s own sense memory” (80). “Get control of emotion by avoiding the mention of emotion,” says John L’Heureux (Burroway, 81). The message seems pretty clear: don’t name emotions.

But during a recent workshop I attended, Douglas Glover, one of the workshop leaders, broached the subject of explicit versus implicit information. We were debating whether a character in a student’s story was essentially self-serving and taking advantage of another character or whether the character was fundamentally well intentioned but seriously misguided. Glover interrupted our debate to ask us where in the text were we getting the information to support one argument or another? We would cite this line, or that phrase, and Glover would point out that these words and phrases were actually quite ambiguous; we were coming up with a wide range of interpretation regarding points that were pivotal to the story. “Isn’t this what writing is about?” we asked, “suggesting things and letting your reader ‘read between the lines’?” Glover said as writers we do not have the leisure to be quite so ambiguous. Is it any wonder why we were confused? We were trying so hard to follow the rule we had been taught: show, don’t tell; show, don’t tell; show, don’t tell.

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Oct 242010
For your edification and delight (while I do packets), here is a lovely new poem by David Helwig (um, who apparently has a new dog). I have introduced David before on Numéro Cinq so I won’t go on about our long friendship, his incredibly prolific career, his honours and acclaim. He has already published a translation of Chekhov’s story “About Love” and “La Rentrée,” a poem, on these pages.



By David Helwig

The puppy stares through the log corral at the tall
companionable horses ambling to the fence;
the hair of her ruff bristles, fear of these giants
stirring her, though the abrupt newness holds her gaze.

Her brain all imbrued with the complex perspectives
of perfumery and stench, she studies these odd
grand beings who interrupt our evening walk
while the air cools and the blazing October sun

sets beyond the toy farm on the empty road
of the toy village, time falling away from us
over the old graveyard as the black dog watches
with careful eyes these creature of the distances,

attendant to night’s stubborn bestial wisdom,
the galactic white blaze on her chest retracing
a sign out of some far genetic wilderness;
she is hearing wild dogs in the whine of the wind.

We read the graves, small histories inscribed on stone.
What more is to be said about them, the lost ones,
who are recalled tonight while all-stars-that-are come
in white fire to the observers? Morning will bring

starfish, oysters on the beach, the glitter of light,
in the house of love, new confusions of friendship.
The horses now stand sleeping under this tall sky,
the dog dreaming fear beneath the bright evening star.

—David Helwig

Oct 192010

After Reading Heidegger and Seeing a Dead Rat

By Jacob Glover


Being is not naught, but will be.
I saw it in a rat on a driveway
A few days into fall,
A rat, what had been a rat, but
Now was not naught, but
Something not being.
The rat had had being but now it
Had cold and stiff darkness
On a driveway a few days into fall.
Surrounded by Being, in Being,
That which was rat, was no longer being.
Time was, being was in that Rat.
Time was, Being was that rat, as that rat
Was being.
But now, Being is not naught, it is gone,
From this rat, anyway, so it might as well be.

Oct 192010


Steven Axelrod is a former student, a painter of houses on Nantucket, an inveterate blogger on Open He also won the 2010 Memoir-in-a-Box contest with a gorgeous piece on the demise of a marriage. Herewith another in an infinite series of Numéro Cinq “What it’s like living here” pieces, in this instance, Steve’s elegiac homage to his adoptive hometown.


What it’s like living here

By Steven Axelrod on Nantucket

Closed for the Season

You walk around your island, stunned by the sudden fair weather, the giant wheel shifting the wind from north east to south west, the air like silk against your face,  the town moving into full dress rehearsal mode for the coming summer: painters sprucing up the store fronts, renovations scrambling to completion, pot holes patched, grass cut, hedges trimmed, waiting for the first boats full of Memorial Day tourists, the first surge of Range Rovers and boat trailers as the summer people take their  seats and the curtain goes up.

Ack 2 Go, Whalers!

Your son Tom graduates from high school today, and you feel ambushed by your own emotions. For years it seems you’ve known every possible sentiment ahead of time, shrugging as they trundled towards you: this is going to make you angry, that will be fun; whatever. But this comes at you from too many directions at once. It’s strange and troubling to have a feeling you can’t identify.

You grasp just bits and pieces of it at first. You feel a tug of genuine suspense when your son was crosses the stage to pick up his diploma … as if something might happen to screw it up, as if the diploma itself might be blank. You know other people feel the same way: You make the joke with a few of the parents you know, and see the nervous smile of recognition on their faces. Then comes the relief.

You call your ex-wife and you talk for a while. Later, you say to your Mom, “No one else knows what this feels like.” And she says, “What about me? I’ve been through it, too.” You hug and you find that you’re crying. She says: “For twenty years you’ve been putting yourself last; now you can finally put yourself first. You can finally do what you want. But what is that?” And you really have no idea. But you feel like some huge changes could begin now; as if you had graduated, not your son.

But even that isn’t all. The graduation unplugs you from a whole community that you didn’t even know you cared about. You weren’t really part of it, in any big way: You didn’t volunteer, or chaperone or substitute teach. But you know these kids, and through them their parents and through those families the real life of the island you live on and the town that had somehow, almost against your will, become your home. Now that living connection is gone, too. The next bunch of kids will be strangers to you; the next crazy teacher won’t be your problem. So this rite of passage isolates you. It makes you feel your age. You finished my fiftieth year, your first real novel and your children’s high school careers, all in the same week. That’s a lot of endings.

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Oct 142010

Fiction breaks barriers people assume are sacrosanct. I was watching Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street the other night, fascinated mostly by the conceit of the world of dream invading the waking world of so-called reality and vice versa. Leon Rooke has a story called “Magi Dogs” in his recent collection The Last Shot in which a real dog walks into a painting.

I had no sooner finished my new painting, White Cottage with Green Shutters, when a dog poked its nose in the door, looked me over with only the mildest interest, then without further ado trotted up the painting’s cottage path, yawned, and at once dropped down asleep by the front steps. I was glad I hadn’t given the cottage an open door or the dog likely would have walked right inside.

The story develops in sections along several armatures but eventually returns to the painting and the dog.

The dog is pacing the cottage path, she turns and looks me over as I enter the studio, I draw fresh water from the tap and place the tin can on the floor, she quickly laps up all the water, wags her tail, then trots up and scratches at the cottage door, these deep whines in her throat. With chalk I throw in a few quick lines to open a makeshift door, the dog pushes through and runs straight to the divan.

For a long time I sit on the model’s hard chair looking at the dog, thinking that if one dog arrives this can only mean others may follow, which leads me to something else I have been frequently mulling over these recent days, Anjou’s insistence that from time to time the mind must be excavated, emptied, so that it may discover a solace fundamental to its journey.

What storytellers know is that grammar has nothing to do with truth, that the throw of grammar leads into the light of the imagination. Dreams can invade reality, dogs can take up residence in paintings (and bring their friends).

As it happens, besides being a great storyteller and novelist, Leon Rooke is a painter of brash, dynamic pictures on display at the Fran Hill Gallery in Toronto. There are homages here (obvious in the title), also bits of narrative, often ironic (also signaled in the titles), exuberant colours and bold eroticism. These pictures are exciting to see and ponder against Rooke’s words, his stories and novels which trend always toward that point where the mind empties and opens itself to “a solace fundamental to its journey.”


The New Quebec, 2010
oil/canvas, 24 x 48 in.
Collection of Sybil & Morris Fine

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Oct 142010

The film project is currently on its one and only two-week break from photography.  Each of us are using this time for different project-related matters: Jen and I have worked on some new costume material, my brother is continuing work with his fight team, Jack is attending a film-fest (which includes an animated film he created), and I am fine-tuning the script and going over lines with actors who have yet to appear onscreen.  In general news, a Facebook fan page has been created for the film, which quickly rocketed to 33 members.  I’ve never met at least 25 of them.  So much for keeping this project under wraps (story specifics and the cast are still in large part secret, however).

I want to take a moment to talk about the whole “art” process behind this film.  I included a quote from Tolkien last time in which he expressed the desire to see his work interpreted by other minds in the form of paint, music and drama.  I’ll say a bit about music in a future entry, as we’re having original music composed for the film, while taking this time to look at the visual aspect of things.

Jen’s background in cosplay and costume-craft is one of the saving graces of our project (whether or not she’d blush to hear/read that).  However, it’s not a situation where I (as director) say “Here’s someone I know who is good at making costumes – go crazy!”  It’s been a very collaborative process with a high level of communication – I even took scissors to fabric a few times myself.  We’ve been greatly concerned with color, contrast with scenery (forests, lakes, whitewater, wooden walls, concrete fountains, the sun’s reflection on rock, etc) and other parts of a costume (including wigs – currently, six cast members are wearing wigs in the film).  The ideas behind these costumes come greatly from what we know of the characters.  Quite often, Tolkien goes into great detail about appearance, yet sometimes none at all.  How exact do we want the costumes to be?  We came to the conclusion that we need to do what is right for the characters we’re dealing with based on the above factors, as well as what we draw from a character’s personality, while keeping the outfits described in-text within the ballpark.  There’s also a budget to consider, so “a thousand studs of crystal” (from Tolkien’s description of Ecthelion’s shield in Unfinished Tales) may become three or four, or no shield at all if the scene doesn’t call for him to be holding one.

The visual imagery doesn’t end with creating interesting (or accurate) costumes.  For decades, the works of Tolkien have been interpreted into paint and other visual art by everyone from renowned artists such as John Howe and Ted Nasmith to internet painters who still go unnamed and unknown.  While working on my own adaptation, I’ve been considering some of my favorite Tolkien art and allowing it to inspire ideas and landscapes in my own work.  Take a look at this.

The meeting of Tuor and Ulmo is a relatively iconic moment in Tolkien’s mythology.  It’s clearly described: Ulmo is in the water, Tuor is on shore.  In some versions he kneels, in some he doesn’t.  I couldn’t make Ulmo forty feet tall in my adaptation, but I’m not sure I would have wanted to.  Ulmo convinces Tuor to take on a burden through words, not through intimidation.  It serves a film better to have the scene portrayed as two people talking face to face, even if one has a booming voice and infinite power.  Howe’s artwork was one of the main forces behind my ideas for the scene, though I didn’t try to emulate it, per se; Howe’s painting made me feel this scene, and drove me to evoke a similar feeling in my own work.  Unlike Howe, I cannot use one image; I need costumes, camera angles, music, sound, movement and dialogue.

Oddly enough, we created Voronwë’s costume and filmed this scene long before coming across Marya’s artwork (on the internet), so the resulting effect was the opposite.  This being a very clearly described image in the text, it’s easy to see why it would be depicted in a similar way, but these similarities blew me away.  Note the position of V’s left knee and elbow above, then look at Jen’s in our picture.  Chilling.


We are doing visual imagery that is our own, fitting with the directing style/art direction of the film and following a set of image patterns put forth by the specific story material we’re tackling, but with some truly interesting parallels with artwork that is now considered “classic” within the Tolkien realm, as well as concurring with relatively younger fans’ ideas of what these scenes may look like.  There is no clearly-defined balance; most of it is happening almost subconsciously.

I’m enjoying this journey a lot.

—By Richard Hartshorn

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Oct 132010

I wrote here previously about the introduction of characters, a topic that figures prominently in my own writing.  I meet a lot of people.  I’m (gradually) working on a book that involves significant scientific research, travel around the Midwest talking to farmers and land managers, and – just last night – hours in the archives of the Minnesota Historical Society poring through 150-year-old land survey notes.  When I sent my first chapter to dg way back in packet #2 (are we almost to #4 already??), he raised the question of sources.

One of my sources (at left): Patrick Ceas of St. Olaf College

To quote briefly from dg’s packet letter:  “This brings up a larger issue nudging away at me as I read through this chapter.  How do you properly credit and integrate primary research and sources? I wonder about this reading Barry Lopez on wolves and John McPhee on shad and Mathiessen on snow leopards. How does one ensure that the descriptions one writes from the research become one’s own words and not just summaries or synopses of other people’s work?”

Hmmm.  Good question.  And I suppose you all know what’s coming next. “This might bear contemplating as a critical essay,” wrote dg.

Continue reading »

Oct 112010

CockatooheadshotHere is a poem by the prolific and amazingly energetic (I tried to count the number of jobs and teaching gigs she has but didn’t have enough fingers) Nickole Brown. Nickole is a Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate in fiction (I have been reminded that, in fact, she was in a workshop with me, yea, these many years ago). As a student and a graduate assistant, Nickole was a graceful, kindly presence on campus. I do recall her brightening my day now and then in the lunch line at Dewey. She worked for Sarabande Books for ten years. She’s made her way in publishing, teaching and as a woman-of-letters. She is determined, focused and persistent, qualities I admire. And it’s a great pleasure, after all these years, to still be in touch and to publish her here.


A Diet Plan That Works

By Nickole Brown


“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
—Virginia Woolf

Do not buy like the nouveau riche: tin of black
caviar, sad plate of parrot fish,
marbled pink slab of exotic
meat served with expensive
and appropriately bitter
wine.  Fill your cart instead with
things to make you feel rich: the oiled flesh
of artichoke hearts, the slippery vowels
of asparagus and arugula and asiago,
bread with an uneven
leaven of holes.  Buy things
still teeming, invisible cultures
swimming in a cup, taut colors
soaked in sun so far from this winter
your palms ache with the bright hot
light of oranges. Display the carrots
with their full peacock
greens on the counter next to cheese
that glistens with a softness of slow
time. This is what you’ve worked for, leaving
behind those dim nights
nuked with infomercials, the florescent
maraschino, the milky dressing’s cheap blue
water. Let go a past of unwieldy portions,
perishables sealed in boxes and cans,
all those puffed, sugared, colored
mornings that tore
your mouth to shreds.

This is what you always wanted: the cool
fruit held to your face,
its sweetness given
to your hunger. Cherish it,
thank it, let your teeth
break the skin with a sound
that reminds you of weeds
pulled from the garden, a pop
that sounds like one sound
but is in fact made of many,
each white strand snapped
from the dark
a sound of letting go, a hundred letting
go’s, a sound of a thing
dying under your grip, yes,
but not unlike the sound
made by that stubborn
horse who refused the trail
for a moment to lean his bridled
head down to this earth to stop,
to chew.

—By Nickole Brown


Oct 102010

As evidenced by my last post, my free time and brain-space has been heavily occupied by a writing/film project based on a few early works/drafts of J.R.R. Tolkien, including material from Unfinished Tales and The Shaping of Middle-Earth.  The project is a collaboration between myself, my brother (visual artist, filmmaker, action choreographer and athlete), and two close friends: Jennifer Wicks (costume designer and actress), and Jack Durnin (local filmmaker/cameraman).  While adapting the script, storyboarding, and visualizing the process as a whole (including the inevitable “liberties” I would have to take), I tried to keep this quote from Tolkien himself in mind:

[T]he cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.

In short, Tolkien wanted people to adapt his work into other media, including films.  Consider the following quote, also from Tolkien, after viewing the original animated films based upon The Lord of the Rings.

I would ask them to make an effort of imagination sufficient to understand the irritation (and on occasion the resentment) of an author, who finds, increasingly as he proceeds, his work treated as it would seem carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about.

What stuck with me while working on my adaptation was the last part: “appreciation of what it is all about.”  As a longtime reader, I think I’ve got a good idea, but as previously mentioned, liberties must be taken.  Where, then, do I take them?  I am working on merging two stories, which take place around the same time period in the fictional mythology, into a single film.  The myths, which in The Silmarillion read similarly to the Greek Mythos or the Norse Myths, continue onward when the specific sections end.  Certain characters were around thousands of years earlier; some live all the way into the latest histories of the mythology.  As a rule with a film, however, the story must be self-contained.  This film’s budget is out-of-pocket; I’m not planning a Trilogy.  I took into consideration which parts of the mythology are important to these specific stories and this particular point in the fiction’s history, as well as, perhaps more importantly, what would be coherent to a film audience who has never touched these books.  Simple example: three precious stones.  Only one of them matters to this story, and only to half the characters, but the entire story is happening because these stones exist.  How much attention should be given to the stone, and how do I tersely explain where the other two are without going into a campfire storytelling session?

I figured it out through rigorous script revision, but listening to the dialogue being spoken on set also helped.  I am usually a person who needs to have every nook of a creative project in order before proceeding, especially when it involves people other than myself, but this time I had to let that go (appropriate for a story that is, if we must tack a theme to it, about letting go) and resolve to revise it as I go along.  That process is working out well.  We’ve had two days of shooting over two weekends, and I’m revising the script after each shoot, on some occasions even editing dialogue while on set – this is different from allowing “improv;” the dialogue is still written, agreed upon and followed.  The only way I can describe it is “adventures in dialogue.”

Linked below is a little 10-minute feature we put together after our first day of shooting.  Within are interviews with me, Phil and Jen; comments from other cast members in the film; some of our ideas about the project at the onset; and of course, some general silliness.  Take note that this footage was shot with a “B” camera in Hi-8; none of the shots, audio or HD footage from the final product is in the video, but you’ll get to see some of the costumes in low quality.

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Oct 062010

author-u6-a53Herewith a sequence of poems from Steven Heighton‘s book Patient Frame. Numéro Cinq readers will (or may not) recall Steven from two earlier appearances on these pages (here and here). He is an old friend, a hurting hockey player, father of a daughter, and he published a book of poems and a novel this year, which is more than I have (probably you, too). He sent me “A Strange Fashion horaceof Forsaking…” months ago for fun and it’s been biting at the back of my brain ever since, not the least because he refashions Horace after Thomas Wyatt, one of my favourite poets. I leave it to Steven to introduce Horace and these translations—which he prefers to call “approximations”—in his own words.




Horace, or Quintus Horatius Flaccus, was a Roman poet. During his lifetime (65 BCE – 8 BCE) he served briefly as a military officer, as a functionary in the Roman treasury, and as a writer, producing satires, epodes, epistles, literary criticism, and poems. He was a highly versatile poet, both formally and thematically; his Odes comprise work ranging from personal lyrics to moralistic verse, and from private, occasional poems to public, ceremonial verse. Horace’s words survive not only in Classics departments and in translation (David Ferry’s The Odes of Horace is deservedly respected and widely read), but in common parlance: the phrase carpe diem ­comes from one of his poems.

In approaching these four odes of Horace I’ve stuck with my usual practice as an amateur translator, giving myself the freedom to make each approximation as “free” or as “faithful” as the original inspires me to be. So “Pyrrha” sticks close to the untitled original in its structure, imagery and level of diction, while “Chloe” has morphed from an unrhymed twelve line poem into a short-lined sonnet. “A Strange Fashion of Forsaking” is inflected and re-gendered by way of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s famous poem “They Flee from Me”, while “Noon on Earth!” has gone from a linguistically formal eight lines to a highly colloquial seventeen.

Robert Kroetsch once observed that every poem is a failed translation. What a translation can’t afford to be is a failed poem—or at least an uninteresting one. My aim in approximating a poem that I love is, of course, to make a compelling counterpart in English—something to entertain you, startle you, pry you open—while in the process entertaining myself: sitting up, by candlelight, with dictionaries and a glass of Douro red, the house silent, even the bats in our walls asleep; reciting the original lines aloud, in some cases two thousand years after their conception; weighing how best to re-conceive those cadences in English; serving as a kind of stenographer to the dead, a medium at a prosodic séance, an avid collaborator, an apprentice always learning from the work. And for me, the most mysterious, engrossing work lies in finding a way into old or ancient poems and making them young again. Hence Horace.

I’ll conclude by quoting the middle section of a poem I translated several years ago—a poem by the contemporary Italian writer Valerio Magrelli, which suggests some of the addictive bustle and exertion of the translator’s work. (The unquoted opening lines introduce the metaphor of the translator as a one-man or –woman moving company.)

I too move something—words—
to a new building, words
not mine, setting hands to things
I don’t quite know, not quite
comprehending what I move.
Myself I move—translate
pasts to presents, to presence, that
travels sealed up, packed in pages
or in crates . . .

The final unpacking, of course, is the task of the reader.

—SH, Kingston, Ontario

Pyrra (i:5)

What slender elegant youth, perfumed
among roses, is urging himself on you,
Pyrrha, in the fragrant grotto? Have you
bound your yellow hair so gracefully

for him? How many times he’ll weep because
faith is fickle, as the gods are, how often
will the black, sea-disquieting winds
astonish him, although for now

credulous, grasping at fool’s gold, he enjoys you,
hopes you’ll always be calm water, always
this easy to love. Unconscious of the wind’s wiles
he’s helpless, still tempted

by your gleaming seas. But high on the temple wall
I’ve set this votive tablet, and in thanks
to the god for rescue have hung
my sea-drenched mantle there.

Chloe ( i, 23)

You flee from me, Chloe, a young deer
urgently in search of mother, lost
in lonely, high forests
tremulous with fear

at the mountain’s slimmest breeze, or
springtime’s delicate revealing
of leaves, or a leafgreen lizard’s spring
from thickets. (What terrors seize

the fawn then!). But Chloe, I’m neither
a tiger nor a lion, intent
on savage appetites, or upon

causing you any pain. Forget
looking back for your mother
now, woman:
it’s time to love a man.

“A Strange Fashion of Forsaking . . .”
(i, 25: via Thomas Wyatt)

The wilder girls hardly bother anymore
to rattle your shuttered window with fists, or
pitch stones, shatter your dreamfree sleep, while your door,
once oiled and swinging,

nimbly hinged, hangs dead with rust. Less and less
you wake now to ex-lovers crying, “Thomas,
you bastard, how can you sleep?—I’m dying for us
to do it again.”

Seems to me your turn’s long overdue—solo
nightshift when, like some codger in a cul-
de-sac, you’ll moan for all the women (scornful
now) who one time sought you.

The cold will be what finds you then—northeasters
whining down in the gloom of the moon, and lust
in riddled guts twisting you like a stud in must
who has to stand watching

his old mares mounted. You’ll know then, the desire
of girls is for greener goods—such dry sticks
and wiltwood, blown only by the cold, they just figure
who has the time for.


Noon on Earth!
(starting from i, 11)

Why trouble wondering how long
breath will last, how long your eyes
will still bask in the heavenshed
lucence of noon on earth. Horoscopes,
palmistry, the séance gild pockets
but confide nothing sure. We have to take it—
the future’s shrugged whatever, that weather
of uncertainty—unknowing whether gods
will grant us the grey of further
winters that’ll churn the sea until the sea
gnaws, noses into the littoral
of our lives, eroding whatever is
so far unclaimed.
Better open the red, pitch the cork, toast
our moment—tomorrow’s an idle
nevering, ghost of a god
unworth such wasted faith.

—Translated by Steven Heighton


Steven Heighton, born in 1961, is the author of nine books, most recently the novel Afterlands. His poetry and fiction have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including the London Review of Books, Poetry (Chicago), Europe, Tin House, Agni, The Independent, the Walrus, and Best English Stories. His work has been widely translated, has received a number of prizes, and has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award, the Trillium Award, a Pushcart Prize, and Britain’s W.H. Smith Award.


Oct 062010


It’s a pleasure to introduce my former student (and Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate) Jill Glass to Numéro Cinq. Jill lives in Los Angeles, writes about Los Angeles, thinks about Los Angeles and even seems to like it there. “The Use of Moralized Cityscape in Los Angeles Literature” is a marvelously intelligent essay on the use of place in fiction, the moralizing of place for fictional purposes (a literary effect called paysage moralisé) and, in particular, the way authors like Joan Didion, Gavin Lambert and Nathanael West re-imagine Los Angeles as a literary universe unto itself. Make sure to look at the notes and bibliography which extend the reach of the essay far beyond its topical orbit. This was Jill’s critical thesis at Vermont College, one of the best I’ve seen.




By Jill Glass


“I look at the writers who came, when they came, why they came, what they found and how they responded to the city. I am interested in the way the place—in all its apparent oddity—shaped the writer’s imaginations and how their imaginative renderings shaped the city, structured it in image and myth as the city of dream, desire and deception.”[i]

–David Fine, Imagining Los Angeles.

It was failure that brought Nathanael West to Los Angeles in the mid-1930’s, after his first novel, The Dream of the Balso Snell, was little read and poorly reviewed and his second, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), was not the breakthrough many anticipated. Critically praised, the novel seemed poised for success when West received news on the eve of release that his publishing house, hit hard by the economic depression, had declared bankruptcy. Months later, when the book came to market, it had lost all momentum. In an unexpected development, Twentieth Century Fox bought the film rights, and West followed his novel to Hollywood to oversee its transition from page to screen.

The Depression had been good to the film industry. Americans, desperate for diversion, crowded the theaters where they were fed images of Los Angeles life as one of material comfort, escapism and eternal sunshine, the locus of the American Dream. This was not what West saw when he arrived. His Los Angeles was “a grotesque half-world of outcasts and hangers-on, misfits and freaks, exotic cultists and disillusioned Midwesterners,” a jumble of incongruous architectural styles—pagodas and chalets–stacked side by side in rugged canyons, a fantasyland gone awry, the lines between movies and reality badly blurred, a city devoid of cultural or literary definition.

Heightened and distorted, this became the central imagery for his seminal work, The Day of the Locust. The book was published in 1939, a defining year for Los Angeles literature. Raymond Chandler released his novella Red Wind, elevating pulp crime fiction to an art form. His Los Angeles was “a big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup…no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.”[ii] John Fante published his second novel, Ask the Dust, the first book to focus a tender eye on the down-and-outers, the immigrant denizens of the city’s downtown flophouses and cafeterias. “Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.”[iii] But the Los Angeles of West’s imagination was a bleaker place, a moral black hole–the embodiment of what he saw as the spiritual and material betrayal of the American dream during the years of the Great Depression, a city where people “realize they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment…Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have saved and saved for nothing.”[iv]

With The Day of the Locust, a black, surrealistic, social satire, West created his own genre—Hollywood Apocalypse. A short 126-page novel, the chapters range from one to eleven pages in length. Written in third-person omniscient, past tense, the story is told from the point of view of Tod Hackett, part moral-innocent, part artist-prophet, a recent graduate of the Yale School of Fine Arts, who has temporarily set aside his aspirations towards serious art to work as a set designer at a second-rate Hollywood studio. As he takes in Los Angeles, he marvels at the blatant artifice of the architecture and the inhabitants. He dismisses the masqueraders, people who parade the streets in costumes that belie and disguise their social standing, but is fixated on the migrant middle-class Midwesterners who “have come to California to die.” He plans to use them as the subjects of the masterpiece he will someday paint in the style of Daumier or Goya, a fantasized catastrophe he has titled “the Burning of Los Angeles.”

He falls in with an assortment of oddballs–a veritable laundry list of Hollywood clichés—an over-the-hill Vaudeville clown, a child actor, a cowboy, a dwarf, and Faye Greener, a scheming, untalented extra with delusions of stardom.

Tod becomes obsessed with Faye, joining her circle of suitors, a group of misfits and has-beens, including Homer Simpson, a sickly Iowan newly arrived in Los Angeles in search of a health cure. It is a losing proposition. Faye makes it clear that Tod has nothing to offer her since he is neither wealthy or good-looking or connected. Her rejection fuels his depraved and lustful fantasies, and after an evening of group flirtation at a Hollywood Hills campsite escalates into violence, Tod chases Faye into the woods with the fantasy of raping her.

Faye’s father dies and she moves in with Homer Simpson in an arranged relationship–food, lodging and expensive clothes in exchange for her companionship. She takes advantage of Homer’s vulnerability and manipulates him into letting two of her other suitors move into his garage.

Tod determines to break off with Faye. His desire for her makes him feel as desperate as the people he is trying to paint. He turns his attention back to “The Burning of Los Angeles,” searching the churches of Hollywood for new subjects. He is disturbed by what he sees—fanatical congregations worshipping false-prophets.

Continue reading »

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Fine, David. Imagining Los Angeles. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000. ix.
  2. Chandler, Raymond. “Red Wind.” Writing Los Angeles. Ed. David L. Ulin. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2002. 170.
  3. Fante, John. “Ask The Dust.” Writing Los Angeles. Ed. David L. Ulin. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2002. 220.
  4. West, Nathanael. The Day of the Locust. New York: New Directions, 1962. 178.
Oct 062010


Diane Lefer and Duc Ta (for photo details see introduction below)


Diane Lefer is an old friend and former colleague at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Many of you know her. She is what you want a friend and a colleague to be: forthright, hugely funny, smart and a passionate moral being. The last time we ran a workshop together in College Hall, one student called it (in her evaluation) “the Doug and Diane Show.” I do believe we had a lot of fun, and the students had fun, too (and incidentally learned something, a couple anyway). She’s a fierce and kindly person. “The Tangerine Quandary” originally appeared in the Santa Monica Review, Spring, 2010. Here is Diane’s gloss on the photo above. “In 1999, Duc Ta was arrested at age 16 when he drove the wrong kids home from school. One of them fired two shots out the window. No one was hit or injured. Duc was tried as an adult and sentenced 35-years-to-life. I’ve been advocating on his behalf ever since. We did get his sentence reduced to 11-years-to-life making him eligible for parole but he is still locked up. This picture was taken in front of the backdrop in the visiting room where you have to stand if you want a photo taken while visiting. We call it Jail Break.”


The Tangerine Quandary

By Diane Lefer


Theo watched the Orthodox schoolgirls at the corner, long-sleeved shirts, skirts below the knee, high socks in the 80-degree heat, and hoped they were there for him. One reached with both hands to do something with her hair, her water bottle tucked between her thighs so it stuck out like an erection with a blue head. Then the light changed and they crossed and caught up to the girl who stood absolutely straight as she dribbled a basketball. What are they doing on a basketball court, he thought, but there they were, going to the park, and he to the bookstore, and damn but they would have made an interesting audience.

What was wrong with him that he was still too shy to approach a gaggle of teenage girls and say, “Come here. I’ve got what you’re waiting for.”


He’d come by bus and wandered a while, trying to figure out how to enter the mall itself rather than the car-park structure, then found himself on fake cobblestones, rolling his carry-on bag amid the crowds and the burbling of recycled water in the fake stone fountains, then past the multiplex theatre and the clothing stores. Pigeons huddled beside the decoy owl on the bookstore roof, unafraid, and taking advantage of its shadow.

He studied the posters in the window. So many photos, so many names, so many famous people he’d never heard of. His own claim to the Walk of Fame: a $15 bunk in the hostel on Hollywood Boulevard. Inside the store, the air conditioning hit him, less a greeting than an assault. Not as bad as the BBC interview of course, being called a bottom feeder, a canker worm and parasite. The Brits do have an abundant command of entomological and ichthyological invective. The presenter never even worked his way up to anything warmblooded. Here he finds piles of books on display, not his, more posters and book covers and faces, not his. People should have heard of—he wouldn’t presume to name himself—but they should have heard of, cared about, come out to honor her. Anne.

If people would only ask the right questions, such as: Why here, why now?

He’d answer, The Savior would have to appear among the most despised people on earth.

But she’s an American.


“I’m Theo Carlisle—” and the clerk looked right through him. Even Shmuley had turned himself into a celebrity now—or, depending on your point of view, an embarrassment, really, a Hasidic rebbe writing the joy of kosher sex! But if anyone should have appreciated Anne Easley, once upon a time it would have been Shmuley.


Now Barnes and Noble welcomes Theo Carlisle, Oxford University scholar and the distinguished author of Amber and Fur.

“Oh, are we starting already? Yes. Well, since there are so few—” He tells himself Salman Rushdie once read to an empty hall. Security was so tight, no one got in. Theo wonders if he actually read or spoke. To the security guards, perhaps? Here, there’s a girl, slim and dark; Mr. Gray Ponytail in a peace sign T-shirt, probably doesn’t even know it’s the symbol for phosphorus; middle-aged woman with an amber necklace, obviously has no idea what the book’s about; and the only one who looks like he’ll understand the science, probably from CalTech given the smug look on his face as he pushes his glasses back up his nose, he’ll be able to make a life in science, unlike Theo. Even the woman who introduced him has walked away. And he’s supposed to read from the book but he’s put his reading glasses somewhere and there’s something unseemly it seems to him to start patting himself, reaching into pockets. More likely it’s in one of the pouches of the carry-on. Yes, yes, he put the glasses in one pouch, the gun in the other, but he’s not sure which and mustn’t chance opening the wrong one. So:

“As the Bard—Shakespeare—tells us, There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. Those words occurred to me directly I came upon a 1956 journal article by Dr. Anne Easley who was then pursuing her research at Los Alamos National Laboratory.” Without the damn glasses, he’s got to improvise. “Here was someone who was mindful of even the smallest, who found the great in the simple.” Not bad, he thinks. “She moved us closer to unlocking the secrets of the universe by rubbing glass with human hair, and rabbit fur with amber. She took us into the future by looking back to a study that was abandoned by the end of the 18th century and for her efforts, she paid a great price.”

The woman with the necklace stands and leaves. Acknowledge her departure or not? He could say We know matter is neither created nor destroyed. Thereforeif more people are being born than are dying, either people today have less matter to them, less substance, hence the shallowness of contemporary life—Then, with a chuckle he would correct himself: That’s a misapplication of science, of course. Let’s not confuse physics and metaphysics. You Americans have the notion that a Hindu or Buddhist has an intuitive understanding of particle physics. Trust me, in India, one learns the maths.

“Yesterday, I was in Las Vegas,” he says, “a city proud of its role in the testing of nuclear weapons,” where, he might add, people think redemption happens in a pawn shop. “As though weapons of mass destruction give the place legitimacy, you see, it’s not just gambling and sin, but gravitas, a serious place—and it is serious, you know. Monumental architecture. Fascist architecture. The place frightened me, and what keeps us stuck here if not gravity? Something keeps us stuck.” For a moment, he is stuck, uncertain what to say. “Those white condominium towers going up near the Strip—they look just like the white shafts over the underground nuclear test sites. This is not what Anne Easley was about.”

What she is about, the words he wants to speak aloud, the selling point of the book though obviously it is not helping sales, the most controversial claim—somehow he can’t. If only the Orthodox schoolgirls had been there.

The peace shirt ponytail speaks: “Isn’t it possible she focused on the 18th century because she wasn’t intellectually equipped for the theoretical physics of the 20th?” The man is smirking as though thinking don’t even try to put one over on us with your posh accent. They never get it, thinks Theo. I’m not posh. I’m from New Zealand. And how is it possible to be both claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time, but that’s exactly how he feels, trapped underground in a high-ceilinged tunnel, no air but endless space, he’s a speck in all that tight enclosure, trapped inside walls he cannot reach in a world without end. He thinks the single atom you cannot even see contains such power. As he does. Stephen Hawking can keep his Equalizer, the computer program he uses to communicate. Theo’s gone him one better. He has the great American equalizer. Amazing what you can get in Vegas, hand over the cash, no questions asked. You do need a permit for a concealed weapon in Nevada and he’s not a resident so he probably couldn’t get one which wouldn’t be valid in California anyway, but if it’s concealed in your luggage not on your person it’s not a concealed weapon. Language lies.

The slim dark girl isn’t looking at him but rather at her hands folded over her purse. The world is killing all of them slowly. Climate change. Toxins. Disappointment. But now She is come. At any rate, that’s what he has written.


Earlier, on a plane being held at the gate at Logan, her seat belt fastened, carry-on stowed beneath the first class seat in front, Liza took a calming breath, then another, telling herself it was a chance to call home while cell phones and other electronic devices were permitted. “Victoria, it’s Mommy,” while the woman in the next seat seemed to be watching, judging: This mother has learned appropriate behavior but it doesn’t come from the heart. It was none of her damn business, though Mommy in such a brisk tone of voice, even to Liza’s ear, rang false. She couldn’t help it. The tone came from work, no different really from Janine next door who simpered in adult conversation after a day of teaching second grade. Liza never could bear being spoken to as if she were a child and she would like to believe that Victoria felt the same. Her daughter insisted on being called Victoria, not Vicki, though probably only because Janine’s brat had been calling her VapoRub. And I’ll have to stop calling myself Mommy, but mindful of the passenger beside her, she said, “I miss you already, sweetie,” and tried hard to simper.

I love my daughter. I love my aunt. OK, it had been seven years since her last visit but who paid for Aunt Anne’s upkeep for God’s sake! And that was uncertain now, not because of their argument, but outsourcing. Downsizing—what they now called “right sizing”—Orwell would love it. And what do you, Ms. Investment Banker, know of Orwell? I’m an educated woman! And right now she’d taken time off and the markets were doing god only knows what—“capsizing” would be the word—and Anne refused to take her own situation seriously. “Your sister is upset about the book,” Liza had warned her on the phone. “Oh, has she read it?” “She overheard people talking about it at the Symphony.” “Oh dear! Not during the Mozart, I hope!” Anne turned anything about Patrice into a joke. How on earth had they come out of the same womb? Embarrassed, Liza corrects her own thought: same home.

It’s getting hot, even a seat in first class is uncomfortable till they turn on the power and, with it, the air. At least she can remove the jacket of her St. John suit without banging her elbow into this judgmental—or so she’s judged her—woman in the next seat. She pulls, she shrugs, she hears the lining rip. Her stomach falls. She was about to phone Mother, but not now, she can’t hear that voice now, the voice of the mother who for whom any broken toy or soiled clothing stood for Liza’s fallen nature, tantamount to sin. You could disagree with Patrice—and Liza did, you didn’t have to believe what she said—and Liza didn’t, but the words still lodged inside, solid as rockhard fact. Oh, Mother! There are other ways to live. That time in Dubrovnik in 1984—apologies, Mr. Orwell! And why apologize, why is she always saying excuse me to someone, what, really has she done wrong?, there to hear the pros and cons of emerging-market currency floats. During a break, she’d walked the cliffside and was suddenly surrounded—momentarily alarmed—by what seemed a mob of young Turks. Computer science students from Istanbul, explained their professor. He spoke good English and told her he brought a group each year for an international conference that also served as a rite of passage. He led them each time to this very lookout point above the beach where they could gaze down upon the European women sunbathing nude. The boys watched the women, Liza watched them—those sweet smooth-skinned Muslim boys. Thunderstruck at their first sight of a woman’s body, all at a sweet clean distance. They stood against the sky, nothing lascivious about their posture. Stunned, in awe. Their upbringing even stricter than her own and she’d thought, What if this were the truth about the Garden of Eden? When Adam and Eve first become conscious of their bodies, instead of being ashamed, they are stunned with their own beauty. Instead of mindless enjoyment of the Garden, for the first time, they appreciate what they have. And they are not driven out by some angry god. They hurry off of their own free will, excited by the desire to see and know the whole world and protect all of Creation from harm. Oh, fuck it. Her jacket slithers. The lining bunches. The damn book has her thinking theologically. Sit still, she tells herself as she wants to squirm, to remove the jacket, straighten it out, sit still, she might as well try to hold back a sneeze. She takes a deep breath, another, counts her breaths. Aunt Anne could have saved her from this, from being the control freak’s neurotic daughter—she knows neurotic is no longer a diagnosis but so useful as an adjective. If only, in her life, someone had looked at her the way those boys looked at the women on the beach. Before Yugoslavia was torn apart by war. Before terrorists decided the lovely Turks were too secular. Before Liza met and married the man who was not in awe of her body but was, most of the time, her best friend. Now her aunt has brought trouble on them instead of solutions. My fault, Liza thinks. If only I’d been there for her she would never have been taken in by this—this—she doesn’t know what to call him. Exploiter. Charlatan. My fault, she thinks, I was taken in too.


Anne didn’t feel like getting up. Ordinarily she wouldn’t have to. The advantage of being old—not so old—and infirm—not so infirm, it comes and goes, and yesterday she was quite ambulatory. Today? Well, you never know. And she used to think MS happened only to disagreeable people.

Je suis fatiguée, she said aloud. A person gets tired doing nothing. All her fault that the world was in such disorder, her being the Savior and all and not having the energy to bother. Poor Theo. And if she wanted a cup of tea—she did—she’d have to get up and make it herself. She couldn’t abide the communal dining room. Today at least with Theo and Liza en route, she wouldn’t be bored. There might even be fireworks. Not quite Destroyer of Worlds, but still…

Of course at the moment, it was only Iraq and not the whole world we were destroying. A little more than a year of the grand experiment, to see if we could kill as many civilians as died with the bomb she had not helped to develop. Theo wrote she’d been a pacifist and she most definitely was not though she’d probably like herself better were she a good enough person to be one. At least he got the science right. Which isn’t easy.

He made you feel important, Liza accused her on the phone. No, that’s a young person’s need. He made me feel useful. There was so little pleasure left in living but she hung on. It was years since she’d had anything to contribute. It could only be greed then, plain American greed, the habit of demanding and expecting more more more.

Right now the largest possum she’s ever seen is scrambling along the wall just beyond her window. Its naked tail curls around the sickly green wrought iron that tops off the cinderblock. The advantage of a small room: you can see out the window without leaving your bed. And thank you, Mr. Possum. Today, she thinks, I don’t mind facing the wall instead of the courtyard. Something terrible has happened to the animal. It—no, he, she sees the heavy scrotum—has a bloody gouged-out area near one eye, another through the brown-gray fur at the top of its head and then she sees another on its—his, she corrects herself—flank. And the poor creature is trembling. An ugly thing really. Pink snout checking the air, naked tail curling, claws scrabbling on the wall looking like they belong on something reptilian or prehistoric, not on a creature with fur and with blood that’s all too obviously red. He sticks his head and part of his body through the fence, then changes his mind—they do have minds, they think—and slithers back to lie along the wall. A hummingbird hovers less than a foot from that snout, getting Anne’s attention but not Mr. Possum’s. At Lake Bled, with Marius—thank God Theo didn’t include Marius in the book, at Lake Bled as they took coffee on the balcony, she’d watched the hummingbirds dance among the geraniums. Marius laughed at her—large brown moths, not hummingbirds at all. There are no hummingbirds here and she lost that much respect for Europe—old Europe, as Bush would say—how can you love a continent that has no hummingbirds? “Do you object to being called possum?” she asks the creature. Oh, the dining hall. If she ate there, Meriah, the know-it-all would correct her: opossum. We who’ve lost control of our lives need to impose our will somehow, Anne thinks, but I’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime. And Liza, little Liza, coming to visit at last. On the phone, a mosquito hum of complaint vibrated beneath her words, here’s hoping she hasn’t taken after her mother. “Mr. Possum,” she asks, “are you in pain?” Does he even know he’s injured? The shaking might be a mere physiological response. I love you, ugly creature, and the stoicism of animals. In New Mexico there were prairie dogs and coyotes, but they never came right up to her doorstep like the magpies and the skunks. Out alone one night, she lay down on the breathing earth and lay so still, a marmot crept up and lay upon her breast. A marmot, mind you, hardly a totem or a power animal. Theo has brought back her past. The three-legged cat she once had, rescued after he’d been hit by a car and the shattered limb amputated, who stayed jaunty and alert and ran as fast on three legs as some on four. He jumped and hunted and seemed oblivious to the fact that in human terms he was disabled. This possum is surely the largest she’s ever seen. “Why, you look like an alligator,” she says. Dipped in glue and covered with mousy fur.

There was a time when finding a bird’s nest could take her breath away. The thrill of finding a sky-blue egg. But the child’s wonder was destructive, wanting to possess, which usually led to taking apart, smashing, crushing, opening, killing something in order to know it. Maybe that’s why scientists make their greatest discoveries when young. Even if things had been different, my best years were probably behind me, she thinks. The young. They haven’t yet developed the ethical sense, the reverence for life. If adults could only keep the child’s eyes, she thinks, but restrain the wicked hands.

The possum’s head disappears on the other side of the wall, the fat body follows, the tail, curled for one moment more around the wrought iron is the last to be seen. All that is solid melts into air. Some know-it-all she’d turned out to be, losing her security clearance for those seven words. Former colleagues afraid to be seen with her, not even returning her calls. Somehow Theo got wind of none of it.

Over the years, from time to time, there would be one of those feature articles or books, even a panel by the American Association of University Women—they, at least, should have remembered her, celebrating overlooked women of science and so many times she’d let herself think well, maybe—and she’d scan the list thinking she might be included. Nothing. Then Theo appeared.

Time to get up. Out of bed, old girl, she tells herself and laughs. She is risen!


Theo watches a very dark black man in an orange vest hoeing some mixture of asphalt and tar into a crevice in the roadway—a very useful job but how often does anyone acknowledge him? Theo says, “Thank you,” and the man looks up, surprised.

“Wouldn’t want you to trip and fall,” he says, and on the sidewalk the homeless woman with at least a dozen plastic roses blooming from her cart mutters, “He’s happy today. Look at him smiling, pleased with himself.” The workman, Theo wonders, or me?

He crosses to the park. Boys have claimed the basketball court, the Orthodox girls are nowhere to be seen. Theo scans the ground, because he remembers being three or four and how he’d found and picked up a smooth capsule-like object, a small round white thing. It was like a tiny egg with a very soft shell. It looked like a tic-tac though in those days tic-tacs perhaps did not yet exist, or at least not yet in New Zealand. The ground was littered with them. When he crushed it, the white layer broke to reveal a lively green sprout within. He’d picked up one thing after another, squeezed them between thumb and index finger, slit them open with fingernails, anxious to see if there was green inside each one. There was. He found, picked up, opened and to his great satisfaction found that green sprout again and again and then forgot all about them until one day, all grown, he remembered. Since then whenever he’s out walking, Theo looks for his little botanical tic-tacs but he’s never seen one again.

He sits on a bench, takes out his mobile, and waits for the radio interviewer to call. The BBC still rankles. On top of it all, the presenter introduced him as a “confirmed bachelor.” Eligible bachelor, if you please. He’d even harbored hope, getting out from behind the computer, he might meet someone.

Anne. He says her name aloud. Mother of the unmothered. Shelter to the dispossessed. Anne of the supernal radiance. And yet…Lie down with a dog, he thinks, get up with fleas, and he had been to bed, not literally of course, with a failure.


In the air at last Liza falls asleep. In her dream, she has her period and cannot find a bathroom. A man—sometimes Keith—reaches for her, his lips on hers, he begins to remove her clothes. Her mother interrupts before he can enter her body. She is hungry and a table is laid before her but the food snatched away before she can eat. The flight attendant wakes her, offering lunch, and Liza’s eyes fill again with tears as she says thank you.

“Are you all right?” says the woman in the seat beside her and Liza can’t make out whether she’s expressing concern or passing judgment. She reaches to her pocket for a tissue, the silk lining bunched up behind her, and hears the Velcro-rip sound of damage just made worse.

“Yes, yes, I just—”

On top of it, Liza hates to fly. Who doesn’t these days? And how can she not think of Muslim boys every time she has to board a plane? The jitters she can barely distinguish from attraction. Even Patrice, ranting as she watched the evening news had suddenly stopped, silenced, when Muammar Qaddafi appeared on-screen. Liza was so young when he was the number one enemy in the headlines. Patrice whispered, “He’s aged well.”

The woman in the next seat has a perfect manicure. French tips. So does Liza only hers are not perfect at all. She bit her fingernails as a child to keep them short for piano lessons. As an adult, she hates herself for biting not just the nails but the cuticles, too, down to the quick. It probably counts against her at work. Poor Liza, not quite put together right, and now, a laughingstock. She has always tried to do the right thing. And no one has ever looked at her like that.

Saddam wasn’t attractive, except maybe in an Anthony Quinn or Charles Bronson kind of way. And Muslims weren’t dangerous. They were innocent. Full of passion not yet expressed. They were like her and she’d thought Keith was like her too, waiting for his chance. Patrice hadn’t approved of him, but then she approved of no one. Aunt Anne always thought he seemed a bit on the pink side, “or do they say lavender these days? Not that I hold it against him.”

If he’d just come out and be gay, maybe he’d be more fun. What a pair they made, she with her chewed-up fingers, he with his shoulders slumped. They made a good living, though. No one could deny.

She asks the flight attendant for a Bloody Mary. She’ll really want a drink later, but in the assisted living, no alcohol allowed. It does seem unduly restrictive, it’s not meant to be a sober-living facility but the administration is right to be concerned what with all the medications people take. The only part that is not sensible is that Anne chooses to live in California when it’s a medical fact her symptoms worsen with the heat. Of course there’s air conditioning. And Liza does appreciate the way Los Angeles gives her someplace to look down on. Growing up in Boston, she never had the luxury of feeling superior. One looked to Europe. That summer when the little French girl came to visit? They’d had a cookout. “Is that the sauce?” Claudy asked when Liza reached for the ketchup. “Mais, non!” she’d said. How she could sit with a real French person and refer to such a plebeian concoction as sauce? Now along comes Theo thinking just because he’s been to Oxford he can take advantage. Oh, the days are past, my boy, she thinks, when an American faces Europe with humility.

But what was she, what was Keith, so afraid of? For one thing, the cold eyes at work when she raised questions about risk. Of course there were risks, that’s why there were rewards! And never say what you want, never say what you plan. If you don’t achieve it, Patrice will be there asking Why not? The assumption, always, you did something wrong. Maybe this was why people found religion a comfort. Not because you believed God loved you. With Satan, Hell, damnation, you could give the dread a name. You had rules to help you defeat it. And Theo hadn’t played by the rules. She should have hung up the phone. Instead, she’d answered his questions and he twisted her words entirely out of context. That summer in Vermont when she ran a fever and Mother put her to bed on the screen porch. The jar of dead flowers by the bedside. And when she woke, Anne was sitting beside her and the flowers all in bloom. You see, she could tell the woman sitting beside her, My mother resented Aunt Anne who never walked into the cottage without an armful of wildflowers and I’m crying because I’ve torn my jacket and because it’s easier in the long run to give my mother what she wants, always has been, and that’s why I’ve neglected my aunt. Mother stopped inviting her. She told me I bored Aunt Anne to tears, that I bothered her, kept her from her work. I knew it wasn’t true, but—

Her aunt should have been persistent. She should have reached out for me, thinks Liza, if she missed me, and she must have. I believe she did, but her aunt had no patience for sentiment. I love you, Aunt Anne, and she got in return: So you do have a heart, like an olive has a pit! When Anne’s closest friend died after what the obituary called “a long battle with cancer,” what was it she had said? I knew she was living with cancer but I didn’t know they were fighting. Her aunt was always that way: the airy unconcern, that refusal to acknowledge pain.

They land two hours behind schedule. Liza breathes, breathes again, makes the call. “Mother, I’ve just arrived. No, it doesn’t matter. We don’t see the lawyer till tomorrow.” Oh, just listen to yourself, she thought. Negativity! I could have said We are seeing the lawyer tomorrow, but with her it’s always been about don’t, can’t, no. Until now, her Yes, go see your aunt. Yes, go see my sister. All the rancor in her voice should have burned a hole right through her throat. Upset as Liza was, too, she wanted to make light: It’s a cosmic joke really, with her being an atheist. Aunt Anne with her arm full of flowers. Liza had told the writer, “I thought she’d brought them back to life.”

She flips through the book, to the pages she’d marked with sticky notes. Where was it, what that man had written about her and Aunt Anne and the resurrection of the lilies. Wildflowers, not lilies! Even the simplest facts he distorted. Instead she found, and wondered why she’d marked it:

Stephen Hawking once believed—but believes no longer—that as the universe contracted, people would grow younger. Time would reverse and all living things including us would realize the dream, disappearing back into the womb. But even Stephen Hawking can be wrong. He admits it. And so we must move forward, in stately progression, even though we now move toward the end of Time.


The sun slants through the trees dappling light on families with their picnic baskets and Theo thinks again of Shmuley, of those Sabbath dinners in Oxford, world leaders asked to share the simple meal amongst select company. Remarkable for the simplicity. Trestle tables, folding chairs, paper plates and Shmuley’s wife and the other women carrying out platters of roast chicken from the kitchen. Shmuley had a wife, put upon though she might be. Stephen Hawking who couldn’t walk or talk without the Equalizer had a wife while Theo, Theo, Theo is still alone. Still, he was invited to attend. Thrilled and honored. Not even Jewish—or anything, really, his own religious training at that time being sketchy at best—and yet he was included. Of course Shmuley was just wheeling out the Rhodes Scholars to impress Hawking, and then the other motive: You have a publishing contract? Yes, Theo did, with a NY publisher, though all costs subsidized by the 21st-Century Last Things Study Council. In those days, Shmuley’s writing circulated in newsletters and emails. Theo could not have guessed where the rebbe was headed: friends with Michael Jackson, writing a book people actually wanted to buy. Theo walks on a path beneath the magnolias. The Orthodox celebrate four New Years, he knows. Tu B’Shevat is the New Year for trees. If the year renews itself four times, what does that due to Time’s Arrow? He steps on a fallen yellow leaf expecting a satisfying crunch. It gives way, soft, as though he’s crushed a caterpillar. Shmuley wouldn’t think him worth inviting now. Theo paid his own way to New York to lunch with his editor, or rather the editor who replaced his editor. He waited at the reception area, not allowed back to her office, and he imagined word being passed down the hall—writer on board—and doors slamming closed. Dominoes falling. She picked at a salad, distracted. He, too self-conscious to eat. Well. Well. Not the right time for women in science. Feminist angle? We’ve seen too much. Yes. Well. And the religious angle. Was not what we expected. When Donna signed the contract. Donna who quit, or was let go, and went to work for Greenpeace, taking on Japanese whalers—admirable, of course—when she should have been defending him. It was Donna who suggested “Messiah” rather than “Second Coming”—more inclusive of Jewish readers. Those people, she said, buy books. No, he’d like to tell her now, they play basketball.

A pack of boys in oversize white T-shirts passes, sunglasses worn upside-down on the backs of their heads. Should he be afraid of them? He’s out of his element in this country where people lie stretched on the grass and you can’t always tell who is sunbathing and who is homeless and now a child body slams him and doesn’t even say pardon. Children run from one striped tent to another screaming Please, Mom, please! It’s a cat adoption fair and in this he sees not coincidence, but the Hand, and so he goes from tent to tent looking at torties and tabbies and calicos. Anne won’t be allowed to keep it and he certainly doesn’t want to so, inspired, he asks, “Do you have one that’s dying?” A large white man confronts him: “What are you? Some kind of Satanist?” He tries another tent and speaks to a woman who wears what appear to be rabies tags around her neck. “Have you got one that’s dying, about to be euthanized?” He ducks as her face turns so red he expects her fist. “I want to take a sweet creature no one else wants. The stone the builder rejected.” “Why?” she demands. “It’s for my aunt,” he says. “I won’t be able to take it back to New Zealand after—” He swallows hard. “—after it brightens my aunt’s last days.”


The late afternoon sun blinds Liza momentarily. She’d taken off her dark glasses when she checked in at the desk in the main house. But now she’s in the courtyard with the bees drunk on pollen and sunlight and she fumbles for the glasses as her heart speeds up a little. Aunt Anne is bound to be stubborn. She doesn’t respect me, Liza thinks, and I do still love her. You were different as a child, she’s said. Intricate. You played the piano, beautifully, with feeling. Overnight it seemed you became hardheaded and pragmatic. I discovered Ayn Rand. We all read Ayn Rand. That’s what you do when you’re young, but even then, you have to realize the only good parts are the people having sex. The prose style and the philosophy are deplorable. Deplorable. What was it with the Easleys and formal speech? We don’t talk like Americans. You spoke French, her aunt recalled. I remember you shouting out, C’est moi! Patrice taught her to say It is I. Never It’s me and how can a child go out into the world and be accepted by other children if she says It is I? Deplorable. Lamentable. Knock knock. Who’s there? C’est moi. Liza sits for a moment on a stone bench and tries to calm herself with the sound of the water plashing in the artificial pond. Yes, I enjoyed talking to him, her aunt had said. Theo speaks my language and you don’t. I could never tell anyone in the family what I was doing. You’ve never wanted to hear about my work either. You do something financial. It’s not interesting enough to understand. But Liza remembers once upon a time Aunt Anne did share her work. Subatomic particles, invisible to the naked eye. It made so much sense to a child who felt small and secret with so much going on inside her. Outwardly obedient. So much turmoil. And she imagined herself shrinking down, entering the atom, cavorting, whirling madly with the electrons.

Now she’s biting off an annoying bit of chipped and broken nail and facing the six-story building that houses the people who are not expected to ever leave their rooms on their own. Aides bring them their meals on trays. “Cell-fed,” is how Aunt Anne put it. Clinic on the ground floor. Funny how the bougainvillea has two colors on a single bush. Not so funny when she gets up, goes closer, and sees the pink turns a gingery orange as it withers. The artificial pond gives off a scummy smell. Some kind of algae or the effluvia of the carp and turtles, dozens of them, plashing and paddling, a few lying in the sun, further ornamenting the ornamental stones. Liza turns away and there’s the maze of rose bushes and bottle brush trees and jacaranda and the rows of attached one-room cottages for the ambulatory. She did a good job finding this place when it all happened so fast, Aunt Anne carried off the ship returning from Alaska, with a flare-up, an exacerbation, whatever they call it, she’d flown out at once. “You can’t live alone anymore.” In the main building, there’s the dining hall, the game room, computer room, music room. “I’m not alone,” her aunt had said. “I live with a very companionable cat.” Minou had been with her almost 17 years. Then—sad, but unavoidable. No pets allowed.


The sun reveals the dirt on the windows, like smudged fingerprints as though someone has tried to get in or, Anne thinks, this prisoner, me, was trying to claw her way out. Of course there’s the daily van for shopping—under guard—the aide who’s always alert, lifting the box of tea from her basket: Do we really want caffeine? and Anne, only occasionally defiant enough to say yes. The facility arranges excursions, hours on the bus to Vegas listening to inane chatter, Hilda in the seat beside her announcing she’d always been sickly because her nose was too big for her body. I take in so much air through my nostrils, my lungs can’t handle it. The doctors never figured it out, the word doctors said with a sneer, clearly directed at Anne. I’m not a medical doctor. I’m a Ph.D., and then of course she had to deal with that health aide, just the reverse: You claim to be a doctor but I know you’re just a Ph.D. Anyway, she’s not a gambler. Vegas. Those frightening hotels with their landscaping, flowers, tropical foliage. What poison do they use? Not a bee or bug to be seen. And stay with the group! when she wanted to tour the test site. She’s in her armchair, Theo’s book on her lap. He got the science right. Not bad for a popularizer. She thinks she couldn’t have written it. All those years teaching science at the junior college, a come-down not so much in status as in self-esteem. She was a terrible teacher. Which didn’t stop J. Edgar Hoover from investigating her course—Science and Ethics—when what the hell else can you teach girls who’ve never learned calculus? I just wasn’t any good at it, she thinks, something she has thought so many times before. But the science bits aside, Theo certainly took liberties with the truth. That one absurd sentence. Just one, but enough to make Patrice and Liza blow their gaskets. Well, why not? Her own life had changed with seven words. It took Theo—she counts them—44. It will not have escaped the reader’s notice that certain reported incidents in the life of Anne Easley strongly suggest that this humble woman, now languishing in a modest assisted living facility on the outskirts of Los Angeles, is in fact our long‑awaited Messiah. I’m not humble, she thinks, this place is hardly modest, though this room way too small for a human being with books and papers, computer, and drawers enough to hold all the damn pills. Compazine, prednisone, what else have I got in here that I avoid taking? She doesn’t dare skip the Lioresal, not with company coming and in fact she needs to get herself to the bathroom, now. Being carried off that ship! The shame of it—bladder and bowel, and the terror, her legs not working, body beyond her control. But it was the fear, not her body, that did her in. She gave up her freedom out of fear. Now she lives in a place so damn cramped, closet too small to hold the wheelchair—even folded—and the walker which thank god she rarely has to use. Fluctuations hour to hour, like the weather. Don’t even try to measure my rate of decay. Vertigo? I can take a pill or wait for it to pass. And I’m not exactly languishing. Certain reported incidents. Tony Banerji in the lab when jagged strokes of lightning cleaved the air and he saw me emanate a supernal radiance. True enough. I got him straight to the emergency room. Detached retina. So yes, I saved the sight of the about‑to‑go‑blind. My own episode of optic neuritis, she thinks, in retrospect probably the first manifestation of disease. As for the rest, she’ll have to calm Liza down. Look: it will not have escaped the reader’s notice—that’s echoes of Watson and Crick. It escaped your notice, but the whole thing is obviously a parody, a spoof. And aside from the ridiculous claim, he got almost every personal bit of it wrong. Some of which was her own fault. She flips through the pages. That bit where he has Edward Kohl saying Why would I hire a woman who won’t have sex with me? I might as well hire a man whenwhat he really said was he wouldn’t hire a woman he wasn’t interested in sleeping with. Vanity had urged her on. To avoid repeating that humiliation, she hadn’t set Theo straight. La plus ça change. In spite of the book and the bizarre claims, no one has come to her door. No phone calls, no interviews, no curiosity. No outrage, except for Patrice and Liza.


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“Amber and Fur,” says Liza. “Even the title is distasteful. Vaguely S&M.” Then, when she says “Disgusting,” she knows she sounds just like her mother. What a relief the room is so cold with the A/C she can keep her jacket on. No chance the torn lining will be seen. But that shouldn’t matter here. This is Anne, not her mother. “We’re seeing the lawyer tomorrow.” She takes a sheaf of papers from her briefcase. “Letters for you to sign.”

“I’m not seeing a lawyer.” Anne thumbs through the pages. Thomas Curwen. Gina Kolata. Scientific American. The Atlantic. “You’ve left out the journals.”

“I don’t know the journals.”

“You’ll find them all around my room.” Because she kept up, exercising her mind though she hadn’t worked in years. It was her functional capacity and she had to use it, just as birds rejoiced to sing. The very first time she saw a robin pull a worm from the earth, she’d screamed with delight. There is something fulfilling when you see a creature do exactly what you’ve been prepared to know it will, by its nature, do. That might be what brought her to physics: the desire to see the invisible—the quarks and muons and all the rest—behave just as predicted. She sees Liza has left out Margaret Wertheim at the LA Weekly, not to mention K.C. Cole at the LA Times. “Do you really want me to send letters to the editor stating, Just to set the record straight, I am not God?” She says, “Liza.” And Liza’s eyes fill with tears. “This foolishness is probably the fault of the marketing department. He’s really a sweet boy.”

“But it’s—”

“It’s just a bit of nonsense. It’s not harming anyone. Not like your president who lies to get us into war. He and the Christian Right are undermining any sort of legitimate science.”

“We’re not going to talk politics!”

“Of course not,” says Anne. If her niece is an idiot, she’d rather not know it. “Don’t forget, my relapses may be brought on by stress.”

“Anyway, he’s not my president,” says Liza.

“I’m sure you voted for him.”

“No one I know has the slightest respect for him. But he’s cutting taxes and regulations so we’ll all do well. Longterm prosperity, Aunt Anne. That’s what matters.”

To have to listen to such nonsense! Anne sighs. “This is where I could use a smoke. Of course with my luck, on my way to Golgotha, a stranger will step out of the crowd and hand me a cigarette and—damn!—menthol.” Her right leg cramps up. The damn elastic stockings. She keeps asking herself why she wears them.

“What are you talking about?”

“Golgotha.” She tries massaging the leg. “Surely you’ve heard of Golgotha.”

“Are you all right?”

If I were, would I be here? “The Stations of the Cross,” says Anne. “You really don’t know? Entirely uncontaminated by religion. My sister did one thing right.” Though they both know Patrice merely found every faith she tried way too lax. Fundamentalists, Orthodox Jews, Mormons. Never enough rules for Patrice! Besides which—no god but the mother who gave you birth!

“I have some basic knowledge,” says Liza.

“It’s actually the vinegar that interests me more,” Anne says. “Christ is carrying the cross, on his way to crucifixion on Golgotha Hill. He’s thirsty, and a man gives him to drink. But it’s not water, it’s vinegar.” This is something Anne’s always wondered about. Vinegar could be a mercy, not a cruelty. Not as pleasant to drink, but it puts an end to thirst much more effectively than water. A kindness. “Be kind and turn on the radio. It’s time for Theo.”

For a moment Liza can’t move. This is worse than she’s imagined: he’s on the air.

“Please, Liza. We’re missing the start.”


—Easley overlooked because she was a woman? I suppose I identify with her situation, being a Kiwi. From New Zealand. We, of European descent, we’re called Paheka—it means Other. While the indigenous people—Maori, you see, just means normal, ordinary. The whites may be in the majority and control the money—just as women make up the majority in this country and control the household finances—but we’re still marginalized.

Isn’t that a bit like white women saying the oppression they’ve experienced is equivalent in some way to what black folks—

We don’t call the shots anywhere in the world. Unlike the Australians, New Zealand didn’t send any soldiers to Iraq, but you see my face, my skin—It’s hard to appear to be part of the most powerful class of people in the world and actually have none—power that is.

I wonder if the Maori would agree.

To be a white male without power,

with privilege.

Yes, I suppose, yet when one doesn’t face a struggle over basic comfort and necessities, that’s when one feels the spiritual needs.

Who cares, Anne thinks, about New Zealand? Even now, in the interview about me, I’m not even mentioned.

Compare our national anthem to yours.

And Theo sings:

May all our wrongs, we pray,
Be forgiven
So that we might say long live,

Anne is moved in spite of herself. We have not done penance, she thinks. She’s never gone with head bowed to Hiroshima, not that she had any part in that, but only because she was born too late.

You’ve said she fell out of history.

Yes, and it happens more easily than you might imagine. You see, it was Anne Easley who argued that the word “force”—particle physicists then referred to the “nuclear forces”—the “weak force” and the “strong force”—Dr. Easley argued that the word didn’t accurately convey what happens on the subatomic level. When she suggested, instead, the word “interaction—

a less macho approach. Interaction not force. So gender played a role?

Or her convictions as a pacifist.

“I was not!” says Anne.

The idea caught on during the Sixties and proved to be one of those paradigm shifts that so fruitfully opens every era of scientific progress.

Now wait a minute! I interviewed Murray Gell‑Mann not long ago—for our listeners who missed that broadcast, I’m referring to the Nobel Prize laureate, Father of the Quark—and he talked about the strong nuclear force.

“A better prepared interviewer than I would have expected,” says Anne.

Yes! That’s just the point! Advances were made and then the word “force” came back into favor. The paradigm shift yielded knowledge and then was forgotten. This is how a person’s contribution becomes invisible.

Read us a bit, will you?

Of course! I did bring my reading glasses—

Anne Easley’s downfall began with a cat and a simple attempt to amuse a little Pueblo Indian girl.

Depending on cultural perspective, Los Alamos was, in those days, the end of the earth or else its very center. Sage grew low over light brown curves of landscape like body hair of the earth—

“Oh, please!” says Liza.

and just like a body, in the intoxication brought on by desert air, the earth seemed to breathe and to sigh. At night and in the cooler afternoons, the scent of piñon smoke brought tingles to the soul. All around, indigenous people continued with their ancient rites as scientists pushed the boundaries of Man’s future.

“I think he’d sell more books if he didn’t read from it,” says Anne.

In the United States, the suppression of Native languages and culture were a part of the genocide against the First Americans. But in the magical desert of New Mexico, the drums still worked a beat beat beat to activate the white as well as Native heart. Anthropologists and artists had extolled the Pueblo way of life, and repression halted at the border of the Land of Enchantment.

Anne Easley had magic of her own.


In New Mexico she briefly feared she’d lost it. This was the woman a colleague in the lab had once described, as the reader will recall from a previous chapter, as emanating a “supernal radiance.” The woman who, as the reader has already seen, resurrected lilies for a sick—and soon to be healed—child.

“That’s enough!” says Liza.

But ever so fatefully, one night the Indian janitor’s young daughter peeked in Anne Easley’s window as the woman of science was sitting down to her solitary meal. Who is to say whether the little girl was frequently on the premises, or this was the first time, or whether merely the first time she ventured to the home of one of the great minds of science? The child of ancient lineage crossed paths with the woman—a relatively young woman then—and their eyes met. Dr. Easley’s mind instantly shuffled through the memory cards of her life and recalled her own niece Liza—

“I truly am sorry he included you, dear—”

—and how she used to amuse the girl—

“—since it’s so poorly written.”

and so Dr. Easley spontaneously picked up her spoon, rubbed it with her napkin, and pressed the concave side against her nose. How many times had it transpired in the past that Dr. Easley and young Liza would let the spoons hang from their noses until Liza’s disapproving mother would enter the space—

Why did I ever agree to speak to him? thinks Liza.

and the two miscreants would momentarily maintain composure only then bursting out into merriment and letting the spoons fall! But on that fateful evening in the Land of Enchantment, the spoon did not adhere to Dr. Easley’s nose. The little girl, seeing only a white woman with very bad table manners, walked on, unimpressed, never knowing her profound contribution to scientific thought, and Dr. Easley could only turn to her supper in silence.

Why why why did the damn spoon not stick? The problem preoccupied her highly evolved mind. Then, Eureka! A hypothesis! The desert air was just too dry. If she first breathed on the spoon, the condensation from her breath was all that was needed to make metal adhere to skin. But this was only a beginning.

And this was where it ended, thinks Anne.

Was she romantically involved with a member of the community?

Of course she was, thinks Anne. Lennon and McCartney didn’t invent sex, you know. We had Kinsey. We had Elvis, not to mention Margaret Meade.

Was that why she’d worn the amber necklace inherited from her grandmother?

Something worth mentioning to Liza: the Kinsey biography is full of distortion, too, sensationalized nonsense.

Anne Easley spent the night alone—except for her cat.

Yes, the affair was over. Damn you, Theo, why are you making me remember? Lying beside John in bed, just entered into the state of post‑coital intimacy, he whispered, “Anne, do you consider yourself Nobel Prize material?”Not that she’d never had the fantasy but—”If you’re not that good, go home and have babies. Science doesn’t need you.” Men! Only Marius had been different.

The feline lay in her lap. What thoughts, what dreams of fulfillment, what realities of frustration played through her mind and heart—at this time as human as yours or mine—as she stroked the pet? Static electricity tingled against her hand, and the amber pendant brushed against her fur and it was a thunderbolt. The triboelectric sequence!

Anne reaches for Liza’s hand to keep her from biting at her cuticles. How tell her how frustrated I am, stagnating here, when she means so well? An ordinary apartment, that’s all I want. I could manage with my Social Security and pension. Take my chances. A little more difficulty than here, a bit of risk, but the worst death is from boredom.

Since the Greeks we’ve known that when amber is rubbed with fur, the electrons go from the fur to the amber.

“But what does he mean ‘go’?” asks Liza.

Much more so with rabbit fur than cat. Rabbit’s fur, glass, quartz, wool, cat’s fur, silk, human hair, cotton, and so on, in sequence.

“But what—?”

“Shhh. Listen.”

The phenomenon functions much like a magnet but without any metal. But no one has figured out how to make it useful which, in contemporary terms means how to exploit it for profit. What after all is to be made of a piece of amber that gains the property of attracting lint? Benjamin Franklin flew his kite and frictional electricity was no longer worth the bother. The triboelectric sequence fell into the dustbin of history.

As I did, thinks Anne. But not the way he tells it. She’d believed them when they told her Marius was politically suspect, that she had to stop seeing him. Oh well, a European man, he’d cheat on her sooner or later, she’d thought, but science would always be there for her. Until she became suspect too. Maybe Marius would read the book? Maybe—but if he was still alive, he was probably driving around in a sports car with a 20-year-old. She gave him up and lost her security clearance anyway. Don’t feel sorry for yourself, Anne Easley. They persecuted the Father of the Atomic Bomb, why should they show mercy to you? She’d done nothing wrong, merely followed her thought where it led: Even Einstein’s universe was a bit of a machine whereas she’d become fascinated by unpredictable change. Made the mistake of publishing her musings, first about randomness, about causality and chance, those naive little notes about particles and her doubts.

As though he’s read her mind:

What is to be done with a particle physicist who loses her faith in particles?

And Anne remembers: All the measurements and all the theories, all based on the notion of building blocks, of elementary particles, of entities so small they were indivisible. Unfortunately, they never seem to act that way. There were smaller and smaller subparticles to be found inside them. And worse, they would decay and transform, one thing apparently becoming another. Popping in and out of existence. Every notion melting away. Nothing stable. She gave her article an epigraph: All that is solid melts into air. The words she thought were Shakespeare’s turned out to be from Karl Marx.

Dr. Easley’s work was impressive, groundbreaking without a doubt, a precursor to chaos theory—

In Christian theology, “precursor” means—something Anne will not mention to Liza.

—but that’s hardly the reason we are compelled—required—to take time away from our daily pursuits and turn our hearts and minds to Dr. Easley, or why I’ll be making a pilgrimage to her side later today.

“He’s coming here?” says Liza. “Did you know he was coming here?”


→ 3 ←


He stands sweating in the doorway with a canvas tote on his shoulder, rolling luggage at his feet, cardboard box in his arms. Outside, someone is playing music. Someone is grilling meat. Late afternoon sun shoots through the trees and Liza squints. Theo doesn’t look like a fanatic. He looks, she searches for a word—fuzzy.

So this is the niece, he thinks. Dr. Easley had warned him she’d be visiting. And she is not happy about the book. “I’m afraid I’ve brought discouraging news about the ozone layer,” he says, “but Dr. Easley—”

Anne is beaming—light. The two people she loves most. Well, she does love Liza. And perhaps she shouldn’t use the word “love” for Theo, but she does care about him. Over the last three years, there’s no one she’s talked to more.

“—you look radiant!” he says.

While Liza stands there with cold gray eyes and what is she so upset about anyway? The poor boy, Anne thinks, is just trying to get by. He was never at the top of the class, and how many jobs are there in the entire world for a particle physicist? Theo’s no genius, but he’s bright enough to be passionate in his interest. Teaching high school, even college—it’s an honorable career, but no one knows better than she herself what it means when you’re in love with science. Without colleagues—especially those more brilliant than yourself, without that sort of stimulation, being in the center of it all, a part of you dies. He’d attached himself to her to stay alive.

“—and I’ve come bearing gifts from—” A helicopter overhead drowns out Theo’s voice. He thinks he should have brought something for Liza. Not that she seems easy to win over. She should be glad the general belief in publishing is that in wartime the public needs uplift. Otherwise, they would have wanted a pathography. Instead of a redeemer, her aunt would have had to be deviant. A legitimate way to get attention—perception is all about deviation from the norm—but he would never have written anything negative about Dr. Easley.

He puts down the carton and from the tote produces a bouquet of irises.

“Oh, Theo! Thank you! The vase you brought last time is in the cabinet. There.”

“And more!” he says. A bottle of wine.


“Alcohol is not permitted—” Liza says, but her aunt cuts her off, laughing.

“Liza, when he took me to dinner, he kept asking for Cab Sauv and the waiter kept bringing club soda.”

“And one gift more,” Theo says.

“Frankincense!” says Anne.

“Damn! I knew I’d forgotten something!“

“But you’ve brought the myrrh?”

“I would have done, had I any idea what it is.”

And I would save him, thinks Anne, had I any idea how.

Liza’s stomach churns. So it’s all a big joke to him, too. She doesn’t know which explanation she hates more: Theo’s book as mad delusion or as hoax. “You should know,” she says, though it might be better if he didn’t, “we’re seeing a lawyer tomorrow.”

“If I knew the person’s name, I’d cancel the appointment right now,” says Anne. And what would save Liza? Moving thousands of miles away from Patrice for starters. “Calm down, dear. Theo, meet Liza. She’s not always hostile and litigious. In fact, she’ll find the crackers in the cabinet and maybe even some cheese. The fridge is that box beneath the sink, looks like the mini-bar in a hotel room. The sight of it still fills me with hope, but, as you know—”

Theo makes do with what he finds—two juice glasses, one coffee mug—as he uncorks and pours the wine. Liza arranges cheese and crackers on a cutting board. Anne leans on her cane and as she feels the curved top fit her palm, she thinks of a shepherd’s crook and then—this will get Liza’s goat, or lamb—a bishop’s crozier. Ha! Or a vaudeville hook to pull someone—which one of them?—off the stage.

“And now my third gift!” she says.

“No! Not yet!” Suddenly Theo regrets all. He has no idea why he’s done what he’s done. Bringing her a dying animal, buying the gun. Impulse and yet— Hasn’t he done these things precisely because they make no sense? Thinking, he thinks, took him only so far. “Later,” he says, and unfolds the wheelchair waiting in the corner. He seats himself and likes the way it feels. He could be Stephen Hawking as he rolls himself over to retrieve his glass of wine: “To Dr. Easley.”

Anne lifts her glass and sips. Liza glares.

“Liza?” Why is she so difficult? Bob Dylan’s biographer years ago called him the Messiah, and then that Harvard professor wrote about alien abduction. No one was about tarring and feathering them. “Believe me,” he says, “I had no wish to cause you or your family any pain. Dr. Easley is brilliant. I’ve got the knack for explaining complex concepts simply. I thought together we—”

Liza’s eyebrows arch. “I didn’t find the science parts of your book all that easy to follow. Everything being one thing. Really? By the way, is it Dr. Carlisle?” she asks, knowing very well that it isn’t.

“If I were to take a movie of you running, and look at it frame by frame, suppose I label you Liza when your left foot is off the ground, but Hedgehog when it’s your right foot—” And on he goes when she only said it to jab at him, not to invite a lecture. “What about when you run past the frame and we can no longer measure you? Do you cease to exist? Isn’t it absurd to define you frame by frame, and just as absurd to identify the film with you? We can repeat over and over again that we’re merely tracking your movement, the traces you leave on—”

“I don’t get it,” Liza says.

“These concepts aren’t easy. That’s why I worked so hard on—”

“What I understand is that you misrepresented. You humiliated. You lied.”

Liza in her armor with torn lining. Theo of the pale lashes, his arms covered with a light coat of hair. Anne, glittery as an addict scheming for a fix.

“Not a lie, Liza. A model of reality.” Though models, he admits to himself, in being mere approximations are always lies. That’s the dilemma. “Just for example,” he tells her, “every child who grew up in the 50’s must have seen the Walt Disney image of atomic energy hundreds of times. All those ping pong balls—or maybe they were billiard balls—“Dr. Easley, do you remember?”

“Ping pong, I think.”

“So what?” says Liza.

“Lots of small white balls colliding and setting off a chain reaction and that picture of little colliding white balls is deeply embedded in each and every head of millions of people alive today, most of whom can’t even tell you what kind of ball let alone explain what it means. One must choose one’s metaphors and images very carefully. It’s what I call the tangerine quandary. In grade school, the teacher’s just finished telling the children the earth is round, and then you’re made to study a two‑dimensional map.”

“Maybe it’s a tangerine in New Zealand. I was taught an orange.” Liza, oppositional still. “If you take the peel from a round orange and flatten it, you’ve got the Mercator projection.”

Anne shakes her head over the things they tell children.

“Orange, yes. Orange is the standard, the original ideal image from which the tangerine is derived. But getting an orange peel off in a single piece suitable for flattening isn’t easy. If one believes the students will experiment, one might be advised to use the tangerine as the example.”

“I can peel a tangerine,” Liza says, “but I doubt I can flatten it out to look like a map.”

“Splendid observation!” Theo says. “So perhaps even when you admit the possibility of direct experience, you lead the children to frustration and failure. Perhaps it’s best to tell them the orange, and have them accept your way on faith.”

“They should use their imagination to picture the peel flattened.”

He stares at her because this, precisely, is the problem. How does one believe in a God one can’t see? Only through the imagination, but how is it possible to imagine a God who could turn his back on concentration camps. On Pol Pot. On AIDS. On war. On so much suffering. Invisibility, he thinks, equals impunity. For too long God has been afraid to show his face.

“The Mercator projection does not look like an orange peel,” Anne says. “Furthermore it distorts the globe and its proportions for all purposes except for navigation.”

“There’s the quandary,” Theo says. “How to teach, how to convince. One bends over backwards to make the truth accessible and what happens? People go bit by bit ever so much further astray.”

“Einstein did it all in his head, didn’t he?” says Liza. “Actually, I don’t think I can peel a tangerine in one piece either.”

“If I had one in the refrigerator,” says Anne, “we could be empirical about it.”

The world is not a tangerine, thinks Theo, but we reduce it to the peel of a fruit to understand it. Now it seems he’s failed, at least with Liza. And why? Because he didn’t want existence reduced. He wanted people to see it’s bigger, bigger by far. “I tried to explain our lives by making them bigger.”

“The evidence of things unseen,” says Anne. “We offer tangerines when what’s called for is faith.”

“And Liza’s upset because faith is what I offered,” says Theo. He’d invited people to try what he had done: surrender his rational mind in order to be receptive to—something. “Complementarity, Liza.”

“Another concept I did not understand.”

“Neither do most of the scientists who rely on it,” says Anne.

“Take incompatible premises,” says Theo. “No way to reconcile them.” You and I. “Science. Religion. You can fight over who’s right, and yet neither model accounts for all phenomena. So Bohr said, each is mutually exclusive, but the whole truth only exists when you accept both. What do you say to that, Liza? Brilliant? Or intellectually dishonest? Just a way to keep everyone happy?”

“Absolutely dishonest,” she says. “And your publisher knew it!”

“My publisher understood I was writing something rather like the Bible.”

He really is mad, she thinks.

“A book my sponsors could take literally while to the general public it would read as metaphor. Poetry.”

“But the Messiah!”

“It is a book about physics.”

“No, it’s about my aunt!”

“In particle physics, one refers to charm and color and up-quarks and down, but it doesn’t mean color or charm or direction. One assigns an old word to do a new job, to denote certain properties, or intimations of behavior. And I do admire Dr. Easley an awful lot,” he says.

“I’ll draft a document for you,” Liza says. “Just acknowledge what you’ve told us. You were paid to make this claim and you know it’s not true. Sign that. We’ll drop the lawsuit.”

“There will be no lawsuit!” says Anne.

Liza stares at him, trying to remember why she is angry. With righteous indignation. But what is righteous about it? Self-righteous, really. Why does Aunt Anne see it as a big joke while she experiences it all as shame?

The irises are in a vase, the vase still sitting in the kitchen sink, and Liza goes to the sink to get them. The flowers look like the open beaks of baby birds. There’s a fuzzy yellow stripe like a caterpillar asleep inside each petal. She forces herself to touch one and sees her aunt carrying wildflowers into the cottage. The anger she’s felt for days—is it really her own or is she merely casting a proxy vote for Patrice? What sort of person can’t tell whether she is feeling a feeling! Liza picks up the vase. “They’re beautiful,” she says. “Thank you.”

“I want my third gift now,” says Anne. “Whatever it is.”

It’s a mistake, thinks Theo, but he carries the carton to her and from it lifts the gift. Anne looks into the greenest eyes she’s ever seen before Theo lays the cat reverently on her lap.

The flowers are lovely, but Anne thinks there’s nothing more beautiful than a cat, and what’s more beautiful still, her mere presence makes him purr. He’s the perfect lap cat. No squirming, the front paws crossed neatly one over the other on her thigh, content to be with her. Thank you thank you thank you. “Does he have a name?”


“Hasn’t anyone been feeding him?” The fluffy fur hides it, but he’s scrawny. When she strokes him, he’s all skin and bones. “Sweetheart,” she says. She lifts and kisses the little black head. Oh, those green eyes. She has never seen eyes that green. Anne strokes the fur. She scratches the ears. “Liza, come pet him.” The girl grew up deprived. To Patrice, all animals are dirty.

What a shame, Liza thinks, that she won’t be allowed to keep him.

Shadows dance outside on the cinderblock wall. “We’ve got the evening wind,” says Anne. “Theo, be a dear. Turn off the A/C and open the door,” and in comes the scent of star jasmine. Birdsong. “And the windows.” An automatic garage door going up sounds like her hard drive does when she fears it’s going to crash.

Liza strokes the cat. “He isn’t moving at all,” she says. “Shouldn’t he be—?”

Anne pinches off a bit of cheese and offers it. Caesar shows no interest. “Theo, did you drug this poor creature to keep him still?”

“The cat is dying,” he says, but they don’t understand. “Caesar purrs because he thinks you can help.”

Anne’s voice comes out, hoarse. “Take this animal away from me,” which is not what the Savior would say. Not at all.

“The green eyes are too brilliant,” he says. “Cancer of the liver. Jaundice.”

“Liza, take this—”

“While I was at Oxford, my mother died,” he says. And no one moves. The cat remains on Anne’s lap. “I didn’t even know she was ill. She was buried before anyone told me.” And he’d gone to his tutor and his seminar and he walked around going through the same daily routine, wearing the same clothes, looking indistinguishable from the Theo of the day before. A person passing him on the street could not have known.

“I’m sorry,” Liza whispers.

She doesn’t understand.

“My mother,” he says. When she was gone—she was the origin, and without her, it was though his very existence was thrown into doubt. He experienced the emptiness of matter. He’d be sitting on a chair or walking down a street, and suddenly feel himself plunging through empty space, spinning in the vacuum. Lost in the absence between atoms.

“All that is solid melts into air,” he says. I’m not crazy, he thinks. I am not mad. “I discovered your notes, Dr. Easley, and I felt not just reconciled, but emboldened.” He’d gone down to London and walked and walked and realized he had no way of knowing what was carried in the hearts of the people he passed. Any one of them might carry some terrible secret grief. They all looked so fragile then, like little bits of vivified matter trying to stand their ground against the void. His mother’s death had taught him this and so he treated people more gently. For a while. It wore off, as it would have to do. “I met you. A simple glance at you does not reveal your radiance. And I thought for the first time, what if someone among us carries not pain but a secret hidden glory? What if we must treat each and every person as if he or she is the One?”

“Each and every person, Theo,” says Anne. “You as much as I.”

“No,” he says. It was her vision: interaction, not force; unity, not broken discontinuities. Her supernal radiance, the flowers. “What if you are?” he asks. “I mean, of course, you aren’t, but—”

“Theo,” she says.

“You refused to develop weapons!”

“Oh, please. I was a mindless little patriot. If you’d known me—It just happens that curiosity led me in another direction. Just as your curiosity led to the book.”

“It led you to the Truth,” he says.

“To a hypothesis. And what you’ve written about me is not true.”

He hadn’t really believed it—had he?, but given the world they lived in, was it so wrong to long for the advent of the Prince of Peace? Hope may be as difficult to sustain as grief but surely, he thinks, they sustain each other.

Theo closes the door. Locks it. With the A/C turned off, it’s already hot in the room, the sun still filtering through dusty glass as he tries to remember what the gun in his luggage has to do with compassion.

“Sometimes I can’t bear what I see,” he says. He crouches by his carry-on and unzips the pouch. He tries to look into Anne’s eyes but his own eyes blur a moment and then he takes out the gun. “If God were here, in human form,” he says, “I would hold this gun to His head.”

The steel feels so cold in his hand, as if refrigerated. For a moment he believes he’s holding the gun to give it comfort, to warm it. He thinks of all the sensationalized crimes of passion, the woman saying Yes, I had the gun, but I never meant to use it. How false her words, her bewilderment always sounded, until now.

Liza, breathe in, breathe out, keeps her eyes on him as he imagines firing into his own head, the bullet flying between the atoms, missing every bit of matter, as Anne thinks, yes, it was always clear I moved into this room to die. She says, “Is that thing loaded?”

“Only one chamber,” he says and still can’t imagine how he got here. He has made himself a vacuum in order to be filled and then the words come: “It’s a tangerine.”

“Mais non,” says Anne and then, to Liza’s horror, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”

No, he thinks, tangerine is an excuse, an explanation, a way to stop this from going further. And so he talks of accidents, contingencies. Things that occur that need not have occurred. “Oxford is done for me. The book’s a failure. I’ll never write another. There’s nothing left but to teach schoolchildren.” He talks of predictions, trajectories, the unique structural signature of the barrel. The six chambers. “A lesson in probability,” he says.

Liza can’t stop herself: “You’re not actually planning to take that into a classroom.”

“Just to get their attention,” he says. “If I spin it, point it— Am I more likely to fire if it’s pointed like this—” He aims the gun at Liza. “Or like this?” He holds the gun to his own skull. Lowers it. “It may only appear that I have a choice.” He shoves the barrel into his mouth. Then removes it because if everything is one, what does it matter that his mother’s dead? “The shallowness of contemporary life,” he says, because Anne, only Anne can understand him, but he doesn’t complete the thought, unable to criticize the shallow earth she’s come to save.

“I demand a sign,” he says. “Reveal yourself.” His mind has gone somewhere it ought never to have gone. “Save the cat,” he says.

She can’t speak. She cannot enter his delusion. She feels the warmth beneath her hand, the electric purr.

“What are you afraid of, Dr. Easley? It can be a bitter cup, but you mustn’t draw back. When you were a child, didn’t you know you had a mission here on earth?”

Yes, and all children do, she thinks, Liza, and Theo, too.

“You withdrew from the world. You abandoned us. But you can’t keep yourself remote from the suffering. You can’t ignore this creature before you.” He has risked everything and for nothing unless he can force her out of hiding. “Show your face. Your power.”

Anne strokes the black fur and says, “I have no power. Liza, please. Get this animal away from me.”

“Unleash it,” he says to Anne. “Like the atom. The world is going to hell and you won’t even try! You—could—make—things—change.” He holds the gun to Anne’s head and says, “I anointed you.”

Anne pushes Caesar off her lap. The cat lands with a soft mewling cry and a thud.

He says, “I believed you could stop me.”

“Theo,” cries Liza, “you wrote a really good book.”

He could kill her for that. He fires.

The room shakes as Anne pitches forward from her chair. Legs numb, she falls.

On the floor, she gathers to her lap the ruined body of the cat and Theo is frozen a moment by the sight—the Pietà—before he runs.


“We should call the police,” says Liza.

“No! Treat him gently.” Is he dangerous? Anne can’t predict. Out the window, on the cinderblock wall, she sees a large mouse-colored head come out from between the painted wrought-iron spikes. A naked tail curls among the morning glory vines. Remarkable creature and Theo is every bit as remarkable. Iliked him, she thinks. I still like him.

“Why isn’t anyone coming?” Liza says. “I thought this place took good care of you. They must have heard the shot.” They listen for sirens. A dog barks in the distance. A car alarm.

In the courtyard, Theo drops the gun into the artificial pond, startling a turtle that drags itself up upon a rock. He sees the jewel-like colors as it stretches out its neck to lay its head on another’s sun-warmed shell. He sits on the bench and waits for the police but no one comes. Where will I go now? Where will I lay my head?

Liza is trembling, exhilarated and terrified. Just don’t let Patrice find out. She’s had a gun aimed at her head and the worst of it is she’s more afraid of what her mother will say. How ridiculous. Liza starts to laugh. Her aunt is making sounds, choking, stifled. Liza helps her to her feet. There’s feline blood now on her St. John suit, and her aunt is laughing and holding up her hands: “Theo left too soon,” she says. “The stigmata!”

Anne sways her way to the bedside table where Liza left Amber and Fur. “You should have had him sign your copy.” She carefully opens the cover, presses her bloody palm print on the title page. “There. Patrice can put it up on Ebay.” She makes a joke of everything. She starts to cry.

Liza wants to go to her and hold her. Instead she gets the basin and a towel and washes the blood from her aunt’s hands. She could be cleaning Victoria’s sticky fingers, or murmuring the way she once did to calm Minou, when she held the cat to keep it from squirming as her aunt clipped its nails. She feels sick with dread, not at the blood, but the memory of how her own child’s dirty fingers had repelled her. She’s dizzy for a moment with longing—for Victoria, for Keith.

If an extraterrestrial were regarding us from outer space, Anne thinks, would we be tiny dots, or a barely detectable shift in energy?

He had asked her: “Do you believe in extraterrestrials, Dr. Easley?”

She’d answered: “Do you?”

“I want to,” he said. “I need to believe that somewhere in the universe there’s something better than us.”

Poor Theo.

“You have a car,” Anne says. “Let’s go out to dinner. Somewhere nice.”

No feelings, Liza thinks. And she’s the good sister. “I have the Zagat guide,” she says.

Anne thinks if I had the power, I would have saved him. She thinks of all the medical tests she’s been through, all the X-Rays, all the imaging, and yet no one has ever seen inside her.

“Come to Boston,” Liza says.

“Tomorrow I want to look for an apartment. Not in Boston. Here.”

“For a visit.” Liza studies her aunt’s fingernails, short and unpolished, almost unnaturally even. “I want Victoria to know you.”

Seven years of suspended animation, thinks Anne, passed now in a flash. What a sad old marvelous world it is and now she’s going to see more of it, free to stumble as she makes unsteady progress to the end.

“We’ll find you an apartment before we go to Boston,” says Liza, “A landlord who allows cats.”

Theo’s gift: this unforeseen result.

“Thank God,” says Anne. “In a manner of speaking, of course.”

–By Diane Lefer

See Diane’s nonfiction at LA Progressive. She is an associated artist with ImaginAction. See her on Cynthia Newberry Martin’s blog Catching Days, and an interview in Taco.

Oct 052010


October, 2010

Dear DG,

Thanks for your email. You ask about Milan. What it’s like living here. You ask for descriptions, for photos…. Enclosed please find my views :

“Duomo” means cathedral.

A Gothic version wrought with grimacing monsters presides in central Milan. Recently renovated, the marble shines a bright white in direct sunlight, blushes at dawn, or grows ruddy in the gloaming of nightfall.

Pickpockets roam the piazza spread out like a large, bumpy placemat beneath the Duomo. Their glittery black eyes home in on the naïve tourist. Hand to your pocket, or arm firmly over purse, please. You have treasures to lose.

Merchandisers sell Inter, Milan, Juve soccer scarves—blue&black, red&black, white&black—from small wooden kiosks; marketers ring the perimeter with fluorescent neon in pink and blue that exhorts purchases of Gucci, Prada, Sony. Close your eyes to (un)subliminal messaging. Times are tough. Save your dough.

Pigeons squat on the equestrian bronze of King Vittorio Emanuele. White streaks drip from his greened shoulders. Hurry past, head hunkered down.

Seven o’clock shadows lengthen and grow violet while the sun sinks. Cut across the cobblestones of the piazza, wind through pickpockets, tourists, merchandisers, marketers, and pigeons. Climb the steps, enter the Duomo through tall bronze doors, choose the side altar where the Renaissance panel of the Virgin and her Son hangs. Light a candle below the image. Kneel. Even if you’re not Catholic, even if you’re not religious.

The smoky sputter of burning wax. The golden light ringing bowed heads like glowing halos. The sting of incense wafting from the main altar—hundreds of yards away—where evening mass reaches a crescendo.
 The intonation of millions of prayers, seven hundred years’ worth, reverberates in the cavernous, vibrating enclave.

You listen, knees against the stool, fingers laced together on the rail.

Dive in, again today, as you have every day since disaster struck. Add to the swirling mix.

When you finish, fall back into your wooden pew.

You remember that John Ruskin hated the aesthetics of this place. That Oscar Wilde called it monstrous in taste. But that Mark Twain, like you, scoured the thousands of niches decorated with statues of saints, and bugs and birds, and all of nature, and knew here, in the Duomo, he wasn’t alone.

“Salsamenteria” means Sauce-eria.

A new one, near the recently-opened Abercrombie and Fitch, waylays the hungry in a narrow street not far from the Duomo. Salt-cured pig haunches hang from hooks on the walls and rafters in the ceiling. Brown paper mats plaster square oak tables. Kegs of cheaper wine sprawl on a hutch to the left of the bar, bottles of finer wine march across a shelf.

Study the menu taped to the window.

Coppa, it says. Prosciutto, Culatello di Zibello. Tortellini, Ravioli. Lambrusco. Bardolino. DOP–the best of the best. 5 Euros. 6 Euros. 10 Euros. 3.5 Euros. 2 Euros. 4 Euros. 3.9 Euros. Eat. You need to eat. Mangia. Mangia. Keep your strength up.

Take a break from your vigil. Enter. Choose a table for one near the door.

Black eyes, black hair, brown skin. The waitress from Kenya, poised to serve. Pencil on pad.

Order a sandwich. Select some wine.

Pink slabs fall from thick slices of peasant bread. Green sauce—made from parsley, capers, oil and anchovies—glistens in a finger bowl on the middle of your table. Unkegged Bardolino fizzes in the white ceramic bowl the graceful Kenyan girl serves it in.

Dip your sandwich into the oily green, slurp the slick red.

Forget while you eat and drink. Listen to the clinking in the kitchen, the tap of forks against ceramic plates. Watch the girl glide and whirl.


And when wine splats on your blouse like blood (drops of crimson on white gauze) blot and wipe in the room with the skirted stick figure on the door.


Hurry out to evening mass at the Duomo.

“Ca’Granda Policlinico” means Hospital.

Designed in the Renaissance by Filarete, the Florentine, with perfect courtyards, graceful loggias and brick fretwork, the first Ca’Granda is where the ill of the city was nursed back to health. Now university students occupy Filarete’s harmonic spaces, while the Ca’Granda has migrated across the street to become the Ca’Granda Policlinico and occupy dozens of buildings of eclectic styles and dubious periods.

Rush your teenage boy here one ill-fated Monday. See how he is classified code red.

Tell the doctors: He’s healthy. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

Tell the doctors: His heart’s fine. But then listen to it beat 200 times a minute.

Wait, sitting on linoleum lit by neon.

An orderly changes rumpled blue sheets on an abandoned gurney. An infant, red with fever, cries in its father’s arms. A small pink girl in a wheelchair, her broken wrist held to her chest, fusses at her gold-jewelry-laden-black-leather-jacketed mother. And a blond boy lies down the hall, behind closed doors, in intensive care, monitors hooked to his chest and fingers.

Wait, sitting on linoleum lit by neon.

Relatives of the injured arrive. One, with stiff gray hair and sturdy brown pumps, holds the infant so his father can go to the men’s room. The pink girl’s burly grandfather bellows into his cellphone. The mother in black and gold lights a cigarette beyond sliding glass. Soon, her exhaust curls up through the night.

Your husband calls. He’s home, caring for your youngest. How is our boy? He asks.

Ask a nurse, How is my boy?

Then wait, sitting on linoleum lit by neon.

“Parco” means park.

A nineteenth-century park—the parco Sempione—sprawls around the Castello Sforzesco, the imposing castle that was built in the early Renaissance where Leonardo da Vinci frescoed rooms for Ludovico il Moro. The parco encompasses the Triennale Art Museum too, and DeChirico’s beach house sculpture.

On sunny autumn afternoons boys bring their dogs to the happy corners of Parco Sempione and run. Disks of red plastic spin through the air, dogs fetch, their pink tongues curling and flapping.

Don’t worry about curbing your dog here—no one does. But check your shoes—wipe them on the graveled walkways—when you quit the grass.

On sunny autumn afternoons boys play soccer on the grassy knolls of Parco Sempione. Under the elm, off to the side. And here, one boy, a teenage boy with blue eyes and a chipped front tooth who plays soccer in autumn crumples one graying afternoon. His chest thumps at two hundred beats a minute—like a golden hummingbird’s—while the parco fades into black.

Call 118 when this happens. Climb into the wailing vehicle. Bump over old, winding streets, ancient alleys, circular passageways, through centuries of urban sprawl and nonexistent urban planning. At rush hour.

Say faster, please faster, as you watch your boy’s lips turn blue.

Hold his hand, whisper a prayer when you see his eyelids twitch.

Plan to light a candle at the Duomo every evening until he wakes.


—Natalia Sarkissian