May 132011
 


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Because he had a difficult time pronouncing “Keith” when he was a child, Keith Maillard called himself “Keats.” Because he was sick a lot, he made up stories; he drew stories on the bathroom tiles and his grandmother cleaned them off every day so he could do more the next. Because he was a kid during the Second World War, he thought Kilroy was a magical, ubiquitous person. Herewith is a second excerpt from Keith Maillard’s memoir Fatherless (NC published “Richland” in March). It goes straight to the heart of childhood, that gorgeous, magical moment in time when adults are mythic creatures, the night holds unspeakable terrors, words are mysterious and difficult to control, illness visits and strange medicines applied, and the self applies itself fiercely and joyously to the task of understanding. Keith Maillard was born and raised in West Virginia. Currently the Chair of the Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia, he is the author of thirteen extraordinary novels and one poetry collection.

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KILROY:

A WRITER’S CHILDHOOD

 By Keith Maillard

from Fatherless

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I’ve always had the impulse to tell stories. It must have started with wanting to hear stories. When I was little, my mother put me to bed by telling me the adventures of Bucky the Bug, a tale that she made up on the spot, that evolved day to day. I was so little that I had to go to bed before it was dark. “You never minded,” my mother told me. “You always wanted to hear the next part of the story.” Those summer nights, as they settled down on me, felt as huge as continents. The light would be fading out at the windows; I’d be tucked into bed but not sleepy yet, and my mother would be telling me what was happening to Bucky the Bug right now. I don’t remember the stories, but I do remember the sense of living inside them. When my mother stopped telling me stories, I begin to tell them to myself. As soon as I could, I notated them—first with stick figures, then, much later, with words.

The lower half of our bathroom walls was tiled. Each tile—cream-colored and blank—looked to me like the panel of a comic strip. I’d sit on the bathroom floor and draw on the tiles with a soft lead pencil, filling in each one with the drawing that went with the story I was telling myself, working my way around the bathroom walls until I had filled all of the tiles as high as I could reach. Every evening my grandmother would scrub them clean with Ajax Cleanser so I could start over the next day and do it again. I felt no sense of loss when my comic strips were wiped away. I loved waking up in the morning knowing that I had all those shining blank tiles to fill—more than I could count—unending rows of cartoon squares where I could tell myself stories.

When I got older, I moved from bathroom tiles to paper. I was sick so much as a child that they bought me a bed table and a special wedge-shaped pillow so I could sit up and draw. Whenever I got sick, I had to take unbelievably nasty blue pills called “pyrobenzamine.” My grandmother would smear my chest with Vicks Vaporub, cover it with a layer of cotton, then a layer of cloth—thin t-shirt material. She’d set the vaporizer going in the corner of my bedroom; it hissed quietly, making everything steamy and scented of camphor. She turned on the radio for me—a box made of Bakelite with a green dial. Voices from the radio told me stories as I drew my own stories. The first two fingers of my right hand became callused from holding pencils and crayons. Sometimes I had fever dreams as thick with images as wallpaper. In my earliest years I had visitations that were worse than nightmares.

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May 122011
 

Here’s a lovely addition to the growing list of Numéro Cinq “Childhood” essays from Court Merrigan who grew up in Nebraska and lives just across the state line in Wyoming. Court was raised on a farm. He has that authentic Western voice, a voice bred in the  dirt and heat and the smell of oil from the farm machines and the chink of irrigation pipes and sound of distant thunder (farmers watch the sky far more than city folk). I have a fondness for the piece based on personal history—the first story I published was about a hail storm on the farm where I grew up. Court’s father towers over this story, his laugh, his exhortations and his reading. What’s really particular and authentic here is that father, Catholic, Jesuit-trained, literate, and wise. He’s appeared before on NC, just in passing,  in Court’s “What it’s like living here.”

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Childhood

By Court Merrigan

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The Nebraska Panhandle, 1988

First water, we called it—the first water of the summer irrigation season—first water was coming. On the Fourth of July, 1988, the summer before I entered seventh grade, my father had my whole family at the end of a field of Great Northerns laying ten-inch irrigation pipe over new corrugations.  It was 111 degrees in the shade and all I wanted was to be at the lake with the guys, riding in a motorboat, waterskiing, maybe sneaking a can of beer from a cooler to pass around.  But beans don’t irrigate themselves.

My father was talking about Cincinnatus, the hero that saved Rome and then refused to be dictator, returning instead to his fields.

“This country could use a Cincinnatus or two,” he said.

My grandparents, resolute Catholics, had deemed it their duty to apportion a son to the Church.  My father had been shipped off to seminary at age thirteen, joining the last wave of men to receive a pre-Vatican II education.  Just shy of ordination, he decided celibacy was too heavy a cross to bear.  He bolted for co-ed college and Vietnam and this farm, toting along his classical education like sharp jeweled shards.  It has always seemed to me that these shards jab his brain even when he is about the grittiest of farm labor.  Perhaps more so then.

Cincinnatus was a favorite theme.  We heard the story many times.  I think about him still in moments of reverie, dreaming of accomplishing heroic deeds myself in the camera’s unblinking eye, refusing all offers of position and prestige, returning to my farm with a final wave to the hushed TV masses.

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May 112011
 

photograph by Jessica Pezalla

When he was young (in the last century), dg had a thing for that 1936 (definitely before dg was born) Clark Gable movie San Francisco (with Spencer Tracy and Jeanette MacDonald). DG actually used to want to be Clark Gable when he grew up. Unfortunately, things turned out otherwise. But he did go around for a number of years humming that song to himself even though he lived in Ontario and did not see San Francisco until, um, 1969. But enough about dg. Here’s a lovely “What it’s like living here” piece from Danielle Frandina who actually lives in San Francisco and perhaps never even saw that ancient movie (forever twined in dg’s mind with SF)—a pleasant and striking contrast to the economic doom-sayers and the plate geologists who all see the state sliding into the Pacific figuratively or actually pretty soon. After reading Danielle’s words, I think we should all join Jeanette MacDonald for a rousing chorus or two of “San Francisco!”

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What it’s like living here

From Danielle Frandina in San Francisco

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I grew up in Colorado, and if you’re from the West, but not the West Coast, you’re born with an innate suspicion and resentment of Californians.  Back in high school, my boyfriend wanted us to move there after graduation, but I refused, choosing the deserts of New Mexico instead.  During the mudslides and fires that plagued the Golden State in the mid-Nineties, I remember thinking some very insensitive thoughts about Californians, something along the lines of, “They’re getting what they deserve.”  In my mind, California was Los Angeles, and Los Angeles represented all that was despicable and embarrassingly indulgent about Americans.  But eight years ago, I loaded up a borrowed car with little more than my clothes, books and music and headed to the Bay Area for the sweet shelter of my two best friends, the debris of my former life smoldering in the rear view mirror.

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The Apartment

photograph by Joe Frandina

I live in a lemon-yellow building on Dearborn Street in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District.  It was built in 1910.  This date matters.  It means it was constructed after the 1906 earthquake, so I can’t gauge how the structure will hold up when another one of that magnitude hits. The Bay windows of my studio apartment face street-side onto three palm trees that guard a locally famous community garden, the oldest in the city.  During a storm, the palms sway and shake so violently that it’s easy to imagine I’m witnessing a tropical storm.  This sight always sends me back to the beach town of Mui Ne in Vietnam, where, as a lone backpacker, I was once bedridden for three days.  In my fevered state, all I had the energy to do was watch the palm trees dance through the glassless windows of my bungalow as monsoon season really took root.  Strangely, this is a soothing memory.  I recall feeling no fear, no resistance, just letting the illness course through my body, being completely at ease with my surroundings and circumstances.  I rarely feel that way.  At ease.

My apartment is around the corner from what is now called the Gourmet Ghetto.  Slow Foods Movement and Farm to Table restaurants line 18th Street.  To explain to San Franciscans where I live, I just tell them my street is catty corner to Tartine, arguably the best artisan bakery in the city.  On any given day, at any given time, there is a line around the block to get in and order a Morning Bun or Croque Monsieur.  And it’s worth the wait.

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May 102011
 

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Kim Fu is an exuberant young Canadian writer whose work is popping up all over the place, including two poems in the recent issue of The New Quarterly that also features a short story by our beloved dg. Kim is currently finishing her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia where she studied poetry with Keith Maillard. I have the good fortune of knowing Kim personally by way of her being a dear friend of my son, Jacob. Kim is kind and gentle with a fierce intellect. Read her poems and you’ll see.

— Lynne Quarmby

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Three Poems

by Kim Fu

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Let us change bodies

Let us change bodies
as we might change seats.
Everyone move one to the left,

now you are someone else.
Your teeth are misaligned in a different way,
your vision is wrecked or perfected,
you box people and art with new prejudice.

Your mouth is still mindlessly full: a street pakora,
or clear noodles made of bean curd,
or goat meat shredded and tamped down, or raw liver,
or an electric toothbrush, a lover’s finger, a deep-fried scorpion
all and any of these things suddenly routine.

Now you’re someone else,
the sun is crushing your eyelids shut,
sending you fleeing from noon, thirsty
down to the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet.
Now you’re someone else,
and the air is tepid bathwater, the grey inoffensive,
leaving you docile and confused about the time of day.

Now you are watching a window
as a wasp trembles in
and ricochets off the kitchen chair like a drunk.
Now you are in a bed that bows as deeply
as a suspension bridge,
cradling a man’s head to your chest as he weeps
and you feel your resolve drain away.

Now you are climbing the outer cliffs of a mountain
on a spiritual pilgrimage,
the marker at the top an upstretched hand.
Now you are climbing a mountain
because the landscape forms the profile of a witch
and you were drunk and wanted to prove a local legend wrong.

Now someone is taking your picture,
and you’ve forgotten how your mouth works;
you mash your lips together with one canine exposed
thinking it’s a closed-mouth smile.
Now your grown child is begging you to eat,
but grief has severed the ties between your hand and the spoon.

Now you are paralyzed by your own importance.
Now you are counting fireflies, or stars,
or lit-up homes in a valley.
Pinpoints lives that blink on and then off
or blaze like meteors in the Pleiades,
eclipse the night.

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