Jun 152012
 

Herewith a delightful What It’s Like Living Here piece from Lisa Roney in Orlando. This is our second contribution from Florida in recent weeks, a sign that all the writers are moving there (well, maybe not). Lisa Roney teaches writing at the University of Central Florida. She is the author of a memoir, Sweet Invisible Body: Reflections on a Life with Diabetes (Henry Holt, 1999), as well as poems, essays and stories. She had the eminent good sense to marry a Canadian.

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Pelicans against Sunset

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Birds

I live in the sky. Though it is crisscrossed with wires and impeded by billboards that sell big-breasted waitresses at the Wing House, it still dips its bruises in gold, not brass, then blushes at its own riches before waving good night. As I drive from yet another late neurology appointment along one of many six-lane roads that traverse the city, I search above it all, let the fading light guide me home.

Beyond the billboards, the barbequed chicken wings give way to the wings of hawks, eagles, herons, egrets. This evening eight ibis circle stunningly white against the blue, blue sky over the roadway, catching the last light of the day. Last week two bald eagles swooped ten feet above my head as I strolled my neighborhood. Cardinals and titmice flutter around the feeder in front of the kitchen window at morning and dusk, while the barred owls show themselves after midnight in their hilarious song. My husband and I lie in bed sometimes and mimic their “whoo, whoo, hah, whoo-who-oo-ahhh.” It helps my insomnia when my heart is lightened this way at bedtime.

The anhingas even bring sky to the ground, as they sit lakeside with their wings outspread to dry, as if flying on earth. The birds are my favorite thing about Florida.

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Bromeliads with Red Blossoms

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Winter Park

The first summer it rained and rained. In between the thunderstorms, I waited for my new job to begin and went on rambling, hours-long, solitary walks in the chic neighborhood near my homely concrete-block rental. One morning as I typed at my computer, I glanced to the right out the front window and faced a four-foot-long snake wending its way through the bromeliads under the orange tree.

At the time I didn’t know the name of bromeliads. I said to myself, “It’s only a black snake. Cool.” But it might have been an omen of the unpredictable. I find later on that it is indeed adaptive here to enjoy the same creatures that you fear since you can’t get away from them.

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Hospital Heart Monitor

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Medicine

Orlando is home to two of the ten largest hospitals in the country, and one of the three Mayo Clinic sites sits on the coast an hour north in Jacksonville. This does not assure anyone’s good health—probably CEOs chose our locale for the aging (and dying) population of retirees that Florida is famous for. I myself came here young and immediately hit the wall of numerous health problems, as though crossing the border into the land of retirement infected me with oldness.

I came here with thirty years of Type 1 diabetes under my belt already, but my list of ailments has blossomed like a bougainvillea, taken flight like an enormous eagle: carpal tunnel syndrome, adhesive capsulitis, irritable bowel syndrome, rosacea, arthritis of the right foot, lumbago (only one letter different from the purple-blooming plumbago that I had never seen before coming here). The human body is part of nature, though certainly denatured by all the machines now engaged in being sick. In the past two years, I have endured a benign perimescenphalic sub-arachnoid brain hemorrhage and, supposedly in a completely unrelated set of incidents, inflammation of my brain pathways that may indicate M.S. After six months of testing, they don’t really know.

Even though I don’t really want to talk about them, I cannot separate these things from what it is like to live here. The uncertainty seeps out of my skin like the constant sweat of summer.

Everywhere you go in Florida, there is a stark contrast between young and old—the stooped and graying alongside the tanned and buff, the slowest drivers in the world alongside the Daytona 500, the shops for orthopedic shoes alongside the surfin’ bikini boutiques.

For most of us, living in Orlando is like living somewhere in between.

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Green Anole

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Heat

Our summer is our winter. Not that summer’s cold, as in the northern-southern hemisphere switch, but in that we, too, have a season where we stay indoors, protected from brutal weather by our air conditioning. According to the National Weather Service, more people die from heat than from any other weather-related phenomenon, including floods, lightning, tornadoes, and hurricanes. More than three times as many die of heat than cold.

One of the big differences between people who visit here and people who live here is that we are aware of the nastiness of the heat. Everyone stays outside a lot in December, January, and February. But we hide in June, July, and August, and we sweat profusely nine months out of the year.

Earlier this afternoon, as I walked into the doctor’s office, a woman made a face and said, “I fear the spring is over.” We bask in spring, but dread the oppression of summer and fall, the threat of hurricane season.

Everyone in Florida carries a bottle of water. I first came to realize the Floridian devotion to hydration when I noticed that my students would sometimes get up during classes to go out and use the restroom. That is as accepted here as students blowing their noses in class in the north.

In fact, most of the people who die of heat exposure do so in milder climates where so many of the elderly still believe they can live without air conditioning. Down here, we know we can’t. If this makes me wonder why it is that people insist on living in such inhospitable places, I put it out of my mind. If I wonder, as I idle in traffic on my way home from the doctor’s office, why humans have designed their world to be such an ugly and hostile place, I remind myself that the black lady standing at the bus stop on Route 434 with her umbrella up against the sun probably doesn’t have the luxury to worry about it and neither do I, really, not these days.

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Sunlight on Wall with Euphorbia

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Winter Springs

Six years after coming here, I got married and moved to the suburbs, not necessarily in that order. Both of these facts surprise me, and I feel guilty for liking everything about the suburbs but the political tenor and the car-time. Besides, everyone in Orlando drives a lot, no matter where they live. When Men’s Health magazine reported that Orlando is one of the angriest cities in the country because of the traffic, I just nodded.

My new husband cackled. A Canadian, he declares America barbaric. “In Canada,” he often reminds me when we’re together in traffic, “we understand the concept of merging for mutual benefit. Here everyone races to the front and tries to jam their way in.” I assure him that the entire country is not like this, but I feel the shame of American greed.

My own backyard reeks of stereotyped paradise, yet I love it almost as though it were my very own forever home. I was broke for a long time. Now the fountain bubbles, the cats roll on a bricked lanai, tall palms and pines line the fence, and two Adirondack chairs sit by the pool. I swim almost daily, though I did not want a pool and I am a terrible swimmer.

“Why else would anyone live in Florida?” my husband asked when I protested. I am not sorry I acquiesced.

I like being married after 49 single years and hope I still have plenty of years to enjoy it. I find it freeing to be tied. Once I thought I came here for the job at the big school over the previous small one, the moderate-sized city over the small town. Once I thought I would seek perfection until I found it and that excitement would always be mine. What a delight that I was so wrong.

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Agave Stalk and Telephone Pole

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Plants

Because flowers bloom year round here, and because there are few cemeteries, it can be easy to forget that the life cycle ends in death. When I get home, I pull my car into the garage and stand in the driveway, breathing in the aroma of the confederate jasmine I planted along the fence last year. I check on the new herb garden that is spreading exponentially, the way things do here. Finally, I am growing things.

It took nearly three years for me to plant the gardenia that a friend brought to our wedding, and it now has buds nearing bloom. All the other gardenias on the street parade massive, fragrant flowers, but I am thrilled simply that ours is still alive, gardenia and marriage both surviving overwork and hospital stays. The staghorn fern that another friend brought as a wedding gift hangs from a tree in the front yard. On cold nights, the neighbors down the street wrap their huge staghorn in blankets, whereas ours is still small enough to drag in the front door. I wonder if the enormous one down the street testifies to a long marriage and whether ours will get that big.

I have also put into the ground three offsets from an agave that grew in my Winter Park yard. These are an exception to the ever-blooming of most tropical plants. They bloom only once—on a stalk that appears overnight as tall as a telephone pole—and then wither into a heavy stump.

Finally, after the agave amazed me with its theatrics, I started to learn the names of more common plants: saw palmetto, sago palm, bougainvillea, bromeliad, bald cypress, mangrove, ligustrum. We have plumbago, shrimp plants, lorapetalum, and camellias growing in our yard. Knowing the names is almost as important to me as growing them, but I am glad to have reduced the amount of evil St. Augustine grass by half. St. Augustine grass is another one of those peculiar Florida phenomena—a non-native plant ubiquitous for lawns, it tolerates the heat but soaks up ridiculous amounts of water.

The hummingbirds will come to our new fire bushes and spicy jatropha. My newlywed husband will be here tomorrow in spite of my surprise brain hemorrhage and the lesions that could render me crippled or dopey. I will still be able to walk around and deadhead the flowers for some time. That is enough, along with the jasmine, for today.

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Why I Live in the Sky

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Whorelando

The corporate tagline for Orlando is “the city beautiful,” but we have coined the moniker Whorelando, or, in a more Spanish spelling, Jorlandó.

Though it still asserts itself over and over, the beauty of Whorelando is for sale and disappearing fast. I have never seen more strip malls anywhere. When I originally looked for a house to rent, I clicked excitedly on an online ad for an “historic” home, only to find that it was built in 1950. Whorelando is full of concrete block and bulldozers.

I moved here nine years ago and have lived here longer than nearly anywhere in my adult life, yet it still feels alien. Like the narrator of William Gass’s short story, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” I am not of the people, not of the place. Like that narrator, I’ve had my disappointments.

On one of my first drives to work here I watched a man, a bag of McDonald’s on his handlebars, a case of Coke strapped behind his seat, cycling alongside the traffic, his long, grey hippie’s beard and locks flowing in the warm breeze, his pale face grizzled with dirt. Weird is everywhere I look. Sometimes it is the weird that is ultranormal—the made-up housewives with pink sweat suits and boob jobs, the nurse that says my survival is a gift from God, the sleepy kids lining up for the school bus.

I am in the heart of the heart of the heart of the peninsula, land-locked in a state full of beaches. We should get out to the coast more often.

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Bougainvillia

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Disney

Friends and family fly in and stay with us while they visit the “attractions.” Everyone thinks that if you live in Orlando, you live close to Disney, so they are always surprised that we live an hour’s drive away.

I have not been to Disney World since 1972, although I have had Pluto in class, and my husband, Cinderella.

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Gator in Pond

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Sanford

A few weeks ago, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed on a street in the town just across Lake Jesup from where we live. Orlando boasts tourists from all over the world, but just over the lake, whichever lake, there is a dense scrub of raw lawlessness and backwoods sensibility. Trayvon Martin’s death by vigilante is the tragic other side of Peter Matthiessen’s Killing Mr. Watson, in which an Everglades community bands together to murder a greedy bully. Something constantly threatens to be out of control here—the crime, the law, the lawless order, the construction development, the real estate boom and the real estate crash, the bougainvillea vines, the wind, the rain, the heat, the humidity, the drought, the Cuban tree frogs, the alligators.

Lake Jesup is full of alligators, and sometimes during mating season they come down through the creeks and end up in the retention pond across the street from our house. An eight-foot one took up residence the week before we got married in the backyard. “That just makes it a Florida wedding,” my vet’s receptionist told me.

My friends warned me before I took this job—about the fundamentalist Christians who objected to any mention of Halloween, about the hurricanes, about the gators and the palmetto bugs, even about rampant entrepreneurialism, capitalism gone jungle-feral. Some of them have cut me off because I came here. Some others have kept in touch for the vacations. I understand both impulses.

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Hawk

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Rain Storms

After I come in from breathing jasmine air, I find an email informing me that my teaching schedule for next year is in disarray. I spend a moment furious, but it’s the usual way of things in a state with a legislature intent on destroying educational institutions that have only ever had a toehold anyway. The governor just approved creation of a brand new state technical university, with the budget coming out of those of existing schools. Rumor has it that the legislator who sponsored this new school stands to make a killing on nearby real estate. All that valueless swampland once sold to unwitting northerners is now valuable after all.

The next morning, clouds finally move in after more than a month with no rain. We’ve reveled in the sunshine, but the splatting drops on my morning walk break the tension. By afternoon, it will be pouring off and on, and the smell of ozone will waft in through the open sliding glass door as I sit at the computer. I will stay home cozy with my husband in the evening because going out during rain here means getting soaked. We will watch for the neighborhood red-shouldered hawk, who often comes down to the low branches in the rain.

A friend down in Tampa says that she hopes the rain will come their way, though she hopes she doesn’t regret wishing for it once the rainy season socks itself in for the duration.

“Sunshine State” is another misnomer around here. It rains constantly most of the summer.

My first year, I ruined six pairs of shoes by getting caught in unexpected storms. Now I just take my shoes off and smile when I walk barefoot into class or a meeting. Bare-assed, barefoot—I’ve learned to live with both conditions in my professional life.

The second year I was here, three hurricanes marched through Orlando. “They never come this far inland,” a Florida native friend had said. I lay in the hallway of my rental and listened all night as the huge live oaks thundered to the ground in pieces. I thought, this is what the apocalypse will feel like.

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Racoon in Humane Trap

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Winter Springs Redux

A neighbor told me that her family had installed a new security system for fear of home invasion. Later, after Trayvon, she mentioned that her mother warned her son not to wear a hoodie. I don’t know how to feel about that. Orlando has one of the highest murder rates in the country, but violent crime is concentrated far from where we live, and I find suburban fear rather silly, a little racist. As a white teenager, our neighbor’s son is in little danger. But I am glad that the grandmother sees the absurdity of Trayvon’s death enough to feel the fear herself.

For me, the more salient neighborhood concern is the possibility that I might run over an animal. Though the plants seem to bloom forever, the area is strewn with road-kill. Squirrels feed in the right-of-way, jerking their tails and dashing, often right into the street, when I pass. When one is killed in the street in front of our house, I am glad that the bald eagle that flies in to rip it apart first pulls it into the yard across the street, where it will be safer from cars.

The residential hawk, grabbing an anole, swoops down and pulls out the neighbors’ window screen. My husband tells them so they won’t think it’s a robbery attempt. Anoles dash across the sidewalks, but their squashed bodies are nearly as common as their flickering live ones.

The raccoons take to tearing the screen out of the lanai, pooping in the pool, letting the cats out. We catch a raccoon swinging from the squirrel-proof birdfeeder, back and forth, unhooking it and dumping the contents. We humanely trap and relocate two and an opossum in three days, but more come back. We install a raccoon baffle on the bird-feeder. We install super-strong screens. Then we glue them in.

The armadillos dig up the front grass looking for worms and grubs. When I drive home after dark, four or five cross the street in front of my car. I know they are ready to leap straight up into my bumper.

Maybe living in more urban areas allows other people to forget that they are supplanting so many other forms of life. Here in the suburbs, we can never forget. An uneasy cohabitation prevails. I love the critters, and perform the sign of the cross as I drive by their corpses, but we also battle them.

Over dinner after the clarifying rain, I admit to my husband that maybe Orlando is indeed the quintessential American place—teeming, insane, unstoppable. For better and for worse, I tell him and wink. Probably the future doesn’t look too good, but I have seen amazing turn-arounds happen in my own departure from spinsterhood and my survival of my brain ailments. I have some hope that, after all the people are gone, Florida, if it dies by flame and not by drowning, will rise from the ashes. It seems at least the most likely place for resurrection.

–Lisa Roney

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Magnolia Blossom

 

Jun 132012
 

Author photo credit/copyright to Charlotte Lehman (lehmanc@garnet.union.edu)

“The Battleship of Maine” is a sweetly elegiac memoir of a father, a family genealogy, an homage to old American folk music, and a glimpse of a forgotten upstate New York universe. Jordan Smith is a fine poet and an old friend (see a selection of his poems published earlier on these pages)  also a musician and a story writer. He teaches at Union College in Schenectady, has won fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and has published six books of poetry including An Apology for Loving the Old Hymns (Princeton University Press) and Lucky Seven (Wesleyan University Press). His newest book, just out, is The Light in the Film  (University of Tampa Press). It’s wonderful to have him back.

Author photo credit/copyright to Charlotte Lehman (lehmanc@garnet.union.edu)

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I was driving on the New York Thruway from Rochester to Schenectady, and I was listening on the iPod to a compilation by The New Lost City Ramblers, which may already tell you more than you want to know about me. The song was “The Battleship of Maine,” about the Spanish American War, originally recorded by Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers, and it reminded me, for the first time in years, that my great-uncle Harry St. John had been a doctor in the army during that war. He had lived on South Avenue in Rochester, a few blocks from Highland Hospital, where I had just been arranging hospice care for my father, about to be discharged with what would surely become respiratory failure, although no one knew when. My father was ninety-three. Great-uncle Harry had also lived into his nineties. I hadn’t managed to spot his house on my drives to and from the hospital, but I remembered the oak floors and frames around the doors, the window seat, the hair-drier chairs in the back room he rented to a beauty salon, a chest of toys. Best of all, I remember that he and my great-aunt gave me the run of the place, although I was only seven or so, talked to me as if I were an intelligent and responsible person, and always gave me books for my birthday. I couldn’t have loved them more. And I remember, or think I do, seeing his uniform, a cap and a dress sword and maybe a jacket. I wasn’t old enough to know the questions I should have asked.

I’ve traveled—hitching, in my college years; driving cars, from a ’68 Rambler American to a Prius—across western and central New York over and over, on the Thruway, on Route 31 (“Pray for Me, I Drive Route 31” was a bumper-sticker I spotted on a truck once), or the pretty roads, farther south, that make up New York Routes 5 and 20. Whatever road I’ve been on, it has always seemed more like a journey through history than like driving to a destination. There were the yellow and blue historical markers that the state put up, and where my father would sometimes stop for a quick lesson in what had happened here. There were old locks from the Erie Canal, the decorated mansions of the solid nineteenth century and the equally distinctive plain houses of the canal towns, there were parking lots where battlefields had been and a tree at the site of a massacre. Though my father was the only son of an only son, there were branches and side-branches of his family all through the Catskills, where they had worked on the New York Ontario and Western Railroad (the “Old and Weary,” known for poor maintenance, sloppy management, and train crashes, some featuring my ancestors), taught school, farmed, joined the DAR, ran a country store, played the mandolin. I didn’t have much of this in narrative form, only in brief anecdotes, so recalling it was like looking at the box of nineteenth-century photographs in the cellar and wishing someone had thought to write the names on the backs.

The next song on the cd was “We’ve Got Franklin D. Roosevelt Back Again.” My father would have approved of its anti-prohibition sentiment, but he never, to put it mildly, approved of Roosevelt, and I learned better than to speak highly of the New Deal in his presence. My politics came from what we’ve come to call in my family “the big red history book,” a pictorial history of America with cartoons by Nast, maps and woodcuts, Hearst’s front page announcing the explosion of the Maine, photographs of the American invasion of the Philippines, Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick, FDR at Yalta. It also had, I realized when I reread it later and when the ideological work had already been irredeemably done, a distinctly leftist, or at least liberal Democratic cast, and reading it set me at variance with my father, probably for good. My mother had bought the book, but I think it pleased her because a family friend had once met the author (or was it his father?), and because it was printed on the thin, going-to-yellow paper of the years after the world war. I am not sure what her politics were, exactly. Like my father, she always voted Republican, but she entirely repudiated the prejudices that were part of his heritage.  Over his strong objections, she worked as a volunteer at the Baden Street Settlement House in the Joseph Avenue neighborhood. Once the home of her German family, and then Jewish, it had become the heart of the African-American community, and it would explode, like similar neighborhoods in other cities in the long hot summer of 1964, events that fired my father’s racial anxieties. She took me there once, along with an older boy, to play trumpet duets for her preschoolers, and she enrolled me for music lessons in the Hochstein School a few blocks away. When my father drove me there on Saturday mornings his tension was palpable.

It would not be fair to talk about my father’s reactions to the black faces on the sidewalks and in the newspapers without saying how much of this was due to his upbringing and how much to the combination of anxiety and depression that sent him to the state hospital on Elmwood Avenue, that cost him his job as a test engineer working on sophisticated vacuum coating devices, and that left him nearly immobilized for much of the next decade when he wasn’t working on grounds crews or as a high school janitor. When effective antidepressants became available, and when he got out of the guilt-driven therapy of the Freudians and into the care of a doctor who knew how to help him, he calmed down about many things, race and politics included, and he came to realize that the time when such attitudes had seemed normal was long gone. But he didn’t ever mellow about Roosevelt, and I never understood why. My father’s family was not wealthy, and they never stood to lose anything from the New Deal. They weren’t likely to benefit from repeal of the estate tax or to suffer from regulation of the banks. They were charitable and sympathetic to those in need; my great-grandfather, a trainmaster on the O&W, insisted that his wife feed any tramp who stopped by their back door, and he was known for generosity to the men who worked for him. But, on a tour of Roosevelt’s home at Hyde Park, I found a clue. One of the last stops was the servants’ quarters. I recognized the furniture there immediately. Dark brown stained wood cabinets, with drawers and little doors, and marble tops, it was the furniture from my parents’ spare bedroom. What my family had used and saved and savored, the Roosevelts had cast aside or bought as second-rate in the first place. The Roosevelts were patroons, as far as my father was concerned, and they had assumed authority as some kind of family right. That they might wish to appear benevolent in their use of it meant nothing. He had no objection to the wealth of others, but he had no tolerance for noblesse oblige. Its moral imperatives were too close to taxation without representation; its protestations of concern and understanding too close to condescension.

The mp3 player had shuffled to an anthology of classic American folk tunes from the Smithsonian, and the song was called “Policeman.” Shoot your dice and roll ‘em in the sand, says the singer, who earlier had bragged of getting the drop on a cop with his .44, I ain’t going to work for no damn man. My father worked most of his life for one damn man or another, and he took pride in doing his work right whether he was an engineer or a janitor, but I don’t think it was in his nature to have any master but himself, or to feel himself measured by any standard other than his own. When he retired, when his depression had receded, and when it no longer mattered what he had been, but only what he had done or would do, he was able to be free of almost everything except his affections.

History was one of these, especially the history of the Hudson Valley or of railroads. Before reading became too difficult, he was working his way through a biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt. If anything, he preferred a scoundrel. Though he liked what Charles Ives could do with a hymn tune and always loved Sousa, he didn’t share my taste for old-time country, and I don’t think he’d have much enjoyed hearing “Battleship of Maine,” unless I told him that it made me remember Great-uncle Harry and our visits to South Avenue. I wish, before they started him on the morphine, that I’d asked if he remembered the dress sword and cap, or if that was my memory making it up. Either way, it would have pleased him that I cared to remember this, when there was a good deal worse to recall between us.

School kids learn now that there was nothing glorious about the Spanish American War, a trumped-up colonial power grab with a first-rate publicity machine, that led to appalling cruelties in the Philippines, and from which we’ve apparently learned nothing. That’s history, the gift that keeps on giving. So why am I so pleased to have visited, all of seven years old, in the parlor of a tall, thin, white-haired man, a doctor and a soldier, in wire-rimmed glasses who paid me the almost frightening compliment of looking at me with the kind of intelligent appraisal, frank and welcoming and discerning, that, now that I think of it, seems as rare as a just war. I didn’t know anything about how or why he fought. I didn’t know anything about how hard my father, sitting beside we, would have to struggle to find himself changed in a world whose authorities he had every reason to distrust. I didn’t know that I’d grow up by way of books, and my mother’s absolute refusal to discriminate between those who might benefit from her kindness, and my father’s purgatory, to remember the awe I felt, without understanding, in the presence of history, suffering, and healing.

 — Jordan Smith

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Jordan Smith‘s sixth full-length collection, The Light in the Film, recently appeared from the University of Tampa Press. His story, “A Morning,” will be in the forthcoming issue of Big Fiction. He lives in eastern New York and teaches at Union College.

 

Jun 102012
 

Jean-Yves Fréchette is the co-founder of the The Institute for Comparative Twitterature (l’Institut de twittérature comparée). The institute’s manifesto begins: “La twittérature est à la rature, ce que le gazouillis est au chant du coq. Les uns vantent l’alexandrin, d’autres jouent du marteau-piqueur.” You can begin to unpack this if you remember that Roland Barthes once said, “La littérature, c’est la rature.” Which is a homophone and a pun. La rature means deletion. Literature is deletion. Think that over.

Fréchette has spent most of his writing career making word objects including organizing Quebec farmers to plow words into their fields so they can be read from airplanes and unscrolling a lengthy text from the back of a truck driving from Maine to Quebec. He spans some intermediate territory between writing and fine art; call it concrete poetry or conceptual art, the wit, passion and intellectual engagement are the same. Lately he has turned his hand to writing tweets culminating in his collection Tweet rebelle (2011, L’instant même) from which the following selection is taken.

I like the third one the best, which in my translation comes out something like “The dreamer reaches beyond the limits of his night body. To shatter the window pane of his insomnias and fall asleep, finally, with his eyes wide open.” (I didn’t count the characters, so it’s an approximation.)

Fréchette’s real Twitter address is @JYFrechette.

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1. Tous les faits de discours tiennent dans une seule bouche ? Si ! Tous les motifs de silence aussi ? Bien sûr ! Alors d’où vient le vacarme ?

2. Sa maîtrise du plaisir était étonnante. Jetant son cartable et ses constellations, il s’effarouchait dans les teintes diffuses du demi-jour.

3. Le rêveur aime franchir les limites du corps nocturne. Pour fracasser la vitrine de ses insomnies et somnoler enfin les yeux grands ouverts.

4. Tu ne crois pas aux miracles. Tu ne crois à rien. Tu ne crois même pas que le fracas des tessons puisse tenir de la fête et non de l’émeute.

5. Ce que je ne peux pas résoudre le jour par la réflexion, je le confie au rêve. Il me suffit d’attendre la nuit pour que sombrent mes ennuis.

6. Quand la froidure frissonne, c’est qu’il fait frette. Et quand le friselis frimasse dans la fraîcheur du froid, le frimas se fige en frasil.

7. Le jour aura raison de tout. Il finira par revenir avec son groove gris de lumière. Ses cris d’oiseaux grives et la marche sereine du givre.

8. Écoutez ! Personne ne devrait tenter pétrir le silence en mon absence. Attendez qu’on s’y prenne à plusieurs. Le cri n’en sera que plus cru.

9. Avant l’invention de l’espace, le temps n’existait pas. Maintenant qu’il est là, c’est l’éternité qui protège la fragile seconde de l’oubli.

10. L’abîme au fond de l’œil est plus qu’une percée sur l’infini. C’est une halte dans le néant. À peine plus courte qu’une pause dans ta folie.

11. Quand tu regardes un paysage, tu poses un signet sur le réel. Toute parole redevient possible puisque la lumière enfin assombrit ta déroute.

12. J’ai suivi de près mes amis et mes ennemis et tous ont de petits rêves – les femmes compris – ce qui les rend hélas vulnérables et risibles.

13. Les politiciens mafieux devraient tous se suicider : qu’ils s’enfoncent le canon de la vérité dans la bouche et qu’ils pressent la gâchette.

14. C’est fini. Je rends les armes. Je m’arrache les ongles. Je range mes lames. Je deviens inoffensif. Je me coule dans mon divan et j’observe.

— Jean-Yves Fréchette

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 Jean-Yves Fréchette occupe une place particulière dans les lettres québécoises : s’il vient de publier un  recueil de 1,001 tweets (Tweet rebelle, L’instant même, 2011) après un long silence, il ne faut pas croire que l’écrivain était resté inactif depuis le début des années 1980, époque où paraissaient Pli sous plis et Physitexte: c’est qu’il s’est s’adonné pendant ce temps-là à des expériences textuelles parfois étonnantes, comme un texte labouré par des cultivateurs de la région de Portneuf de façon à les rendre visible aux voyageurs regardant par le hublot d’un avion, ou comme dévider, depuis un camion, du Maine jusqu’à Québec, un immense texte écrit sur une bande. On devine que de telles expériences devenaient le motif de belles fêtes populaires ! Cette manière de placer le texte dans le paysage rappelle les réflexions (ici sur le mode de la réalisation) d’un Borges. Ses tweets participent de cet esprit ludique : ce qui s’était exprimé dans l’immensité des expériences relatées ci-haut emprunte cette fois la brièveté extrême des 140 caractères (pas un de plus, pas un de moins) du tweet. Le fait de les regrouper en 14 chapitres et sous forme de livre (ce qui offre un paradoxal retour au support d’avant l’Internet) lui aura permis de placer ses textes dans la durée. Personne ne sera étonné d’apprendre que Jean-Yves Fréchette a été un professeur hors pair. Maintenant retraité, il continue d’offrir des performances sur scène (notamment dans un numéro où le public est invité à créer (à crier !) un récit à partir d’une série de plaques d’immatriculation automobile.

Jun 102012
 

 

Herewith, a short story about the horror of habits, about the crush of daily life and the way mundane things can multiply into tragedy. Set amongst California  wildfires and searing Santa Ana winds, a young couple struggles to balance love, work and sanity in the swirling aftermath of becoming new parents.  Tammy Greenwood’s “Vee” is a tale of survival, a domestic war story whose battles lines are drawn around sleepless nights, diaper changes and the unflinching demands of the modern American parent. Greenwood’s novels have been called “heartbreaking, thrilling and painfully beautiful” and “Vee” is no exception. The author of seven novels, Greenwood was born in and often writes about Vermont, but now lives and works in San Diego, California. She is a teacher, a mother, and full-time writer and tireless supporter of the arts.  Her most recent novel, Grace, was released this spring by Kensington Books. Read an interview with her here at Numéro Cinq.

—Richard Farrell

§

  

Backwards. This is how you live your life now. Beginning with that moment (the only one that matters anymore) and moving in reverse. Backtracking, rewinding, tripping and snagging on every single other moment that distracted you, that precipitated this. You are haunted by the neon clothes hanger sign at the dry cleaners, by your cell phone, by the piece of trash on the ground that you could not ignore. The world mocks you with its endless opportunities to avoid this disaster.

You ache.

This is the morning, every morning, that morning. Bleary-eyed a little hung-over from one glass too many after dinner and not enough uninterrupted sleep, you piss and then make your way downstairs. Despite having been up crying most of the night, the baby is wide awake in the high chair. Her face is round, dimpled, dirty. So similar to yours. She ignores you as you make your way to the kitchen to the coffee, preoccupied by her own small hands. Your wife, the one you still love though you can no longer always remember why, is standing at the sink, and her hips are wider. You don’t know this body. Sometimes you’ll be sitting on the couch or in your bed and she’ll move past, and you’ll think, just for a second, Who the hell is that? And then you remember: it’s Rachel. Your wife. And that knock of recognition makes you feel sad. Arrogant. As if you haven’t changed yourself. And then as a reprimand, a reminder, you run your hand across the top of your head, acknowledging for the third time this week that your hair is thinner. Coffee? She hands you a cup, you smell toast and the musty scent of her breath, see the newspaper laid out like a lover on the table. She has already pulled out the Business section and put it on top for you. You know underneath is the Arts section and beneath that is the front page. The toast is buttered, the juice has no pulp and fills three quarters of the glass. She has made sure that your phone is charged.

You are victims of habit.

The baby. There are Cheerios scattered across the smooth white expanse of the high chair tray. You glimpse something brownish-orange congealed on the edge of the plastic, sweet potatoes or apricots from a different meal, and you resist the disgust. You are still learning tolerance to filth. The smells of shit and powder, the presence of curdled spit-up on Rachel’s clothes. The sweet smell of breast milk on everything. It has been seven months, and yet you still get nauseous every time you wake up to the sour smell of milk-soaked sheets. “Vee,” you call the baby. She returns your greeting with a small sucking sort of giggle and you notice there is a Cheerio stuck to her cheek. You feel momentarily embarrassed for her, as if she is a full grown man who has been walking around with his fly down or someone who has been yapping on endlessly unaware of a bit of black pepper between the teeth. And then you think, correcting your thoughts as you so often have to do, she’s a baby. It’s cute. But there is something about her obliviousness that tears at your heart.

Vivian.

This is the name Rachel suggested as if she were really asking your opinion. It makes you think of the woman who lived down the street from your family when you were growing up. The one whose hands reminded you of gnarled roots. The one whose house smelled like vegetables: potatoes, rutabagas, dirt. The one who called you dear and pressed wheat pennies into your reluctant palm, the copper green at the edges. But you failed to make this connection for Rachel, to reveal this to her. Instead, you nodded, distracted by something on TV. That’s nice, you said, shrugging. And suddenly Rachel was ordering blankets embroidered with that old woman’s name. Cooing it to her belly. Vivian, Vivian. And all you could think of was creamed corn in chipped ceramic bowls. Salt-n-Pepper shakers shaped like dogs and accordion lampshades.

It’s too late. Vee.

You were ready for a baby in the way that anyone without children thinks they are ready. Meaning, you were thirty-two. Rachel was thirty and not getting any younger, she said. And when she said it, she didn’t touch you. As if it were your fault and as if you had already said no. Her eyes filled up and she had to look away. But what were you waiting for? Half of the things you thought you’d have by then you didn’t have and probably wouldn’t have any time soon (a house of your own, a career you loved, a car that didn’t have 100,000 miles on it and a piece of shit muffler). And so when you said, Why not? You meant it. And you have to admit that the way Rachel’s face lit up, the way she pressed her body into yours in a way she hadn’t in at least a couple of years, made you feel like this might be the start of something new between you. And, remarkably, a few things did fall into place because of the baby. For one, Rachel’s father gave you the down payment for the house, no questions asked. And because of the house, because of the mortgage, you suddenly found yourself working harder at the office, applying yourself, and because you weren’t being lazy anymore your boss started to notice you. You got a raise. You sold the old car and bought a used version of what you’d always wanted, washed it in the driveway every Saturday morning. And all the while you watched your wife swell. You watched your life swell. You put your hand across Rachel’s stomach and felt a sense of ownership. It was primitive and proprietary. Sometimes at night you dreamed that you swallowed her and the baby whole. Don’t forget, Rachel says from the kitchen. I’ve got a dentist appointment this morning before I go to the office. The daycare says Vivian can come early today. And you nod.

The hole.

There is a tear in your shirt. You don’t notice it until after you are dressed and showered, smelling clean and feeling prickly. It is hot outside, and inside. You deny yourself the luxury of air conditioning, but the Santa Anas have made it almost unbearable lately. There’s a sewing kit in the kitchen drawer, Rachel says. I’ll get Vivian in her car seat. It seems strange not to be leaving them behind at the house, Rachel standing in the doorway with the baby on her hip, waving as you back out of the driveway. Rachel has started to work again, just two afternoons a week. On those days she drops the baby off after lunch at the daycare, the one with the painted sign with Raggedy Ann and Andy out front. The one whose yard is littered with palm fronds and rusty tricycles. You drive past the daycare on your way to work every day and feel badly that you can’t send her someplace better. But childcare is one expense that your father-in-law has not offered to pick up. Rachel’s father doesn’t think she should be working yet. Only you know that it makes her feel good to put on makeup and heels and get away from the house a few hours every week. Only you know that without the job things would be even tighter than they already are, that without this job you might not be able to make that car payment.

You find the sewing kit. The only thread left is purple. Shit. Instead of trying to fix it, you decide it might be easier just to change. Bring the shirt to the dry cleaner to repair; you’ve got some pants to pick up anyway. Love you, she says, as you each get into your cars. And, rolling down the window, she asks, Can you also pick up the challah?

Vivian, asleep, nestled in the car seat. And you envy her.

It is Friday. Shabbat. In your family only your father is Jewish and not a very good Jew at that, but Rachel is. Every Friday night her parents come over fromLa Jolla to your house and your father-in-law leads the blessing, a dreamy artifact of Friday dinners with your grandparents when you were small. You are expected to light the candles, whisper the prayers. You feel as though you are trespassing, but these traditions matter to Rachel. These rituals. They are, she says, what bind a family together.

On Fridays, you have your staff meetings. Today you are going to present your idea for the new website for the client you somehow managed to convince to go with your company instead of that place in LA. You know this may be your last chance to redeem yourself. It may even be your last chance to save your job. Because since the baby came, your work has suffered. You are too tired. Sometimes, the images on the computer blur and spin and all that ambition and drive you had when Rachel was pregnant has been sucked away by the sleepless nights, by the demands. Sometimes you close your office door and put your head down, waking up like a kid caught sleeping in class, a puddle of drool at your cheek and your heart pounding. They have let four of your twenty-five co-workers go in the last three months. There is no reason why they should keep you. This is the other reason you do not sleep.

Asleep.

Some days you drive to work and realize you don’t remember getting there. You heard about this once, this fugue state. The way a body remembers while the brain vacates. Rachel says it happens to her too. She says she’ll get in the car, turn on the radio, and then suddenly realize that she’s in the grocery store parking lot and can’t remember getting there. You share these somnambulant stories. Wonder at how it is you’re still alive.

The phone.

You reach for your cell phone to find out how late the City Deli is open. You hope you can grab the challah after work. If not, you’ll need to go during lunch. But you’ve forgotten your phone at home. You picture it sitting next to the bowl of brown bananas and wrinkled apples, the black umbilical of the recharger crawling across the countertop. Without it, you feel, momentarily, like an amputee. The sense of absence, loss, bigger than it should be. It’s just a phone, you remind yourself. You have a phone at work. But something nags at you, and then you remember the tear in the shirt, and the rest of the dry cleaning that needs to be picked up. And so you take a different route than usual, turn left instead of right at the end of your street. There is a detour: orange cones against so much gray asphalt. It is labyrinthine, this path away from your neighborhood, unfamiliar but familiar at the same time. Each house you pass could be your own.

But finally, you find yourself at the strip mall, the one with the cleaners’. You are running late now, but you stop and run inside and ask the old woman at the counter to mend the hole, exchange the torn shirt for six pairs of your pants swaddled in soft plastic. But just as you are about to toss them into the backseat, you see a candy wrapper someone has discarded on the ground. Litter pisses you off. The arrogance of it. The carelessness. You bend over to pick it up with your free hand and then bump your head hard on the side view mirror when you stand back up. The sting and warm trickle tells you it’s not just a bump but a cut as well. And so you get in the driver’s side, toss the pants on the passenger’s seat, and tilt the rearview mirror toward your face to examine the wound. You dab at the blood, shake your head.

It is so hot.

You start the car, and sweat rolls down your sides in cold beads. Have you forgotten deodorant? You wrack your brain, remember the shower, the sting of aftershave. You try to remember whether or not you opened the medicine cabinet door, try to recollect the smooth roll under your arms. You can’t. Shit. You glance at your watch. The meeting is at 9:00. There isn’t time to go home. You imagine yourself standing before the expectant faces of your boss and his boss. Your co-workers who are all hoping it will be you next instead of them. You touch the tender spot on your head again and are glad it’s stopped bleeding. The air conditioner blows cold air through the vents, numbing your knuckles as they grip the wheel and your way to the freeway.

Windows rolled up.

When you do sleep, your dreams are filled with disasters. You see your fears like bullet points in a Powerpoint presentation. Enumerated and illuminated.

  • A sink hole swallows the house.
  • Elevator cables snap.
  • Brakes fail.
  • You fail.
  • Things catch on fire.

All of the ways that everything can come undone. When you wake up, trembling and sweating, Rachel is sometimes already awake, sitting in the glider by the window, nursing Vee, both of them bathed in blue light. And this pulls you back to reality. Back to the safety of the moment. You feign sleep and watch her, watch them. And it is in these moments that you remember. It is so overwhelming sometimes it feels like falling through an open window.

A pang of guilt hits and you know you should do something to show her that you do still love her. That you love Vee more than you thought possible. That you are a good man. A good husband. A good father.

Vivian. The baby. Vee.

Sometimes when you hold her and she is sleeping, her lips puckered into a pink pout, her black eyelashes kissing the tops of her cheeks, you feel happiness so deep it is almost the same as sorrow. You don’t know how to tell Rachel this without sounding crazy, and so you keep it to yourself.

By the time you get off the freeway and navigate the traffic to the office park, you have cooled off and have mentally prepared for the meeting. You practice your speech in your head. You park the car at the far end of the lot in the shade. You lock the car door.

They are waiting for you. No time to call the deli about the challah, no time to check the messages, though the red light is blinking on your office phone. In the conference room, the men sit around the table with their coffee cups and sarcasm. “Look what the cat dragged in,” they joke at your expense. Then you get started.

By noon when you spill out of the conference room, your boss slapping your back, “Good work,” he says, and you are overwhelmed with relief. Safe for now. The sun is beating in through the one window in your office. You have to adjust your computer monitor to avoid the unfortunate glare. You think about pulling the blinds, but you worry that darkness will only make it harder to stay awake. You glance out the window at the parking lot. This is when you see the Bloodmobile and are suddenly filled with purpose. The wild fires have been raging in the mountains east of here for two weeks. The Santa Anas and this incredible heat are to blame. Your blood type is O-. You are the Red Cross’s dream.

Normally, you bring a lunch. Rachel packs leftovers into Tupperware, throws in a bag of carrots, a bottle of water. But on Fridays you and Logan Jones take your car to a place down the road and get cheese steaks and chicken wings. Sometimes you’ll have a couple of beers too and come back to the office happier than when you left.  But today just as you are about to check your messages and then call the deli, Logan comes in, “Ready?” and you say, “Not today. Giving blood.” The messages can wait. Instead you take the stairs two at a time and open the door to the hottest day of the summer. You loosen your tie and make your way to the Bloodmobile.

In your mind you imagine telling Rachel that you gave blood today. What a good guy, she’ll say. And then you’ll give her the challah and a bouquet of flowers from the flower shop next to the deli. Daisies maybe. Irises in a cloud of baby’s breath. You’ll tell her that you’ll say the blessing tonight at Shabbat. That you’ll get up later when Vee cries.

Paralyzed.

You are paralyzed whenever Vee cries. Powerless. In the first few weeks, sometimes Rachel would look at you, waiting to see what you’d do, challenging you, which made you even more reluctant to respond. And then, exasperated, she’d shove you aside and go to Vee, latching her onto her breast, eyeing you angrily, swaying and whispering secrets into her small ears. You used to worry they were conspiring against you.  But tonight, you will go to her. You will not pretend to be asleep. You will whisper, Shhh, I’ve got it, don’t get up. And you will go to her crib, pick her up. Make her stop crying, hold her until she falls asleep.

You close your eyes as the needle goes in and as the blood drains from your arm, you feel sleep coming on. An undertow of exhaustion. You lean your head back on the crinkly tissue paper, opening your eyes only when the needle slips effortlessly out of your arm and the nurse hands you a plastic cup of orange juice. You glance at your watch, there’s still time to run to the deli. To get the bread. The flowers. Maybe even a bottle of wine to celebrate.

There are waves of heat rising from the pavement. You are light-headed, your knees weak. You go to the car and think maybe you shouldn’t be driving. You put your hand on the hot trunk, to steady yourself. Shake your head, stretch your neck. Look in through the rear window at the back seat.

The car seat.

Paralyzed.

Vivian. The baby. Vee.

Windows rolled up. It is so hot.

The phone.

Asleep.

Vivian, asleep, nestled into the car seat.

And you envy her.

The hole.

Vivian. It’s too late. Vee.

You are victims of habit.

You ache.

Backwards. This is how you live your life now.

— T. Greenwood

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T. Greenwood is the author of seven novels. She has received grants from the Sherwood Anderson Foundation, the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and, most recently, the Maryland State Arts Council. TWO RIVERS was named Best General Fiction Book at the San Diego Book Awards in 2009. Five of her novels have been BookSense76/IndieBound picks; THIS GLITTERING WORLD was a January 2011 selection, and GRACE is an April 2012 selection. She teaches creative writing at for San Diego Writer’s, Ink. She and her husband, Patrick, live in San Diego, CA with their two daughters. She is also an aspiring photographer.

Jun 082012
 

Roman Polanski’s short film “A Therapy” offers up tantalizing Freudian readings for an unusual love triangle: a therapist, his patient, and her purple Prada coat.

A traditional Freudian reading would regard the coat as a fetish object, its furriness begging for such a reading, though the purple might excite Freud more as it could possibly prevent the Prada coat from lapsing into cliché or becoming too damn literal (always a danger with Freud).

The fetish object becomes the conduit, a non-genital place where the beholder can connect with the desired genitals without connecting directly. This all sounds a little sordid and perhaps calls up underwear chasers, but, put more simply perhaps by Anne Carson in Eros the Bittersweet, “A space must be maintained or desire ends.”

The patient (Helena Bonham Carter) is perfectly cold and distant, does not even greet her therapist (Ben Kingsley) and certainly skips niceties. Her dream echoes this coldness. Her cold distance could in a Freudian reading imbue the coat, the fetish object, with more allure: a way to reach the unreachable woman.

But most of this film rests on the therapist, his mad love, and the coat. In the mirror shot, it is just him, his reflection, and the gorgeous purple fur; this signals us that it is a love affair between him and the coat and the patient doesn’t really play into it.  His ecstatic face tells us that too.  But in case we miss that, the mise-en-scene tells us: the second he is drawn to the coat, the patient is no longer offered in the frame as a subject; she appears askew in shots or disappears from others. Except for one shot where we see her sideways and upside down, she exists as a disembodied, repetitive voice and a pair of legs on a therapy couch in the back of the shot.

To be sure, the therapist’s love is a ridiculous love. Bittersweet, too: the sleeves are too short, but when he pulls the collar up and veils his mouth in the last shot we see how it highlights his beautiful eyes. And it probably can’t end well. Though he might go and buy his own. His ridiculousness is similar to the footballers intense love dance in Johan Renck’s “Pass This On.” But I don’t think I am alone in envying the therapist, feeling a little longing to be as ridiculous as him.

The ending clinches the deal: if this film was about a fetish object, about connection to the patient’s sex, then the therapist’s desire for the coat would be discovered by her. He would be caught like every little boy who ever went to his mother’s underwear drawer (in a Freudian universe). But this film has a happy ending, leaves us with just the therapist and the beloved coat. And Prada makes sure we know this is a happy ending with the superimposed slogan: “Prada Suits Everyone.”

“A Therapy” is the latest in a trend of art and commercials coming together in short film commercials. Several of these have been featured on Numero Cinq at the Movies: Ang Lee’s “The Chosen,” for BMW, Wong Kar Wai’s “There’s Only One Sun” for Philips LCD TV, and Lucrecia Martel’s “Muta” for MiuMiu.

– R W Gray

Jun 062012
 

 

 

1.

I have always been drawn to stories of escape; not just simple escapism but actual escape. At the age of ten, I obsessed over World War II prisoner of war literature. I may have been the only sixth-grader in the audience for The Great Escape, John Sturges’ stirring adaptation of Paul Brickhill’s memoir of the break-out from Stalag Luft Three, who sat squinting critically at the screen making an inventory of trivial inaccuracies: The living conditions were worse than the film portrayed; the ambitions of the escape team, more modest. And the POW camp, intended to gather all the allied escape artists in one place, was actually Colditz Castle, a one-time mental institution in the town of Colditz, near Leipzig.

The claustrophobic tunnel digger was not the heroic Pole played by Charles Bronson but Paul Brickhill himself, and unlike Bronson’s Danny, he was ultimately banned from participating in the escape, which may have saved his life.

I’ve seen The Great Escape many times since that rainy afternoon in 1963, first in revival theaters and when it became possible I purchased it on every known format: Betamax, VHS, RCA video disk, DVD, Blu-ray, and finally, the digital download. I watch it to the end whenever I chance upon it, clicking through the channels on my TV.  I’ve even rented it on Netflix.

The thing that keeps drawing me back is the way the film expands in the final third, from the airless prison stockades and dark tunnels into the open rolling fields, quaint towns and snow-capped mountains of Bavaria.

Richard Attenborough fleeing across the roofs of a sleepy village; Charles Bronson floating down a placid river to the sea on a stolen rowboat; James Coburn following a French Resistance fighter into the sun-dappled foothills of the Pyrenees, heading for Spain; and of course, most of all, best of all, Steve McQueen tearing across an alpine meadow on a hi-jacked Nazi motorcycle, finally attempting to leap a wall of crossed timbers and barbed wire in an exuberant, gloriously futile bid for freedom. Those images captured everything I longed for as a child.

But why should that be? I was a cheerful, cherubic little boy living a pampered life in a great city. I had a loving mother, a glamorous father, my own dog, my own record player, my own room. And yet I loved to imagine that the six-foot, ornate dark wood-framed mirror hanging in that room was in fact a secret door to – where? Someplace more exciting, more mysterious, more free.

I happily followed the Pevensie children through that wardrobe into Narnia and could have jumped directly into the television every Easter when we watched the annual showing of The Wizard of Oz on CBS. It didn’t matter that all we had was a black-and-white TV.

I provided the color.

Looking back, I realize I was frightened most of the time growing up, afraid of looking foolish or clumsy, cowering at the thought of bullies at school and on my block at home, trying to avoid stern teachers and arrogant camp counselors. The city itself made me nervous. I never explored it until I returned as an adult, after college. I never even visited Greenwich Village until tenth grade when I found a friend who happened to live there. I attended one of the best high schools in the Western Hemisphere, but I was too intimidated to take the most interesting classes Dalton offered. I still regret missing Donald Barr’s Shakespeare seminar and the great Jane Bendetson’s “The Bible as Literature” elective.

The Los Angeles side of my own family frankly terrified me but with good reason: drug addled, bizarrely seductive half-sister, sociopathic step-brother (did he really try to drown me in the swimming pool that day? Or was he just ‘fooling around?’), authentically demonic step-mother (“I would gladly see all of you LAYED OUT DEAD if it meant helping your father IN ANY WAY.”) and of course my brilliant, troubled, phobic, mercurial, unknowable father.

Fear itself is corrosive. My father understood that as well as FDR did, and I knew it, too. That’s why I spent so much time in my early adulthood confronting mean people, flying kamikaze seductions at women far out of my league and surfing waves too big for me. I got defeated, dumped and nearly drowned. I won an argument or two, went on some wild dates, caught some extraordinary waves. But none of that changed anything.

I still wanted to escape — to the Yellow Brick Road with a motley crew of impaired friends, to the city of Helium under the hurtling moons of Barsoom with Dejah Thoris; down the Mississippi on a raft with Nigger Jim. Maybe I just wanted to stake my freehold in the unclaimed territories of the imagination. I’ve always felt more comfortable with stories than with real life, anyway – they’re so much better organized.

My adult reading remains tinged with that longing for other lives and alternate worlds, from Mann’s Zauberberg to Hemingway’s Pamplona, From Michael Chabon’s Sitka, Alaska to (perversely, I know) George Orwell’s Airstrip One.

That path led me through the guilty pleasures of crime fiction to the imaginary upstate New York town of Deganawida and the extraordinary half-Seneca Indian ‘guide’, Jane Whitefield. Author Thomas Perry’s seventh novel featuring Jane – Poison Flower – was released in March.

2.

Perry’s first novel, The Butcher’s Boy, came out in 1982 and won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel a year later. He hasn’t made much of a splash since then, partly because his books have never been made into films. He advanced a theory about why this might be during a 2003 exchange with Roger Birnbaum:

TP: In a way I don’t really think about it much anymore. My first book, The Butcher’s Boy, was in option continuously for 18 years. It was never out of option. There are studios that don’t exist anymore that had these things. At some point every working screenwriter in Hollywood has a bad script for one or another of my books. Which is why they all hate me. So, I don’t know.

RB: I’m not seeing the connection. They write bad scripts and they hate you?

TP: These are people who have written good movies. And they are hired to write a script of one of my books and it just doesn’t work out. It’s partly an obvious problem. Most of my main characters spend most of their time alone. And when they are not alone, whatever they say aloud is a lie. So, it’s confusing and very difficult to make a movie out of that. You have to invent some bogus character who is going to be the interlocutor. That’s one thing. And very often you have to soften the protagonist because he is amoral or something. Or has some other minor drawback.

I’m convinced there’s a different explanation.

Perry’s books resist adaptation for the same reason that many books do: their literary quality is simply not translatable to the medium of film. Thomas Perry writes escapist fiction. I’m sure he’d be amused to hear me accuse him of making literature. And yet, in his small and particular way, that is precisely what he does. The one thing that all the books I take seriously have in common is a feeling in the text of the author’s personality and point of view, his unique slant on the events he’s describing his sensibility.

That ought to be the explanation, at least, since the books move through one extraordinary cinematic set-piece after another. The chase across the roofs in The Face Changers, the escape through deep woods in Shadow Woman where Jane uses every trick from her Seneca heritage to hide her trail, not knowing that a pair of dogs are trampling her cunning diversions guided by her scent alone. When she stumbles into a clearing, exhausted and  hopeless, and finds herself face to face with a giant brown bear she turns this final calamity into her salvation. She distracts the huge beast with the last of her food and lets the dogs rush headlong into the bear in an improvised Darwinian ambush that covers her escape. I’d watch that in a movie: relentless pursuit foiled by improvisation and ingenuity.

Of course you know Jane will always win, whether she’s leading a trio of murderous sociopaths through the bowels of a deserted rust-belt factory or ambushing a platoon of killers in a deserted country house in the North Woods. That’s the brown savory crust on the macaroni and cheese of this narrative comfort food, the thing people both love and despise about genre fiction in general: Kenzie and Gennaro, Elvis Cole and Spenser will always figure things out; Bubba Rugowski, Joe Pike and Hawk will always get there in the nick of time.

And somehow, the phrase “nick of time” will always be apposite.

So, yes, Jane will always ferry her charges to safety but this sets her apart from the other heroes and heroines on the thriller shelf. She’s not trying to steal anything or solve anything; she’s just trying to help.

Plus she’s cool. She can run forever and she knows where to get false documents. She can tell you that a second floor apartment is best for fugitives (you can see people coming but still climb down to the street); she can teach you to memorize the escape routes from any town and how to destroy the fingerprints and DNA evidence in a car with a fire extinguisher.

Also, she’s fearless. At one point in the 6th book, Runner, she spins her car 180 degrees and drives straight at her pursuers, running them off the road. “You can’t play chicken like that!” her panicky passenger screams. But her bravado is based on ruthless calculation: They’re running for their lives – the mercenaries in the other car are chasing them for cash, and no one’s going to die for a dollar.

Dance for the Dead, perhaps the best of the books, opens with Jane fighting her way into a Los Angeles Court House with nine-year-old Timothy Phillips so that the boy can prove he’s alive before the sinister financial holding company Hoffen-Bayne can declare him dead and take control of his inherited fortune. After a dramatic scene in the courtroom, the judge asks to see Jane in his chambers. “I hear you’re one of those people who could kill me with a pencil,” he says. Jane answers simply: “If I am, I wouldn’t need a pencil.”

To give a better sense of who Jane is and why I find her so compelling, I’m going to turn over some page space to her and present the revealing final moments of her talk with Judge Kramer.

Wrapping up their post-mortem, Jane says:

“ … I can’t prove any of it. I only saw the police putting handcuffs on four of the men in the courthouse, and there won’t be anything on paper that connects them with Hoffen-Bayne or anybody else. I know I never saw them before, so I can’t have been the one they recognized. They saw Timmy.” She took a step toward the door. “Keep him safe.”

The Judge said, “Then there’s you.” He watched her stop and face him. “Who are you?”

“Jane Whitefield.”

“I mean what’s your interest in this?”

“Dennis Morgan asked me to keep Timmy alive. I did that. We all did that.”

“What are you? A private detective? A bodyguard?”

“I’m a guide.”

“What kind of guide?”

“I show people how to go from places where someone is trying to kill them to other places where nobody is.”

“What sort of pay do you get for that?”

“Sometimes they give me presents. I declare the presents on my income taxes. There’s a line for that.”

“Did somebody give you a present for this job?”

“If you fail, there’s nobody around to be grateful. My clients are dead.” After a second she added, “I don‘t take money from kids, even rich kids.”

“Have you served in your capacity as ‘guide’ for Dennis Morgan before?”

“Never met him until he called. He was a friend of a friend.”

“You – all three of you – went into this knowing that whoever was near that little boy might be murdered.”

She looked at him as though she were trying to decide whether he was intelligent or not. Finally, she said, “An innocent little boy is going to die. You’re either somebody who will help him or somebody who won’t. For the rest of your life you’ll be somebody who did help him or somebody who didn’t.”

So that’s Jane Whitefield: one-woman witness-protection agency. As she concludes about Pete Hatcher, a client on the run from mobsters who own the gambling casino where he works, “The way he would defeat his enemies was to outlast them. While they were staring at computer screens or loitering late at night in airport baggage areas or sitting in cars outside hotels at check-out time studying each male who came out the door, he had to be somewhere, living a normal, reasonably contented life. If he could do that for long enough, they would give up.” (Shadow Woman)

Perry weaves Jane’s Indian heritage into the fabric of every story, as in this moment as she is about to go to the aid of a small orphan boy in mortal danger from criminal financial predators trying to steal his inherited fortune. Jane has just received a ‘present’ from a previous client named Rhonda Eckerly –  Jane never accepts formal payment for her work. The two hundred thousand dollars will come in handy for the task ahead:

As she locked her door and took a last look at her house, she thought about the old days, when Senecas went out regularly to raid the tribes in the south and west in parties as small as three or four warriors. After a fight they would run back along the trail through the great forest, sometimes not stopping for two days and nights.

When they made it back to Nundawaonoga, they would approach their village and give a special shout to the people to tell them what it was they would be celebrating. (Dance for the Dead)

As Perry said in an interview several years ago,

…one of the things that having a Seneca as my heroine does is give me a way to show the area in several dimensions: the modern place we see, the historical place where armies clashed in deep forests, the mythical place, where deities and supernatural creatures live. The roads in that part of the country are simply Iroquois trails paved over, or short-cuts made by the British Army to connect their forts.

Despite her Ivy League education and upper middle class lifestyle, Jane remains a Long House Seneca at heart. But she is caught between two worlds and the binary nature of reality figures prominently in Seneca lore, as well. Two brothers, Hawenneyu the creator and Hanegoategeh the destroyer, struggle over the world, fighting each other at every turn:

Hawenneyu makes a little boy. Hanegoategeh gives him a virus. Hawenneyu strengthens his body to give him immunity, and Hanegoategeh makes the virus mutate and sends the boy off to kill eighty thousand people. Hawenneyu has made sure that one of the eighty thousand is a man who would have started a war and killed eighty million. (Blood Money)

Jane is exigent and unsentimental, ruthlessly clear in her judgments, sharply articulate in expressing them … rather like Perry himself. The astringent perceptions speckle the books and touch you as you read like summer rain on your face. Of a silent woman in a county lock-up he remarks, “She never spoke to anyone, having long ago lost interest in what other people gained from listening, and having gotten used to whatever they expelled by talking.” (Dance for the Dead) Hiding out at the University of Michigan, the 28-year-old guide makes this unflinching assessment of herself: “There were places where she could still pass as a college girl, but college was not one of them.” (Dance for the Dead) Of her own husband, a successful surgeon, she notes, “Carey was very good at constructing fair, logical solutions to other people’s problems.” (The Face Changers)  Of the three urban gang-bangers she entices to help her follow an escaping villain, Jane thinks, “The part about killing seemed to have raised their level of interest considerably. She had forgotten for a moment about seventeen year old boys. There had never been a moment in human history when anybody hadn’t been able to recruit enough of them for a war.” (Dance for the Dead)

3.

In Poison Flower, Jane Whitefield confronts some of the logical consequences of her Quixotic profession: these windmills fight back. Every person she has rescued over the years has someone still hunting for them, and these hunters are ruthless persistent criminals, organized or not. Jane has always known she might be captured by one of them and tortured to reveal a location of the victims she’s rescued. Like the Seneca scouts left behind to assure the escape of a raiding party, she has always been willing to sacrifice herself for her tribe.

Poison Flower puts this determination to the test.

Jane helps a man named named James Shelby escape from jail in Los Angeles. Shelby’s sister had found Jane in Deganawida and convinced her that Shelby had been framed for murder. No one else was willing or able to help.

Jane gets the man out of jail but she is shot and captured in the process. Her captors begin what our government calls “enhanced interrogation” (unless some other government is doing it) but stop hastily when they realize Jane has more to offer than the location of a single runner. A little research identifies her as a valuable commodity, and soon she’s on the auction block, with every abusive husband, sociopath and career criminal she ever defeated bidding for the right to extract her secrets.

She escapes – the thugs are more worried about someone stealing her before the auction and make the blunder of underestimating a slim, unarmed, badly wounded woman.

With no identification, no money and no cell-phone, some stolen clothes, a thug’s gun and a pair of bolt cutters that were meant to be used on her own fingers and toes, Jane steals a van and winds up several hundred miles away, at a battered women’s shelter in Las Vegas. She knows the staff there will help a woman in her condition with no questions, judgments or demands.

It’s typical of Jane that she acquires a runner, even as she is on the run herself, protecting one of the women at the shelter from the abusive husband who has tracked her down. The last thing he expects, when he breaks into the place, is a moment like this:

Jane swung her good leg to the floor, stood up beside the bed and aimed her gun at him with both hands. “I know you can probably scare her into saying something she doesn’t want to. Now I want you to take a long, careful look at me. If you think I haven’t fired a gun into a man before, or that I even have a slight reluctance to do it again right now, then go ahead. Try to get to me.”

He does, and she shoots him. But it’s not a fatal shot, and as Jane flees the shelter, the hunted wife begs to join her. The woman knows that as long as her husband is alive he’ll keep trying to find her. This is not a request Jane is constructed to refuse.

Once she connects with Shelby the next concern is getting his sister to safety. She’s the obvious next victim. They’re almost too late in attempting to rescue her, and Jane is captured again. The auction is on. Once more she escapes, aided in part by the razor blade taped to her instep but mainly by the greedy ruthless violence of the bidders themselves. They all bring cash to the auction and the temptation of those sacks of money proves too great. The civilized Sotheby’s façade soon disintegrates into total warfare and Jane spirits Shelby’s sister away in the firefight.

With her charges safe, the task should be complete, but now a lifetime’s worth of very bad people are hunting her, so Jane takes the initiative and goes to war. Of course the outcome is preordained, predictable as the next Godiva chocolate. One might say, as nutritious as the next Godiva chocolate as well, and this installment — more violent and plot-driven than any of the others –makes you hungry for the steamed fish and arugula salad of a more demanding literature. As such it may be the perfect book to ease yourself out of Jane Whitefield’s world into Jane Austen’s, or Jhumpa Lahiri’s.

Of course, Perry isn’t the equal of those women. But he has something in common with them that his colleagues can’t claim: he makes a particular sound, he owns a particular tone of voice, and you keep the compassionate asperity of that voice with you long after the details of chase and pursuit are forgotten.

4.

So if it’s my own stubborn fears that draw me to Jane Whitefield, the question persists: where do those fears come from? That’s what I’ve been wondering since I finished Poison Flower.

It might be genetic – my father was a quivering mass of phobias: narrow spaces, open spaces, enclosed spaces … space in general terrified him. In his later years he refused to fly because of a toxic Long Island iced tea of debilitating terrors: agoraphobia, claustrophobia, vertigo – too anxious to fly without a stiff drink and too shy to ask for one. That’s the “Nature” side of the debate; on the Nurture side we have the fact of his leaving my mother when I was six months old. Of course I was too young to register his absence, but reliable sources tell me that my mother was a broken-hearted unstable mess for more than a year after his departure. That could throw a good scare into the average toddler. And that’s the main reason I didn’t leave for California when I got the offer of agency representation and a career writing television sitcoms. My son Nick was nine years old and teetering a little at that point. His father lighting out for the territories would have knocked him over decisively.

So I didn’t follow the fantasy and I didn’t escape my life. I stayed home and raised my kids instead. I may have settled the nature-nurture debate, at least within my own family, since both kids are cheerfully indomitable and fearless. Tellingly. Nick has never shown the slightest interest in works of fantasy. He prefers history; he reads Robert A. Caro, not Robert A. Heinlein, and his “Glory Road” was I-95 South. He’s living in Washington D.C. now, working for the World Wildlife Fund.

He loves The Great Escape though, especially that iconic image of Steve McQueen in flight, leaping for freedom, knowing he’s going to land defeated in a tangle of barbed wire and eternally not giving a shit. And perhaps it’s just because of him and his sister Caity, fighting on the barricades of bureaucracy struggling to help the infected and the afflicted in the halfway houses of Boston, that I have found a rare contentment on this tiny island thirty miles off the coast of Massachusetts. I don’t require the skill and ingenuity of a Jane Whitefield, I no longer yearn to vanish, jump the boat and drive off into a new life.

But I still love Jane Whitefield, and I still feel the delinquent thrill when a new book of her adventures comes out. Like many of her old clients, settled in their new lives, far from danger or pursuit, I might not need Jane Whitefield any more. But it’s nice to know she’s there.

—Steven Axelrod

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Steven Axelrod holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and remains a member of the WGA despite a long absence from Hollywood. In addition to Numéro Cinq, where he has been a contributor and contest winner, his work has appeared at Salon.com and The GoodMen Project, as well various magazines with ‘pulp’ in the title, including PulpModern and BigPulp.  He hopes to make it  full sweep, with an article in the Tropicana corporate newsletter. A father of two, he lives on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, where he paints houses and writes novels, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of his customers.

 

Jun 042012
 

Nick Arvin

Nick Arvin is a writer and an engineer. The characters in his stories are befuddled by the mechanics of a technologically complicated world.  Whether this technology is as novel as the first can opener or as complexly dangerous as a Ford Fairlane (sans airbags), Arvin’s stories frame such technology, including the alternating current Edison once used to electrocute an elephant (see video below), from the perspectives of characters who can’t even imagine how these gadgets and gizmos will simplify their lives and simultaneously pull their lives apart.

Arvin’s emphasis on the disillusion of technology subverts the expectations of both his characters and his readers.  In the title story to his short story collection, In the Electric Eden, the narrator recounts his grandfather’s story of witnessing Topsy the Elephant stampede his uncle at Coney Island.  Later, the grandfather describes how he still felt guilty for condemning the elephant to a death that was as much about Edison’s war with Tesla as it was a blatant display of technological might.

In The Reconstructionist, Arvin’s most recent novel, his main character Ellis Barstow recreates the car accident of his brother’s death by crashing in the same dangerous intersection.  Even though the re-staged crash almost kills Ellis, the experience irrevocably alters his understanding of the impermanence of his own life.  Arvin’s first novel Articles of War, which was inspired by the World War II execution of Pvt. Eddie Slovik for cowardice, tells the story of an eighteen year old soldier (nicknamed “Heck”) who struggles with the mechanics of war—both as a cog on the front lines of the war machine and as a kid barely in control of his own cowardice and fear.

(Author photo credit: Jennifer Richard)

— Jacqueline Kharouf

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Jacqueline Kharouf: In an interview you gave for your engineering company newsletter (the interview was posted on your blog), you explained that your most recent novel, The Reconstructionist, took you six years to write, that your first novel, Articles of War, took three years, and that you will sometimes spend years perfecting a short story.  Can you describe your drafting and revision process?

Nick Arvin: I’ve never been able to start a piece at the beginning and just write it through. I’ll have some vague idea and I’ll start writing fragments around the idea to try to get into it somehow.  I try to come up with characters and situations.  I write these little pieces—sometimes it’s just a line or two and sometimes I go on for pages—and explore the idea, and try to figure out a story around it.  And I’ll keep doing that—just throwing down these little fragments—until they start to add up and I start to have a pretty clear picture in my mind of what the story is, or at least a good section of the story.

Then I get out the computer and I type in the fragments that fit in the story that I have in mind.  These fragments aren’t necessarily connected very well, so then I spend a lot of time trying to work out transitions.  I tend to do more creative process stuff by hand, so I’ll go back to writing by hand when I’m trying to figure out new material.  Once I have a complete story, I’ll print that out and mark that up by hand.  Maybe I’ll realize I need new material or there’s a scene that’s not working and I’ll rewrite it again.  I’ll do that in the notebook and then go back and put it in the computer.  I’ll show it to some friends and get some feedback and that’ll crystalize some new ideas. I’ll go through that process again and again.  With most stories, I go through about 10 drafts on average.

JK: With that drafting and revision process, does your process change when you’re starting a novel or starting a shorter piece?  How do you identify if it’s going to be a novel or if it’s just going to stay a short story?

NA: When I started writing Articles of War I was trying to write a short story, but it quickly became a novella.  I was at the University of Iowa at that time, at the Writer’s Workshop.  I workshopped that novella and everybody told me that it needed to be longer.  Turning it into a novel, in hindsight, went relatively quickly for me because it was a matter of fleshing out what I’d written in this shorter version.  I had kind of a framework to work with. So it, you know, only took three years.

With The Reconstructionist, I had all this great material from working in the field of forensic engineering and accident reconstruction.  And I knew from the beginning that thematically and, in terms of just the amount of material that I had to work with, I wanted to do something that would have to be a novel.  I couldn’t capture what I wanted to do in a story.  But, I think it took six or seven years to write because it took such a long time to figure out a narrative framework that captured those themes and used the material that I wanted to work with in a way that hopefully enlarges it and gives it context and makes it more than just a series of anecdotes.

JK: George Saunders, who studied geophysical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines and later turned to writing, spoke to Ben Marcus in a conversation printed in the The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers. When Marcus asked Saunders if he differentiates between fantastic or realistic writing, Saunders explained that he doesn’t differentiate. “What I find exciting is the idea that no work of fiction will ever, ever come close to ‘documenting’ life.  So then, the purpose of it must be otherwise.  It’s supposed to do something to us to make it easier (or more fun, or less painful) for us to live.  Then all questions of form and so on become subjugated to this higher thing.  We’re not slaves any more to ideas of ‘the real’ or, for that matter, to ideas of ‘the experimental’—we’re just trying to make something happen to the reader in his or her deepest places.”  Even though you and Saunders both share a background in engineering, your work seems to focus on a very specific and detailed reality.  And it’s not that I’m implying all engineer-authors should write in the same way, but it seems that the worlds you write about are heavily controlled—realistic within the results of Newtonian equations, vectors, or even the conformities and expectations of soldiers at war.  Do you consider your work to be fairly realistic?  (And if so, is this part of your intention as a writer?)  Or, do you write simply to “make something happen to the reader in his or her deepest places”?

NA: That’s a complicated question.  I do consider my work realistic, for the most part.  I published a story recently in a journal called Midwestern Gothic that was clearly not realistic.  And, I’m actually trying to get started now on a novel that would have elements of science fiction.  So I’m interested in that kind of thing.  Mostly I just try to be true to the story itself.  I don’t want to write a story that doesn’t come out as honest and true because I’m hung up internally on writing only realistic stuff or nonrealistic stuff.  You can write fiction where everything that happens is realistic and yet still feels somehow a little outside or displaced from the real world.  Kazuo Ishiguro does that in some of his novels, like The Remains of the Day.  He’s writing in a realistic mode but there’s something about it that makes it feel like he’s describing a world that’s a little bit different from our world.  I admire that.

I’ve been thinking about this a little bit because when Articles of War came out, there was somebody who described it as “surrealistic,” which really surprised me.  I felt like that book was very much grounded in reality.  But perhaps what that reader was reacting to is the way that the reality that the book is describing is so extreme and terrible and tense because of the nature of the experience of war, that it feels outside of our reality.  War itself is surrealistic.

I feel like there’s something of that too in The Reconstructionist.  Another interviewer asked me about my intentions, because he said that to him The Reconstructionist felt like it was not realism.  I told him, “Well, to me, it’s realistic.  Everything is rooted in reality.”  But I think he was really asking about how The Reconstructionist is wound very tightly around certain thematic elements.  For example, there’s a moment in the book where Ellis, the main character, is feeling like he’s had all these car crashes in his life, it’s overwhelming and bizarre to him.  But because he’s an engineer he’s doing the math in a sort of statistical way, and he asks himself what are the odds of this happening to someone.  And he realizes that only a couple accidents have actually impinged on his life, and then through his work he has chosen to bring a lot of other accidents into his life.

If you haven’t been involved in a car accident yourself, you certainly know somebody who has.  These car accidents are a huge feature of American life, but we don’t talk about them very much. That was something that I wanted to bring out in the book and force people to look at it.  I feel like people, in a way, would rather ignore it.  Me, too, sometimes. I’m going to get out of this interview and I’m going to get in my car and drive home—I don’t really want to be forced to think very hard about the fact that it’s entirely possible I could die on the way.

And with the George Saunders quote…I like what he’s saying there.  What he’s responding to is the question: what’s fiction for?  When I think of that question, I tend to come back to an essay that Marilynne Robinson wrote a few years ago.  The title* of it was something like: “You Don’t Need to Doubt What I’m Saying Because It Is Not True.” [Laughs] If I remember right, she was saying that this was something the Greek chorus would chant at the beginning of a play.  Robinson’s idea was that one of the most important aspects of fiction is that we create a context where we can begin by telling you now: it’s all made up.  A lot of times in our daily lives, we get hung up on the question: “Is this true, is that true?”  If you’re reading a piece of nonfiction on some level you’re constantly trying to assess is the story that this person is telling me really true, or is it a James Frey thing?  Fiction allows you to let go of all that and not worry about truth in a “did it actually happen” sense.  That frees you up to deal with stuff that touches on the heart, or stuff that touches on—for lack of a better word—philosophy.

*The title of Marilynne Robinson’s essay is “You Need Not Doubt What I Say Because It Is Not True.”  It was printed in A Public Space, Issue 1.

JK: In your first novel, Articles of War, which takes place in World War II, war artifacts or articles serve as metaphors for the destruction and disruption of life in times of war and often link back to the main character’s traumatic flashbacks and imagery.  Is this focus—the small, often lost items of war—part of the reason for the title?

NA: It’s a funny story about that title. When I was working on the manuscript, the working title for the book was “Yours for Victory,” which is how Eddie Slovik signed off his letters.  And it just seemed like such an extraordinarily tragic phrase for him, of all people, to use.  When my agent was shopping the book around for me, we had a very hard time finding a buyer.  It came down to this one editor who was interested, but I had to make some changes before he would commit to it.  And the title was the last thing that he didn’t like.  At that point I was so relieved to place the book with a publisher that I was just like fine, no problem, we’ll find a new title.

But then we spent months trying to find a title.  My agent threw some ideas out, the editor threw some out, I threw some out, but nobody was able to offer anything that didn’t suck.  And then, it was coming down towards the deadline and my editor threw out this title that came from Shakespeare.  He was really excited about it, but I hated it.  I can’t remember what it was now, but it sounded to me like a horror movie title. [Laughs] But my editor was really excited about it, he was like, “This is it.”  I called my agent and I said, “I hate this title.”  My agent said, “Yeah, I don’t like it either,” so he called the editor and argued with him about it.  Eventually, the editor said, “Fine, but we need a title.  What are we going to do?”  My agent said, “Well I don’t know, we could find some documentation related to the war to look through for phrases, stuff like the Articles of War.”  And the editor said, “That’s it! ‘Articles of War’!”  They both called me, they were both so excited.  I was excited too.  It was clearly the best title we could come up with.  Looking back on it now I actually think I would go back to “Yours for Victory.”  However, I did like “Articles of War” because the Articles of War, as a legal document, relate to what happened to Eddie Slovik, and the place that Heck (the main character) finds himself.  And I think there’s a way that war objectifies people who are involved in it, makes them into things, articles.

JK: I want to ask you about how you created both this very close and very broad perspective throughout the novel.  At times, we were very close inside Heck’s head and at others you constructed this wide perspective of the war.  You state it very beautifully (and succinctly) towards the end of the novel: “It was a curious thing, that in the time between the shots and the echo of the shots a man could die, that so monumental an event could occur in so trivial a passage.”  How did you work to balance both this vertical perspective into the character and a horizontal scope that described the action and movement of war?

NA: When I was working on Articles of War I had a voice in mind that included some of that “vertical” and ten-thousand-foot view that gives you some perspective on things.  I really admire a novella by Jim Harrison called Legends of the Fall which has those elements of perspective.  I felt like it was important to give some larger context to events.  If you just describe a war in terms of these small details I think you would lose some of the human feeling of it, because there’s something so inhuman about war itself.  It’s almost like you need that larger voice to come in once and a while to remind yourself of the people involved, that they’re involved in this inhuman endeavor and yet they are human.

JK: And then what was your thought process for choosing when to move inside the characters and create a close, internal perspective?

NA: In that case, I think I was really trying to pull inside as much as possible in the critical moments of the action of being a soldier.  One of the things I was thinking about as I started on the book was that there haven’t been very many books that do a good job of getting inside just how fucking scary it would be to be in combat.  I really wanted to try and bring that out as much as possible, and give the reader that experience as much as I could.  I wanted to sit in those moments where you, as a soldier, would feel yourself totally lacking control of your life and your fate, the moments when there’s a very good chance you could die at any moment and how terrifying that would be.  Those were the moments I really wanted to zoom in and focus on the interior feeling.

JK: In his introduction to your reading at the Tattered Cover, David Wroblewski, the author of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, said that your book The Reconstructionist centers on the idea that what a person does with their life changes their focus on the world.  As someone who is doing two things with his life—writing and engineering—how do these things, these very different activities, change your focus on the world?

NA: That’s an interesting question.  One of the things that I like about doing both of those things is that I feel like they are very different ways of looking at the world.  It’s a relief sometimes to go from one to the other and have a different perspective, to use a different part of your brain to try and figure things out.  There are a lot of similarities too.

Writing and engineering are both processes of taking little things and putting them together to make some sort of larger system.  In writing, it’s words; for me in engineering, it’s putting pieces of steel together.  If you do it well you get some larger thing that uses all those little pieces in a harmonious way and creates something that’s larger and more pleasing and more useful.  Maybe it’s Moby Dick, or maybe it’s a cruise ship.

But the difference I find myself thinking about has to do with ambiguity.  As an engineer you hate ambiguity.  When there are questions that you don’t know the answer to, it’s your job to find the answer to those questions.  If I’m designing something in a power plant and if I don’t know how something is going to respond in a certain situation, or if this pump fails what’s going to happen, I have to figure it all out because if there’s a question you forgot to ask or a question that you blew off, people can die.

As a writer, you have some of that too.  As I’m working out a sentence, I don’t want there to be ambiguity about what that sentence means.  I want the sentence to be clear in itself.  But a lot of what you’re doing at a larger level is structuring things around ambiguity.  As a writer, you will actually look for questions that don’t have answers.  The process of writing is a process of framing those questions and even exaggerating them to make them dramatic.  Questions like how do you know who you are, questions that have no answer.  It’s pleasing for me to be able to go between those kind of modes. I like finding answers to things and engineering gives you tools for doing that, but I wouldn’t know how to live without the writing to give me a structure for exploring questions that don’t have answers.

For more on the topic of ambiguity, see Arvin’s essay, “An Engineer’s Blueprints For Writing,” which he published April 16, 2012 in the Wall Street Journal.

JK: You mentioned, at your Tattered Cover reading, that you worked as a forensic engineer (or reconstructionist) like Ellis Barstow, the main character of the novel.  What is a reconstructionist?

NA: A reconstructionist is a person who looks at an accident and examines the evidence left by that accident and tries to figure out how did the accident happen, what were the causes.  In my case, I worked on car crashes, so we would look at marks on the roadway left by tires, we would look at the shape of the damage to vehicles and any other physical evidence that was left by the accident.  Then we would use that evidence to build a story about how this accident had occurred and to help develop answers to questions about who was at fault, because a reconstructionist typically works for either an attorney or maybe an insurance agent.  We built that story using physics.  Often you start at the end and work backwards from there to figure out ultimately how fast vehicles were going, whether they turned this way or that, hit their brakes, or whatever they may have done.

JK: Other than inspiring an idea for a novel, was this work fruitful to your work as a writer?

NA: That’s an interesting question too.  I don’t know.  I would have to think about that.  I always thought the work itself was really interesting and interesting to people.  I wanted to bring that out in the writing.  Then the stories of the people involved in these accidents are also very interesting and tragic.  So, the work handed me all this great material, but I haven’t really thought that much about how the work itself might have fed the writing process.

When I was saying before that a reconstructionist creates a story, that’s not language that most reconstructionists would use.  They wouldn’t call it a story; they would call it a re-creation, or something.  But, as a writer, I found myself very aware that what we were doing was creating stories.  We were creating a little narrative based on the evidence and so there was a kind of overlap between what I was doing as a writer and what I was doing as a reconstructionist.

I’m moving on to other stuff—I’m not writing about car crashes any more—but I’ve found that since I’ve finished The Reconstructionist I occasionally do find myself thinking about that process of reconstruction.  It may be in part because of the process that I use, that I was telling you about, having all these little fragments that I piece together.  There’s something like reconstruction there, where you’ve got little pieces of evidence, and you’re trying to create a story around them.

JK: As I was reading the novel, I wondered if this “reconstruction” was part of your process for teaching yourself the story.  The characters crash together—both in cars and in life—and I wondered if you began with the moment of that “crash” or “accident” and then worked your way backwards to reconstruct what brought the characters to that cataclysmic moment.

NA: Again, because I work in these sort of fragments that I then have to piece together, I often begin by putting my characters in an interesting place and then the writing process is a process of trying to figure out how they got there and what it says about them as a character.  It’s a process of making the character real.  Articles of War actually was kind of a long version of that because I started with the execution of Eddie Slovik at the end of the book.  I had this little vignette that I’d written from the perspective of a soldier who was in the firing squad.  That was all it was.  Then I needed to figure out what am I going to do with that, and the question was, well, how did he get into that circumstance?

JK: Your third-person point of view, which focuses on the main character Ellis, tends to slip into these analytical observations of what’s happening in the story.  As the story progresses and events escalate, these analytical rants seem to become even more exaggerated, as though Ellis is unsure of his grip on what he’s doing, or supposed to be doing.  Like Ellis, did you obsessively analyze the events of the story, the situations, relationships, characters, the risks and end goals, in a way to teach yourself the steps of the story as it accelerated?

NA: That’s another way that I feel like writing and engineering are similar.  I mean, people think of writing as a very creative process and engineering as a very analytical process, but they both start with a creative aspect.  What I do now is design work for power plants and gas facilities.  You start with a blank piece of paper and you steal ideas from here and there and assemble a system hopefully that works for whatever the particular problem is.  In that way, engineering is just like writing.  You start with a blank piece of paper and you’ve got some idea of what you want to do, but you’re not sure, at the beginning, how to do it.  You steal some ideas from other books you’ve read, get a draft down, clean it up, and then you show it to somebody.  That process in writing of cleaning things up is very analytical.  It’s a process of saying this part of the story doesn’t work and trying to analyze why doesn’t it work and then creating a solution and trying to plug that in.  You do the same thing in engineering.  It’s a process of determining why this part of my system isn’t going to work.

Ellis, for me, is a guy who’s trained himself too well in that and it’s become his only way of understanding and processing the world.  It detaches him from other parts of himself.  So, as the book progresses, like you said, his life is coming apart and the only way he knows how to try and understand that is to try and apply that process of analysis.

JK: The title story of your short story collection, In the Electric Eden, is set in the early part of the twentieth century.  You also wrote “Armistice Day,” a short story for an anthology titled Dozens on Denver, which is also set in the early twentieth century.  I wonder if you could speak to the research aspect of those historical fiction stories.  Did you do a lot of research and was that part of the inspiration for these pieces?

NA: “In the Electric Eden” was the first historical story that I wrote.  It started because a friend mentioned this story about Edison electrocuting an elephant as a part of Edison’s war with Tesla.  Edison’s technology was direct current, and Tesla had alternating current.  Edison was telling people that alternating current is dangerous, that you shouldn’t let it into your house.  To prove that, he did a couple of things.  First, he invented the electric chair and used alternating current in the electric chair.  And second, he had this traveling road show where they would electrocute cats and dogs to show people how dangerous it was.

Then this opportunity came up where these guys on Coney Island had an elephant that had killed a guy and they saw an opportunity, with Edison, to use this new electrocution technique on the elephant.  Edison filmed it so that he could include it in his roadshow.  I didn’t know all that, but a friend had mentioned that he’d heard this story about Edison electrocuting an elephant.  This would have been 12 years ago, but they did have Google then. [Laughs] So I got on Google and I found this mpeg online of the film that Edison had made.

YouTube Preview Image

It was just so stunningly strange to me that this event that was tied to the early days of electricity was now on my computer screen 100 years later, being fed by alternating current.  There’s a couple layers of irony there.  It was fascinating to me and I wondered if I could write a story around it, so that drove me to start researching what had happened and why the elephant had been electrocuted.  It was a front page article in the New York Times, the day after the electrocution.  There were great details in that article, and it was really fun to write. One of things that I liked about it is that it was kind of a relief on the creative process.  When you’re just creating stuff from your own head, it’s like you’re squeezing these things out.  It’s such a strain sometimes.  When I was working with this story that was built out of historical details, I could pluck these details out that I knew were interesting, or little anecdotes or whatever, and find ways to work them into the story.  It was just really fun.  So, I went from there to doing several other stories that are historical, and then Articles of War.

JK: Do you think you’ll do a collection of historical fiction?

NA: Maybe, someday.  The problem with it, for me, at this point in my life, is the historical research is pretty time consuming and I just don’t have the time right now to do the research and get writing done and read.  I really need to read fiction just to feed my process.  I feel lucky that I have other elements of my life that are interesting that can feed my fiction.  But I’d like to get back to it someday.

JK: I also found it interesting how in both “In the Electric Eden” and “Armistice Day,” you begin the story movement with an initial and unusual visual sight and reframe that image by creating moments within moments.  In both of these stories the visual imagery reveals the narrative conflict.  Is this visual imagery indicative of how you begin to write about these historical moments?  In other words, even though you’re describing moments beyond your personal experience, does the imagery help you understand the emotional root of the conflict?

NA: My stories often start with an image and then everything else ends up developing, flowering, around that image.  Certainly, “In the Electric Eden” started with that film.  That’s a moving image.  I’m trying to remember the origins of “Armistice Day.”  That story was written for the Rocky Mountain News, may it rest in peace. [Laughs] They had this wonderful project.  They got a dozen writers who live in the Denver area to write a series of stories set in Denver.  They asked each writer to set their story in a different decade.  I disputed with them for a while over my contract for this thing, as a result of which everyone else had picked their decade by the time we worked out the contract issue.  The 1910’s were all that was left.  So I just sort of went into it with an attitude of, well, I don’t know anything about Denver in the 1910s, I’ll dig around and see what’s interesting.  I was looking through old newspapers on microfilm and looking through some history books, and the thing that really struck me was an article, or maybe a couple of articles, about Armistice Day.  I remember they talked about these “bombs,” they called them “bombs”—I assume that what they really mean, in our terminology, is fireworks.  The news of the armistice was wired in and got into Denver in the middle of the night, so the newspapers immediately started printing special editions, and they fired off these “bombs” to let people know there was big news and everybody should come get their newspaper because there was no other way to get news.  So there were these quote-unquote “bombs” going off and people pouring into downtown in the middle of the night.  A huge spontaneous party erupted and they partied through the next day.  I loved that image of people being beckoned into downtown in the middle of the night by these fireworks and everybody kind of going crazy, so I wanted to build something around that.

JK: What are you working on next?

NA: I have a collection of stories that I hope I’m done with.  It’s with my agent now and he likes it and we’ll see whether a publisher will pick it up.  It’s hard to sell a collection of stories.  It’s at the “cross your fingers” stage, but the working title is An Index of Human Properties.  It’s a collection of stories about engineers and technically minded people.  In it, I pursue some themes similar to the themes in The Reconstructionist, especially in terms of how these people tend to approach life in a very rational way, or want to approach it that way, but then they come into circumstances that are not readily solved in that kind of way.

I found myself writing about it because it’s what I know, to an extent.  I mean, these are the people that I work with everyday and that I spend most of my working hours with.  But I also wanted to write about it because everyone’s very aware of how quickly our world now is changing in a technological sense.  Particularly now with the things that are developing quickly on the internet—social media—these technologies are more and more affecting the way that people interact with each other.  Even older technologies have a huge effect on how people live their lives, what their expectations of life are, and their expectations of each other and how we deal with each other.  So, these engineers and computer programmers and scientists are creating this new world, and yet there’s hardly anyone writing about them.  Who are these people that are creating this world that we’re living in?  That’s what I wanted to try and bring out.

Only two of the stories have been published so far.  One, “Along the Highways,” was in The New Yorker.  The other one, the one I mentioned earlier that has a fantastical element, is called “The Beauty Engine” and it was in Midwestern Gothic, issue 1.

JK: What are you reading now?

NA: I’m reading this amazing book by Thomas Savage.  It’s called The Power of the Dog and it was published in 1967, I think.  I’d never heard of it before, I’d never heard of the writer before.  He died a few years ago, but he published at least 10 books, I think, in his life.  It’s about a couple of ranchers in Montana in the 1920s. I picked it up just because a friend recommended it.  It’s beautifully written, and it has this character “Phil” who’s incredibly complicated and kind of evil, really interesting.  He’s at the heart of it.  It’s got a fine eye for human character and how people interact.  It’s great.  I recommend it.

——————

Nick Arvin is a Denver-based author and engineer who has written three books In the Electric Eden, Articles of War, and The Reconstructionist.  Arvin earned his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and also holds degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan and Stanford.  His first book, In the Electric Eden, is a collection of short stories about people whose lives are complicated by the science and technology of everyday life.  His first novel, Articles of War, was a book of the year by Esquire Magazine, won the Rosenthal Foundation award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, won the Boyd Award from the American Library Association, won the Colorado Book Award, and, in 2007, it was selected for One Book, One Denver, a citywide book club supported by the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs.  The Reconstructionist, Arvin’s latest novel, was published in March (in the US) and was named an Amazon Best Book of the Month for March 2012.  Arvin’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Salon, Rocky Mountain News, 52 Stories, Midwestern Gothic, 5 Chapters, and 5280.

Hear him read at the Tattered Cover in Denver.

Jacqueline Kharouf is currently studying for her MFA in creative writing, fiction, at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  A native of Rapid City, SD, Jacqueline lives, writes, and maintains daytime employment in Denver, CO.  In 2009, she earned an honorable mention for the Denver Woman’s Press Club Unknown Writer’s Contest, and in 2010 she earned third place for that contest.  Her first published story, “The Undiscoverable Higgs Boson,” was published in issue 4 of Otis Nebula, an online literary journal.  Last year, Jacqueline won third place in H.O.W. Journal’s 2011 Fiction contest (judged by Mary Gaitskill) for her story “Seeing Makes Them Happy.”  This story is currently available online and will be published in H.O.W. Journal’s Issue 9 sometime in the fall/winter of 2012.  Jacqueline blogs at: jacquelinekharouf.wordpress.com; tweets holiday appropriate well-wishes and crazy awesome sentences here: @writejacqueline; and will perform a small jig if you like her Facebook professional page at: Jacqueline Kharouf, writer.

Jun 032012
 

dee Hobsbawn-Smith is a curious being, poet, chef, chef-author, newspaper columnist (about food), eminent food person, and farm girl from Saskatchewan (she now lives on the family farm outside Saskatoon). Her latest book is called Foodshed: An Edible Alberta Alphabet, just out, yes, and you can read an early and most complimentary review here (I particularly like the Raymond Carver references). But dee also a fiction writer, about to launch herself into an MFA program. And for your delight and delectation, we offer a foretaste (smallish pun) of that new career, a short story about a girl who takes a job as  prep-cook (there is a chef, too) in a ski town to escape a murky past. (NC multiple contributor Dave Margoshes took the photo.)

dg

 §

“I’m lookin’ for work. Know of anything?”

The guy behind the motel counter hands over my key with shaking hands. He looks twice my age, stained skin under hazel eyes, a few grey strands in tangled auburn hair. The sweet reek of stale booze permeates the office. “The ski hill’s always hiring.”

“Can’t ski. How ‘bout supper, then? Is there a restaurant in the motel?”

“It closed last year. Try the lodge up the ski hill. You can’t miss the signs.”

I’m dubious. ‘Can’t miss the signs’ usually means the exact opposite. “Nothing closer?”

“You can get a decent steak or grilled cheese at the Night Hawk, they’re open late.  On the east edge of town.”

“Thanks.” I lug my backpack upstairs and look longingly at the bed. My eyes ache. I’ve been driving through a blizzard since Cranbrook, not many road lights and the pavement hard to see, haven’t eaten since my bitter breakfast in Vancouver. I turn up the thermostat and head back to my car.

Hank Williams is sighing through the sound system at the Night Hawk. The cook grins and says, “Sure, why not?” when the waitress slaps my order through the window. I slide into the back booth and ask for a Johnnie Walker.

I’m halfway through a rare rib-eye when the motel clerk walks in and swings onto a bar stool. His hoarse voice carries above ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart.’ “I sent some girl here. Kinda cute, short black hair.” At the waitress’s jerk of her head, he spins the stool around. “Hey, you made it. Rowena takin’ good care of you?”

I nod, my mouth full of meat.

“Buy you a drink?” The glass lands on my table with a clatter.

“Thanks.”

He talks sporadically to Rowena as she polishes tumblers, but I feel his gaze sliding off me. When I sigh and push my plate away, he pats the stool beside him.

“Andrew James.”

“Constance da Silva. Call me Connie.”

“A drink for my friend Connie, please, Rowena.”

“How long you been in Fernie, Andrew?”

“Forever.”

Up close, crevasses run from his hairline to shaggy eyebrows, from his nose to the corners of his mouth. Under the rubble of whiskers, his cheeks look like crepe paper. The sleeves of a tattered sweater hang over his knuckles, but his fingernails are smooth and clean.

Rowena keeps his glass topped up, and raises her eyebrows at me with each visit to our end of the bar. He catches me studying him and blushes. I’m charmed. What kind of man blushes? “So…who is Andrew Brown?  You single?” He nods. “Why you still here?”

“Got no desire to travel.”

Rowena turns off the stereo as we leave. Andrew holds his car door open. “A drink? I have a room in the motel. Just a drink.”

The narrow slice of sky above me is wheeling much too rapidly. “Long day. Thanks, but no.”

“Welcome to Fernie. See ya ‘round.”

The road is black velvet. I’m grateful to follow his taillights through the falling snow to the motel, and topple onto my bed fully clothed.

§

I land a job at the ski hill as a prep cook, no experience needed. No cooking, even, just peeling potatoes and carrots by the case, chopping sacks of onions. I keep my turtleneck on, wrap the huge white cook’s jacket around me and cut myself within an hour. The chef clucks as he wraps gauze around my thumb. We’re in his office and I concentrate on his tidy desk to counteract the wooziness. He watches my eyes find the photos. Two girls, teenagers, dark as a magpie, one frowning.

“Mes petites filles,” he says proudly as he pulls the tape snug. “Bien sur, Connie, you pay attention, eh? No more hack-cidents.” His silver moustache rises with his grin. “Maybe this keep you off the ski hill, eh?”

“I don’t ski,” I mutter, my face turned away from the seeping blood. “I paint.” The kitchen window is filled with grey clouds.

Merde. Everybody ski here. You learn right quick, you’ll see, young miss like you. Some ‘andsome boy, and you be ‘otshot ski, tres vite. Best you bring him to me first, eh, I tell you if he is good boy.”

Laughing, I go back to work, feeling warmer.

There’s not much to this town. This is Snow Valley— the snow is famous— and everyone skis. There’s not much light either. The valley, almost a gorge, is defined by mountains, the Rockies on one side, the Purcells on the other. The grey rock-faces towering above the valley floor eat what little light there is, and the pale sun vanishes over the horizon by mid-afternoon. The clouds are a weight, leaking dampness that permeates everything.

I work evenings, two ‘til eleven, long hours on my feet, and Chef winces when I drag a chair across the tiles to the counter. “Cooks stand, ma belle,” he says, but he forbears saying anything stronger. There’s no name embroidered on his jacket, just his title. Chef. He pats the shoulders of all the cooks, male and female. No one seems to mind. He likes me, I can tell. He regularly strays past my station with his coffee, watching my hands clutching a knife, and finally says, exasperated, “Voilà, there is a better way, ma fille.” With a few quick motions, he shows me how an onion falls apart under the right strokes.

When he asks for the sixth time what brings a good girl like me so far from the bright city life, I nearly laugh. “A man and a dog,” I say. It’s the truth, but I don’t think he believes me.

Anywhere would have done. Leaving Vancouver was easy— no mortgage, no house, no kid— all those ropes that tie you down rather than guide you. I left a throw-away job as an office temp and an interminable waiting list into art school, my pockets empty, just heaved my easel, my paints and my backpack in my Chevy, and drove out of the rain without looking back. It was impulsive, and I ended up in winter.

To distract Chef, I point through the window, to the cordons on the mountainside, thin nylon ropes strung along a succession of metal spikes. “What’re those, Chef?”

He waves over a redhead whose jeans cling to muscled legs. She looks sixteen. “Sadie fais du ski, she explain, eh, Sadie?”

Sadie looks me up and down. “You the new cook? Rowena said she met you at the Hawk. Ya don’t ski? You’ll learn, there’s nothin’ else to do in this shithole town?” Every second sentence ends on an up-tilt, as if she’s unsure of herself. “Those ropes? They’re s’posed to keep newbies like you safe.”

I’m not reassured. The ropes won’t actually stop a skier, especially if she’s tumbling at any speed. But they give the illusion of safety.

Sadie grins impishly at me. “Where you stayin’?”

§

I drive to the Night Hawk each night after work, hoping to see Andrew. Something about him makes my fingers itch and tingle. I want to stroke the pale skin on his hands and smooth the lines etched in his cheeks. I want to paint the life back into his face. There’s a smart man beneath the sodden exterior. What’s kept him in Fernie?

He’s slumped on a barstool when I arrive. When I slide onto the stool beside him, his back straightens. “Hey, Con.” His hand, lightly brushing my upper arm, is quickly withdrawn.

One night, I recount how I left Vancouver. My lover, drunk, speeding along the tree-lined road past Second Beach. Some faceless woman, out walking her dog, the wet leash slipping though her fingers. Spinning car wheels and rain.

“It was an accident. He’d never kill a dog deliberately. I know that.”

“Wait a minute. That’s why you left? Because your guy had an accident? And killed someone else’s dog?”

“No, not really. We were done already, the accident was just the last straw. I just didn’t know how to let go. Thought I had to leave the city instead of just leaving him.”

He sighs and briefly rests his hand on my shoulder. “Did you forgive the guy?”

“He didn’t mean to. Dunno.”

“But he was drunk. That’s the hard part, hmm?”

When I sniffle, Andrew pulls a tissue from his pocket and offers it, then rubs his forearms, his arms forming a cradle across his chest.

“I’ve never had a dog. I used to want one. Grew up here in the valley, I told you that. My mom married a miner when she was sixteen.”

I have my voice under control again. “So young. A kid, hmm?”

He nods. “Yeah, knocked up. He burnt the place down when he was drunk one night, his cigarette fell outta his hand.”

“Oh no!”

He shrugs. “I was still a baby. We all got out alive. Mighta been better if we hadn’t, though. She died later anyhow, she was twenty-nine. If I’d been there, she mighta had a chance.” He finished his drink. “And my dad, well–” He lifts his hand to waggle two fingers at Rowena.

I’m silenced. Later in the women’s room, Rowena fills in the missing bits. Andrew’s dad died three years after his wife. “Silicosis. Lots of miners buried up behind the old coalmine,” she says, examining me in the mirror. “Did he tell you how his mom died?”

I shake my head, feeling ghoulish. “I don’t want to know.”

Rowena doesn’t pay any attention. “It was a big scandal. Andrew was taken away from them when he was twelve, he was gone for nearly a year. His dad had been beating him. And worse. He’s got burn scars all over his arms.”

“Oh no!” I picture Andrew, his arms embracing each other through his sweater. Rowena passes me a paper towel, then relentlessly continues.

“His mom was tiny, couldn’t have stopped a mouse. While he was away, she died. A broken neck. His dad claimed she fell from the balcony trying to change a light bulb. There was an inquest, but never any charges, the guy was already pretty sick. Andrew’s always blamed himself.” She looks at me sideways in the mirror. “You know, he never talks to anyone. Just drinks. Plays Hank all night. You’re the first one who’s heard him say boo.”

I go back to the bar, pity and revulsion two-stepping in my gut. When we leave at midnight, I try not to gawk at his forearms as he pulls on his gloves. In the parking lot, he brusquely declines my offer of a lift. “No. I need the walk.”

“Andrew, don’t be an ass, it’s twenty below. Just get in, will you?” I drop him at the motel. He reaches out and touches my hair where it juts out under my toque.

“Thanks, Con.” He scrambles out of the Chevy without looking at me.

§

I move my car to the parking lot behind a row of dun-coloured apartments, and leave my easel folded on the back seat. Rowena and Sadie, the two waitresses, adopt me. I’m only three years older than either of them, but they seem like gum-chewing kids, talking nonstop about boys, movies, clothes, but mostly about when they will leave the valley. They’re completely baffled that I left Vancouver and ended up here. A man, I say again, a man and a dog. They look at me disbelievingly.

“No one wants to be here, Connie,” Rowena says over spaghetti and beer. “This place is the armpit of the world.”

I tilt my head, considering. Each day, I drive over the bridge and through downtown Fernie on my way to work. En route, I pass a drug store, a post office, the Night Hawk, a realtor’s office flogging unbuilt condos on the ski hill, and a grocery store. Nothing to disprove Rowena’s claim. Nothing I want to commit to canvas. I shrug. “It’s enough. For now.”

Sadie’s head bobs, her mouth full. Rowena keeps talking. “When I have enough money saved, I’m moving to Calgary. That’s where the real livin’ is… Hey, we’re going skiing tomorrow, why don’t you come? Sadie’s a crackerjack teacher, she’ll get you started, won’t you, Sade?”

“I’m still working evenings,” I say, and nod to Chef as he makes his way to the exit. He grins at me and makes ski-pole-like gestures with his hands.

Sadie wipes her chin. “Perfect? We’ll go at nine? You’ll be off the hill by two. Chef won’t mind if you’re a bit late, he likes you? And those cute lifties from Australia are working on the back slope? We’ll go over there after the bunny hill.” She giggles and glances at the corner table where the lifties are hoisting beer glasses.

Wait a minute. My mouth shapes the words, but I can’t get them past my roommates’ enthusiastic planning. “But what about skis? Boots? Poles? I don’t have any of that stuff.”

“Rent it all at the hill, Connie. Staff rates. No worries.”

The sky is a black ruin when I walk to my car, leaving the other two flirting with the Aussies. The drive down the mountainside unnerves me, two miles, narrow turns like a jackknife. No lights, just the eerie reflection of headlights off the walls of snow. I edge down the ice and brake abruptly when a deer shoots across the road. As my car swerves, all I can focus on is the white flag of the deer’s tail.

By the time my front bumper comes to rest against the hard-packed snow, the deer is nowhere in sight. I get out of my car and peer at my fender.

A car comes around the corner and slides to a shuddering halt at the toes of my boots.

“Jeez, Connie! Are you crazy?” Andrew leans out of the open window. I can barely see his face.This is a terrible spot to stop. What are you doing?”

“I think I hit a deer. There’s blood on my fender.”

“There’s dozens of deer around. You okay?” I’m shaking, but I nod. “Get back in your car before someone broadsides you. Here, I’ll turn around and lead you down.”

We creep down the slope, my hands trembling on the wheel, the nose of my Chevy almost nudging his Dodge so I can benefit from his high beams. At the turn to town, he pulls over, gets out and walks back to me. “Let’s have a drink. It’ll calm you down. Meet me at the motel. I have some rye in my room.”

I’m still shaking. “Yeah.”

§

I’m sprawled on the cold tile floor in Andrew’s cramped bathroom, fully dressed. I hobble to my feet, my head clanging, my mouth lined with spiked fuzz. I wash my face and use my fingers to smear Andrew’s toothpaste over my gums. When I stagger into the bedroom, Andrew is nowhere in sight.

I’m late getting to work. “Sorry, Chef.” His knife blade on the wooden chopping block pounds a tattoo.

Chef watches me for a minute, then tilts his head at the back wall. “Eh, ma fille, aspirin in the cupboard.”

The afternoon drags and clatters. Chef sends me home early. “You better tomorrow, oui? This, this not so good, hmm?”

I grimace and wonder vaguely about his daughters. Surely he’s seen hung-over girls before. “Sorry, Chef.” His knife is making short work of my onions as I swing the door closed.

The morning’s forgotten ski lesson surfaces as I enter the apartment. My roommates look daggers at me. Sadie’s voice is one long exhale. “We waited ‘til nearly noon, we missed half the day, all the gorbies got there before us, the snow was ruined?”

“I hit a deer last night coming down the hill. Andrew invited me for a drink and I slept in.” I surprise myself when I hear what comes out of my mouth–apologizing as if I’m twelve. I haven’t felt so defensive in years. What is it about this valley?

“Andrew. He’s pathetic. Why’d you want to hang out with him?”

“Sadie, how can you say that? You know what he’s–”

She steamrollers me. “You know how old Andrew James is?”

I think briefly of Andrew’s lined face. His dead mother who couldn’t protect him. “Sadie, what does it matter? Thirty-five?”

“Twenty-two.”

§

My knife skills are progressing. No bandages for at least a week. Chef teases me about my long fingernails until I capitulate, trim them short and strip off the nail polish. As reward, he sets a work table beside the window so I can peel carrots in sunlight. But the pale rays don’t help my mood, nor does realizing that no one else seems glum. Line cooks chatter as they flip steaks and burgers, the salad girl flirts with the servers as she chops anchovies for the Caesar dressing, and the baker whistles nonchalantly over the oven’s hum.

A week passes without a sign of Andrew. When I drive to the motel, the day manager is irate. “He hasn’t been around for days. You tell that sod to get his ass back to work, will ya?”

I contemplate asking Chef to help with a search. But Sadie sticks her head into the kitchen during dinner service.

“All right, pouty-face. Let’s try this ski lesson thing again? Tomorrow morning? Get your lift pass from the office.”

The bunny hill is glazed with ice. Sadie, a nimble jack rabbit on her skis, orders me around like a born leader. Up the rope tow, snowplow down the hill, up the rope tow, snowplow down. “Lean forward, Connie! If you can stop, if you can snowplow a turn, you can go anywhere?” I stop counting the falls and try to ignore the bruises coagulating on my left hip. After I make my first decent run without falling, Sadie crows with triumph and leads me to the T-bar.

Side by side in the load-up zone, the T-bar comes up behind us, scary-fast. The lifty steps back, glances at Sadie, still chattering, and winks at me. The knot in my gut loosens a little.

“Squat? Don’t look down!” At the top of the lift — “Lift your toes?” — too late. My ski tips catch and I pitch off the T-bar. I struggle to my feet and my skis immediately slide out from under me. “Snowplow! Point your toes down the hill. Lean forward?”

I’m exhausted when we return to the lodge. My thighs ache, and the bruises feel like bone chips. At work my hands are so shaky that I cut myself again.

Chef, exasperated, sets a slice of chocolate pecan pie beside me and ruffles my hair. “You go ski today? First time? Before you go work? You crazy girl. Next time, eat first.” I don’t have the energy for a rejoinder.

I sprawl my bruised body on the couch after work while Rowena eats popcorn and watches the news. She wakes me to rant. Paul Bernardo has been arrested. “How can a man look like a human being and abuse helpless kids like that?” I have no answer, fall asleep and dream of Andrew’s arms seething, raw with open burns.

§

I hardly make a dent in the endless sacks of onions, but their pungent bite clings to my clothes and follows me home. After more falls on the bunny hill, I collapse on the couch, a glass of scotch balanced on my ribcage. Rowena calls to report Andrew has surfaced.  “He’s been AWOL before, Connie, this isn’t the first time.”

“Why’s he do it? Where does he go?”

“Dunno. But I hear he holed up with a couple old miners, guys who don’t have families.”

“What about work? Will they give him back his job?”

“Yeah. The manager knew his dad. They worked together in the mine.”

§

Sadie meets me at the hill, flat light barely illuminating the morning. “No bunny hill,” she says sternly. “Let’s just get to the T-bar?” I get on and off without mishap, and we start slowly down the slope. “Down there,” she says, pointing with her ski pole, “I’m going on ahead. Follow the green run? It’s nice and level. Keep out of the trees. I’ll meet you at the bottom?”

I nod without looking up, trying to remember my turning mantra. Weight down, turn, shift to other leg, straighten. Or is it reversed? I can’t keep it straight.

Sadie vanishes, a sleek shadow sprinting down the hill. A breath of fog blows across the hillside. I lose my rhythm. Fall. Get up and lock my legs into snowplow, chug down the track.

At the fork, the signs are fallen, fresh ski tracks running in both directions. I hesitate, then choose the flat track to the left. A few hundred yards along, it drops steeply beneath my skis, the trees closing in. I stop, Sadie’s thin voice in my head. Point your skis down the hill, keep your weight forward. Surely not down this monster of a slope. But I can’t see any other way down. Twenty minutes crawl past while I hesitate on the brink, hoping someone will come down the hill behind me. The cold trickles under my jacket where snow has lodged. My toes are numb when I aim my skis across the incline and descend a few feet on the oblique. At the far side, I shift my weight, begin the turn and hesitate, my skis slipping out from under me.

I roll, bump, crash, poles flying loose, skis unhinging. “Damn it!”

When I sit up and wipe the snow from my face, I spot my poles, jammed against a tree trunk, my skis at the bottom of the slope, tangled in the ropes. I grab the poles and slide down the ice on my butt to my skis. I stamp my boots into my bindings and snowplow through the flattened meadow to the lodge, ignoring the lifties at the T-bar when they wave. My gear clatters onto the counter of the rental shop.

I’m in the lounge, on my second hot chocolate and brandy when Sadie shows up, pink-cheeked and bright. I glower at her. “Never again, Sadie. Not after you ditched me like that.”

“All right, sorry? The lifties said you looked pissed off.” She wriggles, puppy-like, but draws back when I shake her hand free of my arm.

“Pissed off? I damn near broke my neck.” I wave at the waitress.

“All right. Be a bitch.”

The light is fading when she returns. “I just took my last run, Connie. I gotta start work. You still mad?”

“Give it up, Sadie.” She snorts and stomps away. Andrew comes in later, his parka dusted with snow.

§

“Hey, Con. It’s late. Rowena told me you hit the hill again.” He appraises my face. “Didn’t go so good, eh?”

“Have a drink with me?”

I lean on him on the way to the parking lot. My keys fall into the snow.

“That Sadie, she ditched me.” I crawl along the ground, find my keys. “Don’t think I’ll—” Find my blue car, find the ignition. “Can I come home with you, Andrew?” He puts an arm around my neck, his cheek tight against me. The steep road falls into the darkness.

§

At noon, I get up and look in Andrew’s mirror. Red-rimmed eyes gaze back at me. Hands shaking, I pull on my turtleneck. Beyond the window, greyness. Bits and flashes surface—Andrew flaccid and limp, his face fallen, kisses that go nowhere and taste of despair. His muttered voice. “Forgive me, Con.”

He’s still sleeping. Halfway through my second cup of coffee, something stirs in my memory. I plunge outside without gloves or hat or jacket. The Chevy sits in the parking lot, its block heater cord dangling loose, the right front fender dented so deeply the wheel is immovable. I have no memory of driving down the mountainside.

I leave Andrew sleeping and walk home. Above me, the sky telegraphs bad weather. The phone jangles as soon as I walk into the apartment. Rowena, on the couch under a quilt, lifts her head. “Get it, will ya, Con. Sadie has whats-his name, Chad, the Aussie—” A languid arm waves at the bedroom down the hall, then vanishes under the covers.

I catch the phone on the fifth ring. “Connie? You work today early. Banquet tonight.”

“I can’t drive, Chef. My car—”

“I pick you up, oui?”

I sit at the kitchen table, head pounding. My stomach heaves. When the door buzzes, I jab the entry button. It buzzes again, and Chef stands in the doorway. His face tightens as he looks around the apartment, taking in my half-empty scotch bottle and its galaxy of glasses on the television. Empty beer cans on every surface, table and sink stacked high with dirty dishes. Heaps of newspapers and takeout boxes. A laundry basket by the kitchen door. Rowena tangled in the quilt, snoring on the couch.

The place looks tawdry. I stare at my feet, too embarrassed to bring up my car’s dented fender.

Chef is silent on the drive to the lodge. In the parking lot, he turns to me. “Connie. What happen, hmm?” His capable hands, palms up. “You one smart cookie. You need help?”

I shake my head, blink away the tears. “No, Chef. No help needed. Thanks.”

On Friday night after work, Andrew is propped on the Night Hawk bar. He won’t look at me and drinks his rye in silence. I buy a mickey of Johnnie Walker and slip back to the apartment.

The clock-face reads noon when I wake in pain, unable to move, my belly shrieking.

“Rowena, wake up, there’s something wrong.”

“What is it?” Her voice fades. “Go back to sleep.”

I grab my remaining safety line and dial the ski hill’s kitchen. “Chef, Chef, I need to go to the hospital.”

§

The bearded young doctor perched on the edge of my bed is unequivocal and kind. “Nothing showed up in the gastroscopy, Constance. Nothing is physically wrong with you. So. What’s going on in your life?”

I mutter answers. Work, yes. Exercise, sporadic. Drink? Uh huh. Every day? Yeah. How much? Hmm. Happy? Silence. Hobbies?

I think of my easel, ignored in my car, shake my head.

He stands up and sighs. “There’s nothing happening in your body that a good dose of sunshine and happiness won’t cure. You need to get yourself a life, Constance. And quit drinking. I’ll check on you later.”

Chef appears, bearing chocolate tarts and thick meaty stew. He pats my hand, rubs his moustache until he finds his voice. “Your car, I fix ‘er. You take better care, ma belle. Oui?” I squint, rub my nose so I won’t cry again.

Sadie and Rowena arrive together. Sadie’s face is pale, her mouth pursed. I hug her. “Sadie, eat this tart, Chef brought too much. Rowena, how’s Andrew?”

Rowena shrugs, her face impassive.

I have lots of time in between the nurses’ coming and going. I’ve never been much for praying, but I try. All I see are grey mountains and grey sky, closing in.

Andrew doesn’t stop by. I make one long distance call, to Vancouver, and wipe away my tears as I hang up.

§

My belongings are jammed into my backpack. I embrace Rowena, then Sadie.

“Here’s my cell number. Call me, both of you, when you’re ready to get outta here, okay?”

In the parking lot, I walk around my car. No dents. Chef has kept his word, and more. He’s found me a job peeling vegetables at a private club in Calgary until I get into art school. At the ski hill, I hug him when he gives me a brown lunch bag.

“Smoke boeuf, remember to eat it!” I peek inside and spot a roll of twenties tucked inside the plastic wrap encasing a clutch of cookies. He scribbles his email on a card. “In case you change your mind, ma belle. Or if the job is no good.”

I stop at the motel. Andrew isn’t at the counter. I make my way down the dim corridor and knock. I don’t waste any time when the door opens.

“I’m packed, Andrew. I’m leaving. You should go too. This place—it’s killing you.”

“Connie, I can’t leave, it’s all I know. And I’d never forgive myself if I drag you down. Sorry. I can’t come.”

“You don’t have to come with me, Andrew. You just have to get out. To anywhere.” He’s wearing a t-shirt, the first time I’ve seen his bare arms in daylight. I stare at the evidence, scars like silver moons on his pale skin, then at his face. “Rowena told me about your dad. None of what happened back then was your fault, you were just a kid. You couldn’t have saved her, and you don’t have to forgive him. But forgive yourself!”

“I can’t, Con.”

I draw in a breath, but my gut still trembles. “I can’t stay.”

“So you’re going back?”

I grimace. “I called him, yeah. I’m not going back. I’m going to Calgary. If I’m lucky, I’ll start at art school in the fall. But I’m leaving—this.”

Andrew gently touches my cheek. “Connie. I’m not much to leave behind.”

I head east through the pass toward the high mountains, the Chevy’s tires whining on the ice. My easel rattles on the back seat. For the first time in months, as a flicker of sun chases across the snow-packed highway, I wonder about how to translate shadows into paint.

—-dee Hobsbawn-Smith

————

dee Hobsbawn-Smith’s poetry, fiction and food writing has appeared in magazines, newspapers, anthologies and literary journals in Canada and the USA. She is an award-winning freelance journalist, a retired chef and culinary educator. After 27 years in Calgary, she now lives in the family farmhouse west of Saskatoon with her partner, the writer and poet Dave Margoshes, and their pets. A four-time alumna of Sage Hill Writing Experience, dee begins studies in September, 2012, in the University of Saskatchewan’s MFA in writing program. Her fifth book, Foodshed: An Edible Alberta Alphabet, has just been published by TouchWood Editions.