Review: Questions from Outer Space by Diane Thiel

Ren Hen Press, 2022
Paperback, $16.95, 119 pages.



Diane Thiel’s third collection of poetry, Questions from Outer Space, comes after an interlude during which the poet devoted her energies to a travel memoir (The White Horse) and the translation of contemporary Greek fiction. Her first two collections (Echolocations and Resistance Fantasies) garnered acclaim, including the Nicholas Roerich Award, for their intelligence, wit, wordplay, and attention to form. These earlier poems explored family history and contemplated contemporary manifestations of mythic archetypes. Her latest volume skillfully deploys many of the same aesthetic characteristics that distinguished her first collections, while the new poems range widely from past to present to future, from house and home to international, interplanetary, and even interdimensional settings. It is a volume full of vivid, imaginative poems, a good many beginning as thought experiments that call to mind Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics.


The title of the volume suggests that the act of questioning will be both a central motif and the principal modus operandi of the poems that follow. And, indeed, a number of poems instantiate this propensity for questioning, e.g., “Questions of Time and Direction,” “Questions from Four Dimensions,” and “Navigating the Questions.” The intellectual bent of the collection is summarized in “Listening in Deep Space”: “looking for answers / telling stories about ourselves, / searching for connection.” In one way or another, the poems in Questions all pursue this heuristic. For Thiel, “the simplest question” is capable of “opening the world again.”


Many of the poems recognize and ponder the complications that science and technology introduce into our lives, especially the consequences of relying too greatly on gadgetry. “Tritina in the Time of the Machine,” for example, addresses the implications of intrusive technologies at a time when “in nearly every pocket,” there’s “a small methodical machine” always “grinding on.” Another poem, “Remotely,” wittily mulls the consequences of living in the remote and virtual modes forced on us by pandemic realities. Whether it’s a remote control, internet access, Zoom video conferences, or even the electric typewriters of yore, in poem after poem the poet mulls the benefits and drawbacks of incorporating new technology into our lives.


Thiel’s wry and sometimes whimsical way of looking at the world (a trait readily apparent in her previous volumes) is woven throughout these poems, often making light of, or even mocking, the slippery and careless use of language in social and corporate settings (“KwickAssess”). Other poems play with familiar expressions (“Sleeping Dogs,” “Baby Out with the Bathwater,” “Under the Rug”) and in so doing discover new angles on old clichés.


While Thiel’s outlook is sometimes droll, she is just as often attuned to darker concerns. The poet repeatedly worries over “a tear in the continuum.” Some poems, for example, evince a plangent concern for environmental degradation (e.g., “Navigating the Questions”), a concern that is carried forward from her earlier volumes (such as the powerful poem, “Punta Perlas,” in Resistance Fantasies). An underlying theme of these poems is “the way our actions decide / who or what is now / expendable.”


A central conceit in the book, running through several poems, involves the first-person observation of life on Earth from the standpoint of sentient, empirical beings located elsewhere in the cosmos. In the view of these distant observers, humans “generally / complicate things” and are “highly irrational.” The poem “Field Notes from the Biolayer” uses the distant observer conceit to tie together the volume’s key themes of technology, environment, and connectivity. Thiel’s extraterrestrial observers—whose view surely coincides with her own—note that as humans “are forced / to rely on the virtual world, some begin to realize / what they had been missing” and are now “recognizing the way their world is connected / within and also beyond—the rivers, the oceans, the air— / the lovely layer that makes their existence possible.”


As has been the case throughout her career, in these poems Thiel evinces a meticulous concern for the craft of poetry. Most notably, the poems are attuned to sonic patterns and echoes, or what Dana Gioia has referred to as the “intuitive music” of her poetry. She employs rhyme—full, slant, and internal—to good effect. There is also a good deal of assonance and consonance at work, as in this passage from “Time Won’t Do It”:


We expect too much of time,
give it mythical powers,
believe a certain set of hours,
days or years will be the salve
to solve it all. We treat it
like an oracle, believing
time will tell, expecting
time to heal because
our sayings say it will.


While Thiel is not a strict formalist, she pays close attention to form, with many of the poems taking one or another of the traditional forms, including a sestina, a pantoum, a villanelle, a tritina, along with several sonnet or sonnet-like poems, haiku, and tanka. When not employing traditional forms, Thiel devises nonce forms and often resorts to repeated stanzaic patterns. Several of the poems—e.g., “Sleeping Dogs” and “In the Mirror”—have a concrete quality. In her use of forms and sonic patterns, Thiel has much in common with her coeval, A. E. Stallings (the two poets share a connection to Greece as well, as both poets are married to Greeks and have spent significant time in Greece).


Thiel’s past work has shown her to be a smart, well-read poet, with a keen awareness of the poetic tradition. The range of references in this volume reveals some of her varied influences, both aesthetic and thematic. There are echoes of or direct allusions to numerous poets, including W. C. Williams, Richard Wilbur, William Stafford, Robert Hayden, Elizabeth Bishop, D. H. Lawrence, Auden, Keats, and Swedish-language poet Edith Södergran. All in all, it is a collection rich with references to literature, science, music, and art.


In “looking for answers, telling stories…and searching for connection,” these poems succeed in “opening the world again.”



The day I met Bryce I could’ve given everything to him, let him take me over completely.

            Kentucky greenery flashed in my windows, a tint of blue as I cruised the Western Kentucky Parkway, a four-hour slot. I was in between: school and another life, the small town where I had spent four years getting a degree and whatever Louisville promised. A cousin named Debbie had moved to Louisville a few years ago, guaranteed me a couch while I found a job and saved money to find my own place. The Saturday night of graduation weekend, a friend, Andrea, had a going-away slash end-of-semester house party. I was leaving for Louisville the next morning. We’ll miss you, but at least you’re getting the fuck out of here. I usually avoid these parties, but Andrea said, You have to come. It’s your party. When I arrived I barely knew anyone. The vacancy deadline on my financial aid housing had passed. Crash on the couch, she offered. By the end of the night three people layered on top of each other, passed out from cheap vodka. I took a good look at myself, where I was: my life here had long been over. I revved my sixteen-year-old Corolla and left, then saw how late it was, thought about how much I had to drink. I couldn’t afford the cheapest of motels, so the highway rest stop was the best option.

            My neck had wrenched from sleeping in the backseat the previous night, curled in a spine-mangled ball on the lumpy, upholstery-shredded cushioning. I was hungover, too. When I got on the road, I didn’t make it far before I realized I needed gas and food, so I took the next exit, Calvert City. I pulled into the Love’s, bought a sandwich from the chain inside and ate slowly in a booth, savoring the food, which was all I expected to eat for most of the day.

            It was then that I saw him. Through the window, in the parking lot. He was by himself. He looked late twenties, wearing black shorts cut off at the knee, a sweaty t-shirt, a pack hoisted on his back like he planned on camping for days. The image of his body lithe against the morning sun. He was talking to a woman who shook her head, shooing him away, and he caught another woman. He walked backwards as she walked forward. He talked to her fast, but she didn’t acknowledge him until he gave up. He put his hands on his hips, his beautiful body, an ease in how he carried himself. I turned away to take another bite of the sandwich and when I looked back he was gone.

            When I finished I refilled my water bottle at the fountain–no need to pay for water—and splurged on some chips for later. I had just enough money for gas to Louisville. As I fueled the car, I watched the people coming and going from the travel store, families and truckers, and I wondered where they were headed. A mom yelled at a screaming child who, if I overheard correctly, had been refused some kind of candy. A group of truckers, do-ragged heads, some so scrawny their shirts flapped in the wind, others with large bellies, carrying on with one another.

            I exited the Love’s and, caught up in thought, where I was going, Debbie’s couch, I missed the turn for the highway and didn’t realize until I hit the point where the backroads heading into town started. I was waiting for the next offshoot road to roundabout, and then, in my side mirror, a figure in my periphery. I turned over my shoulder, and there he was, treading along the road as he lugged his pack, his frame so thin and the bag so monstrous.

            He noticed me driving and stuck out his arm, thumb upturned as he paced along. I hadn’t seen anyone hitch in years, dangerous I was always told, you never know who you’re picking up or who would give a ride. But those incidents were likely the exception, the chances low. And me, I was a wreck myself.

            I turned-about into a side road and headed toward his direction, pulled off the street, and hit the flashers to signal him. He clapped his hands together and jogged toward my car. He came into fuller view as he stood in front of the passenger door. His shirt hung loose, stains and rips at the shoulder and sides. I rolled down the window, and he peered in, his face striking, apple shaped, tanned with faded freckles at his nose, jaw thick, cheeks thin, eyes intense. He said, Hey, thanks man. He assessed, rolling his eyes over me as I said, Sure. No problem. I was struck with this pleasure. A man like him: beautiful. He said, Which way you going? I had to remember all over again, searching for the answer. Louisville, I said. Headed toward the Western Kentucky Parkway. He said, That’s perfect. He spoke with a drawl similar to the kind I grew up around. He was from the state, I could tell, or close to it. There was a time I was ashamed of my accent, tried to phase it out of my speech, but hearing it on him, it became endearing, made desirable a quality I once didn’t desire. He said, You going to let me in or what? I had forgotten this was required, opened his door.

            Where can I put this? he asked, motioning toward his bag. All I packed were three duffels of clothes and one box with personal items, so there was still room for his pack. I said, The back seat is fine if it’ll fit. I unlocked the back door, and he unloaded the clunky pack. He opened the passenger door, smiling as he said, It does. He slid into the front seat. He had ropey braids in his hair, twisted and ragged, his body emitting a sun-sweat smell. He likely hadn’t had a proper bath or shower in a number of days, and I breathed him in deeply, his natural scent powerful. So, where are you going? I asked. He drummed his knee up-down in my lower periphery. I sensed that thigh. He said, Meeting some friends of mine. A campsite at Red River Gorge. You ever been? I told him I hadn’t. Well you should, he said. I don’t get outdoors too much, I said. That knee drumming. Sounds like you need to get out, he said. We go rock climbing. The thought of climbing a mountain, so far from anything I would ever consider. He pulled his leg up, propping it against the dash, in my side eye-line. I looked, the inside of his leg, hair speckling the meaty flesh something gorgeous. But I took care to not look too long, the right amount to catch a glimpse but not too much so it’s obvious you’re admiring, because if anyone noticed you would be caught, exposed.

            I’m Bryce, he said. He lent his hand to me, and I cupped it, warm palm. And you are? I had forgotten myself again. I told him my name. Thanks for stopping for me, he said. Just drop me off in Louisville and I can make it to the gorge from there. That feeling of pleasure in providing for him came back to me. No problem, I said. He said, So, are we gonna get going? I was so caught up in taking all of him in – his scent, voice, body, face, lips, throat, hands, his thighs and legs – I forgot this was the next step, actually driving us. I turned onto the road and veered to the ramp.

            Hey, you got anything to eat? he said. I remembered the chips. I said, Yeah, in the bag there. He ruffled into it and pulled them out, ripping the top and munching a handful. So I told you where I’m going, he said between crunches. What’s taking you to Louisville, mister? This title struck me as odd. I was clearly younger than he was by a few years, and it suggested respect, like I had authority, but I didn’t. I said, I’m meeting up with my cousin. He said, Oh yeah? Louisville’s nice, man. Real nice. Lots to do. You live there? He tilted the bag to slide crumbs into his mouth. I said, No, then realized that wasn’t true so I said, Well, sort of. I’m moving there. A lapping sound as he inserted each finger into his mouth to suck the chip dust. He said, Where you moving from? I told him. He said, You go to that university, don’t you? Yeah, I said. I just graduated. He turned to me, wagging his index. I thought so, he said. You look like the school type. I was flattered he had given thought to the kind of person I was, but what did that mean exactly? He said, I always wanted to do that, go to school and all. I couldn’t though, ya know? He continued pacing his leg up and down, and I continued to not glance at it, the skin leading to underneath his clothes. He said, But I had to take care of my grandma. She raised me, ya know. I nodded along. He was generous in what he was offering about himself, endearing me to him. He continued, Mom and Dad were no good dead beats. I don’t even know where they are now, if they’re alive or not, and I don’t give a shit. Passion in his voice but matter-of-fact. He said, My grandma, she got that cancer. I said, I’m sorry to hear. He shrugged. It is what it is, he said. I took care of her best I could. This story made me feel bad for him. I wanted to say, I’m so sorry, but a sorry wouldn’t change anything, so I said nothing.

            Does this go back any? he said, motioning to his seat. I told him how to adjust it, and he pushed back. He tried settling but had a difficult time sitting still. He fiddled with the radio, not pleased with the pre-sets so he scanned each station, listening intently, even the static, before deciding to move to the next. He gave up and closed his eyes, so I could give a quick glance to see his face again, supple and stubbled skin, some acne, red splotches making him even more attractive, imperfections, flaking sun burn, serene face. He sat upright and sighed. He didn’t seem to have noticed me looking, and I was relieved. He grabbed a pile of CDs from the side pocket, fanning them out. Got any Hendrix? I said I didn’t. Damn, I could go for some Hendrix right now, he said. He examined each disc, displeased with the selection, until he picked one at random and pushed it into the slot, a mix of bluegrass an ex-boyfriend made for me even though I didn’t care for bluegrass. Bryce said, This is nice. But he kept switching the tracks.

            I’m so fucking starving, he said. You got anything else? I’m sorry, I said. I was disappointing him again. Could we…, he said, hesitating. Could we stop somewhere? Like he was ashamed at the question, his hunger, the circumstances that lead to his state of hunger, which were still vague. I assumed he was a camper, meeting his friends like he said. But that hunger, his unwashed clothes, that story about his grandma and neglectful parents. Yeah, we can stop somewhere, I said. I left home when I was a teenager with no support from my own parents. I hadn’t seen or talked to them since. If it wasn’t for the scholarship to school, which a high school teacher clued me in on and helped me with, I could be like Bryce. I asked him, Where do you want to go? He considered for a moment. There had been signs for fast food at upcoming exits. You know what? he said. Did you see there’s a Cracker Barrel coming up?

            I tried to remember how far. We had passed Dawson Springs, and I figured it was about fifteen minutes out of the way. Also, he said, and he kept rubbing the back of his head because he didn’t want to say the next words. Could you lend me a few bucks for it? I considered my money. I thought Bryce might have picked from the assortment of drive thru chains, which would be cheaper. I forgot how much Cracker Barrel meals cost. No more than ten dollars, right? I could buy Bryce’s meal, and I didn’t need to eat. Next time I stopped for gas I wouldn’t fill the whole tank. There was Bryce waiting for my reply. Shaving off ten dollars would be okay. Don’t worry, I said. I can get it for you. The relief in his Thanks man gave me satisfaction.

            After turning onto the Pennyrile, I followed signs to Cracker Barrel. Bryce and I walked in, passing the row of rockers out front. I hadn’t been to one of these in years. When I grew up in Leitchfield the closest one was in Elizabethtown, and going there was a treat for birthdays and Easter and the rare Sunday when my dad would declare after church, How about we go to the Barrel? My mom usually cooked Sunday meals, and this was a gesture my dad offered so she could take that Sunday off. He said it with pride, giving his family a luxury, the whole trip treated as an extravagance.

            I gave them my name. The place was packed with a considerable wait, but that was the point if you wanted to peruse the store, which I was awed by as a kid, endless. Now as an adult, it seemed excessive. I stood with my arms folded, the lively crowd making me uncomfortable, children running, parents telling them to be careful. Bryce loved everything. In the time we waited for our table he riffled through all he could: clothes, movies, Fourth of July decorations, toys and games, stuffed animals, dishware, figurines, candy. He would hold something up. You want this? How about this? Look how cool this is.

            They finally called my name and seated us. I got the sense that other tables, locals, eyed us like a threat, wondering what we were doing in their town. I grew up with the type. They were probably suspicious of Bryce, rough looking. Bryce ended up ordering a classic breakfast. You’re not eating, he said to me when I ordered my coffee. I told him I just ate. You can have some of my biscuits, he said. He played that peg game while we waited for our food, and when it arrived he told me stories of his mountain climbing, animated with hand gestures. Once he got up from his seat to simulate what he described, and I didn’t care what onlookers thought. He claimed he almost died a few times. I like the rush, he said, scarfing hash browns soaked in egg yolk and ketchup. This was a treat for Bryce like it had once been a treat for me as a kid, maybe the most substantial meal he had in a few days.

            When we left, as I pulled out of the parking lot, Bryce said, Hey look what I got. He emptied his loot onto the floor. A snow globe, a cat stuffed animal, a mug, sacks of candy, a mini figurine, a small jar of jam, pouring out from under his shirt, pants, pockets, shoes. Holy shit, I said. How did you? I was amazed at how much he could fit on himself. When did you get all this? He opened the jar of jam, stuck his finger in and licked. It must’ve been when I was in the bathroom and he waited for me in the shop. I had only shoplifted once. As a teenager one of my only friends convinced me to take a cheap bracelet, the kind popular in the late 90’s made of puka shells, from the mall, a typical dumb teenage act, pretending at rebellion.

            You can’t just, I said. You can’t just do that. He tilted the snow globe and watched the glitter fall. Yes I can, he said. I just did. I considered telling him to take it all back, but what was done was done. He said, I wanted to get some souvenirs. He held up the stuffed animal. You want the cat? Or the globe? I don’t know, I said. Taking one of them would make me part of the crime. He said, Well I have to get you something for driving me, and for the food. How about the globe. I gave in and said that was okay. And I found I took pleasure in feeling complicit, a feeling I resisted but then settled into.

            As I followed signs to get back on the Western Kentucky, Bryce said, Wait, I gotta use the bathroom. He drummed his leg like he was waiting for something. I pulled into the nearest gas station, and before the car came to a full stop he flung out the door and hurried into the food mart, leaving me to wait. I shut off the car to save gas despite the heat. I thought more about Bryce’s shoplifting. He had been kind to me, non-threatening, but his unpredictability was unsettling. But then my next feeling: That was exciting. I didn’t think Bryce was dangerous, but a part of me, dark and deep, wanted him to be, and his stealing heightened this want.

            He had been taking a long time in the food mart. I wondered if he got distracted and was checking out the items in the store, and I thought that maybe he was shoplifting again. I debated whether I should check on him. I was already behind schedule for when Debbie expected me in Louisville, so I was partially annoyed with how long he was taking. Right when I was about to get out of the car, I saw him on the side of the building. How long had he been out here? He looked around, aimless like he didn’t know where he was. I approached him, and he walked toward me with big steps. His eyes different, glazed over like jewels, and as I got closer he squinted at me like I was a stranger. Hey, he said. It’s you. I knew you would come. I said, Yeah, it is me. He tugged my arm, and I was surprised at this sudden touch, and he pulled me into him, wrapping himself around me in a hug, his scent permeating into me. I considered what others around us thought, some truckers to our left, and decided I wouldn’t let that bother me. I lead him to the car, and he nestled into the passenger seat.

            When I got back on the expressway, Bryce fidgeted in his seat. His leg thumps were bigger, and now he alternated between both legs. He held his arms, generating friction as he rubbed them, but the car wasn’t cold. He had been somewhat erratic before, but there was a change in him now. I wondered what he did in that bathroom. Are you okay? I asked. He said, I thought you would never ask. I’m fucking great, man. Can’t you drive faster? I was going almost ten above the speed limit, cautious about getting pulled over. I told him this. He said, No one’s gonna pull us over. Come on. I bet you can’t go twenty over. He was testing me. Ordinarily I would brush this off as immature, but I came back to that feeling, complicit with him. I pressed my foot against the acceleration, watched the speedometer climb. Bryce delighted, laughing, clapped his hands. I was fifteen above now, at eighty-five. Bryce draped himself over me, checking to see how fast I was going, his shoulder and upper body across me. Come on, he commanded. He grabbed my shoulder, his clench rippling into my whole frame. I said twenty over. You’re not there yet. I bet you’ve never gone twenty over in your life. It was true I hadn’t. My older car couldn’t handle it, and I avoided getting a ticket because of their cost. Bryce’s hand clawed around me was my safety. We were speeding together. I went even faster, past twenty, twenty-five, the engine revving, thirty, riding the rhythms of speed and the road with him, a rush. We kept climbing. Momentum and force, his hand guiding me. He bobbed up and down, like a child thrilled at the prospect of ice cream or new toy. Fuck yeah, Bryce shouted.

            I came to my senses. I imagined how it would play out if we got pulled over, what Bryce would do if confronted by an officer, if he would be combative or if the cop would be able to tell that Bryce was fucked up and associate me with him. And I had already given Bryce a thrill. I slowed down. What are you doing? Bryce said. Slowing down, I said. He said, Come on. We were just having some fun. I brought the car back to the speed limit. Bryce slouched in disappointment. You fucking fucker, he said, looking at me like I betrayed him. I can’t believe you, he said. Then he shoved me hard, which made me swerve the car. I held my breath, scared, then gained control. If there had been a car in the other lane I would’ve rammed them. Hey, I said. Are you trying to get us killed? He laughed an uncontrollable laugh, hysterical, hunched over, and he kept going on like that, laughing. Then he sat back up. Hey, you’re going to listen to me, you hear, pointing his pointer. He reached in his pocket, and I saw it in the corner of my eye, glinting. He replaced his pointer with the point of a blade aimed at me. Hey, he said. I asked if you heard me. You hear me? I nodded my head. What was that? I want to hear you say it. He brought the knife closer, an inch away from my lower right abdomen. All of my breath felt lodged in my throat. Yes. I’ll do what you said, I stammered.

            He was satisfied with my response. Danger, I thought. This is dangerous, what I had asked for, but not like this. I didn’t think Bryce had a weapon, and I felt stupid, that I had gotten myself in this situation. But there he was next to me. I was still so attracted to him. He held my life in his hands at the end of a knife. Good, he said. That’s real good. I was relieved. I would go along with whatever he told me. Look, I said. I don’t want any trouble. I’ll do what you say. I’ll take you to wherever you need to go. Red River Gorge, right? I saw that we had passed the city of Graham, heading toward Central City. He said, What the fuck you talking about? I’m not going there. I said, But, didn’t you say you were going mountain climbing? He threw his head back and laughed that same laugh. Fuck no, he said. I got a load to sell back here, and he took the knife off me to motion to his pack in the back seat. Meeting up with some friends of mine, and we’re going to make fucking bank off it, he said. The drugs, whatever kind he had taken in the gas station bathroom. He put the knife back on me. Okay, I said. I’ll take you wherever you need to go. He brought the knife closer and said, Damn right you will. I wanted him to tell me where that was exactly, but I didn’t want to press him, afraid it might make him angry.

            You wanna come with me, don’t you, mister? he said, shifting, startling me. He gave me that title again, though I still wasn’t sure what it meant. He was holding me hostage, and this title insinuated I was in a role of authority. Or was it an affectionate term? What if I did go with him, wherever he was going? I could ditch Louisville and Debbie, the shit job I likely needed to take to get on my feet. This idea, leaving everything and following Bryce, lifted up and burrowed into my skin, heart, throat, shoulders, body, an alternate possibility. His knife on me was a thrill, my life his, for him and no one else. He said, I can tell you do. I can feel it. Come with me, he said. What do you say? That story about his parents and grandma. I could’ve been like him if things had gone differently. When I left home, my parents and family, if I hadn’t been able to go school, I might have been homeless, drifting like him. I was already on the brink of homelessness. That story about his grandma, what had endeared me to him initially, I realized now was probably a lie. He said, Are you going to answer me?, brandishing the knife closer. I don’t know, I said. My answer surprised me. It was closer to the truth. I didn’t know.

            What do you mean you don’t know? Bryce said. His eyes widened to bright bulbs. I had set him off, should have told him I would go regardless of my uncertainty. He said, You’ve looked down on me ever since you saw me, and that’s a goddamn fact. You rich bitch school boy. His assessment of me was wrong: I had no money, no job. At school I had sat in dark lecture halls, the slides in my art history courses clicking away, each instructor providing details, context, analysis. I took notes dutifully, memorized everything with mnemonic devices for the tests, retained them for the finals, and when the semester was over they emptied from my mind. This is what I did for four years, and now it was over.

            How much money you got? I was shaky, my hand wobbly on the steering wheel, as he pushed the end of the knife against my lower right abdomen, the thin fabric of my shirt the barrier between my flesh and the tip. I said, Only about twenty-five. He said, Bullshit, with a scoff. I wasn’t lying: that was all the money I had. Tell the goddamn truth, he said. The pinch of the blade against me. Would he really cut me? As I was driving? His face was slack and stern. My wallet, I said. You can look in my wallet. He said, All right then. I said, It’s in my back pocket. I need to reach in my back pocket. This suggested he needed to get the knife off me if I was going to use my free hand to reach around. His eyes narrowed, skeptical. Okay, he said. But you better not try anything. He slowly removed the knife, and I retrieved my wallet and handed it to him. He opened it and pulled out the twenty and five. He said, And this is it? Yes, I said. That’s all I have. This is bullshit, he said. This. He held up my debit card. He said, You fucking liar. There’s gotta be more on this. I had withdrawn all of my money, fearing that if I used my card I might accidentally overdraw. No, I said. My account is empty. He said, Give me a fucking break. Now you’re a goddamn liar. I want you to show me. I said, What do you mean? He thumped his leg up and down more, stuck the knife at me again. Are you questioning me? He was so serious, but then he broke out in laughter, that hysterical laughter from before, like he had been putting on an act, and was so surprised at himself it was funny. No, I said. I’m not questioning you. Like I said, there’s no money in my account. I withdrew all of it for this trip. He said, after composing himself, We’ll see about that. Next exit. Stop off.

            I thought about which exits were next. Caneyville, then Leitchfield, which is where I grew up. I hadn’t gone back since I left, five years before. This one? I said, as we were two miles from Caneyville. Bryce had taken the knife off me, I noticed, maybe when he was laughing, and that alleviated my fear. No, Bryce said. Are you kidding? Not some podunk place. We need a place with an ATM. We’ll stop at the next one. He was right. Caneyville was scarce in the way of options for gas and shops and restaurants. This meant driving into Leitchfield, which lodged a pit in my stomach, my fear all over again, but a different fear, the fear of my past. I told myself it would be fine. We would go to a gas station ATM. I would show Bryce the twenty-five cash was all I had. And then what? A vague idea of trying to escape entered my mind, but what would I do? I didn’t have any ideas. If I tried something and it failed, I worried how Bryce would react. But I was also scared of what he would do to me the longer this continued. He was telling some story about how he and some friends wanted to start a band, mimicking an air guitar, singing some song he wrote without a melody. Silences unsettled him. He always had to fill the emptiness with something.

            When we came to the Leitchfield exit, he put the knife on me again. Get off here, he said. I never thought I would take this exit. I took solace knowing we weren’t going into town itself, just the strip of the gas stations next to the highway. He directed me to some Chevron or Shell, and we didn’t see the lit-up letters advertising an ATM. He told me to go to the next one, and I was grateful when I saw this station had an ATM, that we wouldn’t need to go into town to find a bank. I pulled up to the front. Bryce leaned over me, the green-red hawk of his neck tattoo swooping, his skin so delicate. I still noticed him, that desire for him present underneath the fear. He had leaned to take my keys from the ignition, cutting off the engine, and he dropped them on the ground, fumbling, the drugs in his head, and after he picked the keys up, he said, Stay here. He got out of the car and looped around to my driver’s side, opened my door for me like it was a courtesy. I got out, and from behind he tugged me into him, my back against his front. I could feel his hips securing me to him, and into my ear he said, We’re going in here. I still have the knife on you if you try anything. Act normal. Got it? His breath hot on my neck, like he was touching me without touching. He was holding me at knife point to rob me, and I was aroused. You’re going to open your account and withdraw all of your money.

            In the shop I came to the ATM and pulled up my account. He told me to check the balance, and I showed him the zero on the screen. Goddamn. Fuck, he said. I didn’t know what came next. He forced me back to the car, shoving me into the driver’s seat. He sat back in the passengers, slamming the door. He punched the dash, huffing. Then he breathed deeply and settled, placing his face in his cupped hands. His body next to me, that desire again I couldn’t help. Then it came out of me, surprising myself so much I didn’t know if I really said it or not. But here I was, saying it. I said, I could… hesitating briefly. But then. I could still come with you, I said. He turned to me suspiciously. What do you mean? Like he had forgotten when he asked me to come along with him. We still have the twenty-five, I said. We can still go wherever you’re going. I can still come with you, I said. My life was nothing, I had nothing holding me back. Following Bryce wherever he was going. I wanted someone to take me anywhere else from where I had been headed, and here he was.

            He squinted at me, examining me, and I felt exposed. You, he said, the knife waving at me, accusatory. I’ve seen you. The air conditioning was on full blast, blowing onto our bodies, and my face went hot. What? I said. What do you mean? Barely choking out the words. I’ve seen you, he said again. I’ve seen you looking at me. Watching me, he said. He un-squinted his eyes, opening them. I was caught, always my fear, looking at a man and desiring him, a man I shouldn’t. It was happening here with Bryce. My whole body was hot now, weak, heart pumping into my throat, not knowing how to respond. Yeah, I finally said. What else could I say?

            You’re like, Bryce said. You’re like, into me. He said this like he was trying it on, seeing how it felt, having to come to the realization by saying it aloud. He kept eyeing me, yet he seemed softened and still, his tear drop tattoo at the corner of his eye. Suddenly he put his arm around me, startling me at first, and he brought me into him closer, gradually like slow motion until our faces were so close I could feel his breath. He turned, exposing his neck, and what came naturally to me was to kiss, that neck. I placed my lips, seeing how he would react. He shuddered. He hadn’t been touched in a very long time. Then he settled, and I kissed more, his neck, the skin. He tasted briny and sweet, and he sighed with a quiet moan. I touched his stomach, emaciated, my hand riding his breaths. I stopped, pulled back to see what he was feeling, what he would do. I wanted his body, on me and in me.

            No, he said, changing his tone. No. Get the fuck off me. He switched from relaxed and calm at my touch to anger within a second. He gazed at the ground like he was confused. Get the fuck off me, he said again, even though I wasn’t touching him anymore. You, he said, pointing the knife. Don’t touch me. I can’t be touched. He slammed my face into the steering wheel, the horn going off, my nose bashed. I grabbed it in pain, my forehead aching. I had to comprehend what happened, couldn’t think. He punched me in the gut, winded me so I had a hard time breathing. Get out, he said. Get away from me. He opened my door and shoved me out. I was so disoriented. My body slumped to the ground of the parking lot. He walked around to my door, and he kicked me in the stomach. Get away, he shouted. Then he kicked my head. An echo in my ears, like the sensation of laying back into bathtub water. I heard a voice above us, an outsider. He was saying something like, That’s enough. Leave him alone. I could barely hear. Bryce said something, I couldn’t make out what it was. The other voice, louder, said something else, barking commands. I stood, hobbling. A ringing in my ears.

            I turned to my right, the car door opened. Where was Bryce? Sound came back, gradually, then I could hear fully again. I heard that same voice. Hey, are you okay? My head had been spinning and it stopped, and I could focus. Next to me was an older man, baggy jeans, thick set and stocky, an American flag t-shirt, gray beard on a rounded face. Looked like he clocked you pretty hard, he said. Why don’t you sit? He led me to the driver’s seat. I hunched over with my feet out the side. Here, he said. A water bottle appeared, and I drank. What? What happened? I asked. Where is he? This man, looking at me with worry and pity. Don’t know, he said. I pulled him off you. He was about to beat you more, so I pulled him off, told him to cool it, leave you alone. He yelled at me. Nonsense mostly. He was on some shit. You, he said. You fucked up, too? I shook my head. No, I’m not, I said. Okay, this man said, believing me. Anyway, I told him I would call the cops. Then he ran off. That way. This man was probably pointing in a direction, but I continued looking to the ground. My whole face hurt. Who was that guy? he asked me. Bryce, his body, his neck, skin, his smile when he talked, his leg bouncing. He was, I began. No one. He was no one. Okay, the man said. This man could’ve been my dad. My dad was here in town, only a few roads away. You want to call the cops? he asked. I pictured this scenario, and it would only add to how embarrassed I already felt. No, I said. I’ll be okay. All right then, the man said. If he comes back and gives you trouble. Or if you need anything, you let me know. I’m on a rest stop with some buddies, and we’re right over here. I said, Thanks, and sipped the water. I must’ve looked horrible. Take care now, he said, and he was gone.

            When I rested my head in my hands, my face felt enormous and swollen. I needed to clean up. I made my way into the store, tried not to streak any blood on the door handle, but some wiped off anyway. Onlookers waiting in the cash register line stared at me, some of them whispering to each other. I hurried to the restroom, luckily a private single I could lock. In the mirror, the image of my face, fissured, blood streaming out of my nose, which looked broken, my eye sockets lined with bruising. I hadn’t cried from physical pain since I was younger, but I was almost there at this point. I splashed water on my face carefully, because touching my face hurt badly, even worse when I tried to clean it with paper towels. My stomach felt like I needed to vomit, and I dry heaved. I went back to the car. I couldn’t find the keys, panicked that Bryce ran off with them, until I finally found them after searching for a good fifteen minutes, under the passenger’s. I sat back in the driver’s seat. I would call Debbie and tell her I was late. I would think of an excuse the rest of my way there. In my side view, sitting on the ground, the globe. I picked it up, upturned it, and through the hurt of my face I examined the snowy glitter falling down. Bryce. I had ignited something in him he was so scared of, that he saw in me. I half expected him to show back up, but no, he was gone. Drifting. And I was drifting, too, maybe not quite in the same way as he was, but drifting all the same. I would get on the road and drive to wherever I was headed next.



On Sandy Beach

We drove the road to Sandy Beach every Saturday. First me and Grandma, and then me, Grandma, and Fetu, after he was introduced to the family and before he decided to leave it. In the morning, when the fog hung, we couldn’t tell what was land and what was ocean. If we could, we would have seen that the road was carved in sea cliffs that rose to the left and on the right fell straight down to the Pacific.

            My favorite part of the drive was when it was over, but Fetu loved the last turn. On early mornings we stopped at the lookout and watched the sunrise turn the night-black water purple and gold. Sometimes it didn’t look like water at all. It looked like a road we could run away on.



            In early summer, Grandma liked to make lei. She’d invite us over, and we came, laden with the bounty of our gardens. Though he was always welcome, my mother’s brother, Uncle Alema, rarely joined, excusing himself with his work at the police station. But that June he came, and with him he brought Fetu.

            As we parked in front of Grandma’s, I got Mom’s first attempt at an explanation.

            “Today we’re going to meet your cousin,” she said.

            I was five and not sure what she meant. “Who?” I asked.

            We stood in front of grandma’s locked wooden gate, nestled between two bay rums. Mom knocked, impatient.

            “Uncle Alema has a son,” she told me. “He’s been living with his mother.”

            I snatched a handful of the bay rum’s leaves just as Alema answered the gate.

            “Mom’s on the deck with her friends,” he said.

            The glossy leaves crushed in my fist as I followed Mom in.

            I had always disliked my uncle, even before what happened with Fetu. Dad left when I was two, and I wasn’t used to being around men. It didn’t help that everything that came out of Alema’s mouth was double-edged. I never wanted to be alone with him, and though I hadn’t told this to Mom, she knew it. She pulled me in front of her, and I dropped the bruised leaves. The air with their spicy scent as Alema shut the gate behind us.

            Grandma’s deck wasn’t actually a deck, but the converted roof of her garage. To get up there, we had to climb a wooden ladder. Worn by years of use, its wooden rungs were smooth. My hands and feet slid, rushed by Mom’s hands on my ankles.

            “My favorite girls!” Grandma said when we got to the top. She was already garlanded. “Give me a kiss.”

            We did, and Mom complimented Grandma’s mango tree, heavy with humpbacked Haydens that were just beginning to ripen. I dumped our bag of soaked flowers over the toweled table and smoothed the blossoms with my hands. Then, with Mom distracted, I escaped to my corner.

            At these lei parties, I sat at the edge of the deck. There, wedged between pots of orchids, I could avoid the questions of Grandma’s friends. But that night, a boy sat in my corner. He saw me just as I saw him.

            “I’m Fetu,” he said. He was seven years old then.

            He twisted the ribbed scythe of a mango leaf in his hands. At this gesture, I found my own nerves relax.

            “Can I sit with you?” I asked.

            He pushed the pot beside him so I could fit. A flock of parrots roosted in the tree above us. Our legs swung in time.

            “My mom says they’re escaped house pets,” I told him.

            “Do you think we would make it if we jumped?” Fetu asked.

            I looked down at the mondo grass below. “Definitely not,” I said.

            The air of early evening was steamy with summer. Half-lost in the neighbors’ trees, the sun’s compromised light made everything soft. Beads of sweat strung the skin above my upper lip. Fetu held up an immature, green mango.

            “Should I throw it?” he asked.

            “At what?”

            Just then, Alema walked out of the house, wiping his hands on his pants. Fetu pointed at my uncle, and I said no, but he was already cocking his arm back. The mango flew, spiraling through the air, imbalanced. It clocked Alema on the side of the head.


            Alema reached up to where the mango had hit him. Behind us, the party quieted. I glanced back to see Grandma in a haku, Mom’s hand frozen mid-pour above Grandma’s wine glass. Alema’s gaze hardened when it landed on us.

            “Which one of you threw that?” he asked.

            “I did,” Fetu said.

            “Down here. Now.” Alema’s voice was clipped with anger.

            Fetu walked across the deck, and I stood to watch him. My heart pounded in time with the hollow sound of his feet on the ladder’s rungs. Mom stood beside me, and I leaned in to press my head against her bony hip.

            “What the fuck did you think you were doing?” Alema demanded. He picked the mango up and held it in his hand. “Are you an idiot?”

            Fetu didn’t answer. It was then, as he stood across from Alema, that I realized it. The long profile of their noses were shaped by the same hand. Alema tapped Fetu on the forehead with the mango. I flinched.

            “I said,” Alema tapped him again, harder, “are you an idiot?”

            “No,” Fetu said.

            I was surprised by the stability of his voice, that he was not crying as I would have. Then Alema slapped Fetu across the face with his empty hand.

            Mom gasped. “Alema!” she said.

            Alema looked up and dropped the mango. Mom was across the deck, down the ladder; she ran to them. Kneeling in front of Fetu, she held his face in her hands. A red handprint spread its five-petaled stamp on Fetu’s cheek. Behind me, someone whispered.

            Mom took Fetu into the house, and I retreated to sit next to Grandma. The gate slammed, and Alema’s truck roared outside. Grandma squeezed my hand.

            “Why don’t you start,” she said, and passed me a lei needle.

            The party thawed as everyone returned to what they’d been doing. One of Grandma’s friends strummed an ukulele. I threaded the needle like Mom had taught me, licking the tip of the string and passing it through the eye. Grabbing plumeria after plumeria, I repeatedly stabbed blossoms, thinking of the heavy sound of Alema’s hand on Fetu’s face. As the needle filled, I pushed the flowers down to hang loosely on the thread.

            By the time Mom and Fetu came back, everyone was singing again.

            Mom sat Fetu down beside me. The tips of his hair were wet, and his eyes were red. Mom sat across from us. I handed Fetu my half-strung lei.

            “Do you want to finish mine?” I asked. “I don’t like the color.”

            He took it. I grabbed another needle.

            “Here, I’ll show you,” I said.

            Mom watched as the two of us thread lei, sorted through the flowers for the best. We alternated colors. We tore petals. We pricked our fingers every now and then. Our blood mixed with the flowers’ sap. When we finished the lei, we hung them around each other’s necks.

            Later, after we’d left Fetu with Grandma, I thought of how scared Fetu must be, having been taken from his mom to live with a strange man.

            “I’m proud of you. You did good today,” Mom said.

            That was five years before the kiss.



            Sandy’s was the type of beach where necks got broken. Most dangerous were the shallows. There, where Fetu and I played, the sea floor inclined without a buffer between the break of the wave and hard-packed sand.

            Though there were dozens of safer beaches we could have gone to, Grandma couldn’t boogie board there, or stop by Costco after. She probably shouldn’t have taken us to Sandy’s, and she definitely shouldn’t have left us alone to bodysurf, but she did, and she wasn’t the only grandparent to do it.

            I stood on the shore. Goliath waves broke in front of me. I was eleven, and Fetu and I had been going to Sandy’s for six years. Feet from me, he played in the whitewater as a wave built behind him. I wanted to warn him, but didn’t, knowing he’d laugh. When the wave broke, he dove under it.

            Whitewash bubbled around my ankles. Sand covered my toes, chunky bits of coral, shell and bone that had been smoothed in the constant rhythm of the ocean. It sucked at my feet, pulling me in.

            Fetu’s head floated in the bubbles. “You’re wet.” He splashed me. “Come in.”

            He stood, water dripping from him, shining as I wished I could. Every drop of water glistened, catching the sun. It wasn’t just the water I was scared of. Sometimes I was also scared of him. He was fast, forever springing into motion, and with him I often found myself on edge. It’s not that I didn’t trust him, it’s that I was scared of most things then. And part of me was unsure about how I felt, about the weird pull I got in my gut when I thought about him.

            The next wave’s foam swirled around my knees. My fair skin burned in the sun. I longed for the relief of water surrounding me, suspending every hair on my body, but could not dive into the ocean like Fetu. I turned to run up the sand berms, to where Grandma had set up our umbrella, but before I could, Fetu was on me. He tackled me into the sand.

            When we fell, it was harder than I expected.

            At the edge of the shorebreak, we wrestled. Waves shot water up our suits, in our ears and eyes, splaying my hair around my head. Fetu laughed. Out of the ocean, his brown hair was spiky. His lashes were blond-tipped. He pinned me down, rubbing sand into my suit and face, a handful into my hair. At first, I laughed too, but soon the sand became rough. Its grains dug into my scalp, grew hard against my skin. They slipped in my mouth and when I bit down, the grains crunched. I elbowed him, and then suddenly, he was pulled off.

            A lifeguard stood over us, face shaded by a red cap.

            “You okay?” he asked.

            Instead of answering, I glanced at Fetu, who sat five feet from me, behind the lifeguard. His hand clenched around a fistful of sand. A strand of my blonde hair curled between his fingers.

            Grandma slipped up the beach, still in her fins. “I’m so sorry,” she apologized.

            The lifeguard ignored her, handing me a bottle of water. “Rinse your mouth,” he said.

            I took a sip and swished. Fetu leaned forward onto his knees as he watched me, brows pinching with nerves. The freshwater was sweet in my mouth. Spitting, I found no blood or teeth, only saliva and broken fragments of sand. The next wave whisked what I’d spit back to the depths.

            “I’m okay,” I said, and Fetu let out a long breath.

            “You shouldn’t leave them unsupervised,” the lifeguard said to Grandma. “The beach is busy, and I don’t see everything.”

            She was quiet, and he sighed.

            “Take care of yourself,” he told me. Then he walked back down the beach to his tower, raising his radio to say something I couldn’t hear as Fetu crawled across the sand to sit back next to me.

            “What were you thinking?” Grandma asked Fetu.

            He took my hand without saying anything.

            “You know what,” Grandma said. “I don’t want to know. We’re leaving.”

            Fetu and I held hands as she corralled us over the hot sand, only dropping them to help Grandma pick up the towels. It was earlier than we usually left, but we both knew not to argue. We both knew that with Grandma, like Alema, it was best not to say anything.

            Barefoot, we tip-toed across the pokie-filled grass to the beach park showers which even then were rusted and covered in algae. Smooth bars of soap and crusted shampoo bottles were shoved between pipes, left by the unhoused and beach regulars. Grandma squeezed a bit on each of our heads before disappearing into the bathroom.

            “I’m sorry about tackling you,” Fetu said.

            I massaged the shampoo. It was quiet besides the sound of suds popping.

            “It’s okay,” I said.

            Fetu took a handful of bubbles from my head and patted it to his face, shaping a beard.

            “Let’s play a game,” he said.

            I looked to see if Grandma was still in the bathroom.

            “What kind of game?” I asked.

            “Tag,” he said, and reached for me.

            Under my feet, the cement was mossy and slick. I stepped back, and fell before he could touch me. The ground was hard against my bottom. The sting of hurt and shampoo mixed. I began to cry.

            “I’m sorry.” Fetu was on his knees.

            He wiped the suds from my forehead. If Grandma saw me crying again, she would tell Alema, and we both know what that would mean for Fetu. I let Fetu wash the moss from my elbows and back. He rubbed gently, until I was no longer slimy. Something inside me warmed. I looked up at him.

            “It hurts,” I said.

            Fetu helped me up and we looked at my elbows. There were no scratches or blood, but a warm flesh had crept to the surface.

            “It’s going to bruise,” Fetu told me.

            Over our heads, kites flew, dotting the sky in green and red. My chest rose and fell in shallow breaths. Fetu poked my cheek and stuck out his tongue. I laughed. Just then, Grandma came out of the bathroom. Fetu ducked under the shower to wash the bubbles from his cheeks. At the car, we changed into clothes and from across the backseat, I watched as Fetu stripped off his suit. Outside the window, Grandma held up a towel, hiding us from the eyes of the people who passed. Fetu watched me back.



            At Costco, I helped Grandma shop. Fetu skated through the aisles, sneaking free samples and playing hide n’ seek with himself. Each item Grandma and I crossed off the grocery list was a little victory, and we barely noticed Fetu was gone until he met us at the exit. Leaving the cool of the warehouse, we unloaded the shopping cart into Grandma’s car, and when we were done, we got in.

            From Costco to Grandma’s was another half hour. I was hungry and tired from the sun. Fetu and I leaned against the locked car doors and faced each other. He pressed his feet against mine. Behind him, shower trees passed through the glass of the car window in a kaleidoscope of color. We spent the whole ride like that.

            Back at Grandma’s house, we helped bring the food in, the dogs following us as we did. Grandma made us turkey and cheese sandwiches while Fetu and I sat at the kitchen counter. I was more tired than hungry, and after half a sandwich, I was in pain, the overly toasted sourdough cutting the top of my mouth. I set the sandwich down and took a long sip of water.

            “Finish your food,” Grandma said.

            Fetu was already done and had left me alone at the counter as he played with Grandma’s shells, driving cones across the floor like cars. I forced bites down like pills, swallowing each with a gulp of water. When my plate was finally empty, Grandma took it.

            “It’s time for a nap,” she said.

            In the bedroom, we changed into pajamas as Grandma set up our mattress. She left, and I lay down, the fresh sheets crisp and cool beneath my sun-warmed skin. Fetu dozed beside me.

            Everything in that room was green. In fact, everything in the house was, from the forest of Grandma’ towels to the mint of her walls. Even the light, cracking the blinds, was filtered green through leaves. In all that green, I thought of growing. I thought of the tree outside, the grass, the garden. I thought of how Fetu had looked when I first met him, in the fading summer light. I fell into a shallow state of dreaming.

            I woke to the ceiling fan spinning. It felt like I had not slept at all. The mattress moved, rustling the sheets. When I turned, Fetu was so close I could see the sand in his scalp. Under his left eye, I noticed a triangle of freckles I’d never seen before.

            “Hey,” he whispered.

            His breath smelled of turkey. I began to sweat. Tendrils of breeze tugged at my leg hair. Outside, Grandma talked to the dogs as she fed them. Hard pellets rattled as she poured food into their metal bowls, a shot of water in each so it was soft enough to chew.

            My mouth was dry. My lips were chapped. Fetu kissed me, and I let him do it.

            His tongue explored me with a certainty I had not anticipated. He tasted sour. When he pulled away, I counted the spins of the fan, tried to make faces out of the cracks in the ceiling. I fell back to sleep with Fetu’s warm hand on my chest, but when I woke he was gone.



            A year later Amy entered our lives. She started off as a clerk at the police station where Alema worked, and then before we knew it, she had moved into Alema’s house. She brought with her a host of problems, most noticeably her dislike of me, Fetu, and my mom. But while Mom and I had it easy, had our own apartment we could escape to, Fetu was stuck there, in the house with her. I was too busy growing up then to realize how hard that was on him.

            Years passed and Fetu and I went to different schools. We made different friends. I took up volleyball. He became the starting quarterback. As we got older, I retreated into my shyness, and Fetu began practicing manhood the only way he knew how, mimicking his father’s anger and accumulating a string of girlfriends. Because of all this, I barely saw him.

            And then, Amy got pregnant. I was sixteen, Fetu seventeen then. We had stopped going to Sandy’s, and only saw each other on holidays, when my mom and I drove over the Pali to Kailua, where Alema, Amy, and Fetu lived. Their house was a single-story. Fetu slept in a room behind the kitchen. The few times I sat on his bed, it didn’t smell like him. It smelled of burnt pasta, dry chicken, the plastic of Lean Cuisine dinners Amy ate, post-pregnancy. He never complained about it.

            When Harrison was born, Amy said he’d sleep with her and Alema for the first few months, and after that he’d move to the back room with Fetu. I remember how Fetu looked when Amy said that, how he speared the turkey on his plate, how the hand in his lap clenched.

            I wasn’t there a few months after that conversation, when Fetu got arrested. It was just Amy and Harrison. But I’ve heard the story so many times that I can reconstruct it.

            It starts in the kitchen. Amy stands, reaching. She is trying to open the microwave oven. Her belly hangs over her skirt, a reminder of the body she had before Harrison. She’ll never have that body again.

            Alema is sleeping at a cot in the police station. Fetu is in his room, the door to the kitchen open. In the living room, Harrison cries. Amy leans against the counter and blows on her leftovers.

            “Go check on him,” she says.

            When Harrison sees Fetu, he stops crying. He smiles with his gums and kicks his chubby legs so hard he rocks the high chair. On the ground lies a bowl of spilt Cheerios.

            Amy stands in the doorway.

            “Pick them up,” she says.

            Fetu sweeps the Cheerios into a dustbin. He thinks he has them all and turns to empty them out. Amy stops him. She points at the corner of the room that has not been swept for months. There is a tangle of human hair, feathers, dust. There is a single Cheerio.

            “Sweep it up,” she says.

            He sweeps it up.

            In the kitchen he empties the dustbin into the trash. He puts the broom and bin away and opens the fridge. Grabbing peanut butter and jelly for a sandwich, he puts them on the counter. The fridge door is left open.

            “You’re letting the cold air out,” Amy says.

            “It wasn’t open long,” he says.

            She stomps over to the fridge and grabs the loaf of bread. “Look,” she says. “Let me show you how easy it is.” She closes the door and puts the bread on the counter, walks back to the fridge and opens it again. “See. Simple. You do it.”

            Fetu doesn’t move.

            “Do it,” she says.

            “I don’t want to,” he says.

            “Just fucking do it, Fetu.”

            She grabs his shirt. He tries to shrug her off, but her fingers are hooked into his armpit. So he pushes her. He throws her across the room. Hitting the counter, she falls to the floor.

            Fetu takes a step towards her, and she flinches. Her right wrist hangs from her arm like a bracelet should. It doesn’t look like part of her.

            “I’m sorry,” he says.

            She elbows him away with her good arm and stands, cradling her wrist.

            “I’m calling your father. I’m calling the cops,” she says.

            This is where we come in. This is when Fetu called my mother. She and I were sitting, taking a break from dancing to Frank Sinatra. We had just finished dinner and our sides were in stitches after spinning around the apartment.

            “Can you come get me?” he asked over speakerphone.

            I turned the music off. He was crying, his voice thick through the static.

            “I need your help,” he said.

            He tried to explain what had happened. It was a story Amy would retell and contradict.

            “I don’t know what to do,” he said.

            I grabbed the keys.

            “We’re coming,” Mom told him, and then we were driving to him.

            The cops were at the house when we got there. Their lights flashed down the quiet dead end. Fetu sat in one of the cop cars, and when he saw us, he raised his hands to the window. He was handcuffed and crying. Amy stood in front of the house, yelling at the police. Mom tried to talk to the officers, but they wouldn’t listen to her. They told her to get Alema to call. They told her to find Fetu’s mother. When the cops drove off, their sirens pierced through the rolled-up car windows, and we sat there and listened, long after they’d left.



            We were only there when Fetu got sacked because Mom had promised Fetu we’d go to his game. I was usually playing volleyball, so we rarely got the chance. The game had already started by the time we got there. The bleachers were full, but Grandma had saved us seat beside her in the third row. When she saw us looking for her, she stood and waved, a white hibiscus pinned behind her ear.

            By then, Fetu had been living with Grandma for a few months. Amy hadn’t pressed charges, but Alema had kicked Fetu out. From what Fetu told me, life with Grandma was boring but safe. In the mornings they blended smoothies, and Grandma took him to school. She did chores and saw friends until it was time for him to be picked up. Sometimes she’d watch from the parking lot while he played football. They’d go home for dinner, then take the dogs out. Each night ended in the living room, where Fetu did schoolwork and Grandma read.

            The only time Fetu said he was happy was when we picked him up to surf. Out on the water, he said he felt free. While Mom and I caught waves, he’d paddle out past the lineup to sit and look at the horizon. Sometimes he’d lie back and stare at the sky. I’d try to imagine what he was feeling, but I felt so far away from him then, like I was somewhere below the ocean while he floated in light.

            On the bleachers, Mom and I sat next to Grandma. Fetu stood on the sidelines, looking trapped.

            “How’s he playing?” Mom asked.

            “It’s been a hard game,” Grandma said. “His left tackle got hurt.”

            The opposing team’s offense was on third down. A whistle blew, and the quarterback handed the ball to runningback, who didn’t make the conversion. The ball was punted, and bodies sprinted, pivoted, cleats ripped chunks of grass.

            Fetu walked on the field, his offense following him. At the twenty yard line, he and ten other boys huddled. His hands fluttered as he called the play. They disbanded onto the line of scrimmage. A whistle blew again and the center snapped the ball. Fetu chucked it to a tight end.

            They were in the red zone when Fetu got hit. He was in the pocket, eyes on his wide receiver. He didn’t see the linebacker running around the right, but I did. I stood. I screamed, trying to warn him.

            He threw just as he was hit. The ball spun in the air, wobbly, like the mango all those years before.

            I ran down the steps and onto the field, pushing past security and coaches. Kneeling over Fetu, I pulled his helmet off, and found blood covering his forehead. He stirred. “You smell like dirt,” he said.

            Mom’s hand knelt beside me. “I know you’re trying to help, but you’ve got to give him space,” she said.

            She pulled me up and back, her fingers tight around my elbow as we stood beside Grandma. Trainers knelt in the spot I’d been, velcroing Fetu’s head into a brace. I felt my own throat constricting as they strapped him to a gurney, and we followed them over the field, and down the ramp to the training room.

            “What happened?” Fetu asked.

            One of the trainers got out a penlight to check Fetu’s eyes.

            “The ambulance is ready,” the trainer said.

            Fetu tried to sit up. “I don’t need an ambulance.” The plastic brace cut into his neck.

            “Don’t move.” I pushed myself in front of the trainer so Fetu could see me. “You’re bleeding.” My own voice rang in my ears as the training room lights washed the color from his face. I took his hand and squeezed, and he stopped struggling. When he was wheeled out to the ambulance, Grandma got in with him. Mom and I followed them in our Acura to the hospital. There, the emergency room doctor said Fetu was severely concussed.

            “According to the trainer’s notes, this is his third one this year,” she said. “He needs to take off the rest of the season.”

            “It’s my senior year,” he said.

            She clicked her pen. “You just suffered a traumatic brain injury, and if you keep playing, it could lead to permanent damage. You won’t be able to move, to speak. You might not even be able to think.”

            The waxy paper on the exam table crinkled. I started to cry. His jaw clenched.

            He didn’t speak again for the rest of the night. Not at the hospital, or the car ride home. Not as we helped him into the house or put him to bed. When he looked at me, it was like something had locked behind his eyes, like a room had shut on me. It was like the boy I’d grown up with wasn’t even there.



            Fetu spent the next week in bed. Mom was working night shifts as a waitress back then, so I was often alone in our apartment. When I didn’t have volleyball practice, I visited Fetu at Grandma’s. I thought I could distract him. I brought him gifts—pretty leaves I found on the hood of my car, candy from my school’s cafeteria, flowers I picked at lunch. We played cards. We attempted to watercolor. We baked, and on the nights Grandma left we snuck out, taking turns around the oleander-lined blocks.

            Sometimes Grandma had her friends over, and I’d stay with Fetu in the back room, listening to Grandma’s laughter through the wall. It was on one of those nights that Fetu told me about his mother. We sat in his room—me on a chair, him on the bed. The shoyu chicken Grandma had made was too hot for me, so I’d left it to cool on the dresser. Fetu ate, mouth open to let the heat out as he chewed. I whistled Blackbird to the shama thrush warbling out the window.

            “My mom used to sing that song,” Fetu said.

            “Do you ever talk to her?” I asked.

            He stopped eating. “When I was a kid, I burnt all the skin off my hands,” he said. “I was hungry, and my mom was in the bedroom with her boyfriend. I’d asked her for something to eat, but she told me to take care of it myself, so I went into the kitchen. She’d forgotten she’d left the stove on. It was one of those electric ones that you can’t tell is hot, and I put both my hands on the burner. My skin just melted.”

            He turned the steaming rice in his bowl with his fork. The bird chirped the notes I’d sung back.

            “She took me to the hospital, and at the hospital they called CPS. Before that, my dad didn’t know he had a son. She was only two months pregnant when they got divorced. Her boyfriend thought I was his,” Fetu said. He looked out the window and I looked with him, but we couldn’t see the bird. “After I burnt my hands, she told them about my dad so I wouldn’t go into the foster system. They called him and he didn’t believe it. He made them do a paternity test.”

            I stared at Fetu’s hands, noticing for the first time the scars between his fingers, remembering the leathery feel of his palms when we had walked through the beach park hand-in-hand. He began eating again. On the other side of the wall, in the living room, someone dropped a glass.



            That night I woke to moonlight stretching in rectangles across my bedroom wall. Mom was crying. When I walked into the kitchen, I found her sitting on the floor, our landline phone to her ear.

            “There must be some way to know where he’s gone,” she said.

            “What happened?” I asked. I was still sleep-dazed, everything a little round.

            “I have to go.” She stood. “Let me know if you find anything.” She hung up. “Honey, go back to bed.”

            I shook my head. “Tell me.”

            “Fetu’s gone.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “Grandma went to check on him, and he wasn’t in bed,” she said.

            “Did he leave a note?”

            She said no. I was wide awake then.

            “We have to go out,” I said. “We have to find him.”

            “Honey, it’s two in the morning.”

            I sat on a barstool. I picked up my phone, which I’d left on the kitchen counter, but there were no calls, no texts.

            “Where would he even go?” I asked her. I wanted to run out onto the street, to scream. “Why wouldn’t he tell me?”

            Mom came close. She hugged me, and I slid off the barstool and into her arms, letting her hold me up, just as she had when I was five and had fallen in the playground, skinning my knees.

            “I don’t understand,” I said.

            But a part of me must have, because I knew what Fetu had been trying to say in the last conversation we’d had. He wasn’t telling a story about his mom. He was telling a story about Alema. A story I should have known, but was too selfish to piece together. Because I had never felt the way he had. Because growing up my mom and I had days where we would not speak, days she grew frustrated with my timidness, days where I shut up like a clam after too much of her prodding. We still have days like that. But I know that she is mine and I am hers and there is no one in the world I love like her. There is no one in the world she loves like me. Fetu never had that.

            A week later we found out Fetu had run away to his mom. To Hilo, where she’d moved after Alema got custody. I’ve tried, many times, to picture what Fetu must have done, must have said, to convince his mom to let him come back. Unlike what happened with Amy, this story’s never been told to me.

            In the years since Fetu’s left, I’ve thought often of our kiss. Though it only happened once, I’ve wished, many times, that it happened again. I never told anyone about it. Sometimes I wonder if it happened at all, or if it was a dream I had, brought on by the heat of Grandma’s bedroom, by my own longing. When I’m alone I return to it, again and again.



            The beach at Sandy’s gets cold around 4 p.m. Then, with the sun blocked by Koko Head, the heat fades and the wind brings sandstorms. The naupaka, once green, turns gray. The waves break in black and white. Everything loses color.

            The last time I went to Sandy’s, I went alone. I was home from New York for the holidays. On my first night back, Mom asked me to come to a friend’s dinner party, but I was jetlagged. I wanted to relax, but when I tried I couldn’t. So I left the house. I planned to drive to Makapu`u, to look at the Mokuluas. Instead I stopped at Sandy’s.

            The parking lot was a box full of beer cans and sand. It was early evening, and the families had left, their broken boogie boards shoved into trash cans, their sandcastles crumbling in the breeze. In their place, young people sipped beer, smoked weed, laughed.

            Sitting on the curb, I ate my sushi, my bottom cold from the cement. The sand was lower than I’d ever seen, tides and storms having stolen the beach. The berms Fetu and I had wrestled on were gone.

            I didn’t see Grandma until she walked up. It was a Wednesday, so I didn’t expect her. If I’d checked the parking lot, I might have seen her car. I might have been able to avoid her. Instead I was forced to say hello, something neither of us wanted.

            Her hug smelled of sandalwood and sunscreen. She had a white hibiscus pinned in her hair, just like all those years before. I hadn’t spoken to her since I graduated from high school and moved to the East Coast.

            I told her about my apartment in Brooklyn, the freelance work I did. Grandma told me about the retirement community she’d moved into and the salsa classes she took. The conversation came to a pause too soon, and I found myself asking about Fetu.

            “Not since he left,” she said. “Well, he called once. Asked for his social security card. And his birth certificate. Said he wanted to go to college.”

            For a shining moment, I pictured Fetu at university, somewhere far away from Alema and Amy. He was walking across a green lawn, surrounded by people who loved him as I did.

            “I don’t think he made it,” Grandma said. “Last thing I heard he’d knocked up his girlfriend.”

            And with that, my dream was replaced with a small house in Hilo, with peeling walls and a screaming baby at the foot of the bed.

            “Do you have his number?” I asked.

            She shook her head.

            “His address?”

            “I sent a Christmas card, but they sent it back,” Grandma said.

            In front of us, waves pummeled the shore. Their crashing mixed with the laughter of the last beachgoers. It filled the space between us. When we said goodbye, it was without hugging. Grandma walked down the beach and climbed up to the parking lot, where I watched her dust off her feet with a towel before getting into her Prius.

            I left my food on the curb and walked to the water. Taking off my shirt, I let the foam tickle my feet. The next wave broke and I was running, up to my knees, to my hips, diving beneath. I skimmed the sandy bottom as the water massaged my back and ran through my hair, tugging at my bikini. I let it flatten me out. I let it crush me.

            When I got out, my hair was full of sand. I gathered my clothes and walked up the beach. It was even emptier than when I’d arrived—the lifeguard tower closed, just three cars left. Sitting back on the curb, I finished my sushi. Tradewinds dried my skin to goosebumps. Clouds hung on the horizon, the tops of them catching light. Through the rising fog, Moloka`i was barely visible.

            Above me, `Iwa birds flew in figure eights. I knew that beyond Moloka`i lay Maui and Lana`i. I knew that past them sat Kaho`olawe. I knew that somewhere, far to the East, miles of ocean away, was the Big Island. I couldn’t see it. I thought of Fetu in Hilo, and wondered if I would ever see him again. The swell died down. The ocean was black. I got up and when I did, I was the last person to leave Sandy Beach.




Three Poems


The aftertaste of beauty is anxiety.
The foretaste of history is prediction
as if the tongues had been written on.
I had been doing the ironies
till they were flat and unwrinkled,
the cuffs standing sharp and the pleats
and the blastula beginning with a dimple.
The background of Longinus was time.
The preface on paper was illusion.
In this the figures of the fixed wings
took on the pressed faces of threats and promises,
Peregrinus naming the poles of a loadstone,
the brass of the locks bitter but secure.



There is no coincidence
even quirks that become tradition
are rain practicing rivers on the glass
History is all antecedents
Showing how once upon a time persists
is a pleasant fiction with variations
chorus as footnotes coconuts
starting new islands on plain paper
folded to a boat and set adrift



If you’d just change the accented syllable
to the second we’d all feel better
Blood in its lessened pressure included
It would bring back the creek
where we’d ride past the plaster pig
in a suit to see the gathering tadpoles
redstarts starting red into the underbrush
and stingrays would come to the divers
entangled in drift nets and rusted hooks
to be blissfully relieved




Still in my high school punk rock phase, so when I showed up Ralph said I already looked scary. Every October, I worked at a haunted Halloween corn maze on the outskirts of town because I had to pay for my car insurance. There were folding tables with tons of makeup on them. It was here where everyone came to get ready for the night. Cardboard boxes sat waiting with every child’s nightmares: Ghostface, Jason, Freddie, and other freaky but untrademarked faces. I opted for the makeup, since these boxes were God-knows how old and were stored in God-knows what condition and smelled like weed, vomit, sweat, and cornfield.

            My friend Liz brought over black and white face paint to transform me. She was an artsy tomboy, forever in dark eyeliner with lots of jangly bracelets and black jeans. She bustled around and did everyone’s makeup except for the jocks, who squeezed fake blood on their hands and then played some form of slapsies until they were covered in red handprints. Stupid, but pretty effective. While she did my makeup, Ralph, who owned the farm, gave us our nightly pep talk. This one consisted of some red-faced yelling about not smoking weed or leaving beer cans around.

            “It ruins the illusion,” he said, stalking off, but not before one of the jocks gave him a friendly pat on the back, leaving a red palm on his jacket.

            “How is the usual first day of the season madness?” I asked Liz. She went to the high school across town, West. I went to East.

            “Sheer chaos. They didn’t take any of my suggestions like labeling the boxes or getting plastic Tupperware. Pretty sure there’s a family of mice living in, like, all of the coffins, so don’t get stuck jumping out of one.”

            “I’m going for the chainsaw this year.”

            “You always say that. And then you can’t start the chainsaw. And then the guests laugh at you, and then you get all insecure.” She had finished covering my face in lotion and started painting it corpse white.

            “Last year I was lulling them with a false sense of safety. They were more scared of the next monster after I fumbled my scare,” I said. The truth was I just didn’t have the upper body strength to start the chainsaw.

            “Uh huh. Psychological warfare. I get it. It’s like when I’m nice to my stepmother on Thursdays and then I’m a total cunt the entire weekend. Close your eyes.”

            I kept my eyes closed as she switched to black, which had a heavier texture than the corpse white. She hollowed out my cheeks and painted all around my eyes. She was a pro at turning out corpses at this point.

            “So itchy,” I said.

            “Would you rather stick your face in one of those masks?”

            “Fuck no.”

            “Okay then, time for the lips. Open your eyes.”

            When I opened them, I saw Katie, who I knew through Liz, sitting at our table with a guy I did not recognize, but kids from all over the area came to work here. He was around my age. Katie had a round face painted to look like there was blood coming out of her eyes and her mouth. She growled at Liz and made a hungry-snapping noise at me.

            “Are you scared?” she croaked out.

            “I did your makeup, Katie, so no,” Liz said. “You should bring that energy to the school play.” Katie was a drama kid, like Liz.

            “The Crucible but zombies,” the guy said. He had this big nose that dominated his face. Kind of a girly voice. His hair was buzzed short and he had two little stud earrings in each ear. He looked like a stoner, like one of those kids who blazed up in the back of the auditorium and said “cool” a lot.

            “Oh, that’d be awesome. Try to eat John Proctor,” I said. “I’m Mike.”

            “Sorry, I forgot you and Anthony don’t know each other.” Liz said, now using a Q-tip to brush black lipstick onto me. “Mike works here every year. Anthony goes to West with Katie and me. He does behind the scenes with me in the plays.”

            “But like not makeup,” Anthony said. “Like sets and sound and stuff.”

            Katie nodded and gestured at the two of them. “The dream team, Liz does my makeup and Anthony does my mic.” She squeezed his arm, obviously crushing. I stood to the side, the sole member of the group who went to East.

            I nodded. “Nice. So you didn’t work here last year, right?”

            “No,” Anthony said. “Liz told me about it.”

            “Where in the fields are you all?”

            Katie growled again. “I’m with Liz, sort of by the front, with the vampire cultists. As always, shotgun cult leader.”

            “Sounds about right,” I said. “I’m with the serial killers and the chainsaws over by the haunted shack and apple cider.”

            Anthony was over there too. I told him once he got his makeup on we could walk over together. I’d show him the best hiding spots to really freak people out.

            “No makeup for me. I’ll wear a mask.”

            The girls started to walk over with us and then we parted ways, deeper into the fields. Anthony told me he needed this job to pay for his car. He spent the evenings that weren’t weekends delivering pizza. He lived in the Kings Grant apartments and his mother was a flight attendant so was never home. Dad was gone. If he wanted spending money, he’d sure as shit earn it himself.

            It was still daylight out, so it was easy to weave in and out of the maze, just following the arrows to our spot. Without the arrows, we would have gotten lost. The maze seemed endless. Anthony and I had an isolated little area toward the end, festively decorated with a small scaffold and a two of dummies hanging from nooses, meant to look like our victims. The two of us grabbed the extra ropes and whipped the dummies, watched them sway. He left his mask off, saying he’d put it on when the first few people came through. In the dimming light, while I was pretending to strangle him, I noticed he had very nice lips.

            “So you do theater tech?”

            He looked at me for a long minute. “What are you trying to say?”

            “I’m not trying to say anything. I’m asking if you do it. Like, could you build a scaffold like this?”

            He grinned. “Probably better. It should really have a trap door that pulls out. So yeah. If you got me the right wood, I could build.”

            “Cool. I mean, I don’t need one. But that’s cool.”

            He laughed and held out his hand. I gave him a high five. He shook his head. “No. Like feel my hand. Feel how calloused. That’s your proof I could build a scaffold since you don’t want one.”

            “Oh, oh yeah,” I said. “I feel.” It occurred to me that we were sort of holding hands. Is that what he wanted? Or was I walking a thin line to getting my ass kicked?

            “Yours feel soft.” He poked where my fingers met my hand. He caught my eye for a second and then looked away. “Now that it’s darker you look kinda creepy. I’m not sure I’d recognize you with your makeup off.”

            “I’ll say hi, then you’ll know,” I said.

            “I’m just kidding. I can tell what you look like.” He caught my eye again.

            “Anyway, the makeup is better than that mask. They store them like, in the same dank shed on the farm somewhere. Next time you should just do the makeup.”

            He shook his head. “I don’t want anyone to see me.”

            “Why not?”

            “Well,” Anthony bit his lip and turned the lights on over our swaying victims. It was darker now. “When I started delivering pizzas, a few kids noticed and started, you know, being shitty about it at school. So I started like, wearing a hoodie and a hat and stuff so no one can see me. This job it’s even easier to hide.”

            I grinned stupidly. “I see you.”

            “You’re like, mad cheesy.” He bumped me with his shoulder. Ralph drove by on a little green Gator to tell us guests would be coming by soon. The front had opened; the sun had gone down. It was early in the season though, so it wouldn’t be too crowded. That didn’t mean we should get lazy, though. He got off the Gator and looked around the scaffold for any empty beer cans and thanked us for being the only sober ones this deep into the field. Then he drove off, leaving the smell of car fumes in the otherwise clear and sweet corn.

            “So speaking of sober, do you wanna smoke? Just a little. Like I don’t wanna freak out at the corn maze. Imagine if we were more scared than the customers. That would be so—” He snapped his fingers and paused.


            “Yeah! Ironic. That would be ironic. Smoke?”

            We walked a few feet into the corn maze, but not so far that we’d get lost. It was so tight that we were pressed close to each other, face to face. I could smell Anthony’s cologne, one of those body sprays people keep in their cars if they can’t shower. We passed the joint back and forth.

            “So you’re smart? You do well in school?” He said, exhaling over my shoulder.

            “I don’t know. I do okay.”

            “I mean, you knew about ironic.”

            We finished the joint, but we still stood there, the corn swayed and pressed against us, as if nudging us closer.

            “We should head back. I think I hear—” I said.

            “Do you mind if I pee first?”


            “I don’t wanna walk back alone. Can you wait?”

            “Okay. I have to pee too.”

            We unzipped, and peed. I caught him looking down and watching me, and then he caught me watching, too. He pressed his lips together.

            “Sorry. Weed always does this to me. You?” He sounded shaky.

            Weed didn’t do that to me, but the sight of Anthony’s mouth and his dick out in the dim corn maze did. I didn’t say that though. “Yeah. Me too.”

            He looked side to side and slid closer to me. The corn caressed against us, and I swallowed nervously but extended my hand. We pulled at each other for the first time that night. A few customers were walking by and couldn’t see us in the dark corn, but I could overhear them wondering if someone was going to jump out and scare them.

            Anthony finally gasped, wet and sappy in my hands. “I think I hear something out there,” one of the girls said, and that made us laugh so hard, which freaked them out, and they ran off. My hands were sticky with him the rest of the night while we scared other teenagers, although I’d wiped them on the sharp edge of a corn’s bladed leaf.

            We exchanged numbers and started texting each other all week. Stupid stuff, like what we were doing and how boring class was. A few times, I told him about all the trouble I was getting into at home for not going to church. He’d tell me about being alone all the time, eating cereal for dinner. He called me his new best friend.

            But being friends didn’t stop us. We touched in the cornfields again and again, a few times a night most of October. He sucked me behind the scaffolding. The two dummies watched with bulging eyes, as if they were shocked. I tried to kiss him after the last customer came through and we were alone out there, but I’d barely leaned in before Ralph’s Gator puttered up.

            Anthony invited me to come over his house the next day after work to watch a scary movie. He asked if I could bring something to eat so I picked up a pizza, with his favorite toppings, and a two liter of coke. It felt like a date. I squeezed into a small shirt I almost never wore and shaved the peach fuzz off my chin. It looked more angular now, a new face.

            He lived in a horseshoe apartment on the second floor that got no light. He had this mattress in the living room and a pile of dirty clothes in the bedroom. He did his homework on the little patio but always forgot to bring the notebooks and crap inside, so it was perpetually damp and moldy. He had a TV but it wasn’t up on a stand or anything—it just sat on the ground. There were bowls full of dry cat food, no cat in sight.

            “I can’t fall asleep without the TV, but mom gets mad if she comes home and the TV is in my room. So I just bring my mattress out here.”

            That seemed like a classic example of what my mother called, “teenager logic.” He lived without any adult supervision. I was jealous, and at the same time, I couldn’t imagine being so alone, waking up on the mattress in the blue light of the TV.

            We chilled there for a bit and tried to watch the movie. Anthony started feeling me up and we pretty quickly shifted activities. Instead of going right for the touching, I leaned in and he let me kiss him. His lips felt as nice as they looked. We stripped down, and I marveled at being naked with another person. He produced a condom in a golden wrapper and handed it to me. In theory, I knew what to do with one of these. But in practice, not so much. My ex and I had a hurried relationship, quick handjobs in the front seats of his car.

            “Do you want to? “Anthony said, turning over onto his stomach.

            From what I’d seen on the internet, this was my cue to hold Anthony down, roll on the condom, and start savagely thrashing like a WWE wrestler. Somehow, though, that didn’t seem correct. I had no idea what I was doing. My palms were sweating so much I couldn’t get the condom wrapper open.

            “Yeah—” I said, finally getting the condom and rolling it on. I pushed myself against Anthony and he yelped. I pushed a little harder and he crawled away, shoving me off him.

            “I’m sorry,” he said. His body disappeared as he pulled his pants back up. His face was bright red. “”I can’t do it.”

            “You don’t have to be sorry,” I said. “I’ll go slow. You tell me what to do.” I hadn’t gotten to do much, but I decided I definitely wanted to do more.

            He held his head in his hands. “I can’t. No way. I’m not—I’m not like that.”


            “I—I don’t know. Just forget this ever happened.”

            “Okay.” I said, not wanting to, but I could see he would start crying any second. I yanked the condom off and slipped my pants back on. He turned away from me and hit play on the movie. Every time I tried to catch his eye, he looked away. He didn’t invite me to crash, so I got to my car and imagined him, falling asleep to the credits, the opened condom wrapper gleaming golden on the floor. What had I done wrong?

            When the weekend finally ended it was like he disappeared. I only knew he was still coming in to work because Liz told me.

            “Why?” she texted.

            “What do you mean, why?” I wrote back.

            “Like, why are you asking if he’s coming in today? You want me to give him a message or something? We have gym together later.”

            I told her no. No message. Why bother? He hadn’t responded to any of the texts I’d sent.

            Before work on Friday, I drove past his place. I’d say it was on the way, but it wasn’t. I went past the third light and turned off Route 73 and into his development. He wasn’t home, but I peeked up through the open curtains when I parked my car. The mattress was still on the floor. His cat had finally come out, and was staring back at me like a gargoyle. Only other thing I could see was the empty pizza box and the TV.

            I drove off. He’d have to talk to me at work.

            I got there just in time for the sun to be that autumn orange just before it sets. When you walked onto the farm from the side entrance, it looked beautiful. The corn swayed and you couldn’t see any Halloween decorations at all. It was just quiet and breezy and bright.

            Of course, not far down the path the jocks were, once again, squirting themselves with blood. Liz, in some heavy corpse makeup, was at her usual station. Katie was talking her ear off, all set to be a vampire cultist again. I spotted Anthony digging though the dirty pile of masks. I thought he was stupid for wanting to wear one, now I think I missed the point.

            “Hey everyone. Ready for another night of it?” I said.

            “Scaring people is our passion,” Liz said, and I couldn’t tell whether she meant it or not.

            Anthony must have found his mask because he started trotting over to sit with us. He put his arm around Katie and seemed intent on staring at the lobe of her ear or the jocks just over my shoulder.

            “Hey,” I said.

            “Yeah, hey,” he said.

            Katie smiled a stupid big smile and the two of them kissed. On the lips. I made eye contact with Liz and she shrugged.

            “I’m gonna be with you tonight so the lovebirds can be together,” she said.

            “But Anthony’s not dressed like a vampire cultist,” I said, gesturing at his dark jeans and mask. He didn’t tell me he and Katie were dating. Dating. After literally spending half of the month touching each other, and the other half of the month texting about touching each other.

            “Mike’s right. We should get you in character, babe,” Katie said. “Wouldn’t want to break the illusion,” she lowered her voice and did her best Ralph imitation.

            “Needs blood, fangs—not sure why you went and grabbed a mask. That doesn’t scream vampire cultist, like, at all,” I said, grabbing his monster mask and pulling it over my head.

            “Chill,” Anthony said, yanking it off me. “No one is putting makeup on me. I’m wearing a mask. I’ll be a vampire who wears masks. It could happen.”

            Liz frowned thoughtfully. “Maybe.”

            “No,” I said. “That’s idiocy. How’s he gonna suck blood through his mask?”

            “I’ll suck blood before I put my mask on,” he said, putting his arms around Katie and nibbling at her neck. She squealed appropriately.

            I could feel myself getting hot. I rolled my eyes. “Gross,” I said, glaring at Katie, who did not seem to care about the daggers I was sending. Liz squinted at me when I looked at her for commiseration. Anthony, who one week ago had handed me a condom and offered me his ass was now nibbling at my friend’s ear lobe. And all I could do was stare.

            “Really nice,” I said, louder. I’d get so loud I’d scare the crows if I wanted to. “Tried to have sex with me a week ago, then disappear back into some hole in the ground, then make me watch you make out with someone else. Fuck this.”

            Apparently I’d gotten the attention of the jocks, who stopped squirting each other with blood to oooooh and ahhhh at Katie. They assumed I meant her. She looked confused. Then, in unison, she and Liz both understood. I had been talking to Anthony.

            Anthony, who threw on his mask and bolted into the corn maze. The jocks, still thinking I had meant Katie, called after him. Don’t worry about that whore! Plenty of other biters around here! That’s tough my booooy!

            Only the four of us knew what I’d really meant. Katie sprang up, stoic in the face of all the cat calls, to go after Anthony.

            Liz sucked her teeth at me, her skeleton makeup only underscoring the severity of her expression. “That was a shit thing to do.”

            “What? Me? What about him?”

            She just shook her head and walked away, not saying anything.

            Weeks passed. The maze still seemed endless. Katie held Anthony’s hand in a gentle, performative way, though I could tell they weren’t dating. Anthony wore his mask all the time around me now, and its long eyes looked more sad than frightening. Even Liz painted my face in frowning silence. For the rest of that season, none of my friends would talk to me. It wasn’t until years later that I understood why.



Interview: Jill Talbot













Jill Talbot’s A Distant Town was the winner of our 2020-2021 Jeanne Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award. (Available for purchase here!) Nicole Neece and Mirek Stolee, PhD candidates in UCF’s Texts and Technology Program, asked Jill questions about her process, themes, prize-winning entry, and what makes for a standout submission.

The Florida Review:

A Distant Town explores the role of written letters in human life from multiple angles. “No Return Address” takes the form of a letter, and you even pull one of your epigraphs from a letter sent by Joyce Johnson. What draws you to the letter as a literary form?


Jill Talbot:

The distance a letter implies, but also the intimacy of it, the way a letter often details a yearning or communicates a desire or a decision. The delay of it—those days or weeks between dropping a letter into a mailbox or through a slot at a post office and the day it arrives. The imagined moment of that letter being read. But also for the recipient, seeing the handwriting on the envelope, the anticipation of opening it and unfolding the pages—the tangible experience. Recently I re-read the letters my maternal grandmother, who passed in 1995, wrote to me during the last good years of her life. Holding and reading those pages brought her back, her loneliness, her love for me, the disappointments in the way she lived her life.



Distances between people, places, and times are central to many of the stories. The title A Distant Town implies a distance between the setting and the reader. Do you feel that, in writing these stories, you’ve left the themes you’re writing about in the past? Is this “town” now distant from you, the author?



I selected “A Distant Town” as the title story because like the first-person narrator in that story, all the characters in these stories are working to get to or away from some place so that they can feel settled, mostly within themselves. When I wrote the ending of “A Distant Town,” the moment when the blue-black haired narrator hits another car while in reverse, I hoped the reader would realize that the “different town” she had planned, that secret she keeps to herself that night at Applebee’s, has now become a distant one, because she’ll have to deal with the damage and the money she planned for the leaving will now go to repairs or insurance. Also in the way she’s going backwards, away from what she desires is something so many of these characters have in common—like Alice Sanders in “Rumor,” who can’t keep away from daring herself in that “side-of-the-highway dive,” or the man in “Railroad Blues” who carries the letter of the woman who left in his wallet. Then there are the characters who exist in a distant town, like the woman in the final story or how M writes a letter from “a restaurant along 380.”

As for me, I’ve always been drawn to distance, to the idea of elsewhere, and I don’t think I’ll every lose that. In my essays, I’ve written about how I carry distance inside me and how I chase the distance. Writing these stories, creating characters who struggle with addiction or missing or unrequited love allowed me to push those ideas into more dangerous or desperate or even dark places.



The box is a salient image throughout several stories. A box implies containment: a division between inside and out. As you show, a box can contain potent memories. It also seems that many of the characters find themselves in a box that they cannot escape. What was the process of character construction like?



What a great question! You’re excellent readers. The inspiration for the box is autobiographical. I once lived with a man who kept a taped Priority Mail box in his closet, and I never saw him open it, and I never asked about it (or don’t remember doing so). I used that man as a starting point in crafting Earl, the man who wrote the letters in the opening story, “Desert.” The letters haunt he woman who’s unwilling to let them go. Then there’s the mystery of the abusive boyfriend’s box in “A Distant Town” and the way the first-person narrator packs boxes before (trying to) leave town. I think of the boxes as metaphors for the weight or the secrets that the characters carry, and in that way, there are, as you point out, boxes that close characters in, or off, and the literal box of a prison cell or addiction or even the way missing someone can keep a character so within themselves they become a closed box to others. Before I had the Johnson line as an epigraph, I had one from Jackson Browne’s “Bright Baby Blues”:


“’Cause I’ve been up and down this highway

Far as my eyes can see

No matter how fast I run

I can never seem to get away from me


No matter where I am

I can’t help thinking I’m just a day away

From where I want to be”


Jake Wolff, the previous Editor in Chief of your wonderful journal, told me the lines needed to be cut or replaced due to potential copyright fees. But Browne’s lines are still behind the characters and their relationship to boxes—they’re all carrying something that’s heavy in them. By the way, I’m listening to Jackson Browne as I answer your questions.



“Railroad Blues” contrasts with the other stories in its three-part structure and its hypothetical refrain of “let’s say.” What drew you to employing these stylistic changes and placing the story where it is in the collection? Do you see it as a turning point in the work?



I’ve always been drawn to metawriting, so the “let’s say” refrain is intended to create the idea of a writer working through a story, imagining how it would go, where it would go, but in conversation, as if the reader is helping to write the story, too. Those moments when the writer/narrator identifies the words for things, like allow and surrender, it’s a call to the ways we, as writers, have to choose the words that will best convey our characters, how we work to get the right words to describe them physically, as well as their interiority.

I’m also drawn to the triptych form as a writer and reader—using the form allows me to set up three major movements, and in this story, the man’s walk to the “Railroad Blues,” the time spent in the bar, and his leaving the bar and walking home. Readers don’t know until the final section that the trip to the bar was more than the usual end of the day beer, it was to get that record from the jukebox.

If I structured the collection toward an arc of characters moving from stasis to moving on or breaking free, “Railroad Blues” would be positioned before the final story, “Purgatory,” but the worlds my characters inhabit—their lives rarely move in this trajectory—so I wanted the collection to reflect that.



There’s a strong musical undercurrent that weaves through the stories. How did songs contribute to your writing process? Did you find yourself trying to choose which song belonged in which moment or did the songs contribute to building the scenes?



It’s funny that I just told you I’m listening to Jackson Browne while writing these answers, because I think answering interview questions is writing, too, and I need to get in the mood of the stories, the collection. When I write essays, I usually listen to Phillip Glass, but if I need grit in my work, regardless of genre, I turn to Jackson Browne or Waylon Jennings or the classic country songs that appear in these stories. In writing these stories, I chose the songs to help build scenes, the sensory details of those songs for those familiar with them, and the lyrics as reflections of the character’s states of mind. That’s why I created the playlist for A Distant Town, as an accompaniment to the stories, including all the songs mentioned in the chapbook, but also bonus tracks for the songs I imagine these characters sing in the bar, in the post office, on the long drives.



What advice do you have for hopeful entrants to our 2022-2023 Jeanne Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award?



In my experience as the judge for this year’s contest, I was impressed by the submissions that had cohesion, either in their themes, locations, or characters, as well as submissions that reflected a writer’s care in selecting the best piece(s) for the submission. Like they really thought about it, you know? The work felt balanced in some way. In my experience as the writer of a winning chapbook, I can tell you that I looked back at my Submittable “Declined” section and discovered I submitted this collection to a different journal’s contest in 2020, and it was a finalist. (Why didn’t I resubmit to a different contest right away?) I also submitted an essay collection to this very contest that same year and was a semi-finalist. As writers, we’re often told to keep sending the work out, but we (meaning me) get distracted or forget or get down on ourselves and think, yeah, I should give up on this one. Don’t! Someone will read your work and realize it’s what they didn’t even know they’d been wanting to read.



What Comes in the Night

When I saw the bat, I didn’t think. I screamed. I picked up Frida, my 10-pound, bat-like dog, and ran into the bathroom, pulling the door closed with something akin to maternal instinct. Then my brain turned on and I thought, oh, fuck.

            It was almost midnight. I had been in bed, sitting cross-legged in boxers, a glass of white wine to my right as I talked aimless shit on the phone to my best friend. Peripherally, I had seen the unmistakable yet graceful flapping of wings. A shadowy body darting across the white of my ceiling. It was quick, nearly silent, making its way around my lofted apartment with an urgency I assume was fueled by fear.

            I ducked out of the bathroom with a towel draped over my head. After trying but failing to open a window, I fled the apartment, grabbing Frida, her leash, and a pair of black jeans that I yanked on while rushing out the door. I ran to the nearby apartment of my partner Aaron’s graduate-school friends, who I had only met a handful of times. They had kindly set up a bed in their office, complete with a lit candle.

            The bat was scared, as was I. Yet, I left and therefore trapped it, running from my own fear and probably escalating the bat’s. When I locked the door, I left the bat stuck to fly loops in my little apartment.

            Let me be honest; I was afraid before the bat. When my eyes made out the spider web-y shape of its wings, I was alone. Aaron was out of town and I was battling the recurring fear that at some point during the night, I wouldn’t be alone anymore. I double checked the locks, even assembled a small cardboard obstacle in front of the door to quell my anxiety, to warn me should someone come in. Three nights before the bat, I had an interaction with a man on the street that wound me up so tightly that I laid awake until four in the morning, waiting — to hear steps on the stairs, or the sound of my doorknob turning. Despite swallowing the white ovals of anti-anxiety medication at midnight, I didn’t drift off until almost sunrise. That night, I shone the flashlight of my phone into the living room more times than I’d like to admit, crept downstairs silently to look at the locks yet again, knew my behavior was illogical but couldn’t truly could not stop.

            The interaction with that man, in which nothing even really happened, had compromised my fragile sense of safety. Or rather, had reminded me that safety is largely illusory. My body, regardless of what I clothe it in, will be seen. My locks, regardless of how many times I double check them, could be picked. My windows, regardless of how shut I thought they were, were cracked. Or perhaps they weren’t. It doesn’t really matter because something in my apartment was open enough to let something else in.

            From the home office, I called what Google told me was the highest-rated local bat specialist. I was greeted by the gruff and irritated voice of a man I assumed to be The Bat Specialist. I can come, he told me, but it’ll be $200 whether I find something or not. I wanted to know when he could come, what he would do. He said he could be there in forty-five minutes and would look for the bat itself in addition to investigating the outside of the building to determine how it might have gotten in. By that point, it was almost 1 AM and I figured I should wait until morning to avoid disturbing my neighbors. Instead of asking him to come, I said I’d call back. I then sent my landlord an email with the subject line: URGENT – bat, help. Finally I curled up around Frida and slept briefly in the safety of a bat-less home.

            I called the bat specialist again the next morning around six (uh, hi, I have a bat— I uttered, before he cut me off. Yeah, I know. You called last night) and was told he couldn’t come anymore, that his day was now full. He gave the number of a wildlife specialist who might be able to help. When I called her, she calmly informed me that nothing could be done until the bat woke up. Is there a way to… wake it up? I asked in disbelief. No, she said curtly. Bats are nocturnal. They’re able to make their bodies so tiny that no one will be able to find it during the day. Call back when it’s flapping around. She hung up.

            Around 8 AM, my Tesla-driving landlord called me. I understand how frightening that must have been, but we cannot kill bats. They’re an endangered species. I emphasized that I didn’t want to kill any bats; I just didn’t want to cohabitate with one. She continued, In the past, we have even built bat houses, so they have somewhere to go. I’m sending someone over with a big net. The call ended and I waited for Someone with a Big Net.

            Intellectually, I knew the bat posed no existential danger. Yet, I felt a sense of primal fear spurred on by what ifs. What if it emerged while I was taking a shower and I hit my head on the bathtub because I was so startled? What if my dog ate its shit and got sick? What if it bit me and somehow I didn’t know and it evolved into rabies? I knew this wasn’t rational, yet I couldn’t stop thinking of all of the ways this encounter would turn into something Bad.

            When Someone with a Big Net arrived, I was typing out an email in the living room. I didn’t know when to expect someone and was wearing jeans and a white tank top, sans bra. I heard a key slide into the lock of my door. I heard the twist of the knob, the unmistakable creak of my wooden door opening up its hinged jaws. Then, a short, bearded man was in my kitchen holding a large fishing net. My dog bleated an urgent warning in her shrill soprano. My heart rapidly thrummed somewhere underneath my visible tits. Where is it, he asked me, his eyes wandering the ceiling, my furniture, not me, maybe me; I tried not to look. I replied in earnest, I don’t know. Again, my dog went into the bathroom. This time, I stayed out, watching him search behind furniture, in the closets. He said I’ll be back and left.

            Thirteen years ago, I stood at the edge of a bridge on South Congress in Austin waiting with a crowd of people to watch the famous bats emerge at dusk. What first looked like errant freckles scattered across a watercolor sunset in South Texas evolved into a sky in motion, made up of thousands of flapping wings and tiny black snouts. A few years later, in that same city, close to that very bridge, something happened to me in the dead of the night that forever changed my relationship to both sleep and my body. The next morning, I thought it was nothing. A few days later, something. Years later, I finally called it something other than a bad night. When I saw that storm of bats, I still thought that sleeping was safe, that he was a friend, that Austin was fun, that Texas was home.

            When Someone with a Big Net arrived the second time, he knocked. By then, I had put on a bra and an oversized denim shirt over my tank top; my tattooed arms covered. Where is it? He asked me again and I felt irritated by his incompetence. He brought a ladder upstairs and I listened to heavy boots amble up the rungs. I watched as the man stood on the ledge of my loft, watched his eyes scan my books, my bed, the haphazardly flung sports bra that I peeled off the previous night after a workout. We can’t do anything, he said, when he came back downstairs, eyes boring into me. You have too much stuff.

            A close friend, Sam, had recently moved to New Haven. I hadn’t seen her in years yet when I texted want to come help me get a bat out of my apartment? I have tequila. My phone immediately pinged lol sure. Gratefully, I waited the four hours until dusk. My landlord emailed me that the man had left the Big Net. I opened the door to find five feet of silver pole and a lime-green net leaning against the wall like it was confidently picking me up for prom. I grasped the cold metal in my hands. I was the Person with the Big Net now.

            Sam arrived around 6:30. I hugged her on the street and loved that her shape felt familiar, her curls consistent, a tattoo I remembered peeking out from the hem of her shorts. The sun was supposed to set at 7:03, which was when we needed to be ready. I poured two glasses of wine and we caught up. She had just gone through a breakup with an ornithology enthusiast who didn’t not look like Zac Efron; I thought New Haven was fine but missed Brooklyn; a bat had flown into her apartment once and she screamed until someone got it out with a towel; my dad died; her dad sucked.

            When shadows appeared in my kitchen, it was time. I kept all of the lights off and slid open a living room window. I turned on a single lamp directly in the center of the window to guide the bat out. The lamp cast a romantic glow on the green leaves of a Bird of Paradise on the other side of the window. The scene was set.

            A few days before the bat came into my apartment, I took Frida on a walk around the neighborhood. I had been working from home all day in a pair of black bike shorts and a baggy T-shirt, my hair a messy knot on top of my head. I was rounding the corner to turn towards my apartment when I could’ve sworn I heard my name called. I turned my head and saw a man staring at me so intensely that I held his gaze, my brain trying to place him: surely I must know him.

            I spent most of my twenties in Brooklyn and preferred walking to public transportation. I wasn’t a stranger to cat-calling, yet it didn’t happen nearly as often in New Haven. Younger, in Brooklyn, I felt armed with my anger. If a man said something disgusting to me, I yelled back at him to eat shit. Once, while on the phone with my mother, a man in Prospect Heights lunged towards me in a deep squat, his soft, wet tongue protruding out of his mouth and moving in gross, lapping gestures. I immediately felt my blood run hot and demanded that he get the fuck out of my way. He laughed at me, the melody of it etched into my head like a perverted iteration of the braille in a music box. I actively miss the version of myself that got angry instead of scared.

            Sometimes, the catcalls were funny. When I walked by a group of men while wearing large silver hoops, one yelled Jenny from the block!. Once, I was chased six blocks in Chicago by a man who wanted my number. I like your leather jacket, I want to take you out, he panted. I could see the particles of his breath suspended in the January air. It’s my girlfriend’s, I replied and turned to walk away, leaving him slack jawed. Sometimes it came in the form of do you need help carrying that? Let me help you carry that, that looks heavy. Other times, it was more sinister: being followed home from the subway, someone pressing their hips against my ass on the crowded morning commute. Once, on a weekday afternoon, I looked up from the couch where I had been pathetically flopped all day with period cramps to see the postman blatantly staring into my window from where he stood on the ledge. I quickly wrapped a blanket around my naked thighs and ran barefoot to the back of my apartment. When I came back out, he was gone and I never again sat on the couch in my underwear. Despite living on the second floor. Despite the fact that the mailbox was on the first.

            This isn’t unique. Women experience street harassment; water is wet. Yet, I was still surprised when this man stepped towards me on the street in New Haven, asked to get to know me. Aaron was out of town visiting family. I barely knew anyone in New Haven. I was a block from my apartment; what if this man followed me home? I didn’t want to bring my drama into the nearby liquor store that was run by a sweet family. I didn’t want to bring this stranger into the little grocery store I lived above, run by a woman whose Border Collie sniffed Frida nearly every day, as we said hi baby to each other’s dogs. In New Haven, I didn’t have the orientation I had in Brooklyn – where I knew which bars were open, which friends were nearby, where the closest train was. I felt entirely, vulnerably alone.

            Perhaps what I’m trying to get at is that none of these experiences are situated in a vacuum. One experience compounds upon another, like tile, like brick, to build a house. A man taking a step towards me on an empty street became an echo of another man telling me he wanted to taste me as I walked by became an echo of a boy who tried to forcefully pull my shirt over my arms when I was thirteen became any of the other moments when I’ve been forced to witness a man see me as less, see me as a body, see me as a mouth, a hole, an experience; see me as something that exists to please, to fuck, to watch. It echoes all of the times I’ve been forced to watch men watch me.

            People are afraid of bats because they come out at night. Bats spread their wings when the sun is down and can’t be disturbed until they deem it dark enough to be safe. During the daytime, they crunch and tuck and curl their bodies up so tiny that they can’t be found. Their slumber can’t, won’t, be disturbed. I wanted the bat out that morning, but that wasn’t possible and so the bat had the power in our dynamic. The bat had the power over me, had power over the man that came into my apartment, even had power over the landlord I pay every month for a temporary home in a brick building on the corner of an almost-busy street.

            I envied the bat. I wished I could contort my body to be so small that it couldn’t be found, that I could tuck my elbows into my knees, drape my head against my chest and wrap myself up in a blanket made of my own body. I wanted to be able to get so tiny that no one could find me, no matter how many men were scheduled to come and look, no matter how big the net was. I yearned to be able to emerge in my own time, to only be visible when I flew under a street light, for people to associate glimpses of me with an eerie magic, stay spellbound by my shadow.

            When the sun disappeared, I crept into my living room to see if the bat had woken up. I screamed when I saw it doing asymmetric loops. It’s here, I mouthed to Sam. I took a video of it with my phone, angling the camera towards the ceiling to capture flashes of movement, mostly to show myself later that I didn’t make this up: There was a bat; it came into my apartment. I have learned to document, to capture hard proof. A snapshot, a video. Evidence.

            The net was comically useless. I thought I could guide the bat out, usher it to the safety of the night. In the video, I hear myself urgently whisper I just want to help it! Eleven chaotic minutes passed: net swoops, screams, fits of laughter, silence. And then the bat left. Flew out on its own accord, slipped right over my window ledge into the void of the sky. It was over in two seconds, and if I looked the other way I would’ve missed it, would’ve spent the whole night wondering where it had gone, if it was still with me.

            I popped champagne and we clinked our glasses. Then I taped all my windows shut. I taped the heater vents shut, taped the tiny gap under my window-unit air conditioner shut, sealed everything with a manic ripping of tape, knowing still that tape can be ripped, clawed through, cut. It’s the illusion of safety that lulled me to sleep.

            Bats use echoes to navigate. They emit a high-pitched sound that humans can’t hear, see how it bounces back to evaluate distance, danger, prey. It’s with echoes that bats stay alive, that they are able to gauge what’s safe to move towards, and what should be dodged. The reverberations from past experiences are still rattling around my rib cage, emitting different frequencies. Walk faster. Go inside. Run. I feel it physically and instinctually, braille-like goosebumps rising on my skin, my blood suddenly running cold. Like a bat, I find safety through echoes, clarity through the feeling refracted back to me. The echoes that guide me through the dark.


Blues for King Kong

the soul tends to hide deep beneath the blues • & pain has chosen to call blues beautiful • & pain could not have seen things differently • when someone owns a thing we call it their possession • & yet what do we call it when some sinister spirit has entered them?  • of curtains that are mostly drawn • of a blues felt more intimately with the eyes closed • slow song for a masochist • a gentle tapping of feet •  bassist under collagen of bones • bassist of a chest-deep beating  • & some no longer look their friends in the eyes • others have not noticed themselves becoming islands • sunlight as a clarity reflected by water • moonlight as uncertainty reflected by water • drown under sounds of a profound saxophone sorrow • soak in softening passages of pain moving through the body • a falsetto waters the seeds of anguish  • protruding from the mouth • the roots of a soul reaching for light



1. My mother leans in to tell me that ghosts are harmless but unequivocally real. Insignificant mysteries add up to a more systemic experience of haunting: family photographs turned on their faces, a mess of shoes rearranged in the shut-up closet, the occasional slammed door. We aren’t old-house people, and the place hasn’t existed for long enough to accumulate a logic for the eeriness that I feel in the bursting back garden, in its aggressive, bright peonies and hydrangeas. Still, someone has a message for us and at times we joke about its contents, our heads bobbing cheerfully, until one day to me it isn’t funny anymore. Then I am no longer five years old. Then my mother retreats to her bedroom, where she clacks away at the loom as though pursuing a kind of domestic exorcism. I pick at the borders of my fingernails, bite gently at my upper lip. The shuttle glides toward home and back again, moving as gracefully over the blue yarn as the boats it’s been shaped to resemble. Otherwise the house is noiseless and I want to sit again in the belly of the fireplace at the front of the minute approximation of a parlor, like I did before it was ours.


2. The woods around Mashamoquet are full of excuses for feeling spooked. Drive the thickly forested roads, which are narrow and curve and dip and open out to brief scraps of lake before plunging again into pine shade, and you begin to understand the narratives of disappeared hikers and eerie bridges and consumptive girls converted by death to ghostly flânerie. It is a gorgeous and a thieved place, this land. Stealing it required fabricated stories of wildness and peril. The mills and factories and fields are where the real history of danger is, the legacy of coveting and stripping bare and building back up in grotesque forms.


3. My first published poem is about a laughing phantom child and is written in 1994, during a year when my mother keeps me away from the small elementary school. I write each line on a clunky desktop computer as an exercise, the keys clicking awkwardly, and save the file to a floppy disk. Submitting the poem to a children’s magazine means printing it out on paper whose perforated edges have to be ripped from the single sheet by hand. Separating the sheet from a piece of itself proves as darkly satisfying as composing the poem in the first place. It ends with a girl my own age falling to the ground in the night, the phantom child close behind her.


4. Homespun ghosts don’t turn out to be at odds with quaint family ritual. My mother hauls me into the yawning box pew, whose panels are dusty in the unfinished light. There seems to be no heat in the bare room, and next time she outfits her one child in a plaid flannel dress with an economical ruffle. The dress is unusual, having been purchased from a store or catalog and not made at home. The size tag reads 6X or 7 or 8. Later we switch to the white Congregational church with a sprawling graveyard, which we attend only sporadically. My mother recalls the denunciations and massacres that propelled our ascetic relations into their two mountain towns. She reminds me that her father’s fifth great-grandfather was a minister. I read and reread Canadian novels about children who recline in pinafores on gravestones and throw stones between them, who unapologetically trample the long uncut weeds, their braids swinging through the warm air. Across the street, someone’s misplaced idea of a cottage looms. Its pink paint is due for a refresh, but even now the colored frontispiece belies what’s inside: the thick, dust-tinted carpets and papered walls. They take preteen students once a year to see it all, pretending for a moment that we’re only tourists and can leave at any time.


5. The Puritans who ran the first homes along the town green refused the prospect of communion with their ancestral spirits. Now Halloween in the stolen colonial village is a singularly fantastic exercise. Like all events that take place at night at the old school, this one requires a trip through unlit and bumpy terrain, the spaced-out houses blinking yellow in the mostly uninterrupted dark. Unlike the other events it calls for a shivering, coatless exit from the warm interior and down the short walk to the little car, the thin excuse for a disguise stretched across your shoulder blades. You are an angel or a witch or a gnome; maybe you are wearing slippers and feel each individual stone in the gravel turnaround beneath the balls of your feet. You hug another child in the shadow of the school doorway, squealing, and your excitement echoes against the trees. You feel charmed, regal – delighted to be somebody else.


6. Our cassette deck is melting hot and plays Nova Scotian folk songs about women submerged in ocean weeds and reborn as spirits in seaside towns. Their daughters run away or choose the wrong lover and see him killed at the hands of a male relative with a penchant for violence. We fall asleep listening to the ballads, which wind and unwind their way through the motionless rooms of the house. That July amid the beach blossoms and the tides my mother becomes nearly childless, my unsuspecting body swept under too large a wave. I am half a ghost in the stale heat of the car on the hour’s drive back from the coast. My mother remembers the sensation of digging her own small belly into the sand. The songs become a sad-sweet refrain on days’ ends that never cool down despite the window thrown open and the fan it swallows up, its cheap plastic still rattling when the sun reappears.


7. I am living in New York City during my mother’s first attempt at suicide. I speak sharply into the phone from underneath the scaffolding that prefaces the door of the donut shop. The street’s exuberant noises compete with the unsubstantial voice of my mother as she describes to me a god who desires that she remain alive. I am not on the next train or the next train or the next. I sit balled in the cramped ceramic tub, lean my kneecaps into the too-warm flow of the tap. In the living room after my mother dies, the evening lights flicker without explanation.


8. The doors in this tiny canal-side apartment are always creaking open and shut. I have already discovered that I am writing about hauntings when it emerges that my three-year-old’s animated television program is also about ghosts. Het is een spook! the voiceover artist shrieks in Dutch as an army of emergency responder vehicles tears down the cartoon street through an exaggerated twilight. I find my sandals carefully stacked, one sitting atop the other, as though waiting for me to notice. My son sits placid, unflappable in the face of our shared myths. The difference between us is that I need them.


Cool Side of the Pillow

Have you ever heard the sound of a screen door

closing old-timer slow?—Inching madness to the edge

of its seat?— Think of shoes on the wrong feet.

And how fingernails scratch the chalkboard

to test your impulses.  When the dog shits

in the house, and the house isn’t yours.

Lost keys. Bad haircut. Bad ink. Bad poem.

Broken tooth. Ulcer. Speeding ticket.

Bad job. Foreclosure. Your ovaries tied.

Boyfriend sexting someone else.

Your kid hates you. Your dying friend has

no insurance policy. You’re addicted to soap.

Boss screaming down your throat.

You burnt the turkey. Is it worth mentioning,

that moss has no roots?— We know something

has been tampered with, when the seal

is broken.  Only one thing to do, don’t surrender,

turn over your armor, dream a little dream.