God Ain’t Here & Tourniquet

 

God Ain’t Here

This house we built with its abundance

Of suffering, a hundred sealed windows.

Where do your prayers find you? No, no!

The waters keep on running in this hell &

The birds were all plucked of their tongues

As if saying to all the quiet, tongue-less birds

Who’s to save you now when your rituals

Are plunged deep into the tall, red ground?

He walked for miles down a narrow hall

With no doors. His feet grew tired. He fell

To his knees without a tongue to give voice.

Foreign body, those aren’t his hands no more.

He’s building this house. God ain’t here,

Just a procession of breathing wings

Trying to find their way out. There’s no escape.

Prayer by prayer trapped in a wooden box

& spilled over Just one more time, one more.

He’s breaking a nail into his wood, one by one.

The waters keep on running, spilling into him,

One by one. He continues to drown with his

Sealed off mouth. Not a prayer to let go of.

No. Not now. Not ever. He’s too tired

Building a home with broken glass & raw hands.

 

Tourniquet

Not quite out of the woods, he’s got a funny

Walk. Tender was the word I ought

Not to have used but I’m here with twigs

Scattered throughout my hair like a myth.

Wanted dead, I coughed up blood while

The man fucked me with a handful of Lubriderm

& a pocketful of change.

My voice sounds different with so many

Tongues locked inside of my mouth.

This isn’t about sex. This is about the tender

Crunch of each step I make moving toward

Something. But, first, more spit.

After, I zip-up my pants. How’s that for conclusive?

I have a pocketful of coins: the fruits

Of my labor. My thighs, mango puss.

See me differently. This tourniquet hurts.

Stop, you’re hurting me. There’s the clearing.

 

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The Addition

Three Mrs. Smiths barreled into the Duane Reade on East 2nd Street. The younger Mrs. Smiths, married three months ago, and the elder Mrs. Smith, who resented the new Mrs. Smith and preferred her only daughter, Ellie, to remain a Ms. Smith as long as possible, considered the sugar-free breath mints together. A ruse for something, the eldest Mrs. Smith knew; the newest Smith had a jittery air about her, picking up the same nougat bar and returning it to the dusty shelf again and again. Mischievous. Though her daughter reminded her to please leave her bad energy in the domestic terminal at JFK, the eldest Mrs. Smith felt certain it was actually the newest Smith who carried something off about her. The way she handled that nougat bar—demonic? Not good, not good.

 

Anyway, the eldest Mrs. Smith wouldn’t want them to break up now, what with her being against divorce. Even gay divorce? her husband, Mr. Smith, asked the night before she flew from Virginia to New York to visit the new Mrs. Smiths. A girl’s weekend, her daughter insisted. She missed her mom, or at least wanted her company to brave the IKEA in Red Hook for the younger Smiths’ move. She had news, too, the promise of which she floated not on the phone but over text, a choice that did not evade Mrs. Smith’s notice; news three months into a marriage could only mean so many things, which Mrs. Smith knew damned well, being both married and a mother herself.

 

Mr. Smith looked so flummoxed the evening before Mrs. Smith left, holding his fork and knife straight up in front of himself at the table, considering the ethics of homosexual divorce. Their church wasn’t happy about divorce, sure. The Smiths had gotten that lecture from the lead pastor more than once. But they were not so thrilled about same-sex marriage, either. So, was gay divorce actually preferable? Mr. Smith stared at his wife, whom he’d known since they were college sophomores, three decades ago. He frowned. He opened and closed his mouth, releasing hot spit to his bare chin. He adored his only child. Finally, he asked only the third woman he had known biblically: A baby is better than a divorce, isn’t it?

 

Mrs. Smith told her husband, Obviously, it’s better than a divorce, and took his plate away, though he had hardly started in on his meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

 

 

In the Duane Reade, the eldest Mrs. Smith pulled her favorite forum up on her phone. She intended to stand in the incontinence aisle for more privacy, but the younger Mrs. Smiths would not let up their closeness. The pair of them held hands as they trailed around the store behind her, picking up dark chocolate bars, refrigerated Gatorades, travel-size toothbrushes. All were discarded in the wrong places.

 

From over her shoulder, the eldest Mrs. Smith felt stares coming from not just the duo, but a young man in a black puffer jacket and heavy-looking headphones whose face carried a fixed interest. In another life, the eldest Mrs. Smith could not help but think, this might be the person her daughter had married; a man with focused, curious eyes and trimmed stubble. The eldest Mrs. Smith felt a precarious pride at watching him watch her daughter; who doesn’t want their offspring to inspire some healthy desire, after all? She would ask the forum if this sensation was wrong, or perhaps a misguided value, if only the young Mrs. Smiths would give her a moment’s breath.

 

Maybe someone will think it’s fate, Mrs. Smith’s daughter offered, slipping a sports drink behind a box of jumbo tampons, having seen her mother’s glare. They wouldn’t have known they were craving a light blue Gatorade, and then, there it is!

 

Sure, the eldest Mrs. Smith said flatly. She made eye contact with the man behind her daughters as the newest Mrs. Smith gave her offspring a kiss on the cheek. He disappeared in a blink.

 

If we’re going to walk to dinner, I’d like to leave with enough time, Mrs. Smith said, keeping her voice clipped and kind. She felt exposed suddenly, and ashamed. On past trips, her daughter had hustled down cramped side streets, leaving her overstimulated and spooked. Only tourists actually took cabs, her daughter explained, to which Mrs. Smith quietly swallowed that she, herself, was a tourist.

 

The newest Mrs. Smith piped up: I need to buy something…private. She gave the two natural Smiths a plaintive look; Mrs. Smith thought of her third-graders, the search of affirmation in their eyes when they recited lines for a class play, vulnerable and uneasy with their memories. Teacher, their faces said, tell us you love us. Not: Give me a good grade. Not: Did I get an A? Only: Show me with your face, in front of everybody in this room, that I’ve done right. Mrs. Smith wanted to ask how many pregnancy tests they’d already purchased, had they been to a doctor yet for a blood test? She sucked the skin of her cheeks and bit, figuring they wanted just one more positive before telling her the obvious.

 

Her daughter nodded at her wife and said, Let’s share one outside, Mom, and flicked at her coat pocket. At the automated doors, the eldest Mrs. Smith looked back at the newest Mrs. Smith and fancied herself a soothsayer. There the newest addition went, legs going like crazy down the family planning aisle.

 

The mother fingered her phone in her pocket, even more eager, now, to update the forum. She imagined the title she would give the post: How to support lesbian moms (30s, F, NYC?), and then the follow ups: Are both lesbian moms “mom” without exception, as well as, Let’s be honest: What do I do when child of lesbian moms (now unborn fetus) asks the big D question? (ETA: D as in “dad”!!) She imagined getting lots of comments, most positive, some not so much; the thought of a bright, bright screen warmed her with a pride she did not often allow herself to access.

 

Outside, mother and daughter passed a clove cigarette between one another. It’s vanilla flavored, her daughter said.

 

Her mother replied: Nice.

 

The Smith women had been sharing cigarettes since the younger Mrs. Smith was in high school. Her mother, a sprinter in youth and later a casual jogger, drove her to field hockey games even when she was old enough to drive herself; she didn’t trust other drivers on the road, Mrs. Smith said, but what she really wanted was time to sit in quiet with her daughter. Her daughter became mysterious to her in those years, confident and stretched beyond the child-self her mother understood. She went to the mall with friends, stayed up late on the family desktop, typing away to people Mrs. Smith assumed were classmates, whispered on the landline in the kitchen. By her senior year, then-Miss Smith dawdled getting into the car, sneaking off to hover in the garage. Finally, Mrs. Smith caught her smoking. She looked so young in her high school sweatpants, with all that black eyeliner. Get in the car, she said, and they did. Mrs. Smith didn’t say anything when her daughter lit the next cigarette, hunched and scowled in the front seat. When her daughter handed the filtered cigarette to her, the eldest Mrs. Smith took a few puffs, and passed it back. For months, their little joy.

 

Mom, her only child said as they stood outside the fluorescent Duane Reade, January’s depression thick around them. This is so important to me. A few feet behind her, a straight couple took a selfie; the man’s arm stretched long, and the woman used her gloved hand to adjust the tilt of the screen.

 

Her daughter continued: I know you might not understand at first, but try to stay open minded. The eldest Mrs. Smith squinted at the asphalt but kept listening; her daughter never got on the phone anymore, so how could she pass up a chance to hear that voice? She could recognize rehearsal in it, that her Ellie had practiced this, whether to a mirror or to the new addition, the eldest Mrs. Smith did not know.

 

Families are changing, Mom, Ellie added, but it’s the same love.

 

Mrs. Smith ruffled; same love? Was her daughter quoting commercials now? Anyway. Mrs. Smith found it all to be just fine. A baby, sure. A grandmother. Fine, fine, fine. She did not appreciate all of the hullabaloo over hiding this pregnancy. Probably, the eldest Mrs. Smith bet, they were going to raise the baby all gender neutral; yellow and green onesies, sure, the eldest Mrs. Smith could do that. She had gotten pretty damn good at they as a default, at risk of patting herself on the back. Mrs. Smith took an extra drag of the cigarette, knowing her daughter was watching and wanting.

 

I know, was all the eldest Mrs. Smith said, believing that she did. I know

 

Mrs. Smith looked at Mrs. Smith. Their faces just the same: brown hair, brown eyes, pale skin, both still with acne scars. Red, red cheeks in the city’s cold. The younger Mrs. Smith stood taller, like her father. The eldest Mrs. Smith knew her daughter inherited her father’s long, thin feet as well. She imagined, briefly, the newest Mrs. Smith rubbing ointment on her daughter’s scabbed heels; they bruised in new shoes so easily, and her daughter had always been impatient to break in what was still stiff. Bandaids, bandaids. Would the newest Mrs. Smith massage her daughter’s callouses, or only rub disinfectant in her blood? Mrs. Smith’s desire to know this intimacy embarrassed her more than her refusal to ask.

 

Mrs. Smith tried to see hot life in her daughter but couldn’t. Both women were gaunt, still. She figured it was the newer Mrs. Smith who had gotten pregnant, but she hoped it was actually her daughter, her blood. From her forum, she knew not to ask questions of biology, because it implied one mother was more real than the other. Still, while the younger Mrs. Smiths checked directions to the restaurant, the eldest Mrs. Smith typed: How to celebrate lesbian moms (31F, 33F) having baby? No, she thought. She should not have to ask that. She deleted it and typed: How to celebrate lesbian pregnancy of daughter in law when baby isn’t blood? No, still wrong. She deleted again, then switched to her not-private browser and ordered more cotton briefs for her husband.

 

I’m glad you’re feeling up for dinner, right after your flight and all, the newest Mrs. Smith said when she came outside. Mrs. Smith nodded and said thank you, completing the circle of polite conversion the two of them had entertained for the last few years. When the Mrs. Smiths held hands and walked down the sidewalk, the eldest Mrs. Smith stared hard at the plastic bag. It had to be a pregnancy test, she thought. She hoped it would tear, drop, spill. She only wanted confirmation of a thing she might understand, an entry point. The newest Mrs. Smith held on, held on.

 

 

At the restaurant, a third gaunt woman joined them as Mrs. Smith’s daughter confirmed the reservation with the hostess. For four? the hostess asked dully, and to Mrs. Smith’s confusion, all three stretched smiles wide and agreed.

 

Oh, Mrs. Smith said. Could her daughter not pity her shyness? Some personalities aren’t outgrown. I’m so glad your friend can join us, she said, giving her daughter a brief look of reproach. In return, her daughter named her friend, voice full of a funny anxiety. The eldest Mrs. Smith told the new person hello and realized she had already forgotten their name.

 

The three women looked at Mrs. Smith with a terrible vulnerability, causing her to experience a swing into both fear and resentment. She was trying, wasn’t she? What to say to this strange addition. The trio appeared to her as three long coats. Three sets of eyes, for once not glued to phone screens. Three mouths that had all worn braces, she could tell. Mrs. Smith repeated herself, that she was very glad their friend could spend dinner with them, and something in all of the women’s eyes shriveled into an ache Mrs. Smith could not understand.

 

Once at their booth, Mrs. Smith considered the seating an unnecessary tangle. In the end, she sat beside her Ellie, and the new Mrs. Smith and their friend sat opposite them. The new Mrs. Smiths tended to hold hands and share plates, which Mrs. Smith found particularly saccharine and was privately relieved to not have to witness it tonight. Still, this new woman puzzled her. Was she a surrogate? An emotional support decoy? Their couples’ therapist? The eldest Mrs. Smith wished she had a Facebook account so she could slip into the bathroom and do some digging.

 

When their water glasses came, Mrs. Smith narrowed her eyes in on the new woman’s layered hemp bracelets. A birth doula, maybe. The message board made living seem easy. People followed group rules. Age, relationship, one-liner summary. Mrs. Smith read the TL;DRs first, then went back and reread all of the details; people don’t always know how to pull out what was really the main issue in their lives. Mrs. Smith did not comment or post, but she did read. Admittedly, she skimmed the ones with titles she did not understand: situationships, throuples, polyams, kinksters. Fine for them, she reasoned, though she felt they should have a sub-group, so as not to clog her main page. At this dinner, she felt betrayed; the forums had not prepared her for these queer circumstances. Especially not the raw menu in front of her.

 

With forced cheer, she asked, When it says it’s all plant-based and raw, that means it’ll come cold? Mrs. Smith resented having to ask these questions but had stopped asking her daughter to bring her to that cheesecake place she loved in Times Square; she could only be mocked so many times for being a tourist, what with her wanting of cabs and cooked meals.

 

It’s room temp, the newest Mrs. Smith said. The eldest Mrs. Smith hid her grimace behind the menu; it was involuntary, she told herself, this sharp reaction to the young woman’s hoarse voice. She had intended to ask her daughter, and thought her intent was obvious. The eldest Mrs. Smith soothed her inner beast by reminding herself that the crackling young woman was carrying her grandchild.

 

Still, her daughter stepped in to save her. It’s all vegan and focused around plants, so fruits and vegetables, but the dishes are really very Americana, explained her offspring, who spent childhood years dipping string cheese into bowls of shelf-stable shredded parmesan. I’m going to try the queso plate, she added with an excitement her mother sensed held no irony.

 

The meatloaf, the eldest Mrs. Smith said. The table felt clipped, tense; too quiet, too much attention on one another’s brief movements. Had her own pregnancy announcement been so bizarre? She could not quite remember the air around her parents’ living room, when she and her husband delivered the news to them; she’d been happy, or terrified, or resting on the fine line between those states, then, she was sure, but how she appeared to those around her, she could not place. Feeling three heads turned on her, she pushed out the words, What is the meat?

 

It’s a pea protein, Mom, but don’t focus on that. The dish is actually just like what you and Dad like. You know, with the spices. Her daughter gestured her hands in front of her hunched chest, as she had whenever she argued a theoretical point or on behalf of getting takeout, and the eldest Mrs. Smith wanted to lie down beneath the table and spoon her, as they had on the couch when she was young. The eldest Mrs. Smith knew she could not ask for such a thing; someone would call the manager, if not the police, and so she reminded her daughter that she cooked her meatloaf, and that the spices she used were ketchup.

 

 

All except for the newest Mrs. Smith ordered a glass of organic, vegan wine. When isn’t wine vegan? the oldest Mrs. Smith asked after the sommelier, a lean, frantic-looking man with studs in both nostrils, returned and placed the glasses on the table. She had wanted to ask when he was running through the list, but her daughter looked close to ill in her nerves, eyes shifting from face to face at their table, and she did not want to irritate her into snapping.

Her daughter said, It has to do with the bugs, or something. The eldest Mrs. Smith watched her daughter take a gulp and wipe her mouth with the back of her hand. The eldest Mrs. Smith watched the newest Mrs. Smith sip at her water, and glanced to their friend, who was sniffing and staring at her wine but not ingesting it.

 

You can drink up, the eldest Mrs. Smith said loudly, causing the unexpected addition to the group to startle. There are no bugs to check for; isn’t that right, dear? She turned on her daughter, who held the stem of a wine glass like a softball glove.

 

Her daughter looked at her wife and the friend nervously, then back at her mother. The eldest Mrs. Smith was surprised her daughter did not jab back in her friend’s honor; she found the eldest Mrs. Smith’s lighthearted teasing to be baiting and rude, when in fact, the eldest Mrs. Smith felt she only wanted to be a little less kind without losing affection. Mom, her daughter said instead. We have to tell you something.

 

With six eyes on her, Mrs. Smith suddenly felt very important. She was grateful for her bugless wine. It tasted light and fresh, she thought. Those words were only implants, really, because she preferred box wine, and also because she felt that she did not understand the world around her. Why was the friend here? How far along was her daughter-in-law? Was this friend the nanny? Was she a surrogate? Nothing quite made sense. She encouraged the sommelier, who filtered back in as though trained to pick on such delicate family rifts, to fill her glass a little extra. He obliged without question. She took a long drink, and said, Yes?

 

The younger women appeared baby faced, suddenly, without much makeup. Just the flick of winged eyeliner, a bright red lipstick. Their faces looked unbalanced, unfinished; she guessed intentionally. Mrs. Smith had worn her full face, including powder, as she had for years. In the tea lights, she worried she looked like a ghost.

 

Well, her daughter started. The women looked at one another again when she paused, letting the eldest Mrs. Smith simmer. The eldest Mrs. Smith was prepared to simmer, simmer, until the youngest Mrs. Smith, the newest Mrs. Smith, and their strange friend held hands. Quite ceremonious, the eldest Mrs. Smith thought before feeling she was being made a fool.

 

I’m very happy for you, she said unhappily. And I understand this probably feels like very big news to give me, but of course I understand.

 

The women looked at one another, then back at her.

 

The newest Mrs. Smith repeated her unsteadily: You understand?

 

The eldest Mrs. Smith finished her wine. She drank her water glass to the bottom. She felt her bladder seize, a reminder of her infallibility.. I’m very, very happy for you girls, she said, but I am a little offended that you’re having such a hard time telling me the truth.

 

Her one daughter spoke to her very slowly, as though she were a child with a dirty foot in its mouth: What exactly are you happy about, Mom?

 

The eldest Mrs. Smith felt regret before she said, The baby. After all, it was their news to give, not hers. But why had they made the night so difficult? Why this particularly odd restaurant? Why the awkward friend? Why draw out the reveal? The eldest Mrs. Smith worried why her own daughter thought her own mother would need such buttering up; was it those bad years, the hung up calls, the mentions of the sons of her friends who were so polite, and so single, the use of friend over and over and over? The eldest Mrs. Smith put her empty wine glass to her mouth. She did not want to think about those years and their bruising.

 

The newest Mrs. Smith looked at the other women, then said loudly and cheerfully, as though repeating her order at the counter of a loud cafe, There’s actually not a baby.

 

The eldest Mrs. Smith stopped herself from rolling her eyes. She said: Okay, the fetus.

 

Her daughter grabbed her hand when she said, Mom, no, you don’t understand what’s going on.

 

The eldest Mrs. Smith wondered where her meatloaf was; how could raw food take so long? It wasn’t even cooked! She wanted to kick the table up into the ceiling. She held her daughter’s hand back. She could not remember the last time they had grabbed for one another. Speaking each syllable fully, she said: Explain it in the simplest terms, will you?

 

The friend leaned forward and chirped, Oh, Mrs. Smith. We’re a trio.

 

A trio, the eldest Mrs. Smith repeated flatly. With her free hand, she held her wine in front of her face, as though it were a shield. She stared into the bottom of the glass and swore she saw her child self staring back at her, forlorn and meager, always steps behind, always left out, the haunting of a miserable only child. She placed the glass on the table. She said, What?

 

Like, instead of a couple, the newest Mrs. Smith cut in. We’re a trio. The three of them nodded at one another, then at the eldest Mrs. Smith.

 

Behind the eldest Mrs. Smith, the sommelier explained the wine pairings to a table that had just been seated. She listened to the string of happy voices; two couples, she guessed, one old, one young, enjoying a family meal. No trios. No sad old women. Tofu, perhaps. But not all of this. She repeated, What?

 

No one is having a baby, her daughter said, this time, her voice all shake. We’re not pregnant, or adopting, or anything like that. But our family is growing, and it’s important to me that you accept that.

 

What, she thought, incredulously. She asked, A fourth Mrs. Smith?

 

Mom, Jesus. We haven’t talked about that yet.

 

The eldest Mrs. Smith turned to the new addition. It’s your baby?

 

There’s no baby, Mom.

 

No baby, she repeated, feeling dumb.

 

Mom, we just need you to accept…all of it, us, and the um, the lack of a baby, too.

 

Accept it, the eldest Mrs. Smith repeated. She hesitated, then took the newest addition’s full glass and drank from hers.

 

Mom!

 

Mrs. Smith shrugged and held onto the stolen glass. She said: Accept it, and her daughter rolled her eyes.

 

I really appreciate you being so nice about this, the newest addition said, ignoring the pilfered wine. The eldest Mrs. Smith had gotten to know when younger people had prepared their words, irrespective of anything else that might happen before the envisioned moment became the present. I mean, the hemp-adorned woman continued, I know it’s a lot to take in, but you’re handling it a lot better than my mom did.

 

The eldest Mrs. Smith looked at the pilfered wine glass. Despite herself, she said, Really?

 

Really! And, besides, we don’t know what the future holds, any of us. The addition said this very wisely, and the eldest Mrs. Smith felt certain that this was the sort of woman her daughter was ceaselessly attracted to: lots of wisdoms, lots of organics, lots of mild emotional stressors in stimulating environments, like the IKEA she was now sure the addition would accompany them to.

 

Tell me more, Mrs. Smith said. Her face felt warm from the wine. She comforted herself: This is a fling, an exploration. A phase. She thought about the newest Mrs. Smiths; her daughter, just 31, and her wife, a reasonable 33. They had a few good years yet. She finished the wine and noticed her daughter drain her own glass.

 

You know, about having kids. I mean, who knows, none of us are parents right now, but we don’t know—

 

Babe, her daughter said loudly. The newest Mrs. Smith shook her head diplomatically and smiled with both rows of her teeth out. Definitely still wore her retainer, the eldest Mrs. Smith thought. Absolutely mother material.

 

When she did not add a just kidding, ha, ha, the three Mrs. Smiths eyed the addition curiously. The newest asked, What do you mean, the same time the daughter asked, Haven’t we talked about this, but probably no one heard them over the eldest Mrs. Smith, who simply asked: Turkey baster or IVF?

 

 

When the three Mrs. Smiths and their new addition—who her daughter pointedly clarified was named Alyssa, and wanted to be called it, instead of the friend—left the restaurant, the eldest Mrs. Smith could not help herself. She’d ordered two more glasses of wine. She’d polished off her meatloaf, which, she noted to the waiter with pleasure, was actually warmer than she’d expected. Her daughter was, in her mind, one step away from being a polygamist.

 

The pregnancy test, she said as they congregated on the narrow, smoky sidewalk, feeling dumb. You were so cagey in that store, she said, regarding her daughter-in-law face to face, emboldened by the wine.

 

The newest Mrs. Smith brought her pointer finger to her mouth and picked at her lips. Oh, she said. I’ve had some vaginal dryness.

 

The eldest Mrs. Smith was too focused (and too drunk) to be deterred. And you didn’t order wine, she continued.

I’m on an antibiotic, you know, she said, giving her wife a pleading look. For the dryness.

 

The eldest Mrs. Smith let this information settle on their walk back to her hotel in midtown, where the girls were leaving her for the night. As her daughter explained, the new addition—Alyssa, the eldest Mrs. Smith kept as a refrain, Alyssa—hadn’t moved in yet, but would when they moved to the new place.

 

We’re buying the furniture, the eldest Mrs. Smith said, pronouncing each word as though waiting for a stern correction. But her daughter offered none, and instead described the new home as she held her wife’s hand. An additional bedroom and a half-bathroom, a minuscule yard. A deck that could fit three adults and a tall plant. It had seemed to the eldest Mrs. Smith she had gotten one guess right: IKEA, the shopping, the anxiety.This ability to perceive a thing comforted her.

 

The four women stopped at a crosswalk. The wind was flat and empty, just cold air hanging steady as they walked through. The eldest Mrs. Smith longed for some city snow, but all around her feet, dirty remnants. A big, dark car slowed at the curb, and a man rushed up from behind them and launched into the backseat. The eldest Mrs. Smith had felt a presence up close behind her, and assumed it was the new one—Alyssa, Alyssa—lurking hard, but in orienting herself to the present moment, realized Alyssa had actually been holding her daughter’s other hand.

 

The car hovered. The man from the Duane Reade, the one who carried hot blood the eldest Mrs. Smith understood at first as a blessing, leaned his face out of the window. That hot blood looked so young, then, childish in its evil, in its disregard for empathy. Later, the eldest Mrs. Smith would understand it as worse than a lack of empathy; the intention was all cruelty, all power that was not a naive pushing of boundaries, but of choice and intent.

 

Her girls didn’t react when they heard the slur; it rang through all of them, no one had to ask to clarify it, or to repeat it, or to question if it was a trick of the city noise, but only the eldest Mrs. Smith reacted when the man yelled dykes from the backseat as the car merged into traffic.

 

The eldest Mrs. Smith ran. It came back easier than she thought, the rhythm. Feet on the ground like she controlled the pace of the present. The lungs, even, remember what it is to become mightier in expansion. When the car stilled at the traffic light, the eldest Mrs. Smith soared, vaulted, it felt like, to catch up. She kicked the trunk of the car. Her foot throbbed and she kicked again. She slammed her purse against the rear window. Inside, her Midol and chapsticks rattled.

 

The man put his head out of the window. Lady, he said, blank-eyed. What the fuck?

 

The eldest Mrs. Smith hit her purse against the backdoor of the car as he shouted at the driver to raise his window. He could not figure out how to get it up himself. Of course, she realized, this man had taken an Uber and not a cab. Of course. The eldest Mrs. Smith did not emit noise from her throat. The eldest Mrs. Smith heard noises, distantly; the driver, laughing loudly, the man in the backseat, yelling about customer service, the two new Mrs. Smiths, and, she reasoned, the perhaps soon-to-be Mrs. Smith, being loud in an emotional state the eldest Mrs. Smith could not, at the moment her purse smacked into the man’s face through his still-open window, parse out. She was beyond.

The eldest Mrs. Smith felt her bladder release a little urine; all of the momentum, all of the wine. A little urine is fine, she thought. A little urine detracts from almost nothing.

 

She heard herself yelling things like eat shit, motherfucker, and I’ll report you, and even, surreally, a promise that she would come for him. Come for him where? How? The eldest Mrs. Smith had no idea where such ideas entered her mind, but it did not matter. He laughed, as the driver finally turned his window up, but he looked nervous, too; the eldest Mrs. Smith taught sophomores biology one semester. She knew what nervous young people looked like. Sure, he was probably in his twenties, but young enough to feel intrinsic unease from the steady rage of an older person. Especially one that had slammed his face with the bottom of a faux leather handbag.

 

Fuck you, lady, he yelled as the window sealed him. Seconds later, the car merged back into traffic. The eldest Mrs. Smith yelled, The name’s Anne Marie, bitch, and believed the entire island heard her.

 

The Mrs. Smiths and their girlfriend shrieked around Mrs. Smith the whole walk back through the West Village, the only place in Manhattan the eldest Mrs. Smith felt she understood, a bit, though, as her daughter explained, it was also the only neighborhood not on the grid. Her daughter put a few crushed cigarettes in her hand and repeated, Mom, shit, Mom, holy shit! The eldest Mrs. Smith released a little more urine, from all of the commotion, and didn’t care at all if the odor permeated the night.

 

In the hotel lobby, Alyssa asked for the eldest Mrs. Smith’s phone number so she could text her the video. I recorded it, she said. In case he hit you. The eldest Mrs. Smith embraced each of the women with her eyes shut, face sucking in the scent of their shampoos: almond, summer rain, green mellow mango. Mothers know these things without asking. She mumbled, I love you, and they all murmured it, or something like it, back.

 

 

In her hotel room, Anne Marie changed into one of two hanging robes, leaving her pajamas folded in her suitcase. She left her underwear to soak in sudsy water in the wide-mouthed sink. She did not put on a new pair. She ignored the laminated No Smoking signs and hovered by the cracked window to light up. She watched the video over and over, admiring her bear self, her peculiar, cosmic domination. She opened a miniature bottle of tequila and sipped it, wincing at its punch. She opened her computer and went to the forum. She typed: I (56F) defended my daughters (31F, 33F, 27?F) against a bigot. Feedback?? Anne Marie attached the video and hit post, then closed her computer and fingered a second cigarette, victorious.

 

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Open Season

Like any good strategist, you keep an ethical

distance, stepping over milkweed and turning on

the radio. It’s hard to tell when you’re approaching—

everyone wears an orange vest over her coat.

Cooking without speaking, I feel like an actress

playing a wife—soft cheese with honey, pickled

cabbage, pale tomatoes from the roadside store.

The pond is frozen and the snow has no content.

I understand the animal only if it’s packed

in Styrofoam and thawing on the kitchen counter.

Even then, some parts are too much for me.

The bulbous head of the hydrangea hits the window.

You come in. We eat marrow and cartilage.

I wanted the snow to be like snow from television—

fat and legible. How rarely I feel I am anywhere.

I hate the animal when it looks like what it is.

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Review: H & G By Anna Maria Hong

Sidebrow Books, 2018.

Paperback, 59 pages, $15.00.

Winner, Clarissa Dalloway Prize, A Room of Her Own Foundation

 

H & G 

 

Anna Maria Hong’s H & G is a darkly postmodern and feminist revisioning of the classic Brothers Grimm tale “Hansel and Gretel” that plumbs the depths of patricidal hatred, inherited misogyny, and the unsuccessful search for a family that is more than kin and less than kind. Intensely surrealist in its warped depictions of the traditional fantasy world in which the novella orients itself, while also exceedingly realist in the complexity of its main and supporting characters, Hong’s reification of the Brothers Grimm text is a meta-fictive trek into the dark recesses of the human psyche from which readers won’t want to return.

 

To call this novella a work of fabulist fiction is perhaps too simplistic a label, though the text wears its magical mundanity in quite an enchanting fashion. As great fabulist fictions—and to some extent, great fairy tales—do, Hong’s writing orients the reader in a fantastical situation or setting before propelling them into ever-deepening waters of ethics, philosophy, and cultural critique through the power of allegory and metaphor. As is the case with fairy tales, Hong’s work is instructive and has a motley cast of trope-like characters to fill archetypal roles: the father, the mother, the evil stepmothers, the witches, and the two children, Hansel and Gretel, referred to as H. and G., respectively. This, however, is where most of the similarities between the fairy tale and Hong’s work end. Hong stays true to fairy tale form inasmuch as it serves her greater purposes—she plays to the tropes in order to break them and keeps true to most of the particulars of “Hansel and Gretel” until intervening personal narratives and real-world elements interpose in the story and make it decidedly not a fairy tale, revisionist or otherwise. One-dimensional character types are rendered with human complexity and qualities, so much so that even the “villains” in H & G are given sympathetic backstories and motivations that impress upon the reader their humanness without absolving them of their flaws.

 

One scene with a markedly fabulist bent is in the chapter titled “H. Is Praying To The Great Eye.” In this section, H. makes a pilgrimage up the mountain each day to the New Witch’s hut to nurse from her breast—assuming the role of both the sacrificial offering and the one who proffers the sacrifice to this deity-like being—in order to save the world. Bizarre and grossly sexual, the conceit is a fascinating one, exploring the depravity of codependent relationships that stem from unhealthy obsessions and childhood fears of abandonment:

 

Someday the New Witch will tire of me too—prayer and fate of the world be

damned—or she will die and either way I’ll be abandoned again, surmises H.

Alone with nothing but this rocky, dirty peak to climb, and empty hut at the top.

 

By H. nursing from the New Witch and bringing a part of her into H.’s body, two things happen narratively: the New Witch’s face is restored to youth (though H. remarks that her body is still flat and shriveled as a hag’s), and H. is rewarded with the satisfaction of taking and not giving anything back but pleasure, which, he says, is incidental to the giver. H. is a supplicant—worshipful, dutiful—not from a wholly religious or sexual desire, or even to save the world as the New Witch remarks, but because in this H. has found what he believes is a sense of belonging. In a mere three pages, Hong builds a tiny world and fills this world with searching philosophical questions—what do we make of the reciprocal, if any, relationship between God and Believer? As Hong puts it,

 

If the Believer stopped believing, would the world cease to exist? H. thinks it

wiser to not risk it, so he prays every day, climbing the green and brown peaks,

until he reaches the New Witch’s hut where he will suck on the Witch’s cold

tits, ripe and smooth as the flesh of pale green fruit.

 

What of attention misplaced and masquerading as affection or as physical and emotional nurturing?: “The Witch strokes his golden hair as she suckles him, telling him how good he has been, how sturdy he is, how well he climbed the mountain, how good he is to save the world like this . . .”. What of the emotionally scarred person who can only take and take and in the process destroys what’s left of themselves?: “H. sucks like his life depends on it, because it is what he is good at—the only thing he has always been good at—eating, siphoning dominion and beauty from powerful women who want to save him and eat him.” In posing these questions, Hong conjures the familiar fairy tale into something fierce and dangerous, something so very heartbreaking that we want to look away, yet, enraptured by the story’s unfolding, cannot.

 

In H & G, the story becomes the stories, a twinning effect enhanced by the meta-fictive qualities of the writing. In this regard, H & G is intensely postmodern and feminist: experimental with its points of view (first-person plural, second-person, and third-person omniscient) and its many non-prose forms (bulleted lists, poems, blocks of prose that read as poetry, and, most interestingly, the inclusion of the alternate story endings that continuously pull the reader in and out of the text in order to hone in on story implications for our real and the story’s imagined worlds). Yet it also addresses real-life sexism and abuse of a hegemonic patriarchal society. Hong writes these fractured wholes as her own trail of leading breadcrumbs for the reader to follow, from context to context, from one rhetorical situation to the next, while bringing complexity and richness and a sense of wonder with her poignant and bittersweet tellings.

 

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Here in North, in Our Dorm, 3C

Who was going at it? Who had put out the word?

 

When the riots popped off in South, we heard the modules filled with burning mats and brawling, that CO had stormed in, flashing riot gear, shooting bean bags, rubber bullets, and gas. We could picture it happening, vividly. We’d read all about it on a kite snuck in, passed from hand to hand. We could smell the smoke on the paper.

 

The populations in South would be stripped, searched, sorted, and reprocessed. Soon the world would be changing. Its politics would be shifting—into what configurations we could only guess. What we knew was that there would be consequences. We would feel them too, here in North, in our dorm, 3C.

 

We waited for the word to come down, for the bloodshed to happen.

 

We had to make plans.

 

We held our meetings at night, while the others lay all around us, among slanting shadows, on racks too close by, trying to listen. We knew they were trying. We wanted them to hear. We wanted them to know we’d be ready.

 

We looked for hitches in the patterns, how they trooped into the dayroom, regimented in red, forming up between shifts in the kitchen and laundry. Who gathered with whom, who would whisper, shake hands. We watched the red shirts swirling through our dorm along currents, into telltale dispersions and groupings.

 

We had to stay vigilant.

 

We could sense things occurring in traded glances behind us, like during count-times, when we had to hold still, while CO dotted our distant heads with a pencil, as if trying to pin us more firmly back into place.

 

What did they know but clipboards and checklists?

 

It was happening out there. It would happen here too.

 

We could feel it the way we could feel the weather, or the touch of a loving hand on our skin, when we would daydream on our racks about clouds, lost in memory, while we watched the inner blacks of our eyelids. We would press our hands to the concrete walls of our lockup, to feel the cold and think, It’s raining.

 

We would become odder, with intentions impossible to fathom—more so than the others—for our own good.

 

We would knock on the darkened booth and, when the man had stepped away from his monitors, snap apart plastic razors to collect the thin blades. We would hold them in our mouths, like Communion, blessed, and smile, with no trace of silver, behind the walls of our teeth.

 

This was how we had to be, but who had decided? Were the riots really to blame?

 

Was it the paisas?

 

The Eses?

 

Was it the ‘Woods?

 

In fact, who’d started this shit in the first place?

 

When we asked what was happening, CO would tell us, Step back. When trustees from other modules rolled in carts for our books or dirty trays, we would nod at them. Wussup? They’d lift a chin at the cameras in the corners, look away.

 

We knew to imagine ourselves through those lenses, our lives all flattened into dull, droning video, on whole banks of glowing monitors, for those men in darkened booths. We were learning to live accordingly.

 

So what would be ours to keep?

 

We watched the work shifts go out. We watched the work shifts come in.

 

We were lining up and playing cards, sitting down and writing letters. To anyone watching, ourselves included, we were behaving the best we could.

 

We wanted to go home, despite our bracing for the violence to come, some of us more than others, but we did. And when we would, before it had, we’d wander back into the world, feeling our way along as though our vision had dimmed, and wonder where it might be hiding—if not in the thinness of a turning page, the lightness of the rain, nor in the steadiness of the passing days—and when it would be released.

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After Daddy

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

–Genesis 2:24

Every mornin I ask Mama,
Why do your eyes look like torn

screens? I say, Mama your flies

are gettin in the house again.
I swat at my ears, then
lift the toilet lid and find clear
wings floatin, black bellies pinned in
still water. Go on and pee, she says. Don’t
need to flush ‘em first.
When Mama scoops her coffee
grounds, she buries a family alive
while coughin antennae up onto
the shelf of her molars.
Says it tickles when she bites down.
The dog snaps at the air.
Each time he catches one, we three circle up

and howl. Our songs blanket the buzz through

the afternoon and shimmy the ash in the mantle

urn. By then we’re good and exercised,
arms quivering from reachin, palms gut sticky.

Mama, is this called slap-happy?
She tells me to go wash up for dinner.
She prays: God, bless this food to
our body. Bless those who cannot be
with us today.        Amen.
I pinch a maggot outta my
pie and wonder how many get
past our lips unseen.
Every night, as she’s fallin asleep,
I lean in slow and close
and I tell my Mama,
Mama, I think we got ‘em all.

 

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Fish Run

We were an inch onto the Van Wyck Expressway when the boro taxi barreled past us down the left lane—going sixty, maybe sixty-five. I’m only guessing, since Jack Sr. braked so hard to dodge it that my head hit the dashboard with a smack like fireworks behind my eyes. I wasn’t much for thought afterwards. James, who was sitting in the back of the van with the dolly and the netting, let out a bark of a laugh that cracked the air. Jack Sr. swore, guiding us onto the shoulder, yelling—“For God’s sake, James, stop laughing, Ren, are you okay? Jesus Christ, can you hear me, Ren?”—while I tried desperately not to puke, as I had never been hit so hard in my life. In my mind, I was still thinking of first impressions. I’d only just met Jack Sr. and his grandson James, only just disembarked the red-eye from Seattle-Tacoma an hour ago and climbed into their van from the January night. If I puked all over Jack Sr.’s dash and windshield I’d be forgiven, probably, but not forgotten. Jack Jr. would never let me live it down. Fucking Jack Jr. It was his fault I was here, alone in a van with his father, in the first place. I reminded myself that I loved him or some shit.

 

We’d been stopped on the shoulder for a couple minutes. I opened my eyes, the top of my head pounding viciously under my fingers. “I’m okay,” I managed to say. Another taxi sped past, jamming its horn for four uninterrupted seconds to let us know we were motherfuckers. I tried to find my hands stretched out in front of me. The dizziness had mostly abated, not quite the pain. “Wasn’t wearing my seatbelt. My fault. I’m okay.”

 

“Oh, Jesus, fuck, oh, Jesus,” said Jack Sr. a couple more times, working through—I assumed—how to tell his absent son that his boyfriend had been hospitalized after only eighteen paltry minutes in wintertime Queens. We went on like this, not listening to each other, until gradually the road and the blue-black sky sat completely still and solid in my view. It was about to snow.

 

 

It had been Jack Jr.’s idea for us to visit his family. I would fly to JFK from Seattle; Jack Jr. would come straight from his work trip in Toronto. “Easy,” Jack Jr. called it on the phone as we bought our tickets. “Spend the weekend with my parents, go home together. This is what richies do, fly all over, compound their airtime.”

 

“Who the fuck says that?”

 

I had packed, made my way to the airport, called Jack Jr. one last time, boarded. My phone blared when I turned my cellular back on when we touched ground at three a.m. Five missed calls, two texts. Snowstorm. Blocked in. A slew of voicemails documenting an hour-long fight to get to the airport through the Canada snowdrift, after which a saga of delays and road closures had resulted in Jack Jr. being marooned at the hotel until at least the afternoon. Which led me, alone and palpitating, to baggage claim, then the Terminal 2 pick-up carpool where Jack Sr.—the sixty-five-year-old, shaved-headed Korean fishmonger—clapped me on the back, herded me into his refrigerated van, and gave me what was now feeling like a concussion. This was all very funny to James, who was recording a video of us with his phone.

 

“Don’t sleep.” Jack Sr.’s palm was cold as a pumice stone on my forehead. “Definitely don’t sleep. I heard that’s bad for you.”

 

Behind us, more cars swerved, screeching their horns. Jack Sr. appeared afraid to move us any farther. I didn’t know anything about New York. There were hospitals in the city, of course, but did I dare ask to be taken to one? Was I a pussy? Jack Jr. would say I was, I know he would.

 

“You know what?” Jack Sr. said suddenly, posing the question with a mischievous smile before he’d even asked. I saw it a mile away. He was about to ask me to come along for the deliveries. “Why don’t you come along with James and me this morning for the deliveries? Fish market’s only an hour from here. This way I can keep an eye on you, make sure you’re okay.”

 

Jack Jr.’s family owned a sushi restaurant in Fort Lee. He’d told me this on our first date the previous year. “Huge Korean population, Fort Lee.”

 

“But,” I remembered saying, “sushi is—”

 

“Sushi is whatever the white man says it is,” Jack Jr. said. “Haven’t you heard? They can’t tell us apart.”

 

Jack Jr. said things. This got him into trouble, but also made him one of the more memorable people I’d ever met. That’s what I ended up telling my friends about him. Meanwhile Jack Sr. still ran the place himself. Still made the trip across two rivers to the New Fulton Fish Market in Hunts Point in the middle of the night twice a week to secure the fresh catch. “He loves talking about it,” Jack Jr. said to me. “Loves. I’m really sorry.”

 

Back in the van, Jack Sr. was still waiting for an answer. James was busy editing his footage. I forced a smile. Jack Sr. beamed as though I’d just asked to be adopted. He jerked the van back into gear, and as we rocketed off down the freeway, he started asking me where I’d grown up and did I speak Korean okay and were my parents still around. While I, jet-lagged, tried to keep my eyes open and wished that Jack Jr. had made his goddamn flight.

 

 

They made the fish run every Tuesday and Thursday, Jack Sr. told me over the van’s deafening engine. Always Tuesday and Thursday, around two or three in the morning before the best of the vendors sold out. He listed them off his fingers: sea bream, snapper, Scottish salmon, Spanish mackerel, sweet shrimp, king crab legs, trout roe, littleneck clams, razor clams, abalone. “Tuna, Jesus, the tuna,” Jack Sr. said, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. “Fifty pounds of tuna a week. It’s all people want to eat. Can’t make it fast enough. You like spicy tuna, Ren? Nice sriracha mayonnaise, scallions—”

 

“Not my favorite,” I managed to say.

 

Jack Sr. got a twinkle in his eye. “You know, Jack and I did the fish run for eight years, up until he left for college. I think he got used to it by the end, maybe even liked it. That, or he lied better than his brothers.”

 

He let out a booming, forceful laugh, which I didn’t doubt for its authenticity. Jack Sr. seemed like the kind of guy who laughed like that no matter the joke. He tapped the mesh behind us. “You okay, James?” James nodded silently, engrossed in a portable PlayStation. He was decked in black sweats, socks, the same slippers I’d worn to the shower in my college dorms. He had soundly ignored us after the initial hysteria of my head injury.

 

“My eldest boy’s son,” Jack Sr. indicated as quietly as he could over the engine. “He’s some kind of…whatever the fuck it’s called—Ticker Tocker. Right, James? How many page-hits on that video of Ren hitting his head?”

 

“That’s not what they’re called,” said James.

 

“You know, he gets stopped outside the mall for pictures,” Jack Sr. added. “He’ll take that video down if you want him to.”

 

“It’s really no trouble,” I said.

 

We hit a new patch of the highway that screamed against the wheels at regular intervals.

 

“Four boys, you know,” Jack Sr. said. “I’ve got hope one’ll come back to Jersey. But I suppose Jack loves Seattle.”

 

He said this while looking at me, waiting, I thought, for me to respond. I could give him only a placating nod, afraid to tell a lie. Fuck if I knew what Jack Jr. wanted.

 

 

Jack Sr. didn’t have an accent. He told me as we rounded the river how he’d come over when he was three and had only been back to Seoul twice in his life. He’d lived in and around the tri-state area for sixty years, furthest being Seneca Falls for a period in his teens. He unfolded a long-winded account of the all-white high school of his youth, and I gritted my teeth against an ache in my neck that hadn’t gone away since the plane. I guess it hadn’t been Jack Jr.’s fault about the snow. He’d been nervous about the work trip anyway. I hoped he was at least sleeping well, one of us ought to. We turned off the highway, coasted onto a sprawling flat of asphalt, miles wide. In the distance loomed the green-topped mile-long warehouse, serviced by slow-moving trucks that pulled away from the industrial loading bays on its side. We slowed to a stop across two parking spaces. Jack Sr. ordered me to sit tight while he and James opened up the van. With a wave he summoned me, put an arm around my shoulder and walked me up, leaving James to lug the dolly up the incline. I stamped my frozen feet against the ground. Our breaths dispersed chains of fog around our heads.

 

“Shit,” Jack Sr. said, looking at me. “You got a hat?”

 

He clicked his tongue, not waiting for an answer, and swiped his own. Over my protests he jammed it on me. After the roar of the van and the hollow din of the freeway, my ears rang as they adjusted to the silence. There were a couple others, guys working in pairs and groups of three. Several were already on their way back, dollies laden high with cellophane-wrapped iceboxes on wooden pallets. The market had moved from the Financial District in 2005 and was now twice the drive for them, Jack Sr. told me as they approached. “Worth it for the quality, you know,” he said—rubbed his pointer finger and thumb together in front of my face as he said this, illustrating for me. “You wouldn’t believe how many scam artists buy frozen,” he said. “Five-star restaurants in Manhattan! All frozen.”

 

He pointed up to the shadowy guys loading the trucks up front. “These guys, they know what they’re doing. Almost definitely mob guys. I mean, it’s the Bronx.”

 

James, tugging the dolly, batted Jack Sr.’s arm down before I could.

 

Inside, the warehouse swelled into view, colder than the chill outside. Down an open walkway in the middle lay hundreds of tables, stacked boxes packed with ice, tanks spilling water out onto the floor and into the drains. We were hit by the smell first, nothing like the supermarket: entrails, brine, chum. Scallops pulsing in saltwater vats. An octopus wholesaler, laying each tangle of white and purple tentacles out like cabbages. Away from the tables were teams of guys breaking up the larger catches. Gleaming portions of red tuna cut straight from the carcass by samurai sword. Grouper and Pacific halibut speared on hooks and hoisted into the air by chains. Every so often Jack Sr. stopped near one of the tables, engaging in hushed conversation, after which several sleepy-eyed men in rubber aprons and boots would load an icebox onto James’s dolly. Jack Sr. opened each one, taking a metal hook off the dolly’s handle and hoisting a fish out of the ice by the gills, examining it carefully before laying it back down. We moved further inward, beyond the traditional fare: the specialty guys cracking open sea urchins flown in from Hokkaido, Santa Barbara, orange flesh bared to the lights as we passed. Tanks of red frog crabs, flat fish carpeting the bottoms of the glass, snails in buckets on the floor, jellyfish, red-spined sea cucumber.

 

“Anything special you like? We’re doing a little dinner in the restaurant, when Jack gets in.”

 

I declined, politely, avoiding eye contact with a tank of conger eels. I could tell it disappointed him. We crossed to the other end of the hangar, by which time James’s dolly was full. I could hear him struggling to drag it alongside us. “He’s okay,” Jack Sr. assured me, when I stooped to help. “Kid doesn’t play any sports. Told his dad it was a mistake.”

 

I couldn’t remember if Jack Jr. had ever told me he had a nephew. More than one, I was sure. He was the youngest of his brothers. It was something of his that I’d envied, shut up in my room when I visited home, reminded of the quiet nights, my own parents in bed by nine, television to fill the silence. I had never even shared a beer with my father. Jack Sr., now, he could talk for days if somebody let him.

 

“You should hear him go on about you, Ren,” Jack Sr. said to me. We were out of the warehouse through the hangar doors. I caught James’s eye for a moment, mutual commiseration, pleased to think that for a split second we could be allies. We reached the van and started loading. It was nearing four in the morning.

 

“Jack’s never brought anybody home before,” Jack Sr. said, tossing James a bundle of bike cables to tie it all down. “We were worried for a while whether he ever wanted to…you know—”

 

Of course, we’d only been together a year. I hadn’t even realized his birthday was coming around until I’d looked it up myself. And here I was. It was fast but not unreasonable. I hoped. Anyway, Jack Jr. would surely not meet my own father until way, way further down the line, considering my parents barely spoke English. My father asked only occasionally if I was dating these days, wanting no more than a yes or a no, and—I’m sure—only because my mother had made him.

 

It had happened so quietly, the week after I’d come home after college and told them. I didn’t know the word in Korean. After several failed attempts I gave up. “Ho-mo-sex-u-al,” I said carefully, looking between them across the kitchen table. My mother made dinner that night, my father bloviated over the news. He was in high spirits that weekend as the South Korean president had recently been imprisoned. We said goodnight and the next morning continued on without interruption. A month later, while I looked for roommates in Seattle, my father said something about a sum of money they’d saved up for my wedding that they wanted me to use to pay rent. “Why now?” I’d said.

 

“It’s not like you’ll—” my father trailed off, realizing I was looking straight at him. After a minute or so, he shuffled away to the kitchen. It took him another week after I’d started working to call me again. “I didn’t mean,” he said in English, which is what he did to avoid long conversations.

 

“I know,” I told him. He hung up.

 

Jack Sr. laughed, nervously, as I hadn’t said anything.

 

“Hey, Ren,” he offered, timidly, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

 

“No,” I told him, coming to. “No, it’s not that, it’s—”

 

We ran out of things to say. James shouted from the other side of the van.

 

 

The restaurant, still dark, was tucked behind a Chinese bakery. James, nodding off in the back with the fish, let me relieve him, and at six a.m., Jack Sr. and I hauled the pallets to the kitchen. A crew of sleepy young guys met us there, rubbing their eyes in with their forearms. They grunted in agreement with Jack Sr.’s observations, double-stock of the salmon this week for the white customers, dirt-cheap mackerel for the Asians. They set to work breaking it all down, filling the glass bar out in front with fresh cuts. It was almost five. The place was small, barely enough room for ten tables, but smelled warm and real. Jack Sr. had a few newspaper clippings up by the doors, reviews from their opening weekend, a feature in the local Fort Lee Times. A pot boiling on the stove. Jack Sr. pressed a bowl into my hands. Kimchi jjigae like my mother made, simmered a couple hours with tofu and pork belly. I brought breakfast out to James in the back of the van and sat with him, slurping the dregs and last grains of rice at the bottom of my bowl.

 

“I can’t believe you let him take you along today,” James said, after a while.

 

I shrugged. “I think I’d rather have the coma, in hindsight.”

 

James smiled, fleetingly. “He wants to give it to Jack, the restaurant,” he said.

 

“That’s good.”

 

“He really did like it,” James said. “That wasn’t a lie. Before he moved to Seattle they did all the runs together.”

 

The soup, scalding hot, felt good collecting in my stomach. My fingers, which had been numb for hours, were starting to regain their color.

 

“How many views on that video, by the way?”

 

James dug out his phone. “14K. Nobody’s awake.” He looked at me. “I really will take it down if you want.”

 

 

The van putted through the polished development by the river. I glanced up at the houses, wondering if anybody could hear, remembering that if Jack Sr. had been clanging and roaring through Bergen County in his demented fish van for twenty years already, he wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. We let James off by a white house near a dense line of trees. They’d all be over for dinner: James’s father, Jack Jr.’s two older brothers. I felt relieved. There wasn’t much more I could do to embarrass myself. James said his goodbyes. Seized with a whoosh of hot blood through my ears I held my fist out through the open window. James considered it, then bumped his knuckles against mine. A fresh dust of snow had fallen over the green lawns as we pulled away. The sun peeked lazily up over the suburbs and their manufactured tree lines. Jack Sr. slowed us to a stop in front of the left side of a brick duplex along a massively inclined road. I felt the van’s weight redistribute as its brakes groaned their last whisper. I made a move to open the door.

 

“I hope I didn’t scare you back there, Ren.”

 

I glanced longingly up at the house, the beds inside. Jack Sr. made a couple motions in the air with his hands, starting and stopping to say what he wanted. My limbs felt filled with sand. I tried to let him know I understood.

 

“Your parents must be happy about you guys.”

 

I went to nod again, but looking across the seat divider at Jack Sr., staring fondly at me, stopped myself. I was speaking before I realized I was. I didn’t want to say it, too tired to stop myself. “They love me,” I said. “It’s just…I don’t get the feeling they understand, sometimes.”

 

It had come out of me in one breath. Shame bloomed up inside me. I wanted to be shown to a bed as fast as possible. Jack Sr. took his key out of the ignition. I realized that I was still wearing his hat and pulled it off me, handing it to him.

 

“You know,” Jack Sr. said, kneading the wool cap between his fingers, “Jack didn’t live with us for about three weeks after he came out to his mother and me. We never told him to go and he never said he was going to, but—” He tried to laugh. “We were different, things were different, which…well, you know.”

 

And I nodded, because I did know.

 

“He came back, we said we were sorry and he said he understood. Pretty soon after he started coming along for the fish runs again.” Jack Sr. smiled at me.

 

The van gave a click as he unlocked our doors and slid out to the ground. I followed him up to the front door where we left our shoes and tiptoed onto white prefab carpeting. Jack Sr. ushered me through the door closest to the kitchen, still dark, imbued all throughout with the cool blue light of the morning. Jack’s childhood room. A desk stood pushed to the corner, facing the window out to the street. Snow was starting to fall heavy outside, blanketing the van and the curb. The room looked sanitized, a space once made for four boys, dwindling as each left home, repurposed now for the erstwhile son home for a couple days at a time. Just one bed left. Still some books on the shelving above the bed. Plastic soccer trophy on the windowsill. Jack Sr. put his hand on my shoulder. One last time he felt my head, the back of my neck, and I let him.

 

“I’ll wake you if Jack calls.” The door shut behind him.

 

I stayed put, thinking Jack Jr., if he were here, might have put me on the sofa outside or at least might have swept the room before I’d come in. I’d seen only one picture of his from high school. A lanky kid cradling a basketball, T-shirt under the school jersey, gaps in his face and arms where he’d since filled out, grown to size. I wondered if this was the very same bed and suspected that it was if the soccer trophy—on further inspection, National Storytelling League trophy—was any indication. I lifted the covers, maneuvering myself inside. I didn’t fool myself thinking the pillow smelled like him, it couldn’t have. I lay still, looking up at the dark crease, the meeting of the wall and the ceiling above. I closed my eyes, turning my head to push my nose into the sheets, and thought about what I was going to tell him.

 

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Review: Bone Music by Joel Peckham

Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2021.

Paperback, 90 pages, $18.00.

 

Bone Music

 

Joel Peckham’s latest collection of poetry, Bone Music, is his most daring yet, looking with utter honesty at the cartography of healing following substantial loss. Readers of his past work will recall that over a decade ago, the poet experienced a car accident overseas in which he lost his wife and eldest son. In Bone Music, Peckham continues his excavation of grief, sharing a full spectrum of emotions in which he maps the contours of love, joy, fear, sadness, loss, and abundance. These incantatory poems explore both sound and movement in their making of meaning, as readers become in many ways seated in a raft while wave after wave of ocean rocks and lulls and spins—just as any good music does.

 

Bone Music has a tight focus, concentrating on memory and healing, of rage and the numerous navigations en route to forgiveness, both of others and oneself. The collection has a strong theme of motion, with numerous poems that feature vehicles. In poems such as “Suffering Tape,” Peckham proves himself to be, once again, a god of sound and alliteration: “I could see myself spool out to blues and reds with golds of early evening sun and shadow as I shook and took the shape of starlings flocked or the flame of sunfish staring up at night from the windshield’s blue-black pond.” Here, readers are treated to a feast of momentum, a furious dance on the page.

 

Yet, this collection, is not intended as simply a quick read. It asks the reader to dwell in the poems, reading them again and again, steeping in the words as a cup of tea grows more potent over time—as memory also grows and fades and becomes in its potency, clearer and not in its being. The book contains two sections: the first, The Quantum Soul, seems to function as an exploration of the interior, of memory and soul-searching, our cosmic relationship to mortality and philosophy, and the second section, In Case of Emergency, as a deeper probe into the nature of life. The latter is an unabashed look at the poet’s own failings and guilt, how one seeks to repair damages, despite repeated trauma, with a will to better one’s self.

 

Bone Music opens with “Prologue,” in which the line breaks emphasize a kind of rhythm, where the ending line “and was lost” sets the stage for what is to come—a book about various kinds of loss. The five-part “The Wreckage That We Travel In” is particularly astounding, beginning with these lines: “The world must take us by surprise—in spite of all the warnings, all evidence. Even a man shaped by loss takes each new blow in bafflement.” The poem is the reader’s first glimpse of a fascinating form that Peckham echoes throughout the rest of the collection, wherein what seem like prose poems exhibit sudden line breaks in the middle of a sentence:

 

. . . a matter of perspective and a sheet of glass all that separates the one from the many, this life from the next—what could send us crashing, flying into it? As a boy hurtling

 

up 93 with my father to visit his father in the nursing home, I loved to stare directly at the trees until they blurred and I could feel that killing speed and imagine I was me and not me and me . . .

 

Here’s another example from “In Case of Emergency”:

 

. . . When everything is always at my earlobe breathing

and heavy and hot with lungs as full as any long distance runner’s, wild-

ness is just another kind of intimacy,

 

an intimacy of layering upon another and another: not one clock

but thousands—all ticking, all chiming . . .

 

The result of this style mimics a memory, somewhat corporeal, as one thought leads to another, at times without clear transition, yet always with a certain profoundness. Poetic form, even at times in a subversion of form, is exceptional in this collection, and Peckham caters to readers who might also be poets, giving overtures to craft in poems like “RE: Like a Box”: “And if a poem is not salvation it might just be its metaphor: it does what a metaphor does: sheds it skins and slides away….” As a result, many poems become a lesson in poetry writing without compromising the core messages of the collection. Bone Music aims to bring readers along, to help them in their own personal quests.

 

We glimpse Peckham’s searching in poems such as “Suffering Tape,” where Peckham proclaims: “I learned what breaking meant, how it was transformation; it was crackling; it was resonant.” Or in “Going Sideways,” where the lines  acknowledge and reach for greater meaning beyond self:

 

I do not travel backwards

 

easily. I circle back in widening arcs

 

to the same songs, the same pictures floating from between the

covers of the same books, the same unfinished arguments,

 

to the same desert highway under the same stars reflected on the

same dead sea.

 

Bone Music intends to take readers off the deep end, to dive into the waters of what living means when grief has followed a person for so long.

 

Perhaps the most encapsulating poem of the collection can be found in its ending. “The Locomotive of the Lord” is the poem the whole collection builds toward, in that it moves the reader from constellation into a singular picture: “This life is a beautiful / accident made of accidents we try to shape.” Bone Music closes with a precious message of gratitude for what one has, this precious life, including all that is not in the same way anymore but evermore precious in its existence.

 

In closing Bone Music in this way, Peckham offers a path forward. The acknowledgment of pain, even of continued pain, becomes oddly a comfort—and a source of healing through which one may fully grasp and find joy. Bone Music, as a result, becomes a guidebook for the grief-stricken. By reaching for the grayer edges of human experience, Peckham turns readers toward honesty instead of simple answers, which makes for a lasting poetry collection.

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Scranton 1929/Pontelandolfo 1861

Of the many ways in which the old man is disappointed with his daughter-in-law, her cooking is actually the worst. So when he enters his son’s apartment and is greeted by Emilia—an Austrian!—who breezily announces, “I made something special for you, Pop,” it takes all his restraint to nod, to smile, to use his stilted control of English—the only language they share—to say, “Thank you. This makes me happy.”

 

His son’s apartment, however, is no disappointment. Wood paneling, open space, a mild improvement over their first place in Wilkes-Barre, his grandsons huddled around the Philco enjoying a ball game. The old man has never appreciated baseball, but he’s proud Tony and Frankie do, that they’re American in a way he never could be. He nods at them—he has never given affection to little boys—and shakes his son’s hand. Carlo’s grip is strong, and the old man reddens when his son pulls him in for a hug, how free he is with his emotions not only with his family, but with everyone he encounters as one of Scranton’s premier plumbers. Once a week during the old man’s visits to the Cataldo Club, he is annoyed when someone compliments his son’s handiwork and says how friendly he is. Friendly. It’s not an Italian word.

 

The old man joins his son at the table and wishes he didn’t have to smell whatever it is Emilia is cooking. The whole apartment reeks of garlic and tomatoes, and he knows exactly where this is headed. “It’s red sauce and meatballs,” Carlo says to confirm. How many times he’s been served red sauce and meatballs by smiling buffoons even though no one in Italy would ever serve red sauce with meatballs. “Yes,” the old man says, agreeing that red sauce and meatballs is indeed what his daughter-in-law is preparing, “red sauce and meatballs.”

 

“So,” his son says, leaning back, “the boys were asking about the old country today. Weren’t you, boys? Come here to Pop.”

 

“No, we weren’t,” Tony pleads in his singsong voice.

 

“The Yankees!” Frankie cries.

 

“Boys.” Carlo snaps his fingers, and they turn off the radio and fall in line around the table. At least Carlo isn’t friendly with his sons. The humiliation! “Tell them something, Pop. Come on. Anything.”

 

Emilia calls from the stove. “You ever run into my parents visiting from Austria?”

 

An Italian would only greet an Austrian with spit or gunfire, and the old man is astonished that the next generation can name all of the New York Yankees while understanding so little about where they came from. The old man knows he has to reveal something but finds himself drawing a blank. He doesn’t like remembering life in the before time. How to convey an entire sunken world through one single memory? He looks at his family, and the same image as always rises—chicken, not prepared by a family member, not served in a bar, but a freshly butchered bird roasting over open flames, the way the flesh popped, how it smelled beneath the stars among the camaraderie of other soldiers. The old man remembers not Favazzina, the southern village where he grew up, not his fisherman father or the stiff stench of his clothes, not his mother forever in a nightgown, making the sign of the cross no matter what news was delivered, not even the caresses of curly-haired Gianna, the girl he assumed he’d one day marry. No, the old man remembers being summoned from his parents’ home, conscripted by the northern government post-unification. He remembers Pontelandolfo, a village very much like his own, how the powers-that-be explained that revolts across the southern half of the peninsula had to be crushed, that the citizens of Pontelandolfo had banded together and murdered forty soldiers. A message must be delivered. Unification, no, the entire soul of newborn Italy depended upon it!

 

The old man observes his grandchildren and their occasional glances at the silent Philco. He looks at Carlo and Emilia, wondering what they picture when they hear words like “Italy” or “Austria,” perhaps some vague dream of a simpler life, holy soil they know they’ll never step foot in. How could any of them understand marching as a group of five hundred, entering Pontelandolfo armed and ordered to kill? How could they imagine the old man as a young man surrounded by his comrades, mostly teenagers unaware that they’d even been liberated, how they opened fire on the town’s clergy, men, women, and children? His family couldn’t feel the weight of the torches, how the old man and his giddy friends hurled them through the open windows of houses, the dissonance of screams, how the heat from the burning village coupled with the August sun made the old man feel like he’d tumbled outside of his body arriving somewhere that didn’t count, not really, where anything could happen and where everything would be forgiven. They burned Pontelandolfo to dust, and, as they listened to the gunfire and cries, they feasted. Chicken roasting on open flames just beyond the fighting and all the wine they could drink. Later, the old man wondered if the government had plied them with food and alcohol just in case the soldiers were considering joining up with the people of Pontelandolfo, who resembled their own families praying for their safe returns back home. But the truth was they would’ve followed orders no matter what, that they loved being told what to do, that at the end of the day none of these decisions were theirs. It was the north. Always the north.

 

The old man remembers the priest they hung outside the village, how for the rest of the evening he and his friends took turns shooting at the rope above his snapped neck, how they missed and missed, laughed and laughed. He looks at his moon-faced family and wonders what exactly to say about that.

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bye bye

—after “American Pie,” sung by Leslie Cheung, a Cantopop star who died jumping off the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong

 

boys always

haunting the gas

 

stationed at

the kum & go

 

come around yelling

happy july, all

 

these lives you haven’t filled

in all these teeth

 

a faith so deep you can

die in it, like a boy so

 

high up he thought the

swimming pool was full

 

and god willing, he

dived in it. in a

 

preemptive strike, patriotic, partirons                                                              

and party on! miss 中国

 

in 中西部,

i dismiss

 

their existence, a flotilla

with more in common

 

with a root beer vanilla

concoction than the

 

spanish armada, though

that too was a whipped

 

cream loss. dq stands

for disqualification—three

 

strikes & the cup is half

mosh pit half military

 

campaign—god is in the

good fizz—& the bottom

 

(beyond the caffeine &

fresh sugarcane) is concrete.

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