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Essays

Lisa K. Buchanan

December 16, 2019

Firstborn

My mother never announced having spent the day with her older daughter, but I always knew. Suddenly, my spaghetti spill was catastrophic; my loss of a gym sock, reckless; my impersonation of the school principal, unkind. Mom had a way of dropping a cheekbone onto the heel of a hand while she sat at the kitchen table, long after dinner was over. No doubt, while I was playing tetherball after school, she and her older daughter had lingered at the yarn shop and the antique store, errands I found interminable. Maybe the two of them sipped iced tea: liquid cat box. Maybe they played duets at the piano where my mother and I could only fight. “F shaaaarp!” The correction missiled from the kitchen, down the hall, and into my ear while I practiced scales. Mom had perfect pitch, but I often suspected it was her first daughter, five years older than me, calling out the note. When my mother was bored with me, I knew she was missing Pickle Puss—she who was musical and hopeful in the way our mother had been musical and hopeful; she who was freckled and photogenic in the way our mother had been, with bouncy auburn waves and coveted curves. Mom’s perfume smelled reachy on me, but when her older daughter wore it, our house was queen-scented. With her inherited cheekbones, nimble piano fingers, and even the wry humor that earned her nickname, the older daughter was our mother’s legacy to an otherwise disappointing world. Their symbiosis was absolute; it was the longing that got to them. Unlike me, the older daughter had emerged from my mother’s own womb. And unlike me, she had been still and silent and softly purple, a girl baby shrouded, a dream from which my presence could only awaken our mother, day after day, most cruelly.

 

____________________

Lisa K. Buchanan’s work has appeared in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology, Fourth Genre, Narrative, New Letters, and The Offing. She likes Brahms’ short waltzes, spinach with mango, Downward-Facing Dog, and breaking the Rule of Three .www.lisakbuchanan.com

Essays

Kent Jacobson

December 16, 2019

I Set a Fire

 

I don’t know why I set the fire. I haven’t wanted to think about it since. Though I know what I joked for years afterwardWe had to find that baseball didn’t we?” Like I’d been one more dopey kid.

It was a brutal July day that summer of 1955, not far from the ocean, and a too long bike ride away from the center of our small Rhode Island mill-town. I was about to turn twelve and enter the seventh grade. There’d been a steamy haze that morning, but now the sun was out full and what air that moved came warm off the land. Nobody wanted to play baseball, nobody, especially not slow-moving Earl. “Too hot,” Earl said, “too hot,” and it was, and still I pushed him to the ballfield right across from Dr. Gongaware’s and my big house on the hill. Dad called me “a bull.”

The game I wanted to play was my game with two players (call it “catch”), a game almost as good as our regular five against five, our neighborhood too little for baseball’s usual nine on a side. I played shortstop and Earl played first, his back to the high grass that surrounded the field the Gongawares mowed for us kids.

I stood at short on the yellowing grass and faced first base as Earl got ready, the unlevel field sloping down behind me to the missing leftfielder. Was that smell honeysuckle? I waited in the hum of insects and the flash of redwing blackbirds, the smell of saltwater heavy in the air, a seagull drifting down to the backstop behind home plate. The heat. The quiet.

“Come on, Earl, let’s go. Roll me one.”

Earl was a class grade behind me though we were about the same size. He never hurried, unlike his father who worked a machine at Cottrell’s factory and was always in a rush to a new home-project: “Why are those goddamn boys never around when I need ‘em? Where’s that lazy Earl?” And despite the hurry and the anger, he’d look at me and smile: “Howya doin’ Butchy-boy?” (Butch, my family nickname). Did he hope my straight A’s would rub off on his sons?

Earl took his time, and finally rolled an easy grounder at me and I charged it in a low crouch, gloved the well-used ball, and fired a rocket back. Earl shook his gloved hand in pain.

“You have to throw that hard?”

I didn’t answer. My arm was my one baseball talent. I couldn’t hit, I wasn’t the best fielder, he’d have to stand the pain.  And even so, the problem was largerI threw wild. We’d search for the ball in the high grass for forever.

“Jesus,” he whined. “Throw straighter why don’t chu. . . .”

I’d get better. I had to. I dreamed of being as good as the Yankees’ Phil Rizzuto, or maybe just better than I’d been the day before. I had to get better to be someone, to prove that I mattered, to prove I deserved respect on the field and was more than a “brain.” Work was the way. Dad said so: “Do every job right or don’t do it at all.”

I threw over Earl’s head the fifth time and he glared like I’d made him swallow puke.

I glared back. “Why don’t you learn how to catch?”

The pain in his hand, the searching, my pushingate at Earl. We were baking in the soggy late-afternoon sun and pouring sweat, t-shirts stuck to our backs, blue jeans gummy on our thighs, BVDs grabbing at our crotches.

Find the ball, find the ball, the only ball we had, the ball we’d used the whole summer. Why’d you lose it? kids’d say. How’d you lose it? Who’s gettin’ a new one?

Not me. And definitely not Earl. He didn’t like baseball that much. Anyway, who had the money? I’d saved two years from my paper route for the Dee Fondy first basemen’s glove he was using.

Earl tromped around in the grass in his black high tops. “Where’s that stupid thing? Come ahhhhnn. Come aaaahhhhnnnn . . . .”

He couldn’t stop groaning. “We should block out areas,” I said, “cover ground a small block at a time. Ball couldn’t have gone far.”

Earl ate early and he had to go soon or his father would yell when he came home from the mill and parked the rusted Chevy in their dirt yard: “Where are those damn boys?” His father’d moved the family out here by the saltwater to get Earl and his brothers away from the reform-school kids in town. No one fooled with his father.

Earl tromped into my block again.

“Hey, get out! What’re you doing? What’s wrong with you?”

The sun beat down, the dry grass scratchy on our arms as we moved around now on our knees. We’d lose the ball and the older kids’d rag, You crapheads never do anything right. You’re lucky we let you play.

I knelt in the grass and lit a matchwhy was I carrying matches?and the fire took off in the off-shore air. The fire would burn the top of the grass and leave our ball buried below untouched, at least that’s what I hoped.

The flames spread, they flew, it was fire season, and they burned the dry brown grass all the way down to the ground. The fire’d scorch the ball and leave a black nothing, a black and brown nothing we couldn’t use, we wouldn’t use.

Earl slapped at the flames with my brand new first baseman’s mitt and I slapped with my old falling-apart infielder’s glove. Earl peeled off his clammy t-shirt and tried that. Nothing worked. Nothing. And I could see my house not far up the road. Dad ran the state forest service and wore a .32 for “those crazy sons-a-bitches” that set fires.

“Call the fire department,”I yelled, Earl’s house a good half-mile away and we didn’t have our bikes. “I’ll go get help.” Earl ran for home, and I ran for the house across the road, the Gongawares.

What would they say? We used their field with the bases and backstop, and drank from their freshwater spring, even ate apples from their trees when they weren’t looking and now I was torching their grass, their land, maybe their orchard, the blueberries, the lilacs, the rhododendrons, maybe their house . . . maybe mine.

No one outside. Was anybody even home? I pounded on the door, chest rising, chest falling, I couldn’t get breath. I pounded. No response. I pounded. The door opened, a woman my mother’s agelean, a tight jaw. Her disapproving sister would be my English teacher in September.

“Fire. We’ve got a fire.” I didn’t say why, I didn’t say how big. She turned and disappeared into the house while I stood in the open door gasping. Was she phoning for the fire trucks?

She came back with two long, wooden brooms and handed me one, and nodded in the direction of the field. I ran, my left arm thrashing about with the broom, and she ran too and said nothing, back across the road to the field, her head down and broom thrashing about like mine, skirt churning around her legs, and . . . we were at the fire.

She bent from the waist and whacked the flames with the broom, her long hair falling into her face. She whacked and I whacked. Her house might go, my house might go, our field, her field, our world, her world, and my fault, I had to do it my wayfor a game, for a ball, my bottomless wanting.

I beat the flames and she beat the flames. How did she know this would work? I could feel my arms and back, my wobbly legs, the rasp of my breathing, the broom, my eyes filled with sweat. Could we win? I lost track of time. . . .

And the fire seemed to diminish slightly, ever so slightly, grow smaller, to ease off and die away, a few flares, some last flickers.

Mrs. Gongaware and I straightened up and leaned on our brooms. A woman I didn’t know, my neighbor, side by side with her in a scorched field, and we examined our work in silence. The blackened grass, some scrub pines burned, some tiny shrubs burned. . . . But not the lilacs, not the blueberries, not the raspberries, not the goldenrod and honeysuckle, not the flowering purple and pink and white rhododendrons, not her house, her house still standing, and my house. . . . What will Dad and Mom say? And what is Mrs. Gongaware thinkingthe field, the fire, us kids. Is this the end of baseball?

I heard sirens, trucks, fire trucks, men I knew, men who knew me, Swamp Yankee volunteers my father fought fires beside. What will I say?

 

___________________

Kent Jacobson taught for nearly 20 years in Bard College’s Clemente Course in the Humanities, a 2015 winner of the National Humanities Medal. His nonfiction has appeared or will appear in Hobart, Under the Sun, Thread, Brown Alumni Magazine, and Northwest Review, among others. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, landscape architect Martha Lyon, and their English Setter puppy, Ben.

 

Essays

E. A. Farro

December 16, 2019

It Becomes a Question

A conversation with Jericho Brown

 

“Your interview is not happening, the interviewer is sick,” the volunteer at author check-in told Jericho Brown. His smile fell, he paused. It was the inaugural Wordplay event hosted by the Loft Literary Center to celebrate readers, writers, and great books in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Jericho is the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Harvard, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is author of three books of poetry. The most recent, The Tradition, published by Copper Canyon Press, came out in April 2019.

I had seen him that morning with an entourage of cameras in and around the shiny royal-blue Guthrie Theatre. On the four-story-high escalator, he knelt down on one leg with the fluidity of a dancer. On a couch in front of long windows with views of the Mississippi River, he rested chin to fist. Between poses, he talked to the crew, threw his head back to laugh. Just watching him made me smile. Out on the Endless Bridge that extends 178’ from the face of the building and overlooks the former mills the city built itself around, Jericho stood face upward, eyes closed, shoulder length braids swaying in a breeze coming off the river. He was beautiful. The photographer was close enough to where I was drinking coffee that I heard him sigh with what sounded like satisfaction at capturing this image on film.

After hearing that his interview was cancelled, Jericho looked up and asked, “Is there someone else who can interview me?” He was both joking and earnest.

Without thinking I stepped out from the group of volunteers in matching conference t-shirts and fanny packs. “I can.”

He smiled.

Three months before I had finished an intense job at the Minnesota State Capitol. Instead of getting the next big job, I was writing. When I found creative flow, I know I was where I needed to be, but the battle to get there was exhausting. I wrote with one hand while the other held back a giant wave of demons. I volunteered for the interview because I wanted to know what made this poet glow.

Jericho’s presence was both quiet and loud. He paused speaking on stage and before answering my questions. “Trying to tell the truth means that I have to take a second and search myself, make sure I’m saying what is really the case for me,” he told me.

When he walked into the house that served as the green room for the authors, he didn’t hesitate before approaching people. He was not taking up space, but opening up new space none of us had realized were there, spaces we felt ourselves pulled into as sparks of smiles and jokes took off into full-blown conversations between acquaintances and people meeting for the first time.

I asked what drove him to be so friendly, so welcoming. He told me his parents taught him as a young child to walk into a room and talk to every adult, to make people “feel that you are a part of them when they saw you.” Making people feel seen may have made him charming, but that wasn’t why his parents taught him this behavior. “My mom and dad really believed that it was sinful to greet people without a smile. You greet people with a smile, that is the right thing to do.”

Up on the roof deck, a chill moved over us and then lifted as the clouds shifted back and forth across the sun. We sat on wood benches that ran the perimeter of the deck, and pulled layers on over our long sleeves. Jericho sat close, leaned close, looked into my eyes. After answering a question he would say, Ya’ Know? Do you follow? Do you understand what I mean? He paused, made sure I was with him.

Jericho pulled a KIND Bar out of his gift bag. Voices from the closest stage floated up from a National Book Awards panel. He told me he loved eating junk: Doritos, Lay’s STAX sour cream and onion, white cheddar Smartfood popcorn. He followed this up by saying, “I go through these periods where I only eat very healthy and I try to do it for a twelve week period. I’ll only eat some protein and something green. I’m a big kale fan. And then for carbohydrates, I’ll have sweet potato or brown rice or quinoa.”

“When did you start eating quinoa?” I asked.

“When I moved to Atlanta.” Jericho moved from San Diego to Atlanta in 2012 where he is the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory University.

During our interview, other writers came up to greet Jericho. They paused before leaving, one offered to read him a poem later.

By this time we had known each other for less than an hour and I felt like we had everything in common. We both worked for elected officials! I only recently discovered quinoa too! We both liked plants! That this interview was happening was obviously because we were both the kind of people who said Yes!

This sense of being kindred spirits didn’t come from our chemistry, nor was it something about me in particular. It was him. It was his particular magic, a special ability to connect with others. Poets sometimes get stereotyped as quiet and withdrawn. Jericho is not just a poet on the page; he is also a performer. When he is on stage, he feels like he could, “do it forever.”

But his laughter and smiles were not performance. They were the laughter of someone who knows the sadness and joy of their own heart.

I asked where he gets his energy from, Jericho told me, “I like a lot of old school music. I like Motown from the sixties and seventies. I like to hear women, Black women in particular, singing, hollering.” He went on, “I exercise a lot. I do burpees. I do weight training. I think it’s a good idea because it gets me out of my head. You know when you are out of breath and you gotta do ten more reps?” Jericho has put out burpee challenges on Twitter where he has over 15,000 followers, pushing, encouraging, and asking people to let him know how it goes.

The Tradition came to Jericho quickly. He wrote most of the book between Thanksgiving of 2017 and Martin Luther King Jr. Day of 2018. “It was chasing me,” he said. “I couldn’t stop writing. I was actually scared I was going to die because I was writing so much.”

“I invented a new form, I cut up all the lines I had left over from poems failed going back as far as 2004. I was splicing things together, making fragments work in ways I had never made them work before.” Jericho’s new form is called the duplex. It was like listening to a scientist explained the set-up of an experiment when he explained the structure of the duplex. Put simply, it is a combination of the sonnet, the ghazal, and the blues.

The book is about tradition in our culture, exploring what it means to live in a country where we normalize rape culture, mass shootings, and police violence. It’s about tradition in our families, like planting gardens. “This is the stuff men in my family have cared about for generations just for the sake of beauty.” Jericho recently bought a house and found himself planting begonias and creeping myrtle. The book is about tradition in our daily lives, “If people see me as someone who falls in love, it might keep them from shooting me.”

Jericho juxtaposes images of black men and flowers in his poem The Tradition. The first line names flowers. Aster. Nasturtium, Delphinium. And the last line names black men killed by police. John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown. In his headshot on the back of the book, Jericho wears a bright yellow shirt that matches a garden of yellow daffodils behind him. In his iconic social media headshot, he wears a wreath of flowers, mirroring the image of the African American child painted on the cover of his newest book. By juxtaposing flowers and black men, he asks a question of the reader about what images come to mind when they think of a flower, a black child, a black man. It’s a question that creates an opportunity for examination, opens the possibility for change.

“Can poetry change the world?” I asked.

“Yeah!” He exclaimed, then went on in a quieter voice, “but, I also think its a powerful force for those who let it have power on them. You have to be exposed to it; you have to be in the position to know it. That is part of what we are doing as ambassadors of poetry. We poets are putting ourselves in a position so that if you might be interested, here we are.”

Jericho doesn’t wait for inspiration to strike; he prepares himself for it by consuming art and writing daily. He writes for two hours first thing every morning. “I set appointments with myself, and I honor them. I feel exhilarated by that fact.”

“You get to create your life,” he told me. “As soon as you realize it, it becomes a question. I get to create my life? And then you say to yourself, yes!” He laughed before saying, “You realize you are looking into a void.”

He went on, “It’s the same thing that happens when you make a poem. You are looking at a blank sheet and suddenly you have made a thing that literally changes thoughts and emotions simply by typing. Suddenly you have a trigger.” A question, like a poem, is an act of change.

His daily writing practice starts with meditation and prayer. He reads modern spiritual writers like Ernest Holmes, Marianne Williamson, and Michael Bernard Beckwith. “The spiritual part has always been there, because that is how I was raised. But, I started taking responsibility for my own spirituality at a certain point,” he explained, “and when I did, my poems got to be a lot better.” His spirituality helps him “put myself in a place of faith and trust,” this creates the space and safety for play.

Jericho’s daily appointment has many forms. “Writing sometimes means revision, sometimes means drafting, sometimes means putting up things that aren’t working. Sometimes writing doesn’t go so well. It doesn’t mean any of that. It just means reading stuff or wishing you had something. But there are two hours I dedicate to it everyday.”

I pictured him like a train going up a mountain at a steady pace then reaching the top and coming down the other side faster and faster as he neared the end of his last book.

“When a book comes out, I run behind it pretty hard for a year, which is why I am here. I say yes to everything. I try to drum up whatever I need to send the book out into the world so people know it exists.”

Jericho’s goal was to sell at least 4000 copies of The Tradition in the next three months. I asked, “Who do you want those 4000 people to be? Who do you want to buy the book?” He started listing states he had never been to.

THIS IS A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT – if you are in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Hawaii, Alaska, or Idaho, Jericho has you on his mind. He has never been to your state, and he wants to come. He will walk in, look you in the eye, and shake your hand. And if you meet him again, a year later, in different clothing and in a different place, he will remember you. He has timed how long it takes to read each poem; he is ready for whatever venue you have. The room where his parents taught him to walk in and greet everyone, it has expanded to be the entire country.

Later that afternoon Jericho spoke on a low stage with a backdrop of exposed brick. The panel was on Art & The Body with T. Fleischmann, moderated by Lisa Marie Brimmer. Jericho’s preparation was evident in his clothing; his thin peach sweater matched the color of the sky on the cover of The Tradition, and his grey-blue pants matched the color of the ocean.

The panel started with an acknowledgment that we were on stolen Indigenous land. This is something said more and more often at events in Minnesota. The statement was followed by a beat to considerstolen lands, Indigenous—and then the schedule continued. In my own head, I heard Jericho’s voice, It becomes a question. We create our own lives.

At the end of the Q&A, an older African American woman asked Jericho to read his poem about cuddling. It’s called Stand. “Cuddling is my favorite thing to do,” Jericho said with an open-mouth smile, and we all smiled back. At each line break, I was uncertain of what would come next: violence or beauty?

When he was done, he didn’t look up to see the crowd holding its breath and considering how bodies making love fit into our landscapes of crisis. He didn’t smile or laugh. The poem had taken him elsewhere, as it had taken each of us.

I had asked him earlier if poetry is a political tool, and he didn’t pause before shaking his head no. “I think every poem, I think every book, is for a single heart. When someone is reading it, it is your heart to their heart. It’s not your heart to a mass of people.”

I biked home along the beautiful Ȟaȟáwakpa Misi-ziibi Mississippi River. Cars zoomed by me on one side. On the other, trees blushed green with spring leaves along the steep riverbank. I cast questions into the void: Is it a responsibility to greet everyone when I walk into a room? What would it mean to have a culture of connection? Every room of people an opportunity to change myself, every person a poem?

 

__________________________

E. A. Farro is a scientist and artist who spent the last seven years working in politics. She is the founder of The Nature Library, a literary art instillation in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Her publications have appeared in Rumpus, The Kenyon Review, and The Normal School, among others. She is a recipient of a 2010 Loft Literary Center Mentor Award and a 2019 Minnesota State Art Board grant.

Essays

Kathleen McGookey

November 5, 2019

Errand

In the self-checkout lane, the man ahead of us couldn’t scan his milk and eggs.  He smelled like smoke.  The clerk tried to fix the jam, but he exploded, that fucking machine!  She repeated the insult under her breath as she hurried past.  She was shorter than me and her hair needed washing.  All we’d needed was a half-pint of fudge ripple. When she returned with a manager, I watched my daughter watching the three of them, running her tongue over wires and brackets that hadn’t been in her mouth an hour ago, the familiar landscape altered, painful and strange.  

 

Picture of a Young Elk

It weighs nothing, this picture of a young elk tangled in a barbed wire fence in Montana.  All four legs caught up at the ankle, eyes so glazed with shock it looks dead, and I almost don’t play the video you sent.  To spare myself.  Though now my pleasure weighs something, as I listen to you tell and retell how you found a rancher with wire cutters and gloves in his truck and nearly in one motion cut the fence and spun the elk toward the open field, across which, after it staggered and shook itself, it ran until it disappeared.

 

We had our share of beautiful days

It was only a squirrel that dashed in front of our car, it made only the smallest thump.  My faith in uncertainty never wavers.  Last night, as I watered the roses at dusk, a hummingbird hovered near the spray, waiting to enter the shower of drops.

 

__________________________

Kathleen McGookey has published four books of prose poems and three chapbooks, most recently Instructions for My Imposter (Press 53) and Nineteen Letters (BatCat Press). She has also published We’ll See, a book of translations of French poet Georges Godeau’s prose poems.  Her work has appeared in Copper NickelCrazyhorse, DecemberFieldGlassworks, Miramar, PloughsharesPrairie SchoonerQuiddity, and Sweet. She has received grants from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Sustainable Arts Foundation.  

Essays

Rachel McCumber

November 5, 2019

Three Essays

 

The Day Kylie Jenner Became the Youngest Self-Made Billionaire

 

“Hi. I’m calling back from
Student Counseling Services.
Is this Rachel?” I turned the
volume up on my phone
because two men next to me
on the train were talking
loudly about how Kylie Jenner
wasn’t “self-made.” I gave the
lady on the phone my informa
-tion and she told me I would
be put on the waitlist. I guess I
wasn’t the only sad, anxious
student at my school who
needed help with their mental
health. The news made my heart
sink. The last time I was waitlisted,
my mental state went from bad to
writing suicide notes. She told me
to have a good day and hung up.
The men on the train continued to
fill the otherwise silent, morning
air with their opinions. 

“Okay your copay fee for
your birth control consultation
is going to be $80, is that okay?”
The waiting room felt stale. I
knew it wasn’t Planned Parent-
hood’s fault that my insurance
charged too much, but it still
stung. It ached when I texted my
dad and asked to borrow money
and prayed we would not have
the awkward conversation about
why I needed the money.  My
phone’s notifications lit up that he
sent the money¾he always does.
Another notification in my dock
was a tweet with the Forbes article
about Kylie. My fingers burned as I
transferred money from my savings
account to my checking. I would pay
him back with my next paycheck. 


“Girl, your lipstick looks so good!
I could never pull that off, could I?”
The lady at the payment counter
was referring to the dark brown
color I had painted on my lips. I
thanked her and told her of course
she could pull it off too. She rolled
her eyes and smirked as she took
my debit card out of my shaking
hands. The fact that I worked part-
time at a makeup store somehow
came up. She asked if I had tried the
Kylie lip products and I hadn’t. They
sold them at the store I worked at,
but I refused to buy them and
help Kylie become a billionaire. At
least that’s what I told my coworkers,
when in reality, I just couldn’t afford
it. Looks like Kylie didn’t need my
help though. 

“How do you all think
consumer culture has
changed in the last 100
years?” My 1920’s history
class was always awkward
with one opinionated student
talking like a God. A biracial
girl and I were some of the
most “ethnic” people in the
class and I didn’t get her. She
often compared the plight of
being biracial nowto a black
person in the 1920’s, which I
never thought was a fair com-
parison. She started going on a
tangent about how Kylie Jenner
created an empire off lip
injections. That she marketed it
as something you could achieve
with a little lip liner. While I
agreed with her, I wondered if
anyone would have been
complaining about Kylie’s success
if she was a man. 

 

“Rachie! I need you to get two
people to sign up for credit cards
tonight! You up for it?”  I nodded
at my manager and ignored the
awful nickname she gave me. She
squealed as she turned on her heels
to continue watching people she
thought were stealing. It’s not
uncommon for big retail companies
to ask their customers to sign up for
a credit card, but it felt wrong and
saturated with capitalism. A middle-
aged woman came up to my register
with a few Kylie Cosmetic “Lip Kits”
in hand. Her delicate fingers threw
the $29 products on the counter. I
scanned them and informed her
about the in-store credit card. She
interrupted me before I could finish
my half-assed sales pitch and told me
she didn’t need it. Then her card got
declined.

This is so sweet. But why am
I crying? I sent this tweet to my
friends followed by a video from
my hometown. Though every
tweet on Twitter was either
trashing or praising the Jenner/
Kardashian empire that day, there
was a video on there that made me
cry. A basketball player on the team
for the university in my hometown
got a surprise visit from his mom,
who he hadn’t seen in two years
since he left the Dominican Republic.
My eyes overflowed with tears as the
six-foot tall young man sobbed in
disbelief as his mother walked down
the stairs of the empty stadium to
greet her son. I’m not a big sports
person, but it was magical to see his
mom glowing as she got to watch her
son play. Haven’t we gone over this?
Self-made: Having succeeded in life
unaided.

 

Dictionary.com’s twitter account sent
that message the day after. Even the
damn dictionary doesn’t think Kylie is
deserving of her title. While it was
petty, it made me laugh when I saw it
on my feed. As I walked down a stair-
well, having left class, I saw I had two
notifications. One from Chase, that my
minimum wage paycheck was directly
deposited into my account. It wasn’t
much, but it was enough to pay rent
and pay my dad back. The other one
was an email from Counseling Services.
They sent the list of available times for
an intake appointment for the following
week. I was off the waitlist and my
shoulders didn’t feel as heavy any longer. 

The day Kylie Jenner became a
billionaire seemed to be the topic on
everyone’s minds. Was it because she
came from a family of millionaires so
the term “self-made” left a bad taste in
everyone’s mouth? Or did she truly
work hard and deserve the title? Does
it really matter? I imagine on that day,
Jenner sat in her Hidden Hills mansion
with her collection of sports cars asleep
in her garage. I imagine a fresh manicure
and a set of long acrylics glued to her
nails as she holds her baby daughter in
her arms. Her child has no idea of the con-
troversy and comments her creator has
caused. Kylie pays little attention to the
explosion of notifications on her phone.
She only enjoys the company of the storm
she created. 

 

 

 

Origins


5 years old. Leander, TX.

I was wrapped in a beach towel sitting on the edge of the pool. I traced circles with my feet as they dangled in the cool water, and squinted to see from the bright sun while laughing at my family who swam nearby. As I looked down at the small waves I was making, I noticed how dark my legs were in comparison to the bright blue waters that surrounded them. My bright pink towel and swimsuit only seemed to amplify the contrast. I thought my legs looked like hot dogs without buns. My sister, Caitlin, called over to me, saying something about how crazy my hair looked. It was a lot thinner and curlier back then, so when it dried, I looked like a discount, brown Annie. Her smile beamed as everyone laughed at whatever she said. Like always, I ran off crying because I didn’t know how to take a joke. The laughter of my family rang in my ears as my sister tried to call me back over, so I wouldn’t go tell mom.

My brown-ish feet took me back across the hot concrete, up the deck, and into the kitchen. The inside of the house was completely dark as my eyes adjusted to the indoors. My mom saw me, “Hey lovie, what’s wrong?”

I half-blindly ran over to her and tattled on my sister. She started to laugh and contained it. “Why can’t I look more like Caitlin?” I asked between my tears.

Caitlin got the traits I envied from my dad: fair skin that was decorated with beautiful freckles and golden-brown hair, while I got more similar looks from my mom: easily tanned skin and my mom’s dark, mexican hair. My mom was angered that I complained about my looks because, I guess as far as faces go, my sister and I looked “just like her.” She sent me back outside and I went and sat in the shade, awaiting my sister’s apology that never came.

 

 15 years old. Lubbock, TX.

My arms started to get tired from using my friend’s mini-flat iron to straighten my hair. As I got older my hair lost most of its curl and it became so thick I had to get it thinned out every six-weeks. I was getting ready in my friend Kamryn’s bathroom while the rest of my friends sat down the hall in her room. They were discussing our most recent obsession with a new boy-band. Their laughter echoed down the hall as I yelled at them, cursing at my hair for making me take so long to get ready. Her bathroom was cluttered with all the makeup we borrowed from each other and no one bothered to clean it. The mirror contained my reflection as well as drawings of me and my friends that one of them had drawn with a dry-erase marker. I envied the doodles of my friends that had the hairstyles I wanted, but was told I couldn’t pull it off. I finished the last section and my hair looked just like all of my white friends’ hair¾pin straight.

I ran down the hall and they were all laying across Kamryn’s bed on their phones sending back and forth pictures of the boys in the band that were “our boys.” Rolling my eyes, I reached into my bag to grab my lotion. They continued to gush about the punk boys on their phone screens as I lathered up the lotion and glided it across my skin. I hated the smell of lemons, but I had mixed in lemon juice into my lotion because I had read online that lemon juice made your skin paler. Closing the lid to my lotion, I threw it back into my bag and threw myself onto the bed with my friends. They then showed me the punk band member that was “my guy.” He was really cute but didn’t look like the rest. He had dark hair, small brown eyes and olive-colored skin. The other members of the band were fair and had light colored hair with choppy fringe.

“That one is yours,” Kamryn proclaimed, like she was claiming The New World for me. I pointed out that he was the only one who wasn’t white. They laughed and said that’s why he was mine. I rolled my eyes and joined in their laughter.

 

19 years old. Chicago, IL.

The world was really dizzy. The girls at the party made a drink called “Jungle Juice” that I had only ever seen on Twitter and didn’t know it was a real thing. It consisted of pouring juice, fruit, and roughly 3 tons of liquor into a large container. Needless to say, I had quite a lot of it. It was a cast party for the show we had just closed earlier that night. It was an all black cast and we were all extremely proud to have sold out every night to share the story with others. I was only the set designer, so I hadn’t really had much time to get to know the cast as much as they did with each other. They all laughed at their inside jokes and broke away from the group to have their own conversations. I sat with another designer and gushed to her about how we needed to hang out. The majority of the party sat around the living room laughing and trying to explain the rules of the drinking game over the loud music playing. I was only half-listening and playing with the soft waves in my hair I had recently started to embrace.

The rules of the drinking game had been something along the lines of drinking if a statement applied to you. For example, if the statement was “whoever has been arrested” or “whoever is the youngest,” the person who that applies to would have to drink. They had started to play a few rounds of the game and I would just drink whenever they told me to. I leaned my head back on the wall behind me and started to sing the words to a Selena song that came over the speakers. I don’t know Spanish so I was probably saying the wrong words, but the music was so loud no one cared. Finally I heard one girl say my name over and over and I looked over at her and tried to make sense of what she was saying. “Rachel, you have to drink now” she yelled over the music. She told me to drink again and I laughed and obliged as I asked why I had to drink. “Because it was ‘whoever is white’” she yelled back. I tried to explain that I was only half white, but that my mom was hispanic. No one heard me over the music, so I kept drinking and we all kept playing the game.

 

 

Meditations on the Color Yellow

 

  1. I asked my mom what her favorite color was. She told me it was yellow. I made a noise of disgust and asked why. She said it was a happy color.

  2. My sister walked out in her satin, pink, and silver-beaded prom dress. She had decided the day before her junior prom that she was going to attend and it was the only dress she could find last minute. I was about to tell her she looked like a bottle of Pepto Bismol when she started to let all her friends in the door. I had never seen her friends wear anything but jeans and t-shirts and they filed into our living room like troops ready for battle. The girls all had on full-length gowns and I was in awe of the girl with fair skin and light brown hair with soft curls. Her dress was quite large and a pale yellow that reminded me of Belle, from Beauty and the Beast. So I was confused when I heard someone whisper under their breath that it wasn’t her color.

  3. My mom tied my hair up in the tightest ponytail¾like she always did. She yanked a brush through my hair like it wasn’t attached to a 5 year-old’s head. I coughed and coughed as she doused my hair in hairspray, and she told me to stop being so dramatic. My hands were laid on my lap and I played with the skirt of my dress to distract me from the pain. The fabric was stiff like parchment paper. It was a white and yellow plaid pattern that had little yellow flowers sewn into the hems. I knew since it was such a light color I wouldn’t be able to play outside with my cousins. As my mom finished the only hairstyle she was capable of putting my hair through, she grabbed a scrunchie off the dresser that was the same fabric as my dress and put it in my hair. 

  4. We sat around the kitchen table having breakfast and my dad yelled at our cat for trying to catch flies that landed on the cracked, yellow-painted walls.

  5. I walked barefoot down the hospital hall, clinging to the railing meant for the actual sick. My family’s car wreck didn’t do much damage to me, but my seven-year-old body was so sore it hurt to even laugh, though I wasn’t doing much of that. My Aunt Mary saw me coming from the waiting room and greeted me with a relieved sigh¾I think I might have been the first victim of the accident she saw, other than my parents. When I finally made it to the waiting room she handed me a bright yellow Wendy’s bag and told me I needed to eat something. I sat next to my cousin and he asked if I was alright, I might have said yes. Then I threw up into the Wendy’s bag. 

  6. There were baskets that were filled with things no one would normally buy at the raffle contest my neighborhood had. Everyone was putting in their tickets for the basket with candy and DVDs. I put all of mine in a soft-yellow, woven basket filled with jewelry and I won. When I brought it home, my mom kept most of the jewelry because it was “too grown up” for me and told me I could keep the basket. 

  7. My grandma drove to my school to bring an outfit for me to wear to my friend’s dad’s funeral. It was the same dress I had worn to Easter mass¾mostly black with yellow flower petals printed on the bottom half. My seventh-grade class walked from the school over to the church and filed into a pew toward the back. I had never met her dad before. It was the first time when they brought him down the aisle in a coffin. The pamphlets they handed out were a faded beige and felt like napkins. It had his picture on the front and inside there were pictures of my friend and her family. Their smiles were beaming. As they walked in after their dad, my friend and her mom had puffy red eyes and her five-year-old sister’s face was blank.

  8. My grandmother on my dad’s side was a character to say the least. Garage sales were her nirvana. The last Christmas that she was well enough to mail out presents, she boxed up random items and shipped them out to her relatives across the country. That year my mom got a fake diamond ring in a black suede box (my parents were already separated), my sister got an expired bottle of purple Listerine mouthwash, and I got a shiny, yellow piggy bank with the word “Botox” written across the side in black cursive letters. 

  9. At my confirmation I picked out a yellow lace dress to wear because I was only doing the ceremony for my mom, so I figured the dress could be for her too. Afterward, she didn’t congratulate me on letting the Holy Spirit into my soul, but how nice I looked in yellow. 

  10. My head rested on my first boyfriend’s shoulder as we sat at my best friend’s graduation party. He laughed at something I said and put his hand on my thigh, like it was a pat on the back for me saying something funny. His pale, veiny hand started to slide under the dark yellow fabric of my dress. He smirked as I allowed him to touch me, he didn’t know I just didn’t want to embarrass him by telling him to stop. 

  11. My drunk, but cute friends went around in a circle to decide on what everyone would be, if they were a color. It was unanimous that I would be yellow. 



Essays

Dorothy Walton

October 30, 2019

Funeral for a Tree

 

Actually, two of them got the chop that day. They were joined at the hip, a ropy, ossified root hidden beneath the soil where no one could see just what they were up to until the chainsaw execution was well underway and their shallow grave had already been dug.

The funeral, myself officiating, started the following week. Place—cracked, broken sidewalk. Time and duration­—every morning for an indeterminate period. Other attendees—absent. Interment and other solemnities—lacking.

Nothing prefigured their demise. After all, I was used to the Jacarandas. There they were, anytime I walked outside—lush, firm, loyal, magnificent. But early that June morning I caught sight of the first of the municipal henchmen suspended in air, a hard-hatted workman, Lego-sized in a white metal box at the end of a long extendable arm, wielding a chainsaw amid the age-old knobs and gnarls of the grayish brown branches, pieces of the trees in the street, lacy green fronds heaped on the opposite sidewalk as if the Green Giant had leapt out of bed and torn off his tunic and then some to jump in the shower.

“Careful, walk on the other side,” a workman warned.

“Tell me,” I said before complying, “why are you taking down those beautiful trees?”

“They were putting the sidewalk at risk,” he replied amiably.

But almost all the sidewalks in Mexico City somehow live buckled. Things change, over time. Bleating SUVs and belching semis multiply tenfold on narrow streets and side-streets, your favorite quiet little café disappears, muscled off the scene by a blaring, two-story saloon franchise. But the rumpled nature of the sidewalks—that remains the same.

“The building in back of them was also in danger,” the man added at my gawking stare.

That flat ugliness behind him, two stories of smoke-tinted-window office space, was apparently what they were saving. I sidled slowly off, my neck craning toward the dwindling fronds. The last intact sheltering arm of the tree they were working on, a noose of looped rope around its midsection, took a crashing vertical plunge to the pavement as the grind of the chainsaw whirred to a moment of silence.

I’d told an anxious friend the previous year when a steady old oak in her yard in D.C. was putting her home at risk, “You did the right thing, taking it down. Protect your life, protect your property.” But this was different. Or was it?

You bet your last can of Green Giant green beans it was.

My trees had stood waiting for me to come home late after work whenever I was lonely, throwing me a peak of a round pearly moon in a forbidding cloudy night sky through a purposeful break in a darkened leafy canopy. My trees had cushioned my path with bell-shaped lavender spring blossoms when I least expected it in the morning crunch. We had history, you see. Those trees were mine. That’s what was different. They were mine.

In the evening after the execution, what was left of them was a gray mass of lifeless limbs, one of the larger branches carved with an oval gape like a pale frame for a woodpecker’s mirror, another lying like a baby elephant trunk cut into pieces, pocked flesh still breathing, curving upward as if to make a last trumpeted plea before the chop. The rest was hacked swirls of debris. The main trunks had yet to come down.

The Jacarandas had stood side by side planted in a rectangle of earth lodged in the sidewalk, their seamless lace canopy sheathing the air some fifty feet above them after the rainy season had peeled off their last lavender blooms. That evening a turtledove stood probing and pecking for bugs atop the tallest trunk, now transformed as if by fiery conflagration to a stiff mimicry of a soot-colored giraffe’s head peering over the other tree, that now just a few sticks of conjoined splintered wood. Only the turtledove’s tail feathers could be seen from below in the street, spiking upward in spasmodic delight.

The next morning the hard-hatted men were back with the grinding chainsaw. This time they had a crusty flatbed truck to load all the pieces, some already sticking out from folds of what was left of the Green Giant’s frontispiece. I marched onward to the other side of the street, the roar of the chainsaw angrily slapping the air over my head where the silent fronds had once waved me along. 

In the evening, nothing but wood chips, a coating of fine yellow sawdust all over the street, and the final remains of the two trunks, each now less than a foot tall, stumped in a long trashy block of black, disturbed, whipped-up soil. A thick exposed root about a foot in diameter still held the lopped trunks stubbornly together.

And that´s when they literally got the ax. The following day was a Saturday, but still the thwacking went on for hours, as if the workmen just couldn’t quite get to the core of that mule-minded root. But get there they did, uprooting everything left, loading roots and all into the back of another truck, leaving behind a moist earthy odor, bits of plastic, splintered wood chips, concrete rubble, and two broken segments of the tattered lime-green casing of some torn underground piping. 

The trees were gone. 

I waited the following Monday under another Jacaranda at the corner where I usually flagged a taxi. But it wasn’t the same. The trees were irreplaceable, like a love that doesn’t come again, a hole in its place, even after a new love has long come along.

 

___________________________

Dorothy Walton writes fiction, drama, and creative nonfiction. She works as an aide at the Bank of Mexico, Mexico’s central bank. Born in Colquitt, Georgia, she holds a B.A. in English Lit from the University of Chicago, where she served on the poetry staff of the Chicago Review. She later taught English in Madrid and worked as a financial journalist in Mexico City. When she’s not writing, she’s usually dancing. “Funeral for a Tree” is her first published literary piece.

Essays Special Feature

Toward a Counter Memory: A Collaboration of Photography and Prose

July 18, 2019


1.) 

The first time a person on one side of the world speaks to a person on the other, a transatlantic telephone cable is laid some twelve thousand feet deep along the ocean floor. 

One wonders what conversation would be worthy of this labor. 

You call me for the first time as the ball descends on Times Square. You’re on the West Coast, where it’s still New Years Eve. You want to say hello, and you want to know what the future is like. 

The future, I say, is filled with harping angels and devils who dance on the tips of flames.  

Come home, you say. Come home now. As though home is a place we share. 

The first words ever spoken on the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant: 

Come here! I want you!

When Graham Bell died, every phone ceased ringing for one full hour in tribute. 

And what is more beautiful, the gestures we make at the beginning or the end of unsustainable desire? 

2.) 

Augustine, psychology’s most famous hysteric, is hospitalized, her disease documented in black and white photography. Augustine is so photographed that she develops a condition: she can only see the world in black and white. 

I wonder as I study those photographs how Augustine’s condition differs from love.

You wanted me, so I moved toward you with a bullet’s trajectory. 

I moved through you, fearless, full sprint through a dark forest.

You required sacrifice, so I rendered myself sacrificial.

You were jealous, so the women before you were kindling

for fires I made in your name. 

3.) 

It is known that bees are batteries of the orchard. 

That whole communities hover at hive’s center to ensure the warmth of the queen. 

As humans, we are all just Icarus, wondering as we drown why we were issued

wings we couldn’t use. 

That summer, you planted on your property what you would not give me and many fruit trees flourished.

It’s been years but I can still feel what it’s like beneath the orchard’s cool leaves drunk on rain. 

The bees use the sun and its shadows as compass

But what of days so dark the forests disappear?  

In my dream we are driving up Chuckanut,

car fragrant from spoils of the orchard. 

The true paradises, writes Proust, are paradises we have lost.

4.) 

The space between two parked cars and two birds on a wire is identical. We are hard wired, physicists say, to slow before we crash, to keep a measured distance. What this means, scientifically, is starlings and monster trucks have more sense than I do.

Here we come again up Chuckanut, boulders loosing themselves in the road, adventurers descending the mountainside to pluck fresh oysters from the frothing Sound. 

The shadows roll and join like mercury. 

It is only our bodies that hold us together.

Conspiracy, noun

A combination of persons for a secret purpose

From the latin, 

“to breathe together.” 

5.) 

Far from now, I will see you some strange evening, and we’ll embrace the way folks do when their bones are a nuisance, when the body should by all rights evaporate in the holy moment but cannot. 

For now, we must abandon one another completely. 

“For if we could be satisfied in any way,’ Seneca said, “we should have been satisfied long ago.”

Here is where the plot twists and we learn the protagonist has been a ghost all along. 

The true haunting is not that the ghost exists, but that at last we are able to perceive it. 

If you’re calling to ask what the future is like, there is love for us both in living color.

You’ll remain on the orchard, in the cool mountain air.

I’ll drive to the heart of the desert with someone new, in awe of the way every surface mirrors heaven. 

___________________________
Photographer Bio: Amber Carpenter is an MFA graduate from Columbia College Chicago’s Nonfiction program. She earned her MA in English from East Carolina University in 2012 with a concentration in both poetry and nonfiction. Her work, which includes writing and photography, has been published in Sinister WisdomTwo Hawks QuarterlyMount Hope Magazine, and Glassworks Magazine. She now lives in the Bay Area with her wife and pets. 

Essayist Bio: Piper J. Daniels is a Michigan native and queer intersectional feminist currently living in the American Southwest. Her debut essay collection, Ladies Lazarus, won the Tarpaulin Sky Book Award, was longlisted for the PEN Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and was named a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in LGBTQ Nonfiction. She is the founder of a manuscript consultation collective dedicated to serving POC and LGBTQ writers.