Every Wednesday, I’m posting a short, 1000-word prequel to one of the eleven stories in If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There, which comes out June 1. This one’s a prequel to the ninth story in the collection, “Irgendwo, Nirgendwo”, originally published in New Ohio Review.
A cat carcass under the examination table’s bright bulb. Hers is snow white and glows brightest. In this cold windowless room. A campus basement. Men younger than her and taller stand in ranks and files at tables of their own with cats of their own in tabby and orange and calico. Nobody is about to cut into a dead black cat. She belches fishbreath. Her morning’s pill.
“It is important,” says the professor, “that we begin class by thanking the families who donated their deceased for our benefit.” The professor is a splintery ex-Soviet with a silver ponytail, and as he drones a list of Midwestern surnames Ally strokes the cat that’s now hers to cut into chunks. The non-latex gloves make it smoother but less pleasant, like sucking on wrapped hard candy. The young men in the room fidget, finger blades. From few conversations Ally knows they’re here for horses, for pigs. They are boys in Deere-green ballcaps for whom running a sheathed arm deep into the bowels of a bull is just another job to do. Their pets all lived outside.
Once, one of them stood outside Bachelder Hall with a cigarette and called her girlie. His buddies had cigarettes of their own. Later, she found out then forgot his name. It was more syllable than name. Bo. Tre. Hi.
Her cat lies on its back, limbs splayed, as though just tossed into a marriage bed and ready. The professor instructs. This will be her cat for the entirety of the term. Today she is to skin it. “There is, in fact, only one way.” The professor waits for the boys to laugh. The boys laugh like banjos, and he tells them all to grab their scalpels. She slices her cat open at the throat. “Press hard,” says Professor. Ally puts one hand on the other and pushes in, digging, she feels, a little trench. Planting sunflowers. She makes it past the ileocecal valve when the room goes hot and dark and she’s falling.
[“I didn’t take care of myself in those days,” she whispered, scratching again at the PIC line. Her daughter’s face lay close on the bed. “Or later, with you.”]
She wakes sweating on the cold floor. The professor’s face is in her face. “You’re awake now? Are you with us?” The men in the room crowd over her like the bars of a crib. He helps her stand. “Many females,” he announces on his way back to the front of the room, “feel queasy during dissection.” Snickerings. “Feel free to go outside if you feel you need to.”
The scalpel lies on the half-open cat like a toy it’s pawing, and the young men sneak peeks at Ally as she grips the edge of the table and takes a few deep breaths. She knows what they are thinking and she hates it. Queasy. She could lick this dead cat cunt to tongue for all she cares. What she is is fearful. She’s passed out three times since Christmas, but this is the first one in public. It’s her blood pressure, her gynecologist noted on her last visit. Or it’s her intake. Her body so much smaller than her classmates’. In a day she’ll have less than what those idiots eat for breakfast. She takes the scalpel back in hand and gets back at her cutting.
She is the first to remove the hide. She holds it over her head like a fresh kill. On the examination table, the carcass lies inside-out, its four paws covered in a little sleeve of skin she’s left intact, protecting her, the rest of the term, from her white cat’s claws. She gets an A, fucks the syllable who called her girlie, graduates. Moves in to her own place. Starts eating again. Assists a man her father’s age with the practice he, childless, hands to her on retirement.
[“I was made to believe everything would work out well for me,” she told her. “Until it didn’t.”]
One day, she stands in the middle of her living room, looking from surface to surface. She wants an object to trigger her toward desire. She’s in pyjamas. It’s 3pm, and the phone rings. There’s an ache running down her right leg she can’t stop or finger the cause of. On the phone, it’s her spinster aunt, asking her to dinner at the home of a man she’s met. “I’m not busy,” Ally says. Might as well tell the truth.
You can order If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There here.
Come see me read from one or two stories on IYNMIBOT’s Midwest Summer Tour.
Every Wednesday, I’m posting a short, 1000-word prequel to one of the eleven stories in If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There, which comes out June 1. This one’s a prequel to the eighth story in the collection, “Another Man’s Treasure”, originally published in Prairie Schooner.
This happened on a weeknight in May, when I was just starting to get interested in a girl named Cheryl, who lived over in Friend but had a cousin in Seward she was hanging out with a lot that spring. This was the year after graduation. I heard she would be out near the watertower, so I made sure that I wore one of my tighter tee shirts and the Huskers ballcap that did not smell like pig s—. I pulled up in my truck right at the base of the watertower and was pulling the case of beers I had brought out of the truckbed when I heard a guy say, Move it, buddy. He was talking to me. He was very tan with a buzzcut and a round face with cheeks like a baby’s. He stood very close to me with another guy that was as big as a pop machine.
I said, Move what?
This piece of s— truck, he said.
My truck was not a piece of s—. It was a hand-me-down from my grandfather who kept it in very good condition, and I told the guy so.
The guy said his buddy had parked here already and was on his way back from a beer run. I pointed to the many other places to park. Who were these guys? I had not seen them at the watertower before.
You do not get it, dumbass, the guy said. This spot “ain’t” yours.
The other people there, my friends many of them, were starting to look our way, including Cheryl, and I was not about to look stupid in front of her, so I just shook my head and walked away. But then I heard the guy say, Hey, d—head, and he grabbed me by the shoulder and spun me around. He was a little older than me, and a little bigger, and he shoved me up against my truck. He said, Little boys need to listen, and he took my keys out of my hand and pushed me aside. I did not even have to think about it. I just set the beers down and threw myself at the guy, but the big man he was with was suddenly in my way. He grabbed me in a bear hug and I had a hard time breathing.
Get him out of the way, the guy said.
He got in my truck, started it up, and backed out fast without looking, the front left tire crushing the case I had brought. Beer sprayed all over the truck, and the dust he kicked up caked along the side. He drove it back all the way to a far corner, almost to the road, and stepped out leaving the door wide open. I could not move. I tried to kick but the guy holding me kept lifting me off the ground and I could not get any purchase.
Let him go, the guy with the buzzcut said, and I was pushed to the ground. I could not see the others but I wondered, Where is somebody to say or do something? Where is Mike? It was still so light outside.
I turned around and tried to figure out who I was going to hit first. Then the guy did something strange. He held my keys in the air and walked behind his large friend, and he said, Come and get them. Then he pulled the waistband of his friend’s shorts out and dropped my keys down the back.
The friend just stood there smirking at me. And then he turned around and bent over and let out a long fart.
They both started cracking up. I did not know what to do. I could not reach in there, not with everyone watching, but I could not fight them both. Even though I think my parents wanted me to, and even though there was money from my grandparents to pay for the expense of it, I did not go to college. My whole life, I had said a lot of Yes and now I wanted to start saying No Sir, so when my dad asked me if I wanted to work at his insurance company I said No, thank you, and I told my parents it was time for me to relax a little. Most days, I drove the mower over our lawn to get some sun and lifted to keep my weight up. I did not want to be anybody special, but I wanted to feel good about myself when I woke up every morning.
Look, I said, you moved my truck. It is fine. Let me just have my keys and we will forget this happened.
Nobody is stopping you, the babyfaced guy said. Just reach on in and grab them.
Then he said, I can tell you want to, faggot.
I was so angry I started to shake, and then I ran at him with my fist cocked. Before I had a chance to hit him I got lifted up and thrown down onto the ground. The heavy fellow. He planted a boot in my chest. Stay down, he said, his voice like a lowing cow.
He reached into his pants and pulled out my keys, and then he dropped them right onto my face.
They walked away and left me alone the rest of the night. I was handed somebody else’s beer and stood a way’s apart from the crowd. Everybody pretended like they had not seen anything, except Cheryl, who came up with a friend of hers and said, I am sorry about those guys. They can be such a–holes when they drink.
Who are they? I asked her.
She said they were the friends of her brother, Kevin, who was out on a beer run. It was another hour before he came back with his truck. He did not even park in the spot. I could not have any fun. I spent the whole night trying to come up with some kind of revenge, but when I brought it up with Mike or Jerry I could not get any one of them to help me. What, do you want me to grab a crowbar? Mike said. I am just here to drink and get some p—-. I drove home, alone, well before midnight.
Sometimes, when I am not sure what I am supposed to do with my life, I look for signs. Stains I get on my clothing. Stories on the news of dead children. This memory of Cheryl, maybe it was a sign I did not see at the time. Maybe I did not pay the right attention. It was not two more years before I married her.
You can pre-order If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There here.
It’s a clickbait title. I’ll warn you now: if you’re here to learn how do that you’ll probably be disappointed. But I want to write a bit about one difference between scholarly nonfiction and literary nonfiction. And in doing so, I think I can highlight some assumptions of people who write what they call “creative nonfiction” which fall in line with assumptions scholars make in their writing.
In short: the anxiety to be right (or: true) sometimes leads to bad (or: inartful) writing.
To explain, here’s a paragraph from Alberto Manguel’s Curiosity, the book I’m reading right now (warning: it’s dry):
Sometime in the second half of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese philosopher Isaac Abravanel, who had settled in Spain, later to be exiled and make his exodus to Venice, strict in the principles of his learned reading, raised an unusual objection to Maimondes. In addition to reconciling Aristotle and the Bible, Maimondes sought to extract from the Torah’s sacred words the basic principals of Jewish belief. Shortly before his death in 1204, following a tradition of summary exegesis begun by Philo of Alexandria in the first century, he had expanded Philo’s list of the five core articles of faith to thirteen. Thus increased, these thirteen articles were to be used, according to Maimondes, as a test of allegiance to Judaism, separating true believers from the goyim. Abravanel, arguing against Maimondes’ dogma, remarked that since the Torah was a God-given whole form from which no syllable could be dispensed, the attempt to read the sacred text in order to choose from it a series of axioms was disingenuous if not heretical. The Torah, Abravanel asserted, was complete unto itself and no single word of it was more or less important than any other. For Abravanel, even though the art of commentary was a permissible and even commendable accompaniment to the craft of reading, God’s word admitted no double entendres but manifested itself literally, in unequivocal terms. Abravanel was implicitly distinguishing between the Author as author and the reader as author. The reader’s job was not to edit, either mentally or physically, the sacred text but to ingest it whole, just as Ezekiel had ingested the book offered to him by the angel, and then to judge it either sweet or bitter, or both, and work from there.
Some key characteristics of this ¶:
- Events are out of chronology.
- Every idea is given by name to its progenitor.
- It’s heavier with a sense of history (i.e., the tracking of causal events) than of story (i.e, the linking of same).
And like I said it’s dry and dull. It takes extra work on the part of the reader to find the central thread or idea. And here’s the thing: extra work isn’t itself a problem. The problem here is that the extra work happens irrespective of language; the words aren’t inextricable enough from their ideas.
Let me propose a rewrite:
There are, in Judaism, no central principles of faith. Nothing like the Apostles’ Creed or the Kalimat As-Shahadat. Yet Jewish philosophers have for millennia tried to read the Torah and extract, in a process called “summary exegesis,” some central tenets. In the first century AD, Philo of Alexandria found five core articles of faith and that tradition held for a thousand years. Then, around 1200, an Andalusian mystic in exile named Maimonides expanded Philo’s list of five core articles to thirteen, to be used as a test of allegiance to Judaism, separating true believers from the goyim. To this day, Maimonides’ thirteen articles stand. Orthodox Judaism holds them to be obligatory. They have their own Wikipedia page. But problems ensued. In the late 1400s, a Portuguese philosopher name Isaac Abravanel argued that, because the Torah was a God-given whole form from which no syllable could be dispensed, any attempt to extract from it a series of axioms was heretical. No single word of the Torah was more or less important than any other. Summary exegesis was commendable, but God’s word manifested itself in unequivocal terms. No double entendres. It didn’t catch on, Abravanel’s critique, but here we find a literalism that draws a distinction between the Author as author and the reader as author. The reader’s job is not to edit the sacred text but to ingest it whole, just as Ezekiel ingested the book offered to him by the angel, and then to judge it either sweet or bitter, or both, and work from there.
- I tried to work from chronology in structuring the ¶. I’ve written elsewhere how chronology and narrative aren’t default best choices for nonfiction, but here it seemed to help educe the central idea about the value (or lack thereof) in summary exegesis.
- Names have been plucked out of sentences as much as possible, so’s to prevent the ¶ from having a cite-heavy term-paper-y feel to it, and to build up the primacy of the narrator’s own voice and ideas (even when those ideas are taken from other people).
- Maimonides’s being a mystic seems up for dispute, and his being in exile had little to do, as far as I can tell, with his exegetic work (though I guess he escaped religious persecution), and it’s not clear to me in my haste whether Andalusia was a place with such a name back in 1200, but all the same an Andalusian mystic in exile is good stuff, and so there it stands.
- This isn’t the best ¶, done slapdash in under an hour on a weekend afternoon, and it takes heavily from Wikipedia, so your critiques on it are probably valid. Good job.
Whether it’s good or bad or even better isn’t my point here, so much as that it’s constructively and functionally different. To a scholar (or reporter, or creative nonfiction writer), my paragraph is lazy, because it’s slipshod with citation and opts, in gray areas, for the more dramatic and interesting interpretation. But to an essayist (or artist), the original is lazy, because it leans on the historical record and fails to step in and compose or construct those facts toward an emotional response in the reader.
In other words, there’s not enough of Manguel in Manguel’s ¶. There’s no narrator to hold us and carry us through, which is how I feel when reading the best nonfiction. Held and carried. In good hands. There’s something of Manguel’s (commendable; he’s not an essayist he’s a scholar, and so I’m not faulting him at all) insistence on developing and maintaining authority that saps from the ¶ the kind of authority I’m calling for here.
That authority almost always involves the narrator’s voice. I don’t want, in nonfiction, that voice to duck behind a wall of history or data. If I wanted such a wall, I’d go online.
Every Wednesday, I’m posting a short, 1000-word prequel to one of the eleven stories in If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There, which comes out June 1. This one’s a prequel to the sixth story in the collection, “Little Fingers”, originally published in Hawai’i Review.
“Be careful up there.”
The voice just appeared, as if from God. If God croaked like a frog. I looked up from the catwalk, the studio’s roof just three feet above my head. I looked around and down. Nobody. Up here was a honeycomb of black X’s and me in my big yellow shirt, the worker bee rebulbing a lamp. The casing was stuck, and I tugged and tugged and wrenched it off, falling back into the railing, which jattered from my weight.
Dragged out this time, like a schoolyard taunt.
“Who is that?”
Who was projecting his dumb fears and anxieties on me, a woman who could readily pas de bourree down a catwalk, three gins deep?
Vince was the guy who did all the show captions. He sounded the most like a frog.
I gripped the rail and dipped my body down under the rigging, and I scanned the whole studio from above and couldn’t see a single person. I righted myself and then I saw him, sitting Indian-style between me and the ladder to the floor. As narrow the catwalk was, with my hips I had to shimmy down it at a kind of angle, so how he got his akimbo knees to fit there was a mystery, until I saw they were also where the railing’s support posts were, like they occupied the same space at the same time, and that’s when I backed up a few steps.
“How are you doing that?”
He stood and fizzed in and out a bit, like a hologram. His face was young, semi-cute, but mostly he was just a lot of ugly greys and beiges.
“I didn’t think you were being careful.”
So he was just another dead man telling me what to do. I said I was as good at rigging lights as he was at being a creep. Then he giggled like a fruit.
“I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Then what was with the spooky voice?”
Shimmering, he shrugged.
“I used to work here. I died taping Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
So it was true what I was dealing with. He pointed down to my left, where the big tree from the Land of Make Believe stood at the ready.
“Heavier than it looks. Gave me an aneurysm. Died on the spot. He spoke at my funeral, though, which I heard was nice.”
He had a smile like a boy in the bathtub. Was he fucking with me?
“So now you just haunt this mid-market PBS studio? Like Phantom of the Opera?”
I trusted people a lot more in those days than I do now. My Pittsburgh years, when I look back on them, were just a record of my being stupid and acting stupid.
“Look, I’m not an asshole, my life is over. This is the only kind of fun I get to have now.”
The red-digit clock on the wall read 11:50, which meant lunch. I took the opposite ladder. Had he ever watched me go to the bathroom?
My debut fiction collection is out June 1 from Indiana University Press. To sell a few copies and meet good people, I’m going to hit a bunch of bookstores in the Great Plains / Midwest with friends Tyrone Jaeger, author of So Many True Believers and Theodore Wheeler, author of Bad Faith. We’ll be reading short stories together, among other things, and I can promise a very good time had by everyone.
Here are the dates:
Wednesday July 6, 6pm
Magers & Quinn
Thursday July 7, 7pm
Boswell Book Company
Friday July 8
The Book Cellar
Saturday July 9, 6pm
Sunday July 10, 2pm
Monday July 11, 6pm
Indigo Bridge Books
Tuesday July 12
Would love to see you all and read stories to you and grab drinks after, and probably also before. Happy summer, everyone.
Every Wednesday, I’m posting a short, 1000-word prequel to one of the eleven stories in If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There, which comes out June 1. This one’s a prequel to the fifth story in the collection, “An Uneven House”, originally published in Beloit Fiction Journal.
We open mid-scene, in medias res, as a party with all her aunts and lady cousins is wrapping up. The music has ended. The trash bins are full. The party’s at one of her aunts’ houses, the one who’s the amplest and most full of love for the woman. Picture hearthstones and brooms and wooden stools and gas lighting. Everyone glows. During the final toasts and well-wishings the woman stands as the recipient of a room full of smiles. She’s in her overcoat, and she holds a plate of cake. One cousin says something like, “And he’s so handsome!”, which drives everyone to laughter, and the woman feels her stomach tumble and vomit spits up and falls over her chin. She coughs and it sprays onto the floor, and quickly she turns and upheaves the whole contents of her belly next to the fireplace. The laughter’s turned to screaming and people rushing to her side. The woman waves them away, pleads forgiveness. The cake was the culprit, she explains. She had too much, though this will play strangefully owing to an earlier passing detail in the POV of an aunt which reveals that she hadn’t finished her single slice. Hence the leftovers she’d been given, which now lie on the ground, vomit-stained, and ensharded with pieces of broken plate.
Leap to the woman sitting alone at a vanity, in the velvety room she rents from a spinster cousin in the city, a Baptist with certain notions re chastity and cleanliness. No men in the house. Girlfriends received in the parlor, etc. The woman faces the mirror and takes the pins out of her black hair, which all night had held up perfectly, like a souffle. Without being too obvious/corny the story turns reflective. We learn about her late adoption by an aunt (mom = dead from pneumonia; dad = drunk –> drifter) and her job at the lunch counter a fifty-minute train ride from the room she rents. Here was where she met the man she’s meant to marry in the morning. He’d eat a chicken sandwich and a glass of milk every day and smile every time she’d look at him. After just a week of such lunches he asked her to a polka night, where during their third dance around the room he tripped her and she fell to the floor. She laughed but he didn’t. His face—earlier details will compare it to a bear’s face—fell and he knelt down and lifted her off the floor. “Are you all right?” he kept asking. “Are you okay?” He set her in her chair and kept her there the rest of the night, marking time on his thigh with a slap of his fat hand.
Handled, she’ll think at her mirror. From the beginning she’s felt handled, like an art object in a ramshackle crate. Then some details on the removal of makeup, its processes and unguents, which reverberate off the “art object” image in ways let’s hope are subtle. The woman leaves all her clothes on the floor to take care of in the morning and puts herself to bed. As soon as the lamp is out there’s a tapping at the window. At once, she knows it’s the fiance. He’s jumped to her fire escape from a trash bin before, the apparent ease of which leads her in mild terror to always latch the windowlock, which now the silhouette of him backlit by the streetlamp is pointing to. She lets him in and he stumbles and speaks too loudly. His tie is untied and if he wore a hat that night it’s not with him. She’s in her nightgown. This is the most he’s ever seen of her. “It’s bad luck to see me,” she says, and he reminds her it’s not the wedding day yet. His eyes roam over her like a spray can. In slurs and starts, he tells her of his idea: they’ll go to bed together. Tonight. Tomorrow, he says, they’ll be exhausted. He can’t wait any longer for her.
Story pushes inward on the POV here to reveal she wants this, too.
Then a knock on the bedroom door from the spinster cousin. “Everything all right?” etc. The woman glares at the fiance. The cousin, turns out, has vast savings she’s planned to give as a wedding present, so long as her all Baptist notions are upheld. The fiance knows the plan and dives behind the bed, causing the whole floor to shake. This leads the cousin to throw open the door. “I thought you’d fallen,” she says, looking purposefully around the room. It can get a little “Three’s Company”ey for some comic relief before all the stuff that’s about to happen. The woman comes quickly up with an explanation: the clothes on the floor. She stumbled. She reprimands herself for not putting them away properly, and this pleases the cousin back out of the room. She sends the fiance back through the window without a kiss.
The trouble with getting out of a story like this is the trouble with getting out of any story: there’s not enough time. Think about the metaphor of “wrapping things up”—like the story is a gift that’s made (or bought) and now at the end requires some kind of box and bow. But what about the time needed to build the box and bow? What about the mostly dull, overly precious look of a perfectly wrapped box and bow? Better to give just the box. Let the bow itself be an allure. Then, at the end of a story, tell them to open it. Tell them to open the box.
She dreams of gifts and presents, and the next morning, at the chapel in a square on the south end of town, word comes to her through a chain of cousins that the fiance is pacing his room and saying things like, “I’m not a man for her.” Everyone’s afraid of a jilting, but she knows he’ll be there. He will be there for the rest of her life now. At the altar she can barely see him through her veil, barely see the priest as he asks him his intentions. We won’t know what she’s lost to get here. All those times she spit in his milk. Then he says, “I do,” and her heart stops.
You can pre-order If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There here.
Every Wednesday, I’m posting a short, 1000-word prequel to one of the eleven stories in If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There, which comes out June 1. This one’s a prequel to the fourth (and seventh and eleventh) story in the collection, “If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There”.
The day I left Pennsylvania for my new life in Nebraska, blackouts ravaged the northeast. The news came in over our car radio somewhere just before Indiana: New York, Boston, all the way down to Baltimore, nobody had any power. It was a hot sunny afternoon. The highways Dad drove over were the flattest I’d ever seen, with a horizon that never rose above eye level. I felt like we were going to crash into the sun, which kept itself blindingly before us, making everything shimmer. Mom worried aloud about finding a hotel with electricity, and I worried for the first time about going somewhere so vacant. I would know nobody. I would drink too much one night and stumble past town limits and suddenly be the tallest thing on the landscape for miles, ready for the tornado or the bolt of lightning to render me in shreds.
We found a hotel with a backup generator in small Illinois town I’d never step foot in again. I got my own room, and that night I dreamt of being buried in a corn field, but playfully, my head up above ground as though I were at the beach, while underneath I felt moles and prairie dogs plough passageways through my insides.
Much later, my parents in the minivan driving back east, I stood one evening in Lincoln’s Haymarket, wondering what to do next. I hadn’t made a friend yet. I was right by the train tracks at the beginning of a light rainstorm. Above me hung big boulders of clouds, but out on the western horizon the sun looked like an orange slice as it set above the browned silhouette of a cargo train slowly rolling southward. The sunlight cast on the meager fifteen-story skyscrapers of this small town made them beam and shine their brightest colors against a denim-blue sky. I felt my jaw slung loose, gaping upward at the half-arc of a rainbow sloping over the place where my new home sat. It was a sky I’d never known before, a sky so far away from the ones I’d taken for granted, and suddenly as though in greeting the whole sky flashed and sparked with a half-dozen threads of lightning that stretched beyond my field of vision. God’s grill, it looked like, and I broke out in laughter, right there in a parking lot at the edge of the West.
I had a roommate named Bruxton I ate lunch with sometimes. Not much of a friend. He was tall, blond, and solid, and in our room he’d sit with a nugget of tobacco tucked in his lip he’d spit into plastic cups. One lunch, pizza and chicken fingers, he asked me, Are you from a small town or a big city? He had never met someone from the East Coast before, even though I clarified that Pennsylvania—particularly the hills of Western Pennsylvania—wasn’t really on the coast. But I said, Small town, definitely.
Oh yeah? he said. What’s the population?
I thought it was something like 8000. Mount Lebanon had over 30,000, and we weren’t even half as big.
Bruxton said, That’s a big town.
Oh, I said.
My town’s got 400 people in it, he said. I was one of fifteen in my graduating class.
I didn’t even get to grow up in a small town. Numbers meant different things here. The temperatures, the cost of gas. On Saturdays our football stadium, filled to capacity for a record number of years, became the state’s third largest city by population. I guess I had chosen Nebraska so as to undergo such transformations. I’d felt hemmed in on all edges, and everywhere I turned I saw more family. Jerem had made our parents proud by going to Penn State, never being too far away to come home when needed, when missed. I’d figured that running off to a point smack in the middle of the country would be a noisy coup d’etat, plates thrown and parental feet put down, but Mom and Dad treated it mostly as a puzzle. Where are you going to go without a car? Mom asked, as we’d first rolled into town.
I wasn’t going anywhere. There were nights I could forecast the rest of my life here, nights where out by the airport I’d look up and see so many stars the sky for the first time had depth and texture. One night a guy down the hall with a car, not much of a friend, took us out to Denton (pop: tiny), where we pulled up alongside Ford F-150s outside a bar called the Daily Double. A girl my age stood on a low stage and read numbers monotone into a microphone, and the guys from my floor—all born-and-bred Cornhuskers—persuaded me to order chicken gizzards. What are they? I kept asking. I pictured the flap of skin that hung jowlishly from their faces.
It’s by the stomach, Bruxton said. I pictured sweetmeats and intestines. It’s where they keep the gravel, he added, unhelpfully.
They arrived, deep fried, and tasted like wet erasers. I must have made a face because they all laughed. I played four rounds of Keno and lost each one. If I had a nickel for every time I heard “Mustang Sally” on that trip from Pennsylvania, I could’ve afforded to play a fifth, but instead we went home and fall soon fell, and the wind I felt every day from every direction started to turn malevolent. It snowed the day I took my first college final, but that was weeks and weeks before I’d know true winter, with snow up to my thighs and windgusts aiming to knock me over. In Nebraskan weather I was a child again. Or still. I’d have a whole life ahead of me of staying out of trouble.
You can pre-order If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There here.
Awards, Accolades & Publishing
News came in yesterday that Alan Chazaro, a MFA student at the University of San Francisco, where I teach, won something called the Intro Journals Award from AWP. For those outside MFALand, this is an annual series of awards granted by our prof. org.: the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. (Like the MLA but for creative writing.) Every creative writing program in the country is invited to submit one student’s work in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, which then get judged by a single writer. The top 4 students (8 in poetry) are chosen to win publication in a leading journal and, of course, prestige—the idea being that AWP is introducing the world to talented new writers via journal publications.
Two key things:
- The judging is blind. No names or affiliated schools are anywhere on the manuscripts.
- A USF student has won an Intro Journal Award every year for the past four years. And we’ve had someone win in every genre.
This is a success worth bragging about, and so I have. Here and on Twitter. And it shows a continued track record of excellence: our students’ work wins awards and finds publication while they’re still students here. And yet, as far as I know, USF has never once been ranked in even the top 50 MFA programs in the country.
Every Wednesday, I’m posting a short, 1000-word prequel to one of the eleven stories in If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There, which comes out June 1. This one’s a prequel to the third story in the collection, “Smear the Queer”, originally published in Barrelhouse.
My second semester at Pitt, I was denied entrance into Honors O Chem owing to what I was told in a postcard sent by campus mail was insufficient academic performance during the fall semester, but in my heart I knew it was out of a failure of nerve. No, I hadn’t taken certain gen-eds scheduled by my adviser seriously enough, writing in EngComp but never bothering to revise a paper about Dick Butkus’s movie roles that garnered me the first (but not last) C of my academic career. But on top of this, I told myself the afternoon after I got the news, standing in too light a jacket on the Cathedral Lawn under a skeletal tree frosted in fresh snow, I hadn’t pushed. I hadn’t made myself undismissable. I had shown my adviser the A I received in Chem 100 and drawn his attention to the honors courses I took in high school, and after he suggested I meet with the head of the University Honors College, a brusque sandy blond man with a face one size larger than his head could normally bear whom everyone seemed affectionately to call just “Doc”, I did and I got him to smile, and he said to me, I’ll always remember, “You’re really going places, Jim.” As we shook hands at the end of the conversation he’d reached up with his left hand and gave my shoulder a soft squeeze, not far from an embrace, I thought, and I kept my eyes looking in his eyes until he soon looked away.
There was, the postcard read, an appeals process, but that afternoon I couldn’t imagine undergoing it. Maybe I was full of spite, or maybe I was only cold. As I said I’d underjacketed that morning, and the winter wind was spilling in and running up along my ribs, and my body kept seizing itself to find extra warmth. The Lawn was still, a thick quilt of snow running all the way south to Forbes Avenue, cut across here and there by the stitching of other people’s footprints. Behind me the traffic chugged on Fifth, and in the quiet that fell between redlights I heard nothing but the softened air of a city in midwinter. I wanted to hear it more, so I walked inward on the lawn toward Heinz Chapel, my brogans doing a less spectacular job of keeping my feet dry than I’d hoped, thinking I’d still be visible from here. I was the one Z-axis in a Cartesian plane save for the trees, the chapel, and the Cathedral of Learning, which rose from the lawn like a tombstone.
The guy was late. He was twenty minutes late. I’d begun in my head a countdown from twenty-two, before I’d walk away from the Lawn and return to my dorm room and go back to bed having not put my life on a different, darker course, but right when I got to six on the countdown I saw a tall, thin body with a burst of red hair walk in from my left. It stopped at an intersection of walkways, facing me. It raised a hand in a wave, and I waved back. The red hair tilted away from me, toward the Cathedral, and the guy, if in fact it was the guy, walked away. I followed always, owing to the steady pace he kept, at a distance and soon I was in a stall in the back of the men’s room on the ground floor.
“You bring the money?” he whispered
“Lisa said you’d give me a deal?” I whispered. “This is my first time.”
“Forty dollars,” he said. “Normally it’s fifty.”
His bright hair had to be visible over the stall’s partitions. We were, I’d hoped, alone in there. I heard nothing but a faucet’s drips plinking off the room’s dirty tiles.
“Why are we in here?” I asked.
“You want to get thrown out of school?”
I could appreciate his discretion. I unwalleted two twenties and held them up in the air between us. He looked at me, then at them, and then the money was gone.
“Start slow,” he said. “Two at most, if it’s your first time.”
Then he brought out the plastic bag I’d just paid for, and without a word I took it and shoved it into my underwear, because things fell out of pockets all the time.
The guy raised an eyebrow. “Anything else you need?” he asked, smiling. Then he put his hand on my shoulder
I was back in my room in minutes. What I needed, I wanted to tell him, was to get into Honors O Chem, and barring that I needed to know what had happened to the candidacy I’d been led to believe was beyond eligible. I needed also to know why at least once a week after I shut the lights out I was finding myself lying in the darkness of my room and sobbing, quietly enough for Brad, my snoring roommate, not to hear, but hard enough for it to hurt, my stomach cramped and heaving, my pillow soaked with tears and spittle. I was not, historically, a crier. I would be, I’d always promised myself, a comprehender, but that night in my room, Brad gone on some wrestling tournament across the state, I reneged on the deal, slitting open the windows that flanked our bunkbeds for the frozen air to seep in, and undressing myself only after I’d turned out the lights. I slipped naked into the bed and took with a plastic PITT ORIENTATION WEEKEND 1979 cup of water three of the pills I’d purchased, and in no time at all the world I found myself stuck inside got reduced to one color, one note that if I could find it on the piano would lie way down on the left end of the keyboard.
I was cold and I stayed cold the whole weekend. Why, I wonder, did I become a scientist? My parents never pressured me to be anything, and all my brothers make money for a living. I heard once, or I read somewhere that our ambitions come from the newest part of the brain, the part of it that sits right above our eyebrows, as though they were the captain of the starship that steers us. I’ve pretended more than once that I could be such a captain, setting always an optimal course, but I’ve rarely been able to rise to a challenge. I’ve been, instead, a tester, a man directed by the wills of other men. It has over time taken me places. I’m good, I’d like to think, at swabbing a deck.*
You can pre-order If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There here.
Every Wednesday, I’m posting a short, 1000-word prequel to one of the eleven stories in If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There, which comes out June 1. This one’s a prequel to the second story in the collection, “Karl Friedrich Gauss”, originally published in Hobart.
Hobart actually once published another prequel of sorts, as a web-extra to promote the release of their Games Issue, which “KFG” was a part of. You can read “Owen Morris’s Other Creativity Games (To Date)” here.
Just because it was summer didn’t mean I didn’t have anything to read or read up on, but because after dinner I was told to “take a break from being you” I found myself walking all alone along the cul-de-sac—which, I learned, just last week, is French for sackbottom. I passed eight houses on Sunset Court, three of which were the same model as ours but mirror-imaged, with bedrooms to the left as you got to the top of the stairs, not to the right, and though I’d never been inside any of these houses I felt that were I ever to walk through it would be like starring in a horror film where I was the first victim, and the last. It was almost seven. At the bottom of the sack the neighbor kids sat in a circle, James’s kickball rolling from one kid to another. It was James and Annie and Michelle and Jerrica and David and Bryan and Xander. “Owen,” Michelle said. “Owen!”
There was still a lot of light out. It was just a few days past Fathers’ Day.
Everyone stood when I got there, like an audience. “We want to play kickball but we’re an odd number,” Michelle said. And I said, “You certainly are.” And I laughed but nobody joined me. Michelle wanted to pick teams and called herself team captain.
“Let’s just do boys versus girls,” Bryan said. “You guys take Owen.” Then he laughed and everyone joined him.
The problem with sports, I knew, was that they had no creativity, and nobody learned anything from them. Sports were only about other people’s bodies, which made them elitist and unfair, because while I’ve worked hard to strengthen my mind and learn all I could I was cursed, Papa told me, with “your mommy’s little pixie body.” I ran slow and kicked soft. In team sports I got blamed for any disappointments, so that evening I pointed out we could split between those of us living on the east side of Sunset and those of us living on the west, which by my calculations would even up the teams in both ability and sportsmanship. Xander and Bryan, for instance, could only be on the same team if everyone enjoyed noisy aggression and being called buttwipe a lot.
I volunteered as pitcher, because even I could roll a ball across a blacktop. I took my place on the manhole cover at the center of the sackbottom and I turned to face my teammates, and in the spirit of taking a break from being me I took a risk. I said, “Okay, team, let’s call ourselves the Wonderlanders!” I had just finished reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that afternoon, and I suppose I was still taken with the place. I felt that I could be the White Rabbit, keeping everyone always on task.
I pitched to James and he got on third. I pitched to Jerrica and she got on third and James got home. Then I was supposed to pitch to Annie but Annie’s dad drove home from work and we all had to move out of the way. He stepped out of the car, which was long and shiny and black, and his tie was loosened from his collar, and everyone on the unnamed team started begging him to kick, because Mr. Flowers was the biggest of all the dads but Papa, and he could kick very, very hard. He set his briefcase by the car and jogged over to the homeplate driveway and I told myself, Just get this over with and it will be too dark to play and you can go home and read in Dad’s big leather chair.
I pitched it and he kicked it and the ball flew like an angry comet at my face. I shut my eyes and felt the punch of it on my nose and then the crack of my head on the blacktop.
I had a fantasy. I was lying on the floor of an enormous garage, and over me towered shelves full of large labeled boxes. It was dim in there, with faraway bulbs, as though this were a cave filled with choreographed fireflies. I looked to my left and a box on the bottommost shelf read HOW TO BUY CLOTHING THAT NOBODY NOTICES, and to my right I found WHAT PUBERTY IS AND WHEN IT WILL HAPPEN TO YOU AND WHAT WILL HAPPEN. I got up and started walking down the aisle. There was SOLVING ANY RUBIK’S CUBE and EVERY CITY’S DISTANCE FROM OMAHA and UNCOOL ERASER SHAPES and even HOW TO BE GOOD AT KICKBALL (KICKING). This, I could see, was a great start, but where would I find HOW TO BE GOOD AT KICKBALL (PITCHING)? Or (CATCHING) even? Why weren’t these boxes directly adjacent? The shelves stretched in straight lines to a single point far in the darkness. I turned around and same. I ran down the aisle until I found a break and then I cut across looking left and right and reading labels as fast as I could, and at one point I even found a ladder and climbed higher than I’d ever be brave enough to climb in waking life, but no matter where I turned I never saw a box labeled HOW TO FIND THE BOX YOU’RE LOOKING FOR.
When I snapped out of it I didn’t have a choice in the matter and my stupid body started to cry. Everyone crowded above me like tall trees. Mr. Flowers was kneeling and holding a handkerchief to my nose, which must have been bleeding because I could taste in the back of my throat that flavor, like butter and a bucket of nails, that I always tasted when I worked a finger too far up a nostril. I didn’t want to make a noise, because I wanted instantly to be unseeable, but I could hear myself wailing, and every time I choked or took a breath there was a tall tree saying “You’re all right” or “It’s okay,” as if they knew something I never would. I knew that summer was a different land I slowly fell into every June, where boys and girls who’d said things one way at school started saying them a different way, and where little babies could turn like that into snorting pigs. Our cul-de-sac wasn’t an unsafe place, but it was an unsure one. Tricksy. Mr. Flowers was there, with my blood on his handkerchief, and everybody’s face faced mine, and I could tell they only wanted as much as they could get before the sun went down and we all got called indoors.
“Owen,” Mr. Flowers said. “I’m so sorry. Are you all right?”
I was sniffling and then I made myself stop.
“I’m all thumbs,” I said, and like that everybody laughed.*
You can pre-order If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There here.
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