Christopher DeWan: The American Dream and the Future of Television.

Fellow student Kalista Puhnaty and I sat down with Christopher DeWan to talk life, writing, his career, and his new book of short stories, Hoopty Time Machines.

Christopher DeWan is author of HOOPTY TIME MACHINES: fairy tales for grown ups, a collection of domestic fabulism from Atticus Books. He has published more than fifty stories in journals including Bodega, Gravel, Hobart, Passages North, and wigleaf, and has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. In 2017, he was named as one of the ISA’s “Top 25” screenwriters and recipient of a fellowship from the Middlebury Script Lab. 

 

Chris started with the history of his relationship to literature, and how it grew into his life as a writer.

 

My mom was an English teacher and when she wanted to celebrate something, she would take us to a bookstore as a special treat. At the end of the school year, we would celebrate by binge-buying a bunch of books.

In terms of a “writing career” I think of that term as an oxymoron. Leaving school environments and going into adult environments and figuring out what role I wanted writing to play in my life changed a lot. I worked for ad agencies for a while, then I was a blogger. I had a decently well known blog. Writing came up in a lot of different ways so that even when I wasn’t writing, I thought of myself as a writer. I worked in theater for a long time, partly as a playwright but I ran a couple theaters for a couple of years. It wasn’t always writing, but it was always stories.

 

His debut collection of these stories, Hoopty Time Machines, opens with an epigraph: “In olden times, when wishing still helped…” It’s a pregnant introduction; the ellipses are ominous, suggesting that what’s to come is a world where the hopefulness of the old world still holds some magical play. But these tales aren’t sweetly magical or thinly veiled moral lessons. Goldilocks navigates the modern dating world while juggling jobs, a husband watches his wife have an affair with Poseidon after they meet on a kayaking trip, the last man on Earth blogs about solitude. What follows the epigraph is over forty stories, or “fairy tales for grown ups,” as the subtitle calls them.

 

The stories that repeat in our daily lives become personal mythologies. DeWan identifies these myths and presents them to us, sometimes as revitalized classics; those legends and fairy tales we’ve heard since children.

 

The stories in [Hoopty Time Machines], I wrote over the span of four or five years, and I wrote other stories that weren’t a part of that book. But for the book I wanted stories that were already familiar to us, whether it was a myth or a fairy tale, but something we all knew so we could look for other ways to see it, hold it up, and show something a little different.

In that book, a lot of stories go back to Greek mythology. The label “fairy tale” came later when I was talking to the editor of the book. I was like, Oh yea haha these are like fairy tales for grown ups, and he was like, I can market that! We’ll make millions!

A lot of what glued those stories together was that it had a lot to do with the hopes and aspirations we have. It was a lot of American dreamy fairy tales, the fact that we all buy into the idea that our futures will be a certain way, and then we go down certain paths looking for those things, and that might or might not come true, but it’s never what we expected it would be. And ultimately that was the fairy tale that was at the heart of a lot of those stories that glued them all together.

The reason the book starts with a story that explicitly calls out the American dream, and the last story does the same thing, is because I wanted to make sure people felt that vibe even after we talked about Greek mythology and Rapunzel and Goldilocks, that it was still couched in the aspirations we all have to live happily ever after, and how hard that is in real life, how irreconcilable that is with real life.

 

The first story in the book captures this irreconcilable disjunction between the fairy tale world we pursue and its evil twin, reality. The piece is titled “Conestoga Wagon,” and it goes like this: “When he lost his job at Best Buy, Dad packed all of our things into a Conestoga wagon and we crossed the border into Canada, in search of the American Dream.”

 

“Conestoga Wagon,” like its counterparts in the collection, sits at the junction between our modern reality (the loss of a retail job), and the fairytale world where our hopes and dreams originate (traveling by mystical Conestoga wagon). It ends critical of the American dream, our great, looming fairytale, and the fact that it can’t be found here, but in another country altogether.

 

DeWan presents a series of easily digestible ideas, but they left me satisfied as I turned the page. A previous story would often hit me while I was in the middle of reading the next. And this is no mistake or distraction. The stories build on each other, expanding on a world where “wishing still helped,” even when it seems to be no help at all. There are many hapless people struggling to deal with a world where logic and reason is replaced by wonder.

 

There was a point two thirds through writing the story that I became aware of what kept coming up. And then I realized, oh that’s what I’m writing about, and I could do it more consciously instead of accidentally. With the stories in the book in particular, some of them are so short. They were just accidents. I’m always writing and there would just be some weird idea that got stuck in my head and I decided to write about that for twenty minutes. So they didn’t start with a lot of intention, they just bubbled up out of an image that I couldn’t quite puzzle out. Later I figured out, oh, this image added up to this story, and this added up to this story, and this added up to this and so on. Once I realized that, I decided that’s what the book will be.

I think naturally, there’s the stuff you’re interested in and you can’t get away from, so if you put enough words on paper, those will be the words that keep repeating, the stuff you’re already obsessed with.

And it doesn’t mean we can’t write other things too, and it doesn’t mean we can’t do it with more intention. Like some of those stories came up by accident, but some of them I steered. But I do think that the more layers we peel off, and the more honest we can be with ourselves, the more we keep going back to those same themes, those things we really, really, really care about, whether we know it or not.

 

Hoopty Time Machines offers up stories with various depths. Many stories are perfectly short to meet the required idea within. “Sacramento,” for example:

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into some other one.”

Even though it’s a one liner, “Sacramento,” feels like a complete story. Others are one paragraph, or just a page.

 

In the stories in this book, sometimes I wanted it to just be enough to evoke a question. In some cases the question was more interesting than the answers to the question. With “Sacramento,” I wanted to think about all the other possible alternatives to this one story that we all know somewhat well, this cultural troupe. All of a sudden I wanted to imagine all of the things that didn’t happen.

The first story in the book, [“Conestoga Wagon”] the one I mentioned earlier, is just a sentence about this family who goes to Canada looking for the American dream. I could’ve written, and then they settle in Canada and become micro brewers and learn hockey, or whatever. But for me it was about invoking the possibility and putting a little crack in the myth of the American dream. That was all I wanted and then it was time to get out.

The longer stories were more character based. A character intrigued me more and had more going on so I couldn’t really dismiss them with a couple funny lines, I had to live with them a little longer and try to recon with their complexities a little more.

 

DeWan does well to trust the power in the economy of his words. The length of these stories perfectly match their reach. But even the shortest stories tell us as much about their close little worlds as ten pagers, like “Rapunzel’s Tangles.”  I was hard pressed to find a superfluous word or detail that detracted from the punch of a story.

 

Some of the stories in the book are so short, shorter than people are used to or might expect, and easy for people to dismiss. Like, how much substance can there be?

There’s this Argentine writer named Augusto Monterroso, and he wrote this story I read many years ago. I think the whole story went like this: “When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.” And that’s the whole story.

Again, all the questions of that are so much more interesting. Why was the dinosaur there? How did the dinosaur get there? What happened the night before? Right? It’s just this weird thing that cracks my brain for a second.

Ever since I read that story I wanted to write those little zen koan of stories that make people see things a little differently, at least for a minute.

There’s a story in this book where the first draft was like a thousand words long, and I started cutting some things that were getting in the way of the real essence of it. And I was cutting and cutting and cutting and I got it down to eighty three words. At a thousand words it can go either direction, it can either be a clever thing that can help you see things in a new way and then it’s done, or it can be about real people, and reveal things about people that are complex, that could never be done in just a thousand words.

It feels like you’re trying to crack a gemstone. You have this raw thing and you’re trying to chisel away the parts to make it perfect as much as you can. And that’s different than a bigger story. A bigger story has to be messier. The rewards in that story come from some of the mess. I think in an eighty three word story, if there’s mess in there then there’s an impurity in the gemstone.

 

Chris is well versed in these “bigger stories.” His website boasts a series of screenplays. He also teaches a weekly TV writing course at Idyllwild Arts Academy.

 

I moved back to LA in 2010. I’d been in New York for a bunch of years doing this blog and writing fiction, but by then all of my playwriting friends from when I was in theatre had moved back to LA and were doing TV. So I got back and they were like, Why aren’t you doing TV? And they were getting nicer and nicer houses so I was like, Why aren’t I doing TV?

I’ve been working in and around Hollywood since then. I didn’t really start on TV writing until 2012. I do think because of that whole prior decade where I was working in theater, TV feels more continuous to me.

The there was this giant migration of theatre people to TV. There are so many TV writers now who are just TV writers that if you just walk in the door and you’re like Hi, I write fiction, they’re like Have a seat, have a drink, make yourself comfortable. They’re fascinated just by the fact that you’re a little different. That absolutely happened to playwrights, they got taken way more seriously for having studied craft instead of just going to film school.

What was shiny and new and refreshing to all the bored Hollywood executives were these new writers who were suddenly new to television and trying to bring new things. Particularly at this time where TV itself is getting weird and breaking all its rules. The whole medium has turned itself out in the past decade, and in the past five years, and in the past two years, and in the past six months, with not even the stuff we think of as TV but with web series and shorter form things, there are so many different ways people are trying to tell stories right now.

I’m working on a virtual reality project, and no one knows how this works, no one has had one that actually works yet. There are a couple experiments that are kind of interesting but kinda don’t work. But no one knows the story that you can tell in virtual reality that doesn’t work as a gimmick but works as a story.

As the executives realized the medium was changing, they got really curious to get people who were interested in a variety of storytelling platforms.

TV stories are at the other polar extreme of those really short short stories that I was talking about. Those really short short stories can get by on being clever because once you have the idea it’s over. A TV story is never over, so clever isn’t enough. Clever is enough to get people laughing. The only thing that makes a TV story work is that I have to care about the people, and they have to be going on this journey that I can invest in. It doesn’t mean I have to like them, it doesn’t mean they have to be doing things I want to do, but if I can’t find a reason to care about them and all of their ongoing heartbreaks, disappointments and struggles.

Striving is a key ingredient in a TV show, the characters don’t have what they want, so they’re striving to get something, and by the end of the episode they won’t get it, or they’ll get it and it won’t satisfy the thing they wanted. And then they keep striving. If they were ever to quit striving, the show would be over. Whatever human engine drives them is really compelling, to look at people that deeply, and have this longform opportunity to understand how people work when they’re colliding with other people. Particularly when they’re colliding with the same people every week, and their relationships get deeper and stranger and more like our relationships.

The first show that made me realize this was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s the twentieth anniversary of Buffy today, but I still love it because it does all those things. It dressed itself up as this light, silly, clever show. This light gemstone of a show — this girl’s going to go kill vampires, how cute and clever — and then it totally tricked me into loving those characters, and crying over them, and wanting what they wanted. When I watched the ad, I thought that show was going to be fun. Instead, I wound up weeping week after week after week, and having fun. But if I hadn’t cared about them, I wouldn’t have watched it for seven consecutive years.

 

Chris just touched on this word “tricked.” I was wondering how that played a role in his story telling. How does this affect a screenwriter’s relationship with the audience?

 

You have a relationship with the audience where you’re promising certain things, and if you ever don’t deliver on that promise, they’ll stop watching. So you can’t trick them at that level. You can’t promise them a show about a cute cheerleader who will kill vampires and it will be fun and funny all the time, and then give them something different and expect them to keep watching. So you trick them at that level. I think you trick them at the level of a constant sleight of hand where the character is almost going to get what they want, or they do get that thing, and the trick is that only once they arrive did they learn that the thing they needed to learn wouldn’t help them. That the thing they thought they wanted wasn’t what was missing. And it keeps the story going.

The trick is all the tricks that keep a story going. How can you be more clever, or more interesting, or more revealing, or more honest?

Another show I really admire is Six Feet Under. It’s not really plot driven at all, it’s just this family and they’re stuck together, but the way that story keeps going is they just keep peeling off more and more layers of their relationship. Or we see more and more layers of those relationships. The only trick there is that they’re going to keep surprising us just when we think we know them. They’re going to do something that’s not what I expected and yet more right for them than anything I ever would’ve expected. When a show works, I feel it doing that to me: I never saw that coming, but that’s the only thing that could have happened.

Shameless does that a lot. It just goes deeper and deeper and deeper into those people, and we know all the ways they’re going to disappoint us, and yet they manage to disappoint us in ways that are even more disappointing than I ever expected. And then I get my hopes up for them all over again the next time.

 

The differences between prose and TV writing feel obvious to the audience, but as a writer of both, Chris spoke on these differences between the final products and the writing processes themselves.

 

There are a lot of ways where the differences are obvious, but there are other ways where they’re not as different as we think. Either way we’re telling a story. A lot of times I’ll start something, and at the beginning I won’t know if I want to write it as prose, or if I want to write it as a script. It will take a while to feel out the story to know what kind of story it is. The more internal the story is, the more likely it is to be prose. If what I care about is about what’s going on inside your head, then that’s hard to put into a script, but not impossible. But if it’s more about what happens between us, that might work better as a script.

We’re all so saturated in video stories, that we all think pretty cinematically anyway. A lot of fiction that you read might be easy to shoot. Not all fiction, there’s fiction that people create that can only be fiction. You can’t shoot the inside of that person’s head.

TV has forced fiction to get weirder too, more innovative. But there are plenty of people who are not writing fiction like that. Plenty of people are writing fiction that’s more like a movie. There’s obviously a ton of space for them in the marketplace.

For me, if it starts with an image I’ll often scratch at the image in prose until I understand what the image is. Sometimes the image grows into something that will cross paths with the character, and maybe the character then takes the baton and runs with the story from there. At that point, maybe it becomes a script instead. But if it stays with the image, and it doesn’t get the baton passed to the character, it stays in prose. If the thing starts with the character from the outset, if the image that I’m intrigued with is the character, I’ll almost always start that as a script.

There are certain people who only think of themselves as screenwriters so they don’t have to even decide, like people who only think of themselves as prose writers. But for people who do both, every one probably has a different process. I don’t know how other people decide to open up Final Draft, or keep it in Word, at what point they’re like, this isn’t gonna work as a story.

All this writing that we do is trial and error experiments. We try it and see if it works, and if it doesn’t work but we still like the story, we try it in another way. Prose vs. script is another set of choices we can make to decide if the story lives better like this or like that.

 

Chris went on to share the methods he uses to push his writing process forward.

 

I wish I had easy, efficient tricks. A lot of my teaching, I do through writing prompts. I’ll set someone up with a prompt and tell them to write for fifteen minutes. The trick in that case is then the writer doesn’t have to worry about deciding anything. The pressure of deciding what to write gets taken away from you, so you don’t have to do both jobs. You don’t have to be the writer and the teacher if someone else is saying do this. That’s a harder process to do for ourselves. If I give myself a writing prompt, if I get bored, then thirty seconds in I call bullshit on it. I’m like, I gave myself that prompt, I don’t have to do it, there’s no teacher here, so I won’t do it. That means the tricks I use when I’m trying to help other people write aren’t the tricks I use when I’m trying to write.

The tricks I use for myself are grossly inefficient. I just write everyday. I write lots and lots and lots of words. But the words will ramble uselessly if I don’t frame it as trying to solve problems. That helps. The theater background helped me figure that out. Improv games in theater are usually setting a couple actors on stage and asking them to solve this problem. And all of a sudden you have a scene because two people are working on something. If I’m not trying to solve a problem, then I’m usually just journaling and that’s not gonna help me find my story. If I actually flip the switch and say, What problem am I trying to solve, then all of a sudden the work gets a lot more focused.

But it doesn’t keep me from rambling in my journal too, because sometimes I need to filter out the noise. When I’m not trying to solve a problem and I’m just throwing words at the page, that’s just like taking my pulse. I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on in the back of my head.

I vacillate between those. Sometimes I just want to know what’s going on in the back of my head because that’s where I might find the next story. Sometimes I want to take that thing I found and try to hammer it into a story, and that’s when it gets into problem solving.

 

Kalista Puhnaty and Campbell Dixon 

Wednesday

Grace Meyer’s piece depicts the melancholic demise of a friendship.

 

Ten o’clock is too late at night to meet for a date,

but our young hands ache from pencils and

TV dinners told us we should be together.

 

We walk to the The Oriental Pearl,

where a quiet raisin of a woman

serves us a sleepy bowl of rice.

 

We sit silently as rain slides down the windows.

The waitress wants to go home to her soap operas.

I think about kissing another boy, maybe a girl.

 

You tell me you don’t think things are working out:

I’m distant, we both deserve better,

your dad is hounding you about baseball.

 

You slowly put on your wet coat, smile at me with pity.

I stare at droplets of spilled tea on the waxy wood.

They look like the shapes of continents undiscovered.

 

 

Grace Meyer is a junior at Brookline High School in Brookline, Massachusetts. She won a Fine Arts Award for Creative Writing from Interlochen Center for the Arts. When she is not writing she enjoys running, baking, and photographing her dog. 

 

Art by Holli Shelton.

“Hi. It’s Me, Death” with Dana Levin

Tibetan Buddhism, hawks, death, dreams and Wikipedia Inspire Dana Levin to write Sky Burial.

Ana Garcia: What is your usual process for getting an idea for a poem, and then how is it for you to write it down?

Dana Levin: Ideas come primarily in two ways. One is from outside my head, like reading an article or seeing something in life, the news, or visual images. The first poem in Sky Burial describes something that happened to me: I came home and there was this hawk on the hedge, right there, and I was really surprised. Then I thought “Oh, this means something. It’s an omen!” I went up and I took a look at the symbol book, so that actually happened. With that experience and looking up what “hawk” meant, and how it started merging my internal experience with my parents and my sister being dead, it’s an example of the poem being externally inspired but ultimately coming back to what is internally on my mind. Another way that poems come to me is through the unconscious, like dream images.

The poem “Mentor” comes from a dream I had: ghosts that need reminding. Those three prose poems in the middle of Sky Burial come from dreams which seem very lofty… and I just felt like they had to stay in prose. When you read prose, there’s an expectation of reading for information of some kind, which doesn’t exactly happen when you see a poem format, it’s a different experience. It felt like I had to keep those in a prose format to be intentional with the fact that they came from just the weirdness of dreams. It was one of the things that helped me to write those.

 

Hannah Malik: What other religions and cultures did you research in your process of writing?

DL: The two main cultures I focused on were the Aztec and Tibetan Buddhism- and it’s a weird combo, because the Buddhism is very detached; everything is from the mind, nothing is completely real. They’re death-focused, but in such a way to teach us about impermanence. Nothing lasts. They do a lot of shamanic work, such as meditation to the point of imagining you cutting off your head, scooping out your brains to study the poison inside, then turning it into a golden elixir. Another imagines you chopping up your body and feeding it to your demons, it’s totally violent, but it’s all at the level of your mind… the Aztecs are completely different. They’re like a complete blood-cult and seem to me the most literal people I’ve encountered. For instance, they take captives from war, kill them, skin them and dye the skin golden. The chieftains would wear them for several days- while they’re rotting- and afterwards take off the skins and be new people; spring has arrived. To me, that’s a really literal interpretation. Blood sacrifice was practiced every twenty days to bring in the new months. I also studied things that didn’t necessarily make it into the book, for instance I studied the weird kinds of bugs found in Egyptian tombs for a while, but that didn’t end up in a poem. I read about really weird burial practices, but the only one that really came forward was the “sky burial”.

 

AG: You continuously mention websites and popular culture icons, along with more spiritual ideas such as the “sky burial”. What was your purpose in combining these two kinds of elements?

DL: I wanted to mix those details for a lot of reasons. One: that was my experience. On one hand I’m doing all of this meditation on Tibetan Buddhism and reading all of this very philosophical writing about Tibetan Buddhism approaches to death, and all of a sudden I’m on Wikipedia looking for what happens when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. I was trying to show the fact that I was having a transcendental experience but I was also having a very ordinary experience. I used to be the kind of poet who would get angry if people mentioned things in their poems such as Dr. Pepper or chips, it broke the spell for me. Now I’m more aware of how huge our digital world is, how it is part of what we are now experiencing, and how I would like to document my engagement with it. Somebody was writing about my work, saying, “I love how she talks about Tibetan Buddhism but then mentions junk food” and I liked that. But when I was younger, it would have driven me insane, because I would have wanted to break the spell of the poem. I wanted to stay true to my experience, to witness my journey on this grief. What I found very interesting about investigating for example about body’s decay, what happens to the body after it dies, forensic anthropology, is how found it very calming.

 

HM: On top of being a recalibration for yourself, is there a message you would like to convey to your readers?

DL: Yes, it isn’t really in the book, but in a nutshell what the Tibetan Buddhism says is ‘we’re all going to die, so why not be nice to each other?’ and that really resonated with me. We’re always being mean to one another in bigger or smaller ways. I don’t think that comes through the book, but I feel they should make the confrontation with death. Don’t shy away from it- it’s profound! It’s hugely transformative, and we’re a total death-denying country. We’re constantly trying to keep it at bay, from plastic surgery to freaking-out about the food we put in our bodies. We put all our death on TV, too, and I think that’s to help us pretend it’s not happening in the world.

AG: You have mentioned that you are not a fiction writer. Apart from the format, for you what’s the essential difference between poetry and fiction?

Dana: I guess that most fiction writers think in terms of character and plot, that’s how they get inspired. For me, poets are often inspired by not situations but are interested in emotional perception: the way the light might look on the wall, seeing a hawk and wondering about it. So I think the way they want to engage the reader is very different in terms of what might inspire them. I also think that you could think of poets as people who want to drop down deep, and prose writers wanting sort of fill up and expand. It’s not exactly vertical versus horizontal, but in a way it kind of is. It’s just a different way of holding inspiration and figuring out how you want to work it out.

 

HM: Is there a specific way in which you sequence your poems?

DL: Yes, I pay very very very close attention to the way I sequenced the book. Originally, I had wanted it to be circular, but I don’t know how to do that effectively. My mentor originally sequenced the book very strangely: we had agreed from the start the book would start with Auger and end with Spring, but she had sequenced very dark poems with short, unrelated ones. Her reasoning for this was to keep waking the reader up and keep them interested, and that was truly innovative for me. I didn’t quite like how the second half of the book was put together, so I sequenced that part myself, but the book as a whole is still cyclical in nature.

 

AG: You mentioned during another interview that writing this book was not part of a mourning process, it was a “recalibration.” How do you interpret that?

DL: When that many people who are close to you die in such a short period of time, I thought I was really supposed to get death. This isn’t about my personal loss and feelings, this is about “Hi, it’s me, Death. Again. Taking someone you love from you right now,” and I just thought I had to make the confrontation with death, to really see into our nature. And also just grief was an amazing experience, because I became convinced that we are born with a set of emotions: I think we are born with the grief as an emotion but it doesn’t get activated until someone close to you dies. Once of the reasons grief can be so disorienting is because most of us don’t experience the dead of a close loved one until we are older, and at that point we know what it is to be sad, and we know how it is to be happy, and the physiological experiences that go with those feelings. However grief comes with its own set of physiological experiences like exhaustion, insomnia, it’s a whole other thing, a physical feeling. Especially if you are an adult because you felt like you understood the emotional palette, and then this one gets activated and you just can’t believe it, it’s very overwhelming. I was interested in trying to look at those experiences with a more analytical eye and I think that is what I did not drown in the feelings that I was also having. Recalibration means that I have to integrate death into my life, and it has actually made me a person I like, I like what death has done to me. I’m more tempered in the ways I deal with the world, I’m a little more fatalistic, and I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I’m less anxious about living. I feel like before these experiences I was a hot sword that you’re making and you put it into cold water to temper it, and now I feel like I was a very hot sword and then death came and it was very shocking but now I’m stronger, sharper.

 

A Triumph for Joe

Isaac Dwyer finds extreme pleasure in reciting the passages of Brendan Constantine’s latest book, Calamity Joe

Brendan Constantine. Calamity Joe. Pasadena, CA. 2012. 109 pages. $17.95 ISBN 13978-1-59709-176-3

Calamity Joe, the kaleidoscopic soup that is the most recent collection of LA-based Brendan Constantine’s work, is, to put it frankly, a work of beauty. It is a walk that traverses the so-called “Legend of Joe”, a funky disgruntled man who works in a failed lab-rat research facility and holds Socratic dialogues with himself and a variety of macabre characters, such as a nine-fingered girl. This book is creepy, kinesthetic, outlandish, surreal, and downright funny – in an ironic, self-referential way – beginning with the very title of the first section:

Once

“What is done out of love lies beyond good and evil.”

-Friedrich Nietzsche

“Friedrich Nietzsche was stupid and abnormal.”

-Leo Tolstoy

This is a book of psychological warfare and chained beauty, calamities in hilarity, matched with down-to-earth honesty that emerges from the most inconspicuous landscapes. From conversations with God to celebratory search parties, Joe, the collection’s main character, is confused and befuddled by his personal crises. In the second section, the first thing that he cares to tell his audience is about how when he joined a search party, he “dressed all wrong” and that “there was no cake”. A peculiar man, indeed! I cried out, left in a spot between tears and laughter, the bridge over normalcy laced with bouts of sadness.

Calamity Joe is the kind of book that you could read for eternity and still be caught off guard by. Even as your mind settles into familiarity with the   quip-y and poignant language, it is still a master fencer, dancing with its rapier like a maddened Cossack. One of my favorite pages I held in my lap for at least an hour while driving through the Mojave Desert, watching the Kern County mini-metropolises bounce around in stagnation over the dusted plains, entitled “Nobody’s daddy but my own”. The poem is a collection of Craigslist listings, with the usual sense of bizarre-ness and pizazz that the book trademarks from its first pages:

“Want to watch TV? Me – 96 5’10”/interested in soup, lawn chairs, love./ You – ageless, faceless, unnamed”

Alternative and awkward, entertaining and deep-sinking. I caught the eyes of a road urchin while reading the poem in the back of a car – a sunburned man with wispy electrified hair and sapphire blue eyes smoking a cigarette while sitting on an ATV (the epitome of sketchy skeez-ball) – and I thought that perhaps he would be the perfect mate for Joe’s Craigslist finds. For Joe and my roadside attraction, however, the spicy babushka is too far away, and so they are doomed to loneliness and petrification.

Calamity Joe is quirky, clever, and just past the level of standard comprehension. Reading it is a worthy tour through the mind of a breathtakingly beautiful poet, and it sticks and jams itself into an unknown, and yet not entirely unfamiliar, niche of even the most cultured of poetic brains. Constantine is a wily son-of-a-gun – and if you can, you should buy his book.

Culinary Arts & the Cost of Creativity

Rebecca Qian, of the International School of Beijing, writes about her emotions behind a biological necessity – food.

Visual art by Chloe Kim.

There was a time, that when I could no longer draw pleasure from the repetition of daily life, I turned to food for a sense of satisfaction. For most, food was a necessity. I begged to differ. It had long since intrigued me as to why culinary arts courses were not included in schools and universities, when visual arts and music were. Perhaps what separated the culinary arts is the fundamentality of food. Food is the most basic prerequisite for survival, unlike music or art, both of which provoke thought yet do little for starving children. Ironically, the importance of food to our survival appears to have lowered our opinion of culinary culture. The word “food” too often brings proletarian connotations, conjuring up images of ravenous youth mindlessly devouring plates of their daily bread, whereas “music” or “art” seem to be reserved for the elite; those who have the luxury to explore spirituality, away from the monotony of everyday life.

There was a time when every meal brought a surprise, and I would walk away from the dinner table relishing aftertastes of pleasure. Amidst the humdrum of day to day family life, I changed things up by introducing new items of food to our dining repertoire. I could not understand why people would make claims such as “I don’t like tomatoes” or “I don’t eat cheese”. What do you mean by “I don’t like tomatoes”? Tomatoes and mozzarella topped with Pesto sauce in an Italian Caprese, or Chinese Ji Dan Chao Xi Hong Shi (Fried tomato and eggs)? May I also point out that there are infinite varieties of cheese. Do you not like blue cheese, cheddar cheese, cream cheese or goat cheese? Every type of raw produce meant infinite possibilities for creative expression. Every dish became a product of creativity, a testament to human will power to utilize, explore and create. To generalize these products of creativity was a crime, for sure. For me, a gourmet dish was a work of art, a masterpiece half complete. The other half, of course, was eating it.

I saw dishes as latent emotions, waiting to be released at the tongue. As spicy fish danced provocatively on my taste buds, and dark chocolate lulled my numbing tongue, I could not help but become affected by the empathetic nature of dining. Each tasting became a sensual experience of another world, an opening trapdoor to escape into that other realm of the imagination, defined by tastes and colors. Colors, splashes of colors. There’s nothing quite like the euphoria I gained from seeing a dish for the first time, and being shocked into awareness by its brilliantly imperfect array of bold colors.

Now I see it differently. I cannot enjoy Coq Au Vin without the deafening realization that my pleasure must be derived from the death of another being. The deep, colorful hues and rich aromas of the dish no longer entice me with their aesthetic appeal; rather, I find myself insensitive to its artistry.  I am preoccupied with images of chicken, struggling to escape the grasp of a man’s hand that brandishes the fatal butcher’s knife as if it is an insignificant toy. Or worse-they could be silently awaiting their preordained executions, acknowledging that their sole purpose in life was to become part of culinary “art”. The knife strikes timely-as it should, for the chicken’s life is subservient to the needs of humans. Then the next chicken is brought up for slaughter. The ensuing bloodbath may simply be erased by a blood-stained mop. Yet not even the knowledge that nutrition is the basis of my survival can erase the daunting images of blood and death. It only cements the irony that one’s life must be derived from the death of another’s.

Perhaps I opt for vegetarianism, and abstain from consuming mammals altogether. Vegetables don’t protest, they don’t flutter their wings like chickens, so I should eat them instead-I can hear the argument formulating already.

There are mushrooms on my plate, supposedly to “enhance the flavor of the chicken”. Suddenly I am flooded with visions of mushrooms, scores upon scores of them, rooted robustly into the firm earth. Their watchful existence brings a sense of peace, providing me with some of nature’s rare moments of tranquility. Then the peace is disturbed-as it always is-by humans plucking up the mushrooms, children tugging away at their roots. What they leave behind is a scarred field, with the pits serving as remnants of abducted lives. Some see vegetarianism as a compromise; I see murder as murder.

What frightens me is the notion that the necessity of food is irrelevant, the possibility that even if we as humans did not need to eat, we would still continue to do so. This is a thought that pesters me day and night, for I am forced to recognize the plausibility of said argument. The mere concept of high-end restaurants, luxury food marketing and the existence of so-called food critics demonstrate that food is no longer restricted to serving our most basic needs, but has also become a source of satisfaction and often a symbol of prestige. This is an observation that I once welcomed with joy, since it meant the elevation of the status of food from a commodity to a luxury good, comparable to that of art or music. I had championed cuisine as a stimulus of emotions and creativity, ardently defending my beliefs in the name of art and pleasure.

The origin of my transformation is an episode of the reality TV series Masterchef USA, in which a Hindu woman is forced to kill a crab in order to advance in the cooking competition. The contestant-who had never killed an animal in her life-was presented with a dilemma; she would either kill the crab, neglecting her religious beliefs, or save the crab, which would bring her emotional satisfaction but result in her elimination. It was with tears that she finally flung the wriggling crab into the boiling pot of water. Upon tasting the completed dish, Judge Gordon Ramsey praised the dish for its unique flavor and seasoning, and then proceeded to comment “I am sure this crab would have been happy to give its life for this dish.” The reasoning behind his justification of killing the crab is fallible, to say the least. The crab would have been happy to give its life for what, a transient taste of pleasure on our tongues? Does the honor of the crab’s death rest on the flavors of its corpse, now? The assumption that any living being would be willing to sacrifice its own life in exchange for another’s creativity is bizarre logic that I cannot comprehend, and it is this bizarre logic that led me to question the morality of cuisine.

I now see chefs as dead animal processors, pondering over how to best present a piece of corpse. My appreciation of culinary dishes is tainted by blood, and my once purely aesthetic satisfaction is marred by the awareness that I am chewing carcasses of the deceased. It does not matter that I do not physically partake in killings; by eating their products I have become complicit in the murderer’s crime. Every meal is now a vicarious experience of another murder. As if the world did not have enough murders already! I can sense the gradual deterioration of my sensitivity to death, numbed by the repeated acknowledgements of plant and animal slaughter.

I feel compelled to view the murdering of animals through the grander perspective of life and death. Nature dictates that certain living organisms feed off other living organisms in order to survive. On the life-death continuum, the killing of a couple of chickens and crabs appear as insignificant events bound to occur sooner or later. Yet it is when the production of food surpasses our most elemental requirements for survival, when I try to view dishes through a less animalistic perspective, that I am bombarded by these recurring portrayals of gore and violence.

The only conclusion I can draw from my experiences is that creativity comes with sacrifice. These animals-aren’t they victims of our ingenuity? This phenomenon of sacrificial innovation occurs imperceptibly everywhere in our daily lives. Chemical products may only be deemed “safe to use” for humans if they have undergone rigorous testing on lab rats. Even humans are sacrificed; the advancement of technology is often based upon the previous products’ adverse effects on humans. More tragically, the potency of military technology must be determined from weapon tests in war. The irony of us imposing deaths on others is that we ourselves are also victims of the omnipotent death. Perhaps we derive gratification from imposing death on others, but one day, it will be imposed upon us, as if mocking our attempts at recreating it. And aren’t our lives solely dedicated to serving the grand scheme of human society, just as the chicken’s life is dedicated to serving us? The question of whether it matters to the chicken if its corpse was cooked beautifully or thrown away is as pertinent as whether we are affected by societal developments after our deaths. My meals no longer stand as a testament to creativity, but as a testament to the cruelty of this world, a testament to death. And that is why, when I see the familiar hamburger I had once grown to love, I have no choice but to shudder in fear.

Pensioner Eaten By Rescued Strays

In this dark satire by Isaac Dwyer, Old Lucy Hatchett suffers a chain of events leading to her consumption by her pet pit bull puppies.

Visual art by Ben Mcnutt.

Ms. Lucy Hatchett had always wanted a dog, and throughout the years living with her father, he had always told her that if she got one

“I sure as hell am not going to pay for it. They’re too much money, they make you waste away your life at the god-forbidden vet’s office, and they take too much time to keep in shape. That’s not to mention that if any goddamn kid walks by and has a disagreement with the bitch, and he gets bit, then you’ll have to deal with some bullshit government lawsuit. Those pansy government lawyers always have their hands in my pockets.”

The old Mr. Hatchett had long been a radical conservative, with a history of tax-evasion and numerous DUI’s. The federal court filed numerous cases against him around the time that he died, and once they were settled, the fees were large enough to take away any inheritance that Lucy and her brother would have received had they had not been incurred.

So, because of her Father’s enjoining, Lucy denied herself one of the biggest wants of her life. That is, until she realized that she didn’t have to anymore, on her sixty-second birthday, on October 10th, 1982.

It was an absolutely dreadful afternoon. The streets were swallowed by a blustering wind, and having recently broken her cane, Lucy found it near impossible to traverse the city without clinging to the buildings. Her pension check for the month had just arrived in the post, and along with it the bill for her brother’s cremation, who before his death had been her last remaining relative.  Her brother had really been the only person in her entire life who she could honestly call a friend. They had been through their entire life together, right up until Charles joined the army. Because of his extraordinary military talent, the service had promised his sister and him a completely paid for college education. He was happy about this, as it meant they could both rise from the depressed economic status they had so long inhabited.

After the war, however, Charles had proceeded to get extraordinarily rich through the entertainment industry, as he became a show runner of a highly successful television show. He had managed this after saving the life of one of the Privates under his command by performing an in-battle emergency surgery, entailing the incredibly gory removal of a fifty caliber bullet from his buttocks. The Private, left eternally grateful, had then asked what could be done to repay Charles, and said that his father was a television network executive and he could get him an interview. The interview went spectacularly, certainly the circumstances helping, so Charles was assigned to a new, sure-to-be-hit show. He then married and had children with a French woman named Élise, who happened to be playing the title role on Charles’s show, and she absolutely despised Lucy. Maybe it was Lucy’s awkwardly positioned nose, her fascination with kitsch and deco art, her habit of forgetting everything, which she had developed even before she suffered from dementia – but whatever the reason, Élise mandated that as long as she was married to Charles, she would not take the aesthetic insult of having to lay eyes on her. They didn’t, and immediately after Charles’s fatal episode of pulmonary edema, Élise found it classy enough to simply forward the hospital and cremation bills to Lucy, while she enjoyed the life insurance.

Lucy had just finished paying off the bill for the emergency room, and you can imagine how thrilled she was once she discovered that she had been sent the one for the cremation as well from her darling and most esteemed sister in law, Élise Beaulieu. Lucy was feeling lonely, desperate, and distraught over this chain of events, but as soon as she walked around a corner coming home from the post office and saw the Good Times Pet Rescue Center, a light went up on her face.

Inside the Center was a cage of howling, yapping, pit bulls. They rustled around in juvenile tomfoolery, and one particularly rowdy pup found it amusing to pounce on the smaller ones and harass them with youthful skullduggery. Ms. Lucy Hatchett was absolutely enthralled by them, and spent a solid minute observing the nuances of their coats – one was shockingly white, another night black with a white eye spot, and yet another was completely chocolate brown. She noticed some foamy spittle emerging from his mouth, but figured it must be merely drool, and not anything contagious. She entered the center and immediately approached the adoption counter, leaned over and said to the clerk,

“How much for the puppies?”

“How many do you want?” He replied.

“All of them.”

“Well…sixty dollars each.”

“Still, all of them.”

The clerk, obviously of significantly inferior intelligence to the average person, gave Lucy an expression of complete and utter disbelief. He managed by shifting his face in such a lucid way it was almost as if you could see the gears clicking together, to issue a quieted and slurred:

“Wow, Lady.”

Lucy had no patience for the clerks mundane babbling, she was buying dogs, for Christ’s sake; so, making the calculation of six-hundred-and-sixty dollars herself, judging it too intricate a task for the clerk, she wrote a check and pushed it across the counter. She knew at this point that the only way she could afford this as well as all of the other expenses that would occur upon her in the next month, along with the cremation bill, would be to get a Pay-day loan – one that would charge her exorbitant interests so that she would probably never be able to pay off, except perhaps, post-mortem. But, of this she was nescient, and so she didn’t care – she figured that she could just pay it off next month, not realizing that when next month came around she’d have to be paying off an entire new set of expenses. Pushing the simpleton to carry on again, she said calmly,

“Here, now just give me all the paperwork to sign so I can get back to my flat as soon as possible.”

After many minutes of fluttering signatures and glancing over legal papers and the clerk mindlessly shuffling around and continuously handing Lucy the wrong documents for signage, she eventually made it out of Good Times. Lucy, and the crate of all of her newly purchased dogs, were going to be driven back to her address at 561 C, Grange street, by the shelter shuttle, but as complications arose involving the driver, that was no longer an option. The complications being that the driver had pretended that he had chronic bronchitis as an excuse to explain why he was “unable” to transport Lucy, while in reality, he had just taken a lovely F.O.B. Italian woman back to her hotel with her new poodle (Good Times Good!), and had then arranged a date at the local Thai restaurant for Saturday night – he figured that there’s a minimal amount of garlic in Thai. The reason he had claimed illness to avoid transporting Lucy was that for him, a hip and groovy young man, to be transporting some nasty crone was on-the-job social suicide. So, he left her to her own devices as to transportation to her residence.

In a slight flummox, Lucy sucked up her frustration with the young buffoon, and trotted out of the door with her dogs. As she exited the premises, a rank odor began to emanate from the crate. She had not noticed it before, but the inside of the crate that she held the puppies in was covered in their excrement and other sorts of bodily fluids. It had obviously never had been washed once, and so not only was it covered with the newly produced soil of her dogs, but also the excreta of all the dogs before them. Lucy wondered if the people at Good Times had done anything correctly anywise – whether they’d given the dogs their shots, had them fixed, etcetera – and came to the conclusion that they probably had not, given the presented intelligence of storefront employee.

While on her way back to her apartment, traveling down the streets of her city, Lucy, with the box of yipping puppies, came across a large patch of black ice on the sidewalk. Her visibility was impaired by the size of the crate, not to mention the already-acquired hindrance of the blustery wind. As she came across this patch of black ice, she had absolutely no idea that it was there, instead, it merely happened upon her; so down she went, landing on her already sore back and her rump, letting loose of the crate and having it slide down the sidewalk a few feet. All of the people that walked by her merely stepped around her and her dogs, ignoring the dilemma that they faced. One of the pedestrians actually kicked the crate into the building Lucy had fallen next to to remove it farther from their beeline. Lucy did manage to get back on her feet, but needed to spend the rest of the journey back carefully traversing the various sections of imminent and immediate danger that plagued the path. Once she did, after much arduous questing, arrive home, she set the dogs loose in the house, allowing them to fulfill their every will to roughhouse. After doing so, she collapsed with exhaustion onto her couch, as she had not eaten all day.

So, to solve this problem, Lucy then went out for a quick trip to the Pay-day loan center to get an advance for next month, then the bank to deposit her pension check and the Pay-day check, and then to the corner store to get some food for her and the dogs. She had absolutely no idea of the quantity of food that was necessary for eleven dogs, so she simply purchased an entire case, and while in the process of buying the dog food, forgetting to buy food for herself and even the fact that she was hungry. The cashier asked Lucy if she would like a ticket for the next national lottery, and Lucy did. She then bought one with the same numbers she’d been using as long as she could remember, 101082, and then left the store to go home. After returning to her apartment, carefully placing the case of dog food by the door and the ticket inside a drawer of a nearby dresser, she found that every single chair in the apartment had been knocked over, that all the kitsch on her coffee table had been smashed to bits, and that dog hair now inhabited every surface of her house, and let out a blood curdling scream that could’ve given any person an aneurism. However, she quickly recovered from her initial shock, and resolved that she would speak to her newly acquired pets, in a simple, parental manner.

“Come here, puppies!” she called, in a faux-gleeful manner, to which, surprisingly, all eleven of the mid-size pups came barreling into the room.

“Now look here,” she said in the relative tone of a pretentious vice-principal, “I know that none of you have probably had a parent before, so you’re unaware how this is supposed to work. You should know that I’ve also never been a parent myself before this, so you might need to cut me a break, now and then. So, here are the rules of the house:” (She now began a series of confused facial maneuvers, perfectly fitting to her following impromptu postulations. Absent minded cheek biting, lip curling, single brow wrinkling and so on, with vocal inflection to match the movements.) “No sitting on my chair. The red leather one. It was a gift from my brother, and your hairs, I’d imagine, are dreadful to clean. Also, no TV after seven. I’ve got to take my Lisinopril at night, and it makes me very sleepy, so the noise from the TV just gives me a headache. I’ve got a bad heart, you see. That’s why I take my Lisinopril.”

The dogs, at this point, were observing her intently, watching her soliloquize as if they held what she said as a matter of the utmost importance.

“Third,” she continued, “Is that you may not go out at night. Also, no sleepovers, is that clear with all of you? I expect a nod from everyone.” The dogs moaned.

“Good enough. Alright then, off to bed. It’s late.”

It was, in fact, only seven, but, as the day of rushing about the city and picking up the dogs from the shelter had worn her out, she went to bed, forgetting to feed both the dogs and herself. She, aside from the little disaster in the setting room, was rather satisfied with today’s events – maybe these delightful little dogs would help her make it through the rest of life, week by week. At least, she hoped so. They nipped at her heels as she walked into her bedroom, but as soon as she took out her hearing aid, the building seemed, to her, as calm and tranquil as a pastoral lake.

*          *          *

The following morning, Ms. Lucy Hatchett awoke not to a blood curdling noise, but to an earth shaking rumble, startling her to consciousness. She quickly donned her hearing aid, rocketed out the bedroom door, and found that two of the dogs had been fighting, the chocolate brown one and a white one. The brown one had prevailed, broken its opponents neck, and had proceeded to eviscerate it. The remnants of the cadaver were being ravenously swallowed by the rest of them Lucy panicked, and for a moment was stunned, trying to figure out what way was best to navigate between the dog kidneys and intestines, lifting her bare foot up, almost putting it down but just in time realizing that what she thought was linoleum was actually stomach lining. The pups, in particular the brown one, mistook her surprise for anger and shriveled into the corners, leaving the mess of organs alone as she stood there – almost as if they expected her to beat them.

Eventually, Lucy sucked it up and ran through a patch of floor, still soaked with blood, but had just had the piece it had been covered by stomached by a dog, and booked out her front door in her pajamas. She went to her corner grocery store to buy another case of dog food, forgetting about the case that remained untouched in her apartment. She was also convinced by the cashier to buy another national lottery ticket, number 101082. And again, she went off to her home.

Upon arrival to her apartment, she set the case down next to the door next to the other case, crammed the ticket inside the drawer, and yelled for the dogs to come. She then began her second monologue as a pet owner:

“Now listen. This. Is. Unacceptable! I know that you were hungry, but family is family! I never really had a good one either…my father always would tell me that I was useless, and that his want for me was about as equal as that of his want of a dog…but he was a terrible man. I’ve always wanted dogs, you know, my entire life, I figured they’d be such good companions. I hope I was right…but, I guess, dogs are like people. People are never very kind to each other either, you know. Most of the time. Especially the ones I’ve known. I’ve always read about the greats of our world, the Nelson Mandela’s and Dr. King’s, but I’ve never met any. Anyways, you should learn to get along with each other. Just remember to eat, so that you won’t get grumpy!”

By this time, poor old Ms. Lucy Hatchett had again forgotten that she had purchased food, and again forgot that she needed to feed her beloved dogs, and carried out the rest of the day on her usual routine. A quick stop down to the Congregationalist church to do some volunteer work involving organizing old sermon papers, which she had absolutely no clue as to why she was doing, then, a trip to the grocery store to pick up the night’s dinner (chicken, rice, and green beans), and then went back to her house, already completely exhausted, to curl up in her red leather chair to read Brontë’s Agnes Gray, for the umpteenth time.

Recently, Lucy had been becoming more and more upset. The dogs, although she still loved them, had not successfully filled the hole in her life that she had hoped they would. She had always lacked a family, since the departure of her brother – never having gotten along well with her parents and having been single her entire life. Except for the dogs, she’d never truly loved anything or anyone – and even them, she had still yet to name, as she continually forgot that she was “supposed” to.

She didn’t really have many friends, either – there were the old crones at the church worthy only for gossip-mongering, their husbands alive and well, and making sure that Lucy knew it. There was the young postman who always gave her a smile, while stealing her Netflix deliveries, the sweet young lady cashier down at the grocery store who sold her 101082 multiple times a week for the same lottery. There was also a pharmacist who had taken her out to coffee once, fifteen years ago, the month after her father died. He’d wanted to ask her out ever since they’d gone to middle school together, and simply had never bothered before because of the frightening nature of Lucy’s father; but even he was shrouded in bad intentions, as recently, he’d been trying to figure out a way to sneak Rohypnol, or another genus of date-rape drug, into Lucy’s monthly batch of Lisinopril. All of the people who claimed to be her “friends” really just wanted to exploit her, in one way or another – although, Lucy remained painfully unaware of all of it.

There was no one in the entire city who gave a single damn whether or not Lucy was alive. This was because no one ever paid attention – she was allowed by the community to rot, to become a living shell of a person, someone only worth extorting, to the point that no matter how hard she tried, she could never become healthy again on her own. And there she was, with her dogs, signed over to her without them being tested for or given shots for any standard diseases. They might as well have had rabies, they had been so mistreated by their previous owners and the employees at Good Times.

It was because of this, paired with her impending age that Lucy had been sleeping longer than was healthy – upwards of thirteen hours, on some days. So, by the time seven o’clock rolled around, she was 150 pages into Agnes Gray and already half asleep. Then, again forgetting to feed both the dogs and herself, she wished them a good night, sweet dreams, swallowed the gaping hole in her soul, and went to bed.

*          *          *

The next morning, yet another dog had been killed and eaten by the Chocolate brown pitbull.  And the next day. And the next. And the next. Ms. Lucy Hatchett resolved to buy a new crate of dog food so that they wouldn’t attack each other, again, and again, and again; Lucy also forgot to feed herself and the dogs, again, and again, and again. A permanent blood stain resided around the kill spot, which Lucy dutifully cleaned. That is, until ten days after her birthday, ten days of not eating, and  ten days of finding dog carcasses in her hallway every morning.

On October 20th, 1982, Lucy awoke at ten a.m. She entered the living room to make herself her pot of morning tea, and began to read Agnes Gray, yet again. While she did so, the Chocolate-brown pitbull came out of the living room and into the kitchen, quietly and with guile, to watch his Mother. Her pot of tea was done now, and she dutifully fixed it up with a cube of sugar and a splash of milk. Then, she went over to her cabinet to grab a cup of water and her heart medication from her shoulder bag on the counter. At the counter, when she pulled out the bottle of Lisinopril and tried to open it, she found that she was too weak. She tried and tried again, with all the strength that she had left, and with her last ounce of energy, made the bottle relinquish its cap. The strength it took to do so, however, was the last bit in her body – she collapsed to the floor in exhaustion, letting loose of the bottle as she fell. The bottle of Lisinopril, now open, had scattered its contents all around the kitchen floor.

The last remaining dog of the eleven that Ms. Lucy Hatchett had adopted, the chocolate brown , now made its way into the kitchen. It then, slowly and without any tarrying, continued into the kitchen, foaming at the mouth. Seeing the dog in its condition scared her to bits and pieces – that combined with her ultimate exhaustion is what led to her simply passing out. The dog proceeded to raze Lucy’s half-corpse in a frenzy worthy of a Norse Berserker, annihilating every single shred of her, leaving behind nothing but gnawed on bones. He then spied the small, pinkish pills spread around the floor, and gulped up every last one of them. But a half hour later, he began to stumble around sleepily, leaving behind him a trail of diarrhea and expectorant. He wandered around crashing into furniture, and eventually, out of exhaustion, also became inert at his mother’s side. They, Lucy and her beloved dog, were not found until a week after their deaths. By then, a pestilent smell had taken over the entire neighborhood, and left an imprint as to where the world had failed them both.

Miss Missouri

In this piece by Becky Hirsch, a woman returns to her hometown after her child goes missing. Inspired by Lorrie Moore’s How.

Visual art by Sarah Abrams.

Inspired by Lorrie Moore’s “How”

Begin by answering the phone, reaching into the mailbox, visiting your mother. Maybe you hear it over the radio. Watch a late-night special. Read the back of the non-fat milk carton. Outside your building, your mother will apologize repeatedly. She will cry. She will have had her long grey hair cut short. A gesture.

Four years, one month and three weeks. You left your daughter, husband, and high school sweatshirt in a dusty village – village, really – in east Missouri. Your mother tells you that you will have to go back. She’s full of bright ideas these days. Feel abandoned, frozen, terrified, frantic, and the hottest little brushes of rage. When desperate or alone, walk to the grocery store. Stare at the backs of milk cartons. Blink at her name, age, height and wide eyes or, alternatively, hurl the stupid Missing Person ad to the ground. The night manager drops your arm when he figures out you’re the kidnapped girl’s mother, or he fizzles out of the room when the police officer fills him in. Either way, they tell you that you get to go free and you spit on the parking lot floor. Four years, one month, and three goddamn weeks, but you’ll never be free.

Make attempts at finding your ex-husband. Remember: you left him not the other way around. The operator will ask you for the city and state, please. Tell him bitingly, bitterly. Add: it’s a hellhole, a fucking waste, I mean home and all, but a pit. Devotion, deep-rooted and hot, laps at your insides. Explain the lack of options, lack of exhilaration. Plan not to hang up until the call goes through, but have a text message of the number sent to your phone just in case.

And yet from time to time you will stare into the bathtub or a random tube of lipstick and bask in the life you have cultivated. You will feel nips of contentment, exultation, joy. Four years, one month, three weeks, and this is your family now. Let’s say your father is a troll. Your ex-husband is a magical turnip. Your high school classmates are spirits of the netherworld. They all still live in that primordial tar pit together.

Her name means rival. Once she leaned over you while you were flat on the floor between sit ups and kissed your forehead like she understood the gesture. She is velvet Teddy bear bow ties and creamed corn and knit hats and fly-away balloons. Once upon a time a tiny fist pounds into the carpet and you dance over to her spot on the floor, into her bright little soap bubble, “Up Mama I wan go up.”

Lie. Tell your ex-husband you work in a museum, one filled with taxidermy animals. He wants to know about health risks. He wants to be sure that you’re, you know, all right. He breathes heavily into the receiver. Lie, repeatedly. Say you never have to work night shifts, that your darling grandmamma of a boss never makes you. Darkness. Glass cases. Chrome door panels. They all still scare you. He wants to see you. He wants you, ravenously. Do you still only fly United?

Don’t put on music. Don’t wear lingerie. Take off your clothes, shyly. It’s a craft. You will lie on the bathroom floor naked, watching, your fingers beseeching bare skin of his insecurity. Hair: fool away from his face. Buttons: charm out of their hidey-holes. Chuck his shirt in the corner behind the toilet. Roll him over on your old bathroom floor barely three hours after your night flight lands, just past dawn in Hell.

Go to the front porch. His neighbors. Everyone will look at you and then go back to what they were doing. His best friend’s wife will be jostling a toddler over her shoulder as she walks past. She will introduce herself as Tammy. Try not to laugh. She will want to know if Harold is home. She will ask you, “Are you house-sitting for him?” Faintly, distantly, she’ll remember the junior prom when you stuck celery sticks and Ranch dip down her dress, and look quickly away. You’ll smile. The toddler will spittle over the back of her pink and yellow blouse: gurgly, gaping mouth and hazy eyes push up into her neck. Feel sated, to the point of excess. “Is Harry home?” she’ll ask you again. Smile. Shrug. Swat the door shut behind you.

It intoxicates you. Self-satisfaction. A slurp of tequila. When you pass women your age on the street, giggle and stare them straight in the belly button, straight in their bulbous, lactating breasts.

One day – in a movie theater or a hardware store – see your father. He is either balding or sun burnt. He still has his special belt buckle from the car show at the fair and this will seem almost spiritual . Have sex with him once and lay spread thin on the floor of your childhood bedroom, since converted into his trophy room. Or: don’t have sex with him. Hide behind the shelves of all the different sized hammers and then run for your life.

In the kitchen that weekend feel loud and relentless. Sit on the counter and tell him he’s ugly. That you bet he doesn’t know shit about cars. That you’ve come back to find him freckled and spineless. He will give you a momentary view of his hunched back, vertebrae poking through his shirt almost like fingers stretching through a balloon. He will start to shake. Rub your hand up and down his arm. Run your fingers through his hair.

When you get out of the shower, damp and smooth-skinned, conquer his chest with hard, heaping bites. Trace your big toe against his ankle. His inner-knee. His uniform is slopped over the bedpost. He will push you so hard you stumble and smack onto the floor.  Say something like: What the fuck is wrong with you? Or maybe that’ll be his line. Go back into the bathroom. Tighten every cap.

This will be the tough part: her name repeats on the radio, at least on the station your ex-husband always plays; her name, age, height. On restaurant windows you see the posters. In line at the pharmacy you get furtive looks. They form a support group for you. They touch their own children’s heads. Bang the toe of your boot on the corner of the pew on accident. A cuss shoots through your lips like a little fish. He ducks his head and rubs the back of his neck, standing in front of the pastor sputtering search plans and statistics. Stare him down the next Sunday. Dare him to invite you to church.

Your ex-husband will have a sister named Susan. Or maybe an ex-girlfriend who wears socks with white lace around the rims, even though she’s like thirty or something. At visits she will touch her ponytail and repeat herself. She will tell anecdotes about your daughter’s childhood when he goes to get you two girls something to drink. And she’ll call him honey pie. He will agree with her: yes, the police should be much more involved; yes, there should be television advertisements too; no, no, they should never give up hope. She will take out her hair tie and shake a hand through her thick strands, glancing at you. He will invite her to stay for dinner and walk her to her car when she declines. He is the best honey pie in town.

Think about leaving. About standing in a damp-smelling elevator and being all drippy. Think about them: the endlessly illuminated street signs.

But it’s cold, New York, and it’s wet. And he tells you his mother cooks this unbelievable roast turkey, somehow you never got the chance, back before you left, to try it.

No, you wouldn’t leave before Christmas.

Escape into movies. When he calls and asks you what you’re doing, say “Keeping busy.” Let your eyes roll back to the screen. At around 6:40 start listening for his car and when he pulls up, switch off the TV. Head back into the bedroom. Leave the DVD in, though. If he checks, he’ll catch you doing nothing wrong at all.

He will seem to be drinking Vodka, tentatively, glancing quickly at you for approval.

At work he will spend company time in the exercise room.

He will ask you if you want to go to the fair.

He will ask you what the symbolism means.

Well?

Four years, one month, three weeks – more now. Tell him it’s complicated, what with your daughter and your job and your forwarded mail. You no longer know what you want from your life. When he brings his arms to you, open, tell him you don’t even know what you want. Don’t fucking cry. Get a little carried away. Plan to regret this moment, someday. Pace around the kitchen and tell him you are anxious, all the time afraid.

But this is your home, he will say, in a voice that rights wrongs and slays dragons, that dies off after the Middle Ages or maybe exists eternally in the bottom drawer of the pantry where you keep plastic bags for unforeseen situations that might require plastic bags, a voice that shoves the door open with its head, knocks back its visor and wails, knocks you out of mental tangent, wailing: How long has it not been enough, why didn’t you tell me it wasn’t enough?

You will forget the last time you went barhopping in Hell, but pretend you do. Reminisce until your pupils shrivel up. Choke up. Say: I’m going out. And when your ex-husband catches you at the front door, add: Just out. His limp smile will palpitate like an upset stomach and you will hate him. Don’t bother to shut the door. It’s the Pig’s Squeal and it’s just how you pretend you remembered: smoky and wooden and dim like a copper penny. A bulky jukebox and a half-empty jar of straws. A man in a red tie will catch your attention and then drop it. Someone on your right will start mewling the lyrics. Swivel on your barstool until she’s finished. Spit heartily in her drink when she goes to the dance floor. Spit and liquor swirling in foamy white loops. Swirling, honey pie, like piss down the drain.

Next there are eyewitness reports. Sightings: Barton, Benton. He will pound his fist onto the kitchen countertop, phone pressed wet to his face. A gust of hot wind blows into your eyes and your nose spasms.

This is no time for miracles.

There will be police interviews, statements and co-signatures. There will be nothing for you to do. He has already posted signs everywhere conceivable: on desktops, over freeways, over other signs. Someone will call from the police station: relatives’ names, phone numbers, addresses needed. Ask where his parents live nowadays and he’ll just go grinning from ear to ear. Smile back. He will laugh at something, hours later, completely unrelated. But wheezing. Rioting. Roaring at the television screen in the next room. Bolt in and ask him what’s wrong. Roll together on the floor in front of the TV stand. Afterward, there is nothing else to be done. Afterward, he will dangle half off the rug, completely used.

Continue to pace. Despite fake New Jersey accent, feel unamused by his antics. Look at your wrinkly knuckles. If ever you would leave him. Glance at your cell phone. It wouldn’t be in spring.

There is never any news, just a telephone rocking endlessly in its cradle.

Once a week you will bring up her name in casual conversation, in public. Manage expectations. Tell the old ladies huddled around you that the police have made no promises. “We do what we can,” you tell them, never looking away from the tight, anxious circle, never quite meeting his eyes.

The thought will occur to you that you are waiting for her permission to flee.

You will pass your father on the street, or maybe back at the hardware store. Begin by calling him “Pa”. Begin by asking what he’s been up to lately and walking him back to his house. Meet his wife. She will talk in a thick, European accent. She will respect only the working man, eat very little, eat only on divinely immaculate plates. End it the second time he shouts at you to get the hell out.

There is never any news, just a telephone wailing endlessly for its mother.

Fantasize about a dead body. It is a study in exhaustion, an examination of the end of the rope. You would be comforted by his bony sister and his sobbing ex-girlfriend. The three of you in the depths of the morgue would hurl yourselves at the steel table, then surge backwards. You, especially, would kick your feet, stumble and howl, bare your wrists. Your mother would be proud

After dinners with your father: slink home. Your breasts will ache, your knees will lock. Neighbors will be rocking on their front porches, staring over you as you cringe past. You recall. Remember: nine years ago, a night like any other night in January, your mother already three hundred miles away in a scrubbed clean Chevy, your father stalking through the deserted streets, you following after like a famine. Damn it, he bellowed, god damn it, Lorraine! Lights snapped on in houses, then blinked out with swift apologizes. The two of you were the spooks haunting the streets that night. Lorraine. Mama. Lorraine. It ran cracks through the midnight stillness. Lorraine.

If you could only love one woman in your life you would choose your mother. If you were being introspective, you’d say it’s because she was gone after you were six years old, but you’re not like that. You are a runner and a bailer and a grudge-holder and a tongue-holder. You ignore him studiously, lying next to you in bed calling you baby. Calling to you. “Baby, we have to figure this out. I can’t lose you again. Baby?” You spend the nights under his heavy, stuffed quilt playing out fantasies, that your mother spent five years in Africa before settling in Queens. She called you one morning: Heard you got out too. How’d it go?

Recently she’s gone on these little pink pills that make her consider her shrink her best friend and watch movies only to pre-curse a tearful rehash of her childhood, but god dammit, if she’s not going to act like your mother than you will.

Roll over to face him, but don’t move an inch closer. Don’t tell him any of this, anything. Instead: promises. Promises out the wazoo.

Slink. It won’t matter. Your ex-husband will be pacing the living room looking fearsome. He will slap you, bite you, taste you. Kiss him, soothe him. Make love to him without batting an eyelash. Splash water on your face in the bathroom at four in the morning. Nothing will matter.

Make him breakfast. Your ex-husband will ask quietly about your work. Lie. Tell him you build model boats for tourists. Smoothed, streamlined little things. He will ask about selling, marketing rights, inflation. Lie, always. Tell him, no, oh no, you aren’t involved in any of that. You have a friend in Seattle who takes care of it. You just build them, beautiful little boats. He will not eat your French toast. He will stir it on his plate with the butt end of his fork, and then hurl it against the wall.

At night you will be anxious for the weather to warm. You will pace the front porch like you are waiting for a package, for justice, for sunrise. He will not wait up for you.

When you go out, leave him a list of groceries that need purchasing, dry cleaning that requires his attention. Wait outside. Lie beside the porch and watch the clear sky darken. You could lie there until the end of time. When he lumbers to his car, count to sixty before getting up. Go back inside. Go to stand in front of the wide kitchen windows. Stand stalk still. Watch cars and bicyclists zip past. Lie, when he comes home again. Tell him you wanted to go visit your father for once, just to see how he’d been. No one was home.

There is never any news, just the phone sucking absently on its toe.

This is how you go.

Flossing and primping in the early morning, with the bathroom door open, staring at his shape on the bed in the bedroom.

Peanuts and a 7-Up. Leaning your seat back almost into someone else’s lap.

You will never see him again. Or maybe you will, whatever. But her you’ll see daily. Her picture you put on your refrigerator, above your mantle, clamped in a locket. It becomes a conversation piece. When men come over, they ask questions. You tell them you named her Agatha, after your grandmother, after your best friend in college.

The phone will roll and roll in its cradle.

Four years, one month, three weeks, and so much more. They found her bones buried three miles outside of town. Call your mother back. The sun rises outside your window, out on the curb. The fog rolls in, but it dissipates. One of those mornings.