Sunday, August 31, 2014

#139: "Once Again to Zelda" by Kirk Curnutt

~This essay originally appeared in The Southern Review (2013).

In the seventies, my mother began storing paperbacks in an oval drum table kept in our basement. As an only child, I had long claimed our downstairs as my sovereignty, and I took great objection to this adult incursion into the kingdom of my toys, especially after I was issued explicit orders not to go anywhere near her books. At ten or eleven I already suffered from boring bouts of insomnia, so on nights I could neither sleep nor relax, I would sneak out of my adjoining bedroom to rifle this forbidden stack. I was curious to know what knowledge I, the son of a teacher, could possibly be prohibited from learning.
The question wasn’t long in the answering. Among the titles in my mother’s collection was Coffee, Tea, or Me?, a steamy pulp featuring swinging stewardesses; a self-help manual called The Sensuous Woman by someone so salacious she could only publish under the pseudonym “J”; and a memoir whose title deeply perplexed me because it was the exact nickname my father gave me whenever I tried to shoot baskets, one-handed, over his head: The Happy Hooker. Needless to say, I found these books equal parts enthralling and confusing.
The one that would have the greatest impact on me wasn’t read until much later. I can remember flipping through its pictures, however, because one specific image gave me nightmares. I’ve since come across that photo countless times in my research, and never without experiencing the same shock of recoil. The photograph is of a slightly stooped woman with cadaverous cheeks bundled in a fur coat staring listlessly at the camera. Her expression is forlorn and faltering, self-protectively irresolute, as if by submitting to a pose she was relinquishing something of herself she would never get back. I would need a poetry class or two to find a phrase to describe that face: ’tis the distance on the look of death.
The picture wasn’t of Emily Dickinson but of Zelda Fitzgerald. It’s not an especially famous photo, but a telling one, taken in February 1930 during a vacation to the Constantine gorge in Algeria only a few months before the breakdown that would land her in a Swiss sanitarium and thereafter render her one of the more enduring cautionary tales in American literary history. The book itself was Nancy Milford’s biography, simply titled Zelda. It recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary, and though not as controversial today as it was in 1970, it still possesses the power to polarize. In Telling Women’s Lives: The New Biography, Linda Wagner-Martin summarizes its legacy: “What struck readers in 1970 was that Milford’s story of Zelda’s life with F. Scott Fitzgerald had so often been told inaccurately. By most accounts, Zelda’s drinking and bothering of her writer husband had led to his drinking and his inability to get work done.” In contrast, “Milford enabled readers to find in her protagonist a woman that nearly everyone could identify with. Zelda’s story became its own drama,” a story of “rebelling at the prescribed roles beautiful women were made to play.”
For other scholars, however, Zelda is the source of the most pernicious canard to haunt Fitzgerald’s work—namely, that he “plagiarized” her very essence in creating the iconic character of the flapper, often stripping her letters and diaries of specific, enchanting passages. Every so often I’m invited by a reading club or academic group to dilate on this debate, and so I iron my tie and fire up the PowerPoint and do my best to be balanced. I’ve also spent many a literary conference adjudicating the argument, often unwillingly over dinner tables and bar tops where, honestly, I’d rather be exploring topics that didn’t leave me wondering if I have a life outside of work. In recent years I’ve actually grown less interested in the biography’s influence on literary studies, and more intrigued by its sway on everyday readers who sent it spiraling onto the bestseller lists.
Readers, in other words, like my mother.

Monday, August 18, 2014

#138: "To Do in the New Year" by Anna Lena Phillips

~This poem first appeared in International Poetry Review (2011).

Be ribbon. Be bone.
Be lace. Be stone.
Make a bow of yourself—no,
make of yourself a bear.
Furl fur, steer windward.
Make of yourself
a byre. Shimmer. Ray,
then bow: ends
unravel, ravel,
unfurl. Make of yourself
a curl, a funnel. Bay.
Whine. Say
soon, daffodils
will, miracle
gone before we know.
And that is how time.
And that is how.
Be still. Steal in. Stare.
Make of yourself
a string unwinding
forever, fire,
make of yourself
a halo of obstacles, make
inroads, make a solution
of sunshine, be seed.             
Cede. Be siloed.
Cease for a while, be
quilted; in creases,
fall seaward. From hulls,
rise, riled up, increase, raise up
sounds of your name
in water, make yourself
golden, yield.


Monday, August 4, 2014

#137: "Thong Panties" by Wendy Reed

~This story previously appeared in Analecta 24 (1998).

            Ed bought Vera another pair of thong panties. He took them home to her after work. Vera politely opened the pink sack stenciled with fake lace and removed the tissue paper. She unfolded it and tore the taped end.
             "Thong panties,” she said, wadding up what there was of the underwear. “How nice." She stuffed them back into the bag. 
            "Don’t you like the spots?" he asked.
            "They're right colorful."
            "Well. What about the stripes?"
            "They're right vertical," she said.
            Ed could tell she didn’t like them.
            "Well, aren't you going to model them for me?" he asked.
            "Ed, you know I have a yeast infection."
            "Oh, I forgot," he said.
            Ed hadn't really forgotten.  He was hoping a gift of lingerie would stir her up a bit.  God knows something had to.  It’d been so long since they’d had sex for one reason or another, he wasn’t sure he would remember how.  He’d thought a trip to the lingerie shop might be just the thing.
            Ed had spent nearly a whole hour in the lingerie store wandering between the maze of panty trees and panty pools trying to find something that might work.  He’d studied the steel arms of the racks where each pair hung by its own hanger and realized that these panties not only came with their own hanger, but with the highest price tags, too.  So he'd begun fishing in the overstuffed bins where the cost was a little less. Here, clear plastic flexi-glass separated the layers of panties into a panty dessert trifle: lace panties, then crotchless panties, then the truly edible layer.  Ed spent most of the hour looking at them, rubbing them between his fingers and checking the price tags. When no one was looking, he even licked one pair of the edible ones. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

#136: Two Poems by Paul Shepherd

~This poem previously appeared in Pacific Review (1994).

 She knew, she tried to hold me, she said—

If you go from this place as you are,
breaking our walls and windows
with your hard, dangling heart,
an undone mobile hung awkwardly close
to that corner you've turned to take,
            then, no—a child,
            you will tighten quick with life
            and we will cry for you long,
            long after you leave here,
a broken ornament the years glue down.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

#135: "What the End Is For" by Rasma Haidri

~This essay was previously published in in Fourth Genre: Explorations in Non-Fiction (1999).

Today I will throw out the two-inch toy Coke glass. The two halves of it fit perfectly together and could have been glued, but I’m done with gluing. It is late spring and the glass has been here since November. I remember how my mother gasped, Oh what have I done now, with unusual vulnerability as she heard the clamorous crack. I heard it too and saw her lifting her foot, afraid of further destruction. I was afraid of her falling. It’s nothing, I said. Just that little Coke glass.
That’s from Detroit, she answered, meaning from the green-lawn days I set up my toy trademark Coke dispenser on Hawthorne Avenue and waited for business. The four miniature glasses, narrow at the bottom and wide at the top, had Coca-Cola in script on the sides. With careful fingers I filled the glasses, lined them up in a row, then lifted and drank each one. Perhaps I sat on my striped canvas director’s chair, my hair pulled into the popular Alice in Wonderland look. I don’t know, but my mother would have a clear memory of watching me do this through the window of our house, as she clutched my baby brother in her thin arms.
What a shame, she said. I lifted the broken toy off the kitchen floor and told her not to worry. I would glue it. At the time I intended to. Not for the sake of my own daughter. She didn't prize the little glass, had probably not noticed the authentic logo of the world’s most popular drink. I would put it back together for the memory, my debt of preserving the past and keeping track. And to assure my mother that all damage done under her foot could be undone. I showed her how easily the two halves fit, then placed them in the corner of the kitchen window.

Monday, July 14, 2014

#134: "Navigating Change" by Linda Dyer

                                        ~~This story originally appeared in The Fourth River (2006)

            Squatting at the end of Aisle One, Henry Pruitt is setting up a display of crabgrass killer at his hardware store on Dewitt Street.  He fondles each green and white box as he takes it from the carton, drinking in the familiar chemical smell as he stacks them on the shelf.  As surely as July follows June, crabgrass killer always follows rose dust at the end of Aisle One.  Henry finds great comfort in the seasonal repetition of his business.
           As he stands back to admire the tidy arrangement of box on box, Captain Thomas J. Smith is passing under the State Street bridge, the prow of his aged wooden boat pointed westward on the New York State Barge Canal.  A cluster of three women stare at his approach from the door of The Quilting Bee, while customers on the Canalside Café’s dining deck squint at the sun-glared water until the old man, rope in hand, leaps from his boat onto the towpath, stopping at the landing below the restaurant deck.  From the time he is first spotted, his advance is steady, unhurried, almost dreamy, yet his arrival will always be described as coming like a bolt out of the blue.
            By rights, Henry’s daughter Eunice should have been the first to spot the captain.  Eunice is the self-appointed guardian of the canal, pacing its bank even in the gray chill of winter when the canal is empty or in the dampness of early spring when the canal re-opens.  She’s been there since ten o’clock this morning, alone as usual, sitting in dappled shade on the south bank of the canal, west of the Main Street bridge.  With her full cotton skirt tucked carefully around her legs, she presides over a private world fenced in by a circle of books and notebooks.
            At the moment of Captain Smith’s arrival she is looking in the opposite direction, watching a group of scum dunkers, exuberant boys of eleven, twelve or thirteen, as they jump from the railroad bridge into the murky water of the canal, then scramble back to repeat their act of daring.  The scene is like a snapshot.  The air is still, the water placid; flat-bottomed cumulus clouds hang motionless.  Yet it is not a snapshot.  A breeze picks up.  A boy leaps from the bridge, disturbing the water of the canal.  Updrafts and downdrafts wander the cloud’s interior, changing its size and shape.

Monday, July 7, 2014

#133: "Shift" by Sheila Squillante

~~This essay was previously published as “Love, Loss and Another Day at Work” in Glamour Magazine (2003)

I wake at 5:25 in the morning. It's winter and New Haven is dark and crystalline. Not with snow--it's too cold for snow, but a showy hoarfrost coats the slick black pavement of Whitney Avenue, the shivering ivy and sneering granite gargoyles of Yale University, and the clear-paned window of the brick-faced coffeehouse I work at downtown. I rise slowly but shower and dress quickly, my feet bare against the tile floor of my basement apartment. By 6AM, I will have taken the five-minute drive, traffic lights still blinking yellow, parked my car against the curb outside the café and lurched my key inside the freezing lock. By eight o'clock, when my shift partner arrives and the business crowd--the lawyers, city planners and professors--stretch their yawning, expectant line from register to door, I will have been working for two full hours.
And I do mean full hours. By our seven o'clock opening, I will have dragged the filthy, heavy black industrial mats onto the floor. I will have turned on the espresso machine, filled the hopper with oily, pungent, dark beans and ground a bit of decaf espresso for the odd customer. I will have measured out and brewed only six ounces of "Flavor”--hazelnut or French vanilla (remembering that Mike-the-architect hates coconut-macadamia)--and six ounces of "Special"-Ethiopian Yirgacheffe or Kenya AA-because these are the least popular with my morning crowd, which wants a no-frills cup. I will have made umpteen trips down the stairs to the kitchen for crates of milk: two half gallons of whole, two of half-and-half, six each of one percent and skim, because the lower the milk fat, the higher the froth, and so, the prettier the cappuccino. I will have shouldered full trays of food up the stairs as well: banana-walnut and pumpkin bread; blueberry, lemon-poppy seed and cappuccino muffins; chocolate-chip, oatmeal-raisin and peanut butter cookies. I will have begun brewing sharp-strong Sumatra Mandheling and sturdy-mellow Colombian Mocha Java, our house blend. I will have accepted the day's delivery of bagels--still warm-in brown, hip-high paper sacks. I will have taken the chairs down from the mismatched dining room tabletops and arranged the chenille pillows on the couch, angling them over the accumulated stains. I will have stocked the service bar with napkins, "Java Jackets," wooden stirring sticks and to-go lids. I will have reached beneath the counter to choose a CD. Anything classical is allowed in the morning, and I likely will have chosen the bright, open pulse of Bach's Concerto No.1 in A Minor to rise like warm bakery steam above the first cappuccino order of the day. It's Emily's: double skinny decaf to go--what we call a "double why bother?"--with more milk than foam and steamed to 150 degrees.
 "Good morning!" she says. ''What's your story today?"