Tuesday, August 23, 2016

#214: "Chenartu So Near" by Frank Light

~This essay previously appeared in Mosaic Art and Literary Journal (2014).

Editor’s note: "The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent official positions of the United States Government."

 Chenartu So Near

In that it was barely governed, lay a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Tarin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan Province, and had experienced a visit from the Governor's militia, Chenartu had more in common with Nesh, down in Kandahar Province, than it did with Chora, the district to which it belonged. Although the district capital sat only 30 kilometers to the north, the track between the two towns had become so rough by 2004 that travelers found it easier to drive into Tarin Kot and go out the other spoke. Five hours total. The District Chief made the journey once; he was in no hurry to do it again. Nor did the Americans get around to it much. Heading out of Forward Operating Base Ripley, near Tarin Kot, the one destination of military interest on the road was an outpost named Anaconda up in Khas Uruzgan District, five hours farther east. Usually they went by helicopter.
No wonder Uruzgan's governor kept asking Kabul to make Chenartu a separate district. He talked as though this were a done deal, with a new district government up and running. The little we knew of the area came from him. He labeled all his enemies, and the man had more than his share, as Taliban. Case in point, his militia would dump bodies at the police gazebo in Tarin Kot's traffic circle. Taliban, he claimed. From Chenartu, of course.
On one thing everybody agreed: the place needed attention. But the infantry battalion headquartered at Ripley was stretched thin, and its commander kept declining the Governor's pleas for joint operations – in Chenartu, or anywhere in Uruzgan. Only Special Forces operated with his militia; they kept to the western end of the province.
If any Americans were going to fill the vacuum, they would have to come, indeed should come, from the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) at Ripley. PRTs were designed to spur development, enhance security, and extend the reach of the national government. The one at Ripley had the means – a dozen armored Humvees, half of which were serviceable – and it had the manpower: commander and support staff, a four-man civil affairs team, some 20 locally-recruited guards for the team when it traveled, some 20 more to watch over the new PRT site then under construction, a handful of Afghan interpreters, three military policemen, a rifle company from the Iowa National Guard, a U.S. aid representative we'll call Kerry, and a State Department employee on his last foreign assignment: me.
So in the latter part of October, after the Afghan presidential election and before our own, an advance party from the Guard drove up for a recon. Strange, they reported, though they couldn’t say why. It just didn’t feel right. Originally we were going to stay a while; you needed some downtime to get a sense of a place. They recommended we start with a day trip. We could overnight when we knew the area better.
The commander gave the go-ahead, scheduling it for two days after Kerry and the civil affairs team returned from Chora's capital and one day after our military-police advisors and I – along with the infantry's Bravo Company – returned from Nesh. We’d start early, about daybreak. Civil affairs needed that; they had a long drive ahead of them. They were going to accompany us as far as Chenartu, and then their contingent, six vehicles in all, including their protective escort led by Farouk, a village headman from the far side of Tarin Kot, would continue on to Anaconda to wrap up projects started by their predecessors. A smaller element would take Kerry and me back to Ripley.

Monday, August 15, 2016

#213: "Young Men of Prague" by Kelly Cherry

~This story was previously published in American Letters & Commentary (1998).

Einstein and Kafka are young men. One, a former patent examiner and now a full professor, lectures on physics at the Karl-Ferdinand University in Prague; one, an insurance adjuster for the Austro-Hungarian government, sprawls in his chair at the café, a tall glass of lemonade on the table in front of him.
            One lounges in his seat, dreaming of a young actress who travels with the Yiddish Theatre Troupe; the other runs a hand through his black hair and talks enthusiastically about atoms. The atom, he says, is a kind of dream, a space in which power is compressed to a point of conversion, at which point it becomes—becomes!—possibility. It is as if, he says, the atom is a symbol of itself.
            The windows of the lecture hall have been opened wide, the shades snapped up. The pull-rings, wrapped in silk thread, can be reached only by a long stick with a hook on the end.
            Beyond the windows, tall glasses of lemonade are growing downright hot atop the glass tables of all the sidewalk cafés. Trees in thick foliage shade the broad avenue and narrow side-streets, leaves rustling like taffeta skirts.
            The sky is lovely, blue and silent.
            To the young men, the sky is everything, a dream.
            It is atomic.
            It is theatrical—posed, awaiting a cue.
            In the classroom, a young professor gestures, and tugs at his black hair almost as if he would absent-mindedly pull it out.
            At one of the outdoor cafés, a young businessman drapes himself around his chair. The lemonade is stale and sour, and his digestion delicate.
            So sweet, she is lovely, the actress, gentle and mirthful, her lips as red as blood. (Something wildly provocative about her mouth, as if she reddens her lips by biting them herself. . .)
            The two young men, too, are lovely, in their fervor and good suits, and with such good manners.
            Prague is lovely, a gold-leafed city dawdling on the far edge of the century now closing. There are so many books to be written, so many lives to be lived. So many dreams. The future is so close that for a brief moment there seems no need to hurry into it. In fact, there is a single moment when no one raises his eyes to look at it, just as a lover, sensing that the one he worships has at last arrived at the dance, chooses not to notice, attempting in this way to reclaim some of the control he has already surrendered.
            Then, somehow, it happens that everyone looks up at the same time, which is what the darling beauty wanted in the first place. She shrugs off her wrap, into the waiting hands of the servant. She descends the short, carpeted staircase into the ballroom.
            Everyone rushes toward her.


Saturday, August 6, 2016

#212: "A Memorial for Hammerhead" by Richard K. Weems

~This story was originally published in Dogwood (2003).

             Bad enough it had to be a rhino like Hammerhead, a fighter who at forty-seven could still hold down solo one of those high-yield elephant trunk hoses that sprayed gallons by the heartbeat.  We knew fighters who went down in the Towers, and they had their names carved into brass and stone, but Hammer went out in a lame-ass way and didn’t get any such remembrance.  He came off the ladder after a routine blaze at an apartment house.  He was spraying down the remains of the roof, his safety line not hooked properly.  I guess we all make mistakes, but I had a hard time feeling something other than a gyrating anger that Hammer had to go out like a granite-headed rookie and leave Meg, Danny and me to make a go of it without him.
            The fighters who came for the service had on their game faces.  They looked like they were attending a mandatory staff meeting—dutiful, but wanting clearly to be out barbecuing on a day like this.  Meg, Danny and I knew where they were coming from.  We three were the closest thing to surviving family, but no one looked to us to say anything.  We sat in the back like pewter-cast figures.  I could barely even look at Hammerhead, his hands folded over his chest as if someone were holding him down for the three-count.  The chief brought out his usual platitudes about duty, and then we were made to stare at a radio as it played “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”  Danny’s metal joints clinked rhythmically during the chorus.  When it came time to pay respects, I stayed where I was.  I could think of nothing new to say to the rat bastard.
            But Meg thought differently.  “Here we go,” she said and got up.  As she joined the line that had formed in the aisle, Danny tapped my leg with his flask.  One of the fighters in front of us, a volunteer from Hamilton Township, turned back and gave me a brief, knowing nod.  Like hell I was going to offer him any whiskey.  And I didn’t need his damn permission to get lit at a buddy’s funeral.
            When Meg’s turn came, she strode past the casket as though she just wanted to make sure it was Hammer crammed in there and not some other thick-necked slob in a dark blue uniform.  As she walked back up the aisle, she bowed her head to keep her sun-bleached curls in her face and avoid eye contact with anyone else.  When she sat down, Danny murmured, “Worse than a high fucking school graduation.”
            “Feel any better?” I said.
            Meg scratched her nose boxer-like.  “Anything to make this crap go by a little faster,” she said.
            As soon as things came to an end, the three of us made a hasty exit and manned Danny’s pickup.  I needed air and crashing waves and a wide fucking berth.  I needed beer with sea air mixed into it.  Anything to make me forget the funeral parlor smell of stale antiseptic.  Danny gunned the engine, took his arms off, and we shot out of the parking lot.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

#211: "The Same God" by Patrice Gopo

 ~This essay previously appeared in Relief  (2012).

The measure of a man is what he does with power.
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
     –Jesus Christ

The dishes stare at me, covering every available surface, piled high like acrobats balanced on one another, the aftermath of a dinner and a breakfast in a home overflowing with visitors. Dishes seem low on the list of priorities since my friend will walk down the aisle later this week, but my hands are searching for ways to help ease the stress of a busy week, searching for ways to somehow earn my keep as a visitor in this family’s house.
Here in this African nation where the overseas missionaries dedicate their lives to reaching out to the locals, I awkwardly attempt to find a comfortable place in the landscape of existence. My role is missionary, like the rest of the expatriates I know, and yet not quite like the rest, as I look, outwardly, remarkably similar to the people who call this country home. At first glance, people often mistake me for a local, but when I open my mouth to speak, the words cannot mask the truth. My unique background perfectly positions me to walk the tightrope between two worlds. Not fully outsider or insider, simply other.
In this country, in this missionary home, in this in-between life, I cautiously inquire about ways I might help my hosts. Now I stand in a kitchen that breathes chaos. Washing dishes in this house is an eminently unsatisfying task. By the time the sink empties and order returns to the shelves, the next meal beckons. But it was my desire to help my friend, coupled with long-ingrained feelings of obligation to contribute, that brought me here. Reluctantly, I plug the sink drain and set to work.
It is a solitary job, away from the main traffic of the house. In the background, my friend’s laughter mixes with the giggles of her mother and sisters. From the occasional phrases I catch, I know the conversation surrounds upcoming wedding details. I want to be there, to be a part of the conversation and the planning. I remind myself I asked for ways to help. A voice in my head whispers, But you didn’t want to be shuffled to a far-off room away from all the fun. I created the situation, but this isolation feels nonetheless unfair. If I were family, I would leave the dirty dishwater behind and join the fun. I’m not family, though, so I continue scrubbing dirty plates and flicking rice grains off pots.

Monday, July 25, 2016

#210: "Summer, 1983" by Michael Boccardo

~This poem was previously published in Cutthroat (2010).

Summer, 1983

On that last afternoon in June,
when the road still cracked
a dusty gravel whip beneath our feet
and no one could afford the luxury
of electric air, we crossed
over into our neighbor’s yard,
small bits of stone poking each
bare heel, already rubbed thick
and coarse as sandpaper. 
By the time we breathed
the perfumed thickets of dogwood
edging Bessie’s mailbox,
my mother’s toes glinted with mica,
ten shimmering minnows
wiggling in blades of sun-stroked grass. 
Back then she was proud of her legs,
and wore nothing but tee-shirts and cutoffs,
denim sheared by a dull kitchen knife,
the threads floating like spider silk
around her thighs.  My brother and I trailed
behind, arms spiraling, embroiled in a battle
of plastic sacks, heavy with squash  
and zucchini plucked from our father’s garden,
too busy being boys to notice
anything wrong until the hiss
of coiled newspapers, a week’s worth,
skidded towards opposite corners
of the front porch.  When mother vanished,
a blurred shape behind the rattle of a screen door, 
we knew better than to move,
our shadows like drawn umbrellas, rigid
as we stood in currents of clover ankle-deep.
I was too young to understand
death then, but learned the ways it fooled
the world into living, how
it carried us back to where the day
began, hands gloved in soil, the sun
thirsty against our backs as we loosened
vines of tomatoes, bright bulbs dangling
like tangles of strung lights.  That night,
no one slept.  Thermometers simmered
above eighty while stars gathered
in clusters of condensation, 
windows gaping like the hooded eyes
of insomniacs.  In the kitchen,
mother busied herself until dawn,
slicing and canning.  With every glass jar
she cradled onto a pantry shelf,
her dress flared, each leg
clinging to the dark fabric
then swinging in a slow arc,
like the dome of a bell tolling the hour.

Monday, July 18, 2016

#209: Eydie Gorme Was a Little Spanish Girl by Diane Lefer

~This story was previously published in Platte Valley Review (Spring 2010).

There was no more romance in LA and they’d kept her for hours and she’d never been a patient person–never! and her hands hurt, swelling in the plastic cuffs. Who were all these people? A man she couldn’t see somewhere in the back said, “They’re taking us to Guantánamo!” People laughed.
“I went to Havana,” she said, “back when everyone went,” but now it was different and no one answered and the bus was parked outside the police station and there she’d sat since they transferred her from the back seat of the black and white and left her with her bags on her lap.
A cop came up the steps.
 “Officer! What is this delay?”
“No room at the inn,” he said, “not till they process through some felonies.”
“Officer!” Helga usually spoke the plain, blunt, even vulgar English words, but in such official company, guns, uniforms and all, how could she put it? “I must make water,” she said. “Now.”
He ignored her but then the woman came, name on the badge--Ortiz and Ortiz said “I’m not supposed to,” then nosed clippers between the plastic and her skin and cut her free. Before Helga could say thank you, Ortiz did. “Thank you for what you’re doing.”
“You are most welcome,” Helga said.
 “Those people deserve a union,” said Ortiz. “They should have had one years ago,” and so Helga realized the thanks had not been meant for her.
“Leave your personal items,” said Ortiz like a flight attendant and led her inside the building and to a door and unlocked it. More than a dozen women there. The ladies room, always the same.
“What are you waiting for?” said Ortiz.
For the toilet was not in use. There it was, stainless steel, in the middle of the room. The indignity of it. But the birds make do with a fountain or a dirty puddle, she thought. So: Down with the panties, the first use of her freed hands. Then, no soap, no paper towels, just a sink.
“This is not sanitary!” she said and someone said “Careful!” but too late. She turned on the faucet and like a fire hose, a hydrant, cold water shot full force across the room. Helga was soaked.

Monday, July 11, 2016

#208: "The Paris Catacombs" by Adrienne Ross Scanlan

~This essay was originally published under “Adrienne Ross” in
 you are here: the journal of creative geography (2008).

1 Place Denfert-Rochereau’s doors are black. Printed there in block letters are the words: “Entrée Des Catacombes” (Entrance to the Catacombs.)  It is mid-day.  I am hungry.  I buy a chocolate croissant from the boulangerie across the street and nibble it as I enter the ossuary’s doors, pay 5 Euros, and take my place in the line of tourists walking past warning signs (“Le chiens ne sont pas admis” / Dogs are not allowed), past historical photographs of the centuries-old quarries being transformed into catacombs, past video cameras, and down the spiral staircase to the bone yard beneath the streets of Paris’ Latin Quarter.  I am far from home, alone in a city of stones and strange words. 
In the world above, years ago, I was searching for merlins, peregrines, eagles along western Washington’s Bow Edison Road when I found a dead deer in the knee-high, roadside grass.  Her nose was ebony, her tawny fur was coarse with dirt and gravel, her legs were arced for flight as she must have been before being hit by a car.  She was gutted open.  Rain pooled pink with blood.  Her ribs were intact: bone sentinels standing guard over heart, lungs, intestines long after the battle was lost.
We walk down a tight, curling staircase, down, down, down, its steps worn grey stone. For a time, we can hear the whistles and sirens from the street.  We are 20 or so meters underground.  Where are we? Where am I? Where is my lover or my friends, all half a world away?  We come to a dark and narrow, stone walled passageway.  Stones crunch under footsteps.  The electric hum of sparse light bulbs, the chitchat of tourists, a girl’s high-pitched “Daddy?” echo as we walk.  In the underground air is a smell too clean for death.  We walk. The passageway turns through darkness. We walk past cells barred by metal grates, past a half-eaten apple, past a fire extinguisher.  We walk into a gallery where there are shadows, stone columns, and a stone floor, a white plastic lawn chair with an open novel on its seat, and a guard wearing sneakers, a blue rain parka, and a red baseball cap.  Signs on columns read: “Arrete!  C’est ici l’empire de la morte.  Vous etes invite a ne rien toucher, et a ne pas fumer dans l’ossuarie.” (Stop! This is the empire of the dead.  You are asked to not touch and to not smoke in the ossuary.)