Saturday, April 27, 2013

#79: "Five Positions" by Renée K. Nicholson

~This essay previously appeared in The Gettysburg Review (2007).


Once burned by milk you will blow on cold water.
--Russian Proverb

I was once a ballet dancer.  While I was a dancer, I collected quotes from famous people in the dance world and from the less famous Russians I met in ballet.  Because Russia produced so many proficient dancers, they completely infiltrated my American experience, the influence of their methodology everywhere.  They often shared with me their proverbs, sayings meant to convey their truth, but perhaps veiled, as I often veil my own.  The proverbs, like their technique, went straight to the heart of things.  But the proverbs were difficult and, like ballet steps, could never fully be mastered.
George Balanchine Americanized ballet, but he was originally trained in St. Petersburg.  Like the other Russians, Balanchine was famous for his proverbs, most of which he concocted; he was also famous for his ballerinas: very young, very thin, a blend of athlete and siren.  He invented the baby ballerina.  If old Hollywood immortalized the sexy, curvy blonde, Balanchine created a new fetish: the sleek brunette.  Of course, when I was seven and first stepped into a ballet class, I had no idea about any of this.

A Russian proverb: you do not need a whip to urge on an obedient horse.  In the first year, we learned to bend, plié, and to stretch the leg and the foot, tendu; then we learned to sketch circles with our pointed foot on the floor, rond de jambe par terre.  “Pull your stomach in,” instructed Ms. Helen, my first teacher.  Derrière tucked under.  Turn out from the hips.  Lead with the heel of your foot.”  Holding my stomach in was the hardest part.
“In first position,” said Ms. Helen, “make a slice of pie with your feet.  Stand with heels together, legs and feet turned out, pointing away from the body.  Turn out from the hips as much as possible, and do not let your knees or ankles twist.”  I tied my hair back into a bun, little sprigs defiant at the temples.  I wore pink tights, forest green leotard with cap sleeves, little pink Capezio slippers, soft leather, elastics sewn at the heel. 
Made up in thick blue eyeliner and dark mauve lipstick, Ms. Helen kept her hair short.  She wore chiffon skirts in pink and jeweled green.  She wore clogs and smelled of heavy perfume.  I thought she was glamorous. 
My first pair of slippers: “You have to fit them tightly,” said the woman at the dance store.  “The teachers won’t like it unless they’re snug.  Ballet is not something you can grow into.”  The sales lady had a mass of carrot red hair on top of her head in a messy knot.  With her stubby fingers, she checked the fit of the slippers.
Ms. Helen told us to open our legs into a straddle split.  Mine: straight out to each side--splat!--open!  After that class Ms. Helen talked to my mom, and I started taking classes twice a week.  By the time I was ten, I took ballet every day.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

#78: Two Poems by Rupert Fike

~Both of these poems previously appeared in The Alabama Literary Review (2012).

Western Lit in Poultry Science
                     - 1966

After French we had fifteen minutes to leave
the columned quad, climb Ag Hill and find
PoulSci, its smoked-glass doors our portal
to a fetid planet, its atmosphere
the face-slap you never got used to -
chickens in the basement being chickens.
Our professor offered no jokes, welcomes.
Yes, an angry young man, we thought. Finally.
Perhaps he even read The Village Voice.

Easy to now see he was a grad assistant
pissed at this departmental exile.
Why me? he must have thought. Why did I
get sent to the barnyard, far from Park Hall
where the tenured read their ancient lectures
in the eternal air of burnt coffee,
where round-bottomed girls leaned to copiers
in the halls whose walls bespoke verse.

He sighed at our orange plastic chairs and
the green blackboard with its smudged equations.
He said it’d be tough to read Homer here,
even though Greece had maybe smelled like this.
And in that first class he used in medias res,
he skipped ahead to get our attention,
to Helen’s sigh, “Shameless whore that I am.”
We liked hearing that word in a classroom.
This was college, where you didn’t giggle.

The thick air coated our throats all quarter,
forced us to spit it out after class,
a smell that didn’t bother the PoulSci majors
in their white t-shirts and unpressed Levis
who would soon be rich from using hormones,
genes, drugs to grow strips, fingers, McNuggets,
vanilla protein the coming world would crave.
We brushed elbows with them in the hallway
on our way to read lines from the old world
with our still grumpy teacher. We invented
back-stories for him – a lost love, a jilt.
But mostly we worried how he’d grade.
There was a war, and we could be drafted.


Monday, April 15, 2013

#77: "At the Asylum" by Linda McCullough Moore

~This piece was previously published in New York Stories (2004).
Melissa asks us each to write four sentences – three true, one not true, and then we will read them and have everybody guess the false one.  I’m not sure how this is supposed to make us less likely to try to off ourselves again, but it’s probably as likely to succeed as any other plan.  I’ve been here three days – 259,200 seconds at midnight tonight - and it seems to me a full half of what we’re asked to do here makes suicide the sensible alternative.
            But what do I know? They say a person never kills himself for the reason he thinks he’s doing it, which seems to me a real kick in the teeth.  I mean, if you cash in your chips early, you like to think you’ve got at least the whys and wherefores figured.  But hey, I like to think these people know their stuff.  I’d hate to think that all these Melissa’s are as befuddled as the rest of us who pick up pills and razor blades for reasons we will die not knowing.
            I write: I have two brothers, I have three brothers, I  have four brothers, I have five brothers, for my four sentences  Actually, all four sentences are true.  I did have five brothers till one died in the Gulf War, then four, till they invented AIDS, then three, till 9/11.  I have two this afternoon.  My last shrink said she hoped the irony of these American watermark deaths did not escape me.  My shrink here says I didn’t do the pill thing because of any one of them.  (Like I say, a person likes to think these people know what they’re talking about.) 

Monday, April 8, 2013

#76: "My Father Teaches Me To Drink Straight Shots" by Ed Higgins

~This piece previously appeared in The Duck & Herring Co.’s Pocket Field Guide for Winter 2005-2006 (2005).
My Father Teaches Me To Drink Straight Shots

of Jim Beam when I was maybe fifteen. Or anyway old enough to admire the lesson. Since for years it seems I’d been watching as he’d uncap a bottle he’d pull from the under sink cupboard where he always kept a fifth or quart of JB just for this morning purpose. Down among a tangled undersea of arranged and strewn things: faded pink and yellow dried sponges, a white plastic Clorox bottle, a half-full orange and black Spic & Span, yellow-lettered Tide, green bottled up Mr. Clean, blue but partially rusted S.O.S. pads needing rescue themselves and other coral-bright near-empty or near-full containers of lost or forgotten cleaning supplies. So dad would stand with the cupboard door still open there on the brick pattern red linoleum in his boxer-shorts and white t-shirt wearing those stupid brown slippers everyone always buys their dad for some birthday or other or perhaps Christmas, or probably both, with money your mother really gives you. He’d stand there leaning one forearm against the stainless-steel sink and turn on the cold water tap letting it run slowly while he uncapped the JB and then took a shot glass down from the little open shelf above the sink where the water is by now running cold and fresh as he pours three fingers of tea-colored booze into the shot glass. The trick then, he says, is to hold your breath while you toss back the shot. That’s when you immediately fill your empty shot glass from the running tap and toss back the water as a quick chaser, all before you breathe again. And he set the shot glass down on the pearl formica counter top all in the smooth motion of pouring from the bottle again.

Monday, April 1, 2013

#75: "The Blue World" by Lewis Buzbee

~This story originally appeared in The Farallon Review (2010).

The time had come I guess.  We were in Monterey for the weekend, the standard family get-away.  We’d been going there since I was a little girl, I’ve got the pictures to prove it.  There was nothing special about this one weekend, no occasion, a simple respite from our day-to-day, the enveloping ease that always came with stepping out of the car into the salted air.  I’d always loved Monterey, and the course of our time there--Borg’s Motel, the aquarium, a big Abolonetti meal on the wharf.  I had no notion when we arrived that I’d be leaving them.
            This was March, all rainy and wet still, gray pan-lid skies cracked now and then into steep banks of sky and canyon deep clouds.  A beautiful time in Monterey, the storms pushing in from over the ocean, the ocean itself crisp and quiet, cross-hatched gray and blue.  The hills all around as green as they would ever be.  Perfect time, our favorite, we always agreed.  Everyone was relaxed that weekend, we had always traveled well together, me and Mom and Dad.  Very close. 
            Borg’s, our one motel there, in Pacific Grove, a couple miles south of the aquarium and right on the ocean, otters and pelicans yards away, Borg’s was as it always was.  Fifties-style cinder block, small rooms, pastel marine paintings, no amenities other than cable, but the view from our regular room, sea-side and upstairs, oh, the view was inescapable.  I remember unpacking that Saturday afternoon, in scant rain, how comfortable it felt.  I’d always loved the motel, it felt like home.  The family story was that I’d loved it so much my first time there, when I was two, that when we checked out I had gone around the rooms--there was always a separate bedroom for me--and said goodbye to the television, the phones, the desks, the plastic ice bucket.  And when my father started the car, all of us all packed up to go, I broke out in sobs and was inconsolable for miles and miles.  I always felt that undoing tug when we left Borg’s, from when I was a kid and all the way up through the year before when I was still fifteen.  I remember arriving the last Saturday and thinking I would be sad to leave this place again.  So much like home.