a woman of influence strides Greenwich Village half-naked with a coal scuttle on her head
frightened men and scandalized women gape and sneer and laugh
Ah, but Marcel, isn’t it true? Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
embrace ugliness flaunt desire
any and all cast-off objects may become art
scramble language flip roles
any and all cast-off artists may become new
and in our wildest minds we are
Linda Scheller is the author of two books of poetry, Wind and Children (Main Street Rag 2022) and Fierce Light (FutureCycle Press 2017). Her poetry and book reviews are widely published, and recent honors include Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize nominations. Her website is lindascheller.com
Miller went back to the bar after his discharge from the Army. Going home excited him with memories of his friends sitting around a table filled with pitchers of beer. He enlisted in the Army two years after he graduated the university and he did not return until his hitch ended. His friends were still there at the old bar when he showed up to ask for a job.
Bartending would be easy. All Miller would have to do is take orders and pour beer. Students arrived for lunch and again after class, with lulls in between. Miller wrote down their orders and handed out their drinks. It didn’t require much.
Going without work was impossible for Miller. Unemployment drove him to the Army, and he’d be damned to go without a paycheck again. He knew he could count on the old bar when he moved back home—the same remodeled gas station since the Seventies, staffed by the same old bartenders, and serving the same old regulars. The Clash shot a music video there once, but only the long-timers remembered. All the time between his studies, his years without work, and his years in the Army seemed distant, and now, telling someone he graduated with how he ended up as their bartender became Miller’s only fear. He didn’t want to explain how things got this way. He was supposed to be a journalist, or anything, really, but not a bartender. The war had been on so long by now that no one cared to ask what he’d done in the Army. All the things he thought would make him cool and interesting did not matter and he felt separated from the people he knew and the students he served.
In the Army, Miller had been somebody. He held rank because of his degrees, and after his enlistment ended, he’d hoped to get the professional job he’d always wanted. When employers interviewed Miller, though, they would always ask him about the military. He grew tired of trying to convince people he wasn’t just another veteran, but all anyone saw was a soldier. It was the opposite of his time in the Army, where he was often singled out. He sang to himself to pass the time. The sergeants started calling him “radio” and would signal him to sing for the platoon during long training exercises in the field. Everyone he met along the way said he didn’t belong in the Army. He didn’t mind. He never intended to make a career of the service. And now that he was out, he was ready to work, just like he had been ready to serve. But no one would let him. He hadn’t realized he would never get to leave.
After only a couple months working the bar, Miller got a job in advertising. He was excited. He would write copy for clients. The office sat on a hill overlooking a parking lot, and he could see the city’s skyline. There at a cheap desk he sat day after day writing things that would appear on many social media channels. Come by to receive a free car wash with any purchase. It wasn’t exciting but he didn’t mind. Any time the office took a phone call from a client, the manager yelled. That he minded. The yelling wasn’t necessary. It was easy to write new copy. It didn’t require yelling and he didn’t like the way his team conducted business. When people clicked a homepage or a website, account executives raised the rates charged to clients. But their clients never reported increased business. It felt like lying. Miller returned home each day exhausted but didn’t know why. It wasn’t hard work and he didn’t like that he made the same money tending bar doing something he didn’t enjoy. It didn’t make sense.
One weekend, Miller’s manager demanded he log in from home and work. Miller didn’t want to. He realized he didn’t have to, either. He didn’t have to do anything. It was a new feeling. He took a long walk that night. The next day he put in his notice and returned to the bar.
He took on the worst shifts in the schedule. Summer came and the students went away, leaving the bar empty most days. The bartenders started drinking on the clock to pass time. The owner gave them reduced prices and they kept their own tabs. Miller did not hear of any new jobs and started hanging around the bar before and after his shifts. He noticed that nothing had been dusted above eye level, not beer bottles or the television cables or even the ceiling fans, and sheets of grey dust covered everything. There was a leak in the cooler room that caused water to pool up in the corner. It looked like every piece of equipment needed replacing. No one cared. The staff kept putting drinks on their tab. It was money they’d never see.
The bartenders themselves were all different sorts and came here from all manner of misfortune. Occasionally someone would ask Miller what he was doing there. He didn’t want to lie but he didn’t know what the truth was anymore. No one ever knew how they ended up here, exactly. One day a cook named Smith called him into the kitchen.
“You see this here?” said Smith. Smith pointed to the grill. “All I have to do here is throw down frozen burger patties on a flat top.”
“We’re a burger joint,” said Miller.
“Burgers ain’t cooking,” Smith cried. “I’m supposed to be a cook.”
“You take another job and tell them you cooked filets here,” said Miller. “No one has to know.”
“I’ll never tell anyone I was here,” Smith said.
The months wore on. The dining area in the bar had library shelves built into the walls. Miller took up reading on the clock. He noticed the books never moved from their places on the shelves. Miller started writing notes on order tickets like Staff Pick! Order up a thick serving of Faulkner with your fries! and left them tacked on the shelf. If the books were taken, it made Miller feel good. He worked the nights when the bar held an open mic. An old friend from college named Hobbs hosted the event using his own equipment, moving a couple tables out of the way to set up a single amplifier. Time had separated Miller and Hobbs, but it was nice to see an old face once a week. The rest of the performers were always the same people playing the same songs on guitar. Miller didn’t mind. They were very supportive as a group and it seemed like the world hadn’t gotten to them. It felt like they really cared. At the end of each open mic, the whole gang would get on stage and take turns singing “The Weight.” Miller thought about joining them but never did.
Hobbs asked Miller one day, “Why’d you leave advertising?”
“So much worry about all the wrong things,” Miller said.
“Man, but it’s something,” said Hobbs.
“Whatever amounts to anything?” replied Miller.
“You can’t be a bartender forever,” said Hobbs. Miller did not answer. Hobbs went on, saying, “I mean, you were doing so many good things. Man, I would never have had the courage to join the Army, regardless of the reason or the time, and like, you did it. You were over there, you were doing good things, even if just for yourself. And you’ll do good things again. Just need to have a direction, you know.”
“Like these guys just playing guitar here?” Miller said.
Hobbs looked away. Miller could tell his feelings were hurt.
Miller said, “Look, I didn’t mean that, that way. I guess playing guitar at a bar once a week is better than not playing guitar. It just doesn’t seem like right now anything will make any difference for me either way.”
“Little by little,” said Hobbs, “you can make a big difference. If you believe in it.”
“I don’t know if I believe in anything anymore,” said Hobbs.
More time passed and the bar started to see a lot of turnover. The cooks eventually found jobs downtown doing real cooking. Miller volunteered to take up shifts in the kitchen. He wanted to help and it didn’t require much learning. The kitchen was built into a closeted space in the middle of the old building—space for only two people with a flat-top, a roll toaster, two cold serving tables, and hot oven. Someone years before had left behind an old stereo that could still be heard through the walls even with years of grease covering the speakers. Miller played his favorite music, and loud. He learned where the food was stored and how to heat it properly. With practice, he got the timing down, estimating how much frozen food to thaw before the evening started, how many patties the grill could hold at once and how to handle the deep fryer with one hand, all while shredding lettuce or slicing onions. He took extra care with orders if there weren’t many at once. On certain nights of the week, he might get overwhelmed. A large group would show unannounced and twenty orders would drop at once. Miller would stand dripping over the flat top, sweat soaking into his bandana, taking large gulps from the foam cups of water he stashed on the shelves before each shift. He learned that in the Army. He’d cook and cook and cook and eventually it would slow and then end. He didn’t mind. He learned how to clean with as little effort as possible, and how to start shutting down before closing time, so there was little reason to hang around.
That fall, there was an election. The country would be deciding the next president and people talked about it day and night at the bar. It would be the third executive in charge of the same war Miller had fought in, and chances were that a woman could be elected. There was nothing else so captivating in the whole country. Miller tried not to get caught up in it. He would vote, of course, if it meant things would be slightly better one way or the other. Much of the country had been divided on the war, though, and the regulars thought they could ask him for his opinions. Every time he made his rounds to bus the glasses and pitchers, he’d have to hear it.
“Where do you stand?” Dansby asked.
Miller gathered empty pitchers as a group of old men looked up from the table in the middle of the patio.
“Behind the bar.”
“On the election, jackass.”
“All I can do is try not to make life more difficult for anyone,” he said.
The old men chimed like birds in a row. “Lots of ways to go about doing that,” said one, Bradford.
“But everyone all at once,” Miller said.
Dansby, said, “You’re going to have to take a seat.” Dansby slid out a chair from the table for Miller to sit. Spilled beer and crumpled napkins littered the tabletop, but none of the men sitting there cared. Miller took a cigarette from one of the packs and lit it with a lighter taken from the tabletop.
“I’m just a bartender,” he said.
Bradford sat up. “Only because you can’t find the work you want.” Looking at the entire table, he said, “We just can’t do that to our veterans.”
“Can’t expect one president to change all that,” said Miller.
“Sure, you can,” said Dansby.
Miller knew what they wanted to hear, but he didn’t want to lie. “Nothing’s ever changed that much over the years.”
“I can’t see any better reason for an election,” said someone else.
Miller looked around the table at the old faces. The regulars were pouring fresh glasses and setting into conversations again. He didn’t know how to explain himself to these men. People like these still thought that certain things could change, and certain things mattered. But Miller knew better, now, and didn’t see how an election would bring back his friends. He went quiet and wanted to leave the table. But Dansby wouldn’t let him go easily.
“There’s got to be something you believe in,” Dansby asked.
“Sure,” said Miller. “But it can’t be solved by a single election.”
“Hard thing coming from a soldier,” the whole table seemed to say at once.
“Right when I get here from the Army I meet Garrett,” Miller said.
“I’ve known that guy for twenty years,” said Dansby. “Half the reason I still drink here every day.”
“And wasn’t it his brother had to come and take him back home to Ohio?” asked Miller. “Just like come and rip him away?”
“He needed to be around family,” said Bradford.
“Garrett lived one mile straight up this road in a garage apartment and for thirty years he’d ride down here on the bus, cook hamburgers, and drink his weight in beer, with just enough money left to pay his rent.”
“Everyone has theirs,” said Dansby.
Miller snuffed the cigarette into an ashtray. “But his brother had to do for Garrett what Garrett couldn’t do for himself.”
The bar was packed the night of the election. There was an open mic still scheduled and when the singing was about to start, a winner still hadn’t been called in the election. The sun went down and the results rolled across the television screens, but nothing changed in either direction and the bar only got busier. People were excited. There appeared to be as much silence as there was chatter but Miller was too busy to talk. The stage had been readied for a performance that no one wanted to give. Miller hadn’t even noticed Hobbs setting it up. When he got a moment to step away, he pulled him aside.
“What’s going on?” Miller asked.
“Not much to sing about right now,” said Hobbs.
“Maybe things will change.” Miller didn’t know what he meant by that, but it felt like something to say.
The election dragged on without a winner. It was usually apparent by now who would win, but nothing changed. People were still drinking and ordering food. The time came to close the kitchen, and Miller hadn’t cleaned a thing. He offered to keep the kitchen open an extra hour and started cleaning as best he could. In between walking pots to the sink, a new food order would come in. The pots piled up in the sink, but he’d return to the grill with a new order. Eventually, it stopped. The networks still hadn’t called a winner and it was midnight. The bar was still full. Students sat hanging their heads. It felt like things might get better, or a lot worse. Miller didn’t hear the commotion of people talking anymore. Everyone was sad.
Miller found Hobbs outside. “Is the microphone on?”
“Can be,” said Hobbs.
“I got one.”
Miller walked to the stage and stood at the microphone. Hobbs went for a guitar but Miller waved it off. He tapped the mic. No one at the bar so much as looked up. With a heavy breath, Miller closed his eyes and started singing. He knew all the words to this particular song by heart. He had listened to Sam Cooke after school because he thought it was important to know his songs, and when he first heard “A Change is Gonna Come,” he made the effort to memorize it. He always felt like it would be an important song for some moment to come along. As he got through the final chorus, he opened his eyes. No one had moved from their seats or even looked in his direction.
He felt embarrassed. He stepped away and walked back toward the bar. It was dark outside. He was carrying pots back to the kitchen when Hobbs found him.
“You’ve got to sing more often,” said Hobbs.
“Not so sure,” said Miller.
“I never would’ve picked you for a tenor,” said Hobbs.
Miller walked back into the kitchen. It needed sweeping and pots waited in the wash sink. He knew what it felt like to open the kitchen after the night cook had gotten too drunk to finish cleaning, and he knew how it made him feel to step into a mess that wasn’t his. Looking at the sink full of brown water, he plunged his hands in and started scrubbing. He wasn’t going to leave anything for the next guy to clean up. He had more respect than that.
Thomas Johnson lives in Washington, D.C., and attends the Master of Arts in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. Johnson is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and later completed an enlistment in the United States Army.
portrayed by the faithful and fearless Fess Parker.
Many a boy back in the day wore a coonskin cap
and buckskin suit with his eyes glued to the TV.
Nobody could outshoot nor outsmart either one
no matter how good they be with rifle or words.
They were savvy frontiersmen, not to be duped
by people possessing lesser experience. Neither
thief nor savage would ever get the best of them.
Their worlds filled with peril, always advancing
beyond to the next horizon, avatars of adventure
taming our vast as of yet uncharted wilderness,
manifest destiny pregnant in air they breathed.
Though Crockett and Boone remain best known
among the brave men who made the golden age
of our American West legendary, fostering awe,
wonderment, fascination and entertainment for
two hundred years, there were many more men
who paved the way for migration, devoted lives
to carving history out of the expansive unknown.
They were trappers, shopkeepers, blacksmiths,
dreamers, swindlers, mappers, drinkers, misfits,
Americans, Europeans, intellectuals, illiterates,
craftsmen, boatmen, bunglers and riflemen keen
on the beaver trade. Their westward expansion
paid for by those cute innocent beavers, the furs
in demand with fashionistas in many a far land.
St. Louis a bustling, brawling, riverfront gateway
for westward migration, furthest edge of civilized
society, depot for horses, wagons, all provisions
necessary to strike out into the unsettled territory
people yearned to reach. Only the most steadfast
and committed could hazard such deep privation
as those bold enough to venture forth would face.
Of all the boasters and toasters to their own feats,
those who daily risked life and limb yet survived,
none compared to Mike Fink, the self-proclaimed
King of Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Mike hailed
from Pennsylvania, strapping man six-foot three,
towered above most, was barrel-chested, muscled,
a veritable monster whose roar brought shudders.
Mike captained keelboats with utmost command,
would punish anyone who failed to follow orders.
It wasn’t uncommon then for mountaineers to tout
various incredible accomplishments. The bellicose
Mike Fink reigned as biggest braggart among them,
would challenge anyone who questioned the truth
of his yarns to a fistfight, and was seldom opposed.
The Ohio and Mississippi grew old for one so raw,
with such an inflated ego as Fink. The time arrived
when he must follow the tide, explore more rivers,
extend his domain, further exhibitionist ambitions.
There was the Missouri river to explore, the Platte,
hazardous Snake. Fink seized a golden opportunity,
soon hired as captain with a sizeable fur expedition.
Cocksure, Mike wore a red feather in his hat, sign
of invincibility. Crockett proclaimed him half horse,
half alligator, to which Fink would officiously add:
“I can outrun, outshoot, outjump, outcuss, outdrink,
and lick any man in the country. O watch me guzzle
a gallon of rye and shoot the tail off a pig at 90 paces.
I love willing women and always chockful of fight!”
The beaver rush lasted a scant ten years, during which
rivers, streams and creeks throughout the greater West
were virtually stripped clean of that industrious animal.
Competition from French and British companies meant
Americans had to take advantage of what time remained
to cash in on the profitable trade. At the time Mike Fink
appeared on the scene, there was still lucrative territory.
Half the population of Saint Louis showed to watch as
sixty hearty souls loaded two keelboats along the shore.
Those husky explorers toted bales, boxes, and bundles
on board, accompanied by fifty horses. People cheered,
the Rocky Mountain Fur Company about to embark on
their most ambitious expedition yet, up through narrow
passes between glacial peaks to the raging Yellowstone.
When all was prepared Mike Fink scrambled to the top
of a cargo box, bellowed “set poles for the mountains!”
At that those men dropped long poles into muddy water,
with a collective heave pitched their keelboats forward,
continuing until they contracted the current. It’s purely
serendipity that an indomitable Jim Bridger was there
with this ragtag collection, his initial of many ventures.
They left the Mississippi and entered a violent Missouri:
trees with attached roots, boughs and vines, heavy logs,
buffalo carcasses, flotsam, underbrush, rocks and rapids,
driftwood bound with sand fashioning thick dams, water
often too deep for poles. These made navigation hellish,
no less tribes of hostile Indians camped along the banks.
It took all of Fink’s resolve to keep the polemen in line.
Disaster struck when while encountering onrushing rapids
one of the keelboats went under with half of the provisions.
Colonel Ashley in command, was not one to give in easily,
had them build a winter camp, construct shelter, hunt game,
prepare for inevitable onslaught of blizzards and snow drifts.
Fink had traveled with two longtime cronies, one Carpenter,
the other Talbot. All three ruffians loved to drink and argue.
Some will say the running feud between Carpenter and Fink
had to do with rivalry over an Indian woman. It went on that
winter, carried over until next spring when beavers swarmed,
the trappers anxious to strike out and harvest them. At a party
celebrating the anticipated season, Fink and Carpenter argued.
Then they cooled off, shook hands, agreed to settle the conflict,
bury the hatchet, to prove mutual sincerity made an agreement.
Each would shoot a cup of whiskey off the other man’s head.
Foolhardy as this would seem, Mike had proven himself over
many years, by the time he left Pennsylvania widely known
as foremost marksman in the territory. Not even great hunters
and Indian fighters like Kit Carson and Jedediah Smith were
considered Fink’s peer. Mike had successfully performed this
improbable feat many times before, always hitting bullseyes.
To determine who’d shoot first a copper coin was flipped.
Mike won the toss. As Carpenter filled a cup with whiskey
Fink rammed powder and ball down the muzzle of his rifle.
Then he stepped off sixty paces while Carpenter set that cup
squarely on his steady head. Mike drew a bead, let lead fly.
Down the cup went, and Carpenter too, like a ton of cement,
as the bullet had met it’s mark at the center of his forehead.
That Mike Fink walked free after what was outright murder
drew the ire of some. But since no established law existed
he couldn’t be held accountable. As a ruse Mike apologized
profusely. He would blame the rifle, maybe too much liquor.
But Talbot, a close partner of Carpenter, he knew otherwise.
One day shortly thereafter Talbot strolled up to Mike Fink,
pulled out a gun and blasted a hole right through his heart.
Thomas Piekarski is a former editor of the California State Poetry Quarterly. His poetry has appeared in such publications as Poetry Quarterly, Literature Today, The Journal, Poetry Salzburg, Modern Literature, South African Literary Journal, Home Planet News. His books of poetry are Monterey Bay Adventures, Mercurial World and Aurora California.
When the story is told, it is/a joke, the dress, my uncle/wearing a woman to out/do and out do./ How funny the union/troops, too jacked on pride,/muscadine wine to notice/his favor. How funny, a dress, on a man/so manly the rebels holler no more/nor more you are too much/for us, your beauty, your grace,/no more. How queer,/how queer. Wearing what you will/and doing the will/of gods with a belly/full of want/the way kudzu wants./Forever.
He enjoyed it, I say
he preened, switched
and took the waist
to the bind, and stretched
long legs to move
like weather through a body
so tired of bodies’ blood;
a great happiness
rose up in the old cuss
and turned his eyes green
as kudzu clapping
the forest shut.
Did you Issac? Make love
to yourself as yourself
in your mind? Did you measure men
The swamp is hot, sticky, and wild as a mouth
devouring a mouth devouring
a mouth. Is that why
when this story is told
it is told with whispers?/We shall not queer/the memory of our hero?/ A man is only great/as his service/to manhood? Is it the secret yes/and yes and yes/ we cannot say/ out loud? That Issac loved
laying in the great swamp
of his heart, green branch touching green
branch, body of water spilling
into another body. In the swamp,
the nymphs that flower late
Cassandra Whitaker (they/them) is a trans writer from Virginia. Their work has been published in or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Hobart,The Little Patuxent Review, Foglifter, Evergreen Review, The Comstock Review, The Rumpus, and other places. They are a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
ON THE OCCASION OF TRACEY’S 54th BIRTHDAY, AND THE 175th BIRTHDAY OF SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN—Kim Roberts
“The most popular words used in the pages of Scientific American are displayed here by
frequency, from 1845 through 2020…Each year is represented by a single word, selected
through a text-analysis project that started with all 5,107 issues of the print magazine.”
How to get it down on paper?
The words, beyond what words require,
when the early outlines of day
steal over your beloved, a person
whose role in this act is to receive
all in you that’s sweet and good.
Rising from the well of sleep, she will turn
toward you with a great
effort, and her smallest sigh has a volume
and frequency you yearn to have.
Is it a new day, a new week?
She has filed a patent
on breath, that wave-like motion
you catch, that in her case
tightens around your own chest, a belt
whose accomplishment, whose improvement
cozens the finest invention.
For what more durable iron
can blood and breath render
than attention’s hum and strike
to the heart? Seeing the curve of her hip compose
the light, seeing the light bounce off tile,
how can you describe
it; although words exist for this purpose
alone, you think, to manufacture
from sleep’s locked stone—
sleep’s architecture of brick—
a waking of which the light must consist.
Desire rumbles through your body like a boiler,
before she rouses enough for you to ask,
while she still exists on the edge,
and her breathing tatters, taking a new direction
you can’t help but follow.
If breath is the emissary she can send,
this is an invitation, an engraving.
From the hollow of her chiseled mouth,
from her curves’ warm scent,
your zealotry finds no end.
You grab hold as if to a rope.
That rumble of desire now sounds through pipe,
where the capillaries catch hold,
and you are flowing in water.
You steal a look out the window, the plate
of the sun that all hopes contain,
but here next to you under the cover
she has learned to adapt
to your curiosity, the brush
of your fingertips, the preparation
you make as she swings into view.
It’s all happened so recently.
Now you’re an expert in her width,
you know her hands specially.
Your instinct to brake
as you hurtle, to damp the fire
in your engine, can’t stop this carriage.
You thunder like horse–
power. She goads your foot
to accelerate electric
and you fall headlong into the current.
There’s no teacher, no class
to instruct you in this switch—
you can only grab the smallest article
to glisten on as the engine
follows its unfamiliar track.
Your heart is mere mechanism,
a muscle as much as a machine
that compounds your interest.
For isn’t this commerce? A money
of a whole new order
while you rev your motor
as another dawn serves to prove
your tentative position?
She is an anchor to the present,
the way her lungs work,
raising and lowering her breasts, to build
a new day. She holds you in her power,
in the essential and necessary fact
that you devour so readily:
her swales and dips provide
a sanctity of place.
You plumb the tube
that encloses each yearned-for note.
Her parting legs show
each elegant unfolding whose span you seek.
It’s such an early hour.
The sun, caught in its course,
knows this is private business;
these limbs require no commercial
requisitions, need pass no test,
need cross no dotted line:
here’s a new definition of home.
There’s nothing less you’d give,
no realization more modern
or of such significant size
than this: gratitude complete.
The golden light is slow.
She is paging open like a book
on all that is daily, is practical.
Salutory as rubber,
vital as air,
she is everything shiny and new
you add up to: what use
is elevation without the high?
Although she does not yet open an eye,
this bed where you plant
your weight is an island, general
in size but as a geometric solution
she has learned to control
your every delicate instrument,
your rising temperature.
She knows the elements of the problem,
the integers she can write,
the x and the second x to solve.
Clever as a burrowing insect,
she has devised a system,
a calculation unique
enough to suit each component
you embody. Here in her space
her breathing holds a resonance
that is beyond number,
that rises above the specifics of your city,
that flames toward a heavenly point.
What is her special property?
She attracts the light.
It fills her degree by degree
with startling effect
until she becomes a supernova of energy.
Her brightness gains girth and area,
witness to this simple result:
she expands at the rate
that she accumulates her large
glow until it seems she can increase
no further. She is luminosity entire.
She is your radiant example.
Outside the morning’s advance, time
ticks on, and you annotate growth
lying next to her voltaic charge.
Should she move
you would magnetize her force,
and all it might include
would coalesce and group
into a kernel so strong
it could hijack every single
fascicle of your blood.
That’s the central issue.
You’re in the market
for all her information.
You want to school
yourself in her statistics: age,
every wonder and strange
pore and follicle, every hint
of her, none of it going to waste,
none of it blind,
all essential and key.
She’s become a kind of universe,
with nothing immaterial or extra.
You wait for the day’s sign.
Now you look at the clock;
she stretches, mumbles. Active
first, you have time to build your theory.
Soon her every cell
will wake to its similar
patterns: coffee and food.
Soon this reverie will shatter like ice;
she’ll go back to being human
rather than a compass for the world.
For now it’s enough: your need,
your devotion to know,
to follow the vagabond way
to revelation. The day strengthens to find
each particle of matter
converging for another moment, another year
on her. You make one more study
of her illumined face, you think
of all the words still to say—
then you hear your name. She calls.
Kim Roberts is the editor of the anthology By Broad Potomac’s Shore: Great Poems from the Early Days of our Nation’s Capital (University of Virginia Press, 2020), selected by the East Coast Centers for the Book for the 2021 Route 1 Reads program as the book that “best illuminates important aspects” of the culture of Washington, DC. She is the author of A Literary Guide to Washington, DC: Walking in the Footsteps of American Writers from Francis Scott Key to Zora Neale Hurston (University of Virginia Press, 2018), and five books of poems, most recently The Scientific Method (WordTech Editions, 2017). Her sixth book, Corona/Crown, a cross-disciplinary chapbook created in collaboration with photographer Robert Revere, is forthcoming from WordTech Editions in 2023. http://www.kimroberts.org
Nightmarish shades of darkening blue cascaded into one another, moving continuously downward. The slosh of ocean clanged through iron girders, creating a bedroom echo in the corrugated steel cabin, like a leaky faucet. Crayola-colored fins, sparked outside the porthole beside blankets, shag carpeting, and stuffed toys in their jellyfish fur. Life at last!
Ethan closed his eyes, imagining the tapestry of zoophytes, vials of frizzed polyps, and tube worms dancing in the bioluminescent wilderness. He was desperate to stay focused, fighting to keep his seascape intact as the thought of Isaac scrambled the nodes of his brain, leaving him marooned somewhere else entirely.
He opened the cardboard hatch, cut from a leftover moving box, peering above the cramped bathysphere to where the captain stood, a serious confident man with a handsome face, coat flapping in evening mist, and silk-soft eyes, dark with wild tales of many leagues.
“Captain Nemo,” Ethan said. “What are your orders?”
“Monsieur Arronnax,” Isaac giggled. “Take the Nautilus down to 6,000 fathoms. We’re journeying into the Mariana Trench.”
Ethan threw the pillow ballast overboard where it sank under the aquatic veneer, crayon squid still passing by his field of view. Captain Nemo brooded for a moment and moved to the bathroom sink, turning the spigots to mimic the release of safety valves as the Nautilus submerged into a twilight zone. He returned smelling of sweet salt from days washed ashore as they huddled together, encased in a metallic sphere, waiting for a signal.
Ethan’s mom flicked on the light. “Boys, come out or you’re going to miss your show.”
And just like that Ethan’s world went astray, the submarine was totaled, and in its place: the leftover husk of Isaac’s last moving box in a bedroom full of nautical trinkets. It hadn’t been long enough, any of it. A summer? What was that? The blink of an eye? Going to miss the show? He was going to miss everything. The dark blue eyes, the goofy smile, the quiet contemplation like watching a monk, the way he would stroll over from across the street each day in smooth silent movements, appearing like a confident shadow of Ethan, how he pronounced Ethan’s name with just enough gusto to make Ethan’s cheeks go involuntarily red. And now his parents would be dragging him away from the beach house back to the dull townhouse, and homework, and the incoming avalanche of a new teenage life. And worse, Isaac would be relocating so desperately far. Utah he’d said. Basically another planet, a region of Mars perhaps. A family restationed by the invisible merciless hand of the US military.
“This isn’t some show,” they could hear Ethan’s dad correct. “It’s history.”
In the living room, the adults had pulled bright leather chairs around the wood-paneled television set, a curved belly of noise and movement with its knobs and toggles, a new model that now broadcast in color. Neighbors smoked and poured drinks like it was the holidays. Ethan’s dad rambled on about deep-sea excursions of Jacques Piccard and the first aquanauts, playing the professor the way he loved to at dinner parties. Ethan took a slice of blue-frosted cake from the tray and sat with Isaac, attempting to share, taking in the cool-calm aura that seemed to flow around Isaac like a second skin.
Then came images of Maritime Station, Navy men with identical haircuts and narrow shoulders lined up and smiling at the press, outfitted into strange clanking suits, superhero helmets, and bulky compression-resistance joints locking into place as they stepped into spherical chambers like something out of a Kubrick film.
“What’s all the fuss about anyway?” Isaac’s mom asked, blowing nicotine into the reflective glow of the screen. “It’s so dark and dreadful down there.”
“To beat those damned Soviet bastards,” Ethan’s dad said. He pushed back his hair like a big-time actor, and smiled the way Ethan’s dad smiled after he’d downed several bottles, slipping into silly flag-thumping monologues, breath going sour and acrid with beer.
In the late Fifties, Soviet explorations into the Mariana Trench had sent the US scrambling and ignited what was called the Waves Race. Specialized Navy scientists and engineers vied for spots aboard iron domes, plunked below the seas on thick copper coils—an atomic competition, spiraling downward into the mystic dark of international waters.
Isaac stole bites of Ethan’s cake, licking his frosting lips, smiling at Ethan and the jazzed-up adults. Somehow he was still smiling. A taciturn soldier for a family, a new house with each change of military tactic, an oceanic world he didn’t even care about, a universe collapsing in on them and still he was smiling. Maybe Isaac was just braver than him.
“It’s simple,” Ethan’s father said, lighting his pipe. “When those Russians watch us reach the bottom, they’ll know we can build military bases down there, slide undetected under the seas, weaponize them, do whatever we damn well want. They’ll think twice about launching anything silly when we’ve got deep-sea missiles and subs pointing at ‘em.”
Ethan tried to imagine it, the steel nuclear jaws of a shark from below. He shivered and knew he’d hate to be those Russians right about now.
“Remember the chaos of those Cubans and Khrushchev back in ‘62? Ninety miles off and everyone losing their heads? Heck, we’ll submerge ourselves nine miles off on every side, with our superior aquanautics, they won’t be able to do a damned thing.”
Isaac’s dad, a big quiet military man, chimed in, “He who controls the sea controls every shore.”
Everyone stared wide-eyed at the screen and then out the windowpane toward the Massachusetts Cape and its blinking lighthouses.
First men to walk at the bottom of the ocean, Ethan thought. What a time to be alive, to smell the fresh New England air, to own a TV and a thousand other electronic gadgets innovating their way toward Atlantis dreams and the final shore of black. Ethan turned to see Isaac looking bored and fiddling with his sleeves, and pulling him to the kitchen, he opened the fridge and handed Isaac a glass of Pepsi through the cigar smoke.
“I’m gonna ask my dad for scuba gear come my birthday, diving lessons too.”
Isaac popped the cap off. “You’re really into all this stuff?”
“What’s not to be into?”
Isaac motioned to where his dad sat grim as a stone amongst the other adults. “It’s mostly cold black emptiness is all. Not fond of that Russian war stuff either.”
“No, no, it’s about science. There’s a whole world down there. Habitats like jungles. This expedition is monumental, something we’ll tell our kids about.”
“Our kids,” Isaac said, still fiddling with sleeves. “Right.”
Ethan could see Cronkite droning on in the background, talking to a scientist about suit compression mechanics and gas cylinders with a black-and-white diagram. “You wanna voyage some more on the Nautilus? I’m pretty sure this plunge isn’t happening for a while, it’s barely eight o’clock.”
Isaac frowned. “Maybe another time.”
Ethan knew there wouldn’t be another time. They were getting too old for make-believe adventures in moving boxes. The circumstances and pomp of the day shrouded him in one last hurrah, but it was slipping away. The uncomfortable childishness of it all had crashed down on him the moment his mom switched the lights on, as if focusing a beam on an ugly cockroach…or underwater flashbulbs on a squirming fish.
“It’s just kind of cramped,” Isaac said.
Ethan was crestfallen. He turned to leave the kitchen, but Isaac grabbed his arm. “Hey, wait, I didn’t–” he seemed to be struggling too, and searched for words. “Monsieur Arronnax, tell me about diving.”
Ethan smiled, felt himself float a little, and regaled his captain with astounding tales of the slick spooky-blue glow when submerging under, the feeling of breathing through a high-tech straw while living like an action figure, and other nautical things he hadn’t really experienced. They moved to the bedroom and leafed through his bookshelf. Ethan ignited with stories of the writers who had started it all—biologists, engineers, and math wizards who had looked out from the shore with wispy tidal dreams for their future, which they were told to abandon, and instead had typed into existence like swinging a magic wand upon the liquid firmament of the Earth.
The boys pushed past volumes on cephalopods and cetaceans, sweeping adventure logs of Jacques Cousteau, and pressed their fingers to speculative pages, taking in the bells and whistles of science fiction: Verne’s Nautilus creeping past 20,000 leagues, Frank Herbert’s The Dragon in the Sea mining the abyss for oil, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Journey to Atlantis and its barnacle covered monoliths. Their heads fizzled with the thought of ocean pressure and brine remolding the world.
“Let me show you something,” Ethan said.
Knowing he had Isaac’s full attention, Ethan took out a shell, this beautiful swirl on the back shelf. But before he allowed Isaac to handle its smooth contours, before he made Isaac press it to his ear, before he could ask the Captain to keep it, there was an adult calling from the kitchen, telling them to come quick. The plunge had begun. In the living room, Ethan, still gripping too many unsaid words in his hands, waded through the adults to sulk on the couch.
“August 26th in this year of 1971,” Cronkite announced, “with the eyes of the world watching, man descends into the abyss, plunging into adventurous depths previously unfathomed, for a glimpse of mankind’s future.”
The broadcast panned to Guam and a closeup of NOMA leader Don Walsh explaining the logistics of the submarine. An uncrushable alloy sphere with a reinforced circular windowpane of ground quartz was linked to a self-propelled flotation chamber, chock-full of propulsion tanks and liquid gas for buoyancy.
Then the scene cut to live images of the Challenger Deep, the holy grail of the Mariana Trench. The screen went monochromatic and blurred. Everyone squinted and pushed in close to get a sense of what they were looking at. The broadcast came live from the arm of the sub, no doubt, under crushing hydrostatic pressure. An orbed silhouette encompassed most of the screen. The aquanauts read depth measurements at 30,000 feet, then 30,500 feet, then 31,000 feet, minute after minute of shadows. The vessel looked stationary as it descended. Cloudy grains floated upward, the only movement in waves of air bubbles.
The adults shifted in their seats as the crackling messages came in: Poseidon 6 to Guam, Guam back to Poseidon 6, meaningless techno-babble coordinates. The Poseidon 6 was still maintaining position and trajectory.
Finally, Isaac spoke up. “I can’t see anything. It’s all smudgy.”
He was hushed by adults, but only spoke louder. “There’s nothing even happening. They might as well be exploring a hunk of the moon.”
Just then, the orb twirled into docking position for its final descent. Its motion stirred the world of twisted fish and micro-organisms below, and the screen exploded with light. On the television, a neon cathedral spread open with a million tiny creatures winking back at mankind in a friendly bioluminescent hello.
Everyone went silent; Isaac didn’t even take his eyes away to sip his Pepsi. The sea floor glittered madly as the vessel docked.
“35,859 feet,” the transmission stated.
From worlds far far above, lakes of fish debris fell like December snow. From the steel orb, a tube extended, a hatch slid open, and the aquanauts emerged. Their suits were stainless steel alloy and tungsten, plated in cavorite for buoyancy. Boots and gloves and helmets of clangorous giants. When they walked, the pressure must have been immense, because they dragged their feet up and planted them in clumsy movements, as if they were cheap Hollywood robots roving across a stage set. At that depth, the pressure should’ve flattened them like pancakes, squashed them into relentless oblivion so quickly it wouldn’t register onscreen. A single pinhole leak in their containment suits would have shot them full of water faster than any bullet known to science.
“Well, that’s one helluva dive for us all,” said the first aquanaut, Tom Mount, his voice crackling like tinfoil over the waves to homes across America. Young superstar Aquanaut Brett Gilliam trudged forward next with a special US flag made from reinforced titanium, nickel, and graphene. Together they held the pole delicately in their hulking gloves, so the flag wouldn’t crumple in front of an enraptured public. Animals stirred like pixie dust around them. Everyone cheered, abuzz with energy. The Aquanauts shuffled around on the seafloor, with giant isopods zooming about at their aluminum feet like jackrabbits. They soon returned to the capsule, no doubt to recover from the grueling weight bearing down on them. Meanwhile, the adults in Ethan’s living room poured more drinks and patted themselves on the back for being American and sticking it to the Kremlin.
Ethan imagined what it might have been like, stepping into those phosphorescent forests of coral, the dazzling volcanic fumes, staring up into a wondrous primordial abyss. He grabbed Isaac by the wrist, who followed without question, stupefied by the world and possibilities he’d seen on the screen.
They left the house, and crept in the night, through seagrass and marsh until they reached dunes. The tidal rhythm of the North Atlantic rippled before them. Far down the shoreline, toward jetties and clam flats, crowds were already gathering to contemplate the majesty of the sea and wonder at two men strolling around somewhere far below them, continents away.
“You want to jump in the ocean?” Isaac asked.
Ethan nodded. There was some twisted cage within him that he needed to wash away.
“Okay, but you first,” Isaac said.
“It’s like Tom and Brett, the aquanauts on TV. You gotta be the first.”
Ethan stood awkwardly in wet sand. He hadn’t thought this through and hadn’t brought a bathing suit. He panic-walked into the surf, waves splashed over him until he was submerged in foam and salt stung his eyes. His clothes were heavy with seawater, pulled down with the weight of it all. When he emerged, he was sopping wet and sand had settled in his hair.
“Hurry up,” Ethan said. “I’m freezing now.”
“Monsieur,” Isaac said, crossing his arms.” You didn’t even take your shoes off.”
“Were you embarrassed or something?”
Ethan looked away, then nodded.
“Well,” Isaac said. “I’m not.”
Suddenly, Isaac kissed him on the cheek, in an unmistakable way. Then got down to his shorts and went running in, his pale body just barely visible in the hunk of moonlight.
The universe went silent. A great dreamy pressure hung there and Ethan knew what it must have felt like for the aquanauts in the trench, in one moment, to step into a world so unfathomably alien and fantastical. As Isaac burst into the waves, Ethan half-expected to see a bioluminescent halo dripping off him.
“Helluva dive,” Ethan murmured.
On the way back, Ethan tried not to shiver. The streets were alive with people laughing, with fireworks above, horns honking from yachts and sailboats on the bay, and kids on bicycles flying down the boardwalk.
“Are you crying?” Isaac asked as they walked.
“No, it’s just the saltwater.”
“I’ll come visit you know.” There was a shakiness in Isaac’s voice as he said this, a ripple in the cool-calm field he exuded as tufts of the sandy beach swept by in the breeze, like the remnants of an hourglass.
When they returned to the beach house, the adults were all still so ecstatic that no one even minded when they trudged in, dripping water onto the new shag carpet. The boys changed into pajamas and fell exhausted into the bunk beds, Isaac climbing to the top.
Lights switched off and Ethan spent a long time restless, closing his eyes in the faint glow of a lava lamp to images of psychedelic shrimp, translucent pulpy enigmas of the deep, men in amphibious futuristic gear, bending into leaden pendulum spheres, on and on, like counting sheep; and light-beam tendrils brushing his cheek.
Finally, Ethan whispered into the void. “Hey Captain, you asleep up there?”
“No,” Isaac answered from above. “But I am dreaming.”
“Yeah,” he said, “me too.”
And in the moment Ethan said this, he felt this silly battle to breathe underwater had finally cleared away, and in its place was something novel and blameless, buoyed above the waves where everything was diveable…if only he stayed brave enough.
So, the boys watched orbs of light swim against walls, pretending there were graceful sea monsters raging at the foot of the bunk bed, leaving them wonderfully shipwrecked until dawn.
Francis Felix Rosa is the author of the children’s book Cryptidpedia. His prose has appeared in the Big Bend Literary Magazine. In 2018 he was the recipient of Wheaton College’s Helen Meyers Tate Memorial Prize for Original Verse. A wandering New Englander, he currently resides in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Looking back, I realize I had a serious crush on Joe. People didn’t think that way in 1949, but I should have figured it out the day he told me he was leaving Pensacola as soon as his enlistment was up at the end of the year.
“I’m sick of the Navy,” he said. It was June, and we were eating grilled cheese sandwiches together in front of the PX. “I’m outta here, off to Montana, someplace like that.”
I knew I would miss Joe but was afraid he might not miss me. I wanted him to stay, but for some confused reason, I didn’t understand then, thought it was better he was leaving.
We met at NAS Pensacola in February 1947, on the first day of my first job. We were punching out on the time clock at the base’s north gate, and when I told him I was a newbie, he immediately took me to a bar nearby for a welcome-to-the-nav beer. I was only eighteen and got carded, so ended up sipping a pop while Joe talked. He was raised in New Orleans, played shortstop on the all-city junior baseball team there, drafted in 1943, re-upped in 1945. The high point of his navy career was maintaining the aircraft that downed three hundred Japanese planes in the “Marianas Turkey Shoot,” during the Battle of the Philippines in 1944.
On his baseball-sized bicep, Joe had a tattoo of a Hellcat, the plane flown by The Blue Angels in aerial shows at parks and fairs, and wore a Bronze Star pinned to his uniform, the true sign of a genuine hero. When I asked if I could read the back, he turned the medal upside down and I leaned close to see: Awarded for Heroic or Meritorious Achievement. I smelled his Aqua Velva aftershave too, which was nice.
“What’s your story?” he asked.
“From Apalachicola originally. Now I live with my mother in an old pile downtown. My father was killed at Dunkirk and I wanted to join up right after I graduated, but there were too many sailors still enlisted from the war, so I got a job on base instead.”
“I don’t mean that, Ace. I’m asking if you’ve ever been laid. You look like you just started shaving last week.”
“Shit yeah,” I said.
Joe must have known I was fibbing, because he slapped my back and laughed one of his big old laughs, and from that moment on, we were friends. We went to movies at the Highway 90 Drive-In; drove around in his father’s 1939 Hudson while he bragged about his latest conquest of a horny, small-town girl, and I basked in his glow. I told him I was sick of “pussy soda pop,” so he got me a fake ID and we started going to bars in Pensacola Beach.
Sometimes I had strange feelings around him, like when he drove with his shirt off, one arm draped over the driver’s side door, and I found myself staring at his muscles and the tufts of hair in the middle of his chest. Or when he changed into his bathing suit behind the car door at the beach and my mind went totally blank at the sight of him naked. Or when he hugged me at the party my mother threw for my nineteenth birthday and my underwear tightened up.
I started figuring things out that night Joe told me was moving away. When he dropped me off at home, I slammed the car door and walked inside without saying goodbye. I ate the fried chicken and biscuits my mother left in the oven, and took a shower, then sat in my favorite chair in the parlor and drank a pop while I read the Pensacola Journal. Below the fold was a story about a federal government report that called homosexuality a mental illness and documented what the report called “sex perverts” being fired from jobs in Washington.
What if I do have feelings for him, I remember asking myself. That doesn’t make me a pervert. I chugged the pop, threw the paper in the trash, and went to bed.
After his enlistment was up, Joe didn’t move right away. He wanted to be a mechanic for one of the commercial airlines, but he was having trouble finding the right spot. On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops surged over the border into South Korea, and the Korean War began. Joe was the only person I knew with a television, so I went over to his trailer to watch the news report.
The reception was bad, so we sat on a porch he built off the side of his trailer. He opened a wooden ice box and pulled out a tall jar of Hurricanes, a rum and fruit juice drink from New Orleans.
“How’s the job?” he asked. “You still on base?”
“Yeah, busy, with everything happening in Korea. They’ve been sending me to Point Magu out in California to set up a records system for training Seabees out there. Paperwork never ends…”
“I’d get sick of sitting at a desk all day.”
“You get used to it, but I know what you mean. I’ve started back at that gym on base where we used to go in the afternoons. It breaks up the day.”
“And it shows, Ace. You used to be such a pencil.” Joe lifted his leg and touched his shoe against my thigh.
A gust of wind blew over from the creek as we passed the jar back and forth. Nuts falling from the pecan tree cracked like little bullets on the metal roof of a carport where Joe parked his new F100 pickup.
“Nice truck.” I took another swallow from the jar, started to feel its effects, and handed it back. “Remember that old Hudson? You looked great in that car.”
Joe smiled and we went back inside, but the news show was over, so we watched Joe’s favorite program instead—The Lone Ranger—about a cowboy in a mask and his young Indian companion, Tonto, fighting for law and order in the Old West.
“Big man and his friend, what about that?” Ray slurred and grinned. I was drunker than I had ever been in my life, but it must have occurred to me where this might go, where I probably wanted it to go. He had talked before about navy guys getting horny on long cruises and fooling around. During the second commercial, my head fell against his shoulder.
I woke up the next morning in Joe’s bed, both of us naked, my head resting on his chest. As the sky began to light, he woke up too, and we started talking—about his truck, his job search, his girlfriend, Tanya, and the new computer I used at my job–anything but what had just occurred. I loved feeling his chest rumble against my cheek as he spoke, and eventually drifted back to sleep.
An hour later, the blazing sun jolted me back to reality and I jumped from the bed like I’d been shot out of a gun. I pulled on my clothes and rushed out without saying goodbye. That was the last time I ever saw Joe.
After leaving his trailer, I spent the rest of the day locked in my room. Whenever I closed my eyes, I kept imagining the two of us together. That night, I couldn’t sleep. I kept pulling at myself, hating myself. At two a.m., I yanked an extension cord out of the wall and whipped my body, then threw it down on the floor. The cuts left permanent scars on my abdomen.
My job was planning and organizing training programs, and I decided what to do next in a way I was comfortable with. I made a list:
1. Get as far away from Joe as possible, as soon as possible.
2. Never walk or talk in a feminine way.
3. Avoid eye contact with men who look that way, so others won’t notice and make assumptions about me.
4. Avoid handsome men who might make my mind wander.
5. Avoid books and magazines with suggestive photographs and themes.
6. Avoid places where men are likely to remove articles of clothing that might invite disturbing thoughts—gyms, beaches, parks, sporting events, construction sites.
7. Find a girl and get married.
8. Be vigilant, all the time, everywhere.
I met Piper at an Independence Day parade in downtown Pensacola and we got married the day after Thanksgiving. She was a secretary at Baptist Hospital, and wanted a little house, a garden, kids; things I thought I could be proud of. I arranged a transfer to Whiting Field, a naval training facility in Milton, twenty-five miles from Pensacola, and Joe.
We liked Milton. It was a smaller town, and quieter.The Blue Angels were based there, and on the wall of their hanger, unfortunately, was a giant image of their mascot plane, a Hellcat, the same image tattooed on Joe’s bicep. Walking by it every day, I remembered things that made me feel dirty and disgusting, a different species than the pilots, our heroes, who worked in that very building. Despite my best efforts, I was weak, didn’t always follow the plan. I bought physique magazines with pictures of oiled-up men in thongs with soft, welcoming eyes, and used them as a tool to find release.
Around then, I read in Time magazine about a book that had just been published and was creating quite a stir. It was called Sexual Behavior in the Human Male by Alfred Kinsey, and claimed over a third of American men had had a homosexual experience at some point in their lives.
Seoul was captured in March of 1951, and the Chinese joined the war. Trained recruits were in great demand on the west coast, and I spent more and more time at Point Magu. Piper was pregnant by then and wanted to stay near her family in Pensacola, so we decided not to move, and I went back and forth on transport flights every other week.
Point Magu was an hour north of Los Angeles, and when Frank, another civilian employee on base there, invited me to share the driving one weekend, I was ready for a break and agreed.
We checked into separate rooms in a hotel off Hollywood Boulevard, then Frank asked if I was up for an adventure, and I said sure, so we drove to a neighborhood between Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles called Silver Lake.
Frank parked on Sunset Boulevard across from a bar called The Black Cat. The place was packed with men talking to each other over loud music; some with shirts partially unbuttoned, showing off muscles and hairy chests. The Black Cat was a homosexual bar, the first I had ever been to, and I felt like I was suddenly inhabiting a different planet. So many men, just like me!
When a man in the drink line smiled and introduced himself to us, Frank winked at me and went to the other end of the bar. The man was dressed in a business suit with his collar unbuttoned—an accountant at one of the film studios. The thing I remember most, believe it or not, is the feeling of his lips brushing my ear as he stood close, his tailored beard touching my neck, hand in the small of my back. He had to go after a few minutes, so we kissed and he gave me his telephone number on a matchbook cover.
As Frank and I left, a young kid on the sidewalk out front handed me a flier from a group called The Mattachine Society. It described a legal case involving a local man, Dale Jennings, who had recently sued the police for entrapment, and won.
“It was he-said, he-said,” the kid told me. “No other witnesses. This means we’re innocent until proven guilty, finally. Homo sex might not be legal, but it’s a lot harder to prosecute now, in California anyway.”
If the legal system acknowledged, even in a small way, that I wasn’t evil or disgusting or perverted, did that mean I was just a regular person, that I didn’t have anything to be ashamed of? It was exhilarating to consider, but as we walked to the car, I remembered what I was returning to, in Point Magu and also Pensacola, where Piper was waiting, pregnant with my child. When Frank and I got in the car, I sat in the driver’s seat, balling like some fool, pounding my head against the steering wheel until blood crept down my forehead.
Frank took me in his arms. I had made my first gay friend.
On July 27, 1953, an armistice was signed with a recognized border at the 38th parallel. The previous fall, when I returned to Pensacola on one of the transport flights, I told Piper the truth and she wasn’t surprised. “You light up like a bulb whenever you talk about Joe,” she said. And she’d found my magazines, too.
We divorced amicably. I arranged a permanent transfer to Point Magu and found a studio apartment in Ventura, the first time I’d lived alone. A couple of years later, I got a job at a computer company in Los Angeles and moved there. I regularly sent money to Piper for our daughter Misty, though Piper’s new husband forbade her from having any contact with me.
I dated men on and off over the years, but still felt dirty and disgusting, deep down, and my relationships never lasted very long. I was lonely, hung out at bathhouses, and tested positive for HIV in 1984. I never got AIDS, unlike several of my friends who died that first year—usually alone. I was one of the lucky ones, but often felt like I didn’t deserve to be.
Then, in 1986, I met Arthur and my world turned around. “I didn’t give you a choice,” Arthur likes to say. “You were mine, and that was that.” I was over fifty then, but still had trouble thinking of myself as a real man, a man who was capable of happiness, so Arthur sent me to a therapist who said rules about who can do what with who are getting less strict, and people aren’t condemned for who they love so much anymore.
That’s true, of course, even more now than it was back then. Young gay men these days have an easier time coming out than I did. There’s still a lot of shit up in my noggin that keeps me awake nights—how disappointed my mother was when she found out about me; the meanness I showed to boyfriends over the years, hating myself for wanting them; the bitterness and resentment that my career flattened out in my thirties when my bosses realized I wasn’t going the way of the straight and narrow. Misty died in a car accident a few months after graduating college in ‘72, so I never got a chance to meet my only child.
Even at my age, some days are better than others.
But there’s always Arthur. Things are fine when it’s just the two of us in our little bungalow, him tending his garden out back and me playing with my beagle named—you guessed it—Joe.
Maybe someday we’ll all be a little more like Joe, a happy warrior who loved who he wanted to love and was loved right back.
Blair Jockers grew up in the South and loves to write about it. He was a finalist for the Allegra Johnson Prize at the UCLA Writers Program and earned an MFA at the University of California, Riverside. Blair lives with his husband in Palm Springs, California.
Sometimes We Just Want History to Repeat—Karen Paul Holmes
One of the last times Father managed to stand in the kitchen
to chop and to stir his Macedonian Bean Soup,
we captured notes on paper now tomato-stained.
The five of us keep trying to recreate him.
Soak great Northerns.
Brown ham hocks, onions, peppers with paprika.
Simmer until we can't wait any longer.
Analyze our success.
If Brother has added enough red chili flakes to scorch throats,
he smirks like Father did, The devil made me do it.
At Angelo’s Coney Island, Father gave customers the menu
they expected and wanted again and again.
If they moved across country,
they’d send for his frankfurters and chili sauce.
He and Angelo opened the place after WWII
and entered Michigan’s coney-dog wars.
News stories, even a coffee table book, recount
the ongoing clash since 1914: the Detroit-Greeks’ wet chili
versus the Flint-Macedonians’ dry.
And we can almost reconstruct Dad’s secret sauce,
finely crumbled, spiced and browned beef, moist but never wet!
People hunger for oldies but goodies, don’t they?
I cherished Joni Mitchell in my college days
for her new and strange open-tuned chords, the words
that made me think my life was hers. But last time I saw her live,
it was her big-band phase. The audienceand I refused
to let her move on.
One fan shouted: Buck it up, Joni, and another: Sing “Cary!”
She finally gave us “Circle Game,” raspy,
so perfectly transformed by her age, and mine,
I ached to slow those circles down.
The older we get, the more we crave history.
At our rare reunions, we five siblings tackle it.
Today, it’s baklava. Cinnamon and walnuts in their filo aerie,
crisped with butter, butter, butter.
Oldest Sister drenches the oven-hot masterpiece
with honey syrup, not drowning the pastry layers
into a pile of soggy leaves.
It’s just like we want it to be.
Like the babas in the kitchen at St. Nicholas
rolling dough tissue-thin until it hangs
over the table’s edge like a cloth
the way their babas taught them in the village.
It tastes like the Name Days of Gus Branoff or Kosta Popoff
and Balkan dances at our weddings:
something important to hold onto and pass down.
The crunch in mouths, gold flakes falling.
Karen Paul Holmes has two poetry collections, No Such Thing as Distance (Terrapin Books) and Untying the Knot (Aldrich Press). Her poems have been featured on The Writer’s Almanac and The Slowdown. Publications include Diode, Plume, Verse Daily, and Prairie Schooner.
The Songster and the Horses—a Hollywood Elegy with Cocaine—Fiction by Nick Sweeney
Bass-fiddler-about-town Edvald Ebert found the place at a crossroads off Glendale, a mansion going for a song.
“Which song?” songster-at-large Stephen thought out loud. He forgot that Ebert always answered rhetorical questions. Didn’t Americans know you weren’t supposed to do that?
Ebert: “If I can’t think of one, you can…” Agitated his elegant fiddling fingers.
“Scribe one.” Ebert had thought carefully about the right word and found the wrong one. “With your little quill.” The mockery of it—Ebert had admired Stephen’s little quill often enough. Appropriate, however. With Vaudeville dead—or at least stuck to its sticky ould boards in once-great cities and podunk towns held together only by their dirt—Angel City was set to be the new home of sound as well as vision.
Stephen could never remember the finer details of the rental, or what the connection was or…anything else. Didn’t matter; he was moving in anyhow. Nothing about it was important once Stephen was sleeping in its upstairs turret or kicking around its empty salons, the sun coloring its white walls as it saw fit.
The ould brain fog suffered no colors—always white, it was—and accompanied Stephen every place, inside, outside, in conversation, in the silences that settled on him like the gentle snow of Galway that whited out the green world in a matter of minutes.
Stephen kept seeing a horse out in the road, the morning it collapsed and brought down its carted driver, cursing as his goods, lovingly canned and jarred, cascaded around him. Sundry tomatoes in the cracks in the pavement forever like smears of blood marking some centuries-old massacre of natives. That equine beast cared not about being liberated either from the Wild West itself or the version of it Laemmie and Baumann were brewing at Universal—open now, loud and proud and promising the future with the aid of showgirl cowgirls tired of the West. Stephen would pay good money or bad to see a Jewish western. Set it in Vienna, o that was the thing, blow those tumbleweeds out of the picture, let the absurd Stetson guys chase them, their chaps flapping, spurs tinkling like those falling jars of produce.
Couldn’t happen every day. The street outside would be full of dead steeds and cussing carters, food in perpetual motion. Stephen saw it every day. He decided not to mind.
No horse now, a car engine thrumming.
“Gig.” Ebert chucked Stephen the key. He edged past him, shrugging into a big box jacket more a duster coat prop from Universal, his watch chain, billfold, silk scarf, car rug, stubby horsehair bow, stained sheets of popular songs, Stephen’s among them—probably—flying around him and engulfing him in a vacuum that propelled him toward the door. Ebert’s man Arnold lugging a pigskin suitcase then, then back for the infernal bull-fiddle, of course, monstrous thing in a jacket that looked more expertly made than Ebert’s and Stephen’s own. Work was taking him away.
“Miami, I think.”
Ebert left his Mongolian horse-head cello behind. Who would want to hear a thing like that? Its affable but intrusive eyes watched Stephen. He placed Ebert’s fancy shades over them—that settled its inquisitive hash. This was America. It was not Dublin with its twitching curtains and ever-seeing biddies and bizzies.
“Miami?” Stephen barely knew where Miami was. Ebert probably had as little idea. He would turn out to be a grand fellow to share with, Stephen predicted: rarely showing his flat but handsome Saxon face, restless, out before he was properly back in each time.
“I will miss you,” he said, all the same. Or did he say kiss you? Well, he would do both. Arnold raised an eyebrow, took his leave, not quite inscrutable.
Stephen tinkled the piano—grand so, only out of tune in the highest octave. He scattered words, unconscious reminder of the bad poet he had been. He dispatched the results off to all corners of the environs: Beverly hills, Laurel Canyon, Hollywood—of course—and noted the paperwork that came back, songs for this and that destination, places Stephen could not bring himself to care about. He consigned them to M’sieur Lucifer Lemond, as his agent liked to be called, though in fact he was about as French as Stephen’s green Hibernian buttocks—make that beggar work for his twelve percent—and forgot them all. That was exactly what his despicable throwaway music deserved, and no more.
That man of Ebert’s Arnold brought Stephen oblivion in small packets and vials, making his days and nights difficult to punctuate. There were girls, but none of them were boyish Fiat Mackenzie with her Polaire hair—he had really been mad in love with that scandalously-bobbed creature now making a name in the movies. He was sometimes mistaken: was it love at all, or just the absence of part of a dream gone bad? But the dream had captured the truth too, meanly wouldn’t let it go: love in the first degree, a curse worthy of an upsided carter over a dead horse.
Fiat was on billboards out there. He was happy for her, except that he wasn’t…He dared not look at those dashed billboards.
The girls were not Fiat Mackenzie, and were not going to be with their bulging chests and yards of Gibson Girl hair. He dallied and danced with those stray girls anyhow, ate only red peppers, ingested only milk. He threw himself into his work. And as advised by Ebert, he scribed. I hate these songs, he woke each morning and said to his mirror, to Arnold—possibly out loud, though Arnold had a way of studying him critically without moving a facial muscle—to the absent Ebert, to…girls.
“Newspapers,” he commanded Arnold. He was in his mid-morning trance when they came, left on the hallway table with more peppers, more milk, some choice thing only certain doctors ordered, and two new syringes.
Going to be a war, he realised, back in the grown-old continent, Europe. The Balkans exploding. The whole place would go up, only dear ould Ireland intact. Then who would want to hear Two Way Tilly at the Top? Or The Hooray Girls? Who would want to sing along to The Waldorf Wows of Winter? Stephen had forgotten those songs already, but they were out there now, slow poison; it was too late. Perhaps the world being so full of enraging music was what would help drive it toward war?
It would never stop yawing around him, that New World in which he was a speck. It was the future, right enough. Europe was a sleepy village in comparison, its troubles mere grumbles. America would barely stop moving long enough for the troubles to be identified, let alone addressed.
It was a young man’s country. Stephen, at twenty-nine, felt on the cusp of old age in America. A portrait of the dreadful Dublin poet he had once been came back to him, bidden by some powder-driven demon in his brain, he supposed—bad cess to him. His own fault, he sometimes saw. Or Chatterton’s.
Chatterton knew the secret of eternal youth. And there they were forever young: Stephen and Thomas—Tommy, sleek as a racehorse, Thomas Equinus, if you will—out on a glorious Dublin drunk, not needing to talk about poetry all night, just living it, and needing to sleep off the ten-guinea hangover together in some dreadful bed and churn out the genial outchurnings. An hour, two, ink on paper, drying, forgotten, almost, ready for posterity to ponder it and to hell with it, and then back to the Brazen Head for the hair of the horse. Thomas—little Tommo, the beauty – and Stephen.
Was that really only a dream, and a daydream, at that? Rimbaud knew the secret, too. So close, in time, and place; Stephen always ached a little to know that he and Rimbaud had never met, though he was a shit, by all accounts. But he knew to do the poetry, leave the scribblings behind for eternity and its dwellers, then away with you to do a man’s job among tribesmen, and women, and animals, under the burning sun that never touched a backwater like Dublin. That was the grand tour, eh, Arthur? No glorious drunking with Rimbaud, Stephen suspected, only an evening of the poet’s hair increasingly spikier with the piss he refused to wash from his hands, his cravat grubbier, his expression meaner, more scathing, as he looked at Stephen and decided, very suddenly, that he wanted to stab him just in case he might be more talented, and, worse, might be seen to be so. Well, feck him. In America, they would have stabbed him back.
Outside, a cry, a falling horse, knowing the automobile was on its tail and suitably mortified. It was morning. Inside, mysteriously free of his master’s sunglasses, the cello-trapped horse scrutinized Stephen, looked over his cheap melodies and trite rhymes, and he knew—a onetime poet just knew—let out a great horse-laugh.
Nick Sweeney’s work reflects his interest in/obsession with Byzantium, bike racing, and Eastern Europe and its people, places, languages, and cultures. He is a freelance writer and musician, and lives on the English coast. More than any sane person could possibly want to know about him can be found at http://www.nicksweeneywriting.com
Welcome to the first of our Americana Stories podcasts! This new series of programs will highlight the writers, staff, and workthat define the museum and its mission of reenvisioned Americana in poetry, prose, art, and music. In today’s inaugural episode, prose editor Lauren Alwan chats with the newest member of the museum team, prose editorial assistant Montéz Jennings, about her move west from Baltimore, her studies in the MFA program at Chapman University, how region informs food culture, Hitchcock’s Psycho versus John Carpenter’s Halloween, post-human rhetoric, and much more.
Listen to our first episode now!
Montéz Jennings is a fiction and non-fiction writer from Baltimore city. She is a dual degree graduate student studying English and creative writing at Chapman University, where she currently teaches a horror-themed English and rhetoric course. After receiving her BA from the University of Baltimore, she taught high school English, 6th grade ELA, and then decided to pursue her MFA. In August 2020, she drove across the country to make adventures in Orange County, California. She has received the Harriet Williams Emerging Writers Award and presented at RSA (Rhetoric Society of America conference), and writes under the name Montéz Louria. Read her work here.
Lauren Alwan has been a prose editor at the museum since 2012. Her fiction and essays have appeared in the O. Henry Prize Stories, The Southern Review, ZYZZYVA, Nimrod International, The Bellevue Literary Review, StoryQuarterly, Atla Journal, and World Literature Today, among others. She is the recipient of a First Pages Prize from the de Groot Foundation, the Bellevue Literary Review’s Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, and a citation of Notable in Best American Essays. She is a columnist at Catapult, a staff contributor at Litstack, and serves on the board of WTAW Press, a nonprofit independent publisher. Learn more at www.laurenalwan.com.