Americana Stories Web Feature: Prose

Elliot’s Story—Fiction by S. Blair Jockers

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.

Americana Stories Web Feature: Poetry

Sometimes We Just Want History to RepeatKaren 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 audience and 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.

Americana Stories Web Feature: Prose

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.

“What?”

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.

“Where?”

“Miami, I think.”

He thought.

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

Americana Stories Podcast Launch

Welcome to the first of our Americana Stories podcasts! This new series of programs will highlight the writers, staff, and work that 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.

Meet our new poetry editor!

We’re thrilled to introduce the newest member of the editorial team, poetry co-editor Clara Burghelea. In this Q & A, Clara shares details about her poetry, her reading life, and how her work in translation might play a role at the museum.

• What led you to the museum of americana?

I knew of the magazine. I had traveled and studied in the US and my positive experience had always triggered different reactions in people. It made me wonder if somehow I harbored a distorted image of the society and culture. So finding a magazine that questioned this idea of celebrating and praising and inviting readers to take joy in the embarrassing and difficult aspects, drew my attention. Then I saw the call and decided to give it a shot. 

• In what ways do you think growing up outside the US has influenced your view of Americana?

Growing up in the communist Romania of the 1980s, we had no access to any other culture, though all of us were dreaming of freedom and the American dream seemed to fit that image. Traveling and studying on both coasts gave me a chance to explore and experience this dream. It made me more curious about whatever lay at the end of the touristic, glamorous landmarks. 

• Do you see your work in translation informing your editorial work at the museum?

I believe translation work is an exercise in empathy. It brings us closer to the fabric of other cultures and languages while at the same time, allowing us to accommodate the foreign and learn more about ourselves. I see my editorial work at the museum as an opportunity to bring the Romanian culture more into the light and at the same time, embrace further the language I write my poetry in, which is English.

• What are you currently reading, and what are you working on?

I am reading Stranger, Baby, by Emily Berry for my own taste and The Lonely Century, by Noreena Hertz for my reading club, both of which address loneliness and grief. I am also about to finish Trust, by Domenico Starnone, in Jhumpa Lahiri’s translation. Her ability to live in between languages and cultures, as well as her determination, is an inspiration. 

Clara Burghelea is a Romanian-born poet with an MFA in Poetry from Adelphi University. A recipient of the Robert Muroff Poetry Award, her poems and translations have appeared in Ambit, Waxwing, The Cortland Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of The Flavor of The Other, published in 2020 with Dos Madres Press, and Praise the Unburied, published with Chaffinch Press in 2021. She is the Review Editor of Ezra, An Online Journal of Translation.

You can keep up with the all museum’s news and opportunities by liking our page on Facebook, and following us on Twitter, at @museumofamerica, and on Instagram at @themuseumofamericana

Five Questions for Lillian Howan

In the fourth of our interviews with Issue 25 prose contributors, prose co-editor Lauren Alwan talks with Lillian Howan about her story, “The American House.” Set on the island of Taha’a, in Tahiti, the story centers on the mystery of a house in which stories converge and contradict each other and questions are not always answered. Here, Lillian sheds light on how the story came about, the allure and illusions of American culture, and how the term bookworm takes on a different meaning in a tropical climate.

We love the genre-bending mood in your story, “The American House.” Can you tell us how you came to write the story? 

On a journey in the islands visiting family with my husband, I visited Taha’a. The family who was driving us around the island stopped by the side of the road to show us a spectacular house, the grounds extending some distance below the road. It was described as “The American House.” When my husband asked for more information, everyone responded that an American had lived there, but now it was empty. More questions produced a small additional detail: it had been for sale for some time, two years maybe; the exact length of time remained vague. My husband spoke in French and in Tahitian, but the answer always stayed the same: it was the American House. It was empty.

This glimpse of the American House planted itself in my mind, eventually growing into this story.

There’s an inherent mystery in the house, in the conflicting stories that surround its history, as well as a cultural distance that comes from its American connections. Can you talk a bit about those contrasts?

A certain mystique about America exists in Tahiti where my family is from, an attitude fostered by American action movies. America retains a certain allure, mixed with violence, both attractive and repellent. There’s a masculine illusion to “America,” fostered by early Westerns, Clint Eastwood movies, the Die Hard series, Arnold Schwarzenegger…continuing on to this day.

This illusion isn’t real or connected to daily life, but it’s powerful.

In the story “The American House,” there’s something strangely compelling about the commodity, The Package, but when our protagonists actually approach the American house, they find it enveloped in an eerie silence, devoid of any signs of everyday life.

Like “The American House,” your novel, The Charm Buyers, is set in Tahiti. Can you tell us a bit about the importance of place in your work?

Place is so important, it’s almost the main character. The tropics are hot and humid with a profusion of plants and trees, green fragrances, odors, and smells. The physical reality can be overwhelming. In a temperate climate, one can think for long periods of time without the physical world imposing itself into one’s musings. In a tropical climate like Tahiti, this is impossible. In The Charm Buyers, one of the characters, who has arrived in Tahiti from France, decides to create a chess set out of natural materials. The narrator who has lived in Tahiti all his life knows that this is a terrible idea, and, sure enough, the chess piece is devoured by insects after only a few weeks.

In California, I always thought that “bookworms” was a charming phrase, but in Tahiti, I learned that book worms are real and invasive. I’ve opened too many books in Tahiti to find that I’ve disturbed the squirming worms and larvae living within the pages. Having said this, I read The Great Gatsby and many of Carlos Castaneda’s books in the vast library that belonged to one of my uncles. In the silence as I read, I could sometimes hear the subtle rustlings of the insects who had made the library their home.

We love the voice in this piece, and the collective experience of the narrator’s point of view. How did you come to employ that stance in “The American House”?  

The family structure that I grew up with was a huge, extended family. This is changing in Tahiti, with families becoming smaller in size, but there’s still a sense of being connected and related to numerous family members. I have over 60 first cousins, with each person completely unique—no one even remotely resembling another—so that, in my age group, there are over 60 completely different opinions about any one subject. When I’m in Tahiti, it seems as if I’m always surrounded by a chorus of voices, the collective “we.”

I am also an only child, so, at the end of the day, I was always in a separate place, alone, with time for reflection. Perhaps that is why I write stories, especially novels. I remember visiting Tahiti the summer before I turned eleven and creating an entire massive, convoluted (and horribly clichéd), novel in my head.

When I wrote “The American House,” this collective voice, the “we,” emerged to recount this story.

We’d love to know a favorite recent read—and can you tell us what you’re working on now?

I’ve recently read the poetry of Angela Narciso Torres, author of What Happens Is Neither (Four Way Books). As I’ve reflected on my answers to your questions, my mind has turned to her poem “Self-Portrait As Rosary Beads” in To The Bone (Sundress Publications) which captures how the individual and the collective, the mystical and the everyday are interconnected: “…I am faithful as breadcrumbs / on barbed wire. Lose me to birds or to night’s / starred thicket. Touch and be splintered,  / sundered. Soothed, surrendered. / My scent on your fingertips.”

A few days ago, I read The Collected Breece D’J Pancake. I’m on the board of the Ms Aligned: Women Writing About Men series, and our last issue Ms. Aligned 3 featured a powerful interview with Ann Pancake, the brilliant author of Strange As This Weather Has Been and Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley: Novellas and Stories. Both Ann Pancake and her distant relative Breece D’J Pancake write about Appalachia. There’s a lot in their stories that resonate with my experience of being Hakka Chinese. After a long period of being itinerant, the Hakka settled in hilly regions, remaining isolated from the majority population, and then immigrating from China abroad to Tahiti (in the case of my grandparents), Hawai’i, Jamaica, Malaysia, and other countries throughout the world. Breece D’J Pancake’s “Trilobites,” a story that has achieved near-legendary acclaim, was difficult for me to understand at first, but the more I read, the more its reality drew me inside with an all-encompassing intensity.

Breece D’J Pancake’s characters in “Trilobites” could be distant cousins of some of the characters that I write about: geographically isolated, surrounded by limitations and immense beauty, and this includes MeiMei and the narrators of “The American House.”

I’ve recently completed a novella that adapts Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” to Tahiti where Christmas occurs in the sweltering Midsummer, and Scrooge becomes the Hakka Chinese miser S. C. Oong, transformed one night by the visit of three tupapa’u spirits.

I’m also on the eighth, or maybe the ninth draft, of a novel set in Tahiti. It’s not exactly a sequel to The Charm Buyers, which had the honor of receiving the biennial Ka Palapala Po’okela Award, but some characters reoccur in both novels. Themes overlap as well: the true nature of magic and the struggle for real identity. I’m not sure if my writings could be called magical realism—perhaps the inverse, realistic magic, is an accurate description. Reality is stranger than rationality might admit—more slippery and weird, in disturbing and enchanting ways.

Read “The American House,” here.

~~~

Lillian Howan spent her early childhood in Tahiti and later graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. Her writings have been published in Asian American Literary Review, Café Irreal, Calyx, Jellyfish Review, New England Review, South Dakota Review, Vice-Versa, and the anthologies Ms. Aligned 2 and Under Western Eyes. Her debut novel, The Charm Buyers (University of Hawai’i Press), received the Ka Palapala Po’okela Award for Excellence.

Five Questions for Keith Lesmeister

Keith Lesmeister’s work might be familiar to readers of the museum. His flash fiction, “Under the Cottonwood Tree” appeared in our Midwestern-themed Issue 5, and we’re thrilled to include Keith in our latest milestone Issue 25. In Keith’s story, “Oakes,” a mixed-race man traverses uncertain territory in a COVID-ravaged North Dakota town, and in this third installment of interviews with our Issue 25 prose contributors, Keith shares the uneasy cultural moment in which the story was written, how nature informs his settings, and the regional contradictions that have inspired his recent stories.

Your story, “Oakes,” captures a cultural moment of 2020: the devastating spread of COVID-19 in North Dakota, the anxiety around the presidential election, and the racism compounded by four years of a Trump presidency. We’re curious, was the story written during this period, or after, and could you tell us how it came about?

I was in rural Minnesota a week after the election of 2020. I’d been genuinely frightened by the anger on display by the Trump cult (from reading various news outlets), so I purchased an American flag hat because I knew I’d be traversing parts of rural America where the flag represents patriotism, and the Trump followers (along with most Republicans) value patriotism over most things. I knew I’d made the right decision after I was walking through a rural gas station sporting my new hat when I passed a guy wearing a red MAGA hat. He looked at me, looked at my hat, then looked back at me and nodded, said “Hello.” I smiled and returned his pleasantry. 

You portray the story’s North Dakota setting with an eerie beauty—its natural landscape, and the manufactured one—the minimarts, apartments, and gas stations. The contrast produces a mood that is highly particular. Can you tell us a bit about setting in your work? 

I’m enamored with settings of all kinds, but I’ve been particularly taken with North Dakota since first visiting there back in 2006. I’ve been to Fargo, but I’ve also been to some of the state’s rural areas, and they’re quite beautiful—large flocks of snow geese, swaths of prairie, a big sky—and the isolation of the place along with the wild elements are attractive to me. My hope is to develop a setting in a way that’s compelling enough for it to emerge as another character. If I can come close to that, then I feel as though I’m utilizing the setting to its fullest. 

The story looks at a contrast of cultures—one is stereotypically Midwestern, and white, and comes up against the speaker’s mixed-race experience. Can you tell us your thoughts about writing the Midwest in this cultural moment?

I’ve been exploring race relations more so in my writing now than ever before. I’m not sure if that’s a reaction to the previous president who, according to his own party, is a “race-baiting xenophobe,” and made racist remarks throughout his campaign and presidency, or if it’s simply because I’m interested in exploring these dynamics. I think it might be both, especially as we see the growing rural and urban divide with regard to politics (and race).

I’m also interested, culturally, in the lies we tell ourselves. In Iowa, where I live, we are good at believing our own lies or at least not living in reality. Iowa is, for instance, a huge beneficiary of government money (through the farm bill and other farm subsidies), but those same people who are taking that money to the bank are also the ones who spout off against “socialism”—whatever that means. This dynamic is endlessly fascinating, frustrating, and a mark of some kind of era we’re in whereby people’s thoughts don’t line up with the reality they’re living in. Again, this is a fascinating dynamic and one I’ve been exploring through writing fiction. 

You founded EastOver Press with Denton Loving (also a museum contributor!). What’s it been like launching an independent press during these last couple of years? 

Denton’s story in the museum is one of the best flash pieces I’ve ever read. It utilizes setting in sophisticated ways and it’s also humorous. And what a pure delight to laugh out loud while reading. Speaking of delight, that’s how I’d describe launching an independent press. It’s been nothing but invigorating and delightful. Along with Denton, I’d be remiss not to mention our co-conspirators Walter Robinson and Kelly March. I think I can safely speak for all of us when I say we’re all having fun. 

Can you share a favorite recent read, and tell us what you’re working on now? 

I’ve been re-reading My Antonia by Willa Cather. Speaking of setting. Wow, what a stark and desolate yet intensely beautiful landscape—the plains of Nebraska. Her writing is so fluid and rich. And like windbreaks, sloughs, and fencerows that organize parcels of land, I just love how the book is sectioned out into these tidy little chapters so rich with details and adventure. 

As far as what I’m working on: still writing short stories. I love to read them. I love to write them. 

Read “Oakes,” here.

~~~

Keith Lesmeister is the author of the story collection We Could’ve Been Happy Here. He’s an editor at Cutleaf, co-directs the Luther College Writers Festival, and teaches at Northeast Iowa Community College.

Five Questions for Marianne Villenueva

In the second of our interviews with Issue 25 prose contributors, museum prose co-editor Lauren Alwan talks with Marianne Villenueva about “The Walker.” The story is filled with contrasts—the bucolic remove of suburbia in Northern California, the national grief after the attacks of 9/11, the comforts of a middle class tract, the shock of  deaths both distant and close to home. These disparate realities inform the speaker’s consciousness in “The Walker,” and here, Marianne discusses the genesis of the story, the challenges of plot, and how she knows when she’s found the perfect reader.

“The Walker” looks at the tragedy of 9/11, the capture of Osama bin Laden, and suburbia in Northern California. It’s also a character study of a man who’s troubled by losses both nationally and close to home. Can you talk a bit about the genesis of the story? 

From the moment 9/11 happened, it was in me. But the memories were starting to fold into history and some detachment was beginning to settle into my memories of it. That’s why I found it so unexpected when Obama appeared on national TV and announced his death. I remember being so struck by the contrast between the president’s calm demeanor and the news he was announcing, which was momentous.

I don’t know if I started percolating the story right then, but I think the contrast between the public event and the quietness of the president’s demeanor led to me wanting to explore this contrast in some way. 9/11 profoundly changed the American psyche: it introduced despair and pessimism. These changes were small, almost unnoticeable—but no less momentous. The story was born out of me wanting to explore the sea changes that occur beneath the surface.

“The Walker” is set in fictional Sequoia, a suburban tract in Northern California, a setting that resembles areas outside San Francisco in its mix of old and new, of immigrants and longtime residents. Can you talk about the role of place in your work, and as it relates to the idea of insiders and outsiders?

This was a very interesting question. I always feel tentative when writing about place. My inner life is split: obviously I’m here, right now, in America, I became a naturalized citizen a long time ago. But there’s another part of me that belongs to the Philippines, and there’s also the insistent voice of my dear departed father, who said I should never become an American citizen, because I will never be treated as an equal. “I mean, just look at yourself,” my father said. And this was a man who graduated Georgetown Law.

Each of my stories is a balancing act between HERE and THERE. I am always, always aware of this disconnect, even though I seem, outwardly, to have assimilated. The place where I am now is a suburban neighborhood. I’ve lived in this same house since 1991. It is a predominantly white neighborhood. It is very much like the neighborhood in “The Walker.” But I began to wonder, what do my neighbors really know about me? Nothing, really. I don’t think they’re quite as accepting as I used to believe. Maybe that’s a result of 2016. There’s this sense of comfort, because the landscape is familiar and settled. But there’s also a wariness. 

In this story, the precarious balancing act is there. Mr. Flores is like myself, seemingly assimilated. But the narrator is very aware of where Mr. Flores is from: “He’s from the Philippines.” Mr. Flores and the narrator don’t speak, they’re not really “friends.” But it’s the jumbotron that finally elevates Mr. Flores into someone the narrator thinks he would like to visit. It also shows the divide: it was there, for many years. Maybe it was the result of a mutual reticence. But it took something as huge as 9/11 and its aftermath to bring Mr. Flores front and center in the narrator’s awareness. 

During the reading for Issue 25’s launch, you mentioned you felt the story doesn’t quite go anywhere, but we find there’s a lot happening in “The Walker,” though much of it is taking place in the speaker’s consciousness. Some writers find plotting more of a challenge compared to working with character or language. How do you view narrative arc and making things happen?

Ah! I say that because it’s a very introspective piece. In fact, as I was writing it, and putting all the pieces (the details) together, I felt tremendous emotion. So quite a lot was happening inside. It’s just that I didn’t know how to make a corresponding something happen on the outside. But then, I always trust that readers will “get it,” I’m not sure where this confidence comes from, when I’ve actually had readers comment, in the past: What the hell was THAT I just read? LOL

One thing that made me absolutely happy when my piece was selected by you was knowing that I had found someone who gets me! I don’t plot, ever. I trust that a plot will emerge. If it doesn’t, then I know the story didn’t need one. Ha! I’m so disingenuous. Truly, my short stories are born of flashes of insight, thought, memory, or emotion. They’re impulses, like lightning in a bottle, that I try to capture on a page. I want the readers to feel what I feel, and for me that’s enough of a purpose for a story. 

With this one, there were so many overlapping layers of emotion, it’s actually quite complex. But it takes a patient reader to burrow down. THANK YOU, MUSEUM OF AMERICANA, for taking the time and effort. I know my stories are not the easiest to understand. But I really felt I’d jumped the shark with this one. 

Writing, for me, even after all these years, still remains an essentially mysterious process. Nothing I write is complete. I always leave one or more parts hanging. I send my work out with the hope that somewhere out there is a perfect reader who will take the time to respond and say (like in the Jerry Maguire movie, how cheesy): “You complete me!” When I find that perfect reader, I know I’ve landed my punches. And I always experience a very intense feeling of fulfillment—even joy—as a result. Which is priceless.

Central to “The Walker” are themes of time and grief, and trauma and its aftermath. Can you tell us a bit about writing in this vein? 

I am comfortable in my melancholy. It’s part of my personality? I’ve had a lot of unexpected grief: my only sister died, my father followed a year later. A sister-in-law I was close to died. Everyone dies, so why is my grief special? I don’t feel able to deal with my grief in my real life, I don’t see a therapist or anything, I wait to “deal” when I’m writing. And then it just bleeds out. But I’m honest with it: there are people who run away from it, but I seem unable to. 

That said, I had a very, very happy childhood. But I was still the child who was sensitive about…everything? When I was five, my exasperated father said (I was crying over something, I forget what): “You are the only five-year-old in the world who is holding an ice cream cone and still crying.” LOL

Can you share a recent favorite read—and tell us what you’re working on now? 

A favorite read: okay, that’s easy. It’s—unexpectedly—not fiction. It’s Anne Sebba’s Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy. I read a review of it in The Economist, and thought I’d give it a try. I did not expect that I would relate. But the biography keeps the trial and execution way out of the picture in the first half. And I was fascinated by the life the author was able to excavate for her subject—who was just a very, very ordinary woman. Who was in love with this man three years younger, who gave up everything for him. By the time it came to the trial, I was a complete basket case. The cold mother, the brother who betrayed her (he perjured himself to get his wife off, laid all the blame on his sister), the cruelty of Roy Cohn and the like, and her final moments. Aaah, I could begin crying right now. 

Other than that book, I’ve been enjoying noir. And have been reading true masters of the genre: Thomas Perry and Chris Offutt, whose The Killing Hills was the last book I finished.

What am I working on now? I have two historical novels: one on World War II in my father’s home province in the central Philippines. My grandfather’s house was the tallest house on the island, so of course it was appropriated by the Japanese High Command. And my father’s entire family shared accommodation with the Japanese High Command for the duration of the occupation. I’m full of family stories.

The other novel-in-progress, which is over 400 pages, (I should just stop adding to it), is about a 16th century Spanish priest who is sent to the Philippines to fight demons. I tell it mostly in epistolary fashion. Don’t ask me why I always have to choose the hardest way. But I’m having fun writing in florid 16th century epistolary style. That’s the thing for me: if it’s not fun, I’m not writing it.

FINALLY, I have a very spare, taut horror novel about ALIEN INVASION in, of all places, the Bering Sea. It is so spare, I only add a few pages a month. It’s over 70 pages, but the language has remained satisfyingly laconic. I love it! I love reading it over. Two characters fall in love, which is rare for me to write about.

Read The Walker in Issue 25, here.

~~~

Marianne Villaneuva’s work has been published in Chattahoochee Review, Crab Orchard Review, Western Humanities Review, Juked, Pembroke Magazine, Vice-Versa, and many other print and online magazines. Born and raised in Manila, she received a creative writing fellowship from Stanford University and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Currently, she teaches writing through UCLA Extension’s Writers Program. Her three published collections of short fiction are: Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila, Mayor of the Roses, and The Lost Language. She writes a humorous book and travel blog, Kanlaon, and can be found on Instagram @iblieveindragons.

Five Questions for Jay Ruben Dayrit

Jay’s short story, “Neck Bone,” appears in our just-released Issue 25, a milestone achievement that features authors and artists in conversation with the theme “My Americana.” Though brief in length, at just under 1500 words, “Neck Bone” mines the complexity of a young man’s life as he grapples with loss and his future, finding grace in unlikely relationships. In this interview with prose co-editor Lauren Alwan, Jay shares thoughts on the story, on writing, how his college theater studies influences his characters’ dialog, and why Alien is one of his favorite films.

In “Neck Bone,” the narrator is navigating loss and disillusionment, and in the course of a few paragraphs, we learn much about his outer and inner life. You mentioned the character was inspired by someone you know—could you talk about how you came to write the story?

The narrator of “Neck Bone” is an amalgamation of myself and my nephew, who is biracial. He once confessed he struggles with what to mention first when people inquire about his ethnicity, as if he must prioritize one parent over the other. I was never a bartender, but I did spend a few years working as a go-go dancer in my early 20s, none of which made it into the story except for the one detail about how tips are better if you show more skin. Regarding loss and disillusionment in the story, when I was 24, my mother died of an autoimmune disorder that took her within two months of diagnosis. She was 52, the age I am now. Aftershock settled into grief and grief gave way to depression, I spent a few years feeling rudderless. That person, who I was then, is who narrates “Neck Bone.” As for Neck Bone himself, he’s entirely fictional. When I was in grad school, I wrote a character exploration on the kind of person who might enjoy driving for a living. It was not good­. I put it away. Decades later it resurfaced as I was going through my files. I reread it, cringing throughout, but there was one line that held the weight of an entire story, a speculation that repo men must maintain a dispassion that borders on cruelty. The lesson here is to keep everything you write, no matter how awful. Even the bad stuff might eventually yield something good.

The story looks unflinchingly at loss and class divide. The speaker, for one, is navigating his way toward college in the wake of his mother’s death, while the titular character repossesses cars—and one in particular, from an electrician, Stan Dembrowski, who’s trying to support a family. Can you tell us a bit about portraying economic class and struggle in your work?

A central conceit to the story is that higher education guarantees greater lifetime income which directly correlates with happiness. This is terribly reductive, despite what my immigrant parents so staunchly believed. In America, there are many factors that contribute to contentment, not the least of which is the family one happens to be born into and their values around education, work ethic, and materialism. I’d hoped to avoid sounding judgmental about blue-collar jobs; My father got his Ph.D. in vocational education, and my father-in-law was a sheet-metal worker. But I felt the arc of the story necessitated shedding an unflattering light on the working class: the narrator’s father is a philandering alcoholic, Stan Dembrowski lives beyond his means, and Neck Bone lacks a moral compass. In fiction, making a character ignoble simply to shape an antagonist is lazy writing. Every character, virtuous or dishonorable, needs relatable motivations.

The speaker in “Neck Bone” is a young, mixed-race gay man who works at a bar, “J.C. Pumps,” while attending community college part-time. Through his eyes, we see the world of the bar, of Neck Bone’s apartment, and other carefully detailed scenes—including the glove compartment of a repossessed car. Can you talk about using detail, and how you make those choices?

I am of the German Expressionists school of thought; Exteriority should reflect interiority. All the spaces the narrator describes are confining and static. The glove compartments literally contain problems no one wants to address. J.C. Pump’s hasn’t changed since the 70s. Neck Bone’s apartment doesn’t have a bathroom and overlooks a Wendy’s. That little detail comes from my husband. Once when he was traveling for work, he asked the hotel clerk for a room with a nice view. The clerk said, “This is the Central Valley, sir. Every room overlooks the Wendy’s across the street.” My husband sent me a picture of his view of the Wendy’s parking lot. It seemed a distinctly American tragedy. The only space in the story that isn’t confining is the yard when the narrator and his father finish raking the leaves, which is meant to offer a sense of liberation. It’s still melancholy but no longer hopeless.

The voice in “Neck Bone” is another way the piece looks at class divide. There’s a difference between how the various characters speak, and the speaker’s narration of the story, which makes for wonderful textures of tone and voice. Can you tell us a bit about how you see the role of voice in your work?

How a character says something is as important as what they’re saying. I majored in Theatre Studies at Yale, with a concentration in Playwriting. In my first playwriting class, the professor told me, “All your characters sound alike, and they all sound like you. I suggest you talk less and listen more.” Brutal but honest advice. So I started paying careful attention to how people spoke. Did they speak in long, languid sentences or in short, incomplete bursts? Do they speak from the diaphragm or do they swallow their words? Cadence, pace, jargon, accent, directness, or circuitousness all help a character sound distinct. I tend not to rely too heavily on dialogue in my stories, just enough to add dimensionality to the characters, but I make a habit of reading aloud what little dialogue I do write. If the lines don’t feel right in my mouth or I stumble, I change them so they come out smoothly and align with the character. If the story is first-person limited, I basically treat it like a monologue, as if it were meant to be performed on stage.

Can you share a recent favorite read? And what are you working on now?

Nic Pizzolatto’s collection of short stories Between Here and the Yellow Sea is stunning. The eponymous story is perhaps the best I’ve read in a long time, one of those rare narratives that pull you in completely unexpected directions, and yet, in the end, every choice turns out to be perfectly logical. It’s kind of mystifying.

I am currently working on a short screenplay about two gay friends who get high and go see an exhibit on human deformities, and I am rewriting a personal essay about the year I lived with my father while he pursued his Ph.D. at Oklahoma State University. I was nine years old and largely left to my own devices. Having been born and raised in Micronesia, I felt completely alien in Stillwater, Oklahoma. In fact, Alien was released that year, and to this day, it remains one of my favorite films.

Read “Neck Bone,” in the museum’s Issue 25, here.

~~~

Jay Ruben Dayrit’s short stories have appeared in Jellyfish Review, Minnesota Review, Santa Clara Review, Sycamore Review, WIRED, and The Yale Quarterly. He is a recipient of the Individual Artist Grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission and an Artist-in-Residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts. He has taught creative writing at Kearny Street Workshop and San Quentin State Prison. Originally from the Federated States of Micronesia, he now lives in San Francisco.