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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

Beyond—by Lou Turner

Lou Turner is a writer and musician (Lou Turner, Styrofoam Winos) in Nashville, TN. She is an M.F.A. candidate in poetry at Randolph College and the author of Shape Note Singing, her debut chapbook from Vegetarian Alcoholic Press. Recent poems have appeared in Entropy, EcoTheo, HAD and elsewhere. Turner’s latest record Microcosmos is out now and featured in Pitchfork, NPR’s All Songs Considered, and Uncut Magazine.

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 Features: Poetry

Skin Smooth—Laine Derr

Until her mother died,

she’d forgotten a thumb

calloused from killing –

an ant, hemolymph still warm.

an ant, even in death, fights.

an ant with boot cut jeans, sugar-coated throat.

Letting go: ashes sinking,

river stones longing for kind,

skin smooth from shining –

a body thinned with linseed oil.

a body eaten by shadows.

a body, ugliness is the beauty.

Born with a hole, her heart still misses its form.

The blackberry blossoms are late this year.

~~~

Laine Derr holds an MFA from Northern Arizona University and has published interviews with Carl Phillips, Ross Gay, Ted Kooser, and Robert Pinsky. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming from Chapter House, ZYZZYVA, Portland Review, Oxford Magazine, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.

Americana Stories Web Features: Poetry

Morels—Amy Love

“When old apple trees quit yielding,” she says, 

fingering scarred bark with sun-spotted hands, 

“farmers beat them with chains. It stirs up traumatin, 

a hormone that shocks them into blooming and bearing again.”

“Apocalypse sex for trees?” She laughs, but

her thumb probes a rift and I flush just watching.  

Then she drops to her knees, on the hunt around the trunk.

This orchard’s been barren since before I was born

and we’ve come here looking for a different fruit, 

but it’s too late in the season. The fiddleheads are unfurled, 

the morels were over by May. She gives up, pulls me down 

by my skirt hem. “Is it the apocalypse yet?”

Hasn’t it been all my life?  These damned fruit trees, 

the way we laid claim, all over the Northwest Territory

they’re shriveling in scalding summers, losing limbs,

yielding nothing. Killing frosts reach further into

every passing spring, crushing overeager blossoms

from scions bred for her steadier times. 

Her hands are old enough to know what they’re doing.

Thirty years of wheel throwing taught her pressure and pace, 

how to open a form, stretch wet clay, collar a curve, 

how to raise a wall and ease off before it’s worn too thin. 

How hard she can push. She’ll leave me by autumn, 

not caring to see what may crack in the firing.

But I’ll come here again, with some man my own age 

and I’ll know what to look for next spring

when the ferns are still furred and coiled: 

this spent orchard’s last yield, the choice, 

musky fruits of dying roots. I’ll sauté them in butter, 

feed him some with my fingers, try not to think of her hands.

~~~

Amy Love is a librarian, web developer, mother, writer, and amateur forager. She lives in the North Carolina mountains with her young daughter.

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

Welcome to our newest project: Americana Stories Web Features

Today we begin an exciting new series at the museum—Americana Stories—highlighting poetry, fiction, and essays that will bring outstanding new work to our museum readers. Each week here on News & Features, we’ll feature selections of exciting repurposed Americana, a chance to expand the writers we serve with new fiction, poetry, memoir, flash, and essays, and regularly bring new voices and new perspectives on American culture to our museum readers.

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