Hailey Foglio: We Are All Here

Hailey Foglio was one of the contributors in our Summer 2017 Issue. She has graciously allowed us to reprint her short story here.

Hailey Foglio

We Are All Here

“I wish someone would write something important on these.” Val runs his gloved fingers along crooked shapes carved into the bark of an oak tree. Kat + Mike Brian 4ever. A heart with an arrow through it, a date underneath: 6/12/13. Delicate edges flake off and drift down, landing on the frozen dirt at our feet.

“Something like what?”

“Poetry.” Val rotates around the tree, sliding in and out of view, his fingers dancing wide against the white bark, searching for meaning. His breath freezes in the air and expands around him like a fog. “A manifesto. A math equation. A suicide note. Anything.” He stops, sees something a few trees away, and I follow him.

The word “HERE,” etched into a nearby birch, grows from the base of the tree to my chest, the letters wrapping around the trunk. I knock the toe of my boot against the angles of the vowels. “WAS” stretches from my chest to two feet past my head, and “I” extends far above me. Val reaches his arm toward the letter and slides his fingers into the empty space of it. The wood is damp with winter, but Val’s coat snags on dried-out bark as he moves his hand along the vertical carving. I WAS HERE. Nothing else. No crowding of other people’s initials between the letters, no pictures stamped along the letters’ edges. Just this. Untouched. I WAS HERE.

I take a few steps away, crane my neck. “How do you think he got all the way up there?” I imagine a giant stepping through these woods, slow and quiet, slouching to keep his head below the canopy, to avoid detection. His knife is a broken rock, and though his hands are huge and inelegant, fists that could crush entire houses, his fingers are dainty when he holds the rock, when he carves the letters. I imagine him lying on his belly, feet kicked up and swaying behind him, gusts of wind shaking the trees and freeing loose leaves from tired branches, as he carves the final word.

Val shrugs. “Probably a ladder.”

He traces his thumb back and forth along the lowest curve of the “S” and says nothing. I watch the muscles in his jaw clench, then unclench, over and over, eyes set on the tree bark before him and nothing else. He gets like this sometimes. Quiet.

“So does this count?”

Val startles at my voice. “What?”

“As something important?”

He drops his hand from the tree, takes a few steps back to meet me, and stares up. “No.”

“No?”

He zips his fleece, burying the bottom of his chin in the fabric. “No.” He starts walking toward the edge of the woods, trying to locate the spot where we came in.

“Well, why not?”

He turns, eyes on me. “We are all here, Helen.” I only notice his accent when he says my name, an extra syllable sneaking in at the end. Helen-ah. “This isn’t news.”

__I have an old name. Helen Taft. Helen Keller. Helen of Troy. Old names. People with stories. I don’t have any stories.

“Helen?” The officer ducks his head to meet my gaze. “Are you listening?”

My dad shifts on the couch beside me. The officer sits in my dad’s recliner, a pen in his right hand, a small notepad in the other. A second officer stands behind the recliner, stone-faced and staring.

“I’m listening.”

“When was the last time that you saw Valentyn Kozlovsky?”

This is the third time the police have been to my house, the fifth questioning in total. They’re trying to figure out what it is I’m lying about. In fact, there are one-and-a-half lies.

At this point, I don’t have to think before I speak. “One month and three days ago.”

“Where did you last see him?”

“Outside the woods.”

“Which woods?” There are a lot of woods in this part of Wisconsin.

“The ones by the park.”

“Which park?” There are also a lot of parks.

“Fairfield Park.”

“What was he doing there?”

“Walking.”

“Where to?”

“Nowhere in particular.”

“Did you walk home together?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“He went back.”

“Why?”

“He said he dropped something.”

“Dropped what?”

“His wallet.”

“And then what happened?”

“And then he went back for it.”

“Nothing else?”

“Nothing else.” This is the half lie.

 

I followed Val out of the woods that night, the one with the tree the giant carved. If we talked about anything while we walked, I don’t remember it. Chitchat about the weather, maybe, or about chemistry homework, or maybe winter break.

And then he stopped. “Helen.” Helen-ah.

I turned. “Yeah?”

I don’t know what he’d meant to say when he stopped, but what he said wasn’t what he intended. I know this because I know him. Knew him. I could anticipate him, could hear his laugh coming before the punch line, could see his eyes roll even before Rebecca Johanssen opened her mouth in the hallway. I saw all these things inside him, each one, all the time. And he’d meant to say something else that night, something hard, maybe, because his mouth was crooked and his eyes were set, and I’ll never know what that thing was.

“I think I dropped my wallet in the woods.”

“Your wallet?”

A pause. “Yeah.”

“Well, let’s go back for it.” I took a few steps toward the trees. There is no entrance, no right way to get to the heart of the thing. You just have to walk in and keep walking until you find what you’re looking for.

“That’s okay. I can go alone.”

I laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous, Val. Let’s just get it and get out. The sun’s going down, and it’s already cold.” Wisconsin favors those who know how not to die of exposure, and wandering around the woods after sundown is tempting fate.

“It’s fine.” His voice was louder then. Firm. Then soft, like a whisper. “What do you think is on the other side of the woods?”

I shrugged. “More woods, I guess. It probably goes for miles.”

“Yeah.” Val nodded, adjusted his hat. “You should get home.”

“Val—”

“Helen.” Helen-ah. “Go home.”

I thought he was trying to protect me, from frostbite or freezing to death. I turned from the woods and walked to him, unraveling my buffalo plaid scarf from my neck. I unzipped his fleece.

“Don’t—”

I silenced him with a look. He sighed. I wrapped my scarf around him, tucking the ends down against his chest. I heard my dad’s voice: Always protect your chest. Keep it warm. Keep your heart pumping.

“Protect your heart.” I pulled shut the zipper of his fleece, the teeth pressed tight against my scarf. I took off my gloves, thin ones, the kind you can get for cheap at Walgreens. I pulled off each of his, replaced them with mine which were smaller but did the job just the same, then squeezed his own back over top. I pulled his hat down over his ears. “Don’t get lost. Call me when you’re home.”

I stepped back and Val grabbed my hand. “I love you.” He said that sometimes. He never smiled when he said it. It always felt like goodbye but never was.

“I love you, too.”

He dropped my hand, took a few steps back, and turned toward the woods. He paused at the edge of the trees and stared into the coming darkness for so long I thought he’d changed his mind, until he threw me a final glance and stepped in.

I began to walk away, but was struck by the silence. This time of year, every step sounds like ice shattering, but there was nothing. Val wasn’t walking. I waited, and I waited, and I waited, and decided to go back. One step toward where I last saw him and the forest started shaking, loud, like something slamming against several tree trunks all at once, tiny icicles and frosted branches breaking off and clattering against the frozen ground. Then footsteps like stomping, pounding the forest floor, disappearing into the distance. Val was running.

“Do you know anyone who might have held a grudge against Valentyn?”

“No.”

“Boys at school or anything?”

“No.”

“And you’ve known him for how long?”

“Twelve years.” His family moved in across the street when I was five and he was six. We were too shy to want to be friends, but our parents insisted on play dates. His family came from Ukraine, “the bad part,” he always said. He taught me some Ukrainian phrases, I helped him with his English. By grade school, we refused to be apart.

“After all that time, you don’t have any idea what might have happened to him?”

“No.”

“Did he talk about running away?”

“No.” But then again, he didn’t have to. I could see it on him, the way he stopped paying attention in class, the way he stopped talking to his parents, the way he stared at the sky and the stars and the moon, like there was something waiting up there for him, expectant. While I was studying on the floor of his bedroom, he was in bed reading. Vonnegut or Bukowski or Murakami.

“What are you doing?” I would ask, and he would sigh in response.

“I’m bored, Helen.”

“Stop reading, then.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“Well, what do you mean?”

He’d look at me for a long time and then smile, join me on the floor and never explain.

“Did he seem suicidal?”

I can’t help but roll my eyes any time this question is asked. “No.”

“And you’ve had no contact with him whatsoever since his disappearance?”

“None at all.” This is the big lie.

Val had only been gone for a week when I found the package on my bed, the window thrown open, the cold gusting in, making the curtains dance. It was wrapped in a brown paper bag from Woodman’s, a grocery store, the way we used to cover our textbooks for school. My name was scrawled across the paper in thick capital letters. A small sketch of a tree sprouted out from the top right peak of the “N.”

I let my backpack fall to the carpet and ripped the wrapping from the package. Inside, a box. Inside that, my scarf and my gloves, the ones from that day. I pulled them out and a slip of paper fluttered onto my yellow and white checkered bedspread. The note was seven lines long.

Helen,
I’m beginning to understand.
I was here.
And so were you.
Don’t forget.
Yours,
Val.

Nothing else.

It was colder that day than the day Val disappeared. I put on long johns, a pair of thick pants, a long-sleeved shirt, a sweater over that, my scarf, my gloves, a coat on top, a hat to finish it off. I ran through the park, too cold for kids to be on the playground, and stormed into the woods. As soon as I was in, I remembered the shaking trees, the pounding feet, Val in the distance. I ran until I made it to the birch trees, the ones with the words, the names, the initials, the giant declaration I WAS HERE.

I don’t know what I expected to find. I searched the trees for new markings, a sign from Val, his name, a date, but it would have been something important—poetry, a manifesto, a math equation, a suicide note, anything—but there was nothing. Nothing changed. Nothing added. Nothing missing.

I sat on the ground, knowing it would be a matter of minutes before the frost melted and seeped through my pants. I leaned my back against the I WAS HERE tree. And maybe he had been. But he wasn’t anymore. I’ve never felt more alone than being surrounded by a hundred names and dates and doodles and nothing of Val.

By the time I got home, I was tired. Confused. The trees had broken me. I didn’t understand Val’s letter, but I couldn’t show it to anyone. That felt like betrayal. I slid it inside an old history notebook, put that in the box beside my scarf and gloves, put the box in an old duffle bag, put the duffle bag in my closet, all the way at the back, and covered it with clothes I don’t wear anymore.

“So what do you think happened to him?”

I am sick of these questions. “I think he walked into the woods and never came back out.”

The officer nods. The one behind him sticks his hands in his pockets. My dad sighs.

“That’s it for now. You’ll let us know if you hear from him.” It’s not a question, but a demand.

“Yeah.”

__Six months after Val disappeared, Cody Brigand asks me to the senior picnic, the swanky outdoor dinner hosted by the school board and the last huzzah before high school graduation. He tells me there will be food and a lake and games and a Ferris wheel.

He rubs a nervous hand over his recent buzz cut. “It’s really more of a carnival.”

I tell him no. I tell him I have plans. Which is both true and not.

The night of picnic, I put on a dress I bought at Goodwill, brush my hair, step into a pair of old Mary Janes. My dad stops me as I’m leaving the house.

“You look beautiful.” He smiles but not all the way. I think he knows where I’m going, that it’s not to the picnic, but I can’t be sure.

I used to sneak into Val’s room all the time. He kept the ladder propped up against the side of his house, guiding me to the window. This started in middle school and continued for years after. Eventually, I stopped using the front door altogether and entered solely through the window, whether I needed to or not. For a long time, his mom was surprised to see me when she opened his bedroom door, but she was never upset. She knew about the ladder, and we knew she knew, and she let him keep it there.

Tonight, though, the ladder is gone. I search around for it, find it behind the shed at the back of their property. I haul it to Val’s side of the house, unfold the legs, and place it in its rightful spot, careful not to let it slam against the siding.

I climb up, hear the familiar groan of wood on wood as I lift the window, and crawl into his room. It’s different than I remember, and not at all how he left it. I’m positive of this. There are no dirty clothes sprawled across the floor, no blankets kicked down to the bottom of the bed, no drooping corners on any of his posters. I open his drawers to find that his clothes are folded, put away neatly, unwrinkled and untouched. I examine the bed, the corners of the sheets tucked just so, the top of the blanket folded down. I inspect the posters, now framed, not a fingerprint to be seen on the glass. I think I can understand why his parents did this. A matter of trapping a moment in time, trapping a person in time. An exercise in preservation. But this isn’t him.

I open the middle drawer of his dresser, pull out the t-shirts, unfold each and drop them randomly around the room. I dig out a pair of pants for good measure. I take his blanket off his bed, ball it up between my arms, and drop it at the foot of the mattress. I remove a frame from the wall, the one with a poster of a Ukrainian metal bed, open the back, and slide the poster out. I let it fall in the corner of the room, which is at least closer to how it would have looked. I do this all in the nearest thing to silence that I can. When I’m done, I stand back and examine my handiwork. It still doesn’t look right. I pull more clothes out of drawers, yank down the sheets, take all the frames down and lean them against the walls. And still, I can’t replicate the way it had been, the Val-ness of it all. Him and his smells and his sounds and his mess. Everything is here but not. He is here. But not.

When I’m too tired to continue, I stop, sit down in the middle of the room on top of all his shirts, and cry. It’s the first time I’ve done this. Because I thought he’d come back. But I am alone in his room in a dress that pinches my skin, and he should’ve been here by now. A thin shaft of light expands beside me, and I see Val’s mom in the doorway. The hall light casts shadows against her cheeks, her eyes, and she is ghostly. If she’s surprised to see me, she masks it. I watch her eyes dart from the laundry to the bedding to the frames. I open my mouth to explain and to apologize, but she stops me.

“Okay.” This is all she says.

“I’m sorry.” The words are so quiet that I’m mouthing them more than saying them.

She nods, closes the door. Again: “Okay.”

She doesn’t tell me to leave, and so I don’t. I climb onto the bed, and I cry, and I try to keep quiet. I imagine Val at his desk, bent over an algebra textbook, humming or grinding his teeth, depending on how confident he feels in his answers. I imagine him standing at the window, asking “window open or closed?” He knew I was particular about those kinds of things. I imagine him on the bed next to me, arms crossed over his stomach, staring at the ceiling, pensive. I lie down like that now.

He might have said, “How big is the world?”

And I might have said, “As big as we want it to be.”

“And also as small?”

“And also as small.”

He might have paused there. “You’re a smart girl, Helen.” Helen-ah.

We might have laughed.

An hour passes, then two. Val’s mom doesn’t come back. I put the Ukrainian poster back in the frame and hang all the frames back on the walls. I wipe them with one of Val’s shirts to remove any trace of my fingerprint smudges. I make Val’s bed, perfect, the sheets all tucked in, the top of the blanket folded down, the pillows placed symmetrically on top. I pick up all of Val’s clothes, fold them, put them back in his drawers. When I leave, I don’t know when I’m coming back or if I’m coming back. I close the window behind me, fold up the ladder, and store it back behind the shed. Everything is different.

I sleep late the next morning, and when I wake, I’m still exhausted. My dad isn’t home. I get dressed—jeans, a shirt, a sweater, a pocket knife I swipe from my dad’s end table—and walk to the woods. There’s no right way to get to the heart of the thing. I pick a relatively clear space and walk in, knowing as soon as I do that this will be the last time I go in these woods. I find my way to the birch tree. By now, other people have come, left initials, crowded the giant I AM HERE tree with pointless, unimportant things. I walk until I find a blank birch. It’s small, but I am not a giant; my letters will fit. I take the knife from my pocket and press it into the tree, bark flaking and dropping, wood bits curling and spiraling away. I am slow and patient while I work, and I think about Val and his letter. That he was here. That I was here. And I still can’t make any sense of it except to say

WE
ARE
ALL
HERE

I step back from my carving.

We are all here. This isn’t news, I know. But it’s important.

BIO:

Hailey Foglio hails from the state of West Virginia, where she passes the time writing, hiking, camping, and art-making. She has previously been published in The Opiate, The Bangalore Review, and The Oddville Press, among others.

NOTE: If you enjoyed this story, please check out LPR’s Summer Issue 2017. Order copies here (Note that annual subscriptions are available online as well.)

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Pushcart Prize Nominee: Daniel Hudon

Along with publishing emerging writers, one of the public roles and great pleasures of an independent, small literary journal is to nominate individual poems, essays, and stories for awards like the Pushcart Prize. This is one more way to say “thank you,” to the hard working writers, without whom LPR wouldn’t exist. These nominations also require renewed attention to the craft and presence of the pieces LPR publishes, and often that attention is rewarded with renewed joy.

Possibly Showing Tonight at the Quantum Theater:
*colon is part of original title

You want to go to the theater tonight because it’s a random Tuesday in May and you’ve heard that the Quantum Theater will be presenting one of all possible plays. What are the chances of seeing Molière, you wonder, it’s been so long, or Chekhov? Maybe some little-known Scandinavian drama or an ancient Greek tragedy? In some universe tonight, they’re presenting Beckett—could it be yours?

You pick up the phone and for a moment you think about calling all possible women with a phone number, women whose numbers you don’t even have but are out there at the other end of the phone line, oblivious to your momentary dialing dilemma. Women who you’ve seen at the grocery store or while out jogging. The sexy Russian woman you met at tango class who always wears the spiked heels, even to the practica, the woman in the strapless black dress you saw at the concert last week but who you didn’t have the nerve to strike up a conversation with at intermission, Grace, who you met at the bookstore, the cinephile you sat next to at the Godard film last weekend who, with much more subtext than context, gave a breathless interpretation of the penultimate scene involving a man and a woman, women you used to know who percolated into your mind, the girls from your school days now all grown up, some happily, some miserably, many who wouldn’t know what to make of a phone call from you for a random theater invitation.

You dial. It’s busy. You dial another. This time there’s no answer, not even a voicemail pickup. You try again. Finally, she picks up. It takes you a moment to connect her voice to the number you dialed to the image of her face to your idea of where she could possibly be in her apartment on her cordless. Is it really Erica, who hosted the crazy birthday party last month? You’re impressed by the warmth of her voice; she sounds poised, something you find terribly attractive—a calm self-confidence that, try as you might, you can’t achieve for yourself. You tell her about the play. She seems interested but wants more details. You fear she takes your information reticence as game playing, or worse, a sign that you lack the very quality of intelligence that she finds attractive. Perhaps she’s not the spontaneous type. Maybe she needs a more reliable indicator of the possible outcomes—she could be the fastidious sort who needs to know exactly how things are going to proceed, what the parameters are, the trajectory of start middle finish for the evening. You imagine endless honest talks that suffocate the relationship in a vast cloud of verbosity.

Sometimes you just have to take a chance, you say, as much to yourself as to her.

This seems to resonate with her and she agrees to come with you. Because the Quantum Theater is small—in the past some have described it as microscopic—you recommend getting there early to improve your chances of getting one of the few seats.

That sounds logical, she says.

The time might be a problem, you explain, because, being uncertain, there’s a small but nonzero chance the play has already started. In fact, you can’t rule out the possibility that the actors have taken their bows, the curtain has come down, and the audience has long since drifted back out into the downtown streets, their minds infused with existential angst and emotional bravura.

I see, she says.

Fine with me, she says.

Oh, she says.

But that’s unlikely, you say.

Okay, she says.

She doesn’t sound reassured.

She laughs.

You suggest picking her up at seven, parking randomly in the theater district and hoping for the best.

She likes the sound of that sort of optimism and gives you her address. You hang up the phone and pace about the room. Such luck, you think. Your mind fills with possibilities: theater, dessert, coffee, her place . . . ; or, theater, drinks, your place . . . ; theater, tea, detailed deconstruction of third act, intellectual sparring, kiss-on-the-cheek, home; or, theater, hot chocolate, awkward silences, car, unexpected and unbelievably good sex; or theater, subscription to entire series, vacation together in Costa Rica, spontaneous wedding in Vegas, two angelic kids, inspiration for best-selling novel, philanthropy, death with a smile on your face, public holiday for grieving; or, alas, theater, headache, just friends, home early.

You shower and get dressed. You whip up a stir fry with chicken, carrots, shitake mushrooms, and asparagus over a tasty bed of rice. God, you’re good. You put on loud music to pump yourself up. You imagine the sort of comfortable, thoughtful conversation that you’ve been missing recently. She has a voice you could get used to. You shovel down the last two bites, put the dish in the sink, and do a few twirls around the living room in case she wants to go dancing later. Good idea, you think: theater, drinks, dancing, closer dancing, even closer dancing, she sleeps over even though it’s a week night, and hot, steamy sex in the morning.

You go to the bathroom. You clip your nostril hairs and adjust the collar of your shirt. You dash out the door.

All possible routes to her place converge into the route with the fewest turns, despite the unpredictable traffic. You park and ring her door. As far as you can tell, she lives in any of the apartments inside because you see no light go off and hear no particular door close. You wonder if you’ll be privy to this information later.

She looks lovely, even prettier than you remember. As planned, you park randomly, walk to the theater, and line up at the ticket window. Ticket pricing is random. You ask for two tickets and the woman behind the glass asks for an astonishing amount of money. You ask if they are good seats. She tells you that all seats are treated the same. You open your wallet and see that all possible amounts of cash collapse into a random amount. Fortunately, it is enough. You count out the exact amount and hand it to her. She hands you the tickets. You give one to Suzanne and join the queue of people waiting for the house to open.

Have you been to the theater lately? you ask her.

No, she says.

Yes, she says.

I don’t remember, she says.

Oh, really, you say. You must be busy.

Oh, I see, you say. What did you see?

Oh, well, it must not have been very dramatic then.

You’re tickled with the timing. In a moment, one of the doors opens and people begin filing into the theater in an orderly fashion. The queue moves a few feet and—just as you begin to trudge forward—that door closes and the door next to it opens. As if nothing has happened, people continue filing in. From what you can tell by standing on your toes, they take the seats directly beyond the doors.

You are about to say something about the seating to Maggie, who, in the steady progression of the queue, has slipped in behind you, when you see the first door swing open again. Both doors are now open and the queue presses forward. You aim for the door on the left but, as you approach, the door on the right seems more tempting. Out of the corner of your eye, you notice Rachel moving independently of you, targeting the right-hand door. You feel you should take her hand but it’s both too soon and too late—theatergoers crowd up from behind and suddenly you’re pushed through. Buoyed along, disoriented, it’s like you surged through both doors at once and met your alter ego on the other side. You feel vast, like you contain multitudes, too much to be confined to a mere theater seat. You could take up a whole row, an entire section.

Instead, down near the front, you spy a pair of seats that are perfect.

Where is Julia? She was right behind you. There, you see her, two sections over, on the far side of the theater where she has already thrown her coat over a couple of seats. You wave to her, point to your prime location, and when she comes over you take her hand so that she doesn’t disappear again. You take your seats.

Well, that was chaotic, you say.

Yes, she says, squeezing your hand.

And strange, she says.

I didn’t notice, she says.

Around you the theater fills up, though slowly, as if no one really knows the time the play will start and they tentatively take their seats as if to try their luck for half an hour and see if it starts and if not, maybe they will find some little French café for a bite to eat and come back in an hour or so.

You ask Samantha, What time do you think it is? You explain: some people try to imagine what breed of dog or animal other people look like; your game is guessing the time. It’s amazing how often you can come within five minutes of the correct time when you have no real cues; it’s just some random time of the day.

But as soon as you say it you fear two things: either she thinks you’re bored or, worse, boring.

I have no idea, she says.

7:42 and a half, she says.

Why? Do you think we missed it? she asks.

I never wear a watch, she says.

Why don’t you just ask that basset hound over there? she says.

Oh, I see, she says, trying not to laugh.

She bursts out laughing at something you hope is truly funny and not truly pathetic.

You look at her, wait for her to say something.

Do you know any more sophisticated games? she says.

My game is to imagine what sort of face a man makes when he comes—but not necessarily inside me, she says, adding the last bit after a dramatic pause.

What happens when you win? she says, or lose?

And which breed of dog do you think I resemble? she says, taking care not to blow smoke in your face, though she’s not smoking.

Is this your idea of foreplay? she says with a wink.

Shouldn’t we be betting on what the play’s going to be? she says.

Considering that space is already occupied, time is the only unknown at the moment, she says, relatively speaking.

I should caution you, she says. I’m a sore loser.

Oh, look, she says, it’s starting.

Much to your surprise, the curtain rises.

A country road. A tree. Evening.

Elsinore castle. The platform of the watch.

A street in Venice.

Galileo’s sparsely furnished study.

A room painted yellow.

A streetcar.

In front of the palace of Oedipus at Thebes.

Daytime. The stage of a theater.

I can’t see. Let’s have a little light please . . .

        Yes sir, yes, at once.

        Come along! Come along! Second act of Mixing It Up.

Is this a rehearsal? she whispers.

This looks like one of those detestable postmodern plays, she whispers.

What’s going on? she whispers.

Six Characters in Search of an Author! she whispers; I should have bet you.

Much dialogue. Characters come and go. Gesticulations, laughter, weeping, some shouting.

The curtain falls.

She smiles at you.

She squeezes your arm.

She puts on her coat so slowly that you help her.

She stands up without looking at you.

Good choice, she says.

Did you like it? you ask.

Are you kidding? she says; I loved it!

It was interesting, she says.

Parts of it, she says.

It’s one of my favorite plays, she says.

How could you not? she says.

Only one exit door is open but the audience exits in an orderly fashion. Outside, the crowd disperses all directions into the streets, and in no time the street is full of cars unable to get anywhere. You’re glad that parking randomly gave you some distance from the theater.

Where should we go? you ask.

She smiles alluringly.

You know, she says, I don’t really go to bars, so you can just pick one.

I’ve got the play at home, she says; why don’t you come over and we can reread parts of it?

Things appear promising. You park randomly in front of her building and go inside with her. Natalie puts on some music and brings out two glasses of wine and a tray of cheese and crackers. You look at her books and CDs. You find a collection of Pirandello’s plays on the shelf. You admire the view out her front window.

You flip through the book and quote from the play: We have no reality beyond the illusion, you must not count overmuch on your reality as you feel it today, since, like that of yesterday, it may prove an illusion for you tomorrow. 

Subtle, she says, aren’t we?

And just what is our present illusion? she says.

Oh, she purrs, I love illusions.

She sits on the couch and you sit down near her. With every new slice of cheese, you reposition yourself slightly closer to her on the couch. Laughter ensues. And silence. Boldly, you kiss her. She seems happy to be kissed. You kiss her again and let your hands caress her neck and shoulders, her arms, all over. She moans. It’s nice. You nibble on her neck, her jaw. Your heart beats harder, her breath deepens. Then, you stop and pull back. She looks at you quizzically. You hesitate, then lean forward and whisper that you prefer to stop at foreplay because then you can enjoy the superposition of all possible future positions.

She pulls back and looks at you.

Super-what? she says.

Is that some kind of joke? she says.

You can’t be serious, she laughs.

What’s the matter? Don’t you know how to satisfy a woman? she says.

Sorry, she says, it’s not the superposition that matters but the probability of the various end states and, at the moment, yours isn’t looking so good.

Hey, she says, don’t pull that macroscopic quantum shit on me!

Well, she says, why don’t you call me again some other random Tuesday and we’ll take it from there.

Nice try, Schrödinger, she says; your illusion just collapsed into my reality.

You know she could say anything. She smiles, keeps you in suspense. So, she says finally, shall we have a game of Scrabble?

At last, you think, someone who gets you.

About the author: Daniel Hudon, originally from Canada, teaches astronomy, physics, math, and writing at various colleges in Boston. He has new work appearing or coming up in Canary, Toad, Dark Matter, and The Chattahoochee Review. He is the 2011 winner of the Tiferet Nonfiction Prize. Some of his writing links can be found at people.bu.edu/hudon. He lives in Boston. This work originally appeared in Little Patuxent Review’s Winter 2014 Science issue.

Concerning Craft: Mary Jo LoBello Jerome

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Mary Jo LoBello Jerome

Mary Jo LoBello Jerome

Please meet Mary LoBello Jerome. Mary Jo’s fiction has appeared in Short Story and Center magazines. She currently teaches college writing in New Jersey and is working on new poetry and short fiction. She lives in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

We published her short story “Dermis” in our Winter 2014 Science issue. She read her story at our launch event, so be on the lookout for a video when they become available. (The video is now available. Please find it below.)

Mary Jo shared these insights about her approach to the work with the title “Thinking On Skin”:

I’d been working on the story “Dermis” for a while because I was intrigued with the idea of skin as a metaphor. I knew a chemist who worked in a lab on skin samples, and she was frustrated with her job for reasons related to her career such as salary and advancement, not the emotional or harassment issues, real or imagined, that disturbed my character Mary Ann. And once I had that weirdly pleasing image – of a young troubled woman in a lab coat looking at skin – well, that’s a fertile Petri dish of narrative possibilities.

Skin. We mostly don’t think of it until it gets irritated, the same way we don’t think of our hearts pumping or the neurons firing in our brains when we taste a piece of cake. But once we slow down enough to observe anything closely, so many beautiful and frightening and perplexing questions arise. Scientists know this. So do poets and writers. For a while, I was obsessively thinking about and looking at skin. Two early discoveries: One of the fastest ways to isolate yourself at a cocktail party is to move in close during conversations to study pores or beauty marks. And, if you’re squeamish, don’t ever Google images of skin diseases.

But the role of skin as a permeable shield was the most powerful aspect of questions that kept popping up for me. I allowed the character Mary Ann to voice those thoughts from a scientist’s perspective full of awe about the miraculous biological organ we’ve evolved. Skin breathes and absorbs nutrients while protecting us from the most dastardly, pervasive and invasive little microbes on the planet. But a shield that is so permeable or easily damaged? There’s an oxymoron for you.

Further questions fell in line pretty readily as I was discovering the story while writing. What are the other shields we put up to protect us emotionally? What if one of those emotional shields isn’t as strong as we would like it to be? How does someone protect herself or create barriers between her inner world and the “real” world? In the story, I purposely left ambiguous the motives of the secondary character, Dev, the supervisor who is infatuated with Mary Ann. The serious problem of sexual harassment in the workplace is a question most women must grabble with. As a writer and a feminist, I challenged myself to set the story as fully as possible in the workplace, where our private selves – for both men and women – are necessarily concealed and protected while we get on with the practical duties we are assigned. Later, the story moves to a short scene in a mundane, public mall — another edifice that seems a natural spot these modern days to protect or lose our selves among the crowds. Sadly, we know how easily assailed these places really are. (Tragically, there was a mall shooting just one mile away from the LPR reading on the day of the issue’s launch.)

This is not to suggest that these narrative steps occurred with purpose at first. Writing is a messy process. I wrote scenes, which I revised out, that followed Mary Ann to her apartment and explored her love and family life. To paraphrase Gardner, I cut those scenes that distracted from the dream world I was conjuring. It didn’t matter in the end what her relationship was with her mother or that she did or did not have a serious love relationship in her past. The reader didn’t need to get that far under the character’s skin to believe and feel the conflict. Focusing on setting gave the story structure, and when I revised, I tried to develop the details of place to support the emotional pull without, I hope, overdoing the metaphor.

When LPR announced its science issue, this story seemed a good fit. I’m a little disappointed, however, that I didn’t have access to the recently publicized research about skin microbes. A recent story in the NY Times detailed the micro-biome of helpful ammonia-eating bacteria that live on our skin and feast on some of the odor-causing bugs that populate our extraordinary – and in my case increasingly wrinkled – natural wrapping. What interesting narrative turns could have evolved if either of the main characters in my story were just a little bit smelly? Would there have been face licking? These new scientific findings may yet cause a narrative itch that needs scratching.

Note: If you enjoyed Mary Jo’s story and want to read more poetry and prose from our Science issue, you can purchase copies of that issue and others online.

Concerning Craft: Daniel Hudon

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

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Daniel Hudon (Photo: Miranda Loud)

Please meet Daniel Hudon. Daniel has published a broad body of work including poetry inspired by Magritte, humor and fiction inspired by science, and essays about his travels in Asia and Central America (one of which won him the 2011 Tiferet Nonfiction prize). His teaching also spans fields, covering astronomy, physics, math, and writing at various colleges in Boston.

We published his short story “Possibly Playing Tonight at the Quantum Theater” in our Winter 2014 Science issue. He read his story at our launch event, so be on the lookout for a video when they become available. (Note: The video is now available. Please find below.)

Here are the insights he had to share about the writing and refinement of the piece:

Ultimately, “Possibly Playing Tonight at the Quantum Theater,” was inspired by an undergraduate science course that I was a co-instructor for. Our goal was to give the students – non-science freshmen – our best stuff, and that was our pet name for the course, “The Story of Stuff.” So after introducing the Newtonian worldview, we’d spend two weeks effectively blowing students’ minds with the highlights of quantum mechanics. Beyond being a highly successful theory to describe the structure of the atom and atomic interactions, it’s great material for a fiction writer both for the strange world we’re forced to consider, and for the challenges we’ve had in interpreting its results. I wanted to convey some of this strangeness in a story.

According to Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman, the conceptual crux of understanding quantum mechanics is the double-slit experiment. If you fire an electron through a pair of narrow and narrowly separated slits, it turns out that you cannot predict where the electron will land on an observing screen. At best, you can quote a probability. This is a bizarre idea coming after the determinism of Newtonian mechanics – given the properties of a baseball, of course we can predict where it will land! Even better, until the electron hits the screen, it exists in a superposition of possible states, and its final end state on the screen is determined from the probabilities that can be calculated. I love that idea of the electron’s final position having all these possibilities and then being reduced to the one that is observed. In quantum-speak, that’s the collapse of the electron’s wavefunction, part of the mysterious particle-wave duality, and I took that and ran with it.

In fact, I’ve made a few attempts to write a story about quantum mechanics and this one came together best. Most of these attempts circled around a pun on mechanics – what would a quantum mechanic do differently from an auto mechanic? – but I couldn’t really get beyond the pun. When I hit upon the idea of the theater, I knew I could get a story out of it.

I wanted a character that goes on a good date and has a good time. One of the things that makes dating fun are the possibilities of what might happen. You don’t know what the other person is going to say or do as you interact with them and try to get to know them. If there’s chemistry, then the conversation can be heady and tantalizing. That’s what I wanted my main character to enjoy. But as the evening carries on, one is always checking in and wondering if it’s going as well as it could – is the other person into you? Many possible threads of conversation are explored, from the mundane to the feisty, and this was what made writing the story fun.

One of the hardest things was choosing how much possible dialogue the characters should have and an early draft has our main character going a little overboard there. I also spent some time revising the scene where the couple enters the theater because, in the quantum world, consecutive electrons fired through the apparatus will not wind up side by side on the screen, so it took me a few tries to convey some of that confusion as they go through the doors. Some readers may recognize the more recent quantum experiments in that scene where scientists fire electrons through both slits and then close one slit or the other, or put a detector behind one of the slits, all to test the whole notion of particle-wave duality and when the wave function actually collapses. The first draft also had the story ending badly for the narrator – she didn’t get him at all, though she had invited him over. I realized it would be much more satisfying for all involved if she did get him, as that’s one of the things we hope for when we’re on a date.

The drafts had the same boring title, either Quantum Dating or Quantum Dramatics or Quantum Dramatics, and my final edit was to change the title to the present one, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the right title for the story. Possibly.

Note: If you enjoyed Daniel’s story and want to read more poetry and prose from our Science issue, you can purchase copies of that issue and others online. More of Daniel’s work can be found at his webpage.

Print Issue Preview: Science Under the Microscope

Science LPR-cover front only-1 (2)One of the first blogs I wrote as the new Online Editor of LPR was about my experiences as a poet and physicist. Concluding the blog, I sought our communities’ experiences with and thoughts on science. One respondent sent a poem by Robinson Jeffers that ruminates upon what possibility of mankind precipitating its own destruction with science. Mike Clarke, Co-Publisher of LPR, pointed out the huge challenge we had undertaken with a theme that cannot help but run up against the legacy of C. P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures”.

Evidence of these concerns and many other ideas runs rife across the pages of the Winter 2014 Science issue, and this issue has been one of the most exciting and richest experiences I’ve had with LPR yet. The pieces speak to each other in ways that remind me that in both science and art, human thought revels in theme and motif.

A theme through human history is the search for our origins. This issue brings us the wonders of new life [i] and newly (re)discovered [ii] life in the primordial soup of the sea. Contributing Editor, Lalita Noronha, and invited contributor, Myra Sklarew, make the most of time by guiding us through the billion year history of evolution from the first complexities of plants [iii] to the development of the biological machinery of intelligence [iv].

One of the gifts of that machinery, which continues to vex scientists with the challenge of its complexity, is the gift of introspection, empathy, and critical thought. This issue celebrates those creatures sacrificed for science [v] and critiques the inhospitable laboratories dominated by so-called “enlightened” men [vi]. Meanwhile, Michael Salcman contextualizes the artwork of Soledad Salamé’s, featured in the issue and on the cover, clearly living on the supposed border between science and art [vii].

Returning to a more taxological approach, you will find poetry living in the world of flying creatures [viii-x] and poetry about genetic inheritance [xi-xiii]. In each category sharing an aesthetic — the songs of a twittering towhee [x] and a reticent mute swan [xi] — the poets view their object with a diverse set of lenses, sometimes evoking binoculars and at others a microscope.

The issue concludes with Susan Thorton Hobby’s interview [xiv] with Nobel laureate John C. Mather, whose view takes us from the microscopic all the way out to the largest field of view possible: the entire universe. John will be giving a talk on the history of the universe as part of LPR’s and the Columbia Art Center’s ongoing salon series in April.

When we opened the reading period for this issue, we asked you to “write with your most exacting eye, your most dogged pursuit of truth, and, of course, your utmost imagination.” I am thrilled to see how our community has met that challenge.

Before the bibliography, there is also a little book keeping. Please don’t forget to join us for the Science issue launch reading at Oliver’s Carriage House,  5410 Leaftreader Way, Columbia, MD on January 25th at 2:00 pm. Those authors who cited below who will be reading at the launch are marked with a † symbol. Additionally, we have recognized those authors cited below who we have published in this issue only after submitting to LPR two, three, or even four times with a * symbol. Please keep in mind that rejection often means that your poem was not the right fit for our current issue, and your persistence may mean that your work will find a happy home in our future issues. Click on links in the citations to be taken to previews of the work.

[i] Kim Roberts’ poem “Protandric” tells of the mating habits of oysters.

[ii] Whitney Gratton’s† poem “Coelacanth” recounts the rediscovery of the fish of the same name.

[iii] Lalita Noronha’s† poem “Mustard Seed” celebrates pays homage to biological and ecological complexities found in such seeds.

[iv] Myra Sklarew’s poem “Ode to Astrocytes” celebrates the astrocyte cell, recently discovered to be more important to brain function than previously believed. The issue also features a conversation between Noronha and Sklarew on their experiences as scientist-poets.

[v] Rebekah Remington’s† poem “To Science Fair Plants” gives thanks to plants who have become grade school science experiments.

[vi] Mary Jo LoBello Jerome’s†* story “Dermis” recounts the difficulties faced by a female scientist.

[vii] Michael Salcman†, LPR’s Art Consultant, presents an essay entitled “Earth, Water, and Fire: The Art of Soledad Salamé”.

[viii] Catherine Bayly’s†* poem “Wait and Collect” examines butterfly collecting.

[ix] Barbara Daniels’* poem “Ode to Binoculars” praises the power of bird watching.

[x] Barbara Crooker’s* poem “Rufous-Sided Towhee” listens carefully to a bird of the same name.

[xi] Anne Barney’s poem “Old Song” begins with an ancient flute carved from the wing bones of a mute swan.

[xii] Marlena Chertock’s† poem “Short Curve” examines the far reaching consequences of genetic inheritance in our everyday lives.

[xiii] Marian Kaplan Shapiro’s* poem “LUCA” begins with the human species’ last universal common ancestor.

[xiv] Susan Thorton Hobby† contributed an interview with John C. Mather entitled “A Modest History of the Universe.”

†These authors will be present for the January 25th launch reading at Oliver’s Carriage House.

*These authors were published after submitting to Little Patuxent Review at least twice.

5 Questions for Jen Michalski, Author of The Tide King

Michalskiblue

Baltimore-based author and editor, Jen Michalski.

When author Jen Michalski was featured in the Baltimore Sun this summer, the headline called 2013 “a prolific year” for her. That phrase is appropriate. Michalski, a mainstay of the tight-knit Baltimore literary scene, will have three books published between January 2013 and April 2014.

But for a writer as hard-working as Michalski, “prolific year” is also misleading. In addition to working on her own writing, Michalski edits the Baltimore-based journal jmww and frequents local literary readings.

Michalski and I spoke about her not-so-sudden success last weekend, and we followed with an email exchange. I had recently read The Tide King, her stand-alone novel (Black Lawrence Press).

thetideking_cover_lorestrials_4Laura Shovan (LS): With three books published within an eighteen-month period and a feature in the Baltimore Sun, one might be tempted to say, “Jen Michalski is an overnight success.” Those of us involved in the local scene know that you are a longtime literary community activist. Over the years, how have you balanced supporting other writers—through projects like jmww, the 510 Reading Series, and the City Sages anthology—with staying committed to your own writing?

Jen Michalski (JM): I don’t know, really! It all works out, somehow. A caveat—I like to keep busy. I have this manic mental itch, and there are so many other things I would attempt to scratch it with if I weren’t so involved in the writing community: I want to learn to play the bass and trumpet, attend the symphonies and opera, surf, and knit. I often wish the days were twice as long, or that there were two of me!

That said, ironically, my projects don’t leave a lot of time for writing. Fortunately, I do a lot of my work internally, in dreams and also subconsciously; and by the time I write it out, I’ve worked it over and over in my head and it’s pretty much the way it will be on the page. Writing also just comes when it’s ready, not when I try to force it, so I don’t feel pressured to set aside an hour a day and wait for something to happen. Finally, it helps that I’m a self-employed medical editor, which means my schedule is pretty flexible for when the writing does erupt.

Ultimately, though, being involved in the community is inspiring to me as a writer. All writing is a dialogue between writer and reader, and when I’ve attended a great reading or accepted a great piece for jmww or just talked with another writer about his or her inspiration or process or even kids, I am compelled to respond in my own way somehow, whether right away or subconsciously, a few months later. I feel like these outside projects fertilize the garden, in a way.

Salon Series, New York

Jen Michalski

LS: We talked about the way different threads of research came together as you were constructing The Tide King: the last “witch” burned in Poland, your family’s immigration story, a National Geographic article about the sinking of the Bismarck, both your grandfathers’ WWII experiences. All of these, except for the Bismarck, are key themes or events in The Tide King. Would you describe your research process? How do you know when something you uncover is going to work for the book?

JM: Research excites me because I never know what I’m going to turn up. In fact, I no longer lock myself in a plotline early on when I’m writing or researching the novel. When I’m researching I’m like a boat in the ocean; I can glide along in lot of different directions and trajectories before seeing land again. And then I might wind up landing in Cape Town when I thought I was going to Madrid!

Even though my research is driven by things about which I’m passionate, I just try to remain open to what I find. If I really wanted to set the novel in Alaska but when I’m Googling I read about a fishing village in Nova Scotia that really excites me, I go with it. In that sense, I know something is going to work when I become excited about it, when the story suddenly opens up and expands. Sometimes, though, the research just gets cut, and I’m okay with that. I wrote about 600 pages of The Tide King and only wound up using 300. I don’t feel they were wasted pages—they were just sort of the outtakes you wind up seeing on movie DVDs. (In fact, a lot of the deleted scenes did wind up being stand-alone stories that were published.)

I also try to stay loose through the various revisions of the novel. The first draft is so different from the second, the second from the third, and so on. Although the characters and the basic plot may stay the same, all the scenes, the setups, can have changed from the first to third draft. It used to be something that frustrated me, because you want to keep the energy of the first draft or idea without watering it down through the revisions. But often the revisions take it to a better place. Now, I try and concentrate on just digging through the research, the draft writing, knowing that I’m going to hit pay-dirt down the road—I trust my intuition will guide me to where I need to be. I am a writer entirely in the moment of writing. I never think about when I should be finished with a particular novel, whether I’ve spent too much time on it, and I also never wish for a novel to end. I try to have so much fun writing it that I’m disappointed when I’ve done all I can and it’s finally finished, that I have to find something else to do.

LS: Early in the novel, Barbara, an herbalist living in rural Poland in the 1800s, discovers a patch of burnette saxifrage that’s been struck by lightning. The herb, she realizes, has extraordinary healing powers. You said that this story, while not scientific, is drawn from both history and folklore. How did this element of magical realism become the novel’s inciting incident, the thing that draws these characters—who span over 100 years—together?

JM: The decision to use the herb, for me, was definitely, the “aha” moment. When I first started writing about Stanley and Calvin in the European theater of World War II (which was inspired indirectly by a story I’d read about the battleship Bismarck in National Geographic), I didn’t know what was going to happen with them. In the back of my mind I knew I didn’t want to write a war novel, even as I wanted to honor my grandfathers, who both served and never talked about it. But I kept writing, figuring that what to do next would occur to me by the time I got to that crossroads. And it did—one day, I was looking through some story files on my computer and found fifty pages of this other novel I had started many years before and forgotten. It featured the enchanted burnette saxifrage. I wondered, “What if one of the soldiers, Stanley or Calvin, gives it to the other?” Burnette saxifrage became the lynchpin—it could tie centuries of family and people together by the nature of its “curse.” It also provided a conceit, the curse of immortality and how humans deal with loneliness and time passing. But I was many months into research and writing before I realized the true story of The Tide King—and it turned out I’d been working on it for years without even realizing it.

LS: The friendship of WWII buddies Stanley and Calvin is central to The Tide King. However, the female characters shape the trajectory of Stanley’s and Calvin’s lives. How did you come up with Stanley’s love interest, little person and country music star Cindy? You said that Cindy’s daughter, Heidi, drives the second half of the novel. Can you explain what you meant?

JM: I don’t really know why I made Cindy a little person. I know I wanted to include country music because I was reading a lot about 1940s and 1950s country music, Patsy Cline and the Browns and Hank Williams Sr. So I knew Cindy would be a country music star. I always am drawn to the different, the “other.” I’ve written before about people with disabilities because I’m interested in their perspectives, so it wasn’t a stretch for me to include this twist in Cindy’s character.

Also, in a way,  although I didn’t realize it at the time, she becomes kind of a foil for Ela, who is also a little person in that she’s a two-hundred-year-old woman trapped in the body of a nine-year-old girl. Ela wants to die but she can’t, and Cindy wants to live on forever, immortalized as a country music star.

But Cindy and Kate (Calvin’s first love) drive the story. Calvin and Stanley never get over Kate and Cindy, and they are both driven through life by them in different ways. For one, it is a helpful, positive coping, and for the other, it’s not. I think it’s a very human condition, our “muses,” and the thin line between the destructive and redemptive nature of them.

Heidi’s story, even as it comprises the last third of the novel, is kind of a surprise to the reader, I think, and it was intentional on my part. For Ela and Calvin and Stanley and everyone else who comes in contact with the burnette saxifrage over the course of two hundred years, their information is very incomplete. They ingested the herb and did not know it, it wasn’t forced upon them, or they’re not aware of the breadth of its repercussions. Heidi is a character who is given full knowledge of the herb, knows what it can do, has seen how it affects those who take it. And, at the novel’s end, she must make a choice about the herb, and she is the only one, to that point, with the agency to decide whether or not she should take it, what should be done with it. I wanted to explore that freedom to decide one’s fate, through Heidi. To that point, the herb, or the search for the herb, for answers, had been the driving force.

LS: The one question you said most people ask about The Tide King is: Will there be a sequel? Explain why your answer is no.

JM: I think it’s good to leave the reader with questions. Life isn’t tied up in a bow, and I don’t think stories should be, either. There is no happy ever after—life just ends, and there’s nothing we really have to drive ourselves through it except our hopes—our hopes to be happy, to fall in love, to be successful. Which, on the face of it, are all human constructs, not real. And that’s what the characters in The Tide King have at the end—their hopes, however slim and unrealistic. There’s nothing that Calvin or Ela or Heidi could do in a sequel that would change the course of humanity, of the human condition. It’s sort of an old story, the follies and hopes of humankind, that doesn’t need a sequel. I thought that was the most fitting, realistic ending of all.

Jen Michalski lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She was voted one of the best authors in Maryland by CBS News, one of “50 Women to Watch” by the Baltimore Sun, and “Best Writer” by Baltimore Magazine (Best of Baltimore issue, 2013). Her novel THE TIDE KING (Black Lawrence Press) was voted “Best Fiction” by the Baltimore City Paper. She is the author of two collections of fiction, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS (So New, 2007) and FROM HERE (Aqueous Books, 2014) and a collection of novellas, COULD YOU BE WITH HER NOW (Dzanc Books, 2013). She also edited the anthology CITY SAGES: BALTIMORE, which Baltimore Magazine called “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww and hosts the monthly reading series the 510 Readings in Baltimore.

For more about The Tide King, see the Baltimore Sun’s review. Also consider reading up on Jen’s previous book, COULD YOU BE WITH HER NOW, reviewed by LPR earlier this year. Jen’s book FROM HERE is due to be published by Aqueous Books in April 2014.

Concerning Craft: John Alford

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Please meet John Alford. John’s stories have appeared in The Missouri Review, Zone 3, and The Louisville Review. He has taught at numerous universities in the United States and abroad, and is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities in connection with his scholarly publications on Middle English literature. However, John’s story, “Contrappasso”, is a distinctly American tale in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe.

We published “Contrappasso” in our Summer 2013 Music issue. Here he is reading an excerpt of that story at our launch event:

Here are the insights he had to share about the writing and refinement of the piece:

“Contrappasso” grew out of a trivial slight I suffered in the lobby of an Asheville multiplex on January 9, 2010. It was during the second intermission of the Met’s HD simulcast of Der Rosenkavalier. I was gushing to a friend over the visual aspects of the production, the lavish sets, the costumes, when she cut me short: “Opera is all about the voices.” I didn’t give her pronouncement much thought at the time but discovered next day it had lodged, like a splinter, under my skin. I let it fester into a story.

To get things going I took Poe’s classic tale of revenge, “The Cask of Amontillado,” as a template. Over time I worked up a scheme of parallels:

Setting                               Italy (19th cen.)                       New York (20th cen.)

Narrator                           Montresor                               Vera

Victim                                Fortunato                               Felice

Victim’s rival                    Luchresi                                  Lucretia

Bait                                     Cask                                         Callas

Scene I                                Carnival                                  Opera guild party

Scene II                               Catacombs                             Ruined theater

Form of revenge               Live burial                              Rats

In addition to plot there were many other opportunities for parallelism. Dialogue: Luchresi  “cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry”; Lucretia “doesn’t know Strauss from Stravinsky.” Imagery (including other Poe territory): the red moon and collapsing hall, from “The Fall of the House of Usher”; the huge bird, from “The Raven”; the orchestra pit and rats, from “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Style: Poe’s fondness for certain words (ebony, sorrow) and certain constructions (“fortunately … I say fortunately because”). At some point I came to realize that my story was not only indebted to Poe, it was also about Poe.

Besides plot, the most consequential thing I took from “The Cask of Amontillado” was the narrative voice. Once I’ve settled into a voice, the rest follows. No voice, nothing comes. (Maybe, in writing, it is all about the voices.) Before she acquired her own voice, Vera mostly mimicked Montresor. She was sardonic, superior, confidential with the reader. Soon she was parroting other voices. The narrator of Lolita, for instance. Rereading the novel in the course of writing this story, I was astonished to hear an echo of Montresor in Humbert Humbert, though Nabokov’s narrator is more charming, more playful with words. (“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”) I gave something of his tone to Vera. Or rather Vera absorbed it simply by being in his company, just as my then five-year-old daughter, after a year in England, spoke “Yorkshire.” As for the physical qualities of voice—how my characters sounded—I hadn’t given this aspect much thought before the launch, where, for the first time, Vera and Felice spoke out loud. A good lesson. If I had spoken their parts earlier, during the writing process, I think they would have lived more brightly in my imagination.

What’s not in “The Cask of Amontillado” provided the theme of my story. In an earlier draft, after Vera declines to name the specific cause of her revenge, she goes on to say:

What was the insult for which the unfortunate Fortunato deserved to be walled up alive in a crypt? My Master does not say. Is his silence an accident, a mere lapse of memory? I cannot believe it. What, then, does it signify? What else but this? The motive does not matter. Revenge needs no cause outside itself, but if it should go looking for a motive (to satisfy the conscience or the police or the doctors), it will always succeed in finding one. May I be frank? I’ve begun to question the relevance of my own theme, the notion of contrappasso. In truth, I hated Felice from the start. Her very being was an affront.

This speech from an earlier draft illustrates how badly I was struggling at the time. The central concept of contrappasso (“let the punishment fit the crime”) was threatening to bring down the story. Vera’s analysis only made things worse. She wasn’t this self-aware. The narrative had reached a crisis point. Incredibly, I had not seen it coming. Suddenly I realized what had happened. Idiot! I had intruded into the story. This was not Vera’s voice. It was mine. Simultaneously I realized the problem was hers. Lured by the “esthetic appeal” of contrappasso and foolishly thinking to improve upon her Master, Vera had outsmarted herself. The concept of contrappasso is not merely irrelevant to revenge, it is incompatible, inimical. I decided to let this incompatibility stand as the whole point of the story. I cut Vera’s speech in half, leaving to the reader all speculations about Poe’s intent, and kept my title as a judgment on the nature of revenge, the absence of measure at its heart.

Note: If you enjoyed John’s story and want to read more poetry and prose from our Music issue, you can purchase copies of that issue and others online. The full text of John’s story is part of the Music issue preview.