Click here to download

3 downloads 20013 Views 3MB Size Report
COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN issue eleven march ten, ..... picture of the snowy pine in the Ozarks, the one in front of what had once been our home; it .... consider leaving her body to science; she's already an organ donor, why not go the whole ... car stops, Sue puts it in park but doesn't want to open the door, horrified to think the ...


issue eleven march ten, twenty-fourteen





The Back of My Mind


Ellen Wade Beals

So We Die *Shortlisted for 2013 Writing Prize


Jennifer Lee

American Brewery *Shortlisted for 2013 Writing Prize


Julie Johnson

Milk and Blood


Ryan Garcia

What Once Was Blooming, and Exuberant


Leslie Doyle

Red, Right, Return *Shortlisted for 2013 Writing Prize


NONFICTION Chelsey Clammer

What You Finally Attended To

D. Watkins

Class Trip


Michael Brantley

Me and John and Gus and Hairy


Talea Anderson

A Guide for the Visually Impaired


Fiction Editor Rafe Posey Interviews Nicola Griffith, author of Hild



HENRY ALLEY The Back of My Mind Clancy. It’s a good name for me. Solid. Really my last name but it’s been my first for a long time. The name sounds like a bell. It’s the man you call up. I’m good for it. I run library security by day, and sleep as caretaker by night in a cemetery. The Pioneer Cemetery, to boot. I’m on call, I suppose, to the 5,000 dead who live here. But also to the proprietors of the place, who expect a certain amount of security for the stones. I live in the trailer they provide. I’m a little bearish. I think they were looking for that when Rhodes Security hired me as a guard for our city library and maybe when the Pioneer Cemetery took me on as well. Beard, mustache, a little overweight but carry it well. Welcomed with my feedcap at Bear Night at the Falcon up in Portland. Down here in Eugene, my mission, besides the cemetery, is asking the girl with the love beads if she’ll please move off the sidewalk that fronts the library. Please move on. Day after day, the parties pop up right around the stone benches. The smoke puffs up as if from chimneys. The guy in the open leather vest and straw hat nails the dwarf in seersucker up against the library wall, and I have to part their company. Daily, the complaints come into the Administration’s office about the street people impeding others from entering the glass doors, all in a rush. And then there are the parties that crop up in the library itself. One day, I came upon a gang of card players behind the shelves in the back of reference, seated in a circle as if they were in the middle of a parked wagon train. I’m marking time. I was at the bedside of my partner, another Bear, for over two years. Eventually he resided in an AIDS hospice spot called Compassion House in Portland. We had lived together over twenty years. He was HIV Positive when we met, and eventually the disease caught up with him. He was rosy-cheeked, mustached, and cheerful. He would always take my hand the moment I came in to see him. What a grip! Nearly to the last, he would work out on weights to keep up his strength. He had a gold chain around his neck and a gold bracelet on his wrist. But none of those things COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


HENRY ALLEY could keep him here. He would say, “Tell me your favorite memory,” and I would answer, “Maybe living with ice and snow in the Ozarks. A whole month. I would religiously go to work – I was teaching then – as though I were a mail carrier.” His grip began to loosen. I was HIV negative. My partner Hamlin was leaving this planet, and I was staying on. He asked me to visualize for him our swimming naked at a clothing optional beach in Hawaii. My memory had made him cold. Our skin was smooth then, reddened beneficently by the sun. He was free of the marks of AIDS, and I was free of the marks of age. “I don’t have AIDS,” I said. “But I do have age.” The coincidence of these sounds he found amusing as I tended to him in bed. Things flew apart after he was gone. His death affected me like the month of August, my favorite month; that is, some days would begin so cold I would have to put on a sweater, and then by afternoon I would be like Edmund Spenser’s emblem of that month, all a-swelter and running hot and naked as though upon a galloping fiery horse. A recollection of our lovemaking would be enough to tip me over. Then I got a letter from my “cousin” in St. Louis. She was the daughter of my grandfather’s sister. She was without relatives, too. She was the widow of the mayor of Castle Bridge, a town newly built in central Missouri solely for senior citizens, an Airstreamer’s paradise, among other things. I had heard about her husband’s funeral from another distant cousin – the man had weighed over 300 hundred pounds, and eight men had been required to carry his gigantic casket to the gravesite. Now my cousin, the mayor’s wife, had moved from the very tentative isolated town, back into a rented house in St. Louis, close to Christy Park in the South Hampton neighborhood. She had suffered two heart attacks, and was in need of an able-bodied man to come in and tend to the washing, ironing, housecleaning, garden upkeep, and the making of meals. She needed him to help her to the bathroom. All of this came in a letter that suggested I be the one, even though she never asked directly. I considered my days and months and years in Portland, considered the house Hamlin and I had lived in, the one I had had to sell because his finances had been in arrears when he had passed, and I could no longer afford the mortgage COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


HENRY ALLEY payments. I thought about how much I had loved living close to Duniway Park in Portland, and walking with him along the autumnal roads, our yellow lab Kyle alongside of us. Later pushing Hamlin in a wheelchair, with the dog still bounding along as well. How much happiness there had been when the aspen leaves were in a twirl in a circle, accented by the flame red of the maple and the gum, as though fragments in a kaleidoscope. But that was not happening now. I was no longer grounded in time and space. I needed coordinates so that I could be found again. So I took her hint and accepted a room in her red brick 1930s house, and drove the 2,000 miles. In St. Louis, the streets were – Itaska to Brannon to Belmar. Anyone can tell you where Francis Park is, but absolutely no one knows about Christy Park. But I discovered it and settled in with my cousin. Plains and plains of grass as Kingshighway circles around Christy Park. A jagged cement path goes through. There are clusters of pine every now and then. As the weeks began to pile up, I don’t know how many turns I took in that park when I needed to get some fresh air. “Always tell me,” Cousin Laura Beth used to say, “always tell me if I smell like urine. Tell me when I need to be fresh. I have lost the capacity to detect that myself. I’m not proud. I need to be told.” I told her she smelled fine, and she did. However, when I first arrived in late summer, she had bundles and bundles of laundry to do, and some of it had gone sour. I became an expert on special powders, and I was able to gauge the remaining sun in the backyard so that the worst of the articles could be hung on the clothesline to dry and bleach. We had a small back yard, with just a border of four-foot fence around. Laura Beth had been used to a 3000 square foot home in Castle Bridge, and I needed Christy Park to get my “turns” of fresh air. “You are a miracle,” she said. Once the house was manageable, she invited her writing partner, Horace, a Welsh poet, in for visits. He could describe stream fishing like no other. He told me he remembered me when I had lived in the Ozarks, long before I was gay, way back when I had been married to a woman. He said that he and I had been in the same town, and that I had lived in a small mockTudor home on a hillside, which he and visited. My wife and I had a lost a COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


HENRY ALLEY baby back then. As he and I were talking, I was unloading Laura Beth’s ancient dishwasher, something that seemed to belong to the little Golden Book series, as in Susie’s New Stove. Also I was giving Horace – pale, corpulent, doublechinned, and eloquent – more breakfast, which consisted of eggs and Texas toast. I stood there, thinking of where my wife and I had lived, and remembering the snowy pines, at winter, that we would gaze at through the front window. I was sure I had seen a cardinal, like a ruby, but of course brighter red, in the boughs. I recall wondering what it would be like having a small child next to me, staring out, too. Before my wife had left me, I had had a magic touch with the garden, with the very green energy that rises through every stalk and “veyne” of the plant kingdom Horace had some of this acumen as well. Laura Beth had been known as the “saint” of the Ozark Empire Fair in Springfield, Missouri. Being president of the Springfield Dahlia Society, she waited on the amateur exhibitors in the Family Living Pavilion in August, and gave them tips on their displays of all sorts of flowers, including wild ones. Since the fair itself provided the vases, she would suggest which one could bring the best out of each bloom. When people would come in the day before the start of the Fair, word would get round that Laura Beth was being asked for. “Just consider,” she would say to me (she had a photograph), “the dahlia called ‘Show and Tell.’ It’s a rich yellow, with a red center. A smaller green vase for a bloom of that size (BB, no more than eight inches across) will cause it to rise in one’s field of vision like the moon in Virgil’s The Aeneid.” I came to see myself as her. As summer approached, the phone calls picked up speed imploring her to come back to Springfield, Missouri, and help everyone out again, even if she was no longer president of the Dahlia Society. But the distance between Castle Bridge and Springfield was a mere twenty miles; however between Springfield and St. Louis you had 212. Laura Beth could not travel that far any longer. Anywhere near. Things were fading fast. I had to stop taking her to her St. Louis Garden Club meetings and even, finally, the Christy Park Presbyterian Church. Local phone calls came in asking what had become of her. This is a woman, COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


HENRY ALLEY I considered, who was well located in time and space. But her breath was slower, more congested. I had to take a job down at the Flaming Pit Restaurant, a 1970s relic with a fireplace and disco dance floor. I waited tables and stocked the salad bar (they were celebrated for their pea salad) to help cover Laura Beth’s copays, which she could no longer afford. Her husband had been no better than mine as far as finances were concerned. In the last days, which took her to the hospital, the poem she gave to Horace was about the Show and Tell dahlia. In the lines, it was bigger than life. I was grateful that, daily, I always got off work soon enough that I could come in and visit her at night, just as had been true of my bellman’s job back in Portland when all of my life had been centered on my visits to Hamlin’s bedside. “Clancy,” she would say, taking my hand, her hair a dust of white, “Clancy, I can depend on you. Your name rings like a bell.” One night, her hand relaxed in mine just as Hamlin’s had done. She was gone, and I was set out again, unmoored, in time and space. It took me three months to settle her accounts. We had two funerals, one in St. Louis and another in Castle Bridge. She had left everything to me, but even after I had sold off the furniture, I had ended up owing. About “$25.25.” The things I kept of value were a postcard album, her letters, and a list of poems she had sent out. She had left me a note, “My dear Daniel,” she wrote, “I want you to know that I still had a poem in mind, one inspired by your praise of my previous work.” (Handwriting very shaky.) “It’s based on a passage from a letter your grandmother had written to me in 1944. She had included the letter and marked the passage: “Our man of the house has lettuce and radishes up in his little ‘strip garden.’ Mrs. Booth is putting out a large bed of pansies, purple and yellow, this afternoon. The tulips, red and yellow striped, and the jonquils and blue and pink hyacinths are blooming in front in spite of the cold weather. Right by the side of the garage in back where the weather vane looks out over everything.” It was then I realized that the house that Laura Beth had rented was the one belonging to her beloved aunt. In checking their photos later, I saw how very much alike she and her aunt looked. They both had pensive, slightly melancholy expressions, and they liked to pin clusters of artificial flowers – a white dog rose, for example – at their bosoms. COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


HENRY ALLEY So I came on home after it was over—well, almost home—a little further south of Portland, Eugene. I took the library security job – became, too, nightwatchman in the graveyard. I had still left my M.A. English degree, the consolation prize, very much buried. At first I lived at the Embers Motel, and got my mail at a post office box. I suppose I was still not convinced I would stick anywhere, although there’s nothing like a cemetery job to make you feel grounded. Eventually I took a place in the old-fashioned Gregory Apartments along a creek that came through town. The Lane County Fairgrounds were within earshot. I would wake up to the sound of horses or cattle when there was a showing, and I could see, from my window, the Ferris wheel, which was all lit green at night, being tried out so that they could be sure it was working. It wasn’t the county fair I was seeing but a prelude—the Emerald Empire Festival. As I walked among the array of spring and early summer flowers in the Exhibit Hall, I expected to find Cousin Laura Beth to come cropping up at any moment, giving people pointers. I took nostalgia trips to Portland. My spirits were a little dashed. I went by Compassion House and peered in, while no one was at the reception desk. I visited the McIntosh Hotel, where I had once worked, a hotel whose name had been changed to the Hotel Deluxe, a horror show done in the spirit of “the Golden Age of Hollywood,” all Art Deco and beds with “buttery leatherette headboards,” at about three times the price of what had been. “Who has that kind of money nowadays?” I asked Buzz, who was now the doorman, the one apparently surviving member of our whole previous staff. “Only those on an expense account,” he answered. (Buzz was about seventy years old and had to wear a full waistcoat, tails, and homburg.) “And oh Daniel, it’s not like what it used to be. No cheap prime rib dinners with baked potatoes. No harp playing in the dining room. No sense of family coming from the owners. No homemade rolls or hot Roman meal at breakfast.” “Come on down to Eugene,” I told him. “Time doesn’t play such tricks on you down there. Or if it does, it’s the right kind of tricks.” COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


HENRY ALLEY But he never came. I went on with my job of tending the sidewalk, and living at the Gregory. August came and I entered some flowers in my window box at the Fair. A few nights before, I looked out and saw the workers bringing out the horses, golden and silver, for the merry-go-round. A young man in a white singlet t-shirt began cleaning them. That night brought me to sleep well at the cemetery. I now had a host of friends to keep me company, Laura Beth and Hamlin among them. They were loiterers, splendid ones, and I didn’t want to shoo them away. I wanted them there, in the back of my mind. In my dream, Laura Beth was telling me which vases would bring me prizes at the fair. One night, right in the middle of sleep, I awoke and got out an old photo album. There were many gaps in it, because my wife and I had divided up the pictures. She had left me and left the Ozarks, after a drunken driver had driven straight through the plate-glass window of her flower shop. But filing through, I found a picture of the snowy pine in the Ozarks, the one in front of what had once been our home; it had white mounds on it, as though hit by snowballs. The cement post in our driveway looked like a white-capped gravestone. But there was a red mark there, in the branches, like an isolated tulip, and suddenly I remembered why I had taken the photo in the first place. Taking out my magnifying glass, I made the red bigger and bigger, until the most magnificent cardinal emerged, every detail making it living.



CHELSEY CLAMMER What You Finally Attended To You are fully aware of the fact that you are a lesbian. You are fully aware of the fact that he is a straight man. And you are fully aware of the fact that your underwear are sopping wet right now because you are thinking about him. This has been going on for nine years. But during those nine years you were a lesbian and he was a straight man and you had a crush on him, but there was that whole lesbian/straight man dynamic thing going on, so what could you do? You shrugged your shoulders. And yet your body and your wants persisted. The fantasies you couldn’t fight. How they pressed on your skin, surged through your blood, unable for you to ignore. Nine years go by. And then it is February 2012 and the two of you start up a conversation about erotica on Facebook (you have always been friends, had continued to be friends after college in that social media website type of friendship context, which, however much you do not want to admit it, kept the two of you in some tangential way connected for nine years even with that huge amount of God Bless America land between you as he stayed in Texas and you headed up north to Chicago following a woman you weren’t quite sure you loved anymore). By the end of that seven-hour long Facebook conversation you, the lesbian, have told him about the crush you have always had on him, and he, the straight dude, has told you about the crush he has always had on you, and you have chatted about fucking each other and you have taken a few masturbating breaks and by the end of it all he has purchased bus tickets and in two weeks will take a 26 hour bus ride to come see you. He takes that bus ride to come see you. And then he comes. And then you come. And then he raises up his head and he says, God I love eating pussy! And then you say, Me too! COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


CHELSEY CLAMMER And then you, the lesbian, are dating a man. And as you date this man, you are fully aware of yourself, of how you have finally attended to your sopping wet underwear. You inform your mother of this radical shift in your sexuality. She is a bit shocked. She has always liked your girlfriends, always accepted you for who you are. And so this time around, when there is another flip in your sexuality, she’s the one that says, “It doesn’t matter what gender the other person is, as long as you love them,” which is the exact same thing you said to her twelve years ago when you first declared yourself a lesbian. You as a lesbian: the girlfriends, the gay bars, the one night stands with softball dykes, the crushes on coaches, the picking of pubes from teeth, the way you drool at women who smoke cigarettes. Twelve years of picking pubes. Twelve years of drooling. Yes. Lesbian. But now there is a man inside you. A man who is your best friend, who is your only male friend, who is the only man you would ever let slip himself inside of you. This, in a way, is what you have been waiting for. The dildos did a fantastic job, but there was always that nagging feeling of wanting something more. Perhaps it was that something about him that nagged at you for that something more. Funny story: you wouldn’t have met him had it not been for your lesbianism. You had a crush on your boss who had just graduated from college. You were a senior in high school and didn’t know where to go, what to do after graduation. The boss you had a crush on told you to apply to her alma mater. You loved her so much, wanted her so much that you would do anything to make her happy, to make her approve of you, and hopefully like you and perhaps have sex with you, so of course you didn’t say no. You applied. You applied to a college you knew nothing about. You were fully aware of the fact that the only reason why you applied to this college you had never heard of is that you had a slim hope that maybe your crush/boss would come and visit you once a year during homecoming. To you, that was reason enough. She wrote the letter of recommendation. You went to the interview in which you were asked odd questions you didn’t understand the purpose of—such as, which three things would you bring with COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


CHELSEY CLAMMER you to college in order to remember your past? Picture. Journal. What-thefuck-ever. You got in. And it was at that college from which your crush had just graduated, the crush who led you there, that you met him. Instantly, he slips into your mind. He penetrates your thoughts. You don’t know how or why, but he does. You resist being fully aware of this. You are most certain you will forever be a lesbian. You even have a gay pride tattoo. So there is no hope here. Even when he is your roommate for two years. Even when he is your only male friend for four years. Even when you have dreams about him that make your underwear sopping wet as he sleeps in the room across from yours. Even then, there is your forever-a-lesbian thing going on with that big gay rainbow on your ankle. So yes, there is no hope here. And yet. The hope holds out for nine years. And then you have that Facebook conversation in which you type in those specific “I have a crush on you” confessional words, and then he dittos them, and then he takes a 26 hour bus ride to come see you, and then he slips himself inside you, and then you transition from being a lesbian to being a hasbian, and then five months later you are married to him. And you will stand on the wrong sides of each other during the ceremony because you are breaking tradition (and there will be no white dress but a cherry red cocktail dress and silver sparkling high heels, and there will be no march down the aisle but a two-step down it with your mother), and your lesbian friends will be there to woot you on. Yes. You are fully aware of the irony, of how if it weren’t for your lesbianism, your crush on another woman, you would not have gone to that college, would not have met him, would not have felt this pleasure, this remedy to the sopping wet underwear, would not have finally admitted that you wanted to commit yourself to him for, well, forever. So you are fully aware of the fact that the lesbians helped to deliver him to you. And to that, you slip off your sopping wet underwear, straddle the man you never thought you would allow yourself to straddle, and you say thank you, lesbians, thank you. COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


ELLEN WADE BEALS So We Die She’s thinking of buying a futon since it’s cheap and would be good for the kids’ sleepovers and it is this thought—whether or not to buy a futon—that is erased from her mind when Bettyann calls. She can replay the conversation in her head: Mr. Hirsch died at home. She did know he had heart trouble—didn’t she? Apparently Mr. Hirsch’s companion called into the publishing office, which prompted curiosity not just about Mr. Hirsch’s death but also his life – was that companion a man or a woman? It was a man, Bettyann says. What’s strange but typical, she continues, is that Mr. Hirsch wanted no funeral, no wake, no service. “No nothing, can you believe it?” It figures. Hal Hirsch was neurotically timid and never let anyone know anything about him. Sue hadn’t been on the job three weeks when she overheard some guy in the elevator, “Yea, Hirschie, he’s sat so long on the fence, he doesn’t know where he gets down anymore.” Well, now, like Humpty Dumpty he is gone. And, there is to be no nothing. Could she ever have nothing, no funeral at all? A little later, while the Today Show is on and Sue clears the breakfast things, she struggles to remember the word. She knows that the furniture is Asian, that it pulls out into a bed, that her friend Jean was the first one to have one and that was years ago when she still worked, but she cannot remember the name of those pullout mattress thingies. This lapse frightens her. It’s a sign. First there is Mr. Hirsch and his uncelebrated death and then this intermittent vacuity; it must signal some pathology, must foreshadow the end of her own story. She’d gone over the dramatic triangle with Shannon as she learned to plot a story in fourth grade (as Joey would learn next year) so she can picture clear as day how one thing leads to another, until some little perturbation, and, presto-chango, all is in peril. Returning again and again, this thought leads Sue to her own funeral. She just knows that unless she does something, her memorial service will be like one of those Mother’s Day picnics she has grown accustomed to, COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


ELLEN WADE BEALS where there are no napkins or mustard. If it is cancer, she thinks, I may have time to teach Mike what I want between bouts of chemotherapy, like how I taught Shannon to get ready for school by laying out her clothes the night before. He’ll need it set down on paper, so she’ll specify the exact black dress she wants and leave a fresh eyeliner with instructions not to apply it too thickly. Maybe Mike, suddenly eloquent in grief, would tell the mourners, “When Sue learned she was so sick, she talked about packing the most life into her last days.” He would pause to compose himself, “She thought about us, how to make us feel better.” That is as far as the fantasy can go before it topples. Mike talking like that is far-fetched. Didn’t Gilligan attend his own funeral when the Skipper and castaways thought he drowned? She knows for one thing, she does not want hokey. Between loads of laundry, Sue looks up Princess Di’s funeral. Would she want Pachelbel’s Canon, Dvorak’s Symphony No 9, Bach’s Fantasia in C Minor? Would there have to be a hymn? Maybe “All My Memories of Love.” As for pop, she would die… well, whatever… before she’d have “Candle in the Wind.” She could tape the music herself and leave the cassette for Mike, labeled Funeral, side 1 and Funeral, side 2. Or, she could have Joey burn it on a CD. As for classical music, she knows she likes cello and flute, but suppose she does pick classical, would she be true to herself? Would people think she was trying to impress? No, Sue thinks, I am a simple woman, and then can’t help but get the visual of herself in peasant get-up. But really, nothing too fancy for her. Simple. Classic. Maybe elegant too, though that might be reaching. Understated. Wait a minute. Didn’t Dylan Thomas say not to go gentle, not to go understated but to Rage, Rage against the something something? She should do it right. Shannon calls in a panic; she’s forgotten her shin guards for practice. So Sue pours her coffee into a travel mug, finds the shin guards right where Shannon said she left them, and scoots. While en route to the junior high, Sue considers her final disposition. Cremation—right? Maybe she should COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


ELLEN WADE BEALS consider leaving her body to science; she’s already an organ donor, why not go the whole way? She could be parceled out so then she had at least done something good through dying. Pulling up to the school, she knows for sure she wants no graveside service. She smiles and drops off the shin guards to the front hall proctor and figures it’s probably best to start with the church service and the luncheon, those are the best parts anyway. She’s gone to enough funerals to know she wants hers to be not too different but not exactly the same either. She pulls back into her garage. Maybe funeral planning is her calling. She could start a web site: She could put up a notice on the bulletin board at the grocery store, right next to the ad for how to stop bed-wetting and the posters for missing pets. Sue could organize play lists of songs (“Memories” from Cats and The Beatles’ “In My Life”). She could assemble bibliographies, from Frost to Groucho Marx. “Funny,” Sue would say at Chamber of Commerce luncheons, “what people want to be remembered by. But one thing’s for certain,” she would use her fork to make the point, “everyone wants to be remembered.” She would be smooth, like one of those psychologists on Pledge Drive Week for public television. She’d wear a suit. As if Hal Hirsch wasn’t enough for a chaotic morning, Joey calls. Didn’t she remember it was a half-day, exasperation streaks his voice. She doesn’t even throw on a coat, just gets in the car. It’s a mild day for so late in the fall. Sue struggles to make a left turn out of her cul-de-sac and onto two lanes of traffic. At the stoplight volunteers sell Kiwanis peanuts. They walk between the stopped lanes of traffic. God, she hadn’t even noticed them when drove to drop off the shin guards. Were they here then? Maybe it’s another sign that she’s losing it. The man by her window shakes his collection can. If Sue could just find some change, she’d give him something, but her coffee from earlier has sloshed onto the console. She tries to wipe the wet quarters on the waistband of her sweatshirt, but not in time. The light changes and traffic starts. The Kiwanis man retreats to the median and Sue drives on. Eleven-thirty and she’s still in her raggedy sweats, no bra; she may have run a comb through her hair, maybe not. Joey waits at the entrance and COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


ELLEN WADE BEALS when he sees the car, he heads for it. Then he slows down, takes his time, he’s not going to rush but make her wait now. At last, he opens the back and slings his backpack there. “Thanks, mom, any longer and I’d have to wait in the office.” “Sorry, dude.” Sue wonders whether patrons would have to pay royalties for songs featured on her funeral menus. Funeral menus, that’s how she’ll package it. Just as someone could be a salad with Thousand Island, steak medium rare, baked potato with sour cream, and coffee black but decaf, so could that person be an “Amazing Grace,” a Robert Frost, followed by a 23rd Psalm and the Notre Dame fight song. Sue bets lots of people who are Notre Dame alum want that; Domers are always so gung-ho. “Tell me, Joe,” she says seriously, “do you like it better when you sing in church or listen to songs?” “I guess I like listening better.” He looks at her but doesn’t say anything else. Maybe she’ll toast a piece of that leftover French bread and have it with strawberry jelly from Trader Joe’s. She’ll read the paper at the kitchen table, do the crossword, and then she’ll head for the computer and write up a business plan. “Everybody has to pay taxes and die,” she would tell Oprah when she went on her network, “and it is my intention to make one of those things a little easier.” As she approaches the corner, she puts on her left turn signal and looks in the rearview mirror. Of all the mirrors, the rearview is sharpest; how often she’d spot the errant eyebrow or undetected whisker. The sun hits her square in the eyes. Oprah’s people would really have to work on her. “Mom,” Joey yells. The Kiwanis guy is before her, too close to her fender. Though she slams on the brakes and the Kiwanis scrambles up and onto the median, her car thunks into him! She has hit the peanut man! When the car stops, Sue puts it in park but doesn’t want to open the door, horrified to think the Kiwanis guy is down there on the ground. “Mom,” Joey says, practically in tears, “oh my god, mom.” The Kiwanis man is not unconscious; he is lying partway in the left turn lane and partway in the intersection, holding his side. His apron is askew and his windbreaker has flown open like a moth’s wings. She clipped the COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


ELLEN WADE BEALS man, ran into him with the corner of her car, probably broken his ribs, she thinks, or injured his spleen. She bends down to do something; what, she doesn’t know. She’s never been good at the emergency medical part of life, barely been able to hold her Shannon’s hair back as she puked, and this is another thing altogether. Thank god there’s no blood. When the man on the ground moans, she tells him how sorry she is. She takes his hand. “What can I do?” Concern and adrenaline all mixed. The man holds his side and looks like he might get up. “Stay still,” commands a voice; miracle or miracles he’s being attended to by the woman in the car behind who has announced she is a nurse. Sue is relieved to make way and she stands by her car looking down. Joey has scooted over to look out the driver side window. The woman from the car behind checks his pulse and heartbeat, puts her head to his face. The man says, “I think I’m all right. I fell more than anything.” Sue wonders whether she should gather the coins that have flown out of his collection can. There are quarters just over there. The woman from the car behind speaks to the paramedics. Sue is useless, ashamed. Once the ambulance has left, the policeman tells her to drive into the parking lot of the office building on the corner. He points to the lot and he says it twice, each time saying “carefully” and “pay attention.” Of course she knows the parking lot he means, she passes it every day, though she’s never parked there, never had a need to. She turns when she gets the green arrow and she parks in the front of the lot near the pizza place. “Mom,” says Joey, “what are you going to do? What’s going to happen?” “I don’t know.” “Is he going to die?” “I don’t think so.” “Are you going to jail?” “I don’t think so. It was an accident.” “But you hit that man. Mom, you ran into him.” “Shh.” The policeman walks up to the car. “License and registration,” he says, and not in the form of a question. It COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


ELLEN WADE BEALS worries her the cop is so young. She hands him the information and he asks what happened. She steels herself: “I was coming down Lake and I was planning to turn left at the light so I slowed down. I looked in the rearview mirror for a moment. And when I looked back, the Kiwanis guy and I collided.” It was the truth, although maybe she looked in the mirror for more than a moment. Maybe what she should have said was that she hit the Kiwanis man, but it was difficult to make those words come out. “My car,” she says, “we came in contact.” The policeman looks over at Joey. Joey tries to smile but he is too upset. “Are you okay, son?” “Yes,” says Joey, “I was wearing my seatbelt.” The way he says it is so ingratiating that it is charming. Such a good boy. Her own explanation comes back to her and she reasons I was checking in the mirror. The policeman doesn’t need to hear about eyebrows or Oprah. My eyes were only off the road a fraction of a second. Another cruiser shows up; an older cop gets out and talks to the younger one. He asks Sue whether her car went up on the median, “Yes,” she says, “it did. I did.” She cries. “Oh mom,” Joey cries too. “I know,” she says. She has hit someone! She has royally screwed up, and her poor boy is witness to it. “It’ll be okay,” she says to them both. “I hope he’s okay,” she says to herself. She does. With all her heart. The cops talk out of earshot. What if she pulled away fast and drove back to her attached garage where she could barricade herself. She could hole up in there and die. The woman who died of embarrassment. The woman who died because she hit a Kiwanis peanut man with her car, nicked him, probably damaged his spleen. But she stays there looking at the tuckpointing between the bricks. “Maybe we should call dad,” Joey says. Maybe she could be buried in brick, sealed off like a body stuck in a chimney, entombed. She’s cold, still hasn’t put the heat on, and under the old sweatshirt, her nipples rub against the fabric. Stupid for her to notice at a time like this. The cop, the older one whose polyester uniform pants are particularly COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


ELLEN WADE BEALS tight and short, says, “Based on your account of the accident, ma’am, you’re going to be given a citation. It will take some time to process so just sit tight.” Process, thinks Sue, what is he talking about? She gets a sick feeling like too much coffee and not enough food in her stomach. “Is my mom going to jail?” Joey shrieks out her open window and starts to cry. The younger policeman comes back to her car, smiles at them both through the open window. “Don’t worry, son. Your mom is not going to jail. We just have to check some things.” Then the older cop takes that serious tone and Sue’s back in grade school with Principal Mac yelling at her for talking in line – didn’t she want to be in the graduation ceremony? A Field Sobriety test, really. She does the nose pointing, the alphabet recitation satisfactorily. She’s expecting to have to walk the line, but the cop doesn’t ask. He does make her stand there. It’s getting colder, and Sue shivers in the parking lot, waiting for further instructions. This is what her day has become. “Officer,” she says and waits for the young one to look, “I’m not drunk but I did hit that man.” It figures she’s looking her worst, the before-the-day-really-begins look she slouches into each morning. As if the situation itself wasn’t bad enough. There’s that joke that if you look like your passport photo, you’re too sick to travel. What if you look like your mug shot? What are you then, dead? I’m as good as dead, thinks Sue. Or did she say it aloud? The policeman lets her return to her car, to sit there with Joey. They’re both quiet. “I hope the man is okay,” she says, “I think he will be.” “Yeah,” Joey adds, “he looked like he was just a little hurt.” Then he asks aloud the question that is also on her mind, “What’s Dad going to say?” How stupid she’s been, she thinks, I should have been paying attention. It occurs to her then that what is most important about a funeral isn’t the readings or the songs. It’s the eulogy. But what control could she have over that? Only just a life well-lived. After twenty minutes, she is given two citations, admonished to be more careful, and dismissed. She starts the car. The fan blows cold air and she realizes again how chilly she is. And hungry. I’ll call the insurance agent, COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


ELLEN WADE BEALS and if he says it is all right, I’ll write the peanut man, maybe send him something. “Mom,” Joey says and it almost startles her, his being there, “you’re free to go.”



JENNIFER LEE American Brewery My father owned a small grocery store in Greek town, specializing in olive oil and feta cheese. He supplied local restaurants as well as families, and he worked long hours. He drove a fat Cadillac, a honey colored monster of which he was foolishly proud. On Saturday evenings he rubbed it down with a rag so that on Sundays when we drove to St. Nicholas it would look its best. Sometimes, when all the lights were green on Eastern Avenue, he would gun the engine and let the car accelerate, its heavy weight pouring down the road like an ocean liner. I loved the way my body felt pinned to the seat, the luxurious cream interior. When it idled, the Cadillac purred like a kitten, and you could barely hear it. It’s hotter than Hades at seven in the morning and I’m covered from head to foot in work clothes. Pigeons carry all kinds of contagion. It isn’t the heat that makes me dizzy, but the prospect of entering the Brewery. Lewis expects me to assess the scope of the project, but I’ve avoided Baltimore for twenty-five years. There’s more on my mind than I let him know. I could have wriggled out of it, I suppose, but places draw you back in their own time. Anyway, it isn’t the Brewery that marks me. They call this neighborhood, the most blighted area of Baltimore, East Broadway. The American Brewery dominates the streets with its massive cupola and boarded windows. The houses in East Broadway are destitute, the concrete stoops crumbling, trapping scraps of trash in their crevices. The wooden eaves are rotting, black and wet beneath flaking paint. Plywood nails up doorways in a random quilt design, like crazy squares stitched into an otherwise sensible plan. My old house is one of those, but I haven’t sought it out. COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


JENNIFER LEE When I was young the American Brewery was the center of our lives. In games we called it the witch’s mansion, and our mothers told us never to ride our bikes beyond it. Church bells rang in the evening, and fathers came ambling home from out its doors, slow and companionable in the fading light. The Brewery shut down in 1973, and everything changed. In 1973 I was nine years old and as happy as I’ve ever been. We had been in the house on Linwood for three years, and even Mama, who wanted to live in Greek town where she knew people, had grown used to things. Costa was old enough to ride his bike to the Greek neighborhood, and he spent his free time with friends. I was younger and a girl and therefore not allowed off the block. At first I was lonely, watching the kids play in the alley and not knowing how to join them. My black hair seemed a horrible blight against their blondness, and I was sure it was this difference – my Greekness, their Germaness – that kept me apart. But it was summer and Mama made a batch of popsicles with vysina, sour cherries soaked in syrup. These were so popular that kids started coming up our back steps, shyly asking if Mrs. Dimitsanis had any more cherry pops, and asking me if I wanted to play. Two small boys in particular became my friends. Frank and Joe Whener lived half way down the block, and soon I was in their house as much as my own. Frank was nine months younger than me and Joe was a year younger than him. We were a close threesome and spent as much time as possible outdoors. The rooms in our homes were small, and we were always under foot and made to know it. We didn’t mind the cold. On winter days when the sun caught the light off the ice hanging in long fingers from every ledge, Frank and Joe and I would drag a Red Rider up and down our street, breaking the icicles and loading them into a pile in the wagon. We sucked the longest ones until they slithered from our mittened hands to shatter on the ground. On rainy afternoons we were allowed to watch television at the Wheners’ house. We sat on the floor, riveted to the rabbit-eared black and white. Mrs. Whener served us Ritz crackers with peanut butter and we watched Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched, Hogan’s Heroes, M*A*S*H*. I would return home in the evening, full of crackers and peanut butter and a vision of the real America and try to eat my dinner to my mother’s satisfaction. COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


JENNIFER LEE Huge windows that once overlooked the beer vats span the second and third floors of the Brewery. They are paned with small, thick squares of opaque glass and only a few have been broken since the building was abandoned. Light filters down from them to the first floor. I feel safe in the yellow light, held in a space where nothing has happened for decades. The scars of time barely penetrate the heavy walls. I breathe deeply, both to invite and dispel this awareness of time. What if I could go back through the years and change one thing? What if just one thing in the past was different? This mind game is an old habit of mine, a bad one. I turn on my flashlight and enter a narrow hall. There is loose rubble at the base of stairs, and the electric panels are corroded. On metal pipes lichen flakes of rust crumble to dust, and thick paint peals from rails like frost on a window. In the sixties and early seventies, East Broadway was a solid, working class neighborhood, a mixed community of European immigrants and blacks entering the world of home ownership for the first time. Maybe East Broadway could have survived the closing of the Brewery if more of the homes had been owner occupied, but in 1973 half the houses were owned by landlords, people with no incentive beyond profit to improve the properties they owned. Jodie Rockland and slum lords like him had bought up the properties a couple at a time, more every year. Now there are over two hundred abandoned houses within a twenty block radius. When I drove in this morning the streets were empty except for a few congregants on steps, smoking wearily and squinting into the rising sun. I looked along the alleys, half expecting I would see some raucous childhood game in progress: kickball or tag or jumping rope. There was nothing, only the dense hull of the Brewery marooned on the top of the hill. Growing up, kids were everywhere. We owned the alleys and every evening after supper we held fantastic games of hide and seek. The number of hiding places in a city alley is remarkable: crawl beneath the Buick up on COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


JENNIFER LEE blocks, crouch behind a neighbor’s row of hollyhocks, lie flat on the topmost, narrow shelf of a tool shed. We played the version that involved running to base; you had to be caught as well as found. My mother dressed me in skirts and stockings and scolded me about the filth until she finally caught on to the idea of play clothes. After that I wore Costa’s worn out trousers and tee shirts to play, and while my parents frowned at the sight of me, my happiness pleased them. Only when friends or relatives came to visit was I forced in from the game, washed, and properly presented in a dress. I had become my family’s ambassador in the neighborhood. Baba and Costa passed their days in Greek town, and people hardly knew them. Mama was shy, her Greek accent heavy as a rug, and she busied herself with cooking and cleaning, taking very little advantage of her success with the vysina popsicles. I, on the other hand, was welcome in every house, and broad German women, the mothers of my friends, would smile at me with indulgence, pinch my cheek and say, “What beautiful eyes you have, Nina.” It must have been early in the summer of ‘73, around the time that the Brewery closed, that boys from McElderry wandered into our alley. We had been playing hide and seek, John Bartal’s back door serving as base. John was my next door neighbor, the oldest kid in the alley. He was a rough boy, the kind who would pick up a burning cigarette butt thrown from a car and smoke it down to the filter. The boys that came weren’t looking for trouble. They were brothers, I think, the younger one about Frank’s age, and the older about the same as John Bartal. They leaned against the fence of John’s yard and watched us play. If they had been white boys perhaps they would have been invited to join the game, but as it was, John walked up to the older boy, shoved his shoulder and said, “Get off my fence.” The boy pushed back and soon John and the stranger were rolling on the ground, furiously kicking and punching at each other. We stood around and cheered for John, ignoring the other boy, the younger brother, who clung mutely to the chain link fence. It ended when my mother came out of the house with her broom and began beating the boys with it, shouting in Greek for them to stop. I can’t imagine those straw rushes hurt, my mother was never much for hitting, but the surprise of being beat with a broom quickly parted the boys. The COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


JENNIFER LEE black boy grabbed his brother’s arm and ran. John made as if to chase them, but one final wallop from my mother’s broom changed his mind. Those black boys ran from us just as whites ran from East Broadway a few years later. My family ran too, though not because of the blacks moving in. But reasons don’t matter. The damage is done. The basement of the Brewery is cool as a cave, with vaulted brick ceilings and catacomb rooms, one leading into another. I was afraid to come down the stairs, into darkness so complete, afraid of rats and skeletons and the other terrors of childhood. But searching roots stretch and cling to surfaces like streamers at a party. It is peaceful here, with rows of metal tanks staring at one another like sentinels. Yet the beam of my flashlight is like the headlights of a car, casting wild shadows, and despite the beauty of these forgotten rooms I want to leave. When Humanim bid on the project, offered to buy the building from the city for less than three thousand dollars and in exchange renovate the space as our Baltimore office, Lewis pulled me aside and said he wanted me to oversee the project. “It’s a beautiful space, Nina, the way the light moves across the floors. And the exterior is to die for.” “I know the place,” I told him. “I grew up close by.” His eyes widened in surprise. “You grew up there?” “It was a long time ago,” I said. “I haven’t been back.” In the spring Lewis and I drove together to the site, to check out the Brewery. We circled the blocks of the neighborhood: Chester, Washington, Lanvale, Patterson. Boards were nailed tight to every other door. “Do you know what a Quick Take Law is?” Lewis asked. I shook my head. “A Quick Take Law is where the city has the right to seize possession of an entire community if seventy percent of the properties are vacant. Right now, East Broadway is at fifty percent.” The city doesn’t want to invoke a Quick Take. That would require a lot of COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


JENNIFER LEE attention and money that the city doesn’t have. The city wants Humanim to make a difference. I don’t know if that will happen. The morning Lewis and I drove around the neighborhood, cruising the blocks in his new model Toyota, we passed a make-shift shrine of teddy bears and Dixie cups filled with liquor. People stood a short distance away as a police officer emptied the cups into the gutter. Curious, Lewis drove slowly. I stared at my hands, ashamed, but still managed to glimpse the irregular brown stain of blood on the pavement. Liquor swirled in the blood, carrying bits of it away. When I was a child, East Broadway hadn’t been so damaged. I wanted to tell Lewis that, but I knew what this would lead to. Lewis would ask, “What was it like, Nina?” I said nothing. Fathers worked when I was a child, and mothers stayed at home. Nobody shared domestic responsibilities, and the fathers I knew struck me as shadowy, quiet men who overlooked children. I knew them in a peripheral way. John Bartal’s father I avoided. He was narrow and hard-faced, his hands curled in red fists. Both John and his mother were like him, and aside from our games in the alley, I had little to do with them. Mr. Whener, I thought, was a kind man. He was thick, with large, sausage-like fingers that seemed surprisingly soft and gentle. He ruffled his boys’ hair, picked them up and shook them, upside down. He never touched me, though I wished to have my hair ruffled too, and I would have liked being shaken upside down. Mr. Whener worked at the American Brewery, as did several other men on our street. He drank coffee at his kitchen table, his face a worried frown when the closing was announced, but he was the sort of man others helped, and he was soon employed at the National Brewery in Canton. My own father could not have been more different. He was Greek, he was loud, and everything under our roof was his business. I was never overlooked, but rather held up regularly for inspection. Was I properly groomed, COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


JENNIFER LEE was I getting good grades, did I help my mother in the kitchen? When he was pleased with me he would wrap me in his arms, squeezing the breath out of me, and pinch my cheek with his long fingers, soft dark hairs between the knuckles. He was a critical man but not hard to please and he loved me very much. I felt guilty for wishing he was more like Mr. Whener, and loved him more fiercely for my guilt. He changed as I grew older. Quieter, less critical, he’d wait for me to touch him, as if he’d lost the right to a father’s embrace. Three dark flights of stairs and a narrow metal ladder crusted with pigeon dung lead to the space beneath the eaves of the green-roofed cupola. Boards curve in a smooth arc above my head. Pigeons roost outside an open window. The rustle of their wings and their flute-like cooing vibrate the air. The air smells clean and bright, high above the humid streets. I look out the window hoping for something familiar: the Dominos Sugar sign, the spires of St. Wenceslaus, Johns Hopkins Hospital. But the view is uncompromising. All I see are brick row homes, worn asphalt, and the cracked concrete web of old alleyways. It was early October, an Indian summer, and though we were back in school and the light was fading fast, we kept our games of hide and seek going late into the evening. There was a lot of unease in East Broadway then, with the Brewery closed and families starting to move. You could hear shouting in the houses from time to time. We kids preferred to be outdoors. It was early October and the sun had set and we played in the dark, a delicious silence descending on the game as I, the seeker, crept around cars in the hope of surprising the hiders, who were equally silent. Only when they broke cover and ran for base was there any noise, the grinding crunch of gravel as the worn treads of sneakers tore across the pavement. Two of my friends were safe at base, their knees drawn up to their chests as they sat and watched the rest of the game. Two of the smallest I had already caught, and COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


JENNIFER LEE they sat too, waiting to start the next round. I was approaching a tiny shed, suspecting a hider wedged behind the back wall and the fence. I was at an advantage because I was between base and the shed, and every step I took reduced the chance of getting safely past. There was a flurry of movement, and Joe erupted from behind the shed. He knew where I was, creeping toward him along the alley, and he had timed his escape perfectly. He was a small boy and fast and his plan was to dart to the opposite side of the alley and run past me before I could reach out my hand to tag him. He was sudden and I didn’t expect him and his plan would have worked if my father hadn’t come home just then. The prow of the Cadillac caught Joe as he leapt into its path. Joe’s small body was thrown forward, and he landed on a neighbor’s parking pad, his limbs sprawled on the concrete. His head, crushed above the left eye, came to rest beside the tire of the parked car. I heard my father’s screams, mingled with those of children who had come out of hiding, and finally Joe’s father arrived. He moaned as he cradled his boy, rocking him back and forth until the ambulance arrived with its red lights flashing. I wonder if there is anyone left in the neighborhood who remembers Joe Whener. I suspect not. Joe’s story and mine have disappeared from East Broadway. Anyone who knew us—the Dimitsanis and the Wheners—is long gone. The Wheners moved to Canton in December of 1973. My family moved to Greek town two months later. I don’t remember the year that followed. I don’t remember leaving Linwood Avenue or settling into the new house on Grundy. Such gaps are what happens, I suppose, when memories are sealed and boards nailed across the past. COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


D. WATKINS Class Trip East Baltimore is my home—murder’s the stench mixed with smoke from the pistols that continuously bang over twenty-four hour sirens. Baptist churches, Korean stores and teenage dope-dealers own the corners. Dope fiends are mentors. Grandmas are thirty and pregnant. Automatic weapons are accessorized with multicolored Nikes, no one graduates from anything, all the whites are cops or teachers, black life expectancy is sixteen if you’re lucky, and the primary causes of death are dice games, diabetes and drug overdoses. My friend Taja, little brother Deion and I are walking to school. A black Honda is sitting on the corner of Fayette Street. The tags are paper and the windows are cracked, a wisp of smoke floats out. The passengers see us and then pull off. “Yo, you don’t get no pussy! I’m fuckin sumthin like POW POW POW after school. Bet!” yells Taja. Taja’s tall with a tall face—I ignore him like I always do while damping my index in saliva and de-crusting Deion’s face because even at age seven, he still cries and snots every hour on the hour. Deion snaps and pulls away with heavy eyes. He is mad that Taja, me and the rest of the seventh grade are going on a trip to the Smithsonian Museum in D.C. He wanted to tag along, and I normally let him come everywhere with me—to the dirt bike trails at Bocek’s where I hone my stunts, to run and jump the gates with me after hours at Patterson Park pool, to teenage house parties with my lusty pants-rubbing friends, to every basketball game I ever played in and anywhere else, but today is out of my hands. Taja and I had been talking about this trip for months. We both watched Jurassic Park sixty plus times. Had flipped over the way the raptors had flossed with Samuel L. Jackson’s bones. We couldn’t wait to see the real thing, or at least their fossils anyway. • COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


D. WATKINS A block and a half away from the school and we are a half hour early, which is great for kids like us who normally arrive around second period. I hope I sit next to Tarsha Jackson on the bus. Last year we took a bus trip to Fort McHenry, and she let me stick my hand up her skirt. She blanketed our legs with my Soda Club jacket, and then I poked half of my index in her and spun it around like a tornado while her fat friend Karen watched with a disapproving smirk. The smirk grew when I placed my finger next to Karen’s nose to smell. “I’m sittin by that freak bitch Tarsha Jackson,” yells Taja aimlessly, walking into oncoming traffic. “Yo, pay attention. You almost got hit!” I shout, pulling him back to the curb. That same black Honda rides through the light, skimming us, and then slams on the brakes. I yank Taja away just in time. A twentysomething in a skullcap and Timb boots hops out from the passenger side. “Lil mans, y’all aight?” he asks, looking left and right. His skin is the color of dark liquor, it’s mostly covered by an oversized army jacket with linted Velcro. “Yeah, we good,” I reply. “We got school.” “Cool, lil mans. Y’all get in the car,” the dude says. His forehead slopes over his eyes and he sounds like he smokes way too much. “Naw, our school right there,” Taja answers, with a little extra base in his voice. Dude shows us a pistol peeking out of his waist and insists, “Get in the fuckin car. Don’t make a scene yo.” He guides the three of us into the back of the Honda. It smells like Newports and an oil change. The back seat and floor is covered with smashed cigarette boxes, Twinkie wrappers, blunt guts and empty Hennessey bottles. Deion is about to cry in 3… 2... “Don’t cry, Deion. We gonna be okay,” I whisper while squeezing his trembling palm. We ride past Ellwood Park and over the bridge on Eager by some boarded up homes and then the driver stops. My heart swells; I feel it pumping through three layers of clothes. The driver has yet to turn around. We face COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


D. WATKINS his back. I wonder what he sounds like, do we know him? The forehead guy spins around, cocking his hammer—not the one on his waist, but another that’s wrapped in a plastic Super Fresh bag. He brushes all of our small noses with the tip, it crinkles when it reaches mine. I see the imprint of the gun through the blue plastic. It looks like a Desert Eagle. “Yo, I know you Sean Moe son. I know you got the house key. I know he in there. Kick it out!” he says. Taja is Sean Moe’s son—they even wear the same face. Sean Moe sells crack with my father. He’s tall, lanky and towers like the eleven story project building that he and my dad hustle out of. The building we live in. Everyone knows Sean Moe—he dresses in nothing but leather and suede and diamonds, he only drives Mercedes and not the little cheap C and E class, but the CL or SL. He and my dad are best friends, they’re inseparable, they always brag about how they make each other rich; sometimes they get drunk and make me and Taja wrestle to see who has the toughest son. “I ain’t gonna kill y’all if y’all do what I say!” He looks at Taja with his hand out. Taja reaches for his keys and squeaks, “You ain’t gonna hurt my dad, is you?” “Naw, shorty chill,” says the guy. “I’m a go holla at Sean right quick and we gone let ya’ll go to school,” he looks at the driver, “Yo if they try hop out, kill’em.” The driver doesn’t respond, he just nods. Our eyes well up at the notion, Taja’s overflow first. I catch Deion’s before they trickle, squeezing his hands tighter—his flesh reddens. I want to cry too. I’m beyond scared, we all are. We’ll probably die. Kids get dumped in dumpsters and tossed behind buildings all of the time. I see it on TV, I hear it in music, some of my friends are dead and my older brother talks murder daily. I hope they don’t toss us, I hope they don’t kill Deion, I hope our family finds us if they do, and we’re not like those missing kids they hang on the posters in the market. I want to scream, but I have to be strong for Deion. If I lose it, he’ll lose it. Snot bubbles are foaming around Taja’s nostrils, his face is drenched. Taja’s all bark, he tries to act gangsta like his pops, but secretly loves Power Rangers more than Deion. Sean Moe makes Taja wear Hilfiger, Polo and COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


D. WATKINS Nike, and he proudly accepts it to impress his dad, but Taja prefers Red Ranger t-shirts and doesn’t care about fresh sneakers or drugs or sex. Taja likes being a kid. They whip the car around to the top of Sean Moe’s block—a row house not far from our school. The dude hops out—gun in hand—and runs toward Sean Moe’s crib. The driver cuts on Wu Tang and sparks a cig. M.E.T.H.O.D Mannnnnnnn bumps out his flat speakers with no bass. I can smell, hear and taste our anxiety—the driver’s anxiety too. He cracks a Hennessy bottle and takes a huge swig. I wipe Deion’s tears on my hoodie, I’m so proud of him for not screaming—Taja is a wet statue. His fumes have fogged up the back window as he wept. The driver turns up Method Man. The dude is jogging back up the street, five minutes or so have passed. He jumps back into the Honda. “Done. Drop them off at the top of the block yo,” he tells the driver while reaching for the Hennessey. The driver shifts the car into gear, “Hold up!” the passenger says. He opens the car door and throws the gun into the sewer hole. “Now drive.” We were next I thought. Taja’s shaking more than Deion, I’m envisioning my own death. I think I’m ready. I squeeze my eyes tight, so tight that my brain cringes. “Listen! I want y’all to run up the alley to the end of the block and don’t turn round. When you get there, take Madison and walk ya little asses to school. Don’t say shit. If I hear police or think that y’all tryin to be slick,” he said with jiggly cheeks and spit raining on us, “I’ma kill all of y’all. Now go, run!” The car stops, we fling the door open, exit and hard-ass like Olympic runners up the alley, past fiends, through mounds of trash towards Madison. Deion falls, his book bag hits the ground and empty pages scatter. His hands are scraped and bloody. I help him up, and we keep booking—Taja, twenty-five lengths in front of us—never stops. The three of us breathe like asthma patients once we reach the peak of the block. “Should we—should we walk to school now?” Taja pants, both hands on his knees. I cover Deion’s ears, “Naw we need to go check on your dad.” COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


D. WATKINS • We drop Deion off with my mom and walk back over to Sean Moe’s block. The entire hood is out; yellow tape separates them from the crib. Cop uniforms are strong-arming a bunch of shouting-ebony faces, with Taja’s stepmother in the center of it all screaming. “WHY! WHY!” Taja’s knees hit the concrete. I cover his face with my coat. I don’t want him to see the ambulance workers bring Sean Moe out on a stretcher. I muffle his coughs and sniffs as they walk Sean Moe’s lifeless body down the steps. His left arm dangles over the edge of the stretcher—his invisible diamonds glaring off the mourning black faces in the crowd. Two plainclothes cops snatch Taja’s stepmom—probably homicide. Her satin robe is blood-pinkish and barely covers her bottom half. She doesn’t care. She just witnessed her husband’s murder. I use all of my strength to pull Taja away from the scene.



Available June 1, 2014 Pre-Order now at $12.00 + free shipping

JULIE JOHNSON Milk and Blood I’ve never much cared for the company of women. But I’m lonely. So I said, “Yes, I’ll come. Thank you for inviting me.” My husband sent me off with a hopeful Have fun! He is relieved to have me out of the house. Up the front walk, onto the porch, with sweaty palms and butterflies, as if meeting a blind date. I cling to the sides of a large blue and white ceramic bowl. My signature potluck dish—a salad of roasted golden beets, feta and faro – rests under a cover of plastic wrap. A bottle of Pinot noir and a copy of Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing lay in the co-op shopping bag that hangs from my shoulder. I press the doorbell with a folded knuckle. I hear barking and laughter. I wait. I look down. There are chalky-white calluses on my big toes. My pedicure is several days past its prime. There is a BMW 3-series parked behind our host’s Jetta. The owner of that BMW will notice my feet. Perhaps the woman who drove the faded black Bronco with one red door will not. The door opens and six faces peer at me from the sofa and a half-circle of folding chairs. The host takes the bowl from my hands, yanks a Golden lab by the collar before it leaps, and calls out my name by way of introduction. I am the last to arrive, mistaking Emerald Street for Emerald Place. For one moment I catch a whiff of stale chocolate milk and floor wax. I see myself walking down a hallway lined with lockers. It is the odor and vision of dread, of being the new girl in school. That feeling doesn’t disappear as you age. But now it smells like candles from Restoration Hardware. Seven women. Strangers to me, but one. They search my clothes, my hair, the rings on my fingers for my story. I hope they can find it, because I don’t have the energy to share. I hate small talk. But I know I must do this. It’s a fresh start. The promise of feminine empathy. Only our host knows everyone. She is our Mary Richards—the chirpy, career-driven single gal around whose busy axis our gathering spins. The husbands of two women work together. Two others are colleagues. Three send their children to the same daycare. Circles intertwine. Connections are discovered. Our host picked me up in a coffee shop last month, commenting on the COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


JULIE JOHNSON book I was reading. It happened to be the inaugural read of the book club she had just formed. We are unfocused and chatty as we over-share. We make immediate friends, revealing the intimacies of our relationships, our deepest fears, and our silliest thoughts. After telling the group she and her husband haven’t had sex in eight months, the woman to my right asks me first name again. You look just like the instructor who teaches Hot Yoga at the rec center on Fridays. Some of us have been are married as many years as we were old when we met our husbands; some have remained single. Some wonder if they had more cash, would they have they courage to walk away from failure? Five are mothers; the two single women and I are not. Perhaps we come together through a love of books and a desire for fellowship. Perhaps we are new to town and keen to make friends. Perhaps we crave conversation that does not center around Sponge Bob Square Pants and refusals to eat the spaghetti that was our child’s favorite meal last week. We discuss the book. The group wanted to do something different, so they’ve placed these parameters around the book selections: only female authors, only books written before September 11, 2001. As if this date changed not only the socio-political conversation, but the cultural one, as well. I give it six months and one George Eliot before someone insists we read Jonathan Franzen’s latest. I make inconsequential noises about the Margaret Atwood. I loved it. I am alone in my appreciation. I tuck my feet underneath me so no one notices the chipped polish on my toenails. Our host doesn’t drink. Three of us run out to our cars in search of corkscrews we know are shoved into dashboard boxes or picnic tote bags. When we come up empty and are forced to drink sparkling water without a cheap Pinot noir chaser, we decide it’s an excuse for another baconjalapeño scone. We marvel at her chef skills as our host cracks open the thick crust of baked salt, revealing an entire salmon, steaming and tender. COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


JULIE JOHNSON We eat tapioca pudding made with milk from the goats one woman raises on her farm. Admiring the gifts from hand-fed, hand-milked ruminants leads to a discussion of breast-feeding. Who is, who wishes they weren’t, who misses it. I realize the childless among us have congregated at one end of the table. Is it we who have bonded or have the mothers been drawn together by instinct and scent? Our corner falls into silence. We try to find something to do with our thoughts. Perhaps we are secretly glad our breasts remain high and firm even as they ache with dreams of unborn children. Perhaps we simply cannot imagine the logistics of nursing a three-year-old. A side conversation begins. Did you start the Terry Tempest Williams book? Asks the other single woman of our host. It’s waiting on the nightstand; I had to finish the book club read first. I can’t wait. Another voice joins in, breaking away from the conversation about pitocin-induced labor. Oh, Terry Tempest Williams! I love her. What’s this one about? What’s it called? When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice. It’s a series of essays she wrote after her mom died. You have to read it. It’s amazing. I’ll lend you my copy. My insides shrivel like dried mushrooms. I recall a summer’s night a year ago. I see a crowd streaming into a high school auditorium, an audience hushed as an author reads from her elegiac, elegant book of essays inspired by the journals her mother bequeathed her. Journals the author discovered, after her mother’s death, were empty. After the reading, I dashed to the bathroom for a quick pee. I pulled down my panties and saw what I hadn’t felt. A streak of bright red blood. I sat on the toilet with my head between my legs as the world went gray. When I walked into that bathroom, I was thirteen weeks pregnant. When COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


JULIE JOHNSON I walked out, I was Empty. A phone beeps with an incoming text. One of our sisters, in a neighboring state, has just given birth to her second child. She texts from the hospital bed, proud and exhausted. She attaches a photo. It is a son. I marvel at the way the Universe wraps seductively around coincidence and feigns to be Fate. I want to go home. One of us runs to the bedroom to grab a book from her host’s nightstand. She reads aloud from When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations On Voice: “Because what every woman knows each month when she bleeds is, I am not pregnant. Because what every woman understands each time she makes love is, Life could be in the making now. Because until she bleeds, she imagines every possibility from pleasure to pain to birth to death and how she will do what she needs to do, and until she bleeds, she will worry endlessly, until she bleeds. “Because until she bleeds, repeat it again, she will check her womb every day for the stirrings of life. Because until she bleeds, she wonders if her life will be one or two or three. “Milk and blood live together.” One of us knows that if she left behind a journal, it would be as empty as the journals Terry Tempest Williams’s mother left her. As empty as her womb. The first one to glance at her watch sends ripples through the pond of dirty dishes and empty glasses on the table. Look at the time! We exclaim. We scrape, rinse, load and wipe, imagining the mess we will face when it is our turn to host. We draw names for the next host. I send up a prayer. Spare me. Just this once. Spare me. It is dark when I walk to my car. My worn nail polish and smudged lipstick no longer matter. A horn beeps as the black Bronco passes, an arm extends in a wave. What is her name? Isn’t she the one who raises the goats? I wonder. COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


JULIE JOHNSON Then I realize her name doesn’t matter, either. Next month I will be busy on book club night. And the month after that. Milk and blood don’t always live together.



NICOLA GRIFFITH interview by fiction editor, Rafe Posey Last time you spoke with Cobalt, in 2011, Hild was still very much in progress. Now it’s a real book, and one that’s garnered a lot of praise. It’s appeared on several Best of 2013 lists, and authors like Dorothy Allison have called it one of the best books ever, not just of last year. Do you feel like Hild has taken you to a new place as a writer in terms of how the reading public sees you? The response to Hild has been mind-blowing. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop but it just keeps getting better. So much good will from so many quarters. Though not all quarters, of course, because there is no monolithic Reading Public. Let me break your question into smaller chunks. Did the publication of Hild change how people in my micro-community— neighbours, host at favourite local restaurant, local booksellers—saw me? Yes. For a while. I was a one-week wonder out-and-about in my neighbourhood. “Wow, we had no idea you were a famous author!” “Will you sign this for my mom?” “I’ve seen you before, somewhere...” This temporary notoriety wears off—a fact for which I’m both sad and glad. Mostly glad. I be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit of a letdown to be yesterday’s news, but it’s a serious inconvenience to be noticed when you’d rather not be: when you haven’t bothered to put on a bra, or your hair is sticking up, or you’re wearing ratty old clothes. A similarly temporary gust of fame blew through social media channels, particularly Twitter, for a couple of weeks. Readers who delight in the Shiny New Thing eagerly tweeted and retweeted all my great reviews, for which I was profoundly grateful. (Also a bit stunned, really, at this outpouring of generosity.) But it’s Twitter; after two or three weeks I felt mildly creeped out about always talking about myself, and, besides, readers were moving on to the next new thing. I stopped doing review and interview links roundups on my blog. (I’ve since changed my mind about that.) The best and most exciting part—for me—of Hild’s publication has been COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


NICOLA GRIFFITH the stream of email from readers who don’t really know me or my work, who found this book through other means, readers who then promptly fell in love with the people and places and moments I had hoped—years ago, when I first began—I might create. Every day, often several times a day, I hear from women and men who see the world just a little differently because of something I wrote. Every time I read one of those heartfelt notes I fall a bit deeper in love with humanity. There are so many people who are open, and generous, and eager, and full of life and curiosity. It’s a marvellous thing. But if you mean, Has the publication of Hild changed my status in the literary world? the answer is Maybe not. The literary world is still very gendered (and genred). I think many critics find it difficult to wrap their heads around a novel written by a woman about a woman who doesn’t have a hard time because she’s a woman. Over breakfast today I was trying to come up with one, just one, top literary-prize-winning novel by a women about a woman whose struggles (and joys, where there are any) are simply human rather than gendered. I failed. I think this is changing. We now have VIDA and Jennifer Weiner. I offer thanks everyday for the focus and determination of both. They and their allies are moving the needle. I see young critics feeling free to praise work that twenty years ago, even ten, they might have secretly enjoyed but were unable, publicly, to acknowledge. More to the point, those books today actually exist. Change is slow, but it’s real. I’ve seen Hild compared to Game of Thrones and Mists of Avalon, but also to Wolf Hall and Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales. To me, it doesn’t feel like fantasy, exactly; most of the magic comes from Hild’s own natural talents for deduction and analysis, not dragons or spell-casting. Where on the literary spectrum do you think the book falls? It’s a novel. It’s a novel set fourteen hundred years ago. It’s a novel of character painted on an epic backdrop. There’s nothing in this novel that couldn’t have actually happened. But it’s not realism. The best novels aren’t. They are saturated versions of reality. (I’ve talked about this before—in “Brilliance and Beauty and Risk”—so won’t take up space here.) COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


NICOLA GRIFFITH Let me just say that Hild couldn’t exist without the storytelling tradition of those whose work today—Homer and Virgil, whoever wrote Beowulf or the various legends of Arthur, J.R.R. Tolkien and Mary Stewart—could be labelled fantasy. My aim with Hild was to write the story of a real person while making it feel simultaneously realistic and legendary; it was an interesting challenge and I’m delighted that it feels like fantasy—in a good way—to some readers. But, ah, it occurs to me that to others it might feel like a fantasy because Hild never suffers or succeeds due to her sex. She certainly suffers, she certainly succeeds, but she does so as a person, a human being in and of herself, not in comparison to men. Talk to me about voice in Hild. In each of your novels (or series, in the case of the Aud books), you’ve created a distinct voice for the narrator. In this book, the narrative lens never looks away from what Hild is doing despite the scale and scope of the book. How did Hild’s constant presence in the book affect your process for developing voice? If I have a process for developing voice, as distinct from creating the people and places of the book in the first place, it’s hidden to me. Voice is character. And voice is place. And voice is plot. And voice is word choice, and metaphor system, and, well, everything. Voice is the book. So let me approach this another way. As a reader the work that has changed me most is fiction that absolutely invades me, gives me new experiences and perspectives, that rearranges my heart and mind. I grew up in Yorkshire, but as a teenager I rode the stony slopes of Mary Renault’s Macedon in winter, and gazed out over the summer fjords of Sigrid Undset’s Norway. Alongside Alexander, I led bronze-age cavalry and fought my father; with Kristin Lavransdatter I managed a fourteenth-century household and defied tradition. And that’s what I wanted to do with Hild: to put the reader right there, right then so that Hild’s joys are their joys and her lessons their lessons. I wanted to immerse them in the seventh century so they lived Hild’s life as their own. That meant never letting her out of the reader’s thoughts, not even for a split second. But it also meant very occasionally letting the reader see Hild’s COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


NICOLA GRIFFITH alienation through another’s eye—doing a brief and focused point-of-view shift—to mirror her realisations that she was alone, that she was different. The language of the book is most definitely voice, too, and that was a thrilling challenge. Speaking of language, what are the challenges of writing about the real and quasi-knowable past in terms of avoiding anachronism? I don’t mean only obvious things like technology or modern slang, but rather words or terms that sound relatively timeless to the modern ear but wouldn’t have fit Hild’s worldview. Similarly, what dictated the choices you made about integrating the actual languages of the time into the story? The seventh century isn’t knowable. Certainly for Hild’s part of the world there are no written sources—her immediate world was illiterate—and very few material remains. (In that particular period Anglo-Saxons worked with perishable materials: wood and wool rather than stone or metal. They rarely made pottery.) We can only extrapolate from too-early records or infer from later ones. And if you bear in mind that all those written records were conceived in service to their authors’ particular agendas, you soon come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as ‘truth’ when it comes to history. But I did make some guesses. If I’ve guessed correctly, Hild’s time and place was a multi-ethnic, polyglot place. So much depended on class: the elites travelled more and they would have an understanding of more than one tongue. But their personal attendants might, too. If Hild is to keep her finger on the pulse of politics and culture, to connect tiny facts and weave them into a coherent shape, an understanding of the ever-changing world, she must be able to communicate. So she learns all the languages she hears around her. One of the interesting things about avoiding ananchronism was the pace of change in Hild’s time. So, for example, the time and place of her birth was illiterate. This meant that writing and its metaphors had no place in Hild’s earliest years. She wouldn’t have thought of making a note to herself, or of the night sky as being inky. Her earliest pantheon would not have included Christianity, so aconitum, the small purple flower, couldn’t be monkshood COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


NICOLA GRIFFITH but must be wolf ’s bane. Ten years later, this might not necessarily be true. But one of the joys of Hild being a child to begin with is that she simply absorbs change as all children do: even if everything around them stayed the same they would see the world differently. A child’s brain architecture changes constantly, so does their understanding. Some things, though, stayed constant. The ubiquity of textile production, for example. (By sme estimates Anglo-Saxon women spent 65% of their time on this.) Hild is full of weaving metpahors—because Hild herself thinks in these terms. And as she becomes more involved with religion it’ll be fascinating to watch her metaphors change. The language of Book III will probably be quite different to that of Hild. Obviously a lot of the characters in this book are actual people—what responsibility did you feel to stick with what the historical record reflects (a limited resource at best) versus than creating characters from whole cloth or making composites? It depends what you mean by responsibility. This is work of art; I have no responsibility except to my reader, and by that I mean to not yank the rug out from under her feet, to be consistent to/with the logic of the story, people, and place I’ve established. And we know so little about these people that I had a relatively free hand. Obviously I had to colour between the lines where there were any, but there are so few... I decided right at the beginning I wouldn’t contravene what is known to be known, and as far as I’m aware I haven’t. I have gone against accepted wisdom here and there, which isn’t quite the same thing. And I admit that with one character, Fursey, I’ve taken heinous liberties—though, again, I haven’t actually contradicted anything we know for sure. I’ve read about your discovery of the Abbey at Whitby and then Hild herself. What are you still discovering? Everything! I’m just at the beginning of Hild’s story. There’s so much more to find out... COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


MICHAEL BRANTLEY Me and John and Gus and Hairy I could not see anyone—not the other pallbearers, not even the person next to me. Later, I heard the place was packed, but I could have sworn I was in there by myself. My eyes burned with salt from the sweat and the tears and I thought to myself, “Get some control, man.” I was doing something I’d never done in public before: weeping uncontrollably and struggling to breathe. Just a few feet away, in a beautiful, awful, brushed nickel casket, lay my brother-in-law, John. I wanted to get up, to stop the nonsense, to go down the road to his house and shoot one more game of pool and talk about UNC basketball, to go outside at Mama’s house for one last game of oneon-one. I felt a tap on my left knee. “It’s time to go,” a voice said. I was five when my oldest sister Carol said she was bringing her brand new boyfriend over to meet our parents. He had been mentioned around the house a lot, but I was pretty sure I was not going to like this guy. Carol was like a second mama to me, fussing over me and spoiling me—and I did not need any competition for her time. Whoever this boyfriend “John” was, he had to go. It was a Friday night. I was deep into a strategic placement of my handme-down G.I. Joes when Carol walked into the house with a stereotype of the 1970s. My parents’ first impression of the tall, goofy guy with the big black hair, black-rimmed, photo-gray glasses, bushy beard and Magnum, P.I. mustache must have been shock. To top it all off, he smelled like Christmas. I just stared at him as introductions were made, and waited for my turn. He beat me to the punch. “Well, well,” he said loudly. “You must be Gus. I’ve heard all about you. What’s happening, Gus?” My face and ears burned. I looked at my mama and she looked bewildered. COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


MICHAEL BRANTLEY “I ain’t Gus,” I said. “I’m Michael.” Without missing a beat, the man said, “Hmph. You look like a Gus to me. I think I’ll just call you that.” And then he laughed, only he sounded like the Saturday morning cartoon dog, Muttley. There was some sort of asthmatic wheeze, followed by a body tremble before he started laughing. I was not amused. “Well,” I said, “you look Hairy. So I think I’m just going to call you Hairy.” Everybody laughed. John patted me on the back. “Alright Gus, that’s fine. Hey, let me see those G.I. Joes. It looks like Sylvester over there has a machine gun, and Cedric better get behind something.” “You’re weird, Hairy.” The Muttley laugh started, and it would endure for more than three decades. I think my wife drove me to the graveside, but I am not sure. I was embarrassed that I could barely shoulder my share of the burden of carrying the casket. I kept my head down partially to avoid eye contact, but also so that I would not have to see the unbearable pain of my sister, my nephew and my niece. When we had placed the casket onto the gurney over the grave, the finality of it all hit me once again. We pallbearers had been instructed to remove our boutonnieres and place them on the casket in a final walk by. I was last. As I set the carnation carefully in its place, I stopped and placed all five fingertips of my right hand on the cold metal. I thought about the things we’d left unsaid and the lack of closeness we’d had in recent years. I felt an emptiness I still have trouble putting into words. I’m sure no one heard me when I leaned down and said, “I love you, Hairy.” And then I cried again. After that first visit, John became a fixture around our house. He was so different from anyone in my family. In addition to the wild appearance, he drove a bright yellow MG convertible. Even as he advanced professionally, he held onto that car, and years later, when I was old enough to reach the pedals, he’d take me for rides. When we were just far enough down our country road to be out of sight of my parents, he’d pull over, switch seats COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


MICHAEL BRANTLEY and let me air out that five speed. It was stupid and dangerous and we could have gotten in so much trouble, but to a 13-year-old, it was an incredible high of freedom and power. He would laugh and shake his head as I’d grind the gears or miss a shift. We never told a soul. A few months after that first meeting, John and Carol got married. I was the ring bearer, and all the men wore white tuxedos with black trim and ruffled shirts. My mama still has the photograph of the wedding party on her wall. The flash triggered John’s photo-gray lenses, and honestly, we all look like rejects from the wedding scene of The Godfather. When the graveside service ended, the family went back to my sister’s house. It now seemed overly large—all at once, huge and empty and void. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, and I headed down the hallway to the bathroom. In a magazine rack, I spotted a Carolina basketball game program. I didn’t have much interest in sports until John came along. One of the first questions he asked me was which college sports team I favored. In the 1970s, in North Carolina, that meant just two choices—the UNC Tar Heels or the NC State Wolfpack. I told him I didn’t really know, most of the family didn’t care, but they sort of seemed to pull for the Wolfpack. “C’mon, Gus, you’re smarter than they are,” he said. “You can do better than that.” He was passionate about basketball and was determined to educate me. Over the months and years that followed, he took every opportunity to share the mythology of Carolina basketball—Coach Dean Smith was Zeus, and Phil Ford, Walter Davis and Charlie Scott were Apollo, Ares and Poseidon. I learned that you watch the game on TV, but turn the volume down and listen to Tar Heel Radio play-by-play announcer Woody Durham to get a real feel for the game. Just behind UNC on the sports hierarchy was Boston Celtics basketball. I heard all about John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Bob Cousy, Bill Russell and countless others. This was yet another easy connection for us, as Celtic great Larry Bird came along in my generation, and became my favorite athlete. John introduced me to playing sports, insisting that competitiveness could overcome any lack of talent. I eventually figured out that he came COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


MICHAEL BRANTLEY straight out of his high school career as a scrawny, nearsighted guard who fought for all of his playing time. Basketball became my love, and he constantly preached the virtues of quick release jumpers, the importance of backspin and the shooters touch, and how to strategically use elbows, aggressive box-outs and whatever other means necessary to combat bigger and stronger adversaries. I collected a lot of bruises before I could ever beat him one-on-one. “Don’t fade away when you shoot. You’ll be short on your shot every time.” “You’re a big boy. Use that to your advantage.” “Pump fake, get your man in the air, then shoot when you’re on the block. And learn to hit your free throws.” These are the instructions I’d hear against a backdrop of a ball pounding into the hard packed dirt in my yard, John dribbling, daring me to try to take the ball. If I reached in, I’d get a shoulder in my chest, he’d sidestep, release and then there would be a swish. Games were always to eleven, make-it-take-it, win by two, call your own fouls, but they better be serious. My age—preteen, early teen, then freshman—had no bearing on the games, and I was shown no mercy. I had a losing streak to rival the Washington Generals. Every Sunday during college basketball season, regardless of how cold it was outside, John would give the word and we’d head out to the barnyard. I laced up and raced out the door, dribbling, right hand, left hand, just like John showed me. “Rotate the ball in your hands and follow through.” “Box out.” “Watch my chest, not the ball. I can do anything with the ball, but my chest is going with me.” “Create some space to get your shot off.” Around eighth grade, the games started getting really physical, the pushing and hand checking a little tighter, the box outs more enthusiastic. The scores tightened, but I rarely won. The man could not get much elevation, but his position, the fact that he was always squared to the basket COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


MICHAEL BRANTLEY and ready to shoot, and the way he protected the ball made him tough to defend, and games usually ended on a 20-footer that never seemed to touch the rim. Then, one year in high school, I grew three inches over the summer and got contact lenses. That, along with his coaching over the years, my growing competitiveness and John’s inevitable slowing down, converged and things changed. I started hitting the jumpers, backing him into the lane, blocking shots and winning games. Looking back, he could have gotten angry, but he continued to play hard and even when I wanted to gloat a bit, he would smile and say, “But can you do it again?” While I know he thoroughly enjoyed beating me over the years, I know too, that like any good coach, he was proud. Not coincidentally, that is when he started treating me like a man, more so than a boy. I was with my wife and kids at the fall festival at my church when I first heard about the accident. My niece told me that John had fallen on the steps of a condo in South Carolina, and had been hurt bad enough to go to the hospital. That seemed strange, as John wasn’t one for accidents, but I guessed we’d all have something to tease him about when he got home. He had gone on a yearly golf trip with his core of buddies, all lifelong friends and scratch golfers, who spent months picking resorts with the toughest courses for a three day tournament. This was also somewhat of a celebration for him as well. After years of working as VP of manufacturing at Barcalounger Furniture, a company that made the most comfortable recliners and sofas in the world, he was set to become President at the end of the year when his longtime mentor retired. He was stressed, but excited. The next day, my mama called me early to tell me that John’s fall was a lot more serious than anyone had thought. He was in the hospital and he was not conscious. Carol and my niece had driven down, and the outlook was not good. When he had fallen, he hit his head on the concrete landing. There were a lot of phone calls and prayers made over the next twentyfour hours, each one bringing more grim news. Finally, there was the last call. “John died.” COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


MICHAEL BRANTLEY • At the start of the 1981-82 college basketball season, John called one night. He asked me if I had any interest in going to see Carolina play in old Carmichael Auditorium. It might have been a meaningless game against Citadel, but I was excited to see players I’d only watched on television—James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Matt Doherty and a freshman from Wilmington named Mike Jordan. Carmichael was on its last legs, as the era of big arenas with skyboxes and big money was pushing out the old barns of Tobacco Road. The seats in Carmichael were wood and painted wrought iron, and the crowd was right on top of the players. They still kept a flipchart scoreboard in one of the corners of the court, where a student recorded each basket by hand. Everything metal had seen several coats of blue paint. The hot dogs were good and cheap. The place was hot and smelled like a sweaty high school gymnasium. The fans were loud and intense. In the decade that followed, we went to many games and never saw the Tar Heels lose. While it wasn’t quite the same atmosphere, it was still an event when the team moved into their new domed arena. We even saw the Heels win at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium two years in a row, a madhouse where we were bold—or dumb—enough to wear our UNC shirts. The “Crazies” did not enjoy the enemy in their presence, and I distinctly remembered getting hit with pieces of raw carrot and a few plastic cups late in the game that second season. John loved it. What was more important were the rides to and from Chapel Hill, which was about an hour and a half away. In those days, John had upgraded to a long Chrysler LeBaron with huge, plush leather seats. By that point, I had dropped “in-law” from my mentions of him—he was my brother. While I hated the soundtrack of his beloved beach music—the Embers, Clarence Carter, Chairmen of the Board—I still remember the smell of that car, the dashboard lights, the old back roads and shortcuts, but mostly the stories. He would talk about the games he played in, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, sports strategies, hangouts at Atlantic Beach, history and politics and the importance of college. • COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


MICHAEL BRANTLEY I did not see John much at my folk’s house on the weekends like I used to. He was busy with work, and my wife and I had three children under ten, as well as a business to run. Circumstances kept John and me apart. But things were looking up for Carolina basketball. Tyler Hansbrough had established himself as an old school UNC player, and I saw John for just a minute at church one Sunday early in the fall. “Hey dude, let’s go see the Heels play, this might be the year,” I told him. “It will be like old times.” John didn’t hesitate. “That sounds good, Mike. I’ll talk to a guy this week about tickets. Let’s do it.” Then he did something strange, something he hadn’t done since I was a little boy: he patted me on the shoulder. The moment passed quickly, and he was out the door, headed to work. It was the Sunday before he died, and it was the last conversation we had. The Tar Heels went on to have a monster season in 2008-09, and capped it by winning the NCAA National Championship. Hansbrough broke just about every ACC scoring record on the books, and none of the tournament games were even close. I watched the championship game on TV and thought about how much John would have savored the win. That was the last time I watched college basketball with a purpose. It is painful now, because all of my sports interest and background is intertwined with John. I’ve become almost indifferent to Carolina Basketball, a thought that at one time would have been heretical. My sons are starting to play basketball and enjoy watching sports on TV. They are about the age I was when John came over that first night to meet the family. I need to make memories with them, take them to some games and let them experience those moments of wide-eyed excitement, and let them see the special things happen in those arenas, on those courts. I need to beat them in one-on-one while I can. I owe my boys that, and I think John would be disappointed in me otherwise. He’d say, “Gus, you’re better than that.”



RYAN GARCIA What Was Once Blooming, and Exuberant Through the murk, the rapid spurts of fine floor bedding and dirt that whooshes through water, through trash bags, Pabst Blue Ribbon cans, couch seats, baby shoes, and spare tires, fish call this river home. Mamá told you so, told you there was shiny bass and even catfish swimming around, and when you asked why there’s so much trash floating, she smiled. It’s their playground, mijo, she responded. You lean forward and rest your forearms on the concrete railing, overlooking the river from the Soto St. Bridge. Leslie does the same. You allow the seconds to pass wordless, absent of any suggestion that you two have common ground, engulfed in the idea that all that moves in the world, right now, is the water. You look to her in search of the signs of life she possessed before today; for the radiance that had once stunned you, transfixed in awe, for the once blooming, exuberant insatiable thrill of being—you search. And then you search for the life she no longer carries; for a gap in memory that blurs the image of a blank ultrasound screen, an absent heartbeat. You search. The river continues to flow gently, towards and underneath you. It carries the weight and mementos of the city, floating indifferently to the thuds and bumps of an imperfect stream. You reach over and guide Leslie to your shoulder, and feel her bury her face in your neck; her tears beginning to trickle down your collarbone. And for a moment, in envy, you think to the fish mamá had once told you thrived under the obscurity of the surface; hidden in shadows, making do of the lost or forgotten memories of lives.



LESLIE DOYLE Red, Right, Return “Ants happen.” That was on page three of the six pages of “helpful instructions to get the most out of Beach Glass Cottage.” It was between advice for getting the balky lock on the shed door to open and friendly suggestions about where the best fishing sites were. It was too much to read all at one time. I figured I’d consult as necessary. Ants happen, I thought as I read, but not to me. The first thing I did was head to the nearest Ace for a box of Terro traps. Great stuff. Ecologically sound, too, if you disregard the death of the entire ant colony. Watching the ant train stream back and forth as the members discovered this bonanza and carried their booty to the folks back home gave me pause. I tell myself, it’s their choice. They came into my house. But the poison goes back to the whole community. The next morning, when I can fix breakfast without having to brush an ant off the cutting board every two seconds, I have no more qualms. Death happens, I mutter over the frying pan. I eat my breakfast in antless satisfaction. “What did you say, Aunt Laurie?” “Nothing, guys—how are your eggs?” Ants gone, I’m still not alone, of course. The eight and six year old boys across the table from me, tearing holes in the middle of their toast to hold up to their faces and stick their tongues through at each other, certainly count as company. I’ve been counting them plenty, since their mother, my cousin, took off and left them with me. Counting them at the beach, counting them at the supermarket, counting them in the car, just to make sure I didn’t lose them along the trip. “Funny clunking noise from kitchen is icemaker—ignore.” One, two. One, two. One, two. My head echoes like a sound check. One two, one two. Take One. One, two. It’s a fucking metronome inside here – the kind of thing I have to remember not to say when I’m with COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


LESLIE DOYLE Ricky and Chris. Counting how many days we’ve been here on this “short vacation, sure, you’re mom’ll be home really soon—isn’t the beach fun?— yeah, I talked to your teachers it’s okay.” Packets of their schoolwork sit on the kitchen counter, ready to be opened. I couldn’t move into their house, which was in foreclosure, and anyway I had no interest in living in the suburban dead zone my cousin, Stacy, had called home. When she showed up last week at my apartment door, kids in tow, I probably didn’t ask all the right questions. Stacy had looked around the place, mentally cataloging, I think, what wasn’t there. Television, dishwasher. More than one room. Zack. She turned to me, and her expression was half, “why am I leaving my kids here,” and half, “why am I leaving my kids?” But she said neither. I would have asked her, since it seemed like something I should know, but I didn’t want to hurt the boys’ feelings. “This is where you live? You and Zack?” This is where I could have explained how he’d left two nights ago after an amazingly dumb argument, the kind I tell myself not to start. About baseball, if you can believe it. I could have told a pretty good story, made it out so that clearly Zack was at fault. If we weren’t talking over the boys’ heads. If I’d felt like explaining anything. If Stacy really wanted to know. “Laurie, I am so embarrassed to ask – it’s just for a week or two. Things with Ralph…” She was looking everywhere but at me. This was new for her. “Well, anyway.” No, clearly she was not interested in where Zack was. She blinked a few times too many, and her hands shook a little. Which was natural, I guessed under the circumstances. Though I wasn’t clear on exactly what the circumstances were. Chris cried when his mother got back in her car, but Ricky just picked up their backpacks and asked me where to put them. She’ll be back, I told myself, and them, and meanwhile, we all needed to get away. I needed time to work out how to admit I was wrong to Zack, and why I had acted that way. I always liked the shore; I knew the boys would too. So, with Stacy’s blessing, we shipped out, down to the cheapest off-season rental I could find. It’s early in the school year. The boys will be fine. I tell myself I will be, too. COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


LESLIE DOYLE “Avoid opening the corner cabinet over the sink all the way. The door has never sat right on its hinges. Just open the left half where the wine glasses are; the rest is empty, anyway.” Thank God for the wine glasses. And the local Acme sells wine. Putting away the glass from last night, I think of the story Stacy told me the last time we drank together over the phone. The incident she told me about had happened a few years before; Stacy was driving down the highway, late for some kind of meeting, who knows what, something important. Chris was wailing in the back seat, in one of those tub-like baby seats, Ricky all sticky next to him dining on a Cinnabon, spicy sweet goo trickling down his chin. Stacy was steering one handed, the other adjusting the breast pump plugged into the cigarette lighter at one end, and into her at the other, singing along to Paul Simon “You Can Call Me Al,” Ricky singing along with her, all gummed up with Cinnabon cream; Chris just wailing until Stacy found a chance to pull over on the side of the highway and jam the bottle into him. Or at least that’s how I imagined it. My cousin’s version was a bit more succinct. I think I should have listened to it more closely. There was some kind of warning there I missed while we were laughing. “Open lots of windows to let the house air out. Unlock them first.” I like the smell of damp houses. I know that damp means mildew, damp means unhealthy. But all my life, that grassy wet cardboard smell means vacation to me. A succession of lake cabins, seashore cottages, shacks by rivers; some rented, some borrowed, some visiting friends or friends of friends, all seemed to reek mildly of wet. The rich clamminess signified getting away. We never did Disney vacations or island hops – for me, family trips meant uncomfortably soft mattresses, walls that don’t reach the ceiling, other people’s food staples pushed to the back of cabinets whose warped doors wouldn’t close right, small bookcases jammed with former best sellers and National Geographic, shelves piled with board games in taped together boxes and puzzles of bucolic barns missing three pieces, and mold-stained shower curtains. I was right at home when I walked in the door the first time. This place COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


LESLIE DOYLE had damp to spare. I breathed in deeply. “If you bring a boat, please follow basic boating rules. Never boat drunk. Watch out for swimmers. Follow red and green channel markers carefully. It’s easy to run aground. The way to remember which goes starboard and which goes port depending on whether you’re coming or going is—red, right, return. Hope this is clear.” That was Stacy. Breast pumps and Cinnabons. Big house, huge room for each kid. Executive job; executive husband; executive home. Then the job gets downsized, the husband gets lost, the house gets taken back by the bank. They had one of those interest only, adjustable rate mortgages. Balloon tacked on. Well, they hung on for dear life to that balloon, dangling from ropes. Hit the ground pretty hard when the balloon burst. Nothing but empty line in their rope-burned hands, and a whole lot of whose-faultis-it. Now Ralph’s living in some townhouse rented on money Stacy didn’t know he had, and she? I wait for her next call. “Shed door—key is in drawer to the left of the one under the coffee. Old grayish key. Take care, please—there are no copies.” The night after the ant massacre, I go riding in the dark on a bike I found in the shed behind the cottage, leaving a neighboring teen to babysit the boys. The handlebars are rusted and the gears are a little sticky, but I the tires still have enough air to ride on. There’s so much around the place that the owners weren’t keeping up with. Maybe someone comes by to ride the bike when no one is renting. This late in the season, that’s fairly often, I imagine. Families are all back on school schedules, and everyone else is thinking something else, not the beach. The boys are asleep. I hope. I wonder if their mother is sleeping—or if she’s somewhere having fun. I wonder what Zack is doing. I hope he’s somewhere not having fun. I pedal harder. This is the best time down here. There are no crowds. My family came here once in August, and the gridlock was awful. We stayed on the other side of the Canal, in Cape May proper. You’d never know these neighborhoods on the bay side existed, except if you were taking the ferry over to Delaware, and passed them on the road to get there. I bet most vacationers never even see these houses when they pass them. I know I didn’t. COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


LESLIE DOYLE From where I’m staying, it’s a long bike ride to the ferry park. I wind my way for a couple miles along a road that hugs the edge of the dunes then loops inland for a ways, first to go around a creek inlet, then because of the stretches of bigger houses which push the road, and everyone else, back from the water. When the road is near the dunes, I can see across the bay to the faint lines of tankers wending their way up the water to Philadelphia. On the main road, I pass some stores. My favorite store sign is the one for “Bargains Galore…And So Much More!” I wonder, as I pass—so, what part isn’t the bargains? Everything’s lit up by orange street lights; traffic is light. Half the houses are empty now that summer is over. “The bike doesn’t have a headlight.” The time I was here before, Stacy and I were kids, thirteen fourteen; our families came down here together. We were in that obnoxious, nothing is fun stage. We her dad to drop us off at the nearest mall. We were bored right away but wouldn’t admit it to each other. We tried to scrape coins out of a fountain when no one was looking, then pretended we’d been throwing them in when someone noticed. We ran up the down escalator – not nearly as fun as it sounds – then she went into the mall version of a head-shop, and came out with her pockets full of patchouli and beads that she hadn’t paid for (“Well, it’s a hippie shop, right? Freedom and sharing!”) I freaked. She looked at me with pity. “What a dork you are.” She’s so right. Dork enough to share my own life-crisis with her kids while she takes off for wherever. “When using the bike, stay to the right. I know lots of people here don’t. When you run into one going the wrong way, forcing you off the shoulder into the main road, you’ll get why it’s important not to. Please wear a helmet, too.” I pass a small park, one in the middle of a tidy neighborhood. A sign at the entrance says “Movie Nights in the Park!” I would have thought that they’d be done for the year, but I see that the last date is next Thursday. I make a note to bring the boys; treat them to something fun and different. The other day we were driving, and I had just been able to catch the COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


LESLIE DOYLE alt-rock radio station that broadcasts from part way up the Parkway. You can’t hear it up north in North Jersey where I usually live, and you can’t usually hear it down here. I was stopped at a red light, on the way home from miniature golf at Sunset Beach, late afternoon, almost dark, the boys clamoring for dinner as we crossed over the Canal that connects Cape May City with the rest of New Jersey. I came to the light, and for once, the station came in clearly. The summer season over, I was the only car on the road. The song playing caught me ear, and I stayed there, through the red, through the green, through another red. Chris and Ricky started getting restless in the back seat. It took a minute, but they finally figured out that they were hungry, and not moving. That time Stacy told me about the breast pump and the cigarette lighter, she paused, like I was a tad slow, when I asked why she didn’t just stop the car and nurse Chris. “Right. And I was I going to get anywhere that way?” There at the light, the singer was saying, “Cause in my head there’s a Greyhound station/Where I send my thoughts to far off destinations.” I felt a need to keep listening, to know what he was talking about. There was a pause after “Greyhound” and at first I thought, there’s a dog in his head. Odd. Chris kicked my seat, bringing me back to the car. “Aunt Laurrieee,” Ricky droned in an exaggerated whine only an eight-year-old can produce. “We’re hungry.” I switched off the station. We drove home, stopping at Rainbow Palace for ice cream. I’m not sure Stacy would approve, but she’s not here, is she? So, Movie Night at the Park. Might be another distraction. Finally, I reach the ferry terminal, my legs aching from the unaccustomed exercise of pedaling. It’s late. A ferry is turning into the canal between the jetties that reach out into the Bay. It must be the last one of the night. It’s lit up like a Mississippi River paddle boat, but glides by almost silently, passing first between the channel markers at the ends of the jetties—green on the one closest to me, red across the canal. The movie will actually be a couple of short sci fi B movies from the fifties. It’s billed as “Back Again to the Future.” Hope the boys will like this. They don’t see much black and white. If Zack were here, we’d play “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


LESLIE DOYLE My phone hasn’t rung at all. But I’ve had some time to do some thinking. I’m feeling like a pretty bad aunt right now, leaving the boys asleep with an almost stranger in the house. I didn’t tell them before I left, because they’re already feeling insecure. I needed to get out, just for an hour. The babysitter, Kara, is the merry cheerleader type; she said she wasn’t worried about them waking up to find her there instead of me. They’ve said hi to her as we come and go the past few days, so it’s not like she’s a complete stranger, I tell myself. It’s weird how vacation houses are all mixed in with the homes of the locals down here. Kara’s family rents the cottage next door. I don’t see her parents much. Her dad works fishing boats, mom waitresses sporadically. Kara’s hoping to go to the local CC next year for a respiratory therapy certification, if she can afford a car and insurance to get there. It took about five minutes of knowing her to learn all this. She’s happy to let me overpay her for this last minute job. When I get back to the house, she curled up in the least lumpy living room chair, working on homework. “The boys never woke up,” she tells me. Kara takes my overly large guilt tip with palpable glee, and heads off to add it to her car fund. I look at her and wonder how I so quickly went from being her to being me—it seems like just last week that Stacy and I were going up that escalator, illicit pennies in our pockets. “The telephone is local only. You can take other calls but you can’t call out. Sort of Hotel California-ish, in a way.” I’m beginning to have serious questions about the owners of this house. I make a note to ask Kara about them the next time I see her. So yeah. The argument with Zack? Like I said, it was about baseball, which I take ridiculously seriously. Zack does, too, in an adult kind of way, as opposed to my pre-adolescent blind adoration of the team. So when he stated, over a beer, while watching our team again losing in its familiar September swoon kind of way, that really, “ya gotta admit” that the third baseman of the rival team that was currently beating us might actually be better than our star third baseman, I took it personally. I realize that doesn’t say much good about me. I managed to take this mild comment and blow it into a dispute about loyalty and faithfulness, COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


LESLIE DOYLE and wow, a lot of stuff that left Zack blinking at first, then kind of clamming up, and then finally storming out—in his quiet Zack kind of way, back to the apartment he nominally still shared with a couple roommates, though his clothes were mostly all here at my place. This has gone on far too long. So I call him. And admit that saying Ryan Zimmerman is better than David Wright probably doesn’t mean that Zack has commitment issues. And he’s apparently glad enough to hear from me that he doesn’t pursue the topic of why I went there. And I ask him, if he’s still talking to me, to come down to the shore, since I’m still dealing with the boys. We agree that I will stay down here for another week or until one of their parents comes to his or her senses, and Zack will try to stop down in a few days. Then I decide it’s time to call Stacy. We had talked once since I got here; she’d called me a few days ago. She gave me a “new number” but asked me not to call unless it was an emergency. She had left me in charge of her two young sons; I said I thought it was important to know what she considered an emergency. She waited a couple beats before answering. “You’ll know.” So it’s up to me, right? And I say it’s an emergency. The emergency is— she needs to get her ass over here and see her kids. I’m plying them with miniature golf and ice cream and movies in the park. Clearly they need a real adult—not me, not Kara. Not even Zack, who will be great fun when he gets here, but is in no way a parent stand-in. The number rings a long time. I’m about to give up when a voice I don’t recognize answers in a bored tone. “Horizons Rehabilitation.” “You’ll note the pot and towel on living room floor. Please empty any accumulated water and put them back before you leave; positioned under the ceiling light near the wicker rocker. If there’s a strong wind and the ceiling leaks, no worries—just get the pot to catch the water.” We spend the next couple days mucking along the tidal flats. Some communities along the bay have a “beach.” We have mud. Acres of it. COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


LESLIE DOYLE Miles of it. It feels like you could walk all the way to Delaware some days at low tide. Ricky and Chris collect molted horseshoe crab shells which congregate in little piles of translucent casings on the back step. There are so many they crackle under our feet. Sometimes the boys bring home whole dead ones, the really big ones. I make them keep them outside; they start to stink pretty quickly. I tell them that they should never, ever, hurt a live one. Lots of people do, because they think they are dangerous, but they are not. Or maybe, I guess, they just think it’s funny. To tell you the truth, I don’t know why some people do what they do. I tell the boys that the horseshoe crabs have copper-based blood that turns a beautiful turquoise blue when they bleed, and I can see them looking at the rotting mud-brown carcasses and not believing me. I tell them, also, that this blood is used by medical companies to make sure that stuff like intravenous drugs and medical devices are bacteria-free. Most crabs survive the procedure to remove some blood, but a few do not. Of course, using their blood that way makes no difference to the horseshoe crabs. Dead is dead, as far as they are concerned. I don’t say this last part to the boys. They figure I am making this stuff up. But it’s all true; I saw a documentary on them once. It interested me because my grandmother was dying of cancer at the time, which was right after I graduated college. I was taking care of her; my parents were not to be around much. Actually, they were hardly ever around. All those family vacations? They were me tagging along with my aunt and uncle and cousins, including Stacy. This grandmother, the one who was dying, was my mom’s mother, the other side of the family, so it was up to me to move into her house and wash her and get her to the bathroom. And watch her die. There were a lot of tubes and ports and stuff all around the room, attached to her in too many places. I wondered if there was a way to figure out if the horseshoe crab blood had been used on them, maybe some streaks of blue on the tubes, but I couldn’t find any. There is a Greyhound Station in Stacy’s head. Or maybe a greyhound. Something is tearing her brain apart with yellow fangs. Or maybe she’s the greyhound in her own head, running around a track after a fake rabbit. If that’s what greyhounds really do. I don’t know; I’ve only seen cartoons. COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


LESLIE DOYLE It took a while to get the rehab folks to put Stacy on the phone. She’s still in the detoxing phase of her program, getting off the smorgasbord of pills she’d been chewing while things were falling apart, and I have to convince them that I’m an emergency. When she comes to the phone, finally, she tells me she’s figured out a way to get Ralph’s insurance to pay; I hope she’s right, even though that wasn’t the question I was asking. She also tells me she can’t cope now, she’s sorry, really sorry, but Ralph will get the boys next week. It turns out he didn’t know where she’d stashed them. He’ll be down just as soon as he can get a day off from his new job. I take the boys to the park by the ferry one afternoon. The people on the ferry cling to the railings with one hand, while waving at everyone at the dock like they’re taking off for a trans-Atlantic voyage. It’s a windy day. I have to be careful that neither boy blows off the rocks when we walk out to the end of the jetty. They have always lived on flat ground, with sidewalks and buses to school. They aren’t very sure-footed. “Sand happens, too. Sweep before you go, but don’t worry if you don’t get every grain. We never do.” The night before Zack is due to get here, I go for my last late night bike ride. Kara is thrilled to be overpaid by me again. It’s a particularly dark night. On some side streets with no streetlights or occupied houses, it’s so dim I can’t see the road. I steer by guessing. I hope any passing cars will see me. Before I go, I ask Kara about the owners of my cottage. She says they didn’t used to rent it out. They lived there full time, them and their son Tyler. No, she didn’t know him that well; he was a few years older. Haven’t seen them much since he came back from Iraq. Nice people, always a little odd in an ordinary kind of way, but nice. Didn’t own a car, biked everywhere. It turns out that I am blowing my meager savings on an unplanned vacation from my highly contingent career plan as a telemarketer, and they are using my rent to pay for the hotel room next to the VA, where Tyler is rehabilitating. Coming back up the road along the dunes, I overtake another woman out riding. She’s has a determined, biker-person look about her, but I’m going faster and I’m pretty smug as I catch up to pass. The reflector on COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


LESLIE DOYLE the back of her bike glints red in the lights from the ferry terminal over the dunes to our right. I swing wide to the left pedaling hard to go by. But then I think—maybe she’s ill, maybe she’s on chemo—who knows what’s slowing her down. And I stop feeling so smug. “When you leave: Be careful to close up all the windows. Rain gets in easily. Drive by the water one last time on your way out. Especially if it’s late. The sunsets are always worth seeing. We haven’t caught a green flash yet, but we look every time. Let us know if you see one.” The next evening is “Movie Night in the Park.” Zack shows up around noon. He’s ordered tickets for the next Mets/Nats game. I think he’s almost afraid to tell me in case I think he’s prolonging the argument, but I can tell a reconciliation motion when I see one. After a while, I send him out the door with the boys, and they’ve been fishing all day. They come home with some spotted hake, and I fry them up for dinner. Zack tells me that there were lots of these to catch because the flesh is so fragile that the commercial fishermen don’t bother with it. Chris and Ricky make faces, then eat it all. At the park that evening, it’s cold. We bundle up, but it’s not enough to keep the late September air from creeping through every layer. The boys are bored by the black and white movies at first—where we see retro rocketship funkiness, they see bad production values. Chris eventually falls asleep on my lap. I’m suggesting we go, but Ricky’s gotten engrossed in the story, after all. Or maybe in the projector, the beam of light trailing through the soft night air before landing on the side of the field house which is being used as a screen. I tell him his brother is cold and tired, and they both had a long day outside. But Ricky is having none of it. He starts to run, away from us and up toward the screen. On it, a rocket that looks like something out of the Jetsons is taking off into space, and the screen fills with a scene of twinkling stars against the darkness of the universe, crumbling at the corners where the cinder block walls of the building have cracked. Standing up there, he catches the rays of the movie, causing a big, Ricky-shaped shadow to fall across the picture, which leads to a lot of shouting and trouble. I am still holding Chris, so Zack runs up to grab Ricky, who is oblivious to all the commotion he is causing. He is looking down at his body, covered with stars, a boy-sized constellation COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


LESLIE DOYLE across his chest and arms, and in his hair. He is beaming at his hands when Zack plucks him from in front of the screen. He doesn’t want to leave. We tell him that the movie is almost over. We tell him not to listen to the mean stuff people are saying about his behavior. We tell him that everything’s going to be alright. That he’ll be going home soon. We tell him all sorts of stuff. Some of it is true. By the time we get home, both he and his brother are asleep in the car, and we carry them into the house, the discarded shells of the horseshoe crabs crackling under our feet.



TALEA ANDERSON A Guide for the Visually Impaired Among our kind, when seen from afar (though not so far afar), people bear a certain resemblance to fire hydrants. The two share a kind of upright quality, a knobbiness about the head, and neither approaches the curb unless dressed (or painted) in shades of yellow, red, or blue. With experience, however, you might come to understand that fire hydrants, unlike people, stand in one place. What’s more, they lie low to the ground, lower than most human beings. These wise observations have probably come to you with time. One fine morning, you prepared a false smile or snippet of empty banter (“Good morning!” etc.), only to find you were addressing the neighborhood hydrant. It happens to even the best of the un-sighted. The person-hydrant conundrum should well illustrate why one must approach not only sidewalks, but also buses, cars, people, and lost lenses with clear rules in hand. This guide will elaborate a few of these in the pages that follow. 1. Sidewalks When walking on sidewalks, your primary concern must be to disguise the state of Not-Seeing and Not-Knowing and instead, simulate the state of Wisdom and General Coolness. To begin with, since you cannot see, you will want to memorize your route, for there is nothing more disruptive to the illusion of Wisdom and General Coolness than having to gawp at street signs. Therefore, if you must walk even four blocks to school, plan scrupulously. Draw maps with streets appropriately labeled—one map will suffice for a four-block journey, but for longer journeys to the grocery store or airport, plan on mapping your route multiple times, each with greater precision than the last. This way, if you are confused when leaving your home—if you mix up north with south and walk two miles AWAY from the grocery—you can then consult your largest scale maps, and in this way, COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


TALEA ANDERSON determine your position in the city, county, state, or planet, if need be. A casual, absent-minded air will serve you well throughout all of your sidewalk journeys. Think: professorial. You might even carry a briefcase to supplement the illusion. If you’re seen lost, crossing and re-crossing the same street, people might judge—BUT, if you also look like a half-crazed academic with things to say about string theory and semiotics, people will probably take your behavior for granted. They’ll chalk up your confusion to a kind of sweet, endearing forgetfulness, which is really just evidence of your extreme genius. Indeed, when you walk past a friend without recognizing her, you must pretend that an all-absorbing thought is to blame. “Oh!” you’ll say after she’s said your name, sharply, “Hello!” Your friends will remark that you’re forever being caught by surprise, and all of you will laugh about it. “Yeah,” you’ll say, “I should pay better attention.” Amusing as your bumbling ways may be, you can lessen the blow by never looking toward a person when passing him/her/it on the sidewalk. This maneuver—the look—incurs far too much risk, for if you look at a person whom you do not know, and you do not smile at this person, she will be instantly offended. Alternatively, if you opt to smile at all passersby, you risk under-smiling at an acquaintance and over-smiling at a nonacquaintance. Furthermore, you increase the likelihood of being greeted by an Unknown Blur, with whom you will have to simulate a shared knowledge of affectionate experience: “Oh,” you’ll say. “Hello! So nice to SEE you!” If you’re lucky, you’ll deduce by the voice that the Unknown Blur is male or female, and from there, you can inquire about Sports or Shopping, as you see fit. All of this can be avoided, however, if you simply peer away from the passing lane of the sidewalk. Adopt an air of deep concentration, as if you are a scientist of abandoned beer bottles, shoe leather, rotting leaves, or—what’s that far to the opposite-direction-of-the-passing-person? An atomic blast? Superman? 2. Cars It’s all guesswork, crossing at intersections. You might see a blur in the distance or, when the blurs stop, you’ll find yourself face-to-face with COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


TALEA ANDERSON these long-nosed, glassy-eyed beasts with whom you share no common language. If you’re in an accommodating mood, you might try out a (onesided) conversation: “Would you like to go first? Or shall I? You? Me? I should go, you say? Alright, then.” A little acting will do you good in this situation—you might gesture like Spock greeting earthlings, or Yoda levitating stubborn starships. Pretend you’re a queen, all imperious, or Captain Picard, instructing the Enterprise to engage or disengage. The trouble is, you’ll never see your audience. You’ll never know if they like the show. When you do cross the street, beware of anthropomorphizing. You might read the rev of an engine as a growl, i.e., anger, and rush to soothe the bully. Don’t bother—once an animal, always an animal. You might as well cross by ear. Listen for the cough and rattle of an oncoming car and if you hear silence, gallop across like a spooked deer. Until electric cars really hit the roads, your odds are pretty good. If you wish to meet a friend who will drive you somewhere in her car, you must evolve a whole new set of strategies. To begin with, you’ll want to work on your language skills. After encountering a car at an intersection, you’ll be naturally inclined to say things like, “The Red Blur tried to kill me!” By your taxonomy, cars come in Red, Blue, and White varieties, some with deeper voices than others, but all of the species Car. You’ll find, on further investigation, that vehicles go by a complex assortment of names—and further, that some four-wheeled machines are classified in the Truck, Recreational Vehicle, and Gas Guzzler families. You may want to adjust your language accordingly. To discover the truth, press your face close to the make and model of your friends’ cars—or invent something. If you mention the “Toyota Infernus” or “Suzuki Samurai” or “GM Native American,” no one will be the wiser. You’ll look like a car expert. However, being picked up is a tricky business. Unfortunately, in your world, all Red Cars bear a striking resemblance to each other (it’s a world of infinite car-tuplets, all of them identical twins). You will want to select a designated meeting spot—force the Car to find you. Plant your feet at, say, cement marker #3 and hold El Aleph or Labyrinths before your face. If you can think beyond this stomach-turning, white-knuckled vigil of yours, COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


TALEA ANDERSON savor the irony of reading, in this moment, the postmodernist ravings of a blind librarian. If you must move from your perch, you can sidle past some of the identicals and check their license plates (as it turns out, they have numbers to tell them apart!). It may be difficult to read the license plates while still appearing casual—also, you would never want to approach a stranger’s car for the license-read. To be clearer, you would never want to make your license-reading intentions KNOWN to strangers. It will take some practice, but you must walk coolly—and carefully—through the parking lot, pretending that you’ve dropped an object beside each car in turn, so that you can position your face near the plates. It’s always best, however, to stay still and occupied with such as Borges, while waiting for your ride. You may be tempted to “keep an eye out” for the Correct Car, but it only causes problems when you look at—and fail to recognize—your own father when he drives up. You might lie to him later—tell him that, while you waited, you were developing a mathematical formula for the color of sky. You were formulating the chemical composition of December leaves. You were observing the dumpsters just over his shoulder—just past his car— for an upcoming social sciences class, for a project about the economy of dumpster space as it relates to garbage production in academic settings. In sum, you were distracted. If you want to avoid the lie, it’s always best to wait sloped inward. This way, your father will understand why your face didn’t light up for him— why your eyes slipped past him as if he were a tree branch or a speck of gum. It’s because you weren’t paying proper attention, that’s all. 3. Buses You will become well acquainted with buses, over time. You’ll know the anxious counting of streets as you ride along, and the leaning forward, vainly, for a sign. Of course, you’re already well aware that you can’t read street signs at any distance (an inability that’s especially bothersome on buses). You’ve probably performed your own little circus act on occasion, for your brother or a friend, as you drive across country. It’s an old scene, COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


TALEA ANDERSON one you’ve acted out in grade school, high school, and even college: “Tell me when you can read that green sign,” your brother might say. “I can read it right now: Camrose, 65 miles.” “What green sign?” you ask, peering. “Exactly,” your brother says, a little smug, a little amazed. Moments later, you see the sign, but you can’t read it until that instant—a split second—when it’s passing. You see it over your shoulder. “I saw Camrose!” you say, jubilant. This kind of slapdash sign-reading will do you no good on the bus. You will have to feel out the driver when you board, see if he’s the type to remember your problems or if he’s thinking, instead, about the sluggish breaks and the passenger who croaks, “Gollum,” over and over, from the front seat. Either way, you’ll grip a pole two-handed and wait it out. Sometimes it’s wise to pre-ride your route with a sighted person in tow. A sighted person can tell you to pull the cord when you see the red smudge (Safeway). He can even help you find your house again. Each of these advantages makes a pre-ride worthwhile, but beware when a family member introduces you to the buses. If your father is the first to show you around, he might handle it like a driving lesson—he might even yelp directions at you as if demonstrating the stick-shift to a crash-prone newbie. When the bus arrives at the stop, he’ll point to the route number posted on the bus: “That’s how you know which one to board,” he’ll say. “I can’t see it,” you might reply, because you can’t. Then he’ll walk you to the windshield and put his hand on the number. “Here. See?” You do not see, but you demand—urgently, hissing—that he leave the windshield and board the bus like a normal person. Perplexed, he’ll try to laugh off the spat. As he enters the bus, he’ll apologize to the driver, “She’s a little slow.” In this situation, you have two choices: a) Complete the bus ride in aggrieved silence, an attitude which you will have to break, ultimately, to ask your father when to pull the cord. b) Muster a fake grin. Comfort yourself in the knowledge that you COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


TALEA ANDERSON and your father are both, equally, embarrassed of the other. Assure yourself, furthermore, that, by your seventieth birthday, you will no longer remember this occasion, or care. 4. When Sidewalks Disappear Of course, you will lose sight of sidewalks at some time in your life. One night, you will perch your glasses beside your bed, only to find, by morning, that they’ve fallen. Sometime in the night your flailing arm sent them tumbling, just heavily enough to knock a lens loose. You’ll feel for the lens with your fingers. You’ll try not to panic as you catch sight of it—only just—by the flicker of light on plastic. Then, blind, you will mash the lens in place and, once again, you’ll mount your eyes on the bridge of your nose. This is when you find that you have reassembled your glasses incorrectly, and the world is suddenly crooked, leaning, tilted, broken, streaked, and warped—no longer the world you once knew. You will call your parents by feel to request advice, long-distance. When they turn you away, you will fumble through your morning tasks: you press a bottle to your eyes in hopes of telling “SHAMPOO” from “CONDITIONER;” you place nose to outlet and—scrabbling a bit—plug the blow dryer into the wall; you pick out an apple by feel, never knowing if it’s bruised or green. Your father tells you to visit an optometrist. You wonder how to find the path to his office. The optometrist or optician or ophthalmologist or eye specialist might try to make you feel that you belong, that you aren’t lost at all. When you’re young, they’ll visit your school with models of the eye and explain everything to your classmates (who prefer to sit in judgment at the monkey bars, calling you Four Eyes—forget the models). The eye doctors show your classmates how pieces of you (of your eyes) are missing; they say that these explanations will build solidarity in the classroom. The eye doctors will invite you to Christmas parties and summer camps for blind children— even bribe you with Barbie dolls, balls-and-jacks. At the parties you’ll find blind kids flat on their backs, twitching and drooling and jabbering in notEnglish. You’ll take the Barbie (even though you never liked dolls) and COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


TALEA ANDERSON then, once safely home, you’ll beg your mother to never make you go back. “Why won’t she come?” the doctors wonder. “These are her people.” Someday, the special needs people may show you Sound and Fury, to teach you about disabilities and belonging. Of course, this documentary is about the deaf, not the blind—but you won’t mention it. They’ll just say you’re all alike. From the documentary, you will learn about two deaf parents who must decide whether to allow their daughter (also deaf) cochlear implants. With the implants, she might hear again, at least a little. In one scene, the girl’s father signs to his hearing parents that he will not give his daughter implants because he wants her to appreciate “deaf culture.” “Deaf culture?” his parents ask, not bothering to sign it. “Deafness isn’t ‘culture.’ It’s a curse, a thing to overcome. How could you do this to her?” The father replies in sign. He is swaying in agitation but he is silent save for the popping of hand against hand as he signs fast and hard. His teeth are clacking open and shut but he voices nothing. He’s like a dolphin out of water, its jaws clicking uselessly in the air. His parents can’t read his signs and, indeed, he is saying that they don’t understand. He worked all his life to be understood by hearing people. He learned to read his parents’ lips with 35% accuracy, learned to pantomime at family reunions. He did all of that, but he won’t give up his daughter. You’ll conclude from this that the deaf man’s parents had it right. There is no culture in blindness. You’re living on a knife’s edge—just short of falling on the sidewalks to lie flat and confused on the ground. This is why you must follow the rules. Always you must keep to the script. 5. Exercises for Advanced Learners If you wish to increase your skill level, you might take some additional chances while walking your sundry routes. For instance, though it is incredibly risky, you might try looking toward the people you pass on sidewalks. Tilt your head to the side so that you’re almost looking at passersby and almost not. Smile mildly enough that friends will mistake your smirk for recognition and strangers, for general day-time cheer. COBALT ISSUE ELEVEN


TALEA ANDERSON Remember, this skill is extremely difficult to master. When staring into the blurry middle-distance, you’ll have a tendency to look grim, or a little confused—definitely not cheerful. On occasion, you might notice, in that instant when people pass—like road signs, just readable at the last second—that many of them are peering into their hands. They are texting or phoning, eyes down. Sometimes, you might wonder if these sighted people really see each other at all. If not, the worst of it is, they’re missing a great performance.