Consider this a writing prompt.
Pick an island, read about it, write a story about it.
Consider this a writing prompt.
Pick an island, read about it, write a story about it.
Cannot believe I was accepted into the Tin House summer workshop—but no scholarship so I still need to raise funds to get there, though. You can donate whatever you like, or even just spread the word. Anyone that donates will get some six worders!
That Stubborn Plank
The skies above the city had wept the streets into a swamp.
People smoked twice as much to clean the smell of the rot and damp from their nostrils, to have something that burned and was dry. They carried their cigarettes under their hats. Wagon wheels rusted, horses hooves were cleaned and dried with extra care, still many came up lame with cramps and fungus, hair and flesh soft as if stewed. For those forced to walk, which was much of the city, there were walkways. Unemployed men took a city wage to maintain and install them and blacksmiths made fortunes in nails. Artists joked that nobody bought their work anymore because who could afford to hang paintings?
Martin had been unemployed, played at laborer, at boxer and thief.
Now he built and kept up cheap and tiny bridges.
There was one stubborn plank that refused to sit right, often falling into the water. Martin told people forced to wait that he had no idea why that infernal board would not listen to the nails he put through it.
There. It is fixed. Good day, sir, madam, miss.
She may have been a courtesan, traveling home at those hours. Perhaps she was a rich man’s mistress or a wealthy eccentric’s daughter who insisted on walking because it was what the people were forced to do. He would see her a few blocks away, tottering on the boards under that magnificent hat, and hop down from his dry perch and wade to the stubborn board. He’d look around for witnesses before he gave it a sharp rap with his hammer, knocking it into the water.
She waited while Martin hammered and thought of something to say. He looked at his rough hands and wondered if they would scrape the smooth skin of her thighs, her neck. He wanted to say good morning, but remembered the persistant rot and itch of his skin below his knees, between his toes.
Thank you, sir, she would say as he fixed the plank. He could only tip his hat in answer.
Martin prayed for courage. He prayed for rain.
Credit: Crue de la Seine. Paris, janvier 1910, Roger-Viollet
A paper bowl of spicy chicken ramen sits cooling in the microwave as I sit with a glass of clementine vodka in my hand. An unlit Virgin de Guadalupe sits on the desk, part of its side blackened by an unsuccessful lighting. There is half a bottle of cheap Chardonnay which I can’t bring myself to finish being that it’s been over a week since it was opened. A money tree, coiled in a pot full of special artifacts, such as Charlo’s baby teeth, a guardian angel amulet, and power crystals, sits dead next to the Guadalupe candle. Musette won’t be home for at least an hour. Restaurants get pretty busy around Easter. People throw events and parties and invite their whole families and celebrate, getting drunk and full on the special day of Christ’s resurrection as if he died so that we all may fill ourselves, and as if a large meal was just another of his sacraments, filled with his flesh and washed down with his blood.
Meanwhile, I’m listening to Styx play ‘Too Much Time on My Hands’. The dog brings me a piece of trash I thought I’d lost. Hanks says he can get marijuana for half the price I’ve been spending; however, I don’t even have enough for that. At the grocery store we had to put back a box of oatmeal cream pies because we pushed our bank account to the limit, forcing me to pay two dollars cash, the last of my tips, because sometimes there is not enough for the luxury of special presents. The teller asked us, “Is this yours?” He had seen the box of creampies sitting above the register. I told him it was. “Do you want it?” he asked. Musette said that we did, because she was trying to avoid embarrassment, but I gave it to the teller saying, “We actually don’t want it.”
Clive is going to school. He said he was rusty when it came test taking time. But then he told me he finished first in the class and got one-hundred percent. I’ve done that before. “It really helped me feel like I belonged there.” he said. “Just don’t burn out.” I told him, because I had to get my jab in.
We’ve got this new boy, Wes, working for us, but he’s slow as a turtle and pretty dumb. He came in late today and everybody was hoping he wasn’t going to show up so that we could hire somebody else. It’s easier to hire somebody than it is to fire somebody.
Today I told somebody to get out of my parking spot and it felt invigorating. I’ve never done that before, but this guy was just sitting in his car, and there were no other places to park, and I was running late, and feeling stressed, so I motioned for him to move, and he started rolling down his window; I opened my passenger door and told him that I needed him to move. A few minutes later he parked across the street. I didn’t say anything or even really look at him. I think he was waiting for somebody. After a few minutes he left, and I was able to feel proud without fear of retribution.
There’s only so much courage I can squeeze out of myself at one time. I wasn’t ready to beat the guy up or anything. I’m glad he didn’t put up a fight; I don’t know what I would have done if he had. Clive says people are capable of way more than they think they are. Camus murdered someone in his story. I don’t know how far I would go. I mean, I didn’t have a headache or anything; but I am fairly repressed; and Raskolnikov didn’t have a headache; he just thought everybody was lice and wanted to be Napoleon.
The next bottle of liquor I want to buy is Courvoisier, because apparently it was the only liquor Napoleon would drink during his exile, and I haven’t had much brandy. Hennessy is pretty good. It is French, like Courvoisier. In America black people love drinking brandy. All the drinks black people love we keep behind the counter. My bosses think they’re more likely to be stolen. When you treat people like thieves they’re more likely to become thieves. This hole we’ve dug ourselves into is violently difficult to climb out of. Racism breeds racism. The tables turn. One race is on top and then they’re on bottom. Because oppression breeds hatred. And hatred breeds oppression. And the tables keep spinning. The true winner is the one who quits while on top. Or at least before slipping. Or at least at the beginning of an ascent. And if nothing else on even footing.
I can’t boss anybody around. Not women, people of other races, or children. I just want to survive as long as possible and die in my sleep. I want to find the escape in dream. But there are a lot of knives and guns out there. And a lot of them are aimed in my direction. I’m a white American male. And a lot of people are still oppressed. I’m oppressed, but there are worse oppressions. It’s hard to have pity on me. People like me have been safe for a long time. And I can’t even defend myself when I’m in the right.
Ten men women have warned me against becoming:
The man who takes up too much space.
Whose legs need their own chair in
public spaces, who plays awful, shitty
guitar at parties, whose backpack
can’t touch his lap and must therefore
have its own seat on the bus
while senior citizens and young
children stay standing.
The man with the 1-10 scale, for whom
beauty is sport; for whom beauty is empty,
is foreign, is obvious. For whom beauty is
his to own, but never to know.
The nice guy who’s so nice. He’s so nice!
SO NICE that he can’t possibly have done
anything wrong and why are you
speaking to him in that tone?
He who believes you live to seek
his approval, so he withholds it
like an ugly hand-me-down
that nobody actually wants.
He whose mouth is clamped open.
Whose talking points are a record
on repeat. Whose ears have wilted
from misuse and neglect because
listening, like, actually listening,
is a Herculean task in humility.
He who makes a home in sheets
until the deed is done, but can’t be
bothered to share the sunrise.
The Soulmate. Flawless artist’s
hands too delicate to dirty so
when he learns of his beloved’s
depression, his beloved learns
how her sadness can shrink
a man back into boy.
The boy with the strong thighs.
Who does not ask permission.
Who calls his victim conquest.
Who calls it just another Saturday.
The one who as a boy, raises
fists to his sister. As a man,
raises voice to his lover.
As a man, learns to speak
with satin tongue and
The man with the wooden spoon.
Whose name is control.
Who sees his girl too skinny
so he fattens her until she’s full,
until she’s bursting,
until she sees his meals
reflected ugly in her flesh.
They are an army of specters digging
trenches behind my best intentions.
They are the eggshells beneath conversations.
I have known and loved them.
I fear becoming them.
I have already been
the space taker, the beauty butcher,
the nice guy, the broken record,
the little sister abuser.
I can’t promise I haven’t been more.
More. It is the rallying call of my gender.
We are the tempted, the takers.
The never question our own power.
Never learned to human.
Only taught how not to monster.
Pray for the boys not blessed with women
whispering them through anger, through
ignorance, through fear. They are a navy
with no lighthouse. An ocean with no moon
tugging the water upward.
I’m hella in love with this, I hope you know that, Sam
(like when I said “respectful response” in this poem I meant in total awe)
Musette works in a kitchen run by Geoffrey Bordeaux. Once a year Chef Geoffrey throws a massive party, renting out an entire bar, and inviting the best local restaurants to provide platters of food. Each of his employees gets an invitation and a plus-1. I was Musette’s plus-1 this year.
It was an eighties themed party. Musette called me after she got off work and said she was going to the mall to look for hoop earrings. She was hoping to find a dollar pair. She would have liked to buy more party articles but I acted as the voice of reason, preventing her purchases.
In the end, she didn’t even buy earrings, because the least expensive pair cost $4.50.
We went to Target. She found lipstick for a dollar. It was neon pink. It was the only piece of costume we bought. Everything else was scrounged from things we already owned.
I thought it would be easier than it was, but it took us three hours of trying things on before we settled, I picking a nice pair of rarely worn jeans and a blue striped T-shirt which reminded me of a gondola driver’s; she chose a pair of jeans as well and her favorite loose fitting sweater. We both wore Doc Martins; she wearing hers on the outside of her pants, with the tops folded out like wings, but my jeans being bootcut, forcing me to wear my boots on the inside of my pants, where they looked as little ridiculous as possible.
She didn’t even wear the lipstick she bought. By the time she started doing her makeup she was so stressed that she started picking her face. When I saw what she had done I figured the party was off; but apparently it was too important to her.
She decided not to wear makeup, as it would only draw attention to her face.
With a few forward brushes I created a hideous wave of bangs. It is a style that comes naturally to my hair, being that I am a child of the eighties. Musette, also a child of the eighties, pulled off a side ponytail beautifully, crimping her hair with her fingers the same way one twirls ribbons on Christmas presents with scissors.
We were both planning on wearing headbands, but in the end only I wore one. It was made out of the seam of my boxer shorts. Musette was going to wear one. Hers was to be made out of the bridesmaid sash she had been given for my sister’s wedding. It was the same color pink as her lipstick but once the lipstick went, so did the sash.
We left the apartment. It was a long journey, over thirty minutes walking. We had to cross a river into an industrial area. A group of homeless people played a drum circle at the end of the street. Musette saw what they were eating and said, “That looks good.”
“No it doesn’t.” I replied.
Saphire was on the phone with Musette for the last three blocks trying to convince her that we were going the wrong way. I had my phone on GPS, and kept telling her that Sapphire is an idiot.
The bar was called The Black Falcon. We could hear music emanating from four blocks off. It was packed with Musette’s co-workers. Saphire looked ten times the eighties we did, but most everybody else was underwhelming. She was wearing a black leather jacket, her hair had been permed, she had on high heeled boots, ripped jeans, and even fishnet, fingerless gloves.
She had lipstick on.
We were greeted with a welcome shot of whiskey. Musette took three gulps to get hers down. She had never taken a whiskey shot before, or even drainken whiskey straight.
After the shot I was immersed in inside conversation. Musette told me I could smoke if I wanted to and that we would buy Kevin a shot in exchange for some of his cigarettes.
‘Thank God.’ I told myself, saying earlier that I wasn’t going to go around asking for cigarettes.
We went out to a huge outdoor patio. There was a DJ booth set up. The food tables were out here but for some reason Musette didn’t want to eat.
“Well, I’m making myself a sandwich.” I said, dishing a spoonful of chicken bits onto a roll.
It was paradise. I’d had a long day’s fast. Just like the first Sundays, except now God was commanding it rather than my family doing it to please him.
We got a beer, a red one, it’s always the red ones recently. They are Musette’s current favorite. This one tasted bitter. I didn’t like it. I let her drink most of it. I sipped from of a mini coke chaser, trying to trick myself into staying sober longer.
The drinks were supposed to be on Chef Geoffrey’s tab, but they weren’t.
“This is going to be brutal…” Musette said, transferring money from our savings account into our checking account.
I only got to smoke one of Kevin’s cigarettes before he left. It was a Camel, which I was happy about. He would have probably let me smoke more, because we got him his shot, but his girlfriend demanded that he leave.
She didn’t like Musette. She also didn’t like Kevin having fun. She had two kids. Kevin gave us the excuse of needing to take care of them as his reason for leaving.
I asked him how long he had been at the party. He told me since two, when the party started. He said he had went home, got dressed, and came straight here.
“So did we.” I said, making a joke about how long it took us to get ready.
And then we bought shots for all of Musette’s friends. This allowed me to ask Hank for some of his cigarettes.
“They’re American Spirits.” He told me, handing me one.
“Thank God.” I said.
He was wearing a cut-off Michael Jackson shirt, a bandana as a sweatband, and he had an actual earring in his ear.
He asked me what type of music I liked.
“Weird stuff.” I responded.
“Music, that’s what kind of music I like.” he said.
And then he asked me if I like punk.
“Not really.” I said.
Apparently that was his favorite type of music.
I knew I had to keep the conversation going if I didn’t want the cigarettes to stop.
“So you’re going to community college?” I asked.
“For automotive repair.” he told me, saying how he believed it impossible to get anywhere in this life without a degree.
“It is a strange world.” I said.
He asked me what I liked to do for fun.
I told him I liked to write.
He seemed not to hear me.
I told him again.
He seemed still not to hear me.
And then he changed the subject.
Musette and Saphire were dancing with Chef Geofrey and Chef Geofrey’s boss. It felt surreal watching her be this work person. She was trying to make a good impression. I couldn’t help but do the same. Chef Geofrey exuded a celebrity magnetism. He introduced himself to me. I introduced myself as Musette’s fiance. That’s what I was in this world.
I had a whiskey and ginger ale in my hand. I was getting pretty drunk. People were starting to leave. Most of Musette’s friends had already left. The last dj was on the stage. The party was supposed to go until two, but it actually ended around twelve.
Saphire had a car. We had stashed Musette’s purse in it. She had had as much to drink as me. I told Musette that we would absolutely not get a ride home with her. Hank told us that she was a really good drunk driver. Walking home seemed like a horrible prospect. My world was swaying. And Hank had those American Spirits, my favorite brand.
We got in the car. Saphire and Hank forgot their credit card. We had to drive back and get it. The whole ride Hank and I kept making jokes, being obnoxious, even though I knew it was a bad idea, being that Saphire was probably having a hard enough time driving.
When we got to our apartment, Hank gave me a cigarette. Musette went upstairs and took Charleston out to the bathroom. Hank also had to go to the bathroom.
“I know a good area.” I said, leading him up the road from my apartment. He tried peeing in the street but got stage fright. So he ended up peeing in the doorway of Musette’s chiropractor.
He was ashamed.
“Don’t worry about it.” I said. “Dogs do it all the time.”
I promised that Musette and I would attend his and Saphire’s wedding and he got in his car with fond farewells.
I went upstairs. Musette was already in bed and the lights were off. I tried lying next to her, but couldn’t. It made me intolerably sick. I went to the bathroom, thinking I might throw up, but took a bath instead.
When I came out I was ready to pass out. I lie in bed, only waking once by Musette shaking me, telling me to be considerate: I had the hiccups and was hiccuping right into her ear.
“I’m sorry…” I said, rolling over to the other side of the bed, and falling back deeply into sleep.
The next morning I had a hangover. Musette was getting ready for work.
“Was I talking in my sleep?” I asked.
“I don’t think so.” She replied.
“I must have dreamed it.” I said.
And then I fell back asleep, hoping that by the next time I woke up my ibuprofen would be in effect.
The petal peddler came to town today; he asked to meet the clergy. He had once sold rose stems, and sunflower blooms, and flowers long since dried—sun soaked to grant escape from the decay that is life, that is time, that lingers with us forever.
The petal peddler asked to see our shore, he asked to set up shop, but the clergy told the mayor, who told the clerks, who told the builders to refuse his money and gold and force of will, and have him look out into the crystal water, but not to keep it for himself. The petal peddler went his less than merry way, finding his feet against the rocks and sand of our illustrious coast—flooded with pounding waves, that for a moment in time gave the beach blossoms, and gritty white petals, before withering in an instant.
The petal peddler stared into the great expanse of the sea, as the sun itself knelt before the night, and water pressed down against the peddler’s cheeks, until he too fell onto the sand and along the rocks. A cross, and a jar of petals, were in the petal peddler’s hands, and he laid them to rest against the shore. He stayed in that spot, till he too dried and ebbed into nothing, leaving only his petals, his cross, and a charred child’s toy.
The clergy met, and planted two stones where the petal peddler had watched the sun set—flowers would bloom their in the Spring, as children would come to play amongst the petals, the shore, and the sand.
And the petal peddler would stand their in the Spring, happy to be reunited with his child— watching the children play amongst the blooms, his immortal family.
Wednesday, early March. My twelve-year-old son has the day off from school. It’s his older brother’s birthday and I need to bake a cake. Hudson and I decide to walk to the Lookout Mountain Market to get a mix and frosting. We take Boji, our yellow lab, along.
It’s the first sunny day in a week, warm, the kind of soft-focus, liquid air that makes me feel half-time and drowsy. Blots of color in yards along Lula Lake: purple crocus, yellow forsythia, green onion grass. Hudson yanks up a cluster and chucks it across the street, then smells his fingers. Will that grass make actual onions? he asks.
We walk a block and cross from Georgia into Tennessee, alongside the rock wall with built-in mailboxes in front of each house. Past the Civil War trenches—hospital, not battle—at the four-way stop where Lula Lake road becomes Scenic Highway. We wind along past the trailhead that leads, Hudson says, “to a sick cave.” I had no idea he’d been there, though it doesn’t surprise me: mountain kids grow up roaming free, climbing boulders, swimming in creeks. We reach the small ravine across from Watauga road and cross the metal replica of the Market Street bridge—this smaller version painted black, not blue like the full-size bridge in downtown Chattanooga.
I wave to Ruth on the patio of the Café on the Corner. She’s the owner and chef, keeps my favorite Cabernet in stock for half-price wine night. I spot Gwen—the “mountain tracker” social columnist—exiting the post office. My friend Melanie speed-walks past us, waves.
Everyone we see is white. I wish I could say this grim reality is still something I notice daily, as it was when we first moved here. The shameful truth: I rarely think about it anymore. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee—there’s a reason Martin Luther King singled out our town in his famous speech.
We reach the market and I sit outside with Boji while Hudson goes in to buy the mix and frosting and a snack for himself. A woman whose name I don’t know comes out of the market—I’ve been told she’s a “socialite.” She drives a convertible. Her young son is with her. They get into the car and a country song blares. I LOVE this song! she says, and high-fives her son, who’s drinking from a juice box. They sit there and listen, together.
On the way home Hudson kicks at the spiked seed pods lining the road. Boji sniffs at ivy, lifts his leg.
There he goes, I say. Reading his pee-mails, replying.
How much is Boji worth? Hudson asks.
He’s priceless to us, I say.
I mean his actual body, Hudson says.
I tell him how much we paid, when we bought Boji from the breeder. Hudson stops walking.
You bought him?
It hadn’t occurred to me that Hudson wouldn’t know this.
We bought him from his owner, I say.
You can’t own an animal, he says. You just take care of them, in your house.
I guess you’re right, in a sense, I say.
Like, humans can’t be owned, he says, and Boji’s pretty much human.
The dog sniffs, lifts, jogs ahead.
So how much is a human body worth, Hudson says.
And we’re off again.* * *
The next day, driving Hudson to school, we pass Howard High School, in the inner city. We’ve passed it all year, but today it’s a late start and there are students outside.
Is that a private school for black kids? Hudson asks.
Actually, it’s public, I say.
But racism is illegal, right, he says.
How do you explain to a twelve-year-old? I wish I could say, Yes, darling: racism is illegal.
Mandatory segregation is illegal, I say.
It’s the best I can do, for now.
We get on I-24 and take the Sugar’s Ribs exit at Missionary Ridge, where a herd of kudzu-eating goats grazes the hillside. Hudson’s school, private, sits at the base of the ridge, where in 1863 Arthur MacArthur—the famous General Douglas’s father—charged the hillside and took Chattanooga for the Union, General Grant watching from Orchard Knob nearby.
The sun is already high above the ridge. I say goodbye to Hudson and drive back up the mountain, the city growing hazy below. Birdsong, pillared homes, pear trees laced in white blossom—another gorgeous Southern day made, it seems, to lull us into forgetfulness.
[Originally published in Guernica’s special issue, The American South.]
Let’s say you stand beneath the garish yellow light and ask for something you have always wanted. Let’s say you hear the sound of your own voice asking. And you hear:
car alarm in the distance. Doors closing and then opening again.
That was the year of the fire. We stood in our nightgowns on the sidewalk and watched smoke billow from the roof, thick and black. No one knew who started it but later we learned about the woman who let the gas run from her stove for hours. And then,
and then what is one match lit in darkness?
What is a childhood?
A red brick building six stories high. The darkness of stairwells. Dreams of falling down them, endlessly falling.
A playground in the back, not shaded, exposed to hot sun. We could see tar paper hanging over the sides of the roof. So hot and so bright it looked like it was melting. Was it melting.
Metal framework of swing set. Metal slide. Hot beneath naked thighs. So often alone.
That we could not take care of our cat. Cat would be given away. She came and circled me, sat in my lap as if she knew what we were considering. I am a cat. How easy it would be to send me
back. Back to the night of the fire. Night of smoke and catch in the breath. Hot and cold at the same
time. That winter, snow so deep, we swam through it.
Beloved park across the street. Ancient trees. Duck pond. How far it stretched. We could walk the length of it. We walked for hours.
Let’s say you go back. You take someone with you. Someone you love, or want to. Press your face to the glass at the front door. Tiles in the entry way still the same as you remember. Yellow petals unfurling on a field of white.
What is a childhood?
Was not learning to ride my blue bicycle. White basket, woven plastic, pink ribbon tied to the handlebars. Left leaning against the wall in the dank basement.
Was my father’s height and how he stooped, bent over as if to examine something he had dropped on his shirt.
Lottery tickets extracted crumpled from his pockets and then staying up late enough to watch the late-night drawing, write the numbers down.
And then his closet empty.
And then Wednesday afternoons at the Wendy’s drive-through, burgers and fries wrapped in paper. Rosary hung from the rear-view mirror of his burgundy car.
Reading the dictionary on the floor in the hallway. Orphan: a child whose parents are dead. Orphanage: a place where orphans are looked after.
I was sick for days with fever. Cold cloths held to my skin. A bit of soup or crackers. Ginger soda and tepid tea.
What is a childhood? Soft rolls and crumb cake after church on Sundays.
And the shore, always the shore.
Walk to the boardwalk after dark. Electric light. Carousel and fortune
teller: Here is something you should know.
The windows of the haunted house glow orange. Flickering. Is there smoke pouring from the windows.
Let’s say you ask for things you know you cannot have. Electric train. Red wooden rocking chair. A doll with jet black hair and eyes.
What did he leave? A jar of buttons. A photograph of himself in uniform. He is smiling.
Buried it all under the branches of a broad tree by the duck pond. Drew arrows in the dirt with a stick so I could find my way back.
What is a childhood?
Wide trunk of oak tree and fallen bark. Acorn caps bruised the knees. A certain kind of wind that colored the sky, that darkened it.
Throw pebbles in the pond, watch the rings.