@

saturn devouring his son

There are seventy-nine minutes left in the day. I am clinging to consciousness as I write, half drunk, half sleepy. At least it’s almost over, my birthday that is. I didn’t have an official cake, so let this be the proverbial frosting, the telling of my forty-first birthday. I’ll tell it in one long unedited inhalation, the opposite of blowing out candles, that morbid ritual of extinguishing light with one’s breath, but not before making a final wish, followed by a gasp, and then an emptying of your lungs resulting in darkness. Blowing out birthday candles (tiny flames symbolizing each year of your even tinier existence) is a metaphor for death, right up there with a raven shitting on the Grim Reaper’s hoodie. There’s some luck in that, just as there’s luck in surviving another year. There’s also humor, but mostly the kind that laughs at you, which is fine by me. I have zero delusions of grandeur. I entered the world hysterical and naked, and I intend on dying like that too.

the alley motel

Walking uphill in Westlake, a neighborhood just north of downtown Los Angeles, I paused at the site of the most intriguing whodunit in local lore, save the Black Dahlia case. Here, on February 1, 1922, in the living room of his duplex bungalow, one of sixteen units at the Alvarado Court Apartments, William Desmond Taylor, an Irish-born film director and former actor, was shot and killed by an unknown intruder, though a number of likely suspects have been identified by professional and armchair detectives, based partly on the eyewitness account of Faith MacLean, who, with her screen-star husband, the since-forgotten Douglas MacLean, lived next door to Taylor. Shortly before eight that night, Mrs. MacLean said, she heard what she thought might be a “muffler explosion,” and when she opened her door to investigate, she saw, standing in Taylor’s doorway, a “funny looking man” dressed “like my idea of a motion picture burglar” in a checked cap, dark suit, and “something tied around his neck.” He—or possibly she, since Mrs. MacLean later allowed that this person could have been female—seemed ready to leave through the garden courtyard that led to Alvarado Street, but he hesitated, as if “Mr. Taylor [had] spoken to him from inside the house.” Then, in perhaps the eeriest detail of the case, he met Mrs. MacLean’s gaze in the darkness. He didn’t panic or advance on her. “No,” she said, “he was the coolest thing I have ever seen,” and in that unruffled spirit he closed Taylor’s door, “then turned around and, looking at me all the time, walked down a couple of steps that go up to Mr. Taylor’s house,” disappearing in name but not deed through an alley that led to Maryland Street.

Stephanie's T-Mobile Phone 120

Do you know that two-thirds of all the divorces that are filed in our country are filed by women?—Michelle Weiner-Davis[1] 

 

Do you know how fast I got married? Less than ten minutes. Six of those minutes involved me standing at the back of the “aisle”—we were married outside, upscale casual—with my dad. When I was younger, I always said I’d walk my own self down the aisle because I was the one who earned the privilege, not my dad.  Too chickenshit to go through with a statement like that so when the time came, I opted for tradition. My dad wore a suit jacket over a nice pair of pants and made a joke he didn’t look this nice for his own wedding. He married my stepmom on a beach in San Diego. She shared the same first name as my mother prompting the family to refer to her as Linda 2. My cousin and I drove to the Linda 2 wedding together, and on our way to California, we stopped off for tattoos. We smoked cigarettes and listened to Madonna and stopped at every rest stop to peek inside our bandages. When we arrived, my soon-to-be stepmother greeted us and suggested we store our suitcases in the closet because her family would be staying at the house, and she didn’t want our things in the way. Linda 2 didn’t have children, and at the rehearsal dinner for their wedding, her sister told me she didn’t like them. I’d just turned 21, so I bought a bunch of booze that weekend—in that gross, blustery way most 21-year-olds on the brink of being out of control do—and drank until I couldn’t walk. My dad’s only response to the tattoo-binge-drinking-too hungover and sick to go out to dinner with them on the last night-attention-seeking behavior was to remind me not to drive when I was fucked up like that. Growing up under the umbrella of alcoholism means eventually those who you enable will come to enable you.  Circle of life.

My dad, six years later and teary at my own wedding, told me he thought I’d make a good wife. This was his way of telling me he thought I looked nice. We side-hugged. He walked me down the aisle and handed me over to my soon-to-be-husband. The ordained minister asked us if we did. We did. It was over.

“May I present Mr. and Mrs., etc., so on,” the minister said.

My husband leaned over to kiss me, and I turned away. Why did I do that? My husband asked the same question. Everyone was looking. My nerves felt like they’d been chewed up. I said I was sorry, and I laughed, and said sorry again. It was hotter than it was supposed to be that day, and I was thirsty.

You Animal Machine cover split

 

Known primarily for her books of poetry (such as The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead, and the Barnes & Noble Best Book of the Year, The California Poem), Eleni Sikelianos is also a writer of hybrid memoir, who plays with the intersections of memory, artifact, image, and imagination in her work. During my last semester at the University of Arizona this fall, I struggled with structuring a book out of fragmented lyric essays and read Sikelianos’ latest work, You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek), hoping to find inspiration in its experimental form. In this magical olio of scraps, myth, dreams, and narrative, Sikelianos traces the life of her exotic dancer grandmother, and inevitably her family’s complex lineage. On so many levels pertaining to the exploration of collective memory and archive, the book gave me hope for the future of what I consider the most exciting genre, near limitless, shifting and transforming with every new voice. That’s what was on my mind when I reached out to her to talk about breaking nonfiction rules and creating new ones.

 


 

Nina Boutsikaris: A big question in nonfiction is, how do we talk about a thing, invoke something specific about it, in a way that sends light through just the right fractal? Eleni, how did you begin writing this very diverse and textured folio? What came first? How did it progress?

 

Eleni Sikelianos: It’s hard to know what came first, because I’ve been working on this book for a very long time. I think I could say that I’ve been working on these family histories my whole life, and certainly they are some of the interior elements—my personal furniture—that pushed me to be a writer, and shaped my psychic household. I remember trying to write a poem about my grandmother as long ago as twenty-seven years ago. She appears again in a long poem in 2001 (The California Poem), and in my last book, too. That may be part of why these family histories come out in such “diverse and textured folio[s]”—they come from the fabric of my life. Some writers would aim to distill that and simplify it into a more coherent, mono-tonal narrative (which has its own power, to be sure), but that is not how I feel the world.

Troubled Dynamics

By Lori White

Essay

grateful dead ticket

In January 2015, the Grateful Dead announced they would come together in July for their final “Fare Thee Well” tour. The tour marked the Dead’s fiftieth anniversary as well as the twentieth anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death in August 1995. The band’s “Core Four” original members— Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart—would appear on stage one last time, with Trey Anastasio of Phish standing in the late Jerry Garcia’s place. A family reunited, though its most beloved brother will be absent.

There have been other reunions in the past, some with all four members and some featuring various configurations of members under new band names that played short runs, and then dissolved. The last Core Four reunion was in the spring of 2009. The two-month tour started off strong, but ended on a bitter note, a mixed brew of brotherhood loyalties and resentments common to any family. In a 2014 Rolling Stone interview, Lesh uses the metaphor of a wheel to explain the band’s legacy: “Jerry was the hub. We were the spokes. And the music was the tread on the wheel.” In the past Lesh has said, “Jerry’s death removed the center. The bond wasn’t as strong without him.” But even when Garcia was alive, as Rolling Stone’s David Browne points out, “the personal dynamics within the Dead were complicated.”

 

***

 

I read Browne’s Rolling Stone article about the “Fare Thee Well” tour when it came out the first week in June. I had gotten the issue from my neighbor, a retired barber who hands me a stack of magazines each week, subscriptions rerouted to his house after he closed up shop. Though I’ve been to a few Grateful Dead concerts, I am not a Deadhead, nor am I a scholar of the band’s fifty-year history this final tour commemorates. My only connection to the Grateful Dead is through my older brother, David. I wondered whether he’d bought a ticket to one of the five shows—three at Soldier Field in Chicago and two at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, CA—or if he planned to watch a simulcast of the concert in a movie theater or on pay-per-view. My best guess was he would shun the event altogether, based on an unwavering belief that the Grateful Dead died with Jerry, though this was only speculation on my part. What I did know was, when David turns sixty this coming November, I wouldn’t call him or send a card. I hadn’t spoken to David in over five years. Neither had my parents. Like most families, the personal dynamics of ours are complicated.

 

***

 

The Grateful Dead’s unique sound has been attributed to each member’s ability to evolve individually and as a whole. Music critic Brent Wood believes this evolution was due to the band’s “emphasis on true polyphony, a texture heard only rarely in contemporary popular music.” The musicians must “give up a little of their version of the music,” Phil Lesh told David Fricke of Rolling Stone last year, “to achieve a collective sound.” For the band, this meant never playing the same song the same way. “That was the key to the Grateful Dead,” Lesh explained. “Don’t repeat. Make the song different every time you play it.” The Dead’s commitment to improvisation was often an unsuccessful process many listeners hadn’t the patience for. In response to this criticism, Garcia provided this analogy: “Our audience is like people who like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”

 

***

 

When I told an old friend from high school I’d stopped speaking to my brother David, she was surprised. “I forgot you had another brother,” she said. She’d never met him, nor had any of my friends. Once David was gone, he stayed gone. He moved a thousand miles north to Seattle after college and graduate school and came home to Southern California once a year, usually in the winter when he needed a sun break from the endless gray. He was living with a woman we had met a few times, though I was the first—and for a long time, the only—one in the family to dislike her. My parents chalked this up to my judgmental tendencies, a criticism I’d borne since my early teens. Still, I kept my distance. Only later did the rest of my family recognize what I had known for several years: this woman was scary. They caught glimpses of her that concerned them—her subtle racism and her mean streak fueled by alcohol. I gathered these details from the stories that followed their long phone calls and short visits. To be fair, his girlfriend became a convenient place to lay our disappointment in David, the black sheep in our family long before he’d even met her. Or perhaps she was like licorice, someone we never developed a taste for.

 

Sick

By Stephanie Austin

Essay

Sick1

At age 11, I became Peggy Ann McKay in my elementary school talent show. Though I couldn’t sing, dance, or play an instrument, I could speak from my diaphragm and memorize words. “I cannot go to school today….”

Shel Silverstein’s “Sick” was my ticket to the top of the hierarchy. My costume was an unflattering but humorously mismatched pair of pajamas. My prop was a teddy bear. To make sure I was playing sick authentically, I messed up my hair. From my spot backstage, I watched other kids perform. One of the popular girls So You Think You Can Dance?-ed to Mike and the Mechanics’ “In the Living Years.” She wore a white flowing tutu and did graceful things with her arms. I was solid with the poem, but that first swirl of negative self-worth crawled up my leg. At the last minute, I worried I’d panic and forget, so I taped some notes with cue words to the front of my teddy bear.

I have the measles and the mumps.

After my performance, some of my teachers were like, “good job” because that’s what teachers are supposed to say. They’re adults. Encouragement is their game. This kid David, one of the kids from the gifted class, came up to me and said, “I saw you looking at your bear. Did you have notes?”

After listening to my defensive explanation, he asked, “And don’t you think my face looks green?” Then he laughed. It’s a line from the poem.

David was super smart. Super talented. Super everything. He was sixth in our graduating class with accolades in wrestling, band, and clubs like FBLA. We all knew he would change the world, it was just a matter of time. He almost proved us right. In 2002, he went to get his doctorate in molecular biology, but killed himself before he could change any world other than his own.

skythecolorofchaosAfter the guests left, Soeur came clomping in the scraggly grass across the yard, making the bugs fly, yelling about a book I’d borrowed without permission. She who never yelled. She who was small and skinny with dark, soft eyes that avidly studied the world around her. A quiet child who concentrated intensely, her fingers trapped in some science book. Sometimes she read detective novels, sometimes the lacquered glamour ads in magazines. She read books thoroughly from beginning to end, as she did not believe in skimming or jumping pages. She studied hard in the evening, doing her homework, one subject after another, one, two, three hours straight.

In photos of Soeur and me, I was always much bigger: heavier, thicker boned, thoughtless in the way I claimed space. She was skinny but filled the air with her presence.

M.J. Fievre’s memoir A Sky the Color of Chaos (Beating Windward Press, 2015) chronicles Fievre’s childhood during the turbulent rise and fall of Haiti’s President-Priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide—a time of nightly shootings, home invasions, robberies, and the burning of former regime members in neighborhood streets. During the late 1980s and 90s, from when Fievre was eight-years-old to 18, Haiti’s government changed forms eight times; the Haitian people endured fraudulent elections, three military coups, a crippling embargo, and a United Nations occupation. A Sky the Color of Chaos will be featured at the Miami Book Fair International on Nov. 21.

In connection to the release of the book, Fievre had a conversation with writer Jan Becker. They addressed some of the themes explored in the book, including domestic violence, father-daughter relationship, and PTSD.

bookcoverNotes on My Sister, the Fox

Around Maple Shade, people still refer to me as “Meri Nester’s brother.” Meredith Ann Nester’s look perfectly suited the early-1980s: long, blonde hair (enhanced by Sun-In), Bongo jeans from Merry-Go-Round, cut sweat shirts, and jelly pumps. I wore husky Wranglers, tube socks, and glasses that remained tinted indoors. Meri made varsity cheerleading by eighth grade. I played trombone and sent away for free pamphlets from the Consumer Information Catalog. Meri was the barefoot girl in Bruce Springteen’s “Jungleland” who sat on the hood of a Dodge and drank warm beer in the soft summer rain. I’m the misfit who listened to Rush’s “Subdivisions,” and wondered how a Canadian band knew that the suburbs had no charms to soothe the restless dreams of my youth.

If Meri Nester reacted to Maple Shade like I did, I might not have gone crazy. But she didn’t react to Maple Shade like I did. And so I did go crazy.

photocredit Thomas V. Hartmann

Let’s look over your writerly bio. It says here you’ve written two books on your love of the rock band Queen (God Save My Queen I and II), a book of poems (The History of My World Tonight), something called “humorous nonfiction” (How to Be Inappropriate), and edited a book of sestinas (The Incredible Sestinas Anthology). What’s this book called?

It’s called Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects.

 

That’s a pretty long-ass title.

You can call it Shader for short.

flgcy_main01

In the box where I keep this story, the woman in the doorway of the hotel room was tall and blonde. She had swept-back bangs in the process of growing out. At 2 a.m., the Flagstaff air was crispy outside. Jacket-weather already. Winter was on deck with its frost threat. Besides the front desk staff I passed on the way to the room and this blonde woman who was in my way, I hadn’t seen another person since I’d arrived. Most people were done for the night. I stood in front of room 234 of a Courtyard by Marriot waiting to be validated.

I was 20-years-old, and believed in terrible things. I thought Savage Garden made some pretty good music. Folgers made some pretty good coffee. And Drew loved me. Love, like lust-love, like he needed me in the middle of the night because the middle of the night is when you truly realize what you want, like it was crazy but understandable how he’d always burned or bit his tongue and that’s why he couldn’t ever kiss me.

“Drew is sick,” this woman said.

Not sick-sick. Drunk-sick. Curled in a ball while his body expressed poison. The metamorphosis. Toxic to non-toxic.

“He called me,” I said in the key of I don’t know who I am, my voice rising in pitch.

Molybdenum

By Patrick Moloney

Essay

Moly1

A neighbor killed himself. He got in his car and drove to the woods. He walked out into the brush, put a gun to his head and ended some pain. The weight of it fell to the ground with him.

He seemed the cliché. A happy guy, beautiful family, successful career. I would see him walking his Golden Retriever and smoking a cigar, always smiling, always positive about the weather, or ready to talk baseball. He was on the school board, was always busy doing good things for the community like raising money for a new pool at the high school or coaching baseball or being a good father to three kids. He was making a difference.

Everyone who knew him extolled his virtues, which were many. But now we wonder. What had he been carrying that was so heavy he couldn’t hold it in any longer?

What was his secret pain? What was under his skin?

Was there some evolutionary need to hide that pain? To give up his life rather than reveal it? Was dying the better option than living with his agony? What is the shame so great it kills? Or was there just not enough of something in him when he needed that something the most, was there some chemical, some element of life he was lacking?

We are all many strata: DNA, RNA, bones and tissue of ancestors, animal fears and flights, pasts we had no role in, diseases and mental states—all stacking our geology. The slightest tremor brings it all to the surface. What we’ve stood on for years, our crust, in a moment can be broken open, gone. And sometimes we can’t seem to put it back together. Maybe we shouldn’t even try.

 

cox 1

Tyler and I are sixteen and we’re hunting for Dead people. We say to each other during class, loud enough for other people to hear, “Hey! Let’s go hunting for dead people today!”

It’s a game. But it’s also real because maybe, if we see Death, we won’t be so scared of it.

Most days after school we drive to the university, Cal State Channel Islands, which is not Cal State Channel Islands quite yet. Half of it is still a boarded-up mental hospital that was shut down in 1997. The other half of it is in some stage of renovation as the building transforms from psych ward to college campus.

It’s 2005 and we don’t just drive down the curvy canyon road. We fly. I sit on the windowsill of Tyler’s hand-me-down Mustang as he takes hairpin turns way too fast, but he’s doing that for me. It’s so I can stretch one arm out, stare up at the sky and really feel like I’m flying

He never puts a steadying hand on me because he trusts me to not fall and I trust him to not let me. Like life and death, we exist within the same idea, yet never touch.

It’s stupid and irresponsible and fabulous and fast and makes you scream in every good way. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do when you’re sixteen?

We arrive at the abandoned hospital that’s under renovations. Some of the buildings look like skeletons; just the framework juts out of the ground. Others are already finished, complete with thick walls and paintings of blue dolphins.

There’s a six-foot chain link fence around the hospital. We race up it, then jump down the other side. Tyler and I run across the grounds, looking for a hallway to explore. We pick the longest one. The darkest one. The one that goes down.

David-L-Ulin-Sidewalking

David Ulin’s new book, Sidewalking, is a meandering narrative that follows the author and critic through the streets of L.A. as he contemplates the city’s past, his role in understanding it, and what it means to create space. Ulin’s work is a natural descendent of Rebecca Solnit’s Walking; as such, Ulin follows a winding path through L.A.’s collage of ideas and structures while considering the city’s effect on his his life. Sidewalking asks us to place ourselves on the (often neglected) sidewalks of L.A: to access the city as pedestrians, in every sense of the word.

Ulin was my mentor at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Campus, and recently we conversed over email about his new book and his role as a “reluctant Angeleno.”

MonroeComp1.inddA date gone this awry might turn out fine if, for example, we could have gone back to my apartment and slipped off my shiny dress and made love like James Stillman and I used to do in Wisconsin, like Max and I used to do in Kansas, where you get into tried and true positions that take you to brief ecstasy. Then we’d relax, agree that the joke-telling had turned awkward. If the sense of intimacy lasted, in time I’d even be able to tell my date he needed to dry clean his sports coats. But the sex was polite, muted. Because he was polite, muted? Because his feelings were? I’ll never know. He left afterward because he had to teach folklore at a community college fifty miles away in the morning—by which time I was packing up my laundry to take to a laundromat a block away.