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Elizabeth

By Liska Jacobs

Essay

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There are times when she is gentle, but there are also times when she is not gentle, when she is fierce and unrelenting toward him or them all, and she knows it is the strange spirit of her mother in her then.

– “Her Mother’s Mother” by Lydia Davis

 

Every oldest daughter of an oldest daughter is named Elizabeth. We are all Elizabeths, except one.

I pick her up, the one not named Elizabeth—my oldest—at her apartment in Mar Vista. She’s packed only one suitcase for the trip and when she sees me, asks if she should drive. I am crying again so I say OK.

We stop at the house in Van Nuys to pick up my mother. It’s near the wash and has been remodeled often, the courtyard bricked in, a fountain in the side wall, jasmine and rose bushes and stone steps leading to the back. Every room smells like cigarette smoke and when she comes out, my mother looks smaller, thinner, cheekbones severe, her green eyes dark. I let her take the front seat. It is, after all, her mother who has died.

I watch her closely. She plays with the radio station, one hand over her mouth. My daughter, thank God, has enough sense to put on a cd, to talk about trivial things, like the length of the flight, where we are staying in Binghamton.

On the plane, getting us seated is a hassle. My mother wants to sit by the window and she’s been assigned an aisle. For a moment I’m reminded of our childhood. Her bouts of depression, her anger, how she used to, as punishment for some slight—perhaps the dishes were not completely dry—ignore us for long periods of time. Mom, I would cry. Mom, Mom, Momplease talk to me. But she would continue puffing on her cigarette, switching through television channels or reading some thick hardcover book. I was wind outside a window.

Brelinki Author Photo_Credit Tim Brelinski and Max BoydWhat’s with all the hoopla concerning your upbringing?

Well, it’s a little difficult for me to understand the interest in my background since evangelical Christianity is as familiar to me as my own name, but evidently that’s not the case for everyone. I grew up in rural Idaho during the 1970s, which made my childhood and adolescence conservative to the extreme, and since my parents were fundamentalists, my sisters and I were even stranger than most Idahoans (sorry Idaho!). We weren’t allowed to bowl or play cards or pool, or go to circuses or dances, we couldn’t swim with members of the opposite sex (no “mixed bathing” in church lingo) or watch movies or frequent restaurants that served alcohol. We couldn’t wear makeup or earrings or nail polish or skirts that didn’t reach our knees. In other words, the things we weren’t allowed to do was a vastly longer list than the things we were.

9780525427421On the last day of August in 1970, and a month shy of her fourteenth birthday, Jory’s father drove his two daughters out to an abandoned house and left them there.

The trip had not taken long. Her father piloted the car with resolute determination toward the very edge of town. He drove past the railroad tracks and the fish hatchery and the rodeo grounds, past the sugar beet factory and the slaughterhouse and the meatpacking plant; all the while Jory stared out the window in a silent fury. Next to her in the Buick’s backseat, Grace was practically unconscious. She lay slumped over with her head resting accidentally on Jory’s shoulder, her drool dampening the upper portion of Jory’s T-shirt. Jory gave her sister a shove and then turned toward the window. Black Cat Lane and Chicken Dinner Road and Floating Feather rolled past—long, twisty lanes sided with fields of sugar beets and alfalfa and corn. Jory watched a lone mallard drop and skid like a bomber onto an irrigation ditch while three goats perched king of the hill–style on a salvaged roof a farmer had put out for them. Her father continued on past several vast silagey-smelling feedlots, and then the fields grew even larger and the scenery more sparse and the houses less frequent, and finally he turned down a narrow unpaved lane that Jory had never seen before. Then he stopped the car and opened the door. Jory refused to look up at the strange house where she and her sister were now to live. She sat in the backseat with her hands between her knees until her father pulled her forcibly out of the car and set her on her feet in the dirt.

ChristineSneedauthorphoto1Why did you think you had the right to write about Paris?

I don’t think that fiction writers need to ask permission. I used to think that we did, but eventually, probably sometime in my mid-20s, I realized permission wasn’t going to arrive at my doorstep from anyone, and so the best tack to take was to go ahead and write whatever I wanted to. If I was going to write about people I knew, however, perhaps then I’d need to ask permission, but I wasn’t planning to. Nonfiction writers do need to worry more about permission than novelists do.

Paris He Said_coverAs Jayne made final preparations to leave New York for Paris during the first few days of June, a heat wave turned the sky ashen with trapped pollution and unshed rain. The people she passed on the street seemed more short-tempered than usual, and no one met her gaze other than schoolchildren who glanced up at her with innocent apathy. For a long time she had assumed that poverty or loneliness, or both, would force her to flee the city, but instead she had met an older man who invited her to trade Manhattan for his home in Paris. She said yes with little hesitation.

the only thing that
upset Mr. Jain more than
the death of his dear wife
a day before, was, when he
returned home from the
funeral, to find her shadow
lingering near a cupboard
in the living room
startled, out of his mind
at first, two days past, he
grew to adjust to watching
the wraith move around the
place, get lost in dark rooms,
and against the pitch black
wall of the study, disappear

Shemkovitz author_picThis being your debut novel, what have you found to be the most eye-opening part, if any, of publishing a book?

I guess I’m amazed by how much goes into making a book and all the many moving parts involved. I could never be a publisher. I had so little to do with what went on beyond writing this book, and that was enough work for me. But maybe the most eye-opening part was revising a book that I knew was going to be published. The whole process felt much more important then.

 

There was finally something at stake. Was that it?

Kind of. But it’s also that editors aren’t just making suggestions as readers but are helping to shape something they too are invested in. And I think that reframed the way I considered more drastic changes with my novel. For instance, my editors, Brian Mihok and David McNamara, both agreed that I should cut the last chapter, which is sort of an ambiguous two-page moment that could fall anywhere in the story. David and Brian were kind in suggesting that I could completely rework the chapter to make it fit somehow, and that the decision was entirely mine. But after much contemplation (and weeping), I ended up cutting the chapter because I agreed with their reasoning. And now I think it’s a much stronger ending. But, man, was that a tough decision.

LB_lThe parts truck rattles and buzzes around us, screaming from years of abuse it has taken from drivers like Spanky. My father would shit himself if he really knew what kind of idiots worked in his parts department. We’re barreling down 219 with a stack of bed liners in back bouncing frantically under strained bungee cords. Spanky fiddles with the radio until he settles on a station, and the clatter of a loosened door panel is replaced by the shrill voice of a hip-hop deejay. After a moment, he has the wheel with his knee so he can work a glass bowl and lighter with his hands. My foot gravitates to an imaginary brake pedal the more we gain on the car in front of us.

“Shit’s fucked up, dude, you know?” This is less like a question when it seeps with a plume of smoke from Spanky’s chapped lips. I don’t respond because that’s what he says, no matter the context. He could be standing at the scene of a horrific accident, blood-drenched bodies and twisted metal, or he could just be walking out of church after a long, soul-quenching service, and in either case, he would probably give that look and say the same thing—Shit’s fucked up, dude, you know? Now he’s telling me another story about a young Canadian girl and what I’ve been missing all my life. I’m trying not to listen, actually, as he competes with the thumping and barking of the radio.

Paul Boyer

By Tanya Rey

Essay

Tanya R 4

 

Recently I had a job writing the life stories of people with Traumatic Brain Injury. Accident victims, named so because they’ve had tragic events happen to them. Ceilings collapsing on their heads, steel fences burying them in construction rubble. Their only role in all of it was being there—showing up for work or living in a home with a soggy roof. The accidents were often fluke-like. Fateful. One woman was walking down the street when a giant red R came unmoored from its awning and met with the crown of her head. Her last name? Rodriguez. Coincidence?

The job made me question just how much control we have. I began to think it a silly notion, that control is something one can possess. Like drinking water from the earth and calling it yours.

I wrote these narratives for a law firm. I interviewed the clients and recorded their stories. They were used to strengthen the accident victims’ cases for trials. A “good case” was one in which the victim was at no fault and yet was undeservedly suffering a great deal. It’s a backwards reasoning that could sometimes get you into trouble. My boss liked to tell the story of a man who’d once been a potential client. The man had had an accident but his injuries didn’t seem severe enough to warrant a lawsuit, and the firm turned down his case. Years later, running into my boss on the street, he confessed that he’d only gotten worse—he was now experiencing debilitating head and back pain. Without thinking, my boss clapped his hands together and said, “That’s great!”

One of my best cases involved a man with light green eyes and hands covered in calluses from a lifetime of fixing cars. He’d had an accident while driving for work. It was a messy collision that killed the other driver on impact while my client stumbled away with multiple serious injuries but alive; and this, he said, was the exact problem he faced every morning when he woke up.

I knew from early on I didn’t want to hear his story. The deposition was practically damp with trauma. It awakened something in me.

leah-paris-portraitThey call me llorarita—“the little crier” in Spanish. The word crier looks like the infinitive form of the verb for crying, but it is not.

Books made me cry. Reading aloud, in particular. It was embarrassing until it became valuable—a trick, a trade. The people are thirsty! they said. They wanted my tears. It hadn’t rained for days or weeks in Los Angeles, maybe years. I’d lost count. The asphalt on the streets was sun bleached and salt licks formed in wavy half-circles near the drains on each corner. Like the tops of dog’s noses in the summer. Even the ink in the pens had gone dry.

There was the loneliness I kept in the cupboard
next to the sugar & the pile of dead ants
I told you in confidence I was done with sex
You didn’t laugh but
I could tell you were laughing
Have you looked in my sock drawer lately?
I lie/I don’t have
a drawer for my socks
My room’s a mess
There’re newspapers guarding
the hardwood from black paint
In another life this is all very interesting
to you/to me
In another life my mother is a falcon
The apartment smells like eggs
Sometimes I dream I wake up
covered in blood & I’m not sure
if it’s mine

joshuamohrIs it true that you went to see “Jurassic World” by yourself this morning?

Shit.

 

Yeah.

Let’s not talk about that.

 

All This Life_FINALSara’s adding more hot water to her bath. She does this with her big toe, moving the dial so the scalding reinforcements pour into the tub. First, her lower legs feel the temperature crank and the sensation slowly moves up her small body, the water working toward her head.

Honey hones
its honesty

right off the comb,
no distillation

needed.
What is sweet

in Athens is
sweet in Oakland,

in Ames. At the party
last night I drank

until I drowned. This morning
my body language spoke

only in spasms and whispers,
the twelve months

of my face
clouded with rain.

Toll 1

 

In Tangier, in the winter, the Café Hafa becomes an observatory for dreams and their aftermath…. Long pipes of kif pass from table to table while glasses of mint tea grow cold … a matter of indifference to customers long since lost to the limbo of hashish and tinselled reverie…. They look at the sea, at the clouds that blend into the mountains, and they wait for the twinkling lights of Spain to appear.

—Tahar Ben Jelloun, Leaving Tangier, translated from French by Linda Coverdale

 

Just before departing for Morocco with my family, I finish reading Leaving Tangier.  The protagonist, Azel, looks toward Spain, recalling his beloved cousin who drowned attempting to cross the Strait of Gibraltar, imagining his own “naked body … swollen by seawater, his face distorted by salt and longing…” This melancholy novel unfolds in a series of mutating reflections—in addition to the twinkling lights of Spain bouncing off the water–the view north reflects the view south reflects the view north again.

To reach Morocco, my family travels by ferry from Algeciras, Spain to the port of Tangier.  Which is not Tangier, but an armed camp with a formidable police presence, enclosed in barbed wire.  As soon as we disembark, we are bused to a blocky concrete building to be processed.  Tangier may have captured the imaginations of western literati, but this particular port of embarkation lacks signs of human habitation; it’s a bulwark to prevent trafficking emigrants and drugs.

Azel finally makes it to Spain in Leaving Tangier, but his successful crossing leads to sexual exploitation and ruin.  Laila Lalami plies related waters in Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits.  In that novel, she plumbs the frustration caused by lack of opportunity and failed futures, a sense of defeat that spurs her characters to risk everything for a place on a rubber boat speeding across the Strait of Gibraltar.  A character named Murad judges passage in a Zodiac preferable to sneaking in on vegetable trucks.  “Last year the Guardia Civil intercepted a tomato truck in Algeciras and found the bodies of three illegals, dead from asphyxiation, lying on the crates.  At least on a boat there is no chance of that happening.”  Murad is a bit too optimistic.  Despite paying exorbitant sums, these passengers are not smuggled onto dry land; they’re forced to jump from the boat 250 meters offshore.  It’s a miracle that none of them drowns.  All but one ends up in a Spanish detention cell awaiting deportation, or worse—rape and expulsion to a life of prostitution in Madrid, tempered only by Valium.  Like Ben Jelloun, Lalami sets her novel between opposing mirrors.  Initially the Zodiac passengers look north.  After they’re forced to jump into the sea, those who survive Spain’s underground economy look south to Morocco–anguished for the life they abandoned, while those who are deported from Spain assess the implications of that brief northern sojourn from their final, southern vantage point.