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Dessert

By Matthew Gavin Frank

Travel

In Alba, Italy, rain and a market. In my hands, the white greased paper that once held an entire rotisserie rabbit. Its bones clack together as hooves, a horse in the distance. I clutch this paper coffin to my chest, as if for warmth, and scan the piazza for a garbage can. My hunt for refuse carries me into the covered pulse of the marketplace, and I have to blink to focus. Now unburdened by my desire to eat a whole animal, I am able to assimilate this lovely and special chaos. There are hundreds of vendors—fruit stands, fish stands, meats and cheeses; rounds, bricks, entire civilizations of cheese, octopus, persimmon. I toss my trash in a can beneath a string of blood sausage.

“Hey! Hey!” I hear someone shout.

The voice opens like the lid of an ancient hope chest, rides its dusty remnants and long dead dreams on the rain. If I were to look inside this voice I’d expect to find centuries-old taxidermy, owls with shellacked eyes and sawdust in the feathers. I hear it again, this time in triplicate.

“Hey! Hey! Hey!”

I have no reason to think it’s directed at me, but I turn to face a tiny knuckle of a man, dressed all in white, head so perfectly circular it could have been designed with a compass.

“Hey! Viene qua!” the frump calls from behind his fruit stand.

I turn and point behind me, my forehead certainly a mess of wrinkles. People cascade in circles, not one of them standing still. I turn back and touch my chest.

“Io?” I ask.

“Si, si,” he creaks, “Tu.”

I move forward and, as if stepping on a hidden button in the cobblestone, I activate this man to produce a baseball-sized fig from his fruit pile, bust it in half with his thumbs, and shove both bowled sides into his mouth at once. As if a magician waiting for applause, he, less than a second later, waves the cleaned purple fig skins at me as theatre curtains.

“Wow,” is all I can muster.

He holds a fat palm open to me. I freeze into position. He turns and retrieves another intact fig, this one even larger. Again, with his cigar-stub fingers, he breaks the fruit in two, its swampy sweet cilia waving yellow at my nose like a sea anemone. Soon, his hands are in mine, wet with warm rain, rolling the fig halves into my drenched palms.

“Prego,” he offers, but it could easily have been, “Abracadabra.”

I want to match his magic, so I shove both halves into my mouth. The music of the fruit shrieks soprano with cherry and yeast, the texture of limp comb teeth. This is a fig to resurrect the dreams of a great-great-grandmother. This is a fig to make her a little girl again, stretch her hair from stiff gray to blonde braided pigtails. I think of the tango and pull the stripped skins from my mouth. The frump actually applauds, laughing.

“Bravo! Bravo!” he bellows.

I laugh knowingly with him, having shared in his secret bag of wizard’s tricks.

I reach into my pocket, expecting a string of scarves, but produce only my wallet. When I flash a few coins, he shakes his head, a bowling ball on shoulders, and turns to help another customer, a middle-aged woman with a faux-snakeskin umbrella.

I feel large, and somehow filled-out, rounded, fat-handed, aged and neckless. This is a market without illusion. The magic here is real. Over the reptilian umbrella, I watch the man hoist a watermelon into the air.

 

This piece originally appeared in Brevity and was reprinted in Creative Nonfiction (The “Best of Brevity 2005” issue).

TNB TV

The book trailer for Totally Killer, Greg Olear’s dazzling debut novel about a doomed young twenty-three-year-old beauty who arrives in New York City in search of work and hungry for love. Part thriller. Part satire. Part period piece. Total page-turner. Olear seamlessly weaves historical events, nineties nostalgia, and the East Village of yesteryear into a noirish plot as suspenseful as it is far-reaching. The author interviews himself here. And you can read an excerpt right here. Trailer directed by Kimberly M. Wetherell.


LitPark is here!

TNB is thrilled to feature Susan Henderson’s LitPark in its pages, one of the most beloved (and valuable) lit-blogs on the web. In addition to starting vital conversations and interviewing a slew of terrific writers, Henderson has chronicled the ups and downs of writing and submitting her novel, The Ruby Cup, which will be published by Harper Collins in September 2010. Follow the peaks and valleys of that process—the writer’s block, the false hope, the face-on-the-floor depression, and the hard work of creating a novel–right here at TNB. This week’s column features some words for impatient writers who find themselves stuck in a field that seems to be all about…waiting.


Years ago, when I left my job as a rape crisis counselor, I was presented with a plaque. In beautiful calligraphy, my co-workers had listed the qualities they valued most about me: Dedicated Somethingerother. Compassionate Listener. Some Other Things. Patient.

I showed the plaque to Mr. Henderson, and he asked, “Do you think they meant this as a joke?”

Because not only am I known for listening only when I feel like it, but I will do things like put a frozen waffle in the toaster, and as soon as the edge is even slightly cooked, I’ll eat around the outside because I can’t wait two minutes for something I want.

You’d think I’d have picked a career that involved immediate rewards.

But logic is never one of the reasons a person becomes a writer. You know how it is. Your friends see you madly scribbling your ideas down on paper. They see you carrying around typed pages, crossing out words, circling things and drawing arrows here and there. They comment on how you disappear for weeks, sometimes months, to work on your manuscript. And, innocently, they ask, “What have you published?” And, “Can I read your book?”

They have no idea why these questions are so deeply frustrating. Or how a person can write for months, for years, and have nothing to show for it. Nothing that counts on their terms: A trip to the bookstore to find a beautiful hardcover book on one of those front tables.

It baffles them how you can write so slowly. How the things you’ve published are so hard to find. How you are never, or hardly ever, paid for your work. How, after not being paid for twenty years, you continue to call yourself a writer. And yet, that’s what you are. And you know the big break will come soon. It must. Because you’re good. Because you have things to say. Because you know your writing is better than the books on the bestseller list, or it will be after this next revision.

So what do you do while you hope someone falls in love with your work? What do you do while you hope for that career break?

If you’re an impatient type, you do this: You move forward. You put your finished manuscript in play, and then you get to work on the next one. And you try to make this new thing the best you’ve ever written. You move forward because a writer doesn’t wait; a writer writes.

It was late July.

The summer mangoes had dropped from the trees and were lying rotting on the ground, ripped open by feasting bugs and birds.  Their intoxicating sweet smell mixed with the heaviness of the night blooming jasmine.  This languid perfume created a thick, rarefied atmosphere that at times made breathing difficult.  In Miami, nature is often a mix of colorful abundance and dark decay.

This evening, I was walking home from a friend’s birthday party.  We had listened to the new Rolling Stones’s album, Aftermath, then turned off the lights and pretended to make out with the nearest girl.  Some party.  But then again, this was 1966 and I was only fourteen.

It was long after eleven.  I should have been home hours ago but was having too much fun to leave the party.  As I approached my father’s house, I realized that I had forgotten my keys.  The porch lights were on, my father’s car was parked out front but the house was completely dark.  He must have gone to bed early.

Not wanting to startle him, I knocked somewhat timidly.  A tornado of mosquitoes brought on by the summer rains swarmed around my head.

I knocked again, this time louder.   “Pop, it’s me, open up.”   No response.  Not hearing any movement from inside, I became concerned that something was wrong. I decided to walk back to my friend’s house to use his phone to call my father. As I turned to leave, I heard the front door’s deadbolt click open.  Relieved, I spin around ready to greet my father and apologize for coming home so late.

As I stood there, the front door remained closed.  I was wondering if the sound I had heard was just a very loud cricket or a buffo toad looking for a mate.  Then, ever so slowly, like in some black and white horror movie, the door began to creak open.  From the shadows emerged a tall man with grayish skin.  I had never seen this guy before; he had the stature and demeanor of Lurch.  Without any introduction, he looked at me with a cool stare and said in a flat robot-like voice, “We are currently in communication with the master souls of the eleventh plane.  Your father is deep in trance and cannot be disturbed.”

Lurch began to back away and close the door.  He then paused and asked, “Why did you even bother to knock?  After all, you are your father’s son.  Haven’t you learned to walk through walls yet?”

It’s my responsibility to provide the American people
with a candid assessment on the way forward …
Absolutely, we’re winning…

-George W. Bush

The welfare of the people in particular has always
been the alibi of tyrants.

-Albert Camus

The Muslim woman in the schoolyard tells me
to cover my baby’s head. It’s too windy, or
It’s snowing, or, There’s a man hiding
in the bushes with a gun
.

On the bus, the Russian ladies give up
their seats for my blue-eyed booby-babe
who spits curdled milk onto their
snapping alligator shoes.

She smiles for the Puerto Rican mamis
eager to point out the birthmark on her face,
the bald patch on her head, the scratch
across her nose. They say God bless her
so sincerely, I almost want to swallow
them like swords.

The witch in Prospect Heights warns me
to teach my baby how to sleep with her
mouth closed
, to stifle the ghouls who
want to climb down her throat
and stitch their teeth into her blood.

As she sleeps beneath a crucifix, clutching
a rabbit’s foot, the eyes of a deer tucked
behind each ear, rock salt around the cradle,
a horseshoe hung on the doorknob,
I sit in silence as the dead
march through my living room,
stumbling over the furniture,

climbing into the cupboards,
tucking into closets and under the beds,
wanting desperately to escape, to outwit
their unavoidable ends,
eight thousand arms searching
for one good mother in the dark.

*My son’s birthday.  Also, when the New York Times reported the death count of U.S. soldiers in Iraq reached four thousand.


I never loved Taylor Schmidt.  Despite what you may have heard.

Love is more pure than the crude alloy of lust, fascination and pity that formed my feelings for her.  Baser metals, however shiny, do not gold make.

That said, I can understand, if never forgive, the confusion.  I did have a hard-on for her something awful.  Still do, and she’s eighteen years dead.

I stand at the top of a waterfall, all trussed and tightened up in a rope harness, the most crude of corsets, ensuring that I do not plummet to an untidy death on the jagged rocks and in the choppy water far, far below, 120 feet below, to be precise. You are one tough bitch, I tell myself. You are so freaking badass. Hardcore as Murphy’s Law. I stare up at the people above me, some of whom look over the side dubiously, clearly terrified out of their minds. But I am fearless. Yes. I am fearless and I’m gonna rappel down this goddamned waterfall like I have been doing it since I could walk.

Yeah.

OhmygodohmygodwhatthefuckamIdoinghere, I ask myself, an internal agonizing scream, my mantra that day, after jumping off various cliffs, slipping on many a rock and hiking down impossible paths filled with fauna and horror on an empty stomach and perhaps two hours of sleep after being wakened this morning at 5 by wailing monkeys in the rain forest. There is not a bathroom in sight, of course there isn’t, so I don’t dare take a sip of water. I realize hours ago that I am better suited to jaywalking across 6th Avenue than I am to peeing in the woods. And here I am, about to go through with this charade all in the name of fun. And adventure. And proving…something.

How did I get into this mess? Well, this is a year and a half ago and I am in Costa Rica on vacation with my friend, Vanessa.

Even before getting there, I had these grandiose ideas of doing a zip line, so upon arrival, we immediately signed up for that, and lo and behold, there was a package where you could do the zip line and go canyoning on two separate days. You need to know, the photos in the tourist office did not do justice to what these two activities entailed. I saw children, for God’s sake, with peaceful looks on their faces, joyous even, as they were hooked up to a pulley, hard hats cockily placed on heads. “Beginners welcome!” the sign proclaimed. We were beginners! We were welcome! How could we pass that up?

The zip line, oh the zip line. Now, that I immediately chickened out of, due to the apparent lack of control I’d have over my own fate. All the zip line involved was being hooked up at the waist on this endless steel cable attaching two cliffs, with oh, I don’t know, hundreds of feet between them. So, no skill involved, hence the beginner being welcomed. Apparently, I’d be zip zip zipping along, a haphazard little psychotic zipper with a death wish, full speed ahead to the platform which seemed to be a mile away. As I hesitated on the platform looking death in the maw, I was told, “just don’t look down if you’re afraid of heights!” Right. No, thank you, y’all go on ahead. I’ll pass.

I waited an hour on that bloody platform for the group of zippers (most of them optimistic med students) to return. I was the only one who chickened out, but I think I was also the only one who knew there were twenty-odd more platforms to zip between (I asked). This is fun? Hell, there was no apparent skill, strength or sportsmanship involved. I figured I couldn’t let my fate be decided by a clip at my waist and a steel rope. I could only think of how people about to attend their own hanging must feel. I just wish I would have done my research before gleefully plunking down 60 bucks. Or Googled zip line deaths.

Feeling like a travel brochure failure, I decided I would be brave and try the canyoning. I wasn’t any closer to a computer so that I could Google canyoning deaths, but then, I don’t think I would have thought to do that anyway. The waterfall part sounded tropical and practically serene, and there was mention of swimming in pools under the waterfalls. It sounded like a Club Med commercial. The only thing you needed was the ability to swim (I can!) and have an open mind (suuuure). Plus, I reasoned, I’d be in full control of what I was doing and my feet would always be planted on something, even if that something was the side of a mountain.

Here is a photo of Vanessa and I unawares. See how excited we look to be doing this? We were open-minded at the start of this adventure.



In a strange twist of fate, Vanessa and I turned out to be on a tour with five other folks from New York City. Queens, in fact. Well, awright, we were gonna kick some canyoning ass, I was sure. Not really. What we were going to do was bounce our neuroses back and forth between us, whilst alternately playing a game of one-upmanship in our heads. None of us were the outdoors type.

I, personally, was glad there were no Europeans, or heaven forbid, Australians, on the trip because it seems like every single one I’ve ever met has been accomplishing major feats of prowess in the great outdoors since toddlerhood. Nothing to make you feel even more inept in the jungle than a plucky Australian wearing hiking sandals.

I don’t do nature very well. There was this time that I was walking through Central Park, from the west side to the east side, only it was on a winding path. Within 15 minutes, I was panicking, lost and wondering when they had transplanted an actual forest into Central Park. I lost sense of space and time and any sort of cell phone signal. I started to look for berries to hunt, just in case. I kept walking, babbling in tongues, when suddenly I saw them, the precious buildings, in my sight line. “Oh, thank God, the city!” I recall thinking. THEN I realized that I had, in fact, wandered right back to where I had started, virtually one block away, but still on the west side of the park. This is kind of funny, right? Kind of.

“Joi’s afraid of heights,” Vanessa had said to our guide earlier, before we even got out of the jeep. He positively hooted with laughter in response. “I mean, she couldn’t do the zip line,” she continued worriedly, meanwhile I felt like pinching her. The guide was a tanned Lothario. The last thing I wanted to appear as was a wimp with a debilitating fear of heights. He winked at her and told her not to worry.

So, getting back to the adventure through the stream full of rocks more slippery and deceptive than black ice. My body was so banged and bruised by that point, and my head was half filled with water because we had to jump off of all of these ledges. Hours of this. Swimming in the choppy stream was fun, but the trekking was endless, not to mention treacherous (the next day I’d resemble Hedda Nussbaum). Also, it was especially fun to do this when dodging fucking bees, trying not to step on poisonous frogs, and god knows what other pernicious insects that surrounded us. For all I knew, there were schools of piranhas in that body of water where we were hiking and swimming.

The first 12-foot waterfall, you can see I handled pretty easily, but that was just the practice before hitting the massive waterfall.



See? Isn’t that inspiring?

And then, a mere few feet away, we heard it. The Niagara Falls of the rain forest.

As it turned out, we didn’t have to rappel down the waterfall. Apparently there was a path down the side of the mountain. Vanessa wisely chose that option, but stayed to provide her moral support. I was determined, though, to kick ass and so I moved bravely ahead.

And this brings us back to the beginning. Me, the intrepid rappeller, at the cusp of breaking boundaries and blowing minds.

Not believing that I am actually going through with this insanity, I take a deep breath and begin to rappel down, graceful and flowing, like the water, rappelling like Rapunzel’s hair, envisioning myself to look like an extreme sports rock star ala this. Meanwhile, I can’t stop thinking of this. I push aside all thoughts of a cave dwelling, brain sucking troll waiting for me at the bottom of the canyon.

I am determined to do this. Of course I can do this! I am a New Yorker, born and raised to handle just about anything (ah, what a myth about to be destroyed for now and for ever more). I’ve got street smarts! Wait. What good are street smarts going to do me in the rain forest, pray tell, when they couldn’t get me through Central Park? Pushing aside my panic attack, I descend. I descend a bit more. Baby steps. Wait, I’m better than this! Giant step. I’m making progress! I’m almost past the first shelf, but then I look down. Bad idea. I am 12 stories about the earth. Why, if this were the Empire State Building, I’d be…on the twelfth floor! This is no time for epiphanies, Joi. There I go, already referring to myself in the third person as if I were dead.

I want to jump from here, maybe. They say fear of heights comes from an impulse to jump. I have in fact experienced this when riding, ok, you better not laugh, Splash Mountain at Disney World, the one and only time I rode it. I hadn’t known that when I got to the top of what seemed to be a complete vertical drop 8 stories down, I would stand up in the log next to my mother right as we went down the flume. It was an insuppressible urge. I would have rather jumped than be helpless, gone for the ride to an undignified death below. A Disney Disaster. After the ride was over, my mother had angrily informed me that I wasn’t supposed to stand up, that it was dangerous, what was I thinking? What was I thinking?

What am I ever thinking? I sure wasn’t thinking when I plopped down 100 bucks to engage in these shenanigans.

Now I realize I am a full 4 stories higher than Splash Mountain at Disney World and really start to panic.

Have I mentioned that I am barefoot? “It’s the only way,” the guide had said, “you must go barefoot if you don’t have the right footwear.” He always rappels barefoot, in fact. This way, you feel the elements under your feet. It’s true. I am rappelling down this thing barefoot thanks to thinking steel toe Doc Martins are suitable hiking shoes. They are not, I assure you. Especially when you have to jump off increasingly higher cliffs into the streams below. They, in fact, pull you down right into the mud. It’s all part of the canyoning experience, my darlings. And now, now I’m stuck. I have nowhere to go but down. But.

There are no more shelves in the rocks! It’s all straight down from here! I can’t feel my feet! Help!

“Just try and feel the next indentation in the rock,” our handsome, virile guide tells me in broken English. He is smoking a cigarette and swigging from a beer. This is no big deal to him, of course. In that instant, I despise him.

“I can’t!” I insist. “I can’t feel anything.”

I am reduced to a complete mess. It feels like hours, but I remain in place, losing all feeling my feet, grabbing on to the rope for dear life, my wrists aching and burning. I need to be rescued. The guide sighs and effortlessly lowers himself down next to me. I have to be hooked onto his harness like a baby bird with a broken wing and ride on his coattails the rest of the way down the waterfall. It is also unavoidable: I have to-gasp-embrace him! Let it be know that I have serious touch issues when it comes to strangers.

I keep apologizing to him, not that he speaks much English at all, but he sure understands the language of hysteria and I feel like a teenage soldier holding on to his guts as they explode out of his body, begging for Momma. More than slightly humiliated, I make it to the bottom and like a coyote, chew my arm free from Lothario’s harness. He quickly disappears up the aforementioned mountain path back up to the top so he can help the others down. Didn’t he want to take a moment to appreciate what we had shared together?

One guy who comes down the waterfall after me, lets go of his rope and ends up knocking his face into rocks before the guide comes and rescues him. I am not the only one rescued! A small triumph. He is really banged up and then gets stung by a bee later. I’m not the only failure on this expedition!

I am told by the others we have to all “hike” back up the mountain, I think, to get back in the jeep home. Where is that damn jeep, anyway? I thought it was down here? (I refer you back to the mention above where I got lost in Central Park). The jeep is not, of course, up at the top of the waterfall.

I put “hike” in quotes because I’ve been hiking before on a variety of trails, but I have no idea that this trail consists of a 12-inch wide muddy, rocky path where if you slip the wrong way, off the side of the cliff you go. I am faced with an extremely precarious climb where there is NO LEDGE and my fear of heights is just crippling and despite being motionless with terror for a good five minutes, I make it back up and then I hear the news.

It’s lunchtime, boys and girls! Like I could eat?! The 70-year-old Jewish woman who is always lurking deep inside of me suddenly makes a cameo today just when I need her.

AND, brace yourselves for this one, the even bigger news is, after lunch we’ll be rappelling down the other half of the waterfall!!!!! And…there is no choice because that is where the blessed jeep is parked, in fact! Yes, down below, where I had just come from. Are you laughing and crying, perhaps slitting your wrists, with me at this point? I start to fume. I’ve been tricked! I don’t like being tricked, it’s been a sore spot since my father promised me a pet elephant in my backyard and placed a stuffed Dumbo on the patio furniture.

So, as everyone else ate lunch, I obsess over the two evils: 1. rappelling down the waterfall again or 2. hiking back down that hazardous mountain path which was potentially even more dangerous because of the lack of any kind of ledge or anything to hold on to, with the exception of plant roots. I am NOT KIDDING. I held on to plant roots to brace myself on the way up and hiking down a steep path is always harder.

Suddenly I notice that the group has turned to me as I pace back and forth past the flimsy rope protecting us from accidentally getting too close to the edge (there are no accidents where I’m concerned, I’ll have you know). They are. Laughing at me. And leading the pack is my savior, that horrible Lothario, the smoking, beer swigging tanned god, I mean, guide. And here I thought he loved me for making him feel the big guy, the hero, but he is making fun of me in Spanish to a few of the people in the group who are fluent and they in turn translate his wicked words to the others. You bastard. Did you not get the memo that I am hardcore?

I toss my head the way I do and brood on a rock, trying to ignore the puddle (are those fire ants?) at my feet.

“What’s wrong?” asks Vanessa.

“I want drugs,” I all but wail. Fuck this nature shit. I am done.

“Um, you don’t do drugs,” she points out, laughing.

“Yeah, well, at this point I’m yearning for a crack pipe or hell, even a dirty needle would suffice. Either would be preferable to this suicidal sure shot.” I get this way when I’m faced with certain, tragic death. One has to have one’s vices, even if they are only in one’s head. At this rate, I might as well be engaging in an indiscriminate sex act with that dork who had to be rescued, too. Oh Christ, what the fuck is the point of life, after all?

Why am I pondering the meaning of life on vacation in Costa Rica?

Hello, brain, this is a life or death situation, of course you should be pondering the meaning of life on vacation in Costa Rica. If you’re about to die, what else should you be thinking about? I might be thinking instead about how my last meal could have been a nasty ham and cheese sandwich on white bread. Regardless, it’s much more dignified to die on an empty stomach.

Considering the rope corset again, I think about how I can whittle my 28-inch waist down to a wasp-like 23 in mere seconds without any help. And I think about the first time I saw the Pixies in 1988, the night before Thanksgiving and when the concert was over, I had walked through a foot of snow on the quiet Greenwich Village streets. And when I was 7, I saw the mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs and going back further than that, I see my Aunt Jay holding me up as my mother waved out of a hospital window after she gave birth to my brother. I was 2. And now, gee this blankie is so so fuzzy and soft…goo goo ga ga…and I let out a scream as I enter the harsh bright light.

In the end, only two of the group of 7 decide to rappel back down the waterfall while the rest of us choose the hiking down the death strip option.

And guess who has to be rescued on that path too?

Yours, truly, first summons up some atavistic trait, going back to Cro-Magnon Man that is, and crawls on all fours. Then I slide down on my ass, only it gets to be so narrow that I can’t even do that (my ass won’t cooperate), and our benevolent guide has to make yet another divine intervention. Yes, I cry. Again. This is a petite mort of the worst possible kind.

We make it back to the jeep, water logged, bruised in body and spirit, and one of the folks from Queens points out, “That was worse than getting mugged at gunpoint.”

Moral of the story: New Yorkers are badass only when in their comfort zone. Sure we can crack wise with the best of them, throw around f-bombs like they are rose petals, make our way through a 6-lane traffic jam on foot, push you tourist bitches out of our way as we desperately rush somewhere, anywhere more important than you’ll ever have to go, mace a mugger without blinking an eye, but bring us to the bosom of Mother Nature, and we are a helpless, pathetic lot.

Or, maybe that is just me.


We’d been out of the country for five years and now there was grocery shopping to be done.We planned on eating out of a poorly-bolted kitchen area in a rented campervan for the next three months and needed to shove off with the whole thing stocked.I’d been anticipating these travels ever since abandoning my home turf.But at the return, I found myself itching to roam the aisles of an American suburban supermarket.It was the first of several minor homecomings.I suggested we get up at 2 AM for a glimpse of the illuminated Open 24 hours sign with a cashier still sitting beside a register waiting for commerce to continue, just to prove that such visions existed.

Your book is coming out in paperback.  Isn’t that the literary equivalent of straight-to-DVD?

Are you really going to open this interview by insulting me?