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JenPercy_authorphoto_creditMichaelKreiserYou switch from past tense to present tense halfway through Demon Camp. Why the shift?

I wanted to show a change in my psychology and relationship with my subject matter. Present tense gives the reader a sense of immediacy; it allows us to experience the world as it is being perceived at the moment. It is raw and unprocessed information. The moment I arrive to Portal, Georgia, where a great deal more people believe in demons than do not, my ability to process the world at any remove had begun to fail. It’s like the first time you step off a plane in a foreign country. For a while, the country is greater than you. You see everything. Feel everything. It’s too much. You’re a sponge, really. So, I felt consumed by Portal. This shift also represents, on a formal level, what a traumatic memory can do to someone. It can trap them. The immediacy of a traumatic memory is one of its distinguishing traits. 

DemonCampcoverimageA BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DISORDERLY CONDUCT OF THE HEART

Sergeant Caleb Daniels wanted to save all the veterans from killing themselves. A machine gunner three years out of the 160th Special Operations Regiment, 3rd Battalion, he’d tried to kill himself, four or five times, but he was interrupted each time—once by his dead buddy Kip Jacoby; once by his girlfriend Krissy, whom he met at a strip club; once on a lake by his house in his canoe when the rain stopped and he saw the moon; and once when the demon called the Black Thing came into his bedroom in Savannah and said, “I will kill you if you proceed,” and Caleb said, “No you won’t, asshole, because I’m going to do it myself.”

glasseslennon

I was what — two years old.  It was a nightmare.  I was running.  Somehow I was near a giant hole.  And I fell.  It was a death dream.  My earliest memory.  But was it actually a death dream and did I actually know what death was at that age.  And do I now.

It’s nights like this one, when the noise starts its rumbling in the back of my brain, that I know I will not sleep.

It begins like a pulse. A steady thrumming, gaining momentum, until the hum is roiling like the water in a jug just coming to a boil.

For a moment I think the noise is new. But then I remember the noise is inescapable. It’s always there. It’s just a matter of degree.

And sighing and simply lying still in my bed is not enough to silence it.

 

I owe a debt of gratitude to Jonathan Franzen.

It was because of him that I met Mira Bartók, whose book The Memory Palacementioned in an essay about Franzen’s misguided attack on eBooks. In one of those twists of meta-synchronicity that makes me suspect I’m in an episode of Star Trek, Bartók read my essay, “tweeted” it, and I—having only joined Twitter a couple weeks earlier—saw it.

Years ago, when she was around my current age, my mother went to Mexico and was robbed.  She had just been granted American citizenship, so it was very important that she was able to find her papers.  The story has been passed down to me since puberty, as a word of caution for a woman entering the world: freedom is a risk.

We sit at my grandparents’ long dining room table, the worn green tablecloth unfurled, revealing years of red wine stains. My mother places a cassette recorder in the middle, trying to get it exactly center between the roast beef and the string beans, presses ‘play’ and ‘record’ at the same time. Nobody pays it much mind as the plates are passed, the gravy ladled over lumpy mashed potatoes, the pearl onions in cream sauce we all fight over. Father, we thank thee for this food. Bless it to our use.

The scene is cut from of the movie of our lives, a table full of cameos. There is my great-grandmother, her hair bobbed and dyed its purplish-blue. There is Uncle Bobby next to Aunt Kerri, who cuts his meat into bite-sized pieces. There are my grandparents at the head of the table, my grandfather inspecting a bottle of Cabernet. Beside him is my father, busting Bobby’s balls. “Does she tuck you in at night, too, asshole?”

I am two and my mother asks me if I want to sing. We pick “Frosty the Snowman,” but I can’t remember all the words, so we switch to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Uncle Chuck makes me stop when I start again unprovoked a few minutes later. “No singing at the table,” he says.

Dinner conversation is entirely normal, everyone expecting perfectly well to be exactly where they are. On the tape, my mother is preoccupied with how much I’m eating and when I’ve eaten enough to be excused. My father and grandfather talk about wine.

“Did you know they’re making more wine in California than anywhere in the world?” my grandfather says. He is trying to impress my father. He thinks my father has connections to the mob, or at least knows people with connections to the mob. He assumes that men with connections to the mob know about wine. My father responds politely, says, “Oh yeah? No kidding, Doc.” He knows about wine, but pretends my grandfather knows more. It is a move of deference, an acknowledgment of the thin ice beneath my father’s presence at the table. His voice treads lightly.

At two, I have recently learned a valuable skill. I shove a final spoonful of peas into my mouth, and my mother releases me from the table so that I can show everyone my amazing discovery. “Jump?” I say to my family.

“Jump, Aunt Kerri?”

I circle the chairs. My grandfather, whose sternness occasionally breaks with his affinity for me, says, “Her mind is always at work.”

“Her mouth is always at work,” my great-grandmother says.

“Jump, Uncle Chuck?”

“Jump, Daddy?”

My father laughs, but not at me. “Yeah, right, let me just break my hip,” he says to the rest of the adults. He knows they are watching him. He was away for a while, and now my mother has let him come back.

When I listen to this tape with my mother and my husband two and a half decades later, each of us clutching a glass of wine, I recognize everyone but that tiny voice, my voice. I don’t know how I discovered jumping, or how I really felt about peas, but I’ve heard my grandfather talk about wine my entire life, and I know the sound of that silver on that Corelle ware, that collective, civil laughter periodically breaking up the silence of our eating. I know my uncle’s chiding and my mother’s assessing of my plate. But like my own, my father’s voice startles me, like somebody spliced the tape with a recording from someone else’s house.

“Jump, Grammy?”

My grandmother takes the bait, as she always does. We move into the background and begin our game. “Ready? One, two, three. Jump!” she says.

There are a few indications of the year. The California wine, my father and Uncle Bobby discussing Hill Street Blues. Someone asks my mother what she got for Christmas and I hear her fork clatter onto her plate.

“I got a microwave!” she says, and I picture her arms shooting into the air, her face scrunched with happiness. It’s a gift from my father, something to help around the house, and it’s expensive for 1984, my father writing out his love in a check. I do not mean this cynically. This is how he makes us happy. It is the only way he knows.

I thank my grandmother for jumping with me by making her an imaginary cup of coffee on my imaginary stove. The women prepare Jesus’ birthday cake—a large sheet of ice cream and cookie layers from Pat Mitchell’s. They light the candles and we sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. As the only grandchild, I get to blow out the candles.

While we eat, my father tells a story about Christmas Eve. “So, we’re coming back from church last night,” he says. “Kathy and I are horsing around up in front, teasing, you know. Well, Amy’s in the back, and I don’t know, maybe she’s tired. Anyway, she thinks we’re fighting and gets all upset. We’re up there laughing, and she’s back there going, ‘Mommy, it’s okay, Mommy, don’t cry.’”

Everyone laughs. My mother laughs.

Nobody is rude enough to point out the obvious—that I have barely seen my parents together and can’t recognize the subtle difference between my mother laughing and crying. That this is my first and only Christmas with my father in the house, and I have been told it’s only a trial.

I finish my first piece of Jesus’ cake and ask for a second. “More?” I say. There is a pause while my plate is inspected. “Christ, Amy,” my father says, “are you even chewing?” Everyone laughs again.

The tape is an hour and a half long, and this is as much as my father speaks to me, using me for a little levity around his in-laws, a little lightness to dispel whatever skepticism lingers around the table. Why does my mother record this Christmas and no others? Does she know my father will be gone again before the next? Does she know Aunt Kerri is about to discover that Uncle Bobby fools around? Does she know Alzheimer’s is wending its way down the pathways of my great-grandmother’s brain? What prompts my mother to borrow her friend’s cassette recorder and bring it to Christmas dinner this year?

“I don’t know,” my mother says when we listen to the tape. “I guess I just thought it would be neat to have someday.”

I listen to myself eating a second piece of cake, my mother complaining about the chocolate ice cream dripping down my chin and into the neck of my knitted pink sweater. No matter. I grip my spoon in a fist and shovel. It’s like the cake won’t be there if I look away for even a second.

“Jesus, Amy,” my father says. “What, are you going to jail tomorrow?”

The other day I attempted to write an essay about the human brain and its extraordinary knack for pattern recognition. Brains are capable of identifying complex and subtle relationships between external stimuli that would confuse even the world’s most powerful computer. Our brains are also capable of accessing ancient memories almost instantly, though not with anything like the precision of a computer and its digitally-stored data.

I was living in a group home in Pacific Palisades.  He was a friend of my brother’s and had accidentally fallen in love with me. I remember a night when we lay side by side in the dark, he talking about his mother’s death and me, the loss of my wild crazy mother.  Both of us talking, tears secretly rolling down our cheeks.   At midnight I said, “It’s my birthday.  This is my first birthday without my mom.”  Then, in the pouring rain, he drove me to go buy tampons.  I sat in his 1976 Volare.  He ran up to the 7-11 window, tapped on the glass, and held up two different tampon boxes.  He was big and Puerto Rican and overly pierced and his laugh was awkward but something told me that with all of his giant features and doofiness he really did love me.

Blue Light

By Don Mitchell

Memoir

The hard things happened at night, sometimes in the dark, sometimes lit by a yellowish bed lamp, or the light from another room.

But right now she’s telling me about blue light, because one time the light seemed bluish, but how could that have been? Light isn’t actually bluish, is it? she says, It’s yellow, really. Maybe she’s thinking blue because she remembers blue flames.

So probably it wasn’t blue light, but more an infusion of blueness, a perception, from the blue flames she could see in the space heater, which she can see into because she’s on the floor in the kitchen, she’s sure of that, well pretty sure, at least the blue flames imply that’s where it was, because that’s where the space heater is. Or was. Is, who knows anymore?

I’m kinda losing it, she says to me, I mean, um, time. I don’t know when it is right now, I mean, when I am, but it’s blue then, it’s blue and it hurts, you know, they’re hurting me. One’s sitting over me like you just did, ah, you didn’t mean anything and how could I know this was gonna happen? But you did and now.

This. Blue. Shit.

She looks at me in the room, not my kitchen but my bedroom, we’re on the bed, and I know she wants to give me her blue light, so it can become mine. So I can feel it with her, or see it. So I can be on that kitchen floor, if that’s what it was, or when.

So I can go there. Me, the guy who semester after semester tells innocent freshman, The spectacular evolutionary advance of even an early language is that it permits shared consciousness. You can invite me into what you know and take me places I’ve never been. And show me what’s there.

Ah but now we’re not talking flint, chert, obsidian, chokecherries, blueberries, hackberries, carrion, fresh-kill, glacial light, mesa light, storm light. We’re talking blue light.

I know she’s going to take me, the me who’s sitting on the bed looking at her, she’s taking me back where the blue flames were, no, are, were, it doesn’t even matter, and I see in her eyes I’m no longer the me I know, but some other me she knows or doesn’t know for sure.

She’s transformed me into that person, too, and for a moment I think, Well allright, maybe this can help her work it out, yes, maybe symbol of, or standing in for so she can get ontop of it, but then I think if she takes me there, if I go along, how will she tell it? Through whose eyes will I witness it? Please, hers. Not the guy’s.

Tell me what you see.

It’s dim, but when I turn my head I see blue. One is my father  (she never says Daddy, Dad, Pa, Pop, only My father, only he, his, him, not before this night, and will not after it) but I can’t see the other one, too close, I couldn’t move my head, he’s sitting on my chest, he broke my collarbone, I don’t know who it is.

Only pain, his knee, choking, blue.

It would pain us, years ago, not to touch one another. In Key West, maybe a couple months after we met, Louisa and I celebrated an early-love sort of holiday—you know, the eight-week anniversary of the first French kiss, or something blissful like that—with a dinner at the now-defunct Cafe des Artistes on Duval St. Atypical for me, I remember little about the actual food, though snapshots of warm foie gras, port wine reductions, diver scallops and saffron decorate the memory, accurate or not. More than anything, I remember the size of the table, a massive dark wooden number, way too big for a two-top, Louisa and I perched at opposite ends. It took our full wingspans to reach one another across that expanse, surely dodging fresh flower, the vase that held it, and burning candle. All for a mere brushing of the fingertips, an actual, if chemical, recharging of our batteries, our blind feet searching in vain in the gulf beneath the white linen tablecloth.

It was a window table, and I remember looking through it at her standing in streetlight on the sidewalk, enjoying her mid-meal cigarette, her blonde hair glowing orange in the night. Somehow, even though it was Key West, and probably at least 70-degrees, I impose, in memory, snowfall on this scene—some dramatic anomaly, some fictional meteorological introspection, the kind of nostalgia that, for a Midwestern boy, can only reside in light ice falling beneath the orange pool of a streetlamp, smoke pouring from the lips of an early lover in the dark, through a restaurant window, at a too-big table pushing flutes of hazel champagne into the air.

Often, it’s still like this—how we’re driven by the need to touch, how our memories are inflamed sometimes by this lack, the distance we must breach. Here, on the other side of the Zócalo tracks, there is no distance at all to breach; we are wallpaper-glued together and we cling to one another not out of need, but incidentally. Actually, we cling to a whole bunch of people, the streets jammed with the chaos of familiarity—the kind that represents a close-knit neighborhood. Really close—like someone’s-knee-in-another’s-tailbone close. I think of my ancestors in the Jewish ghettoes of Poland, the wild social structures and hierarchies within. Here, in Mexico, land of living ghosts, I commune with them. Some apparitional great-aunt with ham-hock arms juggles pierogies, catching them in her mouth before they fall. Her smile bears the sheen of sour cream, bridging Poland and Mexico with a single ingredient. I want to wrap my arm around this burly ghost, sway, gather the streets into a frenzied We Are the World.

But all we can do is succumb to the rhythm, decide not to fight the current. My great-aunt’s ghost fades into the multitude. In these streets, the Cafe des Artistes two-top would be ground to sand. The undertow carries us into Tamale Alley, literally an entire street lined with outdoor food-stalls, each of them peddling their unique takes on the corn-husked delight, not a single one stuffed with huitlacoche. When we ask for it, utter those four corn-smutty syllables, we are, each time without fail, greeted with wrinkled foreheads and dismissive waves. We are obviously absurd foreigners, belted with occasional bursts of tamale steam as the vendors lift the tin lids of their water baths. Crowds of mid-day eaters huddle six-deep, eating together in front of the stand from which they bought their food, pulling bits of golden cornmeal stuffed with mole negro chicken, carnitas in salsa verde, whitefish in mole amarillo, from the corn husks wrapped in greasy crinkling waxpaper, laughing, arguing, working things out. One portion of the alley prepares only mole negro, another the amarillo, another the verde. Tamale Alley has cliques, cornmeal turf wars.

Cars, bikes, mopeds, garbage trucks, skinny shirtless guys hauling cardboard boxes on dollies cascade around the standing diners, swinging wide to avoid them, snaking sidewalk and street, wherever there’s a breathe-hole, a crack of space through which to push. No table gulfs here. No place to put your elbows except against your ribcage, your wrists doing the all the work, fingers pulling strings of meat from the husk, dripping with psychedelic sauces. The smells of garlic and diesel commingle overhead.

Commingling beneath, Louisa and I push to the front of a tamale stand, dare not ask for huitlacoche. Deep in her handbag, our stone knife is surely twitching, longing to halve some brave foodstuff. From a fat old woman we purchase two mole negro tamales. An old sinewy man in a dirty Chicago Cubs baseball cap begs two pesos from us for a tamale of his own. And we dine together silently, the three of us wrapped in crowd on the street. Louisa croons. The old man smacks his lips. I save my energy for the unwrapping of the corn husk, wet with a tawny grease that runs along my wrists as I lift the pillow of cornmeal to my mouth. It gives easily to my teeth, bursts with an outer earthiness—the smells of the Midwest, drives along the farm roads of Central Illinois, Indiana, the sun reflecting from armies of silos. But inside, it’s all Mexico, the molasses sap of the mole negro, penetrating as fresh oil, tar, all sweet burn and toast, the threads of chicken soaked with the charred sauce, lingering flavors of grassy chile, sesame, almond, raisin, cinnamon, chocolate. This is a tamale to span the length of all meals—it is amuse bouche and appetizer and entree and dessert. It is a four-hour meal at a giant table, and your lover pulling the last drag from her last cigarette beneath some final moon. In this tamale, the swings of Buffalo Grove’s Tartan Park regress, go squeakless again, and the tornado slide cleans itself of the old purple of all childhood blood. In this firecracker mole negro parents live forever.

With one hand, I snake Louisa’s thigh. With the other, I raise the tamale to my mouth for a second bite, wondering what this one will evoke. Louisa, nearly finished already, throws her head backward and knocks the old man’s Cubs hat to the asphalt.

29 December 2010. “Tell me the story about the animal family,” my daughter says. She curls her body on top of my lap and puts her head against me. Her hair tickles my nose and I can feel the thinness of her body as it grows. She wants to be a princess and a soldier and a cheetah. She is five years old. I am thirty two. In The Animal Family, a hunter lives by the shore. His father built the house but his father is dead. A mermaid comes to live with him and a wild bear cub and a boy after that. Then things are different. They are all so different from one another and none of it makes any sense. But it is a beautiful story. The hunter misses his father. The mermaid takes care of the bear cub. It makes sense when you read it in the story.

We will build a little home, made of buttercups and clover; all our troubles will be over, when we build a little home. It’s not a palace, or a poorhouse, but the rent is absolutely free; and it’s my house, and it’s your house, if you’ll come and live with me, with a carpet on the floor … At this point, the song repeats; the carpet’s made of buttercups and clover and all our troubles will be over again. Future tense. It must not have worked the first time: repeat. The argument of the song builds; we’re building a little home but the little home’s never finished. The song’s never finished, either, but you fall asleep wondering what it’d be like to have a carpet of flowers under your feet before you have a chance to realize that. That’s part of why the song never ends. Like a lover’s complaint, the formal structure of the piece needs you, listening, to make it stop, to accept, to come and live with me. But that’s part of why it’s meant to lull you to sleep, too: so that you can’t. Things are always better when they haven’t happened yet. Unreal things, unsatisfied desires: they can go on forever.

“If a man have espoused a damsel that is a virgin, and some one find her in the city, and lie with her, Thou shalt bring them both out to the gate of that city, and they shall be stoned: the damsel, because she cried not out, being in the city: the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour’s wife. And thou shalt take away the evil from the midst of thee. But if a man find a damsel that is betrothed, in the field, and taking hold of her, lie with her, he alone shall die: The damsel shall suffer nothing, neither is she guilty of death: for as a robber riseth against his brother, and taketh away his life, so also did the damsel suffer: She was alone in the field: she cried, and there was no man to help her.”     - Deuteronomy 22:23-8

Memory Wall Cover ImageWhen I began this column, one of my goals was to shine a flashlight on short stories, the neglected baby sister of the fiction world. But when I sent out an APB last year for under-the-radar story collections, and the writer Steve Almond recommended “Tony” Doerr’s latest, I balked.