Category Archives: Non-Fiction


The weather forecasters called it an Arctic Dome, but those of us who lived in northwestern Wyoming that winter pronounced it colder than a well digger’s behind.  For seven days the mercury in our thermometer never ventured above zero, even at high noon.  Snow squeaked beneath our boots.  Ice draped windows so thickly one had to rub a viewing portal to the great white way beyond.

All of this was very bad news for me, the family woodchopper.  Our primary source of heat was a freestanding wood stove whose shallow breath warmed the living room.  A cast-iron cook-stove in the kitchen chased ice from the corners of that room.  Both ran on wood scavenged from the county dump where my little brother and I spent each Saturday loading our old Dodge truck with the detritus of other neighbor’s lives.  We scampered over frozen grounds like sparrows, snatching up wrecked floorboards, grizzled fence posts, and a variety of warped and weathered sideboards from fallen outbuildings.  Each evening I labored to transform the wood into firebox-sized morsels for our hungry stoves.

Thoreau wrote of his fuel gathering, “Every man looks at his wood pile with a kind of affection.”  I viewed mine with dread.  For the uninitiated, it’s important to know the difference between wood splitting and wood breaking.  Splitting wood is for those fortunate enough to possess the means to slice up logs or boards into woodbox-sized lengths, usually accomplished with a large, tractor-driven buzz saw or a chain saw.  This cuts across the wood’s grain, stealing its structural integrity.  One need only drive an axe-head or a wedge down into the pale meat of the wood to split it.

Breaking wood is entirely another matter.  Instead of going with the grain one must bludgeon the wood along its latitude where there is no predilection to cleave.  The cells interlock as a bulkhead, an impeccable feat of natural engineering to keep trees upright against whims of wind.  To my woodchopper’s chagrin, many of the timbers seemed designed also to resist my own terrible storm of blows.  A length of oak could seemingly transform the ruthless steel of the axe head to rubber. 

Night fell before I finished lugging buckets of grain and water to pigs, chickens, cattle, horses, and sheep.  I scattered fresh straw for the animals to insulate themselves against the long sub-zero night ahead.  I then went inside for a last moment of creature comfort, turning my backside to the wood-stove.  Squeals and shouts from somewhere deep in the house told of my younger brothers and sisters at play.  Mom’s empathetic hand found my shoulder.   “It’s supposed to blizzard all night and maybe all day tomorrow.  The stoves will really gobble the wood.”

I nodded glumly.  The tall windows of the kitchen were black as carbonized wood.  Points of white flashed by like miniature meteors to signal that the advance guard of the big storm had arrived.

Alone on the edge of our hill, I was nearly blinded by snow driven from the north.  I needed shelter for my task so I commandeered a tin meter house we had hauled in earlier that summer from an abandoned oil field.  Six feet to a side, the shed nonetheless afforded me protection from stinging darts of snow.  I hung a flashlight from the ceiling with a corkscrew of baling wire and went to work in the jittery cone of light.  The first board was a ten-footer from an old granary.  The board stuck out through the open door and snow sifted in to flour me like a pan-fried trout.

The little room echoed with the whunk, whunk of the falling axe-head as slowly, very slowly, boards succumbed.  One piece of hardwood played hard to get so I attacked it with special fervor.  It broke with a sound of a donkey bray.  I pinned the remaining length with my boot and brought the axe down hard.  The axe-head caromed off the board and smashed sideways into my inner ankle.  I screamed every foul epithet in my lexicon while I rubbed the contusion growing under my skin like a summer strawberry.  

On and on I chopped under the pale light, my ragged breaths were spumes of frost filling the claustrophobic hut.  Ever so slowly the pile grew to fill my wood basket and I trudged through the icy veil toward the house, which appeared as a faint yellow blur–a lonely star fallen to ground.

Mom received me into the cozy kitchen, instructed me to warm up by the woodstove.  She pried up a stove lid over the firebox and stuck in several pieces of my newly chopped wood.  She took them right out of the box I barely had set down.  The wood lay in the bed of orange coals for seconds and then its pale flesh caught fire.  Every moment I stood there was witness to five minutes of my labor gone up the chimney in smoke.

“Okay–bring us more wood!”  Mom enthused.

I was a madman of axe-wielding intensity.  Steam gushed from my coat sleeves and collar.  My disappointment spoke for me and it was not a good advocate.   “How come you’re using it up so fast?”

Mom smiled.   “Hear the wind whistling down the chimney?  It’s sucking up heat like milk through a straw.”  An awful truth presented itself.  The fires were gobbling up the wood fast as I chopped it.  The night was deepening and the storm was getting worse.  The trek back out to the hut was interminable.  Wind slammed me and pelted my face with pellets hard as thrown rice.  The pile of boards was now a skein of snowy lumps.  Anger heated me from stomach to ears.  I yelled into the white night.  “This is nineteen sixty-SEVEN!”  I also wanted to shout that this is the age of Apollo astronauts circling the planet in spaceships.  Not to mention the age of people in town summoning warmth to their rooms with a mere twitch of a thermostat.

The next box took longer to fill because of the search to excavate boards from the snowy heap at the edge of the hill.  I arrived in the kitchen weary and chilled to the bone.   “Better get a hustle on, honey.  We’re almost down to the last stick.”  I dropped the box.   “It’s not fair!  Everybody else in here is nice and warm and I’m out freezing my a–”  Mom’s eyes widened and I throttled the expletive mid-tongue.

“It’s your job, son.”

“Yeah but Jim doesn’t have to do anything.”

“He has his chores, but he’s younger.  He doesn’t have your strength”

I recoiled at having my own qualities turned against me.  I sunk into self-pity cold as the drift just outside the back door.

“Why don’t we have natural gas heat like normal people?” I pouted.

“You know why, son.”

Yes, I knew.  We were poor.  Poor enough to qualify for government commodities.  There was no one to blame.  My stepfather, Bill, worked hard at the grain elevator for low wages.  He swept grain spilled from big trucks (more sparrow work) as they made the sharp turn into the elevator.  He brought home the sweepings to help feed our livestock.

“I’m tired.  I can’t keep up.”

“You have to. You know Bill’s back is out.”

There was nowhere to turn except toward the door to the blizzard.  I grabbed the empty wood-box and trudged back to my prison shed.  Snow was so deep I was forced to liberate the flashlight from its wire harness to search for likely boards.  I dug like a dog and finally found one.  I lugged it to the shack, re-hung the flashlight, and began to chop.  It was another ‘rubber board.’  I gave it a vicious whack only to be rewarded by a flash of pain in my left instep.  I threw down the axe and hobbled backwards.  My heel caught on the door threshold and I pitched out backwards into a pillow of snow.  I lay stunned, arms outstretched like a child making a snow angel.  Pellets of snow wedged under my eyelashes and flew up my nostrils.  I limped back into the shed and grabbed the board, enraged sufficiently to imagine snapping it with my bare hands.  I swung it wildly, heard it smash into the flashlight.  The stricken light fell to the frozen floor and went out.

I stood in utter darkness.  Blinked.  Experienced for the first time in my life utter despair.  I pictured the fires in the house burning low, winking out ember by ember until the fireboxes were graves of cold ash.  The house would grow colder, still colder.  Then, one by one, my brothers and sisters, my Grandmother, Mom, and Bill, would begin to grow drowsy with the onset of disaster.

I could manage only one cogent thought.  Escape!  Flee the scene.  Throw my fate to the prowling winds and predacious snows.  Suddenly, a ray of light illuminated my dark reverie.  A beautiful voice floated in on a tide of snowflakes.

“You about played out?”


Here she was, clad in her insulated jacket and pants with a wool scarf tied over her gray hair.  She handed me her flashlight and I secured it in the overhead harness.  In its glow my four-foot-ten inch Grandmother looked like a denim angel of mercy–which of course she was.

We quickly worked out a scheme.  I retrieved my flashlight to excavate boards from the snowy hillside pile.  These were brought to the little tin hut where Grandma made quick work of them.  Once, after I propped a cedar post inside the door, I stood and watched Grandma work.  Though she was nearly sixty years old and so small she was forced to chose clothes from the junior’s section of mail order catalogs, my Grandmother proved to me that night neither size nor gender have much to do with success in the Herculean art of breaking wood.

I observed this master at her craft and noticed that before she attacked the board with muscle and steel she studied it.  She rotated it in her gloved hands, examined one end and then the other.  She told me what she looked for in each board–the pattern of the grain.  She said this was to understand the way the tree had lived its life and responded to challenges and opportunities from nature.  A more open grain suggested access through a well-aimed axe blow to split even a “rubber” board along its length.  Hard wood thus could be reduced in girth to be more easily broken into stove-sized lengths.  Other boards revealed knots, birthplaces of branches that could prevent a clean, longitudinal split.  Grandma would sink the axe-head in the end of one such piece, and then propel the other end into a solid object.  This whiplash effect used the helpful physics of momentum to force the axe-head in deeper.  A few taps were generally enough to cleave the wood.  

And so it went.  Grandma rendered ‘rubber’ boards so handily I worked up a sweat ferrying them in from the snowy pile.  We worked for an hour, our rhythm broken only by my dashes to the house to unload boxes heaped with freshly broken wood.  When Grandma finally straightened up from dispatching her last board she announced we had enough stacked along the wall of the shed to keep the fires happy all night.  I stood close by my Grandmother, surveying the tidy stack of wood.  It was a miracle.

“You must be ten times stronger than me, Grandma.”

She chuckled.  “No, but I‘ve had a few years to learn the hard way and then the other ways to do this.”  

Before she returned home to her ranch in Montana a few weeks later, Grandma showed me how to use the head on my shoulders as well as the one at the end of my axe.  There were little things like clutching the shank of the axe at varying points to gain appropriate leverage, or sizing up each board to locate vectors of vulnerability such as dry rot or natural fractures.  There were lessons about feathering knotty wood to make kindling sticks, rather than expending energy to render such pieces for mature fire duty.  Finally, Grandma taught me about the importance of working hard on fair weather days to chop a goodly pile of wood as a reserve against the inevitable blizzard.

Years passed before I realized Grandma had taught me something else that frigid night.  She had helped me to gauge my own hidden textures and to learn the nature of my own grain.

There were moments during lonely afternoons of wood breaking when I encountered wood so resistant to my engineered blows I retired it for a day when it might be used as a pillar of support in an outbuilding.  Such inner strength, I reasoned, deserved more honorable duty.  It reminded me in turn of my Grandmother because she had become a pillar of my life education.  I was fortunate indeed to have her demonstrate skill and wisdom in action because it taught me that one might endure in the face of most any challenge–rubber boards or blizzards or storms of self-doubt.  That revelation, like a surprise Chinook wind, warms me yet, even on the coldest of nights.


The river stands still, a mirror for the full night sky and the clouds passing, turning by degrees from black to gray to flat white as they move in front of the moon and take in her light.  Even the river’s main channel, the parent bed over whose banks the water poured when power dams were constructed at each end, lays without its current and shift.  Below the surface, deep where it is not visible, the sloughing and renewal go on as always.  But where eyes can see, the channel and its long expanded banks are one and the same.  To those who do not really know, the river is called a lake or sometimes even a pond, a wide plane half a mile across and three meandering miles long, speckled with houses, small beaches and short crops of forest not yet developed. 

 I grew up on this water, came home from college to live again where the sound of small wind across the surface guided me toward sleep and spend a week here each summer with my two children so we can visit Grandma and Papa.  My son prowls the shore fishing, catching frogs, getting covered in mosquito bites and wearing a smile every second of our visit.  My daughter follows me around complaining about the bad cell phone service and refusing to swim because the river bottom is too mucky, but she loves the raspberry patch and listening to my dad’s stories of when I was younger.  We all slow 

down and breathe here.  One night I listen to him tell her the story of our water search from years ago.  He has judged that she is old enough at fourteen to hear such a tale and pauses in his rocking for just a moment to look across the darkening porch.  When I meet his look, I assume this is his way of asking permission and I nod, wondering how different our memories and details of this night will be.

Over the years we haven’t spoken of it often or in detail, but what I remember is our house crouched close to the water’s edge one late spring night as I lay twisted in the damp sheet of my bed, wishing for a breeze and working hard to find a comfortable position.  I was twenty, and as usual, had been fighting with Dad about the bills from my semester abroad, my major, how I would find a job when I graduated next year; it never took much to set us off.  

Inch by inch my body loosened toward sleep, eyes slack; a dot of light played across the back of my eyelids like a sing-along bouncing ball, my ears just losing contact, and then I leapt from the bed with my chest a fire of adrenaline.  Again I heard it, a voice out the open window, then splashing, swimming.  But it was only May– too cold for anyone to be in the water; the panic in the voice cut away my grogginess.  I leaned closer in the dark with my ear pressed against the fine rasp of screen.

“Help, help,  fuck, help me…” went the voice, too real, yet out of place in the hidden arms of the night. I ran down the stairs and into the kitchen.  

“Dad?” He was at the phone, but spun toward my voice, stared and gulped, then continued to beat desperately at the instrument in his grasp.

“Someone in the river,” he kept fumbling, now in a panic at the useless phone. “Can’t get through…”

“I heard it too.”   I went immediately to the window to listen again.

“I wasn’t sure… like I was dreaming.  Jesus…”


“Help… help…  can’t.  I’m…fuck,” came the voice from the water, echoing everywhere, vibrating off houses, until it seemed to fill the backyard, the kitchen.  It was difficult to get a sure sense of distance or direction; he sounded right in the backyard.  I had been a lifeguard for five years, so I tried to mark a location in my mind and called out.

“We’re on our way.  Try to stay calm.”

“I can’t… I’m going…”

And then another voice, “Hey, hey, Ray… Rayyyyy.”  This one fainter, further.

“Keep talking.  We’re coming.”  I ran from the window, spewing instructions at Dad.  The last voice had confused me, but I knew we had to get out there.

“Tell them Norwood Beach. Meet me at the rowboat…”

Leaving the kitchen, I ran into my mom.

“Someone’s in the water, I said.  “Get Dad’s clothes.”  Less than a minute later, he tripped down the basement stairs and out the back door behind me.  Our neighbor, Mike Bodette met us at the beach. 

“Jeannie woke me up,” he explained as he grabbed onto the rowboat’s stern.

“Pull the end around, now push,” Dad told us both.  In a blur we shoved it across the cold sand and leapt aboard.  I took the bow, scanning, yelling, and Dad landed in the center, arms rowing as soon as he sat down.  Mike sat huddled in the boat’s stern, amidst two beer cans and an empty Styrofoam container for night crawlers. 

“Can you hear us?  Answer.” I cried in rhythm with the creaking oars, but the silence now surrounding the boat and our thumping hearts was eerily complete.  We listened to the slap of water and counted the passing minutes.  It had to be at least ten since I had heard the voice through the screen.

“Hear anything.”

“He could be down.”

“What d’ya see?”


Floodlights on our back porch beamed into the heavy night air.  I shivered and tried to ignore my feet, soggy in three inches of recent rain.  The oars’ squeal was followed by a resounding, hollow splash whenever they dipped into and pulled out of the water.  I kept scanning in front, and Dad rowed, following my directions as I tried to remember out loud where the voice had been.  

 “Little left, ok, now steady. Near here.”

Thud!  We jumped; Mike screamed, quietly, but hysterically and then sat embarrassed in the stern.

“Back up.”  On my command Dad reversed the oar motion.  Something scraped along the boat’s keel, screeching like fingernails across glass and then bobbed free.  I 

leaned over and plunged my arm into the late May cold of the Raquette River.  I was breathless, heart like a heavily pounded bass drum, as I felt around in the blackness. Would I pull up an arm, touch a clammy hand?  I jerked back, sudden and fearful, then plunged again.

“Stick.”  I was sorry and grateful at once.  Mike sighed and gave a little whistle as if luck had found us, and Dad’s back relaxed as he pushed out his pent up breath and prepared the oars.  A few pulls later, we hit another obstacle, a longer stick that the boat drifted over in a series of sickening, empty knocks; I searched again, the frustration and relief increasing.

“I’ll need help lifting if we find him. You know CPR?”  I asked Mike.  He shook his head no.  “Dad?”

“For work.  Years ago.  Not sure what I remember.”  It had only been a few months for me, a Saturday morning renewal course, blowing into the vinyl mouth of the CPR dummy, counting and compressions. I could hear my instructor pointing out that the first compression would break ribs. “It always surprises people,” he had said.  This memory seemed impossible to connect with the cold and wet of a body pulled into a boat in the dark.

“Just be ready.   I’ll get his head.  You flip the rest of him up.”

Mike continued to look cold and dazed, torn too early and unwillingly from his bed.

“Ok?”  I broke through his bewilderment for a moment. Dad looked at me sharply, but then stayed silent.

“Sure,” Mike said.  And we continued to move slowly toward the area I had mapped:  a roughly drawn circle, about fifty yards from the river’s main channel, out of the soft current and just east of the center.  I believed in this assessment, or tried to.  It had all happened so fast.   We didn’t mention the second voice, now quiet. 

“I was confused.  Asleep.  Can’t really remember,” Dad admitted.  Those fumbling unsure seconds, ancient moments when I had tumbled the noise toward sleep and dreams; it didn’t seem like a real memory, but I didn’t know what else to go by.

“Never really heard it,” Mike said. “Jeannie had me running before I ever listened.”

“A little left,” I said.

Sticks, huge weed clumps and other debris filled our path, each startling and bearing potential.  My arms grew icy from frequent dives into the unyielding blackness.  

“Shit floating from the weekend.”  Mike and I shook our heads in solemn agreement.  It did not seem only two days ago that we had scurried around the sand picking up clam shells, rocks and broken beer bottles heaved into gaping holes by uncaring ice fishermen.  Just before Memorial Day each year, the power company in control of the river’s dams drains the water to a hundred yards off shore so summer beach cleanup can take place.  The whole weekend is then given to collecting, raking and socializing up and down the river’s edge; sunburned and excited by the freshness of water on toes newly bare, neighbors salute and gossip to the noise of piling rocks and the smell of burning brush.  The ritual weekend heralds the water-centered existence of the summer more clearly than holidays, lilacs or the end of school.  But on Sunday, when the river 

slowly fills up its bed, the neighborly length of shore vanishes, and the water lifts all the weeds, dead fish and other refuse to the surface where it bobs like vegetables in a boiling stew.   

 I had stood on the bank with my parents and sisters only two nights ago while the water chewed away the shore, erasing from view whatever dangers they had missed and bringing, with the once a year tide, the full summer season.  It always takes a few days for the river’s current to cleanse its surface and send the junk over Norwood Dam to become someone else’s problem.  It was this dirty froth of waste jarring us to hope and terror as we cautiously worked the river, asking it to yield up the body that belonged to the screaming voice. 

Red lights and a siren, hollow in the still night air, drew our attention to the town beach directly across from the boat.  We were about two hundred yards from shore, still circling, calling, trying to hope.

“Ambulance.  We should go over.  Tell ‘em what we know,” Dad said.  The first light was followed immediately by others, a sudden cavalcade of official vehicles, gathering in the black space I knew to be the beach.

“But what about…”

“They’ll have light, better equipment.”

“He’s right,” said Mike, and I slumped in a pout, not wanting to abandon our personal search.  The compromise was to continue checking every bump and knock on the way across.  So by the time we got close to shore, an entire battalion of uniformed men had formed a semi-circle on the beach’s damp sand, holding notebooks and huge 

black flashlights, more like clubs than devices to illuminate; they glowed, a spectral assembly in the foggy light, thrown from vehicle headlights parked directly behind them.  All stood: volunteer firemen, policemen, weekend trained EMTs, around two figures on the water’s edge.

One was a female, huddled in the sand, hair stringing in her face, disheveled, out of control.  Above the girl, a young boy, his hand protectively on her slumped shoulder.  His head jerked from person to person, his eyes flashing questions, terror, demands to the group gathered about him.

“He’s out there, just find him,” I heard him say as the rowboat scraped the river’s bottom.  We stepped from darkness into the circle of light.  The crowd turned in unison toward us, their blank waiting faces like toy moons.

“He’s right, he’s out there.  I talked to him.  I can give you directions.” I stepped toward this group of men and announced myself.

“Hold on,” said one of the notebook holders, back in control.  No doubt he saw a young girl in wet shorts.  “We have some things to find out first.  Now who made the call?”

“There isn’t time for that.  I talked to him. He was…”  The voice sounded again in my head, its eerie closeness, a conversation to be held between neighbors across back lawns.

“I made the call.” Dad said.

“So what led you to suspect…”

“He doesn’t have time.”  My voice was desperate.  A second note-booked official stepped up to whisper to his companion.

“Ok, let’s get looking.”  He turned to the girl still in a pile on the sand. “Where’d you say he went in?” 

“Somewhere up river a little,” the boy answered.   “She said they crashed at the big curve just past Farrell’s house.  He got out and ran toward the river.”

She looked up then, pushed away her straggling hair and agreed.  A dark spreading spot crossed her forehead and ran down the bridge of her nose, blood black as river mud against her white skin.

“The girl’s hurt,” Dad said to the cluster of gawking men.  They continued to look unsure, awaiting the official command to action, and then several of them in orange jumpsuits carried a first aid kit over to her and bent down.  The movement shook the others awake and, all at once, orders began to snap through the air.  They quickly hauled two boats off trailers and set up spotlights attached to tripods in both bows.

Within moments, the first boat’s motor spit into the night and began revving upriver carrying two firemen and an EMT.  The spotlight swiveled methodically, from shore to open water, lighting river garbage and casting long shadows.  

“They’re going the wrong way,” I yelled from beside the boat where Dad had pulled me to “let the men get to their work.”  Nick Bartell, the fire chief and only man who had not run in the direction of a task, walked toward our boat, speaking several times into a hand radio.

“Appreciate your help Bruce.”

“They’re going wrong.  I heard him out just past our house.  Down river.”  I couldn’t stop myself from blurting this out; the need to force the boats in another direction was more than I could stand.  At that moment, four firemen hustled from the parking lot onto the beach, their yellow coats filling out behind them as they moved, like phosphorescent, giant squid.  On the sand, they walked in slow motion, heavy, booted feet and concentrated steps, making their way as if underwater.

The group converged as Nick began to answer me. “Noise carries funny on water, at night, half asleep.  His accident was way up there,” he pointed in a long, dramatic arc. “Couldn’t have made it out to you.”

“Nick.  How’s it going?  Bad one eh?”  They all arrived with their interruptions.

“I know where he is.”  I tried again. 

“You should go home, get some sleep.   We’ve got it,” Nick leaned forward as if to pat my head, his teeth flashed with a polished, efficient white, clear as a new bar of soap.  I flinched away and almost took a swing at him; my fingers dug into my thighs as I stood there waiting for Dad to say something, anything that would back me up.

“I don’t need sleep.  Tell him.” I stepped back to offer Dad the central position in the tight group.  The assembled men waited for him.

“You heard where we found the car.  You still sure where you heard him?”

“Sure he’s…”

“Beth!”  Dad cut me off.   I watched him struggle, could imagine him sifting through his memory of those terrifying moments, the ripple of water, those desperate words.  Where did such a voice come from except a nightmare?  What picture of those 

moments did he hold in his mind?  He knew this place better than I did.  Our family had lived within the lapping sound of the Raquette’s waves for fifteen years, but he had grown up on this body of water, this river, as it wove its way through St. Lawrence County and eventually out to sea.  The group continued waiting, but shuffled now in the sand, a rushed cough and the plastic flap of a raincoat.  He closed his eyes to think again, and then looked around at the people gathered.  They were familiar to both of us from town.  Dad probably knew most of them, at least their names and faces, knew they volunteered to take diving classes, knew they fished the water or ran their boats over its surface.  On summer afternoons they waved past our house with out-of- town friends in tow on the end of a water ski line, or putted quietly over the surface with range finders to spot the deepest walleye holes.  Many of them had lived here longer than I had been alive, knew, as he did, of the murky hidden currents and dead cars beneath the river’s surface.  Depth, chance, luck were all a part of living on this water; he had always been strict about respecting its power, never letting us swim without someone watching or allowing us in boats without life preservers. 

 In that moment, all I could focus on was being surrounded by men who did not take me seriously.  It made me want to shout, to lash out at their patronizing attitudes.  Dad had to back me up.  It was what I told myself as I watched him, waited for his support. He turned his eyes from me to the millions of lit sand sparkles, oblivious on the beach.  I knew how heavy the moment was for both of us; its weight connected to all we had argued and remained silent about since I had gotten home.  Those years between teenager and adult are never easy, and I wouldn’t choose to return to them now, to the 

tension I felt always when I was home.  When it seemed I was never right about anything, I became more determined to be right about everything, no matter what.  With my own kids I see it coming, their burgeoning independence and unmasked disdain for my knowledge, advice, direction.  I bristle with each roll of their eyes and hear the voices of my parents echo in my head.

The second boat’s motor started up while they waited for Dad to speak again.  Nick issued a terse, quiet command into the radio and the engine closed down.

“We’re wasting time.  You sure or not?”

“I guess,” he raised his eyes to Nick’s, a ridiculous word: sure. “I guess you boys know what you’re doing.  I coulda heard wrong.” His head dropped again.  He let my knowledge go, and his words fell flat between us. 

  I don’t think he regretted them, did not wish to take them back, but I didn’t hide the fact that he hurt me.  In my helpless, quiet fury, I counted off the days I would go without speaking to him, the ways I could avoid him. This was a new wound I would make him take credit for.   The dark closed in again; the knot in my chest tightened.  Had the river outsmarted them or me; who was right? It mattered, this knowing. He had not dared to support me and what I was sure I knew. 

Nick immediately snapped another command and the craft sprang to life, headed upriver toward the other patrol boat.  Still staring at the sand, Dad mumbled, “I don’t think she did.”  But, it was too late.  The orders were in.  His chance to back me up, gone. 

Halfway across the beach, Nick turned and nodded at us both, “The divers are good. We’ll find him.”

Mike cleared his throat, once, twice. “Might as well head off.”  Dad looked at me, and I turned my face away, slammed myself down in the bow of the boat to stare across the water.

“No. We better keep looking.” I didn’t shift my stony glare, wanted him to know he was wasting his breath.  Without further argument, we set out the way we had come.  I refused to speak as we criss-crossed the river for the next several hours, stopping at each obstacle in our way, tirelessly maneuvering in small circles all around the area.  After a while, Mike offered to row, so Dad took the stern, rubbed his aching shoulders and we both peered over the side into a mirrored vision of glinting black.  We no longer jumped when something cracked against the bottom of the boat; I searched briefly and shook my head.  

The temperature dropped, clouds dissolved like soap bubbles and the moon reached its pinnacle, a full light making it easy to see shapes along the bumped surface of the water.  After a futile two hour, upriver search, the patrol boats meandered slowly toward us, lights swinging like pendulums.  Their arcs eventually cut through the rowboat.  After such a moment of full, piercing light, Dad caught my eye as I sat shaking and curled on the boat seat. We were long past hope.

“Switch.” He stood low in the boat to take the rowing seat.  Mike passed him in the center and slumped into the empty spot.  Immediately, Dad turned the boat’s nose for 

shore, plying the oars quickly.  I was too tired to argue, just stayed curled around myself, a twitch now and then, like a flipped beetle too weary to turn over.

The boat ground against the shore, and still none of us spoke; Dad tried to help me up the hill, but I shrugged off his hand.  Mike chattered a hurried goodbye and started across the street for home.

“Thanks,” Dad called to his fleeing back. “Have a drink, you earned it.”

Mom heard us coming up the cellar stairs and met us at the door with two blankets.

“It’s after four.  You must be frozen.”  Her first worry was for our safety. Then, “Did you find him?   Coffee’s on.”

“She got really cold.  Maybe just put her to bed.”   But I walked into the kitchen and sat at the table, looking out the picture window into the night.  This window had framed our vision for every family meal, study session, life discussion of my childhood.  Dad dug out an old bottle of Southern Comfort from the depths of the liquor cabinet, grabbed two juice glasses, and sat at the table.  He had designed this house specifically to look out over the water in as many rooms as possible. From this position, we had all watched the sun rise and followed the seasons, counted the flocks when they flew by, noticed the formation and melting of ice each winter.   The river was our nearest neighbor.

The sun was just beginning to turn the low horizon to dull, graying pink when I got up to use the bathroom, still wrapped in the blanket my mother had put around my 

shoulders.   He was sipping the whiskey and watching the patrol boats prowl when I came back in.  

The other glass had been filled about halfway and waited on the placemat where I always sat, the river to my right as we ate dinner.  I took a small sip of the whiskey, just letting it kiss the edge of my lips and stared at the water in the creep of morning light, while the search boats continued their slow, inexorable circling.

“I was most afraid of finding him,” I said. And tears finally burst forth.  “I didn’t know what I’d do if I reached down and touched him.” I put my head down on my arms and cried. 

The bottle slid across the table and I heard the gentle fall of liquid.  When I looked up he was moving the drink again to his lips, but stopped and nodded at me, raising the glass just an inch or so in tribute.

“I was afraid of that too,” he said.

  I picked up my drink and couldn’t believe how heavy my arm felt.  I was too small for the decisions of this life, the constant weighing and juggling of facts, emotions, people.  At the time, I couldn’t really think about the reality of this loss, the grief people would face.   The young girl on shore with her bleeding forehead was a face I would see whenever I thought about that night.  It was frightening and sad, but the thought I kept coming back to as I sat in the growing dawn was my dad not listening to me, not trusting me. 

The boy was dead, and years later, that fact sits more firmly with me, a reminder of mistakes that demand a heavy payment, the pain for those left behind, the phone call 

his parents received.  This was not something I cared enough about in the moment.  As a mother now, I have asked myself what I would want my children to take from such an experience, what knowledge would I insist on pressing into them. We found out the details over the next few weeks:  he was nineteen and had been drinking with his girlfriend at a friend’s house watching play-off hockey; he took the corner too fast going home.  An off-duty policeman stopped at the scene and got out of his car, still in uniform.  The boy ran, no telling why, just left his girlfriend and bolted toward the water.  I had always known the river’s patterns, respected its surfaces, but never had it drawn me so personally into its killing power. I have never forgotten the knocking, hollow call of all those dead branches.  Dad clinked his glass against mine across the table.

“I knew you’d handle it if it happened.”  I’m sure he meant what he said, but it instantly made me angry.

“Then why?  You knew I was right,” a gunslinger’s challenge.  The self-righteous power of my rage was without limits.  

“You probably were.”

“Why didn’t you back me up?”  Like the fight we had been through earlier, I wanted to cast away everything he said, make him see how ready I was to make my own decisions and how wrong he was to even think of questioning me.   I grabbed the bottle, poured a full glass, at least three shots, and sat down.  It was a little scary, yelling at him this way.  In the silence, he watched me sink lower against the chair back, drawing out the moment when he might choose his own anger to combat my outburst.  We sipped and stared away from each other.   For many minutes the stubborn misunderstanding was 

strong between us.  He did not defend himself; I could not look past the humiliation of being ignored.

  I am older now than Dad was that summer.   Would I trust my son or daughter with judgement in a life and death moment?  It is almost funny how quickly I reject such an option, how many excuses I can create for doubting them.  Does it mean my father made the right choice that night on the beach, surrounded as we all were by the uncertain surfaces of the river?  I have no idea why we have never talked about it.  And hearing his version of the night, the details he shares with my daughter as she eats a bowl of ice cream my mother has brought her, I realize he has forgotten or left out all but the ghost story elements of voices and noises in the night.  He ends with a version of my courage, pointing out to her that I faced a frightening situation.   He leaves the grief and loss for me to tell and maybe the anger, if I choose.  So I remember out loud for her:

“We sat and watched as the boats circled around in the dawn light.  Right out beyond Papa’s dock, they dropped a rake, eight feet wide and strung on thick cable.  Divers dropped down into the water too, and the boat moved along the surface.  By the time the sun was up, they found a body in jeans and a New York Rangers jersey.”

“Did you cry?” Claire asks, and I hear her feet on the porch floor as she moves to me in the dark.   Her arms slide around my neck and her warm cheek presses mine. 

“I don’t remember,” I say, hugging her back and pulling her onto my lap where she barely fits.  

Sandhill Cranes and Wine


Three Sandhill cranes landed, framed by the fading grey oak of the pasture fence. The cranes moved slowly across the paddock out beyond the grape arbor, and loomed tall over dying weeds and hay grasses. The birds with lovely feathers stayed and grazed for what seemed a long time, though their gaze remained cautious toward the house. I let Stella, our shepherd, out the front door for her morning rounds. She circled the house, yet the cranes kept calm, drawn to the sweet low lying alfalfa. I wondered, perhaps Stella cannot see the birds or perhaps, their soft, ghostly grey blended with her black and white view of the world.

I keep a small row of assorted fruit trees along the drive. The Macintosh apple trees normally bear fruit though the deer claim most. Two peach trees have been productive over the years but both lost large limbs from the weight of the spring snow. With the exception of a few plump peaches, the trees, though leafed out, were barren.

I planted two new hybrid apple trees by the pasture fence a year ago in the spring to replace a perfectly formed mulberry tree lost to disease. The mulberry had been our favorite, the juicy black berry fruit especially enjoyed by our three grandsons. We never quite got around to making mulberry jam because berries somehow disappeared right off the tree. The mystery of vanished fruit was solved with little detective work as purple stains dotted the white tee shirts worn by Zeke, the middle boy, and Walker , the youngest. The oldest, Grady, naturally told on his younger brothers, though I suspect that he also participated in a free for all berry fight. Mulberry juice disdains the effort of modern washing machines.

Then a year came with no fruit. The sweet wood invited pests inside the bark. During the snow of winter, we watched helplessly out the back window while woodpeckers throttled the mulberry, pecking for hidden bugs.

A summer-long drought had followed the strangest spring weather I can remember. Ninety degree days in March caused fruit trees to bud far too early. A seasonable yet heavy late spring snow nipped life from the fruit buds. The weight of the wet accumulation tore limbs and broke orchard keepers’ hearts, along with their pocketbooks

The grapes had started out well, apparently not affected by the spring snow. In June, I fought my annual battle of conscience; whether or not to spray the vines with pesticide. Just once in the dozen year life of my vineyard, have I sprayed the fruit. The grapes flourished that year but I always worried; about the birds, about tainted wine, about my family and friends eating grapes from the vine, though I always warned them to wash first. I chose not to spray, to take my chances, trusting nature to take my side.

In July, I began to notice birds fluttering in the vines. Thankful I hadn’t sprayed, I enjoyed watching sparrows come and go, through the deep green leaves that camouflaged the cedar arbor. On the hottest of summer days, walking the aisle beneath the leaves is much like entering an air conditioned room. But when August arrived, many of the hopeful fingers of fruit were gone. I fretted over the loss and hoped September would leave just enough for a modest vintage.

In mid-August I noticed the two new apple trees being affected by the dry season. Flora have a way of acting out to describe their needs. Leaves curled only slightly, and colors faded in barely noticeable hues, in a plea for water. A small fir tree, planted in the spring, behind a row of healthy blackberry bushes, also wanted a drink. I put the drip hoses out with a nagging guilt, and hoped that I had not waited too long.

After Labor Day, with rain finally in the forecast, I fertilized all the trees. This year’s harvest was lost but in the growing business “next year” always gives hope. The sun came out before hiding in rhythm with a musical beat, and I pounded the fertilizer stakes deep around drip edges. Rolling clouds and a few sprinkles of rain slowed the process only slightly and soon I finished. A muscle twitch portended an ache which I soothed with a drink of cool well water while resting in a soft chair by the woodstove.

I sat back and pondered the grapes growing sweet on the arbor I had built from cedar saplings. In good years, the vines produced enough grapes for two or three dozen bottles of wine, only a bit oversweet, and several cartons of canned jelly, flawless on fresh warm bread with butter, and a surprisingly tasty marinade for both chicken and flank steak.

Outside, the arbor flourished with carefully tended with vines I had trimmed back and formed on a cold March day. The vines had returned healthy and filled with leaves through the summer. Buds appeared on the purple-brown virgin leads, and one day, without notice, small and gentle fingers of fruit, on tiny bright green stems, had sprouted from pinkish flowers.

The midday sun broke through the clouds and beckoned me back to the arbor. Grapes grown sweet waited to be crushed to wine before winter arrived.

The cranes looked on as I set out to the arbor and picked surviving grapes by hand. Carrying a large pot, I thought I might need to buy grapes this year, or maybe try using juice from a local fruit market. But I had never used someone else’s grapes in my wine. I began to pick along the outer side of the arbor, the sun still out and the wind freshening. I used a different method than in other years. I picked each grape individually or in strands of two or three and carefully dropped the fruit in the pot. I found a few bulging bunches. My spirits rose. Working my way around the arbor, I pulled back leaves and beheld more and more of the juicy orbs hidden in dark, shady reaches.

The sky darkened as I turned under the canopy, the first pot almost filled. Raindrops hit the leaf ceiling above me, but underneath, I stayed dry.  My fingers chilled like the grapes in the shade. As I reached, occasionally a grape was broken and I tasted the fruit, thick and sweet. The rain hitting the leaves echoed, and drops continued as the sun returned, lighting the earth. I was transfixed by the sun shining above a light autumn shower.

After a couple hours, the year’s crop lay in the pots. I had picked about ten gallons of promising fruit and returned to the house, cleaned up the fermenting crock, and began pulling each stem away from each grape. I separated the first four pounds, and kneaded the fruit in a large bowl, squeezing with my hands, and smelled the rich sugary juice as the grapes turned magically from fruit into a liquid mixture. I finished the first bowl. The crushed grapes were ready for the crock. But what to do with my hands?  If I picked up the bowl it would slip, break on the ceramic tile floor, the coveted juice would be lost.

Instead, I licked the thick juice, first from my palms; then from the back of each of my sun-browned hands that tingled from the tannins in the fruit, and finished by licking each finger. The taste was exquisite.

Startled from reverie by an intense prehistoric croaking, a herding dog bark, and the whinny of the Haflinger pony out by the barn, I ran to the window curious, but seeing no cause, trotted barefoot out the door, and felt cool green grass in my toes. Three cranes soared high over the grape arbor, circled the barn and the pasture like angels having shed ghostly grey masks, and flew to the west over tall red pine trees, in search of water.


We had never been inside such a place. We didn’t know why the owner was so angry. He yelled at our buddy Rob to stop filming. Rob slid the VHS recorder off his shoulder, swinging the bulky video camera like a lunch box, and stepped outside. He shot different footage. Once we left this city, we were headed southwest to Memphis, and then on to New Orleans. We wanted to drink as many Hurricanes as we could.

The owner smiled at us now through his speckled beard.

“The rest of you can look around.”

It was our cue to begin moving through the aisles. We looked back. Behind the counter, a warped pegboard wall was lined with packaged dildos. They ranged in size from the small, “C” battery-shaped to the long, curved swords with grip handles. It was so democratic, we thought, how all the colors of flesh were represented.

The owner held up his pinkie finger and twirled the air.

Part-carnival barker, part-shaman, the man kept saying, “Look around, boys, look around.” The store was a hypnotic swirl that closed in on us like a confessional. Rob stood outside, nodding at strangers who passed on the sidewalk. We kept scanning the shelves. We were discovering new things: bright red plastic ball gags with black leather straps and silver fasteners; a squat, brown rubber butt plug the shape of which was a cross between a dog’s chew toy of a cartoon fire hydrant and a fake spiral of poop.

A young woman’s voice clipped from within the frayed beige cloth of the one wall-mounted speaker. She was probably our age, though in that moment, she sounded younger, with her Tennessean accent. She was a point on a map, an attraction to see and register, like Graceland.

“Hey, boys,” she said, “why don’t you come back here?”

Gone from our minds were the dildos and the ball gags. Our heads swiveled in unison. There was a slender entrance by the store’s far corner. Rust-colored gingham curtains, long like a librarian’s skirt, draped from a shower rod wedged in the doorway.

“Hey, boys,” the lilt came again, but the rest was lost in static.

It was the static that lured us.

We brushed aside the curtains and to find a wall of Plexiglas. Behind this wall a figure sat with splayed toes on the top rung of a long-legged stool. She was younger than we initially thought. Maybe nineteen. We decided she was ordinary, as if that could be an actual thing.

We were naïve and cruel.

We expected someone different, someone more like the actress Julie Newmar from our boyhood afternoons of watching episodes of Batman. We could even imagine her suddenly appearing, lithe in her curvy, purple latex bodysuit, the triangular feline ears lost in a sensuous fluff of styled hair.

(Years later, in graduate school, I would read the poem “Oaxaca, 1983,” by the late Larry Levis, and I would find these lines:

    Two small holes drilled through the glass by which men can


    money through, &

I would let the words twirl inside my head like the bearded owner’s pinkie, his caterpillar-sized digit scraping at something invisible, a film formed over the memory of the store and the girl in the backroom.

There were holes drilled into the Plexiglas, just as there are holes in the wall of the Levis poem. In each space, the circumference is enough to cradle a nipple.)

In New Orleans, we heard a man call to us. He was standing at the end of an alley, his pants gathered around his ankles. The way they had fallen formed a small boundary from which he emerged.

“You want some of this?” the man yelled, grabbing at his dick.

Behind the counter, someone pushes on a button. The button sends a signal to the backroom, where a bulb flashes and a young woman starts reading from a prepared script, whispering the words into the microphone.

Why don’t you come back here?

We walk through the aisles that vanish like strangers on a sidewalk.

We reach for the curtains.

If we had wanted, we could have gone over to the glass and felt for the holes. The wall was just a boundary that kept us from going any further. Then it disappeared.

The Abandoned Houses

This is my hometown: Mansfield, Ohio, rated “Worst City to Live in North America” by Places Rated Almanac of 1996, the year I graduated high school. Population: 47,000, though that keeps falling. General Motors left. Before that: Westinghouse, Mansfield Tire & Rubber Company, Ohio Brass, Tappan, Armco Steel. My town is a town of abandonment, oxidized steel, broken and boarded-up windows, warehouses gone to fields, fields gone to seed. More stores are closed than open. More people flee here than are born or move here.

This is the story of a band of former manufacturing towns across the upper Midwest and Northeast. On maps, we’re often shaded in red, red for the net loss, red for the rust. What’s unique about the Rust Belt? Decay is a part of life. We’re used to it, the factories leaving and leaving their structures. We don’t always rebuild. Often, we don’t raze either, letting the old buildings get taken over by weeds and rot; time will do the demolition. It’s a striking combination: the rusted steel and the rural wildness—the land seizing control, running its course: trees sprouting up through the roofs of warehouses, mushrooms growing in the shells of old cars. Abandoned buildings, ruined houses, collapsing barns, weedy boxcars—the landscape here is so arresting, so beautiful and broken, an artistic phrase has been coined to described its rough beauty in photographs: “rust porn” (also referred to as “ruin porn”).

Is it unpleasant here? I remember the first time my former husband, a lifelong New Yorker, visited my family in Mansfield. He stared at the dead deer out the car window—the carcasses, in various stages of decay, along the side of the road, along many roads. So gory. Just left, left to rot. But I barely glanced at them, those carcasses. The bones and hooves and frozen blood were so familiar to me.

Part of this nonchalance is the product of growing up on farms or near farms. As children, my mother and her sisters used to play in the swept-out pig houses on a neighbor’s hog farm. Why were the houses, shelters for the hogs, empty at the same time every season? Where did the pigs go? They knew, my mother and her sisters. They knew—but they still played in those houses. My grown cousin, now a father, let his own daughter help raise a couple of pigs recently. The girl wanted to name them. My cousin said, “Breakfast and Dinner. Those are their names.”

I grew up knowing the dogs at the edge of my grandparents’ farm, half a dozen or more long-eared, baying hounds, were not to be played with, nor petted or visited. They were tied with chains to their wood-slat houses. Those dogs were for hunting. I grew used to the sound of gunshots—many times, in many seasons throughout the year—shattering the otherwise tranquil setting of my parents’ farm.

Certainly our Midwestern weather may be thought unpleasant: extreme heat and humidity in the summers, numbing frozen winters, and shorter and shorter springs and falls. In my early twenties, when I moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan (a place even colder than Mansfield) for a teaching job, one of my students reminisced about Halloween; as children, they always had to think of costumes that would be warm, that would include hoods and gloves, fur or plush. They dressed as sheep and tigers and bundled bears.

Our first class was canceled due to a blizzard that next quarter. Spring quarter. I remember trudging to my car after a night class. I was wrapped, almost to oblivion, in a puffy down coat, but it wasn’t enough. I was freezing, the winds howling up my sleeves. The snow blowing across that flat plain threatened to knock me off my feet. I remember thinking, please just let me make it to my car. Let me find my car.

Most winter mornings of my childhood, my parents stood beside the kitchen sink, waiting for the water to fill a bucket they could pour over the frosted windshield. My mother would drive my sister and me to the bus stop, and wait with us in the car when she could. But often, we had to stand out there, stomping in the cold. The bus was late; it was always late, especially on colder mornings when it too had trouble starting. Many mornings my hair, still wet from the shower, would freeze. I remember sitting on the bus, looking out the foggy window and breaking the ice off my hair, hunk by hunk. A Midwestern friend remembers her eyelashes freezing and sticking together while another friend once said that one of his clearest memories from his childhood in New York is never having a warm enough coat.

It was freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer, and there was nothing to do. In summer, we watched television all day or baked our skin on the concrete beside the county pool, jumping into the water when the heat became unbearable.

Winter was more complicated. The sun set at four. There was no movie theatre with more than two screens until I was in high school. The town roller rink burned down, possibly because kids used to smoke in the bathrooms. There was no skate park, no community center. The nearest music venue was an hour away in Columbus (Cleveland was an hour and a half). And no one came here. No band, no group with name recognition would ever come to Mansfield.

Where would they play? The auditorium at the Westinghouse factory?

I am not certain how my friends survived. One dropped out at sixteen. One got pregnant (that was something to do). Of my two closest friends, one spent more and more time at her synagogue; she eventually became a cantor. And the other, who was to win a scholarship to art school, worked on his paintings, spending long afternoons in his attic bedroom, his canvases tilted to the light. His room, where I occupied many hours watching him work or listening to music, had a single, peaked window which looked out onto fields, fields as far as you could see: yellow and nodding and endless.

My friend is gay, which I knew, but I did not know kids threw paintbrushes at his back in art class, mumbled slurs in the hall. He wouldn’t come out, not widely, until college. We didn’t know any other gay people, especially not any grown ups, not in Mansfield. There was briefly and tragically, a gay bar in town. (I’m trying to remember its name—the Alternative Night Club? The Alternative Place?) The bar occupied a small white clapboard building behind the Renaissance Theatre downtown where I spent much of my time.

Because that is how I survived while my friends went to religious services or drank or painted or got pregnant: I went to rehearsal. I pretended to be someone else. I pretended I was somewhere else—anywhere but here. The gay bar had a balcony, which was splashed with pink and blue and silver lights from the dance floor inside every time the door banged open. I remember, from my position in the parking lot of the theatre, waving to the men out on the balcony with drinks in their hands. They would always wave back. The bar was raided. Men were arrested. (For what? Lewd behavior? What excuse?) The bar closed.

We were far from the city and it always felt farther—far from enlightenment, far from ideas, far from music and first-run movies and art and anything decent to eat. We were virtually landlocked, isolated by miles. We were also the butt of jokes. The dominant perception when I was growing up, which persists today: Everyone is fat in the Rust Belt, fat from laziness, from too many Happy Meals. People whose legs work perfectly well drive Little Rascals around Wal-Mart where they do all their shopping. They vote Republican (if they vote at all). They own guns. They lease trucks. They are lazy, uncultured, illiterate. They are white. In high school, when I traveled to New York for a theatre conference, it was embarrassing to say I was from Ohio. Even the name of the state, the way my mouth had to stretch around the vowels, felt nasal, dumb. I felt dumb.

For the rest of the country, the Midwest—particularly Ohio—stood in for something. It was an indicator of naïveté, of ignorance and isolation. On television, if the character is inexperienced, wholesome, conservative and/or plump, chances are, she’s from Ohio. Wide-eyed girls moving to the city, bland well-meaning parents, earnest kids—all shiny white Ohioans, as an out-of-state friend used to say. Characters from Ohio who fall into these stereotypes may be found in the television programs: Glee, Greek, Clarissa Explains It All, Harper Valley PTA, Mary Hartman Mary Hartman, 3rd Rock from the Sun and The New Normal—to name just a handful. In literature, Mary Ann Singleton, the heroine of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City novels, set in swinging 1970s San Francisco, is blonde, naïve—and from Cleveland. The Midwest, particularly Ohio, is a backwards cocoon of bland safety—and really, it’s best if we just stayed put.

And then there is the darkness of our landscape. Certainly, from New York to Illinois, the terrain is various, but all the states in the Rust Belt are marked by both rural beauty and post-industrial ruin. There are wildflower plains, wooded hills and small mountains. There are long stretches of farmland, patchwork green and yellow fields. There is space to breathe.

There are also industrial corridors or former corridors, where the factories loom, lung-colored and empty. There are ghost structures: abandoned asylums, abandoned schools, abandoned amusement parks, abandoned homes. Such a milieu seems primed for violence; there are simply so many places to hide.

In Mansfield, shadows clung to us to like mud, like that “Worst Place to Live in North America” label. I had questions, which no one would answer. Why had the lake been drained? What was under the railroad bridge? What happened to the girl who dropped out of school? What happened to the man in our neighborhood who dressed as a woman? I wondered; I couldn’t help my mind wandering to these darker places, even if—or maybe especially because—as a child, I wasn’t physically allowed to go there.

So many stories of my own childhood, I wonder about: Did this actually happen to me, or did I see it on TV, one of those long afternoons when my sister and I lay stomach-down on the family room carpet in front of a glowing, lie-telling machine?

I had difficulty distinguishing real life from fiction, a fact my parents discovered when I began to tell them about the twins who had murdered each other. What twins? Where? It was soon discovered that my babysitter watched—and I with her—soap operas all day.

How is truth and truth slippage particular to the Rust Belt? It’s not—except we have been fed lies all our lives. The water is safe. The factory is fine. Mining is a good job.

In 2012, I opened the Mansfield, Ohio newspaper to read a story about the old, shuttered GM Plant. It was the cover story, the headline huge and bold. The factory had sold to a development group! This was true. The group had an interested party! Not true. The interested party was bringing in one thousand new jobs! Really, really not true. My father worked in local business development, and I turned to him as he shook his head: I don’t know where they came up with that.

We want to believe things. We want to cast them in a light, which is not so unbearable.

Looking at subjects in a new way; looking beyond an object, into its past and its future—this is the way we see. We see our towns. My middle school had once been a parts factory for NASA, and so the building was one story and had no windows. Sometimes, the old factories were razed and turned into sheet metal, sold for scrap, and bare muddy fields. But often, the factories were left, just left, and we looked at them, day in and out, remembering what they were, watching them rust and decay and change, and managing to find the loveliness in it. Or something in it.

People have a saying about the weather in the Midwest, particularly Ohio: If you don’t like it, wait five minutes. Yet the whole region is changeable, in flux. My old high school friend moved to Columbus, and driving down his street one day, I saw many of his neighbors out: an African American woman working on her lawn, an Orthodox Jewish family walking to services, a gay couple holding hands—all on one street, one spring afternoon. The diversity of the Rust Belt is dizzying, if mostly unremarked upon by the country at large, and it extends to the landscape. There are factories and farms and warehouses and stores and scenic downtowns and row houses and roundabouts and hills and mountains and long, flat plains. How would you began to describe such a place, such a various place?

Traditionally, the term “Rust Belt” refers to a swath stretching from upstate New York to Chicago, but even these boundaries are fluid. Some would include parts of Wisconsin in the Rust Belt, or Maine, or even New York City. Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland, Flint, Pittsburgh, Gary—those are the main cities that come to mind when discussing the Rust Belt. But Youngstown, St. Louis, Akron,

Albany, Dayton, Mansfield—these cities, smaller though they may be, have been hugely impacted by the decline of manufacturing, the loss of jobs, the loss of hope. It could be argued that these smaller cities feel the impact of a closed factory more than the metropolitan areas because their economies are smaller, more fragile.

Perhaps the Rust Belt is not even a place or group of places so much as it is a set of socio-economic conditions. Perhaps any area now in decline may be said to be Rust Belt. Perhaps “Rust Belt,” then, is not a geographic designator but a constructed one more than anything, a blanket term: of absence, of abandonment. So much has happened and continues to happen here, so much destruction, abandonment, failure and waste. Also: waiting, striving, persisting and hoping. So much change in lifestyles and lives.

The economic conditions that conspired to create the Rust Belt may, of course, be found in more and more locations as the economy has tanked. Since 2008, what town doesn’t have a closed factory, a street or two (or five or ten) of abandoned houses? Perhaps the Rust Belt is not a spot with clearly designated borders so much as a patina. Not a place, so much as a persona—always a persona. When we go to a dark place; when we skitter off the subject; when we lie; when we obsess; when we still find the beauty, the hope, the potential in our busted lives and our broken towns, maybe we’re performing the Rust Belt. Maybe, no matter where we live or call home or write from or about, maybe the abandoned houses are all of us.


by Chloe Livaudais


Mrs. Condell’s hair is a fizz of gray and blond, like yellow chalk that’s been left on the board too long. She wears a pale pink v-neck blouse that slides slowly underneath her breasts when she walks the hallways of the elementary school, and her tiny red Keds don’t squeak. As I sat in the second row of her fourth grade classroom, I would watch the line of silk venture slowly upward, hoping with some strange fascination that one day the blouse would rise up to the point that I would be able to see the thin line of skin between the cloth and her pants. Possibly I thought it would be funny to see such a private body part exposed, like when Mr. Isbell would roll up the sleeves of his starched white button-down to conduct “El Tango” in music class and I would stare in awe at the hairless underside of his thin arms.

Or perhaps I wanted to know definitively whether adults even had stomachs – like somehow their upper body floated above their pants without falling off when they walked. I can’t recall a moment when this actually occurred, as Mrs. Condell – even now I can’t imagine her with a first name – was repeatedly able to reach up and write long definitions on the board without showing the skin there, as if the silk were somehow tethered to the top of her pants. I imagined her sewing the fabric onto her body every morning like Peter Pan to his shadow.

One night, I looked up the definition of “blouse” in our basement – an entire row of brown and black tomes to which I owe my entire primary understanding of such strange, foreign words as fuck, and cock, and ejaculate (words whose meaning, I eventually learned, depended entirely on how you say it and when). I read that to blouse can also mean “to puff out in a drooping fullness.” Such a lovely definition I had never before found. It suggested a lazy luxuriousness, as though Mrs. Condell’s breasts were pillows upon which huge cats stretched out on every night. As though she were always in the midst of waking from a good nap. It was of particular interest to me that Mrs. Condell could inhabit this fullness while still retaining the modesty of her own skin. The next day I stole a brown belt from my mom’s closet and strapped it to the buckles of my blue jeans – sixth hole, with room to wiggle. I then tucked the bottom of my shirt into my jeans, pulling the fabric out gently with my thumb and forefinger on all sides until it drooped slightly over my belt like a mushroom cap.

Mrs. Condell wore a felt pumpkin for fall festival every year, which was the one day outside of May Day that we weren’t expected to do anything except spend our parents’ money on baskets of overcheesed nachos. It was the school’s attempt to further equalize the students, which was difficult because the majority of kids were poor enough that the school gave out jackets donated by churches in the Clay County area every Christmas. The pile of coats was bigger every year, a broken jigsaw puzzle of orange and yellow on the principal’s couch, like a bunch of well-dressed kids had been caught mid-rapture in a dog pile.

For the festival, each teacher was in charge of hosting a particular theme. It was as fascinating to see these activities taking shape in the weeks leading up to the festival in the form of decorations, candy, and a feverish apathy for actual learning as it was to observe the way that the teachers invested themselves in their chosen themes. Mrs. Thorn was once again hosting the dance room – a dark space of sweaty hands and slow music that chugged to the softly humming motor of the spinning disco ball on her desk. Mrs. Thorn herself walked the expanse of the room every fifteen minutes with a red flashlight that seems to expand in length every time I remember it. She would laugh whenever she found a particularly engaged couple in the back of the room, smirking in a way that dimpled her left cheek as she walked away. Boys like Jason P. and Destin S. often took advantage of the temporary anonymity of the dark room to hold on just a bit longer to the budding hips of their dancing partners; girls left the room in packs, blinking underneath the hallway’s fluorescent lights and pulling down the sweaty lower hems of their shirts.

Mrs. Condell herself rarely deviated from her theme, having offered the same one for three consecutive years. As she didn’t want her room cluttered by discarded hot dog wrappers and tear-away tickets at the end of the day, a large golden birdcage was situated snugly into the neck of her doorway. She then rested herself on the other side, reaching over the metal crate with a slight bend of her arm for student tickets. The students had three tries to choose a single key from the heap of brass that filled the bottom of the cage in order to unlock the padlock at the top. Students who found the key received two tickets.

From my place at the back of the line, I could see Cody P. standing in front of the golden cage, the weight shifting from converse to converse as he sifted through the pile. I could see the way his blonde hair flipped up over his blue collared shirt and the soft rolls of his neck, like two pale lips pursing and unpursing. After two attempts, Cody lifted up a key, and over the haze of voices I heard the metallic ping of a lock, unlocked. Mrs. Condell brought her hands together from where they had been resting on her lap and clapped them quickly. She then crooked her finger towards Cody and whispered into his ear. After a few seconds, Cody turned around and walked away, his head nodding furtively towards the people waiting in line.

I took a step forward while Lauren H. took her turn. With a swift check over his shoulder, Cody began making his way down the line, whispering quickly towards those still waiting in line ahead of me, all of them boys: “It’s the gold one. Like the cage. It’s really tiny.” When he got to me, his eyes were darting from side to side, as though he were going to be shot down any moment. He licked his lips. “She told me not to tell.”

Except for Lauren, who walked away empty-handed, each person in front of me was able to find the key. Some boys showed no pretense and located it on the first attempt. Others were more dramatic and tried two decoy keys before lifting the correct one up and, with an exaggerated jerk of their head, fitted it into the slot.

“Well, aren’t we some lucky chaps today?” asked Mrs. Condell. Her eyes narrowed as Trevor M. walked away with his winning tickets, the back of his neck a splotchy red.

By the time my turn came up, six boys – and 12 tickets – had walked away. I looked down to get my ticket out of my pants pocket, and handed it over.

I chose a brown key with a red tip at the edge. It was obviously too large for the lock, but I pretended to nudge it in. Then I found a black key with a rainbow decal at the top. Biting my lips, I grazed my fingers through the keys slowly. Finding nothing, I began to look at the keys three at a time, then two, then one. Had Cody meant old, perhaps? Or cold? I began cautiously to lay my open palms on the pile, feeling for differences in temperature, the sound of breathing from the boy behind me growing louder. From somewhere in front of me, a glint of something caught my eye.

I looked up quickly. Perhaps the key had fallen out of the cage. Surely it would still count. But where I thought I had seen the wink of gold before was now replaced by Mrs. Condell’s hands, which sat clasped in front of her. For a brief moment I wondered if I had seen the glint of her jewelry, yet the only ring she wore was her wedding band, and even from two feet away I could see that it was a tarnished, muddy color, like the skin of an old peach.

She sat quite still in front of me, her felt orange pumpkin winking mischievously from her left shoulder. I stood numbly on the other side of the cage and searched for a way to tell her that the key clearly wasn’t in there, though it was impossible to do so without revealing just how I knew. Mrs. Condell stared back at me, the loose strands of hair at the top of her head wagging gently from the air conditioner behind her. I watched as she straightened your shoulders impatiently, the sudden movement causing the collar of her pale pink blouse to dip further down. In the moment it took to rearrange herself, I saw unexpectedly the flash of white lace stretching itself along the hem of a bra, the contrast of a brown freckle on pastel skin.

“Any guesses?” she asked.

I shook my head and got out of line. From behind me, I thought I heard Mrs. Condell tell the students still waiting that the game was over. That she was done for the day, but I can’t be sure. Standing in a restroom stall a few hours later, I lifted my shirt and ran a finger along the thin line of belly just above my pants. Moments later, a knock rattled the lock of my stall, and I tugged the hem of my shirt down over my belt.

Churchyard’s Agog

by Kaylen Mallard


Benjamin Britten heard a bomb in Suffolk. He heard the graveled burst, the field golden green, whole, then not. Or perhaps what he heard was muffled, the grate of steel wool together, the scrubbing of pots. He knew though, the eventual composer, the someday lord, that he heard the explosion, his first remembered sound. In 1916, German ships bombarded Lowestoft, striking two homes neighboring Britten’s childhood road. Britten, towheaded, was two and a half years old.

I want the toddler Britten to have wandered into the desolated field days after the bombing. I want him to have discovered in the dark earth a shard of a tree, a chip of a brick, a remnant of something salvageable. I want him, the not-yet-prodigy, to have tucked the rescued debris into his pocket and turned it over and over in his hand creating a rhythm. I have no evidence of Benjamin Britten returning to that field, but if I insert this imagined scene into his childhood, then I also pretend that a teenage Britten placed his souvenir of destruction on top of his piano.


My partner, Kevin, an opera singer, woke me one morning with a line of Britten’s, “Churchyard’s agog with a crowd of folk.” His voice came full, but raw. He had not reached for his glasses yet. One window let sunlight into our attic apartment. Kevin turned his body toward me, brushed my hair away from my ear and repeated the line. “Churchyard’s agog with a crowd of folk who couldn’t get in for the service.” Just the one line. I listened. I didn’t know what agog meant or why the service, but as I awoke, I cared about the delicate string of words, the force of the consonants, the quiet spread of the “ch” into the “y,” the deep plunge of service.

I’m no music expert, and I can’t sing. I took seven years of piano lessons, but retained little beyond Every Good Boy Does Fine. When Kevin moved into my apartment, he brought only a suitcase of clothes and a box of opera scores. We saw eight operas that year, but he never offered me any musical insight other than the scores on the shelf, the seat in the theatre. Except, in his one line serenade, he did give me Britten.


Kevin appeared as Sid in Britten’s 1947 comic opera, Albert Herring. Sid sings “Churchyard’s agog with a crowd of folk who couldn’t get in for the service,” in Act II Scene I. “The plot is simple,” says critic Michael Kennedy, “The local (and teetotal)…Lady Billows, has offered £25 for the May Queen as an encouragement to virtue. The difficulty is that none of the village girls is wholly virtuous. Instead a May King is chosen, Albert Herring, who works in his mother’s greengrocer’s shop. Albert, as he tells his friend Sid, has never been allowed near the risk of any danger. On May Day, when Albert is to be crowned, Sid laces his lemonade with rum.” The rum prompts a bender. During Albert’s frivolity, the whole town suspects he’s been killed, his May King wreath found trampled by a cart. As the key players gather around Albert’s mourning mother, Albert pops home, alive and hung over. He confronts his mum about her hovering, and says “Jolly good riddance,” as he disposes of the crumpled wreath. Curtain. Albert Herring is given little attention by Britten biographers. The work fell between a success, Peter Grimes, and a failure, Gloriana, and catches in the slack between the two.

If I wanted to herald Britten or push an understanding of this man and his music, I would give you his other works. I would tell you about the lurch I feel when Billy Budd sings “On an empty stomach,” before his execution. It’s as though the melody shames me and I am weakened, wounded. Or I would tell you that in the same aria, “Look! Through the Port Comes the Moonshine Astray,” Britten silences the instruments when Billy sings “A blurs in my eyes; it is dreaming that I am,” and his composition move is expected and unexpected all at the same time. At least I think so.

Or I would pull you close to me and place you in a battered armchair and ask you whether or not you think the baritone singing “Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm/Great gun towering toward Heaven, about to curse,” in War Requiem is a second drum to the piece. I would watch your eyes during “Let us sleep now,” of the Libera Me section. I would not blink. I would watch to see if your irises deepen, your tear ducts flicker. I would watch you soften. I would soften. Britten said “Music…demands some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place, saving up for a ticket, some homework on the programme perhaps…It demands as much effort on the listener’s part as the other two corners of the triangle, this holy triangle of composer, performer, and listener.” But I would do nothing to prepare you. Not seek out a performance, not toss words like pacifism and ravage at you, not adjust the pillows behind your back in the chair. I would want to know the music’s potential, what it is capable of without any preparation.


Now, however, I am only concerned with “Churchyard’s agog,” its early-morning gentle punch, its beginning of the day.

“When did you start singing?” I asked Kevin. My head leaned against his shoulder. We sat on a couch that wasn’t his in an apartment where he paid rent but had no room. I had on clothes for the office. He didn’t.

“I was fourteen,” he said. “I was in chorus, and I wasn’t very good. The chorus teacher, he’d already decided to have me transferred to band. Then my ma passed. When I got back to school after the funeral, my teacher decided to give me one more chance. He hadn’t told me he was about to kick me out. I stood there and I sang and I didn’t get all the notes. But I got some. So he let me stay in chorus.”

Kevin’s Long Island accent thickened as he spoke. He hadn’t trimmed his grey/red beard in a few days, and from my position on his shoulder I took in the fatigue of his eyes. Just thirty-two, he looked as worn as the corners of his opera scores. This changed when he performed.

He’d loosen his jaw, shift his weight to his toes, and become a boy about to catch a fly ball. Only what he reached for was a note or two.

I didn’t think about the impetus of grief or question the sincerity of his story. I wondered if he, if we, if I, was lucky his mother had died. I knew that such a thought was problematic. A few days before I asked him about his singing, a friend called from an airport and stumbled through a few sentences about losing her younger sister—Hannah, brunette, school teacher, my age. She died suddenly, and soon my friend would tell of going to Hannah’s apartment to collect camisoles and socks, of guessing passwords and closing bank accounts because someone had to.

As Kevin told me of losing his mother, the sweet, soddy smell of decaying leaves drifted in from a broken window. I gave him no sympathy. I don’t even think I took his hand. But I did look at him full on, with a look that asked impossible asks. I needed to do something with destruction. I needed to feel grateful he could sing.


“Churchyard’s agog,” is a response from a boy to a girl. Nancy, Sid’s squeeze, asks him “What were things like down there in the town?” “Things” refers to the May King celebration. The clamor of the townspeople is important to the plot. Sid’s observations—the fuss, the chastity emphasis, Albert’s discomfort—are also important to the plot. I care less about the message. I like the exchange. What did you see? What did you hear? Where were you without me and can you bring me into that moment?

After returning to Britain from America, Britten sometimes composed at The Old Mill at Snape, the home he had lent to his sister. He sat under rafters, flour falling, a fine decrepit beige powder coating him, coating his pencil, his score. I imagine him writing the music for Sid and Nancy’s exchanges. The curiosity over the May King service not the only one in the opera. There’s the gift of the peach, the beg of a kiss. There’s the promise of an evening walk, says Sid, “Arm in arm, your hand in my pocket.” Small glances, small utterances, signaled with the flute here, the violin there. All the while mill remnants obscured the pencil marks, and Britten would have to pause and shake the score, watching the flour fall onto the floor. “Sid and Nancy are uncomplicated,” wrote a biographer, “their love music as warm and touching as any Britten wrote.”


Kevin didn’t often wake me by singing. When he did, he sang only that one line of Sid’s. No hands in his pockets, no “Girls mean prowling round in bleak and wintry weather whisp’ring whisp’ring whisp’ring I love you, I love you, I love you.” Once, we spent forty-eight hours driving to St. Louis for an audition. I reclined beside him west through Tennessee and north through Kentucky, a respiratory infection battling in my chest. He hummed and sang scales and moved his right hand up, down, in a half circle, in a full circle, embodying each musical transition. I don’t remember if I asked him why the gestures, but I do remember he didn’t explain them. I waited in a coffee shop while he auditioned.

“How’d it go?”

“It’s over.” He looked like a child caught with a smudged face. Unsure how he came by his predicament and unsure how to escape it. “I sang well. I just got stuck a bit. I couldn’t remember the repetition. I just couldn’t remember that Figaro was supposed to be said over and over. I froze. But I made a joke about it and the judges laughed.”

The fragment of music, other than “Churchyard’s agog,” that Kevin sang around our home was the “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro,” section from The Barber of Seville’s Larga al Factotum” aria. The two lines of music are some of the most common. Even BugsBunny acting as a disinterested and spastic composer managed to coax the name from an unseen baritone. Kevin stared out the coffee shop window while recounting the blown audition. I tried to read something more than disappointment in the way he cast off the mistake, embellished the reaction of the judges to his joke. I wanted him to bring me into that moment of sound and judgment and choking with him. I wanted to know how one forgets a word so familiar to one’s voice. I’d heard Figaro, Figaro, Figaro from the shower, the decibels changing, steam wafting through the doorway’s cracks. I’d heard the name as he stood over dishes in the sink, as he made coffee, as he stretched, oafish and warm, across our futon.


After hearing one of Britten’s early compositions performed, his father asked him, “Ben my boy what does it feel like to hear your own creation? Didn’t you want to get up and shout— It’s mine! It’s mine!” Friends, contemporaries, biographers say that Britten remained humble, taking pride in his work but shrugging off praise. They also say he had an acute sensitivity to criticism, sometimes wondering if the muse had deserted him. He let his early operetta Paul Bunyan fall into oblivion believing it “bewildering and irritating,” as the critics had said. Thirty-odd years after its first performance, Britten sat listening to a revival of the piece, and the strength of it startled him. He didn’t jump out of his chair, but the tears reported to have filled his eyes say as good as any shout, “It’s mine.”

Every day we spent together, I wanted Kevin to get up and shout “It’s mine! It’s mine!” It’s my voice. It’s me making the gentle wash and the arresting burst. It’s me pushing high and pushing low, asking you to wade through nuance, picking out sea glass buried in the sand. It’s me with a song masked as a scream, making you turn, frightening you, enlivening you. His slip of Figaro was an honest mistake, yet it seemed to me a deeper failing. You can’t claim what you can’t hold onto.


There is a problem in the plot of Albert Herring. Albert manages to “cut the apron strings,” as Sid recommends after only one night on the town and a £3 loss. Too much change occurs too quickly. I imagine Albert woke the next morning and staggered to the washbasin. He braved the mirror and said to his now worldly face, “Never again.” I suspect never again proved true. Albert remained the assistant in his mother’s shop, compiling the cartons of mixed herbs, weighing the apples, sweeping and sorting. But we forgive the plot’s weakness. The music bringing us to Albert’s conversion holds us, and that is enough, even if the next morning Albert falls back into his innocent, fearful life.

Long after Kevin left, I listened to “Churchyard’s agog” in its entirety. “Service” still held me, the depth of the grave, of all the others waiting, waiting, in the churchyard to enter.

Then, the coloratura of “hereafter,” I had forgotten about, and I floated up away from the headstones. The song finishes with “I’d like to see him go for good,” a clean, quiet, leveling close. It brings both feet against the ground. I could touch the damp, weathered stone of the church’s doorframe.

I don’t know if this baritone solo is brilliant music. I don’t know if it’s great music, or even good music. I just know the opening two words, “churchyard’s agog,” made me listen. To notice, early one winter morning, the ridges of Kevin’s fingertip across my brow, and the way each letter of each sung word could tether me to something known or set me free. Benjamin Britten died in 1976 in his partner’s arms. Fifteen days later, one of his last compositions, String Quartet number 3, debuted. Some have suggested the abrupt ending of the last movement was Britten’s way of saying “I’m not dead yet.” When I lean into the final seconds of the quartet, I hear the notes fade, and then resurge. They tunnel towards a low note’s lead and open into a clearing, the field, golden green, whole.


Reading Aloud To My Cat

by J. Weintraub


Reading my writing aloud—and I write primarily fiction and personal essays—has always been part of the drill for me. It’s the penultimate or even ultimate stage in my obligatory revision/rewriting sequence: from the initial handwritten drafts; through revisions on screen, with their multiple font and type-size permutations; to several printed versions at the end.I once read somewhere about a writer who hung his manuscripts up on a clothes line, like drying laundry, and then reviewed the pages sequentially through a pair of binoculars. I’ve never gone quite that far to gain distance, but I have been known to print out my hard copies in different colors—red, green, purple—to view each with a fresh eye.

And then I apply a fresh ear since sound, of course, is an important component of most texts, from libretti to exercises in rhetoric. So, I read my prose aloud through several versions, and at least once through nonstop before signing off on it, listening to its rhythm and flow, for the aural sense of it all, as much on the lookout for false notes and discords as for missteps in grammar and usage.

But one day I realized that as long as I was reading my work aloud, particularly at these late stages of the game, I could also seek out a trial listener or two, apply another fresh ear to it and perhaps a fresh critical eye. Certainly, my traditional audience, the four walls of my study, had always been coldly objective and usually nonthreatening, but other than an occasional faint echo during some of my more energetic moments, their feedback was non-existent.

The ideal public for any writer is usually the writer, and with that in mind, I extracted from the depths of my closet an old tape recorder, purchased many years before when Studs Terkel’s books were climbing the charts. After testing it briefly, I grabbed my latest piece and read it slowly and clearly into the microphone. Once finished, I played the tape back; one more chance, I thought, to polish my prose, one more round of auto-criticism.

Perhaps it was the age or the quality of the tape or some failure in the technology, since listening then to my audio was rather like gazing into a mirror the morning after an all-night binge and wondering just who that pathetic, alien creature staring back at me could be. Maybe after multiple listenings, I might have become accustomed to that scratchy, whiney, petulant, unconvincing voice, but that was unlikely, and clearly the better alternative was to destroy both the tape and the recorder. In fact, I was inclined to destroy the manuscript itself (a rather radical form of auto-criticism), but instead secured it in a file drawer where it will remain until the last semblance of the sound of its owner’s voice, like the aroma off a scrap of rotting meat, distills into the atmosphere.
Since my ideal audience was then no longer available, I went in search of other sentient beings who, through feelings of either compassion, sympathy, obligation, or pity, might be willing to listen in polite silence as I read long and hard out to them. The obvious candidates, of course, would be selected from family and friends. Unfortunately, for some time now, I’ve been mining my own experience for both my fiction and essays (Write what you know, right?), and my auditors would often insist on identifying themselves or a loved one in whatever text I was reading, occasionally with good reason. Rather than hearing from them about the integrity of my narrative structure or the elegant lyricism of my prose, I’d get comments like: “Do you really think I’m fat?” or “Mom will never forgive you if that’s ever published” or “I thought you were my friend.” In fact, I attribute the loss of two girlfriends to the process, one of whom identified herself in a particularly predatory and mendacious anti-heroine (although now that I think of it, they were both blondes) and the other who could find absolutely nothing of herself in any of my more sympathetic and attractive characters.
The last time I read to her, she left the room in tears, and I haven’t heard from her since.

It seems that, egos being what they are, some of my listeners were just as disappointed and just as indignant when they could find absolutely nothing of themselves memorialized or even mentioned in the persons or events of my texts. This urge to identify personal representations in my narratives and the contrary reactions when they either did or did not find themselves there soon disqualified most family and friends as a trial audience, with the exception of those who were writers themselves. Most writers, after all, clearly understand an author’s tenuous and often exploitative relationship with reality. Moreover, whereas others reacted in an emotional and personal way, my writer friends felt obliged to respond in an objective and professional manner, no matter how uncomfortable or threatened they might feel by my characterizations. Unfortunately, their commentary was heavily informed by workshops and classes conducted by veteran authors whose practical advice, intended to jump start stalled projects or overcome creative blocks, was converted by my writer-auditors into theoretical constructs for critical analysis. These often emerged as irrelevant critiques that I was not eager to implement or even hear, comments like: “I sort of liked your story, but your narrative arc seemed to flatline at about midway through, don’t you agree?” or “I sort of liked your story, but I couldn’t figure out if what was at stake was anything for anybody anywhere here” or “I sort of liked your story, but frankly I don’t have the slightest idea what your protagonist had for breakfast.”

So, I’ve switched to pets.

As an experiment, I first tried my goldfish. Although they swim around constantly, usually in wide circles, their tank is stationery, so they had no choice but to stick around for as long as I chose to read to them. But when I received not even the slightest reaction, I concluded that they probably had trouble hearing me through all that water, so I began to raise my voice. But the louder I raised it, the faster they began to swim until I was shouting and they were frantically speeding around the tank as if my prose were, rather than words, a succession of depth charges following them in their wake. The next morning I found a pair of them floating on the surface, and although I didn’t take that personally, I decided for both of our sakes not to read to my goldfish any more.

A poet friend recommended that I get a parrot, but just because he taught his pet to recite his own poetry at all hours doesn’t mean that I want to hear parts of my work repeated back to me nonstop by some vacuous bird in a voice recognizably my own but probably alien and shrill enough to make my miscarriage of a tape recording appear to be as consoling as a lullaby.
Dogs, on the other hand, might offer a reliable audience, particularly for someone in need of sympathy and unquestioned support. But they do get restless and usually prefer something other than words tossed in their direction. Nor would I expect much constructive criticism, since, as suggested above, dogs—unless they are rabid or have been trained for combat—are accommodating to a fault and full of blind loyalty. On the other hand, it doesn’t hurt to be reassured on occasion, and they’ll stick by you when all those rejections come pouring in. As a matter of fact, during one particularly low point in my life, I took a sack of soup bones and several draft chapters of a new novel into a back alley in search of strays; unfortunately, on that occasion all I attracted were a couple of rats, and the less said about them the better.

My landlord, however, is a cat lover and doesn’t allow canines in the building, and so, since I, too, have a cat, I read aloud to her.

Despite what you might think, cats listen. They may not make eye contact, they may turn their back on you and walk away down the hall, sprawl across the floor, and kick up their leg to lick their behind, but believe me, they are listening and aware. They are particularly attentive if they are a single cat and unconcerned about maintaining what I’m sure they would consider to be a superior relationship with a peer.

They are also very patient creatures, and will sit through what to them may be an excruciatingly boring experience if they think a payoff is somewhere down the line. Remember, the cat is a close relative of the lion, and lions have been known to crouch low in the veldt for days, waiting for a calf to wander from the herd with all the fierce and bloody patience of a copyeditor on the lookout for a dangling participle. Moreover, if you want to be assured of full attention, you can also schedule your reading so that its conclusion will coincide with your auditor’s dinnertime.

Dogs have been known to jump up and howl if your reading excites them, or leap onto your lap and slobber all over your face if they sense discouragement, as if to say, “Don’t worry, you’ll take care of everything in the next rewrite. I have faith in you!” But don’t expect much positive or negative feedback from your cat. Sometimes, mine will flick and sweep her tail usually in reaction to one of my more emotive passages, and during my erotic sequences (in which I take considerable pride) she will often slump down and, for some reason, begin cleaning herself. Once, though, she reared up, hunched her back, and actually hissed at what I think she took to be an egregious cliché, although I swear it was meant ironically (an effect often lost on both felines and inattentive readers).

As soon as I finish, I always ask, “Well, what did you think?” She will invariably approach and circle me several times, rubbing against my ankles and calves, which I take to be a sign of approval. Although as she turns her tail skyward and leads me into the kitchen, towards the refrigerator, I think I know exactly what she’d tell me if she could talk. “I suppose it’s all right,” she’d say, “but if I were writing it, I’d have a lot more sudden movement in it, and would it kill you to throw in a mouse or two?”

Which brings me to the moral of my tale: If literature were all about sudden movement and mice, cats would be terrific literary critics.



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