The Road to Hell By August Jones (2017)

When I was seven, we made poetry books in school. I wrote two poems about my childhood dog, one about my grandpa, and one about 9/11. The rest were gibberish. On the cover, I drew broken hearts, storm clouds, a syringe, and my mom crying in the den. My dog and grandpa had just died.

My mother says that Grandpa came back for her. When she arrived at the hospital he was dead. Then she held his hand, kissed his cheek, and prayed that she could say goodbye. He woke up and squeezed her hand before leaving again. She told us grandpa was in Heaven playing with our dog. She told us she could feel them in the den.

That Sunday, the pastor mentioned us in her prayers. For a while, my family went to church every week. My dad was the Church treasurer, my mom played piano for the choir, and my sister was a junior deacon. I went to Jesus camp and youth meetings and cried when I wasn’t old enough to join my sister on her first mission trip. That Christmas, she played Mary in the pageant. I was a donkey.

This may seem unexceptional to you, but my parents are probably not like yours. In retrospect, it’s a miracle they ever even wanted to be tamed.

My mom was the preacher’s daughter in a Baptist church with thousands of members. She wasn’t allowed to dance or watch movies and was always being stared at. When her high school boyfriend broke her nose, my Grandmother yelled at her for disgracing the family. Still, my grandparents liked my mom better than her brother. She was a piano protégée, which was convenient. They put a piano in the front of the church and made her play whenever someone was born or died. My grandmother offered to pay my mom’s way through college, but wanted a wedding in return. When my mom did get married at 18, my grandmother denied that she’d ever offered my mom a future. My mom swears if my grandfather weren’t so high on painkillers, he would have fought for her education.

My mother left her husband, her family, and her religion two years later. She moved to San Francisco and played music for the ballet. For a while, she lived uncontrollably. She drank 100-dollar glasses of wine and fucked men in the back of the trolley. She blasted rock n’ roll and got high to clean her house. She pulsed with everything that had ever been denied to her. Half a decade later, she was bankrupt. She lived in her best friend’s living room, until he died of AIDs.

That’s when my father stepped in, a rich man from Vegas with an exciting past. He paid off her debts and told her stories. My dad’s life started off pathetic and unremarkable. His mother left him, and his father was addicted to gambling and alcohol. I never met my grandfather, but I hear his favorite phrase was “You’re cruisin for a bruisin.” He hit my father with all sorts of things—belts, books, plates; whatever was around.

They say Vegas turns men into animals so they can survive the desert. My dad was a stray dog. His ribs were showing. He had scars on his back and nothing to stop him from wandering. He liked to camp in the Sierra Nevada. He once killed a rattlesnake and ate it. He let tarantulas crawl up his arms, and drank whisky under the moon.

When he was 20, my dad became a mentor to a 13-year-old boy named Mike. My father bought Mike his first drink after a motorcycle trip to Tijuana. The same day, my dad was arrested for punching a Mexican cop in a bar fight.

For a long time my Dad’s relationship with Mike was this was the closest thing he had to love. But he knew desire. His city fed off of it. It’s not so surprising, if you think about it, that a boy from Vegas would eventually want more. After Nam, my dad went to college where he learned that he was a genius. There’d been rumblings of this in his childhood—counting cards at 11, running a gambling ring by 15—but nobody was there to tell him he had potential. Soon he was giving talks at universities and had more than a million dollars to his name. Cue my mother: a pianist in red lipstick playing in a Yosemite hotel.

Together, they agreed they’d finally be normal. They had two kids, moved to Connecticut and went to church on Sundays. This is the world I was brought into; unaware it was an act that would erode or that I had wild blood in me.

Once, during the stretch of dial up days and MySpace popularity, my sister took a “What religion are you really?” quiz. The results told her she valued social justice, community work, and love above all else. All true, but why was the label Unitarian and not Congregationalist, she wondered. She biked to the church barn, where our pastor spent Saturday mornings making bread, and asked.

For all the time spent in church, we’d never realized Jesus was such a big part of our religion. This is a story I’ve heard a thousand times, that I have to remind myself isn’t my own memory. My mom tells it every Easter, though we don’t celebrate anymore. I think she does it to remind herself that she used to have a family, that she used to dress her kids up for church and prepare dinner at seven o’clock sharp, that for just a bit of her life she could have been considered normal.

Maybe if things had been different— if my Dad hadn’t taken that job in Texas, if mom hadn’t given into the loneliness, if she hadn’t traded in the piano for vodka, if my parents hadn’t bought that house, if my Dad hadn’t invested all his money into Madoff to pay off that mortgage, if he hadn’t lost everything he had spent his whole life working for, if my parents hadn’t started fighting about money at first and then everything else, if they hadn’t slept in different bedrooms, if they hadn’t both fallen into their own what ifs—maybe she could have kept that life.

But things happened the way they did and by the time my second dog died, my Dad was already depressed and missing and my mom was a teenager again. She was dating a man named Stan who told her to dance more and drink more and “here try this pill.” By then, we hadn’t gone to church in years.

Yet, as we sat around the dead dog crying, my mom said, “I see her spirit. She’s right here next to me.” My mother was loud in her grief, interrupting mine. I realized I didn’t believe in spirits. Life is tangible. I was stroking my dog when she died, and I felt it leave her. Ironically, it was Christmas.

That summer, I went to Costa Rica. I volunteered for what I had thought was going to be an animal shelter. In reality, I ended up working for a hoarder, named Vicki, with no veterinary skills. She plucked hurt animals from their homes and held onto them with no intention of releasing them into the wild. Though, I’m unsure if she knew this about herself. I watched a baby bird and a goat die under her care. The horses didn’t get enough to eat and kept running into the barbed wire.

A woman recently asked me for a testimony about the place. She’s trying to shut it down. I agreed, but felt surprisingly reluctant. Vicki doesn’t think she’s trying to tame the animals, she just wants to hold them and I was guilty of that too. I bottle fed monkeys and let them play in my hair.

I don’t really talk to people I met at the “shelter” anymore, but their memories stick to me. We didn’t have Wi-Fi or electricity, so when night sank in, we lit fires and drank and shared pieces of ourselves.

Cailin is obsessed with aliens and is in the air force. She was engaged with a wedding date and a venue, but the wedding was called off when her boyfriend said he could never marry a girl who wouldn’t have a threesome. Corey was the closest thing I’d ever seen to evil. His mother was addicted to meth and committed suicide when he was 12. It wasn’t long till he started using too. He got girls hooked and had his way with them, said that was the worst thing he ever did. He went to jail for rape at 19, “but just for a few months.“ Somehow, we didn’t hate him. Frejya grew up in a small Icelandic town where “everyone was the same.” She had a child at 17 and now she makes art for movies. She’s always been fascinated by death. She wants to interview a woman whose son just died. Rachel looks like a jersey cow, with big, innocent eyes. Her mom died three years ago. Nora is serious drug dealer. She started at age 11 and has worked with the Mexican mafia. She’s only thirty, but her hair is greying from the stress of it all. Marissa was raised in Bible belt Georgia, but isn’t religious anymore. She wears Chacos and has a tree tattoo on her calf. Her happiness is light and contagious.

Once a week missionaries visited the animal shelter. They called it community service. When they came, we had to make lunch in our rusting, outdoor kitchen for all twenty something of them. The head preacher, Jack, insulted the beans I had made—“How do you mess up beans?”—but raved about the meat. “What is this? Its delicious!” We told him it was beef, but had no way of knowing. We took our food from the garbage bins in grocery store parking lots.

I got a parasite in Costa Rica and brought it home, where I spent about a month keeled over toilets thinking of Jack. In a quiet way, I hoped he was sick too.

The missionaries were from West Virginia, the place my church goes to on its mission trips. My sister helped build houses there and met a woman whose teeth had rotted away from too much Mountain Dew. Like my sister was, the missionary kids were eager. I don’t usually like to be around children, but I like most every child. Before seventeen, your flaws aren’t your own. You can tell when an eight year old is going to grow up to be an absolute dick, but for now, he’s just reacting to his father. These kids just wanted to please God.

On Thursdays the missionaries gave outdoor sermons to the homeless. Most were addicts or mentally ill. Jack told them to “accept Jesus and all will be well.” Men talked about how God helped them turn their lives around. Then, they all spoke in tongues. The poor sobbed and knelt at Jack’s feet when he gave them hot dogs.

Every week I watched this and every week some boozy man would try to stroke my hair. Jack said I was God’s vessel… that more men were coming because of me. This made me nauseous. He ended a sermon once by saying, “If you don’t follow Jesus, you’ll be running and screaming like a little girl.”

That night, we had a goodbye party for Marissa, Frejya, and Cailin. Neither the missionaries nor Vicki were invited. However, Marissa’s friend Emily would be joining us. Emily had applied to work at the animal shelter, but was denied after admitting she occasionally smoked weed, which went against the no drug policy. Eventually, Emily found work at a hostel two towns over.

Emily had wavy, dirty blonde hair and speckled green eyes. Her charred pink lips looked spectacular against her golden skin. She didn’t wear makeup, but had a sunburn that made her cheeks rosy. She was tall—5’7” maybe, with long legs and a short torso. She was thin, but her body was soft and feminine. Her boobs were at least three times the size of mine. She looked like the Instagram girls you don’t tell people you follow, the ones from California who skateboard and surf and drink beer.

We started out at a bar with $2 drink specials. It was one of those bars that definitely looses money; where the bar tenders get wasted and put too much alcohol in the free drinks they offer pretty girls.

For the first time in my life, a woman bought me a drink. I felt pleased she could tell I was bi. I’d spent years wondering where the lesbians hide, hoping for this moment. But she wasn’t my type. She kind of looked like me with her square glasses, gymnast’s body, and sharp nose. She followed me to the bathroom twice. On my way out, she asked for a kiss. She bit my lip hard, like she wanted to rip it off and eat it, and then licked the grime off my tonsils.

I said goodbye and walked with my group to a consignment shop. We bought three bottles of Guaro, Costa Rican hard liquor, but didn’t have enough money for chasers. My boyfriend texted and I told him what happened. He doesn’t mind my dalliances with girls. “Just don’t leave me,” he replied.

Two women with matching tramp stamps drove passed us on a gulf cart. They told us to hop in and brought us to the beach, where a middle-aged man waited, setting palm tree leaves on fire. He licked his lips when he caught sight of me. Corey told him to check it.

My stomach was warm from the Guaro. The embers from the fire floated to the sky and became stars. Even the trees were dancing. “Lets go skinnn-n-n-y dipping,” Marissa said. I tried not to watch Emily peel off her shirt. I felt sticky from the heat.

Emily said my white butt was glowing. The rest of me was dark enough for people to ask “are you sure you’re not Tico?” Tico is a word for Costa Rican. “I don’t know. My mother was adopted, but she has blue eyes and red hair, so…”

Emily spanked me and giggled, “Let’s go!” She grabbed my hand and we ran into the ocean. There was a special type of phytoplankton that turned bright blue when agitated by exterior movement, so lines of light followed us. When the waves broke, a frenzy of blue dots clung to the shore. “We’re standing in the sky,” Emily said.

She ran her hand down my arm. I felt like the bioluminescent water, where she touched I burned, lit up. She kissed me carefully at first, stole my breath. Then wrapped herself around me. My whole body was throbbing for her.

Laughter trickled in from the beach. Emily didn’t want to miss out and took me back to the shore. We slipped into our clothes and dried by the fire. The middle-aged man was passing a blunt around. “Don’t smoke this unless you smoke at home. It’s the good stuff,” he said. Emily took a hit, and titled her head back to blow out the smoke. I wanted to kiss her neck.

Cailin, Marissa and Freyja talked about going home. They were scared. They’d devoured stories here. We all had. We wrote our own and listened to others’. What would it feel like to go home with all these news things inside of us? Would anybody notice?

Emily didn’t care to discuss things she had no control over. She pulled me back in. I got to kiss her neck. Then she looked at me with that look—too dunk, too high, dazed eyes. I rolled over. She held me. Our bodies fit together like puzzle pieces.

Corey had to kick and shake us awake. Everyone else had left. I walked with my head on Emily’s shoulder. She walked with her arm around my waste. A man trailed us, dragging his machete down the street. We were too tired and tingly to give him malicious intent. When we got back to the animal shelter, it was 5 am.

We were greeted with a warning, “watch out for Peanut.” Peanut was a monkey Vicki had hoarded. Apparently, he had gotten out of his night cage and ripped at Rachel’s face. Later that day, Vicki told Rachel not to get a Rabies shot. “I could be shut down!” she barked. Rachel knew that without treatment, Rabies is nearly 100% fatal. Still, we had to convince her to go.

A few days later, Nora told me Vicki was thinking about kicking me out. She had heard about the goodbye party and so had the missionaries. Jack told her I had taken advantage of her hospitality and that I had looked God in the eyes and betrayed him. They wondered if I were possessed. Surely, I had the devil in me.

Neither of them ended up confronting me. They didn’t have grounds to kick me out. I hadn’t smoked, and there was nothing in the rules against homosexuality. I still attended the outdoor services with a feeling of, well, power. He had made me feel so anxious, and now it was my turn. I talked to his children more. I gave his oldest daughter a copy of Bitch magazine that I’d brought to read on the plane and had been holding onto for no particular reason.

Before the missionaries went home, Jack baptized 7 people. The baptized fell at Jack’s feet and kissed his toes. Then, they went on being homeless. Eventually, they stopped waving and smiling to me on the street. They got drunk with a new kind of sadness. Hope is a nasty tease and we she leaves you, you’re ruined.

***

A year and a half later, I’m on a bus in Ecuador, talking to a girl named Hope. She has five siblings with names like Grace and Divinity. One of her sisters is lesbian. Another is suicidal. She says she loves them and that she cries when she thinks about their damnation.

I asked if the men who wrote the Bible could have misunderstood some things. She said it’s possible, but it’s not her place to pick and choose what’s real. She said religion isn’t about morality, it’s about following God’s rules. She told me that even though God is cruel, converting people is easy—“we all need something to believe in, to hold onto.”

It’s true. My mom is 62 and still thinks she can touch the world with her music. It’s what keeps her alive. I have a similar delusion—I want to be a best selling author—only my delusion is less sad because I’m still young. My sister is on the frontlines of America’s ideological war, advocating for civil rights through 90-hour workweeks. My dad just wants to shield his children from the mistakes he made, to give us everything he never had.

We all have our delusions, and some of us are lucky enough to realize them. But it really doesn’t matter if we do. We’d just strive for something else anyway. We hold onto the meanings we make. We live a life of choices and circumstance, and in the end, no matter what we’ve been through, we can create a story out of all the random things that have happened.

An excerpt of this piece first appeared in the 2017 edition of Long River Review. The above represents an unedited, full edition of this piece.

Splitting By Alyssa Palazzo (2017)

Left

I. She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. A slender Italian with olive skin and a swollen stomach sits across from me. We are on a train rushing to Manhattan, and her feet are propped on the red duffel that sits at my knees. Her long waves of hair frizz in the summer heat. Sweat coats her face and her chest. I want to be like this woman: beautiful and far from home.

I have never ridden on a train before, and if I look out the window I have to shut my eyes. I have a summer job on Fifth Avenue at a publishing house. I will live in an apartment with two walls of glass and lesbian roommates with tastes for good wine. My mother did not want me to leave.

“I never did things like this when I was your age,” she said. Her face was puckered around the eyes, her crow’s feet extending like roads from pools of blue. “Text me when you switch trains,” she said. “Do you have cash? Go get my wallet. You should always have cash when you travel.”

My mother has been looking old lately. Her father is dying in Henrietta, the little town he raised her in. He is a man who loves hummingbirds, and camping, and has been wheelchair-bound for the last four years. My mother asked me if I wanted to make the six-hour car ride north to say goodbye. Instead, I make the three-hour train ride south.

“Don’t leave,” my mother said. I left.

II. I have always wanted to be close to my mother, but my mother has taught me not to value relationships. She is the second of five sisters: Amy, Beth, Holly, Lisa, Carol. It reminds me of Little Women, only they never speak to one another. I do not know why my aunts don’t speak. They had as normal an upbringing as any other girls. My grandfather was a social worker for the state of New York, and the money didn’t stretch far over a family of seven. The girls got new shoes once a year, and my grandmother handmade all of their clothes – except for Carol, my mother likes to point out. Carol got the store-bought dresses.

Travel was limited to camping trips in the Adirondacks or Virginia Beach, memories my mother swears she’s been trying to repress for as long as she can remember. One year, at sunrise, my grandfather set off for the washhouse in his pickup truck and failed to realize that the tent was still tied to the car, all five girls inside. When passing hikers waved frantically, he smiled and waved back.

“Did you ever see any bears?” I asked my mother once.

“Only at the dump,” she told me. “We used to drive over in the car to sit and watch.”

I had always assumed that my mother and her sisters would share a common bond, that these crazy camping experiences would have pulled them all together. Yet whenever they meet there is rigidness about them. Their faces are taut as if they are all grinding their teeth. They do not speak.

“Why is this?” I ask my grandmother. I lie on a mattress I bought secondhand and listen to the static of the phone line. Traffic hums outside my window.

“Your mother’s sisters didn’t include her in anything,” she says. “Your mother was always reading or studying. She was the brilliant one of the bunch.”

“But what about the others?”

My grandmother considers.

“They’ve always fought,” she says. “Clothes, chores… Holly and Carol haven’t spoken to each other in four years.”

Even though my mother didn’t have a close relationship with her sisters, I had always assumed she’d want one with me. As a kid I’d wait for her to come home from the night shift and run outside when her car pulled up the drive. I wanted her to spend time with me before I went to school, and butter bread for my lunch, and tell me stories about her patients in the hospital. I wanted her to read my book reports, and tell me I’d done a good job on my poster of the atom, and watch my soccer games. I wanted her to advise me on where I should go to college, and support my choice to be a writer, and help me plan my future.

She didn’t do any of these things, but when she said, “Don’t leave,” I’d held out hope for so long that I almost considered.

III. Every morning the subway lulls me into a fog, during which I miss whatever stop I am supposed to disembark. When I stumble into W.W. Norton I am still in a half-dream, usually replaying a scene from whatever book I have most recently read.

When I was in high school I performed in Our Town and this summer, for no particular reason, the show sticks in my mind like old rice. I remember the scene in which Emily is dead and she decides she wants to relive her 16th birthday. As she stands in the kitchen she screams at her mother, “Look at me.” Her mother turns, and for a fraction of a second, you almost think she has looked.

Blood Ties

I. My earliest memory of my sister is of her drowning. I was six and she was two. She wandered away from my father and me while we visited a farm and tumbled into a pond. My sneakers were coated in muddy hay, and I tried to rub it off as I watched her. I remember her flailing arms; her baby bird mouth opening and closing; her fine hair plastered to her skull. Crows cawed in alarm. A Labrador ran down the slope, caught her by the shirt and pulled. When that didn’t work he positioned himself in front of her and used his nose to roll her up the bank. She was like a little Cinderella: all of the animals flocking to help her, while I stood by and watched.

I cannot remember anything else about my sister before that moment.

II. After spending the summer in New York, I return to Connecticut for my last year of college. I am a writer, and I take workshop after workshop. One professor who’s taught me four times in three years flips through my portfolio. “You always write about families,” she says. “Sisters, siblings, mothers, daughters… it’s the same themes over and over and over.”

I pull at a stray thread on my chair.

“I usually don’t see this kind of consistency in an undergraduate,” she tells me. “I don’t think you’ve ever written anything else.”

III. Sometimes it seems that all my memories of my sister are of her drowning. When she was three-years-old, she stumbled into the brook that ran alongside our house and fell face down into the water. Little leaves and petals rushed over her, the red hood of her jacket billowed up like a balloon. It took minutes for my father to realize she was missing, to stop the lawn mower and run to save her.

As a teenager, my sister developed a habit of running away, donned black clothes, and taught herself how to die. She was, and is, ethereal-pale, with big dark eyes and long hair, always piling on sets of crystal necklaces and rows of beaded bracelets.

My freshman year of college I came home for spring break with backpack full of gifts. My sister and I share a March birthday, but her room was empty.

“Where is she?” I asked my mother.

“In the hospital.” She stood at the stove mixing cake batter, a white smudge of flour on her forearm. “She was admitted a few months ago.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

My mother shrugged. “You never asked.”

I thought then, how easy it would have been to extend my hand, to pull my sister up from the water.

IV. When I am not writing, I sit in class and study fairy tales. I enjoy them because there is no reasoning behind any of the action. A boy butchers his brother, a chef cooks a young woman, a father cuts off his daughter’s hands. No one asks the storyteller, ‘Why did this happen?’ The reader simply accepts it and moves on.

My mother has never asked me to cut off my heel and shove my foot into a silver slipper, but I feel as though I have been living a fairy tale my whole life, that I have been listening to a story and not questioning it.

V. In the six years my sister is in and out of mental wards I do not visit her once.

I believe if I hold out long enough, my real family will turn up and whisk me off to a cottage in a faraway village, and I will live happily ever after. I learn there is a Freudian term for that. It’s called “splitting.”

Mr. Kurtz

I. While my grandfather is dying I develop a keen interest in my mother’s childhood. I want to know why exactly none of the sisters speak to each other, but when I ask my mother for any stories or early memories, she brushes me off. “I must have blocked it out,” she jokes. “Go ask your Aunt Holly. She’ll make up something for you.”

“You mean she’ll lie?” I ask.

My mother rolls her eyes. “Holly’s such an exaggerator. She can make a story out of anything.”

I do ask my Aunt Holly. I send her a long note full of questions and bounce on my heels until I receive her reply.

“Your mother was my favorite sister,” my aunt says. “I needed a big sister that I could look up to and your mother was perfect. She was the prettiest and the kindest and the smartest. When I needed a bridesmaid at my wedding I chose her.”

When I repeat this to my mother she snorts.

“Holly forgot to mention that I was the best cook.”

II. My aunts have my grandfather cremated. He surpasses everyone’s expectations and makes it through the summer and into the second week of December. I call and tell my mother I have moved my final exams to the beginning of the week. I can accompany her to Rochester for the memorial service.

“I thought you would like to stay home instead,” she says. “Someone needs to watch the dog.”

Outside my picture window the earth is frozen and dark. I do not want to go to the funeral; I was not close to my grandfather. I pushed the exams so I could be with my mother.

“Is that what you want?” I ask. “Do you want me to stay here instead?”

“Whatever you want.”

“No,” I say. “He’s your father. Do you want me to come?”

“You weren’t eager to see him before he died,” she says, and I rest my head against the glass. I shut my eyes.

III. Churches make me nervous, and I utter a silent thanks to Yahweh, Buddha, or whoever, that there are no crucifixes for me to inadvertently focus my gaze on. My sister is heaving dry ugly sobs and I think I should put my arm around her. Instead, I slide to my left and put a few more inches between us. My mother glances at her, pulls a tissue from her purse, and hands it to her with two fingers.

Sometimes, when I think of my sister, I think of the story of Bluebeard who butchers the girls he courts and stashes the body parts behind a locked door. All I have to do is open the door, put the parts of my sister in order and she’ll come alive again. Then I remember that I would have to court a serial killer and wander his house. It sounds like too large an undertaking.

My Aunt Holly is speaking at the lectern and I know I should pay attention, but listening to her makes my heart race.

“I was with him when he died,” she says. “I held his hand. It was hard toward the end. His mouth was very dry and he was very short of breath. He would start a sentence and only get three words out before he had to stop. But he said to me, ‘It was wonderful.’

“I kept asking, ‘What was wonderful, Dad?’” she continues. “But he just kept repeating it. I don’t know if he was referring to those last days at home, or raising his five daughters, or his life, but he thought it was wonderful.”

We stand for the Lord’s Prayer, but I don’t know the words, so I watch Holly walk back to her seat. Those last moments seem too unreal for me. I was expecting something from a Conrad book. The horror. The horror.

I remember then what my mother said about Holly, and I decide she is lying.

Rewrite

I. After finishing college and moving to New York, I never stop studying fairy tales. Marina Warner and Maria Tatar live in the stack of books by my bed along with old French translations and the Brothers Grimm. I like the singing bones and dark forests. I like the reassurance that there doesn’t have to be a happy ending, even as I try to find my own.

If I were to write my childhood over it would sound like this: Once upon a time, two girls lived with their mother. She encouraged them to play, and learn, and love one another. Whenever one of the girls had troubles, she would go to her mother, and her mother would fix them.

It seems so simple. Why did it not happen?

Whenever I see my mother’s family I dig for information in the most casual ways I can conceive of. My grandmother indulges me the most, because she knows I’m curious, and she tells my Aunt Carol and me the stories of each girl’s birthday.

“Your mother was the easiest birth,” she tells me. “And did you know that she was born on her exact due date and on Mother’s Day?”

Carol rolls her eyes. “Well, isn’t it just like Beth to show us all up.”

And at that moment I realize there is nothing. There’s no reason, no big bang moment when they all fell apart. I think of the Italian woman on the train with longing: I would give anything to run away and make a new family, in a new place, all on my own.

Instead, I go home. I call my sister.

“Hi,” she says. “They just let me out of the hospital!”

Over the last few years her voice has taken on a bright, dreamy quality. She no longer sounds the same at twenty as she did at fifteen. Everything is empty where it used to be filled with sharpness, and snark, and the bitter sing-song of our childhood.

“What happened?” I ask.

“I went crazy again.”

“Yeah,” I say. I trace the knots on my desk with my fingers. “That happens sometimes.”

I open my mouth to say, “Come stay with me in New York. You can live here for the summer,” but then I shut it. I don’t want to have my baby sister filling my apartment with her strange voices and scarred limbs, where she may try to hang herself in my closet, or absent-mindedly walk in front of a taxicab. Then I remember that she’s all I have.

“Come stay with me,” I say. “I mean it.” I’m trying to avoid thinking of anything that will make me take back my words, and she does not respond.

“Emma?” I ask, but there’s nothing. Her name just hovers there as an open-ended question, like Fitcher’s bird reborn from the tree.

This piece originally appeared as an excerpt in the 2017 edition of Long River Review. The above represents an unedited, full version of this piece.

i think i dreamed you by Aryanah Haydu (2017)

day 1
We met and though I was elsewhere involved, I knew that he would be the sweetest thing my eyes would ever reach. He had a long term girlfriend but still I couldn’t take my eyes from his toiled blonde hair those anesthetic blue eyes. He looked full to the brim with secrets and his full lips were set in a line, slipping up into a smile every so often. He had a jawline chiseled by the finest ancient Grecian sculptor and his deviated septum humbled his bone-shaking appearance.

bone-shaking: when I saw him I went cold to my core with a deep insatiable craving

And I knew then I wouldn’t stop until I had him. I knew even before hearing him speak that at some anonymous point, for some duration of time, I’d have him.

soft eyes melancholy eyes lingering–
sex sadness exposed under a lagoon pale blue
lips slightly parted, asymmetry imperfection
I’m going to skinny dip in those water eyes,
I’m going to know him I want to know all of him
to understand him inside
this mysterybeing this sultrysoul

day 67
The next scene takes place one stereotypically perfect summer day in August. The boy – a man really, 23, with broad tanned shoulders and disheveled bleachy hair – leads me up the winding staircase of a dilapidated building that stands tucked between a beachside city in Rhode Island and the sea surrounding. As we reach the top, I understand why those who’ve been here have maintained the spot’s secrecy. The rooftop appears untouched for what seems like decades, a private hideout for curious lovers. I look out and revel in the work of art before me, unparalleled by any photograph or any painting. This art is tangible; I want to hold the landscape in my hands, shake it like a snowglobe and watch the shades of green blend together like impressionist brush strokes, the waves crashing delicately as if set in slow motion. The sun hangs in the sky, dipping its toes in rippling water. Graffiti adorns the speckled buildings around us and plays psychedelic tricks on our eyes. I stand leaning on the rusted rail of the abandoned rooftop and the image seems to be holding the universe together. It seems that if either of us move, if the peace of the moment is disturbed, the whole world will unravel. Chaos will ensue.

I live for that ephemeral presence of air poetry
the moment itself worthy of a museum wall–
sentimentality painted into the strands
of this one fleeting masterpiece
this temporary traveling exhibition
it is a clichéd take from a poorly-funded indie film:
camera shaky liquor sharp / spirits high lighting low

the smell of salt
the sound of waves
the taste of sweat
the feeling of his skin
the view from the open rooftop of
a forgotten skeleton (this building).
when eventually the moment slips away in secret
like a one night stand tip-toeing his escape
no goodbye.

lost in conversation lost in you
voluntarily trapped in my subconscious I’m not confident in my ability to escape – even if I tried even if I wanted to. high ideas of you; green clouds hazy images of your body over mine lingering like smoke… floating above reality with you / in another galaxy with you. I trace all the constellations of your skin with my tentative tongue, connecting dots lost in the chaotic cosmos of your eyes. let’s smoke again.

The star-spangled sky lay above the seaside city, leaving a dim air of light just barely illuminating your features. We sat side by side, legs dangling off the pier hanging above calm waters. Your tattered flannel feels like home over my nicest dress; it subdues the subtle chill running down the spine of the summer evening. We tilt our heads toward the starscope, breathing in deep enjoying a buzz from the Dark and Stormies we sipped at dinner. I was 19; you made me feel old and young at the same time.

“I think that’s Jupiter right there. That tiny speck is an entire planet.” You spoke the periods that ended your sentences each an intimate silence.

“The Universe is crazy, isn’t it? We’re so small.” I always thought you looked so sexy when you stumbled over your thoughts, your words sending my mind on marathons and my libido chasing its tail in circles.

“It is crazy – kinda freaks me out if I think about it too hard. It’s scary how much we don’t really matter, ya know?”

“Yeah. We do matter, though, relatively. You matter to me. Don’t think you don’t.”

Blood to my cheeks. Although I put all my effort into suppressing my dorkish smile, I slip. You smirk back the way I like.

say goodbye to the too-good-to-be-true kind of love     oh, i could die

/ACT CHANGE/

day 123
I am nomadic in my pursuits. I move from hell, to purgatory, on to paradise (if I’m lucky). nothing is permanent and I like it that way. I crave chaos, the burning satiating sensation Hell brings—substance abusing sexual arousal, a complete lack of regard for anyone other than myself. I think it’s healthy to let selfishness consume you – at least for a few hours. days. weeks, maybe. until you reach purgatory— when the guilt consumes you and you recognize that you cannot live a balanced life fueling the fires of Hell. you scold yourself this isn’t the real world… you tell yourself I’ll be better… And you are. Better by the standards of our hypocritical cookie-cutter society. I do what I am told, completing the chores of pious monogamy and modern domesticity. finally, I arrive in paradise. I am agreeable, I’m whole and simple.

…soon though the demons lure me down, a brown haired distraction
with a strong jaw and a golden bottle of liquid courage…
back to Hell I go, smiling ear-to-ear the entire ride.

now i’m strangled by guilt
squeezing into a corset that’s a little too tight
i can’t commit, i guess i should’ve told you that before
i could be should be quiet and wholesome
but where’s all the fun then?
(i’ve surrendered myself to exquisite men).
an inner monologue between the devil on one shoulder
and an angel on the other
Satan over there suggesting all seven sins
while the angel apologizes for interrupting,
but I “really probably shouldn’t”
although I usually do…
flirtation whispers in my ear
and the allure of deception seduces me

eventually the devil wins, as he always does.

dissolve to: separation
day 182
a letter

writing “dear” felt unnatural… how do people start letters now? Shit this whole thing is strange, speaking to you through a fucking letter. Anyway, thinking back it’s funny how curious I was about you from the second I laid eyes on you. Walking around campus in your glasses a mess your books almost tumbling out of your hands. I hoped they’d fall just so I could’ve had the chance to pick them up for you. It’s funny how we found our way to each other. What we had (whatever we had) was real but it wasn’t.

It was real but I couldn’t fill all that was missing. I think you just wanted every experience and every feeling you could feel. I know that and I forgive you even though you don’t need to be forgiven really. I hate how things happened but I get it. It’s just we could’ve been great, you know. We could’ve really loved each other one day. Fuck you.

Sorry — this is hard. The past is the past and I wanted to send you this because what we had was worth more than some bullshit texting conversation. I wanted to tell you I loved the summer we spent together and I loved making love to you. Of course I’m mad and I’m sad about everything that happened, but I hope you find all you’re looking for. Fuck I hope I do, too.

sincerely,

yours

always

the next summer: about one year from the beginning
day 372

eyes closed, I dream your ghost next to me
frigid winter night turns back to lush summer mornings
tangled in your sheets legs tangled in each other’s legs

your sunbleached hair is pulled back messy eyelids flutter open, bleachedblue
shining with the albedo of the daylight spilling through the open window
you utter something in your sleep, subconsciously pull me closer by naked waist.

i wanna steal the clock – dissolve time
stretch the moment on forever.
i dare you not to move.
We could lay in this bed forever.
let’s never move.
blink awake, back to reality this time
and it’s another cold morning
i’m alone now
— you moved.

The Things He Taught Me
I. Clear your mind often – It is easier than you think.
II. There is nothing a nicely rolled spliff cannot cure.
III. Sharing everything with another human being is exhilarating.
IV. Do not confuse commitment with confinement.

Giuffrida park on
E year sin
Ce I’ve seen you
R face
And I think
I stil
Love you
R memory
But you
‘Re different n
Ow I am too
How poignantthe park
stayed the
Same.
The death of
Love is n(ever)
n(atural).

but when I see you again I reach for my scars
familiar lips now unfamiliar face
the same eyes (same same but different)
my soul falls into sinking i’m sinking
deeper between fumbling hands that hold me like i’m
glass fragile and i’ve never felt so fragile
swimming in a glass of champagne and lost time
so many nights i felt the ghost of your
fingertips ridges on a blank canvas
strokes over lonely linen so lonely
for you i fill the empty spaces with hollow bodies
back beaded sweat and i never listen to the words
they say i just play your laugh over on repeat
till the record spinning between my eyes skips
the sound lost as i am

all is lost until i’m back in this
moment.

An excerpted version of this piece first appeared in the 2017 edition of Long River Review. The above represents a full, unedited version of this piece.

“The things that hold you back can often help you”: An Interview with Poet Allison Joseph, By Taylor Caron (2017)

From left to right: Parker Gregory Shpak, Sean Frederick Forbes, Allison Joseph, Breanna Patterson, Betty Noe, and Jameson Croteau. (Photo taken at UConn, February 2017, by Sydney Lauro)

It’s been said that expectations are best kept low when meeting a brilliant writer. This advice makes sense when one considers that a writer is presenting their best, most polished self on the page. The real thing should inevitably yield disappointing. I feel privileged in being able to verify that this is not the case with renowned poet Allison Joseph. The distinct idiosyncrasies and tonal qualities of her voice on the page are to be found in conversation. It became less mystifying to me how one poet could publish works as diverse as In Every Seam, Soul Train, Imitation of Life, My Father’s Kites, and the recent chapbook Multitudes after speaking with her. Her chameleon-like ability to speak in the most sublimely high register or slangy conversational tone is unique to her specific background and literary diet. She was born in London, England to parents of Gernadian and Jamaican heritage, and was raised in the Bronx, New York City. She lives in the Midwest where she is Associate Professor of English at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale and is the editor in chief and poetry editor for the Crab Orchard Review. Her honors include the John C. Zacharis First Book Prize, fellowships from the Bread Load and Sewanee Writers Conferences, and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry. While the subjects of her writing range from love poems, political poems on race, or the heavily imagistic, at least two commonalities remain: her abundant humor and generosity of spirit. She kindly agreed to be interviewed by me for the Long River Review journal during her visit to UConn in February, and I hope that readers can sense those qualities as she indulges my various questions.

Editor’s note: The text below is the unedited, full transcript of Allison Joseph’s interview.

TC: Yesterday when you were reading “Pedestrian Blues” and “To Wanderlust” you mentioned being a “handicap walker,” but as you were reading I could sense the movement of the poems. There’s a sense that when engaging in walking you are able to discover new things but also reflect on events past?

AJ: Yes, I run and I walk a lot. And I became a runner basically for health reasons, but walking is really meditative for me. It opens up my mind and as I’m passing through new places. In those moments I may have a line or reflection come into my head. I think I’m just taking advantage of that. More recently I’ve been thinking about my late father-in-law who had Parkinson’s. His ability to walk was taken for him and that was horrible, having to witness that of a loved one. So lots of time when I walk or run I think about him and how many of us abled body people take the capacity of motion for granted.

TC: Yeah, you seem to bring a consciousness and intentionality to the activity that I think eludes most able-bodied people. It reminded me of Thoreau’s essay which is just called “Walking”. For him, being able to move through nature was essential for writing. Do poems come to you during that time?

AJ: Not so much when running, usually because I’m on a treadmill or with music on, but definitely. I was just walking around here and [UConn] is a great walking campus. I saw a lot of lovely people running and walking about so when the weather isn’t punishing you this could be a great place for regular walks (laughs). And you mention Thoreau, that’s a very New England kind of idea which I feel quite comfortable with.

TC: This might be a somewhat related question: I was thinking of your poem “Sleepaway Camp” while you were reading “The Black Santa” last night. I was wondering how you view the role of memory in your poems. These are sometimes distant memories from your childhood and yet you’re able to conjure this vivid detail of the moment. Do you feel memories are partly constructed or even created when writing?

AJ: Yes. I am very cognizant when writing nonfiction, and I’ve published some nonfiction, that it has to be verifiable. I wrote an essay about my father and his relationship to 70’s television shows. One of his favorites was All in the Family, which was peculiar to me because Archie Bunker was a stone cold racist. Everything I wrote in that essay I felt I had to research. But when I’m writing a poem a sort of reverie takes over. In the moment of creation, I’m convinced that somebody’s sweater was blue. There’s no way for me to verify that, but for the purposes of that poem it’s going to be blue. That’s the distinction for me. Poetry is a kind of fiction, it’s a fictive activity. A world is created in the poem, but when I’m writing it I think to myself “This is the God honest truth.” But who knows? I always don’t. I feel that what I’m invoking is true even if it isn’t literal truth. I always tell my students: if in your poem you want it to be a rainy day but it was actually sunny, you can make it rainy.

TC: I’ve been thinking about this recently. How much does a poet identify as a memoirist or a fiction writer? I help edit LRR’s nonfiction panel and we’ve received some autobiographical poems which led to an interesting debate.

AJ: With “The Black Santa” poem I looked at the photo of him, and I think I made him look a little sickly looking. I went back and looked at him and thought: Hmm, Black Santa doesn’t look too bad! But I swear to this day that he either smoked too much or drank too much or both. But hey, it’s a department store Santa job, I probably would do the same (laughs).

TC: I was thinking last night during your reading, you know some poets can be captivating on the page but the reading can be a bit sort of droning…

AJ: Narcoleptic?

TC: Yes, exactly!

AJ: This is an area I’ve gotten more interested in. Bringing in videotape or audio tape. Sometimes it’s inspiring and really throws you. In my graduate class we heard some recordings of Sylvia Plath who as a poet I deeply admire, as a person I don’t think I would have liked her that much.

TC: Or be like her?

AJ: Right. But her voice was so off-putting. It sounds like a put-on to us. It’s this overarching New England, Boston accent that sounds like a parody of itself. It sounds contrived. And after she married Hughes, you know, and made recordings for the BBC. There, it sounds like she’s putting on an England on top of the already New England accent (laughs).

TC: I’ll have to find those tapes and give them a listen. I have to say though, when you read it sounds very authentic. It almost reminded me of a kind of slam poetry in the way you were engaging with the audience, making eye contact, or making a side comment. And it was very funny, there was a lot of laughing going on.

AJ: Well a lot of people are convinced poetry readings are supposed to be very somber. When I did a reading from my book My Father’s Kite which are a series of elegies for my late father. The first time I read from that book I read them all the way through and people were crying by the end and I thought, oh God.

TC: You didn’t feel good about that?

AJ: I did, in a way. It is kind of a rush to know you can manipulate people’s emotions like that (laughs). But the next couple of times I read from it I would intersperse more comments to give people’s emotions a break.

TC: Well last night was interesting in that regard because many of the poems were quite compelling. But I found, not just at the reading but when I was alone going through your work, I would laugh in the most beautiful kind of way – the kind of wholesome laugh that as you’re laughing something profound is activating.

AJ: There’s a poem I wrote called “Weeping at Someone’s Funeral” which is the kind of phenomena of people going to funerals as an athletic event where they’re crying more than the bereaved. I read it recently and people approached me saying they didn’t know whether to life or cry. And I thought, that’s it! That’s exactly what I’m trying to evoke.

TC: How do you find that tone? Does it have to do with wordplay?

AJ: Yep. I think of writing in general as playing with words. For some writers writing is definitely work. And I definitely feel that when I write prose. I think to myself: This writing in sentences business is really work. But poetry allows you to play with language not just from the figurative side, but sonically. If you spent a lot of time, and I know there are lots of elegant prose stylists, but if you spend so much time you’ll never get to the plot or characters. With poetry you have more latitude.

TC: Interesting, this might not be relevant but I heard Joyce Carol Oates once say that she couldn’t be a poet because when she thinks of an idea it’s a character or story.

AJ: Right, and she’s lying because she’s written a lot of poetry. Many prose writers have, like Margaret Atwood and Louise Erdrich. A lot of people who people think of as just prose writers have written poetry. Erdrich was a very fine poet until she committed more fully to prose.

TC: Does that have something to do with the Faulkner line that novelists are failed poets?

AJ: Perhaps. But there are writers who I have claimed as poets that are not literally poets. Like Tennessee Williams, who did write poetry but it was dreadful. However, there are passages in his plays that are so charged with beautiful language that you let him in the poetry club.

TC: I wanted to ask you about issues of formalism. I was reading your book of sonnets called The Purpose of Hands in which all poems follow the strict rules of meter and rhyme that a sonnet requires. But then there are other books in which a lot of the poems are more free verse. There seems to be a debate right now that poetry is becoming to formless and then there’s the new formalism trying to combat that notion.

AJ: Well I know poets who essentially are prose poets. They don’t even write in lines. I think you have to figure out what it is you’re willing to teach yourself. I did write a lot of free verse early in my career and then I started teaching a lot of poetics courses. The course I’m teaching right now is on forms of poetry. I’m the kind of person that in order to teach something I have to do it myself. What became obvious to me is that the more formal verse I wrote the more free verse I wrote. It wasn’t one or the other. I could formal verse to generate ideas that I could use in free verse and vice versa. For me it’s all poetry. I will say I don’t write much prose poetry because when I wrote prose I want to write a character or about an issue that might be too big for a single poem. The essay on my father and television made me realize it was not going to be one poem. I wanted to talk about the various aspects of him as a black man being attracted to these negative issues. It was more idea based.

TC: So when you do write more formal poetry, whether it’s a sonnet dedicated to your husband or an elegy dedicated to your father, do you set out to write a poem in those forms? Or does it slowly become apparent which form is the most appropriate?

AJ: With My Father’s Kite, after his death I found that I couldn’t write free verse. That the elegy was a kind of mechanism to control the emotions because it was a painful death. And I did a lot of work cleaning out the house, settling his affairs, so there was something about the mechanism of 14 lines giving me a kind of control I began to rely upon. And there were other forms and poems in that book, including some free verse.

TC: But the restrictions helped?

AJ: Yes. The things that hold you back can often help you.

TC: You mentioned that you would assign your students to write a poem about the most insignificant subject possible. I was wondering if you challenge yourself to do that because, for me, your kind of writing is almost superior to reality. Time becomes slowed down in your poems and you see objects in a clearer way, almost as if for the first time.

AJ: I’m going to risk sounding like a broken record. But part of the reason I don’t drive is the world offers you the best materials in bus stations, airports, on the train. You see people in transit emotionally. I also believe in eavesdropping. I hear phrases and steal pieces of dialogue. I believe that if we are aware to the world around us — you know some young writers believe you have to suffer this terrible life or hardship in order to be able to write. There have been writers that do things like go off in search of adventure to have something to write about. I never felt that way. I always trusted the universe would provide for me, poetically speaking. You can ascribe religious meaning to it but I’m convinced that if I keep my eyes open there will always be enough.

TC: So is paying attention the best advice you can offer a young poet? Do you think being glued to one’s phone impedes that kind of concentration and participation required?

AJ: It can. And it’s very seductive, we all do it. But sometimes people will say something online that will trigger something for me into a poetic idea.

TC: That’s interesting. Something unrelated I wanted to ask you about has to do with two things you’ve mentioned in your writing and yesterday: Odes and Pablo Neruda. Neruda seemed to write an ode about practically anything: numbers, bees, etc. Did he expand the possibility of the genre for you?

AJ: It stands in stark contrast to Keats who had a very set rhyme scheme with specific movements. I do teach “Ode to Autumn” just so my students know where this notion of praising comes from. But I do an exercise with Neruda’s collected odes, and I’ll assign them a certain number in the book and make my students write an ode about whatever he wrote about. So yeah, in addition to being deeply involved in politics and having his own literary spats with poets.

TC: My question is about your odes being directed at, not necessarily yourself, but a part of yourself. It’s sort of an expression of self-love. Did Neruda open that up for you?

AJ: Not necessarily, you know his sonatas really helped me in that way. It’s just trust that anything the world shows me is worthy of praise, I am going to go there.

TC: We were talking about wordplay earlier, and at times it can be very whimsical and fun but also quite serious. There’s a line from your poem “On Being Told I Don’t Speak like a Black Person”: “Now I realize there’s nothing more personal than speech.” I wonder exactly what you mean by personal.

AJ: It’s like an imprint the way that you speak. I speak in different accents a lot as a Caribbean immigrant and then living in New York, and now I’m married to a Southerner. I’m just interested in the human voice, period. And if we don’t maintain interest in the way we sound and try to mute everybody and smooth off all the difference, how boring will that be?

TC: That line about the importance of the individualized nature of speech, but some of your poems have more of a political or social bent. Many do not, but considering the actions of the current executive administration, I find it interesting to track the way language is being used.

AJ: Yes, it’s been driving me nuts. And it has been driving me to write. I wrote a poem that people have been spreading around, and it was the day that Kellyanne Conway invented the phrase “alternative facts.” It started as a kind of joke like, well, now cake is celery. Laughter can be a good way of getting through these things. Anyway, the poem ended up on Lit Hub, and then I was contacted my NPR and they asked me for a recording. That proved to me a couple things, there are people who are interested in language as it should be used, and they don’t to be deceived. It also let me know language is going to be crucial for our political survival. And I don’t consider myself an overtly political person, but it’s a matter of what pushes buttons and what I can do with humor. There were a lot of writer’s resistance events and I didn’t immediately join those because I was still stunned and waiting to see what was going to happen. It’s interesting though, growing up in New York everybody hated Donald Trump for one reason or another. He was ruining the New York skyline with these gaudy buildings and taking out ads against the Central Park Five.

TC: So he’s almost the part of the milieu of your childhood?

AJ: Yeah, I mean we all knew the Trump Tower was this gaudy eyesore. And you know the way that people defend things from him that they would not accept from other politicians is something that mystifies me.

TC: But that’s what interesting in relation to political language. Because as you know some poets are more explicitly political while others are less so. But does there comes a moment when a poet has an obligation to language in public discourse. You think of Auden’s poem after Poland was invaded for example. Do you feel that duty?

AJ: (Sighs) I think people are going to be asking themselves that much more than they are used to. I taught a class on poets as world figures and I asked the students whether they thought of themselves as political poets and nobody said they did. There was a kind of stigma that political poetry didn’t have literary value or was just propaganda. But toward the end one of my students wrote a chapbook all mocking Donald Trump. I don’t think he would have written those if we hadn’t read those poets who were killed and jailed for wiring poetry. We talked about Dennis Brutus who was in the same prison as Mandela. I said to my students, think about this: His punishment was to break big rocks into smaller rocks. I was lucky to have the opportunity to meet him when he was at the University of Pittsburgh years later. And there was no sense of bitterness. There was just a desire to want to continue to write. When he was in prison they didn’t want him writing at all, so he write letters to his sister Martha, in poetry. So in times like these, I think of someone like Dennis who under the worst possible circumstances still found that identity as a writer and a poet and found it absolutely intrinsic.

Interview by Taylor Caron