Dark Sky City

Vix Gutierrez Dark Sky City Later, you will find out that the man who presented your face to the pavement is a six-foot-two, two-hundred-plus-pound former enlisted...

Issue 28/29: Spring/Summer 2020

Our First Decade

Celebrating 10 Years of Subtropics.

Florida Then

A little gallery of images depicting “the state with the prettiest name” (Elizabeth Bishop)

Experience Subtropics

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Dark Sky City
Current Issue
Issue 28/29: Spring/Summer 2020
Our First Decade
Florida Then
Experience Subtropics
Subtropics 28/29 cover art: The illustration on the cover is from a private collection.

Chorus Line

Daisy Fried

Chorus Line

After she handwashed
in a mint green pail
eleven pairs
of black tights
then hung them
on the PVC clothesline
out back, she found
the early evening
air grew too
chilly so went
in to read more
on her Kindle
though her currently
difficult husband
was also within,
“divided between
the impulse to
laugh aloud
and the equally
impulse to burst
into scornful
invective,” and so
from the corner
of her eye she
didn’t notice beyond
the window
four deflated legs
twining into helixes
while others kicked
out at the too close
cement block wall,
risking catching
and tearing holes in
their nylon silk blend.

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Uncategorized, Works

A Monkey Thing

Daisy Fried

A Monkey Thing

Inside the plate glass window, I’m putting my whites in, and bleach, and my denims, and lights, darks, and hots and handwashes, when the tourbus grinds to the curb outside to drop the teenage Southwest Drum and Bugle Corps at Clean Laundry, South Philly. There it idles, its slab sides silver, decaled script and musical notes America-colored. The kids debark pell-mell and fill, apologetically, the aisle between the washers and dryers, politely vying to put loads in, bonking their duffels to the ground, pausing confused at the change machine chucking chains of quarters into their hands and the little basin. They excavate Tide pods their moms left like chocolates in their bag bottoms. One drops to the floor, I pick it up, in my hand it has the weight and flex of a small testicle. I hand it back.

I’m invisible as air in the interstices of their conversation. Caden, Corie, Braden, Jordan, Jaden or Jerry from Albuquerque or Pasadena made some mistake at last night’s armory showcase, so they didn’t win, but gave it their all, made strides and their best effort, they’ll shake it off and, next year, nail it. Are we going to see Suicide Squad this afternoon, a teen girl says to a boy group the aisle’s full of. They lean at her with meaty lurches, swig from water bottles they unclip from belt loops and knapsacks.

But one kid’s saying how this creepy teacher, he hits on girl students like all the time, it’s gross … Does it matter? Does it? In this light, matter? “Sorry, I’m a teacher,” I say, “and a mom, and that shouldn’t be happening. You should tell somebody in authority.” They nod, shrug, turn to their affairs.

It’s interesting, being invisible, watching myself utterly unwatched.

Sixteen, I said to the volleyball player, 28, from my co-ed all-ages JCC team, who flirted and drove me home after practice, “do you want to fool around?”

“Sounds nice,” he said, never touching me, waiting for me to get out of the car, never offered to drive me home again. I heard he died young, though he lives in my mind today, with his bald spot, hard spike, already fattening belly.

If you get up early, in Paris, and walk to the zoo so you get in just as it opens, pay your way in, pass the other dispiriting exhibits, with the cud chewers, their tongues hanging out, and the sadness of thick-tailed leopards in cramped tiny jungle spaces, barely able to prowl down a hill; and ignoring the shitty peacocks, displaying their iridescent astonishments to no one who cares, with stressful screams like babies in pain; then you might round a corner—if you’re early enough—to see the baboons come out, like clowns from an improbable car, released fighting from their unknowable indoor pens to the outdoor space along the artificial rockface where they spend their daytimes. And your baby girl, a perpetual warm lump in your arms, extends her arms toward them.

They were quiet all night, you believe, and if not free now, freer, and they flash, swing, jump, chatter, and shriek at each other. They’re so killingly angry. Why don’t they kill each other? There are so many of them, how could they fit inside wherever they are, nights, and do they hate? Is hate a monkey thing? Is anger a constant baboon state, or is it the tiniest opportunity in the suggestion of breeze on the outdoor air that changes things? It’s like an energy, electric, transferring beast to beast to beast, any dissipation barely noticeable at first but there’s an eventual stilling until, bored, they settle down to watch themselves watched.

How inexperienced I am. How inexperienced I still am.

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Interviews, New Interviews, Uncategorized

Kevin Wilson

Kevin Wilson

Interviewed by John Bolen

How did you come to name the antagonist of the story John F. Kennedy in the first place?

It was mostly an accident. A boy who antagonized me in high school was named after a different US president, and I used that name in the first draft and then I thought, “Oh, shit, what if he read it?” So I just picked another president.

Music appears often in your stories. In “Kennedy,” Jamie tells us that he likes Tevin Campbell and Britpop, Kennedy is into Death Metal, and the art teacher plays John Tesh: Live at Red Rocks in class. In the title story of your latest collection, Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine, the main character, Adam, has just been forced to leave his indie-rock band. He moves back in with his mother, and, in perhaps my favorite scene of the book, plays Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” as a dirge, while his mother listens.

 What kind of music do you listen to? Do you ever listen to music while you write, or do you need complete silence? Music is such a major component in our lives, and yet I rarely see it incorporated into fiction as seamlessly as I see it incorporated into your stories. How do you do it so well?

This is all stuff from my own life. In junior high, I was deeply obsessed with Tevin Campbell. In high school, while everyone else was listening to grunge, I was into Britpop, buying import CDs and magazines at Tower Records and staring at pictures of, like, the lead singer of Suede for hours. My art teacher played nothing but Yanni and John Tesh CDs while we worked. A friend of mine does a version of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” as a really, really slow song, and it’s so wonderful.

I pretty much just listen to rap music, and then I listen to whatever my two boys (Griff, eleven; Patch, six) like, which right now is BTS and Froggy Fresh and the Bob’s Burgers Soundtrack.

It’s very kind of you to say that about my stories and how music works within those stories. Ever since I was a kid, music has been really important to me, as I imagine it is to most people, but I have obsessive tendencies, so I sometimes get way too invested in music (see: Campbell, Tevin). I’ve always loved the way Jennifer Egan used music in A Visit from the Goon Squad, especially the “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” and “Ask Me if I Care” chapters, the way the music serves as this point of connection, to pull two people together for a brief moment, to share the sound. And for someone like me, who struggles with anxiety and being around people, music is a kind of common language that lets me connect with other people. So I try to bring that into my fiction.

I do listen to music while I write sometimes. For my last novel, I listened to Phoebe Bridgers on a loop, one album, over and over and over. For The Family Fang, when I did the revisions, I listened to Sam Amidon’s “Relief,” a single song, over and over and over for hours and hours while I revised. I wish I could remember what I was listening to when I wrote this story. Oh, actually, it might have been the Silver Surfer NES soundtrack. Or the Robocop Gameboy soundtrack, since I was writing about videogames. Videogame music from the 90s is about as perfect as it gets.

Did you play video games growing up? Do you play them now?

A majority of my childhood was spent playing video games. Going to the arcade with five dollars and just playing Mortal Kombat and Cyberball and NBA Jams for a few hours, I was as happy as I could be. It was a way for my brain to kind of calm itself, let the colors and sounds do their work. And videogames were a great way to figure out narrative, to break down a larger story into smaller chapters, to see the progression.

I haven’t owned a system since my SNES in high school. I kind of lost the desire and then games passed me by, and I wasn’t good at them anymore. But now that I have kids, they love to play, so we have an Xbox and it’s made me really happy to play with them, though I am very bad at it. I also still have my original Sega Master System, so the kids love playing those games with me, like Shinobi or Pro Wrestling, and I can really wow them with how goddamned good I am at them.

About halfway through the story, we, as readers, realize that there is at least some narrative distance between the events that transpire in the story and Jamie’s retelling of it. (“Looking back on it, I want to take myself and just shake and shake, like, what the fuck is wrong with you? Why did you let that happen? But I can still remember those moments, when it felt like I was paralyzed inside my own body, like I had to pull myself deeper and deeper inside myself, away from the surface, in order to stay alive.”) It’s clear to the readers that, years later, Kennedy still has an impact on Jamie’s life. When you write a story like this, do you have a mental image of Jamie as both a teenager and as an adult? If so, what is his life like now? Does he have children of his own?

One year in high school, there was this boy. And he wore Cannibal Corpse T-shirts. And one of my friends and I were in an art class with him. And he poked us with X-ACTO knives and burned us with glue guns while we made a Parthenon out of cardboard. He’d hit me. And he said pretty bad things to us. I never once tried to protect myself or tell anyone or ask for help or stand up to him. It didn’t even really occur to me, even though I was fifteen years old. I think that my complete passivity was repulsive to him, to the point that I angered him, my existence. Now, I don’t even think that boy would remember me. And I don’t think he’d consider anything he did to even be bad.

But the ending of the fictional story is not my story, thank god, so there’s this point where Jamie, who is me, becomes not me. He becomes what I guess he always was, just a character. And I have a family and my life is good. But I don’t think Jamie’s life is good. I don’t think he has children of his own. And I feel those echoes, where our stories separate, and who he is. It’s a strange sensation.

At another point in the story, Jamie speaks directly to the reader, saying, “In such a short amount of time, my life, which was boring but tender, a thing that mattered to me even as I understood that it would eventually change, had become a kind of dream. I keep trying to explain to you why I didn’t try harder, but maybe you understand. Maybe you don’t think this is as strange as it feels to me.” Those lines split the story wide open for me. In the most beautiful way, they add another dimension. What is the reader’s relationship to Jamie?

I’m not sure. It kind of works like this for me. At first, it’s just me talking to myself. And then it’s me talking to the reader. And then it’s Jamie talking to the reader. And then it’s Jamie talking to Ben.

I like those moments in fiction when you’ve been with the story for a while and then the narrator suddenly talks to you, pulls you into the narrative, and you have to give yourself over to that intimacy. It’s startling, but I love that moment, when I feel like the narrator can see me, knows me in some important way.

At the end of the story, after Kennedy has committed his final—as far as we know—atrocity, I immediately thought of the poem, “The Second Coming,” by Yeats, particularly the line, “The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” I’ve always understood that line to imply chaos, and the fact that Kennedy repeatedly destroys the miniature Parthenon—a monument of exactness—seems to play into that same idea. Does Jamie’s inability to understand or comprehend the events that occur in the story suggest an attempt to apply order to a world where order is seemingly absent? Should the writer concern himself with questions like that, or is that the literary critic’s job? (Or is it no one’s job, because it’s a stupid question?)

No, I think a writer needs to think about that stuff, but I think it happens after the fact, when you realize what you’ve done and you’re trying to make sense of it. 

At the heart of the story, it’s a boy trying to understand why someone did a bad thing to him. And there’s no good answer. It’s just random cruelty. But it’s your life and you can’t really just shrug your shoulders and go about your business. Or at least I can’t. So you try again and again to look at the moment and figure out what it meant, how you could have changed it.

So I wasn’t thinking about chaos and order. I was thinking about JFK, the force of his anger and agitation. And I was thinking about Jamie, completely unable to protect himself. And the story just happens. Afterwards, I can see those things, but not in the moment.

You’ve now published two story collections (Tunneling to the Center of the Earth and Baby You’re Gonna Be Mine) and two novels (The Family Fang and Perfect Little World). At what stage do you determine the form an idea takes? Have you ever condensed a novel into a story, or expanded a story into a novel?

In most cases, I know pretty quickly if it’s going to be a short story or a novel. I spend so much time just worrying narratives in my head, spending a long, long time visualizing them, so once it comes time to actually start writing, I have a sense of how long it will be.

I turned a failed novel about a half-human/half-bear baby into a short story. And I turned a short story about a brother and sister who play Romeo & Juliet in a high school production into a chapter in my novel The Family Fang. I think this is mostly because I never want to throw out anything that I write. I’m always trying to figure out some way to reshape it into something halfway decent. So sometimes figuring out the form can do that. Sometimes it doesn’t, sadly.

You also have a novel coming out in November called Nothing to See Here. Could we hear what it’s about?

It’s a weird little thing about friendship and children and spontaneous human combustion, which is a neverending obsession with me. It all takes place over a single summer and it’s this really compressed narrative with weird elements, so it was fun to write. I wrote it so fast, in about ten days.

How do you manage to get all that writing done?

Honestly, I don’t really write for much of the year. I think it probably averages out to about two or three months out of the year when I’m actually on my computer writing. When I’m teaching and grading and reading, I don’t have much time for writing. And my kids need my attention and I like hanging out with them, and they don’t really want me to go sit in bed and write all day, so I don’t even try. I used to feel like a failure, and I’m always telling my students to write as much as they can, but I don’t do it. I have friends who write every morning for two hours and I admire that, but it’s not something that I’m capable of doing.

So I kind of save it all in my head. All the time, I’m trying to figure it all out in my head, and I just go over it again and again and again. To me, that’s my real writing process, just holding it in my head, cycling through it, building it up. So when the summer comes, or I go do a week-long residency, and I can sit down and actually write, I tend to be a frantic writer, going really fast.

Subtropics is incredibly lucky to have the pleasure of publishing both you and your wife, the poet Leigh Anne Couch, in the current issue. Is Leigh Anne your first reader? Are you hers?

Leigh Anne is one of my favorite writers so I’m honored to share space with her in this issue. Leigh Anne is my first reader. I actually don’t show my work as a draft to anyone except Leigh Anne and then my agent. That’s it. Those are the two voices I trust. And Leigh Anne has known me for so long that she knows what I’m trying to do, so it’s helpful for me to hear from her because she can help me figure out how to make it exactly how I envision it.

Leigh Anne goes to residencies a few times a year to write and I love that moment, after the kids fall asleep and it’s just me awake in the house, when she calls me from some cabin, and she reads me what she’s written that day. I love hearing it for the first time, in her voice. It’s probably as happy as I get.

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Uncategorized, Works


Kevin Wilson


John F. Kennedy was a boy in our high school, but he went by Kennedy. For a brief time, he made things pretty bad for us. We’d started our junior year without ever having exchanged a single word with him, had only seen him as he stalked the hallways, his long, greasy hair covering his face, his Coke-bottle glasses. He always wore this olive green military jacket with the name KENNEDY stitched across the right breast. Underneath that, he seemed to have every single Cannibal Corpse T-shirt in existence, a never-ending parade of skeletons and knives and blood and people with the skin ripped off their faces. He wasn’t allowed to wear the T-shirts at school, since they were against the dress code, so he wore the jacket over them, even when it was hot out, and if he sensed your weakness, he’d open his jacket and flash the T-shirt at you as he passed you in the hallway.

Ben and I were best friends, each other’s only friend, really. There were other people we liked fine enough, and sometimes we’d hang out, but Ben and I were constant. I liked the steadiness of his friendship, that if I ever reached out into the darkness, he would be there. We had known each other since we were six years old, when his family had moved here to Coalfield from Seattle because his dad taught sociology at the tiny liberal arts college in town. Ben was the only Japanese kid in Coalfield, though there were some Chinese kids who were adopted and a Korean family who ran a Chinese restaurant. He wrote experimental poetry, had won a national contest for high school kids the year before. I was just a regular kid, pretty smart, but I’d been protected by my parents, which had left me without street smarts, with no sense of how to navigate high school. My parents still kissed me on the lips, and when they hugged me, it was always for slightly longer than I wanted it to be. We played bridge after dinner, my parents and I and my younger sister; we listened to Simon and Garfunkel records, my mom singing along. The idea of going to a party, or the football game on Friday nights, never would have occurred to me or Ben. We hunkered down, made our own happiness, and hoped that maybe we’d figure things out by the time we left Coalfield and went off to college.

Kennedy ended up in our art class in our junior year. The room was some kind of converted garage, cement floors splattered with paint, and there were all these huge, heavy tables, where we sat on stools while the teacher, Mrs. Banks, lounged on a recliner in the corner of the room because her back was messed up. She barked out instructions, and we’d follow them to the best of our abilities. On the first day of classes, a minute after the late bell rang, Kennedy skulked over to the table where Ben and I were sitting and threw his backpack down so hard that it flew across the table’s surface and hit Ben’s arm. Ben took the pain without complaint. And maybe that was all Kennedy needed, that certainty that he could hurt us and we’d never tell.

Our first assignment was to do a figure drawing from this little twelve-inch wooden mannequin. Ben was pretty good at it, had always been a decent artist, and had sketched out a pretty perfect representation, but I was having trouble with it, couldn’t make the individual parts of the figure come together. Kennedy just took a graphite pencil and pressed it so hard to the paper that it nearly ripped it apart. He drew the most basic stick figure and then drew X’s where the eyes would be. “Look at this shit,” he said to me, but I tried to ignore him, still trying to get my drawing right. He suddenly punched me in the arm so hard that I gasped. “Look,” he said. Even though he was so greasy, so scuzzy, his skin was perfect and pale, not a mark of acne. His eyes looked wavy beneath the thick lenses of his glasses, but they were an intense blue.

I looked down at the drawing, the dead figure. “Yeah, OK,” I said. I went back to my own drawing. “That’s you,” he said. I just shrugged. Mrs. Banks was far away from us, maybe asleep. I stood up. “I need to get some water,” I said, and walked to the drinking fountain in the hallway, where I took a long, sustained sip. I could feel my face burning with the fear of what Kennedy might do to me, and I took several deep breaths. When I got back, Ben was staring at me with this look of alarm, like he was trying to silently warn me of some impending doom. I sat back down and
looked at my drawing. A huge, cartoonish dick had been appended to my figure. “Oh, man,” I said, looking at Kennedy, who was completely focused on his own drawing, acting like he had no idea what was going on. “C’mon, Kennedy. Please.”

“What?” he said. “Oh, wow, look at that. You like huge cocks, I guess? You look like you love big dicks.”

I tried to erase the dick, but even after I’d rubbed and rubbed, the outline was still visible on the paper. So I flipped to the next sheet of the pad and started over. While I drew, Kennedy leaned toward Ben and slapped his arm. “Hey,” he said. “Hey, you, Nip. What’s your name?”

“Ben,” Ben whispered.

“Hey, Ben,” Kennedy said. “You see that guy over there?”

I couldn’t help but look, too, and we turned to see Eric Murdock at one of the far tables. He had a full mustache and was wearing a tank top.

“That guy has a huge dick,” Kennedy said. “I saw it in the locker room. Twelve inches, probably.”

“OK,” Ben said.

“And he’s a virgin. Can’t get a girl to fuck him. Hey!” He punched Ben’s arm. “What do you think about that?”

“Nothing,” Ben said.

“What’s his name?” Kennedy asked Ben, pointing at me.

“Jamie,” Ben said.

“What about you, shithead?” Kennedy asked me.

“Well,” I said, “maybe girls don’t want to have sex with a twelve-inch penis.”

“I know a lot of girls who would like to bounce around on that thing,” Kennedy said. “Older girls. Women.”

When it became clear to Kennedy that we weren’t going to give him anything of substance, he started drawing devil horns and a tail on his stick figure and pentagrams dancing around its head. He didn’t talk to us again, like we didn’t exist, like he hadn’t punched both of us so goddamned hard, talked about huge dicks. Ben and I were grateful for the reprieve. We thought maybe that would be the end of things, that Kennedy would move on and we’d be safe.

After school, I drove Ben to his house in my hand-me-down Chevy Cavalier and we stumbled inside. We hadn’t said a word about Kennedy for the entire drive, partly because we didn’t know what to say, how we could talk about him without saying the word “dick” a bunch of times. We’d already done all of our homework during study hall, the work easy because it was only the first day, and so we ran past his mom, who translated poetry and complicated technical manuals from Japanese into English, and closed the door to his room. We decided to go old-school, put Contra in the Nintendo, eschewing the secret code that would have let us gain unlimited lives, and worked ourselves into a state of complete numbness, our eyes glazed over, like we’d plugged our brains into a machine and, in return for our full attention, it had made us happy, our bodies ice cold.

We were both obsessed with video games. We spent every dollar of our allowances on new games, and because we shared everything, we could buy twice as many. Ben had a Nintendo and a Super Nintendo, an old Atari 2600, plus a
Game Boy and even a Game Gear. I had the two Nintendo systems, plus a Sega Genesis and a Sega Master System. We would play for hours; sometimes I’d play until my hands were paralyzed, until I could no longer bend my fingers, and I would simply hand the controller, mid-game, to Ben, who would pick it up without missing a beat. It wasn’t enough to finish a game; we had to beat it in record time, playing the same board over and over and over until we figured out how to clear it as fast as possible. As each of us played, the other would whisper, “Go, go, go, go,” and it
sounded as steady as a heartbeat.

We had to have the highest scores. And when we got them, we took photos of the screen, turning off all the lights in the room until it was pitch black, wiping the screen clean with Windex so there were no smudges. Ben even had a tripod to steady the camera. And even with a perfect picture, when we got the photos developed, the images were still slightly blurred, and you could see the rounded
edges of the CRT screen. We’d get doubles, one for each of us. We kept them in a photo album, labeled and carefully curated. We thought, maybe, this might help us get into a top-notch college. Even if it didn’t, who cared? For those hours, our bodies were the bodies on the screen, and we kept them alive for as long as we possibly could.

Finally, after three hours of gaming, Ben’s mom called us to dinner. I always loved the food at Ben’s house, dishes like seaweed crumbled up in a bowl of pristine rice, a raw egg cracked over it. And Ben loved eating at my house, so many casseroles, so many variations of starch, cheese, and meat. That night, Ben’s mom had made somen noodles that we dipped into little bowls of hon-dashi and soy sauce,
little dried shrimp floating in the bowl, that fishy taste that made me so happy.

“How was school?” asked Mr. Nakamura, and Ben and I looked at each other for a second too long. “That bad?” Mr. Nakamura said.

“It was OK,” Ben finally said. How would we even begin to describe Kennedy? What could be done? I stuffed a bunch of noodles into my mouth, slurping them up. “It was fine,” I agreed. And that was that. It was like, in missing that moment when things were still normal, we had given up any chance of controlling Kennedy’s effect on our lives. He had us. If he wanted us, whatever he wanted, he could have us.

But things were OK for a week or two. Kennedy would tease us, trying to gross us out, prodding at our bodies, testing for weak spots. He’d grab my ear and twist it, making me yell out, which would rouse Mrs. Banks to an upright position, but she’d just call for order and that would be that. He once said that he doubted that Ben had
any pubic hair, and tried to pull down his pants, but Ben held on to his belt, until Kennedy grew bored. “You guys are the fucking worst,” he would say, staring at us like we were Sea-Monkeys he’d ordered that had immediately disappointed him.

We didn’t do anything. We didn’t tell Mrs. Banks, since we couldn’t imagine what she would do. We didn’t sit at another table, surround ourselves with other people for protection. We didn’t fight back. Now I understand it: we had stayed invisible for so long that we weren’t used to people noticing us, and so when Kennedy noticed us, shined a light on us, we simply froze, simply sat there and
took it, all these little indignities, and hoped that he would fuck up in some other class and get suspended, a temporary reprieve.

One day Mrs. Banks told us that we were going to work in groups. Each group was to create a replica of the Parthenon out of cardboard. The project was going to take a week to complete and would require a lot of precision work.

“How many people per group?” Ben asked, his voice quavery and weird.

“Three,” she said. “Yes, three per group.”

Ben visibly deflated, and Kennedy smiled. “You fuckers thought you could get away from me?” he asked.

“It’s not that,” I said. “We just like working with each other.”

“Yeah,” Kennedy said, leering. “I bet you like working with each other. Working each other’s dicks in your mouths.”

“C’mon, Kennedy,” I said.

“You are the fairiest fairy that I’ve ever seen. What kind of music do you like?”

There was no way that I was going to tell him that my favorite album was Tevin Campbell’s I’m Ready. I wasn’t going to tell him that I liked Britpop.

“Heavy metal,” I said.

“Yeah, right,” he said, slowly nodding. “Like what?”

“Ratt?” I said, like I was in a spelling bee and had never heard the word before in my life.

“Get the fuck out of here,” he said, laughing.

“That’s metal,” I said, confused. “I know it is.”

“You need to listen to death metal,” he said. “You need to listen to Mayhem.

The lead singer killed himself and then another guy in the band made a stew with his brains.”

“That’s awful,” Ben said, and he sounded like a grandmother who’d just heard that a lady at her church had cancer.

“You two …,” he said, but didn’t say anything else. He just stared at us. “I’m gonna work on you two.”

At my house, Ben and I played Donkey Kong Country. I used a stopwatch while Ben tried to run as quickly as possibly through the board, chaining rolls together to keep the speed boost, plowing through enemies instead of taking time to jump on them. It was hypnotic, so calming. “You’re doing it,” I said, smiling. Ben worked his hands on the controller, could almost do this blindfolded.

“I’m scared,” he suddenly said.

“Of the game?” I asked, confused, looking at the screen.

“Of Kennedy. I’m scared of him,” Ben said.

“Me, too, I guess,” I said.

“What do we do?” he asked.

“Nothing. What can we do?” I really had no clue.

“Go to the principal. Go to the police. He’s going to hurt us.”

“It would be so embarrassing,” I said.

“I know,” he said. Right at this moment, he got dinged by an enemy, and he cursed, tossing the controller to the ground. “Here,” he said, gesturing to the controller. “You take over.”

We switched positions and I started the game over, the side-scrolling making me wonder if the game would ever end, the way it kept opening up. I wanted it to never end.

“We should kill him,” I said.

“No way,” Ben said. “Not even as a joke.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It’s OK,” he said after a few seconds.

“We’ll be OK,” I said.

“OK,” he said, but he sounded sad. I turned away from the game, watched it reflected in Ben’s eyes, the colors so beautiful.

Our Parthenon was a disaster. Ben and I simply didn’t have the kind of brain for three-dimensional building. Nothing quite made sense, no matter how long we stared at the photo of the Parthenon—the one in Nashville, not in Greece. And Kennedy, dear Lord, he did everything possible to mess it up. I wondered how he’d made it this far in school when it was so clear how little he cared, how he would dare anyone in authority to do something about it. But it was like he was invisible to people in charge. I couldn’t figure it out.

We had to use a hot glue gun to set the pieces of cardboard, and Kennedy immediately took control of it. While we were holding the pieces together, waiting for the glue, Kennedy would touch the tip of the gun, burning hot, to our fingers, sometimes even squirting the hot glue onto our skin. We’d yelp, and Kennedy would howl with laughter.

“Kennedy, seriously,” Ben said. “Don’t do that again.”

“OK,” he said, still giggling. “OK, you’re right. Sorry. OK, hold it steady. I’ll really do it this time.”

And then he’d burn us again. At the end of the day, Ben and I held up our hands for inspection and noted all the little burns, purple and angry, that covered our hands. Looking back on it, I want to take myself and just shake and shake, like, What the fuck is wrong with you? Why did you let that happen? But I can still remember those moments, when it felt like I was paralyzed inside my own body, like I had to pull myself deeper and deeper inside of myself, away from the surface, in order to stay alive. I think Ben felt the same way. We tried not to talk about it.

That Friday, the last day of the project, we still had a lot to do, because Kennedy kept breaking our Parthenon out of spite. The night before, I’d had anxiety dreams where for the first time I got a grade lower than an A because Kennedy fucked it up for me. I couldn’t get into any colleges. In the dream, my parents kept asking, “What’s wrong? How did this happen?” which was crazy because my parents only asked that I do my best, barely even checked my grades. And now we had to stay after school, the three of us in the art room, in order to finish the Parthenon. We’d begged Kennedy to go home, to let us finish it on our own, but he’d insisted he wanted to be there, to make sure it was up to his standards.

So it was just the three of us, not even Mrs. Banks in her recliner, which was where Kennedy was now lounging, violently yanking on the lever to make the leg support unfold. He put a Morbid Angel album on the cassette player, which during class only ever played John Tesh jazz. After about an hour, we had something that resembled the Parthenon. We carried it over to the work table and put it next to the other Parthenons.

“OK, Kennedy,” Ben said. “We’re finished.”

“We’re not finished until I sign off,” Kennedy said, hopping out of the chair. He walked past the supply cabinet and grabbed an X-Acto knife, which made both of us instantly stiffen. He tested the point of the blade on the tip of his finger. A little pinprick of blood appeared. “C’mon, Kennedy,” I said. We backed away from him, putting a table between us.

“Calm down, pussies,” he finally said, slipping the blade into the front pocket of his jacket. Then he picked up our Parthenon and held it up in the air as if he was going to slam it to the ground.

“Kennedy!” we both shouted, and he gently put it back down on the table.

“Excellent work,” he said. “Makes these other Parthenons look like a fucking joke.”

“OK, great,” I said. “We have to go now.”

“Where are you going?” he asked, looking curious, as if he had never once considered the possibility that we had lives away from him.

“We’re going to my house,” I said. “Play some video games.”

“I could come over, too, if you want,” he said, and he wasn’t smiling. We couldn’t tell if he was serious.

“His mom’s pretty strict,” Ben said, thinking quickly. “She’s a hard-ass. I can’t bring people over without her OK first.”

“Well, tell you what. Next week, I’m coming over. Play some of these video games. Have fun. But right now, I need you guys to give me a ride. I missed my bus, because you fuckers couldn’t glue cardboard together. So give me a ride, OK?”

“OK,” I said. “I guess so.”

Kennedy got in the back seat of my car, and I was terrified of what he might do there, where I couldn’t quite see him. I thought he might cover my eyes while I was driving, kick at the back of my seat the entire ride. But he just kind of fell across the entire back seat, lying on his back.

“Drive out to the soccer fields,” he told us. “Over on Wrigley. Then turn onto Bald Knob Road. Bald fucking knob. Har-har. You two have bald knobs, I bet.”

For the rest of the ride, Kennedy just lay there, not making a sound. “OK,” I said as I made the turn, “I’m on Bald Knob Road.”

“Two twenty-two,” he replied. “Buncha shit in the front yard.”

We pulled up to a one-story ranch, and he was right, there was a bunch of shit in the front yard. There were two busted riding mowers, a burned-black steel drum with blackened pieces of wood sticking out of it.

He didn’t get out of the car.

“We’re here,” I said after a while.

“Just give me a minute,” he said. He didn’t move. I could hear him breathing, it was so quiet in the car.

“OK,” he said, jumping out of the car. “On Monday, I’m coming home with you.”

“Kennedy, I don’t—”

“Motherfucker, I’m coming over,” he said, leaning back through the open door, his face close to mine. “And if you try to leave me at school, drive off without me, I’ll look you up in the phone book and then I’ll come over there. And it will be bad fucking news for you two.”

“OK,” I said. “OK, you can come over.”

“Have a good weekend,” he said, running to the house.

We sat there for a while, my hands shaking.

“I think I’m sick, Jamie,” Ben said. I caught sight of myself in the rearview mirror and was surprised at how pale I looked.

“What are we going to do?” he asked.

“It’ll be OK,” I said. “He won’t do anything with my mom there, and my sister too.”

“Are you serious?” Ben asked. “He’s going to kill us.”

“He won’t,” I said. “He’s just testing us. He’s just messing with us.”

“Maybe,” Ben said, but his look was far off, like something had glitched in his brain.

“Do you want to play video games?” I asked.

“Maybe just drop me off at home,” he replied. “I don’t feel so great. I think I need to rest.”

When I dropped him off, I grabbed his arm, and I hated the way he flinched when I did it. But I still held on to him. “We’ll protect each other,” I said. “OK?”

Ben nodded. “OK,” he said.

“If he did something to you, Ben,” I said, almost crying, “I really would kill him.”

Ben smiled and got out of the car. I didn’t see him the rest of the weekend, didn’t even pick up the phone.

On Monday, when school was over, Ben and I stood outside my car, shifting from foot to foot, waiting for Kennedy. “We should just go right now,” Ben said. “Let’s just get out of here.”

“He’ll just follow us home,” I told him. I had completely given up. If Kennedy wanted to kill me, if he wanted to wrap his hands around my throat and squeeze, I would let him. Ben, I think, was still hoping there was some way out of this, some code we could punch in that would open up a secret room, a place we could hide, a place where we couldn’t be hurt. I was beyond that. Whatever happened, I just wanted to get it over with.

Kennedy finally showed up, nodding his approval that we’d waited for him. “Let’s go,” he said. “I have to be home by five or my dad will kick my fucking ass.”

My mom treated Kennedy like he was a street urchin in a Broadway musical, shaking his hand, saying how nice it was that Ben and I had added a friend to our little crew. Kennedy seemed stunned by her easy kindness, her offer of a Mountain Dew, because he barely even spoke, wouldn’t make eye contact with her. She let us get some snacks and then we were upstairs, in my room. Right away, my sister, Molly, peeked in, wanting to see this new boy, but we shouted her away, terrified, honestly. We had this unstable thing inside the house, and we wanted to keep it contained in my room so that we’d be the only people damaged when it blew up.

The night before, I’d hidden everything good, all my money, my comic books of any worth. I’d shoved it all in my closet, tossed some blankets over it. I even took the SNES, because I didn’t want it to get damaged, and put it away. I had looked around the room, wondering what I owned that Kennedy might linger on, that he might use against me. And, truly, it seemed like everything in the room would give him reason to beat me senseless.

“What game do you want to play?” I asked Kennedy, trying to be a good host.

“I never played a video game in my entire life,” he said without blinking.

I couldn’t tell if he was fucking with us.

“Are you serious?” Ben asked.

“Dead serious,” he said.

“What about the arcade?” Ben asked, as if it was unbelievable to him that someone our age had never played a video game.

“Nope,” Kennedy replied.

“Well, what do you want to play?” I asked. “What kind of game? Like, Mario Brothers or maybe a driving game?”

“Something where you kill people,” he said. “Duh.”

I looked at the games I had lined up on my bookshelf. Kennedy pushed me aside and brought his face close to the spines of the games. “Whoa,” he said finally. “Holy shit, this is Rambo. Like the movie Rambo?”

“Yeah,” I said. “That’s it.”

“Can we play this?”

“Sure. It’s two-player, so we can work together.”

“Cool, cool, cool.”
I handed Kennedy a controller and turned on the system. The blue and white letters showed up on the screen, and then there was Sylvester Stallone, all buff, that red headband.

I started the game. “OK,” I said, “this button shoots bullets and then this one here shoots exploding arrows. Use those to blow up the tents and you’ll rescue the hostages.”

“Yeah, fine.”

“You’re the yellow headband and I’m the red headband.”

Within seconds of starting the game, Kennedy walked right into a bullet and his character fell over dead. But he started up again, another life. The same thing, dead.

“Jesus fuck!” he said. “This game is fucking hard.”

“Just try to dodge the bullets,” I said. “Don’t run ahead too far.”

“Oh, shit, thanks, fucker,” he said, his voice sarcastic.

“Avoid the bullets.”

We played a little and then Kennedy died again, which meant he’d have to restart, which he did. “This gun doesn’t do shit,” he said. “Let’s try these exploding arrows.”

“Wait, be careful,” I said, just as he fired an arrow right at my character, immediately killing me.

“Oh, shit, you can kill each other?” he said.

“Well—” I said, but before I could finish he shot another arrow at me, killing me again.

“OK,” Ben said, trying to help out, “but that’s not the point—”

“Eat shit, motherfucker,” Kennedy said, killing me again. After this third death, the game over screen came up for my side of the screen. I didn’t push the button to restart, just let Kennedy wander around until he finally got killed again.

“This is what you guys do all day?” he asked, throwing the controller on the ground. “This sucks.”

“Do you want to play something else?” I asked.

“You guys just play for now,” he said. “I’m going to look around, see where you hide your fucking dildos.”

Ben looked at me like How long can we do this? but we just picked up our controllers and started playing, clearing the board, moving up the screen. I tried not to look back at Kennedy, though I wondered what he was doing.

And then, just as we were settling into a groove, Kennedy slammed Ben to the ground, jumping on top of him and straddling him. He had a pillow in his hands, and he put it over Ben’s face. “Sneak attack!” Kennedy shouted, and Ben’s arms started flailing wildly, just pawing at the air, not doing anything to stop him. And I was frozen there, watching this, for at least five seconds, before I finally pushed Kennedy off of Ben, tackling him to the ground. Kennedy then grabbed me in a headlock, squeezing so hard that my ears popped.

“This is more like it,” he said. “This is fun.” His voice was monotone, like none of this was real, like he was acting in a play.

I couldn’t get free. After a while he got bored and let me go. I scooted away from him to the wall, where I panted, holding my neck.

“What is wrong with you?” Ben asked him, but his voice wasn’t angry. It was genuinely confused, hurt.

“What?” Kennedy said. “This is all me and my brother did, fucking wrestling, trying to beat the shit out of each other. And then he joined the army, and now it’s just me at home. I just wanted to fuck around.” He pointed at me. “You had some fight in you for like half a second and then you pussied out.”

“I think you better go home,” I said, almost crying, trying hard not to cry.

He looked at me like he couldn’t tell if I was joking or not, like he had no idea why I was upset. “Seriously?” he said finally. When I didn’t say anything, he just shrugged and said, “Well, you have to drive me home.”

“Fine,” I said, trying to breathe normally, trying to make my body move. “I’ll drive you home.”

“I better get home myself,” Ben said, not looking at me. “I’ve got homework to do.”

“What?” I said. “You’re not coming with me?”

“You’re not coming with me?” Kennedy said, his voice mocking and high-pitched.

“It’s just …” Ben looked toward the door. “I have all this homework.”

“Please?” I said. “Please come with me.”

Kennedy turned and walked out of the room. “Come on,” he said as he stomped down the stairs. I could hear him telling my mother goodbye, and her saying that he could come by anytime he liked.

“Please,” I asked Ben again, whimpering.

“OK,” Ben finally said. “OK.”

As we walked down the stairs, he stopped me for a second. “I’m sorry,” he said, “that wasn’t cool of me.”

“It’s OK,” I said, but I didn’t know what was going on, couldn’t tell if I was making too big a deal of this. In such a short time, my life, which was boring but tender, a thing that mattered to me even as I understood that it would eventually change, had become a kind of dream. I keep trying to explain to you why I didn’t try harder, but maybe you understand. Maybe you don’t think this is as strange as
it feels to me.

When we got to Kennedy’s house, he refused to get out of the car. “Come inside with me,” he kept saying—an insistent, monotonous refrain. “Come inside. Just come inside. Come inside. Come inside and see something.”

“Please, Kennedy,” I said. “It’s late.”

“We have homework,” Ben said.

“We have homework,” I corroborated.

“Just come inside,” he said again. “Come inside and let me just show you this one thing. This one thing and then you can go. Come inside. Come inside my house.”

Inside the house, his father, his head shaved bald, gray stubble for a beard, was sitting in a recliner, watching some old boxing match on TV.

“Hello, JFK,” his father said, muting the TV, but Kennedy didn’t respond, tried to push past. His father stood, was a giant in that room, his head nearly touching the ceiling. “Who did you bring into our house?”

“Just some guys,” Kennedy said.

“Friends?” his father asked, like it was the silliest thing in the world to suggest such a thing.

“What does it matter?” Kennedy asked.

“Who are you?” his father asked, turning to us.
“I’m Ben, Mr. Kennedy,” Ben replied, but I was still too nervous to respond.

“Ben’s Japanese, OK?” Kennedy said. “Not Vietnamese.”

“I know that,” his father said. “Jesus, son, do you think I don’t know what a Vietnamese looks like?” Then he turned back to Ben. “I respect your people. Let bygones be bygones and all that. You built a hell of a society out of the rubble of that mess. Hats off to you.”

“Thank you,” Ben said.

“Who are you?” he asked me.

“Jamie,” I said.

“You friends with Kennedy?”

“Kind of?” I said, like a question.

“We have, like, a class project to work on,” Kennedy said.

“Well, I guess I’ll let you get to it,” his father said. Awkwardly he resettled himself in the recliner and turned the volume back up. We walked down a long hallway, and as we passed each open room, I noted that it was much more ordered than I had expected, considering the disarray of the lawn. Perhaps it was thanks to his father’s military background that he kept the house so clean. He even used the same air freshener that my parents did. Inhaling its flowery scent, I had this temporary moment, this little period of grace, during which my body relaxed. And then we got to Kennedy’s room. There were two different locks on the door. He took some keys out of his pocket, undid them, and opened the door. Inside, his room was pretty well organized, the walls covered in posters of death metal bands, images that, if we hadn’t already been so bombarded by the ones on Kennedy’s T-shirts, would have terrified us. “Here, let me get some stuff out,” he said, and turned on his stereo. From the speakers a deep droning
immediately emanated.

“We need to go,” I said to Kennedy, but he wasn’t listening to me; it was kind of like we weren’t even there. He opened his closet and pulled out this long box, like you’d keep comic books in, and laid it at his feet. When he removed the top of the box, he gestured for us to come closer. I was certain that there would be human heads in the box, skeletal remains. I knew it would be bad. I knew it would be hard to forget.

Ben and I looked down into the box and saw all manner of chain and leather, everything shiny, pristine. Kennedy tapped the box with his foot and it rattled. “I ordered all this from a catalog,” he said. “I’ve got quite a collection.” He reached into the box and pulled up a bee’s nest of handcuffs, so many pairs that it was hard to count. He tossed them on his bed and then pulled out a black mask that had a zipper where the mouth should be. “Sometimes I sleep in this,” he said, smiling. He seemed so proud of these things, like we were all in a club together.

“I want you to do something for me,” he then said. “Can you do something for me?”

“We really want to go home, Kennedy,” Ben said, and now he really was crying.

“I want to go home.”

“You can go home in just a second,” Kennedy said. “All I need is for Jamie to lie down on the bed and put on those handcuffs.”

“I’m not going to do that,” I said.

“If you do it, then you and Ben can go home,” he said.

I don’t know why we didn’t run, but it didn’t even occur to me. It felt like the entire world had shrunk down to this single room, that the three of us were the only people still alive in it. And even though there were two of us and one of him, I knew that it didn’t matter. So I lay down on the bed.

“On your stomach,” he said, his voice forceful, deep.

I turned onto my stomach.

“And take off your shirt,” he said, which I did. Then he handcuffed my arms to some straps attached securely to the bed frame, one set of handcuffs for each hand. He clamped them so tight that the metal pinched my wrists and I gasped.

“Kennedy,” Ben said, but I choked out, “It’s OK, Ben. I’m OK.”

Kennedy was now cuffing my ankles, so that I was pinned to the bed. I heard him rustling around in the box, and then he returned to my line of sight, close to my face and holding a kind of whip, like an octopus, all these tendrils, solid black. “This is a flogger,” he said. “I’ve never used it on a real person before.”

“Kennedy,” I said. “I’m afraid.”

He knelt on the bed, and I felt the mattress sink. And then he whipped me, lightly at first, which just made me hiss, the air rushing out of me, and then harder—again, and again, and again. And I was outside my body, just floating
above it, and I was watching myself, and I was so sad that this was happening to me. I looked pretty bad; I could see it from up there. There were all these welts on my back, but I was just taking it, just lying there.

And then I heard Ben screaming, crying, and after a little while the door burst open. “What the fuck is going on?” Kennedy’s father yelled, and Kennedy dropped the flogger. I turned my head as far as I could, looking over my shoulder, just in time to see his father walk across the room, push Ben into one wall, and slam Kennedy against the other—once, then twice, leaving a ragged hole in the drywall. When he tossed his son a third time, Kennedy fell against the window, the glass shattering and tinkling on the ground outside.

“Get him out of those handcuffs,” his father shouted, but Kennedy was muttering.

“What?” his father said. Ben was now whimpering, lying on the ground. I could just barely see him if I turned my head at an angle.

“I dropped the keys,” Kennedy finally said.

“Well, find them,” his father said.

For about two minutes, I listened as Kennedy crawled around the room on his hands and knees while his father stood there, towering over us. He turned off the music, and it was so quiet, the most total silence I’ve ever heard.

“OK,” Kennedy finally said, “here they are.” And he unclasped all four sets of handcuffs. And I was free.

“Let’s keep all this between ourselves, OK, boys?” his father said to Ben and me, but we weren’t really listening, couldn’t respond. I put my shirt on inside out. My hands were shaking. “I’ll see that Kennedy is properly disciplined for this.”

Ben helped me up off the bed, and the two of us stumbled through the house. I stepped on a plate and cracked it in two, but we just kept moving. When we got in the car, Ben locked the doors. We sat there. I put my head on the steering wheel and tried to breathe, but I couldn’t tell if I was actually breathing or not. I couldn’t tell if I was still alive.

“Can you drive?” Ben finally asked me, but I didn’t respond. “Here,” he said. “Get in the back seat. I’ll drive us home.”

I don’t remember the drive home. I don’t remember saying goodbye to Ben, who must have walked the half mile to his own house. I don’t remember talking to my parents, though I must have. I don’t remember doing my homework, but in the morning it was all done. I don’t remember taking a shower, how badly it must have hurt when the water touched those welts, some of which were trickling blood. I only remember that I woke up around two in the morning, the entire house quiet, and I turned on my Nintendo, and I played Super Mario Bros., running so fast, finding every single shortcut, just running and jumping, not letting a single thing touch me, running and running, until I’d finished the game. And then I just started over, kept running, until the sun came up.

Kennedy wasn’t at school the next day. In art class, we were making African ceremonial masks out of clay, and Ben and I sat alone at our table, not talking, not saying anything. At the end of the day, I dropped Ben off at his house and then went home. I played video games. I let the pixels burn colors into my irises. I let my brain go away. I sat inside my room and made everything quiet.

And Kennedy wasn’t at school the next day, either, or the next, and with each day that he wasn’t there, I felt worse, this kind of dread building up in my stomach. I don’t remember much of those days except that Ben was not really a part of them, and how lonely that felt. It was worse than what Kennedy had done to us, the knowledge that Ben and I might not be friends anymore.

On the third day, my parents came into my bedroom and closed the door so my sister wouldn’t hear. “We’re worried about you, Jamie,” my mom said. “Something’s not right. We just got off the phone with Mrs. Nakamura and she said that Ben has been depressed, listless. We said we’d noticed the same with you. Now, here’s what we want to know. And we trust you, so we’re going to ask you this. And I hope you know how much we love you, and how nothing that you do will ever change that.”

“OK,” I said, slow to keep up.

“Are you and Ben experimenting with drugs?” she asked, both she and my father leaning in, like I was going to whisper some secret in their ears. I’d never even smoked a cigarette. I was good. I was a good kid. I kept telling myself this while they waited for me to respond, that I was a good kid, that I was good.

“We’re not taking drugs, Mom,” I told her, and they both let out this long exhalation, like they were so relieved and things could be normal again. “I’m just nervous, you know, about my grades, about school, about getting into a good college. Ben is, too. It’s a lot of pressure.”

Then they went on and on about how proud of me they were, how much they loved me, and how, no matter what, I was going to make something of myself, I was going to find a way to contribute to the world and make my mark. And it made me love them so much, I wanted to cry. But I also wanted them to leave, wanted them far, far away from me. Then they hugged me, and then they were gone.

Only once I was sure that they were gone for good did I pick up a controller and start playing.

The next day, Kennedy was back at school, sitting at our table in the art room before Ben or I had even arrived. We stood frozen in the doorway until a kid behind us bumped into us and pushed us farther into the room. Kennedy had a spectacular black eye, and two of his fingers were taped together with a splint. And this made me happy. It gave me the strength to walk over to that table and sit down.

“Long time no see, pussies,” Kennedy said, but his heart wasn’t in it. He looked sunken, sallow. He looked like a zombie.
Neither Ben nor I said a word. We went over to the work table and retrieved our African masks, which had hardened and which we were now painting. Mrs. Banks lectured Kennedy on how far behind he was and then plopped a lump of clay in front of him. After she went back to her recliner, he took a wire brush and simply stabbed the clay, over and over again, slowly.

We worked in silence, only the sounds of John Tesh: Live at Red Rocks playing on the boombox.

Toward the end of class, Kennedy leaned toward us. “I want you guys to come over again. Tonight. I want to show you something.”

“No way,” Ben said. “Never again.”

“You have to come,” Kennedy said. “If you don’t come, you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life.”

I couldn’t even speak, couldn’t look at Kennedy. Ben said, “Never. We’re never coming over.” And I think if Ben wasn’t there that day, I would have gone over to Kennedy’s that night.

“If you are not at my house tonight …” Kennedy said, but that was it. He just stared at us. He jabbed the brush into the clay and then walked out of the classroom, ten minutes before class was over. Mrs. Banks didn’t even notice.

“We’re not going, OK?” Ben said to me, and he touched my arm. He held it there until I looked at him. “OK?” he said. “We are not going.”

“OK,” I finally said, nodding. “OK.”

At the end of school, we were certain that Kennedy would be standing next to our car, waiting for us, but he wasn’t there. We got into the car as quickly as possible and actually burned rubber getting out of the parking lot, the back of the car swerving for a few seconds until I straightened it out. As we drove, I looked over at Ben, who was frowning.

“Can I come over today?” he asked me, and I thought about it for a few seconds.

“OK,” I said. “Yeah.”

We locked ourselves in our room and played Double Dragon, punching and kicking and whipping every cartoony thug that got in our way. We stood with our backs to each other and beat the living shit out of everyone that tried to hurt us. It was too easy to be therapeutic, but it didn’t make us feel worse. And a few hours passed, and my mom called us for dinner. “Are you OK?” Ben asked when I turned off the system.

“Not really,” I said. “I don’t think so.”

“Me either,” he said. “But it’ll get better, OK?”

“You’re my best friend,” I told him. I’m not sure why I said it. I guess I needed him to know it.

“You’re my best friend, too,” he said, smiling.

At the dinner table, over meatloaf and green bean casserole, my parents asked us about our day, and we talked about the masks we’d made in art class, how Ben’s kind of looked like a fish-man and how mine was supposed to be a wolf but looked more like an anteater. And my sister talked about gymnastics, some tumbling technique she’d learned, but it was hard to picture it from her description. And then the phone rang, and I jumped up to get it, walking back into the kitchen for the phone.

“Hello?” I said.

“Hey, Jamie,” Kennedy said, and I felt my whole body go numb. I dropped the phone, and it swung there on its cord for a few seconds.

“Who is it?” my dad asked. “Tell them it’s dinnertime.”

I picked up the phone again, and there was silence on the other end. Finally Kennedy said, “Hello?”

“It’s me,” I said.

“You didn’t come,” he said, and he sounded sad, betrayed.

“No,” I said.

“I shot my dad,” he said. “I just did it. With a shotgun. While he was watching TV. It was … it was pretty horrible.”

I didn’t say anything. I waited for him to start laughing. “I really did it. That’s what I wanted you and Ben to see. I wanted you to see it. I wanted all three of us to be here. But you didn’t come.”

“You’re lying,” I said.

“I’m not lying, motherfucker,” he said, his voice finally taking on some kind of life. “I just called the cops. They’re sending someone over here. That’s why I was calling too. I wondered if your parents could get me a good lawyer. I need someone really good. I’m eighteen, Jamie. I’m an adult. I’m fucked.”

“You’re lying,” I said, “to fuck with me and Ben.”

“Fair enough,” he said. I heard sirens on his end of the line.

“I wish you had come over,” he said. “I liked you guys. You and Ben. I thought you were OK.”

“I have to go, Kennedy,” I said.

“OK,” he said. “They’re here anyways.”

I hung up the phone and walked back into the dining room.

“Who the heck was that?” my dad asked.

I looked at Ben, and his eyes were so wide open.

“Some guy in our math class,” I said. “He wanted to know what the homework was.”

“Well, your food’s getting cold,” my mom said.

I sat next to Ben, and we both pushed our food around, listening to my parents talk to each other, their voices happy.

“Can Ben spend the night?” I asked them suddenly.

“On a school night?” my mom replied.

“Please?” I asked.

“If it’s OK with his parents, then yeah, OK,” my mother aid. Under the table, Ben reached for my hand and squeezed it. He held on to it for the rest of dinner, and it steadied me. It kept me inside my own body, because I wanted to float away again.

In my room, the door locked, I told Ben about Kennedy, what he said he’d done.

“I don’t think he’s lying,” Ben said.
“We’ll find out tomorrow,” I said. “I guess.”

We were silent. And then I started crying and shaking. And Ben held on to me. “I hope he did,” I said. “I really hope he did it, and he’s not coming back.”

“Me, too,” Ben said, and now he was crying, too, but not like me, not like I was.

“I’m so sorry,” Ben said. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too,” I said.

What were we apologizing for? That we hadn’t protected each other? That we hadn’t kept each other safe? But I knew that he was sorry. And he knew that I was sorry. And he held on to me. And I held on to him. I think about that moment all the time. I wonder where Ben is now. I wonder what he’s doing. I wonder if he thinks about it. I miss him so much.

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Interviews, New Interviews, Uncategorized

Cameron Thomas Snyder

Cameron Thomas Snyder

Interviewed by Angela Bell


You’re so successful at making “Houses of the Holy” feel rooted in place and time. What’s your real-life relationship to the setting? Did you grow up in Kansas? 

I sort of grew up all over the place. I was born in San Antonio, moved around Texas, and then moved to Loveland, CO, where my father and mother eventually divorced when I was seven or eight. My mother then married our neighbor who drove a big rig for Walmart, and the job took him, took us, to a little town in Kansas called Eudora. From there, we moved two more times—first to the house along the highway, then off to Ottawa, KS, where I lived for six years. No matter where we lived, my older brother and I invariably visited our grandparents in Corpus Christi, TX, during the summer months. We never really fit the mold of “country kids,” and so Corpus was our refuge, a city where we felt comfortable in our own skin, where our grandparents would hand us thick wads of cash and drop us off at the mall. I think this is the life we thought we deserved. Therefore whenever I was back in Kansas I had this standoffish, almost pretentious air about me. Most of the kids I went to school with were into ranching and hunting and stock shows, none of which interested me in even the remotest of ways, and so I wrote them off as hicks or hillbillies or whatever and I became an outsider dressed in FUBU pants. 

By the time high school rolled around, I’d maintained the outsider status and picked up Christianity somewhere along the way, meaning I didn’t drink or go to parties. For fun, I’d go out with my few devout skateboarder friends and we’d break into abandoned quarries and old ice cream factories, essentially making a lifestyle out of trespassing. I explored that town inside and out, always searching for new activities to distract myself from the very fact that I hated where I lived and that I’d become poor. In this way I got to know the setting very intimately. 

“Prefabricated housing” carries such a weight of stigma, and it’s so easy to just let the reader bring their own associations to the page when you set a story in a trailer park. Early on, you devote a lot of time to the semantic particularities that distinguish different kinds of prefabricated housing, and you treat the details with such attention and care. Why was it important to you to get these subtleties right?

I think part of the problem was that we didn’t live in a trailer park. Had we ended up living in a community like that, I might have had an easier time accepting my living conditions since everyone around would have had a similar house. Maybe I would have even felt some solidarity. But we took our modular home to a residential street and attempted to integrate with those who lived in more or less traditional housing. This made me terribly self-conscious, like we’d only punctuated the fact that we lived in a modular home. From the street, everyone could plainly see that we were different, and I wanted nothing more than to melt away into anonymity as just another new kid on the block. Probably it’s from all the time I spent in Corpus that I developed the self-image issue, unwilling to admit that my now-single mother could no longer afford the bare necessities without governmental aid. I was a real prick about the whole thing, and that’s when I decided to deny my living situation via semantics. I knew that our house was not technically a “trailer,” it was a “modular home,” so, technically, I could not be “trailer trash.” When it came to writing the essay, it was important for me to tap into that semantic, analytical mindset in hopes of conveying the measures to which a kid will go as a means of convincing himself of his own superficial self-importance. 

It seems like you (as the narrator) begin the essay with an initial belief in the power of these semantic distinctions to sway perception, particularly by reinforcing or disengaging stereotypes. They really occupy the story, not just in terms of his house, but in other ways too—news reports about Kyle Flack, job assignments at Dairy Queen. As the essay moves, this power becomes less and less certain. Can you talk a little bit about how you view these kind of semantic choices as working in your world today? When do you think they’re worthwhile?

When I first lived in the modular home, I wanted others to know that I didn’t live in a trailer and that I wasn’t poor, despite the obvious. But later, when I discovered that this air of poverty could be used as a tool to wrench out sympathy from others, from girls, the stereotypes seemed to work more in my favor than semantics. Terms like “modular home” and “lower class” are almost too specific to elicit any sort of pity, whereas “trailer” and “dirt fucking poor” are likely to trigger more of an emotional response. Sometimes it’s just more convenient to settle down in the nice, warm bed of a stereotype.

I think people cling to semantics when they feel desperate or fearful, like I did back in Ottawa. “We’re not divorced, we’re separated.” “My story didn’t get rejected, it got turned down.” “I didn’t get fired, I got laid off.” Like with anything else, we bend and skew words to better form to the contours of our own ideals and delusions. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. A psychiatrist may think differently. 

One of the things I most admire about “Houses of the Holy” is its success in conveying my favorite emotional genre, which is funny-sad. How do you find the right balance of humor and weight in conveying painful material? What advice do you have for those of us who know how to be funny or sad in our writing but not both?

That is an incredibly difficult question to answer because I’m still learning how to find the balance between funny and sad myself. I don’t know if I’ll ever figure out the formula, and I’m certainly no authority on the matter, but I can tell you about my approach. 

Humor has always been my way of coping with pain, pretty much to a fault. Funny is easier for me to digest. I have a bad habit of laughing off the serious stuff. But it’s not so easy to get away with that in writing. People will call you out for being too self-flagellating, too bitter, too flippant. So for me, the key to funny-sad is the versatility of tone. By that I mean how important it is to locate a tone of voice that can navigate the rockiest, gloomiest back roads as well as the happy, hilarious valleys, something like all-terrain tone, as it were. If I’m too jocular about something serious, I sound like a sadist. If I’m too serious about something funny, I sound like a vapid cyborg devoid of self-awareness. For instance, the section about Kyle Flack—who murdered four people, including a baby he stuffed into a suitcase and then tossed into a creek—was extremely difficult to fit into a funny-sad essay. It’s kind of like the fragile knickknack of the essay, demanding to be held and treated with the utmost care. That story has haunted me for years and I wanted to write about it without seeming exploitative or heartless. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I finally realized that it’s okay to be serious about the delicate topics, which I’d always struggled with, scared to death of sentimentality. I’m learning that when the serious stuff is surrounded by funnier, more light-hearted sections, a unique juxtaposition is created, something like dark humor, maybe, which doesn’t make fun of the pain, but puts it in a different context, and suddenly we don’t feel sociopathic for laughing at someone else’s trauma. We’re laughing at what it is to be human ourselves. 

My advice is to read, study, and even type out stories by the modern masters of the form—George Saunders, Miranda July, Sam Lipsyte. They have the formula for the funny-sad. Steal it from them.   

What made you want to tell this story? What draws you to tell a particular narrative?  

My girlfriend and I recently moved to rural New Mexico, about twenty-five miles north of Las Vegas, NM, where a solid seventy-five percent of the residential housing is prefabricated. When her family flew out for Christmas last year I drove them around Vegas in a big passenger van, giving them the grand tour. There’s a lot to see in that town, it has some serious grit. Her aunt, from Sacramento, kept pointing and saying, Wow, look at all those trailers. She was just being observant, but I felt the dormant, defensive juvenile beast stir inside of me. I wanted to say, Look, not all of those homes are trailers; some are modular, some are mobile. There’s a difference, okay? That’s when I realized I didn’t even really know the difference, not anymore. When they left, I did some research and got to writing. I wanted to explore the stigma from an insider’s perspective.  

I’m more so drawn to particular ideas than I am to particular narratives. I never know where the narrative is going until I start writing. I think it was Scott Russell Sanders who said, and I’m paraphrasing here, an essay is like a river—the surface glimmers and reflects and dazzles, but beneath that, there is always a current, a direction. More often than not, my first few drafts are like sewage ponds under a night sky filled with Fourth of July fireworks—showy and stagnant. As I trudge through the muck of revision, I can typically find a direction, which leads to a particular narrative, but I never know what that will be when I start.       

And, most importantly: tell me more about the pugs in your life. 

Pugs were a problem. My first one, Pugsly, had some serious issues. I had a stupidly jealous golden retriever who bit him on the head when he was still a pup, and this enormous tumor-looking mass grew out the side of his head. I thought the bite to the head might have played a part in what seemed to be a learning disability, one that led him to run under my ex-stepfather’s moving truck for no apparent reason, a suicide mission. But when I received a second pug, Midget, who, having suffered no apparent head trauma, ended up performing a similar stunt on a passing Jeep, I realized it probably wasn’t only my two pugs who had issues, but pugs as a breed. I won’t get into my current stance on the continuous reproduction of dogs who clearly suffer from mental/physical defects, but let’s just say I will not be buying another pug, despite how badly I want to nuzzle one right now. 

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Uncategorized, Works

Houses of the Holy

Cameron Thomas Snyder

Houses of the Holy

One century ended while another century began and my older brother and I found ourselves getting dragged like luggage, yet again, from one place we didn’t want to be in Kansas to some other place we didn’t want to be in Kansas. All around me things were beginning or things were ending.

We were in the family Bonneville, on our way to the Plum Tree for Mother’s Day dinner, when my stepfather fell into a fit of rage. He pulled over and told us, his stepfamily, to get out of the car. We got out and huddled together like tangled trash on the shoulder of the busy two-lane highway, wincing at the wind from every passing vehicle, while in the idling car my stepfather screamed. I knew then that we would not be wolfing down platefuls of much desired chicken-on-a-stick, nor cracking open manila-folder-colored cookies containing scraps of paper telling our future; our future had been predetermined by a human Harley with a poor sense of humor and a foul-smelling handlebar mustache.

After his anger subsided, he told us to get back in the car. We said no. He flipped us off, tossed my mother’s brown leather purse out the window, ran it over, and drove home to drink five or six bottles of Boston Lager. He sat on the back porch in his too short summer shorts, lobbing the empties into the yard like fragmentation grenades.

Home, in those years, was a traditional stick-built house that my stepfather paid to have constructed, custom to his own liking, right there alongside the same highway he would later abandon us on. “Stick-built” is a term I recently came across while researching the differences in modern residential homes; it simply means a house that is built on-site, unlike prefab housing, trailers, and mobile homes. I’d
seen plenty of mobile homes in the area, but it had never occurred to me that I might actually end up in one. We were simply not that kind of family, not those kinds of people.

My ex-stepfather stayed in his house, chugging domestics, while the three of us—my mother, my brother, and I—stumbled off down the highway that leads to Ottawa, Kansas, searching for a place to call home.

Mobile homes stopped being mobile homes in 1976, after the Department of Housing and Urban Development passed a bill requiring that all prefab homes be built in a factory setting under strict federal building codes. The designation “mobile” was then legally changed to “manufactured,” not to be confused with “modular.” The specifications that determine whether a house is manufactured or modular are so semantically similar, it’s hard to know what’s what and why it even matters. Both are prefabricated off-site in climate-controlled factories; both are constructed in sections; both look like they were prefabricated off-site in climate-controlled factories and constructed in sections. The main difference between the
two is this: the manufactured home, equipped with a chassis, can be moved once it’s attached to a foundation, while the modular home remains a permanent fixture
once attached, like the stick-built home.

Brochures will tell you that you can hardly tell the difference, aesthetically, between a stick-built home and a prefab one, and I’m telling you that’s bullshit. But as my mother and I shopped for manufactured homes in a gravel lot off Main Street, where the only real difference between one house and the next was exterior color, I tried to recall all the stupid prefab proverbs about houses I’d ever heard. “Family makes this house a home,” I told myself. “Home is where you hang your heart.”

I put my hand to my chest and couldn’t feel a beat. A house is a hollow thing.

Purchasing a manufactured home is the easy part; it’s the finding where to set it down that can be tricky.

My mother and I drove around in the Bonneville, combing seedy neighborhoods for a plot on which to plant our factory-built house, and found ourselves, naturally, in a trailer park. I sized up the cars and trucks and vans sitting in front of the houses, as if these vehicles somehow reflected the character and social worth of the people who lived in this makeshift community. A couple of jalopy Pintos and a few trucks without doors later and I was explaining to my mother that I had an image to uphold, that if she forced me to live here, I’d be—we’d be—commonly called, by others outside of this favela, “trailer trash.” She said she was sorry but you had to play the hand you were dealt.

We did find a lot, and it wasn’t in a trailer park. However, our manufactured home wouldn’t fit on the lot in the traditional position known as hamburger style, i.e., with the front door facing the street, so the house movers had to set it down hot dog style, meaning the side of our house faced the street while the front door faced the side of our neighbor’s house.

“Hi. We are the hot dogs on Hamburger Street. Very nice to meet you.”

We added on a covered porch and an uncovered deck and planted squares of hyper-green sod in the front yard, or side yard, whatever it was, and the manufactured home continued to be a manufactured home, only now it had new accessories, like a poor kid in mall clothes. When friends came over I’d say, in all sincerity, “This is a manufactured home, and by that I mean I do not live in a trailer,” expecting them to be convinced or impressed or I don’t know what.

When the name Kyle Flack appeared alongside the words “murdered four” in the headlines of the Ottawa Herald website in the spring of 2013, I convinced myself I’d gone to school with him, or at least with one of the people he murdered, if only briefly, but I couldn’t be sure. My life had become so gutted of meaning that I needed to say I knew a killer in order to feel alive.

I talked to my brother on the phone about it. He had come to a similar conclusion. “I may or may not have smoked with one of them a couple times,” he said. “But, as you know, my memory blocks out a good deal from our Ottawa years.”

Regardless of who knew who, Kyle Flack murdered three adults via shotgun at a three-bedroom “modular” home on the outskirts of Ottawa. He also shot and killed an eighteen-month-old girl and shoved or tucked or placed—depending on your news source—her body in a suitcase and tossed it into Tequa Creek near the Osage–Franklin county line.

Each newspaper article refers to the house differently, as if the reporters were all dancing around the same issue of what exactly to call the structure, although “trailer” is never used. “Trailer” connotes reckless backwoods Kansas folk and threatens to detract from the severity of a toddler’s death while bolstering the stigma of trailers and those who inhabit them. “Modular home,” “house,” “farmhouse,” and “single-story residence” can all be found in the various reports. Whatever it was, it belonged to the mother of one of the victims, who claimed to have spent more than $15,000 in repairs and had plans to add blue countertops to the kitchen that she would have carried out had the whole house not burned to the ground in a “possible” arson a year after the murders took place. The only photo of the house online was taken after the fire, and, judging by the charred cinder-block underpinning and the rusted chassis, I’d say “modular home” is semantically incorrect.

According to The Kansas City Star, Flack wrote in his journal that he wanted to “dye [sic] in a suitcase”; his therapist speculated that he might have suffered an early-childhood trauma that eventually led to this bizarre attraction to luggage. The precise brand or style of suitcase is not documented anywhere online—it is simply referred to as “a suitcase.” For a man who had an ostensible fetish about dying in one, you’d think Flack would have been more particular about the suitcase he used in the crime: Samsonite or American Tourister, modern trolley style or vintage, oxblood or black. Or maybe he couldn’t afford the model he desired and had to settle for something he had on hand, had to settle for less.

A suitcase is not a coffin until a child’s body is tucked inside it. A prefabricated box is not a home until a family fills it.

A couple of years after the murders, my mother was sent to the very same detention center where Flack had been held while he awaited his trial. After she served her time, my brother and I drove down from Kansas City and took her out to an early lunch at the Ottawa Applebee’s. Our food arrived and we sat awkwardly amid an ambient countryside sizzle. I asked what had happened.

“I was leaving Country Mart and I hit a kid in the parking lot. I didn’t see him.”

“What do you mean you didn’t see him?” my brother said.

“I mean I drove away before I could get a good look at him.”

“I believe there’s a term for that,” I said.

“And you were drunk,” my brother said.

“No. I ran out of wine and went to get some more.”

“Because you drank it all that afternoon.”

“Like I said, I ran out.”

She did three weeks in the female ward of the Franklin County Detention Center for a hit-and-run. She told us that all the other inmates were young and helpless and looked up to her as a mother. She made sure they had enough to eat and gave them her food if they didn’t. My mother, I thought, the maternal jailbird, fluttering around in her cage, distributing masticated worm-mash into the mouths of criminal baby birds I probably went to high school with. She’s always had a way of making me jealous.

I watched the family cat choke on a hairball, or what I thought was a hairball, by the washer and dryer, in a space that functioned as both the laundry room and the back entryway. His chest heaved as I attempted, out of pure misguided instinct, to perform CPR on him, and his rib cage cracked and crunched like a pine cone under a bath mat until a warm liquid began to soak the denim of my kneecaps, and I noticed then that the last of Pickles’s piss had vacated his body. When my mother got home, she scooped Pickles up, slid him into a black plastic garbage sack, and said, “Now go burry your cat.” The sack drooped in my doubled-up fists like a giant rotten teardrop and I did as I was told. A few months after this, I watched from our newly built porch as my ex-stepfather—who’d been nosing around our place lately, reeking of false forgiveness and stale beer—ran over my pug as he chased after the tires of the truck. His ragged body tumbled and flailed and fell limp in the gravel alleyway, and I ran inside to cry on the carpet, in private. I buried Pugsly next to Pickles in what was quickly becoming a pet cemetery. This small accumulation of tragedies made the manufactured home feel spiteful, not only to my reputation but to my emotional health as well. My ex-stepfather bought me a consolation pug, this one even dumber than the first, and the next thing I knew my mom was a lunch lady shopping at Walmart with EBT food stamps. To combat this death spiral of white-trash poverty, I got a job at Dairy Queen South as a fry cook the moment I turned fifteen, to make some money of my own. Then I adopted hardcore Christianity to prove myself better and holier than everyone around me, or maybe I had simply deluded myself, as a means of self-preservation, into believing I’d become better and holier than everyone else around me; it didn’t really matter which, because at the end of the day, it’s pretty much all the same in the head of the beholder.

Darren, the manager of the Dairy Queen, explained my duties to me. They were simple, he said, requiring the most minimal use of elementary human cognition: “Here’s where we keep the burgers, here’s where we keep the fries, there’s the grill, there’s the fryer, figure it out.” The charm at the end of his gold chain kept getting tangled in the triangle of his chest hair, and he plucked it out as he talked.

“What’s on your necklace?” I asked.

He fingered the charm and looked down, creating a stairway of chins. “Beauty and the Beast,” he said. “It’s my favorite movie of all fucking time.”

Darren was a squat, rotund man of forty-five. He lived in his parents’ basement on the other side of town and had been working at Dairy Queen for fifteen years. His favorite movie was indeed the animated Disney rendition of Beauty and the Beast, with Full Metal Jacket a close second. Anytime I found myself bombarded with orders—if more than six or seven food orders popped up on the screen—he’d scream “FUBAR!” and run back to the kitchen to help me fend off the assault. “I am in a world of shit, yes,” he’d whisper, drawing a pentagram with ketchup on the top portion of a burger bun. “But I am alive. And I am not afraid.”

A demented teenage demon named Hormones lived inside me and I smothered him with a throw pillow called youth group. I declared myself straightedge and marked my hands with thick, bold Xs: marks of a martyr, of a modern-day messiah ready to die not for the sins of the world but for my own. I painted quotes from Corinthians on the bottom of my skateboard and carved I SK8 4 JC into the grip tape. Meanwhile, the demon grew like a bonsai cat, his limbs contorting inside my religiously decorated shelter of being. He wanted out. I held him in.

The girls weren’t allowed to cook food. If they wanted something to eat for lunch, they asked me or one of the other guys in the kitchen to cook it for them. The girls stayed up front with the soft-serve machines and the Dilly Bars, where they acted as the “Cool Treats” the slogan advertised. This made me a “Hot Eat,” I guess, one that
could not be seen by customers unless they squinted through the heated order window and caught a glimpse of my visored head as I practiced my pentagrams.

Girls often snuck into the kitchen to poach fries from the heated dump station, of which I acted as a gatekeeper, and they did the same when we grimy kitchen cretins craved a stray turd of soft serve. When I wanted to flaunt my power as an edgy fry cook with little regard for authority, I’d allow the girls to dig around in the heated drawer where the fried chicken strips were kept, and if they caught me in a
good mood, I’d let them slather their strips with a squirt or two from the peppered gravy dispenser. This was all part of the Dairy Queen power dynamic, a primitive system of trading and bartering.

A beautiful blond girl began to visit the dump station far more than the others, and I got the feeling it wasn’t just for the french fries.

Brittany and I had gone to school together long enough for me to know that she only dated bad dudes, those who were academically stunted and, more often than not, built like military cyborgs. What attracted these sorts of men to Brittany, at least on a carnal level, was the unbelievable exquisiteness of what the boys of Dairy Queen called her “badunkadunk.” My eyes were not unaware of this phenomenon, but a good Christian boy does not objectify a woman’s body, because it is a sin to objectify a woman’s body. So when she started hanging around the dump station, which is to say, when she started hanging around me, I decided that it was my duty to protect her from unmitigated sexual harassment while remaining true to God by corking the wellspring of sexual urges that rose up in me when she was nearby. I was being good. I awaited my reward.

It is dangerous to confuse ethics with sins.

When word got around that I didn’t put out, or put in, or go all the way, the guys found it necessary to give me shit about it.

A big kid who had clearly never been laid showed me how to make an engorged vagina out of a warm washcloth.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” I said.

“Fuck it,” he said, laughing.

I dipped the oval end of a red plastic spoon into the burbling fryer, removed it, and used tongs to stretch out the melted plastic, creating a three-foot-long eating utensil, and handed it to the big kid.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” he said.

I shrugged, but the demon inside me said, “Eat another Blizzard, you fat fuck.”

I was becoming comfortable with my responsibilities at the deep fryer.

At home, things stopped dying. My mother started seeing our neighbor, who looked like a Ninja Turtle, and he tried to introduce discipline into our household. It was not welcome. He reprimanded me after I screamed at my mother for making us poor. “Don’t talk to your mama that way,” he said. I tried to laugh in his face but cried instead. He bought me new skate shoes for Christmas and smoked weed with my brother. My mother took some steps in the wrong direction, then the right direction, some steps up, some steps down. People are steps, are to be stepped on. My mother taught me this.

I flipped over one of the hot metal food dividers and skated it with my finger skateboard.

Darren’s red water-balloon face appeared on the cool side of the heated order window. “What in God’s name are you doing back there, boy?”

“I’m nose-blunting this hot metal food divider,” I said. “What does it look like?”

Skateboarding in front of girls was something that made me feel worthy of manhood; using my fingers to stunt a toy skateboard on fast-food kitchenware in front of girls—not so much. So when I heard Brittany approaching, I stowed the food divider and stuffed the finger board into my greasy black slacks.

“What was that sound?” she said.

“Fries frying?”

“Uh-huh,” she said, plucking a piss-yellow fry from the dump station. “You sure it wasn’t the sound of you playing with your little toy?”

To change the subject, I cracked open the chicken-strip drawer provocatively. “Hungry for something else?”

She dug around and found what she wanted. She held the warm strip under the gravy nozzle and I gave it a half squirt. She looked me in the eye and bit off the continental tail of the chicken strip. “Don’t tell,” she said.

The demon thundered in his cage.

Every Christian boy secretly desires a bite of the forbidden fruit, the razor-blade apple, the apple bottom. No, no, do not objectify emails, I mean females. Suppress the thoughts, suffocate the demon.

I rode my skateboard to the prefab skate park next to the sewage pond and stared at the fresh graffiti scrawled in Sharpie on the back of the six-foot quarterpipe: 666 SATIN. I skated home and locked myself in my room and masturbated to the last five minutes of the E! program Wild On! Here exotic bikini girls shook their bodies on circular platforms in cerulean blue fountains. Brittany was not among them.

The day came for some serious occupational advancement. Darren sat me down in the blotchy break chair and he got serious. “The time has come for you to work up front,” he said.

“You mean like making Blizzards and taking orders at the register and working the drive-thru window and having kids from school see me wearing a visor?”


“Will I see an increase in pay?”

“Well, no. But you will gain experience.”
“So you want me to do more work for the same pay. Am I allowed to decline this advancement?”

He plucked the charm from his tuft and shook his head. “You’re killing me, boy.”

I requested an extra shift so as to reduce the number of hours I had to spend at home. A Dairy Queen is as suitable a place as any for a teenage boy to live. Darren could be my father, a whole slew of Cool Treats could be my mothers, and I’d subsist on buttered Texas toast and CheeseQuake Blizzards.

Darren offered me a Wednesday evening shift.

“Youth group,” I said.

“Oh, fuck, that’s right,” he said. “How about Sunday morning?”

To avoid workplace conflict and distract myself from my desire for Brittany, I began dating girls who worked at Dairy Queen North. One of these girls picked me up
after my closing shift at Dairy Queen South, shoved me in her Geo, and drove me along a desolate midnight highway to her house so we could make out and I could meet her dog. Her house was neither a house-house nor a manufactured house, but a full-blown pre-HUD-amendment trailer house. “Sorry if you’re disappointed,” she said. “I know trailers get a bad rap.”

I consoled her to the best of my ability. “We can only play the hand we are dealt, right?”

While we dry-humped on the edge of her bed, surrounded by soiled puppytraining pads, her dirty mophead of a dog whimpering in the corner, I began to think the unthinkable thoughts of a self-stigmatized man: I am trash, she is trash, we are trash. She drove me home with my feet on the dash, the window down, and I convinced myself I lived inside a Death Cab for Cutie song, when in fact I’d never speak to this girl again. One manufactured home between a pair of high school lovers was doable; two meant trash. I began to date out of my league, class-wise and intelligence-wise. My reputation as stuck-up religious skater kid preceded me, and this somehow worked to my advantage. I played my hand and started dating girls who lived in opulent houses with rich pantries. No longer, when I brought girls to my house, did I apologize or try to explain my circumstances. A museum needs no explanation; it only needs to be seen. This is my mother, drooling on herself at noon. That is my brother, hotboxing my pug in a cooler. Welcome to my home. Now go ahead and feel sorry for me. Please.

My car was in the shop, and everything outside was caked in sleet. People ordered ice cream, despite the cold. “What kind of idiot eats ice cream when it’s ten goddamn degrees outside?” Darren said.

A busful of high school basketball players walked in ten minutes before closing time and things got fucked up beyond all recognition. I drew so many sloppy pentagrams with ketchup on the undersides of the buns that they started to look more like Stars of David, but the orders kept coming. Not even God can produce a shower of manna bountiful enough to meet the needs of a busload of high school jocks. They wore matching windbreakers and watched Brittany’s ass like an after-school special. She played like she liked it, but I wouldn’t believe that. She
gave one of them her number, and I gave him the most rancid piece of prepared meat I could find in the holding cabinet.

The basketball team left and Brittany’s radiant face appeared like an angel’s on the other side of the order window. “Need a ride home?” she said.

We pulled up to the side of my house and sat in her warm, idling Cavalier. My house stood there like a sheepish animal, embarrassed to be caught off guard in the glow of her headlights. For the first time in months I felt self-conscious about where I lived.

“This is a manufactured home,” I said. “Not to be confused with a trailer or a mobile home.”

She laughed at me the way you laugh at a child who has dressed himself for the first time. To her, I was a straitlaced Christian boy who didn’t party or have sex—the antithesis of tough, a total square. But I felt things inside. Felt things? Yes, I could be bad too. I just had to tell her: “I have fantasized about peeling off your pants and fucking you from behind in the walk-in freezer and subsequently getting locked in and freezing, cryogenically, only to be discovered and thawed centuries later and, upon awakening, continuing to fuck you from behind in a strange and unrecognizable future world where the only thing that could possibly palliate our horrific disorientation would be to continue fucking each other in a walk-in freezer. Also, my alcoholic mother and retarded pug are home. Would you like to come in?”

She cleared her throat and wiped at the condensation forming on the windshield. My time to confess was running out. I prepared a different speech, one of truth: “The body sitting beside you is manufactured. It is a temporary structure liable to blow into bits in the event of a strong wind. The foundation is rat-ridden and dangerously unstable. The outside says nothing about what lives inside. I am no different from those I speak and think ill of. I am a gymnasium of jocks, an infatuated fry cook.”

Before I could say anything out loud, she popped the automatic locks and said, “Well, goodnight then. See you tomorrow at work.”

I got out of her car and she left. I’d seen this before.

Inside, my mother was sitting on the couch watching television. She showed me a free sample packet of CoverGirl foundation she’d gotten in the mail, and I squirted the beige paste onto the palm of my hand and smeared it in long, thick streaks up and down my face. I danced around the living room while she ate cottage cheese. She laughed like a happy witch. She laughed so hard a curd ejected from her throat and landed on her chin. We both laughed so hard I thought we’d never stop. I handed her the foil packet and sat down next to her and we watched Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? trying to guess the answers and getting them all wrong.

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Interviews, New Interviews, Uncategorized

Jana Prikryl

Jana Prikryl

Interviewed by Stephen de Búrca

Something that stands out in your five “Anonymous” pieces is how careful and precise the speaker is in establishing the scene for the reader, as if to avoid affecting the scenes. Had you a particular series of photographs in mind while writing the five poems? What was the motive for this precision? And could you speak a little to how the speaker asserts her voice in the final section?

Yeah, that sounds right—“as if to avoid affecting the scenes,” though I didn’t aim for that deliberately. These poems are rooted in an anonymous photo album I bought years ago, in a junk shop in Brooklyn, and much later they grew out of a slightly inexplicable but strict procedure I came up with. The album contains 98 small snapshots of a group of girlfriends, in maybe their late teens, probably around 1910, and there’s no identifying text or captions. I’d spent a lot of time, over the years, staring at these photos and feeling this hopeless, trite, hopeless longing to know more about the people in them. So the procedure I devised—which I think drives the precision you mention—was an attempt to articulate that longing, which is so resistant to articulation, precisely because it is so universal or generic. The procedure involved rephotographing each snapshot, enlarging it on my computer, cropping it (in various ways, depending on the image), describing the section I’d cut in very clear, neutral prose, and then (months later, once all this was done) relying on only the prose (no peeking, etc.) to write a poem about what was no longer in each picture. I think the idea behind all this compulsive activity was: When so much of an artifact’s meaning is gone, why not remove more? Is it possible, in this way, to give the severed object some sense of a backstory, some connection to a past? I found myself using the series to generate a voice that stuck to the page while avoiding “style,” the devices I usually manipulate to make a poem sticky. So when the first person crept in near the end of the series it felt intrepid—it’s my first-person, my own thought unspooling, but as I wrote those lines I felt myself watching it happen in a very third-person way, my voice stripped of “poetry” yet generating a poem.

You said in a previous interview that English was the third language you learned, after Czech and German. (As someone who was raised speaking English and Irish, I feel it gives me a detachment from language that allows one to poke around at a language’s nooks and crannies.) What has your experience, as a poet, with this been? Do you feel this gives you a more objective relationship to a language as a mode of expression, rather than expression itself?

I don’t think I’m more objective regarding language (probably the opposite?), but yes, I feel that having this visceral bond with a very different language like Czech gives me a friendly skepticism about what English, or any language, can do. It sharpens my appetite for playing with language. And then I tend to be easily bored by “expression itself.” I care much less what a poem is saying than how it goes about saying it—or it’s more like I think how a poem says something is what it is saying. But this conviction seems to arise not so much from my detachment from English (which you mention, and I also feel!) as from my totally immersed love of it.

Your second collection, No Matter, is set to be published in July by Tim Duggan Books. Congratulations! I’ve heard many poets speak of feeling a sort of freedom (whether it’s in terms of voice or style, or even subject, that is more in line with how they might view themselves as poets) once their first collection is published. Was this your experience? Was your approach to No Matter different from your first collection, The After Party? And can you give us a sneak peak of what to expect from No Matter?

Thank you! I don’t know about feeling free (I wish I had!)… I think because experimentation and instability of voice/self are some of the things nearest to me as a poet, when I finished The After Party I just felt crazily eager to embark on the next thing, with a new set of parameters and problems. And I was lucky to have gotten a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, which gave me nine months to focus on the next book just when I needed it. (I’d had a baby three weeks after The After Party came out…) The result is that No Matter feels like a more focused, compacted object than my first book—it contains as much formal variety, I think, but its themes are more relentlessly interconnected. Actually the first things I started working on, after The After Party was finished in 2015, were these “Anonymous” poems. And then once I got to Radcliffe they became the kernel of the new manuscript. The impulse to “cut back” in a situation that’s already hopelessly austere—which I think is a very human, all too human impulse—ended up being a central theme in No Matter, a cognate of the temptation to be stoic, to retreat into oneself, in difficult times. A lot of the poems in this new book orbit around questions of how we deal with suffering and how a society is different from just a group of individuals, and what an individual can expect from her fellow individuals, and how damaging it might be if everybody truly believed in the virtue of self-reliance—if nobody asked anything of anyone.

And finally, when writing poetry, what are your reading habits like? Do you read poetry or do you read other genres? Who/what do you read? Any guilty pleasures?

While I was writing No Matter last year I assigned myself a pretty specific reading list, which isn’t how I usually proceed but it seemed right for this book—Greek and Roman Stoic philosophy, and truly weird medieval travelogues, and Spenser’s translations of Joachim du Bellay’s sonnets on the ruins of Rome, and pastoral poetry and scholarly texts on pastoral poetry. Basically stuff to get me in the mood to ponder the end times. Lately on the subway I’ve read novels by Margaret Drabble, Danielle Dutton, Natalia Ginzburg, and Yuko Tsushima, and various poets and biographies in between. I feel sort of embarrassed to say I don’t have guilty pleasures as a reader, because I instantly get bored if the stuff is not firing on all cylinders. But I have a weakness for British TV. I watched all of Gavin & Stacey a few weeks ago, and almost felt compelled to write an essay about its bizarre homophobic subplot (involving the Rob Brydon character) and about the conservative streak in a certain kind of comedy. Instead I found another British show to watch.

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Jana Prikryl


Her hair is parted in the center and this side
wall of the house ends just above her part.
The seam between the house and not-house
seems to rise out of the part in her hair.
Dandelions on the lawn are playing
sundials, their globes give out the time
of year. She’s not smiling so much
as grimacing against the pull of the brush
and squinting against the sun. Nowhere are
her feet more than tacit. She is the tallest one.


The whitecaps blink like second thoughts
or action captured through a fledgling medium,
made sweet and anterior, already posthumous,
trinkets. A building of pale stone stretching out behind.
Stately, in other words.
Modillions between windows even at ground level and awnings pulled in.
Shadows short as a breath caught short,
To the right of these two, a third girl is centered in the center of the picture.
She seems to sway, making a window between her waist and that of the tallest girl.
We see through this window to a window behind.
But she leans toward the tall girl, cocks her head, and looks at you.
It’s the look of a friend who knows you well.


Above these three pairs of dark patent boots
on the highest of three steps, where three
of the six toes jut out past the nosing
making three little cups of shadow
hanging from the top of the riser,
each little cup falling over to the right
at exactly the same angle, three columns
of girls in long coats rise
between two dark pillars on a porch, three bright
numbers running down the right-hand pillar:
All three wear hats,
each hat forms a porch
around each face, each face
smiles from its porches into the aperture.


Just in front of the porch steps, on a flat stone
that appears partially tucked under the porch,
a ficus in a clay planter. It produces
strange sounds. The silence that comes dressed
in not the past but conditional tense
may be quietest, it’s endured the most.


Their dated shoes are hidden in a cloud of grasses
of the kind she’s holding in her hand.
The sound of a strand of wild grass ripping
has something human about it, you feel
the earth’s scalp object, and that’s where you assert
your difference from the earth, an unexpected
homonym, in your own perception
quickly forgotten of how a patch of soil
resists you and then ceases to resist
and then the grass is yours. This
great piece of turf, this photo-realism.
He looks into the device
with a face almost expressionless,
a subject very knowing. She smiles.
I’ll be honest with you, it’s difficult
to like the men in these photographs.
My contempt might be capable
of reanimating them, the men alone, so deep
does power lodge in them, no
that can’t be right
when it’s the soil
and they the famished little roots.

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Interviews, New Interviews, Uncategorized

Tom Whalen

Tom Whalen

Interviewed by Mitchell Galloway

Walser’s short fictions are often difficult to classify. You submitted “Rain” as a poetry translation, but we decided to accept it as fiction. What about this piece lends itself to be more a piece of poetry than prose?

“Rain” is prose, yes, but perhaps it’s more poem than story, more essay than fiction? I like how Walser’s work often makes classification irrelevant. I submitted it to Ange Mlinko, Subtropics’ poetry editor, because I know she’s not averse to the short prose piece or prose poem. I was very pleased that she and David Leavitt and the staff appreciated it.

Many of the short pieces you have translated originally appeared in the feuilleton section of newspapers. How did Walser’s work compare to other feuilleton pieces of the time (circa 1918)? What was the typical reader expecting? In these pieces did Walser parody the conventions of the feuilleton in any way?

Walser’s short prose pieces published in newspapers were different enough for Kafka to flip to the feuilleton section in search of them and for Eduard Korrodi, the feuilleton editor of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, to write that when he published a Walser piece (specifically those in the 1920s when parody would play a larger role in Walser’s prose), he “would receive letters from disgruntled readers threatening to cancel their subscriptions if the nonsense didn’t stop.” But for the most part, I’d say it’s not so much parody as it is his turning the conventional subject matter of the feuilleton to his own idiosyncratic ends, as can be seen in “Rain.”

Michael Hofmann writes in his introduction to Metamorphosis and Other Stories that Kafka “offers very little to the translator; there is no ‘voice’, no diction, no ‘style’.” Perhaps in contrast, what does Walser offer to the translator?

The “glacial purity” of Kafka’s prose, Christopher Middleton noted in “The Picture of Nobody: Some Remarks on Robert Walser” (1958), isn’t found in Walser, who was “anything but glacial.” Tracking and “miming” the shifting registers of Walser’s voice is one of the many difficulties and delights, if captured, in translating him.

In “Eine Art Erzählung” Walser writes, “If I am well disposed, that’s to say, feeling good, I tailor, cobble, weld, plane, knock, hammer, or nail together lines.” Besides writing in microscript later in life, do you know anything about his composition or revision process?

Caught in the swirl of Walser’s prose, it’s easy to think of him only as a free-wheeling master of improvisation. “I sit down somewhat reluctantly at my desk to play my piano, that is to say, to begin to discourse on the potato famine which long ago …” (“A Village Tale,” tr. Christopher Middleton, Selected Stories). But I think the narrator of “The Walk” offers us a more accurate take on his writing process: “Although I may cut a most carefree figure, I am highly serious and conscientious, and though I seem to be no more than delicate and dreamy, I am a solid technician!” (tr. CM, SS). My assumption, as well as that of Bernhard Echte and Werner Morlang, the transcribers of the microscripts, is that he composed slowly. I credit his productivity and the rapid flight of his thought in prose to his steadfastness.

Can you talk about the forthcoming collection in which this piece will appear? Are there other pieces translated for the first time?

Little Snow Landscape and Other Stories contains seventy stories. That’s eighteen fewer texts than in Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories, but the new collection is twenty percent longer. As far as I know, all but three of these short pieces are previously untranslated. It opens in 1905 with an encomium by the twenty-six-year-old Walser to his homeland and concludes in 1933 with a meditation on his childhood in Biel, the town of his birth, published in the last of his four years in the cantonal mental hospital in Waldau outside Bern. Between these two poles, the book maps Walser’s outer and inner wanderings in various narrative modes, including essaylets, fables, idylls, tales of comedy and horror, monologues, travelogues, and prose pieces with “the stamp of calculated naïveté and artificial inartificiality” (“The Pipsqueak,” Girlfriends, Ghosts …). Besides presenting a representative sample of his short prose arranged chronologically by date of publication or composition, my selection process involved keeping in mind certain novelistic elements to bring the reader closer to this “most camouflaged of writers” (Elias Canetti).

I’m grateful that Walser’s work, for the English reader, continues to be a slow excavation. I would hate for every short piece to be translated and crammed into an exhaustive “collected works.” Do you think all of Walser at once would be, as “Rain” says, “too grand and difficult”? Can we agree a volume of Walser should always fit in the side pocket of a rucksack?

That seems the perfect place to me. “Beiseit”—apart, aside—is where Walser and his work thrive.

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Uncategorized, Works


Robert Walser (translated by Tom Whalen)


There’s gentle but also unruly rain. We prefer the former but take it as it comes. To accept what comes and yet never lose one’s cheerfulness isn’t easy, but beautiful because of that. What tastes the sweetest? Natural honey? No, something else: peaceful, everyday work without calamity. Speaking of rain, you could say it makes the earth black and soddens the streets. I deeply hope more will occur to me. Dark rain clouds have something cozy, poetic about them. Is that it? Oh no, Mr. Author! I request a smidgen of patience so I may collect myself. Sentences, words don’t just fly to me, they want to be caught unawares, captured, attained, discovered, enticed. Sometimes the mind thinks more about zwieback than about language and the like. In general, we have spring rain, autumn rain, etc. Rain is wet. That has been the case and we assume will remain so. No one should ever succumb to the opinion that he is unique. We’re all like one another, at least I firmly believe this, and furthermore I believe everything has already happened and existed once before and that’s why all pride seems exceedingly superfluous and inexpedient.

But why, dear friend, don’t you stick meticulously to your drizzling theme? In fact, often it only drizzles. But more often it pours and rains in real torrents, as if it wanted to inundate every path, park, dear lovely garden, every field and the paraphernalia hanging there. To be drenched by rain now and then isn’t at all funny, rather it can be quite irksome, which without doubt everyone will have experienced in his dull or eventful life. In a proper rain everything becomes wet except water, like rivers, which can’t possibly get wet because they already are. What I am I can’t become, and what I have can’t be given to me. Rain moistens roofs, fills holes and barrels with water, swims and runs down slopes, washes useless stuff away, sees to it that everything all about glitters watery, swallows up and gulps down dust, is a sweeper and wiper who diligently wipes and valiantly sweeps up and makes those who don’t carry an umbrella scurry along. How richly thinged the world is; again and again we sincerely have to adore it. Should it also be permitted to think about excursions, entire cities, wide, verdant landscapes filled with fruitfulness, of Russian, Bavarian, Belgian, Thuringian, North American, Spanish, Tuscan regions moistened and injected with abundant wetness? Or about historical pageants, the dense crowd breaking up, seeking shelter that looks quite pleasant? Wouldn’t a dreamy poet in rainy weather like to sit at a dear old window so as to feel inordinately lonely? If I’m not mistaken, it rained endlessly, as it were, during the Battle of Dresden, and Napoleon got thoroughly soaked.

Many years ago, as it dripped and rained enchantingly, I promenaded and strolled along the local Bahnhofstrasse that had duplicated itself, its facades, trees, gentlemen and ladies, primarily these, boys and girls and kittens and I don’t know what all, magically reflected in the smooth asphalt and in the soft afternoon light in such a way that there was an upper world and a lower world and the unfathomable seemed almost more beautiful than the real. Desist, desist. Relent and break off. Consider whether this article perhaps isn’t already almost too grand and difficult.


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