Houston Insomnia

by Stephanie Dickinson

* Texas Street *

4:00 a.m. on Houston’s Texas Street and in the depot you’ve staggered into carrying your red patent leather hatbox that’s been riding all night from Austin through the vastness of Texas. Sunday, left hours ago, has reached blue Monday and the magnolias still open are already closing—a thickness you can swallow—the sullied odor of a too-sweet sock. Bus women shift in the peach orchards of sleep, their rope-tied suitcases like cypress knees under their feet. He walks toward you: wide-awake, tall, late twenties, not handsome, not ugly. Dressed in black jeans, a tee, a good-looking antelope-colored suede jacket. The janitors have returned from their break and lift the long poles of their mops, the greasy eels drowned in Pine Sol. He’s come looking for a match to light his cigarette. In the depot no one complains of second-hand-smoke. He’s looking for the easy ones he can talk into his ride parked outside. Surely, he already knows the ones to approach, the ones who never learned to say no, who wear tight clothes, the fatherless ditch girls who move to the city to be noticed, the ones already damaged (i.e., like you).

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*  Newports *

He drops into the chair next to you,  an unlit cigarette behind his ear. He lights a Newport, offers you one from a pack. You take it. “Where you heading?” he asks.

“I’m here. Houston is my destination. What about you?”

“Nowhere.” He flicks his ashes with a long fingernail. He suffers from insomnia and comes here to the depot when he can’t sleep. “What do you do?” he asks. You tell him you’re a teacher. Not that you’re a lover of books and strong coffee, of fruity words dipped into rose petals and the wet red of a girl’s lips against the white stem of her throat, paragraphs scribbled in the dialect of flesh. You don’t tell him this job is our first after getting your MFA in poetry. To teach the profoundly retarded at a private school, a Master of Fine Arts will do. “A teacher,” he repeats. “What do you teach?” Laughing, he looks at your matador pants and heels. His eyes, the color of amaretto, they forget something; they travel you up and down.

The ladies room is up an open staircase, its banister a grillwork lattice of 1920s elegance.  You explain you were visiting friends in Austin over the weekend.  You’ll change clothes in the bathroom and go straight from here to work. You start at 7:00 a.m.

The Center for the Retarded on West Dallas. Google it and you’ll discover it recently changed its politically incorrect name.

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* Parallel Universe *

He asks if you get high. “You have enough time,” he says with a watch glance. “Let’s go to my place and then I’ll drive you to work.” The lure of crystal. A South African diamond. A conifer singing to the sunrise. You let him swing your red patent hatbox over his shoulder and follow him out into the last of the charcoaly night. The icehouse dregs where the men and women watching for dawn switch from beer to coffee. The Houston sky waits for that first blaze of hot blue.  75 percent humidity and 102 degrees by the Allied Chemical Bank.

He unpockets his car keys, and crosses the street. “By the way,” he says, “I’m Larry.”

Not Lawrence. Not Leonardo. Not Layton. Larry.

In a parallel universe, which physicists postulate there could be millions of, the car still exists, as you do, the 25-year-old who should know better. Nothing mathematically prevents it. Perhaps Larry has a different, richer name there—Lionel or Leopold. In that universe the girl who is you passes the aqua-painted storefronts and empty lots, the nine-foot fence where homeless men nursing beer quarts lean, that girl walks past the rib shack, its pit cookers sizzling breakfast brisque, and keeps going.

* Liz *

Monday’s exhausted classroom of the profoundly retarded with autistic overlays lies before you. A week of preteens in diapers, none able to speak, some hum the music of drool, others groan and giggle. There are other teachers like you. Single. Imports from the North. The clean ones like Faye Fish you love right away. With the dirty ones the love takes longer. Like Andrew Dickey, the doctor’s son suffering brown lice in his eyebrows, who lives in a locked room at his father’s manicured River Oaks home. Theresa in her upside down sunglasses. Liz, a cretin, welded into blue stretch pants and drool-soured pink turtleneck. Hair is her poetry, her drug, her sex, her fascination. Her transcendence. Why the gleam in her deep blue eyes when she stretches a single strand of your long hair between her fingers? What is it Liz sees? A tiramisu stallion? Leaf shadow? Sweeping the floor with her fingers, she collects hair. Her head’s half-bare but for baby-fine wisps of chick-yellow. All her life she’s pulled out her hair, playing with it, tasting it. Blue eyes like dark violet pools of water, startlingly beautiful. How stunning Liz is in the parallel universe where her brain awakens, her thoughts like moth wings, and her hair’s a waterfall. Not crouching on all fours, as she scours the floor for hair prey. A long dead day ahead in the universe of soiled diapers and puzzles no student can master.

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*5:00 a.m.*

He fits the key in the ignition and a woman on the radio sings in a thick voice like a pillow that wants to pull you into papaya and mango, the sweet sob of the tropics—orange too orange, green that tastes pink. The street where you live flashes past and he begins to whistle a birdsong of perfect white incisors. On Westheimer the sun is the color of a flesh wound. Like the hummingbird thrumming of your heart in love with the interstate’s jitter. Cleveland Drive. Washington. Jefferson. Streets named after gone presidents where fists of men—Mexicans, Guatemalans, Columbians—line up for day labor. Dawn-strong roosters but after a day in the sun pounding nails, they’ll shrivel red-pink like the bleeding heart flowers on your grandmother’s farm, their muscle-stems trembling in the sweat rag of 5:00 p.m. Houston, the most air-conditioned city on earth. Gateway to hell. Elevators high as skyscrapers, prefabricated apartments, thrown up, flash and scurry by. Everywhere there’s construction, a hunger for walls, sliding glass patio windows, queen-sized mattresses slabbed between plywood bones.

Lamar Drive past the strip shopping centers and Used Auto Parts where you’ve forever arriving in the gutlessness beyond the Dunkin Donuts and dusty magnolia trees. “I live here with my sister,” he says. Two tiers of apartments painted brown and thrown up around a parking lot. Box air conditioners hum from each unit. Azaleas snuggle against aluminum window frames. A baby is crying as you climb the stairs.

She’s sitting at the round kitchen table nursing her son when the two of you walk in. A young woman with espresso-colored curls glances up. Her visible breast—a fallen fruit where her baby smacks his milk and claims her as first food. She’s taken one look and without a word to her brother (or boyfriend or husband) starts packing: tote, diaper bag, car seat. Jars of Gerber skitter over the Formica of the dinette, strained carrots and beets, apple sauce, thud. You listen to her disappearing into the boom city of grain elevators and icehouses, of glass towers glinting like enchanted kingdoms.

* Confirmation *

He opens the refrigerator and reaches in the butter slot for baggies nestled in white rice. You flip through the Houston Chronicle. A beautiful eight-year-old girl in her confirmation dress touched the third rail of a train. “Come on, let’s go party in the bathroom,” he says.

* Red & Black Bathroom *

The bathroom is luminous: blue projection lamps glow cool as pool lighting, dried orchid petals litter the black sink and vanity. You’ve never seen a black bathtub, especially one where rubber ducks and squeeze toys frolic in its depths. The toilet lid and tissue dispenser adorn themselves in burgundy fur. He takes out a hand mirror, a bouquet of golden flowers enameled on its back, scrapes methadrine with a razor blade; it’s damp and crumbles like gum eraser no matter how fine he chops it. Dividing it while you moisten your lips and bat your eyes not at him but at it, he tells you to kneel. Bible verses begin to float through your mind. You notice the sponge duck’s webby feet. The toilet seat and Kleenex dispenser begin to sweat under their furs of red. Likewise, when they had killed the rams, they sprinkled the blood up the altar. Kneeling before the mirror and black sink, under the racked lighting, kneeling for the prize that makes your heart race, how glitter-sharp its edges. In purgatory you’ll kneel forever in the forbidden thick red carpet, in the scarlet blood of too-salty beets. On the mirror the taste of cat urine and yellow apples. The roots in your teeth quiver. In the parallel universe of goodness you’re not bowing your head over the mirror, pressing the last taste of yellow into your gums, sucking the bitterness from your thumb. Over the razor blade’s edge your grandmother’s in the farmhouse kitchen making strudel, draping  rolled-out dough long as cheesecloth over the table, chopping the orchard apples with raisins and walnuts and cinnamon. When your grandmother looks up, you hide yourself. 

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* Box Room *

He’s led you into room where his sister stores her college textbooks; he wants to show you the beige carpet and cardboard boxes, the peculiar room with a door that bolts from the outside. When he leaves to get his cigarettes you try to follow him and discover he’s locked you in. Left alone you think it’s a joke.  You read titles. The Aztecs and the Making of Mexico. Red Star Over China.  He returns dressed only in a hooded Joseph’s robe of many colors—woven grapes and maroons and dark blues. Was it Israel who adored Joseph more than his other sons, because he was the child of his old age? There’s an ashen shine to his knees as if he’d rolled in Lent ashes. For this reason I fall on my knees before the Father.

He’s brought you a Coke, to ease the hard ball of spit from your lips. He’s still wearing his robe of many colors. He doesn’t want to see your face. Not this Lancelot or Lazarus. When he touches you – word pictures of chokecherries, mayflies, of wasps stinging cicadas and burying them in the dirt for their larvae to feed on, of plate glass shattering, used salvage, tacos el carbon and lard. He finishes and leaves you to the walls. Pressed sawdust. To the sounds of the overpass, traffic high on the girders splashing through. In the classroom they must be missing you now that the afternoon sun is starting its climb down to the horizon. It’s time to take the students out to sit under the magnolia trees, the leaves, dry and flat as lunch sacks. Footsteps shuffle in the living room. A key turns, someone closes a window. Is it his sister? You rattle the door. Locked. Gaetano Mosca’s The Ruling Class. Every generation produces a certain number of generous spirits who are capable of loving all that is. You imagine the sister sits at the plywood dinette with her son, cooing the name Wand, soft breeze over the place mats.  Night.  Thirst. You fall into a sleep he wakes you from. Not Lewis. Not Lathrop. Larry. You hear your breaths, quick little pants like puffs of a light cigarette, and your fingers still burning. A day later you’ll walk through the empty living room outside into the parking lot’s explosion of sun. Looking back you’ll not recognize the you as the first person singular. One of your divided selves.

About the author

Stephanie Dickinson was raised on an Iowa farm now lives in New York City. Her novel Half Girl and novella Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil.  Other works include the short story collections Road of Five Churches and Port Authority Orchids. Her story “A Lynching in Stereoscope” was reprinted in Best American Nonrequired Reading and “Dalloway and Lucky Seven” and “Love City” in New Stories from the South. Her chapbook essayHeat: An Interview with JeanSeberg will appear in late 2013 from New Michigan Press.   

About the artist

Coral Staley has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction but is too busy with her two boys to give writing much thought these days. She does, however, find time to paint and considers it another form of creative nonfiction.

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It’s Flash (Non) Fiction Week!

Editor’s note:

Usually we only feature the work of a single author each week, but after receiving these three wonderful flash (non) fiction pieces, we decided to publish them together. All three true stories are written by women and all three capture a single moment: when an idol notices her worshippers, a near-death experience, and a conversation with a stranger. We are also delighted to to include the work of two visual artists, a first for our new blog!

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Margaret Atwood and the Stunned Four

image source: http://moniquespassions.com/

image credit: http://moniquespassions.com/

by Mercedes Lawry

The Stunned Four worshipped Margaret Atwood. They’d traveled from different corners of the country to attend her workshop and bask in her wry wit. They also hoped they might feel a small but significant whisper of her affirmation. The Four became instant friends, connected not only by their adoration of Margaret Atwood (or St. Margaret as she was affectionately called), but also by their senses of humor and the camp-like atmosphere complete with dorms and mediocre food. One member of the group rescued a paper cup used by Margaret Atwood during class. Like a relic, it might have the power to confer prophetic proficiency or a deft hand with a snarky phrase. Another member washed dishes at the cottage where Margaret Atwood was staying and where she’d hosted a picnic for the class. That member also played with Margaret Atwood’s young daughter who accompanied her and though that member did like children and found Margaret Atwood’s daughter to be a charming little girl, there was no denying she was also hoping to curry favor. The Stunned Four trekked to town in one of the member’s vans and commissioned a t-shirt printed with a clever phrase that Margaret Atwood had tossed off in class as a dry aside. They presented it to her as a parting gift and she seemed a little startled, not recollecting she had said the phrase. Years later, the members of the Stunned Four were each reading Margaret Atwood’s latest collection of short stories when lo and behold, they stumbled on the t-shirt – their gift – depicted in a slightly different context but clearly recognizable.* They were thrilled, elated, and would share this story with unabashed pride for decades to come. Margaret Atwood had taken note.

*The story is “Loulou, or the Domestic Life of the Language” in Margaret Atwood’s collection, Bluebeard’s Egg and Other Stories.

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A Night By The Sink

Wheeler image

image credit: Lesley Ann Wheeler

by Christine Tierney

It’s after 2am and in waltzes Goldenboy; hair across his golden ass, tight faded Levis, straw cowboy hat worn and split in just the right places.  I’m standing by the kitchen sink.  The window above the sink is open and I am smitten with cricket-song.  But wait — I don’t give a shit about nature, maybe I’m high. Goldenboy reeks of something stronger than beer, and his eyes are blazing red.  Goldenboy staggers toward the refrigerator, slips on Mom’s wicked shiny floor, catches himself, but Goldenboy doesn’t fall. I make a noise — it isn’t quite a chuckle. Goldenboy disappears from the kitchen and returns with his hunting rifle. He rests the muzzle of the rifle against my moist temple, cocks it, and I try not to breathe.  Slowly, Goldenboy counts out loud to thirty, burps real loud like this is some kind of joke, and withdraws. He makes a noise — it isn’t quite a chuckle. Goldenboy and me have unknowingly rehearsed this. Every bitter interaction accreted to this moment. Goldenboy exits the kitchen.  I remain by the sink. A half a minute taints my life.

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This is Why I’ll Never Write a Book 

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image credit: Angie Stong

by Evelyn Katz

Another Monday afternoon in a lifetime of wasted Monday afternoons and once again I’m sitting in the same Dunkin Donuts I always sit in when I think I’m going to be a writer even though it’s not in my zip code anymore and the line of people waiting to use the bathroom is longer than the lines for coffee and ice cream combined.

This time it’s the occupant in the bathroom taking too long and the non-coffee purchasers taking turns knocking on the bathroom door as if a knock on the bathroom door really has the power to speed up the human waste removal process.

One paragraph, God, just let me write one paragraph in peace.

I can never write at home, where there are so many distractions (pets, husband, TV, computer).  I go to Dunkin’ Donuts so I can work in a space where I know no one so, hypothetically, no one should bother me. Three sentences later it’s a phlegmy voice assaulting my ear.

“Hey kid? Wadda ya writing?”

I look up and shake my head. Why God? Why do they call it God-given talent if you don’t make these people leave me alone long enough to use it?

“Is that your homework, kid?”

I twist my neck sideways in the direction of a baseball-cap-wearing, gummy old drunk and tell him, “It’s a story.”

Gummy cups a hand over his ear.  “Wha’d ya say?”

I raise my voice. “It’s a story!”

“A story?  Wadda ya writing, a book?”

“Yes! Yes I am!”

“No kidding, kid? You’re writing a book.” Gummy picks up his coffee cup and spits into it and I think he’s now occupied with whatever landed in the cup so I go back to being a writer again.

Two more sentences and Gummy says, “Hey kid, you a student? You writing that for school?”

“I’m a teacher.”

“What?”

“I’m a teacher,” I over-enunciate.

“A teacher? Nah! You look like you’re ten.  “How old are ya? Twenty?”

“Older.”

“Chirty?”

I hold up four fingers. “Forty.”

You’re forty?  Nah!”

“It’s true.”

“You look like a kid.”

“Thank you.”

I slide my eyes back to the page and draw parenthesis around a word I may or may not use.

“So where do you teach?”

“High school.”

“You’re doin’ alright for yourself, kid.”

I write down two more words.

“You married?”

“Yes.”

“Kids?”

“No.”

“Trying?”

“No.”

“Selfish?”

“No.”

“Then why no kids?”

“Just don’t want them.”

“You got a car?”

“Yes.”

“You’re doin’ alright for yourself, kid.”

“I’m trying.”

The page before me is a jumble of words written by a childless-by-choice woman who is going to have to commit a crime and get sentenced to solitary confinement in order to write one uninterrupted page. Maybe selfishness is a crime.  I’ll go out onto the street and chant childless-by-choice until the cops come and take me away and then I’ll waive my rights to a trial in exchange for pen, paper and solitary confinement.

Gummy gets up, takes his cane that’s hanging on the chair back and says to me, “Alright kid, take it easy,” and shuffles his way out the door.

I lift my coffee cup and gesture in his direction, a silent likewise, because now I’ve decided that if the world won’t let me write my words on paper, then I’m sure as hell not going to sound them out and give them away for free.

This is why I’ll never write a book.

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 About this week’s authors and artists

Primarily a poet, Mercedes Lawry has been published in such journals as Poetry, NimrodSalamander, and others as well as two chapbooks. She’s published short fiction in several journals including 3711 Atlantic, Gravel, and The Newer York and has work forthcoming in Cleaver, Dying Goose and Molotov Cocktail. Additionally she’s published stories and poems for children.  Among the honors she’s received are awards from the Seattle Arts Commission, Hugo House, and Artist Trust, two nominations for the Pushcart Prize, and, a residency at Hedgebrook. She lives in Seattle.

Christine Tierney’s work has been nominated for Best of the Net, a Pushcart Prize, and the Best New Poets anthology, and has appeared or is forthcoming in Fourteen Hills, Poet Lore, Permafrost, PMS, The Tusculum Review, descant, The Yalobusha Review, The Broome Review, Sanskrit, Skidrow Penthouse, Shadowbox, Tattoo Highway, Soundzine, Cider Press Review, Sugar House Review, Gemini Magazine, TheNewerYork, Lungfull!, AEROGRAM, This Literary Magazine, Monkeybicycle, Pismire, scissors & spackle, Weave Magazine, Meat For Tea, and The Boiler Journal.

Lesley Ann Wheeler is a writer, designer, and editor living in Kansas City.  She has a wheelbarrow garden of kale in her backyard.

Evelyn Katz has been searching for space to be a writer since she was in the 2nd grade and her grandmother told her that she was going to be a writer. Her work has been published in RiverrunThe Voices Project and Coffee Shop Poems.  

Angie Stong is a photographer living in Southern Connecticut. At age 17, her photos have already appeared in multiple publications and featured in art shows, and she is recognized for her fine arts approach to photojournalism and portraiture. Her work can be found at:  www.flickr.com/photos/missangieanne or www.facebook.com/AngieStongPhotography.