Issue 46 — Howie Good, Anna Leahy, Robert Wexelblatt
I had written
in my head
refused to burn.
It’s no longer 4 a.m.
cross the street
The song sparrow
and well hidden.
for another purpose
into the air.
Howie Good, a journalism professor at SUNY New Paltz, is the author of the full-length poetry collections Lovesick (Press Americana, 2009), Heart With a Dirty Windshield (BeWrite Books, 2010), and Everything Reminds Me of Me (Desperanto, 2011), as well as 29 print and digital poetry chapbooks. He has been nominated multiple times for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net and Web anthologies. He is a contributing editor to the online literary journal Common-Line, co-editor of the online nonfiction journal Left Hand Waving, and co-founder and -editor (with Dale Wisely) of the digital chapbook publisher White Knuckle Press.
A Rational Choice Theory
Let’s barter for love. Isn’t a bargain better
than something we’d get for free?
Naturally, we select our reasoned preference
at any given moment. Later, we debate,
become churlish even. Can’t the sensible
You give me your family history,
and I’ll give you mine.
I offer efficiency, but it comes
with laundry day and multitasking.
You offer the one thing at a time, the reconciling
of a checkbook, the toothbrush to the grout,
but this comes with stacking
of books, bills, everything in view.
I am the out of sight but calendar stricken.
You wear the watch in this house. I keep time.
Exchange theories aren’t good with details:
don’t count your chickens,
this little piggie went to market, this little piggie had none.
We must think better than yesterday’s wants
that we misguessed with good intentions.
Evolution’s little luster favors us.
Let’s barter every day: why notarize a trade-off,
why not question an even deal,
why not risk a less pecuniary life, bank something?
Love’s expensive. Let’s haggle.
from Constituents of Matter by Anna Leahy Copyright © 2007.
Reprinted with the permission of Kent State University Press.
An Experiment of Violence
A woman six years older than I
lives six blocks west of me.
She fails to notice, is given no notice
until her throat is cut
with her own kitchen knife.
Blood-letting should be done only to cure a life
from illness or sadness.
Don’t live in a first-floor flat
or list your number in the phone book.
There are thirteen steps in a flight,
and seven digits is the limit of easy memory.
Stand up tall. Look ahead.
No, look around, know your surroundings.
Vary your route, your schedule.
Check the etymology: a leaf of paper,
perhaps to split or rend a day, a week, a month.
Do not fall, do not fall for someone.
On New Year’s Day, I find a bullet
on the sidewalk. It is misshapen
from hitting the concrete at high velocity
from blocks away. The police had handed out
flyers asking that residents not fire
their guns in the air.
The celebration ricochets against my fingers.
I put the bullet in my pocket
to show you later.
from Constituents of Matter by Anna Leahy Copyright © 2007.
Reprinted with the permission of Kent State University Press.
Anna Leahy's poetry collection Constituents of Matter won the Wick Poetry Prize. She has published two chapbooks, and has had poems published widely in journals such as Crab Orchard Review, The Journal, Nimrod, and Quarterly West. Her fiction and creative nonfiction appears in recent issues of Fifth Wednesday and The Southern Review. She teaches at Chapman University in California in the MFA and BFA programs and coordinates Tabula Poetica.
In my grandfather’s youth circuses traveled over the plains from April through October. In the winter they vanished into the south which youngsters imagined to be a fabulously soft paradise, magnolias and oranges. These little carnivals were received with equal measures of joy and mistrust. In those days entertainment of any kind was a rarity and, welcome though diversion was, nobody over six years old had to be told that circus people were disreputable. Farmers were willing enough to treat their families to a Saturday away from the fields, manure, corn, and chickens, relying on the preacher to whip up something grandiloquent and disapproving for the following morning. Poor and shabby affairs by today’s standards, these itinerant circuses offered the cheap allure of a sealed-off world, faintly exotic, mildly dangerous, acceptably grotesque. Still, the wooden ring under the big tent must have resembled a magician’s circle—at once enchanting and diabolical—and into it the wide-eyed locals were bidden to peer. Restless souls were bound to imagine escaping the treeless landscape into a free, vagabond life. More often, I suppose, the circus reassured people of the worthiness and security of their settled lives. To run off with one of them was thinkable but almost impossible. Nevertheless, once in a while some teenager did actually take off and join a circus and, as it happens, my grandfather was one of them. It is our family’s great legend. Taking only a mail-order trumpet and a change of clothes, he escaped his brutal father and helpless mother, spending his sixteenth year playing polkas and marches in dusty farm towns up and down the country. When I was a child I would make my father tell me the story over and over, though it was clear he didn’t enjoy it. To me the tale was glamorous. I liked the idea that no one had seen in the rawboned vagabond I imagined my grandfather to be at the age of fifteen our town’s foremost attorney and a future state senator.
Grandfather is so old now anyone might suppose I listen to him only out of duty. Having outlived all of his contemporaries and three of his children he has attained a condition of bodily and intellectual antiquity where only the distant past, or at least his memorial edition of it, interests him. The doctor, of course, tells us Grandfather has lost his short-term memory. He says this with that air of blithe unconcern physicians adopt when speaking of the extremely elderly to relatives whose indifference they take for granted. “It’s quite common,” he says complacently, placing his clean hand on my shoulder as if about to tell me a dirty joke. “Think of it as if the old fellow has become far-sighted. It’s just as if he can see a horse a mile off but not the hand in front of his face.” I’m not pleased with popcorn like that, metaphors for the stupid or indifferent. In fact, I’m convinced Grandfather is indeed aware of what’s going on around him; he simply doesn’t care about it. Why should he? Why concern himself with the banalities and indignities of a nursing home—bedpans, rough orderlies, grumbling widows and their soap operas? I don’t claim to be highly imaginative but I can understand why the dullest chapter in his dustiest law book might signify more to him than his great-grandson’s first fumbling words. As I imagine it, to him the world must appear utterly disenchanted. From the vantage-point of his ninety-six years, the busy citizens of our town must look childish. And so each Thursday afternoon I leave my office early and go to sit beside his bed. I take a seat by his lounge chair and listen to whatever he wants to say, even if he seems to be addressing that mile-off horse and not me.
What did they amount to, these circuses? Three or four monkeys, perhaps a mangy bear or a toothless lion unloaded by some more prosperous show. There would be a muscular man and a thick-thighed woman who swung by their knees from a trapeze, a girl in a brief skirt cartwheeling over the back of a nag, a sharpshooter, a knife-thrower, a pair of clowns, and a small brass band. But, according to my grandfather, the most popular feature of these circuses, likewise the most fascinating and cruel, was the side-show, the freaks of nature. Children were particularly drawn to the geeks because they are capable of the purest forms of fright and amazement, immune equally to skepticism and compassion.
Grandfather’s legendary season with the circus was by no means the only or even the chief topic of his weekly disquisitions. In fact, it came up far less often than I’d have liked. More often I heard about cruelties in farmhouses, murders in the fields, women struck with axes, men scythed open by their sons, litigious neighbors whose vendettas ended in gunplay. I learned the most shocking secrets of his schoolmates, all long dead, which members of a long-gone generation were mean, foul-mouthed, greedy, lustful, ignoble. I was fascinated by his psychological dissections of clients, lawyers, and judges whose names meant nothing to me but whose characters, once revealed, seemed all-too-familiar. One does not listen to such things merely out of duty.
Last week, on a bleak November afternoon, I found him sitting alone on the enclosed porch staring out at the first light snowfall of the year. His gaze made me wonder what he was actually seeing. I had to admit the old man did indeed look far-sighted.
I pulled a chair up beside him and touched his hand. He nodded without removing his eyes from whatever he was seeing in the falling flakes.
“There was a giantess and a dwarf,” he began without any preliminaries. “Yep, a giantess nearly eight feet tall and a dwarf barely two. I dreamed about them last night. The tent full of golden light. Then I saw the pair of them sitting on a white porch in a pair of rocking chairs, only she was a lot shorter and he was far taller. There were sycamores, mountains, a lake. Contented. Together again. . . . You’ve been a good boy and I’m going to tell you about the most astounding thing I ever saw. I’m going to tell you their story.”
This was something new. It had been years since Grandfather had directed a story to me personally and he had certainly never referred to me as a good boy. Nevertheless, he did not look at me or turn his eyes from that impenetrable vista of descending whiteness.
“I was just old enough to be curious about that pair and young enough to be taken under the little wing of the dwarf. I was fifteen and he was the wisest man I’d ever met, or at least the one who’d thought the most about things. What eyes that little man had. Imagine a child with the brain of a first-class physicist and the heart of a wilderness saint. And she, the giantess, she was the gentlest of creatures, incapable even of swatting at the flies as her huge body sweated in the heat of July.
“Of course I gaped at them at first; I’m ashamed to admit I stared just like the rest of the rubes. I wondered at them individually and wondered more at the two of them together, which is the way they were shown off to the crowds. Think of it. They must have been born somewhere or other, maybe even loved and cherished at first, perhaps made much of by loving parents, aunts and uncles. There had been christenings and birthdays and then, because one of them wouldn’t grow and the other wouldn’t stop growing, they’d been turned out. That’s how I saw it. Turned out into a world that trusted only mediocrity. Whatever love they’d had from their families must have been exhausted for no better reason than that. They’d both been reduced to a single fact that nobody could get beyond or find it in themselves to put up with for more than the few minutes it took to stare and chew. No violation of life’s compromises is much tolerated, you may have noticed. Well, where else could they have gone but a circus, the only fit refuge where that single fact was just the one required. Because those facts were their living. That’s a powerful phrase, isn’t it—their living?
“And so, like me, those two, orphaned in their genes, came away from farms and were thrown together by fate—fate in this case taking the piston-like form of Mr. Owen MacAdams, the owner, a hard driver and a hard drinker, who was mawkish about everything except money. This MacAdams must have had a wife somewhere because I often heard him boasting about her charms but I never saw a portrait nor did he ever say where she was exactly or on what fine day she might be joining him. Most likely she was just some fantasy of his. Ruined chivalry is capable of almost anything in that line and I suppose there was some chivalry even in that greedy weeper—always assuming the female was the right size. With the giantess he hardly knew how to behave, so he generally growled at her. Maybe she disgusted or intimidated him—not by anything she did merely by being so enormous. There are men who just can’t stand being around women taller than they are and MacAdams may have been one of them. Anyway, I noticed he was always careful to stand a good three or four paces off from that queenly monstrosity.”
Queenly monstrosity! I found that an arresting phrase. I would have liked to ask the old man to explain it but didn’t dare to interrupt. When the knife’s cutting you don’t stop to sharpen its edge. And so I just waited and listened.
“The dwarf was, as I say, an exceptional observer of people. It was as if, owing to his angle of vision, he really could see what went on under all the world’s tablecloths. It was he who made me understand MacAdams, that there was more than one side even to that grasping old con-man. Because he was like no one else it was the dwarf who could write odes to the advantages of mediocrity, summoning up the solidarity of a common fatality from which he was barred. He understood everything he didn’t have better than those who had it. He was sharp as an icicle and a great one for distinctions. That dwarf could smell out the differences between status and stature, kindness and pity, between unwholesome fascination and unbearable love better than any old divorce lawyer or judge of the court of common pleas.
“He slept in a sort of dog cart while the giantess needed a good-sized tent all to herself. I shared another tent with the drummer and one of the clowns. They were old-timers and fast pals and called me ‘kid’ so I felt a bit left out. But we all took our suppers together and the food wasn’t bad. I think it was the second night I saw the dwarf staggering under the weight of a platter of steak and beans about the size of a barrel lid. I wondered what he could be doing with all that food; he couldn’t possibly eat it himself. And then I saw that he was carrying it over to her—that he was waiting on her. As I said, I was just old enough to be curious. He waddled toward that mountain of femininity and she waited for him with a blank smile. His effort and then even more the tenderness with which he held that trencher out to her—well, it just made my mouth fall open. She took it from him with one great fist as if it were no heavier than a book of matches. And how they grinned at each other, as if they were a thousand miles away and knew everything worth knowing. I looked around to see if the others were paying attention to this marvel but everybody was busy at their food or laughing over some joke. Nobody took any notice. Well, the fact was that the circus folks shied away from those two as if they might catch something from them. The trapeze artists had a particular horror of them. Anyway, later that night, when the drummer and the clown were drinking whiskey and playing cards, I slipped out of our tent. That was the first night I sat under the stars with the dwarf. I went over to his cart. He was sitting on the ground puffing his pipe. I asked if I might join him for a spell and he made a place for me and just talked and talked, talked about anything and in such a way that I didn’t care if he never stopped. I asked him about all sorts of things and eventually I asked him about love—and he told me.”
“About love?” I couldn’t stop myself from asking.
“I was fifteen. Was anything else more interesting to you at that age—or more of a puzzle? And he knew about love too, I mean the insides of it, the way a surgeon knows bowels. I was such a puppy I hardly understood half of the words but I guess I caught the melody, a powerful and dangerous tune.”
The snow had let up but by then it was growing dark. I ought to have been leaving but how could I go? It would seem like ingratitude, desertion. Grandfather had said this story was my reward for being such a good boy, that the prize for listening was the chance to listen to something better. Besides, the old man didn’t give me a chance to leave.
“Some nights later I got up to use the privy. It must have been two or three in the morning. I heard a sound from the dwarf’s cart and on some odd impulse I hid myself. I watched the dwarf crawl down off his cart and look around then scuttle over to that tent of hers. I don’t know; very likely everybody else knew all about it but I couldn’t help feeling that this discovery was all my own, a secret, one I had to keep. I hadn’t intended to spy on him but I told myself that if I held my tongue that would make it fair. I tiptoed back into my tent but I couldn’t sleep. Well, you know how things can be at that age. I wasn’t satisfied; I wanted to see more, know everything there was to know, curiosity being a sort of aggression. What on earth was going under that tent? So the following night I lay in wait until he went in again; then I followed. I held my breath while I worked myself into a position by the flap and lifted it back just enough. All I can say for myself is that I was young and had the deficient imagination of the young.”
Here Grandfather paused for the first time and began beating his fingers on the arms of his chair. His breath came hard and for a moment I was worried he might be having a seizure. He rotated his head a few degrees, as if he meant to look me in the face, then turned back again to the black window.
“They were naked. The dwarf was crawling over her immense white body making odd sounds, sounds that were desperate and soft. His little hands fit right around her nipples, like a man grasping a hammer. He rubbed his head against her belly, nuzzled under her upturned chin. She was silent and her eyes were closed and for a moment I thought she must be asleep. Then she raised one huge hand and just touched the top of his head. Just touched it, you see. Almost the way you’d touch a kitten, if you liked kittens. Maybe there was some sort of lantern I couldn’t see and maybe it flared up then but the tent seemed to me to be all lit up with golden light.”
I hadn’t been prepared for this grotesque vision, not from my grandfather, the distinguished overseer of the bar, the state senator all of whose small store of unconventionality I had thought thoroughly exhausted in his sixteenth year. Was this my reward, to share in this vision?
No doubt the old man sensed something about my feelings because now, with effort, he did turn to me, almost on me, and with surprising vehemence hissed, “Don’t you be small-minded. Those people who came to the circus, those upstanding people, salt of the earth, honest, church-going, hard-working decent farmers and tradesmen—they were marvels of small-mindedness and made their children that way too, fast as they could. A boy should run away from that because that sort of constriction’s lethal, and all the worse because it’s convinced of its virtues. Yep, they were God-fearing people all right—people who feared God without believing in Him.”
The thought came to me: it’s his own parents he thinking of, those great-grandparents of mine from whom he escaped. He eased back in his chair with a sigh.
“The dwarf knew she couldn’t live long. ‘You know,’ he said to me one day, ‘Great Danes only live half as long as terriers.’ I guess he knew it was because her heart had to pump the blood so hard. That dwarf knew all sorts of things. I don’t say he was wise necessarily, but knowledge can make a man suffer even more than ignorance if it’s the right kind of knowledge and the right kind of man. He didn’t say it in so many words, just enough so as to warn me, so that I could tell he knew, but not enough to make me sure. That’s the way he usually talked, always holding back some mystery. Did she know too? I still wonder about that. You could never tell what she knew and what she didn’t; she hardly spoke and then only to him, never to me. She smiled at me when she took any notice and twice touched my shoulder. Heavy and tender. I’d almost forgotten that, the way that big hand felt. But talking she did only to him; talking was part of their act, you see. She had to pick him up and he would let her and she would have to call him ‘my sweet little fellow’ and he would put on a high-class accent and call her ‘my darling colossus’ or something formal like that, to make the rubes laugh. She’d rock him in the crook of one arm and put him up on her shoulder. MacAdams had guessed the incongruity would make the customers howl. And it did, too. People watched, though not for very long. Rubes just gawk at the world, think they’ve got the point right off, and so they never really see much of anything. Rubes are so stupid it’s no wonder circus folks despise them. Anyway, the dwarf was right about her heart—just as he was right about the magic. You know, I don’t believe the golden light in that tent was a lantern at all.”
Having come out with this mysterious statement of faith, the old man paused a second time, and smiled though not, I felt, at me. “Know why I left that circus?”
I replied with something almost like resentment. “To go to school, I always thought. To lead a normal life. To become a lawyer and a state senator and to wind up a pillar of society.”
“Yes. To lead what’s called a normal life. A normal life—ever notice how people always say that phrase with a sigh? Well, as far as society goes, it doesn’t require pillars to keep the roof from falling in, only a certain measure of hypocrisy which is an area in which I’ve never found the world to come up short. Yes, I went to school all right. I read the books. But that was all a consequence of leaving the circus, not why I left it. The truth is that the circus left me, left all of us. MacAdams went broke, you see, flat broke, just like that. One morning in August, just after breakfast, he gathered us together under the big top and told us he was sorry but it was all over. There was to be an auction the following day and he would pay us our last week’s wages out of what he got, assuming he got enough. We would all have to go. Some other circus owners would be coming and maybe they’d want to take a few of us on; he hoped so but couldn’t say. Then, even though I’m pretty sure he was sober at that hour, Owen MacAdams commenced to cry.
“Who knows? Maybe if he hadn’t begun blubbering, maybe if he’d contrived to break the news a little more gradually, dropped a few hints, left us a week or two to get used to the idea—well, I don’t know if that would’ve made any difference. Anyway, it was too much for her, the giantess. She just keeled over, fell with a thud like a poleaxed cow. Raised a lot of dust. If she’d landed on the dwarf it would for sure have killed him and I don’t think he’d have minded one bit. As it was her dying nearly did him in anyway. Young fool that I was, I kept trying to cheer him up; just an hour later I was stupidly reminding him he’d been expecting it. Well, he wouldn’t say a word to me for a while after that. But I stuck by him, stuck by him for nearly a whole month. I found this dishwashing job and a cheap boarding house and I made him sleep in my room. He couldn’t have done anything anyway. That first night I laid him down in an armchair as if he was a broken doll, that’s about all the life there was in him.
“They buried her in a pauper’s grave. No minister, no fancy words. MacAdams bawled, of course, then he brushed back his tears and told us all how he’d have liked to buy a tombstone but there wasn’t enough money left over from the auction. The next day he was gone. I like to think he went back to the patient and worthy Mrs. MacAdams, assuming there was such a person, and that she took him in her arms and rocked him back and forth while he lay on her breast weeping. MacAdams cried too easily. It was as if somebody had told him once that he never looked so good as when he cried. And he did it again when they laid the giantess in the ground, the gravediggers hollering about wanting extra pay because of the size of the hole and we had to take up a collection. MacAdams was actually the only one who cried, though I think if I’d let myself go I might have too. The dwarf just stood off to the side by himself, ramrod straight, all two and change feet of him. Wouldn’t let anyone near him. Afterwards, I had to sort of drag him away.
“About a week later I woke up in the boarding house to find him sitting on the edge of my cot. ‘I’m sick of being a dwarf,’ he said. ‘No point in it any more.’ I was astonished. He hadn’t said two words in seven days and now I thought he’d cracked, you see, but what did I know of magic then? No more than a glimpse of golden light in an old tent. He asked me for fifty cents. I fished two quarters out of my pants pocket and handed them over without saying anything.
“When I got back that night he was calmer and told me what the fifty cents had been for. He’d bought some tomato plants and put them on her grave. I went to look the next morning. It being August the plants were already full of yellow blooms and little golden globes. He watered them twice a day and sure enough a week later there were some nice red tomatoes. They were the only thing he would eat. He subsisted on those tomatoes and, once in a while, a small glass of beer. Once he started eating those tomatoes he began to talk to me again. We’d sit out by the graveyard under the stars and he’d talk to me about her. He told me about every part of her, described her smells and textures, recalled amazing things she’d whispered to him.”
So, I thought, that dwarf talked to you the same way you’re talking to me, just as an occasion, an excuse for unburdening grief and pain. Well, I suppose even senility needs its relief, that even ninety-six-year-old hearts can overflow.
“Well, by the second week the magic had begun to work, just as he must have known it would. That dwarf commenced to grow. I could hardly believe it. Two inches a day. Our midnight conversations changed. He started talking about getting a job, saving up and buying a little land to farm. He said he’d grow vegetables at first and then maybe add some chickens and hogs. You see? You understand? What else was there for him to be then but like everybody else? No more tents drenched in golden light; no more looking underneath table cloths or searching out the insides of things. He was growing up—and to him that meant growing dull. Well, I don’t know why exactly but his plans made me feel dejected, dispirited. And that’s when I thought about coming back and reading law books and turning myself into what you call one of society’s pillars which is really nothing but a rube with a family and a steady job to support them.”
Though it was late when I left the nursing home, too late for supper which my wife likes to serve no later than six o’clock, I took my time going home. I drove through the familiar streets of the town where Grandfather had become a successful rube, streets over which snow blew like sand in some beach town, one of those paradises of magnolia and oranges where circuses go in winter. How much was true in what my grandfather had told me or how much of it he believed himself I couldn’t say. Tents lit by golden light, magic tomatoes, a dwarf crawling over the white body of a giantess. Is that really the story he was telling me, was hearing all that my reward for being a good boy, for growing up to be a lawyer just like him? Was it a reward at all? Had I really been good? Or was it something else entirely he meant? Did he mean to tell me the bitterness of lovelessness, of distinction unredeemed by sympathy, about an isolation from which there’s no escape but to become a rube in a society of rubes? That far-off vista my grandfather spied down the corridor of the years—was it a fantasy or nothing but the common middle way, the ordinary via media we toil to preserve all our lives, which in their youth some dream of surpassing, but to which in the end we can do no better than submit?
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play; his recent novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction.