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Winesburg, Indiana: A Fork River Anthology

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In the mythical town of Winesburg, Indiana, there lives a cleaning lady who can conjure up the ghost of Billy Sunday, a lascivious holy man with an unusual fetish and a burgeoning flock, a park custodian who collects the scat left by aliens, and a night janitor learning to live with life’s mysteries, including the zombies in the cafeteria. Winesburg, Indiana, is a town full of stories of plans made and destroyed, of births and unexpected deaths, of remembered pasts and unexplored presents told to the reader by as interesting a cast of characters as one is likely to find in small town America. Brought to life by a lively group of Indiana writers, Winesburg, Indiana, is a place to discover something of what it means to be alive in our hyperactive century from stories that are deeply human, sometimes melancholy, and often damned funny.

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Biddlebaum Cowley Reefy & Swift LLP

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BIDDLEBAUM COWLEY REEFY & SWIFT LLP WINESBURG, OHIO 44690

CEASE AND DESIST DEMAND

Pursuant to Title 17 of the United States Code

City Manager

13 Spalding Street

Winesburg, Indiana 46712

Dear Sir or Madam:

This law firm represents the Town of Winesburg (Ohio). If you are represented by legal counsel, please direct this letter to your attorney immediately and have your attorney notify us of such representation.

It has been brought to our attention that your town, Winesburg (Indiana), has been using the Winesburg trademark in association with the marketing or sale of your products and services, namely, those of meditative introspection, synthetic emotional effects, general literary malaise, and cathartic artistic performances including but not limited to confessions, covetings, secrets-keeping, and the wholesale packaging and propagation of spent signature tears. It is possible that you were unaware of this conflict, so we believe that it is in our mutual interest to bring this matter to your attention.

 

City Manager

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City Manager

The town of Winesburg operates under the weak-mayor system, always has. I am the city manager, a creature of the council charged by the council, five elected members, to keep the trash trucks running on time. There aren’t too many other municipal services to attend to. The fire department is volunteer. The county provides the police. There are the sewers of the town, and I maintain them myself and conduct the daily public tours. The sewers of Winesburg are vast, channeling one branch of the Fork River through underground chambers and pools roofed with vaulted ceilings tiled with ceramic-faced bricks. The sewers were the last public works project of the Wabash and Erie Canal before the canal bankrupted the state of Indiana. I mentioned tours but there aren’t that many tourists interested in sewers. I walk the tunnels alone, my footsteps on the paving stones echoing. The drip, drip, drip of the seeping water. The rapid splashing over the riprap. There is the landfill as well to manage, the heart-shaped hole where the fossilrife limestone of the sewers was quarried, punched in the table-flat topography of a field north of Winesburg. We are located on the drained sandy bed of an ancient inland sea. Sea birds from the Great Lakes find their way to the pit, circle and dive down below the rim, emerging with beaks stuffed with human hair, for their nests, I guess. Indiana has complicated laws concerning the disposal of cut hair. Much of the state transships its hair here. A thriving cottage industry persists, that of locket making, using the spent anonymous hair to simulate the locks of a departed loved one. The lockets are afterthoughts, fictional keepsakes. The locket makers can be seen rummaging through the rubbish of the dump, collecting bags of damp felt. Winesburg was the first city in the country to install the emergency 911 telephone number. J. Edward Roush, member of the House of Representatives, was our congressman and was instrumental in establishing the system. I manage that too, taking a shift, at night usually, in the old switching room, to answer the calls of the citizens of Winesburg who more often than not do have something emerging. Usually not an acute emergency but more a chronic unrest. An anxiousness. Not a heart attack but a heartache. I listen. The switches, responding to the impulse of someone somewhere dialing, tsk and sigh and click. I manage. I am the city manager.

 

Amanda Patch

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Amanda Patch

It all started innocently enough when I petitioned the Most Reverend Leo, bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne–South Bend, to initiate the beatification of Father Herman Heilmann, founder of the monastery, Our Lady of the Circumcision, here in Winesburg. Father Herman made a home for his brother fathers, who come from all over the country to this quiet cloistered retreat—a collection of cabins initially converted from the rundown Rail Splitter Motor Court off the old Lincoln Highway—to study and pray and meditate on that old Old Testament story of Abraham having to sacrifice his son Isaac to establish the covenant with the Lord. I just thought the Father’s work needed to be recognized, so in addition to my letter-writing campaign, I convinced my reading group to concentrate on one book for a year, deeply meditating on the martyrs, spending each meeting discussing a life of a saint we read in Butler’s Lives of the Saints. It was difficult, to say the least. The litanies of the deaths and the dying, the various methods of torture and the infliction of pain, seemed organized in such a way as to demonstrate the excruciating genius of Satan, working through his minions on earth, to exact utter and endless agony. My reading group, made up of several of the neighborhood’s ladies and ladies from the church, also met on Wednesdays each spring to follow the March Madness of the basketball tournament, suspending our usual stock club meetings to substitute the brackets for the fine print of the big board. We were, perhaps, predisposed to such communal excitement, some might even say hysteria. As we read and reported on the lives of the saints, our presentations became more elaborate, the distinction between the mere abstract recounting of the material and actually living the lives of the Lives of the Saints became confused for us, and very soon we became enamored by the very particular narratives of the sainted virgins. We were impressed with the passion of their passion to remain undeflowered, intact, innocent, and dedicated to Jesus to the point of taking Our Savior as a wedded yet chaste husband. There were (I remember, how could I forget) multiple incinerations at the stake, crucifixions, beheadings, stonings, rapes, and sodomies with a variety of implements and animals in an effort to pry from these devoted young women the most special jewel in their possession. It was all quite thrilling. We were moved. The antique prose of the text added a musty patina of gothic authenticity to the recitations of anguish, courage, and ecstatic exultation. All of us, by this time, were far from our own corporeal purity, having given birth to nearly four dozen children among us. Many of us now were grandmothers as well. We had long suffered both the pangs of birthing and the fandangos of sexual intercourse, procreative and not, at the hands of our husbands and, dare I say, lovers. I am not sure whose idea it was initially, as many of us have used the skilled services of Dr. Minnick for other plastic operative rearrangements, but we somehow reached a consensus that all of us would participate in a kind of tontine in reverse. We would not so much wait to unstop the cork of a pilfered “liberated” brandy but to stop it all back up again in the first place. You have heard of women’s clubs, such as ours, creating calendars of their members photographed tastefully nude, a fundraiser for charity. Our idea was only, we thought, a slight variation on such projects. Perhaps it was Dr. Minnick himself who suggested it, inviting us to consider reconstructive surgeries “down there,” commenting that labia reduction was now his most performed and profitable operation, the norming and neatening up, if you will, of the pudenda to the standard folds and tufts, bolsters and grooves, of the ideal cosmetic model. Again, we were thrilled, that such miracles could be performed relatively painlessly in an outpatient setting. But I did know for a fact that this would not suit us. We proposed to Dr. Minnick that he attempt to go beyond the mere landscaping of what could be seen but also seek the unseen, to take us back in time. To state it simply—to reattach our long-gone maidenhoods, cinching closed once more the orifice of our experience, virginal once more. And this he did, was anxious to do. Inventing a kind of embroidered helmet for the task, he wove the cap together from multicolored and multigauged sutures, a kind of monofilament cartilage tissue. The truth is when we are together now, reading further into the lives of the saints and the endless mortifications of the flesh, we continue to admire, in great detail, during our break for cookies and tea, his handiwork performed on each and every one of us, and how such emendations have delivered us all, strangely beautiful and pristine, one step closer to God.

 

Cleaning Lady to the Stars

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Cleaning Lady to the Stars

Call me Isobelle—at least, that’s what my card says. I’d like it better if you call me the cleaning lady to the stars, a.k.a. the professors at St. Meinhof’s. They move in here trailing a van full of kitchen gear they don’t know how to use, wearing their attitudes like tiaras. One of them got the card made up for me ’cause she thought it was cute. I thought it was embarrassing, but she was right about one thing: you got to have a business card if you want to scrub professors’ toilets. They check references, too.

“How you like the Midwest?” I ask the new customers, first time I show up with a mop.

“You mean the Midwaste?” They ask me where you go to eat around here. You go to your well-stocked kitchen, is what I’m thinking, but I point them to Albert’s Seafood Lounge, and it’s not entirely my fault if they swallow a little botulism with their sushi. We didn’t have sushi till Albert thought to bring it in and (in case you hadn’t noticed how far we are from the ocean) we survived without it.

 

Jackie Patch

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Jackie Patch

My mother’s way is not my way. You must find your own way. There are many ways. Those who claim to know the way, the One Way, are speaking only for themselves, and are trying to get a volume discount in God’s supermarket of grace and life everlasting. I know this because Reverend Dave told me. It was he who opened my eyes, unstoppered my ears, clipped my toenails, and defibrillated my heart. I left the church, but I never stopped believing in God, or something like God—a Prime Mover, a Great Spirit, a Shake-and-Baker, a Mixmaster, a Lotte Lenya. My mother raised me Catholic, then I became Episcopal, then Unitarian, then a pantheist, then a Hare Krishna (I didn’t like the robes or the haircuts), then born again, then Rastafarian, then nothing—a spiritual agnostic, I suppose—before settling on a nondenominational church run by a Reverend Dave and two lesbian former nuns who are raising their sons (Reverend Dave donated his Essence to both of them so they could each have children) in a deconsecrated church on Wentworth Avenue that they have turned into the First Family of Christ Living Center and Day Care. My spiritual journey took me about twenty years. I knew I was looking for something, and in this community I have found it. Caring for Stephen and Jacob and the other children entrusted to us is a calling from a Higher Power. This I believe. Grace fills you up from the bottom of your feet right up past your eyeballs until it pours out of your ears like wax after you’ve stoppered your ears up with warm water to let the wax soften. You feel purified and rare and not at all forsaken, which is what I felt when my mother first got involved in that prayer group. My mother wanted my sister and me (I pray for Julie’s soul, she is a lost sheep, a wayward soul, and two-thirds of the way toward being a Godless infidel) to hew to the religion in which we were baptized, but I couldn’t do that. Instead I found Reverend Dave and the First Family of Christ Living Center and Day Care. And Reverend Dave has found me. Reverend Dave took me when I was at my lowest and Lo! he raised me up on high. He cares for me, body and soul. “Christ washed the feet of his apostles, did you know that?” he asked me, and so he washed my feet, stroking the curves of my ankles, touching his tongue to my instep—“a holy place,” he told me—and observing that my toenails, while blessed with luscious half-moons (“the lips of God have touched you here,” he said), needed trimming. “We are a vessel of the Lord’s making,” he told me, clip-clipping, “and nothing that is of us should go to waste,” which is why he saved the toenail clippings to sprinkle on his peanut butter and pickle sandwiches—trimmings as trimming. As he masticated he told me, “Ingesting that which is removed from the body’s temple is a symbolic manifestation of the circle of life. Did you know that the only living part of your toenail is called the matrix? It is underneath the nail fold, which overlaps the nail itself, and it is in the matrix where the keratin, which forms the nail you see, is created. The lunula—those moons you see—are the shadow of the matrix. You understand now, don’t you? Your feet, your lovely, holy feet, contain the Shadow of the Matrix. Keratin, related to Kristos, Greek for Messiah, the Christ, is a feast for one’s soul. Henceforth, whenever I trim your toenails, it shall be a feast day.” Reverend Dave is a believer in feast days. He is a believer in the body as a temple. He believes—as I believe, for he has told me—that entering the temple is a great and holy thing. This, too, is part of the circle of life. He removes the keratin from my toes, he ingests the keratin in his sandwiches, and this keratin, in turn, becomes part of his Essence, which he must give back to my temple. “There are many ways in which the body is a temple,” he says, “just as the Shadow of the Matrix manifest in your toes is but a Shadow of the Matrix that is in you, and I, Reverend Dave, must make deposits in the Shadow of the Matrix to keep holy your temple.” He showed me how this was done, and Lo! that night he speared my soul, raising me up high and lowering me, over and over, saying, “Rise up and lower yourself for His Humble Servant, the Reverend Dave, and I will make my deposit in your temple, and thus will the Matrix of Life be entwined, thee and me, and Oh, Jackie, Oh, it shall be good, yes, yes, yes, it shall be good.” And the Reverend Dave showed me that there are many ways into the temple, and in the morning left me broken and bleeding and in love with him, for all that he had done for me, and he told me that my toenail trimmings had filled him with an excess of Essence, which he needed to give back to my Matrix, so the circle of life could be complete, and we feasted like that for many days and nights, until I felt queasy in the mornings, and the Shadow of my Matrix began to balloon and swell, and then Reverend Dave told me that there are, in fact, many temples, and he was worried we would not be able to sustain the circle of life with just my toenail clippings feeding his Essence, and so he introduced me to new temples that he had found, Karla and Alison and Susan and Melissa and Amy and Rachel and Monica and Samantha and Jessica and Debra and Ann, and he told us all that he was grateful he had found us, repositories of the Matrix which generated the toenails which fed his Essence which he could deposit back into us, his dozen disciples, his dozen temples, oh happy day when these many ways into the Matrix were made known to him and could receive his Essence, for he was certain that in this way the First Family of Christ Living Center and Day Care would grow and expand just as our temples would grow and expand until we pushed new beings out into the world, little miracles that were a combination of our Matrixes and his Essence, and in this way we would be blessed with local, state, and federal funds as a charter school and day care facility. The only problem, it seemed to me, was that as the Shadow of our Matrix began to balloon and swell, Reverend Dave would stop giving us his Essence, and instead concentrate his efforts only on those temples who had not yet commingled his Essence with our Matrix to the point where such a commingling was visible. It seemed to me he stopped worshipping our feet as well, and those of us with a swelling Matrix grew toenails long and yellow, and even though Reverend Dave assured us he was simply waiting for the blessed expelling of the miracle from each of us, and letting us restore ourselves, whereupon he would again worship at our feet and clip our nails and give us his Essence, making us, he said, the Matrix Reloaded, we began—I began, at least—to doubt the sincerity of his intentions. But Reverend Dave reassured us, No, no, he treasured us all, equally, it was just that his Essence was required elsewhere, and he instructed us each to be the keepers of our temples, to trim our nails ourselves, and keep these Shavings of Keratin in jars labeled with our names, and when it was time for him to gift us again with his Essence he would have the necessary trimmings to begin again, anew, each of us clear, fresh vessels for his seed. But of course as we grew great with miracles we could no longer bend over to trim and collect our keratin ourselves. This was an ablution the two ex-nuns performed for us, and we for each other, our Matrixes (Matri?) swollen and hard as watermelons, and in the absence of Reverend Dave we explored the contours of our feet ourselves. We explored other things as well. We did this as a group, though we paired up for the explorations. Monica, who was the first (after me) to have successfully received the Reverend Dave’s Essence said, “You know what? Reverend Dave is right. There are many ways in which the body is a temple, and there are many ways into the temple,” and with her fingers she showed me some, and I trembled with understanding. And after many nights of exploration we agreed, as a group, that when it was time again for Reverend Dave to again grace us with his Essence perhaps we would not be the willing receptacles he thought we should be. Perhaps we would tell him to take a hike.

 

Julie Patch

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Julie Patch

My mother is effing nuts. I would like to put this more politely, to be sure: she is touched, she is suffering pre-dementia, she has her spells, she was never the sharpest tool in the shed, and over time she’s gotten duller, she is rationality-challenged, her marbles are not all where she first found them, she’s not quite right in the head, her screws are not as tight as they could be, she’s gone around the bend a bit, she’s not on her rocker, the light in her attic has dimmed, there are bats in her belfry, etc. But the fact is she’s gone absolutely bonkers. She’s nutty as a fruitcake. She’s stark raving mad. She’s batty, loony, bananas, cuckoo, crazy, dotty, screwy, schizo, psycho, mad as a hatter. She has taken leave of her senses, cracked up, gone wacko, she’s unhinged, disturbed, psychotic, deranged, demented, she’s certifiable, she’s crazy, a lunatic, non compos mentis, mad as a March hare. In short, she is a total nutjob. My sister Jackie, too. My sister Jackie in spades. Mind you, it is not my mother or my sister’s religious devotion that causes me to say this. I think spirituality is a very important part of one’s life. But this is not about spirituality. This is about carnal pleasure and displeasure masquerading as holiness. It’s sick, all of it. Rebuilding your hymen? Turning the clock back on your virginity? Coming up with some elaborate word game about your Matrix and your Essence so you don’t have to admit you got laid by Reverend Dave? WTF, as they say in the text messages. I’d be ROFLing if it weren’t so sad, so pathetic. I mean, my life is no carpet of carnations—a five-year-old kid and a thirty-one-year-old ex-husband who’s going on seventeen as far as I can tell, and a dead-end job at the DMV followed by two nights a week cocktail waitressing at the Fort Wayne Holiday Inn out on Nine Mile Road by the airport, where the businessmen think the outfit they make you wear (black tights and a black miniskirt and a ruffled white blouse unbuttoned down to there) gives them carte blanche to stare down your shirt front and pinch your thighs as you walk by—but the bottom line is I suck it up and get on with it. I have defense mechanisms. I have a sense of self. Somebody’s hand grazes my behind and I tell them they try that again I’ll break every finger they own. It hurts my tips except for the ones who actually like the abuse because it means somebody’s paying attention. But I have my pride. I’m not going to lie down for anybody, like my sister did, and I’m not going to celebrate a self-enforced sexlessness while I read about flagellations and stonings and dismemberments and other acts of violence that get transfigured into religious porn for those scared of their own desire. You have a body, people, own it! To be honest, though, not that I did a whole lot better at first. I mean, in college I drank a lot and went home with a lot of losers. I fell in love with one of them (that would be you, Leo), and compounded my error by marrying him. Turned out he wanted the same thing they all wanted, didn’t much want me after he got it, only by then we were already mediocrely wed. Particulars aside, in other words, I wasn’t much different from my sister Jackie, who clutches her hands over her belly and tells me Reverend Dave worships her temple or her Matrix or whatever word he’s using these days to get inside her drawers. But Violet was a gift, however poor the source (I’m talking about you, Leo), and that’s something. I just wish her father shared that belief, that children are a gift, and you must provide for them. Leo doesn’t have a protective bone in his body—unless you’re talking about his gift for self-preservation. For cutting and running. For skating on his responsibilities. He works first shift at the tool and die plant (when it’s running)—he’s a floor manager because he’s got a degree—and he could help with the child care sometimes, but no, that would cut into his drinking time after work. Mom’s too wrapped up in her Lives of the Saints to take much of an interest in the life of her granddaughter, and Jackie says I could drop her off at the First Family of Christ Living Center and Day Care, but I’d be worried Reverend Dave would take an interest in my daughter’s ankles. Or her toenails. So instead of having my family step up I’m hiring sitters the evenings I’m slinging drinks. And I’m still going home with the wrong sort of men. Sometimes you do get lonesome for the company. Once I even called Leo. “I knew you’d come around,” he said, shucking his jeans while we were still having a glass of wine on the sofa, and that’s when I threw him out for the second time in my life. I realized I wasn’t that desperate. But there’s something in me, something like a weakness, that makes me desperate anyway. Every few weeks or so I find myself doing the walk of shame at 2 AM from some two-bit apartment complex across the parking lot to my car and paying the sitter twice what I should because they had to stay three hours later than I said I needed them. That or some guy is telling me as he’s zipping himself, “I’ll call you,” and he never calls, and I know he’s not going to call, but as he’s gently pulling the door closed behind him with happiness and relief and I’m lying there all scummy-mouthed and broken-hoped but semi-in-love-with this guy who just used me, I’m still believing he might be the one, or I’m telling myself he’s the last one like that before I meet the one, the really-for-real one, perhaps the very next night, I tell myself, I just have to open my legs and hope—

 

Dale Rumsey

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Dale Rumsey

It’s the wife’s family business. We have the concession, pumping the latrines, outhouses, comfort stations, porta-potties, and septic tanks over at the big Henry David Thoreau County Park. The park’s in the floodplain and sprawls along the river’s swampy, scrubby, piney bottomland—many acres where the sun don’t shine. It is a known fact that most of the alien abductions take place here. Or so it seems. It makes sense this is the place where the aliens come to abduct folks. The park is remote and rural with many secluded nooks and crannies and hidden glens surrounded by stands of virgin forest. There is a high percentage of Winesburgians who have reported their live vivisections, endoscopies, anal probes, and invasive explorations. Folks disappear from these woods every day, the fires in the grills still smoldering, only to appear, days later, naked as God made them, staggering through the stands of quaking aspen, swaying birch, and seeding cottonwood. They’re a mess. And in my role as custodian, I have started a collection of alien scat left behind on these occasions, I suspect, when the spaceships jump into hyperdrive or through the wormholes or whatever. The crews do a little light housekeeping, I gather, before they shove off. One day I will have enough such samples to open a museum. I assume the visitors from outer space use the facilities themselves before commencing with their deliberate cathartic probings on us humans. They wash their hands or flippers or tentacles after relieving themselves. The water hereabouts is potable, artesian. The pumping facilities are over near the ruins of the old windmill and water tank that looks, now that I think about it, like some space saucer itself. Back to the scat. The first thing that strikes you (after the wide range of consistencies) is the variety of colors that shade into the blues and violets or are marbled with veins of orange or fluorescent flecks of green, chunked with copper, gold, or silver. Some leavings, years later, still radiate heat that is generated from something more than your normal mechanisms of decomposition. One elongated turd came equipped with what I can only imagine is its own treatment system—alien protozoa that then ingest the crap and excrete their own manure, leaving trails of slime in a kind of woodland forest camouflage pattern impossible to detect unless you are looking for it. Other piles are left behind wrapped in a kind of otherworldly wrapping paper, a frozen ribbon of blood-red urine tying up the package in a neat bow that, over time, subliminally evaporates into rusty ropey smoke. Or the waste is encapsulated in a stonelike outer shell of coprolite, a kind of geode or chocolate bonbon with a gooey soft center. I suspect that like many travelers our visiting anthropologists experience irregularity sparked by their own unfamiliarity with the microbial life they have to ingest while on the road. The liquefied residue, in certain spots, can be prodigious, and often I’ve found that the semisolid piles seem to steam, outgassing helium instead of methane or, even more remarkably, neon, which, when it sees the light of day, becomes excited and illuminates itself into drifting clouds of flickering pastel colors. Many aliens seem to ruminate, and the expectorant is as colorful and interesting as the other excretions, and a number of the extraterrestrials also seem to be coprophagic, like rabbits, expelling, after partial digestion, edible pellets that are then consumed. I have found such pellets with what I only can guess are alien teeth marks left behind in haste, the toilet stumbled upon by an innocent lost terrestrial hiker. Needless to say, I have found this strange poop mixed in with the everyday earthen spoil, as the abductions often include bowel scoping and the local subject must also endure a pre-op purgative enema of the GI tract before the procedure is to begin. I also pump the holding tanks at the outpatient clinics in town where more pedestrian colonoscopies are performed. Heck, I have had that procedure myself, studied with interest the photography of my insides out. Not gutsy so much as I have a professional curiosity. What creeps me out about all this is not the fecal matter but the drugs that seem universally applied by aliens and gastroenterologists alike to wipe clean the memory of the event. When one is under, one is not so much under, but instead says anything and everything, a kind of logorrhea, to the occupied operating staff. Who knows, perhaps the spacemen are much more interested in what comes out of our mouths than our anuses. In my expert opinion no one’s shit don’t stink, even the alien kind. But I have gotten used to it. Still, I have never gotten used to this other odor. The stench of our own stories is so attractive to us—bug-eyed and antenna-twitching carrion-eating creatures that we are.

 

Limberlost

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Limberlost

Here’s what I tell myself: I’m a mime and this town is the invisible box that I only pretend to be stuck in. Its boundaries are wherever I press the flat of my hand. Look, I’m trapped! Look, now I trace a window with my burglar gloves and peek through. Now I lift the window, climb through, and escape. Now I’m juggling. Now I’m dancing. Now the invisible box disappears. It never existed. Ha ha ha.

Or: I’m a crow, one of the screeching thousands that perch on the bare tree branches along the river like quarter notes on a skewy treble clef, then fly away in melancholy chords. Just passing through.

I’m not even from here. I came from somewhere else, voluntarily. No one made me come. I just did. I came for the PhD. Lots of people get here that way, to get them or give them. We say we’re just passing through, but we’re all still here when the birds return the next year.

The high schools are named after a president, a saint, and a poet. My neighbor, whose sons attended the poet high school, named his dog after the high school. I don’t think he knew that he’d named his dog after a poet. This is something you find funny when you’re getting a PhD in the humanities. Until the neighbor’s poet-pet, leashed to a tree even as the temperature sinks and sinks, barks and barks while you (I) try to write a dissertation. And every (woof!) other (woof!) word (woof!) is (woof!) woof. Then you (I) realize it was never funny to begin with.

 

Raymond Snow

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Raymond Snow

I was wearing mittens because the warehouse was cold as hell so maybe I didn’t have as good a grip on the forklift’s wheel as I thought I did when I slipped my blades into the skip, and somebody must have got the load off-center because when I lifted, the forks hadn’t gone all the way in, and the TVs—the flat screens, plasmas break if you just fart in their general direction—sort of slouched on the pallet at about three feet up. So I sped up to try to force the fork all the way in. That’s when I kinda tossed ’em into the shelving unit that tipped and hit another shelving unit that tipped too, but luckily there was a wall next, so it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.

Well, that’s what they have insurance for.

Foreman, that was Wally, kept screaming words like stupid and drunk and shit like that but he got quiet when Mr. Hansen pulled up to the overhead door in that big turd-brown 1980s Cadillac because he—I mean Wally—was starting to remember that there was two joints smoked out in his car before the shift started and I’d only smoked one though I’d paid for two, though he did let me have a couple of chugs from the bottle of Beam he keeps under the front seat so it sort of evens out maybe. Once they got to asking questions they might want to know if any of that Schedule 20 stainless pipe that was short on the last inventory and that Mr. Hansen wouldn’t stop bitching about was maybe under a tarp back of somebody’s garage and I don’t have a garage.

 

Ken of Ottumwa

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Ken of Ottumwa

Every fall, I visit all the schools in Winesburg to make the pictures. I make the class pictures. I make the individual pictures of each individual student. I make the pictures of the teachers. And even the staff (the janitors, the lunch ladies, the secretaries, the crossing guards, the school nurses), I make their pictures too. I take my camera to the Emile Durkheim High School (the public school), St. Edward the Confessor Roman Catholic School, Martin Luther Lutheran School. Every year, I make all the pictures in all these schools. I make the pictures for the Richard Corey technical school and the Edward Everett Hale, and the Sullivans junior high schools. And I make pictures for the elementary schools (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy). Every fall, I make a lot of pictures. And each sitting gets four takes (at least). Everyone gets four tries to make the picture I make come out right.

My wife, Clare, works with me in all the schools on the day we make the pictures. She brings with her the big tackle box of makeup, the jars of hair gel and cans of hair spray, the bobby pins and barrettes, and plenty of mirrors. We don’t tell the subjects but the mirrors are trick ones, just a little bit, to flatter their faces, make them thinner, smoother, younger, older. My wife hands out the free hard-rubber pocket combs imprinted with “Ken of Ottumwa Studio” on one side of the handle and “Ace” on the other. She watches the students in the hallway outside the door to the backstage of the cafetorium where I have set up my temporary studio. All of the children combing and combing their hair, licking their fingers to smooth down cowlick after cowlick. I can hear my wife calm them down. You are lovely, she says. You have a beautiful smile. She says, this is your best side. I believe that school photograph day creates more anxiety than any test. It is, after all, a measure of who they have become, all the making up of the lives they are making up captured here at this moment. I hear her coax and cajole as I set up the scoop lights and strobes, charge the batteries, adjust the backdrop (it is silver white for all the school pictures though back at the studio I have a variety of backgrounds—the Grand Canyon, the heavy red velvet drapery, the bookshelf filled with books, the end zone of the old RCA Dome), organize the rolls of film (I still use film) with the charts filled with the names of the students waiting outside. Heaven forbid that Ken of Ottumwa would mix up the photographs, caption one picture with the wrong name. No, the kids as they arrange their hair, as they button and unbutton their blouses and shirts, as they remove their glasses, as they smile hard at each other examining each other’s teeth—they carry with them a slip of paper with their name and address and a serial number for me to match with the four frames (at least!) that will be allotted to them. The money is in the packages I sell to them—all the different combinations of 8×10s, 5×7s, 31/2×5s, the wallet sizes, the size for grandparents who will frame the portraits, the postage stamp size for trading with friends. None of the packages make any sense. Everyone always ends up with too many of at least one kind. They get proofs. The four (at least) poses where they try, try, try, try to picture the you that is you (my motto). There is always one half-lidded take or one with the eyes closed altogether, one all apout when she wanted to smile, one all teeth when he wanted to be tight-lipped. Don’t get me started on cheese, on the banter I must recite day in and day out, the counting up to the moment I trip the shutter, the stutter as the lights flashing hit the subject. How I must prop him up again as he blinks uncontrollably. How I nicker at her as her irises gyrate and jump. The confusions of my lefts and your rights, the jumbling of movable body parts (the eyes looking up, the chin down, the head turned, the shoulder pulled back). And the smile, smile, smile, smile. The look here, look here, look here, look here. My wife Clare also helps the seniors with the break front formal gowns, the fake strand of pearls, the tuxedo bib, and clip-on bow. The costumes are soaked through by the end of that day’s shooting, and we spray it down with the same stuff they use for shoes at the bowling alley. Recently, the anxiety in line has gotten even more compounded and confused as most of the students (even the kindergarteners) carry surreptitious cell phones bundled with their own digital cameras. They are not supposed to have them in school but in the hallway milling, waiting, nervous, bored, their teachers distracted by their own vanities, they turn on their phones, flipping them up like old-fashioned compact mirrors accompanied by little songs that twinkle like old music boxes. They make each other’s pictures. They make pictures of each other. They make pictures of each other making pictures. They make pictures of each other making pictures of each other. And then (I know it) they begin sending the pictures they have made to each other. I can hear the phones ringing, singing, buzzing, clicking as they receive the pictures. I can feel them, the pictures, being sent in the air around me like the floating after-images of all the real pictures I make of the same children on the spinning piano stool in front of the silver-white background strobing on the excited filmy film of my retina. Back in the darkroom I drift around in the dark feeling my way around, around the vats of chemicals, the boxes of paper. I crack open the yellow canisters of spent film like eggs. I spool up rolls and rolls and rolls and rolls of film, bathing them like bars of soap in soapy water. The filmstrips spiral and drip-dry in viney jungle clumps around the room. I spend days enlarging the negatives onto the undeveloped swatches of blank paper. My wife Clare helps me here in the dark in the flashing light of the enlarger enlarging, in the diffuse candling safety light. I make pictures the old way with the sweet-smelling chemicals and the balsamic fixing baths, the big stop clocks ticking always ticking, the squeegee squeegeeing. Clare, my wife, and I do some dodging and burning, some over-and underexposing. We crop. We pull focus. I watch her making the pictures, all the techniques of retouching, smoothing the surface of a forehead, plucking an eyebrow, smoothing a cheek, pearling a tooth. She drips a dollop of white paint in an eye recreating the flash of my lights when the picture was made. All of this to give depth to the flat flat flat flatness of the pictures. Shadows and perspective, chiaroscuro with the airbrush’s air compressor hissing hissing. We score with the wax pencil. We measure the grainy graininess of the flesh, our eyes pressed into the loops. What will they become? These thems? What will we make of them? What will they make of themselves? I know one day (if we stay in the business) I will need to switch over to the digital pixels, the alternating codes, the electronic genetics, the ones and zeros. But, for now, we watch together (under the safety light) the incubation, the development, the emergence, the revelation of each face, face, face, face, before our eyes, beginning with their eyes opening, opening in the depthless depths of those white white fields.

 

Miss Gladys

ePub

Miss Gladys

Mornings, this autumn, I see the girls skipping past on their way to school, and my heart lifts at the sound of their bright voices. I live at the end of Locust Street in a one-story frame house with a porch that wraps around the side. If visitors know me, they knock on the side door when they come, aware that I spend most of my time in the dining room where I have my television set and the oak drop-leaf table I inherited from my mother, and the rocking chair, reupholstered now, that belonged to my father. I sit at the table working a crossword. The television is on for the noise, usually some sort of news show on CNN because I like to keep up to date. I may be on the far side of eighty, but I’m not dead yet. The world can still amaze me.

This morning, I hear a voice outside my window—a light, thin voice singing that old kids’ song, “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” I glance up from my puzzle, and I see the girl, no more than nine or ten, coming up the steps toward my front door. It’s one of those cloudless September days when the air is so clear, the slightest sound carries. Crows caw from the oak trees where the leaves are just now tinged with red. A car door slams somewhere up the street. The last bell rings at Garfield Elementary, where once upon a time I taught, and I hear it plain as day.

 

The Processed Cheese Product Man

ePub

The Processed Cheese Product Man

Sunday is clear and the night comes on warm and pleasant. Monday a yellow chariot clatters into town. It is a double-wide.

An awkward introduction. (It will be a story worth telling someday.) As a newcomer, Amos is jumpy about his jumpy laugh. Does it frighten others? Are the locals going to say it’s a cackle? The term cackle holds character implications. Amos considers: Do I carry a strange and sour odor on my clothing, hands, on my hair?

A tall man with a small tomato balanced atop his derby hat arrives at the chariot. He removes the derby, bows, hands the tomato to Amos, and says, “A man of conceptuals like you needs to see the Mayor.”

On the way to the Mayor, the tall man chatters along like a squirrel: “Processed Cheese Product now. A lot might be done with Processed Cheese Product, eh? It’s almost inconceivable. I mean to think about it. The conceptuals of you and the Mayor thinking about it. There would be a new classification, you see. It’s interesting, eh? It’s conceptuals, like I said. Wait till you see the Mayor, he’ll get the conceptuals. He’ll be interested. The Mayor is always interested in the conceptuals. You can’t be too smart for the Mayor, now can you? Of course you can’t. You know that.”

 

Burt Coble, Catman

ePub

Burt Coble, Catman

Yeah, I seen your little town at night. It’s usually me and the moon coming up through there about three, four in the morning, boat on the squeaking trailer behind me, still dripping green river water from its bunks, and I notice your Dollar General lit up for safety, pole lights shining down on the empty yellow lines, feral cats slinking around the Dairymart, and one or two cars of high schoolers still hustling split-tail in the parking lot of the school. Used to be every buck wanted his Cutlass jacked up on air shocks. That or a lifted four-by-four. Now about every kid I see gots a foreign job, all lowered so the bumpers scrape pulling into the post office. ’Course, what’s kids today got to mail anyway? But one more thing on them feral cats: more than once, I seen two or three tomcats circling an old mama cat in heat. They say a cat screams like it does when it’s getting mated because a tomcat has a barbed penis. They also tell you a possum has a forked penis, but I don’t even know how something like that would work. But yeah, I seen your houses all dark, everybody inside sleeping away, drooling on pillows. I know which places got them little baby blues, cause I see the light on low in some corner, mama rocking her baby don’t want to sleep. I seen all that and more.

 

Tara Jenkins

ePub

Tara Jenkins

I knew I loved Melissa in the second grade because she was always so serious, her gray eyes locked on whatever she was looking at like it was the only thing in the world. One day, her eyes locked on me, and I knew she wasn’t ever going to let me go. I didn’t want her to. Me and Melissa, we were always going to be something.

I knew I loved Melissa in the eighth grade when we were in her room, the door sealed shut from her mom and dad and my mom and dad and all our brothers and their mess. After school, we lay on her bed on our stomachs, everything about us flat. The music was loud; her mother yelled at us through the door but her mother never came in so we never turned it down. We talked under the music and let our shoulders touch, creating this perfect place where our bodies met. The quieter we got and the more we cut ourselves open for each other, baring our secret selves, the warmer that place between us grew until it made our skin soft and eventually that place burned. It was nothing but it was everything. We’d pull away and face each other and our lips would quiver but we were too scared to do anything and finally, when it was too much to see each other so plainly she would say, real quiet like, “You better go,” and just when I got up to leave she’d grab my hand and say, “You better stay.”

 

Jacques Derrida Writes Postcards to Himself from a Diner in Winesburg, Indiana

ePub

Jacques Derrida Writes Postcards to Himself from a Diner in Winesburg, Indiana

I am not the first French writer to venture into the heart of the American interior. It was Tocqueville, an inspector of prisons, who became distracted by the American character, finding at its heart a stability for the time, crafted by an obsession with equality and its jettisoning of rank, title, primogeniture, and the other trappings of the aristocratic landed elites. Beneath such skins, in other words, were other words. Take this “sandwich” for instance. It is an amalgam of the “raw” and the “cooked.” A sign for both the great leavened leveling flatness of the culture nurtured on a denuded glacial plain and its assertion of its –ness-ness (it is known as “John’s [after the proprietor of the bistro] Awful, Awful,” a diminution of “Awful Big, Awful Good”). It is considered here to hold the highest of rank in the hierarchy of “sandwiches,” said to be “the sandwich’s sandwich” in the same way one can be “a writer’s writer.” This is an application of democracy, after all, at once stratified, but also (in its “bunned” variant) equilateral in its expression of difference and conformity. “Le pain,” the “bun,” is the architectural “quotation” of the dome (the English “pan” a verbal and visual pun as well as the literally vexed convex(ed) structure of the bun’s upper segment), the vaulted space that (pantheistically) arches over all uniformly and simultaneously. Elections are held for such sandwiches as I am told by the “waitress,” and, here, in an enabling parasitic text attached to the menu, I discover that this particular “breaded” pork (tender)loin has (on several occasions) garnered the award as “best” in the “fair(s)” of several Midwestern states. Significant is that this meat puck be peened flat first to within an inch of its life, its footprint allowed to expand (before the application of its “breading” [that is to say the meat is sandwiched by its own dermis of adhesive dough before said sandwich is sandwiched by the aforementioned sandwiching conventionally yeasted bun]) beyond the edges of the circular boundaries of the “bun” and beyond (and in its continuous beatings and poundings [known locally as “tenderization”]) in all directions, expand into a slim smear, a skid of flesh, even beyond the limits (and this is crucial [in the sense of “crossed”]) of the ceramic “plate” or “platter” that frames the whole meat delivery device’s delivery device. The massive flatness of the (tendered)loin is made even more evident by the rigorously induced rigor of the deep (emphasis mine) fat frying of the dead (though still elastic and recently stretched) flesh into the consistency of plied wood. The now encrusted cutlet is meant to expand (theoretically) horizontally beyond the surrounding event horizon of the plate and, eventually, the place. As I unhinge the “bun” in order to “dress” the sandwich with additional limpid veneers of a single lettuce leaf, a thinly sliced slice of pickle, a squeeze-bottled skim of yellow-washed paste of mustard, I realize that the compacted (tenacious)loin is a kind of mirror (mirrored), reflecting not me so much as the surface of “me” (“Derrida”) or, even more exact, the (tentative)loin is a kind of anti-mirror mirror (mirror), not reflecting so much as absorbing light into the striations of its now heat-induced, chemically altered coatings, not a skin so much as the scrim that adheres to skin (a scum on the smooth surface of a pond that, in its flatness [both in the dimensional and optical calibrations], argues against even the concept of “depth”), a skin’s skin skinned. The “sandwich” (itself) is constructed out of (empty) “words,” (“empty”) calories wrapped in the “whiteness” (the absence of color) of white bread. The “self” sandwiched as “sandwich.” Not a “prison” of walls (walls) but of floors “sandwiched” together. The sign, “I,” and the signifier for “I” (the “‘I’”) collapse—the serifed capital on the top pancaking upon the serif at the foot. The middle (stuffing) compressed (ground to grout), the whole thing reduced to a line, an “under”line, under lined, a line the thickness of this postal card, the depth of this stamp (the stamp’s intaglio image [of an American author] made of etched and stippled lines), the slick spit of the lick of my tongue positioned between the stamp (as in “to press down”) and the card with its inscribed (and inscription of) surface, of place, with its (future) postmark a tattoo (to be) absorbed into the (skimmed) skin.

 

Pete, Waste Lab Technician

ePub

Pete, Waste Lab Technician

Sometimes when late at night I think I see someone out of the corner of my eye, it is really only one of those roving shadows. They rove up on a wall or behind me when I am pushing an empty gurney into the Waste Lab. I do not know why it is called the Waste Lab.

I am really not afraid of anything.

When I was small, for a short time, buttons frightened me.

The gurneys have a peculiar smell, hard to describe.

I am not really sure what I should tell you about myself. The roving shadows are what come to mind because they are really so startling and mysterious, but there is also a cafeteria which at night is inhabited by a number of talkative zombies. They call themselves the Undead (predictably). And they jabber. Blah blah. They do not eat much, mainly the candy bars and juice boxes. I have discovered that they don’t like meat, which seems strange to me.

Strictly speaking, I am not in charge of the Waste Lab. If you care to know what the Waste Lab looks like there are three boxy windows up very high which require a device with a hook for opening, beneath which there are the walls with all the gurneys pushed up against them. That leaves a space in the middle of the room which I enjoy traversing. The floor is golden, as is the entire floor of this building.

 

Constance H. Wootin

ePub

Constance H. Wootin

Most people think that the old murals they see in old post offices were painted by out-of-work artists, hired by the WPA (if they can even recall that alphabet agency), during the Great Depression. Mere make-work for hard times, they think. That’s not quite correct.

The Winesburg post office was a standard design for 1934, a scaled-down Greek temple on the outside with fluted columns and smooth limestone walls quarried in Bedford, Indiana, where you can see the quarrying of the blocks of Bedford limestone for the Winesburg PO depicted on the mural in the Bedford PO.

All those murals are in all those lobbies. Terrazzo floors. Walnut trim. The three walls not the wall with the front doors have the windows where the clerks work and the rest is bricked with the tarnished PO box doors. Each door is studded with combination locks, knobs that spin a pointer from letter to letter inscribed above the little glass window with the golden decaled number.

 

Dear Class of 2011

ePub

Dear Class of 2011

Dear Class of 2011,

The room as I sit looking at it (once again) is the usual square-and-rectangle composite, only now it contains an additional rectangular item: this handheld reading device for which I thank you, though it will not stave off loneliness, if that’s what you were thinking. At this point I don’t even care anymore. It’s fine, let it be there, loneliness, I like it. In fact I’m so used to it, I prefer it that way because then I can do things exactly as I think they should be, exactly as I want them.

I have all my news stories lined up on my new handheld reading device, hundreds of them, and I’ll read them in the order I think is best. For the next two years I will be slowly catching up on my news story reading. Two years from now, while you are home for the holidays, come check in on me and I assure you I will be almost caught up on my news stories, all my favorite columnists, all the little tips for daily living and pieces of nutritional advice that you know I’ve been waiting for, my favorite stories about the White House, what one government said about another. I will have read them all and have a solid schedule for reading future ones. If I’m busy one week, I’ll have to hurry home and catch up on my news story reading because one can get far behind with these handheld things and you know the pain, the sense of a lack of completion one feels when one has to delete a bunch of news stories unread—not that you missed something important (though you may have, who knows), but that you didn’t complete the series. (Where does that need come from? I don’t know.) Now that I have this new handheld reading device I can plan away and download furiously, every tip and news bit and update, get them all on this thing before it’s too late and they vanish, before the internet space hatch closes over them and they are gone. What will happen if they do vanish? Nothing, of course! Who cares. It will be simply another incomplete project like all the others. Who cares. I never finished Ulysses (who cares). I didn’t clean out the car (who cares). I don’t know how to love (who cares). I’m alone in this room (who cares). My only baby died (who cares). My brother’s in a wheelchair (who cares). The sky glows (who cares). I never figured out what I wanted (who cares). I still have years to go (who cares). I can hear sounds outside—school buses, voices, rain (who cares). This minute will never end (who cares).

 

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