In my life
Reflections on the past …
In each quarterly, we put a challenge to our most frequent flashers. This time around, we asked eight writers to write about someone who has influenced them or made a mark. Love and death, marriage and ambition, teachers and grandmas: the stuff of life is in these short stories. Read on and see how frequent flashers Len Kuntz, Susan Tepper, Linda Simoni-Wastila, Matt Potter, Catherine Russell, Stephen Hastings-King, Robert Vaughan and Guy Yasko capture a person or a moment from their past.
|Will You Please Not Be Quiet, Please? by Len Kuntz
For Raymond Carver
He was already dead when I found him. There was no one to call. My stomach filled with acid, my head spinning. So, I sat down, right there in the row and read until my eyes bled. “This Is What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Yes.
Others had known him before me, and I found this fact sort of disgusting. Couldn’t someone have made an introduction? How is any fair writer supposed to make their way without Ray? How?
From him, I learned about taking risks, breaking writing rules, getting lowbrow enough to seem highbrow. Ray used small, soft words that could cut your heart out and apologize at the same time. He mentored me through print—stories, poems, essays and other scraps I dug up. He himself learned from Lish–how to edit and kern the way a leather artisan tools animal figures into a belt, getting the goat’s startled expression exactly wide-eyed, making the mare’s flared nostril’s sweat.
There was Mailer and Bukowski, and along with Carver, some tagged them a male writer’s rat pack, but truthfully, Ray never fit in. He had the drinking part down, yes, but he was as shy as a breeze, soft spoken, whispering when he talked, the way one might to a lover.
His stories shined a light on small town suffering and broke-down places. He was a quiet king, and anytime I sit down at a keyboard, he’s nearby, always, saying, “Yes. There. Yes, and there, too.”
|Countdown by Susan Tepper
He didn’t want to get married. Ever. Most women left him eventually. Women want the nice dress, flowers, a band. He liked his life single. Simple. Unobstructed. Besides he had a good maid. He had a French barber(ette) and someone to do his nails neat. An Opera subscription. Favorite eating spots. Fruit stand on the avenue. View of the East River from the 29th floor. Why get a wife? A girl, me, doing ballet for him in her lace teddy. Sure, it was a treat and all… but still. He liked me. Loved me. My body. My face. Said so. A lot. We went places. Trips. Most of them ruined by me. Because I got so happy. Asked him when are we going to get married? And he said never. I cried. Ruined the vacation. His friend Bob said to count him down. Give him 3 months Bob said. So I did. It’s March, I said. Then I said it’s April. When it was May, I said only four weeks left. He always acted surprised. Come May I started bringing clothes back to my own place. A tiny place in the West Village. Nice. White brick fireplace, varnished floors. The third week of May I took my cosmetics home. The last week of May I said we’re down to the last week. He acted surprised. The night before the last day, I cut things short. I took my toothbrush home. We got hitched shortly after.
|Kitty D. by Linda Simoni-Wastila
I remember Grams’ laugh, throaty and smoke-infused, and the clink of ice in highballs. Wherever Kitty goes is a party. It’s late now. My little sister quivers beside me in bed. We listen to the laughter, the smack of cards hitting the table, the cry of “Pinochle!” I imagine Grams’ fingers, skinny, pink-polished, dealing the cards and wish Mom was more like her.
Grams follows me around the house, an anemic shadow. I have midterms and no time to babysit. She asks for vanilla pudding, the only food she can keep down. Without talking, I rise from my books and give her what she requests. She creeps down to her room. Later, she moans. The toilet flushes, then all goes quiet. Thank God, I think, and return to my studies, not knowing next week the barium will leak through the holes in her intestines and kill her.
Air blows through the vent. The nurse brushes my lower back with betadine and adjusts the flimsy johnny. I shiver harder. She must sense I am scared; I have never had a caesarean. She tells me her name – Irene – and talks me through my fear.
“My best friend’s daughter married a boy with your last name,” she says. “Fifty years ago. Gorgeous day! Oh how Kitty loved her grandchildren.”
The room quiets. I stop shaking. The anesthesiologist returns. A sharp prick. She holds me, numbness settles over me, a white peace, and Grams is with us, with me, comforting us both, forgiving.
|Congratulations by Matt Potter
Called out five minutes ago, her eyes now shine like bright currants and her round, soft, scarf-shrouded face creases as tears fall. Two women, both Persian, hug their Afghani friend, as excited for her (almost) as they would be for themselves.
You have your visa, she has been told moments earlier. She can leave the camp – soon – and start a new chapter.
Actually, it’s not a ‘camp’ at all, but a gated, fenced-in collection of recommissioned army houses, other buildings, and transportables trucked cross-country to sit on grey pylons dug into the hillside.
But English lessons are taught – by me – in a tent. (For now, so I’m told.)
The three women rejoice in Farsi, while others – this is my top class – look on. They are Afghani and Persian too, and Iraqi, and Tamils from Sri Lanka.
She is so sweet in her emotion, and probably has the best English of all my students. But an impending departure always leaves a lump in my throat.
I wipe my eyes.
But the others’ blank stares and forced smiles: their disappointment hangs in the tent like a bleak fog and funks on the tables and chairs and books and worksheets.
“Congratulations,” they say, even the Farsi-speakers.
My heart lobs in my mouth: they all think Congratulations is the oddest-sounding greeting. But their own fates – rejected visas, appeals in process, time-filling day-after-week-after-month – swirl cyclonically in the air.
She sits down between her friends, and with hearts and heads anywhere but here, our class resumes.
|It’s All Greek to Me by Catherine Russell
Everyone has that special person from their childhood that influenced them, encouraged them, filled them with a sense of wonder. That someone for me was my teacher, Mrs. Osbourne.
She fostered a love of books, literature, and mythology that’s lasted throughout my life. The first time I heard ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ was when she read it as a treat during last period. The first time I heard Greek myths was when she taught them in her class; and the first time I dressed in a toga was at her direction.
The Greek Banquet was the highlight of sixth grade. Everyone in class brought a Greek dish and attended as a figure from Greek mythology. Boys drew character names from one hat, girls from another. Mrs. Osbourne was the only person who chose her persona – Pandora.
When the great day arrived, most of the kids were happy coming to school in togas and skipping class for a party. One by one, my classmates stood and presented themselves. My face flushed as I introduced myself as Leda, the Queen who was seduced by a swan and laid two eggs. I’m sure there was much chuckling, but I can’t remember. I’ve blocked most of it out.
However, I do remember that at the end, Pandora stood beside the slideshow that explained her character. When she released ‘evils’ into the world, she threw candy to the assembled gods and goddesses.
Corruption never tasted so sweet.
|Six Things I Remember About My Grandfather by Stephen Hastings-King
1. In northern New Hampshire when nothing happened there was a lot of nothing in it.
2. In the barn by his house there was a wooden pinball machine. The playing surface was a network of pathways between teardrop-shaped holes. Each was hedged round by nails. I put into motion a ball made from bone and watched it articulate a path and disappear. There was nothing else to do.
3. Sometimes we would sit at a giant wooden table in the dining room. The space was always cold. Around the corner George and Martha Washington pressed their faces against panes of glass like they wanted to see what was going on.
4. In my memory I sometimes add cigarettes to his image and take them away again.
5. Other times, I wrote letters to him about philosophy. Maybe the universe and everything that’s in it is on an electron hurtling around an atom inside the left index finger of someone who in his or her timeframe is sitting in a kitchen waiting for a Pop Tart just like I am and maybe that person is looking at his left index finger and trying to figure out why it feels strangely just like I am. He humored me. He always wrote back.
6. Sometimes he would include a stamp, a profile Queen Victoria or some other dirigible floating over the veldt.
|Elements of K by Robert Vaughan
|Shinjuku Picadilly by Guy Yasko
I wait in the lobby looking at the posters: Yakuza Wives, Métro. She
— I don’t care if i see the world, but i do want to see this
From time to time i look her way. She doesn’t notice. I see her
I want to touch her.
— Why didn’t you?
— Because i thought you’d swat me.