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Friday, November 29, 2013


by Lisa Lebduska
        Standing in front of a produce wagon on a tree-lined street in Bay Ridge, dazed but smiling, a swarthy teenage boy holding a basket of onions and swiss chard guards my kitchen. He makes an unlikely sepia angel, poised over a junk drawer in Connecticut. Some days he watches me watch chickadees squabble over thistle; on others he listens as I argue with my mother over the phone about why we need to retire her Honda, and with it, though I do not say this, her ability to drive.
Somewhere under the boy’s wave of chestnut hair is my grandfather.
        Cinched by a belt circling his waist almost twice, Pop’s pants jut out above his ankles and dusty broken shoes, inherited from his younger but fatter brother Tony. He holds the bridle of a horse that is wearing blinders. At sixteen he bought the horse without realizing that it could not see, discovering its dark truth in an epiphanic tumble that landed him, the horse, the wagon and twenty-five watermelons in a roadside ditch. Often have I stared at the picture and wondered if my grandfather had yet discovered the animal’s secret. He gazes out at me, far into a future that has outlived him, not knowing the woman who would be looking back at him, someone he would know only when he was an old man and she was a child, the granddaughter who had inherited his yellow eyes.
That blind horse, a parable for Poppy’s life, served as the center of Thanksgiving conversations that began with my mother’s declaration: “Pop never worried. He was no businessman. He bought the horse thinking he was getting a bargain. Women came to buy cucumbers and ended up with free strawberries and carrots. It’s a miracle we didn’t starve.” Whenever she said this, I would look at the ziti trays, roasted turkey and vegetables crowding the table and think the real miracle was that no one had exploded.
        Pop left the produce business to drive a taxi. One night, a man approached his cab at a stoplight, and when my grandfather rolled down the window to see what he wanted, the man reached in and tore off shirt pocket loaded with change and bills. The second time he was robbed, a passenger jammed a gun into the back of his neck.
        “Pop never worried,” my mother says while heaping mashed potatoes on to my Thanksgiving plate.
“Didn’t he get held up?”
        “Yes, but it didn’t faze him. He came home and said he was on the evening news. He never mentioned it again.”
Pop made Camels his daily passengers. Thoughts of his passengers’ vagaries may have played a role in his decision to smoke; likewise, careening cars, buses, trucks and other taxis, along with his need to support a growing family. Despite regular prodding by my mother and grandmother, he refused to quit. More evidence, my mother said, that he didn’t have a care, though sometimes she provided a denouement to his smoking tale in the form of a nurse who showed him an x-ray of blackened lungs. The next day he traded his Camels for sourballs. 
In his later years, Poppy resembled a smooth-shaven Italian Santa Claus: a prodigious belly braced by suspenders, full cheeks of baby skin and a twinkle in his cat’s eyes. He would eat a whole chicken in one sitting, smiling contentedly until the cannoli platter appeared, when he would announce he had “just enough room for dessert” and request two tablets of saccharin for his coffee.  
        Another picture, imprisoned in a Gimbel’s shopping bag at my mother’s house, once told a story similar to my sepia angel’s. I had not seen this picture in over a decade, but last month I rediscovered it during a search for the powder blue Dearfoam slippers my mother had bought but could not find. There’s a horse in this one, too, but it’s a pony, and a tiny girl, banana curls framing her face, sits upon its back, beaming. I recognize her, but I need my mother to tell me. I tell myself that if she can identify the girl, she will be more whole than not, more present than gone. If she passes the quiz, I tell myself, she will be happy and I am doing the right thing leaving her in this house with the wobbling toilet bowl and the crumbling roof, where she wants to be, with the mice and her memories.
When she sees the picture, my mother pipes up, “What a day that was. Aunt Aida was giving birth to Tony. They wanted to get me out of the house, so Grandpa brought me to Prospect Park. Just the two of us. We ate charlotte russe.” She smiles, satisfied with the joy that only the deep past now brings. She knows this story, where it will go, who the heroes will be, how it will end. It is all hers.
“I was so excited. I had never been on a pony. Pop spent a week’s salary to have my picture taken. Grandma almost killed him.”  I imagine my grandmother, renowned for her ability to cut any size cake into enough slices for seventeen people, asking her husband how they would pay their bills. On this particular day, I do not want to go there with my mother, so I return to the photo that I have studied on and off for the last forty years, hoping that it will save me, save us from that dark alley.
“Mom, what is that?” I ask, pointing to her girl self.
“That was my party dress. Grandma made it for me. I was so proud. It was yellow and edged in lace, and she did my hair. Those were the first pair of shoes I got that hadn’t been handed down from Aunt Susie. I loved those shoes.”
 “No, not the dress,” I say. “Over there, down by the saddle.”
She reaches for the magnifying glass and squints. There, where the back of my mother’s frilly dress meets the worn saddle, is a man’s roughened thumb, the sole trace of a vigilant father in heroic contortion to avoid the camera.
“Is that Poppy’s hand?”
My mother presses the photo close to her face. “Oh yes. That’s right. Pop was holding me up. He was absolutely terrified that I was going to fall off.”
Her memory belly full of sweet sponge and raspberry, she smiles. “I remember now.”

Lisa Lebduska teaches writing and directs the college writing program at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where her students bring lives to words. She has published work in such journals as Narrative, 4’33” and Writing on the Edge. With her husband, she grows prodigious imaginary vegetables for neighborhood chipmunks and deer, with the hope that one day they will stop settling for real-life seedlings and sprouts and she will be able to enjoy the first true tomato of her adult life.

Monday, November 25, 2013


by Tom Liskey

When I was ten we lived in a narrow two-story clapboard that had been converted from a funeral home into low-rent housing. The place was a real dump. But there had been no single stroke of bad luck that drove us to this place. It was just the unforgiving calculus of divorce and bankruptcy.
The house's owners got out of the funeral business shortly before they retired. That happened at a time when more modern, larger establishments with plenty of room for parking were being built close to the highway. They didn’t put much money into the conversion and the work that was done was shoddy. But we got a good deal and leased the bottom floor. There was only one room there—and it was mine. My mother thought a growing boy needed some privacy.
The place must have been something grand in its heyday when this Mississippi River town was booming with commerce and industry. By the time we moved in, lead mining and rock quarrying had gone bust. The house, like our town, had fallen on hard times. The once ornate woodwork of the eaves had gaps in them, each empty space looking like a busted-out tooth. An iron smelter was only a few blocks away and the greasy sheen of smokestack grime covered the gable windows.
The owners had sealed the cellar off in my bedroom during the conversion from funeral home to rental unit with a wooden door. At night that six paneled door loomed large and terrible in my imagination. For some reason I believed that behind the door was where the dead had been washed and dressed for their final viewing.
We only lived in the duplex for the summer and part of the fall before my mom found work in a bigger city. All we had to cook on was a hotplate. So we only ate stuff like hamburgers, fried baloney, and hotdogs. Junk food. We didn’t have a fridge either and we kept quarts of milk in an ice cooler.
Before we moved into the duplex we had lived in a pretty little house near a lake beyond the town limits. Our neighbors—two elderly brothers who ran a small fishing camp on its banks—wore ironed overalls and trucker caps pulled low over their eyes.
A hand-painted sign on the side of the road near their property promised pristine waters brimming with overstocked bass just down the bend. But the brothers’ mucky water hole was barely a pond. They charged you by the pound if you caught anything. I went fishing there a couple of times, but all I remember getting was piddly looking perch.
We lost the house near the lake after my mom divorced my stepdad, a man from Georgia. She first met him when he called to offer his condolences when my dad died when I was five. He said he read about his death in the local obituary. That man from Georgia could spin a good yarn. The story he told her was that he knew my dad from his time working on a river tug. My mom and the man from Georgia only spoke a few times on the phone, but he swept her off her feet.
The first time I saw him he was clean shaven with a splash of cologne on his cheek. When he spoke, he always seemed to have a ready Bible verse on the tip of his tongue. The kind of things a churchgoing woman like my mother looked for in a suitor.
After a short courtship they married. But the man from Georgia started drinking again after the wedding. Back in the day in Missouri you called people like him ‘a six-pack charlie’ or ‘bottle-jockey.’ The thing was the man from Georgia couldn’t handle his liquor. He'd hit mom when he was drunk.
The last time I saw him was the year of the divorce. We heard he had been fired from the smelter and was living in a rooming house in town. But my stepdad was friends with a dispatcher and was hired on as a bus driver for the school district. He didn’t work my bus route, but I saw him at school once. He was eating in the cafeteria with some of the other drivers and janitors.
I got permission from a teacher and went to speak to him. When he saw me he didn't say a word. He just nodded for me to sit down. He had the red, puffy eyes of a man still nursing a hangover. Maybe the others didn't notice it, but I did.
We were both uncomfortable and I regretted approaching him. The strained father-and-son pretense had already crumbled. He asked about my mom as he slowly picked at his school lunch, looking past me most of the time. I didn’t tell him we had lost the house by the bass pond or that we were living in a rundown funeral home.
He kind of snickered when I mentioned that she had a new job. I felt heated because of it. When it was time for me to go back to my class, he slid two quarters across the tabletop to me. It was his change left over from lunch. The meal cost school workers $1.50.
“Get yourself a haircut.”
That’s all he said. I pocketed the coins.
I wanted that money to buy candy. I had a terrible sweet tooth back then. That’s just what I did. It was still hot for September and the chocolate melted on my tongue, but then turned sour in my stomach. I leaned against the building and barfed the chocolate up. I bawled my eyes out with snot and thin chocolaty streams of vomit running down my chin. I felt sick because I took those two coins from the man who had ruined us, from the man who broke my mother's heart.
My mom never found out about my taking the money, and I doubt she would have cared even if she had known. She would have probably made a joke about them being wooden nickels.
I almost told her once, about using the coins to buy candy that made me sick, but I never did. She’s dead now. She died shortly after my daughter was born. But something did happen to me the night I took the coins. I stopped being afraid of what was on the other side of the cellar door. It just didn’t scare me anymore.

Tom Darin Liskey lives in Texas but spent nearly a decade in Latin America.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Gentleman Farmer

by Bill Vernon

Mr. Francis Eustis immediately grabbed my interest when Larry Schmidt introduced himself by saying that his family had just moved onto one of three contiguous farms that Mr. Eustis had bought and joined together. The man himself lived elsewhere, in Indian Hill, an affluent Cincinnati suburb. “Farming’s just a hobby to him. He’s a millionaire."
I pictured a man with dollar bills hanging from his pockets. "I've never met a millionaire."
"Oh, he's pretty much like everyone else. My father managed a herd of Jerseys in Iowa and Mr. Eustis brought him here. They met at a cow auction. See, we raise Jerseys, which give the richest milk of all cows. Mr. Eustis is from New Jersey where his mother owned a Jersey-breeding farm so some of our cows are from there.”
“He raises Jerseys and he comes from New Jersey?”
“Yeah, weird, huh? Mr. Eustis put in the most modern equipment. He uses science in our operation."
Larry seemed proud, and Mr. Eustis sounded intriguing. He was not only rich enough to do what he wanted, but knowledgeable enough to employ modern agricultural principles. Seeing the place when Larry invited me to his house reinforced these thoughts. The big barnyard was impressive. Mr. Eustis had spared no expense. The board fence along the driveway and road and the four large buildings around the barnyard, except for red trimming, were pristine white. The Schmidts' house, set off behind a few trees, struck me too. It was ornate for a farmhouse, almost fancy, a reddish purple brick.
Inside this house was another surprise. The furnishings were comfortable but ordinary things the Schmidts had trucked in, except for two things on the fireplace mantel. Larry said, “Mr. Eustis made those.” Jersey cows, so realistic they seemed about to bellow standing in my hands. Mr. Eustis was also an artist, and from what I could see, a good one. What kind of man bought farms and cows, insisted on using the latest scientific equipment and knowledge, and hired people to do the work while he sculpted models of the animals?
I wasn't obsessed with the question, but for two years I did periodically sniff around to learn more. I rode horses with Larry at the farm, heard a bit more about the man, and alone occasionally walked the fence line of the farm from the town side, hunting in rabbit season, hiking for exercise and adventure, studying from a distance the farm buildings, fields and cows as if they might reveal more about Mr. Eustis. Then, at a goodbye reception for the Schmidts, Larry introduced me to the man, remarking that I was virtually a farm boy myself. I'd baled hay the past two summers at various farms. "Part-time," I said. "I'll work full-time next year during high school vacation."
It was a quick conversation, with Mr. Eustis offering me a full-time job next summer. My heart quickened at the idea. This man was an innovator, an artist, a rich man. I could get to know him and earn full-time pay at the same time. I accepted and we settled on the particulars.
After nearly a year of anticipation, my first dawn of helping to milk Eustis Jerseys came, and my interest in Mr. Eustis immediately increased. That morning he was alongside me on wagons stacking bales of hay in hot, humid weather. In the afternoon, enjoying a cool breeze during a break, he looked at me and said, "Bill, this work is good for your soul. It may not be clean work, but it's by God honest and straight forward. I like it. Baling's my exercise." Baling hay was exercise? Farm animals were subjects for art? He didn't have to work but he did?
I watched the man closely, trying to figure him out. He seemed all-business, consulting daily with the employees who lived on his farm, my immediate bosses, Merle, the Schmidts' replacement, and Wayne. Upon Mr. Eustis' arrival, the three would schedule jobs for that day and if necessary decide future things like how stock was to be treated, calves reared and sold, and dry cows bred. I caught snippets of their conversations by standing close or passing nearby on a chore. Within two weeks I realized that he related to people in a very defined manner. Always, the two employees, as well as outside experts who showed up, like veterinarians, spoke seriously with Mr. Eustis, listened intently, then gave way to his judgments. They may not have kowtowed, if you'll forgive the pun, but I imagined their foreheads would have touched the ground at his feet posthaste if he'd pressured them.
He simply assumed command, and of course we all deferred to Mr. Eustis because of his position as our employer. But there was more. His eastern accent and manner of speech, which was more formal than ours, set him off as well. Mr. Eustis was an outsider, and perhaps because of this we all talked about him behind his back, often with a tinge of sarcasm inspired by envy. When I caught myself doing it, or listened to the others go on, I felt oddly sorry for the rich man because he didn't fit in very well on a personal level with us.
Another reason for my empathy may have been that he treated me and Jim, my neighbor friend on the baling crew, with greater warmth than he showed his other employees, as if our backgrounds were similar to his own. Alone with us, he inquired about our family and our plans after high school, and he several times urged Jim and me to attend college. "You don't want to end up baling hay or shoveling cow shit all your lives."
"You bale hay yourself," I said, but I knew what he meant. He was one of the few adults, aside from my mother, who urged me to go to college and prepare for the future.
He further separated himself from everyone else by driving his car into the fields instead of riding a wagon with us. He always rode there alone except for the time he invited Jim and me to ride with him, first making us spread newspaper sections to sit on so our clothes wouldn't stain the upholstery. This was his new baby, after all, a Chrysler, and he proceeded to show off its main feature, which had him excited: Powerflite or Torqueflite, an innovative gear-shifting system. "Only push button car on the market," he bragged, ignoring the Edsel, whose advertising mentioned having it. He seemed to like the car's uniqueness as well as his own for possessing it. Jim and I had newly acquired driver's licenses, which had sparked a dreamy interest in automobiles, so we stared at the little square of buttons (in what he called a pod on the dashboard) and compared its shiny array to the drab, standard gear shifts in our parents' cars. "Neat," we said, unable to carry the conversation into any depth.
After his initial spiel of self-congratulations, Mr. Eustis settled into silence, concentrating on avoiding ruts in the path we were taking. As we exited the shiny car—this was just after lunch—Mr. Eustis opened the trunk, bent over to retrieve shoes from it, raised up and passed gas loudly. Jim and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. Mr. Eustis put his hands on his hips. "God damn it, boys, can't a man fart in peace?" This comment increased the volume of our laughter, at which Mr. Eustis smiled and shook his head. He sat back against his rear bumper, dropped a shiny brown loafer off one foot, revealing skin tight, thin white socks beneath, and pulled on a scuffed black leather tie shoe.
I studied Mr. Eustis like that, as if what he wore or drove might show what kind of person he was. Sporty when he was with his own kind of people, I guessed, noticing in his car's trunk a white shirt, fancy blazer, and sharply creased blue trousers in a plastic dry cleaners’ bag. The way I had him figured, he'd return to Cincinnati after baling and, garbed in his trunk-load of spiffy clothes, go to an expensive country club dinner.
Maybe that outfit made me notice the individuality of his baling-hay attire. He wore tan corduroy trousers, not the common denim trousers the rest of us wore, and the wide, straight wales of his trousers emphasized his shape. His body was angular, about five feet ten inches tall, wide shouldered with hairy arms and chest. His square face had a straight jaw, his short black hair was parted on the left side, and his black eyeglass frames held unusually thick lenses, suggesting an eye problem. His posture was so straight, sitting, standing and walking, I wondered if he had a back ailment, but that seemed unlikely because he threw bales so well. These were all clues about his nature, and my youthful nature struggled, trying to combine what I knew into a coherent pattern.
Less acceptable behavior complicated my understanding of him. Jim and I were put to work in the hay barn cleaning out stalls for two horses. Fine, but why there? There was room for more than two horses in the handier stable. These stalls were out of the way, beneath the hay barn's main floor. To reach them from the outside, you had to use back doors that opened at the bottom of the hill whose top was the barn’s main floor. A heavy wooden door on the floor of that level hid the inside steps down to these stalls. Adding to the mystery, Mr. Eustis came in as we started working, watched us throw a pitchfork of debris, then said, "Don't tell anyone about the horses we put in here. They'll be our secret. And don't take them outside unless Merle says to."
What was going on? Jim and I let Mr. Eustis walk away, then abandoned our work, hurried over to Merle and asked. Mrs. Eustis, he said, was unhappy about her husband's obsession with useless palominos and had ordered him to sell the two he'd brought to the little farm she owned near Cincinnati. He'd agreed, but instead of selling them, he planned to hide them on this farm. Jim and I went back to work smiling at the deception. We were sort of the rich man's conspirators, weren't we? There was also the thing about lying to his wife. What should I make of that?
Before the horses arrived, Mr. Eustis personally inspected the stalls and asked us to spread a thicker layer of new straw and wipe down the board enclosures. Then feeding and watering the palominos the next few days, we found him almost always leaning on a gate, feeding them apples. His interest in the horses did seem to be a quirk, and it was a hard thing to put into proper perspective.
Another complication arose three weeks after the horses' arrival. Mrs. Eustis visited the farm, saying her husband was on a business trip and she'd promised to keep an eye on his Lebanon operations. We all thought she was seeking evidence that her husband was harboring animals she didn't want. The evidence, however, eluded her because she telephoned an hour ahead to announce her visit. Merle did escort her around, but only after he'd warned us not to say anything about the palominos. Also after he’d hitched up the horse trailer to the pick-up, loaded the palominos, and transported them to the farthest-away field where he left them and the trailer.
The consequence of such deceptions quickly became evident. Merle was unhappy to be involved in the dishonesty. "That man is something," he complained, and he didn't stay much longer in Mr. Eustis' employment. That fall he moved to his own farm of 135 acres near Clarksville and expressed pleasure at severing his ties with Mr. Eustis, but he also said, "God bless him. He's loyal as an old dog and has a heart of gold. You know he loaned me money to buy this place. Basically, he's really a good man."
What stuck in Merle's craw, as Merle himself might have said, was Mr. Eustis' mockery of Merle's and his wife’s religiosity. They were serious about it and Mr. Eustis was not, as shown by his occasional jibes, particularly at our noon meals, which Merle's wife prepared and served. These lunches were often a stage for Mr. Eustis to tell a lengthy story that involved sexual innuendoes. He would laugh at his punch lines, prompting Jim and me to laugh, prompting Merle at the other end of the table to smile and nod, prompting Merle's wife to flit between kitchen and table, working herself into an objection that was never very direct. "Now, Francis, do you really think young boys should hear such things?"
Her objection would prompt a similar reply every time. "Damn right they ought to hear it, Rebecca. They're almost men. If they don't know the facts of life, they ought to. Right, boys?"
We'd nod and grin.
Rebecca's creamy neck and face would flush, she would glance at us as if in despair, then hurry into her kitchen as if for some new serving. Mr. Eustis respected and admired her though, as shown by the fact that she was the only one I ever heard address him by his first name.
The jokes from Mr. Eustis at the noon meal not only titillated but also upset me. They didn't seem appropriate in front of a woman like Rebecca, but I'd always conclude that Mr. Eustis was trying to fit in by entertaining us. However, his actions did take advantage of his employer-employee relationship with Merle. Maybe he felt guilty about that. Maybe quilt led him to loan Merle money to buy a farm.
My connection to this gentleman farmer ended in a bittersweet and odd way, adding to the complicated nature I observed in the man. Our agreement was to pay me in lump sum for the whole summer's work, and he came to my home on a Saturday to do it, having forgotten to bring his checkbook to the farm the day before. He came in our front door, met my mother, and she left us to conduct our business alone. I offered him a seat, which he refused, saying in a serious voice that he'd decided I should receive $35 not $50 per week because I'd left work early, at 4:30 P.M., one or two days each week to play baseball.
My eyes widened. "That was part of our agreement."
He pulled a checkbook from his shirt pocket. “I don't remember talking about it. Now for 10 weeks of working, my calculations make your pay 350 dollars. Right?”
I was about to object when Mom stormed into the living room with a broom in both hands. She'd been in the kitchen, supposedly sweeping the floor but in fact listening. Mr. Eustis had pen poised over his checkbook when she said, "What kind of man are you, trying to cheat a child out of a few dollars? Did you agree to pay him 50 dollars a week?"
"Well, yes, but...."
"Then you owe Bill exactly five hundred dollars, as agreed." She shook the broom to emphasize the amount.
He put pen to checkbook, gave me the check, shook my right hand, thanked me, and left.
As the sound of his footsteps faded along our walkway, confusion surged through me. Mom said, "Bill, you have to develop a backbone and stand up for yourself. Otherwise people will take advantage of you. I won't always be here, you know. You'd better get some gumption."
"Gumption's got nothing to do with it." I hated severing ties with Mr. Eustis that way. I was sure I’d explained to him about getting off early to play ball. He’d probably forgotten that detail in our discussion. I also didn’t believe he was trying to cheat me. More likely he was trying to be fair as he saw it. Heck, he might have been trying to teach me a lesson in business. Then again, however, so was Mom.
There was a lot more to the man than I experienced, of course, but I learned no more about him until the Cincinnati Enquirer's August 5, 1996, obituary. Mr. Eustis died 84 years old. He'd been only 46 years old when I'd known him, the age of my father at his death, relatively young although at the time I'd thought of them both as old. He'd graduated from "the Yale School of Fine Arts" and "in the early 1960s" begun "his art career." That was a few years after I'd seen two of his early animal studies. Since those days, his art had become "renowned worldwide," with "a permanent exhibit" of his "finely detailed sculptures...on display in the Netherlands," the Cincinnati Zoo, which houses his sculpture of its "famous gorilla King Tut," and Lexington's International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park, which maintains the Francis Eustis Gallery and "features an exhibit of one of his favorite breeds, the draft horse."
My observations of Mr. Eustis lasted a short part of one summer and involved personal contact with him only at work. But he was a father-figure to me. He had flaws, yes, everyone has flaws. His may have included an aloofness that allowed him to dominate, impose on and even belittle others in an offhanded way. However, these traits seemed minor. His positive side seemed much more important. Mr. Eustis modeled for me several admirable qualities. He was good hearted, generous, talented, aware of the beauty in ordinary things, hardworking, self-directed, and certainly rich in many ways other than money.

The Francis Eustis Gallery online displays the wide range of Francis Eustis art.

"Clydesdale" by Francis W. Eustis
Bill Vernon
Bill Vernon served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, and then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folkdances. Five Star Mysteries published his novel Old Town in 2005, and his poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies. Recent publications include two other Gentleman Farmer stories at The Circle Review and Quarterlife Quarterly.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Writing Matters

by Kristi DiLallo

Writing matters because it’s the only thing I have in common with my parents. “Dear Mom,” I write, sitting on my bedroom floor where no one can ask me why I don’t just email her. I try not to imagine how it looks when she writes me; when I do, I pretend her cell is nicer than it probably is. I pretend it’s an apartment in a nice neighborhood where the guards are not watching her, making sure her pen does not become a weapon with which they fear she might take another life.
Writing matters to the guards, because they open every envelope I’ve sealed and sent to her, and vice versa. I imagine them checking for nail files or blueprints for an escape, their fingers tearing the fold on the back of each envelope and intercepting the closest thing to a kiss on the cheek between mother and daughter. This has been their routine for five years, and it will go on for another ten while I struggle to remember the touch of her hand or the smell of her hair.
Writing matters because it’s the only thing we do together anymore. “I miss you past the world,” she writes, and I try to hear it through the paper, but I can hardly remember how her voice sounded before we had to miss each other. Writing matters because it keeps her alive. The collection of letters and cards and photos beneath her bunk are the only things keeping her connected to my world.
Writing matters because it’s how I got to know my dad, who went away before my mother did. “Dear daddy,” I wrote, on the bus ride home from first, second, and third grade, and many years after that. Writing matters because at recess I could say, “I practice cursive with my daddy, too,” but Sally and Rachel would never know what that really meant, no more than they could imagine the “I love you so much” in almost illegible script on yellow construction paper hanging inside of his cell.
Writing matters because of the shoe boxes in the bottom drawer of my dresser: one marked Dad’s Letters, and the other, Mom’s. Writing matters because it helped me survive the first box, whose contents accumulated over seven painful years. Writing matters because it’s getting me through the second one, as the letters pile up alongside the stolen years they represent.
 Writing matters because of the world that fiction allowed me to create: one where my dad taught me how to ride a bike and my mother watched me graduate high school.  As much as writing matters, still, I know what it cannot do. I cannot write and rewrite the past until it looks the way I want it to. I cannot create characters to take the place of my mother and father. No matter how many times I revise, I cannot use writing to erase the miles or years or events that have separated me from the people who made me a writer.

Kristi DiLallo is an undergraduate Creative Writing major at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida. She works as a Mentor Writing Consultant at the UCF Writing Center. After completing her BA in English, she plans to pursue a Creative Writing MFA. Her writing life is a tribute to her grandmother, who introduced her to the world of literature and encouraged her to find meaning in everything she reads and writes.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Me and My Pseudonyms

by Mike Ekunno

I have had occasions in the past and present to dissemble. I hide Mike Ekunno and go for something more or less cryptic depending on what I assess to be the risks. In situations where there is likelihood of a future reward like the recent literary contest I entered, I take a pseudonym that is closer to the real thing. You never can tell when a prize would come calling and you’d need to prove your identity. Not that it’d be a difficult thing, all things being equal. There is after all, the email address, phone number and bio details that can be matched. But all things are not equal in my society. The anti-corruption agency once laid hold on some laundered funds and dared its genuine owner to come forth and take the rap. A slew of claimants answered the call. The dollar amount was much. So in such circumstances where a potential benefit is in view, I choose something close to “the name my papa gave me.” It was Chukx Michaels in one such recent contest with pecuniary benefits for the winner. Chukx comes from my Igbo middle name which is hardly in the public domain. As for Michaels, its Hebrew etymology is almost a give-away that the bearer couldn’t be for real as surnames go in my society. But it is a better risk because the society boasts a tiny demographic that bear English/Hebrew surnames led by no less a figure than Mr President himself, Goodluck Jonathan. Above all, the name maintains fidelity with the adage of my people that a lie is better told in English (read foreign language). How I came about submitting with a pseudonym in that contest is another story.
A contentious issue had arisen in the Yahoo group of literary minds where I hold membership. I dived into the fray and aired my views carpeting some other viewpoints and, by extension, egos. Not long after this comes the contest in which some of my victims wield judicial influence and I couldn’t resist applying. I had to play it safe with a pseudonym just in case somebody wants to be vindictive. I’m not as foolhardy as I am outspoken.
There are times I have come up with pseudonyms that are simply unrelated to my name. One such occasion was when I had to comment on a disgraceful conduct by a high public office holder. As a public servant, the rules bar me from critical media interventions. But the pull of polemics did not prove resistible. Not when aberrant conducts suffuse the public space on a daily basis. So I penned a shooting-from-the-hips piece to the newspapers under a pseudonym unrelated to the real name. I’ve not got another job, you know. It was when the piece appeared in the dailies that a round of regret overtook me. Reading one of the outings and seeing the huge support on the comments thread, I rued not being able to blow my cover. The opinions I canvassed in the piece were nothing to be ashamed of. Neither were they libellous (if not, the editors wouldn’t have dared). But here was I, the “author and finisher” of those germane viewpoints not able to bask in the glory of their potential to advance the cause of humanity in one little area. Vanity? Maybe.
We who trade in ideas and words find ourselves holding on to our creations as the capitalist entrepreneur would his bank account. In a way, our ideas and the peculiar ways we put them together represent our capital in a world of other capitals of a more gross material hue. To watch such vital accumulation being credited to a phantom figure must be akin to a woman having to give up her adorable baby for adoption and worse, knowing that the adoptive parents are non-existent.
Using a pseudonym is a form of anonymity. But not all forms of anonymity oppress my sense of identity. As speechwriter to a cabinet minister, I have sat in on engagements where my boss’s speech elicited ovation. At none of such times did I feel any tinge of possessiveness or jealousy at not being the one on the podium. You could say I was duty-bound to craft those speeches or that I couldn’t be minister, anyway (don’t bet on it). Whatever, but I never begrudged my boss the glory from any of my applauded lines. This also happens with ghost writing. We can argue that the fees have effectively extinguished the ghost writer’s claim to any emotional affinity with his creation. Or has it? Legal rights can be bought off but emotional ties with spores are not necessarily extinguished thereby. Ask the Michael Jackson estate, if you doubt.
Parsing on matters of identity recently got me thinking of this pull to hide as well as be known at the same time. What could inform this ambivalence among writers who blow their covers yet keep the pen names? Could they be suffering from the same tension I suffered over my loss of proprietary rights on quality that is lost to anonymity? What motivates an artiste to be anonymous or take a pen name can be varied. Circumventing conflict of interest (or, at least, not letting the public know) is one. Being free to bring candour to freedom of expression is another. However, these excuses have to battle the pull for credits for writers and artistes who have done exceptional work. And this is where a different form of conflict of interest takes over—between the real identity and the faux. When the false identity begins to garner accolades which do not redound to the true owner, can pseudonyms be sustained?
It was not this pull that caused the unmasking of JK Rowling, the Harry Potter author who became Robert Galbraith in her second novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling. Rowling’s cover was blown via investigative journalism by Britain’s Sunday Times. Her motivation for the cover up was “to publish without hype or expectation and...get feedback under a different name.” That feedback had been largely positive before Rowling’s true identity was revealed and the book’s sales on Amazon went bullish. Which raises the question of what would have happened if it had been otherwise. The glee with which Rowling took her outing would be different if The Cuckoo’s Calling had been a failure whose association with the Rowling brand would bring erosion of brand capital.
Only few artistes whose false identities have done well in the market place have been able to resist the pull to out. They deserve canonisation for resisting the vainglorious urge for recognition. Rene Brabazon Raymond (1906-1985) remained James Hardly Chase to all in my generation for whom he and his crime fiction novels achieved cult followership.  In Nigeria, one Afro jazz recording artiste maintains both the anonymity of the person and the name. Lagbaja—his brand is eponymous for his masked identity. Only his male gender seeps out of this anonymity. I am in vicarious distress for his achieving so much fame and not being able to even be waved on in traffic on that account.
Newspapers make a show of having columnists writing under pen names but whose identities are known either within a select, in-house group or among the readers. Those are the instances of pretend anonymities that baffle and sicken. Eating one’s cake and having it only exists in fiction and ostrich hiding is used in the pejorative sense.   
On the comments thread of online platforms, I have never felt the urge to hide my identity. That is not to say that while disclosing who I am, I do not still remain anonymous. Without the surname, anyone of a million Mikes could have been the one commenting. This partial disclosure is a halfway house that enables me maintain some integrity in nomenclature without fully unveiling the cloak of anonymity. Online discussions in fractious societies can be, and often do get, bigoted and highly vituperative. Comments are profiled using the names behind them to know who is Christian, Muslim, or to know their ethnic affiliations. While I scroll down the trolling for academic reasons, I try mostly not to join, not even with a pseudonym.

Mike Ekunno (real name!) comes from a background in real estate where he consulted before switching to writing, his first love. He now works in film classification after working as senior speechwriter to Nigeria’s last Information and Communications Minister. He freelances as copy editor and proof-reader and likes reading Old Testament stories in his spare time. His short fiction, essays and poems have been published in Warscapes, BRICKrhetoric, Cigale Literary Magazine, The African Roar Anthology, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, The Muse, Bullet Pen and Storymoja. The last two publications came with wins in continent-wide contests.