Foreword; Spring 2018

 


Trigger Warning:

This foreword contains references to violence and rape against women, as well as the restriction of rights of marginalized groups.


Welcome to Willow, and thank you for coming.

We’re excited to present our flagship issue, and feel it couldn’t have come sooner.  2017 was a year rocked by changes; some good, some horrible, and overtime, some numbing. In the United States, we saw the first major female presidential candidate defeated by an opponent who had less political experience and knowledge, but a much louder voice.  Trans-identifying people were barred from the military, and had their basic right to use the restroom brought under fire.  Women around the world, such as Ruth Alicia Lòpez Guisao in Colombia  and Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta lost their lives in the fight against corruption and for equality.  As the days added up, and all around us politicians used their platforms to build up the borders between their respective nations, to cast aspersions on other cultures, and to attack their weakest citizens, it sometimes seemed like there was little reason for hope, and even less to celebrate. The idea of facing the world, let alone creating, could become overwhelming all on its own.

But there were also beautiful moments, too, and important victories.  In Lebanon and Jordan, laws that allowed rapists to escape punishment if they married their victims were repealed. In Malawi, El Savador, Honduras, and Guatemala legislature was passed to close loopholes and mitigate the harmful practice of child marriage. The United States elected the first openly transgender state legislator, Danica Roem in Virginia. Helena, Montana elected a refugee from Liberia as their first black mayor, and Charlotte, North Carolina elected their first black, female mayor–victories that were hard won, and a long time in coming.  The #MeToo movement allowed victims of sexual assault and harassment from all genders to come forward with their stories, shaking up power-structures and exposing perpetrators , and forced the world to discuss these issues and redefine and discuss consent. These conversations were hard to have, and especially hard for the victims speaking up. But they were so necessary. And of course,  2017 kicked off with The Women’s March, uniting up to 5 million gender-equality activists worldwide in demonstration.

Things haven’t been great, no, but when we all came together, when we amplified our voices, when we took stands and supported each other,  great things happened. And they can continue to happen.

We are excited to become part of the tapestry of activists, creators, and artists that are determined to go out and make their voices heard, to keep making their art, and to keep fighting the fight. Because we believe art, even just the act of making it in a world that frequently ignores or even despises its artists, is in itself an act of activism. To create, to express oneself, and to allow others a glimpse of our own secret realities transforms the world into a brighter place, and brings people together. And frequently throughout history, it has been the artists who have served as watch dogs against the corruption of the elite and those in power, and helped define the morals of their societies. Each piece of art, every act of creation, is worthy of recognition, celebration, and hope. That is why we wanted to start Willow, and that is what we hope to bring our readers and contributors.

In this first issue we’ve gathered a wide arrangement of beautifully written pieces from female-identifying authors in a wide variety of genres and tones.  M.Stone’s poetry is gritty, hard-hitting and empowering. Pam Munter’s tale of a dream realized with excite the artist in all of us. And Anita Goveas will have you laughing out loud with her story “Sunflower Seeds and Supernatural Beings.” Because it’s important, when times feel hard, and days dark and heavy, to remember to laugh. To make each other laugh. And to share our art.

Thank you, readers. Thank you again, contributors.  With out you, we would be nothing.

Sincerely,

Couri Johnson

Head Editor of Willow

Three Poems by Devon Miller-Duggan

Gallimaufry: A History

 

…a jumble, a hodgepodge, from Old French galler (to make merry)

and Middle Dutch moffelen (to open one’s mouth wide)

 

7th grade (& 8th) the fave was gossamer—

Awkward, given that all I wrote were sermons

on Man’s Inhumanity to Man.

 

College thru 35: gather

gathering my hair into a bun,

gathering my long skirts,

tucking them into the waistband

to climb something rocky,

lifting them for boys I gathered in. Gathering

books, husband, daughters, house.

 

Skin and flesh then.

I’d started writing about angels

all the time. The world is made of wings. I swear.

 

Throckmorton (though it’s proper). Ditto Fotheringay.

Farthingale, namaste, kerfuffle, clusterfuck,

pumpkin, Munchkin, snog.

 

Muzzy learnt from Stevens. Gaudy from Sayers.

Fuck and shit, my mother (bless her tongue).

Useless, except I love to spit it out, Yoknapatawpha.

Faulkner visited my grandfather once.

Elevenses from Tolkein. Downeast from Bert&I.

Etherized from Eliot. Ken and keen (for lamentation, not wit)

from something Irish. Merkin from Snodgrass.

Transubstantiate from Lehrer.

 

Newly: thrawn for what is crooked, contrary,

misshapen, perverse. Got looking something else up.

 

Experience: gallimaufry.

Address: ball of tied-together scraps of yarn.

Skills: gallimaufry

Award: a muffler made of tied-together scraps of yarn.

 

 

Laments, Not Tragic

 

For years I sat at a potter’s wheel

and pushed my hands against clay

to raise some vessel’s sides and

never got a single metaphor from it.

All my poems wheel around against the hands

of my intentions. Not a single poem

ever held a cup of tea

or sat on a table full of rosy fruit.

 

Someone stole my yard gnomes,

leaving me to wonder why they hadn’t left

on their own—the gnomes, that is.

 

Right now, someone

across the whole coffee shop

writes a cure for entropy I’ll never learn enough to read.

Someone uses a computer to learn a third language

and I can barely remember my first.

Someone is dying for love and writing desperate bad poems.

Even the birds outside

know where to go.

 

Ten days from now my daughter will

walk down an aisle toward another woman’s son.

 

I read a Southwestern woman’s poems about rice—

every grain she cooks breaks open

into revelation, or reminds her of

the horse in her back yard

picturesquely cropping weeds

against the backdrop of mountains and clouds.

 

 

 

 

The Gull-Girl

 

After she sluffed her first skin,

although one wing had yet to feather fully,

thorns broke out of the spine under the new skin

as if feathers were razors for hacking wind.

 

As long as her new skin’s fledging

reflected the moon, the streetlights, the rising waves,

the tide fell and the gulls remembered their tongues,

the bay sifted the rubbished from the born.

 

Because the skin was hidden by the man

who bound her before the storm took the bay,

before the cinders fell away from the dunes,

before night,

even the gulls’ throats closed.

 

Then the gulls’ cries opened.

even as wind winged.

 

Say how she searched for the third skin among the broken things.

 

See if the fourth skin asked for the gulls.

 

Since he chained her near the fire, the storm

came for her, dumping its tears and feathers from its wind-borne arms.

Still, she wanted the fire and the wrack when

she lay herself down among the skins, the rust, the shards.

She remembered his hands.

 

Devon Miller-Duggan has published poems in Rattle, Shenandoah, Margie, Christianity and Literature, Gargoyle. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Delaware. Her books include Pinning the Bird to the Wall (Tres Chicas Books, 2008), Neither Prayer, Nor Bird (Finishing Line Press, 2013), Alphabet Year, (Wipf & Stock, 2017).

Three Poems by Kersten Christianson

Lemon Lavender Wings

 

Return

to that space

of heat, gravel

parking lot,

gas pumps

lined by travelers,

truckers,

that moment

your daughter

opens her palms

to you, reveals

the butterfly

within.

 

 

Nomad

 

A willing breeze

crumples paper

 

crisp birch leaves,

I cast my obstinance

 

to a blind summer

sun refusing to budge

 

from the high center

of the sky’s yurt.

 

Like this wind, I drift

between margins

 

of calm and agitation,

travel unfamiliar roads

 

of wavering foxtail,

Arctic cotton.

 

 

 

Second-Hand

 

Musty, like your

grandmother’s closet

long unopened.

 

Mirrored doors slide

and rattle, accelerate

to an open road

 

of polyester, wool,

leather and spandex;

immaterial, for the right

 

price.  Strappy sandals,

Chanel clutch, mink stole,

bejeweled Maple leaf brooch.

 

From estate sale

to consignment shop,

the shuffle of goods,

 

of paisley scarves,

knitted sweaters, silky

pantsuits cruise the free-

 

way between departure

and destination.  Pick

your poison; fill a bag.

 

Kersten Christianson is a raven-watching, moon-gazing Alaskan.  She holds an MFA in Creative Writing through the University of Alaska Anchorage and recently published her first collection of poetry Something Yet to Be Named (Aldrich Press, 2017).  Kersten co-edits the quarterly journal Alaska Women Speak.  She blogs at www.kerstenchristianson.com

The Unsatisfied By Ayşe Tekşen

Everybody’s asking

for something.

Some ask for soup,

some for a warm bed;

some want a child,

some your life,

and some your death.

You find yourself stuck

among those hands

reaching towards your throat,

ready and greedy

for tearing your skin apart.

When the time comes

to share your flesh and bones,

the conflict starts.

Who will get that right thigh?

Who will get the breasts?

Wonderful for smoked brisket

says the old lady;

the old gentleman

with the walking stick

manages to grab the upper arm

and yanks at it.

It is perfect for the grill he says.

But you’re never enough.

Everyone leaves with

what they could get,

unsatisfied with this

late night bargain.

Ayşe Tekşen lives in Ankara, Turkey where she works as a research assistant at the Department of Foreign Language Education, Middle East Technical University. Her short stories and poems have been included in Gravel, After the Pause, The Write Launch, Uut Poetry, The Fiction Pool, What Rough Beast, Scarlet Leaf Review, Seshat Literary Magazine, Neologism Poetry Journal, Anapest, and Red Weather. Her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Constellations, Jaffat El Aqlam, The Paragon Journal, and Ohio Edit. https://www.facebook.com/ayse.teksen1  twitter.com/AyseTeksen

The Grandfather I Never Met By Janet McCann

I finish William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience

as my grandfather did one hundred years ago.

The book was new, he had to cut the pages .

He must have hurried, some pages are ill-cut,

some carry a slash of the facing page.

 

It says April 1917 in his round hand.

My grandmother would have been pregnant

with my father, would have birthed him

when the leaves turned. As he read, he would have

called her in to read short passages

 

which he marked with one, two, or three checks

depending on importance. She was pretty

and vague, she would have nodded,

setting forth plates, thinking about the baby

inside her, worrying about money.

 

He would have read James every night until

he’d finished, underlining, writing comments:

Read this. True. This is very human.

He’d almost drowned in a swamp when he was ten,

I have the article. When he was fifty-one

 

he killed himself, using both gun and rope.

His father was an alcoholic butcher,

my father was an alcoholic chemist

and this man, in the middle, a nondrinking

Methodist, and the three failed one another.

 

In the wedding photo grandfather‘s young face

is beautiful,  gentled by innocence

and faith. My grandmother beside him

luminous too, the chaste pearls

beneath the lush corona of her hair.

 

I never met him but I knew her well;

she lived forty more years in poverty

and bitterness, dodging a child’s questions

as she uncoiled the golden braid each night

and set her pearls—she kept them!–on this book.

 

Journals publishing Janet McCann’s work include KANSAS QUARTERLY, PARNASSUS, NIMROD, SOU’WESTER, AMERICA,  CHRISTIAN CENTURY, CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE, NEW YORK QUARTERLY, TENDRIL, and others. A 1989 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship winner, she taught at Texas A & M University from 1969-2016, is now Professor Emerita. She has co-edited anthologies with David Craig, ODD ANGLES OF HEAVEN (Shaw, 1994), PLACE OF PASSAGE (Story Line, 2000), and POEMS OF FRANCIS AND CLARE (St. Anthony Messenger, 2004). Most recent poetry collection: THE CRONE AT THE CASINO (Lamar University Press,  2014).

Sunflower Seeds and Supernatural Beings By Anita Goveas

I first met the reaper when she came for my hamster.

I had my feet up on the sofa, can of Foster’s in hand, packet of sunflower seeds balanced on my chest, watching Dawn of the Dead. Every now and then I gave Raj a seed to nibble on, standing up in his cage, grabbing on with tiny paws. All the things that made Nirmala bite her lip and shake her head.

A zombie got his head rotored off in an aircraft hangar, and I jumped a bit and dropped the sunflower seed I was dangling on the floor. Nirmala would have laughed. I couldn’t see where it went and when I looked back up there was a six foot, eight-armed warrior goddess in my living room. Sword in one hand, spear in another, whole ensemble ringed in fire. I’d only had two cans of lager but it’d been a long day. I blinked at her as she paced about, until I smelt smoke.

“Can you turn that fire off? I think my curtains are burning.” It was my hallucination, so I should be able to order it about in my own home.

The goddess turned large copper eyes to me, as if she’d found a newly discovered species of large and vicious mosquito.

“BHAVIK MITRA, RELINQUISH YOUR RODENT!”

“Um, curtains? And shouting? You’ll wake up Mr Zelenski next door, and that makes him grumpy.”

“I HAVE A SACRED MISSION, YOU AND YOUR MINIONS CANNOT STOP ME !”

A sunflower seed hit her on the head. Almost hit her, it disintegrated into ash near her long, hooked nose. A cinder landed on my chest, burnt a tiny slash in my AC-DC t-shirt. I poked it with a fingernail and scratched my chest. The sting made me focus on the apparition standing by my flatscreen, screen paused on a reaching zombie. A six foot, armed warrior goddess was in my living room. I hadn’t been to temple in nine weeks.

“Goddess, I am unworthy!” I said as clearly as I could from my new position on the floor, with my face pressed into the grey dhurrie rug.

“Rise, baccha, I’m not here for you.” She sounded amused, and thankfully, restrained.

I tilted my head. Still standing, still armed, no longer on fire. I inched onto my knees. Another sunflower seed flew through the air, and hit her right on the bindi. I winced.

“Sorry, he’s a bit of a messy eater.”

I looked down at Raj, but the only thing visible was a pile of bedding.

“THE RODENT! RELINQUISH IT!”

“Relax, goddess. It’s just a little hamster, he can’t hurt you.” I figured something along the lines of ‘elephants being scared of mice’ was happening. A curved scimitar rattled the cage.

“You are harbouring Indrajit, a mighty demon warrior, adept in the magical arts. It is my quest to pursue him through the ages. He must not remain in the realm of men to wreak havoc.”

The scimitar started to prod the straw. I spotted the end of a twitching whisker, and threw myself back down on the rug.

“Wait, goddess, please. There’s been a mistake. It’s my son’s hamster. It’s harmless.”

“No error, I must retrieve Bhavik Mitra’s rodent. You must yield.”

The blade flashed at the side of my face. I pushed it away, and sat cross-legged in front of the cowering hamster. The scimitar nudged at the tear in my t-shirt. Two cans of lager impacted on my shrinking bladder but I forced myself to stay still.

“You risk the wrath of your goddess? Durga, the slayer of demons? Explain!”

I rubbed at my throat to make it behave, and stop choking me. “It is my son’s. He’s Little Vik, I’m Big Vik. See, a bit of confusion.” The scimitar stayed near enough to be threatening but stopped nudging my ribs. “Please, Durga, it’s the only thing I ever brought him that he liked.”

Durga tapped at the photo-frames on the wall with an unweaponized hand.

“This is a representation of your offspring, with the curly hair? Where is he?”

That was the question, wasn’t it? The reason for the lager, the zombie movies, the sunflower seeds instead of dinner.

“Um, his mum’s taken him back to Kolkata to see her family. Just for the school holidays.”

Durga brought Little Vik’s Year One photo closer to her face. The one where he’s not not wearing his shirt because he’s given it away. He’s like that, going up to people if they look happy or sad, giving them something. Except Raj.

“What is the reason for his flattened nose? Did you drop him?”

I started to think she should have the hamster. But she turned the picture to me, and I could never resist Little Vik’s gap-toothed smile.

“He has Down Syndrome. They don’t have that on Mount Kailash, right?”

“Who can say? Vishnu has many avatars, many facets. All that matters is the heart.” She put the picture down and moved on to the one of Little Vik in his Kermit apron, with Nirmala waving a wooden spoon. She nodded approvingly. “He looks strong. Good teeth. And she has heart.”

Nirmala loved dancing to Beyonce in the kitchen, singing into her spoon before passing it to Little Vik. Of course she has heart. I’m the one whose son hides in the kitchen instead of watching the cricket. The goddess picked up the largest picture, Little Vik in most of a lion costume at his first school concert. The one I missed to go to the Men’s Final at Wimbledon. I considered how to say that in a way that wouldn’t turn me into shish kebab. Luckily, a sunflower seed bounced off her right

earlobe.

“Indrajit! Reveal your true self! We must fight like warriors.”

Another weapon appeared, a kukri. She was relentless. Even in Mitcham, someone was going to notice something. Eventually.

Little Vik’s drawing seemed to glow on the wall. A crayoned blob of golden fur with six carefully placed whiskers and two black googly eyes, surrounded by red hearts and orange stars.

“I will fight you.” I stood up as straight as I could, back muscles creaking, and clenched my fists. “But we do it my way.”

Four pointy objects swung through the air, missing the lampshade by inches. “Does Shiva know you’re here, in the realm of men?” The goddess didn’t answer, but my furniture was no longer at risk of decapitation. “Durga, can you play karrom?”

She insisted on having first strike but I won the first game. Then the goddess remembered she could have as many hands as she wanted, and they didn’t have to be gripping something threatening. She cracked her knuckles as she hitched up her red and gold sari and leant over the board, golden headress sliding to one side. She smelt like burning tarmac.

“Your fingernails are very dirty, and your hair is retreating from your forehead.”

I lined up my next turn, and ignored the goddess version of trash talk. I sunk a black piece but missed the next one. Durga narrowed her eyes.

“What aren’t you in any of these representations, Big Bhavik Mitra? Are you ashamed?”

This was a combat strategy, I knew it, but I’d had this argument so many times with Nirmala, the answer was automatic.

“We don’t like the same things. He’s a mummy’s boy. Just likes to cook and sing. I want him to be tougher, live in the real world.”

Durga’s next shot sent one of her white pieces into a pocket, and the striker dangerously close to my crotch. I was discussing gender politics with a personification of female empowerment. I played my next move with my legs crossed and overshot.

The goddess lined up for the red queen, the move that could decide the game. As she flicked her finger, a spark accompanied the piece’s journey to the opposite side of the board. It hit the pocket and burst into flame at the same moment. Durga’s victory celebration knocked the side table over.

“THE RODENT IS MINE!”

I thought about suggesting another game, but karrom was out, and I didn’t think the small hold I had over Durga would extend to her playing ‘Happy Families’. She picked up the hamster cage and waved a hand. A shimmering green oval appeared in front of my flatscreen. Raj’s head popped up, and he twitched his nose. I knew the chances of Nirmala returning were disappearing with his fat little

cheeks.

“You played well for a mortal. Wash under your nails, put coconut oil on your hair, and apologise to your wife.”

“I want to, goddess, but no-one in Kolkata will tell me where she is.”

Durga brandished a spear in what I took to be a farewell, but could have meant ‘don’t try that blackmail stuff again.’ There was no evidence that she had been here, apart from the singed board and the missing queen. Who would believe I didn’t do those things myself? She turned her back on me, a vision in red and gold, and stepped forward.

And remained in my living room.

She stepped forward again. No change. My ordinary room, with its pale blue walls and pale grey rug, still contained one magical portal and one angry warrior goddess.

“WHAT IS THIS SORCERY!”

Durga’s shoulders were tightening shoulders. She’d smiled at Little Vik’s picture and attemped to fix my marriage,

“I can probably open that if you want. I’m a locksmith. Most doors, you just find the sweet spot. It’s a knack.”

I felt around the edge of the oval, then kicked it at the bottom. Raj twitched his nose again. The portal changed from green to purple, my leg was suddenly somewhere very warm. I think something licked it. Durga pulled me back before I overheated.

The copper eyes searched my face, from my increasingly smooth head to my increasingly sweaty chin.

“I am retrieving your offspring’s hamster. You will never see it again.” She tilted my chin up with a beringed hand. “Yet you have aided me.” A javelin tapped me on the chest. “Heart”, she murmured. She faced the rippling portal.

“Indrajit owes you a boon. He could locate your wife.”

Abruptly my arms were full of hamster cage and my house was minus a goddess. A sunflower seed hit me on the chin. I looked down. I might have imagined Raj twitching his nose. The flat seemed small and empty, and the can of Foster’s was flat and warm. I flopped back on the sofa, face to cage with a mighty warrior, with short legs and stubby ears.

“Right then, master of the magical arts. What about this favour?” Raj blinked. I shook my head at my foolishness. I’d caused my problems, I needed to grow up and fix them. No more stories or excuses.

Then the phone rang.

Anita Goveas is British-Asian, based in London, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi.. Her stories are published and forthcoming in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, the Word Factory website, Dodging the Rain, Rigorous,  Pocket Change, Haverthorn journal and Riggwelter. She tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer

Romancing New York By Pam Munter

It was nearly freezing that October night, but I didn’t feel the chill at as I emerged from the subterranean cabaret club known as Danny’s on W. 46th Street in midtown Manhattan. It was close to midnight and I had just finished a performance of my first New York show, “My Life as Frank Sinatra,” in which I described an affinity for the singer’s complicated personality, from his prodigious talent to his occasional startling thuggery. With the help of a jazz trio, I had woven a musical tapestry around Sinatra’s failures and struggles. The patter was balanced by some of my favorite tunes among the more than 1500 he recorded in his lengthy career. My encore was “Young at Heart,” a reflection of how I felt even though I just passed 50. I wore a custom-made tux for the occasion with a silky white top, which seemed very Sinatraesque to me.

Cabaret is a very personal genre, with roots in 1930s Germany – just the performer and the musicians on stage, the theme and music infused with the his or her unique personality. The performers write their conversation with the audience, called patter, which is delivered directly to them. There is no “fourth wall,” as there is in the theater. The venues are nearly always intimate, seating fewer than 150 at tables around the stage.

The show that night had gone very well by my lofty standards, and the audience seemed to agree. I was surrounded by people who talked about the songs and the stories, having enjoyed it all. Reluctantly leaving the well-wishers, I walked through the restaurant to the entrance, meeting approving smiles as I passed.  I hit the sidewalk, made my way through the ever-present throng of pedestrians, turned right and headed toward those famous bright lights of Broadway to return to the silence of my rented apartment.

As I paused in the glare of the lights, I looked to my right and saw a bookstore I knew was carrying my autobiography, though it had been published more than a decade earlier. A few blocks away was a record store I knew was selling my Sinatra CD. Both of these marketing triumphs were due to the talents and perseverance of my own strong-armed Sinatra, my New York press agent.  I stood for a moment, savoring the success. “If I can make it there…” I hummed to myself. I knew it was just an emotional snapshot in the moment. And yet I couldn’t help but smile as I caught a layered glimpse of all the years of yearning and preparation that led to these tachistoscopic images. It had been a long, often interrupted journey.

 

What is it about New York? When I want to be emotionally transported, I walk those streets in Manhattan, if only in my mind. There’s something ephemeral about that place that seeped into my pores long before I got there.

In my third grade art class I drew skyscrapers I had yet to see in person. The first book I bought with babysitting money was a book of New York City photographs – tall buildings and busy streets, cluttered with taxis and rushing people in every direction.

My first real visit didn’t come until I was 17, a stopover on a car trip across country with my family. I had a list of places I wanted to see but mostly I wanted to drink in the city. High on the list was seeing a Broadway musical. Carol Burnett had opened in “Fade Out, Fade In,” and had a delicious insider show biz theme. A few days before we arrived, though, Burnett had tripped on a curb or something and injured herself. Someone else would be playing her part. My parents weren’t the least bit interested in spending all that money to see a show, especially one featuring an unknown understudy. We didn’t go.

Instead, I insisted we go to Greenwich Village because I wanted to locate the bookstore where Fred Astaire as Dick Avery first met Audrey Hepburn as Jo Stockton in “Funny Face.” It was a grimy little place with stairs that descended below street level.  As one raised in Southern California, the idea of having to go downstairs to buy books was catnip to me. I knew it was highly likely that the scenes had been filmed on the Paramount lot but something like it had to exist there or somewhere. I saw shops that resembled that unique urban structure, but I was disappointed to have missed the real thing.

In 1964, I took a job as a copy kid for the Christian Science Monitor in Boston but didn’t stay very long. While I was fortunate to have been given opportunities to write, the religious quid pro quo was intolerable to my 21-year-old idealistic certainty. Before returning to Los Angeles and a new job search, I took a Greyhound to New York and spent a week exploring the city.  I had also set up an interview with the editor of Newsweek, who was a friend of the arts editor on the Monitor. I was trying to find a reason to stay in New York. I used the money I had saved on my $54 a week salary and stayed at a Sheraton in a teeny little room overlooking Roseland, the famed dance hall whose lights kept the room aglow all night.

My first Broadway show was “Hello, Dolly.” It was Carol Channing’s first year in the long-running musical. The show had been sold out since its opening but I got the last seat in the house that night, in the corner in the last row of the balcony. The heightened emotion I felt as I watched the breathtaking perfection onstage was unlike any I could remember. The full sound of the orchestra reverberated into my soul. All those people coming together to create musical perfection fired every nerve ending in my body. When the overture began, I wept. The finale just laid me out. If I had been asked, I’m not sure I could have identified all the emotions I was feeling that night. I just knew something wonderful had just happened. Something similar happened when I saw “Funny Girl” with Barbra Streisand the next night, and again with each subsequent musical production. Whenever I left the theater, I felt cradled by the vivid lights of the city. I almost felt I was in a production myself as I walked around the city at night.

It was Thanksgiving time so I treated myself to dinner at Jack Dempsey’s restaurant. It was my first holiday away from my family, a bittersweet rite of passage. I guess I looked a little lost sitting in the big banquette by myself because Jack, himself, came over for an introduction and joined me for a few minutes.

“Hi. I’m Jack Dempsey.”

“How do you do. Yeah, I recognized you.”

“You’re too young to have seen me fight.”

“True. But I’ve seen you on TV.”

“You here by yourself?” Uh oh. Is he going to hit on me? He’s old enough to be my father, at least.

“Yeah,” I said as I averted my eyes.

“Well, you take care of yourself, Miss. New York isn’t a safe place for young girls like yourself. Now you enjoy your dinner.”

“Thanks, Mr. Dempsey.”

When I returned to the hotel, I got into the elevator with a man who looked to be in his 40s. He started up a friendly and casual conversation. He asked if I were a tourist and I told him I was there for a job interview with Newsweek, which was true. He asked if I’d like to join him for a drink.

“No, thank you,” I said, politely with a touch of anxiety in my voice.

There was a pause. “You’re not interested in me or you’re not interested in men? Because I can introduce you to a female editor, if you’d like.”

“Not interested at all, thank you.”

I could feel my face turn red. Feeling trapped, I decided to get off at another floor so he wouldn’t know where my room was. The minute the elevator stopped, I bolted, still feeling in jeopardy. But this was part of the urban experience, too, I told myself. These things happen in the big city

When I’d awaken in the morning, I’d head out on to the street. I could see the history of the city unfolding before me. Just passing by a Broadway theater produced a kaleidoscope of manufactured memories. I knew where Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor had performed and the names of their eleven o’clock numbers.  My trivia-filled brain could easily imagine how it must have been on their opening nights in the 1920s. I knew where vaudeville gasped its last breath, where the Ziegfeld Follies lived and died.

 

Several decades passed as they do if you’re lucky.

It had started in Portland at a performance in the aptly-named Old Church.

After retiring from being a shrink, I gave myself permission to pursue the elusive dream I had harbored for so long. I wrote a one-woman show, that tribute to Sinatra, and found my way around the logistics and the fear to mount the show. I had it taped with an enthusiastic audience so I could market it for possible bookings outside Portland. Within two weeks of sending out the tapes, I had a couple of bites. The first came from San Francisco. Piaf’s had been the premier cabaret venue there for many years and I didn’t think I stood a chance but owner Dan Kryston called and made me an offer and I accepted it. I would be there for a two-week stint.

If I thought I was nervous about performing in front of the hometown crowd, I was apoplectic about standing in front of a sophisticated urban audience. Dan found me housing just down the street in a charming bed-and-breakfast. I rehearsed during the day with a taped instrumental version of my show. As the opening approached, I did some television and radio interviews and the ads promoting the show were everywhere. I was being treated like some visiting celebrity diva, an honor I had not really earned. As a shrink I had appeared often on TV and on the radio but this time, I was there to discuss myself and the show. That made me even more nervous.

Opening night, I walked across the street, entered Piaf’s through the smoky, crowded kitchen, and made my way upstairs to the office which also served as a “dressing room.” If I needed to use a bathroom, I had to come back down the steep stairs and use the only one available, in the dining room.

Before my show, Piaf’s had a French chanteuse who played the piano and sang Edith Piaf’s songs. As I stood on the second floor and listened to her wavering soprano of uncertain pitch, there was a substantial part that was standing outside myself, appreciating that a little girl’s dreams were apparently coming true, that I was living the life I had always wanted and had created for myself. I shook my head, pondering the power of chutzpah.

Dan delivered his flattering introduction, the piano intro started and I eased myself down those stairs without falling, a major feat, I thought. The show went well, the crowd receptive. Because the club was adjacent to the Castro district, it was largely a gay audience. They appreciated some of my scurrilous asides about Sinatra and savored some of the less familiar stories I told about him. They hooted and laughed when I described Sinatra’s ex Ava Gardner’s response to the news he had married Mia Farrow. “I always knew he’d end up in bed with a boy.”

The next morning, I walked into breakfast at the B&B and the dozen or so diners already there began to applaud. They had seen the show the night before. All during breakfast, I fielded wonderfully warm comments over scrambled eggs. Two couples said they were returning that night to see it again. It was the first and likely the last time I would ever be applauded before breakfast.

Feeling buoyed by my success in San Francisco, I went home to prepare myself for my New York debut. A second offer had come from Danny’s, the famed restaurant and cabaret on W. 46th Street – for three consecutive Friday nights, prime time.

Performing in New York was the top of the heap. The standards I set for myself there escalated beyond reason. I needed to be better than I had ever been before.

After much research and consulting with friends, I found a super jazz trio, a publicist and an apartment, since I would be in New York for a full month this first time. That was a large part of the excitement for me, living as a New Yorker.

During my first visit to Danny’s, I discovered that the little club was situated downstairs, much like the elusive bookstore in “Funny Face” I had sought more than three decades earlier. Every time I entered the building, I felt an electric connection to the fantasies of my youth.

And I found I relished rehearsing, especially in the empty club. There was a pure sense of immersion in the music and the freedom to bathe in the emotions of the lyrics. Without the distraction of the audience – but with all the other musical elements in place – I was able to be completely present. We could tweak the arrangement and the timing, of course, but there was no judgment, even from within. Some of the biggest peak experiences came during those times, rather than in performance.

Even in the midst of rehearsals, I knew I wanted to keep the learning process going. I found a voice teacher, Andy Anselmo. I wasn’t sure he would accept me as a student, since his many legendary students included Liza Minnelli, Rosemary Clooney and Tony Bennett. He and his partner had founded the Singers Forum and were taking all comers. Well, most of them, anyway.

The audition with Andy was terrifying. He asked me to sing while he accompanied me. I handed him the lead sheet for a ballad, “More Than You Know.” Beautiful lyric, dramatic situation, plenty of affective grist. No major key modulations, all easily within my range. I even did the verse, which is seldom sung.  When we finished, he smiled at me.

“Where have you studied?”

“I had a vocal coach in Portland for a few months.”

He studied me for a long time. I didn’t know how to read him. Was he trying to find a nice way to dismiss me? I started to steel myself.

“It’s too bad you weren’t born and raised here. You could really have been something extraordinary.”

I wasn’t sure whether to thank him or cry. “Could have been?” Was it too late? Probably. I had to come to terms with my age and my limited musical development.  But I knew with Andy I could maximize what I was now. With the opening at Danny’s coming up, I scheduled lessons twice a week and practiced every day in a rehearsal hall I rented by the hour. There was hardly a time day or night I wasn’t preparing on some level. With Andy’s consistent support and encouragement, some of the anxiety was turning to eagerness.

Shortly after beginning rehearsals, an acquaintance casually asked if I would be interested in meeting one of the genre’s legendary singers for “moral support.” Would a dauber want to meet Renoir? The deal was the star would listen to me sing and give me performance advice. I could choose between Julie Wilson, the long-established and revered Queen of Cabaret, and Margaret Whiting, who enjoyed a lengthy career as a recording artist, television performer and nightclub singer. Since I had fond memories of hearing Margaret’s records and loved her brief foray into TV situation comedy with her sister in the late 1950s, I made arrangements to meet her at her apartment on Central Park South.

The plan was that she would have her accompanist there and I would choose some of the songs from my new Sinatra show. It happened that there were two tunes with which she could easily relate, one written by her famous father, Richard Whiting – “Hooray for Hollywood” – and the other by her lifelong friend, Johnny Mercer – “I Thought About You.” I would be in the house of legends.

So distracted and frazzled was I about the meeting that I had to return to the apartment after leaving to collect my forgotten lead sheets. When I arrived, I stood in front of her door and took a slow, deep breath. She opened it after my first knock and let out an anxious-looking man, apparently her vocal coach. I had been warned that she had had several strokes and was nearly blind. I was hoping she wouldn’t notice my shaking as she led me into the living room. Tex Arnold, her longtime accompanist, was already there, sitting at the white piano upon which her father had written many of his hit songs – including the one I was about to sing for her. As I looked around and saw the view of Central Park from her window, I heard her say, “Please sit for a minute, dear.” This wasn’t easy to do. The room was cluttered with books, music, curios and piles of papers.  I made my way to the sofa and perched on the edge, carefully avoiding a pile of sheet music on the next cushion. There was way too much overstuffed furniture in the room and I wondered if the rest of the apartment looked like this. I had expected more glamour, more Architectural Digest.

She spoke briefly to Tex then turned to me and said, “Stand over here, dear, where I can hear you.” This was in vivo, no microphone in sight, no way to cover any vocal irregularities with reverb. Could this really be happening? How was I to maintain myself under control? As a kid singing in my room, I hadn’t considered the inevitable nervousness; I just longed for the opportunity to do it, to perform in a setting like I had seen in the movies. This meeting seemed an exhilarating move in the right direction. Now all I had to do was step into my own childhood tableau.

For the show, I had opted to do “Hooray for Hollywood” as a melancholy ballad, which fit my narrative. As I counted off the tempo for Tex and started to sing, I tried to breathe normally but my mouth filled with cardboard and my voice sounded as if it were coming from a distant borough. At least, I remembered all the words. She was surprised at the tempo; I watched as she nodded at the change of pace.

When I had finished, she gently advised, “You should sing out more.”

I took a beat and told her, “I don’t know when I’ve ever been so intimidated. I’m just glad something came out of my mouth.” Both of them laughed and reassured me that they had enjoyed my rendition, quiet as it was. They each made some interpretive suggestions, which I appreciated.

She asked me to sing another, so I did “I Thought About You.” I could feel Margaret’s gimlet eyes on me as I stood less than four feet from where she was sitting.

When I finished, she said, “That’s very good, dear, but I think you sang the wrong lyric there.” Oh, no. I was panicked. I was habitually scrupulous about accuracy and this was not the time to screw up. She continued, “It should be, ‘I took a trip on a train…’” I felt my heart rate speed up even faster, remembering her very close relationship with Johnny Mercer, the lyricist. Still, I timidly countered, “Mmm.  I thought I read it as, ‘I took a trip on the train….’” I saw my fortunes flash before my eyes. She could not only brand me as an amateur, but might also upbraid me for my cheeky response. She scrunched up her face. “Just a minute,” she muttered as she scurried into the other room. Out she came, waving Mercer’s original manuscript. “Oh, my God.  I’ve been singing it wrong all these years. You are absolutely right.” Tex moved over to inspect the lyric sheet and slowly nodded while I took a deep, reviving breath. They both seemed more than a bit stunned, forgetting for a moment I was there. After what seemed like a long pause, they looked up and absent-mindedly wished me well on my New York run. I thanked them and left, feeling galvanized by having had such an invaluable opportunity to learn from the masters. And, not incidentally, to teach Margaret Whiting something she didn’t know about Johnny Mercer’s 1939 lyric.

During that first Danny’s run, I was booked on many local radio and TV programs. One was an all-night talk show. I was only supposed to do a five-minute promo with the host but we had a similar sense of humor and hit it off.  I was there until nearly dawn, almost four hours. When I left the studio to walk back to my apartment, I was surprised to find there were people out there and taxis patrolling for fares. But at that hour the streets had a quality I hadn’t experienced before. I could almost hear the sounds of Gershwin’s blues progressions in my head as I made my way wearily home watching the sun start to rise. The shadows seemed to contain a minor-key melancholy, adding another layer of emotional richness. It was a moment of personal confluence that had little to do with ego, a catalysis of the most salient fantasy of my life: to live as a creative person.

 

A few weeks later, I walked out on the stage, looked into the audience and saw a glamorous, incandescent person I recognized to be Julie Wilson, sitting nearly at my feet. I was momentarily thrown as I hadn’t expected this royal visitation. I could hear her leading the applause after every song, laughing at my jokes. She came up after the show and said, “I loved your show. You have a wonderful way with a lyric. You know what you’re singing about.” I felt as if I had been knighted by The Queen. It was much more than I had ever expected, but then, to my surprise, she showed up at nearly every performance I gave in New York.

I saw a lot of Julie over the succeeding years. Not only did we attend each other’s performances, but would often dine together. When she performed in Palm Springs, she came to my house to rehearse. She was both interesting and interested and we frequently shared laughter over some mutual foible. In our conversations, she never offered suggestions for improvement, no criticism of my musical choices. She gave me unconditional regard in every sense and her enthusiasm helped me develop confidence in my abilities, which were still under development. She often commented on an interpretation: “When you sang about lost love, I really believed you were there. It made me sad. You got under the lyric.”  Treating me as her equal, she would kiddingly refer to my “taking over the stage” when I began my shows. That self-confident demeanor was fueled by her admiration.

I came to appreciate her most when I was at the bottom a few years later. After much reflection and many shows, I had decided to stop performing. Trying to keep up residences and relationships on two coasts was becoming too burdensome. More to the point, I didn’t feel as if I was measuring up to my own standards and expectations. As Oscar Hammerstein wrote in “Oklahoma,” I’d “gone about as ‘fer’ as I could go.”

It was excruciating to slam up against my own limitations after all these years, but I sensed this wouldn’t get any better for me. I was good – but not good enough. Other people’s opinions never mattered as much as my own. I never ran my life by consensus, especially when it came to things that mattered as much as this did. It’s a good thing that others’ reactions were in second chair because when I informed my musical director (who went on to work with major stars on Broadway) that I was stopping, he responded completely without irony, “Oh, sorry to hear that. Guess I can white-out your name from my address book.” Easy for him.

When the phone rang that evening and it was Julie, I was immediately struck by the unique conversation we were having, being cajoled to continue performing by this towering talent with the croaky voice. First thing out of her mouth was a loud, “You’re not really stopping, are you? No, no, no.” But she was empathic and nurturing and, having been in the business well over 50 years by then, she knew the stakes here. “Everybody has a bad show. I had some terrible shows through the years. You can’t let it get to you.” I tried to explain that it wasn’t just one show or a momentary disappointment. It was just time to stop. “Well, you shouldn’t stop. You are so good. Give it time.” I was very touched that this mattered to her and almost felt guilty for not capitulating.

I don’t think she ever really understood my decision. Like most lifelong performers of a certain age, this was all she knew how to do, the only way she knew how to be. Even when she could no longer do it herself, she wanted to be a member of the audience any time someone was on stage. Everyone loved her and everyone felt they knew her. She was the least pretentious legend I had ever met.

Not every aspiring performer has the opportunity to be mentored by the best in the business or to get the performing opportunities I had. By the time the musical career was done, I had performed in many US cities and recorded two CDs, the last at Capitol Records. Even so, the career and the city will remain forever linked for me. That so many of the ups and downs of this improbable career happened in the city of my childhood dreams underscores the emotional resonance of the experiences.

I’m convinced it could only have happened in New York.

 

 

Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram (Nicholas Lawrence Press, 2005) and Almost Famous: In and Out of Show Biz (Westgate Press, 1986). She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Her many lengthy retrospectives on the lives of often-forgotten Hollywood performers and others have appeared in Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age. More recently, her essays and short stories have been published in The Rumpus, Matador Review, The Manifest-Station, Litro, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Canyon Voices, Open Thought Vortex, Fourth and Sycamore, Nixes Mate, Scarlet Leaf Review, Cold Creek Review, Communicators League, Switchback, The Legendary, Scarlet Leaf, Down in the Dirt and others. Her play Life Without was a semi-finalist in the Ebell of Los Angeles Playwriting Competition and has been nominated for the Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Original Writing, along with a nomination for Best Play (staged reading). She has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California at Riverside/Palm Desert. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. The website: www.pammunter.com.

Two Poems By M. Stone

Woman with Mirror

Remember the Bible lessons

of your youth, the thrill in your bones

when you first heard them speak of me:

Mother of Harlots,

Whore of Babylon.

 

Even as locusts strip the land

and your skin sports boils

from some new plague,

 

you will not beg

for the final trumpet’s sound

until you glimpse me.

 

You expect a seductress

adorned in scarlet, perched

upon the Great Beast

 

but I am a plain-faced woman

with Mystery etched into my forehead;

I hide among all the plain-faced women

you fear and despise.

 

Between my palms I carry a cup

filled with my own iniquity,

for I revel in my lovers

and the pleasure they give.

 

Look upon the dregs of my ecstasy

and find your likeness there.

 


 

When the Poetry Abandons You

Poetry spills

from your quicksilver tongue,

carried on a Southern drawl,

reminding me of sun tea

 

brewing on the porch step,

of peonies coaxed to blooming

before they swoon, heavy-headed.

 

The other women envy me,

but they do not know I have seen you

with cock in hand, demanding

to take me from behind.

 

When I refuse, when my voice

is a tiger mosquito whine pleading

for tenderness,

 

your mouth is no spring house,

no artesian well, but a cistern

brimming with foul water.

 

As you pleasure yourself,

cursing me through gritted teeth,

your hips falter, losing their rhythm.

 

M. Stone is a bookworm, birdwatcher, and stargazer who writes poetry while living in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in San Pedro River Review, SOFTBLOWCalamus Journal, and numerous other print and online journals. She can be reached at writermstone.wordpress.com.

How to Grieve Your First Loss at Almost 13 by Jordan McNeil

 

I. Shock [shok]: (noun) 1. a sudden or violent disturbance of the mind, emotions, or sensibilities; 2. the cause of such a disturbance

 

Your father’s car drives up the parking lot at the after-school pickup line; Daddy never picks you up. It’s always Mom, she does all the running around even when she’s running on empty, even when she’s spent all day at work and the nursing home with Nana, even when she has to drive your big sister to campus. You open the car door and it’s heavy cement, your bookbag suddenly weighed down by  lead you don’t remember putting in there. Where’s Mom? The car is cold. At home. His eyes stay straight ahead never wavering never shifting. You ask the question you ask Mom after school every day. How’s Nana today? His eyes meet yours.

 

II. Denial [dih-nahyuh l]: (noun) 1. disbelief in the existence or reality of a thing

 

Maybe you heard him wrong though you don’t dare repeat the question for what if you heard him right? The emotional response is immediate: the deafening drums in the head, the salty sea in the eyes, the aching anvil in the chest. No. No this is wrong. No no no no no. You hold it in lungs ablaze; a choking sob. No. Daddy turns. You’re allowed to cry.

 

III. Anger [ang-ger]: (noun) 1. a strong feeling of displeasure and belligerence aroused by a wrong; 2. Obsolete. grief; trouble

 

Your brother knew her for twenty-three years; your sister for eighteen; you only twelve. It would be thirteen next week. Would’ve been. All your friends have known their grandparents all their lives, some even their great-grands, but you never knew Pop and definitely not any great-grands and none of the kids knew Daddy’s daddy and Daddy’s mom left the state when you were tiny so you barely even know her. How utterly unfair it is. That you were born last, that you were born late, that you are the youngest by years and years too many years too late.

 

IV. Guilt [gilt]: (noun) 1. a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined

 

Did I tell her I loved her enough? Did she know I really meant it? I should’ve helped out more around the house, with the animals, with the chores. You beat your face into your pillow every night, every missed chance every missed opportunity spinning around ‘round ‘round, awake because you have to be. Awake because the thoughts build a wall a moat a fortress to keep sleep at bay. You think you have all the time in the world to do the things you want, say the things you should, until the world shows up big and huffing and smug to push you to the ground and teach you.

 

V. Depression [dih-preshuh n]: (noun) 1. the state of being depressed; 2. sadness; gloom; dejection; 3. Pathology. a low state of vital powers or functional activity

 

It’s three weeks exactly since Daddy picked you up. Blankets are heavier than they look. So are legs and arms and eyelids and shoulders. Getting out of bed now is a feat that superman can’t accomplish, your bones are laced with kryptonite. Heavy heavy head, heavy heavy heart. Relish in the darkness only to be assaulted with bright yellow light. You’re going to miss the bus. You respond face encased in pillow. I don’t feel good. Mom huffs, lifts the heavy blanket like it’s a feather, a kite, lighter than air. You’ve already missed too many days. Up. Now. Still still, muscles slowly wavering synapses slowly firing. It’s three weeks exactly since Daddy picked you up.

 

VI. Acceptance [ak-sep-tuh ns]: (noun) 1. the act of assenting or believing

 

Her house is empty. It has been for a couple months or so now, you’ve finally started to lose track, but it’s the first time you’ve been in since…since everything. It’s a ghost town except you don’t want to use the word ghost, it feels wrong, blasphemous towards Nana, though you can’t explain why you feel that way. You just do. So it’s just…empty, empty will do. It’s been a couple months—you pause. One month? Two, four, a year? Five? The fast-paced flow of time is no longer marked by Daddy picking you up at after-school. That was your past; this is your new now. She’s gone. Nana died.

 

VII. Hope [hohp]: (verb) 1. to look forward to with desire and reasonable confidence; see also: hopeful (adjective)

 

It’s cold now, the start of the northeastern winter, but the sun shines warmth onto you at the bus stop. It’s the meagerest of hugs, the light, but you embrace it back,   wrapping your arms all the way around until you reach yourself again. A tight squeeze to hold onto summer, onto fall just a little longer. Hang on just a little longer. Holidays are coming up, galloping so fast you can see them just at the crest of the hill down the road, all bundled in cheer and goodwill and family. Your house hasn’t decked the halls yet, but it will soon you know it. A cold breeze ruffles your coat whispering reminders in your ear: It won’t be the same, not like before, not like the past, different. You know that too. Squeeze the sunbeam again. She won’t be walking up the road, stubborn to her old bones that the two-minute walk is nothing to fret over she’s strong and besides exercise is good for you didn’t you hear?, to celebrate brunch at your house and unwrap poorly wrapped boxes full of cheap trinkets that you had to get for her. She won’t be there to accept each gaudy gift as though you presented her with the crown jewels, won’t be there to give you more than you feel you deserve, won’t be there to provide the light-hearted family ribbing, won’t be there. It won’t be the same, not like before, not like the past, different. The sunbeam warms your face with a gentle caress, a kiss on the cheek, a whisper in your heart. But it doesn’t have to be bad. You know that too.

 

Jordan McNeil writes, rages at videogames, and takes selfies with goats. Her work can be found in Jenny Magazine, Penguin Review, The Jambar, and Rubbertop Review. She can be found on Twitter, @Je_McNeil.’

American Dreams By Yong Takahashi

I have been married to Joanna Richards for three years, eleven months, and twenty-eight days. To people outside of the Happy China Restaurant, this may sound like we’re getting ready to celebrate our fourth anniversary. For the workers in this hell hole, they know it’s another mark on my prison wall.

My former boss, Lisa Liu arranged the marriage. She brought me over from Shanghai eight years ago. In exchange for working in her kitchen, she promised to provide a place for me to sleep in her basement, a small wage, and a Green Card.

I have been sending money to my wife, what Americans call a common-law wife. I gave her an American name, Betty. I wanted her to get used to it before she came here. Even after I marry her, it may be years before she can move to America. I hope our son gives her comfort until then.

Betty says she understands my situation but what woman believes that nothing is going on between Joanna and me? If she only knew what Joanna looks like, she would know for sure. Joanna is at least one hundred pounds heavier than I am. She wears a drab, gray uniform to work. It reminds me of the guards who used to beat me up while I was in the worker’s camp back home. I can’t speak to her until she changes out of her clothes.

Joanna didn’t marry me out of the goodness of her heart. Lisa gave her five thousand dollars and let her live rent-free in her house. All this was added to my debt to Lisa.

The only man at the restaurant other than the Mexican bus boys is Lisa’s son, Andy. Joanna bragged that they had sex once. It isn’t a compliment for either one of them. In my opinion, Andy isn’t sure if he wants to be a man or a woman. On Sunday mornings, he runs around the house with mud on his face. He says it’s for his skin. He shaves himself from face to toes. And the lotion. He is always slopping on some expensive cream.

“You can’t be lubricated enough, Benny,” he informs me, as he enters his room papered with boy band posters.

Lisa normally laughed at him and then ordered us to work outside on her landscaping. I met Lisa through my cousin, Ken Lee. He and Lisa’s ex-husband, Johnny, used to play poker together. Lisa asked Kenny to find a cook for her because Johnny’s gambling addiction increasingly became worse and he was often missing from the restaurant for days at a time.

The big card game down in Jonesboro got broken up by somebody’s angry wife about six months ago. Johnny lost a huge hand; some say over sixty thousand dollars. He had taken Lisa’s Lottery Club money. Then, he ran away leaving Lisa to bear the mantle of shame.

The Lottery Club was a fund that several chosen and trusted members of the Chinese community contribute to each month. The amount and length of time was agreed upon by the group. Since Lisa’s business was doing well, she was chosen to hold the money. Each member contributed five thousand dollars per month with Lisa. Every month, one member received fifty thousand dollars to improve their business. The goal of this exercise was to let each member have a large sum for things such as expansion or purchasing real estate. At the end of ten months, and after every member received their payout, they decided if they would participate again.

When Johnny stole the funds, Lisa had to come up with the money to cover the monthly payment. Worse, she lost face. In our community, pride is the most valued commodity, more than money, more than a spouse, more than a son.

Lisa’s friend, Jenny Tanaka, agreed to cover the stolen money in exchange for this restaurant. Lisa had brought her into the Lottery Club even though Jenny was Japanese. The other members balked but Lisa forced them into it. Lisa and Jenny hoped their two socially-awkward children would marry one day and grow their restaurant empire in the northern suburbs.

Lisa had been looking at Milton, which used to be part of Alpharetta. They wanted to be their own city then just like that, a new city is formed. America is great. Lisa said the tennis-playing housewives there act civilized, not like the screaming lunatics down here, only forty minutes away.

Grace, the new part-time waitress, tells us the rich people are moving to the new cities in north Fulton County. She attends Georgia State University. Her parents own a small dry cleaning store in Marietta, a city they chose to live in for its good schools. As a compliant Chinese daughter, Grace will become a doctor. She really wants to run a food truck. For ethnic parents, this is a step down.

“Sweating, scrimping, and hustling are for non-educated people,” they tell her.

Hearing about Milton makes Andy more nervous than usual. He normally flutters about the front of the restaurant, hands on hips, gesturing at everybody’s conversation. But lately, he’s quiet sitting behind the counter playing Candy Crush on his iPhone.

Joanna tells me Andy wants to be a painter. “He’s gifted,” she boasts. She has one of his paintings in her room. It’s pretty good, not museum good, but with training, he might be able to make a living doing it.

“He’s applied to Savannah College of Art and Design,” she continues. He has saved his tips since he was a boy. Lisa surely couldn’t pay for his tuition now, even if she wanted to.

Jenny asks the staff if they know other people who want to work here. She plans to live with her doctor daughter in Buckhead and raise her grandchildren while Andy and her younger daughter, Kaze, run the restaurants.

She has to be careful. INS is really cracking down on illegals. We saw a line-up near the farmer’s market last weekend. The Hispanics were standing in a line, strung together with plastic handcuffs. We slowly passed them, most of us lying down in the back of the van.

The police could storm the restaurant any time. Jenny says she will have to hire more Africans, as more of them are legal. Then, she won’t have to pay for them to get here. I question if they can cook our food but I don’t dare say a word.

If Grace gets the nerve to start a food truck business, I want to go with her. But I know unless Jenny has a cut, she won’t let me go. I owe her too much as my debt to Lisa was transferred to her. My mother needed an operation last year and Lisa paid for that, too. I feel like I’m drowning one teardrop at a time.

Joanna says she has enough money saved up from living at Lisa’s house to buy her own place. She needs to clear up some old debts and then the bank will loan her the rest of the money. I will have to go with her. If the INS officials do a home inspection, we must look like we live together. Clothes and personal effects need to be strewn together. Photos of our intertwined lives have to be placed carefully around our house.

“We should stay married past the minimum wait period so we don’t raise suspicion,” says Joanna. She is tall, even for an American woman and towers over me. I step back.

“Betty won’t wait much longer,” I explain to her. “What about my son?”

“We can bring him over here. I can adopt him.”

“Betty won’t allow such foolishness,” I scream.

“I think she will,” says Joanna.

“How will I explain the situation to my son?” I ask.

“Tell him we’re roommates or we were married before. I’m your ex. INS will come for one final interview then we can rearrange the house. Take down our photos.”

She makes things sound so simple. She’s a simple woman with simple thoughts, happy as a security guard at a halfway house. She tells me stories of how these women screwed up their lives. After a brief stay at the house, they are given their own apartments by a charity. The government will help them get back on their feet.

What a beautiful country! I hope they appreciate it. My family had to pay for my incarceration. In China, all things are harder.

Andy has arranged to move in with Joanna if he’s accepted into his art program. They have a campus here in Atlanta. Lisa’s living in Hong Kong now, and her house is currently on the market. We may all be on the street very shortly.

Joanna is happy to let him stay with her. She’s convinced she’ll marry Andy when we divorce. I don’t think he’ll ever move in with her or go to SCAD. The boy has had other dreams before – fashion designer, interior decorator, even chef. Lisa told him it didn’t make sense to go to cooking school when he could learn from us. Americans like what they like – almond chicken (chicken tenders with gravy), sweet and sour chicken (chicken nuggets with pineapple sauce), teriyaki wings (drenched in sticky sauce), and fried rice (soaked in soy sauce). Anything fancier would be out of the question.

“Not if it was on a food truck,” said Andy.

Lisa glared at him. If it wasn’t her idea, it wasn’t a good one. She shot down Andy’s ideas of beef sate, lettuce wraps, shrimp eggrolls, and orange-roasted chicken. “Cheap and fast is what customers want,” she roared.

How times change. Jenny is putting these items on the Milton menu.

Andy pretends it’s not happening. In six months, the restaurant will be ready. He’ll be chained to a new place, unable to escape.

I wonder where I’ll be forced to go. Ken offered to take me in. I’ve never been to Las Vegas. His wife, the Korean, doesn’t like me. I remind her of what Ken used to be, a poor farmer’s son. Luckily for him, he was smart and gained a scholarship to dental school. Catering to Chinese immigrants, a practice in Atlanta offered him a partnership and he came to America.

A few years ago, his dental group went to a convention in Las Vegas. He was hooked. They say Asians have problems with gambling, the addiction is too strong. It doesn’t take much. The social factors – drinking, eating, laughing – along with the thrill of betting grabs them.

Ken started driving to Biloxi to gamble as Vegas was too far to go to every weekend. There, he met Kim Lee, another gambler’s wife. She began a losing streak and her husband was all too happy to unload his biggest losing hand. She attached herself to Ken, at first borrowing money from him then demanding it. I’m not sure if they’re married although he calls her his wife. His mother doesn’t know about it so it could go either way.

He’s not a dentist anymore, which his mother doesn’t know either. When weekend games ran into Mondays, he didn’t make it back to see his patients. Everyone knows a player doesn’t leave the table when he’s on a streak. He started losing his patients and sold his portion of the business back to the investors.

Grace says it will cost over one hundred thousand dollars to start the business. I wonder where I’ll get even a small amount of that money. After Jenny inspects us and leaves, Grace and I plan our menus. She says everyone is doing fusion now. Our working name is Chi-Mex, which stands for Chinese and Mexican.

She says there is a food truck park off Howell Mill Road in Atlanta. If we can’t get in there, we can go to the smaller, non-permanent locations. The smaller cities like Kennesaw and Marietta are hosting food truck days. We’d have to travel around but that will be the hardest part.

“Nothing is as hard as living in China,” I inform her.

“I’ve had that drilled into my head,” she says. There’s plenty of guilt there and she doesn’t have room for any of my sad stories. Her father was an engineer and her mother was a teacher in the old country. They gave up their status and moved here for their children’s future.

“Sorry.” I put my hands in my pockets and look away from her. It feels strange apologizing to a girl who could technically be my daughter. Such conversation between generations doesn’t happen often in our community. I know I’m in America now so I have to adapt.

“It’s cool,” she says. She flips her hair. The young get over things so quickly.

”We can apply for an SBA loan,” she tells me.

“What is this?” I ask.

“Small Business Administration. Here, I downloaded it. It loans money to small businesses” She pulls out a folder. “I used the food truck scenario as a project for marketing class. I got an A.”

“Congratulations,” I say.

“Everyone in class, including the professor, said it’s a good idea.”

“I can’t leave this place. I owe Lisa, I mean Jenny, so much money.”

“She’s not going to fight you. What she’s doing is illegal. You can threaten to expose her and her sacred daughter. She’d lose her medical license.”

“No, I can’t do that,” I say.

“What if we cut her in on it?” she asks.

“Cut?” I ask.

“Include her as a partner. She’s a witch but a good business woman. She can’t deny it’s going to work.”

“You’ve thought a lot about this,” I say.

“I don’t want to be a doctor. With all the malpractice insurance I’d have to pay, how much would I really be making?”

I think about Ken. He wasted all that education. It was a gift he threw away for the thrill of gambling. His mother chose not to send her other children to school, hoping Ken would help the others. They’re still waiting. Ming, the second son, works in a hotel as a cook. Shu, the sister, works as a maid for a wealthy family.

Grace suggests I ask Ken for my portion of the money.

“No, his wife wouldn’t allow it,” I tell her. Kim won’t let Ken send money to his own family. That would cut into her betting money.

In truth, I imagine some drunk approaching us one day saying he won us in a bet. I’d rather ask Joanna even though she and Grace don’t get along. Although Grace is as skinny as a twig, I wouldn’t count her out in a fight. Never underestimate an angry Asian woman.

Jenny arrives in the Mercedes her daughter bought for her. She shows the Milton floor plans to Andy. He scrolls through his phone, ignoring her.

“Stupid,” she yells and hits him with the tube the plans came in. “Your mother left you with me so you have no choice.”

“Why are you going so far north? You know some people don’t like us way up there.”

“Rednecks? Who cares? When we came here twenty years ago, we weren’t welcome on Buford Highway. Times change. They may call us names behind our backs but they’ll eat our food.”

“When I went to the Apple Fest in Ellijay last year, one of the orchards had a dummy hanging from a post. They call that lynching.” Andy’s eyes widen.

“Why are you such a sissy? If you’re too scared, you stay here and pay off your father’s mistakes.”

“I’m thinking about going to school,” he says.

“You’re twenty-eight years old. It’s too late for school. You see these kids go to college and can’t find jobs. Mr. Park, the man who owns the gas station over here, is so upset. His son went to Emory University, spent one hundred twenty thousand dollars in tuition, and can’t find a job. The son is working behind the counter now.”

“I want to be an artist,” Andy blurts out.

Jenny laughs. “Why do you question your life now?”

“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time,” says Andy.

She laughs again. “You’re born, you find a way to support yourself, and then you die.”

“What about happiness?” he asks.

“Who said you have a right to be happy?” she asks. “Ask Benny.”

“Benny, don’t you want to be happy?” asks Andy, fishing for my support.

“Everyone wants to be happy.” I wait for Jenny’s angry eye.

“Not everyone can afford to be happy,” she says. She has us both by the wallet. That’s much deeper and stronger than by your testicles.

Jenny stops yelling when Joanna walks in the restaurant. I check my watch and it’s only three in the afternoon.

“Sorry, the immigration officer wants to have the last meeting tonight. You have to leave now.”

Jenny shakes her head. “Go; you’ll be free soon.”

“I’m grateful to you, Jenny,” I choke out.

“You still owe me ten thousand dollars,” she says.

“I’m aware,” I say. I’m grateful Joanna is there. Her girth is of some comfort to me although she is still in her uniform. She stares at Andy but he doesn’t acknowledge her.

“Come back right after, we’re short-handed,” says Jenny.

The immigration officer arrives promptly at five. He tells us he is second-generation American. His German parents came here to study at Georgia Tech. He is broad-shouldered and slightly taller than Joanna. I quickly offer him a seat because my legs are shaky.

He asks us about our future plans while Joanna and I hold hands. Years of practice make us look like a couple.

“Good luck to you both,” he says after over an hour of questioning. I walk him to the door and shake his hand.

I close the door and lean up against it. “It’s over,” I whisper.

“I’m going to look for houses tomorrow. Do you want to come?”

“Jenny is not going to let me off on a Saturday.” I walk away but she keeps questioning me.

“How will I know what you want?” she asks.

I turn and stare at her. Her pale eyes fill with tears. She is hopeful she won’t be alone in the new house.

“I’m not going with you,” I say.

“Where will you go?” she asks.

“I need to get a place ready for Betty and my son,” I tell her. Joanna is silent as if someone has punched her in the throat. It looks as though a small gasp of air escapes her. She bolts out of the room.

I try to call Betty to ask her to marry me but her phone number is no longer working. I’ve asked Ken’s brother, Ming, to check on her. He says no one is home.

I place an extra offering to Buddha. I pray my son is alright.

The kitchen staff, Grace, and Andy throw a divorce party for me. Even Joanna attends. She studies Andy, hoping, praying he’ll look at her.

Joanna tells me her loan has been approved. She will buy the fixer-upper in East Atlanta. She wants to plant flowers around her white, picket fence. She says it’s her dream.

“Thank you for what you have done for me and my family,” I tell her. She smiles and nods her head. I want to say more but I hear Jenny yelling at Andy.

“Are you crazy?” she screams.

“I’m leaving for school in a couple of weeks,” he says.

“Who’s going to run the restaurant?” she asks.

“Kaze,” he says.

“She is quitting, too,” she says. Jenny throws the plans on the floor and walks out.

Andy asks to speak to me outside. He hands me a check.

“What’s this?” I ask.

“Grace’s parents have agreed to let her try the food truck for a year. I’ve always wanted to try the fusion thing but my mother couldn’t grasp the concept. I’ve been saving money since I was a kid. I’ll need money for school so I expect a monthly return on my investment. Over time, you’ll own a piece of it. I’m not like my mother. You won’t be my slave. We’re both free now.”

“Thank you.” My face falls and I can’t look at him. I regret lumping Andy in with Lisa.

“Let’s go look at food trucks,” he says. “Oh, here is a letter that came in the mail today.”

Betty has finally written back. It won’t be much longer until I’m reunited with my family. I rip open the envelope.

Dear Benny,

I couldn’t wait any longer. A man I met at the factory wants to marry me. He’s a good man. He says he will raise our son as his own. If you wish to send for the boy, I will send him to you. I want him to achieve the American dream as you have.

Love,

Betty

As I lean against the side of the restaurant, I wonder what my son’s American dream will be.

 

 

Yong Takahashi won the Chattahoochee Valley Writers National Short Story Contest and the Writer’s Digest’s Write It Your Way Contest. She also was a finalist in The Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, and runner up in both the Gemini Magazine Short Story Contest and Georgia Writers Association Flash Fiction Contest. Some of her works appear in Cactus Heart, Crab Fat Magazine, Emerge Literary Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, Gemini Magazine, Hamilton Stone Review, Meat For Tea, River & South Review, Rusty Nail Magazine, Spilt Infinitive, and Twisted Vines.