Sick

By Stephanie Austin

Essay

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At age 11, I became Peggy Ann McKay in my elementary school talent show. Though I couldn’t sing, dance, or play an instrument, I could speak from my diaphragm and memorize words. “I cannot go to school today….”

Shel Silverstein’s “Sick” was my ticket to the top of the hierarchy. My costume was an unflattering but humorously mismatched pair of pajamas. My prop was a teddy bear. To make sure I was playing sick authentically, I messed up my hair. From my spot backstage, I watched other kids perform. One of the popular girls So You Think You Can Dance?-ed to Mike and the Mechanics’ “In the Living Years.” She wore a white flowing tutu and did graceful things with her arms. I was solid with the poem, but that first swirl of negative self-worth crawled up my leg. At the last minute, I worried I’d panic and forget, so I taped some notes with cue words to the front of my teddy bear.

I have the measles and the mumps.

After my performance, some of my teachers were like, “good job” because that’s what teachers are supposed to say. They’re adults. Encouragement is their game. This kid David, one of the kids from the gifted class, came up to me and said, “I saw you looking at your bear. Did you have notes?”

After listening to my defensive explanation, he asked, “And don’t you think my face looks green?” Then he laughed. It’s a line from the poem.

David was super smart. Super talented. Super everything. He was sixth in our graduating class with accolades in wrestling, band, and clubs like FBLA. We all knew he would change the world, it was just a matter of time. He almost proved us right. In 2002, he went to get his doctorate in molecular biology, but killed himself before he could change any world other than his own.

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Los Angeles, November 2015


What is that sound? I can hear a squeaky noise coming from somewhere.

Ignore it. It’s nothing.

 

What are you doing right now, beside talking to yourself?

Getting ready for a reading this evening at USC.

 

Tell us about that.

Is there a mouse in your pocket?

(Poem made from lines spoken by my mother)

 

If someone finds me on the road

If someone finds me on the road

in my nightgown, barefoot and talking

 

in my nightgown, barefoot and talking

If my talking nightgown

finds the road in me

and someone on barefoot

 

Or I’m throwing my money to the cars

Or I’m throwing my money to the cars

convinced I’m just feeding the ducks

the-staked-plains-coverThen said I, O my lord, what are these? And the angel that talked with me said unto me, I will shew thee what these be.

She was a bad psychic when she arrived in Querosa, New Mexico, not because she didn’t possess the powers, but she couldn’t control them. Her husband moved them to the small town to teach at the college and she didn’t have anything to persuade him not to. “We’ll make it fun,” he promised, and after thirty days on the High Plains, the Great Drought began. People seemed friendly.

Stefankiesbye… also in The Staked Plains. What you say about how you can read society by the way it treats its dogs. It’s a massacre. By the way, what are goatheads?

Goatheads are small stickers that look exactly like small goat heads. They are so common in New Mexico that many people avoid walking barefoot across their lawns. Every summer and fall they seem to multiply. To me, they signify how unwelcoming the New Mexico landscape can seem at times.

skythecolorofchaosAfter the guests left, Soeur came clomping in the scraggly grass across the yard, making the bugs fly, yelling about a book I’d borrowed without permission. She who never yelled. She who was small and skinny with dark, soft eyes that avidly studied the world around her. A quiet child who concentrated intensely, her fingers trapped in some science book. Sometimes she read detective novels, sometimes the lacquered glamour ads in magazines. She read books thoroughly from beginning to end, as she did not believe in skimming or jumping pages. She studied hard in the evening, doing her homework, one subject after another, one, two, three hours straight.

In photos of Soeur and me, I was always much bigger: heavier, thicker boned, thoughtless in the way I claimed space. She was skinny but filled the air with her presence.

M.J. Fievre’s memoir A Sky the Color of Chaos (Beating Windward Press, 2015) chronicles Fievre’s childhood during the turbulent rise and fall of Haiti’s President-Priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide—a time of nightly shootings, home invasions, robberies, and the burning of former regime members in neighborhood streets. During the late 1980s and 90s, from when Fievre was eight-years-old to 18, Haiti’s government changed forms eight times; the Haitian people endured fraudulent elections, three military coups, a crippling embargo, and a United Nations occupation. A Sky the Color of Chaos will be featured at the Miami Book Fair International on Nov. 21.

In connection to the release of the book, Fievre had a conversation with writer Jan Becker. They addressed some of the themes explored in the book, including domestic violence, father-daughter relationship, and PTSD.

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What’s it like to be on a first date and say you wrote a book called Inappropriate Sleepover?

Well, the guys mostly look scared and/or confused, but I feel great!

She liked the crunch of the white snow.
The androgynous bulk of orange
encapsulating her long frame. In town
there were double takes and a sense
of foreboding. You look sixteen, her father said
on seeing her in new ballet clothes.
She was eleven. Bringing down her first
pheasant felt natural. She could imagine
getting pheasants to fall from the sky
without a gun. She could imagine
herself all in white like the fallen snow.

bookcoverNotes on My Sister, the Fox

Around Maple Shade, people still refer to me as “Meri Nester’s brother.” Meredith Ann Nester’s look perfectly suited the early-1980s: long, blonde hair (enhanced by Sun-In), Bongo jeans from Merry-Go-Round, cut sweat shirts, and jelly pumps. I wore husky Wranglers, tube socks, and glasses that remained tinted indoors. Meri made varsity cheerleading by eighth grade. I played trombone and sent away for free pamphlets from the Consumer Information Catalog. Meri was the barefoot girl in Bruce Springteen’s “Jungleland” who sat on the hood of a Dodge and drank warm beer in the soft summer rain. I’m the misfit who listened to Rush’s “Subdivisions,” and wondered how a Canadian band knew that the suburbs had no charms to soothe the restless dreams of my youth.

If Meri Nester reacted to Maple Shade like I did, I might not have gone crazy. But she didn’t react to Maple Shade like I did. And so I did go crazy.

photocredit Thomas V. Hartmann

Let’s look over your writerly bio. It says here you’ve written two books on your love of the rock band Queen (God Save My Queen I and II), a book of poems (The History of My World Tonight), something called “humorous nonfiction” (How to Be Inappropriate), and edited a book of sestinas (The Incredible Sestinas Anthology). What’s this book called?

It’s called Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects.

 

That’s a pretty long-ass title.

You can call it Shader for short.

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Michelle Brafman’s debut novel, Washing the Dead (Prospect Park Books, 2015) is, above all things, about the healing power of love and forgiveness, about letting go of the toxic wounds of betrayal and hurt. In fact, Brafman experienced a similar transformative purge; she admits that she felt “fluish” at times when writing it. The novel, told in first person by Barbara Blumfield when she is 17 and also when she is  53 (the two narratives woven together in what Brafman calls a double helix), centers on her family’s expulsion from their Orthodox Jewish community after her mother has an affair with a gentile. After Barbara is called back to the community thirty-five years later to perform the ritual burial washing of her beloved teacher, she is forced to confront her mother’s sins and secrets, as well as her own.

 

JEN MICHALSKI: Washing the Dead explores themes of exile, forgiveness, and redemption in an Orthodox Jewish community in Milwaukee, and you start it off with a bang: an affair. So where did that come from?

MICHELLE BRAFMAN: Yes, the inciting event in the book occurs when the main character, Barbara, discovers that her mother is having an affair, and so begins the family’s exile from their spiritual community. I’ve been told that the story reads a bit like a mystery, and as you read on, you learn that nothing that happens in these opening pages, including the affair, is as it seems. Affairs are complicated, I think. Perhaps they are often less about succumbing to some hot sticky lust and more about escaping an unbearable emotional intensity or healing old wounds or filling unmet needs for love or myriad other motivations. I wasn’t thinking so clinically, though, when I decided to use the affair as a means to launch this family into the diaspora. The idea evolved from digging into my characters’ family history and imagining how the carnage from their secrets might be expressed via misdirected and destructive efforts to secure love.

51zq2-7RLLL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” — Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man)

It’s not hard to see the need to understand ourselves as the central motivation for art. Whether we’re talking about painting or sculpture, poetry or the novel, the fictionalization of reality—its depiction and abstraction, its reordering and refocusing—offers the chance not only to escape into someone else’s life, but a new lens through which to see ourselves and our world, a means to reckon with reality and our place in it.

SeidlingerAuthorPhoto (1) (1)You know you could go out tonight. It’s Friday.

It’s always the same imperative–go out, bar, show, some reading, something. I’m tired, okay? I’m tired and I really should get back to this novel.

 

You never go out anymore.

Priorities. Besides, you should be glad that I’ve chosen to stay in tonight. I wouldn’t pay you any mind if I went out.

 

So I’m second-rate to you?

I wouldn’t say that, but you exist essentially for the same reason I’m deciding to deny any kind of social interaction tonight, or for the remainder of the weekend for that matter: I wrote what became The Strangest in a two week sequence of denials–in particular, social denials, where I did nothing but read, write, edit, repeat. You were the only one on my mind and man, let me tell you, you really bummed me out.

TheStrangest_2015_07_27_CVF (1)One morning was different. It proved to be different enough. I was at the bars, but when one of the officers started getting close, I went to the far end of the cell. There’s a part of the cell that remains shadowed even during what I figure is high noon. It is my idea that they don’t see me there.

If they don’t see me, maybe I don’t exist.

I don’t exist, and they don’t so much as bother me.

They don’t feed my fears.

They had been doing that a lot the past couple days.

Questioning, always questioning. I came to the conclusion that I was guilty. But that wasn’t enough for them. Officers and prisoners and the occasional person that doesn’t look like they belong in a prison, only stopping by, they question. With their gaze, they question.