On May 4, 2006, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency published a list essay by Dan Wiencek called “Thirteen Writing Prompts.” Prompt #1: “Write a scene showing a man and a woman arguing over the man’s friendship with a former girlfriend. Do not mention the girlfriend, the man, the woman, or the argument.”

Set go.

***

[We are off, off, off, off, off Broadway.  We are actually in New Jersey.]

Overture: “Frankie and Johnnie,” by Sam Cooke  (YouTube video version.) [Audience hopefully sees  Program Note* on the flier provided by Trenton’s Tremendous Pork Roll.]

Act 1, Scene 1, Curtain opens as audience glimpses—through kitchen window—a view of shadowy shapes darting, dishes crashing, unintelligible shouts.

Off Stage Narrator Voice 1 speaks one of the six optional opening line(s), selected nightly per Director’s whim and written In the style of [and with profuse apologies to]:

1. [Ernest Hemingway, “Fifty Grand”] “Brutal, just brutal, like sittin’ ringside watchin’ yer last fifty bucks take a dive with a busted-up loser.”

2. [Carl Sandburg, “Fog”] “Anger comes on feral feet … never moving on.”

3. [Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man] “The problem with putting one and one together is that sometimes you get two and sometimes you get three … and sometimes you get one.”

4. [Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Number 43”] “Who hasn’t loved thee? Let us count the broads.”

5. [Anne Rice, Interview with The Vampire] “Lust is one of those emotions that can stir your blood or suck it. The same can be said of a vampire.”

6. [Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat] “‘It is fun to have fun, but you have to know how.’ Anger looms in the shape of the I’ve-Caught-You-Now.”

Off Stage Narrator Voice 2 bellows, menacingly, following above-selected option: “Shut the fuck up!”

Shadowy shapes mute immediately, simultaneous with Scurrying Exit, Stage Left, as lights go down.

 


*Backstage Tech. usually clicks Skip Ad before You Tube sound comes up. Note to audience: If our Tech is a little slow, and a commercial plays, we thank you for suspending your disbelief. Some nights she’s working on homework right up to curtain time.

“Violence and the vote“ are huge issues for modern America. But how does The Last Sheriff In Texasthis story of a sheriff’s election in Beeville, Texas, in 1952, provide a metaphor — an explanation — for Trump’s America?

In both instances, voters baffled expectations by putting a highly controversial figure into office, splitting their communities into angry factions, neither able to understand the other. Trump made no secret of his divisive intentions, but he was elected. Sheriff Vail Ennis, despite the fact that he killed seven men, was voted into office time after time.

I imagined this as the book interviewing itself and so the questions and answers here are taken directly from the ten essays in The Book of Resting Places. Questions and answers are inverted so that the questions are taken from essays that correspond to their numbered section and move in ascending order, while the answers begin with the tenth and final essay and move in descending order. I thought this would be a fun way for the essays to poke their heads out and see what their neighbors were up to.

1.

Do you visit dad’s tree?

Often, we leave our bodies in trees. This is not just tree transformation, but tree storage.

My mother announces that when she dies, she wants to be buried like the pharaohs. We talk over the phone and I imagine her sitting in what used to be my father’s green chair, surveying the frames and cabinets that crowd the walls, feet bouncing on the footstool, the black poodle perched alertly on her lap. I ask her why and she cackles back: “Because they get to take all their stuff with them!”

Sorting

By Leslie Lindsay

Essay

 

Sweat rolls down my back and pools into my bra. It’s mid-June in southern Missouri, the heat and humidity an oppressive blanket. Inside, my throat feels clogged with desiccated leaves; a lump the size of a walnut wedges into my gut.

Fact:  Tanned arms held out various Smartphones, gazes misdirected, as a generation of cousins pressed their faces together at my mother’s funeral.

I smile as shutters click, a conditioned response, but inside the tang of bile bubbles in my mouth. Who takes family photos at a funeral?

A welcoming breeze flitters past, ruffling our hair; a rainbow of blonde and brown, natural curls and chemically straightened, and as it does, I taste her in my mouth, rolling my tongue over the grit of guilt and pain and disappointment.

It’s been ten days.  Two-hundred and forty hours of wrestling with the logistics of death, of explaining things to my children, of living when she was no longer.

Totoro’s Sad

By Mara Cohen

Essay

 

I jump at the sound of my husband’s voice, am doubly startled when I turn to encounter the unblinking eyes of our daughter’s puppet peeking around the kitchen doorway. “Totoro’s sad,” Puppet says.
My heart, bruised and swollen shut, relaxes slightly at what I assume is my husband’s gesture of reconciliation after a weekend when the prospect of divorce had been broached by each of us, more than once. I cross the kitchen and step into the hallway where I find him, his eyes moist with tears.

Photo credit: Camera RAW photography

How did writing this book change you?

I started to drink coffee and booze for the first time in my adult life during the writing of this book. There isn’t a direct correlation—the book didn’t drive me to drink—but it feels connected. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I never regularly drank coffee or alcohol until I was 45—an age when many friends are cutting back on both—but it’s true. I started when my husband and I were separated for six months in 2013, and I was feeling a little reckless, a little wild. Part of the reason I hadn’t imbibed for most of my adult life is that for many years, I thought I had acute intermittent porphyria, a genetic metabolic disorder with a long list of contraindications, including alcohol, and my mother, who was working on a documentary about porphyria and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome at the time of her death (a documentary named The Art of Misdiagnosis, whose title I stole for my memoir, a documentary I transcribed and wove in to my memoir) had me convinced a glass of wine could kill me. Coffee isn’t on the forbidden list for porphyria, but when my first cup in college made me feel as if my bones were going to shoot out of my skin, I took this to mean I was too sensitive to enjoy caffeine. I believed this for decades. I had come to see myself as a fragile flower—a label I once took great pains to paste to myself, a label I’ve found challenging but satisfying to peel away. I still don’t consume much of either, but drinking coffee and the occasional glass of wine has helped me see myself as an adult, helped me realize I am far more sturdy than I had imagined. Writing this memoir did the same.

Thirty-seven weeks pregnant and I can’t seem to stop crying. This is unusual for me. I tend to be an optimistic person. Relentlessly so. Probably obnoxiously so. I tend to be not just a glass-half-full kind of person, but a person who may just point out that the rest of the glass is filled with sunlight; an everything’s-going-to-be-okay, go-with-the-flow, isn’t-life-amazing type of person—in the world, at least, if not always in my own head.

Part of the reason my first marriage fell apart two years ago was because I didn’t know how to let my husband know when I was upset. I spent way too much time smiling when I should have been honest with him. I kept so much frustration and anger pent up inside, so many silent things accumulating until they turned toxic under my skin. I’ve told myself I won’t make the same mistake with my new marriage, and it appears my body is holding me to that, at least for now. My habitual smile is starting to fracture; whatever has been hiding behind it is seeping out.

Hybridity

By Ariel Gore

Essay

 

For Beachcombers

Who Are Tired of Performing Normal

 

Surrealism runs through the streets.

—Gabriel Garcia Marquez

 

I stood in front of the bank teller this morning, trying to perform normal.

Wishing I could just go home, get back to work.

See, I’m building a dream library under the house. I’m modeling it after that book hostel in Tokyo. We’ll climb ladders to sleep in shelves. We’ll metamorphose into books. We’ll wake with bent spines.

But here now instead I’m wasting my time standing under these harsh florescent lights, tying to perform sign-here like I’m not re-living the shame of so many years of bounced checks and closed accounts and begging forgiveness for the overdraft fees that mean the difference between rent and no rent and I’m breathing hard even though I have enough money now and all these blackbirds under my skin start pushing to break themselves out, beaks pressing out from the thin peel of my sun-burned chest, and I keep shifting my position, hoping the teller won’t notice the sharp protrusions.

I just want to go home. Get back to work on my dream library. Burrow and write.

The last time I interviewed you you were in the midst of a nasty breakup.  You were nervous, constantly looking over your shoulder, scouting for an exit. I thought, this guy is either a crackhead or he is being hunted. I’d heard about your proclivities and I was ready for a little weirdness, but nothing prepared me for the reality. We were only together for half an hour and it seemed like days. The entire time I felt like we were on the precipice of some great violence. I mean, it was innocent enough in the beginning. You were wearing a white dress made of an unusual fabric, plastic or latex, but with the flow and flexibility of cotton. I remember thinking, I would like a dress like that but I’d be embarrassed to wear it. Your face was all scratched from an accident. Or at least that’s what you said. You’d said you’d been on a bus and there was a crash somewhere in downstate Illinois. You insisted on the term “downstate.” You mentioned a Deer tractor and a forklift and a staple gun. You also mentioned “corn people.” And I thought, Hey, I’m the interviewer. It’s not my job to fact check this motherfucker. So I let it slide. I mean, I’d just gotten out of rehab myself and I didn’t want any trouble. It may sound stupid but I was happy to have this job.

I don’t care about your problems. You think you’re not responsible because you’re an addict, because many people you’ve passed traveling your uneven highway have decided against loving you. To me you’re just like any other narcissist working for some international literary conglomerate thinking that every interview you’re assigned is secretly about you. You should just cash your paycheck and go home to your wife (who doesn’t even like you) and your 2.4 kids and pray that nobody ever does decide to pay attention to your petty bullshit because you would burn like a dry leaf under a magnifying glass.

 

So you have a new essay collection.

Yep.

Jimmy Wallet Is Buried Alive

Here is a photograph, undated. Jimmy Wallet is seated, his face turned, the sharp lines of his chin and jaw like an alligator that doesn’t bite. He’s terrifically handsome, with a boyish nose and cheeks, a sly smile, a little patch of beard below his lip, long black dreadlocks past his shoulders. His oldest daughter, Jasmine, sits next to him. People say she should be a model. Hannah is sprawled across Jimmy’s lap, looking at the camera, laughing, Jimmy’s hand covering her stomach. Behind him are his two younger girls, Raven and Paloma, and his wife, Mechelle. Raven looks up to her mother, who is turned and kissing the baby, her lips against Paloma’s mouth and nose. It’s a perfect picture, and soon it will be all over the news.

Jimmy Wallet is in motion now. He’s walking to the store. He has a loping, lazy, long-legged walk, arms bouncing near his waist. He’s wearing baggy jeans, a red sweatshirt, and a sleeve- less leather vest. The day is serene. Jimmy breathes deep, smells the Pacific, the sage from the hillside, the jasmine from the yard. When he left Mechelle, she was cleaning up the house, packing boxes, organizing the children’s things. There’ve been tornado warnings, and Mechelle is worried they’ll have to evacuate.

 

I am watching a dance segment on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, three black males in their late teens or early 20s, performing physical feats that leave me breathless with amazement. They explain that they began street dancing to earn money to help their mother make ends meet. Per usual, Ellen hands them a wad of bills, $10,000, and per usual, I tear up. But then I hear my uncle sneer, “Now don’t go spending it on dope.” My uncle has been dead for years, so I hear this in some dark unquiet corner of my mind, and I immediately scold myself. What? I don’t think that way!

I’m watching a rerun of last year’s BET awards, and in my head I hear, or I should say I remember hearing, “Those blacks, they sure do sing nice.” I am appalled, again. In a drawer, I have tickets for Bruno Mars; we saw Hamilton and are saving up to buy tickets again. I know that these last two things mean nothing, even though I want them to mean something.

Why do you bite your nails during interviews?

I’m nervous. Actually, I’m terrified that someone will think I’m narcissistic. Or maybe that they will recognize that I am a bit narcissistic. Either way, I have to eat my feelings. Fingernails will do.

 

It’s a disgusting habit. You know that, right?

So is voting for idiots into influential political positions. I feel my minor defilement is forgivable, considering.

 

Fair enough. Tell us about your book, The First Church of What’s Happening. How did you come up with the title?

To An Ex-Lover, after A Natural History of the Senses

When I was sixteen, I saw an alien. True story. My mama and I were watching television in our narrow low-rent Baltimore rowhouse when we heard our dog, barking with a particular urgency. Mama asks me to go investigate.

I can be a difficult guy to dine out with. Just ask my long-suffering wife. I’ve run restaurants my entire adult life so I know how the sausage is made. Literally. I’ve held every position in the front of house and have been in management for over a decade. And a five-year stint as a food writer had me visiting an average of a hundred restaurants a year. I can walk into a restaurant and notice immediately if it’s in trouble. The stink of death from a formerly cutesy but now failing ‘pan-Asian soul food’ concept? I’ve smelled it. Insouciant management, disinterested waitrons, off-season ingredients – I can root it out like a pig during truffle season. A quick perusal of a menu will tell me whether or not the chef is having an identity crisis. It’s a talent that means I’ll always have a job; unless that job is to be an enjoyable dinner companion.

And I can’t switch it off. Lighting too high, music too low, a table sitting unbussed for too long or guests milling at an unattended host stand all bother me more than say, the Syrian refugee crisis. I’ll hold up a wine glass and note not only spots but also a light effluvium of lint speckling the rim. They need to change the rinse-to-sanitizer ratio in their dishwashers, I’ll say. If the servers were polishing with microfiber cloths then lint wouldn’t cling to the stemware like the last Cheerios in the bowl. It’s pithy observations like these that explain why my wife would rather relive the 2016 presidential race – what felt like all 137 months of it – than go out to a restaurant with me.