Angie Ricketts author photo

Let’s get this out of the way first. You make it clear that you love music, especially Dave Matthews and Tori Amos. Tell me about that.

It’s that obvious? Good! Actually we had to cut an awful lot of the lyrics I wanted to use from the manuscript because of copyright laws, so what remained is the toned-down version. Music and lyrics have always wiggled their way into my conscious and unconscious mind, so writing a memoir without them as a backdrop didn’t feel genuine. I also hold out hope that Dave or Tori will hear about my book and call me up on stage with a spotlight shining into the audience or something crazy like that. I haven’t evolved past 8th grade with my sappy groupie fantasies.

US of POctober 7, 2001: less than a month after 9/11. Police in Maryland decide that two trucks on Interstate 270 might be carrying explosives. The alert cops block traffic for an hour, searching the vehicles for tools of terror. The cargo turns out to be stage equipment headed to a memorial service for the firefighters killed in the attack.

A forgivable mistake, given the circumstances? Perhaps.

In Tyler, Texas, a few days earlier, federal agents, city police, and bomb experts from far-flung cities had descended on a family’s mailbox to grapple with a gadget jerry-rigged from wires, batteries, and green duct tape. The streets were blocked; the neighbors were evacuated. The device turned out to be an eight-year-old’s home-made flashlight, built as a school project and left in the mailbox for safekeeping.

I was seventeen when a new millennium reset the world. I started it by drinking a bottle of cinnamon-flavored liquor at my own New Year’s Eve party and passing out in my room, sleeping right through the ball drop. In the morning, my mother woke me with the dregs of the bottle in a shot glass, the sickly sweet, spicy fumes like smelling salts under my nose. She told me to drink the shot or get grounded for being an asshole. I drank the shot and slept the entire first day of the year 2000.

Students in the University System of Georgia must take and pass a Regents’ Exam in writing. I’ve taught a Regents’ Exam prep course, and in freshman composition I have generally been required to teach students how to pass this test. There are 635 approved essay prompts. When a student takes his Regents’ Exam, a random selection of four of these prompts shows up on the test instruction sheet. From these the student chooses one prompt.

As a writing exercise—warming up before jumping into whatever book I’m working on each day—I’ve been randomly selecting a prompt from the list of approved essay topics (http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwrtp/topics.htm) and writing a short essay—about the same length that an actual Georgia college student might compose—when taking this test.

I don’t know if I’ll end up writing 635 essays, but this is a start. I’m calling this project “Writing Sample.”

 

What are the most appropriate ways for people to show anger? Explain.

 

In the late 1990s I lived in Reno, Nevada and bartended at a college pizza joint and had a girlfriend who also worked at this bar and me and this girlfriend tried living together for about six months and although that didn’t work out, we stuck together for something like three or four years. Our relationship did not blossom beyond boyfriend-girlfriend because (and here I would like to say that it was because she’s a crazy bitch—and I still think she is—but I’m going to be honest with myself instead) but we both drank way too much and she had some anger management issues and these things combined brought out the worst in me, too. I remember the first time: I knocked that desklamp so hard it flew across the office in her house (the little Victorian I had just moved into), the bulb shattering against the opposite wall, the aluminum shade flattened, sparks floating to the carpet then darkness and silence. This happened because a friend had called to invite me to her birthday party and my girlfriend accused me of having fucked this friend, accused me of still fucking her, or of at least wanting to, and none of these things were true and my girlfriend wouldn’t shut up and listen to reason. We destroyed almost everything we owned. Before I moved out, three guitars ended up splintered on the street’s asphalt during violent attempts to leave; knives slashed, and bare hands ripped to shreds, an Oleg Cassini gown and cashmere dresses and a Hugo Boss suit; about ten window panes were replaced in the house and one on the old lady’s pickup; a thirty-six-inch television hissed and spewed smoke out its vents after I threw it; I had black eyes and bloodied lips, and the cops knew us by first name, and I’d attempted suicide twice, both times with pills, and I had walked barefoot out of the hospital in the middle of a winter’s night after doctors pumped my stomach, because the girlfriend in her visit said I wouldn’t come home but would instead go to the state mental health facility.

A few years after this, not long after the 90s sealed closed for good with the selection of a new president by our Supreme Court, some people I’d never heard of flew planes into buildings in New York City and Washington D.C., and into an empty field in Pennsylvania. Living on the west coast, as I did then, I learned of this long after most of the people involved had died, after the sites of this wreckage were smoldering and smoking apocalypses. A friend from high school woke me with a telephone call. He said, “The Twin Towers, dude, they’re gone.” I drove to the bar, this same college bar where I had once worked with my ex-girlfriend, the bar where my butt still perched to suck down one-dollar mugs of PBR. There my friends gathered around the screen like flies over a kill and we watched the devastation repeat, repeat. I was teaching at the university by then; I cancelled class. On the payphone outside my father’s voice shook and I said, “I’ll go to war. I’ll sign up for the Army if they need me, or if I’m drafted.” Dad said, “You may have to.” The next few days the sky was untouched canvas, devoid of jetliners’ trails brushed across it. American flags sprouted in bungalows’ front yards, from the windows of passing Fords and Toyotas. God Bless America became hello. The president said, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” American air support secured Kabul; the Taliban fled to Pakistan.

More than a decade has passed. My ex-girlfriend tried to start a fight with me when I returned to Reno to give a reading. I ignored her, arching my eyebrows with incredulity while I signed a copy for the woman who’d kindly purchased my book. Somewhere between 14,000 and 40,000 civilians have died as a result of war in Afghanistan, and add to that the 3,000 dead civilians here in the United States. The last time my wife and I fought it was over who changes more diapers, who has to get up at four AM to feed our daughter, who has to be stuck inside the house all day while you get to leave for work, who has to work all the goddamn time and cannot spend the time he’d like with his baby. I stepped away, took a deep breath, returned, and said, “What can I do to help?”

Moonscape

By Siri Z. Müller

Essay

Moonscape. Something died all over them, they ran and scattered, and I watched from a distance, between work, between papers that were not falling from the sky, but sitting blankly under my hands. So much dust, roiling. I was transfixed to screens in conference rooms I actually had not even known previously existed. I felt the dark, cool mahogany. I am sure it was actual mahogany. The leather below me was taut and expensive. My shoes were cold. I tried to ground myself there, to gawk, to feel, as if the observation of a thing could expand the knowing of it, but the tether was tight; in an unusual act of compassion, my boss commanded me to continue working. To not think about it, to simply go on, though clearly she did not expect much actual work from me. It was shocking, but it was not wrong, I could not deny her logic, at least not in that moment. I did not know where I was, really. I do not now know where everyone else was, exactly, why I had to stay. Maybe because nobody waited for me at the home I had alone, though my family advised me, in all seriousness, to begin walking towards Boston.

Swallows in Midair

By Meg Worden

Memoir

Watching the towers, like two roman candles all lit up and waiting to take flight, we tense for the whistle, the earsplitting boom. The air is a sweltering buzz of fiberglass and dissonance, it’s full of walls that no longer protect anyone from anything and it clings to my skin. I breathe it in and it singes my lungs. Someone says the words asbestos and attack.

The absurdity of our direction is becoming painfully apparent.

Standing at the top of the pedestrian entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge we are bookended by two very different sorts of skies. One is so black and the other so very, very blue. It’s a glass marble sky. A circular world sky. We are walking forward with the intention of going into Manhattan to check the office, but the way we are pressed into this crowd it’s just too hard to move. This direction is absurd.

Old stone and new people span the bridge from arch to arch, suspension wire to suspension wire, an exodus of phantoms no longer angry at co-workers, spouses, not thinking about the raise, the stockholder’s meeting, the diet, the myriad of ways they fail themselves. They are now The Great Witnesses Of Gravity, a sea-of-faces, marching on solemn feet this way. Not that way.

The sound is an unearthly roaring – internal, tidal, absolute – and the bridge pulls itself taut like a swing at the top of its rise. The-sea-of-faces, masked in white dust and marked with fear, swivel back toward the city in unison like swallows in midair. Swoosh. The collective intake of breath.

Everyone knows someone who is still there. And the marble spins, the sky upends.

A cloud of dust precedes the collapse of the first tower. It crumbles in a sort of slow motion effect. A special effect. A summer blockbuster, alien and unbelievable. It slips and spreads, down and down and down, until it is swallowed by its own insides. Ashes to ashes, and it’s gone. The Manhattan skyline loses a tooth from its iconic grin, and everyone is bleeding. When the faces reappear they have open, screaming mouths. They are all eyes, throats, tongues, tears.

I have a thick handful of Drew’s jacket as we are backed up to the railing and carried into the current off the bridge, where we spill onto the grass, a little under-the-bridge park scattered with sitting and waiting and seeing. Witnesses telling witnesses where they were when the planes hit, how they got out, where they lived, not here in Brooklyn, but in Long Island, New Jersey, Queens, somewhere where they couldn’t reach their family, get their car out of the  garage because there was no more garage, or car.

Drew and me we make nervous jokes about the grassy knoll, under this strange sky with asphalt-gray clouds punctuated by paperwork liberated from files, desks, inboxes. Pavement clouds. World-turned-upside-down clouds. I still have a handful of jacket, his hand rests on my shoe. But we don’t notice these things. We also don’t say the things we usually say. This chaos is sufficiently trumping our own. And maybe we’re just sick of ourselves and our redundant, self-perpetuating problems. Or we’re scared. Yes, we’re definitely scared. I don’t know whether or not we notice these things. Too stunned to cry, too tight to collapse, we laugh about grassy knolls and their cliched connection to American tragedy.

“Where were you when the towers fell?” the interested parties would inquire.

“On the grassy knoll,” we would reply, stifling inappropriate hysterics.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha and we aren’t really as funny as we were hoping. We notice this and become quieter than quiet. Dense quiet. Asphalt cloud quiet. We would have to completely rethink our plan, change direction. Swoosh. Just like that. Swallows in midair.

There is nothing that wouldn’t require a new perspective. The fabric of our reality has been irrevocably unravelled.

“I finally get clean and the world falls apart.” I say, mostly to myself, but loud enough for him to hear. Last night in Brooklyn, in the basement of Grace Church, they were different than before. They asked if my life was unmanageable, which was an entirely different question than, “Are you an addict?” They sat in a circle, drinking the coffee that Hazel I’m an alcoholic made. They were kind of funny. Mostly, they didn’t make me feel like crap and they didn’t annoy the crap out of me.

Swoosh. Just like that.

Hazel with the coffee pot said I should make no major moves, no big changes for the first year. Just don’t use and come back. She said quitting wasn’t the end of the world.

I woke up the next morning to a city on fire.

Drew pretended to ignore my getting clean comment and, instead, was starting a conversation with a man who’s eyebrows hung low over his narrow eyes, who had stopped in front of Drew and I on the grass, set down an armload of books and asked if they were letting anyone into Manhattan. “I have to get in, to school. A test. Important.”

Confusion was pandemic and all directions seemed absurd. Because no one really knows how to go swoosh, just like that. Because we aren’t actually hollow-boned swallows, covered in feathers, light as air. We have bodies, heavy, fleshy, burdened. It takes an act of Congress, God, Terrorists.

We ordered Reubens with extra Russian dressing at a diner a few blocks up on Atlantic Avenue, iced tea to drink. I can see us growing old together, drinking iced tea. Problem solved.

The pastrami sours in my throat when the waitress announces the second collapse. I notice her tired legs in compression stockings, the way her shoulders strain under an invisible burden. I don’t notice her take Drew’s order for a vodka tonic. Worlds ride high on apron strings.

Two days later dust covers unclaimed bicycles and the witnesses wander the streets, chanting the names of the missing and the dead. Two days later, we shield our faces from the smell, sweet and acrid, identified by the Vietnam Vet on the subway as “Burnt flesh, man. I know that smell, I smelled it before and I swear to you it’s burnt flesh.”

Two days later over styrofoam cups of Hazel’s coffee,  someone asks what would you do if you stood between fire and a seventy fifth floor window? Who can imagine a choice like that? To fall or to burn. Opinions split among us, as they were split among the ones that actually had to make that choice. We knew this for certain: too many burned and too many jumped.

And it was two days after the bridge and the grassy knoll and the reuben sandwiches, all of us still trapped under mortar and glass and grief, that I got pregnant. Swoosh. Just like that.

And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

—Genesis 3:22-23

I

Sometimes, I’d rather just forget it all,
that almost chemically pure fatigue
in feet and lungs and… nose. It was the smell,
that post-industrial residue of flesh,
burned paper, hard drives, staplers, pulverized
concrete, polyester-cotton blends
scorched to nothing, melted to a stench
that conjured all—and none—that I remember.

I used to keep the paper from the tenth,
yellowed, crumpled from the trash, retrieved
like a lost letter from a distant home
that seems more real than this, and even now,
I can still hear the obsolete debates.
It’s so far off. The Battle in Seattle?
Remember that? So many demonstrations—
in the end a brief, deceptive thaw.

Hardly Eden. Still, though, hardly this.
We didn’t fall, but lost initiative
in toxic smoke—distant now as heaven.
Something changed, and something had to give.
This is the public part. And where were you
when the towers fell
? It doesn’t matter
in the greater scheme of broadcast threats,
secret flights, and politicians’ chatter.

Like hell it doesn’t! Only scale divides
the micro from the macro, part from whole.
Metropole, periphery—each slides
into piles of rubble, though one’s role
varies—are you predator or prey
or passerby? Far off or too near
or in the middle distance—either way,
there was a break, and it began right here.

II

Beneath the raptor’s eager eyes, the shapes of land
are laid out like a map,
the creatures crawling in the dirt look up and pray.
The long-expected trap
will soon snap shut in wings and beaks. His blood is up,
and he needs scant excuse
to turn at greater angles as he gyrates down.
No bargaining, no truce,
no lesser offers satiate his need to gorge,
and pleading is denied.
He jackknifes like a Stuka as he grazes ground.
Aloft again, his glide
is steady as his shadow sweeps across the plain,
majestic, proud, and fast.
He’s headed somewhere distant as he flaps his wings—
but that’s too good to last.
The trains moved back and forth like worms beneath the ground,
and safely out of sight
of what moves though the sky, the tabloid headlines throbbed
through weak anemic light
in lurid colors, graphics bristling on the front
like paper porcupines,
and in the spectral, seated crowds, I strained to read
the threats in newsprint lines.
Oy vey! Here goes another day! But life goes on
despite the evening news,
and train delays in rush hour set my teeth on edge.
One rarely gets to choose
one’s useless fights or losing cause, and so I rode
my circuit as before,
emerged at 116th and Broadway at a run.
I muttered and I swore
under my breath through lectures and through snaking lines
in grocery stores at night,
through meals I microwaved and cigarettes I smoked
while trudging through the blight
New York in winter splattered on the city streets—
the faded, grayish glow
of streetlights shone on curtained windows, billboard signs,
and pellets of black snow.
And on those lonely, late-night walks, I clutched my keys
and scurried like a bug
to read the paper once again when I got home.
Gratified and smug,
the president was smiling almost every day.
The opposition cooed

mild reservations. So it wasn’t if, but when
a bully’s chosen feud
would come to blows—but still, the monthly bills were paid,
and every curse I’d sneer
was matched with sighs and mantras that I told myself
no one would ever hear.
Defiance ebbed and resignation flowed, but still
I swore that I would fight
with words, at least, or aching feet when morning came,
but shudders late at night
proclaimed what we could not admit—not to ourselves—
no slogan-ridden shout
would save the creatures in the raptor’s line of sight
or throw the bastards out.

III

Invent a story and don’t change the names
or worry if the images are stock—
it doesn’t matter. Telling’s the important part
in half-forgotten chants, in memories
like photographs are memories,
or songs… or like a long-suppressed lament
as distant as a saga, or as close
as languid anecdote. It’s hard to tell.

Our plotlines come out piecemeal, episodes
of shows we hardly ever watch but see
on listless Fridays, know by reference
or catch-phrase—we despise them second-hand
or laugh at snippets, yawn as new clichés
assert themselves as truth. Accustomed order
rules each sentence—only for a while.
Pause for a moment. Take a breath, resume,

suspecting a digression, hoping it,
dreaming of a better narrative
subsuming this one. Speak it anyway,
until the fragments sag and finally give
way to the plot, or hint at it at least.
It’s not the tale. Rather we want the voice,
the way it surges, stops, reformulates
between what seems inexorable… and choice?

Tonight, it’s not dead generations’ weight
that presses against my brain, instead two towers,

a story that I need to tell, though late
in year and politics—and in the hour.
It’s almost muscle memory that forms each word,
recalls sensations I’d believed forgotten,
aspirations, touching and absurd,
and sentences more mothballed now than rotten.

IV

And on the streets, 2003 would not replay
1968.
There were no barricades along Fifth Avenue.
The enemy shot straight
with laser guides and missiles and a satellite
and blats on infrared,
with snipers on the roofs and agents in the crowds
and choppers overhead,
with slick provocateurs on AM radio,
mendacities on air,
a rainbow spread of panic and a coded threat
behind a terror scare.
The grouplets quoted, formulated, and condensed
a bellowed politics
and combed the Manifesto for a perfect phrase,
a plan, an easy fix.
We scanned our books by lamplight, phrase by pithy phrase—
“But what would Trotsky do
if he were here?” We dug our mental trenches and
we took the longer view,
preparing for a surge, a push, a grand advance
regardless of the price
for just and fictive futures (maybe for revenge).
a leaflet’s snarled advice
lay stacked on the kitchen table for a weekend march.
A sturdy pair of shoes
was by the bed, and leaflets sat in plastic bags
beside the monthly dues.
And she and I were comrades first, and when we slept,
we did so back to back,
somnolent sentries snoring down the empty air,
and braced for an attack.
But though her touch was cold and though she turned away,
I swore that things were grand,
her picket sign by mine outside the bedroom door,
a permanent last stand.
And through the fast-food meals I ate alone, I swore

there was no other way,
that soon enough the crowds would storm the palaces.
I smoked two packs a day
and paced the carpet in the living room at night.
I muttered to myself—
names and facts and parallels in history.
The books stacked on the shelf
were barbed with aphorisms, filled with figures. They
would prick my nascent doubt,
and life was great, with take-out pizza, dirty socks…
until she threw me out.
But in the meetings and the vapid speeches flung
by speakers to the crowds,
the posture was defensive, bracing for the blow.
The thick midwinter clouds
were always present. Protest posters sagged and flowed.
The chilly moisture clawed
at slogans and at time and place, but still we fought
the rumored storms abroad.
But how to fight? The opposition puckered up
and joined the frenzied cheers
while pleading chants of thousands in the winter wet
were banished from their ears.

V

Pray, if you can pray, or fall asleep,
or stay up late with twenty-four-hour news,
scanning the ticker for the next attack,
or breach, perhaps. Volcanoes, hurricanes,
floods, new deployments, and rendition flights.
We’ll never be the same, and never were.
A target is an opportunity—
we’ve always known this. Now we know too well.

The march of progress turned into a slog,
a forced march leading into God knows where,
a dull parade of hollow victories.
It doesn’t matter what you think or do—
the radio shouts; the television’s shrill;
the internet takes what is blogged upon it;
and verse? There’s always verse; anthologies
appear before they’re pulped by the next disaster.

But still, somehow, I don’t look at the scar
where, once, the towers stood when I buy ties

or compact discs or shoes. I know it’s there,
but keep on moving and avert my eyes.
It’s everything and nothing, simple loss
as unredressed as thwarted ignorance.
The cries for vengeance fade. Officials change.
The thing that stays with us is circumstance—

this mutilated city and the word
that seems to fit but doesn’t or the threat
from outside or within, the way a bird
flies lower than before, though as of yet
it circles, but we know it has to land.
Call it premonition, call it fate,
conspiracy, or just a sleight-of-hand,
a warning that we all got wrong, too late.

I was watching the Mets play the Phillies on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball when the broadcaster announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed. Immediately, I flipped to CNN for more details and watched Wolf Blitzer juggle numerous correspondents as details of the event poured in. I stayed tuned for about 20 minutes, and during that time the crowd gathering on the White House lawn grew from dozens to hundreds to thousands. They waved American flags and climbed atop each others’ shoulders, chanting “USA! USA!” Their celebratory uproar reached a volume that made it difficult for one reporter on the scene to be heard. The surreal spectacle looked like the tail end of a debauched 4th of July barbecue.

The story in my debut novel, The French Revolution, takes place over thirty years, beginning in 1989 and ending in 2019. This put me in the unenviable position of envisioning the future. As I wrote the book from 2005 to 2008, I had to update several storylines—replacing DVDs with web video, adding the Obama campaign, reducing the influence of newspapers. And as much as I tried to keep the story timely, after the book went to press I knew my educated guesses would wind up making me look like a bozo. After all, the weather guy can’t tell you if it’s going to rain with the aid of the world’s most sophisticated technology; how the hell am I, a lazy, research-inhibited, professional liar, supposed to prognosticate anything past breakfast?

Jumpers

By Nicholas Belardes

Memoir

I saw the horrific billboard on Las Vegas Boulevard and instantly pushed it out of my mind.

Riding with John, we drove past, in slow motion. I couldn’t bring myself to mention it. Who could? It was far easier to bring up the porn billboard with the girl on it holding a cupcake saying, “Wanna taste my muffin?”

“Absolutely incredible billboard,” John had said staring up at the cartoon version of a bald cupcake.

Now I was walking toward the Sahara Hotel. Couldn’t get a ride from work. I could handle the walk I told myself. Just had to get over the freeway. Only now I was lost, headed north on Western, having cut under the freeway, past a Metro Police vehicle that pulled into the dirt behind me, just to check me out.

Hoping for a street to slice past the girly joints to Industrial, I had no such luck. I was stuck on an hours-long walk, just to traverse a freeway, and ended up on Wyoming Street and having to double back down Industrial, southward, and into a neighborhood of streets as ugly and lonely as any American island of lost streets could ever get.

Trying for a shortcut somewhere along the way, I took a walk down a sidestreet only to end up circling through past a gym as boxers in full gloves jogged past. They glared like they wished I was twenty years younger. Fresh sparring meat. I ducked tail and pushed back out to the main thoroughfare to search for a way through to the Sahara Hotel, which I hadn’t been able to see since first looking at it from right across the freeway. Now my only landmark was the Stratosphere Tower. And even that I found was now far to the southeast. From where I was originally it stood north and a bit eastward.

I took a long look down West New York Avenue and thought to hell with that. Looked like an endless string of drug deals going down in the dusty dank of the sweaty summer street. I plodded onward to West St. Louis Avenue and found a lonely long walk past a transient in pigtails leaning on a fence. She gave me the eye like she wanted more than a Shirley Temple and a fix of street crack.

I left her to her stares and eventually came up to lines of decrepit apartments, the kind you would find in any small desert town, with clothes strewn over rod-iron balconies, and mamba and cumbias blasting through open windows. Outside, there were kids toys, smoking red-eyed Mexicans in trucker’s caps, and the smell of greasy refried beans made from fresh pintos. Ahh, I told myself, I’d found the dens of the housekeepers, dishwashers and drug dealers of the finest hotels on the Strip.

When I got to Fairfield Avenue I made a right and looked up at the awful towering machinery of the Stratosphere Hotel. Its gargantuan height pushes over the broken industrial cityscape like a rocket ready to blast off into some Eighties-themed casino space station. There, I imagine heavy metal Earth hits rule, and guys Like Reno Romero shred to Alpha Centauri interstellar activists whose pointy ears bleed from amp feedback as they protest the cancellation of intra-celestial Dio tributes.

I walked down Fairfield along the back edge of the tower and kicked up dust as I crossed a gravel lot. In the near distance I saw another row of apartments. Their balconies faced the tower, and pot-bellied men, down to their last greedy nickel, eyed me and the tower through drunken eyes, as if we both held some kind of secrets they considered pulling a gun to find the answers to.

As I passed there was a scream. A long howling scream. One that was both terrifying and death defying at the same time. I’d heard a few in the distance, but this was closer, and I found it odd as I eyed the men on the balcony watch me suddenly look up at the jumper falling in full sprawl from the dizzying heights of the tower.

I rounded a corner, still within eyeshot of the derelict apartment behind the tower, and walked on a cracked sidewalk that looked like it hadn’t been repaired for sixty years. Just across the street was a bright green strip of grass. That surrounded a brand new condo that jutted upward into a shiny steel tower. A woman walked nervously on the grass as her little white Maltese sniffed around prudishly. I sensed the woman knew it was dusk, about the time those pot-bellied men creep from their rusted balconies, looking for wallets to lift and little dogs to kidnap and sell for easy Sports Book cash.

Soon I found my tired way to Sahara Avenue. A security guard on a bicycle pedaled past, heading toward the freeway overpass that I tried to find a shortcut around. Maybe he worked at the Palace Station, or some girly joint along the way.

I crossed Las Vegas Boulevard and was nearing a McDonalds when I heard a faint scream and saw a young couple looking up. The girl held a pink camera that surely couldn’t capture the person leaping off the edge of the tower.

“Would you?” I asked the man as I passed.

He looked at me with red eyes that could barely focus from a face of sunburnt skin. His hair was a greasy mess. “Already have,” he said.

I continued past, thinking of the terrible billboards advertising JUMPERS, and knowing full well, that some idiots on 9/11 would be up there, pretending they were in some virtual reality where nothing but smoke and flames would determine their final path through life, a long leap into the acrid air.

*NOTE: This piece was written entirely on an iPhone.

Image by Nick Belardes


Having been a fan of David Goodwillie’s excellent 2005 memoir, Seemed Like A Good Idea at the Time, I was a bit apprehensive when I heard he was publishing his first novel, American Subversive. I feared the worst: the dreaded second book bomb. It’s almost a cliche, to follow a great book with a flop. Then I read the book.

American Subversive, a tale of contrasts, is no disappointment. The book’s main characters are Aiden Cole, a self-absorbed entertainment blogger in NYC, and Paige Roderick, a southern Belle turned eco-bomber.   They meet after a bomb explodes in Midtown at the Barney’s on Madison Avenue. The intended target, an oil company, is not immediately discerned; the bomb has been detonated on the wrong floor by mistake.
The usual suspects are reigned in.  Aiden receives an anonymous email, along with a photo of a woman fleeing the scene. The woman is identified as Paige Roderick. This is the woman behind the blast, the email tells him. But who in the hell is Paige Roderick?  Should he go to the cops or break it in his blog?
What follows is the melding of two lives, in what struck me as a cross between Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang.
I caught up with Goodwillie as his book tour came through Ohio and asked a few questions. I followed up later on the phone.

What attracted you to this subject matter?

I was interested in the idea of people with a broader view of society. Americans grow up with a somewhat narrow mindset of how to proceed in the world.  There’s always a good guy and a bad guy, and capitalism is the only way to go. I grew up in Europe, and when I was in Paris there were always Communist demonstrations and nobody was ever alarmed. I think in America we grow up filtered from political events and sheltered from democracy.

Communist was a bad word when I was a kid. I didn’t even know what it meant until I grew up!

Exactly. I wanted to explore this theme via Paige and Aiden and bring two sides of their generation together.

Was there any autobiographical aspect in the character of Aiden?

No, not at all. I saw myself as neither of the characters in the book, but rather somewhere in the middle. I’m not apolitical and tend to be an avid news watcher, but I tried to keep the book agenda-free.  I didn’t want it to be any kind of a liberal screed. I wanted readers to make their conclusions.

In your book, Aiden works for a fictional website called Roorback.com, a sort of Gawker-like venue. Are you going to be putting up a real life Roorback soon?

Yes, I hope to have it up and running in a few days. It will have the same name and be run by professional NYC bloggers who will be assuming the identities of the characters in the book. It’s part experiment, part promotion.  We don’t know where it’s going yet.

You’ve been accumulating some accolades lately, including a nice mention in Vanity Fair. I was reading David Lipsky’s recently published conversations with David Foster Wallace, and Wallace speaks often about how praise and publicity really put the pressure on him to make every word he wrote bear the mark of a genius. Do you feel any similar pressure when your work is praised?

I don’t feel pressure in the sense that David Foster Wallace did. Wallace was in his own realm of genius and I can see him feeling the need to live up to that. My pressure comes from simply getting my book read and having it out there. Writing is my career, so I have to make sure readers know about my work so I can keep on writing. I think Wallace felt that art should speak for itself. The writer needs to be in the wings and let the world focus on the art and not the artist.

Did you have trouble switching from memoir-mode to fiction?

Novels are harder to write.  You have to pick and choose your characters.  You have to invent their world and keep the suspense going. Part of being a literary writer is to challenge yourself over and over—unlike a guy like, say, Dan Brown who basically writes the same book again and again. Joshua Ferris, who’s a friend of mine, recently came out with a new book [The Unnamed] which was completely different from his first novel, Then We Came to the End, which had a lot of comic schtick. And people were surprised when his second book was nothing like his first.  But I think in the long run Ferris will be much more appreciated for making this move. It took a lot of courage.

Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to know when to stop writing, too. I think Harper Lee knew she had said all she had to say in To Kill A Mockingbird.

That too. Salinger included. Hard to stop though, if you are a compulsive writer!



David Goodwillie is working on another novel while he follows the Mets in what he hopes will be an amazing season of victory.



Paul A. Toth has published three novels, Fizz, Fishnet and Finale, informally known as the “F” novels. These novels form a non-linear trilogy; they can be read in any order. The trilogy deals with questions of self-identity: whether we’re born with an identity, naturally develop an identity, or invent an identity. The individual novels present characters who must face these questions, and each novel illustrates a different approach and outcome. Meanwhile, Toth has published over 150 short stories, poetry, and multimedia works. Most of these pieces, as well as links to order his novels, can be accessed via his web portal.

Like a grown-up version of musical chairs, speed dating was all the rage during the post-9/11 urge to merge. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center left some couples clinging to each other as if their very survival depended on it. Other relationships snapped under the pressure. Young singles who were previously perfectly happy on their own suddenly felt compelled to pair off.

As with everything in those frightening months, time was of the essence. Activities that separated the wheat from the chaff were in high demand. We wanted to spend quality time with our loved ones, write our wills, donate to patriotic causes, and contemplate the meaning of life. All of this while being slightly suspicious of everyone around us.

Speed dating was just what the doctor ordered: a single location for multiple, time-limited dates in one evening without the bother of having to offer or receive awkward rejections.

Several months after the traumatic break-up of my almost three-year relationship, my friend Karen asked me to accompany her to a speed dating event. While I knew that we were both feeling the urge to merge ourselves, I was stunned that she’d consider such a thing. Of course I told her no way, but she reminded me that I hadn’t had a single date since my break-up. I honestly don’t know what possessed me, but I agreed.

The plan was that we would meet in the restaurant’s bar where the event was being held. That way, we could walk into the special event room together. The bar was filled with couples holding hands while they waited for their tables. The tables were filled with couples who ate from each other’s plates and finished each other’s sentences. The acoustics created by the high ceiling in the cavernous space made for a carnival-like experience. I waited and waited. Finally, my phone rang. I started for the exit as soon as I saw Karen’s number on the caller ID. Of course she wasn’t coming. Stuck at work. Of course I wasn’t staying.

Then she reminded me that I had already paid for the event so I may as well attend. I should “be open to possibilities.” She wanted a full report later, and she offered that perhaps the evening would make a funny story one day.

Um, yeah right…

I walked through the dining room filled with happy couples toward the event room. Dead woman walking. Perhaps I should have paused for my last meal. The Pasta Bolognese smelled amazing.

For some reason, I feared I would be the lone geek in a room full of poised and accomplished young professionals. I envisioned well-dressed lawyers and doctors sipping sophisticated cocktails and partaking in witty conversations about their stock portfolios, foreign policy, or literature. With quivering knees, I entered the room to find men segregated on one side and women on the other. Good Lord, it was eighth grade with pink girlie drinks for the women and beer for the men!

The men were clumped into small groups pretending to be in deep conversation, while sneaking quick glances to size up each woman as she entered.

The women seemed oblivious to the men. They were all gathered around one woman at the bar who was rather loud and who sucked down drinks in single gulps. The woman was statuesque, a redhead, and the sister of a friend I’d dated briefly. She turned to welcome the newcomer into the tribe and immediately recognized me. She proceeded to introduce me as her brother’s ex-girlfriend, which was definitely not how I would have described myself. Looks of pity followed from the peanut gallery.

Hey, I went out with him for a few months in the course of a ten-year friendship. And we’re all single here. Why else would we put ourselves through this torture? Keep your pity to your damn selves! I thought.

The organizer, Patrick, was obviously a cheerleader back in high school. He rang an obnoxious bell and called everyone to the middle of the room. Women were in a semicircle to his right, and the men mirrored us on his left. A peppy spiel about being open to everyone, balanced with warnings about inappropriate behavior, ensued. He provided extensive directions about the proper way to fill out the scorecard. He didn’t actually call it a scorecard, but we all knew what it was.

There were several tables with numbers on them. Each woman was directed to pick one and have a seat. The men were told to approach a table one at a time for our seven minute “dates.” We were not allowed to talk before Patrick rang the begin-date bell nor were we allowed to speak after he rang the end-date bell. At the close of each date, the men were required to switch tables. They were not allowed to return to a table they’d already visited.

The first gent to approach me looked very much like Bill Gates. Not rich, just incredibly and stereotypically nerdy. Now New Orleans is not known for its beautiful people, but you generally think of people this geeky living near Silicon Valley, MIT, or Microsoft headquarters. I took a deep breath and prepared to be “open to possibilities.” He’d moved to, as he called it, The Big Easy (cringe) from the Midwest. I wasn’t surprised. I was being open. Nothing inherently evil about the Midwest. I have friends from the Midwest.

I asked him what his favorite things were about living in New Orleans. His answer: the food. Great, we had something in common. I could work with that for the next five minutes. I asked about his favorite restaurants. Chili’s and Applebee’s. Um, dude, you could have stayed in the cornfields and eaten at chain restaurants. Good grief.

Okay, next subject. I asked what he thought about Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, and our general party culture. He proudly informed me that after living in New Orleans for five years, he thought that this year would be the one when he “would go to the Bourbon Street to see the Fat Tuesday.”

For the uninitiated, the syntax of this sentence was utterly bizarre. It’s akin to someone in New York going to “the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue to view the celebration associated with the annual advancement of the Gregorian calendar.”

Ding!

In retrospect, Bachelor Number Two turned out to be the most promising of the lot. He had lived in New York making a living as a writer but had returned to New Orleans to run the family plumbing business after his brother suddenly died.

I’m sorry, did you say plumbing? As in pipes and poop? Okay, I had a big ick reaction but rallied on. After all, this guy was creative and responsible. What were the odds? I was opening to the possibilities more by the moment. We talked about his writing, which was heavily influenced by Charles Bukowski. Uh oh.

Now, here I must digress. Many people have types. Some men like women with blond hair. Some women like men who are really tall. My type was incredibly specific. For years, I dated men who played chess, juggled, ran cross-country in high school, and yes, were Bukowski acolytes. What can I say? Apparently, I liked them smart, agile, and highly dysfunctional. It wasn’t like I looked for them. I attracted them. It was an odd gift.

I never found out whether the plumber fit my other unconscious criteria. Once Bukowski was out of the bag, I was done. After all, I was there to break patterns, not repeat them. I somewhat sadly said goodbye when the bell rang.

Ding!

Bachelor Number Three’s appearance immediately set me back in my chair. He was wearing false eyelashes. Seriously. Not, I have a dermatological condition and have lost my eyelashes so I wear these so I don’t look weird false eyelashes, but Mary Tyler Moore from the Dick Van Dyke Show false eyelashes. It was stunning.

Somehow, I got over my mute shock and started a conversation. As it turned out, we were both Jewish and originally from New Orleans. I knew we did not belong to the same congregation because I’d surely have remembered this guy and his lashes. I asked him if he was affiliated. Yes, he did belong to a congregation, but he wasn’t too crazy about it. I asked if he’d attended services there all his life, and he said no. Apparently, his parents paid for his membership. They’d belonged to a number of congregations over the years because his mother tended to fight with people. Uh, how many Jewish stereotypes can you fit into a seven-minute date?

Ding! Thank G-d.

Now, I feel really guilty about describing Bachelor Number Four. He was very nice and seemed like a heck of a lot of fun. But he was remarkably short, maybe five feet tall in shoes, and a rodeo clown. Yes, you read that right. A rodeo clown. I was born in New Orleans, and I had no idea that there was enough rodeo work in the area to make it a full-time job. And maybe I’m being snobby here, but it seemed to me the speed dating people used a mighty liberal definition of the term “professional.”

I tried to maintain a conversation, but my mind drifted to the image of the little fellow emerging from a tiny car with 20 of his friends. Or maybe only circus clowns do that. Anyway, I feared I was going to hell for thinking these thoughts, but the night was so surreal. I felt like I was dating on acid: distortions of space and size, warping time, ringing bells.

Ding!

When Bachelor Number Five approached my table, I exhaled. He appeared perfectly normal, handsome even. He was dressed neatly but informally. He did hold his head at an unusual angle, but I thought he was just being flirtatious. I had no idea what the next seven minutes held.

As soon as he sat down, we agreed that it seemed like we’d met before. We didn’t live in the same neighborhood or hang out in the same places. Was it work? I told him what I did. He told me that he had his own business related to the casino industry. Definitely not work.

Okay, was he Jewish? New Orleans has a small enough Jewish community that sometimes you just know people because you’re Jewish. He responded by asking me if I was Jewish, and I said yes. He said he was not, but that I’d have known that if I had looked in his wallet. No money. Dude, I’d just told you I was Jewish and your reply was an anti-Semitic comment?

By then, I was kind of checking out, so he filled in the conversation with talk of his work. Apparently, the name of his business, 1-ey*d Jack, had special meaning but not for the reason people assumed. He said that he’d had the recent experience of presenting his business card to a “n***** woman” who worked in a casino on the Mississippi Coast. After she saw the name of his business, she indicated that she knew why it was named 1-ey*d Jack—by pointing to his crotch. At this moment in the story, he gestured to his groin. Dear Lord, was this some sort of Neo-Nazi screw with the racially-sensitive Jewish feminist Candid Camera?

No, he was getting to his point. It seemed his business was actually named 1-ey*d Jack because, although his name was not Jack, he had only one eye. The other eye was glass. He tapped it with his fingernail to prove it. I nearly vomited on the table.

Ding!

Throughout these seven-minute increments of hell, my friend’s sister was having a jolly good time. She whooped it up with one and all. I kept thinking she was so much better than I was at embracing the moment and being open to possibilities. Yeah, she is generally a much more go-with-the-flow kind of person than I am, but there were also the cocktails. I wished I’d followed her lead on that.

After 1-ey*d Jack, I was done, so the final bachelor was a dream. He spent the entire seven minutes on his cell phone. Oh, he’d occasionally glance in my direction and nod, but other than that, nada. I didn’t even get his name. As I stared off into space, the rodeo clown winked at me from across the room.

Now, I have to admit, there were a few other fellows there who were decidedly less remarkable than those I’ve described. At the time, they seemed only slightly less wrong. Maybe, between the nerd, the plumber, the eyelashes, the clown, and the penis, I missed a gem. I guess I’ll never know.

But Karen was right. It did make a damn good story.

We moved on the first of September. Left our 400-square-foot fifth-floor walk-up on East Seventh Street in Manhattan’s East Village—an apartment that cost a staggering $1,800 a month—for a bigger, cheaper, cleaner, safer one-bedroom in Astoria, the part of Queens comprising the westernmost extremity of Long Island, directly across the East River from Yorkville.

We haven’t even been here two weeks. The cable hasn’t been turned on yet. The guy from Time Warner is supposed to come tomorrow—Wednesday, September 12, 2001.

It’s three o’clock in the morning and I’m panicking.

I woke up with the worst pain in my abdomen.

To be more specific, it feels as though someone has reached inside me and is squeezing my innards as they attempt to rip them from my body.

I’ve already woken Tony up twice.

The first time was to ask him where it would hurt if I were about to die from appendicitis. He assured me it would be in my side.

He has a scar where I would approximate the appendix to be, so I’m pretty sure he knows about these things.

OK then, it’s not appendicitis.

The second time was to tell him I think I need to go to the hospital because I think I’m about to die of Toxic Shock Syndrome. And to apologize for being such a bitch last night.

If you’re about to die, it’s always best to apologize for things like that. Especially if you’re me because I’ve always wronged somebody in some way.

Tony assured me that I’m not going to die and I don’t need to go to the hospital.

Ambulance

And so I took some Advil and continued to lie in bed awaiting my imminent death.

“It’s probably just indigestion. Maybe you ate something bad,” he said.

Yeah, maybe he’s right.

But, oh God this hurts!

No, no, why isn’t the Advil working? Advil always works when I have cramps.

No, surely this is Toxic Shock Syndrome. Or something much worse.

Should I get out of bed and look for the information pamphlet? I’ve read that information pamphlet 600 times. How do I not remember the symptoms of Toxic Shock?

Yogapose

I try to stay calm.

I try yoga positions.

I try lying on my stomach and massaging my ab muscles.

I try lying on my back.

I lie in the fetal position.

Nothing is making this go away.

And all I can think about is the plight of 20-somethings and middle-income workers in today’s world. There are hospitals all over the city. There are firefighters, doctors, policemen, paramedics, all waiting for a call for help.

And yet. And yet, we can’t call. We can’t call because all we can think about is: What if I’m wrong? What if I’m not dying of TSS? I’ll have wasted all that money. I’ll never be able to pay the bills. I’ll be in financial ruin, especially here in France where I have no Social Security to reimburse me.

No, it’s better to risk death.

If there’s no fire, no blood, no mangled limbs, then there’s no reason to call 911.

Oh God, I don’t even know the number for 911 in France! Jesus, how do I not know this? What if this is serious?

OK. OK. Calm down.

Let’s go get that pamphlet on Toxic Shock Syndrome.

Here it is.

I look at the pamphlet. It’s in at least 10 different languages, none of them English.

Tampax

Wait. What?! This is an American brand!* I’ve been using this since I was 16!** They have to have this information in English somewhere.

Surely this can’t be right. Calm down and check the languages again.

See there, there’s an “E” over that one.

Phew! OK.

Shit. No, I was wrong. “E” is for “Espagne.” What you need is “GB” for “Great Britain.”

Yep, that’s not here.

OK. OK. All is not lost. You speak French. Do you remember you speak French? You’ve been speaking French for 10 years! You can figure this out. And even if you can’t, remember that you have that giant English/French dictionary next to the bed.

Img_6544

Whoever thought of using a universal language for scientific words is a genius! Hm. I never knew Toxic Shock Syndrome was caused by Staphylococcus. No wonder it’s fatal.

Rebecca? Rebecca! Did you forget what you were looking for?

Oh yes. OK, here we are: symptoms.

I don’t have any of the symptoms, although I’m pretty sure I am blanched, but maybe that’s because it’s 3 a.m. But no vomiting so far, although I’m suddenly feeling nauseous. Um, nope, no diarrhea, no sore muscles, no feeling like I’ve been sunburned, no dizzy spells when I stand up.

So I take some Midol. I hate Midol because it has caffeine in it and it gives me the jitters.

I lie back in bed and try to concentrate on anything but the pain.

As I’m lying there I begin to be more logical. I rethink my original self-diagnosis, and I’m pretty sure this is actually just a really bad case of menstrual cramps brought on by having started taking the pill again this month. They say that can be a side effect, even though the commercials always promise less cramping and lighter periods.

Ah yes, the Midol is taking effect. Thank goodness Tony wasn’t easily talked into going to the hospital this morning. I’d hate to be in financial ruin for nothing but paranoia.

*Side note for you doubters: Tampax is indeed an American brand. It was started in Denver, CO, according to their Web site.

**Since the age of 16, I have been freaking out at least two or three times a year about Toxic Shock Syndrome. In fact, TSS is the reason it took me five years to start using tampons in the first place. I would have never changed over if it hadn’t been for joining the water polo team in high school.