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Area woman and aspiring writer Jodi Tannenbaum, after a third attempt at getting published by the literary website McSweeney’s (in its “Lists” section), found herself “totally in the middle of that scene from Swingers.”

“You know that famous scene,” she said, “where the guy, not Vince Vaughn… the other guy…he calls a girl he likes and says something embarrassing on her answering machine, so he calls back again to explain, and then again to explain that—wait—what do you mean you didn’t see it?”

Where I used to live, there was no coast. Where I live now, there are seagulls and a ship-studded grayness called the Long Island Sound. In my neighborhood, there are crosswalks that don’t make sense, and a hospital supply store, and a Missing Kid poster that shows a dingy security-camera photo of a little boy with Asperger’s. He’s marching down the street with a briefcase. Where I live now, things happened in sixteen-something. Persecuted lawmakers hid in caves. They found safe haven. People say New Haven isn’t quite safe but It’s Better Than It Used To Be. French troops once camped in our park on their way to defend Yorktown. Buildings on my block have little plaques saying they are historically significant and any fool can see they are beautiful. One is salmon pink with blue trim and jewel-toned windows. Mostly they are brick, with archways and strange circular portals and hidden balconies. My own building has a Mansard roof and I never knew that word before but I love how they look anyway, like attic steeples, or dark square hats on the deep red bodies of our brownstones.

2/2 The Road to Jackson Hole

The roar of the V8 under my feet feels very American as we climb through the foothills of the Northern Rockies, yellow/green grass, red/pink rock plateaus like specialty cakes crafted by time and erosion, off to the left deeper foothills, browner, dotted with conifers, the path we drive through treeless, only scrubby brush and hearty grasses, a perfect cross between prairie and western plateaus.

The road is flat and mostly straight, speed limit 75, black cows munching on grass–content to chew and flap their tails–rarely will you see a lone cow stray from the group–sad in a way that I can see them now as something natural and beautiful, soon to be only cling wrapped, sliced pieces of flesh, dredged through terrible cutting machines, consumed by somebody with an appetite for meat but never able to appreciate the beauty of a lone cow chewing on the pale grasses of the plains.

Entering Wyoming, moving Northwest, tree cover here is thicker–low, dense conifers, stout and hearty. Trees say a lot about a place–tropical trees sway with long, loose branches and naked trunks, like a scantily clad, dreadlocked island native. The trees here are short and tacit–little mountain men.

We have sliced through the initial barrier of the foothills and are nestled in a flat line between them and bigger hills to the left. Passing large ranches, ‘real’ ranches, hundreds of acres in size. I imagine working the land here, waking up to bacon and coffee and pancakes and working all day, stopping only for lunch.

Train tracks dip in and out of the landscape, sinking off into the distance. Something about trains is fascinating–long, ugly steel beasts, and yet beautiful, mythic, invoking a sense of timelessness–sameness in a changing world–romantic–reminiscent of the great American work ethic–so large and yet stealthy–creeping through the land with a steady chugga chugga and at times a lonesome whistle that at night pierces, shrill, into your room, into your head like a Blues chord, as if to say, “Don’t be lonely, everything is OK, the train is still going–everything is still relevant.” While other machines are left discarded by the side of the tracks the train keeps on–same old cars and smoky engines–unflappable, as though my grandkids will someday see the same ones–they have an air of immortality, like the mountains forever a part of the landscape–but I know this to be untrue, they will someday crumble, mere wreckage, and then dust.

We crossed the continental divide some time ago and now too are flowing downhill towards the Pacific. But we won’t make it that far. I have trouble believing the Rockies resume close by as I stare out across the prairie but I know they remain hidden behind the clouds to the West, rise up like a fortress–beautiful but also sinister. A mountain ages like a man–slowly creasing and sagging and breaking down–worn away by time until finally gone–dust.

The snow and slope of the land gradually are getting steeper until the mountains that a while ago appeared painted on the horizon are all around. The rancher’s fence that lined the farmland is here, except now rolling up and down with the rise and fall of the land and almost buried in snow. The familiar pointy, tall, skinny conifers and thin, wispy Aspen of the Rockies have returned. We have entered the Teton National Forest, and two mighty moose trudge through deep snow, diplomats to this pristine land.

Driving provides a lesson for life: keep moving and things will change–no matter how far off what you’re going for appears–stay on the path and it will happen–all of a sudden you’re there and it’s surreal because for so long the road was somewhere else–passing through countless points until at last it’s the one you want.

2/3 Reflections on Jackson Hole

One of those times you see somebody else that looks like you–and momentarily they are you–and I see upon their face my own expression–eyes ablaze with joy looking up on steep slopes surrounded by rocky cliffs and trees and the outline of skiers and boarders descending dark against the white background. It snowed all morning but later the sun burst free and as it did felt like a privilege–which is what I see in the eyes of the stranger that is me–humbleness, wonder, thanks for the deep snow and vertical drop and sun–a religious experience, deeply spiritual–but somebody in line jokingly moos and I see the other side–we are cattle, each of us no more important than the other–perhaps some better stock but all doing the same thing–standing in line, gear in hand, telling stories that are just an attempt to stay relevant. It’s why I write this story, to tell that I was there, I skied Jackson Hole, I descended its steep rocky slopes, the sun was out the snow was deep and I’ll never forget it or the looks on my friends’ faces as they laid and rested in the snow, only their grins discernable behind thick clothing and bug eyed goggles–looking like spacemen on the moon, adventurers on their own strange, alien planet and as I remember their faces I also remember mine–my face on another–the face of joy we all wore but was no more important to the mountains than cows being herded through machines and packaged and sold. A mountain is indifferent to all.

2/4 The Return Voyage

Each portion of mountains has a distinct look even among a large chain–the Rockies of Wyoming have a different look than those of Colorado–but they do appear similar, as though cousins. The fairly blunt tops indicate the toil of millions of years of erosion–these are old mountains, some of the oldest in the world–but once they were never here at all–and so it will be in the future–mountains to dust–dust back into mountains–someday a great sea may cover this land, with the top of Jackson Hole an island jutting up through the blue depths–the descendants of cowboys and ski bums making a living, diving to explore the decaying remains of a chairlift.

But for now we are above sea level and it is a glorious sight–rolling along through a valley, the sun breaking over a peak and flooding the land with a blast of light–everything covered with a film of frost– and when the sun hits the land it sparkles and the branches of trees stretch outward like hands straining for the warmth of the sun. All living things reach for the sun, the only certain God.

A fog rolls over the valley, clinging to a river that winds through the trees like a serpent of mist. I imagine myself as a great adventurer starting a day of travel on foot–seeing this same view–taking a moment from his quest to enjoy the vista–I am alive–this is real–no mission is so great as not to take time to enjoy the moments of beauty, such as the epic landscape laid out before me–this is the adventure–everything in between.

Towns proudly display population signs of one and two hundred–horses outside in stables–steam coming from their nostrils, matching the smoke rising from the chimneys of houses that are all warm and snug inside. Few things are more satisfying than a roaring fire on a cold day, the feeling of triumphing over the elements. Men here have beards and cowboy hats and denim and drive trucks–tough and silent and grizzled and yet possessing a simple kindness–a traditional way that keeps them human. Here they are sheltered from the terrible world not too far away–this is a sanctuary–wildlife and mountains and rivers and pure white snow–hidden from the world of man–cold, dirty, greedy, loud, crowded. Living here is a firm stand against the society that cheapens it–fouls it–destroys it. Staying here is a decision to stay human and as I drive through Wyoming I briefly regain the innocence the world has taken away.

  1. Fish Tricks
  2. Pork Swaps (or Lamb Swaps)
  3. Counter-Pig’s-Feit
  4. Steak-Believe
  5. Pretenderloin
  6. ReproDUCKtion
  7. Sleight of Ham
  8. Scam Chowder
  9. Not Roast
  10. Cheatloaf
  11. Beef Psteu
  12. Filet Mignone
  13. Shamburger
  14. Chicken Pot Lie
  15. Salmock
  16. Leaf Stroganoff
  17. Beef Fauxganoff
  18. Don’t-Go-Against-Your-Beliefs-Stroganoff
  19. Chicken Noodle Spoof
  20. Pep-parody Pizza
  21. Gypped Beef on Hoax
  22. SubstiTuna Salad
  23. ArtiFISHal
  24. Sashimitation
  25. Bluffalo Wings
  26. No-Killbasa
  27. Venisn’t

Thanks to Amanda Pounds who made me do this.

Jazz Hands

I worked on a cattle-breeding farm in central Virginia for one summer during college. My first week involved long hours of bush-hogging—hauling a sort of heavy-duty lawnmower though pastures of shoulder-high brown grass, so that the cows could access the sweeter green shoots beneath. The tractor was top of the line, with an air-conditioned cab and tape deck. I’d listen to audiobooks and entertain myself by beheading black snakes and watching their decapitated bodies spout blood and slither in circles through the rear-view mirror. In the mornings, I’d often rouse families of sleeping deer that had bedded down in the tall grass. Spotted does and spindly-legged fawns would bound towards the trees like Olympic hurdlers.

Victor and I sent our grandchildren an early Christmas gift of a tank containing two bright green frogs, contrasting pink gravel, a year’s worth of frog food and other assorted frog-related paraphernalia. Our son-in-law was home alone when this package arrived.

He ate both of the frogs, basted with olive oil and fresh rosemary, and lightly grilled.

Now, do not be so quick to judge.

You would forgive him this momentary, seemingly inexplicable indiscretion if you knew all the facts in play here.

Victor and our son-in-law are both ardent carnivores. As a result of this, they exchange virtually identical gifts every birthday and Christmas: meat. Styrofoam containers bypass each other in the mail each holiday, containing, for example, steaks or varieties of salami. The surprise, naturally, is exactly which remarkable type of meat is included under the dry ice each time.

When our son-in-law opened the package, which was addressed to both him and my daughter, he made the assumption that he had received his meat gift. It was a misunderstanding that we should have foreseen.

You should also know that our son-in-law, due to medical restrictions, has been on a severe sodium restricted diet for almost two years. During this time his diet has consisted of the same exceedingly boring and tasteless foods, day after day after day, containing especially low levels of sodium. Serendipitously, these particular frogs happened to be appropriately low in sodium content.

This strict regimen has affected his culinary, parental and conventional judgment. The bright green frogs were irresistible. Who among you would begrudge him this soupçon of diversification in his tedious diet?

Fortunately, our grandchildren were gamboling in the park when this act of extraordinary, but erroneous impropriety took place. Their father, after swiftly despatching the two lightly grilled frogs, immediately realized his horrible misunderstanding. He went about putting right his blunder.

Their father is renowned for his ingenuity.

He drove to a near-by Dollar Store and purchased miniature Christmas ornaments, each water-resistant, and strung them on silver and gold threads in the tank of water with the bright pink gravel. He even found waterproof colored lights to light up the water. He always does a superb job with everything to which he sets his mind, so the frog-free tank was transformed into an elaborate and aesthetically pleasing Christmas decoration.

Our grandchildren are quite young and naïve, so they were easily convinced that their grandparents had sent them an extravagant Christmas decoration, which, though not actually animate, required monthly feedings for a year.

The night after each monthly feeding, when his children have gone to sleep, their father strains the adulterated water and replaces it with Perrier, which he has on hand since he formerly loved to drink it, but now cannot, due to its high sodium levels. This keeps the water pristine and lovely, even somewhat bubbly for a short time.

You might have thought that the impropriety of consuming your children’s pets would result in their psychological harm, but you forget! They never knew about the existence of the frogs to begin with.

In fact, this rejuvenated tank of inanimate, yet hungry, Christmas ornaments has turned out to be their favorite Christmas gift, a win-win, so to speak, (except for the frogs, of course.)

 

 

(Gentle reader, if you were truly appalled by this tale, I humbly beg your forgiveness. Most of this story is true. Occasionally, the total truth vexes me, when, with just a tweak, it becomes more palatable, if you will excuse the pun. I will, charitably, reassure you, gentle reader, that said frogs are in good health. One has been named “Hug” and the other “Kiss.” They live in their rather ordinary tank on an ordinary kitchen table in our grandchildren’s house.) (Ho hum, ho hum, ho hum.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dessert

By Matthew Gavin Frank

Travel

In Alba, Italy, rain and a market. In my hands, the white greased paper that once held an entire rotisserie rabbit. Its bones clack together as hooves, a horse in the distance. I clutch this paper coffin to my chest, as if for warmth, and scan the piazza for a garbage can. My hunt for refuse carries me into the covered pulse of the marketplace, and I have to blink to focus. Now unburdened by my desire to eat a whole animal, I am able to assimilate this lovely and special chaos. There are hundreds of vendors—fruit stands, fish stands, meats and cheeses; rounds, bricks, entire civilizations of cheese, octopus, persimmon. I toss my trash in a can beneath a string of blood sausage.

“Hey! Hey!” I hear someone shout.

The voice opens like the lid of an ancient hope chest, rides its dusty remnants and long dead dreams on the rain. If I were to look inside this voice I’d expect to find centuries-old taxidermy, owls with shellacked eyes and sawdust in the feathers. I hear it again, this time in triplicate.

“Hey! Hey! Hey!”

I have no reason to think it’s directed at me, but I turn to face a tiny knuckle of a man, dressed all in white, head so perfectly circular it could have been designed with a compass.

“Hey! Viene qua!” the frump calls from behind his fruit stand.

I turn and point behind me, my forehead certainly a mess of wrinkles. People cascade in circles, not one of them standing still. I turn back and touch my chest.

“Io?” I ask.

“Si, si,” he creaks, “Tu.”

I move forward and, as if stepping on a hidden button in the cobblestone, I activate this man to produce a baseball-sized fig from his fruit pile, bust it in half with his thumbs, and shove both bowled sides into his mouth at once. As if a magician waiting for applause, he, less than a second later, waves the cleaned purple fig skins at me as theatre curtains.

“Wow,” is all I can muster.

He holds a fat palm open to me. I freeze into position. He turns and retrieves another intact fig, this one even larger. Again, with his cigar-stub fingers, he breaks the fruit in two, its swampy sweet cilia waving yellow at my nose like a sea anemone. Soon, his hands are in mine, wet with warm rain, rolling the fig halves into my drenched palms.

“Prego,” he offers, but it could easily have been, “Abracadabra.”

I want to match his magic, so I shove both halves into my mouth. The music of the fruit shrieks soprano with cherry and yeast, the texture of limp comb teeth. This is a fig to resurrect the dreams of a great-great-grandmother. This is a fig to make her a little girl again, stretch her hair from stiff gray to blonde braided pigtails. I think of the tango and pull the stripped skins from my mouth. The frump actually applauds, laughing.

“Bravo! Bravo!” he bellows.

I laugh knowingly with him, having shared in his secret bag of wizard’s tricks.

I reach into my pocket, expecting a string of scarves, but produce only my wallet. When I flash a few coins, he shakes his head, a bowling ball on shoulders, and turns to help another customer, a middle-aged woman with a faux-snakeskin umbrella.

I feel large, and somehow filled-out, rounded, fat-handed, aged and neckless. This is a market without illusion. The magic here is real. Over the reptilian umbrella, I watch the man hoist a watermelon into the air.

 

This piece originally appeared in Brevity and was reprinted in Creative Nonfiction (The “Best of Brevity 2005” issue).