Transect

Issue #6

Winter 2012

Table of Contents

3 Letter from the Editor

4 Contributors

5 Events

7 Nonfiction – “Pearl” by Kyle Torke

11 Poetry – “Lattice Degeneration” by Colleen M. Keehl

12 Fiction – “Transcript of the Testimony to the Thorncroft Commission on Radon Particle Accelerators by Professor Artur Paikalainen” by Adam KarniCohen

19 Fiction – “Party Boy” by Austin Hall

27 Poetry – “Prayer to the Merciful Twenty-Six Times” by Colleen M. Keehl

28 Fiction – “Palma-Christi” by Léonora Miano, translated by Michelle Chilcoat

46 Poetry – “Phenomenology” by Colleen M. Keehl

47 Fiction – “The Man I Hated” by Olusola Akinwale

61 Drama – “Chemistry” by Sally Jane Kerschen-Sheppard

73 Essay – “The Friends at the Café de Flore” by Jacques Houis

 

Letter from the Editor

Dear Reader,

This is where I write something nice about how crazy it is that I’m introducing the sixth issue and what a wonderful time we’ve been having in our little corner of the literary world, and something about what literature and the literary world, the literary life, means to all of us, and either a more professional picture of myself or just a photograph that is representative of the season without being too self-centered (maybe just me at my friends’ show in Williamsburg, but nothing that implies the way this picture is is the way the world is because this is the only world that matters, because it’s a big world out there and we can only see part of it at a time), and then I’ll write something meant to be inspiring about writing or art or what trans means and what transect is supposed to do, something about cutting across, about analysis, about dissection without the negative echo of cutting apart, more about dividing crosswise, creating a space for intersection perhaps, and then we’ll see where that leads us.  Warmest,

– Christina Phelps

Contributors

Olusola Akinwale divides his time between creative writing and public policy analysis.  His work has appeared in Saraba MagazineAuthor-meDew on the Kudzu, and Istanbul Literary Review.  He lives in Lagos, Nigeria.

Michelle Chilcoat is a professor of French Studies and Film Studies at Union College in Schenectady, NY.  She has published  articles on topics ranging from French colonialism to cyberpunk film, as well as numerous film and book reviews.  Her current translation of Miano’s award-winning novel, Contours du jour qui vient (“The Shape of the Day to Come”), is being considered for publication in the US.

Léonora Miano is a leading fresh voice in the growing field of what she has dubbed “Afropean” literature.  Born in Cameroon and residing in Paris since 1991, Miano has published six critically acclaimed novels in France since 2005, along with two collections of short stories.  Her work is deadly serious, funny, ironic, heartbreaking, and uplifting all at the same time, integrating her impressive array of knowledge of colonial and post-colonial histories, musical genres, linguistic practices and politics across Europe, Africa, the US, and the Caribbean.  Her works remain largely unpublished in English.

French artist Adolphe Cieslarczyk, born in Poland in 1913, has been creating art (drawing, painting, sculpture, multimedia) for over seventy years, though he never gave up his factory job until he had to retire.  His daughter Françoise – also an artist – has been organizing retrospectives of his work.

Adam Karni Cohen was born in Boston but fled to London at age three.  Most of his adult life has been spent in carpeted offices, which is one reason to write fiction.

Austin Hall loves to write (you knew that already) and has a habit of thinking about writing in all types of social situations, no matter how awkward.

Jacques Houis is a French Teacher at the Brearley School in New York City, a literary translator, editor and writer.  The Comic Romance, his translation of Paul Scarron’s 1651 seminal classic novel Le Roman Comique, is being published by Alma Classics in April 2012.

Colleen M. Keehl is a constant thinker, viewing the world via a lens made hazy due to copious amounts of caffeine, congested hourly in the form of stronger than strong French press.  With the help of her ever-present Blue Brother Charger 11 typewriter, her thoughts spout from her chaotic mind and onto anything resembling paper.  She grew up in the Mitten but finds that she doesn’t like staying in the same place too long.  Currently residing in New York City, she is working at a literary agency while paying copious amounts of money to continue her education.  She is a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers and is feverishly trying to finish her first novel.

Originally from Texas, Sally Jane Kerschen-Sheppard received a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.F.A. from Southampton College.  Her other works include Lunch Date (published by Hueur Publishing, LLC), East Harlem (Finalist, PAGE International Screenwriting Awards), Last Inning (Finalist, 10 by 10 Festival in the Triangle), and Gold and Cocaine (New Play Reading Series at Eastern Illinois University).  She created and coordinates a Sarah Lawrence College Alumnae/i Playwrights Workshop, is the theatre coordinator for the Southampton Arts Summer Conferences, and is a certified yoga teacher.  Sally Jane is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild of America, Inc.

Kyle Torke is currently the Reading, Rhetoric, and First Year Programs Specialist at Colorado College but will be landing his helicopter at a new institution in the spring – stay posted for details.  When he’s not teaching literature, creative writing, or writing, Kyle instructs his two teenage sons in the fine art of scansion (using Shakespeare as a model) and the how-to of wrestling alligators and his two young daughters in jujitsu and origami-style airplane folding techniques.  He publishes in every major genre and has four books, two of poetry and one each of fiction and nonfiction; his most recent collection of nonfiction, Sunshine Falls, will (if the envelope of money was fat enough) be published in fall 2012.

Dr. Ernest Williamson III has published poetry and visual art in over 350 national and international online and print journals.  His poetry has been nominated three times for the Best of the Net Anthology, for the poems “The Jazz of Old Wine,” “The Symbol of Abiotic Needs,” and “The Misfortune of Shallow Sight.”  He holds a B.A. and M.A. in English/Creative Writing/Literature from the University of Memphis and a PhD in Higher Education Leadership from Seton Hall University.

 

Events

12.21.2011 – trans lit mag begins transmitting issue #6, “transect.”

 

Nonfiction

Pearl

by Kyle Torke

I was using a borrowed chainsaw to clear limbs and brush from the oaks lining my driveway when two men in identical black pants, white shirts, and thin black ties approached me with hands extended.  One wore a denim backpack and the other a leather satchel.  I knew who they were and what they wanted.  I did not turn off the saw.

“Good morning, my friend!” the younger one said, offering me a bible.  He sported a page-boy haircut and narrow eyes that gave him the look of oncoming delirium.  I raised my safety-goggles and shrugged, implying my hands were too full to take either of his gifts – the hand or the book.

“We were wondering if you might have a few moments to talk about the Good Book this morning.”  The older one spoke now, his smile intensifying.  He would not be deterred.  Sweat stains nestled around his neck and armpits.  He seemed to have missed the entire left side of his face while shaving.

“I’m a little busy,” I said, lifting the saw again.  The blade was still, but the small gas motor percolated.

“Too busy now means too busy later,” said the damp one.

“We just want to make sure you’re safe.”

They remained smiling.

I pointed to my gloves and glasses.  “I’m safe.”

“Oh, good!”  They turned their smiles on each other.  They weren’t getting my hint.

“Always good to know the good Lord Jesus is in your heart and your life.  Do you worship regularly?”

“I’m not really a religious person,” I said.

“Oh?”  The young one seemed genuinely confused.

“Listen, I’m not who you want to be talking to this morning.  I’m a waste of your time.”

“No, sir!  No, sir!” said the older one, maybe seventeen.  “No soul is a waste of our time.  We are here to help you, to guide you to better place, to make sure the Word of God finds purchase in your life, and no amount of work would be too much work for us.”

“That’s right!  Please, please, don’t consider yourself wasted.  There’s always time to come to the Lord.”

They took a step toward me.

I’d read the bible in several translations.  I’d taught courses on belief and unbelief.  I spent a great many hours discussing deep philosophical questions concerning the nature of god or gods, of reality, of all spiritual matters with my high school buddies fifteen years earlier.  I knew the Greeks, Egyptians, and Native Americans.  I’d prayed in a Baptist Evangelical Church and lit incense in a Buddhist Temple.  I’d watched my son be born, a cat run over by a car, and plants germinate in Styrofoam cups.  And I’d spent time arguing with radical, infected zealots before, and I knew I wasn’t going to win the argument and that,in fact, there was no argument – only a position.

My wife was inside with my baby.  Lunch was being prepared.  My dog sat looking out the screen door, wagging her tail.

I revved the chainsaw a little.

“I’m not interested, but thank you.”  They stopped, reloading.  I paused.  I could see they had fired only the first volley; they had more bullets.  “But,” I began, shifting my gaze to my neighbor’s house, a small clap-board square squatting among anemic bushes and a lawn riddled with weeds, “my neighbor is a shut-in, and I know she’d enjoy your company.  She’s someone who loves to talk to men of religious faith.”

They surveyed me, smiling, and backed away.  Perhaps it was the chain revolving slowly on the blade of the saw, perhaps the certainty with which I replaced my goggles, but they thanked me and walked toward Pearl’s front steps, grateful for easier prey and what, I’m confident, they were hoping would be a glass of lemonade.

She met them at the door and had, in fact, been watching the entire proceedings.  They stepped inside the dingy entrance, and the door clicked shut behind them.  I was called to sandwiches, which I enjoyed, and returned to work.  After nearly two hours, the boys emerged from Pearl’s house, literally pulling themselves away from her.

“Now you boys listen to me and listen good you’d better get on the right path to righteousness this Mormonism you’re preaching is dangerous and dishonest I once had a friend who weren’t on the right path and she’s burning in hell right now I’m sure of it as I’m sure the devil is in your purse right there all those little black books full of lies and evilworshipping and the sun don’t set on but one kingdom and it’s the good kingdom and it’s the right kingdom and it sure ain’t the kingdom you boys is living in….”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

They pulled away from her near the street.  Pearl didn’t like to leave her own property; mischief was always the consequence when she strayed.  She reluctantly let them go though her posture made it clear she was not confident she had saved them.

“I knew a man once who was a preacher in the south and he preached the bad gospel and then he got them stones in his kidneys and it was the real God stoning him nearly to death for talking such evil and devilry misleading all them good folks whose souls are rotting now because he lied just like you be lying to me now it ain’t all bad if you just come back to the right way of thinking I knew a girl once who was on the wrong but she turned right before the aneurysm which was only God’s way of saying he appreciated her change of heart….”

I returned to the limb I was severing and lost Pearl in the rush of wood chips.  I saw the boys trotting up the street and could feel Pearl on her porch, all five feet and ninety pounds of her, arms crossed, silver hair in a bun so tight her eyebrows raised toward the corners, her hands skeletal and veined, arms crossed, watching me and passing judgment.  She saw me in flames.  She would tap her foot, shake her head, and retreat into the darkness.

 Some irritations produce perfect pearls – a microscopic piece of debris lodges in the mantel of a deep sea oyster, and the oyster secretes layers of calcium carbonate, year after year, smothering the foreign invader and smoothing the rough edges.  The oyster is merely protecting itself much like the diabetic who checks his socks and shoes every time he walks, knowing a pebble unchecked could lead to a sore that will never heal.

My neighbor Pearl rarely had visitors or left her house.  She talked a lot about church, but I never saw her journey abroad on a Sunday.  A niece brought her groceries once a week and hurried away as soon as she had stocked the larder.  When I first moved into my house, I wanted to be social with the neighbors – I had suburban dreams I carried with me from Denver to Graham, North Carolina – but a Chinese restaurant bordered me on the east, a parking lot to the south, a deaf and mumbling geriatric hoarder who died during my first year in the house to my north, and Pearl closest on the west – where the sun sets.  We shared a fence.

I met Pearl under unfortunate circumstances the second day after I’d taken possession of the house.  I had two dogs, Brix and Nikkita, both chow-mixes with sweet temperaments and territorial leanings.  Neither liked other dogs, and they had a bad habit of tag-teaming unfortunate animals who wandered too close.

I was eating breakfast when I heard a whiny voice at the screen door.  At first, I thought the noise was a mosquito, and I swatted at my ear, but then I realized someone was standing on my front porch, holding a dog by the collar.

“I got your dog!  I got your dog!  You-who I got your dog!”  She pronounced dog “daw-egg.”

As I saw the woman reach for the latch, I panicked and yelled “No!” just as my two dogs leaped at the door and Pearl opened the screen, pushing the dog she thought was mine through the door.  A terrific fight ensued between my two dogs and the unfortunate, pleasant faced Labrador puppy that had been thrust into hostile territory.  I managed after some blood and torn fur and a broken lamp to hold my two dogs back while the puppy fled out the door and past Pearl who had stood silent for the entire melee, jaw dropped.  I sat panting on the floor, clutching both dogs around the shoulders, panting as they whined and twisted to get away.

“You better keep better control of your daweggs mister your dawegg just ran down the street and I ain’t a gonna catch him this time no you’re gonnahave to go get him this a time I once knew a man who was killed by a dawegg actually three of them come at him at once and he was just walking at night singing of Jesus he was a good man and his sister was good too but their son was a bit of hell raiser always chasing the devil and the loud music he was always making that noise near rattled the windows.”

She slammed the door and walked back to her house.

I discovered a dead cat on my porch one morning late in the heat of July.  Clearly, the poor feline had been hit by a car; the body was nearly flat.  The dogs alerted me to the corpse, but they weren’t interested in going near the mangled feline.  As I was burying the cat in the garden we never planted, Pearl came to the fence; I couldn’t see her, but she spoke loud enough for her voice to carry.

“Your daweggs killed that cat I found it in the street.”  She was clearly angry.  I imagined her hurling the cat over the fence, wiping her hands with satisfaction at having served justice.  “You control your daweggs I don’t want to be afraid for my life over here all alone and just praising God it was a damned cat and a black one too and not me I knew a woman once with three black cats and she never had no luck bad or good just cats and her husband left her for the girl that flipped the sandwiches the police came one night to take her away and the cats stayed and don’t you think I’m not watching you and your daweggs….”

I apologized and retreated to the house.

On another occasion, I was cutting branches above a shed that bordered Pearl’s property in the backyard.  I was not being safe – the ladder didn’t reach where I needed to apply the saw, so I leaned heavily off the roof onto the tree’s trunk and stretched with one arm.  I tried to keep the branches from falling into Pearl’s yard, but I knew I’d have to collect some from her property eventually.  I was sweating; the bugs were after me, especially mosquitoes, and I itched from forehead to toes.  I was already irritated because of the work, the heat, and the insect bites when Pearl came out to teach me how to use a chainsaw.

“My husband my Ralph he knew how to lumberjack and it ain’t the way you’re lumberjacking he was a religious man always praising the lord and loving Jesus in the right way not like some people who love Jesus the wrong way or don’t love Jesus at all them’s going to burn in Lucifer’s hell pit you keeping your daweggs in lately I ain’t afraid of your daweggs you holding that machine right you need to get some learning on how to lumberjack right you going to kill yourself what with all the stuff in my yard what am I going to do with all the stuff in the yard I knew a man once who bought four tires for his car all at the same time but if you ain’t safe it don’t matter none….”

I tried to ignore her, but her voice carried through the gnawing sound of the chain biting the tree.  I lost focus, slipped, and plopped onto the roof of the shed, clutching the chainsaw with my right hand tightly enough to keep the teeth spinning.  The blade dropped across my thigh.  I released the trigger, and the teeth caught in my jeans, ripping just enough flesh to bleed dramatically.  I threw the saw to the grass and jumped off the roof, pressing against my thigh to staunch the blood.  As I closed the door behind me, I heard Pearl.

“I told you you was no lumberjack and you was due a fall a big fall you should have listened to me when I was telling you not to lean too far away not to fall now you’ve done it you’ve done it now and the fall is coming I knew a woman who fell from a tractor once and she was okay until the bull trampled her damn that was a nice bull big and black with horns that caught the light and looked so pretty and always so safely kept in his pen till she fell in….”

 

Poetry

Lattice Degeneration

by Colleen M. Keehl

I will always remember your Lichtenberg veins

& how they fought me like trees —

I argued my bones & circled your lies;

intrinsic, you said, was like catching a bus

& following the boar to where it will die with

tar in his chest & no one to weep;

I don’t want you weak, I don’t want

you at all.

I found infinity locked in 4:54 a.m.

but lost it a minute later, so I

ridded my skin to flock in the limbs

of your dilapidated sorrow.

You were only ever an epitaph for desire; a lost

man in his bed

grasping for handfuls of skin I no longer had to offer.

 

Fiction

Transcript of the Testimony to

the Thorncroft Commission on Radon Particle Accelerators

by Professor Artur Paikalainen

by Adam Karni Cohen

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Let me start by thanking the commission for ten years of fascinating inquiry.  I am presenting today the life’s work of many distinguished scientists.  Was this worth, as the media have questioned, our “astronomical annual salaries?”  This is not for me to say.  I will note that, while none of us are astrophysicists, a five digit number strikes us as hardly astronomical.

Several of my colleagues and I were among the first to call for an inquiry into the use of radon particle accelerators in genetic modification.  For years, we campaigned for greater transparency from the Oxmore Programme Companies who had collaborated to develop and then market the technology.  Contrary to widespread speculation, we did not come to this field with a prejudice against the science of gamma rays.  Rather, we were opposed to obfuscation: the combination of lack of transparency with, on the one hand, vast technological power, and on the other, public ignorance of the issues.

We were charged by this commission ten years ago.  We have pursued our inquiry with objectivity, working with scientists from all spheres, as well as the companies under investigation, civil servants, and experts from fields as diverse as entomology and criminology.  Over 4,000 scientists have been involved across seventeen countries.  Approximately eight million man hours have been spent, including three million man hours of laboratory testing, resulting in a final report of twenty thousand pages and over sixty million words in final, interim and draft materials.  These are astronomical figures.

I stand here today alone, but every one of my distinguished colleagues is represented in our final report.  Their contribution is beyond value.  The duration of this process has been such that sadly some are no longer alive.  In our written statement to the commission we have included a full list of names we wish to commemorate in this, our final submission.

But I want to draw attention now to two in particular.

The first is Professor Josephine Concainbleu, whose research on swampmoss toxicity both earned her the Nobel Prize and led to her death at 47.  Professor Concainbleu was co-head of the investigation with me for the first seven years.  Her ability to grasp the most complex insights and translate them into clear and simple explanations was unparalleled.  She was the warmest human being I’ve ever known.  Her humour and energy helped lead us through times of extreme difficulty.

The second is the journalist Rijker Wilde, about whose life too much has been said, most of it erroneous and agenda-driven.  I will only add to the record that he was a man of the deepest principles and inarguably the prime cause of this commission’s existence through his tireless investigation into the work of Radon Corporation, Stream Ltd and the other Oxmore Programme Companies.  He became then remained a dear friend until the day he disappeared.

Mr. Chairman, ten years ago the commission asked us to investigate three questions.  We have reported preliminary findings every two years, with an interim report five years ago.  Today, in these DVDs and bound volumes, we bring you our conclusive findings.

I understand that we have slightly less than six hours now to present a summary in language intended for the understanding of the general public.  Inevitably, the reports are data- and research-driven and will daunt the layman reader.  In the main text we have therefore erred on the side of readability and where possible moved what many glibly refer to as “the detail” to the appendices that form the bulk of these reports.  I must urge the commission to devote no less time to “the detail,” as it is here that the obfuscation is swept aside.

The three questions we were charged with answering were revised five years ago and now span twenty pages.  They can be found at the beginning of the relevant sections of the reports.  A summary of these questions was also prepared then, which I will now read for the purpose of context:

Science: What effect do gamma rays in radon particle accelerators have?

on directly exposed matter?

on organic matter not directly exposed to the rays?

What precautions can be taken to influence these effects?

Economy: What is the cost/benefit of a national health system integrating gamma ray technology, both with and without the precautions identified in 1c?

Ethics:

What challenges to the Politzer Commission on Ethical Medicine does gamma ray technology pose?  Can these be overcome?

And finally, what has proven to be the most controversial and technically difficult question of the commission:

What does God think?

Let us begin with the science.

[5 hours 24 minutes later]

Which brings us, Mr. Chairman, to the final question.

So much has been reported about the efforts of our investigation to uncover the answer that it feels very much after-the-event that I am reporting.

Almost.

Leaks from our spiritual committee, comprising heads of seventeen different faiths, were unwelcome but to be expected.  The sheer amount of coordination required was a challenge for secrecy, as was the belief among some that transparency with their own congregations was critical.

As you will have read in media reports, we did establish contact with God.

You will also know that we summarised the findings I have now presented to you, viz that:

Science:

Direct gamma rays, depending on the speed and wave length used, can prolong life by up to an infinite amount.  They can alter any or all of fifteen thousand distinct human genes.  We have confirmed that Gene Corporation’s statement that they can “create milk out of air” is true.

Indirect gamma rays in radon particle accelerators can produce a corrupting effect on cell structures equivalent to exposure to fifteen consecutive hydrogen bombs.

Physical prevention of the impact on organic matter of indirect gamma rays can only be achieved through distance and time; no shielding substances exist or can be manufactured.  Organic matter must be kept a minimum of three hundred kilometres away from particle accelerators for the three months following a single five second ray burst.  (This is the minimum required to achieve effects per 1a for one individual.)  These figures become three thousand kilometres and fifty-nine years for a burst of one hour, which is the volume Stream Ltd require to make one human immortal.

Economy: When employing minimum prevention methods – e.g. robot and radio-controlled gamma ray centres on the moon or at the bottom of the Mariana Trench – costs to humanity outweigh benefits on a ratio of 57.23 times.  This increases to 3,924 times if prevention methods proposed by Oxmore Programme Companies are used (e.g. facilities in deserts less than 200 kilometres from urban areas).

Ethics:

As previously discussed, we were prohibited from revealing to God the findings relating to the Politzer Commission due to the Official Secrets Act.

You will also know that the communication of our findings, once contact with God was established, has taken four years.

You will know that God’s answer has not yet been forthcoming.

[Small boom.]

However, as of 2:38 this afternoon, Monday 29th October 20–, I can proudly report that his answer has been communicated – directly to me, in this seat.  I would like to take a fifteen minute recess to confirm with the spiritual committee that the message is authentic.

[Fifteen minutes later]

I have here before me the signed affidavits of all seventeen members of the spiritual committee that the statement I will now present to you is the authentic and true message of God in response to the question:

“God, having reviewed the evidence concerning radon particle accelerators and their impact on Your creation, what is Your view of this work and/or us and our commission’s and this investigation team’s express desire to find a way to proceed with harnessing this technology?”

And the answer is:

I wyll destroye man kynde which I haue made, from the earth: both man, beest, worme, and foule vnder the heauen: for it repenteth me, that I hauemade them.¹

¹ Genesis 6:7, 1535 Coverdale Bible

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.  That concludes our testimony.  I am now available to answer questions.

[Outside, thunder.]

 

 Fiction

Party Boy

by Austin Hall

When it’s in the middle of some party, some shindig, when the drinks are flowing, when rave music is in the background, all I’m really doing is watching my drink.

You really have to do this, because if you don’t, someone might slip something in your drink.  They might wanna have a good time, that sort of thing.  Of course, with all of those Health classes back in the day drilled into my twelve-year-old brain, I still remember what to look out for in case someone wants to date rape me.  But they won’t, not tonight.  Tonight, I’m holding onto my drink.

This guy, he’s got some red trucker hat on, and it’s clipped to the side of his shaved brown hair.  He’s got these glasses on, and they’re so black, they hurt my eyes.  I can’t even look at them.  I can’t.

He smells of axe body spray, and I can’t pinpoint which scent.  To me, it smells like Raid.  Some other guy is blasting that techno, the beats bump and bump and my temples bump with them.  Needless to say, I get a headache.  It’s so loud I can’t hear this guy that’s talking to me, I can’t tell what he’s really saying.  It’s so dark, the neon light illuminates only white shirts.  Neon yellow, deep purple shirts.  Neon green.  Neon blue.

“What?” I ask.

“I asked if you have any classes with Dr. Perkins,” he repeats, and I just tell him how much I don’t care about this conversation, staring at this figure now made black with moving lights.

“What?” he says, and it’s so loud the walls are vibrating.  It’s so loud, my seat is vibrating.  My pants as well.  No, not like that.  Pervert.

I take a sip, I take another sip of the red punch, the red liquid.  What it tastes like is peach and apple and banana and pear.  It tastes like apricot and watermelon.  It tastes like vodka.

“You wanna go somewhere?” he says, and this time, I hear him.  I hear him alright, and his sweaty palm is on my shoulder.  It’s so hot, I nudge away, but he doesn’t notice and keeps it plastered there.  Of course, he puts his hand on my hand, the top of it covering mine.  It’s so sweaty and so gross and so hot and so wet, and it feels humid and soft and lumpy.

“I gotta get a drink first.  This one’s empty,” I say, and I head for the punch just to the side of the wet dance floor.

The punch bowl, it’s wide, expansive, and the red drink is running over onto the table, sticky with alcohol, with beer.  I sniff some alcohol on a girl’s breath as she leans in to kiss a guy too tall so he pulls her up by her butt and grabs and gropes and kisses her with an open mouth and they slobber and slobber.  I pick up the plastic ladle, funnel the red drink into another plastic cup, sip, and repeat.

Casey is coming up to me with a smile, but she’s a little tipsy so it comes out slanted, slanted like how her face is looking at me right now.

“Heyyyy,” Casey says, “you chatting up guys?”  She puts a hand on me, and it barely caresses my wrist.  I feel the tinkle of her hands, oddly dry and cracked.  How her hand feels is cold and frigid.

I just laugh when she touches my wrist, and I just position my drink in front of me, my other hand supporting my elbow.  I just smirk and say, “Sure,” I say, “All day er’ day.”

She laughs so loud it pierces my eardrums a little as I listen to it.  I can smell cherry and strawberry Stolichnaya and turn my head away.  She laughs and laughs and her drink spills, some of it falling onto the floor and making some guy with a maroon polo shirt slip, then laugh, then slip again.  I just chuckle a little.  I smell more alcohol breath.

More alcohol and more alcohol.  How it smells is the rubbing alcohol my mom would use, all those years ago just to sanitize whatever it was she had to sanitize.

“You need to get laidddd, Stace,” she tells me, leaning over me, and I smell that cherry and strawberry Stolichnaya and I’m not so sure.

“Okay,” I say, “when you stop hooking up.”

“Ahhhh, what?  Okay!” she says, and slips away, stumbling a bit as she walks by.

I just turn around and he’s there, the hat barely hanging on his head.

“You wanna get outta here now?  You got your drinky drink,” he says, and I say, sure.

He takes me outside, even holds my hand, so sweaty, so clammy, but whatever.

It’s in the fluorescent light now, so I can see his collared shirt, black and stiff, the collar a little messy.  It’s sticks up in some places.  I know he can see my navy stripped tank top.  My short short white pants.  I am wearing a white bra, but he looks anyway, hoping to see some nipples.  Probably.

Outside, he’s asking me if I like to have fun, if I drink to get drunk.  I wave my drink in front of him, now half full.

I say, “Let’s walk, shall we?”

Walking around, I’m asking him if he has any classes.  If he has any aspirations.

He says, “Sure, I’m LIVING THE DREAM!” he screams, and it tears a hole in my ears.  It’s worse than my friend was.

“I’m serious, what do you wanna do when you graduate?”

He asks me why I’m asking this, and I just tell him, I like smart guys.  I take a sip.

“Oh, I’m smart, I’m so fucking smat,” he spits out, and coughs a little, leans over, vomits.  I’m not going to describe that part.

He spits out a little more and I say, “You were saying?”

“What?”

“I asked you a question, and I want the answer, or else.”

“Or else what?” he says, and trips right into me.  I hold my hands out and stop him before he reaches my breasts.  I smell his beer, his Budweiser, I smell the vomit.  Gross.

“Or else…I’ll never talk to you again,” I tell him, and I don’t know why I say these things.

“Whaaat? Whyyy? I’m a cool guy!” he shouts at me.

I say, “Because if you can know what you want at your worst, you can know what you want at your best.”

“What?”

“Because maybe I want to see if you’re more than a fucking mess.”

“Huuuuh?”

“Because maybe I will fuck you someday.”  Of course, I won’t have sex with some vomitty guy that vomits and vomits, but he doesn’t need to know that.  Really, all I’m doing is playing a game.

“Awwwww, tease,” he says, and the sounds slip out slowly, elongating in his present state.

“You have to answer the question, truthfully, or there’s no chance of you fucking me.”

He’s eyes widen, and it’s what I wanted all along.  I take another sip.

The question, that’s just a bonus.  The truth is, it doesn’t matter if he answers truthfully or not, because I know I got him.  I know I got him right where I want him.

“You know you’re not getting anything from him,” Jake, a kid a little taller than me with black jeans and a water bottle in his hand says as he walks up to us.  Of course, it’s my friend Jake, not just any Jake.

“You don’t know that,” I say, and the drunk kid is just looking at us, his eyes wide, his mouth open, his balance teetering.  I don’t take a sip.

“What are you trying to prove?” Jake says, my friend, and he’s sipping his water some more.  “What are you trying to prove?” he says again, and I don’t have an answer.

“What are you trying to prove?” and I’m trying to ask myself the same thing.

“What are you trying to prove?” he asks again, and I just yell STOP!

I yell, “I Dunno!  I Don’t!”

He just smirks a little and sips his water, closes the cap, swings it around in his hand.

The drunk kid, he’s sitting down on the side of the sidewalk, right in the grass.

His head is down, and he’s holding it in his left hand.  Or his right.  I’m not good with my lefts and my rights.  The hat, no idea where it is now, but it’s not on his head.

“I just…” I say, “I just… don’t want to see another stereotype,” and I choke up a little.  Oh shit, I’ve revealed too much to my friend Jake, this Jake that I’ve known for a few months.

“The world’s full of stereotypes,” he says, “Get used to it,” he says, and sips some more water.

I just nod my head slightly, and he puts a hand on my shoulder.  How it feels is soft and warm.  I’m such a sucker.  I smell his cologne, and how is smells is Old Spice goodness.  I’m such a hopeless romantic.

Taking a sip, I notice the cup is almost empty.

“What were you asking him anyway?” he asks.

“I…don’t remember,” I say.

He just chuckles and says, “It must have been important.”

I just chuckle back and say, “It was.”

There’s a pause, and I don’t really know what to say so I say, “Do you want to get a drink sometime?  I mean, just alone sometime?”

He just looks at me, mid-sip, swallows, wipes his mouth, twists on the cap, and says, “Sure, do you like coffee?”

“No, do you?”

“Not really,” he says.

Then I say, “I like punch,” and hold up my cup, the liquid sloshing.  I teeter a little, because obviously, now I’m tasting more vodka, less apricot.

“I do too,” he says.

I just nod my head, and he nods his head, and we smile, and the drunk kid, he’s gone, walked away, all done for the night.  Or not.  Maybe he’s drinking some more, I’m really not sure.  Either way, I don’t really care.

Not really.

 

Poetry

Prayer to the Merciful Twenty-Six Times

by Colleen M. Keehl

It’s times like this when I

run to the bathroom

to shed my bones; to rid of your stars that

scar my carbon skin —

if only to let glaciers seep

from my pores, my ears, my broken neck

so that I can collect them when

I forget again.

God, this is not a pardon, this

is not an agreement that we have

reached so far.

For it was the last time that I saw his force

before it melded with the deck & the

red & the blood from his brain

that is no longer recognizable; I cannot remember

that face that so ardently

haunts static computer screens &

the fridge we were given from his condo.

God, you are so brutal & I’m not understanding.

I thought I was more than just ice melted

upon your command.  I thought I was

frozen solid to the ground.

 

Fiction

Palma-Christi

by Léonora Miano

translated by Michelle Chilcoat

Suggested music: The hits of Patrick Saint-Eloi, with Kassav’ and solo.

The telephone rang around the break of dawn.  Coco was already down in the hair salon, which was located at street level of her apartment building.  Her little two-bedroom on the fifth floor was worth its weight in gold now, but she had bought for a pittance twenty years ago.  Located in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, which young professional types were slowly but surely taking over, the Coco Prestige Salon was closed at this hour.  Everybody knew that.  It was for this reason that the hair salon owner was tempted not to answer the ringing phone.  But what if it was an emergency?  This was definitely not a good time.  Not only was she busy with a delicate task, but she had just put on her Patrick Saint-Eloi compilation as well, and she intended to enjoy it in peace.  Filé zétwal was ending and Ki jan ké fè was about to begin.  This was one of her favorites, along with Balad Kréyol, a huge hit from the days when the Guadeloupean singer was still with Kassav’.

Coco snatched up the receiver of the white telephone that sat on the always-spotless black lacquer desk, hesitating before saying “Hello.”  You never knew, there could have been a wacko on the other end of the line.  The world was full of psychopaths these days.  Nobody was simple anymore.  After a few seconds of silence that seemed to go on forever, she was not completely surprised to hear Akasha’s voice.  As Coco was tidying up the salon the previous weekend, she found a silver ring engraved with mysterious animals that seemed to be hugging each other.  She remembered seeing the ring on Akasha’s left ring finger so she put it in a drawer, thinking she would be able return it when Akasha came back in for her next appointment at Coco Prestige.

 

Akasha apologized for bothering her at such an early hour.  Coco thought that since the damage was done, it would be best to get right to the point of the call.  It was not that big of a deal, but Patrick’s sweet song lyrics were dancing in her ears and that was all she cared to hear.  She wanted to celebrate him one more time, certainly not the last.  She wanted to listen to his voice and his words.  Unlike Coco, Akasha did not seem at all moved by the artist’s passing, maybe she did not even know who he was, which Coco felt was unforgivable.  Of course she did not share what she was thinking with Akasha; a fan in mourning, she held her suffering deep within her heart.  Still, a little rose to the surface, forming a guttural substance in her throat that came out with a rather frightening “Is this about your ring?”  Akasha was probably trembling at the other end of the line.  She stammered: “Yes… Could I come by and pick it up this morning?”  Did she have to wear that piece of jewelry all the time or what?  Oh well, Coco just wanted to get it over with.

“Actually, I should not be in at this hour.  Which you know…  Plus, today is a holiday.         But all right, come by around 10:00.”

“Thank you, Coco…”

Just as she hung up, Saint-Eloi was starting to sing Limyè.  Coco went over to her CD player to start the compilation over again.  Then she got back to her work.  She had come down early to transfer Palma-Christi oil into smaller yellow bottles that had the logo of her hair salon on them in red.  Every six months, she ordered the oil from a friend living in Fort-de-France, who in turn bought it from an old vendor woman from Sainte Lucie.  The oil was delivered in bottles that used to contain rum.  She got the liter—or just a little under that—for 20 euros.  She sold her 50 ml. bottles for the same price, which guaranteed a nice little profit.  The bottles that she got through a Chinese manufacturer cost practically nothing.  To economize even more, she played on the ecological conscientiousness of her clients and asked them to return the empties to her.  They were more than happy to bring the bottles back, clean and ready for reuse, which made things even easier.

As Coco was placing a small plastic funnel into the neck of a bottle, she estimated she had three hours of work to do, probably a little more if she figured in Akasha’s visit.  After some thought, she decided to meet Akasha at the salon entrance, as if she were about to leave for a reason she would invent when the time came.  No one could ever see her filling her bottles.  The operation always took place in the greatest secrecy.  Even Kaïssa, the hairdresser who had been her second in command for seven years now, believed the precious liquid arrived from Paris already packaged.  She never asked any questions, content to replace the bottles that sold with the new ones that Coco kept in her storage closet, meticulously packed in cardboard boxes.

Castor oil, better known as Palma-Christi oil in the Caribbean, did marvelous things for frizzy hair.  It nourished it when it was dry, softened it when it was coarse, made it more manageable in general.  And you could use it on your skin.  It was miraculous oil.  From the moment cosmetics consumers started using organic products, women of Sub-Saharan descent were not to be outdone, so plant-based oils were selling well.  Coco made sure she got a quality product made in the traditional way.  Her roots label also attracted customers who insisted on buying ethnic.  Prepared by hand without any additives, her oil was thick and dark and the smoked-wood aroma testified to its authenticity.  You did not need to use a lot of it, and you did not have to use it every day.  A small amount would make your hair shine, whether it had been sunburned or frostbitten.  Coco had had that experience herself and knew exactly what it was like.  As far as she was concerned, all the trouble she took to provide quality oil in attractive packaging justified the price.  No client ever complained about how much it cost.  Perhaps they had not yet discovered the internet sites that marketed natural products, including Palma-Christi oil.  Coco was familiar with all of them, and had checked them for the going rates; she had placed a few orders herself so she could compare her product with theirs.  She felt good about her supplier and about her pricing.

Since it was her day off, Coco allowed herself to wear her house clothes.  She put on a pale yellow gandoura and a pair of red flip-flops that liberated the flat feet she usually kept imprisoned in high-heeled shoes throughout the workweek.  The flip-flops also revealed the corns on her pinky toes, but she was not worried about Akasha seeing them.  She would look right into Akasha’s eyes, and that would prevent her client from looking her over too closely.  However, there was one thing she did have to hide, her reputation depended on it.  Absorbed in the task at hand, however, it had slipped her mind.  But when the thought came back to her, she practically jumped because time was running out.  She needed to do something quickly before Akasha arrived.  Scolding herself for being an idiot, she tried to remain calm as she filled and capped the last bottle before flying out of the salon faster than a Concorde jet.

There were two doors:  one for the hair salon, with its white domed hair dryers, its black leather chairs, and its black and white floor tiles; the other which led inside the apartment building.  Coco hurried toward the second one, carefully looking around her, paying close attention to the windows that were still shuttered at this early hour, in case a shadow were spying on her from behind them.  She could not afford to be seen like this.  How had she let herself go out of her apartment without taking the necessary precautions to conceal the oncoming catastrophe?  Such carelessness could cost her her reputation…  She did not run into anyone in the deserted courtyard, which she crossed holding her breath, her nerves on fire; nor was there anyone in the lobby which she entered muttering prayers addressed to a god she usually gave no thought to, even managing to bite her tongue in her fervor.  Coco waited for the elevator, her heart pounding; she was prepared to knock out anybody who might be in there before the unlucky person had the chance to recognize her.  Fortunately, she did not have to commit an assault as she stepped inside.  With a lot of noisy squeaking, it carried her up to the fifth floor.  Still on her guard, she opened the elevator door a crack and looked around again to make sure no one was there.  By the time she got the key into the lock of her apartment door, she was in a state.  How could she have been so careless?  Coco rested a minute with her back against the door.  The floor of the apartment felt like it was moving under her feet, and she felt dizzy.

Within a few moments, she had settled down and she went into her bedroom.  The room was in the shape of a half-moon.  The floor was made of padauk wood that came from Africa.  She had gotten it installed at a time when no one was concerned about the forests disappearing.  A low bed occupied the center of the space.  Behind it, filling the arc of the room completely but harmoniously, there was a dressing table strewn with bottles, combs, and pieces of jewelry that had not been put back into the little Chinese box they were usually kept in.  The box was made of ebony and it sat on a bubinga wood tray that matched with the padauk flooring.  Two bulbs built into the mirror frame diffused a light so bright that Coco never had to open her curtains while she was getting ready.  Only she knew what lay beneath the image she wore for others, and it had to stay that way.  The bathroom was down the hall from the bedroom.  There was a dressing room in between.  This arrangement suited her quite well.

She had taken off her flip-flops as she came into her apartment, not so much to avoid contaminating her sanctuary with debris from outside as to allow the padauk wood to massage the pads of her feet.  Coco sat down at the dressing table.  She turned on the mirror lights, which immediately revealed her situation:  the dermatitis had come back, and not mildly.  This always happened when the weather turned damp and the days grew shorter and there was less light.  Crusty white patches covered her scalp to the top of her forehead, right up to the hairline people were always admiring.  To make matters worse, it was painful.  The anti-fungal treatment took weeks to produce results.  Seborrhea had come into her life one fall a few years back, after a ravaging heartbreak made her hate the season.

With the first days of fall ever since then, the condition always returned, forcing Coco to go to extraordinary lengths to hide the damage while she was treating it.  There were not many possibilities for covering it up.  A hairdresser could not show up for a work with a turban wrapped around her head too often, even if it was done elegantly.  Clients had to be able to see her hair, or at least what they thought was her hair.  Coco let out a long sigh.  It was exhausting.  Sometimes she wished she could let down her guard and have enough strength to confront life’s difficulties without all the shame and bother…  But that thought quickly evaporated.  Coco was not born yesterday.  She knew she must never elicit pity, especially from other women.  Her customers would have no sympathy for her autumnal dermatitis.  Word would spread on both banks of the Seine, and travel to the farthest reaches of Paris, even as far as…  Coco did not know just how far the rumors could spread, but she was certain that once they got past a certain point, her skin condition would have turned into a case of scabies or something even more repugnant.  She might as well close up shop.  But all this was out of the question, because it was no time for raising the white flag.  To anyone admiring the silky texture of her hair, she would say she was testing a Brazilian hair straightener on herself to see if she should offer the product at her salon.  And she would not hesitate to mention, especially to clientele who were conscientious about the environment, that the process was all natural and that the results were not permanent.  Pleasing everyone, that was what business was all about.

Coco opened the dressing table drawer and pulled out a front lace wig she had purchased in London.  She had made the lightening quick trip for this sole purpose.  It was available in France, but she could not risk anyone finding out.  Everyone had to believe this was her real hair.  There were frizzy models and curly models, but she found them a bit artificial looking, and they did not match her natural hair in any case. So Coco chose a model with straight hair that you could put on without glue or adhesive tape.  Its Asiatic hair strands were sewn into a material that was close to the color of her own scalp.  With the front lace wig, she could part her hair down the middle and no one would be able to tell the difference.  She concentrated on the operation.  Each step required dexterity.  First, she applied the ointment the dermatologist had prescribed for her dermatitis.  Next, she brushed her hair back into a bun that hugged her neck.  Then she pulled on a brown cap that also matched her skin color.

Now the only thing left to do was to put on the front lace wig.  This was the most delicate part of the operation, but Coco was a professional.  She tried the wig on to make certain it lined up with the contours of her natural hair.  When she was satisfied, she took a pair of scissors from the dressing table drawer and cut off the part of the cap that showed out from under the wig.  Guessing the measurements, she left only the centimeter and a half necessary to guarantee a perfect positioning, camouflaging all traces of trickery.  Beyoncé herself would have fallen for it.  Her work complete, the tabs affixed to her neck, the front part of the wig in line with her superb hairline, Coco gave her head a little toss to achieve the tousled look that a person wearing a wig could not possibly pull off.  She was prepared to engage in this maneuver on a daily basis for as long as it took to treat her dermatitis.

Coco had calmed down by the time she got back to the salon, returning to her task just as Patrick Saint-Eloi’s high notes were rising to tickle her soul.  After all, it was not her fault that the world was the way it was, that appearances were more important than who you were.  Her clients would have no desire to know what kind of fungus laid siege to her head when the weather turned cold, nor that she had eliminated dairy products and all sugar from her diet in order to mitigate its effects.  The women who came into Coco Prestige wanted her to be like the image on the sign out in front of the hair salon: full of promise.  She had to make them want to look like her.  She certainly could not let them see how much she was like them, with her weaknesses and her skin problems that the stress and the humidity brought on.  Coco looked at the clock hanging above the desk; it was fifteen minutes to ten.  She filled one more bottle before putting them all away in the storage closet, and she put the cardboard box containing the empties in there too.  Akasha would be arriving soon, but she still needed to occupy herself with something while she waited.  There was no need for housekeeping because the place was already clean.

Coco went to raise the storefront grating so she could see Akasha coming.  She looked herself over and wondered what she could do with the few minutes that remained.  She grabbed a clipboard and a pencil, and started to inventory the products of a natural line she had been promoting for years, though not very successfully, she had to admit.  Organics enthusiasts would buy the pure oils, but as for the other products, they were not convinced.  Most of them preferred making their own brown sugar scrubs for rubbing into the scalp to eliminate the dead skin, or their own fresh egg masques.  They were diligent about it, trading tips on YouTube.  Coco decided she would continue to offer the natural line, especially since a forward-looking woman had created it over thirty years ago, but she could not do the impossible.  Henceforth, she would reduce the range of the products she ordered, starting with the elimination of anything that had to be refrigerated.  She could never move those products off the shelves, even when she put on the sales pressure or when she tried to sell to clients just passing through who she knew she would never see again.

Akasha showed up at the salon at five minutes to ten.  Coco opened up for her, thinking the ring might have had something to do with a man.  And not the right one, judging from the rather gloomy expression on the young woman’s face.  She was sure that Akasha had not had sex in ages.  She was growing noticeably thinner.  The gym bag slung over her shoulder was an indication of the vain activity she wasted her sexual energy on.  Coco had also had her share of hopeless heartbreaks.  But from the time she became sexually active, she had never deprived herself as far as sex was concerned.  She always had a booty boy.  That was what she called the men she used for strictly hygienic purposes.  With salsa evenings all the rage in Paris, they were a cinch to drum up.  She liked them young and malleable.  Flexible.  Devoid of romantic pretentions.  The kind who would let her penetrate them with a dildo – a small one – if she wanted to.  Coco did not hesitate to invite these studs back to her apartment in the middle of the night, whenever the libidinal urge came on.

So far, nothing bad had happened.  Risk was part of the game, and she was proud of the fact she never went to prostitutes, never had to pay for it.  The owner of Coco Prestige did not feel old or decrepit or desperate enough to leave a bundle of bills on a nightstand.  Men, even young ones, were still within her reach.  She had not yet gotten to that stage where women supposedly lost their interest in sex.  The only thing different for her since menopause were the hot flashes that sometimes made her feel as if she were soaking in a never-ending hot bath, especially when she was sleeping.  And there was her waistline, which was slowly losing its fine contours.  But the rest of her was still in excellent shape.

Akasha stepped nervously into the hair salon.  Staring into the young woman’s eyes, as she had planned to do so her client would not look down and see her corns, Coco kissed her visitor on both cheeks and touched her hair.

“So, my lovely, how are you?”

“Good.  Good…”

“Don’t worry, I kept your ring safe for you.  Do you still have Palma-Christi oil?  Your      hair is in great shape, but you have to keep it up.”

“I still have some.”

“And cactus juice for promoting new growth?”

“That too.”

“Great.  Don’t move, I’ll get your ring.  I hope the man is worth the trouble.”

“There is no man, Coco.”

The hairdresser did not say another thing, but she kept thinking about it.  Women of her own generation had fought to breathe a little, to bite into the juicy fruit of life, like men did.  Their daughters who had received everything on a silver platter found all kinds of ways to stagnate.  No man?  How could that be?  Men were easy.  There was no reason to wear yourself out at the gym to seduce them.  You just had to be open to the occasion, to put yourself out there.  Men fell like flies.  Needless to say, you still could not ask anything of them, but Coco was not looking for love, she had had her share.  Love left you with a bitter aftertaste and seborrhea.  It was evident from seeing Akasha that love had passed her way inflicting its usual damage, propelling the young woman so far away from herself that she no longer knew who she was.  Apparently, the poor thing had never had a liberated woman as a role model.  She played the role of the victim.  And that is exactly what she would be, insofar as people created their own realities for themselves.

Coco handed her the ring, which in her opinion did not look like much.  The young woman slipped it onto her thumb, probably so it would not fall off this time.  Coco almost blurted out:  “No!  Don’t make things worse for yourself!  Haven’t you suffered enough?  You’ve gotten so thin we’re all waiting for you to disappear.  Don’t add…”  But she refrained from saying anything.  It was none of her business and Akasha was not the kind of person to confide in anyone.  Unlike a lot of the women who came to get their hair done at Coco Prestige, she did not share about her life.  Coco really was not in a position to point out to her that, above all, she should not wear a ring on her thumb.  Suzanne, one of her openly lesbian clients, told her there was a code in her circles.  If a woman wore a ring on her thumb, it meant she was a lesbian.  Maybe that was a bunch of nonsense, but why tempt the devil when you were already in a miserable situation?  Repressing a heavy sigh, the hairdresser had to be content with sending Akasha on her way, watching her hurry toward the Chateau d’Eau metro station.  In any case, her loyal client was so busy being unhappy that she had not noticed the front lace wig

 

As she was going to close the door and lower the grating so she could get her bottles of castor oil back out, a woman appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.  All Coco could see was some very auburn, straight hair which did not require any attention.  Her gaze then moved to a face with hazel eyes that had no business being there.  Coco did not give her an opportunity to speak:

“This is an afro hair salon.”

“Yes, I know.  That’s why I’m here.”

A kind of discomfort tinged the woman’s words, but she seemed quite determined.  She stepped away from the door a bit to reveal a little girl who had been hiding behind her.  A little girl as dark as a moonless night, with badly cared for hair that was crying out for help.  It looked like burnt straw that had been turned reddish brown by god knows what product.  The child, who could not have been more than four years old, wore a sweet red dress with white flowers on it, immaculately clean and ironed.  She held on to the adult accompanying her as if this latter were her only protection against the hostility of the world, of the entire universe.  As for the woman, she was looking at the little girl like she was the eighth wonder of the world, a pearl fished out from the bottom of the ocean and brought up to the surface after a merciless battle with marine predators.  Unlike the love between a man and a woman, which did not impress her, the love that tied a mother to her child melted Coco’s heart.  It was the only dream she had not been able to realize.  She wondered why she had not done what this woman had done: braved the ocean swells to find a little child to love.  The words of the stranger confirmed what she was thinking.

“This is Beauty, my daughter… I don’t know what to do with… with her hair!”

A little because the situation made her sorry she lacked audacity, or perhaps generosity, but also because it was true, Coco found herself reflecting on the fact that the world was not yet ready to imagine black women adopting white children.  That would be evidence of an inferiority complex, the worst kind of alienation, the desire to be white.  But in the reverse situation, it was automatically a good deed, a sign of openness toward the world, of empathy for the disinherited, of the ability to overcome a painful history that had invented the notion of race and had imprisoned humans within it.  Black mothers were often taken to be the nannies of their mixed race children, domestic help hired to watch them, to take them to the park to play.  This was especially frequent when the kids were still little and their complexions were not yet obvious.  Coco chased these bitter thoughts away to give all her attention to Beauty, to the little round cheeks that demanded to be kissed, the big black eyes that revealed depth more than shyness, and the forehead that indicated stubbornness as well as intelligence.

“Normally, I am not open today, but I am going to make an exception for Beauty.      Please, come inside so I can close up behind you.”

They came in, the white mother and her black daughter, glued together like Siamese twins, as if they lived in a world where they were the only ones who existed.  A bubble of love.  Precarious shelter in a society that was still unequal and racist.  The woman was nervous, apparently upset that she had to ask for help to learn something she should have already known: how to care for her little girl’s hair.  In the beginning, the subject did not come up.  The child must have come into the world almost bald or capped in a bit of fluff that did not need tending to make her pretty.  Her hair probably retained a manageable texture until she was about two years old.  And that was only if no one had ever cut it up to that point.  But then the trouble began for Beauty’s mother.  After that she found herself responsible for making all the difference for Beauty, between hair that was just frizzy, and hair that curled.  She had had to seek advice, to go into stores where, after scrutinizing her from head to toe and deciding she had no business being there, a saleswoman would hand her some hair products, leaving her to figure out the instructions, and to discover their nauseating smell and how they could burn her child’s head.

Coco said nothing, but she thought about all the Sub-Saharan women she passed in the streets or in the metro who did not manage much better than Beauty’s mother.  Their little girls were often decked out in extensions they certainly did not need to be wearing at that age.  Sometimes they used straighteners on their girls, an act that could be classified as abuse when carried out on such young children, not to mention the fact that these mothers never looked after their daughters’ hair once the damage was done.  Everything happened as if living in France erased all that had been transmitted from generation to generation.  So, when girls who had never known their hair in its natural state became adolescents, they could not imagine themselves without the hair extensions.  Unlike Beauty’s mother, these Sub-Saharan women no longer wondered if there might not be another way.  Not one of them would have had the humility to ask Coco for advice.  Having come from a world where there had always been someone else to take care of their children, whether it was for braiding hair or for everything else, they were lost in this French universe.  Submerged in the almost permanent absence required of women who had to take on two jobs to keep their heads above water, these mothers were unarmed for the constant battle they needed to engage in for the sake of their offspring.

The owner of Coco Prestige let out a sigh of disappointment.  She was thinking that, even though Caribbean women descended from deported Sub-Saharan women—who had been dispossessed of ancestral hair care practices and had serious complexes regarding dominant beauty standards—well, these Caribbean women still knew how to care for their children’s hair.  You never ever saw a little Antillean girl with her hair done up any old way, even if her mother worked day and night.  It was too important, well-groomed hair.  An appropriate style, some colorful barrettes.  A civilized hair-do.  Caribbean girls did not wear extensions that got full of sand when they were out playing, or got left behind on cushions, rugs, and clothing.  Coco seated her unexpected visitor in an armchair where clients usually sat while they waited for their turn.  Then, holding out her hand to Beauty, she said:

“Come with me, Princess.  Don’t worry, your mother is watching.”

The mother nodded toward her little girl who then followed Coco.  The hairdresser asked the woman about any treatments she had previously used on Beauty.  The woman’s disjointed response was almost incomprehensible.  In any case, there was no need for an explanation.  You could see it all.  The child’s hair had been straightened at one point and now there was some new growth.  It was all smothered in a greasy cream.  Coco was certain this woman had never read the labels of the products she used on her child’s head.  Otherwise, she would have tossed them into the nearest garbage can and gotten hold of a simple afro comb, with which she would have separated Beauty’s hair into small sections and detangled after shampooing.  Even without using the best oil for the job, she would have inflicted less suffering on her child and felt less ill at ease with the situation.  Coco rolled up her sleeves and the little girl smiled coyly at herself as she studied her reflection in the mirror.

“Okay then!” Coco announced enthusiastically, “We are going to cut off the dead hair.”

“What?  Cut off the dead… dead hair?” Beauty’s mother stammered, the words         almost choking her.

You have to admit that the expression Coco used might have made Beauty’s mother feel like she was guilty of a serious crime that had led to the death of her own child’s hair, even if that had not been her intention.  The hairdresser calmly set about her work, focused on examining strands of Beauty’s hair, nodding her head in confirmation of the diagnosis she had already made.

“Yes.  This is the only solution for allowing healthy hair to grow and strengthen.  Above all, do not straighten it again.  She is too young for that.”

“But what am I supposed to do with… that?  I have no idea how to braid her hair.  She cries whenever I try…  One day, when I was searching for information on the      internet, I came across a forum.  The Nappie Club.  Do you know it?”

Coco shook her head no.  She was not familiar with that particular forum, but she did know that internet sites dedicated to Sub-Saharan hair styling were being created every day.  Beauty’s mother could have found help on one of those pages, but that had obviously not been the case.

“Well, I registered for that forum.   It turned out to be an exclusive sorority.  When I announced that… that I had adopted Beauty, I was rejected because… because…  Let’s just say things would be simpler if she had hair that was straight and smooth.  Like yours.  Normal hair…”

The owner of Coco Prestige turned to the woman.  Of course she was not going to tell her that she was wearing a front lace wig…  This mother in distress might become a client who came to the salon regularly to get her little girl’s hair done.  This was not the moment to tell her about the seborrhea that made Coco hide her real hair which, nevertheless, she was very proud of.  She had to find the words, the right ones for telling a truth that was difficult to hear, taking care to soften it up so as to be persuasive.  This was not an easy thing to do.  Coco smiled.

“What’s your name?”

“Corinne.  My name is Corinne, but everybody calls me Coco.  I spell it C-A-C-A-O, to make it more feminine.  That makes ‘Cacao,’ as they say it in English,” she explained, after having pronounced it the correct way.

Coco had all kinds of thoughts regarding this nickname.  She abstained from expressing them though, because she understood that for Beauty’s mother it was the best she could do to escape the whiteness which, as everyone knew but would never say, bore its own burdens.  Whiteness gave her love for Beauty the appearance of a humanitarian gesture.  Having invented itself centuries ago and decided what its status would be in relation to the blackness it had also invented, whiteness imposed this predicament upon Corinne: she was imprisoned within a position of power when all she wanted was to be was Beauty’s loving mother.  And for people to stop looking at them like that.  And for people not to think anything in particular when they saw them out walking or eating ice cream together.  For people to stop coming up to her to say how courageous she was, how good it was to help those people, how they did not understand why they kept bringing children into the world when they could not take care of them.  The hairdresser just smiled and said:

“What a coincidence!  We have the same name.  Let’s simplify things:  here, there is only one Coco, no matter how you spell it… or pronounce it.  I will call you Corinne if that’s all right with you.”

Coco continued in a confidential tone:

“Listen,” she whispered, “my hair as you see it now is not in its natural state.  I am testing a straightening product on myself that everyone is talking about.  I do what I have to do so I can give my clients the best advice.”

“It’s lovely, and it must be less harmful than those straighteners that burned Beauty’s  scalp.  Your hair looks so alive…”

“Yes, yes,” Coco said, stepping back a little in case the woman attempted to touch her locks.   “However, I strongly advise against using it on a little girl.”

Coco spoke to Beauty’s mother with patience and conviction, explaining that for people of Sub-Saharan descent normal hair was frizzy.  Little Afropean girls like Beauty needed to learn to love their hair.  They needed to learn about the range of hairstyles available to them, to become familiar with the kind of care their capillary inheritance required, and to remember that, wherever they were, they came from a long line of women for whom hair styling was an art, a subtle language.  Of course this would not always be easy in a western environment where Caucasians set the beauty standards, but with good styling methods, it could be done.  Sufficient knowledge and self-esteem.  A mother’s gaze was crucial.  How could you raise a child if you found her features strange, or worse, problematic?  How could you prepare her to make it on her own if you insisted on chipping away at her personality?  Beauty would never have a Caucasian phenotype, even though she was born in a western culture.  That is the way it was.  The hairdresser held the woman’s hands in hers, punctuating her speech gently but firmly:

“I have here a miraculous product that is perfectly safe to use.  I am going to cut     Beauty’s hair.  Then I will apply a generous amount of Palma-Christi oil before washing it.  When I style it, she will hardly feel my fingers on her head.  Trust me.”

The owner of Coco Prestige knew her business and loved her job.  After the shampoo with papaya Beauty’s pile of frizzy hair turned into soft shiny curls.  There was enough new growth to make little Bantu knots.  Coco fastened them with red and white elastic bands that matched her pretty little dress.  The child had fallen asleep by the time the hairdresser invited her mother to come closer so she could see what to do if a knot came undone, or if she wanted to change the elastic bands.  The woman’s amazed expression told Coco that she had gained a new customer.  Beauty would get her hair done at the Coco Prestige Salon, even if the bill was a little steep.  Coco never offered a discount on her Palma-Christi oil.

 

Poetry

Phenomenology

by Colleen M. Keehl

Coriolis effect leaves waves

drifting

in something that isn’t a universal wave — on bulged waters in this world, on fat

sides; an

amphidromic point leaving paradoxical joints

fluid in motion, fluid in life, liquid in water; an omnipotence

of gravity & coasts & all things unknown.

A fulcrum is amplified

on itself, a focus

that cycles better inclinations, a focus

on thyself

leaves no room for any else when high tides & tidal amplitude render a yearly basis &

no alternatives of eternity.

Rotation is reduced by 1.5 milliseconds/century because

momentum desires to conserve:

small jells of crystal skies

rolled to slosh in your hand

reminds that diurnal inequality is inevitable in

this world of unjustness.

The Syzygy of the sun is no moon,

but remains a secret to never keep.

Furthermore the moon lies 5 degrees off the plane of the ecliptic,

dragging

28 degrees on the inhabitants on the earth from standing straight.

There is no universal universals that keep this world turning.

 

Fiction

The Man I Hated

by Olusola Akinwale

I hated him.  Hated him because his life frustrated mine.  Nothing I did, said or thought was free from the taint of his personality.  In my deepest despair, I wished his lung would fail, would deny him air.  But my wishes remained unfulfilled since his death would have meant my death as well.  I quite literally couldn’t live without him.

I watched him in the basin mirror.  He had my dark skin, my candy eyes, and my fingerprints.  We shared the same breath.  He was the other me, the one who was insouciant to issues I took seriously.  If you like you could have called us Siamese twins.  One thing was certain though: Nothing could have separated him from me, not even a sword.  “He’s stuck to you.  I’m not sure you can get rid of him,” a psychiatrist had told me a matter-of-factly after seeking his help for some months.

He was putting shaving cream on his face.  Made in Italy, the foam had a scent like jasmine.  He was not time-conscious and could spend ages dressing himself, as if preparing for some pageantry.  His life revolved around the ephemeral – food, binge, music, drink, and dance.  Occasionally, he was violent and enjoyed being meddlesome.  I heard others say he was unfocused, that his life was a rudderless ship.  I wonder if he saw this as a challenge to make something of himself and prove his critics wrong.

From our teens, he never wanted to mature or become responsible.  The truth is that he wouldn’t have gotten to where he is if it hadn’t been for me.  I tell him he wouldn’t have had a roof over his head or be settled down in this two-room apartment if I hadn’t forced him.  He thought I was brutal on him two years ago, when I combed the city, not minding his ill-health, to make money for the rent.  He wasn’t ashamed to wander from one friend’s house to another, begging to spend the night.  I hated the lifestyle, but he cherished it like a little girl treasures a new doll.

He wouldn’t have gotten out of bed if I hadn’t forced him.  When the alarm clock went off at six, he fumed.  He could hear the noise of the street, but still he lay there – his head buried under the pillows – not wanting to face the day.  He cursed the morning for coming too quickly.  Crawling out of bed, he staggered on the floor as if drunk, his limbs weak from the previous night’s revelry.  He and other revelers at Energy, the nightclub overlooking the backyard, got nasty with music of all kinds.  I didn’t want him to go, but he went anyway.  Now his joints were sore but I wouldn’t allow him extra time in bed.  I wouldn’t allow what happened a few weeks ago to happen again.

He had cost me a job because of his morning habits.  Or maybe I should have blamed his late night habits.  He had watched movies – until three in the morning.  He woke up a few minutes to eight for a nine o’ clock appointment and took forever to get dressed.  I heard his thoughts – who would hustle for the next cab?  He wasn’t that person.  He had the luxury of time making coffee.  He nibbled at four slices of bread and sipped his coffee, as though nothing was at stake that morning.  Of course, I turned up late at the company, and they politely turned me back.  When I blamed him, he whispered, “Que sera sera. Collins, que sera sera.”  Blaming him was absurd.  He just didn’t have my sixth sense: urgency.

It was a quarter past seven.  I was working on my laptop, preparing a PowerPoint presentation for the appointment I had at eleven.  I edited text and inserted images and charts in slides.  I didn’t want him playing at Energy the past night because I wanted to get all this done before morning.  Someone knocked at the door.  It was Nameel, smiling her knowing, routine smile at him.  She was a neighbor, in her twenties, with cropped hair artificially grayed at the temples.  She wore a top that read “Dual Nature” and frayed denim shorts.  She was holding a blue shirt and an ankle-length black skirt.

“I want to press my clothes,” she said.  “Where’s your iron?”

“On the floor beside the shelf,” I said, returning to my work.  “What’s wrong with your iron?”

“I don’t know.  Kiki said its element had developed a fault.  He mentioned element the last time, too.”  She finished the skirt and started to press the shirt.

“Maybe it’s time you throw it away, buy a new one.”

“Throw it away?  Why?”

“I don’t think I’m recommending anything radical.”

“We won’t throw it away, even if we buy another one.”  She pulled the plug out of the socket and rose to her feet, neatly folded clothes in one hand.

“Why keep it when it’s useless?”

She rolled her big, protuberant eyes, which gleamed like cowries, in a show of disapproval.  “Let me ask you a question.  Have you ever done something you later regretted?”

“Yes.”

“Why didn’t you kill yourself when you realized you had made a mistake?”

“Why are you talking crazy?  Why would I kill myself?”

“You didn’t kill yourself because you knew you were still useful to yourself.  Isn’t that it?”

“Maybe.”

“Collins, that’s why we can’t throw the iron away.  It may be useless today.  Tomorrow it will be useful, when we change its element.”

“So what’s the sense in comparing your damaged iron with me?”

“The iron is not working because its element is faulty.  Are you always in your best element?”

“Is that all?”

“I wanted you to know, too, that you just don’t discard your possessions.”  That was Nameel for you.  She used irrelevant examples to paint her point as she painted in her small studio.  She sat beside me and looked at the slides on the screen.  I had just applied a design template.

“What are you doing?”

“What does it look like?”

“Are you giving a presentation somewhere?”

I nodded.

“Who will ever believe this?”

“Believe what?”

“Believe that Collins could be this . . .”  She halted, glancing with me.

“This serious?”

“I thought Collins was all about dancing, parties and music.  By the way, when did you leave Energy last night?  I didn’t think we were done dancing.  When I came down from the gallery around one, you had left.”  I shot her a smoldering glance.  A tattoo of the cross inked on her left arm stared back at me.

“Time for you to leave.  The Collins you wanted is not here.”

“Another of your jokes?”

“Stop disturbing me and leave!”

“Take it easy, man.  I was about to leave,” she said and stated towards the door.  A moment later, the door opened and she popped her head in.

“What now?”  I said, leaning back in my chair.

“I doubt if a man could be born again overnight.  Let’s hope you will prove me wrong by not asking me out to your club again,” she said and shut the door again.

Nameel was his most treasured girl, especially on the dance floor.  I saw her as nothing but a bitter cup of overpriced coffee.  I was always wary of her because whenever he went out with her, he went with my focus.  Thinking he might lose her, he rose to go after her and apologize.  I stopped him.  “Man, there’s something much more important than a dance partner,” I reminded him.  His mind is still on her.

*****

My laptop bag grew heavier in my hand as the secretary ushered me to the conference room of the conglomerate.  I was the second candidate to go in, leaving four others at the reception area.  I stood in front of a six-member board – three men and three women.  It felt as if their eyes pierced through my three-piece suit as I entered the large room.  The chairwoman was slim.  Her good looks must belie her age.  The second woman had long hair and, her looks were more from efforts than from nature.  The third woman wore a choker with a cameo.  The chairwoman introduced them all to me.  I shook hands with each one.  One of the men wore a blue, pin-striped suit.  The short man among them reminded him of a man nicknamed “Shorty” at Energy, and he felt like giggling as the image of Shorty sprang to mind.  To stifle this giggle, I let out an embarrassed cough.

“Would you like a glass of water?” one of the women asked.

“Thank you, ma’am.  I’m all right for now.”

“Shall we see your proposal, then, Mr. Collins?” the short man suggested in a deep voice.  I connected my laptop to their overhead projector and began to pitch my idea about outsourcing their company’s transport services.  I moved from slide to slide, explaining each image and chart.

The short man whispered something to the chairwoman, who nodded.  Then he interrupted me and said, “Very good, Mr. Collins, very good.  Could we have the profile of your business?”  I got sudden goose bumps.  It dawned on me that he left the profile at home.  He had forgotten to bring it along because his mind was on Nameel.

“I don’t have it with me, sir.  I regret telling you this.”  The chairwoman glanced at the short man as if he had the final say.  “It was an oversight, ma’am.”

“Well, thanks for coming, Mr. Collins,” the chair said.  “We’ll be in touch.”  I pack my laptop and leave the room.

*****

I sat beside the driver in the minivan that was taking me home.  I’d decided I would not allow his blunder to upset me, not this time.  I wanted to stay positive, believing they would still call me for the project.  A CD was playing, but I resisted the temptation to move to the rhythm of the song.  It occurred to me that the streets were moderately sunlit today, not like yesterday or the day before.

For two days, the Lagos sky had been charcoal gray.  Soon it would open its expansive windows for a deluge.  He’d been caught up in the rain the previous day and had to take shelter under a shop awning.  The rain pelted down, forming pools on the muddy road, turning it into a bayou.  The open drains filled with heavy brown water.  Rubbish floated on the surface.  Twenty, thirty, fifty minutes passed, yet the rain had not let up.  Thunder roared as streaks of lightning split the sky.  The wind blew in forceful gusts, as if it was angry with the city.  He worried the downpour would stop their party.  But eventually he’d defied the showers and gone to Energy.  He had slipped on a raincoat, but returned home without it.

Now the driver stopped the CD and tuned to a radio station.  The news was being rattled off.  Then a female voice delivered the weather forecast for the next day.

“There will be rain in all parts tomorrow,” I said.

“You really believe in their forecast?” the driver said.

“Don’t you?”

“No.  They tell lies.  Yesterday they said there would be rain today.  But here we are: no sign of rain.”

“It could still rain in the night.”

“Look, no one controls nature.  Nature controls itself, and the weather is unpredictable.  It could be sunny now, and the next minute it might rain.  But those weathermen think they are God.  They believe they can say it and have it.”  He made a left onto Yaba Road.

“They’re only forecasting, you know.”

“Forecasting doesn’t mean telling lies when you know that something is not within your command.  Does it?”

I gave him no answer this time.  I stared out the window that was rolled halfway up.  It was fascinating to see the street such a beehive of activity.  People bought and sold on the sidewalk, on benches, and in doorways as if it were the last market on Earth.  Perhaps they were making up for the transactions the rain had cost them over the previous two days.  Perhaps they thought it wise to take advantage of today’s brightness.  Along the sidewalk, a cluster of women stood around a heap of used clothing from overseas.  They pushed and shoved to grab their choices.  We drove past a group of men carrying a haversack, and beside a shop was a man on a mat, facing the Holy city of Mecca.

*****

I took off my suit and plopped myself on the bed, my eyes on the two glossy posters on the wall behind my head.  The first was a picture of J. Lo, in a bikini, sunbathing on a beach.  He had taped the picture on the wall.  The second was a picture of Holy Mary in supplication, perhaps asking God to forgive J. Lo for baring her body.  I had gummed that picture on the wall.

A little while later, he was in the parlor, eating porridge, poisoning my body with those month-old vegetables he mixed with the porridge.  He had turned on the TV.  He picked up the remote control and clicked it.  A local movie, which he had seen before, popped on.  He clicked the remote again.  On the next channel was a report of hundreds rendered homeless by flooding.  Cut away of houses and farms destroyed, of people in their new tarpaulin homes, waiting for relief materials.  He hissed and changed the channel.  The report didn’t interest him because nothing about the growing crises in the world bothered him.  He cared not if gunfire wiped out Somalia like Gomorrah or if Ebola turned some people somewhere into endangered species.  Why should he be bothered when the crises wouldn’t pull down Energy or affect his fun?  He surfed for another channel and saw the trailer for Blood Diamond, a movie to be shown at the cinema on Saturday.  In the trailer turbaned rebels storm a village, wielding spears and machetes and cradling rifles.  The rebels take people hostage, dragging women by the hair and stripping and beating men.  The rebels round up children, prodding them with rifles, making them form a line and herding them into a waiting truck.  Leonardo DiCaprio, his favorite actor, drives a Land Cruiser past gunfire.  He knew Leonardo to be an actor for the romance genre, but to see him in an action film was something he wouldn’t have imagined.  I didn’t want to see the film because I didn’t want to see another picture of man’s inhumanity toward man after seeing Hutu/Tutsi feasts of blood in Hotel Rwanda.  I didn’t want to see the evil of war crimes, but he didn’t share my sentiment.  “I must see this movie.  I can’t miss Leonardo’s action,” he concluded.

On Saturday evening, he put on my other raincoat and left home for the eight p.m. show.  Having got a ticket, he moved to the cinema hall.  The crowd was already packed like seeds in a pomegranate, with hands draped over shoulders.  The people had defied the showers to see the movie.  He sat beside a man – thin, with a little dour face.  Soon the room went dark.  The screen lit up immediately and “Sierra Leone, 1999” faded in and out.  The film showed a country torn apart by the clash between the militia and the government forces.  It depicted the bloody tussle between people who had lived together in harmony before unleashing the inhuman part of their beings against one another.  He applauded the crump of explosions and chatter of automatic weapons.  He hailed the militia for their ceaseless exchange of fire with government soldiers.  In his excitement, he jerked, rose, and yelled.  He hit the man beside him.

The movie was over.  I wiped a tear for the hands amputated as I left the theatre.  The scream of anguish of the amputees was beginning to recede in my inner ear when a woman cried out at the car park.  A thief had snatched her purse and tore off.  Seeing the thief dart through a set of tricycles, he ran after him.  Like Danny Archer, DiCaprio, helped Solomon Vandy to find Dia Vandy in the film, he was determined to help the woman get her purse.  The scene in which Danny and Solomon sprinted to escape the rebels’ gunfire flashed through his mind.  The thief slipped on the slick ground, and he ran down to the criminal as if reenacting the scene.  Before the thief could balance on his feet, Collin’s fist had smashed his face.  The thief clutched his mouth.  There was no purse in his hand.  Collins sat astride him, threatening to kill him if he didn’t produce the purse.

“Where’s the purse?  I’ll kill you tonight!” he barked, tightening his hands around the thief’s neck.  I could feel his raw rage; I was afraid he may commit murder that night.

“I don throw it away . . . for under bicycle,” the thief said between gasps.  He pulled him up and dragged him to the tricycles, where they found the purse.  The woman and another younger woman, and two security personnel met them there.  Looking at the other woman closely, he thought she must be the purse owner younger sister, because they both looked alike.  He handed the purse to the woman, and she checked for her money and other valuables inside it.  “Nothing is missing,” she said.  The security men whisked the criminal away.

“Thank you very much.  I’m very grateful, Mr. . . .”

“Call me Collins,” he told the woman.

“I’m very grateful, Collins,” the woman said again.  Wasn’t she thanking him for choking the thief, for almost snuffing life out of another man because of her purse?

She offered him a ride in her Mercedes Benz, which he gladly accepted.  He got in the back seat, two bottles of cognac beside him.  I could see him in the rear-view mirror.  He was proud of himself, his heroics.

“I still hate you,” I told him.

“Aren’t you proud of me for once?” he said.

“Not when you’ve messed up my presentation.”

“But they didn’t say you were no longer needed, did they?”

“Shut up,” I whisper, raising my hand as if to strike him through the mirror.  The woman looked over at him and said, “You need anything?”

“No.  I’m okay,” he answered.

Their talk on the ride back to his home was casual – mainly inconsequential subjects.  In between the woman told him to take a bottle of the brandy.  He got off at his stop, holding his reward, and swaggered to his house.

Once he got home, he dropped the cognac on a chair and headed into the bathroom.  When he had finished bathing, he went for his cognac.  Water still dripped down from his head onto his bathrobe.  He pressed the CD player, and the late Tupac Shakur burst out.  He downed his drink and chewed the rap as though he were Tupac.

There was only an inch of the brandy remaining in the bottle when he drifted off, releasing me into sleep, too.  There, we dreamed all night long, our dreams feeding into each other, playing on and on.  I found myself in the boardroom, pitching my idea.  He saw himself in Blood Diamond, exchanging gunfire with the rebels.  I saw myself beaming with smiles as the chairwoman offered me a letter of appointment.  He found himself at Energy, waiting endlessly for Nameel to come dance with him.

 

Drama

Chemistry

A Ten Minute Play

by Sally Jane Kerschen-Sheppard

CHARACTERS: LOIS, early 20’s

RICHARD, early 20’s

SETTING: A Chemistry Lab

TIME: Early 70’s

LIGHTS UP on the chemistry lab – tables are adorned with beakers, Bunsen burners, test tubes, and liquids of various colors.  LOIS and RICHARD, both clad in white lab coats and various combinations of polyester, butterfly collars, and plaid, measure, pour, examine, and otherwise go about the business of conducting experiments.

LOIS

Pass the sodium ascorbate.

RICHARD

Here.

LOIS

Thanks.

RICHARD

Could you hand me the pyridoxine hydrochloride?

LOIS

Are you going to give it back?

RICHARD

Yes.

LOIS

Fine.

RICHARD

Thanks.

LOIS watches as RICHARD uses a pipette to transfer three drops of one liquid into a beaker containing another liquid.

LOIS

You’re not doing that right.

RICHARD

Yes, I am.

LOIS

No, really you’re not.

RICHARD

Three milliliters of pyridoxine hydrochloride piped into six milliliters of thiamin mononitrate.  Yes, I’m doing it right.

LOIS

No, you’re not dropping it in correctly.  Here, give it over.

LOIS takes the pipette from RICHARD and holds it over the beaker.

LOIS

See, like this.  One (drop), two (drop), three (drop).

She does it exactly the same as RICHARD.  He looks at her oddly.

LOIS

See?

RICHARD

Uh, sure.  If you say so.

LOIS

Lois, by the way.

RICHARD

I’m sorry?

LOIS

Lois.  My name is Lois.

RICHARD

Like Lois Lane?

LOIS

Except without all that damsel-in-distress business.  I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.

RICHARD

OK.

LOIS

And you are?

RICHARD

Richard.

LOIS

Like Richard the Lion-Hearted?  Or Richard Nixon?

RICHARD

Like my father.

LOIS

Oh.

They turn back to their experiments.  The silence is awkward.

RICHARD

You’re new here, right?

LOIS

Just started last week.

RICHARD

Do you like it?

LOIS

It would be nicer if it was closer to my house, and the pay could be better, and I noticed there aren’t very many women here, but otherwise it’s OK.

RICHARD

Far out.

RICHARD’s use of slang does not come naturally and it’s obvious.  He is not cool.

LOIS

How long have you worked here?

RICHARD

Six months.  Came here straight from Berkeley.

LOIS

You don’t look like a hippie.

RICHARD

Oh, no, I mean, I knew a bunch of hippies, and I saw them smoke pot once, but um, no, I, uh, I usually was groovin’ in the chem lab.

LOIS

Sounds like fun.

RICHARD

We stole ether once.  My friends and me, we siphoned some of the ether alcohol from the tanks in the lab, just a little at a time so no one would notice, and then we took it to our dorm room and mixed it with fruit punch.

LOIS

I don’t drink.

RICHARD

Oh, I don’t usually either, but this was just like regular fruit punch.  You couldn’t taste the alcohol at all.

LOIS

And then what?

RICHARD

I don’t remember.  No one does.  I woke up the next morning face down on the front lawn, and that’s all I know.

LOIS

(repulsed)

That’s awful.

RICHARD

No, it was…so where did you go to school?

LOIS

Our Lady of the Repentant Sinner Women’s College.

RICHARD

I don’t suppose you knew any hippies.

LOIS

They weren’t allowed.

RICHARD

I’d imagine.

LOIS

They also didn’t allow staying out past 11 pm, smoking, drinking, boys in our rooms, skirts above our knees, make-up, earrings, or rock and roll music.

RICHARD

So what did you do for fun?

LOIS

Practical jokes mostly.  Plastic wrap under the toilet seat, short sheeting the bed, hand in warm water, that kind of thing.

RICHARD

You did that to other girls?

LOIS

No, it was mostly done to me.  But I got used to it.

RICHARD

Didn’t you have friends?

LOIS

Not really.  Everyone was older than me.  I finished high school in three years, you know.

RICHARD

You must be very smart.

LOIS

I am.  I wanted to go to medical school, but the admissions committee is prejudiced against women, so I didn’t get in.

RICHARD

But you came here, though, so that’s good.

LOIS

If you say so.

RICHARD

Well, yeah, I mean, this is one of the best labs in the country, so…  Our Lady of the Repentant Sinner, that’s Catholic, right?

LOIS

Of course.

RICHARD

Oh, well, I don’t really know much about it, I was raised Baptist.

LOIS

So your family’s religious?

RICHARD

Devout, yes.  I had a 4.0 GPA in high school and college, graduated top of my class, and yet still my mother’s greatest disappointment in life is that I’m not a Baptist preacher.

LOIS

I’m twenty-two years old and still not married.  I have five older brothers and sisters, and they were all either married or joined a vocation by the time they were twenty-one.  Every time I see my parents they ask why I haven’t found a nice boy to settle down with yet.

RICHARD

God, I get that too.  Why haven’t you found a wife yet, Richard?  Where are the grandchildren, Richard?  Like somehow I’m bringing shame to the family name by not producing an heir.

LOIS

It’s like I’m a total failure because I’m not living up to my obligation to get married and start a family and be a good, Catholic wife.

RICHARD

Totally, I mean, I’ve got a good job, a good education, but that’s not enough, you know?

LOIS

Yes… far out.

The slang sounds just as awkward coming from her as it did from him.

LOIS

So have you made any friends here yet?

RICHARD

I know a couple of the guys over in R and D.  They belong to a bowling league downtown, and I’ve watched them play a few times.

LOIS

Watched?  Why didn’t you play with them?

RICHARD

I’m not very good at it.  Sports don’t really agree with me.

LOIS

Didn’t you play any sports as a kid?

RICHARD

Sure, I played Little League.  I loved baseball, but no matter how hard I tried I just wasn’t ever good enough.  I remember getting into the car after a game and my parents would tell me over and over again how I should have caught that ball or gotten the out, that I just wasn’t trying hard enough.  After a while, I don’t know –

LOIS

To this day I can’t even look at a piano.  I practiced for three hours every day all through elementary school, plus lessons twice a week.  I wanted to be the best pianist in the world, to play Mozart at Carnegie Hall, and have roses thrown up on stage while the audience yelled “Bravo!” after a performance.  And then at my recital in the sixth grade, I screwed up.  I got confused, I don’t even know how, but I forgot my piece, and completely humiliated myself.  My parents wouldn’t even speak to me on the way home, they were so ashamed.  I haven’t touched a piano since.

RICHARD

Do you miss it?

LOIS

The piano?

RICHARD

Yeah.

LOIS

I haven’t thought about it.  It’s just what happened, I guess.

RICHARD

I miss baseball.

LOIS

Oh.

RICHARD

You don’t have any friends here yet, do you?

LOIS

No, well I, I have a roommate, and she’s nice, although I’m pretty sure she’s a lesbian, but she hasn’t said anything about it.  Um, but no, I don’t really have any friends.

RICHARD

Well, if you want, you could come watch bowling with me sometime.  I don’t think the R and D guys would mind.

LOIS

Yeah, that might be… radical.

They shyly smile at each other, then look away and focus on their experiments.

LOIS

Do you like cats?

RICHARD

What?

LOIS

I said, do you like cats?

RICHARD

Oh, um, sure, why?

LOIS

I have three cats, Eve, Delilah, and Jezebel.  I named them after the three most misunderstood women in the Bible.

RICHARD

Wow, your parents must have loved that.

LOIS

They don’t really get my sense of humor.

RICHARD

So, are you one of those feminist people?

LOIS

I can do everything a man can do, if that’s what you mean.

RICHARD

No, I just, I believe you, I just, I knew some feminists at Berkeley, but, uh, they didn’t really talk to me.

LOIS

Why not?

RICHARD

I think I might have insulted one of them, accidentally.

LOIS

How?

RICHARD

I’m not sure, I saw this girl –

LOIS clears her throat and gives RICHARD a pointed look.

RICHARD

– woman, and she looked like she needed help carrying this big box, so I said, “Can I give you a hand, miss?” and she called me a pig and walked away.

LOIS

Ms.  You were supposed to say Ms.  Miss is for little girls and she was obviously not a little girl.

RICHARD

So that’s why she was insulted?

LOIS

Absolutely.  Words have power.  You have to use the right ones.

RICHARD

And miss is the wrong one?

LOIS

Yes.  And so is Mrs.

RICHARD

But I would never have called her Mrs.  She’s not married.

LOIS

It doesn’t matter.  A woman is always Ms.  We are not defined by our marital status any more than men are.

RICHARD

I had no idea.

LOIS

Well, now you do.

RICHARD

So when you get married, you’ll still be Ms.

LOIS

Absolutely.  And I’m keeping my last name, too.

RICHARD

Really?

LOIS

None of this Mrs. John Smith nonsense, no sir.

RICHARD

You can really do that?

LOIS

Hello, wake up, this is the 70’s.  I can do whatever I want when I get married.

RICHARD

But you’re still getting married.

LOIS

Well, yes.

RICHARD

Even though you don’t have to?

LOIS

That gets complicated.

RICHARD

How?

LOIS

My parents still expect it, you know?  I’m Catholic, I can’t not get married.

RICHARD

Hey, I understand, I’m not Catholic and I can’t not get married, either.

LOIS

Does that seem weird to you?  I feel like it’s weird that I still have to please my parents.

RICHARD

It’s not weird.

LOIS

It just doesn’t make me a very good feminist.

RICHARD

You know, maybe I should get a cat.

LOIS

You want a cat?

RICHARD

Maybe I’ll get three and name them Adam, Samson, and David.

LOIS

Ha ha.

RICHARD

No seriously, maybe I will.  I live by myself, and it gets kind of lonely sometimes.

LOIS

You don’t have a roommate?

RICHARD

No, I mean, like I said, I don’t really know many people.

LOIS

Yeah, I get kind of lonely, too.

RICHARD

Hey, maybe you could be my roommate.

LOIS

Excuse me?

RICHARD

Let’s be roommates.  We’re the only two people that we know, and now I won’t have to get a cat.

LOIS

There is no way.

RICHARD

Why not?

LOIS

I can’t live with a man I’m not married to.  My parents call that living in sin.

RICHARD

Oh.

They stare down at their experiments.

RICHARD

I’m sorry, I just thought that, well, you’re lonely, and I’m lonely –

LOIS

I lied before.

RICHARD

Lied?  About what?

LOIS

When I said I hadn’t thought about missing the piano.  I lied, I do miss the piano, I miss it very much.

RICHARD

Then you should play again.

LOIS

I’d just be a disappointment.

RICHARD

Maybe not.

beat

LOIS

Let’s get married.

RICHARD

I’m sorry?

LOIS

Married.  We should get married.  That way we can live together, it won’t be in sin, you won’t have to buy a cat, and we won’t be lonely.  Ever again.

beat

RICHARD

Yeah, let’s get married.  Far out.

Blackout.

 

Essay

The Friends at the Café de Flore

by Jacques Houis

Le poète qui renonce à la cité n’est qu’agitateur de minime influence

– Patrick MacAvoy

l’ordre moral sévit en France et le livre annonce la révolution, désigne les lauréats de cette révolution, les homosexuels, les toxicomanes, les prostituées

– Nicolas Genka

Right after high school I attended the Sorbonne during the academic year 1968-1969, once again staying with my grandparents, near the Carrefour Vavin (now Place Pablo Picasso) in Montparnasse, where I had lived four years as a child and where I returned most every summer.  That fall, I arrived in a post May 1968 Paris.  There were still small spontaneous demonstrations in the Latin Quarter: “Ce n’est qu’un début, continuons le combat!” would ring out and a crowd would gather.  Soon the C.R.S would show up and crush the incipient demonstration with amazing brutality.  I met enragés in the cafés.  They were like war vets, at once somewhat in shock and oddly nostalgic.  The year would turn out to be perhaps the single most extraordinary of my life, a function of being the right age at the right time in the right place.  Never before or since has life seemed so layered, so polyvalent.  Being nineteen years old, with solid American counter cultural cred yet fluent in French, was like having a passport into almost any world I wanted.  And there were gateways, entrances to the worlds in question.  Mostly, there was the American Center for Students and Artists on Raspail, which harbored a great variety of international talent.  And there was the café La Coupole, which along with a handful of other landmark cafés had become a hideout for anarchists of various stripes, who felt safe there from police raids.

I think it was at La Coupole that I met the most memorable of the many memorable people I would meet that year.  His name was Patrick MacAvoy.  He was around twenty-five, married with a two-year old daughter.  I knew he was a published writer, but I did not give it that much thought at the time.  During the course of the year, my friend Tim Kendall, a painter-surfer from Sunnyvale, California, who produced silk-screened posters in the basement of the American Center, for concerts and performances around Paris, my girlfriend Suzanne, from Houston, and I, individually or in some combination, spent many hours at Patrick’s apartment, Avenue du Maine.  Visiting there was easy.  He and his wife Denyse, an actress, left the key in the front door, in case any of their friends wanted to drop in when they weren’t home.  Mostly, Patrick was interested in us, in the American counterculture, in our youth, psychedelic music and LSD.  We did not disappoint.  The Grateful Dead had played Tim’s sixteenth birthday party.  Suzanne looked just like Michelle Phillips from the Mamas and the Papas.  I looked like I belonged in a British pop band.  But Patrick was the musician.  Thoroughly French (an ancestor had emigrated from Ireland in the seventeenth century) Patrick was the son of the celebrity portrait painter, himself a celebrity, Edouard MacAvoy and Anne de Neuville, once described as “the flower of the French aristocracy.”  I knew nothing about this then.  His family never came up in conversation.  Patrick was an outstanding blues musician, singing and on the guitar (his English was excellent).  He told us he had learned the blues from Muddy Waters in exchange for French lessons, and I believed him.  He had a rock band for a time, immediately popular and destined for success, at which point he walked away.  I do not remember the name of the band, but the bass player of Les Variations told me Patrick and his band were as good a blues-rock band as any in France.  The quality of Patrick’s musicianship was confirmed the following year in Philadelphia when John Oates, of future Hall and Oates fame, headed for Paris, asked me for any tips I might have.  I suggested he crash at Patrick’s.  He later reported spending magical days there, happily jamming with a musical peer.  Unfortunately, Oates’ celebrity has prevented me from contacting him for his recollections of Patrick.

Patrick wrote poetry when I knew him.  I used to translate it, more or less extemporaneously as he read it, for Tim and Suzanne.  When I returned to the States, he gave me a copy of each of his texts: Les Hauts Fourneaux and La Ballade.  It was not until decades later that I read them with the attention they deserved, and realized their literary significance.  But for many of the intervening years, I was haunted by the memory of Patrick himself.  I suppose I was infatuated, but I certainly wasn’t alone.  All attempts to contact him when I visited Paris failed.  He simply vanished.  To the island of Goa I was told.  The Patrick MacAvoy I remember was as upbeat and sunny as his writing was dark.  He was a courtly and generous soul, unencumbered by his physical beauty.

Then, a couple years ago when a publisher specializing in experimental fiction decided, after much hesitation, not to publish a literary translation from the seventeenth century I had submitted, on the grounds that it did not fit their more contemporary profile, I wondered whether Patrick’s texts might be a suitable alternative.  So I re-read them forty years later, post my formal education in French Literature and my experience as a literary translator.  I also read them for the first time as an adult.  I looked online as well, to see what traces of Patrick MacAvoy I might find.  Although there seemed at first to be very little, in the end I discovered far more than I expected.  I stumbled across what I now consider an important neglected corner of twentieth century French literature.

Two blogs mentioning Patrick MacAvoy led me to communicate with their authors.  In both cases my enquiries were met with immediate, intense interest.  Patrick had made as much of an impression on them as he had on me.  In his autobiographical blog, the author and editor François Ruy-Vidal, now in his eighties, recounts his partnership in the sixties with Harlin Quist that led to the publication of edgy, sometimes controversial, modernist books for children, with authors such as Eugène Ionesco and Marguerite Duras.  There, Ruy-Vidal writes about “my friends from the (café de) Flore: Nicolas Genka, Patrick MacAvoy, Françoise D’Eaubonne, Denyse Rolland, and John Ashbery, of course.”  I was electrified by this list.  What did John Ashbery have to do with Patrick, and why “of course”?  Who was Nicolas Genka?  Where had I heard of Françoise D’Eaubonne?

 From corresponding with Ruy-Vidal, I learned that John Ashbery was an esteemed, good friend of his, who had nothing to do with Patrick, beside the fact that they both frequented the Flore.  It turned out that Ruy-Vidal knew Patrick’s then girlfriend and future wife Denyse, as well as his sister, Dominique MacAvoy (who became a popular TV actress and chanteuse) from an acting class.  Ruy-Vidal admitted to being somewhat intimidated by Patrick and his entourage, which also included the Algerian poet Jean Sénac, to whom Les Hauts Fourneaux is dedicated.

The friends who shared a table at the Flore and the Deux Magots in 1964 and 1965 were a band of literary outsiders if ever there was one – transgressive and way ahead of the curve.  Like Patrick, Nicolas Genka was an Algerian war vet whose first novel, L’Épi Monstre, published in December 1961 when he was twenty four, thanks to Christian Bourgois, then an editor at Julliard, led Jean Cocteau to establish and award it the Prix des EnfantsTerribles Jean Cocteau.  The book was an immediate success.  The director Pier Paolo Pasolini wanted to translate it into Italian, Nabokov into English, Mishima into Japanese.  But in July 1962 the minister of the interior banned any sale, translation, exporting or publicizing of the novel.  An edition was tolerated in 1999, though the ban was not lifted until 2005!  Genka’s family homestead in Brittany was wrecked and set on fire by “persons unknown.”  His second novel, Jeanne la pudeur, published in 1964 met the same fate.  Hailed as a masterpiece and awarded the Prix Fénéon, it too was promptly banned.  Genka continued to write as he eked out a living as a handyman.  He died forgotten in 2009.  L’Épi Monstre is the story of a bourgeois intellectual alcoholic who lives deep in the provinces among gross alcoholic peasants, along with his two daughters.  He has an incestuous relationship with his older daughter, while the younger one fantasizes about him.  At no point is the writing remotely pornographic.  And it may be less shocking than Émile Zola’s nineteenth century novel La Terre, which depicts a similar degenerate rural family milieu.  L’Épi Monstre is a mixture of lyrical, poetic description and naturalistic dialogue, in the tradition of Céline and Genet, yet fully Genka.  Incest and pedophilia appear to have been pretexts for banning the work.  More likely, the picture it painted of French family life and la France profonde could not be tolerated by the authorities.  “This novel tells us that where there is family, there is a structure carrying crime, incest, rape, madness and death.  It is this usually repressed truth that led to the ban by the ministry of the Interior,” writes Jacques Henric in his preface to the 1999 edition, citing Aristotle: “The family is the tragic milieu par excellence.”  This truth can probably be uttered in an expository manner without setting off alarm bells.  It takes the specificity of art to turn the abstract family into a concrete French family, one that may have stood for deeply hypocritical post-war colonial France itself.  Jeanne la pudeur concerns a flamboyant Pigalle prostitute who proudly retires to her native village in the company of her two lovers, one African, the other Asian, only to be greeted by hatred.

Patrick MacAvoy won the second Prix des Enfants Terribles Jean Cocteau, for Les Hauts Fourneaux, [The Blast Furnaces] published in 1963.  François Ruy-Vidal was kind enough to send me the chapter of his memoir (in progress) covering the years 1964-1965, in which there are many references to Patrick MacAvoy:

Les Hauts Fourneaux  was published by René Julliard when he was only eighteen.  And yet nothing in common with Bonjour Tristesse.  Nothing in common either between the two authors.  Except that it was possible to think, as Julliard would often have it, that the pages of these Hauts Fourneaux, abruptly written under the black suns of cruelty and madness, were but the baby steps of a unique and irreplaceable writer and the first contribution to a body of work that would turn out to be exceptional.

Unfortunately for us and for posterity, his first contribution was his last, and if we deplore this today, it is the better to insist on the exceptional nature of the three short panels of this work.  For, in the poverty of its extreme reduction, 169 pages and twenty letters to his mentor Jacques Brenner, Patrick MacAvoy, an affable, well brought up and luminous young man, modest about his good looks, but impassively tormented, like a heart under the ashes, a nugget of bitterness, a shaft of absurd bitterness, already signaled us with the mastery of a humble purist and the serene boldness of one who torpedoes conformity, that he belonged to ‘the Barbarian race’ and that he didn’t care about all the laurels he could amass from symbolic glories.

Here, Ruy-Vidal momentarily loses track of something he knows: that Julliard published MacAvoy’s second text La Ballade in 1966.  In 1983 a collection of MacAvoy’s poems written between 1960 and 1970, Les Fenêtres Rouges, was published by Éditions Saint-Germain-Des-Près.  The first, and apparently only edition was limited to 80 copies, decorated with an original lithograph by Edouard MacAvoy.  The father appears to have self published this book, since the publisher’s address, 110 rue du Cherche-Midi corresponds to that of Edouard MacAvoy’s studio…

The relative obscurity surrounding Nicolas Genka, despite an aura of “succés de scandale” and obvious literary merit (and ambition?) can be explained by several factors including truly taboo subject matter and an original, outsider quality that did not fit into the schools of the moment, whether Nouveau Roman, Oulipo or Tel Quel.  Beside the fact that his writing is less accessible than Genka’s, Patrick MacAvoy seems also to have courted obscurity more actively, in part no doubt because of his father’s celebrity.  His precociousness prompted both the Cocteau award and an article by his editor Jacques Brenner, entitled “Adolescent Genius,”¹ which compares MacAvoy to both Rimbaud and Lautréamont.  Indeed, on the basis of literary virtuosity alone, it is nearly impossible to conceive of how an eighteen-year-old produced this text.  Only the extremely dark themes and feverish emotions provide clues to the writer’s age.  As Brenner put it:

Adolescent genius is often a genius for revolt, especially when it manifests itself before the twentieth year.  It is a total revolt: one directed against the human condition in general.  Many adolescents also experience the temptations of such a revolt.  Young poets tend to celebrate the dark aspects of life: boredom, pain, sadness and death.  “It is to want at all costs to consider only the puerile dark side of things,” Lautréamont said, as he retrospectively passed judgment on his Chants de Maldoror.

The comparison to Rimbaud is even more illuminating (no pun intended).  Both write with striking urgency and precociousness, and abandon writing at about the same age.  Both leave France: Rimbaud for Africa; MacAvoy for India.  In addition, MacAvoy has clearly been influenced by the Rimbaud of Une Saison en Enfer.  Most of all, MacAvoy seems to have followed to the letter the prescription set forth by Rimbaud in his Lettre du Voyant: “You have to make the soul monstrous: in imitation of the Comprachicos, right!  Imagine a man implanting and cultivating warts on his face…  [The poet himself] seeks out every form of love, of suffering, of madness.  He exhausts every poison, to keep only their quintessence…”²  Antonin Artaud and Jean Genet also stand out as influences.  These more or less surrealist antecedents, and the surreal dimension of MacAvoy’s writing point to a rejection of realism, setting him apart from many of the other what might be called experimental French prose writers of his time.  From a strictly literary-historical standpoint, his blending of narrative and modern poetry, which goes beyond poetic narrative or narrative poetry, seems one of the most compelling aspects of his work.

¹ In Journal de la Vie Littéraire 1962-1964 (Julliard, 1965), 136-137.  In the same book, in an article entitled “La Nouvelle Fable,” he situates Patrick MacAvoy in a “movement lacking only a theoretician” that is “a reaction against every form of realism, in particular the existentialist school and l’Ecole du Regard” (a term for the Nouveau Roman).

² Rimbaud OEuvres complètes (Bibliothèque de La Pléiade, Gallimard, 1972), 251.  My translation.

Les Hauts Fourneaux, a self-described novel, is made up of three tales.  “Blockhaus Définitif” (Terminal Blockhouse) has two parts.  Part one is 48 pages long.  It is an extended interior monologue, by a middle aged man named Patrick MacAvoy writing, or trying to write, in order to remember, to be able to tell, eventually, the story of ‘what happened.’  Part two, 22 pages, is (probably) the story part one attempts to remember: in the post-nuclear holocaust French provinces, the narrator and his wife, Denyse Rolland (Patrick MacAvoy’s wife in real life) are the only ones who have not fled.  The narrator experiences the deterioration and disintegration of his wife.  As she is eventually devoured by insects and her limbs fall off, he shows his love by embracing her putrefaction in any number of memorable ways.  Prose style aside, part one reminds me of some of Beckett’s novels and bears an uncanny resemblance to Paul Auster’s Travels in the Scriptorium.  Part two has echoes of Edgar Allen Poe.

The second tale “Le Fil de Nerf Barbelé” (The Barbed Wire Nerve), 43 pages, is a mostly third person narrative, with dialogue, that relates from different points of view the short and violent life of an Algerian immigrant day laborer in Paris.  The tale cuts back and forth between the story of Ahmed in Paris and the scene it leads to: Ahmed, dead in the street (after committing random murders) surrounded by a knot of Parisians waiting for someone to pick up the body.

The third tale, “L’Epine” (The Thorn), 60 pages, is a gothic horror story in the form of a journal kept by a fifty year-old man, chronicling his descent into madness after welcoming into his home a once prominent attorney who was deemed cured after spending time in a mental institution for having killed his own daughter and gouged out her eyes: Maupassant on LSD.  Again and always, literary pyrotechnics propel these stories into uncharted territory.  The writing is layered, dense, and dazzling, but without recourse to much in the way of allusion or symbolism.  Instead, Mallarmé’s injunction comes to mind, the one about “the elocutionary disappearance of the poet who cedes the initiative to the words, mobilized by the clash of their incongruities.”³

³ Mallarmé OEuvres complètes (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard, 1945), 366.  My translation.

Despite the limitations translation imposes on prose of poetic intensity, the following passage from Les Hauts Fourneaux gives some idea of MacAvoy’s style:

The other day the luminous globe that lights the room began to swell.  It was full of water where not entirely coagulated clots of an unknown liquid were swimming, their yellowish color clearly tending toward ochre.  But they were yellow.  I no longer have any doubt.  Yesterday, just as I finished writing this first page, I came across, or at least my eyes came across a photograph which, as it aged, had taken on exactly this shade of yellow.  Since it had yellowed under my light it is quite possible that it is the lamp itself that possesses a fluid and imprints this color on every object within its reach.  And what if I myself were discolored in this way? I wondered.  That is probably what is happening, for I am now yellow, the color of that somewhat ochre, dirty yellow.  In spots my skin is lighter, and my most private parts reach lemon yellow, a violent yellow that is laughable…  I am in the depths of a malady as dumb and cruel as impotence.

La Ballade is the first-person narrative of a hospitalized drug-addicted prostitute.  It likely did not endear Patrick MacAvoy to the jury of the Prix Goncourt, for which he was a candidate in 1970, according to a documentary about the prize, available online.  The short interview of Patrick MacAvoytoward the very beginning of the film is a rare document indeed.  It shows the author in 1970, shortly after I knew him.  His complete rejection of the Goncourt prize’s value, and his rejection of “rewards and punishments alike” is characteristic of a militant stance shared by his friends at the Café de Flore.  Algerian war veterans MacAvoy and Genka were joined at the table by Jean Sénac, twenty years their senior, an openly gay pied noir francophone poet, who stayed in Algeria after independence, was an early adherent to the FLN, worked for the Ben Bella government, and created and hosted a popular Algerian poetry radio program.  Known primarily for his friendship with Albert Camus, Sénac shared the same literary masters as MacAvoy: Nerval, Rimbaud, Artaud, Genet.  His dream of a multicultural, open, tolerant Algeria ended in 1973, with his assassination, most likely by the conservative and corrupt Boumedienneregime, which he openly criticized.  His signature was a sign representing the sun, and shortly before he was found dead with a fractured skull and multiple post-mortem stab wounds, in the Algiers slum where he lived after the government expelled him from his house, he wrote: “When I die, young people, put my body on the sea…  You will understand why my death is optimistic.”  No doubt, the recent Arab Spring was motivated in part by activists who share his aspirations.

While Patrick MacAvoy was the most obscure writer of the Flore group, Françoise D’Eaubonne, the prolific author of some fifty books in a career that spanned the years 1942-2003, while no household name, was the most well known.  In 1971 she co-founded the Front Homosexuel d’ActionRévolutionnaire (FHAR), a homosexual revolutionary movement.  In 1974 she coined the term eco-feminism in the book Le Féminisme ou la Mort. (Ecofeminism, or ecological feminism, is a philosophy and movement born from the union of feminist and ecological thinking and the belief that the social mentality that leads to the domination and oppression of women is directly connected to the social mentality that leads to the abuse of the natural environment.)  She wrote biographies, novels – including science fiction and historical ones – essays, and poetry.  Her inclusion in the group of friends at the Flore shows that what linked them was not so much their dedication to the autonomy of the signifier as to absolute human autonomy in general.  In addition to the solid formal quality of her writing, D’Eaubonne’s work is characterized by original subject matter: the persecution of witches seen as “sexocide;” the gospel of Veronica; biographies of Antoinette Lix, Qui Jin, Pasteur Doucé; La Liseuse et la Lyre – the reinvention of love through literature and music, etc.

These writers deserve to be (re)discovered in their own countries as well as translated.  It will be up to scholars to place them in relation to the movements and schools of their day.  At the very least they contribute and testify to the influence of the progressive anarcho-libertarian strain in French culture  and may have been more representative of the zeitgeist, of what France would become during and after the events of May 1968, than their more famous contemporaries.  Françoise D’Eaubonne died in 2005.  For decades Patrick MacAvoy has kept under the radar, devoting himself to playing the sarod.  But he did surface recently.  According to an October 2011 article in the newspaper Sud Ouest, about the sale of several Edouard MacAvoy paintings, his son Patrick, a sarod player now known as Nala, had this to say: “My father’s work languishes in purgatory.”