Monthly Archives: May 2015

WFOP June Happenings

The following information is from WFOP Carolyn Cofell:

JUNE 10, 7:00 pm, SOUNDINGS POETRY ANTHOLOGY POETS featured at the DICKINSON POETRY SERIES at the UUF, 10341 Highway 42 in Ephraim. On the second Wednesday of every month the Dickinson Poetry Series features a reading by a local or regional poet followed by an open mic and reception. The public is welcome, and admission is free. For more information visit www.uufdc.org or call 920.854.7559.

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JUNE 15, 6:45 – 8:30, JAMES A. GOLLATA & EMILIE LINDEMANN at the WFOP Poetry Series at Copper Rock Café, 210 W. College Ave, Appleton. Plan to arrive by 6:45 or earlier to get refreshments and sign up for the open reading, with the reading beginning promptly at 7. 

James A. Gollata, minimalist poet, has been published in several journals and many issues of the Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar. He is also a short story writer and essayist. As an actor he has appeared in several stage, radio, and CD productions, plus videos and the movie Wisconsin Death Trip. He also wrote and directed a short film, and hosted a jazz program on a tribal radio station. He is also a drummer and a dreamer, sometimes simultaneously.

Emilie Lindemann is the author of four poetry chapbooks, most recently Small Adult Trees/Small Adulteries from Dancing Girl Press. An assistant professor of English at Silver Lake College in Manitowoc, Emilie enjoys collaborating with musicians and visual artists on inter-arts projects. You can check out these inter-arts extravaganzas and other projects on www.emilielindemann.com.

For more information contact Sarah Gilbert at pses@sbcglobal.net.

​ON DECK at COPPER ROCK:

July 20 Bruce Dethlefsen and Karla Huston

Aug 17  Meredith Mason and Adam Fell

Sep 21  Sylvia Cavanaugh and Ed Werstein

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​JUNE 23, ​6:15 pm, ​​MARILYN ZELKE-WINDAU at  CARAMEL CRISP, 200 E City Center, Oshkosh:  We are now meeting in a room directly beyond the cafe portion of the building. Pick up your edibles, walk straight on back. It is not as far as the original game room. So come early to treat yourself to coffee, dessert or other goodies to enjoy during the 6:15 reading.  Marilyn is a​ f​ormer elementary school art teacher. She enjoys recording observations, telling stories, and painting with words. Her poems have appeared in many printed and online venues. Her chapbook Adventures in Paradise (Finishing Line Press) and a full length, illustrated manuscript, Momentary Ordinary (Pebblebrook Press) were both published in 2014.

​An open mic will follow, where participants may read a poem of their own or one they love. ​

For more info, contact  mandiisaacson@gmail.com

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​JUNE 25, 6-8 PM, ​ABRAHAM SMITH AND STEVE TIMM, Featured Reader(s) + Open mic at The Readers Loft | 2069 Central Ct, Suite 44,  Green Bay.  For more info:  torigw@twc.com or call the Loft at  (920) 406-0200 | www.readersloft.com.

WORKSHOPS & CONFERENCES

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 Summer Session: Mill Classes

The Mill will be offering four six-week classes

​ in poetry, fiction and/or memoir​

—three classes on Monday evenings, one class on Wednesday evenings—starting the week of June 15th.

Note: All classes will be held at our beautiful new home along the Fox River in the Fox River Environmental Education Alliance—FREEA (formerly the Monte Alverno Retreat Center), at 1000 N. Ballard Road (corner of Ballard Rd. and Meade Street).

For more information ​visit https://www.facebook.com/TheMillAPlaceForWriters/posts/677254809045161

 

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Short Nonfiction Winning “A Ring of Bells”

The Kay W. Levin Award for Short Nonfiction was won by Catherine Jagoe of Madison for her essay “A Ring of Bells,” which was first published in The Gettysburg Review, issue 27.2 (summer 2014). The story is available online at http://www.gettysburgreview.com/selections/details.dot?inode=e1ac55ac-477c-4ff7-9347-1a656e840279&pageTitle=Catherine%20Jagoe&crumbTitle=A%20Ring%20of%20Bells&author=Catherine%20Jagoe&story=true. The issue can be ordered here: http://www.gettysburgreview.com/about/

A RING OF BELLS

It is a frigid February night in snowbound Wisconsin, and the chamber choir I sing with is rehearsing Randall Thomson’s anthem “Alleluia,” which ends with a series of downward runs. They remind me of the sound of church bells in any English town on Sundays–those rills of notes spilling out, tumbling after one another down the scale, weaving in and out like dancers round the May pole, calling people to church for Matins, Eucharist, and Evensong, for weddings and funerals and holy days. “Alleluia, alleluia,” and I am taken back forty years to Shropshire: grass scent and thrush song.

The bells were ringing the day my siblings and I arrived in Ellesmere for the first time, in August, 1969, when I was eight years old. Our family’s new home, called “St. Mary’s Cottage,” was a rambling old house adjacent to the parish church, St. Mary’s, which was built by the Knights Hospitallers in the thirteenth century on a site where people had been worshipping for centuries. The town was founded by a Saxon chieftain on the edge of a mere and named after him: Elli’s Mere, Ellesmere. It lay on the border between England and Wales, on the edge of water, and our house, too, seemed to occupy a liminal space–in our case between secular and religious life. It was once part of church lands, and both the entrance to the church and the path to the vicarage lay right next to our back gate. In the churchyard, eighteenth-century gravestones covered with lichen listed at odd angles among the thick, tussocky grass and starry flowers of orange hawksbit.

Church bells punctuated our lives, doling out information and instructions, for the church clock tolled every hour. Eight bells meant it was time to jump out of bed and get ready for school. One bell meant it was lunchtime. Six bells, and it was time for Dad to switch on the evening news. Bells at 7:30 pm on a Friday meant the ringers were holding their weekly practice. In the evening, ten bells meant it was time to switch out the light. On New Year’s Eve, twelve strokes meant squeals, hugging, and one of the grownups popping a cork. Saturday bells signaled a wedding or a funeral.

Living so close to the church, I was soon drawn into its life. Because my mother helped “do” the flowers, we were often there at off hours, so it became familiar territory, an extension of St. Mary’s Cottage. While she busied herself cutting stems and arranging blooms in bricks of green Oasis floral foam, I would wander around, playing in the high-backed choir stalls carved with heraldic birds and beasts, kneeling on the woven blue hassocks in the pews, pacing the uneven tiled floor, staring at the stained-glass windows, thumbing the hymn books with their soft leather backs and impossibly thin pages, fingering the sacred heart and pierced hands and feet on the baptismal font, or the cold brass wings of the great lectern eagle, with its giant Bible lying open at the gospel for Sunday, marked by a lanyard of frayed red silk.

I started taking organ lessons and would come in the evenings to practice, pulling stops so that the different voices would sound, my feet working the keys below me, sitting in a pool of yellow light in the dark transept. The organ was so much bigger than me, and so difficult to learn, with all the different keyboards and stops, but I loved the sound of the instrument more than any I had yet encountered. I felt a mixture of peace, happiness, and fear sitting there–joy at the music and fear of the looming dark spaces beyond the light. I was also afraid of the walk home through the dark churchyard, still enough of a child to be afraid of ghouls and ghosts rising from their graves, the lurking presence of beings from countless other centuries, the impenetrable dark of the country.

I was one of the first girls to sing in the choir; I was proud to be let into the vestry at the back of the church–a place off-limits to the congregation–and to don a wine-colored cassock and white surplice with the men and boys. I remember fighting attacks of the giggles during the sermon; once, before choir practice, I felt daring enough to climb the stairs to the high stone pulpit but was caught by the vicar and reprimanded terribly. I remember, too, smoothing the lilac print of my confirmation dress over my knees, and trying unsuccessfully to make sense of the gory business of eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood. I loved the hymns and the Tudor language of the liturgy, even though some of the words–especially “womb,” “Virgin,” “flesh,” and “conceive”–made me squirm a little, seeming obscenely female and corporeal in that masculine, spiritual space.

The vicar of St. Mary’s was a stolid and humorless man called Reverend Norman Fenn. He rather liked the sound of his own voice intoning, and I couldn’t help admiring it too, since he got to use such lovely, weighty phrases. There was the opening prayer: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid,” as well as the confession of having “erred and strayed like lost sheep” because we were following the “devices and desires of our own hearts.” Midway through Holy Communion, in the Eucharistic prayers, Reverend Fenn’s sonorous voice would start to rise, like a jet taking off, until he arrived at the mystical commands: “Drink ye all of this: for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” My favorite part came just before people went up to the rail to take communion: “We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.” It captured perfectly my own sense of being small and flawed despite all my attempts to be good, and my gratefulness at being allowed to participate, to be in the church and at the table.

Being present at all the services, I would see the bell ringers slipping into the back pews as the choir processed up the aisle to the Introit following the cross, the floor beneath our feet vibrating to the organ. They came in late because they had to ring right up until the service began, and it took them some time to get down from the tower. Around the time I was confirmed, at twelve, the ringers enquired if any of the choristers were interested in learning “the ropes.” They were in need of new recruits; the older members were dwindling, and there was a dearth of new blood to continue the tradition. I was tall and strong for my age, and curious about the origin of the sounds that were so entwined with my home life. I began taking bell-ringing lessons, and thus began my initiation into another world.

 

We are following a man who has turned the great, black iron key and swung the small door inward, and we are ascending the narrow spiral stairs, with their pale sandstone steps hollowed out by the passage of centuries of feet. There is a musty smell of old stone, and the surface of the wall is rough to the touch as we lean into it, circling upward. Halfway up, over the little four-petalled rose window with the blue Star of David, there is a flat landing, a wooden passageway from which we can look down into the church. Then we ascend still further to the ringing chamber with its one dusty window set small and low in the foot-thick stone walls. This chamber is halfway up the tower, over the nave.

We have gathered here to ring the bells: old Arnold Whitehead, canal worker and head ringer; Hugh Thomas, the soft-spoken farm forehand; his wife Pat, strong willed and stocky; Will Campbell-Wallis, the skinny mathematician at the local private school with his huge sideburns, bell-bottom jeans, and boundless enthusiasm; and three local youths who have faded now into anonymity in my mind.

We stand around in a circle, a rope dangling from the ceiling in front of each of us. At first all eight bells will be hanging “down,” sleeping, so the fluffy red, blue, and white woolen grips called “sallies” are at roughly head height. We have to reach up to grasp them. Each bell has to be individually rung “up,” set in motion by pulling the sally harder and harder so that the bell swings back and forth in ever-increasing arcs until it comes to rest mouth up, balanced against its “stay,” a wooden bar at the top of the circle.

There are no carillons here, with their melodies tapped out by a carillonneur’s hammer on a set of fixed, unmoving bells. British bells are free–free to swing a great circle, from the up position round to the other side, then back again, with the clapper striking once on each downswing. Each bell is a giant pendulum that has to be controlled by a ringer, its live weight–anywhere from 150 pounds for the smallest treble bell to three or four tons for the giant tenor–falling, rising, pausing, falling, rising, pausing. You can’t see the bell–it is way above you in the louvered bell chamber. You have to control it by feel, by the counterweight of your own body, by the sensation you transmit to it and it transmits to you through the bell rope. A bell badly handled could swing wildly and break its stay, in a havoc of splintered wood. The rope could whip up or down and catch you and drag you up to the ceiling, knocking you out. Even when under control, the rope snakes up into the tower like a live thing. You have to work with its momentum, find the way to exert enough force to make the bell pause the length of time you want, and then fall again, in great arcs.

All of this takes years to learn. To make a bell ring is one thing, but to be able to control exactly when it sounds requires skill, strength, and good rhythm. Just to make a set of six to twelve bells ring a single downward scale with no clashes and equal gaps of a fifth of a second between each note requires exquisite timing and expertise. You need to be able to speed up or slow down as necessary, shortening the swing or holding the bell at balance.

My bell is number three, fairly light. Each bell has its own weight and character, and all but the most experienced ringers ring the same bell each time. It is like handling a horse. It takes about a year of practicing for several hours a week before you are allowed to ring on Sundays by yourself without anyone standing by. There is the conscious heave of effort with the shoulders and arms as you pull on the sally with both hands to set the bell in motion. The slap of the rope on the wooden floor as the bell swings down. The strain of reining it in exactly where you want it with your arms above your head as it reaches its peak, sensing when the bell will sound in your own body, wincing if you get the timing wrong, and it clashes with someone else’s, pulling it back down, braking it gradually as the sally comes up to waist height. The faces, the presences, the dry texture of the rope, the novice’s fear, the concentration, the old-timers’ calm. The dim interior, smelling of vanished centuries. My back is to the door. A stone bench is recessed into the wall behind me. Faces in a dream, a ritual, a practice both commonplace and arcane. The sound of the distant organ preludes coming up through your feet before the services.

Mr. Whitehead calls the order of the bells. We always begin and end with plain “Rounds” (12345678). Then comes the familiar “Queens” (13572468), and the weirder “Tittums” (15263748). Then there is “change ringing,” in which the head ringer changes the order of the bells by calling out individual permutations. If he calls “two to three,” bells two and three switch place in the scale, so that two follows three and 1234 becomes 1324. “Treble to three” means that one follows three, so that 1234 becomes 2314.

For special occasions like weddings or jubilees, and for holy days like Candlemas, Ash Wednesday, and Whitsun, we do something special: a “peal,” which involves following a “method.” The methods have esoteric names like “Plain Bob Minor” and “Grandsire Doubles.” In a method, the changes are not called out individually: each ringer studies and memorizes an algorithm, the pattern that his bell follows to advance toward the beginning of the line and go to the back. The bells weave in and out like the English country dance called “Strip the Willow.” A quarter peal lasts forty-five minutes, and a full peal lasts three hours, during which time no bell ever strikes in the same consecutive order, ringing thousands upon thousands of changes.

Five minutes before the service, the bells are “rung down,” so that their wide mouths and clappers are safely hanging downward. Then number four is chimed as a warning to latecomers. Its rope goes all the way down into the nave of the church where it is pulled three times by the altar boy during Holy Communion when the host is being raised. Out in the fields, you can hear the three strokes of the Sanctus bell and know. For funerals, we put felt hats on the clappers and ring the bells muffled. They speak dimly then, as if underwater.

 

My ten years of bell ringing precede and include my years of teenage love, of anorexia and clinical depression, of losing my virginity and my faith. The bells woke me every day and kept vigil in the long nights of my illness when I lay unable to sink into sleep. The bell chamber became a refuge where I could sink into rhythm and concentration and briefly escape the obsessions that tortured me. Not one of the ringers commented on the mass of Band-Aids occasionally visible under my long sleeves, where I had sliced my forearms with a razor. They kept mercifully mum as I became thinner and thinner, eventually losing half my weight; they did not know when I was dizzy and weak from vomiting, nor when my depression was so deep that I could barely speak. There, I didn’t have to speak. All I had to do was show up, hang onto my rope, and sound my bell on time. Ringing anchored me physically, acting as a literal lifeline to a community of music making and faith at a time of radical isolation and silence in my life. I was one note in a communal instrument speaking to the town.

In my late teens, the gaps between reason and Christian dogma became too wide and too numerous for me to bridge any longer. Struggling to forge a healthier relationship to my own body, I couldn’t accept what I saw as the denial of the human body in the Virgin birth, the magical resurrection of the dead, and the fact that torture and human sacrifice were supposed to redeem us. In this time of growing alienation, it was the bells, and music, that kept me coming to church. My routine of Friday night practices, Sunday morning and evening ringing, and studying for peals became an essential part of the fabric of my life, something that grounded me, gave me a sense of belonging to something larger than myself, something that was at once part of ancient tradition and the everyday life of Ellesmere.

 

On Ascension Day, forty days after Easter, the bell ringers and the vicar and the church wardens and choristers climb the spiral stairs beyond the ringing chamber, past the bells and up onto the tower itself, and we sing hymns looking out over the village, the Shropshire countryside, the Mere, the old-people’s home, the Tudor coaching inn and the Georgian houses and the eighteenth-century canal. “Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be. . . .” Beneath us lie the Saxon preaching cross; the crusader’s sandal and the vial of earth from the Holy Land in a glass reliquary; the rood screen; the Queen of Heaven with baby Jesus on one arm and the orb in her left hand; the Scrivener with his inkhorn and little dog; and the alabaster effigies of Lord and Lady Kynaston, lying side by side on their tomb, hacked at by Oliver Cromwell’s troops during the Civil War in the seventeenth century, with the little statues of their seven children kneeling mutilated round them.

“All glory, laud and honor, to thee, redeemer, king. . . .,” we sing to the landed gentry, the Jebbs and the Cholmondeleys and the Mainwarings; to the pinched children on the council-house estate, to the laborers drinking Wem Ales and smoking Woodbines in the Bridgewater Arms, the Red Lion, the Black Lion, the Sun, the Swan, and the White Hart; to the mothers cooking Sunday roasts; to the lines of washing in the gardens; to the Welsh hills rising green and vertiginous twelve miles away, with their lambs and their slag heaps; to the primary school with its silver-haired headmaster; to the raw teenagers at the Secondary Modern; to the well-heeled boys at Ellesmere College, where my father works; to the three ruddy butchers in their striped canvas aprons, in their separate shops, wiping their large hands among the carcasses and strings of sausages; to the ladies in the market on Tuesdays with their blocks of crumbly Cheshire cheese, their muddy potatoes and lettuces and leeks, their Cox’s Orange Pippins in brown paper bags; to the greengroceries, where tulips and daffodils and freesias stand in buckets, and avocados are beginning to make their exotic appearance.

“Jesus shall reign where’er the sun doth his successive journeys run. . . .,” we sing to the sleepy, tea-colored canal meandering toward Llangollen and to the dour fishermen on its banks with their umbrellas and Wellington boots; to cattle standing hock-deep in mire around five-barred gates; to stiles and sheep; to the Working Men’s Club; to the red Royal Mail postboxes bearing the embossed crown and the letters EIIR; to bluebells in the coppices; to the newsagents with their dirty magazines on the top shelf and the Shropshire Star and jars of Gobstoppers, Pear Drops, and Licorice Allsorts; to the greasy fish-and-chip shop; to the Indian takeout and its poppadoms; to the furniture-stripping shop and the opticians and the ironmongers and the dairy; to the dusty ladies’ clothing store and the haberdashers; to the youths lounging on the steps of the Old Town Hall, fags drooping from their lips, who eye me up and down with furtive hostility and whistle like wolves; to the watch mender and the jeweler; to Rowlands, the chemists with the peroxide blonde lady whose skin is orange from tanning booths and whose made-up eyes are hard; to the postcards at Fred Roberts that say, “Welcome to Ellesmere.”

“Crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon His throne. . . .,” we sing to the bank clerks at Lloyds and NatWest; to the two policemen living at the station where I watch Princess Anne’s wedding with my friend; to the New Town Hall and the roundabout; to the deep, secret ruts of Love Lane and Sandy Lane; to the farms with their sheepdogs; to the smell of coal fires burning in the grates of all the houses; to the uprooted train tracks, reverting back to field; to the Canada geese by the Mere who have eaten all the grass; to the herons in the heronry; to the grimy old lorries thundering through the village on the main road to Shrewsbury under the walls of the church; to the castle whose motte is now a bowling green; to the garage on the corner that sells petrol and Walker’s Salt ’n Vinegar crisps and Cadbury’s chocolate bars; to the Convent of the Poor Clares, silent by the canal, with its vegetable garden and its invisible cloistered nuns; to the Methodists in their chapel down on Scotland Street; to the Cottage Hospital and the doctor’s surgery; to the war memorial with its withered wreaths of poppies. “His the sceptre, His the throne. . . .”

 

On Sunday evenings, after we finish ringing, I slip into Evensong at the back of the shadowy church, just as the vicar is intoning “O Lord, open thou our lips.” I know the service by heart, so as I am walking into a pew, I join the first response: “And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise.” I find the service comforting, especially the beautiful collects:  “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night. . . .” I can still recite the collect toward the end, with its plea for “rest and quietness”: “O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed: Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that both our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee we being defended from the fear of our enemies may pass our time in rest and quietness. . . .” The Nunc dimittis, Simeon’s words at the center of the service, also reenacts the granting of peace after a lifetime’s wait: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.” I always imagined the old man’s amazement, recognizing the six-week-old Jesus in the Temple as the Messiah; his tears of sudden joy, gratitude, and relief. The words transmit a sense of release, consolation, and safety that I take with me into my week.

Evensong ends with one of my favorite hymns:

The day thou gavest, Lord, has ended

The darkness falls at thy behest.

To thee our morning hymns ascended;

Thy praise shall sanctify our rest.

Afterward, the ringers and I walk out of the church, through the cemetery, and push open the heavy iron gate with its black bars and gold rosette. We cross the cobblestone alley, they to their cars and me to go up the gravel driveway of St. Mary’s Cottage: home. The last thing I hear before falling asleep will be the sound of the bell in the tower, striking the hour: a link to the church’s ongoing presence as I slip between worlds.

 


Catherine Jagoe is a freelance translator and writer. She has a PhD in Spanish literature from the University of Cambridge. Poems from her collection Casting Off (Parallel Press, 2007) were featured on The Writer’s Almanac and Poetry Daily. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Atlanta Review, North American Review, Ninth Letter, PMS, Rattle, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, and other journals. She is a contributor to Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life series. Her website is http://www.catherinejagoe.com.

“A Ring of Bells” appears in our Summer 2014 issue.

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Read more about Council for Wisconsin Writers 2014 contest winners at http://www.wiswriters.org/2014%20winners.htm.

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Excerpt of Tofte/Wright Award Winner’s “Double Exposure”

Continuing with additional recognition for 2014 winners of the Council for Wisconsin Writers contests by posting their winning work or excerpts of that work on this blog, today is Chapter 3 of Bridget Birdsall’s book, Double Exposure, for which Bridget received the Tofte/Wright Children’s Literature Award, and which she read at CWW’s May 16, Awards Banquet. The book addresses gender issues, teenage insecurity, bullying and overcoming obstacles.

 Bridget Birdsall reads from her debut young adult novel,  Double Exposure. (Copyright 2014 by Bridget Birdsall. Reprinted with permission from  Sky Pony Press, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.)

                                                                                                                                 Chapter 3
                                                                                                                               Super Freak
Fresh start. Our new code words. A direct result of my run-in with Prickman and his apes. At first, Mom wanted to do it the old way—try to convince me that we should report them.
“Alyx, you have every right to be safe here.” She didn’t get that it wasn’t personal with Prickman. He sensed I was different, and that’s what guys like him do; sniff out and hunt down super-freaks.
“It’s not just Ricky Pearlman and his dweebs, Mom. You don’t get it, do you?” I’d told her.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Doesn’t matter.”
“Yes, it does. Alyx, for God’s sake, it matters to me. You matter to me!” Both she and I knew I couldn’t survive another beating. Her guilt was palpable. “Your dad and I did the best
we could.”
“It’s not that—”
“If you’d just talk to me, Alyx.”
“I tell you everything, Mom!” Hot with rage, I’d whipped off the T-shirt I’d slept in. “LOOK!”
She blushed, but she didn’t look away. I laid my hands over my small, but obviously budding breasts, tried to get her to see. “Ricky and his buddies are growing beards, and I’m growing these. What do you expect them to do? I’m a friggin’ freak!”
“You are not a freak, Alyx.”
“Yeah? Then what am I?”
“I will not allow you to denigrate yourself like this.”
“I told you. I told Dad. I showed you guys. I tried telling you a long time ago, but you wouldn’t listen.”
“We did listen, Alyx. We didn’t want to overreact and regret things later. That’s why we found Dr. Max. So you would have someone to talk to.”
“Yeah, then Dad conveniently got cancer because he couldn’t deal with the fact that you guys screwed up. Got him out of family therapy for life—right?”
“No one screwed up.”
“You did! Majorly. I’m living proof.”
“STOP IT!”
I scrambled into the corner, yanked my shirt back on, and glared at her. “Why didn’t you just make me a girl? That’s what everyone else does with their ambiguous babies, right?”
“Alyx, you know it’s not as simple as a DNA test. If it was, we’d have done it.”
“Dad would’ve rather had half-a-boy than a whole girl, right?”
“That’s not true.”
“It is. He told me.”
“We didn’t want to choose for you. That’s what he told you.” She put her head in her hands. “We wanted you to lead the way.”

     She started to cry. I wanted her to feel bad, but after a few minutes, I got up, went over, and touched her shoulder.
“Mom?” I said. “You want to know how I feel?”
She nodded. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, her face still in her hands.
“Like I’m stuck with your mistake. And I can’t do it anymore. I can’t be a boy. Not for you. Not for Dad. Not for anyone.” My voice got all shaky. “Because, I’m a girl. I always have been. And now Dad’s gone, so we both need to face the facts.” I sank down to my knees in front of her.
“Genetically you’re—”
“Neither! Both! I know! Intersex. Eunuch. Hermaphrodite.
Ambiguous genitalia! One of the two percent of twenty-one mutant genderless baby strains born every year, and none of that matters, because you know what, Mom? I still need to
pick a Goddamn locker room! That’s why I want to be dead.” The tears started streaming down my face. “Just like Dad. Dead. Dead. Dead.” I hit my fist on the bed.
She grabbed me, hugged me, held me, and we both cried. Hard.
That’s when she decided we were moving.

More information about Bridget and her books is at her websitehttp://bridgetbirdsall.com/.

Read about all CWW contest winners at http://www.wiswriters.org/2014%20winners.htm and learn how to become a member of CWW at http://www.wiswriters.org/join.htm

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Sheboygan Youth’s Winning Essay

CWW Essay Award for Young Writers winner was IDEAS Academy Sophomore Kade Byrand of Sheboygan with this moving piece titled “Shadow Dad.” 

Shadow Dad

I heard music downstairs. I listened in shock.

I’m learning to live without you now

But I miss you sometimes

The more I know, the less I understand

All the things I thought I knew, I’m learning again.

It wasn’t just the lyrics: Were they about me? My dad? No — both of us.

More than anything, though, it was the music itself, the first I had heard in my house for more than a year.

On October 12, 2013, in my garage, a mountain bike fell off a rack at the wrong place and time.  I wasn’t there when it happened; my dad was, cleaning up when he bumped into the rack.

When the bike hit him, it hit us all. I never thought that a concussion could make it so a man who soloed a mountain in Scotland, skied double-black diamonds, and loved watching movies with his son could not even stand sunlight seeping through the window shades.

Our house had to be shrouded in darkness, the glow from my laptop the only light downstairs, and even then I had to be sure to tilt the screen down and away from my father; otherwise, he’d cry from the pain.

The Earth spins beneath all of our feet and we never notice. My dad didn’t just feel the rotation; he saw it. However, for him, the world spun up from his feet and over his head. And everything in his spinning world also flickered up and down like a broken film strip. I would watch him close his eyes to try to shut out what a doctor called “visual chaos” but only to remark how it wouldn’t go away even then. The neurologist explained it couldn’t, because his eyes weren’t the problem: It was his brain that had been damaged.

This of course changed my whole family, with my dad depressed because he could do nothing but sit still and rely on others for everything. The man who had been raising a child had to be taken care of by that child, and we could do nothing that we used to do. No games, no movies, no friends over. No music. I was dealing with a dark and quiet house where even me talking would make my dad’s head hurt.

All I could do is wait for school, because then I could at least speak and be in the light. I tried to find ways to cope. Some things seemed like logical responses: try to stay away from home for as long as possible, hang out with friends, maybe catch a movie or a play. Other responses were less logical. I become obsessed with analyzing one movie: Gareth Edward’s Godzilla. I would look at every shot in that movie and figure out why Edwards chose to do it that way. I would copy the shots into drawings and plan other ways they could have been done. I don’t know why I did it. Maybe it was to pass the time. Maybe it was to give me some feeling of reward for finding new things about the movie. Maybe it was even to find better monsters than the one that damaged my dad’s visual cortex and midbrain. But no matter what, it was still strange.

I became nostalgic for my happy childhood, and I latched onto specific, joyful memories, like watching four spy penguins. I would sit on the couch, re-watching episode after episode of The Penguins of Madagascar. Of course I had to watch it on my laptop in the dark with headphones because I couldn’t dare turn on the TV when my dad was around. But for those moments I was completely engrossed in the screen that displayed the characters on their crazy adventures. Maybe they were trying to stop their foe, the mad scientist dolphin Dr. Blowhole, from flooding the world or trying to fix the damage from one of Kowalski’s haywire inventions. While watching, I felt that maybe everything really was alright. But the credits would come on and I would be reminded it wasn’t. I would try to bring the Penguins up to my friends, but of course none of them actually cared about some kids’ cartoon they had never watched. But that didn’t stop them from going to the movie version with me. I saw it five times at the theater, never alone.

At home, I would look up and see my dad’s tired face from behind my screen, the darkness accenting his ghostly pale skin. He looked like some villain in a movie, covered in shadows. But instead of stroking a cat, he had our French Bulldog, homely Jean-Luc, in his lap. Then of course the hero would come in, and Dad the villain would give the sad backstory of who he was. I remember I once thought about how if this world was like a cartoon, my dad would be Karl the Devious.  Cue a scene change as he captures the daunting hero. What is Karl the Devious’s plan this time? It was of course the same as always: To get revenge. Karl pulls out a cartoonishly sized and shaped super weapon and readies it. Is this the end for the hero? Find out next time.

But take away those shadows, and my dad is more of the hero. He was so brave for living in that darkness with that boredom, and he never did anything wrong.

Still, those cartoon thoughts warping my pain into amusement really did help. I learned to laugh again, and so did my dad, though so quietly.

In March, I could hold short conversations with him, but only for a few minutes at a time; he would have to rest after. But it was something.

As the snow started to melt, we were able to walk after sunset, up the beach or by the docks. He’d have to rest after ten minutes of slow walking, and we would talk quietly. Ironically, I felt that while my dad was more distant than ever, I was also closer to him. He had always been the more strict one in the family. He would make the rules and enforce them, but now he just joked and complained about the world. There was a real, close bond forming from these walks, and a value for my family that I thought I had lost started to reappear. I enjoyed being around him and my mom as much as possible, whereas before I would shrug them off. More and more dinners started becoming family dinners. I would help my mom cook, read to my dad, do whatever I could to help.

Sadly, this improvement didn’t last for long.  My dad had some brain bleeds and got worse. He went back months in progress. It was like being so close to grabbing something, yet it slips right away. When my dad would go to bed, my mom and I would watch TV together to forget the world. In one show, Continuum, a character finally found the time travel device she had spent months looking for. She was just about to get it when someone threw it off the roof. She tried to grab it, but it went tumbling down, hitting awning after awning. That was my dad, falling further and further. I’d hope an awning would stop him, but he would just bounce off.

That summer ticked by so slowly. I wanted it to end so badly. Things looked like they would never improve, but then a neuro-opthalmologist suggested retraining my dad’s brain. We started taking my dad two hours south to Chicago every Friday for specialized therapy. Each trip was so painful for him and seemed to be of no help, but then the improvement started showing again. He could listen to the news on the radio in short bursts. He could have family friends come over to read to him, and then for longer and longer times, and the rests after became shorter and shorter. Eventually, he was even able to look at a picture on my computer, though only for a few seconds.  It was of Vancouver, Canada, the city I love the most in the world, even though I’ve never been there. Shimmering seafoam green buildings lined the harbor with the mountains of the North Shore looming above them. Looking at a picture might seem small, but to us it was huge. I felt like maybe we can get there.

And then this past December I heard music downstairs for the first time since his accident. My dad had an earworm for Don Henley’s “Heart of The Matter,” so my mom turned it on.

And I thought of all the bad luck,

And the struggles we went through

And how I lost me and you lost you

The song wore my dad out and he hasn’t tried to listen to another one since, but I heard him humming the other day. Maybe I haven’t lost him, but found him again.

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Zona Gale Winning Short Story

As additional recognition for 2014 winners of the Council for Wisconsin Writers contests their winning work is being posted on this blog. Today, you can read below Margaret Benbow’s story “Joe Szabo and the Gypsy Bride,” which was published in The Antioch Review, for which she won the Zona Gale Short Fiction Award.   Margaret Benbow reading her winning story at the CWW Awards Banquet on May 16 at the Wisconsin Club in Milwaukee.

 JOE SZABO AND THE GYPSY BRIDE

             “Gypsies, Abel,” the father said, not bothering to keep his voice down. He glared at them and his fingers worked a Bemberg lining into a coat at the same time.

“How do you know?”

“I know. Look at their hair. Look at their skirts.”

Abel looked. He thought their hair and skirts were wonderful. “They sound Irish,” he said in a low voice. “And these days you’re supposed to call them Travellers.”

“I’ll call them whatever the hell I want in my own shop. Get them out of here.”

The woman and the young girl seemed not to hear him. They quietly talked to each other as they looked about the shop with their long eyes.

Joe Szabo and his son Abel made suits, and had an entirely male clientele. The shelves were filled with bolts of somber tweeds. Joe liked to work with black, navy, banker’s grey, and shades of brown. That was it. Once a rich and famous alderman came in cuddling a Pekinese to his cheek. As the alderman gently massaged the tiny dog all over with his forefinger, making it wriggle and sigh, he told Joe that he wanted him to make a tuxedo jacket out of hunting pink, with a matching jacket and bow tie for the little dog.

Joe threw them out of the shop.  “Gaybird,” he said, under his breath.   Like me, Pop,  Abel thought. You can’t even imagine.  Then Joe stood in the doorway and shouted after them, “You two ought to rent a room!”

Like Aaron and I used to do, Abel thought. Because if I went to his apartment his other boyfriend might guess about us. And his girlfriend too.  Aloud he said,  “I hope you enjoyed that, because it’s going to cost us.”

“I know,” Joe said. “But it was worth it.”

Abel said, “I can’t believe I dropped out of college to help you.”  And I lost Aaron. “When you put Grandpa in the nursing home I thought things would go better in the shop. There would no longer be this insane old naked guy wandering into the front room in his truss, terrifying the customers. But I forgot how sometimes you just have to insult people, how you talk to them like a goddamn ape. I forgot how you are, Pop.,”

“Your mistake,” Joe said. “Oh, and I just got another call from the nursing home. Grandpa’s in trouble, he tried to jump that nurse again. I told them to get him an uglier nurse.” Joe laughed.

“That’s not funny. If they kick him out, we’re totally screwed.”

The older Traveller woman stood arrogantly tall with her hand on her hip, the sides of her fur coat thrown back. Abel could see that her dress of burnt paprika silk was fashioned with tempestuous gores and godets. The young girl wore cerulean blue. The women were a bolt of color against a wall crammed with briary wool in tones of stony fields and winter woods. They both carried rolled-up parcels.

“Talk to them,” Joe said. “But don’t give them a damned thing.”

“They look all right,” Abel said. “Do me a favor and don’t do your apeshit routine.”

“What are you, four years old? They’ll rob you if you give them an inch. They’ll rob you twice. Get rid of them.” Joe turned back to the Bemberg lining, sighing heavily because he’d raised such a fool.

It was the older woman who talked to Abel. She was Irish all right, although her brogue had  fine malt whiskey in it rather than the green lilt. She said that her niece Mareid, the girl, was going to get married. They wanted the Szabos to make her wedding dress. They had the yard goods, beautiful fabric, all they needed was the tailors’ skill.

Joe shouted rudely from the back of the shop, “We only make men’s suits.”

The aunt ignored him.  She said to Abel, “We will pay you with this.” She waited a beat, then smoothly flipped the bundle off her shoulder and unfurled it. Abel saw roses and Arabian ponies and tiny robed people suddenly run over the floor. They were passionately riding, embracing, praying and fighting. It was all rolled out before him.

“Pop,” Abel said.

Joe must have heard something in his voice, because he came right away. The rug was gorgeous, extraordinary. He studied it morosely, and finally found a flaw.

“It’s damaged,” he said, pointing in triumph to a tiny knick in the border fringe.

Her fine lip curled. “It’s a hundred years old,” she said. “It’s wonderful. Wonderful is better than perfect. Any slave at a machine can give you perfect.”

“You think a slave didn’t make this rug?” Joe said.

When he said that, she averted her gaze from him as though from a defecating dog.  He, however, never took his eyes off her.

As they argued about the rug, Abel looked at the girl. Her hair grew in long, sumptuous black spirals. Aaron’s hair grew like that, although his was red. A sunny green fragrance came off her. Abel could understand, sort of,  why his Czech grandfather, when he became too senile to care what people thought, used to bite hard on the side of his fist when he saw a beautiful woman.

Finally Joe said, “The rug is not so bad.” He sighed morbidly and added, “Maybe you could even mend those mothholes.” He pointed to a few specks of dust on one of the ponies’ gold manes.

The aunt nodded to the girl. Now it was Mareid’s turn to take the bundle off her shoulder and spread it out on the table. The silk was soft, heavy and white, with a drape fluid as water, and yet strong, as though it could withstand being wrenched by fists. It had threads of both gold and silver woven into it, a subdued shining. White embroidered garlands swept over the whole piece. Joe couldn’t stop himself from touching it.

“Foreign cloth,” he said. “Probably some Chinese child went blind doing the embroidery. Where’s the pattern?”

The aunt rummaged in her bag and brought out a scrap of newspaper, much folded and frayed. It was a publicity photo of Princess Caroline of Monaco at her first wedding. Joe was silent, as though beyond words. Finally he said, “So you’re telling me there is no pattern?”

The aunt gave him her contemptuous, damn-your-eyes blue stare. “I thought you were a tailor,” she said. “I thought you had skills.”

“Pop,” Abel said, warning him.

But instead, after a silence, Joe said, “Right.” Abel thought, How did she know she could beat him with a dare?

“When is the wedding?” Joe said. “I’d like at least two weeks.”

“The wedding is tonight,” the aunt said indifferently.

“Oh,” Joe said, “of course. Naturally.” His fist tightened on the fabric. “I need to measure her. Abel, get the tape.”

“You can’t touch her,” the aunt said, staring at his hand as though at a filthy and infected gorilla’s paw.  “It’s not proper. You can measure her by holding the tape a couple inches from her body.”

“I would prefer not to make such a fool of myself,” Joe said, coldly and evenly. “I can figure out her measurements by looking at her. However, she will have to take off that fur coat.”

The aunt looked disgusted, as though he’d made some fantastically gross, inappropriate demand. Abel took over, ushering them with bows and soft words to the fitting room.

When eventually Mareid had taken off her fur coat and even her blue dress, she was still covered both up and down. She wore a long, loose, sturdy white cotton slip, of the type Abel had always associated with nuns’ underwear.   She looked like a proud young angel who’d come to light softly for only a minute on those little feet, and would fly off in a heartbeat. Only her  bracken-thick mane of black hair looked of the earth.

She was wearing the most beautiful shoes that Abel had ever seen. They were lilac kidskin wedgies with pink silk ribbons that crossed softly over her ankles and up her calves. Abel remembered that Aaron used to laugh at him for liking pink so much. “Such a stereotype. Pink-pank-punk.” He was staring at the shoes when he felt his father’s eyes on him. Abel raised his gaze and tried to leer at her breasts.

Joe walked around Mareid for no more than fifteen seconds,  then without comment wrote down a dozen measurements. “That’s it,” he said. He nodded curtly to the aunt and left the room. Abel followed him.

When the aunt and girl emerged a few minutes later, the aunt was still frowning. When she spoke, her brogue was more throaty and aggressive than before. “The dress material is as valuable as the rug. I want every scrap back that ye don’t use.”

“I know you do,” Joe said.

“The wedding is at eight,” she said. “We will pick the dress up at seven.”

Joe walked them to the door. He was already rolling his sleeves up. The aunt said, stating a fact, “It’s the big arms like Popeye ye have.”

Joe scowled. She put her hand on his bare forearm and looked up at him calmly with her long blue eyes. There was a beauty mole on her neck, swept by black curls. She said, “Sure, there’s not a thing the matter with strong Popeye arms.”

Then she and Mareid were gone. Like thoroughbreds they walked down the street on their long legs, climbed into a magnificent white Cadillac, and drove away.

Abel said, “That aunt is not a bad-looking woman.”

“Wash her, and send her to my tent,” Joe mocked. But he still looked shaken.

Abel said, “If you think about it, she’s paying us a big compliment by trusting us with this job.”

Joe said, “I have thought about it, and she’s whipping us like fucking racehorses.”

Joe hung up the CLOSED sign. He got on the phone and brusquely cancelled  several suit fittings. He was especially rude with the mayor.

“Oh yeah,” Abel said, “let’s definitely alienate and insult the mayor. What a good idea. Who needs him? Money isn’t everything.”

Joe said, “The mayor is going to keep coming back because I sew him suits that make his fat ass look like Brad Pitt’s.”

He looked for a long minute at the photo of Princess Caroline in her dress. He looked at the list of Mareid’s measurements, set them aside and spread out the dress material. He eyed it like a burly conquistador gloating over Incan concubines whom he was about to ravish.

“Of course you’re going to make a pattern,” Abel said.

Joe smoothed the fabric until it was perfectly flat. He grabbed his favorite cutting shears, snapped his neck from side to side as an athlete does to pop the kinks out, and shrugged his big shoulders to loosen them.

“I don’t know who you’re showing off for,” Abel said, “there’s only me here. Now make a goddamn pattern for Christ’s sake.”

“You’ve seen me cut free-hand before,” Joe said. “I see the coat or whatever and I  know without thinking what all the pieces should be. I only heard of two others in the  world who could do it. Balenciaga, and that English freak who just killed himself,  Alexander McQueen. It was just them and me. Pretty rare. Pretty special.”

“It’s more like being an idiot savant,” Abel said. “I wouldn’t brag if I were you.”

Joe snorted, tightened his grip on the shears and slashed into the cloth fearlessly. He cut smoothly and rapidly without stopping for five minutes.

Abel said, “I hate when you do that. It’s so weird that you can. And you’re cutting the pieces too close.”

“I’m keeping about a third of the material. For me.”

Abel was silent with surprise. His father had always been honest to the point of obsession. He said, “The aunt will know.”

“Let her. She thinks I took some? Good luck proving it. What is she going to do, curse me, give me the Evil Eye?” Joe laughed softly.

“Pop, that’s a beautiful rug they’re giving us.”

“We’ll never see that rug again. They’ll shove some rolled-up crap into our arms and take off. Those gypsies couldn’t stick to a deal if they tried, which they don’t. It’s not in their blood. Grandpa told me all about them.  Lie till you die, that’s their custom. But I don’t give a shit because I have this,” he lifted a broad sheaf of the gleaming cloth, “and so no matter what they do, I’ve got mine.”

Abel said, “Why does Grandpa hate gypsies so much?”

“In the old country before the war he was a peaceful farmer, just trying to get along, and had to battle the gypsies constantly.  They were wild as hell. They’d rob the farmers, steal their horses.  The young men would seduce peasant women. Grandpa said it was terrible the way they’d be up all night dancing and whooping and catting around. He said he was disgusted to watch their goings-on.”

“Probably he was jealous,” Abel said. To himself he thought, Right.  One of those peaceful farmers who was all smiley and happy as the Nazis were loading the gypsies into the box cars.

Joe and Abel worked the rest of the morning. As he sewed, Abel’s mind returned over and over—“Like a dog to its vomit,” he thought—to bitter fights he and Aaron had had. They were sometimes about Aaron’s other boyfriend, but more often the girlfriend.

“You and your goddamn Bi-curious ads. You ought to call yourself Bi-spurious. You’re gayer than I am. You just don’t want to admit it because it would make your mom mad.”

“My girlfriend—“

“Your girlfriend? Have you taken a good look at Juliet? She’s like a boy with a vagina.”

Abel realized that his life was much more peaceful without Aaron. But he didn’t want peace.

At 1 p.m. he said, “I’m starving. Let me run over and get some subs

from Coyle’s.” Coyle’s was the deli across the street, and Abel made his suggestion as a grim joke. Joe and Coyle had been feuding for twenty years. It was something about a cat, nobody could remember what. When business was booming at Coyle’s, Joe watched from his doorway and suffered, his blood turning black with hate. At such moments Abel thought of his father as the Lightning King of the Doorway, because he radiated such electric power of outrage. Joe would point to Coyle’s deli window, stuffed with richness, and say, “Look at that disgusting display. It’s as though Coyle doesn’t know that people are starving.” When Abel was a very little boy, he’d believed that world hunger was Coyle’s fault.

Now Abel sometimes sneaked over and had one of the great po’boys, stuffed with shrimp and ham. Coyle would chat with him and then say, “Is your dad ready to give it up yet?”

“Not yet. Pop believes in keeping his wounds green.”

The father and son worked all afternoon without stopping. As they worked they talked..

“When is that friend of yours, that Aaron, visiting again? Good kid. Kind of an interesting talker. Bet he has the girls after him.”

You got that right, Abel thought. The boys too. If you want to know trouble, just fall in love with a curly-haired charmer who drinks too much. Then if you need even more trouble than that, make him think he’s  bisexual.

The dress glided forward on the shell-like scallops of its hem. Abel sewed sections of the skirt on the machine. Joe pieced the bodice by hand.  At one point he stopped, found the tattered picture of the gown and read the designer’s name. “Christian Dior. Paris motherfucker knew what he was doing.”

By mid-afternoon, Abel was already tired. Every morning Joe got him up at 6 a.m., quoting the Szabo family motto which he said went back to medieval times: Rise early, and sharpen your knife.  Abel would ask if, in the absence of ancient enemies he needed to stab at dawn, he could sleep in. Joe always said no.

Now Joe said, “We have to go faster.”

“I can’t go faster.”

“I can.”

The phone rang. Cursing, Joe answered it. He listened for about ten seconds, with a black scowl, then shouted, “Get out of my freaking face about the damn suit. If you call again I’ll cut it up for ass-wipe.”  He hung up, muttering. “Goddamn Morelli.”

“You mean Dom Morelli? Of the New Jersey Morellis? Pop. Maybe you should have been more…more… “

“You’re afraid he’s going to send his goons to cut my thumbs off ?” Joe smirked. “Oh, Dom’s not such a bad guy when you get to know him. Besides, he’s grateful to me.  He’s the ugliest little psycho you ever saw. But when I got my Prince of Wales glen plaid three-piece on him, he looked so cute I almost wanted to date him myself.” Joe laughed his harsh honk. After a minute, Abel joined in.

Twilight came down in the late fall afternoon. At five o’ clock Joe turned the lamps on.   He went into the little kitchen in back and made tea. Abel could tell by this that  his father thought the dress was going well.  Joe had just walked back into the front room, teapot in hand, when the shop door opened and a man walked in.

“We’re closed,” Joe snapped. Then slowly his face turned so purple Abel was afraid his father was having a stroke. The man’s parka hood concealed most of his face, so you could see only the flat, expressionless eyes. Abel was trying to make sense of this, and of the man’s smell where before there had been only the clean odor of fine cloth, when somehow from one second to the next there was a long-barreled gun in that dirty hand.

“Get your money.” He spoke in a low flat voice. “Get all of it and get it now, or you’re dead.” He lifted the gun. Joe, paralyzed, saw the barrel boring into his son’s forehead.

I’m going to die, Abel thought, and I never told Aaron I love him.

“Did you hear me? Don’t fool with me!” Suddenly the thief lifted his filthy boot and kicked over the table on which the dress lay.

“What—the—FUCK!” Joe screamed. He flung the teapot straight into the thief’s face. He snatched up his shears, charged forward showing his teeth like a barrel-bellied gorilla, head-butted the man, rammed him flat against a display case with his big paunch, and slashed his parka from shoulder to shoulder. Screams came from the parka hood stained with blood and boiling tea.

“Now get the hell out of here,” Joe shouted, “or I’ll tell your mom. And leave the goddamn gun here. What were you thinking? I don’t have time for your bull.”

Abel expected to see a baseball-sized hole bubble up red in his father’s chest, but instead the man dropped his gun and staggered out, weeping and babbling to himself  like a griefstricken child.   Abel stared after him, then opened his stiff lips and said to Joe, “What were you thinking? He was all set to blow my head off—“

“Oh, that was just Mort Peevey’s son Davy, the one who was always strange. He did this a few times before. Once I had to stop Grandpa from cutting his liver out. The old guy hauled out a machete I didn’t even know he had.” Joe looked regretfully at the shattered teapot. “Remember Davy? I’m sorry I broke his nose and ruined his jacket, but somebody has to wake that kid up.” He lifted the dress sections and carefully checked them. “I was worried he got his dirt on the dress—“

“Are you crazy? He had a gun to my head!”

“Big deal. Thirty years ago, when Grandpa and I had that shop on the south side, I had a gun to my head about every other day. One time Grandpa took a bad hit from a baseball bat, and he still managed to strangle the robber to death with his bare hands.”

“That old monster should have been locked up years ago!”.

“No, he did right. Some people just belong dead.”

“I’m calling 911!”

“We ain’t doing that. Davy is Mort and Betty’s only kid. It would break their hearts. He’s harmless. And besides we’ve got to finish the dress.”

They argued about it, but in the end Abel sat down at the sewing machine. It was several minutes before he could still the trembling in his hands enough to sew.

“And I don’t like you disrespecting your grandpa like that, calling him a monster,” Joe said. He was hand-sewing a complicated buttonhole without looking at it. “He’s got reasons. He went through stuff in the Second World War he’s never talked about, it was so bad. I know he got blown up, barely got out with his life.  Not everybody has had  everything so soft and easy  like you’ve had.”

Abel thought, I lost Aaron because of this crazy obsessed old fucker. Bitterly he reflected that his father, his grandfather, and every single one of the Szabo forebears he’d ever heard about were the same:  swarthy barrel-chested raving men   charging  their  demented projects with their tusks, focusing on the desire like blind wild pigs.    He thought with painful longing of Aaron’s parents. Aaron’s father was a Wall Street broker. The worst impropriety he ever committed was to have a third Bloody Mary.

Finally Abel thought he could trust his voice to stay steady. He said, “When you talked me into coming back here, you said the neighborhood was gentrified.”

“It’s getting there,” Joe said.

*     *     *     *     *

“I don’t know why we’re working so hard,” Joe said an hour later. “She’ll just tear the dress when she and the groom jump over the incinerator, or run down the chicken for the shaman, or whatever the hell it is they do.”

“Irish travellers are Catholics,” Abel said. “She’ll be married by a priest.”

Joe kept looking at the dress, studying it. He said, “I just don’t get it about those women. They could marry anybody.  But Grandpa said gypsies marry their cousins, or powerful old men from their tribe. And he said some of these guys would  kill you as soon as look at you.  Now does it make a bit of frigging sense to you that a woman would marry somebody like that? Because it doesn’t to me.”

The dress was finished at 6:30. Joe said, “That’s it.” He hung it up. He arranged the skirt so that it flowed smoothly from the slim calyx of the bodice. He said, “I wonder if she’ll like it?”

Abel said, “You mean the aunt?” Joe ignored him, got his camera and took some pictures of the dress.

“You like her,” Abel said. “Why don’t you go for it, try your moves?”

“So I could be the gypsy king?” Joe said. “Tell it to another fool.” He checked the pictures on his camera. He said, “Dating her would be like trying to saddle a wildcat. Marrying her would be like running uphill ten miles with a rabid fox clamped to my arm. A foreign rabid fox.”

Good point, Jozsef, Abel thought. You’re going to end up like Grandpa, an old weird Czech guy dying of loneliness, with fur growing on his back. And I’m even dumber than you, because I left the one I love the best.  Aloud he said, “You ought to get out more. You’re getting odd.”

Joe walked over to the cupboard to put the camera away. “There is nobody for me,” he said. But he said it in his harsh, everyday voice.

He put on a tweed sports jacket, his best.  Whoop-de-do, Abel thought. Joe unlocked the front door. He stood at its window, his arms folded. Half an hour passed.  At seven-thirty he said, “They’re probably late because somebody stole a turkey and got shot in the pants.”

Abel said nothing, but there flashed through his mind an image of a car wreck, and the women with their fine faces and bright skirts charred in flame.

At that moment the Cadillac, like a huge elongated traveling pearl, drew up fast under the street light.

Joe said, “Their lives may be dark, but their Cadillac is as white as snow.”

The car door flew open and skirt ruffles flared as the aunt jumped out. She rushed toward the shop. She wore a superb cashmere shawl and amethyst silk suit, but it was all in crazy disarray, uneven and half-buttoned, as though she’d dressed while running for her life from an invading army. She had a bundle on her shoulder.

“My, my, here she comes in a terrible hurry,” Joe said softly. “What a surprise. Hold on to your back fillings, Abel.”

But they stopped smiling when they saw the woman’s face. She was dead white, her mouth trembling. She ran into the shop, not acknowledging them, staring past them. She threw her bundle on the counter and said, “It’s the same rug.” She seized the wedding dress on its hanger and turned to run out.

Joe grabbed her arm and said, “Just a minute,” and then slowly raised his hand to stare at it. It was covered with red. The silk of her sleeve was stained red. “Tell me,” he said. She put her mouth to his ear and whispered fiercely.

“I don’t understand you,” Joe said. His voice sounded funny. “You’ll have to show me.”  The two of them started out the door. Abel was on their heels, and Joe turned around and gripped his son’s shoulder hard. “Stay in the shop,” he said in a low voice. “I don’t know what this is about. I think they’ve staged something to get us away from the cash register.”

But Abel did leave the shop and follow them. He saw Joe wrench open the car door, and as light flooded the dark interior Abel saw two young heads close together, their black hair commingled. Mareid was holding in her arms a young man who was as beautiful a boy as she was a girl, but his formal black suit jacket was wet with red.

Wounded to the death, Abel thought, and then wondered why he’d assumed that. The aunt and Mareid began a fierce argument, Abel did not understand about what. His father bent half inside the car, angry and amused, telling the boy to stop being such a fake. He slapped him lightly, and then threw open the reddened jacket triumphantly, as though to expose a fraud. But anybody could see the deep gash in the kid’s side, and that it was seeping blood. After a minute Joe reached in and touched the cut. Abel was reminded of a picture he’d seen in church of the disciple they called Doubting Thomas, who placed his hands in Christ’s wounds before he could believe in them. His father stayed still, hunched over, then straightened up.

“Abel, get some cloth,” he said.

“What—“

“Anything, anything,” Joe said. Abel ran into the shop and snatched a bundle of material, then rushed back toward the car. The cloth fell open and when the car lights hit it filaments of gold and silver and white flowers flared up on the ghostly white background. Joe grabbed the wedding fabric without comment, formed it into a thick pad, bent again inside the car and pushed the cloth against the boy’s side. “Hold that tight,” he said to Mareid. “Don’t let it slip.” Then he said to the aunt, “I’ll drive,” and they were gone. Abel looked wonderingly down the dark empty street.

Abel waited all night for his father to come back. Around  2 a.m. the phone rang. He answered it. He could hear Aaron mumbling the way he did when he was drunk.  “Oh shit. Shit. Shit.  I love you.  God damn you to hell for all eternity for leaving me. Oh shit, shit.  I’m sorry. God I’m so sorry.  Please come back. We can all work it out.  Matthew and Juliet– ”

The wall mirror before Abel glazed crimson when he heard the names spoken. In a frenzy he shouted into the phone that Aaron was throwing fucking Matthew and Juliet  into the street that night, that very minute,  and cleansing the apartment of their stupid crap and bongs and ugly weasel asses, that Abel was going to stand there and listen to him do it, and that Abel had better not see them, hear them or smell them when he came back the next day, and that if Aaron didn’t get it done he, Abel, would deal with it himself and would make sure that Aaron regretted it the longest day he ever lived.

Abel was dimly amazed to hear his father’s and grandfather’s steely voice of rage coming out of him, but mostly he was just furious. He stood there with the receiver to his ear and heard Aaron kick Matthew and Juliet out of bed with surprising sobriety,  and  order them to pack their possessions into trash bags and clear out. They staggered around the apartment screaming.  Aaron calmly withstood their  wails,  curses, desperately offered allurements and threats, and within five minutes had slammed the door after them. There was the sound of steps approaching the phone.

“Now are you happy, Mister Butch Maniac?” Aaron said into his ear.

Abel looked up and saw himself in the wall mirror, a big barrel-chested  man sweating and panting, his white teeth snarling in his dark face.

*     *     *     *     *

Joe came back at dawn. Abel  saw him climb slowly out of a taxi. Joe entered the shop. Abel started to ask questions, but when he saw his father’s face, he stopped. Joe walked past him into the little kitchen in back.

“There’s blood all over your jacket,” Abel said.

Joe put a kettle on the stove, and brought out the coffee tin. After a minute he began to talk.

“What happened is that the kid and his friends just thought they’d stop for a quick drink before the wedding. His name is Damon, by the way. They went to the wrong bar. There was a fight, and he was stabbed. His friends got him out of there, bleeding like a pig. They don’t believe much in calling the police, they say the police don’t help them. But they were going to take him to the emergency room. Damon wouldn’t let them, said he had to get married first. They tried to force him and he fought them. They called Dolores, that’s the aunt, and she and Mareid rushed over and picked him up. He made them come over here to get the dress, said that was how he’d always pictured his bride and that was how it was going to be. The fight Mareid and Dolores had, that was about taking him to the emergency room. Mareid wanted to do it right away, but Dolores said they should get married first and then go.”

“But why?” Abel said. “Why wait to take him?”
“Because that little girl needed to get married,” Joe said, “and that boy needed to marry her, dead or alive.” He poured coffee into two mugs. He said, “I knew it when she was standing in the fitting room.”

Abel said, “So you’re saying the groom was willing to bleed to death rather than risk that the bride should be an unwed mother.”

Joe said, “They protect their girls.”

“Well, did they get married? Were you there?”

“They got married all right. Done and done. I held him up.” Joe blew on his coffee, then slowly drank it. He said, “Nice-looking kid, even stabbed in the spleen. And a gutsy kid. Made them take wedding pictures afterward—just head shots, of course. For her to have, he said. Then we went to the emergency room.”

“What happened there? How is he?”

“So-so. They did an operation. He’s alive. The damned priest was there on death watch, hoping for the worst. He’s mad now because he wanted to give Damon the Last Rites, and Damon wouldn’t let him. Tried to hit the priest. Said he was staying. Hell of a tough kid. Then when the priest insisted, Mareid went after him with an IV stand. I actually felt sorry for the man. Here he thought he had Damon all squared away, and the kid just refused to stay planted. The priest is not used to people like that.”

Abel studied the coffee mug in his hands. He said, “I checked the rug. It’s the right one.” Joe said nothing. “How did the dress look?”

Joe was silent, the better to savor his memory of Mareid rearing up in the white dress, both dress and girl blazing with beauty, as she brandished the IV stand. Then he said, “It looked good.” He finished his coffee, and put the cup down.

He was turning to go when Abel said, “Pop.” Joe stopped. “Pop, I’m gay.”

Joe said, “I know.”

“I’m going back to Aaron tomorrow.”

Joe sighed heavily and looked down, so Abel wouldn’t see in his eyes what he saw:  his grandchildren running out of the shop. He remembered with shame that he’d planned to talk Abel into naming his first son Dano, after Grandpa.  The delusions of a fool.

He said, “I had the most beautiful piece of wool you ever saw put aside for your wedding suit.”  He continued to look down, stubbornly seeing his son in the suit.

“I’ll still need it. Marriage between guys is legal in Massachusetts.”

“So I got that to look forward to,” Joe said.

“Aaron and I–”

“You’re the last of the Szabos.”

“Why is it all on me? You could get married again. Hell, Grandpa could marry his nurse and breed like a rabbit.”     Joe swore, but Abel thought he could see a smile there. He could also see Joe wasn’t done.

“There—there are…I mean, they got—ah—like, different roles—like, there’s you, and there’s Aaron–“

It took Abel a minute, but he finally had it.  The old freak thought that in gay couples there was always a husband and a wife.  And he’d feel a little bit better if his son was the husband.

“It’s none of your frigging business,” Abel said.

In the front room, Joe stood at the window and looked out, his arms folded. The neighborhood was already drenched in pink. He remembered the thing that had happened at the hospital that he had not told Abel about. He thought he would probably never tell him.

The doctors had been operating on Damon. Dolores and Mareid insisted on standing in the hall outside the operating room, so he stood with them. After an hour Mareid fainted. He caught her, and he and Dolores carried her to the waiting room. He got juice and sandwiches for her from the cafeteria as Dolores fanned her. He held the orange juice to Mareid’s lips and concentrated on feeding it to her drop by drop, like a baby.

Dolores watched Joe. After a few minutes she said,  “We’d heard you were a fine tailor. But we chose you because you’re Dano Szabo’s son. We have Czech friends who told us about him.  About how bad he was when he was young,  stabbed his brother in the back, ran off with his wife. Lived like a beast, all the other gypsies despised him.  Then  during the war this criminal, this disgrace—I’m sorry,” she said to Joe, but he shook his head, “—he got brave.   Blew up train tracks and rescued  our people out of the box cars. Kept them alive in the mountains.   Dano Szabo!  I thought his son would have good energy for us.  I was not wrong.”

Joe knew he was gaping like a dumb brute. He couldn’t think of a word to say.  But after a minute he began to plan a conversation he would have with Grandpa Szabo, as soon as possible, in the nursing home.

Now, across the street, lights went on in Coyle’s deli. In its window hung a big mortadella and smoked turkey. There was a carved ham, and Joe could see how pink the slices were under the browned crust of fat, spilling over a blue platter. There were pineapples, and piles of round seeded buns, cheeses, and baskets of grapes, peaches and apples. There were white chrysanthemums in a yellow bowl. Coyle could make a nice window, he had to admit it.

Little Coyle was sweeping the sidewalk in front of his store. Joe opened his own door, stepped outside and began walking across the street. Coyle stared at him, took in the bloody jacket and hastily went inside. Joe smiled to himself.

He stood in front of the deli window and considered it, his hands on his hips. Inside, he could see Coyle watching him nervously, big-eyed like a bunny in headlights. Joe nodded to him coolly. Then he turned back to the sliced ham and big brown rolls. He began to plan the food he would take to the hospital. The family shouldn’t have to eat that cafeteria crap.

(Copyright (c) 20​14​ by the Antioch Review, Inc. First appeared in the Antioch Review, Vol. ​72, No. 1​, ​Winter 20​14​, Reprinted by permission of the Editors.)

 ###

Cathryn Cofell’s five poems for which she won the Lorine Niedecker Poetry Award was posted on May 25.   https://cwwnews.wordpress.com/2015/05/25/lorine-niedecker-winning-poems/

See all of the 2014 CWW contest winners at http://www.wiswriters.org/2014%20winners.htm.

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WI Writer Creates Quirky Middle-Grade Books

This looks like fun! Book Signing! - You're invited to celebrate the launch of Julie Mata's book:<br /><br /><br />
KATE WALDEN DIRECTS:<br /><br /><br />
BRIDE OF SLUG MAN!</p><br /><br />
<p>There will be door prizes<br /><br /><br />
and treats for everyone!</p><br /><br />
<p>Saturday, May 30th, 1:00 pm<br /><br /><br />
Barnes & Noble<br /><br /><br />
4705 W. Grande Market Dr.<br /><br /><br />
Grand Chute, WI<br /><br /><br />

This new middle-grade novel is the second in a series of “Kate Walden Directs” books by Wisconsin children’s author and video arts creator Julie Mata.  Although funny and light-hearted, Kate Walden Directs: Bride of Slugman deals with such serious issues as bullying.

Kate Walden Directs The Bride of Slug Man follows last year’s publication of

KateWalden Final cvr

 

 

 

Kate Walden dreams of becoming a big-time Hollywood director. But finishing her first movie is turning into a big-time nightmare. When Kate’s lead actress and BFF ditches her to hang out with the popular crowd, Kate’s movie seems doomed. Kate writes the perfect revenge script for her former best friend, but a hen hit squad seems to have its own diabolical script to ruin her life. Kate learns that real life is way more complicated than movies, especially when it comes to friends… and chickens.

Here’s a link to Julie’s website, which has a reader/classroom curriculum guideline:  http://juliemata.com/

Also, please visit the Council for Wisconsin Writers website at www.wiswriters.org.

 

 

 

 

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Lorine Niedecker Winning Poems

As additional recognition for 2014 winners of the Council for Wisconsin Writers contests their winning work is being posted on this blog, starting today with Cathryn Cofell. 

Cathryn received the Lorine Niedecker Poetry Award for the following five poems:

FOR MY SON, WHO HATES PIANO

Once a week, no matter how he begs,

I turn him over to Mrs. Hoff,

pay her $18 a week

to pound the pianist in, the petulance out.

I   HATE   BACH!

he wails as he scales

the Minuets in G Major, G Minor,

his face a composition of black keys.

He curses the quickety-split timing

of Schumann’s Happy Farmer, says

he’d be happy too if he were farming,

would rather slop pigs than play

one more note that dead guy wrote

for his fat cow of a daughter.

He is forte and staccato as he belts out

Eminem’s I’m not afraid, to take a stand

to the tune of Fur Elise.

But today, as I wait in the car

for his lesson to end, after

Mrs. Hoff left to collect his coat, I see him

through the window stretch his arms

from pit to tip, caress the keys at each end.

I see him press his cheek to its brown chest.

I see his eyes close, as if in prayer,

and the fingers of his right hand compose the air.

 

Before the piano, it was any flat surface.

Before that, kettles and cups,

the splash of water in his bath,

his bare body dancing to dust beat.

It took me a lifetime to find a love this deep,

and then it bubbled from this fountain of son.

I know why he fights this fervor,

how bottomless he could tumble

in the pit of one slight hum.

Cathryn Cofell

published by Naugatuck Review,  September 2014

 

GIFT OF SIGHT

Mom dreams of a man she hasn’t seen

since high school and he calls.

My sister Carla dreams a rain

of money, and a window washer

drops his wallet at her feet.

Mom is restless, frets

about the dream of a lost boy

found dead or a deadly chemical spill.

She swallows amnesia, meditates

to turn her eye inward, prefers to be

the blinded horse.  Carla imagines

herself a super-hero, Dream Girl

in a 360 thread-count cape:

Power-ball numbers, activated!

Spill, averted!

She looks forward

to the R.E.M. of night,

the flannel periscope rising.

 

I have visions too.  Déjà vu.

A new room, re-entered.

Strangers met again.

A first kiss like cul-de-sac.

They feel sorry for my life

in the rear-view mirror, imagine

I tread in a vague pool of loss.

But I consider tomorrow

a boomerang,

each toss a chance to retrieve

old sins, to pitch them again

to the thundering sky.

I see our three lives

as trifecta, as trinity,

the weird sisters

with our contradictory natures,

familiars hovering

til the hurly-burly’s done.

Cathryn Cofell

2nd Place, 2014 Golden Quill Award, appeared on www.SLONightwriters.org October 2014

 

HERO ON THE ROOF

He ain’t no fat santa,

he ain’t no GI Joe,

no one voted him in or out,

he just rose up,

he just climbed up

like the original King Kong

scaling the Empire State

but in dazzling color, climbing

from a cave into

the cloudless noon color,

blinding! He’s only three feet tall

and except for a dishtowel cape

he’s naked as the trunk of a mango tree,

his naked brown body built

like a suitcase, like a carry-on bag,

he’s carrying on like a rock star,

jumping and grinding,

he’s yelling yippee ki aye and grinning,

a stupendous I-just-saved-the-day grin.

He’s got a big letter J painted orange on his chest

and there’s a piece of me that catches

when I see it, that knows this is no hero,

this is some hopped-up sports fan,

that the J is for Jets or Jaguars

and I’m sure now someone (maybe even me)

will call 911 and the sirens will wail

because he’s a phony or a suicide

who might just jump,

who might not catch me if I fall.

But there’s another piece of me that catches

on the J is for Justice or Jubilation

if all I do is look up and believe

in all three freaky feet of him:

I will believe—sweet Super J—I will,

because the alternative is much too cruel,

the alternative is the world, unsaved.

Cathryn Cofell

published in Drawn to Marvel, Spring 2014, Appears in Sweet Curdle (Marsh River Editions, 2006), Appears on Lip (2010)

 

PAPER OR PLASTIC

I can’t open those plastic produce bags at Piggly Wiggly.

It takes ½ a dozen tries, or more if I don’t lick my fingers.

I saw a Candid Camera bit where they put out bags

that didn’t open on either end.  I’ve been worried since, look

around near any pyramid of lettuce or plastic on a roll.

 

I forget the reusable sacks.  I choose paper but plastic

stows away every time, melting sherbet or a can of Raid

and me afraid to use or toss the bags since Naples became

a volcano of trash. I’m not sure why the Camorra rule

the dumps, but I saw the plastic heaps of rot, Huggies erupted.

Now my own house looks like a Neapolitan side street,

and there goes the swarthy garbage man, rumbling by.

 

I read in the paper that newspapers are dying. Another

doctor reads a panoramic of my jaw and pronounces

it, too, nearly dead, strong as wet paper.  He advises less talk,

soft foods, a 24/7 splint or replaced with poly-something,

think mousetrap or chip clip.  Either way, I’m all slush

and slur.  Either way, I’m betting I’ll outlive USA Today

if I eat with a plastic straw, a diet of papier-mâché.

 

Does the paper gown open in front, or back? Two seconds

after the door shuts I’ve forgotten,  too focused on hiding

my panties under my skirt, although I’ll be uncovered

any minute, opening the wrong way.  The paper sheet

clings like plastic to my ass and the chill means

I’m exposed already but I flip casually through People,

as if this is natural, as if I’m not feeling like a sock puppet

when the doctor enters, barely says hello before his hand

is under and up.  Before he listens to my paper-thin heart

open in the front, or is it the back?

Cathryn Cofell

Finalist, James Hearst Poetry Prize, North American Review, published Spring 2015

 

WHAT TO GIVE HER

No makeup or mirrors, nothing that reflects,

no TV screens, no tinted glass, no tin.

No clinging clothes or cameras,

no photos or frames,

no possibility of any shape, trapped.

No trappings of any kind,

no pedicure, no perfect pearl,

no clutch of orchids.

Not one thing for a kitchen—paring knives,

Pyrex bowls, decorator plates—no gift

to grace a plate, to place an appetite

on red alert, nothing that smells

of cinnamon or cherry, wet laundry on a line—

too many fresh skeletons, too thin that wind.

No erotica, no memoir, no thriller that kills

the ugly girl first. No words then, no sound,

no appeal to the senses,

not the bow-legged song of crickets,

not the hug of ribs or rolls—no two women

can touch and come away the better.

 

I settle on a watch.  I give my friend time,

the one gift that is not about her image,

the gift to hold closest to her pulse—

each anorexic tick, each uncontrolled curve

of a minute that she must learn to fill.

But when she puts it on I see this, too,

is wrong, the way it spins so freely

on her impossibly small wrist,

how the band is like a bangle of bones,

how she wants only to be bone.

Cathryn Cofell

     WI People & Ideas Prize for Poetry, 2009; published Spring 2009; The Scene, Nov.  2014

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