The Damage Done

by Greg Bottoms

I knocked on my grandmother’s tattered screen door. This was in Hampton, Virginia, in 2002. She had asked me to visit.

The door spring was broken, and the hook was undone, so the door whapped against the scarred, paint-chipped frame after each knuckle rap. There were small holes in the lower part of her screen, as if a child had poked through it with a pencil, or someone had held the cherry of a cigarette against it.

I didn’t know my grandmother very well. This was my dead father’s mother. I saw her once, maybe twice a year once I was a teenager and after, and then usually only for an hour or so around Christmas or Easter. My father had grown up at the edge of poverty. His parents fought. His mother drank. His father was a schemer, later depressed, later dead of a heart attack or stroke (no autopsy) and left to rot for a couple of days in this small, brick house while his mother and father had been briefly separated. My father found his father’s body, dealt with the ambulance, the police, the coroner, the funeral home, the grave, the headstone, his mother’s grief, his own. But he never talked about it. He was like that. A product of dysfunction, distrust, precariousness. He turned this all into a tough-guy veneer. “John Wayne,” my mother called him. The Marlboro Man. Tragedy, strain, and painful memories had partially, in an unspoken way, estranged my father from his mother, even though we lived barely ten miles away. He loved her but he had no faith in her. He became the parent and she became the child.

So I had never had a serious or intimate conversation with my grandmother as an adult. I was nervous about her invitation.

I called out hello, looking into the crosshatched, dark gray of the house, seeing the ghostly outlines of her worn furniture.

I stepped away from the door, turned and looked around, scanning the neighborhood. Small ranch houses, brick or vinyl-sided, lined the street as far as I could see in one direction and to a stop sign and a busy thoroughfare in the other. It was spring, new leaves on all the tall, front-yard trees. Two young teenage boys and a girl with the hood of her sweatshirt pulled over her head were skateboarding off a steep curb over and over again, trying some trick, something new they couldn’t figure out. I thought about how I had been a decent skateboarder, spending hours and hours in a halfpipe, my head filled with the magnified, throaty roar of wheels on wood. The kids’ skateboard made a loud crack noise every time the deck hit the weathered asphalt, and my eyelids involuntarily blinked like doors slamming.

“Hello,” my grandmother called from behind me. I turned, and there she was materializing out of the dark like a figure in a Polaroid to open the screen door. I stepped inside, smiling.

She was in her seventies then, but she looked older. Her face was puffy, as if she’d been crying only minutes ago, eyelids red and tumescent, though she was smiling wide now. She had newly dyed hair—a deep black. She wore a teal leisure suit. She had already told me earlier on the phone that this was her bingo night, that she’d only have a couple of hours to talk.

She stepped to me suddenly in the small foyer, a gesture that belied her fragile appearance, reaching up and putting a hand on each of my shoulders, staring for a long moment at my face. She pulled me to her and held me as if I had risen from the dead, as if I was not myself but my dad, without the killing cancer, the mouth ulcers, the skeletal frame.

I had written a story in the late 90s about my father, which was about 80% true, if you can quantify truth in that way (or in any way), or really it was a stylized essay, with heavy narrative elements and a fragmented structure and time jumps (I was overly interested in artistic form then). In this story I recounted an anecdote about my father having to go help out with his mother when she was found drunk and barely conscious in a neighbor’s front yard one night. She was an alcoholic, recovering and relapsing throughout her life, but significantly better and stable during the time of this visit. And she had been, decades before her summons to me, twice temporarily committed to Eastern State Hospital—“the asylum,” as everyone I knew called it—for life-threatening substance abuse and odd and erratic behavior.

In my story—which included my own aestheticized version of a real moment in an old woman’s life—I aired all this dirty laundry like an eager would-be author fiddling with material. And, for effect, for some kind of symbolic resonance, I included a true but devastating story about how she once killed my father’s favorite pet and fed it to him. Then I published it in a well-regarded but probably little-read literary journal. It was not directly about my grandmother insofar as she was not the main subject; it was an elegy of sorts for my father and his tough, hard, sometimes tragic, and too-short life, ended by lung cancer at the age of 52.

I knew few people would see it, fewer still would read it start to finish. But I had needed to write it. So I was happy when I heard the piece would be listed in a “best of” anthology and even happier when I was informed it would be reprinted in another. Still, I thought it would be ignored, even anthologized and in wider circulation.

I was young, and prose was an art and craft I approached with religious zeal, much more seriously than I do now, since I am older, make my living teaching, and have a realistic understanding of how little what I write has any impact on the world. I have become more minimalist in style as I have become more minimalist in ego, in life (I don’t mean this as a defeatist statement; I find it all quite relieving, a quasi-Buddhist peace with what is).

Anyway, my grandmother had an eighth-grade education, was a recovering and relapsing and recovering alcoholic, as I said, and lived in a world a million miles away from literature and writing and the English degrees I had pursued. Or so I thought. It didn’t occur to me, not even for a second, that she could have read my story when I sat down on her couch. I had used her, turned her into a character, which alters the truth of a person for some more singular narrative purpose. The ethical thicket of the way I represented her burbled beneath my mental surface, if you will, but it didn’t occur to me that I would have to face it.

She wanted to talk about my father. She wanted to talk about being a mother—the joy, the pain, the pressure. She sat down in a blue, plush chair across from me—so frail, so wrinkled—leaning forward, her leisure suit almost blending into the upholstery. There was a clear effort to be as close to me as possible, as if to emphasize what she wanted to say, our connection, I don’t know.

“He loved that little duck,” she said—no set up, no prelude. “I think your dad was ten or eleven. Called the duck Pete. Pete the duck. He found him one day at the pond with a broken wing and brought him home. Had a little pen out back that I helped him make with chicken wire I had for keeping rabbits out of my vegetable garden.” She paused, looked me in the eye, waited to see if I would say anything. My heart was beating a little faster, and I could feel my face was blushing. I said nothing.

She went on (and of course this is remembered, recreated, and fictionalized dialogue). “Well, I drank back then, and I know you know that.” A pause, a long look. My incrimination. “Anyway, my husband, John, your granddaddy, dead long before you were born, of course, got on me about not having any Sunday dinner. He was real country, you know, and he expected a Sunday dinner in the early afternoon and he could be mean. We didn’t have a good marriage, I’m sorry to say. Fought all the time. I was angry, fed up, and I got to drinking, and I went out back and got your daddy’s little Pete out of the pen. I snapped his neck like I used to with the chickens back on the farm when I was a girl. Your daddy ate Pete that afternoon none the wiser. He had a great Sunday dinner with his father grimacing at the head of the table, not saying one word. Then I told him what he was eating. He went right into a crying fit, right over his plate, weeping and carrying on. I swear that boy cried for three days.”

I sat very still, attentively listening, holding my expression as blank as possible, as if this was a story I was hearing for the first time.

She waited to see if I would say something now about an incident I had turned into a scene and which she had obviously read. It would have been natural to ask a question. One would expect a question, some comment, offered here. I didn’t. My silence told the story of my guilt. Then she said, “I’ve always felt real bad about that. I loved your daddy and I’m ashamed I did that. I’m ashamed of a lot of things. If I could take it back, take that day away, not hurt him, I would. I certainly would. I was his mother and I loved him. I want you to know that. That’s what I wanted to tell you, and I needed to say it to you in person. I needed to look at you.”

For months after this meeting, I was haunted by shame to the point of depression and mental paralysis, her words—and even more her red, wet eyes—on an excoriating tape loop through my thoughts.

A few years later, after she died suddenly of undiagnosed late-stage colon cancer, and after two of my cousins, clearly also readers of my work, refused to even look at me at her funeral, I started a new story meant to redeem her. The first line was: “I knocked on my grandmother’s tattered screen door.” But the damage was done. I never finished it.

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AGNI GBGreg Bottoms is the author of seven books, including the memoir Angelhead and the travel book The Colorful Apocalypse: Journeys in Outsider Art, both published by the University of Chicago Press. See what he’s published in AGNI here.


Trying to Make Sense of an Absence: A Question with Evanthia Bromiley

AGNI: Your story “If the City Falls” (AGNI 85) focuses on characters who are experiencing the same thing—a bombing—while keeping them apart for most of the story. It’s such a striking choice. I think the choice serves the story well, but why did you choose to isolate the characters from one another?

Bromiley: I think it has something to do with the inefficacy of language in times of trauma.

During World War II, my grandmother was interned at a work camp in Germany. Whatever happened in those years—and I know very little about her, can only surmise—drove her crazy. After the war, she had my mother, but she couldn’t care for her; she abandoned her. My mother and her brothers were split up and given to relatives to raise. That’s something my mother has never been able to forgive.

I never met my grandmother, but I remember the day she died; we heard over the phone. I must have been ten, about the same age she left my mom. The phones still had those long, loopy cords, and my mom kept wrapping that cord around her wrist. My grandmother was asking her to come, please come, to her bedside. And my mom couldn’t. She said no; she didn’t say much else. Afterwards my grandmother died, and the day went on as usual. Judaism, traditionally, is matrilineal: every child of a Jewish mother is considered a Jew. Yet in my family, there’s this rift in the maternal line.

So I think something of this absence made its way into the center of “If The City Falls”—invention in place of fact, feeling in place of memory. Your question makes me wonder if rifts like these open in the absence of words. We need words to express these things, with each other, I think. A lost story is dangerous. That’s why so many people tried, at all costs, to preserve testimony. Emanuel Ringelblum, for example, buried sheaves of archives in milk cans, beneath the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto—he knew these events were unprecedented; they must be preserved. It’s possible that if my mother knew my grandmother’s story, she could have forgiven her. It’s also entirely possible she wouldn’t have—but she would have had the chance to try, a choice. Instead we have this impenetrable silence: no one speaks of it. So when people say the Holocaust and the events leading up to it has been written, or can’t be, well, I think that’s not quite true. It’s this strange, human paradox: Words cannot rectify the evil truth of what happened. What might also be true is we have to try, anyway, to find words, to make sense of an absence. That paradox isolates my characters, and is what I’m trying to explore in “If the City Falls.” The characters try to reach each other through the ruin, and even though they’re very close… there’s the inefficacy of words to face up to something like that.

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Evanthia Bromiley Evanthia Bromiley lives, writes and teaches in Durango, Colorado. She is the recipient of a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, a Lisel Mueller scholarship, and the 2017 emerging fiction fellow at Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop. Currently she attends Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. “If the City Falls” is her first published story. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Writing to Speak to the Dead

by Radhiyah Ayobami

I write as a way of speaking to my dead. I never consciously acknowledged this until I had a conversation with my mother recently. We were reminiscing about my grandmother and her deep orange-brown sweet potato pies, her way of sitting outside with a cigarette and cup of peppermint tea and heckling people from her porch—Hey man, why your head so little? It has been five years since she transitioned into the Great Big Yonder, and she still lives in our stories. At the end of our conversation, my mother said, I wish I could tell her how much I enjoyed her. I said, I’ll tell her. There was a pause.

Back when me and my mother lived in the same city, and sometimes even in the same house, I never said things like that to her. But I live in California now, 3,000 miles away from Brooklyn where I was born, and I’m old enough to have traveled a little bit, seen a little bit, and have a teenager with hair on his chin. I’m also finally brave enough to say who I am. I could make her less uncomfortable and speak into the pause. I could laugh my statement off as a joke, ask about her dog, and the weather in New York. Rainy? Windy? Snowing Yet? Weather is always safe. But I remain silent and finally she says, I don’t know what you’re talking about—I don’t talk to dead people. I say, But I do.

It’s hard for me to think about my ancestors as dead people—to me they’re just folks who live in the Great Big Yonder. I feel like I know them as well as people I see right in front of me, and this is probably my grandmother’s fault. The first stories I remember were hers, and all about growing up in a small town in Virginia, ten miles wide. Today, that town is an exit on the freeway that boasts one buffet, a discount store and a couple of budget motels. Back in her time, it was a town of farms that one drove through on the way to bigger and more exciting things. There she was raised, by parents who were sharecroppers, with her eleven brothers and sisters. (My grandmother would have never used a word like siblings. And since this is her piece just as much as it is mine, I won’t either.) I would never meet most of the people in her stories—they had long ago traveled to the Great Big Yonder. But when I sat at her feet as a little girl, playing with my dolls as she weaved stories, the people she conjured up were just as real as the neighbor next door who brought us over fat slices of homemade red velvet cake in Saran Wrap or the white-bearded preacher in his flowing robes that hollered and sweated and fell out every Sunday. The people in the story became real—and they were mine.

My grandmother’s stories were not child-friendly, and had she known about that concept I’m sure she wouldn’t approve. She was born in 1931, and black Southerners of that generation generally didn’t believe in hiding things from children. If it was grown folks business then a child knew better to question or comment, but survival for everyday living had to be shared. To hide the facts of the world might mean severe trouble or death in a land where they lacked human rights. So even before I started school, I knew how my great-grandmother, Mama Mary, had been snatched by a man when she was just a girl and had given birth to a baby boy who was later raised on an Indian reservation. And I could see what my grandmother called the boy’s hang-dog look as he crouched near the porch wanting to see his mother, while her new husband forbid it. I knew how Mama Mary had taken a child from the arms of a mother who was giving him away because she was going to jail for killing her husband—and how that little boy became one of the rowdiest uncles in the family. He wore the loudest suits, toted the longest rifles, drank the stiffest moonshine, and was always running from the law. I knew about the light-skinned and the dark-skinned side of the family—how the lighter side lived up on a hill and had a little land and looked down on the darker side, who were sharecroppers. I knew Mama Mary was magic—how she went around the town with her midwife bag and bundle of herbs grown in her garden, and she delivered babies of the poor and healed the sickly and had an extra plate for everyone—while her own son was chased from her door.

My grandmother didn’t do morals; she told her stories and you got what you got. Sometimes they were sorrowful and sometimes they were full of life. She loved to talk the years after the family migrated to Brooklyn and became settled. Back then, Brooklyn was a city where everybody was from down home and you could walk into anyone’s kitchen and smell pig feet boiling or be served a plate of fried chicken necks, backs and gizzards. Every woman kept an endless kettle of greens, white potatoes and fatback on the stove while Mahalia Jackson or Shirley Caesar wailed from a big floor stereo. Somewhere in each of those houses was the Holy Bible on its own stand, a shining picture of Martin, and the long-haired Jesus. All up and down Eastern Parkway were the organizations people had formed to survive, and when these folks weren’t busy surviving in the factories and rooming houses and storefront churches, they were celebrating—the down home folks had got citified. There were the dances kept by Daughters of the Eastern Star and the Masonic Temples, and regular old house parties and rent parties where folks propped speakers in the windows and the women in the house cooked down a full plate with a drink for a little pocket change.

And my grandmother was beautiful. Even though she wasn’t from the light-skinned branch of the family, she wasn’t what she considered ‘too dark’ and her eyes were hazel and changed color with the sun. Her hair was thick and black, and when straightened it curled limp and glossy over her shoulder as she stepped out in her sequined dresses and heels, splashed with rosewater. She was twenty years younger than her husband, and could read, write and mingle easily with anyone—and her husband had none of these abilities. He was the son of sharecroppers who had only done one year of school and had a Southern drawl that could be hard to understand. He knew two things well: hard work and drinking. And he did them every day. He also did things like mix up lye and boiling water in a bucket and threaten to kill his family, and drank up his wages so my grandmother had to take her small children downstairs to the neighbor lady and leave for work at the hospital early in the morning while the sky was still dark. Sometimes, softhearted male co-workers dropped her home, and her husband cursed at her and accused her of cheating. In this marriage, my grandmother stayed for decades.

My family would sit around the kitchen table and laugh as they told these stories. They would start, Remember when… and it was ultimately some story of a man in the family who hurt someone by stabbing, mixing up a deadly concoction or pushing someone through a plate glass window. (All true.) The women were also equal opportunity assaulters, but they were more subtle—they poisoned with a handful of leaves or a sprinkle of dust tossed into the stew. Or got hold of a few of your short hairs and burned a candle and Lord knows what could happen then. Some of the stories were funny to me, but whenever I heard about my grandmother and her husband, I wanted to cry. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to mix up something in a bucket to kill her when she laughed all the time and called everyone chile and shared everything she had in her sweet southern way. I wanted to know why the men in our lives were allowed to behave so badly. And because these weren’t questions I could ask my older relatives, I became a writer.

In my writing, I can ask the questions never would in real life. I can dream up the things I don’t know and make my own endings. I can let the women be warriors and still be loved by their men. I can imagine the women with their long rifles, aimed steady and sure, declaring they and their children won’t be abused. And I can see them sitting in the porch swing with their men at night, watching the stars and the long grass in the fields rustle.

Finally, I can give Mama Mary a happy ending. In my version, her teenage son lopes up the steps like her husband once did, and she peers out the window and sees him standing at the door. She places a lemon cake, warm from the oven, on the center of the table next to a butter knife and two shiny clean saucers. On the table, a pitcher of lemonade, chock full of fresh cut lemons and plenty sugar. The doorbell rings and her smaller children shuffle in the living room, ready to meet their big brother. She opens the door and finds herself looking at the young man with her face, and the family’s trademark honey eyes. The boy is thin, fidgety. Not knowing if he will be accepted. And all she can do is open her arms wide and say to him, Welcome. The story shifts, and we heal. This is why I write.

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radhiyah-blue-1 Radhiyah Ayobami is Brooklyn-born with Southern roots. She holds a B.A in Africana Studies from Brooklyn College, a MFA in Prose from Mills College, and has received awards from the New York Foundation of the Arts and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. Currently, she lives with her teenage son in Oakland, California, where she is at work on her first novel and the trees give her poems. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Personal Essay as Homage: Rubin’s Deli, 1928-2016

by Alisa Wolf

RubinsDeliIn 2010, Agni Online published my essay “Lokshen Kugel.” It was an homage to Rubin’s kosher deli in Brookline, Massachusetts and my great aunt, Bessie Cohen, who worked in the kitchen there for most of her adult life. I haven’t eaten at Rubin’s in more than a decade. But when it closed its doors for good on Friday, August 5, 2016, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness that I will never order a Rubin’s pastrami sandwich again.

The deli opened in 1928 (or 1927, by some news accounts). It featured a corned beef sandwich for 15 cents, and, for 25 cents, on Thursday and Friday only, “Ho-Made Gefilte Fish.” That typo from a menu posted on the deli’s Facebook page must have been fixed—and the menu updated repeatedly—by the time my father started bringing my sister and me there in the 1960s. But there was still corned beef and gefilte fish, English spoken with a Yiddish lilt, and jokes whose sensibility I didn’t get. In all these ways Rubin’s was an exotic locale that did as much to form my ideas about the old world—namely Vilnia, Lithuania, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries —as my Nana’s Shabbos candles and gooey taiglach did.

RubinsMenu croppedI had plenty of colorful details to draw on for my essay. But I didn’t want Auntie Bessie to come off as a caricature. The family already regarded her as something of an oddball. The adults couldn’t resist making jokes behind her back about the way she doted on her husband, feeding him a special diet that seemed to consist entirely of milk, spinach, and toast, and the well-known fact that he wore a truss under his shirt and vest to keep his hernia from popping out. I laughed too.

But Auntie Bessie and Uncle Irving were both there for me when I was floundering in my early twenties. No matter when I dropped by their Brookline apartment, they welcomed me. Uncle Irving took an interest in my various jobs and political opinions, while Auntie Bessie warmed up a meal for me in the kitchen. I protested that I wasn’t hungry, but I always ate.

I struggled to do justice to Auntie Bessie on the page. I wanted to show how strange she seemed to me when I was a kid but also how vital my connection to her was. Yet so much about Auntie Bessie lent itself to stereotype. The whole Jewish food motif is practically a cliché. The “oy veys” and Jewish guilt—Auntie Bessie embodied them all. But she was also a real person. Someone I loved.

In this essay, caricature came first. Only after prodding the broad outlines did the nuances come out. I worked on many drafts, especially of the first paragraph. I wanted to ground Auntie Bessie in a particular time and place, to show her in her element. The rhythm of our meals at the deli, the tone of the adult conversation, how the food looked and tasted—getting these details right seemed essential to conveying Auntie Bessie as a fully realized character and myself as a flawed narrator whose view was decidedly objective.

Because the original deli moved in 1981 to roomier digs down the street, I couldn’t go back there to check the accuracy of my memories. But the essay wasn’t about a building, or even a way of life. It was, I discovered, about my uneasiness with the Jewish culture I was born into, which worked against a deep desire to connect with it. This ambivalence underlies the relationship between the character I called “Auntie Bessie” and the character based on me. It’s there in the way I flaunt my knowledge of the Yiddish term for noodle pudding—lokshen kugel—only to crave pizza and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese when Auntie Bessie serves her traditional dishes. It’s in the way my frizzy curls and olive skin reflect the shtetl culture embodied by Rubin’s, which on the one hand gives me a sense of belonging there and on the other, feeds my jealousy of my blonde, straight-haired sister. It’s in the tension between my fantasy of a close traditional family, exemplified by the older generation of Rubins, and the dissolution of my own family, as my parents find new partners after their divorce and my sister moves away. It’s in the way I show up at Auntie Bessie’s door in my disheveled, “hippie chick gone ’80s punk” outfit, none too happy with myself and just a little worried about how she’ll view me. But when she answers my ring, I get what I came for: a greeting and embrace that convey how glad she is to see me, no matter what state I’m in.

Toward the end of her life, I got to know Auntie Bessie better, as one adult to another. One of the regrets she shared with me was that she never had kids. Who, she wondered, would say the Jewish prayer of remembrance—the Kaddish—for her when she died? In the essay, I hold her hand and mourn my own road not taken. Because by now I know that I’m not going to be a traditional Jewish housewife—a baleboste—and mother. But because of Auntie Bessie’s example and unwavering love, it’s okay.

I can’t say how Auntie Bessie actually felt when these scenes occurred in real life. I depicted her as honestly as I could. I can only hope I’ve done her justice. Or at the very least, that in employing her to bring clarity to my own questions about who I once was and the choices I once made, I’ve drawn her in all her complex humanity, not as a caricature.

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AlisaWolf_May Alisa Wolf’s work has appeared in Agni Online, Calyx, Cimarron Review, Concho River Review, Fjords Review, Pisgah Review, Red Cedar Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Sojourner, and The Legendary, as well as the Prentice Hall Reader, 11th and 12th editions. She lives in Medford, Mass. and is a member of the Writers Room of Boston. Find out what she’s published on AGNI here.

Feeling Uneasy Always Gets My Attention: A Question with Susan McCallum-Smith

AGNI: Your essay “Smithereens” (in Issue 82) suggests that solving mysteries can actually be dangerous. As you point out, if the painting Lady in a Fur Wrap is shown to be the work of someone other than El Greco, the discovery could deal a significant blow to Glasgow, the proud home of that painting. Similarly, your research in putting “Smithereens” together led you by accident to some potentially unsettling intimations about your family. Is this emblematic of risks generally involved in writing creative non-fiction? If creative non-fiction often seeks to plumb mysteries, how do you deal with the danger that you might discover too much?

McCallum-Smith: Is it possible to discover ‘too much’ about anything? As a human being, let alone a writer? I doubt it. Surely, the unexamined life, both public and private, is more hazardous.

My opinion, I know, comes from a position of deep privilege; I’m not an investigative journalist treading on powerful toes and my style tends to be reflective rather than provocative. Further, I live in a country that won’t flog me for my words, and, given I’m white, what I write will probably be granted more credence than it deserves. It’s true I’m not a man, but you can’t have everything. Nevertheless personal essays do deal with pretty incendiary material—namely, the human condition—therefore some discoveries have caused a pang in my heart. But uncovering something and writing about it are two different acts, so the danger of non-fiction is not that I might discover too much but that my decisions to reveal or not to reveal what I find are taken for the wrong reasons.

Some discoveries are not mine to share. Prattling on about artistic integrity and freedom of speech doesn’t negate my responsibility to other people, especially to those dearest to me, but neither can I withhold nor massage pertinent information that reflects badly on myself, or my community. An opposite danger mistakes sensational revelations for profundity: Auntie Ethel had erotic encounters with sheep! I’m an alcoholic / manic-depressive / anorexic / nymphomaniac, and here, in gratuitous detail, is my every degradation! Such click-bait sound and fury can deafen readers to the critical question: what does this actually signify?

(As for facts versus truthiness, that’s a minefield beyond the scope of this post, though choosing the latter over the former is, perhaps, the greatest danger to non-fiction of all.)

First versions of “Smithereens” bore the title “Attribution.” I thought my subject was mistaken authorship, and it was, but also…well, it wasn’t. It’s normal—embarrassingly—for me to be convinced in early drafts that I’m writing about this before realizing I’m actually writing about that. I write to discover what I didn’t know I didn’t know, juggling a lot of seemingly disparate material, intuiting its connective tissue long before I can articulate precisely what it is—like a suppressed memory I can taste in my mouth. While slogging over an nth draft of “Smithereens,” I recalled an incident from my late teens (almost three decades ago) that chilled me with shame at my desk. I realized my subject was a specific kind of attribution: class. Problem was, I didn’t want to write about class. Danger is too melodramatic a term to describe my feelings; discomfort is better, and discomfort often divines the through-line of the work, unfortunately, because feeling uneasy always gets my attention.

Those small disquiets that I’m tempted to stifle (Hells bells! Don’t want to go there!) often flag an essay’s spine, given they are frequently emblematic of larger phenomena, deeper angsts. Superficial fears, such as worrying about who painted what, or who had an affair with whom don’t interest me—well, they do, but only on a superficial level—as much as why it should matter to me, or to the culture at large, who painted what, or who slept with whom, or whether a woman depicted in a portrait was royalty or commoner. Revelations, too, about family history don’t bother me. Although the thought of my mother being the subject of gossip was upsetting, the fact of it, together with my reluctance to pursue it, was too important not to disclose, plus, in craft terms, it closed a loop on the central role that the steamie (laundry) played in women’s lives. (Note, though, I wouldn’t have written about her had she still been alive.) Notions of provenance, bloodlines, social groupings, intrigue me, and to which gender, race, class we are attributed, because our response to attributions so often stems from concepts of the ‘other.’

(It’s only now I realize that my first essay published by AGNI, “Able and Baker,” also dealt with fear. Years ago when my husband I were considering adoption, I sensed all sorts of conflicting emotions between my mentioning our plans and some people’s responses. Adoption triggered anxieties, some of which were grounded in attributions: Whose child is this? To which tribe does she belong? Is she one of ‘us’?)

Juicy matter associated with the human condition tends to slither into the gap between action and reaction; between you punching me in the face and me punching (or not punching) you back, between a terrorist atrocity and a culture’s response. And fear, often under the guise of hate, plugs that gap quicker than love and spreads faster; it is more akin to contagion, overriding common sense, muffling decency, and distorting proportions. The writer’s job, I think, is to mistrust—to question—our reflexes. While the world goes to hell in a handbasket, the page provides a safe space to address difficult, even dangerous, material, as long as we write with rigorous reflection and without histrionics; books offer solace by journeying through something contentious, not around it. “I used to think it was possible for an artist to alter the inner life of the culture,” wrote Don DeLillo in White Noise, “Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory.” As writers, we need to take that territory back.

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IMG_1754Susan McCallum-Smith’s story collection Slipping the Moorings was published in 2009, and her fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Southern Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Dublin Review of Books, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She has received a Pushcart Prize, a NEA fellowship in fiction, and the 2014 Walter Sullivan Prize from The Sewanee Review. Recently she returned to live in her native Scotland. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Postpartum Prose

by Jenn Hollmeyer

I’m sitting on the couch with my works in progress: a newborn and a notebook. Delightful dribble — and frightful drivel. The baby is healthy and thriving, but my writing is malnourished and anemic. Evidently, I now write the kind of stuff other people only scrawl in the middle of the night — the byproduct of dreams — and promptly throw away in the morning. I’m just lucky if I rise out of my sleep-deprived fog long enough to realize how bad it is.

So why not just put the writing aside for a while? It’s not like I’m on assignment. No one will care if I shove this notebook in a drawer — or, better yet, light it on fire — and spend my maternity leave watching Netflix. But I’ll care. I’ll feel like I wasted an opportunity to make progress on my novel, however slight. These twelve weeks are not only precious bonding time with my second child, but also the closest I’ll get to a writing residency anytime soon. I want to make the most of this time in every possible way.

But my real motivation runs deeper than that. As it turns out, I simply can’t put the writing aside. This notebook cries like another mouth to feed — my own. After I’ve nursed the baby and made breakfast and changed the 87th diaper and dropped my two-year-old off at daycare and extracted the necklaces from the dog’s water dish (among other tidying-up tasks), the baby settles against my chest (asleep, finally!), and I put pen to paper with my one free hand. This is how I take care of myself. I’ve been wearing the same clothes for three days and haven’t brushed my hair in — well, I don’t even know how long — but dammit, I will write a paragraph today. It’s the only way I’m going to feel like me.

Writing has always been my way of knowing myself, so it’s only logical that I’ve made it a priority at a time when my identity is changing. In addition to my other roles in life, I’m now a mother of two. Just writing that is an exercise in self-discovery. I jot down notes about my daughters (My daughters!), intermixing quick observations with records of my older girl’s breathing treatments and my younger girl’s feedings and weight gain.

And then I turn the page. This is where I let myself roam. I head toward the world of my novel, but it’s so far away, I can barely see it. I suddenly realize I can’t remember the name of my protagonist’s mother or the point of that pivotal scene in the parking lot. I sit and pout for a moment, hoping all the details will come flooding back, but there’s not even a drop of rain. I won’t let this stop me. I wave to my characters, whoever they are, and keep going, hoping I’ll find my way to a short story. I imagine a path and wander down it. I invent a rock and turn it over. But the path goes nowhere and the rock reveals nothing. My words stumble and fall off a cliff, leaving me half a page of meaningless spit-up.

Why did I ever think I could write a novel if I can’t even form a coherent sentence?

My frustration sparks but fizzles out, even as I try to use it as fuel. I simply don’t have enough energy to struggle with this. Besides, I’ve got a baby sleeping on my chest. There is much to be grateful for.

Life is simple these days — centered around food and poop and sleep — so maybe my writing has to be simple right now, too. Baby steps. All I can realistically hope to do is remind myself what it feels like to write, and that being a writer is still part of who I am, even if my notebook suggests otherwise.

So, this is my hand, poised on the page. The pressure of the pen against my fingers. The dry scratching as the ink forms three small words: Here I am. For today, this has to be enough. This, and the faith that if I continue to pick up this pen, the gibberish will eventually make sense and I’ll crawl my way back to that novel.

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Jenn-HollmeyerJenn Hollmeyer is a founding editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal and holds an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College. Her short stories have appeared in AGNI Online, Shenandoah, Post Road, Salamander, Free State Review, Meridian, and other journals. She was a finalist for the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize and a past prizewinner in The Missouri Review’s Art of Omission contest and the Bevel Summers Short Short Fiction Award contest. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband and two daughters. Read more at