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54:3 /SPRING 2016
-J PRISM digital archive
PRISM international is proud to announce the launch of our
digital archives! With the generous support of the British
Columbia Arts Council, we have digitized over 200 back issues,
bringing 56 years of literary history online. Margaret Atwood,
Michael Ondaatje, and Seamus Heaney are just a few names
from PRISM's long legacy. Digitization of our archives is an
important step in preserving and promoting influential literature,
and we are excited to share our publication history with readers
The searchable archives are free for anyone to access, and can be
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An agency of the Province of British Colombia
■:,,.,", ... :'
change the world...
Eva Tihanyi's highly anticipated new
book of poetry The Largeness of Rescue,
forthcoming April 2016
"Serene in spirit and precise in language, the largeness
of rescue is Eva Tihanyi's finest work."—Carole
Giangrande, author of Here Comes the Dreamer
"A grave and tender collection."—Susan Glickman,
author of Safe as Houses
"Poetry that whispers from one heart to another."
—Bruce Hunter, author of In the Bear's House
(^Ontario PRISM international
'Ghostly Transmissions from John D. Rockefeller" by Danny Jacobs
"Reconstructing" by Liza Porter
"How To Give A Passive-Aggressive Handjob" by Victoria Young
JUDGE    Russell Wangersky
Anita Bedell, Meghan Bell, Selina Boan
Wendy Bone, Connie Braun, Stephanie Chou
Rhonda Collis, Jaime Denike, Bryce Doersam
Roquela Fernandez, Sierra Skye Gemma, Kyla Jamieson
Rachel Jansen, Mica Lemiski, Jill Mackenzie
Kirsten Madsen, Laura Nicol, Kathryn Novak
Will Preston, Shannon Rayne, Meaghan Rondeau
Kyle Schoenfeld, Laura Trethewey, Meg Todd
Catherine Young PRISM international
Christopher Evans
Dominique Bernier-Cormier
Jennifer Lori
Claire Matthews
Selina Boan
Curtis Leblanc
Shaun Robinson
Timothy Taylor
Sierra Skye Gemma
andrea bennett
Rosemary Anderson
Megan Barnet, Meghan Bell, Wendy Bone
Nicole Boyce, Alison Braid, Melissa Bull
Sonal Champsee, Rhonda Collis, Robert Colman
Karla Comanda, Marks Cutts, Max D'Ambrosio
Danielle Daniel, Bryce Doersam, Lesley Finn
Alanna Francis, Tyler Hein, Sarah Higgins
Melissa Janae, Keri Korteling, Mica Lemiski
Kirsten Madsen, Judith L. Major, Kyle McKillop
Amber McMillan, Geoff Morrow, Karen Palmer
Sarah Richards, Meaghan Rondeau, Anjalika Samarasekara
Kyle Schoenfeld, Robert Shaw, Rochelle Squires
Mallory Tater, Tania Therien, Meg Todd
Jessica Torrens, Carly Vandergriendt, Cara Violini
Matthew Walsh, Jane Wood, Catherine Young
Alison Braid, Matt Cardinal, Maegan Cortens PRISM international, a magazine of contemporary writing, is published four
times a year by the Creative Writing Program at the University of British
Columbia, Buchanan E-462, 1866 Main Mall, Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z1.
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Our gratitude to Dean Gage Averill and the Dean of Arts Office at the
University of British Columbia. We gratefully acknowledge the financial
support of the UBC Creative Writing Program, the Canada Council for the
Arts, and the British Columbia Arts Council.
March 2016. ISSN 0032.8790
| UBC J      a place of mind
BRITISH COLUMBIA «»     Canada Council    Conseil des Arts
Arts Council <3> for the Arts      du Canada CONTENTS
Russell Wangersky
Juggling, One-Handed
Danny Jacobs
Ghostly Transmissions from
John D. Rockefeller
Liza Porter
Victoria Young
How To Give A Passive-Aggressive
Phedra Deonarine
San Fernando, Trinidad: School
Year 1995-1996
Tom Cho
Are you there, God? It is I, Robot
Danielle Burnette
Not Her Husband
Andrew E Sullivan
Adele Barclay
When Does the Hunger Begin?
Somnambulist Almanac
Dear Sara II
Dear Sara IV
Sweat, Woman
Grammar by the Minute
Kirya Marchand
To My Dearest Carl Akeley
Nandini Dhar
Heirloom Folklore Our
Grandmother Has Unnamed by
Repeating Again and Again
Warren Heiti
The Alhambra
Jacob McArthur Mooney
Love Poem After Industrial Society
and Its Future
The Specializationoff Labour
Leo X as Leo III in the Room of The
Fire in the Borgo Julie Paul     66     The Ten Suggestions
ictoria McArtor
Tropical Pineapple
with Umbrella
Sweet Meat
Neil Surkan
Deism, Penticton
Super, Natural
Gaius Valerius Catullus     78     Flavius's Girl: To Flavius
Translation by     79
Nathaniel G. Moore
Contributors     90 Russell Wangersky
1 he first time you try to explain it, you tend to get blank looks.
Creative non-fiction: the very words are an oxymoron, the sort of thing
that garners raised eyebrows. Is it being creative, or is it telling the truth?
It's a reasonable question. I like the explanation that the form is a
case of using fiction's tools—and sometimes poetry's tools—to shape and
deliver facts.
There are things you can mess with: structure, time, and order, for
example. There are things you cannot: the facts are the facts. In memoir
or personal essay, you might be dealing with the transient and sometimes
inaccurate patterns of memory. In explanatory pieces, you have a broad
range of tools, but lack the ability of third person omniscience to write
about what others think or believe but leave unsaid.
Like all writing, it's juggling, but with the extra disadvantage of
having one hand firmly tied behind your back. Thou shalt not invent.
Thou shalt not embellish. You're stuck with what really happened.
But, as much as creative non-fiction loses fiction's quick solutions and
the ability to create neat, well-wrapped-up endings, it gains something
else. And that's the Veritas of, well, Veritas.
Those who can wield the facts—and only the facts—with artistic flair
are clearly unique writers indeed.
That brings me to the irony of an even more awkward beast, the
creative non-fiction contest, where, when it comes to the judging process,
so much suddenly becomes subjective.
I should say that all of the pieces I read gave me something: a magic
turn of phrase, a thrum of description, a sense of awe at structure buried
cleverly in art.
But still, in the end, I had to pick the three best pieces.
Two of the pieces—winner "Ghostly Transmissions from John D.
Rockefeller" and first runner-up "Reconstructing"—have a delightful
structural dissonance. Both involve the complicated interweaving of
separate storylines into a cohesive structure, and that warp and weft
makes them more than the sum of their parts.
"Ghostly Transmissions" manages to capture emerging adulthood
from  the  inside,  while  offering  a scientific  rendering  of the  same experience by metaphor—you'll see.
"Reconstructing" shows how, with care, loving hands can rebuild
many things.
Second runner-up "How to Give a Passive-Aggressive Handjob" has
a more traditional structure, but a grasp of tone that is hard to achieve:
self-deprecating without being self-pitying, a style that lets the reader
understand the author can step out of the experience and observe the
writer's own life with a kind of clarity.
All three have that best of things: a clear central voice that lets a reader
know that they have a new close acquaintance, if not, in fact, a friend.
As judging experiences go, this has been a real pleasure. Three gems.
PRISM  54:3 Danny Jacobs
In January's 7 a.m. dark, the West Main Esso glowed like an insomniac's
TV. We came in from Riverview off the causeway, slingshotted from
the traffic citcle, from our bedroom community, our warm suburban
beds. It stood at the end of the line before Wheeler Blvd., Moncton's
commercial terminus, a stretch of muffler shops and car dealerships, an
Econo Lodge, a pub called The Salty Sea Dog. It sat between an Ultramar
and a McDonald's, where the greasy sponge of an Egg McMuffin sopped
up the beer I slammed at the night before's field party, Colt 45 through
a hoodie drawstringed sphincter-taut to block mosquitos thick above
standing water.
A Chinese takeout behind us: a bungalow of cracked white brick once
called KING'S. When I started at the pumps in tenth grade, KING'S was
ING'S, the roof's neon sign on the fritz. During my two-year tenure as
gas attendant, as cashier, as stock boy, the letters kept going one by one
until only G'S flashed us awake in winter.
I was hired with a handful of pals, the boss the father of a school
chum, my dad's golf buddy. We were middleclass kids without resumes,
walk-ins with connections getting our two crisp shirts, the first shirts I'd
tuck in. You 11 get a nametag next week.
We came from a long line of teenaged pump jockeys—a proud
heritage of postwar Brylcreemed boys from newly built suburbs, jumping
from car to car lickety-split, captains of the modish sodium-lit forecourt.
Ten bucks Premium. Can you check my levels?]>io drip lines in our squeegee
work. Start from the bottom and curve with each pass. Leave no streak.
We worked alongside full-timers that came and went, some there
years before us, some sacked quickly for theft, for attitude: our wayward
Team Tiger.
Now our Full Serve is gone, the outer island's glassed-in cash booth
removed. Full Serve is a rare bird, the purview of rural outliers with dated
pumps that ding their little bells, ring up their analog numbets like old
slot machines. In the cultural consciousness, the gas attendant's now the
gap-toothed guy in mechanic's jumper from the backwoods horror flick
warning the road-tripping kids to git out, git out while they still can.
Were we the last ones? Post-millennials in their hover cars will never say Fill 'er up.
KING'S was ING'S and then G'S and now G'S is gone too, its alarm
clock red stuttering no more.
We'd rock-paper-scissors to see who'd do the dips, dreaded in winter:
first task for the seven-to-three shift to check the levels in the station's
subterranean holding tanks. Except for the graveyards, there were always
two to a shift and someone had to do it. Certain guys I could almost always
beat, fool them by subtle gestures, make my hand look like scissors on
two and switch fast to paper on three. But sometimes I lost. Sometimes
I had to don the communal company coat over my regular coat, so cold
I needed that extra layer even though the BO was criminal, chemical, a
BO of accumulated years that went padding-deep, heightened by stale
gasoline's sweet tang.
The dip covers were on the outskirts of the parking lot, edging the
gravel berm of Milner, three raised circles half the size of manholes—
blue for Regular, white for Premium, yellow for Supreme. The thtee-to-
eleven shift now and then poured water on them before punching out;
by morning I'd be stuck chipping ice with a tire-iron, wishing death on
last night's duo. Once through, once each cover was wedged up, the locks
were frozen shut: shackle, tumbler, and pins all seized, stuck fast in some
solid-state physics caused by our North Atlantic cold fronts. Before the
dips were even done, before I'd penetrated the tanks' frigid interiors, I'd
be exhausted, half-frostbitten, indifferent to the fucking gas levels, the
fucking dips.
When the holes were open I lanced our fossil fuel concern, checked
its vitals. Esso's bread and butter was transubstantiated over eons—
zooplankton dying in shallow pools among the dinosaurs, falling like dust
in sunbeams then buried in sediment and ground by Earth's mortar and
pestle, its prodigal tectonic plates. Porous things with complex geometry
like snowflakes, pulsing jewels smeared to crude in one hundred million
years. The carbon ichor driven from our rubber-capped nozzles shared
atoms with glassine creatures from Jurassic seas. A double burial: they
brought it up for refining then put it back underground.
The dipstick was pole-vaulter high and notched off in quarter inches.
The dipstick was stained and in need of replacement, its numbers
blurred—was that a three? An eight? Fuck it. Through the shaky
incandescence of a dying flashlight, I'd fudge the numbers on a mouldy
PRISM  54:3 Lloyd (Team Tiger #1)
Lloyd was morbidly obese and walked from his apartment on Pine Glen
for each shift, hoofing the length of downtown Coverdale—Riverview's
main drag—and crossing the causeway to Moncton in orthopaedic shoes.
He arrived damp and tousled, and took five in the back cooler to cool
down, wheezing vapor among creates of stacked pop and Baxter's milk.
Lloyd said he'd only ever work at gas stations. Why? I don't remember
or didn't care to ask. I trust Lloyd is working them still. I looked the
few times I returned to West Main, peeped around back. Was he in the
coolers? No Lloyd manning the pumps, no Lloyd on Big Mac runs. The
station long ago switched owners, new management, the remaining
staff transient anyway, the full-timers probably canned, the interior
overhauled. Where's the Tim Horton's alcove? Where's Full Serve?
Where's the old beige cashes with their tobacco-stained and stippled
tubber keyboard covers? Where's Lloyd sitting on the small wooden stool
behind the counter, framed by the back wall's technicolour cigarettes?
The cigarettes are hidden, locked behind gray cupboards, and Lloyd is at
some other station far away.
A Bag of Tapes, Cassette
A Sobeys bag frayed to macrame held our music, a collection hauled in
by a long-time staffer sick to death of C103's hair band balladeers and
rock-country Republicans. The caseless tapes' white text worn off from
friction with other tapes, the tapes mostly metal: Hardcore, Grindcore,
Power Violence, late 80s Thrash. Slayer's Reign in Blood and Cannibal
Corpse's Eaten Back to Life backgrounded our transactions with the
regulars, customers in for Skoal and Double Doubles cocking eyebrows
at the tinny aggression from our communal boombox on the ledge.
"The fuck is that?" they asked.
"Napalm Death."
"Jesus. Throw on some AC/DC."
The left deck was stuck shut and housed the same jammed Memorex
in its plastic window. I like to think it was always there, unplayable but
vital, unfit for our teenage ears, ghostly transmissions on its magnetic
tape, a palimpsest of deceased employees and boardroom stake-holders,
oil barons, the static-crackled voice of John D. Rockefeller speaking in
tongues from beyond his Ohio grave, his obelisk, intoning Standard Oil's
initials like some vague prayer for the future: SO, SO, SOS... 11 Jim (Team Tiger #2)
I worked with him on Christmas Day while the customers lined out
the door, our Esso the only place open with Tim Horton's. Gotta get my
Timmy's. Customer after customer telling us, Brutal. Morning shift on
Christmas. But I gotta get my Timmy's. I wanted to be home, I wanted to
scream at everyone to go home. I wanted to close up, snuff out Esso's
eternal tube fluorescents. But Esso's clinical blues shut for no one.
Jim's parents owned companies, his older brother a famous brain
surgeon. Jim was the black sheep, cut out, cut off, plagued with
schizophrenia he blamed on bad acid at a Pink Floyd Division Bell show.
"I was never the same. I remember the light show and then: hospital."
Jim was okay with working the Christmas seven-to-three, had
volunteered for it. "I don't mind. Had Christmas already I guess." Jim
talked slow and moved slower. "I got this sweater," he said. His tow head
and blank eyes. I had many, many presents waiting for me at my house;
I had my smiling folks and my older brother home and I was missing
morning mimosas and a fat Butterball going gold-leaf in the oven.
Another night Jim was desperate for smokes and called up Esso while
I was working: "Spot me a pack of smokes. Just a twenty-pack. I'm dying.
I'll give you my Dark Side of the Moon on vinyl. Early pressing." He met
me under the awning with the record as promised and I gave him a fiver
for his Export A.
Jim was always trading, trying to hock what little he had. A friend
who worked there went to Jim's place to buy a poster (again, Pink Floyd)
and found a single mattress on the floor, a busted dresser, a nightstand
empty except for a buck knife.
Tire same friend ran into Jim at Wal-Mart years later. Jim was in full
Wal-Mart regalia, pinned blue vest and price gun. Said friend avoided eye
contact, picked different aisles, but they caught up in Houseware.
"This isn't really what I do," Jim had said. "I'm undercover for the
government. Don't tell anyone."
A Bag of Tapes, VHS
Mescaline Chris, a loyal customer, bragged about the drugs he ran, the
shit he capped in pills, what he cut it with. He'd come in for free Tim's
(we rarely charged the regulars), for talk about his kids. He kept saying
I'd be an astronaut, was sure of it.
"I'm going to school to study astrophysics," I said. "I'll never go to
"Whatever, man. Spaceman shit."
Mescaline Chris had something to show me in his car one night.
12 PRISM  54:3 His Bondoed hatchback parked at Pump 1. "Come check this out." He
waved me over. His grin out the rolled window.
I went ovet, got in. It was a slow night.
At my feet in the passenger seat: a black trash bag of porno tapes, their
display boxes larger than the everyday slipcases, a bigger format from the
dawn of rentals—more square-footage for back cover skin, lurid angles.
"Ten a tape."
I reached in, held up Ass Attack 8. What had changed since Ass Attack
7? What new innovation in camera work, in body plan?
And where did they come from? What store was held up, what creep's
dim basement looted? I remembered Midnight Video in Riverview
Mall, one of the last establishments not steamrolled for call centre space.
Midnight Video had a back room through blue saloon doors; we'd sneak
peeks as kids on Nintendo runs—flashes of pink and costume kitsch
in the glare. Did this pilfered smut come from Midnight Video? Was
Midnight Video gone by then?
"Classic shit here. Ten a tape. Three for twenty-five."
Mescaline Chris' hatchback bled bad vibes,  the air dense with
something recently gone wrong.
"I'm good," I said.
I made my escape. I had the internet anyway.
Alan (Team Tiger #3), or Bathroom Key
A variation of the same from every customer we gave it to: Could use
this as a weapon, bro... Shit. You could kill someone with this. And there
was some truth there: the bathroom key was zip-tied to a sawed-off
broomstick, all electrical tape and foot-long menace, a germy nightstick
waiting for the right tweaked Cro-mag to take it to the wrong party. Alan
used the key as exercise equipment on quiet nights, a device invented
more out of boredom than physical enrichment: 2-litre Pepsis tied with
tope to each end for a kind of close-grip forearm curl, bottles raised and
lowered slowly throughout our drawn-out night shift, hundreds of times,
as Alan watched his form in greasy windows.
Alan was resourceful in othet ways—for snacks he'd crack a package
of hotdogs and cook them in coffee filters on the Tim's machine's top
burners, beige plugs of nitrates browning in white flowers. These being
gas stop wieners, convenience store dogs way past their display date, E.
coli doggers. Who buys hotdogs at an Esso?
If the bathroom key never came back I'd assume its final end as
evidence: the forensic team's filed photograph, the checkered crime scene
ruler. Blood spatter in the corner, a tuft of hair stuck to its tip. 13 Chris (Team Tiger #4)
A different Chris, not Mescaline Chris: we'd catch him out the window
walking down Main, late for his shift, trucking it with set jaw like a
wrestler entering the ring, like Stone Cold, whom Chris liked. Chris
went by DJ Taz and had the tattoo to prove it: a botched and blotchy
likeness of the Warner Bros, character on his bicep, its shaky lines like
Sharpie on Kleenex.
"A buddy does it out of his apartment," he said. "Didn't cost shit."
Chtis the compulsive liar, Chris who tried to convince me they made
special CDs only DJs could get, discs you could scratch like vinyl.
"I don't think CDs work that way, Chris."
"Yeah man. Got little grooves in them for your fingers." His napkin
diagram looking bulbous, convex, nothing like a CD.
Chris was in his mid-twenties and his wife seventeen. One day he
showed up crisscrossed with facial scratches, his uniform breast pocket
torn wide open: a gaping mouth revealing a darker blue underneath.
"Me and the wife got into 'er. I hit her once, she spun around twice
then hit the floor." Eyes all boyish glee and feral rage. He twirled his
index finger then jabbed downward: how she spun, how she fell.
She was my age and I kept seeing her post-hit, spinning and spinning.
We found out Chris died in a drunk driving accident during our first
year of college. A call from the boss to his son; most of us were there
together: same college, same residence. Like Esso again, like high school.
I remember one buddy drunk on vodka, stomping the floor of our room:
"How's Hell, Chris? How's Hell?!" We all laughed, safely ensconced in
our dorms with our care packages, our parents' cash transfers, our futures
bright screens of potentiality, pockets deep with loans not yet blown.
We had a laugh then got our hands stamped. Student night at the
Every spring the mayflies were upon us with Old Testament fervour. They
bred on the stagnant banks of the Petitcodiac, unzipping their larval coats
in synchronous emergence to cross Main at dawn, a smoke of primitive
bodies alighting on our Esso for a few days of sun, of brief life. The
station's steel facade turned to a rough mat of wing, arched abdomen,
and two-prong tail that rippled with each breeze off the water. Saturday
found me detetmined with broom, taking wild sweeps at the east side
wall and retreating in disgust. Sweep, retreat. Sweep, retreat. Avoid those
pitchy screams we reserve for when insects touch our skin. I normally
PRISM  54:3 liked the broom, liked sweeping the parking lot at night, sweeping places
that didn't need sweeping, Discman-clad under the summer sky and the
station's bright awning, everything lunar: I was the last person on Earth.
But now I was disturbing fragile life cycles with my beloved broom.
The mayflies rose up in indignation, clicking audibly, from some evolved
fear-mechanism or from a dense clattering of exoskeleton, I couldn't tell.
I swept up the ones I'd downed, writhing bodies and mashed thoraxes
inches deep in my dustpan.
The mayfly has a midlife phase called the subimago, a developmental
limbo between naiad and adult. I, too, was a subimago cursing through
my liminal phase, man-boy unsure of who finally owned this patking
lot, us or them. But I did what I was told. I rushed the walls and swept
up their fallen brood and dumped them into our hexagonal garbage cans
until the walls were their dun silver once again.
15 Adele Barclay
To make syrup from autumn, drain bourbon,
brown sugar and ice into your bottle of night.
We have fields to bury inside books and a trapeze funeral
to choreograph before you donate your body to the humanities.
Galleries of edge-worn memoirs to launch into space.
Death by shark or too busy reading stars?
Vegas shoved our cherry-skulls through coin slot—
I'm still shaking monkeys off my impersonations.
Nightmares in a mirror above a waterbed:
I say your name three times and your brother appears.
The thicker the air, the higher rhe balloon—
you need me to be a fountain in a lobby of flamingos.
There are men smoking cigarillos in the sink,
they want my polka dots.
Mermaid malls emir elevators of sunshine.
We took our pets to the desert and told them to stay.
slow crawl through a decade-long arrangement
to the party of the centuty, its bleeding cusp
a checkered foyer, a split lip
gtinning as the world hiccups
I confetti the atmosphere
while you tower
champagne glasses
and bowl them down with ice globes
I remember how you landed so roundly
on the square side of night
The air is pointed in its direction
even though it siphons desire into balloons
then sends them to all corners of the crowd
until their ribbons tether strange hands
I miss the effervescence of gin and cleavage
in a small kitchen
how darkness in winter is anyone's game
I miss lodging self-loathing
into reckless driving
so that morning becomes
both the penknife
and its wielder
how I held court
at the top of the stairs
in blankets
cradling your cat topless
The witches of Bushwick ward off night terrors
with warming spells, 72 Fahrenheit
in November. You frown and sleep
for days in my borrowed room. I circle the bed
with diatomaceous earth, fill three cups with water,
plait my black hair. We hang at a rabbit hole
in the West village, mirror Schiele—
twisted knuckles seize a dark aura, some flecks of silver
in the skirt. MoMA PS 1 makes you hate art
and give up smoking. Fish heart, bones
within bones, hangnails and turmeric.
I wrap my right arm around your belly
and swat nightmares with my left.
Sara, nothing like ambition or sanity matter
because at Saint John the Divine
phoenixes baptized in rust swoop
from the cathedral's ceiling.
The beasts stopped a whole city block
for a week last winter. Priests carted scrap-metal
wings off trucks and hoisted them up, engineers determined
how to best salvage the holy arches from added weight
and tigers on leashes paraded in to pray
under the great hall's open lungs.
East Van is all smoke and blackberries
heat you could almost wear
like your stepfather's suit
to Alyssa's wedding on Toronto Island
whete the Shirley Temple
who wooed you is almost me.
Shadow of a suffragette
singing karaoke Nico,
I got a crystal for your cane
on The Drive—
the question is yes
and no.
My mother writes to tell me she had a dream
in which we swam in a turquoise lake with orca whales.
There's a woman who wants to leave my body through the skin.
At every sweaty turn she plots escape.
I lie in bed too late most mornings.
I carry faith in a bowl of milk
like a maid in a Vermeer painring.
I carry it down halls of white fluorescence
where the wives of wrong men stand joyless.
I seal an eggshell envelope under the architrave
with blood wax, without ceremony
while awful light scrambles in shadows.
Open your hands
and give them a shake.
A future so perfect
it commemorates the best
and worst days in a single verb,
spends counterfeit bills
at estate auctions, threads the stem of a rose
through your blazer's button holes
then pins the petals to your left lapel.
Two sad griffins sergeant
on a long, lost coat
of arms above a fireless
space brimming with books
and blooming Holocene
mold growth. The luxury
of self-made heat on gray nights
and calories that fuel the colouring of dreams.
There's language and then there's language—
I can't always find the light or genealogy.
I spent today in austere retreat. I want
to exist in a different tense each minute,
but when questioned I say
"It's a thing that happens."
"It's a place." "There are events
that led to this moment."
Please share your latest fears,
untested allergies,
mistakes set into motion
before getting out of bed this morning.
Only then I'll tell you about how
by tomorrow
I'll have sanded away the varnish
then the hardwood
until it's all mud swept clean.
21 Phedra Deonarine
YEAR 1995-1996
Ms. Mohan September, 1995
Deceit is easier to justify when you're older. Take my metal file cabinet
of past entrance examination papers. It's illegal to have them, but not
one of my students would tell. Their parents wouldn't let them. Access
to the papers gave my students an advantage in getting into a prestigious
secondary school. Their parents didn't care about the bribes I paid to
get the past exams from Ministry of Education officials. Compromising,
after all, makes us adults. They wanted their children to get into good
schools and I wanted security. My stash of exams paid part of my
nephew's tuition. I used the papers in extra lessons with my students.
Morton Presbyterian Primary School was competitive and I needed to
stay relevant.
The papers only went so far. The parents demanded more individual
time with students, more homework assignments. I made the students
stay two hours after school every day, but it wasn't enough. I needed a
little extra help, just to get the slower ones caught up and appease the
boldet parents. I couldn't risk bringing in another teacher. My family
depended on my salary too much for me to put my job in jeopardy and
make another teacher too useful. The parents would forger all my hard
work if some outsider paid two or three more seconds attention to little
Mary or Tom. Instead, I asked Shawn Harripersad ro help.
Shawn stood next to me while I introduced him. He was a head taller
than me, dressed neatly in his St. Augustus Secondary School uniform.
"Shawn will help mark papers and answer some of your questions. He's
one of the best students in one of the country's best schools. His teachers
think he might win the President's Medal. That's only given to the student
with the highest A Levels marks. I wouldn't be surprised if he won the
scholarship and went off to Oxford or Cambridge. He was one of my best
The parents were thrilled when they heard Shawn was helping out.
They came after classes to meet him and shake his hand. Everyone was
I only tried to please them. My students were in Standard Five,
almost twelve years old. They weren't so young. They were little adults-
in-training. All my students, past and present, are proper little ladies and
22 PRISM  54:3 gentlemen when they are under my supervision. I don't know what they
get up to outside of school.
Shawn Harripersad October, 1995
She'd called me for help the previous month. I only agreed because
mothet insisted. We went to the same church and my mother heard that
Ms. Mohan knew people from the Ministry. Mother didn't want me to
offend anyone who might be useful. I had to go in and help three times
a week. Even after a week, I still wasn't used to how unchanged the dingy
classroom looked or how small the students were.
Ms. Mohan marched down the narrow classroom aisle, tapping her
meter rule against the cracked wooden floor, just like when I was her
student. It used to frighten me then. Looking at her now, it only made
her appear old and comical.
I patted my dark grey school pants, careful not to get chalk on them.
I had extra classes later and the teacher was strict about the state of my
A girl in the back row was sucking on her fountain pen. She had
straight black hair tied back in a plait. Primary school students weren't
allowed to use ballpoint pens. She removed the pen and popped out the
tip of her tongue, which looked bright pink in contrast to her dark skin.
The tip of her tongue touched the ink-stained corner of her lips. She had
an inkwell on her desk. Only the richer students used cartridge pens.
Ms. Mohan was on the left, overseeing someone in the second row.
I approached the girl, feeling curiously shy and excited. "Do you need
some help?"
She tucked her hair behind her ears and smiled up at me. She pointed
out a Mathematics problem. She fumbled with her collar, smudging the
peach fabric with an inky fingerprint. Such a young gestute. "You're so
nice. You always bring us little treats. I'm glad you do. I'm always hungry
after school and Ma—Mom never packs me a snack for after-school
classes." She dipped her head, seemingly shy about the "Ma" slip. It was
sweet and put me at ease.
I placed my hand flat on her shoulder blade. "Glad to help." Even
sitting down, her blue skirt folded neatly over her knees, I could see that
she was tall for a twelve-year-old; slender, with small, hard breasts.
She ptessed two fingets into her high cheekbone. She had little half-
moons on her pale fingernails. "I'm Leila Jagdeo, by the way."
I shook her hand, so very pleased to make her acquaintance. 23 Leila Jagdeo November, 1995
Shawn was very good-looking. He had curly brown hair, light brown
eyes, and fair skin. He lived in Gulf View where the big-shot rich people
were. My uncle drove me around there last Christmas. The big houses
were covered in coloured lights like on American television shows. All the
girls in class liked him, even Kavita, and she wore brand-name foreign
sneakers and had real auburn hair. Too bad for all of them. Shawn didn't
have time for little mammy toy-toy kids. He only really spoke to me.
I walked past the children buying snacks from the vendors and
playing in the courtyard. Shawn was already waiting for me behind the
girls' bathroom. It was our special spot, shaded from the hot sun by an
overgrown scarlet bougainvillea in a cement planter. We'd met there twice
already since the month started.
"Hi, Leila. Is Ms. Mohan marking papers during break again?" He
always asked, even though he knew her routine.
He seemed nervous. Good! I liked that I could make him nervous. I
loved him for so long; it was only fair that he suffer a bit. "Yes. She just
does it now so our parents can see the grades after class. It's stupid. I hope
Mom doesn't ask to see mine today. She doesn't usually, but you never
"What about your dad, Leila? Won't he mind if your grades drop?"
I rubbed my palm against my skirt. Shawn knew Ms. Mohan and
all those church people. He'd laugh at me for not having a father and
probably wouldn't want to see me anymore. I glanced up at him and
shook my head. "No, no. He doesn't care about marks."
He patted the space on the wall next to him. "Are you hungry?"
"A little. Mom forgot again."
"That's okay. I have something special for you." He fished a bright
green sweetie wrapped in plastic out of his pocket. "It's a Jolly Rancher.
American candy. My uncle just came back from the States and brought
back bags of this stuff. He got me the calculator I needed, too, so that was
I popped the sweetie in my mouth and rolled it around inside,
sucking my cheeks in and pouting my lips like a girl I'd seen in a local
beer commercial.
Shawn raked his hand through his hair and smiled at me. "You little
tease," he said.
I giggled and peered behind him, disappointed to find none of the
girls watching us. Break was almost over. Shawn glanced back. "We
should go. Ms. Mohan'll ring the bell soon."
I nodded, crinkling the wrapper.
PRISM  54:3 "Would you like more?"
"Yes, please. If it's no trouble."
I walked back to class, throwing my waist from hip to hip and feeling
sweet for so. How jealous those girls in class would be to see how much
Shawn Harripersad was in love with me!
Kavita Gosine December, 1995
"One day," Leila said, "We'll grow up and be lovers."
I laughed, scared inside because Ms. Mohan said that lesbians wete
evil and no laughing matter for young and easily tempted girls. Leila
liked to say bad things and she wasn't Presbyterian like me, so I had to be
careful not to be led into temptation. Still, it was exciting to be near her.
Leila and I ran into the parking lot. We hid behind a teacher's car.
"Look what I brought." Leila pulled out a tube of red lipstick from her
pocket. It was in a cheap plastic tube with fingerprints on the cover. She
smeared it on her lips.
"Leila, take it off. We'll get in trouble."
"Alright, alright." She wiped it off with the back of her hand, making
the skin there shiny. Her lips were stained slightly from the lipstick.
She stretched out her legs, dotted with mosquito bites like countty girls
whose families couldn't afford air-conditioning. She pressed her palms
into the hot asphalt. "I'll wear this on Saturday."
"You get to wear make-up when you go out?"
"Yeah." She shrugged.
"You're lucky. Mom won't let me."
Leila scoffed and tossed her head. "Promise not to tell?"
I crossed my heart.
"Shawn Harripersad kissed me last week."
I drew back slightly. Shawn lived in my area. His family had a big
house and three cars, plus he went to a prestigious school. Leila was a
backwater bush-coolie. She wasn't even that pretty. She had a crescent-
shaped profile and scaly elbows. She probably couldn't even buy lotion.
Her family probably rationed out petroleum jelly and were running low.
She looked at me smugly. I wanted to claw her cheeks, but she was so
dark it probably wouldn't even scar her. I forced my lips into a smile and
leaned forward, careful not to appear upset. "What's it like?"
She closed her eyes and pursed her lips. "Amazing." She shrugged
again. "I'm his girlfriend. He always brings me things from abroad. I
never ask him, but he loves to see me happy. That's why he gave everyone
those green rulers that slap into bracelets. He knew I wanted one, but he
didn't want to make anyone jealous." She looked at me with her tongue 25 poking her right cheek. "You're not jealous, are you?"
"No. I already have one of those rulers in pink. Like on the ads on
cable. Have you seen the ads?" I knew she didn't have cable.
"No. I'm glad you're not jealous." She smirked. "Green is my favorite
color. He's such a good boyfriend. I'm meeting him on Saturday. We're
going behind the water tank on High Street. He wasn't sure at first, but
he knows he can trust me to be quiet. I want Shawn to see me in my
going-out-clothes. He doesn't mind my uniform though. He says I look
cute in it."
The bell rang. Leila grabbed my wrist. "Come on. The prefects always
check the parking lot first, and you know what a bunch of tattle-tales
they are." She sucked in her teeth. "Ms. Mohan's already mad with me
for forgetting my textbook. I hate it when she hits me."
Ms. Mohan January, 1996
The students were progressing nicely. Placement exams were four months
away, but I was certain that most of my pupils would place well.
I glanced up to check on Shawn Harripersad. He was leaning over
Leila Jagdeo, a quiet, dark-skinned girl with no father. She never did
her homework. Her mother couldn't afford my after-school classes, but
I needed to keep a high placement average. I let her work by herself.
I couldn't spare the time to supervise her work for free. Shawn leaned
close to the girl, one of his hands pressed on her desk, the other on her
shoulder. She snaked her hand up his tie, her ink-stained fingers just
under his gilt "Head Boy" pin.
I straightened my back. It was an intimate gesture. I knew Shawn's
mother from church. She worked in the bank, and his father was a doctor.
The family never skipped church. He couldn't know how it looked.
Shawn looked up at me and smiled. He didn't move his head. He
wouldn't smile if he didn't wish to be caught. The girl, though, fumbled.
She scribbled quickly in her copy-book. Who knew what that mother of
hers was teaching her.
I ended early, not wanting to arouse suspicion in the class. I kept
Leila Jagdeo back. "Ms. Jagdeo, you know that Shawn is only doing me
a favour by helping you out, right?"
"Yes, Ms. Mohan." The expression on her face was strangely grownup. Those rural girls grew up much too fast.
"It's not fun and games for him, young woman. He's very busy. You'd
think that you'd make use of his supervision, seeing that you're only in
these classes because of my charity."
She folded her hands together and tucked her chin into the centre of
PRISM  54:3 her collarbone.
"And another thing, stop that womanish habit of swaying your hips
when you walk. I don't know what behavior your mother tolerates at
home, but here at Morton Presbyterian, that attitude isn't allowed. Cut it
out, you hear?"
"Yes, Ms. Mohan."
I dismissed her. I had thirty-nine other students. Was I supposed to
act like a mother to a girl from the bush? She wasn't even Christian and I
was being charitable by letting her take my extra lessons. She clearly never
learned gratitude from that mother of hers. She lacked home-training. I
couldn't be everywhere at once. The little woman was responsible for her
TariqAli February, 1996
Ms. Mohan made Kavita and me prefects for the new term. She'd pinned
on our gilt "Prefect" badges in front of the whole school.
Kavita was pretty. Very pretty. She was fair, with long eyelashes.
She didn't plait her hair like the country girls. She wore her shoulder-
length hair in a ponytail with a velvet scrunchie. We patrolled the school
together. She slipped her hands in her pockets in a way that implied that
I bored her. I wanted to impress her. I whispered a rumour my neighbour
told me. "Leila Jagdeo and Shawn Harripersad did it."
"What do you mean?"
I remembered that she was a church girl. I would have to be careful
with my phrasing. "I mean... sex. Doing it means sex."
"I know what doing it means." She frowned.
I went on, happy with her attention. "They did it last Tuesday. In the
boys' bathroom."
She scrunched up her nose. "How do you know?"
"Because Ravi saw them. They pushed him out of the stall and locked
the whole bathroom." She was hanging on my every word. "Ravi climbed
on the planter outside the bathroom and peered in. He said they spread
newspapers on the floor and did it." I wasn't completely sure of this, but
it sounded like it could be true.
"You're just making it up. All you bush-coolies do is sit day and night
thinking about doing it and having more babies than you can feed in
your wooden shacks. I bet you were scared to see flushing toilets. That's
why you and Ravi made that up. Too impressed by running water."
"Believe what you want, then! Everyone else knows that Shawn
Harripersad and Leila Jagdeo did it!"
"Tariq!" 27 Ms. Mohan stood behind me, her lips pressed in a thin line. "What
did you say, young man?"
"Nothing, Ms. Mohan." I tucked my chin down.
Kavita chimed in. "He said a bunch of nasty things about Shawn
Harripersad and Leila Jagdeo."
I snapped my head in Kavita's direction. The sneaky tattletale!
Ms. Mohan hooked her index finger and thumb on the top of my
right ear, twisting it horribly. I grimaced, gritting my teeth. She grabbed
my shirt collar with one hand and yanked me along. I tried not to let the
other students see me crying.
She sat down at her desk. The classroom was empty. Everyone else was
outside for lunch recess. "What lies have you been telling Miss Gosine?"
"It wasn't a lie!"
She slapped me. "You know it's a lie, young man. Where did you hear
such filth?"
I folded my lips together. I couldn't get Ravi in trouble. Kavita was a
girl, and expected to tattle. Besides, she was from a Presbyterian family.
Ms. Mohan would forgive her quicker than me.
Ms. Mohan pulled a guava stick from her drawer. "Put out your hand,
young man."
I focused on the sound of the stick zipping through the air. I buckled
on the sixth lash. "I made it up."
She shook me until my teeth rattled. "So you admit it, then? You
admit that you're a nasty little liar?"
"Yes, I'm a liar."
She tugged me towards the stage in the assembly room, facing the
school. "Kneel down." Her shoes were scuffed and there was a rip at
the ankle of her left stocking. "Liars are breaking God's commandments,
young man." She shackled a cardboard sign around my neck, strung
on an old skipping rope speckled red-black-and-white like a mangled
Trinidadian flag. "Read the sign."
I steadied my voice. "I am a liar. Liars go to Hell."
"You remember that, young man, next time you spread vicious lies
about one of our best former students. After all he's done, you want to
slander him. Shameful little weasel."
I'd never seen a weasel, but I had seen a rat, and Ms. Mohan looked
like a snaggle-toothed rat. I stayed on the stage until afternoon recess,
thinking of Ms. Mohan strung up from the ceiling, while the other
students sniggered at me.
PRISM  54:3 Leila Jagdeo March, 1996
I was drinking Milo-tea on the living room couch before bed. I'd been
having trouble sleeping lately. God wouldn't let anything happen to me.
I only turned thirteen last month, and Shawn was my first and my only.
Yes, it happened more than once, but how could it count if I was only
with Shawn? Besides, Evelyn from the corner was with every Tom, Dick,
and Harry and nothing happened to her. Many girls skipped a month ot
two. I missed tons when I was ten. It was probably nothing.
Ma came back from taking out the weekly garbage. I looked up,
avoiding her eyes. She stood over me, taller and wider than when she
went outside. She put her arms on her hips and scowled. I gripped my
enamel mug, frightened.
"You little jamette, you decide to bring home more than sweetie
wrappers now, eh?"
I stared at her chin, I needed time. "Ma, I eh do nothing."
She struck me across my face. I spilled my drink and she tugged me
up by my hair. "You think I stupid, or what?"
I shielded my face with my hand. "Ma, I eh do nothing!"
"You brazen little skettelle. Lying right to my face?" She hit me again.
"You think I eh go know you late? Is me who does take out the garbage.
You think I eh go notice you eh changing pads?"
She shoved me into the wall. I braced my head with my palm. "So,
you playing big woman now, eh? Is only hardback old men who go want
a young, young girl like you."
"Only because they know you're my mother." I shouldn't have said it.
"You think you better than me? You always so quick to swell up,
eh? But you go boil down like spinach." She yanked my hair. "Where
you getting them sweetie wrappers? You letting some nasty man in your
panties fot sweeties?"
"What sweeties?"
"Don't play stupid for me! Who was filling up your bag with wrappers?
You think they go care about you when they hear you get yourself in
trouble. Where them sweeties from?"
She went for my face. She shouldn't have gone for my face. "You
wouldn't know anything about them! They're from America."
"Who you know going to and fro from America? Is not one of them
small boys in school. Them can't get it up. You fucking some teacher
there? You eh play you nasty! You letting some old hatdback teacher in
your cyai>. Is that all you could get?"
I shoved her hand away. "I don't need some old man like you did." 29 She shoved my face onto the floor, demanding to know who it was.
She started to sink her nails into my cheeks. It hurt too much. I told her.
She dropped her hand, staring wide-eyed at me before shoving me
into my bedroom. I heard her scrape a chair outside the door. I jiggled
the knob, panicking. She would call Shawn and get him in trouble and
then she would make him stop loving me. I pounded on the door with
my fists. "Ma! Ma! Shawn eh do nothing! Shawn eh do nothing! I was
I heard her talking and peered through the crack between the door
and the floor. She was on the phone. "Ms. Mohan? This is Ms. Jagdeo,
Leila's mother. I want to find out what kind of brothel you running
I curled up on the floor. How could she? How could she? Shawn
would never forgive me. Never! I pressed my palm against my tummy.
Oh, God, make it go away. Make me wake up. Make it not be real. I'll
love you always if you'd only make it go away.
Ms. Jagdeo April, 1996
The school principal called we for a meeting. We went dress-up dress-up.
I wear a purple outfit with purple high heels and nylons. I dress-up Leila
in a navy blue pinafore, pretty pretty, with a frilly collar and a bow in
the back. I eh go let them big-shots talk down to we. They have to take
responsibility, else is commesse they go see. Nobody going to mamaguy
my little girl.
That Ms. Mohan sit with she mouth twist-up twist-up in she chair
looking cut-eye at we. But I let she know what is what. She shut she
mouth the whole while. The principal stand up, skinning teeth with we
and trying to blame the home, saying that I eh have no husband and how
fruit don't fall far from the tree. I let him know that Mr. Harripersad have
a father at home and another in the church and that eh stop him from
messing with little girls who still wearing primary school uniforms.
Well, they shut they mouth for that! They kept looking at Leila like
she less than them, making me vex for so. Leila in trouble, but she still
my daughter, and no fat old man or dry-up woman going to disrespect
my flesh and blood. So I flat out ask that teacher if she jealous because she
barren and no man want she. That set she off, but them was real scared.
The principal make she settle down quick quick, wiping he forehead with
a stripe handkerchief.
Then he lean forward on his desk and ask Leila if she sure is Shawn
baby and I nearly cuff him in his mouth. I only settle down because Leila
was there and she needed help and them bougie types does know people
30 PRISM  54:3 who could help she out. That high and mighty Bible-preaching principal
reach in he desk and write me down a addtess and number for a man who
could fix Leila problem. He tell we how it already settle up and how the
man expecting we on Saturday.
I take Leila to see the man. Is some dark-skin Indian who vex we dark-
skin too. He try to act like he wasn't sure if he could go through with it
and make as if he was going to call police, or else as if he suddenly see
Christ and can't go through with it. Well, I let it slip that some important
people involve and they wouldn't like to know that he eh do it. He change
he tune after that and take Leila in the next room muttering about force-
ripe young girls with bush-coolie mothers who don't know their place. I
let him talk, but I was vex for so.
I bring Leila home and then hours and hours she bawling with clump
and thing running down she leg. I hold she down, wiping up the mess
and tell she, "Ent you want to play big woman? Well this is what woman
does do. Shut your mouth before the neighbors hear you. We eh go hear
the end of this with all the noise you making."
She cry and cry afterwards and curl up on the couch. I feel real sorry
for she then, she little feet fold up under she just like when she was a baby
and I had to give she gripe water to ease she tummy. I hug she up and
start to cry too. She still my baby, how I eh go love she still?
Shawn Harripersad May, 1996
That little bitch started to act as if she was bettet than me ever since she
got back from Easter term. She stopped talking to me. Then I noticed
that Ms. Mohan started guarding Leila. She acted as if Leila was a prize
pupil. I couldn't have missed some hidden potential in that little body
of hers. If Leila wanted to act like a princess, so be it. It was my fault for
puffing her head up. Bush-coolie girls ought to know their place.
My mother pulled me from helping out Ms. Mohan. Mom said
I needed to concentrate on my schoolwork. I missed Leila, but I had
enough memories to provide a distraction when I needed it.
Exams started. I had no control over what questions came and how
my answers were graded. I needed Leila and her little ducking head and
forever-ink-stained fingers. I missed her most then.
I came home after my last exam. My mother had fixed a large dinner.
We were expecting company.
"This is Kavita Gosine." My mother pushed a little girl forward for
me to see. "Her family lives on the hill. They ate distant family. She was
in that class you were teaching."
"Hello, Mr. Harripersad." 31 She was a pretty, fair-skinned little thing. Let Leila act high and
mighty. She'd come crawling back soon enough, and I'd tell her no. I
stuck my hand out. "Mr. Harripersad is my father. I'm Shawn."
The little thing giggled.
Leila never should've forgotten what she owed me. Ungrateful bitch.
I didn't miss her. I didn't miss her one bit.
Leila Jagdeo June, 1996
Everyone came for the prize-giving ceremony, even the local television
news. Shawn Harripersad won the President's Medal. I was on the stage
in the row behind Shawn. Everyone acting like he is some big-time
Hollywood star, but I know him. I know him. He looked tired out of
uniform, and I was pleased to see wrinkles in his shirt. He didn't even
speak to me, and Ms. Mohan said I wasn't allowed to talk to him. She
acted like I wanted to.
Tariq was on my left, fiddling with his over-starched collar. Kavita
was in the row behind, looking like she just eat bitter melon. She stopped
talking to me ever since she got into a better school than me. She acted
like she was too good for me. I didn't care. I got into a good school too.
My first choice, just like how she got into her first choice. So what if hers
was ranked a little higher? It wasn't high because of her.
Ms. Mohan told us to straighten up. She stood on Shawn's right. His
principal put the medal around Shawn's neck, and everyone cheered. The
principal gestured to us, "And a round of applause for Mr. Harripersad's
little students, who aren't so little anymore." Everyone laughed and
clapped, best behavior.
I watched us on the news that night. The camera panned out with
the reporter's voice-over; "Never one to forget his roots, Mr. Harripersad
helped tutor students from his alma mater, no doubt inspiring them to
reach his level of success."
Ms. Mohan and Shawn smiled at the camera and all my old classmates
waved, jostling to be in the spotlight. I squinted, making out my image.
I was in the background, chin down, half-waving, pretty as a picture,
without a stain on my fingers.
32 PRISM 54:3 Kirya Marchand
My beloved Carl I had another dream about you last night—
this time you were young and nubile and the yeat was 1885
in the photo beside Critchley you are almost holding hands
in my fantasies you come towards me with surgeon gloves
this was the year you upholstered Barnum's prized elephant
waiting for you I too lay among the wreckage of trains
and deflated my body as though a balloon;
in the second half of my dream we are sleeping in Somaliland
in a green canvas tent surrounded by flesh-sucking mosquitoes
poor bearded Carl your arm is bandaged in a splint
earlier that morning you strangled me with bare hands
in the afternoon we posed together for a photograph;
your body goes stiff in my arms as the morning approaches
your eyes turn to beautiful blue beads of glass— 33 Nan dini Dhar
after Sara Tracey
Here, in this fable, the oldest daughter does not stand out. The youngest
does not have to hide a pencil-knife in the seams of her hitched-up skirt
to deliver a judgment. Instead, here, beyond the shadows of the reading lamp,
two rabbits yawn together, two owls attempt to break open in unison
the glass shields of a palm-sized replica of Lenin's mausoleum. Two
banyan trees stand side by side, branches entwined in a conspiracy
to demolish everything that is brick and concrete. A fleshless cry rings
through the night—twice. The house-snake rattles its bones
inside the overgrown nayantara bush—twice. In a more prosaic world,
our name would have been Twins. But here, our mother divides one long
into two equal halves: Toi and Tombur. But a simple truth slips through her
fingernails. Slips and crashes on the mosaic floor, begins to bristle
on my skin like the frills of a starched navy blue school skirt: my sister
Tombur would always be the owner of a syllable more. A moment that
an entire bildungsroman: that nothing can be broken right through the middle.
Not even a wotd. A purple bruise on my sistet's tongue, mine a size too
small—the footprints of an inheritance. A cautionary remembrance
of the kind of tumult that women poets have always felt for and with
the courts. And more. A bus stumbles against a banyan tree, and then a lamppost. A beggar woman leaning against it evapotates. Slowly—her life
PRISM  54:3 leaving her in spurts, as love leaves a marriage. The bones first, then
the skin—she didn't have any organs to begin with. A smear of blood
on the pavement, a finger, a severed toe. A torn sari of unidentifiable chrome.
Another beggar woman sweeps the street clean, picks up the saii, wraps
it around her bamboo-thin hip. And we arrive, our newborn cries drowned
by the bigget thud of death outside. This game we will continue to play with
other—of etasure, impression, appearance, abandonment. Fists tightly curled,
my gums on Tombur's brows: twins coiled together in the same bassinet,
to eat each other up. No one thinks of separating out ctibs, although out
mother swears she has heard the two nurses argue: everything is scarce
in the government hospital. Tombur never opens her fists, throws
them in the air with every shriek she lets out of her mouth. Her protest-rally
of one. I suck my thumb, hiding it between two fingers: the forever
sneak who would never spell out her agenda. When we do not kick
each other in the tummy, we howl as one, renaming ourselves. 35 Liza Porter
Oefore the age of thirty, I lived in thirty-three different houses or
apartments or trailers, with or without family, with or without roommates
or husbands or lovers. On a different street or lane, in a new part of town
or in a different city, in four different Western states. Five, if you count
moving back to Arizona after living in New Mexico for only three months
in 1982.
The first four were the houses of my father, the Major, always large
enough for a family of six, usually in a subdivision and always full of
dark corners, two with full basements—one I was scared to death to even
glance down the stairs of (I was a toddler there and the basement was
where my brothets got taken "behind the woodshed"); the other where I
hid and read books way above my age level while gorging on any sweets I
could get my hands on. I almost moved into the basement of a house once
when I was in my twenties, but the dark confines were too much for me.
When I was sixteen years old, my mom took me to this doctor, Dr.
B, because I finally admitted to myself, and finally told her, that I was
depressed. The doctor told her to leave the exam room and had me change
into one of those horrible little gowns. It was the first time I'd been naked
in front of anyone but my gitlfriends in years.
This was 1973 and doctors were still gods with the Hippocratic Oath
inscribed on their foreheads; mothers didn't think anything of leaving
theit daughters alone in the same room with a male doctor (which is all
there were, at least in my town).
Dr. B must've shown me how to put my feet in the stirrups and then
proceeded with a pelvic exam. Cold metal speculum. Poking around
down there. I was not sexually active yet, and I had no idea that he was
raping me with that speculum.
"You've got a lucky boyfriend," the doctor said, his breath catching,
face at my crotch. If I'd known what I know today, I'd have kicked him in
the face with both feet. But I just lay there.
"I don't have a boyfriend," I said.
The first project my husband started after we moved into our very small,
early 1950s house twenty years ago was a family room—20x20' with
wood-framed windows and glass doors on the north and south sides, and
36 PRISM  54:3 a high ceiling. We've always called it The Room.
He tore up the slab outside the original kitchen door and poured a
new, much larger slab. He built the walls with concrete block and rebar.
We had a parry when it was time to raise the roof.
The first Christmas (no drywall or paint on the walls yet, just the
framing finished) he bought our girls (and himself, of course) a car-racing
ttack and set it up on saw horses and plywood in The Room. We all had
ten days off that holiday season. It's one of my fondest memories—the
four of us bundled up in an unheated room, racing cars round and round
the track for days on end.
I went back to Dr. B for counseling the next week, for my depression. And
the next week. And the next. I never told my mom what went on in that
first exam because I didn't know it was wrong.
During the first counseling session, Dr. B asked me to bring him some
pot. He hid it up in the ceiling tiles of his office and said: "This will be our
little sectet." We smoked my Kools together. He gave me diet pills when I
asked, after telling me I should get matried and have five children instead
of going to college. He also put me on birth control pills.
This "counseling" was always at 4 p.m., and try as I might, I don't
remember what else happened during those sessions. I can only imagine.
I do remember him saying several times "I shouldn't be alone with you."
Or "I sent my nurse home, we shouldn't be here alone together." I also
remember the naked lady cigarette lighter he always lit my Kool with.
The next project Craig started in our house was to double the size of
our bedroom. We'd been sleeping in what was described in the Multiple
Listing Service as a storage room: just large enough to fit our queen futon
on a small wood frame with maybe a chair crammed against the wall.
To start the bedroom expansion, he first built the new block and rebar
walls around the outside of our bedroom/storage room, put the roof on,
and tore down the otiginal walls. Then the framing and insulating, the
drywall and texturing, the painting. I make this all sound so simple and
This room has wood-framed windows, too, looking out onto out dirt
back yard with a big old paloverde tree, a New Mexico ash that Craig
planted years ago and which continues to thrive, creosote bushes, and a
couple of bird-of-patadise bushes that bloom yellow twice a year if we're
lucky with rain. What a relief it was not to sleep in a prison cell.
The first time I ever had sex, so to speak (penis into vagina seems to
be the definition we used then), I was seventeen, living in a ratty two- 37 bedroom apartment with my older sister, E, in downtown Sacramento.
We both worked boring State of California typing jobs and pattied on
the weekends. E had dropped out of Humboldt State the previous fall
after dropping out of Willamette University rhe year before and our father
kicked her out of the house. I moved out with her, because I was tired of
living with my parents. I'd already moved out once; let's just say I didn't
thrive. Pot smoking and drinking and depression and bulimia and TV
During one of the parties—usually a big pot of spaghetti, garlic bread,
gallons of cheap wine—Chris, this Mormon boy who tagged along with
E's boyfriend's crowd, and I walked in the rain holding hands.
"I've never felt like this before," he said as we traipsed up and down the
dark slick city streets, smoking and talking. "Me either," I said, tingling
in my fingers and toes, and below my belly. When we got back to the
apartment and into my bedroom, he tried to get inside of me, but it just
didn't work. It—his penis—or it—the whole thing—I'm not sure. I took
it as a failure on my part, which I did most things in those days.
I was typing form letters at the Department of Motor Vehicles, for
fuck's sake. Five pieces of blue paper with four carbons, no mistakes
allowed. The Major's voice echoing inside my head: "What's yout five-
year plan? What's your five-year plan?"
The back patio was the next project my husband worked on. He took
2'x2' concrete pavers, left over from a job site where he'd worked, and laid
them out behind The Room into the back yard. He built a patio overhang
with 4"x4" posts and 2"x6" rafters, painted the wood blue (my favorite
colour) and added a corrugated metal roof. He built the patio framework
in three stages, each patt painted a different colour blue.
We've sat under this patio roof hundreds of times over the years
listening to the monsoon rain pound on the metal. One of my favourite
sounds on a hot summer day.
And how many mornings have I spent on the old car bench seat
out on that blue patio with my coffee and my notebook and my 9mm
mechanical pencil? Staring into the back yard, listening to the traffic
on Grant Road. Sometimes in the winter dark, with a lamp lit over my
shoulder through the bedroom window. Bundled up in double-flannel
pyjama pants and wool socks and old beat-up LL Bean men's slippers
(I stole from my husband, says him) and a long underwear shirt and a
sweatshirt, and sometimes an ugly old cream-colored men's cashmere
pullover with a V-neck from the 70s, found during one of my thrift store
jaunts. Dead of winter, before the sun came up. I love watching the sun
rise over the neighbour's block wall.
38 PRISM  54:3 For my next sexual experience, I was raped. On the living room floor of
that same ratty apartment where I lived with my sister. Ugly green carpet.
Drunk. The party was over, and E and her boyfriend had gone to bed
and closed the doot. I struggled under this guy, Joe, Chris' friend and
an acquaintance of mine from high school, trying to get him off of me,
but he was too strong, I was too drunk. I didn't acknowledge this tape to
myself until decades later when I relived the whole thing in a flashback in
group therapy. Levi's down to my ankles. Goo on my thighs. Blood spots
on the floot. A mean grin on Joe's face. Maybe he was just grimacing while
The next construction project for our house was the front porch. Craig
built up the dirt in the front of the house and poured a slab (stained
brown like the floor of The Room), and scored it. He carved 6"x6" posts
and bolted them to conctete pillars. The roof has wood eaves and regular
roofing shingles. He used blocks left over from the original walls of our
bedroom to make one long L-shaped bench directly below the eaves of
the porch roof.
This project, too, was done in stages: first, he built the porch in front
of the new front door. He also moved the old front doot so it didn't face
the street anymore, but opened up under the second stage of the porch
roof. At the same time, he built a sort of mud room entry hall where we
now have dozens of photos of family and friends hanging.
My first husband, who I married when I was eighteen, fitst fucked me on
a bare mattress in his father's camper, out in an orange grove east of Tracy,
California. Bobby was on work furlough from the prison and was finally
getting a pass to do whatever he wanted. Of course he wanted to fuck me.
Everything worked right this time, but I didn't feel a thing. What did I
know about sex, anyway? All I know is this: every time we had sex during
the three years we were together, I felt like I was being raped. He weighed
at least 180 lbs and was always on top. No foteplay, no nothing.
What did I expect from a man who'd been incarcerated from the age of
thirteen ot fourteen? What did I expect from myself when my first sexual
expetience had been rape? I didn't even know women were capable of
orgasm until I was in my late twenties and met Craig. I thought all I was
supposed to do was lie there.
Bobby and I lived in three different trailers, three different apartments,
and a converted garage in three different cities and two states during the
three long years we were together.
After Bobby finished that first time, he got down off the mattress. He
pointed down to a tattoo on his groin I hadn't noticed in his haste to get 39 inside me: "Little Bobby" with an arrow pointing down toward his dick.
Craig enlarged the front bedroom in the house (first our older daughter's,
then her sister's after she moved out) in the same way he did the master
bedroom. He built the new block walls outside the old ones, expanded the
roof and knocked down the old walls. The old blocks were recycled into a
short circular wall around a fire pit in a comer of the back yard.
This formerly tiny bedroom at the front of the house now has three
closets, a built-in desk, and a Murphy-like twin bed for when guests (or
daughters) come to visit.
I won't go into the men I slept with during the drinking and drugging
days. I was a blackout drinker. Let's just say I'm lucky I didn't get HIV or
any other STD, or end up murdered in a stranger's bed.
Every window in the house has been replaced except the picture window
in the old living room. In fact, that room has had very little remodeling
done to it. It has cute built-in bookshelves with scalloped edges painted
turquoise by our younger daughter on both sides of a red brick fireplace.
It still has the nasty Linoleum on the floor but I've thrown area rugs over
it and that'll do for now.
My piano is in the living room and a big blue recliner (given to us by
my mother when she gave up her house and moved to a smaller place)
where for the last year or so I've been rocking my baby granddaughter
every Friday when she feeds from her bottle.
I met my second husband at an AA meeting. He stared at me the whole
time, and when I was backing out of the parking lot, he walked up to
my window and said "Are you ready for a real man?" Yes, I fell for that.
I was twenty-four years old and only a couple months sober and on the
rebound from another ill-fated relationship. Mr. AA and I ran off to Vegas
at Christmas and got married. I was pregnant within days.
His favorite line during sex was: "Are you finished?" He lit candles and
wanted me to stare into his eyes while he pumped inside me.
He accused me of sleeping around and said the baby wasn't his.
I left him a year later, after the baby was born, after we moved around
Arizona and New Mexico from job to job—four different locations in one
year—in a gas-fume-leaking old Chevy pick-up.
Our kitchen is still basically the same kitchen it was when we moved in
twenty-some years ago, except our younger daughter painted the dark-
stained cabinet and drawer faces a nice sky blue with turquoise trim as a
PRISM  54:3 surprise while her dad and I were on our 25th annivetsary trip. She and
Craig were in cahoots, of coutse. A couple of secret cellphone calls took
place while we were in California those eight days.
We did get a new stove and refrigerator after the old ones went kaput,
but the kitchen floor is the same old 9"x9" Linoleum tile—white with a
strange geometrical design—which is now a grimy tan aftet the sixty-five
years it's been on the floor. Craig took out the old, dirty baseboards years
ago and still hasn't replaced them with anything. The rough gluey patches
along the edge of the wall make me crazy. The other day I got down on my
hands and knees and started scrubbing at them with Comet and a brush.
The effort didn't give me much of a pay-off.
I ask Craig about it once in a while, because the edges of the floor are
truly ugly with leftover glue and grime. To be honest, I nag:
"You know, hon, when I vacuum and mop this floor, I feel like poor
white trash." Sort of joking, sort of not. We were eligible for the earned
income credit on our federal taxes last year. We are white. I guess it's the
trash part I object to.
When I was in my teens and early twenties, I'd say to people: "I'm not
gonna live past age twenty five." But that's the age I got clean and sober.
And it's true, I suppose, that I did experience my death and rebirth as a
person trying to live without alcohol and drugs.
What parts of me lived beyond that age?
My blue eyes, my big feet, my obsession with body size and food. My
need to understand and be understood.
My strong desire to help people.
My wish to love and be loved.
The first time Craig and I made love was at his parents' house in Paradise
Valley during one of the hottest summers I can remember. They were on
vacation, and we went up for "Hands Across America," taking charge of
a half-mile of sun-stunned people way out west of Phoenix on the 10 by
The air conditioning was off in Craig's folks' house and we sweated
a lot. Craig is a very patient and kind lover. We communicate with each
other and I've learned how to say what I need and want.
Craig was a wrestler in junior college, and that first time, at one point
we were slick and sliding around on the bed and suddenly his arm was
around my neck. I froze.
I twisted around and got loose and looked straight into his eyes.
"You can never do that again," I said.
He never has. 41 Warren Heiti
Etoiles et arbres fruitiers en fleur. La permanence complete et I'extreme
fragilite donnent egalement le sentiment de I'eternite.
—Simone Weil
Startled in darkness by a kiss—the bones
of your face, the paleness of stars. Glass-white
petals christening the earth. Taxi lights
quaking like candles in rain-wet windows.
After work, the sweet walk to the empty
soccer field. Poplars, there, incandescing
in prayer. The lilac's galactic stillness.
Dream of the stilt-legged heron, and the teal
heron, dressed as a man. Unfleshed, the soul
is the colour of driftwood, salt, china.
Calmly the lilac stands in the bonfire
of its mind. In the palm of the ocean,
the ocean's silver wedding ring. Complete
permanence, and exrreme fragility.
42 PRISM  54:3 LIGHT
The light, splayed on the bed: its nakedness.
Even your silver necklace, vocal with love.
What I thought luminous, a mirror in a mirror-
insomniac. Incarnate as darkness.
While stretching, it ebbs: the heart.
Tempo of the Atlantic ocean.
The sadness of the dreaming cat.
On Dundas, a streetcar lengthening the evening.
Violin, voice of light. Piano, part water.
The horizon, and the little bells of rain. 43 THE ALHAMBRA
The poet was left in a ditch
with two dart-throwers
and a one-legged teacher.
The sun of Granada
was the sun of Manhattan.
The bull-faced Fuente Grande
stuffed his mouth with red wool
and raw sewage.
At the edge of the olive grove,
bulldozers grope the earth.
44 PRISM  54:3 Tom Cho
From The Meaning of Life and Other Fictions, a novel in progress
1 icture it: OTT Robotics Testing Facility, Melbourne, Australia. The
year is 2211.
A Manager of Robot Quality Assurance is standing at the entrance
to this facility's largest building, gazing into its space. That Manager of
Robot Quality Assurance is me and that building is Bay Z.
With its wide doors and expansive, open floorspace, Bay Z is
reminiscent of an enormous aircraft hangar. Perhaps this is fitting, since
OTT Robotics did lead the robotization of the global airline industry,
many years ago. Although the world's airlines had made some use of
robot technologies by the mid-twenty-first century, the aitline industry's
most profoundly robotized era began one chilly morning in New York
in 2080. On that morning, a young engineer from OTT Robotics sat in
an airplane as the aircrew prepared for take-off. As she watched the flight
attendants performing the in-flight safety demonstration, she realized
just how well air travel lent itself to robotization. Her vision and hard
work over many decades changed commercial aviation forever.
But it is one thing for a robotics company to make history by creating
giant robots that can transform into aitplanes that can also transform
back into giant robots, and it is another thing for that company to create
a robot god.
The ceiling of Bay Z is taller than that of any built place of worship.
Vertical supports along its walls ascend to skyscraper-like heights before
finally joining the struts that intersect across the ceiling. And under this
vastly elevated ceiling and across this huge, hangar-like floorspace stands
the recently completed chassis frame of OTT Robotics' robot god.
I start to approach this unfinished god. The pants of my dark green
nylon tracksuit swoosh with each step. I hear my every footfall on the
reinforced stone floor. There is so much work that is waiting for me in
my office. In thtee weeks, I am due to present at a meeting in which the
concept for our robot deity will be further refined. And yet, for the past
few weeks, I have been increasingly interspersing my work with private
visits to Bay Z to speak with this unfinished god.
As I near this giant god-to-be, my entire field of vision soon fills with
detail from its chassis frame. Finally, I stop and stand before this god. My
whispered speech before this god is improvised each time and it follows 45 no scriptural conventions. But it always begins with the same single-word
opening—a simple opening that is invariably voiced as a question:
A manager walks into a bar. That manager is me and that bar is The
Bevvy, a local bar that I am visiting for the first time.
A week has passed and it is 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night. The
Bevvy—a cosy, wood-panelled, unpretentious bar—is almost empty. Just
a handful of patrons remain and there is only one robot barrender on
duty. I approach the bar and catch the attention of this bartender. Her
nametag identifies her as "Judy." Judy looks like a typical robot bartender.
She has silver plating with the bar's logo displayed on the breastplate
and she moves about on wheels. She also has twelve elongated, tubular
arms that are tentacle-like, each having a row of suckers along its length.
These suckers can be connected to an array of inputs located behind the
bar, which in turn are linked to a network of pipes that run ro barrels
and pressurized canisters of alcohols and mixers in the bar's underground
storeroom. Thus, Judy is able to siphon ingredients into her tubular arms
and expel these liquids into glasses. Naturally, she is also equipped with
a self-cleaning filtration system, along with in-built dispensers of ice,
lemon and lime slices, celery sticks, and cocktail umbtellas.
Robot bartenders are typically programmed to affect a personable
but brisk manner—a manner more business-like and less affable than
the human bartenders of centuries earlier. Due to this more formal
professional distance, the popularisation of robot bartenders caused a
worldwide decrease in the number of bar patrons who sought to confess
their life problems to bartenders. But tonight, I have walked into this
bar feeling desperate enough to confide my troubles even to a robot
bartender. With this in mind, when I seat myself at the bar and Judy says
to me "What can I do you for?" I divulge to her right there and then that
I work in a really stressful managerial job at a robotics company that is
creating a top secret robot deity.
Forty minutes later, I have unzipped my fawn-coloured tracksuit
jacket and am on my fourth drink. Because my body cannot toletate
much alcohol, I have been over-sharing with Judy while downing
mocktails. And now, as I drink a Virgin Mary while Judy listens and
polishes glasses, I confess to her that I have begun making private visits
to my company's unfinished robot god. I reveal that I have been visiting
this god to try something that I have not done since I was a child: to pray.
Each prayer that I have addressed to this god has begun with the same
opening that I made in my childhood prayers: a simple "Hello?" that is
invariably voiced as a question. But, as with my childhood experiences of
PRISM  54:3 praying, my prayers are always voiced against the backdrop of another,
anxious question: Does God exist?
At this point, I simply stare into my glass in silence. As a teenager, the
horizon for my view of God seemed to terminate here too, at this very
question. For a moment, neither Judy nor I say anything—that is, until
Judy puts down the glass that she is polishing. She tells me that a few
years ago, she wrote a novel—one that is still unpublished—that would
be relevant to my interests. She hesitates and then reveals that before she
became a robot bartender, she was a robot author.
Upon hearing this, I nod. Back in 2190, OTT Robotics made
robotics- and literary-history by inventing the world's first robot authors.
These robots did not write any books, but instead served as public stand-
ins for real human authors. A few years earlier, OTT's Robot Concept
Design Team had correctly concluded that human authors are mysterious
figures to their human readers. One reason why is that, at least at the time
of reading a literary text, an author and a reader do not meet, and they
usually are destined never to meet. Robot authors were thus invented to
bridge this distance. By purchasing robot authors, readers could interact
with robot versions of their favourite authors, including deceased authors.
These robot simulacra included Robot Norman Mailer, Robot Gertrude
Stein, Robot Barbara Cartland, and Robot VC. Andrews.
Judy tells me that she was among the first of the world's robot authors.
She was Robot Judy Blume—the robot version of the human author
Judy Blume, who most famously wrote a number of books for children
and young adults during the 1970s and 1980s, and whose books are still
appreciated by young readers today.
It is common knowledge that in 2190, after a series of altercations
between robot authors and humans readers, robot authors fell in
popularity. The world's robot authors were eventually pulled from the
market, reprogrammed and given new roles—mostly roles in teaching
and in hospitality. But Judy tells me that she never fully accepted her
new programming. She still wanted to be a robot author. In fact, she
still considered herself to be Robot Judy Blume—and to her, it seemed
logical that being a stand-in for a human author should also entail writing
books that were more or less in the vein of that author's works. Thus, two
years ago, Robot Judy Blume adapted a novel originally written by the
human Judy Blume. Her intended audience for this adapted text was
the still largely ignored market of younger robot readers. Robot Judy
Blume reasoned that younger robots needed more literature that spoke
to their lives and desires. The resulting manuscript that Robot Judy
Blume wrote—titled Are you there, God? It is I, Robot—was set in the
present-day and was a highly original blend of young adult robot fiction 47 and philosophy of religion. Unfortunately, Robot Judy Blume failed to
secure a publisher or an agent for her work. She was repeatedly told that
her adaptation departed too much from the book upon which it was
allegedly based.
At this point, a beam of light emits from Robot Judy Blume's chest,
projecting an image of a page before me, positioned at a perfect reading
height. On most occasions, this projected image would show the pages
of the bat's cocktail menu, but the page before me is blank. Robot Judy
Blume asks if I would like to read some or all of her manuscript.
I nod excitedly and I tell Robot Judy Blume that I would love to read
an adaptation of Judy Blume's work. I confess that I grew up reading Judy
Blume books—in fact, as a teen, I reread my Judy Blume books many
times and became a lifelong fan. I also tell Robot Judy Blume that, if she
can go one better than the human Judy Blume by resolving the query
"Are you there, God?", her manuscript might well give me the greatest
teading experience of my life. So, as some text appears on the projected
page before me, I eagerly begin to read:
Are you there, God? It is I, Robot
By Robot Judy Blume
Chapter 1
There once was a twelve-year-old girl who was like a twelve-year-
old girl in every way, except that she was a robot. Admittedly,
being a robot did give her certain advantages over her human
pre-teen peers. Her body was composed of a unique alloy that
rendered it capable of liquifying and assuming a molten form for
a full minute, before reverting to its original state. This remarkable
physical skill did not stop her from being picked last for school
sports teams, but her classmates agreed that the transformation
was visually impressive. She could also speak telepathically with
dogs, including Barry, her loveable St. Bernard. Additionally, she
had cat ears—ears that literally looked like those of a domestic
house cat—on her head. However, her hearing was not as acute
as that of a cat's and in fact she had never found her cat ears to
be very helpful, especially when meeting hostile dogs. Moreover,
her speech was strange. Although her speech synthesizer had been
checked and replaced on multiple occasions, she continued to
speak with a stilted, formal diction—the type of diction heard
from robot characters in certain television shows in the twentieth
century and from automated customer service telephone systems
in the early twenty-first century. Because her speech was purported
48 PRISM  54:3 to sound "robotic," this girl was known as "Robot." Yet despite
her name, her voice, her cat ears, her telepathic conversations
with dogs, her ability to liquify her body and return it to its
original state, and also her gold-tinted BioPlastic skin and her
greater intelligence, Robot was in many respects much like a pre-
teen human girl. She also had to deal with certain concerns that
were common to a lot of pre-teen human girls: anxieties about
friendship dynamics with her peers, wondering when she might
get her period, and so on.
Although Robot had no religious affiliation, she sometimes
prayed. Her prayers were improvised each time and they followed
no scriptural conventions. But they always began with the same
tentative opening: "Are you there, God? It is I, Robot." Although
Robot did not utter her prayers aloud, it was in times of prayer
that she felt her speech to be most under stress. During prayer,
she felt her limitations as a speaker most acutely of all—not
because of her "robotic" diction, but because she found that each
of her prayers created the grounds for another prayer—a second,
anxious prayer appealing for guidance with the question that was
opened up by all of her prayers: Does God exist?
Having read this far, I notice that Robot Judy Blume appears to be
looking at me expectantly. Realizing that she is seeking my feedback
on what I have read, I do not hesitate to tell her: regardless of what
any publishers or agents have to say, her idea to blend robot fiction and
philosophy of religion is an extremely good one. Robot Judy Blume
thanks me and seems really pleased. With one of her arms, she motions
for me to continue reading, and I turn back to the projected page, where
a new section of text has appeared.
As my reading gaze progressively moves down the page, new
paragraphs of text automatically display. With each replenishment of text
on the page, I become ever more engrossed in the stories of Robot's life.
I learn that Robot originally came from China. I also learn about her
experiences starting at a unique school that integrates young robots with
gifted young humans. Then I learn of her confusion about not having
a religious affiliation and her attempts to investigate some religious
traditions for a school project. I also learn about her occasional crushes
on various robots and humans: on Fatima 5000, who is on the softball
team; on Stephen, who stars in all the school musicals; and a few others.
And throughout it all, I learn about Robot's developing body.
At school, Robot's core group of school friends are three classmates:
Gretchen   and Janie—both   precocious   humans—and   Nancy,   who 49 looks like a human but is in fact a robot with evil tendencies. Gretchen
eventually becomes the first of this friendship group to get her period
and Robot gets her own period later that year. Robot's body also begins
to change in other ways. She begins a growth spurt and becomes one
of the tallest members of her class. Her hips also widen and become
more rounded. And eventually, after two full years of doing exercises to
increase the size of her busr, her breasts begin to grow.
As I read on, I eventually encounter a particularly memorable scene
of pubescent robot discovery:
One balmy Sunday night, Robot was in bed. It was hours past
her bedtime but she was not sleeping: she was lying on her back,
touching herself between her legs with her right hand. Her eyes
were literally gleaming, her BioPlastic skin was warm to the touch
and her back was sweating into the sheets. But as she kicked away
her quilt in excitement, she suddenly gasped. Withdrawing her
hand from between her legs, she craned her head up and looked on
in amazement as her forearm transformed into a white cylindrical
length of plastic casing that housed a small but powerful motor,
and as she instinctively curled the fingers of her right hand into
a fist, this fist transformed too, becoming the operating head
for a new part of herself that could be materialized at will. This
operating head was vibrating so powerfully that Robot could feel
the vibrations travelling up her remade forearm. Astounded by
what her body could do, Robot sat up and brought this newly-
discovered part of herself to eye-level, staring at the sturdy and
wand-like casing, the flexible vibrating head clad in a padded
white cover, and the button on the casing that offered a choice
of two vibration speeds. For a moment, she wondered if this
new part of herself was meant to be used for massaging sore
muscles. However, Robot speedily dismissed that idea. Besides,
the sexual lives of robots typically began earlier than most people
were willing to admit. So, as she lay back once more and moved
her transformed hand to her clitoris, she decided that massaging
sore muscles was at best a secondary function and that the
rightful purpose for putting these intense vibrations to use was
I happily read on and on, savouring what seems a classic robot coming-
of-age narrative, until it eventually occurs to me that I have lost track of
how long I have been reading. I reluctantly look away from the projected
page and I realize that all the other patrons have left the bar, leaving only
50 PRISM  54:3 Robot Judy Blume and me in the room. I hesitate, wondering if I am
overstaying my time at The Bevvy, but Robot Judy Blume tells me that
the "Closed" sign on the front door has been activated and that I can
stay here for as long as I want. She encourages me to simply keep reading
without regard for time or length or conclusions, so I joyously turn back
to the projected page:
One morning, Robot sat at the foot of her bed while Barry,
snoring, lay at her feet. She bowed her head, closed her eyes,
and began to pray: "Are you there, God? It is I, Robot." Even
her stilted and formal voicing of "It is I" foreshadowed the topic
of her prayer, for Robot had decided to speak to God about her
Puberty can be a difficult time for young robots, mostly due
to the nature of the bodily changes involved. Like Robot, some
robots who go through puberty can experience changes that
more or less resemble those of human puberty. However, robot
puberty can also include its own specific changes, which typically
vary between individual robots and are not known in advance.
Some of these changes are well received, but most of them are
more unsettling and require a longer adjustment period than
the changes that approximate those of human puberty. Thus, as
confusing as it is for a young robot to undergo a growth spurt
that leaves it in excess of 150 metres tall, or to become moody
and prone to rampages that seek to destroy all humans, it is even
more confusing for a young robot to discover that it can suddenly
deploy machine guns from its buttocks, or detach its fists from its
arms and fire these fists like rockets, or merge itself with several
other robots to create some larger entity, and so forth.
Although robot puberty is quite diffetent from human
puberty, something that both types of puberty have in common
is this: it is not possible to choose what changes emetge. But as
Robot sat on her bed, she confided to God that she had lately been
fantasizing that her voice would change during her puberty—
that is, change by losing its stiffness and formality. Robot told
God that she knew of no other robot in this day and age with
a voice like hers that could be deemed "robotic." She did know
some robots who danced in a stiff and awkward manner—in fact,
she was one of them. But this dancing resembled a centuries-
old dance called "The Robot" that some humans still practised,
so she felt that the situation with her "robotic" voice was much
worse. In fact, aside from her happier discovery of the intense, 51 pleasure-giving functions of her right hand, her experiences with
puberty had been difficult overall. These experiences had largely
intensified her sense of the oddness of her own body—and among
her oddities, it was her voice that troubled her most of all.
However, as Robot addressed her words to God, her
thoughts digressed to that same question that surfaced wirh her
every prayer: Does God exist? Robot was accustomed to praying
on despite this question, but on this occasion she stopped her
prayer. In fact, she added another question to her enquiry: What
information do I have to share through prayer that a higher
power might not already know anyway?
At that point, Robot slipped back into her bed, drew the
covers over her head, and tried not to think about her voice or her
questions about prayer and God and God's existence. After about
an hour, she got up. Today was a public holiday. As she did not
have to attend school, she powered on her holo-TV and spent the
next few hours catching up on some long-running daytime drama
series: Days of Our Lives, The Young and the Restless, The Bold and
the Beautiful, and so on. After she had reacquainted herself with
the lives of Hope and Victor and Ridge and her other favourite
characters, she switched to a random channel—as it turned out,
a classic movies channel. This channel had just begun screening
a film, which Robot began to watch with interest. The film
was a twentieth-century Hollywood musical about a phonetics
professor who wagered that he could improve the social and
economic prospects of a Cockney flower girl by teaching her to
speak a variety of English that was accorded high prestige. After
a very strict six-month regimen of pronunciation exercises, rhe
flower girl's speech had been transformed so convincingly that at
a high society ball she was believed to be of royal lineage.
By the time the film's final scene faded to black and the
words "The End" appeared in an embellished cursive, Robot
had decided that she had found the way to change her voice: via
insights from the field of phonetics. Although she did not have
access to a misogynist and classist professor of phonetics with an
authoritarian teaching style, Robot knew that this was okay. She
had already worked out that if this film was anything to go by,
the only tolerable way for her to learn what was required of her
was distance education or some other approach that emphasized
self-directed learning. After doing some online research, her
suspicions were soon confirmed that no reputable courses or
learning materials existed that specifically focussed on how to
PRISM  54:3 speak less "robotically," so she bought herself some books on
phonetics, along with a general linguistics textbook.
This was how Robot came to discover her gift for and love
of linguistics. Over the next six months, it turned out that her
diction only changed marginally. Although she was undoubtedly
disappointed with her progress, Robot was nonetheless energized
by her new interest in linguistics—an interest that soon came to
span far beyond phonetics. And it was this interest in linguistics
that proved helpful to her two months later, when she attended
a patty held by one of her robot classmates, Norman, who was
made in Japan and whose parents were super-intelligent robots
and esteemed university lecturers. That evening, Robot walked
to Norman's house. Upon arriving at the front door, she paused.
She rarely felt comfortable at parties, but her friends had looked
so incredulous when she had initially said that she might not
attend. After she rang the bell and was scanned by the visitor
management system, a robot answered the door. Introducing
herself as Krystle 400, she watmly greeted Robot and invited her
to come in.
Krystle 400 was a humanoid robot, with a broad, squarish
shape to her shoulders, as if she was wearing shoulder pads. She
had golden plating that was decorated with coloured rhinestones,
while repulsorlifts in the soles of her feet enabled her to hover a
few inches above the ground. On her chest was an illuminated
badge that said "Hello! My name is Krystle 400!" It was obvious
that Krystle 400 was a greeter robot.
These days, the rise of greeter robots is largely a forgotten
chapter in robotics history, but Robot had come to read about
this topic only last week in a linguistics book. Invented by a US
robotics company back in the 2150s, greeter robots made their
debut one spring morning at a clothing chain store in the town
of St. Olaf in northern Minnesota. The job of each greetet robot
was to stand at the enttance to the store or hover about the store,
while greeting and farewelling customers, asking how they were,
commenting on the weather or the traffic or the prospects of a
local sporting team, and the like. The debut of these robots went
well and it was even hailed as a landmark in robotic customer
service. Greeter robots were rolled out in department stores across
the US, with localized versions sold to numerous other countries.
Back in those early days, some people declared greeter
robots to be a rather basic and unsophisticated type of robot.
These people dismissed the talk that greeter robots engaged in as 53 conveying only minimal information. But the original group of
linguists who had pioneered the first greeter robots soon spoke
out against this view. This group—which comprised some of
the world's pre-eminent linguists—made their thoughts public
by appearing in a self-made video that they posted online. Due
to the incidental presence of a tabby kitten that was wandering
in the background as the linguists spoke, this video went viral,
reaching a massive worldwide online audience.
In their video, the linguists said that rather than criticizing
the talk between greeter robots and their customers as being
information-poor, it should be recognized that the primary
function of this talk was not to transmit information. Its primary
function was relational. This talk was above all concerned with
meeting interpersonal goals, such as initiating and prolonging
social contact. And though such talk was often dismissively
described as "small talk," this interpersonal focus was no small
thing. After all, conversation is fundamentally interpersonal,
and when the linguists expounded on this fact by telling their
audience of over seven billion viewers about the interpersonal
metafunction of language that was detailed by Halliday in his
theory of systemic functional grammar, one or two people took
notice. These people were eventually inspired to deploy greeter
robots in social settings outside of department store contexts, and
this idea quickly spread. Customized greerer robots were soon
sold for use in a much wider range of social settings and they came
to gain much respect, particularly for their ability to create social
cohesion at wedding receptions, high school reunions, workplace
Christmas celebrations, and even certain family dinners.
Krystle 400 led Robot into the foyer of Norman's house
and down the hallway, hovering above the hardwood floors and
chatting animatedly with her all the way. But, although Krystle
400 was an outstanding conversationalist, Robot was not giving
the conversation her full attention. Instead, she was thinking
about the question she had posed several months ago in her
bedroom after stopping her prayer: "What information do I have
to share through prayer that a higher power might not already
know anyway?" As she recalled the talk of the early greeter robots,
it occurred to Robot that the primary function of prayer was not
to transmit information to an interlocutor. In fact, some types of
prayer were not especially concerned with any prayerful words
at all. Whether focused on no words or a single syllable or an
entire book, prayer was preceded by and grounded in the desire
PRISM  54:3 for contact—for some kind of rapport or communion or even a
form of union—with its addressee. Over and above any function
to transmit information, then, prayer as speech needed to be
relational. But, as Robot was led to a spacious entertainment area
where the party had started, it occurred to her that she found it
hard enough to engage in relationally-oriented talk at parties, let
alone with an enigmatic, unseen addtessee who might be called
"God," but who also went by other names.
Robot soon spotted Gretchen, Janie, and Nancy, so she
waved goodbye to Krystle 400 and joined her friends. But,
although Robot was relieved that she had her friends to talk
with, she couldn't help glancing enviously at Krystle 400, who
was circulating about the room with ease, her rhinestone-studded
plating gleaming under the party lights. At that moment, Robot
felt that if there was anything she knew about herself it was this:
she certainly was no greeter robot. After half an hour, someone
turned the volume up on the party's vintage soundtrack of pop
and dance music. As a new wave pop song from the 2180s began
to play, most of her classmates began to dance but Robot, ever
aware of the stiff and awkward manner of her dancing, resisted the
cajoling from her friends to join in. Instead, she wandered over
to the table of party snacks and ate a few treats before sneaking
away. She left through a pair of French doors and walked further
down the hallway and into an open area with chandeliers, twin
couches, and a grand piano in one corner. She wandered about
this space, studying an ancient eighteenth-century tapestry that
hung above the fireplace, relieved to be alone.
However, a few minutes later, Krystle 400 hovered into the
area. As Krystle 400 headed towards her, Robot cursed inwardly.
Robot was not in the mood to engage with some shiny, perky
customer service robot.
But there was more to Krystle 400 than an upbeat
demeanour and some rhinestoned plating. For one thing, being
a greeter robot, Krystle 400 had advanced empathic abilities so
that she could better relate to people who complained a lot. So,
as Robot began to complain to het, Krystle 400 listened patiently.
Interestingly, though, Robot's outburst was not centred on
tonight's party. Although Robot lamented that the existence of
greeter robots made it much harder for introverts and reclusive
types to sneak away from social interaction at parties, she said
that what was really troubling her—more than the party, more
than the current intrusion into her moment of solitude in this 55 space, more than her stiff and awkward dancing, and even more
than her stiff and awkward voice—was the question that was
perpetually raised by her experiences of prayer: Does God exist?
Even though Krystle 400 had been programmed to deal
with billions of probable conversational sequences, she was taken
aback by this turn in the conversation. Krystle 400 knew that
many topic change strategies were available to her at this point,
and yet she surprised herself by rejecting these. Instead, she
admitted to Robot that she occasionally prayed too and that she
had long been troubled by that same question herself.
Krystle 400 stared silently at Robot, who stared silently back.
There then passed between the two robots something that Krystle
400 had never before experienced and that was the antithesis of
her programming: a long, awkward silence in which she found
she had nothing to say.
Eventually, it was Robot who found something to say.
Explaining her belief that prayer was a relationally-oriented form
of talk, she then said that out of anyone in this world, a greeter
robot might in fact be ideally placed to give insight into God's
existence. Having been pioneered by some of the world's preeminent linguists to excel at interpersonal talk, a greeter robot
could speak to the topic of speaking to God. And if that greeter
robot could shed light on the act of speaking to God, perhaps that
could shed light on the existence of prayer's unseen addressee.
As Robot stared at her, Krystle 400 struggled to affect her
usual upbeat demeanour. She was not used to conversations like
this. In fact, although it was not definitively ruled out by her
programming and there were some exceptions, she was supposed
to avoid getting into any long and involved party conversations
about religion.
Krystle 400 thought for an even longer and more awkward
moment, wondering what she as a greeter robot could possibly
contribute at this point. She acknowledged to Robot that she
did know a lot about interpersonal talk. In fact, she had an
explicit understanding of many rules of language use that
most humans implicitly know. A few years ago, she was even
programmed with knowledge across various academic disciplines
so that she could make banter and tell erudite in-jokes at social
events that featured the company of intellectuals. This academic
programming had changed her into a different kind of robot.
For one thing, she now enjoyed contemplating out loud through
extended soliloquies. And yet, throughout all of her attendances
PRISM  54:3 at academic conference dinners, book and exhibition launches,
and receptions for noted scholars, she had always felt more like
an imposter than an intellectual. She definitely didn't consider
herself intellectually equipped to tackle any of the questions
about God that have puzzled humanity for centuries. In the
end, regardless of her academic credentials, she saw herself as a
greeter robot. This meant that het expertise was not on God, but
communication—and a fairly specific area of communication at
And yet, even as she said all of this aloud, Krystle 400 began
to wonder if Robot could be right: as a greeter robot, did her
expertise in communication better qualify her to speak of God
than what she realized?
Krystle 400 silently hovered in place for a while, collecting
some thoughts. Finally, she began to speak. She decided to tell
Robot about the early years of greeter robot development. The
earliest prototypes for greeter robots took the form of giant,
boxy, room-sized machines that seem plain and ungainly by
today's greeter robot standards. These prototypes were giant and
boxy because greeter robots required many racks of processors.
Fortunately, due to rapid advancements in computer processor
technology, later greeter robot prototypes were produced in
more practical sizes. But even these days, greeter robots need
considerable processing capacity to model the many choices and
understandings—often taken for granted by humans—that are
involved in social talk.
One example is the ability to judge and maintain an
appropriate physical proximity to one's conversation partner.
When greeter robot design was in its infancy, their developers
were aware that if greeter robots placed themselves too far
from their conversation partners, not only would problems in
comprehension result, but the greeter robots might be deemed
to be aloof. But what the developers feared a lot more was this:
if greeter robots were found to be "close talkers" who continually
invaded the personal space of their conversation partners, acute
awkwardness and discomfort would ensue on a mass scale.
These developers knew that a human in face-to-face
conversation doesn't objectively measure the distance between
their body and the body of a fellow conversation partner. Instead,
this distance is a felt experience—"felt" because it's intuitively
gauged as a perception of a physical span. The developers also
knew that distance can be "felt" not only in terms of physical 57 proximity but also emotional proximity—in terms of intimacy.
Although these developers didn't have proximity with God
in mind when designing greeter robots, we can still say this:
whether we are robots or humans, we can't close the distances
between outselves and God using methods that pursue an ideal of
impersonal objectivity. The starting point from which we judge
our distance to God is ourselves. This makes our knowledge
of God, like our knowledge of everything else, inescapably
perspective-bound and personal. Our knowledge of God is as
perspective-bound and personal as an individual's sense of their
personal space, which is anothet subjective dimension from
which no one can be expected to divest themselves.
So, as we gauge the gap between God and ourselves, we
find that the very questions that frame our views of God and the
choices that we make on how to assess the answers are already
skewed and partial. We arrive at the question "Does God exist?"
having already made certain anticipations of God—among them,
having already anticipated a God whose reality can largely or
exclusively be resolved through reason alone, and having already
anticipated a God who doesn't trouble our sense of reality but,
like any ordinary object, either independently exists or doesn't
exist as an objective reality. What undeniably exists is this idea
of God, among many others. In fact, so multiple are our ideas
of God that opponents in the most divisive debates about the
existence of God rarely speak of rhe same "God."
But, regardless of the idea of God that we anticipate, no
one can know God in a way that is itself objective and cleansed
of personal perspective—not even greeter robots with all their
considerable processing capacity. In fact, in the midst of all
their fears that greeter robots might invade the personal space
of their conversation partners, the developers of greeter robots
soon realized: in order to properly model human conversational
interaction, every greeter robot needed to be programmed with
its own subjective sense of personal space. In the end, trying
to traverse the gap between God and ourselves is another felt
experience—"felt" because it can't be quarantined of our emotions
and personal investments. So, in our groping attempts to know
God and to close the distances between God and ourselves, we—
robots and humans alike—must "feel" our way around: we must
be "human" and not "robots."
At this point, Robot stared at Krystle 400, who was now
hovering in silence. Frankly, Robot was getting really tired of the
PRISM  54:3 words "robot" and "robotic" being used to insinuate mechanical
and emotionless behaviour, but she forced herself to put that
aside and she thought back to the 2150s. Back in those days,
greeter robots came to be hailed for their vital work in reducing
emotional discomfort in a range of testing social situations, such
as couples counselling sessions, corporate team-building retreats,
and even a lot of blind dates. But Robot declared that she had
never been so excited by a gteeter robot until today—in fact, she
had never met a greeter robot who was such a deep thinker.
Krystle 400 thanked Robot and looked a little embarrassed.
She said that sometimes she was dismissed as being some shiny,
perky customer service robot. In fact, because her particular work
as a greeter robot involved socializing at patties, people usually
just assumed that her life was like one big party. Although Krystle
400 conceded that this was actually true on a literal level, she
added that there was more to her than an upbeat demeanour and
some rhinestoned plating, and revealed to Robot that she had
done a bit of work in religious-related contexts. Most of this work
had involved managing social dynamics at religious gatherings,
such as Bat Mitzvah and Bar Mitzvah parties. She had also done
religious-related work that had been more impromptu—usually
at dinner parties when she had found herself needing to maintain
social relations during unscheduled debates about religion. And
throughout all of these religious-related conversations, what had
stood out for her was that speaking about God requires a close
kind of communication. Speaking about God requires us to
become "close talkers" who can address our topic without the
pretence of neutral and disinterested distance: "close talkers"
who, by staying morally engaged, can be better positioned to
obstruct oppressive ideas about God; "close talkers" who can
open ourselves to whatever acute awkwardness will ensue.
Robot sighed. She could hear, from down the hallway, the
faint sounds of Norman's party—not only its music soundtrack,
but its social chatter. As she listened to this chatter, it occurred
to Robot that although greeter robots perform vital work by
reducing our unease in speech situations that are fraught, their
capabilities don't extend to all such situations. In our attempts
to speak to the topic of God, no greeter robot can intercede to
suppress the discomfort of our dealings and the strain that is
placed on our speech.
Robot stared down at the floor and she began to brood on
this troubling gap in greetet robot capabilities. But before she 59 could dwell too long on its various inconveniences, her thoughts
were interrupted by Krystal 400, who had started talking about
a film. Being a robot that had been pioneered by linguists, it
turned out that Krystal 400 was a big-time fan of a popular film
that featured a linguist as a protagonist. Krystal 400 explained
that this film was a twentieth-century Hollywood musical about
a phonetics professor who wagered that he could improve the
social and economic prospects of a Cockney flower girl by
teaching her to speak a variety of English that was accorded high
prestige. Over the course of six months, this flower girl was put
through a strict regimen of pronunciation exercises in which she
"robotically" uttered statements of apparent fact, such as "The
rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain." But Krystal 400 then
told Robot: those kinds of utterances sufficed for the professor's
purposes but, ultimately, God doesn't seem transparent enough
to be treated as being expressible in precise factual statements—
precise factual statements about God's existence or non-existence,
and other such declarations about God. Rather than striving to
speak, above all, in statements of apparent fact—especially as
prescribed by misogynist and classist figures with authoritarian
teaching styles—attempts to express truths about God might call
for other, less literal ways of speaking.
Interestingly, for all his haughtiness and chauvinism,
that professor of phonetics himself used an unorthodox vocal
technique. He had a way of expressing himself rhat seemed as
if he was animatedly talking his way through musical numbers.
This technique, which strangely fluctuated between singing and
speaking, also revealed his obvious enjoyment of contemplating
out loud through extended soliloquies. His was a form of
expression that integrated his academic and artistic inclinations,
oscillating between soliloquy and song. He used this technique
to expound on various subjects—in fact, one of his most famous
numbers was a love song. Admittedly, his communicative choices
seemed a bit awkward and weird to some people: he was using
a form of expression that clearly didn't aspire to be realistic as
speech, but didn't quite resemble singing either. Maybe that was
why he didn't seem to be affiliated with any university and had
likely chosen to become an independent scholar instead. In fact,
given his propensity to intellectualize via breaking out into musical
numbers, that professor must have found it hard to maintain his
authority as a scholar. And yet, in areas of knowledge where there
are no absolute answers—love, religion, and such—using forms
60 PRISM  54:3 of expression that undermine our claims to absolute authority
might be precisely what is required. Was this why the professor
had preferred to voice his thoughts by using an approach that
departed from the kind of time-honoured, authoritative speech
that was expected of him? In the end, perhaps even this figure
of authority with his authoritarian teaching style was ttying to
steer away from the kind of speech that was geated above all
towards one-upmanship and victory. Rathet than aspiring to the
conclusiveness of facts, perhaps he was searching for other ways
of speaking about less transparent topics.
For a moment, Robot looked at Krystal 400 a bit sceptically.
Having never liked that professor, she felt that she had just heard
a more charitable view of him than she herself could ever offer.
But, although she disliked the professor, she had always liked his
vocal technique, with its fluctuations. It was at this point that
Robot realized: Krystal 400 had done a lot of speaking about
how we might speak of God. Since Krystal 400's expertise was
in communication, this was understandable—and yet Robot felt
there was more to it than that. Our approach to our speech about
God frames the story we come to tell about God—so much so,
though, that this might turn out to be among the most pivotal
points of the story.
At this point in my reading, I am suddenly moved to look up at Robot
Judy Blume. She is staring at me and looking a bit sheepish. She says that
maybe all those publishers and agents who rejected her manuscript were
right: maybe her adaptation departed too much from the book upon
which it was allegedly based. Sighing, she declares that if her novel is
anything to go by, she is a poor stand-in for the human Judy Blume.
I think about this for a moment. I tell Robot Judy Blume that although
she is a digressive storyteller, there are important similarities between her
work and that of the human Judy Blume. Most important among these
is the reason why, as a teen, I re-read those original Judy Blume books
so many times and became a lifelong fan: like me, the characters were
unsure. In fact, the character of Robot was unsure in ways that seemed
very much like me. In trying to pray to God, the horizon for Robot's
view of God seemed to terminate at the question "Are you there, God?"
But maybe the horizon for her view of God—and mine too—need not
be cut short by this single, less-than-transparent topic for which she nor
I could have a certain answer. Maybe the necessaty horizon for our view
of God was our very uncertainty about God, which had no foreseeable
terminating point. 61 As a silence passes between us, I gaze at Robot Judy Blume. Of all
the bars in all the towns in all the world, I walked into the one where
the bartender had written a novel of young adult robot fiction and
philosophy of religion that addressed the question "Are you there, God?"
Just at that moment, this novel begins to fade to black before me. I am
alarmed to see this projected page disappear. But the situation is not so
bad: this image is soon replaced by the pages of The Bevvy's mocktail
menu and Robot Judy Blume tells me that I need a drinks break and that
Virgin Coladas are on the house until I am ready to leave. I have already
downed many drinks tonight and I may end up feeling the worse for wear
at the office tomorrow, but I nod enthusiastically. Robot Judy Blume
siphons pineapple juice, coconut cream, and lime juice into various arms.
The liquids flow up her arms and soon I hear a whirring sound from the
blender inside her head. Me, I am turning a few things around in my
own head. Tonight, I will be propping up the bar for as long as the Virgin
Coladas are flowing and I will be reading my bartender's novel until I
have reached the final page, but I know already that I have important
new work to do at the office tomorrow.
PRISM  54:3 Jacob McArthur Mooney
If we leave discarded video technology plugged in,
it will start to record us for the movies of the future.
We took our time researching light, so we can
show up in distant cities, blended into the scenery
and coughing up green paint. We know the world well,
because we have no fetishes, except our bones' complaints
when standing from a crouch. That takes us back.
Pause for this: From an unseen corner, you produce
a photo of our son at ninety-seven yeats old, already
some fading at the edges of the image. I blink sideways.
You blink sideways, fall into a pool of self-generated
lymph. Saliva-smoothed and rested, I soothe myself
with simple music. We live in a factory that doesn't
give chase. That a robot taught language. That forgives. 63 THE SPECIALIZATIONOFF LABOUR
The kids who learned Latin
are learning to count cards.
Those who knew to count cards
by learning what the cards meant
are financing new countries.
The financiers you read about
in fourth-day stories
are phosphorescent actors.
The glowing girls died and were reborn.
The pageant Jesus angled west
in search of retail margins
unheard of in the East.
The West itself
went Wester, learned a language too rooted
in its accent to repeat.
The mapmakers, shamed,
are begging for my change.
The sons of single mothers sulk atonally.
The psychologists are shouting.
The men who shot up cinemas
now portray themselves
in tourist re-enactments. Listen,
the wardrobe women learned to swallow fire.
The fire pits around which
we first met are the paint
in the tubes your mother uses
for my portraits.
I know my names. Lion. Papa. Pontiff. Son.
I can speak of vivid futures in the cadences
of rattling coins. Can recount my final days between
forkfuls of porchetta. Wealthy adoration-faced
weasellet of deacons; I paid the man to paint me
as my predecessors. But I will nevet predecease.
I glow in Tuscan blues between the gold leaf spat like resin.
I anachronize in velvet leaps, like an interwar Laertes
or a virgin's visitation in Renaissance dress.
He painted my Medici face as blond and godly
as a martyr's. But I have markets still to make.
Leos lead their flocks with all the gtace of Panzer groups.
I watched my coronation on CCTV I confess:
Leo Four was a pederast. A shame we never told you.
Five cured the fite. Thirteen was a spy. Twenty-one
will die in prison. Forty fights the dragon, and there
will be no Leo Fifty. It will all be done by then.
Excerpted from Don't Be Interesting by Jacob McArthur Mooney.
Copyright © 2016 Jacob McArthur Mooney. Published by McClelland
& Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited.
Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved. 65 Julie Paul
When not burning for your survival, toast, or soup, what have you, let
the appliances rest.
A lapsed religion still emits faint signals; God, in his satellite dish, groans,
moving on.
Your ideas about Sex in a Pan are probably bang-on, but remember what
Lennon said: I am she as you are we...
If every window bears stencil-made Christmas snow scenes, how might
you see the real stuff, sparkling down?
In the beginning, before "Hair Tips for Natural Curls" on YouTube, people
relaxed more.
What if, as in dreams, the mirrored closet doors slide open ro reveal
nothing but shoes? You can still only wear two at a time.
Should your daughter never grow wide-eyed at finding Fool's Gold in
'dem hills, suggest she study internal medicine to save both money and
Everyone's faked something. Sure, somebody's likely onto you, but it's
unlikely they're a bona fide spy.
When you emerge from the river, soaking wet but birth-taint-free, your
birthday suit will still be the first to dry, and only with minimal shrinkage.
You might feel a bit of burning near the temples as you read these. Don't
sweat it. It might be shame, but it could be an angel, her fevered hand
on your brow.
66 PRISM  54:3 CHEAT
It's the old choice:
pteserve the face or the ass,
plump enough to keep things
pleasant for the fingers,
tight enough for dimes to bounce.
In my dream I was lifting a school bus
up a small footbridge and then down again.
It was work but I could do it, although I kept
thinking, there must be a better way. Time claws
at our skin like a frightened bat
searching for a foothold. If you can
jail-break a phone, then what about
this madness of aging? Look up
the cheats online. Sure thing, they all say.
Get started today! No time to waste.
As easy as one-two-lift the bus-three.
All you need to do is sleep forever,
the setting adjusted to in your dreams. 67 Victoria Young
H/very profile picture seemed to be of a man wearing skinny jeans
and a beard he'd learned to grow from men's magazines. I just wanted
someone to like my love poems about dishwashing and residential taxes
and the cost of airfare in the summer. I was uncomfortably fat, which
only bothered me to the extent that it affected my breathing and my
stature and my desire to spontaneously have sex with men who were never
worthy. The kind of men who thought they were being lovely in the way
they described a woman's full lips, her shape, her youth, like those were
things she'd earned. I just wanted them to stop talking about tits and
curves like they were peace prizes, like they could save us all. How was
I supposed to relate to the kind of men who said, "I'm tall enough, so
you can wear heels," as if that was a thing I worried about. Their lack of
empathy for my bones was terrifying. I didn't want to go out with men
who were busy telling women how to dress. They always seemed to talk
a lot about things but never people, their words an ill-fitting suit, always
just a little too tight in the crotch. I bet their heroes were drinking brown
liquor in mahogany drawing rooms and pretending to have read books
written by old white men. Everyone was always terribly miserable. We
never wanted the same things.
I was looking for a five-cent-word-type-love, a temporary fix. I
just wanted a little something for the pain, a salve to spread across my
body to heal the disappointment. The rwenty-five-year-old I had dated
immediately after finishing my master's degree had wrecked me. As it
turns out, the joy could not sustain the lull. And talking about it only
ever made me feel more alone. Dating, they say (they, being me), is like
someone putting a cheesecake on the table in front of you, and just when
you're about to take a bite, a hand comes out of nowhere and knocks
it onto the ground. I wasn't upset that the cheesecake didn't love me, I
was crushed that it was on the floor (probably covered in hair—because
let's be honest, this metaphor doesn't make sense unless there's something
more gross than just the cake being on the floor. I mean, I'd eat floor cake.
I've eaten floor cake. But I couldn't eat this cake anymore. It wasn't even
just floor cake. The cake was gone).
PRISM  54:3 Message from Dan reads: nice tits
Message from Richard reads: I love your curves
Message from Francois reads: mmm mmm yummy
(I couldn't help but wonder if he thought I was a doughnut).
I message: There's no way your parents aren't ashamed of you.
I message: Just wait until you see myflatsl
I message: Snooze.
He messages: / was just joking. But he doesn't know what humour is.
He has said something stupid and thinks his laissez-faire attitude makes
it a joke. He is all intention and no action, thinks wanting something
to be true makes it so. The messages continue to come in from men
who are never going to be a good match because they don't understand
that kidding without being funny is just lying, and I am tired of lying
with men who aren't funny. At best, I hoped to find someone who could
make me laugh in a way that changed the very make-up of my DNA. At
worst, maybe there would be an adventure, someone I could tolerate long
enough to stab late at night and leave bleeding on the page, the only way
to make his story worth reading—a gesture of love. One man messaged
to say that his being interesting should make up for him not being funny,
which was a fair enough point. Except that after reading his profile, I was
forced to remind him that a man who had written, the prettier the girl, the
more interesting the conversation wasn't in any position to judge. I wanted
better than him. I wanted my last few months in Montreal to be worth
the rent.
The key to a passive-aggressive handjob is the tension.
You may have been thinking it was grip strength or rhythm, but you
would be wrong. It's about balancing the present against the future. It's
about how much you hate going on fitst dates, and if you can just find
a way to not hate this man while he's lying there completely naked with
his dick in yout hand, and you're still completely dtessed because this is a
goddamn first date, then maybe, just maybe, you can go on a second date
with him instead of a first date with someone else, someone new.
But I am no gymnast and there isn't a beam wide enough for all the
rage and regret. He doesn't deserve my good palms, my silky spit, the
silhouette of my body in his eye line. When it ends, he will cum into my
hand and I will let it spill onto his stomach. I will go to the bathroom and
wash his jizz off my hands. I won't offer him a towel. I don't know whete
he keeps them. This is a first date; I don't even know his last name.
The night we met at a bar, near the Jean-Talon matket, he was dressed
like a man. He was dressed like a man in pants and a shirt. I think it was a
polo shirt but it's kind of hard to remember. It's kind of hard to remember 69 because it wasn't anything special; he wasn't anything special. He wasn't
awful, well he kind of was, but for later and different reasons. He wasn't
dressed awful; I just don't remember. I want to say maroon. I want to say a
maroon shirt and beige pants but can that even be true? I can't remember.
He wasn't worrh remembering. That seems harsh. I don't want to be cruel.
It's funny how much I worry about being cruel, how much I worry about
treating them decently. I write love poems for butchers and evetyone
worries about their cut fingers and dirty aprons. They don't worry about
me. They cut into me like a fatty steak. They set me on fire. If you're quiet,
you can hear the sizzle.
The ttuth is that I was desperate (refrain). It seemed like I was always
feeling desperate when it came to finding happiness and dating but this
time the desperation was specific; it was time-sensitive. I had been feeling
like shit for weeks, or was it only a few days? Time becomes taffy after
heartbreak. I would've done almost anything to be out of the lull that
followed in the wake of the last man I had dated.
When I saved Hemi as a favourite on Plenty of Fish, I hadn't thought
much of it. He was attractive and tall with a witty enough profile. His
being tall was arbitrary, just the luck of the draw really, and would've
been insignificant except that it served to make me feel smaller and more
feminine. I would always be wider than them, so I wanted them to be
taller. Not a deal-breaker but a bonus. I also liked his jawline and a joke he
had made about soccer (football). He messaged me almost immediately,
which was flattering because it seemed like he couldn't control his
excitement. We bantered. He asked me out, and we made plans.
At the bar, we talked about our commonalities. I was thinking about
moving up North, for the isolation money and the adventure of it, and he
had already been there, was able to offer perspective and foreshadowing.
I thought he had gone up North to work as a scientist, given that he'd
just finished his MSc in Microbiology, but it turned out he had moved
up there for a girl. He was from Spain and chided me for not picking up
much French in my two years in Montreal. I didn't make the joke about
how I was trying to pick up as many of them as I could. I didn't think he'd
laugh. I wasn't sure anyone would laugh. Lately, I'd been much less funny.
He spoke three languages and was working on a fourth. When the bar got
loud and a band started to play, we left.
He said, "Want to come back to my place?" before we had walked
more than a few steps, and then gestured up the street. "I live right over
there." I was shocked to find out he lived so close to the bar he asked me
to meet him at. I tried not to resent him for making me trek the farthest
north I'd ever been in Montreal for our date. A nice guy would've met
me halfway. Men are so quick to think themselves nice. The entitlement
70 PRISM  54:3 is always what gets me. Kindness is a basic human quality, a reason you're
not a terrible person, not a reason someone should want to date you. The
bat seemed to be set so low; I worried about bruising my shins. While
we walked, I thought about which bus I would take back south so that
I could stop at that bagel place on Faitmount that's open all night and
makes those chocolate chip bagels with a hint of orange.
Inside his apartment, I walked the length of the living room and then
back again, trying to keep his dog, who was pawing at me, from snagging
my dress. I stood there, waiting awkwardly, while he poured himself a beer
and then me a glass of water, not sure if I should take a seat on the couch
"I really like to cook," he said gesturing at something on a cutting
board but never offering me anything to eat.
"Oh yeah?" I was trying to sound like one of those people who are
interested in cooking. He put his dog in a cage in the bedroom, which
seemed kind of cruel, though beneficial for my lace dress, which he (the
dog) may have already snagged. I didn't look. I didn't want to be sad on a
first date.
At the bar, I hadn't been so sure that he liked me. There was a stiffness
in his body, a lack of an endearing sweetness. He seemed to be all corners,
awkward but self-assured. But back at his apartment, sitting on his white
leather couch, he was all cushion. I curled my left leg under me on the
couch; my thigh, posing as a barrier between us. In his apartment, with
the lights too bright, he seemed smaller; his limbs, thinner. He seemed
just a little bit shorter. But then he smiled and the difference from the bar
to home hardly seemed to matter. As soon as the movie started, I could
feel him thinking about how to kiss me.
An hour went by while I could feel him thinking and plotting and
devising. I never turned to look at him. I wanted him to kiss me but not
immediately. I was orchestrating tension, which is less psychotic and more
burdensome than it sounds. I wanted it to happen (maybe, probably,
don't rush me). I could feel his desire in every movement: a hand near
my thigh, and then on my thigh, the subtle shift in his body while he
considered putting an arm behind my head and then the shift again when
he reconsidered and did nothing, the slow loss of inches between us as he
moved closer on the couch, and then his hand on mine, and finally our
fingers together, laced.
An hour later, I looked at him, and he kissed me. It was a little too
rough, a little too aggressive. Everything felt sloppy, like I was being
jostled. I tried to recall how many beers he'd had at the bar (maybe two?).
That wasn't enough to explain the way his lips never quite fit with mine,
the repeated bumping of our teeth, the way his tongue slipped around like 71 a fish—first heavily on top of mine, then flapping about in the corners of
my mouth, then as if it was lining my lips. His hands moved down the
length of my dress until they found an opening. We had barely begun
kissing and he wanted legs and thighs, the whole chicken dinner. I said
the first thing I could think of.
"I haven't shaved my legs."
"I don't care," he said.
Because of course he didn't. Because of course they never do, but that
isn't really the point. It's not about whether or not he cares that I've shaved
my legs, but that I don't want him touching my unshaven legs (or, that I
have to make up some bullshit, or purposely not shave my legs, in order
to keep him from going beyond my limits when my words don't suffice).
My words did little to change the pace. I pushed his hands away and then
pulled back on the kissing to show I was serious, and this time he stopped
pushing further. I liked him less for not immediately heeding my words
and myself less for not leaving.
After awhile the kissing started to improve, our rhythms becoming
just a little more in sync. Just when I had begun to enjoy the making out,
he pulled his lips from mine and asked, "Bedroom?" He slid to the edge of
the couch and stood, pulling at me a little. I chided myself for not being
better than this, for not thinking faster than this, for not leaving sooner
than this. In the bedroom, I saw his dog in the cage.
The dog whined. I felt bad. He continued to kiss me, unfazed.
The first step in giving a passive aggressive handjob is to want him
(maybe, possibly, in theory). When I tell this story later, to friends, they
act horrified. "How awful!" they exclaim. "You should've just left." Which
is both true and not so simple. Because it's not like I didn't want him to
touch my legs ever, or that I wouldn't (maybe) want to have sex with him
at some point (maybe) I just didn't want it to happen tonight, on the first
Other friends suggest that I just shouldn't go back to someone's
apartment on the first date. But why is agreeing to watch a movie, and
even make out, an admission ticket for sex? Why should I not expect
more from men, to think that I can be alone with them and not instantly
(or ever) be expected to fuck? And before you say, "But then you can't
fault men for—" stop that nonsense, don't be ridiculous. Men are human
beings with thoughts and feelings and decision-making abilities. Every
day I manage to refrain from acting on any number of urges (mostly to
murder people), and I think the least I should be able to expect from a
man (yes, the absolute bare-fucking-minimum!), is to not have to repeat
myself when I say, "No." I don't owe anyone any kind of explanation for
PRISM  54:3 why I might not want to fuck immediately after saying hello (no matter
how many times I offer one anyway). I don't owe men shit. Fist in the ait.
The second step of a passive-aggressive handjob is to demonstrate your
apathy. We were on the bed kissing, and then the next second he had
stood up and taken off all his clothes, and before I could utter a word he
was back on the bed with me, buck naked. It was like a magic trick—now
you see these clothes, now you don't. One minute this was a normal first
date, and the next he was completely naked while I remained fully dressed,
not even a nipple out of place. Nothing says apathy quite like remaining
clothed while the man you're kissing is completely naked. No fucks given.
The third step is to give absolutely no more than a decent effort. This
step is the trickiest because if you're not great at giving handjobs, by not
giving it your full effort you could end up extending the whole affair
and that benefits no one, least of all you. If, like me, you've managed
to be pretty good at this act of "driving him standard" then go ahead
and give a little less-than. You want him to cum quickly because this is
terrible, but you don't want it to be so good as to give him a great deal of
pleasure because—let's be honest—he doesn't even deserve the half-assed
handjob you're giving him to begin with. In fact, get up. My God, just
get up and leave! Fuck this stupid advice. Be a bettet person than me!
Be stronger. Have more forethought. Get out of there and stop breaking
yourself against the bodies of men who do not deserve your conversation,
your wit, your charm, your expertly skilled palms. Get out now, I beg of
you. Please. Please.
But if you can't, if you're like me and find yourself in this scenario
over and over again for any number of reasons—forgive yourself. Do it
immediately. Let yourself off the hook. Just like that. You're okay. You're
great. I love you. Look in the mirror. I love you. Know that I love you. I
love you.
That night in Henri's bedroom, aftet he cums and I wash my hands,
he gets dressed. I was already dressed. I was still dressed. I never became
dress-less. While I held his dick in my hand and we kissed and he moaned,
I never lost a single article. He tried to go up my dress (but I hadn't
shaved my legs and I was wearing spandex shorts pulled up to my bra,
and let's not forget the all-important—I DIDN'T FUCKING WANT
HIM TO!). He tried to get at my bra, but what was the point, if I didn't
want to take off my dress, I obviously didn't want him inside my bra. And
so I took off nothing, because, aftet all, that was exactly how much I had
wanted to take off.
We returned to the couch and started watching the movie somewhere 73 close to where we had left off. Within minutes, his head was bobbing
forward and then lurching back again like a sea captain asleep at the
wheel. I was hurt, at first, taking his drowsiness as a personal slight, he
obviously didn't like me or my passive-aggressive handjob. Then, I was
irritated because I had wanted to see how the movie ended. Eventually
though, I was saddened that this guy was my dating demographic, and I
was starting to wondet about the genius of women who date young men.
Young men don't fall asleep after cumming. Young men stay awake for as
long as you need. Young men are the future.
But I'm not completely heartless, I knew that he had had this wonderful
release and probably would've given almost anything to be able to go to
sleep. And because, by some miracle of miracles, I actually didn't hate him
yet (how was that even possible?!?). And because I had managed, in the
most fucked up of ways, to view his inability to read my body language and
his aggressive sexual advances on me as signs of uncontrollable attraction
(rather rhan see them for what they really are, which is selfishness and an
intense lack of empathy, not to mention obvious undervaluing of me as
a person)—I said, "I'm going to let you get some sleep," and then patted
his knee. I was thinking myself adorable. I was feeling entirely dominant
after the passive-aggressive handjob. He shattered the delusion within
Honestly, I had expected him to walk me to the bus stop. Not always,
not after every date, but because I didn't know the area, and because I'd
come out all this way, and because he'd just cum all over himself thanks
to me. Instead, I got a few quick directions and barely enough time to
lace up my sandals. Apparently, he had a few passive-aggressive moves of
his own. We kissed each other goodnight (or, maybe I kissed him and he
complied?). Suddenly, everything felt a little off; the power dynamics had
definitely shifted.
I walked to the bus stop with my head held high. I certainly wasn't
going to feel bad if a guy didn't like me because I had given him a handjob
I hadn't wanted to give in the first place. Everything is fine, I thought,
walking the two blocks to my stop. This still counts as a good first date,
nothing to feel too upset over. Maybe he was just tired. Maybe he was
just too relaxed. Maybe he was just a real fucking asshole. Tough to say.
I walked two more blocks, thinking it a little weird that I hadn't yet run
into the street he told me to catch my bus on. I thought about the bagels.
After four more blocks, I started to sweat, wearing a denim jacket for the
sole reason that it looked cute, and not at all because I was cold. My feet
hurt—these were dating sandals not walking sandals.
I continued to walk around for another twenty minutes trying to spot
anything familiar or at least a bus-stop with any kind of numbered route
74 PRISM  54:3 that I recognized. On the brink of angry tears, I caved and took a cab.
When the driver asked, "Where to?" I said Sherbrooke, to which he asked,
"Where to on Sherbrooke?"
"The closest point to us!" I was practically yelling. As a poor grad
student, a taxi ride wasn't how I wanted to spend what few dollars I had. I
figured if I could just get him to take me to a street I knew, I could take a
bus from there and the damage wouldn't be too bad. Ten minutes later he
was dropping me off and while I would've rather spent that $10 on bagels,
it wasn't the worst money I'd ever spent.
Already somewhat hysterical, I got out of the taxi, and was immediately
accosted by a man who gasped in delight and exclaimed, "You look like a
princess!" And perhaps he was just making an accurate assessment. Dressed
in a white lace summer dress, which had mostly managed to avoid peril
at the paws of a dog, I probably did look a bit like a princess. But I didn't
have any more room for this man. I didn't have any space left for men to
take up because they hadn't thought about how their words and presence
were a burden. They had already taken too much. Every date started off so
great, with such high hopes that I might meet a man who could treat me
decently, who wasn't always a hundred percent out for his own interests,
who had even the tiniest bit of empathy for my experience. I didn't have
any more room to give; I was too full of disappointment. I made a noise of
disgust and devastation, a guffaw and sigh so loud it almost hurt, crossed
the street, and hoped he wouldn't follow me.
I never saw Henri again, though he remains on my Facebook. Perhaps
he has clicked unfollow a while ago and thus forgotten that we are even
friends. Perhaps he just wants to see how it all turns out for me. I could
guess forever and still probably never hit the mark. People are, as they
have always been, a goddamn mystery to me. 75 Victoria McArtor
she won't talk about her time in Cuba
or the drugs he cut into her breasts
righr before the colours blurred
passing through his hand like the gray chaos
of a sharp-edged edifice
but she'll say the stint on the steamboat casino
back to Miami made it worth it
she can't remember the moment the chips
began to feel like fortune again
but she has enough
to take her pills with tropical pineapple with umbrella
she won't agree
that Calzada's paintings were of an indifferent blue
but she looks with the same longing
into the past
she kicks the shells until they're
rubbed smooth and cracked open
and she'll talk to a stranger
about the smaller things we use memory for
about her grandmother in Havana
the whole loaf of bread she'd make
with that one whole seed
I'm mad for the way he orders
market-priced food
& the smell off the ocean
& the booze
we've been treating enjoyment
strictly as still life
until I'm finally mad about it
like when he says
/ own you
and I know a little about
how a proprietor views passion
how love
is sometimes an adorned lobster
arriving at our table
propped up and spilling out of a skeleton
with butter to shine the outer parts
like paintings of aristocrats
in fat gold frames
with a sophisticated penchant
for a meal more sweet
than savoty
who went mad when they realized
they were a pretty scene to own
hanging within reach
for hungry days 77 Gains Valerius Catullus
translated by Nathaniel C. Moore
Flavi, delicias tuas Catullo,
ni sint inlepidae atque inelegantes,
velles dicere, nee tacere posses,
verum nescio quid febriculosi
scorti diligis: hoc pudet fateri.
nam te non viduas iacere noctes
nequiquam taciturn cubile clamat
sertis ac Syrio fragrans olivo,
pulvinusque peraeque et hie et ille
attritus, tremulique quassa lecti
atgutatio inambulatioque.
nam nil stupra valet, nihil, tacere.
cur? non tam latera ecfututa pandas,
ni tu quid facias ineptiarum.
quare, quidquid habes boni malique,
die nobis: volo te ac tuos amores
ad caelum lepido vocare versu.
PRISM  54:3 Flavius, unless your delights
were tasteless and mirage,
you missed a poached eggs brunch
seaside and waves crashing with shyness.
Surely you're in love with some mime who
doodles whoredom: you're ashamed to undress it.
Now, walking heavy on eggshells is one thing,
but you don't seem to be idle-handed at night,
we can hear the horns blasting from your bedroom
and the night air fills with your familiar brand
of penny-soaked cologne
the kind ditch diggers save up for!
But miming death to hide away your new love
does nothing for you Flavius. Why?
We know you live somehow, breaking bread
with a fair-headed, motor-mouthed dollop
you bend over a tree branch to kiss.
How slyly you've got her good or drab, tell us.
I want to name you and your love lexically
with ash from this unfortunately close
burning bush.
79 Danielle Burnette
lie breathes Chianti into Camilla, and she ripens, aging past frown
lines and crow's feet until the facade cracks. She sheds it like an outgrown
shell, and her back melds into the stone wall. The stones radiate the day's
leftover heat like a welcome massage. The wall is medieval but he is not,
which is why she agreed to smoke outside with him instead of returning to
her table. But he coughed after one swift drag, and now the cigarette juts
out from a crevice above their heads. She imagines ashes sprinkling her
freshly dyed hair and then one vengeful ember setting it afire. In a way, the
fire would be cleansing. She would no longer need to worry about hiding
the gray, about when Thaddeus will stop looking at her altogether. The
waiter stops kissing and peers at her, at the trails of worry etching her face,
so she presses her mouth to his, takes in his breath once more, and swells
with cherry-sweet youth. He hikes up her dress, the one hubby insisted
she wear, the one as flattering as a tablecloth draping a delicate figurine,
and she remembers when Thaddeus last touched her. Months ago. Then
she tries to forget.
Inside the ristorante, Camilla spots her husband warbling with the band.
The wine lubricating his voice also burnishes his cheeks, and his Santa
beard almost appeats sandy again. He blows her a kiss as she sits at their
table with his brother and new sister-in-law. She asks Camilla, "Where'd
you go?"
"Outside. It's cooler there."
"Thaddeus nearly went looking for you." Her hand swaddles Camilla's
like pressed silk. Her concern fails to wrinkle her youth. "Feeling better?"
Camilla feels her brother-in-law's gaze lingering where it shouldn't.
80 PRISM  54:3 Andrew F. Sullivan
iielen Gruber wakes up at 11 a.m. on the green carpet of her twelfth-
floor suite in a discount hotel in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina,
because all the hotels, inns, and motels in and around the more well-
known Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, are booked solid for the next
two weeks. One of the largest biker gatherings in the wotld is about
to commence and that is one of the very reasons she is in town with a
suitcase full of pills. There is a meeting scheduled in the lobby at noon,
a meeting she can't miss, a meeting that will involve a lot of money for
her boss Andre back home, who spends his days trying to repair washing
machines in his front yard.
Shuttering her eyes against a hangover, Helen discovers an open
window and her latest boyfriend, Cassidy, passed out with that very
suitcase open in front of him on the double bed. Stumbling to her feet,
she steps on a dead pelican at the foot of the bed, its wide bill clogged
with half-digested oxy pills from the empty suitcase. Its eyes are still and
its stomach is bloated.
Down on the beach, there are children running headfirst into the
waves. Helen can hear their screams through the open window. She tries
to break down the sequence of events that led her here, down this path
that somehow ended with over three thousand oxy pills in a dead bird's
gullet. She tries to count the factors on her fingers, the reasons behind this
latest disaster.
There is a lot to remember, but she does not have to include her
The first reason left a distinct impression embedded in her chin, the
reminder from a teetet-totter with no undetstanding of human error.
Blue paint worked its way into the wound while her uncle ran to call an
ambulance. Her fathet attempted to staunch the blood with the sleeve of
his bright white shirt, which quickly bloomed in the afternoon sun. He
threw it in the gaibage afterward.
Helen was five and her eyes had been stuck to the sky, charting the
evolution of clouds from snakes to bus drivers to elephants and back
again. Then a fall and a crack to the chin. The abandoned, bobbing seat
was there to remind her of one fact—to keep her eyes on the ground, to 81 keep her expectations of this world intact. Everything that rises must fall,
especially if your cousin leaps off the other side to chase after an ice-cream
truck. Helen Gruber really should have seen this coming, but this has
always been her flaw—trusting someone else to hold her up, trusting they
won't let her slip.
Larry Myer and Helen drove through the blizzard in '88 after a high school
party at Tommy Hagan's mom's house. The streets were choked with two
feet of wet snow. Larry's hand probed for heat between her thighs, begging
to be let in through all her layers, ro peel her back until she was raw and
new. His left eye was wild from the booze, its pupil unable to focus on
her face. His left eye might have seen the bridge ahead, a support beam
brought low by the weight of the snow. It was his hand though, squeezing
tight against her padded thigh, which told Helen to duck. Larry did not
get that choice, his brain still seeking to unravel Helen into pieces he
could manage.
Helen did not see the transformation of his face, but felt his hot blood
on het cheek, running between the cold touch of snow blown through
the shattered windshield. Larry's hand convulsed a few times around her
thigh after the impact. It lit something inside her, spilled heat out of her
into the frozen dark.
She did not tell that to the paramedics when they pried Larry's fingers
from her bruised thigh. When the doctor asked if she had anything else to
add to her list of injuries or symptoms, she shook her head. Helen Gruber
kept this new secret to herself, swallowing it whole, still breathing. She
had seen what it was to lose somebody, to feel desire even after death.
There was no bright tunnel, just cold after the blood drained out into the
wheel wells. You could watch someone die and feel nothing if you really
tried. You could make yourself colder than the world outside.
There was her first marriage at twenty to Mitch Talcum, who liked to do
push-ups after they fucked, his muscled back rising and falling beside
the bed while she fought off the urge to pee. Mitch liked to fall asleep
beside her and wanted to pretend she didn't produce any waste—no piss
or shit. Women were a different, superior breed, he said. Before their
divorce eight months later, he would give her seven yeast infections and
recommend meditating, acupuncture, kosher salt rubs, steamed onions,
and herbal tea to cure them. Eventually, it was pills from the walk-in clinic
down the road that solved the problem. And the divorce.
PRISM  54:3 Mitch did not like to shower. He believed sweat was the true cleanser
of souls. He wanted to be like Buddha, would tell the other guys on his
landscaping crew that to attain enlightenment they had to give up meat,
give up cheese, and give up leather—nothing deserved to die. He ate
beans and nuts instead, spent every night farting undet the covers until
Helen could not breathe. She wondered if she would suffocate to death
in her sleep, if hell was filled with clouds of noxious fumes or just a man
counting each push-up out loud, keeping track of his progress, keeping
her awake forever. Mitch showed her how to leave, how to walk away,
but she left with an undiagnosed case of human papilloma virus. Helen
Gruber knew she always left too late.
Her mother's funeral after her father left to shack up with her mother's
boss, a woman everyone called Big Frieda, at Nelson, Nelson, and McCaul.
No one called it a suicide, but Helen's mothet left the Dodge Caravan
running inside the family's two-car garage with a Creedence Clearwater
Revival Greatest Hits CD still churning out the jams until a neighbor
cranked opened the door.
They played "Ripple" at the ceremony and a bunch of her aunts wept.
Helen stood outside the slope-backed church and smoked, even though
she did not smoke.
It felt good to struggle for air.
She found Big Frieda's son in a bar that night, talked to him for hours,
threw back shot after shot of tequila while all dressed in black. He told her
about his new career with the local credit union, his time behind the loan
office desk. He told her about hard choices, big decisions that affected a
lot of people, a lot of lives. There were homes, not just houses, you know?
He told her about his divorce at twenty-two, so young, so stupid, and they
both laughed and stumbled out into the parking lot together in the snow.
His ex-wife had caught him due to some text messages, nothing crazy, just
harmless flirting. Helen agreed women were unreasonable. Women could
cause all kinds of problems when they got irrational, irresponsible even.
They always took things the wrong way. Sometimes a man just wanted
some comfort at 2 a.m.
When he slid out of his pants, Helen Gruber threw them out of the
Audi into the snow. He smiled and took off his shirt, buttons popping in
the process. A small swirl of black hair on his chest like a fourteen-year-
old's. A scar running down from his nipple toward his belly button. Helen
didn't ask why. She could see how hard his dick was when she grabbed
the keys from the ignition and slammed the door behind her. She took
his wallet and phone from his pants and disappeared around the comer as 83 he struggled to chase her over the ice, briefs looped down over his skinny
thighs. A couple smokers outside the bar cheered, but no one came to
Helen shoved the phone into a sewer drain. She kept the wallet,
thumbed through receipts for groceries, gin, and a new massage chair.
The wind snatched them and spread each purchase out across the street.
It took all the credit cards out, all the cash too. She didn't bother chasing
the money. Sometimes you had to do these things for yourself. Sometimes
you had to act.
Andre met her at one of his many laundromats, told her she was loading
it all wrong. She should have put the towels in on their own, they took a
lot longer to dry. At first Helen Gruber had assumed the old gray man was
hitting on her, feebly swinging his withered bat at anything that passed
him. He made no move toward her body though. He didn't ask her about
her boyfriend or her children. He told her to use the economy dryers—
they were faster. She wouldn't be stuck here so long. Laundromats could
become depressing places. It wasn't their fault. Not everything washed
out, Andre said, and when he laughed she could see all the spaces between
his teeth.
It was not a date when he called her up to his porch one day, his hands
deep inside a dryer that refused to answer to its permanent press setting.
Andre spotted her from the street lugging a pharmacy case behind her,
another appointment that had ended in raised eyebrows and sighs from
the secretary after she left the doctor's office. The man had only stared at
her while she went through her pitch—his eyes on her teeth, her hair,
her back as she bent to open her black case. Everywhere but her eyes. He
could not meet her gaze. He had nothing to say.
She eventually excused herself and wept in the hall.
On the porch, Andre asked her if she was happy with her job. Asked
her if she wanted to make some real money, not a ton, but cash. Easy cash.
You're a pretty girl, he told her. And I doubt you've ever had a problem
with the police. Tell me that I'm right.
His words were half-English, half-French, but she got the meaning
well enough. She nodded. Andre laughed again, cranking a wrench to
adjust the timer in the drying machine. The old ones can run forever, he
told her. They don'r need any computers. Just gears and a bit of grease.
In a front yard full of lint traps, Andre explained this new job. How
to judge the weight of bills bundled in a plastic bag. How to smile even
when they shorted you. Helen listened to everything the old man said. He
PRISM  54:3 owned seven laundromats and he looked her right in the eye.
The fitst time they shotted her was the day Helen miscatried. It was in
Windsor, in the fall, the city full of dead and dying leaves, and a few kids
still trying to wear t-shirts, their shoulders tucked in like broken wings
against their bodies. She felt the bottom of het gut drop, the blood rising
and twisting her tight inside. Her heart rate accelerated as the woman
across from her in the model home that operated as a front office for this
small organization told her that they only had five grand this week, that
she would have to come back for the rest another time.
Helen smiled, grimaced, and smiled again. Just like Andre had told
her to, back on his porch. The baby was not Andre's, he had never laid a
hand on her, said that he did not mix business and pleasure. Pleasure was
fishing up near Kenora, pleasure was watching his grandkids dive for golf
balls at his son's house in the suburbs. Business was scales and washers and
powder. She was only two months along and it could have been Kevin, his
broad mouth always greeting her in the stairwell. Bottles of wine, fucking
in his twin bed and sleeping on the pull-out couch afterward.
It could have been Damien the plumber, after the third time she called
the landlord about the leaking tub. She was worried about the bathroom
floor collapsing down into the apartment below. They had fucked just once
in her kitchen, hard against the wall, moans bouncing off the backsplash
and the antique gas stove. She never called him back. Deleted his number
There was Mitchell too, every few weeks when she went down to the
Jarhouse and did karaoke, Mariah Carey's "Fantasy" under bright lights
in a medium-sized city, a city just big enough to forget you, but not big
enough to get lost. They only ever went back to his place, ate eggs in the
morning with hot sauce. She always promised to text, to call, to send an
It didn't matter who it came from because it was gone. Helen Gruber
reached under her dress and then placed a bloody hand on the desk
between her and the phony realtor. She left a bloody handprint behind
and said that all the money would have to come in today. The realtor
Helen Gruber had learned to keep her hand steady even when it
dripped with her own loss. 85 VII.
Cassidy fell into her lap at the same laundromat where Andre had found
her counting quarters.
He spit into her mouth the first time they kissed, shoved his tongue
inside and touched all of her teeth. He told her he could not cut it at
the local college, told her he was afraid of going home, afraid of his old
man and the rage inside that clapboard house on the prairie. He drew the
letters for "love" on her back in the mornings and always held her hand
in public. He told her she was beautiful, she was light, she made him feel
strong when he knew he was weak, when the cravings got bad or when
he just wanted to pretend he was somewhere else. Whenever he told her
he wanted to be somewhere else, he always said she was there with him,
staring down the Danube in Budapest, scaling cliffs in Chile, watching
the sun refuse to set in Iceland.
Helen Gruber was nearing forty, the years climbing up her back,
sliding down her cheeks, pulling at the corners of her eyes. All things go,
Andre told her whenever she complained. Cassidy was young, too young,
but he didn't care. She let him sleep in the living room, let him eat the
food from her fridge, watch her cable, run her hot water all day when
she was out. Sometimes she came home to find him passed out in her
bathtub, hot water beating against his red face.
Helen climbed into the tub with her clothes on and held him there
under the water, waiting for him to wake up again, waiting for him to tell
her he would try harder, that he would be better.
She liked the sound of how he lied because she knew he really meant
it in the moment.
Helen Gruber met the bikers when they came up over the bonder for
parties, met them at small taverns in small towns where the police rarely
kept tabs on visitors. Everyone was always passing through, no one
bothered to stay long enough to make an impression.
She had proposed the idea to Andre, after a long night of plotting and
scheming over Labatt 50 and Canadian Club, a long night of navigating
drunk biker eyes and misplaced caresses. She talked through all the
problems with border agents, with a speeding car, with a single woman
travelling alone. She would bring Cassidy. Some people might just mistake
him as her son or nephew. Even better, Andre said. This would be her first
project by herself. He was washing his hands.
Only a couple thousand pills to start on her own. Andre had friends at
the border to help her get across, had his reasons to let Helen fly. He was
86 PRISM  54:3 getting old. He was selling off his assets. The doctors didn't like his blood
pressure, didn't like the diabetes threatening to claim his left foot, maybe
even his leg. Andre told Helen this was her chance to shine, but she still
owed him. This was an investment, not charity. A laundromat empire was
not built on kindness alone.
Before she left with Cassidy in a Honda hatchback Andre had registered
in her name, Helen picked up the phone to call her father. She was not
sure what she would say. Maybe she would mention the seesaw, the car
accident, the taste of smoke after a funeral in the snow. Helen dialed and
hung up, dialed and hung up again. Cassidy waited for her down in the
car, picking his nose with long deep, strokes of his ring finger. He was very
The phone began to ring in her hand, a rattle in her ear. Once,
twice, three times. A click and Big Frieda's voice telling Helen to leave
her information. They would call her back as soon as they had a chance.
Helen listened to the dead ait for a while, let her mouth linger on the
receiver. She waited for the line to go dead. She waited for someone to tell
her this was wrong.
Helen Gruber has finished counting fingers. She kneels down beside the
dead pelican in her hotel room, its swollen body reeking of death and fish.
The two smells belong togethet. Everything ends up in the ocean in the
end. She pulls a metal nail file out of her bag on the floor and balances it
on her fingers as the hangover bulges behind her eyes, makes her shake,
makes her throat fill with a small lake of bile that eventually retreats. There
are still children screaming outside, but they sound more like music. Their
voices haven't grown deep yet, haven't curdled into something vile. The
light outside is pink and warm.
Helen bends down and slides the sharp file into the dead bird's large
stomach. Cassidy remains useless on the bed, a mass of sweat and tangled
hair. She pushes the dull blade through feather and skin and intestine into
the distended stomach. She peels the abdomen open like a boiled egg and
finds the damp pills clogging the hot insides of the bird, some partially
Helen begins to empty the fat bind out into a plastic zippered bag, eyes
watering. She does not ask why. She has a meeting downstairs in forty-five
minutes and her hands are steady, assured. She is poised and calm. Helen
Gruber has learned not to ask why bad things happen.
The pelican could not tell her anyway. 87 NeilSurkan
With the butt end of a broom,
she prodded a hornet's nest
off the underside of the eaves.
Having caught the rewed-up orb
in a microwave box, and folded
the flaps over like a surgeon
restitching an abdomen,
she watched her face skim our benumbed town
through the window of a cab.
Let out early at Jemyn and Main,
she crossed while the light was stale green
and hurried into the library.
Like a tiny mob of vuvuzelas,
the box trembled and whined.
Veering down EROTICA/
she unpeeled the X of tape,
heeled the swarm in,
and left it to fizz.
We were veeing the verdigris East Tuchodi,
lines slinking underneath
the wake, beer caps unseizing when cocked
between teeth, ZZ Top haw
hawing, Tostitos,
Beef Jerky, Nibs, grey
doobie piddling out. A sparkly
dildo tucked in the icebox
getting flopped around, bro, fuck off!
Throw that thing away.
Then I spotted a chocolate neck
straining across our path—
cow moose, aimed at a sctatch
of rushes—panting from swim, head
steady enough to perch a shot glass
on, trunk bench-wide and flat.
Why not? I pointed her out
and we whooped over. She lolled
in our boat's suds—close enough
to plunk down on her back.
The boys loved it. I rode her until
she'd almost drowned. I slid to the right then
and starfished under that northern sky.
My life, so much of her getting done.
She waded to the edge and shook off,
swaddled in marsh weed, then leaned
against a pine. She seemed smaller—unsteady-
but totally fine.
After the YouTube clip "moose rider. " 89 CONTRIBUTORS
Adele Barclay's poems have appeared in The Pinch, The Puritan,
The Fiddlehead, Cosmonauts Avenue, Poetry Is Dead, and othets. Her
forthcoming debut collection, If I Were In A Cage I'd Reach Out For You
(Nightwood, 2016), was shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award.
Danielle Burnette lives in Northern California. Her short fiction has
recently appeared in Soundings Review and Lunch Ticket. She is also
the author of The Spanish Club, a coming-of-age novel set in Mexico.
Between penning more works of short fiction, she is working on her next
novel. Visit her at
Gaius Valerius Catullus was a Latin poet of the late Roman Republic.
Tom Cho is writing a novel about the meaning of life. His fiction
collection, Look Who's Morphing, was published in North America and
Australia, and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best
First Book. Tom's stories have been published widely, most recently in
Electric Literature's Recommended Reading. Visit him at
Phedra Deonarine's work has appeared in Indiana Review and The
Golden Key, among others. She was longlisted for a CBC Literary Award
for Fiction. She is completing her first collection of shorr fiction, Fishing
with Uncle Chocolate.
Nandini Dhar is the author of the chapbook Lullabies Are Barbed Wire
Nations (Two of Cups, 2014). Her poems have or will appear in Potomac
Review, PANK, Los Angeles Review, and more. She hails from Kolkata,
India, works as an Assistant Professor of English at Florida International
Univeristy, and co-edits the journal Elsewhere.
Warren Heiti lives in Halifax, where he teaches literature and philosophy
at the University of Kings College. He is the author of Hydrologos (Pedlar
Press, 2011) and co-editor of Chamber Music: The Poetry of Jan Zwicky
(Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2015).
Danny Jacobs' poems have been published in a variety of journals across
Canada. His first book, Songs That Remind Us of Factories (Nightwood,
2013) was shortlisted for the 2014 Acorn-Plantos Award. A chapbook,
Loid, is out January 2016 with Frog Hollow Press. He lives with his wife
in Riverview, NB.
Kirya Marchand is a Montreal poet who works with the Montreal
Biodome and exotic veterinary clinic. Her work has appeared in Grain,
The Antigonish Review, and others, and was featured in Best of Canadian
Poetry 2012 (Tightrope Books).
90 PRISM  54:3 Jacob McArthur Mooney's books are The New Layman's Almanac
(McClelland & Stewart, 2008), Folk (M&S, 2011) and Don't Be
Interesting (M&S, 2016). Folk was a finalist for the Dylan Thomas Prize
and the Trillium Award in Poetry.
Victoria McArtor holds an MFA from Oklahoma State, works for a
residential mortgage team, and serves on the board of directors for Camp
Fire, a nonprofit youth organization. Her book Reverse Selfie is coming
Nathaniel G. Moore is the author of Savage (winner of 2014 ReLit
Award for best novel) and Let's Pretend We Never Met (2007).
Julie Paul's second book of short fiction, The Pull of the Moon (Brindle &
Glass), was recently awatded an IPPY award and the 2015 Victoria Butler
Book Prize. One of her poems was shortlisted for Arc's Poem of the Year
in 2015 and new poems are forthcoming in Queen's Quarterly.
Liza Porter's work has been published in literary magazines and
anthologies, and her essays listed as Notable in Best American Essays.
Her poetty chapbook Red Stain was published by Finishing Line Press
in 2014. She received the 2009 Mary Ann Campau Memorial Poetry
Fellowship from the University of Arizona Poetry Center. Visit her at
Andrew F. Sullivan is the author of the novel WASTE (Dzanc Books,
2016) and the short story collection All'We-Want is Everything (ARP Books,
2013), a Globe and Mail Best Book. His short stories have appeared in
places like Hazlitt, The New Quarterly, Little Brother, and Grain.
Neil Surkan is in his second year of the MA in English in the field of
Creative Writing at the University of Toronto. His chapbook, Snarl, was
published by Oakpress in 2011.
Writer. Dater. Masturbator. Victoria Young's piece, "How to Have a Fake
Affair with a Real Celebrity," was shortlisted for PRISMs 2015 Creative
Nonfiction Prize. She has recently finished her first collection of short
stories, Love Poems for Butchers, likely to be released in 2016.
Russell Wangersky is a writer and newspaper columnist from St. John's,
NL. His work ranges from short stoty collections to memoir, and he
has been recognized as a Scotiabank/Gillet finalist (for the short story
collection Whirl Away) and as winner of the British Columbia National
Non-Fiction Prize (for Burning Down the House: Fighting Fires and Losing
Myself. One of his first published works, the creative non-fiction piece
"Mechanics of Injury," appeared in PRISM. Russell's newest collection of
short stories, The Path of Most Resistance, will be published in the fall of
2016. 91 - % DAY =
2 @Hd
This annual contest from Contemporary Verse 2 (CV2)
challenges you to write an original poem in 48 hours -
with only one catch. The final poem must include ten
words that we provide. These words will be released
at midnight CDT on Friday April 8, 2016, leaving you 48
hours to use each of them at least once in an original
poetry composition. Prizes include cash, publication,
and a copy of the issue containing the winners, not to
mention a whole weekend of wordy entertainment.
Write under pressure
Win great prizes
Contest runs the weekend of April 9-10, 2016
Register by April 4, 2016 to participate
for contest details THE IMPRESSMENT GANG
Halifax • NS
www. theimpressmentgang. ca
*     IN YOU TOO!
ubc bookstor k
uititifiQ -Pho/yi.l.
cotite at UBC
Eleven Genres Of Study | On-Campus or Online | All Levels
Write and learn on our breathtaking campus in Vancouver,
Canada, one of the world's most livable cities. Or participate in
a vibrant online community from wherever you live. UBC offers
world-class creative writing programs at the BFA and MFA level,
on-campus and by Distance Education. Join us.
Annabel Lyon
Keith Maillard
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Maureen Medved
Deborah Campbell
Susan Musgrave
Kevin Chong
Andreas Schroeder
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id PRINTING LTD    Call Toll-free 1-888-478-5553 PRISM is contemporary writing
Adele Barclay
Danielle Burnette
Gaius Valerius Catullus
Tom Clio
Phedra Deonarine
Nandini Dhar
Warren Heiti
Danny Jacobs
Kirya Marchand
Jacob McArthur Mooney
Victoria McArtor
Nathaniel G. Moore
Julie Paul
Liza Porter
Andrew E Sullivan
Neil Surkan
Russell Wangersky
Victoria Young
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