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Automated Writing by Max Blue

AUTOMATED WRITING by Max Blue

 

George Kovacs, Opus, and the Author Software

From the Journal of Virtual Literacy, Issue 16, May 2001


 

 

In late 1998, an American computer programmer teaching at the University of Moscow began writing a novel. After only six months the novel was completed, and published in the Fall of 1999 to nearly universal critical acclaim. The novel was the four-hundred-and-ten-page Opus by George Kovacs.

 

The scandal around the authorship of the novel that followed the 2000 literary award season has been recounted elsewhere but put simply: George Kovacs was not the true author of Opus, though attributing the novel to anyone else is difficult and has become the center of much scholarly debate. Kovacs would tell you that he never has been, and still isn’t, a novelist (though of course he would have told you just the opposite at the time Opus was first published and garnered him nearly every literary award in Europe and the Americas (the reception of the novel across Asia has been markedly lukewarm)). These contradictions and complications arise from the fact that what George Kovacs wrote was not a novel, but a computer program called Author, capable of generating works of literary fiction.

 

I reached out to Kovacs for the purposes of this article, and he agreed to meet with me in a public park in San Francisco, where he is currently living. Although I had not seen him in more than a year, when he was last in California on a book tour, the moment I spotted him, hunched on a park bench babbling to himself, I knew immediately that it was him. There is a mark of someone’s undying person to be found always around the eyes: The rest of him was so drastically altered that it would have been difficult to locate the man in any other part of his being. He wore a shabby green greatcoat of the quilt-like material often seen in ski advertisements in the backs of old men’s magazines, and his hair, which had always been long, tangled with a wild beard that had previously been absent from his face.

 

Kovacs did not know me by sight, and he was noticeably skittish when I approached him, requiring me to state and restate my name, and answer several more security-type questions, before moving over to make room for me on the bench beside him. He refused to be recorded by tape, but paused frequently during our conversation in order for me to scribble quotes by shorthand. Despite these difficulties getting started, Kovacs proved eager to share his story with me, and displayed a great working knowledge of narrative as he rambled on for a total of three-and-a-half hours. His mannerisms were agitated and he spoke with a stutter, the former being a lifelong characteristic, while the latter was perhaps the result of his recent ordeals. 

 

Kovacs began by telling me that there were two motivations that drove him to write the software: “fear and love.”

 

The fear Kovacs referred to was the mounting cultural hypochondria concerning the then-impending turn of the millennium, to which he himself had fallen prey as early as the late 1980s when he was a PhD student at the University of Zurich, studying computer science. A regular topic of conversation in those days was something referred to at the time as “the year 2000 problem,” or, more commonly, Y2K. The issue was a software bug that would supposedly inhibit computers from accurately displaying date-times after the turn of the millennium, which led some to hypothesize the global crash of computer networks at midnight on January 1, 2000. By the early 90s, Kovacs was in a full-blown panic; by the mid-90s he was working avidly to think of a solution. Rather than putting his efforts into redesigning computer coding, as other engineers and computer scientists were doing at the time, Kovacs was thinking of grand ways to use technology while he still had the chance, thoroughly convinced that the impending software crash would set the world of technology back by rendering computers useless.

 

As for the love half of the equation, it was in 1985, as an undergraduate in California, a time of popped collars and sorority socials, that Kovacs had, by some measure of accident, become infatuated with literature. This accident occurred in the form of an elective course taken during his senior year with one professor Eugene Erasmus, whose emphasis was experimental poetry, specifically automatic writing and the work of Jackson Mac Low. Erasmus’s lectures were often cluttered with overly political nonsense, as far as Kovacs was concerned, and many afternoons, as the sun traversed a delicate arc outside the classroom window and warmed his desk, Kovacs found himself dozing. It was one day near the end of the semester when Erasmus set forth a hypothesis that caught Kovacs’s attention.

 

Every book, Erasmus postulated, was the product of a simple equation: Each book that writer had previously read plus lived experience. If you were to feed the same books and the same experiences into a blank human consciousness, the same book would pop out the other end every time. Erasmus wrote on the blackboard an equation so simple and elegant it had stuck with Kovacs ever since: A + B = A∪B.

 

After that, Kovacs developed a voracious reading habit, less a matter of pleasure so much as it was conquest. If Erasmus’s equation was true, Kovacs believed that there must exist the perfect sequence of inputs necessary to produce the perfect output: The epitome of literary fiction; the Platonic novel. No matter how widely Kovacs read, every book left him with something still to be desired, some part of his mind unsated. Surely, he figured, this could be attributed to some break in the sequence of experience plus books ingested: Perhaps the writer had read all the right things, but their born circumstances were wrong; or they were born in the perfect setting to become a great novelist, but only read comic books. In other words, the great inhibitor of the perfect novel that Kovacs identified was chance. So, he set out to eliminate the variable.

 

“The major problem I identified,” Kovacs told me, “is that no one can read everything. There isn’t enough time. Ideally, in order to produce the perfect novel, the novelist would read everything that had come before. That would be the only way to get a clear idea of what came next.”

 

After ten years of reading and thinking (thus far, the work of the average novelist) he departed from this standard path. He never wrote a word. Instead, he wrote lines of code necessary to produce the right words.

 

Completed in early 1998, the Author software was ready to execute its two primary functions. First, Kovacs instructed Author to read every major novel of the last three hundred years. Running this sequence took about three months, during which the software ran continuously, extracting and compiling information on history’s great novels, arranging and examining the books as a sequence of information, the same way similar programs can analyze a numerical sequence and predict the next number in that sequence. The result was an aggregate of the books’ similarities and differences, which could then be used to predict the next great novel in the sequence. Writing that novel was the second application Kovacs instructed Author to perform. This took another two months.

 

“The computer running Author was connected to a printer,” Kovacs said, “and each day, at the end of the day, another two or three pages of the manuscript would emerge. I had high hopes for the novel based on the very first page I read, and I would rush back home every night to read what had been printed that day, hoping it hadn’t suddenly gone off the rails. It was an agonizing period. But then one day it was finished. A page emerged from the printer, and halfway down the page there were the words: The End.”

 

Kovacs said he read back through the entire manuscript in a single sitting. By dawn, he told me, he felt certain that he was holding in his hands the greatest novel he had ever read. The only thing missing from the manuscript was a title and authorial attribution. Kovacs decided on Opus as a sort of joke and signed his own name to it. Then, he began querying literary agents.

     

Anticipating that Opus would be met with the rejection that seemed to him part and parcel of the experience of creating a great work of art, Kovacs submitted the manuscript to over one-hundred literary agents. Instead of being turned down, he was offered representation by multiple agents within twenty-four hours. Once he signed with the Lipman Agency in New York, it took less than a week before a bidding war began between publishers for the rights to the manuscript. The exact figure paid for the book, which was disclosed during the lawsuit following the revelation of Kovacs’s fraudulence, was something to the tune of ten-million dollars. Following publication, Kovacs took a sabbatical from his post at the University of Moscow in order to travel for a robust book tour, projected to last a full year, with the possibility of an extension.

 

And yet, around the time of the publication and rampant success of Opus, Kovacs had become embroiled in a potentially cataclysmic dilemma away from the public eye.

 

Kovacs’s publisher had contracted a follow-up to Opus on the merit of the first manuscript, and Kovacs had brashly promised to deliver a first draft of his second novel by early 2000. “It was the middle of 1999 when I signed that contract,” Kovacs told me, “and my plan was to run the Author program again, and produce a second manuscript. That way, when all the computers crashed on January 1, I would have my second book ready to go.” Following the publication of his second novel, Kovacs imagined retiring from both the academic and literary worlds, settling somewhere quiet with the small fortune he would have amassed.

 

“I set Author up to execute the two-part sequence while I was on my first leg of the book tour,” Kovacs said. “There was a week or two around Christmas and New Years that I didn’t have any events scheduled, that I would fly back to Moscow and see what Author had written. Then, I would dismantle everything before the new year.”

 

But when Kovacs returned to Moscow as planned in December of 1999, what he discovered shocked him. Author had successfully produced a second manuscript of four-hundred-and-ten-pages, but the contents were illegible, the shapes arranged on the pages appearing to be some kind of hieroglyphics or character-based alphabet Kovacs did not recognize. He spent the first half of the Christmas break in the university library, trolling through hundreds of linguistics textbooks, examining every logographic language he could find, but none were an exact match for the text Author had produced.

 

With only a few days to go before the year 2000, Kovacs downloaded the digital file of the manuscript from Author and sent it in an encrypted email to Phillip Lissitzky, a fellow professor (linguistics) at the University of Moscow, and a friend. Lissitzky responded within the hour.

 

Incredible, he wrote. The text bears some similarities to a South American written dialect that hasn’t been in use since before the arrival of the Spanish. It is a tribal dialect, only nameable by its own system of writing. I cannot read it, but I might know someone who can. Julianna Escobar is a linguistics professor at UNAM. I have attached her contact information here. Where did you find the text?

 

Kovacs invented some source for the manuscript, but waited to contact Escobar.

 

It was now New Year’s Eve, 1999, and, without a clear path forward, he began hoping that after the turn of the millennium the jig would be up, that he could safely reveal the true author of Opus, and the novel would come to be regarded as one of the last great advances of the bygone computer age. This would simultaneously excuse him from any fraudulent claims regarding the authorship of Opus and absolve him from the expectation to pen a second novel. But, as we now know, the millennium turned, and little changed.

     

“I was really starting to lose it,” Kovacs told me. “I knew I couldn’t actually write a novel. I mean, that was totally out of the question.”

 

Kovacs began writing a software patch that might enable Author to perform the translation of the manuscript into English, or possibly Spanish. He worked like a man possessed (his turn of phrase), and in late January, 2000, Kovacs ran the patch through Author. The software responded with an error message.

 

Kovacs reached out to Escobar. After a few brief exchanges, he agreed to send her the manuscript, which the linguist displayed an eagerness to attempt translating.

 

“Agreeing to this proposal,” Kovacs said, “was my first mistake. But I was in too deep.”

    

 For the next few weeks he got radio silence from Mexico. During this time, Kovacs resumed traveling for his book tour.

 

When Escobar reached out again, contacting Kovacs by telephone at a hotel he was staying at in Berlin, it was to inform him that she had met with a number of fellow linguistic scholars in Mexico City and wanted, if Kovacs would agree, to develop a small task-force to translate the text.

 

“I was desperate,” Kovacs explained, “to get the book translated into English so I could give it to my publisher. I didn’t even want to repeat what I’d managed to do with the first book anymore, I just wanted to deliver on my deadline and wash my hands of the whole thing.”

 

In order to begin, Escobar told him, she and her team needed to know the manuscript’s origin. Kovacs was in a bind. He understood that it was paramount to an accurate translation that the translators be let in on his secret, but he wasn’t sure he could even trust the professor, let alone the dozens of other scholars who would be involved in the process. Kovacs decided that he had no choice but to tell them everything, but told Escobar that he could only do so once he had met the team in person.

     

“We’re eager to get started,” Escobar said in an email dated March 2, 2000. Sighting medical complications, Kovacs cut his book tour short and flew direct from London to Mexico City on March 3.

     

“I had no idea what I was dealing with,” Escobar told me by telephone when I reached her in Mexico City for comment. “Obviously it was some ancient logographic language, but no one on my team could place it beyond having South American origins. Past that, we really had no idea. We’re making a little more headway now, but it’s too soon to tell if we’ll actually be able to decode anything substantial.”

     

Kovacs’s arrival in Mexico City was kept secret to the extent that, according to him, he slept on a cot in Escobar’s faculty office at the University in order to avoid registering his name at any hotel. Kovacs met with the team of translators on March 4 and, in a discreet conversation with Escobar, revealed his predicament. Escobar agreed to keep the secret of the Author software, but asked Kovacs if he understood that she would have to share the information with her team. He said he did, and the two drew up nondisclosure agreements for everyone on the team to sign. Kovacs canceled the rest of his book tour and stayed on in Mexico City at Escobar’s request to assist with the translation process in a consultation capacity.

     

“There really wasn’t anything for me to do,” Kovacs said. “Every night I slept on this cramped cot in that woman’s office and every day I would go into the research facility where the team was working and just hang around. No one ever asked me anything. They were all so busy and excited and academic and utterly stupid. I saw clearly, much more clearly than they did, how the whole thing was a fool’s errand.”

 

In August of 2000, Kovacs was hospitalized in Mexico City with severe ulcers. The following month, he flew back to Moscow to recuperate at home.

 

“At this point I knew it was hopeless,” Kovacs said. “I knew that Author couldn’t perform the translation, and Escobar and her team weren’t making any headway, and the whole thing was going to kill me.”

 

Kovacs called Escobar and told her to hang up the project, to which the linguist adamantly refused.

 

“It had become, for me, a scientific matter,” Escobar explained when I asked her about her transgression against Kovacs’s wishes. “There was no way I was going to stop just because of that man’s defeatist attitude. We had separate interests, and separate problems.”

 

That same week, Kovacs was awarded three major literary awards. He was absent from all three award ceremonies. This absence, and rumors circulating of his declining health, attracted the attention of the press. Kovacs, unsure of how to proceed and beginning to panic, did not leave his apartment for three weeks, ceasing all communication with the outside world, except his doctor, who continued to fill prescriptions for increasingly more powerful antidepressants and painkillers.

 

Near the end of September, an anonymous source on Escobar’s team leaked the secret of Opus’s production to the panel of the Berlin Award, and the linguistic mystery of the second manuscript to the Associated Press.

 

“To keep this secret means to go against everything I believe in,” the whistleblower said in a statement, citing “good scholarship” and “authorial integrity”.

 

“The funny thing,” Kovacs said, “is that I can’t blame them. In all likelihood, I would have done the exact same thing if I were in their position. I know how difficult it can be to watch one of your peers enjoy success.”

 

But once the truth about the Author software had been revealed, Kovacs’s success was not long for this world: Every literary prize he had been awarded was revoked, and a debate sprang up as to whether or not the prizes should be re-awarded to the Author software itself (a debate that is still underway at the time of this publication); Kovacs’s publishing contracts were voided, with both publishers citing his knowing infringement of the plagiarism clauses therein, and he was sued for the generous advances they had given him at signing. Kovacs’s busy schedule over the last year had prevented him from spending much of the money, which he readily returned. He weathered all of these setbacks surprisingly well, saying in a public statement that everything he had been forced to relinquish were things he had never expected to attain in the first place.

 

“All the while,” he told me “I was secretly hoping that the computer science community would sort of save me, that at least they would still recognize my innovation and redeem me of the whole scandal.”

 

But when Kovacs was fired from the University of Moscow in late 2000, he realized the naivety of this expectation. In January of 2001, his Russian visa was revoked.

 

Following these losses and his excommunication from the literary and academic industries, Kovacs returned to California. He drifted between family and friends’ homes for a few months, before settling in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the status of his housing and employment remain unclear. When I asked him about his prospects, Kovacs said, “It’s obvious no one will ever hire me again, at least not in any legal enterprise.”

 

Whether or not this means that Kovacs could – or has – found employment carrying out illicit activities is unsubstantiated, but the demand for competent computer programmers in international espionage has only grown in recent years and it is easy to imagine ways in which a sequencing software such as Author could be extremely useful for predicting the outcomes of something decidedly non-literary, such as military action. One can only imagine that the price a government or foreign interest would be willing to pay for such a software would well exceed even the most robust publishing contract. But this is merely speculation.

 

A Russian Intelligence raid of Kovacs’s vacated Moscow apartment turned up five laptop computers and one mainframe hard drive, none of which contained any trace of the Author software. Kovacs claimed to have destroyed the program before leaving the country, though it is possible that traces remain.

 

“When you work on something for so long,” Kovacs said, “it becomes a part of you.”

 

Even if the Author software no longer exists, the outstanding question now is how the product of its brief existence has already irreparably impacted literature. Both the North American and European publishers of Opus have made public statements claiming that they will no longer print the book, while several libraries around the world have issued contradictory statements that they will continue to make the novel available as an historical and scholarly document. Opus is being used as a sort of Rosetta Stone in the effort to translate Author’s second manuscript, which has become an international endeavor headed by Escobar.

 

It is, of course, too soon to tell how Opus has actually impacted novels and novelists themselves. Since no human writer is capable of working with the speed and diligence of the Author software, we have yet to see what a novel written post-Opus actually looks like. Surely, some writers will attempt to outcompete the program, while others will see the status of Opus as a defeat and hang up their literary ambitions. Still others will not have read the book at all – some will have managed to miss it altogether – and go on writing with no sense of comparison whatsoever. As Kovacs himself pointed out, it is impossible for a writer to read everything. But I am sure that the works of literature to come – those which result from the reading of Opus and those that do not – will be the ultimate proof of Kovacs’s hypothesis that greatness can be reduced to the most recent entry in a sequence. Or perhaps his theory will be disproved by a deviation from the sequence so great and unexpected it could not be anticipated by the Author software or any other computer program: The result of chance.

 


 

Julian Berlinsky, San Francisco

 


Max Blue writes about the visual arts and modern culture. His criticism has appeared in SF Weekly, the San Francisco Examiner, and Art Practical, among others. His fiction has appeared in Your Impossible Voice and Mount Hope Magazine, among others. He lives in San Francisco.

Heavy-Set: A Fairy Tale by Jude Dexter

Heavy-Set: A Fairy Tale by Jude DeXter 

 


Trigger Warning(s): Body Shaming, Homophobic Language; Child Abuse


When he sat in the dirt and picked at the worms, his grandmother would kick at his fat thigh with her toe, nicking it with the yellow toenail that hung over her shoe, and say, “Git from there, boy. You’ll mess your clothes and eye ain’t fixin to do a load today” and when he went running through the weeds in the backyard, his skin damp and salty-sweet, sweat pooling under his breasts, she would holler across the yard from the back porch, “Don’t you dare come in this house with no bugs stuck to you or eye’ll tan you!”

 

She would swat the back of his hand if he reached for a cookie in the icebox and would throw all the food away before he could get himself seconds, scolding, “You’re getting fat, Jeb boy, looking like a big ole hog, eating all these sweets and drinking all those Coke-colas,” poking at the folds of fat beneath his dirty shirt with her spatula or with her fan. He believed her when she told him this; the children his age snorted like new piglets at him, and if both his grandmother and his classmates thought he was fat, it must be so. And really, Jeb reasoned, he could not see himself, except when he looked in mirrors, and even then he worried he was not getting a full picture; so maybe it was true—he was husky, heavy-set; his grandmother hissed it like a swear word.

 

And so the grandmother punished his fatness and his dirtiness and his sweatiness, as if she hated the stinking grime that could not be scrubbed from his body no matter how hard she tried. If he ruined his clothes or got the new rug dirty or spoiled his appetite by sneaking a Little Debbie cake or belched or sweat through Sunday clothes, she would swat at the back of his legs with the square blue fly swatter that hung near her stove.

 

Though the women in her church knew her as a lady who never had a run in her pantyhose and whose Bible was worn from use, privately she was a mean woman, with a voice like a grinding hacksaw. She was very ugly and she always wore dresses instead of pants because her left leg swelled; the boy did not know how old she was but was convinced that, however old she was, her meanness would keep her alive forever. She was fervent in reading her Bible and praying and told Jeb that, in punishing him so severely, she was teaching him the way of the Lord. “Spare the rod,” she would chant at him while whipping him. “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” She would whip him hard or soft, depending on the crime: a sliver of a rip in his new britches earned him only a paddle that ended quickly enough but a smelly belch in front of the minister earned him a wallop that left his legs red and fat with welts. “Eye won’t be the laughingstock of my church because my own family doesn’t know how to behave in front of the pastor!” she screamed at him once. “Eye made that mistake with your daddy!”

 

She liked to bring up Jeb’s father often. She never said anything nice about him; she would usually tell people he was dead, even though he wasn’t; he was living two towns over, on Route 5, with a woman Jeb did not know but had seen once, when she peered at him through the window of the car the day Jeb’s father left him, promising to come back after the weekend was through. Jeb was five then. She did not know that Jeb even existed, his grandmother told him, you could tell it by her face. Jeb’s father was too ashamed of his mistakes. “She’d run screaming if she knew,” his grandmother wagered. Jeb thought she was pretty enough; he wondered if she was nice. He thought about her often. She’s not heavy-set, he thought to himself, so that must be what she don’t like, staring down at himself. Heavy-set, she called him, as if it were the most unfortunate fate a boy could suffer.

 

That next year, as Jeb turned nine, the grandmother died, clutching her chest while bathing, and he found her in dirty water up to her saggy breasts, her eyes staring blankly at him, her jaw slack. Jeb ran to a neighbor’s house who phoned the police and gave Jeb a Coke and cookies while they wheeled her out. Jeb did not cry at her funeral; he only noticed how bloated she looked. She would have hated the dress her sister chose for her. That dress always made her look heavy-set, she’d say.

 

So Jeb went to live with his father, who agreed, rather reluctantly, to take him in. He had heard his father talking with his new girlfriend, who had introduced herself as Brandi with an I.

 

“You have to take him, Leroy, he’s your boy!” She had a thick Southern accent that made her sound stupid but Jeb imagined that she was plenty smart. She was very pretty.

 

“My aunt Beverly agreed to take Jeb-boy in for a while. I’m just not fit to be a father.” Jeb had only met Beverly once at the funeral.

 

“He’s your son!” Brandi repeated and later she took him out for ice cream to try to explain. “Your daddy’s just a hardworking man, is all. He loves you so much. He thinks you’ll be happier this way.”

 

“I know how much he loves me,” Jeb said plainly, which was to say not at all.

 

But then, after a few days, Jeb’s father relented. Jeb did not know what had happened, except maybe Brandi had talked some sense into him. He would learn later that when his mama’s will was read, Jeb’s daddy found out that she had set up a rather large trust for him, with payments to whomever took care of Jeb until he was 18.

 

Jeb’s father had a rather large farm out on Route 5 and to tend it, he paid some of the little neighbor kids a dollar a day to pick the cotton, which was grueling work indeed. Jeb watched them from the window as they’d move down the rows of white fluffy cotton. Some of them were only a few years older than him, had dropped out of school to go to work and support their parents. Picking cotton required you to firmly grasp the entire boll and pull or else you would leave some behind. Jeb’s daddy would holler at them if they left any behind and they’d have to rework that row while the other kids got to go home.

 

Jeb’s father also owned several chickens, and Brandi did an excellent job cooking their eggs for different meals. Jeb ate and ate and Brandi would smile at him. She didn’t make him feel gluttonous, neither did she call him heavy-set. She’d just look at his empty plate worriedly and say, “Are you still hungry, Jeb-boy, there’s plenty!” But before he could move, she was on her feet, scooping more eggs and fresh bacon onto his plate. He wasn’t heavy-set here. He wasn’t whipped when he got dirty. He didn’t have to sit in no smelly old church. He was afraid to pass gas in front of Brandi because she was so pretty but once it happened on accident and she exploded with laughter.

 

Jeb liked to watch the chickens strut about. When he first arrived, they would stroll up to him, curious, and inspect the new boy. He would pet them and they were really very nice to him. One of them he named Betty Chicken and he loved her the most. She had beautiful white feathers and a vivid crimson orange beak and dainty feet. Jeb thought she laid the most delicious eggs and he would go out to the coop to pet her and hold her like a baby and thank her for the delicious food; he did not know they were her babies. He would grab extra grain from the feed bag and feed her by hand, which Jeb’s father hated; he warned Jeb that once chickens got too fat, they weren’t good for laying anymore and could lose him money.

 

Jeb took a liking to Betty because she was heavy-set like him. He had heard his father use this exact word one morning. He was helping his father clean their cages, which meant you had to scrub their shit and dried blood and dirty feathers. It took several hours and made you stink but Jeb wanted Betty’s home to look nice for her.

 

When Jeb’s father picked Betty up to take her out, he whistled and said “Goddamn, Miss Betty, you sure are getting to be a little heavy-set girl.” But he didn’t spit it at Betty the way Jeb’s grandmother would hiss that word at him. It seemed to be almost desirable. I’m heavy-set, Jeb said to his reflection, whistling like his father did.

 

He loved Betty and took extra care of her. He’d feed her extra every morning so she could maintain her voluptuous figure. He rigged up a leash so he could walk her but she took such a liking to him that, before long, he didn’t need to use her leash; she would just follow right behind him, waddling after him. He would read to her the books Brandi helped him pick out and he painted her picture with the watercolors Brandi wanted him to have.

 

Jeb’s father had fought that one. “He ain’t fixing to lounge around all day paintin’ like some queer. He’ll work in the field soon as he gets a little taller and can see over the stalks.” But Jeb continued to paint and Brandi hung his pictures of Betty in her room.

 

“Always that damn chicken,” his father said disapprovingly. Jeb was spying on them as he often did and he saw his father shaking his head at the chicken painting. Jeb had several times noticed his father watching as he fed Betty or walked her or petted her, staring disapprovingly at the two of them.

 

“He’s just lonely,” Brandi said.

 

“Plentya other playmates than that goddamn fat chicken.”

 

And every few days when he would see Betty, Jeb’s father would lick his lips at her and whistle at her, “Goddamn Miss Betty you sure are getting nice and plump!” Like it was a good thing. So Jeb kept feeding her and petting her. His heavy-set girl.

 

Jeb’s father tried to convince him to play a sport, or work in the field, or hunt like Jeb’s father did. He offered to take him fishing or to take him to church so he “could get some pretty girls” although he wasn’t sure what to do with them after he got them. Jeb’s father bought him a small gun and made him wake up at the crack of dawn to go shoot small fowl like pigeons or doves; sometimes he’d shoot a squirrel or rabbit. He liked it enough not to make a fight but when he got home, he’d march out to Betty’s cage with a book or with his kills so he could show her the tiny animals wrapped up in paper for Brandi to cook. He always made sure Betty had enough to eat and he’d lie back and talk to her.

 

Soon Jeb tired of being forced to go hunting. It hurt his knees and his back and he didn’t want to stand all day or traipse out into the mud to retrieve the poor dying animal. He hated the metal smell of the blood, and the cold of the early morning, and the long walks while his father talked about hunting. He would always lie around with Betty afterwards. She’d poke about the yard and when she got close to him, she’d stop for a pet. He started spending all his time trying to teach her how to walk backwards and to play a tiny piano he had found at a yard sale. He knew he could do it: he was an excellent trainer of course but Betty was smart.

 

This infuriated Jeb’s father. One afternoon, when they came back, Jeb went to wash up for dinner while Brandi cooked. He wanted to say hi to Betty but he had to shower first, as he was covered with blood and guts. He had caught a fat rabbit and was excited for Brandi to cook it.

 

He ate quickly. After he bathed, he saw that his father had fixed up the rabbit he brought home with a nice sauce of onions and peppers fresh from their garden. Sautéed, Brandi called it. The dead rabbit laid in small, pale pink pieces on their dinner table. Jeb’s father tore into it ravenously, even before grace had been said, and Jeb noticed that Brandi kept her eyes on her plate. Throughout most of the dinner, she was silent. Brandi did not even laugh at him when Jeb shoved two small bones under his lip and pretended to be a walrus. The rabbit was good; Jeb enjoyed it very much. This time, she did not say, as she always did, “Jeb baby if you’re hungry there’s plenty.” But he ate more while she quietly cleared the table and went to bed. Female problems, Jeb’s father explained clumsily.

 

Jeb awoke the next morning extra early so he could get a head start on training Betty to walk backwards. He had missed a whole day and didn’t want her to get lazy.

 

But she was not in her cage, nor did he find her waddling around the yard. He ran back into the house where Brandi was cracking eggs and whisking them, stirring in pepper and milk to make them extra creamy.

 

“Where’s Betty?” he asked her and for a moment she didn’t respond. “I said where’s Betty? I went out to see her and couldn’t find her nowhere. I’ve been teaching her how to walk backwards.” Brandi didn’t respond. She looked away.

 

At that moment, Jeb’s father walked in, carrying two sacks full of vegetables he was taking to the mercantile in town to sell. Brandi looked back at Jeb’s father and said plainly: “Leroy, Jeb wants to know where Betty is.”

 

Leroy laughed and then said, “You ate her, Jeb boy. Last night. She was delicious.”

 

Jeb felt like he had been punched, like he was in a dream. “That was rabbit,” he said angrily.

 

“Wasn’t no rabbit,” Jeb’s father replied laughing. “No rabbit I ever seen is that fat.” 

 

“That was rabbit,” Jeb insisted angrily. He looked to Brandi who avoided his eyes; hers were filled with tears. “That was rabbit. So where’s Betty?”

 

She began to mouth “I’m so sorry” but Jeb’s father saw her and only laughed once again. 

 

He explained: “Sometimes chickens get too heavy-set and they can’t lay eggs no more and then they’re only good for one thing. Now come on, son,” he said as he slapped Jeb’s back, “go fetch the other bag of vegetables out back and bring ’em to my truck and let’s see what we can sell.”

 


Jude Dexter lives in the South. They have published fiction and poetry elsewhere and can be found at twitter.com/batyehudit

“Year Four” by Grace Shelton

Year Four by Grace Shelton

 

They’re going to have three good years together and a kid. She goes by Becky now, the little devil, but in the future she’ll go by Beck. And he, beside her in the bedclothes, is Mickey, who will mellow into Michael. They’ve just met at a rock concert, where Mickey’s shirtsleeve got caught in one of her pins. Neither has much impulse control. Things devolved from some gas-station cocaine to the back of Mickey’s pickup truck to the bedroom in Becky’s apartment. Mickey breathes heavily against Becky’s collarbone as he pumps in and out of her, more like a mechanical bull than a passionate lover. But the way he looks at her, the way he looks—she cannot bring herself to mind. She lies back, pupils blown. Lets it happen. She has never wanted anything so much.

 

The house that Beck and Michael share is just a three-year drive down the road, where Beck puts the baby to bed and clicks on the baby monitor. She hears their child’s peaceful breathing crackle over the line. Michael gets home from work in less than an hour. He’ll eat dinner straight from the fridge and crawl in beside her with no more than a goodnight. He’s tired, she reasons. She goes through his dresser drawers every night, like she might find evidence of another woman besides her. Never anything there.

 

Becky palms Mickey’s cheek as he finishes. They fall with each other, backs on the navy-blue sheets. There’s not enough room for them both in Becky’s twin bed. Their shoulders overlap, his over hers, as awkward a position as could be mustered. Becky doesn’t even care. She’s still riding the high of the concert, the cocaine she snorted off the shitty gas station sink, the jackknifing of the music in her ears. He could scream and she wouldn’t hear it. He turns his head into her neck, sucking bruises into the soft skin. For three years, it’s going to be this good. Becky doesn’t hear crying over the baby monitor. Mickey is on top of her again, kissing until their lips sting with each desperate pulse. 

            

Michael comes into his bedroom as predicted. He strips his suit without any dramatic flair and hangs it back in its plastic for the dry-cleaners tomorrow. Beck’s wrapped up in their queen-size comforter, listening for the baby. Watching the trees blow around through gaps in the blinds. When Michael puts a hand on her back, she says she’s exhausted, that she wants to go to sleep, and part of her is sad, because Becky never needs to sleep. Becky loves Mickey because Mickey is big and new and exciting, and Michael is Mickey with the volume turned down to a reasonable level. When you get older, you have to worry about your eardrums.

            

Michael and Mickey lean down as one, their lips hovering over their respective lovers. They are different people. These couples get three good years together and a kid. Beck peels the incoming kiss from her skin, and Becky reaches up to press it somewhere else. 

 


Grace Shelton is a Spanish major at Susquehanna University, where she gains inspiration from late nights and music played on loop. Her work has appeared previously in Rivercraft, The Lumiere Review, and Hushed Heartache Literary Magazine, among others, and her first chapbook is forthcoming from Treehouse Editions.

“Janice” by David Capps

Janice by David Capps

 

I

 

Janice’s bag seemed heavy, not that I would pick it up: a black trash bag sunk in the corner of her otherwise sparse apartment, spilling over with the contents of her life. Don’t touch it, she said like she was speaking to a child. A college student, in many ways I was still a child. She didn’t remember that she’d shown me a lot already: photos of her estranged kids, a mix tape she’d made from her days as a fitness instructor at the Y, newspaper clippings, some baby clothes, a small statue of a white horse. If you’ve ever seen pictures of the contents of seagulls’ stomachs: mixed plastics, cigarette butts, shards of driftwood, fishing line; it was like that, the same sort of diversity, disarray, the impossibility I projected onto her of organizing life into a single coherent whole. A coherence mirrored in the environment, how I imagined my neatly stacked bookshelf reflected a scholarly mind. She was a ‘townie’. I was a budding scholar, of course. The shelf had its order, just as the pages within a book had theirs, and the lines on a page, and finally that sublime set of correspondences between the author’s intent and their words which comes close enough to unity to annihilate all the local disorders, the chaos of the world’s exposed gut. It’s possible that I was reading too much Leibniz then, absorbing into myself whatever I thought were his views. In Leibniz’ Monadology there was a perfect structure. Everything that existed was composed of monads, indivisible spiritual bits that corresponded to appetites on the low end of the spectrum and rationality at the high end, dominating the spiritual landscape like a sparkling jewel. My universe was a kind of matrix of these points: each person was a windowless mirror reflecting every other without ever any genuine interaction. There couldn’t have been a more tempting or a more fragile theory than that. 

 

 

 

I used to imagine bringing her a giant pinecone every day, so that eventually the bag would fill up, overflow onto the carpet. There would be the soft needles of the forest floor, the smell of conifer in her bed, plumes whose pine resin between the blankets would consume her sweat-stained mattress, given enough time become the ancient forest whose vines would climb up the rickety fire escape out on the roof of the building overgrown with ivy; you could see from a distance the birdhouses in windows, the ground floor buckling, Janice’s apartment shot through with massive roots, mycelial layers between rotted studs. As the storm began to gather I would call down to her as she clawed her way through the garbage bag to join me. Then lightning would strike and it would be like in my dream, all the concrete would shatter into pieces and there would be no more regret. She did smile the time I brought her back a gigantic pinecone from the State Park. I believe it made it into the garbage bag. Perhaps she reminded me of my own grandmother in Michigan. Janice had the same spontaneity of spirit as my grandmother, who had begun to show signs of dementia after my grandfather’s passing. 

 

 

 

We first met on a winter afternoon; I was walking to campus when I saw this old lady romping and reeling in the snow, hurling snowballs at the brick exterior of an apartment building. She was more spirited than some older folks I knew in the small town that was Kirksville, Missouri. Plus she had electric eyes, and a shock of white hair that made it seem as if she had electrocuted herself. Perhaps she’d shown the same spontaneity I’d years later reject if I suspected it to be drug-induced and occurring on the New Haven green. But you can’t compare these things. Like when I asked her what her biggest regret was and she said it was that she didn’t have enough sex; I didn’t then think: “so you’re that kind of person, a hedonist”. I didn’t think anything at all, since I was simply taking in experiences at the time (that was my one imperative: Experience) although probably if the question had been raised I would have categorized Janice that way. The beer, the track marks on her arms, the bursts of laughter, the memories of flings all pointed towards ‘pleasure’ as a fundamental good. I would have been wrong since any viable hedonism requires some distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures. 

 

 

 

Probably I’m not the first person to fantasize about being struck by lightning. Not that I would want to be killed, or suffer the nerve damage or recurring burning sensation, but to be gifted the Lichtenberg Figures aka ‘keraunographic mark’ aka ‘lightning flower’ or ‘lightning tree’ formed by the transmission of static electricity through blood vessels just under the skin, a bodily record of an event so unmistakable that I think it must be called a ‘memory’ in the old and now antiquated sense of the term, which is not ‘constructive’ within some narrow range of rewards to which its mental map applies, sensitive to saliences, etc. but is marked by truth, visited by nature’s inspiration, free of the pollution of human intent. Isn’t it Pliny The Elder who says that only a human being can survive being struck by lightning?  

 

 

 

If regret and hope were antonyms, their logical structure should mirror each other. You prepare for the slight stumble when climbing to the summit of a cathedral, the residue of moldy air your lungs at one particular step will expel; the smallness of the houses clustered so closely together that they make you pretend the city is a hamlet; that you call yourself by a different name and bask in the symmetry between being viewed from below and looking upon from above: such is part of the fullness of anticipation. Yet when you envision yourself in the future, looking back upon some personal failing—that you never married, perhaps, or didn’t have children, or didn’t finish In Search of Lost Time which lies forever open on your bookshelf, you don’t then imagine yourself regretting not having had the courage to cast your social net more widely, to have broken off a stagnant relationship, or devoted an hour before you slept each night to finishing what you would eventually leave unfinished. Regret seems directed at the single event with a hazy aura dancing around it, or like a cloud whose droplets are not pictured as ‘conditions to be met’ or requirements for some goal to be accomplished. They are accidental side-effects, ephemera of some event over which you have no control and, paradoxically, has already occurred. You become like the killer wasp that invades a honeycomb and is heat-smothered by gyrating worker bees who join in, one by one collecting around the stinger’s intent, at the center of a meleé of bodies heaped on bodies rising and steaming before you which leaves only an empty husk in its hive, so we are stifled to death by the swarming prospects of our fevered dreams.

 

       

 

Once I woke up in my room after she had burst in the door and immediately straddled on top of me. It was nothing like the sort of violence I had brushed up against before, like the time my friend Jimmy and I were surrounded in the parking lot of Leisure World by a bunch of guys who were irate at Jimmy for wearing a pink tank top to the bowling alley; nor was it like the time my friend Phil got cold-clocked by a frat guy for staying on too long at his party. Looking back, those were about the brusque enforcement of gender norms, social identities, none of which I had the categories to express. And it was a far cry from the sort of violence that requires the perpetrator to alienate their own humanity. I guess all it had was a feeling of violence. I had to politely tell her not to do that again. I’ve always been the sort of person who enjoys sleep, be it on the floor in the middle of the afternoon, or wherever. What beats a commune with lord Hypnos? Surely not waking life. For this my grandmother is partly to blame, having over-indulged me in daydreaming as a child. How the days would pass at my grandparents’ house, playing Tinkerbell while my brother was Peter Pan and we flew to Never-never Land on a ‘magic carpet’ that in reality was a dingy floor mat by the stove. Such is the downside of not taking myself seriously. Perhaps I have a certain admiration for people who don’t act their age; after all, seriousness ages you. ‘Oh, so Janice is a surrogate grandmother?’ No. But much as I barely knew her, and circumstances had not allowed my appreciation for my grandmother to deepen, I may have had some unconscious drive to precipitate the burdens of a friendship. 

 

II

 

Lucan said, “May it be sudden, whatever you plan for us; may man’s mind be blind to the future. Let him hope on in his fears.” Sometimes you scatter like repetitious moons through clouds, thoughts reduced to one cogent star receding with the long flood of night. A body turning between sheets, you cross over into that sublime recklessness where in your own reflection you see your grandmother mirroring your movements, her white hair pulled back, fleeing after the jade peacock which holds it together. If only your own green eyes were so unknowing they could fly opal-like into that disintegrating garden of curls, and time in indecisive strands chase down what is consumed in the clawing clarity of cause and effect.  

 

 

 

You find yourself at her bedside in a room of motionless: a desk, lamp, glass, letter-opener, old theatre program on the nightstand, your morbid identity staked to the glimmers of a personal history—things which come to settle in attic space, in nests of unhappy relatives, cast on the lawn amid items of a bloated yard sale—does that greatest of all monads create such types of things that organize the world, now taken from her even as she slaps her knee laughing at a joke she no longer understands? What becomes of this gesture, slapping a knee? She looks at you, then the spoon then you, you persist in this mimicry, this welt spinning, this hungerless signing. There is no greeting. A look from her wipes the language off your face. You move closer to wipe the drippings from her chin. Each of you is a windowless widow. “That way’s the door” she seems to want to say. The corners of her mouth speak otherwise, hover over signs of signs, breakages of age, timings of long dam-like looks, as when she was bedridden covered with poison ivy, silent to her family living in the sweltering boxcar of their first home, unwelcoming of her children’s kisses. 

 

 

 

Her foot is swollen but the pain is in the lamp. She says of a pot broken in a hundred pieces at her feet I’m trying to find an art. Her face belies such silly-talk, scarred from scolding. Her daughter is “the old lady who has come to take me away.” You wish you could have asked her: does it make a difference where pain is, whether pain moves, or resides in some distant cause? You also kicked through a door once when your brother locked you in the closet and there was a pair of cowboy boots. No shame in it. Sometimes arteries open and out fly hundreds of moths bent on taking advantage of the lord’s house. You agree the mice that slipped silently under the barn door carrying their white horse, their Christ, their crystalline monads in the free fall of predication. 

 

 

 

Lucan is right: may death come suddenly, at the urges of memory, as snakes having ceased writhing form a statue with which you end.  May someone never arrive whose face you do not recognize except through your skin’s galvanized lightning, whomever this never person is may take down the plastic star and pack it away with the rest. You whoever you are fall short of Who who falls short of who she was. That person. Janice of the same suddenness of spirit to escape from your house and walk through fields until darkness itself went walking in search of lost memory, whose suddenness replaces what we call memory with continuous moments of attention, which like the direction of light from the windows of others depend greatly upon the weight of your steps.

 

III

 

There are just memories now, vague impressions, not anything so dense and inexplicable as nostalgia or regret. The waves roll gently onto the sand, and the docks by the sound, deserted in winter, extend like fingertips that hope to caress the horizon. Salt-white hair. Smudged red lipstick. Footsy in the diner, her magically thinking we were on a date. The subway car rattling in her lungs. A lingering sense of propriety. My friends’ laughter at what we’re not. The apartment littered with sheet music and cans of Bud Light. Sea foam and the stomach’s black lining. Memory’s ghost throwing snowballs against a brick façade. Wonder at what the ocean can absorb. 

            

Absolve?  

            

“Years later I went back and visited her and she didn’t recognize me at first, and then she did after I explained myself, and then I never saw her again.” I suppose I could say that, or suggest it to you, or somehow imply it. This could also be some story I conclude by saying we had sex, or perhaps one of those heartfelt hugs you always remember because it marked a certain time in life after which you changed. But none of that would be true. It’s like this: the past exists, the present, and the future, equal parts of a road spread out, with broken cars abandoned in the forest long after the road is yielded back, posh new cars streaming on ahead shifting with their driver’s fanatical smile, then pumping the brakes to turn again along that tiny winding side street that led back to Missouri and down into the Ozarks and back to Michigan for your grandmother’s funeral, and then to the turtledoves necking on a park bench in New Haven where the leaning towers of sketches seem to fall for eternity, obliterated by the opioids in their systems calling them to Never-never Land, stunned by the lights from the giant Christmas tree on the green, the symbol of friendship and love and togetherness and everything that she may have felt, explaining in her fall-down drunkenness how as a single mom she taught her youngest boy to ‘hold it’ while using the toilet in her first apartment which was just as cramped as this one and we laughed together with brisk winter wind dawning through the open window. What after that I can’t say. Is it only because we live and forget the bulk of it? Is it because we don’t live and fabricate what possibly remains? 

 

 

 

In a dream my mother is emptying out her house of various objects, some of which we are loading onto a truck to be sold, others we are holding onto. We are sorting through them, and I am attempting to find a particular antique child’s sled, with a flat wood base and copper handles that have a greenish patina. The odd thing is that this same sled occurred in my previous dream, where it lay for sale on a long table amid a number of other antiques in the downstairs of a building that was simultaneously an art gallery and a psychiatric ward where I was staying. The price tag on the scratched out label read ‘regret’. Scratched out, meaning illegible, meaning abstract, meaning not particular, meaning: not salient to memory, meaning useless to the organism’s cognitive economy, to be discarded unless for some unknown reason we ourselves take an active role in maintaining it, layering and layering around that spark which had originally drawn us to it. 

 

Somewhere back in Kirksville, Janice tells me her father was a “dozerman,” and glittering with snow she draws her frail arm back. 

 


David Capps is a philosophy professor and poet who lives in New Haven, CT. He is the author of three chapbooks: Poems from the First Voyage (The Nasiona Press, 2019), A Non-Grecian Non-Urn (Yavanika Press, 2019), and Colossi (Kelsay Books, 2020)

“Fundamentally Flawed” by Bethany Jarmul

 

Fundamentally Flawed

by Bethany Jarmul

In my earliest memory, I was a five-year-old self-righteous ass. Maybe I was born that way—popped out of my mother’s vagina thinking that my cry was more euphonious than the Jupiter Symphony, that my poop smelled of freesia and honeysuckle, that I was the best nipple-sucker there ever was or ever will be. 

 

In a preschool classroom filled with colorful toys, alphabet posters, and tiny chairs, I stood next to my best friend, Kate. I wore a plaid skirt and collared shirt with two braids down my back. Kate had dark hair and eyes, a sweet smile. We played with Sky Dancers, pulled their strings, sending the pink-and-purple fairies floating through the air like helicopter seeds. I noticed a warning on their box: “For Ages 5 and Up Only.” Kate was four. 

 

“You can’t play with this toy. It’s not for four-year olds,” I said.  

 

“Yes, I can. I play with it all the time.” 

 

I marched over to Kate’s mom. “Kate can’t play with this toy. She’s only four.”

 

“It’s fine. Kate can play with it,” Kate’s mom said. 

 

“But, but… she’s not supposed to!”

 

“It’s fine, Bethany. Now, go play.” 

 

I stomped back over to Kate, cheeks and ears flushed.

 

In another memory, Kate told me that as a Catholic she prayed to Mary. “Well, you’re wrong,” I said. A few years later, she told me that her mother believed in evolution. I said, “What? Your mom is a lawyer. She’s smarter than that!” 

 

I’m amazed that Kate was friends with me, that anyone was. 

 

 

 

On Christmas morning 1998, when I was six, my family sat around our dining room table. We sang “Happy Birthday” to Jesus, then blew out the candles on our cinnamon rolls. Dad read the story of Jesus’ birth from the Bible, but I was restless. Presents waited beneath the tree, and I wanted a Barbie doll more than anything. 

 

When it was time, I bee-lined for a rectangular, Barbie-sized box. I tore off the paper and saw a doll inside. But she had dark brown hair, a plain blue dress, and a cloth on her head. The box said: “Mother Mary.” I swallowed the lump in my throat. 

 

A few days later, while my mom and I were grocery shopping, a gray-headed lady said to me, “What did Santa bring you, sweetie?” 

 

“Candy,” I said. 

 

The only Santa I knew rode through our neighborhood on a fire truck collecting canned goods for the food bank and handing out cinnamon hard tack candy.

 

 

 

According to Shahram Heshmat, an expert on behavioral economics, most people don’t choose their identities. Instead, they internalize the values of their parents or culture. Parents, peers, and other role models can be the sources of identity, and children often define themselves based on how they believe their parents view them.

 

 

 

My parents taught me that I was saved by faith, not by works—that God was gracious, forgiving. Yet my life was governed by rules. If being a Christian was about having a relationship with a loving God, then why did messing up feel like stepping on a booby trap? In addition to the sins listed in the Bible, my parents added a litany of “no-nos.” 

 

EXCERPT FROM THE “BAD THINGS LIST”

 

  •     Alcohol 
  •     Barbie
  •     Big bang theory
  •     Bikinis
  •     Britney Spears
  •     Christina Aguilera—all non-Christian music was banned, except James Taylor, my mom’s favorite. 
  •     Cursing
  •     Disney movies— “bippity, boppity, boo!” magic was unacceptable. 
  •     Evolution—even dinosaurs were suspect. 
  •     Global warming— “made up.” 
  •     Halloween
  •     Harry Potter—but Tolkien’s and C.S. Lewis’ novels were encouraged.  
  •     Liberals
  •     Miniskirts
  •     Other denominations
  •     Other religions
  •     Physicians and therapists—“untrustworthy.”
  •     Pokemon cards—at my Christian school, the boys collected and battled Redemption Cards, where the goal was to win “Lost Soul” cards. 
  •     Power Rangers—when pretending, we had to be “God Rangers.”
  •     Tampons—yes, tampons! 
  •     Thongs
  •     Tube tops
  •     Vaccines, most prescription medications
  •     Yoga

 

Following these rules was my way to prove my love for God, so I was like the little engine: “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” 

 

 

 

In psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, identity versus confusion is the fifth stage of ego. This stage occurs during the teenage years, when teens develop a sense of self and explore their independence. Kids who are not allowed to test out different identities may be left with role confusion, which can result in being unsure of who they are, where they fit, or feeling confused about their place in life.

 

 

 

I sat by myself on the brown bleachers in the gym. I scanned the roaring crowd of several hundred middle schoolers talking, laughing, hugging binders to their chests or flicking paper footballs. My first day of 8th grade, my first time attending a public school after years at a Christian academy. I’d never seen so many kids my own age. My heart galloped as I waited for the bell. I fidgeted with my red mesh backpack, zipping and unzipping.

 

“Fuck!” said the guy sitting behind me. I jumped, then tried to relax, act normal. “Fuck that shit!” he said. I snuck a look behind me. The guy’s jeans were hanging low, red boxers exposed, and a gold chain hung around his neck. I tried not to stare. 

 

We lived in a small town in West Virginia with an undercurrent of poverty, racism, and drug abuse. Some students had no hot water, their body odor announcing their presence. Others tossed around the “n” word like a hacky sack. Fights broke out weekly and drug searches monthly. 

 

I could have adapted—cursed a little, tried some cigarettes, made out with boys under the bleachers. Instead I took advanced classes, escaped into novels, and clung to my upbringing like a blankie. Meanwhile, I learned about many new things—all of them belonged on the “bad list.”

 

 

 

I was a purity-ring-wearing 17-year old virgin when I watched porn for the first time, lounging in the dark in my childhood bedroom, laptop glowing on my thighs. I had never seen a penis before, not even in a photo, only drawings in health class.

 

In his memoir, Stephen King describes how, as a recovering alcoholic, he can’t understand social drinking. How could anyone have just one glass of wine? That’s how I felt about porn. It’s like I had grown up on a vegan, no-sugar diet, then been set loose in the world’s largest ice cream shop, all the flavors free for me to sample, stuffing my face until I hurled. 

 

While reading my Bible, going to youth group, and praying, I kept thinking: You’re a hypocrite, Bethany. You’re a filthy, dirty hypocrite. 

 

One day, when I was alone, I took a pair of scissors out of a kitchen drawer and walked down to the basement. I’d heard about cutting at school and wanted to try it. I sat on our army-green futon and held the blade to my wrist. My parents will see it if I cut myself here. I lifted my shirt and held the blade to my stomach, below my belly button. Maybe I can cut away some of this fat while I’m at it. I heard the front door opening, someone coming home. I hid the scissors behind the futon’s flower-print pillows. 

 

 

 

I first left my childhood home to attend a Christian college in rural Pennsylvania. I befriended others from a variety of denominations and backgrounds. We stayed up late, debating free will versus predestination, lamps glowing in our overstuffed dorm rooms. 

 

In a tiered classroom, surrounded by 30 of my peers, I watched as Dr. M. paced the floor, his bald head reflecting the fluorescent lights. This class was a required “Science, Faith, and Technology” course. I expected the same spiel I’d always heard about how evolution was fake. But instead Dr. M. said, “Evolution may be a method that God used, guiding the process… The Big Bang Theory allows for, even points to, a Creator. Someone had to cause the bang… The book of Genesis was written to teach us about God, not intended to be a science textbook.”

 

I sat up straight, my fingers flying over laptop keys, not wanting to miss a single word. I wasn’t necessarily convinced about the origins of the universe, but I mentally removed evolution from the “bad things” list.

 

 

 

Researchers at Wellesley College and the University of Kansas found that the idea that “opposites attract” is untrue; rather, people seek similarity in relationships and are drawn to others who are like-minded. Interestingly, they also found that people in relationships do not change each other’s identities over time.

 

 

 

My sophomore year, I met Andrew— a homeschooled history major from Washington. He had pale skin, brown hair parted on the side. His oversized sweaters hung on his wiry frame, complete with mom jeans and off-brand tennis shoes. His animal magnetism was three-pronged—peculiarity, piousness, and pride. After consulting his father, a mentor, and God, Andrew agreed to be my boyfriend—my perfect, geeky Ken doll. 

 

I wonder if it’s not just that we choose partners that are similar to us, but also those who have attributes that we wish we had—identities that we want to claim for ourselves. Somehow I found a man whose upbringing was even more stringent than my own. For example, I believed in waiting until marriage to have sex. Andrew believed in waiting until marriage to kiss. 

 

One day, we were sitting at a table in the library. “Have you ever cursed before?” I asked. 

 

“One time I said the c-word,” he said. 

 

“The c-word! What word did you say?” 

 

“C-R-A-P,” he whispered. 

 

I laughed. Students at nearby tables gave me nasty looks. 

 

“That’s not a bad word. I say that all the time.” I looked down at my hands folded in my lap. 

 

Later, I told my roommate, “If I was the person that I want to be, then Andew would be my perfect match. But sometimes I feel I’m not good enough for him.”

 

Andrew broke up with me a few months later. 

 

 

 

My junior year, I joined a group of students who carpooled together to attend a church several miles from campus. They had an informal leader named Curtis. He was 22, with blue eyes and crooked teeth. 

 

During one meeting at the church, eight of us sat in folding chairs in a small classroom. Curtis stood behind a wooden podium with a well-worn Bible. He talked about God’s grace and the importance of confessing not just to God but to others. “Now, I’m going to open it up to anyone who has something they want to share,” Curtis said. 

 

I listened, eyes wide, as Rachel, Curtis’s girlfriend with long, silky brown hair, shared about her struggle with depression. Another girl talked about her battle with anxiety. One thin guy spoke, with wavering voice, about his pornography habit. I cleared my throat. My voice cracked as I said, “I’ve struggled with porn too.” 

 

As we packed up our belongings, Curtis and Rachel hugged me and prayed over me. Simple prayers like: “God, help Bethany to know how much you love her.” 

 

I wasn’t “cured” of my porn addiction overnight. But I finally experienced this grace that I’d heard so much about. Something unlocked inside of me. Slowly, I began admitting my imperfections, the messiness beneath my plastic facade. 

 

 

 

I was 22, a recent college graduate, working as a copywriter at an advertising agency in Pittsburgh. The agency employed about 35 people and was located in a two-story brick building. The decor inside included a foosball table, an aquarium of colorful fish, and a life-size cutout of Marilyn Monroe. 

 

The agency threw a Halloween party during the work day, and our boss expected everyone to dress up. For the first time, I had to come up with a Halloween costume. Although I was too nervous to talk much about my faith, my coworkers knew I was a sheltered Christian. I decided to play up the irony and dress as a biker chick—leather jacket, dark eye makeup, red lipstick, and fake tattoos. I looked like Biker Barbie, but I felt like Mary in disguise.  

 

During the Halloween party, I drank two Angry Orchards and was feeling buzzed. I leaned against a co-worker’s desk. Scott was a spectacle-wearing, round-faced PR specialist in his late 30s, with a desk covered in Pittsburgh Pirates memorabilia. 

 

“You know, prayer really works,” I said. “Did I ever tell you about my car?” 

 

“I don’t think so,” Scott said, turning toward me in his wheely chair. 

 

“I heard a sermon about how when you pray specific prayers and God answers them, then it becomes a testimony. I needed a car, but I was a poor college kid. Instead of just praying for a car, I started praying for a red Ford Focus. A few months later, my parents surprised me with a used car. Guess what kind?” I was talking faster, louder than normal, thinking about how amusing it was that it was easier for me to talk about my faith after having a couple drinks. 

 

“A red Ford Focus.” Scott said, unimpressed. 

 

“Yep!” I grinned. 

 

“Well, you should pray for me.” 

 

“Oh, what do you need prayer for?” 

 

“Pray that I’ll win the lottery.” He turned back to his computer screen. 

 

 

 

At 24, I married a man who loved me—flaws, history and all. “It doesn’t matter what your parents think,” he said. “I’ll love and support you regardless.” I kissed his shaved head, the freckle on his lip. He’d never looked sexier. 

 

With his support, my view of God and faith continued to evolve, allowing me to break away from my parents’ impositions. I wore a flower-print bikini, just like Barbie. I enjoyed my first trick-or-treat experience. I said “Black Lives Matter.” My dad replied, “All Lives Matter.” Mom told me I was selfish when I took Zoloft during pregnancy, got a COVID vaccine while breastfeeding. I watched WandaVision. Dad sent me articles about its many evils.

 

Eventually, I realized that I was turning my back on more than just a few rules. When I became a mother at 27, it caused me to reevaluate my identity and to want to purposefully decide how to raise my children. As clinical psychologist Laura Markham explained, “The brain goes through all these changes when women are pregnant or postpartum…We develop new aspects of ourselves that ever after are a part of who we are.”

 

Before I could determine how to raise my kids, I had to identify this part of me that I was trying to reject. I didn’t have a name for it. It rolled around in my mind, kept me awake at night. Its voice was my inner dialogue that I constantly had to tell to “shut up!” 

 

 

 

At 29, shortly after my second child was born, I perused the shelves at a local thrift store, inhaling the intoxicating smell of old books. I selected Girl Meets GOD, a memoir by Lauren F. Winner. Later, I curled up with the book on my brown recliner. 

 

I learned that when preparing for his revivals, Billy Graham worked with Catholics, liberal Presbyterians, and others outside of the orthodox Protestant tradition. Powerful conservative Christians were outraged and denounced Graham. This created the split that still exists, between evangelicals, like Graham, and fundamentalists. 

 

As I read the next section, my hands shook. I read the paragraphs again, tracing the sentences with my right index finger as I mouthed the words:

 

“Fundamentalists, like those who tangled with Graham, tend more toward separation from the rest of American culture. They tend to be more suspicious of interfaith and cross-denominational conversations. Fundamentalist parents are likely to be more restrictive when it comes to what TV shows and rap songs their kids can be exposed to. There’s the matter of science. Not all fundamentalists read the first chapter of Genesis as a textbook scientific account of the planet’s origins, but almost all people who do read Genesis that way are fundamentalists.” 

 

Wow, I thought. My parents were fundamentalists. I was a fundamentalist, and I didn’t even know it! I like to imagine that at that moment I burst out of the fundamentalism box, singing Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.” But it’s not that easy. 

 

Trying to extricate oneself from an identity, whether from birth or learned, is like trying to yank up a Shepherd’s tree, the roots of which can be 230 feet long. Not only is it difficult, but there will be dirt, large chunks of earth, clinging to those roots. 

 

 

 

A few weeks later, on a not-too-cold December day, I dressed Asher, my two-year old, in his puffy blue coat. We strolled through our neighborhood, pausing to pick up rocks and watch the neighbors’ dogs. Asher stopped in front of a yard decorated with Santa Claus and reindeer. He pointed to Santa and shouted, “Noah!” 

 

Teaching my kids that a fat man in a red suit squeezes down the chimney, delivers gifts on every continent all in one night—I can’t bring myself to do it. 

 

When Asher watches Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and the Halloween episode comes on, I have to leave the room to prevent myself from skipping it. I cringe when he says “crap!”—the strongest word I say around my kids. And I wonder—if he asked for a Barbie doll for Christmas, would I buy him one?

 

 

A few months before I read Girl Meets GOD, Asher and I were in our living room video chatting with my parents. I was sitting on our brown recliner, my laptop perched next to me on a side table. He ran over to me, “Mommy!” He kissed my arm, smiled at me with his round toddler face, then bit me hard. 

 

“Ouch! No, Asher!” I said, “Don’t bite.” 

 

He shook his little finger and said, “No, no, no,” then ran off to grab a toy car. 

 

“You need to spank him,” my dad said, squinting at me on my laptop screen. 

 

“No, Josh and I are in agreement. We aren’t going to spank our kids,” I said. 

 

“Not even a smack on the hand?” Mom asked, shaking her salt-and-pepper topped head. 

 

“No. How does hitting him teach him to stop biting or hitting?” 

 

“There’s a verse in Psalms that says ‘spare the rod, spoil the child,’” Dad said. 

 

“That’s referring to a shepherd’s staff. It’s talking about discipline. I do discipline him. It doesn’t mean you have to literally hit your child with a rod.”

 

“Where did you hear that?” Dad said. 

 

“Dad, I really don’t want to talk about this anymore.” I ran to grab the TV remote out of Asher’s hand.

 

 

 

Growing up, my parents hugged me and told me “I love you!” every day. They helped with homework and cheered me on at every musical. When I write “You’re the best mom!” on a Mother’s Day card, I mean it. And when I say, “I felt shame because of the way you raised me,” I mean that, too. 

 

When I opened that fundamentalism box, I wasn’t sure who I would find. Maybe I’m a Mary doll dressed up like Barbie, making a fool of myself. Maybe I’m a Frankensteined doll with Barbie’s brain and Mary’s heart. Is it possible to not be a doll at all?

 

I don’t know if I will ever shake off all of my fundamentalism. I’m not even sure if I want to. As humans, we are inherently shaped by things we cannot control—our DNA, our upbringing, the history of who we are, and of those who came before us. If I could instantly eliminate all fundamentalism in me, would I do it? If I did, would the person who was left still be me? 

 


 

Bethany Jarmul is a writer, essayist, and work-from-home mom. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Literary Mama, Scribes*MICRO*Fiction, Sky Island Journal, WOW! Women On Writing, and Allium, A Journal of Poetry & Prose. She grew up in the hills of West Virginia and lives outside of Pittsburgh with her husband and two kids. She enjoys drinking chai lattes, reading memoirs, and taking nature walks. Connect with her at bethanyjarmul.com or on Twitter: @BethanyJarmul.

It’s Your Lucky Day: Fabulism and Speculative Fiction Contest extended until June 20

You know what’s cool about the summer solstice? It’s the longest day of the year for the Northern Hemisphere, and ancient folks – like the ones who built Stonehenge – would erect plinths and other kinds of monuments to track the sun and stars around days like these.

You know what else is cool about the summer solstice? It’s the extension date of our Fabulism and Speculative Fiction contest, judged by Christopher Barzak! Check out the entry guidelines here!

-Yours,
Rougarou Editors and Management

Message from Management: Submittable cap reached!

From the Editors and Staff of Rougarou:

We have reached our Submittable cap for submissions for our next issue, which is honestly astounding. Thank you to everyone who has submitted before today; while it is true that not every worthy poem, short story, essay, or visual piece can make it into our pages, we read and view each one of them, and we are grateful for the privilege to do so.

Fiction writers, take note! Our Fabulist and Speculative Fiction contest is still going strong, follow this link to get to our submission guidelines. We encourage any fiction writers to submit their work to our contest!

Thank you for your words and your art.

Fairy Tales with Teeth: A Review of Couri Johnson’s I’ll Tell You a Love Story

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Johnson, Couri. I’ll Tell You a Love Story. Bridge Eight Press

By Kym Cunningham

In the interest of full disclosure: this review does not pretend to be unbiased (as if writing can be), as Johnson is a colleague and friend of the writer as well as her Co-Editor-in-Chief.

It is not often that reading a book makes me feel like a kid again. But that’s exactly what Couri Johnson’s debut short story collection, I’ll Tell You a Love Story, manages to achieve: a suspension of belief, that hunger to consume—more and more—pages curled beneath a comforter with a flashlight in hand. Continue reading “Fairy Tales with Teeth: A Review of Couri Johnson’s I’ll Tell You a Love Story”

The Poetics of Working Corpus

By Kym Cunningham

We begin, like we always do, with the body—that occupation of space that separates I from us, the problematic corpus forever embalmed with liminality. I am nowhere but not nothing, just as the separation between us is nothing and yet it is not nowhere. And so we try to make something from this corporeal utopia: we fashion language as a means of apologizing for our bodies, for the space they take up and take away from others. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa—just a short step from corporeal to culpable, that indelible link between mind and body by way of confession. We are sorry for the manifestation of thoughts in bodies, and vice (versa): another act of contrition for the impurity of self.  It’s how we were taught to be polite—proper Catholic manners.

Continue reading “The Poetics of Working Corpus”