Delmarva Review: Cantabile by John J. McKeon

Schubert, it is said, had fat and awkward hands. Though his music sings, he never learned to play the piano really well. Contrast this with the plaster cast of Chopin’s hands, supposedly done immediately after his death. The fingers seem to me implausibly slender and long, but no matter. We impute magic to objects like an artist’s hands, just as we weighed and measured Einstein’s brain, looking for some simple fact of flesh and structure that would enable us to shrug and say, well, no wonder. We have no similar preoccupation with Beethoven’s hands. Rather, his hair, flying, unruly. He had Einstein’s hair, or perhaps Einstein had his.

Occasionally someone will remark on my own long, thin fingers, and if they know of my pianism, they will smile and nod in just that knowing way. Of course. How could Liszt or Rachmaninoff hold any terrors for a woman with such big hands? And I did launch my career on just this basis: the flirty ingénue, the merest wisp of a girl, rampaging through the alpha male repertory, all while showing more skin than might be expected.

It worked for a while. I did the global whirligig for a decade, until the bookings began to slow. I have read an account that states simply that Annie Molloy disappeared from public view after marrying a surgeon. Some truth there, I suppose. God knows I enjoyed my husband more than the umpteenth night of Prokofiev in Poughkeepsie.

Today I am no wisp of a girl, and if I am flirty it is in the manner of an elderly lady who thinks she can get away with something.

What saved me, and saves me still, is Cantabile, my immense and ramshackle house on the edge of the Choptank River near Cambridge, Maryland. I have no children, and my husband is gone, taken by a heart attack a decade ago. But the house endures, and I along with it.

It is, as I say, a big house, twenty-six rooms in all, and I have filled it with pianos: a showcase grand in the main parlor, and other uprights and grands tucked in everywhere. Eight times a year, I also fill the house with amateur pianists from all over the country, some of them coming year after year to spend two weeks living and breathing piano. I’ve recruited a staff of skilled and patient teachers. I teach myself, and I love it. We have an excellent cook, and my campers bring their own booze. I don’t take anyone under 21.

Philip was the exception, from the day his uncle’s Volvo dropped him at my door fully 30 years ago. A glorious day of early fall, the herons at the river’s edge holding their poses, the grass bright and the river like blue ice. Philip was sixteen, and I welcomed him because the chairman of the music department at New York University, an acquaintance who had once wanted to be my lover, said he had never heard anyone like Philip and two weeks with me would be just the thing.

Philip had the ideal pianist’s hands, I noticed from the kitchen window. It was arrival day, and the house was loud with laughter and greetings. Philip dropped his duffel bag on the gravel and clutched to his chest a thick canvas case in which, I guessed, he had brought along every scrap of sheet music he owned. He clutched the case like the floatable cushion from an airplane seat, hoping it would keep him alive but somehow doubting it. His fingers curled around the bottom of the case, the knuckles visible from a distance, the flesh very white. I forced myself to stop spying and hurried outside to greet him.

As I had feared, Philip never did fit in. He was decades younger than the others and sipped Dr Pepper during happy hour while the others whittled down their wine stocks. The older women embarrassed him with their attention, while the men ignored or visibly resented him. He couldn’t tell a joke, didn’t follow sports, and couldn’t answer a question with more than a syllable or two.

What he could do was play the piano.

That first morning, I found myself drawn upstairs by an unfamiliar sound: scales. When I say our campers all love the piano and want earnestly to play better, I do not mean to imply any enthusiasm for such tedium as scale practice. Yet there it was. In every key, major and minor, not just the easy keys with the standard fingerings but the variants and oddities as well, four octaves up and down, slowly and quickly, in four-four time, three-four, triplets, in parallel and contrary motion, even with the left hand offset by half a bar. And all played with perfect evenness and fluidity. I noted the room from which this marvel was emerging and checked the day’s schedule: Philip.

At our first lesson Philip told me he had been working on the Chopin Etudes. Not unusual: nearly every reasonably proficient amateur wants to tackle an etude or two to measure himself. Which etudes? I asked.

Philip sat at the piano in my studio with his legs crossed. Mine is the finest instrument in the house, and Philip had taken it in with his first glance on entering and now sat running his fingertips along the keys. “Well,” he said, “all of them, really.”

Over the next hour I discovered that he could, indeed, play all twenty-seven etudes well and from memory. In such a case, the teacher becomes more of a coach. There was nothing I could teach Philip, no technique he lacked, no errors to correct. So I tried to coach him on interpretive choices, to encourage him to listen to himself more closely, to show him the little energy- saving tricks that could help a performer get through such large swathes of difficult music without cramping or breaking down.

When we were done, I said, “What are your plans, Philip? Juilliard? Curtis?”

“I’ll be starting at Johns Hopkins in September,” he said.

“So,” I nodded, smiling, “Peabody. I know a number of the faculty there. You’ll do well.”

“No, not the conservatory,” Philip said. “Engineering.”

“Engineering?” I realized as I said it that I sounded shocked and patronizing, and hastened to add, “Have you not considered a career in music?”

“I don’t want to be a professional musician,” he said.

“With your gift, you’d be…” I almost said “a natural” but stopped myself because I don’t believe such a thing exists and because I knew very well how much labor had gone into creating what I had just heard. “You could be extraordinary,” I said.

“Look, I just don’t want to,” he said. “I won’t be anyone’s performing seal. Okay?”

“Okay, sure,” I said. Philip was looking down and scratching the back of his hand. I suspected I had stepped into a long-running argument, and while Philip seemed uncomfortable telling me to mind my own business, that was just what he had done and would do again if pressed.

He stayed the two weeks, filled his practice shifts, warmed up only slightly in social settings, and, as his contribution to our informal concluding concert, played something relatively easy. I was sure I would never see him again, but the final day, after the last car had pulled out of the drive, as I walked through the hallway of the again-silent house, I took from the table the advance signup sheet for the following year, and there was Philip’s name, halfway down. He would be back. I chuckled, shook my head, and thought about practicing more myself.

Philip did come back the next year, and the next. I tried to guide him into new repertory and paired him with a couple of other accomplished campers for some duet work. When the fourth year began looming and he had not signed up, I dropped him a note to say that if he hadn’t decided yet, I could still hold a spot for him for several more weeks.

He wrote in reply to thank me and to say that he had enlisted in the Marine Corps.

A legend about Glenn Gould, one of the many, concerns the way he walked away from his public career at its peak. He was world famous, in enormous demand. One night, he was pacing backstage when a stagehand asked for an autograph. He signed the program, dated it, and wrote “my last concert” under the date.

I have built myself a similar legend. How I played an afternoon recital in San Diego. Hall half empty, mind elsewhere. Afterward, a dozen or so autographs, the usual smiles, all dinner invitations declined in favor of room service. The next morning, someone named Richard Salazar said in the newspaper that my Liszt Sonata had been “the longest 30 minutes in many a year.”

I tried to work up a robust hate for this man I did not know, but couldn’t. He was right.

Besides, plenty of seats had gone unsold before anyone knew what a snore my recital would be. Time for honesty, I thought on the return flight. I had met Charles and wanted no more Sundays anywhere but home. I had another half dozen commitments to fulfill, but I let my managers know that would be it for a while. I don’t recall any disappointed groans.

Charles was then finishing a clinical fellowship at Johns Hopkins Medical School. He owned a beautiful rowhouse in Baltimore, and that’s where we lived when we first married. I moved my small grand piano from my old apartment. I gave lessons to kids who didn’t want them, plus the occasional adult who lived for them. I found I loved my sessions with the grown- ups and, little by little, weeded the kids out of my garden. Then I read about an adult piano camp in Vermont and thought: I could make a go of that here. I had always lived frugally, and my savings were more than ample to buy Cantabile when I stumbled on it and to gather up a bunch of old but sound pianos. Charles toured the house once, declared that the plumbing and electric bills alone would break the bank, and let me know he would never want to live there. OK, I said, I don’t mean to live here, either, except during camps.

I painted the house myself. I sanded and refinished the floors. I hung my old concert posters, programs, photos, and framed reviews all over the halls. By way of cementing my commitment, I took one last big bite out of my savings and bought a big new grand piano. And one day, while waiting endlessly for a delivery of new kitchen appliances, I dragged out my thick book of the Beethoven Sonatas, Volume I, opened to Sonata Number One in F minor, and started again to learn.

The day years later when I got Philip’s note about joining the Marines, I went to my studio and found Volume III of the Sonatas, creased, stained and dog-eared, on the floor next to the piano. I opened to the last of the thirty-two in C minor, turned to the final movement. And when I was finished I sat on the bench and cried, thinking of Philip in fatigues, thinking of his beautiful hands adjusting the telescopic sight of a sniper’s rifle, thinking I would never see him again or hear him play, thinking this was a great pity, a great pity.

Then, one day about four years after Philip’s note, his name turned up in a monthly report from my CPA. He had paid a deposit to return to Cantabile that fall.

Students for that camp began arriving about two hours after Charles departed. My husband, the distinguished and now wealthy surgeon, had taken the better part of one of his valuable days to drive out from Baltimore because he felt he needed to tell me face to face that our marriage was, from his perspective, less than optimal; that he felt he owed himself the opportunity of a fresh start with someone who would be more…what was his word? Committed, yes, committed to him and only him.

Charles also felt that he was still relatively young and that, statistically speaking, his field of choices was encouragingly large. He would be quite generous in terms of a settlement, anything I wanted, really, and since I clearly did not want the same stylish urban life that he did, this was really for the best.

I suspected he had already winnowed his encouraging large field of choices to one, a distinctly stylish and urban young yoga instructor with the right body and the right hair to be just the right ornament for his Mercedes convertible. But as he stood in the foyer making his oh-so-persuasive case, I found I didn’t care much, just wanted him gone before the campers arrived.

The Philip who was dropped off at my door that August was bigger than the boy I had last seen, and he had let his hair grow. He lugged a duffel bag of clothing and a slim portfolio case of music, and he walked with a slight limp. When I came to hug him, he pivoted toward me oddly, and it was only a minute later, as he made his way up the hall stairs, that I realized his right leg was prosthetic.

I had heard about the embassy bombing, of course, but I had not seen Philip’s name in the newspapers. Three of his fellow Marines had been killed, and a dozen injured, and committees in both houses of Congress wanted to know why this and why that and why some other thing.
“It was a dangerous place,” was all Philip would say, the first evening in our welcome reception.

A hot night, faint breeze through the big screened porch where we gathered. Philip had come downstairs in shorts, and his artificial leg was the unmentioned center of attention. He knew quite a few of his fellow campers and seemed at ease, though he still preferred Dr Pepper to wine. The conversation danced around more or less gracefully, until finally a fellow camper asked, “So, do you pedal with your left leg now?” Philip laughed. And then the subject vanished in laughter, drink, and music-chat. I realized, also, that I had blindly made a wise choice by rooming Philip with Bradley, a veteran of the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm. Bradley—never just Brad—walked with a slight limp and had, he said, a picturesque web of scars on his lower back as the result of an encounter with an amateur bomb in Kuwait. I saw him now, gazing benignly at Philip, and then his eyes shifted to meet mine and I thought he nodded, ever so slightly.

And I saw them in conversation, around dusk the next day, sitting on the low concrete wall that reinforced the riverbank. I noticed a tiny red glow passing between them and smiled, sniffing the air.

Any big old house makes noise, and if you sleep alone in such a house you come to terms with the noises. The porch screens hum in the breeze, and each time the refrigerator cycles on, the picture frames vibrate in the stairwell behind the kitchen. That night, or rather in the quietest hours of the morning, I found myself lying awake, thinking intermittently about my defunct marriage and empty future, staring up into the darkness and listening for a tiny sound that was not part of the usual.

Once, when I had first moved into the house, a swarm of bees had somehow taken over the living room, and they had made just such a faint clamor by banging against the bay window in their effort to get out. But this was different, far too rhythmic, and it stopped altogether from time to time. I got out of bed and passed, barefoot and stealthy, through the short corridor linking my suite to the rest of the house.

Dim light rose through the stairwell, and I moved slowly halfway down the stairs. The noise came from the keys of the digital piano on the landing below, left there for silent practice during quiet hours. I had never realized the keys made any sound at all. Even now, only a few feet away, I had to listen acutely. More audible were Philip’s grunts, snorts, and occasional whispers as he stopped, clenched and unclenched his fists, and jumped back into whatever he was so furiously practicing. His leg lay on the floor beside the bench; he was practicing without pedal, working on accuracy and speed. And he was becoming increasingly frustrated. At any moment he might quit and turn around; not wanting to be caught spying, I crept back to my bed.

So it went for four days. In truth, I was frightened by the energy I sensed in Philip’s silent practice, by the way he lunged through every setback and seemed to want to tear gashes in the music and leave it panting. I crept to the stairwell each of three straight nights, lingering where I could retreat should he turn abruptly, watching his hands, those white, big-knuckled hands that had fascinated me on my first sight of him flying⎯sometimes a foot above the keyboard, and sometimes sinking deeply into the keys to draw out a love song. I had first risen from bed because I could not sleep. Now I could not sleep because I wanted, every night, to sit here and listen to Philip’s stunning, exhausting silence.

When not enthralled by his hands I gazed at the stump of his leg. His prosthesis lay on the floor. The stump projected eight inches from his gym shorts, the crisscrossing surgical scars not yet faded. It embarrassed me. It seemed a shockingly intimate sight, the nudest thing I had ever seen. Yet I could not turn away.

I sought him out one afternoon as he sat on the porch and gazed across the river.

“Philip,” I said, “forgive me for prying, but what are you practicing at night?”

My question startled him. “Have I disturbed you? I was using the earphones.”

“Oh, no, no, I’m sure you aren’t bothering anyone. I simply stumbled on you the other night, when I had gotten up for some other reason entirely. Point is, you were going at it hammer and tongs.”

He smiled briefly. “Hammer and tongs,” he whispered. “It’s Liszt. The Don Juan Fantasy.”

“Wow,” I said, and meant it. “I can’t even play that.”
“I doubt you’d want to,” he said. “It’s junk.”
“Then why do you want to play it?”
He leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees, falling into a series of small nods. “I have been meaning to ask your advice on something,” he said. “I have been invited to play at the White House, on Veterans Day.”

“Philip, that’s wonderful!”

“Is it?” he held my gaze for a moment. “Or is it a PR stunt? The Marine Band is pulling together a whole bunch of us wounded warriors, a bunch of guys who left pieces and parts in various shithole corners of the world but somehow manage to live rich and rewarding lives through music. It’s supposed to be inspirational.”

“Sounds like you doubt it.”

“My first impulse was to tell them to go fuck themselves.” Perhaps I still thought of Philip as a little boy, but the obscenity struck me hard.

“Then I thought,” he went on, “maybe if I do really well, somebody will hear and want to hire me for other stuff. Even accompanist gigs, piano bars, anything would be better than just sitting around my mom’s house.”

“It could happen,” I said. “Though I’d hate to think of you doing requests for a room full of drunks.”

“I’ve done it before. It ain’t that bad.” “But.”
“But,” he said, and fell silent.
“What does Bradley say?”

“Bradley is strongly in favor of the go-fuck-yourself option,” Philip said. “In fact, he says I should accept, perform, knock them on their asses, and then tell the president to his face to go fuck himself.”

“And you? What do you think?”

Philip was silent a long time, or it seemed so. Finally: “When I first came back, I was in the hospital in Bethesda, and on Memorial Day they loaded us into buses and brought us down to the Mall for the concert. Got us nice seats, front row, so we’d all be on TV. There was some C-list actor who got famous playing a disabled vet, plus a bunch of Hollywood bimbos emoting about how much they appreciated us, what heroes we were. All the while I’m thinking, if I approached you in a bar, your bodyguards would beat me bloody. Then they loaded us back on the bus and brought us home. Hurray for the vets, now go away.”

“You said you wanted my advice,” I prodded. “I haven’t heard a question yet.”

“Should I do it?”

“Play at the White House, yes. Insult the president, no,” I said.

“That simple, is it?”

“To me. I’d also consider something shorter and less aggressive than the Liszt. It’s a social occasion, after all.”

Philip smiled, his gaze unfocused across the wide river. “Well, I guess I’ll think about it.”

I lumbered on: “Or, if you really must bring down the house, work with me on it. I would never program it myself, I meant it when I said I couldn’t play it. But I studied it with Alfred Brendel back in the day, and I know it, I know where the snakes are. Stay here for the next six weeks. You’ll have your room to yourself, all the privacy you want, and you can practice on the Steinway in the living room. We’ll work on it together every day. Put a fine edge on the piece before you ride it into battle.”

“I couldn’t afford that,” Philip said.

“No charge. Throw a little something into the grocery fund from time to time, is all.” I stood to leave, and at the door to the house I turned back. “You’re not a performing seal, Philip,” I said. “Seals do things for scraps of raw fish. I don’t know what payoff you’re after.”

That fall, as Philip practiced in the living room, I began work in my study. I would assemble a recital program, I thought, then call in whatever IOUs I might still have to see if I could stage a comeback. A small venue in DC or Baltimore would be best, affordable but still credible as a professional stage. Instead of my old pyrotechnic warhorses, I would play a thoughtful program, suitable for a mature artist, and we’d see what happened.

What happened, most immediately: On our fourth day of work, I had put my hand onto the Steinway keyboard to illustrate a fingering, and all at once Philip’s hand was on top of mine, softly enclosing, and he turned toward me on the bench.

“Philip, we have work to do,” I said.
“Yes,” he whispered.
“Not that kind of work,” I said. He let his hand linger a  moment, looked into my eyes, and squeezed. He did not mean to alarm me, I don’t think, but the strength in his hands made me imagine bones crunching. “Philip, please,” I said. “I’m old enough to be your mother.”

“And I’m missing a leg, or hadn’t you noticed?” he said, not letting go.

“Please let go of my hand,” I said softly. He did not let go.

“I know I’m damaged. But everyone is damaged somehow,” he said, now turning and taking my other hand in his, though I tried to squirm away. “Philip,” I said more sternly, rising from the bench. He let my hands slip away and hung his head.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m flattered. But we’d never be good for each other.”

“We’d be great together, and you know it.”

“I don’t know it. And if this sort of thing happens again, you will have to leave.”

We went back to work. Philip did not try again. He certainly could have forced me, I realized. We were alone in the house, and he was very strong. Was I attracted to him? Of course I was; he was beautiful. Those hands! But I thought his ardor for me reflected deprivation and proximity more than anything else. He could have better than me, but I would do in a pinch. I was much older than he, and gravity had had its way with my body. Yet I was sure I could please him. I wanted to, and I knew how. And after all, my Charles had gotten himself a new toy⎯why shouldn’t I? Then I thought: I won’t do it precisely because Charles has.

None of this kept the thought from my mind, often at the most unlikely moments. Finally, I made a pact with myself. Later, after the concert, after his triumph—our triumph—we would return to Cantabile that night, no matter how late, and we’d come back into the dark, welcoming house, and if he were still interested then, I would make love to him, all he wanted, and almost enough.

Sometimes in life, you have to wait for the punchline. In Charles’ case, he lived the life he wanted for another six years after he left me, with his box at the opera and his club seats at the football games, and he and his magnificent Celine blasting their megawatt smiles at the photographers at the Cancer Ball.

He eventually deceased himself, as they say, while in the act. I smirked to think of God tapping him on the shoulder right in the middle of that most pleasurable of moments. His quietus smacked him in the chest and he let out a gasp, and a gush, and then his lifeless face landed perfectly between Celine’s spectacular breasts. And she thought he was merely spent, and went on stroking his hair for several moments, until his unresponsiveness annoyed her and she poked him in the ribs. Surprise, Celine.

I didn’t know any of that when I made my pact, but I knew the long-term future was a sucker bet, and I started the next day content with my decision.
As Veterans Day approached Philip put me on his guest list for the White House concert and left off practicing three days beforehand. Enough, he said, he was ready.

The concert would be recorded the afternoon before the holiday and broadcast the next night.

Of the event itself, I have minimal impressions. I was seated well to the back of the East Room, and the acoustics were awful. The president spoke without a microphone. A cellist played, and a blues guitarist, and a young woman did a good job on a tough aria, and then it was Philip’s turn, and he brought his volcanic piece off without a hitch. So much so that the East Room, a well of polite applause if ever one existed, erupted in a standing ovation that went on for three minutes.

Then the president stepped forward and held out his hand, and Philip put his hands behind his back. He said something I couldn’t hear. The president’s smile never faltered but his eyes darted and in a moment Philip had been whisked away. In the post-concert crush I made my way to his side and asked, “What happened?”

“Just what I intended from the beginning,” he said, staring at me and daring me to scold him. “Let’s get out of here,” he said.

“No, Philip,” I said. “You go. I’ll stay in DC overnight. You take tomorrow to clear your things out of the house.”
“Annie? You’re throwing me out?”

“Music isn’t meant for spite, Philip. You can’t do what you did and be with me.”

At that, he pulled himself up straight and gave me an overstated, sarcastic salute, then walked away.

He was entirely excised from the broadcast, the twenty- minute gap made up with filler. It was as though he had never played, had never been there at all.
Was I wrong to think music could heal Philip? To think something as prosaic as playing the piano could untie so many knots? It was a faith of sorts. We hear the ecstasy in Beethoven’s late music and forget the wretched man. He wrote of kisses for all the world, but his own last gesture in life was a raised fist.

My faith had not even saved me, really. I was alone, in the quietly echoing house on the river. The sun was going down, the birds skimming across the water, diving to bring sudden death to tiny fish deceived to the surface by the dwindling light. So it went, I thought. We watch our weight and eat our veggies and get cancer anyway. We volunteer in soup kitchens and shelters only to be hit by a bus on our way home. We pull ourselves up, shake our fists at heaven, and still die.

I was so exhausted that night that I considered sleeping in my reading chair. But in the end I got up and went to the piano and played, and played through the night to the dawn, ending by playing Bach chorales and singing at the top of my lungs in my lousy German. And then the sun was up and the day had begun and Philip was gone and the fish in the river were doomed.

Well, I thought, there we are. Music doesn’t cure. It doesn’t save, nor redeem. But it’s the only thing I know that doesn’t make everything worse.

Maryland author John McKeon grew up in an Irish family in Brooklyn, New York, though half of his relatives are Italian, and his grandparents spoke German at home. He is the author of two novels, The Point of the Spear and Other Harbors, and the short story collection Cantabile and Other Stories. His story in Delmarva Review was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. It will be aired on “Delmarva Radio Theatre” at 8 p.m., Sunday, December 16, on Delmarva Public Radio, WSCL 89.5 FM. Poet Anne Colwell will read in the main role.

Delmarva Review is a literary journal of national scope, with regional roots. The nonprofit review discovers and prints compelling new fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from authors within the region and beyond. It is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Visit: DelmarvaReview.org. Order copies at Amazon.com.

 

Delmarva Review Announces 11th Annual Edition and Opening of New Submissions

Delmarva Review announced publication of its eleventh literary journal presenting new poetry, short stories and creative nonfiction by authors from 19 states and two other countries. Half are from the Delmarva-Chesapeake region.

“The new issue is our largest, with over 300 pages of outstanding new prose and poetry,” said Wilson Wyatt, executive editor. “Editors selected the work of 45 writers that stood out from thousands of submissions. While the stories and poems represent a diverse collection of literary voices and style, together they suggest a common theme, the discovery or realization of one’s individuality. Often shaped by adversity, individuality forms the roots of our creativity.”

This edition includes 57 poems, 10 short stories, 11 nonfiction, and four micro nonfiction selections. Editors reviewed five recent books by regional writers.

The cover image, “Sharps Island Light,” is of the iconic leaning lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay, by photographer by Jay P. Fleming, of Annapolis, Maryland. The iron column, tilted from an ice-flow, weathered by storms and sea, rises 35 feet above the Chesapeake Bay offering navigation for sailors.

Delmarva Review was created in 2008 to offer writers a valued venue to publish their best writing in print at a time when many commercial publications were reducing literary content or going out of business. The journal favors the permanence of the printed word, but it also publishes an electronic edition to meet the digital preferences of many readers. Both print and electronic editions are immediately available at Amazon.com and other major online booksellers.

Since its first annual issue, the review has showcased the original work of 300 writers. In all, authors have come from 40 states and 10 foreign countries. Fifty-one percent are from the tri-state Delmarva Peninsula and Chesapeake Bay region. Over 50 have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  Some have received notable mention in Best American Essays or achieved notice from other literary editors.  For many, this was a first recognition.

The submission period for the next issue is open through March 31, 2019. Submissions are made from the website at DelmarvaReview.org.  All writers are welcome.

In addition to executive editor Wyatt, the journal’s all-volunteer staff includes Bill Gourgey, managing editor, Harold O. Wilson, fiction editor, James O’Sullivan, fiction reader, Anne Colwell, poetry editor, Wendy Elizabeth Ingersoll, poetry reader, Cheryl Somers Aubin, nonfiction editor, Gerald Sweeney, book section editor, Jodie Littleton, copy editor, and Mike Pretl, legal advisor.

Published by the Delmarva Review Literary Fund Inc., the nonprofit journal is supported by a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council, with revenues from the Maryland State Arts Council, and from individual tax-deductible contributions.

Delmarva Review: “The Secret Life of Pool Cleaners” by Caroline Bock

My job was to clean the swimming pool after the cops fished out Mr. Gatsby. Extra work, no extra pay. I scooped his fancy watch off the bottom and plunked it in my pocket. No one thinks of the unseen characters in fiction. The ones like me—who are yet to be written, or never get written, or get cut from the story in one of those drafts you hear writers grouse about. Listen up, I exist in the subconscious of the writer who never stopped writing that book you take for granted. I got to believe that the story never truly ends; it only stops out of exhaustion, or relief, or a deadline and threat from an editor. I keep cleaning the pool because some of us have real jobs. Look here—the pool is ready to swim in again, the water clear and the sky blue as far as I can see out to the Long Island Sound. The white plum tree quivers in full bloom. I’ll have to skim out the debris of petals in the next day or so. Now the air is honey-thick, and even I can appreciate the beauty of the scene. Fact is: After you fall asleep with a novel lost in your sheets, I might stake my claim. I might be what you dream about—me, a nobody. Remember me the next time you swim in a rich man’s pool. Truth is: I might inspire you. Take that and mark your novel with it.

Caroline Bock is a Maryland author. Her debut short story collection, “Carry Her Home,” just won the 2018 Washington Writers’ Publishing House Fiction Prize and will be published in November. She is the author of young adult novels: “Lie” and “Before My Eyes” from St. Martin’s Press. Currently, she is writing a novel set in 2099.

Delmarva Review is a literary publication of national scope, with strong regional roots. In its eleventh year, the nonprofit journal publishes compelling new fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from authors within the region and beyond. It is supported by individual contributions, sales, and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For information and copies, visit: www.DelmarvaReview.org.

Delmarva Review: The Philosophy of Stars: A Personal Essay by Gail Overstreet

Three years ago, I watched as my best friend, my father, gulped down a giant, salted caramel cookie the size of a dinner plate. His face flushed with toddler-like eagerness, crumbs littered his chin on down to the neat, knit collar of his polo shirt. Dad took full advantage of the fact that my stepmother wasn’t there in the Barnes & Noble café to order him a sensible turkey sandwich for lunch.

He was no longer able to drive, and I was still stinging from the 20-minute diatribe he had just unleashed on me due to my missing the correct highway exit in his new town; a town I didn’t know. Unaccustomed to these new and frequent emotional outbursts, I felt rattled.

I tell him to wait for me in the café while I go to the ladies’ room. When I return three minutes later, he is gone. Hastily I explain to the café clerk that my Dad has dementia, and did she see which way he headed? Seeing my panic, she joins me in my frantic search. We find him a long five minutes later, wandering aimlessly on the other side of the store, looking for something or someone.

It would be our last outing together, as a pair.

Most stars have companions; they are bound together by mutual gravity. When paired, stars orbit around each other, with one star typically more gaseous while the other is more rocky. The forces of gravity between them can cause the younger, more gaseous star to gain mass and shape from the older, denser star. Like water swirling around a drain, their orbital gravity allows for the transfer of basic components of a star – gasses, space dust, rocks – and for the younger star to begin to solidify under compression. This compression progressively generates extremely high temperatures within the core of the star-under-construction – known as a protostar – which ultimately leads to fusion. In other words, a star in its infancy through youth evolves from a nebulous, gaseous form, becoming more solid, partly through deriving material from a mature star in its orbit.
Eventually, the younger star graduates from its protostar status, fusing into a fully-baked star in its own right.

My Dad and I were a pair from the start. Fresh out of the Navy in 1965, where he served as an intelligence officer, Dad would spend the next 40 years as a civil engineer drafting plans for the construction of large airports and seaports. When I was in elementary school in the 1970s – while my older brother, in emulation of Swiss Family Robinson, spent all his time playing outside in tree houses or exploring the weedy vacant lot at the end of our road – I would sneak into the den of our modest, Easter egg-yellow ranch house in suburban San Diego. I sat on my Dad’s spinning bar-style chair with the burnt sienna-orange vinyl seat, situated at his drafting table. My legs dangled off the high seat, careful not to disturb any of the drawings he’d been working on. I gingerly fingered the drawing paper; it felt semi-stiff and made a crinkling sound under my light touch, the delicate corners and edges curling up slightly. My eyes traced the outlines of buildings, walls, parking lots. The comforting Dad-scent of his smoky aftershave lingered on his desk pad and drafting pencils.

While he drew, I played on the floor around him, sometimes peeking over his shoulder, wondering if when I grew up I would have my very own drafting table, too. Between his projects, I would experiment with the see-through green, circle-shape drafting templates – struggling with my too-small fingers to keep the hard-plastic mechanical pencils pushed firmly, but not too roughly, against the sharp, beveled edges of the circle shapes, lest the lead would break off – pretending to draw plans of (mostly circular) buildings.

Now, Dad seems light years away from me.

The Earth is continually turning, making it tricky for astrophotographers to track objects in deep space and successfully make clear, sharp images of them. Stability is everything in astrophotography; moving the scope even a few inches can translate into millions of miles off-target once the instrument’s view hits deep space.

For this reason, a telescope has two cameras: the first camera is aimed at the Target Star (or “object”) that the astrophotographer wants to make an image of, while a second camera is aimed at the Guide Star.

A Guide Star serves as a single fixed point in the sky, a reference point. Once the first camera’s shutter opens, the light sensor inside it starts collecting light data from the Target Star. At that point, the sensor in the first camera becomes overwhelmed with bright light, and the view of the Target Star through the astrophotographers camera software goes blank.

A Guide Star is your anchor, your reassurance. You know where you are in time and place in the vast universe. It is home base.

When I was in college, my Dad relished my experience along with me. He was a true intellectual, his mind engrossed by many subjects, delving deeply into the sciences, literature, the arts. Raised in rural farming communities, he diverged from the family and immersed himself in books and music whenever he could, lying in grassy fields on sunny afternoons as a young boy, hearing musical compositions form in his head as he gazed into the vast, blue California sky. My two brothers didn’t go to college, but rather pursued careers in the trades. So, when I finally found my way to Berkeley as an English undergrad in my late twenties, my father was overjoyed.

Dad had bypassed his desire to study music, instead going to school for a professional degree in civil engineering. He envied my study of the Classics, and philosophy, and timeless themes of war, love, redemption, and coming home. Every Sunday, we gathered on the phone, our exclusive club of two. We joked about how we might save the world with the help of Voltaire, Shakespeare, and Homer. After I took my last two final essay exams back to back, my mind happily exhausted in an adrenaline- fueled afterglow, I called Dad.

Once I got into the working world, Dad said, I might never have these moments again – the “high” from intellectual rigor, for the sheer joy of it. Treasure them.

There are observable regions of space that contain hundreds of galaxies, which consist of billions of stars. These galaxy neighborhoods occur due to the expansion of mutual gravity. That is, the more galaxies there are the more gravity that is generated both between pairs of galaxies and among galaxies as a larger group – with the gravitational pull accelerating at an astonishing pace. In fact, “gravity rules” could be the official tagline of how deep space operates – it’s like a giant game of bumper cars up there.

Gravity is how stars are created from their infancy, as protostars. Gravity is what keeps our Earth moving around the sun. Gravity is what will cause the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies to collide into each other a projected four billion years from now.

And in these galaxy neighborhoods, gravity is what causes these astral bodies to orbit each other, and even steal stars from each other if they can get close enough.

Thirteen years ago is when I first noticed. Dad was 65, and we had both traveled to Ohio for a week of festivities before my little brother’s wedding. We were driving around town, having no luck finding bagels to bring back to the group. Pulling up to the third potential restaurant, my dependably even-keeled Dad shouted: “Let’s just get some damn food!”

A jolt of shock coursed through my body. I glanced over at my father, who was staring straight ahead, as if in a trance. I froze, trying not to cry – bewildered by this stranger sitting next to me.

A year later, everyone else noticed. During a family lunch, Dad repeated something he said just 10 minutes earlier, like it was a new thought. My siblings and I froze, our sandwiches and mouths hanging in mid-air. We shot startled looks at each other, as if one of us would deliver the punch line.

Months later, those ten-minute gaps turned into five minutes, a year-and-a-half after that, one minute. During that time, my stepmother relayed the doctors’ findings. First was “atrophy of the hippocampus” (the center of emotion and memory in the brain), which quickly progressed to “moderate” dementia. Then, from the memory specialist’s report: “The severity of his memory impairment is suggestive of an evolving Alzheimer’s disease.” It all happened so fast – once the gravity of the disease took hold the acceleration was astounding, stealing memories by the minute.

A few months ago, I presented my father with a pine cone from the Giant Sequoia, the largest trees in the world, gathered near the mountain home in California that my new husband and I just moved into. I explained how these cones are a rare find since they only typically drop during powerful mountain storms, or an intense wildfire when the tree is under great heat stress. Usually, these cones stay tucked away at the very top of these ancient trees, which can grow as tall as 300 feet and live up to 3,000 years.

Dad glanced at it for about a second, puzzled, then dropped it on a side table, mumbling “Um…OK. Thanks?”

The engineer-father I once knew would have analyzed that pine-cone for hours, noting the exquisite design of its diamond- shaped scales. He would have traced the geometry of the cone with his fingers, observing where the outer scales joined the core, and where the core joined the stem. He would have considered how functionally astute this tree was, protecting its seeds deep inside its tightly closed orbit.

My Dad will never see our new home. He doesn’t remember my husband between our visits to see him and my stepmom in Florida. He doesn’t remember that I now live in California, just up the mountain from where his family farmed the San Joaquin Valley for decades starting in the late 1930s, refugees from the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma. He doesn’t remember that I went to Berkeley, or the constellations of hours-long conversations we had about what I was discovering and learning, or that he came to see me there.

And one day, he won’t remember me.

Comets are loners. They are trapped within the sun’s orbit, accelerating as they get closer to it, the sun’s gravity exerting great centrifugal force. Unlike stars, comets do not easily reveal which way they are headed.

Even a comet’s orbit is different from a star’s. Elliptical, like an oval, instead of circular as with stars, comets are much more unpredictable. A comet’s movements, direction, and whether it will someday crash into the sun – or be able to escape the sun’s massive pull and free itself – ultimately remains a mystery.

Many comets are like Comet Catalina, which we are now seeing from Earth for the last time. It has gotten just close enough to the sun to take advantage of its centrifugal force, and be propelled out of our solar system forever.

Soon, it will cross a threshold and escape from us. Maybe it will linger a bit longer in the liminal space between our solar system and what lies beyond it. Or, maybe it will go out in a blinding blaze, gone in a flash.

However it goes, we will know it is still out there, blazing its trail in the deep corners of space, just out of our sights.

Gail Overstreet’s essay in the 10th edition of Delmarva Review has been selected as a “Notable” essay in “The Best American Essays 2018.” Ms. Overstreet received her MA in writing from Johns Hopkins University. She is a teacher and astronomer and lives with her husband at 5,000 feet elevation in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, near their astronomy observatory. Her work has appeared in National Geographic: Sierra Nevada Geotourism, Orion, and other publications.

Delmarva Review is a national literary journal with regional roots. In it’s eleventh year, the nonprofit journal publishes compelling new prose and poetry from authors within the region and beyond. It is supported by individual contributions, sales, and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For information and copies, visit: www.delmarvareview.com.

Delmarva Review: “Danger” A poem by Ivy Grimes

Lemmings don’t want to die when they jump
from a costumed rock above the sea.

Their bodies are Mayflowers
that sometimes reach the other shore.
They search.
When their home overpopulates
and winter kills the cabbages

and we eat the last war rations,
some faction wants a new world.
Those who make it
pick up foreign words
and learn to frown like tundra owls.
They follow the birds who know
which hemisphere is wounded
and which is festive with oranges.
But when the world alters
and the sun grows udders
of darkness, leaking swamps
on every harvest—

some lemmings will break off from the panic
and steal the severed palms of men
as ships to cross the blushing ocean.

 

In addition to Delmarva Review, Ivy Grimes’s writing has been published in Salt Hill, Weave, WomenArts Quarterly, Eclectica, Cimarron Review, and other literary publications. She has an M.F.A. from University of Alabama. For more of her writing, please visit www.ivyivyivyivy.com.

Delmarva Review is a national literary journal with local roots. In it’s eleventh year, the nonprofit publication is supported by individual contributions, sales, and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For information and print copies, visit: www.delmarvareview.com.

Delmarva Review Feature Photographer Jay Fleming’s Work on 11th Edition Cover

Photographer Jay Fleming’s color image “Sharps Island Light,” the leaning icon of Chesapeake Bay lighthouses, has been selected for the cover of the eleventh annual Delmarva Review, to be published in November.

“We’re pleased to select a cover photograph from the substantial work of regional artists,” said Wilson Wyatt, executive editor of the review. “Jay’s striking images tell us stories visually through his unique artistic style. The iron strength of ‘Sharps Island Light,’ rising 35 feet above the Chesapeake, compliments a folio of compelling prose and poetry that will last beyond our lifetimes.”

Fleming, 31, is a professional fine art photographer who learned his craft from two powerful sources, his dogged self-persistence and the tutelage of his photographer father, Kevin Fleming, another highly skilled professional artist and former National Geographic photographer.

With a studio in Annapolis, Jay Fleming’s images have been featured in many magazines and exhibited in fine art galleries throughout the Chesapeake region. His first book of photography, Working the Water, was published in 2016. A second book, Island Life, is scheduled for 2020. He graduated from St. Mary’s College majoring in economics.

The eleventh edition of Delmarva Review will contain new fiction, poetry, and nonfiction from over forty authors in the United States and several other countries. About half are from the Chesapeake and Delmarva region.

Delmarva Review is a nonprofit literary journal published in print and e-book editions by the Delmarva Review Literary Fund, Inc. Both editions are available at

Amazon.com and other leading online booksellers. The journal is supported by individual contributions, sales, and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council.

The next submission period for new literary work and cover art opens on November 1. Please see the website for guidelines and subscriptions: www.DelmarvaReview.com.

Delmarva Review: “Dark vs. Darker” by Leslie Pietrzyk

As a writing teacher, I may be overly fond of my own pronouncements. Here’s how to write, I proclaim to the fiction workshop, sharing lessons I learned from teachers and craft books and from my experience hacking through the thicket of works-in-progress. Here’s what you must do.

Some students take my advice; others ignore me. My role’s limited: I can only tell them what I know, and the rest—rather, most of it—is up to them. I pass teacherly judgment on the artfulness of their work, but I don’t judge these beginning writers by wondering who will “make it” and who won’t. I was no big deal in my graduate program, and whether I’ve “made it” or not, at least I’ve published some books, which was the goal of my life from first grade, when I first learned that stories were written by real people.

One pronouncement is on the first day of class, as we’re getting comfortable as a group. I announce that no one knows everything about writing, that we’re all learning. I pause, my gaze sweeping the table in encouragement. “I’m still learning too,” I add. My voice hovers between friendly and benevolent as my eyes meet theirs in shy admission that we’re all in it together. I say, “I love your questions and challenges. I love a class that makes me think.”

I do. Of course I do. Yet I trust this gaze reminds them that even so, I’m smarter, and I’m in charge, and let’s please not forget that, okay?

I’m lucky that in the graduate programs where I teach most of my students want to learn from me, so in the weeks ahead, I’m confident our workshop will overflow with challenging questions my repertoire of pronouncements will address.

My favorite pronouncement—and the bedrock of all I believe superlative writing to be—is my belief that the writer must dive into the dark place to find the best, truest material. This premise is hardly my own invention: Anne Lamott’s classic, Bird by Bird, notes, “The great writers keep writing about the cold dark place within.” And, in Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood writes, “Where is the story? The story is in the dark.” My favorite metaphor for this journey within is the myth of Orpheus, the poet/musician who travelled deep into the underworld hoping to recover his dead wife and bring her back into the light. If I didn’t discover “the dark place” from Atwood, I certainly picked up the metaphor there. In my workshop, the “dark place” theory typically emerges early, when we discuss student work that is accomplished but lacking urgency, and the phrase “the dark place” becomes part of our shared vocabulary. “This scene isn’t working,” someone will complain, “I don’t think the writer has gone to the dark place.”

If I’m lucky, a moment arises during workshop—honestly, I finagle this moment myself—where it’s natural to launch my rant on the “dark place,” citing Orpheus as I proclaim that all stories have been told so what we have is the telling, these unique voices, drawing upon our individual knowledge and pain and deep experience; I declare that readers yearn for what they’ve never heard before, something only YOU can bring to the page, that story you don’t dare tell, that thing you want left secret, that hard and true darkness that you can—must—dredge up from the underworld.

I love this speech!

I love the recklessness of it, and the audacity. I love throwing down this gauntlet. I love that what I’m advocating sounds true and imperative. I love the keyboard clicks as my students race to catch the magic of my words; I love that the class sees me riled, that even if they think I’m full of horseshit, at least I’m entertaining.

Honestly, and I shouldn’t say so, I would love to be videoed during this speech because I would love to watch my crazed and loony passion even as I would cringe and never utter another word. I love that when I’m rolling out this rant no one dares question my authority.

I especially love that last bit because I was a big fraud. The “dark place” is fucking scary, and once you’re down there, who knows what you’ll uncover or how you’ll escape. The trick of the Orpheus myth is that he returned from the underworld, living to tell the tale. “As the best authorities have it, easy to go there, but hard to come back; and then you must write it all down on a stone,” Atwood wrote. It’s called the DARK PLACE, not the sunny-let’s-eat-ice-cream-and-chitchat place. It’s where we hide family secrets, deepest fears, and every ounce of shame. That place, the place where the guts to type, “I was a big fraud,” came from. And this: I couldn’t even admit I was a big fraud.

Oh, I’m a hundred percent right; the best writing comes from the dark place. As a teacher, I’ve got to tell them that. But as a writer, I know we don’t muck down there all the time. I mean, there are funny books, and skillful stories that don’t require guts splayed on paper, and practiced writers learn to distract readers with style! Intellect! Tricks! All sorts of glittery baubles work, or seem to, keeping the writer safely distant from the dark place while getting published.

For several years, I had been in a different sort of dark place, the one where every other writer in America had a new book being rave-reviewed and winning A Major Award. I had written a beautiful novel that had been rejected by every publisher in America. This was actually the second novel in a row I had written to be rejected by every publisher in America. The notes from my agent were getting brief. Because I’d focused on writing novels, I didn’t have many short stories to send around for a possible hit of lit journal publication, and anyway, the short stories I did have had been rejected by every literary journal in America. My favorite things about my writing life then were leading workshops, making pronouncements about writing, and watching students improve under my sharp eye. I can still teach, I thought, at least there’s that.

I wondered if that might be enough. I had published two books and one had been reviewed in the New York Times. Wasn’t that what first grade me wanted? Weren’t my books in the library (rather, hadn’t they been, before getting dumped for books people wanted to check out)? Could I be happy guiding the next generation, reading my name in the acknowledgements of their books? Might that be more than enough? If what I cared about was ART, must it be MY art?

I mentioned my thoughts to one person only, a poet immersed in bad writer’s block who hadn’t written for ages, also a writing teacher. The question felt sacrilegious to me, and as I was fumbling my way to a complete sentence, he interrupted: “I know what you’re thinking, and no. That’s what I thought, oh, teaching will save me! Oh, future generations! And no. No. No, no, no.” His eyes seared mine, or that’s how I remember it as he enunciated: “I will tell you right now. It is not enough.” If the Devil popped in looking to exchange his soul for one perfect sonnet, he’d say yes. As would I.

I could create a new career by changing my name, genre, age, and Gmail.

I could take up web design.

During this time, I met a genial and chatty student I’ll call Dale, starting his first semester of the low-res MFA where I teach. He was a former baseball player, and I love baseball, so we talked about that, and he was an open-minded reader, so we talked about books. Maybe because he came from a sports background he had a noticeable respect for the authority of the teacher-coach, and I gravitate to students who seem eager to learn (no surprise, I guess). I was assigned as his mentor this first semester, which in a low-res program, I secretly call the ice-bath semester, when the shock of being back in school combines with the cold reality of how far one’s own writing must inch forward to be able to glimpse the hem of the masterworks being studied. Dale survived the ice-bath semester, and though I didn’t mentor him again until his final semester, we became friends in this small, tight-knit program. He was one of those guys with a million questions— about writing and books, follow-ups on the lectures and readings—and he and I talked often outside the workshop. He truly wanted to learn. Sometimes so many questions can become annoying, but I was never annoyed. Perhaps I was flattered—to him, what I said about writing mattered; he wasn’t bothered that every writer in America had a novel out and my last novel had been published eight years ago, which is practically ten years, which is a decade, which is forever. I could teach him, I thought, Dale for sure would slide my name in the acknowledgements and would double-check the spelling.

It was the last night of the 2012 summer residency on campus, after ten long days crammed with workshops, lectures, readings, and late nights. All of us had just finished an emotional dinner watching our beloved graduates cross the stage and shake hands with the director; boxed wine and cheap beer flowed; various students were plunking and twanging guitars, with songs ranging from Johnny Cash to AC/DC, making it impossible to feel settled in a groove. I was weepy. I had to pack and drive eight hours in the morning. I didn’t want to go home and face the stories I was writing that might be a book or might be nothing, and that either way weren’t getting published and weren’t a novel I could show my agent.

Dale came over. The room was set like a crummy wedding reception, with large round tables of ten and cheap folding chairs, and a swirl of multiple conversations meant it was possible to speak privately despite the crowd. I may have had several glasses of red wine. I felt maudlin, watching students graduate, about to forge on without me, all their shiny promise ahead. Surely, being in South Carolina, it was hot and sticky, and even inside, everyone’s skin slicked with sweat. The disorganized guitars clattered on.

Dale asked what I’d be doing over the summer, and I said something like, “Writing stories that no one wants to read for a book no one wants to publish.”

He laughed but immediately figured out there wasn’t a joke. “Umm,” he said.

“Yep,” I said. “Just part of the writing life, the part they don’t tell you about,” though I meant, the part I don’t tell you about. I, the teacher. Time to learn!

He passed along some thoughtful comments about what an amazing writer I was and how he was sure I was wrong and that sort of thing: feel-better compliments that didn’t make me feel better.

I responded sort of like this: “I’m old [not that I ever revealed exactly how old], and my novels weren’t best-sellers or movies, and I wrote two books I couldn’t sell, and no one reads anyway.” I didn’t even bring up the part about every other writer winning A Major Award. Let that be part of the surprise ahead. I may have whined out something like, “There’s a different way of writing now. When I was in school, it was minimalists and ‘the New Yorker story’ and now it’s meta-this and vampires in literary stuff.”

The thing about athletes who play team sports is that they tend to be very optimistic. They also tend to persevere. Perhaps I sounded like any discouraged batter in a slump or bonehead infielder who just watched the ball roll through his legs. Anyway, my bitter remarks triggered an instinct in Dale, and he launched into a pep talk. I enjoyed being told how great I was, how inspiring my winter workshop had been, how this-and-that, words I couldn’t believe but that seemed pleasant drifting past. This went on maybe until I finished the wine in my glass.

Then he said, “Well,” and sucked in a deep breath. I braced for one of his questions. A whoosh of air, and then this: “Would you say those books you didn’t publish went to the dark place?”

“No,” I said, suddenly knowing they didn’t.
“What about the new stories you’re working on?” he asked. “No,” I said, suddenly knowing that they could. “But they could,” I said. “I guess.”
I slopped more cheap wine into my plastic go-cup. I sipped.

Warm as spit.
“They could,” he repeated.
“Yes,” I whispered.
“Aren’t you always telling us—?”
“Yes,” I said.
I felt the point had been made. Perfectly.
Apparently, he was a better teacher than I had understood because he said, “You told me last semester when we worked together that I wasn’t writing from the dark place. And now you need to do the same thing. How about we have a contest, the two of us, to see who writes the darkest story. We’ll swap next semester, at winter residency.”
The tepid wine filled me. It didn’t seem dignified to enter into a writing contest with a student. Or responsible. I glanced around to pinpoint the director of the program, whether he could possibly overhear this conversation. He was with the guitarists. Then I realized the contest was actually with myself. I suspect Dale already knew this. Dale is a smart guy, and I suspect he understood the gift he offered me.

I shook his hand. “You’re on.” Dark vs. Darker, we called it, and because we were sports fans, he came up with the Test at the Crest, since the winter residency would be held at the Pinecrest Inn. We were Ali and Foreman. He even sent me a T-shirt.

During the fall, we exchanged a few emails, with some smack talk and encouragement. At one point, he told me he had written 1500 words in one day, and I responded, “I love this pressure! 1500 words in a day is great, esp. since those dark words are often harder to squeeze out. I’ve been revising away, deleting all references to sweet rainbows and puppies.”

What’s funny is that the “dark” story in this instance wasn’t at all hard for me to squeeze out, unless you consider that it took a lifetime. But I scribbled the first draft at a coffee shop, atypically writing by hand, in a single swoop that brought me to tears at the end as I shook cramps from my fingers. This story heaved me right to the dark place.

It’s a story about my first husband, who died of an unexpected heart attack when he was 37, and, as it turns out, all the stories I wrote for this new book were about him. After my conversation with Dale, I solidified my assignment; each story in the collection would contain one hard true thing from the terrible experience of losing my husband. I would write as if I were learning how and take crazy chances with form. I would write as if this were the last book in me, as if I would get no more chances to speak. I would write as if I didn’t give a fuck about the dark place, as if nothing scared me, not dying, not oblivion, not indifference. My dark story was the first I wrote this way.

I revised my dark story. I read it out loud. My writing group made helpful suggestions. I would never say a story I wrote was perfect, and if “making it” means publication, this story didn’t: not one of the sixteen literary journals I submitted to wanted it. Another lesson: sometimes publication is irrelevant.

On December 20, I sent an email to Dale: “I am all in on the dark story–planning to read it at my [faculty] reading. Yikes. Looking forward to seeing what you’ve written–bring along a copy.”

On the night of my reading, I stood at the podium, staring at a blur of students and faculty. I chose to be the first of the two readers so I wouldn’t chicken out, not that I had a back-up plan or another story to read. I was all in. I had gone to the dark place, and part of the journey is surviving to tell the tale.
I read my introduction, which, control freak that I am, I always write out: “I love how the students I meet here at Converse inspire me in countless ways, whether it’s through hearing about challenges in their lives, or witnessing their dedication to learning the craft, or asking me hard and interesting questions about writing, or, sometimes, just being really good at giving an old- fashioned pep talk at exactly the right time. My reading tonight is dedicated to those students, and to one in particular.”

I looked right at Dale, sitting halfway back.

I read my dark, darker, darkest story, the one plucked from the silent depths of my life, those sentences I thought I could never write. I did not cry, though other people did. I read each word, and when I was done, the room looked the same and I was still standing.

Is it bragging to call that reading a knockout? Or is it simply speaking the truth? Muhammad Ali would not feel a need to be delicate, so let me say that it is the truth.

Afterwards, in the flurry of congratulations and book-signing that follows any reading, I waited for Dale, who wove his way to me. We hugged, and he handed me the folded sheaf of papers of his story, which was a fine and brave and dark story, one I was proud of him for writing. I wish I remember what he said to me that night. I wish it was easy for me to find the story he gave me— which is tucked in a box of important papers—and the note he wrote on top, conceding “defeat.”
Of course, there was no winning and no losing. There were grand writing pronouncements, there was the drudge of real writing, and then there was magic: writing made better by finding a good teacher. There is a name in my acknowledgements page to let him know exactly this.

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of This Angel on My Chest, a collection of linked short stories, awarded the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and published by University of Pittsburgh Press. Her historical novel Reversing the River was serialized by the literary app Great Jones Street. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Gettysburg Review, Hudson Review, and Washingtonian.

Delmarva Review publishes compelling new prose and poetry from authors within the region and beyond. In it’s eleventh year, the nonprofit literary journal is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For information and book copies, visit: www.delmarvareview.com.

Delmarva Review: “Hoover” by Pat Valdata

Damn. I feel the weight, all that
water behind me. I meet strength
for strength. My thick rebar bones
anchor my manmade rock face,
harder than sandstone. I can
withstand the push, the slow
dissolution of my foundation, grain
by cemented grain. I’ve stood still
for nearly a century, but nothing
compared to the canyon walls.
Still, I hear the call of gulls and
ravens who soar past sheer bulk
fixed to bedrock, and I wonder
what would it feel like: to break
off, to spread concrete wings and
look down as ton after endless ton
of water scours the cliffs, drowning
everyone, irresponsible and free.

Pat Valdata is a poet and fiction writer with an MFA from Goddard College. Her poetry books include Where No Man Can Touch, which won the 2015 Donald Justice Poetry Prize, Inherent Vice, and the chapbook Looking for Bivalve. She lives in Crisfield, Maryland, and is an adjunct professor teaching writing online for the University of Maryland University College.

Delmarva Review publishes compelling new prose and poetry from authors within the region and beyond. In it’s eleventh year, the nonprofit literary journal is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For information and book copies, visit: www.delmarvareview.com.

Delmarva Review: “Unmentionables” Short Fiction by Ginny Fite

My mother tells me she’s outwitted the thief who wants to steal her underwear. Three months ago, the doctors said she would die of congestive heart failure in three days. She’s outwitted them too. She’s worried about her underwear, not heart failure.

We’re in this together. It’s the moment when everything counts and we’re talking about protecting her underwear, all those pretty garments stashed in a box under her bed—a metaphor for something I don’t want to decode.

“No one will think to look there,” she says.

She’s insistent, urgent, specific, and irate. She’s angry at the unfairness of everything. It’s not bad enough that she got old, that she can no longer keep the wolves from the door, or that she’s dying. Now they’re after her underwear. Her eyes, bombs with lit fuses, flare.

She shares her strategy with me so I’ll be her aide-de-camp in her war against the underwear thieves. I wade through words, hoping to find a way to reassure her that no one will take her panties. Uneasiness stirs my stomach. There’s history at work here, a more terrifying, unmentionable theft she’s never told me about, a story that, in the end, I don’t want to know. A story that might explain everything. Perhaps some things should not be uncovered; perhaps I don’t want all the answers. Maybe truth isn’t enough.

Finally, helpless, I say, “Good plan.”

Her hands are cold, her legs are hot. She throws off the sheet. For weeks she has been sleeping almost continually—or what passes for sleep, periodically punctuating the long silence by slamming the flat of her hand against the mattress. “Enough,” she yells. “Enough! Enough!”

Today she’s talking. When I ask about this new phase, the hospice nurse says matter-of-factly she may be talkative today but it’s all part of the dying process, a kind of illumination as the body rapidly heals itself before the final sigh. I take this explanation with a grain of salt. I no longer believe anyone knows anything about dying.

My mother pauses, daintily puts the tip of her pointer finger against the corner of her mouth and dabs away the grit that has gathered there out of nowhere. Her nails are cut short but are still painted red at her insistence. Her white hair has been brushed into two short pigtails at the top of her head by the nurse’s aide, who intends to be kind and has no sense of irony.

Back to the ninety pounds she swears she was when pregnant with me, she wears only an adult diaper and a blazing red t-shirt. Her speech is difficult to understand and lucid moments are rare. I lean in. We conspire together against what’s next.

“The people here don’t like me,” she says. “My daughter thinks I don’t know this, but I do.” Her brown eyes blaze with indignation. Then she smiles, her winning smile, the one that induces me to run across the hall to the nurses’ station and fetch her chocolate ice cream in a paper cup.

On my way to get the ice cream she won’t eat, I remember standing in the bedroom I’d given her, my entire body shaking with rage. “Where did you put the checks?” I ask.

She lifts her chin and looks out of the window at the safe suburban neighborhood to which I’ve brought her. She’s in complete control of this situation, even though she’s old, frail, and living in my house.

“Where are the checks, Mom?” I catch a glimpse of my face in the mirror over her desk. It’s a mask of shock and despair. She has stolen checks from my checkbook. She wants to harm me. Her theft brings up every old attack she ever launched on my survival. I am a child again, helpless against her, raging.

She shrugs and smirks at me. “Behind the boy.”

The boy, I think, behind what boy? She’s being coy, manipulating me. I struggle to be rational, to think my way through this maze. I’m good at this, compartmentalizing my feelings, engaging my left brain. I look around the room and see the framed photograph of my sister’s son, the boy whose name she’s forgotten. I pick up the picture, open the back, and find the checks folded into a tiny square. I extract them.

“Why did you do this?” I ask her, even though I know she doesn’t know why. We are playing out the old drama between us. She must steal something from me to be even for having gone through the agony of having me. I ruined her life, she always told me. To be even, she must take everything—my identity, my father, my sister, my money.

She stares at me with that look on her face that used to precede a beating. She doesn’t have the strength to hit me. “If I had a gun,” she says, “I would kill you.”

I walk out of the room and go downstairs out to the porch. I stand outside and breathe deeply for ten minutes, waiting for the mountains and trees to calm me, for all that space to do its job and clear my head. Then I go inside, call her doctor, and tell the nurse what she said.

“You know how it is,” she tells me. “The last thing you remember, you were watching Gone with the Wind on the movie channel and suddenly you’re standing in the produce section in your pink nightgown as if you’d walked all the way to Tara in a dream.”

She pauses again, for effect this time, to see if I’ve gotten the joke. I nod and smile. I appreciate her sense of humor. I take her hand but she complains my hand is too hot. I remind myself we’re not close. I shouldn’t expect anything new.

Being smart, my mother always said, was being able to devise solutions to whatever problem presented itself. I look out the window, watching the afternoon shadow thrown by the building slowly cross the grassy hill and ride along the fence. It’s sometimes hard to look at her, this dying stranger who bears no resemblance to my mother. I have no solution for this problem.

She explains her new strategy for dressing. “I just wear a flowered housedress. I’m always presentable when guests arrive. If I find myself in the hallway unexpectedly and don’t remember if I’ve thrown trash down the chute or I’m on my way to the laundry room, I’m still respectable.”

What if she threw her underwear down the trash chute instead of putting it in the washing machine? What if the theft of her underwear is about her virginity being stolen? I don’t say anything. Either way, how would it matter now?

She’s silent for a while, her eyes closed, breathing slowed. I realize she doesn’t know where she is. It’s dark in the room. I look at my watch. I look again at the photographs tacked up on the bulletin board, hung on the wall at the foot of her bed. My sister put them up in an effort to help recapture some of her memories. In one of them, a woman with abundant, brunette hair strikes a provocative pose with some man I don’t know. This is the mother I remember.

When she opens her eyes, I ask who the man in the photo is. She says, “Oh I don’t know. He doesn’t matter.” Decades dissolve in a flood of disinterest. Perhaps she never cared.

Her bed is backwards in the room, her head facing away from her roommate. The footboard is against the wall so she can lie in bed propped on pillows and watch her own TV. She’s on her fourth roommate since she’s been in the nursing home. The others have all died.

A few of my mother’s precious things remain from the last thirty years of frenzied collecting. Enamel plaques of stylized stone flowers bought in Hong Kong hang on the wall to the left of her bed. The hand-painted lingerie dresser with its scrolled brass drawer pulls stands to the right of the television and holds dozens of pairs of colorful socks rolled into balls. Her upholstered rocker faces the television, away from her roommate. And, of course, there are the frilly French unmentionables in a box under the bed, the underwear she never wears anymore.

A nurse complained to me a few months ago that the patient insisted on wearing several pairs of adult diapers at the same time. My mother is clearly planning a quick getaway. If the prince pinned to the wall comes to her rescue, she’ll be ready to fly the coop, an expression of hers that always made me imagine fluttering wings and a snowstorm of feathers.

“When I lived in Hawaii, we called these dresses muumuus,” she says suddenly, picking up the thread of her own thought. “Muumuu is the perfect word,” she tells me. “You want to murmur something soothing when you’re wearing them.”

She drifts off and I sit there, empty of thoughts, incapable of solving the problem of death.

“Have you told her you forgive her?” the hospice nurse asks when she bustles in for a vitals check.

“As much as I can,” I say and don’t even ask how she knows I’m supposed to perform this ritual. We are all priests now, absolving those who trespassed against us so they may go to heaven unburdened.

Is there an invisible tattoo on my forehead that marks my tribe—those who must forgive before death? Perhaps it’s a pictogram, or a spiky hieroglyphic of fear, rage, and sorrow. Perhaps the clue is in how far I sit from my mother’s bed.

The nurse places her fingers on the inside of my mother’s wrist. “Thready,” she says as if I know what that portends. “You should tell her it’s okay to go.”

“Don’t let that woman vacuum under the bed,” my mother mutters, opening her eyes.

I giggle. It’s too late now to distress her with questions about her childhood, too late to ferret out the story of the thief who comes in the night and steals her most private things. I turn away from this thought again. I can’t bear the effort of hating anyone today.

She tells me she put a few of her best undergarments under the sofa cushions. “When I sleep on the sofa, no one will be able to get them.”

“Perfectly logical,” I say.

She looks at me with some alarm, as if she had forgotten something critical, or was suddenly afraid. “Did Willie call?” she asks for the third time in three days.

I shake my head, no. Willie died years ago, but I don’t say that. Instead I tell her I can stay a while longer. I pour water from the pitcher into her glass, place the tip of my finger over the top of the straw and watch the water being sucked upward by the vacuum into the straw. I hold the straw near her lips, slowly dripping water into her mouth.

She sips, licks her lips, and turns her face away. “That’s enough,” she says. She hasn’t eaten for three weeks. She asks if I’m hungry and offers to ring for an ice cream.

I shake my head, no. I don’t need anything. “Tell me about the muumuus.”

“Never be unkempt in front of strangers,” she declares. “It was the Depression, I was the ninth child. My mother could have cared less what happened to me. She never had time for me. I just tagged along behind Willie.”

This is her refrain. I’ve heard it all my life. I’ve never known what to do with the information. When I was a child, she used to tell me my clothes were clean and paid for. It was a point of pride, something to use as a rebuttal when attacked. We expected to be attacked. We had contingency plans. I realize now she gave me a weapon she didn’t have when she was young: clean clothes.

I offer her water again, putting the straw to her mouth. It dribbles down her chin. I blot her mouth with a white tissue. “Oh, excuse me, my mouth just isn’t where it should be,” she says. “Something always falls out.”

It’s an old joke. I smile. We are people who spill things. Our minds are always somewhere else.

“They’re killing people here,” she says. “Strange things happen. I’ve tried to tell my daughter about them but she just says, ‘Oh, Mom, I’m sure that’s not true.’ My daughter thinks she can talk me out of believing what I know.”

I nod slightly. She’s right. I used to think I could talk her out of her paranoia. I’ve reformed. Paranoia is what happens to you when you’re haunted by evil as a child, taken by it, violated at will. The past makes you vigilant. There are signs of imminent danger everywhere. I see what she sees. People are dying. The only effective plan here is escape.

“There was that fire when we all had to be evacuated,” she reminds me.

That wasn’t here. She has flipped to four years ago. Time, distance, and space are irrelevant. In a blink, memory sets one thing against another, rearranging the narrative’s atoms, changing its species and genus.

Years ago, her apartment building was evacuated in the middle of the night because of a fire that started in her kitchen. I wonder if all memories are like this, a kernel of fact around which nacreous layers of invention are secreted.

She goes back to her underwear, the recurring melody of her old age. She tells me I need to be wary of the woman who comes to clean because she’ll want to vacuum under the bed.

“My daughter is in cahoots with the cleaning woman,” she says. “She can’t wait to get her hands on my things.”

She’s quiet again for a while, her eyes closed. Her breathing is what the nurse calls shallow. Her arm is icy cold when I touch it. I pull the cover up over her legs. My mind wanders. I think about what I’ll prepare for dinner and make a shopping list in my head. Later I wonder if this is a defense mechanism, my way of escaping.

“You need to be careful about telling your daughter everything,” she says in the barest whisper. I startle.

“I can tell you that daughters come and go around here. You can hear them walking the hallway if you lower the sound on the television. Up and down the hallway they walk, as if they were waiting for someone to give birth. I’m sure you know about giving birth.”

She gives me the once over, able to tell by looking at me whether I’ve succeeded in that department. I’ve given up reminding her she has grandsons. Perhaps she remembers for a minute and then another memory whisks her away.

She turns her head and looks out into the hallway. “Is Willie coming?”

I surrender and nod. “He’s on his way,” I say.

I stroke her arm. She sleeps for a bit, or does what passes for sleep, the cells of her body straying into the air around her. I tell her it’s okay to go. I think about who she is, her obstinacy, her determination to save the last shreds of her dignity, and correct my statement.

“It’s okay to go, Mom, if you want to.”

The nurse comes in for rounds and another semblance of taking her patient’s vitals. They are charting the countdown, the soul’s liftoff into the ether. I tell myself I am inured to this. I gather my things to go and my mother wakes abruptly, turns her head and looks at me in panic, wordless, her eyes wide with terror, her mouth open without sound.

“I’ll be back,” I say from the door. “Don’t worry.” I still haven’t said I forgive her. I’m working up to it, debating with myself about the utility of forgiveness. The words hang heavy in my chest like an obligation.
I wave goodbye from the door. Holding my breath, I walk quickly through the halls to the back door on the lower level. I punch in the code to release the door lock. All my focus is on escape. Outside, I exhale and take deep breaths of the cold March air. I open all the windows in the car and leave them open the entire drive home to shed the smell of impending death.

Four hours later the nurse calls. “She’s gone,” she says. Her voice quavers.

My mother has flown the coop and all that will be left are feathers in a box under the bed.

Genny Fite earned degrees from Rutgers University and Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of the Sam Lagarde mystery/thrillers Cromwell’s Folly, No Good Deed Left Undone, and Lying, Cheating & Occasionally Murder. Her chapbook of poems, The Last Thousand Years, was published by Loyola College.

Delmarva Review publishes compelling new writing from authors within the region and beyond. In it’s eleventh year, the nonprofit literary journal is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For information and book copies, visit: www.delmarvareview.com.

Delmarva Review: Picking Children by Jane Miller

Picking Children by Jane Miller

Wouldn’t it be great if children bloomed
like flowers? Not ours to labor
or bear, but just to choose

at a garden center nearby
or have delivered by UPS to our door.

With so many colors and breeds,
it would come down to price:
for the budget-minded, a simple
perennial, like a Shasta Daisy, easy
on the eye and hard to kill, a good
choice for the inexperienced
or negligent parent.

For value, Purissima Tulips,
sturdy but not too showy,
easily mix in a family
of other flowers: think middle child.

Leave the risk of exotic offspring
to the rich who can afford flame-tipped
Gloriosa Rothschildiana Lilies
and experts to tend each toxic trellis.

Still, pathogens lurk everywhere.
If children bloomed
without blight, we could enjoy
them more, their faces open to drink
the sun, their mouths so soft and furred

closing up at night without a peep,

their needs so simple: a place to call home,
enough water for love. They would never
outgrow us, never run away. They would enliven
a house. They could be replaced.

Jane Miller received a 2014 Individual Artist Fellowship in poetry from the Delaware Division of the Arts. In addition to Delmarva Review, her poetry has appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, Summerset Review, cahoodaloodaling, Watershed Review, Mojave River Review, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, and Broadkill Review.

Delmarva Review publishes compelling new writing from authors within the region and beyond. In it’s eleventh year, the nonprofit literary journal is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For information and book copies, visit: www.delmarvareview.com.