Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Think of the Ride

One night when I was twenty, I sat at a boy’s feet. He’d rolled his Camaro when he was sixteen and never walked again. I knelt on the floor at the feet of this boy in a wheelchair and complained about my father at break neck speed. Myfatherthismyfatherthatmygoddamnfather . . .
The boy in the wheelchair leaned forward to touch my face. “Want to know what I do when I can’t get high enough?” he asked.
“What?” I wanted to know. “What do you do?”
“I drink bottles of cough syrup,” he said. “That shit will make you fly.”
I’d tried to fly once, the summer of 1980. I was thirteen, and my attempt began with a bicycle, my grandmother’s 1940 Schwinn. I told the boy in the wheelchair I was trying to outrun my father. He was irrational and mean and always breathing down my neck, and I wanted to escape him. The bike was heavy. I pushed it to the top of the steepest hill I could find then surveyed the drop. I got a tickle in my stomach.
My brother hovered behind me. “Get on,” I told him, making fists around the handlebars.
“Maybe we shouldn’t,” he said gazing down the hill, the long drop.
“Come on, think of the ride,” I said.
My brother climbed on back. I don’t recall pushing off. I don’t remember building speed. I don’t remember wind in my face or tears in my eyes or screaming. I don’t remember the ride at all. My brother jumped off within seconds of take-off and knocked the bike sideways—me with it. The bike and I made the rest of the trip down the hill alone, although I don’t remember. My face hit the pavement so hard my right eye swelled to the size of a golf ball. The pavement also shaved most the skin off my left arm and leg. I must have lied at the bottom of the hill motionless until my brother arrived. Insert him asking, “You alright, sis?”
I saw him through one eye and tasted blood. My body felt on fire since most of it was embedded with gravel. He lifted the bike off me, but first I had to untangle my feet. I limped up the hill beside my brother. Apparently, a car stopped and the people inside offered us a ride, but my brother said no. We didn’t accept rides from strangers. We continued through the neighborhood until I saw my grandfather’s El Camino. Mostly what I saw was my father’s face. He leapt from the car, took me in his arms, then lifted me.
In the emergency room I wailed, “Am I ugly?” at least five times and couldn’t keep my hands away from my face, that enormous eyeball. I wailed until a nurse hooked me to an IV.  
At this point, the boy in the wheelchair leaned forward to touch my face again.
“What?” I asked, gulping. “You think I’m vain?”
“No,” he said. “I think you got what you wanted.”
             His legs were gazelle-thin, his smile the most wistful I’d ever seen.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Excerpt from "Dog Men"

Photograph by Robb Todd. Picture used with permission.

When Tally woke, she had no idea where she was and stared through the windshield, trying to orientate herself. The Ellis brothers’ cabin rose like a castle against the trees.
“Amber?” she said, nudging her friend. “Look.”
Amber stirred beside her then said, “What happened? Did I pass out or what?”
“We fell asleep,” Tally said. “Look.” She pointed out the window.
Amber appeared unimpressed. 
Cannon brought the truck to a stop beside another inside a double garage. When he turned off the engine, the truck went still. The light in the garage blinked off. Tally smelled gasoline, pine cones, and wet dog. When Cannon opened his door, the cab light came on. He got out of the truck then Amber scooted out past him. He peered inside the cab.
“Coming?” he asked his brother.
“In a minute,” Justin said.
Cannon slammed the door shut. Amber was already inside. He followed her calling, “Hey, sweetheart. Don’t go too far. Sweetheart, come here, I’ve got something to show you.”
The garage went quiet except for a steady tick from the truck. Tally sat still but her heart raced inside her chest. Suddenly, she was terrified. She was alone with Justin Ellis.
“You really going to New York?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. It was something they’d talked about in high school, talked about obsessively, getting away from their sad, single mothers and the trailer park, making it all the way to some place like New York—joyful, glamorous, and diverse.  
“I wish you wouldn’t,” Justin said.
Tally snuck a look at him. “You don’t?”
“I wish you’d stay. You know, here with me. I can picture you my girlfriend.”
Tally stole another look at him. “You can?”
“Yeah.” Justin turned to face her. “Will you do me a favor, Tally? Please don’t say no.”
 Tally gulped. “What is it?”
“Could you hang that pretty necklace of yours on the rearview mirror?”
Tally stared in his eyes with the lashes as long as a girl’s. “Why?” she asked, her voice barely a whisper.
“Trust me,” he said, and his smile was so convincing and sweet and sexy, Tally removed the necklace then draped the chain over the rearview mirror. The heart swung back and forth. She wanted to make him happy. 
“It was just a dumb plan we made in high school,” Tally said.
Justin wrapped his arms around her then traced her neck with his fingertips. He brushed his mouth across her cheek leaving a trail of tingles. When he kissed her on her mouth, it wasn’t like kissing Amber, someone she’d known forever and loved. It was like kissing someone from a dream she was dying to impress but wasn’t sure she could trust.
Tally pulled away, lips tingling like she’d just eaten cinnamon candy.
“Am I going too fast?” Justin asked.
Tally wasn’t sure.  “Can we go inside? I’m thirsty.”
Justin opened his door then got out before turning to offer his hand. Tally took it and could have sworn hair in his palm tickled hers. He was so polite, so nice to her. Inside, he led her into a kitchen. She saw an island stove, a black refrigerator, and several pots and pans dangling from the wall on hooks. “Where’s Amber?” she asked.
“Probably in the other room with Cannon. What can I get you to drink?”
“Whatever you have,” she said noticing a set of keys on the counter, probably Cannon’s keys to the truck. Where was Amber? Justin took a couple beers from the refrigerator then asked Tally if she wanted a glass. She shrugged and said, “If you want,” then heard a noise from the other room and crossed the kitchen to a door. Hopefully, she’d find her best friend in there. Maybe she’d find her making out with Cannon. Tally opened the door.
The room was full of dead animals.  Cannon crouched in front of a fireplace while Amber stood several feet away, arms crossed, staring at something that looked like a badger. The creature bared its teeth at her. She turned on Cannon. “What’s all this, trophies?”
Cannon smiled.
Amber didn’t smile back. “I’m not going to fuck you,” she said.  
Justin spoke behind Tally, making her jump. “Everything okay, Cannon?”
Cannon stood to his full height in front of the fireplace while Amber moved further into the room then halted beside a stuffed mountain lion, lips pulled back in a useless snarl.
“Killed that bitch with my bare hands,” Cannon said.
Amber met Tally’s eyes across the room. “Having fun?” she mouthed.
Tally nodded and smiled then shrugged. She felt her smile wane. She felt guilty all of a sudden, like it was her fault her friend was here, and her friend was unhappy.
Cannon removed the silver ring from his finger than placed it on the fireplace mantle.
“What are you going to do, Cannon?” Justin leapt in front of Tally, blocking her view.
Tally poked her head around Justin. “Amber?” she called. “Where are you?”
Both Amber and Cannon were gone.
Justin swung around, forcing a smile. “Hey, how about that beer?” He took Tally’s hand, and she felt hair tickling her palm again so turned their hands over, trying to see. Justin pulled his hand away. Tally stepped back. Was that wet dog smell coming from him?
“I need to find Amber,” she said.
“Why?” Justin asked. “Cannon will find her. He’ll take care of it.”
“What do you mean?” Tally looked over her shoulder, wishing Amber would reappear. 
“You know,” Justin said. “She was kind of a bitch to him.”
Tally took another step backward. “Don’t talk about my friend like that. She doesn’t like him, okay, so what? Does she have to like him? Does she even have to like guys?”
Justin advanced toward her. Tally hurried across the room. He caught up at a doorway leading down some stairs. “Tally, I’m sorry.”
Tally looked at him. “Listen, she came here as a favor to me, you know because we’re best friends, and we love each other, and friends do stuff like that.”
Justin lifted an arm so it stretched in front of her then pressed his hand to the frame of the door. “Do you like me, Tally?” He breathed heavy. A dog smell came off him in waves.

From the story, "Dog Men" by Alana Noël Voth
©Alana Noël Voth

"Dog Men" is the title story of my collection, forthcoming this fall from Tiny Hardcore Press


Saturday, July 19, 2014

I'm A . . ?

Have you heard the song, "Sex (I'm A)" by the band, Berlin? The album was first released in 1982 then re-released in 1983. I was fourteen the first time I heard the song, which is performed by two members of the band, John Crawford, bass player and primary song writer, and Terri Nunn, the band's primary vocalist. As a teenaged girl, I owned two Berlin albums, Pleasure Victim and Love Life. I still have both packed in a box in my shed. The song, "Sex (I'm A)," is from Pleasure Victim, and my favorite song on the album is "The Metro."

These days I have songs from both albums on my I-Tunes list, and the other night, as I prepared dinner, "Sex (I'm A)," came up on my I-Shuffle. I've heard the song dozens of times, but only last night did I stop and ask, "Why is the male vocalist a man throughout the song and the female vocalist is fifteen different things?" To understand what I mean, I've provided the following excerpted lyrics from the song and identified who sings which line. "JC" equals John Crawford, the male vocalist, and "TN" equals Terri Nunn, the female vocalist.

1st chorus: 
JC: I'm a man.
TN: I'm a goddess.
JC: I'm a man.
TN: Well. I'm a virgin.
JC: I'm a man.
TN: I'm a blue movie.
JC: I'm a man.
TN: I'm a bitch.
JC: I'm a man.
TN: I'm a geisha.
JC: I'm a man.
TN: I'm a little girl.
JC and TN: And we make love together.

2nd chorus:
JC: I'm a man.
TN: I'm a boy.
JC: I'm a man.
TN: Well, I'm your mother.
JC: I'm a man.
TN: I'm a one night stand.
JC: I'm a man.
TN: Am I bi?
JC: I'm a man.
TN: I'm a slave.
JC: I'm a man.
TN: I'm a little girl.
JC and TN: And we make love together.

3rd chorus: 
JC: I'm a man.
TN: I'm a teaser.
JC: I'm a man.
TN: Well, I'm a virgin.
JC: I'm a man.
TN: I'm a one night stand.
JC: I'm a man.
TN: I'm a drug.
JC: I'm a man.
TN: Well, I'm your slave.
JC: I'm a man.
TN: I'm a dream divine.
JC and TN: And we make love together.

4th chorus:
JC: I'm a man.
TN: I'm a goddess.
JC: I'm a man.
TN: I'm a hooker.
JC: I'm a man.
TN: I'm a blue movie.
JC: I'm a man.
TN: I'm a slut.
JC: I'm a man.
TN: I'm a geisha.
JC: I'm a man.
TN: I'm your babe.
JC: I'm a man.
TN: I'm a dream divine.
JC and TN: And we make love together.

"Sex (I'm A)" by Berlin
From Pleasure Victim, 1982
Music and lyrics by John Crawford, David Diamond, and Terri Nunn. 

When it comes to sex, we can interpret these lyrics from "Sex (I'm A)" two different ways.

1.) A man is only a man, but a woman is more.

2.) A man is always a man while a woman is never a woman. She's either a virgin or a slut, etc.

I took a Chicano Studies course in college, and one day in class, the professor suggested the more labels we put on something the stronger our attempt to diminish its power and render it more manageable. Although John Crawford wrote most of the songs on Pleasure Victim, he didn't write "Sex (I'm A)" alone. Both the band's keyboardist, David Diamond, and the band's lead vocalist, Terri Nunn, contributed to the song. I don't know who contributed/wrote what. But the song's lyrics either compartmentalize women or suggest transcendence.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Bray of Thanks

The president of the university called me the other day. He didn't call for any of the following reasons.

  1. To praise me for a job well done. 
  2. To thank me for a job well done.
  3. To pass along praise or thanks from my department head, colleagues, or former students.
  4. To inquire how I get along financially the three months I earn no income every year.
  5. To comp my parking permit this year.
  6. To offer me a salary.
  7. To offer me benefits.
  8. To ask my opinion on anything.
  9. To congratulate my son who earned a 4.14 GPA last year in high school.
  10. To offer any assistance as my department prepared to move from one building to another. 

The president of the university called to inquire if the boxes in my previous office were mine, and if so, would I move them? I said the boxes belonged to my closet mate. He didn't catch it. He just said thanks and he'd call her. When I tell students they can visit me in my closet they laugh until they see the six-by-six feet space, then they widen their eyes and think what administration wants them to think. You're not important. Adjunct lecturers are the pack mules of academia. We carry the weight. Another thing the president of the university didn't call for was to fire my ass. I've still got a job. For this, I bray in earnest. I'm grateful.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Novel Excerpt: From Chapter 13, "Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board"

Photograph by Robb Todd. Used with permission.

The girl’s father called her Baby. When Baby was five, her father married Glenda.
Every late afternoon, Baby stood at a window waiting for her father to come home. Soon as she saw his truck in the street, she bolted out the door to meet him in the driveway. Baby’s father crouched to meet her. He opened his arms. His face softened with a smile. As she pressed against him, she smelled exhaustion, a combination of wilted leaves and cigarette stubs.
“Want a beer, Daddy? I’ll get you a beer if you want.”
Baby’s father released her then stood to hug Glenda who’d come up behind them.
“I’ve got a beer inside for you,” the intruder said. “Dinner will be ready soon.”
One night after dinner, Baby’s father sat near a window smoking a cigarette. Outside that window against a cobalt sky, Baby saw a full moon. She crept up behind her father then crouched beside his chair waiting for the hand he’d eventually dangle over the edge of it. Soon as she saw that hand, Baby pushed her head against his palm. “Hi, Daddy. You tired?”
“Yeah,” her father said then tickled her behind both ears with his fingers.
First, she smiled at his touch. Then she frowned. “You shouldn’t work so much, Daddy.” Baby crawled to the front of the chair to lay her head on his knee. “You didn’t always work so much before.” Meaning before Ruth and Glenda.
“I have to work, Baby, to support all of us,” he said.  
“I like it better when it’s just us,” she whispered. “Just you and me, Daddy.”
She lifted her head. Glenda was there in a silk nightgown, smelling like perfume.  “Shouldn’t she be in bed already?” the stepmother asked. “Ruth was in bed an hour ago.”
Baby’s father patted her head. “Time for bed, Baby. Be my sweet girl and go.”
She crawled across the floor issuing a sound of objection like a growl.  
“Get up,” her father said behind her. “You’re not an animal.”  
Baby obeyed the order and stood to her feet, angry as she left the room.  
Light as a feather, stiff as a board.
Girls played this game at slumber parties. Clara was the girl who invited Baby to her slumber party one Friday night in August. She invited Ruth, too. Light as a feather, stiff as a board. Baby was thirteen that summer. So was Ruth. Baby was petite and shy and couldn’t control her wild hair. Ruth was tall and cool, groomed and beautiful. Inside Clara’s house, they joined five other girls. A lamp cast a peach hue over everything; the air smelled like Dr. Pepper.  The girls sat in a group on the floor. Usually, Ruth got all the attention. Not tonight though.
Clara touched Baby’s hair. “I’ve never seen so much hair before. You ever cut it?”
“No,” Baby said. Hair could hide her; the hair was warm.
Clara took a closer look, staring. “Hey, your eyes are different colors, aren’t they?”
“It’s a birth defect,” said Ruth. “I read it in a science book.”
Baby felt herself blush.
“Not everyone looks like a fashion model,” Clara said. “Anyway, flaws are interesting.”
“Flaws?” Ruth snorted. “Tell them what you told me, step sis.”
Baby shook her head.
“Tell them you’re going to turn into a wolf,” Ruth said.
Everyone stared at Baby. Somebody giggled.  
“Quiet,” Clara said. She looked at Baby. “Really? Like a werewolf?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Baby said.   
Someone giggled again. With a smile, Clara leaned her head back then howled. The group dissolved into a fit of howling. Baby wanted to join them. Or maybe she just wanted to tear their throats out.
“Okay, okay,” Clara said. “Settle down.”
The girl quieted finally then someone said, “Vampires are cooler than werewolves.”
“Depends on the vampire and werewolf,” Clara said. “It’s who over what.”  
By now, Ruth was tired of all the attention Baby was getting and said, “Guess who I saw my step sister with yesterday?” She hooked bother her eyebrows, looking at Clara.
“The Wolfman?” someone asked.
Clara slapped the culprit’s arm. More giggles.
“Joe McCoy,” Ruth announced.
The group went still with a hush.
Clara eyeballed Ruth. “What are you talking about?”
“I saw them together at lunch,” Ruth said.  
“So?” Clara retorted, but her cheeks had darkened.
Ruth’s eyes took on a glint. “My step sister plays this, I’m-so-sweet-and shy game with boys, batting her weird eyes then hiding behind her hair, but the truth is, she’s sneaky and desperate and will steal a girl’s boyfriend behind her back. I mean it. Don’t trust her.”    
Baby swung around, glaring at her step sister. “That’s a lie. I’m not like that.”   
“Always dying for attention,” Ruth said. “Since you don’t get it at home anymore.”
“Shut up,” Baby said.  
Ruth widened her eyes. “Daddy, can I get you a beer? Daddy, can I sit in your lap? It’s disgusting how desperate you are. It’s sad.”
“Shut up!” Baby said again, this time close to tears.
Ruth continued smiling.
Meanwhile, Clara tried for nonchalant. “Who’s ready to play light as a feather?” she asked. When no one answered, each girl too busy looking from Baby to Ruth to Clara then back at Ruth again, Clara spoke up in a loud voice. “I want to play light as a feather,” she said.
“Okay,” someone said. “Let’s play it.”
“Yeah, let’s play light as a feather,” they all said at once, everyone but Baby who didn’t know what the game was. Clara poked her.
“What about you?” she asked.  
“I don’t know,’ Baby said, fixing her eyes on the floor. “I guess so.”
“Good. Lie down,” Clara said.  
“What?” Baby asked.
“Lie down. Let’s see if you’re light as a feather.”
“Or big as a wolf,” Ruth said with a snort.
Someone giggled.
“Quiet,” Clara said.
Baby looked around the group: she didn’t want to feel afraid of them. She didn’t want to mind their teasing either because if she did, then what? “Okay,” she agreed.   
“Anything for attention,” Ruth said.
Baby ignored her step sister then lied on her back on the floor. The other girls gathered around, flanking her on all sides, everyone except Ruth who hung back, scowling. Baby closed her eyes. The other girls worked their fingers under her shoulders, her hips, her heels.
Clara slid a hand under Baby’s head. “Close your eyes,” she instructed.
Baby closed her eyes. 
“Relax,” Clara said.
Someone giggled.
“Relax,” Clara said again. “Concentrate on floating.”
Baby concentrated. Something happened in her mouth. A tooth came loose, the root and all. Would she choke on it? Baby swallowed once, twice, and then felt it go down like a jagged aspirin. The girls lifted her off the ground. A new tooth pressed against the back of her lip. Baby opened her eyes. She was in the air above the others balanced on their fingers. She was close to the ceiling, weightless and floating.
“Look,” they said below her, “it’s magic.”
Yes, magic. Baby squeezed her eyes shut. The girls began to lower her. Clara let go of Baby’s head, which went thunk on the floor. Baby opened her eyes and curled her lips back.
Clara leapt away with a scream.
“What happened?” someone asked.
Clara huddled between the others, pointing. “Look at her!”
They all looked. 
Baby rolled onto her knees and kept her head bowed, mouth shut.  She didn’t feel like her Daddy’s sweet girl anymore. She felt like something else, something powerful and dangerous.
“She had yellow eyes and a big tooth!” Clara wailed. “I swear it!”
“What did I tell you?” Ruth asked.  
The girls crowded around Baby then tried to look. Ruth strode over then gave her a kick in the shoulder. “Get out of here, you freak. Go bark at the moon.”
Baby clenched her fists.  IcouldripyourthroatoutIcould . . .
“Joe McCoy is my boyfriend,” Clara said.  
“Yeah,” the rest of the girls said in unison.
Baby scrambled to her feet. IcouldripyourthroatoutIcould . . .
“Go away,” Clara said. “You’re not invited anymore.”
The group confronted Baby with a solemn stare. Someone snickered. Baby didn’t care about the girls accepting her anymore. She left the slumber party with a smile that revealed a single, wolf-sized tooth.

From the novel, No Sugar Tonight.
©Alana Noël Voth