by Arlene Ang
Teeth start out as milk.
What is the child if not an etch
on the kitchen wall? A vertical growth,
as in chocolates and Rice Krispies,
as in the higher the object is from the ground,
the more it acquires velocity during the fall.
The caries begins as sweetness,
a stray kitten mewling to be allowed in.
From enamel to root, the tooth
is consumed. Only later,
the awareness of destruction surfaces.
Pain illuminates the skull. Then amputation.
Afterwards every night begins
with denture fizz, the removal of self-
recognition before the mirror. How the lips
part as if from happiness, trapping
the loss deeper into the face.
Arlene Ang is the author of four poetry collections, the most recent being a collaborative work with Valerie Fox, Bundles of Letters Including A, V and Epsilon (Texture Press, 2008). She lives in Spinea, Italy where she serves as staff editor for The Pedestal Magazine and Press 1. More of her work may be viewed at leafscape.org.
Already Jennie hated the other woman’s handbag. It was shiny-faced, like its owner, and oystery from too many rhinestones.
She still couldn’t believe her regular, her Milt, had come with a date at The Yankee Doodle that night. For one, he usually had dinner at 5:48. It was already 7:30.
Jennie defiantly chewed on Juicy Fruit gum. Mr. Sekulski didn’t allow gum on the clock, but Jennie considered it an integral part of her server face, so quite often chomped away behind his back. She thought her jaw action a nice cross between demure and dominant. What did Mr. Sekulski know of bad habits, anyway? He chewed his nails every time he tried to figure out which numbers to beat on the cash register. Jennie had honed her server face, first at Il Muto’s, one of those greasy “Italian” chains, and now here at The Yankee Doodle, re-established in 1964 by Mr. Sekulski’s grandaunt, long since imprisoned for tax evasion. Although she disliked the similarity between the words “server” and “servant,” she disliked even more how people spoke the word “waitress,” like it was a pit with a bull attached somewhere on the edge.
Even though she and Milt had never been lovers, she was the one who faithfully microwaved his meals three times a day. Their daily conversation consisted of:
“What would you like today, sir?”
The usual just meant pea soup. But it was like Beethoven to Jennie’s ears. She loved how she knew what Milt was thinking, even before he’d say it. It made her feel she finally knew the reason she’d returned all her library books on time, all these years.
Milt never exchanged her smiles. Sometimes she thought his reticence was his best feature, a sign of integrity. She had been married for three years to a man named Grant who didn’t excel in the honesty department. How he smiled at her every time he did something wrong, like when she caught him wearing her maternity underwear or that time he ran over the last garden dwarf. And now that she thought of it, she had read Moll Flanders at the age of twelve and had ever since dyed her blond hair blonder, almost white really.
All of a sudden, she worried that she still hadn’t gotten over Grant and Moll Flanders. She blamed it on the other woman’s gaudy handbag.
There must be some mistake. Or some deep-sleepwalking going on. For a moment, she flattered herself into thinking that it might be a ploy to insert more dialogue in their relationship, hers and Milt’s. However, Milt’s lopsided necktie told a different story.
In her heart Jennie knew that most communication occurred without words. Her own parents were spookily similar, like twins, and seldom spoke. When they did it was about milk. Her father drove a milk truck until he died. He liked milk.
Jennie tried her best to hang on to the old ways. She glided toward Milt’s table, minus the pre-warmed bowl of green pea soup, hopefully sparkling, even without the usual sparkling mineral water.
“What would you like today, sir?”
“I’ll have the menu-of-the-day. The lady will have some green salad.”
She stayed tableside a moment too long. She had been seriously hoping for a future with Milt, had been hoping to introduce her nine-year old Sonia to him. She hadn’t yet been able to come up with a plausible excuse, couldn’t decide whether “I’d like you to meet Sonia” should go before “Enjoy your meal” or after it. Until the perfect occasion arrived, Sonia continued to wait for her out in the car, doing her homework, at times falling asleep without even brushing her teeth.
“We’d also like some red wine. And heap on the MSG,” he winked.
Jennie was startled. Again, she was reminded of her ex, and of The Hut. That’s what she had called the family cabin in Vermont where they’d gone to live, to get away from cable tv. Grant wanted to go back to nature. Married with a small child, Jennie had naively moved with him into those mountains, believing his stories about how he could fish and live off the land. Grant’s wealthy parents had pretty much disowned him and he didn’t tell them that they were moving up there. As long as he thought it was financially sound, he’d stayed in touch with them. But when he discovered that his father had given away his money to his guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Grant got all huffy and hurt. For her part Jennie sent a cheery, vague postcard to her cousin in Boston.
Could Milt be setting a trap? But what was that to her.
“You okay?” asked Bill Sekulski, looking up from a gigantic can of tuna.
Jennie ignored him and continued into the kitchen with her usual efficient pace.
When she came out with their tray, she didn’t notice the slippery-when-wet sign. As she tripped, she noticed an errant crack on the ceiling. It joined up with another crack and formed the shape of Ohio. This in turn reminded her of last night’s dream. Grant was there with Jennie’s nonexistent sister. The Hut was full of antiques. A squirrel detail highlighted how Jennie wasn’t in touch with her food feelings. Everything was in sepia tones, almost colonial.
As long as she could remember she’d wanted to be an artist but now she was a waitress and she was having trouble with her equilibrium. She watched the pot roast, the pasta, the buttered jacket potato fly. All she could think of was: Is this the only way to go down on a man?
It was then that Jennie remembered a lot. It was a moment like a painting. The painting answered ten (invisible) questions. Is this the only way to get along in this under-civilized world? Did Mao carry around a little book of sayings by actual word birds? What’s number 17 — Haddock or Meatloaf? What would it be like to live in a room full of silver clothes? The man said start on the seventh floor but Jennie started on the first. How does it feel to be a distance? Which soup goes best with death? Do these crop patterns really belong here, in this family game? What is the distance between two speeding trains one carrying Jennie with Sonia and one carrying Milt? Why all of a sudden this foray into a shared past?
And in this painting, she knew there was no getting over her past. Grant had been right, though she’d denied it. She wanted to escape her past, including the fairly recent past, every step of the way. These last months, the leering cops and stingy hippies, were making her antsy. She and Sonia spent many hours in the local library looking at maps of the world.
During the whole slow-mo, potato-sailing nanosecond, Jennie remembered more things about Grant.
Before The Hut they lived in numerous shabby apartments. Grant had assiduously avoided employment. Not that he wasn’t qualified for any manner of job, but he managed to miss interview after interview. Once he made it to a job interview, on time, he was likely offered the job, but he invariably missed the first two days of work. His supervisors didn’t have to try too hard to find ways of letting him go. So their second apartment was crummy as their first, only located near a drug corner and ten feet from the elevated. Convenient, the ad had boasted. It seemed to be haunted by red-eyed mice.
During these lean years Jennie supported them by her minimum wage clerical job at a foundation for humanitarian concerns. Quitting that job to go back to nature with Grant had seemed easy at the time. She had forgotten all of this, except parts about Sonia.
Up in the mountains Grant quit shaving and bathing. Jennie got tired of cold baths. The first couple of weeks passed calmly. She and Sonia made sculptures out of sticks and stones. Witches, some might suspect, if they saw them. But it became clear fast that they didn’t have enough supplies and that Grant had no idea how to live off the land, farm, sew, fish, build, cook. He was good at scheming, but all of his schemes required capital and infrastructure, not to mention customers. For example, he considered butler school. He’d read that there was money in that, and that when the boss was away, he’d have the run of a stately home. His only plausible idea was to start an eco-T-shirt company, with Jennie designing the mottos and illustrations. But that scheme only lasted one long, dark November evening. He’d forgotten all about it the next day. Soon after he really started to scare Jennie and Sonia with his vacant eyes and soundless dances, Jennie knew they had to bolt.
Jennie was falling down again, this time in the Yankee Doodle. Everything went black for a nanosecond.
There was baked potato mashed into many crannies, including the other woman’s handbag, her cleavage, the bald spot on Milt’s head. What was Mr Sekulski shouting now? Something about the end of the world again?
As Jennie fell, the floor became part of her face for a moment. It felt like a bad marriage that had suddenly righted itself.
When she propped herself on her elbows, there was Milt, fawning over his date. She experienced a sense of release, of happiness almost, for the first time in what seemed like a hundred years. All this excitement was making her hungry. And she was never hungry. Now that she had remembered so much she knew that she could proceed safely on and on with her forgetting.
Reading by Nathan Moore — Download the MP3
“Jennie, or How Things Go Down in The Yankee Doodle” was the first story that Arlene Ang and I wrote together. We wrote and edited it “inside out,” the way we both tend to write poetry. We both like taking one word or phrase written by the other and just running with it — so we’re always delighting and surprising each other with new directions. After the first few drafts, we get into this mode, also, where we edit quite freely any aspect or part of the story. In “Jennie,” we wanted to tell a big story in a short space. Jennie’s own story is revealed to her during the traumatic episode at the center of the story. Sometimes when reading or writing that kind of thing can actually happen.
The orange rings of the heating element should have been comforting: they were not.
There are flies here. And the smell of my hair as it burns.
On the phone, my mother. She’s teaching me to soak the lamb in vinegar for two days to remove all taste of lamb.
This isn’t a dream or a fire drill without a fire escape.
The carrots and potatoes change the meat even as the meat changes the carrots and potatoes.
I put on weight to occupy the kitchen in a wifely manner.
On the fridge, a brown note: Rings were invented to survive the fingers that wore them.
It’s about time to turn on Barry Manilow and crack some walnuts, like an adult.
We were a couple — we had a smoke alarm installed in the kitchen to bring us news of imminent death.
I should have been more careful when I dedicated my entire life to your own image.
Downtown, the sad Satanists convention was letting out and the weekend watercolorists were signing up for rooms and privileges.
It didn’t take me long to know I didn’t fit in.
The short bus trip was a miracle and only ten minutes late.
Perhaps it’s just my imagination, but the folk guitar sounds here are clearly outnumbering soothing biblical phrases.
Consider that tree and that sidewalk and pray for some lightning.
Behold: mustard (after the meat).
Who could have thought after these many years our most mundane remarks would outlast our affections.
We communicated almost solely through T-shirts, reading them out loud to each other, to the tune of My Darling Clementine.
Without unhappiness, how do we know we actually exist?
For process notes, see “In retrospect, 1984 made a fine sausage“
“It’s a children’s book launching. Children are necessary. You know that.”
Richard hated it when Marie, his marketing agent, spoke to him as if he were a lost-and-found anteater on its way into the eye of a hurricane.
“And pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey always ensures a huge success,” she added. It was her way of pointing out a trail of life-saving ants before him.
In the fourteen years they’ve worked together, Marie never knew Richard’s secret: that just because he wrote children’s books didn’t mean he was actually fond of children. He also wrote a lot about rabbits, and these too he abhorred. After selling four million copies of The Magical Carpet Bunny in Tahiti, which he wrote while visiting Gauguin nudes in Paris, he broke into his therapist’s office. There he stole most, if not all, of the session tapes with his ramblings and meanderings on bunnies. He still recalls the chill he got when he realized that Dr. Orten actually labeled them “Richard’s Rabbits.” He’d said (and more): I keep my allies close but my enemies closer. And: I have names for the ways they twitch their ears, how they just lie there, for example, panting in the sun.
Luckily Dr. Orten didn’t notice that someone had stolen the tapes. Richard, after all, still valued their appointments and didn’t want to cut her off totally. He knew he could count on her to keep billing even though he cancelled over half of their meetings at the last minute. He needed that time for himself. The paper trail was his name for the arrangement.
Richard’s wife, Lorraine, was mildly jealous of Dr. Orten. Richard thought of Lorraine as his wife even though they were no longer married. They’d divorced several years before and had recently reunited-to the displeasure of mutual friends and bankers who preferred Lorraine alone with, perhaps, a bottle of wine. Richard needed a wife like he needed a therapist. He was conscious of this and tried his best to conceal it from both of them. At least Lorraine didn’t want kids. Her sprawling home was a perfect ecology for him, in both temperature and in how it faced the sun to the east. He slept and wrote soundly there, without any drug inducement.
“Earth to Richard,” chirped Marie through the megaphone.
He could feel himself walking away. Rather rudely. He was past the water cooler and Darcee’s desk and half way inside the elevator before he realized what he was doing. He hated it that Marie never ran after him in public. Instead, she used the megaphone which she carried around in her a showy floral hangbag along with pins and plastic balloons.
The only thing Richard was allowed to decide about his book launch was the hour. He made it nine o’clock. As a child, he was never allowed to stay up later than eight. He was counting on the guests to be solely adults, but the adults disappointed him-as always. They came accompanied by their children. Watching them enter, hand in hand or screaming at each other, he felt a sourness sting his mouth.
In Richard’s mind a small list, like a contrail, fleeted horizontally in his mind: What Sane People Shouldn’t Bring to a Book Party.
Children came up first naturally. Even though they bought or, at least, manipulated their parents to buy his books, he still couldn’t think kindly of them. Once, he even received a fan mail from a little girl in Kansas who addressed him as Dear Santa. No, there was no liking them at all. Especially after Carmen. He’d been in L.A. for a book appearance five years ago, and was cleaning up Lorraine’s place when she called. She mentioned something about being pregnant. It was late in the day, but he still whined, Do you know what time it is! He knew he could throw her off every time he made her aware that she never knew what time it was. She had always been quite vulnerable about this, but never cured her low self-esteem by buying a wristwatch. He’d called her crazy and switched off the phone.
Then jello. He particularly disliked signing books smudged with strawberry jello. He felt that it took the edge off his pen. Not being allowed to sleep later than eight in the evening can grow a child overnight into a cynic. Green jello was almost as bad. It reminded him of him whenever he thought he could or might have actually gotten anyone with child.
Pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. This was obvious. Like DNA testing to find out the biological parent. No one ever thought about how the donkey felt. Personally, if he had lost his tail he would’ve much preferred not to find it, or worse, have it pinned back erroneously on his nose. In his school days, he saw this done every year from his bedroom window. His parents never allowed him to attend any parties because they suspected an alien conspiracy in anything that begins with the letters L-M-N-O-P.
Which brought to his mind parents. Somehow it occurred to him that even his parents came generically under the letter P. Aliens. At least, his taught him the meaning of camouflage underwear. They had never warmed up to Lorraine and Marie. Or accepted Dr. Orten as part of the family. Ironically, perhaps, because of their beliefs, they’d have approved of Carmen. When he first met her, she was working in a publishing house. She kept inviting him out for some chocolate pecan pie and finally he relented. He thought it was safe enough. He was even flattered when she wrote herself promiscuous notes under his name and left them in public places-like a phone booth or ice cream parlor. Dear Carmen. She actually thought she could handle his electric knife and still keep her side of his bed.
On the night of the party, Richard got off the elevator on the tenth floor of his building, as usual. It took him but a moment to notice that the party wasn’t there at all. Of course, it was across the street at Le Bec Fin. He loved their food, but the thought of kids stashing some of it between the pages of his books rather sickened him. The company had gotten a pro to play Chopin or Satie, he was looking forward to that. They’d have some nice champagne, at least. He couldn’t think of new ploys to make himself more late, without being too late, so he sighed and pressed Down. When the elevator doors opened there was Marie.
“Thought you’d be here,” she laughed. When she grabbed him by the elbow, it was almost friendly. He thought, she might be my friend, this Marie. She might stop bursting balloons with pins to get his attention.
“They’ll want to know about your next book, Richard. How is it going?”
Could he tell her? Open up? He was trying to branch out, write about donkeys, even business managers. A story with complications, with a climax-with more than a punchline. Something for a human being for heaven’s sake. Stories serious enough to hold ambivalent adult twins (fraternal) and spies in feathered capes. He felt ready for that.
At the same time, he was afraid to know what was going to happen next.
Eventually, Marie pulled him into the party lounge. A crowd of around two hundred was already waiting. And frowns waited heavily on the waiters’ faces. The plush oriental carpet had stopped resembling a plush oriental carpet-here and there escargot and roast drippings presented a sort of conceptual art that might’ve been entitled, “Agoraphobia.”
When Marie blindfolded Richard, she left just enough room so he could cock his head and sense the lay of the donkey’s rump. Was that Carmen in a Tahitian mouse get-up? Wasn’t she transferred in a high-security prison? He never knew whether she was being truthful or sarcastic. The whole two months they were together, she had complained incessantly about where she was, wherever he was, and here she was again.
Sex, he thought, should not be the only subtext for anyone’s life, even Carmen’s. Or gambling. Or hotels with heated swimming pools and underwater Bach. Lorraine, at least, never suffered such hang-ups, even though now and then she would refuse to wash behind her ears for weeks. Where was she now that he needed to get rid of Carmen?
In the background, he could hear children clap and holler. There was no doubt he’d pin the tail on the damn donkey with aplomb. That wasn’t the reason he had all sorts of escape plans weaving in and out of his mind.
Through the slit Marie left for him, he thought he could see the shoulder of a boy. And Carmen’s finger was pointing at it.
In “Little Boys and Snips of Donkey Tails,” Arlene Ang and I were especially interested in developing the character of Richard, who has been popping up in some way or other in many of the stories we’ve been writing. We went back and forth with the edits in a highly methodical way. Richard is always on the edge of something, and we think a lot about how obvious we should or should not make this. In some of the stories that feature him we tend to use a lot of description of his physical surroundings, his habitat. This episode explores his mental, voice-filled landscape.
In this interview, Robert Watts discusses with us our ongoing collaborative work.
There were sinister red marks on the dog where its hair came off
I had just moved back to the city after having been away for three years at school
It was around the same time I went out on a blind date with someone and dropped my keys under the bar at the Villa de Roma
Although I had no money I had several typewriters
In our childhood, we were all victims of DDT
I kept wiping my mouth on parts of the table napkin that I hadn’t soiled with my lipstick
The more I learned about my driving from rude strangers, the more I understood extinction
It seemed like everyone back then was making a film using one of those toy video cameras Fisher Price had come out with
On the ground, an egg sandwich absorbed the rain and disintegrated down the gutter
The sound of the CAT scan was just gaining prominence, getting louder and louder with each passing season
Poor as I was, I had friends with less
The museum was free on Sundays but I had to buy them coffee and once, a tuna melt
Since that day at the beach my digestive tract began to exist outside of my body
In the back of our heads somewhere—voices of our great-grandparents speaking in German, comfortable in their lonesome canal-town
The new car turned out to be a rainy-blue ’64 Buick Skylark with taped-on plastic material for the rear view mirror instead of glass
The way I’m lighting all these candles to save electricity makes me a real fire hazard
A lot of pretending goes into the appearance of water and electricity
For larks, we used to pretend we were courtiers, and our dog was of the 5th rank
I documented many aspects of our lives, but not our dog’s
Fifteen years later I remember the look of the crowd but not what the speaker said
Once I start listing them I can remember hundreds of these crowds
That must mean something
I see plenty of famous people (celebrities) around town but I forget them within seconds
Dear Me, I used to start a lot of letters that way
One conversation stands out, on a beach in Atlantic City
We had nicknames for everyone both consequential and inconsequential
I got a bit of advice from sisterly types about what to do about my name at the neighborhood bar
We heard people spray graffiti on the side of our house and it wasn’t even that late
Homes were sinking too, there were sinkholes
The whole time everything was happening I kept trying to find words to describe our own small, austere circumstance
Dogs woke us up early each and every day
It was alright to waste our time as long as we could choose how to waste it
Download the MP3 (reading by Arlene Ang and John Vick)
For process notes, see “In retrospect, 1984 made a fine sausage“
Our house was a pirate ship that changed colors
the further south we went
Once we had to pretend to wash a neighbor’s dog
so we could wash ourselves and use the dog shampoo
The few times I had to attend school
I occupied a corner with my shadow
Mother told us we were not her dogs
For a dollar we held in our urine for more than eight hours
I eavesdropped on banal conversations
with a homeland kind of insecurity
To throw off our creditors we, the children,
were given fictitious names and religions
I counted on winning a pig or two at the county fair
even though I hated pork with navy beans
I sat on the stairs all night
and pretended I was John Hurt
Market day, previously a day reserved for apples,
became an occasion to watch roadkill from a moving truck
I almost acquired a wooden leg after our run-
in with the revolving door
I seriously considered renting out my mind
for a few dollars and some hospital cafeteria food
It was annoying when those insane people
used to smack us for being insane
Mother followed us around the grocery
when she wouldn’t let us stay out in the car
Father, on the other hand, lost his marriage licence and later,
all his teeth to a gum disease.
He rarely spoke
except to say give me some private or
I’m counting on the lottery even
though I never get the ticket
There’s a lot to do
until you fall asleep
It was infuriating how “uncle” littered
his gossip with my phrases about him watching
My list of infuriating things grew
by yards in my unsteady hand
Practical jokes of yore and yonder:
dribble cups, classified ads, glue in strange places
On another occasion the whole community turned
out in force to shun me
It was summer, yes
We were the last 43 pages torn
out of a novel and no one
could afford a happy ending
The title is a line from a poem in our book, Bundles of Letters Including A, V and Epsilon (Texture Press, 2008). We wanted to work towards real collaborative writing as opposed to writing poems based on each other’s poems. It was written as part of our survival tactics during a 30-poems-for-30-days marathon in ITWS, an online writers’ community. The process: One of us would initiate a poem (5-8 lines per day), and then we just kept hitting the ball back and forth. Afterwards we jumble our lines and edit, edit, edit.
We are outnumbered by the pigeons.
We need to preserve our cultural background.
We have statues to protect. And churches. And clothes that require dry-cleaning.
We have been buying signature handbags from the street peddlers.
We have been fined by the local police for our fake Gucci.
We flush our shit into the lagoon.
We are afraid of getting filthier.
We have consulted a therapist for our personality problems.
We believe in the canonical power of a supreme being.
We have kept white rats in cages and electrical shocks.
We have failed to eliminate the bird-feeding instinct from tourists.
We can’t tell the difference between pigeon shit and vanilla ice cream.
We never know when to stop drinking.
We never learned to swim.
We have sunk 24 centimeters in the last 100 years.
We could be wrong and it’s just the sea level going up, like male pattern baldness.
We could catch some kind of disease or preoccupation with mating procedures.
We were born in the wrong century.
We should be speaking the Venetian dialect instead of English.
We are concerned about stopping time.
We can’t sit all day waiting for the pigeon soup to be ready.
We skinned cats during the last war and ate them, too.
We can acquire a taste for anything.
We can find reasons to exterminate any species if we set our hearts to it.
We have experienced high water in St. Mark’s Square.
We have had to put our feet in garbage bags to save our shoes.
We have taken pictures of those less fortunate.
We have been assaulted by birds and people who look exactly like us.
by Arlene Ang