literary expression - quality work
Enjoy samples from past ELM contributitors. These pieces appear with their author's permission and are for your enrichment. Pieces reflect the artist's opinion and perspective, only.
poetry | essay | short story
James Englehardt - "Interstate Weather"
A whole life can go by without semis
pushed over as if by some thunder god's hand
onto the tiny lives and fragile steel frame
of a passenger car more substantial
than your own, painted a color you'd never buy.
You can spend your whole life not answering:
Where is the downbeat in 5/8 time?
How many different proteins are found
in the human body? How to respond
to straight-line wind shear in a supercell storm?
Count the time between intermittent wiper strokes,
those blades have no more meaning
than other rhythms of habit or body, and then
the rain stops, red brake lights burst in front of you.
Muscle your lips together while your mate
strokes you with a warm hand and you ease past
the toppled truck. She chokes, cries.
there was no time for escape or reaction. Yes,
a tipping of steel. Police and trauma teams
slip down the muddy banks of young grass,
flashlights needling traffic. A doctor's sure fingers
gently cradle the truck driver's neck. Her latex hands
roll his head. A second capsized semi steams. More
flashing lights arrive. Wind picks up. Earlier
the moon was out. Earlier still, lunch with friends.
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Desirae Matherly - "Dust to Dust"
Dust to Dust
How things converge, how they add up to something: midway between filing my taxes and moving the laundry from washer to dryer, and after trudging up three flights, I drop all of my coins above the kitchen trash and must dig through to find what did not land on the floor. Yesterday I balanced my checkbook, saw that I did not have enough for groceries and childcare this month, so fifteen dollars of laundry quarters are worth digging through the trash to find, every quarter precious. For days I've been looking for two receipts suddenly gone missing, so that I can claim nearly two hundred dollars of reimbursement money from my department. Could I have thrown them away too? This I contemplate while picking through coffee grounds and hairballs, food particles and Dustbuster detritus of the dining room variety, the remnants of sweeping done after breakfast. I have a four-year-old, so what I find under the table can run the gamut from dried egg noodles to art-paper cuttings. The cat hair tumbleweeds cling to my fingers as I dredge quarter after quarter up from the darkness. Carefully I count the dollars out, encountering various States of my undoing.
In Victorian London, dust had a similar value to those not opposed to searching it. One might find any number of valuable things in the city's waste, even excrement having its value to the tanners, the unmentionables used for softening leather. "Pure finders" were the collectors of dog-dung, and varieties of their waste held different values. The word "pure" was never an ironic word till I read this in Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor. Oddly, I find that a "tanner" was slang for a six-pence. Sweat and waste and time - still valuable. I know this, from watching the homeless of South Chicago browse the edge of my alley gate in the evening looking for aluminum cans. Surreptitiously I peek through the corner of my back door window whenever I hear the sound of grocery cart wheels on unleveled concrete. It's an unmistakable sound, nearly as familiar to me as what I heard in the junk yard where I played as a child - the crunch of metal in the crusher, the loader pulling forward or backing up, its tongs piercing the side of a Mazda or a Cadillac, all equally filthy in the end, and valuable according to weight. My education, or the prestige of a temporary position means nothing now: things are tight. I recall overhearing my aunt chastise my uncle for throwing away a penny once, and I think about it now. How sometimes we lazily vacuum up small, dirty coins in a daze, unsure that the energy spent picking them up and cleaning them is worth a single cent. America's dollar is going to coins economists speculate, the Sacagaweas and Presidents overtaking the ubiquitous green paper. Or so they say. What is the sound of one coin falling?
Still searching the grime of my domestic life, I remember the latex gloves in the cabinet. Soon I am picking more deeply into the refuse, already planning to clean the toilet when I am done, since I have my glove on. Waste not, want not: double-up on what you can do with one protected hand. I'm one of the freaks who must scrub the interior of her toilet with a disposable scouring pad, sans handle. Long ago I contemplated the toilet brush, the semi-permanence of it - the horror, the horror! So I took to cleaning with a glove and pad, peeling the soiled skin away when through, enclosing what must be cast away forever, and emptying the trash immediately. Once a boyfriend of mine threw our used condom away into the toilet. I was amazed when the toilet flushed (this is a monumentally bad idea), but then philosophically taken aback by the disposal of DNA. How casual are the things we do for peace of mind, the skins we wear, the lost generations of bacteria, of sperm, of countless, infinitesimal worlds.
I recall one evening, particularly tired and moody, when I felt as though my day had been awful and filled with insurmountable toil, when my grandmother called to relate the events of her Saturday. Her brakes had needed work, and since my uncle's junkyard adjoins her property, one of his ground laborers (one of the Mexicans who do the work no one local is willing to attend to) offered to look under the chassis. In the matter of a few seconds, his thumb was nipped off, and as he stood there holding the bleeding stump, smiling she said, my grandfather, also a junkman, also one of the shocked observers, plucked the thumb from the ground and tossed it to my grandmother saying, "Here, you better wrap this up for him." My grandmother said she nearly threw up, and I can't blame her. I must have asked her to repeat the story three - four times - just to get the details right. The thumb ended up too dead for recovery, and likely, was chucked in some hospital bin or another. And so are the days of our lives. There is no compensation for losing something like a thumb, and certainly, nothing for a man who is not a citizen, who cannot, in this country, expect anything more than his employer to drive him to the emergency room, wait for him, and perhaps pay him a little more for his loss.
I've long since washed my fifteen dollars in the sink, have scattered the shiny pieces out to dry on the chopping block I've built from Rubbermaid containers and a wooden cutting board. The trash fills up by evening, and I'm temporarily confused when I can't find a recycling symbol on my orange juice carton. Does it matter? What are the costs? And in the span of one day I have abandoned my thoughts here, in the manner of someone accustomed to having the leisure to do so - and have made a full recovery. This conclusion has cost me very little, and others, far too much.
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Tom Noyes - "The Daredevil's Wife"
The Daredevil's Wife
Having given his barrel one final once-over -- he's checked the seals, greased the hatch hinges, applied a finishing coat of resin to the oak - the daredevil emerges from the basement to attend to his wife. He finds her in the kitchen and interrupts her humming to suggest a penultimate trip to the Falls. Sans barrel, of course. Just the two of them.
Niagara's subdued at night; its roar muffled somehow, its sky empty of daylight's screeching, grimy gulls. The daredevil thinks experiencing the Falls like this could buoy his wife. Steel her for tomorrow. It's her well being the daredevil's considering.
The daredevil's wife takes his invitation wrong, though, hears it as insensitive and irresponsible. She whips her own shoulder with a dishtowel - it sticks, a widow's shawl - and charges the daredevil, burrows her face in his chest, pounds him with soft, half-hearted fists.
She says she's afraid if she sees the Falls tonight, she'll lose her nerve for tomorrow. Or worse. The daredevil will lose his nerve.
"You're right," the daredevil says. "Of course, you're right."
Otherwise a calm evening. No eleventh-hour ultimatums, no last-ditch begging. The daredevil and his wife stay home sip wind, channel-surf.
The daredevil's wife is understandably anxious and distressed, but the daredevil knows, deep-down, she's on board.
In the beginning the daredevil had difficulty choosing his stunt. Stuck between tightrope and barrel. It was his wife who finally tipped the scales. She said she preferred the barrel's odds, so the daredevil acquiesced. The tightrope would've been problematic anyway. Where and how to string it? What type of knot? Where and how to train? Rope tension? Weather? Wind? How fast is a knot?
The daredevil is not especially handy. His math and science skills are, at best, rudimentary.
With the barrel the daredevil needs only his wife to nudge him into the current and, post-plunge, alert Maid of the Mist. No skill is required of him. Science and Math be dammed. This is the physics of the barrel: curl into a ball and hope. This is the geometry of Niagara: down.
The daredevil's wife asks the daredevil why. Of course she does. Asks him over and over. But the daredevil has no answer. ("The purpose of the plunge is the plunge itself," is what he thinks, but he keeps this to himself, knowing full well its more non-answer than answer, and he doesn't want to sound flippant. Her question, after all, is legitimate. He asks it of himself on occasion.)
What the daredevil should do is remind himself and his wife of the story of the ark:
"Why?" Noah's wife asks. "God," says Noah. She says, "Seriously." Noah says, "Survival." She says, "Please. Don't be like this." Noah says, "End of the world." She says, "Get over yourself."
Then raindrops, rising water. The ark floats, months pass, the waters recede, the ark runs aground, the dove returns with an olive leaf, the sun re-ignites, the rainbow appears, and Noah replies, "That's why."
The daredevil can't sleep the night before. Of course he can't. Despite his attempt to be quiet as he climbs out of bed and into his bathrobe and slippers, his wife wakes up. Her head turns on her pillow, and her eyes meet the daredevil's. "Sorry," the daredevil whispers. "Go back to sleep." (When he apologizes again in the morning, she'll tell him she doesn't remember. She'll tell him she has no idea what he's talking about.)
The daredevil takes the basement stairs in the dark. Once his feet hit the cement floor, he shuffles in the direction of the barrel, feeling for it with outstretched arms. When he finds it, he climbs in, closes the hatch, and whispers petitions to his patron saints:
Anna Edson, who, in taking her plunge, kept a promise made to a classroom of third-graders. The daredevil asks her to guard the integrity of his vessel.
Bobby Leach, who never resurfaced, leaves behind for rescuers only on tattooed arm. "Guide me with your remaining hand," the daredevil asks. "Deliver me from the undertow."
The would-be poet laureate of the Falls, George Stathakis, who's believed to have died of a heart attack before his barrel even hit the brink, whose blank notebook, fished from the gorge, said more than any sonnet penned in the half light of the barrel could've begun to say. "Afford me the courage," the daredevil prays, "to transcend even my own descent."
And, finally, Roger Woodward, the barrel-less survivor, the overboard, seven-year-old, alive and well saint-by-accident. "Lend me your armor," the daredevil prays. "Your angels."
Just off shore, still barely moving, the daredevil's surprised to hear his wife break into song. He can't quite make out the words, and it's not a tune he recognizes. Something upbeat, though. Sounds like his wife, anyway. Sounds like singing. It's not gulls. Not angels. Not mermaids.
As he drifts into the current, the daredevil wonders: Why sing? To throw off a nosey passerby? To prematurely celebrate his success? To keep him company a bit longer? To keep his spirits high? To quell her own fear? The daredevil, again, has no answer.
The barrel caroms off the first rock, rolls over, and begins to pick up speed until it's spinning tight and fast like a centrifuge. The daredevil feels like he's twirling into himself and being pulled apart at the same time. Like he's shrinking, like he's turning inside-out.
As he spins the daredevil pictures his wife returning to the parking lot, her back to the river and its hazy cloud of rainbows. She kind of sways as she walks, kind of bops her head a little as she sings.
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