Guest Post: Bill Gaythwaite, Continents Away

Photo of a globe and fountain

Photo by Tom Westburgh

When I was just out of college, a man I barely knew left me some inheritance money. He had been a friend of my father’s when they were both very young. This man didn’t have any family, had never partnered up or had any kids of his own, so when he died, his estate was to be divided up among the children of his old friends. I’d met him maybe two or three times in my whole life, when he’d come to visit my family in Boston from his home in rural Maine. These were awkward meetings. He seemed much older than my father, spoke with a thick Maine accent and wasn’t used to being around children. His first name was Wesley, which seemed to fit. He’d ask me the standard questions about school or sports, which I would grudgingly answer, while my parents looked on, raising their eyebrows at me, willing me to be more polite. I did my best, but I couldn’t wait to be excused and dodge the guy.

Later, of course, getting a windfall from this odd, shadowy figure would be a big surprise. It was not exactly an amount I could retire on.  Not trust fund money or anything. I think it was a little over $4000. But since my family wasn’t wealthy by any stretch, and it was over thirty years ago (when this sum went a lot further) I considered it a fortune. I got a lot of advice about what I should do with it, which mostly centered on putting it in the bank or using it to pay off some school loans. But there was never any question. I was going to travel. I was afflicted with a serious case of wanderlust back then. I’d been lucky enough to study in Italy for a semester and travel a little in Europe. Now I wanted to see everywhere else.

I bought a round-the-world ticket from a now defunct airline and first flew to Tokyo. I had no set plans really, from one day to the next, though I’d had to secure some visas before I left home and get some shots in my ass and had started taking malaria pills too.  Aside from the plane ticket, this was going to be shoestring travel. I was always keenly aware of how much money I had left.  If I didn’t spend cash on lodging or food, I’d be able to travel longer, further. A youth hostel or a room in a YMCA was a real luxury on that trip. I spent a lot of nights sleeping in train stations or airports or simply curled up outside.  I was gone the better part of a year, made it to over 30 countries and lost 40 pounds. Somehow I still came home with a few bucks in my pocket.

I did a lot of stupid things on that trip. I was too trusting by half and got ripped off a few times. As an over-privileged American, I probably deserved it. I got lost, missed travel connections and made a mess of basic phrases in a variety of languages. Still, by the time I reached Bombay I was feeling invincible. (This was before the city’s name was changed to Mumbai.) I drank water out of a trough on a filthy street and then was miserably ill for several weeks. Given the real suffering in India, I didn’t have a right to complain too much. I learned some things when I was traveling. One time a local man in Kowloon quite accurately called me an idiot when I gushed about how much I loved Hong Kong, how I’d love to live there. He asked me what I could possibly know about what it meant to live anywhere, other than where I was actually from. “You rich tourists are all alike,” he snapped.  “You see what you want to see.” I hardly felt like a rich tourist. I hadn’t eaten for a day and I was staying in an overcrowded flophouse, but he was right, of course. No matter what my personal circumstances, I had a rich person’s opportunity. I was, after all, traveling around the world. I didn’t fully understand what this man meant until much later, but it humbled me enough to know when I should keep quiet.  One of the reasons I liked traveling alone was because no one was there to see me screw up in these ways or fight with me about directions or tell me which museums to see. I liked the idea of controlling my own narrative and there was something very freeing about doing that half-way around the world, continents away from anyone who knew me by name. The memory of that freedom has stayed with me.

Another real gift of that trip is that it was the beginning of my writing life. Alone in the evening, wherever I was settled for the night, I’d pull out my notebook from my backpack and write about what I’d seen that day, quick snapshots of my life on the road. I was quite faithful to this little journal.  I also had another notebook where I started writing stories and some poems, which I guarded feverishly for fear this book would wind up in the wrong hands — meaning anyone with a passing knowledge of the English language. The work was terrible (this is not modesty) but at least I was doing it. I liked the idea of putting words down at the end of the day, of creating characters and plots, imagining dialogue.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I was never lonely on that trip. Not once. I was creating other lives and situations to keep me company. The writing itself might have been triggered by my travels through China, Thailand, Egypt, and all those other astonishing places, but the nightly ritual of jumping into the work didn’t go away when I came home. It remained part of my life when I moved to New York City and then on trips to other countries in my twenties and early thirties. (Wanderlust percolated in my system for a long time.)

Later, as a busy suburban dad, when I wasn’t going anywhere more exotic than the Jersey Shore, my writing habits stayed with me too. I never felt right if I didn’t spend a little time on my work before I turned in for the night, even if that meant only editing a paragraph. Mine is often a slow process, but it’s a deliberate and fairly constant one. Today this all feels more like reflex than habit, as if my writing routine is hardwired into me, a kind of muscle memory. Wesley couldn’t have known what I’d do with his inheritance and I couldn’t have imagined the impact it would have on me to this day.  I will always be very grateful to him.  And I do still think of Wesley, in fleeting moments and sometimes longer.

#ArtLitPhx: Workshop with Daniel Magariel

On Monday, August 28th, Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix will host Daniel Magariel for a workshop and conversation about his new novel One of the Boys. Purchase the book and you’ll get access to his workshop, “Editing with Abandon.” After the workshop, join the author for a presentation about the book. More information can be found here.

Guest Post: Edmund Sandoval, Headwaters

Back in late April of this year, I picked my mother up from the airport in Portland, OR, the town in which I lived at the time. She’d flown in from St. Louis, MO, the nearest city to my hometown, where she still lived with my stepfather. My hometown is Carbondale, IL, and it is a two-hour drive from there to the airport in STL.

Carbondale isn’t really close to anything. Within its borders is a hospital, a library, chain restaurants, a dying state university. The university mascot is the Saluki, a breed that traces its origins back to the Fertile Crescent; the regional nickname for Southern Illinois is Little Egypt; fields of soybeans sway to the horizon; there is a small town named Cairo at the bottom of the state and the locals pronounce it like this: kay-row. Carbondale is an ethnically diverse town, containing white and black and brown folk. It is mainly poor, country rural, with strains of moderate wealth strumming through it here and there, owing to the dying university, which, at one point, was quite the opposite.

My parents moved with my brother and me to Carbondale, the Dale, as it is known colloquially, in the mid-1980s. I have vague recollections of those days. Somewhere, there is a photo of the four of us perched atop the hood of the brown Honda Accord my father purchased once he started making decent bucks as a doctor of cardiopulmonary disease. My parents divorced when I was young enough to not recall my age or where I was in elementary school. I’d say right around third grade. That sounds about right.

The day in PDX was gray and cool and free of rain. It was springtime and the river by my apartment was swollen and its murky waters had swallowed a portion of the park that ran along its southern shore. My mother flew out because I was finished with Portland and was gearing up to drive across the country to Chicago. I’d already quit my job and sold my sofa and packed all my junk. My mother was gonna be my co-pilot. We’d never taken a trip of any kind in close to two decades. I thought it would be a fun experience for us both. My mother’s only condition was that we leave the set course of travel in order to witness the headwaters of the Missouri River. The route to Chicago was about twenty-two hundred miles, a distance we planned on covering in four days. Zip zip.

As it goes, we’d not done any kind of serious travel since my brother and I were kids and could not drive and my mother the only one behind the wheel of the ‘94 Chevy Cavalier (gray paint, gray upholstery) she’d inherited after the passing of her mother. The trips we took in that car was this one : back and forth from the Dale to Hawthorne, NJ, any number of times, until I was an adolescent. Hawthorne is the last town my mother called home until she moved away for college and the rest of her life.

For about the past ten years, my mother has consistently informed my brother and me that she would be damned in and in hell before she spent more years living in the Dale than the age she was when she moved there. As it turns out, 2017 marked that cutoff. Sometimes she’d wonder aloud where those thirty-three years went. Like, I came here young, son. You know.

My mother grew up in New Jersey and when she says radiator or coffee they tumble out as rad-ee-ator and caw-fee. Before she had us kids, she’d dreamt of being an airline stewardess. I write stewardess as that was what it was then when she’d had that dream. It was a dream she could not pursue as she did not meet the height requirement listed by the airlines. Over the years, my mother has been a flautist, a mental health case worker, a teacher of sorts in the Carbondale Public School system. The last job was one she held in disdain and the one that would carry her into retirement. Just as she’d languished in Carbondale, she languished in a job that gave her no sense of joy or accomplishment. It was time, finally, to get the heck out of Dodge. I don’t think it was a month after her last day of work ever that she and my stepfather put the house up for sale. I thought it was bad timing. In Illinois, at that time, and now, the powers that be were working hard to fuck it up big time. For nearly two years, the state functioned without a budget. The university creaked and cracked a bit more and stopped hiring. Nobody held their breaths. When they got the house appraised, its value had dropped by almost a third when they last checked its worth. But fuck it, they said, and put the For Sale sign out in the front yard.

I’d left for Portland in 2014. I’d been living in Madison, WI, prior to the move. I spent three years in that town. And they were hard years and seemingly without end. I was sad most of the time. I hated my job and, yet, I found salvation in it, as I was able to hunker down in my cubicle and write by day and week, and churned out stories by the gross. I drank slowly and carefully. I went for runs and stayed up late. One unfortunate evening, I renounced writing, and dumped all of my notes and other writerly ephemera into a number of the plastic Woodman’s grocery bags I employed as trash bags. Another evening found me slumped in a miserable heap by the small waterway situated between the Lakes Monona and Mendota. I held a lot against that town, including that it was in Lake Monona that Otis Redding and most of his band perished on a snowy winter night five decades ago. It was a fucked up and transformative time, in many ways.

There wasn’t much to do in my apartment by the time my mother and I pulled up under the bridge that hulked overhead. There was some sweeping that needed done. The refrigerator was ready for a scrubbing. Mainly I needed to send my books across the country via the post. To make a couple runs to the Goodwill. So we went for a late lunch and talked about my brother and other things.

I’ve never been much of an adventurer. The last long trip I took prior to driving to Portland was when I drove to visit my brother when he lived in New Mexico. He was living on a farm and the scene that I came upon when I arrived there in the wintertime afternoon eight years back was of a woman stretching a fresh hide with a solution of brain matter and other intoxicatingly strange ingredients. I would later learn that the brain in that bizarre stew was once possessed by the owner of the hide that was strung about the two posts that held it up like a suede flag. From that time forward, I made it back to New Mexico once more and then spent the next six or seven years putzing in Illinois and Wisconsin.

My mother was a traveler once. To some degree. We’ve not talked about her youth much. Her twenties and all. I do know that she traveled to Russia, at one point. The USSR, I guess. That she’d been to England and traveled on a hovercraft over some isle or another. She’d seen Europe. And Nicaragua, the country my father hails from. With my dad, they skipped from city to city, from somewhere in New Jersey to St Louis to Tallahassee and then, finally, to Carbondale. She’s been to Cairo, also, the real one, in Egypt. That trip, I’m certain, was the last real one she took in the last fifteen or so years. She went with my stepfather. Their friends were living there. One of these friends is a poet and artist. There is a print of his artwork above this computer, for instance. It is picture of doorways. In the past five years, my mother’s travels have been to two sections of the country: Oakland, CA, and West Milford, NJ. In Oakland is my brother, his wife, and their kid. My mother went out there a lot as she was having a damn good time being a grandmother and all that jazz. Especially as my bro and I had for the longest time said we’d be damned and in hell before we would join any partnership that would result in a kid. But things change. New Jersey is where my mom’s siblings reside. She went there a lot in the past five years because her kid brother, Tom, got cancer, which he would succumb to in the spring of 2016.

I enjoyed my time in Portland until I didn’t. And the time spent driving to the city. Back then, I’d forgotten of the vastness of the country. It had been years since I’d driven more than five hundred miles in any one direction. The major highways I took to Portland from Wisconsin took me through Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. There was also an excursion into Wyoming. The original plan was to check out the Devils Tower in that state. I’d long admired its weirdness. Its jutting out of the earth like a huge striated button just waiting for some humongous god or monster or something or other to come by and push it back into the soil. But there was a motorcycle hangout going on when I’d be passing through, and even the KOA camping sites were going for a hundo or more just to lay a tent down. I went into Yellowstone instead. And saw bison lumbering around like mobile sofas clad in rotty brown shag upholstery masquerading as fur.

My mother and I loaded up my car on a rainy morning in Portland. The rear of the car was packed with dishes and sheets and clothes and my stereo. Not much more. Toothpaste and toothbrush. I was excited to shove off and get going. I left a kitchen table behind. My bed. My landlords said, Heck, just leave em. We’ll find someone who could use em. My landlords were from STL originally, and were friendly, and still Midwestern, and drank like college freshmen, and often fought in the early evening, and were awake by the times the birds creeped up from their tepid slumbers. Every few weeks, I’d take my recycling out and shake my head with wonder and astonishment at the blue bin brimming with empty handle bottles of gin and vodka and thigh-sized bottles of red wine. But lots of us have been there, and are there, and will be.

I was excited because on the opposite side of the country, my partner, Jeanne, was packing up her belongings and preparing to shed the life she lived in order to start one with me. She was living in New York City, NY, the biggest city in the country. Similar to me, family would be helping her drive across the country. Her sister-in-law had flown from Santa Cruz, CA, to load and steer her across one thousand or so miles that lay between NYC and Chicago. Because you can kind of do whatever you want in NYC, they parked their rented Budget truck right on the sidewalk in front of her apartment building.

For the longest time, I’d simply assumed that my folks, all of them, would not uproot from Carbondale. They’d just been there for such a long time. It was less than an abstraction and more like a patent untruth. Because, ya know, thirty-three years isn’t a minor collection of years. It’s three decades. In that time I went from a preschooler crying and clinging to a chain link fence to a grumpy high schooler to a grumpy college kid to a grumpy adult to, improbably, to me, at least, a pretty happy thirty-something copywriter with a supportive and lovely partner.

My mother and I talked about many things as we sliced across the country. We talked about my prospects in Chicago (I didn’t have any), my partner Jeanne, the way my life imploded/exploded in Portland and how trust is a fickle thing. We talked about the house and how it refused to sell itself. We talked about my stepfather and his age and how he was getting along. We listened to Serial and it was new to us because we are both resistant to new things a lot of the time. We saw not a single bison. We saw mountains and snow and trees and rivers. We counted license plates. We stayed in dirt cheap Airbnb rentals. One of them was miles removed from any road or highway and tucked in a canyon. We did not drive fast. We drove fast. We did not drive at night. We marveled at the vastness of the country. As it happened, we took almost the exact same highways I took to get out of the Midwest in the first place. At one point, I paused to reflect on that. How momentous it seemed, to be retracing, to be going back, to be bidding adieu to all that horror and sadness. At the same time, I thought of my mother and her need to escape. Because I know what it’s like to live in a place you don’t want to, and to have the feeling that escape is beyond the scope of what is possible.

The headwaters of the Missouri River weren’t much to look at. The more so when you think of its length, some two thousand three hundred miles and change. Which is approximately the number of miles my mother and I drove. My mother was ecstatic to be there. I could see why. That something so vast, something capable of reshaping the land over which it flowed, could have so simple a beginning, and that, if you followed it, if you let yourself be carried by its waters, you’d come to an end.

The house sold last month. Some young guy bought it. I’ve never seen him. It’s the last weekend of the month of July and this afternoon I’ll drive back to the Dale and help my mom and stepdad pack up whatever things they didn’t sell or give away. My partner is coming with me and we’ll lift boxes and furniture together. They’re moving to Florida, my parents and stepdad. Far away from the Dale, and Oakland, and Chicago, and New Jersey. It’s a place, though. And there are Palm Trees. And the Gulf of Mexico.

Authors Talk: Claire Polders

Claire Polders bio photoToday we are pleased to feature author Claire Polders as our Authors Talk series contributor. In her podcast, Claire discusses her short story “Fistfuls” and the various ways she starts a story. Sometimes she starts with a philosophical question, other times the story is based around a true event that she experienced, and sometimes (in the case of “Fistfuls”) she writes from curiosity and allows the story to guide her.

You can read Claire’s story “Fistfuls” in Issue 17 of Superstition Review here.

Guest Post: Anthony Varallo, Welcome the Interruption

Anthony Varallo bio photoAs far as I can remember, it started about ten years ago, right around the time we finally broke down and got Wi-Fi in the house, after years of saying we would never get Wi-Fi in the house—who needs Wi-Fi in their house?—this strange new phenomenon so subtle and so barely noticeable that, at first, it didn’t even feel like a change at all; it felt like what we had always known: the wish to be interrupted.

It occurred incrementally, the wish, starting out as little more than an occasional habit.  My first recollection of it was sitting at home one night and trying to read a book without being able to follow what I was reading.  I kept re-reading the same passage over and over again, or turning to the back cover to read the blurbs I’d already read a dozen times, or checking the author’s photo for no real reason.  I got up and fetched a glass of water.  I made myself a snack.  I read the book’s jacket copy again, trying to remind myself what I was reading.  I opened the book again and realized I had no idea what I’d been reading for several pages.

And then I did something I’d only just begun to do: I grabbed my laptop computer from my bag, placed it beside me, and started it up.  Maybe, I thought, I should check my email.  Yes, good idea.  Maybe someone had emailed me while I was reading my book, and I hadn’t even known it, and that person was now sitting somewhere, eagerly awaiting my response.  Think of how thoughtless I would be if I continued to read my book without even knowing that someone had emailed me.  What if it was something urgent?  Surely the person who had emailed me something urgent would appreciate how quickly I responded to their email.  Impressed, even, by my availability and interest in their urgent problem, even—and this part they wouldn’t know; how could they?—as I sat in my home trying to read a book I was having a hard time following.  Thanks, they would say, for responding so quickly.

So, I sat my computer beside me and checked my email, a position that allowed me to keep the book open across my lap, should I want to keep reading it.  Three new emails arrived, all junk.  I deleted them, and then returned to my book, with the sudden sense that someone was watching me, perhaps approving of what I had done.  I had paid attention to the world around me all while secluding myself from the world, too.  No more lazy, introverted, solo reading for me, like I had done for so many years; no, I would read my book and be attentive to my email at the same time, in case anyone emailed me something significant.  That’s what a thoughtful, caring person would do.  Who would try to read a book while neglecting the world around them?  A wish to be interrupted crept into my consciousness, without me quite realizing it somehow.  I’d acquired a new taste for something, even if I didn’t know what it was exactly.  Someone, somewhere, interrupt me.  Please.

Nowadays, I seek interruption whenever I can.  I keep my laptop open to email, weather, news, and baseball scores.  I open my web browser before I pour coffee into my coffeemaker, before I make myself a slice of toast with peanut butter, before I would even think of reading a book.  When was the last time I read a book first thing in the morning?  Did I used to do that?  I can barely remember now.  These days, so much of my reading is done online, that the line between “reading” and nearly all other activity has been thoroughly blurred.  Eradicated, even.  To the degree that I’m nostalgic now, writing this essay, for a time when I read without my laptop nearby, without Wi-Fi up and running, without a new email demanding my attention: a special, low rate on a hotel I stayed at once, years ago.  A coupon for savings on pharmacy products I do not need.  Another petition to sign.

I look back to that time when I could read innocently, without the need for interruption, and wonder if I’ll ever return to that kind of simplicity.  And I would wonder about it even more, and question, perhaps, what it all means, but I’d rather not think about it now, with the day just starting up, my coffee still warm.  Plus, I need to go check my email.

Authors Talk: Molly Giles

Molly GilesToday we are pleased to feature author Molly Giles as our Authors Talk series contributor. She reads her story from Issue 17, “Cleaning Deposit.” After the reading, she talks about where she got the idea for the story and the real story it’s based on.

 

You can read her piece, “Cleaning Deposit,” in Issue 17 of Superstition Review.

Authors Talk: Mark Ali

Today we are pleased to feature author Mark Ali as our Authors Talk series contributor. Mark talks about his influences and mentors and how powerful the opening paragraph of a story has to be. He speaks of trying to find a voice that is not always recognized in modern America.

You can read Mark’s story “Flying By” in issue 17 of Superstition Review here.