The voices came in morning chimes. Filtered to her in a way she felt she could trust. Small bits easy for swallowing.
In the beginning, she listened. Later, she heard. Eventually, she trusted. Finally, she believed.
The day she put out the signs, the day she opened up her home to them was jumping from a bridge and
her dress rising above her head in a shroud, the water coming up fast beneath her. No undoing. It had already been done. Midway between action and impact, she readied herself.
They did not come like parishioners, they came like torch bearers; unconcerned with anything to do with burning, but swollen hard with the fervor that builds within mobs intent on taking what they came for.
Still, she let them prey. Her ears to God’s with words not close to holy.
She thought of Abraham and the sloth of his knife. And as they took her, and took her, she wondered if she had acted too quickly.
A vagina saint is the English adaptation of the Latin _vagina sancta_, or "holy sheath," which supposedly contains the _spatha Dei_ or "sword of God."
Does that seem confusing? Well, the word "vagina" didn't mean anything in English for a long time, but in Latin it's meant sword-sheath for centuries. "Vagina saint" was first used in English as a sort of awkward mistranslation by an Elizabethan, Sir Thomas Coke. He was an early dissenter with serious Puritan leanings, and Shakespeare supposedly mocked him in one of his portrayals of Puritanical types in Measure for Measure.
The term "vagina saint" was last used by Prince Rupert of the Rhine, who was well-known as an English Civil War cavalry commander, when he was discussing the proper method for conveying the royal regalia swords to France while fleeing the wreck of the monarchy. At around the same time (the mid-17th century), physicians began using the term vagina to mean the female reproductive passage, but of course both terms derive from the Latin for sword-sheath.
Vagina Saint. Noun. Lady who sprinkles her wares for the greater good. Like when Pigface's momma laid it on that old half-dead geezer down the street. Didn't even ask could she have a ride, could he spare some green. Did it out the good of her heart. We tried to watch but the old man had some decorum, turns out, had drawn the yellow curtains. We made do watching the trailer thunder side to side till Pigface shot at us with his BB. We ate grilled cheeses his momma made after her shower and watched the old man on his porch, watched him admire the blown glitter of an evening's swarm of fireflies. This was a day to remember, we had that in common. See there's no cure for loneliness, but a vagina saint could slather you in balm and set you to wobbling, happy and lit as a dark-drunk firefly.
Since orgasm is a prayer reduced to its simplest
expression, I consider myself deeply spiritual. (1)
On his knees he prays, believing in nothing. I’m hollow as my womb without me, he thinks. There are rumors no one has ever spoken. Utterly unuttered. I’ve heard them all. Cocooned by halos, she tastes like hope—he promises not to tell. Pressing his cell phone against her thigh, he uses her landline to call himself. Why are you male, he thinks. Where are your breasts. She pulls the pillowcase over her head. Where did you first learn about love. Her thigh, vibrating—a caterpillar praying—, the cell phone display glowing against his cheek—in his ear, the hum. When did you first. Closer. How long will it be until you remember. A butterfly’s wings an atheist’s hands, praying. (2) Tell me everything you know about crying. Life is a joke he’s heard so many times. You were in love once. He forgets how it goes. You have pictures. Proof. She doesn’t laugh. You can’t wait to tell her about this. One day she’ll come. He wants her to come. You can’t wait to confess. He’ll promise he’s changed. You’ve done nothing wrong.
1. Excerpted from Jeffrey McDaniel’s poem, “Twentynothing,” from his collection, Alibi School
2. In reference to Ted Kooser’s poem, “Praying Hands,” from his collection, Delights & Shadows
My ten year marriage to a limp dick (attached to an ass who failed Ethics) ended with eye-punches, counseling, and court dates. While he had fiddled with his tool pump, I practiced pleasing myself. Masturbation, of course, is never enough, and – though I will never get rid of it – the vibrator with bunny ears is only cold plastic.
Newly divorced, I renamed myself Anne Sexton, picked up long cigarettes, and placed an ad online. Responses came from a beer-sucking war veteran (not unlike my father) and a hipster who painted his penis from multiple angles, in vivid colors. A third man responded, with a blurry photo mysterious enough I could shape him into a being of passion, grace, and open-mind. I wrote him my life-long confession and convinced myself he wanted me more than anything. So it happened.
We met at sunset in the parking lot outside my therapist's office. He was older, balding, a tech-head with quick fingers. Honesty made for easy conversation. We made love in the front seat of his Nissan Maxima. Grateful, I enveloped him well-practiced. His apoplexy went unnoticed until I reached a conclusion.
I just wanted to listen to WTF podcasts and the new Jeezy song with Andre 3000 and smoke cigarettes in my basement but I’d had a headache every day for half a week and Barry wanted me to write 200 words about vagina saints and he said he’d already asked Amelia and Mary and xTx and even though he didn’t want to lick any of our vaginas except Mary’s, I couldn’t say no, even though I wasn’t religious and didn’t know shit about saints and didn’t feel inspired. I got online and went to alt lit gossip even though every time I go there I fantasize about crashing an AWP offsite party and shooting up some hipster’s apartment like it’s a high school and there were the usual updates about Tao and --- and chicks who try to write like Tao and --- and other people I don’t give a shit about but feel compelled to look at anyway and I still didn’t feel inspired. My daughter came in the room and asked me what I was doing and I told her I had to write 200 words about vagina saints and she said, that’s stupid, and I said, I know, and still I had a headache.
This will be a dramatic retelling of our entire relationship. It will begin with when your aunt gave you a fancy pair of shoes for your ninth birthday and you thought about a boy from school. It will end with the last time you order gin and still think of me. It is a very dramatic retelling so it will contain swordfighting and wilting flowers and a lot more sex. I’ll skip the part about how I was too drunk and you were too hopeful to notice distance. I’ll gloss over those Tuesday nights when you came over after work and we watched half of a shitty movie before I started a fight through omission. Were there really that many nights neither of us wanted but happened anyway? I’ll include a made-up villain in the retelling because I don’t want to choose which of us was the protagonist. The climactic scene will depict a man drowning in his bathtub at the hands of a jewel thief, and it will be a metaphor for everything I've ruined, everything we thought we could save.
If I were to press the palms of hands together, as if in prayer, and insert myself into you until elbow-deep, you might cry out in joy.
The lubrication of my holy ghost with the menstrual blood of the lamb.
I squint and you look almost like my mother smiling and you welcome me home again.
There is a body in a box. The body is me and the box is you and a third person is burying us. We are both alive.
I stick my dick through the holes in your hands and ask you to consider my apology.
You turn your back to him. And jam your hands into your pockets. It is raining and your every thought is dark, infused with anger and ready to take flight. You stare off into the distance and you do not look at him. You can picture him however, crouching there, not moving and watching you. He is bemused, lips pursed, smirking. You think about his beautiful skin and the missing tooth that somehow only enhances his smile. The baby fat is all burned away now, but you can still clearly remember his birth, the forceps, the black eyes, the fear and excitement. You can’t remember though why you were so angry at him just moments ago. Why you gripped his skinny little arms the way you did before turning away. Is this about your own unrealized hopes and dreams, the loss of freedom that parenting brings or is it your endless inability to express pain and confusion? Because how could it be about him? He is so small with everything yet to come. But you cannot make sense of it, and so you don’t even attempt to look at him until he walks over, hugs your legs and whispers, “sorry.”
Understand you don’t share anything you see and do here with anyone. Not your momma, your best friend, your girl. Watch your step.
Over to the left, that’s Plot. Character and Dialogue is next door. Once they get all that stuff humming, the manuscripts go upstairs to Style and Emotional Content, where the real work begins.
You thought Mr. Tanzer did it all by himself? Who’ll look after the boys if we’re not here 24/7?
He still comes in sometimes after a jog. Dropped a sweaty arm over my shoulder once. Happiest moment of my life.
Setting? Third floor. Can you believe they tried You Can Make Him Like You in New York first?
Damn right, it’s a Chicago book!
Across from Setting , they handle Tweets, Status Updates, the blog. I started there, wrote emails to jokers like Tom Williams and Barry Graham. Jeez, they go on.
You’re Proofreading, right? Fourth floor. Elevator’s this way. The pages’ll start coming soon. Trust me. The work isn’t easy, but like we say here, there’s a little bit of all us in Ben Tanzer and a little Ben Tanzer in all of us. Just remember that, buddy. You’ll do fine.
The run to the west, down a military ridge trail, frozen in winter, slippery and dangerous. Even the sun is cold.
But the body is reacting well to running again. The times are down, the body not soar. Except for the bleeding and the cuts and scars.
Ben Tanzer and 99 Problems was the first step back. The second a continual worry about a sickening heart. A guilt of possibly leaving the loved ones too soon. So, I started again.
I only begin sweating after the first mile, strangely like clockwork. The breathing easier, a cadence. A pattern of lungs and stretching legs.
After five miles, I circle to start running back home, and the bleeding starts again. At first easy to control on gloves and wool hat. I choose to run harder, faster – teach and mold the body to overcome such things.
The blood runs harder too, from drops on white snow to clots and blood not containable. I run harder yet to get home, the sixth mile, the seventh. The blood-sweat mix running freely from face.
Faster for fear and embarrassment. Another mile with unsteadying legs, the path growing darker, home just so far away.
A machine created in the second half of the 20th century, intended to revive literature in the early 21st century by writing more books, stories, and essays than any human could in the same amount of time. Though designed to assimilate into human culture, was eventually unmasked because of his incredible output. Publishing forty-five books over a two-year span ended up raising suspicions, which were later confirmed by The Smoking Gun. However, by the time the news was revealed America and much of the world was already hooked on Tanzer’s unshakeable prose. The Tanzer Lit Machine, as his work was later credited, produced five thousand volumes of written work over a mere twenty years, becoming the world’s only true canon of literature. Today, little else is read or remembered. Many libraries house only Tanzer’s complete works. The Tanzer Lit Machine was eventually retired and out-moded technologically, but due to the rabid affection for the Machine’s works no replacement has been introduced.
Ben Tanzer called me a reckless lunatic. I threw it into reverse. I said, I don’t care, Ben. That old woman made you cry, and I don’t like to see you treated like some idiot. My coffee emptied into my lap. I didn’t see the furniture truck until it began to crawl into my mouth. Ben Tanzer exploded on impact. Why are Wednesdays always so hard? I said.
I took Ben Tanzer for a walk per the usual Thursday ritual. Have you ever pondered the wavelengths of certain light? I asked him, his leg aloft to the probable ire of a young spruce. He didn’t pause; he never even broke expression.
Ben, I asked—
I heard you, he said.
So have you ever—
The room could have existed anywhere when I awoke. I focused on a crack in the ceiling. Ben Tanzer? Tanzer. Isn’t he that writer guy who’s married to the chick from the Hold Steady or something? Yeah, I know Ben Tanzer.
I was sleepy-eyed and waiting for the coffee to finish brewing. I’m gonna be here until Sunday with this, I said. I really gotta get me a new Ben Tanzer. Tomorrow. I nodded in agreement. Tomorrow.
Fucking Ben Tanzer has published another story. Or maybe another novella, a collection of short stories, or even a novel. Fuck. Burns stands, walks away from the computer. He paces. Fucking Ben Tanzer. Fucking Ben Tanzer publishes the way a bull moose in heat copulates, with a robotic persistence that’s more John Connor than Flannery O’ Connor.
So what is this one? Burns pours a glass of wine, puts a cigarette and the lighter in his pocket, walks onto the patio with the laptop. Fucking Ben Tanzer has published a new short story. Check that. Short story collection.
Burns doesn’t have to keep track, of course, because he is Facebook friends with Fucking Ben Tanzer, so fucking Ben Tanzer’s friends do a more than adequate job of keeping Burns informed. Hey, Fucking Ben Tanzer has a new novel! Fucking Ben Tanzer is doing a reading! An interview with Fucking Ben Tanzer!
Burns lights his cigarette. Fucking Ben Tanzer supposedly has a wife and children, a real job. How could he possibly find the time to write this much? How could it possibly all be that good? Burns pictures Fucking Ben Tanzer in tennis clothes, a sweater tied around his waist, taking leave from some cocktail party to shout instructions into his iPhone: "more witty pop culture banter! More surprisingly touching moments!" On the other end of the line, a handful of MFA graduates sit in a dim Williamsburg apartment, churning out witty, affecting short fiction about fathers and sons, men and women, about the real stuff of real fucking life.
Burns finishes his cigarette and goes back to the computer. He was on a fucking roll until Fucking Ben Tanzer ruined it. Burns works just as hard as anybody. Harder than Fucking Ben Tanzer. He sits in front of the computer again. Don’t open Facebook, he tells himself. Just write.
He stares at the screen. He wonders how many words -- maybe an entire story, maybe three, maybe a goddam novella -- Ben Tanzer has written in the past few hours.
Don’t open Facebook.
Focus, he tells himself. Write. What would Fucking Ben Tanzer do? Motherfucker! He is asking himself what Ben Tanzer would do? This is getting worse.
He opens Facebook.
"Goddamit," he shouts. "Unbelievable."
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. Fucking Matt Bell has published another story. Or maybe another novella, a collection of short stories, or even a novel…
Julia swims with sharks. She puts her head underwater and feels the pressure in her ears. She opens her eyes underwater. She likes the way the light becomes a hazy mesh curtain. She wants to cut it into strips. She wants to make it a dress or a shirt or a nice pair of pants. She wants to cut it into strips and tie it up her arms and make sleeves out of the sunlight and the way it splits and breaks and falls into ever distancing pieces of light down to the bottom of the ocean. She reaches out her hand and a shark swims under it, lets her move her hand over its back, its dorsal fin, its tail. It twists back, it moves toward her, swimming without showing effort. A smooth angle toward her body, her center. Julia treads water. She is still holding her breath. Her eyes are still open. Her ears still throbbing with the weight of the water around her. Her skin starting to chill. The shark’s eyes roll back. She doesn’t focus on the white eyes, the white teeth, the sun’s light making the body of the shark blend with the shadows of the ocean. She puts her tongue out and what she thinks is that it is so strange, this salt water. She thinks it is so strange that she can’t open her lungs and breathe. But then, she does. She does take a breath and everything is fine. Everything works. And she laughs. And she breathes the water. And she laughs. And everything is fine.
On the Rocks
I spot him from across the room at Allison’s party, the one she threw at the end of junior year. Alpha male Brad. Mightiest of the jocks. I run a hand through my hair, adjust my skirt, cross and re-cross my legs. I want him to notice me. Idiot teammates surround him. I am ignored. So I wait. And he drinks.
A seat opens beside him on the couch. This is easy. I sit down, casually press my thigh against his blue jeans. This is easy. I ask about sports. He stares at my legs, my tits, my crotch. This is easy.
I lie naked in a child’s bed. A Power Ranger glares disapprovingly from a poster on the wall. Brad mounts me. He looks strange without his shirt, hairy and white. Brad is extremely drunk. His bulk suffocates me as he pounds away, going at it like we’re making a video. I feel nothing.
Brad grunts, spasms, stops. This is not what I wanted. But I take it. Treasure it. Because I know what it feels like to have nothing. Brad’s crushing weight, his skank breath, his varsity cock violating my lonely cunt--they are something.
The Nuclear Age
I ran down the sidewalk laughing, hoping I would remember the way back. Strangers holding tall boys cheered from the porch. I grabbed two girls on the way. We held hands and nourished our lungs with the rushing summer air.
I didn’t know this street or this yard or the yard next door or the street I just crossed, racing like a child, with no reason, with abandon, with total joy, in the dark, and the lights were like brush strokes and the stars were all falling, forever looping.
“Do you know Pretty Girls Make Graves?” I said later, and was misunderstood to be preaching facts. It could have been caused by the vodka on either side of the conversation.
On the steps, there were tears invested in a stranger. They needed to be cried by someone and the bottle spun in my direction.
I stayed too long, told too many truths, and resigned my body to the hood of my car at 2 a.m.
The Chronology of Water
When we moved to Mason Street, a neighbor introduced himself to my father as a registered sex offender. I don’t know what he did. My father never told me. On Halloween, the law required him to keep the lights off at his house. He waited in a church basement with other sex offenders for hours until children finished trick-or-treating while his wife waited in the dark at their house.
He repaired lawn mowers in his garage. I watched him. I threw frisbees into his yard while he repaired the lawn mowers. He never looked at me or the frisbees. I threw footballs on his roof. I walked around without a shirt in the spring, summer, and fall. He never noticed the footballs or me. I don’t know what he did, but I wanted to know if he’d think about doing whatever he did to me. I wanted to know if I’d be worth it to him, or maybe someone like him. I just wanted a stare. At the time, I didn’t trust my reflection in mirrors.
Swimming to Cambodia
He likes how her skirt’s pleats fall like a picket fence before she sits, how its ridges and folds make her body guesswork. But blonde. She looks like she’d understand a pleasant meal ends with a toothpick. This puts him in a good mood. He rubs his nose and tells his best joke about a greased pig and a corset.
She hopes he’s here incognito and this isn’t how he really dresses. If she blinks often enough, she spends less time having to look at him directly.
He asks if she has something in her eye and shrugs when she says no.
She says, “Look, this is something I ask everyone: If you had to frisk me on the highway, where would you put your fingers? Don’t be mushy about it.”
When he drops her off, she decides the best way to say sorry is to kiss him. She’s surprised by the burn, by the way he bites her lower lip.
While stopped at a red light, I looked to the right and saw a man huddled on the sidewalk, crying. His knees were pulled to his chest, his back was against the brick wall of a Thai restaurant, and his face was twisted in anguish, but my windows were rolled up, providing a barrier between me and him, which made staring more comfortable, so I decided to open the roof, and the car filled with the piercing wail of the man on the sidewalk. I cringed at the pathetic explosion bursting from his lungs, but figured I wouldn’t have long to listen. It shouldn’t have been much more than a few seconds before the traffic light turned green, and the crying man would be in my rearview mirror, but before the line of vehicles in front of me began to accelerate, I saw a young jogger, blond and svelte and tan, his white shoes and red vinyl shorts the only things that covered his sculpted body. With long, effortless strides, the jogger swiftly approached the crying man and, rather than go around, unsuccessfully attempted to hurdle him and fell hard on the sidewalk, skinning both of his knees, his palms, and one of his elbows. The man on the sidewalk continued to cry, uninterrupted, even after the young jogger regained his footing and punched him on the side of his head before returning to his afternoon jaunt, and as traffic finally began to move on, I found myself driving alongside the jogger, his body still practically flawless, except for the blood that ran down his legs, into his shoes, which only now made him appear a little bit dangerous or rugged or, in other words, even more beautiful than before, and as I drove with one eye on the road and the other on the jogger, I swore he cracked a smile, possibly thinking of the story he now had to tell later that night at the bar while intoxicated coeds traced the abrasions on his palms and stared at his defined abdominal muscles, and at the next intersection, I sharply turned without signaling but stopped short before striking the jogger with the fender of my car, yet his legs gave out from under him. This time, when he pulled himself up off the concrete, he screamed and spit and slammed his fist on the hood of my car. He even tried to open my door, but it was locked, so I laughed at him, and as he limped his way to the curb, I stepped on the gas.
Alec: The Years Have Pants
My grandmother awoke one night with the sense of someone sitting at the foot of her bed, but no one was there. The next day, a phone call: her aunt had passed. My grandmother would wait in a candle-lit room for her dead father to appear in a mirror. She said that a baby died in her house, years before she bought the place. Someone bumped into a stroller, and it crashed down a flight of stairs. I’ve heard it crying, a cigarette bounced between her lips. Your grandfather was drunk on the couch, watching Rockford Files, but I heard it. She asked if I wanted to spend the night.
Joshua Michael Stewart
Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong