Featured Writer #113: Katherine Vaz



Read an excerpt from Katherine Vaz's new novel Above the Salt plus an exclusive interview with the author.


Above the Salt (Flatiron Books/Macmillan, 2023) is based on the true story of the converts to Presbyterianism on the Portuguese island of Madeira who were violently driven into the sea. John Alves grew up in jail with his mother, Serafina, condemned to die for heresy (and later granted a reprieve). The following excerpt covers John’s passage from Trinidad to New York to the haven of Jacksonville and Springfield, Illinois, where he and his fellow exiles were adopted. John will court a fellow Madeiran, Mary Freitas, at the Lincoln household before betrayals and the Civil War upend the rest of their lives. Read the full excerpt and interview here!


An Interview with Anders Carlson-Wee



Tyler Robert Sheldon talks with Anders Carlson-Wee about Disease of Kings (October 2023). 



Order Latest in Print: Spring/Summer 2023



                                 washington   true   xie    kispert





Bryan Washington


Jackie got sick like the rest of us, back before we knew what to call it. True story. I hadn’t started coughing yet, but that didn’t mean I’d gotten off; a lot of people didn’t even sneeze. They just lived their lives until they woke up, wet. Stinking of rotten fruit. Our part of town looked like a garbage bin, with all the peaches and grapes and cherries dragging around. Seeping. Leaking from the cores.
     So we weren’t optimistic. We’d had a good run. When his calves started bruising, and then his hands, eyebrows, cheeks, I took him to the hospital. We rode the bus.
     Of course the doctors got us a room. They’d seen this before. A million times now. All the poofs were popping. And the last thing Jackie says, before they wheel him into nothing, is he wishes he could’ve done more. Seen the Rockies or something. That’s when the nurses take him away. They were beautiful, in a tired mama kind of way.
     They give him a few days. Give or take. You turn blue, you turn black. You turn off. And I sleep in the lobby for one night, and then two, and then one of the nurses comes out, glowing.
     She says Jackie’s better. No, they don’t know how. Can we please leave, they’ve got a waiting list.
     We had a little money saved, so we rub it together and fly to the Rockies. Didn’t climb ‘em. But we got a good stare in. Plus, Denver; for the springs. Jackie coughs maybe once the whole trip, but then he smiles. A real girl scout.
     We’re not back in Dallas a day before he’s blue again.
     We take the bus. The mamas come out. They’re still beautiful.
     I sit in the lobby, snoring. Before he goes in, Jackie’s stroking my hand. Saying he wishes his own ma could’ve seen him or something.
     Days pass. Fruits go in. No one comes out. When the nurse finds me this time, she’s not smiling. She’s holding Jackie’s hand, shaking her head, like, Can you tell him to make up his mind already?
     So he flies to see his ma. Doesn’t really want to, but we were not people on whom symbolism was lost; he’d told her he was sick. Reagan had given us something to call it.
     He kissed my cheek before he boarded, bystanders wondering how anyone got so skinny.
     I’m on my third dream when my landline rings, the next night, and it’s his ma. Of course. I’m bracing myself already, shutting the flood down, before she says that Jack’s snoring, loud, and also sleepwalking. Is this normal?
     And he’s back Sunday morning. Smiling. Darker. Sick, but not obviously so. I mean, I looked sicker. We head back to the apartment, and I wonder if there’s anything else he needs to do, and he blinks at me, and he laughs, says not unless I can think of it.
     Then he died. Few months later. This time for real. This time they let me sit at the bedside, expecting him to jump up any minute now, dancing.
     He doesn’t though. He just dies.
     But on the last night, he calls me over. He says, Honestly, we should’ve gone to Bighorn instead. That the Rockies were nice. But he’d have liked to share that with me.
     And I said, Jack, shut the fuck up.


Caleb True


     Andy was such a fascinating sort of attraction. Enigmatic. No boys knew her, almost no girls. Andy did have one friend who, after proving her authenticity as a friend and not just a snoop for the rest of us, learned that Andy made her own jewelry, electric jewelry, rewired Christmas lights run off a 9-volt battery she kept in her pocket. Andy would wear the jewelry to raves. She would dance and dance and deal drugs and dance some more. Did she have boyfriends from the raves? we asked the snoop. The snoop shook her head. She doesn’t have boyfriends, she said. She has a lot of money. Does she get with guys? we asked. I said she doesn’t have boyfriends, repeated the snoop. We backed off. The snoop was all we had.
     One day the snoop told us: Andy’s father is the chief of police. A drugs and gangs cop. That is how she deals dope, said the snoop. She knows when and where before shit goes down.  She listens up at the dinner table, explained the snoop. She learns how close or how far her old man is. Andy must be a loner because we were all children and she was an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur has no use for children. We pictured Andy with an older man, a guy with loads of money and a beard. We were still twiddling our dicks and talking about getting laid while Andy was out there making exponential money.
     Andy dropped out of school her senior year. She got her GED, said the snoop.
     Did you have any idea? we asked the snoop.
     Not until she showed me the degree, said the snoop. Well, amended the snoop, not until I saw the degree lying on her bed, and asked her about it.
     And what did she say? we asked.
     She said, ‘I got my GED.’
     We left for college, all of us. None of us dared stay a townie. We had our little crushes in college, but they were all Andy. How would she dance at a rave? we wondered. How would she dress for class? How would she orgasm? Most elegantly, we figured, most elegantly.
     What is Andy up to? we’d ask the snoop.
     All quiet on the western front, said the snoop.
     Have you talked to her recently? we asked.
     Not since Christmas, said the snoop. She doesn’t return my calls.
     Send her a text, we said. Send her an email, we said. Send her a snail mail.
     One evening, doing homework in our dormitory, we got a message from the snoop. Andy’s joining Peace Corps, said the message.
     Why would she do that? we wrote. Doesn’t she have all the money in the world? Where is she going? Is it dangerous? How will she rave?
     The snoop responded, I don’t know. I have no idea. I just don’t know.
     A month later the snoop announced: Andy’s flown to the East Coast for training. A few weeks after that, the snoop said she was driving down to see Andy in Philly. We waited in anticipation. As the dates ticked by, we pelted the snoop with inquiries. Eventually she responded: Andy’s looking good. Tired but happy.
     We asked the snoop more about Peace Corps. The snoop knew nothing.
     What did you two talk about in Philly?
     We didn’t talk much, said the snoop. We went raving. She dealt drugs.
     We asked, Is she doing a lot of drugs?
     No, said the snoop.
     We asked, Did you sleep in the same bed with her?
     Yes, said the snoop.
     We liked that. Does she say hi? we asked.
     She does not, said the snoop.
     Thereafter intel got spotty. She’s been assigned, said the snoop one night, many weeks later.
     Where is she going? we asked with half a heart.
     Morocco, said the snoop.
     What’s she doing there? we asked.
     Health outreach, said the snoop.
     Then came summer vacation. We traveled home and were together again, us and the snoop. We could feel Andy’s absence.
So far away…
     The Peace Corps…
     Reaching out health…
     Do you talk to her? we asked.
     We Skype, said the snoop.
     When you Skype, we said, can we watch?
     The snoop frowned. How could it work?
     We had to think a minute. Out of the camera frame, we said. We’ll hide in the closet!
     We went to the snoop’s house and waited for the Skype sound. We bustled into the closet, leaving a crack through which to peer. And there she was, pixellated, nodding her head a little bit. Clad in wool things. Is it cold there? asked the snoop.
     Yeah, it’s cold, said Andy. Despite the computer’s weak speakers, her voice was still the soft water of a cutbank creek. We melted in the closet.
     So what’s health outreach? asked the snoop.
     I pass out condoms, said Andy.
     Condoms, condoms! we whispered.
     You pass out condoms all day? said the snoop.
     No, no, said Andy. A couple hours a week tops. I watch TV shows all day, downloaded from the internet.
     Oh, said the snoop.
     We were titillated by the mischief of piracy.
     What are you watching? asked the snoop.
     I am in the middle of Breaking Bad, said Andy. I just finished The Wire.
     The Wire, The Wire! we whispered.
     The snoop asked if Andy was doing any dancing, or dealing any drugs.
     No dancing, said Andy. No drugs.
     This saddened us. Then Andy started asking the snoop questions. We were irritated with the snoop’s enthusiasm for talking. Her pet turtle. Her internship. Of course Andy was listening politely on the other side of the world. We were awed by her patience.
     A few weeks later the snoop had some new news. She’s gone dancing, said the snoop. She’s dealt some drugs!
     What? we said, excited.
     Yes, said the snoop. Andy told me in code. She doesn’t trust Skype.
     Of course she doesn’t trust Skype, we said. So tell us!
     She got a source for hash, said the snoop. She met the source at a club for dancing.
     One does follow the other, we said knowingly.
     Andy went back to the club for dancing, did the deal in the parking lot, and sold half the hash in the city before traveling back to her site in the Atlas Mountains.
     Andy, the unstoppable entrepreneur!
     Our pride welled.
     The snoop’s next two updates were more of the same: the club for dancing, the hash. Smooth. Steady.
     Then the snoop phoned us up. Andy, said the snoop, has tried some branching out.
     Branching out? we said.
Branching out, said the snoop. She traveled to Fes to see the Peace Corps doctor.
     Oh no! we said. Is she okay?
She is fine, said the snoop. And the snoop told us how Andy danced for three days straight at the club for dancing before walking into the Peace Corps medical office. The doctor took pity on Andy, our Andy, and prescribed her a bottle of drugs. Andy took the drugs back to the club that very night, and sold all the pills, bought more hash, and sold the hash in Midelt on her way back to her site in the Atlas Mountains.
     She cannot be stopped, we said in awe. She is unstoppable! 
     The snoop felt differently. She’d told Andy to be careful.
     Mind your own business, snoop! we admonished.
     It’s dangerous, said the snoop. Andy could get in trouble, said the snoop.
     It’s dangerous, we chanted. Andy could get in trou-ble!
     Shut up, said the snoop.
     Later the snoop told us Andy had repeated her trip to the doctor in Fes, but upon a third visit was denied drugs. Instead, the doctor recalled her from her site in the Atlas Mountains. Andy was to remain under the care of the medical staff in Fes until they determined she was fit to continue her duties.
     Continue her duties? we scoffed.
     It gets worse, said the snoop.
     Or better, we chimed. No one tells Andy what to do or when!
     She stole some pill bottles on her third day in Fes, did another hash deal, and high-tailed it back to the Atlas Mountains. Peace Corps has revoked her passport! said the snoop.
     Andy is off the grid! we hurrahed.
     And so she was. Our imaginations went wild with that news. That was about it until summer, when we went home again.
     We paid visits to a nervous and increasingly distraught snoop.
     The stream of intel diminished to a trickle, an aerogramme or two every month. Postmarked Meknes. Postmarked Ouezzane. Morocco’s not the best place to travel alone as a woman, worried the snoop.
     We exchanged glances, said nothing.
     Morocco’s not a good place to travel, period!
     Then came another coded aerogramme. The snoop called us up, told us. We descended on the snoop like ravens. Andy’s sold all her drugs, decoded the snoop as we stood around eager. She’s purchased a ferry ticket to Algiers.
     Algiers! Algiers!
The snoop continued: She’s hired overland passage to Ethiopia.
     We were mad with excitement. Andy, astride a dromedary. Andy, saddlebags full of hash, knapsack full of moolah. Wine-colored hair flowing beneath a keffiyeh.
     When the snoop looked up her eyes were full of concern. She saw our glee and wept.
     We went into high gear, applying to study abroad programs across Africa. We’d position ourselves for Andy. We’d house her while she oscillated between clubs for dancing, and drug deals, dressed in Arab men’s clothes, whirling like a dervish pills flying from her sleeves.
     Aerogrammes appeared in the snoop’s mailbox, postmarked in a jagged line across Africa, from Algiers to Mek’ele, then north to the Port of Sudan; from Qatar; from Shiraz, and back again, following the southern beach settlements of the Arabian peninsula to the Gulf of Aden. When Andy, in code, declared her intentions to follow Sir Richard F. Burton’s inaugural trek to Lake Tanganyika, and Hanning Speke’s to the true source of the White Nile, the snoop descended into madness. She balled up and hurled Andy’s latest aerogramme across the room. Stop contacting me! hollered the snoop. Stop it stop it!
That autumn we left for Africa. On the airplane we imagined we’d marry Andy. Have a huge ceremony. With all her drug money it was sure to be one hell of a rave-themed wedding.
We sat in our African dormitory waiting. From time to time, when the internet was good, we’d Skype with the snoop, back in the states. The snoop wasn’t doing well. Draped in blankets, hair unbrushed. What news of Andy? we asked the snoop. With shaking hands the snoop would unfold the latest aerogramme.
     Show us the postmark! we’d demand, and the snoop would hold the aerogramme close to the screen. Ooh, ahh! we’d marvel. This one from Harar. That one from Kampala. Another from Lusaka. Making her way south. Tell her we’re here! we told the snoop.
     How? said the snoop.
     Post on the net!
     Anywhere, damn you!
     On the Skype screen the snoop shook her pixelated head. Choppy shaking.
     Make it look like her parents died, we suggest.
We take matters into our own hands. No more middlesnoop.
     We drop messages. On the website for our high school reunion; on some African travel blogs dug up by the snoop, blogs allegedly checked with some regularity by Andy.
     Pfft, we say. She writes the book on African travel. She writes the book, period. In a fit of ingenuity, we hack into Andy’s father’s email account and send a message right to the source. I’m dead! we write.
     We make contact. Over the phone: How many from our school have ever even been to Africa? we say. How unlikely, how felicitous that we should all be here at the same time!
      I don’t remember you, says Andy.
     No matter, we say.
     I’m very far away, says Andy. Many miles.
     No matter, we say.
     I’m broke, says Andy. I’m ill, says Andy. I’m wanted.
     Yes, we say. That you are.
One night, a few weeks later, Andy shows up. We’re on our way home from an international party, a thing set up by our program. Mostly Japanese and Taiwanese and German and Korean students. And us. Lots and lots of drinking and too much food. We’re not particularly drunk. Turning the corner we notice a form rise from our dormitory porch, a billowing form. Hair glinting under a cowl. Great long wizard’s sleeves. One sleeve raises, and the sleeve slips down revealing an arm.
On the bed in the room. We offer hot tea. She accepts. She brings forth a pipe and some hash. She offers it. We decline. She smokes and we watch her. While she is in the bathroom we go through her knapsack. It is full of pill bottles and electric jewelry. A handgun. Aerogrammes. Stacks and stacks of various Francs, Dirhams and Dinars. More hash. A box of tampons. A box of condoms. A box of bullets. She comes back into the room. We want to love you, we tell her.
     Andy tells us to settle. She gets in bed. We sleep, we dream. We want to love you, we whisper in our sleep. The image of Andy so close to us, in the moment just before we awake.
     Sunrise. Andy taps us on the shoulder. We make love to her. All of us, up on the bed; all of us, down on the floor. Us kneeling, her standing. Her kneeling, us standing. We whisper as we kiss her hard-traveled body…You have stories we want them…You have secrets we want them…We go all day and night in shifts. She goes and goes, ducking into the bathroom to pee, into the kitchen from time to time for a St. Louis Lager, to the roof for a cigarette. We like to watch her walk naked, ass cheeks jiggling, feet slapping the concrete floor. We are mindful. The image of Andy, a part of us, in the moment of postcoital glow.
Andy withdraws a blank aerogramme from her knapsack and sits at the kitchen table with a pencil. We take it away. You mustn’t, we say. You mustn’t bother the snoop.
     Andy stands, goes to the pantry for a milk biscuit. She leans on the counter, nibbling, doing this queer thing with her free hand, running the tips of her fingers across her clavicle.
     Are you in pain? we ask from the bathroom, lighting the aerogramme with a match.
     No, she says.
     We go to the bedroom and lie down cross-wise so we can watch Andy from the bed. She continues to nibble, to do the queer thing with her fingers. We appreciate the queerness. The image of Andy in contrapposto, in the moment of our repose.
     The next morning Andy says she must go into town. Business, she says.
     Ah, aha, we nod. Of course.
     We watch her walk the dusty avenue, turn the corner. We relish the moment. We anticipate: the image of Andy so close to us, at the moment of her return. We never see her again.




Jenny Xie

The Director

     The first time I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s, my father walked in front of the screen and announced that he and Mama were getting a divorce. I was to join her in Luo San Ji, California, where she’d been working as a restaurant hostess for the past two years. “Dui bu qi,” he apologized, baring his teeth in a weird grimace.
     Onscreen, in the triangular space created by Baba’s hand on his hip, Mr. Yunioshi with his bulging eyes and spit-slippery lips hollered, “Miss Go-right-ree, I protest!”
     I was still in my school uniform. I stared down at the pleats of my navy skirt, where I’d been spitting the shells of sunflower seeds, and split the plant fibers with a fingernail. When I looked back up, my father was gone, and Holly Golightly had replaced him. Her eyes gleamed around the apartment. The camera lens clouded over the scene.
     Neither of my parents were in love. I knew that much. My mother had left Shanghai for Hollywood with the promise that she would send for us, but she never did. At first, Baba was brave. He picked his teeth on the balcony, his shirt rolled up under his armpits in the heat, and laughed with the passing neighbors. Her job was polishing the white letters on the hill, he said. Guarding the H so that dreamers weren’t zapped like moths on a light, he said. Mama’s gifts from America were practical—vitamins, waterproof sunscreen, sneakers with Velcro straps—but from time to time she included a VHS she had just seen, Gone With the Wind or To Have and Have Not. Humphrey Bogart hanging a cigarette on his lip and Lauren Bacall swinging hippily past a piano. That’s how I knew what love was.
     I had a camcorder that I carried in my backpack so that she wouldn’t forget Shanghai: its flocks of rusted bicycles, jars of sour milk, toothless brown faces selling white flowers. Sometimes Baba filmed me playing the violin, and I would sit on a creaky stool and say in my stunted English, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I ready for close-up,” which he didn’t understand, but she would recognize as a summoning.
     Three months before the divorce, Baba had picked me up from school with his face wet and shrunken. He stopped calling Mama because we couldn’t afford the long distance. “Then no more long distance!” I yelled, stamping my bamboo slippers against the floor. He had hung my backpack on the back of a chair and said, “Mei yong, Baobao. There’s nothing I can do.” I didn’t know what had happened except that my father had given up. He was brittle and empty, the discarded yellow of cricket skin.
     Before I left for America, Baba braided my hair into two pigtails secured with pink bands. He turned me around to face him and cupped my shoulders with his hands. “Your mother is far from who she used to be,” he said. “It’s not anyone’s fault.”
     I forced myself to meet his eyes. “It’s your fault,” I said.

     I filmed my mother’s arrival at the airport. I expected a fragile woman with downturned eyes, but Mama looked robust. It made me think of Baba at the Shanghai airport, his trousers rumpled around his skinny knees. Waving and waving, and rubbing his face, and waving.
     She approached at a clip in high-waisted jeans and a T-shirt that was either yellow or dirty; her hair, brushed back in a ponytail, accentuated a broad forehead that shone as if with the health of her thoughts. Zooming in on my camera, I found a brown freckle at the corner of her mouth that I had forgotten was there. It punctuated a smile I had imagined for years. I could smell the overripe sweetness of her breath as she bent and gathered me into her chest.
     “Zhang de hao da,” she exclaimed, measuring me against her body. “It’s been so long!”
     I had a vision of Joe Gillis arriving breathless on the overgrown doorstep of a Hollywood mansion in Sunset Boulevard, and of Norma Desmond appearing in the window with her face eclipsed by sunglasses, calling, “You there! Why are you so late! Why have you kept me waiting so long?” Then Joe walks into a stranger’s house and is told who he is.

     Los Angeles wasn’t like what I’d seen in old black and whites. The summer was sun-heavy and exhausted the asphalt, which cracked and coughed weeds. Boys, wading in sweat-ringed T-shirts, hooted by chain-link fences and smoked their menthol cigarettes. I preferred to spend time at Jade Flower, where my mother worked as a hostess. She wore a pink qi pao and a chopstick through her hair. She exaggerated her flat mouth with lipstick. How strange that she had to pretend to be what she already was. The restaurant hung red paper lanterns over the tables, and the diffuse light made her seem translucent.
     I sat at an open table for two and watched the men and women around me rock with gentle laughter, their eyes dark and loamy, ready to sprout flowers for the other to pick. I dreamed I was waiting for a man who would sit down across from me, brush the menu aside, and draw my hands toward him until my arms were stretched out on the tablecloth, long and yearning.
     I wasn’t angry with my mother for the divorce. Instead, I worried about her incompleteness. The vulnerability of being a woman and alone. “Why don’t you and Baba love each other anymore?” I demanded.
     We were sharing a plate of fried crab wontons on Mama’s lunch break. Her long fingers picked the crust apart and pinched the meat.
     “We do love each other, Baobao,” she said in a rehearsed tone. She toyed with the silk button that clasped the collar of the qi pao around her throat and glanced at something behind me. She continued in a lower voice, “Just not as a husband and wife. Deng ni zhang da yi dian you’ll understand.”
     “Ni zen me zhi dao? What if you see him, and it’s different?”
     My mother drew the linen napkin into her lap. “That’s not possible,” she said. “I’m a different person. I have a different life.” Chile sauce dripped from the wonton I held, and I was engulfed in the heat of a cramped kitchen in Shanghai. Mama and Baba speaking that slanted dialect over the hiss of the frying pan. I remembered squatting by a plastic tub that was alive with blue-shelled crabs, their mouths thick with foam, waving dentate claws. They smelled like the sea, green and bacterial. Now, watching the crabmeat disappear into her mouth, I recognized a self-assurance in Mama that she never had at home. Mama, who had married my father at seventeen. They used to laugh about it, the xiang xia ren, the girl who had arrived in Shanghai with her cheeks flecked from the sun on the fields, and mud from the pigsty dried on her shoes.
     “You need be kiss, and often, and by someone who know how,” I quoted, but she didn’t laugh. She was looking past me with a determined vacancy. I twisted and saw a man and a woman push back their seats to leave. He had a long face and a bulb-shaped nose; she had brown hair in a messy crop. As he walked with a hand massaging the small of his wife’s back, he glanced over his shoulder at Mama, who swallowed.

     On Saturdays, I explored the neighborhood around our apartment. I made a movie about a black boy chasing the ice cream truck on his skateboard and rattling up to the window—“Hey, man!”—with a dollar bill in his fist. He traded it for a popsicle, a blue skull with gumballs for eyes, kicked the asphalt twice, and skated around the corner. I made a movie about a girl with dimples on the back of her thighs who was wringing her blonde hair at the edge of the pool, and about the boy that watched her from a lounge chair with his hands running up and down his torso, as if he were hungry. I made a movie about going to the corner store to buy a gallon of skim milk and the cashier with the peppered mustache pointing at me and barking, “I told you to get that camera out of my face.”

     My mother didn’t know it, but I was also making a movie about her life. I already knew how it was going to end with her and that long-faced man with the mousy wife. It was better than anything I could have written: the long-shouldered divorcée of Jade Flower and the man who came to eat once, twice a week. From my vantage point, the camcorder captured the symmetry of her anguished glances at him, his sentinel over her. There would be music, of course: slow strains of violin over ascending piano keys, her voice a hoarse whisper, “Right this way, sir.” If there could be a fitting note from a fortune cookie, too. Double happiness comes your way, or Prepare yourself for love. Close-up on the wrinkled letters. Cutaway to the man’s desirous hands.
     He drove a black car with an Arizona license plate. I knew this because I followed him out of the restaurant after his lunch hour; I hoped to see my mother, who disappeared then too, placing her hands on his cheeks and kissing him goodbye in the weary Hollywood way. I never found her, though. I would stand in the parking lot listening to snatches of R&B from passing traffic until one of the busboys, out for a cigarette, would frown and say, “Qué pasa, niña? Te has perdido?
     I slept on the sofa’s foldout bed in my mother’s apartment. The springs hurt my back. I rolled onto my side, and the mattress swayed as if I were lying in a dinghy, oar-less over a long green lake. I could feel the wooden seats, warm and roughened by the sun, pressed against my cheek; I could hear the cicadas shivering in the trees. Baba was singing a song, high and nasal, slurring the words and repeating them. The boat rocked more insistently, and droplets of water hit my cheeks. “You’re going to tip the boat,” I said, but when I opened my eyes I was alone.
     It took me a moment to remember where I was. From outside, I heard a cackle and the sound of an empty can ringing on the asphalt. With a small cough, I slid my feet onto the carpet and padded towards the bathroom.
     My mother was standing in the hallway. I felt her presence before I saw her, a dark figure with an inscrutable face. Her purse hung from her fingertips like she had just gotten home. “Mama?” I whispered. “Mama?” But she passed soundlessly into her bedroom, shutting the door with a click and sending a chill over my body. Baba was right. There was time in space that proximity could not collapse. The closer I got to my mother, the longer it seemed like it had been.
     I found the toilet seat in the dark and leaned over my knees.
     Xi Hu, West Lake, was the last trip Baba and I had taken together after he announced the divorce. We didn't know how to talk without talking about my leaving, so we spent the day photographing water lilies instead. That same night  I had found him watching Gone With the Wind with the sound barely audible and the remote balanced on his crossed knee. It was the first time he had ever played a tape for himself, and I despised him for this feeble gesture. He would see Rhett Butler's roguish grin with his hands firm around Scarlett's waist and know who he could have been. Baba had invited me to sit, but I had a suitcase to pack.

     The blast of a car horn jerked Mama upright, and my body swung against the seat belt as we swerved back into the lane. A red hatchback car threaded past us. The driver, an older woman with lines around her mouth like drawstrings keeping her lips pursed, glared at my mother as she pulled ahead.
     “Sorry,” she said, repositioning her hands on the wheel. “I didn’t see her there.”
     The thin morning light fell on our polluted windshield, casting a layer of dust over the city as we nosed our way to Jade Flower. I watched a girl carry an armful of white sheets into a laundromat, a bulldog lift its leg on a stop sign.
     “Mama,” I said, “zuo tian wan shang, where were you coming back from?”
     I could see the powder on her cheeks in the light. I could see a tiny globule of mascara bobbing on the end of one eyelash. She glanced at me and seemed to consider the truth. “I was saying goodbye to someone,” she said, signaling left.
“Goodbye to who?” I pressed, though I had an idea. “It was late.”
     The car lumbered over a speed bump and found a parking spot. “We’ll talk about it tonight, Baobao,” she said, exhaling through her mouth. She leaned into the mirror on the sun visor and rubbed her lips together though she wasn’t wearing any lipstick. She sat for a while with her mouth clamped shut like that before ducking to retrieve the purse by her feet. That’s when a black car from Arizona pulled into a space diagonally across the lot.
     “Come on,” said my mother, tugging the keys from the ignition. “Tian ah, can’t you leave that chou camera at home for once?” She pushed open the door and trotted away in her low heels.
     The man in the car watched her enter the restaurant. This was it. This would be my Holly Golightly and Fred Baby agreeing on love in the rain, shoes filling up with water as they ran towards each other so that in the end they swam for a kiss. It was the long-faced man coming to tell Mama that it didn’t have to be this way. They didn’t have to say goodbye or even pretend to be strangers—he could divorce his mouse-wife and belong to her; no more sneaking around, no more snuck glances by the red light of a make-believe restaurant. I pushed the record button and perched the camera on the dashboard, pointing the lens at the man’s car.

     In retrospect, I don’t think I was making a movie about my mother. I was making a movie about me, about how I wanted the world to be, because the one I lived in was quick and fragile, nothing to pause on the screen and point at and say See? This is how it was. This was a movie about my father, too: his wet coughs like he was choking on a fish bone when he thought I was asleep, and me sitting cross-legged in a room papered with Marlene Dietrich and Grace Kelly, unable or unwilling to comfort him. This was a movie about hating him for staying in Shanghai instead of following her across the sea, and my atonement for it.

In this scene, the large-eared man revolves around his car in a two-hour stakeout. Now he lowers his seat to recline behind the steering wheel; now he stands in the lot with his body leaning against the car door. He cracks his neck, squints at the Jade Flower, crosses one foot over the other. A pigeon shits on the hood of an adjacent vehicle, and he crawls back inside his car.
     Settling in the front seat with a magazine, he flips through the pages. When he reaches the back cover, he does it again, but backwards. Then, raising his arms over his head in a stretch, he checks the rearview mirror. Freezes. His face narrows in concentration like he’s reading tiny print. He mouths an explosive syllable. He punches the dashboard. His lips still moving, he puts his hand on the latch of the door, ready to spring from the car—but it’s like someone has pulled the plastic nozzle in him, and he deflates: first his head droops, then his shoulders relax in the front seat. His eyes meet the camera lens, but he doesn’t see it. Finally, he plugs his keys into the ignition and drives away, accelerating out of the slot.
     With the car gone, you can see his wife, the small woman with a swirl of mousy hair, at the far end of the parking lot. She’s yelling at someone, her thin arms making short jabs at the air, backing the person into the trunk of a car. When the wife sidesteps and puts her face in her hands, there’s Mama with her silk qi pao reflecting the sun. She’s taller than the wife, but seems somehow smaller, shrinking into herself with arms crossed over her chest. When the woman reaches out for her, Mama catches her wrist and flings it away. She puts her hand over her mouth. They stand still for a long time, moving only to signal to an SUV that they’re not leaving.
     The wife stirs first. She shifts her weight as if coming out of a trance and pulls my mother’s hand off of her mouth, using it to draw them closer together. Then she lifts herself slightly on her toes and they kiss, sweetly, like they’re whispering into each other’s mouths. Mama breaks away and steps backward, far enough for the woman to nod and get into her car. She leans out of her window to say something before driving away, leaving Mama in the center of an empty space. After a while, my mother smooths the front of her dress, pats her hair. She walks out of the camera frame.

     At home, sitting cross-legged on the cot, I rewound the tape and paused it at the point of contact. I tried to imagine Baba in the woman’s place, but I couldn’t. Mama’s body leaned forward like a reed caught by water; her hands knew exactly where to catch hold of a familiar bank. I leaned back against the pillows and turned the camera off. The light evaporated from its giant eye. As it clicked into sleep, my mother emerged from her bedroom. She had taken off her makeup and looked skinny in her gray pajama top. “Come in here a moment, Baobao,” she said. Mama waited expectantly, but I couldn’t move. I was focusing on the freckle at the corner of her lip. That’s what I was watching when she opened her mouth and started to speak


Peter Kispert


“Blue? Blue looks sort of like a healing black,” I say, filling two glasses with water in the sink.
     Clark is colorblind, or so he’s telling me. It is three forty-five on a Sunday morning, two weeks to the day since my mother passed, and he’s bleeding on my floor, brown dots on the hardwood—something I didn’t actually notice until just now.
     “It’s just those two: blue and red,” he says, rewrapping the towel around his hand. “I can see everything else.”
     Clark and I met a few hours ago on the dance floor at a gay bar during Indianapolis Pride. I dropped my vodka tonic and he picked up the glass, then someone bumped into him—that’s his embarrassing version of it. As the bartender waved everyone outside, I heard somebody say It’s like a fucking murder scene. That was before I noticed the blood on my shorts, before Clark refused a drive to the ER, or any medical attention. But the worst of it: How do you leave someone like that? How do you say Sorry, I’m partially responsible for your injury and not interested?
     “So, LA?” I say, giving his free hand the water.
     “It’s not good,” he says. “The students are so dumb.”
     I look at his hand. The blood has turned the tan cloth almost black.
     “You’re studying rocks, right?”
     “Geology PhD,” he corrects, as if I should be impressed by the credential. “Yeah.”
     Someone in the street outside my apartment yells Don’t jump the fence. Dude, you’re gonna kill yourself! I move the trashcan from my bathroom next to the couch.
     “But sure, rocks,” he says. “Essentially.”
     I’m called back to the memory of my mother taking my siblings and me to a cavern when I was young, sifting bagged dirt through a sieve, looking for gems. In her bag she found a rare ruby. The staff couldn’t understand how it had even got in there. It was worth thousands, shined with the glint of a human eye. I want badly to transfer the feeling, so I try to explain it to Clark—the entire scene—but he interrupts when I get to the part about the rocks my mother found us in the gift shop.
     “Geodes,” he says, swallowing the water fast to get it out. “They’re really gorgeous,” he adds. I fall silent. I’m more present in that memory now than I am even here: the hot wind of the August night against the window, his shoes near the door, the red print of his hand on his jeans. I rip a paper towel and lay it over a spot of blood. It expands rapidly, like a dilating pupil.
     “They’re really beautiful,” he says.
     I can tell he wants me to agree, to pin this down as the point of the story. I’m not going to get to the part about how my sister, now backpacking alone in Brazil, tried to open hers with a hammer, or how my mother—buried hundreds of miles northeast—kept one, uncracked, in her sock drawer. I suddenly feel like I can’t tackle it at all. “They are beautiful,” I say. “Do you work with them?”
     “They’re actually not that interesting,” he says.
     “You’re bleeding a ton.”
“I’ll be fine.”
     “Can you see what color this is?” I say. I lift a soaked paper towel. The light from my bedroom backlights it, a horror-movie red.
     “It’s red,” he says.
     “Can you see it, though?”
     “I know it’s my blood.”
     “So you can’t see it. Jesus, you need stitches.” Another drop falls from his pinky finger. “You really do.”
     “I’ll be okay,” he says. He laughs a little, trying to convince me. I bend to spray the floor with cleaner, and I briefly wonder if okay is different than fine.
     ”It’s just a temporary puncture,” he says. There is a pause. “Hey,” he adds. I can hear him smiling. “Do you want my number?”
     Down the street, an ambulance screams.
     “Do you want more water?” I ask.
     “Are you okay?” He furrows his brow.
     “Of course,” I say. The blood smears on the wood. It doesn’t lift as easily as I think it will. I toss the paper towel in the trash and tear a new sheet. “But look at you.”

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Featured Writer #112: Michele Morano

Fuori di Testa

A crush starts in the back of the throat, at the edge of a swallow, attraction meeting a hint of repulsion like a wave rolling forward even as it pulls back, like “uh-oh” and “here we go again,” again being the operative word. Crushes are iterative: with each new one, you’ve been here before, never mind that you’re forty, then fifty, then fifty-five years old and happily partnered; the crushes keep coming on people you know and people you don’t. Read more...


2023 Regeneration Contest Winners


Ninth Letter is excited to announce the winner, honorable mention, and finalist of our 2023 Regeneration Literary Contest. Special thanks to contest sponsor, the Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative, and to our guest judge Dr. Craig Santos Perez. The winning story will be published in print and online in December 2023, and the honorable mention essay will appear online. Thank you to all of our submitters, finalists, and readers.  


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