Excerpt of the Forward
by Robert Hass
The idea, as Galway Kinnell wrote, was that in a gathering of poets working side by side, “each poet may well break through old habits and write something stronger and truer than before.” Over the years, the many poets who worked in the program had their own variations on that idea, and in the afternoon talks encouraged the group to write something stranger than before or weirder, wilder than before, or to get at their material more deeply, or to see what happens if they broke with whatever formal habits they had acquired—to take another look at the ideal of the expressive lyric, the politically engaged poem, the spiritually quiet poem, the confessional or studiously impersonal poem—in order to see what happens to their writing in an unfamiliar register. As a practical matter—seven poems in seven days—often the poets didn’t so much try to make completely new kinds of poems but to make more of the kinds of poems they had been trying to write, or to make them better.
The poems in this anthology are mostly not those first raw drafts, though my guess is that quite a few of them are. One of the subjects of the afternoon talks was revision, how different poets had taught them- selves to give their work a second look. My recollection is that the talks reflected a couple of ways of thinking about the process. “First take, best take,” Jack Kerouac had said, or Allen Ginsberg had quoted him as saying. Some poets preferred the feel of the first flaring, and worried that you can kill the energy in a poem by trying to polish it. Other poets, reflecting a tradition extending from the Roman poet Horace to the Irish poet Yeats, would quote Yeats, who wrote, “A line will take us hours maybe /Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught. ”And someone else would quote what Yeats wrote a few years later, “The fascination of what’s difficult / has dried the sap out of my veins and rent / spontaneous joy and natural content / out of my heart. ”The tension between spontaneity and finish played over many of the subjects of the talks, which were the subjects on the minds of poets at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first: personal experience and the subjective lyric, the confessional poem, poems of ethnic and gender identity, the impact of surreal- ism in American poetry, feminist poetics, social justice, privileged travel and imperialism, the postmodern critique of identity poetics, the limits of language, the relation of poetry to different spiritual traditions, the fate of the earth. After dinner, the poets returned to their work with these issues and others buzzing in their heads.
It is a pleasure to think that readers of this anthology will be replicating the experience of those summer mornings and evenings in the mountains. There are ways of reading anthologies. Some people are inclined to begin at the beginning and read straight through, absorbing the experience imagined by the editor, wanting in this case to take in the experience of this fifty years of poets trying to make fresh and spontaneous work in the art, and tracking the way that Lisa Alvarez has organized it: first work that bears on the place, then work that bears on the method, and then work that constellates place and method—or, really, spirit—as they interact with a whole set of imaginings and urgencies about what poems are and can be. Another way, of course, is to dip in and skip around, finding a title or a first line that arrests you, finding your way, as one does listening to songs, into the surprising intimacy of someone else’s voice speaking to you out of their life, or a life they’ve imagined, or into someone else’s play with the pleasures of sound or thought, or someone else’s wonder, anger, impudence, tenderness, hurt, or joy.
Etymologically, an anthology is a collection of flowers. Anthos is “flower” in Greek; it is where we get the word anther for the part of the stamen of the flower that contains the pollen. Browsing an anthology, we are pollen-gathering, as the poets were doing every day as they walked in the high mountain air, wondering or watching where their next poem was going to come from. From the point of view of the poet, the difference between this and the activity of bees is that the bees had not taxed themselves with inventing the flower. And for readers the difference is— because what we want poetry to do is to refresh our vision—not in what happens when we read the poem but in what happens when we look up from reading to look at the world.
Robert Hass is a poet, translator and essayist. His most recent books include a new collection of poems, Summer Snow(Ecco/HarperCollins), and a collection of essays, A Little Book on Form: An Exploration Into the Formal Imagination of Poetry(HarperCollilns). He is the co-director of the Community of Writers Poetry Workshop.
by Maw Shein Win
That’s not what she said, that’s what I said.
The ants were everywhere.
In one conversation, a person speaks, the other pretends to listen.
Takes place in an elevator with a velvet pillow.
The ants take over city hall.
They circle the exits, fill sinks, crawl into politicians’ ear canals.
One by one, people stop talking & listening.
The ants inch along the cool tiles into the dome hole.
A honey possum darts across the floor of a downtown bar
among table legs and teachers & tourists.
In another city a developer sets a building on fire.
The stand-up downs a shot of honey bourbon.
Survivors crawl into the emergency wagon.
In another city the children play air guitar on trains for coins.
The cabaret singer has bright teeth & a honeyed voice.
Eight survivors wrapped in blankets.
Two tourists leave the bar.
In another city a woman sits alone in a kitchen.
She considers revolution, sipping honey
wine from a glass chalice.
I stand perfectly still in the classroom corner
Wearing a paper dunce cap while balancing on one leg
A memory: knocking a pitcher of water off the countertop
Just to watch it shatter
Tonight I hear the fireworks outside
Crackling the stillness inside
A thought: the story of a girl who had tumbled into a cave
And crawled her way out & up
Alive & quiet
I wear a red cloak to the 4th of July picnic
I stand still beside a pine tree
Three drops of sap land on my cheek
Focus my eye on a cave swallow until the fireworks end
sleeps near a tumbleweed
with vessels & veins thumping soft like
witness the neighbors in search of water
& the cabin dwellers in fear of fire
what makes sounds at night: nwack, nwack
hairs on heels, stiff & pointed
young gazelle with bruised sides
licking water drops from a desert fountain
Maw Shein Win is a poet, editor, and educator who lives and teaches in the Bay Area. Her poetry chapbooks are Ruins of a glittering palace(SPA/Commonwealth Projects) and Score and Bone (Nomadic Press). Invisible Gifts: Poems was published by Manic D Press in 2018. She was a 2019 Visiting Scholar in the Department of English at UC Berkeley. Win is the first poet laureate of El Cerrito, California (2016 – 2018), and her full-length poetry collection is Storage Unit for the Spirit House (Omnidawn, 2020). She often collaborates with visual artists, musicians, and other writers. mawsheinwin.com
My Week in the High Sierras
by Mary Camarillo
Six years ago, I brought pieces of what eventually became my forthcoming novel The Lockhart Women to the Community of Writers Fiction Workshop. It was my first ever writing conference and I was full of unfounded confidence. I’d read a story about a woman who was offered a book deal at the conference while standing in line for dinner. I’m old enough to know better than to have grand expectations like that, but of course I did anyway.
It was extraordinarily hot in the Sierras that summer and the ski lodge where the conference takes place wasn’t air conditioned. The first night at the General Meeting in the Plaza Bar I sat in awe watching the faces around me. I was too green to recognize who was famous and who was not, but I was overwhelmed by their obvious ability to concentrate in the stifling heat, to listen closely, and nod at appropriate moments. The words of the authors at the podium simply washed over me.
Perhaps my failure to concentrate was due to the altitude of 6,200 feet above sea level, where I normally reside. Perhaps it was my age, although I certainly wasn’t the oldest person in the room. Maybe it was hormonal. Maybe I should have moved closer to the fan. Perhaps I lacked the intellectual capacity to process what I was hearing. Maybe I needed hearing aids. Most likely the beer before dinner was a mistake. Focus, I kept telling myself, praying that just being in the room would be enough to allow me to absorb some molecules of wisdom. I could only think about how much I was sweating and that quite possibly, I didn’t belong here.
I’d never experienced this type of intensity–a rapt crowd, crammed into every available spot of real estate in a sweltering room, listening to someone read prose and poetry aloud. I didn’t go to college after high school, I went to work at the post office where I made okay money and took advantage of ten paid holidays and five weeks of vacation. I eventually took night classes at Cal State Fullerton, majoring in business administration. My courses were centered around accounting, auditing, and business law and were conducted in overly air conditioned lecture halls where I needed a sweater. I had an outline to follow on the overhead projector, a desk in front of me, paper and pen at the ready.
The business degree earned me a promotion. I passed the CPA exam and became an auditor for the Inspector General’s office. It turned out I had a real knack for writing audit reports. I liked digging into post office problems, telling a story in the prescribed audit report format. I’d written bad poetry in high school and read voraciously my entire life. If I was good at writing audit reports, I thought with my apparently ever-present unfounded confidence, why not try my hand at fiction? Why not write a novel?
I took classes and joined small writer’s workshops, but I’d never experienced anything like the overwhelming onslaught of creativity, intellect, and emotion at the Community of Writers. All those heads, except mine, nodding in understanding. I wanted to dislike these people but everyone at the conference was genuinely nice. I’d already made a friend on the shuttle from the Reno airport. I made friends with my roommate, my workshop buddies, with their roommates and their workshop buddies. I was constantly asked to sit down, join us for dinner and even though I’m a supreme introvert, I immediately felt comfortable enough to ask strangers to sit down, join us for dinner.
I’d brought two different chapters of my novel in progress to the conference: “Brangelina” to discuss one-on-one with a staff member and “Traditions” to workshop with a group of twelve other writers. I confidently sat down in the grass with my assigned staff member on Wednesday afternoon. We both had copies of “Brangelina,” which concerned a chef and his redheaded wife having steamy sex in a former slave quarter in New Orleans. I was a frequent visitor to New Orleans. I thought the story was entertaining at least.
The staff member’s first question was, “Is there something else you want to work on instead of this?” After that, I didn’t process much of our conversation. Looking back at my notebook now, I don’t seem to have written down one word. I remember the staff member talking about point of view for what seemed like forever, explaining patiently that although I may have thought I was writing from the perspective of a Mexican American male chef from Santa Ana, California, I was actually forcing the chef to see the world through the eyes of his spoiled redheaded white wife. The staff member said my title was pretentious and the setting was cliché. I’m sure my chin quivered but I didn’t cry, not then anyway. I couldn’t wait for the hour to be over.
At the very end, the staff member said that the really interesting character in the story was the redheaded woman’s mother, Brenda. “That’s where your work really comes alive.”
It took months for those words to resonate.
I skipped the afternoon conference sessions and walked circles in the parking lot by myself, wiping away tears, wondering why in the world I thought I could be a writer. I called my husband, who reminded me that he loved me, the cat missed me, and the since conference had accepted my application, I obviously belonged there. I calmed down, went to dinner, told my new friends I really didn’t want to discuss the one-on-one. They said nice things. I pulled myself together. The next day my other piece, “Traditions,” was up for workshop.
I’d been trying all week not to be intimidated by my workshop group. Many of them had already written novels and been published in literary journals that even I had heard of. I didn’t say much but I knew enough to listen. To try to listen anyway. It was still really hot.
“Traditions” was about a family falling apart and featured Brenda, the redhead’s mother, selling Herbalife, arguing with her teenage daughters, and going through a divorce. Rereading my notes from the workshop, I realize I tend to focus on negative comments. The other writers wondered who the main character was. They wanted more consequences. They didn’t know where they were in space and time. They complained that the POV shifted too rapidly, that the characters needing fleshing out and were hard to root for. They said some good stuff too. The called the prose “crisp and breezy.”
I didn’t feel like crying afterwards. I felt like trying to make that chapter better.
I revised. And revised. And revised. I decided the staff member was right about my “Brangelina” story and jettisoned the steamy sex in New Orleans. Eventually, after more reading, more classes, more workshops, more conferences, I found a way to structure the novel. Brenda’s husband leaves her on the night of O. J. Simpson’s slow speed chase through Southern California. Left alone, she sits down in front of her television, and gets hooked on the media circus surrounding the trial. She’s convinced Simpson is innocent. Her two teenage daughters are busy making their own mistakes with lovers and crime.
My characters remain generally unlikeable, but I hope they are easier to root for.
I went to the Community of Writers conference not knowing how much I didn’t know. I left fully confident there was much I wanted to learn. I also left, unsurprisingly, without a book contract. Instead, I forged friendships with supportive and incredible writers who I champion and who champion me. On rare days, I write a few words that make me want to stand up and sing which is enough to keep me writing. I’m more than halfway through a second novel.
I’m still learning how to listen though. That remains a work in process.
Mary Camarillo’s debut novel The Lockhart Women will be published in June, 2021 by She Writes Press. Her prose and poems have appeared in publications such as The Sonora Review, 166 Palms, the Tab Journal, and The Ear. She lives in Huntington Beach, California with her husband who plays ukulele, and their terrorist cat Riley.
Run Away Home
by Katherine Seligman
I ran away from home when I was six. It was after a birthday party in my backyard with my family, a few classmates, and a duckling named Downy. That much I remember clearly. Someone had given him to me at Easter, without knowing what a bad idea that was. He followed me around the yard, marching behind like I was his mother. I grew more attached every day, even though my parents kept saying he should be in a pond.
But on that birthday, he was the perfect guest. I was not. I wasn’t allowed to win any games or go first at anything. I remember the dry fall air bewitched by Santa Ana winds, and standing alone by the back fence, the anger bubbling up inside. When the kids went home, I was exhausted. And mad, which was not uncommon for me. My mother probably yelled at me and I probably yelled back. There was a lot of anger in the house, both directed at and blasted back out into the world by me.
I don’t remember exactly why I got sent to my room that time because it happened so often, but once I was there, the fury escalated until I reached a fitting decision: I was going to leave. I walked down the hall and out the front door. I didn’t take anything with me, and I didn’t see anyone on my way down the suburban Los Angeles street where we lived, towards where it intersected with a busy throughway that led all the way to the ocean. On the corner, there was a patch of ivy. In the mental picture I made that day, it was a wild garden, a perfect place to hide.
In the children’s book my mother, Dorothy Halle Seligman, wrote about this episode, she created a character named Billy. He was a little boy whose cheerful mother reminds him to take his sweater and hands him his lunch before leaving for school. There is a turtle named Tillie, but no duck. Billy looks about six, but he walks to school, or rather enthusiastically, runs all the way.
At school he realizes he’s forgotten his lunch, so his friends offer him parts of theirs and he’s satisfied until he gets home, without his sweater. His mother does the obvious right thing and makes him go back to school to get it, but when he arrives, the door is locked. At home, he’s crabby and his mother sends him to his room, with a directive to stay until he’s not so cross.
‘“I will,” stormed Billy. “And when I get there I’m going to pack my things and I’m running away.”
Of course, in the book, the kid is storming the mother is mothering. She is busy cooking dinner and when he says he’s running away because no one cares, she tells him, “I care.” He is unmoved.
‘ “You won’t cry,” he says.
“Grownups cry inside,” Billy’s mother explained.’
But she doesn’t protest. This was not the world of Runaway Bunny, the 1942 classic where the mother rabbit tells her son that she will follow him anywhere if he runs away. Billy’s mother helps him prepare for the getaway, telling him what shoes to wear and giving him a warm sweater and mittens. Then she hands him his uneaten lunch and bids him goodbye.
Billy runs across his school friends soon after he leaves and they invite him to play, then tell him how they’ve run away before also. He shares his lunch with them and suddenly can’t remember why he was so mad. It’s getting dark so he heads home, where his dad is standing in the kitchen tasting something on the stove. This is how the book ends:
‘“How was it at the North Pole?” he asks.
“Cold,” Billy answers.’
I read the book, Run Away Home, when it came out in 1969, and realized for the first time that that my mother had known all along about the day I ran away. We didn’t talk
about it then, and it remained one of the many things that remained unexplained. A fiancé during the second world war who died in a plane crash. The reason she always sent me and my sister to live with her parents in Tennessee for the entire summer. Her ovarian cancer diagnosis and the following months where she kept insisting, though bedridden, “I am beating this.” She died much too soon, when I was in my twenties, so we never got to know each other as adults.
Her book, of course, reflects the time when it was written. Parents were not helicopters. They were supposed to cry inside, while exhibiting perfect calm on the outside. They were neat, civilized, prosperous, after all those dark war years. No one was supposed to know if they suffered. If a kid ran away, of course they’d smile and help him. You wouldn’t want the neighbors to know that something had gone wrong.
Even the illustrations are muted, in brown and gray tones. The mother’s face is full of empathy, but you can’t tell if she’s worried. All the houses on the street, with their eaves and lush yards, look inviting. Kids are playing, adults are in the yard or pushing strollers. It was the late sixties, when social protests were percolating. But if the Summer of Love was happening in San Francisco, the streets in Billy’s neighborhood were blissfully peaceful.
What I remember is that the ivy wasn’t as high as I’d thought so I had to keep readjusting my position to stay hidden. Were those spiders crawling in the dirt? I curled on my side, then rolled face down, telling myself that my parents must be frantic. It felt like hours passed and the anger didn’t suddenly evaporate. No one came looking for me. I started to get itchy and bored. I couldn’t stay still any longer.
On the way home, I didn’t see anyone. We lived among blocks of ranch style houses with well-tended gardens. I could bike to see friends, but mostly we went everywhere in a car. You could walk down our entire street and not see another person.
When I got inside, no one asked where I’d been. My mother told me to take a bath and filled the tub. She was going to cook dinner and I should put on clean clothes, she said. I suspected she thought I’d stayed in my room the whole time. At dinner, everything was normal, or it looked that way. My mother brought out the food and we sat down and ate it because that it was what you did.
People might have thought my mother was like the one in her book, but the truth was she gave up her work as a radio journalist when she got married and never seemed at peace staying home with kids. She was frustrated and irascible. My parents were born in the south and moved to Los Angeles, like so many others, to reinvent themselves. My father worked long hours as a doctor and my mother did volunteer work, mingled with her friends, wrote two children’s books that were published and a few detective novels that were not.
I remember seeing my parents mostly in the morning and at night, which gave me a certain freedom, but also a sense of being utterly alone. In elementary school, sometimes I would go to the beach with friends or hang out in the notorious Vacant Lot one street over. But usually I filled the time playing with the stuffed animals in my room and reading.
My parents eventually got rid of Downy, who waddled after us, until my father accidentally stepped on his leg, and then he limped after us, with a popsicle stick brace attached to his damaged limb. There were no ponds anywhere near where we lived, but I didn’t question that at the time. I cried, but that was the end of it. Downy was happy so I should be happy for him. He became another detail in my childhood, but not one that was glorious or tragic.
But the day I ran away, that stayed with me. It was when I learned how alone I was, which is something we all come to know, eventually. It may have partly been what turned me into a writer. My running away was, I can now see, as much my mother’s event as it was mine. It was hers to remember or render. “Here is a story that captures an experience of childhood itself, lovingly told with humor, insight and charm,” says the jacket cover. It was, I thought, when I picked up the book recently. The mother in the story wants Billy to know the world is safe. There is no fury or darkness, not the way there is in the imaginations of many kids. The way there was in mine. Mostly, though, I thought how little we know what is in the minds of our parents, or of our children, perhaps of anyone. That is why we make up stories.
Katherine Seligman is an author and journalist in San Francisco. She attended the Community of Writers in 2014. Her debut novel, At the Edge of the Haight, which won the 2019 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, was published by Algonquin Books in January, 2021.
by Vicki Forman
My years of flight began on an empty service road, outside of Tarrytown, New York. I was nineteen and pregnant, in love with a group of radicals, one of whom, Peter Hass, had fathered the baby I carried. I could say Peter and his group seduced me but that would be a lie. I joined them because I wanted to belong, because they spoke in big long sentences about ideas that were important: fairness, equality, justice. Because we believed we could change the world and didn’t care about what might happen to us or anyone else along the way. “The way we break things is the way we fix them,” Peter said to me the day we first met. Right away I knew I would be there with him when it happened, the breaking and the fixing.
And so, on the morning of the hold-up, I watched as Peter and Gordon and the others moved the canvas bags from the U-Haul, parked on the service road. The men seemed tense. Gordon worked quietly, distracted, his usual energy deflated. Harry Bee was silent, the look on his face impossible to read. I tried to see if Peter noticed, but he and Steadman were busy taking the bags from Harry Bee and loading them into the trunks of the waiting cars.
“What happened?” I asked. “Something’s wrong.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Gordon said. “We’re cool. It’s all good.”
I didn’t believe him. Gordon was preoccupied, distant. We all moved this way, mechanically, distracted, the way you might move in a dream, paying close attention to each gesture like you might not finish the step otherwise: Harry Bee grabbing the heavy bags from the U-Haul, Peter taking them from him to stack them in the waiting cars. My car, a bright red Chevy Nova, was empty except for groceries to feed us during our time at the safe house. If the cops stopped me, I was just a teenager, headed out of the city to visit friends. I was the decoy, the good girl.
That was the plan, complicated, methodical. Then there was the mood – anxious, worried. And finally there was that tension between Gordon and Harry Bee. Peter finished loading the Corvette, then tossed his backpack into the front seat. He didn’t look at me and I could tell it was because he was worried all over again about my being there at all.
“We’ve been through this,” I said. “It’s going to be fine. I’m ready.”
“If anything goes wrong—”
“Save myself,” I said.
As if to confirm my confidence, the sun broke through the clouds and shone on the U-Haul’s back window. Gordon squinted, shielding his eyes against the sudden sunlight. He went to hug Peter. “See you brother,” he said, and when he leaned in I saw it, the smallest trace of blood, a tiny splatter at the edge of his glasses. And there, on the side of his palm, the hand that shielded his face, another.
“You’re bleeding,” I said.
“Your cheek.” Because there it was, another small spray of blood. “It’s on your glasses. Your hand.”
Gordon removed his round wire-framed glasses, saw the blood, then brushed his hand across his cheek. “It’s nothing,” he said.
Far off, I heard sirens. “Let’s move,” Peter said. “Why are we standing around like this? Come on.” He went to the U-Haul and slammed shut the back of the van. I saw the blood then, a splatter across the back window, trailing down the white metal door. This was why Harry Bee and Gordon were so silent. This was the reason for the tension between them. Gordon followed my gaze. Don’t, his look said. Not now.
I should have said something, told Peter and Steadman, called Gordon out. I should have said, “Where did that blood come from?” but the sirens were real, coming closer. We all heard them. There was no time to question, no time to insist on an answer.
“Let’s go,” Peter said. “Now.”
I got into the Nova and started it up, slowly making my way down the service road towards the Thruway. Peter and the others formed a caravan behind me. I came to a stoplight turning yellow and hesitated, wondering if I should brake or move on. On instinct, I went through the intersection and pulled to the side to wait for the others. Peter was stopped at the light. I waited and watched as Gordon pulled a sudden U-turn, barely avoiding the oncoming traffic, escaping the intersection, driving off in the opposite direction.
The light stayed red and Peter and Steadman were still there, still waiting, even as the Datsun sped off. A moment later, the intersection filled with police, arriving all at once, coming to a stop in front of Peter and Steadman.
I forced my gaze away from the scene. I thought of Gordon pulling the U-turn, how he and Harry Bee had sped off.
Mechanically, I put the car in gear, turned on the blinker, pulled into traffic, driving away. Until that moment, I might have been an accessory, a hanger on. But that was it, the day I joined the Movement for real.
The safe house was in the Berkshires, between Williamstown and Bennington. The place belonged to a friend of Gordon’s, an old Movement member willing to protect us. I drove as if I knew where I was going, sure the police would catch up to me, and then, after the first dozen miles, stunned they hadn’t. Somehow, miraculously, I had escaped. I suppose I looked like what I was: a college co-ed, out for a ride. I drove as I were that girl, as if nothing had happened back on the service road. Peter and Steadman weren’t been caught. Gordon and Harry Bee hadn’t driven off. As if I wasn’t nineteen and pregnant and on the run.
After an hour I made it to Poughkeepsie, and still no one was behind me. I knew I should keep going but I was hungry and so I took the exit, turned onto an empty lane and drove another mile past several farmhouses until I was alone on the road. I stopped the car and opened the trunk to find the bag of gourmet groceries I’d splurged on that morning at Dean and DeLuca. Stupid girl, I thought, remembering how I’d picked each item as an indulgence. There was champagne and cheese and crackers, a basket of raspberries and a chocolate cake. I ripped open a round of gouda to break off a piece. I ate without thinking, barely tasting past the basic flavors: the salt of the cheese and the sweet of the raspberries and the tart of the champagne which I opened it to drink straight from the bottle. I shouldn’t have been drinking the champagne at all but there were a lot of things I shouldn’t have been doing. I stuck my hand into the chocolate cake, to eat a fistful in one bite.
I looked down at the disarray and up at the cold dark sky and couldn’t imagine what came next. There was forty dollars in my wallet, an address in the Berkshires I’d memorized, and a baby growing inside me. I thought about the baby and I thought about Peter, back there on the service road. I began to cry, more angry than afraid, but stopped myself. Where would the tears get me? I was no longer a decoy, but a target now. Even Peter had said my job was to save myself. It was up to me to keep moving, to put all the distance possible between myself and Peter.
I grabbed my pack from the backseat, changed into my black engineer boots and walked away from the red sedan and the trunk full of groceries like it belonged to me. A few minutes later a car passed, then pulled to a stop and I saw with relief that a young girl was driving, someone close to my age. “Hey,” the girl said, through the open passenger window. “Where you headed?”
“North,” I told her. “The Berkshires.”
Sarah was on her way to visit her boyfriend at SUNY Albany. In another life, she and I might have gossiped about all the things we had in common, but I kept my answers short and blunt and when she realized I wasn’t the gregarious traveling companion she hoped for, she gave up too, turning the radio to an all-news station. We drove north up the valley, away from the river, and at every toll booth I sunk a little into my parka, averting my gaze from the collector. After Sarah dropped me off outside Albany, another car stopped. Josh and Eli were long-haired and dressed in flannel and thankfully harmless, even when they lit up a joint between them and Josh drove stoned with Creedence playing on the tape deck. I let myself relax in the back seat, allowing some relief to set in: I had escaped. The red sedan was far behind me. I was closer to the safe house with every mile.
The Berkshires came into view, and soon we were in their midst, peaked grey hills with the road narrowing between them in deep valleys. Night found me arriving into Bennington. I knew from memory the address on Middle Pownal Road; at a Friendly’s on Main Street the teenager behind the cash register gave me directions so simple I couldn’t get lost, even in the dark. Half an hour out of town I knocked on the door of a one-story farmhouse whose dim lights barely lit up the dark stubble of lawn in front. A young girl, maybe six years old, answered the knock. From behind the screen door I could see a woman in the kitchen, her back at the sink.
“Mom,” the girl called, and then the woman turned and I saw it was Rosa, a friend of Harry Bee’s, whom I once met at party on Osage Avenue. Rosa had a long braid down her back that swayed behind her when she turned.
“It’s you,” Rosa said. She pulled me into the house, closing the door behind me. “Where’s everyone else?” she asked.
I didn’t answer, and Rosa seemed to understand what it meant that I was alone. “Okay,” she said. She went back to the kitchen and returned with a cup of tea and a bowl of pasta. The girl emerged from a room down the hall. “Mom?” she said.
“I’ll be back,” Rosa said.
I ate the food Rose gave me, then sat out on the sofa and drank the tea, covering myself with a quilt. The windows of the front room looked out upon the road, which was still and quiet and dark. I heard the sound of Rosa putting the girl to bed. After a while, she came back to sit in the armchair across from me, her expression a mixture of anger and worry.
“What happened?” she asked. “Where’s Harry Bee? Where are the others?”
“The police came,” I said. “They trapped Peter and Frank. Gordon and Harry Bee escaped.” We both looked around at the empty living room, understanding what we both now knew to be true. Harry Bee and Gordon weren’t coming. It really was just me. The girl without cash in her trunk, the decoy.
“This was a ridiculous idea to begin with,” Rosa said. “Completely and utterly absurd. What was wrong with you all? What got into you?”
“It could have worked,” I said. “Something went wrong.” I let myself think about that spray of blood on the back door of the U-Haul, the specks of blood on Gordon’s glasses, his cheek. “Something happened.”
“Don’t tell me anything else,” Rosa said. “Go to bed. We’ll figure out a plan in the morning.”
Obediently, I lay on the couch, covered myself with the quilt and tried to erase the images of the hold-up, Peter and Steadman cornered, Harry Bee and Gordon driving off. The plan had failed and I had escaped. I felt the baby move the way it did when I was lying down and while it kicked and rolled I fell asleep, exhausted, to dream of the beach at Sea Ranch, my feet in the soft cold sand.
When I awoke the next morning, Rosa and her daughter were already in the kitchen, eating breakfast. I sat down at the table across from the girl, relieved to see that Rosa’s reluctance did not extend to her food. The eggs and pancakes were warm, the Irish breakfast tea strong. I wanted to find a way to make her want me there. “I wish we were all here,” I said. “I wish it hadn’t fallen apart.” I almost wanted to say, I wish they had caught me instead of Peter. “I’m sorry.”
“Apologies are a waste of time,” said Rosa, clearing the dishes from the girl’s breakfast, and setting a plate in front of me. The girl, whose name was Ellie, stared at me from across the table. “You don’t like syrup?” Ellie asked.
“What do you like?” Ellie asked.
I shrugged. “Music, books. School.”
Ellie grimaced. “Not me.”
“Syrup for you then, school for me.”
After I ate, Ellie pulled me down the hall and into her room and got me to spend the morning playing My Pretty Pony with her toy figures, combing their pink manes and trotting the toys around the room on adventures to collect magic stones. Playing with the girl, I became conscious of my belly pressing against my too-tight waistband. I tried not to think of the summer ahead, when the baby was due. All those plans, gone now. I listened to the street sounds, holding onto what I knew was a fantasy: Gordon and Harry Bee would show up, pull into Rosa’s driveway, their car doors flying open, an arrival that would rescue me from My Pretty Pony and everything else. No one came and at lunchtime Rosa announced, “I found you a place to stay.”
“I thought I was staying here,” I said. “I thought that was the plan.”
“Not anymore,” said Rosa. “Not after everything that’s happened.”
In the kitchen an open box on the table contained plates and cups, basic staples like cereal and peanut butter. A loaf of bread. There were maternity clothes too, a big bright green jumper and jeans with stretchy flaps at the front.
“You knew?” I said. “About the baby?”
“It’s hardly a secret. Your belly says it all.”
I was six months pregnant. Rosa was right, I wasn’t fooling anyone. Without apology, she carried the supplies from the kitchen to the driveway, putting them in the backseat of her car, an old Subaru with Massachusetts plates. She directed me to the backseat. “Get down,” she said, closing the door on me.
We pulled out of the driveway and headed through town, Rosa explaining the plan as she drove. “We’re going to Brattleboro. There’s an inn there. My cousin Johnny hired you to work in the kitchen.”
“I don’t know how to cook,” I said. My words sounded childish, and plaintive. I resented the way Rosa had taken over and directed things now that it was just me, and no one else had come. I didn’t want her cast-off maternity clothes or her old dishes. “This was never the plan.”
“Clearly the plan changed,” she said. “When people ask, you’re an old friend from Rochester. Our parents knew each other. They played golf together.”
“What if I don’t want to learn how to cook?”
“You have a better idea?” she said. “Some other option I don’t know about?”
I didn’t. “What happens when the baby comes?” I asked.
“We’ll figure it out,” she said. “For now, follow the plan. Find a way to make it work.”
Rose’s advice came off like a threat, as if I were some kind of problematic teenager, which I suppose I was. In the coming months and years, I found this common, how the help I got offered often came with judgment. Eventually, I learned to accept the trade, criticism in exchange for a place to stay, a job, a box of kitchen supplies. This was my punishment for being part of the hold-up, for saving myself and driving away. Rosa’s threat made clear what I’d known all day, while I played with Ellie and waited for Gordon or Harry Bee to show up: I was a fugitive now. My safety would come at the mercy of others. I lay down on the back seat of the Subaru and Rosa drove through the mountains to Brattleboro and I stayed quiet the whole way, just like Rosa told me I should.
Vicki Forman is an alumna of the Writers Conference. She is the author of This Lovely Life, A Memoir of Premature Motherhood (Houghton Mifflin/Mariner Books), winner of the PEN Center Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize and selected as a 100 Best Book by the San Francisco Chronicle. In her life outside of writing, she works as a Registered Nurse at a Level One trauma center in Los Angeles.
Our first issue of the new year arrives and, as if in response to a party invitation, with bells on. Eager to celebrate creativity, resistance, and resilience, we offer loud, ringing, affirmation and justified bragging. The spring 2021 is — forgive me — a shot in the arm, with joyful congratulation and insights aplenty from all fronts, genres and proximities as we look forward to vaccination and, yes, the improved health of our literary arts community and republic.
Poet and Community of Writers director Robert Hass shares an excerpt from his introduction to the new anniversary anthology edited by Lisa Alvarez, a must-read, must-own volume on sale now. Thanks for purchasing a copy or ten.
Bay Area poet Maw Shein Win offers four short poems of wit and purposeful syntactical reconstruction and formal beauty. In my favorite, “The Chalice,” she adjectivizes sweetness. In “The Dome,” an insect uprising: “The ants take over city hall.”
In a personal essay about writing, novelist Katherine Seligman explicates her autobiographical motives via her writer mother, author of the children’s classic Run Away Home. Especially insightful as Seligman herself recently won the truly impressive Bellwether Prize, founded by literary hero Barbara Kingsolver.
Mary Camarillo, whose debut novel is also out, shares a Community of Writers insider’s testimonial, the personal story of a shy newbie writer who suffers self-doubt but replaces it with curiosity, tenacity and revision, sharing valuable takeaways learned in her week in the Sierras.
Finally, Vicki Forman, author of an elegant and moving memoir of loss and insight shares a chapter from her novel-in-progress, a fictional version of a story from America’s militant left history in which our heroine confronts failure and responsibility. Loosely based on the Weather Underground and the infamous Brinks robbery, Luna Flood re-imagines the era by telling the story of its supporting characters — most notably women — while also offering reflections on identity, choice and the consequences of history.
Please share this terrific writing with others. Our next arrives in mid-June.
*The Community of Writers mourns the passing of Brian Rogers, father, teacher and author of an amazing novel, The Whole of the Moon. The book’s gorgeous premise is outdone only by the careful attention Brian gave to its Southern California locale and empathy for characters whose lives intersect in a way only a former stand-up comic and playwright could imagine and so vividly realize.*
ABOUT THE OGQ
Omnium Gatherum Quarterly (OGQ) is an invitational online quarterly magazine of prose and poetry, founded in 2019 as part of the 50th Anniversary of the Community of Writers. OGQ seeks to feature works first written in, found during, or inspired by the week in the valley. Only work selected from our alums and teaching staff will appear here. Conceived and edited by Andrew Tonkovich. Submissions will not be considered.