The MFA in Creative Writing Program at Manhattanville College

July 12th, 2016

1 poem

The Shadow Natan Alterman From Hebrew: Zackary Sholem Berger Once there was a man and his shadow. One night the shadow stood up took the man’s shoes and coat, put them on. Passing by it took the man’s hat from the hook, trying as well to remove his head — without success. It took his …

The Shadow
Natan Alterman
From Hebrew: Zackary Sholem Berger

Once there was a man and his shadow.
One night the shadow stood up
took the man’s shoes and coat,
put them on. Passing by
it took the man’s hat from the hook,
trying as well to remove his head —
without success. It took his face off
and put that on too. If that weren’t enough
next morning he went out with his walking stick.
The man ran down the street after him
shrieking to his friends: What a terrible thing!
It’s a shadow! A clown! It’s not me! I’ll
write the authorities! He can’t get away with it! He wailed
bitterly, but little by little got used to it, fell silent, till at last
he forgot about the incident.

*

Zackary Sholem Berger is a poet, translator, and short story writer in Baltimore, working in Yiddish and English. By day he is a mild-mannered primary care doctor.

What motivates him to create?

As a translator, I feel honored to be able to avoid the whole notion of independent creation, focusing (in my best moments) on nullifying the self in the universe of another. I am the other. Feeling that I represent that other style and mind is a rare exhilaration.

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July 7th, 2016

2 poems

Marooned I imagine loneliness feels Something like this: Coming down exhausted in the sun, Laying ourselves against the rusted light, No money or friends, and only the drift Of a streetlamp’s pale shadow Telling its story of haloed roads Where the empty circulation of the wind Is the only sound With its dark, salient voices. …

Marooned

I imagine loneliness feels
Something like this:
Coming down exhausted in the sun,
Laying ourselves against the rusted light,
No money or friends, and only the drift
Of a streetlamp’s pale shadow
Telling its story of haloed roads
Where the empty circulation of the wind
Is the only sound
With its dark, salient voices.

*

Olly Playing God

Olly dabbles in a mixing
Of the light.
He moves an emerald shadow
From the soft edges of the wood
And drops it over London.
A deciduous spring cloud
That makes the people dream.

Or he pulls an errant bat
From a deep sump of darkness
And lets it zigzag through
The bright pacific.
The observing fish grow wings,
And one ambitious slug
Scurries up to become a star.

He gets bored and makes
Dark muscles for the trees,
Puts beautiful hearts
In spots beneath the bark.
They tell him old stories
In a language made of ash
And petals.

He does and undoes the alchemy
Of the soul.
Pixelates blood and consciousness.
Here animating the neural gloom
Of swamps,
Here giving burning nectar
To the rifle-colored rose.

*

Seth Jani currently resides in Seattle, WA and is the founder of Seven CirclePress (www.sevencirclepress.com). His own work has been published widely in such places as The Coe Review, The Hamilton Stone Review, Hawai`i Pacific Review, VAYAVYA, Gingerbread House and Gravel. More about him and his work can be found at www.sethjani.com.

What motivates him to create?
I think of writing as a kind of gardening, or maybe a work of verbal biology. Words are like pollen from the big trees of language; the poet’s job is to follow it, learning to detail the intricate dance of the flora and fauna. I write out of a kind of naturalist’s fascination.

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July 5th, 2016

1 poem

Smells Like Bukowski August night in Grenada, MS Had to choose between two hotels, and I took a room beside the one where three men shot each other the week before. My credit card didn’t work, didn’t work. Good thing the night teller preferred cash. Even the threat of a fistful of Apple Jacks and …

Smells Like Bukowski

August night in Grenada, MS

Had to choose between two hotels,
and I took a room beside the one
where three men shot each other
the week before.

My credit card didn’t work, didn’t work.
Good thing the night teller preferred cash.

Even the threat of a fistful
of Apple Jacks and community milk
for breakfast couldn’t keep me down.

The ice machine was stacked and clean—
I poured some E & J brandy and Sprite.

Three towels and no washcloth
like the night in San Juan
when the caretaker told you
they don’t use washcloths in Puerto Rico,
and you let him have it.
I let it go.

Swivel-lock gone from the door,
I jammed a chair against the handle.

Bukowski said if it doesn’t roar out of you,
do something else.
I’m back in the game, baby,
back in the game.

*

Born and raised in Scranton, PA (The Office), K. A. McGowan lives in Cajunland in Louisiana. He writes poems and songs and plays the guitar left-handed. His two chapbooks are Rubric and No Passengers.

What motivates him to create?
Poems are waiting in rooms, waiting to be written.

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June 28th, 2016

1 poem

Subject to Sunlight My mother is a lost little girl a thief not an outlaw my mother is th th fa fa ief ief a leaf * Amanda Deutch is the author of five chapbooks most recently, Pull Yourself Together (Dancing Girl Press, 2016) and a forthcoming (currently untitled) chapbook from Propolis Press. Poetry appears …

Subject to Sunlight

My mother is
a lost
little girl
a thief
not an outlaw

my mother is

th
th
fa
fa
ief
ief

a leaf

*

Amanda Deutch is the author of five chapbooks most recently, Pull Yourself Together (Dancing Girl Press, 2016) and a forthcoming (currently untitled) chapbook from Propolis Press. Poetry appears in The Rumpus, Revolver, Bone Bouquet, Shampoo, Denver Quarterly, Watchword Press and elsewhere. A graduate of Bard College, she has been awarded grants and residencies from the Brooklyn Arts Council, Footpaths (Azores) and The Betsy (Miami). Born and raised in Manhattan, she lives in Brooklyn where she curates Parachute Literary Arts.

What motivates her to create?
Locomotion, location, echolocation, memory, human beings.

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June 23rd, 2016

1 poem

The First Airborne Division, Harlaxton, 1943 In dim light over the kitchen rooms RAF pilots drew on the walls parachutes and Pegasus wings: the patches on their shoulders: and the long legged women they’d not yet met. They listened for cough pop engines taking off and landing: the sound like certain disaster: against a silver …

The First Airborne Division, Harlaxton, 1943

In dim light over the kitchen rooms
RAF pilots drew on the walls
parachutes and Pegasus wings:
the patches on their shoulders:

and the long legged women
they’d not yet met.

They listened for cough pop engines
taking off and landing:
the sound like certain disaster:

against a silver smelting sky
the plane’s underbellies
like a school of fish in formation
the acrobatics of peril
smoke trailed strange punctuation.

And they boasted about girls back home
ones from villages, ones from London

ones whose knees they swam between
pond silt breath held
ankles grabbed, smooth calves stroked

looking up at the washout blare
looking up at their ripple distorted bodies

not underwater dreaming then
as they did waiting in those rooms
of the horse haunch gadfly sting:
its rider thrown headfirst
down the gods’ mountain
thistle and stone tossed
sparrow broken to the ground.

*

John Walser, an associate professor of English at Marian University in Wisconsin, holds a doctorate in English and Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals, including Barrow Street, Nimrod, Spillway, The Pinch, december magazine, Fourth River, Superstition Review, the Evansville Review, and Bird’s Thumb. He was a featured poet in September 2014 at Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. The recipient of the 2015 Lorine Niedecker Poetry Prize as well as a Pushcart nominee and a semi-finalist for the 2013 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, John is currently submitting three manuscripts of poetry for publication.

What motivates him to create?
I know this may sound mildly masochistic, but…I like the pain behind my eye that I feel when I’m not coming up with the right word or image or line, when I can’t make it work, when I don’t know how to finish a poem. The process as much as the finished project is what makes me happy. I want to see how it turns out. I want to see where it branches off. I want to see how it shimmers or shimmies or shatters. That’s what motivates me to write and to create.

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June 21st, 2016

Moon Ballet

Even the cruellest of days can be tamed, not with whips but dancing shoes, fox-trotting over parrot- green dunes, scavenging the earth for childish clues to lick the moon on the driest parts of her salty milk lips. * Christy Bharath is a writer by profession. He has been working as one – in some …

Even the
cruellest
of days
can be
tamed,
not with
whips but
dancing shoes,
fox-trotting
over parrot-
green dunes,
scavenging
the earth
for childish
clues to lick
the moon
on the
driest parts
of her
salty milk lips.

*

Christy Bharath is a writer by profession. He has been working as one – in some capacity or the other – for over a decade in domains such as Media, BFSI, Travel and Tourism, IT/ITES and Healthcare. He has played many roles in his career – copy editor, newspaper columnist, corporate blogger and creative consultant, to name a few. Currently, he heads a communication team for a technology company. He also runs a blog about bird-watching in India and life on planet earth at http://verseherder.wordpress.com. Over 3,000 followers and 4,100+ email subscribers seem to like what he has to say on a regular basis. The WordPress editorial team has featured his as a special recommendation twice on their website. He can also be found at https://medium.com/@verseherder.

What motivates him to create?
My first-ever career aspiration involved a friendly Tyrannosaurus Rex with an equestrian saddle and townspeople in need of a masked hero. Two decades ago, I gave up on it and decided to do something less dramatic instead. I became a writer because each of us have a primordial instinct to create, design and develop ideas and principles. Later, it turns into an urge to share these creations and change people with them. I am motivated to write because I don’t know I can wake up in the morning, and feel good about life without the role that writing plays in my life.

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June 16th, 2016

1 poem

Muffled Screams The cellar smells like being buried alive and awaking like an earthworm paralyzed to wiggle to the surface before dirt sucks all moisture away leaving a fossilized shell like the shelves of peaches, apricots, green beans and tomatoes encased in glass — formaldehyde specimens or pharaoh’s favorite bobbles crowded around him in death. …

Muffled Screams

The cellar smells
like being buried alive
and awaking like an earthworm
paralyzed to wiggle to the surface
before dirt sucks all moisture away
leaving a fossilized shell
like the shelves of peaches,
apricots, green beans and tomatoes
encased in glass —
formaldehyde specimens
or pharaoh’s favorite bobbles
crowded around him in death.
Eyewitness by the light of the door
or a lone flashlight beam,
but feeble comfort inside the tomb
when the door slams shut
or the battery dies,
and only darkness remains
under the earth mound
with muffled screams inside.

*

Diane Webster‘s goal is to remain open to poetry ideas in everyday life or nature or an overheard phrase and to write from her perspective at the moment. Many nights she falls asleep juggling images to fit into a poem. Her work has appeared in “Philadelphia Poets,” “Illya’s Honey,” “River Poets Journal” and other literary magazines.

What motivates her to create?
Like most writers, I have to write. Something triggers my senses, and I start playing with images in my mind. I create a kind of movie, and I describe what I see as it unfolds. The excitement is what corners I turn to discover different directions I can take my images or where my images take me. My environment motivates me to create. Quiet to allow those images to rise and to be written.

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June 14th, 2016

1 poem

Bourbon Street Angels I hear angels hang out on Bourbon St. They survey their territory, stomp old stomping grounds, elbow each other when some drunk drifts out of Lafitte’s to his car. They do not guide or save anyone, they just survey the doings of folks with a dollar or two craving booze-lit zydeco, prize …

Bourbon Street Angels

I hear angels hang out on Bourbon St.
They survey their territory,
stomp old stomping grounds,
elbow each other when some drunk
drifts out of Lafitte’s to his car.

They do not guide or save anyone,
they just survey
the doings of folks with a dollar or two
craving booze-lit zydeco,
prize any soul who drops change
in the cup of some poor boy tap-dancing
on the street to help his mama make rent.

Come first light, they pretend to have breakfast,
knock powdered sugar off each other
while they watch the couples
stopping for coffee and beignets
after a few hours between the sheets.
They know there is nothing like the taste
of sugar after the taste of sex.

They call each other cher but don’t speak
French, don’t speak to anyone but themselves.
No one can see them, that’s how they want it.
They look perfect, undiminished,
but only to each other. They never have to face
mirrors, their stories told, silenced long ago.

*

Tobi Alfier is a multiple Pushcart nominee and a Best of the Net nominee. Her most current chapbooks are “The Coincidence of Castles” from Glass Lyre Press, and “Romance and Rust” from Blue Horse Press. “Down Anstruther Way” is forthcoming from FutureCycle Press. She is the co-editor of San Pedro River Review (www.bluehorsepress.com).

What motivates her to create?
I can’t not. If I touch just one person with my words, if one person feels less alone, or connected, I have made a difference. That is all I could ever wish for, and what I hope to accomplish.

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June 9th, 2016

2 poems

Apples and Oranges I was peeling an orange and the department secretary said you should eat an apple instead because it’s local, and our bodies have evolved to eat local food. So the apple belongs, while the orange does not. Well, I thought, since Jesus spoke in parables, and we walk here under crosses: who …

Apples and Oranges

I was peeling an orange and
the department secretary said
you should eat an apple instead
because it’s local,
and our bodies have evolved to eat local food.

So the apple belongs,
while the orange does not.

Well, I thought, since Jesus spoke in parables,
and we walk here under crosses: who is who?
There is Selmas: working the land,
growing his gnarly apple trees,
trunks painted white against disease…
And Ahasuerus: the wandering Jew,
a foreign fruit lacking local roots…

Thus, her nutritional advice
may be boiled down to this:
“Let us cast aside all oranges
so that the body of our people
should grow strong.”

Well, I told her. I don’t think that’s true.
Vitamins are vitamins and oranges have quite a lot.
Besides, whence these apple trees?
And the potato, our national food,
is something hoary national heroes never ate.
It comes from dark-skinned, Inca roots.

I come from the new world too,
despite my gentile Lithuanian stock.
And I suspect this grafted apple tree
has some foreign strains.

Orange I am, then, (eating with glee)
wandering Europe, wandering the world,
a wandering Jew
who imagines in his folly
that the Great Synagogue of Vilnius,
(rising from its roots like an ancient oak)
still stands.

*

There is this life

The first gaze
Broken
I rolled out of the crib
And stood at the marriage altar
Handed in the papers
Died
It was ordinary
And inane
People
Caught in the web
Crows in a tree, cawing
Starlings warbling
Wind rustling hands
Branches like a map of nerves
Open
To inroads of smoke
And concrete fields of will
With glimpses of a silent well
Along the way
What was gained?
Pleasure – but
So easy to say
The sudden injection of a two-note song
The slow drip of honey between mouths
The grip of a hand like gravity
Holding us to the ground
The fingers of a child
In a dream
In which someone else awakens
And breathes

*

Rimas Uzgiris is a poet, translator, editor and critic. His work has appeared in Barrow Street, AGNI, Atlanta Review, Iowa Review, Quiddity, Per Contra, Hudson Review and other journals. He is translation editor and primary translator of How the Earth Carries Us: New Lithuanian Poets (Vilnius, 2015). His translations of Ilzė Butkutė and Judita Vaičiūnaitė are forthcoming from US publishers. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers-Newark University. Recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Grant and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship, he teaches literature, translation and creative writing at Vilnius University.

What motivates him to create:
Is anyone sure why artists feel a need to make things? To express themselves? I don’t feel right if I am not making things with words, especially these linguistic things broken up into lines on a page we call poems. I suppose one of the underlying currents that motivates me is the awareness of mortality, of the ephemerality of all that we know and love. I want to preserve something of that, something that matters. And to share it. I use language because I love what language can do. English enthralls me. And I want to share that too.

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June 7th, 2016

Good Hygiene

I lived alone at the end of the ward, in a room across from the payphone. My door was open. David talked lightly into the receiver. I sat at my creaky, wooden desk. The top was engraved with Pearl Jam, Nirvana, hearts, Raymond loves Patricia, Thug Life. I was writing a letter to my grandmother. …

I lived alone at the end of the ward, in a room across from the payphone. My door was open. David talked lightly into the receiver. I sat at my creaky, wooden desk. The top was engraved with Pearl Jam, Nirvana, hearts, Raymond loves Patricia, Thug Life. I was writing a letter to my grandmother. I chewed my pencil’s eraser and watched David’s hunched back. His long hair was wet from the shower he took after rec. He loved death metal. Dismember and Dark Tranquility were his favorite bands. He’d crank the volume on his Sony boom box and shake his hair to the power chords and guttural voices until a healthcare tech or nurse told him to turn it down, he was disturbing the peace. We learned quickly we disturbed the peace inside the walls of Dorothea Dix Hospital. David clenched the metal cord with his free hand. He breathed heavily between whispers. His father did not love him.

“Why do you hate me?”

Little sobs replaced the breaths. His shoulders shook. He turned his head. Bloodshot eyes.

“I’m not listening,” I said.

“You better not, fucker.”

I was a hospital veteran who’d heard it all: drug deals, escape plans, sex talk with girlfriends. Nothing shocked me.

“He loves you,” I said.

“What?”

I resumed my letter. My grandmother wrote the most beautiful letters. Her handwriting was amazing. Mine sucked. I’d told her many times I was ashamed—ashamed of my handwriting, ashamed of my brain, ashamed of my body and hygiene. Did you know, I wrote, they use “hygiene” for everything? Like, how is your “mental hygiene” today? My brain is not an armpit or set of teeth.

David hung up.

“I’m done, nosy ass.”

“Good,” I said.

He stood in my doorway. Study Time would soon begin.

“You’re wrong,” he said.

“About what?”

“My father.”

“He loves you.”

“No he don’t.”

I knew his father hated him. I’d heard his father screaming through the receiver. I’d seen him in the folding metal chair, crying after his father hung up within five seconds of answering his call. I understood why he lost himself in those primal, gruff growls and frenetic guitars.

“How do you know?”

“I’m psychic.”

He wiped tears from his face with a shirt sleeve. He wore a San Diego Padres sweatshirt. We were in Raleigh, North Carolina. The shirt was donated like much of his wardrobe. The boom box was a Christmas present from a Methodist church that set up a tree in Crabtree Valley Mall. We were surprised to get a mall tree. Usually, those were reserved for kids on cancer wards, the kids on TV with translucent heads who got visits from half of Hollywood and most of the NFL and NBA. My therapist at Dix once told me bipolar is not a casserole illness—don’t expect folks to show up on your doorstep with a baked macaroni and cheese. The church kept our names private because we were mental patients, which was the worst thing in the world, like one tiny step above leprosy. My paper ornament read: “Boy, 14, loves sports, music, reading. Would like a CD Walkman to listen to classical music. Mozart’s his favorite.” So I received a CD Walkman and listened to Alice in Chains, Ice Cube, Tupac, Nirvana, and The Geto Boys.

“I heard what happened last night,” David said, grinning.

“Hypocrite.”

“What?”

“Nosy. You’re nosy too.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.”

I’d been caught masturbating the night before by Ms. Mann, the third shift nurse. I couldn’t decide which was worse, a woman catching me who’d consider me a pervert and future serial rapist, or a man who’d remember his own youth and chuckle as I stopped mid-stroke. Well, in my case, I’d been caught by both in the last month: Mr. Jones, a tech, caught me the first time, and Ms. Mann caught me three weeks later. She wouldn’t look at me during morning meds. I swallowed my lithium with state orangeade, refused breakfast in the cafeteria downstairs, and hid under my covers until hospital school. We called it hospital school because a few kids attended Athens Drive. They were dropped off at a special bus stop away from the hospital and pretended to be normal, but they weren’t. You weren’t normal until you were discharged. I wasn’t interested in attending Athens. David attended hospital school too. We were both 9th graders, though he was a year older. He leaned on my doorframe.

“Choking the chicken,” he said.

“Like you don’t,” I said.

“I don’t get caught, retard.”

“Fuck off, asshole.”

Mr. Jones stood behind David. He was working second and third shift.

“What’s going on here?”

“Nothing,” we said.

“It’s Study Time,” he said.

I pulled out my books: North Carolina History, Pre-Algebra, and Great American Short Stories.

“I need to talk to Mike,” Mr. Jones told David. “Go to your room and study.”

“Okay,” David said. “Right on.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yes sir.”

David slipped behind Mr. Jones, who was tall as hell. Basketball tall. Dude had played college ball. We loved shooting hoops with him in the yard. He showed no mercy. Mr. Jones was the newest hire and seemed cool.

“Mike, I heard what happened last night.”

I flipped through Great American Short Stories. English was my favorite subject. We were assigned Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” for homework. Nick Adams, a World War I veteran, returns to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan after the war. He likes to hike and fish. He’s alone in the woods with only his thoughts.

“Mike,” Mr. Jones said. “What’s wrong with you?”

Nothing, I thought. Was it terrible to beat your meat?

“Sorry.”

“You should apologize to Ms. Mann. What if your mother caught you? What’s wrong with you?”

I lowered my head and tried to read, tried to ignore him. I’d thought he was cool. He’d only laughed the first time.

“You caught me first.”

“I couldn’t be your mother. I’m a man, but you shouldn’t let me catch you either.”

“Okay.”

“I’d never do that in my mother’s house.”

“This isn’t my mother’s house.”

My mother had abandoned me for booze and her loser boyfriend four months before my father committed me to Dix. As usual, she’d snuck in my room and drunkenly kissed my forehead and talked gibberish. She’d return soon, I’d thought, but never did. Glass shattered downstairs. She yelled at my father. A car pulled into our gravel drive. Headlights shone through my blinds. It was her boyfriend. What if he shot my father? What if he shot me? My body shook. My teeth chattered. I squeezed my pillow. My paranoia got worse. Four months later, I sliced my wrists in the shower before my mother’s boyfriend could climb through the bathroom window to blow my brains out.

“Until you’re discharged,” Mr. Jones said, “this is your mother’s house, and her name’s Dorothea. Ms. Dorothea Dix.”

“Okay.”

He uncrossed his arms and left. My chest popped and the dam broke. I buried my face in “Big-Two Hearted River.”

*

After Study Time, I washed my eyes and hit the dayroom to watch Jerry Springer with the fellas. The Zenith TV sat on a particleboard stand with a VCR and movies we’d watched a million times. Goonies, Blade Runner, and Boyz n the Hood were my favorites. David loved wrestling and watched Wrestlemania III to death. We also watched sports. We all loved sports, mostly basketball and football. Half of us, including myself, were Carolina fans. The other half were Duke fans. But there was no debating Jerry. We all loved Jerry. Jerry was the best. Jerry could do no wrong. We were his biggest fans. His number one fan club. He made us normal. If someone on the outside called us a freak, we could say, “don’t you watch Jerry Springer? Yesterday, a man French kissed his horse, Bella, and pleaded for a marriage license to marry it. Yes, it. A horse. I don’t fuck horses, so there.” After Mr. Jones’s talk, I needed a strong dose of Jerry.

I plopped on the end of the couch that held Terrell and Douglass. David sat alone on the other couch. Both couches were upholstered with a blue plastic-y material. The wood frames showed. There were only two couches. When they were full, we sat on the brown-carpeted floor. This wasn’t your grandmother’s plush carpet—this was thin rug on concrete. Jerry talked into his microphone.

“Let me introduce my first guest…”

At the top of the screen was, My man is cheating on me with my mother!

“…Darla, whose trust has been violated by her own flesh and blood, the woman—the very woman who gave birth to her twenty years ago at the precious age of sixteen…”

“Darla ugly as shit,” Terrell said.

“The mother’s fine though,” Douglass said.

“She still backstage, Doug E. Fresh.”

“It’s a rerun.”

“Oh,” Terrell said. “Well, don’t spoil.”

“Well,” David said. “Daughter’s hot too.”

“I’d fuck her,” I said.

“Man,” Terrell said to me. “Perverted ass!”

“Whatever, man.”

Douglass turned to Terrell.

“You’d fuck her too,” he said. “Don’t front.”

“Might,” Terrell said. “Might not.”

“Shit, I would,” Douglass said. “It’s impossible to get booty up in here.”

The girls lived on the other side of the ward. The nurses’ station and tech station separated the two halls, and staff monitored male-female interactions closely. If you were caught macking on a girl, staff would put you on MIX for an indeterminate time, which meant restricted interactions with the ladies during rec, group therapy, school, music therapy, art therapy—basically, your entire existence.

“You gotta point,” Terrell said to Douglass.

It didn’t take long for Jerry to bring out the mother to meet her son-in-law/lover and daughter, or for the women to roll around on the floor in their slutty dresses, or for the tattooed son-in-law/lover to enter the fray and end up in the audience, on the lap of a woman ready to swing her purse upside his head, or for Steve, the bouncer, to break it up, or for the son-in-law/lover to return to the mother and daughter right before the mother’s left breast popped out, or for the producers to blur the breast, or for the audience, who saw it live, go bananas, or for the mother to grab her daughter by her hair—a blonde wig—and pull it off and wave it in the air, or for the audience to catch the Holy Ghost at the sight of the dejected daughter, bald as Sinead O’Connor, crying as her mother swapped spit with her no-count man while still waving the wig.

“Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!”

“Pass me that orangeade,” Terrell said to me.

I passed him the orangeade in a plastic two-liter milk jug. Meals and snacks were sent on the food truck from central campus.

“Thanks, perv,” he said.

I knew Terrell was joking, but it wasn’t the right time. I wondered if people really saw me that way for doing something normal.

“I’m playing, M-Dawg.”

“Okay.”

Jerry cut to a commercial break. Jim and Harold entered the day room.

“Saltines,” Jim said. “Save me some, bitches.”

“And Nutter,” Harold said. “We want the Nutter.”

We ate Saltines with peanut butter and washed it down with the orangeade. Jim and Harold took the last two couch spots. David sighed.

“It’s our couch too,” Jim said.

David pouted.

“You’re emotional, dude,” Harold said.

“Emotional as shit,” Terrell said.

“Man, fuck y’all,” David said.

We gave each other shit to pass time. We were kids trying to survive the hospital. We were nervous when visiting central campus to see a doctor in the infirmary for the flu, strep throat, or a bladder infection, where in the waiting room adults stared at us, drooled, and talked to themselves about government conspiracies and relatives who’d abandoned them. Once, I saw a scowling man in his thirties flip off a corner-mounted TV. A Pampers commercial played. The baby giggled.

“Jew baby bastard,” the man said.

The baby clapped.

“Should’ve been aborted by your whore mom.”

“Hush,” Mr. Williams, my tech chaperon, told the man, then turned to me.

“I’ve known Dennis for years,” he said. “He’s got major problems.”

“Okay,” I said.

“You’re lucky,” he said. “He’ll die in here.”

“Okay,” I whispered.

Often, rec staff drove us in a van to Haywood Gym, next to Spruill, the forensic ward where Michael Hayes lived. Spruill’s windows were barred and the yard was barbwired. Hayes was a serial killer who blasted nine strangers one night from a rural road outside Winston-Salem, killing five. The victims, he said, were demons coming for him in their cars on Old Salisbury Road. It was either him or the demons. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to Dix. People across the state were pissed. None of the fellas believed me—they called me crazy—when I said Hayes watched us from his barred window whenever we filed off the van with basketballs and dodgeballs.

And man, I worried what my classmates and friends thought back home, if they knew where I lived. We all did. We imagined friends at the lunch table: He’s at Dix Hill. Must be nuts. That’s where Michael Hayes is holed up. Child molesters live there too. Fuck! Dix Hill, as it was called, sat on rolling hills overlooking Raleigh. The hills were the nice part. We concocted future lies about where we’d been, and why we suddenly disappeared in the middle of the school year. We practiced the lies on each other in the day room. I moved in with my grandmother in South Carolina to help her out around the house. When she died, I returned home to my parents in North Carolina. I felt bad but hoped my grandmother would understand. God too. I prayed every night after tearing a new page from my discharge desk calendar, one day closer to 6/4/94, the magical day my father would take me home for good.

“What y’all gonna be for Halloween?” Terrell said.

Jerry mediated a truce between mother and daughter. The lover/son-in-law frowned. The tables had turned. Both women screamed in his face.

“Too old for trick o’ treating,” David said. “What are you, ten?”

“Naw, there’s a party at my parents’ house. I gotta home pass.”

“Oh,” I said. “Rub it in.”

“That’s right!”

“You’re trifling,” Douglass said.

The women screamed and pointed at the lover/son-in-law.

“Blood’s thicker than water,” Jerry said.

“Yeah!” both women said.

“We’re in a mental hospital,” I said. “We don’t need Halloween costumes.”

“Yep,” Harold said.

“Finally,” David said. “He made a funny.”

“Shut up,” I said.

“Seal it in a jar,” he said.

“Y’all shut up,” Jim said. “Jerry’s talking.”

“Word,” Terrell said.

We watched in silence until Jerry said, “Until next time, take care of yourselves, and each other.”

*

I returned to my room to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer until Lights Out. I’d borrowed it from the Cherry building library. I was a big reader. No one could touch me. I was finishing 2-3 books a week not counting school work. I was a nerd. I loved libraries, bookstores, and the smell of book pages. I couldn’t stop sniffing the pages of library and school books. I did not discriminate. I was an equal opportunity book sniffer, a book freak!

Cherry was the locked long term adolescent ward. Ashby, where I lived, was the unlocked long term adolescent ward across the street. Hospital school was on the first floor of Cherry. We’d all spent time in Cherry and Williams, the processing and locked short term adolescent ward between us and central campus. Ashby housed kids who could be trusted, but Mr. Jones and Ms. Mann didn’t trust me, a contagious, unhygienic pervert. I hated myself. Hygiene—a word used against patients. It didn’t matter if you brushed your teeth, showered, cleaned your nails, and wore deodorant—a bad nurse or tech would accuse you, the mental patient, of poor hygiene.

One Saturday, we were lounging around the ward. No school, therapy groups, or organized rec. A typical Saturday in the loony bin. I forgot to bring fresh clothes into the shower room and didn’t realize it until suds ran down my body. I finished, dried off, and dressed in the sweatpants and Nirvana t-shirt I’d slept in the night before. I would change immediately in my room. Boy, you would’ve thought I’d disgraced the human race. Ms. Mann, working second shift for Ms. Pickett, rode my ass hard. She was sitting at the desk outside the nurses’ station when she saw me exit the shower room in my offensive attire. She lectured me on proper hygiene like I should be chained up in a basement or attic.

“You need another shower,” she said.

I ran to my room and grabbed my fresh clothes, then headed back to the desk with my head down.

“Let’s see,” she said.

She studied my tan cargo shorts, boxers, plain white t-shirt, and eyed my shower flops.

“Okay, you’ve passed inspection. Get in the shower.”

Inspection. I prayed in the shower. I prayed for myself and every current and former Dix patient who’d been shamed and humiliated since 1856. Many of the staff were good but the bad apples ruined it for everyone else. Psychological abuse could be worse than physical abuse. I’d rather be slammed against a quiet room wall than deemed trash. The water was getting cold. I hurried and rinsed my body for the second time in ten minutes. I thought of slicing my wrists again, my blood circling the drain, Ms. Mann crying, begging my father and grandmother for forgiveness. But it was a fantasy. I’d submitted to the hospital. I wanted to be discharged. I’d come too far—Ashby was the last stop. I followed Ms. Mann’s orders that day. I’d left the shower room clean for a mental patient. Now, David knocked on my door. I put Tom Sawyer on the windowsill and sat up in bed.

“Sorry about earlier,” he said.

“It’s cool.”

“Um, I’m out of quarters.”

David tore through his allowance trying to call his father. We told him to only let it ring a few times, but he never listened.

“I have a quarter,” I said.

I hopped out of bed and went to my desk. I kept my tiny yellow allowance envelope in the drawer. We used our money for phone calls and store trips to Food Lion and Kerr Drugs, sometimes Taco Bell and McDonalds, while David blew his on trying to call his deadbeat father. I had seven dollars in ones and a quarter. A nurse or tech could break a one for me to call my father or grandmother. They always picked up.

“Here,” I said.

“Awesome.”

“No problem.”

“This will be the one,” he said.

“Right.”

“I have a feeling,” he said.

“Sure.”

I sat at my desk and pretended to draw. The quarter dropped. I imagined calling my mother who didn’t know I was in Dix. Would she pick up? Would she disown her dirty, bipolar son in a state mental hospital? Would she side with Ms. Mann and Mr. Jones? I’d realized my status in the world a few weeks after my commitment, around the holidays. We sat in folding metal chairs in Haywood, people of all ages, watching a charity troupe perform a Christmas Carol on the gym’s stage. Michael Hayes stood to the side in shackles with two burly techs. I couldn’t stop staring at him. Finally, he stared back. A knife stabbed my chest. My face burned. He laughed. I was nothing.

“Dad,” David said.

“Are you there?”

“Dad.”

“Please.”

David hung up and stared at the yellow wall for ten minutes. Then, Mr. Jones walked the hall and spoke through cupped hands.

“Lights Out,” he said.

David wouldn’t move.

“David,” Mr. Jones said.

“What?”

“Lights Out.”

David stood up.

“I’m not playing,” Mr. Jones said. “Move.”

“You’re not my father.”

“Move.”

David went to his room.

“Lights Out.”

David slammed his door.

“Lights Out, Mike.”

I would cut my lights, but only after I tore a page from my calendar and hoped for a better day.

*

Michael Fischer’s writing has appeared in Phoebe, Natural Bridge, Beloit Fiction Journal, Green Mountains Review, The Rumpus, and Wigleaf, among others. In addition to a story collection, he’s working on an essay collection about his lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder and adolescent commitment to Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh, NC.

What motivates him to create?
To die better. As the great Walter Payton said, “Never die easy. Why run out of bounds and die easy? It’s okay to lose, to die, but don’t die without trying.” Everything I write is an attempt to confront mortality. Most writing doesn’t stand the test of time, but who cares if you show up to the desk?

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