cambridge book review

And If It Be Mean

Norma Gay Prewett



Photo: Norma Gay Prewett

“Hey, I’ve become homeless! By choice!” Rosie sang into the phone, her words making exclamation points. “But I’ve found a sleeping bag, and it’s red plaid, the warmest color,” she said, as if in all caps. On the other end of the phone line her sister Lana would be curled on the brocade loveseat where Lana and their brother, Max, had chatted over coffee during the brief months he had lived with Lana before his death. Rosie was being insensitive, since Lana shared with Rosie her daily struggles to keep her home ever since Lana’s last temp job went South, literally, to Mexico. But sometimes they buoyed each other up this way. Both had survived scares with a half-dozen deadly diseases—not hypochondriacal, but screwy and rare and symptom-based—in the same number of months and they were always over the top, at least figuratively. They perked pretty hard and high, as they often noted.

“Doubleya tea ef,” said Rosie, pronouncing each initial as if writing it on Facebook. She heard Lana clink the side of her coffee pot against the sink, though it did not make a breaking sound.

“Fudge,” Lana muttered, then, “Hold on.”

She had put the phone down. Rosie was on speaker—hollering into a cave.

“Didn’t break,” said Rosie. “Focus. Back to me here.” As she spoke, she packed the red plaid sleeping bag as if she were traveling to Europe instead of two measly hours away. Two hours and a lifetime, she thought, dramatically. She stuck a few clothes—warm, durable things—into the interior and intended to make a giant roll, like the scroll of a snail, on her back. She liked the image, along with the one of herself holding a gnarled walking stick with a bear whistle purchased on one of her recent trips with Lana to Sweet Springs, Arkansas, not far from where they had grown up. They took occasional “tour des morts”—death trips to visit their relatives’ graves. As she heard her sister prepare her end of the coffee ritual, Rosie realized that she needed coffee too—her last vice. She had given up a loved habit each decade since she turned forty—on her birthdays—smoking, drinking; fatty foods all had fallen and she mourned them as the Japanese do their aborted fetuses. Had even erected little monuments in the pet cemetery in the garden. She wondered what the new owner of her house and land would think upon discovering them.

The dear old house had sold nearly too quickly—before she could have misgivings, before the divorce was quite final. And her self-inflicted homelessness wasn’t quite real either. She had decided to front the wilderness and see “if it proved to be mean”—as her college idol Henry David Thoreau, the sour old bachelor, had said about his sojourn at Walden. While she was married, Rosie and her husband Sven had purchased a few acres smack in the midst of the rural Wisconsin coulees. Because they had made the youthful mistake of committing to rentals real estate, which now “owned” them in town, they had proudly refused to improve the cabin much, as though its inconvenience made it holier. Lana was in the process of shedding the rentals too—going down the road of trying to lighten her psychic load, as she considered it. It was really Rosie who loved the cabin. To Sven, it had been lean-to shelter between trout-fishing trips. Their son scorned it, a town kid all the way, and now, at 23, he was launched. Rosie was becoming inessential to anybody but Lana.

“Halloo-o-o-o-o?” Lana called into the phone. “Did you fall in?” She had caught Rosie using the john while phoning—something so coarse neither of them could even bear it in movies.

“Here!” said Rosie. “Hey, do you remember when I used to pilgrimage to Walden every year?” Those had been fine days, usually in Spring when she was visiting some boyfriend or other in Boston. Rosie had always taken the train, or to be Thoreauvian, it always took her. The Lakeshore Limited was a lot more elegant in those days and the whole thing was romance on the half-shell to her heaving heart. Daffodils would be just blooming in the soft seacoast winds, whereas they were months away in Wisconsin, so she always purchased a bunch, along with sandwiches and hot chocolate, to take to her traditional lunch with Henry. His part of the conversation was a bit muted, there in Sleepy Hollow cemetery, but she propped herself on his grave, his simple “rising in the ground” limestone headstone, and chatted him up. Generally, there had been pilgrims there before her, leaving their own tokens of love, since all of the Alcotts and many other luminaries were housed in their tombs all around. It was a celebrity cemetery.

“Did I ever tell you I think Alec was conceived there?” Rosie asked suddenly. She knew her sister was listening and hoped she was smiling what she teasingly called her “pickerel” smile. “Did I?”

“I recall that he was a little underwhelmed about the honor,” said Lana. “Didn’t you take him back there when he was five or six? You hadn’t even taken the poor kid to Disney World but expected him to be thrilled by a big old deserted pond and a replica shack?”

Rosie glanced at her watch. “I gotta run,” she said as she mulled over whether she was offended or not. They pushed each other’s buttons and refused to get too riled about anything short of outright hostility. As adults, Lana trailing Rosie by two years, they had fought and fallen out only once or twice that Rosie could recall, and the searing pain of her sister’s rejection had sent her to her bed. It was worse than any of Rosie’s string of men leaving her emotionally bereft. Lana was nearly, besides Rosie’s son, the only person left above ground that Rosie loved unconditionally, as the therapists say. Their family choir was thinning. They were now orphans, for instance, their parents having died within a year of each other.

Pausing halfway down the curving oak staircase, Rosie paused to peer past a stained-glass piece she and Lana had made together and hung there. She wondered whether to pack and move it. The closing for the new owners was nearing. Rosie would miss this view, which was regularly lauded with sunlight or shot through or chiarascuroed by mist, snow, rain. Now, it was deep November, a month she had never had any use for before, but which now gave her solace. It seemed fitting that her former husband of twenty-five years had dumped her in the Fall, the time she formerly would have been filled with anticipation, stocking her plaid pencil boxes and thermoses for the coming year of teaching, until that was yanked from beneath her by his insistence on her early retirement. He had promised in sickness or in health, but Rosie had never been totally healthy and so maybe Sven figured they were even. That Girl, his Lewinsky, his Jennifer, had come to her in the form of a photo on his iPhone. He was a wannabe photographer, so at first, having ironically borrowed his phone to call their child, Rosie casually thumbed through his photos just out of boredom. One showed a girl, much younger than Rosie, encased in gauzy light, studying, on a train. Okay, she had thought, just a “grab shot” as Sven called his furtive pics. Then, before he could grab the phone back, realizing his mistake too slowly for Rosie’s stiletto-like eyes, another shot of the same girl in his rented bedroom in Chicago. Here, he had posed her in exactly an attitude that Rosie had been posed in years before when they were courting—hair tossing, eyes slanted and narrowed, mouth slightly open. It was as if his parallel life—and they had known it would be a potential threat when he had been economically exiled to a city more than a hundred miles from their home to spend all weekdays, and some weekends, working—also included a surrogate her. It was all such a cliché—the midlife crisis and the younger, fertile, chippy.

“Fiddle-de-fucking-dee,” she said in her Scarlett voice, “I’ll fucking think about that tomorrow.” Or maybe never, she thought. Would never be too soon? Until the tenth of never… She went downstairs thinking, “The new me should abandon ‘Fuck.’” She had mused aloud to Alec one day, who had barely known his grandparents on her side, that the worst she ever heard come flying from either parent’s mouth was “dadgummit,” or occasionally “that stinkin’ thing.” These were euphemisms, of course, with the same cadence as the words they replaced, but as Southern Baptists, they would no more swear than they would tango. In Rosie and Sven’s modern, smart, sophisticated home, they swore like sailors, though generally keeping it in its place—the hearth, the bar, the cars. It was a habit—like eating the whole bag of Oreos—and Rosie needed to be mindful and shed it as she had shed other mindless habits. Maybe mindfulness to language was going to be her seventh-decade shedding. At any rate, there would be fewer opportunities to offend anyone. She imagined herself a self-sufficient hermit out there on the land, a female coot.

Rosie swung open the hen-house door slowly, amazed anew that she and a few determined Back-to-Earthers had managed to convince the city to let her have backyard chickens. The new owners were going to pull the coop down, but had given Rosie time to relocate the chickens. The cabin was the perfect place. Pullet Surprise, her Buff Orpington hen, was wary of change. Even when Rosie left the coop door wide open, Pullie stepped one dinosaurus claw over the sill at a time, glancing nervously back to the warmth of the 200-watt bulb that kept her and her water from freezing. Her sister-wives had all been predatored by some wily critter that had breached their security, violated their castle, in the night. Had it happened now, Rosie thought, during her own newly acquired self-sufficiency, she could have done battle with her shootin’ iron. One of the first things she had bought was a shotgun in prep for her new isolation. It terrified her, but she was not going out there without protection. Several trail cameras had now recorded what had just been a tantalizing rumor before—cougars were making a comeback in Wisconsin. Their ghostly lithe and perfect killing-machine bodies showed opaque but hard to believe, their eyes gleaming like the Tyger, Tyger in the forests of the night. Her cabin land—now it would be all hers—would have been her choice had she been the big cat. It had several ramshackle, but still sheltering outbuildings whose doors stood ajar as often as they were closed, and an overabundance of mice and groundhogs and any other game, a smorgasbord for even a lazy cat.

“Come on, Chickiepoo,” she warbled to her tidy little pet. “There are lots of you where we are going. It will be like homecoming for you.” Rosie nudged the hen’s soft bottom with her hand, trying to convince Pullie that the extra-large cat carrier was cozy, not scary. Soon she would have to stuff her in like laundry in a hamper, but preferred persuasion. This particular chicken had been Rosie’s “familiar” in the marriage, her folly barely indulged by her fastidious husband. While the hen was laying, she was tolerable, but Sven’s mantra had been, “If she ain’t layin’, she ain’t stayin’.” Even before the most unoriginal sin, Rosie had mulled that motto. Though of course Sven didn’t talk like that, being an educated Scandinavian, not the hillbilly stock she herself came from. He was uncomfortable with displays and flash. Sven drank to let himself flirt with people a little, whereas Rosie was all sparkle and outrageous behavior. Once, they thought it completed them. Now they saw, belatedly, that opposites collide, not attract, and the iPhone photos had sent them careening out of orbit one last time. But he had been good with finances—taking risks Rosie could never have taken because she distrusted stuff in equal measure to lusting after it. Never had a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of as a child, and now Rosie was conscious of how quickly things could dissolve and go up the chimney, down the spout, any other cliché that was worn out but had once been so true that everyone adopted it.

So they had acquired stuff—houses, autos, even a couple of sailboats, so that their life, like Sven, was big and heavy. When Rosie had taken her teaching job in Wisconsin, she mused, she, even tinier than she was now at five feet, 110 pounds, felt terrifically weighted down by the contents of the purple VW Microbus in which all of her earthly belongings had been packed. Two years later, she co-owned several properties which became for a while like the restraining garment people use for autistic children who feel out of control—weight like the body of the big man she had married. It had worked for a long time. Babies like to be swaddled, and now, it turns out, dogs can be covered with “thunder-shirts” so they feel safe in storms. Rosie just needed to be light again.

She patted the side of the Pathfinder, the sturdy good old Leatherstocking car/truck with 200,000 on her, and made her promise to get up those Amish hills one more time. Rosie animated her world, naming the unnamed—briefcases, cars, writing pens. She imagined she could hear trees mutter as they grew if she lay her head against them. And one talks to one’s friends.

* * *

After having driven most of the 100 miles, she topped the final hill and liked all she surveyed, as usual. Below her, the clotted, dotted, spotted Wisconsin dairyland dozed or maybe had not yet unfrozen from a chilly, leaf-twirling morning. Blue chicory and milkweed pods were frosted and bowed and seemingly as arthritic as she felt. The streams, being spring-fed, ran clear, black, and cold all year. She would have to ford one of these—an Irish ford it was called when you drove through water—to get into her land. The county had refused to let them bridge it, so having previously stayed there alone, at the first splat of rain, she had scurried like a goat to her car and crossed to the safe side. Rosie recalled how Sven had just shaken his head. He had seen her reduced to jelly by storms, practically frothing and bluing with fear. Now, though, she intended to hire a project out—a chopping of stairs up the long steep rocky bluff that backed the cabin and affixing of cable, a handhold, so that when the frequent flash floods boiled the mild stream like rolling thunderheads, she always had a magician’s trapdoor up to the highlands.

Sven had known that what could rear itself dramatically could also fall precipitously—that within an hour the former bubbly cheerleader of a creek could be a tsunami, and then subside to its former peppy self. She knew it in her head too, but not in her bones, not in her stomach. The creek was as treacherous as a person—she now knew quite a lot about what can lie beneath.

Smiling, since out here she was always smiling, Rosie lifted gear from the rear of the Pathfinder—the chicken carrier, a too-big chainsaw, barn boots, gloves of the silly gardening style, some late bulbs she wanted to plant since the squirrels and moles sometimes took three of four, her shotgun, heavy pack, and a gallon of water. Utensils, mostly blackened cast iron and sturdy stuff, were already stocked at the cabin. As she prepared to horse her goods and provisions onto the high porch, the first flakes of snow tipped her face back. Where aspen leaves had been, and where the thirteen sky-tapping hemlocks still glowered, now began the shivering silver of sleetish snow. It made her think of Christmas, which momentarily made her feel desolate—since she was now without plans that before had been assumed—but she shook it off. She was at the Piney Woods. Rosie forbade herself to look back or down. She was going to be always, as the crazy man who announced moon and planetary phases on the television said, “looking up.”

An hour later, there was a solid inch of real snow. But, okay, she had coaxed a one-match fire out of the red Vermont Castings stove, a skill Sven had taught her. Why was everything prefaced on Sven? Well, she reasoned, twenty-five years wouldn’t just vanish. But she would have to break that link like a coyote chewing off its foot—nah, more like an escaped slave hoisting her shackles onto a tree stump and lofting the ax again and again. “Oh, for Pete’s sake,” she warned herself. Rosie didn’t mind talking aloud, even singing aloud to herself, but she didn’t really laugh aloud for some reason. She wondered if she would become her grandmother, a true Ozark hill woman who had muttered like a nervous hen all day and night.

Rosie cut first one log and then another down to fit the tinier maw than the former fireplace had had. The fireplace had been excellent in every way except the practical way. Floor to ceiling, five feet across, made of fieldstone, it was straight out of central casting for a rustic cabin. But it sucked heat from the one-room cabin like someone huffing helium from a balloon and when, after ravaging floods had violated the cabin two years in a row and they had determined it needed to be hoisted, the fireplace had been a casualty.

Rosie had cried and had noticed that Sven had turned his back and busied himself as the house-movers raised the spikes of the Bobcat to pull the fireplace down. The tiny wood stove was a trooper. With the help of a heating blanket, she was toasty in a few minutes.

Then, the noises began, bringing memories down the stove pipe and dancing lewdly before her as she perched in her Amish rocker. She was suddenly ambushed by times when Sven and she had sat there, his wrapping her and himself in blankets, chaffing her feet in his hands, touching her hair. Her hair was true silver now—to the other woman’s chestnut curls. Rosie did not know whether she herself was still cute or not. Pictures shocked her as she saw her mother as an older woman staring back at her with her sweet Irish blue eyes and pretty skin, but also potbelly and Frida Kahlo brow. This new woman … well … Rosie slammed the open stove door with more vigor than necessary and settled in.

* * *

The following morning, she was feeling smug for having survived the cabin by herself with all its wild noises at night. During the day, the most she had ever seen roaming were a couple of twin deer that haunted these grounds, but at night it was Wild Kingdom out there. It had been this kind of ordinary day when Rosie first spotted the bootprints. Curiously, as fear sometimes does, her first thought was of the fake Santa bootprints Sven and she used to trump-up to convince their tiny son Alec that Old Saint Nick had visited and somehow shinnied down another skinny stove-pipe, leaving his plain print in the ashes. But her second thought was more sober—there had been someone since snowfall right outside her door as she slept. Was it hunting season? Yes, that was it, but no smart hunter would come right up to the door of another person’s cabin. Too many trigger-happy greenhorns out here. Since coming onto the land meant crossing icy, fast water, not too many lost travelers ever bothered. There were cottages up and down the road—much easier pickings. And, had her first premise been right, the land was clearly posted as being off-limits to hunters. Well … maybe the prints were those of the handyman, checking up on her. Maybe Hank the handyman. Yes.

Rosie passed the next day in town, a perfect Wisconsin small town named Bud, a name as curt and straightforward as the town itself had once been. It had been discovered now, much to the chagrin of older finders like herself. Newcomers were “cute-ing” it. The things some of them fled in cities were now here—the “shoppes” where stores once stood; niche-y markets instead of hardware stores. There were fewer milking implements in Elmer’s True Value and more art quilts. Was she getting crotchety, she wondered. After all, everybody but the Chippewa were fairly recent immigrants, even the Amish, here. It was a matter of degree. But along with progress and convenience came price hikes. The town was getting to be what the handyman Hank sometimes called “mighty spendy.” The word had been punctuated by a splat of chewing tobacco recently since his wife had laid into him about smoking, so he had begun to chew. (Rosie thought of her Dad’s witticism: Many men smoke, but Fu Manchu. Her head was like a gumball machine. The thoughts just dropped down on her tongue and rolled out of her mouth willy-nilly.) Inevitably, a Walmart superstore had swum into town thrashing its gigantic nasty tail of straightened-out roads and cropped-off hills behind it. Newcomers hated it and old-timers loved it. Just the opposite of the progression that was happening everywhere else. But the store had this shade of blue she wanted for her new abode. It seemed like a small sin.

Once inside, though, Rosie became drowned again in the sheer excess. Her new skin, her new self-reliance, suddenly seemed stingy, though she knew the pretty comforters and things were all made in China, probably by kids who could be poisoned by dyes so that she, lucky, lucky she, could buy, buy, buy.

She set the gallon of paint down and quickly strode out of the store. The friendly Newcomer Co-op would be more her speed. She had brought her knitting. She knew the locals still eyed her curiously, though she had connected on some level with many and a few knew her name. Hank’s wife worked here, but Rosie was not sure whether the woman liked her. Nobody knew where she fit, neither pig nor fish, and neither did she. Rosie dressed like a lumberjack, but sometimes drove a Saab. She had dirt on her boots, but also an expensive haircut. Her knitting wasn’t pretentious. Long scarves of garter stitch were all she had attempted. But the yarn was expensive—always pure wool.

By the time she got back to the land, she felt singed if not entirely burned out. The days ahead stretched at once glorious and foreboding. She suddenly recalled a short story she used to teach in which a young wife learns that her husband is dead and then that the death had been misreported—all during the space of an hour. In the story, the young woman dies of “the joy that kills.” Like her, Rosie was “free, free, free” and the thought frankly terrified her.

On a whim, since the night was drawing in and she wasn’t quite ready to abandon herself to the cabin and her friends the mice—and because she remembered that she had not fed Pullet Surprise after she had installed her in the out-building closest to the house—Rosie pulled the truck into the lean-to, but then walked back to visit the creek, a habit like vespers for her. Around the edges, ice had begun to creep like cataracts over the good eye of the water. Some looked cracked, as if weight had been upon it. “Deer,” she thought reasonably. But she began to back her body toward the cabin. When she heard a sudden buzzing, there was no way to fit the sound into her surroundings. Swinging about, realizing she had no weapon, she instinctively brought her hands up. The incongruity of the cell phone swinging around blinking and buzzing made Rosie cock her head like a spaniel. “What the what?” she muttered, proud of avoiding “fuck.” Then, as soon as she bent to pick it up, it hit the bank and slid into the churning water. Waterloo water. Her gullet and heart traded places as she felt the “sick with fear” that one reads about. It was not right. No place for this here. Her phone service had never stretched this far and she knew that anybody who knew the place knew that too. Rosie could not bear to open her back to the darkness while she fished the phone out, nor could she stand to leave it in. She settled on a crabbing, sideways motion, wetting her arm to the elbow, but securing the now-deceased mechanical.

Her progress the five feet or so to the comfortingly warm, popping, car was that kind of creepy movie moving. She slammed the door and locked all four. It was a rough and ready truck, but had power windows. Her arm had started to ache from cold and the slight rise that she usually took in one quick spurt to clear the creek in four-wheel drive was made difficult by a standing start and two inches of snow. But there were no tire-tracks other than her own. Still, she pulled as close to her makeshift coop as she could fit the car inside the shed and slipped out, leaving the comforting motor running with the headlights aimed. Stumbling, she discovered Pullet Surprise—dead at her feet. The hastily rigged warming light still shone like a benediction overhead and there was little blood. Rosie nudged her with her boot heel, starting to cry. A fox, a weasel, a dragon—she wasn’t farmer enough to know—had surgically taken Pullie’s head. She had heard that chimps when they fight frequently tear off the face as the thing that controls. And headhunters of course take that thing in which resides our power. Stupid thoughts and what if the thing still lurked here? She raised her foot to the high floorboards of the Pathfinder, grateful as she had ever been for normal technology, but not before she saw a single, still-slightly-smoking cigarette butt in the snow. Rosie tore sod driving to the house. She switched on the porch light and hurtled into the cabin, finding the key faster than ever before. Once, she had locked herself out by misplacing a key, so now always stationed one near the door—where any fool could find it.

With one sick thud, all four doors and the trunk locked from the jarring. The Pathfinder was still running with the car keys now locked inside. It had long been a problem with that car. A simple jarring of any kind would trip the automatic locks. It had been annoying at home, but at home, they had kept a second set of keys.

Rosie tantrumed. She screamed all the words she had resolved to cleanse from her new vocabulary. Crazily, she felt like hollering to the Universe, “You want another piece of me?” But she didn’t do that, needing to comfort herself as a newborn must learn to settle him- or herself down. Self-pity was a real spike-studded tiger pit for her. Passages from Hemingway, maudlin passages, not even his best, suggested themselves to her. “It kills us all. But if you are strong and brave it will kill you too, but be in no particular hurry about it.” Wasn’t even correct and she was none of those big things anyhow and this was her cabin and her land and three miles from town and she had a land-line, a life-line, after all. Oh em gee. Good grief. Except that she didn’t. Her neighbors were just across the road, but up a road so steep that she could barely navigate it in a car, by day, and could no more have trod up there now than she could fly over the moon, as her mother used to say. She had locked the gate and was sure they couldn’t know she was even there—so rarely did they visit—and then nearly never after the summer was over. They might see smoke from the fireplace, but like she and Sven, they were city people who had enough money to keep their cabin, but frequently traveled. The ugly white sixties wall-mount phone didn’t offer a dial-tone more than a second. Some bad movies really do come true. She remembered then. Before the fatal finding of the photos, Sven and Rosie had put the cabin phone on vacation mode.

Hands shaking, she found the Korbel far back in a corner of a cabinet where it’d been hidden from Alec and his pals, who were afraid of mice and would never grope back behind the traps. All of this could be explained, she explained to herself like a brain-injury patient. If her life were indeed a novel, it would all have a perfectly inevitable-seeming ending—once it was safely over and the blood pressure had returned to normal. The ice in the cube-making refrigerator—oh yes, they had some luxuries—let down suddenly and she felt a quick warm flash of urine break forth. Good God, how she wanted something as simple as a television, a radio, right then. Part of the idea had been to rid herself of what Faulkner called “the lifeless mechanicals” since Henry David, even if they had been invented, would have abjured them. What was it he said about clocks? She had brought the bible, Walden, with her. Maybe it was what she needed right now.

Did Thoreau drink? She thought not. He saw tobacco like the Native Americans, whom he respected, as a ritual, she believed. Well, I’m not him … he … or what the hell, she thought. Rosie had brought the squat, faceted Korbel bottle, a Christmas special bottling, with her and now tried to keep all sides of her body facing out as she made her Jack London fire. It leapt and she leapt. It bared its little oranged teeth at her, then sulked. “Stinker,” she said. Rosie threw the box of matches at the flame and it rose up and bit her. There were more matches. Weren’t there? The winking tinder had caught though and she fanned it quickly. Her toes and fingers ached. She felt in her pocket for another glove and found the doused cell phone.

A drink of liquid-fire brandy and she set the bottle down. This was a clean, if not particularly well-lighted place. Another indulgence was electricity, she supposed, and Rosie thanked herself that she had prevailed when Sven had wanted to put that utility on vacation mode too. She fumbled in the mouse-turdy drawer—show her the woman who can completely eradicate those little s.o.b.’s—for the hair-dryer. It was absurd to think that one can save a soused phone at all, much less after all this—how much she wasn’t sure, but a long—time. But it was a good, solid practical thing she could do to settle, settle, settle her twirling brain. She slipped the memory card out and dried that first. The phone was a cheaper model that probably—obviously—did the one thing phones are supposed to do much better than the Cadillac of phones she owned. The ones with apps to read her temperature, mix her drinks, hoe her garden, but which rarely performed the one task it was meant to do—make phone calls without dropping them.

Carefully, Rosie slipped the case apart and began gently driving the water droplets out. “Wait for it,” she murmured and realized her own voice comforted her somewhat—like the soft murmuring of her hen—oh, her hen. Well that, that was just Nature. Nature smoked cigarettes. She had crazy thoughts about DNA and actually entertained the momentary lunatic notion that she should go out there and grab that butt before the cold froze the saliva and rendered it … what? She had no idea, never listening in science class once things got hard. Inside the second tumble-down shed, the Pathfinder ceased running—out of gas. She missed the comforting, domestic, familiar sound terribly.

Her perfect plan, her sunny day plan, and oh how Henry David loved the sun as a symbol, had been to come here (“go there” at that time) and “front Nature.” Now, it appeared to have fronted her, but Korbel was giving her liquid courage and fire enough to front it back. Rosie put the cell phone back together as a clockmaker might. The only place a cell phone had ever worked on the land was out at the pole shed, while one touched metal like some crazed Ben Franklin. She pulled apart her crazy lace curtains. Now that the cabin was four feet off the ground and the windows another two feet up, it would be a bad tall dude indeed who could peer inside flat-footed, but the curtains gave her a good feeling. Nature might be red in tooth and claw, as she had just rediscovered, but she could at least put a nice blouse on her part of it. Man, she was getting slurry. That first little alcohol lift had blurred into slow motion bravura, the feeling at which she first had learned to stop and savor, then had unlearned it, then had quit after it had tipped her into situations she squirmed to recall, even fistfights.

She slipped into her parka—it had Nanook-like rabbit fur around the hood and cuffs—and grabbed the cop-grade flashlight, grasping the phone in her gloved other hand. It felt like safety—unless the intruder really were an animal. She looked at the shotgun, unloaded, and grasped it under her arm too.

The pole shed was always locked and stood one-hundred feet, she guessed, from the cabin. Congratulating herself on her drunken good memory, she felt for the keys before slamming shut the cabin door. She heard the wall phone plummet to the floor. Big deal, she thought. Useless mechanical.

It had snowed a little more since she had come home, but the night was blessed with a sun-like moon and the tall firs strangled the beams on the snow. It was pretty. Something small skated away from the light and she fought her instinct to slink back to the cabin. Rabbit, rabbit, Rosie thought. “The hare crept … something … through the frozen grass.” Whom would she call anyhow? Lana, of course. Or the owner of the phone? She reached the shed door and tugged it open. Smells, comforting smells of man-stuff—gasoline and oil and rope and such—greeted her and it felt almost like it did in the daytime. Then, she smelled another thing. It was cigarette smoke—recent cigarette smoke. It seemed insane to say so, but the final deal-breaker, more than the supposed infidelity with Sven, had been the damned cigarettes. The smell choked her now that she self-righteously did not smoke.

It is uncomfortable at least to feel the contradictions life is always strewing like candy-corn wrappers at a carnival and not want to say to this old crone Life, “Stop that. One feeling or the other, please.” Her Swiss Army knife, handy former husband who knew quality when he saw it with the broad and fatal exception of his new late middle-age squeeze, leapt to mind with concealed practical blade unsheathed. Had her heart been as weak as doctors for a while thought it might have been, this would have stretched its endurance to the limit. But Sven waited until she had stepped into the range of the motion light before coming out of the shadows. He stepped over to her, towering on purpose as she used to tease him, and with the trained hands of a former karate player, grabbed the shotgun barrel, which she had not the wit or quickness to train, and pointed it. Then, with his free arm, he swept her, not toward him, but aside.

Behind her, a cat, large as a St. Bernard, collapsed in the snow, Pullie’s little body in its jaws.

Nature is corny, but not perfect. Sven had arrived the night before, but knowing her fury, had not shown himself. He had camped, obviously, in the unheated shed, building a careful fire in a kettle grill they had kept there. The one window was slightly cracked to aerate the place and she took some quick satisfaction in knowing he had suffered in his work clothes—his junior executive suit covered only with a windbreaker. Now, when they should have climbed inside the warm Pathfinder, which he had discovered running and feared the first most obvious thing—her suicide—Rosie became furious instead. How could he risk her heart like that? What the hell and when and where? Sven waited her out as she sputtered terrified and furious accusations, shame-faced and barely breaking in—not defending himself.

Yes, he said, he had finally persuaded Lana to talk to him, but no, she had not ratted out any details. That, Sven said, he had put together by himself. He had tried to call, especially after he had dropped his loaner cell phone in the drive and somehow missed it when he went back to look. Sven had walked the three miles from and to town, cutting through the brush because, well, because Lana had let him know that his ex-wife was armed, actually. He had taught Rosie to shoot, but knew she was likely to panic. Sven had called the cell phone from the neighbors’ house. Then, well they both knew the rest. Except for the cougar, which was a bit of Disney thrown in by heavy-handed symbolist Nature, the rest was sort of pathetically typical. Husband leaves wife for newer model; newer model realizes husband is old guy after all; leaves husband. Husband has now lost everything—wife, house, respect for self. Starts up old bad habits again, but can’t quit the one that has become like inhale to exhale—the need to protect.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” said old Hank Thoreau. Rosie guessed she had too, but whereas Thoreau, like Sven, who went into the emotional wilderness somewhat outgunned, returned after proving himself for little more than a year, she surprised herself. Rosie had discovered that life could indeed be mean, but once you have boarded that train of doing without, it is hard to jump off. It seems that a woman, too, is made wealthy by what she can afford to do without.


Norma Gay Prewett taught English for 34 years and recently became RETINO (retired in name only) from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She is now free to do any dang thing she wants anytime she wants, but will probably continue to write, bike, quilt, keep her coop, and meditate at her retreat, Piney Wood Mews. She also co-produces Mindseye Radio, which airs first Fridays at 11 PM on WORT-FM or

June 20, 2013 Posted by | fiction, short story | , , , , | Leave a comment

cbr 18 / summer 2011


cbr 18 / summer 2011

Eleven Poems: An Audio Chapbook
Elli Hazit

J.D. Salinger: A Life
Kenneth Slawenski
Reviewed by Norma Gay Prewett

Birds of Wisconsin
B.J. Best
Reviewed by Amy Lou Jenkins

Lord of Misrule
Jaimy Gordon
Reviewed by Bob Wake

The Masturbator
A short story by John Lehman

A short story by Ruben Varda

From the Archives
Origins of FIS (Factory in a Suitcase)
An excerpt from Redshift: Greenstreem
Rod Clark


June 1, 2012 Posted by | biography, fiction, poetry | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

cbr 17 / spring 2010


cbr 17 / spring 2010

Cottonbound: An Audio Chapbook
Norma Gay Prewett

Reclamation: Memories of a New Orleans Girlhood
Eva Augustin Rumpf
An excerpt

From the Archives
Omens of Millennium
Harold Bloom
Reviewed by Bob Wake


March 18, 2012 Posted by | memoir, poetry, spirituality | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

J.D. Salinger: A Life

By Kenneth Slawenski
Random House 2011 

Reviewed by Norma Gay Prewett


The Spiritual Hermitage of Pure Art [cont’d from part one]

Kenneth Slawenski is generally overly-slavish in his devotion to Salinger’s memory (this is not an authorized biography) as I think one should be when writing autobiography perhaps. A large exception occurs when he discusses Salinger’s longest-term marriage, to Claire Douglas.  Slawenski writes, “During the Spring of 1962, [Salinger and family] received an invitation from President Kennedy to attend a White House dinner honoring popular authors.” He had previously declined an invitation to another official function, but he adored Kennedy and was nearly persuaded to attend. When he balked, Jackie herself called him on the phone, a call Claire fielded.

Slawenski summarizes this reluctance as a sign of Salinger’s not being able to endure an occasion that “would have been ‘phony.’ ” I find this rather sophomoric on the part of the biographer, committing as he does the lamentable unsophisticated error of mistaking person and persona. Holden Caulfield is not Salinger, after all. Slawenski’s analysis of the Kennedy incident seems more emotionally in tune when he notes that “Claire and Peggy” probably never forgave him for denying them the experience of Camelot.

“By the mid-1980s, Salinger had been silent for twenty years,” he notes. “Though he had decided against publishing his own work, he was unable to stop others from writing about him.” Among these were James E. Miller (incidentally a former professor of mine), Frederick Gwynn, and Harold Bloom. British writer Ian Hamilton attempted his own version as late as 1987 and was rebuffed and taken to court.

Joyce Maynard in 1999 offered fourteen letters for auction, they were purchased for $200,000 by Peter Norton, who offered them back to Salinger. When Salinger died on January 27, 2010, at age 91, even those who had been embroiled in lawsuits with him appeared to eulogize.  A fact which appears to please the over-protective Slawenski is that dozens, perhaps hundreds of admirers started posting YouTube readings of his work, seemingly “not caring how [they] looked in front of the camera.”

Salinger’s death also occasioned a lamentable resurgence of what his biographer calls “Salinger-mania,” including stories about his existing “on frozen peas” and being “habitually infatuated with teenage girls.”  Yet Slawenski alludes earlier to the same lack of solid judgment in his remark that Salinger had “seldom chosen [women] wisely … [and] continued to make poor decisions.” It is in this context that his relationship with Joyce Maynard, which takes up page after page of Joyce Maynard’s memoir, gets its one notice here: “one of those choices would rise to haunt him.” Snarkily, Slawenski sums up Maynard’s year of living with Salinger as her having decided that she had been “cast away … by a man who used her callously.”

Yet, though I admit a little bias in favor of Maynard from having read her other writings, I think there are more reasons than one to not dismiss this quirk on Salinger’s part quite so quickly. Humbert Humbert’s adoration of Lolita has been roundly approved, though it always made me squirm. Lewis Carroll probably had physically chaste, but imaginary lustful ideas about Alice. Many great, but insecure, men habitually choose partners whom they can more easily impress, manipulate, etc.  His first wife of three, Claire, was fifteen years younger than he.

It is also a fact that Salinger’s next and last marriage (he was married a total of three times) was also to a woman, who, though no teenager, was forty years younger. (Maynard had been thirty-five years younger; Oona O’Neill, daughter of the famed playwright, was six years younger and only 16 when Salinger fell for and unsuccessfully pursued her. She is sometimes thought to be the prototype of Catcher’s Sally Hayes.) Holden is not he, but Holden’s descriptions of young girls and Buddy Glass’s nearly weird descriptions of his own mother’s legs and lower body (in Seymour), as well as Sergeant X’s attraction to the pretty young Esmé in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” are not unmixed with sexual attraction.

But enough gossip. One still cannot deny that Slawenski has unearthed some previously little-known facts. One important one, on which he spends considerable time in the book, is Salinger’s genuinely (though rarely self-proclaimed) authentic heroism. Not only did the author land at Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, a moment his biographer calls “a turning point” in Salinger’s life, but he also helped liberate Dachau, though Slawenski notes that “like so many who encountered such scenes … Salinger has never spoken directly of his experiences and we can never be sure exactly what his intelligence duties demanded.”  These two iconic events alone would have established his street cred. But he also apparently served well and nobly as an everyday soldier—and suffered what we would call PTSD today. Meanwhile, he wrote and sent off story after story, trying sometimes in vain to break into the “slicks” and the literaries.

While I claim no special expertise in Salinger-enalia, and while Slawenski has certainly been diligent in his documentation of his subject’s life, the tentative tone of the book at times puts me off.  One critic, the writer Jay McInerney in the New York Times Book Review, finds the biography lacking in one key element:  “If you really want to hear about it, what’s missing—and this is not necessarily Slawenski’s fault—is Salinger’s voice. I was tempted to say his inimitable voice, but of course it’s been imitated more often than that of any American writer, except possibly Salinger’s pal Hemingway, infiltrating the language of our literature and refertilizing the American vernacular from which it sprang.” 

McInerney does make the biographer’s excuses for him, however:                  

Slawenski is handicapped in part by the legacy of Ian Hamilton, author of In Search of J. D. Salinger (1988). As Slawenski recounts, after being stonewalled by Salinger and his small, tight circle of friends, Hamilton tracked down a great deal of unpublished correspondence and quoted extensively from Salinger’s letters and books. When a galley of the book reached Salinger, he called in the lawyers and demanded that Random House remove quotations of unpublished letters from the text. The initial district court ruling in favor of Random House and Hamilton was overturned on appeal—with major repercussions for American copyright law and with the  immediate result that Hamilton was forced to paraphrase the letters he’d relied so heavily on. Slawenski is muzzled by that 1987 ruling  and  also by his fastidious interpretation of fair-use copyright law in  regard to quoting from the fiction, limiting himself pretty much to short phrases. The bulk of the book was written when the litigious Salinger was still alive, but I can’t help wondering if his heirs might have proved a little more relaxed about quotation.

I titled this review “The Spiritual Hermitage of Pure Art,” though I was tempted to use a play on what I think is one of the all-time wonderful titles, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” (even though an acquaintance of Salinger’s, A.E. Hotchner, may have claimed that he invented the bulk of the title, according to Slawenski). Salinger was fascinated by titles and one of the best at inventing them, from “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” to “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period.”

But I held my explanation for the title of this review for the end because I think its origin is best explained by a vision Salinger had of himself in the world which is mirrored in Salinger’s own epitaph, read by his son Matthew at a memorial service in which he said his father was “in this world, but not of it.”

Clothed in metaphor, it becomes another vision Salinger had of being an observer in a ballroom where “the music was becoming dimmer and dimmer and the dancers appeared farther and farther away.” As Slawenski aptly and poetically notes, Jerome David Salinger was “confounded … torn between the social world around him and the spiritual hermitage of pure art.”

[< Back to part one]


Norma Gay Prewett taught English for 34 years and recently became RETINO (retired in name only) from University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (as Gay Davidson-Zielske). She is now free to do any dang thing she wants anytime she wants, but will probably continue to write, bike, quilt, keep her coop, and meditate at her retreat, Piney Wood Mews.  She also co-produces Mindseye Radio which airs first Fridays at 11 PM on WORT-FM or

June 15, 2011 Posted by | biography, non-fiction | , , , | Leave a comment

J.D. Salinger: A Life

By Kenneth Slawenski
Random House 2011 

Reviewed by Norma Gay Prewett  


The Spiritual Hermitage of Pure Art

It is fitting and proper that I should end my thirty-year career as an English teacher writing about J.D. Salinger. In 1965, a timid country girl sat in the second row of Mrs. Rosalie Stotmeister’s English class in a small-town high school falling in love—with Holden Caulfield, with learning, with a teacher who would be the first to take me in hand, direct my meandering teen-aged mind to loftier pursuits than whose class ring I should accept, and show me what courage and commitment to teaching looks like.

A giant of a woman in a blue-plaid Pendleton jacket and stern shoes, she spotted me despite my cowering. When she couldn’t hear my whispered answers in response to her questions in class, she demanded I come in early to school (which meant she had to come in early too, I later understood) and be given “voice development classes,” which meant calling out things from the third-floor landing of the high school loudly enough that Mrs. Stotmeister (“Stotsy” to both admirers and detractors) could hear and repeat my words.

Today, this direct instruction might qualify as bullying, but even then, I think I knew that she was teaching me to stand up for my ideas, be bold, and giving me confidence that I had never earned on my own. When she introduced the class to The Catcher in the Rye, that slim little red book with the gold lettering that had already been derided at colleges as being profane and dangerous to youthful minds, I grabbed it eagerly.

My mistake was trying to read it at the supper table, stashed on my lap. Though meals in my family were not really decorous affairs, my mother had apparently had a bad enough day not to put up with being disrespected one more way. She snatched the book, which happened to fall open to one of the four times Salinger uses “Fuck” in the book—the notorious mummy graffiti incident where someone has scrawled the “F-word” on a sarcophagus (page 204 of the Bantam edition if you have to know).

Mother scowled. She made an appointment with this MRS. Stotmeister, an amazing act of courage which must have filled my mother, a shy but devout Baptist woman, with terror. It was clash of the Titans to my mind, but Catcher stayed in the curriculum, I continued to read it, and a few years later, by then a teaching assistant with my own class of scared college freshmen, I taught the dangerous book for the first time. By then, I had befriended another grad student who was so enamored of Salinger that he seemed to want to become either the author or a member of the author’s fictional Glass family. Like untold numbers of other young people, I began to think, talk, act like my version of the family that seemed infinitely wiser, wittier, more interesting than my own.

I became a “Salingerite,” as John Updike dubbed us in a slighting review of Franny and Zooey. Years intervened and I broadened my literary palate and began to read and teach widely enough that J. D. Salinger seemed just another comfortable friend of my youth. I think I taught Catcher one more time and found its ironic language, by then so much parodied and badly mimicked, a little passé. The final piece of the personal part of this review arrived just last week, while I was cleaning out my office for retirement from teaching. High on a dusty shelf, filled with my childish scrawled notes (such as “not literally” next to the words “it killed me”), was my original high school copy of Catcher.

Ten years ago, when the editor of Cambridge Book Review asked me to review Joyce Maynard’s At Home in the World, Maynard’s memoir of her years as Salinger’s lover, my curiosity had again been piqued. My observation in that review was: “Everything is fair game in this book and reading these gutsy confessions is enervating and energizing … Maynard confesses all, from her precocious longing for world-shine and all-encompassing ability to dissemble, to her breast implants, which gave her an instant 40-inch bust. She made me squirm with her descriptions of ‘Jerry’ Salinger’s sexual preferences …”

Now, having finished Kenneth Slawenski’s new biography, J.D. Salinger: A Life, the contrasts and yet ironic similarities between Maynard’s style of being in the world and Salinger’s abound. Among his last parting “shots” at Maynard when he dismissed her as his lover:  “The trouble with you, Joyce,” he (allegedly) says, “is you-love-the-world.” But, perhaps he doth protest too much?

One of the best parts of reading A Life was that it compelled me to seek out and reread much of Salinger’s other work. Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, larded as they are with internal, though not external autobiographical bits, reminded me of what a tender soul Salinger was. His love for the world, especially the innocent parts of the world, shine through. He also reminded the world in Carpenters, of R.H. Blyth’s famous and useful definition of sentimentality:  “giv[ing] to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it” (quoted in A Life). Slawenski nearly mirrors this definition when he asks, “If Seymour Glass loved the fullness of living … why did he end his own life—and why did Salinger, enjoying the liberation of writing freely and without regard to opinion, similarly end the life of his authorship?” 

Salinger essentially quit publishing (though not writing) for the last forty years of his life. He rebuffed many efforts to meet him, interview him, and endured trickery and treachery from people who should have known better to pry information out of him and his neighbors.  Apparently, he was well-loved enough by his neighbors in Cornish, New Hampshire to have earned their concerted effort to foil pilgrims and reporters.

When people inquired, they were sent on wild J.D. chases ending on dirt roads or at fictional addresses. His wife and children (two, a girl, Peggy, and a boy, Matthew) did not fare as well, since in his need to protect them, he seems to have endeavored to cloister them, according to Slawenski. In this one detail, Maynard’s reportage concurs. Intimacy with his real intimates was not his strong suit. Vacations to Europe and to New York were plentiful for a few years—then even these dried up.

| Continued  >> |


Norma Gay Prewett taught English for 34 years and recently became RETINO (retired in name only) from University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (as Gay Davidson-Zielske). She is now free to do any dang thing she wants anytime she wants, but will probably continue to write, bike, quilt, keep her coop, and meditate at her retreat, Piney Wood Mews.  She also co-produces Mindseye Radio, which airs first Fridays at 11 PM on WORT-FM or

June 15, 2011 Posted by | biography, non-fiction | , , , | Leave a comment


Norma Gay Prewett

This memoir is dedicated to not only Bonnie, my mother, but to many, mostly and always my sisters, in descending order, Pat, Jeanett, Sue, Donna, and Angie, and to our late brother Marx, the light of Mama’s days. And of course to Daddy, “Shorty” Prewett, without whom Mama would not have been my mom.

My mother wrote letters in pencil in an erratic scrawl on Big Chief tablets (I gave her stationary over the years, and she did me the favor of writing her poetry, late in her life, on these sheets). If Mama made a joke in her letters and thought us too dull to catch it, she drew in large letters the word HO, followed by three exclamation points and heavy black underlining. Today it might have been a smiley face or LOL, but her mark was HO! Today, my sisters and I, who also invented the phrase going all Bonnie on it to mean throwing oneself into Spring cleaning with a vengeance, crack each other up by signing off the same way. So, in remembrance of Ma, HO!!!

And thanks most of all for the gift of Bob Wake who called me up and nudged this work into being on a warm Spring day near April.

In love and laughter, Norma Gay.

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April 1, 2010 Posted by | memoir, poetry | , , | Leave a comment

Calling You Back

Norma Gay Prewett

for my son, Alex

You flop on the sled, luge-style
feet candy canes ahead, prone
as if you are home, lounging in your bed.
Instead of plummeting to a distant fate.

And I start to raise my hand,
to step into your path,
pull you up and call you to come back
as if you had slipped in the bath.

There’s already so much space between
five years old and six, such difference.
Your daddy shakes his head at me and gives
a bonus shove, to your delighted shout.

All I can see of you retreating
toward the sulfurous sunset
is your red left glove
and the Day-Glo pink of sled.
I knew you would be sliding from me soon
There were signs that the kernel, the meat
of you would crack that babyhood I loved
in a blizzard of sharp-boned shell.

Your shape is soon lost in the covey
of other people’s chicks scattered at the bottom
I hug myself and huddle with the other mothers
Each hoping, against reason, to call you back.

Later, as you crawl in with us, claiming illness,
I am shocked and comforted by
the still littleness of your body,
the lightness of your bones seem hollow
as those of birds.

The dark disguises and shrinks the boy
who seemed so solid on the sled.
I fall asleep breathing your essence
and blowing it back upon your purpling lids,
sealing our compact. I will let
you grow—if you will
always let me mother.

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April 1, 2010 Posted by | memoir, poetry | , , | 1 Comment

Wheel of Fortune

Norma Gay Prewett

Day I—Thursday, April 20

When 6:30 came
On that cruelly blue,
Spring-saturated day,
Mother roused enough
From her grey slumber
To watch Pat Sajak
And Vanna turn the wheel.

How “Wheel of Fortune,”
A medieval concept, fits.
In her version, there is no
Computerized touching
Of cards, but the slow,
Physical turning of Fate.
Laid up or laid down
With the bad back or
With birthing. Seven
Times seven her pain
And her joy kept turning up.

Seven times in childbed
And now we return, we
Seven, watching, hovering
Even, to deliver her.
Six identical-bellied
Daughters and one son
So like his dad we blink
And rub our eyes when
He walks in.
We watch
Her grow large again
In extremis, but with
Something else, this time,
Swelling her belly.

With fluids and the blip
And bleat of consciousness
Pumped in and out.
These contractions help
Her labor to get breath,
Not give it.

Look, her mouth opens
To nurse life from the oxygen
Bubble. Her kind, sleepy eyes,
Always the pretty hazel-bush blue,
Alight on first one birthday balloon
Of pastel face, then the other.
Perhaps our heads
Seem untethered to her, like wash
On the line that has lost a pin.
Perhaps she worries that she
Should gather us in before the storm.
We loom, perhaps, like the
Thunderheads themselves, we,
Our husbands and children.
It is just past Easter and we
Are colored eggs hidden in her room.

Day II—Friday, April 21

Her hands, square and serious,
Grasp for us—padding for milk
Of kindness the way we must have.
She feels the need to rise
And tries to say so—there
Are things to do, always early
In the morning and with all this
Company! She worries up and down—
Is the coffee pot cleaned and set on?
Further down and back, where are
The chickens? “Those raggedy
Clouds,” she’d say, “hold a lot
Of wind. There might be a twister
In them.”

I want to let her rise,
Pull her from this too-white
Bed that is not a bed—that

Needs chenille and real wood.
But we obediently tuck her hands
Beneath the sheets and so-called
Blanket. She needs quilts! Her
Mother’s quilts specifically.
We think she needs booties
Like the dozens she crocheted over
The years, enough for Afghanistan.

She works at it, would be biting
Her tongue in concentration like
Kids do if she were able, finally
Frees her leg from the strangling
Cover. Her leg, still shapely
And white, reminding me of
The stout shoes she favored.

I want to press any thing that
Has touched her to my body.
I want to be my eldest sister,
Her firstborn upon whose chest
She is finally allowed to rest.
Her fine silver head of hair
Stirring in the artificial breeze.

She does not seem lost,
But I ask her, like a schoolmarm,
If she has any questions—
And she says “no” to my relief—
What could I possibly know
That she does not now besides

Day III—Saturday, April 22

In the waiting room for the ICU
Suffering family sifts memories.
Jokes are tried, fail, fall to the
Cluttered floor.
We continue to make our human sounds.
And the crazy-quilt of jagged
Lines in the other room
Rides up (good fortune)
And flings itself down.

(The Wheel on which we are
All broken, swinging us
From the indignity of birth
To the dignity of passing.)

Day IV—Sunday, April 24

Like an awful circle of malicious
Intent, I felt, my fifty-something
Birthday I circled back to you
In bed again, finding your hand
In that way that babies follow their fists
I swung round the Earth of you,
Your moon, with your eyes, your
Smile, all the things I can’t see now.
My breathing took on your cadence
As I used to try to do when you let
Us all pile into bed with you
To protect us from thunderstorms—
I tried to match your slow inspiration,
Expiration, feeling I could will you
Back if I breathed with you.

A Ferris wheel at a strip mall
On the edge of town
Lets down a gondola seat
And two giddy teenagers
Fling themselves heedlessly,
Breathlessly, into the flickering
Night, their bodies prime—
It could be mother and father
Boots and Pancho, setting out.
Unaware that in sight from
The highest seat—
In the small, clean hospital
Someone’s mother is dying.
As the wheel spins again,
They might feel her spirit rising.

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April 1, 2010 Posted by | memoir, poetry | , , | Leave a comment


Norma Gay Prewett

With some of August
caught in batting,
the pilled lump of pallet
smells the way she did.

Tobacco, woodsmoke, slippery shale
Each layer a generation, another summer.
Hot, hootowl, heartripping cry,
and then the whippoorwill.

Cottonbound, snapping beans on porch-swings
cracking rocks out of pockets in the hills
to show me “pretties.”
Cottonbound, you glittered one night
across snowfields in Wisconsin
Snow and cotton bound me up with you.

Next day they called to say
you had passed while padding
a quilt, “jist as natchrul …”
“Fluid about the heart or gout,” they said,
But I felt you had not passed from that,
but from yearning to catch Old Time
on a line and sinker, draw him by a pincer,
match his eye.

You cached these crazy notions in the quilt.
Sunbonnet … flour sack … Sunday silk,
though your berry mind was not in it, but

Out uprooting hens and finding speckled eggs,
fretting barefoot where the milksnakes
crawl as thick as mud and big around as your ankle.

About if the booger man was real, then
what—and if Jesus hung that long, or if
tickfever would bring you down this year.

You “probly” knew, six hundred miles away,
I grew to you like a snail to its shell, or a
chameleon lizard to your well bucket, or
bachelor buttons to the clay.
You most likely knew my fear.

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April 1, 2010 Posted by | memoir, poetry | , , | 1 Comment

Bill of Lading

Norma Gay Pewett

A chewed-looking Styrofoam snowman head,
++++++Black felt pipe, googly stuffed-animal eyes
++++++(also the bag of eyes, I discover later)
A sweater that smells disagreeable unless it is your mom’s
++++++An ocher clipping with a penned-in arrow
++++++To my head— “My Daughter” as if I don’t
++++++Recall sitting in turpentine at Methodist art camp
Some recipes she never used, but carefully copied longhand
++++++Swedish meatballs, ham loaf, Hanukkah cookies
++++++Did she know we were not Jewish? Did she know
The people in the multi-picture frame, never filled with us,
++++++So beautiful and fresh, having action-packed fun?
++++++She never saw the sea, but pictures of the sea—
++++++Did she long for the thrum of waves on pebble?
Some hanks of yarn, maybe free, from the spinners where
++++++Her working life began at fifty, where she nearly
++++++Fell in love with her foreman, but for her bad heart
Her bad heart, to my brother, who died with it in his chest.
++++++Her Ozark drawl, her temper, her madwalk to my sis-
++++++ter; her terror of twisters to all, her scrawl she left
++++++backwards, to her ma. After all, most say I got
Her hazel eyes, her love of fun, her Irish hair, and the low
++++++Thyroid that left her brows and mine scant
++++++She left her death-day as my birthday, to me, alone.

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April 1, 2010 Posted by | memoir, poetry | , , | 1 Comment