This is how my mother tells it. Jesse Owens taught her to run. I am thirteen. I have just come back from track practice. I have no skill at anything athletic. But junior high for me has been a series of attempts to assimilate. That year in the yearbook, there isn’t a club I’m not in—Chess Club, Stamp Collecting, French Club, Honors Society—and because track is the only sport you do not have to try out for, they’ll take anyone, I sit in the front row of the photo, a dark spot in the expanse of white faces.
On Nantucket, eighty-year-old Connie Congdon and I sat in her dim living room looking at the 120-year-old plaster dildo that a mason had found in her chimney. It now rested in a pink dress box on her lap. At my feet, three sweet-faced Australian shepherd dogs snapped at houseflies. A catbird sang in the street. Her house is an old colonial buried deep in a nest of lanes in the historic downtown.
Connie said she usually kept the box in the pantry, near the urn of her daughter’s cat, Spanky. In the box were the other antiques the mason had found with the dildo: six charred envelopes from the 1890s addressed to Captain James B. Coffin; letters from the same James B. Coffin to Grover Cleveland and Assistant Secretary of State Edwin Dehl; a dirty and frayed shirt collar; a pipe that still smelled of tobacco when I fit my nose in the bowl; and a green glass laudanum bottle. These items must have been hidden in the chimney by James’s wife, Martha “Mattie” Coffin, sometime between when the letters were dated and when she died in 1928. The fireplace was later sealed up, and a closet was built in front of it. With these valuables, Connie kept a CD recording of her late husband, Tom, being interviewed about the dildo for Nantucket Public Radio. “It’s the only recording I have of his voice,” she said.
Disney, the warship, captured the Star Wars universe, firing off in quick succession two movies: The Force Awakens, which continues the picking-over of the Skywalker family bones, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story—that is, a side quest between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, which I paid sixty dollars to see, including four sets of black plastic 3-D glasses. Rogue One is proper Star Wars canon because Disney says so: The once-untold story of how the Rebel Alliance—scrappy and in disarray as ever, a true coalition seized by occasional rancor, debate, disagreement, and speeches—steals the schematics of the original Death Star from the Galactic Empire—decidedly more economical in its internal organization than the Rebels, as there is no debate who is Emperor and who is Lord. The Empire’s grip on the galaxy tightens as its weapon of mass planetary destruction nears full operation. The hardscrabble Senate, relic of the felled Republic, appears too busy dissecting its own demise to perhaps take a lesson or two from the other side, who plotted sedition, executed revolution, then brutalized the defeated.
We are barreling north out of Salt Lake City, and David is talking about the clouds. “They don’t look like the clouds in the East,” he says. “They’re uniform, but fuzzy.” Out the window, the topaz sky shimmers over the mountains. The snowy peaks echo the color of the fuzzy western clouds, which stretch across the air like floating bedsheets.
I think we can agree that Donald Trump has been bad for literary fiction. Many people, myself included, have turned to non-fiction (not to mention gorging on news) to understand how the U.S. elected an authoritarian who orders bombings while eating chocolate cake, calls the army “my military,” lies compulsively, and spends half his time golfing. I, for one, am reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. And it doesn’t make me feel a bit better.
Julia PikeReading Gabriel García Márquez in the Age of Trump: The Autumn of the Patriarch
Outside the town of Price stretched hundreds of miles of dusty sagebrush ringed by near and far cliffs of dirt and rock. Yet in the little town proper, thanks to a primitive grid of irrigation canals—mud walls buttressed by ancient Model-T wrecks—there were grassy lawns and trees, like the glorious apricot tree under which my father, my mother, my sister, and I sat that late summer Sunday afternoon with the Russian couple whose names I can no longer recall.
He calls me and says, “I got a good North Country story for ya.” Then after the story he says, “I don’t know, man. I just feel like it would be cool to write something about the people up here. They’re such fuckin’ characters.” Or he’ll say, “If we could just write something about Mom and Dad, you know. I think our upbringing was super unique.” He has also talked about writing rants about people who don’t know the fucking speed limits around here, who hold him up on the two-lane highways that wind through our mountains. Or about making a website that would provide snarky news about the North Country, with headlines like Wilburs Still Fucking Inbred and Way to Fuck It Up, APA. We’ve been having one-way conversations about his writing projects for years. Sometimes he talks about working on them together, and sometimes he talks about doing it himself. I tend not to say much.
The paintings may be best known for what they are not. They were made on the heels of work now considered Matisse’s most groundbreaking, the paintings from the period between 1907 and 1917 when he engaged with the early perceptions of modernism. His trajectory through these years widened his ambitions and shows him becoming more cutthroat within them, first leaving behind the saturated exuberance of fauvism, then, by degrees, flattening color and form into strange and austere near-abstractions.
Julia PikeThe Radical Familiar: Matisse’s Early Nice Interiors
Out this month from Restless Books.
Decades of neglect and environmental degradation led to Miedzianka being declared uninhabitable, and the population was evacuated. At the center of the city, the church took the longest to disappear.
DoostiThe Church: an excerpt from History of a Disappearance