Issue 14: With Earnest Jest

Weighty truths can come from humor; knowledge from fools; and that very act of play is an act of wisdom. In this issue, we pause and look closer, asking questions like, “What if I were a Lodgepole pine?” and consider the architecture of humor, the weight of a heavy anti-superhero.

All of these contributors, and indeed, our own human experiences, invite us to engage in jest—in writing a poem, in dreaming up a character, or practicing laughter. If we accept this invitation, we are granted a perspective that is humble with its childlike openness and can reveal the colors, bumps, and contours of the life that He gives us.

FEATURING Nels Hanson, Amber Folland, Jennifer Merri Parker, Luci Shaw, David Feela, Scott Kolbo

  • Montana Freefall

    “Who’s the Night Slayer?” Glad asked. “Who’d do that and why?”

    “I don’t know, Bob.”

    I watched the sudden underside of the turning leaves, like moonlit ripples in water as the car brushed the outflung branches.

    “I don’t think Blair knows,” I said. “That why he’s worried.”

    “Now we’ve got the Air Force and the Feds, the Freemen crazies and the Cattle-men’s Association. Not to mention Frankie Two Shoes and his saucer.”

    “He’d had a few,” I said, remembering the jail.

    “I need a few,” Bob said.

    “We’ll have to work on it,” I said. “Before supper.”

    “Look,” Glad said, “we’ve got company,” as we came down the aisle of white-trunked aspen along the sunset river.

    In front of Jack Blair’s father-in-law’s brown hunting lodge a blue low-slung Saab was parked.

    The driver’s door opened as Glad pulled the unmarked sheriff’s prowler to a stop.

    A tall stylish woman with long auburn hair, wearing white pants and a black sheer blouse, stepped from the car the color of pale water.

    Like a sky by Rubens or van Ruysdael or another Flemish master, a voice said at my ear.

    “Who’s she?” Glad watched her over the steering wheel.

    Careful, Phil, said the voice.

    The woman waited naturally, as if the cabin of square-cut logs was hers and she had painted the red door and window frames. Her eyes took me in, and I knew who she was.

    “It’s Blair’s sister-in-law.”

    I got out of the car and she moved forward, putting out a slender hand.

    “Hello,” she said. “I’m Beulah Ransom.”

    I hope you’re not the one who’ll have to pay, the voice said—it was Ellen’s.

    “I thought you might be,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”

    She had a warm, husky voice, a pretty mouth that fell into a slightly hurt line when she smiled. Her brown eyes looked deeply into mine.

    “This is my partner, Bob Glad,” I said, to break her gaze.

    “Hi,” Glad said. “We’ve heard a lot about you. From the sheriff and Ray Bell. And Viv Stone, the actress.”

    “Halfway good, I hope.” She turned to me, smiling with white, even teeth.

    She already knows you, Ellen said. She thinks she does.

    “I hope Jack hasn’t laid it on too thick,” I said. “His judgment may be a bit skewed, with all that’s going on.”

    “Betty’s the one,” Beulah said. “My sister. She said you and I should meet.” Beulah’s long hair blew across her face in the breeze that stirred the pine needles above the cabin’s mossy roof. Her body was slim, still.

    Is she the one you want?

    “Is that what brings you out here?” It was the logical thing to ask, but somehow unkind, like taking the upper hand.

    But then you rarely have the upper hand, do you?

    “I’m tutoring a Blackfoot Indian boy,” Beulah said quickly, looking over my shoulder. “Twice a week. In the afternoons, after school. I thought I’d stop by—”

    It’s not true, Ellen said. That’s not the reason.

    “Come inside and have a cold drink,” I said.

    “Sure,” Glad said. “Why don’t you stay to supper?”

    “I really can’t stay long,” Beulah said.

    “You don’t want to eat alone, do you?” Glad said.

    Beulah looked at him and smiled.

    “No,” she said. “I don’t want to eat alone.”

    “Then come on in. I’ll make us some hamburgers.”

    “All right,” Beulah said. “Thank you.”

    “Good.” Glad stepped around the car. “Let’s get this show on the road.” He winked at me as he moved toward the door.

    I find her charming, Ellen said.

    “Is this all right?” Beulah said to me.

    “Are you uncomfortable?”

    “Not really.” Again her mouth assumed the wistful, slightly crooked smile. “No.”

    “Good.” For once I felt perfectly calm.

    Suddenly, for the first time, Ellen had given her blessing and disappeared, with the light wind through the pines.

    We had been moving slowly toward the door. Beulah hesitated at the cabin’s threshold. She turned, putting out a hand and touching my arm, then pressed her palm lightly on my shirt pocket, as if to feel my heart.

    “I heard you were wonderful, that I’d be a fool not to find out.”

    “Find out what?”

    “Leave me one pseudo-secret,” Beulah said. “I’m pretty exposed.”

    “We all are,” I said.

    “Some more than others,” Beulah answered. “I hear you read.”

    “Read?”

    “You know,” she said. “Books?”

    “They help me sleep.”

    “Depends what you read.”

    “It’s what I see that scares me.” I remembered Blair’s photos of the Night Slayer’s work. “These daysMacbeth and Othello are rated G.”

    “The classics make me sad,” Beulah said, letting her hand slide from my shirtfront. “Who’s your favorite writer?”

    Under her uncertain manner there was the ghost of real fear. Good smart people were afraid; there was something they had to do before time ran out. Like Ellen. It made them restless.

    “Weldon Kees.”

    She looked up, surprised.

    “He was a favorite of my wife’s.”

    “I like him,” she said simply.

    “He didn’t make it.”

    “I know. The Golden Gate.”

    She turned and stepped into the cabin as I followed, leaving the red door ajar.

    “A man’s place,” Beulah said.

    She was like Ellen, and she wasn’t.

    “I thought the same thing,” I said.

    She looked at the stuffed trophies on the wall.

    “You’ve been shot at?” Beulah asked, turning.

    “Once or twice.”

    “But they missed?”

    “All but once.”

    “Serious?”

    “Only for a while.”

    “I’m sorry,” Beulah said.

    “Please sit down.”

    We each took a leather chair in front of the fireplace.

    “Beer or bourbon?” Glad called from the kitchen, a cupboard slamming shut. “Or Scotch?”

    “What would you like?” I asked.

    “Scotch,” she said. “With soda.”

    “Two Scotches,” I called. “With soda.”

    She sat back in her chair.

    “What do you teach?” I asked.

    “Senior English.” She smiled. “All the classics.”

    “You like it?”

    “Teaching? Sometimes—” She crossed her long legs. “Sometimes not.”

    “I know the feeling,” I said.

    “You know a great deal,” Beulah said, looking at me closely.

    “Where’d you hear that?”

    “From people who know.”

    “I don’t know much.”

    “You know some things. The detective’s eye.”

    “For instance?”

    She shrugged. “Things about me.”

    “Like what?”

    “That I’m fairly smart—no, more than fairly—but I’m truly modest and wouldn’t say or truly think so. I care about the kids I teach. I’m not sorry I don’t have children. I don’t like most men, I find them deadly boring, but I’m also terribly afraid I can’t share what I have. I have something to give and nothing to lose—”

    “And you’re thirsty?” I said to stem the tide.

    “And without even knowing or meeting you, I’m—”

    “I’m like a character in a book,” I said. “It’s all hearsay. You don’t—”

    “I’m the best person, the best woman, you’re ever going to meet.”

    I looked into her brown eyes, then away, at the fireplace.

    It was the strangest exchange I’d ever had with any woman. Or anyone, any living person. There was no fencing, and yet there was no plea for mercy, no dare, just the facts, as she saw them. She came at you in a rush, leading with her heart.

    “Probably so,” I said.

    The river stones in the fireplace gleamed from deep blue to white.

    She was silent.

    “I hear voices,” I said. “In my head. Kees and different people. Commenting on things. For the last year or so.”

    She was the first person I’d told and I didn’t even know her.

    “So do I. All the time. And not Shakespeare.”

    “I hear my wife.”

    “I hear my father, mostly saying no. This was his getaway place.”

    “I saw the statue he put in the river. I jumped in this morning. I thought it was real—for a second I thought it was somehow my wife.”

    “Is she here now?”

    “No, they’re gone.”

    Beulah leaned toward me, lifting a hand to touch mine, then withdrew as Glad’s boot heels struck the floor.

    “‘Scotch and soda, jigger of gin . . .’ Here we go, two Scotch and sodas and a bourbon.” Glad held the three drinks bunched together in a triangle. “These two are yours.”

    Beulah and I took our drinks.

    “Salud,” Glad said, lifting his glass and clinking it against Beulah’s, then mine.

    “Thank you, Bob,” Beulah said.

    “You’re welcome, Beulah. How d’you like your hamburger?”

    “A little rare.”

    “Just like Phil.” He smiled at her, then at me. “I’ll get started. You two talk.”

    “Okay,” Beulah said.

    Glad strode back to the kitchen. He still had on his cowboy hat bought with the boots in Clovis.

    “He’s nice,” Beulah said.

    “He is,” I said, lifting my drink.

    “He save your life a time or two?”

    “Once or twice.”

    “And you’ve saved him?”

    “No,” I said.

    “It’s okay,” Beulah said. “I’m modest too, as I said.”

    “I believe it,” I said, watching her.

    “No you don’t,” Beulah said, “but you will.”

    “It’s happening now.”

    “No, not yet—”

    Beulah smiled her tipped smile, except now it wasn’t sad but a challenge.

    “The second drink will do the trick.”

    “Why me?” I asked. Rows of soldiers were falling fast.

    “Pickings slim—that what you mean?”

    “I didn’t say that.”

    “Yes, the pickings are slim. Here. And everywhere.”

    I nodded. “So I hear.”

    “When was the last time you were in love?” Beulah asked.

    “It’s a hard term to define.” I lifted my drink.

    “Why?”

    I shrugged. “I can’t remember.”

    “When you were married?” Beulah asked.

    “Yes,” I said.

    “And you’re still in love with her?”

    “Sure.”

    “And no one matches up.”

    I didn’t answer. But it was true.

    “But you weren’t happy—”

    “I wasn’t happy.”

    I knew that was true, under all the terrible loss of Ellen’s death in New York, in the apartment she shared with the painter, and later, as I scattered her ashes in the Pacific from the rented plane beyond Morro Bay.

    I knew it as I said it for the first time out loud, feeling the glassy stare of the elk above the mantel.

    I remembered the Kees poem about the lovers, how they were like two dying deer, their antlers entangled forever as the snow began to fall.

    I’d known it for a while, about Ellen and me.

    That’s what had made her death sadder, as sad as her last paintings, the wild abstracts that had replaced the delicate flowers and whorled shells, the careful purple leaves that drifted on the blue Kings River.

    “It was partly your fault.”

    “That’s right.”

    “But not all.”

    “No.”

    “Less than half?”

    “It’s a hard call.”

    “Is it?”

    “It’s tough to live with a cop.”

    “Betty seems happy enough.”

    “Even with the Night Slayer thing?”

    Half of Western Montana was up in arms, for an hour we’d found an eye of calm in the center of the growing storm.

    Someone moving silently at night, undetected, leaving no track, taking the meat and leaving the weird sick signature—

    “I guess not—”

    Beulah looked down at her drink, as if counting the chains of rising bubbles.

    “Did Jack tell you I was strange?”

    “Jack told me you were Beulah.”

    “It’s an odd name, isn’t it?”

    “It’s an old name.”

    “Should I change it?”

    “Keep your name,” I said.

    “Okay.”

    I noticed her hand trembling as she brought the glass to her lips.

    “I’m doing it all wrong,” Beulah said. “I told myself I wouldn’t but I am.”

    “It’s all right.”

    “No, it’s fouled up.” She swallowed, shaking her head, closing her brown eyes. “When Jack and Betty told me you were coming to Montana on the exchange I knew I’d meet you. Today in the car coming over I had the whole scene memorized, all the dialogue. Too many words. That’s the problem.”

    “Who’s counting?”

    “I guess I am. I’m counting. I wish I were—”

    “Viv?” I offered.

    “You’ve met her.” Beulah watched my face.

    “Today.”

    “And you fell in love with her.”

    “Sure.”

    “Everybody does. They look up her old movies.”

    “And you and Viv are friends,” I said as Beulah glanced away. “You’re there every Sunday. You know Charlie the black bear and Blossom the doe and Lloyd, Viv’s kind and courtly husband. You love the yard that’s like a park, the blue shutters, the honey locust. The blooming wisteria on the trellis. You wished you lived there with your books and someone you loved. Sometimes you wish you were happy and older, like Viv and Lloyd, that your career were successful and over. But then maybe I’m projecting—”

    “Betty was right.” Her face was flushed. “So was Viv.”

    “Viv?”

    “She told me about your visit. I confess.” Beulah stared at me. “I didn’t tutor any student today.”

    “I hear confession is good for the soul,” I said.

    “Where’d you hear that?”

    “In a movie.”

    “A good or bad one?”

    “This one.”

    I took her drink from her hand and set it down next to mine.

    I leaned toward her and she lifted her face.

    We kissed briefly, softly, just touching lips. Intimately, as if to seal a pact. It was crazy and brilliantly, perfectly sane.

    “I’m pretty enough?” she whispered.

    “You’re fine.” Her hair smelled sweet, soft wind and pine.

    “Good enough?”

    “More.” My lips brushed her cheek. “More than Viv said.”

    “I like your face. I knew I would,” she said.

    I drew back.

    “Too intense?”

    “No,” I said. “I’m a little stunned—”

    I felt no regret, just the natural weight of it, like jumping from a height and hitting the water.

    “This is it?” Beulah asked. “Do or die?”

    “Do or die,” I said, gazing deep into Beulah’s brown eyes flecked with gold, not afraid now to fall even deeper.

    I liked the feeling of freefall, of finally letting go, at last unafraid to fail or lose.

    “All right?” Beulah asked.

    “All right.”

    Now we’d crossed the blue river that held the statue.

    “It was as easy as that,” we’d remember someday, at the bright hour of our deaths—

    Years and years after Jack Blair and I, Glad and Jack’s deputy Ray Bell had finally brought in the Night Slayer . . .

     

    Nels Hanson’s fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award, and his stories have appeared in a number of quarterlies. He has worked as a farmer and teacher and now operates a writing/editing business with his wife, Vicki, in San Luis Obispo.

  • Weekend Plans

    In a talk I recently heard, the speaker said

    that at 50, a man has less than

    1500 weekends left in his life.

    Having chewed on this fact for the last week,

    I now realize that my 1499th weekend is coming.

     

    And so I’m making big plans:

    On this 1499th remaining Saturday,

    I plan to grade a stack of student papers.

    But knowing that there are only so many of these

    Saturdays to sit through,

    I am planning on writing the most

    remarkable comments and grades

    I have ever composed.

     

    Instead of pointing out where the prose clunks,

    I will say that the sentence over which I stumble

    reminds me of a ’62 Fiat convertible

    I once owned, a car that ran well enough

    when I bought it,

    until I rear-ended a truck one day

    and the front end crumbled

    pushing the radiator back just enough

    that the fan chewed a hole through

    the back end,

    the blades not only making an unearthly racket,

    but also bleeding the radiator dry

    and leaving a green stain on the pavement.

     

    And instead of pointing out that a comma is not a coma,

    that noone and alot are two words,

    that a manor is a large country house,

    (in a manner of speaking)

    and that collage

    is not an institution of higher learning,

    I will point out to them that Shakespeare, too,

    invented new spellings and words

    so that rather than see their grades as a kind

    of condemnation,

    they might rather embrace these marks as a sort of celebration

    of their wild and anarchic spirit

    which has emancipated itself from all bounds,

    from all pedestrian, prosaic concerns

    on this glorious, remaining 1499th Saturday.

     

    David Holper has done a little bit of everything: taxi driver, fisherman, dishwasher, bus driver, soldier, house painter, bike mechanic, bike courier, and teacher. Currently, he teaches English at College of the Redwoods. In spite of all that useful experience on his resume and a couple of degrees in English to boot, he has gone on to publish a number of stories and poems. His first book of poetry, 64 Questions, is available through March Street Press. He lives in Eureka, California, which is far enough from the madness of civilization that he can get some writing done. Another thing that helps in this process is that his three children continually ask him to tell them stories, and he is learning the art of doing that well for them.
  • Foretold

    We were encouraged to write

    letters before camp began so that mail might

     

    be waiting. We were told to talk of the mundane,

    not exciting things the children would complain

     

    they were missing. So, this morning, I have written

    two letters to a log cabin hidden

     

    deep in the woods of Minnesota, even though

    I can see you quite clearly there through the window

     

    playing basketball out in the drive.

    The lies

     

    came easily to me. In one letter, I took

    the dog for a long walk,

     

    and swept the sidewalk, and—why not—

    cleaned out the garage. In the other, I made a pot

     

    of your favorite soup and then, remembering, burned

    it so badly the whole thing had to be thrown away. For

     

    the better part of an hour,

    I described chores

     

    not actually done, rooms gone

    undusted, errands unaccomplished, and even

     

    a little bit about how much I missed you,

    but also about how much fun I knew

     

    you were having—the one true thing, actually—

    since I can see

     

    you with my own eyes right now: there out the kitchen

    window, bouncing the basketball again and again,

     

    stopping occasionally to aim

    for the hoop on a day

     

    so flooded with sunlight that

    it gleams. In the letter before me, my last

     

    of the morning, the basement drain

    is backed up again and, in the next sentence, it will pour rain.

     

    Poems by Elizabeth Klise von Zerneck have appeared or are forthcoming in Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, Measure, New York Quarterly, Ninth Letter, Notre Dame Review, The Pinch, Potomac Review, Rattle, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Water-Stone Review. Her recent work was honored with the 2008 Robert Frost Foundation Poetry Award, a 2008 International Publication Prize from Atlanta Review, and a 2009 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship Award in Poetry.

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