When incarcerated, all mornings tend to blur; the same as the evenings and the day that binds them. Sometimes I wish they would blur even further, to give some semblance of motion — all those mornings when I wake up with a clarity unasked for, an awareness that only tells me “this is yet another day” because that is all there is to reveal. Another day to think about the crime that put me here. When that’s all I have to ponder — this “time out” to obsess over what I did wrong — eventually, I begin to question if anything I ever did was right.
But these mornings with Jane are different, every time I’ve awoken next to her. We’re always fully clothed — that’s not the point; compared to what we had before — a displaced, misunderstood role-playing warden and prisoner — this kind of chaste intimacy is tremendous. In these blue hours, where we spend most of the time sleeping soundly (even if we did start on separate ends of the fort and somehow we are now curled up together), Jane has made me question everything again, but in a good way. In a new, curious, everything is malleable kind of way, where I am no longer debating the intentions of my past. I hear myself think: Maybe, I am good?
Before she can wake up, I race to finish The Ketchup Factory by JP Vallieres. Since I’ve yet to fully grasp Jane’s specific tastes, I feel it’d be wise to not risk this grotesque novel on our delicate huddle here. Even though I can see the genuine tenderness, even humor, of the book, I don’t know how she might react to the world depicted inside, even if it reads like a world akin to our own. In this heavily symbolic dystopian fable, civilization’s main staple, it’s staff of life, is not bread — but ketchup. When each chapter opens with a new recipe for the universal condiment, we notice a suspicious absence of tomatoes here. Instead, the main ingredient is “drippings” from the regimented willing sacrifices from the citizens who can’t quite make the grade — so they volunteer to be crucified, for the better of mankind, a fate as unfortunate as it is exalted, only slightly outshined by the job of the Bucket Holders, who wait patiently below to collect the “nutrition,” forbidden to interact with the sacrificees, no matter how hard they wail, before taken back to the Ketchup Factory.
Vallieres’s flat, matter-of-fact, often innocent tone betrays the severity of this world he’s built. The contrast makes this wasteland appear that much more “wrong” — it makes it’s Hell pop, in fact. The neutrality of his prose might be infuriating to some readers — the way he’s often merely listing things happening (Then, then, then) — but it works within the cruel scaffolding of the story. The Murakami influence is well-worn here — outlines often have to be the enemy when you strive for this savage erraticism. There wasn’t a single moment I ever saw coming, including the anti-climactic end — Vallieres knows this is how you haunt a reader, to make them believe their patient efforts to glean some kind of moral was all for nothing. You can’t get any more dystopian than that.
I see Jane still sleeping, mummified warmly in our page-blanket, guarding her chest with her clipboard as if it were the books of a lonesome self-conscious schoolgirl. “Can I carry your clipboard to class for you?” I am tempted to ask, but it feels clumsy. I can tell she’s in deep sleep, so I am tempted to finally commandeer the clipboard from her unyielding grasp. This is how it is every morning: I wake before her, I stare before her, tantalized infuriatingly about what she’s been writing on that thing, why she is so secretive. And it’s like she hears me thinking, because every time I almost make a grab for it, she stirs.
I stare. She’s out.
Today’s the day.
I worm toward her, just the faintest rub of ambient noise as I slide against this cold concrete. I hold my hands out, clasping the two ends of her clipboard, and I yank.
Three small thin books fall out from beneath her clipboard’s paper, hitting the concrete with a slap, much too loud. “Shit!” I whisper, as I shove the clipboard back into her arms in untethered genuflect. Too late.
“What? What are you doing?” she grumbles.
“Shit, I’m sorry… I lost my balance, I guess. Here, these books fell out of your clipboard.”
“Oh, I forgot, I actually grabbed those for you out of my personal stack, thought you might like them…” she said, the best case response for my blunder.
“Oh yeah?” I say, genuinely surprised, relieved. “What can you tell me about them?”
Jane rolls over to face me, one hand wiping her eyes alert as the other grabs Telepaphone by Adam Soldofsky, illustrated by Axel Wilhite (Maudlin House). “So, this one was really cool — a visual-accompanied sci-fi conceit wrapped inside a hallucinatory memoir. I almost didn’t stick with it — at first, it deceives you as an auto-fictitious art-school diary about drug hijinks, but once the two friends (Adam and Axel, the books collaborators) happen upon a mysterious package Adam has drunkenly ordered online, it becomes something else entirely. When the Telepaphone is introduced, the two conflicted friends try out the psychic technology. When their mutual consciousnesses trade bodies, they’re forced to embrace true empathy for each other, where before they were at petty odds; now they get to see how the other truly lives…”
“Wait, why does this sound like a hundred bad 80s movies to me?” I say, sort of annoyed she thought I’d like this.
“No, I know what you mean, but Telepaphone is written really, really well. I mean, how many Yakuza flicks have you seen and loved where it’s all basically the same plot of a Yakuza getting out of prison vowing to stay out of trouble only to have his old gang track him down and seduce him back into their fold…”
“Yeah, but the real poetry each of those film is in their own unique dialogues — that’s where it often reflects a personal worldview of each writer,” I argue.
“Exactly. And Adam Soldofsky totally makes this into something his own. Beyond that, it’s a sort of bittersweet celebration of the vulnerable friendship between him and Axel. Which, I know — kinda sounds like something that only their friends and family might appreciate, but I was surprised how much I liked it.”
“Okay. What else you got?” I say, shuffling through the books. I grab the chapbook, flip it over. Whatever Feels Like Home by Susan Rukeyser (Above/Ground Press)
“Wait! Susan Rukeyser? How do you know about Rukeyser?” I feel oddly territorial, as Susan is a friend of mine back in the desert. Then I wonder if I am even from the desert anymore; it be more accurate to claim I’m just from this room.
Jane sort of scoffs. “Uhm, how do I know about her? I mean, I’m a huge fan of her. I mean, her range alone — her novel Not on Fire, Only Dying was a fantastic East Coast literary-noir, then the next thing she releases is this hardcore feminist anthology Feckless Cunt…
“Nope! That’s where you’re wrong — the next thing she released was called Swap/Meet, a collection of experimental fiction constructed of Craig’s List ads. I know this because that’s right around the time she moved to the desert…” I flip through this new chapbook. “See, here — this piece “FOR SALE: Galloping Horse (brass wall art) >>>Mint<<<” is from that collection…”
“Uh, okay, fine…”
“In fact, I think I’ve already read nearly everything in here already. See, Jane, I happen to follow her very closely online. But this is a great introduction to those who have yet to read her, or a primer for the more incomplete fans of Rukeyser who prefer to be mere peripheral hobbyists like yourself...”
“I know for a fact you haven’t read these two pieces: From an Elk’s Eye, and Mistaken — those are presented here for the first time. You’re being kind of an asshole.”
“Hey, I’m just a fan sharing my knowledge with another fan, Jane. But for the record, you’re right — her range is huge. She’s often considered a feminist writer, but she also has this great knack for giving voice to the inanimate; the way she squeezes substantial drama and consequence out of the deceptively mundane, when she surgically removes small slices of existence to magnify into greater focus. And there are perfect sentences in these pieces, even sneakier ones that prefer to leave us dangling off maddening turns of phrase. And when her work drips with ire, there remains an inviting quality there that wants to include you in the conversation, uncomfortable as it may be…”
“Uncomfortable? Who’s uncomfortable?” says Jane, toneless as she glares at me.
I realize I’ve sort of hijacked her will to share. “I’m sorry. What else you got here?” I pick up What Are You Doing Out Here Alone, Away from Everyone? the debut poetry collection by Adam Johnson (HASH Press).
“Oh, you’re really gonna like that… or, I’m sorry, do you already know everything about this one too?” she says, sarcastically cloying.
“Ah yeah, actually… I recognize some of these poems from Misery Tourism and The Daily Drunk. But at 102 poems at 168 pages here, those are only a small fraction of poems I’m reading here for the first time. I always love Adam’s work, but these poems are sort of low-key terrifying, like the monotone voice of a married man who lives like a bachelor, a ghost to his wife unless they’re fighting, with only children and alcohol as their common ground; a man who’s a lawyer, yet endures most of his trials at home. Suburban despair, the gasping breath of a professional who brings his work home with him; clients with ruined lives trapped inside the family man, so what else would he radiate? Confined in shadows cast between judges in court and judgments at home, he becomes Technicolor negative, slowly fading to black; if only he could get the blood-thinning right when he’s in this thick of it.”
“Yeah, that is a pretty good assessment,” said Jane. “I mean, a cold-sweating boozehound lawyer isn’t exactly a rarity, but how many of them are writing poetry?”
“Exactly. Adam seems like a singular voice in this respect — this all seems like an extremely privileged glimpse into a lawyer who, beyond his imperfections, still has a strong conscience. It’s dark, it’s bitter, but he’s also calling himself to the stand in every one of these verses…”
“Totally,” she said, grabbing the book from me. “What about this one though, Hide and Seek? That one fucked me up.”
“Imagine being a kid, whose playing hide and go seek with your parents and their friend, and their friend hides in the attic where he has a heart attack…”
“Yeah, then when they finally find him, he’s dead. It was sad/they had to tell Jim’s kids/that he decided to hide forever…”
I thought for a second, feeling the dread wash fully over me.
“Jane, are we hiding? Are we dead?”
She reaches her hand out to my chest, pressing on my heart.
“Woah! Uh, yeah…You’re definitely alive,” she says. “That was a strong beat. I wasn’t expecting that…”
“Neither was I, Jane.”