How Does Your Garden Grow?

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At his apartment, after work, him studying from the kind of book you’d keep a door open with. They did not discuss his concern about the licensing exam. She wanted to go out, but he said he really had to study. The fan going. A clean-line apartment building. The walls were all white. He had put up a number of large photographs of him and his father, sailing competitively. Dark blue water and a sharp white sailboat named Madeline, its sails bulging. His mother had taken the photographs. The girlfriend never asked him about this.

Darwin's Lotus

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The evolution of a species was echoed in the evolution of an individual-they rhymed, he’d write, the development and diversification of a progress of an particular feature similar to the progress of an idea-and after tea and biscuits in the basement, after opening the morning’s mail, after tending to his climbing plants in the study, the old man laid the grey heron out on his work table and opened her lengthwise. In the tight crop of the bird he found small stones, bits of shell, of seaweed, a smooth blue fish. In the belly of the fish he found the silver grizzle of a smaller fish. And in that grey paste he found the hard pearl of a berry.

A Conversation With Chuck Klosterman

The full text of this interview is not currently available online.

It is very difficult and kind of stupid to be confident about something that is inherently unknowable. Let’s say I think a band is better than another band: I might really believe that, and maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s true. Maybe I’m wrong. I probably think it’s probably true, in my opinion. So I don’t know why it would be better writing if I removed the “probablys” and made it a “stronger” statement. Criticism is an unclear world, and the major critics, or rather the ones who’ve seemed to establish the tone of how criticism is written, have concluded that having an authoritative voice is better, even if that fabricated authority doesn’t match the way they think. I use qualifiers because I think things need qualification.

Dogs I Have Known

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It is said that dogs are good. People with dogs live longer, are happier and are less likely to have their homes burglarized.

I have never owned a dog. This is in part because I am afraid of them but also because I do not want to take care of them. My daughter would love a dog, but I will never buy her one.

So I guess you know what kind of person I am.

Who's Walking Who?

Featured as an Editor’s Pick, May 20, 2009

In one hand she held a Dr. Pepper, in the other my-. Or perhaps that isn’t exactly how it was. Perhaps it was another soft drink she held as I watched her walk along, the bottle softly swinging back and forth along with her shoulders and hips, whose beauty of shape and proportion was rivaled only by the grace of her motion. I was out with Charles on his afternoon walk when she first grabbed my . . . let’s just call it “attention.” We were in agreement that day, Charles and I: I hated him, and he me.

This was nothing new, our animosity being something I had to live with, like arthritis. Four years ago, I’d chosen to share life and a home with Rebecca, and having Charles, her mastiff, as part of the family was a condition, a fact, an inescapable clause in the deal. What I hadn’t realized those four years earlier was that walking him and feeding him and indulging his every whim were one day also going to be part of the deal. I guess I should have read the fine print, the kind that comes creeping and unspoken when people agree to share their lives. But the fact of the matter was that Charles was about to “go” in the living room again, Rebecca was out teaching an extra yoga class to help us make ends meet until I found a job, and until that happened, I was the full-time, stay-at-home daddy.

Perhaps I could have adapted to this role. Maybe I could have gotten used to having a 155-pound baby on my hands. But Charles did something that I hadn’t done in months: he worked. Charles was a model. His gigs were sporadic, and he didn’t make a fortune, but his likeness had been published a lot more than my writing had, and there were times when I sat at the kitchen table eating, a forkful of something hovering before my open mouth, and the look he gave me made all too clear who had put that food on the table. I wasn’t taking care of Charles; he was taking care of me. He was my employer.

Prior to my abandoning my rare and precious rent-stabilized studio apartment in Manhattan and moving into Rebecca’s one-bedroom place in Brooklyn, she and I were a textbook example of a perfect couple: we made each other laugh, have orgasms and think. Really, what more could be asked for in a relationship? We all have our shortcomings, our Achilles heels that make those we share our lives with ache. I wasn’t Jesus Christ, I admit: I smoked too much; I yelled at the television (and thanks to the Surround Sound system I bought when things were still flush, it yelled back); I loved to eat and was no stranger to the world of Entenmann’s-I needed to lose a few pounds. Rebecca, on the other hand, did and was none of the above, and this was what I respected about her. She was so different than me. So even. So PBS and green tea. But when it came to Charles . . .  Frankly, she was nuts.

“Don’t blame Baby,” she would say as I’d rummage through the apartment trying to find the television remote that he’d hidden somewhere or while I held up a job application he’d “marked” before I had a chance to fill it out. “Maybe it’s you,” she’d say. “Maybe he’s trying to tell you something. Don’t forget, he’s a very gifted dog.”

That’s what she was once told by a psychic, after she had called a 900 number to help parse our days, trying to trace back (or forward; it was a psychic after all,) just what had happened to us, what might happen still.. We weren’t fighting a lot; there were no raised voices, no tears, but instead we were often engaged in an unconventional type of warfare, where silences were lobbed back and forth between indirect comments, each of us accusing the other of thinking things about ourselves. Ultimately, it always came back to Charles. “He’s a very gifted dog, my dear,” the psychic had said. “There’s a lot you can learn from him.” Maybe she was right.

One of these gifts that I knew like an identifying scar was his ability to get attention whenever he wanted something. His most potent tool to this end was his whining. My God! Those arias of his! Tuned to the exact pitch and timbre that would make my skin crawl. He knew how I loathed it, and like a virtuoso he was able to effortlessly whine all the notes of his repertoire in greater and more elaborate sequences and degrees of volume, until at last I would finally give in. His timing was always impeccable.

“Enough!” I’d shout at him, and as I went to get his leash, his big, sad brown eyes, all Bing Crosby, effortlessly dropped the facade of chagrin for being hollered at and no doubt tightened into an unseen “Heh, heh, heh” of triumph. Perhaps he rubbed his paws together. Tweaked his whiskers. God knows he had one of his enormous red erections (“You’re just jealous” Rebecca would tease at my disgust or thinly disguised envy-I never really knew which) as he sat for me to leash him up.

“Good boy!” I’d silently proclaimed as the timing and triangulation of our exiting the building coincided with my first spotting the Dr. Pepper Girl, a dozen yards ahead of us. Right away, the Charles-cloud of frustration and obligation that had hung over me just a moment before vanished, and the air around me seemed scented and charged with vitality and light.

I don’t know if it was the jangle of his tags or perhaps something beyond my perception, however, that caused Part Two of the equation: Would I have noticed her so keenly if she hadn’t noticed me, too? For while she didn’t stop walking, she had turned around for a split second as soon as we hit the sidewalk behind her. And yes, she was beautiful.

Granted, I gave Charles full rein, let him pull us along in the direction she was heading, but I would swear that she, too, had slowed her gait slightly. Was it her hair, pin-straight and cut at an angle that revealed the nape of her neck, or her shoulders, soft and bare in a camisole tank top, or her walk, that gliding syncopation, that so captivated me? It was part fantasy and part examination, my staring at her there, ahead, moving along, getting closer as we began to catch up with her.

And if she stopped and turned and smiled, what would I say? “Hello. I live with someone, but I want to have sex with you.” That was frank, but so, too, was “Who are you?”

These thoughts disturbed me, not so much because it seemed possible I might actually say them, but more from my inviting them into my head in the first place. How would I feel if some guy thought these things about Rebecca? Worse, how would I feel about Rebecca thinking these things about some guy? And so a wave of something not quite gratitude but maybe relief swept across me as Charles stopped, yanked us over to a tree, took aim and fired.

For Charles, there was no such thing as urination, micturition, going pee-pee, wee-wee or tinkling. For Charles, it was pissing. There was exultancy in the act-perhaps the same as that God-affirming feeling we receive when we blessedly get to a rest stop on the highway-coupled with the exhilaration of pure canine expression. Writer’s block was not a problem for Charles, and in his world, every last golden drop told a story. “Take your time, Charlie,” I thought. “Get it all out. Think Thomas Wolfe.”

When it comes to dog urine, I am completely illiterate, yet somehow I sensed  that Charles had written To Be Continued;  then suddenly he’d bolted on, and between his enormousness and my capitulation, we were once again closing in on the neck, the shoulders, the legs, all moving in synchronized perfection, moving in a way that was surely a form of communication unto itself.

And then I was a parachutist approaching the ground, approaching the ground, approaching the ground, everything coming into focus clearer-neck, shoulders, sharper-legs, behind-and I pulled and pulled, but the ripcord was not-

All at once the leash went slack as Charles turned, zigzagged and stopped a few feet beyond the DPG to sniff at a fleck of mesmerizing sidewalk invisibility.

Without missing a stride she sidestepped us, and, gliding by, she turned her head, smiled and said, “Who’s walking who?”

And she spoke just like she walked.

And while it was a statement she’d made, it was also a question, and a question is an invitation with R.S.V.P., and I could have said . . . anything. I could have said words that would have knocked over the first domino of questions and responses, beliefs and desires, mysteries and frustrations, dreams.

I could have said that I was terrified by a thousand different things anymore but at the moment they all seemed remote compared to her and the feeling she stirred in me because the sediment of time and unforgotten passions was clouding my mind. I could have told her how I yearned to laugh because it seemed I’d forgotten how, and of lusts that came from urges born In The Beginning, of urges born of the moment-snap!-just like that. “Was this wrong?” I could have asked, “or natural?” Our entire nascent history, still bloody-fresh from my mind’s womb, was flashing into existence. We could have babies together, she and I, real, human babies, or we could go out for a drink and never see each other again.

“Who’s walking who?” she had asked.

And I replied, smiley faced, “That’s always the question!”

So civil of me. A wee bit of self-deprecating humor. Aw, shucks. What a nice guy. Him (her spouse): “How was your walk?” Her: “Fine. I met the nicest dog.” He folds the pages of the Wall Street Journal, takes another sip of Cabernet Something-or-other and they make dinner together, using those nice greens she got at the farmer’s market that morning, tossing them in a crystal salad bowl. Simultaneously, I walk along wondering, “What if?” Still out with Charles, miles from home, I toss a plastic bag weighted with his shit into a trash can.

But even before the 1974 Have-A-Nice-Day smile faded from my face, even as somewhere inside I was slapping God a high-five for my nice-guy inanity-because I am a nice guy, I’ve always been a nice guy-Charles, his ears up and fashioned into a pair of horns, gave me a look that said, You are so fucking stupid, shifted into Drive, and brought us alongside her again.

“What’s your name?” she said to Charles as we came to an intersection.

The light turned red, a burnt-orange figure warned Don’t Walk, a car screeched to a halt. Giant invisible monkeys sat eating my brain, blowing to cool the stuff, everything turning cold. You see, just the night before, my best friend had told me that when he takes his baby daughter to the playground, if he wants to talk to another parent, he breaks the ice by talking first to their child.

“Hitler,” I said.

Her soda fizzed over as everything stopped, and when she laughed it was like tasting a flavor from a lost recipe, a favorite that I used to cook all the time but had forgotten. And then I was laughing, too. It felt like breathing again after holding your breath, and the smile that was blooming from deep inside my cheeks was infused with happy blood full of wholesome nutrients.

“Charles,” I said. “Charles is his name.”

“I’m Felicity.”

Of course her name was Felicity. She smelled like being hugged by a cloud, a mist, a pit-pat of sexualized baby powder on the soft bottom of my libido’s spirit. She didn’t offer her hand, and I sure as hell didn’t offer mine or even my name. I just smiled. In Charles’s lexicon a baring of the teeth meant one thing, but in ours, there are many definitions for it.

Charles, meanwhile, was being a doll, an angel. He actually sat at the corner and watched the traffic whiz by, a thing I had tried to train him to do and given up on since moments of suicidal abandon began possessing him, shortly after I became Mr. Mom. “It’s like walking with a canine Dorothy Parker,” I once said (I thought rather humorously and hopefully disarmingly), when broaching the subject of obedience training to Rebecca. “Who knows?” she’d said. “He’s pretty fast. Maybe he’s just trying to kill you.” She thought she was being funny, too.

I could have just left it at that. Stopped at a corner, light turns green, we go, good-bye. But there was an empty second after the light turned, and it was impossible to tell if Felicity was waiting for me or I for her or us for Charles. It didn’t matter, though, because the only real thing in that moment was the bond that held us within this field of each other.

I could have used that moment. Maybe I did? Maybe I relished the living hell out of it? But I could have used it judiciously. Perhaps in that moment, I could have seen truly where Rebecca and I stood, where my love for her was. I don’t know.

“Shall we?” I said, all Cary Grant, albeit not directly to her and with a simultaneous tug on Charles’ leash.

We crossed the street and had walked along in silence for several yards when Felicity turned to me and said, “Listen. Would it be okay if I asked you a question?”

Here it was. My Rubicon: “Are you married?” “No.” (Technically, not a lie.) “Would you like to have a cup of coffee?” Either “I’m sorry; I’ve got to get home. These days my girlfriend worries if we’re out too long” and then catch the relationship, even as it fell. Or just say, “Sure!” and let the die be cast.

She smiled, perhaps even blushed a little, looked down at her feet, then over to mine and brought her eyes up along the length of my body until they reached my face. Her smile broadened, and she said, “Do you want to lose weight?”

My face rearranged some muscles, all on its own, and my voice said, “Sure!”

Her spiel continued as we walked along: something statistical and scientific-sounding about why diets don’t really work, how she was once “in pretty much the same shape as you are,” and how she had become the top sales person in her division of this dietary supplement company simply by finding people who really needed her help. Charles, being Charles, seemed to pick up on her speech as effectively a commercial and took the opportunity to go to the bathroom. She finished by handing me her business card, which I held in one hand as I was cleaning up Charles’s creation with the other.

With a little wave of the soda bottle, she was gone. All that was left was a whiff of her perfume mixed with Charles’s still-airborne shit molecules.

Before tying the knot on the bag and tossing it, I took a glance at Felicity’s card. On it, there was a cartoon figure of a fat person, and in block letters were the words The Real You Is in There. Maybe. But I let the card fall from my fingers anyway-let it drop to the bottom of the bag.

I looked up and stared in the direction Felicity was heading. By then, though, she looked very small for the distance. Meanwhile, another figure grew closer and was waving. Rebecca.

I saw from the corner of my eye Charles giving me a look from the corner of his, and I wanted to grab him by the chin and say, “What? What? What, Mr. Boss Man? You tell me. You’re the one with the answers.”

And then his mouth parted, but he didn’t say a thing.

All he did was yawn.

Bonus Hunter: Confessions of an Online Gambler

The full text of this essay is not currently available online.

To say I was addicted to gambling would not be accurate. I was never addicted to gambling. I was merely addicted to the money I made from gambling. For almost six years I earned my living as an online gambler. I gambled at casinos and sport books, many of which eventually blacklisted me. I played over a million hands of blackjack, my game of choice, and when I was banned from blackjack, I played video poker, roulette and baccarat. I wrote “gambler” as my profession when I filed taxes. On a good month I made $12,000; on a bad month $6,000.

Works Cited

The full text of this essay is not currently available online.

Lee Smith said somewhere that as a girl she would write out additional chapters when she reached the end of a book, conjuring alternate endings that would sprawl on for pages. Because I grew up in a working-class family of little education, I was more apt to grab tools or weapons-a torque wrench or crossbow, say-than I was a pencil or typewriter as a way to extend the story at hand. But I see now that our hunger was the same.

Nathan's Vision

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Nathan Paterne shifted in the white iron chair when his  oungest son approached him of a sweltering Sunday afternoon on the narrow front porch and declared, “Paw. I am going to marry.” The world waved unsteadily in the heat as the boy spoke. A moment after, Nathan turned his head and saw the radiant girl, trailed by nightdark hair, riding up the smooth incline of the driveway perched sidesaddle on a camel. He blinked. He looked back to his son, who smiled and darted his eyes nervously toward the girl, then back to him.

Pick Your Poison

The physical world is full of danger, conflict, and the potential for disaster, a fact that I was reminded of recently when I had dinner with a dozen old friends in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where we all grew up. Some of us have known each other since kindergarten. Jim Pryor, who won’t mind my using his name, leaned behind whoever was sitting next to me to say, “You know, we just may be getting old. At this table sit four survivors of cancer, three heart attacks, an inch-from-death case of septic shock, epilepsy, and too many other major illnesses to name. For the moment, though, Speero, we live.”

I told him that given the way we’d behaved growing up, we were lucky to have gotten old enough to have a heart attack.

Every generation has its own brands of foolishness and danger. That group of friends and I-the generation of the early boomers-lived in what might be called the Pre-safety Age. Parents didn’t worry much, at least not in ways that any of us noticed. We had BB-gun and pellet-rifle wars with six or eight to a side, freely pelting each other and only through luck not putting out each other’s eyes. We stole our parents’ cars and drove across the river to Oklahoma to get beer when we were thirteen. At fifteen or sixteen we occasionally hung out in-what euphemism can I use?-questionably hygienic places of paid assignation. Two blocks from where we were eating dinner that night was a very charming and familiar little nineteenth-century hotel that had a historical marker for, youguessed- it. Almost all of us smoked back then and did heavy weekend drinking and driving, had careless infatuations with guns and motorcycles, and so on. I was not unusual in the group for having survived three serious car accidents- two rollovers and one collision with a police car that had just been hit head-on by another car going eighty miles an hour. Two policemen and five soldiers from Fort Chaffee weren’t so lucky.

More interesting and complex than our physically dangerous behavior were our personal flaws because in most cases our flaws were intimately and obviously tied to positive qualities. One of my best old friends had, for a period of his youth, a more serious problem than the rest of us with recklessness. He would fight anybody, get as drunk as he felt like getting and flamboyantly chase girls. At the same time, he was strangely stable, trustworthy, and-an extension of his recklessness-existentially free and open to the moment. During our dinner-table conversation, I mentioned to him that I wanted to go fishing with him sometime, and in his old, free way, he didn’t hesitate: “Let’s go tomorrow.”

And there was the melancholic among us, the one who considered suicide while still in grade school, partly because a very good friend of ours talked about it frequently from childhood on (and eventually did it). In later life, my melancholy friend suffered a marriage that went bad, casting him into a tenyear vortex of confusion and uncertainty. After that delightful decade, he went through about six years in which he claimed that he was seriously considering going gay, since the girls obviously didn’t like him. Yet this same guy is the one who put the party together, who often serves as the unpretentious impresario and who is generous with himself beyond the norm. It’s all part of one package.

Why are flaw and conflict so basic to literature? Literature, like sport, starts by meaningfully enacting conflict and somehow dealing with it. Conflict is basic to literature because it is basic to life. Without it, the airplane usually won’t fly. We are meaning-making creatures with little tolerance for chaos. It’s a platitude but also true that literature, like religion, gives shape and meaning to the struggle of living.

That’s why literature quickly becomes tedious when it holds nothing of the mess, danger and perplexity of human experience. Aristotle believed that the key to dramatic tragedy was a character’s “hamartia,” or flaw. The meaning he placed on this term has been debated, but he may have been referring to a simple mistaken judgment resulting in catastrophic error, implying that the cause of a person’s fall may be as much the confusion and mistakes of existence as deep flaws of personal character. One thing leads to another, and another- which slipping in an unfortunate direction can end in ruin.

This issue of The Missouri Review, like my table of friends, is full of hamartia. “Pick your poison.” Whether it’s gambling or sex addiction or anger or the confinement and weirdness of celebrity noted by Chuck Klosterman in his interview, it’s all as necessary to art as it is undesirable to those who experience it.

In Peter Levine’s story “How Does Your Garden Grow?” the one thing leading to another, the engine of the story, is sex between a passionate couple, with the man falling into a mesmerizing love of a sort that he has never before experienced- while from the woman’s perspective, something else entirely is going on. Nat Akin’s story describes a father who wants to leave his farm to the last of his sons still at home, an admirable but myopic intention that ends in tragedy. The narrator of Andy Mozina’s “Dogs I Have Known” is a brilliant lawyer whose anger and litigiousness initially further his career but are eventually self destructive.

Todd Pierce’s essay on online gambling is another account of how something seemingly productive and useful can become an obsession. Alison B. Hart’s essay “The Canada Story” portrays a flawed relationship between a father and daughter, which the daughter tries to transcend by better understanding her father’s past. Brandon Schrand’s “Works Cited” is a memoir about being captivated by literature, but the same fascination and engagement with his own life experience that draws the author to certain books also leads him to rebellious juvenile behavior.

The poetry in this issue addresses several kinds of danger and reminds us that the flaws in experience, like the flaws in ourselves, produce pain and unhappiness but also positive outcomes. Jennifer Richter’s poems confirm that extreme pain-in this case from life-threatening illness-can produce mental clarity and strength that aren’t forged any other way. And read Jillian Weise’s introductory statements about composing “Once I Thought I Was Going to Die in the Desert Without Knowing Who I Was” for an account of how paralyzing fear can challenge the poet to transform real physical danger into energized poetry.

The Canada Story

The full text of this essay is not currently available online.

Don was perched on a big wet rock, and when he lost his footing, he was laughing. He’d turned to tell my father something, and he tumbled instead. He slid of f the rock, landed in the current and went over the falls. He was stil l laughing when he went over, and my father was screaming. . . .