Essay: My Summer of the Shark

Thanks to Texas Monthly for running this memoir excerpt about divorce, race, and Super-8 movie-making.   My Summer of the Shark   All that year, my father and I worked on the movie, Summer of the Shark. It was 1977; I was nine years old. By then, I saw him only on weekends. For th ree years, he’d been away, finishing medical school, serving out his time in the Army, and when he came back, he didn’t live with my mother and me. He bought me a tripod, a hand-cranked editor for splicing footage, yellow boxes of film. We made fake blood with red dye and Karo syrup, wrote out copies of the script in pencil on notebook paper, cut a wooden fin with a jigsaw and glued it into a groove in a four-by-eight wooden plank. And each weekend, my father took me to visit his friend, a woman who lived in one of the giant new apartment complexes sprouting up all over Houston. The first time we parked behind the complex, under a long tin shed that covered a line of shabby cars, he said we needed to have a talk. He reminded me of everything he’d bought me, all we had done together for the movie. I understood, didn’t I, that it would be better not to tell my mother about his friend? It would only make my mother upset; we didn’t want to upset her, did we? Of course we didn’t. And I wanted to keep doing things with him on the weekends, didn’t I? You’re a smart kid, he said. It was my mother who drove me and the five other boys I’d persuaded to be in the movie from Houston to Bolivar, the fin sticking out the passenger window of her battered green Ford Maverick. She was one of those indomitable Texan women who would do such things as take six boys to the beach on her own to allow her son to make a movie; I wonder, now, at what mixture of guilt and love impelled her. Two of the boys with us were brothers from the East End neighborhood where my mother and I had always lived, a cluster of brick bungalows and clapboard houses across the street from Hughes Tool. At night, the sky glowed Halloween orange and trains moaned and clanged. Geraldo and José Luis had moved there from...

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Essay: The Long Journey of Ghost Horse

Thanks to Lisa Peet at Bloom Magazine for making this article on the writing of Ghost Horse possible.   EXPERIENCE REQUIRED: The Long Journey of Ghost Horse   On a bright winter day at the end of 2010, after weeks of botched biopsies, I walked out, blinking, into the noontime bustle of Harvard Square. Christmas decorations hung from iron lampposts; a red ribbon was tied, as always, to the digital clock atop the bank building across from the subway. A bite was in the air, but real winter snow had not yet fallen. The homeless man hawking Spare Change newspapers made his perennial pitch to passersby: “Young man! Young man!” All of it, deeply familiar to me, had become suddenly strange. The ear, nose, and throat doctor who diagnosed me was apologetic. For weeks we had clung to the vain hope that the growth in my lymph node would prove benign, the result of a viral infection, though I knew this would not be the case. Outside Burdick’s, where I was going to meet a friend for hot chocolate, I lit a cigarette, took a few deep drags, then dropped it, horrified by my thoughtlessness, by the stubbornness with which I clung to this habit. The doctor, who looked a little like Groucho Marx, had glanced up at me, raising his eyebrows just like Groucho, then looking at a point above my head: Stage IV sarcoma, metastasized from my tonsil to my lymph. Treatment would have to be aggressive and immediate. I was not a young man. At 43, I knew that I would have to change; I had no idea how profound that change would be, or how strange the road that lay ahead of me. * * * The winter of 2011 in Boston was particularly harsh: a bitter northeastern wind; wet, heavy snow that caved in porch roofs, back-breaking to shovel. Friends emerged bearing food, rides to appointments, companionship, advice. One of them, whom I will call Sarah, had been diagnosed with cancer the year before, and guided me to the Dana Farber Cancer Center. Another, an emergency room surgeon, came up from Texas to be with my wife, four-year-old daughter, and I. In the midst of hardship we found new connections, and old ones strengthened and deepened. During that winter and summer I lived in a world of waiting rooms: waiting to be weighed, infused with...

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Sheep

Sheep

Published in The Atlantic June 1999. Before the sheriff came to get him, Lloyd found the sheep out by the pond. He’d counted head that morning and come up one short. He did the count over, because he was still hazy from the night before. And he’d waked with a foul smell in his nose. So he had gone into Mr. Mac’s house — it was early morning; the old man would be dead to the world — and filled his canteen with white lightning. He felt shaky and bad, and the spring morning was cold. He shouldn’t have gone to town the night before. The sheep lay on its side in some rushes. A flow of yellowish mucus was coming from its nose, and its eyes were sickly thin slits that made it look afraid. Lloyd thought the sheep honorable — it had gone off to die so that it wouldn’t infect the rest of the flock. Lloyd knew that the sheep’s sickness was his fault and that he couldn’t do anything about it, but he squatted down next to the animal and rubbed its underside. In this hour before sunrise, when the night dew was still wet, the warmth and animal smell felt good. Lloyd moved his hand in circles over the sheep’s lightly furred pink skin and lines of blue veins, its hard cage of ribs, its slack, soft belly. Across the pond the sun peeked through the Panhandle dust over a low line of slate-gray clouds. With his free hand Lloyd took his canteen from a pocket in his jacket, clamped it between his knees, opened it, and drank. For a moment the liquor stung the sides of his tongue; then it dissolved in him like warm water. The sheep’s lungs lifted up and down; its heart churned blood like a slowly pounding fist. Soon the sun broke free and the pond, rippled by a slight breeze, ignited in countless tiny candle flames. When Lloyd was a child, Mr. Mac used to tell him that at the Last Judgment the pond would become the Lake of Fire, into which all sinners would be cast. Lloyd could still picture them falling in a dark stream, God pouring them out like a bag of nails. The sheep closed its eyes against the light. When Sheriff Lynch walked up behind him, Lloyd started. He still caressed the sheep, but it...

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Tickle Torture

Tickle Torture

First published in Ploughshares, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter 2001-02.   Since they left Houston that summer, Hugh and his mother had traveled in a long, slow circuit as far north as Amarillo, then worked their way down through El Paso and San Antonio and Austin, seeing sights Hugh had no desire to see, and in which he doubted his mother had any real interest, either.  For a month, he had collected brochures at the bottom of his duffel bag.  They had visited the Alamo, the Helium Monument, Dinosaur Valley, Prairie Dog Town, the Cave Without a Name, and the Tarantula Railroad, as well as museums — the Dr. Pepper Museum, the Jim Reeves Memorial, and the Buddy Holly Statue and Walk of Fame. Currently, they were near Galveston, on their way to see the third oldest ship afloat.  It didn’t really matter where they went; his mother looked through everything.  Hugh wondered whether she had kept her job at the hospital, and how they were paying for the trip, and when if ever they would go to Corpus Christi.  Usually Hugh and his parents took their weeklong summer vacation in Corpus, where his cousins Cecilia and Amien lived.  But this year, Hugh’s mother said she didn’t want to deal with Aunt Beatrice — his father’s sister — and all the questions she would ask.   Read more at...

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The Rumpus: Last Book I Loved

Thieves I’ve Known, Tom Kealey’s debut story collection, charts a gothic landscape which is sometimes made literal as fantasy, and sometimes ripples the stories’ realist surfaces as parable. It is by turns as surreal as a dream and as visceral as a boxer’s swift uppercut, the debut of a wise, measured fictional voice. Kealey’s meticulously crafted stories resonate with empathy and insight. Read the rest at The...

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The Rumpus: The Art of Intimacy

This slim, precise book, part of The Art of series from Graywolf Press, a collection of short books on writing edited by Charles Baxter, is a profound meditation on the relationships between fictional characters, the possibility and meaning of intimacy in fiction, and most vitally, an exploration by a master writer of how authors create relationships between readers and their stories. D’Ersamo, the author of four novels and a professor of writing at Columbia University, presents incisive readings of a wide variety of fictional texts, from Percival Everett’s The Water Cure to D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow. The list of texts and the varieties of intimacy between characters, and between reader and stories, are not meant to be exhaustive, as D’Ersamo points out. Indeed, one of the main points of her argument is that the varieties of intimacy between characters, and between reader and story, are infinite. Read the rest at The...

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