By Katiuscia O’Brian
Sitting next to a painting made of pigmented bee’s wax and dammar resin on Ampersand Encausticbord, I take a full sip of my Vega Sindoa Rosado wine that I HAD to pay for; I started to wonder if I am in the right place.
The air is cold (I hate being cold!). The room I am sitting in is long and narrow (did I mention cold?) and haphazardly illustrated with mixed paintings and equally mixed chairs, tables, and sofas. The front area is an elevated wood stage with a wall of windows facing the street. The rear is muted and heralds couches. Above are exposed heating and water ducts, the operati modus for the latest remodeled spaces the last couple of years that involves high ceilings and old buildings.
I keep hearing “$5 dollars please” every five minutes from my perch on the far right wall, not quiet in the front but not quite the middle. Instead of taking a lone chair, I grabbed a table, one of 3 lined up. One person stopped as they walked through the dark, low-lying archway into the performance space and was stopped by the kindly “$5 dollars please” girl.
“But I am just going to the bathroom” she exclaimed rather loudly, much to the delight to all of us awkwardly sitting in there.
“That will still be $5 dollars, please,” she smiled as we all erupted into a hearty, synchronized laugh.
That was when the proverbial ice was broken and those of us bravely attending this event without knowing anyone started to mingle and talk.
I am at the monthly River Styx meeting, this year being housed in the intimate and new “Tavern of Fine Arts” on Belt Avenue. I arrived early, underestimating how long it would take me to drive from Midtown to the West-Central West End – otherwise known as the Pershing-DeBalivere neighborhood. Walking from the parking lot to the front door, I could hear the familiar rumble-screech-whoosh-horn of the Metrolink as it speeds by invisibly to my naked eye. I am very familiar with this area as this was where I first lived when I moved to St Louis City.
Sitting among the “literary explorers since 1975”, the room quickly starts to fill up, and warm up, with friends both new and old, in hopeful anticipation of the two special readers on the menu tonight: Alison Pelegrin from Louisiana and Michael Nye from St. Louis.
Whether we started on time or not, it didn’t matter as I was delightfully munching on the amazing hummus plate the friendly waitstaff conjured up for me and finishing wine glass #1 all the while lively conversations were erupting all around me. But the tone hushed as Richard Newman, the Editor of River Styx took to the small stage, flanked by two large speakers and wall of windows behind him. A large, heavy red velvet curtain suddenly sealed the entrance way arch and I quickly realized the room was packed to capacity. A camera I hadn’t seen up to then turned on and we were told sternly we were on a live podcast to around the world.
Newman was excited to introduce Alison Pelegrin to the stage. Apparently she was supposed to have done a reading 6 months ago but the universe and Delta Airlines had other plans.
Alison bounded to the stage and took command energetically. She is from the bayou of Louisiana and highly sarcastic; a trait I adore in people the more years I tuck under my belt. Without much fanfare, she launched into a series of poems – each alive and breathing the lives and emotions of folks who live in New Orleans and on the bayous of Louisiana. “In Livingston Parish, Dreaming of Li Po” brought us straight to the end of the bayou: weekend living looking for trouble, bar hopping with “samurai toothpicks and wine on hand,” four-wheelers on property lines, and double-wides. This ode to the Chinese poet Li Po seemed appropriate as he had a legendary propensity of not only being prolific, rebellious, but friendly with his wine. I can drink to that! This ode evoked that playfulness and daring.
In keeping with the theme of River Styx most recent issue, which is dedicated to the apocalypse set to happen shortly (12/21/12 for those not in the know), Pelegrin’s next poem “Provisional Minutes of the Last Meeting of the Society for End Time Preparedness” was fun play into her idea of what is to come. We then quickly were tugged along with Pelegrin’s poem that got to the heart of the Katrina tragedy.
We all know about after the disaster, but how were the folks reacting beforehand? “Hurricane Party” brought us lyrically along with folks who were pretty much going about as life as usual for a place used to being pockmarked and disrupted by the occasional hurricanes. I have never heard of a Hurricane Party before, but apparently these events are held by people living in the hurricane areas who cannot (or choose not) to evacuate during a hurricane warning. Entrance to Hurricane Parties are emergency supplies, just in case the hurricanes hit head-on and the revelers are forced to live off the grid for a few days. These events are more of a social gathering than anything and can last 3-5 days; the length of Hurricane Warnings the Gulf States. The kicker is, we all know how Katrina was a storm like no other and left the lives of most New Orleans decimated. The title poem brought home how folks just went about their business, bragging about outlasting other Hurricanes. It felt like a right of passage to be able to brag about surviving these storms, stock up on supplies, and “live off the grid,” but she didn’t want to live off the grid she bemoans in the poem.
Pelegrin’s fast paced reading of her poems kept us listening for more. “Blue Balls” made me laugh so hard, I could hardly hear half the poem. This was Pelegrin’s ode to the “balls” gentlemen hang on their cars and trucks in various sundry places in the US. Balls of various size, shapes, and location that we all know are just screaming the need to compensate.
My favorite poem of the evening was “The Words You Need”. Inspired by the inscription her literary hero penned in one of her books at a signing: “may you find the words you need”, this poem was the best by far; lyrical, poetic, imagination invoking. You could feel, see, BE the lines – which in my book is always the ultimate point of a poem. My favorite line was “may you see cursive when you stargaze”…
Pelegrin ended her reading with her ode to the ubiquitous bottle of hot sauce found in every MRE in “Tabasco in Space”. Handed out after Katrina, to the buzz of generators, she “taste those days”. “So many ways to spend a mouthful of vinegar and smoke”, we bounce through the rough and tumble history of Tabasco sauce has with military, cowboys…men in space.
“What could be more American”…
The main star of the night by virtue of being a former editor of River Styx, an MFA student at UMSL, and former professor at Washington University, Michael Nye took to the stage after a glowing introduction by a basketball buddy. When someone is introduced by someone quoting a JayZ song: “You are a ball playa, you are who you are”; I knew we were in for a treat.
I like to go into these events without being colored by perceptions or litany of awards. So little did I know Nye is actually a prolific short story writer; my favorite form. He is also being nominated for a Pushcart Award in addition to long list of other awards. Despite this glowing intro, I found Nye to be incredibly humble and genuine. He even started by thanking all these people from different walks of his life and how this felt like he was being welcomed “home.” So I settled in, ordered another ample glass of Vega Sindoa Rosado, and sat back in hopeful anticipation.
We were lucky, oh so lucky, to have the opportunity to hear a brand new, in-the-works short story: “Beauty in the Age of Chaos and Savagery”. A titillating raw fictional tale of a former football star of the Rams, we are brought through the blurry journey of a man trying to find his place in this world after everything he has known or thought he knew is gone. Add to the one-two punch, we were let into the secret that he believed he wouldn’t live much longer than a year.
The protagonist suffers from disabling migraines and frequent blackouts. Time no longer is linear. After 34 surgeries and the “arthritic tug on knuckles,” this ailing man struggles just to remember what day of the week it is.
Starting from the opening scene where the main character is arrested for smashing up the produce aisle at Whole Foods, with some sort of vegetable on his head, we see how his legendary status among St. Louisians keeps him just barely afloat as he bounces from one disaster to another in his life. Whether it is a job selling real estate where all he has to do is show up and couldn’t even manage to do that and his name alone will seal the deal, to the scene in the police station where he is let go after giving an autograph, he rarely has to take responsibility for his actions, but he is still racked with a sadness that he understands he shouldn’t be doing these things, but he really doesn’t seem able to stop himself.
His headaches become more troublesome and frequent; making it difficult to know when they will occur and for how long will he suffer a blackout. And what will be the mess he will have to clean up when he comes to. All he can do is apologize all the time: “my head, sometimes I get these headaches.”
Divorced for the second time, living alone in a sparsely furnished house in the suburbs, you can feel the fear, the emptiness, the questions of whether it was all worth it. “It” being a career in the NFL where he suffered concussions after concussions after concussions. And letter after letter after letter arriving in the mail, bringing him the bad news that his disability from the NFL is denied. Again.
He takes on tutoring a young neighbor girl in her early teens who has a gift of throwing a ball like a quarterback. This brief friendship seemed to give him meaning in his life. A spark that he can teach someone all he knows and by extension, passing himself on. But even that friendship, in a blur, dissipates, as does everything else in his life that has any meaning.
Nye’s short story was long, but I never lost interest. Taking a person that society often paints as strong and impervious, Nye did a wonderful job of showing the scars, the doubts, the pain, the insecurities, and the permanent lasting disability that this relatively young man will have to bear for the rest of his life.
A life that may be truncated by the very sport he loved with his every being.
- Alison Pelegrin is the recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the Louisiana Division of the Arts, and is a lifelong resident of the New Orleans area. She is the author of two poetry collections, most recently Big Muddy River of Stars (U. Akron, 2007). At present she teaches English at Southeastern Louisiana University.
- Michael Nye is the author of STRATEGIES AGAINST EXTINCTION, his debut short-story collection, which will be available from Queen’s Ferry Press in October 2012. He was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. He attended the Ohio State University, where he graduated with a B.A. in English, and the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he earned his M.F.A. in creative writing. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, New South, Red Cedar Review, Sou’wester, and South Dakota Review, among many others. His work has been a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in fiction and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is at work on new stories and a novel. He lives in the Midwest and works as the managing editor of The Missouri Review.