Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Blast Furnace Special Edition: The Writers & Writing of Words Without Walls

Beginning in 2012, Blast Furnace will feature multi-genre writing in an annual special edition of the journal. For its first special edition, Blast Furnace is pleased to present fiction, nonfiction and poetry written by Words Without Walls (WWW) students.

A creative collaboration between Chatham University’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing program and the city’s Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) that began in 2010, WWW fosters and supports creative expression and personal growth by providing men and women at the jail with exposure to literature and visiting authors—such as Mary Karr, Toi Derricotte and Terrance Hayes, among others—as well as the opportunity for the students to publish their work. WWW grew from a residency program started by artist Sandra Gould-Ford. Because of the program’s reach, Chatham University committed to continuing its creative writing classes at ACJ in June 2010. WWW's innovative approach to learning and teaching has resulted in support from the A.W. Mellon Education and Charitable Trust Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation, and the Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh Fund, a partnership of The Heinz Endowments and The Pittsburgh Foundation.

This past summer, Blast Furnace interviewed one of the WWW writing workshop leaders, Sarah Shotland; a playwright with a theater background who was also enrolled in Chatham's MFA program. In years past, Sarah worked in Austin, Texas at a charter school for adults who hadn’t completed high school, or who’d been in recovery and were returning to school.

The nine-week, multi-genre (fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry) WWW program at ACJ consists of classes instructed and moderated by teachers and volunteers, like Sarah, where students review literary excerpts by such writers as Jimmy Santiago Baca (who learned how to read in prison), John Edgar Wideman, Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton, Etheridge Knight, and others who Sarah describes as “a range of genres and voices.” Every Thursday afternoon during those nine weeks, the female students meet for class, while every Friday, it’s the male students. Currently, the program has a waiting list of 100 people. Volunteers in the program must first be cleared to participate. Clearance involves a background check, including a review of criminal history over ten years, security training at the jail where they are taught the rules, and adherence to a strict dress code.

Classes are rooted in theme rather than writing craft; for example, “The Black Mirror” focuses on reflection in writing. Some of the prompts to spur ideas: Write about a scar on your body. Start a piece with “No one ever asks me…” What the students often discover, Sarah says, is that their own experiences are mirrored back, and they see what they have in common with one another.

WWW students are provided a journal and pencil. Outside of class, they are asked to write every day, discuss an element of writing, read a literature piece that relates to that element, and are given one hour to take something from their journals and transfer it to computer. Additionally, students are permitted to submit to a literary journal, and to Pen American—the oldest literature foundation in the Country with a prison writing contest that reviews poetry, scriptwriting, and fiction. One class in each nine-week session is dedicated to publishing and having the students write a query letter to a publisher, and one class is dedicated to performance, or presentation of student work by the students. The course’s submission focus has even resulted in Pen American awarding a second place prize in its annual competition for “Sabrina,” a story written by WWW student Lynne Agnew.

As another means to gain exposure for its students, WWW has published the winner of the Sandra Gould-Ford Prize in chapbook-length format. Students are nominated for the Gould-Ford Prize—an annual honor given to one student who shows an outstanding passion for and commitment to writing—by WWW instructors. In 2011, WWW also published Look Here: an anthology of writing from Words Without Walls (featuring 14 pieces of poetry, nonfiction by various students), and the chapbook Flying Squirrel & Other Stories, by Lynne Agnew, winner of the Gould-Ford Prize. Recently, it was decided that WWW will publish an anthology that includes a special insert section for the 2012 Gould-Ford Prize winner, slated for release this Spring.

In addition to the nine-week course session and publishing efforts, WWW extends invitations to “Voice Catch”—weekend workshops that occur from 10 AM to Noon, on the second and fourth Saturday of each month. The Voice Catch workshops are headed by a network of instructors and moderators who lead discussion and provide participating attendees with a prompt in each workshop session.

Student feedback tells a story of how WWW is making a difference. Some of the comments Sarah and others involved with the program have heard:

“I look forward to this all week.”

“This is the only time this week I got to be myself.”

“I never felt smart before this.”

“[WWW] gave me a pencil and gave me a life.”

Editor'sNote: Chatham University’s MFA in Creative Writing is presenting the WWW Black Writers Reading Series. Funding for the project is provided by the Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation. The grant supports the visits of five black writers to Pittsburgh throughout the next several months. Each writer will present his/her work at the ACJ to students studying creative writing through the WWW initiative. The writers will also present their work to the public.

The first writer in the series was Faith Adiele, who presented her work at the University in November. The next public reading is Tyehimba Jess, author of leadbelly, a 2004 National poetry Series winner, at Chatham on February 24 at 8 PM.

Additionally, WWW was recently chosen as the beneficiary of Party for a Purpose Pittsburgh's next fundraising event. The party will be held at brillobox on March 23, from 9 PM to 2AM, and will include a poetry slam featuring Tim Siebles, WWW visiting writer, and faculty and students from the University of Pittsburgh and Chatham. Admission is $10 at the door. All proceeds benefit Words Without Walls.
 
WWW accepts monetary donations. For more details about the program, visit http://www.wordswithoutwalls.com/, or send your questions and feedback to info@wordswithoutwalls.com



Hotdogs & Beans

I remember when I was seven or eight years old, when I went to Crescent Elementary School and at lunch time we had hotdogs and beans. I decided to be the class clown, to put the hotdog in my pants between my zipper and walk back to class with it all hanging out. The students got a laugh out of it, but my teacher didn’t. The school sent me home for three days; suspended me. I remember a leather belt hanging from my bedroom door knob. I was so nervous. I knew what was next: the biggest ass whooping of the century! But by the time my dad came in the room and took the belt off the door, I passed out. I remember waking up to bright lights, to my mother and father standing over me. I had a seizure. Lying there, I remember my father whispering in my ear: “as soon as you get home, that ass is mine.” I remember he forgot this.

William Upshaw

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Country Blues

I’m crying inside stuck behind the hands of time, feeling like I’m dying inside knowing that the man’s going to demand my time. Momma told me there’d be days like this but who’d have thought I’d be stuck in country reds doing a bid like this once again. Here I am, a top bunk victim, another probate detainee caught up in this system. The world outside keeps on spinnin’ while we’re stuck in a void caught up in this whirlwind. I got a soup for that chicken I’m tired of going to bed hungry, sittin’ up all night tossin’ and turnin’ cause my stomach’s grumbling and my heart is lonely. Breakfast comes too early and dinner isn’t enough to sate the hunger in lil’ children. I’m missin’ meals to make a meal and if the offer is right I’m a take the deal. I’m not talkin’ bout coppin’ pleas. I gotta nice size cake for that bread and beans. How ‘bout the next two desserts for them potatoes? Today sir I got no money on my books, no pick or comb to neaten up my looks.

So now I’m walkin’ around with my face and hair nappy, wearin’ my feelings on my sleeves, lookin’ for a reason to smile or be happy. Then I look at these lame niggas surroudnin’ me. Claustrophobic now cuz it feels like these four walls is closing in around me. I got to stay focused. Keep my mind right ‘cause if I lose sight of the light then the situation’s hopeless. I’m tired of hurtin’, tired of feelin’ these pent up emotions, tired of feelin’ like a bitch going through the motions, tired of seein’ the same faces and red shifts, tired of seeing niggas happy and comfy like they sittin’ at home. Fucked up thing is some them feel like this is where they belong, this is where they fit in, and the streets is where they put their bid in. That just goes to show how fucked up their head is. The sad thing is, I’m no different.

William Arrington, nominee, 2011 Sandra Gould-Ford Prize

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Shellac on a Hand

High five my fleshy hand. Hit me up for all the work I’ve put in. Give me props. Don’t I deserve some fuckin’ respect? Not according to society and the police. Hell no! “I’m a danger to myself and others.” Lock me up, cage me in, let me wither away. Smack me down. Hit me hard in the face. Just when I think I got it right, the wheels of justice come my way and pull the E brake before I crash and burn. I’m scarred. A hole is etched in my soul. I’m hardened and calloused. I’ve changed. Who Am I? Wouldn’t you like to know?

Nikki Clelland

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Who am I?

He is I and I am power.
You see me on the corner
or filling up your local jails, but
I still remain royalty from a cell.

I am the child of Abraham and David
made in the image of the Creator.
I am he who split the sea and saved
the people from danger.

I invented the stoplight, blueprinted
the pyramids. I fought for civil rights.

I have been crucified, hanged
by a noose and still survived.
I am Earth, Wind and Fire combined.

Long ago I mastered science,
constructed mathematics but now
my homelands are famished
and most of my brothers are addicts.

Do you know who I am?
The lost King of Judah,
the producer of Tuskegee
airmen and paratroopers.
I am who I am but to them
I am a Blackman.

Tyrone Leach

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That was the Day I Followed the Kings Rules*

There was a day once when pigs flew through the snowy skies of a frozen hell. On this day there was liberty & justice for all. I got reparations that day and the words that proceeded from the kings mouth were true and not lies. That was the same day that I walked across the sun barefoot until I found shade, sat down and enjoyed an ice cold glass of lemonade. I did many things that day. I hiked the floors of the oceans and cooked fish over underwater campfires followed by endless Newports until bedtime. I had snowball fights in the Sahara and man, that day, accepted that he was indeed not God. Mass human warehousing & slavery ended that day. I stared at a girl on television and got her pregnant. Airplanes flew the sewers and tunnels and casinos had all lost money that day. I had even seen a griffin do battle with a sphinx while a Pegasus courted a unicorn. With all that happening, I nearly missed the cow jumping over the moon. It was also a very good day for a friend of mine-Humpty Dumpty. The king’s horses & men finally put him back together again. Turns out they could’ve done it all along. They could’ve also released the cure for the bio-engineered H.I.Virus which the king ordered done that day. The quiet war -fought with the silent weapons- that the government had waged on its own blindly loyal citizens ceased this day. O, it was a day for the history books. The clock struck 13…not the military clock either. That clock struck 2500 hrs on that 367th day of the year. Money doesn’t grow on trees… Says who? I planted money trees this day. They grew & bore bills almost instantly. Sowing pennies brought forth a harvest of 1 dollar-bill trees, nickels-5 dollars, dimes-$10, quarters-$20, 50 cent pieces got you $50 trees and of course, silver dollars got you 100 dollar bill trees. That day the king’s tyrannical heart was given over to compassion and righteousness. He became the servant that a king is meant to be. A leader, who no longer preyed on his own subjects, but loved them and gave himself for them. The day the sun rose in the west and the earth orbited the moon…when pigs flew through the frosty skies of a hell frozen over…That was the day I followed the king’s rules.

* First line taken from the poem “That Day” by Anne Sexton

Joe Garfield, winner, 2012 Sandra Gould-Ford Prize

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Numbers

12 and 8…Do those numbers mean anything to you?

They do to me…12 is the age of my beautiful daughter

And 8 is the age of my gorgeous son.

What about the numbers 11-2-09?…Those numbers are a date for me…it’s the last time I seen my beautiful children.

How about the number 65…That is the number of days I was a patient in Torrance State Hospital.

What about 174…that is the number of days I’ve been in ACJ.

239 is the sum total of being away from not just my children, but all my family and friends.

1000 is the number of pieces my hearts been torn into.

The numbers 8-9-10 is another date…this is my scheduled court date.

48…that number is my favorite number…no clue why...It just is.

Did you know that 7 is God’s perfect number

And 6 is man’s perfect number.

27 is the first cell I was in on 5MD.

219 is my current cell number on 4E.

2 are the number of sisters I have and 5 is the total number of nieces and nephew I’ve been blessed with.

12:21…. I’ll bet you don’t know what those numbers mean to me; those numbers are from the book of Romans, which happens to be my favorite scripture in the Bible. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

These numbers might not mean much to you, but these numbers help remind me of the life I’ve lived, mostly this past year. I’m sure they’ll be more numbers to come of importance to me, but for now I can look back at these numbers and realize that the ones that relate to the ACJ, are the ones I want to avoid in my future.

The very last number I will add is the number 1…and that is the number I am fighting for now…which is myself. I’ve come to realize that I’ll never get better unless I look out for myself first and foremost.

Terra Lynn, first runner-up, 2012 Sarah Gould-Ford Prize


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I SAW A MAN DESTROYED BY HIS EVIL WAYS
THINKIN BAD WAS GOOD, GOOD WAS BAD GIVIN EVIL PRAISE
THIS MAN WAS LOST, HE WAS LED ASTRAY
DESPITE ALL THE THINGS HE LACKS, ALL HE NEEDS TO DO IS PRAY
IN NEED OF GUIDANCE, WHO WILL SHOW HIM DIRECTION
IN NEED OF LOVE, WHO WILL SHOW HIM AFFECTION
ALL HE KNEW WAS WRONG, HE KNEW NO RIGHT
ALL HE KNEW WAS DEATH, HE KNEW NO LIFE
WAS IT HIS ENVIORNMENT WHO’S TO BLAME
WHAT CAUSED THE FIRE WHO SPARKED THE FLAME
SO MUCH HURT, SO MUCH PAIN
FEELIN LIKE A PRISIONER WHO FINALLY BROKE THE CHAINS
A BROKEN SPIRIT, THE STRAW THAT BROKE THE CAMEL’S BACK
HAD TO PUSH THE LIMIT, PUSH IT TO THE MAX
I HAD TO BREAK THE CYCLE TO TRY TO BREAK FREE
BUT IN THE PROCESS, WILL THIS FINALLY BREAK ME
WITH MY FACE TO THE GROUND AND MY PRAYERS TO THE SKY
LETTIN GO OF THE PAST TO PREPARE FOR WHEN I DIE
WHERE AM I HEADED, IS IT HEAVEN OR HELL
TRYIN TO BUY BACK THE SOUL THAT I OFFERED TO SELL

James Reeses

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Daddy

I hear you and Mom screaming,
So I hide.
Thinking it will never end.
When it stops I hear your footsteps coming up the stairs,
Coming toward my room.
So I slow my breathing down,
Thinking you won’t see me in my bed,
But you do.
Start to pull me by my hair down the hall and stairs.
I cry.
And all you do is hit me.
Fuck me.
Say, Shut the fuck up, bitch, the neighbors will hear you.
So I bite down on my lip.
I taste the metallic.
So afraid when you’re done I don’t move.
You walked away from the mess you did to me,
All bloody, my naked body lying on the floor.
Never again, I say to myself.
But you know that’s not true,
Right, Dad?

Samantha Woods, 3rd place, 2012 Sandra Gould-Ford Prize

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Good morning ladies and gentlemen,

My name is August “Gus” DiRenna and I’m at your service. As odd as that might sound, those are the exact words I’ve been dreaming of saying from behind a podium in front of a group of people who generally care and are actually paying attention to what I might say. This means, in the reality of this moment, for all intents and purposes, you people have all inadvertently witnessed and more importantly participated in a dream come true. With that magic still in the air I would also like to present a miracle in the making. That miracle is the fact that I can stand here before you today and honestly say that I am mentally clear, alert, and sober, physically I am healthy, fit and able. Spiritually I am happy, hopeful, and eager to participate in any and all positive activities to benefit the community. Needless to say, this has not always been the case.

My story is called “Intersecting Prayers” and I would like to share it with you now.

Intersecting Prayers

On March 16, 2010, my mother’s birthday, I’m lying unconscious in the front seat of the treatment center’s van. The rear door slams, jarring me enough to start fumbling around for the match to relight the stubborn cigarette that keeps going out during my drug nod. Just before I slip back under, the sadistic van driver slams his door and throws a “just banged the neighbor’s cat” type grin at me, asking the most absurd question any fat little black man with white-girl glasses has ever asked, “Are you okay?”

Being in a fairly good mood, I simply say, “Drive the van, fat man.” And in his sarcastic, condescending voice I would come to hate on my four- hour trip to treatment, once again this fat little sadistic jagoff asks if I will be ok. I want to tell him I am on my way to remove a crutch and execute an imaginary friend that has supported me for the last 40 years. My drug use. Only I know that he knows already, and could give a shit less. So I utter the three most unbelievable words of prophecy that any Old Testament prophet or back alley fortune teller would ever speak. I say, “I’ll be fine.”

As I look out the window along my semi-conscious trip across the wonderful state of Pennsylvania on that beautiful spring day, my suitcases of hopelessness, sorrow and despair begin to unpack themselves. At a gas station outside of Johnstown, I leave a photo album of all the pictures of myself—sad, hopeless, life-losing eyes—glaring back from the mirror that I only on occasion had the nerve to look into. Somewhere near Penn State, I threw trunks of my broken dreams and schemes into a dumpster, no one knows where. I watch as the roof rack of good intentions litters the road in the opposite direction behind me.

When I finally arrive at the treatment center, this city-slicker is a witness framed in the windshield of the beat up old treatment van. The landscape is like an exotic picture from a National Geographic magazine. I step right into it. Overwhelmed by strange sounds, smells, and odd creature’s movements, I swear there must be a Hollywood director maybe in a tree with a megaphone telling his assistant to “cue the damn deer.” That’s right, there he is, a buck, and he wants to have a staring contest with me. I’m not in the mood, so I ask the deer, “What the fuck are you looking at?” And somehow, he makes it clear, through a nod, that I am the dumbest son of a human in all of creation to be a drug addict on such a beautiful day, in such a beautiful place. I pump-fake a threat, stamping my foot, and off he goes, leaving me alone with my only bag left: a too-heavy-to carry khaki duffle bag, full of my fears of fast-approaching drug sickness and packed with anxieties of a life without them.

At the center, I do what I think we all do, except I don’t have a priest, witch doctor, rabbi, or even a voodoo luck charm. So I cross my fingers and begin to pray to a God I don’t understand. I ask for my sickness to be tolerable and to gain hope for the future. Nothing seems to happen. Across the state, on her birthday, a mother prays the same prayer for her son, to a God she knows well. I stand up, turn around, and suddenly, the world is different.

I open my eyes and see the man who, just minutes before, asking me for a cigarette, I had pegged as the second place finisher in the “Condescending, Self-Serving Asshole Contest.” Now, only a moment later, I can see all the guilt he was feeling at having left his mom and grandmother, with nothing but their grief at the curb this morning. Near the intake office, there is a girl going off with endless chatter trying to avoid her misery. On the spot, I have a whole new perspective and respect for a different pain that only a woman can cause for herself or endure. Everyone and everything suddenly appears different.

I awake the next morning I feeling better than I can ever remember. It surely cannot be. I should be so drug sick that I would need the care of the doctor. When I tell him that I feel great, and he writes it off, saying some bologna about how I must have hypnotically self-talked or how I am under the placebo effect. After two hours of defending my new belief in God, with patients and the doctor, I get fed up, and blurt out, “Doc! Look here you little pill pedaling, poppy pushing, short-order cook. Hold the mumbo-jumbo and put the placebo on the side. I believe in God.”

AugustGus DiRenna

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President Barker and Mrs. Bakerhorn

Today Jon and Rudy Sue find themselves thinking mutually exclusive thoughts as they go about their business in respective realms at The Rudy Sue Restaurant. She envisions an adding machine constantly scrolling through paper, glowing eight-figure profits. Jon, in contrast, sees himself in a beat up recliner wearing a wife-beater shirt with his legs crossed at the ankles and his head resting in the palm of his hands. A smoldering Premium King cigarette bounces from a smile on his lips.

Rudy Sue usually multitasks at The Rudy Sue Restaurant in her venture to get rich quick and retire to Nashville. But for now, she’s transfixed by the glow of the portable television perched above the back burner of the stove. The television plays “The Price is Right” reruns, her favorite game show. Today’s contestants have been particularly unsuccessful, fueling Rudy Sue’s belief in her own savvy shopping superiority.

“Damn advertisements! I wanna see what price the contestant will guess for the Maytag washer,” she yells out to the empty tables. Rudy Sue hails Bob Barker as a financier exemplar, a composite of what all successful American businessmen should be.

“Bob Barker should run for the president of America. I betcha he drives a new custom Continental,” she mumbles within earshot of Jon. Rudy Sue feels she exemplifies the contemporary, cosmopolitan and academically erudite woman. She’s completed one-and-three quarters semesters at the Smithtowne Beauty Academy. For what she lacks in fashion accessorization, she compensates with her overinflated self-image as a woman of impeccable social standing and superior intellectual caste.

She prides herself on the many culinary skills she possesses as an epicurean in the league with the chefs par excellence she studies meticulously when watching the Home Shopping Network and QVC, dressed in their starch stiff regalia, displaying the most recent inventions in kitchenware and culinary craft. For high holidays and when her son visits, Rudy Sue prepares and displays for public and personal awe, such provincial recipes as hard tack candy and peanut butter chocolate cake.

Profit fuels Rudy Sue’s every interaction with the public. After all, she rationalizes; there are bills and taxes to be paid, self and home improvements to be addressed, the new Lincoln Continental to be purchased annually.

Jon’s lack of professional prowess reverberates as a stabbing reminder of the profound loss Rudy Sue suffers as a result of not having been selected homecoming queen some thirty-five years ago. Rudy Sue is convinced that had the elections not been rigged, she would have been pursued by oil tycoons and other wealthy suitors, a fact she reminds her husband of every chance she gets.

In her blitzkrieg against Jon’s abominable nicotine habit, Rudy Sue calculates that by forcing him to abstain from smoking, she could generate sizable revenue. The smoking cessation campaign continues, so she’ll have to make do with the dividends from The Rudy Sue Restaurant. She’ll have to postpone her plans to purchase the now defunct jewelry store next door for her business expansion goals.

Jon hunts wild game in the back yard and sells funeral insurance and real estate for the afterlife. Along with the sales of grave plots, Jon is also available as minister for funeral services. He received his calling as a preacher in a night vision, and with the aid of a computer correspondence class in ministry. His business skills were honed as a natural progression of selling salvation at traveling circus pre-shows and from a booth at the county fair.

But today, as Jon reclines in a seat at The Rudy Sue Restaurant, he feels called to close a lucrative deal with one Mrs. Bakerhorn, a ninety-six year old widow shut-in. The business of death, as it turns out, is a booming industry; Jon’s been panning for gold in its stream for the last twenty years. He feels his calling comes from a power higher than Rudy Sue’s god of gastronomy.

Before entering Mrs. Bakerhorn’s residence, Jon poses his hands in a prayer position, index fingers resting against his forehead and calculates the gross-domestic-product-sized commission he’ll make as a result of today’s potential combination sale. He’s hoping to land the Deluxe Funeral Package and a contract for his exclusive services for all funeral-related activities.

He knocks on the door of Mrs. Bakerhorn’s corrugated aluminum trailer. For an interminably long period he waits. He looks around at the carnival of plastic lawn ornaments in her postage stamp sized lawn. The zoo includes deer, rabbits, pink flamingoes, squirrels, kittens and a rooster. “Isn’t there some zoning ordinance or anti-defamation law that prohibits this?” he asks rhetorically to himself.

An ancient and disheveled wreath hangs from the door of the trailer, composed of plastic, neon, yellow squirrels, pink glitter acorns and hay. A red checkered ribbon laces around the wreath. On its bottom hangs a wooden sign that reads: “Come in! We’re all nuts in here.”

Jon hears a clanking emanate from the other side of the trailer door. “Get the hell outta here,” yells a cantankerous Mrs. Bakerhorn from inside.

“It’s me, Mrs. Bakerhorn. Jon. Jon Ablower. I’ve come to visit for awhile.” His snarky grin steals the attention of his client, peeping out the door, hard of hearing and in the last stages of early onset dementia. Mrs. Bakerhorn opens the doors.

“Mrs. Bakerhorn, do you have a VCR?” Jon takes her arm and guides Mrs. Bakerhorn to a corduroy covered chair by the television. She props her can by the afghan that straddles the armrest. She reserves its utility not so much as an aid for walking, but to defend herself against home invaders, neighborhood hoodlums, and shysters shelling bibles door to door.

“How about I leave some attractive pamphlets concerning our line of caskets for your future viewing pleasure after I leave,” Jon says, knowing she could start a forest fire with the glasses she wears.

After accepting the compliments of lukewarm tea and saltine crackers, Jon feels the situation warrants the more aggressive, tactical implementation of his snap-on clerical collar that arrived in the mail with his certificate of completion for a correspondence degree in seminary science.

Confident that this will add a flare of sanctity to his sales pitch, Jon excuses himself to the restroom for a costume change. When he returns, he pulls the blinds up. Light beams like bleach from the window behind him and blinds Mrs. Bakerhorn. She mistakes him for the archangel, Gabriel. She’s in heaven now. She’ll buy anything Jon has to sell.

Jon speaks with confidence in his transformation. The collar invests him with supernatural grace and integrity, with all the smooth and artificial suggestion of industrial grade Plexiglas.

“Mrs. Bakerhorn,” (Jon begins all his sentences with the elderly client’s name, having learned at the senior citizens’ center that this technique grabs geriatric focus for just long enough to register name and nothing else) “May I interest you in some television entertainment?”

Jon pops in the VHS cassette depicting attractive grave plot decorations. He hands Mrs. Bakerhorn a corresponding catalogue with 3-D foldouts of funeral accessories, coincidently sold behind the counter of the Rudy Sue Restaurant at a six hundred percent markup.

“Mrs. Bakerhorn,” he narrates, “Your gravesite is like making your final fashion statement. You really want to pay extra attention to how you accessorize! Think of your gravesite decorations as your purse and your belt and your shoes.”

“Oh my,” Mrs. Bakerhorn giggles girlishly. “I’ll be sure to wear my teeth, if that’s what you mean.” The elderly woman looks up at him, blushing.

“Mrs. Bakerhorn,” Jon stands sanctimoniously as if he were saluting the flag. “For a woman of such impeccable taste in fashion and of such breathtaking beauty, I’d settle for nothing less than the Deluxe Standard Funeral Package on page six.”

“Well,” she blushes once again. “I don’t know that I’m beautiful, but Charlie and I used to really cut some rug. Say, did you bring Charlie with you today?”

“Mrs. Bakerhorn,” Jon kneels to pat her on the hand, “No, I didn’t bring Charlie with me. Remember, Charlie passed away ten years ago.”

“No, he didn’t,” she snaps. “He went to the grocery story,” she argues.

“Mrs. Bakerhorn,” he says as he stares deep into her eyes to command what focus he can. “There’s no reason your final resting place should be anything less than regal and befitting or your graciousness. Beautiful like you are.” His somber sales pitch has the smack and artificial appeal of a beauty contestant’s pledge to render world peace, a testament to his business leadership skills, the whiles not seen since the rule of Richard Milhous Nixon.

“What about this lovely one?” Mrs. Bakerhorn asks. She points to the more affordable, four figure Standard Funeral Package, remiss in its exclusion of such amenities as those offered in the Deluxe Standard Funeral Package: durable, high gloss paint applied to the simulated wood casket, insured to retain its brilliant luster for a period of one year.

The sales proceeds. Jon basks in the prospect of smoking not just one cigarette, but possibly blazing through an entire carton of Premium King Cigarettes as afforded by the fruits of his sales accomplishments. He abstains for now, however, from celebrating a premature victory until his conquest is complete.

Sensing the urgency to appear even more holy, Jon kneels down on one knee, so close to Mrs. Bakerhorn he can smell the onion on her breath.

“Now, Mrs. Bakerhorn, I could always throw in a complimentary homily or an epitaph to dazzle the mourners on your day of glory for your transport to the great beyond.” If he could secure the combined sale of a Deluxe Standard Funeral Package and a contract for his religious services at the gravesite ceremony, Jon might be able to afford to smoke Premium King Extra Long Cigarettes for perpetuity. The very thought emboldens him. He’s consumed with capitalistic zeal. “What pageantry and pomp this will add to your final day of departure, your final resting state.”

Mrs. Bakerhorn peers at the six-figure price tag the Combined Super-Deluxe Funeral Package carries and gawks at Jon.

“Since you’re special to me, and to the Lord, of course, I’m about to make you a once in a lifetime offer.” (Hear the drum roll.) “This will only be available for the next fifteen minutes. If you purchase the Combined Super-Deluxe Funeral Package which includes my exclusive, religious-related services.” Mrs. Bakerhorn leans even closer to Jon’s face. Her eyes pop with anticipation. Jon pauses for a few seconds to heighten the dramatic effect, then continues in a somber evangelic tone,” I could burn some floral incense in the viewing parlor, maybe play some religious music by the Oak Ridge Boys, if you’ll just purchase the Combined Super-Deluxe Funeral Package AND secure me as the exclusive minister to conduct all religious affiliated activities.” The moisture of tears spills over his lids onto his cheeks. “What a union of cosmic celebration and spiritual showcasing on your day to meet the Lord that would be.”

Four hours later, Jon emerges from the squirrel filled trailer, with a Premium King cigarette in one hand and a contract in the other. A neon yellow squirrel falls from the wreath when he slams the trailer door shut, a presage he is certain of another triumph to come.

Firing up his celebratory cigarette, he knows the many years he’s spent selling funeral insurance entitle him to a few moments of smoking pleasure and recreational respite. He’ll return to The Rudy Sue Restaurant a better man, flush with joy and nicotine on his breath. He’ll then kick up his feet on the kitchen table and guzzle a twenty –ounce bottle of Schlitz, possibly two.

Rudy Sue, meanwhile, is festering at the restaurant, and cursing Jon for being so long. She busies herself with the demanding lunch rush crowd of six. In between serving the customers, she schemes and plots the menace she’ll administer to Jon for having to socialize and serve lunch. For now, her stoic posture of hostility is offset by the AM broadcast of the Oral Roberts’ Ministry. Rudy Sue employs this ruse to drop a scrim of piety and wholesomeness between she and the customers on days like this.

For the long drive home, Jon hums his favorite ditty. Being eighteen inches shorter and one hundred and sixty pounds lighter than Rudy Sue makes it difficult for Jon to assert himself as the proverbial man of the house. Although he can run much faster than she, he is ill-equipped to dodge the blows of her blistering invectives. But today, he’s a man of accomplishment; he’s the king of this car; he’s the sultan of sales; he’s the baron of all businessmen! Jon is afloat in the aftermath of his victory, but experience has taught him not to indulge in over-confidence as he returns to the restaurant to confront Rudy Sue. Jon often wonders if life would have turned out to be more favorable had the vo-tech classes in high school provided some instruction on polemics. Alas, he’ll never know.

But for today, the bills are paid and Jon tosses the empty carton of Premium King Extra Long cigarettes over his shoulder into the back seat of the car.

Lynne Agnew, winner, 2011 Sandra Gould-Ford Prize

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