In the Armpits of the Night

Excerpt from current NaNoWriMo

You didn’t tell him your name, you realize as you walk back into your house, if you can call it that. A shack resting on bricks is a description more suited. It’s a moving house, the kind that can be carried on trucks to places far away and made out to be charming and quaint. The kind of house children lean out of windows to watch as they go by because they don’t know that whole structures can move on trucks big enough to hold them.
You only told him your position. Your role. Your so-called calling. That you’re a priest. You don’t know why. Maybe it was the color of him, the starch darkness of it, the way he lay on the ground and thought you were a threat. It reminded you of your friends back in the eighties, when things were bad, how some of them dropped away from you. Years before you joined the Catholic faith, of course. Back when everything and everyone you knew was first disgusted and a few years later, scared.
You woke up tonight not because of the boy in your graveyard–your realize how proprietary you’ve become of the stones, old and new, burnished and faded to nothing. The grass, which it is not your job to tend, is long and messy because the person whose job it is to tend to it has not come around for two weeks. Sick mother, he said over the phone, in a heavy accent and a voice so strung out that you know he’s lying. You’ll have to do something soon. Reach out? Visit? Just call a bureaucrat and ask for someone new? Make the phone call yourself to fire him, the poor Dominican man who still lives with his mother and father and grandmother even though he’s thirty, because he can’t hold down a job?
You should have more sympathy, more compassion. But you don’t. Your life for the past twenty-five years has been not so much a lie as a fabrication stitched together from truths and half-truths, snippets of belief sewn alongside a safe escape, and tonight was a stark reminder of what you’ve been missing, what you miss. You could see it in his eyes, the youth’s, the boy who missed his friend a little too much, a little too hard, a little too lovingly. You recognized it in him because you’ve seen it in the mirror for years. Which is why you don’t have one in your house, why you smashed the one you had as an heirloom from your mother, your hateful mother who gave you a dying gift of a gilded mirror with a Post-It note on the back reading “Behave.” As if you hadn’t been. As if you hadn’t already reformed your ways and become the man you are today.
The teakettle is whistling away when you get inside and you rush to turn the gas off. You forgot you’d put it on and left it on. You could have burned out the bottom of the kettle, which is darker now than it used to be but still usable. You could have started a fire. You could have let the flames take your possessions, your house, your calling. The pictures. You collapse in a chair. Not the pictures. Never the pictures. You’ve tried to burn those before. It hasn’t worked. Though if it were out of your hands… In God’s…
But God didn’t burn down your house. And He hasn’t struck you down yet, despite your sins. He is forgiving, like they told you He would be. And He is merciful, which is not the same. You get up and pour your tea, saying your prayers silently, thanking the God and the man who became God and was God all along for your salvation, for the life you’ve come to live. For your safety and security.
A knock on the door makes you spill hot liquid on your hand and you curse, your usual goddamnit, which somehow you haven’t managed to train yourself out of. And the knock comes again as you’re running the cold tap on your hand and apologizing for the curse, for blaspheming. You think it must be the boy, the boy in love with a boy who’s dead, the boy whose eyes you could have drowned in and whose voice, traced with the slightest English accent, you wanted to feel vibrating through his throat. Your insides jump. You have kept yourself away from temptation for so many years. If it falls into your lap, what will you do? Whatcha gonna do when they come for you? You haven’t listened to music in a long time, not music that is solely for pleasure, but you remember lyrics from before.
“Who is it?” you ask, because there is no peephole in the not-heavy door that could be broken by the slightest fisted or shouldered pressure.
“It’s me!”
You start breathing again and allow your shoulders to slump. It’s not the boy. Of course not. Even if he did dream the way you think he does, why would he come to you and yours about it? “Come on in,” you say and open the door.
“Finally.” She barrels in like a hurricane. Named for one, too, the one that started on the day she was born, on a rooftop above floating cars and carcasses. It was bad luck, you always think. But there’s no such thing as bad luck, you always remind yourself. Still.
“Hello, Kat.” She’s already sitting on a chair, her hands wrapped around your mug of tea. You turn to make another one, not wanting her to see the annoyance on your face. She’s quick to pick up on these things.
“Hello! It’s late,” she says. “Why are you still up?”
“Why did you come visit me if you thought I wouldn’t be up?”
“I wanted to wake you up! You’re always funner when you’re sleepy. And funnier.”
“More fun.”
“More fun.”
“I checked. Online. Funner is okay now too.”
“Never mind.” It’s a losing battle and you know it. You don’t have internet in your own house , though ironically the church has free wi-fi that just doesn’t reach as far as your house, so you have to carry your laptop there and sit in a hard pew if you want to write emails or read articles.
“So what’re you doing?”
“I was having tea until you took it.” You’re over your annoyance now so you bop her on the nose with the new teabag before putting it in another mug of hot water to steep.
“Sorry.” She doesn’t sound apologetic.
“What are you doing?” you ask.
“Drinking your tea,” she says, grinning, which twists her upper lip to one side. She had a cleft pallet surgery when she was young; she’s never told you this, but the scarring on her lip, clearly not taken care of well after some reparative surgery or it would have gone away, has marked her. You looked up pictures to figure out what she could be scarred from and then wished you hadn’t. Children with mouths gaping open, some with their entire cheeks torn asunder-it made you wonder why they’d been marked that way. What they’d do later in life. What God’s plan was.
“Yes. You are. But why are you here?” You don’t need to add “this time” because you both know that’s what you’re really asking. Katrina shrugs and plays with the string of the teabag, tucking it in and out of itself in the knot you taught her how to make around the handle of the mug.
“He did it again.”
When she’d first started coming over after dark, after she’d met him at church and been to confession a few times, you were apprehensive about what “it” was. You thought “it” was even worse than it was. Not that her “it” isn’t bad enough. But-and it’s terrible that you think this way-it’s better than what your dad did to you when you were her age. You’d have exchanged those its in a heartbeat. Especially as your it, you believe, is what made you what you are and what led to your positive diagnosis, which led first to recklessness and then to self flagellation in the form of a different sort of recklessness, and finally led you here, to Him. But here she is, led to you by her him more than your Him.
You wait her out.
“With a belt this time.”
You want to wretch, though you’ve heard worse over the years, but usually with the pretense of a wall between you and the other. This girl, so vulnerable but trusting… What if you were someone like him, this so-called father of hers, rather than a Father whose vows and beliefs run entirely contrary to his? What if you were one of the priests whose behavior is so repugnant that finally they are being expelled, slowly but surely, or at least attacked in the court of public opinion? But Katrina, she knows you’re trustworthy. She sees you as you are and she knows that you’ll take her into your home and sit with her alone and that you will do nothing, not touch her, not hit her, not yell at her. You will listen to her and you won’t make the faces she’s seen on others. You will keep your face calm for her, to make it easier.
“With a belt, huh?”
“Was he really angry?”
“He was really drunk.”
“Ah, yes. Well. What was his reasoning?”
She shrugs again. Takes a sip of tea and then says “Fuck!” You give her a look. She mumbles an apology she doesn’t mean. “No. He was drunk.” As if that is explanation enough. “He smelled bad when he got home so I told him so and then he-” She mimes the lashes.
“That’s no reason. That’s an excuse.”
“I was mean.”
“No, honey. You were honest.”

A Delightful Review of C. A. Higgins’ “Lightless”

An apology: excuse the title pun. 

(Interview with C.A. Higgins)

Reading a book for review can be very different than reading it for fun. This isn’t to say that reading books that one intends to review isn’t enjoyable, but there is a kind of mental awareness one has to keep while reading in order to review the book well and fairly. But every once in a while, a book comes along that sweeps that mental blockade away and forces the reviewer to enjoy it for what it is: a riveting novel. Lightless by C. A. Higgins (out today) was one of these books. I tried and failed to make sufficient notes in the margins as I read (looking back at the advance reader copy, there aren’t any past page fifty or so), and I walked around my apartment with my nose stuck in it when I should have been doing other things such as, you know, working.

Lightless features a very small cast of characters, which makes  it feel incredibly intimate, as if you’re climbing into a box with them. You are, in a way, as the entire book takes place in an enclosure, a spaceship named Ananke, whose power comes from a fascinating source which is hinted at throughout the book (partly through the section titles which name and define the laws of thermodynamics), but that power source isn’t revealed until later on, and certainly won’t be spoiled here.

The character we start with, and whose movements guide us through the novel, is Althea, the ship’s technician and mechanic, the woman who created and coded the ship’s interfaces and built her inner workings from the ground up (the ship is always referred to as her, just like a ship at sea). At the start of the novel, Althea detects that there are intruders on the Ananke and she and the captain, Domitian, catch two men who managed to sneak onto the ship, landing in the docking bay and boarding without the ship sounding any alert. The two men are put in separate rooms for interrogation, though one manages to escape; the other, Ivanov, is charming and glib, and he is also the one who knows what buttons to press in Althea to get her to exhibit any emotion – most of the time, she is as stoic as her ship is, breaking the trope that the only woman in a small crew must be its emotional center. If anything, the ship is more emotional and fussy than Althea is; the Ananke begins to malfunction for mysterious reasons and Althea has to wrestle with her to keep her quiet.

In the world of Lightless there is a Big Brother-like System which is all-powerful and all-knowing, or so it claims. The Ananke is a System ship, and her crew are loyal to the System and the order it keeps in the intergalactic futuristic universe the novel takes place in. Like any despotic government, there are rebellions that arise and are quashed, destroying whole planets at times, but there are also small terrorist cells which gnaw at the System’s hindquarters, providing enough of a pain in the ass to put themselves on the System’s radar. The intruders at the novel’s start are believed to be part of one particular terrorist organization, and a System interrogator, Ida Stays, is dispatched to the ship to get the necessary information out of Ivanov, as she arrives too late to interview his escaped colleague.

Beyond this point, plot synopsis will begin to include spoilers. Suffice to say that there is a continuous evolution that takes place in Lightlesswhether it is characters’ motives, plot points that bloom out of one another in neat synchronicity, or the realization that the book is in some ways a locked-door mystery.

C. A. Higgins is a debut novelist, and she has the gumption and the skill to dump us unceremoniously right into the middle of the world she’s very clearly labored over and built. She trusts her readers to follow along, and they will; she doesn’t make it hard to understand where the plot is set or who its main characters are, but she also refuses to give unnecessary exposition, to describe to us a long, long time in the future, in a galaxy far, far away. This is one of the best things about Lightless – the fact that its world is expertly established through scenes and storytelling. There are stories within stories in this novel, as Ivanov is interrogated, as Althea is asked prying questions, and as the Ananke herself develops strange malfunctions that seem to be attempts at communication. That all this works so flawlessly and without confusion is admirable in a first book.


When I first read Lightless, I had no idea that I would be lucky enough to speak to C. A. Higgins and interview her for my podcast, The Other Stories. Eventually, though, I did, and so tomorrow, Wednesday, September 30th, I will be linking the marvelous interview with the articulate, thoughtful, and intelligent author here. Please do tune in – she is well worth listening to.

Raggedy Ana Does It Again

Why does she do this to herself? Her arms are so pretty so shiny and squeaky clean skin soft like lovers say and here she lies in a bed of roses or rose drops or blood drops in a bathtub or red ties on the metal rails of a hospital bed.

…Mom Dad Someone

We’re right here, darling.

You are

Yes, can’t you see us?

I can see I don’t know what I’m seeing where am I how and why am I tied I don’t like

You tried to do it again, sweetheart.

I did


How this time

The same as usual.

No different


No change


And she starts to laugh, the maniacal laughter that comes from being found freshly alive in a heapful of bodies, all the ones that live in her head, all with her face on them. But none of the others go the way she can, they’re all mangled or strangled or squashed against concrete or cartop or poisoned with malaise and arsenic but she, the one found alive no matter how far she burrows down into the heap is the only one who can’t get it right, too enamored with the process to let it go all the way.

Have I been here long

No, hon, only a couple of days. I miss you, though.

Are you sleeping with her already

No! Why would I do that? I love you. Only you.

You won’t not for long trust me

Yes, I will.


She will heal again, one sealed stitch at a time, a rag doll more than anything, dragging on everyone’s nerves, grating their elephantine skin and peeling their waxen faces and breaking them until they’ve broken her to fix her and put her back together again like a watch without a face and only the hands moving correctly, finally, until the next time someone, her most likely but sometimes someone else, accidentally or on purpose reaches into the clock and wrenches the hands up and out and breaks them, or twists them the wrong way until the time is all gone and out of shape.

Hello is anyone there

I knew you’d leave all of you proved you right didn’t I

Oh there you are you just don’t want to talk because you’re crying


The last one lasted longer than you you’re leaving now aren’t you



And she will still heal again, and it won’t matter how many times she is broken and picks herself up again, or gets picked up again, or has the crows pick her clean as carrion again, she will always go back to the old scars, she doesn’t pick new ones, it’s been long enough that she has her favorite places where things open again and open so well and so tasty, the blood melts in her mouth like curry, pudding, chocolate cake with candles in it. Burning the roof of her mouth. Scorching her until she laughs again for no good reason other than the swallowed cigarette trick she remembers from an old black and white movie and always imagined must have felt like this.

Good morning. How are you feeling?

Cat got your tongue?

Oh, I see. Yes, I see. That’ll definitely sting for a few days. But it’ll heal. The mouth is the fastest part of our bodies to heal, did you know that?

It’s because of all the blood vessels there. The mouth is very resilient.

hith ith

Better you try not to speak until it heals, sugar. The doctor will come later and see if we can remove these ties, okay?

Oh ey

Good girl. Or woman, I should say, shouldn’t I? Forty-six, you’re as old as my oldest daughter.

That’s right. Just buzz if you need water or anything. It’ll heal fast, I promise.

Let It Not Be Said

“Ma, come out of the shower.”
“Ma. Ma, come on.”
Melanie stands outside the bathroom door, practicing the now nightly ritual in which her mother locks herself in the bathroom, gets in the shower with at least some of her garments still on, and refuses to come out. There is only one bathroom in the small house, and the closest neighbors are over five miles away.
In retrospect, Melanie thinks she should have had her mother move to Atlanta with her rather than moving back to her childhood home, which used to be a farm but is now a small house with acres of land rented out to corporate growers. Where a stable once stood, there is now a rotting semblance of a building where termites, the exterminator told her, were impossible to get out now. All he could do was protect the house from their spread. Which was something, at least, Melanie thought, hoping that the extra favors she’d given him helped to make sure that he did the job right.
A girl could get mighty lonely living with her possibly senile, maybe paranoid, and most definitely difficult mother for over a year.
“Ma, I need to pee.”
“No! They’re coming to get me, don’t you get it?” This is hissed now, as Melanie’s mother moves from her obstinate stance to one that had a reasoning, whether invented or truly believed.
“No one is coming for you.”
Melanie sighs and walks away from the bathroom towards her childhood bedroom.
“Don’t leave me!” The cry echoes after her, but Melanie knows that if she were to rush back to the door, her mother would revert to nay-saying.
In her room, covered with posters of irrelevant and broken up boy-bands, models, and basketball players that Melanie didn’t bother to take down when she first moved in, she picks up the paperclip she’s been using for the last few nights.
“I’m here again, Ma,” she says, back at the door, on her knees in front of the doorknob.
“Go away! Let them find me! Save yourself, baby!” The cliches came fast and automatic, echoes of movies Melanie and her mother had watched over and over again, years ago. This is her mother’s grand performance, the role of a lifetime played by a woman who’d never wanted to be an actress. All she’d wanted to be was a rodeo rider, but that was only for boys when she was a girl, so she became a factory worker instead, and then a homemaker, and then an sort of Jill-of-all-trades when it came to anything involving a needle and thread. She altered wedding dresses, made baby clothing out of hand-me-down big brother rags, patched together old family quilts, and hid teenagers unwanted pregnancies for as long as she could by letting out hemlines and creating collage shirts that seemed like the height of alternative fashion, clashing patterns purposefully loud so as to distract from the bump of a belly under them.
There hasn’t been a needle in the house since Melanie moved in, soon after her mother tried to commit suicide with them, a process so ridiculous that Melanie almost started to laugh when she saw the doctor’s photos of her mother looking like she’d been to the acupuncturist and gotten up and wandered home before the treatment was over.
“Ma, I’m coming in now.” Melanie begins to pick the lock, deciding that tonight she will finally unscrew the doorknob and make the door unlockable for once and for all.
But her paperclip isn’t working. Or then again, it is working, she can hear and feel the lock moving but she still can’t open the door. “What have you done now?” she yells through the door.
“I’m only protecting myself, Mel! You of all people should understand that!”
Melanie regrets now more than ever having confessed her rape to her mother. It didn’t heal her, and it’s only given her mother more bizarre ammunition to use against her now. Melanie moves to the living room and then the kitchen and finds what she’s looking for – an absence. A chair missing. Her mother has used the old chair-under-the-doorknob thing. Melanie has always thought that this only works in movies, but as her mother is putting on a Raspberry-worthy performance at the moment, she assumes that her life is simply like this now. Melanie is nothing if not a realist.
“Ma?” Back at the door, she tries again. “Ma!”
“No!” It’s a screech.
“Okay, Ma, I’m going to go pee outside and then I’m going to bed without brushing my teeth.” Melanie walks to the front door and as she opens it she hears behind her the opening of the bathroom door.
Her mother, underwear soaking and her bra undone in the back but still dangling on its straps around her shoulders, stands in the doorway.
“Don’t be silly, Mel,” she says. “You can’t go to bed without brushing your teeth.” She traipses along the hallway to her bedroom and lies on top of the bedspread and stares at the ceiling. Melanie watches her for a moment and then goes back to the bathroom where the shower is still running. She shuts the water off, pees, brushes her teeth, and then returns to her mother’s room. She will dry her, dress her, and give her the medication she is still getting used to. She will put her to bed and kiss her goodnight. And then, as she does only every so often, Melanie will put on boxer shorts and a tank top and she’ll crawl into her mother’s bed and lie there, awake, listening to her mother breathing, snoring, dreaming. And Melanie will pretend that she is six, and that her mother’s snores help to put her asleep. And she will pretend that there will be cereal and chocolate milk in the morning and a yellow school bus stopping a mile down the road to take her to school. And she will remember her mother waking her up and telling her she sleepwalked into her big grownup bed again, and herself pretending that she did indeed, and that it wasn’t on purpose.

No, I Won’t Have a Heart Attack

When I know that they… And I know that I… There is a space in between where something happens and… But what if the shoe was on the other hand, tied tight with a sock puppet buried inside, casketed? Some things are best left unexplained, unexamined, unreliable, unrefined, underwater, undefined.

So when they… And I… And we together… And if only they wouldn’t… If only I couldn’t… There is a space in between where nothing needs to happen but… And what if the sock was in the laundry hamper, with a pair of jeans with tissue inside a pocket, and the washer/dryer at the laundromat covered all your shirts with white puffballs? Nothing would be clean, holy, sanctified, refined, defined, examined, but it would be explained: tissue in your jeans’ pocket.

And where do you… and they… How do we all… Doing things isn’t as hard as the space between where nothing happens and nothing proceeds and movement is restricted to peripheral limbs only, creating a vacuum of the face, an inability to speak or hear or see the evil, if it is evil, or the good, if it is good, or the grey, the in between, which most things are.

When you know that I… And that they… Correct me if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t I be working on things other than midnight lyrics and fortune cookie lines running through my head at a speed too fast to keep track of? So when my coffee gets… And I want to… Because there’s more but not enough… What then? What do I do then?

In the morning afterlight, the spaces in between come close together, the light drains out the Dark Matter, and a face as light as air and heavy as a stone is yours or theirs and… But maybe… Because… And after all… You understand me, don’t you?

Don’t word things at me, hurl them if you must but don’t be delicate. Remember I am not a poet. I am a straightforward mess of a manchild and my expressions are few and far between. So if… And I know that if also… Am I here with you or am I alone? Where are the spaces in between where I found you?

Because… And here I’m being serious, take my words for it, because what if… And that actually… And you aren’t… And I’m not… But what about them? And my jeans? And where is my coffee and my running shoes and sock puppet? Where are my underwear and where is my jersey, where are my shorts and where are my headphones. I’m going out to… I’ll be back when…

No, I won’t have a heart attack. Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll be home for dinner.

Never Has She Ever

1. She never listened to her father’s absence of breath.
2. She never said No when it really mattered.
3. She never said Yes when it didn’t.
4. She never watched her mother cry in the mornings.
5. She never learned how to prevent everyone else’s pain.
6. She never learned how to prevent her own.
7. She never dove in headfirst knowing what was waiting on the other side.
8. She never clarified the terms of her contract.
9. She never bothered to create legally binding contracts for her clients.
10. She never paid her taxes without someone else’s help.
11. She never corrected her own grammar if she thought she could get away with it.
12. She never became a ballerina.
13. Or an actress.
14. Or a dishwasher.
15. She never stopped loving anyone.
16. She never liked someone in the same way as they liked her because she believed that it was a human impossibility to like and be equally liked in return.
17. She never learned how to hate.
18. She never learned how to avoid jealousy.
19. Or envy (which is different).
20. Or schadenfreude.
21. Or guilt.
22. She never learned how to horseback ride.
23. She never took a step off a twenty-five story high building.
24. She never shot herself full of things she wished she could, even for the story.
25. She never felt entirely sure.

Gold-Ringed Syringe

“Put it in me already,” Nell says through the strap in her teeth. I tease her, waving it slowly in front of her, the beautiful gold needle that has a ring to one side for one’s thumb, to keep it steady, a ring which is almost an exact replica of those surrounding our fingers.

“We’re celebrating today, remember?” I say. She nods vigorously, her veins popping out, her head pulling back to pull the pure leather belt around her upper arm even tighter. I’m worried she’ll end up cutting off her bloodstream entirely. “Calm down.” It’s a command, not a request, and she lets the strap loosen just enough. “Good. Good girl.”

She moans, and her eyes are brimming with tears, which she learned to bring on artificially in some acting class in college, but it convinces me and I finally put the needle to her vein, slip it under the skin and draw back, see the blood, no air bubbles, and push back, plunging all the way down, all the way into her. She lets the strap loose, or it falls out of her mouth, and her eyes roll up to the ceiling and she smiles lazily before even that amount of work is too much for muscles and her face goes slack. I pick her up – I’m taller and stronger than her, always have been, they call me the butch, even though they don’t know what a top she is in the bedroom – and lay her down on the couch.

I watch her, ignoring her occasional mumbles about things we need to remember to do, or things she wants me to do to her now. She’s not gone to the world, not entirely, but she is in the land of cotton wool lightness and lying down keeps her safe. Plenty of people walk around like this, but Nell and I have never understood how it’s possible.

My phone buzzes on the coffee table and I pick it up. It’s one of my clients. I automatically begin to pace.

“Hello, Tonya, how are you?”

She tells me how she is and begins to ask about her portfolio, about what I’ve done with her investments this week. She’s not seeing the rise she wants to see.
“Tonya, darling, don’t you trust me? I would never steer you wrong. I can tell you that the two new companies are going places, you just need to wait until the end of the week, you’ll see – they have something new up their sleeve is my guess because they’ve been throwing a lot of hints out there.”

She continues to complain and I sit back down on the coffee table and only listen with half an ear. I watch Nell, smiling again sometimes, her eyes opening and closing slowly, an air bubble popping through her lips and making her simulate a giggle though no sound comes out. I reassure Tonya, finally, and tell her I’ll call her on Friday. I need to stop giving clients my cell number, I remind myself, but they need it, unfortunately. I’m extraordinary at what I do – otherwise how could Nell and I afford this place, this syringe, the clean as fuck dope – and people who make money off of me are paying commissions up the wazoo so I better be available to wipe their ass if need be.

There is only one day I don’t answer the phone, and that’s the day when Nell does it to me. We take turns, once a week her, once a week me. We’re careful. We love it. We still go to meetings, and fake our way through chip after chip. Every one we get we bore a hole into and string it on this long ribbon that we hang on our balcony. It rattles, our personal version of wind chimes.
We like the meetings, the validation, the friends we’ve made, the comradery. And we feel fine.

Once a week for each of us. That’s it. That’s nothing. And it doesn’t count because we monitor one another. We’ll never hit bottom again. Bottom wasn’t fun, and we’re both happy to be here, up top. Nell’s massage business is booming and I’m back on Wall Street like nothing ever happened. So what if I met Nell at rehab. So what if you’re not supposed to date there, or in your first year after. It’s okay. We both talk to our sponsors about it. You don’t run away from the love of your life when you encounter her, no matter where you both are.

Nell raises her head a few hours later. I’m curled up at the other end of the couch with a book, playing with the syringe between my fingers. I’ve always had restless hands. “More?” she asks. I smile, and go and get the rest of the kit. What’s one more time in one day? Still nothing.