For Jimmy, Who Bruised By Ribs and Busted My Nose

I had a bully who pursued me nearly every day during middle school until one day I’d had enough. I round-house punched him in the face, bloodied his crisp white t-shirt. His dad came to the house and threatened to beat up my dad because I beat up his son. “See, this is why I hate fighting,” I said to my dad. The following poem by Brian Fanelli is dedicated to anyone who has ever had a bully.

In our neighborhood, Fat Jimmy descended the mountain,
his chest heaving like a bull,
ready to maul a matador.

He cracked his scarred knuckles, hunted scrawny prey,
curb stomped our basketballs
like heads he wanted to bash,

or ghost rode our bikes
down the garbage trail dump,
until one day I gripped my handlebars

like a soldier clinging to a rifle,
refusing defeat as Jimmy knocked me to my back,
clocked me in the chin.

Numbed, I laughed as he pounded and pounded,
until my nose gushed, my ribs throbbed,
my skin swelled faster than his heated cheeks.

This poem is for the bully who never cried,
who hid belt lashes from us, who ran from the sound
of his father’s battered Ford tracking him down,

the son whose hands tightened to fists like his father’s,
who uncurled his fingers to study my blood,
and then extended a hand to lift me up.

Pale As Milk

I live in a constellation of memories
of visits to Grandpa Roy and rides on his bulldozer,
visits to the hospitals where Uncle Jeff insisted on illness
for the free room, free meals, the free cable TV,
visits through the phone line after midnight
when Uncle Culby wanted to play me a song
by The Who after a few days off his meds—
we never visited him
in the psych wards or in jail,
we never visited Jeff on the skids,
we never visited our own Pop
aside from Sunday afternoons,
and I wonder now
where he spends his Sundays,
or if his last was spent alone.

We never visited our family’s men for any celebration
until we collectively broke the law
when we broke into that golf course by moonlight
to scatter Grandpa Roy’s ashes
and I sat there in Pop’s driver’s seat, sixteen,
permitted to drive only with an adult
but only my thirteen-year-old brother beside me

as I gripped the wheel and squinted at the shapes
approaching from the darkness—the strangest
figures in full stride—my uncles,
wet from the golf course sprinklers, laughing,
and then Pop’s boots crunching gravel—
the first time I’d seen my father run.
And he too was wet, but also pale as milk,
not laughing, not even in the neighborhood
of a smile,
as I turned the key
and he shoved me from the seat
to drive.

Jason Allen

Jason Allen is a poet and prose writer with an MFA from Pacific University. He is currently living in upstate New York and pursuing a Ph.D. in creative writing at Binghamton University, where he is an editor for Harpur Palate and at work on his first book of poetry, a memoir, and his second novel. His work has been published or is forthcoming in: Passages North, Oregon Literary Review, The Molotov Cocktail, Paterson Literary Review, Spilt Infinitive, Cactus Heart, Pathos, Life With Objects, and other venues. He hopes to one day meet Tom Waits and buy him a cup of coffee.

A Review of “The Arsonist” by Sue Miller

Sue Miller is the best-selling author of such novels as The Lake Shore Limited, The Senator’s Wife, Last in the Forest, The World Below, While I Was Gone, and The Good Mother. Her short-story Inventing the Abbotts became a major motion picture starring Jennifer Connelly, Liv Tyler, Joaquin Phoenix, and Michael Keaton.  The Arsonist is Sue Miller’s eleventh novel. I was drawn in by the line, “Later, Frankie would remember the car speeding past in the dark as she stood at the edge of the old dirt road. She would remember that she had been aware of the smell of smoke for a while.”

It’s interesting to note that The Senator’s Wife and Lake Shore Limited took place during very complex times, in urban settings, where The Arsonist is set in Rural New Hampshire where everything is supposed to be about neighbors and closeness and safety. Pomeroy is the type of town where they hold an annual gathering called The Fourth of July Tea. Grown-ups dressed in their church clothes. Children made to dress up too. For Pomeroy, the event was the official start of summer.  Frankie Rowley has come home from Africa where she was relentlessly involved in relief work. After 15 years, she’s exhausted by the moral implications of how relief work is brokered, and brokenhearted by the end of a relationship with a married man. Craving time to re-calibrate her life, Frankie imagines she’ll enjoy “an easy and very American happiness.” She’ll eat long meals with her retired parents and sleep late in the bedroom “she’d had every summer since she was a child.”

But she has come home to a time of trouble.  Someone in the community is setting fire to houses belonging to “summer people.” The arsonist incinerates more than a dozen houses in this small town, burning away a sense of tranquility and trust along with buildings and furniture. Townsfolk soon feel divided. There are the homestead folk who live in Pomeroy year-round, then there are “those others” who come to town once a year and stay for a mere four months, but who want an equal voice in the town’s business. Are the fires being set by someone who despises the seasonal dwellers? Or are the crimes being carried out by a volunteer firefighter who loves the thrill of fire. Miller isn’t dogmatic on the theme of class, and she ultimately leaves it unresolved, but she’s interested in the friction between modest folks who maintain the town and “chatty, self-assured summer people” who expect it to remain an accommodating setting for their leisure.

Miller explores the way illness strains a relationship and exposes cracks that happier times kept hidden. Frankie’s father, Alfie, is a retired college professor and lover of books. As Alfie drifts into dementia, Frankie’s mother realizes that her loveless marriage is becoming a different kind of prison — one constructed of burden and guilt. Frankie must figure out the ways her parents still need her, or, maybe they don’t.  Miller excels at portraying the manner in which people connect and fail to connect. By contrast, her resolution of the arson mystery — which is really no resolution at all — is less than satisfying. On a thematic level, though, “The Arsonist” boldfaces its points. Miller captures all the complicated nuances of a family in crisis. The book provides a setting that allows us to watch the internal crumbling of Frankie’s family against the backdrop of a typical, quiet New England town in the grips of terror, realizing that times are changing. Distrust of one’s neighbors has come to small-town America.

The Arsonist tells a compelling and intriguing story that is well worth your time.