a sex toy shop – margaret reynolds

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“How’d you come up with the store’s name?” the director asks Marissa, our store manager.

Marissa and the documentary crew have set up in the BDSM corner today, their shot backdropped by feather ticklers and paddles. The other employees — Jay and Arman — and I are pretending to restock lingerie while secretly watching the interview.

“Well, we brainstormed a couple of ideas. Our first one was — A Sex Toy Shop for Misfits and Mutants. But then the sign people quoted us about a million dollars for that name,” Marissa speaks crisply. Smacks hard on her consonants. I’m guessing she’s spitting because the cameraman keeps backing away from her, only to bump into the mannequin sporting a strapon.

“Why would you call it ‘A Sex Toy Shop for Misfits and Mutants’?” the director asks.

“No one warned him?” I whisper to Jay.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” Marissa smiles at the director and then winks at us. Fuck, she knows we aren’t working. I hurriedly shove more knee-high stockings onto the shelf.

“Ok, I guess… What was your…” the director cuts himself off and throws his arms into the air. “Brett! Will you stop fucking moving. Our footage is going to be shaky.”

Brett, the cameraman, sulks back towards Marissa, glaring in turns at the director and the strapon mannequin.

The director sighs, “As I was saying, what other names did you come up with?”
Marissa smacks her lips again. I see Brett’s nostrils flare, but after getting a nasty side look from the director, he stays put.

“Well, we cut it to Misfits and Mutants, but then Jay said people are going to think we are literally selling misfits and mutants. Like mutant trafficking, I guess. He’s very dramatic like that,” Marissa’s shaking her head. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Arman’s eyes go wide. Probably picturing the director cutting Marissa saying “mutant trafficking, I guess” and using it for god knows what.

“I suggested just Dildos,” Marissa waves her hand across the air, like she’s presenting a Broadway play, before frowning. “But everyone said the name would be limiting. I mean, we have a fabulous dildo collection, don’t get me wrong. However, we don’t want people to think that we only sell dildos.”

“The other ideas were — Paddles for Non-Gendered Pussies, Misfit Magic ;), and Demons, Dildos, and Desire. Oh my!” Marissa counts the names off on her fingers.

“So why’d you go with Sex Toys.”

Marissa shrugs and pulls out her whiny, I’m mimicking corporate voice, “Oh, well, corporate called and said, ‘Franchises don’t get to choose their own name,’ or something dumb and uninspired liked that.”

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“So, Callie, what’s your favorite part of working at the store?” the director asks me.
Jay and I are in the breakroom, sitting across from the director. Jay’s arms are crossed.
Marissa told Jay him he had to give at least one interview for the documentary about the store. Jay told Marrissa she was essentializing trans dudes to improve the diversity of the documentary. Marissa told Jay that he was a self-centered twat, not everything was about him, and all employees were required to give at least one interview. Jay told Marissa he didn’t appreciate her using feminine-gendered insults like twat. Marissa told Jay she calls everyone a twat and then, to prove it, summoned Arman and called him a twat. Arman told Marissa he didn’t mind being called that, even though he was obviously heartbroken (his cheeks got all saggy and his lips got all sad duck). Marissa told us to go just get on with the interview for christ’s sake and then had to leave and apologize to Arman and tell him she didn’t really think he was a twat and that she actually considered him a very good employee.

So Jay and I were abandoned to the somewhat shell-shocked director.

“The support group is nice, I guess,” I respond to the director.
Director: “What support group?”

Me: “Oh, I mean there’s a couple, but the shapeshifter one is obviously helpful for me.”

Director: “What?”

Me: “I mean, the support group is like, helping me come to terms with my chameleon-ing. For so many years I felt like I had the worst power. Like when will I ever need to look like a paisley chair? Plus it just feels like the Shapeshifter Power Giving Gods, or whoever the fuck hands this shit out, gave me the most mysoginistic power they had.

Like Jay gets to change all of his body hair, and I’m stuck with blending in with my environment? Isn’t that basically underscoring the narrative that femmes should be invisible? Anyhow, I guess the Shapeshifter Power Giving Gods probs don’t really worry about gender stereotypes. But the Shapeshifter Support Group is, uh, helpful, yea. To answer your question.”

Director: “Wait, WHAT?”

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“So, welcome to the Shapeshifter Support Group!” Jay beams around the circle, gives a thumbs up to the doc crew sitting in the corner, and continues to read off the notes in front of him, “After after our discussion last week, we agreed to go with pronouns, powers, and pastries as our introduction?”

“We wanted something alliterative,” I say.

“We wanted something tasty,” Ella winks at us from across the chair circle that we set up close to the register.

“Well I’m Jay. My pronouns are he, him. I can shift my hair. All my body hair,” Jay winks at me. I roll my eyes. Done with today’s fucking winking trend. “And I like… bagels?”

“Bagels aren’t a pastry,” the new guy next to Jay mutters and folds his arms.

“What’s the definition of a pastry?” Jay makes a face at the new guy.

“Maybe it has to be sweet?” I say. A few people in the circle nod. Ella cups their chin thoughtfully. Aaron closes zir eyes. I check my watch. Aaron has never made it longer than three minutes into support group before ze disappears. Literally. We’ve made it seven minutes, so that’s exciting. I give Aaron a thumbs up, and the next second, zir chair is empty.

“Damnit,” I mutter under my breath.

“What?” Jay looks at me, and when I don’t respond, he continues, “Ok, fine, a strawberry bagel. I pick a strawberry bagel as my pastry.”

“Well…” new guy taps their cheek as they think.

“Does anybody make strawberry bagels?” Ella calls across the circle.

“So I think we should just move on to the next person. Jay, we’ll come back to you regarding the pastry part of your intro,” I sigh, staring at Aaron’s empty chair. I point at the new guy, “I think you’re next.”

“Fine. I’m Emmanuel. My pronouns are they, them. My pastry is toast,” new guy says.

Jay throws his hands into the air. His midnight skin flushes red, “You get toast?! And I can’t have a bagel?!”

“Toast with jam,” Emmanuel shrugs. “It’s sweet.”

Emmanuel glares around the circle. Ella nods supportively. Jay rolls his eyes. The air above Aaron’s chair seems to shift in a neutral way.

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The director appears one afternoon to show us some edited clips his documentary team has been working on.

“I think these clips will give you a sense of the documentary’s main mission: to humanize and normalize different sexualities, and uh, abilities,” director man says.

“To humanize and normalize dildos,” Jay smirks and lazily drapes an arm across the back of my chair.

“Could you be serious for one second?” Arman squints his eyes at Jay.

Jay squints back at Arman, “Could you be not-ugly for one second?”

Marissa squints at everyone, “I think we are losing focus here.”

“Anyway….” the director clears his throat. “I am first going to show you a clip of Callie describing an experience with your district manager, Alec.”

I swallow loudly and end up coughing on my own spit. Jay pats my back. His fingers linger on the nape of my neck, and I wish I could just enjoy the feeling of his well moisturized fingers on my skin. But no. All I can think about his Alec and his pelvis walk.

The director clicks play on the laptop he’s put on the table in front of us. It’s me, sitting in the breakroom corner, a fern close behind me. At one point, I lean back too far back, right into the fern, a leaf poking at the corners of my mouth.

In the clip, I shove the fern away before saying, “So one night, I had to close the store with Alec, the district manager. I was playing my own music, but during cleanup, Alec disappeared into the back. After a minute, a new song comes on, and the lyrics are, ‘TAPE me / TAPE me, my friend / TAPE me / TAPE me again’. It was awful. I was so freaking scared, and I can’t even report it! Because the person I would report to is Alec.”

“I didn’t realize you had such a, uh, deep voice,” Marissa raises her eyebrows at me.

The director shuffles his feet and pauses the video. Looking at a spot above my head, he says, “So we had to censor a few words, dub over them, to make it appropriate for our audience.”

Arman laughs. Doubling over his neatly crossed legs, clasping his hands on his knees, “So we can say ‘vibrator’ and ‘sex toy,’ but not ‘rape’?”

The director nods vigorously, “Yes! I’m so glad you understand. But see, if you need to say ‘rape’, you could instead just say, ‘tape’.”

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Arman tells Marissa he is “camera shy” (though, I guess not for Instagram photos?), so Marissa gives him permission to not do his interview.

“She said I just needed to provide some sort of representation of my experience working at the store,” Arman explains to me, smirking. “So I was wondering, do you know how to use a tape recorder?”

I raise my eyebrows before he hands me a series of drawings tilted, “An Illustrated Guide to Professional Clothing that Fits Over Wings: Arman’s Story.”

“Could you, like, narrate this or something? Then give it to the doc people?” he asks, converting his smirk to a smile I assume he considers sweet.

The next day, I hand him the following recording:

“Arman on Monday: Tight fitting, faux tux t-shirt with an open back.

Arman after Instagramming his outfit and reading the comments on his post for over an hour: ‘Do I have back fat?’

Arman on Tuesday: Detective cloak with two slits in the back. Fedora.

Arman after Jay looked at him: ‘What? It’s Burberry!’

Arman on Wednesday: Double suspenders over a backless button down.

Arman to me: ‘So the cloak was a knock-off, but don’t say anything to Jay…’

Arman on Thursday: Furry pink infinity scarf. No shirt.

Arman to Marissa’s raised eyebrows: ‘Is this against dress code?’”

The recording stops and Arman sighs for at least 10 seconds, rolling his eyes slowly,

“Fine, I’ll just ask Jay to do it.”

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“Callie, we got a new shipment in. I need you to do inventory,” Marissa reads off the clipboard quickly. Chomps on her gum loudly. Blows a bubble and lets it pop over her lips. She scrapes the gum off with her teeth. I’m half-asleep against a locker in the back of the workroom, and only stir because I hear my name.

Marissa continues, “Arman, you’re on register. Jay’s re-stocking. Got it?”

Jay’s leaning back in his chair and raises his arm lazily. Barely makes a right angle.

Marissa chomps her gum louder and sneers at Jay’s hand. Probably wishes she could give him a detention for slouching. Given that the documentary people are sitting in on this team meeting, she’d told us to, “Behave like good school children,” and I think we are all embracing that direction in our own way.

“What?” she narrows her eyes at Jay. “We have to get the store open.”

“People have been asking questions about the Jesus dildo.” Jay drapes himself smugly against the back of his chair.

“What fucking Jesus dildo?” Marissa smacks her lips at each of us in turn. Arman’s eyes go wide. He stares determinately at a spider web in the corner.

I clear my throat, fully awake now, and shoot Jay a nasty look. “They came in last week. I think Alec ordered them.”

“That little…” Marissa bites her tongue and straightens her suit coat. “What questions, Jay?”

“Like why do we have a Jesus dildo? That old lady from the nursing home, who’s always coming in on her days out? She was super upset about it.” Jay’s tapping his feet and bites his lip to keep from laughing. It makes his dimples turn down in a stupid cute way. Even Arman, fucking lick Marissa’s asshole Arman, is covering his mouth as if he’s yawning.
“So what do we say to them?” Jay continues when Marissa doesn’t answer.

She slides her glasses onto her head and rubs her hand down her face.

“Just say…. Well, I guess, just say…” Marissa sighs deeply. “Say some customers feel it brings them closer to Jesus.”

Arman gawks. “Closer to Jesus? Like in a spiritual way?”

“I mean, I think it’s pretty literal. Since it’s a dildo,” Jay snickers.

“Just go open the store,” Marissa points at the door and taps her foot until we file out.

Ten minutes later, the bell rings, and a regular walks in. He’s middle-management at some corporate office across the street, and he has an impressive collection of pink polos and prostate stimulators. He does his regular loop then heads to the register.

“Why’d you start carrying a Jesus dildo?” he asks Arman.

I look up to see Arman stare at Marissa’s office, waiting for a save. When nothing comes, he shakes his head and says, “Well some customers say, it uh, brings them closer to Jesus.”

I can only see the back of Middle Management’s balding head, but I can see that he doesn’t respond. The register is having a slow day. Taking a full minute to process credit cards.

As the silence stretches out, Arman begins to sweat. Swipes his forehead. Scratches his ear. Eventually he clears his throat.

“You know. Closer to Jesus. Since you put Jesus inside yourself. Because its a didlo. So, uh, yea. Closer. To Jesus. I mean it’s kind of literal, I guess…” Arman begins to ramble.
“Got it. Thanks,” Pink Polo says quickly, grabbing his bejeweled butt plug and making a beeline for the door.

Jay hoots, looks over to where the doc crew is situated, and says directly into the camera lens, “We’re a regular fucking church! Hallelujah!”


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Margaret Reynolds is a genderqueer author and educator based in Colorado. They enjoy writing queer romance with a sprinkle of ghost. You can find their fiction in The Thought Erotic and Danse Macabre. WEBSITE | TWITTER

Cover photo: Michael Prewett

 

 

 

 

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you wish to speak – megan heise

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you wish to speak.

once
during
yr reading
in Arizona
u said u hadn’t ever met
another asexual person and shay said their
partner was ace and asked u to
sign yr chap w a
kiss write i’m
here i’m
queer

M didn’t speak for 4 months all the words tumbled out stone.

You dont speak now. You write to your spirits. Say hi wanna join me at work then forget. In Dani’s class you drew the bridge to nowhere. Said to the class I’m moving back home. He met you at the underpass many weeks later. Continues to meet you there. Connecting spirits to one another. Her name appearing in a computer glitch. His blood staining the highway. You dream of avoiding her and all your unresolved guilt. Codependents think they are responsible for other ppl’s emotions she tells you. You are codependent you say. Except you know you really are responsible for other ppl’s emotions. You made your mother’s depression worse. And now you are twisting the knife into grief wounds. Reaching out again after so many years to say sorry. After not even sending in your rsvp for their wedding. He says no hard feelings but she disagrees.

2 out of 6 shelves are clean which is to say you have cleaned off 2 out of the 6 shelves you are endeavoring to clean off which is to say you are attempting to acknowledge your agency which is to say you want to SPEAK in the ACTive voice which is to say you wish to say that which you’ve been trying to say which is to say you will say that which you’ve been trying to say which is to say you are.

the fears are twofold one is that yes he really was a dick and to like him is to be a dick yourself and that so many pretentious dicks like him so does that make you a dick too and the other is the fear of running out that you’ll want more but there will be no more left to consume to receive

he was one of your ghosts too you realize, writing him letters and never asking for a response, never conceiving of the possibility of there being a response. it’s good we never met in life, you used to say. what if i disappointed him. if he disappointed me.

it is hard to set boundaries. with the living. with your living. friends. your spirits. are so much easier. to talk to.

names come to you before you know what they mean you set out to write about queerness and write about ghosts instead you mistype queerness such that autocorrect suggests wildness next to wilderness your ghosts haunt the nighttime forest your dark there with you they love etel adnan too they whisper her messages from you saying thank you keep it up keep asking and of course please

Ahhjjh it has been raining so much and almost always while you’re in your room with the window open your room is off the porch and even your friends who have Major Accomplishments and Better Lives cant say that cant say their room is off the porch whereupon the swing whapped you in the head as a kid when you couldn’t stop crying and had to go to the hospital and for all of your achievements maybe it’s of this one you’re most proud the time you shoved the swing and it swung right back and sent you down to the concrete and fuck if you know what you learned that day but damn did you fall hard

What if u wanna come when u r back from my friends
What if u wanna come it starts at the end of the discussion
What if u want a ride home
What if u want to put them in the same place on my bicep
What if u wanna check in after yr done
What if I can get there btwn herb and space
What if u wanna join me at work then forget to see you and finally give you your bracelets
What if I can get there as a kid is doing lunch with a lot more options
What if we brought our own food and coffee plus obvi karaoke
What if I am outside the first year or not sure when I’ll be headed back
What if I can get there as soon as I will likely be available
What if we can afford it and it’s all just adding it’s been growing wild and then never been growing out of nowhere
What if the same place on earth is that you know what you think
What if the first time last year or so haha I am outside yr apt b4 the boys
What if anyone gets in the evening of course please let me borrow your spirits
What if anyone wants to join at some point in a bit of us maybe it’s a sign
What if u wanna come it starts at the end of the discussion to kickstart conversation with the living in a bit of a snake in this style that looms and then never heard back from my friends yet about rescheduling but I would definitely be down to do what you think and thank you SO MUCH for all of your achievement in the evening of course please include all of this time in your final price for me to come the first time in almost all of the big screen and just left it there to do its work and i are super tight now and laura is a lutherie of the hand tattoo and getting im in town and just wanted to check in w max and toni the first time in almost all of the big screen and just left it there to do its work and i are super tight now and laura is a lutherie of the hand tattoo and getting im in town and just wanted to check in w max and toni the first time in almost all of the big screen and just left it there to do its work and i are super tight now and laura is a lutherie of the hand tattoo and
What if we could be able to swoop the same way
What if anyone who can’t come home would be able to
What if u have my own experience
What if I can get there first

SBGS December


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Megan Heise is a writer and teacher based in Western Pennsylvania. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics from Naropa University and is currently working towards her PhD in Composition and Applied Linguistics at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her creative work has appeared in a number of online and print journals, and she is the author of the chapbook Quasar #6 (Eggtooth Editions). Her website is www.meganheise.com.

Art: Nhia Moua

two poems + a video – hayden dansky

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Grave Nap

 
On the nights
with no degrees left
I tremble when
I think of you
cold and alone lying
on the dark earth where
her bones lay to rest
beside the bones of
her first son
I know you went there
as soon as you were
old enough to drive,
16 and your license was your
ticket to the graveyard.
Finally free
to be alone
in your obsession
Finally free
to grieve
Dear child, and you were
a child.
When your brother
was this age
he was your parent,
died a child.
You can fall
asleep with your family
every night
if you want to
think of them
before you dream
You do not have
to remember where
their flesh was buried

so long as you
let yourself melt
into their ghostly embrace
You can fall
asleep alone
if you want to
give yourself rest
from the memories
squeezing themselves
into your head
You can carry
yourself as you
wake in this world
if you want to
regulate yourself
help yourself
hold yourself
But you will never be
held by your mother again.
Your truth is in death
where your mind
will never go.
Let that be true for
just tonight.
Dream softly of
all that is left
on this earth
waiting
to decay

 

Funeral

 

At my funeral
there will be
only cut lilies
as decoration
so that everyone
will spend their time wondering
almost entirely
about the cut lilies.
How something so beautiful
could smell so bad;
how something
still living, can be dying,
or how something already dead
can still be living.
How long the liminal space
will last for them as humans,
how long it must feel for a lilly,
and if their perspective of
time even matters if
the process of death
is eternal
for every living one.
If we are all just living things dying
or dying things still living
sped up by life
sped up by work
sped up by stress
sped up by fear
and fear
and fear
and fear.
Their hands will touch
my face and they will
swallow the idea of me
Soak in the void
between the present

and imaginary daydreams
that could have happened
between us
if I had only
stayed alive
Trapped in the space
between reality
and dreams
And they will wonder
if it matters
or if it’s all about their perspective
afterall.
If it’s all about what they desire.
And they will wonder
why they ever fed
anything but desire
and pleasure
and love
and hope
Why they did anything
but move towards justice,
demand another world,
smell flowers
uncut,
and pray.

Kiss my forehead
and leave again
and begin again.

 


Head shot 2018Hayden Dansky is a transgender nonbinary rural queer kid trying their best to not to be smothered by capitalism. Their poetry is a process of letting their flesh breathe, of finding oneself and sharing a body that is always in process. Their writing explores the depths of shame, darkness, queerness, addiction and grief. They create and collaborate with local experimental musicians and dancers to create performances that encompass multiple disciplines. They are also a food justice organizer and work to create more participatory and accessible food systems in Boulder, CO.

Photo: Zane Lee

a specific kind of hell: writing and survival in america’s south – blake edward hamilton

a specific hell

A Specific Kind of Hell: Writing and Survival in America’s South

By

Blake Edward Hamilton

 

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Rites

I once had my right eyelid slit open by a neighborhood boy. A gang of them was intent on taking down our yard fence using the full weight of their bodies, shaking and pulling at it with everything they had. My younger sister, while trying militantly to defend our property, didn’t see one of these neighborhood boys grab our hose and then, with a lasso whip of his arm, launch its copper end across the smooth surface of my eyelid. It split open pretty easily. My face was a bright red leak. The fence demolition stopped just for a moment at the sound of my eleven year-old screech, and my sister’s shouts. But then it continued with the same amount of vehemence after I abandoned the chaos, cupping my right eye, and running inside; refuge and salvaged sight had won, momentarily, over the defense of our temporarily vulnerable backyard.

When I write this I catch myself attempting to document the minutia of the cutting, a step-by-step or frame-by-frame, because I wonder if there’s some detail about it that can be discovered, a detail that could speak about what that moment actually meant. Why were they attacking our fence, exactly? While I knew the general cause had to do with my reputation among these boys as a “faggot,” I cannot recall why it began. It was, after all, just one of many moments like it during those years: sessions of trauma repeated on a kind of blurred loop. I hadn’t even stepped outside that day, the mere action of which was usually enough to provoke them.

My mother had just divorced my father and moved us to Edmond, Oklahoma, where most of this would take place; an empty, flat stretch of beige land, underdeveloped except for suburban sites marred by W.M. Levitt housing additions named after creeks, stones, birds, and trees, or sometimes a combination. The houses often invoke the image of innocuous families having just left a church potluck to sit clustered in plastic chairs in a placid, unremarkable backyard while their children played with a Wiffle ball. It is the only place where the 1950s never died: sons still call for Pop out of truck windows and talk big of dating Suzie at the formal; somewhere a poodle skirt is crushed into an armoire, waiting for its release. In Oklahoma, heterosexuality is a bag of golf clubs in dad’s trunk; bleach blond hair in an SUV, chicken-fried steak, and three-two beer. Homosexuality, on the other hand, is The Elephant Man, fried tarantula, Carrie at the prom.

It would be here that I would first hear the word “faggot,” and it would be said to me by a girl in a red shirt sitting in the middle of a school bus on my first day of fifth grade in this new land not far from the city. I chose to sit next to her because she initially appeared friendly, smiling with great welcome, in fact. Only a few minutes after joining her, and nervously staring at the back of the seat, she said to me plainly and coldly, but still smiling, “You’ve seen one faggot, you’ve seen ‘em all.” I don’t know what provoked this, even now, and had wondered what she meant because I did not yet know the word (nor that she was right: I was in fact attracted to men), and I didn’t ask for an explanation. I remained quiet instead. I smiled back, hoping for a return of her original expression, but nothing happened. She’d gone silent. I had already been labeled a “faggot,” so something had shifted, and the fifth grade school day had not yet begun.

Over the years this word would become familiar to the point of numbness. I almost ceased to hear it. But at times I would jump when I heard it shouted. This almost always meant I was about to suffer something more at the hands of a group of girls and guys; all of them from different ethnicities and backgrounds, and teachers of all ages. One teacher, for an entire year, mocked the way I spoke and walked, both in private and in front of other students. She would throw her arms out, drape her hands femininely from the wrist, and say, “Have I got ya down, Blake? Have I got ya down?” I saw her recently at a café and wanted to say something about the way her humiliations made me feel as a seventh grader, but I kept going, and left her there.

Over the years, since I graduated and left Edmond and moved on to many other cities, I have come and gone from Oklahoma, not because I wanted to but because, for different and unexpected reasons, I had no choice. I think we are irresolutely drawn back to places of trauma because they have a kind of inexplicable hold on us that we have to work to get away from. This is even truer if you’re a writer.

Oklahoma has always thought of itself as friendly; that it’s accepting and forgiving; that it’s Christ-like. People like me get in the way of that idea, forcing Oklahomans to become unfriendly, unaccepting, and not Christ-like because this is how the majority of Oklahomans have been taught to treat people who are not hetero-normative. Like many states in the South, Oklahoma often has to confront its idea of itself (a recent, stark example would be when President Obama was welcomed in Oklahoma City by people waving confederate flags at his downtown arrival).

It wants so badly to be the thing it believes it is. At its core, its true nature is not friendly, forgiving and accepting, or anything near Christ-like. The philistine is at home there, a cultural vacuum populated by individuals who have tirelessly worked to create a culture of exclusion in its place based almost solely on religious belief systems. They are likewise oddly defensive of this, as if some amount of indignity percolates right around the edges: we know we’re wrong, but we do it anyway. The maniacal need to be right at any cost is behind much of this kind of religious shaming, to the extent that the Bible Belt chokes on this need regularly.

When I found writing, I was supplied with a way to survive life in the South and what it asked of me – what it asks of anyone not of it.

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The Locale: I

I came to writing through reading. It showed up first through the covers of books on the racks inside grocery stores. Many I collected just for this purpose; their covers were whole mysteries to me. I loved attempting to solve their meanings, their representations – the kind of story I held in my hands. The more symbolic and lurid the covers, the more fascinated I was. The book-object itself quickly became comforting, like a citadel, a friend, unmoved, asking nothing of me, but prepared to give me a world. Stephen King often gets a bad rap as a popular fiction author, but his books were of the first I collected, and some of the most protective.

Life in Oklahoma requires a shield of some kind. Boundaries between people are rare, and if you’re a “person of difference,” (I define this here as an individual not actively contributing to the extenuation of the vacuum – the space in which Oklahomans who are not “of difference,” work to fill with sameness, hoping to make stringent conformity luxuriant) – the shield is the division between dissolution through irrevocable trauma in an environment bereft of empathy, and staying present, alive.

I did not read King’s books until much later. But I would carry them to school, between forearm and chest, author or title proudly displayed. King’s books provided an unambiguous type of shield that I discovered worked better than other books that just made me appear too intellectual, or snobbish. King’s books simply terrified the other students. Smothered in cliques of young, elitist, small-town Christians who had selected me as their resident “homo,” “Faggot,” or “gay-wad,” I now had the power of King’s name. The Stand, Misery, and Night Shift stood as a barrier, a makeshift boundary. Gossip and stares in the hall magically turned inward, and the groups kept a fair distance from me because I was ostensibly reading the stuff their parents had vociferously deemed “demonic,” and it made me a threat on a different, more esoteric level. My alienation had become my own in some ways, and I could claim it. King’s books also made me privileged – the others didn’t get to read “adult material” in the banal halls of middle school.

Only one teacher attempted to undermine this, to take away what she had clearly picked up on, which was my growing sense of insulation, a subtle relief, and a type of confidence, when she said smugly to my fully attuned class, “Don’t you think you could find something more interesting to read, Mr. Hamilton?” This appeared to answer the unspoken concern among my classmates of the “inappropriateness” inherent in my reading material; kids who, too passive to say anything (or too scared of my demonic books), complained to the teacher, an early introduction to mysteries of bureaucracy in action. I brought my books anyway.

Eventually parents learned of the “gay” middle school boy who reads Stephen King sharing space with their children in groups, in teams, in contests. One such parent came charging up to the classroom on a quiet afternoon, shouting that she would not have her child next to “a gay AIDS kid,” a phrase I heard leak through the cracked door as I waited for my teacher’s decision as she tried to calm this woman’s rising hysteria, reaffirming for her that I did not, in fact, have AIDS. My teacher, however, didn’t attempt to argue on behalf of my presumed sexual orientation. The woman’s son was moved to another group, and I was also placed on a different team. I remember feeling as though I had been heaped upon them, and their silence was one of thick discomfort. I was an accidental refugee mixed in with those who already had a dynamic, and they did not want me. This they made clear many times over. I would remain this refugee for years afterward.

When I chose to finally open one of the books I carried around, warped from my sweaty palms, I found humiliation rendered in ways that eclipsed my own for a while.

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Pain

Brett Easton Ellis in a 2012 Art of Fiction interview with The Paris Review revealed that he writes to deal with pain; that this is the principle reason that he writes. He says, “There’s no mark to hit when you’re writing a book. I write books to relieve myself of pain. That’s the prime motivator to write. Period” (Ellis). Mitigation of pain is necessary and rooted at the center of survival; how we choose to cope with its onset, or its infliction, forms the base of this. There are always those who would inflict it, not just individuals, but entities, bureaucracies, formal institutions. Stagnant or suppressed communication also amasses a heavy percentage of this pain center – the inability to assert a voice. Oppressed states and countries know this and have known it throughout history. Our current study and understanding of the Holocaust, for example, and of its absorption of those crimes and horrors, has been a perpetual investigation into just such a state. The greatest pain arrives from the denial of one’s own existence, selfhood taken away by institutions via unjust policy; fascist zealots working to erode the threat of speech, ideas, stories. Human pain is forever ineradicable. It can only be rendered, and thereby trapped in some way. For a writer, it is encapsulated in story. If Kierkegaard was correct, and anxiety is the space between the thing of anticipation and the occurrence of that thing, left for us on ancestral cave walls is anxiety made manifest; the anxious distances between man and the animals and individuals he witnessed, those he chose to represent. They are offerings to us through time, seeking understanding, while also seeking to mitigate old pain through the precision of articulation; this is the nature of all storytelling. For the writer, it is absolution, turning to another who sees, and asking, “Did you see that, too? Or, is it just me?” Another way of looking at this is through the question: am I alone in my sight? Do I see – do I witness – alone?

Orhan Pamuk in his book, The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist, is very clear about the purposes of why we read, why we write. He says, “Gradually I began to see the fundamental knowledge that the center of the novel presented – knowledge about what kind of place the world was, and about the nature of life, not only in the center but everywhere in the novel…a good novel evokes in us a sense of the profound, essential knowledge of what it means to exist in this world, and the nature of that sense” (28). Orhan Pamuk is no stranger to struggle, to the agonies of attempting to communicate through story.

Living and writing in the South is to learn about what it means to live in a kind of abyss, although nothing is reflected back at you when you are “of difference,” except your own difference. Eventually you come to understand, like I did, that staying in it is folly, death. If you want to survive so that you can write about what it means to exist, to struggle through it, you have to leave.

Pamuk goes on to say, “We know from our own experience that our desire to understand the world has a political aspect…” (175). This is happening now. In America, polarization goes far beyond simple policy – it is chronic, inveterate: some states want to make it legal to refuse service to gay men and women; this is to “protect” the religious beliefs of others, not gay men and women’s human rights. Oklahoma is one of these states. It is also a state that wants to assure conversion therapy is a cemented option; something that calls to memory the Americanization of Native Americans, stripped of their cultural identities in favor of a more “acceptable,” or more “palatable/ less savage” identity. This originally comes from Sally Kern, an Oklahoma representative who was once quoted as saying that gays are more of a threat than terrorists. Mary Fallin, the current governor, had this to say when the Federal Government struck down the unconstitutional marriage ban in Oklahoma:

In 2004, voters had an opportunity to decide whether or not to allow same-sex marriage in Oklahoma. Seventy-six percent voted not to, and to instead define marriage as the union between one man and one woman. I was one of the many voters who cast my ballot in favor of traditional marriage. Today’s ruling is another instance of federal courts ignoring the will of the people and trampling on the right of states to govern themselves. In this case, two judges have acted to overturn a law supported Oklahomans. Their decision will be appealed and, I hope, overturned… (Dillon, Fox 25)

What is important about Fallin’s unapologetic response isn’t how indicative it is of unyielding, American polarization, or the unabashed discrimination showing the inherent, fascistic nature of the “state,” but the phrase: the will of the people.

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The Locale: II

My teenage nephew who, at the time of this writing, is now in high school in Oklahoma City, tells me that it’s “getting better here.” He says this because many teenagers in his class are “out,” and as he puts it, no one seems to care. There might be other reasons to look at how this phrase applies, or fails to apply, to the territory, not the least of which is the current mass exodus of underpaid teachers from the state, its 49th percentile ranking in education, or the vast budget deficit and the record amount of anti-LGBTQ bills created in 2016 alone. Data on Oklahoma’s educational environment is enough to question the assumption of marked improvement:

Findings from the GLSEN 2015 National School Climate Survey demonstrate that Oklahoma schools were not safe for most lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) secondary school students. In addition, many LGBTQ students in Oklahoma did not have access to important school resources, such as having Gay-Straight Alliances and similar student clubs and were not protected by comprehensive anti-bullying/ harassment school policies. (1)

The ongoing catchphrase that “it’s getting better” has been found in the last couple of decades across social media and in the general zeitgeist. I find it alarming that seemingly few have spoken of how this phrase is indicative, especially if we return to the discussion of how a place comes to think of itself; that it (whatever “it” is: a time, a mindset, a life?), even needs to “get better” speaks so much to the illness at the center of our current social narrative, and our denial of it. This would encapsulate the stories that communities tell themselves about how they behave towards others. Nevertheless, we all want to believe it’s true: that things are indeed getting better. And maybe they are, but how honest can we be?

According to Mr. Pamuk, there is something sentimental about the novelist. Perhaps, as a writer, I am sentimental for a time that did not exist, and a place that I imagine was once real. This might form the basis for America’s recent overt attraction to literature that explores utopias and dystopias (one and the same, really), because some part of us misses or sentimentalizes a compassionate place that was never there, a place of responsiveness; or a place that reflects its opposite, and therefore aspires to some form of jagged truth.

When I write, it is an attempt to understand where empathy goes; why families place inimical ideologies before their own children, often abandoning these children – someone they raised from the womb to adulthood, someone they held when crying and fed when hungry; I write to generate an explanation for the unresponsive void, the great abyss, places like Oklahoma; I write for those who can’t find a voice, who seek to be heard; like Ellis, I also write to deal with pain, and I write because I refuse to digest the naïve notion that it “gets better” – improvement is, after all, contingent upon the will of the people, and people often remain indisputable products of their environment.

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Artifact

“We didn’t know”: the response of German citizens living near concentration camps when shown starved bodies in mass graves.

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Now

If I’m haunted by anything it’s what we choose to forget, to not witness. Writers wrestle with the idea that not all places are entirely bad or entirely good; contemplative writers try to avoid the absurdity of a binary altogether, even when populations try so hard to excuse behavior with statements such as, “Well, there are people like that everywhere. Well, that happens everywhere. Well, you will find that in all places.” The problem with this kind of thinking, especially when explored via narratives, is that the closeness of the characters creates the environment. It is not incorrect to say that a place is what it is because of who populates it. If we return to Pamuk, he tells us, “It is proximity that lends the art of the novel its irresistible power. Yet the primary focus is not the personality and morality of the leading characters, but the nature of their world. The life of the protagonists, their place in the world, the way they feel, see, and engage with their world – this is the subject of the literary novel” (60). The closer we become to fictional characters, the more we hope to understand, even as we rage against the tired, post-modern simulacra found in so many novels today, where characters often dissolve into self-reflexivity and well-worn caricature.

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Hell

Stephen King made his career writing about a place called Castle Rock. Horrible things happen there; horrible people made some of those things happen. Hell is the paramount place of suffering and punishment, a horror show of endless shame and misery, a place bankrupt of empathy or compassion. Dante’s Hell is cold, frozen by the Devil himself flapping his wings. There are ubiquitous versions of Hades seen through the viewpoint of various ideologies. Some threaten the consumption of souls, torture, mutilation, perpetual humiliation. Dante did the best job envisioning it for us, giving us levels, rendering atrocities and castigations as potently and graphically as he could. It was done so well, one starts to ask if anyone is truly deserving of any of these eternal penances (unless, of course, it is a Betrayer, those furthest down in Dante’s Hell, those closest to Satan.)

How do we betray ourselves? Does it happen when the rights of others are betrayed? Does it occur most often when shaming is the premium modus operandi of a single locale? Stephen King has been trying to tell us that Hell exists; that it’s on earth, and it is mostly other people. Look at us; we do this to ourselves, he says, through his stories of petulant small town violence, bigotry, and monsters both political and ghostly. It is a very specific type of Hell, yet people still live in it. They still inhabit his fictional Maine town, and they always will, begging the clear question of why? Why do we inhabit Hell if we don’t have to? Why do we create Hell for ourselves and others? Why do we stay and burn? A writer often travels a crooked path, for better or worse, but I no longer return to find out.

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References

Dillon, Jay. “Govenor Mary Fallin’s Statement on Same-Sex Marriage Ruling.” July 18th, 2014: Fox 25. http://okcfox.com/archive/governor-mary-fallins-statement-on-same-sex-marriage-ruling. Accessed March 9, 2017.

Ellis, Brett Easton. Interview by Jon-Jon Goulian. The Paris Review, Issue 200, Spring 2012.
https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6127/bret-easton-ellis-the-art-of-fiction-no-216-bret.easton-ellis. Accessed March 9, 2017.

GLSEN. “Oklahoma State Snapshot  – NSCS.pdf. School Climate in Oklahoma.” https://www.glsen.org/content/oklahoma-state-snapshot-2015-nscs. Accessed April             24, 2017.

Pamuk, Orhan. Translated by Nazim Dikbas. The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 2009. Faber and Faber, 2010.

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Blake Edward Hamilton holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University, and currently teaches college English. His work has appeared in World Literature Today Magazine: Windmill, NPR, Bombay Gin Literary Journal, The Guerrilla Lit Mag., and Punch Drunk Press, among others.

Photo: neonbrand