“Mulciber” by Sean Hogan

This story won honorable mention in our Summer 2011 fiction contest.


The grey over-head blushed white from sunlight; normally, when it wasn’t so bright, you could see Mister Simmons’ balding reflection even from the back of the bus, but today you only saw the meticulous but telling tufts of combed hair. Rows of little heads—brown, blonde and black— swayed to the jostles of the road in rows of blackish grey seats. Ansel in the back, bending his head and timidly raising his hand up to his red hair to make sure the generous amount of gel his mother combed into it hadn’t come undone. With care, he touched the hardened autumn streaks as if briefly tapping the face of a drum. Good, it was still in place.

If Mother was here

STRANGERSSURROUNDING

And my hair was messy

SILLYMIRROR

She’d start fussing

DONTWHYDIDNTTHISTHAT

Kneeling then combing and combing

LIPSCURLEDEYESALLOVERDOLL

Purple plastic claws tearing at my scalp

“Hey, Antsy!” Bringing his head back up, Ansel wondered what he had done this time. Randy’s face, wide and rude, sat on his crossed arms atop the back of his seat, his lips curving into a lopsided smile. “Checking the carrot salad?” Randy’s smile peeled back into laughter, turning rows of little heads around looking at Ansel, laughing at him. Ansel tried to look them in the eyes, but they kept turning to the person next to them and laughing harder. Looking at Randy, who didn’t turn away, Ansel’s face was burning and his chest twisting in on itself. He wanted to say something mean, needed to say something to make Randy sorry for what he’d said. But his mind was blank; all he could think of was how much he hated Randy. “You’re stupid!”

Randy, still grinning, simply turned back into his seat. Ansel felt small and stupid. At least Elenie up in the front hadn’t heard and laughed at him. He didn’t want to see the other children or be here with them anymore, so he looked out of the window at the cars passing by him on the highway. They weren’t cars, not anymore: they were space shuttles.

Shuttles flying across the darkest stretch of pavement

SPREADINGESCAPING

Their huge fiery engines setting them Free

SEEKINGSEPERATING

Free of everything blending together

BOILEDBLANDMIXING

Where Wonder never hides

STRAIGHTYELLOWWHITELINES

Wonder vivid and full with nothing around to dim it

PERFECTSHARPCLEARNESS

Only the black stretch of freedom

They were coming closer to a big lump of trees trying to get closer to the skies. Ansel’s father told him it was called Red Mountain once when he had to bring Ansel along for business at the University. The highway had cleft the mountain in two, and to the right, standing above the trees, was a length of grey, slightly smudged by the blue sky. That must be the Vulcan they’re going to see. Ansel’s shuttle passed the dark grey and rustic scars of Red Mountain, running alongside the highway.


After the bus was parked, they were standing at the ticket booth waiting for Mister Simmons’ to pay for everyone. Up the cement pathway a sandy-stone tower reared up the statue of Vulcan. Everyone was making fun of the statue’s uncovered butt. It was strange, but Ansel didn’t care.

Anvil, Left, and left side, burning white

His arrow, right, and right side pale blue and darkest blue

He doesn’t care what they think

His legs, his butt, his back and arms are naked and unprotected

And he is unafraid

While Ansel was staring at the statue, he suddenly became aware of how hot it was. His face felt thick with sweat. Elenie and her friend Melissa were sitting off to the side of the walkway, in the grass. The back of Elenie’s blonde hair was white from sunlight and her eyes were in the sky. She was laughing at something Melissa said. He wished he’d heard it and knew what she thought was so funny. They both looked at him. His heart went into action, racing away before his mind could start. He smiled, they started giggling. Some of the others around him were laughing too; Randy now was also laughing, something was wrong. Between breathes Randy managed to say “look at Antsy’s hair!” Running over to the ticket booth and looking at his reflection, Ansel saw his hair had come undone and had puffed out like an orange fur ball. In the reflection Ansel saw the children laughing behind him. His cheeks burned again, with his eyes joining them. His shame held him in place. “That’s enough.” Ansel looked and saw Mister Simmons alternating his glare between Randy and the others. After they quieted, Simmons said “That’s better. Now follow me, we’re going to head to the top of the statue.” As Ansel fell in with the others he saw Elenie looking at him, smiling and looking away. She was probably thinking about how stupid he looked. He wasn’t sure if that smile was beautiful or ugly.


A handful of students crammed in with Mister Simmons into the elevator that leaned against Vulcan’s tower. The rest of the class had to take the stairs. Ansel, getting in first to make sure he was closest to the window, wanted to see the Birmingham area as they rode up into the sky. Seeing the ground flying away from him sent a trill through him. He was riding up the iron cocoon of scaffolding wrapping around a shuttle. The elevator stopped and opened up. Ansel ran out onto the observer’s platform and looking down saw the slits in the platform that made it seem see-through. Ansel’s heart leapt up at the sight, but soon settled. No one else had fallen through it yet, so why should he worry?

The other classmates were starting to come up the stairway and hesitantly walking out onto the platform. He heard laughter again from the children and became angry; he was getting tired of them. But they were laughing at him. He turned back to the elevator and Mister Simmons’ was holding the elevator door while Randy stood with his back again the glass window. He was glad Randy was now being mocked. Then Ansel looked at Randy’s face. It was twisting and riving as his eyes grew red and puffy while the others laughed at him. Ansel felt sorry… for Randy and himself, and he was tired of feeling like that. He walked into the elevator and said “come on!”  Randy shook his head. Ansel stood next to him and said “close your eyes.” Randy gave him a mean look, then softened and closed his eyes. Ansel put a hand on Randy’s shoulders, which were large for a 13-year-old’s, and started walking him out of the elevator. When they got out Ansel put one of Randy’s hands on the railing. “Don’t open your eyes yet.” Randy firmly nodded. Ansel walked him around until the whole city was in view. “Alright, open your eyes. Go on, open them!” Meekly Randy opened up the tiniest view with his eyes and then they flew up. “Wow,” he said letting go of the railing. He looked down, stumbled and put his hands back on the railing. He turned and gave Ansel a weak smile and a shrug.

Ansel looked out on the city himself, seeing the greens and browns and greys wrapped in a thin blanket of blue, underneath the toes of Vulcan. A whip of wind blew through Ansel’s hair and it felt so good. The sight of Birmingham from here gave his heart wings and up-lifting air to make it soar higher than any bird or ship ever could.

Have I lived in Wonderful place so long?

NOTKNOWING

Looking for Wonder when Wonder was here

ROCKUNDER

Looking on bearded face above, arrow pointed high

STRETCHINGOUTREACHING

 Pointing back where he and his mountain-ship came

BRINGINGSTREAMINGRENEW

Out from black weave of Wonder in the sky

WEAVINGDREAMINGWEB

Landing, leaving the stars, to weave new Wonders


They were boarding the bus to leave. Heading for the back of the bus, Ansel sees Elenie in one of the front seats alone. Looking at her made him aware of his frizzy red hair again. He wanted to sit next to her, but he didn’t know what he would do after that, and she might not like him sitting next to her just like that. She looked up at him and smiled and he sat down next to her.

“Your hair is messed up,” she said, still smiling.

“Could you help?” Ansel said.

She reached up and smoothed some of his hair out.

“There, that’s a little better. You have nice hair.”

“Thank you.” He wasn’t sure what to say as he smiled and looked into her blue eyes.

“I wanted to tell you… you have beautiful blue eyes, like the sky.”

She smiled again, “Thank you.”

As the bus drove off Ansel and Elenie both looked out the window at Vulcan, standing on top of his tower, pointing forward.


Sean Hogan is a twenty-one-year old living in Leeds, Alabama. He works as an editor, photographer, and graphics designer for Herald News Media Services, which he helped found with his father and brother. His hobbies include writing, reading, painting, filming, editing, and playing saxophone.

“Consider the Gap” by George Sawaya

STR is proud to present this story as the winner of our 2011 summer fiction contest.


I knew by the way she threw noodles against the backsplash – she was having an affair.

When I found it, I had been pushing deeper than anyone into the cave.  It was as far as anyone would go.  I’d been working as a geological consultant for a small mining operation.  The goal, they explained, was to find any remaining ore in the old mining shafts beneath the Vulcan statue on Red Mountain.

That day, a Thursday, I’d gone about thirty minutes further than the rest of the team.  With my helmet-mounted torch light carving cones through the darkness, I came upon a small antechamber which was dressed from top down in flutes of sharp rock like the organ pipes in a cathedral.  I was looking up, spinning in place and taking the whole thing in when I caught my foot on something and fell.  My helmet light was impaled on a rock benches jutting facet but I was fine, save for a throbbing neck and a pretty skinned-up set of knees.

I sat there in the darkness for a while.  Most days I had an extra key chain flash light fastened to a belt loop, but the day before I’d loaned it to another team member and had forgotten to get it back.  So I sat; nothing but the drip-drip of little drops and my own steady breath for sound.

After a while I began to feel kind of eroded.  Without any light I couldn’t see my body.  I knew it was there, my arms and legs, my head and torso, the stiff wire pulsed in my neck and the damp, stagnant air stung at my knees.  But I didn’t feel there.  It was like I had become a rock, part of the cave, my breathing the earth’s own gentle respiration. The dull pain settled in like eons of pressure.

I got to thinking about rocks and about Susan.  Everything had changed since her office’s Christmas party some five months prior.  We didn’t see each other much, granted, but lately she’d been as distant as the moon.  We got into the habit of a regular Thursday night spaghetti dinner.  Between her demanding law firm and my frequent contracts we’d become roommates more than anything else, passing each other on the way in or out.  Thursdays, we resolved, would be the evening set aside for us and for spaghetti.

I couldn’t remember when I noticed it first.  I think I was at the kitchen table. She must’ve been at the stove.  When the time came to test the noodles she’d pluck one from the pot, spin it between pinched fingers like a marionette’s string, and with a sneer in her lips and thin, impassive eyes turn to the ceramic backsplash and fling it away.  It was her disinterest I noted most of all.  Whether the noodle stuck or not, she seemed indifferent. Neither disappointed when it fell limp behind the sink, nor accomplished when it stuck and slid without a sound between the tiles to the grout.

After that I began to tally the eligible men from her Christmas party. There was one guy, what was his name? Ben or Jim? He had a cleft chin, broad shoulders and small, scholarly glasses. He reminded me of Clark Kent, but with more machismo and bravado; one of those University of Alabama football types who missed the cut to go pro before turning to a law career. And then there was her boss. What was it about him that felt off? He was a svelte 50-year-old, couture in shape, fit and square faced with platinum white hair and one of those winning smiles I’d always heard of but never really seen.  It was something in the way he stood next to her.  Yes, in the months since, it came to me there in the clarity of the greasy black antechamber.  I remembered the three of us standing in a triangle by the copy machine.  To share space and conversation everyone should have faced the center but he, no.  He stood cocked to the side aiming his past prime though still hungry dick straight at her sex and grinning, all the while that big winning bleached teeth smile casting his eyes occasionally at me as if to say something.  He was candidate number one after all.  Clark Kent fell to second.

I pressed a button on my watch.  The face glowed, and for a moment I considered using it to worm my way back through the cave to the rest of the team.  But the light was too dim, the path too slippery with a dozen eager surfaces ready to bludgeon or rip my head open if I fell.  The rest of the team would come soon. When it was time to leave for the day they’d press on and find me. It was 4:15.  Only about an hour longer.

I closed my eyes to a no deeper dark and entertained myself the way I normally did: by considering people as minerals and rocks.  They made more sense that way. I thought about Susan, with her polished black hair and dark olive skin.  I’d known her to be obsidian – sharp, exotic, volcanic in origin, weapon to some and jewelry to others.  She was opaque but only slightly so; a dark glass.  It would be 4 years of marriage in a couple of months.

Ben or Jim (Clark Kent in any case) despite his resemblance to the man of steel struck me more as iron.  He had a solid jaw, industrial shoulders, held himself strong and proud like a furnace.  And Susan’s boss, white-haired, jagged boned with that winning smile, but empty somehow, somehow less substantive – like pumice rock. The porous bastard.

I opened my eyes to find the cavern swollen with a gray light. There was a smooth oblong crack in the cave wall. At first I thought it was the team. I could easily have been turned around in the dark. So I waited for voices or for someone to call my name. After what seemed like half an hour I had heard nothing, so I stood and went in a few careful steps down the path the light struck against the cave floor. As I approached, the crack opened further, wider, just enough to squeeze through. I squeezed through.

I don’t know how long I was in there, but when I came out I saw dim lights approaching from the direction of the cave mouth. The gap closed.  The team found me in the dark, and I followed them out.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to tell anyone about it. I couldn’t. Every time I went to say something, it was as if I’d swallowed a lump of ore. I’d gag for a second, stammer, then speak of something else. After thanking the team for finding me, I loaded up my Subaru station wagon and went home.

Susan was in the kitchen lording over a steaming pot of noodles. I went without a word, washed up and changed clothes. I bandaged my knees, laid flat on my bedroom floor for a while to straighten my neck out, then went back to the kitchen and took my seat at the table.

After a few minutes of silence Susan cleared her throat and spoke. “Back to the mines tomorrow?” she asked, head still down at the pot.  Her words slapped against me like noodles.

“Yea,” I said.  “Back to the mines.  The contractor thinks there’s still iron ore down there.  But the shafts are mostly flooded.  What are you doing tomorrow?  Maybe we could spend the day together.  I tried to tell them it was mostly flooded down there.  Be near impossible to mine anything anyway.”

Susan sighed, one of those brief, annoyed, poignant sighs she’d made a habit of lately.  “Why keep looking then?”  She tossed the wooden spoon between the stove eyes.

“If there is ore after all, it can be sold – processed here then shipped overseas.  A drop in the pot to Dubai or somewhere.  You working tomorrow?”

She picked up the spoon again, plunged it in the pot to take a noodle out.  Half-way up the noodle slid from the spoon handle.  “No,” she said.  “Work this weekend.  Taking tomorrow off.”

“Oh.”  I took the newspaper from the table and spread it across my lap, but I couldn’t read.  All I could do was consider the gap: the gray light, the smooth, reasoned corridors stretching in all directions and how each floor had a gravity to it, straight up or down at random but always as if walking in any other hallway.  A neon lit labyrinth of indeterminate materials.

That sticky sense of erosion still clung to me.  There, in the full fluorescent kitchen light with my limbs charted out like a road map across my seat, the sensation persisted.  I felt like a puppet with phantom limbs, a spider web in a dark hallway, an ovular mass of rock deep in the earth slowly, surely losing.

It was a familiar sensation.  It felt a lot like college.  My fourth and final year had been an exercise in solitude.  My only acquaintance, a fellow geology major, had graduated the semester prior and made good on his promise to get the hell out of Alabama.  I don’t know where he ended up.

All I had was a small apartment with a busted television, a noisy window unit and the flat heat of a resilient summer.  I was nearly done, I had to remind myself often, but my last semester I learned of a mix-up with my academic advisor.  Unsurprisingly, she had miscalculated my fulfillment of elective credits (of which I was one short, she informed).  A week later I started and art history class.  I had not particular interest in art history, but I was told by the same advisor that it would be easy and good for me to get away from dirt and rocks for a while.  She had battleship hips, chipmunk cheeks and for a woman who didn’t know what the hell she was talking about she always spoke with such enviable confidence.

That was when I met Susan.  We sat next to one another in the front row.  I never spoke to her, but she always spoke to me, or tried to anyway.  I would just nod or grunt in response.  She was far too attractive.  She started saying hello to me on campus.  When we passed each other she would always stop to talk.  If she were on the other side of the street she would cross and chase me down.  From there we began to eat lunch together at the campus cafeteria.  Without much else to discuss she would go over the lectures from class, expounding at length and with passion on M.C. Escher, Magritte, Dali.

The whole thing was organic; we tapered ever down like a stalactite, naturally carried in one direction.  Lunches led to dinner, dinner to drinks, drinks to fooling around and finally sex.  She was my first.

After graduation she applied to every art museum in a five-hundred mile radius.  Wherever she went I’d made up my mind to follow.  After countless rejection letters, however, she applied and was accepted to law school.  We moved back to Birmingham, married, and close to four years later I sat and she stood in the kitchen of our two bedroom bungalow.

“You’ll find ore.”  She turned the heat down and shuffled the tomato sauce and beef in the other pot.

I slid the newspaper back up to the table, stood and went over behind her.  She stared dutifully ahead, like she didn’t even notice.  I parted her hair like a bead curtain, brushed it over her shoulders and planted one small kiss at the base of her neck and then another further up her nape and then another, each straddled side to side like footprints in volcanic sand.  “Have I ever told you you’re obsidian?” I asked.

She sighed.

When the noodles were done, or near enough, we sat together at the kitchen table and ate in silence.

I had no word for it.  Actually, there was one word, but I couldn’t use it.  That place deep in Red Mountain, the gap, a place of such tenuous reality that to label it in such a fantastical way could destroy it all together.  A craft, perhaps, but I wasn’t sure it was a vehicle.

After dinner the previous night, we’d gone to bed.  Eyes closed, I counted the potential suitors from her Christmas party yet again:  the iron furnace, the pumice rock, and – as I meandered towards sleep – I recalled another.  There had been a young, pasty face staring at us always from the crowd’s edge.  Someone not normally noticed, I figured at the time.  Someone as easily overlooked as the furniture – pale and meek like the gypsum in the drywall:  a little gypsum boy.  He couldn’t have been a day over 21, a young temp most likely seven years Susan’s junior.  I began to put a face to the gypsum boy, to reconstruct it, but it slipped away and I with it into sleep.

The morning obliterated all progress on the gypsum boy.  Susan was still in bed after I had showered and had breakfast so I decided to let her sleep.

I piloted the Subaru station wagon onto the Red Mountain expressway.  Through the haze and green, just over the hills in the distance, I caught the top of Vulcan’s head and the flat gleam of morning light against it.  The largest cast iron statue in the world, if I recalled correctly.  Though now it was little more than a taunting mascot of a bygone era in which men pulled wealth and industry from the earth.

When I got to the mines I noticed the team standing in a circle around the foreman.  I parked the car and took my place at the back of the crowd.  The foreman was making apologies, telling us how hard we’d worked.  “Insufficient evidence to continue operations,” he said.

The contract had ended two months ahead of schedule.  My dejected team members kicked the dirt, shuffled back to their cars and left.  The foreman followed suit and drove off, and I was left alone at the cave mouth.

For a time I stood there, glancing as far as I could into the dark of the cave, then up at the sun through the trees, then down at my boots.  I had made a mistake in any case.  If she had a lover I who drove her there, spending my days in the black chambers of the earth, digging where I couldn’t even make a phone call, couldn’t even check in to say I loved her.  Flowers were in order.  But what did I know about flowers?  I remembered the little scrap of iron ore I’d found at the start of the contract, the only piece left in the whole mountain.  It was a flake no bigger than a thumbnail, but I figured it would make an appropriate gift as it was the culmination of a three-hundred thousand dollar, 4 month operation.  It was in my glove box still, wrapped in a little rag and stowed away.

I went back to my car, found the ore flake, tucked it into my vest pocket and drove home.

The house was quiet still.  I’d only been gone and hour or so.  I took off my vest and boots, un-tucked my shirt and grabbed the ore flake.  I’d slip into bed like I never left, fit myself against her like a puzzle piece and when she woke I’d give her the ore and declare it all geology, the cumulative mineral wealth of Red Mountain.  I went down the hallway, pressed open the bedroom door and went in.  Susan was squirming under the covers.  I whispered her name to see if she was awake, then went in a little further.  “Susan,” I said.  She shot out against the headboard.  She was naked.  Her mouth open and closed, her lips shaped as if she were about to say my name but nothing came out.  Another body, another pair of restless legs, a slender torso and head came out from underneath the covers.  There, white as the sheets, as easily overlooked as the drywall, was the gypsum boy in all his pasty uniformity.  Even there, with the dim light through the curtains, he looked featureless, like a blur.  I could just make out an unapologetic look plastered like wallpaper across his face.  His pink nipples were his only color.

I stretched out my hand, met eyes again with Susan.  She still gasped for air.  I held the ore flake in my palm, looked at it then at Susan.  “All geology,” I said.  I turned my hand over and dumped the ore onto the carpet.

I made the trek back through the cave to the antechamber.  I didn’t even need a flashlight.  My legs knew the way.  The gap opened.  I went in.


George Sawaya received his BA in English from The University of Alabama and is currently seeking a graduate degree in English with a focus on creative writing at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

Issue #3, February 2011

Table of Contents, Issue #3

Editor’s Note

Fiction

“Waiting for an Amputation” by Matthew Dexter

“Sex of Food” by Jessie Carty

“Albert Triantis” by Louis Bourgeois

Poetry

“Ways to Remember Birmingham”by Len Kunz

“The Rain in Birmingham” by Len Kunz

“Molted” by Len Kunz

“A Sprint Ritual” by Catfish McDaris

“My Magnum Opus” by Catfish McDaris

“angel untied” by bl pawelek

“metal and snap” by bl pawelek

“Auburn Memory” by Katie Berger

“Snow Collection” by Katie Berger

“The Young Ghosts Still Good Friends” by Geoff Munsterman

“Road Trip” by Geoff Munsterman

Essays

“Soul Trail” by Craig Legg

“Soul Trail” by Craig Legg

I grew up in Birmingham in the early 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement, though it is important to remember that it wasn’t called that then. I was roughly the same age as the four little girls killed in the infamous Sixteenth Street Church bombing. I watched the aftermath on teevee in my safe and secure house in the burbs same as some kid from New York or California. I was too busy growing up, going to school, and playing ball to pay attention to what had gone on in Birmingham before September 15, 1963, but this bombing certainly got my attention.

Spring of ’63 had seen the equally infamous demonstrations in downtown Birmingham featuring police dogs and fire hoses. The main effect of these demonstrations upon myself, sibs, and friends was that our parents no longer would allow us to go downtown Saturday mornings to the movies shown at local theaters such as the Melba, Empire, Ritz, Strand, and of course the grand ole  Alabama, Showplace of the South. We kids sure hoped the adults would get this ‘civil rights’ business settled soon so we could get back to the movies. Heck, it didn’t seem that hard to me. In both school and church we were taught that all people were equal. Seemed a no-brainer. The Birmingham newspapers didn’t make a big deal of it. Doing research years later, I was astounded to discover that many of the historic demonstrations hadn’t even made the front page, taking a back seat to the seemingly more important big picture of the Red Menace. The Cuban missile crisis had taken the world to the nuclear brink several months earlier, October 1962.

Of course Birmingham was strictly segregated then. The only black person I had direct contact with was my mother’s maid, who came once a week, via the city bus. It must have been truly a shadow world in which these maids lived and worked, not that I remember giving it much thought. Too busy growing up.

The main contact I had with black culture came through the radio. A couple of years earlier I had discovered rock & roll and its forerunner, rhythm & blues. The white AM stations in B’ham were pretty cool back then, spinning lotsa Sam & Dave, Otis & James, Motown & Stax/Volt, in between records by white artists. It didn’t take long to realize that most of my favorite hits were by blacks. But there seemed to exist a fuzzy cut-off point where the white stations wouldn’t play records that sounded too ‘black.’ They would play John Lee Hooker but not Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf. They would play Chuck & Bo but not Elmore James. They censored Hank Ballard when he sang the Annie series. To hear this stuff we had to tune in to the black stations, WJLD and WENN. Here I was transported to an entirely new world, featuring classic R&B disc jockeys–all with poetic nicknames–Shelley the Playboy Stewart, Tall Paul White, Wee Willie McKinstry, Sam Double O Moore. These guys rocked my early teenage world, right in the midst of the historic civil rights’ strife. I didn’t know then that the jocks were also playing an important part in the demonstrations, by secret code transmitting demonstration times and places to their foot-soldier listeners.

There was so much I neither knew nor understood. Children are raised to accept, not to question. But rock & roll seethed with rebellion, even in original AM days, and through it I was learning to question. When my dad drove us on family vacations to Missouri and we passed through Mississippi and Tennessee I questioned the billboards we would see depicting ‘Martin Luther King in Communist Training School.’ When we’d get stopped by cops in St. Louis for no reason, I questioned why (Alabama license plates). Back in Birmingham, when all of a sudden we left our church to begin attending another, I questioned why. I was told that the new one was ‘closer’ to our home, but I later learned that the pastor of the first had said he would integrate, thus was voted out by the congregation. Ergo my folks left that church in the lurch and found another. My folks were border staters from Missouri, not into the Old South values of Big Seg.

Indeed, it was the religious aspect of the civil rights struggle that impressed me. If there really was a God then surely he was on the side of the blacks, who had righteousness in spades (har! a pun- pardon the racism). As the great Flip would say, “the devil made me do it!” Speaking of which, back to the so-called devil’s music of rock & roll in which, personally, I was more interested than in going to church.

At Homewood Junior High, located on the south slope of Red Mountain, our coaches used to make us run a trail up the side of the mountain after school during springtime, to keep us in shape for football season. The trail led to the radio station signal towers located atop the mountain, and one day me and some buddies ran up there and were pleasantly surprised to literally run right into the WJLD tower, a bit farther down from the white station towers. We tiptoed up to the small shack at the base of the tower and could hear the station’s music playing from a small speaker. We wanted to knock on the door but were afraid. We wondered if this might be the actual studio. I was excited that it could be…that we might get to see Shelley the Playboy or one of the other deejays in action.

BOOM! came a voice. “What chu all boys doin’ here?”

Seemingly out of nowhere this huge guy appeared behind us, almost like he was coming out of the woods. “We…uh…we were out running the trail, Sir…and we heard the music…”

“You boys like this music?”

“Yes Sir!”

That’s all of the conversation I can remember. Somehow we found our voices and were able to explain to the man that we were R&B fans and listened to the station sometimes. He seemed to get a kick out of this and introduced himself as an employee of the station, though not a deejay. But he offered to call the station and let us talk to the on-air jock, Sam Double O Moore.

“Really? We can talk to him?”

“You bet. It’s a few minutes after three o’clock, school check-in time.

Just tell him where you go to school and he’ll announce it on air…”

“Holy cow…”

We were all nervous, but my friend Garnett had the balls to do it, so he did the talking. When Mr. Moore asked if Homewood had a good football team, Garnett said “sure, we were number one in the county last year!”

“Ah, but that’s cuz you don’t play the black schools,” said Sam, “iffin’ you did you’d get that little ole number one knocked upside yo head…”

Which in time proved to be true…but that’s another story.

We couldn’t stay too long, as our coaches kept track, and would punish us for goofing off if we weren’t back by a certain time. So down the mountain we trekked that afternoon, happy as pigs in a poke that we had discovered the WJLD signal tower. It made us love the music even more, and we felt like real cool cats. It was 1964 and the British Invasion was in full-tilt boogie, with the Rolling Stones rumored to be bringing their American blues-based rock & roll to Birmingham on a fall tour of the States. If so, Garnett and I certainly would make the scene. We would have to get one of our parents to drive us, as we were still a couple of long years away from getting a driver’s license, the second-most ultimate dream of a teenager (one guess as to the first).

When that glorious day came (the drivers’ license, not the other) we could start driving ourselves downtown to the City (later Boutwell) Auditorium to see the Soul Review Shows we heard advertised on WJLD and WENN, starring Otis Redding & the Barkays, James Brown & the Famous Flames, the Wicked Pickett, Smokey & the Miracles, and whoever else might be on the bill. I had heard about these shows and had seen the posters but in ’64 I was still a couple of years away from attending one.

They are germane to this story though, so pardon me if I skip ahead and get right to it. I got my driver’s license in 1966 as a sophomore in high school and began attending the soul reviews. Usually there would be a small handful of white teenagers in attendance, but the audiences were 99% black. We never had any trouble. Indeed, the blacks seemed tickled to see us, amazed that we liked their music. Some even offered us shots of whiskey from pocket flasks. The shows themselves were nothing short of amazing, often six or seven acts on the bill- the action leading up to the headliners a veritable crescendo of rhythm & blues energy.

Our own little personal histories wouldn’t make news, of course. Hell, we might have been just a bunch of teenaged white boys, but at least we had already figured out what we wanted to be when we grew up- we wanted to be Soul Men!

“Horns!”

“Hold on, I’m Comin’…”

That was Birmingham, just a few short years after the historic demonstrations, when the whole world was watching…all that other stuff.


Craig Legg lives and writes in Hooverville, Alabama, where he is writer-in-residence at his house.

Three Poems by Len Kuntz

Ways to Remember Birmingham

She gives her pets
street names—
Hunter and Red Mountain,
Oak, Valley, Tuscaloosa.
The gold fish are 1st through 9th Avenue.

She has the city tattooed across her chest so she can see
the campus in the mirror when she’s on top,
but the truth is
it’s been a long time,
and the fish are floating belly up
and the dog has diarrhea
and the embryo inside her has grown bad boy hair by now,
his hands and feet itching
to make their way into the world
with or without you,
you bastard.


The Rain in Birmingham

is wet luggage
that smells like hot bread
slathered with salty slabs of butter
that dribble bitter as your lips.

Your dad said he saw you
in a stole and shoulder-duster earrings.
I was wondering when you started liking the ballet
instead of Birmingham
and boys like me,
born bearded and black-holed
so that rain shoots out ear-to-ear.
If you were here
you probably couldn’t stand the splatter
of all this inky oil that’s pooling
in my lap now,
taking the form of a head,
a face quite
similar to yours.


Molted

I keep leaving pieces of myself
in different rooms.
At first I think they are socks or candy wrappers
but one’s a finger and one’s a thumb,
and then there’s the issue of an eye in the sink,
two toes afloat in Dad’s old beer stein.

Wolfgang wails through the speakers
and I think he’s found my foot but instead it’s
in our Labrador’s drooling mouth.
I feel for my crotch and sigh because we’re still good there,
but then you walk through the door with a Chanel handbag
made of alligator and eel
and I recognize their color and stain,
the distinctive scars and skins of
your last boyfriends.


Len Kuntz lives in rural Washington State. His writing appears widely in print and online at such places as Camroc Press Review, Juked, Cynic Online Magazine and also at lenkuntz.blogspot.com

“A Good Snow” by Brent Stauffer

We found the best hill in town. Some other guys had already been sledding on it, so there was a nice deep groove in the snow, past the powder and into the good hard slick stuff. The snow was thick everywhere, about eight inches, which was more than Birmingham had seen in thirty years or more. It had stopped snowing that morning, and the sun was out making everything beautifully bright and sharp. The hill was steep and long with a tiny valley at the bottom. It was a great hill. It was probably the best hill ever seen by anyone. About twenty-five yards behind us was an off-ramp to the freeway where cars occasionally smoothed by, and behind that, green and white pines.

We had some flattened cardboard boxes, but soon discovered the best sled we had was this shiny red Pizza Hut thing, one of those huge insulated plastic bags they carry pizzas around in, keeping them warm until deliverance. We also quickly discovered the best way to sled with it was to get face down; it only covered your chest, so you had to raise your legs a little. The first time you go down, you get going so surprisingly and blindingly fast, fish-tailing and basically out of control, you let your legs fall, hurtling fragmented waves of snow on all sides, but this doesn’t seem to slow you, so you dig in with your booted ankles and heels, your clenched toes, which does slow you up quite a bit. Then you hit the valley, and thud! You’re dead in the water. Actually snow. Your timidity has robbed you.
Then Chris goes. He gets a running start and belly flops onto the thing and zoom! tears down the hill like an electron leaping between atoms, and when he hits bottom, goes flying into the air and everybody laughs. Then Wyn goes. Then Lee. Then Wyn’s wife Laura. Then Laura’s sister Shelly doesn’t feel like trying it yet, so it’s your turn again.

You hold the large red square in front of you and sprint toward the trail, throw your body at the snow and pow! you’re zipping along at sixty miles an hour, with your chin only three inches away from the amazing white blur of ground, like a yo-yo after gravity snaps his gigantic wrist, with your gloved hands curling the front of the plastic box up for better speed and so your knuckles won’t graze; the cold wind strips you of everything but an awful swiftness and drive, then you hit the tiny valley and zing! fly up the far side up out into the air, you to the right, the pizza bag to the left, your arms and legs outstretched, back arching, like a receiver high up and trying to reach the ball, then getting hit hard, then tumbling and twisting like Neo or Njinsky through this sudden slow-motion footage, violent and elegant, and then, well then you bounce the way a drunk bear might bounce and roll several yards through the snow. You lie in the snow and laugh. On your back, you breathe out and briefly close your eyes. Then you get up and shake a layer of snow off your black raincoat. Some of the snow slipped into your right glove at the heel of the palm, and some of it clouds your fine hair, but it feels good to be cold, now, where you are.

You look around for the pizza thing, grab it, and trudge up the hill. It’s a bitch getting back to the top. You have to pull at the sharp air to breathe, your nerves tremoloing. Helter Skelter, you think. I‘m coming down fast so don’t let me break you. Well you might be a lover, but you ain’t no dancer. …now here she comes, Oh…. …look out!

You look up from your brown boots wounding the thick surface as you lift your feet and let them fall. Looking up, you see everybody standing at the top of the hill. From here it looks like a postcard because the top of the hill is your horizon, and everybody’s crisp and black against the blue sky, standing, talking, looking, enjoying the day, the snow, and the air. You think of the childhood Christmas memoir by Dylan Thomas, of the vinyl album Wanda had, probably still does, that had Thomas reading the story, you and Wanda lying on the throw rug in the loft in the deep dark, lost in the lilting roll of his sure sweet voice, wonderful to be lost in his snow and far away church bells, with hot broth somewhere steaming and waiting for you. You wish Wanda were here now for the last two days of snow.  The slipping and rising and sliding with Shaeffer and Miller Lite and mushrooms. The communion over thin naked trees beautiful under full white burdens easily borne. Now, on this last day of good snow, clearheaded and brilliant, you think how much more all of it would mean if Wanda were here. There’s nothing to do about it. So you think about your next jump, planning to run even faster, to really let go this time, looking forward to it even though getting up this hill is a real bitch. You think that if somebody wanted to draw a picture of somebody but couldn’t draw feet, or shoes, or boots, they could draw the person standing in this kind of snow. Once when you were a kid, your dad hand-built a sled for you, but you didn’t come home until late evening, and all the snow had turned into slush.

Finally, you reach the top of the hill and stand for a moment with your friends, catching your breath in little pulls. Chris and Wyn are talking about Dali verses Magritte. You hold out the pizza thing for whoever wants it next when a car slides by fast on the off ramp not twenty feet away, a boxy silver Nissan. You see inside only for a second, but obviously it’s a family, older couple in front either parents or grandparents, and in the backseat a very young boy with cropped brown hair, a puffy blue jacket maybe Patagonia or Land’s End. The way his round face so close to the window peers out, you know this boy has never seen snow before. He gazes at all of you, you grownups playing in his wonderland doing whatever you want, his small bare hands pressed against the window like dried flowers. The car slides by, you watch it merge onto the freeway, falling far behind a semi in the gleaming distance.

You turn back and notice the breath leaving Wyn’s mouth as he proposes the superiority of Magritte’s imagery. You’re still holding out the pizza thing and Lee walks up and takes it. He says thanks with a slight fog of breath. You notice your own breath. You notice Chris’s breath while he says Dali was a master in the classical sense. You notice the breathing of Laura and Shelley as they whisper about something. It’s good, you think, to see that everyone’s alive.


Brent Stauffer lives in a basement on top of Red Mountain, sometimes working on
a collection of poetry; “Knuckles Tickle Pulsars.”  Occasionally he writes for
and edits the Birmingham Free Press. Often he plays double bass and fiddle in
the Mayberry Rollickers, Three Man Stone, the Mississippi David Hornbuckle Band,
and other local bands of note.

“To Be or Not to Be” by LaDonna Smith

the improvisor festival-post mortem

Timelessness. That’s the art of making time seemingly disappear in a bubble of truth that is the present state of being. It is of being inside a creative loop, beyond the gap of consciousness obliterated by spontaneity, an escape from pre-determined expectations to actions ruled by impulse. And that’s what free improvisation is all about. It can happen in any medium. It is an art form that is risky, exciting, and on the edge. It is an art form of trusting the consciousness to come forth with a tangible creation, drawn from the innermost core of the limitless unknown, beyond self-consciousness, and often trusting a collective consciousness among collaborators. It’s the deep state of awareness blending self with other. In it, we lose track of time, but not of awareness.

Opening night at the Improvisor festival kicked off with Birmingham drumming group Out of the Darge, Claire Elizabeth Barratt (dancer from Ashville, NC), and improvising vocalist Jill Burton (from Gainesville, FL). Local belly dancers joined Butoh and Modern dancers for the opening soiree.

The Improvisor, the international journal of free improvisation, produced and published in Birmingham, Alabama by local musicians (Davey Williams and LaDonna Smith), celebrates and promotes the art of Improvisation in America and the Southeast, as well as Europe and other remote and far reaching communities from Asia to Malaysia. This past summer to commemorate the occasion of the 30 year anniversary of the Improvisor, a month-long festival took place daily in venues around Birmingham. Satellite concerts were held in New York City, Seattle, Jackson, Chattanooga, Athens, and Atlanta.

Musicians, dancers, and spoken word artists from around the country took up residence, joining local improvisers of varying disciplines to practice the art form, delivering concerts, happenings, and appearances in “Odd Places.”

From the stages of Workplay, Bottletree, Children’s Dance Foundation, and a variety of venues at Pepper Place to the ancient Indian sites of Moundville, the stacks of Sloss Furnace, and even amidst sunshine and flora at the Botanical Gardens, artists and improvisers would convene, and spend an hour or up to four, experimenting with sounds, movement, and words. Searching the moment for the sense of “presence” in the silent and rich infinitude of the universal consciousness is the core of the craft. “Being” in the moment, and observing, as time revealed specific actions, sounds, and movements.
The gift of giving “audience” to “audiance,” the act of listening deeply, and the abandon of spontaneous creation is the essential nature of the art.

Davey Williams, LaDonna Smith, and Wally Shoup lived in Birmingham and actively played together in the 1980s. Wally now lives in Seattle, Washington, and is an organizer of the Seattle Improv Festival.

Birmingham has had a long history of musicians, folk and jazz, classical, avant-garde, and popular. But most of our population is disconnected from the living artists, who are among us but largely invisible, obscured by the domination of mainstream media-picks, commercial productions, cover bands, or what passes for the usual nightclub or bar music, or the dominating influence of television sports . Aside from these preoccupations, most young people are now experiencing music and dance primarily through ear buds and screens! This is actually a frightening reality.

I have always believed that making music was within the reach of every human being. In the old cultures, people sang. They made up songs, and orally passed them down. There was ritual drumming in some cultures, and the European cultures developed more and more evolved instruments, on prototypes of strings, percusssion and winds, common to all cultures.

Andrea Centazzo, musician, director and filmscore artist. He played a key role in launching Smith/Williams' first European tour in 1978, during which they recorded and released the album "Velocities."

Our modern society has somehow lost a deep connection with shared community music making. I think it is a really important aspect of our social culture that we cannot afford to lose. Just think, you never played an instrument before in your life, and someone handed you a saxophone. You explore it with your breath and your fingers. Okay, maybe it’s not for you, but perhaps something about the trombone turned you on. You naturally created a buzz, and began to enjoy the deep tones that came from the bell. You explored the positions on the slide. Before long, you would be able to contribute sound to sound bodies, if there were no rules, no problem with adopting the “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” mentality, and you gave yourself the gift of contributing your discoveries in a larger sound field, perhaps a community of people, who enjoyed playing and listening to the composite sound structures, made through the act of improvising. I would entertain the notion of “Improvisation as Cultural Recreation!” How fun is that?

Perhaps replacing baseball as the national past-time? Why not? It’s non-competitive, enriching, and fun.

Andrew DeWar, who teaches at the University of Alabama and is a member of the Anthony Braxton band, with Killick Eric Hinds of Athens, GA.

With words, or abstract musical sounds, or movement, one action leads to the next, becoming a springboard of playful entries which intertwine, soar, connect, oppose or commune into a single gesture of communicative behavior. An even more poignant player in the exchange is the observer, the listener, who is the receptor of the activity, who hears, sees, and follows openly. Open to the unfamiliar, patient and equally imaginative, the observer, active, passive, or improvisatory, formulates impressions as the elements of improvisation are revealed.

The art of improvisation, comes together in the moment. Sometimes it comes in a flash of inspiration, sometimes reluctantly by invitation, or even by necessity. It hides itself in our lives, as we draw on our intuition and impulse in making daily decisions, or responding to demands in our everyday lives. As art reflects life, so life reflects art. Improvisation is the art of living. To utilize it as a form of active response within our favored artistic discipline would seem only natural, and an activity that anyone can access and approach, and generally do every day.

The festival celebrated 30 years of documenting the activities of free improvisation in America, the South, and yes, Alabama. There is greater receptivity and awareness now, more than ever before, right here in Birmingham.

The dance finale of "Odd of Medusa." Writer Leisha Hultgren featured front left.

Now we move on. As a follow-up to the improvisor festival, there are plans at Pepper Place to continue with a once monthly Improv Series. It will be inclusive of all art forms. Visitors and practitioners alike will be invited to participate or just attend and observe. Think “BE.” Birmingham Experience!

“To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Beyond the hoopla of a festival, and all the energy that comes from an influx of celebrities, guests, and artists, now we move toward an opportunity to settle into getting to know our own diverse community of improvisers, living right here in our immediate vicinity.

We hope to expand that community. The idea is to convene in an appropriate space, to collaborate in regular sessions, involving improvised music, words, and movement, even visual art. Participants will bring instruments, or a notebook to draw or write, or an idea for a group collaboration. Dancers and performance “artists” are involved in the art of improvisation as well as musicians. We will work with those present, inviting raw action, raw collaboration, providing a safe space to create together.

A fine way to pass an evening, as an alternative to sport, practicing Art! Words! And Music! To create new images with a passion for the experience itself, not necessarily aiming for a particular performance.

Stephen Roberts from Louisville, KY, and Clifford McPeek from New Orleans, LA, during the opening night's Magic City Meltdown.

To truly “experience” the act of creation in music, dance, and art, you must give yourself permission to participate, as an active participant, rather than just an observer. There will be no barriers drawn between audience and performer, other than those which are set as parameters at the onset of the session. Expect the unexpected, remain open to allow the flow as it goes, not as you may conceive it.

Each of us has something to give, and to take away from such an experience. Sounding your inner music, through voice, body movement, or creatively expressing through an instrument, heightens sensitivity and awareness. Abandoning “entertainment” for entrainment, or memorized musical accomplishments for raw vibrational soundings, a new form of musical recreation is born. Music is the Universal Language. Therefore we each must make our own. Improvisation is a vehicle for that expression. Anyone can do it. There will be skilled artists and there will be amateurs, but it is a form of recreation that would raise our culture to new levels of communion, because anyone can play!


LaDonna Smith is a musician and educator from Birmingham, AL, who has recorded and toured all over the world. Through her work with the Improvisormagazine, she has been responsible for keeping improvised music alive in the Southeastern United States. She has played and organized numerous concerts in Birmingham, hosting performers from North America, Europe, Australia and Asia.

Photos in this post were taken by Alice Faye Love during the Improvisor Festival 2010.