by Jeff Von Ward
Twenty-three hours worth of eternity, reliving each piece of a lifetime; thinking in strings of thought, helplessly conjuring the ghosts of the past. Then escorted down the hall in silence for a solitary shower. Which is the only thing that goes by fast…
From the void of solitary confinement comes Paulie Gaeta’s harrowing story of crime and glory; from his Boston roots with an Italian crime family to his climb up the underworld pedestal as a bare-knuckle champion.
With dozens of illegal prize fights under his belt, Paulie loses a gamble with fate, and earns a 24-year sentence for narco-trafficking. In prison he finds himself surrounded by potential enemies and impossible choices, losing touch with the outside world which cast him out. Faced with insurmountable odds, Paulie must fight his way to the top again and again as he battles images of his past. And through it all, a recurring choice: death or quarter.
Death or Quarter is a dark saga of triumph and suffering, rooted deep in the mind of a philosophical killer, and underscored by shocking brutality and surprising sensitivity.
I sat down with Paul recently to talk about his debut novel.
What inspired you to write Death or Quarter?
I don’t know that I was inspired so much as a world opened before me and I couldn’t help but hitch my skirt and dive right in. I came in contact with this guy who said he had been a bare-knuckle fighter. We talked about doing a book, and he told me some stories from his life. Some crazy shit he spun, which is woven into the novel. And then he had some legal troubles—something, he said, about Whitey Bulger—and then I haven’t heard from him since.
The book, through one guy’s knuckle-scarred experience, is about what it means to be a conscious human, alone and flailing in this chaotic and capricious world. My characters tend to be thinkers—and whether bare-knuckle champion or high-class hooker, they are very much self aware. This is a direction I think humanity is (and has always been) (and maybe should be more) headed in; it’s a question only of how to represent it.
What does the title refer to?
The title sort of brings the piece together. It’s the rug from Big Lebowski. It’s what life’s about. Connections. A Unified Theory justification. A set of indelible choices: cease to exist, or suffer a deadly blow to pride and our aggressive competitive instincts. Who ever wants to surrender? The character, Paulie Gaeta, lives on the edge of death at all times. His life (and ours, by extension) boils down to the universe’s responses to choices. The old action/reaction thing, on whichever scale you choose to measure by.
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
The hardest part of writing is always the actual Sit Down And Write part. We are very good at distracting ourselves, at finding innumerable other activities that need to get done before we can write a word. Moments of focus were few and far between, until I passed the 100-page mark, and it flew pretty fast from there. Then, the hardest part becomes figuring out which connective tissue I needed between certain scenes.
Why did you decide to self-publish?
We’re at the edge of something here, a breakthrough decided by folks who live the philosophy The only things necessary in this business are writers and readers. And that was said by a middleman millionaire. I don’t like the idea of rotting in a slush pile. I prefer the Valhalla hell of direct marketing; of side-stepping the rank-and-file and scraping by on my own bootstraps. Where every measure of success is one I’ve had my fingers in. In many years, I may look back and bemoan the worst decision in my life. Or I may look back and congratulate myself. There’s only one way to find out…
Do you have any advice for other writers?
There’s really no way for one writer to advise another. We can share techniques, tools, knowledge. But when it comes down to it, writing is about as individual an experience as you can get. You’re alone; no one really understands, but you’re trying anyway, you’re reaching out to embrace unfathomable concepts, and you have to express them in a series of dots, lines, and curves arranged in well-established, alphabetized patterns. My only advice is Listen. Listen to the universe, to your muse, to the humanity all around. Your perception is all there really is.
What are you working on now?
At some strange point in my MFA career, I decided I wanted to turn in a bit of constrained writing as my thesis. Why not do something outrageous, to really earn that title of Master? But then it turned into “the first English book with no verbs.” About a revolution and a trio of young rebels. The more people I told about it, the more committed I was. The only problem is, it has been difficult enough to build the obstacle, let alone climb over it. That’s what I’m working on now.
Paul D Blumer is the author of the new novel Death or Quarter, and an MFA candidate at California College of the Arts. He invites you to visit his website, Paulblumer.com.
by Tiffany Chaney
We have three family albums. Two are blue, and one is red. I think I’m mostly in the red one. Mom hated having pictures of the dead in her house, and so those photo albums were like giant, forbidden tombstones. The faded blue one contained pictures of my great-grandmother Besse Clark and her nine daughters, all of whom had children inside of marriage, unlike my mother who quit high school, put herself through community college, and came home pregnant at twenty-seven with me.
I was supposed to have never been born.
After I wasn’t aborted and after I wasn’t a boy, my name was supposed to have been “Besse,” according to my grandmother. “Besse” was the name of a heroic cow with a blue ribbon around her neck, one of my mom’s bedtime stories.
I met Besse when I was three, was placed on her lap and jumped off twice. My favorite gum wasn’t even enough persuasion to keep me there. I remember a concept so void to my comprehension that it scared the living daylights out of me. Old woman. Great-grandmother. Alive. I don’t know this woman. Even if they say she’s a relative. She smells weird. I came from this musty antique of an old woman, whose breathy whisper made her seem even older. She talks, but only a little. Offers me gum.
Yet I do know that after years of being told what to do, of getting hit, and raising a farm and nine daughters by herself while her husband simply sat, Besse took her soapy cast iron frying pan and walloped her husband on the back of the head. He lived but ended up dying before her; she finally passed after being diagnosed with breast cancer, days before her 102nd birthday.
I want to be a Besse.
When my grandfather proposed, my granny turned him down three times. I have her red hair. In primary school, when the kids in my class were given androgynous shapes to create self-portraits with, I colored in the clothes I wore, my pink hair bow, and my hair with a brown crayon. The entire class decided that I was stupid and didn’t know what my colors were because my hair was obviously red.
Shortly after this, my grandfather got hit by a tractor-trailer after taking me to school. A year later, my grandmother began losing her memory and said I reminded her of her granddaughter. Another year later she died, and I didn’t cry. Most of the family I grew up with were old. Death was common.
My mother still has pictures of my grandfather’s corpse. Those pages in the blue album gave me nightmares. He was shrunken and so small I knew it wasn’t him. I certainly knew what death was and the concept of the soul, but that wasn’t his body.
My grandparents raised me while my mom worked. We played games. I helped in the garden, and we ate fresh vegetables. It was a good childhood. After their deaths, Mom bought us two grave sites next to them and eventually had time to teach me to ride a bike, make the best biscuits, get me obsessed with orange soda, and tell me that my grandparents never wanted me because I was a sin.
“It’s a lie. Granny loved me,” I said.
Mom had never wanted to tell me because even though she and her mama weren’t close, it was different with us. I realize the time period my grandparents grew up in is very different from what society is today, but in many ways the same stigmas continue.
Like mother, like daughter. Like her mother, my mother eventually disowned me.
She found me half naked at twenty-one with my college boyfriend during summer vacation and flipped. Things seemed to spiral out of control from there. We both apologized, but I was her only family. I had betrayed her.
It became hard to tell her that I loved her, because I felt like I didn’t know what love was at all. Now, I realize that I was going through a kind of depression and she was going through a mid-life crisis. Still, I blamed her for not being there for me. I grew up a terminal people-pleaser and tried to make amends by talking about it, by ignoring it, by inviting her to lunch or a movie, my treat.
I don’t need her. I don’t love her. Her mantra.
I have lost her love. She has broken a promise. I cannot carry a concept of love inside of me. My mantra.
Somehow, it all became equivalent to us destroying each other’s lives. Now, that, is a lie. The women in my family have it easy when it comes to holding grudges, and the common saying is, “I forgive, but I will never forget.”
I never raised my voice, when I was small or when I grew tall, not to sound like Dr. Seuss. I was a polite and quiet, proper southern girl when my father said goodbye and I love you. In that order. I obeyed my mother when she told me not to cry in front of Grandmother, who had forgotten me.
I said, “Yes Ma’am, I understand,” when she told me to pack my things and never come back.
But I said, “No,” when asked to choose who to love. I was conceived and born, but I am not a sin. I forgive, but it is so hard to forget.
Sometimes I want to be Besse, but I can’t conceive of that.
I can only conceive myself.
Tiffany Chaney is a writer and artist living in North Carolina. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Saints’ Placenta, Ophelia Street, Pedestal Magazine, and Thrush Poetry Journal. Awarded the Lucy Bramlette Patterson Award in 2008, she completed a degree in creative writing at Salem College. She is recently completed poetry chapbook entitled Between Blue and Grey.
photo by jellywatson
by Tantra Bensko
I feel love like a five o’clock shadow.
I, before leaving, piss
On the White House lawn.
My skin is full of time.
I live inside my body, I say!
What I abhor’s between the sun and me—
The speed of light.
I am alive more often than not.
I’m dead more often than I dream.
Dreams are scared of me.
You can see me shaving here
Along the sidewalk, all the tools
Spread out wet.
You can watch me—that’s your job.
I can say I’m shaving love,
Don’t I look better? I can’t say
An awful lot or I would cut myself,
Unless I’ve lost my razor after all,
And bits of some girl’s skin
Will hang on my rough beard.
Laws are striving to be broken:
Bring them to me.
Bring me anything you’d like to lose.
I’m good at that.
Bring me tender skin,
And extra coffee if you got it.
I live inside my body.
Where do you live?
Can I visit?
For Michael Cronin
Peace Park, D.C.
Tantra Bensko’s work recently appeared in an anthology called Women Writing the Weird (Dog Horn Press). She has had a few books published including Lucid Membrane (Night Publishing). She teaches fiction writing and runs Exclusive Magazine.
photo by jesman
by Avram Ben-Moshe translated by Adam Fagin
blown to bare hand—
I have this sense—
between currency and debt
our friends are kept
forever in collapse—
through the stem of evening
a half-moon describes
the activity it becomes:
light passes through the living into the city—
to begin your exodus
give each stranger
a kiss—or the name of
a distant constellation or
some made-up place:
“Somnambulary Industrial Complex”
local fauna prowl
these abandoned thoughts
for bodies but the wind—
each instructs an imaginary ear
called upon to assist
the view with its appearance—
where is my city?—
where is my politics
of inalienable lust?
where are my people
lawless as the dollar bill?
in their absence roadsigns
attract and cops politicians and clergy—
the people find themselves
beautiful with time
their eyes secret
streets—to look is to vanish
in a thousand
Adam Fagin’s work has or will soon be published in Volt, Fence, Boston Review, Blazevox, EOAGH and other journals. He helped found textsound.org, an online journal of poetry and sound art. Avram Ben-Moshe comes from outside of Minsk, Russia and currently resides in an undisclosed location where he is at work on his first collection of poems, Citizen of Sleep.
photo by Ohmann Alianne