EXIT STRATEGY

Thinking on an appropriate farewell to Provincetown—the Mailer Center and the idyllic writing life that I found by the bay—as I enter the zero hours of my time here, I gravitate to that somewhat famous goodbye—the one to all that—in which Joan Didion tells us, It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. Often times, this is true. But, try as I did to pretend otherwise, as soon as I slipped the key to my nautically themed condo into my back pocket four weeks ago, I knew: I was not entering an era with ambiguous boundaries. My stay was book-ended after all, a clear arrival time and departure date. A check out procedure. Nothing vague about throwing the dirty sheets and towels in a pile on what is no longer my bedroom floor, leaving the key on the kitchen counter that is no longer my own, letting the screen door slam one last time, and rambling down the slatted walkway with my rolly suitcase.

A month is a good chunk of time away from home. Long enough to allow the illusion that the city life that tends to keep me in some measure of crazy shriveled and died when I cut the cord, hit the sea, cracked open a beer on the fast ferry, and watched dry land fade against the horizon. In fact, I’ve felt more at home in Provincetown these past weeks than I have lately in Brooklyn, where I’ve been living for twelve years. At home, in this case, I will define as a certain type of ease. Desires are radically streamlined when you remove jobs, pets, friends, rent, and bills from the equation. Even the absence of the seventy-three stairs that lead to my charming six-floor walk up has allowed me a degree of increased spontaneity. Here, I just open my door and…I’m outside! Amazing!

And so it was. My usual scramble was de-scrambled. With a clear head, and lungs full of salty sea air teeming with negative ions, I managed to get a rather serene and consistent writing life on lockdown almost immediately upon my arrival. Preparing to head home, I know the little annoyances mentioned above threaten to coax my attentions away from my desk, and like most writers, if I’m not working regularly, I get a little nuts. I was concerned.

Anticipating the sudden, ripped-away-too-fast Band Aid method of bolting town, en masse, with hundreds of other temporary residents was making me feel like a junky whose supply was about to be cut off. Fortunately, I’ve found a way to make the transition easier. I’m sneaking out of town behind my own back, as it were. Turns out, a New York friend is here—one of many, actually. (How long have you people been coming to Provincetown and why didn’t anyone tell me sooner?) This friend is sneaking out too, twelve hours early, to avoid the hysteria induced by widespread 10 am checkout times and sold out ferries. So I’m hitching a ride, ducking out, as I dodge my most recent and troubling reality: I don’t actually live in Provincetown, and I will, very soon, have to screen my calls, cling to my desk for dear life, and, sadly, wear actual shoes. So my goodbye will be a sly slip of the hip, not the one I expected, and because of that, my illusion-prone mind can pretend things are otherwise, and maybe I can keep a bit of all that for a little longer. Later Provincetown, and thanks. It hasn’t been real at all.

Sara Nelson is at work on her first book, the story of an atypical American family: her father is a death row survivor and her mother is a former Catholic nun; their story of origin hinges on a sensational 1959 murder trial. An excerpt from the book appeared in Ploughshares. In addition to being a Mailer Fellow, she holds an MFA from Hunter College, and her work has also appeared in Tottenville Review, where she is a senior contributing editor. She lives in Brooklyn, where she writes, plays bass, and bartends.   

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Q & A WITH TIM BARRY OF TIM’S USED BOOKS

If you like bookstores, you like Tim’s Used Books in Provincetown. It has creaky floors; old covers of Catcher in the Rye and Brave New World tacked to the wall; that sweet, slightly musty smell that is perfume to bibliophiles; and a hastily-drawn “SHUT OFF YOUR CELL PHONE NOW!” sign taped to the front door. And, of course, it has books. Stacks upon stacks of them. Books in closets and around corners and lining shelves, from Tootle to Political Thought in Medieval Times to the memoirs of Flava Flav.

I found the store on my second day in Provincetown, when, after getting acclimated to my condo and buying groceries, I set out for inspiration. I’m working on a crime story, myself, and I was looking for a book I had seen mentioned on Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege, and Justice: Maria Flook’s take on the murder of fashion writer (and Truro resident) Christa Worthington, Invisible Eden. Tim Barry – the “Tim” of the store’s title — had Eden in stock, of course. And as he recorded the sale in a floppy blue spiral-bound notebook, he mentioned that he appeared as a character in the book. It was the only book in the store of which this could be said, he told me.

I went searching for Tim’s cameo when I got home and I found it near the end of a chapter called “The Petrified Woman.” Deep into her investigation of Worthington’s murder, Flook gets a call from Tim about Worthington’s vast book collection, which includes a volume on Greco-Roman culture with “Adultery is no sin,” scribbled in the margin.

“He told me that a buyer in Hollywood is interested in Christa’s library,” Flook wrote, “but he will still sell it to me, did I want it?” Tim wanted $3,000 for the collection, Flook reported.

“’Try Hollywood,’ I said”

I wound up bailing on Invisible Eden (while examining crime scene photos, Flook wrote, “A bowl of Cheerios is left on the lip of the kitchen table…The familiar oat rings are compelling to me; my own kids walked around with cups of Cheerios.”), but I remained curious about Tim. Who is this guy? How did his store start? What is the life of a used bookseller like?

When I went back to the store and asked him those questions, rapid-fire, he paused.

“Hmm… That’s kind of a tough one.” He had spent a number of years in journalism he told me – arts writing for Premiere magazine, food writing for The Boston Globe – and he believed in asking specific questions. “I didn’t say, like, ‘Write my article,’” he said.

Stammering for a second, I eventually asked, “How long have you been here?”

“Twenty-one years.”

“And how many books do you have in the store?”

“Five thousand six hundred.”

Things improved from there. I ended up chatting with Tim for the better part of an hour. I sat in a miniature wooden chair – the de facto children’s section — watching customers buy pocket encyclopedias on cacti and copies of Charlie in the Chocolate Factory with a sticker marked “Sharon” on the front. And I watched them receive bits of commentary with their change. He told a 23-year old buying a copy of On the Road that he was the “perfect age to read Kerouac.” When a white-bearded man buying a Tom Robbins book said that the author had gone downhill, Tim said, “Yep, but he’s not entirely at the bottom of the hill yet.”

Here are the best parts my conversation with Tim, condensed and edited.

P.E.: As a Mailer Fellow, I’ve got to ask…did you ever meet Norman Mailer?

T.B.: He used to come in here all the time. He was a crusty guy. I met him when I guess he would have been in his late 60s, so he had already mellowed quite a bit from the classic Mailer stories you hear about him head-butting people and things like that. He was gracious. The first time I met him I didn’t ask him to sign any books or anything. I just said, “Oh, Mr. Mailer, right?” And he just said, “[grumbles unintelligibly].” And then the next time he came in, he was buying some books – mostly research for novels he was writing – and he bought his books and as he was leaving he said, “I’d be happy to sign some books or whatever if you want.” And I’m like, “Oh, OK.” I went in the back and got like twenty books and he signed them.  I don’t like to bother people. We get a lot of medium-famous people coming in and we don’t make a big fuss about them. Part of the nice thing about Provincetown is that the Surfer Dude, the Stoner, the Media Celebrity – they all get the same sort of lack of scrutiny.

P.E.: How did you make your way out to the Cape?

T.B.: Well, the first time I came to Provincetown was in 1967. My folks had rented a place in Wellfleet and were staying there for a couple of weeks and they would come out here and they would go to a bar and leave us to go run around the town. I was a young kid. Then I came back in the early ‘90s. I was meeting a friend here who was coming on a whale watch and I had had a used book store up-Cape, but [it] wasn’t successful at all. I was just sort of scrabbling by, barely making ends meet. And I came to P-Town and it was in early May, so there wasn’t much going on. And I saw a couple empty storefronts and I thought, “Wow, this would be a great town for a used book store!”

I saw a sign, so I went in and talked to the person. And I said, “How much is the rent?” and they said, “It’s $15,000 [for the season].” In 1991, it was like if you said it was $150,000.  But it seemed crazy, because I was paying $200 a month in rent where my store was up-Cape. But I said to myself, “There must be a reason why they can get such high rents, you know?” So I took the plunge, borrowed some money, put down a deposit, and opened up Memorial Day Weekend 1991, and made a couple thousand dollars that weekend. Before that, the most I’d ever made in used books was, maybe, I think I might have had a hundred-dollar day before. But suddenly I was making several hundred dollars a day, consistently, and I was like, “Whoa!”

So, yeah, I found my niche here in Provincetown, as it were. The great thing about P-Town is that you get a lot of smart people from academia, the professions, the arts – especially the arts – who come here on vacation and love it and a lot of them keep coming back because they love it. So, because you’re drawing from New England and New York you’re getting a sort of high concentration of smart people who are interested in books and ideas and the arts. Whereas, in other areas, I don’t think you really have that.  I know that because I had a store in L.A. for a couple of years in the mid 2000s and nobody reads in L.A. Or if they do, they weren’t buyin’ ‘em from me.

P.E. What did you make of the way you came out in [Invisible Eden]?

T.B. Well, she actually fabricated a lot of that.

P.E. The parts about you or the book?

T.B. The part about me – it’s completely misrepresented. I don’t want to go into specifics because then it sounds like it’s all ‘sour grapes’ and, you know, people embellish and put spin on things. The thing is, you can take facts and you can present them in such a way that is not true to the essence of what happened. I did try to sell her the books. It was a lot of books and there were a lot of really good books: fashion books and literature and stuff. So for the amount of money that I asked, it wasn’t like I said, “Well, I have this one book that Christa owned and I want five grand for it…” It was a ton of books; it was forty-some cartons of books. And it did have a lot of personal letters and diaries and things from the person and I thought, “Well, if she’s doing a research project on this person, wouldn’t she want this stuff?”

P.E. Do you often find yourself going through books of recently dead people?

T.B. Oh, all the time. On a weekly basis. At least half of our books come from estates. Somebody dies, we get a call, “You’ve gotta come out and get some books.” I was in a house yesterday that there was a bunch of books and they weren’t that good and, but, interestingly, it was a guy who had been fired from his job because they found out that he was living with a man. This was in the ‘50s  and they were gonna fire him from his job. He worked for Lockheed, or something… national security, whatever. And he quit his job rather than break up with his lover and I thought, “That’s really cool…in the ‘50s, that didn’t happen.” But the interesting thing was…he also wrote plays, and the person who brought me in there to look at the books said, “Wow, all this stuff is just going to be thrown out, whatever you don’t want. And he has these really interesting plays that were never published and they’re all about his relationship with his lover and what happened with the government and all that…” And I kind of think I have to keep those plays… just so they don’t get thrown in the trash. I mean, they’re probably not good. Who knows?

P.E. When you say the stuff wasn’t that good, what do you look for?

T.B. Well, a lot of them were musty and there were things like copies of a biography of Adlai Stevenson. You’d be lucky if someone ever paid a dollar for that. Although if I had a 10,000-foot store, I would probably stock it because someone doing research on the ‘50s or something would go, “Oh, do you have anything on Adlai Stevenson?”

P.E. What’s a book that you see that you’re like, “OK. I can work with this”?

T.B. There was a ten-volume set of the life of Abraham Lincoln by Nicolay and Hay. And John Hay was secretary of state under Lincoln. And Nicolay was Lincoln’s personal secretary. So that’s a pretty scarce item, the complete life and papers of Lincoln. So, something like that is good to have. People like Lincoln.

P.E. Is there a book or kind of book you sell the most?

T.B. I’d say beach reads, frankly. Mysteries. Chick Lit. But the nice thing about that is that pays for all the Poetry, Literary Criticism, Semiotics – all the stuff that I think gives us interesting context. I know people who have had bookstores where they’re like, “Well, I’m just going to have fine first editions. I’m gonna have really arcane European Deconstructionists.” And those people last like two years if they’re lucky. The analogy that I give is, “You don’t win a ball game with home runs, you win it with base hits.” So, yeah, I could stock first editions, signed, and charge $500 for them and eventually I’d get a customer who’d want one. But I could sell a $3 or $4 book a dozen times an hour, then that’s what pays the bills.

P.E.: I noticed there’s no background music and there are no cellphones [in the store].

T.B. Well, it’s not that we do it consciously to have it as a throwback, but, I think it’s maintaining civility that people aren’t chatting away on cell phones when people are trying to browse through books. And, also, the ubiquitous drone of music in every store? We don’t need it. It’s not what we’re about. There’s a lot of things we could do. I’m sure if I ever studied merchandising or retail management, they would say, “You have to have music in a retail shop, because it gets people upbeat and they boogie around and they pick more things up off the shelves and you make more money.” But, you know, I could make more money having a t-shirt shop or a liquor store. But it’s not just about money. It’s about, “This is a place where I can sit. I can read when it’s not busy, have nice conversations with people about books and other things, you know general topics of the day. And maybe make a few friends, some great acquaintances.  And sometimes they leave behind money when they leave.” What’s better than that?

Philip Eil is from the other New England “P-Town”: Providence, Rhode Island. His book research includes corresponding with federal inmates, watching Roy Rogers re-runs, attending pain management conventions in Las Vegas, and being screamed at by talk-radio show hosts on the Gulf Coast of Florida. You might read this book eventually, hopefully, God-willingly. In the mean time you can follow his reporting for the Providence Phoenix and other publications. He is a frequent patron of used bookstores, but, before speaking with Tim Barry, he never realized so many of the books he buys come from the recently deceased.

LOCAL TRAVELER’S BLUES

No matter how you choose to travel from the east end of Commercial Street to the center of Provincetown (and back), the trip is surprisingly harrowing. My rusty blue and white Schwinn, my darker blue convertible, or my feet (in battered used-to-be-white Keds) – each method of travel has its own hazards and small frustrations. Parked cars line one side of Commercial Street, cyclists in summer colors dart between the parked cars and the moving cars in two different directions down the one-way street, while walkers amble by staring at iPhones rather than the road in front with the unconscious arrogance of happy tourists (disturbed only when a car or bicycle comes a hair’s-breadth away from causing scrapes or scars).

After my first day’s trip down Commercial in the car, I vowed never to drive downtown again.  I went at a sedate 5mph, with occasional full stops to let a traffic gnarl untangle itself ahead. When I reached an open stretch clear of bikes and tourists by Angel’s Foods, I sped up to 25mph with joy, only for a cane-toting white-haired woman to emerge from the grocery store lot and point her cane at me. “Don’t go so fast! You’re not in the city anymore!” This was true. In the city, pedestrians know their place and get out of the way.

Nonetheless, I was ashamed of myself. So, as I prepared to ride my bike down Commercial for the first time, I was excited at no longer being the largest and slowest moving object on the street (I was also excited about the ability to go the “wrong” way down a one-way street). But riding a bike down Commercial is not a smooth transport from one end to the next with the bay wind in your hair – it’s a herky-jerky stop-start dash to pass a family-with-stroller-and-terrier then a lull to catch your breath and then all at once halt to avoid the car passing a row of parked cars, two other bikes, you, and a pair of idle gallery-browsers on foot. The trip can take 30 minutes or more on weekend days, about as long as it takes to walk.

Walking, of course, isn’t a relaxing pursuit either (unless you’re looking at your iPhone). Suddenly every approaching car or bicycle or pedi-cab is a potential danger, a meeting with near-death – at least if you, like me, are conditioned to wide city streets and have an imagination primed for disaster.

Since I’ve begun to travel up and down Commercial almost every day, whether to the Mailer House or Tim’s Used Books or the weekly Farmers’ Market in Portuguese Square, I’ve decided that the idea of peaceful coexistence between the modes of transport is a fiction. Every trip, every narrowly avoided collision, is another item of supporting evidence.

On the 4th of July, I realized that there was at least one day when Commercial Street traffic moved in an orderly fashion and threatened no lives. The Provincetown Independence Day Parade began outside the Harbor Hotel and the condo complex where I’m staying, progressing toward the center of town complete with sirens, fire-trucks laden with people, and an audience. The day before, the Provincetown Banner carried the stern notice: “The Provincetown parade starts at 11 a.m. on the East End of Commercial Street. No parking on Commercial Street from 9 a.m. -3 p.m.” It makes sense somehow that in a place full of what Mailer called “wonderful drunken nights and wild parties,” a place that is “the one town on the Atlantic coast that’s just absolutely freer than others” with Commercial as its riotous hub that the only time the street quiets is for the raucous fanfare of a red-white-and-blue parade.

After seeing the beginning of the march down Commercial, I followed it downtown later that afternoon. Biking down the street, I noticed that the parked cars had already returned. And right by the Lobster Pot I braked sharply to avoid running straight into the mass of parade-goers spread across the street. I walked my bike from that point on; it was less dangerous that way.

Elisa Gonzalez lives at the east end of Commercial Street as a Mailer Fellow and in New York City the rest of the time. She writes poetry, essays and other short pieces, and dabbles in longer work. In 2011, she won the Norman Mailer Four-Year College Writing Award for a group of essays, including one about her experience as a competitor in the National Spelling Bee. You can read more about her writing experience and winning the the Mailer Award here.

DANCE WITH PROVINCETOWN

This stage named Provincetown is fantastical. It hums with electric energy—so many emotions, turmoil, grief in-betweens have been left here. Mine too will be left and when I return, if I return, Provincetown will be recalled from bodily memory as a place of magic and warmth, a calm embrace of someone wise, someone who has known tumultuous grief and has endured it all and let me enjoy the grace of the in-between; the utter calm, the ocean breezes, storms, warm or hot sun, the wooing of the Atlantic waves, the lulling of the bay tides, the shifting of the sand dunes that display a different landscape from each mound. I am standing there changing too, not realizing the constant shift that is occurring, so subtle like the fine grains of sand that rotate a quarter of a quarter-inch to offer a dance of land playfully, playfully.Soojin Kim is a translator and writer from Seoul, Korea. She has been artist-in-residence at Ragdale, I-Park and Ox-bow as a fiction writer. As a translator she enjoys collaborating with visual artists. She is exclusive translator for visual artist Jamie M Lee among others. At the Norman Mailer Writers Colony she has been revising a novel told in the collective voice of four sisters growing up in Korea.

ABBREVIATED THOUGHTS FROM MY STAY IN PROVINCETOWN

ImageShe surrendered completely to the river’s whim, formless and spinning as if a tangled knot of rootless weed. Only her heels, the blades of her shoulders, and the bloodless mounds of her buttocks broke through the water’s surface. A thin cotton gown, near invisible against her sallow skin, floated about her waist like the translucent flesh of a jelly fish. I will never finish this story.

Yesterday I sat in Norman Mailer’s recliner while I edited my novel. To a recliner one ass is as good as another.

I have never been so long without seeing my children.

The most beautiful woman in Provincetown works at a souvenir shop on Bradford Street. I now possess more souvenirs of my stay here than I shall ever want or need.

No writer of fiction will ever attain his goals.

I would rather be a whale than a sailor, despite the loss of legs and access to television.

Never do people add more frivolous detail than when describing the time they met someone famous.

I briefly considered getting a tattoo of a giant squid, until a kind young woman warned me from a distance it might look like a penis.

I have met more bearded ladies here in Provincetown (four) than I ever encountered in all the Tri-County Fairs of my youth.

Each Monday I mailed my son a piece of candy.

I fell in love three times on the ferry ride over from Boston.

Norman dreamed of a woman with bright red hair floating in the seagrass. The smooth, white underbelly of a fattened fish.

Over an eight day period I got poison ivy, a shin bone contusion, an attack of pancreatitis, and lost the filling from my incisor tooth. Only one of these can I blame on eating Red Hots.

From the wealth of glances I receive downtown, I believe I would have made a magnificent bear.

Lighthouses lose their luster when you realize they are automated.

The Celtics will break your heart.

At 2:18pm on June 4th, 2012, I saw the ghost of Norman Mailer arguing with his own reflection in the bathroom mirror.

When you are alone this long you write to people you should not write, and you say things you should not say.

The cemetery on Winthrop Street is too beautiful and haunting to overlook the Shop & Save. Its edges should dissolve into clouds, or the sea.

Often life doesn’t even seem worth killing oneself over.

I dream of my baby daughter’s big, warm head nuzzled next to mine.

I fear this ocean is bottomless and that Lucifer lurks in its bowels.

There is something charming about seeing a copy of Old Yeller nestled among the many books of Mailer’s personal library.

Tell a woman you’re a logger, and she’s all kinds of impressed. Clarify you said blogger, and not so much.

I pray there is no Heaven. This is enough. More than enough.

Cape Cod is a dull and discordant name. Truro is worse. But Provincetown and Plymouth are as lyrical as they come.

A young woman arrives at the preacher’s door in the driving rain. She holds an infant. A boy. His bastard son. The preacher’s wife suspects. Months later the child’s mother will watch from the shore as the preacher carries their son into the river to be baptized. The preacher drowns the child. His petite empire is preserved. This story is like pennies in my pocket, waiting to be lost in the wash.

Grant Jones is a Fiction Fellow at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. He has recently completed his first novel, Annabelle, and is hard at work on his second, Blind Tigers, on the subject of moonshine and baseball in the early decades of the 20th century.

PRESENTIMENT OF A PLOT

Hours before a storm arrives in Provincetown, there are signs of it approaching.  The air softens and gains heft.  A chill nips on the underside of the wind.  The sky, a catalog of gradually-graying blues, settles in at the shade appropriate to whichever atmospheric disturbance Mother Nature has planned—“Constant Drizzle,” “60% Chance and Not a Drop,” “Hail Do You Do.”

Sometimes, clouds blindfold a docile blue sky from behind with dirty wool.  Not as an entrée for a round of Pin the Tale on the Donkey, but violently.

On rain days, the bedroom window of the neighboring rental never opens.  Blinds buttoned to the lip of a sill not eight feet from my own prevent glimpses of the naked to-ings and fro-ings I catch on occasion, buffer strains of music and conversation.

“Hello?  Hello?  Hey! Hey, Tom! Yes! Yes, we just got here . . .”

—an aria, maybe Donizetti—no, no definitely Il trovatore, Azucena’s promise of revenge—

“. . . well, she is GOING to hear about it, because I am PISSED.” 

Absent, even the blue jay—no aubade of screams and hawk mimicry from his post on the chain link fence dividing the canal of pebbles and patchy beach grass between our properties.

No, on rain days, blankness multiplies—Cape Cod Colonials, a study in whites and grays, perhaps a faded red windbreaker scurrying out of sight.  As innocuous as a Hopper painting.

Is that why I accepted the ride?

My bike tire had blown a tube, and besides, it was raining. 

Is that a better excuse?  Or is this what prompts people to tsk while watching the evening news?  “Woman found dead on Cape Cod, last seen loading bicycle into the back of a black pick-up truck on Route Six.”

Except no one would have seen my bicycle being loaded into the back of the black truck, because I’m not the one who made it that far.  I only made half of a mistake.

*          *          *

I’m obsessed with Law & Order.  With the BBC’s Prime Suspect and Wallander.  Dexter and CSI: All Four Hundred Versions.  Yet, I wouldn’t say I actually like crime or violence, despite the categories dominating my Netflix account—Visually Striking Crime Dramas, Thrillers, Dark Suspenseful Psychological Dramas, Violent Movies.  I cover my eyes during fight scenes and suffer from nightmares after watching certain movies too close to bed.  Don’t even talk to me about what watching Twin Peaks, even a full decade after its appearance on network television, is doing to my REM cycle.

And yet, I can’t stop.

For the past few years, I’ve tried to figure out why I am compelled to finish watching an episode or movie or finish a book even when the conventions of the genre pretty much guarantee I can guess what’s going to happen.  Even when I know that ending will not bring me anything but the weakest shadow of mimetic relief—whether it’s because the process of reaching an ending involves a slew of violent murders where women’s bodies figure too prominently and too sexually, or because I distrust the closure offered by handcuffs.

And yet, I crave that ending.

People have told me that in Provincetown, I don’t need to lock my door.  But I do, after my husband warns me about a string of break-ins happening in the Lake George area.  Apparently his mother had told him a woman was alone in her home when one of the break-ins occurred.

If I need to explain the logic at work here—why I would be afraid to leave my door unlocked in Provincetown when a woman in a different town (state, even!) was the victim of a burglary in her own home—well, I would be happy to know I am in the minority. However, I suspect many people—especially women—understand this fear.  Understand what makes a woman tell her son, who tells his wife: “Make sure you lock the doors.”

I’m thinking even more heavily on this subject after hearing Mary Gaitskill read her short story, “The Other Place,” here at the Mailer Colony.  I was struck not only by the story, but also by her explanation of its inspiration.  How her fear of staying alone in a house on a college campus, aware of her vulnerability, led to a story about a father and his son who both deal with potentially psychopathic tendencies.  Though not a piece of genre fiction, Gaitskill’s story plays with the conventions of the psychological thriller/crime drama.  By turning the proverbial lens toward the question of the cultural production of violent sexual predators, she interrogates her fear while disrupting a genre reader’s expectations with a twist at the end that can be described both as chilling and hopeful.

Yet the story could hardly be called comforting, reiterating as it does the sheer mundanity of our cultural narratives of sexual violence against women.

A man who claims he is writing a book about “men and women” accosts a friend at the Provincetown Library.  Would she like to get a drink later?  She says no, refuses to return to the library to work.  We decided to label this a smart decision based on unfortunate circumstances.  The town is small and it’s hard to know whether the guy is a local or on vacation.  We decide it’s not worth the risk, though she has not seen him again.

A few nights later, a group discusses the murder of a young woman in NYC a few years ago over dinner.  A tragedy, of course, though a few of us wonder whether she could have prevented her own death by deciding not to go out drinking alone.  I sit with the suggestion of the limits of our ability to feel compassion when it means challenging our notions of our own security.  I sit with the worldly “realities” that fence a woman’s existence.

Later, we list all the risks we took that we would never take again, knowing what we supposedly know now.  Sleeping on a beach.  Accepting an invitation to a stranger’s home.  Walking home alone late at night.  We grudgingly acknowledge that any of us could have been a murder victim.

*          *          *

Half a mistake.  Trudging up a steep hill against traffic, I squint in the distance for headlights.  Parked cars sit silently on both sides of Provincetown’s busiest street.  City logic—numbers mean safety.

In the corner of my left eye, something dark flies out suddenly.  A dull clang.  Hello, pavement.

My bike’s good tire is wedged under my right calf.  How did that happen?  I think of skid-marks, traffic.  Reach to pull the bike out of the way, realize I’ve lost perspective—no idea how far I’ve fallen, where exactly I lay.  A childhood fear wells up within—Come on, let’s play the game.  A neighborhood version of Chicken.  Don’t get up until you see the car tires coming.  Sweat pricks hot under my soaked jacket.  If the other person can’t see you, it’s not really Chicken.

Get up.  Get up.  No one can see you lying in the street.

Two hands reach down.

“Hey . . . hey . . .”

I’m not alone.  Someone will see me.  Everything’s going to be—tires’ soft screech—another voice, sneakers squishing in the rain—okay.

Half a mistake.  Not paying attention.  Standing, I’m a little woozy, but everything appears to be working.

“Had the wind knocked out of you, poor thing!” 

“I’m so sorry, miss, I didn’t see you walking by.”

“It’s okay . . . I’m okay.”  Embarrassed, I try to laugh it off while the middle-aged woman who pulled over rights my bike.  The man standing next to the black truck has the hood of his jacket pulled over his head.  His hands are in his pockets. His shoulders slump forward protectively.  Doored while walking.  I’m too surprised to summon any anger.  Later I’ll be angry.  For now I’m just breathing.  It rains harder.

An awkward silence, then the woman offers me a ride.  I accept gratefully as the man slides into the cab of his truck.  Lock my bike to a tree.  Slide into the dry car seat.  Watch his taillights get smaller in the side-view mirror.

Two days later, I hear on the news that a young woman is missing.  The news anchor is my age, maybe a few years younger, though her hair looks like a confection out of the 1960s—shiny chestnut, sprayed into shape.  It looks as though it might lift off in one piece.  She mentions the young woman was last seen loading her bike into the back of a black truck. Tells me if I have any information I should call the police.  Blinks.  Reads the next story.

Mandy Malloy, an Army brat who calls Florida her native home, is a writer and graphic designer currently living in Brooklyn, New York. A graduate of Hunter College’s MFA Poetry program, her poems have appeared most recently in The Portland Review and Hot Metal Bridge. Visit her blog here.

Mandy is also a Mailer Poetry Fellow.  She is using the month of residency to work on her first collection of poems and to explore her fascination with the intersection of crime fiction and feminism.

GOOD TIMES BAD TIMES

Saturday, July 2nd, I spent the night in Providence, RI.
The next day, I drove the last hours up the Cape’s curl,
Mind burning with the Waterfires I’d seen lit
In braziers where College Hill sloped to the river.
At the Mailer Home I received my key, was oriented
And escorted, with smiles, to my home for the next month.
My roommate and I found common ground in favorite writers
And fell quickly to the task of lolling about the different rooms
Of the generous, pastel Rubix Cube we’d been appointed,
Filling it with our scent: marking it our own.

An Opening Reception at the Mailer Center,
A savage blitz on the Stop And Shop, drinks,
More drinks, and innumerable pool matches—
In near dark—beneath Governor Bradford’s Tavern,
The floorboards above our heads sagging
Under the weight of drag-karaoke.
I slept, woke, drank, woke,
Sun through the skylight casting a rainbow
Off me in the shower. I climbed
The hills behind our condo, collecting scratches
In those same woods an earlier generation
Ascended to find love and pick fights
In the dark, after the bars had closed.
Where I thought I’d see the Atlantic, and clear my head,
I saw only more hills, rank upon rank.

God help you when you wake up after days like that:
When nothing you’ve written was worth waking up for,
And your body treats with you suspicion.
When the high school’s been shipped to Eastham,
The fisheries and saltworks shrinking to a footnote,
The Portuguese packing up their language and slipping away,
The bartender at Old Colony seems overly familiar,
And your feet hurt where you took your shoes off
To dance the fool,
Just pray you’ve enough hope and character
Saved away to redeem and outlast the stale day
When flat light on Commercial reveals it a studio backlot
—empty of all who hazard to love you.

Scott Dahlie holds an MFA from the New School where he was prose editor for LIT Magazine.  He was recently awarded the Hauser Prize for prose and is featured in Chautauqua Literary Journal.  He is thirty years old and will be moving to London after the summer.

Scott is also a Mailer Fiction Fellow. He is using the month of residency to work on his first novel.

GRIZZLY MEN

They have emerged out of hibernation and descended upon a small fishing village in Massachusetts Bay.  Once again, it’s Bear Week in Provincetown. Out of all the theme weeks, Bear Week is a favorite among locals.  The bears, despite their rough and rugged exteriors, are the jolliest.  They are less neurotic than the Circuit Boys (too much haughty preening and calorie counting) and more festive than the broods of Family Week (children).  Hairy, stocky, and bearded, they have made the annual pilgrimage, waving a banner of orange and brown, a paw print emblazoned in the top left corner. This week, we live in the Bear Flag Republic.

Many Bears kicked off the bacchanalia this past Saturday by stocking up on bear necessities, such as bacon, beans, burgers, and buns.  A rumor swept through town that the Bears had eaten all the grocery stores out of food. The local Stop and Shop’s shelves were indeed barren by the evening. “It looked like Supermarket Sweep,” said John, a Bear who migrated from San Francisco, recounting the feeding frenzy.  “They were just running down the aisles, knocking anything into their carts!”

The great ursine appetite is a significant trait in the Bear community.  “Being a Bear is an attitude,” explains Don from Brooklyn, who counts this as his eleventh annual jubilee.  “It’s more relaxed, more accepting, and less body conscious.”  I noticed Bears are quite fond of parading around shirtless, their vast, fuzzy bellies bulging over cargo shorts.  “It’s a pride thing.”  Of course, one need not be a total grizzly to fit in.  There are Otters (hairless bears) and Cubs (diminutive bears).  When I asked what he believes to be the best part of Bear Week, Don looked at me dumbfounded, because I had asked the most obvious question in the world: “The scenery!”  Duh!

Bear Week is more than a feast for the eyes, but also for the senses. The line for Tea Dance, a favorite crepuscular Bear activity, stretches blocks down the street, as the Boat Slip ticks past capacity around five p.m.  Bears tend to occupy a greater surface area on the dance floor.  Throbbing bass beats pulsed at Classic Disco Night at the A-House through a thick mélange of fuzz and sweat as the Bears danced the night away.  The balance of hyper masculinity- some of these guys look like body builders recently released from prison- with pop diva flourish was dizzying and delightful.  The cloud of body odor emanating from the dance floor was dizzyingly pungent.

embroidery by Rebecca Levi

This week, the Four Eleven Studio features a lively Bear-themed exhibition entitled “Grisly.”  I was riding my bike past the space on Commercial Street Friday night, and couldn’t contain my elation.  “Bears!” I whispered in awe, before a wall-sized painting of two burly men in flannel by Liz Carney.  A strapping young man eating ice cream sauntered over.  “You can feed a real Bear inside,” he told me.  “Really?  Like some kind of performance art?”  I said ingenuously, expecting to see some kind of Abromavic-esque human installation.  “Sure.”

I popped inside, and while I admired Rebecca Levi’s whimsically sweet embroidery sampler of a bear in his underpants preparing eggs sunnyside up, I witnessed no such interactive opportunity.  I walked back outside, basking in the providence of such an homage.  A large man followed behind me.

“Here he is!,” strapping ice cream guy exclaimed, thrusting his cup of melting pistachio in my direction.  “You can feed the bear!” It turned out he was playing a practical joke, as he urged me, a total stranger, to spoon-feed his unassuming boyfriend.  It was weird, but I did it.  And the boyfriend, puzzled, let me.  He was a total Teddy Bear.

Elizabeth Greenwood is from Worcester, Massachusetts.  As a New York City Teaching Fellow, she taught English as a Second Language in the Bronx and Manhattan.  Writing on culture, her work has appeared in The Atlantic and The New Yorker.  She is working toward an MFA in literary nonfiction at Columbia University, where she teaches undergraduate writing.  Visit her blog.

Elizabeth is also a Mailer Nonfiction Fellow. She is using her month of residency to write about people who fake their own deaths, which is her current obsession.

ROSE DOROTHEA

On the eastern coast of North America lies an intricate assembly of beaches, islands and crooked strips of land narrowed by the unrepentant embrace of the Atlantic Ocean. It is called Cape Cod. The outstretching peninsula of this coastline was described by Norman Mailer as a disagreeable arm of an elderly man, whose hand curled round extending a bony middle finger to the south. On the curving, fleshy palm sits a town called Provincetown (or P-Town as the locals call it). Despite its small size it boasts the second largest harbour in the world. Its streets are full of art galleries and many writers (like Mailer) have lived and worked here.

In the centre of the town stands a large wooden building with white painted horizontal slats and a two tier bell tower. Originally built in 1860 as a Methodist church, it now houses thousands of books and functions as the town’s library. As such it is a hub of the community and the service it provides is well-loved and fiercely defended by the people who live here.

I was told that the library had a ship inside that was worth a look. For some reason (I like to put it down to my own creative imaginings) I expected the ship to be in a bottle. I was wrong. As you walk up the stairs to the second floor the bow of the ship looms before you. Her name, the Rose Dorothea, is ornately painted in gold against the black wooden hull. She is a magnificent sailing ship. And quite clearly, far too big to be imprisoned in any bottle. The library and its books are dwarfed by her majesty. Two holes have been crafted into the ceiling to accommodate her masts and the oval-shaped reading room at the east end of the library is penetrated by her bow sprit. The main boom hangs ominously over the readers at the other end who turn their pages and tap their laptops, unthreatened by the enormity of her structure and un-struck by her prominence. But when I look at her, this ship amongst the books, I can’t help but feel that in the thread of her sails and the grain of her deck, she has more adventurous tales and more workings of history than any of these pages would care to impress upon the patrons of P-Town.

Sue Stout is forty, a mum of two from Liverpool England, studying for a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing at Edge Hill University in Ormskirk, England. She has been a primary school teacher for eleven years and is currently hooked on training for triathlons, which she’s completely rubbish at but getting better.

Sue is also the winner of the British GQ Norman Mailer Writing Competition. Judged by British GQ senior editors and contributors and other distinguished literary and publishing figures, the competition is held annually and carries a Mailer Nonfiction Fellowship as part of the prize. To find out why Sue is training for triathlons, look out for the forthcoming piece in GQ (sneak preview here).

FLOTSAM, JETSAM, JUNK & SPUNK

I am an inveterate worrywart. I try and fight it, but it can’t be helped—it’s in my blood.  Could be the Latino’s innate sense of impending doom; could be a deep awareness of the problems of the universe; could just be that I’m a paranoid loon. Can’t take my niece to the playground because the thought of her tumbling off the monkey bars and splitting her little skull are all too real (and I suspect that the little demon would fake a mortal injury just to give me agita). Can’t enjoy myself at parties because I tend to agonize over how my breath is holding up (“Did you see the way her nostrils flared when I said, ‘Heh-lo?’ I’d ask my bemused and long-suffering girlfriend). Like Hamlet’s Horatio, I have intimations of stars with trains of fires and dews of blood, disasters in the sun. You see, I often have a special knack for depressing folks. I once drove a poor homeless man into such a state that he gave me a dollar. Hey, it’s a gift.

Naturally, before setting off for my sojourn at Provincetown, I expected the worst. I already knew that I was going to get lost on my way from New York— even with a GPS— because I’m an idiot, so that was no big surprise. But what, exactly, did I think was going to happen? I guess I envisioned an endless stream of glitter-happy beefcakes on Atlantean stilts hurling grenades, a ramshackle cottage with acid dripping from the rafters and seething with vicious mice, an ocean full of hungry viperfish. Of course, none of this materialized (except maybe the beefcakes—all those walking slabs carting bulbous pectorals and mounded muscle, moving as if their spines had been ironed with pure starch, guilted me into committing to red-faced push-ups and crying crunches every morning). Instead, this wayworn, reeking scribbler—who dragged himself over the threshold of the Mailer household like a whip-scorned sackcloth saint—was greeted warmly by Anna and Jessica, two lovely, smiling young ladies who generated nothing but beneficence, and all of the dark and doom of this sackcloth scribbler instantly sloughed away.

After all, who can maintain a stormy mood in this miraculous paradise?

Not me! Not after I was shown into my writerly quarters, which contained an amazing Escher-like staircase and a bed big enough to ensconce a harem. Not after I could hear the ocean and smell the salt-spray in the air. Not after I saw the melonmuddled evening sky, so much like California wine, and then the brass-butter moon melting against the horizon. The prodigies of penumbra that pluralized my mind! I could feel the energy coursing through my veins, my blood shook, my heart stammered, my head nearly exploded.

Thus began the first flashes of inspiration that begged to be bottled, and then uncapped, so lightning could strike the page.

The rage of ransacking creation made depredations upon the brain.

My first Provincetown sun soon climbed, the same color of gold that the sea dreams. The ocean received me with a gentle hiss. And the yipping array of dogs on the beach, how they skipped and skerfuffled, rebounded, resounded! (making me a little wistful for my dogs and my girlfriend back home). I floated beneath the marbling blue, fantasizing about bobbing for octopus and jigging for squid. I’d have to settle for a beer at the Old Colony instead, bellied up to the mast beside tawny fishermen.

Having broiled myself unevenly beneath the sun, my skin had turned a bizarre combination of pink, white, and brown. I looked like a Brachs Neapolitan coconut sundae candy, the kind my father used to cajole me into eating whenever I had a loose tooth as a kid, just so he could save on an expensive trip to the dentist. A few chews on that and your tooth was bound to suck away from the socket. Hell, it beat the shit out of the old string-and-a-doorknob technique.

Still, no matter how unsightly I was at the time, I wasn’t going to hide away.

On the night of the fourth of July, after tucking into a delicious basket of fried clam strips and a mouth-watering, eye-boggling lobster roll from Burger Queen (overt product placement! Hope you’re reading this, Burger Queen), I stepped out of my backwater dwelling and strode past the clumps of knotweed and the dangling bloom of orange roses. A steep-stoop bird squawked beneath the eaves of a frame house, seeming to follow the same celebratory concussions as me. My shoes flattened the spuds of sand as I moved down an alley toward the shore and I watched with fascination as the flares illuminated the shambly dance of the crisping sea. It was a night reminiscent of first-blush kisses, with couples clasped and tender promises issuing. But as much as I enjoyed the arch geometry of that dread dazzle in the sky, I couldn’t linger, because the flies or mosquitoes or sand fleas—buzzing hopping stinging things— practically devoured me. I was convulsing so bad you might have thought I’d eaten a live wire. Needless to say, if you come out here, bring your can of bug-death.

I couldn’t sleep that night. Too many thoughts and ideas rumbling through this once-barren head. At the sign of first light, I once again emerged from my dwelling. Underfoot, a plush radiance like summer fruit fresh off the vine; just above, the song of sunrise shooting its striations across the sky; and I couldn’t help thinking, even though I realize now that my old morbid habits were creeping back, It’s a goddamn shame that a man has to die.

I think I just might finish something worth the doing in Provincetown.

Edwin Rivera is a dollar mug of Budweiser. He’s bald knuckles on a scarred wood bar. He’s a cigarette burned down to the nub. He ain’t nothing but a goddamned writer.

Edwin is also a Mailer Fiction Fellow. He is using the month of residency to work on a novel called Sun Street, Moon Street, about a fictional town in New Jersey and its Latino community. Read an excerpt published in White Whale Review.