BTS: Dispossessed

“Dispossessed”—Behind the Story

For a lot of the stories drafted up to this point, I had, at the very least, a vague direction of how I hoped a story might unfold, even how a story might end. (I try not to force that direction, of course; characters and stories should take the paths best suited in the moment-to-moment writing of them.)

But this story tested me.

Really, the only element I had: a post-war and aged-up character from “The Last Ride.” That’s it. Truly, this was the first story I wrote working without the net of even a shadowy direction in mind. I simply sat in the chair and wrote. Johannes? Hey, he had a name now; he was unnamed in “The Last Ride.” I like that name. What’s that? His ex-wife is dead? Interesting. He carries wounds from serving in World War II? Makes sense. He used to work at League Park? I can dig it. He’s living with his dead ex-wife’s aunt? Sure, why not. He made a promise to his dead ex-wife’s aunt? Promises are good. When you can keep them.

It went like that for a while. I mean, well over a year’s worth of writing. And I just wrote pages and pages and pages. (The first draft was originally 30+ pages longer than what I ended up with in the final version.) Throughout the first-draft process, I frequently faced a fairly common existential writing crisis: “This story just will not work. You know—you know—it’ll never work. You’re writing aimlessly! What are you, mad?”

But I kept plodding on.

Of course, I did a lot of research, wanting to flesh out Johannes’s world with accurate Cleveland-specific details. On my Cleveland walkabouts, I traversed the streets of Hough, explored League Park and the grounds of The Cleveland Museum of Art, and toured the Old Stone Church. (In a last-minute research-assist, after I’d thought the story done, my parents nailed down key Old Stone Church details that I’d had wrong.) And I think I read, from front page to last page including every single advertisement, over thirty issues of The Plain Dealer from that era. This informed the details of the opening paragraph, for sure, which allowed me to zoom in from afar into Johannes’s life, and the reading informed the rich goings-on of the times. It also helped me get into the character of setting, of time and place: one of the challenges I undertook in writing the collection was to inhabit through language—whether it be diction, syntax, or style—the period in which I was writing. I’m sure I failed as often as I succeeded in this particular endeavor, but it was always top of mind when I wrote these stories.

In 2016, I participated in DISQUIET, the international literary program developed by Jeff Parker and Scott Laughlin. My workshop group, led by the inimitable Padgett Powell, offered terrific feedback and encouragement on the unfinished story. After I revised and revised, Annie Liontas provided additional guidance, helped me find the heart of the story. And after I revised some more, I finally had a story I felt good about sending out.

Submitting to journals is one fraught with letdowns. There are flat-out rejections: these are of the form-letter variety and constitute, oh, 95% of submissions. There are acceptances: perhaps 1%, if I’m lucky. Then there are good rejections: the editors really like a piece, it just wasn’t right for them at this time, but they write a personal note and urge me to submit again. These are the other 4%. (I’m making up these numbers, by the way, but they feel right.) “Dispossessed” set a record for me. Five out of twenty journals gave me the good rejection note. (And, I aimed high with this story. While the story’s length limited which journals might read it, I sent it to a lot of prestigious ones.) Although it never got published, it did earn an Honorable Mention in a Glimmer Train contest—I’d always hoped to get a story published in Glimmer Train—but I was pleased with both the good rejections and that Honorable Mention.

The title came from an eavesdropped conversation at a miradouro in Lisbon. While waiting for a DISQUIET reading to start at a nearby museum or some such, a few tourists commented on passersby, how they looked like they wandered through life “dispossessed.” That word struck me. And that title suited my characters perfectly.

“Dispossessed”—Excerpt

On October 9, 1946, hundreds of meteors, remnants of the Giacobini-Zinner comet that had passed the earth eight days prior, scraped the Cleveland sky. Also on that day, a Cleveland minister was arrested in Grand Rapids during a vice-squad raid at a licentiously bawdy house; two thirteen-year-old girls picked up by police in Cincinnati were returned to their Cleveland homes; a couple found guilty of robbing a Cleveland-area tavern to finance their wedding were sentenced to prison; the G.I. musical show “Call Me Mister,” with its series of sketches capturing the absurdities of war, began touring the country and would ultimately visit Cleveland’s Hanna Stage; the War Services Center, a twenty-by-fifty rectangular structure built on the northwest quadrant of Public Square—a structure that at one time housed recruitment offices, war bond sellers, and the Red Cross, a structure built using donated materials, a structure on whose walls were the painted names of hundreds of Cleveland war dead—was to be dismantled.

And Johannes Sykora, Purple Heart recipient, twisted and shifted and pivoted in a kitchen chair across from his Eileen’s Aunt Betty. Not his aunt, though. His wife’s. Correction: his ex-wife’s. Correction: his dead ex-wife’s. Yet when he was married, when he was whole, he’d made a solemn promise to Eileen: find her Aunt Betty a man. Johannes grunted with each maneuver. “Hip?” she said.

Of course the hip. The unrecovered shrapnel that resided inside Johannes caused either pointed pain or blessed numbness. On most days, his hip hobbled his gait, a stuttering step that made him look wooden in his movements. On rare days, and he never knew when a rare day neared, his gait smoothed into a walk that made him appear to lightly hop as if some emotion or event had proffered him a flowing stream of happiness. When his hip hurt or numbed, massaging sometimes helped, a hot bath sometimes helped, icing sometimes helped. Sometimes nothing helped.

The small Queen Anne house awoke around them. The windows popped in the morning sun. Outside a bird chirruped uncertainly in the maple; the warm October must have the little guy confused, Johannes thought, about whether to head south or not. The framed and unframed posters and postcards of faraway destinations that surrounded them—New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Florida, Cuba, Aruba, Brazil, Spain, France, Siam, Australia—glowed as the sun pried its way into the room. A short stack of travel books boosted one leg of the kitchen table, held it level. In a nook behind Aunt Betty sat a black telephone, its slanted dial and A-to-Z letters unreasonably cockeyed, and beside the phone rested a picture of Eileen, her face vacuous and her eyes empty.

Johannes sighed. Eileen was beautiful. And as dead as Jesus. 

A rustling newspaper vibrated in Aunt Betty’s hands. Some ailment or other caused her head and hands to shake even at rest. Johannes wondered how she could read any words in that erratic zoetrope. And he at times wondered why he should even try to keep his promise—his promise was to Eileen, after all, and not Betty—but his wonder didn’t last: Betty had taken him in when the Housing Authority had denied him a home.

Betty’s shaking body and wisps of gray entwined in a tight bun belied her fifty years. Johannes realized he’d never seen that hair down, wondered how long it was, how it might look cascaded across her shoulders, down her back. 

Johannes rotated his wedding band clockwise and clockwise and clockwise. He waited for Aunt Betty to finish the section of the paper she held aloft. He had thought he’d seen, in the paper’s vibratory movement, news items of particular import to him. He finger-tapped a rhythm from the Superman radio serial for forty-seven seconds, by his count, waiting patiently, before he sighed and lifted the paper from Betty’s rattling hands. She squeaked, opened her mouth to speak, seemed to think better of it, then popped a fingernail clipping in her mouth from a four-inch-tall Ball Mason jar filled with them.

A pot whistled and screamed and Aunt Betty pushed her chair away from the table, slipper-slapped to the stove, ceased the screaming. “Tea?” she said.

Johannes skimmed two articles: Bill Veeck’s decision that there would be no more Indians at League Park meant Johannes was out of a job, his ushering days over (not that his hip allowed him to do the job all that well anyway); and Public Square’s faux-monument with its war-dead names was finally coming down.

He realized he’d been asked a question. “No, Aunt Betty.”

Aunt Betty poured hot water into a cup that displayed a faded picture of the Eiffel Tower. Her movements caused water to splash into and out of the cup, but she’d learned to stand far from the counter, arm outstretched, pot dangling from her trembling hand. The dangerous water did not touch her, merely mottled the countertop and floor in steaming droplets.

Johannes stood and gripped her hand from behind, steadied the pour. She stopped pouring and turned. He felt her breath on his neck. “I have to go out,” Johannes said.

“Oh,” she said. She pulled her hand from his, stepped backward and bumped the counter. She steadily set the pot on the counter, marched to the table, and tossed a nail into her mouth, swallowed. “That’s fine, Johannes. Yes, that’s fine.”

Johannes and Betty stared at each other a moment. Out of the corner of his eye he caught Eileen’s framed gaze. It no longer seemed empty. It seemed accusatory.

##

Johannes knew they were late. It was bad enough it had taken over a month to set up the date with Cadman, the city worker he’d met when he’d trolleyed downtown to witness the tearing down of the War Services Center, the city worker whose glass eye made him wonder if a scarred and damaged Cadman would see a mate in a fitful and fading Aunt Betty, but now various arguments kept them from leaving. Betty’s combativeness initially surprised him: she knew how important this was to him, to Eileen. He’d made a promise, he’d delivered. But he understood nerves now gripped her; her shaking made it difficult to place a few half-moon nail bits on her tongue.

First she refused to go on her own; Johannes agreed to accompany her. Then she fussed with her clothes; Johannes stopped her from going to Halle’s for a new outfit. Then it was the jar. Betty wanted it; Johannes didn’t. They compromised: Betty could bring a small envelope containing three nails, no more, but she had to leave it in her purse.

Johannes positioned Betty on his left side and looped the woven wire latch over the gate that marked the edge of Betty’s property. Betty had bought the fence from Sears, Roebuck & Co. before the war, before the steel shortage, and the crimped galvanized wire fence encircled the property, marked her garden, when it wasn’t winter, as hers. 

The bar was a short walk down Hough. He’d been there once before, found it a quiet place, peaceful, found the owners kind, although he cringed at their free use of racial epithets and slurs. Sure, they were acceptable words of sorts, but they didn’t work for him. And the area, Hough, the former Little Hollywood, was changing: culture, sports, shopping, business, they were all becoming, subtly, derelict.

He threaded Aunt Betty’s right arm through his left and led her down the street, his limp counter-balanced by her shaking body. 

Johannes imagined Cadman and Aunt Betty hitting it off, talking for hours. Who knew? Maybe, a long-shot maybe, Cadman would even partake of her nails. He pictured Cadman walking Betty home, taking his, Johannes’s, place, pictured himself attending their wedding after a whirlwind courtship. His own wedding, many years ago, popped in his mind. Eileen’s veil not nearly enough to hide her beauty; he relived their final argument before he left for war as she told him how she was getting a job at The Mounds Club, a place he had heard was both disreputable and dangerous; and then he imagined Eileen’s bloated body floating face down in Wade Lagoon. His foot slipped into the gutter, jolted him back to the now.

They were well over an hour late when Johannes pushed open the door and held it with outstretched arm for Betty to lead the way into the dimness. The music and voices hit him first as his eyes adjusted: Perry Como’s “Prisoner of Love” mixed with one of the young owners telling a customer about an old brewery wagon driver, friend of his father, who swore he’d heard ghosts rolling barrels on the upper floors of the old Cleveland Brewing Company. The sounds gave way to the sights: pictures of a lattice-like frame of the Terminal Tower in the ’20s; League Park; various over-the-years’ team pictures of the Cleveland Rams, the Cleveland Browns, the Cleveland Indians; the Arena; and, surprisingly, a tiny photo of Sam Jethroe, centerfielder for the Negro Leagues Cleveland Buckeyes.

And then Johannes saw Cadman. His head was down, folded into his arms, half a dozen mostly empty C.B.C. beer bottles in front of him. Cadman raised his head and scanned the room but didn’t seem to see Johannes. Cadman put on and took off his hat several times, even once turning it over and tapping the crown as if something useful might drop out. He placed the hat, crown down, on the table and upended and finished another beer. Cadman’s fingers rubbed his temple and then found the scar and followed it through his beard and into his collar. When they’d met, Cadman, a three-foot-long piece of the wooden war memorial in his hands, told Johannes about that scar—“I had fists, he had a knife”—and Johannes had trusted Cadman when he’d said, fingernail clicking his left eye, that he’d since reformed his ways. Johannes now felt stupid, naïve.

Johannes now, in this moment, saw self-loathing in Cadman’s expression. He’d misread him in the Square. He made ready to escort Betty home, abort the mission, but heard Cadman call: “Over here, your highness.”

Aunt Betty released herself from Johannes and removed a glove. “I like his scar,” she said.

“Sorry we’re—”

“Save it.” Cadman looked Betty up and down, his lone eye widening and narrowing until he reached her face, her shaking face. Cadman’s head momentarily wobbled in imitation. “So you’re Bouncing Betty, yeah?”

“Now wait just a—”

Betty said yes and extended her bare hand; it was unexpectedly steady.

Cadman ignored the gesture. He wiped his mouth, wiped the same hand across his chest. A dark trail of saliva marked his shirt. “Sit.” He patted the chair. “Betty, here.” He pointed across the table. “You, there.” When a waitress approached, he waved her off with the same hand. “Tell me, tell me.”

“Tell you—?”

He tapped his watch. “Why your time is more important than mine.”

Johannes studied Cadman, who studied Betty. A triangle of stares. Johannes had Cadman’s glass eye in his favor, could study him unnoticed, unashamedly. The radio played “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly” and Cadman’s tapping finger couldn’t keep the rhythm, always a beat or two off.

Cadman said, “I should’ve seen this.” He tapped the table, then tapped each eye. “Some told me, back in the day, that the loss of my eye would bring me insight, wisdom. ‘The Oracle of Hough,’ they’d call me.” His hands ping-ponged a bottle back and forth, back and forth, across the table. “That sure as shit didn’t happen, did it.”

Aunt Betty looked to Johannes. “Should we leave?”

Johannes had served with heroes. And he’d served with unbalanced men, soldiers who disobeyed orders, who reveled in death, thrived in blood. Cadman’s gaze and open and obvious contempt reminded Johannes of Gunnery Sergeant Perkins. After their 1st Marine Division had fended off scads of Japanese on Peleliu, a little volcanic island in the Pacific, Johannes didn’t understand when Perkins forced eight prisoners to kneel and outstretch their arms on rocks he had placed in front of them. He didn’t understand when Perkins removed a machete from his belt. He didn’t understand when Perkins made a speech filled with references to Caesar and Uxellodunum. He didn’t understand the eight pairs of hands that lay on the beach and the eight screaming prisoners. Yes, Johannes knew war, knew the taking of so many others’ lives marked his soul, but he had never understood cruelty. He should have stopped Perkins. But the best he could manage was to shoot each prisoner in the back of the head.

“Yes,” Johannes said. He kept his gaze on this Cadman, this Perkins. “We should leave.” He stood, placed his hat on his head, hooked his hand under Betty’s elbow.

“You’re not going anywhere,” Cadman said. “You’re going to sit, and we’re going to have us a chat.” Cadman held Betty’s arm. She was stretched between the men, a Betty tug-of-war. “It’s our chance to get to know each other.”

Johannes reached across and loosened Cadman’s grip. “I made a mistake.”

“You’re making one now.” Cadman gripped the neck of an empty beer bottle, tested its weight.

Johannes arm-swept Betty behind him, positioned himself between Cadman and Betty.

Cadman said, “I am the Oracle.” He slapped the fat end of the bottle in his open palm.

Johannes felt Aunt Betty shaking badly. He turned to check on her, to move them away from this. “Betty, we—” His head exploded and his vision shifted and his hip buckled and Betty and her screams dopplered sideways as he went down.

Johannes’s breath, exhalations coming rapidly, pushed droplets of foam and bits of beer bottle glass in front of him. He was taken by the sight, blinked in slow rhythm to his breath and the subtle movement on the floor. A dull hum or a muted roar—it was hard to define—filled him with waves crashing into the Peleliu beach. He was, he thought, swimming in the sound. But that didn’t make any sense, did it? He smiled at his nonsense. His head hurt. A wetness slid down his neck. He tried to move his head, to touch the pain, but he couldn’t. A soft insistent pressure held his head still.

“Don’t move, don’t move, don’t move.” A woman’s voice. What woman? “You’re hurt.” A face hovered erratically, sideways. Oh, that woman. She, she—. “They’re calling for help, so lay still.” She seemed nice. Reminded him of someone. Someone else. Nice. No. Not possible. She was dead.

“Eileen,” Johannes said.

“Not now.” The woman’s face—he did know her, he did—disappeared. Her knees pressed into the glass bits, held the bits still. “Hurry,” her knees said.

Johannes thought, Yes. Hurry.

Photos of League Park Courtesy of Encyclopedia of Cleveland History and Cleveland Memory Project. Photo of The War Services Center and The Old Stone Church courtesy of Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.

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