We are thrilled to announce that the latest edition of Phoebe, issue 42.1, is back from the presses and ready for readers.
It is full of gripping, eloquent, and thought-provoking reads from an exciting bunch of writers. In the next few days we’ll be bringing a small taste of the prose and poetry you can find inside our full print edition of Phoebe 42.1. If you are hungry for more, and we hope you are, say the word and we’ll get Phoebe 42.1 into your hands soon. Click here for specific ordering information.
Today, we have a snippet from Seth Sawyers‘ “John’s House,” a work of nonfiction about two young boys trying to make sense of the world around them:
My friend John and I shared a seat on Bus 77. I needed both arms and sometimes a leg to wrestle my trombone onto the bus, but John could manage it with just one hand. John signed my fifth-grade yearbook like this: “I hope I know you when you are an artetic and I am a bub.” He meant “architect” and “bum.” We slept at each other’s houses a lot. Ours was an orderly, brand-new split-level with a two-car garage. It had off-yellow vinyl siding, a washer and a dryer, a small deck out back. The walls were white. The carpet was brown and soft. The cabinets still smelled like wood. Our house was so new that it was without history, an un-scuffed blankness. When the breeze was right, it creaked and settled so much that when I was left alone I’d sit in the big TV-watching chair, an aluminum baseball bat nearby in case the creaks weren’t creaks. There were times when I was so full of pent-up nerves that I’d bite the insides of my cheeks until they tasted of metal.
John’s house was the opposite of ours. The story went that a slave owner had built the Miller place, but no one knew for sure. The place was old, and drafty. It felt like a house in an Edgar Allen Poe story. There was a servant’s stairway off the kitchen wide enough for only one person. You could hide in it, get dusty in it. There were things shoved under couches, piled on top of the mantels, in closets, in corners, everywhere. I remember stacks of old Polaroid photographs, forgotten yogurt containers, fishing rods, tackle boxes, wide-bottomed coffee mugs from U.S. Navy ships, ammunition of all kinds, porno magazines so thumbed over that the bindings were failing. The Miller house was all layers.
It had smells. It smelled like Copenhagen snuff and like people sleeping. It smelled like deer roasts cooking in pots with potatoes and onions. The bathrooms smelled of mildew, the dank earth of soccer and football cleats, and of John’s mom’s hairspray. John’s dad kept his velvet painting of a naked woman in a small, study-like room off the main hallway, and his scotch from Scotland that he never drank. But we tried it, and it wasn’t nearly as good as the blueberry schnapps. John’s dad had an old tin of powdered snuff from when he was in the Navy. We sniffed it, and I sneezed until my stomach cramped. I wasn’t there when he did it, but John shot the family’s living-room sofa. The story goes that when his parents burst into the room after the explosion, John looked at the hole in the couch, the fabric still smoking, and said, “It wasn’t me.” It was routine to steal a dozen eggs from the kitchen and throw them at tractor trailers barreling down Route 220. Once, a trucker slammed on the brakes and, engine running, leapt out after us. We hid behind bushes until traffic backed up and the trucker drove off, calling us little motherfucking cocksuckers.
John’s house was full of things you weren’t supposed to touch, but we touched all of it. In the summer TV room at the end of the hall, the Millers kept a replica suit of armor and an upright piano that needed tuning. I remember a crossbow. John’s parents gave warnings, but there was no one around to stop us from doing whatever we wanted. If there were ever consequences for what we did, they happened quietly, or when I wasn’t there. Even when John’s parents were home from work, the house was so big that we could lose ourselves. John and his two brothers, if they wanted, could each sleep in one room and keep their piles of jeans and boots and baseball gloves and fishing tackle in another.
The Miller house was a playground, a toy store where you could touch anything as long as you could reach it, as long as no one saw you, as long as you could put it back, as long as you didn’t bleed too much. John and I helped ourselves, stopping at night only so that John could teach me chess moves, so that I could read aloud from his mom’s paperbacks until my voice grew hoarse. We stayed up late, playing Bloody Mary in the bathroom mirror, crashing hard and then waking to the smell of fried meat, John charging ahead and me following along because John was the foreman and I was just an employee. I was an excellent employee.
Seth Sawyers’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Baltimore Sun, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, Crab Orchard Review, Fugue, Ninth Letter, The Baltimore Review, and online at The Morning News, The Rumpus, and The Millions. He teaches writing at the University of Maryland and lives in Baltimore.