Sally Shivnan ~ ~ fiction ~ essays ~ travel

<more writing>

~Here are writing excerpts, not freely available on-line:

From "Airborne" in The Best American Travel Writing 2006, and The Georgia Review, Fall 2005:

        I’m flying, with windows for wings.  Under my nose—literally—are things I would not know any other way, for example, that the predominant color of city lights at night is gold.
        There are also facts that other folks might figure out some other way, but which have come to me only by pressing my nose to the Plexiglas.  For instance, how the design of most golf courses is fan-folded, and how it is possible for people to drive right past huge quarries and never see them.  How the circular pivot-irrigation fields of Oklahoma are racked together like billiard balls for hundreds of square miles, yellow ones, orange ones, lavender, rusty gold, every shade of green.  How horseshoe bends in rivers become, in time, lonely oxbow lakes.  How trees follow even dry watercourses.  How roads don’t take you to all the places that are.
        Some of this is window-seat trivia, of limited interest.  I am after the big picture, or at least, a big picture.  What I’ve figured out so far is this: that from high above, the topography bursts through everything manmade, overwhelms it, and that, from up there, those landforms are astonishingly beautiful.  There are people who disagree—the late geographer John Brinkerhoff Jackson, the writer and pilot William Langewiesche, and the photographer Emmet Gowin, who feel the view from the sky reveals, primarily, not the earth’s brilliant geology but the tracks and designs of humans upon it.  All of these men, though, I would note, have done their observing at small-plane altitudes, flying much lower than I do. 
        In Gowin’s photographs, eerie, wondrous landscapes wear the scars of our scribing and digging, from nuclear test craters and bomb disposal sites to silver mine tailings and abandoned desert trailer parks, though even in these dark pictures there are lovely shapes—the loops and spirals of off-road vehicle tracks on salt flats, the perfect roundness of a giant pivot-irrigation field made delicate by a dusting of snow.  Georgia O’Keeffe had a different vision from the air, which I feel closer to—after a round-the-world airplane tour in 1959 she painted pictures of what she’d seen out the window; Sky Above Clouds IV is an endless flat sea of little white pancakes stretching far away to a faintly pink horizon, an image of unbelievable serenity.  But of course, she was flying at a higher altitude than those others, and she did not look down, but out, at the clouds.  
        Too low or too high, and the view I crave is altered—pictures taken from the space shuttle sweep in too much, at too great a distance; geological features are lost, land masses start to look like maps.  Satellite images of the Grand Canyon, as historian Stephen Pyne puts it, “[reduce] its immense complexity to the status of a mudcrack.” (Planes are prohibited from flying directly over the canyon, but they tell me on some routes it can be seen from not too far away.)  Astronauts always talk in bland platitudes about the beauty of the Earth from orbit.  I have no doubt they are overcome by the view, and find it hard to describe their feelings, but I also think they’re vague because what they’re seeing is vague, losing definition.
        Mine is an ordinary airline-passenger’s view, from an ordinary, cramped, tweedy-upholstered seat by a little oval window, call it 38F or 11A.   Cruising altitude is what I’ve got—what so many of us have got, herded aboard and packed in like the human cargo we are, on our way to meetings and vacations and Thanksgivings and weddings.   I am sympathetic to those who prefer aisle seats, who have other things they want to do—read, sleep, watch the movie.  Sometimes my eyes almost hurt.  I squeeze them tight shut, like some little kid, but then they pop open again.   I pray for clouds, the thick kind that are nothing to look at. 
        I am not unsociable.  Flying offers natural opportunities for chit-chat with the neighbors.  On a recent trip I sat beside a paralegal from Brooklyn and, in the aisle seat, a seventeen-year-old reading a book of funny facts.    The paralegal was sipping at his plastic cup of white zinfandel, the seventeen-year-old was giggling over his book, and I was looking out the window.  We’d already done the who are you and what are you and why are you going so I felt comfortable saying “Hold up, I have an announcement.”
        The paralegal set down his wine.  The giggler lowered his book to his lap.  They’d seen nothing but the back of my head for the last ten minutes, but now my face was turned on them like the sun.  They shrank back from the light, their kidneys pressed against the armrests.  “The country underneath us,” I told them, “has turned flat!” 
        No reaction. 
        “It’s official,” I added.  “The country is officially flat now.”
        “That’s cool,” said the paralegal.
        “Yeah,” said the teenager.
        “It’ll stay flat,” I said, “till we reach the Rockies.”  They nodded; they understood.  “There’s this river down there—the land’s kind of rolling and hilly on one side, flat as a pancake on the other.”  I knew flat as a pancake was a cliché, but at that moment it conveyed absolute flatness better than anything else I could think of.  I turned back to look, but the river was gone.  I saw squares of green and brown, and roads that crossed at right angles and ran straight forever...


From "Dicking the Buddha" in The Antioch Review,  Summer 2007:

    I waited for my sister to sit down, before I asked her.  Then I waited a respectable moment, while we sipped our coffee and looked out the kitchen window at the vinyl siding of the house next door.  There is nothing interesting to look at out the windows of my sister’s home.  I set my elbow in something sticky on the tabletop; I didn’t look down but shifted myself discreetly.
    “Would it be okay,” I asked, “if I borrowed the baby?”
    “Again?  Jesus Christ, Tabby”—she looked toward the living room to see if her two-year-old had heard her swear—“this is gettting to be a habit.”
    “Only for about three days.”
    “Four days.”
    “Well, back that morning, on the fourth day.  Or I could bring him back the night before but it would be really late.”
    My sister is strong, angular, with a nice clarity about her.  She looks like the pictures of our mother, who was a perfect likeness of Lauren Bacall only black.  I don’t look like anybody, except I have the same squash-nose our father had.  There at the kitchen table, in her capris and bedroom slippers, Lizelle’s legs, I noted, were ashy.  Her lips were dry and bitten.  She had once plucked her eyebrows but hadn’t in at least a year and they had grown in thick, glowering, a perpetually pissed-off look.  I knew she’d say yes. 
    “Mikie has something to do with all this, doesn’t he?” she said.
    “Only as inspiration.”
    Mikie is our brother, a former entrepeneur who lives in a large RV and follows the lawnmower racing circuit, towing a trailer for his souped-up Snapper—the only thing stranger than my mama as Lauren Bacall is my brother the redneck good ol’ boy.  He says he’s like that pioneering black cowboy, Bill Pickett, except he’s on a lawnmower instead of a horse.  He reinvented himself this way when he sold his internet startup company for a heinous sum shortly before it went bust.  He sends cryptic postcards from obscure towns across the south, always addressed to both of us, ‘dear Tabby and Lizelle,’ or ‘dear Lizelle and Tabby’ though they only come to Lizelle’s address. 
    “That whole ‘dicking the Buddha’ thing, I still don’t get that,” Lizelle said.  “It still bothers me.”  Around the time Mikie went mobile, he started teasing us about it: What do you do if you meet the Buddha on the road?  I don’t know, Lizelle said, feed him? ask him stuff?  I had heard something about killing him, but from the wicked twinkle in Mikie’s eye I knew this wasn’t where we were going.  A ninth-century Zen master, Mikie explained, name of Lin Chi, advised killing the Buddha if you ran into him, to keep yourself from getting too caught up in celebrity worship.  But if you really met the dude, Mikie said, bumped into him, just like that—I tell you what now, don’t dick the Buddha!  When we asked him what that meant he just laughed, looking like a redneck Buddha himself with his beer belly hanging over his Snapper beltbuckle, and his bizarre attempt at a mullet haircut.  This was what money had done to Mikie.  He’s an asshole and I’d just as soon he stopped sending the postcards.
    “I don’t get it either,” I said.  “But I don’t really care anymore.”
    “That’s what worries me.” 
    Around us on the floor were toys, clothes, sippy-cups, an old baby blanket somebody had been dragging around.  I wanted to point these out to her and say, this is what worries me, not this exactly but what goes along with this, what goes into the bargain.
    “How’s Ty?” I asked.  Ty is Lisa’s husband, a reservist deployed in Iraq. 
    She shrugged.  “Okay.  Everything’s okay.  I get emails.”
    “How are you getting along with Monica?”  Monica is Lizelle’s mother-in-law. 
She frowned into her coffee, her eyebrows lowering like a storm, their pissed-off look mutating to enraged.  Just then the two-year-old started dropping things on the baby, who was asleep in the playpen—small, soft things but enough to wake him up, but in any case it was time to pack everybody up and go get the four-year-old from preschool, and so we spoke no more about it, except to agree that I could come pick up baby Cody the following day...


From "Gringa Morisca" in Travelers' Tales Best Travel Writing 2005 anthology:

        When I was fifteen I could still surrender myself, in the way of a child, to pure magic. I went to a place in Spain where I found the palace of the Nasrid sultans riding on a hill like a great ship, high above the plain and beneath the snow-laden Sierra Nevada. Around it, across the low slopes and valleys, lay the city of Granada. The whitewashed walls of the ancient Arab quarter crowded the nearest hillside, and behind that rose the hill called Sacramonte, pockmarked with caves where Gypsies lived.
        I wandered the palace for hours and hours that seemed like days out of time. In trying to describe it since, even to myself, I have had to fall back on poor analogies—a fantastic wedding cake, a Disneyland—because there are no other analogies, no frame of reference. This high flowering of Islamic art in Spain, the last glorious sigh of the Moors’ eight-hundred-year reign—the Alhambra—was an alien aesthetic for an American girl like me. It was so completely alien that I was left, inevitably, with another sorry analogy but one that accurately reflected the experience: I floated around in that place like a visitor from another planet, amazed, uncomprehending, delighted to tears. And so, twenty-five years later, I went back to see if it would be the same. 


        In the center of a marble floored room, a low fountain bubbles in a small round pool. Its overflow is taken away in a narrow channel along the floor to mingle with other waters in an adjoining courtyard. The fountain is the only movement in the room. The walls breathe deep silence, which is strange to contemplate since every inch of surface on those walls, and up to the ceiling, and overhead, is filled with a chaos of decoration—up to about chest-height the walls are covered with geometric knots worked in colorful tile, and above this there is an abrupt transition to pale sculpted stucco, which lofts upward in dense, delicate interweavings of Arabic script and flowers and vines and pomegranates and stars. The eye wanders over this, into this, led by curling lines to other curling lines, bumping suddenly into hard geometric shapes, because the whole system, it turns out, is based on contrasts. It also becomes clear, on dizzy examination, that there is, everywhere, both infinite variety and rhythmic repetition.
        It is seductive to stare into it, and yet it is quite possible to look at it and simply feel soothed; as busy as it is, it makes a gentle music. You can imagine a sultana reclining on pillows on the floor: she is daydreaming and the walls are the soft background of her dreams, and then for no clear reason she notes a certain pattern in the lines, arches enclosing a stylized trefoil of leaves, and her memories sharpen (a remembered look, a word, and what she said in answer), and then she bites a fig and breaks the spell.
        The h is silent in Alhambra; this place holds silence within itself. Luxurious quiet is its essence, in rooms like these, and in the small courtyard nearby with its ethereal, slender alabaster columns, and in the Court of the Myrtles with its long reflecting pool. And down all the shadowy walkways with their arched windows looking out over the city and the plain and the gorge of the River Darro at the foot of the walls, far below; and in the gardens, awash in the scents of orange blossom and jasmine and the lullaby-sounds of flowing water. The quiet is so carefully cultivated that it has made me wonder, what noise were they trying to forget? I think I understand, after two visits there, some of the answer to that question. Or, at least, I understand the question....


From "Something, Anything" in Rosebud, December, 2002; also winner of a Very Short Fiction Prize from Glimmer Train in 2001:

        My wife is one of these people who drives on the freeway with a mattress on top of her car, held there by a single string.
        I first found her in a duplex made over into apartments, on a street of duplexes in Arbutus, Maryland, on the edge of Baltimore.  Red-and-white petunias were a popular choice for windowboxes up and down the street, and overly frilly curtains for the windows.  Parking was tight because there were no driveways, and the front lawns were tiny, some of them replaced by miniature fields of ornamental stone.
        When she asked me, I told her I was unattached.  She said that she was semi-detached, like a dwelling.  Like a duplex, I said, and that’s when she pointed out that all along the street the duplexes had been turned into apartments: each half-a-building had one up, one down.  So no, not like a duplex, she said.  It was the first instance of my not being able to follow what the hell she was talking about.  But then, the way she always does, she added something that made sense.  She said she rented there because she was convinced the duplex building didn’t look like apartments, but just like two real homes.
        She slows down because of that mattress on top of her car, by doing 70 instead of 80.
        The latest thing with her is she won’t go to Taco Bell since they retired the chihuahua.  (Good riddance, I say, because I can’t believe she would go there at all, though I don’t know if it’s better or worse that she only went there because of that dog.)  And she won’t go to shopping malls at all, even at Christmas, because she says they’re not natural.  (As if a dog selling burritos is.) ...


From "The Confectioner" in Glimmer Train Stories, Spring 2001, reprinted in The Silver Rose Anthology 2001:

        The old man was bent over with his hands deep in the display case, touching the tops of all the chocolates, noting their smooth, rounded corners, their uniform peaks, his fingers brushing the tickly edges of the paper cups as he moved from the maple creams to the vanilla butter creams, and then to the orange, lemon, and coconut ones.  His hands trembled up to the cordial cherries, over the flat pieces of almond bark, alighting on the meltaways.  It was a great relief, the bending down, like a rubber band relaxing, though reaching with his arms was a strain.  He peered into the sunlit depths of the big glass case.  His was a view like looking through crystals of rock candy.
        The bells on the door jingled: it was a customer (the teenage boy who worked for him came in, always, through the back door).  The old man jerked back from the chocolates and pulled himself upright.  He laid his hands on top of the case, avoiding the hazardous shapes there, the gift bags hanging on their little tree, the jar of giant lollipops, and the pyramid of fancy little tin boxes which customers could buy and fill with chocolates.
        A woman walked up to the counter, smiling.  He knew her, she was after peanut butter smoothies.  She had been coming in for several weeks.  She always moved quickly, always in a hurry.
        “How are you?” she said.
        “Very well,” he said, mumbly.
        “I’ll just have two peanut butter smoothies.”
        He obliged her, and took her money.  He put the bill in the cash drawer and held out a dime to her.  She waited a few moments.  The light changed around her as the sun came out from behind a cloud.  A truck went by and the window shook.
        “I gave you a five dollar bill,” she said, gently.
        He nodded and murmured and opened the drawer again, and took out four single bills and gave these to her without apology.  The bills fluttered as they left his hand.
        “Thank you,” she said, looking at him, staring.
        “Very well,” he replied, inaudible then as another truck went by.
        But after the truck passed, the room was silent.  The old man took up his position behind the glass case and stood motionless there.  He heard the jingle of the bells again as the door was pulled open.  He stooped again as the bells ceased, reaching deep into the case once more to touch where he left off.  His fingers found the almond butter crunch, then he patted the chocolate mini-pretzels, lingering on them.  But the woman had paused in the doorway, thought to return, closed the door, and was studying him, wide-eyed, as he pawed the chocolates with his trembling hands.
        He heard the bells again.  He straightened immediately and faced the door.  He waited but nothing happened.
        “Hello?” he said.
        He stood there until his back ached from the strain.  The clouds crossed the sun again, changing the light...