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About the Author
Charles Henry Rowell is the editor and founder of Callaloo and a professor of English at Texas A&M University (College Station). His poems, interviews, and scholarly articles have appeared in a variety of periodicals, including The Southern Review and Agni. He is the editor of Ancestral House: The Black Short Story in the Americas and Europe (1995) and coeditor (with Bruce Morrow) of Shade: An Anthology of Fiction by Gay Men of African Descent (1996). He lives in Bryan, Texas.
Percival Everett is the author of more than twenty books. He is the recipient of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the PEN Center USA Award for Fiction. He teaches at the University of Southern California and lives outside Los Angeles.
Carl Phillips is the author of several books of poetry, including Silverchest, a finalist for the International Griffin Prize, and Double Shadow, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He is also the author of The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination. Phillips teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.
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25 Years of Black Literature
By Charles Henry Rowell
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2002 Charles Henry Rowell
All rights reserved.
My Singular Irene
BY JOSÉ ALCÁNTARA ALMÁNZAR
Life is unjust and treacherous this way. One makes an effort to walk a clear and straight path, to work like an animal much more than eight hours — which is the usual, to study vehemently, to have a job that will permit one to live decently, to respect the law, to marry as God commands, to be, in short, an honorable citizen, and when one begins to establish himself, to progress, with a house although bought on credit and the car almost paid for, one starts wondering why things like this are not happening to others. I'm not saying it because of the manner in which Irene went away (it is still hard to believe it and I have only returned to the scene of the events because it seems a lie to me that she has left the comfort of her house without any regrets), but it is rather because of what occurs to one on the day least expected.
Irene had asked me to take her on an outing in the country. The trips along the Mirador and a few beers in the restaurant at the lake no longer satisfied her; she wanted to see the countryside in full daylight, put her bare feet in the water of a stream, climb a mountain to feel like an amateur mountain-climber, and to catch butterflies. Since women have their whims and poor Irene very seldom asked me for things and, except for when she visited her mother, she spent weeks and months tied to the house taking care that everything was in order on my return from a trip, it seemed not a bad idea to appease her. A little peaceful trip to the country was not bad for me either. The idea was for us to go to Cibao; there the vegetation is pure and one feels transplanted to a so-called "nice" place. But as I was not completely recuperated from my last attack of bronchitis and the coolness that makes one sick still is found in those hills in March, I told Irene that we would go to the south. Perhaps we would arrive in Barahona and on our return we would pass through Ocoa, where my wife's family lives. It seemed incredible to her that I myself would propose a route and carefully plan the trip. It had to be that way. As a professional traveler I did not like improvisations, I take care to plan my trips, make a list of the participants, gather the backlogged invoices, and make a little map of the places where I am going to stop. If any one of those clients who talks up a storm detains me more than necessary, I have a devil of a remedy to put things back into perspective again. But to start out without a plan, never.
I began to pack the clothes and to wonder about what we would do. I saw her so full of anticipation that I began to think of my luck in having married her. When we got married I thought she was so unwilling to fulfill her duties as a wife that I would never have believed then that we would become a perfect pair. The only point on which we did not agree was the matter of being in the street, walking about, or visiting. I had to be firm and demand more attachment to the household. At first she accepted my imposition unwillingly. Then she demonstrated how much she was assimilating my way of thinking and accepted that I was right. I was not going to permit my wife to run around as if she had no one to protect her. Not that. And no visitors either. Sisters and mothers who are the only ones that I trust were allowed in my house. Friends in the street, the cafeterias, the stadium. In an instant she packed the suitcase and made the necessary arrangements for the trip while I took the car to the station to have them fill it and give it a wash, all because in the south there is such a drought and such dust at the beginning of Lent, and anyway the car was going to come back a complete wreck. Upon my arrival at the house, she was already at the door, dressed in white pants and a bluish green little blouse — as she would say — that I had brought her from abroad. She was wearing a scarf that covered her ears and made her face an adorned melon, a puppet doll. To me she seemed happy, spontaneous, prepared to go with me to the end of the world. When I saw her smiling face I thought she was a happily married woman, and I threw my arm around her shoulder. She leaned against my chest for a moment, holding me with both hands.
It was the end of March, a clear day like today, exactly the same; therefore I believe I am going to come across her at any moment, that she is going to tell me to forgive her for the foolishness she did, that we should go back to the way it was before, to our lives of mutual understanding. The first thing I did was not to leave the house immediately. We took a turn around the area and went back to the gas station to have the boys check the oil and to take a look at the water in the radiator. My car was O.K., but it is always better to be sure, when in doubt. Irene started to become impatient: she lowered the window, put the package of novels that she was carrying in her hand on the back seat, looking around everywhere. I knew that she was nervous and that she would have gladly smoked a cigarette, but I had forbidden her to do it and out of consideration she didn't dare. We went back to the house again, only to be sure that no one was lurking around it. I didn't want them to rob me of the stereo equipment I had just bought or the shotgun that my uncle had given me.
At times Irene did not comprehend my reasons and I can understand that because the poor girl never had much sense. It is regrettable to say that at this moment, but it is true. I had chosen her for that, and that is the way I want her. A woman who thinks too much can become dangerous. She will invent things, she will plot, live discontentedly; in short, she will ruin her husband's life. Irene was almost perfect; she didn't think too much, although she often showed signs of weariness, of wanting to escape. That's why I bought her the television, for her to entertain herself at home. I bought her the best brand, ceasing to bet on the horses for weeks. My trips kept me from taking her to the movies frequently. After we moved to the suburbs, downtown was too far away, I generally felt tired and fell asleep with the newspaper on my knees before nine in the evening. I didn't want her to feel restless; therefore, I bought the television and everything that she ever needed. I satisfied her whims as much as possible, as I also did during the trip. I have no regrets at all.
After we passed the distillery we headed toward the south. On that side of the city it seemed that we were going to run into Haina, with those massive construction projects. I have taken the precaution of saving, getting a plot from the State and requesting a loan from the bank to build my house with the comforts that I have always dreamed of. In my profession (I am an accountant, but I have my own business: the promotion and sales of home appliances) one cannot afford the luxury of chance. Irene observed everything with the curiosity of a lepidoptera: her big eyes, from which two large mascaraed eyelashes emerged, attentive to the changes of the highway. Her antennae stuck out of the window and were examining pieces of recently painted buildings, weeds growing in the road, naked children at the doors of the ranches. She was enjoying the outing, sucking in the hint of aridity that was now being announced on both sides of the highway. Upon passing the bridge she wanted me to let her get out to look over the river. I said no. I had seen the road, the bridge, the highway, the tollbooth so many times that her interest meant very little to me. Everything touched her, made her sit up in the seat, carelessly stick her head out the window and say goodbye to a stranger who greeted her, or burst into a flurry of innocent words of satisfaction.
Before reaching San Cristobal I knew that the outing was not going to come out all good. She insisted on getting out to see the little hill where there were wild daisies. We were enjoying ourselves, I shouldn't be so selfish; I stopped the car and waited for her to cut some daisies. In San Cristobal we stopped to have breakfast. Irene was hungry. The diner was a typical one for a village: four or five tables with checkered table cloths and a fat cook dispatching orders from behind the counter. I had planned to go to a more expensive place but in a town everything is the same and in the diners one has to wait less. Ten minutes after being in the place, the fat lady came with two steaming dishes and large cups of coffee with cream. Irene stirred the sugar slowly, smiling at me after each stir she made in her cup. Since she didn't like hot dishes I thought she was cooling the coffee. Two little "tigers" came and stopped in the entrance to the business and were taking us in with their eyes. Irene smiled at them, winked, and they covered their bashful faces. The fat lady yelled three expletives at them, frightening them away immediately. After a short while they were watching us again. I tried to finish quickly and I told Irene to hurry, but the "pushover" took the plate and the cup, got up and went to give them to the little tykes. They swallowed everything in a gulp and the fat lady took the dishes from them because she assured us that they were capable of walking away with them in the wink of an eye.
"Don't bother the young lady," the fat lady said to me in nice words. "If that pleases her, let her do it. Apparently she is even pregnant."
I thought it was not worth the trouble to tell her that it would have pleased me very much to entrust her with a girdle for her to hold in that immense stomach. Irene was content. It was a crime to spoil a moment for her. Between San Cristobal and Bani I punished her a little to make her aware of her immaturity; I kept quiet. Irene was most aloof from the hassle, playing with the daisies. The south was now being noticed in the dust on the highway, the hovels on the hills, the dry shell on the roads. Some cows crossed the road and I was obliged to put on the brakes. With that Irene got out of the car and ran toward one side of the road, in the direction of the hill. She ran, shouting and jumping. I rolled up the window, moved the car toward the emergency lane and struck out after her on foot. In view of the fact that lately I am a little stout — not a little, very stout — the race took quite a bit of my breath away and I could not catch her except upon reaching the top of the hill. The poor fool opened her arms, spinning around screaming, forgetting about the cliff.
"Irene, you must be losing your mind."
Almost without paying me any attention, lost in a different world, unknown to me, Irene came down. In the car she continued with her stupidity and opened the window. I felt like going back, to leave her at home and go out with my friends. That did not resolve the problem. On the other hand, the fact that Irene was behaving like an idiot pricked my curiosity and moreover she didn't even give an explanation. I felt hot when we reached Bani. We were no longer speaking: she being stupid, with her foolishness; I paying attention to the road. The car filled up with tension. I took off my jacket and loosened my tie. Irene smiled, took the jacket and put it without folding it on the seat. The car bounced like a frog each time it would hit a pothole in the road. No sooner than the car had come to a halt, Irene rushed to the edge of the bridge, applauding like a child for God knows what new foolish reason. She began to undress: she took off her shoes, and seated on a rock, she put her feet in the current of the river. Worst of all the water wet her pants and she seemed not to be aware of anything. She yelled for me to accompany her. It was a relief for me to discover that she was still conscious of my existence, but a moment later she seemed to lose awareness of everything around her. She took off her pants and blouse, preparing to throw herself into the water.
She didn't even look at me. Nor did I know if she still heard my shouts. With an insane happiness she splashed in the water; she was not the Irene that I had known, the one that had brought peace to my life as a bachelor. I didn't recognize her. From then on everything got worse. I feared that she would drown and went to rescue her.
"Irene, have you gone crazy?"
Between her whoops and uncontainable laughter I took her out of the water. She was almost in the raw because her underwear had stuck to her body in such a way that anyone would need no other encouragement to attack her. We ended up taking our clothes off near the car. I rubbed her with a towel and took the clothes from the suitcase. In the car, Irene made no response to my chastisements. Her naked body awakened old anxieties in me, sweet moments not experienced for many days. Her fresh skin, the cologne discreetly rubbed on alluring spots, made me forget the anger that I was feeling because of so many strange events. The road continued to be solitary, perturbed only by the chatter of water in the river and the cicadas. There was a way to calm that sudden anxiety and no man can escape it. Irene did not react; my caresses became violent without results, and she gave in disinterestedly. It was the first time that had occurred in our married life; it was a defeat on my own turf, but that was not my fault. Irene was going to form part of a different world and she was being transformed.
Unfortunately, that day the butterflies were gathering. The butterflies were the seducers that stole her from my life. Very near Bani thousands of butterflies came out of the side roads and smashed against the windshield or instinctively avoided the glass. Irene participated in the simple grace of the insects. Her eyes bugged out, she followed each precipitous flight, her hands made deceptive attempts to capture them and she gave confusing calls, invitations in code, greetings of an old friend. My patience reached its limit. That trip could not continue. Nevertheless, life has its arbitrariness and I kept my foot on the accelerator. The butterflies increased in number, the colors were multiplied; they came from the trees, they invaded the highway, they darted about crazily, wrapped in the warm breeze. Irene rolled down the window and by accident some butterflies got inside and were trapped. She knelt on the front seat and bent over to try to capture them, leaving her backside well exposed. It was useless to struggle with that little girl. I went on a short way and stopped the car next to a clearing where thousands were fluttering about. It was too late to arrive at Azua before the sun would begin to set. It was a harsh time of day, and the heat was intense. Irene had taken off her blouse and she formed a net like those used by collectors. There was something of a ritual in her actions. To see them fly produced a pleasure in her that increased with the quantity of them. Now half naked, the blouse-net was not enough and she pulled off her skirt. I told myself that it was too much, my wife had lost her senses. I ran after her: Irene was spinning with her butterflies and I, with a devil of a panting spell, was trying to grab her so that nobody would see her that way. I don't know where so much agility and quickness came from; my efforts were in vain. A foolishness was trapping me, the butterflies were multiplying, they pursued me, I wanted to free myself and it was impossible; thousands of butterflies were leaving their cocoons and coming out to join Irene, who ran about happily, completely nude. She had taken off all her clothes and ran about impatiently among the multicolored insects. She was no longer pursuing or catching them, it was enough to run about with her friends and dance to the beat of their dance. I collapsed almost in a faint. I got up to continue my race after Mary Irene; now everything was totally confused, terribly confused: I saw a woman who was divided into others, they were several Irene-butterflies who were merging and separating. I had to rest quite awhile on the grass and wait until the insanity should pass from my wife. But she started to be transformed; an arm changed into an enormous wing, yellow, with black eye-like spots, and then the other arm did the same. She made four turns and then two big antennae came out that moved to each side. The friend -butterflies were celebrating the enrollment of my wife into the butterfly order, of which she would be, undoubtedly, an important member. Her thorax changed into an ashen trunk, covered with small hairs, her legs were converted into two twisted feet. Horrifying! Irene changed into a horrendous butterfly! I stood up and fell again, powerless now. She would leave me, she would take flight and leave me. The gigantic Irene Butterfly smiled at me, diminished, and disappeared with the others.
I am at the site of the events, waiting for Irene's return. She has to return. She cannot deny me the peace that her company always offered me.
— Translated from the Spanish by Joe F. Scott
Excerpted from Making Callaloo by Charles Henry Rowell. Copyright © 2002 Charles Henry Rowell. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Percival Everett
Introduction by Charles Rowell
Almanzar, Jose Alcantara - "My Singular Irene"
Butler, Octavia - "The Evening and the Morning and the Night"
Condé, Maryse - "The Breadnut and the Breadfruit"
Danticat, Edwidge - from The Journals of the Water Days 1986
Delaney, Samuel R. - from Shoat Rumblin'
Ellison, Ralph - "Cadillac Flambé"
Everett, Percival - "Meiosis"
Forrest, Leon - "Sugar Groove"
Glave, Thomas - "Whose Song?"
Harris, Wilson - from Jonestown
Johnson, Charles - "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"
Jones, Gayl - from The Machete Woman
Kenan, Randall - "Now Why Come That Is"
Lee, Helen Elaine - "Silences"
Mackey, Nathaniel - "Atet A. D."
McCluskey, Jr., John - from The River People
McMillan, Terry - "Ma Dear"
Phillips, Caryl - from Cambridge
Wideman, John Edgar - "Ascent by Balloon from the Yard of Chestnut Street Jail"
Ai - "Blue Suede Shoes"
Alexander, Elizabeth - "The Venus Hottentot"
Barrax, Gerald W. - "All My Live Ones"&"An Audience of One"
Braithwaite, Kamau Edward - from "Clips"
Cassells, Cyrus - "Sally Hemmings to Thomas Jefferson"
Césaire, Aimé - "The Automatic Crystal," "Your Portrait,"&"Wifredo Lam. . ."
Clifton, Lucille - "The Times"&"Lazarus"
Derricotte, Toi - "The Promise"&"Holy Cross Hospital"
Dixon, Melvin - "Heartbeats"&"Climbing Montmartre"
Dove, Rita - "Straw Hat," "Motherhood," "Headdress,"&"Heroes"
Edwards, Brent Hayes - "Middle Ear Recitation"
Ellis, Thomas Sayers - "Fatal April"&"Kiss in the Dark"
Etienne, Phebus - "A Ride to the Wedding"&"Shoes"
Hamer, Forrest - "Goldsboro Narratives"
Harper, Michael S. - "Modulations on a Theme: For Josephus Long"
Harris, Claire - "Mysteries"&"Framed"
Jackson, Angela - "The Love of Travelers"
Jackson, Major - "Some Kind of Crazy"&"Don Pullen at the Zanzibar"
Jackson, Reuben - "Frank"
Komunyakaa, Yusef - "Venus Flytraps," "Red Pagoda," "Birds on a Powerline,"&"Slam, Dunk&Hook"
Lorde, Audre - "Fishing in White Water"&"Jesehelms"
Major, Clarence - "Difficulty of Perspective"&"Unwanted Memory"
Mitchell, Karen - "Country After Country"&"Forgiveness"
Morejon, Nancy - "Richard Brought His Flute"
Moss, Thylias - "Holding" and "One for Newborns"
Mullen, Harryette - "Unspoken"&"Fable"
Osbey, Brenda Marie - "Setting Loose the Icons"
Pereira, Edimilson de Almeida - "Calunga Lungara"
Phillips, Carl - "Moving Target"&"The Clearing"
Roberson, Ed - "Elegy for a White Cock"
Roy, Lucinda H. - "Book Review"
Sanchez, Sonia - "A Poem for My Father"&"Sequences"
Strange, Sharan - "Childhood"&"Offering"
Trethewey, Natasha - "Letter Home"&"Vignette"
Walker, Alice - "On Stripping Bark from Myself"
Welburn, Ron - "Yellow Wolf Spirit"&"A Moon Accountability"
Wright, Jay - "Naming the Asturian Bird"&"The Economy of Power"
Young, Kevin - "The Escape Artist"&"Cassius Clay by Basquiat"
Afterword by Carl Phillips