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you cannot turn: Haibun by Rich Youmans

24 Apr 2017, Posted by Editor in Fiction

Art Credit: “Someone Else’s Bed” by Andre Gonçalves

YOU CANNOT TURN: HAIBUN BY RICH YOUMANS

 

the key. it is in the ignition, and your fingers tense around its pebbled casing. but you cannot turn it; you cannot move. you have stalled at a downtown intersection, late at night, in a downpour so hard the wipers can’t keep up; they flail back and forth, as if waving in surrender. ahead of you, the traffic light moves through its stations: green to amber, amber to red, then back to green again. you grip the key tighter, its rough grain pressing into your skin. but you do not move. instead, you think of her. in the rear-view mirror, two blocks back, is the star-blue neon of the bar where it all began. you picture her as she was, sitting alone in a sleeveless black top: her hair dark and curly, wild as smoke; her tattoo, a trail of purple hearts, bursting from one shoulder; her moss-green eyes lost in thought, until they turned and met yours head on.

 

small talk    she turns all the loose change heads up

shoulder to shoulder         sound of ice settling in her glass

last call    her perfume and the stars lead you home

 

and you picture the scars, the ones you found that first night in bed—on her thighs, her ribs, the one bent like a nail on the small of her back. when you asked, her eyelids snapped shut, quick as a lizard’s.

 

in the deepest corner of the bedroom her birthmark

 

soon you were spending all your free time together. you found that she too loved those long, almost endless drives into the countryside, and that became your nightly ritual—emerging from the city streets onto the rural routes beyond, looping for hours under the stars, among acres of pine, past sloping fields and shining ponds. and at the end of every trip, returning to the bar where you had first met: the loop closed, the circuit complete. she always ordered bourbon—“because it burns,” she’d say—and you matched her drink for drink.

 

one more    the way twilight enters the barroom mirror

 

night after night, you drank and talked and toasted, always pushing the limits of last call. and each night, after closing, you took one last drive into the countryside, past all the familiar landmarks—the 7-Eleven, the lumberyard, the telephone pole with its “Jesus Saves” signboard—until you were surrounded by trees and fields. you would take her hand and go faster, pushing against the limits of the white lines, and she would place her free hand on top of yours, as together you sped through the darkness. you remember it so clearly: the wind, the stars, her touch, all flowing, flowing—until that one night when, in a single missed turn, all the lines were crossed and her hand slipped free.

 

windshield    through a jagged hole, night rushes in

on your tongue    the taste of iron and her name

after the funeral   all the ceiling cracks lead nowhere

 

you think of her, as the traffic light burns red and the rain falls—the night pouring into itself, over and over. ahead, the intersection lies swollen with water. behind, a car pulls into view, its headlights filling your mirror. the traffic light turns green. still you do not move. the rain cascades along your roof, your windshield, the hood, sounding as if you were in the middle of a great river, and the headlights are still there behind you: cold, insistent—then flashing steadily. someone is getting out from the driver’s side of the car, is walking toward you, is tapping on your window. “sir?” you shake your head. turn the key, you tell yourself; it’s time to go. “sir, are you all right?” you are going to drive into the countryside, out into the pines. “sir? sir, please look at me.” you see her hair, her eyes, that trail of hearts. “look at me please, sir.” you cannot turn

  

Author’s commentary on “you cannot turn”

This haibun originated from a concept: to write a story that would circle back into itself, like a snake eating its tail, so that it had no beginning and no end. When I came up with this goal, I had no specific story in mind, but I knew I wanted the structure to serve as a metaphor for addiction. I struggled with a few standard storylines about addicts looking for their next fix, none of which were very believable or interesting. Then, while cleaning out my garage, I came across a box of manuscripts written 20 years earlier. One story opened with a man sitting in his car in the rain, and it pretty much ended there as well. But there was one line—“the wipers … flail back and forth, as if waving in surrender”—that for some reason stayed with me. Eventually, that image developed into the storyline of the haibun: although addiction is implied, the haibun actually revolves around a man unable to escape his past. “Revolves” is an apt word, because as I wrote other circular images emerged—the endlessly repeating traffic light, the circuitous route between the bar and the countryside—so that, ultimately the structure became a series of concentric circles that flowed on endlessly.

That structure also led me to make a stylistic decision, to avoid capital letters. This not only camouflaged the fact that the first sentence actually was the continuation of the last sentence, but it also set a hushed tone for the piece: With all the lowercase letters, I kept hearing someone whispering the story, which given the subject matter seemed appropriate.

With a haibun like this, I imagine one question will always arise: Why is it a haibun? Why didn’t I just write a short story with a circular structure? Why add haiku?

I guess one answer could be that I’m not a very good short story writer (hence all the unpublished manuscripts in boxes). Another is that I simply like to write haibun, and this was an opportunity to stretch the form a little bit. But perhaps the best answer is that the haiku allowed me to compress and distill specific episodes, so that hopefully they gained an added charge. The first sequence encapsulates a bar pickup; the last sequence, the car accident and its aftermath. In both cases, the haiku cut to the depth of the emotions, without embroidery, and in so doing resonate more deep and have a more powerful impact (or at least that’s the goal). The two single haiku, meanwhile, serve to crystallize and make visceral what’s hinted at in the prose: the tenderness and vulnerability of two lovers, the slow loss of self through alcohol. As with all haiku, what matters is not just what’s said but what’s unsaid, and the intent is to leave enough room for readers to fill in the gaps based on their own experiences (picking up on the use of the second person throughout).

This haibun originally appeared the the journal Modern Haiku, and I’d like to give thanks to its haibun editor, Roberta Beary. This haibun took nearly a hundred drafts to get to the point where I felt it could be submitted for publication, and Roberta led me through a few drafts more, carefully plucking and pruning and reining in my excesses. A testament to the need, always, for good editors.

Rich Youmans

 


About the author:

Rich Youmans’s haiku, haibun, and related essays have appeared internationally in journals and anthologies, including Modern Haiku, Haibun Today, Contemporary Haibun, and Journey to the Interior: American Versions of Haibun (Tuttle Publishing). His collection of linked haibun with Maggie Chula, Shadow Lines, won a Merit Book Award in 2000 from the Haiku Society of America, and a forthcoming collection, All the Windows Lit, was a 2015 Snapshot Press eChapbook Award winner. An editor and publisher by profession, he currently oversees the communications of a U.S. trade association representing jewelry designers and manufacturers. He and his wife, Belle, live on Cape Cod.

 

Art Credit:

Artist Andre Gonçalves, Madeira Island @andre_goncalves_arts on IG

Title: Someone Else’s Bed

 

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