Wednesday, November 17, 2010

That Just Sounds Pathetic

Happy Wednesday, friends! It seems fitting that the first Story Time publication following my Tips for Writing Creative Nonfiction post should be... nonfiction! Today's excerpt from a memoir is by friend-of-the-blog Amye Archer, whose work has appeared on Glass Cases before, and caused a bit of controversy in the comments section. Let's see if her new memoir can ignite the same fire (but, politely)!

But first, a bit about Amye. She is currently working toward an MFA in Creative Writing at Wilkes University. Her work has appeared in PANK, Twins Magazine, The Ampersand Review, Boston Literary Magazine, The Battered Suitcase, and Oak Bend Review. Her chapbook, "No One Ever Looks up" was published by Pudding House Press in 2007. You can read more about, and by, Amye on her blog, First Person.

That Just Sounds Pathetic: A Memoir
By Amye Archer

Chapter One: New York City

My sister belongs here and I don’t. We are in Manhattan, having just exited the 7 Train and scurrying towards daylight through a massive underground walkway that promises to spit us out onto 42nd Street. Jennie, my sister, blends right in. She skips the steps two at a time. She slinks to the right when she should, hugging the smooth white subway tile which hasn’t been its original color in probably close to sixty years. She snubs the homeless man playing an old guitar with only four strings.

I cannot help but stare. He is blacker than anyone I have ever seen. His skin is mud. His eyes are charcoal. His hands, almost yellow on the bottoms, strum across the strings. His voice slips out of his throat almost by accident, but it’s beautiful. I stop to watch him and am immediately hit from behind by a stroller wheel, followed by a purse, two guys speaking Arabic, a cane, three backpacks, and finally, my sister who has circled back for me on a recon mission.

“Come on, keep moving,” she instructs me.

The tunnel smells like hot garbage soup. It’s sweat and vomit and possibly urine, all at once. People walk in ropes. The right is heading towards the street. The left is descending further underground. We move so fast it looks like we are standing still. We are a machine. We create a hum. We are gears sliding back and forth under dim lights and hundred-story buildings overhead.

Twenty minutes ago we were on the 7 train from Queens into Manhattan. We were passing an old warehouse with busted out windows that had been taken over by artists as loft space. The shell of the building was covered in graffiti art. Not tags, not anti-Bush sentiments, but actual art. Twenty-foot-high portraits of Snoop Dogg and Batman sat next to volcanoes spewing body parts and suns setting behind silver clouds.

“It’s majestic,” Jennie pointed out. She sat across from me on the sleek air- conditioned train.

“Yeah, it’s awesome. Look at the Al Pacino! It looks just like him!” I shouted over the metallic squeal surrounding us.

“No, I mean what the artists are doing. They are taking industry and making it their own, taking it back and making it work for them,” she said.

Now, I can't keep up with her. I pant and huff and puff my way through the crowds. The tourists are the ones who stop right in the middle of the procession, Jennie told me when I first arrived, the important thing was to keep moving. That seems to be the rule in this city of a million distractions, keep moving. Moving about the city, navigating its subway system, transferring trains, and calling cars. It's what consumes those who live here. It becomes a battle within yourself to find the most efficient way to travel to your destination. Jennie and her friends spend up to an hour plotting their route before they even leave the house.

We find an exit and climb the twenty or so steps from the tunnel out onto 42nd street. Around us are a million people from every nook and cranny of the country. Lights flash, horns blare, profanity floats through the air tangled with exhaust and expensive perfume. Jennie stares at the city around her. We have our father's hair color, jet black, almost blue in the sun. Jennie's hair frames her face, poker straight with severe bangs. She wears jeans and long sleeves when it's ninety degrees out, as most locals do. She has long earrings, longer than most necklaces I've seen. They feather out into delicate silver fans that cascade down into waterfalls over her angular shoulder blades. Her eyes are tar balls, dark and slippery, staring lustfully at the buildings around her.

The same look she wore the summer she discovered boys in 1988 and ejected me from our clubhouse. It was a dilapidated structure that the kids in our neighborhood spent all summer building. Everything about it was unsafe. We stole rotted plywood from a garbage dump near our house, rusty nails from a neighbor's garbage can, and built our shanty on the side of a steep hill. It creaked and cracked when you walked over the floor, and if you stood for too long to one side, you could feel it lean.

Jennie was fourteen and dating a neighborhood boy who was about two years younger. I spied through the wide gaping hole in the door as Jennie’s teased hair, normally held a foot straight up in the air with gallons of aerosol hairspray, leaned precariously to the side as they kissed. The sucking and slurping sounds got louder as the boy laid on top of her and tugged at her clothes. I was eleven and had no idea what was going on. Soon, his hands were disappearing under the acid washed jeans we had worked so hard to button earlier that morning. They were so tight I couldn't imagine his hand slid under them with ease.

After that, Jennie was gone. She spent her days at school chasing boys, and her nights at home on the phone with them. Our clubhouse went from an innocent meeting place for neighborhood friends, to a den of inequity where Jennie and her friends could slip tongues and slide hands over sexual organs. Our parents made us rip it down.

I see that same look again in her eye tonight. Standing over three hundred miles away from our home, she is at home here. She is one of them. She is a New Yorker. She is a mural of culture and diversity. She has liquefied into the melting pot of Manhattan. She has heard its call, felt its pull, and forgotten us. And I realize, I have lost her yet again.


  1. Oh, I love the ending! The words used are wonderful! I never thought liquify could be pretty sounding! Bravo! =D

  2. Love the new feel of this, Amye! Hope to read more sometime.

  3. Ilena Koehler11/17/10, 10:46 PM

    Amye, this does feel very different! I love it.
    Can't wait to read more.

  4. Very skilfully written - it exudes urban splendour!

  5. Its funny how some of so few worldly ventures can speak as though the world is transparent. I say, travel more and live more before you speak of your slutty sister!