Possum Garden

Japanese_Garden_(Schönbrunn;_'Stone_garden'_part)_20080412_037Some years ago now, my daughter found a possum skull partly buried in the woods behind our house. She was sixteen. She dislodged the skull from the earth with her fingers, washed it with a hose, then left it on a retaining wall by the back driveway. I could see the skull from my office window while I was working at my desk, could see it when I was mowing the grass, waiting there without comment or judgment. The skull remained on the property for several days before, mysteriously — perhaps a neighborhood dog wandered by — it was gone forever from our lives.

The incident proved to be a surprising wellspring for my creative efforts. It’s hard to understand why. I have found it a wise practice in recent years to accept a certain level of unknowing with the creative process, to cultivate a belief that we aren’t making choices about what we write, but are chosen. One of my books of poetry is entitled Possum Nocturne and contains at least a half dozen poems arising directly from my daughter’s discovery of the skull. She found it just off the path that winds back into the woods toward a tiny cabin where I sometimes write, where old limbs or entire trees have the habit of falling toward the earth, sometimes leaning against each other for support, other times resting on the ground, hollowing at their centers, turning slowly to wood dust. Behind the trees, waiting past a wire fence, is farmland that sometimes appears barren and other times is tall with corn or yellow with soybeans.

The skull inspired a short story that marked my return — after many decades — to the writing of fiction. My original aspiration, beginning in eighth grade, was to become a writer, and to that end I received an MFA in fiction-writing from the University of California at Irvine. For a brief period in my early twenties, I found myself with the good fortune to have a short story in Seventeen, a few others stories placed in journals, and a literary agent peddling a novel. Surely I was on my way. Surely a long career waited before me. And, then, nothing. The novel didn’t sell. Short stories made their rounds and were returned to me without fanfare, arriving home to my mailbox in disgrace. And my days at the writing desk began going poorly. Words stuck to my tongue or to my fingers, refusing to make it to the page. My mind wandered off to whatever I saw out the window. And the same thoughts kept recurring. Whatever made me think that I could write? Whatever made me imagine I could do it? I struggled to produce a page or two before giving up in despair. Nothing I wrote was worth reading, after all. Nothing I wrote arrived at the quality of the novels and short stories I loved and longed to emulate. I would read William Styron or Doris Lessing or Bernard Malamud and decide I was simply wasting my time. How could I ever hope to compete with that?

Eventually I wrote myself into silence. Decades passed. Other parts of my life demanded their attention and their due. My wife and I became migrant academics, taking jobs in Texas, Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, and finally Ohio. Now and then I took a stab at a short story or a novel, but the limitation was always there, built in, insurmountable. After a page or two the work would be abandoned. Then, in 2004, at the age of 50, I was sitting in my office one evening, looking down at another failed attempt at a short story, and a thought occurred to me: if I switched to poetry, couldn’t I complete that page or two and say I was done?

And so I began to write again. It was strange to be back after the passage of so many years, after so long a time of assuming I wasn’t cut out for it, not me. This time, though, I was determined to approach the task with a different state of mind. I wrote quickly, revised quickly, submitted poems quickly. I planned nothing, tricked myself with writing prompts and exercises, calling every new file I opened on the computer a “generating file.” I wasn’t writing poems, I imagined, but simply playing. I gave myself over to the voices in my head, questioning nothing that they told me. They dictated: my sole job was to write down what I heard.

That made all the difference. It still seems odd for me to imagine that hundreds of my poems have now been published in magazines and journals — including in such venues as Slate, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and The Georgia Review — and that my fourth full-length book of poetry, Original Bodies, is due out soon from Southern Indiana Review Press. How could such a small change in my approach make such a significant difference in the outcome? It seems, in retrospect, utterly foolish that I let so many years pass while I was getting in my own way, while I was tripping over my own feet, as it were. And I suspect I’m not alone in that foolishness. Writers, I am guessing, are as a group particularly skilled at finding ways to block their own paths.

For myself, I have begun over the past few years to return slowly, nervously to fiction. It is a more difficult challenge for me. The years of writer’s block have left me with so many habits of distrust. The moment I sit down to write a story, the old uncertainty makes its presence known. I do my best to combat it, but there it is, whispering that each word I write isn’t worth it, that any story I complete will surely sink at once into oblivion. One way I combat this discouragement — as with poetry — is by taking on fictional voices that I would never, not for instant, imagine as arising from my own. My first short story I attempted with this approach was inspired by the possum my daughter uncovered with her fingers from the mud of the woods. I wrote from the point of view of a young boy who finds a possum skull in the woods behind his own yard, washes it with a hose, then brings it into the house with him as his only friend. Later we learn (and by “we” I mean me as well, for I made an effort in the writing to know nothing at all of where the story was headed, to write blindly, as it were, to listen to the voice of the child and do nothing to interfere with it) that the boy’s father is recovering from a suicide attempt. And later after that, a boy from school takes the possum skull from the narrator and refuses to return it. The boy is desperate to have it back, of course. How could he not be?

Thus began a series of short fiction pieces that my wife refers to as my “demented kid” stories. One lost child after another put in a request to speak aloud on the page, and what earthly reason might I have to deny them? Certainly my hope is that the stories form an interesting fissure between what the narrator believes and what the reader understands, but the real distance I was searching for in the writing, that I am always searching for in the writing, is the distance between me and the narrator. If I’m not the one composing, after all, then my writer’s block is beside the point. The children are writing; it’s on them.

Stone Garden, the short story published (thank you) by The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, arose from a conscious attempt on my part to write at least one piece of fiction god-damn-it that didn’t have a warped child at its center. To be honest, though, I didn’t vary the pattern by much. I went — instead of for a demented child — for a demented adult, a woman who can’t seem to appreciate that abducting a sister’s young son is considered inappropriate by many. I can’t say that I plotted out the distortions of perceptions before I wrote or even during the writing process. The woman was in charge. She wanted to tell the story, and she seemed in a hurry to get it all down. My job, as always, was the easy one: I was the amanuensis.

Not a single fat possum waddles out from the woods in the story, and no possum skull is buried anywhere in the earth. It is possible, of course, that at one point as Rachel rides south to Pensacola on the bus, rides with little Cole in her lap — moving past towns like Vermillion, Newcomb, Mansfield, Olney, and Pennville, and crossing the Tennessee River — she spies a fat possum on its back along the roadside, its legs upright in death, the stilled face the color of a midnight moon. Rachel never mentions if that happened, but in any case that’s still where the story arose. When I first moved with my family into the house by the woods, when my daughter was in high school, when I was in the earliest stages of freeing myself from the constraints of being unable to write anything at all, I saw for a period of about a year a living possum waddling in and out of the yard, up and down the worn dirt path, never in a hurry, wearing always its advanced years in the slowness of its gait. I suspect that the possum simply lay down eventually to rest, to look up at the canopy of leaves or maybe at the distant clouds drifting past on their conveyer belt, then gave itself over to the earth.


Doug Ramspeck is the author of five poetry collections. His most recent book, Original Bodies, was selected for the Michael Waters Poetry Prize and is forthcoming by Southern Indiana Review Press.



FICTION | Stone Garden

There was a picture book Cole liked that told the story of a mother who had a child with accordion-like wings on his shoulders, tiny wings that would carry him into the air if his mother wasn’t careful, sometimes bumping against ceilings or tree branches or clouds. It wasn’t clear to Rachel how much her nephew understood about the story, but he sat in her lap on the bus while she was reading it, touching his little fingers to the page, making sounds that might or might not have been words. Rachel had been terrified of getting caught earlier when she had bundled little Cole in a blanket at her sister’s home, had carried him from the house while the parents were asleep, had walked the half mile to the bus stop. She had worried that, at a minimum, the boy would start fussing for his mother, but it hadn’t happened. He was a beautiful child, everything she’d always hoped for. He was small as a miracle, a perfect child with pudgy legs and cute pudgy cheeks and his first tiny teeth fighting through.

On the bus, they rode past small towns with names Vermillion, Newcomb, Mansfield, Olney, and Pennville. She sang quietly to Cole, songs she remembered from childhood. It was snowing by the middle of the day, the desultory flakes drifting out of the sky without conviction, falling against the window and then evaporating. Much later the bus passed over the Tennessee River. It was a gray river, much larger than she’d expected, a great expanse of living liquid, the current moving on a treadmill or a factory line. Cole began squirming more in her arms, but eventually they both slept, and when she came awake it was the first gray of morning and the land had flattened out. There were trees by the side of the road she’d never seen before, and the color of the grass—if it was grass—was new to her as well. She sat up in the seat and tried to picture finding a waitressing job, walking home at the end of her shift, unlocking the apartment door with her key, handing the babysitter a few dollars, finding Cole playing on the floor and grinning wildly to see her, waving his little pudge arms for her to lift him. It was a perfect dream, and she held him close to her body when at last they arrived at Pensacola, when she climbed off the bus. It wasn’t as warm as she’d expected. A brisk wind was blowing.

There were supposed to be white beaches by the Pensacola Bay, supposed to be a beautiful view of the Gulf of Mexico, but all she saw so far were a few dirty streets. She walked them, stopping often to shift the suitcase and Cole into opposite arms. The air smelled differently than back home: she realized it was the bay she was smelling, the ocean. It wasn’t a salt smell but more like old fish and cresting waves. She checked into a cheap motel called The Bayview, paying cash and signing a false name. She fed Cole mashed bananas and strained vegetables out of a jar. She unwrapped a little blue pacifier. He had a mild case of diaper rash but not bad. The television wasn’t showing any cartoons, but she did find a show where two young women were singing, and Cole slapped his little hands on the carpet and seemed happy enough. Later she walked Cole down to the beach—if that was what it was. There wasn’t any sand, just the majestic waters of the bay stretching out like a great slab of dark marble or stone. She could see the Pensacola Bay Bridge reaching out like a straight finger across the water, and she could see the hazy slab of land where the road was headed. There were water birds flying everywhere around the bay, but not one with a name she knew. She sat on a bench and bounced Cole in her lap. She breathed in the air and tried not to think about her sister, who’d once gone to California and had said that swimming in the ocean was like being swallowed by a great liquid beast that was heaven. She was still thinking about her sister when she fell asleep that night and dreamed that it was snowing. She was walking past an outdoor fountain, and in the shallows of the moving water there were stone alligators and stone frogs and even a stone mermaid with naked and unusually large breasts. It was Rachel’s birthday in the dream: she was forty. Above her the clouds were low-slung and the color of stone, but mostly her eyes were on the fountain. Beneath the surface there were stone fish muscling through the reeds. They might have been alive or they might have been mechanical. Then she woke and kissed a sleeping Cole on his forehead.

Two more days passed like that: she spent each one with Cole at the water’s edge, having little picnics with him in the sand. There was a gift shop near the pier and she splurged on a postcard that showed the very same view she’d been staring at all day. She walked to the end of the pier and put down Cole on the weathered wood and sat with him and watched the sun sinking lower in the sky. A few sea birds went flying past.  For supper she and Cole went to a restaurant for the first time since they’d arrived in Florida, spending the last of the money she’d brought with her. She ordered more than they could eat and dessert, too. Cole was a little fussy but it passed.  Afterwards she carried him back to the ocean so they could see the sun coming down, sinking like a great flame being doused in the gulf to the west. She thought of the sound that a hot frying pan makes when it is placed into a sink of water, but the sun slipped soundlessly into the ocean then was gone. There was a pay phone she’d passed on the corner beyond the pier, and she found it and called collect. Cole was squirming in her arms, so she put him down and let him play by her feet. There were cars going by on the road, people walking by on the sidewalks, as though it were an ordinary night, as though it were no different than any other, as though life would go on like this and never stop. She listened to the phone ringing. It rang four times then her sister answered. “It’s me,” Rachel said. “I’m so sorry. Cole’s okay.” Then both she and her sister were crying, and Bev was talking very fast and in a loud angry voice, telling her that she was going to go to prison, so Rachel hung up and lifted the boy in her arms. He was heavy—in a good way. She stopped so they could look one last time at the ocean, then carried him down the street until she saw the building with tan bricks. She had passed it before, had made a wide berth around it. She went inside and saw fluorescent lights and dark carpeting and a police officer standing behind a desk with a phone against his ear. She walked toward him and scooted Cole’s butt up on the counter. The police officer was talking loudly into the phone and put up one finger to let her know he’d been done soon. She waited. The man had a mustache. There were maybe a half dozen people in the room with them, most sitting and waiting, though Rachel couldn’t have guessed for what. She poked Cole lightly in the belly while they were waiting—a little game they liked to play. She grabbed his little legs in both hands and moved them back and forth like he was running. Cole started grinning. He had little dimples she loved. He started pumping his little legs on his own. The police officer put down the phone. “What can I help you with?” he asked. 


Doug Ramspeck is the author of five poetry collections. His most recent book, Original Bodies, was selected for the Michael Waters Poetry Prize and is forthcoming by Southern Indiana Review Press.