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Fall/Winter 2000 Volume I Issue I

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who we are

from the editors

failbetter presents



Lisa Shea's
 award-winning first novel, 

Hula, immediately established her as an all-important American talent and made her a #1 regional best-selling author. For its publication the author was awarded a Whiting Writers Award.

A new novel, The Free World, is forthcoming.

Lisa Shea


At night I watch the animals.  Possum, red fox, raccoon, deer.  I watch their heads and legs and rumps, their tails.  I see their eyes floating in the blackness under the trees.  Hear them mate; frantic, murderous, deep in the woods, lasting seconds.  I smell their snouts and hooves, their wet fur.  In the dark, the animals' shapes break down, disappear.  It is nothing to know this.  When you draw, you have to pay attention.

 When I draw, I get these impulses, the same as when I'd kill an animal.  Rabbit, groundhog, chipmunk, squirrel.  Smash it in the head with a rock.  Look at the blue brains, the red and yellow guts.  Lay the guts on the ground, shiny at first, big with blood, then dried to dullness; inelastic, flat.  Watch the beetles, the fire ants, the black flies.  In two or three days, everything gone but the bones - meat, viscera, organs, fur.  Study the bones for line, color, texture, shape.  Move the bones, see how they worked.  Curve of the ribcage, size of the head.  Every one I could.  I'd kill.  Use a rock or a plank of wood.  The way the animal looked when it had been stunned past struggle, past terror.

 I got caught braining a cat and spent six months in the detention home for boys.  All I did was draw.  When I got out, I tried to kill a pigeon with a busted leg but it wouldn't die.  I put it in a box and took it to the animal shelter.  When I called later someone told me the pigeon had been put down.  That was the first animal I drew from memory.


 There are animals all around up here.  Muskrats, box turtles, hedgehogs, moles.  Stray cats that drift over from the track with their piled up fur, their eyes gouged out or rheumy, the color of boiled milk.  The cats sit in the parking lot under the cars or on the hoods of the cars watching the crows raid the dumpsters at the edge of the lot.  The crows flap in and out of the dumpsters carrying off milk cartons, paper bags, aluminum foil.  Their talk is noisy, raucous, emphatic, their eyes the color of sun-rotted berries.

 It's not up to me how long I stay here.  For me it's just a place to draw.  During the day I lie in bed.  I leave the covers off, feel the air from the fan move over me, feel the air on me like a pair of wings or long black hair.  I hear the highway through the trees, the trucks shifting up the hills, shifting down.

 Once I stopped drawing and wound up at a carnival.  I walked past the game booths, past the stuffed animals hanging by their necks from hooks in the plywood ceilings.  There was a game of gophers that popped up out of their holes.  I put in a quarter and smashed the gophers' heads back down with a paddle.  I kept smashing the gophers' heads until the bell rang and all the gophers stayed down in their holes.  I smashed the gophers' heads until the carnival closed.  The next night I went back but the quarter man told me to leave after the paddle I was using split in two.

 I drifted over to the ferris wheel, which had stopped in the middle of a ride.  The cars were rocking back and forth, peoples' legs dangling in the amber glow of the ferris wheel lights.  Someone in the topmost car laughed, then screamed.  A man ran past me carrying a foot-long black wrench.  He grinned and headed for the gearbox.

 Next to me a family was having a fight.  I watched the ferris wheel, the body parts I could make out up above in the swaying cars: shins, noses, elbows, knees.  Heads leaned out sideways from the cars and the brakeman down on the platform yelled them back in.  The man holding the black wrench came up out of the gearbox and the ferris wheel jolted and started up again.  The amber-lit faces of the people in the cars came down and around and then headed back up into shadow, into the night.


 I have heard it said that my drawings are only black.  That is a lie.  What they have is low color value.  This can be useful.  It is also difficult to do.  In the Navy, I walked the decks at night.  The sky was so black.  If you looked at it long enough, the sky turned every color.  Before I knew what low color value was, I had learned it.

 I got kicked out of the Navy.  Too many fights.  I like to use my hands.  The Navy was bad except for at sea at night.  The sky boiled up with clouds backlit by the moon.  One or two other sailors on deck standing at the railing pissing into the sea.  That was when I started drawing at night, drawing from it.


 Here, when they put on the fireworks, the whole town shows up.  I go, for the fire.  I stand under the trees, watch the ducks come up half-blinded out of the water, unable to fly, watch them trying to outrun the fireworks, deranged by the noise and light.

 I move out from under the trees, watch the fire shoot from holes in the ground, rockets of flame flying up.  People close their eyes, cover their ears, double their bodies against the percussive blows of noise and light.  When it's over, the crowd moves off like they've been wounded; silent, bowed, disoriented.  My ears ring.  My right ear has rung without stopping since I was twelve.  When I was twelve, I went out hunting in a boat with a kid from town who had a shotgun.  The kid saw something moving in the water.  He lowered his gun and his gun went off right next to my ear.  For a long time I heard nothing, then the ringing. 

The ringing is all I hear.


 I began to draw when I was three or four, on pizza boxes, backs of envelopes, floors, doors, walls.  I drew with pencils, pens, crayons, chalk, clods of dirt, charred sticks, sharp pieces of rock.  On my drawings I used glue, scotch tape, candle wax, my own spit.  Later I added the smeared fluid or blood of beetles, ants, grasshoppers, crickets, praying mantises, butterflies, snakes. 

 Before I drew, I don't remember.  Living room with thick Venetian blinds.  Kitchen with half refrigerator.  Bed-sized bedroom.  My mother standing at the open door, looking down the dirt road winding out of the trailer park to the highway.  My father nowhere.  Not around.

 At first my mother told me to stop.  She said drawing took up too much room at the table.  Where was she supposed to put her cup of coffee, her pack of cigarettes.  At night her glass of bourbon, her can of nuts.  I began to draw on the floors, the walls, the doors.  She slapped the back of my head and sat me down at the table.  It was summer, and she took her drink and her can of nuts and went outside.

 I drew the napkin holder, the salt and peppershakers, the sugar bowl.  I spilled the sugar and drew that.  When I had drawn everything in the house I went outside and drew the steps, the flower boxes with the fake plastic flowers, the rack of mailboxes, the molded green carports, the beat up cars.  After it rained I drew the mud.  When my mother hung out the wash I drew that.  She told me not to draw her.  One night after she fell asleep I drew her in the TV chair, slack-jawed, leaning into the smoke from her cigarette still burning in the beanbag ashtray at her feet.


 It is summer and here at the facility there are mosquitoes and black flies.  The mosquitoes breed in the lake, into which the track dumps horse shit and piss.  The lake is shit color like what's in it.  Ducks live on the lake, deer drink from it, truant boys from town fish in it.  They stand on the lip of the lake and dangle their little lines.  The sun slants off their bare shoulders and chests, their puny abdomens.


 It helps to know the roads.  Where they wind to, where the cross, where they circle back.  There are main roads open all year, secondary roads open from May until October, tertiary roads used by hikers, loggers, trappers, hunters, people like myself.

 I know the roads.  Copperback.  Double Hill.  Dublin.  Bayberry.  Savages Ditch.  At night I walk the loop, past the graveyard, the church, the ice house, the tower.  There's a story about hands.  Severed from the body and found bloodied at the ice house, still able, still useful.  How these hands that had harvested and hulled now haunted and hid.  How men felt these hands on them in the dark pressing thick, viable fingers into their living necks.  How these hands one day quieted, quit the earth to join the body they had been cut from.  How their misdeeds ended but the stories of their misdeeds lived on.

 I have drawn these hands, not from memory but from the stories I have heard, from the felt sense of their violent and peculiar history.

 At night out on the loop I hold up my hands.  In the dark I make out a ridge of knuckle, a crown of fingertip.  I feel the length and breadth of my fingers, the curved width of my palm.  In the dark my hands hold nothing, their black mass near and invisible except for a flash of wrist, a fleck of nail.


 The other people here a pair of twins with flippers for arms, an emaciated boy with coke-bottle glasses, a hairy-faced girl, a woman who only curses, a man who is bent to the ground they are apart from me, elsewhere in the facility.  I see them from my window down in the yard, the twins giving one another flipper hugs, the emaciated boy picking bark from the live oak tree, the hairy-faced girl throwing herself over and over onto the grass, the cursing woman cursing the man bent to the ground.

Near me are the quieted ones no one sees, and nearer, the ones such as myself who come and go as they please.  I get into town, watch the drifters sleep where they fall down, the high-lifers, the teenage whores.

My mother said Goodbye you little shit call me if you ever get rich.

I watched her walk to a man's car parked down the road winding out of the trailer park to the highway.  She said my father would come get me.  I stayed at the trailer until everything ran out, food, water, electricity, heat.  I was fifteen and got a job drawing portraits at the county fair.  At night I slept in the band shell and stole hot dogs and cans of soda from the back of the food tent.

I kept drawing, on rocks and bridges and sidewalks and roads.  I slept in ditches and drainpipes and culverts and caves.  After three years of living dirty, when I was of age, I joined the Navy.  In the Navy I had sex with women and with men.  I liked it both ways.


 Prison is different.  You don't get to draw.  Or cook.  You can't go out.  In prison you are never alone.  To draw you have to be by yourself.  It is almost like that here.  The parts that aren't, I get around.  On my hot plate I have cooked squirrel and rabbit.  I have cooked frog legs and bullheads.  The others come to watch.  I tell them: Get out you sons of bitches!  They back off down the hall to their yellow rooms.

 One woman thinks she is being talked about.  She is.  She has been here for a month, resting on her bed or out on the screened-in veranda.  She has big bones.  Thin.  Dark blond hair like a jackal, a wolf.  She talks low, a whisper so they won't hear.  You can tell she has money by her wristwatch, her hairdo.  She has come on to me in her discreet, low-voiced way, and I have reciprocated.  We go out onto the loop in the near-light before dark while the others are at dinner.  I come quick because of the mosquitoes and black flies, because of her smell - coffee, sauerkraut, Ben Gay.

 It is not prison.  Doilies on the backs of the common-room chairs.  Flowers in ornate vases.  Sunlight striping the oriental rugs.  I have stolen a few things - antique crystal ink well, brass candlestick, silver tea strainer.  The young girls come from town to cut up fruits and vegetables.  Stir the oatmeal.  Slice the bread.

 Not prison.  You can jack yourself off in your room all you want.


 I got here by drinking, getting into fights.  One night a man pulled a guy off me who was trying to kill me.  After that, the man and I took up drinking together.  He had a trailer in a park off the highway.  We went out there and he told me I owed him two-hundred dollars for saving my life, plus the drinks.  I told him he was full of shit.  He pulled a gun out from under the seat cushion of his chair and told me if I didn't give him the money he'd shoot me.  I said go ahead shoot me you son of a bitch and he shot me in the armpit.  He pulled the trigger again and shot me in the hand.  He pulled the trigger a third time and shot me in the stomach.  Then he stood up out of his chair and fell down dead of a heart attack.  I got up and walked to the door of the trailer, opened the door and collapsed onto the road.  I woke up in the hospital, trussed, tubed, wired, in full D.T.'s.  A nurse tried to put a cold washcloth on my forehead and I nearly bit her hand off.

 The tests showed borderline personality, alcoholic.  Nobody asked me to do any drawings.


 It is a lie you can be saved.  They have put my drawings, hundreds of them, in the basement.  I go down, not for the drawings.  I go down for the bats, the moths, the rats, the dried bodies of spiders dangling in their desiccated webs.  In the no light, I listen to the pipes, the meters, the gauges, the dials. 

 Overhead, I hear the footsteps of the crowd in the common-room, hear them walking, pushing, shuffling, bang-scraping their chairs closer to the windows, the TV.

 Down here, anything I find I keep.  For later.