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Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Text and Criticism

Ontario Review, Spring/Summer 2004, No. 60

Ontario Review 60Fiction

  • Robert Boyers, “Samantha” (winner of the 2003 Cooper Prize)
  • Ellen Litman, “The Last Chicken in America” *
  • Tetman Callis, “Legal Advice” *
  • Lyndane Yang, “The Opium Bed” *
  • Bette Pesetsky, “Pants on Fire” *
  • Adrianne Harun, “The Farmhouse Wife” *
  • Christopher Zerby, “The Lynching Poems” *
  • Stacey Richter, Young People Today”



  • Elisabeth Murawski, “Italian Evening,” “Crèche"
  • Virgil Suárez, “To the Order of Nuns Who Travel with the Circus,” “Wind Chime”
  • David Wagoner, “The Escaped Gorilla,” “Mr. Bones”
  • John R. Reed, “Mask,” “Cerise”
  • Bruce Beasley, “Song Region”
  • Jill Krementz, “Literary Encounters”

*finalists in the Cooper Prize competition


From “Samantha”
by Robert Boyers

She was angry. No one had told her to be, not in so many words, but she felt the rush of indignation, heard her voice tremble when she told the man to keep his explanations to himself. She had asked him a simple question, made a simple request, and he had refused her. That is all she needed to know and all she wanted to hear from him. His song and dance about inadequate staff and poor equipment, his complaints about having to put up with endless hassles—none of this seemed to her to have anything to do with her. She had asked him—a flunkey in the college’s audiovisual department—to arrange for her a private screening of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, a film she was supposed to have seen with her class on Monday night, when she was just too tired to go out.

Now the charmless little man had turned her down, said it was impossible, and she was required to listen to him justify himself to her. He had stringy, probably unwashed red hair and an ugly little pointed beard. He wore, beneath a v-neck sweater, a button-down white shirt and an impeccably knotted silk necktie which she thought pretentious and ridiculous. He called her “Miss” and she thought the best thing she could do for him was to tell him to keep his reasons to himself. But she let him go on and finally said only that she didn’t like the tone of his voice and did he know that he was rude? For a moment she liked the nervous shifting of his beady eyes after that, the way he sort of retreated, asked her to let him apologize for his rudeness—though he had not intended to be rude—but then almost at once she felt again the surge of raw anger and asked him to write for her his name and his extension number. Nor did she explain to him why she needed his name, or agree to let him apologize. When she grabbed the ragged scrap of paper from his twitchy hands she told him only that he should be more careful, jack, and that he’d be hearing from her. He didn’t seem happy.

She had been feeling angry all week. Her roommate Sulema had told her she had a scowl on her face, and once or twice in class the other day she had heard herself raise her voice when she disagreed with something her history teacher had said. But the encounter with the guy at audiovisual had left her feeling even more agitated than usual. She walked out of the building and moved quickly across the green, failing to acknowledge the wave of a suite mate, not quite knowing what she was going to do. Someone has got to talk to that boy, she repeated to herself as she entered the college center and went down the stairs to the office of minority affairs. The walls in the corridor were as always plastered with notices announcing multicultural dinners, dances and discussions. Grievance meetings were scheduled on Wednesdays at 7. A specialist in English as a second language would be on campus every Monday. A fund-raiser for a new multicultural resource center was planned for late November.

She hated all this multicultural bullshit. They were building their own little world, she thought, and she was supposed to be grateful. More than once in the past she had wanted to tear down every one of these notices, to sit in one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs at the far end of the corridor and look at the expressions on the faces of the brothers and sisters when they arrived for work in the morning and saw the clean white walls, stripped of all that irrelevance. You’d have to be more than a little brain-washed, she thought, to buy into this stuff, into this pathetic little world with its Afro-American pride and its Latino heritage and its Asian-American feel-good fantasies. She had come down here not, she assured herself, because she had anything but contempt for all of this, but because she had a simple question to ask. If a sister could give her an answer, she’d just say thank you very much and depart. She wouldn’t need to do more than that.…

“To the Order of Nuns Who Travel with the Circus”
by Virgil Suárez

My wife told me
about them,
a little-known group

who way back when
traveled with nomads,
gypsies, those displaced,

outcast. A few of them
are here in America.
They work in the circus,

offering spiritual grounding
to the rootless. Living
among the travelers,

their chapel a trailer.
They also nurse the sick
alligator man, bearded lady,

at night they pray to the boy
who is all head, stuck in yellow
liquid, blinking at them

through the glowing liquid.
He shows them his tongue.
They close their eyes
to dream of a red flower’s bloom.

From “My Father”
by Edmund White

My father was such an original man—so unpredictable, such an unusual combination of motives and manners and values—that he was hard to grasp. I never met anyone else like him. When I was a child and adolescent I was forced to lead my father’s life from time to time, but when that long captivity came to an end I fled to New York and eventually to Paris, far from his world of solitude and night and work.

My father was a chain-smoker of cigars—expensive Cuban cigars made of fragile, wrapped leaves housed in wood boxes decorated with gold and red and green pictures as gaudy as a Ruritanian medal of honor. The edges of the box were sealed with green stamps. Inside each wood box the cigars—pungent, the color of mud—were as shocking as a fetishist’s collection.

In those days the smoker had full, unquestioned rights to light up wherever and whenever he liked. My father chose to smoke in restaurants, at home and in his closed, air-conditioned Cadillac. We were a bit green around him, steeped in his smoke that seemed to nourish him but poison us. Like many American men in the 1950s he drove five hundred, six hundred or even seven hundred miles a day on a long trip, refusing to stop for weak or small bladders, and as the big car with its roaring motor lurched around tight corners at seventy miles an hour and at eighty down the open road (in those days usually just a narrow two-lane highway), my father lit one cigar after another from the dashboard lighter, which glowed bright red in the dark.

My father had a prominent nose that a mule had kicked off-center when he was a teenager doing a summer job in construction. When he was in his fifties he had it operated on—not, he insisted, for cosmetic reasons but to make his breathing easier at night. He had thinning, straight hair that became gray but never white. His face was long and looked pained in a patrician way except when he flashed at rare moments his insincere, salesman’s smile—the effect was ghastly, since his small teeth were brown and his lips thin and pale. He took pride in his wrinkle-free face and indeed splashed it daily with Witch Hazel to firm it up. He stared at his reflection with what I used to think was narcissism but now I recognize as insecurity. But it wasn’t that he was unsure of his effect on other people, whom he cared nothing about. No, he was wondering if he was ugly or handsome in some absolute sense and each time he approached the mirror he expected a surprise, a verdict. He could spend hours manicuring his nails with an expensive twelve-instrument stainless steel kit bound in ostrich skin. His nails were his hobby, as toy trains might be another man’s.

He disapproved of cologne, of facial hair, of long sideburns, of cigarettes, of wristwatches, of rings or any other jewelry, of wearing black and brown together, of colored shirts, of button-down collars, of bold designs or vivid colors, of all sports clothes, of brown at night, of white socks at any time, of a man’s exposed ankle or calf. He wore knee-high black lisle stockings held up by garters, just as his trousers were held up by dark suspenders, not the clip-on kind but the kind that fitted over buttons sewn into the inner waistband. He wore casual clothes only when he was playing tennis or mowing the lawn. Even then, more often than not his work clothes were the trousers to old business suits and frayed or stained formal white shirts. Once he bought tacky casual clothes—a workman’s cap, a pink shirt, a string tie that passed through a holder showing a pink jackass on a black background—all as an elaborate way of “bringing me down a peg” when he visited me at my boarding school, where he thought I’d become “too big for my britches.” Yes, for him casual clothes were what poor men wore—and they could be borrowed as a joke, a parody, for a “hobos’ night out.” He liked to tell the story of his foppish dentist, Bill Pifer, who wore faddish shoes with blue suede tops and black patent leather sides to a dinner and the hostess asked him if he’d like to remove his galoshes. How Dad laughed over that one.
He was a Texan who’d gone to engineering school at Boulder, Colorado and moved on to Gary, Indiana for his first job building bridges and eventually to Cincinnati, Ohio where he switched over to the chemical business and where he lived for many years. He’d lost his Texas accent and gave a Southern twist only to a very few words. He pronounced “greasy” as “greezy” and said “dawmitory” instead of “dormitory.” And he placed the emphasis on the first syllable of “insurance.” He made the usual Southern substitution of “i” for “e” (he said “fountain pin,” an improvement on his father’s “founting pin”). But otherwise he spoke clearly and grammatically and with the fussiness of a generation of Texans who’d studied elocution in grade school and could all recite patriotic poems and historic speeches by heart. The only word he mispronounced was “statistic,” which he turned into “stastistic.” Of course he’d let out a deafening rebel yell when it suited him.…