Essays

An Arrangement of Skin

from An Arrangement of Skin

The man on the other end of Houston’s local suicide hotline said his name was Blain. He had the nasal voice of a Texas weatherman: its kazoo-like lilt and swampy, Gulf Coast slowness. “I guess you know why I’m calling,” I said. Blain said he did not know and why didn’t I tell him. I told Blain that my life was falling apart. I told Blain how clichéd it was that I just said that, and I was a poet and hated clichés. I told Blain that every citizen in my former city—Richmond, Virginia—and my current one—Houston, Texas—was now aware of the affair I’d had before the breakup of my seven-year relationship. That the day after the blowout in which my newly minted ex, Carrick, kicked me out of our apartment, I’d defended my dissertation in a circle of English professors at the University of Houston in a pursed-smile stupor. “What does the color red symbolize in your work, Anna?” Dr. Serrano had asked me, cocking her head. I wanted to rip the blinds from the office window. I wanted to shout, “This is how I feel about red!” Afterward, instead of celebrating my years of hard work in graduate school and the fact that …

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Birds 101

from An Arrangement of Skin

The skin of a dead starling is hardier than you’d think. It’s tissue-fine yet lizard-like—wheat-colored chainmail for an airborne knight. During my first class at Prey Taxidermy, in downtown Los Angeles, I could see in the slit breast of my specimen a mix of delicacy and toughness, the bird’s firm insides cool from the freezer and as flush as a plum. Allis Markham, the owner of Prey, is a wisecracking thirty-two-year-old with fair skin and dyed-black hair. Around the studio, she wears a ponytail and simple button-up with rolled sleeves, but in a glamorous portrait on Prey’s website, Allis poses between two taxidermied housecats like a deadpan 1940s pin-up star: carmine lipstick and a dark rockabilly pompadour. In 2008, Allis (pronounced “Alice”) quit her marketing job at Disney, where she earned a six-figure salary, to attend the Advanced Taxidermy Training Center in Montana. In her studio on the fourth floor of an arts building on Spring Street, Allis offers a range of weekend workshops for an array of misfits, hipster-craftspeople, Hollywood-types—and the plain old morbidly curious, like me. I decided to take Allis’s recommended course for beginners, Birds 101. ~ As a child, I kept a number of pets: a strawberry-blond hamster, a pair of …

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The Goliath Jazz

from An Arrangement of Skin

I was a senior in high school, in May 1999, when my mother told me the curly-haired boy who’d once sung with me in our church’s children’s choir admitted to murdering his older sister in 1995 and burning down the family house. In a plea bargain with the D.A., Matthew Harper had received thirty-five years without parole for bludgeoning his sister with a rolling pin; stabbing her in the back with a large kitchen knife and penetrating her heart; then setting the house on fire as their mother and grandmother slept. For a number of seconds I sipped my coffee without speaking. “Matt?” I finally asked. I hadn’t thought about the Harper tragedy in years; and Matt’s full name now sounded like a stranger’s. “Matt who played David in David and Goliath?” The same fourteen-year-old boy I remembered singing the lead part in the Junior Choir’s rendition of David and Goliath as the biblical hero who slays the ogreish Philistine warrior with a rock from his slingshot later murdered his sister, Anne Harper . . .

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