<< contest << cover

Knock Our Hats Off Contest Winner
Leigh Phillips
First Prize Fiction

Leaving Flagstaff


Dear Eleanor,

Greetings from your dear, slow friend in suburban Flagstaff. How is Fort Lauderdale treating you? How are John and the kids? And lastly, how are you? As a postscript, do you remember when you thought I was an angel and you angeled me a verb? My summer is great, by the way. I really like swimming pools but there aren't any. I am doing really well: all the cola is flat and so I'm flat. The hot desert drones its bones and hot isn't so sharp anymore. Hot is heart. Heart is blunt. John was always so blunt, wasn't he! Blunt is hot, dragging its dumb claws down my naked 5 o'clock can't get so worked up to tremor about a sunrise because I sleep through the arc of day's shadow. Did I tell you that I'm moving out of the area? It's true. Stubbing toes on a dumb future, I lean against it and command, "arms. elbows. wrist. pulse." Idea: you should grow worry lines and John can grow a matted beard & I'll pretend it’s how you redream me. Remember how you wrote those convulsive operas? I'd write an op-ed about how you've stopped calling, but that is a silent film. I can't write the slow fall of a balcony in an earthquake because I'm so southwest.

Nothing shakes here, not even the bubbles when I'm under stream. This is a fun game, I tell you. Just hold me under until my feet stop. You were always so creative, angel. Maybe you can film me, call the film "the beached whale of my libido pulled taut against the scalpel's surgeon. Look ma, tits!" But I digress. My breasts are still meaningless as they ever were. How are yours? So as you can imagine, I've been very busy negotiating with rejection. The real estate broker laughed and laughed when he heard my retirement pension. I said, I used to be a teacher. I said, sorry about my stupid fucking soul. He said get a job and I promised to kill the impractical church of beauty. I don't know what I have to do to shatter poetry, but I'm going to take it on. I just spoke with my dear friend Matthew. Remember Matthew? He is the writer we knew from Wellfleet that summer of ‘71. He is interested in growing a mustache and I thought of mine. I asked, whom are you going to sleep with at the writer's conference?

Eleanor, do you have a text message plan? This being said, I miss you. I think we could communicate often. I say these things all the time and you know what happens? A door opens and there's some sort of contusion. I am convinced that the ghost is strapping it on. I'm convinced I swear too much and that I'm so forgotten, I'm sepia. Conversely, I am convinced that all the orphans of belonging are coming back to me in the form of riddles, in the form of residual spirit activity. Banging, not reaching, banging. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said this. I know you're busy forgetting me. I just keep having these accidents. I am falling all over the same refrain. I've said this before. My surprises are neon and you've seen them rewind, play, stop, fast-forward, stop, rewind, play, stop. Still, you sit in the middle of my paragraph that is not a poem because it won't wear its corset and there's all this undisciplined, slutty action. You said. I say.

So what have you been doing lately? I spend a lot of time between the garden and the television. Today they are busy analyzing Michael Jackson's stool sample and I am watching CNN with the rapt, sad eyes of the truly depraved. I am almost leaving. I am almost holy. Here it comes: I am waiting to party like a shored sailor on some kind of leave from constant leaving. I am ready to be nostalgic about my complete lack of nostalgia. When I'm not watching the television, I am catching up on my correspondence and doing the rosary. My manuscript is called "Stale Saltine" or "What you find in the cabinets after even the roaches get the Parvo virus." I hear they have such good therapists in Phoenix, and I’m thinking of going to one. I'll tell my therapist "I'm not a great writer, but I am a good person" and she'll get it because I pay her to, see. I can see it now! Do you know what Twitter is, Ellie? It is a “social networking device.” Twitter is a noun and tweet is a verb. On Twitter she'll tweet, ' “and i don't want to read your thoughts anymore, my god''’ and I concur, anything legitimately gorgeous has to occur in 140 characters and the way you loved me was 145, like the square footage of the closet I will call my home. But I digress. In the future, I will hang all my neuroses) on hangers so they don't get on the floor when I'm trying to fall. Alright, I'm doing that thing again with tenderness. But what do the waves have to say about it? Nothing. Begin again. I wish I knew shorthand for missing you.



Dear Eleanor,

You haven't written back. I like to state the obvious, such as 'that is a chair,' or 'look at what happens when it goes electric'. The answer? White blue lightning. How are you? Soon, my address will change. I am leaving Flagstaff for someplace by the water. The water in me is a sweet place where memories drop and burn. I am a conductor, see. I hold lightning to my breast. This is lightning. You will either hold this to your chest and John will say "pace-maker, dear, be careful" or you never hold me to your chest. By this, I mean how can anything contain this trembling. But it does. But it has to. Did I tell you I have a Facebook account? Perhaps you have one, too. I have made many friends. My lovely new Sara said something to me, suddenly: “getting offline to make out before dinner. Benefit. Totally missed this.”

I have no idea what she is talking about.

Dear Eleanor, I think I remember the summer of 1971. If it wasn’t me, it happened to someone else. You should have never said you missed me in the way skin splits when it’s cold. It is never cold here but I am always splitting.

Dear Eleanor, the good news is, I could be more lost. The truth is, I'm homesick for swallows. How they fell from what is young. How they ladle blue differently, take sky separate from any other bird. Lately I am halfway between flight and hunger. Why don't you find me? I'm silver haired, amorphous. I burn down the edges of my red dress. My red yes. O'Hara says we have to choose. Lean to my water. I choose you.

Eleanor, I always said I'd rather be a grandmother than a mother. Instead, I've got an Omaha Steaks truck gyrating in the driveway. Someone said "I miss you so much my skin cracks" but that was when we were young. I remember the summer of 1971. If it wasn’t me, it happened to someone else. You should have never said you missed me in the way skin splits when cold. Sweat is my snowfall, I will winter you always.

If you wrote back, I’m not sure how I’d pass whole through joy. Every word, a threshold. Remember touch? I'll be wearing sunset down the shoulders. Meet me on the corner of syntax and trembling.

Convulsively Yours,


Dear Eleanor,

There are pianos in you.
They are threatening to shatter together.
They are threatening to shatter into God.

This is the letter I should have written in June of 1974. I know what you're holding. I can hear the song of you slipping into an overcoat, letting your chignon spill its curls to your neck. Rivers and rivers: I can hear great things. A novel of flesh called "You, Appearing." On the threshold. In a door frame. The Arrivant, again and again. Enter, to me. Trembling on the stoop of flesh. "Who is there, yes and come in."


This letter I will burn before I ever let it touch you. Nothing should ever hurt. I want you to tend to the roses, sift bags of potting soil and sunlight, taste John's lips, arrive over and over. The letter I will writes sounds like this:

Dear Eleanor, how are you? I am fine. The weather here has been a delight and my days are filled with years. My years are full of shimmering and my body is a lake of lost things. Over years, I have written books and taken nightly riverwalks. I have collected maps, postcards, and a drawer of antique thimbles. I have a collection of clocks, they all ring differently.

Dear Eleanor, bells and birds. Time? It is time to turn to you in a dream of 1976 and say. This letter will not survive. My other words will live, but these will not. I love you. Some words just have to be destroyed. Angel, I am leaving Flagstaff. Soon I'll be an Angel, too.

You're my certain slant of sunlight. To be older is to shiver. My hair pours a silver faucet, running with a faster I. I'm coming. Do you ever wonder who remembers? This summer, winter. So many sweaters. I still smell you sometimes when no one's looking. In the dark, the moon glances the bridge of your nose on the floorboards.

John, please kiss Eleanor's bridge so I can sleep and be beautiful tomorrow. Tomorrow I thought I'd do some writing. My hands shake so holding is often very difficult. These are the winters in me. I am so warm.

Sunlight, my--



Mercury is in retrograde, dear Eleanor, do you know what that is? A planet is retrograde when it appears to be moving backwards through the zodiac.

I have a friend called Jasmine. She said, “you are unhappy.” I said, “you have no idea what you’re talking about.” We met at bridge club. She says “you hoard.” I say, “I don’t know where to put the excess.”

Ellie. I think of you. Lately, I am in thrall, moments of my last Arizona. Finally, I feel as though I understand the concept of red. And also: orange, the burn of dry debris, flame of foliage, hot soil, grit, dust frame around the flesh of pushing through this summer, braless, titless, time, this watch, without. I am finally beginning to understand this concept of without.

Did you know? The orbit of Mercury has the highest eccentricity of all the Solar System planets, and it has the smallest axial tilt. Since you’re not listening, since no one is listening, since this graces the dead letter box or John who tears them, or maybe you look, fold, slip into a drawer, look, look again, imagine you touching my cheek which is a lot like a letter now. Crumpled, I am what happens when pale goes pale and thin goes on a diet. I don’t mean to be made of this, but inside I am so, so solid. Planets are never actually retrograde or stationary, they just seem that way due to this cosmic shadow-play. I touch my breastbone. I knock on my own chest. I hear echo. It says Eleanor, nor, nor. Hello, beautiful.

The weight of the average human heart is 10-12 ounces for a male and 8-10 ounces for a female. The weight increases with age. Senior citizens at the Price Chopper make me want to write poems about languorous walks down Main Street with parcels and infinite body ache. The weight increases with age. The heart: muscle or organ? Vitamin C deficiency? A baby howls downstairs. Dear Eleanor.

Mercury is similar in appearance to the Moon: it is heavily cratered with regions of smooth plains, has no natural satellites and no substantial atmosphere. Let me tell you about without. I can go anywhere alone. When I call out, no one answers. When I call out, no one says no. When I slip into birthday, there isn’t a sign that time is stealing me. I have shores and airplanes. You understand why I could never love you, right?

“Who are you thinking about,” Jasmine asks? “I’m not naming, I’m breathing.” I know exactly what will kill me. “I don’t know who you were.” I’ve made it this far. Ellie, do you ever look at your body this way? How did we pass through our 20s? How did you pass through childbirth, twice? How did you let yourself contain all this love? How do you hold it? Where do you pour it? The problem is, there was never a container large enough. Eleanor, I just wrote a haiku sequence called “After You, in Fragments.”

After you, there was a bad man. He washed my face of cosmetics, tore hems from knee to ankle. Once I was passing a kidney stone, he wouldn’t hold my hand. He said, “a face only an eleanor could love.” “What did you say?” I gasped. He said, “a face no one could love. What did you think I said, someone?” No. No one. And what do you say to me after? “I am seriously considering goodbye.”

This was 1985. “After You, in Fragments” is also called “When I Learned You Into Poem.”

Angel, beauty follows me. I’d like to tell you what I have at now, what swarms at dusk. Every neon. I broke through it. The thin membrane between self and air. I have found a way to spill. On my walks, moonlight pools at my feet, marks the desert road. However, unlike the moon, Mercury has a large iron core, which generates a magnetic field about 1% as strong as that of the Earth. The streetlights do not say 5 miles to a bad man or gentle John, who has only loved you. I believe the signs say five miles from me to you.

Imagine when its 801 degrees Fahreinheit on the surface of Mercury. I don’t know what that means except maybe you’ll answer. This fear of reaching is reaching. The bottoms of craters near Mercury’s poles can drop to negative 297 degrees. You always loved the inside of my wrists. This is a reaching beyond reaching. I am scared now. Are you?

A Red Yes,


Dear Eleanor,

If they painted my nude, it would be a blue rock with shoulder blades of shale. Daylight scales me; I am 72. The sky on my back is not between your lips. Minutes shave my stakes, I am not 72.

I wear sky on my black. I am not writing fiction anymore. I wear black on my back. The stakes are sharper, aimed at something. Aimed at what? Higher. It got real now.

Angel, I am writing to you from my new address. I actually did it. At my age, I don’t venture out. I walk the dust, breathe the dogs. I did this fade. But then, stepped out.

I picture you in doorways. Am I gone to you? How is your health, Ellie? My bones ring with spheres of soft white ache. See, I suffer gradual deterioration. Hip to spine to wrist, all the places for the kiss: it is the cause of many fractures.

I’m porous.

I say, this lets everything in. There is so much light in Flagstaff.

When I was leaving Flagstaff, I was Flagstaff. Now I am something else: varicose reaching upwards into sky, our time. I still believe this time is ours. That is how porous you’ll find me. Porosity is not a measure of the void spaces in a material. Porosity is just bone shattered with light.

Who are you, Eleanor? I am Pisces, sunning her watery backside on a dream.

Sometimes I glance into mirrors and they see me as what you’d remember–rouged lips, ringlets, tight bodice, the smooth back shedding its sheets to nude. I part the wings of every room and pass softly, over the threshold of me to your quake, lips: “you look beautiful”, trying not to give anything away.

We tried so hard to be quiet, didn’t we, Eleanor? To keep the candle still. Everything I ever said I never said and planted flowers instead. To leave Flagstaff, I gave up my garden. Here, I will start again.

The stalk: I take to the shape of shimmer. Rooted. Begin again, again. You happen. And so brilliantly, I: emphatic yes. I am made of only water. Pour me into all and see how I fit.

This is just to say: if you ever miss me, look up. The light is drunk. I’m between the leaves. It bends towards your face. The lyric of vignettes falling all over your breasts like these words have shadows.

I have a shadow. It is she you remember.




Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is an Assistant Professor of English at Hostos Community College with the City University of New York. Her stories, memoirs, poems and criticism most recently appear in Gulfstream, So To Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art, Paterson Literary Review, and The Prose Poetry Project. She has one poetry manuscript, Naked in the Heartbreak House, and she is currently writing an epistolary novel in verse.


to top

spacer   spacer