The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Kirsten Clodfelter’s “Casualties”

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This excerpt is part of the story “My American Father”, from Kirsten Clodfelter’s fiction chapbook, Casualties.

If I look up my name in a baby book, it lists the meaning of

Sumrah as reward. The actual definition is a little different—gift

for a good deed. For my mother, a compensation. But this is the

first thing I’m going to tell my father when I meet him, that I am

a gift.

Mom tells the story differently depending on when I ask, so I

don’t know which parts are true. Sometimes she uses words like

insisted and coerced. She wants whoever’s listening to read between

and nod sympathetically, to understand why she had to leave,

that she had no choice, but I’m pretty sure there’s more than what

she says. That’s the way Mom is about things. Why else would

she still keep that photograph and the folded Ginsberg poem he

once copied for her hidden underneath the silk nightgowns in

her dresser?

In the picture, this young version of my father is twenty-one,

just two years older than I am now. His brown hair is cut close

to his scalp and he has the cocksure, unsmiling face most soldiers

wear in photographs. He’s dressed in his fatigues, but my beautiful

mother had asked him to set down his gun when she held up

her camera.

When I ask Mom to tell me about him, she talks around

him instead. She explains about Kuwait University’s College for

Women, her year of study toward becoming a language therapist,

her own father’s disappearance shortly after the occupation. She

reminds me that Iraq owed Kuwait billions of dollars after the war

with Iran, that Saddam was a liar. Sometimes I pretend it’s the

first time I’ve heard this part of the story, and other times I let my

breath out in an exasperated puff and remind her she’s told me at

least a hundred times before.

When I get like that, frustrated by what she won’t say, she slips

me little details. She tells me that the attractive American soldier

was named Timothy Arlington, that he told good jokes even

during a time of war, that he was convincing. In March of 1991,

when the U.S. troops began to move out of the Persian Gulf, she

said goodbye. But two months later she was on an airplane headed

to the United States herself, her stomach still flat and girlish,

Timothy’s phone number and address printed carefully in the first

page of her journal.

She was one of the lucky ones—this is what she says. She had

an uncle working for the American Embassy, and when I press

her further, when I ask what would have happened if she hadn’t,

she always begins, “Otherwise,” and then shrugs her shoulders, as

if there is nothing left to discuss.

I want to know why she never called him, why she chose to

stay with a distant cousin in Pittsburgh—someone she had never

even met—until she was finally able to support the both of us on

her own, why she didn’t even want to let him know she was in

America. She explains, “Our lives were too different. It never

would have worked here.” I want to stop being angry with her for

that choice, but I can’t.

My mother knows that I don’t agree, that I don’t find our

lives to be all that different. But what she does not know is that

Timothy Arlington has been easy to look up and track down on

the Internet. That after he got out of the Army, he went to college

for mechanical engineering in New York. That now he lives in

New Jersey where he owns his own company working as a safety

consultant for commercial construction projects. That right now,

I have borrowed her car to drive there.

I imagine my father as an inverse of my mother, an explanation

for the ways that she and I are not alike. When I envision him, I see

a man who talks a lot, the kind of person who laughs every time

there’s a pause in conversation—not because he’s nervous, but

because he’s happy, and it’s hard to contain that kind of happiness

inside of a body. I imagine that when he was with my mother, he

spoke to fill in her silences, and that this made both of them feel

more comfortable.

This selection is from Kirsten Clodfelter’s fiction chapbook, Casualties, available from RopeWalk Press. Purchase your copy here!

Kirsten Clodfelter’s writing has been previously published in The Iowa ReviewBrevityNarrative MagazineGreen Mountains Review, and The Good Men Project, among others, and is forthcoming in storySouth. Her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published last October by RopeWalk Press. A regular contributor to As It Ought to Be and Series Editor of the small-press review series, At the Margins, Clodfelter lives in Southern Indiana with her partner and young daughter.

Meagan Cass is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Illinois Springfield, where she teaches courses in creative writing, independent publishing, and composition, curates the Shelterbelt reading series, and advises the campus literary journal, the Alchemist Review. Her fiction has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Pinch, Hobart Web, PANK, and Puerto del Sol, among other journals. Magic Helicopter Press will publish her first fiction chapbook, Range of Motion, in January 2014. She holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana Lafayette and an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College.

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