Nonfiction by Steven Karl

Art by Paul Kramer Waters / @paulkramerwatersart

Excerpts from Keep It a Secret

There was you & there was me blood-related but different shades of skin. Your confidence. 

Your indestructability. You backing me down on a dirt court, basketball net affix to an old oak tree. 

Lanky arms, lack of coordination—my timidity to your bravado. 

Another time, both of us gathered at Veterans Stadium for a convention of holy worship—not yet teenaged shoving wads of spit-soaked paper balls into hollowed Bic pens. You & I. Even back then under blue skies always more hell than holy. 

There are those for whom memory begins at two or three or four. I’d like to be one of those but fear keeps me from probing, from pushing too deep into my brain. Yes. I remember various scenes of violence, my body aching with rage, my body the receptacle of my mother’s rage, my father’s indifference. 

The occasional betrayals of my sister. 

Memories of belts thin & thick are ill-defined—the wind whip—the sting ever-present. 

I know the weight of a smack & the iron of blood in the mouth. 

Did father share this in a letter with either of his sisters? This thing called feelings. He seemed to talk to his brother a lot. Doug appeared to live the life my father longed for, the life my father lived when he was in the Air Force. My father then & my memories of Doug align as brothers, but my father post-Air Force, the only version I have known of him, seems to be at complete odds with his brother. A desire for another life buried deep inside, forgotten? Or is it what now burns inside me? Fire blossoms upon the brain, peonies withering at the feet. 

A small boat afloat in an endless ocean. Actually, just one of many thousand lakes in Minnesota. Pine trees line the shore, the sun diamonds off the flat surface—occasional dragonfly dips & skitters. Doug & Dad deep in conversation. Low murmurs of what? life, love, survival? Who knows? It was the kind of talk given in a register to remain safe—secret from a kid’s ear. 

I remember images as if frozen in film or still-life photography. But Doug has been dead for years. I wondered what it was like to outlive your younger brother, much as my father on the many nights that sleep refuses to come, must wonder what it is like for me to outlive my older sibling. Doug has been dead for so long; Robin too. 



My dad was a fervent letter writer. A habit he developed in the Air Force. The large scrawl of his looping cursive—pensive & a bit unmannered, yet the words simply repeated various pleasantries. He could fill up two hand-written, blue-lined yellow notebook pages & still have said almost nothing. Just the dailiness that says, 

I’m here. 

I’m breathing

A poet I know writes for The Weather Channel. Every morning at 6:00am Chris sends out “The Morning Brief.” After reading it for a couple of days, I decide this is something my dad would probably like. I go to email him & then I remember my dad is no longer here. 

Common weather & uncommon weather. Something about the weather doing what the weather does. Some other geography where the weather is doing what it is not supposed to be doing. 

Was my mother crazy? Or was that an exaggeration? Maybe, just an excuse for misfit teenaged rage. 

But it wasn’t just me. My friends swore it was true. Once, in a letter my father insinuated it. 

Worst kept secret? Was I offended? My contemptuous response to only myself was dad, what took you so long to notice? Any person who beats their children with such violence they have pulpy red welts that linger for days has serious mental issues. My mother no longer had a mind so much as a muscle rotten with rage. 

Robin, my sister, was well into a troublesome adulthood that followed too quickly on the heels of a fucked-up childhood when she was finally diagnosed with multiple personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive behavior, & borderline schizophrenia. 

Was this genetic? 

My mother’s brother, Harry, was a genius. Looking at an old, sun-faded photograph I am probably 7 or 8 & I have shiny brown hair with naturally occurring blonde highlights. I’m wearing red shorts that are entirely too short. My uncle Harry is in blue jeans, a buttoned-down shirt with an exaggerated collar & a high soft afro. 

Family legend (quickly turned to family shame) was that Harry could hear machines talking to him. He could figure out how any & everything worked. Probably should have been an engineer or a scientist. 

So smart, so full of potential. So delicate & inwardly drawn. 

America in the ‘60s & ‘70s was such an open field for an overly intelligent Black man with a soft voice & high afro, wasn’t it? America was so welcoming for minorities who could ‘hear’ machines talk, for minorities coming from all the inner cities & slums of America. Philadelphia has born how many inventors lost to time, politics, racism & lack of education & madness? Under the cobblestones of Old City, I still hear the stifled blood curls of forgotten ghosts. 

The ‘80s were all about the myth of assimilation. It felt so real my mother could taste it. It was right there. No longer would she be marked by the construct of her race. She would step away from that world. She would take his last name. Her new world would begin with Mrs. Karl. That desired version of herself would become a path of rotten grief snaking silently into the future. At this moment all was a possibility. She would be the one that left Philly. That snagged a white guy. That married a white guy. A move that would position her within our family with equal parts admiration & downright disgust. 

One day uncle Harry just disappeared & that was that. Some said he lost his mind. Was living on the streets of Philly. Refused to recognize his aunts, his cousins, his own mother. Harry had gone all the way inward & would never resurface again. A kind of death where you still have to drag your body through this nauseating world. 

My father lived a double life but walked into a new life when he left the Air Force base with my mother & they were married. My father’s other life—a reckless fearless one in search of one good time after another—a life where he was engrossed in a world of “sinning” & becoming a sinner—a life that he would try to erase with a marriage, a family, & an unwavering devotion to God. 

Another life. 

Seemingly forgotten. 

In death arises secrets for another time. 

The Dance 

“We’ll dance/ We’ll dance/ We’ll dance/ We’ll dance/ But no one will dance with us” —Pavement 


I was young once & because I was often in rooms with filled with music there was dancing, although I did not dance. Once in a tiny kitchen on Maujer Street at Ben & Bianca’s apartment in Brooklyn Dan demonstrated Picking Up Quarters & a series of other spastic moves that had something to do with putting stuff in a grocery cart. Christie-Ann consumed in laughter’s thrills did not dance but encouraged Dan to continue as we all squeezed in around a figure in motion. The kitchen separated to bodies on the left & bodies on the right—Dan a peached performer under the artificial apartment lights while the fridge stocked in liquid pleasures blurred & buzzed. 


Blurred & buzzed, I was young once & because I was often in rooms filled with music there was dancing. As kids, Andre (who mostly went by Dre) tried to teach me to lock & pop. No, it’s like this. To moonwalk. Not that, like this. My attempts to wop more ungraceful flopping from failure to failure with grimace smeared across my face. Eventually I was relegated to the crowds consisting of family & friends—only to slip out my shadow long enough to push play or stop on the beat-up boombox. Dre had an ease about him & a face that most people loved, a face that showcased his mischievous eyes & his body mostly chiseled muscle. He was the kind of kid that could draw, could grace a tune from his lips, had perfect comic timing & could outscore & outrebound me on the basketball court—another kind of dance I awkwardly motioned all the way through to my idiot dribble of adulthood. 


Before my idiot dribble of adulthood, I was young once & because I was often in rooms filled with music there was dancing. Somewhere in Old City Philly there was a nondescript four-story building where a friend had a friend who DJ’d, it was mostly electronica—like low-key techno & a lot of trip hop. A night of “little fluffy clouds” washed upon a DJ Krush palette. I went because there was a beer bar directly across the street & while beer had been fancy for a while it wasn’t yet trendy so I would sip more than my weight until I hovered somewhere past buzzed, but nowhere near drunk then follow my friends up the stairs & enter through a back door. 

In all honesty I went because I was lonely & didn’t want to be alone, so when your friend offers a hand to pull you up & distract you from yourself & your sorrows you reach for it. Rachel & I had been friends since we were like 7 or 8. I remember summer evening swims in her pool, all scrawny limbs & tepid water splashes. Tall pine trees lurching just beyond the pool; bats dipping & diving here & there. I remember being not-yet-teen & her blonde, almost white hair turning green because of some chemical reaction with the chlorine. I know I laughed & I still regret that. 

Now here we are early into our awkward wandering 20s in some dim-lit room where she would eventually force me onto the dance floor although she knew I couldn’t dance. But she didn’t care. Soon enough my beer language would lead me off in attempts to dance with some form of fantasy or another. Probably someone washed upon in strobe lights who looked like she would listen to the Cure or Slowdive. It’s not necessarily that I’m ugly, it’s just that I have a face even when staring directly at me is easily forgotten. My fashion some odd mix of deep red suede pumas & faded band t-shirt that soured under the house lights. Left to shoulder shimmy a few seconds more when the song ended I too exited— 


Left to shoulder shimmy a few seconds more, I was young once & because I was often in rooms filled with music there was dancing. We had ridden our bikes through the darkness, across the bridge, the river volume lashing in & out of the night’s silence. I was new to Eugene, Oregon & Elizabeth wanted to go to a rave. Remember how edgy they felt? Sneaking through the night anxious with the secret of some abandoned warehouse whose destination was mouthed in hush tones only to friends? I couldn’t dance but had a growing curiosity of drugs so was happy to accompany Elizabeth & her friends. The dance floor was enormous; we did not do drugs. There were a variety of hippie names in purple prose that I can no longer recall. Only fuzzy images of long brown hair or suede fringes swaying like jellyfish legs in the sea of the air. Elizabeth danced endlessly. I sipped beer & then under the throbbing shifting color lights I danced. It is unlikely I ever found the beat & even several beers into the early morning never stopped being self-conscious. That night I surrendered my body to the body clashing against the barren walls, the bass vibrations coming like waves on the floor. Sweaty & exhausted we biked home under the morning sun’s glare. 


Under the morning sun’s glare, I was young once. Because I was often in rooms filled with music there was dancing. My wife’s estranged college friend was getting married. On the flight out to California I attempted to remember the dances I learned when I had to dance at Rachel’s wedding with her younger sister, Sarah. We practiced. Both of us lacking patience for perfection, on the evening of the “I Do’s” we were passable. This time I not so secretly hoped to sit quietly somewhere off in the distance. The wedding was in a place that people affectionally refer to as wine country. My friend Paige grew up in this part of the country before it became a fabricated bourgeois dream. Throughout the trip I pictured Paige here, Paige there. I imagined her a local hero with everyone wearing her jewelry. It was silly since very little of the town seemed to have her vibe. Still, we drag our friends along real or imagined simply because we need our friends. 

My wife & I took a trip with Jackie (another of my wife’s college friends) to the Redwoods. Later, I waded in the Russian River mostly filled with beards & dogs. After the wedding, the reception was one wine after another—the place filled with mostly Ivy-leaguers who were always the best or nearly the best at everything they ever did. The room a fun house mirror filled with their parents who their kids copied to distorted & somewhat extreme effect. Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies” boomed through the speakers & the dance floor swelled, as it has at many receptions & clubs when this song plays. Everyone attempting to out-best each other’s moves. Perhaps it’s an implicit weight—the unseen ghost in the room because the song itself an example of pop perfection. A husband of yet another of my wife’s college friends shimmied over to my direction as I languished over a Chardonnay & hoped for invisibility. Palms flat, loosen tie, beads of sweat slowly proceeding down his face from his coarse short blond hair, he reached for me. Held my hands as I attempted in shock to mimic his simplified moves. I’m pretty sure I heard less-than-subtle chuckles & the evening’s embarrassment still haunts my dreams. 


& the evening’s embarrassment still haunts my dreams. I was young once & because I was often in rooms filled with music there was dancing. Although I do not enjoy dancing, I have seen most of my friends dance from backyard weddings in Massachusetts to retro Cuban-styled clubs in Miami. Once, when I was young, in the dead of winter, my uncle did a kind of hillbilly jig in the middle of a frozen lake in some tiny dot of a town in Minnesota. 


My daughter’s body an endless amount of energy. 
I am not as young as I once was. 


An evening’s embarrassment, the not-so-subtle chuckles, the seduction of sorrow—the dance of unavoidable tragedy. Yet somehow, I have tripped & wobbled & have not fallen off the tightrope, nor have I ever been able to reach the end, somewhere always in the middle with luck enough to have the music of friendship to tune out death’s overtures. 

In Tokyo I currently spend my days surrounded in music gazing backwards following that imaginary thin river trinkling back into America. Not that I envy the slow demise of an empire, but I disconnect from so many shadows of self that it’s easy to get lonely. When no one’s hand reaches for yours, death starts dancing. 
Still, today is August 8th, 2020, & today I did not want to die. Neither did I want to die yesterday. 
I do not like to dance but Julianna & her daughter & my daughter & her mother are all dancing to Kidz Bop Kids. Deliberate steps & intricate moves. Erik sashays his way into the kitchen & begins to chop white onions. It’s been a heavy winter that will be followed by another long summer & back into an even heavier winter. Caution & fear soundtrack our dailiness. We do what can do. & on some days we dance. 


& on some days we dance. We dance because there is a space & we do not know what will come in the space after this one. We dance because we want to see our daughters’ lips rise above teeth in laughter, the limber light on youth. We dance to keep death maybe missteps away. I do not like to dance but today maybe in my north room* in that dirty lemon light of a sinking sun even I might dance— 

* “if I in my north room/dance naked, grotesquely/ before my mirror” —William Carlos Williams 

Steven Karl is the author of two collections of poetry, Dork Swagger (Coconut Books, 2013) and Sister (Noemi Press, 2016). He has published creative nonfiction in The First Time I Heard My Bloody Valentine, POP: Poets off Poetry, Evening Will Come, and Maiden Magazine. Originally from Philadelphia, he lives between Boston and Tokyo.