Saturday, June 6, 2015

Criss Cross Applesauce

Criss cross applesauce
do me a favor and get lost

These lines from a clapping game are also the first two lines of the poem “Criss Cross Applesauce” by Thomas Lux.

In the poem, a single dad drives his young daughter “from her mother’s house to mine.” The girl is a kick – full of moxie and intent on being a kid. When the dad wants to talk about intellectual stuff (he brings up the surrealist artist Lautremont and his painting of an umbrella on an operating table), the girl keeps on chanting her playground rhyme: “along come some boys — p.u., p.u., pu.”

The dad’s appreciation for his daughter is palpable, his awe over the fact that this goofy, sublime person is his child. By repeating the line "from her mother's house to mine," Lux adds a subtle, poignant touch – the dad's time with the girl is limited.

One day I was thinking about this poem and decided to imagine a backstory for its narrator. What else did I know about him? What specific person did I see when he talked about his daughter?

I realized I was picturing a slender man in khaki pants and a chambray shirt. He kept a couple of bandages in his wallet just in case and knew how to make his daughter laugh, even after she has an accident that leaves her knee bleeding.

I knew the narrator’s name was Luke. The girl was Anna.

Luke told Anna stories about an evil queen in a gold dress. I knew he was worried her scraped knee needed stitches. He didn’t like the man his ex-wife was about to marry.

Luke himself had been married once before. I'd heard of mass cult weddings and decided that a “Reverend” had chosen Luke's bride for him just minutes before the ceremony, in which one hundred other couples were joined. I knew Luke hadn’t seen his first wife since the day he'd left the cult, but she’s still as real to him as Anna, who is asleep, with a trace of vanilla ice cream on her cheek, in the next room.

And I was off. I wrote the first draft of the story, "Yuliya's Ghost," in just a few days, and then edited it off and on for about ten years.

The final version was published last month by The Milo Review, both in print and online. Over the years, I deleted much of the background material. The queen, the khaki pants and the scraped knee all ended up on the cutting room floor, while the cult remained the center of the story. Thanks to all of that extra writing, though, Luke became a rounder character for me – a loving father, with a hint of danger in his past.