Welcome to Issue No. 29 of Prime Number:

Cover.jpg

A Journal of Distinctive Poetry & Prose

Letter from the Editors (or jump to the Table of Contents)

Dear Readers,

We’ve got a great new issue for you—Number 29 is the second issue of our THIRD YEAR.

We continue to bring you distinctive poetry and prose: short stories by Frank Scozzari, Ron Capps, Mary Akers, and Justin Van Kleeck; essays by Lorrie Lykins, Gabriella Burman, and Terry Barr; craft essays by Wendi E. Berry and Jody Forrester; poetry by Aviva Englander Cristy, Regina Coll, Austin Kodra, and Shelby Stephenson; a review of Rebecca Dunham’s “The Flight Cage”; and an interview with Andrew Scott. Plus, we present the quarterly winner of Press 53’s 53-word Story contest! Our beautiful cover photo is by Joachim Liedtke

We are currently reading submissions for the Issue 29 updates, Issue 31, and beyond. Please visit our Submit page and send us your distinctive poetry and prose. We’re looking for flash fiction and nonfiction up to 1,000 words, stories and essays up to 5,000 words (note that this is an increase from our previous limit), poems, book reviews, craft essays, short drama, ideas for interviews, and cover art that reflects the number of a particular issue (we’re looking for a “31” right now). If we’ve had to decline your submission, please forgive us and try again!

A number of readers have asked how they might comment on the work they read in the magazine. We’ll look into adding that feature in the future. In the meantime if you are moved to comment I would encourage you to send us an email (editors@primenumbermagazine.com) and we’ll pass your thoughts along to the contributors. Similarly, if you are a publisher and would like to send us ARCs for us to consider for reviews, please contact us at the above email address. We’re especially interested in reviewing new, recent, or overlooked books from small presses.

One more thing: Prime Number Magazine is published by Press 53, a terrific small press helping to keep literature alive. Please support independent presses and bookstores.

The Editors

Table of Contents, Prime Number Magazine

Issue 29, October-December 2012

POETRY

Aviva Englander Cristy

The Simple Fact of Waking

What She Never Owned

 

Regina Coll

God's Pocket

Autobiography Since Oz

 

Austin Kodra

Parentless, In Our Childhood Homes

Pneuma Airlines

New Year's Resolution, March 20, 2012

 

Shelby Stephenson

Orange

Parsley

Pecan Cake

 

FICTION

Frank Scozzari

The Arrow of Light

 

Ron Capps

Apostasy

 

Mary Akers

Treasures Few Have Ever Seen

 

Justin Van Kleeck

How Patti Lost the Weight

 

Jodi Barnes

Reconstruction, a 53-word Story

 

NONFICTION

Lorrie Lykins

Dive Bar

 

Gabriella Burman

If I should disappear the day after I write this . . .

 

Terry Barr

Race You!

 

CRAFT ESSAYS

Jody Forrester

Moving Through Time: Scene, Summary, Flashbacks, Backstory, and

Transitions in Short Stories

 

Wendi E. Berry

Evil Women Characters--How Writing Them Tempts the Reader to Feel

Oh-So-Good

 

BOOK REVIEW

Paul David Adkins

Review of Rebecca Dunham's "The Flight Cage"

 

INTERVIEW

Interview with Andrew Scott, author of Naked Summer

 

COVER ART

Joachim Liedtke

Number 29

 

Prime Decimals

Prime Decimals 29.2

Prime Decimals 29.3

Prime Decimals 29.5


Aviva Englander Cristy.jpg

Poetry from Aviva Englander Cristy

Poetry from

Aviva Englander Cristy

 

followed by Q&A

The Simple Fact of Waking

In dark I start with the muscle stretched beneath your jaw. Should I be technical? The sternomastoid gently reaching down to the pit of your neck. It is a new beginning. Here is the bone we know as the elegance of form. God’s grace hanging the body from a single line, your structure breaking forth. With one touch I can pull apart linea alba, breaking the skin open between suprasternal notch and groin. I am trying to see the bones from underneath, looking for the moment when they emerge from flesh to touch the skin themselves. I will always use the clavicle as my referent, pulling it out with the tips of my fingers when I find the corner of your frame. Then will your body collapse? The skin folding away without its binding, muscle exposing itself, disengaged, ready to be lifted out. Your body becomes the simple fact of form, each bone recognized for what it holds in. I know the ribcage is the sonnet of the soul, the coda folded between hipbones. Here dawn is the moment of the limbs. I cannot see the ulna beneath your flesh, only its quiet intransigence just before the turn of your wrist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2.

at the fallen maple

at the shuddering hand

for the regulated center

for the mists at great height

to find extended

at swollen banks

for hummingbirds

beneath bristled faith

to be marked

to forgive

to have fragile bones

behind reeds

beneath framed glass

beneath this comfort

to be left behind

to be wrapped in silence

wrapped in gold

ringed by stones

to be cut open

What She Never Owned

for my favorite (sic)

 

1.

for the heat

for the right wind

for yellowed leaves

for a lost breath

under deluge

under driftwood

for my heart

to settle

to be burnt

to measure this

against loss

wrapped in orange

in folded paper

wrapped in static

for birdsongs

for the shifted sand

for fear of snow

to shed tenderness

to wait for you

 

 

Aviva Englander Cristy’s chapbook The Interior Structure will be published by dancing girl press in winter 2013. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in BlazeVox, The Hollins Critic, So To Speak, The Spoon River Poetry Review, decomP Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, and others. 

 

Q&A:

Q: What can you tell us about these poems?

A: These two poems are both from my manuscript What She Never Owned. Even though these poems seem to take decidedly different formal approaches, they are, for me, very much part of the same project. “What She Never Owned,” the title poem for this manuscript, touches on the primary themes of the book and brings them together by allowing them all to simultaneously inhabit the body in the poem. “The Simple Fact of Waking” is one of the oldest poems I am including in the project. At the time, I was thinking a lot about how poetry can create a space for both figurative and literal language to co-exist. I had been writing a lot of very fragmented and abstract work, and was wanting to clear my mind and move in another direction. I joking refer to some of these poems as my “literal consumption of the beloved” poems. 

 

Q: Anatomy plays a big role in “Waking.” Is there any other poem or poems involving the nomenclature of the body that you reference or would like to discuss?

A: When I first began this project, I was actually reading anatomy books, and not as much poetry about the body. I read sections of Grey’s Anatomy, as well as William Harvey’s essays and letters. Harvey was an anatomist and professor in the early 17th Century. What struck me, more than thinking about how poetry and poets talk about the body, was how poetic Harvey and other anatomists are in their own technical (supposedly) writing. I say supposedly because some of this writing felt much more like prose poetry than a textbook or anatomical treatise. In general, I am very interested in how poets use language from other sources, whether it is directly found text or simply lexicon, nomenclature, rhetoric, methods of thinking, meaning making, and logic. All of our language always, necessarily, comes from and is used by other people and in other settings. How can we use all of those other worlds of meaning to create poems that can live multiple spaces?

 

Q: What compass direction do you face when you write, and what do you see?

A: What a great question! Unfortunately, I don’t have a set answer. If I am inside, I usually sit facing East, looking at a wall hanging/sculpture of fall leaves, a black and white print of a New England coastal town, a life-sized skeleton mask from Oaxaca, Mexico, and the bookshelf where I keep all of my art books, first editions, antique books, etc. If I am outside, I face the sun or water, if there is water to be seen. Usually, I am jumping up and down and pacing and running into the other room to grab a book, so it is hard to say that I am facing any one way in particular. 

 

Q: What is the color of grace? 

A: Somewhere between simplicity and kindness, though I think on a gray-scale it would fall a bit closer to simplicity.


Regina Coll.jpg

Poetry from Regina Coll

followed by Q&A

God’s Pocket

We were driving home from dinner a week after Dad died.

Chester County is beautiful during the day  

but at night, well, Mom said the road was as ‘dark as God’s pocket.’ 

String – 

Just in case, 

in case God-the-boy-scout needs to once more bind that 

which has torn away from its moorings, or that 

wanting to mischievously blow across some weave – pluck – twang – 

a melodic virus found.

 

Hard Candy – 

For those long trips through the dry edges of the universe 

when the sandman throws charms, quarks and dusty spirals into the electric eye,

and the syrup travels the corpuscular plasma, blossoming 

as clover might upon a dark field.

 

Keys – 

Not just one, though I suspect one would do. 

 

Lipstick – 

Yes 

a ruby changing 

to brown to green and blue and one side shaped like the side of a mountain 

because that lip-to-creamy-color shears the spot, metamorphic !

….there is a buttery core

there is a shimmering topcoat

there is the glory of a turning earth at sunset painted here,

there is a crushed snail, ground bark,  someone running, there is

chaos applied with deliberation.

 

Money – 

To whom does God debt and pay? And can my eyes bear 

the celestial currency casually brought forth from the burning palm?

 

Lint – 

Villain, scab, I would best describe this remnant dirt not 

as the protean starch of creation floating from flower to flower,

but instead as the withered dust of 3:19, a real curiosity shoppe of fleshy detritus, withered demoralized compressed

and wailing-wanting to be pulled from the cradle.

 

Condoms – 

For the nights God may want to forget, or, to not be subsequently reminded.

 

Cell Phone – 

I refuse to believe 

the Pavlovian tantrum holds the same finger pointing-remarks for the omniscient 

as it does while bleeding and breathing for we land dwellers. Faith 

bounces in belief that the call will come by way of certainty, or some blind conviction

or even desire.

Like a bell, the fresh clap bars possibility

because we only answer, we don’t ask.

 

Army Knife – 

Curiously dull as an implement of power, as the aftermath holds all sway.

 

Ticket –

Irked, interested,

wondering how the play might turn out for the rabble, the resurrected, those poised 

on the edge of verdict. How different is wondering from knowing and is this just 

a temporal joke, the comedic goat-song framed in an incidental way 

in what I imagine to be creative memory – or – predetermined originality. 

Why does this description seem inherently heartbreaking?

 

Lighter – 

A wheel, a rock, a stew of dead things 

arranged to elicit a surprise – ah – I catch my breath at its sight and God chuckles.

Together we sit just beneath the clouds, gather some 

and roll this into perfumed vice,

our smoke creeps down into the valley below.

 

Tissue – 

Collecting the seas, sparkling like notes from a bird 

whose simple joy greets each dawn.

 

Tampon – 

And the answer is described as a red-collector, a story-altar,

the stuff of old charioteers and genocide

cut, hide,

some sacrifice and baroque diagnostics painted on a cave wall,

the iron eater air breather fire burner flow on white    on white -

bleeding caught and bound.

 

ID – 

Left on the coffee table and passed by regularly

brushes, paint, glue put the  “M”  in Maker.

This lamination codifies my worst fear, 

so I swim through a river of explanation never touching the shore.

There is a desperation in life and limits set forth,

and the ramble bears the image of my poorer master

a ribbon, a valentine, and other things I name.

Here darknessness grow in warmth, or wait with chill.

Here, the riddle deepens.

 

 

Autobiography Since Oz

I am arrogant enough

To believe in legacy, appointment, and victory.

 

I am singular enough

To want 100 versions of “box.”

 

I am confused enough

To think shadow offers realization, or at least alternative.

 

I am sensual enough

To use lemon oil and mint in my graying hair.

 

I am compassionate enough

To hate the abuser first.

 

I am scared enough

Of the things I have not said and wish to.

 

I am lost enough 

In the underworld, though my North remains true.

 

I am thin enough 

To see through, without visual aids.

 

I am fussy enough

To want Maslow at my dinner table, singing to me of my cherry pie. 

 

I am sound enough

To call-out through the fog of my own pride.

 

I am warm enough

And have to be mindful of scorching.

 

I am illuminated enough

To charge the glow-in-the-dark crèche figurines.

 

I am wet enough

To take the second step.

 

I am steel enough

To hold a thousand pounds of shit around my heart.

 

I am told enough

By those with love, to begin over. 

 

 

Regina Coll lives and works in the metro DC area. She has published in Blood Orange Review, 2River View, The Cloud Appreciation Society, Lines and Stars, Psychic Meatloaf, and A Little Poetry. She was web-master, poet-master, and grant recipient for the Bathroom Poetry Project in Takoma Park, MD, from 2005-2007, which was designed to encourage poetry appreciation in public spaces. Spare time is spent walking a dog or swimming, and whenever the planets align she gets to see her 20-something sons.

 

Q&A

Q: If we go astray in Chester County on one of those dark nights, what kind of wonders might we encounter?

A: DEER! Don’t drive day or night in Chester County during October because the rutting makes for very unpredictable white-tail behavior (the when one slams into an innocent car).

 

Q: What compass direction do you face when you write, and what do you see?

A: Hmmmmmm, good one. I have a very strong internal compass, so it’s almost impossible for me to be lost when above ground, and I hate GPS. I usually write facing northwest. There I see all my thoughts rubbing up against my feelings and desires–combustible stuff–and at the end of the day they glow bright orange in the west, with the cool north nearby just in case.

 

Q: We are often told, in moments of exasperation, that “Enough is enough.” If enough seems too little, is it possible to have “Too much of a good thing?”

A: From a high vantage all of the ‘general’ is seen, and nothing of the particular, and from a place of abundance boredom ensues. An unconscious trick I rely upon is a fabulously terrible memory, so that many experiences and faces seem new or merely familiar. This way “enough” becomes a moving horizon and my appetites are never sated. In the context of accumulation this is distasteful, but in a learning context this is desirable–a kind of single-life-time reincarnation. So my overall answer would be no (if I reject the logic in the question above).


Austin Kodra.jpg

Poetry from Austin Kodra

followed by Q&A

Parentless, In Our Childhood Homes

During the night after my grandfather’s funeral,

the night my brother and I threw a party 

in my mother’s house, I had the slurred thought 

that somewhere beneath the layered, filmy stick 

of beer spilled from low-stakes tall boys,

deep down, under crumpled fast food wrappers 

damp with grease and cigarette butts on beds of ash, 

the coffee table still had the shine my mother 

always guaranteed—magazines straightened, 

smudges erased—but it wasn’t until just now, 

seconds ago, rain ticking shingles and car hoods,

slicking this small town’s unlined streets, on no 

specific occasion, years removed from what remains 

of that night’s memory, that I wondered 

how my mother decided to fill those same hours,

both of us parentless, in our childhood homes, 

and somehow my first thought was that, 

for even that night, she was a mother, that she organized 

her dead father’s clothes into piles, reknotted 

his necktie, pulled framed photos from his dresser

so she wouldn’t have to look back on that life 

as she dusted the surface until the scuffed oak lay bare.

 

Pneuma Airlines

Welcome to Pneuma Airlines. Before we begin boarding

with our Pneuma World MasterCard carriers 

and those with small children, we’d like to make 

 

a few special announcements:

The woman who speaks to you in front of your gate, 

touches your shoulder, her black hair gleaming 

 

with treatment, boots laced mid-thigh, the gal 

right over there, living in her highest spirit,

wants to give you two roundtrip tickets

 

to anywhere you desire.

We hope you choose Las Vegas. Dream it. Do it.

On board, our cabins are pressurized to seal in 

 

all your secrets. Never let your Vegas stories fly. 

If you’re taller than six feet,

welcome to our Limited-Edition-Compact-Seating-Experience.

 

If you’re lucky enough to claim Row 26-A,

the lone seat near the culinary compartment,

get ready for a thrilling ride.

 

But imagine the payoff: a chair

in the sky your grandfathers thought

only possible in Heaven, a throne of mild discomfort,

 

a test of the spirit’s worth in catalogue merchandise–

commemorative mini football helmet lampshades,

We will never forget inscribed on a martini mixer

 

guaranteed to fashion bone-dry drinks for you next big soirée.

Or, if you’re hungry or thirst for something else,

try a selection from our Good, Better & Best Deals: two juices

 

and a Pneuma-sized bag of nuggets and nuts for only $8.

Pneuma water, $3.  But no matter the seat, the drinks 

or the snacks, God, the godless and the mysterious all fly Pneuma,

 

hopefully to Vegas, hopefully where each

will hang tough at the tables through the last dice roll,

the last quarter, the last lever pulled.

 

If your Pneuma refreshments leave you 

in need of a restroom, enjoy the plush cabin 

with near-marble sink tops located at the rear of the aircraft.

 

Cover your ears for the flush, and deposit

your cigarette butts in the complimentary ash tray

molded into the door (Federal Law prohibits tampering with, 

 

disabling, or destroying any smoke detector 

in an airplane lavatory; smoking in lavatories; 

and smoking in passenger compartments).

 

We’ve fashioned your seat cushion with Pneuma Straps.

In the rare event that we need to make a water landing,

you can grasp them and float, be saved. 

 

Before you know it, our journey together will be complete.

Think fondly on the times we will share in anonymity.

Take the fable of your Pneuma Airlines trip with you.

 

Pick up a t-shirt or ball cap as you disembark.

Let your loved ones know, your friends, your colleagues,

your bartender at the hotel lounge, your call girl, your photograph,

 

let them know how we smoothed you through

the air with old magic, from one bloated urban dreamscape

to the next, each time a nod and understated silence

 

from one of our Air Hosts. Remember what we have offered you— 

a nickel-slot gamble on Pneuma, 

a discount flight over the ocean, the flitting city lights.

 

New Year’s Resolution, March 20, 2012

Going on four months in the year

of the supposed end-times, I’ve figured out,

if doomsday arrives, my final self-improvement:

I’ll chew and swallow every bite of food 

before taking another. Nothing muscle and mind 

can’t be taught after a few thousand tries. 

This morning—the first—I practice with clementines, 

one piece before the next, each reduced to mush 

and spilled down what feels like the underside of skin

inside my chest. I manage the first,

teeth snapping its eight separate wedges 

of vein and orange-jellied meat.  

But on a morning like this—dogwoods 

bloomed a month before annual festivals, 

sweat drench of a pre-work run—

I am shocked into indulgence like the bee

on the early flower and the red-eyed vireo

tricked into return. And I know as well

as everyone else that these times do not call us

to be so full, but there’s something 

about the premature burst of spring,

that same old beginning, and the food I eat

as far-flung and endless as it’s always been,

that if I don’t keep chewing and swallowing

without pause, the earth might burn its lot

on a season’s passion and one night soon

leave us to frost-tinged fruit, turn 

the sugared flesh, too young, back to salt.

 

 

Austin Kodra is an MFA candidate in poetry at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pirene’s Fountain, Birmingham Arts Journal, Polaris, The Medulla Review, and elsewhere. 

 

Q&A

Q: Birds migrate along the earth’s magnetic fields. What guides a human’s internal compass through life?

A: I’d like to think it’s something similar. Maybe the alternate life in which we’d made all the opposite choices determines what happens in this life. That’s my silly metaphysical answer. In reality, I think this has more to do with education, with how we treat the most vulnerable among us. For me, I’d undoubtedly say my internal compass is calibrated to the example my parents set for me. Others might reject all that and go it alone. Some might only care about power or money or death. So I think what people learn to appreciate and/or hate about life from childhood on from whomever or whatever educates them is probably a decent indicator.  

 

Q: “Jet-set” has a whole new meaning these days, as flying has become difficult, demanding, occasionally hellish. What’s your favorite route, favorite stopover, and why?

A: While my experiences on discount airlines have sometimes been comical and superfluous to the point of absurdity, I wouldn’t go so far as to call them hellish. I mean, I’m still flying through the sky. What did I ever do to deserve that? Borrow some money from my parents? But to address the question, I’m freakishly tall, so I try not to fly too often, and I prefer short flights with no layovers. I flew business class to Paris once, so I guess that’s the one. Seven hours of so much leg room.

 

Q: Why is the apocalypse, with or without zombies, so much on our minds these days?

A: I think this is the exact question I grappled with once I’d figured out what I wanted to do in the poem “New Year’s Resolution, March 20, 2012.” The more we know about our places in the world, the more we know about our roles in its destruction. There’s the obvious cultural mythology surrounding 2012, but I think having actual evidence to back up the fact that we consciously and willingly make decisions that contribute to the destruction of where we exist is horrifying and fascinating. In addition, I think human beings are inherently curious about what the world would be like without their own consciousness to interpret it, so I guess that might play a role as well.


Shelby Stephenson.jpg

Poetry from Shelby Stephenson

followed by Q&A

Orange

It’s hard to get a globose 

Berry into a Perdue Roaster’s cavity.

Once you do it and the little white plastic thermometer 

Pops up to signal Done−the light of the juicy pulse snaps on 

As if exiting Dark Wood.

Immediately my taste buds warm up.

I love the tough rind enclosed in the red.

Like my hair, the pigment’s tawny.

I am being candid:  preserve the peel.

Conserve candied oranges.

I want to take that Orange Blossom Special to Orlando.

I yearn to smell white blossoms, fragrant as a bride’s wreath.

I want to prepare an Orangery

And learn how to extract the scent from the orange-flavor.

 

I want to feel the thrill again of getting up before light on Christmas 

And creep to the worksock (heel looks like an orang-outang’s rear)

Filled in a flounce hanging with apples, raisins, nuts, oranges.

I want the day light enough to write,

For Memory to flesh out in nettings of air

Where Being Here’s Being There’s precedence.

I want to gather up tunes into the pleasure

Taste and Smell survive up in the hen’s cave,

The basil leaves simmering something 

The stove-eyes cannot contain,

The oven set at 350 for two hours,

That cold bird, hot, the white skin, brown,

My non-cook’s fabrications subtle and resilient as a Hallmark message,

My mother waiting at the Garden Gate,

Her hatchet rusty.

I feel her hand in mine, dreaming of our years.

Sometimes I go out to the backhouse

And see the little axe-marks on the hand-hewed sill

Where she’d place a pullet’s neck

And make one whack

While the chicken went round and round among the jimson.

 

She would not waste an orange’s taste.

She went her own way, the flavor a trace of her particular scent−

A substance her senses−co-operative, indefinable, instinctive, piquant−

Motion the favor dancing 

Nicely flavors spread at Sunday dinner.

 

Sparks guide the way:  the range’s slab of smells

Blow air over sand in my shoes like wheels

Rolling out from Carolina.

 

 

Parsley

Mama’s life’s rife with garnishes. 

Yet I don’t recall Rosemary or Thyme−

Maybe one Rosemary−tall and wise−

Certainly The Virgin out of the bush

Echoing fragrances agreeable as leaves

Perfuming and cooking a medicine beautifully

Tasty, decorative, divine.

Rosebud Salve:  yes.

I’ve had Roseola−came with Measles.

I don’t want to go through that again.

Consider Sage in sausage−hogkillings.

I’d rare right up from the table and yodel

What are we living for if not for seasoning?

Time marks my mother’s call−

Go to the Store, please, Shub, for me a Lemon.

That Memory scents Pleasure’s squeezes for seasonings.

 

 

Pecan Cake

I return to the pecan tree again,

To the woodpecker-pocked bark and the gauzy worm-sack aplay,

 

My mind lost next to the orchard oriole’s nest,

The pending yellow young in glory to turn the male so black and chestnut

 

As to show the sun smoking far−far away a thing, fair,

Some feathers perching display the soul spangles in singing

 

I can hear clearly outlining three birds−large−

Maybe red-tailed hawks, certainly not eagles over Paul’s Hill−

It’s famous for sparrows and sassafras trees.

 

A squirrel’s at Susan’s red schoolhouse feeder.

A rat snake’s waiting for the martins to hatch.

The buzzard eyes the rabbit on the slope.

Down the hill at Rehobeth Church a picnic-table’s heavy−

Stew beef, steaks, chicken, barbecue

And one of those big-old-out-of-this-world pecan cakes:

 

1 cup raisins

½ cup bourbon

1 cup butter or margarine (softened)

2 ¼ cups sugar

5 eggs

3 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

1 ½ teaspoon nutmeg

1 cup buttermilk

2 cups coarsely-chopped pecans

 

That’s the first part, for The Thing’s never free:  in the fall when brown leaves call

We’ll catch a glimpse of a jay picking an acorn from its cup.

I’ll get out the hammer and stroll to Greatgreatgrandpap George’s anvil.

It must be over 150 years old, for Pap George died in 1886

After he sold July, the Slave Girl in 1850 for $413.25.

 

To say no one can own anything’s a cliché.

Not even what we eat stays with us long.

So the names we are and the names we give to things and to each other

Do not last outside appearances.

I place a black walnut on the anvil and hit with hammer−hard.

The flavor’s already in my eyes.

I know, for I was that boy who cracked them for Mama Maytle.

I am the one who put the sheet under the tall pecan there at the Smith Tobacco Curing Barn

And brush-raised my “bream pole”−oh so long a reed for fishing−

I could see the planets moonlighting over the sheet 

With nuts scattering brown-crash-thrashing on white−

Just an outdoor game to me, born at home, in the country,

Too far from the city of gymnasiums, tennis courts, ball parks, and pizza!

 

Together thence the butterfly leaves the sack of worms in the cherry on the edge.

April’s showers wash the pollen away

And leave me crying just about, my eyes running over,

After all−it’s not you I’m looking for−

I’m looking for my mind.

 

That recipe for Pecan Cake and the Praline Glaze (second part of instructions)

Maytle wrote on the back of a blank receipt for The Smithfield Herald.

 

Now for that yummy epicurean glaze:

 

½ cup finely-packed brown sugar

¼ cup sugar

¼ cup butter or margarine

¼ cup whipping cream

½ cup pecan-halves

 

This pecan cake is, well, call it Allrecipes because it will grow wonder on your tongue.

Why the receipt Mama Maytle wrote down the words on has turned over the decades into her name and mine.  She served as solicitor for thirty-five years. I got the job for her. I told a teacher at Cleveland High (Mrs. Diggs) about “my mother,” how she would be good at getting subscriptions because she was a good talker and because she was nice to people. I told 

Mrs. Diggs I wanted to find a job for my mother−outside the home−as a Mother’s Day present.

Mrs. Diggs told her husband−Henry−who worked in the newspaper’s office and he put my mother’s name in for a job at The Herald.  

 

Maytle Samantha could have gotten this recipe from one of her customers, as she rode about the countryside in her Century Buick, finally a car, she said, she could see out of the windshield of and over the steering wheel, plus, she said−the Century had this little button on the side of the driver’s seat−“I could reach the pedals with no problem. I felt like I was helping people−and ourselves too.”

 

That’s what she said−standing apron-erect in front of her stove−making that Pecan Cake with the Praline Glaze.  Watching her work and cook made me feel better than a mayfly fighting to cling to a kitchen doorscreen.

 

“Orange,” “Parsley” and “Pecan Cake” come from an unpublished manuscript called Shub’s Cooking.  Shelby Stephenson’s Family Matters: Homage to July, the Slave Girl won the 2008 Bellday Poetry Prize, Allen Grossman, judge, and the 2009 Oscar Arnold Young Award, presented by the Poetry Council of North Carolina, Jared Carter, judge.

 

Q&A

Q: Oranges have become a regular inhabitant of our produce aisles, but once they were treasured, anticipated inhabitants of Christmas stockings. What’s still special about an orange?

A: The memory of seeing one or two in my sock on Christmas morning. Every time I buy one from the bin at Food Lion I see “another” orange, that one bulging from a work-sock on a nail over the hearth in the plankhouse I was born in. I don’t associate the orange with any religious myth or ritual. Perhaps its color, shape, wholeness—I don’t know—is childhood. I hope it never goes away.

 

Q: You know the non-human inhabitants of your place so intimately, whether rat snake or buzzard, and how your lives intertwine. Would you call yourself a nature poet, and why or why not?  

A: I don’t know what I am. I see what I see. And I am surprised. I know the rat snake has some sensor in its head or somewhere, something, which leads it to the barely feathered baby martins in a gourd high over the pasture. A rat snake (we called it a “chicken” snake when I was a boy) can climb air! A pole’s no detriment to its scales.

The buzzard? My main image is a bunch of whirling buzzards in the pasture, hovering over our hogs dying from cholera.  

I wonder if I can ever get rid of those pictures.  Linda and I live here at the homeplace. And I can close my eyes and see IT all again, another time, another place, though this very same spot now mixes farmland and housing developments. Buzzards pitch on Sanders Road for a run-over squirrel or possum or snake. No hogs in the pasture anymore. The small farm’s a thing of yesteryear. Have to go to the Fair to see how we lived, except I can see it in my mind.  

There is a show going on all the time in nature.  And we are part of that picture. Yesterday a deer was standing tall, neck aslant toward the sky, as if it were listening for a hunter (deer season’s about to start), its stance solid in our driveway. Our Norwich terrier, Cricket, took out after the deer, running down the lane, almost up to that deer, close enough to kiss its nose! The deer took off for the neck of woods there that separates properties.  

I grew up with guns. Hunting. Fishing. All that. We ate what we caught and killed. Now to even type GUNS sounds funny or strange. Hype has won out over the certain reality I knew. I feed the birds now. I love the bluebirds and enjoy raising them. I notice too that the doves fly higher and faster now that dove-season is in. All these animal instincts live in us somehow. Somewhere at the core of our being there is a natural motion which drives us on.

 

Q:  “No one can own anything,” you write, yet we do claim things, at least for a while. What would you stake your claim to?  

A: To wake up awake in the morning. That’s better than a surprise. I will never get over what it is like to be part of creation, to belong to something bigger than we are and to believe (it or not) that the imagination, whatever it is—and memory—might salvage our lives and make us live on. I hope so.


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The Arrow of Light by Frank Scozzari

followed by Q&A

The crowd surged forward, pushing further into the street. Kisamo tried to hold them back with his arms out-stretched like a giant eagle, but the mass of humanity, too much even for his strength, only drove him further toward the gun barrels leveled at him. 

“Patience my brothers!” he cried. “We must give him time!”

Kufu! Kufu!” the young students shouted, waving their machetes high in the air. “Kill them! Kill them!”

Across the way, the police and government supporters stood ready for the rush. President Moi’s contingent included soldiers and businessmen alike, and their wives and mistresses as well. All who had gained from the regime were now prepared to defend it. And they had the luxury of military behind them, with a huge armada of armored vehicles, policemen decked out in riot gear, and rows of riflemen, compliments of the loyalist army.

Many of the buildings had been lit afire and the flames were reaching high into the night sky and bellowing smoke. Through it, Kisamo could see the Kenyan flag waving above the government building; the shield and crossed-spears upon it represented the defense of freedom, and the stripes of green and red symbolized nature’s balance and the blood shed for Kenya's independence. 

It was the great irony, Kisamo thought. After many years of fighting for their sovereignty, they were fighting again now.

It had been a dozen years or more since President Moi’s regime took power. It had taken that long for the tentacles of corruption to stretch across the land. It had begun with taxation, increasing annually until it exceeded even the taxes of the British before them, and it was not assessed to assist the common people, but to support the lavish lifestyle of those in power. Protests were followed by new laws summarily issued to keep the impoverished broke and compliant. Initially, the student demonstrators were regarded as a small menace that needed to be stamped out, a tsetse fly on the back of an elephant. But the wave of discontent swept across Kenya and reached a boiling point. In recent months, student protests were met with police brutality. Death squads began pulling political dissidents from their homes in the middle of the night. Some disappeared and were never to be seen again. And now there was talk of public executions for ‘treason’ for the brave leaders who dared to speak of human rights or resistance. Among them was the revered politician, Koigi wa Wamwere. 

Thirty-two years had passed since our independence and here we are still fighting for freedom! Even worse, Kisamo thought… Fighting among ourselves! Fighting among friends! Kenyan shedding Kenyan blood!

Across the way, Colonel Gawi, standing gloriously in full military uniform with a million colorful medals pinned to his chest, looked like a cockatoo. Once a great leader, Kisamo thought, he had been poisoned by greed and power. He had placed personal gain above his principals. And there was Major C, friend and patriotic no longer. It was the way, Kisamo thought, the way of history. Those who gain most in a country’s rise have the most to loose, and those who led courageously in a Nation’s beginning fall in its collapse. 

The students began to chant in Swahili: “We are lions in the jungle! We are not afraid! We are lions in the jungle! We are lions in the jungle!”

From the other side, someone yelled back: “We are lion hunters!”

Kisamo looked up through the haze and the beams of military flood lamps, his attention not upon the armada across the street but west to the distant horizon where vaguely he could see the dark outline of the great mountain, Kilimanjaro. There was nothing, no light.

“Patience my brothers! We need time!”

A bottle flew over Kisamo’s head and crashed on the pavement just yards in front of the soldiers, bursting into flames. Another bottle zinged across the street crashing into one of the police armored vehicles, lighting it into a fireball. Just as quickly, something soared back from the other side, hitting a young man in the chest. He fell to the pavement moaning.

“Free Koigi!” one student shouted. “Death to Moi,” another screamed.

“Please brothers!” Kisamo cried. “Give him time!”

The crowd, foaming like a yeast in a giant skillet about to spill out, surged wildly now. The hatred that had been building for years and was about to overflow into the street and there was nothing Kisamo could do to stop it. All that had been won, was about to be lost, Kisamo thought. The soul of Kenya was about to die.

He looked once more to the dark mountaintop. There was nothing; only the outline of the great mountain. 

Sorry, my friend. It is too late. 

From behind, like a flash, one young student broke across the street, wielding a machete. A blast rang out and he dropped flat to the pavement. Another student sprang to his aide and met a similar fate. 

As the river of protesters moved forward, Kisamo leaned back into them, pushing with all his might, more than two-hundred-and-twenty-five pounds of brawn and muscle. But like a feather strapped to a styrofoam crucifix, the river carried him helplessly forward. The first volley of shots dropped several students and the crowd temporarily pulled back. But the giant wave, gaining in size and momentum, surged forward once more, spilling into the street and carrying Kisamo with it. The second volley of shots did little to stop them. The screaming students clashed with the wall of soldiers, machetes meeting bayonets.

***

Thirty miles west, on the steep buttress of Mount Kilimanjaro, the old one, Emmanuel, stood in darkness upon a small outcrop of boulders. He had taken a moment to lean into a strong wind, waiting for it to pass. His eyes, scarred and wrinkled with age, stared painfully up the dark ridge into the night sky. He could not see the craggy formation of rocks that marked the rim of the mountaintop. That which he could recognize so clearly in daylight was in blackness now. 

“I don’t need my eyes,” he said to himself. “Blindfold me if you want.”

It was true. He had been this way many times before. A thousand times! Since he was fourteen, for more than fifty years, he had guided parties safely to the top of Africa. He closed his eyes now and he could see it plainly in his head; the tundra crossing at Kibu Hut, the long pumice switchbacks up the buttress’s slope, the waltz through the craggy outcrops, and the narrow ridge trail to the top.

The snow, which now covered the entire scree, shone white beneath the starlight. Far below, glimmering as if a celestial body unto itself, were the lights and fires of Mombassa. Emmanuel could make out the waving beams of military flood lamps, crossing diagonally in converging patterns. To the north, poured out like a sparkling liquid on the savannah, were other cities: Arusha and Moshi.

Push harder, he thought. I must push harder.

Leaning forward, beneath the weight of his heavy pack with the wind lashing fiercely at his face, he stepped up, and up, and up again, lifting his feet in the methodical baby steps he had always used when climbing the mountain.

But it seemed with each step he took, the wind blew more fiercely, biting into his face.

"I am not afraid of you," Emmanuel said loudly. 

With the determination that came from living long, seeing plenty and surviving much, he pushed forward. It was not self-preservation that drove him, but the preservation of many. 

The will of one can be strong, he thought. But the will of many can make the will of one into that of a thousand lions.

Completely covered in his simple village clothing, his head was wrapped in a blue bandanna over which was a heavy wool hood, ragged and tattered from years of use. And there were three layers of clothing over the rest of his body—his legs, torso, and arms shrouded in wool and cotton with a water-proof parka that covered him entirely, so that only his black eyes and black nose peered out. Despite this, he could feel his legs freezing-up and knew that he must keep them moving or else they would stop and die on him.

You are good legs, he thought. You have done me well. What? I have not treated you kindly? He paused to think. Maybe it is true? Okay, I don't deserve you under me. But I ask of you now, just once more, to carry me forward, not for my sake, but for Kenya.

He had seen Death's face many times—nature’s death—and had felt its exhilaration. He was not afraid of it. Quite to the contrary, there was a closeness about it that made him feel alive. All that is life in Africa comes from that which is dead, and as one gets closer to death in Africa, one gets closer to life. He had seen men die in the snow. He knew the face of mountain death, and it was not so bad, he thought. It is natural, Nature’s way of taking back, giving to the earth that which it created, to run down a mountainside in a stream, to feed the savannah. Ah! In the arms of the mountain is a good way to go! He had tasted life strongest when death was closest. It was part of the great circle, he knew. All things living go back into dust to feed the new seed of youth.

But looking down at Mombassa now, he saw the face of urban death. It is different, he knew, that of man killing man, with modern weapons. It is not so natural. It does not leave the body whole, but dismembered, and the spirit dismembered. And he could picture urban death now, death by the hands of men, there beneath the distant military searchlights crisscrossing the sky. He envisioned a scene of bullets flying and men wielding machetes upon men. He saw the face of urban death, uglier than ever; a face dark and hollow with eyes sunken deep within its skull.

“Kufu! You are a powerless relic!" he spoke, knowing his words were not true.

No time to think about death! Time to push harder. Time to reach the top.

But he had let the image of urban death into his head and could not get it out now, and as he pushed forward with the wind screaming at him, an eerie revelation came over him. It seemed each time he looked down at Mombassa, the wind above gusted down upon him, biting at him like a snake. It is the breath of the face? It was Kufu blowing against him? Keeping him from the mountaintop, keeping him from what he must do?

I must move faster. I must find the lion in me to carry this weight. 

For a man of sixty-four years, his heart was strong, and it was pounding now like an ox. But his aged lungs were failing him; those lungs that had breathed in the cold thin air of the mountain so many years were wheezing now, stricken with some ailment that Emmanuel could not understand. With each step, going higher, the air becoming thinner, he exerted himself beyond the limits of his physical strength.

It was his Kunica that drove him now; that inner spirit that all men possess but not all men recognize or acknowledge. Over his many years of climbing the mountain he had seen men draw upon it when needed, at that time between life and death. While some simply closed their eyes not knowing it was there, it gave others the spark needed to survive. He had relied on it frequently in the past, using it to match the stamina of men half his age. 

Kunica, he thought. You are the size of any elephant! 

And now, with the thought of urban death in the cities far below, and with his windpipes vacillating and burning from the cold air, he needed a Kunica the size of many elephants.

He leaned forward into the wind, angling steeply, pushing himself, slowly and methodically ahead. With each upward step, he cut sideways with the edge of his boot into the snow to firm his grip. Closing his eyes, he visualized it—the trail ahead. Not far ahead it goes nearly vertical up the talus slope to the crater rim, and it would steepen again through the rocky crags, and then... 

In his mind he saw it clearly, and knew he did not need the light of day or the vision of his eyes to complete his ascent. As he had done so many times before, he calmly, and reassuringly, placed one arm behind him at the base of his lower back, arching himself to open his wind passage, as he continued upward. And he began to sing the song of the mountain: "Kili-Kili-Kili-Man-Jar-O, Kili-Kili-Kili-Man-Jar-O. Heaven's shining light, highest of mountains, we climb thee so all Africa can see, and thank thee for letting us leave."

But a fierce wind, coming at him horizontally, turned his face away. 

"Be gone Kufu," he said. "Be gone death. You come back after I reach the top." 

Another strong gust knocked him back two steps and he held himself steady, leaning fully into it until it abated. He sang defiantly: “Kili-Kili-Kili-Man-Jar-O, Kili-Kili-Kili-Man-Jar-O.” 

He hearkened back to his youth when he was as strong as a lion. He had roamed the great savannah with spear and gathering implements. He had taken what he needed, and his family and tribe had never gone without. And early on, he had gained the reputation as a skilled guide on Kilimanjaro, having first labored several years as a porter, carrying upon his head the food and wood and supplies of many foreign climbing parties. His family ate well then. He was thankful for what the mountain had given him, and he was ready to give it all back.

Nearly forty years had passed and the mountain had seen the victories of a young man, and the victories of a young Nation, and the weakness and hollowness of the government corruption that followed. Through it all, the mountain had lived, watching down upon them as a loving father watches upon a child stumbling to find its independence and place in the world.

***

In Mombassa, the face of urban death had unleashed itself upon the young student protesters. Kisamo found himself sprawled in the street with a sharp pain in this side and blood coming from it. He did not recall having fallen to the pavement. He only remembered himself being driven toward the guns. Flashes of light and the sputtering, popping sound of guns rang out among the screams. Now he lay helpless alongside many other young Kenyans, exposed to the militia and their guns. 

Twenty yards beyond was the screaming wall of youth. They gathered there like a swarm of wasps, preparing for their final assault.

“We are lions in the jungle!” the students began to scream. “We are lions in the jungle! We are lions in the jungle!”

With what might he had left, Kisamo tried to get up. But like a punch-drunk boxer, his legs wobbled and he collapsed again. Slowly he lifted his head and looked west, searching through the smoke for the outline of the great mountain. He could see only darkness.

We have failed, my friend, he thought. It is the end of life, the end of Kenya.

A tear rolled down his black cheek, glistening in the firelight. 

With his light failing, fading into darkness like the darkness that surrounded the mountaintop, he could hear the mounting screams of his youthful companions. Then there was gunfire and he felt a thousand people trampling over him. 

No! No!

The blackness overcame him.

***

Emmanuel labored the last few steps in the snow as the mountaintop gave way. He pulled his arms out from the pack straps and let it drop slowly into the snow. 

Arching above him was the big African sky, sparkling with dancing starlight. Mombassa lay off to the southeast. The oscillating military flood lamps were very visible now.

He worked quickly. Flipping the pack over, he unzipped the large top pockets and lifted out a bundle of flares and two large tin canisters full of kerosene. There was a huge snow mound just off to the east side of the summit, beneath which he knew he would find the remainder of his fuel. He hurried to the snow pile and began sweeping the snow aside, digging with his hands until the first large log showed itself. He pulled the log out from beneath the snow and dragged it to an open space nearby. One by one, he repeated the process, sweeping off the snow, pulling out a log, speaking to each one as he dragged it from the snow.

“You are good wood, from a strong tree!” And to the next piece… “Ah, my brother, you came all this way to shine on my mountaintop!” And to the next one: “Heavy like the heart of a fallen warrior. You are ready to burn away your sadness and return in a stream of water back down to the savannah!” 

He stacked them nearly vertically, end-over-end, in a crisscrossing pattern. Slowly the stack took the form of a huge cone.

***

Kisamo awoke face down on the pavement, dazed and confused, with blood streaming from his nose. Strangely, he realized there was silence, complete silence! Silence such as he had only known on the open savannah when hunting alone as a child. Silence in the middle of chaos? At first he thought perhaps he was dead, but the pain in his side told him otherwise. Then he heard the muted moans of the wounded and could see a young brother lying next to him. He strained to raise his head. What he saw was, at first, unexplainable. Everyone had stopped in the middle of the fight. Both sides were frozen like statues, turned and looking to the West. The student protestors gawked at it. The soldiers pointed into the night sky. Even Colonel Gawi saw it. He was holding an arm toward the mountaintop while at the same time waving off some reserves that were coming from the rear. Along the front line, gun barrels began to spontaneously drop, as well as the machetes of the rebel youth. The reserves saw it too, and seeing how everyone had stopped, realizing now that something had happened, they lowered their guns as well.

There on the mountaintop was a lone beam of light. It shone directly skyward into the heavens like an arrow. It had been a tradition for thirty-seven years now. Each December on the anniversary of Kenya’s independence from British rule, a fire was lit on the mountaintop, a symbolic light of freedom to commemorate their sovereignty. The logs were routinely carried up the mountain by climbing parties during the dry season and stacked beneath a large tarp, so that by the time the annual Independence Day celebration rolled around there was plenty of wood to light the commemorative torch. 

Now, nearly two months early, the fire burned brightly beneath the deep violet-blue, African sky.

Kisamo strained to keep his head up. He peered through the smoke at the vague outline of Mount Kilimanjaro. There he saw it, the lone beam of light firing up from the mountaintop. It could be seen everywhere on the Savannah: far to the west in Arusha; far to the south in Moshi; to the north and the Serengeti, and to the west of Mombassa. It shone for all the people of Kenya and Tanzania to see.

Kisamo forced out a half smile. Thank you my friend. Then, with the light fading from his eyes, he rested his cheek back down against the warm pavement, and he listened, faintly, as the chant of his young brethren came back: “We are lions in the jungle! We are lions in the jungle!”

 

 

Frank Scozzari lives in Nipomo, California, a small town on the central coast. He is an avid traveler, has made several trips to Africa, and once climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa. His fiction has previously appeared in various literary journals including The Kenyon Review, Pacific Review, The MacGuffin, The Nassua Review, Roanoke Review, Reed Magazine, and many others. He was the winner of the National Writers Association Annual Short Story Contest and was twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His stories have been featured in “Speaking of Stories,” Santa Barbara’s preeminent literary theater.

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: I was inspired to write this story while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and hearing about the annual Independence Day tradition of lighting a flame on the top of the mountain.

 

Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?

A: Jack London, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway.

 

Q: What’s your ideal place to write? 

A: I have found the best place to write is in a natural setting.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Currently working on several short stories, a novel, and a screen play.


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Apostasy by Ron Capps

followed by Q&A

“How will they know it was you?” When the woman spoke, it was the first time in years Naomi had heard the language spoken. She sat down as the train left Union Station for New York Ave. “Every Friday this man has the bag. You must do this thing. You have a responsibility to your family. This man is nothing to you. He has no family. He has only this money. You must do this thing.”    

They sat beside each other in the narrow seat of the train. Naomi sat in the seat perpendicular to them, the seat set aside for the aged or the handicapped—the gimp section, she called it.  She could hear them clearly and could see their faces without even turning her head. They were Bamileke, speaking their native language; they obviously assumed no one else on that train would understand them.

The woman was large, probably close to 300 pounds. She wore a long black wool coat and men's high-top basketball shoes. There was a collapsible umbrella that hadn’t fully collapsed sticking out of a re-used Hecht's bag at her feet. A few strands of her graying, straightened hair stuck out from a barrette on the back of her head.   

God has given you this chance to help your family. How can you refuse it? You are a man, you must do this,” she said. 

The young man stared at the floor, or maybe his shoes. He said nothing. He was slight, with soft russet eyes. He wore an oversized, puffy blue nylon coat with what was surely a knock-off North Face label stitched into the chest. It was zipped up to his throat. He had a red knit cap pulled low on his head, covering his ears and as much of the back of his neck as he could. His hands were stuffed into his coat pockets. He looked cold. 

Naomi had learned to speak Bamileke while on mission in Cameroon. She was called Sister Naomi then. She rode her bicycle on the red clay highland roads, going from house to house speaking to anyone who would listen. She had not spoken or even heard the language since she left Cameroon. Since the accident.  

The man spoke softly, choosing his words carefully. “Mother, you are asking me to steal this man's money. I cannot do this thing. He has been good to me, to us. I will find another way. This cannot be.”  

She put her hand on his sleeve and said, “You are no longer in the village. These village ways must be left behind. Things are different here. You must do this thing.

The man continued to stare at his shoes.

Naomi held the bulletin with the order form for her graduation cap and gown in her hands. A backpack filled with law books and notebooks sat at her feet. Her cane rested against her good leg. Torts and Contracts had replaced Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians and the Books of Elphi. These were her touchstones now. As the train shifted gears pulling out from the Rhode Island Ave stop, the bag shifted heavily against her shoe. 

The man spoke again, still very softly and still not looking at the woman.  He said, “Mother, in the village, when my father died you told me the time had come for me to become a man. My uncles were my guides. After you left to come here, even when I lived with the White Fathers, my uncles prepared me for the rituals. When I underwent the rituals, I became a man. Now I am supposed to know what is right for my family and to do that which is good. I will not do this thing for you. This is not the way of our people; it is not the way of God.”    

Naomi had learned the Bamileke traditions. The paramount chief was the Fon.  The social hierarchy went family, village, tribe, nation. Many of the villagers were Christians. But they also held closely to their traditional beliefs. There were spirits all around that they feared and worshipped. There were secret societies. Naomi had looked for ways to insert her God and her Church into their pantheon. She found ways to make her faith seem real to them. She and Christopher.

They had learned the language together. He learned quickly. She learned better.  He learned the basic grammar and vocabulary. She learned the soul of the language. Every time she saw Christopher she fell a little more in love with him: with the way his hair curled at the edge of his collar, with the way he talked about his dreams of a big family in the mountains of Utah, with the way he put his arm across the back of her chair and leaned back in his, with his smile.  

Then the accident. Two people lay dead before the wheels of the van had stopped turning. Three more died slowly in the next hour. Naomi was flown out of the country on an emergency medical evacuation paid for by the Church.  

Then the operations. The doctors in Geneva had fixed her, some. The doctors in Salt Lake had done a little more. She lost most of a leg, parts of her intestine, her ovaries.   

Then the therapy. Months of painful work of learning to walk again; walking with the cane, with the limp, with the pain that never left her.

The woman hissed at her son, “You listen to me now. This is a question of honor.  You will do this thing. I am your mother. I gave you life. You will listen to me and you will do this thing. My sister has no one else to help her. This is our duty. You must get this money for her, for us, for me."     

In Salt Lake, from her window she could see the Wasatch Mountains. She watched the way the sun played on the mountains in the summer. She had more surgery.  She watched the Aspens turn golden in the fall. She learned to walk with her prosthesis.  She hurt. She asked herself why a loving God would do this to her. 

Her body was broken and incomplete. She was covered with scars. She couldn’t bear children. She spent her days surrounded by believers, but she felt empty. Even when she went to the great Tabernacle, even seeing the golden statue of the Angel Moroni with his trumpet, she still felt hollow inside. She felt as if, when the doctors had her lying on the table and were putting her back together, they had left something out. As if her faith were too horribly damaged or disfigured to be put back in. There was just this hole. 

The man shrugged and shook his head gently saying, "No. This thing is evil and I will not do it. What if he is hurt, or if I am caught? What will happen then?"

The woman continued, becoming shriller, "You must do this thing. If you do not you will shame me in the village; you will shame our family. You are not a man if you do not do this thing. You are not a man if you shame me like this.”

The man had taken his hands out of his coat pockets. They lay in his lap, palms upwards and open as if waiting to be filled. The train stopped at Catholic University. A few people got off. The cold blew in through the open doors. The man shivered slightly and pulled his elbows in close to his sides. The bell rang. The doors whooshed closed. The train started moving northwards again.  

Christopher wrote her from Cameroon every week of the remainder of his mission. He spoke of his strengthening love for her and his faith. She wrote about her rehab and her love for him. She didn’t mention the pain. She didn’t mention her emptiness. 

His mission ended, and Christopher came home. If he was shocked at the scars, at the prosthesis, his eyes didn’t betray it when he walked into her apartment. He smiled. She cried. He brought her a basket woven by a girl in their village. He showed her a picture of himself atop Mt. Cameroon.    

He touched her leg, just above where the prosthesis ended. His sunburned hand was so dark against her skin. He asked if it still hurt a lot. She lied and said no, not so bad. She showed him the scars on her abdomen. He traced them lightly with his finger. She told him she couldn’t have children. He said that was OK, there were lots of kids who needed loving parents. He put his fingertips on her cheek and said he loved her and nothing could change that. She told him she had lost her faith.  

He listened quietly and stared out the window. He took her hand in his and said they would pray together and she would regain it. He closed his eyes and started to pray, asking God to guide her and to help her come back to Him. Naomi didn’t pray. She watched Christopher praying and felt empty.

The man spoke, “Then I am not a man and I will shame you. But this thing is evil and I will not do it. I will not steal from this man. I will not strike him. This is against the Bible; this is against my God.”

Naomi became a continuation of Christopher’s mission. He came to see her every day. He talked of miracles and the appearances of the angels. He prayed for her faith to return. Naomi’s father said they should just accept that her faith was not strong and pray that it would strengthen over time. Christopher’s mother said lots of people had lapses in their faith but remained part of the Church. 

Elders came to talk to Naomi. She hurt. The pain never left her. She felt incomplete. She felt betrayed by the God she had wanted to serve. She told them she no longer believed. She told them God had deserted her. They called her apostate. She had her name removed from the rolls.  

After a bitter while, when it became clear that the pain in her leg would outlast the pain of leaving the Church, she came to terms with the title: apostate, deserter. Fine. But it was God who had deserted her. This was His apostasy not hers.  

Just before Fort Totten, the woman said, "You shame me.

The man raised a hand slightly off of his leg and made a noise through his teeth, then shook his head once and said, "We will speak no more of this thing."

"Ashaa," the woman said, "you are not of my blood."  She shook her head wearily.  

One day, late in the winter, Christopher said he wouldn't, couldn’t marry outside of the Church. He held her hand at the small table in her kitchen and said he wanted to marry someone of faith. Naomi had been waiting for this. She had tried to prepare herself for it and had told herself she wouldn’t cry. She wanted to be strong and gracious and to let him go on with his life as she would go on with hers. She swallowed her bitterness and her anger and she tried to smile when she said she wished him well. Her hands were shaking, so she put them in her lap, under the edge of the table.  

He kissed her on the cheek at the door and said goodbye. From the window she saw him walking out to his car, out to his life without her. She watched the snow fall silently on the Wasatch Range. She limped back to the couch and sat down. She ran her finger along the seam of her jeans. She said the word: apostasy. She let herself cry for a few minutes, and then she began packing her things. 

She imposed upon herself a deliberate indifference. She ignored the emptiness.  She ignored the anger. She stopped asking God why He had deserted her. She didn't need the Church. She didn't need its sanction. She stopped crying. She stopped praying. She went to class. She went to the library. She went home.  

Past Takoma, the man stared at his shoes. At Silver Spring he and the woman stood up silently. Naomi remembered that lots of Cameroonians lived in Silver Spring.  Naomi looked up at him as he grasped the handrail and the train lurched to a halt.  

She said in Bamileke, “Wait, friend.”

He looked at her, bewildered. He put his left hand up to his mouth. His mother was already a step ahead of him. She stopped in the door of the car and turned to look at him over her shoulder.  

Naomi said, “You must not do this thing. It is wrong. Your faith in our God is strong. You must also be strong. Remember: Thou Shalt Not Steal; Thou Shalt Not Kill.  Go, brother, in peace. Go and be strong.” 

The man stepped out of the car, the bell rang and the doors whooshed closed. He stood on the platform, staring through the window at Naomi, his eyes wide and unblinking as the train pulled away. His mother stood a half step behind him; she pulled at his jacket sleeve questioningly.  

Naomi reached down and touched her leg just above the prosthesis. It still hurts, she thought. She laughed a little, gently, silently. What had she expected, grace, redemption, a miracle? Well, it hadn’t happened. There was no miracle. She still felt broken. She still felt hollow. She still felt faithless.  

She looked out the window as the buildings rushed by. She folded the graduation bulletin and stuck it in her pocket. She held her cane in both hands and just before the train stopped, she asked quietly, “Why? Why did you desert me?”

The train stopped, she picked up her bag and limped through the door and onto the platform. The bell rang. The doors whooshed closed behind her.

 

 

Ron Capps is the founder and director of the Veterans Writing Project (veteranswriting.org). He served for 25 years as a soldier and a Foreign Service officer. Ron lives in Washington, DC.  

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: I used to ride the Metro (DC’s subway) back and forth to work and was always astonished by the conversations I overheard. 

 

Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences? 

A: I’m never sure about influences, but the people I’m reading right now include David Jones (In Parenthesis), John Cheever (Collected Short Stories), Charles Simic (Sixty Poems), E. E. Cummings (The Enormous Room), and Gay Talese (The Silent Season of a Hero). If you’re looking for a common thread it’s that they are all military veterans and I use writing by veterans in my seminars. 

 

Q: What’s your ideal place to write? 

A: Someplace quiet, with my dog, Harry, beside me. 

 

Q: What’s the wildest bit of research you’ve done for a story? 

A: I didn’t think of it as research at the time, but much of my work is informed by my service as a soldier and a Foreign Service officer. So I suppose my work in places like Rwanda, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Darfur was pretty wild research. 

 

Q: What are you working on now? I have a novel started; it takes place in Sudan in 1916. I’m also working on a set of connected stories about Afghanistan that will take place from about 1955 and run up through the current war. Finally, I’m really struggling to become a competent poet.


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Treasures Few Have Ever Seen by Mary Akers

followed by Q&A

WHAT THEY CALL ME: One-armed Jack.

NUMBER OF ARMS I HAVE: Two. One that’s 100%. One that’s about 75.

WHAT THE OTHERS THINK HAPPENED: The Battle of Phnom Penh.

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED: Hurricane Edna, a helicopter, and a rogue aquarium.

WHERE I LIVE: In a tent. Without a rain fly when the weather’s good. A solid fix on the sky helps me breathe. In bad weather, with no stars, I sleep restless.

WHERE MY TENT LIVES: The Florida Everglades. Hot as the bars of hell, and humid, too. Buggy. But it sure beats a highway underpass.

WHO ELSE LIVES HERE: Shorty and Train. Goodlow and Maurice. And Ripton, too. Shorty comes up to my shoulder. His face is pink and round with a beard that grows in stubbly clumps. He’s a pervert with an ankle monitor and can’t live within a thousand feet of a school or a bus stop or anywhere else kids gather. Train’s a vet, same war as me. He’s the skinny one. Says he hasn’t touched a razor in ten years. And not a comb, neither, from the look of him. He’s hiding out from his old lady, an angry Seminole who tried to kill him with a pair of hedge clippers. There’s a long scar above his temple on the left side. His left. Goodlow and Maurice set up camp before I got here. Goodlow might be a last name. He’s got a vigilante face and is twenty years older than Maurice, easy. Maurice’s skin is darker than the rest of ours, and not just from the sun. His elevator don’t go all the way to the penthouse. The lights are on, but nobody’s shopping. They could be father and son bank robbers. Or Boy Toy and Sugar Daddy. I don’t know their stories or what brought them here. Goodlow likes it that way and so do I.

WHO RIPTON IS: My dog. Some fool dumped him in the everglades and he found his way to me. He’s a chow. And yeah, before you ask, it’s hell for him, the heat. I saw off hunks of fur with the bowie knife I keep sharp. That helps, even if he looks like a sled dog that got pulled through a tractor combine. After a haircut, he’s cooler. He spends less time showing me his black-spotted tongue.

WHAT WE ATE LAST NIGHT: Grilled alligator. Goodlow has a gas grill. A regular set up. He lets any one of us use it if we ask first. The tail meat was greasy and gamey but there was a lot. Train ate a piece then rubbed his beard and said how lately he’d been thinking of becoming a vegetarian. I laughed loud and Ripton’s hackles rose up. He barked at the edge of the dark until Goodlow yelled shut the hell up.

WHO I USED TO WORK FOR: Arthur Finder.

WHAT HIS NAME IS: Ironic.

WHAT WE LOOKED FOR: Sunken treasure. Spanish Galleons. I joined Art’s search crew late in 1990 and we combed the east coast of Florida for six long years. We fed on excitement, shook off the dead ends, started calling ourselves The Finders. Hell of a way to live. I slept on-deck-only, even in the rain. People called us crazy. 

WHAT WE FOUND TWO YEARS AFTER ART’S SON GOT KILLED LOOKING: The mother lode. An acre of gold bars we pulled out like a baker pulling loaves from the oven. Each loaf forty pounds. There were giant crosses we called skull crushers after Art held one overhead and said it was like the cross in that movie where a priest’s skull gets smashed by a demon he’s casting out. We pulled up fat rubies with barnacles on them and heavy chain necklaces slimed with seaweed and still-rough emeralds as big as a fist. There were golden goblets, too, just like Indiana Jones would find. And Spanish doubloons. Thousands of doubloons. Doubloons by the bushel-full.

WHO WAS HAPPY FOR US: The newspapers. The television. Our families. Our friends. Everyone. 

WHO THOUGHT THE TREASURE BELONGED TO THEM: Art and The Finders. The State of Florida. Dade County. The Maritime Museum. The IRS. Spain.

WHO CAME OUT OF THE WOODWORK: An ex-girlfriend who wanted help making rent—just the one month, she promised. My former boss, Margie, who suggested I sponsor a new exhibit at the aquarium. A neighbor whose cat needed belly surgery or he’d die. A war buddy without a dime to his name. A whole bunch of friends I didn’t remember, who said I still owed them for this or that. My brother, Down-on-his-luck-Doug desperately in need of dentures. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Mary Jane. The Tax Man.

WHO OF THOSE I TURNED AWAY: The Tax Man.

WHAT I KEEP UNDER MY SLEEPING BAG NOW: A forty-five.

NUMBER OF DOUBLOONS I HAVE LEFT: Zero.

WHAT RIPTON NEEDS FROM ME: Occasional food. A daily pat on the head. A place to sleep. Water to drink. Barbering.

WHO CAME INTO THE SWAMP: A man I’d never seen before. He’d been trying to find me, he said. How did you, I asked. Mister Finder told me, he said. Ripton growled.

WHAT I THOUGHT HE WANTED: Money. There’s nothing left, I told him. Why you think I’m living in a tent?

WHAT HE SAID: I think you knew my twin sister.

WHERE HIS TWIN SISTER IS: Six feet under.

WHO HE TOLD WHERE HE WAS GOING: Nobody. So I could kill you, I said, smiling, and nobody would know. He pointed to the guys, said, they would know. He ate a piece of alligator jerky, holding it delicate like, two-fingered. He said alligator meat was stringy and he hadn’t known. He wiped the greasy fingers on his socks.

WHAT THE MAN CALLED HIS SISTER: Rosie.

WHAT I WONDERED: If one twin dies, is the surviving twin only half alive?

WHY HE CAME: To tell me I fathered Rosie’s baby who is all grown up.

WHERE IT HAPPENED: At a fancy dance.

WHAT I REMEMBER: Being a replacement escort, filling in for my brother after he got chicken pox. We wore the same size. 

WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT TUXEDOS: Baby blue is not my color.

HOW OLD I WAS: Eighteen.

HOW OLD SHE WAS: …Seventeen?

WHAT ELSE I REMEMBER: A puffy dress that sighed like a pile of snow. Long white gloves. A glittery bracelet overtop the glove. Slow music. A clumsy waltz we giggled through. Stolen kisses behind the building. Pushing my hands through the layers of her snowdrift dress. Her eagerness. That.

WHERE I WENT AFTER: Basic Training.

WHAT I SOLD AFTER THE DOUBLOONS RAN OUT: My house.

WHAT I’M WAITING FOR: The court to rule in our favor.

WHAT THE SHUSHING TENT WHISPERS IN THE DARK: Finders keepers, losers weepers. Be patient. Be payyy…shunt.

WHAT I HEAR THE MAN SAY WHEN I ASK THE CHILD’S NAME: Danny.

HOW IT’S SPELLED WHEN HE WRITES IT OUT: Dani.

WHAT I THINK: That’s a damn fool way to spell Danny. And then, wacky Puerto Ricans. And finally, but what can you do? 

WHAT I THINK NEXT: If he’d had a father figure, he’d spell his name Danny.

WHAT I THINK AFTER THAT: I have had a son for twenty-eight years and no one told me. When I was held as a POW, I was a father. When I came home and the hippies jeered, I was a father. When the sound of a helicopter took me down and wrecked my arm, I was a father. When I told all those women that I never wanted to have a family, I was a father. 

WHAT MY BUDDY TRAIN SAYS: The math don’t lie.

WHAT ROSIE NEVER ASKED: If I wanted to be a father.

WHAT I HAVE FOR BREAKFAST THE DAY AFTER THE MAN LEAVES: A can of Budweiser and a cigarette. I chase that down with some leftover jerky, a can of Budweiser, and a cigarette. I read a little Vonnegut in my tent. Slaughterhouse Five.

WHAT I DECIDE: I want to make it right. My father was an asshole. I swore I would never bring a kid into the world only to neglect it, taunt it, and call it pussy. Note to self: promise your son you will never call him pussy.

WHAT I FORGOT TO ASK: Am I a grandfather?

WHAT I EAT FOR LUNCH: Maurice pulls out a giant bag of hot dogs. No one knows where he got them. We pay him a dollar and he gives us four hot dogs each. I make him cook mine extra. I give Ripton one. He gulps it down whole, like a seagull.

WHAT I DO WHILE I CHEW: Make plans to visit Danny. Think about what I want to tell him. Offer to take him fishing. I picture just how it will be, the look on his face. I make a lot of plans.

 

 

Mary Akers is the author of the award-winning short story collection Women up on Blocks. Her work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Mississippi Review online, The Fiddlehead, Brevity, and other journals. She received a 2012 Pushcart Special Mention and has been thrice awarded a Bread Loaf work-study scholarship. She is editor-in-chief of the online journal r.kv.r.y.

 

Q&A

Q: What can you tell us about your inspiration for this story?

A: The title “Treasures Few Have Ever Seen” is a line from the Jimmy Buffett song “A Pirate Looks at Forty.” That song explores the ups and downs of a life, and the wistfulness and longing for what could have been. Since the main character in the story (Jack) is a treasure hunter who finds the mother lode and then loses everything, it seemed an appropriate title.

 

Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences? 

A: Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, Andrea Barrett, TC Boyle, Lee Smith, George Orwell, Charles Dickens, and Ray Bradbury. Yes, I know, a strange mix.

 

Q: What’s your ideal place to write? 

A: In the shower. Unfortunately, that never quite works out for me, so anyplace absolutely quiet and with no one else around. I’m not one of those writers who can listen to music while writing because I always want to sing along. Space music would probably be okay, but nothing with lyrics. I prefer to have no distractions. (Chocolate being the only exception.)

 

Q: What’s the wildest bit of research you’ve done for a story? 

A: Oh, I love research. I suspect I’m on some sort of FBI watch list for all the crazy things I look up online. "Treasures" is part of a recently completed composite novel that is currently out on submission to editors and a list of my internet research for that book would include: Bedouins of the Sinai Desert; Female-to-male sexual transition; the Indonesian tsunami; anti-Navy protests on Vieques; PTSD in Vietnam veterans; Silurian Eurypterids in western, NY; fatal box jelly stings, and much more. I make it my mission to confuse Google—they never know what I’ll want to research next.

 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I’m revising an older manuscript (only one more time, I swear!) and then I need to finish my current project, a dystopian novel in which everything that could go wrong—politically, socially, environmentally—has.


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How Patti Lost the Weight by Justin Van Kleeck

followed by Q&A

How can you be so filthy, Patti? someone asked.

How can you be so foul, Patti? another asked.

And yet a third: How can you be so weak, Patti?

“’Sn’t fault…st…stop,” Patti slurred. Her words wouldn’t form themselves, since her tongue was a rotten peach in her mouth. Her brain squelched in her head, three pounds of peanut butter mixed with marshmallow spread. “Hurts, stop.”

Patti, this is disgusting! How can you do this, Patti?

“Goway. Wantoo sleep…sleepy…tired…heads ache…cut off the TV Sue…noisy...”

Thoughts and sensations floated up and sank, bobbed up and swam below, miniature marshmallows in slimy, viscous hot chocolate.

Patti tried to grab them, but the few she could hold either dissolved through her fingers or burned, stinging her and searing her already throbbing mind.

“Stoooooooppppiiiitttt...”

But the aching voices, the nibbling hunger, ignored her. Images, memories, played in a shaky loop through haze and funhouse reflections. 

Do you want some more cake, Patti? someone asked her, snickering. Huh, Patti? Want some more? C’mon Patti, there’s a few crumbs left, a little icing on the edge of the plate…go on ’n lick it clean. You know you wanna, huh? Go on, no one’s watching after all…no one’ll know, Patti, and aren’tcha so hungry, Patti? 

“Noooo…goway.”

Patti McLean lay in her sagging La-Z-Boy, sagging deep into the tired cushions and springs, much of her massive 625-pound body sagging and spilling out over the padding and fabric. Her eyelids fluttered, creeping open from time to time, and drool trickled lazily from the corner of her mouth, down one chin, then a second, and then a third, at last falling onto her polka-dotted shirt as she lay, twitching and muttering through spit bubbles and phlegm and chocolate residue.

The TV was on in front of her, turned to one of the food channels, the volume turned low so that the chef whispered instructions on how to get the top of the crème brûlée caramelized just perfectly…like so…and voila! But Patti no longer could watch the chef’s culinary adroitness, could no longer salivate with Pavlovian precision. Patti McLean was no longer here.

The trailer was a mess, with food wrappers and papers and clothes and empty two-liter bottles of Diet Coke and Fresca scattered around on chairs, tables, and countertops, piled up on the brindle-colored pile carpet. It smelled like stale bread with an undertone of dollar-store air freshener. A navigable trail snaked its way through the clutter and smog, wide enough for the trailer’s extra-wide inhabitant and her cane. 

The cane itself stood sentry, always within arm’s reach, beside Patti in her sagging recliner. It was the extra-sturdy kind, with a square metal base and four rubber-shoed feet, the better to stabilize her with. And Patti needed it. She could still get up and walk, miracle to be told, but an uneven surface or even a slight puff of wind (or breaking of wind) was likely to send her careening into empty space, and her poor muscles had long ago lost any possible hope of saving her once her 625-pound body acquired its own momentum. All it took was the slightest tip in any direction…and gravity would do the rest.

But now Patti sagged in her recliner, and the cane stood at attention on her right. On Patti’s left, a few shapeless chunks of chocolate cake remained on an age-discolored, knock-off CorningWare platter. White icing ringed the edge, white smears and dark-brown smudges within it creating a sugary piece of abstract art. Patti’s face was a canvas of icing-white and chocolate-brown symbols, the art going from abstract to atavistic in its movement between the media of porcelain and flesh. Brown and white smudges veered crazily around her mouth, up her cheeks to her eyes, sideways to her ears and hair. Crumbs and clods dangled from her greasy brown locks, swinging like pendulums whenever she twitched or coughed. 

Then she did cough, spitting cake and phlegm all over the polka dots and the burgundy imitation velvet of her tired recliner. Coughing, spluttering out the nasty bits in her mouth, Patti floated nearer the surface again, back to the world she knew and the life she hated, back to herself. Still, all that would come to her of that world were thoughts and memories, images and sensations. Her peanut-butter-and-marshmallow mind couldn’t grasp and form anything very well, but some things could rise to and ride on the sludgy surface, floating and bobbing beside her...

“Take cover, folks,” Bruce Dillinger screamed out over the din in the cafeteria, “we’re under a Big Mac attack!”

The hundred-plus mob of teenagers erupted in laughter as Patti tried to make her way to a seat in the middle of a long row of tables, turning sideways and scuttling along like a mutated crab, her face as red as the crab’s shell after being boiled.

Coach Turner had kept her late after gym class and railed on her (yet again) for sitting out of the President’s Physical Fitness tests, so she had been late getting to the cafeteria for lunch. Coach Turner hated her, loathed her, and never spared an opportunity to remind her of his disgust. She couldn’t run a mile (even a quarter mile), couldn’t do a pull-up, couldn’t do a sit-up, couldn’t do the vertical leap, couldn’t climb the rope. Hell, she could barely touch her toes. “How can you weigh 250 pounds at sixteen years old, Patti,” Coach Turner asked her—a half-rhetorical question that he seemed determined to answer. Neither of them could find an answer, though that never stopped the Coach from interrogating her about it, with his well-muscled arms akimbo on sculpted hips, shaking his clean-shaven head in bewilderment. He delivered the same old sermon about the importance of exercise, watching your caloric intake, the virtues of willpower and by-the-bootstraps self-control. Damn it girl, it’s so simple, so why can’t you get it and get fit? He just didn’t know. Neither did she.

Going to her locker after gym class instead of straight to the cafeteria had been a grave mistake, Patti realized now. She stood frozen, twisted sideways and holding her lunch tray at chest level. It was heavy enough on its own, supporting a sectioned plate with two chicken patties, two helpings of French fries, and an extra-large portion of buttery succotash, blueberry cobbler in a little bowl, a honey bun wrapped in cellophane, three packets each of ketchup and mayonnaise, two boxes of chocolate milk, a fork, a spoon, and three folded paper napkins. But now the tray seemed to be made of uranium, her flabby arms atremble as she stood and looked down at her meal, too scared to breathe. The blood had run from her head just as it had from her flagging arms, and she couldn’t think.

“Uh oh, watch out, she’s gonna fall!” Bruce screeched, feigning horrified fright. Then, for emphasis, he pushed his chair back with a harsh grind of the metal legs on linoleum and dove under the table, covering his head with his arms. “Watch out!” he called from below, “the Big Mac attack’ll kill us all!”

Every single person in the cafeteria, including the teachers who were there eating or acting as cafeteria monitors, sneered or chuckled or hid a grin behind a napkin.

Big Mac. Everyone in Fairmont High School knew Patti McLean by this inglorious epithet, but only a chosen few actually called her this. Bruce Dillinger was one. Coach Turner was another, though he only let it slip occasionally, when he didn’t think she was within earshot…usually when he was goading some other kid on in an exercise.

What could she do? She couldn’t sit in the lone empty chair and eat her lunch now! And her usual space in the far corner, near the lunch-line doors, was already full. Because she wasn’t there, that usually under-populated table was full. Today the Big Mac had not been here, so there was plenty of room at the table, and all were welcome.

She couldn’t sit, couldn’t walk, couldn’t do a damn thing except stand there and listen to the laughter build, punctuated by hoots and whistles…even applause. It must have been minutes that she stood there until her arms gave out and the tray fell with a clatter on the head of some boy, and she barreled out of the row and out of the cafeteria and into the girls’ restroom. It had taken the school nurse over an hour to talk her out of the stall, where she sat in a ball on the toilet. Her butt had been sore, the malleable cellulite bearing the deep impression of the horseshoe-shaped seat, as she got up and walked with Mrs. Dorsey to the office. Patti’s mom, Darlene, had come to get her and had taken her home. She hadn’t come out of her room for two days after that. She hadn’t gone back to Fairmont High School for a week.

The laughter of that day had carried on, ringing in her ears, getting louder or softer, for twenty-one years. Even now, as she half-dozed in her La-Z-Boy, Patti heard Bruce Dillinger scream “Big Mac!” from under the cafeteria table, heard teens and adults jeer and giggle from all around her, heard her tray clatter onto the head below it and then onto the floor. 

The laughter was always the same, no matter whose mouth it came from. It echoed in her head, scratched away with taloned paws at the walls of her heart, gnawed with weasel’s teeth at her bowels. It was in her blood, in her flesh, in her thoughts. Patti dreamed the laughter in diabolical, freakish shapes. 

The laughter burrowed into her, a tapeworm, finding her central core, where it fed and rotted and festered, a gangrenous malignant lump. It metastasized on the rich, nutritious resources surrounding it: Patti’s lonely, sensitive, beaten-down self. 

Born of scorn and fed with hope, the worm at Patti’s core ate, and ate, and ate…calling for more, lisping to her, cozening her, from cupboard and refrigerator, from grocery-store aisle and drive-thru lane. And when it spoke, it would not be denied.

Patti heard it again now, floating in her La-Z-Boy, bobbing on her throbbing brain, tingling in her sleepy nerves, aching on her edges.

It sounded like…like rapid-fire Latin hip-hop, buffered by ear muffs or cotton balls. 

Jorge and Luis lived in the trailer next to hers. Patti hated Jorge and Luis. She hated their pounding music, their noisy little souped-up cars, their friends, their yapping little pug dog, Fidel. Most of all she hated their yard. Jorge and Luis had a taste for gaudy, kitschy bric-a-brac and a knack for showmanship, using almost every square inch of their tiny trailer-park yard for that purpose. They had a full flock of lawn flamingoes—but not just the plain pink birds, which were bad enough, but birds with personality: sunglasses and Hawaiian shirts, tuxedos and top hats, psychedelic multi-colored bodies, sparkly plastic gems... They stood here and there, some in clusters and others on their own. 

In one corner, half a dozen flamingoes gathered with plastic rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, frogs, and deer around a three-foot tall plastic statue of Jesus. His arms were extended crosswise, and he wore a flowing plastic robe, with a huge red plastic heart in the center of his chest. He was preaching to these plastic parishioners, telling them about lilies in the field and mustard seeds, about sheep and goats, about needles and camels. 

The Virgin Mary watched over the yard and the trailer from various places. You couldn’t walk ten feet without meeting her saintly face, eyes downcast, sometimes cradling her son as a cherubic child, other times cradling him as a bloody corpse just off the cross, here holding a rosary in silent prayer, there reaching down as if to feed a hungry animal or beggar. Most of the Marys were plastic, but some were stone. A few were accessorized, wearing flower necklaces, sunglasses, or other bling. 

The worst, though, were the miniature Grecian nudes: replicas of Michelangelo’s David, Triton blowing his horn, and other icons of masculinity with genitals on full display. Like the Marys, these cocksure versions of yard art had been tricked out: bling and flower necklaces, sailor hats and leather jackets, painted-on tattoos that read “Mother” or “Hot Stuff.”

Jorge and Luis had moved into the trailer beside Patti six months ago, and they had unpacked the old hungry laughing worm with their big stereo and flamingoes and beer. They let it out with all the old, familiar maliciousness shortly after their arrival at Willows Glen Trailer Park. Through the sludge and stupor, Patti recalled that day. 

She saw the mailman deliver her mail on the first afternoon of the month, which sent her dutifully out to the mailbox to see if her Social Security check had come yet. The money wasn’t much, hence her residency in Willows Glen (a.k.a. “Cockroach’s Den”), but it was enough. With her medical conditions and all—diabetes, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia, bad knees, anxiety disorder, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, weak immunity, depression—Patti couldn’t work. She had tried once, as a teenager, to work in a Barnes & Noble bookstore. It had lasted a month, but then the standing had made her knees hurt, and the anxiety of dealing with customers had caused rashes and insomnia, so she had quit. She had not worked a day since.

Four-footed metal cane in hand, Patti lumbered, huffing and wheezing, to her mailbox at the end of the walkway. She plucked the check from the mailbox and began the trek back inside. Oprah had gone to a commercial, so she had to hurry, since Dr. Phil would be on next.

There was a burst of laughter, and Patti heard the low pounding of Latin music next door grow quiet from the newly occupied trailer. Two thin men, maybe Puerto Rican or Cuban for all Patti knew, were standing close—too close, Patti observed—to each other on their small wooden deck, looking at her. She could see them talking in low voices, grinning, their eyes wide and bright, their white teeth flashing under meager mustaches. She put her eyes back on the concrete at her feet and started again for the trailer. It was so far away.

“Hey mamasita,” the taller one (Luis, she later learned), called to her. “Te quiero…I love you!”

“Damn, mama, you so fine. You got a boyfriend, eh?” That was Jorge, who started to say something else but then doubled over, convulsing with laughter, dropping his can of cheap beer.

“Oh, baby, you gonna kill my friend here you so hot. You wanna come over and get down, mamasita, hey?” Then Luis bent over Jorge, spilling beer on Jorge’s back, the both of them falling in a heap on their deck.

She had made it back to the trailer, opened and slammed her door, and fell into her groaning La-Z-Boy, lungs empty of breath and face full of hot blood…

It had been months ago, but now, like then, Patti was sweating all over, sweat mixing with tears. The revisited sting of that screeching laughter pushed her closer to consciousness again, sensations coalescing even as the memory faded. She could smell her own musky odor all around her, and she could vaguely see herself spilling out of the recliner as her dim gaze fell on her reflection in the glass door of her entertainment center.

Patti could hear the pounding, the laughter, coming from next door yet again, these sounds deadened not by time but by the stickiness in her head. She wanted to yell at them to shut up and go to bed, them and their queer hoodlum friends, but she couldn’t move, couldn’t open her eyes, couldn’t quite collect her senses. She was too tired, too sore. She just wanted to sleep. And for a little while, the sludge-soft lullaby of Latin hip-hop faded to nothing. She lost consciousness. 

The ringing in her ears had faded, too, when she sank away…but now it was back, not close to her yet still there somewhere, yet different. It sounded like a telephone underwater, all burbly and broken.

Patti’s eyelids fluttered, and she saw dim, blurry shapes around her. The ringing burst out again, and she felt thoughts build tentative bonds somewhere in her head. Her phone was ringing. Not that she cared beyond the nuisance of the noise.

Farther away in space, the pre-recorded greeting on her answering machine played out, there was a loud beep, and there was a voice. 

“Hey Patti, this is Dylan. I gotta run up to the store to get my Dad some chips and soda before the game comes on. Do you need anything? You there? Heeellooooo? Shit.”

Dylan…she remembered Dylan. Dylan lived with his father, Buddy, in the other trailer beside hers. Dylan…her angel.

The poor kid had grown up in Willows Glen. His mother had run off with a mechanic when he was four, leaving him under the reign of Buddy. The father was a belligerent drunk with a short fuse and a long reach. Now that his wife was gone, Buddy spent his drunken fury on Dylan whenever he could catch the fourteen-year-old boy. He worked at a textile factory, Patti dimly recalled, and left Dylan to find out on his own how to become a man.

Quiet and bookish, with thick-lensed glasses and little meat on his bones, Dylan did much of that searching in solitude.

“The kids at school call me ‘Gollum,’” Dylan told her one day. It was a few days after she first met him personally, when he had helped her bring in some groceries—this must have been three years, and a hundred pounds, ago.

“Gollum?” 

“Yeah, that freaky character in The Lord of the Rings. You know, with the big buggy eyes. ‘My preciousss...’ They love to call me that…and it is sort of funny.” 

“That’s not funny, Dylan, that’s awful,” Patti said—trying but failing to hold back her own laughter. They had both laughed long and hard, sitting at her kitchen table, drinking glasses of milk and eating Oreos.

Despite more than twenty years separating them in age, Patti and Dylan had become friends, of sorts. Dylan would pick up food for her at the store or medicine at the pharmacy when she needed him to, or he would cut her grass and rake her yard. Sometimes he came over to watch rented movies, which she paid for. He would make popcorn in the microwave—he always made the “natural” popcorn, with low-fat instead of regular butter melted and poured on top. She never said anything, only told him how good his popcorn was, though she knew the difference just by the smell, even the sound, not just by the cardboard taste.

Dylan also liked video games, and sometimes he brought over his game system to play on her big TV. Her screen was double the size of his, and she had it hooked up to big speakers, so the kid ate it up. They cranked the bass and the volume and often would play for hours on weekends or in the summer. 

They were an odd pair, and Buddy ridiculed his son for spending more time with an “old cow” instead of a girl his own age (and size), but Dylan didn’t abandon Patti. Even when Buddy broke Dylan’s arm and blackened his eye after Dylan had spent the day working in Patti’s yard, forgetting to clean his own trailer in the process, the boy went out of his way to help Patti. He seemed to like being with her, in fact, though she couldn’t figure out why.

The phone burbled again. Patti turned her head and forced her eyes open, trying to see through the syrupy stuff that surrounded every particle of her.

“Patti,” Dylan’s voice called out after the machine’s greeting and beep. “Paaaatttiiiii...? Okay, just wanted to try again. I’m leaving now. I’ll try again later.”

She wanted to get up to the phone then, wanted desperately to talk to Dylan, to tell him to get over here now and hurry. But she was just too heavy, too sticky all over. 

Patti turned back and straightened herself in her La-Z-Boy, pushing her sticky eyelids open more, and saw the cake plate on the table to her left, the remnants of cake and icing. She noticed again the minty-chocolate taste in her mouth, the clinging sweetness of sugar and flour. She saw the leftover bits, tasted the lingering flavors, and remembered...

The weather was cool this morning and the skies clear. Patti peeked out of her windows now and again as the sun rose higher. She could not sit for more than a few minutes without struggling out of the recliner and over to the window. Finally, she mustered her courage to venture out of the trailer and…try walking in the neighborhood. Dr. Zakaris had been on her ass like a bedsore to start exercising. She always ignored him, waving him away like a pestering mosquito, and left his office every time with yet another wad of prescription slips or medical forms for Social Services. 

Dylan had started the new school year today and was planning to attend a Drama Club meeting or something afterward, so Patti would not be seeing him. She was feeling unusually good this morning: no pain in her knees or hands, no trouble breathing, no arrhythmias or asthma attacks. 

Maybe I will try a little walk, just to end of the street and back, she thought. “You can do it, Patti. It’s just a little ways. Then you can have a treat when you get back,” she told herself out loud, sitting in her La-Z-Boy.

Fifteen minutes later, Patti was lumbering out of her front gate, leaning on her cane. The late summer air was cool and crisp and fresh, and the light of the rising sun gilded the edges of the trees and the metal of the cars on the street. A few dogs barked in yards as she walked by, and she saw more than a few curtains flutter closed when she looked towards them, but she ignored them, and she walked. She could see the Stop sign, maybe 50 yards from her. She had made it nearly twenty feet from her own sidewalk, and she still felt fine, her smile growing larger with each step.

It took nearly ten minutes for her to reach the Stop sign, followed by a two-minute break for her to lean against the sign and get all of her breath back. She could see her walkway from where she stood, as well as her pine-green Dodge Caravan parked on the street in front of it. Finally, with a puff and a grunt, she pushed off from the sign’s metal pole and trundled back, homeward bound.

Twenty minutes and two stops later, Patti turned onto her walkway. Her trailer had never looked so good; her comfy La-Z-Boy never seemed so attractive. Seated again at last, she would kick up her feet and give herself a little (no, a big) treat for such a miraculous feat. And wait until Dr. Zakaris heard about this! He would drop dead—if he believed her, that is.

Maybe I can get one of the nosey neighbors to write a witness’s statement for me, she thought and laughed.

Someone else laughed, too.

Madre de Dios, look atchoo, mamasita.” It was Luis. “You as red as a tomate, big mama.”

Jorge walked out onto the deck, followed his partner’s gaze, and added, “Eh, Luis, she lookin’ so sweet…look at her jiggle, ah she...” But he lost it then, overtaken by laughter.

Patti stopped, taking in the sight of them, and watched without comprehension as they pointed and gawked and laughed.

She needed to get back to her trailer. Her knees were throbbing, and her chest was tightening up, choking her. She hurried forward, working her tired legs and her sturdy cane.

Halfway up the walkway, she misplaced the cane, and one of the feet sank into the dirt. It stuck just enough to make her totter and lose her balance, and that was all it took for gravity to gain the victory. She fell half on the concrete, half on the soft lawn, bloodying her shin and elbow as she hit the ground.

Jorge and Luis stopped laughing for a few seconds, staring at her.

“Oh shit, man, now she tenderizing herself,” Luis exploded in laughter.

Jorge picked up the thread: “Hey man, I want somma that hamburger patty. Hey, Hamburger Patty, come over here, I’m so hungry and you so big, mamasita…”

They had laughed and pointed, heckled and hooted, as Patti lay on the ground and Fidel scurried around their feet, yapping and leaping. She couldn’t remember now how she had made it back to vertical—the best she could manage in her stupor were vague images of the cane, vague impressions of straining arm muscles and tiny breaths and sweaty hands. 

Minutes, hours, days later, she had been back inside, leaning on her kitchen counter, with the laughter ringing in her ears. She had stood there for a long, long time, weeping onto the cracking countertop, as her shin and elbow and arm muscles burned, as her fugitive breath tried to flee from her.

Patti had been so tired, and all she had wanted to do was sleep. 

But you promised yourself a big treat if you made it, Patti. So go ahead…have yourself a treat. Go on…you deserve it…

And there is no better way to celebrate than a cake…

Patti drifted and bobbed, sitting in her La-Z-Boy, semi-conscious and sludgy, like a fat beetle in honey. She was too tired to stay awake any longer, too heavy and sticky all over. And she didn’t care. The taste of chocolate and mint was dwindling in her mouth, drying up with her saliva, fading with the clinging sugariness that seemed like a hardening caramel glaze on her world.

A few blurry, broken ghost-images rose to the surface of her inner sludge, but they held almost no interest for her now, the shaky film had gotten too painful to follow… 

She…walked with a bloody shin and elbow into the bathroom, grabbing full bottles of Percocet and Valium and going back to the kitchen…collected the things for making a cake, opening the slim red box, laying out bowls and pans on the counter…took a full bottle of peppermint schnapps from the cupboard beside the fridge…measured cupfuls of liquor and poured them into the other dry and wet ingredients, stirring everything into a mint-chocolaty brown batter…sat at the table, crushing tablets of Percocet and Valium with a rolling pin, sweeping the pile of chalky blue dust into the round cardboard tub of white icing, mixing them together…sat, comfy again at last, in her La-Z-Boy, digging into the cake with a fork, not bothering to cut it into slices, washing it down with schnapps straight from the bottle.

Other images floated up, but they were too blurry and broken, the sticky sludge was too heavy, and she was too tired. All she wanted now was to sleep. 

Patti had taken her walk, she had taken her fall, she had gotten back up, and she had gotten her reward. Stung by the laughter, the mocking, and the scorn, Patti had walked her path and carried her heavy burden.

But suddenly she felt light, so wonderfully light.

And now, having reached the end at last, all Patti wanted to do was sleep…

“Hey, Patti, you in there?” Dylan called out, pounding on her door and trying to peer in through the curtains. He thought he could see her in her chair, like always, but there wasn’t much light inside.

He hadn’t talked to her in three days, since before he started school, and he was aching to tell her about the Drama Club. He had her mail in one hand, what looked like several days’ worth; he had seen the same page of coupons sticking out for several days. In the other hand he held a movie and a package of microwave popcorn.

“Patti, hey, Patti,” Dylan called again. No answer. He tried the knob and found it unlocked, so he turned it all the way and pushed the door open. She had to be here. Her van was out front, she couldn’t have walked anywhere, and he didn’t know of anyone who would come and take her out someplace. 

For just an instant, he envisioned an ambulance rushing down the street and stopping here, paramedics rushing up to the trailer with a stretcher and going in and then struggling to load Patti into the ambulance. He even saw the ambulance sink on its shocks before pulling away, its red and white lights flashing, but no siren just yet.

Putting all of that out of his mind, Dylan walked through the door. He breathed again when he saw that, yes, she was indeed in her chair, just with the lights and TV off. She must be sleeping. He tiptoed over to her. Maybe he could surprise her and wake her up so they could watch the movie and eat popcorn. Or maybe not…she might have an asthma attack if he frightened her.

It smelled weird in the trailer, which he noticed as he came up beside her. He saw the grimy cake plate on the end table. The dried cake crumbs and icing in a white ring. The empty bottle of peppermint schnapps.

 

 

Justin Van Kleeck, a Virginia native currently living in Harrisonburg, has been writing since childhood. He received his PhD in English from the University of Virginia in 2006 and has experience as a freelance writer on environmental, animal rights, and other social issues (as well as occasional literary scholarship). He is active in his community, working with community organizations, running independent events, and participating in local thought and discussion. He serves as the assistant manager of the Harrisonburg Farmers Market and works for a non-profit organization in Staunton. He enjoys reading, yoga, gardening, and getting outside with his wife.

 

Q&A

Q: What was your inspiration for this story?

A: This story’s roots lie in my own experiences as an overweight child, and the moments of shame I felt and shaming I was subjected to by peers and even adults. Although there are constructive ways to deal with that, not everyone is able to find them, and this story is an exploration of that struggle. 

 

Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?

A: I read a lot of Stephen King growing up, and I always was (and still am) interested in dark stories, themes, and ideas. So gothic and horror literature are where my feet are planted …everything from Poe and Lovecraft to Horace Walpole, the Brontes, and Charles Brockden Brown, to name a few. But I would not pinpoint any specific names or people, as my reading has been pretty varied in topic, period, style, and subject. I am always most impressed by writers who tackle “big” issues and ideas, while also being masterful in their development of their characters. Tolstoy is probably the standout for me along these lines.

 

Q: What’s your ideal place to write? 

A: I love writing outdoors, or in a cozy chair. I prefer quiet spaces, without much human hustle and bustle; music is also distracting when I write.

 

Q: What’s the wildest bit of research you’ve done for a story?

A: I remember spending several hours on Google Maps trying to find a good spot on Interstate 10, between Louisiana and Florida, to place a story. It involved using the street view feature to read highway signs and scope out the scenery.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: As far as writing goes, mostly essays (technically blog posts, though mine are not your typical blog post) for a couple of environmental and vegan/animal-rights blogs I write for. Next up is a book review. When I sit down to write more creative things, I usually end up with a poem; I hope to have more time for fiction as life slows down a little in the colder months ahead.


A 53-word Story

Every week, Press 53 offers its free 53-word Story Contest with Meg Pokrass, with one winner chosen and posted on the Press 53 Blog. Each quarter, the editors of Prime Number Magazine choose one story from all the weekly winners. This quarter we have selected "Reconstruction" by Jodi Barnes.

Reconstruction by Jodi Barnes

My favorite lie is that he’d escaped the South Tower before it collapsed. Smoke inhalation erased his way home. Mine’s better than mother’s version: a stranger hurled herself onto him. The truth is when they stopped search and rescue, mother told father, Go. Even dead, his girlfriend meant more than we ever would.

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Jodi Barnes’s first chapbook, unsettled (Main Street Rag), was Oscar Arnold Young Award runner-up for best 2010 NC book of poetry. Other work is in Iodine Journal, several anthologies and Blue Collar Review. She was finalist in Press 53’s 2011 Open Awards for short-short stories and was runner up for Main Street Rag's 2012 Chapbook Contest. A former business school professor and a stalwart Studs Terkel fan, Jodi blogs about work at http://workerwrites.com.


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Dive Bar by Lorrie Lykins

followed by Q&A

I got a job during my first year of junior college working in a dive bar. I was eighteen (the legal drinking age in Florida at the time) and up until that point, the only job I had held other than babysitting was shucking clams and oysters in the kitchen of the Oyster Bar. The O.B., as it was known to locals, was a dive of a different sort—one that lured tourists eager to partake of hush puppies and fresh Florida seafood but served them fare that wasn’t all that fresh and mostly not native to Florida waters.

I got the job at the bar because my next door neighbor, Harry, worked there and said I could make better money as the afternoon barmaid than I could working as a waitress at the Steak-N-Egg, an all-night waffle and hash place down the street that catered to all varieties of customers to include fishermen, people who worked at the nearby seafood packing plant, drunks who had enough insight to realize some solid food every once in a while (usually at four a.m.) might not be a bad idea, and cops. 

I had moved into my first apartment a few weeks before, eager to be a working college student, making my way in the world. For some insane reason I now can’t recall, I had refused financial support from my parents. I needed a job fast, I told my friendly neighbor, who took it upon himself to act as my guardian. My middle-class parents were horrified by my choice to set up camp in a historic, but declining, neighborhood that had as many seedy rooming houses as it did lovingly restored Victorians and peeling Spanish stucco homes. But everything was in walking distance, and I loved my independence.  

I wouldn’t need much in the way of training to work at the bar, Harry said, because the place only served beer and wine. When I stopped by as Harry had instructed, to meet John, the owner, he looked me over and asked if I’d ever been arrested. When I said no, he told me I could start the next day. He yelled over his shoulder to Harry “She’s your responsibility. If she screws up, it’s your ass,” as he headed to the stock room. 

The bar was not a neighborhood place with a familial feel; it was a study in despair. It was an establishment inhabited by apparitions who spent their days affixed to stools covered with garnet faux leather. It stank of stale beer and popcorn mixed with cigarette ash and disinfectant. The padded vinyl runner that acted as an armrest for drinkers to lean on was pocked with cigarette burns and rips, and without exception, every stool in the bar was torn in places, the tears shaped like arrowheads, butter-colored foam oozing up from them whenever they were unoccupied.

The apparitions—the regulars—were what remained of the men who had come to live in a new land unoccupied by wives or children or buddies from the bowling league. There was no talk of lawns in need of mowing or screen doors to mend. There were no family dinners to attend, no phone calls that required returning. This was the end of the road. There was only this bar and oblivion.

They sat slouched over their elbows, arms stained by faded indigo tattoos. They did not exchange names or make small talk. Their hands encircled smudged, filmy glasses half- drained of beer, ink-bottomed shot glasses to the side, free of pretense of anyone or anything to answer to—all of that long ago relinquished. 

John kept a crock pot on the bar that he filled with cheap hot dogs that floated in a soup of water and beer, which he plugged in each morning at eight. Customers were welcome to the hot dogs, no charge, if they bought a fifty-cent draft. This entitled them to sit all day, as long as liquid remained in the glass in front of them.

The regulars who shuffled in wordlessly each morning when John opened up and remained until we closed—nearly sixteen hours later—subsisted on the hot dogs, which I grew to think of as John’s attempt at atonement for running an establishment in which men came every day to commit slow, incremental suicide. Once, he made chili. But the regulars seemed disappointed when they lifted the lid of the slow-cooker and saw beans instead of the distended dogs that resembled colorless driftwood. He stuck to dogs after that.

Harry was conspiratorially cheery, tending to the patrons as if he fancied them guests at a festive gala, every drink he poured was cause for merriment, no need to acknowledge the death knell—of the edging closer to the abyss. He approached his work like a hospice worker-cum-circus performer.

Harry made great, Chaplin-esque show of ringing up each sale, cracking his knuckles, fluttering his fingers as if playing a piano, then poised, conductor-like, about to cue the orchestra, he punched the number keys, and a final flourish—bringing  the heel of his meaty hand down on the flesh-colored total key. The bell rang, the drawer shot out. We have a winner. 

The bar sat in the center of a listless city block; the sidewalk in front of the planked wooden door was a collage of hexagon pavers, pink, green, yellow, gray with faint sparkles you could sometimes make out in the daylight. A rooming house around the corner that once housed middle-class Northerners for the season now let rooms by the hour, the day, or the week. Most of our patrons slept there, often helped to their rooms late at night—which stank of sweat-soiled laundry, hair tonic and deterioration—by Harry.

Not all of the regulars were men. Sometimes Bunny, the vivacious 50-something daytime barmaid, came in on her days off and flirted with the same two men I later learned were both her ex-husbands. Bunny was a little over six-feet tall and wore her hair in a platinum bob. She always wore the same outfit—tight stretch pants and a billowy, psychedelic nylon blouse, bright blue eye shadow and pink lipstick. She resembled an Easter egg on a stick. Bunny worked nights in another bar in town and her ex-husbands apparently followed her from one gig to the other. She reveled in their attention and told me they were good men. She still loved them both but they had the same fatal flaw—they couldn’t let go of the bottle.

Sometimes we were joined by Sue, a pixie of a woman, who quietly occupied the same stool nearest the register on the nights she stopped in after her job waitressing downtown. Sue was diminutive, with silver shoulder-length hair she usually wore in a bun tight to her head. The long-sleeved denim shirts she favored were too large for her tiny frame, giving her the look of a woman dissolving. 

Sue smoked Kools, which she kept in a silver case that was inlaid with turquoise and coral and had a matching lighter that slid into a sleeve on the side of the case. I was fairly sure her name was Sue because once when she went to the restroom I reached over the bar and turned the cigarette case to get a better look at it. I noticed engraving—“Sue”—in curlicue script. I never called her by name because it occurred to me that maybe the case wasn’t hers—maybe it had belonged to someone who had meant something to her. She always lined the case up on the bar alongside her wallet and glass, a neat little row she occasionally adjusted, ensuring the items were arranged just so. She rarely spoke but clearly followed the action, her dark eyes darting from person-to-person, following the movement of glasses lifted, the swing of the front door, the crack of a pool stick against a freshly racked triangle of balls. Sometimes she looked up to catch my eye and offer a wry smile or a wink—acknowledgement of the shenanigans of the other patrons. 

Her two sons showed up at the bar a few times. They were both blonde and tanned, good-looking surfer-types, but they wore heavy work boots and painter’s clothes and always looked tired. They never said much, they just appeared and gently tapped her on the elbow, one scooping up her things from the bar, the other helping her from her perch. “C’mon, Mom,” one of them would murmur quietly. Sue never argued. 

I got to know the younger of the two sons a little bit because they lived in a garage apartment across the alley from me. One night after closing he and I climbed the fire escape ladder on the side of the elementary school across the street from the bar. We sat on the tar roof for hours, looking at the stars and smoking cigarettes. He was quiet, like his mother, and much too serious for a kid his age. About 15 years later, his body was found in a lake not far from downtown. It’s a tiny neighborhood lake with a gazebo and swinging benches. People take their kids there to feed the ducks and sit on the swings. The obituary carried an old photo of him just as I remembered—young and handsome, with light eyes that squinted when he smiled. It didn’t mention surviving family members.   

Once, one of the patrons died in the bar. He pitched backward, falling suddenly and gracelessly from the barstool like a sandbag someone had flung off the side of a barge. The other customers gathered around as a plume of blood blossomed around his head. Harry said at first it looked like a halo, a deep, dark red that matched the vinyl of the barstool seats.

He had knelt next to the dead man before the blood pool grew, forcing him to step away. The man had an expression on his face, as if he were about to say something, and Harry waited expectantly, but the man said nothing. I was in class when this happened and was glad of it.

Everything about my job was completely foreign.  The only drinking that took place in my family was social. I had never seen either of my parents—or any adults in my family for that matter—so much as tipsy. I was at turns repulsed and fascinated by the macabre spectacle that unfolded each night at work. I lied to my parents and told them I was waitressing.  

Sometimes younger people came by for beers—welders mostly, from the machine shop a block away. They wore work shirts, their first names embroidered just above breast pockets in which packs of Winstons and Zippo lighters nestled. They pulled tables and chairs together and formed a knot in the corner of the room, laughing and yelling at one another as they played pool and sang along to the J. Geils Band on the jukebox. They took no notice of the abandoned wrecks of old men at the bar, didn’t allow that perhaps one day they might sit on one of those stools. They didn’t want any hot dogs from the crock pot. They didn’t like the music we usually played on the jukebox. Sometimes they got in fights and we’d have to call the cops.

When the interlopers left, we would go back to Willie Nelson singing about angels flying too close to the ground, Tammy and George dueting about their two-story house, and Billy Joe Shaver singing about knowing he was a chunk of coal but would someday become a diamond, because, you know—all that stuff about pressure and time. Only he didn’t really mention that part. 

We closed the bar at two each morning, and spun our own songs on the old juke box, played some pool, and danced a little as we cleaned up. Sometimes the cops stopped by to check on us, tapping on the door, speakeasy-style. They sipped beer and scribbled out the night’s report on the bar as we swept and mopped and ran glasses, piston style, up and down soapy bottle brushes fixed in the sink, then rinsed them with scalding water and plopped them into drying racks. The cops stood watch as we attached the padlock to the front door and walked the cash bag across the street to drop into the bank’s night deposit chute.

Then Harry would set off to his second job cleaning supermarket parking lots. In the mornings, we sometimes passed one another on the stairs that led to the side-by-side garage apartments we lived in, mine sunny and filled with plants and the giddiness of a girl’s first place; his dank and smelling of wet dog and dirty socks. I headed to class as he was coming home from work, usually with a white waxed paper bag containing a jelly doughnut for me. In the afternoon, we’d meet up again at the bar and do it all over again. 

One January night, a regular careened through the door cawing “Fire!” We spilled from the bar, Harry and I and our shambling wards, and ran around the corner, following the smoke and the wild-eyed gestures of the more alert residents who had staggered from the lobby into the street. “Everybody’s sleeping up there!” one of them shouted.

We ran up the stairs to the second and third floors, then down hallways, banging on doors, calling “Wake up!” and “Fire!” Those we shoved and dragged out into the night sat in bewildered heaps on the curb or wandered in their nightclothes down the sidewalk, bed sheets draped over their shoulders like stoles.

We heard the sirens of approaching fire trucks in the distance and skittered back to the bar, breathlessly congratulating one another, feeling heroic and daring, not thinking about what exactly it was we thought we had saved anyone from. 

That spring I decided to take a break from school. I quit my job at the bar at the end of the semester. Harry helped me put my stuff in storage, and I bid him a tearful farewell before taking off to travel with friends for a few months, eventually returning home and getting a respectable job in a hospital. Harry would parlay his parking lot-cleaning side jobs into a thriving business, meet a nice girl named Dixie in the parking lot of the Albertsons, and move with her to Texas, where they married and started a family. John sold the bar and became a fulltime guardian ad litem, taking care of the elderly who were all alone in the world. 

Every once in a while when I’m in that part of town and alone, I drive by the bar and slow down as I approach. The memories drift by me like whispers and I can see the faces of the men who lined the bar each night, bent resolutely over their drinks. The bar changed hands and names several times after John sold it in the early 1990s, and I read an article in the newspaper once about a shooting that took place outside on the hexagon-paved sidewalk. The neighborhood has been tamed by gentrification and the presence of young couples and families who prize the bungalows and craftsman-style homes. The rooming house around the corner has long been torn down and the squat, deco building that housed the dive bar has not been a bar in a long time; it’s had incarnations as a surf shop, a yoga place, a real estate office, and an exercise equipment store. It was an Oriental rug shop for a long time, but that business closed recently. For now, it’s deserted. 

 

 

Lorrie Lykins is a longtime correspondent with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times) and an adjunct professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. 

 

Q&A

Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece? 

A: The nostalgia for that time in my life really kind of snuck up on me. I learned so much about who I wanted to be during that period. I drove by the old neighborhood a few months ago and felt a palpable wave of sorrow for those lost people who drifted in and out of the bar the year I worked there. It overwhelmed me and I had to write about it. 

 

Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?

A: I took a seminar from Pinckney Benedict during grad school and he had us do an exercise in which we each wrote a letter to someone that told the truth. This had to be something that had never been said—a secret or deeply held conviction—one that, were it to be sent and received, would irretrievably change our lives and those of the recipients. I remember noticing that some of my peers seemed uncomfortable and hesitant. The whole point, Pinckney said, was that “… you have to be willing to tell the truth. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. If you’re not willing to tell the truth you have no business calling yourself a writer.” That really stuck with me. I ask myself that question—usually when I’m sitting in front of a blank screen—am I telling the truth?    

 

Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?

A: It’s an eclectic mix. I love David Sedaris. I find him inspiringly, poignantly witty. I reread The Great Gatsby and Winesburg, Ohio every year. I read a lot of biographies and memoir. I have been most inspired by Jacqui Banaszynski, who wrote “AIDS in the Heartland,” and the journalists from my hometown who write with incredible passion and conviction. Long-form narrative journalism is an art at our newspaper (the Tampa Bay Times) and I’m in awe of the work of Jeff Klinkenberg and Craig Pittman, who do a phenomenal job of writing about Florida and the environment. They are my literary heroes. 

 

Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?  

A: It depends on my mood and the project. I have a massive writing desk in our den that alternates between neat and organized to stacked so high with research materials I can’t find the keyboard. I’ve been traveling a lot this year, and I have done some of my happiest writing in airport coffee shops.


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If I should disappear the day after I write this... by Gabriella Burman

followed by Q&A

I want my children to know that I often had milk on my hands, in my breasts, and under my fingernails. All of it was sticky, and some of it synthetic, a vanilla-scented boxed concoction that nourished Michaela through her feeding tube and which sustained her when her suck, swallow, breathe coordination would not.

***

I want them to know that when the milk splattered, the syringes backed up, and geysers hit the ceiling, I gave myself wholly over to all three of my children. That while others bemoan the cumulative effect of crouching on one’s knees to reach a child’s eye level or to pick up yet another toy, I absorbed the blows of each mess and each tantrum, and even secretly relished these elemental forms of communication. 

***

I want them to know that when I tinkered in the basement office and heard them crying at the top of the stairs, I let the computer screen go dark. 

That I allowed myself one writers’ conference each year, leaving a refrigerator full of cooked food for their father to serve, knowing my three-day absence would exasperate him anyway. 

That at the conference, I ambushed the accomplished among us at the coffee station with a single question: how do you do it? I am seeking a thread I can follow, and I am desperate. I want to pinpoint when these parent-writers wake, do the laundry, kiss a wounded knee, and tuck into bed, and where the writing sews in. 

That they recoiled. “Just write. Find a group. Get an MFA.” Then they shook their hair into their eyes, pressed their backs against the table before fleeing from me, and leaving the air around me discernibly cooler. 

That I missed you, my children.  

***

I want them to know that, ironically, my teacher, a poet who spent years as a single father, entreated me to “treat your writing like another child.” 

That this became a matter of permission. That I should be mothering my child. Having time to write evoked her absence, when I’d much rather continue to deny it. 

***

I want them to know that in college, I studied with Robert Stone and Chaim Potok, and fantasized that my first collection of short stories would appear by the time I was 30. That I supported myself as a journalist, having had the “aha” moment in college: “I can get paid to write!” 

***

I want them to know that when I was 30, my first-born, Michaela, arrived, dark-haired and soft-shouldered, full-term but deprived of oxygen during labor and delivery. That she sustained a permanent brain injury that would forever affect her motor center. That she never walked or talked or ate in the ways we think of those verbs. 

That she made her needs known most forcefully when I was feeding her and she didn’t want another bite. That she knocked my spoon-holding hand out of the way with her forearm, with a determination that needed no sound. 

That this was when I learned to listen. 

***

I want them to know that I had assumed a new identity, that of special needs mother, and that I was extraordinary. That my writerly research skills were repurposed for medicine. That together with their father, we sought therapies and procedures and treatments that would help Michaela fulfill her potential. That after a first-year fraught with seizures more devastating than the initial diagnosis of cerebral palsy, our capsized ship of tattered dreams righted itself. That Michaela slowly blossomed, and we delighted in her beauty, her ability to forgive those who manipulated her muscles when they stiffened, and her loving disposition. 

That our deep involvement in the community of the disabled and those who care for them made us better people; we regarded the ordinarily-abled around us as mundane. That personally, Michaela gave my life a razor-sharp focus that had previously been absent. That the writer’s sedentary life took on an unappealing triviality. 

That I began to question, Who needs writing when there is so much living to do?

***

I want them to know we always knew we would have more children. And that on the 12th day of our third baby’s life, five-year-old Michaela died. In her sleep, at a routine sleepover at my parents’ house. City grids tilted onto their sides. Nothing felt tied down anymore. Dominion over gardens—a mirage.

***

I want them to know that I returned to the chair. To document for my younger daughters the life of their oldest sister, so that they would have some experience of her bright eyes and long lashes and flirtatious manner that amassed legions of admirers. 

That despite the return to writing, the letters dotting along the page, I resisted the badge, for I would have traded writing pains of labor for the real deal. But that I had no choice, about the writing. 

In my writing, Michaela lives, as closely as she can. I spell out her name to perpetuate her existence.  As my teacher implores, “The dead are.”  

***

What I want you to know is that grief never ends, nor is it as bad as it seems. 

I want you to know that children are funny. Use them. As I used my middle daughter, Ayelet, who told me she overheard the babysitter use the word “stupid,” which is on our list of no-no's. “I told her we don’t use bad words in our house,” Ayelet said. And then, with a comic’s perfect timing, added, “At least we try not to.” Of course, she has forgotten that as a toddler she jumped on our bed, gleefully shouting, “Goddammit!” Better she learn it from me, I say.

***

What I want you to know is that our youngest baby, Maayan, is a poster child for the La Leche League: she nursed until three. That we could have been on the recent cover of Time Magazine in lieu of the nursing four-year old boy on the step-stool.

That Maayan and I had some really good conversations interspersed with her chugging. She impressed me with her elocution. “Maly got her hair cut down,” she once said, reporting on a friend’s visit to the “booty salon.”

That in truth, the warmth of her suckling mouth at my breast, its gentle tug, the softness of her skin, was my only comfort at a time when I thought I would keel over like an animal with no cause to live. 

That she gave my arms reason to hang at my sides. 

 

 

Gabriella Burman is the communications director at www.bigtentjobs.com. She is also an award-winning journalist. She resides in Huntington Woods, Mich., with her family. Her nonfiction appears or is forthcoming in Skive Magazine, Outside In, the Bear River Review, and Joy, Interrupted: An  Anthology of Motherhood and Loss, with thanks to Jessica Handler. 

 

Q&A

Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?

A:  When you are writing a lyrical essay, you hear its music in your head. In the beats, and pauses, in sentences and between them. There is no guarantee that others will catch on to its cadence and rhythm. But what amazed me with this piece is that my assured editor not only heard the music, but greatly improved upon it. She turned a three-chord folk song into a musical score. 

 

Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not? 

A: Knowing that I have young children, the fiction writer Valerie Laken once told me, “You can get a lot done in 20 minutes.” She’s right. This is a rule I try to follow!

 

Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer? 

A: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch, and The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal.

    

Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?  

A: I work in a decorated office lined with my husband’s business books on the lower level of our house. Sometimes I prefer the light from the computer to any other source. The children, naturally, play right outside the door, and often come in, uninvited, to “work,” making copies and using highlighters to draw on the carpet. I am most productive when the children are at school.


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Race You! by Terry Barr

followed by Q&A

As a boy, I loved collecting baseball cards. It all started with Post Cereal boxes, which, in my family, almost meant my passion's immediate undoing. You see, my father dictated the kinds, amounts, and procedures involved with the cereals we ate. Dad was a brand loyalist in all the products of his life. And according to him, Kellogg’s was the only brand to buy. Not only were their Corn Flakes superior to Post’s “Toasties,” Post had no equivalent at all for his other two favorites: Frosted Flakes and Rice Krispies.  

I considered Post like I did invaders from another planet: scary yet tempting to look at.  Post offered Sugar Krisps and Alpha-Bits, and they also had something called Grape-Nuts, a concept that I couldn’t quite grasp—exactly where were the grapes?—in the same way that I couldn’t fully understand the concept of a mule.  

I don’t know what exactly inaugurated Dad’s love for Kellogg’s, but somehow it got aligned with his other brand loyalties: General Motors, Nabisco cookies, the Green Bay Packers, the Army (vs. the Navy), and Alabama football. To him, these entities were right, true, even noble—like John Wayne in Red River—whereas pulling for the Cleveland Browns while driving a Ford to the store to buy Post Raisin Bran was tantamount to communism.

But baseball cards were another story, and lamentably, it was Post cereals who offered them—eight cards on the back of every box. In the only form of compromise my father would allow, IF he consented to a Post product, I and I alone was responsible for seeing the cereal through to my stomach, and beyond, down to the very last Bit in every box. And the rule in our house was that no more than two boxes of cereal could be opened at any one time.

How badly did I want those cards? I might have accepted trying spinach, even liver, if only he’d agree.

I promised him I’d never complain about taste or sogginess, and that I’d finish every bowl I started. So with my first box of Alpha-Bits—a box I carefully selected in Bruno’s market one Friday morning—came the cards I coveted, my beloved Yankees: Bobby Richardson, Clete Boyer, and…Ralph Terry.  No one told me then, and I wouldn’t discover it for almost ten years, that two years earlier, Ralph Terry gave up the winning World Series home run to Bill Mazeroski of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who, in a quirk of fate, was also on the very same cereal box.

Upon arriving home from the grocery store with my prized box, I immediately ran for the scissors.

“What are you about to do?” My mother’s alarm rang through the kitchen.

“Um, cut my cards off the back of the box?”

“No you aren’t! Your Daddy said you can’t have the cards until you eat all the cereal.  Besides, what would happen to the box and the cereal if you cut off the entire backside?”

Is there anything worse than rules and logic and baseball cards?

“Uh Mom? What’s for lunch?”

“Don’t even think about it!”

It took two weeks for me to finish the Alpha-Bits, but I did, and so my collection began.  Usually, I was able to follow the rules, and over the weeks of that summer of Post, I got other “interesting” cards—players whose names I often couldn’t read because someone at Post thought it might be fun or more authentic to have each player sign the card in cursive. So Dick Howser, who played for Kansas City became Dick $%#@* until Dad clarified it for me, and Eddie Yost, of the L.A. Angels was E(&**^ Y**&). Fortunately, Post couldn’t disguise Willie Mays and Brooks Robinson, my other prize cards that year.

Alpha-Bits wore on me, though, so I began venturing out into Sugar Krisp land. This was before “Sugar Bear” became a commercial icon, but it didn’t matter to me because the box in question had Elston Howard on it, the new and celebrated Yankee catcher—the first African-American to make the Yankees’ starting lineup. At this point, I had discovered that Jell-O also put baseball cards on the back of its boxes, too, and from eating lime, strawberry, and even orange-pineapple Jell-O, I eventually scored Roger Maris, Tom Tresh, and Whitey Ford.  But Elston was my real need, so Hail, Sugar Krisps!

It’s a sad thing, though, about Elston. Not as a player, though his career wasn’t terribly long. It was the Krisps. You’d think that anything called “Krisps” (even with a “K”), would retain its shape and texture for at least the three minutes it took to eat a bowl full. And of course, to get to the cards faster, I would try to down the biggest bowl I could. I wouldn’t add much milk, but even a spoonful was too much for Krisps. Calling them soggy would be like calling the Yankees a “good” team. I can only describe Sugar Krisps in milk after 30 seconds as having the texture AND taste of cardboard. On three successive mornings I tried, and failed to make it through a bowl.

Such a waste, my parents said, as they dumped out my bowl. They wouldn’t force me to eat the mess, but neither would they let me talk them into buying Sugar Krisps again. Ultimately, they tossed the box in the garbage.

I had rarely felt such sadness—I was only five, after all—as I did that day, saying goodbye to Elston in his pin stripes and blue Yankee hat with that beautiful NY emblazoned on it. His mesmerizing dark eyes complemented his brown skin as they stared back at me from the garbage can, making me believe that I had betrayed him, the Yankees, all of baseball, and perhaps something even greater.

***

Over the next few years, my card collection swelled into the hundreds. While Post ceased producing cards after the following season, my friend Steve introduced me to bubble-gum cards which we could buy at a variety of local outlets, my favorite place being Stull’s Highland Bakery. Stull’s was strategically located a half block from both my grammar school and church.  While I couldn’t stop in every day after school, or every Sunday after church, its proximity offered enough chances to make me happy and to imperil my parents’ sanity and monthly budget.

Packages of cards usually cost five cents each and contained five cards, one stick of bright pink, sugar dusted bubble gum, and a commemorative coin or stamp of some famous player or World Series scene. Occasionally, packs sold a penny a piece, containing one card and one stick of gum. Once, on my birthday, our maid Dissie gave me twenty-seven cents to use for cards. I went to Stull’s and asked for twenty-five penny cards. The saleswoman knew me so well that she wasn’t even exasperated when I put the twenty-seven pennies on the counter. As she neared the end of the counting, she said, “You’ve got enough to get one more pack. You want it?”  I was so eager that I never thought about the foolishness of such a question.

When I got back to the car, my mother waiting patiently the whole while, I immediately opened my gold mine of cards. And almost as immediately emitted an earth-shattering howl, fell to the car floor in pain and dismay, and cried for all I was worth.

“For Heaven’s sakes, what is the matter with you?” my mother said.

“They’re all doubles,” I yelled back through my rage and tears, meaning that I already owned the cards of Smoky Burgess, Dick Stuart, and yes, what I think was my twenty-third Bill Mazeroski.

It hadn’t occurred to me then that the cards were also called “trading” cards, and most kids didn’t mind getting “doubles” which they would then bargain away. Of course, other than Steve, most of my friends didn’t collect cards; most threw them away, enjoying only the sugar-saturated wall of hot pink gum. And Steve, when we finally did trade, always got the best of me, usually a two-for-one deal—say, his Ernie Banks for my Boog Powell and Don Drysdale. Because he was older he could wear me down with his persuasive techniques, which often included threatening to punch me in the arm.

But while I lost these battles, I was set on winning the war, or rather the race to see who could get the most cards. My secret weapon was a baseball magazine where I discovered that I could order the cards directly from the TOPPS company. I can’t believe that my parents consented to this, but they actually sent a check to TOPPS to pay for my order and the specific cards I wanted. Only I didn’t order specific players; I ordered the cards by the number on the back of the card. I asked for cards 550 through 700—numbers that neither Steve nor I yet owned.  I was so excited because I knew that while Steve might hit me again, he would eventually have to admit defeat and proclaim me the champion card collector.

It didn’t occur to me, however, that there were only so many players in the Major Leagues, and thus, only so many cards. Back then, like everything else in my world, baseball seemed composed of infinite numbers and design. How could there be limited cards? TOPPS did send me what it could, but the series ended at card number 598. And by that point, summer had also ended. Though I didn’t win my personal race with Steve, the Yankees won the World Series again. Sadly for me, this would be their last World Series title for fifteen years.

The next spring I also learned that with each new season came a new series of cards, just because TOPPS liked me so much. [Still later, when the market became flooded with other card companies, each manufacturer would produce several series a season, and so the endless supply that I thought existed became something of a reality. But by then, I was on to comic books.] And my family members—even my Nanny, my Mother’s mother—though not wealthy, could always find some pennies in their pockets or purses to indulge my obsession.

My whining for new cards didn’t always work, though. Not every whim can be indulged, after all, as I learned decades later when I became a father myself and had to say "No" to the endless requests for Barbie doll outfits and accessories. Oddly, I've never lamented the dearth of baseball cards in my daughters' years of growing up, for having girls has compensated me in ways I could never have imagined. And both daughters are unabashed Yankee fans, accompanying me several times to that Baseball-Mecca, Yankee Stadium. Still, I certainly commiserated then with my parents who suffered through my pouting, my screaming, my petulance, and my projections that they, of all parents in this world, were absolutely the meanest and most unloving.

***

While still in grammar school and still in the throes of my card-collecting passion, I suffered other fevers. I seemed to catch every bad germ that came through the school door:  earaches, strep throat, bronchitis, general sinus conditions, measles (both kinds) chicken pox, and of course, the dreaded stomach bugs. Being sick in bed, sometimes for whole weeks, had advantages other than missing school: I got more baseball cards, sometimes a new pack every day.

Once, when I was sick in bed on a Sunday, my parents and brother went without me on the weekly trip to visit my “other grandmother,” my dad’s mother. This Sunday ritual was so sacred that only a 102- degree fever could excuse my not going, so my parents left me in the care of my Nanny who had to be at church for a couple of hours that afternoon to cook for the Youth fellowship supper, leaving me for that time in bed alone. Which was really OK with me because, before he left, Dad moved his radio into my bedroom so I could listen to the broadcast of the Yankee-White Sox game. One of Birmingham’s stations carried the Sox broadcast since Birmingham’s minor league team, the Barons, was affiliated with Chicago. Sick as I was, I was also delirious to be listening uninterrupted to Sox announcer Milo Hamilton calling the play-by-play and Mickey Mantle’s thumping of the Pale Hose.

Before Nanny left that morning for church, she stopped by my room to make certain I was well enough to be left alone.

“I think so, “I moaned. “But could you bring me something back, Nanny?”

“Why sure, darling’. What do you want?”

“Some baseball cards from the bakery.”

After giving her precise instructions as to where to find the cards and what exactly to ask for, she left, and I spent the next two hours listening to the Yanks and dreaming of Yankee cards to come. It’s funny now to think about, but never in my card-buying experience did I ever believe that I would only get more doubles, just like I never believe now that a Yankee will hit into a double play. As the game ended and my anticipation matched my temperature, I heard the front door opening.  

Always when she arrived home, the second she opened the door she’d call out “Jo Ann (my mother), I’m back.” And while I knew that she knew Mom was still at my other grandmother’s, I expected Nanny to holler out something—my name, maybe. 

Nothing, at first. And then footsteps, passing through the living room, her bedroom, down the hall, and finally to my room.  

“Nanny?”  I squeaked.

Nothing.

The steps grew nearer, and before panic overwhelmed me, the door opened and there she stood. Or sort of. It was the Nanny I knew and loved, but on this early summer evening, I wasn’t sure that this woman really was my grandmother. Even though she was in her early 70’s, Nanny made sure that every time she left the house she was the perfect picture of Southern womanhood.  Clothes neatly matching her shoes and purse; hair was precisely pinned and combed. Hat if desired.

But when she walked in my room that Sunday, her hair was coming undone from its pins, her blouse collar was turned up and wrinkled, and the look on her face was a mask either of horror, pure outrage, or, I think now, utter humiliation.

“Don’t ever ask me to go inside that bakery again,” she cried as she threw three packs of baseball cards on my bed.

“Why?” 

Her eyes were bright, burning me with shame.

“Because it was too crowded and I kept getting jostled by these…people. And when I got to the counter, a man came right up to me and put his arm around my shoulder and said ‘Hey baby.’ A man, Buddy. A Nigra Man!”

She stared at me then for what seemed like a baseball inning. Then she turned and walked out. 

I didn’t call out, and I never asked her what she said to the man.

I didn’t know what to say really, or what to do.

So I just opened the packs of cards, and along with several doubles that day, I was both pleased and surprised to see Elston Howard’s face staring back at me as if he were glad to be home, to see me again after all this time. To welcome me to a world I was only just beginning to understand.

I kept those cards close to me for the next few years, believing that they, like everything else in my life, were a permanent fixture. One spring, my mother insisted that I keep them stored in the basement as they were simply "overflowing" in the boxes under my bed. And overflow was the word all right. The word that also described what ultimately happened to my treasured collection. As I returned from school one day in the fall of fourth grade, my mother greeted me with these, "You know that toilet in the basement, in the room where we store the Christmas decorations? It overflowed today. A pipe must have burst in the sewage line, and everything there was ruined."

"Really?"

"Yes, and I'm afraid your baseball cards are gone."

Gone. 

I can't say that I fully understood what I’d lost in that moment. But I knew I'd never fully forget the devastating feeling of helplessness.

 

 

Terry Barr teaches modern literature and creative writing at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, and lives in nearby Greenville with his wife and two daughters. He has had nonfiction essays published in various literary journals including American Literary Review, moonshine review, Scissors and Spackle, Subliminal Interiors, Poetica Magazine, Epiphany Magazine, Four Ties Lit Review, Steel Toe Review, and in the anthology, Half-Life, edited by Laurel Snyder.

 

Q&A

Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece? 

A: How I could visualize so clearly the family members, rooms, and expressions of a time that occurred some fifty years ago. The writing process opens doors to places I can’t believe I remember so well.

 

Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?

A: Always the best advice is to “go deeper.” I do follow the advice, because my critical readers manage to find those places in the piece that I’m no doubt unconsciously trying to avoid. Or trying to get to. Getting there makes the essay richer, and helps me confront the depths of my own experiences.

 

Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?

A: Mary Karr, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Allison Bechdel, and Craig Thompson.

 

Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own? 

A: I love writing in coffee joints and can do so readily, especially when I plug in my IPod. I listen to mood music such as XX, Beach House, Kraftwerk, and let the words flow onto the pages of my journal. With a large, dark-roasted café-au-lait, I’m all set.


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Moving Through Time:

Scene, Summary, Flashbacks, Backstory, and Transitions in Short Stories

by Jody Forrester

In the fiction-writing genre, interjecting backstory and accounting for transitions in time is a modern dilemma. The expansive novels of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and George Eliot were grounded in real time, starting at the beginning and ending at the end, and if somehow readers should lose track along the way, they need only refer to an extensive table of contents that could also double as a plot outline. The stories open with descriptive narrative and pages of exposition that set the scene and then proceed to unfold on a linear path of time. If further clarification or illumination were needed, the narrator didn’t hesitate to step out of the story to address the reader directly. 

In his book, The Art of Time in Memoir, Sven Birkerts notes, “There is in fact no faster way to smother the core meaning of a life, its elusive threads and connections, than with the heavy blanket of narrated event. Even the juiciest of scandals and revelations topple before the drone of, ‘And then…and then…’” (3).With that caveat, I seek, in my own writing, the transparency of time passing. The challenges inherent in the short story genre, where a minimum of well chosen words can exponentially amplify, are well met with the techniques detailed in this essay in stories penned by Tobias Wolff, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood. These writers are, for this student and reader, among those most worthy of study and emulation.

In modern literature, time as the infrastructure of a story has become passé. The concept of beginnings and ends is muddied with stories being launched somewhere in the middle. Time became labile as the internal voice and personal emotional landscape gained primacy. As the protagonist and cast of characters went inward, the rigid lines of time have become an abstracted concept rather than an organizing structure for storytelling. Guides insinuated into the storyline have become necessary for the reader to maintain orientation and connection. Time passing or past has become embedded in narrative, dialogue, setting, and character description. Transitions in time are implied with the use of white space or noted in the narrative in an apt transitional phrase. 

These tools are used by the writer to insert flashbacks and to reveal backstory. The trick, Francine Prose suggests in Reading for Writers, is “…to glide across the skips in time that propel the plot forward" (88). The three short story writers previously mentioned are excellent manipulators of time—at keeping the reader informed without losing the forward momentum of the primary story. 

***

Backstory is adroitly compressed in Margaret Atwood’s “The Headless Horseman.” The adult narrator stands on the threshold of her childhood home, lost in time:

Now we’re at the door. The persistence of material objects is becoming an amazement to me. It’s the same door—the one I used to go in through, out through, year after year, in my daily clothing or in various outfits and disguises, not thinking at all that I would some day be standing in front of this very same door with my grey-haired little sister (49).

The terse observation of her younger self reveals legions and contrasts sharply with her sense of herself as an adult. In a different story of Margaret Atwood’s, “The Other Place,” the reader learns from a tag at the end that the first-person narrator has told a story that occurred in the past. “That was all quite long ago. I see it in retrospect, indulgently, from the point I’ve reached now. But how else could I see it? We can’t really travel to the past, no matter how we try. If we do, it’s as tourists” (88). In the former, the recollection is inserted into a paragraph, mid-story; in the latter, the recollection is the story itself, but the reader is apprised of that only when the frame of reference is revealed in the end-tag. Narrators can observe and comment on what they don’t understand, permitting the reader insight into a character’s past experiences to give context to their current motivations. 

Alice Munro’s story, "Walker Brothers Cowboy," is set in the Great Depression. A man has lost his business, a fox farm, and is selling Walker Brothers products on a rural route in Eastern Ontario. His ten year-old daughter injects his backstory, per the following lean observation: “There are dogs lying in any kind of shade they can find, dreaming, their lean sides rising and sinking rapidly. They get up when my father opens the car door, he has to speak to them…He should know how to quiet animals, he has held desperate foxes with tongs around their necks” (my italics) (9). 

This is the reader’s first view into the narrator's past, informing us that her father hasn’t always been a salesman, and also gives context to his frustration and subsequent actions. The information is revealed in the daughter’s innocence of what is about to unfold. On that particular day, he leaves his wife at home to nurse her chronic headache and takes the children along as he drives his route. 

After a humiliating encounter at one of the homes he stops in at, he returns to the car and continues driving, no longer pulling into the farms and homesteads he passes, until he reaches the yard of a “short, sturdy woman” who is picking up washing that has been left outside to bleach and dry. “Oh, my Lord God,” she says harshly, “it’s you” (11).

Dialogue can have a referential role that informs the reader of the past without extensive narrative or exposition. With six words, the suggestion of past intimacy is lost on his daughter as the narrator, but alerts the reader, bringing us further into the story than a young girl could otherwise accomplish. The story continues without overt reference to what her father and the woman have shared in the past, but bits of dialogue like this as recorded by the daughter continue to inform the reader that they shared a romantic past and that the woman still cares for the father.

Tobias Wolff in "Bullet in the Brain" does a stellar job of suspending time in narrative by making the case, in the third-person voice, that synaptic activity in the brain moves more quickly than a bullet penetrating its tissue. The reader already knows that the man shot during a bank hold-up is an embittered literary critic and an impatient curmudgeon who holds himself aloof and above his fellow humans. The gun was fired when the critic provokes a robber by laughing at his uneducated language. In his final seconds, the more obvious memories, those that comprised the cornerstones of his adult life, are accounted for and dismissed, thus setting the stage for his final memory.

But before all this occurred, the first appearance of the bullet in the cerebrum set off a crackling chain of ion transports and neuro-transmissions. Because of their peculiar origin these traced a peculiar pattern, flukishly calling to life a summer afternoon some forty years past, and long since lost to memory (266). 

This final image evokes the critic at his best, the purity of his initiation into language. With this culminating revelation, the detestable protagonist strikes a last-minute sympathetic chord in the reader. 

Time can be abbreviated to reveal physical and emotional changes in characters. In a skillfully compressed description that moves the reader through the birth and debilitating illness of a mother’s newly born child in Margaret Atwood’s, "The Art of Cooking and Serving," the first-person narrator is the older daughter observing her mother. “From having been too fat, my mother now became too thin. She was gaunt from lack of sleep, her hair dull, her eyes bruised-looking, her shoulders hunched over” (21). This descriptive transitional sentence succeeds in moving the story forward more than two years.

A once prominent television personality in Alice Munro’s story, "Silence," is retired and marks the passage of time by observing peoples’ response to her. They would often stop her to ask, 

Aren’t you the lady that used to be on television? But after a year or so, this passed. She spent a lot of time sitting and reading, drinking coffee at sidewalk tables, and nobody noticed her. She let her hair grow out. During the years that it had been dyed red it had lost the vigor of its natural brown—it was a silvery brown now, fine and wavy. She was reminded of her mother, Sara. Sara’s soft, fair, flyaway hair, going gray and then white (126).

This passage, similar in function to Atwood's previous paragraph, moves the reader ahead by artfully compressing several years of the protagonist’s life.

Eliminating the need for overt and distracting flashback is well-accomplished by the art of compressing time. In Atwood’s story, "The Other Place," the protagonist notes in her first-person narrative:

I moved out of that city, and then into another one, and then another. I had a lot of moves still ahead of me. Yet things did work out after all. I met Tig, and then followed the cats and dogs and children, and the baking, and even the frilly white window curtains, though they eventually vanished in their turn: they got dirty too quickly, I discovered, and were hard to take down and put back up. I didn’t become any of the things I’d feared. I didn’t get the pimply bum I’d been threatening myself with, nor did I become a cast-out wandering orphan. I’ve lived in the same house now for decades (89).

The paragraph contextualizes the character as she makes her way through the many obstacles, both real and imagined, that would plague her younger self decades before.

Another gifted example of time passing is the opening paragraph of Tobias Wolff's story, "Deep Kiss”:

When Joe Reed was a boy of fifteen, his craziness over a girl became such a burden to his family, and such a curiosity to the small town where they lived, that his mother threatened to pack him off to his married sister in San Diego. But before this could happen Joe’s father died and his mother collected a large sum from Northwestern Mutual, sold the family pharmacy, and moved both Joe and herself to California. Thirty years passed. (my italics) In that time he heard nothing from the girl, Mary Claude Moore, but now and then word of her reached him through people back in Dunston. She dropped out of high school in her senior year, had a baby, got married, divorced, then remarried a few years later. That second marriage was the last thing Joe know about Mary Claude until he learned of her death (363).

Thirty years are spanned, beginning with an adolescent’s obsession, and proceeding through the death of his father, his mother’s move to California, and the marriages, divorces and children borne by the girl he was once enamored of. In transporting the narrative from the past to the present without detailing the delineation of time, the reader can accompany the protagonist, Joe Reed, as he looks over his life. 

There is another, equally compelling, concentration of time in the beginning paragraphs of Alice Munro’s, "The Progress of Love" (325). The first-person narrator receives an unexpected call from her father and when she asks how he is, he responds,

"Not so good, I guess,” said my father, in his old way—apologetic but self-respecting. “I think your mother’s gone.” I knew that gone meant dead. I knew that. But for a second or so I saw my mother in her black straw hat setting off down the lane. The word gone seemed full of nothing but a deep relief and even an excitement—the excitement you feel when a door closes and your house sinks back to normal and you let yourself loose into all the free space around you. That was in my father’s voice too—behind the apology, a queer sound like a gulped breath. But my mother hadn’t been a burden—she hadn’t been sick a day—and far from feeling relieved at her death, my father took it hard. He never got used to living alone, he said. He went to the Netterfield County Home quite willingly (324). 

The news of her mother’s death, the protagonist's initial disbelief and denial, and her father’s grief and subsequent move to a home are encompassed in a single paragraph. The beauty of this distilled passage is that the reader is moved with great skill from the father’s initial telephone call to the story that follows.

In Munro's story, "The Albanian Virgin," the narrator condenses the long course of a relationship in another one-sentence paragraph interjected mid-stream: “We become distant, close—distant, close—over and over again” (602).

***

Flashbacks provide explanation to the reader for a character’s motivation by inserting a scene or episode that occurred at an earlier time. Per the examples above, the past can be folded into the story, but sometimes it is necessary that more be revealed. To frame the flashbacks in her story, "Differently," Alice Munro makes frequent use of white space to skip time as well as the occasional use of parentheses.

They go to sit in what Maya used to call, with a certain flat cheerfulness, ‘the family room.’ (One evening Raymond had said to Ben and Georgia that it looked as if Maya wasn’t going to be able to have any children. “We try our best,” he said. “We use pillows and everything. But no luck…Maya and Georgia smile at each other primly while their husbands continued their playful conversation)” (499).

Georgia, the protagonist, is visiting Maya’s home in the present, having learned that her friend has died. She recalls a story from their shared past, a reference that the reader must rely upon to follow the story as it continues. Nine white spaces followed by flashback carry the story forward with guidance from the past. Georgia and Maya’s ex-husband sit together in the living room. Georgia recalls, for the reader, “The first time that Ben and Georgia went to Maya’s house, Harvey and Hilda were there. Maya was having a dinner party for just the six of them” (504). 

We see parentheses used again to inject a simple fact in Munro’s story, "Friend of My Youth." The narrator reveals, “I used to dream about my mother, and though the details in the dream varied, the surprise in it was always the same…In the dream I would be the age I really was, living the life I was really living, and I would discover that my mother was still alive. (The fact is, she died when I was in my early twenties and she in her early fifties” (454). 

Munro, in “White Dump,” will also use white space to move the story forward. “Magda is in the kitchen making the salad” (407), moves us ahead from a previous scene of food preparation that takes place during an earlier time in the same kitchen. In Munro’s “Chaddeleys and Flemings,” white space is used to move both backward and forward in time, from childhood to spinsterhood:

Now we’re at the door. The persistence of material objects is becoming an amazement to me. It’s the same door—the one I used to go in through, out through, year after year, in my daily clothing or in various outfits and disguises, not thinking at all that I would some day be standing in front of this very same door with my grey-haired little sister (49). 

But before all this occurred, the first appearance of the bullet in the cerebrum set off a crackling chain of ion transports and neuro-transmissions. Because of their peculiar origin these traced a peculiar pattern, flukishly calling to life a summer afternoon some forty years past, and long since lost to memory (266). 

Aren’t you the lady that used to be on television? But after a year or so, this passed. She spent a lot of time sitting and reading, drinking coffee at sidewalk tables, and nobody noticed her. She let her hair grow out. During the years that it had been dyed red it had lost the vigor of its natural brown—it was a silvery brown now, fine and wavy. She was reminded of her mother, Sara. Sara’s soft, fair, flyaway hair, going gray and then white (126).

I moved out of that city, and then into another one, and then another. I had a lot of moves still ahead of me. Yet things did work out after all. I met Tig, and then followed the cats and dogs and children, and the baking, and even the frilly white window curtains, though they eventually vanished in their turn: they got dirty too quickly, I discovered, and were hard to take down and put back up. I didn’t become any of the things I’d feared. I didn’t get the pimply bum I’d been threatening myself with, nor did I become a cast-out wandering orphan. I’ve lived in the same house now for decades (89).

When Joe Reed was a boy of fifteen, his craziness over a girl became such a burden to his family, and such a curiosity to the small town where they lived, that his mother threatened to pack him off to his married sister in San Diego. But before this could happen Joe’s father died and his mother collected a large sum from Northwestern Mutual, sold the family pharmacy, and moved both Joe and herself to California. Thirty years passed. (my italics) In that time he heard nothing from the girl, Mary Claude Moore, but now and then word of her reached him through people back in Dunston. She dropped out of high school in her senior year, had a baby, got married, divorced, then remarried a few years later. That second marriage was the last thing Joe know about Mary Claude until he learned of her death (363).

"Not so good, I guess,” said my father, in his old way—apologetic but self-respecting. “I think your mother’s gone.” I knew that gone meant dead. I knew that. But for a second or so I saw my mother in her black straw hat setting off down the lane. The word gone seemed full of nothing but a deep relief and even an excitement—the excitement you feel when a door closes and your house sinks back to normal and you let yourself loose into all the free space around you. That was in my father’s voice too—behind the apology, a queer sound like a gulped breath. But my mother hadn’t been a burden—she hadn’t been sick a day—and far from feeling relieved at her death, my father took it hard. He never got used to living alone, he said. He went to the Netterfield County Home quite willingly (324). 

They go to sit in what Maya used to call, with a certain flat cheerfulness, ‘the family room.’ (One evening Raymond had said to Ben and Georgia that it looked as if Maya wasn’t going to be able to have any children. “We try our best,” he said. “We use pillows and everything. But no luck…Maya and Georgia smile at each other primly while their husbands continued their playful conversation)” (499).

In their old age the aunts rented the farm, but continued to live on it. Some got cataracts in their eyes, some got arthritis, but they stayed on and looked after each other, and died there, all except the last one, Aunt Lizzie, who had to go to the County House (237).

Tobias Wolff uses ellipses within white space to alert the reader that time is about to take a big leap forward. In "Firelight," the first-person narrator is a boy who, on a chilly day, is visiting a house that his mother hopes to rent. He warms himself by the lit fireplace while his mother speaks with the current tenants. When she is ready to leave, he is held captive by the heat and ignores her calls. Following the penultimate paragraph, dotted white space precedes a single sentence—its placement meant to resolve the story's conflict by transporting us to the narrator's future. “I have my own fireplace now” (262).

Munro also uses ellipses within white space to jump further back in time than what follows the more typical clear white spaces. In her story, “The Progress of Love,” the narrator moves back in her own time following white space, while she moves back to the time before she is born following ellipses, per the following: white space precedes “In the summer of 1947, when I was twelve, I helped my mother paper the downstairs bedroom, the spare room” (328); ellipses precede “My mother’s name as a child was Marietta” (330).

A transitional phrase in the right place can reveal volumes. The narrator in Munro’s "Miles City, Montana," tells the story of a traumatic episode that occurred when her children were young. The passage concludes in the family car, her husband, Andrew, driving, their young children in the back seat. They are joyful to have the incident behind them and decide to celebrate. But a one-sentence paragraph interrupts the story to inform the reader that the marriage has been over for a long time. “I haven’t seen Andrew for years, don’t know if he is still thin, has gone completely gray, insists on lettuce, tells the truth, or is hearty and disappointed” (383). As a way of referencing time within the story, the reader knows the outcome even as the family road trip continues. 

The narrative tools of time distillation, revealing backstory, and the adroit placing of flashback are significant enough to engage, or lose, a reader. Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Tobias Wolff all demonstrate well that time, to be believed, must pass unseen.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. Moral Disorder: Stories. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2006. Print. 49;88;21;89.

Birkerts, Sven. The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2008. Print. 3.

Munro, Alice. Runaway: Stories. New York: Alfred A. Knoph, 2004. Hardcover. 9;11;126;324;325;499;504;454;407;237;262;328;383;602.

Prose, Francine. Reading for Writers, A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want To Write Them. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. Hardcover. 88.

Wolff, Tobias. Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories. New York; Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Hardcover. 262;266;363.

 

 

Jody A. Forrester, a former chiropractor, is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars (2010). Recent publications include Open City, Citron Review, Straylight, Two Hawks Quarterly, and the Missouri Review web-blog. She lives with her husband, musician John Schneider, in Venice, Calif. 


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Evil Women Characters—How Writing Them Tempts the Reader to Feel Oh-So-Good

by Wendi E. Berry

Bad characters make for good stories, but fallen angels make for great stories.  Bad, of course, is a subjective term—one person’s bad is another person’s good. When we look at a few of literature’s fated females— the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the narrator in Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary—we see enticing reasons to write about bad. All three heroines are corrupt in their own intriguing ways. 

O’Connor’s self-involved grandmother leads her family to their death, Hempel’s fearful narrator abandons her dying friend in the hospital, and Flaubert’s bored Emma Bovary lives beyond her means and commits adultery.  Each of them forces us to look at our dark side and willfully experience doing things that we would never do because someone else might be watching. In fact, if done properly, the tale of a bad woman can teach a reader much more about life than the tale of a good woman.  

People want to read about a character who does things they might never do, while still feeling they can relate to this person. The best way to create evil women who aren’t flat or a stereotype is to imbue them with humanity. In other words, give them dark and light sides. It is helpful to remember that a bad character doesn’t think she’s bad, (and to her mother, she’s probably not).Willful behavior is rooted in something. There are reasons and excuses for acting out.  

When crafting emotionally and psychologically complex characters, writers will want to consider a wide palette of options having characters make precise observations, giving them a purpose, making them physical on the page, and giving them inner contradiction. Let’s not forget the use of humor to help demonstrate their humanity.  

John Gardner states, “In the work of this highest class of novelists . . . is the writer’s gift for rendering the precise observations and feelings of a wide variety of characters (30). O’Connor precisely observes the grandmother “craftily, not telling the truth, but wishing that she were” (1,110) before convincing her son to take the fateful dirt road. She just wants to recall the good old days when there were no paved roads and thirty miles was a day’s journey.  But after driving for a while and not finding the good old days, she has a horrible thought: “The house she had remembered so vividly was not in Georgia but in Tennessee” (1,111). She is shocked over her delusion and we are shocked with her.  

In Hempel’s story, prior to the narrator’s decision to abandon her dying friend, she has fallen asleep and has a dream during which her friend has decorated a mirrored room and invites the narrator inside. The narrator wakes and says, “I have to go home” (663). In some cultures, people believe mirrors capture a person's soul. Alice in Wonderland  entered another world through a looking glass. The narrator’s subconscious seems to be telling her to get out while you still can.  In the parking lot, she feels “weak and small and failed/Also exhilarated” (663). The precise observations show the complexity of her feelings. 

Observations help readers understand what might be behind Emma Bovary’s desperate behavior as she tries to escape impending destitution. When she asks Rodolphe, the lover who’d previously shuns her for 3,000 francs and he cannot give her the money because he too is broke, her thoughts do not linger on blaming him or condemning herself for coming on to him like a prostitute. Instead, she convinces herself that  “she was suffering purely for love, and in remembering [Rodolphe], felt her soul slip from her, just as injured men, in their agony, feel life sweeping away, through their bleeding wounds” (293). Her thoughts are of purity. Emma thinks she is being good. This insight, though it does not excuse her behavior, does rationalize it.  

To closely observe the contemporary bitch in the house, we might look inside her purse and read the labels in her medicine cabinet. We might scroll through her palm pilot to see who has been calling, and read her blog and text messages. We might find out her hairdresser, her masseuse, and her pedicurist. These are all good ways to get access to the woman behind the bitch façade. 

In addition to observations, O’Connor, Hempel, and Flaubert give each female lead a purpose. It’s interesting how evil women justify their existence in a world that judges them harshly. Consider the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”  O’Connor provokes readers into identifying with her by revealing in the first two lines: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee” (1,106). O’Connor shows why the grandmother needs to see friends so badly. The grandmother’s son and daughter-in-law ignore her and the grandchildren are disrespectful. The grandson John Wesley says, “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” (1,106). 

Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction takes the concept of purpose one step further.  In literature, she says, “[Characters] should exhibit a range of possibility so that a shift of power in the plot can also produce a shift of purpose or morality. That is, they need to be capable of change” (124). The grandmother’s family dies as a consequence of her selfish, thoughtless actions, and the purpose changes to salvation. 

In Hempel’s story, the narrator’s initial purpose in going to see her friend in the hospital is consolation. In the first two lines of the story, the friend’s request, “Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting. Make it useless stuff or skip it” (658), is honored by the narrator. She doesn’t ask, What you do mean by useless? She entertains her friend by making her laugh. As it becomes more apparent that her friend is dying, the narrator’s fear takes precedence over any sense of altruism. Consider this narrative: “There was a second bed in the room when I got back to it! For two beats I didn’t get it. Then it hit me like an open coffin. She wants every minute … She wants my life” (661). It’s that fear that creates tension and makes the narrator’s losing struggle to be the good friend even more compelling. 

Madame Bovary’s initial purpose is to overcome boredom. Flaubert reveals it’s always been about ennui, even when Emma was 13 and her father placed her in a convent: “[During] confession, she made up little sins so as to stay there longer” (33).  Flaubert shows us that although Emma gets bored, she is not a boring person; she is passionate, “[discarding] as useless anything that did not lend itself to her heart’s immediate satisfaction” (34). In the 1850s, there’s not much that’s passionate about being middleclass. Women are wives and mothers, and if one’s husband is a dullard, what’s to be done?  It’s not long into her marriage that Emma asks, “Oh why dear God, did I marry him?” (41). When she was single, at least she had the option of returning to the convent; however, “this [married] life of hers was as cold as an attic that looks north” (42). Attending an upper-class ball causes a pivotal change: “…as [Emma] entered the room, [she] felt herself immersed in warmth” (45).  For the rest of the novel, she continually compares herself to the upper class and doesn’t see why she shouldn’t have what they have. She buys on credit to her eventual ruin. If Flaubert were here to defend his character, I believe he would argue that in Emma’s mind, she accomplished what she set out to do: “She sought to find out exactly what was meant in real life by the words felicity, passion and rapture, which had seemed so fine on the pages of the books” (33).

To attract the reader into feeling physically closer, and maybe even emotionally closer, the authors give vivid details of characters’ actions and appearance. O’Connor takes great care in showing the sights and sounds that convey the grandmother’s desire to go to Tennessee to gain readers’ sympathy for what otherwise might be construed as annoying, selfish behavior. For example, her “rattling the newspaper at [her son’s] bald head” and reminding him that “The Misfit is aloose” and “[the children] never have been to east Tennessee” (1,106) reveal her determination. When she is outvoted and the family leaves for Florida, she records the beginning mileage, 55890, and the time they start out, eight forty-five, because these factoids might interest her family and help sway them to go to Tennessee (1,107). These details help communicate to the reader just how passionately the grandmother wishes to go in the other direction. While we might not agree with the grandmother, or like her, we can connect with her sense of wanting something no one else wants and trying to fight for it. 

O’Connor further attracts the reader to the annoying grandmother by physically creating her for us, showing us in microscopic details what the grandmother is wearing:  “a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. … at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet” (1,107).  Giving such a close read of a character’s appearance is one way to shrink the psychic distance between the reader and character and create empathy.   

Flaubert takes great care in showing the things Emma buys and what she wears to appear upper class. On page 56, he writes, “Round her waist she had a cord with big tassels, and her little wine-red slippers had large knots of ribbon, spreading down over the in-step.”  There’s a lot of counting of flounces, three at the beginning, by the end, she has four.  Those things, the sensuality that tempts Emma to fall, are examined closely. In Victorian times, sexy was the glimpse of a gloved wrist or the outline of a woman’s foot in her shoe. The first time future-lover Monsieur Dupuis sees her, he observes, “With the tips of her fingers, she took hold of her dress at the knee, and, lifting it just to her ankle, held out to the fire, above the leg of mutton on the spit, a foot clad in a small black boot” (74). These details suggest not only attraction but compassion for Emma on Flaubert’s part. 

Hempel is an expert at implying detail. In an interview with The Paris Review, she defines a character “from outside, through the action of another” (176). As a counterpoint to the narrator’s fear, Hempel highlights her dying friend’s bravery: “She flew with me once. That time she flew with me she ate macadamia nuts while the wings bounced . . . She trusts the laws of aerodynamics” (661). Hempel implies the friend is so brave that we should be more worried for the narrator. We feel her guilt over bowing to her fear and abandoning her friend in the hospital, and this guilt makes her seem good.  

Revealing characters’ contradictions engages readers even more. We begin to see how someone might lead their family down the wrong path. The guilt of the grandmother’s “horrible thought” (1,111) after she knocks over the cat’s basket, causing an accident, may leave some readers thinking it’s too late for her redemption. We are horrified and feel her dizziness as she sinks into a ditch. But then there’s the contradiction that “her head cleared for an instant,” and she says to the Misfit, “Why you’re one of my babies” (1,116) as she reaches to touch his shoulder.  It may take a few reads to grasp O’Connor’s intention of an “action of grace in the Grandmother’s soul” but it’s there—compassion and salvation for the grandmother. 

Hempel reflects her character’s contradictions by showing outwardly she is doing things to console, however afraid she is. On the outside, she is calm and acting the good friend. She lists useless stuff at her friend’s request such as “Did she know that Tammy Wynette had changed her tune? Really. That now she sings, ‘Stand By Your Friends’?” (658). She wears a surgical mask, eats Good Humor ice cream bars, picks toasted almonds out of her friend’s gauze, and naps in the hospital bed next to her (662). But her thoughts belie increasing worry. For example: “I see fear in her now, and am not going to try to talk her out of it. She is right to be afraid” (661). The narrator’s scared thoughts eventually surface in speech when her friend asks, “What am I missing?” and the narrator blurts, “It’s earthquake weather” (662). Backstory reveals that when they were college roommates they thought they might die in the 1972 earthquake. The dream the narrator has while they nap pushes her to leave. She does not want to reach the other side of the looking glass.

Contradiction helps make characters complex and more real. For example, Emma Bovary makes the observation after being married “as the intimacy of their daily life began to bind them closer, so there grew an upward detachment which freed her from [her husband]” (38).  An important aspect of contradiction is seeing a character do one thing, while thinking another. 

Flaubert conjures up contradiction with humor: 

  • A doctor from Yvetot, with whom [Charles] had recently happened to confer, had humiliated him somewhat, right at the patient’s bedside, in front of the assembled relatives. When Charles told her, that evening, about the incident, Emma raged loud and long against his colleague.  Charles was touched at this. He kissed her forehead with a tear in his eye. But she was boiling with shame, she wanted to hit him, she went out to the passage to open the window, and breathe in the fresh air herself to calm herself. ‘What a pathetic man!  What a pathetic man!’ She said in a whisper, biting her lip. (57)

The use of humor further seduces readers into getting close to these bad women. Finding them funny, we are disarmed and begin to feel what they are feeling and trying to understand their impulses. How can we not pity the poor grandmother who carries a black valise that resembles the head of a hippopotamus? And who brings along her cat, Pitty Sing, that will later cause the accident: “He would miss her too much and she was afraid he might brush against one of the gas burners and accidentally asphyxiate himself” (1,106-7). The alliteration lends humor and laughter implicates us in the grandmother’s death. 

Hempel’s story relies on a shield of humor to assuage the narrator’s guilt. One example is the anecdote about the chimp: “When they first taught it to talk, it lied? That when they asked her who did it on the desk, she signed back Max, the janitor” (658). At the end of the story, the chimp, we learn, has a baby that dies, and through sign language, the chimps says, “Baby, come hug” repeatedly in the “language of grief” (664). Through the anecdote, we realize the narrator’s regret. In all three stories, the authors shine a light through humor on the darker aspects of our personality that we might not be willing to confront otherwise.   

Based on actions alone, these bad women would read unsympathetically. But their authors take great care in rendering them, and the thoughtful reader will see their humanness, find compelling reasons for their behavior, widen what they know of human experience, and walk a mile in their stilettos…for a while, anyway. 

 

Works Cited

Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 6th ed. New York: Longman, 2003. Print. 

Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. London: Penguin Classics, 2003. Print. 

Gardner, John. On Becoming a Novelist. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 1999. Print. 

Hempel, Amy. “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.” The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Ed. Ann Charters. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 658-664. Print. 

Hempel, Amy. “The Art of Fiction No. 176” Interview by Paul Winner. The Paris Review. Summer 2003. No. 166. Web. 6 Oct. 2012.

O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Ed. Ann Charters. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 1106=1117. Print. 

O’Connor, Flannery. “A Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable.” The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Ed. Ann Charters. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 1621-1623. Print.

 

 

Wendi E. Berry teaches college writing at the University of Richmond for the School of Professional and Continuing Studies and at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. Earning her MFA from Queens University in 2008, she presented a craft seminar on “Writing Evil Women” that January. She’s currently revising a 400-page novel set in Richmond, Va., where she was born and raised, and after being away for 30 years, has returned to in time for her thirty-fifth high school reunion.


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The Flight Cage

Rebecca Dunham 

Tupelo Press, 2010

Reviewed by Paul David Adkins

A Woman Possessed: Rebecca Dunham, Mary Wollstonecraft, and The Flight Cage

Mary Wollstonecraft described Scandinavia, in Letter II of her travel discourse Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, as a place where “[t]he waters murmur, and fall with more than mortal music.”  Rebecca Dunham has likewise crafted her second full-length collection The Flight Cage into a most majestic and musical descent.  She captures the blended elements of water and flight to beautifully depict struggles common to women over three centuries.  

Dunham’s muse is Wollstonecraft, the 18th century feminist and writer who penned, among other works, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Letters Written during a Short Residence.  Dunham assimilates Wollstonecraft’s quotes, passages, or experiences into at least 31 of the 45 poems, allowing Wollstonecraft to direct, animate, and inhabit The Flight Cage and providing the collection with immediacy and life.  If Dante had Virgil to guide him, Dunham’s companion is clearly Wollstonecraft. 

Dunham breaks The Flight Cage into three sections:  “Terra Incognita,” “A Short Residence,” and “Séance.”  These segments are quite distinctive from one another, but themes of water, descent, and loss thread through each portion, cinching the collection together.  

The opening poem, “Mary Wollstonecraft in Flight,” sets the tone for the volume with its brilliant construction and enjambment.  The author creates a cascading feel by breaking seven of the first eleven lines between adjectives and their associated nouns:

 

So many rivers.  Blood churning

through the veins, rain’s 

 

roped course down my wet

and unbound hair, the Thames’ cold

body below.  His forked

 

voice licked my ears

clean.  Men are strange machines. 

 

Coupled with this marvelous, musical tumbling, Dunham juxtaposes Wollstonecraft preparing for a suicidal plunge:

 

I have nothing 

to fear from the water’s mean slap.

 

Let my lungs be coin heavy.

Let their two ruched pouches

swell pink and full as I sink, let

 

Putney Bridge be my final perch

and the October wind, my screech.  

 

If Wollstonecraft guides the speaker through “Terra Incognita,” she possesses her in “A Short Residence.”  In a remarkable set of 25 short poems designed to complement Letters Written, Wollstonecraft’s voice accompanies the speaker through every aspect of modern life, from ironing clothes, to using a swimming pool, to hosing dead mice from an air conditioner. 

The section consists exclusively of poems composed of three cinquains.  The close of each piece roughly forms the opening line of the next, creating a quasi-sonnet crown.  The fact that each poem is structured differently and is slightly longer than a sonnet is significant.  This construct exemplifies the speaker’s, and Wollstonecraft’s, attempts to repeatedly break conventions, and their inability to truly free themselves.  

While dissimilar structurally, “A Short Residence” is thematically akin to Mary Winegarden’s poetry volume The Translator’s Sister.  In Winegarden’s book, the speaker threads it with passages written by her dead sibling.  The two women often seem to converse.  Dunham’s speaker, however, draws an understanding of her own situation by introducing select passages from Wollstonecraft’s treatise.  In Poem VIII, the speaker notes:

 

The rainwater means death:

the fear of annihilation – the only thing

of which I have ever felt a dread.

It creeps beneath the walkout

door, soaking carpet, and so we turn

 

the air on.  

 

And later, in Poem XXI, the speaker explains:

 

This is a kind of sense, when 

the sting of my fist makes me hit it

again, just so I don’t have

to feel it.  Whether hospitals or work-

houses are anywhere superintended

 

with sufficient humanity, I have frequently

had reason to doubt.

 

“A Short Residence” is cage-like, uniform in size and spacing.  The poems are welded together, and as with a sonnet crown, Dunham links the first and last pieces: the first poem in the section begins, “Brick and butter leaves thread // the breeze that banners our side porch,” and the last closes, “threading and rethreading // the legs of transparent ties.” 

Dunham’s use of literary references in the final section, “Séance,” is significant.  Three of the section’s nine poems cite stories or poetry as inspiration, connecting the reader to women whose writing reflects a kinship with Wollstonecraft. 

Dunham opens the final section with “Elegy for Mrs. Danvers,” inspired by Daphne de Maurier’s 1938 novel “Rebecca.”  In the story, the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers jealously guards the memory of the story’s namesake.  Some critics suggest Mrs. Danvers is actually possessed by the dead woman in order to deny happiness to her recently remarried husband.  At the close, Mrs. Danvers burns Manderley, the estate of Rebecca’s husband.  Though du Maurier does not mention the demise of her antagonist, Dunham’s speaker declares Mrs. Danver’s fate as that of self-immolation:

 

The end is always the same.

Caught in Manderley’s gut, its frame

erupts about her iron form –

a living beast whose muscles shift

chinoiserie over embered skeleton.  

 

In “Yellow,” inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the speaker confesses, “I think I am made for loss.” 

Dunham eventually reconnects with her muse in “Confinement Ghazal,” but under brutal circumstances.  Wollstonecraft, dying after childbirth, “shivers in sepsis, shaking.  Then the puppies // are on her, pulling milk from glutted breasts, eyes closed.” The poem intensifies, and it seems the speaker, Dunham, and Wollstonecraft all merge into one woman:

 

Crotch shaved, chloroformed, they strap my mother down,

slice her open, and pull me free, pinced in a metal claw.

 

Push, Rebecca.  The doctor readies his knives and it is

as if the hand of God himself is there to set me screaming. 

 

After that excruciating scene, the poet shifts tone.  “Nought to be heard but the screech owl // and you,” she writes in the opening line of the next poem, “Séance,” thus trading the world of the living for that of the dead.

But “Séance,” as it turns out, is no relief.  Wollstonecraft returns to her sister Bess, trapped in her insanity-inducing marriage, and violence ensues between the two.  Mary declares,

 

I give you my back, lost cargo,

a shipwreck.  Your lips will not mold

 

mine to your design.  Tendrils of hair vine

your neck.  Like rope, I twist them

 

to whips in my fists.  You refuse to see.

What I want is you, on your knees. 

 

In the collection’s final poems, Dunham returns full circle to Salem, witnessing the imprisonment of Sarah Good, the first condemned victim of the inquisition.  Ms. Good’s daughter, as well as Ann Putnam, accused Good of witchcraft.  Awaiting execution, Good declares:

 

. . . Motherhood’s an omen

that pricks and pinches, a needling in

 

the gut, drenching us all in blood-soaked

rags that we change in a privy’s oak

dark shame and oh, we are all afflicted. 

 

This poem represents a closing of the cage, a confirmation that imprisonment and permanent enclosure is the universal fate of women. 

“Oubliette,” the final poem of the volume, written in loose villanelle format with varied meter, remains true to the theme of descent; the title comes from the French, meaning a dungeon accessible only from the top, roughly translated as “forgotten.”  The poet touches on the famous “Man in the Iron Mask” and his anonymous, indefinite incarceration. As with the quasi-sonnet crown in “A Short Residence,” the speaker attempts to readjust her parameters.  And again, she cannot break free.  Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the poem is the speaker’s resignation:

 

This is not a lament.  My face

wears a mask I cannot lift.

Knock on it and it will sing . . . 

 

She closes, stating,

 

I speak through it and a voice

rises up and out, a thin wind.

This is not lament, but refrain.

Knock on it and it will sing.

 

The word “refrain” is especially significant to the construct of a villanelle, indicating the recurrence of specific lines in accordance with traditional patterns; however, in this case, the word carries much more weight as a verb than a noun.  If one reads “refrain” as imperative, the entire poem shifts from hope (in that it is not a lament) to one of complete imprisonment and submission.  What remains unsaid overwhelms the speaker, and by refraining, she admits there is nothing left useful to say.

Domestic images dot The Flight Cage.  Bowls, pie pans, and lace litter the poems.  One terrifying aspect of the volume is that violence is contained almost entirely within a domestic setting.  Though pre-Victorian London was notorious for street crime, the criminality Dunham records occurred in houses, privies, and kitchens.  It was inflicted not by lurking strangers, but men sharing the victims’ bedrooms.  

From Wollstonecraft’s terrible perch, descending to a squalid dungeon, Dunham records 200 years of abuse.  She provides no denouement to the narrative arc, no reconciliation or feel-good end.  With this courageous admission, the poet is completely true to her subject.  There is no escape from the cage.  

Dunham confirms what Wollstonecraft declared in 1795, when she wrote that the world is a prison to women. Dunham notes, “I must even ask my employer’s permission // to take a walk,” and the prison fetters are, “tattooed like links // across the wild expanse of her skin.”

 

Paul David Adkins grew up in South Florida, and lives in New York.


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“I do think character emerges from place. So much emerges from place, actually. A writer can mine much from a given locale: narrative voice, metaphors large and small, characters, conflict, and more.”

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Interview with Andrew Scott

By Sahar Mustafah

 

Andrew Scott is the author of a short story collection Naked Summer (Press 53), named a Notable Collection by the Story Prize in 2012. The stories were previously published by Esquire, Superstition Review, Hobart, and other journals. He received an MFA from New Mexico State University. His interviews with other authors have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, The Writer’s Chronicle, and The Cincinnati Review. He is currently at work on a literary crime novel, and is co-writing a graphic novel with author Bryan Furuness. Scott teaches writing at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. He lives with his wife, the writer and publisher Victoria Barrett. He recently visited a Fiction Writers and Publishing class at Columbia College Chicago, from which this interview eventually emerged.

An interest in fiction writing from the Midwest has surged with such works as Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage and Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff. Naked Summer is also set in this area of the country, specifically around the city of Lafayette, Indiana.  Can you discuss the challenges of the Midwest label?  

All of the clichés that are heaped upon Midwesterners—that we’re good-natured, quiet, simple—help create tension when a writer engages them in fiction, because a lot of readers don’t expect people in “the flyover” to have rich inner lives. I think that surprise factor can be an advantage for writers. That said, I do think the Midwest, like any other place, really, can be exoticized in problematic ways. We’re not just one big meth farm from Michigan to Missouri, for instance, even if that is an element worth exploring in fiction. Thank goodness Breaking Bad isn’t set in the Midwest. 

No artist likes to be labeled. Writers from Mississippi often bristle at being called Southern writers as often as they resist the expected comparisons to Faulkner, if only because that’s an unfair juxtaposition for any author to endure. I embrace the idea of being a Midwestern writer, or a writer from the Midwest, for a number of reasons. First, it’s just who I am, and there’s no use running from it. But I also have friends who’ve left for Los Angeles or New York, and what makes them interesting in that new environment is often the unique experiences and personalities that were forged here in the Midwest. Kurt Vonnegut said, “If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.” But finally, I also think writers from the Midwest are as talented, challenging, engaging, intelligent, and just plain compelling as any writers in America. Plus, the cost of living can’t be beat.

Though not explicitly named, Purdue University serves as a backdrop in several of your stories.  How central is the university culture and setting to your collection? 

West Lafayette is home to Purdue University, the largest employer in Tippecanoe County, but there’s also a rich mixture of blue-collar jobs—Alcoa, Caterpillar, Wabash National (one of the leading manufacturers of semi trailers in the country)—as well as high-tech positions related to the university’s efforts to promote what is sometimes called the idea economy. 

The so-called town and gown divide isn’t as clearly demarcated in Lafayette as it is elsewhere, but it still exists. Students arrive in August like a swarm of locusts, but they also keep many small businesses afloat, even during the lean summer months. In some ways, the place is represented by this dichotomy and could be said to mirror some of the choices my characters must make about whether to leave or stay, whether that choice is about Indiana or a relationship. 

In that way, I do think character emerges from place. So much emerges from place, actually. A writer can mine much from a given locale: narrative voice, metaphors large and small, characters, conflict, and more. The stories in Naked Summer seemed to naturally emerge from my knowledge, emotional and physical, of a small pocket of land in a state that is often overlooked.

Let’s talk more about your process.  Some writers have a story first, then characters are born; other writers begin with characters and their stories naturally unfold. Few writers (like yours truly) actually conjure a title first and a story follows. What is the generative process like for you? 

Titles come to me before anything else, often. I use them to keep me going, or to develop a concept, and sometimes to think about thematic concerns—what I might be up to in a particular piece. But if for some reason a title doesn’t work for that particular story, I keep it for later, just in case. I usually have many more titles floating around than scraps of scenes. 

I don’t think it’s necessarily the best way to move forward. Plenty of writers get hung up on a certain title, even if that title no longer fits the story. I’m willing to ditch a title as long as a better one comes along, but having a title in place early has often helped me consider the piece in a more serious way. I have a hard time getting serious about a few lines scribbled on a scrap of paper unless I know those lines will fit into a specific story. For me to think about a story’s specifics, I usually have to know its title, even if that title will change. Whatever works. 

How do you determine point of view from story to story? 

Point of view is certainly one of the most important decisions a writer makes during the process of crafting a narrative. Some writers don’t even make that choice, opting instead to channel their characters’ voices only in the first person, or to use third-person POV as some kind of default setting. I think a writer’s choices or assumptions regarding point of view should always be examined. 

When the words on the page lend themselves to a particular POV choice, I know I’ve been lucky enough to get it right the first time. But usually I have to tinker with a draft until only one option, the right option, emerges. For the three first-person stories in Naked Summer, the voices came naturally, but those narrators—men, all of them—are short on self-knowledge. Two of those three stories are also very short, physical proof that it’s hard for me to maintain a longer narrative told by a man who doesn’t know much. 

A creative writing professor once stated that the handling of perspective in your story “A Model Life” shouldn’t have worked, but admitted it does work. Can you discuss this contention? 

That comment I mentioned came not from one of my mentors, but from a teaching colleague. But, in general, I do think many writers and editors—especially those currently enrolled in MFA programs, or recently graduated from one—are too limited in what they consider the proper handling of point of view. “A Model Life” alternates between the points of view of a married couple, and readers are nestled closely in each character’s perspective for short sections. It’s short, even for a story, but why shouldn’t it work? 

There’s a huge difference between a story with a wandering point of view, where the writer is not in control, and a story where the writer has worked meticulously to control those elements for a specific reason. I didn’t invent some new way of addressing point of view, but I did closely read the work of expansive masters like Chekhov with an eye toward what is possible, which is the opposite of thinking about which rules writers must follow. At the end of his story “Gusev,” for instance, the truly omniscient point of view moves across several perspectives, including that of a shark and the ocean itself. If a writer says, well, Chekhov can get away with it, but you’re not allowed, then that writer doesn’t get it. At all.

Have you ever made a significant change in POV that actually altered a story more drastically than originally anticipated? 

Oh, sure. Sometimes I’ve made a change that hasn’t worked, and it’s hard to go back to the earlier draft, but “Naked Summer,” the title story, was drastically improved and altered because of a change to the third person during an earlier revision stage. That opened up the possibilities, making it much easier to dive into the lives of the secondary characters—the protagonist’s love interest, his landlady, his best friend, and so on—which enlarged the story in ways far beyond its length. 

You played a bit with the title of your collection until changing it back to Naked Summer. How did the title story, which was also renamed several times, cohesively link the rest in the collection? 

You know how little kids are sometimes allowed to run around nearly naked in the summer, even though nobody is exactly comfortable with the idea? I heard a stranger say that it would be one little girl’s last summer for that behavior—meaning the girl would soon be too old, or too aware of her own nakedness and what it might mean, to act that way in public. I grabbed that idea and used it for the story. 

The original title was pretty boring, “One Summer,” actually, but having “summer” in that title—which I now think of as a placeholder—provided a different filter through which to perceive that comment. That piece went through several titles before I found the right one, actually, which is rare for me. Usually I can hit on the title fairly early in the process. 

Speaking of kids, two of your stories, “The Hypnotist” and “Uniform,” involve teenage protagonists.  Is there a particular sensibility required to write about younger characters?  

Maurice Sendak said he didn’t write for children, and a lot of the best books for younger readers seem to be written by authors who share that sentiment, which perhaps boils down to the idea that a writer shouldn’t sugar-coat anything. Young characters still have to be good characters, so they should be flawed, they should want something, and they should have conflicting thoughts and desires. A lot of literary fiction about children or teenagers seems to forget this, and that’s how we get characters in grade school who sound like adults when they speak. Authors who want to write about younger characters should remember that bad things happen to children, which means bad things must—at least sometimes—happen to younger characters. 

The stories you cited do indeed feature protagonists who are teenagers— a boy and girl, respectively. Thematically, the stories fit the rest of the collection, but they’re a bit darker than the others. In “Uniform,” the boy—he’s eighteen, but a high school junior—begins an affair with the woman across the street; in “The Hypnotist,” a girl whose parents have died in a car accident must watch as her brother, who’s now paralyzed, is brought up onstage as part of a traveling hypnotist’s act.

How did your stories make the final cut? Was there a particular story you fought for that did not make it?

Every story I wanted to include was included. In this book’s long evolution, a few other stories came and went, most notably the former title story, which I removed a few years ago. It’s now a novella that will likely become the anchor for a collection of stories about that group of characters. It just didn’t belong in Naked Summer.

My grad school mentor, Kevin McIlvoy, has talked about searching for a tuning fork story when assembling a collection, an idea that helped. But once I decided that the newly made novella wouldn’t fit with the other stories, I lost my original tuning fork. It took some time before I knew for sure that “Naked Summer” could be that story. When I submitted the manuscript to Press 53, I had recently changed the title of the book, thinking the title of the opening story, “Living Guilt-Free in These United States,” somehow better represented the book as a whole. One of the few changes my publisher required was for me to change the title back to Naked Summer, which had been the manuscript’s title for several years. Easy change. 

You mentioned you revised the stories several times. Aside from when they are finally accepted for publication, how do you decide that a story is finally “done”?  

I often don’t know when a story is done, which can be a serious problem to have. What I’ve learned is that serious writers are serious about revision, so to become a serious writer, I tried to take revision seriously, which meant that I trained myself to not think of a story as “done” for many, many drafts. 

But that morphed, over time, into a negative mindset that did not reflect the actual quality of the stories-in-progress. I knew I could always make them better, which meant they weren’t good enough as they were. Even after the stories in my book had been revised more than a dozen times each, fifteen times, twenty, when I’d step away from the manuscript for a few months, I’d keep thinking that the book was a wreck not worth salvaging. And each time, once I sat back down to face the pages with pen in hand, I’d discover that the stories actually weren’t embarrassing. 

One nice side effect of finally publishing the collection is that now, when I have moments of doubt at the writing desk, I can look over and see my book on the shelf, a physical artifact to remind me that I have done this before, and I can do it again.

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Sahar Mustafah is a writer and teacher in Illinois. Her fiction has appeared in Dinarzad’s Children, Mizna, and Columbia College Chicago’s 2012 Story Week Reader, and she was a Featured Writer in New Scriptor, an Illinois Educators Forum. She recently performed her nonfiction piece “Unveiled” at 2nd Story, a staged story collective in Chicago. She is a board member on Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI) and is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction at Columbia College Chicago. 


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Joachim Liedtke is a passionate webdesigner and photographer based in the most northerly provincial capital of Germany called Kiel. He enjoys his spare time with his wife, their two children and a cat named 'Herr Nielson'. See more of his work at http://www.joachimliedtke.com.