Bob DeBris, Iowa Beanfield, 2006. Ultrachrome pigment print,15x15.

Spotlight: Selections from Leisure Seizure

This work has been selected from an ongoing series, Leisure Seizure.

Theres a lot of weird stuff out there, some of the objects were created to promote long gone businesses, abandoned building projects or doomed theme parks. Some of it is simply an act of whimsy. […]

Writers Read: The Feel Trio by Fred Moten

Feel Trio CoverFred Moten’s writing is being lost. Or found. Or the kind of lost you want—the wind whipping through trees in Alabama or words that come in meaningful bursts, though you are unsure of the meaning or the source of the bursts. You reel in a mad maelstrom of feeling, entirely precognitive but at once familiar, unselfconscious. Fred Moten’s writing seems to settle somewhere in the lizard brain, or perhaps the collective brain, the third eye or whatever you’d like to call community. Black community. The collective black voice. “the violence of the coping strata is specific and seasoned,” he writes; there is a decidedly academic tone here, but one that invites rather than rejects.

The Feel Trio is an homage to music, to the musical spaces that gave voice to James Brown and Curtis Mayfield. To the emotional space carved out by the work of James Baldwin.

The Feel Trio is an homage to music, to the musical spaces that gave voice to James Brown and Curtis Mayfield. To the emotional space carved out by the work of James Baldwin. In the last of the three Feel Trios, Fred writes, “I burn communities in shadow, underground, up on the / plateau, then slide with the horny horns. vision’s festival / is folded in overtones and outskirts. j tizol, harry carnival / and feel lined out around an open forte…” There is a definite nod to the genre of jazz here—musicians of color in particular, a reimagining of the life they’ve created with their art and the art that’s created their lives. But it is also music itself, rising and falling and lilting and flowing its own rhythms. In parts, The Feel Trio seems to shed language altogether, settling into sound, echoing perhaps what Lewis Carroll might do with it but in an entirely unique way. An astounding sound coupled with Fred’s voice that appears every once in a while—his colloquial voice, spoken in a noisy café, or his essayistic voice, spoken in a seminar on black radical thought, which are both the same voice but not. His writing is so impenetrable as to be unapologetically black; if you don’t get it then maybe you’re not trying hard enough, not allowing yourself to get it. So dense as to make the brain shudder. So oblique as to only be glimpsed from certain angles, from sufficient distance. In the first of the “feel trios”, entitled block chapel, he writes, “the violence of the coping strata is specific and seasoned.” Fred writes as if he is stating the obvious, but what he writes is power and place, in the same way that jazz states the obvious, fills the sonic space of what hasn’t yet been said. Music and poetry are matters of fact, and matters of love.

fredmoten_kariorvik

photo by Kari Orvik

It’s difficult to be fresh with language. It’s easy, as a writer, to fall into personal patterns or, worse still, clichés or archetypes. And yet Fred achieves this freshness—his work strays so far from archetype as to become wholly unfamiliar, unclassifiable, unexpected, which is to say that I was surprised at almost every line. The rhythms change constantly—undulating between short, terse, verb- and noun-heavy staccato shots and long, meandering lines that approach the structure of an academic paper’s sentences without ever achieving completion. Your mind, as a reader, switches so swiftly between modes of understanding that the recognizable loses its comforting swaddle and you’re left feeling raw and, ultimately, reawakened to the power of language. The way a child feels about language, before the mind settles. Fred’s words scrub the hard exterior of the uncompromising adult, chafe the brain, leave it young and curious once again. This is what the best poetry does, showing us that the ordinary need not be: “Compromised ordinariness,” he writes, “is an ordinary compromise. / as if there’s more danger in the / idea of flight than in staying / home. as if laying back where / you stay precludes flying, as if / the symposium were theirs alone.”

Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio has this something else, this duende, this authenticity of feeling, unweighed by ideation and overt intention, though there is clearly intentionality to the work. It is careful but unrestrained, which is a balance even the best poets struggle to find, but Fred seems to glide into effortlessly.

I sometimes try to explain what poetry is supposed to do to those who do not read it, to those who claim that it’s just not their thing. I want everyone to, because poetry is feeling. But I can’t. Because it’s inexplicable. Or unexplainable. Because, while we might break down the pleasant sonic quality of assonance or the way off rhymes are often more satisfying than straight thymes or the way lines breaks might imbue additional layers of meaning to a poem, all of these are craft, and poetry, good poetry, is meant to have something else. Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio has this something else, this duende, this authenticity of feeling, unweighed by ideation and overt intention, though there is clearly intentionality to the work. It is careful but unrestrained, which is a balance even the best poets struggle to find, but Fred seems to glide into effortlessly.

Fred Moten says astounding things in The Feel Trio, but it is his voice that carries the work. As a reader, I found myself alternating between the discomfort of not knowing what to think (which is an exquisite form of pleasure) and the comfort of familiarity—at times measured and at others bursting with feeling—as if Fred has always been there, coming in from some back room to impart wisdom, advice, or simply conversation. An encouraging word—the oft-repeated refrain, come on get it, which is the name of the second of the feel trios. “but I just want to sit here with you if that’s all right,” writes Fred Moten. Yes. It’s quite all right, Fred. Please do.

References
Moten, Fred. The Feel Trio. Tucson, AZ: Letter Machine Editions, 2014. Print.

Alex Simand_headshotAlex Simand makes his living as an engineer but sometimes muster the courage to call himself a writer. Alex holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. He lives in San Francisco, hails from Toronto, and probably talks about poutine too much. Alex worked on Lunch Ticket for the past two issues in various roles, including copyeditor, CNF editor, and, most recently, blog editor. His work has appeared in Angel City Review, Ash & Bones, Ultraviolet Tribe, Drunk Monkeys, Mudseason Review, and Red Fez, among others. He has been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net Award. Alex writes good essays, bad poems, and vice-versa.

Writers Read: About This Life by Barry Lopez

abouthislifeIn the introduction to his essay anthology, About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, Barry Lopez describes becoming a writer and finding his voice. He writes of the universality of story in all cultures, a binding theme in this collection: “Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives. It is through story that we embrace the great breadth of memory, that we can distinguish what is true, and that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us.” (13)

Lopez proceeds to give us the most beautiful stories from his travels around the world, stories of exploration, of nature in the crosshairs, of his own personal embrace of memory. His lyrical, metaphorical prose is on display in these essays, and his existential discoveries resonate.

“Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives…”

Part one of this anthology includes essays from travel abroad, to the extreme reaches of humanity: Bonaire, the northern tip of northernmost Japan, Galapagos, Antarctica. In Bonaire, Lopez wrestles with the juxtaposition of the “conspicuous wealth of… visitors” (30) against the poverty and “praying mantis economy” (22) of the native Bonaireans. “The contrast between a desiccated land and the rococo display of life in the sea, between hardscrabble existence on tenuous farming land holds and the burgeoning growth of condominiums to provide housing for divers like myself made sleep difficult” (23). In Galapagos, Lopez again explores juxtapositions, this time of abundant life and “violent death” (64): “Images of innocent repose and violence are never far apart… and the visitor is nowhere spared the contrast. He or she scans the seascape and landscape… acutely aware of the light hold the biological has on the slow, brutal upheaval of the geological” (58).

In Hokkaido, Japan, Lopez transcends the language barrier to find common interest in birds and nature with an elder. He explores communication without translation. Challenged to “rekindle the ancient relationship of interdependence between man and animal” (48), he accepts the gift of a feather from the elder: “Here, in an owl’s long flight feather, is the illiterate voice of the heart” (49). Even further into the extreme, Lopez visits Antarctica to experience the desiccated remains of errant wandering seals, preserved for decades by cold and lack of scavengers. Of the seals he writes: “They were inconsolable. They had made an error. Their lips parted in some final, incoherent noise. They had, most of them, died alone. Some lay with the clouded eyes of the blind, preserved for years in abject disbelief” (71). Finally, Lopez journeys through time by hopping commercial flights in rapid succession in “Flight,” an existential rumination of space and time. He discovers “that time pooled in every part of the world as if in a basin. The dimension, the transparency, and the agitation were everywhere different” (107). These lyrical passages delve further than the boundaries of travel writing usually permit. Lopez’s particular skill with language allows it.

Barry Lopez, photo by David Liittschwager

Barry Lopez, photo by David Liittschwager

In part two, we journey with Lopez in America, the place of “landscape and memory” (143), exploring how humans and animals intersect. In “Apologia” he writes of his habit of stopping his car to remove roadkill from the road. “We treat the attrition of lives on the road like the attrition of lives in war: horrifying, unavoidable, justified. Accepting the slaughter leaves people momentarily fractious, embarrassed” (116). In Lopez’s “In a Country of Light, Among Animals,” an essay about summer in Alaska’s Brooks Range, he circumvents anthropomorphizing (while writing about it) by calling each species by its native name. Brilliant. He writes of native people whose cultural memory of animals is generational, people who “examine intuitive and personal feelings about wild animals with no fear of anthropomorphism” (121). In such a place, “one’s prejudices in favor of a superior Western system of knowledge are so obvious, so racist, they bring conversation to a halt” (121).

With “The American Geopraphies,” Lopez explores the dangers of a national geographic identity, and implores us to seek and know our local geography. And in “Effleurage” and “The Whaleboat,” Lopez examines the relationship between people, place, and objects, through the physical art of pottery in the former, and his own connection to the land around his home and his relationship to his writing room in the latter.

In parts three and four, Lopez delves further into the personal, into the poetry of memory and the landscape of a life, “wondering more than anything at the way memory, given so little, could surge so unerringly” (200). In “A Passage of the Hands,” Lopez explores texture, physical contact and how touch inspires and bridges memory. “It’s easy to see that the education of the hands (and so the person) begins like a language: a gathering of simple words, the assembly of simple sentences, all this leading eventually to the forging of instructive metaphors” (213)—a metaphor to describe a metaphor. He asks his hands, his scars, to reminisce. From his hands to the lens in “Learning to See,” about Lopez’s research and experience with landscape photography, he works at “regaining the feeling that one is not cut off from the wellsprings of intelligence and goodwill, of sympathy for human plight” (238).

With control of language, with metaphor and image-rich lyrical narrative, Lopez allows us to journey with him through literal and cognitive geographies.

Finally the beautiful snapshot essay, “Death,” at the beginning of part four, about discovering mortality as a child through the death of Lopez’s dog. “Afterward I sat in the shade underneath the eucalyptus, a space emptied by the absence of the dog, looking at the spot in the road where we had been. I did not find him. No one I asked said. I did not know where the dog was. Ever” (245). The voices of the child and of the writer meld here in lyrical alchemy.

This essay collection transcends genre and crosses the borders of travel narrative, landscape essay, memoir, and poetry. With control of language, with metaphor and image-rich lyrical narrative, Lopez allows us to journey with him through literal and cognitive geographies. Never sentimental, Lopez’s strong voice guides us to the unknown and to the universal truths. Such beauty, trying to live without despair, with grace: “The weight I wish to fall I cannot fathom, a sorrow over the world’s dark hunger” (118).

Lopez, Barry H. About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory. New York: Vintage Books, 1999. Print.

katelyn_keating_headshot

Katelyn Keating believes the Tolkien mantra, “Not all those who wander are lost.” She also concurs with Agent Mulder regarding the location of the truth. She mixes metaphors. Hailing from New England, Katelyn lives in St. Augustine, Florida with her husband, two dogs, three cats, and a few of her parents. She is a MFA student in creative writing at AULA. She currently serves on Lunch Ticket as Co-Editor for Creative Nonfiction and the Diana Woods Memorial Award and will be the upcoming Editor-in-Chief in 2017.

Kathryn Paul

Spotlight: After the ring… / Prayer / She’s a lot more fun…

After the ring, strip naked

Peel your original self
like a grape, become

unrecognizable when you meet
yourself in the mirror. When you meet

your husband’s colleagues, just after
they get a whiff of baby
vomit, glance at your waistline, ignore
your proffered hand, say:

I am raising our children. Watch
them head for the bar, their eyes
glazed like your salmon dinner,
your ambition curdling like the cream
nobody is passing to you, even

the waiters have forgotten to clear
your plate, they have forgotten you
are there, you have forgotten you
were ever here.

Gather the shreds, clothe your reflection.
Remind yourself that you exist. Before
you break the vow, remember:

You have kept it past all
recognition.

Prayer

Let there be a break in the endless, let there be a crack
in the wall, space enough for slips of parchment, scraps
of love notes, shredded in supplication.

Let me not be afraid—let me stand. Let half of what I show the world
be true and only half of what I tell myself be false. Let oxygen be as easy
as adrenaline and let deliberate feel as natural as spontaneous.

Let something be anything like truth. Let impossible feel a step
closer than unthinkable but still a fathom away from ordinary
and let the unknowable remain so.

She’s a lot more fun than you ever were

My son’s voice comes down the time
zones so clearly at three a.m.
There is almost silence here, nothing
but the moans of my mother who lies
slowly dying
across the hall.

They have had Thanksgiving at the home
of my ex-husband’s new girlfriend which is how
I find out that he has one and that she’s a lot more fun
and has a daughter who is also fun and remembers
that my son is a vegetarian so she fixes
him something special and compliments
his cheese bread—

It is important, I think, to keep breathing
quietly, through my mouth, while snot and tears run
backward into my ears and I listen how they played
Apples to Apples the way we used to—

Keep breathing and remember how I held
this same baby next to the heart
he has just cracked, rocked him in the chair
while my mother who is dying listened as I told her
she was not invited, would not be coming
to this baby’s christening, because, I said, because
you made your bed—

and it was this one, this bed
where I now lie, cradling
the phone upon my chest.

Kathryn PaulKathryn Paul has lived in Seattle longer than she has lived anywhere else. She is a survivor of many things, including cancer and drastic downsizing. In her poetry she hopes to capture small moments and distill large emotions into something she can carry. Kathryn’s poems have appeared in Stirring: A Literary Collection, Words Dance, Snapdragon, and 4Culture’s collection, Poetry on Buses: Writing Home, and in the LiTFUSE @10 Anthology (to be published September, 2016).

Writers Read: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

behindthebeautifulBehind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, chronicles the stories of peoples living in Annawadi, a slum on the outskirts of the airport in Mumbai, India. Between 2007-2011, Boo interviewed 168 people and reviewed over 3,000 public records with the help of translators. She did so in order to answer some pretty big questions: What does it take to get out of poverty? What types of opportunities are afforded the poor in globalized India? How can one become less poor? And why don’t more poor societies implode? Poverty. Corruption and opportunity. Education. Racism. Sexism. Despair and hope. These are some of the themes Boo tackles. In the slum of Annawadi, we learn that the poor do not unite against the privileged but rather compete against one another for scarce resources. To the wealthy citizens of Mumbai, the slum dwellers are like parasites—feeding off the scraps that even the rich don’t want to share with the poor. But who are the real parasites? Maybe it is the rich feeding off the cheap labor of the poor, which allows for their lavish lifestyles. In this meticulously researched book of nonfiction, which reads like a novel, Boo tells us who moves up in Annawadi and who does not.

The intersection of corruption and opportunity is interesting in Boo’s coverage. There is Asha, an opportunistic, ambitious woman who wants something better, but in order to attain that, she must exploit other slum-dwellers: “And when she had real control over the slum, she could create problems in order to fix them—a profitable sequence she’d learned by studying the Corporator” (20). Because of her ruthlessness, she moves up from a farmer to a teacher to a politician. Boo makes this paradox clear to us when she writes: “…corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained” (28). Like Asha, Sunil begins to thrive when he transitions from scavenger to thief. One of the most beautiful moments in the book is when Sunil is standing atop the roof of one of the construction sites he is robbing: “For Sunil, seeing the people from above made him feel close to them” (197). Corruption is everywhere in Annawadi—from the World Vision social worker who runs away with money meant for a new tap to the police, investigators, and even doctors who exploit the poor for personal gain.

In the slum of Annawadi, we learn that the poor do not unite against the privileged but rather compete against one another for scarce resources.

Corruption, though, is not the only way to move up in the slums. She writes, “As every slum dweller knew, there were three main ways out of poverty: finding an entrepreneurial niche, as the Husains had found in garbage; politics and corruption, in which Asha had placed her hopes; and education” (62). Even though “…spreading educational opportunity was not among the Indian government’s strong suits…” (13), Manju goes to college and hopes this will be her way out of the slums.

katherine_booPrejudice pervades Indian culture, as Boo teaches us, and “India still makes a person know his place” (15). “Muslims,” like the Husains, “were still excluded from many good jobs” (13) and anti-migrant campaigns trapped many in poverty. Even in the boy’s detention center where Abdul goes after the burning of One-Leg, Boo tells us that “Muslims were overrepresented in the justice system” (127), something akin to the overrepresentation of African Americans in the U.S. justice system. Likewise, sexism is just another flavor of prejudice in India. Because she’s a girl, Meena, Manju’s friend, is not allowed to learn English as it “reduced a girl’s compliancy.” Kehkashan, Abdul’s sister, runs away from an arranged marriage in which her husband loves another woman. And Zehrunisia returns to purdah in order to protect herself, after her family is imprisoned. It is because of this oppression that Asha’s corrupt rise in power is both admirable and despicable.

But throughout the despair—throughout the murders of scavengers and thieves, the suicides of Annawadi women, the deaths of boys addicted to Eraz-X, there is hope. Not even TB, lakes of sewage, rat-infested shacks, and hunger can suppress that hope. Though not everyone achieves it, “everyone in Annawadi wanted one of the life-changing miracles that were said to happen in New India” (20). Paradoxically, Fatima, after self-immolating, finally feels like she matters when she is in the hospital. Abdul has hope when he is sent to the boy’s detention center and is inspired by the Master. And even the poorest Indians have faith in reforming a broken Indian government.

Boo is a masterful writer, and how she organizes the book is impressive. First, she sets the stage and introduces us to the main characters, both undercitizens and setting: Annawadi, Asha, Sunil, and Manju. The plot does not really begin until page 89 when the Husains begin to renovate their shack with their new money, and Fatima becomes angry and annoyed by the racket. After a verbal fight, Fatima burns herself and falsely blames the Husains. Boo provides resolution as the Husains are found not guilty and others, such as Meena, escape through suicide, Asha rises up through further corruption, and Sunil, who had begun thieving, stops and returns to something more respectable: scavenging.

Ultimately, for Boo, this outstanding reportage is an act of social justice. Poor lives do matter, and hope does exist—even in the most forgotten, lowly slums of India—a country where one third of the world’s poor live.

Throughout it all, Boo crafts vivid, engaging language, with well-crafted sentences such as: “ [the] Sewage and sickness look like life in Annawadi” (5). Boo’s description of rats that bite Sunil and his sister are haunting and grotesque: “…while they slept, and the bites had turned to head boils. But she had recently become a baldie, because her boils had erupted with worms” (194). Such devastating descriptions are juxtaposed with something more hopeful—like when Abdul believes he can be better than what he is. She writes, “Ice was distinct from and in his view, better than what it was made of. He wanted to be better than what he was made of” (218). Boo’s prose even becomes poetic as she describes the rain: “Now it poured, a stinging rain. On the high grounds of the liquid city, rich people spoke of the romance of the monsoon: the languorous sex, retail therapy…At Annawadi, the sewage lake crept forward like a living thing. Sick water buffalo nosed for food” (24). She also makes ample use of metaphors and similes. In describing the scavengers, she writes: “Each evening, they returned down the slum road with gunny sacks of garbage on their backs, like a procession of broken-toothed, profit-minded Santas” (xii). Sunil’s eyes were “black as keyholes” (33). And on the night that Fatima burned herself, “the sky above the maidan [was] purple as a bruise” (98).

Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers represents some of the finest in Creative Nonfiction writing. I am in awe of her social justice mission, her exhaustive research, her use of setting and weather as character, her organization (though slow at first), her meditation on themes such as poverty, corruption, hope, and prejudice, and her dedication to poetic, economical language. Ultimately, for Boo, this outstanding reportage is an act of social justice. Poor lives do matter, and hope does exist—even in the most forgotten, lowly slums of India—a country where one third of the world’s poor live. Even though it is hard for poor people to do good in a place that seems so bad, poverty can be alleviated and social and political policies improve when we better understand ordinary lives—like the peoples of Annawadi.

Works Cited

Boo, Katherine. Behind the Beautiful Forevers. New York: Random House, 2014. Print.

Version 2

Teri Fuller is a student of Creative Nonfiction at Antioch University in Los Angeles, an English Professor at Waubonsee Community College in Illinois, a breast cancer survivor and advocate, a Consumer Reviewer for the Department of Defense’s Breast Cancer Research Program, and a mother to her dear daughter, Lily.  She is the recipient of the One Hundred Award sponsored by Mass General Cancer Center, and she has written much about her life during and since her breast cancer diagnosis

RA Allen

Spotlight: Sou’Memphis ER

Waiting room
TV wanna know
“CREDIT NO GOOD?”
in blinkedy
blue letters

blue plastic
chairs
hard as rocks
blue scrubs and
blue shower caps
on the nurses
and docs

blue-eyed
po-lice
++all in blue
beat my cousin
black and blue

the PA
system sayin
++code blue
++code blue
I wonder if
they talkin
bout him

 

RA AllenR.A. Allen’s poetry has appeared in the New York Quarterly, Night Train, RHINO Poetry, Gravel, Word Riot, Gargoyle, and elsewhere. His fiction has been published in The Literary Review, The Barcelona Review, PANK, The Los Angeles Review, and Best American Mystery Stories 2010, among others. He has one Pushcart nomination for poetry and one Best of the Web nomination for fiction. He lives in Memphis. More at http://poets.nyq.org/poet/raallen

Writers Read: Mefisto by John Banville

mefistoThis is a novel written by an author in extremis, an author both blessed and possessed. John Banville admits to experiencing a nervous breakdown while writing the book. He called it his attempt to set himself free in the practice of writing.

The story is a first-person narration in the past tense. It is set in Ireland after World War II in a town called Ashburn—which sounds and looks like Hell, with 12,000 souls and an anthracite mine turned garbage dump—and opens with the birth of twins: one surviving, one not, one immortal, one not, like the Dioskouri. The narrator, the survivor of the two baby boys, Gabriel Swan, (as in Leda and Zeus) is the haunted, hunted, shadowed, wrung out, literally gone to hell- and-back young man who proves to be a lying, guilt-ridden, unreliable narrator. He claims to be “omniscient, sometimes.” He’s a math wiz and obsessed with numbers. His mother and teachers are more frightened and suspicious of his talent than encouraging.

He is friendless until he wanders into the hands of the devil made man, Felix. Felix, as irresistible a devil that ever was, is one of the most entertaining, profane, clever characters in modern fiction, even if Banville is heavy handed in evoking him. As the devil, he knows everything except the one thing that only God knows, which is what everyone in the novel and world would like to know: the big plan, the grand pattern. Felix provides Gabriel with two close companions in each of the two sections of the book: a damaged, attractive female and a scientist. The girls (one deaf and one drug addicted) act as bait and are used for sex, and the scientists aid Gabriel in his search for the formula to things. Felix, who strives for “rules, order, certainty,” is followed by an archangel. He’s after what Gabriel is searching for: the hidden pattern. Both characters believe that mathematics is the portal. The two scientists/professors who have been coerced by the devil to help in the endeavor have become burnt out.

As the devil, he knows everything except the one thing that only God knows, which is what everyone in the novel and world would like to know: the big plan, the grand pattern.

The novel is divided into two sections: Marionettes and Angels. In the first, Gabriel and the other two enlistees fail to discover the answers the devil is after, and fall to Hell after D’Arcy, the “messenger boy” from Heaven, drives Felix out of town. In the second section, Gabriel, who is the immortal twin, emerges scarred and disfigured from his burns. Once again, he is befriended by Felix and guided into a more populated, sophisticated, vicious world, same town though, and urged to use his genius for numbers to solve the riddle of the world using a computer. He is told that computers know nothing they have not been told. He discovers that nothing is certain but chance, and the novel ends on the same word it begins on.

John Banville, photo by Derek Speirs

John Banville, photo by Derek Speirs

At the start of the novel, the descriptive passages  are painterly. Gabriel remembers his mother and his childhood town as darkened, varnished antique portraits. The wreck of Ashburn is perfectly evoked through the sense of putrid smells, and “the whites of his eyes were soiled,” suffices for Felix. When he and Gabriel turn into “Goat Alley” and a rat scuttles in front of them, “dragging a fish-head in its teeth,” and it’s daytime, the reader comprehends what may be in store. The macabre scene of Gabriel identifying his mother’s body is rendered with humor when he can’t decide if the first body he’s shown is his mother or not, and then with horror when he views his mother, “there was something in the way she was lying, all bundled up like that, as if she had been snatched up and shaken violently, and everything inside her was broken and in bits.”

As hideous and nightmarish as the story is, the style of the prose is poetic and multifaceted. The magic of the book is that while it is cynical and disgusting, it is perfectly composed. I was awed by the author’s rich use of references and symbols: from the Greeks to the Romans, the Old and New Testaments, Shakespeare and Keats, and on to Walt Disney and Andrew Lloyd Weber. But then the devil sees and knows all: almost.

Mary Kay WulfMary Kay Wulf is currently enrolled in the MFA Creative Writing Post Development Semester with Steve Heller at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her mentors have included Alistair McCartney, Jim Krusoe, and Peter Selgin. She has an MFA from the University of San Diego/Old Globe Theatre Professional Actor’s Training Program, and holds a BA in Musicology from the University of Hawaii. She lives in Los Angeles and is working on her first novel.

Sara Dobie Bauer

Spotlight: I Hate Myself for Loving You

I don’t know how he figured it was me who told the school he had AIDS, but he found out—and finds me under the bleachers, smoking a cigarette. He even throws the first punch, which I think is out of character for the rich bitch star of our high school track team, headed to Yale come fall. I’ve been in a couple fights, but Jason Kemp can hit hard, and as I eat dirt, I wonder how many fights he’s been in.

Lucky I have my pals with me to pull him back, so by the time I stand up, Vince and Timmy are thrashing on Jason like they want to break his ribs one at a time. I taste blood in my mouth as I wipe my lip and watch. Jason barely makes a noise, just calls me a “son of a bitch” over Vince’s shoulder. Vince punches him again, and this time Jason lands on his knees in his perfectly pressed school uniform.

Timmy shoves him over and joins him in the dirt. He thumps Jason in the side of the face. I think I should tell them to stop—scream it even. Instead, coward that I am, my boys keep going until they see blood. Then, they fall back. They yell about catching Jason’s “gay disease,” named by some mad scientists a couple years back in ‘82. My best friends drag me away.

Jason rolls onto his side in the dirt and wipes at the split skin below his right eye. He doesn’t look up at me, but I keep watching as we hurry from the scene of the crime. I keep watching Jason and think I’d like to wipe his blood all over me.

*     *     *

He showed up earlier this year, a senior at a new school. Nobody wants to change schools their senior year, so I could have felt bad for the guy. Instead, I hated him the moment he walked into Mr. Harvey’s trigonometry class.

Harvey was one of my favorite teachers. He was this big bald guy who told everyone, first day, “Nobody gets above a C in my class,” which just made kids want to bust their asses even harder to prove him wrong. I had a solid A- when Jason Kemp walked in the first week of class. My grades started dropping soon after.

Jason was the pretty boy hero in every John Hughes romance. He had curly blond hair and blue eyes like some Nazi recruit. He was tall, basketball tall. His school uniform—navy blue slacks, white dress shirt, blue blazer, and red and yellow striped tie—all of it looked perfect. He introduced himself and didn’t sound nervous. A girl behind me giggled.

When Harvey said, “Take the empty desk next to Shawn,” I hid behind my hand and sneered like Billy Idol.

Jason wasn’t discouraged, because when he sat, he greeted me and even introduced himself as if he hadn’t just told the whole class his name. I ignored him, but it was hard not to notice he wore cologne. None of the guys I knew wore cologne.

Word traveled fast that day at Hinckley High. Even though Vince, Timmy, and me tended to sit alone at lunch, it was hard to miss the high-pitched whispers when Jason Kemp walked in. One of the football cheerleaders a table over said he was some kind of track star, won State at his last school. Another girl called him “a dream.”

After school, I met up with the other punk kids under the bleachers. We wore combat boots under our slacks and liked to talk music. We bummed cigarettes off whoever had the fullest pack.

Then, Vince said, “Hey, Shawn. Check out the new stooge.”

I squinted between silver bleachers toward the track field, and even though it wasn’t track season yet, there was one guy running like he was being chased—and there was Mr. Harvey, math teacher and also track coach, with a stopwatch.

Out of school uniform, in shorts and a t-shirt, Jason looked even taller, and man, the dude could move. I’d never seen a guy run that fast, and after he did a couple loops, Harvey looked like he wanted to build a golden idol. Even the football cheerleaders crowded around Jason with their pompoms. Beatrix Waters, the hottest girl in school, squeezed his upper arm.

Jason Kemp: what a tool.

*     *     *

I can’t taste blood anymore, but I’m still wiping dirt off my clothes when I break away from Timmy and Vince and tell them to buzz off. They always listen when I give orders.

I go back behind the bleachers, but Jason isn’t there anymore. I head to the next best place: the locker room, where I find him. He has both hands planted on either side of an open locker. His head is tilted down, and he’s breathing hard. There’s dust all over his trousers. His tie is gone, and his shirt is unbuttoned. There’s a cut under his eye that’ll end up a bruise.

I stand there until he notices me, and when he does, I swear to God, his eyes glow red. He slams his locker. “Want another round? Won’t be so easy one-on-one.”

In my head, I want to apologize, but the words taste like my Pop’s moonshine in the back of my throat. I let him grab me by the lapels. He slams my back against the lockers so hard, my teeth rattle.

“What did I ever do to you, huh?” he screams.

I’ve never heard him cuss, and I’ve been listening, close, for the past year.

“Is it because I’m gay? Is that it?”

I want to shake my head, say no, but his mouth has never been this close to me before. I can’t think.

He rattles my skull with another pounding against the cold, metal locker at my back and looks like he’s prepping to punch, so I move. I take hurried steps forward, which seems to catch Jason off guard. I keep him from falling by holding onto his suit coat and finally smash him into the lockers on the opposite wall.

Before he can scream at me again, I kiss him. His lips turn to stone. His fists shove at my shoulders until I hold onto the back of his head and tug on his golden curls. I keep kissing him until he’s kissing back. He tastes sort of dusty like maybe he swallowed some dirt when Vince and Timmy pummeled him earlier, but I stick my tongue in his mouth and hold even tighter to the back of his head.

I don’t pull away, not really. I end the kiss but keep my nose pressed against his face, my eyes tilted down. I don’t want to see his expression as my fingers touch his bare chest, his abdomen. He doesn’t move, barely breathes. Do I disgust him?

Beneath the scent of angry sweat and dirt, I smell his cologne. Months back, it took me an hour at Macy’s to figure out which was his: Eternity by Calvin Klein. I stole a bottle and keep it on my desk at home.

As I press one small kiss to the side of his face, one of his hands touches mine. I panic and run. This time, I don’t look back.

*     *     *

The first time the whole school figured out Jason Kemp was gay was a Saturday night in February. One of our local bands, the High Street Deuces, was playing a gig at the only underage club in town, so there was a great turn out. Vince was with me, decked out in slick sunglasses, and Timmy had his hair dyed black. He said he wanted to look more like one of the Ramones.

In the mid-80s, music was sort of weird. There were kids who still rocked out to that late 70s disco crap. Meanwhile, there was the best-selling pop nonsense—Cyndi Lauper or Madonna. Joan Jett was my newest obsession. The Deuces were somewhere in between, so most of the school turned out to watch them play. Plus, it was an excuse to do something in our boring-as-shit little town.

I saw Jason first. I swear it was like I felt the guy enter a room. The familiar feeling returned, somewhere between pissed off and terrified that he might one day notice me watching. My face settled into a frown, and I examined him from behind my popped coat collar.

He didn’t dress like the other kids at Hinckley High, maybe because he was rich. His parents bought the big Tudor mansion on Front Street, and it had just been announced he was going to Yale—something unheard of at Hinckley. But it wasn’t just the money. He dressed older. He wore fancy looking dark jeans and slim cut sweaters. His shoes shined.

“Jesus.” Vince glared over the top of his sunglasses. “Look at the pretty boy.”

“What a square,” Timmy said, trying to mimic my pose, as usual.

Then it was like the world exploded, because another guy walked in behind Jason. He was older than us by a couple years, probably a college kid. He was almost prettier than Jason, almost, and he had his hand on Jason’s lower back.

“What the …” Vince didn’t say anything else. We all just sort of sat there as Jason took a seat at a high-top in the corner. The older guy said something that made Jason smile. I bit down hard on the inside of my lip, because Jason Kemp had one of those smiles that made you think there really could be peace on Earth. Then, the older guy kissed him, right on the mouth, and headed to the bar. Everyone saw it.

“Kemp’s a faggot!” Timmy hissed.

“Shoulda guessed,” Vince said, which was a lie. Nobody could have guessed Jason was gay. He talked to girls in the hallways at school. He ran cross-country and was about to start running track. He went to school dances with big groups of popular kids and, once, carried a drunk Beatrix Waters to their limousine.

If anyone knew Jason was gay, it would have been me. I knew everything about him. I knew he chewed his bottom lip when doing math equations. I knew he ran his fingers through his hair when he laughed. I knew he had a dark brown freckle just beneath the collar of his shirt on the right side of his neck, and I knew he was leaving me to go Ivy League.

“Dude,” Vince said, “what if he has AIDS like that kid in Indiana?”

“Ryan White,” I said. It was all over the news, how he’d been banned from school.

“Yeah.” Timmy nodded.

“Well, I’m staying the hell away from him. Gross.” Vince pushed his sunglasses up higher on his nose like he could hide from the way Jason’s date looked so happy when he came back to the table with soda. I’d be happy, too, which was when I got the idea to start the rumor in the first place.

*     *     *

I brush my teeth twice when I get home, but I still taste him. I smoke three cigarettes in bed over the sound of my mom, drunk again, watching Wheel of Fortune downstairs. She shouts answers at the screen like maybe Vanna will hear. Pop’s out someplace, probably with the girlfriend he keeps on the side.

I didn’t know the rumor would blow out of control, honest. I told one girl on the track team that Jason had AIDS. Next thing I knew, his name was a disease. The school officials went nuts, said he couldn’t run track anymore—right before the state championship, too, where Jason was pegged to clean house. No wonder he came after me today.

I’m surprised when I hear a knock on my bedroom door since I didn’t hear Mom tripping up the steps like usual. I answer with a cigarette in hand, but it’s not Mom or even my asshole dad. No, it’s Jason Kemp.

“What the hell are you doing here?” I say.

He steps past me and into my bedroom. He stands there and takes it in: the pile of dirty laundry, the unmade bed, a new poster of Joan Jett, and my worn turntable.

His golden-blond hair is a windblown mess. He’s in a dark green sweatshirt and jeans with a hole in the knee. He’s got a big, purple bruise around his right eye.

“I love Joan Jett,” he says and nods at the poster. “Your mom let me in.”

“How do you know where I live?”

He shrugs. “Small town.”

“Get out of my room.” I point at the door.

He sits on the edge of my bed with his hands in his pockets. “Harvey had me do a blood test.” He sniffs. “Came back clean, of course, so I can run in States.”

I take a drag on my cigarette.

“I don’t even know you, Shawn. Why do you hate me?”

“I don’t hate you.” I stare at the woman on my wall like she has all the answers.

“Yeah, guess I figured that out today.”

I hope to God he doesn’t notice the bottle of his cologne on my desk.

“I don’t want to sound like an afterschool special,” he says, “but it’s okay to like boys.”

I huff and crush out my cigarette only to light another. “I don’t like boys.”

He leans forward and puts his elbows on his knees. “You kiss like you do.”

I tug at my short, spiked hair. “No, you don’t …” I shake my head. “I don’t like boys. I just like you.”

“But why? Over the past year, we’ve barely said two words to each other.”

“You don’t remember,” I say.

“Remember what?”

So I tell him about the day I realized I was in deep shit.

*     *     *

It was winter, and the afternoon before, the letter arrived with my acceptance to New York University. I sat alone in my room and read the letter, over and over. I showed it to my parents. Mom gave me a hug that smelled like tequila. Dad said, “How are you going to pay for that?” I couldn’t. I knew I couldn’t, but I’d applied just to see, and even though they offered me a scholarship, it wasn’t enough. I was going to be stuck in Hinckley forever.

I spent the night drinking my dad’s homemade hooch. I passed out around four, only to have my alarm go off three hours later—time for school. I showed up weaving. It was like I’d forgotten how to walk. People gave me funny looks. I needed Vince and Timmy but couldn’t find them.

Then, I felt strong hands under my arms. Someone dragged me to the bathroom. There was room for two in the handicap stall. I heard the door lock behind me as I tossed my cookies into the toilet and slopped some on the floor. There was a warm hand on my back, rubbing up and down.

“Just get it out, man.” I recognized that voice from trig. It was Jason. He stood by me until my stomach was empty. I heaved out foam and choked. The choking turned to sobs. I don’t know why I reached out to him, but he let me drag him down to the floor. I tried to break his bones with my embrace, and he just sat there and took it. He was as strong as he was fast.

When I let go, he stood. “Stay here,” he said as the class bell rang. I heard water running, and he came back with a damp paper towel, handed it to me. We sat on that dirty bathroom floor together. “My mom drinks,” he said, like that was his reason for helping me. He didn’t say anything else.

We were both late to class. I got written up, but I bet Jason didn’t. He never got in trouble; all the teachers liked him too much. I felt like hell the rest of the day, but I smelled like him. That night, I slept in my school uniform, my nose buried in the collar and pretended he was in bed next to me.

*     *     *

“I remember that day,” he says. “I didn’t think you did.”

“I memorized your cologne.” I nod toward my desk.

He glances over his shoulder and recognizes the Calvin Klein bottle.

“I think you’re perfect,” I whisper and immediately regret it. My face burns.

He tilts his head left and right, stretching his neck. “Can I have one of those?” He points to the cigarette in my hand.

“You don’t smoke.”

He snickers. “I’ve smoked for three years. Just never gotten caught.”

I pull a cigarette from the pack on my bedside table and hand him one before taking a seat a foot away from him on my bed. I watch him light up and take a long drag. It’s sexy as hell.

“I got kicked out of my last school,” he says. “Wanna know why?”

I inch a little closer.

“I beat the shit out of some kid who called me a fag. I don’t really remember it. I think it was one of those rage blackouts or something.” He chuckles.

“You do know how to throw a punch.”

“Yeah,” he mutters. “I’m not perfect, Shawn.”

“You’re perfect to me.” I’m not embarrassed when I say it this time.

He takes a long drag and exhales white smoke toward my ceiling. He runs his free hand through his hair. I think I’d like to kiss him again and taste smoke on his tongue. I surprise the shit out of myself and do it, just grab him by the face and start kissing. This isn’t like the pointless fumbling with girls I’ve done over the years. This is brute force and lust. He moans into my mouth and somehow finds the nearest ashtray. He tosses his cigarette before climbing on top of me so I’m on my back in my bed—with a boy. Pretty soon, I’m moaning, too, and pulling at the bottom of his sweatshirt, remembering the way his skin felt in the locker room that afternoon.

He laughs a little as I tear the fabric off over his head. Then, it’s like a race to get our clothes off. Jason is faster, of course. Everything is confusing and unfamiliar at first, but he takes charge and makes me feel like he did last winter on the floor of the boy’s bathroom: safe.

When we’re finished, we huddle up under my dirty sheets and giggle, a mess of tangled arms, legs, and lips. I try not to think about how it’ll be summer soon and then, he’ll be gone.

He holds my hand. “Why were you drunk that day at school anyway?”

My eyes linger as he chews his bottom lip. Finally, I say, “I got into NYU.”

“Yeah, that’s tragic.”

“I can’t go. We can’t afford it.”

“Scholarships?”

When I lick my bottom lip, it tastes like him. “I’m not smart enough.”

“What are you going to do instead?”

I roll over and move my body closer to his, if that’s even possible. “Dunno. Work at McDonald’s, I guess.”

“Shut the hell up.”

I lightly run my thumb over his bruise. “I like when you swear.”

“Are you gonna be gay now?” The look in his eyes changes from playful to serious.

I shrug. “I never liked a boy until I saw you, and I hated you for it.”

“That explains a lot.”

I fall away from him and lay on my back, eyes to the sky. I think about lighting another cigarette. “I’m sorry I started that rumor.”

“Yeah, well, it’s over now.” He rolls up onto his elbow and looks down at me. Without asking, he reaches over my body and grabs my discarded cigarettes, lights one. Again, it’s one of the hottest things I’ve ever seen. “Will you come watch me at States?” He takes a puff and hands it to me.

I raise an eyebrow. “What, like I’m your girlfriend?”

He pokes me in the side and takes the cigarette back.

“Only if I can kiss you when you win,” I whisper.

“In front of your bodyguards?”

I think of Vince and Timmy. “They’re not my bodyguards. They’re idiots.”

As if I’ve forgotten the magic of his mouth, Jason leans down and kisses me. I whimper when he pulls back and am scared by the ache in my chest like someone’s drilling holes through my heart. I’m really starting to understand that song “Love Stinks.”

I’m afraid to ask what comes next for Jason and me, but I do anyway.

He looks like he thinks this is a stupid question. “I’ll stay here for another hour. Or two,” he says, which makes my toes curl. “I’ll go home and get ready for the state championship. Probably win some medals. I’ll show you there was music made before 1982.” He smirks at my little stack of records in the corner. “You’ll realize I’m nowhere near perfect, and maybe you’ll leave with me this summer.”

I steal the cigarette back. “Dude, that’s totally an afterschool special.”

He’s quiet for a second. Then, he says, “Or maybe you’ll wake up tomorrow and realize it’s too hard being gay, and your friends will bust my lip under the bleachers.”

I drag him to me until his back is against my chest. We huddle beneath a cloud of smoke. Nobody speaks.

Sara Dobie BauerSara Dobie Bauer is a writer, model, and mental health advocate with a creative writing degree from Ohio University. Her short story, “Don’t Ball the Boss,” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, inspired by her shameless crush on Benedict Cumberbatch. She lives with her hottie husband and two precious pups in northeast Ohio, although she’d really like to live in a Tim Burton film. She is the author of the paranormal rom-com Bite Somebody, among other ridiculously entertaining things. Read more of her work at http://SaraDobieBauer.com.

Writers Read: Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio

loiteringI read the essay collection Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio, and returned to my own work-in-progress that suddenly resembled the cute chicken scratch of a toddler. Or an actual chicken. I looked at my attempt at an essay and thought, surely there’s a mistake. This can’t be my most recently revised draft. Alas. And so D’Ambrosio’s work has had the dual effects of plunging me into depression over my own ineptitude and also making me a keener editor of my work. That is, I will be a keener editor just as soon as I climb out of this depressed funk.

I know it’s not fair to make the comparison. It’s just that every time I read an essay I admire these days, I wonder, will I ever approach any level of mastery? The answer is always no, but I never stop asking the stupid question. Maybe it’s a function of grad school. Maybe after I am finished with this program, I will return to enjoying great books without shivering in their shadows. Here’s hoping. And also, Charles D’Ambrosio would likely inveigh against the very concept of mastery.

I am being melodramatic. So I’m going to discuss something useful, like what it is that makes this book so transcendent. Each essay deserves its own annotation.

There is, firstly, the author’s command of language. I don’t use the word command lightly; he seems to have at his fingertips a more complete dictionary than the rest of the English speakers I know. His tone is witty and conversational, with attention paid to musicality. He can use words like preambular and prolepsis in the same paragraph and no one is irritated. (This reader was, admittedly, delighted by evident devotion to the mot juste, even when it had me consulting a glossary about once every page. This reader was even moved to use the pretentious term mot juste in an annotation.)

He is skeptical of all that is glib or pat, and all the while he is mercilessly critical when it comes to his own authority.

The title of the collection is an example of the author’s near-perfect diction. Loitering is exactly what D’Ambrosio gives the impression of doing on these pages, in the sense of lingering on the margins of situations and arguments for prolonged periods of time, paying attention and gathering observations. (An essay about a SWAT standoff is not about ostensible criminal activity, but about turning toward what the cameras aren’t pointed at—the city full of poverty and displacement; a piece about anti-whaling activists and native cultures who still hunt whales reveals arguments full of discrepancy and hypocrisy; an essay about observing the trial of Mary Kay Letourneau becomes an essay about the moralizers who wrote essays and opinions about the trial, and so on.) And loss is everywhere, handled with excruciating attention, loss of one brother to suicide, another to mental illness, and the big empty space—another type of loss—that exists in place of a relationship between the author and his father.

For all that these essays are authoritative, offering deep insights in intricate and innovative terms, the abiding theme is doubt. It runs like a seam through each essay, even when the author is making impenetrably sound points. It is as if he insists upon the fact of doubt above all else; it underlies his every assertion, whether through punch lines and self-deprecation or by perforation of axioms (his or anyone’s). D’Ambrosio reveals his powerful analytical mind on every page. Each essay’s subject has been considered inside and out, turned over, tasted, weighed, and still the author’s lingering questions about a given subject are what stand out. This is his particular strength. He can look uncertainty squarely in the face, he probes for what might have been missed in a given argument. This is a ballsy—and instructive—move for an essayist. He is skeptical of all that is glib or pat, and all the while he is mercilessly critical when it comes to his own authority. He expresses deep personal sadness in many of the pieces (via tone and subject matter), and maybe being that low is what allows him to explore the dark so fearlessly. He was already depressed, so it was only a stone’s throw to a space that he might ably call “chthonic”.

By giving a broad berth to uncertainty, D’Ambrosio also makes room for connection with his reader. In his preface, he asks, “Are we—the hesitant, the conflicted—all alone?” In contrast to essays which strive to be conclusive, the work in Loitering offers doubt like an open door. The collection even obliquely suggests that connections can be forged among the askers of questions, humanity (maybe love) is in lacunae and liminal space.

marybirnbaum_headshotMary Birnbaum is the Lunch Ticket blog editor and translation genre editor. She studies creative nonfiction in the Antioch LA MFA Program. She resides in Orange County, California. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @ailishbirnbaum.

Meg Eden

Spotlight: Picking Blueberries / Organ Stop Pizza, Mesa, AZ / I Go Into The McDonald’s Bathroom

Picking Blueberries

My mother’s colander: metal
with small, heart-shaped mouths—
It was an old thing, probably
my grandmother’s before, just like
that blueberry bush in our backyard,
planted 50-odd-years ago, a natural
inheritance. We never used
the colander except when picking
blueberries, and even that became a hobby
my parents left for their aging relatives
and home repairs, leaving me
every summer to fill it
with as many berries as I could save—
And still! All those ripe
berries left unpicked! How thrilled
all the deer must have been when
my mother came home with store-
bought blueberries: soft berries,
berries less blue. I don’t remember
the excuses she gave me.
Something like: It doesn’t matter, really—
they weren’t that much, all the while
washing them in the sink. In her hands,
the berries were spotless: no twigs, bird
shit, dirt or spider webs. The berries
she bought were farmed and pre-washed,
but she continued to run water over them,
letting some slip between her fingers, down the drain,
where no birds nor deer could get to them.


Organ Stop Pizza, Mesa, AZ

What is it about dim-lit pizzerias
that makes me want to crawl under the table,
hug my knees and pray for the dead?

Maybe it’s the Tiffany lights, the framed
and faded movie posters, or the smell
of an inadequate salad bar,

the black-letter board with yellow words
that remind us we haven’t always had
so many choices to order from;

and then comes that organ music—
the Mighty Wurlitzer—playing the fugue
my father used when showing off

his first subwoofer home theater,
and it’s those kind of songs you can never
dissociate from their point of origin,

they are self-contained time machines,
and right now I am in 1991,
being born again. Unlike my father’s rec room,

this hall shakes and my chest is compelled
to move. There’s something in the act
of music, something about organs:

is it the memory of church? Or Disneyland
that I remember? To think there was
an era of themed pizzerias—to think

we are inhabiting the body of a survivor.
This room is—we are all one
big breathing instrument: and right now,

the man up front plays the national anthem,
dropping a giant flag from the ceiling,
and some people stand up, putting down

their pizza but all I can think about
is whether I will be able to sleep tonight,
or if the shaking song inside me

will continue to loop on encore
as an all-night show.


I Go Into the McDonald’s Bathroom

to wash my hands, only to find the sink
covered like a woman’s private vanity:
blush, foundation, toothbrush and toothpaste,
a woman bent over it all in a zip-up green blazer.

She looks normal enough: her hair grey
and thin, pulled back into a tight ponytail.
But when she opens her mouth I see
the vacancy where her front teeth should be.

I apologize for bothering her but she insists
I wash my hands. She compliments my mint
jacket: a gift from my mother. I point down
at my slippers and tell her, I wear what’s comfortable.

The woman laughs, and reaches to embrace me.
My mother would never hug someone like her.
No—my mother might hug someone like her,
but then would make a point to wash her hands

and change her clothes once she got home.
I like to think I’m better than my mother:
I gather the woman in my arms at first
like a friend. When I pull in, my arms

are stiff, I’m careful to not let my lips graze
against her shoulder. She tells me her name is Lynn.
She says, You’re young, I can tell by your face.
I want to go eat my Chicken McNuggets.

I prop the door with my foot, and her voice
gets loud: I just want to talk to you, she says.
I go to my husband, tell him to make our order
to-go. From the counter, I can hear Lynn, engaging

new bathroom-goers: a woman and her young
daughter. My husband looks at me, confused,
and I nudge him, Just do it. This is what my mother
would’ve done. I pump myself some ketchup

in a paper cup, my hands shaking. In the car,
I won’t eat until we get home and I can wash
my hands. It’s amazing, really—these gifts
our mothers leave, unwanted, inside us.

 

Meg EdenMeg Eden’s work has been published in various magazines, including Rattle, Drunken Boat, PoetLore, and Gargoyle. She teaches at the University of Maryland. She has four poetry chapbooks, and her novel Post-High School Reality Quest is forthcoming from California Coldblood, an imprint of Rare Bird Lit. Check out her work at: www.megedenbooks.com

Writers Read: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment explores a woman trying to survive the emotional storm after her husband leaves her. While thin on plot, the specificity of the character study strikes a universal chord. The brutal and ugly honesty is striking, off-putting, and at times self-indulgent, but the character always remains true, which makes her human. Ferrante’s style lacks romance and is confrontational as she creates a complicated three-dimensional female character. Keeping the cultish devotion of Ferrante’s readers in mind, the character of Olga has a tradition in Joan Didion’s Maria in Play it As It Lays and even further back to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, both committed to portraying women as they are instead of as they are supposed to be.

Although Ferrante does not create a style that feels like it could be branded as “Ferrante” in the way that Didion and Woolf do, she is relentless in stripping away her character’s artifice until, in the end, she cracks Olga down to her core in order to rebuild her. The language used to express the darkest of Olga’s emotions is unapologetic. Like Didion and Woolf, Ferrante is most concerned with naming those parts that are supposed to be suppressed, ignored, or denied. There is a lack of sympathy for Olga, allowing the reader to feel anger and frustration toward her while remaining compelled to watch and see if she emerges from the brink of the abyss. Ferrante resists the urge to give Olga any slack and instead delves deeper into the darkness of marriage, motherhood, and self, which are taught at a young age to women. It is this element that frames Ferrante’s Olga in a different light than Didion’s Maria and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

Keeping the cultish devotion of Ferrante’s readers in mind, the character of Olga has a tradition in Joan Didion’s Maria in Play it As It Lays and even further back to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, both committed to portraying women as they are instead of as they are supposed to be.

Here's a picture of Ferrante's translator, Ann Goldstein, instead.

Elena Ferrante’s translator, Ann Goldstein.

Although the ghostlike images in Olga’s mind allow the reader to gain insight into Olga’s background, they also give a sense of the generational construction of her character prior to the abandonment. While the story remains in the presents, these devices allow the reader a glimpse of the past. The flashbacks are organically triggered during Olga’s descent in the form of a headache or dizziness. Again Ferrante refuses to indulge in any romanticism of those visions. They are concise and exist on the back burner of the narrative, never at odds with the primary narrative, and barely constituting an independent thread. The flashes are used economically to create context, making Olga less a product of the times in which she lives (Maria and Mrs. Dalloway certainly feel like products of their time) and more a product of inheritance and learned behavior. Perhaps, her husband’s affair and the dissolution of their marriage was an inevitability, but putting it in the context of Olga’s own history eventually creates accountability, which allows her to make choices that are solely her own.

Ferrante’s writing wastes no time; the inciting incident occurs with the first sentence. The character’s internal unraveling mirrors her external world and they move at the same rate. As Olga becomes unhinged, so do her actual circumstances until she is finally trapped in the house with a sick dog and sick child. It’s a frustrating and, at times, ridiculous sequence to read, but it ultimately feels like a metaphor playing out in reality. It is both Olga’s bottoming out and resurgence. There is a tightness or control to the writing in the beginning that becomes more frenetic and chaotic as Olga’s reality begins to sink in and she reacts against it: the reality that she is trapped by the life she was living with her husband, but unlike him, she cannot simply walk out. It is the universality of this dilemma and the relentless honesty to the female point of view that takes center stage, becoming bigger than plot itself or the typical expectations of female characters.

Roz Weisberg is completing MFA in Fiction at Antioch University and was YA Editor for Lunch Ticket. She serves as a mentor to teen girls at WriteGirl and mentors aspiring screenwriters at the Cinestory Foundation Retreat in Idllywyld, CA. When not developing stories, consuming pop culture, or searching for the perfect chocolate chip, she awaits March Madness and the underdog Cinderella Team that will inevitably break her heart.

Lisa Lebduska

Spotlight: The Things We Saved

On a heavy Saturday in June, Steven and I wait for strangers to pound through my mother’s front door, but the strangers never come. Exclamation points, dotting our Craigslist posts like lollipops, have failed to lure buyers for the Vintage, Mint Condition! Italian provincial dining room set! and the Like New! Singer Sewing machine. No one inquires about my grandmother’s maple bed, ringed by a starched white halo of eyelet ruffle, or the steel filing cabinets, emptied of water bills from the 1960s. No interest, no offers, no sale.

Somewhere near my spleen, so I cannot identify it as an affliction of the heart or the gut, something inside of me hides, relieved.

I do not tell Steven about this relief, though after a decade of marriage, I suspect he senses it, in the same way he knows I smile whenever a mouse evades a trap. It’s an odd feeling, beyond the reach of love or reason, the kind of feeling that another language, better than English, would have a word for, the kind of feeling located at the opposite end of Schadenfreude. It is joy at having failed to accomplish something that is in one’s best interest. The house sits, quiet and whole, its things exhaling, safe, still ours, and I am glad.

This sentiment baffles my husband. We have no choice. Someone wants to buy this tax-accruing, maintenance-demanding, gangrenous shelter. We cannot afford to wallow in nostalgia’s sweet mud. We must sell. Simple as an amputation.

Everything must go.

We wander the rooms, where ceramic lambs and wooden bowls remain as my mother left them when we found at her at home alone, having dismissed the aide, lost in a delirium of sepsis and dementia, the only clarity her pride. 

“No ambulance,” she had insisted. “I don’t want the neighbors to see.” She hobbled down three brick steps, flopped into her wheelchair. In my panic, I misplaced the leg rests and held her legs aloft, a distraught lady-in-waiting attending a silver-haired queen staring at the sky in disbelief, while Steven, footman, muscled the chair through the lawn dirt, to the car.

My mother had wanted to die in her house, where her own mother had passed, and my brother, likely her twin from another life, had reinforced this idea, asserting the impossibility of ever moving her. “One day we’re going to find her at the bottom of the stairs,” he predicted. I comforted my inner brat by reasoning that if that happened, it would have been her decision. Even with dementia, she was living life on her own terms, I told myself. Before the fateful trip to the emergency room, we had tried home health aides, ranging from the caring and competent, to one who bought my diabetic mother’s silence with pastry so she could abandon her shift to shop. My mother went through them like Pez. “I don’t want this,” she had said. “I’m a prisoner in my own home.”

*     *     *

Now that our flimsy sales plan has failed, Steven does not lament our fate, wring his hands, blame God or even my mother—all drugs of choice for me. Instead, he gulps his overstuffed DeCiccio’s ham-on-roll, picks up the tape gun and heads for the disintegrating driveway, a black tarred madeleine that returns me to memories of a fin-backed blue two-wheeler, my first flight to freedom, the wary thumbs of my older brother tethering me to safety until I panicked and crashed into the wormy apple trees; morning runs with the bow-legged, curly-tailed Jinx before school, Friday night talks with my best friend David comparing crazy family stories, imagining our places in the Universe that was yet to be. This driveway. My driveway. Fissures like veins run its length.

At the driveway’s end, Steven approaches a sapling and nails a bendy plastic sign to it: GARAGE SALE, 1-4. “That will do the trick,” he declares. “People don’t surf the internet for garage sales. They follow the signs.”

Above, the maples, oaks and ashes of my childhood tower and wave, fan dancers surrounding a sturdy brick house whose peeling paint now flies off in sheets on windy days. My mother has protected them all these years, staving off exhortations from her neighbors to cut them down in the name of safety and light and air, hurling retorts about soil retention, cooling properties ,and baby birds nesting. She has guarded the garden against landscapers intent on transforming azaleas into pink meatballs. She has stopped them from spreading fertilizer and pesticide and seed; it has been a long time since the lawn was a lawn. Over time, the grass disappeared, replaced by clover and burdock and dandelion, then moss. My mother gave orders to mow whatever sprouted from the ground. Now when the landscapers work, they kick up plumes of dust and dirt like giant birds competing in a mating dance. My mother has enjoyed the show.

She loves this peeling, crumbling, moldy, living, breathing house that has held her and our memories, keeping it, in the face of time, against the tyrannies of suburbia for the last twenty years, after my father traded her in for a newer model, as she put it, leaving her for a pubescent graduate student. The man who hoarded pencil nubs and hardened erasers, who kept a burned-out well pump wrapped in a stained tablecloth, tossed away the woman who had been the Liz Taylor lookalike girl riding on the handlebars of his Brooklyn bicycle.

In response she destroyed most of what he had cherished. Wooden planter baskets smashed and burned down to charred screws in the fireplace; tiny house Christmas ornaments pulverized by my grandfather’s claw hammer, then stuffed under greasy cheese wrappers into a grocery store garbage; a leather jewelry box, reduced to red strips and tossed into the kitchen trash. Each removal, each act of discard an act of violence, a willing destruction to trigger pain enough to numb her from feeling the raw edges of the space he had left behind.

When my mother dug her way out, she saved anew, pulling the house and its treasures around her. She even developed a kinship with an unseen creature that perpetually dug a bowling-ball-sized hole next to the foundation.

“That’s the great, great grandson of the groundhog that used to live here. There’s a big grease spot on the garage floor. I think he sleeps there.” On every visit, my husband and I would fill the hole: rocks; mothballs; screen. Each time we returned, the hole had reappeared. When we told my mother this, she offered a Dali Llama smile. “He’s a part of things,” she admitted. “I like having him around.”

For the past three years, our phone conversations carried extra drama. “Wait a minute,” she would say, dropping the phone, which rolled along its bouncy, curly cord, until it fell silent. “Ma?!” “Ma, are you there?” In response a whack, indicating, I later learned, that she had smashed a hairy centipede.

But then she told us a large rabbit hopped across the living room floor every night.

I have seen videos of President John Kennedy’s fateful ride. They say that in the moment after he was shot, Jackie scrambled back in the car, attempting to save his brain, desperate to hold on to the part of him that made him him. For the past few years, I have felt that my mother was being assassinated, that some sniper had fired upon her, that there must be a way to save her mind: books; phone calls; old photographs; familiar scents; blueberries. We pressed her to move in with us. Each time we broached that porcelain conversation, she concluded with, “I’d be better off dead. Make everyone’s life easier.”

Had my mother known what we were doing to her house, to her things, she would have died in rehab, where she landed after that soul-searing week in Intensive Care, cheating sepsis of a victim. Unlike celebrity rehab, this place does not return people from cocaine or bourbon but instead nudges them toward the land of the moving, yanking them from the cement of inertia, pushing legs that will not move, quieting joints that scream and bones that ache from a lifetime spent carrying the spoils of Depression-Era cuisine. The place smells of urine and boiled potatoes.

During the fifties, my grandfather, a taxi driver in Manhattan, looked for useful trash—a bureau or baby carriage that someone needed. He’d pick it up and deliver it, a one man redistribution center. My mother modified the model, simply holding on to everything that came her way. “Don’t throw that out” followed even a glance in the direction of the garbage, whether it was plastic caps from milk jugs (someone might need them) or torn pantyhose (perfect footies). “That Tupperware is older than you. Still good.” The corollary family motto is “that could be worth a lot of money Someday,” which applies to everything from a brochure announcing the Word Trade Center’s opening, to brass state coins from Shell gas.

EBay teems with the spoils of sellers for whom Someday has arrived.

When we first realized we had to sell the house, we began peacefully, moving boxes from the attic to the main floor and then from room to room. The boxes rattled with acorns deposited by mice. I announced each bending back of dusty flaps with a “Wow!” or “What’s this?”; held every item to the light and then returned it to its moldy carton. Khaled Hosseini writes in The Kite Runner, “[I]t’s wrong what they say about the past… about how you can bury it, because the past claws its way out.” In our house, we never attempted to bury the past; it was always there, around us. Now Steven and I must play archaeologist to my mother’s Pompeii.

I tried inviting my family to the excavation, to share shards of our history. Wooden spoons. Another madeleine. I heard them rattling as my mother searched for the one long enough to scrape the bottom of the tallest pot. Arguments about basil, garlic, and browned pork. How many lips brushed those spoons, eyes closed, over my great grandmother’s, my grandmother’s, my mother’s sauce? I called; I texted, but no one wanted a spoon. Content in crisp Pottery Barn apartments, protected by advice from The New Potato, my nieces and nephews all said no.

“Throwing things out is cathartic,” Jessie in New York explains. “You’re getting a fresh start.” They have their lives. You cannot force the past on people, even if, especially if, they share your blood.

I made a timid foray into eBay, posting a Like-New! asparagus pot I’d purchased: Very little family history. No bids. Another attempt with a pink ukulele seemed successful ($7.00), until I realized it was won by a buyer in Alaska and I hadn’t charged enough for shipping.

Steven tolerated this floundering until Colleen the Realtor arrived with her iPad.

“Everything has to go,” she said. “Buyers want to see how much storage space there is.”

“Can’t we just leave it in boxes?” I whined. “They’ll understand we’re moving. Besides, if they see how much stuff we have in here they’ll get a great idea of the house’s capacity.” I was bargaining for my life.

“No, it has to go. They need a blank slate that they could picture as their own.” That’s the problem, I think. People don’t have imagination anymore.

“How are we going to get all of this,” I said, waving dramatically, “out of here?”

My husband anticipated my next move. “We can’t bring it home,” he said. I had been imagining how my mother’s wooden porch furniture might look in our modern living room.

“I need more time,” I said.

“I know someone,” Colleen said. “His name is Paul. He’ll take care of everything. Even the stuff in the fridge.” I looked at the towers of cardboard, the plastic storage bins packed with marked-down Christmas wrapping paper and pink Easter chicken garland.

“What we can’t sell or give away has to go into a dumpster,” Steven said firmly, his jaw beginning to seize, “or we’ll have to pay Paul to haul it out. It will cost.”

Friends on whom I unloaded misgivings but not doilies offered well-intended advice: “Have an estate sale.”

“Has to be at least five thousand dollars of stuff to make this worth our while,” a gravelly voiced woman told me over the phone, as I pictured fingers of cigarillo smoke curling above her red hair. No deal.

Paul arrived on a sweltering day in a white pickup, and bounded from the cab, clean shaven, wearing a white muscle shirt. He glanced around, smiling. “I did this for my grandmother. You have to walk away,” he said.

The cab of Paul’s truck rocked back and forth, and two small heads popped up.  

“My boys,” he said. “We just got back from dirt biking.”

“Check this out!” I yelled, as if I had just discovered diamonds. “Shovels! Every kid needs a shovel. Would your boys like two of these?” I waved a plastic toy shovel enticingly, like the Shamwow man. Paul laughed. “No thanks,” he said. “They have dirt bikes.” He sent my husband a sympathetic glance. The shovel went back into the box. Surely I would find someone for those.

*     *     *

After posting the sign, Steven and I begin dragging out items. I unfold Uncle Jack’s bridge table. Shelves from my first desk, a dehumidifier that sounds like an airplane, an enormous off-white La-Z-Boy recliner that my mother refers to as “The Disaster Chair.” It smells, but only faintly, of pee. I have come to think of this as the Febreeze stage of life. I wonder who will mop up after me.

Steven is right about the sign. The hunters come. A man with stinking breath and a magnifying glass studies a wristwatch for twenty minutes after I tell him I want a dollar for it. Three sisters from the Dominican Republic bring their 91-year-old mother, who stays in the car with the air conditioning on, letting me practice my limping Spanish on her. They are all laughing, women out together on an adventure. They buy a vacuum and my mother’s favorite tablecloth for six dollars. I want what they have. I want my mother to be well enough to come sit in a car while I bring her treasures from someone else’s house. I want her to congratulate me on my great bargains. I even want her to tell me that the floppy straw hat from Aunt Trudy’s trip to Mexico makes me look short.

The clock is ticking. Colleen has a buyer.

In August, we borrow a truck and haul 2,000 pounds of steel, aluminum and copper—a check cashing machine; a mini beer keg; plumbing fixtures; pipes—to Action Metal, where steel drums and piles of metals dot the landscape. A burly blonde Viking greets us, explaining that he and his brother took over the business from his father who started in 1964. While Steven and the employees sort out, I sit with him in an office, staring at yellowed newspaper clippings and a tower of identical worn-out black workshoes. Like a hedge fund manager in a Carhart suit, he laments guessing wrong about the market when aluminum was up and then crashed. “My kids don’t want anything to do with the business, but they like the money. Part of me wants to just die here so they have to clean it up,” he says, waving his hands.

The closing date approaches.

One night I type a question to my Facebook elementary school group: “Does anyone remember Susan Trimble?”, a playmate who died in third grade. Lately I have been thinking a lot about her, how her parents went on without her, what her fleeting life meant. Tracey, another classmate, responds, offering that the teacher had ordered her to clean out Susan’s locker. When Tracey protested, the teacher asked, “Do you want her parents to do this instead?” Between sobs, Tracey had snuck a homemade bracelet of braided colored threads. “I wanted to keep a part of her,” she confesses.

Refugees stream across Europe, through fences, over walls, clutching life, every thing of theirs abandoned, dropped, lost, stolen, traded, bartered. They struggle to hold on to themselves.

The nostalgia over things is an albatross, a luxury, a prayer that might be held.

During our last garage sale, a Toyota pulls up and a tall brunette woman with a pixie haircut and a white eyelet sundress emerges. An even taller, brooding man with a crew cut and swaths of tattoos around his biceps walks silently behind her, followed by a teenage girl, absorbed by her phone. I hope they will buy the china hutch.

Before I can launch into my pitch, she says, “I’m Magdalena,” and extends her hand. “We’re buying your house.”

“Oh,” I say through my garage sale grime. “Oh.” For awhile, all I can do is watch their eyes, darting across the lawn, up to the jalousied porch. I am trying to blot out the wrecking ball that Steven insists is inevitable: “It’s a teardown. Any new owner will want to start from scratch.”

“Would you like something cold to drink?” I ask.

Magdalena declines sweetly. “No, thank you,” she says. “I see you have a lot to do. We wanted to take a drive up from the city, and I thought we might be able to meet you.”

Her husband murmurs something and she murmurs back, then explains, “We’re originally from Poland.” She introduces him; then her daughter, who scowls.

“Oh,” I say, and then I think, given my current English vocabulary, perhaps I, too, am from Poland. I realize that we have not saved anything from the garden, except to have the attorney add a line about the weeping pussy willow.

“Do you like flowers?”

She pauses. “These are lovely. But I’m afraid we don’t know much about them.”

Magdalena and her brood depart.

We dig out some peonies, and the pussy willow that now seems too big for its own good, whose roots reverberate with the whack of the shovel. I put the last of the bone meal on the irises and whisper, “You’ll be okay.” I take the mussel shells and tiny smooth stones that were saved up in a coffee can in the garage and lay them around the scraggly maple you can see from the kitchen sink, my mother’s favorite, and shudder at the chainsaws that will buzz through all this very soon. Magdalena will feel she is letting in the light, but I know she will be baking the place, roasting the grass-dirt, killing baby birds with sprays meant to save the place from a few harmless caterpillars. I know this, but what can I do. You cannot stop progress.

I am stuffing crazy things into the pockets of my jeans and hoodie. When we return home, I empty plastic medals of Jesus from the Sacred Heart Auto League; bobby pins; a moldy penny; an uncancelled stamp, and a shoehorn from Caesar’s Palace.

Before we close on the house, I go to spring my mother from rehab, to take her to her new home in assisted living. I fantasize about making one last mad dash across the Tappan Zee Bridge to the house. Magically, I would manage to get her up the brick steps, onto the porch and her favorite rocker next to the wooden lamp that my brother made in seventh grade shop. She and I would sip lemonade mixed with her secret ingredient, listening to the robins and gossiping about Alex Trebek.

On the day of the closing, the last day I will ever be in this house, the day of the walk-through, I start to lecture the new owners, standing there, looking around, impatient to get going with their lives, to lay claim to what will soon be theirs. I tell them about the roses. And that the trees are so good, so important, that they will shade the house and save them hundreds of dollars in air conditioning. And retain the soil. I look at the teen daughter, lost in her phone, and try to befriend her, thinking that she might have some sway with her parents.

“What do you like to do?” I ask in a cloying tone that hurts my ears before it is even out.

“Stuff,” she says.

“Please,” I want to say to her. Have a friend over and sit on the jalousied porch, listening to crickets, drinking iced tea and assessing the universe, late into the night. Imagine who you will be and why. Complain about your parents; it will do you good. Don’t worry about the giant hole, next to the foundation, that keeps reappearing. Think of it as magic. Or as hospitality. Something wants to live here, next to, maybe under this house. The great, great granddaughter of a lonely groundhog.

I teach them the trick to the gas stove. “Turn on the burner and wave your hand, thus,” I say, Houdini-like, passing my hand across the top, creating a gentle gush of air that coaxes a flame to life. I show them the switch to the outdoor lights at the tippy-top of the porch brick wall. “In summer,” I advise, “stay here. The second floor gets hot.” My mother prided herself in her ability to withstand intense heat, to manage fans and window shades with precise mechanical timing, as if we were deckhands aboard the African Queen.

In the assisted living facility where we have moved my mother, the air is always conditioned. “It is a closed system,” Steven explains.

Steven and I have tried to recreate an entire house in her studio apartment: the lavender horse painting from the dining room; a plant stand shaped like a wheelbarrow from the porch; my grandmother’s bedroom dresser. A statue of Mary and one of Michael, with Lucifer pinned under his sword, and dozens of crucifixes in wood and gold, stowed carefully in Tom McCann shoeboxes. We had it all set up on the day she arrived. Looking around, she nodded at a framed photograph of Pope John. “That has to go,” she said. Can’t have too much of that stuff in here. They’ll think I’m some kind of religious nut.” The Pope left.

She has never been a joiner or a crafter—of clubs or sports or pinecone wreaths—and now, at 83, nothing has changed. She rejects offers of jewelry making or painting or even Happy Hour, despite the flaccid comment, “Jeez, I’m going to get a room here” from well-intentioned but stupid visitors who have their youthful freedom from the prison of endless leisure. And yet, against all prediction, against all possibility, she begins to settle in a place where the stoves have been disconnected and the hallway smells of fresh paint.

Looking at her sitting in the frayed blue living room chair we have rescued from the house, I can almost imagine that the past year never happened, that she never got so depressed in rehab that she could not eat, could not care, all sense of time and place and purpose and dignity drained from her like pus. She tells me that she won’t allow the housekeeper to come in because she might steal her dentures, like the aides did in the Other Place (rehab), and besides, she can take care of everything herself. I nod, gathering laundry, wiping, sorting, surreptitiously tossing, as if my industry will reorder the past, keep all of life’s chaos from slithering under her door toward us, and its final tidy conclusion.

The house has been emptied; the house has been sold. She does not, cannot know.

Pulling open a drawer in the kitchenette, I discover hundreds of little empty plastic coffee creamer containers, stacked together like shot glasses after a boozy night. Next to them, a pile of Popsicle sticks.

“Save those,” my mother directs. “I’m going to make something.”

Lisa Lebduska

Lisa Lebduska directs the College Writing program at Wheaton College in Massachusetts (the Wheaton that recognizes free speech), where she teaches academic writing and works with colleagues to incorporate writing into their teaching. Her work has appeared in such journals as Kudzu Review, The Gateway Review, bioStories, Harlot and Narrative, among others. Her laptop is filled with remnants of essays she can’t bear to delete.

 

Writers Read: On Being Stuck by Laraine Herring

onbeingstuckWriter’s block. We’ve all experienced it. Sometimes we force ourselves through it. Wait it out. Try a writing prompt, take a break for coffee or something to eat. And sometimes it’s stickier than that. Now, you can’t get a word down. You’re staring at the white page. Maybe a revision? Maybe you should start over—like, before you decided to be a writer. Maybe you should print out what you’ve got—and burn it. While many of us have learned to get through these blocks, or neglected their causes, ridiculed or criticized ourselves for having them at all, Laraine Herring’s On Being Stuck: Tapping into the Creative Power of Writer’s Block says that all artists get stuck. In fact, it’s natural and normal to do so, but it’s what we do once we are in them that matters. Herring proves that if we pay attention to and pursue the meaning behind our blocks, we can deepen our relationship with our writing and learn to harness our creativity in productive and empowering ways. Herring distinguishes between “writer-in-progress” blocks (a frustration within the writer) and “work-in-progress” blocks (a frustration within the work or craft) to teach readers how to tap into inevitable artistic barriers with deep inquiry, writing prompts and meditative practices.

You’re staring at the white page. Maybe a revision? Maybe you should start over—like, before you decided to be a writer. Maybe you should print out what you’ve got—and burn it.

Any good craft book includes a few writing prompts, but what is most compelling about Herring’s guide to breaking through writer’s block is the emphasis on embodying our writing practice through breath and physical movement. She mentions in the preface that during her writing classes it’s her job to notice, “the slip of a warm tear from the lady in the corner or the unconscious clenching and unclenching of fists from the man.” Her attention to small physical manifestations of internal processes asserts that our bodies are connected directly to our writing, and if we believe this, then we can use our bodies as tools to access different parts of our minds when we are stuck. In one of her first deep inquiry practices, Herring asks the reader to go into a dialogue with one of their issues and recommends “doing these activities with a pen or pencil and paper rather than on a keyboard. Because the act of writing by hand is a form of doodling, physical lettering helps to release tension in your body and mind.” Just like trying a different hike or new yoga class to get out of a workout-rut, Herring’s suggestion to write by hand may help a writer get through a block simply by jogging different muscles than the ones we type with on a keyboard.

Herring also revisits two deep inquiry practices throughout On Being Stuck: the balancing breath and the writer’s mudra. These physical exercises are “quick and easy grounding tools… to help you return to your body and writing… quickly shift your energies and help you gain a different perspective on your current place in your work’s path.” For the balancing breath, she guides the reader into a motion that involves bringing the palms in and towards the nose and mouth on the inhale, and gently pressing them away on the exhale. The balancing breath encourages the writer to step away from their writing and slow down their thoughts to focus on simple physical actions, which anyone—no matter how stuck—can try.

larraineherringThe writer’s mudra is a moving hand gesture similar to a prayer. Herring’s exercise requires designating one hand as the writer, one hand as their writing, bringing them together to create “the physical and symbolic meeting” of the writer and their writing, feeling the heat between the palms, rubbing them together to create energy, and then placing the hands on different energy sources of the body. This movement not only has symbolic resonance of a writer joining together with their writing, but asks the writer to re-engage with their body as a method to re-engage with their work. As writing often requires us to sit at a desk or computer for hours at a time and ignore our posture, these simple exercises bring awareness back to our bodies as a means of re-adjusting our perspective.

It’s no secret that going for a walk for fresh air and sunshine can aid the mind in gaining a clear perspective when we are blocked, but On Being Stuck promotes specific practices to embody our writing in a way that physically moving outside or stretching our legs doesn’t. Herring teaches us how to cultivate awareness and attention to our writing through our breath and skin. The process of writing can feel very abstract—especially when we are stuck sitting in a room staring at the ceiling, swimming in muddled thoughts, or void of ideas completely. Grounding ourselves in our bodies during periods of writer’s block is a quick way to bring our focus from the abstract to the concrete, and hopefully, to the next page.

avila_headshot_ResizedKaty Avila lives in Los Angeles, CA where she is an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University. Her obsession with Victorian pseudoscience, literature and culture, and interest in medical humanities have inspired her to look closely at the relationship between body and story, and how narratives attempt to embody (or disembody) modern experiences.

Karen

Spotlight: A Thin Season / In My Travels

A Thin Season

(For a young man beheaded for listening to Western pop tunes
in his father’s grocery store)

It is a thin season
culling the air of blue breath
choked sudden as a sword
at the throat of a young infidel
the forbidden pop tune of his innocence
still playing in the annals
of his thoughts
kneeling, repetitive, insistent
as the accusations of the faithful
who behead him
on an afternoon like any other
clouds rising
in a decimation of distance
between the neck and heaven.
Isis goddess of love, the moon,
magic and fertility,
a healing sister of deities
daughter of earth and sky,
twists in a massacre
of celestial delusions
bearing the severed body
back to the arms that bore him,
the ones who will hear music
no more.


In My Travels

I can’t remember what I left behind…
something in Morocco,
a one-day trip on a ferry with goats
around the rock of Gibraltar,
women swathed in black sheets
oblivious to the heat,
their disallowed energy
herding chickens on the weather worn deck,
coal fired eyes avoiding mine.
I am a woman too,
have herded children, objects and desires.

On this other continent
sweat woven rugs are hawked to me,
okra and moss colored herbal tinctures
hold promises to cure what I cannot;
a swell of odors wafts through
narrow, primeval alleyways,
huddles of figures in stone hollows
bake barbaric bread on stone pallets
extended to me by nomadic hands,
primary sustenance
like old communion
dry and stiff on my tongue.
A curved backed Bedouin
shines a seller’s smile
a toothless mouth and beggar’s hand
offering objects I can take home
to narrate my journey.

Back at the hotel
the coast of Spain is blurred
through a rain embossed window,
tears streaking
for the remembered sweater I left behind
in the store of the ruby frocked merchant,
fez tassel swirling among his wares.
And all the spoils and discount deals
cannot replace the history of my sweater
sitting alone an ancient culture away,
never to come home again.

Karen Corinne HercegKaren Corinne Herceg graduated magna cum laude from Columbia University with a B.A. in Literature & Writing and has graduate credits in editing, revision, and psychology. Her first volume of poetry is Inner Sanctions, and she is completing a second volume. She publishes poetry, prose, and essays in numerous publications. Karen is a featured poet on the New York poetry scene. Her website is: www.karencorinneherceg.com, and you can follow her on Facebook and Twitter @karen_herceg.

Writers Read: Children of the Days by Eduardo Galeano

childrenofthedaysChildren of the Days: A Calendar of Human History consists of a series of 366 vignettes, one for each day of the Roman calendar year, not noticeably related to one another, which create a mosaic of fractured memories of human history. The volume continues the late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s Hegelian approach to understanding and articulating Latin American political culture, embodying both history’s bloodiest examples of human brutality and literature’s most exquisite cases of humanity. Like Galeano’s previous works, including The Open Veins of Latin America and Memory of Fire, the dated entries that comprise Children of the Days blend fiction, journalism, history, poetry, and memoir to recall and give voice to the great and small voices of global history.

Many who have reviewed Children of the Days have sought entry to the text via their birthdates, which is as reasonable a way to begin interrogating the text as any. The entry for my own birthday, April 26, is “Nothing Happened Here.” It concerns the Chernobyl nuclear accident that occurred in 1986, which caused radioactive rain to fall over much of Europe. In a recent New York Times article, Henry Fountain refers to the accident as a “huge dirty bomb, an explosion that spewed radioactive material in all directions.” Smoke from the fire that followed the initial blast carried the radioactive material and additional contaminants into the atmosphere and, thanks to the region’s long-range wind systems, over much of Western Europe.

I distinctly remember following the radioactive cloud in the news as well as on the ground. The cloud missed Spain, where I spent the month of April 1986…

Although Galeano claims that virtually no government reported on this geographically and temporally extended emergency, I distinctly remember following the radioactive cloud in the news as well as on the ground. The cloud missed Spain, where I spent the month of April 1986, and passed over southern England before I returned to school there at the end of May. Yet, Galeano’s interpretation has merit. The Soviet Union was notoriously secretive. Soviet officials refused to admit that the accident had occurred until April 28, when Swedish officials demanded to know what was causing the increased levels of radiation within their borders. Even today, cover-up theories persist. Fedor Alexandrovich’s film, The Russian Woodpecker, premiered at the Sundance Festival earlier this year. The film’s premise is that the Chernobyl accident served to cover up a 14,000-ton military radar installation in northern Ukraine, near the border with Belorussia, right next to the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station.

Eduardo Galeano

Eduardo Galeano

The juxtaposition of Galeano’s lyrical history with contemporary journalistic and scholarly analyses of the Chernobyl accident are instructive with respect to grasping the meaning and veracity of the entries to Children of the Days. Each entry captures a truth about the substantive event or circumstance of interest, though it may or may not be entirely factual. The tension between truth, or interpretation, on the one hand, and historical fact on the other is likely complicated by the translator’s prerogatives. Galeano was, firstly, a gifted writer and political progressive heralded for his alternative historiographies, of Latin America in particular, that gave voice to the poor, the persecuted, the illiterate, and the nameless as well as their wealthier, well-known leaders. The translator of this text, Mark Fried, is to be credited for conveying Galeano’s beautifully written and widely accessible truths. This reader is not alone in being perfectly capable of fact checking insofar as it might be necessary to cite Galeano’s history.

References

Fountain, Henry. “Chernobyl: Capping a Catastrophe.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 April 2014. Web. 17 July  2015.

Friedman, Sharon M. “Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima: An Analysis of Traditional and New Media Coverage of     Nuclear Accidents and Radiation.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 67.5 (2011): 55-64.

The Russian Woodpecker. Dir. Chad Gracia. Sundance Film Festival, 2015. Film.

Juliann AllisonJuliann Allison is a feminist scholar, environmentalist, homeschool advocate, yogini, runner, rock climber, mate, and mother of four with a passion for the outdoors. She is Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies and Public Policy at UC Riverside, and an MFA student at Antioch University Los Angeles.

Anna van Schaap, Smoke Signals, 2016, Oil on Canvas, 48x36in

Spotlight: Say It Like You Mean It

I am interested in different forms of communication (verbal, written, body language, etc). I generally paint the female form in uncomfortable positions and circumstances to see if an idea, emotion, or critique can be communicated using bodies, symbols, and titles. People are gregarious by nature. We are not meant for solitary existence. Our need to affectively communicate with each other […]

Sally Vogl

Spotlight: What I Brought Back / Freya at the Farmers’ Market / If an Egg Floats

What I Brought Back
Peace Corps Lesotho, 1980-82

I brought images of a motorcycle, a tsetututu,
sputtering down pot-holed roads to a village

where men stuff mint in their nostrils,
women stretch their mouths in ululation,

boys extend legs in Bruce Lee moves,
and babies are secured on mothers’ backs

by blankets with airplane designs.
Also, images of volunteers, stumbling

to outhouses in morning’s wee hours,
holding torches, what we call flashlights,

already the smell of maguena, fried balls
of dough, drifting from local cafes

and smoke rising from dung fires.
I brought back a Botswanan basket

woven with dark grasses flowing between
light grasses, named Urine of the Zebra,

hardened lava, black and porous,
plucked from a trickling volcano,

photos of me running in a cosmos field,
the purple blossoms brushing my shoulders.

I also carried a vision of a future me,
with a baby in a front pack,

but didn’t know I’d call her Palesa,
the Sesotho word for flower.


Freya at the Farmers’ Market

Freya, her skin tanned the color of russets
in a nearby bin, greets me like an old friend,
the way she’s done since we met

at a yard sale years ago. Every time I’ve seen
her walking the streets—her wrists pulled low
from heavy bags—she’s worn layers

of pants and sweaters, matted hair framing
her face. Today, broccoli and carrots spill
over the top of her shopping bags in vibrant

green and orange. Notice how plump these are,
she says, fingering some Thompson raisins.
I nod, thinking how farmers groom fruits

and vegetables for this market, nurtured
with optimal sun, shade, and water.
The vender plops my acorn squash on a scale,

and Freya’s eyes follow the needle, tipping
to three pounds. If I gauged her age
from her weathered face, it would be close

to sixty—but her smile and the lilt in her voice
seem under forty. I wonder if she escapes
the sun’s rays and wonder where she sleeps

at night. Do you know of any jobs? she asks.
Sorry, I say, turning away to a booth
of grapefruit, a young blush on their skins.


If an Egg Floats

Floating can denote death, like fish belly up
or a human corpse. Or a bad egg—light
in weight and smelling pungent.

I pull eggs from a carton; faint blue text
indicates they expired twelve days ago.
Before beating them to make a soufflé,

a golden entrée that rises as if winged,
I use a water test to determine freshness—
the one I learned in the Peace Corps

thirty years ago when I lived without
refrigeration. Eggs laid by African chickens
had no expiration label, so I’d grab some

from my kitchen counter, lined up next
to the cheese and radiated milk, and pray
they’d sink in the water bowl. Today

in California, two eggs resembling
inverted white rockets—their plump ends
bobbing toward the water’s surface—

fail the exam. On their way to demise,
these eggs won’t puff up for a soufflé;
they won’t soar anywhere.


Sally VoglSally Vogl earned an MFA in Creative Writing from CSU-Fresno. Some of her work has appeared in The Comstock Review, damselfy press, The Hoot Review, and The Main Street Rag. She’s retired from a career teaching visually impaired students and now teaches poetry at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

Jenny Bhatt

Spotlight: The Waiting

My last living memory is of my husband carrying my half-conscious body away from the thick heat and clinging wetness of the rice field. Something has bitten my right heel, leaving a crescent of bloody marks. He places me on our cart, jumps on, and prods Sakhi, our cow, into a jingling trot. Sweat and tears mingle with dust, drawing near-black streaks down his cheeks.

For one whole day after I die, he sits by my body. At night, he lays down beside it. When some street dogs wander in because of the smell, and start howling as though in sorrow, the neighbors come. By now, rats have bitten chunks off my toes and fingers, and flies are feasting on what is left.

They clear the animals out with kicks and shouts. The tallest man, our village Sarpanch, bends over to my husband, gives him a few short slaps, and says, “Your wife is dead. You hear me? You understand? Kunwarba is no more.”

My husband opens his mouth in soundless response.

Nobody asks about what happened. A few of them had seen him bring me home, blood foaming from my gaping lips. News of the dying and death gets around quicker than anything in our village.

They take my stiff, soiled body for the final rites. Him, they take to the city hospital. Two men grab him by his armpits and drag him between them like a drunk man. The Sarpanch waves everyone away as the lines on his face grow sharper and deeper. Like the nearby village leaders, no doubt, he has bigger concerns: the fear of another drought season, even as water continues to be scarce and the dam repair work goes far too slow.

My husband wanders back a day later. Sakhi had been left tied inside our shed—a small, cool shelter. He brings her out and ties her to the lone limdo tree, putting a bucket of stale water and a pile of chaff within her reach.

He squats under the tree in a watchful silence: thin shoulders curved over his knees, eyes wide and wild like a rabid dog’s, and an old fragment of yellowed cloth covering his white hair. Though it is time for the monsoons, the sun is as bright as in mid-summer. Spears of scorching light escape through the tree’s almost-bare branches and fall relentlessly on him.

The Sarpanch’s wife comes by to leave bits of food and a can of water from the daily tanker. She, who had only ever given me dagger looks, begins this daily, silent charity towards my husband. He eats without knowing—even trying to chew a piece of tire rubber before spitting it aside. As for the water, he pours half the can into Sakhi’s bucket and barely remembers to drink the rest himself.

At dusk, he hangs a flickering kerosene lamp from a tree branch and continues sitting till the shadows get long enough to go inside. Lying on the thin, worn mattress, he does not sleep, as if waiting for morning to start his vigil again.

A few days pass like this. From a distance, my husband may seem a wise yogi meditating under that limdo. On closer view, his dimmed eyes and the constantly mumbling and dribbling mouth tell a different story. The heat gets worse, though a wind rises weakly once or twice a day, tossing dry leaves, old newspaper, and empty plastic bags around him.

All this waiting—for what, I do not know. To entertain myself, I fly with the birds, beating them to their favorite tree branches. I play with the ants and insects, crawling into their little crevices and homes. I sit on Sakhi, whose tail swishes rapidly as if a thousand flies have descended on her.

The villagers begin calling him “Gaman Ghelo,” then just “Ghelo.” Schoolboys twirl their fingers near their temples as they spit out the word. He simply looks away. Sometimes, he throws stones, clumps of soil, twigs, whatever is in reach, if anyone comes closer. Not that many do, for he is still wearing those rat-bitten clothes, and he reeks like something dug up from a dry river bed.

One boy is more vicious than the rest. He lopes over like some big movie villain and lands a kick on my husband’s face, sending him sprawling sideways. When the old man stays motionless after falling, the boy runs. His friends, following him, yell a count in English they must have been learning in school: “One, two, three… eight, nine, ten…”

Some numbers I want them to know: fifty—the age of the man they knocked over; fifteen—my age when I met him as a child bride; twenty-five—how many years I had been his wife; fifty thousand—the amount we had got for our farmland to pay for my sick parents’ hospital bills; two—bottles of rat poison we had bought to end our constant worries about work and money; one—the number of times I had been pregnant, and he had gone from the happiest to the saddest I had ever known.

But his grieving existence now has to be worse than my bodiless one. I am no longer of his world and I have not reached the other one. No matter what happens to me next, though, I will never miss the screaming aches from long hours of back-breaking work, or the times when we had less to eat than the wandering, begging gypsies, or the churning agonies about who would take care of us in our old age.

I soon give up trying to understand why I am still here. The other spirits I meet in this in-between world offer no explanation. Some of them have been here longer than they can recall.

They do educate me on the basic rules: never leave the village limits; only communicate with people through dreams—and only those with whom you shared life memories; be prepared to be called away to the next world without warning. The rest, they say, I will have to figure out as I was as much a sinner as them and deserve no help.

In my new form, I am buoyant with an unending energy. I float well above the tallest trees to look into many of our village’s houses and streets. Other lives are interesting enough, though I now see we were not too worse off.

The crippled mother, three doors down, is often beaten by her son’s wife for not moving quick enough. The newly married couple who has their own home, separate from both their families, never sleeps together. The gypsies at the edge of the village, in their makeshift shelters of tarpaulin and bamboo, do not practice black magic with their strange music—it is to help their starving children sleep. And the Sarpanch’s wife cries on the nights he does not come home, knowing, as I do now, he is with his whore.

As my husband rarely sleeps, it takes me some time to figure out how to make dreams. Eventually, I find, in the moments when he hovers on the edge of sleep, if I focus my attention long enough, I can.

Not that it is easy. Mostly, it is like trying to swim, unseeing, through murky ocean depths. I have to overpower his every breath and thought till his defenses cannot hold up and there is a break in that dense wall. Only then, I can slip in quickly before his mind snags onto something else or closes back up. I never have full control either. But, the dreams bring him sleep and, hence, rest. Maybe this is why I am here.

I pick happy memories and simple wishes, weaving them together so that, at least while asleep, he can smile again. Once, I take him up to a hilltop and we fly kites so high that, holding onto the strings with both hands, we also soar. Another time, we are at the cinema, and the hero and heroine on the screen turn into the two of us, singing and dancing on a beach filled with golden-silver sand, while a full moon glows white over us.

After a few such dreams, my husband lingers more and more in a part-awake, part-asleep fog. The line between the real and the dream world disappears. The house dream does it. As we had never had anything better than a one-room brick hut, I dream us a mansion on a riverbank. Coming to him as his shy, new bride, I take his hand and lead him in.

We enter the first room lit up with rainbow colors and furnished like a king’s palace with gold and silver fixtures encrusted with precious gems. Each such beautiful room leads to many other rooms in an intricate maze going up, down, and across.

In one room, there are long banquet tables loaded with large, bottomless pots and dishes of food. The aromas are richer than any we have known. Each time he finishes one plate, I hand him another freshly filled one.

In another room, celestial Apsaras cast pleasing spells with their graceful undulations, lush birdsongs, and perfumed melodies.

In yet another room, many rocking cradles are filled with smiling babies of all sizes and shapes. And, when he turns to me with a watery smile, I have the ripe, swollen belly he has always wished to see.

I present one room after another, filled with everything he has ever desired since childhood—from motorbikes that run like the wind; to clothes and shoes softer than the finest mulmul; to mobile phones in glittering, bejeweled cases; to an entire amusement park filled with magical rides. When we look down from the balcony of a room high up, or up from the stairwell of a room way below, the different views of all its wonders make them all seem new to us again.

And so, with each room, my husband discovers new capacities for joy within himself

*     *     *

When daybreak forces his eyes open, my husband shuffles out to the tree. This time, however, his low muttering draws my attention. He is talking to me. Not who I have become, but the me in his head: the wife he thinks is still alive. What he says is as useless as udders on a bull, of course: how he will build us a bigger house before our child is born. I try to reason with him, but, my poor Ghelo cannot hear me.

So, he brings out his toolbag. Though the few tools are old and somewhat rusted, he keeps them clean and wrapped in old rags. Each year, after the few months of field work are done, he takes them to go work at nearby construction sites—even at the old dam once, though the pay was not worth the effort.

The land our hut and shed stand on is about fifteen square feet. If the old hut is removed, there is space enough for a larger one. This is what my husband sets about to do. Moving our one-room contents into the shed, he begins with his hammer.

Throughout the day, people stop to ask what he is doing. To each, he gives the same reply. “I’m building a bigger house for when the child comes. She doesn’t have long to go now.” They shake their heads and go on. When the Sarpanch’s wife brings her bundle of food and can of water, she keeps a greater distance than usual. The end of her sari, which covers her head and veils half her face, slides off entirely as she rushes away. Before dark, my husband has torn down most of our married home.

He sleeps fitfully in the shed and is up at twilight. A bigger house needs a deeper foundation, he explains, as he starts digging into the ground. Now, passersby say, “Are you building a Taj Mahal for your dead wife, brother?” or “Carry on like this and they’ll make a news story about you, Ghelo.” Though his chin and hands shake, he turns away as though not hearing their mock.

He works with a strength I have never seen. Each stroke of the shovel comes down quick, striking the dry, stony soil to loosen big, heavy chunks. With a flick of the wrists, he tosses the dirt into a corner. Sweat streams from every pore and he throws off his soaking shirt to continue barebacked.

His pace gets slower after lunch. Till, he hits something unyielding and stops altogether. Kneeling to clear the soil away with his fingers, he pries loose a mud-encrusted skeletal hand. As he pushes aside more soil, more skeletal remains become visible. He lets out a cry at the horror, unable to move.

Hearing the choking sound, a squat, gray-haired man walking by comes over. Seeing what my husband is bent over, he drops his stick and hobbles back the way he has come. I can hear his shouts of “Hare Ram! Hare Ram! Shiva! Shiva! Shiva!” long after he is gone.

As night falls, I rise above the rooftops and treetops and see how all the familiar fears and superstitions are spiraling around like dense, black smoke.

Two things happen the following day. First, the Sarpanch and two of his men come over to check for the skeleton. My husband, who has not been able to stop shivering since seeing it, has somehow managed to move it to the pile of dirt and cover it up. So, they find nothing but a big hole in the ground and a chattering, shaking old man, who jumps in his skin any time they so much as look at him. Second, the Sarpanch’s wife does not show up with her food and water charity.

Sakhi lows a few times, and that is when my husband’s mist clears. He pats her, puts his arm around her, and rests his head on her side—like I used to after feeding her. Then, as if he cannot trust his legs to bear his weight, he walks unsteadily towards the village crossroads.

He does not stop to greet anyone and nor does anyone offer him a quick bidi smoke or chat. The blazing sky makes him blink rapidly, so he stares at his sluggish feet instead. By the time he reaches the market, the attitude of the village seems harder than the old skeleton bones he has unearthed.

At the kiraana shop, the young owner we have watched growing up turns his back coolly to attend to other customers. At the vegetable stall, the woman will not take the potatoes my husband holds out for weighing. And, at the tea stand, when he picks up one of the many glasses of tea, the boy takes his money with a sighing reluctance. Is it a dreadful ignorance or willful cruelty? What makes humans inflict such suffering on each other? And they say we spirits are evil.

Later, my husband lies in the shed unable to sleep, and I know all too well how hunger must be clawing his insides apart, how tiredness must be making it painful to move even a finger. I push away the thought that creeps in like a cold worm: how might it have been if he had dropped like a ripe fruit instead, leaving me alone? I beg the other spirits to tell me what is in my power to help him rest. No answer. My husband and I are on our own, in our separate worlds of mute despair.

Two weeks after my death, Sakhi falls down and gives up. She has been with us a long time. During those long months of construction work, I used to complain of loneliness. He brought her home one evening and said, “Here’s your Sakhi, your new best friend,” pleased with himself. Barren like me, she had been sold off cheap by her previous owner—what good was a cow who could not give milk?

The neighbors come to remove her too. Our head priest, fat legs draped in the many folds of a crisp white dhoti and bald head covered with an ornately styled red phento, stands by watching with the Sarpanch. They talk in low tones of how to get my husband off the land so it can be consecrated. The priest advises the Sarpanch to build a Shiv temple there to stop the malignancy from spreading further. The Sarpanch nods readily. He has not managed to bring running water or proper electricity to our village, or get the dam repaired so the fields can have good harvests. But he will take on this temple to help his political ambitions.

I knew this powerful man when he was a plump boy called Babulal with pillow-like cheeks I used to pinch. The day I got married was the last time we looked at each other. Afterwards, I drew the end of my sari over my head and face whenever I passed him or any other man.

As I see him now, his broad chest held high and his long legs striding wide, I have to wonder at a world that allows men to go about as if they own it and women to live as if they must endure it.

Even so, we have shared memories from those few childhood years before we had separated into the different tribes of men and women. We had stolen marbles from each other, traded food from our thaalis at annual melas, danced garba and dandiya together at festivals, and, with the innocence that knows no selfish motive or desire, we had enjoyed bathing together in the river.

I go to the Sarpanch at night as he sleeps deep next to his wife. She is turned away from him, cradling their son, the spit of him, in her arms. What do I hope for? Only that he will not send his men to harm my husband or force him out; that he will help him to leave in peace. I want the Sarpanch to remember the kind, patient side of himself I once knew.

I take him into a big car and out onto a wide, open road. As the car picks up speed, going so fast the outside is a blur, he talks with some of the most powerful politicians and businessmen. One after another, they appear in the seat next to him, praising his Panchayat’s achievements, asking his counsel on agriculture and law policies, and giving him large donations to continue his good work.

At the end of the road, a plane awaits. He flies to a mountaintop, where none other than the Prime Minister shares a cup of tea with him and asks for his guidance on thorny party matters. An eagle lands on his arm and advises him of the right responses for the country’s best possible future. The Prime Minister, unaware of the eagle’s magical powers, is greatly impressed with his answers, of course.

Soon, they both get on a boat and ride to an island filled with people celebrating his new promotion to the National Party Leader role. All the finer things of life are here in great abundance for his personal pleasures: food, drink, women, music. A couple of well-known singers have written poetic verses in honor of the occasion and to congratulate his benevolent wisdom and good nature.

When he returns home, riding a bucking horse through the mountains, the broken dam has been fixed so the fields of his village have plenty of water and the best harvest in decades. And, it is none other than old Gaman, who has taken care of this impossible work while he, the Sarpanch turned National Party Leader, dealt with other important matters.

*     *     *

In the violet flush of dawn, my husband sees the figure of the Sarpanch walking up the lane with a tiffin full of hot, spicy breakfast and a steel flask of tea. The men who usually accompany him are nowhere to be seen.

The two men eat and drink in silence under the limdo tree. My husband’s appetite is so fierce he swallows many morsels whole. The Sarpanch does not eat much, though he drinks most of the tea, watching my husband over the rim of the little cup.

Having had their fill, they sit back and regard each other. The Sarpanch’s voice is like wind sighing in the grass, “Gaman Bhai, what are you going to do?”

Tears stand in my husband’s eyes on hearing his real name spoken with such care. He hesitates before replying, struggling with the visible lump in his throat, “I must build a bigger house for my wife and the coming child.”

The intense blue of the morning sky is bursting through. The air is soft and warm as milk. The Sarpanch tilts his head back, looking up at the tree as a couple of brown leaves flutter to the ground. “Gamania, you may as well try to put these leaves back in the tree as expect the dead to return. My men took Kunwari to the ghat. I watched her body burn to ash. Don’t you remember?”

My husband squats lower under the tree and rocks back and forth, his hands clutching the earth near his feet. For the first time, I see him as another might: a tired, frightened, old man with so little left of his mind it slips as easily from him as water from a smooth stone.

The Sarpanch’s face clouds over darkly. He casts out another thought in a more measured tone, “Gaman, why don’t you work on the dam for me? I need a man of your expertise. Take a couple of the strong Jhala boys. Do it in less than a month and I’ll make sure you get paid well. The whole village will be in your debt forever.” Rubbing a hand across his forehead, he wavers at the last bit. “Get away from all this death too, haan?”

My husband squeezes his eyes shut and begins humming—a tuneless drone. The Sarpanch peers at the face in front of him, brown and gnarled like a tree’s bark. My husband pauses to hawk up some phlegm and spit it out a few inches from the Sarpanch’s feet, then resumes the grating noise.

The Sarpanch stands and says, “Gaman, you leave me no choice. If you are not gone by the end of day, my men will help you leave. Understand?” His mouth twisting hard from holding back other words he wants to say, the Sarpanch walks away.

These men the Sarpanch speaks of have one job and they are not only good at it, they enjoy it. The most well-known story about them is how they once drowned a teenager simply because the boy had giggled at one of them for tripping over a step. To them, my poor Ghelo will first be fodder for their own entertainment,  then an excuse to put on a spectacle for others.

My husband remains slumped by the tree, though he does, in time, stop the vibrating sound. I wish he had been a drinker. Although in a dry state, our village has a couple of illicit stills, which many law-abiding men frequent. Drink might put him to sleep better than my dreams. Yet, when he does nod off, I unroll a happy memory from our early married life.

An owl hoots, insistently, into the evening air. A chorus of gentler hoots answers her call. The young ones had hatched a short while ago, safe in the worm-ridden wooden beams of our shed.

My husband of one week runs into the shed so quick its rotting walls shudder from the impact. The outside light spills around and over him through the doorway and casts long sideways shadows at his feet. His gaze travels up to the loft, catching the owl’s nest on the way. The chicks make him grin.

I dangle a painted, jeweled foot from my perch in the loft, pulling it back before he can grab it.

His mouth opens wider and a gurgle of pleasure escapes. He hoists himself up and draws me close, crushing me into his chest. With one turn of a wrist, he loosens my hair, letting it fall thickly into his fists. His nimble fingers untie the three buttons holding my blouse together and it billows open sweetly, like clouds parting.

Lying back on the straw, I stare at him as a fire dances all through me. With the brilliance of a solitary star, his love shines down on me. There are no other sounds now, save for our jagged breathing.

His tongue finds the deep hollow in my throat and leaves hot streaks all the way down my ribcage. The day has left its salt on me, and he takes it in hungrily. Studding my skin, his hands leave their earthy smell on me, as an animal marking his territory.

My knees curl as my thighs turn to liquid. With hands still colored with wedding mehndi, I clutch the jet hair near his temples, and arch myself into the air to sink my teeth gently into his lips. As I let go, I roll us over so that I am sitting atop. My shoulders ripple in silent laughter at his surprise.

All that is left of the day is a thin, fading golden line. One instant, the sky is all red and purple colors, like a raw bruise; and the next, a solid darkness has swelled over it. The season’s first rain shower begins.

As water pounds the shed’s roof, we become urgent too. The world turns into a hot, swirling ocean from which we emerge eventually, drenched in our own moisture and holding onto each other.

I wind my arms around him tighter as we hear more frequent storm noises: a sharp cracking; a long rumbling—monsoon is finally having her play, too. The sounds seem to get nearer and louder. I am gripped by a sensation of being borne away on a great express train, roaring, flashing, dashing headlong.

My husband lets out a breathless, raspy cry, which turns into a harsh, tearing scream…

*     *     *

I cannot sense her presence anymore. My wife is gone. So has my grief for her.

I stand on top of the shed and watch as people crowd around the foundation pit I had dug to build our new house. That is where my naked, rain-soaked, mud-streaked body now lies, arms clasping the half-skeleton I had found. The men had laughed while making the arrangement. After wiping the blood off me with my shirt, they had taken a phone photo for the Sarpanch.

Spirits stay on in the living world because of unfulfilled material desire or unfinished business—this is what I had often heard. An old widowed relative had died when I was a child, and the cautionary tale of how she had continued to inhabit a corner of the house was repeated by family members. She had been thrown out of her home by her son in a most merciless manner. So, her spirit had stayed on for resolution or retribution—this part changed depending on who told the story—and only made the final crossing after.

I do not know why I have stayed on. Time drips steadily like melted wax from a burning candle. The drought is getting worse though the authorities have not officially declared it so. Water from the daily tanker does not cover all drinking and cooking needs. The dam repair work has stopped due to a legal inquiry into its missing funds, so the fields are dry. Cattle herders are walking many kilometers for fodder. People are leaving the village to find other jobs.

They blame me and my wife for all this trouble. I am now haunted by the living. Nearly every week, led by the priest, they come with godly prayers and sacrifices to make me leave. Yet, here I remain, waiting expectantly—for resolution or retribution.

Jenny BhattJenny Bhatt’s writing has appeared or is upcoming in, among others, Femina India, Wallpaper, Storyacious, The Ladies Finger, LitBreak, York Literary Review, The Indian Quarterly, Eleven Eleven Journal, NonBinary Review, Alphanumeric, and an anthology, ‘Sulekha Select: The Indian Experience in a Connected World.’ Having lived and worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the U.S., she now splits her time between Atlanta, Georgia in the U.S. and Ahmedabad, Gujarat in India. Find her at: http://indiatopia.com.

Writers Read: A Field Guide for Immersion Writing by Robin Hemley

A Field Guide for Immersion Writing is Robin Hemley’s non-fiction methodological primer for writers on immersion journalism. In this compilation, Mr. Hemley covers a gamut of approaches to tackling immersion-writing projects, using examples of his work and other writers’ works to apply the mechanics of the narrative process. His techniques cover advice for undertaking and refining such sub-genres as memoir, travel, investigative, and journalistic endeavors.

Mr. Hemley writes about the subject and sub-genres of immersion writing, including one chapter on ethics and legalities, and his last chapter on practical “how-tos” for crafting a book or article proposal. Written in first person, the author acts as the narrator for his audience. At the beginning of each chapter, Hemley briefly introduces the specific genre or sub-genre he will be discussing and then breaks the chapter down into further section specifics.

Though the reader may not always agree with the author’s point of view, Mr. Hemley does a consistent job of keeping the subject matter interesting by providing a series of almost continuous anecdotal first-hand accounts of his own experiences.

Though the reader may not always agree with the author’s point of view, Mr. Hemley does a consistent job of keeping the subject matter interesting by providing a series of anecdotal first-hand accounts of his own experiences, as well as the experiences of fellow immersion writers both historical and contemporary. In laidback, engaging, sometimes-humorous language, the author illustrates his ideas and concepts in words that are clear and easy to understand. Chapters build upon previous chapters, sometimes overlapping in information and genre approach, but this repetition only serves to emphasize the information, rather than complicate it, and there is no reader overload.

At the end of each chapter there is a section entitled Exercises, which provide the reader with creative opportunities and prompts to implement what has been learned in the previous chapter.

Robin Hemley, author of A Field Guide for Immersion Writing

Robin Hemley, author of A Field Guide for Immersion Writing

As a rule, this writer does not often like books that tell her how to write. Many times such narratives can leave a writer feeling “talked at,” and contain a majority of information that can be found during a thorough search on Google. For free. However, A Field Guide for Immersion Writing is one of the few exceptions to this rule. It is a must for every bookshelf.

From the beginning, readers will find themselves engaged by the deliberate way in which Mr. Hemley lays his knowledge and experience out for the writer in a step-by-step guide, outlining specificities and techniques that end up teaching even a seasoned writer how to build, or further a successful immersion writing career. Many of the author’s techniques are those of which experienced writers will recognize they already employ when crafting their stories; for them, Mr. Hemley offers validation and a refresher course. For writers, both beginning and seasoned who are interested in starting an immersion writing project and are needing a clearer map of the process involved, A Field Guild for Immersion Writing offers fresh and easy tools for implementation. The author’s conversational, non-confrontational style keeps the pages turning. Mr. Hemley’s exercise ideas at the end of each chapter, are both provocative and creative, and Mr. Hemley’s last chapter on crafting a proposal, something with which many writers, especially newcomers, need help, employs a made-easy, non-scary approach that is a relief for any writer.

Mr. Hemley’s concluding paragraph speak of his intentions in crafting this narrative:

I recently learned that the Japanese word sensei doesn’t mean “teacher” in the simple sense as I have long believed, but is better translated as “one who has gone before.” It’s in this spirit that I have written this book and used the examples I’ve threaded throughout—it helps to know that others have gone before. When I’m driving in a storm or at night and the visibility is low, I’m always grateful when up ahead I see a pair of taillights I can follow to keep me from drifting, to keep me on course of my destination, wherever that turns out to be (187).

For this writer, Mr. Hemley provided just that.

Miriam Gonzales-PoeMiriam González-Poe holds an MFA in Creative Non-fiction from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Her writings have appeared in The Round-upCulture ShôkFine LinenInner Circle, and other publications. She is currently a staff writer for Drunk Monkeys and lives in Los Angeles with her family, where she spends her time balancing the demands of the real world with her personal harmonic convergence. She is also an award winning jewelry artist producing works under Mac Originals.

Spotlight: Moorings / Walking the Dog in Autumn I Stop to Tie My Shoelace

Moorings

Suppose you say water.

We’re on the boat, making for Babson Island, one of three tiny beach slabs that connects at high tide. We set anchor, mark the drift, account for wind, row to the shallows. This place has sand dollars. You find some, bring them to me. I will wrap them in tissue to assure a safe journey, feel something split in me when one breaks years after the moments on this island. It’s funny how we know these things: A song will have meanings we can only guess at—the strains of trumpet or your daddy’s rich and your mama’s good-looking making me curl like a fist; the smell of soap, or brie cheese, these things will kill me later, but we don’t know this yet. For now, we’re still on shore, collecting things. Each piece of kelp, a malformed shell, the sand dollars. I want to fill my pockets with them, add them to the collection of you. Even broken, these objects will rest on the mantle as unruined remains.

In Mexico, we climbed the ruins at Chichen Itza, looking for a history unconnected to us, the steps so steep we moved diagonally to avoid falling. At the top you leaned back onto the old pillars and reached for my face as if we were the pinnacle, as if we would be cast there for the sky, for the tourists to admire even when we returned back to the coast. On the plane you drew for me a dog and a dragon, creatures not meant for water. I keep the papers, trace the indents from the pen with my fingers to feel where you’ve left your mark. My mouth is still yours, my insides changed as if the stones of a ruin had molded to us, and we had swallowed the image.

To say water now, in all of its forms—shower, river, puddle, ocean—is to bring an image of us at the edge of something. I imagine you in this water. Do we meet, tethered together as if moored to the ocean floor? It should be. There’s the mahogany box you made for me, still filled with receipts, notes, letters: proof. It’s all water and movement and the rushing of what we have collected, trying to mark the set and drift of these tides, of ocean mass, the undersurface mountains of silt that peak just before they give way to water.


Walking the Dog in Autumn I Stop to Tie My Shoelace

We do not understand trees,
(are we even able to write about trees anymore?)
why certain ones have turned already, apricot-edged,
marmalade-bright next to others still summered
as though they’ve forgotten or are immune.
How easy to feel foolish looking at them, dissecting
when—just for right now—we are in the sweet spot.
Four children old enough to shower themselves, the oldest permitted
but not licensed, the youngest with Jack O’ Lantern teeth,
the girl seconds away from bra, body as yet unloathed,
and the middle boy out of the hospital and able to tie his own shoes.
My parents, too, are young enough to shower themselves,
Dad in remission, Mother flexible,
fingers agile enough to tie her laces.
How wrong is it to wish stasis, the irrational desire
to have all of the selves—past, present, future—overlap right
here with the trees that no one can explain?
But I am privileged. Educated enough to question trees,
moonlight, time, mothers, anything—everything—becoming cliché
obsolete, unwritable. And still
the need to make a poem so that tomorrow
or two months or when the disease returns,
we have proof. I am still someone’s child. My children
(not mine, but of me)
tethered, my marriage whole.
To be jam-stuck
in this sweet spot
would mean never to see all four become
however they will become,
would eliminate spooning warm apricot preserves
into my father’s mouth when he can no longer make
brain command the hand.
I want both—this and the becoming—
smooth or bark-rippled, all their skin soft as a pocket
I will never understand.

Emily Franklin - Photo_ResizedEmily Franklin’s work has been featured on National Public Radio and published in DIAGRAM, Monkeybicycle, Mississippi Review, Post Road Magazine, and The New York Times, as well as long-listed for the 2015 The Sunday Times EFG Story Award. She is the author of two novels for adults, Liner Notes and The Girls’ Almanac. Her seventeen novels for young adults include Last Night at the Circle Cinema, a Junior Library Guild selection, an ALAN Pick, and a 2016 Sydney Taylor Honorable Mention from the Association of Jewish Libraries.

Writers Read: Dated Emcees by Chinaka Hodge

writersread_datedemcees 2On the Friday following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Chinaka Hodge performed selections from her newly released poetry book, Dated Emcees, at 826LA to benefit the literacy organization. With poems honoring Jordan Davis, references to Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant, and tributes to Tupac and Biggie, Hodge has no shortage of words for black men whose lives were prematurely punctuated by bullets.

what about you’s small
no not legend, not stature
real talk just lifespan (12)

Equal parts liner notes and lyrics to the mixtape of the narrator’s love life, Dated Emcees serves as a little black book of sorts. As a lover, friend, peer, daughter, black woman, and citizen, Hodge’s narrator admits her questionable choices with a combination of pride, power, and wit that reverberates the spirit of hip hop. Flipping the pages, hip hop takes turns as subject, voice, lens. Hodge’s “small poems for Big: twenty-four haiku for each year he lived” and “2pac couplets: one line for each year he lived” eulogize today’s rap legends in old school poetic forms, simultaneously capturing the brevity of their lives while placing them in the continuum of the poetic tradition.

our sweetest thing, our prism and its light
lynched by bullet, won’t survive the knight (14)

Equal parts liner notes and lyrics to the mixtape of the narrator’s love life, Dated Emcees serves as a little black book of sorts.

“Drake questions the deceased, Vegas” (23-24) continues examining how the brevity of life cements one’s status as a cultural icon. We find Hodge’s Drake at the spot Tupac was shot in Las Vegas, summoning his spirit for an interview. The poem acknowledges the Canadian rapper’s roots, how he can “sing of danger but never face it” (23), a privilege of safety that many Americans are considering in the possibility of a Trump presidency. Offering a play-by-play of the final moments of Tupac’s life, the people and places that comprised his last memories, it’s not hard to imagine this séance as the inspiration for Drake’s actual lyrics repeated at the end of the poem, “oh my god/oh my god/if i die i’m a legend” (24).

Hodge’s narrator posits fame as “a hate crime against black men” (24), echoing sentiments in the penultimate couplets of her earlier Tupac tribute. In the ‘90s, the shootings of Big and Tupac reached national attention because of their existing celebrity. Today’s technology facilitates instafame with devices that are both means of media production and distribution; we know the names of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile because, in the same week, they were fatally shot by police officers and their deaths were recorded and shared virtually instantly. Fame, death, hate crime: decades apart, different order of operations in the same equation.

writersread_chinakahodgeNot all of Hodge’s characters are doomed to this fate. Granted, they aren’t all at that same high risk level of fame. Nevertheless, we can feel their own versions of systemic pain and violence through the pages of Dated Emcees. If there is any denial that black lives matter, Hodge’s writing can school those fools.

Although the reading began with a moment of silence out of respect for the week’s casualties, Hodge’s voice, as she read and rapped her way through Dated Emcees, was a reminder to find strength and solidarity in the words we share, in how we choose to fill in the negative space.

Hodge, Chinaka. Dated Emcees. San Francisco: City Lights, 2016. Print.


Nikki San Pedro

Nikki San Pedro is a global city girl: born in Manila, raised in Toronto, studied a semester in Sydney, and adulting in Los Angeles since ’09. She’s pursuing an MFA at Antioch University, using poetry and creative nonfiction to confront pain with humor. You can find her rhymes on Rat’s Ass Review and in the next issue of Angels Flight Literary West.

Loren Stephens

Spotlight: Burning Nettles

The train ride from Osaka to Arashiyama took an hour. Noriko rested her head against her husband’s shoulder and drifted off into a light sleep. She was exhausted from long days working at the Tesagara Tea Room and taking care of their two-year-old son, Eiji. Disembarking at the station, Ichiro instructed the cab driver to take the couple to the Togetsutei ryokan, where he had a reservation for an afternoon of forest bathing and a sumptuous meal. They passed the soft hills dressed in a vibrant coat of maples leaves.

Stepping out of the taxi, Ichiro felt light-headed. He had taken an extra dose of his medicine, but he was afraid that he had overdone it. The tuberculosis strain that ebbed and flowed through his body was tightening its grip on him, day by day.

From their private room, the young couple watched the Oe River flowing east underneath the wooden pylons of the trestle bridge. In another month, the hillside would be wrapped in a gray shroud and the cedar branches filled with pillows of white snow. For now, the autumn air was a refreshing change from the polluted air of downtown Osaka.

An attendant dressed in a traditional kimono slid the shoji screen of their private room open and brought a lacquered tray with a brazier, which she placed on a tatami mat. The dishes of a traditional kaiseki banquet appeared one by one. Ichiro watched with pleasure as his wife Noriko relished each dish. “It is good to see that you have an appetite today. It must be the mountain air. In ancient times the monks used to wrap a kaiseki, a heated stone, on their stomachs beneath their robes to ward off hunger during their climb up the mountain. We are much more fortunate than they.”

Noriko nodded. “Yes, in one way. But in another we aren’t because they achieved enlightenment through abstinence. We struggle to understand our purpose in life on a full stomach. Perhaps we would have greater clarity with sacrifice.”

“Is that what your religion teaches you? I was near starvation during the war, and all that filled my mind were thoughts of food—even if that meant grasshoppers and rats. Sacrificing for the Emperor Hirohito added up to nothing in the end. Japan lost the war, and most of us barely made it out alive. Even you.”

“I suppose you are correct, Ichiro, but my priest says that when we sacrifice for the good of others, it is not really a sacrifice. It is a way to bring joy to another person, and that is the greatest virtue of all.”

Ichiro did not have the strength or the inclination to argue further with his wife. Besides, he had much more on his mind than a rehashing of their personal histories. He walked out onto the veranda, and Noriko followed him. The sun was warm on their faces, but the breeze from the river was cool, and Noriko began to shiver. She put her hand in the steamy water of the hot tub. Ichiro took his clothes off and stepped in. Noriko could see his ribs protruding from beneath his pale skin. She turned away, unbuttoned her blouse and skirt, and slid into the water beside her husband. He pressed his body against her. She cupped her hands to hold the water and slowly dripped it over his head and onto his face. “This is to wash away all your sorrows, my beloved husband, and make you well, again.”

Ichiro sighed as she slid her fingers down his back. He touched her between her legs and kissed her neck. The twisted branches of the pine trees hid the couple from view, and they took advantage of nature’s privacy. Ichiro found the strength to penetrate Noriko’s body, while murmuring “Star of Mine,” over and over again. Making love to her was his only pleasure. He was afraid that all too soon, she might turn away from him or that she too could contract the disease that would not release its hold on him.

They stepped out of the hot tub and wrapped themselves in black kimonos. A teakettle had been placed on the brazier. Noriko’s cheeks were pink, but Ichiro’s complexion was pallid despite the steamy bath water.

Ichiro’s heart was pounding, and his throat felt like he had swallowed a bowl of burning nettles. He caught his breath while Noriko finished her tea. When she put her cup down, he said, “There’s something I must ask of you. I have given this much thought, and I believe that what I’m about to propose is the only way out of our predicament.”

“What predicament?”

“I am not getting better. Doctor Shizumi has recommended that I go to a sanitarium for up to six months.”

Horrified, she asked, “What else did he say?”

“He says that working as hard as I do is impeding my chance of recovery. Your sister Setsuko has been most generous keeping me on at the restaurant, but I don’t know how much longer she’ll put up with me. Her husband has been complaining to her. She doesn’t mention this, but I hear him growling at her when he comes back from the pachinko parlor. I no longer have the capacity or the will to do a proper job. My father once told me that I must always be proud of myself and do my best. I am defiling his memory; I am failing you, I am failing our son, and worst of all, I am failing myself.”

“Somehow, we will manage. And if necessary, I’ll ask my father to lend us some money. His sushi business in Matsue is thriving. He has come to my rescue before, and he can do it again. I can still see him on his bicycle riding through the ruins of Hiroshima to find me at school and bring me home, while the other children were stranded in the fire and ashes.”

Ichiro tried not to raise his voice, but he could not help himself. “Yes, Ryo is your hero, but he is not mine. I would never ask him for money. What would he think of me? I’d rather be a beggar on the street than accept a handout from him.”

“Ichiro, you are not making sense.”

He realized he had lost his focus and needed to get his point across now. “We are hardly ever together as a family, which is not good for our son. You work all day, and I work all night. Eiji needs a father capable of earning a living and a mother who is not forced to go to work.”

“What are you saying? No two parents could love their son more than you and I do. Eiji and you are my whole life. If someone were to tell me that I could become a star on the stage of the Takarazuka Theater if I gave up my son, even for a day, I would turn them down. I gave up that dream a long time ago. You and Eiji are my present and my future.”

Ichiro forged ahead. “Noriko, I have asked my sister and her husband to adopt Eiji. They can give him a better life in the United States. They have written to say that they will adopt him, so long as you are in agreement.”

Noriko felt like a bird trapped in a frozen pond with her wings beating against the air, trying to free herself. She hissed, “You would give our son away? He did not come into this world as ours to be given away, even to your sister.”

“But neither did he choose to have a father who is too sickly and unclean to take care of him properly.” Then he spoke the words that both of them feared, “And what if you should become sick? No, no one will judge us harshly. We have no other choice.”

Crying, Noriko blurted out, “If we give Eiji away, what will fill my starving heart? Will I need to tie a hot stone over my heart so as not to feel hunger? Perhaps one of the monks—whom you seem to know so much about—will lend me a kaiseki to carry around for the rest of my life?”

Ichiro held his breath. Whatever he might say would only make matters worse. He waited for Noriko to say something more.

“I can’t give you an answer now, Ichiro. I must think about this very carefully. I must ask my priest what she would advise me to do.”

“Can’t you think for yourself? You don’t need to consult with your priest. This is between us, and we need to make a decision soon. The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be for Eiji. I am just hoping that there will not be any complications and that the United States will open its doors to our son. Just think of it. Our little boy will be a rich American someday.” Then Ichiro starting singing in a strange voice, “Home, home on the range. Where the deer and the antelope play. Where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day.”

Noriko thought, Has Ichiro lost his mind?

Her husband blinked and then continued rambling. “Noriko, I am struggling to get through each day. Sometimes, I feel as if I do not exist—that I have crossed over into an invisible world where only ghosts live.”

Noriko said, “You are scaring me. I see you with my own eyes. I can touch you with my own hands and taste you with my own mouth. Were you not just making love to me? Or was that my imagination between my legs?”

Ichiro forced a smile. “I didn’t know I still could. It must have been one of the miracles of Tenrikyo that you like to pray to.”

Noriko slapped his face, trying to wake him up from some terrible dream. “I will never let you go, and I don’t want to let Eiji go either.”

She walked back out onto the balcony. The first star had poked through the evening’s canopy, and the moon was hanging low in the sky between the rise and fall of the nearby mountain. Ichiro slipped his hand inside Noriko’s kimono and whispered, “If you love me as much as I love you, you’ll do as I ask.” His hand felt cold on her breast, and she stepped away from him.

Noriko and Ichiro changed back into their street clothes, without saying a word. She watched him put on his father’s navy blue silk tie and wrap his white scarf around his neck—the same one he wore the night she fell in love with him as he played the piano in the tea room, and she sang “You Are My Everything.” That night seemed like a thousand years ago, and while the words she had sung then were still true, her heart had expanded to encompass another love: their son, Eiji. How could she ever let him go? As his mother, she had a right to claim him for herself. He was still part of her, even if the cord which had carried the blood from her body into his had been cut.

Loren Stephens - Photo_ResizedLoren Stephens is president of the Los Angeles-based Write Wisdom (www.writewisdom.com), which provides ghosting services to famous and not-so-famous clients alike. Under her own name, Loren has penned essays and short stories (two of which were nominated for Pushcart Prizes in 2014 and 2015) that have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Peregrine, The Montreal Review, The MacGuffin, Forge Journal, The Summerset Review, North Atlantic Review, and Eclectica Magazine to name a few. She has just completed with Cliff Simon a memoir/adventure, Paris Nights: My Year at the Moulin Rouge, which will be published in July 2016 by Waldorf Publishing; and her novel, All Sorrows Can Be Borne, to be published in 2017.

 

 

Writers Read: Bending Genre “On Convention” by Margot Singer

In “On Convention,” Margot Singer is less interested in defining what creative nonfiction is, and more interested in what it is doing and what it can do. She seeks to understand the evolving nature of the art of the genre, and how it blurs the lines between the “conventions,” of good writing—an imitation of mimetic literary prose—and the cultivated voice of creative nonfiction. Her belief is that creative nonfiction seeks to blend, or bend, conventions but also challenges the understanding of what creative nonfiction is by addressing the marriage between fact and imagination resulting in something she refers to as the Naked I.

The essay examines how the imitation of fictional literary prose, mimetic writing, is used to create stories that feel as though they’re true and real. This is done through the traditional tools used in all creative writing: showing not telling, developing compelling characterization, well-crafted dialogue. But she also posits that in attempting to tell the story in this approach that it might read as true, however it is often less truthful than it would appear to be—the factual story doesn’t happen as easily as it appears to happen in linear nonfiction narratives. She believes that this blurring of fact and imagination is where the true art of CNF is coming from, particularly in the resulting voice of this amalgam.

[Creative nonfiction] is often less truthful than it would appear to be—the factual story doesn’t happen as easily as it appears to happen in linear nonfiction narratives.

Singer argues that the language of creative nonfiction, the eschewing the omniscient narrator, to expose the writer’s feelings is a way of baring the prose to expose the author’s “voice.” Voice is what Singer suggests is the true distinction between fiction and creative nonfiction, as well as creative nonfiction and purely factual texts.

Margot Singer, co-author of Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction.

Margot Singer, co-author of Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction.

The Naked I, while often still using the conventions of mimetic literary writing, is a self-reflexive narrative voice that embodies the actual living “I” of the writer. Singer describes this voice as a combination of “hubris and humility.” Even when adhering to the Henry James standards of well-constructed writing (i.e. showing not telling), creative nonfiction is profoundly influenced by the writer’s relationship with this exposed Naked I. This voice necessitates the writer to address who they are in the relationship to the world that they are writing about, and how they find themselves when they are within that society. It can be done in the first person as in The Orchard Thief; the third person as in In Cold Blood; in semi-fictional accounts such as What is the What?, and even in unreliable nonfiction narration such as Amis’ Money.

Blurring the lines between what creative nonfiction writing is, and what creative nonfiction writing can do, turns away from the traditional voice of nonfiction texts to expose the bias and emotion of the narrator. The Naked I is coming from a new place, its voice unveils and confronts even while asking, “Is this the truth or what the writer believes to be the truth?”

This voice necessitates the writer to address who they are in the relationship to the world that they are writing about, and how they find themselves when they are within that society.

By combining the imitable qualities of conventional literary prose and crafting voice through the authentic revelation of the Naked I, is where Singer finds the art in creative nonfiction—definition of a formal term, she finds, is unnecessary.

Singer, Margot, and Nicole Walker. Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction. Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. Print.

 

Jane-Rebecca Cannarella is a writer living in Philadelphia. She’s the editor at HOOT Review and a contributing writer for SSG Music. Her work can be found in, and is forthcoming at, Hobart, Whiskey Paper, *82 Review, Paper Darts, and New South, among others.

Scott Wiggerman

Spotlight: Each Time We Enter Costco / By Morning / Nothing of Me Will Survive


Each Time We Enter Costco

I cannot help myself. I have to say,
“See that? Free hearing tests!” To which I add,
“Can’t hear me?” He ignores that, so, “Eh? Eh?
What’s that?” His brittle bearing flashes mad.
The cart gets filled in silence. Stuff we do
not need in ludicrous amounts: pintos,
potato chips, a gallon-sized shampoo,
a pound of chili powder, and God-knows
what else. I lag behind. When he’s like this,
I see his father’s thin-lipped pout. Perhaps
he does, too—getting deaf and old as piss,
each year bringing bitter new handicaps.
The young cashier he smiles for. Even she
can hear the creaking of mortality.


By Morning

starting with a Dickinson line (#113)

Our share of night to bear, our share of morning.
Fade-in: two men trapped in the lair of morning.

A galaxy of stars tessellates the ceiling.
The walls’ shadows foretell our fear of morning

I listen to you talk to creatures in your sleep.
You wake to the hairy-bellied bear of morning.

We look like mummies cocooned under layers.
Do you hear the not-so-subtle jeer of morning?

We listen to the leaves, clattering like shields.
How might we prepare for the war of morning?

It’s how hordes of words lose meaning overnight.
It’s how the phone rings in the blare of morning.

Fade-out: Tex-Mex, tequila, beer-bloated sex.
Oh God, I need coffee, our prayer of morning.


Nothing of Me Will Survive

a cento using only first lines from poems in
Jill Alexander Essbaum’s
Heaven

Even as he sleeps, I hear
my body lifted from the fold of yours.
First it is a kiss, and then that strange twine.
I blame you for most of this. The evidence?
This bridge of moon on bended knee above us.
(Imagine me elsewhere and kneeling.)
It’s the devil in me, I suppose.
Every night, it is one drunken orbit after another,
laughter, the grief of happiness.
The blanched dunes and disembodied wells,
everywhere I look is something new to grieve.
It is bone-cold, the night of all betrayed.
Now I think I understand:
If the martyr is made when the breaking heart breaks open,
the answer I seek is one I do not truly wish to know.
This is what’s become of us: I am
at the midnight of our trouble.
It always hurts to be this clean.

Scott WiggermanScott Wiggerman is the author of three books of poetry—Leaf and Beak: Sonnets, Presence, and Vegetables and Other Relationships—as well as the editor of several volumes, including Wingbeats: Exercises & Practice in Poetry, Lifting the Sky: Southwestern Haiku & Haiga, and Wingbeats II. Recent poems have appeared in Naugatuck River Review, Red Earth Review, Pinyon Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and the anthologies, This Assignment Is So Gay, Forgetting Home: Poems about Alzheimer’s, and The Great Gatsby Anthology. He is an editor for Dos Gatos Press of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

 

 

 

Writers Read: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

The great thing about graphic memoirs is that they tell a story with pictures and somehow capture a feeling or an expression that no words can explain. It’s tricky, though. Because the association that a graphic novel is a story of cartoons, the expectation is that the subject matter is fiction. With a graphic memoir, the shock of the serious content juxtaposed with cartoonish characters can be unsettling. Roz Chast’s colorful graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, is the illustration of her parents as they approach the final stage of their lives and the challenges an adult child in this culture is often faced with: what do I do with these frail, delicate, beloved humans who don’t always remember me, who can’t take care of themselves, who stubbornly refuse to change socks, and who I love more than anything?

What do I do with these frail, delicate, beloved humans who don’t always remember me, who can’t take care of themselves, who stubbornly refuse to change socks, and who I love more than anything?

Chast manages to draw the physical images of her parents and their moods at the various stages of their decline. On page 54, she describes her mother’s aversion to doctors, and her refusal to go to the hospital despite her severe pain. By the end of the nine small panels, you are grateful that you are not the one having to reason with her mother. And yet, there is something funny and loving about it, and familiar enough–it could be anyone with their parents.

Chast mixes up the memoir with copies of handwritten poems from her mother:

“When an unexpected illness struckdown [sic] the invincible.”
A random meteor
Shattered my world from above
Disrupting the lives
Of those whom I love
My husband, my daughter
Are caught in the swirling storm’s wake
But I shall over come this
For all of our sake…. (67)

Roz Chast, author of Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Photo credit: Bill Franzen/Salon)

Roz Chast, author of Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Photo credit: Bill Franzen/Salon)

She includes actual photos of her parents’ apartment, rooms with desks piled high with files and folders and books and purses and clothes—evidence that the dreaded, “I might want this later,” or worse, the decision that creates all clutter, “What should I do with this?” have now caught up with them. Anyone who has ever had to help an older person begin to sift through their life has probably encountered similar collections, big and small, of things that make no sense. Why would you keep a band-aid box from 1962? How come the same bag of shoes that need resoling is still in the hallway and hasn’t moved since the last time I was here? And God forbid, what about the Hummel collection? Looking at the physical proof of her parents’ existence, alongside frank words of someone whose disbelief is both amused and sad, a wave of nostalgia settles over the pages.

Chast places the reader in the real time of her parent’s slow (or fast, depending on how you are feeling) decline. When they are moved to an independent living retirement home, she puts the description of the facility in text, in a “frame” set against the gray and pink wallpaper of the “activities room.” Below the text, there is an image of an old woman doing a jigsaw puzzle with a suspicious scowl on her face as she sizes up the facility’s newcomers.

It’s a strange sensation to be letting go and feeling sad when it isn’t even someone you know—but again, that’s the power of a graphic text.

The tone of the book remains steady as the images and text convey Chast’s emotions. We readers begin to accept the eventual death of her parents at the same time Chast does. It’s a strange sensation to be letting go and feeling sad, when it isn’t even someone you know—but again, that’s the power of a graphic text. The last pages of the memoir are still-life drawings of Chast’s mother as as she sleeps in the final hours before she passes. At this point in the memoir, the color and cartoon images switch over to pen and ink to capture Chast’s mother’s return to innocence, as she slowly slips away and the one watching the transition begins to mourn the finality of death.

Chast, Roz. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print.

As of June 26, 2016, Heather Hewson is a graduate of Antioch University Los Angeles’s MFA program in Creative Writing.  At AULA, she was able to combine her love of art and writing, and she is currently working on a graphic memoir. She has worked on Lunch Ticket for the past year and a half, and is currently Co-Editor of Visual Art. She is a voracious reader, and believes that reading is one of life’s greatest pleasures–and hopes that her enthusiasm is contagious. In addition to writing and drawing, she works as a reading instructor for children ages 5-13.  She is looking forward to her next adventure in the writing world.

Nancy Calef, CNN, oil on canvas, 36" x 48"

Spotlight: Peoplescapes

My “Peoplescapes” are colorful and exaggerated narratives about the condition of today’s world. Our culture is designed to ignore certain fundamental truths, causing great obstacles to our continuing existence. Addressing these issues by capturing moments of ordinary life confronting us all, while sharply observing and commenting, I’m able to shine a light on these subjects […]

Writers Read: Reeling Through Life by Tara Ison

In Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love and Die at the Movies, Tara Ison taps into her subconscious and squeezes out a rich stream of life lessons. Weaving her personal stories together with scenes from iconic films, Ison reflects on the “influence of film on [her] own authenticity” (5) and specifically examines how these powerful celluloid images influenced her definition of self as a Jew, as a writer, and as a female wrestling with sensuality and sanity. Not only do we learn about Ison, but we are introduced to the cast of characters in her life and, through her lens, we are reminded of our own cast of characters and the movie moments that shaped us and guide us to this day.

Ison’s nimble shifts in point-of-view, along with objective and subjective narration, create a highly dimensional experience for the reader as we move across time, while delving into deep emotional territory. In the chapter entitled “How To Lose Your Virginity,” we are taken on a field trip to see Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, along with Ison and her classmates. Ison puts us in the film of her childhood memories of watching that film and experiencing a sexual awakening right there in the Nuart Theater.

These powerful celluloid images influenced her definition of self as a Jew, as a writer, and as a female wrestling with sensuality and sanity.

Just as soon as we understand the roots of that longing, Ison uses another film to support the notion that she “was not alone in this,” quoting Tatum O’Neal from the film Little Darlings, when she says “I envy Juliet.” Little Darlings influences the teenage Ison’s decisions about losing her virginity as does Fast Times at Ridgemont High several years later. Ison splices together scenes and sound bites from multiple movies per chapter—as many as ten or more—while consistently editing in the most important footage of all—footage from the movie called Tara Ison’s life. Just as Ison refers to movie titles as “Proustian,” her juxtaposition of classic film sequences with pivotal life experiences triggers a Proustian reaction for readers whose minds will connect their “first time” moments with their own influential “first time” film series.

Tara Ison, author of Reeling Through Life.

Tara Ison, author of Reeling Through Life.

Ison’s “How To Go Crazy” opener and her “How To Be A Writer” closer seem to act as bookends for the seven chapters that fall in between. An assertive first person statement kicks off both and places us squarely into the never predictable world of Tara Ison, before releasing us for intermission between chapters with a memorable takeaway. In the preface, Ison says there is “a time for examination, and a time for immersion,” referring to her reluctance to analyze film as a moviegoer. That said, what makes Reeling Through Life so powerful is the examination and the exactitude with which Ison shares highly nuanced and emotional experiences. She has done the work for us so that now, as readers, we can sit back with some popcorn and immerse ourselves in the flickering memories of her resonant words and ideas.

Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at The Movies, Tara Ison, Soft Skull Press, 2015.

Born on a small island near Puerto Rico called Manhattan, Rochelle credits her Lower East Side roots with her love of culture, humor, and language. She lives in Los Angeles, has over three decades of U.S. Hispanic marketing experience, and is a recent Antioch MFA graduate. She holds a BFA in theatre from UC Irvine. Her work has appeared in Lilith Magazine, Role Reboothaikuniverse, NAILED, Advertising Age, and Lunch Ticket.
EE Lampman

Spotlight: Longing, as dirge / Elegy / Epitaphs for a state you’ve never seen

Longing, as dirge

The wood in warp
and disrepair has had
its share of everything.
Never drinking

not even rye
and absinthe puddled
sickly on this old porch.
No, the sazerac’s

candy burn fails to impress
this sagging terrace—
it smolders on as coal
beneath the eves.

Although my foot
glances toward his thigh
and his hand
takes rest on my forearm,

our company is obsolete.
This portico—content
with former carnage dusted
and caked to its planks,

and the adirondack chairs,
free of lust, counsel us
with a deep recline
that slumbers toward

tomorrow. Still our flesh is deaf
and with each manhattan
our niceties crumble
dry to the red earth,

and our coy postures
seep toward
further mixing.
With bourbon’s glaze

his eyes undo me
blink by blink, his chin
becomes my thigh, and slivers

of chipped paint, my hair.
As the cocktails pour sticky
on our skin we think,
such wooden solitude is nothing like our tangle—


Elegy

++++++++++for Stevie
++++++++++August 5, 1975-June 21, 2015

I’ve heard you spent the last of life between
patched-out lines in a big box store parking lot.
News travels like this, the wrong details

in color—the earth of you: warm and rusted
skin and early gray against the artificial sparkle
of those yellow tracks. My hum is not why

I take where and string it above this grief. Which
cart boy found your melting smile?
Which peopled crosswalks, impassable at noon,

laced a hedge around your limbs? How hot
was summer’s asphalt, sheer the highway whine?
How we hush your name tonight

throughout the bar knowing anyone of us
had been so close to your departure—knowing
I’ve been at the edge of torn dimensions with you.

Our drug-bittered tongues waved peels of laughter
across night’s skin, the trees our buoys in a pastel sea.
This time you tore off, ripped your body

free like a kite hauled away through the gorge,
the forest anchored below you, looking up
++++++++++++++++++++at your flying grin.


Epitaphs for a state you’ve never seen

In this one, a burro holds down
a scrubby pasture. Here, the Rio Grande
trickles dirty through a deep cut.
Pictured here, a cache of mountains swells
into the sky. A neighbor’s wall guards
the fruit trees that bend toward the fading,
turquoise-painted gate. And there, in the distance
an empty morada sifts each breeze.
From the camera angle you cannot see it,
but if you do visit, see penitente blood
on the cell walls, a backlash collage.
All summer these postcards have sat on the piano
unsung—white-backed simulacra spread
before me. How do I begin Dear Sister
and tell you I’ll never find it all,
of America I mean. How to say I’m sure
I’ll have to become something else entirely
before signing off Write soon or Love from NM.
How do I say I’ve lost my faith in the clouds?
Because I’ve spotted their act—
skittering across every sky like a happy,
sick dogma. Because the end won’t come
in a moment of condensation, but of dispersal—
where any body might as well just be
a pulp of whipped flesh, cushion
for cactus thorns and gravel
where we tried to save ourselves.

EE LampmanEE Lampman’s poems have been featured in The Missing Slate, Gulf Stream Literary Magazine, Poetry City, USA, and other publications. She is a poetry reader for The Cimarron Review, an editorial contributor to Hazel & Wren, and a Tupelo Press 30/30 Project alumna. She lives and writes in Oklahoma where she is an MFA candidate in poetry at Oklahoma State University.

Writers Read: Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata

The palm-of-the-hand stories anthologized in this collection span decades of Yasunari Kawabata’s life, from 1923-1972, and far pre-date the recent moniker “flash fiction,” though they could be classified now using that label. Most of these stories are realistic, detailing families at home, strangers on the train, and past lovers’ meeting by chance. There are a few moments when the stories take fantastic or surreal turns, but on the whole they tend to have a mythological feel, perhaps because the stories often advance through large spans of time and end with a sentence that encapsulates the final movement of the story. Many of them feel like parables.

As I read, I made notes of which stories I thought worked well, and which didn’t float my aesthetic boat, and why. The stories I favored, tended to fall into two patterns: those that read like parables, and those that were more realistic fiction.

Those that assembled strange and lasting images in obscure parables included “The Maiden’s Prayers” (55-7), which follows villagers who glimpse a gravestone rolling down a hill as they try and fail to locate it, in the process sparking fires and ecstatic ceremony. This story has a tone like a parable but the narrator also seems like an actual person, though nondescript, as in this passage near the end of the story:

The villagers’ hearts were as bright as the sun as they laughed with all their might. Suddenly I stopped laughing and knelt at one of the gravestones illuminated by the fire of the burning grass.

“God, I am pure.”

But the laughter was so loud, I could not hear my own voice in my heart. The villagers laughed in harmony with the maidens until the hill was engulfed in a wave of laughter. (56-7)

Another parable-like story was “The Sparrow’s Matchmaking” (62-4). It opens with this sentence: “Long accustomed to a life of self-indulgent solitude, he began to yearn for the beauty of giving himself to others” (62). The story then proceeds in third-person narration with a chronology of thoughts and actions that feel true to life, revealing deep emotions behind family members’ actions as they toss coins and watch birds, and also conveying archetypal tension between solitude and sacrifices of love. “One Person’s Happiness” (69-71) does something similar in a story with more concrete characters: as the protagonist hears about a boy’s life of hardship, he weighs his decision to help the boy. This conveys his conviction that helping just one person makes life worthwhile. “Morning Nails” (83-4) explores vulnerability in love against a surreal domestic setting. “The Young Lady of Suruga” (85-7) is set on a particular train line, and achieves a strong sense of place.

This is one of the greatest benefits of reading flash fiction: for a writer looking to improve her craft, she can experience at an accelerated pace a diverse range of stories, which can help her gain insight on a wide range of craft considerations, as well as on her own personal literary preferences.

I enjoyed these parables and did not find their tone overly didactic. Though they were like parables, the characters seemed concrete, like real people. If the events conveyed seemed incidental, their effects on the characters in the stories were clear.

There were other stories that stuck with me that were not like parables, and which were more realistic. Some of my favorites were “At the Pawnshop” (121-4), “A Pet Dog’s Safe Birthing” (165-8), “Water” (171-2), and “Tabi” (178-80). These stories presented snapshots of events that are emotionally significant to narrators or protagonists: a desperate and ill man trying to scare up some credit at the pawnshop while another merchant pawns his capital to improve his public image; a married couple assisting in the birth of a litter of puppies, and then sitting down for coffee and a newspaper; a woman in a drought missing her husband and remembering the abundant water in her hometown; a woman who’s lost her sister, recalling the death of her teacher when she was a young teen. The realistic specificity of these stories makes these stories universal in a different way than the dreamy generality of the parables.

What I didn’t like were the stories that felt too episodic. “Toward Winter” (58-61) imbues a routine interaction, playing Go, with a mythical meaning, and then shifts into another story. As a reader I felt ricocheted about until an unsatisfying ending. The way the scenes were juxtaposed didn’t invest me in the story enough, since I didn’t have any other context for the characters therein—it seemed to be more about the author’s musings than about the reader’s experience. I normally consider myself to be very tolerant of cleverness in art, so it was strange for me to experience this aesthetic objection. This is one of the greatest benefits of reading flash fiction: for a writer looking to improve her craft, she can experience at an accelerated pace a diverse range of stories, which can help her gain insight on a wide range of craft considerations, as well as on her own personal literary preferences.

Author of Palm-of-the-Hand stories, Yasunari Kawabata

Author of Palm-of-the-Hand stories, Yasunari Kawabata

In leafing through this whole collection after reading it, I realized that some of my favorite stories in this collection involved children: “The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket” (12-15) and “Yuriko” (88-9), for example. I’ve long been debating whether I want to write about and/or for children and adolescents, and some of the fiction I’m working on right now involves children as characters. Re-reading Kawabata’s stories involving children forced me to reflect on why writing about children appeals to me: they are wise in a different way than adults are. Their problems are less standardized, so writing about a child forces a writer to inhabit their world in its particularity. Children don’t have jobs or spouses, so their preoccupations in play and friendship have more unpredictable symbolic landscapes.
The short length of these stories helped me reflect on this literary interest more efficiently so I could articulate it. When you can hold a story in the palm of your hand, you can examine it from different angles, feel its weight, and you can slip it into your pocket to keep it if it pleases you. Or just as easily toss it over your shoulder.

Kawabata, Yasunari. Palm-of-the-Hand Stories. Trans. by Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1988.

Lauren Kinney is a musician and writer in Los Angeles, where she is working on her MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University. You can read her work in Drunk MonkeysQueen Mob’s Tea House, and The Turnip Truck(s). Find her on Twitter @lauren_kinney, or learn more at her website www.laurenkinney.net.

 

Spotlight: The City Stargazers

Bonnie started stripping the moment her bedroom door latched behind her. She undid her blouse buttons. The white fabric stuck to her back, and she peeled it off and let it crumple to the floor. She tossed it so that it sat in a small, sweaty mountain in the corner of her room. Next to go were her shoes, kicked off and jumbled on top of her blouse, and then she pulled her pantyhose off from beneath her skirt. Shucking them into the corner with the rest, she stood alone in her room with only her bra and her skirt and let out a gust of air through her nose.

At the corner store, while waiting in the checkout line, the two old women in front of Bonnie had been saying that it felt even hotter than that August before the war. The pair of them was old enough that is wasn’t clear which war they were talking about. Regardless, today was the hottest day of this particular August—maybe even the hottest Chicago day of 1953 entirely. Bonnie didn’t know and didn’t care. All she knew was that it was hot, and she was sweating. Bonnie hated sweating—hated the way sweat prickled out of her skin and plastered her brown hair to her nape. She yanked that hair up into a ponytail and sighed, her eyes fluttering shut, as the air hit the back of her neck.

“My-oh-my, it’s my lucky day,” a voice said, drawling in from her open window and followed by a low wolf whistle. “Hey, Sweetheart. You going my way?”

Bonnie startled and stood straight. She and her mother lived on the twelfth story of their apartment complex. Next door, separated by a narrow alley no more than four feet across, was another tower of apartments. The only thing that could be seen from Bonnie’s room was the window across the way—a window that showed a bedroom that had stood empty for the better part of the past two months as its occupant was off visiting her aunt.

“Jo!” Bonnie said, whirling around and crossing her arms over her exposed stomach in an ineffective shield. The memory of her last encounter with Jo burned like a comet through her mind, leaving trails of heat along her cheeks. “You just about killed me.”

Jo, propped up on her elbows and leaning out her own window, grinned and gave Bonnie a lazy salute with two fingers. She wore a white button down with blue polka dots, the ends knotted just at her waistline, and a headscarf tied in a bow on top of her head, keeping her florescent red hair covered and out of sight. “You’re the one walking around in your underthings,” Jo said, and arched an eyebrow. “What would your mother say?”

“My mother would question the morals of the peeping Tom next door,” said Bonnie. She pulled her blouse back on and scooped a pencil off of her desk. Without bothering to take aim, she whipped the pencil through her open window as she said, “Or should I say, the peeping Tammy?”

The pencil ricocheted off of the brick next to Jo’s window, but Jo—always willing to go along with the joke—exaggerated ducking and dropped out of sight below her windowsill. A moment later, she waved a piece of white paper, her slender hand the only part of her Bonnie could see, and said, “I surrender, I surrender.” She peeked up, her eyes crinkling with her smile. “Is it safe to leave my foxhole?”

“For now,” said Bonnie. “Though let the record show I acted in self-defense.”

“So shown,” said Jo. She stood up again. “Aren’t you going to say hello?”

“I think we’ve moved past that,” said Bonnie. “How long have you been back?”

“I don’t know,” said Jo. She wrinkled her nose as she thought. “A week? A little less than that, maybe. You know how I am with schedules.”

Bonnie nodded and leaned forward to mirror Jo’s posture—arms crossed and most of her weight leaning on her elbows, perched on the windowsill. The air was as still and humid outside as it was inside. Bonnie brushed her damp bangs off of her forehead. She was on the verge of asking Jo why she’d waited so long to announce herself if she had been back for almost a week. But Bonnie feared that she knew the answer so instead smiled and asked, “Wonderful weather we’re having, huh?”
“Oh, it’s positively lovely,” Jo said, her voice monotonous. “School next week will be an absolute dream.”

Bonnie groaned. “Don’t remind me,” she said. “At least I have two weeks until mine starts.” It was one of the few advantages of attending a public school—the same one her parents had attended and her grandparents before them—instead of the private school that Jo went to.

“It’s not good manners to brag,” said Jo. She pressed a hand to her face. “My God, it’s hot. I’m sweating like a pig.”

Bonnie sniffed, raised her voice several pitches in a perfect imitation of her mother, and said, “Young ladies do not sweat, Joanna. Young ladies glisten.”

“That settles it then, once and for all. I’m no lady,” said Jo. She scratched at her head and squinted, frowning, before pulling off her headscarf. She sighed, collapsing forward with the motion. “There. That’s at least a little better.”

“Jo,” Bonnie said. She pushed herself up straight in the window frame. “Your hair.”

“Do you like it?” Jo asked. She reached up and ran a hand over her head. When she left for her aunt’s at the end of last May, Jo’s red curls reached down past her elbows. Now, Bonnie thought that even calling it an inch-long would be an overestimation. “My mother just about died when she saw.”

“I can imagine,” said Bonnie.

“She threw a fit,” said Jo. She sounded delighted. “But I told her. I said, ‘Mother. I am seventeen now. I’m old enough to make my own decisions.’ I mean, really, I said to her, ‘I’m practically an adult.’”

“You did not,” said Bonnie.

“I did so. Besides, I’d already had it done, so it wasn’t like there was anything she could do,” said Jo. She bit her lip and looked up at Bonnie from beneath her eyelashes. “You haven’t said what you think of it.”

“It’s very short,” said Bonnie. Jo’s eyes looked huge, defined in a way that Bonnie hadn’t noticed when her hair was long. The space between their windows seemed to stretch far for a moment—she wanted nothing more than to reach out and touch the short ends. The end of last spring hung between them like a clothesline sinking beneath the weight of wet towels, stretched and straining. Bonnie cleared her throat and shook herself as if to shake away everything else as well. “I think it suits you.”

“You do?” Jo asked. She fidgeted, picking at her pinkie fingernail with her thumb. Jo was nervous in a way that looked out of place on her. (Nerves were Bonnie’s territory.) This anxiety sat on Jo like an ill-tailored blazer, and Bonnie realized that she was not the only one tiptoeing around her words.
“Bonnie!” her mother yelled from somewhere within their apartment. “Bonnie, darling, dinner!”

“I have to go,” said Bonnie.

“I heard,” said Jo. She cracked her neck, bending her head first to the left, then to the right, and by the time she straightened again, any sign of her earlier nerves had vanished leaving behind Jo, confident as always. The light caught her short hair in a strange and fiery halo. Jo shooed Bonnie away with one hand. “Off with you, my Bonnie lass. We’ll talk later,” she said, snorting at her own joke, and before Bonnie could respond, whirling around and disappearing into the apartment beyond her bedroom.

Bonnie lingered in her own window for a moment longer before her mother called again. The moment she stepped from her room, her mother’s gaze narrowed in on her like a gun on a hapless rabbit. “Bonnie, dear,” she said. “At least have the decency to do up all of your buttons.”

Bonnie looked down to find that in her excitement at talking to Jo, she’d left the top three buttons on her blouse undone, her neckline plunging low. “But there’s no one here but us,” she said, even as she did them up. They lived alone, Bonnie and her mother. Just the two of them and a portrait of Bonnie’s father, resplendent in his uniform, that sat on the table in the living room.

“All the same,” said her mother. She wasn’t even sweating, and Bonnie, not for the first time, wondered if her mother was truly made of ice. “Young ladies don’t go to dinner half-dressed. Now go and set the table.”

“Yes, Mother,” said Bonnie.

Later that night, when the dishes were put away, and Ed Sullivan had lulled her mother to sleep, Bonnie lay flat on her back in the middle of her bedroom floor. The temperature had dropped with the sun, but it was still far too warm to be able to fall asleep. Her cotton sheets, so cool against her skin on any other night, threatened to smother her. The wooden floorboards, though rigid, were at least bearable.

She looked up at the end table next to her bed and sighed when she caught sight of the clock face. Two in the morning. She would be useless tomorrow, but no matter how hard she tried, Bonnie could not fall asleep.

From outside, the sound of Jo starting to sing drifted in through the window. It sounded like Patti Page, maybe “I Went to Your Wedding,” but at the volume that Jo was singing and how badly she was butchering the tune, Bonnie couldn’t say for sure.

Bonnie threw her arm over her eyes and sighed. Even here, in the middle of the night and alone in her bedroom, she couldn’t have a moment to escape it. For the past three months, she had tried not to think about it and as a result did nothing but think about it.

 *     *     *

Last spring, before going to her aunt’s house for the season, Jo had stolen an unopened bottle of Corby’s from her father’s cabinet. The two of them climbed up the rusty fire escape to the roof of Bonnie’s building. Bonnie slipped on the way up and scraped her shin on the rusted metal. Jo caught her by the arm and hauled her up, laughing as she said, “You’d be lost without me, you really would,” and Bonnie was unable to argue.

Bonnie had never been so aware of her own skin as she was that night up on the roof. All of the blood in her body seemed to swarm to the points where Jo’s arm and Jo’s thigh pressed against her own. Bonnie downed her fair share of the whisky, but she thought that maybe she was drunk on something else entirely.

“I,” Jo said, tipping her head back and letting the laugh out in short, staccato bursts, a red curling lock of hair in her face, “Am. So. Blitzed.”

She flopped her head around to grin at Bonnie. Jo had always been beautiful, but this was the first time Bonnie had ever noticed how crooked her smile was and how thick Jo’s eyelashes were. “Hi,” said Jo, and tilted her head forward just a little more. There was an inch between the tips of their noses, separated like windows across an alley.

Bonnie’s head spun, thoughts bubbling in a dizzying boil, threatening to brim over and escape into reality. It would be easy, so devastatingly easy, to reach out and anchor the wayward curl behind Jo’s ear. To cup Jo’s cheek in her hand, close her eyes, lean forward. To kiss her, hold her close, tuck her face between Jo’s shoulder and neck and wait out the world for a while.

Instead, she pulled away and got to her feet. “I have to go,” she said. Bonnie wobbled down the fire escape and back to her room, and didn’t slip on the way this time. She thought that maybe Jo called out her name, but then again, maybe Bonnie only wished that part.

*     *     *

Bonnie moved her arm so that she was staring at her ceiling. Outside, Jo stumbled over the words, started the line over, trailed away again, tried one more time, cursed, and fell silent. Bonnie closed her eyes and tried to let her mind drift. There would be nothing in the world as wonderful as sitting up right now to tell Jo about how her mother reacted to the news of Jo’s hair; there would be nothing in the world as terrifying, either. So she stayed on her floor and tried to convince herself that she was almost asleep. She shifted, trying to get more comfortable, but her foot collided with a pile of books that clattered down and bumped her end table.

“Bonnie?” Jo called. “Are you awake over there?”

Bonnie looked up at the window, low enough to the floor that Jo still couldn’t see her.

“I heard you, and I thought I saw something move,” said Jo. “If we’re both awake, we might as well talk to each other.”

Bonnie heaved herself up, kneeling and hanging her arms out of the window. “Good morning,” she said.

“So the clock says, but I have my doubts,” said Jo. “I’m used to being on my own this time of night, Miss Up-With-the-Sun. Why are you awake?”

“I can’t sleep,” said Bonnie. There were too many thoughts in her head for that. “And you?”

“The very same,” said Jo. She craned her neck up to look at the sky. “So I thought I’d look for some stars.”

Bonnie followed her gaze. There was nothing but the usual black, not even the smallest pinpricks of light to be seen. “There’s nothing up there,” she said.

“Sure there is,” said Jo. “Just because we can’t see them doesn’t mean that they aren’t there.”

“You know what I mean,” said Bonnie. She propped her chin on the windowsill and let her arms dangle out into the air, pretending there was a breeze moving over her. “What’s the point in stargazing when there’s nothing to gaze at?”

Jo shrugged. “Habit, mostly,” she said. “I looked every night I was at my aunt’s. She lives in the middle of the cornfield, you know.”

“So you’ve mentioned,” said Bonnie. For years, during the weeks leading up to Jo’s departure north, Bonnie had listened to Jo’s rantings about summers in Iowa as she threw her things, a haphazard tower of polyester and cotton, into a suitcase. “Nothing but cows, isn’t it?”

“Precisely. I was hideously bored all day, every day,” said Jo. She craned her neck out of her window again, looking up. “The night was different. It turns out a cornfield is the best place to be at night. You’ve never seen so many stars. Funny thing, really. I’ve been going there every summer for years, but this was the first time I went and looked for the stars. It’s easy to get your thoughts in order, looking at a sky like that.”

“I’ll bet,” said Bonnie. She scrubbed the heel of her hand against her eye. She couldn’t remember the last time she had actually left the city—before her father shipped out, for sure. Her thoughts were as clouded and uncertain as the black above them. “I could use a sky like that.”

“I think a lot of people could,” said Jo. They fell into a comfortable quiet, Jo staring up at the sky and Bonnie at the alley below.

“I told my mother about your hair,” said Bonnie, remembering her dinner earlier.

Jo laughed quietly, the sound seeming to stick in her throat for a moment before escaping. “I would have liked to have been there for her reaction,” said Jo. When Bonnie didn’t say anything right away, Jo said, “Well, go on then. Tell me what she said.”

“She said no self-respecting boy would ever want to be seen with a girl with hair like that,” said Bonnie.

“As if I’m interested in any boys, let alone self-respecting ones,” said Jo. She bent her pointer and middle fingers in the air in a mockery of quotation marks around the words “self-respecting” and rolled her eyes. She looked over at Bonnie, waiting for something.

“I,” said Bonnie, and then looked down at the alley again. She swallowed thickly. “I’m going to try and go back to sleep, I think.”

“Oh,” said Jo. She sounded disappointed. Bonnie couldn’t bring herself to look up and find out for sure. “All right, then. Good night. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

Bonnie mumbled her response and moved out of the window. She leaned her back against the wall next to it, slipping down to sit with her legs pulled up to her chest and her arms wrapped around her knees. Jo picked up her song again, humming to fill in the gaps where she had forgotten the words. Bonnie tipped her head against the wall, looked up at the ceiling, and closed her eyes. Every time she blinked, the bright phantom of Jo’s smile flared against her eyelids.

It wasn’t as if she had never heard of it. Living in a place the size of Chicago, one saw them, especially near the bars around Hyde Park or Old Town. Women who wore men’s clothing—suits, denim pants, t-shirts—and greased their hair back in a ducktail. Who walked with their arms looped around the waists of other women the way that Bonnie’s father used to walk with her mother.

Once, when Bonnie was ten, while walking to the L station, her mother had made Bonnie cross the street to avoid a group of them that was spread around a couple of park benches. “They’re everywhere these days, those homophiles,” her mother had said, shaking her head. “I don’t know why they insist on hanging around in public like that.”

It burned through Bonnie’s stomach, that sentence. Six years later, and she could still feel it there, festering and simmering. It burst into a blast of heat whenever Jo looked at her and smiled her crooked smile.

Bonnie pressed her forehead to her kneecaps and breathed in, breathed out, breathed in, breathed out. She stayed that way until the yellow light of dawn managed to spill down the walls of the alley and into her window.

For the next three days, Bonnie avoided Jo. It wasn’t even a subconscious act. Whenever her mother needed an errand run, Bonnie volunteered immediately and without complaint. She made use of the dining room table and the living room sofa for when she settled down to read or sketch. The only time that Bonnie really entered her room was to sleep at night. She thought that Jo might be doing the same, because she didn’t see any sign of Jo whenever she chanced a look through the window. Jo’s curtains were almost always drawn.

On the morning of the fourth day of silence, Bonnie stood in her room, at a loss as to why she had entered into it in the first place. Just then a hairclip sailed through the air and ricocheted off of her head.

“Hey, stranger,” said Jo, waving. “Long time no see.”

“Ow,” said Bonnie. She rubbed at her scalp and chanced half a step towards the window. “That hurt.”

“I see how it is,” said Jo. “You’re allowed to throw things at me, but I can’t retaliate?”

“That is how it is,” said Bonnie. “You know that I have terrible aim.”

“True,” said Jo. She beckoned Bonnie forward with a curl of her pointer finger. “I have a question for you: What are you doing tonight?”

“Nothing,” said Bonnie, slow and uncertain. This was exactly how the night with the whisky on the roof began. “Why do you ask?”

“The Perseids are this week, and tonight they’re supposed to be the brightest,” said Jo. “I thought we could go and watch.”

“The what?” Bonnie asked.

“The Perseids,” said Jo, each syllable enunciated slowly. “A meteor shower. My aunt was telling me about it. It happens every August. I can’t believe I almost forgot about it.”

“We can’t see the normal stars from here,” said Bonnie. “We’ll never be able to see them.”

“Well, no, not from here,” said Jo. “That’s why we’ll take my dad’s car and head out, find a field, and watch from there.”

“I don’t know,” said Bonnie. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Her palms were suddenly cold, clammy. “We’d have to go out pretty far.”

“Yes,” said Jo. “And?”

“And,” said Bonnie. She repeated herself, “I don’t know. Isn’t there someone else you could go with?”

“Probably,” said Jo. “But there’s no one I’d rather go with. It’ll be worth the trip, I swear. Are you in?”

“I want to, but it’s difficult,” said Bonnie. Jo’s intense gaze made her feel like there was more than one question being asked. She cleared her throat. “My mother will never let me go. You know how she is.”

“That’s why you don’t tell her,” said Jo. “You wait until she falls asleep in front of Lucy, then you slip out, meet me in our getaway car. You’re already Bonnie, so I guess I’ll have to be Clyde. We’ll be back before morning, you slip into your room, and your mother is none the wiser.”

Bonnie drummed her fingers against the wood. “I don’t know,” she said. “Do you even know how to drive?”

“You did it, you found the flaw in the plan,” said Jo, rolling her eyes. “My aunt taught me. Look, it’ll be fun, I promise. Come on. School starts after that. Do you really want to waste your last days of the summer?”

“It’s your last days,” said Bonnie. “I still have nearly a week.”

“Stop doing that,” said Jo. “No more changing the subject. Are you coming or not?”

Bonnie clenched her hand into a fist and took a quick breath. “Yes,” she said, and looked up at Jo.

“Yes, I’ll come.”

Jo smiled, and the familiar heat flared in Bonnie’s stomach again.

*     *     *

Bonnie pulled the door shut behind her as quietly as she could. Just as Jo had predicted, her mother fell asleep moments into the opening credits of I Love Lucy.

“She’s so funny,” her mother said. She started casting on her knitting needle with a deep, red yarn. “Especially for a communist. Don’t you think so, dear?”

“Yes, Mother,” said Bonnie, half listening. Her attention was fixed to the clock, watching as the long second hand twitched its way around, pulling the time closer and closer to nine thirty. She was to meet Jo down on the curb then, so they could drive out and watch the meteors.

The moment her mother started to snore, Bonnie wrote a quick note to leave on the counter and grabbed a light sweater. She paused a moment at the door that led out to the front walk of her building. Jo sat in a burgundy Buick that idled by the sidewalk. With a bracing breath, straightening her shoulders, Bonnie walked out the door.

“Your father actually let you take his car?” Bonnie asked. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she had thought Jo wouldn’t get the car—she hadn’t been able to tell if it was a hope or a fear. She leaned against the bottom of the window and reached in to trail her fingers over the red leather seats. “I don’t believe it.”

“Yes. In a manner of speaking,” said Jo. She hesitated long enough for Bonnie to doubt her.

“What is that supposed to mean?” asked Bonnie, standing a little straighter.

“It means,” said Jo, “that I’ve left him a note, but we best be off before he finds it, because if we’re not gone by then neither of us is going anywhere.”

“Jo!” Bonnie said. She backed up half a step from the curb and Buick.

“I told you before: It’s a getaway car,” said Jo. “It’s no fun if we have permission.”

“We’re going to get into terrible trouble when we get back,” Bonnie said.

“No, I will,” said Jo. Which, really, was exactly the problem. Jo did things like this, sometimes, and it scared Bonnie to death. Her parents already sent her away for summers at a time. What if she disappeared for even longer? Jo, though—she had no such concerns, at least as far as Bonnie could tell. She fixed Bonnie with a look and said, “Besides, he’s out so much that we’ll probably even beat him home. You’ll be fine, I promise. Come on, Bonnie. Listen to your Clyde and get in the car. It’s time to go.”

Bonnie hesitated a moment longer and then pulled open the car door and slid into the seat.
“That’s my girl!” Jo said. As soon as Bonnie pulled the door shut behind her, Jo drove away from the curb and down the street. She laughed loudly and with her head thrown back for a moment. “Look out, world,” said Jo. “There’s a new Barrow gang on the move.”

“You do know what happened to them, don’t you?” Bonnie asked. “To Bonnie and Clyde, I mean.”

“Of course I do,” said Jo. She smiled at Bonnie and patted her hand, her fingers lingering just this side of too long. Then she returned her attention back to the road and put both hands on the wheel. She repeated herself a little quieter, “Of course I do.”

The traffic was stop and go—the usual for the time of day. First they crawled through downtown, the skyscrapers forming rigid, linear canyon walls that loomed around them, blue blocks of sky above. Heading out of the city, the buildings thinned, and the rooftops sank lower like a gradual staircase, fading and melting away into the surrounding suburbs. As the traffic thinned like the buildings, and the grey cityscape faded to green fields and farmland, something down in Bonnie’s chest unwound, and she found herself laughing and smiling in a way she never could manage at home. She was enjoying herself so much, that she barely noticed Jo slowing the car and pulling over onto the side of the road.

“We’re here,” Jo said.

Bonnie stretched, looking around, her joints cracking. “Where is here?”

“Almost Wisconsin,” said Jo. She opened her door to go and root around in the trunk. “I brought a blanket,” she said. “I thought we could lie on the grass next to the car to watch.”

The blanket ended up being barely big enough for the both of them to fit, side-by-side, arms and thighs and calves pressed against each other. The night was filled with a chorus of crickets and croaking frogs, and Bonnie said, “I’m not seeing anything. How will we know when something happens?”

“They’re meteors,” said Jo. “They’ll be hard to miss.”

“What if we’re facing the wrong way?”

“It’s the sky,” said Jo, and spread her arms up from the ground. “There’s only the one way to look. Up.”

“Shush. You know what I mean,” said Bonnie, elbowing her. Jo laughed.

“Admit it,” said Jo. “You’re excited.”

Bonnie crossed her arms, and continued looking upwards. She had never seen so many stars. She had never dreamed so many, scattered like spilled paint above her. “So when are these Percies—”

“Perseids.”

“Right,” Bonnie said. “When do they start?”

“It’s going on now,” said Jo. “We just can’t see them.”

“So it’s just like back home,” said Bonnie. “If we came out here just to do what we always —”

“Cool it,” said Jo. “We just have to wait. We’ll see the meteors. I wouldn’t have made you come out here otherwise.”

“You didn’t make me,” Bonnie said. A meteor splashed across the dark sky, flaring white and flashing at one end and leaving a trail, gone as quick as a blink. Bonnie pushed herself up onto her elbows.

“Did you see that?” she asked.

Jo hooted, the sound blasting out of her with a burst of laughter as bright as the meteor. “Of course I did,” she said. “See? I told you so! Didn’t I tell you so?”

“You did,” said Bonnie. Another one streaked across the sky, and Jo let out another laugh. Bonnie looked down at her. She was smiling wider than Bonnie had ever seen her smile before, her eyes crinkling and almost disappearing into the expression.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Jo asked.

“Yes,” said Bonnie quietly, still looking at Jo. She startled when Jo looked away from the sky and back at her.

“Hey,” said Jo. “Are you going to come back down here, or are you going to keep on staring at me all night?”

Words stuck in Bonnie’s throat, words that almost made it into the world but burned into ash upon hitting the atmosphere. “I,” she said. “I—”

“Come on,” said Jo. She patted the ground next to her and smiled up at Bonnie. “We’ll talk about it later, I promise, so long as you don’t run away from me again. Oh, look! There goes another one—Bonnie, you’re missing it.”

Bonnie hesitated a moment longer, and then lay back down on the blanket, her right side pressed against Jo’s left.

“At the next one, you have to make a wish,” said Jo. She spoke quietly in Bonnie’s ear, her breath moving over Bonnie’s skin and leaving a fan of goose bumps in its wake. “Are you ready?”

When the next meteor shot across the sky, Bonnie reached over and grabbed Jo’s hand. Jo’s only answer was to twine their fingers together and squeeze. Bonnie let out a breath that she had been holding for a very, very long time.

Becca_Anderson_ResizedBecca Anderson is a writer from Green Bay, Wisconsin. She is currently completing her MA in English at the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire. Her writing often takes place within a historical setting and explores themes of identity and belonging. This is her first publication.