Two Poetry Chapbooks from Doublecross Press reviewed by Rachael Guynn Wilson

by Brian Teare and
by Stephanie Young
two chapbooks from Doublecross Press

reviewed by Rachael Guynn Wilson

The book announces itself first as texture, almost a feeling before an object. The covers have a soft, pulped paper quality that reminds me a little of egg cartons. They’re in the right color family, too: sandy brown, with a beautifully soft blue-black imprint. The image is one of a circle superimposed on a square, or vice versa; it could be the sounding board of a modernist guitar, with six strings running diagonally across the sound hole. Headlands Quadrats by Brian Teare is another gem of a chapbook out from Doublecross, a Brooklyn-based small press that makes handsewn, letterpressed chapbooks that always feel like considered collaborations between publisher and author.

In this case, the intimate square format of Headlands Quadrats not only reflects the chapbook’s thematics (the quadrat, Teare tells us, “is a unit of measurement used in ecological studies… a square (made of a durable material) placed over a site to aid in the controlled collection of data”), but it also provides a delicate housing—a kind of nest—for the poem inside. The small format prompts the reader to draw the book in closer, so that even the interior voice with which she reads sounds more quietly in her head. Like the book-object itself, the poem is similarly palpable: it unfolds a landscape through the sensorium, from the rattling chapparal and long grass under / foot worn short / burnished bronze / coarse horse hair, to the black / sand tide coats with foam. The poem is precisely tuned, whittled to the essentials, and elaborate in its simplicity.

Headlands Quadrats is one poem, but every page seems somehow also isolate. With three couplets per page, all with lines of roughly even length, each page houses a square within a square. The shape reminds me of a room, which is of course another name for stanza. This remarkably regular structure lends an atmosphere of stability to the stanza-pages. It is a staid form, processional in its repetition, melancholic at the edges. (The poem is dedicated to the late poet, Joanne Kyger.) But inside the regularity of form, the lines come alive, pulled taut and vibrating like guitar strings—sounding out through and against their restraint, their music an effect of coordinated tensions.

Brian Teare

In fact, formal control, and the elegiac note that resonates through the poem, function as musical counterpoint to the more ebullient melody that dominates Headlands Quadrats. Ultimately, this poem is one that wants to take its reader by the hand, like a friend excited to share something strange, wild, and breathtaking. It turns out Headlands Quadrats wants to take us to the beach, past the decommissioned fort / past the former nike missile site / … / [to] the ocean… following a trail whose last ten feet / crumble & run to sand… The poem pulls us along through rough landscapes, across sheer ridges, past smoke and fire, and into lines like these, which positively crackle: downhill into extravagant / thistle from which a doe / startles…

And yet, there is still a muted, miniaturist quality to the poem. Coming again to the compact, square format of the book and its stanza-pages, the reader appears in the position of patient observer sifting the contents of the quadrat, which we could read as an ecopoetical twist on the lyric’s trope of spectator-at-the-window. Given this understanding of the quadrat as a frame marked out on the land for the purposes of scientific study, I wonder: What kind of experiment is this? The answer: I don’t know the rules / but I follow them…

It seems to me that Headlands Quadrats has gridded out an emotion, while what’s inside continuously threatens to rupture its perimeters, as when I encounter / for the first time a coyote / exactly the color of July… I want, at once, to cradle the poem lovingly and to throw it across the room in delight. This might be what it feels like to be in a landscape / where purity isn’t possible…

There’s a kind of humor that poetry, in particular, lends itself to. Like most if not all humor, it’s about timing, tension, withholding, and release. In poetry, it occurs in the line break, and it brings us back to the ludic’s fundamental source, which is rupture. Laughter erupts, much like the ovarian cyst that breaks in the first lines of Stephanie Young’s It’s No Good Everything’s Bad:

the day of the gender strike I stayed in bed
with my ruptured ovarian cyst
hot water bottle and spreadsheet

Ovarian cysts break through the banal structures of everyday life with a kind of primal force—a spontaneous revolt that cannot be manufactured or orchestrated, as much as the organizers of the gender strike might have hoped it could be.

Stephanie Young

It’s No Good Everything’s Bad is also comedy in what we might call a formal or dramatic sense. The poem begins in conflict—a ruptured cyst that parallels a gender strike that coincides with and reflects the wider political unrest in the United States. It begins in illness and explodes into Wikileaks, illegal civilian surveillance, fascism, conspicuous consumption, labor union disputes, and American imperialism (there’s even a honeycomb guillotine to remind us how far beyond “second time as farce” we have gone), before it regathers itself, reaffirming community through a roll call of political radicals, writers, artists, activists, and friends.

In this poem, which is written in playful dialogue with Russian poet Kirill Medvedev’s It’s No Good, translated by Keith Gessen, I find that it’s another Russian author, Mikhail Bakhtin, and his ideas on “the grotesque” as a radical form of popular art with revolutionary potential, I’m thinking of most. As Bakhtin writes in Rabelais and His World (trans. Hélène Iswolsky): “In grotesque realism… the body and bodily life have here a cosmic and at the same time an all-people’s character… The material bodily principle is contained not in the biological individual, not in the bourgeois ego, but in the people” (19).

Or, as Young puts it:

what can I say about a ruptured ovarian cyst that someone hasn’t already bitterly reported
on the Sutter Health Alta Bates ER Yelp page?

Young’s “I” continuously slips between her “own” experience of the body and an experience of the body as public, communal, shared on Yelp, between hospital patients, and among friends. (Is this the body politic?) As the poem circles back on itself, Young rephrases the above question this way:

sometimes I think what can I possibly say about anxiety and having a body
that my friends haven’t already

It’s evident that the body in this poem is porous, fractured, like the split and offset semicircles rendered in red Ben-day dots on the book’s cover: “not a closed, completed unity; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits… open to the outside world” (Bakhtin 26). The body is breached vessel, ruptured form, and rupturing force. Young continues:

other times I wonder why there aren’t more books on this subject

there is a lot to be said about ovarian cysts
their illustrations on the internet are especially revolting
they bleed sometimes within their own walls
other times into the abdominal cavity

We hear the doubleness in this especially revolting body—this body that revolts, inciting revolt, which is sometimes confused with revulsion. This is the look of “visible disgust” Young catches on the doctor’s face as he leaves the bedside of another patient. When the body revolts, it “discloses the potentiality of an entirely different world, of another order, another way of life. It leads men out of the confines of the apparent (false) unity, of the indisputable and stable” (Bakhtin 48). It’s those who desperately adhere to the falsely atomized individualism and unity of the body (probably all of us to a greater or lesser extent) who feel revulsion when bodies unfold their dialectics of birth and death, consumption and defecation, dissolution and reconstitution, head (high) and buttocks/genitalia (low), spiritual and material.

“The essence of the grotesque,” Bakhtin writes, “is precisely to present [this] contradictory and double-faced fullness of life” (62). I want to suggest that the “contradictory and double-faced fullness of life” is precisely also the breed of humor that runs through It’s No Good Everything’s Bad. It’s the humor of the line break that swerves, producing a momentary double-consciousness. It’s the humor of lives and bodies and poems that run parallel to each other but with slapstick difference—as when Groucho and Harpo Marx imperfectly mime one another’s movements across a doorway masquerading as a mirror. Even the title of this book folds back on itself in a kind of doubled-over belly laughter, Everything’s Bad being another possible translation of the Russian-language title Gessen renders It’s No Good.

As in this echo-play of the title, and in the manner of comedy, the poem’s ending loops back on its beginnings but with a widening aspect, which is amplified, finally, by the unbridled body’s boastful joy:

the cyst is 4×6 centimeters
the kind that bleeds into itself
spreadsheet, heating pad, ibuprofen

my translation runs so far behind
it leaves out most of the book
and doesn’t account for difference

maybe it’s called Everything’s Bad
I think it’s better than Keith Gessen’s
just kidding you should definitely read It’s No Good translated by Keith Gessen

but for these purposes I have to swagger, good naturedly

Headlands Quadrats and It’s No Good Everything’s Bad speak to anyone who appreciates poetry, and lovingly handcrafted poetry chapbooks. Both works strike a delicate balance between lyric and narrative modes—the former leaning further into lyric and the latter into prose narrative. Headlands Quadrats will be especially notable to those with an abiding interest in ecopoetics, and It’s No Good Everything’s Bad to those drawn to feminist poetics, Marxism, and humor. Both chapbooks can be found at Doublecross Press’s website.

Rachael Guynn Wilson is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in A propósito de nada / Apropos of Nothing (Aeromoto and Wendy’s Subway), apricota (New Draft Collective/Secretary Press), Argos Books’ 2018 calendar, Brooklyn RailElderly, Evening Will Come (The Volta), Free Spirit NewsJacket2Ritual and Capital (Bard Graduate Center + Wendy’s Subway), Textual Practice, and the Reanimation Library’s Word Processor series. She is co-founder of the Organism for Poetic Research and Project Coordinator at Belladonna* Collaborative. She holds a Ph.D. in English from New York University. She formerly co-authored an arts blog, Most Perfect World.

ASK JUNE: The Wedding-Wrecking Sister and the Loose-Lipped Teacher

Dear June,

I am getting married next month to a man I’ll call Ken, because that’s how perfect he looks. We have known each other slightly for years—we got our doctorates in the same rather esoteric branch of biology, so we corresponded from time to time, met at conferences or lectures, and so on. But we never really got to know each other until we ended up in the same city two years ago and were amazed by how much else we had in common, from writing poetry to owning French bulldogs.

We moved in together after a few months. He proposed a few weeks ago. We both hate big weddings and want to start trying for a kid right away so we decided on a very short engagement and a modest wedding.

Here is my problem. Ken is a really spectacular-looking guy, the kind who literally turns heads. As for me, I suppose I am the sort of person who can look good on a good day, to people who already love her, but that’s about it. It is no secret to anybody that I am totally outclassed in the looks department.  

Ken seems to truly respect me for inner qualities—brains, wit, opinions, kind heart. He has told me that the thinks I look great, and that anyway he does not care about looks very much. And it is true that he doesn’t seem at all vain about his own appearance. His clothes are appalling. He would much rather look through a microscope than into a mirror, and most of his poems are about either philosophy or nonflowering plants.

All good, right? But what worries me is something my sister said. She happened to mention the other day that she hardly knew any couples who fit Ken’s and my description (man much better looking than woman, does not seem to care about woman’s appearance very much). And that the ones she did know of always ended badly because the man turned out to be gay. And so now I am thinking about my first boyfriend, who was really a babe (I was the smart one in my class) and whom I adored because he seemed to take my opinions more seriously than other boys did, and didn’t care that I was carrying a few more pounds than the cheerleaders. He came out in college. And then there was this couple my parents knew for a long time and used to play bridge with. They were married for almost twenty years and had a similar story. People would comment on his absolute respect for his wife’s opinions and pride in her accomplishments, and how refreshing that was, especially since he was a way better catch because of his great looks…. Anyway, after they split up he started living with a man.

My fiancé is a lovely, thoughtful lover. But now I am thinking maybe too thoughtful?  I am all screwed up about this. I am worried that Ken and I might both be kidding ourselves. The wedding is in five weeks. Should I slow things down and rethink my relationship with my fiancé?  

—Freaked out in Framington

Dear Freaked,

No. But you might want to rethink your relationship with your sister. I have my doubts that she “just happened” to mention how rare it is to see male-female couples where the man is better looking than the woman, and how even in those rare cases the men are closeted gays. An observation like that, which is hurtful and tactless and insinuating and unsisterly on so many levels, usually takes some planning. Are you quite sure your sister isn’t resentful of your happiness? Jealous because you snagged an amiable looker who shares your interests? Predisposed to belittle your appearance and question your judgment? True, weddings can bring out all sorts of weirdness in otherwise bearable family members; but, if you ask me, and you sort of did, your sister has gone beyond wedding weirdness this time and into Iago territory.

Unless you firmly believe that clearing the air would make you feel better, I suggest that you never discuss this matter with your sister again.  Ever.  Try not to give her any more openings for sniping about your life with Ken. Cut her off the minute she tries. And take her general attitude, and any other destructive remarks she “happens” to make, with a mountain of salt.

As to whether there is any merit in what your sister said, I certainly hope not!  I like to think that there are guys out there, even gorgeous ones, who can manage to sustain a healthy, many-faceted heterosexual relationship with women who may score a bit below them in the conventional physical attractiveness category. I have actually known a few such men—which, if we are talking about counterexamples to disprove a general statement, is actually relevant and probative. By contrast, you really can’t use anecdotal evidence to prove a blanket observation, and it’s hard to think of anything more anecdotal than the instances your poor worried mind dredged up. For one thing, there are only two of them. And they are both pretty feeble. It is hard to learn anything valuable about mature adult sexuality from your experience with a closeted and probably tortured high-school boyfriend—except to realize that it may have left you with some insecurities about your own attractiveness and made you grist for Sis’s mill. As for your parents’ friends’ situation, who’s to say what happened there?  Maybe they moved on for reasons unrelated to looks or sexuality. Maybe he was a monogamous bisexual and they fought over money. Who knows? And who cares, really? It is self-indulgent even to speculate about an isolated case.

And your sister’s evidence is worse than anecdotal, since she never actually related any anecdotes. It is not even evidence.

Listen: Do you trust Ken? Is the sex mutually enjoyable? If so, your current doubts are probably just wedding jitters, exacerbated by your sister’s insinuations. Even assuming that Ken is really a ten to your five—which I do not, by the way: you sound like a self-deprecating soul, with plenty of help from your sister—it is far more likely, and far less insulting to men, gay people, and basic humanism, that he is unaware of or uninterested in this disparity than that he is living an elaborate lie. You say that he does not seem to care much about conventional good looks, and your portrait of him squares with that: anybody who writes poems about ferns and mosses and dresses “appallingly” probably doesn’t devote a lot of thought to whether his beloved could match his hotness score in a poll of People and Vanity Fair readers. Nothing you have written gives me any reason to doubt that Ken loves you, likes what you look like, and probably likes several of your other qualities even more. That makes you lucky.

It makes me sad, though, that you are questioning your own attractiveness, and wondering —even for a moment—whether Ken’s “thoughtfulness” as a lover means he might be gay. And it worries me that you are so susceptible to your sister’s poison. Nothing you’ve written raises any questions about Ken’s sexuality or your mutual love and respect.  Believe in yourself, and trust your beloved.

Unless you have other grave doubts or conflicts you haven’t told me about, I see no reason to postpone your wedding. I am sure you will be a beautiful bride, more than beautiful enough for your Ken, who I am sure would rather have you than Barbie (much less another Ken) any day. I wish I could be there, bearing gifts. Perhaps some exquisite liverworts.

La Wally says:
He doesn’t sound gay to me. And even if he does come out some day, by then you would probably already have a couple of smart, good-looking kids with a responsible dad. So go for it. 

By the way, that sister is ugly where it counts. 

Dear June,

Zeb, a guy who works at my office, just gave notice because he got a job teaching art at a private school. Today when we were all sitting around after our monthly all -staff meeting—which is one of the only times I’ve ever seen him, since he’s in another department and building—somebody asked him about the school. After telling people where it is, how many kids go there, and so forth, he summed it up as “a fancy school for spoiled fucked-up rich kids.”  

I kept my peace, but what I would have liked to say is that the school is not all that fancy, and its students are not all rich or “spoiled” or “fucked up.” I know this because my son goes there and I work hard to pay for it. David, who is dyslexic and has a mild attention deficit disorder, is a delightful, generous kid, well-adjusted and less entitled and materialistic than most middle-class American teens I have come across. Of his classmates, some have learning or emotional challenges, some are brilliant and unconventional, and some just seem to be unremarkable kids whose siblings go to the school, or whose parents like its philosophy.

I am angry at Zeb’s attitude and the way he expressed it. And I wonder how good an art teacher he can be if he feels that way about his students. But I hate to mess up his life and, frankly, I don’t need any more unpleasantness in my own life right now. What should I do?

—Miffed in Massachusetts

Dear Miffed,

You need to tell the school administration what you heard. Anybody who feels the way Zeb says he does about the school and its students should not be teaching there.

I suppose it’s possible that he didn’t really mean what he said. Maybe he had just had a dreadful encounter with a snooty trustee. Maybe he knew one of your fellow staffers’ kids had been rejected by the school, or couldn’t afford it, and was trying to make them feel better. Maybe he was just having a really bad day and regretting his choice to change jobs. Or maybe he is immature and tone deaf, and was trying to sound cool. None of these scenarios, or any others I could come up with, seems very likely, though. At the very least, Zeb must have felt that there was some truth in what he said, or it would never have occurred to him to say it.

Besides, no matter what his motivation, Zeb publicly disparaged the school and its students at what sounds like a fairly large meeting. This itself is a disservice to the kids and, of course, terrible P.R. for the institution. If you support the school, as I assume you must, I believe that you should alert the people who run it.

I sympathize with your not wanting to be “mean” or to be responsible for putting another person’s job in jeopardy. But you have to balance this against your duty to speak out against a man who may cause emotional harm to your child and his schoolmates, and who seems to have no scruples about tarnishing the school’s reputation. There’s no question that the welfare of these children (some of whom attend the school precisely because they are fragile) outweighs the job prospects of a guy who, at best, made a very stupid mistake by dissing them and, at worst, really does hold them in contempt. They are innocent kids, and one of them is your kid. He is an adult who signed on to help them learn and grow, and he messed up.

Of course, it is easy for me to preach from a safe distance about your duty to speak up. You are right: doing so may indeed lead to some “unpleasantness.”  This is the kind of situation where a bottle of long-acting, incident-specific emotional anesthetic capsules would come in handy. Take one and it would be a cinch to talk to your headmaster. Pop a few more and it you would have no problem dealing with Zeb if he lost his job and knew you were the reason, or even—heaven forfend!—if he talked his way into staying on (probation, maybe?) and ended up teaching your son and taking out his anger at you on him. It wouldn’t bother you at all if Zeb’s old friends at your office were onto you and gave you the stink eye. In fact, if the headmaster let Zeb go and didn’t tell him why, you would take Zeb out to lunch and tell him yourself, for his betterment and in the spirit of transparency.

But alas.

In this imperfect world, where doing the right thing can make us squirm and tremble and lose sleep —and that’s on days when we’re not second-guessing ourselves—it makes sense to decide how much “unpleasantness” we can put up with, and try to arrange life accordingly. As I have said, I don’t think doing nothing is an option in this case, since the welfare of children is involved. But nobody is required to be an absolute moral heroine; and speaking directly to Zeb (the lunch option) might require that level of heroism if you are an introvert or a conflict-avoider.

In fact, I don’t see any shame in trying to insulate yourself from Zeb as much as possible. If, as I hope and expect, the school decides to retract its offer, ask the school if there is a way to do so on some pretext that protects you and avoids a confrontation with Zeb. The school authorities might actually prefer this course, depending upon various legalities (has a contract been signed?) and their view of how best to minimize negative publicity. On the other hand, they may feel obligated to tell Zeb the real reason for letting him go, and perhaps to hear his side of the story before taking any final action. If so, ask them not to mention you by name.

But they may do so anyway and, even if they don’t, Zeb may be able to guess your identity by running through the people who attended that fateful staff meeting. (Of course, you may be safe if he has badmouthed the school so often that he never manages to zero in on that one meeting!)  If Zeb does find out, and confronts you somehow or otherwise makes life difficult for you, I hope you’ll be able to console yourself by remembering that you did what you thought was right for your son and his schoolmates. Since virtue is rarely its own reward, I think you should further console yourself with a nice bottle of wine or mani-pedi or mental-health day playing hooky with your son, whatever works.

Being good can be a drag. With any luck, though, you’ll come through this without having to deal with any recriminations from Zeb because you will never come in contact with him again, at your son’s school or anywhere else. As for Zeb, let’s imagine him enjoying a long and happy career working with machines.

La Wally’s response:
I partly disagree. I would start by talking to Zeb and just tell him what I wrote in this letter. He needs to know so he can clean up his act. If I still didn’t feel good about Zeb teaching my child, I would let the school know.  

ask-june-square-for-facebook-no-border-300pxCleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at Find more columns by June in her attic.


La Wally is the nom de June of June Cleaver‘s adult daughter. In real life, she’s an artist and entrepreneur. What’s up with her name? In choosing a pseudonym, the two of them considered the names of the original Cleaver family offspring, both boys, but rejected “Beaver” for obvious reasons. “Wally” alone seemed too masculine and generally hideous. But “La Wally” brings to mind Catalani’s wonderful opera. Speaking of which, have you seen the movie Diva? You should.


Photo by Ben Rosett on Unsplash

TRICK by Domenico Starnone, translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri, reviewed by Jeanne Bonner

by Domenico Starnone
translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri
Europa Editions, 191 pages

reviewed by Jeanne Bonner

What happens when something occurs to change the view you’ve had of your life? Of yourself? Something that decisively alters the perspective on a life rich in success and honors?

That’s one of the dilemmas facing Daniele Mallarico, a masterful illustrator who is the main character of Italian writer Domenico Starnone’s newest novel, Trick.

A powerful change of perspective happened to the book’s translator, the novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, who decamped to Rome in 2012 a dozen years after winning America’s highest prize for fiction, the Pulitzer, and immersed herself so deeply in Italian that she only wanted to write in that language. Indeed, a week after she arrived, she wrote her final sentences of English in her diary. Three years later, in that same diary, an excerpt of which was published in an Italian literary journal, Nuovi Argomenti, she faced the terrifying prospect of leaving Italy and a life immersed in Italian. “I think of the distance about to form between me and this place,” she wrote, “and I succumb to depression.” She held on to the language, however, and has published works of fiction and nonfiction in Italian. In her 2015 book In Other Words (which she wrote in Italian and which was translated into English by Ann Goldstein), Lahiri chronicles her romance with Italian, revealing “a sense of rapture” in Rome.

For Lahiri, her new perspective, having learned Italian, amplifies an already rich literary and creative life. That is not, however, the case for the narrator of Trick, who now sees the first such “act” of his life with suspicion.

Perhaps in another book review, all of this would be an unnecessary aside, given the literary pedigree of Starnone, the author of thirteen other works of fiction and a winner of Italy’s top fiction prize, the Strega. But here, one could argue Lahiri’s sense of rapture feeds her skills in translating the novel, the second Starnone work she’s brought into English. The first, Ties, which came out in 2017, was, as she told The New Yorker, her first foray working in English again, after “barricading [herself] behind Italian.”

Her sense of rapture, paired with her own profound ability to evoke fictional characters and situations, helps her fully inhabit the voice of the narrator, Daniele, the illustrator. Amidst a difficult work project for a new client, Daniele goes to watch his four-year-old grandson, Mario, in the Naples home where he himself grew up but has long since left behind. It’s the house his daughter has inherited and where she lives with her husband and Mario. The plot concerns the days Daniele spends with Mario—hours that, as any parent of a preschooler will tell you, are filled with small joys followed by moments of tension, not to mention showdowns of all kinds.

But that may be truer here not only because of the crossroads Daniele is about to face but also because Mario’s parents are fighting ceaselessly. They have asked Daniele to watch Mario so they can attend a work conference where the narrator presumes they will continue their arguing, unimpeded. Hence tension simmers just beneath the surface. Mario is by turns playful and adoring, willful and troublesome. While keeping Mario occupied, Daniele is trying to complete sketches for the work project, an illustration of a Henry James ghost story, “The Jolly Corner.”

Lahiri has expertly reproduced the voice of the narrator—and his pull on the reader, who feels the tug from the very first sentences of Starnone’s many-layered work, where one aspect of the novel echoes another.

Lahiri has expertly reproduced the voice of the narrator—and his pull on the reader, who feels the tug from the very first sentences of Starnone’s many-layered work, where one aspect of the novel echoes another. Starnone opens the novel in the voice of Daniele, “One evening Betta called, crankier than usual, wanting to know if I felt up to minding her son while she and her husband took part in a mathematics conference in Cagliari.” Daniele goes onto to say that after living in Milan for some time, “the thought of decamping to Naples” in fact “didn’t thrill me.”  Just as Daniele returns to his childhood home—a place filled with memories, which is to say ghosts—the character in the short story he’s been asked to illustrate is also experiencing a homecoming. In the 1908 story by James, a man named Spencer returns to his New York home after many years and finds himself haunted by a ghost. Specifically, the ghost of the person he would have been had he remained in New York and become a businessman.

Jhumpa Lahiri

While ghosts in the form of memories figure prominently in the novel, Starnone has a light touch. With an intimate tone that almost evokes a diary, he informs us a handful of times that Daniele’s father gambled away the family’s money when he was a child. In one of the more emotionally-searing lines, Starnone writes, “I recalled how every second of life in that house, in that neighborhood, was signaled by my father’s fingers on playing cards, by his rapacious need for a thrill that drove him to jeopardize our very survival.” He adds, “I fought with all my might to separate myself […] to prove that I was different.” The effect of this information is chilling—it gives us a window into one of the signal events that shaped Daniele as an individual—but Starnone reveals it with subtlety.

There’s another detail revealed in an understated way that nonetheless has profound implications. Daniele is a widow, and his wife’s death he’s been coming to grips with how he engineered the isolation required of his art to shield him from other aspects of his life. It emerges, in fact, that his wife betrayed him—repeatedly, right from the early years of their marriage, but he was too preoccupied with work to catch on until after her death. Combined with the revelations about his father, this information, shared in a few deft strokes, allows Starnone to give us the pertinent parameters—of Daniele’s life, and of what’s really at stake in an otherwise prosaic visit to his grandson.

What was and what could have been. The novel’s action culminates with two mirror events: the grandson reproduces an illustration that’s strikingly—for Daniele, alarmingly—adept and then later he plays a trick on his grandfather that risks some significant consequences (one of several compelling ways that the title is employed in the book).

But we’re not talking about child’s play. With Starnone at the helm, we’re wandering among the thorniest of emotional thickets: the land of fathers and sons. We’re also talking about self-worth, about how we spend our time, which is to say, how we spend our lives. We’re talking about a moral reckoning with the choices we make as humans. As the author puts it in an interview released by the publisher, Europa Editions, “That which we have become or not become, while it may please us at first, can cause melancholy, soon revealing itself to be insidious, dangerous, terrifying.”

With Starnone’s narrative unfolding largely in Naples, a part of the city’s essential character is unpacked for us in the course of the novel. For example, Daniele speaks of the rage (“la raggia”) felt by many of the people surrounding him as a child, fellow Neapolitans who found themselves living in cramped, impoverished quarters and believing there to be no escape hatch. Daniele does escape—physically, at least—and he winds up leading a fulfilling life as a commercial artist that contrasts with his parents’ lives and with many of his childhood peers.

Yet back in Naples to watch his grandson, some of the old anger resurfaces. The book dwells heavily on disappointment and on the resentment that breeds when one feels mistreated—tricked, you could say. In Daniele’s case, he is seething with anger that the younger publisher of the Henry James work has rebuffed draft illustrations he sent before departing for Naples. As Starnone writes, Daniele imagines barging into the publisher’s office and spitting in his eye for criticizing not just “those illustrations, no, but the work of a lifetime. A pity that the season of rage had died. I’d smothered it long ago.”

Some of the novel’s most evocative passages reside in the author’s ruminations about Naples. At one point, for example, while Daniele and Mario are out for a stroll, they stop for a drink at a dark, dirty coffee bar. Starnone meditates on the way Neapolitans talk, often employing a savage tone that can undermine even the most innocuous comments. As Daniele muses, “Only in this city […] were people so genuinely inclined to come to your aid and so ready to slit your throat.” This is the Naples many American readers have come to know through Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series of novels that begins with My Brilliant Friend.

In this scene, Daniele chats with the proprietor of the bar who reveals at one point that he, too, had a talent for illustration as a young man but he notes it “passed,” which Starnone writes, makes it sound “like an illness.” As they prepare to leave, Daniele comments, “I felt that he was looking at me with hostility, as if, just when I was paying and leaving a tip, I was secretly robbing him of something.” The line reminded me of a Sicilian friend who once told me he hated to receive a compliment because it was simply a way for someone to take him for a fool. This is a world in which every gesture is suspect.

As these ruminations swirl in the air, grandfather and grandson get into a standoff that Daniele says snatches “the notion I’d had of myself.” To say more would reveal a critical plot turn but suffice it to say Starnone deals gracefully with the implications of something—or someone—snatching away the notion one has of himself.

The book includes an unusual appendix, a diary that contains Daniele’s thoughts and sketches for “The Jolly Corner.” And it reminds us of the narrator’s pull, which reflects Starnone’s skill at creating a completely believable character who seems to live and breathe.

Starnone’s prose is in good hands under Lahiri’s capable guidance. As someone who translates from Italian and who reads a lot of translations, I found myself immersed from the first sentence of Lahiri’s translation. Arguably that’s no surprise since Lahiri is a masterful English prose stylist. Yet it bears noting that her rendition is fluent and fluid and her grasp of idioms is enchantingly astute. To give a minor though typical example from an early section of the novel, Starnone writes that Daniele was “in difetto sia come padre che come nonno,” which Lahiri translates as his being “wanting as a father and a grandfather.” That use of the word “wanting” is an inspired choice, colloquial and yet striking some kind of high tone that reproduces the original cadence.

Lahiri does such an exquisite job of rendering Starnone’s prose and in particular his reflections on Naples that there’s almost nothing to snap the reader out of her reverie.

Lahiri does such an exquisite job of rendering Starnone’s prose and in particular his reflections on Naples that there’s almost nothing to snap the reader out of her reverie. Indeed, for me, the only time was when I encountered the name of the maid character: “Sally.” In Italian, the letter “y” rarely appears and in the original Italian text, the maid’s name is rendered as “Salli.” The appearance of the name “Sally” reminded me that the book I was reading was meant for English-speaking audiences, as opposed to a book in English about an Italian narrator named Daniele who talks about Naples. But that was about the only time I remembered.

The work of literary translators can be viewed as vital, especially given the forces of nationalism today, so it is no small matter that someone of Lahiri’s caliber has joined the ranks. For Starnone and his readers, it means his novel Trick arrives in English in mesmerizing form.

Jeanne Bonner is a writer and journalist based in Connecticut. She is the 2018 winner of the PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian Literature, given by PEN America. Her essays have been published by The New York Times, CNN Travel, Literary Hub and Catapult. She studied Italian literature at Wesleyan University and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College.

PLAYING CATCH WITH STRANGERS, essays by Bob Brody, reviewed by Colleen Davis

A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes Of Age
by Bob Brody
Heliotrope Books, 230 pages

reviewed by Colleen Davis

Most mornings I lie in bed wondering how I can summon the courage to get out from under my big, warm comforter. It seems to be the only thing protecting me from the harshness of this ceaseless winter and the bitter talk that plagues our land. Over the course of the past year, our nation’s Talker in Chief— and the media in general—have encouraged us to despise foreigners, hate losers, question the motives of practically every man we’ve ever met, transform our neighbors’ health care subsidy into a tax break for the wealthy, and offer our children as targets for assault weapon enthusiasts. If you’re not endowed with a strong sense of irony, it can be hard to summon a smile.

Since today’s newspapers rarely have the resources to support journalism that’s more than skin deep, I’ve been reading books to help me through this dark cultural period. I read with the hope that I’ll learn something to help me cope with the meanness around me, to escape from the meanness completely, or to simply help me figure out how so many normal people suddenly turned so crazy. As part of my therapy, I started reading Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age by Bob Brody. The title alone is intriguing considering that the contemporary environment provides an object lesson in how to avoid catching anything from strangers—including empathy, insight, or any form of knowledge. Since Brody is the adult child of two deaf parents, I was also hoping he might offer some tips on how to communicate with those who cannot hear us. Today, practically all of us must address someone who falls in that category—though the state is seldom biologically induced, as it was in the case of Brody’s parents.

Playing Catch with Strangers consists of a long series of short essays. Most were written for print or online publications and not originally intended as book chapters. They are clean, straightforward, and easy to read. They are also salutary—in the sense of promoting better mental health and positive emotions. Brody reminds us of the many gifts that life offers to those who pay it close attention.

Bob Brody

If you’re immersed in the national dialogue, you may have come to believe that no one loves anyone anymore. Or: that your value is determined solely by the billions in your bank account—which eliminates most of us from the value equation altogether. Brody, however, offers readers accounts of his deep love for his children, boundless affection for his wife, and late-blooming appreciation for his talkative mother-in-law. Instead of hurling smack talk at foreigners, he revels in the ethnic diversity of Queens and explains how much he admires immigrants and their basketball ethics. All this approbation is not some weird product of a perfect life.  Brody describes fumbling around in the early part of his career and surviving a recession layoff. Because his parents were both deaf, he also spent a lot of time searching for clues that he was, indeed, understood and loved by them. As a kid, he struggled to create a bond with his emotionally distant father. He found it hard to escape the role of interpreter when his mother made him play that role too often.

Yet Brody is not bitter. Even his worst grievances are modest in tone. Though the author is a New Yorker through and through, he sets a vivid counterexample to our nation’s Talker in Chief. Brody is not boastful; he is not harsh. He sees how the melding of cultures has shaped powerful, harmonious communities in parts of New York where ethnic tensions might have turned combustible. When he encounters parents who fail to—or don’t know how to—encourage their children, he tries to model good behavior instead of insulting them. The essays that describe how Brody helped his kids overcome basic fears are especially endearing. Although he discusses the ever-present barrier that separated him from parents who could not hear, Brody clearly committed himself to leveling any walls between himself and his own children. He even devoted a now-defunct blog to his children called Letters to my Kids.

The most refreshing thing about this book is the easy way that Brody expresses his love for the most important people in his life. In “A Word of Thanks,” he writes to his daughter, Caroline, saying, “Your brother showed me how deeply I could love someone new, and you’ve shown me I could love someone else new just as deeply. In a single stroke, you doubled everything.” In another essay, “The Miracle of the Pies,” he pays homage to his deceased mother-in-law, who left some of her homemade pizza pies in the freezer before she died. Brody writes, “I’d eaten her pie every spring for more than 20 years and they had always tasted good. But now, flavored with grief, the pie tasted better than it ever had. It was as if I could somehow taste the essence of its maker, her spirit, her soul.  I’d never felt so deeply my love and gratitude for her.”  It’s hard to think of a current book where a male protagonist so thoroughly appreciates the people around him. Today’s non-fiction bestseller list displays authorial obsessions with conflict politics, serial killers, cults, and plain old death. Brody celebrates life instead.

It’s hard to think of a current book where a male protagonist so thoroughly appreciates the people around him. Today’s non-fiction bestseller list displays authorial obsessions with conflict politics, serial killers, cults, and plain old death. Brody celebrates life instead.

Although I like hearing a man discuss deep sentiments so bravely, I wish an editor had sculpted the essays into a better-defined story arc. Some pieces are written in first person and some in second person, which creates a few awkward reading gaps. While I value what I’ve learned about Brody’s childhood in a household governed by deaf parents, I was also hoping to hear some self-reflection on how that experience might have shaped his character. He does observe that becoming a writer gave him a more reliable vehicle for communicating with his mother. Yet I wonder if having deaf parents made him more amenable to people who live outside the mainstream—like the immigrant basketball players in Queens. In a feat that would challenge most of us, those non-English speakers have only their bodies and their game to convey toughness, skill, and diplomacy. Maybe one day Brody will write an addendum that provides a deeper analysis of his experience. In the meantime, I’m happy to have the gift of knowing that not all New Yorkers are blowhards, not all men are ravagers, and not all fathers pack their children off to China to strike trade deals. I think I knew these things before winter began, but it’s comforting to be reminded.


Colleen Davis is a Pennsylvania writer and author of the website Between the Pond and the Woods, which provides information and a Facebook forum for dementia caregivers. Her writing has been featured in Making Sense of Alzheimer’sElephant Journal, and on episodes of the television documentary  Philadelphia: The Great Experiment.

THE RADICAL ELEMENT: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes, and Other Dauntless Girls, edited by Jessica Spotswood, reviewed by Maureen Sullivan

12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes, and Other Dauntless Girls

edited by Jessica Spotswood
Candlewick Press, 310 pages

reviewed by Maureen Sullivan

The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes, and Other Dauntless Girls is an anthology of feminist fiction, celebrating what editor Jessica Spotswood calls in her introduction the “quiet badassery” of young heroines taking charge of their own identities. This collection is a follow-up to A Tyranny of Petticoats: 15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers, and other Badass Girls, also edited by Jessica Spotswood. Similar to the first volume, the pieces in The Radical Element span a wide range of historical time periods and geographic locations, from 1838 Georgia to 20th century Boston. A brief author’s note follows each story, with additional information on the historical context or the inspiration behind the work.

The writing of the stories is strong, with each of the dozen authors contributing her own unique voice. The short format strikes a delicate balance between providing enough historical background to bring the world to life without overwhelming the reader with an excess of exposition. The real richness of this collection, however, comes from the characters themselves, who are as diverse as the settings of the stories. The theme for the anthology is the idea of “girls who were radical in their communities, whether by virtue of their race, religion, sexuality, disability, gender, or the profession they were pursuing,” and so our heroines come from all cultures and backgrounds, often overlooked or excluded demographics.

This large cast of girls inevitably included contrasting qualities, resulting in an especially valuable message: there is no wrong way to be a woman.

This large cast of girls inevitably included contrasting qualities, resulting in an especially valuable message: there is no wrong way to be a woman. Characters in several stories are direct opposites: Rebekah, in Dahlia Adler’s “Daughter of the Book” is fiercely Jewish and fascinated by the parts of her religion forbidden to her, while the heroine in Mackenzi Lee’s “You’re a Stranger Here” has a more nebulous relationship to religion—Vilatte questions her commitment to the Mormon faith after the community is attacked. While their views are very different, the reader can understand and empathize with both.

Some of the stories reject the compulsory heteronormative love story, featuring no romantic subplot at all. Others sidestep a male love interest, such as in Marieke Nijkamp’s “Better for All the World,” when Carrie disregards the attention of a boy and focuses instead on her dream of becoming a lawyer. Other stories, however, do include romance as part of an acceptable ambition, and Jessica Spotswood’s “Step Right Up” features a queer heroine.

Jessica Spotswood

Some of the characters are traditionally feminine, like Graciela from “Glamour” who dreams of overcoming racism in Hollywood to achieve stardom, or more masculine, like Ray from “The Magician” who dresses as a boy to work on a steamboat and beat the other dockworkers at poker. In addition, none of the girls’ struggles are belittled, and none of their aspirations are dismissed as trivial. Acting as a spy for the Union during the Civil War is presented as equally valid as performing in a talent show in hopes of becoming the next Miss Sugar Maiden. Through all these opposing examples, the collection as a whole demonstrates that there is no one right path or set of behavior that a girl must follow to have a successful or fulfilling life.

A final noteworthy element of this collection is the way in which many of the pieces end on a high note of rising action, leaving the resolution unfinished. We don’t know what will become of Rosemary’s I Love Lucy script in “The Belle of the Ball” or if the prison break in “Lady Firebrand” will be successful. Instead, they end on a moment of firm resolve for the future: while it may be uncertain, these girls are going to face it with confidence and courage. In today’s social and political climate, it can be heartening to have the example of these determined heroines to follow. While we may not know exactly what is to come, all we can do is keep going with the hope that the encouragement offered in “You’re a Stranger Here” applies to us too: “There are far, far better things ahead than any that are behind us.”

Maureen Sullivan is currently studying English literature at Cornell College. She is a managing editor of the campus literary magazine, Open Field, as well as working on her own short fiction projects.

ADUA, a novel by Igiaba Scego, reviewed by Jodi Monster

by Igiaba Scego
translated from the Italian by Jamie Richards
New Vessel Press, 171 pages

reviewed by Jodi Monster

The title character of Igiaba Scego’s novel Adua is a Somali woman caught in history’s crosshairs. Born to an ambitious, mercurial man, a translator who sold his skills to the Italians during Mussolini’s pre-WWII push to expand his African empire, Adua’s life is shaped by choices she didn’t make and subject to forces she can’t control.

Scego, an accomplished writer and journalist who reports regularly on post-colonial migrant experiences, wants to shine a bright light on these forces. Born in Italy to Somali parents, her father having been ousted from his government post by Siad Barre’s 1969 coup, Scego has more than an academic interest in the relationship between these two countries, and in the aftereffects of Italy’s imperial violence in East Africa.

Born in Italy to Somali parents, her father having been ousted from his government post by Siad Barre’s 1969 coup, Scego has more than an academic interest in the relationship between these two countries, and in the aftereffects of Italy’s imperial violence in East Africa.

In the atmospheric novel she’s crafted, the circumstances of Adua’s early life are not entirely clear. Her mother died in childbirth and, for reasons the novel doesn’t explain, her youngest years were spent in the care of a nomadic couple she loved. She was terrified on the day her biological father, Mohamed Ali Zoppe, arrived to reclaim her, and she was heartbroken to leave the bush and the innocent joys she’d known there. “[It] was the end of a life, an ominous change in destiny,” Adua says when Zoppe takes her and her younger sister to his home in Magalo, a provincial city where he lives with his new wife. Here Zoppe sets his daughters at the mercy of his adolescent bride, “a girl with braids and her first period,” giving her broad authority to destroy the quality of two younger girls’ lives.

Igiaba Scego

Separated from the only family she’d ever known, ill at ease in an unfamiliar city, and because of her father’s political affiliations, something of an outcast at school, Adua finds herself fearful and alone. But there’s a movie theater in town, and soon the dreams offered up by the old movies shown there replace Adua’s fantasies of a return to her beloved bush. “I wanted to dream, dance, fly. I wanted to escape… Italy was kisses… Italy was freedom. And so I hoped it would become my future,” she says, bewitched by glamor and the tantalizing hope of romance.

Several years later, after her father is arrested and the few friends she’s managed to find desert her, Adua’s a sitting duck for the black market trader who promises to make her a star. She follows her naive dreams to Rome where she’s exploited before she’s tossed aside, left with only a Bernini statue in the Piazza della Minerva to listen as she counts her regrets.

“No one had ever told us colonialism was the problem. Even those who knew the truth said nothing,” Adua laments in a line that lays bare her situation, because it’s not just colonialism that has hijacked her life. She’s also up against racism, misogyny, and the intimate savagery of a father who’s unable to make peace with his own failures and misdeeds, and the extent to which he, too, has been the victim of colonialism’s brutal constraints. “Maybe I owe you an apology. But I can’t. I don’t know how to use certain words,” Adua imagines her father might say, because in as much as she’s been tortured by his shameful silence, she suspects that he has been too. Left unspoken is the idea that while an examination of the past would not wipe it away, an understanding of it might prevent its repeat; and this, in the end, is the hopeful call of this novel, the spirit that animates its every page.

Left unspoken is the idea that while an examination of the past would not wipe it away, an understanding of it might prevent its repeat; and this, in the end, is the hopeful call of this novel, the spirit that animates its every page.

It’s also the spirit that nearly undoes it, however, because Adua can sometimes read more like a catalogue of trials than a rich, well-told story of an ordinary woman’s extraordinary life. This is true right up until the end, when after many solitary years in Rome, Adua takes a husband, a much younger refugee displaced by the latest round of fighting in Somalia’s seemingly endless civil war. This union is not about love, however; rather it’s about rescue, for both of them, from loneliness and desperation. It’s also about the author’s desire to explore the power dynamics within migrant communities, wherein more established members will sometimes distance themselves from new arrivals, compounding their dislocation.

By novel’s end, when the fighting in Somalia subsides and Adua learns that her father has died, having left her his house, for the first time she contemplates a return to her homeland. And this, finally, is the moment she’s been waiting for—the chance to choose for herself the course her life will take.

Jodi Monster is an aspiring novelist and founding member of Our Writers’ Circle, a thriving and diverse community of emerging authors. She lived and raised children in The Netherlands, Texas, and Singapore before returning to suburban Philadelphia, where she currently lives.

BAD JOBS AND POOR DECISIONS Dispatches from the Working Class, a memoir by J.R. Helton, reviewed by Robert Sorrell

Dispatches from the Working Class
by J.R. Helton
Liveright Publishing Corporation, 259 Pages

reviewed by Robert Sorrell

The jacket of J.R. Helton’s memoir, Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions: Dispatches from the Working Class, shows an assortment of loose black-and-white sketches: a marijuana leaf, a packet of cigarettes, a typewriter, crumpled beer cans, lines of (presumably) cocaine, a gun, a cockroach. Among them, figures emerge: A man’s face covered in huge beads of sweat, a woman with long dark hair shown from the shoulders up, a pole dancer. These images appear regularly in each of the seven long anecdotes that make up Bad Jobs, working as signifiers of a place, time, and social class. The place is Austin, Texas and the time is when the tail end of the 1970s met the Reagan 1980s. The class setting is a bit more complicated, but I’ll get to that later.

When we meet J.R. Helton—or Jake, as his character is known in the book—he’s a 20-year-old writer who’s just dropped out of the University of Texas in Austin to write full time after winning a small literary prize. “I thought, Man, this is gonna be easy,” Helton writes, and quickly finds himself broke and in need of a job.

Austin, Texas’s capital and where Jake lives for the majority of Bad Jobs, is undergoing growing pains, along with much of the Sunbelt in the 1980s. “The city was booming then,” Helton writes, “and the skies were filled with steel cranes, the streets suddenly lined with many more men and women in suits. I enjoyed watching the big-haired young women who seemed free and attractive and windblown downtown, all of them dressed in different colors, walking alone or in pairs,” observes Jake, who figures himself a sort of Texan flaneur.

Yet Helton’s descriptions hint at a key characteristic of Jake’s personality. He is a watcher and as such, most of the book focuses not on things that Jake himself is doing, but things that he observes: coworkers he watches on job sites, neighbors, corporate types and politicians wandering downtown Austin. He commands a very male position, one he doesn’t think to complicate or comment upon.

J.R. Helton

The book’s first section, “Other People,” gives the reader a quick background on Jake’s upbringing and adolescence in a small town, Cypress, outside of Austin in the Hill Country. We’re told that he grew up in a working-class family, but his seemingly unhappy family life is given little attention minus allusions to a father who works much of the time. Most of the flashback serves instead to introduce us to Jake’s girlfriend, later wife, Susan, and her family. Her mother Betty Sue is an actress and her father, Dean, was a football player who quit after several injuries to become a successful writer. “More than anything,” Helton writes, “I was deeply impressed by Dean Hampton, a real writer. It felt good to have this intelligent, tough, sarcastic, and funny man take such a genuine interest in me.” Dean encourages Jake to write, and it’s not much of a reach to say that his fascination with Dean may have encouraged or reinforced his desire to date Susan.

Dean, however, is far from perfect. He suffers terribly from NFL injuries, including a twice-broken back, which makes him irritable, and he abuses substances constantly. It doesn’t take much for this big, tough man who shoots rifles to relieve stress and stays up all night writing, high on codeine and cocaine, to turn from father figure to monster. He terrorizes Susan and her mother, and after he’s kicked out of the house, he sometimes calls Jake demanding to know where Susan and her mother are.

For Helton, “working class” refers mostly to a certain set of lifestyle traits (often abusive ones) and certain cultural markers like alcohol, addiction, guns, cigarettes, and old cars, and less about actual class structure or economic opportunity.

Anyone skeptical of the way Helton deploys the term “working class” to describe his life may look at this relationship for some clarity. For Helton, “working class” refers mostly to a certain set of lifestyle traits (often abusive ones) and certain cultural markers like alcohol, addiction, guns, cigarettes, and old cars, and less about actual class structure or economic opportunity. Jake’s connections to folks in the upper middle class and in certain industries, like the color of his skin and his gender, seem to bypass economic class lines without causing any sort of ethical quandary for Helton the way they do in, say, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. In his memoir, Vance is always hedging and explaining his privileges, sometimes stressing his connection to poverty, addiction, violence, and instability, and at other times admitting that he was lucky enough to have enjoyed stability and resources at key points in his life. Helton is not interested in such investigations, whatever their intention.

The deceitfulness of this exclusion is further evidenced when Jake drops out of college. He makes this decision not because he can’t afford to keep going to school, needs to support parents or a family, or is having mental or physical health problems, but because he wins a small literary prize and wants to write full time. And it is here, when Jake intentionally leaves an institution of the middle and upper classes, that he begins his life in the “working class.”

Not long after he leaves school, Susan and Jake get married and find themselves, “one sad cold day, in the real world of adults.” So, in between getting drunk and doing various drugs, Susan gets a “grim job in a cubicle” and Jake decides to try painting houses and offices because he thought it would be “much less noisy than some of the other industrial trades and seemed like the least work for the most money.” Amid all this “grimness”—which, to be honest, isn’t really all that grim except in the heads of the not-ready-to-grow-up main characters—there are a few moments of joy or warmth, like when Jake takes Susan to her first day at a new job and they end up sitting in the parking lot talking for half an hour before she heads inside. But by and large their relationship takes a backseat in Bad Jobs, and Helton dips into it sparingly. The conversation in the car doesn’t even get its own scene: it’s done in summary. This approach may be related to the way that Jake comes across as an almost stereotypically bad partner. He dislikes and distrusts any new friends Susan makes. He’s cranky and surly, non-communicative. He comes home from work angry and tired and leaves the next morning in much the same way, often hungover. Before too long, Jake’s behavior backfires. They spend much of the book separated.

Once Helton has tied up this short foray into Jake’s earlier life and the beginnings of his relationships with Susan, he begins the focus of the book, the “dispatches from the working class,” a series of long anecdotes centering around particular jobs he held down for a few months or years and the people he interacted with daily. His first job is at Austin Paint and Spray, a do-it-all paint company that marks Jake’s entry into a string of terrible paint jobs where he is often forced to work with caustic chemicals without a respirator, and where the workers usually smoke a few joints or snort some lines before they open up the paint cans.

In the room where they wait for assignments, Helton writes, “All of us smoked, so the room was usually hazy and smelled of tobacco and paint thinner. I usually read the paper, the front page, first section, and sat in the corner trying not to talk to anybody.” The anybodys, though, were less interested in sitting quietly in the corner. Despite trying to remain aloof, Jake is almost always drawn into the complicated lives of his coworkers. A typical case is Tyler, “a tall curly-headed guy from West Texas. He was missing his two front teeth and covered in scars and tattoos, Bugs Bunny on his left forearm and the Tasmanian Devil on the right, flipping you the bird.” Each morning Tyler regales Jake with the lurid and often disturbing stories of his sexual exploits. Tyler is one example of a stock character in Bad Jobs, a Texan with over the top physical characteristics and strange, often violent, stories.

Jake’s habit of being an observer, as well as his constant attempts to avoid his co-workers despite the fact that he doesn’t seem to really have any friends, hint at the fact that there is a separation between him and the other men on these jobs (they are exclusively men). He is a part of the work crew, but at the same time always separate, like a reporter embedded in a platoon. This separation becomes especially clear when Jake joins his brother in a gig picking up discarded railroads ties in Kansas. Surprisingly, the ties are worth quite a bit of money, and as Jake’s brother is the boss, Jake is guaranteed a job and high salary. The rest of the work crew, largely made up of undocumented workers, is treated and paid horribly. At one point they are forced to huddle in the back of a moving pickup truck for hundreds of miles between Texas and Kansas in the dead of winter. Once they arrive, things aren’t much better. Jake describes their daily routine: “At lunch, we left them huddled together out on the tracks with their cold tortillas and water and went into Cassoday to have a lunch of steak and potatoes on the company’s tab. When we returned, full of beer and food, the men were already back at work.”

In these moments, Bad Jobs reminds me of another memoir about work in a very different context: Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Both books feature a rotating cast of working-class guys (again, mainly guys) with drug problems and disturbing stories. Both contain an excess of sexism, racism, and other forms of prejudice (usually coming in dialogue from the mouths of others, but it’s still in there nonetheless). Both are founded on a particular kind of American white masculinity. And when I read them, I got the feeling they were both using characters and stories for purposes of shock and awe.

Bourdain’s and Helton’s stories of sexual harassment in the kitchen or hazardous work conditions for industrial painters are not told for purposes of solidarity, education, criticism, or even entertainment. Their anecdotes are designed, rather, to amaze and impress. Their writing is the literary equivalent of rolling up a sleeve to show off a nasty scar or a giant tattoo. The main problem is that the scars and tattoos usually belong to someone else.

Bourdain’s and Helton’s stories of sexual harassment in the kitchen or hazardous work conditions for industrial painters are not told for purposes of solidarity, education, criticism, or even entertainment. Their anecdotes are designed, rather, to amaze and impress. Their writing is the literary equivalent of rolling up a sleeve to show off a nasty scar or a giant tattoo. The main problem is that the scars and tattoos usually belong to someone else.

robert-sorrellRobert Sorrell is a writer and photographer living in Philadelphia. He recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s English program and has a piece of narrative nonfiction forthcoming from Mosaic Art & Literary Journal.

A Conversation with Kim Magowan, author of UNDOING from Moon City Press, Interview by Yasmina Din Madden

A Conversation with Kim Magowan
author of UNDOING from Moon City Press
Winner of the Moon City Short Fiction Award
Interview by Yasmina Din Madden

If you’re a fan of short fiction, it’s likely you’ve come across Kim Magowan’s witty and layered stories in one of the many venues her work has appeared in. I met Kim a few years ago, and since then she’s become a go-to writer for feedback on my own work. Additionally, Kim’s innovative flash stories, particularly those that experiment with form and structure, have been an invaluable resource in the flash workshops that I teach. Last month, Kim’s collection, Undoing, winner of the Moon City Short Fiction Award, was published by Moon City Press, and next spring her novel, The Light Source, will be published by 7.13 Books. Magowan’s female characters, who often engage in what many might consider taboo behavior, are complex, intelligent, difficult, and compelling women. Recently we bonded over our mutual admiration of writer Ottessa Moshfegh, whose work often centers on the lives of unconventional female protagonists. At the AWP conference a few weeks ago, between panels and a drink or two, we had the chance to discuss flash fiction, novel writing, and our love of strange, smart, rule-breaking women in literature. —YDM

Yasmina Din Madden: You have a collection of stories and a novel coming out within a year of each other. Could you talk a bit about how your writing approach or writing practice changes depending on the form?

Kim Magowan: It took me forever to realize The Light Source was a novel—for the longest time I thought of it as a set of linked stories, like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I wrote first drafts of the second and third chapters when I was in graduate school. The germ was a story a friend told me about a bride canceling her wedding because she had caught her groom in bed with her maid of honor. That intrigued me: why on earth would someone have sex with their best friend’s fiancé? The explanation I arrived at was the seed for the whole book. So, I wrote what I saw at the time as two “stories” back in the 1990s (when the novel is first set). When I seriously returned to writing, back in 2010, I dusted those stories off, revised them substantially, and wrote two more linked stories. Then in 2012, an agent who had read my story “Version” in the Gettysburg Review got in touch and asked if I was working on a novel. He was not interested in a story collection, which is a common procedure with agents. That was the incentive I needed to realize (duh), my increasingly entangled “stories” were a novel. My family was in New Orleans for five weeks while my partner was researching a project, and I spent that time in a writing fever. Bryan dropped the kids off at camp while I sat in the kitchen, typing madly. By the end of those weeks I had finished a complete draft. That agent ended up passing on it, but I will always be grateful to him for making me realize that this unwieldy monster was a novel, and I had simply been too terrified to see it as such (because who has time to write a novel!?). I continued adding to The Light Source, particularly the Julie chapter, over the next couple of years, and sent a bunch of queries to agents. A few were interested, but they all wanted me to turn it into a more conventional book than the one I had in mind.

During the same time, I was writing short stories. I wrote drafts of several of the stories in my collection when I was in my twenties and thirties. But the vast majority of them are from 2010 on, when I seriously buckled down to writing and turned it into a passion, instead of a sidelined hobby. Especially after I had my novel in satisfactory shape, by 2015, my attention was on short stories, both reading them—I have read well over 100 story collections in the last five years—and writing them. I also became increasingly interested in flash fiction, paring stories down to the bone. Novels permit a lot more leeway than short fiction. You can be digressive, you can plummet into rabbit holes of flashbacks. Short fiction has to be disciplined and crystalline.

YDM: What drew you to the flash fiction form? You’ve written and published a lot of flash in the last few years and I’m wondering what you think the form allows for or allows you to explore in your writing that a conventional short story doesn’t.

KM:  There is a practical response to that question and an aesthetic response, and I’ll give you both. The practical response is that I have a full-time job and two kids, and flash fiction is the only writing I can reliably get done when the semester is in progress. I can write a draft of a flash story in a sitting, and revise when I have time. I have to be very efficient as a writer. I reserve my summer and Christmas breaks for writing longer stories (though of course it isn’t always clear to me at inception whether a story will end up being long). When the semester is on, I write flash, or collaborate with Michelle Ross, or revise and edit. So that’s my nuts-and-bolts pragmatic answer.

But I also truly believe that writing flash has made me a better writer. It’s so disciplined. I think of novels as soup and flash fiction as a bouillon cube. There is no waste. Of course, this is generally true of short stories: you have to be compact and precise. You have to work out, if your character is a collector, for instance, exactly what she collects—what item will reveal that essential quality you need to expose about her. But flash is that efficiency, times ten. I could never write poetry—my poems always sounded like bad Eric Clapton lyrics—but flash is as close as prose comes to poetry. The skills that writing it has made me hone are portable. I carry them into my longer work.

I also truly believe that writing flash has made me a better writer. It’s so disciplined. I think of novels as soup and flash fiction as a bouillon cube. There is no waste.

YDM: Your story “Squirrel Beach” was published in this magazine and is part of your collection. The narrator’s detached critical tone, as she contemplates her sister-in-law and her brother, is both funny and brutal. In fact, a lot of your fiction is brutally funny—I’m thinking of “Be Good” for instance, a story written in list- and second-command form that chronicles a husband’s cheating. How do you see humor informing your work?

KM: Thank you! I like “Squirrel Beach” a lot too—that was one of what I think of as my “angry drinking stories” I wrote in 2016. “Brutally funny” is a lovely compliment. I gravitate to funny writers. Amy Hempel and Lorrie Moore were revelations for me, that you could be a “serious” writer who was also funny, and that jokes did not have to be one-note. One of my all-time favorite novelists is Jane Austen, who is cruelly hilarious. A recent story collection that makes me laugh out loud is Katherine Heiny’s Single, Carefree, Mellow—it’s full of these perfectly turned zingers. The writers I love best are adept at shuttling between funny and sad, even combining the two emotions, like Kazuo Ishiguro does in The Remains of the Day. So I admire humor, and I often wish my stories were funnier: it’s one of my 2018 ambitions, to lighten my writing up. Some of my stories I like best are ones where the humor works (I hope, anyway) to illuminate characters. For instance, the protagonist in “Family Games” connects with people, both her estranged husband Phil and her new friend Angie, through jokes. She and her husband hand each other set-up lines. Their mutual, twisted humor is one of the reasons Phil is hard for Mel to leave, despite all his flaws.

YDM: Is there a story in the collection that came particularly quickly or easily? And what about its evil twin? Was there a story that seemed impossible from beginning to end?

KM: I’m not going to count the flash, because I always write flash quickly, but the story in the collection that was most an unanticipated gift from the sky was “Family Games.” I had to write that story under the gun. I had submitted a story to Sixfold for their contest that got accepted elsewhere, and I had three days to come up with something new—all of my other stories were published or forthcoming. I stayed up all night cranking out “Family Games,” sent it in the morning to my first reader Michelle Ross, revised it the next day, and submitted it. It’s one of my favorites in the collection, and I have never written a story that long so painlessly. Its evil twin, strangely enough, is a story that it shares many affinities with, “Version,” another story about a writer couple who play word games. “Version” was a headache and a half to write!

YDM: Could you talk a bit about the title of your collection? There’s clearly the tension, in many of these stories, of relationships or families unraveling, but undoing is different. I’m curious about how you came to this title, which I love by the way.

KM: Right—undoing is not the same as unraveling. It can be—certainly “undoing” has negative connotations that I wanted to draw from (“he was my undoing”)—but I like the ambiguity of the word. It also can connote undoing a problem, undoing a knot. When we play Four Square with our daughters, they’re always calling “Re-do-sies!” I intend that facet of undoing: the longed-for second chance. So, “Undoing” was the original title for the opening story in the collection, “When in Rome,” and comes from two uses of the word that occur at the end of that story: undoing a memory through a fantasy, and undoing someone’s buttons. I had a hell of a time coming up with a title for the collection. I’m terrible at titles, and I also didn’t want to spotlight any single story by titling the collection after it. Michelle Ross, title queen, suggested I use Undoing, and it immediately clicked. It encapsulated, for me, the self-sabotage thread, but also the nostalgia. So many of the stories feature characters who long to move backward, to recapture some since lost moment of connection and peace: sitting on a stoop licking ice cream cones, the future unmarred.

YDM: You’ve co-authored several stories with writer Michelle Ross. Could you talk about how this process works and what you see as the advantages of co-writing stories?

KM: Michelle and I have been collaborating on stories since July; it’s a blast. One of us will start a story—say, write the opening paragraph—and then lob it at the other person, who writes some more, tosses it back. We decide when it’s done and revise together. There are so many things I love about the process. It’s very freeing for me, to have to incorporate some left turn, some unforeseen element. I used to act, and collaboration reminds me of improvisation. All of a sudden your Improv partner has hands that are melting, or is blind, or has grown antlers, or thinks you are a sandwich, and you just need to adapt and go with it. I can get very finicky and prissy with writing. Collaboration pushes me to be speedy, raw, messy. Plus, Michelle is so damn good, partnering with her is like rallying with an excellent tennis player. She ups my game.

Michelle Ross, Kim Magowan, and Yasmina Din Madden at AWP 2018

YDM: Talk to me about “Version,” a story in the collection that includes elements of metafiction, plays with structure, and centers on writers who are often talking about writing. It’s one of my favorites in the book.

KM: Ha, that is my evil twin story! So, the backstory of that story is that originally it stopped at the end of the first section, once Kate has her reading at the bookstore and David confronts her. I was in a writing workshop with three other writers, including my very talented sister Margot, and Margot asked, “So, what happens next?” And my initial thought was, But Kate’s story is over, and then I realized that the story was over from her POV, but not if I picked up another perspective, David’s. But as soon as I started working on David’s, I realized, well, his story is contingent on what decision he makes, whether he contacts Kate or wimps out, and then that following trajectory depends on whether Kate responds or ignores him, and… and…. Well, suffice to say, that story got very “Choose your own adventure” on me.

“Version” tends to elicit extreme responses. Several people have told me it’s their favorite story in the collection (indeed, one of the collection titles I was kicking around before settling on Undoing was a line from that story, This Version Doesn’t Belong to You). Others don’t like it. It’s very metafictional, as you say, plus many people are ideologically opposed to writing about writing. One of my most well-read friends said, “Make the characters something besides writers. Make them construction workers.” Which, of course, logically made no sense! But I get the bias against writing about writing. I received the same flak from Sixfold readers about “Family Games.” Personally, I think “Version” is one of my best. It’s a little chilly and cerebral, but I like all the games Kate and David play. My favorite bit is the box of staples David slips in Kate’s grocery bag of “staples.” Both of them get a kick out of wordplay.

YDM: I’ve just mentioned one of my favorite stories in the collection, so now it’s your turn. Is there a story or two in your collection that you feel a particular affinity for and why?

KM: Aside from the stories we’ve already mentioned, I like “Chin Chin Chin” a lot. I find it, for all its sharp edges, sweet and romantic—well, romantic for me; that’s as romantic as my writing gets! I also like the linked stories about Laurel (“Eleanor of Aquitaine,” “Warmer, Colder,” “On Air,” and “Pop Goes the Weasel”) and the linked ones about Ben and Miriam (“Brining,” “This Much”). Both of those sets of stories could easily have turned into novels—I know so much more about those characters than made it onto the page. They dug their hooks into my imagination. Except who, as I said before, has time to write a novel?

YDM: Who are the writers who have influenced or inspired you most and is there anyone new you’ve discovered recently whose work you find exciting?

KM: So many! I am a ranker, so you’re asking me a question that I could go on and on about. I’m going to be disciplined and just mention a few recent books that have blown me away. I love Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, how she plays with perspective and time. No current writer is as funny, original, and humane as George Saunders: Tenth of December is an all-time favorite collection, and Lincoln in the Bardo exploded my brain. Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation is the novel I wish I’d written. Reading it was an epiphany: there is an audience for smart books. I love how that novel toggles between the micro (a floundering marriage, molecules, floating passages of text) and the macro (outer space). Edward P. Jones’s The Known World may be the most important American novel of the twenty-first century—every writer needs to read that book. It’s astonishing. Finally, I’m obsessed with a writer you turned me onto: Ottessa Moshfegh. Her story collection Homesick for Another World is even better, I think, than her celebrated novel Eileen. It’s all thorns and prickles; it’s like holding a barbed fruit.

YDM: What are you working on these days?

KM: Two things: a second story collection, which so far is mostly very short fiction—I have about 16,000 words of that; and a collaborative collection I’m working on with Michelle Ross, that is twelve stories and growing. Also, there’s a novel I would love to write about my great-grandmother, who was an amazing character—a total scandal. Her father was a prominent rabbi in Vienna, a member of Parliament. Liza ran off with a Gentile musician when she was seventeen, had two children, returned to Vienna when she was twenty. Her humiliated father married her off to a much older rabbi (my great-grandfather) and packed them out of Austria. She wrote these wonderful, wild, feminist fairytales that were published in The Atlantic and Harper’s. She had two children with the rabbi, a longstanding lesbian relationship, and an affair with another Christian who likely fathered her youngest son. She used to make her husband the rabbi pork stew and tell her kids, “Watch him eat it.” She deserves a novel, if I can figure out a plot worthy of her.

Kim Magowan’s short story collection Undoing won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming in 2019 from 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Sixfold, and many other journals.  She lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College.


Yasmina Din Madden lives in Iowa. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in PANK, The Idaho Review, The Masters Review: New Voices, Word Riot, Hobart, CARVE, and other journals. She teaches creative writing and literature at Drake University.

THE PRICE GUIDE TO THE OCCULT, a young adult novel by Leslye Walton, reviewed by Brandon Stanwyck

by Leslye Walton
Candlewick Press, 272 pages

reviewed by Brandon Stanwyck

For a novel about witches, magic, and family curses, Leslye Walton’s The Price Guide to the Occult has a lot to say about humanity.

More than a century ago, a witch named Rona Blackburn landed on Anathema Island, where she was met with fear and vexation from the island’s founding families. Determined to rid their island of her “as the tide erases footprints in the sand,” they burned down her home. So she, naturally, cursed their entire bloodlines:

Her search for such a spell led her to the branches of the Blackburn family tree. She traced limbs that reached to the heavens and bent back to the earth again. She followed roots that stretched across all parts of the world and were inscribed in languages that had been dead for centuries. And there, buried deep beneath those gnarled roots of that ancient family tree, Rona found one.

But when Rona cast that bloody binding spell, she inadvertently fated every future female Blackburn to a life of heartbreak and displeasure—and a daughter to be fathered by a male descendant of Anathema’s eight founders.

Enter seventeen-year-old Nor Blackburn, eight generations removed from Rona. Nor is a powerful witch with a cutting sense of humor. Her insistence upon remaining unnoticed in the age of social media-driven narcissism will undoubtedly speak to a faction of adolescent readers, who, just like Nor, want “to make the slightest mark as humanly possible upon the world.”

When Nor’s estranged mother, Fern, who has been AWOL for years, reemerges as a celebrity, Nor must finally embrace her powerful bloodline in order to stop the monster her mother has become. A terrifying and apt villain, with Evil Queen-like tendencies, Fern has gone into the business of “selling spells that hadn’t been cast for generations—spells for success, good luck, beauty, revenge.” In an ethically condemnable act of the highest degree, she has published a catalogue of sorts—entitled “The Price Guide to the Occult”—so common people can buy some “magick with a k” (which, according to Nor’s sarcasm, is how you know it’s legit).

Leslye Walton

It’s here that Walton does a wonderful job of illustrating the harm that nonstop media outlets have on susceptible viewers. Television appearances begin to paint Fern as “the real deal,” and she develops a literal cult following. When an exceedingly dangerous Resurrection Spell begins bringing dead folks back to life, Fern must be stopped, because black magic “always comes at a wicked and terrible price.”

Worrying that the darkness in Fern might very well dwell within her, too, Nor quells her deep-rooted dread by practicing self-harm. Walton neither makes light of her teenage protagonist’s destructive behavior nor does she romanticize it. As the narrative builds, Nor’s anxiety worsens, and Walton’s handling of the imagery reflects that—her vivid, lyrical narration perfectly illustrates Nor’s troubled state of mind. Her haunting prose ultimately drives the well-paced plot to its gripping, somewhat grotesque climax.

With its dynamic family tree, the novel will leave readers wishing for more of the Blackburn family, particularly the generations between Rona and Nor, which get little storytime. But Walton does end her tale hinting that we may see more of the Blackburns and their lineage in the future.

Rich with atmosphere and character, The Price Guide to the Occult employs the magical and the macabre to weave a layered family tapestry abound with romance and blood.

Brandon Stanwyck studied film, literature, and theatre at Cleveland State University. While there, he led a student-run theatre company. He currently lives in Ohio, where he divides his time between working on independent movies and writing fiction. His words have appeared in The Fiction Pool, Corvus Review, and elsewhere. Twitter: @BrandonStanwyck.

PLAYING WITH DYNAMITE, a memoir by Sharon Harrigan, reviewed by Brian Burmeister

by Sharon Harrigan
Truman State University Press, 248 pages

reviewed by Brian Burmeister

Who we are is a complicated thing. Interactions influence perceptions, and perceptions influence memories. Having lost her father in a tragic accident when she was only seven, author Sharon Harrigan attempts to unravel the mystery of the man her father was in the powerful new memoir Playing with Dynamite. “I was relieved when he died,” her brother wrote her in an email. “It’s terrible to say, but it’s true.”

“I was relieved when he died,” her brother wrote her in an email. “It’s terrible to say, but it’s true.”

The email causes her to question her own memories of the father who had died decades earlier and she set forth on a fact-finding journey in the fall of 2013 from her home in Virginia back to Detroit and northern Michigan where she grew up. Informed by interviews with those who knew her father best, the memoir expertly weaves Harrigan’s own life story with memories shared by her family. And in the process of learning more about her dad, Harrigan comes to more fully know herself and other members of her family.

“If we want to find out anything, we have to ask,” Harrigan writes, and so she does. Her mother, brother, sister, and uncle contribute countless tales—many of which are astonishing—to clear the air and breathe life into a ghost. The stories of how he met her mother, of how he would treat his children—including Harrigan herself—of his intense work ethic and intellectual curiosity are colorful and insightful but shift or change depending on the teller. If there is one definite Harrigan learns, it is that truth is subjective.

Facts, Harrigan discovers through her quest, don’t often fit the picture she had assembled. “I don’t know anything,” she says to her uncle regarding events he believed were common knowledge to the family. So much of her father’s life and character were misremembered, completely unknown, or perhaps even intentionally forgotten. Partial truths and imagined truths make completely knowing someone a challenge, if not impossible. More so when that person lives on only through memories and photographs, as is the case with Harrigan’s father.

Sharon Harrigan

The compelling mysteries surrounding the circumstances of her father’s death and how, years earlier, he’d lost a hand “playing with dynamite” offer satisfying, surprising conclusions. That knowledge makes not only for entertaining and heart-wrenching narratives, but for revealing glimpses into the man she’s desperate to know. As she explores, the facts seem to change and this alters her sense of connection to her father and her own sense of identity. As Harrigan struggles with her changing reality, she asks profound questions: “How often is the way we see ourselves different from how the world perceives us?” and “If my memories change, will I change too?”

Harrigan’s journey is beautiful, emotional. “I went looking for my father. And found my mother instead,” she writes. he discovers the significance of her mother’s “room of one’s own” at the local Y, of the reservations her mother felt in marrying her father, and of the challenges she endured through that marriage.

But Harrigan also discovers more about herself. Decades after her father’s tragic passing, she comes to a deeper understanding of who she is—intellectually curious and sometimes dangerously reckless—through knowing more of where she came from. “I’d been running my whole life,” she writes, “without stopping to pick up the pieces of myself I’d left behind.” Her story—while just that, her story—is intoxicatingly relatable. Missed connections. Unasked questions. The desire to know our family, loved ones, and selves better. Her story is our story, too. And it’s a gift: through knowing hers, we can feel inspired to relearn who we are as well.

Brian Burmeister teaches communication at Iowa State University. His writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and he can be followed on Twitter: @bdburmeister.

ASK JUNE: The Snarky Scale-Salesman and the Rowdy Gym Rats

Dear June, 

So my boyfriend and I go to the home-improvement store to buy a scale and I go to the nearest help kiosk or whatever you call it and ask one of the sales associates for advice. Specifically, I am wondering how reliable the various digital scales are because mine totally lost its accuracy after a year, even when I changed the battery. The associate, a guy maybe 18 or 19, says “Are you sure the problem’s with the scale?” Then—my boyfriend denies this, but I saw it—the guy looks over at my boyfriend and sort of rolls his eyes at him, man to man.

I say, “Thanks, that’s helpful,” and march out of the store, my boyfriend hurrying after me.

My boyfriend tells me that it was stupid of me to storm out like that. He says that the kid was just trying to make a joke, and that anyway this store probably has the best prices, so that by leaving I was just hurting myself. What do you think? 

—Dieting in Dover

Dear Dido,

I’m not sure what the kid was after. He may have thought he was making a little joke all three of you would find funny. He may have actually believed you could have been mistaken about the scale, and wanted to be helpful and possibly save you some money. Or he may have known perfectly well that he would offend you. (My money is on that last one.) But it doesn’t really matter. Clueless, condescending, or outright offensive—whichever he was, there is no reason you had to put up with him if you didn’t want to.

But let’s play devil’s advocate for a minute and run through the best arguments I can think of for making light of the kid’s conduct, and staying in the store.

One is that you may have offended the salesperson, or hurt his feelings when you turned and left. This is unlikely; I suspect that he just shrugged his shoulders and moved on. And even if he did take offense, it is probably good for him to get a little negative reinforcement when he makes questionable and probably sexist jokes.

Two is that, if you had stayed around, you might have found someone who would actually help you. This strikes me as even less likely; I have hardly ever encountered anybody in big stores who knows, or much cares, about small appliances—if a scale even rises to the level of an appliance.

Three is your boyfriend’s point that the store probably has the best prices. I have no idea whether this is true but, even if it is, getting the best price on a product becomes much less attractive when you are not sure whether it’s a good product. If the staff at a brick-and-mortar store can’t or won’t help you weigh the merits of different scales, and if shopping there is not a pleasant experience, it makes more sense to shop online, where you can look for rock-bottom prices and probably read customer and expert reviews.

Or, if you know of any, you could go to a store where the prices may be a bit higher, but the staff is knowledgeable and helpful, or at least obliging and inoffensive. I am all for going to real physical stores whenever possible, to help the local economy and increase the amount of eye contact among humans. In fact, I am willing to pay a little more to even when I know exactly what I want, like a specific book, to help keep local shops open—but only when the store offers good service or otherwise contributes to the community.

So no, I don’t think you were “stupid,” and I certainly hope that your boyfriend doesn’t make a habit of using that word to characterize your behavior. His doing so, and his making light of a remark that upset you, do not redound to his credit. Nor does his apparent siding with a loutish bro he’d never set eyes on before instead of supporting you. A bathroom scale may not be that big a deal. (Okay, I admit that it can be—this is where I sort of roll my eyes at you, woman to woman.) Being sensitive to your partner is a huge deal, though. The incident you write about is fairly minor. But if your boyfriend’s behavior at the home-improvement store strikes you as typical, you might want to sit him down and have a chat. You might even want to think about whether he is right for you. Look back on the way he has treated you, and see if the scales fall from your eyes.

La Wally says:
If she had a do-over, I’d tell her to check out the different scales at the store and see if anybody else could help her, then look up ratings and prices on her phone while still at the store. Use that info to buy the scale there, or not. Then she can go back and tell that first salesperson he was out of line, if she still wants to.

As for the boyfriend, I’m not sure he acted all that badly. I would need to know more. Besides, she didn’t ask about that.

Dear June,

I love the place where I go to swim four or five times a week. Going there takes a big bite out of my budget and uses up about half of my free time, but it has been worth it. Swimming is the only exercise I like. The pool is wonderful—bright, clean, very big, not too crowded. 

I have this routine where I swim laps, then read a magazine while I soak in the hot tub for twenty minutes or so, then shower and dry my hair and so on and drive to my home office, or to the college where I teach part-time. This routine used to leave me feeling calm and invigorated. But then this group of ladies started showing up. According to the people at the desk, at least some of them belong to church or community group, which brings them in a van. A bunch of them are almost always there at the same times I am.

I have several minor problems with these women, mostly because they seem to have zero sense of personal space and are forever doing stuff like sitting two inches from me when there is plenty of room elsewhere, jumping under the hairdryer I was in the middle of using when I step away to get some more gel, and so on. But I can live with that. What’s really making me crazy is that they talk a lot, usually at the top of their voices. It often sounds as if they are yelling out some warning, or crying for help, or having some huge fight. Since I don’t understand a single word of the language they are speaking, or should I say screaming, there is no way for me to filter what they say. I try to block them out entirely, but it never works. What can I do?

—Rattled in Raritan

Dear Rattled,

I sympathize with you—more than I should, probably: I have missed the artistry, and sometimes even the plot, of many movies, and enjoyed some concerts less than I might have, due to obsessing about somebody’s popcorn or loud whispers or crinkling program. And even though the swim club experience doesn’t depend on sound in the same way, I can imagine how jarring it is to be soaking in a hot tub and hear someone shouting what, to a non-Loud-Lady-Language speaker, sounds just like a tsunami alert; or to be in the locker room standing on one naked leg, trying to squeeze yourself into a damp racing suit, and lose your balance when some unintelligible person six inches behind you shouts what could very well mean “They got me!” or “Duck!” or “Rabid dog!” or “Man the torpedoes!” or “You talkin’ to ME?”

However, even though I agree that your problem is real, it may be hard to solve—if by “solve” we mean getting the ladies to change their behavior and quiet down. You could try talking to the management, but I am not sure how much help they can or will provide. This probably depends on the nature of the facility. If it is fancy, smallish, expensive, and spa-like, somebody might be willing to talk to the ladies or their sponsoring group and try to get them to dial it down a few decibels; but even if management does try, it may be hard to make the Loud Ladies realize how much noise they are making. After all, they apparently sound just fine to one another. And if the facility is more like a Y, or a local community center, or a sports gym, you may have trouble getting anyone to care about some women who are just one noisy group among a diverse and rowdy collection of aging jocks, high-school swim teams, youth basketball players, Silver Sneakers seniors, and others who come and go throughout the week (although not, I hope, at the same times you do).

Or you could try talking to the Loud Ladies yourself. I know people who would have no trouble asking your ladies to be quieter, even if doing so meant using gestures indicating loudness, headache, keeping it down, and so on if necessary (although I would bet that, unless they are all recent arrivals, some of your ladies must know basic English). But I am not one of those people and would want to know the ladies better before I risked offending them and making matters worse. You may be made of sterner stuff. If so, be my guest…but remember that you will, in effect, be telling them that something they do habitually and naturally is annoying and rude.

If quieting the ladies down doesn’t work out—which I predict—it might help to change your response to them. How about if you try to develop some sympathy or fellow feeling for them? Think about what a fine thing it is that they get to enjoy one another’s company. Ponder the likelihood that, where talking unbelievably loudly is concerned, they really cannot help themselves. Perhaps their decibel level has something to do with their language itself, or their culture. (I do not mean to stereotype any particular language or ethnic group here. These ladies may just comprise one tiny, abnormally loud subculture of their own. And of course I have absolutely no idea what their language, country of origin, etc., actually are.

You might even try establishing some sort of relationship with them, perhaps by admiring this woman’s suit or that woman’s brush. Or by pointing out that the water in the pool has been really cold lately, while hugging your arms and going “brrr.” Or by picking a moment to leave the club when you can hold the door for the ladies and smile at them they file out to the van. Getting to know them better won’t make them any quieter, but it might make their noise less irritating.

And don’t forget about earplugs. They won’t look out of place at the pool, and even if they don’t totally block the ladies’ voices, they will probably lower the decibel levels enough to make their conversations sound like ordinary chitchat about goggles and grandchildren, not desperate pleas and urgent warnings.

La Wally says:
If the women are really that loud, do complain to the management. They will not want to lose customers. But you will probably be happier if you are not so sensitive. I would work on that.


ask-june-square-for-facebook-no-border-300pxCleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at Find more columns by June in her attic.


La Wally is the nom de June of June Cleaver‘s adult daughter. In real life, she’s an artist and entrepreneur. What’s up with her name? In choosing a pseudonym, the two of them considered the names of the original Cleaver family offspring, both boys, but rejected “Beaver” for obvious reasons. “Wally” alone seemed too masculine and generally hideous. But “La Wally” brings to mind Catalani’s wonderful opera. Speaking of which, have you seen the movie Diva? You should.

SHOWING AND TELLING: Seven Ways to Help Your Writing Breathe, A Craft Essay by Billy Dean

Seven Ways to Help Your Writing Breathe
A Craft Essay by Billy Dean

“Show-don’t-tell” is fine advice—unless you apply it absolutely, as if you should always show and never tell. But there are no absolute rules in good writing. Here are seven ways your prose and poetry can breathe with both showing and telling.

#1 Body & Mind
We know more about the world with our bodies than with our minds because we are more directly connected to reality through sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. When you want readers to participate with their imagination, engage their senses with words aimed at their bodies.

Penny watched a rabbit hop under the snow-covered rosemary, ears down and alone.

Stories with nothing but imagery, however vivid and beautiful, can be boring and pointless unless you give readers a context for what you are showing them, and why. When you want readers to participate with their intellect, engage their understanding with words aimed at their brains.

Penny glanced at her cell phone. Five bars. Why hasn’t he called?

#2 Peaks & Valleys
Exploit the distinction between words aimed at the mind and words aimed at the body with “peaks” of showing and “valleys” of telling. Peaks are high points when your readers are holding their breath, and valleys are low points when they are pondering what they saw on the peaks. Juxtaposing peaks and valleys grounds images in information.

Jim pulled the pistol out of the glove box and pushed the barrel under his chin.

Doctor Evans had told him there was no cure, but Jim had a cure. Life sucks, then you die—alone, angry and full of regrets.

#3 Scene & Summary
Your setting will be a boring, irrelevant background for the action and the dialog unless it merges images and information to set the stage for your plot, your character’s mood, and what can happen.

Most stories alternate “scene” writing—which shows readers what happened—with “summary” writing—which tells readers what happened. The trick is to balance scene with summary, showing with telling, facts with feelings, and imagery with information.

The sky was filled with dark, threatening clouds. In the distance, lightning could be seen but not heard. Like small children, the men huddled near the fire, seeking its warmth and familiar glow. Hank looked up. The storm was moving their way. He reached forward and poked the smoldering fire with his cane.

He would tell the story again, tonight, because, in the story, the world promised what might have been. Outside the story, the world closed in again, actual, bare and unyielding.

#4 Brevity & Presence
Showing can be more precise than telling, whereas telling can be more concise than showing. Precise details give your readers more sensory-oriented information to enhance their presence in the story, as in example A, below. By contrast, a concise telling gives your readers fewer details to compress time so they are not burdened with every aspect of a character’s preparation for the real action ahead, as in example B.

A) Sharon pulled into her space at the Oak Knoll Apartments, turned off the engine, got out and heard the satisfying beep as she tapped her remote. She climbed the stairs to her apartment, unlocked her door, and closed it behind her. She tossed her purse on the dinner table, kicked off her shoes and threw herself onto the bed. Lying there with her face buried in the soft, pillowy comforter, a dark wave came over her.

Remembering she had forgotten to lock her door, she rolled off her bed, walked to the door and felt, as much as heard, the snick of the deadbolt as it slid home through the strike plate of the sill. Would she ever feel safe again?

She poured herself a drink—vodka without the rocks. She opened her purse and saw the canister of pepper spray Anthony had given her. She resisted the urge to grab it and pretend to point it at Jack’s face. Instead of seeing the spray transform his arrogance into anguish, she saw a guard, hairy and huge as a gorilla, his black eyes boring into her under his ape-like brow, and his voice mocking her with a growling, “You brought pepper spray to a gunfight? Want me to break your neck or just shoot you?”

B) Sharon was afraid the compound would be guarded by dogs. So she tossed a canister of pepper spray in her purse before leaving the house.

You noticed, of course, that we don’t know what’s bothering Sharon. The first example doesn’t tell us why she no longer feels safe, and the second omits her reasons in the interest of brevity. Both are missing context, which is neither necessarily good or bad. It all depends on your motives for keeping your readers in the dark. Perhaps you want to enhance suspense or save a surprise for later in the story. Whatever the reason, keep in mind that showing without telling and telling without showing can be boring, pointless and confusing unless you give readers a context for what you are showing or telling them, and why.

Too much or too little of anything is unbalanced. When it comes to showing or telling, we can balance our writing with a combination of both to enhance both presence and brevity with context. Below is a third example demonstrating how to alternate scene and summary to move your readers from imagery to information:

C) When Sharon got home, she kicked off her shoes and poured herself a drink—vodka without the rocks. A wave of fear washed over her. In her mind’s eye, she saw a guard, hairy and huge as a gorilla, his black eyes boring into her under an ape-like brow, his hand on his gun. [Scene]

Anthony was asking her to risk her job, her career—maybe even her life. For what? The cause? Him? They hadn’t even slept together. One date, two drinks, and a kiss on the cheek as they said goodnight. She was a legal secretary, not a spy. And how would she get into the place? Even if she got past the dogs, the guards, and the locked doors, how would she know which disk had the data that Anthony needed to put Jack and his crooked buddies behind bars? [Summary]

#5 Convey & Evoke
Telling can move your story forward, speed up the pace, and spare your readers from long, boring passages. But, as we have seen, it can also leave your readers standing outside your story like spectators. Telling readers how a character feels is trying to elicit an emotional response with words rather than with sensory clues. Think of words as handles to carry the idea of a feeling from writer to reader, not the feeling itself. Instead of directly informing your readers about a character’s feelings, as in the first example below, show them the symptoms so they can participate with their own emotions, as in the second example.

A) Shirley was so sad she wanted to die.

B) Shirley stood on the cliff watching the waves crash against the rocks below.

Let’s examine these differences in greater detail. In example A, above, readers are limited to what the narrator is telling them about the character’s feelings. But it’s merely a description of the character’s inner thoughts—as if the narrator is pointing at the character from a distance. The narrator becomes more present than the character. And that makes it more likely that the readers will not identify with the character in a personal way because they, too, feel distant from the character.

In example B, the narrator has all but disappeared because the narration, not the narrator, is showing the character in a particular situation. And that increases the likelihood that readers will feel little or no distance between themselves and the character in the scene. Most are likely to feel as if they are standing on that cliff with the character.

#6 Clarity, Curiosity & Closure
Showing can be more subtle than telling. But you don’t want to be so subtle that your readers feel like they’re working a crossword puzzle without the clues, as in example A, below. You can be both subtle and clear, as in example B. And you can achieve clarity by igniting your reader’s curiosity, then satisfying it with closure, as in example C:

A) With every step across that furrowed field, Sylvia heard the rumble hammering her ears get closer, louder—more like a mongoose circling a cobra than the moon orbiting earth.

B) Sylvia watched Jake drive away with Jean, her best friend, in that truck they painted three summers ago—the one his dad gave her to repair so Jake could drive it when he turned 16. He’d never know how much she loved that truck, the rust bleeding through its other color.

C) Her gold ring tossed on the tracks was no match for iron wheels rolling into the station. She would leave Jake and buy a ticket to tomorrow, where she would go, with alacrity, alone.

#7 Walking the Dog
My goal has been to convince you that your best writing will result from asking yourself, How do I want my readers to respond to that sentence, this scene, my story? rather than, Did I follow the hallowed rules of writing?

Even my show-and-tell suggestions might keep you from your best writing if you follow them absolutely. So let’s examine another rule some writers apply absolutely, a rule they justify by saying that Anton Chekhov told us to avoid all adjectives and adverbs because the use of modifiers constitutes telling. He didn’t say that. He said, Cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can.

Chekhov advised us to use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Being too specific is like walking your dog on a short leash: your readers won’t be free enough to bring your words to life with their own imagination and intellect. Being too is like walking your dog on a 30-foot leash: your readers will wander off the path you want them on. In the first example below, I haven’t crossed out all my adverbs and adjectives. I’ve crossed out as many as I could to ensure my readers will respond as I intended:

Little Tommy pedaled his younger sister’s old JC Higgins bicycle to her elementary school as quickly as he could, hoping he’d get there before any of his friends saw its girly-pink seat and sissy-blue ribbons twirling conspicuously from the bent handlebars.

The second example, the same text minus extraneous modifiers, gives my reader freedom to imagine a vivid scene—without wandering off the path I’ve chosen:

Tommy pedaled his sister’s bicycle to school as quickly as he could, hoping he’d get there before his friends saw its pink seat and the blue ribbons twirling from the handlebars.

Billy Dean is a retired technical writer with degrees in English and Engineering. His essays, how-to guides, poems, and stories have been published in trade journals and magazines, and on the Internet. His goals are to craft prose and poetry loaded with clues for shaping and navigating the sticky web of real life.





Image credit: Tim Wright on Unsplash

TEETH by Claire Stamler-Goody

Claire Stamler-Goody

He started with her teeth because he was sick of the expensive foods she’d eat: crusty breads, chewy steaks, stubborn fruits bitten off their pits and stems. When he first told her, she was outraged and not at all compliant. But he knew her better even than she knew herself. She would come around, and she did. She was in pain for weeks but never complained. They ate soup three times a day and saved about fifty dollars a month.

Then it was her hair, which wasn’t such a big deal because there’s no pain in getting rid of a person’s hair. To her, though, it was a big deal. She had a wide, meaty face, and used to hate the people who complimented her hair. Ugly women always get compliments on their hair, she would say. Which was true, but hers really used to be something. Heavy and permanently glossed, fiery black. It was only in the last few years that it had started to go gray at the roots and front—its heaviness pulling it down so much that her scalp, white from never seeing the light of day, began to show. Now, she spent hours soaking and treating it, and many dollars on the products that soaked and treated. When he took out the scissors, she cried and shook her head. But once he started cutting, he noticed something, and she probably did too: the weight was gone. She held onto him that whole night, as though she feared, in her new lightness, that she might float away.

It got easier after that. When he suggested that it was time for her eyes to go, she didn’t argue. Looking at everything around them only reminded her of what she wasn’t—what she didn’t have. When he plugged her ears, she stopped hearing what people said as she walked by. And when he took away her legs, she ceased to walk altogether.

By the time her mouth was forever closed—when she not only didn’t say “no” but couldn’t—he wondered, briefly, if he had gone too far. It was then that he remembered her teeth. Once, at the dentist, they told her that she was brushing too hard. The dentist pulled up her lip and showed them how her gums were worn down. They both gasped at the exposed root of her tooth, and he saw that beneath her gums and skin, she was no more than a skeleton. Everyone was. They didn’t need to be reminded of that every single day for the rest of their lives. He convinced her using money, but she stuck with him because she, too, preferred a life without fear.

With eyes and ears gone, arms and legs sliced off, teeth and fingers plucked away, she spent a lot of time alone with her thoughts. She didn’t care about saving money, nor did she prefer a life without fear. Her body never frightened her the way it terrified him. What she wanted—what she worried about awake and dreamed about when she managed to fall asleep—was him. That was all. She couldn’t see his face or hear his voice, but the air changed whenever he walked into her room. She felt it, knew he was hers, and that was much more than enough. It was perfect.

Claire Stamler-Goody is a writer, scientist, and photographer living in Chicago. Her previous work has appeared in TIMBER Journal, Birds Piled Loosely, and Linden Avenue Lit. She can be found on Twitter @cstamlergoody.


by Jessica Lampard

The floor of my Honda is maps stretched wide, the radio all static as I pass rusted mailboxes, farmland, orchards. Leaves are flushing orange—soon much of this scenery will break and fall. The plummet of fruits from boughs, the thick perfume of ripeness.

I heard recently about a woman allergic to all varieties of fruit, her body resistant to its own well-being. Inspired by this small memory of a misfortune not my own, I pull over at a farm-stand heaped with harvest, plunk down a dollar, and push a succession of molasses-dark plums to my mouth. The skin splits against my teeth, my lips skim over to pitted centers. My plan to ration a few for later dissolves as juice skids down my forearms, splashes into the dust at my feet.

An hour later, steering wheel sticky, I pull up to the lakeside resort I’ve booked for the night. Its waters are coffee-dark and swilled with algae, yet I swim anyway to kill the heat. The dirty water veins down my spine and breasts and drapes into my mouth. My hands sear on the rungs of the metal ladder as I pull myself onto the dock, lake water inside all my most intimate places, leaking free.

As I settle onto my stomach to sunbathe in the evening glow, a man appears on the empty sand, his children toddling behind him in their bathing suits and water wings. I hold his stare, his smile, consider the plums burning in the swelter of my car—one for each of his children. But then I remember there’s nothing left, I ate until my chin dripped and my hands emptied. That sensation which surged through me. How it feels like enough.

Jessica Lampard is a graduate of the University of Victoria’s creative writing program. She worked as a technical writer before turning her attention to literary fiction. She has since won second place in Geist’s 13th annual Postcard Story Contest, and one of her short stories is forthcoming in EVENT. She currently lives in Victoria, BC.




Image credit: Manuel Meurisse on Unsplash


BLUE BOY by Joseph Bathanti

by Joseph Bathanti

Gloria Mastroantonio’s hair, like long coils of blood sausage, clung netted to the back of her head. Tucci, she said, was a bastard for opening that dive next door. Go-go girls in cages dangling from rafters. Streetwalkers with skirts up to their asses. The projects puking tizzones into the avenue. Drinking, doping, carousing all night. In the morning, sidewalks treacherous with smashed quarts of Colt 45. She’d give them Black Power. Time to stick the For Sale sign in the yard and poor-mouth out to the suburbs like the rest of the greenhorns.

She glanced at her husband, Alfred, for approval. An embarrassed man with a clipped licorice mustache, he worked in the hardware store his father had opened after emigrating from Manfredonia, in Puglia, a hobnail in the boot heel of Italy. Alfred said nothing. He sucked biscotti and sipped coffee dosed with anisette.

Above the mantel floated The Blue Boy, an oil by Thomas Gainsborough, in its heavy ornate frame. An effeminate, long-haired eighteenth century boy in blue frilly brocade waistcoat, puttees, shoes with bows, a plumed hat depended from his right hand, left arm crooked at his hip. A black forelock clawed his brow like a grackle feather.

Gloria and Alfred knew nothing about the painting—nor how it came to be mounted in their dining room. As if Blue Boy had slipped in, climbed the wall and hung himself on a nail. They never mentioned it, as if it were invisible, like a child they had whelped, then forgotten.

Upstairs, the Mastroantonios’ only child, Louis Rocco, had been sketching as he listened to his mother’s nattering, his father’s distant silence. He barely breathed, mesmerized by his photographic drawing of a penis, the scrotum nesting in its black Rorschach of hair. Like his father’s, biding from the cliff of his spongy, white belly, spigoting grey water as he breached from his bath. How mortifying that he had issued from between Gloria and Alfred’s legs. His sudden laughter broke loud enough to startle them. They smelled sulfur from the match head and smoke coming from the bathroom as Louis Rocco attempted to burn away his mortal sin.

Gloria reached him just as he flushed the drawing, still guttering flame, down the toilet.

“What was that?” she asked repeatedly. When he refused to answer, she slapped him, her hand imprinted on his cheek.

Alfred watched without saying a word. The boy moved his eyes from mother to father, then looked nowhere.

“Are you retarded?” Gloria screamed. “Some kind of retard?”

Louis Rocco had seen Blue Boy around the neighborhood, setting off red rolls of caps with a broken brick. He smelled of gunpowder and perfume. Older boys peed in Iron City beer bottles and told Blue Boy it was beer. They called him faggot.

Louis Rocco knew the subject of The Blue Boy was thought to be Jonathan Buttall, the son of a hardware merchant. He also knew that underneath the painting lay another that Gainesborough had never finished.

Joseph Bathanti is former Poet Laureate of North Carolina and recipient of the 2016 North Carolina Award in Literature. He is the author of ten books of poetry, including Concertina, winner of the 2014 Roanoke Chowan Prize. A new novel, The Life of the World to Come, was released in late 2014. His new volume of poems, The 13th Sunday after Pentecost, was released by LSU Press in 2016. Bathanti teaches at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC.

SUNSPOTS by Julia Leverone

by Julia Leverone

The hair the doctors cut to clear
from underneath the stitches,
long and light,
marbled my black shirt.
As with solar flares
storming, I was learning and losing
hot shapes rapidly,
cultivating the worry
sparking my scalp, my nape, my spine,
and on around,
a long caress,
to my right breast,
to my mons pubis.
With the second excision
eyes leaking on the plastic pillow I knew
or came to know
this was my
stellar life:
another few years two moles might
morph and halo,
fizzle out. Brilliant and
varyingly performed
ruptures. Confining

Julia Leverone adjunct lectures at UT Dallas in Spanish and creative writing. Her second chapbook, “Little Escape,” won the 2016 Claudia Emerson Poetry Chapbook Prize from JMWW; her book of translations, Fuel and Fire: Selected Poems of Francisco Urondo, is forthcoming from Diálogos Press. Her poems have been placed in Cimarron Review, Salamander, Posit, the Cortland Review, and other literary venues. Julia is the editor of Sakura Review.



Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on Flickr


by Nicole Burney

We knew without speaking
your left eye open just a crack
caught between moans and a gasp.

I toss in your arms
an aggrieved hiccup cradled
beneath goose down and duvet
we are left with simple devastations
and I teeter from lush investment.

Wake up! Brahma
tell me stories
the way your mother taught you
in windswept ghazals.

In the somber months
I’ll show you how certain clouds
bear a striking resemblance to Moby Dick.

Let’s clean house and wrestle hosannas out of thin air
you make breakfast
I’ll change the linens
there’s just enough cinematography between us
so pack your oil paints and trumpet
I’ll bring Baldwin and a hammer.

Nicole Burney is a native of New Jersey. She’s drawn to explore language, estrangement, and the myriad ways poetry allows one to reconnect. She joined the Somerset Poetry Group around 2015, in order to commune with other Jersey poets and conquer stage fright. She also works as a literacy volunteer for non-native English speakers. She’s appeared or will appear in The Rumpus, Cold Creek Review, Glass Poetry, and Obsidian Literature & Arts.



Image credit: Karen Maes on Unsplash

PATCHES from Variable Cycles by Robert Lietz

from Variable Cycles
by Robert Lietz

……What would a God expect, anticipate. And what,
besides endurance or equation, what, besides sentence,
metaphor, should God, wearing a first name
and welcoming cheered brothers, make of an occasion
and address, of conditions say, the debris
of sentiment, a God, three marveling equal parts, while
we, memorably at home, embrace in ourselves
the need for understanding, another April out of doors,
to see how these geese persist, below the leafless
short limbs the geese will soon abandon, huddling, until
green’s fulfilled, and the robins, believing something’s
up, shriek from, fly off, from the ivy where they’re nesting,
shaken, we think, by two below, by the chiminea glow
and porch tunes, or by this sense of something up, besides
the first good week of spring, as if it were always, only
a matter of sense, of mutual, incontrovertible affirming,
to taste on the tongue, spun wildly, the pitch
and pillow talk of the Creation, to find, in warmth-raised
fogs, the blue and bright to clear off morning cautions,
positioning the phrase and signature, with gratitude
to bear, and a word, beyond all words amazement’s
ever meant, like some cross-species correcting
and delight, or these patches, say, we think
must keep the barns up through
…….hard seasons.

Robert Lietz’s poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Agni, Antioch Review, Carolina Quarterly, Colorado Review, Georgia Review, Missouri Review, Poetry, and Shenandoah. Eight collections have been published, including Running in Place, At Park and East Division, The Lindbergh Half-century (L’Epervier Press,) Storm Service, and After Business in the West (Basal Books.) His poems have appeared in several webzines.  Additionally, he spends a good deal of time taking, post-processing, and printing photographs, examining the relationship between the image-making and the poems he is exploring.

BEFORE ROSES MEANT FIRE by Kathryn Nuernberger

by Kathryn Nuernberger

A rose means many things, and only some of it is love. Desdemona means innocence. Sir Galahad, humility. Give Dainty Bess to show appreciation. Silver Shadow for admiration. You Only Live Once for gratitude. Eleanor is the lavender of love at first sight. So too is the plum of Night Owls. The Middlesbrough Football Club is the cultivar for desire and enthusiastic passion. Its particular shade of orange is as ridiculous as a riot. Red as Satchmo, red as Happy Christmas, red as City of Leeds. Red means enduring passion. From the beginning a rose meant there was an old poet who thought himself unreasonably clever and was obsessed with the virginity of much younger women. From the same, but less quoted beginning, roses meant fire.

Before roses meant fire, Dorothea, according to this and that lying storyteller of a medieval historian, was taken before a judge and tortured for the witchcraft of refusing to marry a powerful man. And then tortured for the witchcraft of returning from the tub of boiling oil unharmed. And subsequently for surviving unmarked for nine days in a deep prison without food or drink. For saying she was fed on the succor of God’s angels. For being fairer and brighter to look upon than ever before. For the descent of a multitude of angels and the sound of the demon fiends in the air wailing, “O Dorothy why dost thou destroy us and torment us so sore?” She was hanged on the gibbet. And rent with hooks of iron. On and on it went, graphic and strangely erotic, as the martyrologia always are. What more proof could a judge possibly need? It is helpful to remember her crime was never that she displayed too little of her power. Near the end of her trial, which was also the beginning of her punishment, she gave a very long speech about faith in God that only a priest could love. The judge asked, “How long wilt thou drag us along with thy witchcraft?” She answered, “I am ready to suffer for my lord, my spouse, in whose gardeyne full delicious I have gaderd rosis and apples.” Then she bowed her head, and the man cut it off.

She bowed her head, and the man cut it off, but not before Theophilus, a notary of Rome, mocked her by asking for roses and apples from her spouse’s garden even though it was midwinter. Further along her path to the place of execution, a child with star-filled eyes came to her carrying a basket with three roses and three apples. She sent the boy to find Theophilus. To convert him and save his soul and set him on his own path to glorious martyrdom, the fifteenth-century account claims. But you could also say she was trolling him. In any event, by this miracle the city of Caesarea in Cappadocia, which is in present-day Turkey, was converted and saved. A reassuring story Christians told themselves about a faraway place to which their soldiers set forth on crusades even as heretics at home began to burn in ever greater numbers. In this way it reminds me very much of our war, our president, our police beating batons against their shields as they chant through body armor and face masks, “Whose streets? Our streets.” It reminds me of every headline in the paper every morning of this year or that one. For preaching of Dorothy’s miracle in the streets, Theophilus was cut into small pieces and fed to the birds. For reasons that are unclear to me, considering she was decapitated, not burned, Dorothy was named a special protectress against fire, lightening, and thundering. For reasons that are unclear to me, the Church has decreed we take comfort in this tale. That we conclude there is nothing to fear on God’s green earth, everything is coming up roses.

Everything is coming up roses, Sir John Mandeville said, in another fifteenth-century collection of marvelous and chiefly untrue accounts of far travels. In Bethlehem, he wrote, a woman was sentenced to burn for consorting with demons. She professed her innocence with the fervency of a Desdemona in full bloom. She prayed to the lord as if she were offering a bouquet of Eleanors. When she entered her pyre, the branches that had been licking flames became boughs laden red with Happy Christmas, the branches not yet ignited became boughs of blossoms as white as the Sir Galahad. “And those were the first roses and rosers that any man saw, and thus was the mayden saved through the grace of God.” I love thinking of how those tongues of flame fell down sweet and lovely and harmless. I love thinking of how a mob could never be the same after seeing something like that. What could a crowd become after witnessing such a gentle miracle but a participatory democracy with socialist economic policies? Who could be anything other than patient with the eccentricities and shortcomings of their neighbors when their eyes and hearts had been so touched by divine mercy?

Who could be anything other when their hearts had been so touched? I am quite impatient these days with shortcomings and everything else, so I will pull the Band-Aid quickly. The Voyages of Sir John Mandeville, like the Martyrologium of the Catholic Church, are propaganda, sometimes for a crusade, sometimes for an inquisition, the colonization of a continent or the enslavement of a people. By Mandeville’s account, the place of this miracle is a great lake of rose bushes that stretch as far as the eye can see. Many crusaders clipped huge blossoms of the damask as their horses waded through. At the edge of the field you will find “the place where our Lord was born, that is full well dight of marble, and full richly painted with gold, silver, azure…” What a satisfying tale this is, some will say—God turned even that humble stable into a pile of money. The roses too are nothing more than a very old version of the prosperity gospel sermons that promise the world is already as God wishes it to be. If you are prosperous, the stories assure, it is not for you to worry. Because the Lord will know you by how your roses all turned into dollars that turned into that particular way of dressing and speaking and casting up or down your eyes that seems as holy as providence itself, and which turned then into additional roses. It is worth noting that Roman emperors all used rose water as a form of currency; sometimes it was as precious as gold, sometime more. But don’t despair, history is not all lies—the part about the fire is real.

The part about the fire is as real as the Persian legend told here and there throughout the archives: the rose is red because the nightingale so dearly loved a white rose. He embraced it with ardor. Thorns pierced the bird’s breast. The blood of his broken heart turned the white petals to a deep crimson. In another tale the foam that dripped from Aphrodite as she emerged from the sea turned into white roses. the tears she shed over the body of her beloved Adonis turned them red. In the Gulistan Saadi tells the story of a wise man who became “immersed in the ocean of divine presence.” When he returned to himself, a friend asked, “From the flower garden where thou wast, what miraculous gift has thou  brought for us?” He answered that he meant to fill his lap with rose trees, but, “When I arrived there the fragrance of the roses so intoxicated me that the skirt of my robe slipped from my hand.” This is a reflection on the unreal world to which our souls have, it is said, determined to fly. Perhaps this is why roses that have been cultivated so hard look like they are trying to prove something. People point to them in stained glass windows and mystic poetry as sign posts toward a life more real than this one. But have you ever seen a rosebush withering away of witches’ broom? It is one of the ways I know I am entirely and really here.

One of the ways I know I am entirely and really here is to walk in the fall woods among the bare and fragile trees. Witches’ broom, the common name for a deformity in a woody plant, is a disease that changes the natural structure so that a mass of shoots grows from a single point. After the leaves fall, you might see some poor tree looking over-nested or, if it is very far gone, its crown looks like a heart pin-cushioned by arrows. In roses the foliage becomes distorted and frazzled. The leaves become so red they are almost purple. They refuse to open any farther than a tight rosette and become excessively thorny. A fungus carried from one bush to the next by wooly mites, the only solution is to tear out and destroy diseased plants. I have little interest in roses. They are ugly and too precious. I just like the way a dying girl flipped off an asshole and it got called a miracle. And then that asshole had a change of heart. I like the way people could imagine themselves making a mistake and God saving them from it, though that part worries me too. The wild rose of the Teutons symbolized battle, death, the underworld. Their adolescent soldiers charged into the fight garlanded with roses. They called the battlefields where they fell rose gardens.

Where they fell there were rose gardens. Rose—Hebrew for first blood spilled on the earth. Rose—Greek for the blood of Xerxes. Rose—Christian for Mary the Mother, for virtuous suffering and virtuous joy, for virgins devoted to God. Rose—French for prostitute. Rose—Roman for decadence. Rose—English for a certain kind of power and the exchange of sweet secrets. I have never been given roses by a man who wasn’t making me uncomfortable with how hard he was, it seemed, trying to earn, or maybe even buy, me. Rose—nineteenth-century apothecary for headache, hysteria, and other female complaints. In the Gulistan, the mole on her face is something else. Her face is something else. The ecstatic sensations between you and me are something else. The love of God, maybe, or knowledge of God, or union with God. If it has to be something other than what it is, I wish it were also something other than a rose.

I wish it were also something other than a rose. A popular opinion is that roses mean beauty. A popular opinion is that the pursuit of beauty will lead us to justice. Beauty means many things, of which truth and justice are the most rare. Roses, of any color, are the symbol of people telling themselves what they want to hear and then giving a bouquet of it to someone else, with a note on the card that says in fine calligraphy, “Believe me when I say…” Because language itself is impossible. It is nothing but signs and symbols for ideas that hover just beyond this reality. We drag the words in. Sometimes we drag in rose, crown, thorn, fire. Sometimes we try but fail in any meaningful way to drag in the bigger words, love, beauty, justice. This is the failure I believe in. Aphrodite emerged from the sea because that was where Ouranos’s testicles fell when his sun Chronos cut them off with a sickle. That we think anything means at all requires first a belief that the universe is organized enough for meaning to transmit from silence into words. Whether it is or isn’t or does or doesn’t is something else that every bloom of these roses means.

Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of the essay collection Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (Ohio State University Press, 2017), as well as two poetry collections, The End of Pink  (BOA, 2016) and Rag & Bone (Elixir, 2011). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, and American Antiquarian Society, she is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Central Missouri, where she also serves as the director of Pleiades Press. Recent essays appear in or are forthcoming from  Brevity, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Paris Review, The Journal, and Tupelo Quarterly.

Image credit: Simone Dalmeri on Unsplash

THE NURSES by Verónica Jordán-Sardi

by Verónica Jordán-Sardi

They were the only friends I had. All of them had palms that changed colors when they stroked my hair, picked up an iron pot or peeled yucca. I remember one of them with more love than the rest—her palms turned purple when she showed me her lifelines. She was never able to show me her life, though. She would turn her hands up and the bright point of an amethyst’s reflection would lacquer her palms. At one point, I think there were five.

They would sometimes disappear. I found Father chasing after one on the black and white checkered marble living floors. She had her arms up over her face and ears like chicken feathers and Father laughed excitedly. I might have heard her laughing, too, but she was only a couple of years older than me back then. She had once carried me with her left arm and pushed my little brother in his shady lace umbrella stroller with her right and somehow also tugged on Cookie. Back then we would run into more stray dogs than Cookies on our way to the grocery store—she was a moppy mutt, but she was of the lucky kind, the kind that got pushed and pulled around and only choked a little and always fed at night. One of them must have been hungrier than the dogs because she sold my mother’s favorite pup to the man at the grocery store. I remember asking where Cookie was going and she told me she was getting a haircut. This was before she told me urine was the best moisturizer. I was getting old enough to wonder. I was getting old enough when she sliced the wet part of my little brother’s diaper with her nails and urine leaked out onto her cuspate hands. She splashed her face then splashed my own. She splashed my little brother’s vitamins on her face at least a couple of times a day.

The day I got sick, the one with the purple palms was the only one home. I don’t know where everyone else was, but it’s as if they knew I was coming and needed help. I had grown a belly for the white mane, the mangy toes, the infectious secrets inside me.

The Doctor says that in the morning, if I look up closely, if I tilt my head and look up closely at the sky, I can see that we pretend like something tangible is there, but no, it has never been true. The Doctor doesn’t know everything but he knows about the Nurses.



Balustrade, balustrade, balustrade, haught, haught, haught, I spin down the chandeliers and ching-ching the pugs are dead. What a scene. The sink in the downstairs bathroom is full of bloody chicken feathers like pillows because my bladder does not shut. Yesterday I was happier throwing doll heads into the empty pool. I kept thinking tachycardia was a gift every time I reached for one of their cigarette butts. Today I grow tired of waiting and wish my body would rot. Immediately upon wishing, I slip off the same marble stair eighty-eight times. I repent by spinning in circles for as long as I think it takes to tumble down magnetism and blow round the wooden wheels of my bicycle. I sit on rat shit while they peel potatoes and chug rum over boiling iron skillets. I’m sorry and claw skin off my wrists until my bones show and one of the Nurses comes for me. I run away from her. I run up and down the chimney and dismantle the roof then return to the bathroom where one by one I spoon out the wall’s mosaics. I stack the magenta and green pebbles on top of my toes and make out an orange star ahead, across the walls, on the other side of myself. I hear one of them still running behind me, dragging her collard cat nails inside wood, so I jump through the hole I made in the wall towards the orange gleam.



I sit in the room I carved inside the walls of my house. I never knew my organs could feel like parasites on my shoulders. The room is pitch-purple with dim orange fog emanating from that star I cannot touch faraway. I sit and count the toes on my feet when I see her. I feel the skin of a dead animal under me. One of the room’s walls is cut in half by a tunnel as thick as two apples side by side. A little girl walks through it. She is my mother as a little girl, tired and alone, I scream “Hello!” to see if she can hear me. She keeps walking to the miniature furniture at one end of the tunnel. She sits on a red rocking chair next to a record stand with a white wedding cake. I have not eaten for two days. I’m so hungry I reach for the cake, my vision fogged down by the fumes of my saliva. I cannot touch my baby mother or rocking chair or cake. Now I hear the Nurses’ bones crunching through the exposed bathroom wall towards me.

I have not eaten for two days because of the pain. Because I think I suffer from the sawdust and dust-lag of time. Every pit of my body releases a pound of dirt, nostrils, ears, mouth, urethra, and asshole, except the blood that gushes from in between and down my legs. One of the Nurses plugs the blood with a dirty cleaning rag hanging over her shoulder. She and the other four Nurses stand around me inside the purple-pitch room with my little mother. All five nurses wear white dresses and white caps; hold hay brooms with their right hands and yellow dusters with their left. My mother’s mouth looks like a creamy vagina crease. There is no more cake on the record table. I’m still hungry.



I sleep in my mother’s childhood bed and bedroom. I collect the petals of the bougainvillea that fall in through midnight’s cut on the ceiling. These flowers bloom and give birth before falling on the bed, their placentas scatter underneath me and drown my mother’s sheets with crimson trails that unearth the floor. My mother’s stench emanates from the floor; her regurgitated cells are pushed away on wheelbarrows. I wish to peel the dead skin off her bedroom walls, the smell of mildew, potatoes and cream.

I sleep in my mother’s old nightgown. I sleep all sanctimonious and clean with blondness rustling my skin. I wait for the Nurses to take me away in wheelbarrows, for their spiky hooves to puncture my skin and form freckles underneath where my arms hang. Trabecula, trabecula, trabecula, caught, caught, caught my mother’s sheets are dusty and kind. Night’s fumes sift through them and fly over my belly, wrap under my chin and enter my mouth. The Nurses think they’re helping me.

The Nurses come inside to slap the wet mattress. One untethers the sheets and dunks them in a cast iron pot of boiling water. Another wrestles a broomstick down and across with her triceps, sweeping the hay of head hairs unmeshed on my mother’s floor. I crawl off my mother’s bed holding onto one of their palms, but they leave me at the sound of the pugs eating a dead songbird by the empty pool outside.

I walk over to eat shattered window glass. I’m hungry. The shards get lost in the roof of my mouth; they tap and sink into my tongue. I spit out bloody crystal bubbles onto my mother’s nightstand and see a trail of ants cutting the wood in half, patterning solemnly, one by one with whiplashed saline shoulders. I follow them outside my mother’s room, down the marble winding stairwell and across the dining hall into the kitchen. I march with the ants underneath the kitchen stove. They feast on yucca and potatoes browned in feces. Two red palms pull and press down on my ears like curved tongs. The Nurse with the red palms twists and turns the vertebrae linking my head to my spinal cord; she opens a bottle of Pepsi cola and fills my hand with crunchy ice cubes. The cubes burn my hands but the Nurse piles the ice cubes even higher every time I shake them off. I carry a tower of snow on the skinny hand my mother made me—when one diamond falls the others reorganize. I run back underneath the stove. The Nurses are grilling dead trout with the ardor of lemons. Sour oil and hot water ignite and fall onto my ankles.



Underneath the stove with the ants I find a baby doll with loose glass eyelids. Her name is Aura and I pretend she’s small enough for me to hold. I pretend I can run my fingers over the end hairs of her arms. I sniff the space between her legs, stick my nose into plastic covered in pillowed cotton and do not smell yeast or rancid metal. She’s young. Cream, fish, cheese, powdered milk, and yolk sing a sad ballad of dead kings. Aura belongs to the smuggling ants crimping pieces with four limbs and two antennae like snake tongues. They have their own dinner table. Aura is the center of their castle, a mountain of oily grime and dead human skin. I feel at home here until the Nurses shrink and come after me. They throw poisonous missiles and cook ant brains with carbon monoxide. One Nurse takes a bird’s nest out of her dress pocket, another takes an Easter basket out of her hair, they both pick off the dead ants, collect them in mason jars to season the fish.



I find a room as small as a closet full of hay brooms and feather dusters. Underneath leftover bleach and rags drenched in vinegar, I find steps only big enough for my small feet to climb. Up one by one, one by one, until I face an unlocked door as small as the space from one thigh to another. The room behind the door has walls moistened with chunky butter—it helps me slide right in with somersaults, ricochet, ricochet, ricochet, womb, womb, womb, ting-ting a dinner party. No one turns their heads when I plop into the ballroom attic. I look back to where I come from; I look back to how I got here and see the passage was a slide dressed in greasy-horse-liver flesh. My body is still clean; I wear a light pink dress and tutu, glass slippers and white socks with ankle ruffles. I bow to the men in tuxedos and women in tight black silk gowns holding champagne glasses. One of the men talks to me; he’s holding a pug like a skull. My chest grows cherries, red bulbs popping into blossom, I pick one off to taste and the man slaps my hand away. The slap smells like loneliness and salty water, it appears in fingerprints on my hand. The man looks at his pug, pinches the tip of its ear, and says “suffer” (says ‘tis nobler). The pug gyrates its head and snaps into his own fur with his jaw. Dog bites spread like wildfires stampeding through the man’s chest. The pug hops on my shoulder like a parrot, I hear the tuxedo man’s heart, I hear live heart flesh beating, pumping human blood inside the pug’s stomach.

Originally from Cali, Colombia, Verónica Jordán-Sardi immigrated to the United States with her immediate family as a young teen fleeing sociopolitical unrest. She holds a B.A. in English Literature and French from the University of Florida, an M.A. in Comparative Literature from the University of Iowa, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from California College of the Arts. Her work can be found in Columbia Journal, Litro Mag, and Comparative Literature Commons. Verónica currently lives in New York where she teaches writing and reading in English as a second language at the City University of New York.



Image credit: Otis Historical Archives on Flickr

REFLECTING  by Youssef Helmi

by Youssef Helmi

It was one of those days, those clear May days, where the clouds are short brush strokes of white, the sky is that one shade of blue, and the water is so clear the world above and below becomes one on the surface. We were walking by the river and we saw ourselves in the water, laughing and living. We saw ourselves, and we stopped and waved and yearned. We wished to be them—what made them better than us?

We knelt closer to them as they knelt closer to us. We should stop, one of us said. She was blonde and pretty and smart and always right. She was so pretty and right, and that made us jealous, so we kissed ourselves and it was cool and wet, and we kissed and kissed, tongue and all, until we became our reflections.

We looked up at her. Why did you stop? we asked. We lamented her betrayal. Join us, join us, join us, we crooned, but she ran. Then we were trapped beneath the surface, left only to eat sunshine and what park-goers would toss in—McDonald’s wrappers, Granny Smith cores, lost affections. We came to crave it; it was delicious.

She came back the next week. She threw in Ritz crackers and her pity, and we so voraciously ate them. Come in, join us, we said. Please, just a little closer, we pleaded. She left, and we wept to mend our broken hearts.

That was last year. We still wait, but there’s only one of us now. The others left long ago to other rivers, streams, brooks, lakes in search of lovers or hope or hopeful lovers. They left, but we remain because we love her, but she doesn’t come. She never comes and the river dries up day by day, threatening to end us.

Today she comes, though. Down the path we see her. We run to her, but we see someone else in her hand, in her heart, so we turn away. It’s been a year. Come out, please, she says. She is kneeling at the bank. You will die, she says, tracing the receding waterline with a finger.

We shake our heads. Join us, we say. We’ll be beautiful together. She’s blonde and smart and still right and so pretty, so pretty we hate her. She stands and leaves, and we try to reach out to feel every inch of her, to caress her with our lips, to smell her happiness again. We try so hard, but we cannot. Beneath the surface we call out for her, but she’ll never come to this river again, and we cry and cry and cry. We cry so much we refill the dying river, rejuvenating it with our sorrow, giving it life with what in us has died.

It’s just one of those days, those clear May days.

Youssef Helmi is a junior at Florida State University where he studies Creative Writing, Political Science, and Arabic. His flash piece “More” was featured in Issue 17 of Cleaver Magazine. When not writing, he enjoys playing NBA 2K, watching Studio Ghibli movies, and musing over the musical merits of death metal.

SENESCENCE by Jonathan Cardew

by Jonathan Cardew

It was midnight or a little after when the octopuses emerged from the ocean. They were doing it all along the beachfront. Suction-cupping their way away from water. Their bodies like a curtain’s hem, fluttering in the foreign air.

We picked them from the sand and watched them deflate and reinflate. Their eyes were opal. We felt them slip and slither through our palms; they were each only about five inches in diameter. You could fold them into your pocket like a handkerchief.

On the third night, there were hundreds. A gang of octopuses. We counted as many as we could and we checked for signs of injury. They were perfectly healthy, though. No reason for their mass suicide. I gave you a tissue to wipe your eyes, but you were inconsolable. And angry. I don’t know why you were angry. We’d driven all the way from Caernarfon; you staring at the castles as they slipped by, concealed mostly by hills and woods; me watching the road.

“We could save them,” you said, shining your torch into the void.

“We can’t save them all,” I said.

“We can try.”

You plucked a small one from the sand and ran with it down to the beach, holding it like a precious piece of silk. At the water’s edge, you threw it into the shallows and watched it bob in the waves.

Each undulation brought it closer to shore.

“They just come back,” I said, and you stared at me hard.

In the car, we listened to the radio. I ate a cheese sandwich, and you ate nothing.

“It’s not senescence,” I said. “They’re healthy, young even.”

In your lap, the little octopus wriggled its tentacles, one eye fixed and cloudy. Open. Completely open.

Jonathan Cardew’s stories appear or are forthcoming in Wigleaf, Cream City Review, Passages North, Superstition Review, JMWW, People Holding, and Atticus Review, among others. He is the fiction editor for Connotation Press and contributing books reviewer for Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine. He recently won the Best Small Fictions Micro Fiction Contest. Originally from the UK, he lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

THE CHILDREN by John Sibley Williams

by John Sibley Williams

Back when play carried less grief,
our darkness ruined only a half-acre
or so of the light. The rest was all
tire swings & spring-bound horses.
Leaping over cracks in concrete to
save your mother’s spine. Weapon-
ized branches shaken loose by past
storms. Cowboys & Indians. Soldier
& Other. Then the world.


Do you remember when we cut eyes
into paper & wore yesterday’s news
over our faces? How it took hours
to wash all that ink from our eyes.
How you would play one animal &
I would not-so-much-pretend to be
another. Mask, you called it. Then I
would ask which one?


There was a time we found stars in
our bodies. As I chased you across
the sky’s absences. Rising: cresting:
falling, like any semi-permanent, lit
thing. Grass stain. Sprained heaven.
& me saying night contains so many
eternities we never know which will
hold us.

John Sibley Williams is the editor of two Northwest poetry anthologies and the author of nine collections, including Disinheritance and Controlled Hallucinations. An eleven-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Philip Booth Award, American Literary Review Poetry Contest, Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize, Confrontation Poetry Prize, and Vallum Award for Poetry. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: The Yale Review, Midwest Quarterly, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, Poet Lore, Saranac Review, Atlanta Review, TriQuarterly, Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, and various anthologies.


Image credit: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

TRAIN FOR GLORY by Roy Bentley

by Roy Bentley

After the Washing of the Feet, an old woman gets up.
She reaches into a basket. Takes out a couple of snakes.
The sound of rattlesnakes? Pennies nickels dimes poured
from a Mason jar, if loose change was as unpredictable as
an Old Testament God or a job in a mine where generations
exhaust hope. She drapes a snake over each palm and thumb,
welcomes a show of fangs. The pleats of her skirt are starched
and each reptile, in turn, starts to rub against the crenellations.

Pleats may spark trust. But then the gospel of one-note hissing
isn’t music; though neither is the slamming of the screen door,
the loud exit of an unbeliever from Hemphill. Lose the snakes,
the congregant is my grandmother’s sister or might as well be.
Her hair is pulled up in a too-tight bun—now she motions me
onstage. I get up and go outside. In waist-high grasses tonight
in the hills are nations of snakes. Especially in mid-August.
But I should be halfway to Fleming-Neon before anything
venomous stirs in the wet dark washing my feet as I run.


Granny said it needed to arrive without delay, her train for glory.
I’m sure I know what she meant now. And I had some idea then.
At 7, though, I hadn’t ridden a train yet. Let alone one to Glory.
She watched Billy Graham Crusades. And made me watch, too.
Glory sounded like it was a town in her east-Kentucky girlhood.
Maybe it showed up, out of nowhere, like the preacher on TV.
I didn’t know how she existed, forever crying and raising her
hands toward the ceiling or longed-for Heaven. Calling out.

The way she did it, her brand of worship, if it had been washing
on a galvanized washboard then she would have rawed her hands.
I didn’t imagine this applied to my life. I hadn’t earned damnation.
I brought her the last unopened can of peaches from the kitchen—
Glory Foods produced peaches and I thought it would be funny.
I handed her those and she went back through what she’d said
about Glory. She got the joke—because she waved the can.
Said the opener and spoon would be the last word on that.

Roy Bentley is the recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, and fellowships from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs and the Ohio Arts Council. Books include Boy in a Boat (University of Alabama, 1986), Any One Man (Bottom Dog, 1992), The Trouble with a Short Horse in Montana (White Pine Press, 2006), Starlight Taxi (Lynx House Press, 2013); as well as Walking with Eve in the Loved City, a finalist for the Miller Williams Prize and due out from the University of Arkansas Press.

FIFTY-FIFTY by Avery Bufkin

by Avery Bufkin

Her doctor said he’d sign us up, you know, for the trial. That either she’d get the real drug or the fake one, and we wouldn’t know which, of course. But fifty-fifty, you got to think that’s a pretty good shot and all. I said that to her in the car afterwards. “Pretty good shot,” I said. “I think we’ve got it.”

Frankie nodded, more to herself than to me, I thought. Sort of nodded to herself like she needed that affirmation. I nodded, too, more for her than for me. Fifty-fifty, I thought. That’s a pretty good shot. I mean, those doctors might even be giving all them patients the real drug, not the fake one, that is. I mean, was it even legal to give a fake drug when a real one could work?

I said that to her, too. I said, “You know, it’s hard to imagine they’d even give someone that fake stuff when the real stuff’s right there.”

She nodded again. I thought maybe I should stop talking. Maybe this wasn’t helping. I turned my attention back to the road and drummed my thumbs against the wheel as I drove.

“I mean, fifty-fifty,” I said. “That’s a darn good shot, I’d say.”

“You already did, Jack. I mean, really, just for right now, could you?”

“Yeah, yeah of course,” I said, and I put the radio on and just kept my eyes on the road.

Yeah, I thought, fifty-fifty. That ain’t bad chances. I’d had worse chances than that before. Like when I was nine. About sixty-forty then, I’d say. Was out hunting with my dad in the marshes behind our house, shotgun slung over my back, when I slipped in a bit of mud. Fell face forward is what I did. Fell face forward and didn’t catch myself ‘til my arms were a few inches deep in the water, and right about two yards in front of me, staring right back at me, was one of those moccasins, all stretched out and sunning itself on a rock there between the reeds. Was too scared to move. Could hear my dad calling for me somewhere to my left, but I knew I didn’t have much time when he started to open his jaws at me, showing me the white of his mouth. May have been more like eighty-twenty odds, now I’m thinking of it, but in one motion I swung my shotgun forward and blew the damn snake’s head off.

“You know,” I said. “I almost died hunting with my dad once.”

“Water moccasin, right?”

I nodded. I suppose I told that one a lot. I got a lot of nods for that one, a lot of glass raises, a few “oh Lords” and “by Gods.” For sure, though, it was a good one.

“I think Dr. Riley was hinting at us though, don’t you?” I said.

“Hinting at us?”

“I think I saw him wink.”

Frankie turned to look out the window. “I don’t remember that.”

I shrugged. “No, I think he did. You think he was trying to tell us something?”

“He doesn’t know who gets the real stuff either, Jack.”

“Well, he says he doesn’t, but he might—”

“Jack really, would you?”

“Sorry, hon, sorry. I don’t mean to.”

“I know you’re worried,” she said, and she reached over and touched my knee. “Just not so much, okay?”

I nodded and patted her hand. She rubbed her hand on my knee, then started going a bit up the inside of my thigh. I patted her hand on my thigh.

“Don’t worry, Jack,” she said. “Our chances are good, aren’t they?”

“Real good,” I said, but suddenly I thought our chances weren’t so good. I smiled at her anyways and I patted her hand again, and she told me to pull off onto the side of the road.

“Pull off?” I said. “Just right here?”

“Just right there is fine. Right there.”

I slowed the car and drifted us off onto the gravel that separated the road from some guy’s farm. Frankie moved her hand further up my thigh, and I started to squirm. We didn’t normally do things like this. Like pulling off the road.

“What’s up, Frankie?” I said, looking over at her, and she looked back at me the same as usual. But she had her hand pretty far up my thigh now, which was not the same as usual, and I wondered if she’d started to think our chances weren’t so good anymore either. “You didn’t take something, did you?” I said.

“Like what?”

I shook my head, and I pulled the keys from the ignition.

I glanced at her over the top of my morning paper. She was breathing heavy and gripping the arms of her chair. Staring a bit too intently, I thought, at the floor by my feet. I looked down at the floor by my feet, folding the paper over to see.

“What’s that, hon?” I said.

Frankie glanced up at me. “What’s that, Jack?”

“I said, ‘what’s that?’ What ya’ looking at there, hon?”

“Oh, nothing. Just was thinking, I guess, is all.”

“But you’re feeling okay?”

“Well, I was thinking just now that I think I got it.”

“Well, I thought so, too, didn’t I? I’m sure I did, but what is it you’re thinking you got?”

“The real stuff,” Frankie said, tapping her arm now, tapping the soft spot on her inner elbow where the drug went in. “The real stuff,” she said again. “I can feel it, you know? Can feel it in me.”

“Does it work that fast?”

“I don’t know. I think it can.”

“’Cause it’s only been a few days. I just wonder—?”

“I just really feel it though, Jack.”

“That’s amazing, hon.” I put the paper down on the couch cushion beside me, leaned back with my arm over the back of the couch, and I smiled at her. She smiled back at me but still clutched the arms of her chair. I wished she would let go of the chair. It’d make me feel better. Like she wasn’t in pain or something.

I got up and I knelt down on the floor in front of her. “Hold me,” I said.

“Oh, it’s fine,” she said, and she let go of the chair then and waved me away. “Don’t worry about me. You’ve got too much to worry about with work. Can’t have you worrying that much, alright?”

“That’s right,” I said. “Good thinking, hon.”

Gina started to cry. But I was still kneeling and thinking about fifty-fifty. Frankie nodded towards the baby’s room.

“You going or should I?”

“Just don’t want to leave you.”

“What did I just say, Jack? I said, ‘don’t worry,’ didn’t I?”

I stood up and went to go check on Gina, picked her up out of her crib, and took her back to her mom. I knelt down again, right in front of Frankie’s chair, bouncing Gina in my arms, and I kissed our girl’s forehead. She was still crying.

“Someone wanted to see you,” I said.

“Jack, not now.”

“Just take her.”

Gina started screaming  even as I bounced her.

“No, really. Not now, okay?”

I stopped bouncing her and held her against my chest. I pressed my lips into the thin wisps of her hair and tried to get her to stop wailing.

“Come on now, Gina,” I said. “What about mommy? Want to see mommy?”

“Please, Jack. I don’t want her right now.”

I looked up. “Oh, okay. Yeah. For sure.” I stood back up and put her on my shoulder. “Yeah, let me just go see if she needs to be changed then, okay?”

Frankie nodded, rubbing her arm now. “But I can feel it, Jack, really. We got the real stuff.”

Frankie started to get worse, but the doctor said that wasn’t unusual, even for those on the real stuff. He made her fill out a sheet, and I watched her mark off her pain on a scale from one to ten for every part of her body. Nausea, she said. Even my arms feel nauseous. But the doctor said that wasn’t unusual either. Even on the real stuff, others were getting worse, so we weren’t alone. On the real stuff, people’s arms felt nauseous. Isn’t that comforting? That’s what he said.

“Isn’t that comforting?” Dr. Riley said.

Frankie shifted in her seat. “Uh, what’s that?” she said. “Which part?”

“Part of what?”

“What’s comforting?” she said.

“Oh, that, you know, you’re not alone. A lot of the other patients are presenting with these symptoms, in fact.”

Frankie nodded. “Oh, that is good,” she said.

“Yes, I thought so. Real good,” Dr. Riley said. “So I wouldn’t worry too much. No good to worry.”

Dr. Riley started to shuffle some papers on his desk then, and I leaned forward onto his desk.

“But, you know, I was thinking though,” I said. “Is there anything you could give her? Prescribe to her, I mean?”

Dr. Riley turned his head on its side.

“She’s been feeling awful sick, you know, and I know you said lots of others are feeling the same way and all, and that’s great, really, but anything you could prescribe? That’d definitely be appreciated is all.”

Dr. Riley nodded with his head still on its side.

“And I mean, like you said, lots of other people, and so probably you get asked this too much, but—” I leaned forward more, like Frankie couldn’t hear me if I did. “She’s been getting pissy sometimes. Not wanting to hold our daughter and all.”

“That’s normal,” the doctor said.

“Well, hey look,” Frankie said, leaning forward onto the desk now, too, so that we were really crowding each other out. “It’s not like that. You can’t put it like that, Jack. It’s just—are you thinking I’ll be able to get back to work soon?”

“Hard to say,” Dr. Riley said, and he rolled back from the desk in his chair to give us some space there. “It’s different for everyone.”

“It’s just, with the treatment and all, we kinda need the money again,” she said.

“Fran, you can’t tell him a thing like that. You’re up for it when you’re up for it. That’s what he’s saying.”

“He hasn’t said anything yet, Jack. You’ve gotta let him talk.”

“He just said—didn’t you just say?—Fran, he just said.”

“I know what he said.”

“Well, it’s hard to say,” the doctor said.

“What is?” Frankie asked.

“When you might be up for going back to work.”

“It’s just too hard to say, hon.”

“I got it, Jack.” Frankie looked at me, and she touched my arm, squeezed my arm for a second, and leaned back off the desk.

“And what about Gina, Fran?” I said.

“Don’t you remember us talking? We talked about it, Jack. Hannah ‘cross the street will take her three days a week, she said. She’s already lookin’ after the Bennett kid.”

I nodded.

Frankie turned from me.

“Very normal concerns,” Dr. Riley said.

“Well, that’s good,” I said.

Frankie nodded.

“Very normal,” Dr. Riley said again. “And remember, you call my office anytime and someone will answer. Might be me, but it might not be me. Very qualified people around here, though.”

“That’s good,” I said again.

Frankie stared at the pictures on Dr. Riley’s desk.

“Are those your kids?” she asked.

He picked up one of the frames and looked at it. “Yes,” he said. “They are.”

“Beautiful children,” she said.

I could hear her coughing behind the bathroom door. I knocked. “Fran, you okay?” I said, and I tried the door, but she’d locked it.

“I’m fine, Jack. No worries.”

“Could you open the door for me, hon?”

“Really, I’m fine. Just give me a moment, would you?”

“Yeah sure,” I said, and I leaned against the wall by the door. I stared at the row of photos that hung on the wall across from me. Black and whites of our wedding, of our parents, of Gina. So many faces on the wall, I thought. So many lives on the wall.

I tried the door again. “You sure you’re okay?”

“I can’t move, Jack.”

“What do you mean, Fran? What do you mean, you can’t move?” I turned and started to shake the knob.

“I just feel so sick. I don’t want to move. I can’t feel my body. I want to die.”

“Fran,” I said. “Frankie.”

She didn’t say anything. I just heard her coughing, but coughing like she were choking really.


I tried to break open the door, but I have to admit, I’m not the strongest man ever. Not even close, really. Tried slamming my shoulder into the door as they do in the movies, but the door just rattled a bit and Frankie just gave a little shriek is all.

It sounded like she was vomiting.


“I think that’s blood, Jack.”

“Blood, hon?”

I slammed my shoulder into the door again, tried putting my foot into it, but that didn’t work any better. Put my shoulder into it again.

“Please, Frankie,” I said. “Please just try and open the door.”

I could hear her palms slapping the floor. Then I heard the lock turn, and I opened it, and she was sitting up against the side of the tub. There was blood on her chin, dribbling from the corner of her mouth. There was blood in the toilet too, spattered against the sides.

“I’m sweating,” she said. “I feel wet.”

“You want me to put you in the bath?” I said.

“I don’t think I can move.”

I put the water on and stopped up the drain.

“Come on,” I said, lifting her from under the arms. She sort of got herself to her feet. Or at least, I got her to sit up on the side of the tub and slide over its edge, and she slipped into the few inches of water with her clothes still on. I watched her clothes turn dark.

“Fuck this,” I said.

Fran looked at me. “Don’t say that, Jack.”

“No, I’m saying it. I’m saying, ‘Fuck it’ alright? Alright, Fran? I said—no—I’m saying. Listen to me, alright? Fuck this goddamn fucking—”

“Would you stop that?”

“Frankie,” I said.

She looked down at the water.

“Jack,” she said.

“Frances, don’t—”

“Jack, Jack—”

“What?” I said.

Jack, you look at me!

I breathed. I stared at the toilet because I couldn’t look at her, but there was blood in the toilet and I couldn’t look at that either. I slammed the seat closed, and Frankie covered her ears.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

She didn’t say anything. She put her arms back down in the water.

“You good?” I said.

“I’m fine. Water feels nice. Thanks.”

I couldn’t help it. I had to ask. “Are you still sure you got the real stuff?”

“What does it matter?” she said, and she closed her eyes and let her head fall back against the tile. “What would it matter?”

I guess it didn’t, but at the same time, it did. I wanted to know who to be mad with. God or those damn doctors. Those damn trials. But maybe that didn’t even matter. I shook my head and grabbed her hand, shook it in the water.

Gina’d been crying since I tried putting my foot in the door, and Frankie nodded towards her room.

“Would you, Jack?”

“What? Are you kidding me? She’ll stop on her own. I’m right here.”

“No, it’s okay, Jack. Go on, then.”

I got up to go, but I looked at her, and I couldn’t let myself leave her like that. There was still blood on her chin, and I bent over. I dipped my thumb in the water and went to wipe the blood from her mouth, but I think maybe she thought she might throw up again because as my hand got close her face, she pushed it away.

“No, please,” she said.

“Okay, then,” I said. “I’ll go get Gina.”

Frankie nodded.

“Frances?” I said.

“What is it, Jack?”

“You want me to call Dr. Riley?”

“He’s got too much going on, Jack. He hasn’t got time for—”

“Hasn’t got the time? It’s his damn trial, isn’t it?”

“What’s he gonna say? Is he gonna say something?”

I shook my head. She was probably right, I thought. What was he going to say?

“I’m just angry is all,” I said.

“Don’t be angry, Jack.”

I nodded, and I went and I sat with Gina, holding her in my lap. I watched the sky out over the back lawn, and I held her ‘til she stopped crying. Held her right up against me so I could feel her nose against my collarbone. The sky went dark, and the trees turned to black against it. Street lamps flickered on. The neighbor let the dog out to pee. I rocked our baby and held up her little hands with just a finger. So tiny. And I thought I’d call Dr. Riley. So what if he said something? I needed to hear someone say something, anything. Just something to tell me this was normal.

I sat down with Gina against me, listening to the dial tone. A nurse picked up and transferred me to his cell. I thought I’d ask him how normal blood in the toilet was. I did.

“Dr. Riley speaking.”

I said, “Dr. Riley, how normal is blood in the toilet?”

“Oh, not too uncommon,” he said. “Already had a few calls earlier in the week about this.”

“Oh, that’s good,” I said.

“I’m actually on my way out of the office as we speak.”

“Could you tell us?” I asked him, sorry to cut him off. “You think you could tell us now if we had the real drugs?”

“I’m sorry, real sorry, but I really don’t know myself. You remember when we started this and I said some things about scientific integrity? What that means is that I can’t even know, but if I did know, for sure I’d tell you, but unfortunately, it’s not possible. Just not possible, I have to say.”

“But this is normal? People who get the drug, the real one, they have these symptoms?”

He didn’t answer.

“Because she feels it. She can feel the drug. We feel it, I mean. We both do. We’ve got the real stuff, almost certain of that. Just want to make sure there hasn’t been some other kind of complication is all.”

“That’s good,” Dr. Riley said. “Hope is the best medicine, you know?”

“That’s what I always say. Well, I mean, I think it at least, or at least, I’ll start saying it is what I mean. You know, I think my dad used to say that.”

“That’s good,” the doctor said. “I think you’re doing good. It really sounds like everything’s going well.”

“That’s good to hear,” I said. “You know, I almost died hunting with my dad? I swear, ninety-ten odds I had, and I beat it.”

“That’s good. You’ve got something on your side it seems.”

“That’s what I’m thinking. Something on our side. Could use that, right?”

“Is that all, Mr. Rayner?”

Gina started to cry again, and I bounced her on my leg.

“I suppose so,” I said. “You did say this is normal, right? Probably nothing, right?”

“Many people are having the same problem,” he said. “It’s very common.”

“That’s good to hear, real good. I’ll go tell her now, I suppose.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Dr. Riley said. “Have a good night,” he said, and I heard the line click.

I put the phone down feeling better, and Gina had stopped crying, so that was good. I set her back down in her crib and went back to the bathroom. Frankie was still in the tub, drawing shapes with her finger in the surface of the water.

“Doctor says this is completely normal,” I said.

Frankie nodded.

“Says a lot of people had been complaining about these same symptoms earlier in the week.”


“For sure. He says it’s very common. I think those were his exact words in fact.”

“Very common for who? For those with the fake drug?”

“No, hon,” I said, and I knelt down on the bathroom rug and leaned over the edge of the tub. “No, he said he thought you got the real one. You’re doing better than most of the other patients he’s talked to. Says you’re doing real well actually if this is the worst you’ve got to deal with. Says this is nothing. Says toughen up is what he says.”

“Toughen up? I thought I was dying. Thought I couldn’t move.”

“Not toughen up. Not sure he said ‘toughen up’ exactly. But he said not to worry.”

“Alright, Jack.”

“Alright, hon.”

I patted her hand and sat with her there on the bathroom floor while she closed her eyes and drew some more shapes in the water.

Avery Bufkin is an emerging writer from Atlanta, currently residing in Athens, GA. They’re an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, studying economics and English.

MORALITY PLAY by Nandini Dhar

by Nandini Dhar


A weapon – an assemblage
that knifes through this lattice
of unspoken tales;
this assurance that no one
would force open
the book shut-close
long ago.

This was how
I was supposed
to witness the doggerels
these cobblestones write.
This was the lesson
I was meant
to memorize.


Luminosity is a chewed bone,
a machine-gun. I

am rumbling
into a keening beginning

the future
of this future

A hole in the seam
of my shirt

an un-ironed wrinkle
in faded silk,

I am dragging
behind myself

the weight of a broken
mosque, the barely

articulated details
of a minor pogrom,

the torn pages
of an epic

that spans continents.
When I bump

against a lamp-post,
I stop. Stop

to see my face
in someone else’s spittle.


To suffer from the redundancy
of those who came late: no
last notes from comrades who left,
no immaculately plotted atlas
for comrades yet to come – nothing
I write, say, sculpt or mould
would be seriously annihilating,
disassembling or an original treatise
on how to form secret alliances.
The sound of a thumb
tapping the ash off
the ends of a cigarette. A
cup of coffee, shared
between three. An account
of an exemplary birth – inside
the overflowing ashtray – this is how
I steel myself for a strife
with everything
that can be held
between human hands – a porcelain
bowl, a ceramic jug,
the picture on the wall. A flap
of the sparrow’s wings,
a tossed salt-shaker
on the cafe floor – a dialect
that is yet to exist
has just been pushed
into the half-lit
walls of the century-old
coffee house. A remembrance
of how men, who
could not agree on anything
save and except a palaver
beyond cauterized beginnings
are made to account
for the legend. A girl
they had all avoided
an intimate acquaintance
with, extinguishes the brick-home
with a swat of her fingers,
her limbs stretching
and stretching
beyond the walls
of her father’s house. A
dilapidated coffee-house
is what she needs
to spread herself.
The girl is not the city – I
make her walk
the city, tracing
every single etch left
on the withering tree-branches
by the car-honks.

Nandini Dhar is the author of the book Historians of Redundant Moments (Agape Editions, 2017). Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in New England Review, Memorious, New South, Best New Poets 2016 and elsewhere. Nandini hails from Kolkata, India, and after living in the US for 15 years, she has recently gone back to her home country, where she works as an Associate Professor of Literary Studies at OP Jindal Global University.

DRIVING LESSONS by Charlotte Bausch

by Charlotte Bausch

No. 1
In rural upstate New York, kids start driving young. Fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds are driving tractors between fields before they start high school. A few years later, their trucks are flying into parking lots with friends piled in their truck beds, searing black streaks of tire rubber onto the asphalt.

Long car rides have become the space that strings my life together, like the acclimation chamber before scuba divers plunge into the deep—a trip to the grocery store is ten minutes, the mall forty-five. In the village where I live, there aren’t many stores: a farming equipment warehouse, a tiny, undersupplied liquor store, a “general store” that as far as I can tell now sells mostly used DVDs. If you want to go anywhere else, you have to drive.

No. 2
We didn’t have driver’s ed, but we did have agriculture class. Every week, my ag teacher, Mrs. Schwartz, would take the seventh grade class into the field behind the faculty parking lot and teach us how to drive the school’s tractor. It was stick shift, and she would lean over to make sure you were in the right gear, her breath close and hot on your earlobe. The rest of the class stood to the side and watched as you attempted to navigate around the shrubbery.

I hated Mrs. Schwartz. She made me stay after class for what she called “remedial woodshop” and would stand a few feet away from me, telling me to move my fingers closer to the saw blade as she ate cold Velveeta off a spoon. When she taught the others to drive, I hid behind a tree and never learned.

No. 3
My father whipped the Subaru around a sharp curve, sending a throw pillow and half a box of markers careening into my lap. My brother proffered the container so I could scoop them back in. I was diving for a stray pen that had rolled under the passenger seat—blueberry scented—when my mother began. “Something happened while you were at camp,” she said, taking a deep breath.

I looked up from the chase at her tone. My father, at the wheel, was impassive as he accelerated onto the highway. Three suitcases and a laundry bag shifted uneasily as he rode the bumper of the blue Prius in front of us. We were close enough to read the sticker in the window that said “Coexist.” Despite his resemblance to an aging university president, my father has always driven like an extra in a rap video. It was worse on the drive home from summer camp, when three weeks’ worth of hastily packed luggage lurched in the trunk every time we rounded a corner.

My mother turned slightly, her seatbelt locking her in so she could only half face us. “Your grandfather is dead.” Next to me, my brother looked sucker-punched, but I was already staring out the window, counting telephone poles to hold back tears.

No. 4
“You need to pull forward farther when you’re making a left turn.” My mother, frowning, watches critically as I pull into the intersection. The rhythmic clicking of the directional mixes strangely with the beat of the country song on the radio. The song disintegrates into static as we drive out of town boundaries. “No, farther.”

“Mom!” My voice is too loud, my palms sweaty on the steering wheel. “I know what I’m doing, okay? Just relax.”

She clutches her handbag to her chest, her heels pumping an imaginary brake every few seconds as we inch forward. We have been driving together, a couple of hours every week, for months now. Her feet keep moving, but the black cavern under the passenger seat leaves her helpless.

No. 5
When I was little, my mother told me stories about her first car. It was powder blue, and used. She got it on her sixteenth birthday. The next winter, she skidded on ice and rolled it into a snow bank. My grandfather could never get the dent out of the roof.

No. 6
Freshman and sophomore years of high school, my brother drove me to school every morning. My parents had given him a hand-me-down Saab convertible, which looked cool in the student parking lot because it was black and had a soft top. The car barely ran.

When I was five or six, my father used to take us for drives in the Saab on cool weekend evenings. My brother and I huddled in the back seat, a blanket slung over us to block the freezing wind, and watched the trees and fences and gas station signs rush by faster than was strictly legal. At night, the moon moved with the car as if tied to the bumper with string.

Now, the steering column had some kind of leaking problem and my brother could barely keep from burning out on hills. We got so many tardy slips that our parents got a letter home.

No. 7
At the funeral, my mother read a poem about workmen and told stories about how my grandfather used to fix cars. She was asked to speak because she was the least likely of her sisters to cry.

It was hard to imagine my grandfather as a workman. His spindly, shaking arms couldn’t hold the weight of a toolbox; his rheumy eyes couldn’t adjust to the black underside of a car. The endless loop of chemo and remission had gone on for ten years. To me, his youngest grandchild, he’d always been made of medicinal smells and oxygen hiss.

On the drive home, tears leaked silently out of the corners of my eyes. Through the windshield, the green mountains of my mother’s childhood rose in the distance, pricked with pine trees.

No. 8
In the passenger seat, the proctor is printing off some kind of receipt. It looks long, which means the list of my mistakes is longer than it should be. He looks over at me. My hands are shaking, and my dress is crumpled from the pressure of my legs clenching against the brake.

“So technically, I should fail you.” My breath comes out in a gasp. “But I’m going to knock off this point here, and you’re passing. Be careful, and work on your parallel parking, alright?”

He hands me the receipt that will serve as my license until the new one comes in the mail. I take it, and as I step out of the car I watch as it is flecked with raindrops. My mother is waiting for me on the sidewalk. The license in my hand is suddenly useless: the moment I earned it, I was no longer covered under my mother’s insurance. She must drive me home.

As the car bleeds onto the highway, windshield wipers furiously beating away raindrops, my mother looks perfectly at ease. I’m hemmed into the passenger seat once again, and her feet have power over the pedals. One last time, she pulls forward into the intersection, farther, farther, and executes a perfect left turn onto the road home.

Charlotte Bausch is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, studying English with minors in French and art history. She grew up half in New York, half in New Jersey, with a brief but alarmingly cheese hat–filled stint in Wisconsin. She currently lives with her two best friends in a tiny, yellow apartment in Philadelphia. “Driving Lessons” is her first published piece.

Image credit: SOCMIA Fotografía on Unsplash 

SUDDENLY by Mary Crow

by Mary Crow

at park’s edge a storm appeared returning from its tour of Vienna, and the car sped away

in dust devils, leaving me behind with existing treaties to dream some heroic stand while

rumors of air raids rose like smoke above the city and buildings burst into flame for the

greater good, pianos power-diving our forgotten empire-ah, but then you were

transporting war overland to bellow the truth with a loud stick, suddenly awakened to

the lesser evil of Fascism, Kosovo full of pilots to be transported as you reviewed policies

which were undoubtedly correct, columns illuminated as they marched toward the

terrible hole where we expected the Bolshelviks who arrived with grim mouths, pausing

on their way to winter and shuttling refugees continuously-but let’s drink to confusion,

merging with the ideal music of the leaves, and therefore and so on and meanwhile the

storm passes over us and pedals on toward Warsaw

Mary Crow has published three collections of poems, three chapbooks, and five books of translation. Her most recent book of poems is Addicted to the Horizon. She spent January 2011 in Egypt at a residency in El Gouna; her experiences flying into the spring uprising resulted in a new poetry manuscript, As the Real Keeps Slipping.




Image credit: Joshua Reddekopp on Unsplash

SHAFT by A.E. Weisgerber

by A.E. Weisgerber

The Torn Hat operates as a lunch counter from 10 am to 2 pm. The wood is petrified and glossy, like the Legion Hall’s. Walter arrives. The special is a ham sandwich, a pickle, a glass of beer with a refill for two dollars and fifty cents. The butter is in an open dish. Walter is a man’s man. He will talk about the Yankees, the traffic, Gordon Parks’s film. He delivers bread. Walter’s got a route. He saved five men in Korea. They are not close but they are best friends. His wife—he loves her—tried to throw away his fighting knife once, was tired of seeing it at the dinner table. He made her dig it out at the curb. He threw away his Purple Hearts. Those he let go. He likes to smear a little butter on the rim of his glass and keep his head down.

A.E. Weisgerber (@aeweisgerber) is Poetry Out Loud’s 2017 Frost Place Scholar, and a 2014 Kent State University Reynolds Journalism Fellow. Her prose appears in SmokeLong QuarterlyDIAGRAM, Structo UKand the Zoetrope Cafe Story Machine. Her flash has been shortlisted by the Wigleaf Top 50 and Best Small Fictions. Her latest project is a prayer book. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and sons. More at




Image credit: Giuseppe Milo on Flickr

PULP by Jules Archer

by Jules Archer

I go grocery shopping for Mom. Her face bandaged, she remains in the car and hands over the list. She has done it to herself and yet, being seen in public is not an option. She tells me to only buy grapefruits if they’re less than a dollar a pound. I buy them anyway. I take the scold.

For dinner, my uncle makes spaghetti. The noodles are slimy. The sauce gritty and laced with unholy amounts of oregano. The herb coats my tongue like grass, sticks to the roof of my mouth, and I gag. I think of the grapefruits and yearn for a sweet suck of pulp. Across from me sits my mother. I cannot look up from my plate. Face her face. The small wounds around her eyes tight and red. Our noses are no longer the same. I wonder if it’s the one thing she can do to get away from me. I twirl a forkful of spaghetti and my stomach double-flips. I imagine I am eating her stitches. Choking each one down with my glass of warm milk.

Jules Archer lives and burns in Arizona. She is the author of the flash fiction chapbook All The Ghosts We’ve Always Had (Thirty West Publishing House, 2018). Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, kill author, Pank, The Butter, Maudlin House, and elsewhere. She likes to smell old books, drink red wine, and read true crime tales. Follow her on Twitter @julesjustwrite.




Image credit:  Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

GUTSHOT by Thomas Barnes

by Thomas Barnes

The lucky streak ran out when the air rifle went off.

I felt the little ragged hole in my shirt. It didn’t feel like anything at all. Too small to be significant. Johnny let the air rifle swing to his side, the ends of his teeth glittering. Kali fell off the stump she was sitting on. They were all waiting for me to do something. I heard blood in my ears. Maybe they’d thought I’d keel over and die, I’m thinking.

So I did. I pressed my beer to my belly and squeezed. Beer frothed up in a fountain as I writhed in the dirt.

Even Johnny smiled a little.

“Don’t scare me like that,” Kali said, righting the stump.

I threw the crushed can into the black river. The wind grabbed the can and carried it far past the jutting, broken pylons.

I still felt like I could beat up a thunderstorm. Me, Kali, and Johnny were celebrating under the highway. Doug was there too, but that goes without saying—he’d follow Johnny into hell, further. We were living it up because my great aunt died. She left me a pile of money. I was sure it was a typo in the will. See, my name was only one letter away from Rocko, her toy poodle.

The can landed in the black water without a sound or a ripple. Johnny cocked the rifle. There was a sharp metal sound as the bullet struck the can where it floated.

“You know I didn’t mean to,” Johnny said, holding out the rifle. “If it’ll make you feel better, you can put one in me.”

I looked down the business end of the barrel. Then I pushed it toward the dirt. When I lifted up my shirt, there was a small red hole under my last rib.

“You ought to go to the hospital,” Kali said.

“He’s fine,” Johnny said. Kali and Johnny were back together, which meant they were always arguing.

“Yeah, fine. See?” Doug said, tossing me another can. He acted like he was always licking the third rail, but it was the medicine he stole from his night-shift at the hospice.

“Shut up, Doug,” Johnny said.

I missed the beer and it rolled behind a twisted old oak tree. An oil truck snorkeled over the bridge, moving toward the squat white tanks on the opposite bank, the dead trees bound to leaning telephone poles.

When I leaned for the beer, a spike of pain arced across my side. Kali was already there. Her touch was icy, electric. I felt a cold hook curl around the base of my spine.

“I can’t feel it anywhere,” Kali said. “I think he needs to see a doctor.”

I felt the wound myself, and my hand came away with a tiny ruby of blood. I felt acid in my throat.

“I can’t afford it,” I said. “I’m fine.”

“I could sneak you into the hospice,” Doug said. “That is, if you don’t think you’re gonna make it. It’s garbage for the living. But pretty swanky if you’re not.”

“What about your aunt? I thought you were loaded now,” Kali asked.

I looked away.

“I’m not set for life. I think it’ll cover dog surgery. Not people surgery though,” I said.

Mostly I didn’t want to leave. Under the overpass, I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. We were talking about everything, all the old jokes and stories. I wanted this afternoon to last forever. We hadn’t had an afternoon like this since high school. Over us and everything, the light was gold and red and pink and purple. There was a massive cloud in the sky, hanging like a city over the towers of the real city below. A ship, toy-sized, swayed near the river mouth, and I wondered who was on it, where they were going.

But my side twanged. I wasn’t sure if the ache was growing because I was thinking on it, or if there was actually something wrong inside me. It seemed insane, like a bad dream’s backward logic, that something could pierce me, change me, that the outside world could get in. I looked at the red film of blood between my fingers. It didn’t, couldn’t, seem real.

“Just give me another, I don’t know, two ccs of PBR and a fistful of purples,” I said, trying to sound clinical.

Doug snapped to action. Drugs were something he could latch onto.

“This is the last of them,” Doug said, upending the amber bottle. “It’s not much.”

A truck shattered across the bridge, rattling the overpass’s steel plates and startling a phalanx of pigeons. Johnny took aim. I gasped as pain wracked my gut. I sat down hard. I felt like I’d eaten something rotten.

“I’m taking you to the hospital,” Kali said. “You’re white as a ghost.”

A pigeon pirouetted and began to fall toward the river.

“Fuck,” I breathed as Kali’s old car sprang over a pothole.

I pressed against my stomach, but couldn’t staunch the ache blossoming somewhere deep inside me. I tried not to think about it.

On the overpass, the city stabbed upward like something clawed out of the ground. Kali gripped the wheel tight, threading the car though gaps between eighteen-wheelers. We rushed past low houses and graffitied billboards. The blare of car horns was constant. Each crack in the road tied another knot in my stomach.

Doug was playing with the dials, but there was only static.

“This is boring,” he said, as traffic tightened. Ahead was a sea of red lights. “Tell me something, Johnny.”

Johnny collected stories how some people collected little pieces of glass from the beach.

“This guy I knew was worried that every day the sun was getting closer,” Johnny said.

“Did you meet him at Walpole State?” Doug asked.

Johnny nodded. Kali shook her head, but I could see her grinning in the rearview. Johnny liked to say he spent time on the inside, that he had his second degree from the state penitentiary. But he’d done less than a day for vandalizing his old boss’s car.

“Every day he took a measurement of the sky. If you listened to him, the sun was inching closer a few miles a day. He tried to warn people, but nobody listened. He stared at it every day, daring it to come closer. And each day it did. He ended up holding up the Sunglass Hut, trying to clean them out so he could face down the sun.”

“It needs a real ending. It’s not a story if you don’t learn something,” Kali said, finding space between space and advancing through traffic.

She was always so in the world. She moved through it like water, making it seem easy.

“I wasn’t finished,” Johnny said quietly. “Now that he’s in prison, the state fixed his eyes, but they got the connections wrong. So everything he sees is its opposite.”

Doug laughed and bounced in his seat until Kali told him to quit it or we’d rock off the highway. My heart was jackhammering in my throat. I took a deep breath and it came out in a rattle.

“The point is that sometimes you don’t even know what to worry about, and what you were worried about wasn’t what you should have been worrying about all along,” Johnny said.

“A simpler way to say that is sometimes things work themselves out,” Kali said.

“Yeah, like a hedgehog,” Doug said.

“What the fuck, Doug?” Kali said.

“Like when you get stung by a hedgehog. The needle will work all the way through you and come out, no problem. You just gotta leave it alone,” Doug said. “I saw it on the Discovery channel.”

A silence fell over the car, broken only by muted car horns. The road stretched and curved over the river, toward the fist of glass buildings that was the downtown. It was broken in a few places by old stone clock towers. The sun was going down, lighting the windows of the city a brilliant orange. The taillights of the cars on the overpass ran together like a watercolor. All the colors made the world seem aflame. I wiped a tear from my eyes. I had a feeling like I was landing in a plane after a long journey, landing in a place I knew but couldn’t remember.

Kali’s eyes filled the mirror. “Does it still hurt?”

“No,” I said, but it did. It hadn’t hurt until I started thinking about it again.

Deflated people draped themselves over the wooden chairs and tables of the waiting room. A man, thin as paper, muttered as he paced the edges of the room. In the corner, a TV showed clips of disasters between pharmaceutical commercials, a double feature.

I watched the lines and letters dance across the white page in front of me. Doug’s purples had kicked in, and then some. The letters lifted off the page, hovered, and cascaded off in a waterfall. I tried to gather them up, but they darted away from me, and my side screamed.

I pinned down one of the lines and wrote my name. Then I crossed it out and wrote my great aunt’s dog’s name instead. A loud noise shot through the low quiet of the waiting room. It was Johnny versus a vending machine, round one, fight. A coke rolled out. K.O.

The ghostly outline of a cop stirred behind a gouged and scratched acrylic glass window, then was still.

Johnny cracked the can and sat down. When he put his feet up, Kali pushed them off her lap, continued reading a sheaf of pamphlets: Coping With Cancer, Treating Tuberculosis, Seeing Past Seasonal Affective Disorder. I didn’t know where Doug was. Probably hunting up some more purples.

A man limped into the waiting room. He was missing an arm. Slender little rivulets of blood fell from his shirt and filled up his shoes. Footprints on the white tile led up to the counter. He was handed a clipboard with a pen attached to it. He furrowed a brow at the forms.

I started to shake with laughter, but then Kali was putting me on my feet and moving me toward a swinging door. A nurse there was calling for my great aunt’s dog.

“He’s dead,” I said.

“Is he—” the nurse asked.

“He’ll be alright,” Kali said, steering me past the nurse.

“I’m only supposed to let family in, and even then, only one at a time,” the nurse said in a nasal drone.

“I’m family,” Kali said.

We clicked down the hall. There were closed doors and open ones. Beige machines trailing cords and tubes stood guard, alongside empty plastic chairs. There were stretchers by the wall runners, under bright antiseptic lights. Some had people on them, crumpled up like paper, others had blankets drawn over.

In the room, the nurse felt around the wound and the ache sounded from fathoms below. Her face kept changing. There was a sharp pain in my arm. Kali told me to relax, that it was going to be alright. Machines and tubes and articulated lights orbited around me. I felt processed, like I was moving through conveyors on a factory floor. I felt I was in a bad dream. I desperately needed to wake up and find myself at home in bed, my parents, still together, talking in low voices over the burble of the coffeemaker downstairs.

I cried out, and everything was still. It was night. Kali was there, and she moved over the bed. I tried to get up, but couldn’t move. I was paralyzed.

“It’s alright,” Kali said. “You started thrashing when they made you drink a solution to see inside your chest. So they sedated you. I don’t think it agreed with whatever Doug fed you.”

Kali leaned over me, touched the side of my face, then loosened the leather belts securing me to the bed. It seemed not quite heaven, but something close to it. I felt groggy, like part of me was still asleep. My body seemed to belong to someone else, a kind of inverted phantom limb feeling.

“The doctor wanted to keep you overnight for observation. She said there was a chance the bullet could fall into a vein and stop your heart. But if you’re still here in the morning, you’ll probably be OK,” Kali said. “They showed me the scan they took while you were under. You could see the path of the thing, bouncing off your rib, cutting through you, lodging in your liver. They didn’t know what to do with you. They’re used to treating real bullets.”

I shivered. The joke didn’t seem that funny anymore, hearing about the parts of you that you don’t ever think about. I had a splitting headache. I peeled back the sheets and there was a small gauze pad taped to my side. I felt exposed, somehow, open to the world and all its points and barbs.

“So it’s in there still?”

Kali nodded.

“A part of you,” she said.

I felt like furniture, like the bullet had made me a part of the world of objects and things, pulling me down from where we hovered above it all.

“At least you’ll have a story of your own now,” Kali said.

That’s when the door banged off the wall. It was Johnny, wild-eyed and trailing laces.

“We have to go, now,” Johnny said. “Doug got caught in the medicine cabinet and made a break for it. They’re coming for us.”

I started to rise, but felt suddenly tired, more tired than I’d been in my entire life. I fell back to the hospital bed.

“We need to move,” Johnny said. His mouth was a thin, cruel slash.

“Give me a second,” I said. The bed felt soft, safe. I wanted to sink into it, become it.

Johnny strode to the bed and punched a button. The bed began to elevate, slowly.

“I should have shot you in the head, maybe it would have knocked some sense into you.”

I looked at Kali but she looked at the floor.

“You meant to shoot me?” I said.

“You were going on and on about your great aunt. No offense, but she’s not our great aunt. And she’s not so great. Look, I gave you something to remember me by.”

I was thinking about afternoons and clouds and rivers, shattered days, wasted lives.

“I’ll kill you,” I said.

But I got tangled up in the cords and blankets and the paper gown. The pins and needles I was standing on collapsed underneath me.

“There’s no time for this,” Johnny said, dancing away. “We have to move.”

The freight elevator, a loading dock, through a maze of cardboard boxes and blue barrels, to the back alley, exhaust breathing from grates in the road, cold in my paper gown. Kali swung her old car up to the curb and we piled in, lit out. Under overpasses and elevated railways, we found Doug wandering Chinatown, staring at all the lights, pulling him in as he screamed, don’t take me, leaving the lights behind as we hugged the service road by the port, no sidewalks here, just rusted fences and warehouses and trucks blasting by, the cranes square against the dark gray of dawn.

We caught our breath at a construction site near the water.

The arc sodiums cast a lunar glow. Doug was a silhouette atop the dark crane arm. I was curled in the bucket of a backhoe. Around us were piles of dirt, the holes they were dug from. The construction equipment was still, as if we had interrupted the work when we came upon it all, the machinery flexing its chrome and pistons. There were complicated blocky mounds of bricks like ziggurats. In the far corner of the lot there was the last remaining wall of a building. The wall stood quiet and still, like it’d been there for a thousand years.

I wanted to remain until the workers returned and reanimated the machines, buried me under it all. I wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t want to think or feel or hurt anymore.

Johnny kicked a rock into a hole. It fell for a long time before bouncing around the foundation. I didn’t feel like pushing him into it anymore. I just felt punctured, like someone had let all the air out of me.

“You gonna be alright?” Kali said.

“I’ll land on my feet,” I said.

“Like a hedgehog,” Doug whispered.

“Shut up, Doug,” I said.

“You’ll be alright. Look at how things have worked out for you so far. You did nothing for twenty-five years and a pile of money landed on your lap,” Johnny said.

“It’s not that much. I talked it up a little. But if I only eat gas station food it’ll last me a few months,” I said. “When I waste away and die I’ll haunt you for putting a hole in me.”

“All I’m saying is that it wouldn’t be much of a change from when you were living,” Johnny said.

I got to my feet, but it was hard to seem imposing, half-naked in my paper gown. Kali looked at Johnny, who looked back at her.

Kali’s clear voice cut through the crisp early morning air.

“He’s right, Rocky. All you do is mope around town, talking about how it all used to be. Dredging up memories. It’s like you can’t see yourself in the future. Do you think nothing’s changed? We’re not kids anymore.”

“Sometimes you remind me of my residents,” Doug said. “Stuck in the past.”

“Shut up, Doug,” I said.

“Hey, that was a compliment. I like them.”

A gull landed on the dark arm of an excavator. I looked at it and it looked at me. Its eyes were cruel, its beak flecked with red. I took a few steps toward the water and found a large pit between me and the rusted fence. I looked into the pit and it was dark.

“We’ve got plans. Or at least the foundation of them. My cousin works at a prison down in Texas,” Kali said. “He said he could get Johnny a job. There’s a night school down there, too.”

The gull turned and beat the air with heavy wings, lumbering aloft and away. In the pit, there was standing water and a swollen, dead thing. There were discarded clothes without any color anymore.

“What about us?” I said. “What about Doug?”

Doug’s silhouette stirred against the lightening sky.

“I told you. I’m going to night school to get my RN in the fall,” Doug said. “Nothing lasts forever, Rocky. It’s like that hedgehog. It’ll work itself out.”

The horizon was going gray. Across the water, the smoke stacks were obscured by gauzy white clouds and a formation of birds vectored overhead. I wanted to hold it all in, hold everything in place. But it kept escaping me. It kept slipping through my fingers. The sun was just over the horizon, and it kept coming up.

Thomas Barnes lives in Boston, Massachusetts, where he works as a copywriter. His writing recently appeared in the Southwest Review. You can find him on Twitter @thmsbrns.





Photo credit: Pixabay

THE BROWNIES AT WORK by Nance Van Winckel

by Nance Van Winckel

Welcome to Cleaver’s brand new genre, INTERMEDIA, where word and image intersect to create newly mediated spaces between the literal and the figurative—part word, part image, and deviantly part-way! And what better way to start off than with “Brownies,” those there-but-not-there creations that inhabit the virtual terrains and ordinary realms of our creative lives. —Ed.

Nance Van Winckel is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently Our Foreigner, winner of the Pacific Coast Poetry Series Prize (Beyond Baroque Press, 2017), Book of No Ledge (Pleiades Press Visual Poetry Series, 2016), and Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2014). She’s also published five books of fiction, including Ever Yrs, a novel in the form of a scrapbook (Twisted Road Publications, 2014), and Boneland: Linked Stories (U. of Oklahoma Press, 2013). She teaches in the MFA programs at Eastern Washington University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. Read more at her website


by Karen Zey

Schools were opening in less than a week. The five-year-old boy in front of me had autism. He couldn’t speak. His eyes flitted like hummingbirds over the hundreds of colorful toys and books in the classroom. The boy’s father, Mr. Nassar, sat stiffly on a tiny chair next to his son. He had come to register the child for regular kindergarten.

I had been pushing the schools to integrate more students with special needs. The principal had called me to talk about this child. Students with the most serious of disabilities were sometimes bussed over the bridge into Montreal to attend a distant, specialized school. Mr. Nassar knew this.

The small scrubbed tables and blank walls in the kindergarten room awaited September’s finger-painting masterpieces. The boy sat with his head and shoulder pressed against his father’s arm, staying connected to what was physically familiar. I watched the five-year-old with the darting eyes observing his surroundings, a child sitting still, able to comply with what his papa was asking of him. I saw a child who belonged in kindergarten.

“He’s eligible for a special education program,” said the principal. “Can you tell us why you want him to attend kindergarten?”

Mr. Nassar folded his hands, one gripping the other in his lap, and spoke in a measured voice.  “My son is very smart. I was teacher in my country. I teach him many things and he learn. He write all his letters. He write his name. Please, you give him chance in your school.” He opened his bag and pulled out sheets of unlined paper filled with oversized, wobbly letters. The evidence of his son’s school readiness was as shaky as the faint ABC’s on the page. I think Mr. Nassar knew this.

He laid out his arguments with all the quiet logic he could muster. His other children came to this school. He wanted his son here, too. The school had mainstreamed other students with learning problems. “You have other special children here who get extra help.”

But never a child like this—never a child who couldn’t talk. This boy would be challenging to integrate. The teachers were nervous about him joining their classes. The principal wanted reassurance about extra support. I was concerned about pushing my agenda too fast. Yet didn’t worthwhile change always come with questions and doubts? Wasn’t it usually difficult? Pros and cons twisted through my head.

Like his father, the boy was lanky, almost the height of a grade two child. This alone made him stand out. He was calm and still at the moment, but the room did not yet contain eighteen noisy, whirling five-year-old explorers. The sensory stimulation of a busy classroom would initially be overwhelming for this child. Did Mr. Nassar know this?

“I’m sure you realize your son won’t be able to do all of the same activities as the other children,” said the principal. “He’ll need lots of help to be part of the class.”

Mr. Nassar looked at us with tired eyes. He was fighting for his son to have a place in this room, a place in this normal children’s world. I wondered how many closed doors he had already encountered. He tried another tactic: “It make no sense to send little children to city. Special school is too far. Bridge is very dangerous in winter. My son can learn. He come here and you help him. I help him every day.” What Mr. Nassar didn’t know yet was how close I was to saying yes.

I snuck a look at the principal, a forty-year-old woman new to the job, fired up with all the enthusiasm and idealism of a novice. I had worked at convincing her to integrate more students, and she had worked at convincing her teachers to be on board. An ally—I loved her already. Seeing the child was all I needed. The principal glanced at me for confirmation, and I nodded.

“Okay, Mr. Nassar,” she said. “Your son can start next week. But we’ll need to do this in small steps.”

He placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “I will bring him and pick him up. I do whatever you ask. I help him every day.”

We called in the kindergarten teachers and discussed details: the teacher’s aide who would help his son; speech therapy schedules; and a gradual increase of hours of attendance over the first couple of weeks, a strategy to help the child acclimate to his new environment. All the bits and pieces needed for a good start. At the end of the meeting, Mr. Nassar sagged with relief. “Thank you, Mis’Zey. Thank you. Thank you.” His child was just beginning kindergarten. His biggest battles had not even begun.

Three weeks later, I returned to the school for an afternoon meeting about another student. I spotted Mr. Nassar waiting to pick up his son. I’d heard integration was going smoothly so far, and the child was using pictograms to communicate.

Mr. Nassar walked over. “My son is very happy at school. I have present for you. It is custom of my country. You tell me where your office is and I drop off.” He pulled out a pen and scrap of paper from his pocket and waited.

I imagined this man’s life—his private anguish at the impenetrable bubble surrounding his child; his hours of struggle as he worked at prompting a few words from his son; and his probable moments of despair at the child’s silence. I pictured him coaxing and coaxing those wobbly letters onto scraps of paper. I imagined his optimism as he saw tiny glimmers of rote learning in those penciled scratches on the page.

“Thank you very much for thinking of me, Mr. Nassar, but I can’t accept a gift. It’s all part of my job. I’m just glad to hear that everything is going well.”

Two days later, the school board receptionist called up to my office. “There’s a gentleman here asking for you, a Mr. Naz-ser. He says he has a large item that he wants to give you in person. What would you like me to tell him?”

The half-completed memo on my screen would have to wait. “Thanks, Susan. Ask him to have a seat. I’ll be down in a couple of minutes to speak to him.”

There in the lobby stood Mr. Nassar. Faded khaki pants and a short-sleeve shirt hung on his slim frame. He held an oblong, brass planter about three-feet wide, with a small dent near the rim. A bas-relief pastoral scene was pressed into the metal: trees, men on horses, a fox, and several hounds. Not the ornamental ceramic dish or colorful embroidered cloth I expected. An English-style fox hunt on a huge brass planter, the inside slightly tarnished with wear.

“It is for you. You like, Mis’Zey?” Mr. Nassar’s eyes searched my face.

He stood and waited—a man who lived in subsidized housing with his wife and four children, one of whom had a serious disability. He waited, bearing his gratitude with both hands. I looked at the second-hand brass planter, embossed with someone else’s story. “It’s just lovely, Mr. Nassar. Thank you very much.” I took the planter from him, and he smiled.

Such a large gift for a mere gatekeeper. I carried the planter back upstairs to my office, past the shiny plaque on the door that said Coordinator of Complementary Services, and I placed it on the floor.


When his son was in grade four, Mr. Nassar asked me to bus the child to the faraway special school across the bridge. At age ten, his son had made good progress in many ways. He had learned to read basic words and follow classroom routines alongside his peers. His classmates accepted him and had grown comfortable with his idiosyncrasies. But the child was still dependent on individual assistance throughout the day. He was still a boy with autism who couldn’t speak.

“Hello, Mrs. Zey,” Mr. Nassar said over the phone. “I thank you for everything the school has done for my son. But I went to visit the special school in the city. They have many children like him there, many autistic children.  I think he should go there. I filled out the application and he’s been accepted. I’m asking the school board to sign for the bus.”

The call took me by surprise. The support surrounding this boy had been successful. I still believed the child belonged in the community school. I pointed out to Mr. Nassar how well his son was doing on his individual goals, and how everyone at the school was committed to accommodating his son’s special needs. I couldn’t convince him.

“Yes, the teachers work very hard with him,” he said. “I have tried to help him too. But he still cannot talk. I have to spend more time with my other children. His sisters are in bigger grades now. They have lots of homework. My son will get what he needs in the special school. I have a new job, and I work in the city. I get home late, very late. Please, I need you to send my son to the special school.” His voice rose on a note of desperation.

“Let me think about your request, Mr. Nassar.” I swallowed my disappointment. “I’ll call you back later today. Tomorrow at the latest.”

I phoned the principal. “The grade four teachers are upset,” she told me. “They heard about the application for outside placement. They want him to stay.”

Her school team had come a long way. A little patch of progress on the long road to inclusive education. I knew the local school could help this child move forward and that the special school in Montreal did not offer a magic fix for the boy’s learning gaps. However, I could never know what challenges Mr. Nassar and his family lived with every day. Or what they might live with for years to come.

I had the option of refusing to sign the papers for the transfer across the bridge. Special transportation meant another hit to my budget. Sitting in my high-backed office chair, I swiveled back and forth, yearning for the certainty of easy questions and easy answers. I looked down at the pile of unread file folders on my desk. Several of them held reports from autism diagnostic clinics, each report a glimpse at a single child, each report changing the life of one family, each report demanding a decision.

I gazed at the four potted ferns nestled inside the oblong brass planter outside my office door. What I knew was never enough and never the whole picture. Mr. Nassar was waiting for my call. With a growing sense of calm, I stretched out my hand and picked up the phone.

“Hello, Mr. Nassar.”

Karen Zey is a Canadian educator and writer from la belle ville de Pointe-Claire, Quebec. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in  Brevity Blog, Cold Creek Review, Crack the Spine, Drunk Monkeys, Hippocampus, Proximity‘s True, and other places. Karen’s CNF piece, “Tough Talk,” was nominated by Prick of the Spindle in 2015 for a Pushcart Prize. In this piece, names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the subjects.

Image credit:  Aaron Burden on Unsplash

THE WALL by Susan Knox

by Susan Knox

“I’ll do it, Love,” my newly retired husband, Weldon, said when I mentioned our book collection needed cleaning. It took him two years to finish the job. I knew the books were getting dirty again, but I held my tongue—I didn’t want to dust them.

When we moved into our Seattle condo in 1996, we added bookshelves. Our new home had a perfect place—a tall wall in our living room, fourteen feet high. We ordered 2,548 linear feet of custom-built bookshelves made of sturdy oak covered in black laminate, with a metal rail near the top for a sliding library ladder. We filled every inch with books, and it looks terrific. The wall glows with colorful covers, and the room feels warmer. I love watching people enter this room for the first time. It’s a surprise, all those books.

Initially, I hired our building’s janitor, Jim, to dust the books every six months. He did a fine job at first, but after a few years he began slacking off, doing sloppy work. After Jim jumbled our books’ order—mixed fiction with nonfiction and ignored our alphabetic system—I decided not to hire him again.

But my books got quite dusty. Every time I pulled one out, I had to blow across the top to get rid of the accumulation. I felt overwhelmed just thinking of the task, and when I mentioned my dilemma to Weldon, he offered to take it on. Relieved, I checked Cheryl Mendelson’s 906-page book, Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House. She recommends vacuuming, so we bought a small Oreck with a shoulder strap Weldon could sling over his back while climbing the library ladder.

Now that he’s retired, Weldon spends a lot of time on the Internet, and he discovered Collectorz, an online book-inventory system. We can access the collection on our computers and even pull up the list on our cell phones while book shopping. This is a useful feature since we have returned more than one book after discovering it was already on our shelves. Weldon prizes efficiency and was elated when he realized he could computerize our inventory and dust books in one effort.

Weldon enters the ISBN with a small scanner. Once the program finds the number an image of the cover and all pertinent information appear on his computer screen. After he’d entered about a thousand books into the system, a third of our collection, he excitedly forwarded the list to our children. No response.

My love of books blossomed early through trips with my mother at the public library in Minerva, Ohio. The facility was housed in a small space on the second floor of city hall and seemed vast to my five-year-old eyes. Mommy had a serious look on her face as we climbed the stairs, and before we opened the library door, she would lean down and say, “Remember, if you need to tell me something, whisper. No running, and handle the books carefully.”

I grew to know my village library well. The space had its own comforting aroma. The oak bookcases released scents of timber and beeswax; calfskin-bound books suggested tobacco; hardbacks with their protective covers firmly affixed evoked the interior of Grandma’s wardrobe. I delight in the smell of books.

When I toured George Washington’s Mount Vernon, my favorite room was the library. It held a modest collection, but as I walked into the room with glass-fronted bookcases, a familiar fragrance drifted into my nostrils—the essence of aged books. I could see Washington walking into his library, taking pleasure in the books’ presence. Did he love their smell too? My nose has tuned out my own books’ redolence. I wonder, do my books give off the same soothing scent to my visitors as Mount Vernon’s gave to me?

My parents couldn’t afford to buy me books, but I did possess four precious ones—Mother Westwind Stories, Heidi, and two Nancy Drew mysteries—and I read them over and over. But in one of my periodic explorations of our attic—filled with odds and ends from the Elliott family, who’d built and lived in the farmhouse for decades before we moved in—I found two boxes of books under the eaves. Hardback books with colorful modern covers. Different from the old books I’d already uncovered in the attic, with their tissue-thin paper and pages sometimes bound out of order, that had belonged to two spinster schoolteachers who’d lived with the Elliotts.

Uncovering these modern books was like finding a treasure chest of sparkling rubies. I pulled them out of the brown cardboard box—The Good Earth, My Sister Eileen, The Yearling, Rebecca, So Red the Rose, Saratoga Trunk, Mama’s Bank Account, Mrs. Miniver—popular novels of the thirties. I couldn’t believe my find. And I was old enough to read many of them. I ran down to the kitchen. “Mommy! I found two boxes of books in the attic. Where did they come from?” She looked up from rolling out her pie dough and said, “They’re mine. Before I married, I belonged to Book-of-the-Month Club.” I’d never seen her sit down with a book, and I suddenly realized, as a farm wife and mother of four, she was too busy to read. This insight surprised and saddened me. How could she give up a wonderful pastime like reading? I vowed I would always take time for books.

I first set foot in a bookstore as a freshman at The Ohio State University. I could hardly believe the riches at the Student Book Exchange on High Street in Columbus. They stocked much more than textbooks. I had a little extra spending money from my part-time job as a telephone operator, and I started growing my personal library by buying the classics—Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary, The Age of Innocence, Wuthering Heights, The Prince, Emma, Jane Eyre, The Great Gatsby. I bought a book every week. Possession was important to me. My roommates didn’t understand why I was reading books not assigned for class, but I was in heaven.

I continued to buy books while in college and throughout my first marriage even though my husband complained that I read too much and it gave me ideas. This was the sixties—the women’s lib movement was underway, and some men were uneasy with changes afoot. We divorced.

A year later, I met Weldon. We shared a love of books and began to collect them as a couple. Not rare, old books, but fat, absorbing novels, political histories, probing biographies, well-written mysteries, colorful cookbooks. When we combined households forty-two years ago, we discovered we owned many identical books. I took that as a good omen for our marriage, although, as we gave away the duplicates, I had a niggling thought. What if this doesn’t work out? Will I get my books back?

When we traveled, we always sought out bookstores. Powell’s in Portland; Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara; and Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle. We moved to Seattle in 1996, not because of Elliott Bay Bookstore, although that was a plus, and bought a condo downtown, near the Pike Place Market. We were thrilled to find MCoy Books two blocks from our home. Imagine: a country girl who revered books, and, as an adult, had to drive twenty miles from her suburban Columbus, Ohio, home to buy a book, now lived around the corner from such a bookstore.

We visited MCoy several times a week to browse, buy books, have an espresso, and talk politics with the owner, Michael Coy. When my book, Financial Basics: A Money-Management Guide for Students, was published, he created a big window display for it. I was so proud.

The office building that housed MCoy Books was sold as the Seattle real-estate market skyrocketed, and when Michael’s lease came up for renewal, the rent increase was so significant that he couldn’t sustain the business. He closed his doors near the end of 2008. We mourned the loss. Walking by that empty storefront was like passing a mausoleum holding the bones of dear ones. We not only lost our beloved MCoy; six other neighborhood bookstores closed too. We rode the bus to Elliott Bay and University of Washington bookstores, but it wasn’t the same.

The upshot of this loss in our lives? We bought Kindles. We’d resisted for years, even though our friends raved about theirs. We loved the physicality of books, the cover art, the heft, the pages to turn; we couldn’t imagine anything better. But in 2014, we succumbed and joined the ranks of 32 percent of Americans who own an e-reader.

I can hardly believe how much I adore my Kindle. I read in bed in the middle of the night without disturbing Weldon. I borrow e-books from the Seattle Public Library and download them from home. If a compelling book review appears, I instantly acquire the volume online.

When I read John Banville or Hilary Mantel or Lauren Groff, writers with extensive lexicons, I highlight unfamiliar words with my finger and learn their definitions. Thick, heavy books are easily managed. I wouldn’t have read Robert Caro’s 736-page The Passage of Power or Donna Tartt’s 755-page The Goldfinch while in bed. Their heft would have tired my arms, and since I do a lot of my reading there, it would have taken forever to finish them. When I travel, I don’t have to pack multiple books to assuage my fear of running out of something to read. My reader is always nearby, loaded with books. In a pinch, I can even read from my electronic library with my iPhone.

There are drawbacks. Charts, family trees, and photographs are difficult to make out. Footnotes are elusive. I have to tap the screen to read them, and I often miss the notation. I can’t easily leaf back to check a character’s background or reread a scene. Somehow, in a book I knew the relative location and could quickly find what I was looking for.

I gave up one of my greatest pleasures—browsing in bookstores—because I felt guilty using their displays and staff recommendations knowing I would buy it from Amazon for my Kindle. I realize many bookstores sell e-books through Kobo, but they only load on my iPhone, and I don’t enjoy reading on the smaller screen.

I can’t loan or borrow e-books the way I shared hardbacks. I wish the cover appeared automatically when I turn on the reader. I miss the cover artwork. I worry about the effect on the publishing industry and the small part I’m playing in this ongoing saga. Will Amazon become a monopoly? How would that influence quality and pricing and writers and readers? What is Jeff Bezos’s master plan?

I still have my living-room wall of books. I will always have them. They please me and reassure the child in me who owned few and used the lending library and county bookmobile. But I must confess that Weldon and I are beginning to duplicate our paper books on our Kindles. We’re at an age where we’re rereading favorites and we’re reluctant to open the physical book—we want the ease of an e-reader. We’ve spent decades acquiring books, and I’d be bereft if I lost them, and yet, I don’t want to read them. It’s as though I have a foot in each world, and I’m not going to budge.

Sometimes, I think of our children emptying our home after we’ve died. I can hear them asking what that unusual smell is. I can see them groaning at the sight of our collection. I can imagine them wondering why we had so many, whether we actually read them all, why we spent so much money on them, questioning whether there’s a market for books or whether they’ll have to dump them. So in the spirit of preparing them for our demise, I decided to discuss our books with them before we’re gone. Here’s the gist of what they said: You said you’re doing all your reading on your Kindles. Why not just sell the books? Or give them to the public library?

“But the wall,” I say. “What would I do with the wall?”

Susan Knox is an essayist, short story writer, and the author of Financial Basics: A Money-Management Guide for Students published by Ohio State University Press. Her stories and essays have appeared in Blue Lyra Review, CALYX, Forge, The MacGuffin, Zone 3, and elsewhere. In 2014, her essay, “Autumn Life” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She and her husband live in Seattle.




Image credit:  Dakota Corbin on Unsplash

SPLINTER by Susan G. Bouchard

by Susan G. Bouchard

It’s what your arms did when you fell on them, your bones osteoporotic from the decades you haven’t spent taking care of yourself. You like to say that you get more than enough calcium from all the cheese you eat, but it’s childish logic for a mother to offer. We both know why this happened. We knew the inevitability of this catastrophe, we just didn’t know how it would manifest itself.

It was your brain, in a fog of cigarettes, a bottle of two-buck Chuck, and antidepressants. You were wandering through the fog when you decided that it was the perfect time to remove the cobwebs from the pergola that Grandpa built back when you were small. You stood on one of the rickety patio chairs, whose cushions were threadbare and stiff. The chair wobbled under your feet, which were unsteady even when you were sober—I know the extent of your clumsiness because I inherited it. You were wearing those sandals with the wedge heels, the ones your sister left behind when she died in 2007. They were fraying and old, and should have been thrown out months ago, but you couldn’t bear to part with them. While swinging your broom at the offending cobwebs, you lost your balance and fell.

It’s how your arms looked in the x-rays. The doctors struggled to figure out how to manage your pain, how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, because your tolerance for narcotic painkillers was so high—taking three Dilaudid a day will do that. They ultimately decided on nerve blocks, or “epidurals for your arms.” They would leave you unable to move your arms for twenty-four hours.

It’s how I felt in the waiting room, sitting alone and wondering how I would possibly be able to care for you while you healed. You wouldn’t be able to shower, or brush your hair, or dress yourself without help. I’m the only one left after years of missed phone calls, unanswered texts, unpaid bills, abandoned commitments. How much more could I take, before I couldn’t anymore?

A splinter lives under my skin and it digs a little deeper every time I tell you that I love you, but I still do.

Susan G. Bouchard is an emerging writer and recent alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied Creative Writing. Her nonfiction pieces have appeared in publications such as Vice and The Pennsylvania Gazette. She lives in Southern California with her family.

AFTER TODAY by Sarah Walker

by Sarah Walker

Jake pulled up in a red Toyota truck. It looked brand new. He rolled down the window and grinned. His teeth looked like they had been bleached, and his dark hair was a little longer at the top, short on the sides.

I walked to the passenger door, climbed inside. He set his hand on my shoulder and squeezed, his smile still huge, but I laughed and shrugged so his hand fell away. I adjusted the seat, sitting as far back as Jake and rolled down the window. The only way to keep things normal was to pretend like nothing had changed, and he caught on, ripping down the dirt road so fast we didn’t have time to think about anything but the speed.

We used to smoke pot after working at Toman’s Construction on the overgrown hiking trails at the Lackawanna State Park. Now, we were going camping there, and Jake hadn’t mentioned marijuana once on the car ride, how he didn’t just want to smoke, but needed to. So I asked him as we parked the truck, unloaded our camping gear and cooler full of beer.

“You still smoke?”


I shook my head. He looked away, pretending to study the pine trees that towered around the parking lot. “I got a job with Cabot. Did I tell you that?”

“No,” I said.

He shrugged. “They do drug tests every few months.”

“The money good?”

I thought of Toman’s Construction. We got paid just over minimum wage. Jake was twenty-four then, already married. Cindy’s income allowed them to buy a shitty house that always needed work. At least they weren’t renting an apartment like I had, scrounging up the money every month and wondering why I went through the trouble when it was only myself I was trying to please.

Jake ignored my question and put his arm around me. I almost dropped the tent bag from the sudden weight.

“You look skinny,” he said. “I thought they worked out a lot there. Guys come out looking big and scary.”

“Not me I guess.”

He laughed, his arm falling from my shoulder. “I’m just kidding, Tommy. You look the same. You look great.”

We both knew it wasn’t true. My hair was gone, a buzz cut that made me look like a twelve-year-old. I had lost almost twenty pounds. There was no natural muscle, no padding on my bones anymore. We stayed quiet as we walked through the manmade trails and passed a family with one of those portable trailers that made you wonder what was the point of camping. A little boy stood outside hitting the mobile home with a stick. The sound of the wood hitting those plastic panels made me want to ask Jake for a ride home. I couldn’t be here in the woods, my first week in an old life. The pines shaded us from the sun when I had wanted to feel it beating on my face, burning, rolling down my back. I wanted to be alone, sitting on my mother’s porch until I figured out where to go next.

But then I heard the high-pitched, wonderful giggles. I lifted my head and saw them off to the left, tucked away in one of the smaller campsites. They were the most beautiful girls I had ever seen and they couldn’t hide even if they tried. One of them held a flimsy tent pole in the air and watched it wobble above her head. Her hips swayed back and forth. The other two girls saw us. They were both blondes, maybe twins, and held a deflated green tent in their arms.

Jake nudged me. “You have to set the tent on the ground, ladies.”

The brunette with the wavy hair and thick hips leaned the pole against a tree and seemed to be looking right at me. “A little help?”

The temptation felt like oil. It soaked my body, leaving it slick and desperate. I started walking. My steps turned faster. My feet zigzagged, tangling, until I reached their site and tripped over a camping chair. I caught myself before my nose smashed into the ground. My wrists throbbed. The tent bag was still around my arm, and I could feel the stakes and poles pressing against my side.

As my face hovered above the dirt, the tiny pine needles and pebbles, I realized the sad truth of it all. The earth wasn’t mine anymore. I didn’t know how to move, how to belong here.

I managed to stand, and Jake stood beside me, already laughing. So were the girls. The brunette had her hand over her mouth, muffling the sound. She stepped closer and I unraveled more. I bounced on my toes and pictured running my hands along her curvy edges.

“Are you all right?”

“Tommy really wants to help set up the tent. He’s a professional,” Jake said.

She laughed again and held out her hand. “I’m Stephanie.”

Our palms met, both sweaty. “Tommy.”

“I know,” Stephanie said as she wiped her hand down her jean shorts. “I think you can manage the tent.”

I mostly stayed quiet as we set up the tent, still shaky from my fall, not answering when the other two girls introduced themselves as Erin and Hannah. It felt good with Jake beside me while we worked on the same project, though. I twisted the stakes into the ground, and he used a rock as a hammer, securing what I had started. My shirt was damp when we finished. His fancy hair was flatter on the top than before. The odor locked under our clothing seeped out. A musty smell I hoped the girls thought only came from Jake. Later, Stephanie invited us back to their campsite and when we returned, the sun had sunk. The sky was the darkest, most wonderful blue I had ever seen. The fire they had going was big with flames jumping and twisting and shooting out little orange flecks. Everything looked perfect. And I felt better. Jake had given me a pep talk back at our campsite. He told me my fall was cute. It would probably work to my advantage.

“Which one of you was a Boy Scout?” I said now, opening my first beer and looking at Erin.

She stood in front of the fire with a Bud Light in her hand. Her hair was piled on top of her head, golden strands falling around her face. She and Hannah no longer seemed like twins. Her eyes were blue, her nose small and pointed. Hannah had the same dark eyes as Jake and round cheeks as if she hadn’t lost all of her baby fat.

Erin brushed the strands of hair away from her face and glared at me. “Why Boy Scouts? Women aren’t capable of building fires?”

“Aw,” Jake said. “Tommy’s just impressed.”

I chose a chair by Hannah and ignored Erin. “What should we play? Truth or Dare?”

The girls stared at me.

“Aren’t you a little old for that game?” Erin said. “What are you guys, like thirty?”

“Not yet,” Jake said and set his hand on my shoulder as he walked past me. “But I don’t think people play that anymore. Sorry, Tommy.”

He sat beside Erin and cracked his beer open.

I shrugged. I wondered how old the girls were and remembered them standing in the sunlight before. Their tank tops were tight. Their breasts the perfect shape from where we stood on the path. I had tried not to stare when we got closer, after I had tripped. Now they wore big sweatshirts and tight blue jeans. They seemed off limits, but looked eager as they drank their beer, like it would vanish if they didn’t gulp it down.

“Fine,” Erin said. “I dare Tommy to twerk in front of the fire.”

“What’s twerking?”

Jake spit up his beer. It dripped down his chin until he wiped it away with his thumb.

“Nice try,” Erin said.

My face went hot, and I studied the silver mountains printed on my can, waiting for them to stop watching me.

“Look at him,” Hannah said. “He has no idea!”

When I lifted my head, Stephanie looked at me from across the fire, a little curious, a little unsure. “You really don’t know?”

I shook my head, watching Jake who was shaking his too, staring at the ground and twisting his feet into the dirt.

“Only because I’m drunk,” Stephanie said and strutted across to where I sat. I leaned back in my chair and held my beer to my chest. Stephanie turned around, her ass right in my face, pausing there before she bent her knees and rested her hands on her thick thighs. Slowly, gracefully, she started shaking just her butt cheeks. Her rhythm grew quicker and her ass jiggled so fast I didn’t know where to look. Up and down. Right and left. It circled and vibrated and bounced. There were so many movements all at the same time and the word made such perfect sense. Twerking. Twerking. I wondered if I was supposed to reach out, touch it, grab one of the lumps and try to stop it or maybe just settle my palm there and feel it pulse.

Hannah and Erin were laughing so hard their cans of beer tipped. Jake was staring, silent, probably as much in awe as I was. Stephanie eventually stopped before her ass fell off her body. She spun around, grinning, but I couldn’t give her the same in return. Nothing on my body worked. She lowered her face to mine. Her warm beer breath covered my nose.

“That is twerking,” she whispered.

Stephanie peeled off her sweatshirt. She wore the same white top as before, and the skin from her neck to her chest glistened, a dampness that made her seem immortal. Part of me wanted to thank her, to ask, possibly, for a little bit more. For her to bend down again and let me draw swirls on her chest with her sweat.

“I just have to ask,” Erin said. “Do you live under a rock?”

I watched Stephanie walk back to her chair, something in my chest that was loose when she shook her ass in my face, was now tight and uncomfortable.

“Hello,” Hannah said, tipping her chair to the side and waving her hand in my face. “Are you Amish or something?”

“Tommy is just a little behind the times,” Jake said. “Doesn’t go on the internet a lot.”

I looked at Jake; his eyebrows were raised.

“I just got out of prison,” I said.

“What?” Erin and Hannah said at the same time.

“I said I just got out of prison.”

Stephanie swallowed, set her beer on the ground. “For what?”

Jake hung his head and said my name in the sort of voice used on a two-year-old.

“A bunch of different stuff.”

“Yeah, like what?” Erin said.

“Little things kept adding up until I stole a car.” I nodded toward Jake. “We planned to take his grandmother’s car out west and start over. But it fell through. She called the cops and Jake and I were at the Shell off 81. I was waiting in the car, Jake was inside. Cops came and there I was, sitting pretty.”

Hannah let out a breath. “At least you didn’t kill anyone.”

Stephanie picked up her beer again. She started twisting the tab until it popped off.

“That’s so shitty,” she said.

I thought about how we were different men then. We worked like dogs at Toman’s and knew it was the best we would probably ever get. There were little things that kept us excited and hopeful. When Jake married Cindy before their relationship turned to shit. When I started practicing guitar again, writing my own songs, and had a band for about a week. But those bits of happiness always wore off. Everything did. Except for our friendship.

Going west was the best plan we ever had, but I didn’t have a car, and Jake had to sell his if we wanted enough money to make it there. In his grandmother’s car for those first ten minutes, one in the morning, the rest of the world seeming dead, right before we stopped for gas, I had felt a little sorry for Mrs. Butler, old, alone, and car-less, but I dreamed of the cool, dry air I would be breathing. I dreamed of Colorado water too, running down the big mountains. I wondered if the tap water would taste different than Pennsylvania’s. Maybe fresher.

“I have to say,” Erin said now, “this makes so much sense.”

“Erin!” Stephanie shouted. “That’s not nice!”

“Sorry,” Erin said, rolling her eyes. “But I have one more question. Do you know who’s running for President?”

I glanced at Jake. “Dude,” he said. “Have you seriously not turned on the TV?”

“Let’s just keep playing Truth or Dare,” Stephanie said.

Hannah pointed at me while looking at Stephanie. “I dare you to kiss the convict.”

I tried to settle my legs that instantly began to bounce, tried to tighten the muscles that had been stabbed awake.

The last woman I had kissed was Kara Robinson. We were at Cleary’s on a Saturday and she’d heard I had started a band so she followed me around all night, asking me to sing her a song. I never did, but I didn’t want her to stop begging. I cocked my head to the side, telling her maybe, if she got lucky. We stood at the end of the bar during last call. The lights turned brighter and Kara grabbed the front of my shirt and pulled me in. She tasted like popcorn and cigarettes and just about ate off my lips.

I imagined kissing Stephanie now and it happening differently. Our lips would go together, not moving, but just staying like that until I had gotten enough.

Stephanie smirked but shook her head. “I don’t kiss people I barely know.”

“I dare you to go skinny dipping in the lake, then,” Hannah said.

Stephanie smiled. A compromise. “Fine.”

We stood and headed toward the lake that sat behind the campsites. I thought of her pale body falling like a smooth stone into the lake, the kind Jake and I used to find and skip. Running over the water, the stones were miracles until they fell through the surface.

There was a wide wooden dock that ran over the water. It had a ladder on the end and Stephanie went right to the edge, held onto the ladder’s metal sides and dipped her foot in.

“It’s cold,” she said.

“Too bad. Get in there,” Hannah said and pulled out a beer from her sweatshirt pocket.

Jake stood to my left. I could feel him looking at the side of my face. I didn’t want to look away from Stephanie, but I turned my head toward him. His lips were locked together, his eyes small, squinty.

“I’m sorry,” he said, not looking away.

Behind him, the moonlight highlighted the lake. The water was just thin layers of silk, the clumps of lily pads at the edge like hidden jewels. I knew it then, that we wouldn’t see the girls again. We had such different lives, coming together for those hours only because they needed our help. I didn’t know what would happen to me after tonight, how the world would treat me, if I would belong in Jake’s, or he in mine.

“I know,” I told him.

Stephanie pushed her underwear down now, standing at the edge of the dock, and bounced a little, her backside lifting and falling. When she reached behind her back and undid her bra, the lace falling on the dock, I wondered if she was cold, if goosebumps had covered her skin. Finally, she bent her knees. Her calf muscles flexed and she jumped in.

Hannah and Erin shrieked as water hit their legs. They jumped back, but I moved to the edge, watched her long brown hair follow her head underwater. The ripples of water calmed. Her head didn’t surface right away, and in those twenty seconds, that droplet of fear shook me.

I jumped into the water with my New Balance sneakers, my old Levi jeans that were too big, a Hanes t-shirt I had found shoved under my bed that morning. I was convinced she couldn’t hold her breath that long or maybe she’d hit her head on a rock. Suddenly, that night wouldn’t be the only night we would ever share. Stephanie would be eternally grateful after I saved her. I would have a purpose. One so big, I would always be wanted.

When my head surfaced, so did Stephanie. I wrapped my arms around her. Her slippery skin soft, magical.

“What!” she yelled, laughter pouring from her throat between breaths of air.

I loosened my hold, but she put her arms around me too. “You weren’t coming up. I was scared.”

I moved us to shore with her thighs wrapped around my waist. Her chin rested on my shoulder, her breath a quiet lullaby in my ear. When I carried her out of the lake, I felt the warmth of her naked body through my clothes more than I had in the water, and I couldn’t help smiling in the dark as her curves fit so perfectly in my arms.

The best part wasn’t being that close to a real woman. The best part: Stephanie never let on that she didn’t need me then and never really would.

Sarah Walker is a writer living in Boston, Massachusetts, originally from Scranton, Pennsylvania. She studied writing and film at Bridgewater State University. Her work has appeared in The Bridge, Burrow Press Review, Dirty Chia, and others. She is currently a Dennis Lehane Fiction Fellow at the Solstice MFA Creative Writing Program of Pine Manor College.




Image credit: Christopher Campbell on Unsplash 

FILTER FEEDING by Ploi Pirapokin

by Ploi Pirapokin

Hours before the British surrendered, Japanese soldiers entered the school being used as a hospital at the front lines. They bayoneted wounded soldiers incapable of hiding, gang-raped the nurses, and mutilated every single person inside. Carcasses were left out like empty shells on the field.

The Japanese slept in fortresses built in Kowloon, in between villages like ours surrounding the border. They spared no one in their march through China. Is that why you came back?

From the jetty, I spotted your grey silhouette above the shallow tide. The sun had set. Black-faced spoonbills had flown off. Wind blew ripples into the water, peppering what was clear with little black dents that lined the smooth, blue surface. Cool air reminded me of the first time we met. The crickets stopped hissing and the crabs and mollusks had retreated back into their shells. You dove and fed from the seabed, hidden in the dark of the mangrove forest.

Do you remember that time you got caught in our nets? Our men tried hacking the ropes with dull knives and our women splashed water on all of you to stop the bleating.

I was a boy then, too weak to throw you off our boat, too scared to try. The low tide that year hurt us too. The oysters weren’t plump enough to sell; their flesh a third of the size of what they once were. Remember when my father cried out, “There’s a boy in here! One of the dugongs has eaten a boy!” Our men crowded around to see your pale face. I can recall those eyes even when I dream: forlorn, deep-set murky eyes like typhoon clouds so pregnant with water even sunlight could not penetrate through. We thought you were dead but then you opened your mouth and whistled a sound so shrill, we dropped everything to cover our ears. Your shell leapt back into the water, dragging nets and knives, but not the rest of your herd.

We buried them in the sand. Since then, our harvest started later and later every year. Some of us blamed the metal, some blamed the polluted water swept in from the Mainland, some of us blamed you. Larvae eventually settled on wooden posts planted across the tidal flat. We waited for our oysters to blossom but raked only barnacles. I thought if dugongs held little lives inside, why couldn’t oysters hold onto their worlds?

I heard drunken Japanese nearby, and knew they were coming. If they didn’t come now, they’d come tomorrow. I couldn’t imagine living beyond them—just like I couldn’t imagine our oysters dying, or your body in a dugong. My brother had gone to bed, right before my parents made love in their room. I left our front door open. Wading waist-deep into the tide, I brought my face down to hear you underwater holding my breath. At what point will we forgive ourselves for leaving? At what point do we join barnacles on their posts or hide in giant dugongs lost at sea?

Ploi Pirapokin’s work is featured in, Apogee Journal, the Bellingham Review, Fiction International, HYPHEN Magazine, and more. She has received grants and fellowships from the San Francisco Arts Commission, the Creative Capacity Fund, the Headlands Center for the Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, Kundiman, and others. She holds an MFA in Fiction from San Francisco State University.




Image credit: Wikipedia


after Charlottesville: anti-racism protesters

by Olivia Hu

It’s not that your mother was afraid herself, or of your teeth,
or of everything you curl your body towards. Your mother is
shivering the way mothers do when their daughters become
something on the living room floor, the thought of red wine
spilt over the heart. She wanted everything you are not: a body
clean, mouthless, palms too soft to spiral into a fist. In the streets,
you raise the whole of your anatomy. Eyes, wrists, you magnify.
These are lines beyond the tapered spill of your voice, which now
arch to stone. And what happens to a solid when reacted in gas?
The streets and a white film, chemical reaction for violence.
Or your body, two reactants colliding within itself. It is difficult to
know the universal language for resist, for 3 dead and 34 injured.
We learn to count with these bodies. Your teacher used to say that
this is the hardest type of puzzle to number, the one where new items
appear every hour or so. It’s true, the falling body becomes creation.
Before your arms became a reminder of existence, you numbered
apple seeds on a coloring page, the hollow cores not any different
from what now litters the asphalt.

Olivia Hu is the Editor-In-Chief of Venus Mag and author of the chapbook Ocean’s Children (Platypus Press, December 2016). Her work is forthcoming or has been published in Red Paint Hill, Eunoia Review, Cadaverine, Track Four, and more.

Image credit:  Mark Dixon on Flickr in Charlottesville, VA

THE RED MOON by Mark A. Nobles

by Mark A. Nobles

My father turned into the driveway a little too fast, just like he always did. The Studebaker’s engine growled and the spring shocks squealed as my mother held her breath and closed her eyes, and my brother and I bounced in the back seat, almost hitting our heads on the roof. It was a Sunday night, March 13, 1946, and we were returning home from church. It was a fine spring evening.

I remember the sermon that evening being especially fiery, even for Preacher Bonds. It had been a hell and brimstone, apocalyptic, God fearing sermon, and I had been particularly caught up while mother cried, father slept, and Jim, my younger brother, fidgeted.

Preacher Bonds was as charismatic a Southern Baptist preacher as ever lived. Southern Baptists work from the premise that a good Christian is a scared Christian, and they have plenty of good material from which to work. Few denominations can wring fear from the Bible as well as the Southern Baptists. I know what you’re thinking, but I don’t count the Catholics. They’ve had so many more years of practice that, for them, rule by fear is a centuries-old art form.

Anyway, Preacher Bonds stayed pretty much in Revelations that night, and his voice was still ringing in my ears as the Studebaker coughed and died in the driveway, and we piled out into the late dusk of evening.

Jim looked up at the sky and pointed. “Look at the size of the moon tonight,” he said. I turned and looked up at the moon as it hung just over our neighbor’s roof. “And the color,” Jim said. “Look at the color.” It was red, blood red.

“And the stars shall fall from the sky,” said Father as he reached down and scooped Jim up in his burly arms, “and the moon shall turn blood red,” he bellowed in his deepest voice. “Isn’t that what Preacher Bonds said about the start of the end times?”

Jim’s eyes got about as big as the moon.

“Bill,” mother said to father in her disapproving voice.

Father paid no heed to mother. “Yes, I believe he did,” he said, putting Jim back on the ground. He turned in a way that he didn’t have to look at Mother and walked into the house.

Mother put her hand on my shoulder and softly said, “Go on, into the house with both of you.”

I look back at that time and wonder why I didn’t notice the change as it was beginning. She was pale, my mother, and try as I might to remember now, I can’t recall when the life had gone from her voice, but it was already gone on that night. I was only ten, Jim only six, but looking back I wonder how I could have missed it, not seen it coming. Then, I spend an hour watching my own children at play in their backyard, and I realize children have no yesterdays or tomorrows, only todays. It isn’t until adulthood that we try and string all those days together and look at the whole.

That night, after mother tucked us in, we lay in bed, quiet, but wide awake.

“Bent?” Jim said.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Is this it? Is this the end of the world, or was Dad kidding?”

“Don’t know. Dad reads the paper and says the world has gone crazy, and with what Preacher Bonds said about the end times, it could be.”

“Have you ever seen the moon red like that?” Jim asked. We couldn’t see the moon from our beds, but we could remember what it looked like out by the car, and its light came rustling in through the curtains.

“Can’t say I ever remember it being red,” I said with all the wisdom and experience of my one decade of life.

“What should we do? I can’t go to sleep. If this is the end of the world, I don’t want to sleep through it.”

I knew where Jim was leading the conversation. Three summers ago, Father had built a treehouse in the live oak on the east side of the house. Jim hadn’t been allowed to climb it until this spring because he had been too small. It was still a new and secret place for him. We had sneaked out there at night a time or two before, but it was always a gamble because the live oak was on our parents’ side of the house, just a few yards away from their window, which stayed open to catch the breeze during the spring and summer. We had to be really quiet, and being quiet did not come naturally to Jim.

“I don’t know, Jim. If this is Judgment Day, it might not be a good idea to be caught someplace where we’re not supposed to be.”

Jim didn’t say anything, but after about twenty minutes my imagination began to run away with me as well. If the world was coming to an end, I wanted to be a witness.

“OK,” I said, “let’s go out to the treehouse, but…”

“We have to be really quiet,” Jim finished my sentence for me. “I know. I’m six, not stupid.”

Ours was a two-story, craftsman style house with a wraparound porch that sat on the southwest corner of Race and Karnes Streets. Because our house was a corner lot with a bigger yard, all the neighborhood kids came to our house to play. I really enjoyed the big yard until I grew strong enough to push a lawnmower.

All we had to do to get to the treehouse was climb out our window to the first story eave that encircled the house. Our bedroom was at the southwest corner at the back of the house. Once on the roof, we would crawl down the backyard side, around the corner, and up the Karnes Street east side until about three feet from our parents’ window, which was on the northeast corner of the house. There was a branch from the live oak strong enough and close enough for us to climb out and over into the treehouse. I don’t know if I truly believed that night was the end of the world, but I do know I believed that if Mother had ever caught us on that ledge, it would have been the end of the world for us, or at least for me. Jim, being younger, might only have been maimed.

As we rounded the corner and started down Karnes Street, I was quite surprised to find the light still on in our parents’ room. I almost decided to turn back. I thought better of it because Jim was a few feet ahead of me, and he was afraid of heights. He was totally focused on not falling off the eave. I was afraid to say anything or to grab him suddenly for fear he might cry out. I decided to forge ahead, and we crawled into the treehouse with only one small scare. Once, Jim slipped a bit on the limb and rattled the branches regaining his balance. He was a pretty brave kid, and although there was a scream in his eyes, not a sound passed his lips.

The treehouse had a ledge on the Karnes Street side that the roof didn’t cover, so we stretched out side-by-side on our backs and looked up through the branches at the stars and waited.

They looked as secure in the heavens as ever, and none fell as we watched.

Lying in the stillness, I could hear my parents’ mumbled voices drifting out through their open window. I could only catch a stray phrase or two every few minutes, and for a long time, I didn’t even pay attention. But after what must have been at least thirty minutes, I realized they were still up and talking. I began to wonder. It had to have been past midnight, and Mother and Father didn’t usually stay up past ten, eleven at the most, even on a Saturday night, let alone a Sunday night.

“Jim,” I whispered, “what do you suppose they’re talking about this late.” Jim didn’t say a word, and when I turned and looked at him, he was sound asleep. He lay there on his back with his mouth open, inhaling and exhaling the shallow, quick breaths of childhood.

I slowly sat up, peeped over the two-by-four railing, and looked into my parents’ window. A thin wind briefly brushed back the curtain, and I saw my mother sitting on the bed, holding her hands in her lap. I think she looked scared, but that could be a detail that slipped into my memory over the many years since. As I sat there looking over the railing, my father passed back and forth by the window. Sometimes it appeared as if he was carrying things, maybe clothes, but I could not tell for sure. I could not make out their conversation. I sat and strained to listen and hoped for another small gust of wind to provide a glimpse of their discussion.

Father did most of the talking. Mother only said a few words now and then. After a while, Father stopped pacing. I couldn’t see him any longer, so I assumed he sat down in the overstuffed chair in the corner, out of sight from the window.

They talked about me and Jim for a long time. Every once in a while I’d hear “the boys” mentioned or one of our names spoken. Mother kept talking about church and Preacher Bonds, but I didn’t have to hear father to know how he felt about them. He never was much of a churchgoer.

That night seemed as if it passed in an hour. I sat in the treehouse knowing what was happening in my parents’ room was important but not thinking to guess what it might be. My pajamas began to get damp and sticky as the morning dew began to form.

I had fallen asleep, my head resting on my hands on the rail, when I was startled to consciousness by the light turning out in my parents’ room. I raised up and was momentarily relieved, thinking they had finally gone to bed. I stretched out on my stomach and looked over the side of the treehouse toward Race Street. I was going to lie there a few minutes to loosen some of the kinks out of my neck and back. After I was sure Mother and Father were asleep, I’d wake Jim and we’d crawl back to our own beds.

The sound of our front door opening perked my head back up. I heard the front door close, followed by footsteps across our porch and down the walk. A man carrying a suitcase walked east on Race headed toward Karnes. The man crossed Karnes and kept on walking until he disappeared into the orange glow of the rising sun.

The full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by the gale; the sky vanished like a scroll that is rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Rev. ch.6 12-14  

Mark A. Nobles is a Fort Worth-based writer and filmmaker. His work has appeared in Sleeping Panther Review, Crimson Streets, and other publications. He has produced and/or directed three feature documentaries and several short, experimental films. He can be found on Facebook @FlyinShoesFilms.




Image credit: Derek Liang on Unsplash

gravy strain by Davy Knittle

gravy strain
by Davy Knittle

thin a little ice for me
but keep the slip

melt slouches melt-ward
and it’s regular bad

is it time yet
I think it’s not yet time to

wear my feelings but also
read them: top them on a pizza

pour them in a sinkhole
drink them from a fountain

bake them into Pennsylvania and
here we go for a regional beverage

tour in the car: birch beer
: teaberry ice cream milkshake

black cherry wishniak
a year of new soup every day

we like a lot of it
we drink that milkshake twice

a waitress has gender trouble
and ways to ask if we’re pals

will we share the check
do neither of us want a meat side

when we swap our plates
she says “I saw that” and smiles

when she’s sure we’re together
she’ll only hold her eye with me

it’s normal—someone jokingly proposes
a bill to offset the expense of having kids

as recompense for transfolks’ unsafe lives
we keep after that indemnified baby

find 10,000 places we’re scared to pee
win a bad puppy at a goldfish toss

hold onto our fair vouchers
and he’ll grow up to be a boy

join our neighbors organization
or sit on a municipal board :

in a meeting see accident footage
: an ATV plowing into a hedge

by a public gazebo
see photos of the park a year before

with grandmas in it: a ceremony
naming the hedge for a woman who shares

“Flora,” Andrew’s grandma’s name
Flora losing an object that belongs to us

you reclaiming it and football dancing
in her garage—blowing out like candles

the slights that appear then disappear
: assembling boxes of donuts

donated to queer prom—breathing
on vegetables with our hippo breath

serving grey vegetables at a library meeting
opening a catering company to do

institutional brunch: closing
at three each day to go bowling

planting salad mix and waiting out
its 55 days to full development

clearing our time to teach the puppy
to rise his baby wings up for the sky

Davy Knittle’s poems and reviews have appeared recently in Fence, The Recluse, Columbia Poetry Review and Jacket2. He lives in Philadelphia where he curates the City Planning Poetics series at the Kelly Writers House.


by Daryl Sznyter

I dream of a man cutting into my stomach
and you’re observing it like a student, mentally

drawing the next incision. I try to sit up but then
you’re walking away. I reach for you and you

tell me I’m probably just hungry. I reach through
the hole in my stomach and realize it’s empty.

I remember feeling grateful upon waking. I wake
you up to ask you how you lost your virginity,

recalling how in the movie, the bad boy character
tells the girl he just deflowered she would have a lot

of unspecial sex. Yours sounded magical, even from
the start. I somehow felt less special upon hearing this.

Like the character in the movie, I can’t remember
names. I remember one name and try to look him up.

The news says he’s been missing since last December,
almost a year ago today. You ask me how many, but I

can’t remember that either. In your silence, I doze again,
counting them on my teeth. In my dreams, my teeth are falling.

Daryl Sznyter is a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet and content writer from Northeast Pennsylvania. She received her MFA in Poetry from The New School. Her work has appeared in Phoebe, Gravel, The American Journal of Poetry, Poet Lore, WomenArts Quarterly, Bop Dead City, and elsewhere. Her first full-length collection of poems, Synonyms for (Other) Bodies, is forthcoming from New York Quarterly Books in March 2018.




Image credit: Frank Okay on Unsplash

UNDERSONG by Martha Zweig

by Martha Zweig

Dawn: eight neighborhood
bullies congregate spoiling to tweak a perfect day.
They stalk tinfoil glints in the gutter & dangle dead moles.

Arise & go to Innisfree, wattles & daubs!
Poetical lovers there surround one another & bristle
like bees busybodying thistles. How, here,

come we to sip, from mother’s exquisitest
china pattern, our chipped tea? Trivial effronteries
scrimping a latest grisly luncheon along?

But the day advances pleasantly. Children
scatter to hopscotch back & forth & from pebbles
to butterscotch. Giddy moment: I myself

recompile my list of lost lists as if it dipped
to the breeze & whispered all of its
nothings & negligence along my collarbones.

The bullies rumble & puff. They’ve busted
everything to bits. Actually we ran home
wailing hours ago. The perfect day

stretches itself out, slackens, curls up, doubles over
& over the bullies, snuggles & licks their scabby
elbows & moon faces to glisten.

Martha Zweig’s latest collection, Get Lost, winner of the 2014 Rousseau Prize for Literature, is forthcoming from The National Poetry Review Press. Previous collections include: Monkey Lightning, Tupelo Press 2010; Vinegar Bone (1999) and What Kind (2003), both from Wesleyan University Press, and Powers, 1976, a chapbook from the Vermont Arts Council. She has received a Whiting Award, Hopwood Awards, Pushcart and Best-of-the-Net nominations, and has published most recently in Slice; Spillway, Innisfree and Superstition Review.


Image credit: Jon Tyson on Unsplash


by Cliff Saunders


The walking stick:
an unlikely mast
a bit long-in-the-tooth.


Good news:
red doors beckon
from the North Pole.
They’re out there,
and so very conflicted.


Frozen in time:
the dark freeway
where nature checks
its pretty head for gypsy moths.
What happens when
there is a reckless leap?


Go ahead, say it:
loyalty is dirt
—meantime, tomatoes are rotting.


It’s official:
dementia is brewing
in the railing spindles.


True story:
dreams go to die
where mountains mingle
with the sky.
Bitterly they mourn
the cold, hard cliffs they climb.


Go figure:
ice frustrates the grieving.


It bears repeating:
cocooning continues
in the hands of principals
despite bouts of loneliness.
It’s happening way too often.


Look it up:
cages cry during
hushed conversations of astronauts.


Think about it:
a dark December day
has telltale crumbs on its bones.
It hurts to watch
the wind blow
through a novelist’s eyes.
There’s something about paper
that never even sees
the fissure widen.

Cliff Saunders has been writing and publishing poems for more than forty years. He is the author of several chapbooks, including Mapping the Asphalt Meadows (Slipstream Publications) and This Candescent World (Runaway Spoon Press). His poems have appeared recently in Serving House Journal, Five 2 One, The Big Windows Review, Rumble Fish Quarterly, and Snow Jewel. He lives in Myrtle Beach, where he works as a freelance writer.

TWO FLASH PIECES by Taylor Lorenzo

by Taylor Lorenzo

How to Climb the Rope in Gym Class

When you reach the top, do not ring the bell. Keep climbing. Don’t stop until you have broken through the roof. The air will be cool when you take your first gasp of breath on the other side. You will notice you have not broken through the shingles of the roof. Instead, you’ll find yourself in clean-shaven grass. In front of you, there will be a golf ball tee. Place your chin on the tee and let go of the rope. Let your muscles relax as your body dangles in the gym. The students below will form a line to take their turn at ringing the bell of your body. When someone has finally climbed high enough to reach the tip of your toes, you can do one of two things: 1) Measure the tenderness of their touch; if it is delicate, let them climb the stillness of your anatomy; they will cling to you as long as you remain still. 2) If their first grasp is tight around the ankles, kick and thrust your body, violently, until they have lost their grip; until they have fallen 20 ft. onto the hard, waxed floor; until your shoes fly off your feet; until your head slides off the tee. Let your body slip back down into the hands of the students in the gymnasium below. Before they cheer your name, before they plead to take photos with you, in your barefoot landing, you will hear what I have been meaning to tell you: Always ask others to remove their shoes before letting them step on the welcome mat of your body.

Broken Apology

You aren’t seventeen anymore. Look into your black coffee. Your skin is white enough to create a reflection, and your face forms new creases that you must introduce yourself to. Every day you wake up singing the same song, and every day that song becomes a year older on the Billboard list. Think about your childhood and realize you don’t remember the excruciating detail, only the vague relation to a seven-year-old girl who memorized every country’s name on a world map. You can’t recall the names of these countries, and you can’t remember your first kiss. You can, however, remember two nights ago at the bar when a bearded man bought you a beer. You remember how bitter it tasted. Get up. Walk to your car in twelve strides and drive to your friend’s house. She will be there making a tomato basil stew with one hand and throwing a seventy-two-inch vase with the other. Stare at the curve of the vase. Stare at the curve of your waist to your hip. See how smooth the vase is. See the hillsides of your stomach. When she focuses two eyes on the stew, walk over to the wheel and knock over the vase. As she screams, apologize, not to her, but to your body: a soft, broken apology.

Taylor Lorenzo is a graduate student at Missouri State University and currently serves as a Poetry Editor for Fields Magazine and an Assistant Fiction Editor for Moon City Review. Her work has appeared in The Cossack Review, Wu-Wei Fashion Mag, and Metatron’s online journal.





Image credit: Gwen Weustink on Unsplash



FRANCES by Maria Brandt

by Maria Brandt

Frances had skipped two periods before she realized what was going on. “I’m lucky,” she bragged to Sarah over milkshakes at the corner store. “I haven’t had my period in eight weeks, no tampons for me, I beat the system.” Sarah’s mouth dropped, and that’s when Frances became aware of the extent of her self-deceit. Now, she sits cross-legged on the floor in Jack’s bedroom shuffling a deck of cards while Jack moves laundry from the washer to the dryer in the basement, his parents in the city at a hospital benefit.

She remembers decorating the basement in her own home two years earlier for her sixteenth birthday party. Her mother had been in one of her moods, so her father had picked up Sarah and taken the two of them to CVS to buy twenty-seven feet of multi-colored streamers and a bag of medium-sized balloons. “I think we should make a giant stethoscope,” Frances said to Sarah while climbing an old step-ladder, “like the one my grandmother has.” “Why not a heart?” Sarah replied. She remembers thinking Sarah lacked ambition.

Still in Jack’s bedroom, Frances puts down the cards and lies on her back on the floor. Spreading her fingers so her palms press into the wood, she can hear Jack banging around the basement and wonders whether or not he uses fabric softener. She knows fabric softener contains toxic chemicals like ethanol and camphor that deteriorate a person’s neuropathways, and others that cause pancreatic cancer or fatal edema, and she berates herself for knowing this but not putting two and two together about her missing periods.

She thinks again about that night two years earlier, about trying to make that stethoscope, wrapping her fingers around the streamers, twisting them into lines and curves, then asking Sarah for her opinion. “It looks like a glazed doughnut,” Sarah said. Later, at the party, Jack gave Frances a present wrapped in old newspaper. She had invited him because he offered unusual anecdotes about medical breakthroughs in Mr. Elwise’s Biology class. “Did Elwise ever get back to you about that monkey neurogenesis study?” she asked when he handed her the present, the overhead lights making his nose look slightly larger than it was. “Nah, he’s useless,” Jack replied. After ripping open the newspaper and finding a used copy of Gray’s Anatomy like the one her grandmother had on the bookshelf in her living room, Frances felt her stomach flutter. That night, right before the ambulance came, she kissed Jack for the first time while Sarah cheered them on from the corner.

“Hey,” Jack says, laundry basket in his arms, Frances lying on his bedroom floor. “What are you thinking about?”

“Do you use fabric softener?”

“Of course not, fabric softener contains neurotoxins,” Jack replies. He watches while Frances sits cross-legged again and while she picks up the deck of cards. “You wanna play Strip Poker?” he asks.

“No, idiot.”

“Then what?” He sits next to her on the floor, his hand resting casually on her bare knee.

“I thought maybe we could tell fortunes,” Frances says. “Sarah taught me last week.”

“Sure, and then we can drive to the beach.”

Frances pushes his hand off her knee, but she misses him when he crosses the room to open a window. She finds the four Queens and turns them face-up on the floor. “Okay,” she says, “now you have to ask a question.”

“How bad will traffic be on the bridge?”

“It has to be a yes/no question.”

“Will traffic be bad on the bridge?”

She’s impressed that he doesn’t miss a beat, that he can rephrase his question so expertly. She wants to tell him this but instead asks him to concentrate and to choose a card from the deck, so he chooses the Three of Diamonds, and she places his card above the matching Queen of Diamonds. “Diamonds mean maybe,” she explains. “Traffic might be bad, might not.”

“That’s playing it kind of safe, don’t you think?”

“My turn,” Frances says. She squeezes her eyes tight until small tears begin to form, then chooses a card. It’s the Nine of Diamonds.

The night of her party, two years earlier, her father collapsed while making homemade popcorn over the stove. Frances heard the crash, then her mother’s screams. She rushed upstairs and saw her father lying stiff on the floor. She flung herself across his torso and felt her mother pulling her shoulders, trying to get her off him, but she knew blood wasn’t moving through his body, which meant no oxygen was getting to his heart, which meant his heart’s cells were dying rapidly and she didn’t know what kind of monkey tests had been done to shed light on the regeneration of a left ventricle.

She places the Nine of Diamonds above Jack’s Three of Diamonds and remembers thinking months after the funeral that her father would never have a conversation with Jack, would never know that Jack’s nose in fact was lovely, would never know that two days after the party, when she was sick with grief, Jack had quizzed her on the cellular make-up of bone marrow, would never know that she didn’t mind when Jack found out she used to think Gray’s Anatomy had been named after the television drama and not the other way around, would never know that Jack had figured out the streamers at her party were supposed to look like a stethoscope and not like a glazed doughnut or unambitious heart.

“No fair,” Jack says. “You need to ask your question out loud, that’s what I did.” His hand rests on her knee again.


“Well? What did you ask?”

“Give me a minute,” Frances says and breathes more heavily than she would like. “Will you and I have a baby?”

Jack squeezes her knee and sort of lies on top of her. “I hope so, Frannie girl,” he whispers while shifting his weight, “I hope so.”

“No,” Frances says, “I meant will we have a baby now.”


“Like, now.”


“Well, in seven months,” she says with finality.

Years ago, Frances’s parents took her and Sarah to the beach. They drove over the bridge, then parked the old station wagon in Field Three and carried chairs and a cooler up wooden stairs and over dunes to a spot near the lifeguard. Her parents spread a blanket over the sand and Frances watched while her mother touched the back of her father’s neck and whispered something in his ear. “What’s up?” Frances asked, but her mother took out a magazine and leaned into her chair. Later, Frances watched while her mother offered her father a sandwich. “Can I have one?” she asked, but her mother closed the cooler and looked to the waves. In the silence following her proclamation in Jack’s bedroom, Frances wonders if her mother wished that day that Frances would get sucked into those waves, or discreetly swallow enough neurotoxin to reduce her brain-energy metabolism, or do anything to disappear so her mother could make popcorn alone with her father every night before climbing into their great big bed.

“A baby in seven months,” Jack repeats. “Teeth are forming right now, an inner ear, even sex organs.” He pauses, then moves his hand to her belly. “May I?”

“You’re being awfully formal,” Frances says, but she lets his fingers make small circles on the skin under her t-shirt.

“What now?” Jack asks.

“What do you mean?”

His fingers linger on her belly and he slides closer so her head can rest against his shoulder. “My grandmother left me her ring,” he says. “Frannie girl, that ring is yours.”

Earlier that week, when Frances was doing her own laundry, her mother and grandmother were making grilled-cheese sandwiches upstairs in the kitchen. “I miss him,” she heard her mother say. “You need to take care of Frances,” her grandmother replied. “You always think of her, never of me,” her mother said. Frances opened a new box of fabric softener and thought about putting a sheet in with her mother’s underwear. Instead, she closed the box and hid it behind some old pipes.

“That ring is yours,” Jack repeats. She holds his hand and looks into his eyes, which remind her of her father’s eyes, brown like dirt overturned to dig a hole deep enough for a coffin. She remembers that shortly after she watched that coffin go into the ground, her grandmother pushed her stethoscope across the kitchen table. “It’s yours now,” she said to Frances, “I was alone, but I used this every day in my practice, it kept me company.” Frances remembers thinking her grandmother wasn’t alone, not really, because she had Frances’s mother, just like Frances’s mother wasn’t alone because she had Frances.

“Your eyes are like dirt,” she says to Jack, then regrets it, but he smiles.

“Freshly-turned dirt,” he says, “earthworms expanding and contracting their bodies to burrow and make things grow.”

Frances wonders how she got so lucky, how she found someone who understands her so well. “Yes,” she says.

“Yes to earthworms?”

“Yes to the ring.”

Later that afternoon Sarah braids her hair. “You really said yes?” Sarah asks while placing her hands firmly on Frances’ scalp. “What about college? What about med school? Why didn’t you use the cards, do more fortunes, don’t you think that would have been wise?”


“I’m serious. Diamonds mean maybe, Hearts mean yes, Spades mean no, Clubs mean probably, you just match your cards, they make the decision for you, it’s easy, you can’t go wrong.”

“I said yes.”

“Did you mean it?”

Frances looks down at her hands. “I don’t know,” she says. A year after her father died, she overhead her mother talking on the phone with her grandmother. “It’s hard for me, it’s hard for all women,” she heard her mother say. “Not you, you became a doctor, you beat the system, but—” Her mother stopped talking, and Frances wondered what system she might have meant, or what she might have realized that shut her up. Later that night, Frances decided to beat the system herself. She took off Jack’s jeans for the first time, let him take off her underwear, told him she loved him and that she wanted to experience penetrative sexual intercourse.

“I think I meant yes,” Frances continues while Sarah still braids her hair, “but I don’t know.”

“Why not?” Sarah asks.

“What if I’m like my grandma?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if I become a doctor and stop loving Jack, or care so much about being a doctor that I don’t pay attention to it? Or if I’m like my mom and love my husband but don’t ever really love it?”

Sarah’s eyes get all misty. “That’s a baby, Frannie,” she says, “not an it.”

“It’s a fetus, maybe even an embryo, but not a baby, and I can get an abortion.” Sarah pulls hard on Frances’s newly-braided hair and Frances welcomes the pain.

The next day, she sits at her grandmother’s kitchen table and looks out the window while her grandmother boils water. She watches a squirrel circle up a black locust and thinks about the locust’s trunk, wide and sturdy, almost threatening with its weight. By the time her grandmother brews two cups of chamomile, Frances is kneeling outside on the patio studying a pile of dirt. “Frannie,” her grandmother says, “what’s wrong?”

“It’s these earthworms,” Frances says through tears, the black locust looming over her head. “I think they’re copulating.”


“No, look, they’re lined up with their backs against each other, facing different directions, that means they’re copulating,” Frances continues. “Did you know earthworms are hermaphrodites? Did you know they have both male and female sex organs?”

“I know, Frannie.”

“And they make this thing called a slime tube, kind of like mucous, and they each ejaculate into the slime tube, sending sperm into the other earthworm’s sperm receptacle?”

“Frannie, what’s wrong?” Frannie leans back into her heels and starts making small noises. Her grandmother puts down the tea cups and kneels beside her, holding Frances’s damp face and rubbing her cool fingers into the back of Frances’s shoulder. “What is it?”

“Why did you have mom?”

“Is she at you again?”

“No, I want to know why you had her, you didn’t want her, you know you didn’t want her, that she would get in your way, but you had her anyway, why?”

Her grandmother pulls back and brushes some of Frances’s hair from her face. “Frannie, I did want your mother, I love your mother, what’s this all about?”

“Do you remember when I was younger and used to work with you?” Frances says. “You used to let me take your patients’ blood pressure, you taught me how to find their pulses and how to hold the stethoscope over their arteries, the same stethoscope you gave me after Dad died?”

“I remember.”

“I’d listen until I could hear the first pulse beat and then listen until I couldn’t hear anything at all, that’s how I read their systolic and their diastolic pressures, how I read the way their blood moved through their bodies, everything was so precise, everything was so clear.”

“I know.”

“That’s when I realized, even though I didn’t have the words,” Frances says, then looks again at the black locust, and at the maple just beyond, its branches fanning out from its trunk.

“Realized what?”

“That I wanted to be a doctor, like you.” Her grandmother rises and carries a steaming cup of chamomile to where Frances still sits huddled on the patio. “Why can’t we be like earthworms?” Frances says. “Why can’t we share slime tubes so everyone has eggs and everyone’s eggs get fertilized?”

That night, Frances and Sarah make popcorn over the stove. Sarah rambles on about the Ten of Clubs she drew after asking if some boy in their U.S. History class last year would break her heart, about how thin the card was, its paper face already bent with time, while Frances thinks about her father and his heart, cracked open like paper, like a broken kernel of corn. “It’s not fair,” Frances whispers.

“No kidding it’s not fair, why can’t boys step up? I don’t mean Jack, he’s one in a million, I mean normal boys, boys who don’t know how many bones are in their feet.”

While Frances melts butter for the popcorn, she wonders if her mother only had room to love her father, and if her grandmother only had room to love her work, and if traits like the capacity to love a child have a genetic component. She puts the popcorn bowl on the coffee table and goes into the bathroom to throw up.

In the morning, she notices the veins in her breasts and that she has gained two pounds. She takes out a deck of cards and pulls a Six of Spades which means abortion is no longer an option, which means she needs a new idea. Her grandmother’s car isn’t in the driveway when she arrives, so she sneaks around back. In the yard, she touches the black locust as if listening for that first pulse, that first marker of systolic pressure, but she keeps her eyes focused on the maple and its outstretched branches.

Getting to the first branch is easy. From there, she holds onto the trunk with one hand and feels for the next branch with the other, then pulls her body up again, then again, then again, until she’s sixteen-and-a-half feet from the ground, three times her body height. She makes sure soft grass is below before pressing her back into the trunk. Eyes closed, she pretends she’s an earthworm sending sperm into her mate’s receptacle, sending her uterus into her mate’s receptacle, sending her embryo, her fetus, her baby into her mate’s receptacle. She imagines the dirt and the slime and the release. Then, positioning her body so she doesn’t land on her neck or head, she jumps.

When Jack finds her, ten minutes after she texts him, she’s lying on her side in the grass, unable to move. “The cards didn’t work so I needed to figure out another way to beat the system,” she says, “and I might have killed our baby.” Jack moves to cradle her in his arms. “No,” she says, “lie next to me, but behind me, and face the other direction.”

“Like earthworms?” he asks. “When they copulate?”

Her back pressed against his back, she takes his hand and pulls it around to her slightly swelled belly while the locust, tall and forbidding, reaches for the sky.

Maria Brandt has published plays, fiction, and nonfiction in several literary magazines, including InDigest, Rock & Sling, Arts & Letters, Prime Number Magazine, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, VIDA, and upstreet. Most recently, her collection New York Plays was produced by Out of Pocket Productions and published by Heartland Plays, and her novella All the Words won the Grassic Short Novel Prize. Maria teaches Creative Writing at Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY and is a founding member of Straw Mat Writers. She lives just outside Highland Park with her son William.



Image credit:  Zulmaury Saavedra on Unsplash


by Nikki Stavile

Toni is a German shepherd. She shares my father’s name. She’s choking on Italian leather shoes and I take her out on the front porch. The utilities man brandishes the shutoff notice. He mistakes the red Fiat X-19 for my father’s girlfriend. The prospective tenant mistakes me for my father’s secretary. In the house, there is a flaming oven, which I mistake for a family argument. My baby sister totters from the half-baked rum cheesecake. I mistake her for my father’s ex. My father mistakes my middle sister for a lesbian. He mistakes me for a Christian. He presents me with a low-cut striped blouse. He anoints my forehead with olive oil. We go to church and press junk jewelry rosaries into one another’s palms. We mistake our father for Our Father Who Art in Heaven. We pray to the Jesus who has taken his hair. He is asleep. He believes he is in a Bond movie. He narrates his adventures and we follow him down the corridor, into the hospital’s catacombs. My father wakes up and mistakes himself for his younger self, because that is easier to do than admit he is dying. He mistakes me for his first crush. We share the same name. We place the garlic bread host in the center of the surgical ward. It wheezes underneath my palms as I cut. My father tells me to mistake it for my mother-in-law. I do not have a mother-in-law. I suggest flowers for the table. We three sisters pull up my mother’s rose bushes and stake one another in the back. We find the crosses are good for our postures. My father informs me that he was mistaken about dying, this time. He had mistaken himself for his father. They share the same name. I leave to start a pilgrimage. I go into the Roman churches. My father’s desperation seeps onto the one-euro candles. He instructs me to never steal from the Church. I exit through the confessional. I mistake every person in the street for my father. The men with their black-winged leather jackets. The women with their sunglasses reflecting heaven.

Nikki Stavile is a second year MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Hollins University. She deals with the dilemma of writing a lot of words and running a lot of miles on a near-daily basis. Nikki’s work has been published in or is forthcoming in Scoundrel Time and Artemis Journal. She resides in Roanoke, Virginia, with her partner and an abundance of Legend of Zelda video games, in a house depressingly devoid of cats.




Image credit: Pixabay

1968 by Matt Muth

by Matt Muth

For three nights we watched Vietnam
documentaries, mom slipping
…………….into the TV, the TV blooming
…………….the blossom of ’68
back at her. What an age
it is: Detroit shoveling
the ashes, her brother

on night patrol, The Supremes
…………….descending in their shimmery
…………….chitons through the radio
and settling over the year.
Watching her watch herself
is a marionette of severance,
the soft screen playing back

her life as if it happened
to a bystander, the narrator
…………….rifling her pockets. It must
…………….be an agony watching
vacancy grow arms
and legs until it walks
beside you covetous

and swallowing what your eyes
can’t fix in place. We drove by
…………….her childhood home, a wet wreck
…………….on a block of wrecks stripped
for copper. Her brother
lives in Dearborn now,
his life inside that year

shot through with holes, which is
to say he came back whole as anyone
…………….could hope. Diana
…………….will leave and Florence
will die; the bricks collapse
into disordered piles,
and my uncle beyond

the sight of everyone except
the news. All I can do is watch
…………….as this fond emissary
…………….shows me what it loved
and never know what kept
its shape or what they held
in the cleft of that year,

as Detroit’s east side emptied
itself of song and the air split
…………….against itself. If they saw
…………….three bright angels hold the sky
aloft for one slow beat, heard
them singing Set me free,
singing Keep me holding on.

Matt Muth is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Pacifica Literary Review. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Heavy Feather Review, RHINO, Rattle, Nashville Review and The Adirondack Review. He teaches writing at a technical college for video game designers in Redmond WA, lives in Seattle, and is a solid beer-league hockey player.




Image credit: Wikipedia

TWO POEMS by Lee Sennish

by Lee Sennish


Cars backed up to where the geraniums
manned the empty lifeboats in the square,
we went to see the grounded whale.
The shale bit through our sneakers.
Maggie up on your shoulders,
the sunset spilling its grenadine
above the crowd, voyeurs, to see
a leviathan who trolled the harbor
for a week before he trussed his bulk
upon the Wellfleet beach, still
now, only for an occasional flap of tail.
The eyes in the massive snout begged
go away, welcoming the fog and chill.
Ashamed, we retreated to the parking lot
where Maggie from her car seat said,
“This is where the monsters cut their feet.”

Calliope Come Back

Unlock this tongue, any ransom.
The fireworks are set for your return.
I expect Vesuvius or at least a wave
from the presidential car, sparklers
around your neck and toes, cinnamon
in your crocodile mouth, on three hours
sleep, nine cats wide, eleven hounds long.

Lee Sennish’s poems have been published or are forthcoming in decomP, Kestrel, The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, The Alembic, Scholastic Magazine, The Blue Door Quarterly, and The Forum. Her chapbook, I Choose Fire, was a finalist for the Slapering Hol Press Sanger-Stewart Chapbook Contest. She received an M.A. in literature from Hunter College, where she was advised by Jean Valentine. She currently takes courses at the Hudson Valley Writer’s Center and lives in Cottage Valley, N.Y.


Image credit: Pixabay

MIXED MEDIUM ART by Stuti Pachisia

by Stuti Pachisia

Scenery 1:
The sky is a permanent state of dawn, or dusk, if you will, and I
have been having a hard time breathing. This, the inability to
breathe, I mean, began long before the sky turned grey. Some
are calling this a cataclysm. I use the sky too much in poems, just
like I use Benadryl too much in real life. My poems reflect the
sky the way my dreams reflect Benadryl. It was only a matter of
time before it turned the other way round.

Scenery 2:
There is a tree spread out like a canopy, beneath which is a stone
bench. In the rain, you can sit here without getting wet. I mean,
if the storm is external. In case of internal storms, get wet. From
my canopied stone bench, I can see the window to my college
room last year and the entrance to my college room this year.
One is an entrance I never used, the other is an entrance I
should use more often. I cannot decide which is which.

Scenery 3:
When I left my room for a week, I came back to find I had left
the lights on, and there were hundreds of light insects lying dead
on the floor. I am sure there is a language with words for blood
that is not blood, and souls which are not human. Once I find
that language, I will return, hundred weeks from now, having
learnt that language’s words for apology.

Scenery 4:
Imagine a ship, a huge ship, a cargo ship, a passenger ship, a ship
carrying whatever you value. Imagine a dark, stormy night,
the kind where in stories, whatever you value will drown, only
because you valued it too much. Imagine seeing a lighthouse.
Imagine nearly reaching the shore. The lighthouse is burning.

Scenery 5:
You were in the middle of the sky. This was before it turned
grey, before you came to the room with the dead insects, a little
after you were told how high you will be and what to do when
you crash, a little after you read a yellow message in your Inbox
saying, ‘Something’s not right’. It was too early for the sky to be
anything but pink and new and an amniotic sac of a lot of hope.
It is too late for the sky to be anything but grey and old and torn
apart in wisps. The sky keeps confusing between itself and you. If you
are in the middle of the sky, does that mean the sky is in
the middle of you?

Stuti Pachisia is an undergraduate student of literature in English at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi. In the past, she has reported and written about politics, conservation and education. She hopes to someday teach and write poetry.



Image credit: Lee Scott on Unsplash

TOMB SONG, a novel by Julián Herbert, reviewed by Katharine Coldiron

by Julián Herbert
translated by Christina MacSweeney

Graywolf Press, 224 pages

reviewed by Katharine Coldiron

What an odd book Tomb Song is. It contains prose both beautiful and profane, extensive self-awareness and a troubling level of self-ignorance. Its author and its narrator blur together into an entity that is never quite one or the other, and it doesn’t distinguish between fiction and nonfiction with especial meticulousness. That is, the narrator and the author have the same name, the same wife and child, the same job, and the same literary accomplishments. It remains undefined whether, in what passages, and to what extent Herbert has fictionalized his life to write this book, which a reviewer in a Chilean newspaper called “an elegy to his mother.”

The book is, in fact, summarily about the narrator’s mother dying over the course of a year in and out of the hospital, but the reader will find the scope to be much wider. The narrator examines his childhood, his marriage, his perspective on Mexican politics, his drug use, and his struggle to make the world conform to his needs, or vice versa. Since this is Herbert’s first book translated into English, it’s difficult to determine whether the voice in Tomb Song—which most resembles a petulant, smart-alecky boy—is a gesture toward the filial relationship at the book’s center, or is the author’s usual tone. Off-putting though this voice may sometimes be, Herbert’s style, and his skill with the boundaries of genre and narrative distance, are singularly accomplished. Herbert, a poet and essayist, won the Jaén Prize for unedited novels and the Elena Poniatowska Prize for the original Spanish version of Tomb Song.

Julián Herbert

Destabilization is a key texture that the reader must appreciate in order to enjoy Tomb Song. For instance, the narrator, in exploring the hospital where his mother lies dying, dreams or hallucinates or genuinely takes part in a conversation with a man in the basement whom he identifies as “Bobo Lafragua, the hero of the unfinished novel I’d attempted to write a couple of years before.” Thirty pages later, he meets “the conceptual artist Bobo Lafragua” in Cuba for a dissolute vacation, complete with hookers, opium, and existential conversations. It is unclear whether the section in Cuba is adapted from life, as so much of this novel seems to be, or lifts a passage from that previously mentioned novel. The name is the only indication that we may have moved genres from nonfiction to fiction, and its reappearance causes a fine little frisson.

The prose, particularly in the Cuba passages, recalls Kerouac in its freshness and enthusiasm, and indeed, the literary performance of Tomb Song is captivating. Translator Christina MacSweeney, in recreating such a performance in English, made a daunting task look easy.

The prose, particularly in the Cuba passages, recalls Kerouac in its freshness and enthusiasm, and indeed, the literary performance of Tomb Song is captivating. Translator Christina MacSweeney, in recreating such a performance in English, made a daunting task look easy. The author’s exposure of his inner weather is unsparing and precise, and his one-liners are without equal:

Every household runs aground at the feet of a domestic myth.

T]he main objective of true revolutions is to turn waiters into bad-mannered despots.

There’s no route to the absolute that doesn’t pass through a fever station.

Berlin is a civic graveyard project into which has been drained the best of its sacred art: dead bodies.

Herbert pulls no punches, exploring his narrator’s flaws and the desperate circumstances of his childhood mercilessly, as if writing about a character he doesn’t especially want to shield. The glitches in this objectivity appear during certain passages about the narrator’s—Herbert’s—mother, who was a prostitute. Herbert is capable of standing back enough to see the irony in insulting someone by calling them “son of a whore” when his narrator’s circumstances embody that insult. But the pointed self-awareness that characterizes the narrator’s relationship with his mother sometimes slips, and the prose reveals an unsettling mishmash of innocent devotion, sexual desire, and contempt. “Some days she’d tie her hair up in a ponytail,” he writes,

put on dark glasses, and lead me by the hand through the lackluster streets of Acapulco’s red-light district, the Zona de Tolerancia, to the market stalls on the avenue by the canal (this would have been eight or nine in the morning, when the last drunkards were leaving La Huerta or Pepe Carioca, and women wrapped in towels would lean out over the metal windowsills of tiny rooms and call me “pretty”). With the exquisite abandon and spleen of a whore who’s been up all night, she’d buy me a Choco Milk shake and two coloring books.

All the men watching her.

But she was with me.

At the age of five, I first experienced the masochistic pleasure of coveting something you own but can’t understand.

Later, as an adult:

Out of sheer perversity, out of sheer self-loathing, out of pure idleness, I scanned the leftover girls of the night, trying to decide which one reminded me most of my mother.

In passages like these, when Herbert’s self-awareness is missing, the reader notices. Particularly if the reader is female. Men’s experiences are front and center in Tomb Song, whether as sons, fathers, carousers, authors, or mourners. The novel is so subjective, so purposely claustrophobic, that the dearth of women who appear as autonomous creatures, rather than “sex on legs,” is not as egregious as it might be in other novels. But it’s there. “I wanted to settle accounts with the mother goddess of biology,” he writes, “shooting a pistol at her, ejaculating in her face.”

One of the words used in the promotional material regarding this novel is “incandescent.” This is true, inasmuch as the word has two meanings: the ordinary, meaning light-emitting, brilliant, exceptional; and the obscure, meaning furiously angry. Anger comes off this book in nearly visible waves.

One of the words used in the promotional material regarding this novel is “incandescent.” This is true, inasmuch as the word has two meanings: the ordinary, meaning light-emitting, brilliant, exceptional; and the obscure, meaning furiously angry. Anger comes off this book in nearly visible waves. Mexico eats its own heart, politically, and the narrator is angry. A boy grows up in grasping poverty, and the narrator is angry. A mother dies, and the narrator is angry. The narrator snorts liquefied opium continuously out of a sinus-medication bottle, and he is still angry. With this anger comes pointed critique, gleaming insight, and an entertaining method of ADD-like writing, but the reading experience toes the line between exhilarating and exhausting.

Tomb Song is not a continuous story as much as it is a patchwork, a coat of many colors made from memoir and imagination and scintillating intellectual reflection and political diatribe and self-excoriation. What seams it into a single garment is Herbert’s voice, his energetic, free-associative, sardonic, charismatic voice. This tone, in which Herbert paints being the middle child of five siblings by five fathers, approaches “rollicking,” but doesn’t quite make it. Is that a flaw, a miscalculation, or a demonstration of the situation’s tragic absurdity? The reader will have to determine for himself whether the voice of Julián, in its variations, attracts or repels.

Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., the Rumpus, Brevity, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator.