Uprooted

By Melinda Nazario

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I couldn’t bear another season of drought, watching others blossom all around me, people content with themselves and their callings—nurses, cops, teachers—while I continued slowly withering away, becoming a person I now barely recognized. 

It was January 2013. I was a lead officer for Transportation Security Administration (TSA), finishing up my 0500-1330 shift. I walked quickly through the employee parking lot to my car, the fresh-fallen snow crunching underneath my boots, my TSA bomber jacket no match for sub-zero temperatures and the brutal Chicago wind. I quickly unlocked the doors to my 2008 Nissan Sentra and climbed in. As the car warmed up in the icy stillness, I found myself sitting in the driver’s seat, staring at the red, white, and blue Puerto Rican beaded necklace dangling from my rearview mirror, its heart-shaped flag swinging lightly back and forth. I was twenty-seven, and so far, my life was not going how I pictured it. The voices of family members filled my head. Cuzzo, you made it, they said. Cuzzo got a government job! She making that cash! She made it out the hood.

 *

They were all so happy and proud of me. And at first I was too. I bragged about not repeating a cycle, how I was working for the government instead of begging for their assistance, how I was able to buy a brand-new car and rent a condo in a better neighborhood. 

At twenty-seven, my life—its purpose—was extremely important to me. But as I sat in my car, silently gazing at my sad reflection, it hit me: I should’ve been happy but wasn’t. The problem: I had been reacting to my childhood, so focused on avoiding what I didn’t want in my life, I forgot to consider what I might want. 

I felt successful when I went to the grocery store and paid with a debit card instead of food stamps; I felt accomplished when my daughter was required to pay for lunch instead of being placed on the free-lunch list; I felt superior when I took my daughter to the doctor and saw the surprised look on the receptionist’s face when I handed her an actual insurance card that read Federal Employee Program Blue Cross Blue Shield instead of a flimsy rectangular piece of paper that read State of Illinois Healthcare and Family Services Medical Card. I was on that card my entire life. I was on food stamps my entire life. I had a hole punched in my lunch card to single me out and place me in the poor group my entire life.

I was so adamant about not being on Section 8 and welfare like my mom because I didn’t want to fall into the same trap she fell in and never climbed out of. It was like that for most people in the hood, where many girls my age wanted to get in the system and would say things like, Girl, I’m trying to get this Section 8, so I don’t have to be doing the most… Let me pay like $20 for rent, I’ll be straight. Others would claim they would use it just until they finished school and got on their feet. But that was rarely the case. Many found once they were in the system they were unable to climb their way out. While others simply didn’t see a need to push themselves out of a comfort zone. That was the case for my mom. One time she tried to take online classes. She was doing her prerequisites and struggled with English 101. I tried to help her, but she insisted it was no use. "I can’t do this, I don’t know what I was thinking,” she said.

I think back to moments like that and wonder if she really had no other choice. If she didn’t have the Section 8 safety net, would she have tried harder? Would she have had loftier-type of goals? 


“I read somewhere that the best time to uproot native plants is when they’re dormant. This minimizes the stress placed on the plant’s root system. I was dormant all right. Existing just for the benefit of others. Barely living. I was ready for something drastic.”  


Christmas had come and gone a week or so before my moment of reflection in the car. Mom hadn’t worked in over a year because she had been diagnosed with Lymphoma and needed treatment, so during that time, I moved in with her. Section 8 took care of the rent; I took care of everything else:  my mom, three siblings, a dog, a cat, my daughter and myself. I worked. I cooked. I cleaned. I drove her to her appointments throughout the year. I did her laundry (I did everyone’s laundry). I did the groceries. I was exhausted, but I didn’t complain. Throughout that entire time, Mom was sweet to me. She said things like, “I don’t know what I would do without you,” “You’re such a great daughter, God is gonna bless you.”

By September, she was in remission, but there was still a possibility it could come back. We lost our grandpa the year before to the same type of cancer, so for that Christmas I wanted to get the family's mind off of Mom’s illness. I used most of my $2000 bonus for presents and a huge Christmas feast.

After Christmas, Mom was doing well, and she announced that she would be going back to work. And within days, her attitude changed from grateful to annoyed.

“Melinda, I’m getting tired of your dog,” she would say just to get an argument started.

Then one day Mom came into the room I was staying in, the one that was once my room, but turned into my sister Breeana’s room when I initially moved out. “We need to talk,” she said.

“What’s wrong?”

“When do you think you can move into your own place?”

“Umm, I don’t know," I said. "I have to save up some money.”

“Well, I’m gonna need you to look for a place, Melinda. I need my space. Breeana has been sleeping in my room this whole time. She needs her room back.”

“Well, damn. You could’ve told me this sooner. I would’ve kept my bonus money to move out.”

“Well, I’m gonna need you to find something within a month. If Section 8 finds out that you’re here, I can lose my voucher.”

“Are you kidding me? You didn’t say anything about Section 8 this whole year. The minute you got a job, and got money, and don’t need me no more, that’s when you wanna use that shit?”

“Melinda, watch your language!”

“I’m sorry, but this is some BS.”

“And," she went on, "I really don’t like having a dog in this home, and I’m tired of you inviting your cousins and friends over.”

“They come over once a week, and it’s just three of them total. Damn, Mom, I need to unwind too. Don’t you see all the shit I do?”

“Well, you can do that in your own home.”

“You always do this, and I always fall into the same shit. You use me until you don’t need me anymore.”

She tried to say something else, but I stormed out. I fled the house, got into my car and drove aimlessly for a few hours. 

When I got back home, she was walled-off in her room and I found my brothers in the living room playing XBOX. Both of them, ages twenty-two and twenty-three, were unemployed.

     Danny paused the game. “Hey, Melinda. Do you think you could give me money for my haircut?”

“No," I snapped. "Get a job.”

He looked wounded. “Why you gotta be like that?”

“Why do I gotta be like that? Do you hear yourself? For the past year, I’ve been paying for everything in this apartment! Get a job!”

“Oooo, you always gotta act like a straight bitch.”

“Seriously? Fuck you! You definitely ain’t getting shit.”

I stomped to my room, slammed the door, fell on my bed. My brother and I had a similar argument a month before, on Thanksgiving. We were at a cousin’s house and Danny asked me to give him money for cigarettes. I said no. And he got in my face and called me a bitch in front of the whole family. So I got right back in his. My cousins had to separate us.

Now, as I was lying there in bed staring up at the ceiling, I thought, This is never gonna change. They grew up watching Mom use me, take advantage of me, make me feel like shit when I couldn’t or wouldn’t do what she wanted. And now they treated me the same way.

 *

And that is what had me sitting alone in my idling car after work on a frigid weekday, thinking about Section 8 and my government job and my family's odd dynamic throughout the years. I thought about how I had to drop out of high school to take care of everyone when Mom’s health declined. I thought about getting my mom through her kidney failure, dialysis, and transplant. I thought about how, when I was fifteen, I was the one who woke up in the middle of the night to take care of Breeana when she was a newborn because that was when Mom’s kidney function went down to 20%. I thought about the time I had to go to Section 8 and welfare appointments at age sixteen, in place of my mother, so we wouldn’t lose our benefits. I thought about the R&B group I was in during that time but had to quit because I couldn’t travel with them to New York; I had a family to take care of. I thought about all the times I chased my brother Giovanni through the hood—sprinting through playgrounds and jumping fences—to prevent him from joining a gang and selling drugs. I thought about all the times I wanted to give up and just be a normal fuckin’ kid, but I couldn’t. I held it in. Kept it together so that I could keep us together. But sitting there in that car, I suddenly thought: And for what? This was what I worked so hard for? This was what I tried to keep together? What did I get out of this so-called family?  We were broken. We were all fuckin’ broken.

 *

I read somewhere that the best time to uproot native plants is when they’re dormant. This minimizes the stress placed on the plant’s root system. I was dormant all right. Existing just for the benefit of others. Barely living. I was ready for something drastic. 

Even when I lived thirty minutes away from my mom, I could never say no to her. I felt responsible for her, her wellbeing and her happiness. She would call me and say, “I know you’re off on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so I scheduled my appointments on those days. You could take me to do groceries and do the laundry on those days as well.” It’s like even when I left the nest, she felt I was still obligated to care for her no matter what.

And I know what you’re thinking: why didn’t I just say no? Well, I did. And she'd hit me with, “Fine. I’m sorry I’m such a burden. I will never ask you to do me any more favors. You know I don’t have a car, and I just need a little help, but it’s fine. I won’t interrupt your life.” It’s as if those words were bounded by an incantation that immediately filled me with guilt and compelled me to fall to my knees and beg for her to let me help her. I had to break this spell, this prayer, this power she had over me. 

 *

It didn’t matter how many showers of opportunities came pouring down upon us, our soil was impenetrable. Our environment was contaminated. Our roots were toxic. Our mentality was limited. The second week of January, I decided to begin the uprooting process. During my lunch break, I walked over to the Online Learning Center, a room filled with desktop computers for training purposes. Officers were also allowed to check their work emails and do other work-related tasks. I sat down and logged into the network. My mouse hovered over several categories on the TSA homepage until I saw the option for a request to transfer.

I thought, thirty minutes away is not enough

My daughter was six at the time, and I wanted to make this transition as easy as possible for her. Then I thought about my childhood friend and a conversation we shared a few months prior.

“Girl, you should really think about moving here. I love it,” she told me.

“I want to, but I’m still not sure. Chicago is all I know.”

“Girl, you would be so much happier here, away from your crazy family.”

 *

Away from your crazy familyAway from your crazy familyAway from your crazy family. Each time her words replayed in my head they sounded better and better while at the same time, scarier and scarier. What will my life look like without my crazy family bringing me down? I didn’t want a life completely without them; I loved them. But I also didn’t want a life where they were the center of it either. I saw the internal damage in us all. The rooted trauma that arose differently in each of us, revealing itself in the form of depression, isolation, rage, and insecurity, and keeping us in a box marked weeds, making us feel inferior to the rest of the world, making us feel as though we would never be able to break free from the rooted blight that penetrated our stems and seeped into every stage of our lives, latching us to a past we all desperately craved to expunge. 

I was ready to remove myself from the dry turf and prune out everything hindering me from becoming fruitful. I knew I wasn’t strong enough to heal my wounds and their wounds at the same time. So solitude a thousand miles away was necessary for a long-term fix, not only for myself, but for them and for all our future generations. I filled out the electronic form, typed MCO—the airport code for Orlando, Florida—took a deep breath, and pressed send. 


Melinda Nazario is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Student Pick

The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones

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Thom Jones submitted the title story of this collection to The New Yorker’s slush pile when he was working as a janitor, twenty years after he’d graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. At the time, the fiction editor said they were publishing 112 stories a year from the 22,400 submissions, and only one or two would come from unsolicited submissions. When you read the story “The Pugilist at Rest,” you’ll understand why it caught an editor’s attention and how it earned an O Henry Award.

“The Pugilist at Rest” follows a narrator as he graduates from boot camp, deploys to Vietnam three times, and ultimately becomes a boxer and develops epilepsy. The narrator recalls his time in Vietnam, so the reader relives his experiences and sees how his past has broken him physically and spiritually.

Jones’s stories are built around violent acts of love. In “The Pugilist at Rest,” the narrator slams the buttstock of his rifle into a recruit’s head out of loyalty to his friend; Marines will die violently to save their buddies. Jones doesn’t glorify the violence, but rather shows the burden that it has put on his characters.

Stories like “The Pugilist at Rest” and “The Black Lights,” are examples of how short fiction can be perfect. They’re so good that they’ll make you want to work harder because after reading it, you’ll see that the bar got raised a few notches.

— Eddie Dzialo


Bus 752

By Todd Richardson

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AUTHOR’S NOTE: This story is about my brother. Out of respect for his wishes, I’ve chosen not to use his name in this piece.

My brother is schizophrenic. He hears voices. When their whispers began inside his skull, it was like they took turns carving up his grey matter with a serving spoon. He’d forget to feed himself. He’d forget to bathe. He wouldn’t sleep for days, and then when he did, he’d wake up in angry fits of paranoid delusions.

I watched the disease erode him, wash away pieces of him, stone by stone. His illness left a perfectly sibling-shaped hole inside me—a cartoon silhouette of my brother’s body punched through my abdomen.

I called him this Thanksgiving, like I do every year. When I first heard his voice through the receiver, I cringed.

“How are you?” I asked.

“I’ve decided to look into our family history,” he said. “Joined the Buchannan’s Scottish genealogical society.”

“Oh,” I said, “that could be interesting.”

“I gave them my first and last name, but when the guy wanted to swab my cheek, I told him no way. I don’t need anybody cloning me.”

On the other end of the phone, I squeezed my eyes shut, pinched the bridge of my nose between my thumb and finger. “You don’t have to give them your DNA.”

“Yeah, well I’m not going to,” he said, “I’m already afraid of what they’re going to find in our family history, because what if all they find are fucked up people like me?”

My stomach tightened as he spoke. I wanted to tell him that he wasn’t fucked up, that he didn’t have anything to be ashamed of or fear, but instead all that came out was: “I’m sure it will be fine.” As soon as the words left my lips, I regretted them. They sounded insincere. Vapid.

“Whatever,” he said.

A moment of awkwardness between us.

It was my brother that spoke first. “Are you safe?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“Keep a hammer next to your door,” he said. “In case they find anything in this genealogy thing, you should be ready.” There was a beep as he hung up the phone, followed by empty silence on the other end of the receiver.  My hands trembled as I ended the call and let a wave of grief roll over me.

My brother wasn’t always like that. Most days, I tell myself I can’t recall what he was like before his illness, but that’s not true. I remember him as he was when we were boys: fearless, rebellious, and endlessly fucking cool.

When he was in fifth grade and I was in third, we used to ride the same bus home together, number 752. We’d sit in the back-back with some other boys, fold up paper airplanes out of our homework. My brother always creased the wings up like a fighter jet.

We’d sit and wait for the driver to haul the bus over the freeway, and at the very peak of the bridge, we’d yell “Bombs away!” and send our worksheets sailing out the windows. Then he and I would exchange giggles, reveling in a shared sense of euphoric vandalism as we watched our squadron glide over the railings of the bridge and cruise over afternoon traffic, crash-landing somewhere out of view on the asphalt far below.

My memory of him on the bus is crisp like a snapshot—his open-mouthed cackle as we send our worksheets out over the warm draft of the freeway, me with my first two knuckles stuffed between my teeth in an effort to contain my excitement.

 *

One day, the bus driver, a woman with stiff greying hair, got sick of our antics and stopped 752 on the other side of the bridge. My brother turned to me as she marched her way down the aisle. “Don’t say anything,” he told me, just before her presence loomed overhead.

“Who threw that?” she said. Her gaze was a searchlight in a prison yard, bearing down on unruly inmates. I didn’t dare look at her; I knew my face would betray us. Instead I watched her shadow in the sunlight as she swung her head over the tops of the brown, faux leather seats.

When no one answered, she spoke again. “I’ll write you all up,” she said. “Suspend every last one of you.”

“We didn’t do anything,” my brother said. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my him square his jaw.

“You threw those planes out the back,” she said. I pressed my knees together in an effort to keep them from quivering.

“Nope,” my brother said. “Wasn’t us.”

“I saw you!”

“Couldn’t have,” my brother said, “because we didn’t do it.”

“I don’t—” the bus driver stopped midsentence. “I saw it in the mirror, paper airplanes zooming out through the window.”

“Did you see who threw them?” He cocked his head to one side, a perfect imitation of a concerned citizen.

“I saw them flying out of the back of the bus.”

My brother shrugged and shook his head.

“Don’t bullsh—” the driver held up a hand. “I’m writing the principal.” She turned on her heel and made her way to the driver’s seat, muttering under her breath. As soon as she sat, she shifted the rearview mirror so that its reflection squared perfectly on my brother. Then she started the ignition. For the rest of the ride, the gaze of the bus driver’s hazel eyes watched my brother in the extra-wide rearview mirror. My brother calmly returned her glare, his hands tucked in his pockets, one leg sprawled lazily across the center aisle, until we got to our stop.

  “I’m watching you,” the driver said when the bus pulled to halt and my brother headed to the open door.

He grinned at her as he passed. “Sounds great,” he said, and climbed off the bus, me tagging behind. As he made his way across the street, he shrugged off his backpack, unzipped it and withdrew a folded piece of paper. He turned in the middle of the street  and flung his fighter wing down the length of the bus. It soared past the driver’s side window, the 752 stenciled in black, and well beyond the rear wheels. The driver honked, shook her fists. My brother smiled back at her and flipped her a thumbs up before sauntering his way toward our front yard.

 *

I know he got in trouble for the paper airplane stunt, but I can’t remember what his punishment was, I guess because the consequences didn’t matter to me. What I remember is my eleven-year-old brother’s smile as he flung his plane, its white edges winking yellow against the side of the school bus—like he was James-freaking-Dean.

I don’t know what the genealogical society will find when they trace our family history. But, Brother, I hope they find a slew of people like you. Brazen, bold, and endlessly fucking cool.


Todd Richardson is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

The Ease of Purchase

By Susan McKeown

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This year, when I turned seventy, I decided to go to grad school and pursue my dream of earning an MFA in nonfiction.  For one of our assignments, we were told to go into a business, meet a stranger, and then write about the encounter for 10 minutes. I decided to choose an experience out of my comfort zone.

                I walked in The Village Gun Shop and met Zac, the salesperson.  I told him I was interested in purchasing an assault rifle.  “Excuse me?” he replied, surprised at my white-haired, forthright demeanor.

                 “I want to buy an assault rifle,” I repeated.

                “Oh, ok.” he regained his salesman persona.

                “What does it take to buy an assault rifle?” I asked. 

                “Well, first of all, we will do a thorough federal background check, then if that comes back clear, we write up the sale and you pay for it.” 

                “How long does that take?”

                “Usually five minutes.  Occasionally, if someone has a very common name, it may take up to three days. If there is anything about someone that makes me uncomfortable, even before the background check, I will not sell to them. Like if someone comes in with a swastika tattooed on his neck, I’ll say ‘get out of my store.’ I just won’t sell if I have a bad feeling.”

                I told Zac that I didn’t have my driver’s license on me, which was true. However, it was in the car. And I could get it. But I had more questions.  We went to the back of the store, and he showed me a vast array of weaponry.  He took a popular seller off the wall, one that had “very little kickback.” The gun was $899.00.  So, for just over $900.00, I could be the proud owner of my very own assault weapon in about five to ten minutes.

                During our conversation, I learned some things about Zac. I learned that he was married with three children—ten, seven, and four—who all will be attending the same village school in September. He was an involved Dad, “not a babysitter,” he was quick to point out. Zac was also a Boy Scout leader and was planning a campout the following weekend with his troupe.  In short, he seemed like a sensible guy and a good father. So I asked him if he worried about his children given the incidents of school shootings.  

                “Of course, I do,” he said. “We talk about it.  We talk about what to do in case something should happen. There is a resource officer at the school, also.” I neglected to ask him if he felt teachers should be armed.  Perhaps, I really did not want to hear the answer.

                Zac had strong feelings about the Second Amendment.  He has had two deployments, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan (for which I thanked him).  He said he saw women and children blown up with his own eyes.  When I asked him why a civilian should need to own an assault weapon, Zac responded that, in addition to sport-shooting, the Second Amendment gave him the right to own a weapon to defend himself. 

                “Why do you think no country would invade us?” Zac asked, before answering his own question. “Not only because of our military, but because there are more guns in our country than in any other.  After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese said they would never invade America because of the number of weapons.  Plus, you never know when citizens may need to defend themselves against the government.” 

                The discussion then turned to our current administration. Zac stated he was a Republican and voted for the President.  He didn’t always like Trump’s behavior, he told me, but he believed the President was “a good family man and had the good of the country at heart.”  I calmly pointed out some of the President’s behaviors I thought ran contrary to that opinion and hoped, at least, it left something for Zac to consider. He did not argue my points. I did not ask him if he would cast the same vote today. He never asked why I wanted to buy an assault weapon.

                Before I left, I wished Zac and his children a safe school year, while hoping our country would do what was needed to ensure just such an outcome.


Susan McKeown is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

FACULTY SPOTLIGHT: Richard Adams Carey

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Richard Adams Carey, or “Rick,” as we call him, is located in a town that is sandwiched between The Lakes Region and the White Mountains, which is probably where it got its name: Sandwich, NH. Because this interview was conducted bicoastal, me in Los Angeles, CA, and Rick in Sandwich, I imagine him sitting at his desk, allowing me to interrupt his “stubborn, maybe-it’ll-never-pan-out short story”—his words not mine—to answer questions for Assignment about his books, his writing and editing process, and more. 

—Jemiscoe Chambers-Black


Jem: Rick, you write both non-fiction and fiction. Is there a different writing process for writing each?

Rick: Not so much a different process as a different feel in the pit of the stomach. Nonfiction is always preceded by research into lives or subject matter where I know story material exists. In drafting I might have trouble finding the right way to tell the story, but I’ll know there’s a way—if not Plan A, then Plan B. In fiction, I’ll start with a character or situation and hope that these lead into a sequence of plausible events and a real story—with no guarantee that they really will, and it’s always a more tortuous first-draft process than in nonfiction. I think nonfiction is like jumping out of a plane knowing that somehow, sooner or later, your parachute will open; no such assurance in fiction.

 

Jem: To those of us students that have worked with you, you are known as a polishing technician. Do you edit chapter by chapter or write a large chunk before you start editing?

Rick: As people who have taken my revision workshop know, Kent Haruf is my hero. The author of “Plainsong” and other novels would sit at a manual typewriter with a stocking cap pulled down to his chin and type without peeking until he had reached the end of the story. Only then would he revise. Me, I can’t abide not seeing the words, and since I can see ’em, I can’t help fiddling with ’em as I go along. Which is too bad, because I can’t fiddle with real purpose and precision until I reach some version of the ending. So I try to write as much as I can before editing, but never write as much as I should. And that’s because first drafts are sheer drudgery for me. It’s only in editing and revising—when you know what the story is, beginning to end, and what it needs to shine brighter—that the glory is within reach.

 

Jem: This may seem random, but you lived a pretty nomadic life for a while. Also, worked a multitude of jobs. Did this have an effect on your writing, do you think?

Rick: I guess I have lived in a bunch of different places and done a bunch of different things—and sometimes I think that still wasn’t enough, because first-hand experience of any sort is so important in what a writer brings to the desk. On the other hand, you can’t go everywhere and try everything; duration and depth and commitment matter a lot as well in anyone’s experience of a given place or a certain relationship. It comes down to the right sort of balance, perhaps, given your subject matter. Some of us need to and should sail the world for material. But Emily Dickinson did just fine sailing around her room.

 

Jem: When you were contracted to write Raven’s Children, Against the Tide, and The Philosopher Fish, I’m imagining rough waters, rougher terrain, and deadly missions in pursuit of season hunting, fishing, and tracking the sturgeon and their mysterious golden eggs. Am I being too dramatic here? Since they were contract jobs, how long did you get to live the experiences and then write?

Rick: I think each of those books involved two-year contracts—so a year for the research, a year for the manuscript. And no, you’re not being too dramatic. Okay, “deadly missions” would be hyperbole, but in extreme environments you do gamble sometimes on the weather, and if your research touches on criminal activity, you do roll the dice on people sometimes. There were times when I got nervous, but only a few occasions when circumstances got more or less harrowing. In each case it ended well, so all’s well, and I so treasure the people I met and all that I experienced in doing those books.


Jem: You’ve written many things, but I wanted to ask you some questions about your book, In the Evil Day: Violence Comes to a Small Town. This book is a piece of narrative non-fiction, and spans twenty-five years, recounting the lives of the citizens in Colebrook, NH (and the towns surrounding it) that led up to August 19, 1997, when Carl Drega shot and killed four people. What made you want to write about this day?

Rick: After three books that required lots of travel and absences from home, I was ready for subject matter that was more local and also different from what I’d previously done. And with that incident, I was beguiled by the setting (the North Country’s a special sort of place), the intriguing people involved, and the rich narrative contours of all that happened that day, the intricate chain of events.

 

Jem: Before writing this book, did you know how you were going to do that? Specifically, did you know that you wanted to show each person’s story: who they were, snapshots of their families, and past? If so, did you do this on purpose or did it show up organically?

Rick: I knew that in narratives of almost all mass-shooting incidents, the killer becomes the star of the story while the multitudinous victims are consigned to relative anonymity. Here, however, the killings were not random—each victim was targeted because of who he or she was—and there were only four of them. So I saw that this as a story in which, uniquely, each of the victims could share equal billing with the killer. With that sort of broad and mindfully balanced canvas in mind, I did indeed approach the story in the way you describe.

 

Jem: I have to agree that this worked because it showed how very connected this small town and the neighboring towns were, how even Carl Drega himself crossed paths with John Harrigan’s father. Were you at all surprised with this?

Rick: Drega did indeed cross paths with Fred Harrigan, but with hardly anyone else in the area outside of local government, the courts, and law enforcement. So as I got to know the North Country better, I found myself surprised in two different ways: first, that cranky loners such as Drega could be invisible to such an extent, more so than our obstreperous odd ducks in the rest of the state; and second, that for those not wanting to live under the radar, there were hardly any degrees of separation in these small and remote communities, that the connections are so very tight and intimate. This, of course, only aggravates the harm wrought by a mass shooting.

 

Jem: After reading your book, I know, because you point this out in your preface that you ran into several contradictory pieces of evidence. How did you combat that in your writing?

Rick: The narratives in my first three books were built out of a combination of the historical record and my first-hand experiences as I described unfolding events. In this book, where the event was already part of history, it was my task to fill in the gaps in the record by cross-referencing documents and interviewing witnesses. And because of the conflicts and contradictions I sometimes found, I learned what probably any historian knows—that writing history is a bit like sausage-making. You try to find evidence to resolve those conflicts. Absent that and needing to connect some dots, you go with what in your judgment seems more plausible, and you hope your biases aren’t distorting that.

 

Jem: What advice would you lend to any student or fellow writer when they meet this type of researching issue?

Rick: Enlist your subjects as proofreaders of your copy. Sometimes this is what provided the tie-breaker in regard to conflicting testimony. Much more often, though, it saved me from the sort of mistakes and misinterpretations all humans are prone to. The sausage could have been a lot funkier than it is.

 

Jem: When do you say enough is enough with research, and decide just to write?

Rick: With my first three books, I packed as much research as I could into a year, and then had a year just to write to hit my deadline. So it was decided for me, built into the contracts. With “In the Evil Day,” I had no deadline, since I was writing that book on spec. In a way, it was good to have no deadline. I had time to slowly build trust in the community and then to follow every lead. But the downside of that involved the sheer number of leads—it was such a complex event, with so many people involved, that I could have gone on interviewing forever. Earl Bunnell, the father of one of the victims, was the godfather of the whole project, and I very much wanted him to hold the finished book in his hands. When he died in 2011, that prompted me to finally pull the plug on the research and go with what I had. Even so, it was another four years until publication. All told, I devoted thirteen years to that book. That still astonishes me.

 

Jem: In your writing, it would seem, in my opinion, that you combine a fluidity of prose and a journalistic narrating style. Again, I wonder if this was done on purpose or if this came out organically?

 Photo credit: Susan Carey

Photo credit: Susan Carey

Rick: Well, I guess it came about commercially. I began as a bad poet and always feeling guilty (in reference to my wife) about the amount of solitude that my writing required. I found I could assuage that guilt, though, if at least I earned some money. So I began by publishing humor, essays, and journalism in newsstand magazines. The twig just got bent that way, and it stayed like that as I began working on more ambitious stuff.

 

Jem: Well, it seems that your creative intent, commercial or not, has become even larger since I’ve heard talks of a movie option for In the Evil Day: Violence Comes to a Small Town. Can you tell me a little about that?

Rick: Island Pictures is a London-based studio that does the “Doc Martin” series on PBS and also does book-to-film adaptations. They’re thinking in terms of perhaps a feature film or perhaps a TV miniseries. Of course most of the time nothing at all gets done with a film option, but I’m optimistic about this one because the studio co-head and a producer have come to America and traveled up to Colebrook with me to meet John Harrigan and some of the other important people in the story. In December we’ll do it again to meet still others. They want to honor the tone and spirit of the book, and Jeezum, they know it backwards and sideways—better than I do at this point.

 

Jem: Okay, one last question; I promise. Rick, I wonder, when you first started out as a writer, did you see yourself one day becoming a teacher, a mentor, helping students master what you have mastered yourself?

Rick: Wow, I sure didn’t—because writing a good piece is so hard by itself, and then finding an audience even harder. I’ve had more good breaks than bad, but it’s still really, really hard to write a good story, whether fiction or nonfiction, and I feel like I’m even yet on the learning curve. Teaching in itself is a way of moving up that curve, though. I love working with people I like on behalf of a pursuit that I love, and there’s no doubt it’s made me a better, more intentional writer.


Jemiscoe Chambers-Black is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Bathroom Confessions

By Danny Fisher

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story contains graphic content and is a frank and honest look at issues surrounding domestic abuse.

My sister, Mel, dreams about having Mike Brady as a father. But our father is dead, and even if our life was like The Brady Bunch, everyone knows she’d be Jan. I don’t know why she longs to be recognized as the ignored middle sister, the one who whines too much to be endearing. When life becomes too stressful for even ABC’s Saturday night line-up to offer escape, Mel sneaks out of the house through the bulkhead in the basement. She rebels, I recoil. I cling to the sanctuary that is my bedroom. There, in the dark, the multi-colored lights from my strobe-lamp dance across the wall, wanting to transport me to another place and time. But the music from my stereo, its bass deep and throbbing, can’t quite mask the turmoil happening beyond my bedroom door. At night, I lie there in my bed unable to sleep. Eventually I roll over onto my side, shut my eyes, draw the covers high over my head and will my brain to let my ears go deaf.  

In the morning, I wake to exactly the kind of silence that I had prayed for only hours before. I dress quickly and quietly. I grab my books, turn the knob of my door ever so slowly and edge my way into the hallway. I am hoping to slip out undetected to the safety of school. To do that, I must clear the bathroom door. I slink past the slim tables littered with knick-knacks that crowd the hallway like giant chess pieces put there to give me away. Suddenly, a shaft of light pierces through the shadows. The metal door-stop goes waaannnggg as the bathroom door bangs against it.

“Danny, get in here!” Mom clutches my collar and yanks me inside. She slams the door behind me, locks it and points to the toilet. “Sit down.”

I obey because that’s what I do.

I try not to stare, but it’s hard. Her hair is matted to her head, which is so unlike my mother who has been known to take three hours to get ready. One eye is red and puffy from crying, the other has swollen shut and turned an ugly shade of dark purple. Her arm is held close to her side, her wrist limp. She uses her good hand to light a cigarette. She inhales the smoke deep into her lungs, exhaling through blood-encrusted nostrils. I sit and watch—as I know I’m supposed to wait to speak until spoken to, if at all. She winces as she slides her robe off her shoulders. It falls to the floor and I stare at my mother in all her nakedness. I’m twelve or thirteen years old, and it’s awkward. Her breasts are firm because they are fake. Her stomach bears the scars of childbirth, both natural and otherwise. Her legs are slim, but pockmarked with cellulite and covered with bruises, old and new.

When my gaze meets her pubic area, my untied Timberlands turn inward. I fold into myself. I tuck my right hand in the crevice between my jean-clad thighs, pick at the edge of the laminate counter with my left one. I stare at the worn rug on the floor, focus on a single thread of carpet that has pulled loose.

Mom locks eyes with her reflection in the mirror. When she opens her mouth, her voice is laced with all the anger she dares not show on the other side of the bathroom door.

“I don’t even know what I said,” she begins. “But I never do. It doesn’t matter. He slammed my face against the wall. There’s blood all over the carpet in there. How am I supposed to get that out?”

I shrug but say nothing. I don’t know why my mother confides in me. I don’t know how to respond to her any better than she knows how to respond to him. I’ve learned to stay silent. Maybe it’s because my bedroom is next to hers, maybe it’s because my sister can’t be counted on, or maybe it’s because she knows I’ll never stand up and say no. But she chooses me, every time. And I hate her for it.

Mom reexamines herself in the mirror. She scrapes at the crusty blood on her upper lip with a fingernail and tilts her head backwards, so she can see up her nostrils. “I don’t think it’s broken this time, not for his lack of trying,” she says.

She bends over to pick her robe up off the floor. At the sight of my mother’s bare backside cracked open, I turn away toward the window. My eyes are squeezed shut.

Mom hangs the robe on a hook on the back of the door. “Danny!”

I turn around—open my eyes, quit fiddling with the counter and sit up straight. “Yes, ma’am!”

“How the hell are you going to testify to a judge about everything he did to me if you’re not paying attention? Look at me!”

I work hard at keeping my expression dull while inside I want to scream. I just want to go to school so I can fail my math test and sit by myself at lunch.

“You see this shit?” The lower half of her right arm dangles limp in front of my face. “He broke my fucking wrist!”

“Are you going to call the cops?” My question is half curious, half pleading.

“Why? What’re they gonna do? Drag him out in cuffs and let him back out tomorrow?”

“If you pressed charges—”

Mom’s laugh is sharp. “You don’t get it, do you? If I press charges, then what? A restraining order? So, fucking what? That just pisses him off more.” She’s digging through drawers with her good hand looking for something to brace her wrist. Her breasts bounce in rhythm to her movements. “Don’t we have an ace bandage for Christ’s sake?”

I point to the closet behind her. “On the shelf,” I say.

Once she finds it, she tosses the ace bandage to me. I catch it, begin unraveling the cloth so that I can wrap it around her wrist. She holds her arm towards me, sucking air through her teeth at every slight movement as I try to make the brace snug enough to do some good.

“After he slammed my face, he snapped my wrist. Kicked me a few times.” She turns her hips and shows me the spot where fresh bruises are blossoming on her thigh. “I should have you take pictures, but I left the Polaroid at his apartment. You look here, Danny, remember this, okay? Make sure you remember everything I said so you can tell the judge.”

I stare past her, focus on the doorframe while I picture the scene from last night in my mind: I can see the look on his face as he calls her a cunt. He’s smug. He thinks he’s funny. I see my mother’s shoulders rise in defiance, but then quickly slouch when she realizes she’s gone too far. I see his hand as it reaches for her, grabs a handful of beautiful chestnut curls. He slams her face into the nearest wall. I see the blood that pours from her nose as he smiles down at her, daring her to speak back to him. I hear the sobs as she begs for forgiveness. I see him reach down between her legs and shove his meaty fingers inside her. He whips her into a frenzy and then calls her a slut for her body’s reactions. And when she dares to reach up and caress his cheek in the hopes of turning his mood around—he snaps her wrist in two—and fucks her anyways.

And while I don’t know if how I imagine it is exactly how it happened, I know this much: no judge is ever going to ask me about any of it.


Danny Fisher is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Voices from the Void: A Brief Meditation on Saint Ambrose and the Muses

By Kevin P. Keating

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A visitor entering the south entrance to the Cleveland Museum of Art will pass through a massive neoclassical, Georgian marble, Beaux-Arts rotunda that opens to several enormous galleries. By continuing to walk straight ahead, resisting the temptation to turn into the Amor Court with its hunting spears, chain mail and battered helmets that once belonged to rampaging wreckers of mead halls and Viking villages, the visitor will encounter five paintings of grand scale. Noted for their rich color harmonies and flowing brushwork, these monumental paintings depict the classical Greek muses of eloquence, history, astronomy, and epic poetry. Set in hand-carved frames of gesso and gold, Apollo and the Muses (figure 1) are considered the masterworks of 18th century French artist Charles Meynier. Though sometimes overlooked by visitors in a rush to see the famous prints and paintings of celebrity artists like Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali, the gallery showcasing Meynier’s Muses has become a kind of secular temple for creative types seeking guidance and inspiration.

            During my weekly visits to the museum, I’ve noticed how students from the Cleveland Institute of Art, sitting crossed-legged on the floor and feverishly doodling with charcoal pencils in the pages of their sketchbooks, often gaze at the larger-than-life Muses as if hoping one of them will sing to them. The gallery remains eerily still, and with the notable exception of Calliope, the Muses look down upon these aspiring painters and part-time baristas with expressions that  seem curiously indifferent, maybe even a little contemptuous.

 (figure 1 — ARTIST: Charles Meynier)

(figure 1 — ARTIST: Charles Meynier)

With their Romantic and wildly theatrical grandeur, the five paintings that comprise Apollo and the Muses have always struck me as a bit contrived, perhaps a tad corny; nevertheless, I pause here like all unworthy acolytes who dare set foot within this holy of holies and pay homage to these gaudily gowned ladies, always noting how Calliope (far right), the muse of epic poetry, gazes over her shoulder at a bust of Homer as if the revered poet is singing to her rather than the other way around. Of course the daughters of Zeus are said to be irritatingly fickle and choose to bestow their favors only on a lucky few.

            Well, what can you do? Not everyone is capable of composing complex and endlessly engaging narratives like The Odyssey. At least we, from our privileged vantage point in this age of science and reason, can take some comfort in knowing that the Muses are nothing more than a silly superstition, a bit of confused thinking on the part of the ancients who believed they heard voices in their heads. Today, any artist claiming to hear disembodied voices is likely to seek medical treatment and, in the unlikely event he has health insurance, subject himself to a battery of tests. Doctors, using electroencephalographs and positron emission tomography to detect large-scale fluctuations in the artist’s neurophysiology, will regretfully explain that the Muses are in fact an insidious manifestation of a mental crackup that could prove potentially harmful both to the delusional patient and the general public.

            Now, rather than attribute works of genius to the quasi-mystical voices of the Muses, we must accept the grim diagnosis of modern medicine. This new cultural paradigm, with its battalions of materialistic killjoys in white lab coats intent on reducing inspiration to mere neural eructations, really takes the fun out things. But perhaps there are other ways to account for the mysterious source of an artist’s inspiration.

            In a distant corner, initially hidden from view as you enter the gallery, there hangs a different kind of masterwork, one that never fails to unsettle me (figure 2). The low viewpoint and large scale suggest that this painting once hung high on the wall of an important religious institution. In the painting an austere holy man wearing a ceremonial miter, a flowing white cassock and an elaborate ferraiolo is seated before the viewer. With feather quill in hand, he appears to be writing in a golden book of thick vellum pages. Behind him we see nothing but empty space, an abyss of complete and total darkness. Aside from his anachronistic clothing, there is no indication of time or place. There are no billowing clouds, radiant beams of divine light, or choirs of rosy-cheeked cherubs crooning “Hallelujah!” from the heavens. And yet, from out this strange emptiness, a voice seems to be calling to the troubled figure.

 (figure 2 — ARTIST: FRANCISCO GOYA )

(figure 2 — ARTIST: FRANCISCO GOYA )

Unlike Calliope, who looks over her shoulder with an expression of deep admiration at a bust of Homer, this man stares into the ineffable blackness with an expression of awe that borders on pure metaphysical and existential dread. The image is significant because the artist, by the time he began working on this painting in 1796, had completely lost his hearing after an extended illness. It was also during this period in his long and productive creative life that he completed and published a suite of eighty allegorical etchings called Los Caprichos, including the iconic The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (figure 3). In stark contrast to his early Romantic paintings, the Caprichos introduce us to a world of witches, ghosts, and fantastic creatures that invade the mind, particularly during dreams, drunkenness and drug-induced visions (or perhaps a combination of all three).

The man in the painting is Saint Ambrose and the artist is Francisco José de Goya. In the late 1700s, after the expulsion of its Jesuit priests, Spain underwent a radical religious transformation, and many artists turned back to early Church history for inspiration. Saint Ambrose, probably commissioned by a new organization attempting to fill the gap once occupied by the Society of Jesus, belongs to a series of paintings depicting Muses of a very different sort—the four doctors of the Roman Catholic Church. Aurelius Ambrosius (CE 340 – 397) was bishop of Milan in the fourth century and teacher (though “guru” might be a more accurate word) of Saint Augustine. Like his more famous pupil, Ambrose possessed a formidable intellect and was revered for his diplomatic skills. He is known for having resolved important theological conflicts within the early Church and for working effectively with advocates of Roman paganism, but Goya seems less interested in depicting the saint as an early medieval bureaucrat and more as a Gnostic who, for perhaps the first time in his life, is apprehending a reality so deep and so utterly baffling that he is having trouble finding the words to describe it in his fancy codex.

 (figure 3 — Artist: Francisco Goya )

(figure 3 — Artist: Francisco Goya )

When attempting to convey a sense of the infinite, the unfathomable, the absolute, human language often proves inadequate. The experience is one that transcends all worldly categories of human thought. In fact, it is the complete absence of limiting and often contradictory linguistic imagery that brings on the experience in the first place. But human beings, irrepressible chatterboxes that we are, need simile and metaphor if we wish to communicate anything of value.

            Over the millennia serious thinkers have made valiant attempts at describing Ambrose and his disquieting encounter with the unknown. Theologians, for instance, will sometimes use the word “apophatic” when describing a supreme mystical experience. For pious devotees of psychotropics like ayahuasca and psilocybin mushrooms, the nearest parallel might be the “entheogenic” or, to put it more bluntly, hallucinogenic or psychedelic experience. In the more esoteric philosophies of the East, the experience is sometimes described as shunyata, a Sanskrit word that designates a state of mind based on the renunciation of what one believes to be real. In the West, channeling the more cumbersome language of scientism, the experience is described as a supremely immanent action that, paradoxically, annihilates all action. European alchemists believed this mystical encounter with darkness signified an eclipse of the ego due to an incursion of the unconscious.

            Goya’s depiction of Saint Ambrose seems to echo all these concepts. Having gained access to the unconscious, Ambrose ceases to be a high-ranking spokesperson for a particular dogma. He isn’t the avatar of a pernicious ideology, and he isn’t espousing any kind of religious doctrine. He isn’t a political propagandist or heresy hunter trying to root out all those who dare to deviate from the rigid orthodoxy of his Church. He doesn’t have some important point to make, and he isn’t trying to win an argument. The allure of the material world no longer matters to him. Titles, prestige, fame, fortune—all of these things seem trivial in comparison to the annihilating maw of unconscious forces. Ambrose, perhaps for the first time in his life, bears witness to the formlessness of the Beginning, a state of mind where the light of reason has yet to shine.

            A product of the Enlightenment, Goya was a vocal critic of superstition and could have easily painted Ambrose in a conventional romantic style, making use of a regal setting as in his Charles IV of Spain and His Family (figure 4). But like so many artists before and after him, Goya knew that in order to give the viewer a sense of the truly mystical nature of Ambrose’s experience, he would need to jettison convention while at the same time retaining familiar religious imagery. The religious, it would seem, is the best tool we mere mortals have for approximating a direct encounter with that which transcends all categories of human thought.

 (figure 4 — Artist: Francisco Goya)

(figure 4 — Artist: Francisco Goya)

According to art historian Robert Hughes, Goya was no high-minded theoretician or grotesquely overeducated hyper-intellectual. But he was the product of a long Catholic tradition. Born into a working-class family and raised in a modest brick cottage in an Aragon village, Goya was probably provided with an education described as “adequate but not enlightening.” His father specialized in religious and decorative craftwork, overseeing the ornamentation during the rebuilding of the Basilica of Our Lady of Pillar. In 18th century Spain, during Goya’s formative years as an artist, there existed, as there still does today, a powerful strain of mysticism that flirted with the dangerous heresy of the free spirit (libertas spiritus). Looking at Saint Ambrose hanging in the Cleveland Museum of Art, one can’t help but wonder if this freedom included liberation from the very concept of God itself.

            Today it might fashionable to reduce this masterwork to nothing more than a distorted vision of the oppressive patriarchal power structure of the Church. But I firmly believe Goya is attempting to express something that exceeds convenient and wearisome post-modernist categories. The abyss resists categorization because it lacks boundaries. It is unitary in nature and thus becomes a symbol of endless potential and unlimited creativity. And yet for some people, especially those who are strident about their ideological worldview, this interpretation can be frightening beyond belief, both literally and figuratively speaking.  

            Any artist who is honest about the source of inspiration must contend with the power of the void, the abyss, the darkness, the thing that obeys no authority, the thing (which is no thing) that devours and destroys predictable patterns of behavior and pathological systems of thought. This is not to say the abyss is without its dangers. The adverse effects of this self-dissolution and terrifying emptiness include neuroticism, depression, suicidal impulses, insomnia, nightmares, anxiety, psychosis, dysphoria, even alien abductions. And can you think of a single artist who hasn’t experienced at least some (or in the unusual case of Philip K. Dick all) of these symptoms?

            Skeptical students in my creative writing classes invariably ask where I get my ideas, and for many years my response has always been the same. Shrugging my shoulders in resignation, I offer them a sheepish smile and mumble without any real conviction, “I just listen to the voices in my head.” But now, having given this question careful thought, I believe the correct answer is, “Ideas, the best ideas, arise spontaneously—from out of nowhere.” Oh, sure, I can pat myself on the back and take credit for these rare flashes of creative insight, but this would be dishonest. The insights are not mine. I am not in control of the creative process, if indeed it is a process. It would be more accurate to describe it as a feeling, a wholly unpredictable and overwhelmingly convincing sensation of harmoniousness. And I also know these fleeting moments of inspiration float on the surface of a treacherous reality, Goya’s blacker than black canvas, a thing infused with irrationality and incoherence.

 (figure 5 — Artist: Oliver Munday )

(figure 5 — Artist: Oliver Munday )

Maybe Oliver Munday, the graphic artist who designed the cover of my second novel, knew a lot more about the nature of the void than I did (figure 5). When I first saw his minimalist design, I thought it much too grim, too unrelentingly bleak, but Mr. Munday knew that, trapped beneath those haphazardly hammered planks of wood, a very frightened man, his mouth agape, his eyes searching desperately for a thin sliver of light, presses his ear against a crack and listens to an ungodly voice calling to him from the outer dark. It’s a voice I sometimes hear, too, although I should be grateful not to hear it very often.


A Thanksgiving Story

By Heather Poulin

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Thanksgiving meant burgundy tablecloths and polished silver; it meant everything fresh and nothing from a can; it meant Grandma was up early to start the turkey while Gramps was out in the garden, picking rosemary that hadn’t yet died and pulling sprouted potatoes out of the ground. The herbs and potatoes would be joined later by fresh butternut squash and spinach purchased from the farmer’s market. There’d be paper bags full of blueberries and blackberries Gramps collected for making pies, and loaves of pumpernickel and sourdough bought from the bakery just up the road.

            There’d be whiskey and wine in decanters on the counter, golden-glittered pinecones lining the porch, the soft melody of classical music playing through the speakers of the Bose home entertainment system, and a small glass bowl of Hershey’s Hugs and Kisses resting on the window sill.  Thanksgiving meant my mom and dad would be in the same room and no one would yell. It meant that Gramps and Grandma could show off all the nice things they owned. It meant that I could finally wear the new sweater Mom bought me from JC Penney. It meant that we could eat as much as we wanted. Thanksgiving meant we could be normal for a few hours, one day, every year.

            In those days, there were a lot of us who made the journey to Grandma and Gramps’. It was a long, four-hour drive, especially back in the 90’s, when all we had to be entertained was Mom’s Elton John cassette (Princess Diana had died just months before, so now “Candle in the Wind” was her favorite song) and forced conversations.

            My dad also made the journey—a short, thirty-minute drive for him. His being there thrilled my sister and me. My mom, not so much. She smiled through it, though, as she always did. Dad also brought around his girlfriend—the one he cheated on Mom with—along with the girlfriend’s two kids, one of which we still, to this day, think is my dad’s.

            At dinner, after we said what we were all thankful for, we passed around the food. The girlfriend passed my mom the green bean amandine, and they would smile tightly at each other. My dad would pass my sister the whipped potatoes—the one’s Grandma said tasted best when a whole stick, not a half stick, of butter was added. One of the girlfriend’s daughters would pass me the gravy, and I would pass it right to Grandma. Gramps would serve himself last. And at the end of the meal, like he did every year, he’d proclaim, “Well, I’m just about as stuffed as the turkey,” and we’d all laugh.

            Each year after that specific Thanksgiving in 1998, the dinners got less populated. In 2000, Dad and the girlfriend broke up, so that year it was just Grandma, Gramps, Mom, Dad, my sister and me. Gramps, though, still delivered his turkey line, and I still laughed—too much probably—but it made him smile, and that’s what mattered.

            In 2003, Thanksgiving was even smaller because Mom didn’t want to go, since Dad was bringing his new girlfriend—a stripper named Brenda. So, that year it was just Gramps, Dad, my sister and me. Grandma was there, but said she didn’t feel good and wanted to eat alone in her room. I knew it was because of Brenda, and Dad knew it, too, but no one said anything. The only thing that felt normal that year was the end of the meal, when like clockwork Gramps delivered his turkey line, the one that still made me laugh.

            I was the only one who laughed that year.

            In 2005, I got my license and didn’t want to go up for Thanksgiving. My mom and sister went to see my grandparents without me. That year it just the two of them. Dad got back together with Pam—the first girlfriend—and they had their own holiday that year. I still called Gramps, though, and he repeated my favorite line. I made sure to laugh louder this time because I could tell his hearing was going.

I didn’t see my grandparents again for the next ten Thanksgivings. Even though I always intended to. But it was always something: I had plans; the weather was bad; I didn’t feel like going. Excuses.

            I went back one last time in 2015. My mom and sister had plans—I don’t remember what they were—so I went alone. On the long drive up, I tried to mentally prepare for how much older my grandparents would look.  

            When I pulled into the driveway, I almost didn’t recognize their house. It looked smaller than I remembered. The paint was chipping. The yard wasn’t raked. The garden where Gramps used to grow food was covered in a thick, dark dirt. There were no welcome pinecones, just pine needles that had fallen from a too-tall tree.

            And they did look older. They somehow appeared shorter than I’d remembered. They didn’t stand with the same regality as they had when I was a child, like the passage of time had weighed heavily on them.

            Inside, the house felt different. Colder. The dining room table had been turned into a catchall for clothes and paperwork. The decanters were behind a glass bureau, untouched for years. There were no Hershey’s kisses. The Bose speakers had been replaced with a flat-screen tv, still in its box.

            “The food’s in the fridge, dear. Could you throw each in for a couple minutes?” Gramps asked. I was confused, but upon looking in the refrigerator I saw what he was talking about. There were three Styrofoam containers that lined the bottom shelf, right under the cranberry juice cocktail, next to an old box of girl scout Samoas.

            I unpacked the three containers, each contained a turkey breast and leg, an ice-cream scoop of white potatoes, and a gelatinous cube of cranberry sauce. I did as I was told, putting each in the microwave for a few minutes. While the dinners rotated, I pulled out the three sets of plastic silverware and a couple packets of salt and pepper that were still in the bottom of the delivery bag. Gramps told me he’d ordered the food yesterday.

            We sat on the couch, three in a row, three tv trays parked in front of us.

            “It’s so nice to be here. I know it’s been a while.” I said. I poked the plastic knife through the cellophane wrapper.

            “It surely is,” Gramps agreed, turkey leg waving in his hand as he spoke. His eyes were cloudier than I’d remembered.

            We ate our microwaved meal in silence. After we finished eating, I waited for the turkey line, but it didn't come. Instead, Gramps stood and gathered up the empty Styrofoam containers and started for the kitchen.

            “Gramps?” I asked, puzzled.

            He paused. “Yes, dear?”

            “I’m just about as stuffed as the turkey!” I said.

            He stared at me, baffled, unsure of how to respond.

            “That’s too bad,” he answered, finally. “We have some ice cream in the freezer."

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Daniel Charles Ross

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Daniel Charles Ross is a retired U.S. Navy Reserve chief petty officer as well as a former military police investigator. He was also a student for a time at the Mountainview MFA program. His education and experience are both on full display in his debut novel, ‘Force No One,’ a military-thriller which he self-published in 2018. Daniel was kind enough to let me ask him about his new novel, his writing process, and tips he has for self-publishing.

-W. Leander

So, tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from?
I'm a Detroit boy living in Lima, Ohio--home of the nation's only remaining main battle tank plant. We moved here in 2006 when we had our third child under three, and we needed to live near grandparents, cousins, and babysitters.  I'm the oldest of seven--six boys and a girl--none of whom are writers but me. And the jury is still out on me.

Have you always wanted to write?
Writing is evidently imprinted in my DNA. In elementary school, I was drawing fake newspaper stories and layouts on large sheets of paper, complete with a comics section. In middle school and high school, I was always on the newspaper staff, ending up in my senior year as the co-editor of our bi-weekly paper and student literary magazine. I went into the Army not long after high school (since color TV but before the internet. Or cellphones.) as a military police investigator, and didn't write a word for seven years that wasn't a police report. But then the bug returned and I had a few pieces freelanced in the Army's European Stars and Stripes newspaper, and sold a fiction story to a men's magazine. That's when I decided to get out of the Army and freelance full-time. I didn't know then that the definition of "freelancing" was "unemployment without the tax advantages." But after a time, I was privileged to write on staff for Popular Mechanics, Motor Trend, and Car and Driver.

Congratulations on the publication of your new book. Can you tell us a little about it? And how did the idea come to you? Thanks! Force No One grew out of work that was to have been my Mountainview MFA thesis, guided along by Merle Drown and Rick Carey. Regrettably, I only completed the first year of the program when my VA edu-bennies ran out. But in that time--including wonderful feedback from the likes of Jo Knowles, Mark Sundeen, Ann Wertz Garvin, Diane Les Becquets, Amy Irvine, Craig Childs, Katherine Towler, and my amazing cohort--I got what I was there for: Affirmation, and actionable guidance. It's sort of a hybrid crime/military thriller with two overlapping narrative circles that come together in the last "act." A homicide in Detroit usually doesn't raise many eyebrows, but a victim is found with a business card from a Department of Homeland Security enforcement cell no one's ever heard of. FBI Special Agent Amber "Corvette" Watson and Detroit Police homicide detective Sgt. Tracey Lexcellent are a joint task force who catch the case. With a disgraced U.S. Army Ranger who can forget nothing and a black-budget CIA team in tow, they must solve the murder before terrorists parachute into open-air Comerica Park during the opening ceremonies of the World Series to blow themselves up and kill thousands on live television. Yes, of course it's fiction: I have the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.

What was your writing process like? How long did it take for you to write the book? Did you outline the whole story ahead of time?
I had a no-kidding important running start with the boost I received from my MFA year in 2015; there is no substitute for exposure to people who know more than we do, and I didn't know jack. I hammered away at it, in addition to writing other things that are still pending, but the constant novel revision and revisions of revisions drastically slowed my pace. Better to get it down first and then revise; I was "smoothing" as I went along, at least I thought. That was a monumental time-waster, when the real smoothing would come in later drafts. I wasn't an outliner, either, which I'm changing for the sequel. I "pants" it as if watching a movie unspool in my head, seeing the scenes that came one after another and just transcribing them. The fallout of this was having to go back several times to plant justifications for what I'd written much broader later in the narrative. I believe strongly in letting the story go where it wants, but I now believe that process wants adult supervision, too.

What was the path to publication like for you? Was it different from what you expected?
"Path to publication" is a fun term; yes, different than I foolishly expected. When I thought the mss was ready, the first agent I queried was a guy who reps a long-time, very successful thriller writer I read and admire. I thought, He must get what we're doing; surely he's My Guy. Following submission guidelines, I sent the Q-letter and the first five pages about 4:30 on a Friday. Before 6:30, he emailed me back from his phone asking for the full. Sheesh, I thought, freaking out, who says it's so hard to land an agent? I sent him the full--and he had it five months, finally declining in a thoughtful email the gist of which was he didn't connect with the characters. One hundred and three additional queries later, I formed a small press (ForcePoseidon.com) with Mike Hancock (09) to put out our work and that of our talented friends and equally under-represented authors. My thriller is the first "artisanal" result of this process and a proof-of-concept that seems to be working out well. We're reviewing additional projects for publication in the first quarter of next year.

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Now that you have completed your novel and published it, looking back is there any advice you would give to aspiring writers? Do the work first, the work being the writing. Finish it in the smooth in Word or Scrivener or in ballpoint on legal pads, whatever works for you, before you seek representation, if that's your goal. Only query once your work is final-final, because when that email comes back two hours after you sent in your Q, you want to respond instantly. If you decide to self-publish, you will still tweak and line edit (sometimes just for typesetting reasons) and maybe even make big changes once your words are laid into InDesign or Vellum, but don't hurry that process. Keep learning. And just write. Getting it down is the foundation of everything that follows. Edit ruthlessly, because that's what the gatekeepers (and readers) will do. That doesn't always mean "trim." When that first agent said he failed to connect with my characters, I plowed back in there and turned up the wick on almost everything. That mss submitted to him was 97,000 words. The novel on Amazon today (bit.ly/ForceNoOne) in print and pixels is 113,000. I expect the sequel, Force Majeure, to roll out at about 90,000 words.

As a self-publisher, do you have advice on that process? We've all seen self-published work that is, charitably, not ready for prime time. Simply uploading a Word doc to Amazon or IngramSpark or wherever, slapping on some low-resolution stock art, and pushing the Send button may be psychically satisfying to you and your mom, but few people who don't know you will respond that well. It just doesn't look like a professionally produced book. Our Force Poseidon was established to be as utterly professional as the Big Five, but with a broader view and less bureaucracy. I've been a writer, editor, photographer, and designer for decades, but we still sought input from beta readers and other pro-grade editors. That said, the editing, cover, and book design were ultimately my responsibility: My name is on the cover. If you don't have those skills, do not be shy about seeking help from professionals who will only make your work shine. If anyone has questions about the process of querying, self-publishing, or anything else, I can be reached at DCR@genuineDCR.com. I never close. Finally, have the confidence in your work that you want an agent or publisher to have. We're writers, creators, and self-doubt is encoded in us at the cellular level. The Mountainview MFA is one of the best ways to access the training and expertise from genuine, published authors who will make your journey better.


Daniel Charles Ross—DCR—attended Mountainview MFA in 2015. The thriller, Force No One, was to be his thesis. Visit his website genuinedcr.com.

Student Picks: The Book of Strange New Things

Arun Chittur - Despite the several weeks it took for me to finish Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, I recommend it strongly as an example of fiction that explores tough philosophical questions using a plausible, speculative approach. It’s science fiction without being over-the-top, a world easy to imagine as a successor to our present.

An Earthbound multi-national leads an effort to colonize an alien world to support mining of a valuable mineral. Unlike James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar, the indigenous population capitulates and learns to live as humans overtake them. At some point in an undefined past, a visitor from Earth introduces the Christian Bible to the planet—this leads to hundreds of converts looking for someone to lead them in their question to understand the story of Christ as told in the “Book of Strange New Things.”

Faber crafts a deeply flawed character in Peter, the pastor enlisted by the corporation to minister to the new converts. He leaves behind a family and war-torn world for a new dawn in his own journey as a man and a Christian. We are left to wrestle alongside him with questions of love, loss, and our responsibility to this world and the next.


On the Campaign Trail with the Last American Man  

By Paul McNiel

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It’s the rainy afternoon before election day and the roads around Boone, North Carolina are littered with little square plastic signs—red, white and blue. Many have blown over. But, there must be thousands of them, most just a name, a name representing some person—a person with a team of staff and volunteers making sure those signs are seen, and working the phones. The signs represent politicians who want to represent me. 
Tomorrow is the big day.
I’m in an old Chevy truck with mountain man legend Eustace Conway. On the bench seat between us is a small backpack of “important papers,” my oilskin raincoat, his thick, red fisherman’s sweater, his small adz axe with its darkened hickory handle, worn shiny, and a leather cover tied over the blade. There is also a jar of chunky applesauce—a gift from his brother Walton, whom we just visited. I pull the heap toward myself, away from the stick shift as we brake at an Y intersection. 
“Are we clear?” asks Eustace.
I look over my right shoulder. Clyde, his Aussie Tri, is seated calmly in the truck bed beside a plastic trashcan of mushy pears for the hogs at Turtle Island. There is fog on the ground and the road twists upward and dissolves between two hills covered in the last of fall foliage.
“Clear,” I reply.

*

I’m hunched down holding a locust log and he is bowed facing me, the adz flying in a close arc, taking away wood between his boots in clean golden scoops. The energy is startling, or maybe the thought that the slightest slip and that blade could be scooping into me. He stops and we stand up and let out a deep breath. A few chips have caught in my hair and on his blue wool shirt. The light is fading and there is a whiff of wood smoke. We heave the log into place.
Well past dark we finally quit and go inside, where it is dry and there is light and the warmth of a wood fire. At his table there is a large cast iron pan and under the lid, she tells us, is fried mushrooms and onions and pieces of hog fat. Eustace slaps his hands together and rubs them with the bright-eyed enthusiasm of a kid on Christmas morning. 
“Ol’ miss piggy. She was a fine hog!” We all smile with him. I hold his left hand and reach across the table with my right, and we bow our heads. “Thank you, thank you, thank you…”

*

In the morning the air inside is cool. I have let the fire go out. Eustace has a busy day of work, but I am leaving. The sun is not up, but I can just make out some of the artifacts: an old Laguna pot he traded some moccasins for, a large wooden tub with four handles all carved from one piece, full of clean, sharp hand tools, a gallon jar full of peppers, a very asymmetrical painting of a heart: red with finger swirls of blue. I can hear Eustace loading things into his truck and talking on his flip phone, briefing his guys on the day’s plans.
We are standing at his door. He is wearing that thick red sweater, and a silver braid rests on each of his shoulders. 
“I guess you’re leaving.”
I nod, and he furrows his brow, then a bright smile spreads over his face and he puts his arms out and wraps me in a hug, all wool and sawdust and forgiveness. I get in my truck and roll out, and there are the plastic signs, even more than yesterday. I try to imagine “Eustace Conway” signs, but all I can see is him, filling his doorway and smiling bright, with wood chips on his sweater and a full day of work ahead of him. We aren’t voting today, we have other plans.


Dutch

By Mickey Fisher

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I worked the morning shifts at my town’s only gas station in November of 2012, during a break from courses in my senior year at the University of New Hampshire. Nobody else seemed to want that shift, and I didn’t mind sleepwalking through the opening routines: turning on the lights, starting the pumps, making the coffee – one of our biggest sellers in the mornings. I had to brew six different flavors, and I usually sold the first cup before the last carafe was full.

It was on one of those mornings that a semi-regular came in. I never got his name, but I’ll call him Dutch, due to his hair – the color of hay – which fell over his head in a Dutch-boy cut. He hid his eyes behind big aviator glasses and hid the rest of his face behind a robust, well-kept beard. An old hippie, maybe. He was in his late forties, maybe early fifties. He came in every once in a while in the mornings; today it was for coffee and scratch tickets.

  “World’s gonna end next month,” he said, as I rung him up. “Mayans predicted it.” I didn’t know what he was looking for from me, so I stayed noncommittal. The way he said it made something go wrong in my gut, though. It was either the surety with which he spoke, like it was something that had already happened, a box score from last week’s game. Or maybe I was thrown because there was a kind of wistfulness in his voice. Like he couldn’t wait to see how it would all go down.


“As I got closer, I noticed that the passenger’s window – now pointing towards the sky – was shattered, little teeth of glass ringing its lip.”


I left the gas station job in December to go back to courses and a work-study position in UNH’s library, which I worked every Monday. I was on my way to one of those shifts, going north along NH 43 towards Durham, doing at least 50. It was a highway in the loosest sense of the term: a rough two-laner with gray guardrails thrown up wherever the land dipped down enough to justify their existence. The pavement was almost free of ice, and the snow on either side of the road was just starting to think about melting. It was 35 degrees, and by rights, the patch of black ice that was in front of the big white Colonial coming up on my left shouldn’t have existed.

My Volvo started drifting left when I hit the ice, carrying me into the oncoming lane. Someone reached into my guts and started tugging around as I watched the end of one of those guardrails approach the front of my car, like the blunt face of a hammer. It was about a hundred feet away from me, but that distance was closing at brutal speed.

I slid into the dirt driveway of the old Colonial and got some traction back, spraying cold clods over a sedan that was parked near the front door, but I didn’t get enough traction to avoid hitting the blue plastic newspaper mailbox. Its thin metal pole smacked against my door. Compact newspaper bundles, bound with rubber bands, flew up and out. I managed to straighten the car out and stopped about twenty feet short of the guardrail.

I let myself breathe and let go of the steering wheel. My hands were shaking. I sat there for a moment, thinking about how likely death would have been had someone been driving towards me in the oncoming lane as I lost control. Seemed likely. I made a cognizant effort to check both lanes – made absolutely sure that no one was coming – before slowly pulling back onto the road and to the opposite side’s shoulder, where I pulled over and parked. I got out of the car and headed back towards the house. Apologizing to the owners would give me some more time to let my hands shake from the cold instead of from my nerves.

The ice threatened to undo me again as I crossed the road; I had to walk slower than I would have preferred to, being on a highway and all. When I got to the driveway, I noticed the set of furrows that my tires had dug into the dirt, plus a set of tracks older than mine. I wasn’t the first one undone by the ice.

I picked the scattered newspapers up off the ground, darting around to catch the advertising flyers that had come loose from their pages before the wind blew them away. Once I collected the news, I went up to the front door, which was made of old wood and painted forest green, and knocked. My knuckles stung a bit from the impact. Silence. I hoped no one would answer. No one did. I laid the newspapers on the stone front step and started walking back to my car.

As I crossed Route 43 again, I noticed that my front driver’s side tire was going flat; it’d probably been punctured by the metal pole of the newspaper mailbox. I started to open my door so I could sit and give my parents a call, see if I could get a ride. As I did, though, I heard a motor growling. I couldn’t see it yet, but the car was coming from behind me, going the same direction I’d been going.

I closed the door and saw the car – a pickup, actually – coming down the road towards me. I started waving my hands above my head. There was no real way for me to warn the driver of what was coming, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. Not that it mattered.

He was a good distance away from me when he hit the ice. The truck swerved around, its back end swinging in an arc from left to right, before it flipped over sideways and landed, driver’s side down, on the lawn of the Colonial.

            “Holy shit,” I said.

  No one else was coming, so I started to half-jog, half-slide towards the pickup, crossing the highway yet again. As I got closer, I noticed that the passenger’s window – now pointing towards the sky – was shattered, little teeth of glass ringing its lip. A man poked his head up and out of the cab through the space where the window used to be. He looked like a gopher sticking its head out of its hidey hole, seeing if the coast was clear. I recognized him immediately. Dutch looked unharmed.

“You ok?” I asked him.

            “Wow,” he said, and he brought his hands up to the lip of the window to try to pull himself out of the cab.

            “Just stay there, man, I don’t want you to cut your hands,” I told him. “I’m calling 911.”

The local fire department was not five minutes away, and I stayed with him until they got there. I kept having to tell Dutch to stay in the cab, because he kept trying to pull himself out. An ambulance and a fire truck arrived, and firemen helped Dutch out of his pickup. By this time, the elderly couple who lived in the house had come outside in their bathrobes, finally awoken by the truck beached on their frozen lawn. Dutch’s only wound was a little cut on the side of his palm. I don’t think he even needed stitches.

He puzzles me still. For as little as I knew the man (besides his claims regarding the world’s end), he never struck me as suicidal, or even like he was welcoming death. So I think that he was happy to have survived the accident on that December morning. But I sometimes wonder why. Had his perspective on the end of the world changed since he spoke to me about the Mayans? Was he now optimistic about the future? Or did he still believe that the end was coming at that point, and was he glad that he’d avoided missing out on the big show, scheduled for the 21st? What kind of weight did the accident carry for him, what kind of relief?

I saw Dutch a year or so after the accident at a Walmart. He didn’t recognize me.


One Book, One Burg

by Garrett Zecker

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I searched my students’ eyes for recognition of a shared experience. “He enjoys the surprise on people’s faces when he tells them he’s a professor of American history,” I read of the Chinese-American protagonist in the opening pages of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. “‘Well, I am an American,’ he says when people blink...” 

The One City, One Book model of community engagement is generally accepted as having started in 1998 in Seattle with Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter. Many communities across the country have since found success in running such a program by creating a communal consciousness driven by one work and supported by inviting all citizens to read and participate in events, lectures, and discussions. Everyone is theoretically able to participate as physical, digital, and audiobooks are provided for free through grants, the public library, and public schools. While it isn’t meant to be a utopian lesson in social engagement, one can’t help but relish in the idea that everyone in the city might all have something in common for a brief period of time. 

I find it fascinating that programs like this exist at all. A recent Pew research study reported that twenty-four percent of American adults have not read a book in the last year. This includes print books, ebooks, audiobooks, any format of books available for consumption. Those with a high school education or less are five times less likely to have read a book (thirty-seven percent haven’t) in the past year than college graduates at any level (seven percent haven’t). In bringing together a community, in other words, organizers choose to come together with an activity that is only practiced by some of its members. In education, I can assign tasks to my students, but the same can’t be said about adults whose independent lives may not have room for the self-motivating, self-driven act of reading.  

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Everything I Never Told You is the third annual community read for one of the communities I teach in, Fitchburg, Massachusetts. It’s a precise debut novel about a young woman who is found dead (no spoiler, really - it’s the first sentence of the book) and the various ways in which secrets, regrets, resentments, and expectations can all interact like ripples in the lake of time to lead to the destruction of a life. It is about a mixed-race family and how difficult it is to exist when everything feels undermined by your otherness. The characters’ complex motivations seem to collide in every chapter and drive the audience to a conclusion that seems to guarantee no one will escape the terrible repercussions of the young girl’s death. In some ways, no one in this novel is particularly innocent of leading the teen to her destruction. 

As this was only the third year the library and the university have engaged the public in this manner, and since I know the limitations of the activity itself, I thought my students should invite their nonparticipant neighbors to engage even if they weren’t aware of it. Students read the book independently, and in class we’ve examined Ng’s themes of youth, otherness, and secrets. They’ve examined these themes within themselves and their lives through a series of journaling activities. Their next goal is to hold a mirror up to their unseen lives through film, music, art, dance, and sculpture. Their work will soon be displayed around the city, the art museum, windows, and projections, and open the doors to their lives through their medium. They will then exist outside themselves. They will be proud of what they bare because they have survived their own traumas. Perhaps those consuming their work decorating our city, even simply walking by, will see something in themselves. Maybe their own regrets will be transformed by the images and sounds of their city’s youth. Maybe their expectations of themselves will grow, and in turn, foster growth in their neighbors. All this without turning a single page, but experiencing deeply that those in our city are all ‘we’ and so few of us are ‘them.’

I tasked my students with opening the pages of the book – and their hearts – to everyone in Fitchburg. 

Edmund Wilson famously observed that “no two persons ever read the same book.” I wonder if he meant something other than the metacognitive act of reading, and that a community’s consumption of the written word is less about the text and more about the people. A book’s themes, after all, are universal truths. Finding new ways to interact with those truths and to welcome everyone to face and grapple with them in any way will make us more of a community.  An empathetic community.  I wanted them to learn that, when we seem to have so many differences, it’s time to ask a friend, acquaintance, or neighbor to join them in their experience. Not just with the text, but as citizens. As creators, collaborators, and expressers. As humans sharing everything they never told you. They’re inviting you to do the same.


Sormé

By Mojgan Ghazirad

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It is called sormé in Farsi, the black soot that women use to magnify and beautify their eyes and face. You can name it eyeliner, but in reality, sormé does not “line” the eyes. It is used inside, on the inner pink rim that harbors the eyelashes.

I saw the sormé-dan, the jar containing sormé, first time in my grandfather’s pistachio robe. I was a curious little girl, eager to explore the gifts and gadgets he had brought from the Hajj Pilgrimage. The sormé-dan was a souvenir he’d bought from a salesman in Mecca’s Bazaar. It resembled a pocket watch, a tiny arrow jutting out from the twelve o’clock location. The picture of Mecca’s cubic shrine was engraved on one side of that brass jar and Medina’s emerald mosque on the other. He twisted the arrow and pulled the metal rod attached to the arrow out from the jar. The rod was blackened with sormé. He drew the rod against the back of my hand. A narrow black line marked the touch. Then he drew another line and a tiny little V of a flying bird emerged.  Then another V and another V and soon a flock of birds flew in the peach sky of my skin. He showed me how to apply sormé on the eyes. He separated the eyelid from the eyeball and carefully dabbed the inner rim with continuous soft strokes until the pink line surrendered to a black coat. He didn’t press the rod too hard, just a caressing, tender touch, enough to blacken the rim.

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Applying sormé is a delicate task. It’s scary when the sharp stick is aimed at the cornea. One wrong move and it can scratch the eye. But this is how women and men in my country have been applying sormé for thousands of years. If you don’t put your heart in it, you will make a mess of your face. Just like using charcoal on a snow-white blank paper, you have to be mindful of every line that you draw. Even the softest accidental stroke of the hand can fade the boldness of the lines. Just a tiny drop of that fine powder under the lower eyelid is enough to ruin the look of your face. And if you try to clean that betraying dot, it will seek revenge by leaving a tarry hue under the eye: never will the two eyes be the same again. This is the reason many women avoid sormé nowadays. It deserves the attention and delicacy our rushed world lacks.

My grandfather used sormé to heal his clouding eyes. He said, “Sormé sooyeh chasm ra ziyad mikonad.” It is considered by many a medicine more than a cosmetic in the East. Muslims say it was the tradition of Mohammad, the Prophet of Islam, to line eyes with sormé. They apply it during the month of Ramadan and on Eids to pursue the path of the Prophet. Egyptians believe the blackness surrounding the eyes shields them from the ominous rays of sunshine. Indians paint the newborns’ eyes to protect them from the “evil eye.” Persians believe it accentuates expressions of love. Somehow this supreme, black powder brings protection, treatment and affection for the ones who wear it. It has something to do with lining hope for a better future when it adorns the eyes.

I always wondered why Persians believe using sormé accentuates expressions of love. I used to apply the sormé and stare at my face in the tall mirror hanging in my bedroom. I had hard time believing the blackness added beauty to my eyes, though it did highlight them in the constellation of my face. The voiceless powder cried to be seen. Eyes grabbed immediate attention: “Seekers of beauty! Do not sail around and get lost!” Like a bright lighthouse in a deadly storm, the blackness pointed to the light that resided in the sea of inside. Is that why they said sormé accentuated expressions of love?


“We tread the bazaar, in awe of the colorful shawls dancing in the air and the layered spices that mound in gunny sacks in front of the stores.”


Persian poets love using sormé as a metaphor for light—in contrast to its stygian blackness. Naderpour, a contemporary poet, says in his Sun’s Sormé poem:

               I was the blind bird of the black forest,

               The whirling winds my sole companion.

               When the night bore down on me,

               I only asked for death in my sleep.

He pictures himself as a blind owl in a deep black forest, sunrays pricking him one early morning in his dark nest. He imagines the sunrays as rods containing sormé. The rods line his eyelids with light and bring back vision to his eyes:

               But it was your warm hands, dearest love,

               Your hand and your infinite fire,

               I was the blind bird of the black forest,

               You brought sight with your sun’s sormé.

In the love poems of Attar, the great mystic poet, winds bring dust from faraway lands, from the land of the beloved. Even a speck of dust from the beloved is a cure, those tiny particles she shakes from her cloak. The wind-brought dust becomes sormé, and makes him see the silhouette of the beloved:

               The dust that morning breeze

               Veers from her door to me,

               Is the sable sormé,

               That brightens the world in my eyes.

There is a secret when stones are crushed to dust. The stibnite or the sulfur compound of antimony is abundant in Iran. For three thousand years, Persians have pried tootiya—the stibnite—from the mountains near Isfahan and grinded the stone in tiny mortars to make the fine black powder. They believe when a stone is pulverized into powder, the idol of grandiosity is broken into tiny pieces of modesty. By applying the powder, the secret in the stones is released and the eyes able to see through the veil of ego. You can see what’s hidden from the eyes. Fables have it that Khosrow Parviz, the great king of the Sasanian Empire, possessed a special sormé that when he applied, he could see through the earth for almost a year.

But while sormé can bring light to the eyes, it can be a silencing sword for the throat. There is an adage in Farsi that says, if you swallow the sormé, you will lose your voice. Bidel, a mystic poet, sings this adage in a beautiful poem:

               My lute of hope is broken and I am silenced forever,

               Of all the colors, I wonder why sormé has stolen my voice.

Sormé is destined to guide one from the glitter in the eyes to the lilting throbs of the heart. But if you use it by mistake on your lips, you will diverge into a dead-end, a hushed-voice chamber, rather than into flowing songs of love. 

~~~

I take my little girl to Tehran’s Grand Bazaar. We come out of the Jameh Mosque after the prayer. This is the first time I have taken her with me to the mosque, and I want to show her how Muslims pray together in Iran. Raised in America, she has never prayed in a mass. She likes the flowers woven in the rugs. She thinks it is poetic that we caress the flowers with our foreheads while we genuflect during the prayer. We tread the bazaar, in awe of the colorful shawls dancing in the air and the layered spices that mound in gunny sacks in front of the stores. We pass a tiny turnery that has hundreds of wooden handicrafts. Every little object in the store is embellished with patterns of petals and twisted twigs. She likes the colors and configurations of the crafts. She pulls me into the turnery and points to a bulb-like jar. “What’s that?” she asks.

The old salesman brushes his grizzled beard and puts the azure-colored jar on the counter. A sharp arrow is pointing to the sky from its narrow neck. Tiny flowers entangled in each other, ornate the surface of the jar. “It’s a sormé-dan, little lady,” the salesman says to my girl. He pulls the arrow out from the jar and a thin blackened applicator appears.

“What’s this for?” she asks. I have never told her the story of sormé. I have abandoned using it since I came to America. The old antimony stone is long forgotten in the mountains of Iran.

The salesman asks for my girl’s hand. She looks at me and I nod. She places her hand on the counter and the old man nears the applicator to the dorsum of her hand. A black line appears. He dips the rod back into the jar and strokes her hand with a soft touch again and again. The magical flock of birds appears on the peach sky of her hand. She smiles. She wants the azure jar. The old man reveals the secret of sormé: the medicine, the evil-eye catcher, the beautifier, the eyeliner, the illuminator, the heart’s pathfinder. He says it accentuates expressions of love, and smiles. He keeps the love-emphasizer for the last. She stares at him with her large, beautiful black eyes. She has hard time believing the old man.

He wraps the sormé-dan in a parchment paper and puts it in a brown bag. He puts two vials of stibnite powder tightened with a cork in the bag and hands it to me. His fingertips have tainted black from handling the vials. He has sormé in his eyes like my grandfather. I wonder if he has visited Mecca and seen the thousands of men who apply sormé after the Hajj Pilgrimage.

We swing back to the bazaar. White pillars of light descend from the domes’ circular openings. Tiny black dust particles dance in the light, twirling up to the dome. Maybe a young lover has passed these narrow alleys and the sudden breeze has swept dust into the bazaar. Maybe the beloved has shaken her cloak near the old wooden gate.

Sunshine stings our eyes as soon as we come out. My little girl squints and tries to find her love-shaped sunglasses in her strapped handbag. Doves fly to and from the mosque’s dome in flocks of thousands. She sails her hands in the air like the doves. The black Vs on her hand merge with the birds in the sky. “Mommy, have you ever put sormé in your eyes?”

I smile and I nod.

They say sormé accentuates expressions of love. It’s the secret pathway to the heart.


Faculty Pick

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Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape by Barry Lopez

Richard Adams Carey - There are books that you enjoy and admire, and then books that you so enjoy and admire that you take them into your bones, and their phrases and themes become part of your own DNA as a writer and storyteller.

Such a book for me was Barry Lopez’s “Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape.” Published in 1986, the work is a steaming broth of travel, history, folklore, ecology, and philosophy, its subject matter a part of the world as big as China, no more populous than Seattle, and as remote to most of us as the moon.

The impressions of European, Russian, and American explorers in the Arctic are quoted liberally, but Lopez—radically for that time—gave equal or greater weight to the oral histories and belief systems of the Inuit and Yupik peoples he moved among. He is particularly eloquent on what Western explorers called “the native eye,” that nearly occult sensitivity to the nuances of sky, water, landscape, and wildlife behavior that has been lost to Westerners since, more or less, the Agricultural Revolution.

Lopez’s knowledge of and respect for that other mode of being and this other-worldly geography was rocket fuel for me as I researched and wrote my first book, “Raven’s Children,” about the life and struggles of an Alaskan Yupik family. Lopez’s empathy for all things human, along with the grace and precision of his language, inspire me to this day.

 

My Church

By Zachary Scott

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Have you ever seen the sun as it breaks the horizon and rises over the ocean?

Have you ever looked down from a mountaintop, surveyed the bustling life on the lake just beyond the sea of green treetops, all the while knowing that you’re merely a spec, a blip in the timeline of Earth’s long life?

Have you ever witnessed the messy glory of childbirth?

Or, conversely, have you ever wept silently in the corner of a room, watching as someone who witnessed your first breath breathes her last—your heart broken, your spirit overwhelmed with awe?

Have you ever stood naked, chest deep in a river, churning into a torrent as the skies open into a downpour? Have you felt the current rush around you, your body the rock refusing to erode as Mother Nature washes away your sin, baptizing you, again?

Have you ever sat, still, in a moonlit sanctuary beneath the cross, and even there not felt alone?

Have you ever bared your soul, allowed yourself to be vulnerable, expressed your deepest fears, your greatest challenges—only to be swept away by love, support, understanding?

Have you ever dared to ask the universe for something—anything really—and then receive it?

Or, perhaps, you were denied your request, but found yourself stumbling into something far greater than you would have ever been courageous enough to ask for?

Have you ever experienced love at first sight?

Have you ever felt, in an instant, a molecular connection to another person—to a person you seemingly have nothing in common with, a person who lives their life in a manner completely different from your own?

Have you ever forged a new family? Out of strife? Out of shared goals? Common ground? Over rich coffee or copious amounts of alcohol? Out of a desire for a deeper connection to the planet? To fellow humankind? Out of a calling to be the voice of the future? A voice of the present?

If so, you’ve been to my church.

*

“God hates sin. He hates sinners. If you don’t change, you’re going to Hell. But, the good news is that all you have to do is admit your sins and ask for his forgiveness, and stop being gay, and he will forgive you. It breaks his heart when people sin and refuse to turn away from them.”

My best friend’s girlfriend said that to me shortly before he moved halfway across the country to live with her and her cult-like, hardline, neo-evangelistic family. They were the ones who actually believed that nuclear war would soon be breaking out – and I don’t mean in a few years or decades, they believed it was immanent – and that God’s reckoning was soon to be upon us.

I didn’t really stay in touch with my best friend for a while after that. He had been among the first to whom I’d come out to, and he was overwhelmingly supportive. We went to our last semi-formal dance together because he thought I should be able to go with a guy after having come out. Then he met her and was smitten and followed her to the Midwest. It’s okay, though, he realized her flavor of crazy, we’ve reconnected. And though he lives even further away, we keep in touch, and he’s got a beautiful, sane wife, and an adorable baby.

After being informed of my sinful, God-angering nature, I swore off religion. I swore off God. To be clear, I hadn’t been raised in a church-going household, but I’d been taught about heaven, and believed that there was a God. I buried any questions I had about the Divine. I refused to accept that there existed an all-powerful deity who created humans as they were, but then dared to condemn them for their innate, hardwired, feelings. Shortly thereafter I began to read the Bible. If I was going to do battle, it was best to know the playbook my enemies were using.

That came in handy when I was able to argue, in a tiered classroom, looming angrily in my semi-agnostic liberal glory, a row above the strange little woman who lived with her grandmother and believed that because of Leviticus 18:22, homosexuality was a sin and same sex marriage should not be allowed or recognized by our government, that Leviticus also condemned the cotton-poly blend she was wearing that day. When someone had a scriptural argument to hurl against the sin that was an inherent part of my being, I was prepared and willing to leap to my feet with evidence from the same book that refuted the claim they raised.

The funny thing about reading something so often is that you eventually stop reading it as just a manifesto of your enemy, and more for what it is. You begin to find comfort and inspiration in the words on the page. Jesus may have been angry at times, but he was righteous in his anger against injustice. He ate with sinners and outcasts. He lived with and loved those whom society had forgotten about or condemned. Yeah, sure, he flipped tables that one time, but his anger was never ignited by who someone loved, or the color of their skin, or the gender they identified with. He called out hypocrisy. He called out judgement. He called out hatred and apathy and violence. His followers did so because he was preaching a message of radical love and acceptance. His mother trusted that God had plans for her son, and she followed and supported him because she saw that light shine from within him. She made the sacrifice of standing aside as he made his own sacrifice for us – if the story of his life teaches anything, it’s that love reigns in the kingdom of heaven, and that we ought to make it reign here on earth.

A few years after that inciting incident, I found my way to Buffalo, New York, and to a religious studies class. My eyes opened more to the world of spirituality, and my heart swelled with the desire to better know God. I studied what I could of the religions of the world, finding myself drawn to the teachings of Buddhism, Hinduism, and the radical world of progressive Christianity – the ones who actually strive to live the teachings of Christ. I prayed with an Indian student at a Hindu temple, asking Lord Ganesh to help keep my heart pure and focused, and to remove the obstacles that held my prayer hostage. I lit candles to the Holy Mother, asking for intercession at the minor basilica in the city. By the time we moved home from Buffalo, my husband (then boyfriend) and I had been regular attendees of the Pilgrim-St. Luke & el Camino Nuevo United Church of Christ in our intensely diverse neighborhood.

Home, in northeastern New York, I spent nearly six years studying on my own, attending yoga classes, falling in and out of regular prayer and spiritual practice. Something was missing from my life, and it wasn’t a mystery. After finishing my undergrad and applying to Southern New Hampshire University’s Master of Fine Arts program, I made the eleventh-hour decision to attend seminary instead. Chicago Theological had an online Master of Divinity program that would lead to ordination, and I was convinced that this was the only way to effectively study religion, and further convinced that I was being called to lead a congregation as its pastor. To this day, my semester at CTS remains one of the most invigorating times of my life – ten thousand dollars well spent.


“I make no attempt to hide my sexuality. I try and fail to control my trucker’s mouth. I pierced my nose, rock hipster haircuts with vintage-inspired glasses, brandish my tattoos with pride, and never try to fit into a heteronormative, binary idea of masculinity.”


It was during my single, formative semester at CTS that I began to regularly attend the First Presbyterian Church of Hudson Falls. It had been the home church of my maternal great-grandmother, Clara, and I had been swept away by the kindness of the young, bearded pastor as he prayed with the family during her final hours. The reception, held in the fellowship hall after her funeral, was further divine interference, as kind members of the congregation welcomed and consoled our family, and especially when two white haired women took my hand in theirs and emphatically insisted that my grandmother had spoken sweetly of my husband and me, and that we were truly welcome to visit them whenever we wanted. So, a year later, deep into my first and only semester of seminary, I met with Michael, the pastor, over beer and hard cider at a local brewery to discuss what being a Presbyterian was all about.

As I write this, I am entering the final year of my first term as a Ruling Elder and member of Session – the governing body of the congregation, nominated by committee and approved by congregational vote. Michael and his wife, Lauren, are among my dearest friends, and I’ve become completely immersed in the family that is this congregation. I was not wrong when I thought that I heard the call of God to religious leadership, I just got off at the wrong exit. We are a truly welcoming community. Everywhere you look, churches are hanging banners that read, “all are welcome,” but their theology and practice don’t reflect that message. I often comment that I want a banner of our own that reads, “all are welcome, and we really mean it.”

I make no attempt to hide my sexuality. I try and fail to control my trucker’s mouth. I pierced my nose, rock hipster haircuts with vintage-inspired glasses, brandish my tattoos with pride, and never try to fit into a heteronormative, binary idea of masculinity. I am open about my increasingly liberal ideologies (which became even more liberal during seminary) and share my excitement and passion with pride. When I fall on my face, there are dozens of people to pick me up. I have shared my journey with them, and they’ve embraced it as wholly a part of me. I have spoken plainly about my struggles with depression and anxiety and have been dragged from the brink by these people who refuse to love with any less than their whole hearts. Together we work to make our community a safer, healthier place full of abundant welcome and acceptance. What’s more, my belief that creating that kind of loving energy and sending it into the universe will have a tremendous butterfly effect, and will return to us all, is respected and shared by many.

I have asked the universe and I have received. Sometimes it’s not quite what I was expecting, and sometimes I am refused what I first asked for, only to receive what I truly needed. But I trust that the Divine has guided me to where I am and will continue to do so. The angry and frightened eighteen-year-old, whose best-friend’s crazy girlfriend insisted he would burn in hell, would not have believed that he would someday be a thirty-year-old professor, Christian leader, writer, uncle, and husband. My journey has been one of hills and valleys, and there will be more to come. But faith is not easy. Trust in something all-powerful and beyond adequate description with words is not easy. Willingness to bare your soul, show your bruises and scars, along with the moments of celebration, is not easy. Nevertheless, in my church, I’ve found the support that guides me through all those difficulties. Tonight, I will read more about my chakras. Tomorrow, during my lunch break, I will read more from the Upanishads. Sunday morning, I will prepare communion, welcome back my friend from sabbatical and help him lead worship. Next Thursday, I will teach my students how to write effectively, and discuss gender issues in our society, and then attend the monthly meeting of the Session, where we will worship and prayerfully make the decisions and do the business of leading our congregation forward into the bright, bright future.


FACULTY SPOTLIGHT: Marcus Burke


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MFA candidate Morgan Green interviewed Mountainview MFA faculty and author of Team Seven: A Novel, Marcus Burke, about his education, writing, authors he admires and future plans for the characters featured in his debut novel.

What’s the difference between a short story collection and a novel? Which one is Team Seven?
The difference between a short story collection and a novel are somewhat like this difference between sitcoms and movies. Sitcoms may return to a storyline but reserve the right not to do so, whereas with movies they have a grand continuity. When I first started writing Team Seven, I though it may be a linked collection but it became a novel. With a short story collection every story can generally stand in its own, so when characters return elsewhere in the collection their presence must be re-explained. Where with a novel it’s like taking down those partitions, and being able to write with the assumed knowledge that the reader is keeping track of the information being presented, so when things return or come back around there doesn’t have to be the same level of contextualizing.

So, Team Seven was published back in 2014, why don't you tell us a little more about what inspired you to tell Andre's story and how you came up with the title.
Team Seven came together very slowly, there are a few ways to answer this question. My original intent wasn’t to write a book but to do a homework assignment. It was early on during the fall of my sophomore year and I’d just become a creative writing major. And being intimidated of my new classmates a few weeks into the semester, I remember skipping an Intro to Fiction class. I was on the basketball team, it was preseason, and I probably did some sort of workout at the gym. I was yet coming into my studious ways. Anyway, later that day I saw a classmate in the training room and asked him what the homework was, he told me it was to write a first person narrative, and I did. Team Seven was written very out of order compared to the table of contents. The first chapter I wrote was, “The Big One-Two, which eventually became the novel’s fifth chapter. After I wrote that section, I then wrote the title chapter, Team Seven. The motivating idea in writing Team Seven was to get something not easily talked about off my chest. Another motivation for writing it was the enraging depiction of black men and women, and the black family, within mass media. I wanted to humanize a group of people that are generally pre-judged by society before opening their mouths. I wanted to give more voice to the group of folks that nurtured me as a child. They have valuable insights and valid stories if only given the platform, coupled with people willing to listen.
Aside from all that, I was a hardcore athlete growing up and I was, at a time, lumped in with the “bad kids,” and I know what it feels like, to feel locked out of school, and how fast a problematic educator can turn a student completely off to the idea of reading, and education. Never mind the idea of reading for pleasure. With my public education being so intensely Eurocentric, I was generally bored by most of the books I was given to read in school. It wasn’t until one summer during high school, while I was stuck in the house with sun poisoning, that I found The Coldest Winter Ever by Sista Souljah and read it cover to cover. That book felt like an olive branch into the conversation, so I wrote Team Seven as an olive branch for people that maybe don’t like to read books.

Where is Andre now? Can we expect a sequel? 
I’m working on the next novel now. It is a follow-up, but it doesn’t return to the dramas of Team Seven. There are things from Team Seven referenced but it’s a very different book. I’m still working with Andre and his family so some characters do come back. Team Seven is the second book in a trilogy, even though it was released first. I’m writing the trilogy out of order too, I guess. I published a chapter from the new novel in McSweeney’s this past spring.

How would you say your undergrad experience affected you as a writer as compared to grad school and what advice do you have for those who may have had similar experiences?
My undergraduate experience was helpful and damaging in its own right. My classmates were vicious initially until my professors praised my work. In my first workshop, I remember a girl writing me a letter telling me that she was a grammar and punctuation “elitist” and that reading my work was “thusly painful.” I sort of laughed and thought, who even uses the archaic word “thusly”? Anyway, being that I was a basketball player, I was accustomed to trash-talking being a part of competition and didn’t take the comment to heart. More than dealing with awkwardness in the classroom, dealing with an intense amount of racism came along with being a student on the campus of Susquehanna University. 
I was there for Obama’s first election and it was a crazy time. At night the locals would ride around campus in trucks, high beaming students of color, yelling racial slurs, and throwing stuff. That and countless other incidents occurred. It was a mess, really. With all the drama and fighting that came along with the existence of a black man on campus, I took great solace in writing, it was an outlet for a lot of angst. So I guess I’d tell other young brown writers studying at predominantly white institutions that are maybe feeling lonely, agitated and/or confused: your story is needed and valid. Seek community even if in small numbers. Keep on pushing until you find your folk. Hold onto your visions and your dreams. Your future audience needs your presence and example.
As for my time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, it was a much-needed breath of fresh air. I was given time to read and to shape and define my own aesthetic, and I worked with an AMAZING cast of writers like James Alan McPherson, Marilynne Robinson, Peter Orner, Ben Percy, etc. It was an honor to study alongside so many writers that I admire and respect. My time at the Writers’ Workshop changed the trajectory of everything, truthfully.

What's your writing routine? You always say that everyone's processes often change, care to elaborate a little more on that?
Generally, I shape my writing around whatever’s going on in my life, which is why I say my writing routine is always changing. I’ve written at night, in the morning, afternoon—it just depends. I generally try to accomplish something each day in that arena, either reading or writing. Sometimes I’m writing more than I’m reading. Other times it’s the reverse. After I’ve written a lot, I need to step back and do some reading, it’s like going back to the well. Lately, I’ve been writing in long hyper-focus chunks of time, usually from mid-evening into the early morning.

What's the best thing you've ever gotten out of a workshop as a student? The worst?
The best thing that came out of workshop for me as a student was finding readers. It’s invaluable to have people you trust read your work and vice versa. Those are life-long friendships. Even if you don’t agree with the feedback or it’s hard to hear, it’s better received when you know there’s nothing but goodwill and integrity in the criticism. Even if I was in a workshop that did not consist of my ideal readers, I always thought it was interesting to hear how so many drastically different aesthetics were reacting to my work.

 Photo Credit: Gordon R. Wenzel

Photo Credit: Gordon R. Wenzel

You've had a lot of success in your career so far from Team Seven, such as getting a starred Kirkus Review to publishing in McSweeney's, and it's clear that there's more to come. What do you think is the key to success and how do you stay humble? 
I’ve been blessed and pray there’s better ahead. I can’t say there’s any one thing to point out as a key to success. I’ve had to be persistent, resilient and faithful. When I started writing, it was a deeply personal thing that I didn’t even tell people about. I took my approach with basketball and applied it to writing. I became disciplined and put in the hours in order to give myself a chance. But I shouldn’t list those things as though l was given some secret formula or that the highlights of my writing career thus far have happened because of those things. Persistence, resilience and faithfulness, certainly helped, but there’s a lot more to it. There were a lot of people that helped me along the way. I had an amazing family, teachers, friends, and mentors supporting me. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve known somebody when they have good will and good intentions for you. I was hungry and took a lot of risks and certain things came together at crucial moments. Around year four of writing the book I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, that I could finish. 
I’m unsure of how to answer the part of the question about staying humble. It feels strange to try and qualify one's own humility and speak to it. More than anything, after I published my first novel, I had to decide what type of writer I wanted to be. I had to figure out what it is that I got and wanted to continue to get from writing, and what I wanted for my writing career. It took a great deal of soul searching to sort all that out, which is nice, I suppose. Well, I guess, all that is to say I feel most alive and at ease in my soul when I’m being creative and in the throes of working on a project.

What books are currently on your nightstand?
It’s beautiful to see so many black writers getting much deserved attention. I recently read two books that I enjoyed immensely, Naffisa Thompson-Spires’ collection, Heads of Colored People, and Kiese Laymon’s new memoir, Heavy. With Heavy, simply put, the book is amazing. That’s a brother that writes with a mind blowing amount of heart, courage, empathy and honesty. His work always inspires me to dig deeper. Alexia Arthurs’ How to Love a Jamaican, I’m really enjoying that at the moment. And I also have Ruth Joffre’s Night Beasts, Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man, and Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s House of Stone. I started it but had to pump the brakes. You ever start reading a book, like it so much you realize you’re reading it too fast and have to slow your roll? Sometimes I don’t want some books to end.


Morgan Green is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Disquiet on the Set

By Amy Jarvis

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My short-lived, somewhat volatile film career started with being cast as an extra on the television show One Tree Hill. I was enthralled with being on a film set: the lights, the cameras, and, in one particular episode, finding myself standing next to Chad Michael Murray (who was, of course, a major heartthrob at the time) on a Wilmington street that had been transformed into another city, while passersby grouped together and watched the show being filmed.

After appearing in eight episodes of the television show, I began submitting headshots to other production companies. It wasn’t long before I landed a featured extra role in the movie River Guard. My role was simple – one of the primary characters was the bartender, Banger, and in the scene we were slated to film, I was to portray his on-the-side girlfriend. I watched the director as he pointed to my starting point, explained that I was to approach the bar, act as though I hadn’t seen Banger in a while, and he would do the same. My nerves jumbled in my stomach the first time I stood on my mark and heard the countdown of quiet on the set, rolling, background, action. I approached the bar, climbed onto the stool. Banger looked over and threw his arms up. I smiled at him. Then he leaned on the bar while we pretended to talk. I playfully touched his arm, laughed silently, and drank my vodka cranberry—minus the vodka—being careful to make sure the ice didn’t clank against the glass because the boom mics would pick up the noise. The actor who played Banger reassured me that I was doing great, each time we reset and repeated the scene, over and over.

In the following scene, I was directed to leave the bar, which meant counting down and walking across the dolly in front of the camera. But I was still reeling with anxiety, which resulted in my moving into frame several seconds after my cue, which forced me to cross the dolly more quickly to compensate, which caused me to accidentally kick a misplaced paint can, which in turn tipped over with a bang and rolled, until it collided into the wheels of the camera. I froze, my heart pounding against my rib cage, and looked around the set, at everyone staring in my direction.

There was a painfully long silence that followed, in which the only sound was the paint can rolling, until it came to a merciful stop. The director cleared his throat, yelled cut. Then they started the scene again. This time without me.

*

Following River Guard, I landed a featured role in the movie The Remaining. I was sitting in the front row of a church with several other extras. The scene was to be about the survivors of a religious apocalypse who find themselves under attack. While we waited for filming to begin, another extra sat down beside me.

“You’re perfect,” she said.

“Excuse me?”

“You’re perfect,” she repeated. “For film.”

She told me she was the costume designer for River Guard and that she had noticed me on the set. I stared in an effort to place her. Her spiky hair, lined eyebrows and lips.

“How tall are you?” she asked.

“5’2,” I said.

“No you’re not, you’re 5’3,” she said. “What size are you, two or four?”

“Two or four, depending.”

She nodded thoughtfully, still appraising me. “You need an agent,” she said. I didn’t tell her I already had one. “You’re the next Shailene Woodley or Lily Collins. The industry will love you.”

Several minutes later, she retook her seat across the aisle, and the director approached and offered me a featured role. As he instructed hair and makeup to make me look as though I had just survived an explosion, I looked back over at my spiky-haired acquaintance. Told you, she mouthed.

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The scene in The Remaining was as follows: I was supposed to be watching the news on an iPad and reacting to the devastation. Several main actors would be around me, and they would do the same. The director stood in front of us, the camera placed directly in front of my soot-covered face. One of the crew members turned on the string of LED lights around the screen (since electronics don’t actually work in film; it’s all CGI), and the director began his countdown – quiet on the set, rolling, background. My muscles tensed. Action. I imagined meteors falling from the sky, people being attacked, dust, rubble. I knitted my eyebrows together and bit my bottom lip. I was so determined to make sure my acting was on point that I felt nauseous when we cut twenty seconds later.

In an effort to soothe my nerves and the lightheadedness I felt, I stared down at the iPad. After a moment everything became a blur. The room narrowed.

“Can we get some emotion out of you, Amy?” the director asked.

I looked up, confused. That’s when I realized that in my anxiety-induced state, I hadn’t heard the director’s count. We were filming the scene again, and I was staring blankly at the iPad at what was supposed to be devastating news. I swallowed, narrowed my eyes, and exhaled a slow, shaky breath.  

“Good. There you go,” the director said, before calling cut twenty seconds later.

Following my featured scene, we moved on to the second scene of the night, in which demons attempted to break through the ceiling of the church. Only there were no demons, no loud banging, nothing shaking the rafters. The director explained that he would count, and gave us specific spots to look at with each number. I held my breath as the director counted down to action.

One. I gripped the row in front of me and looked forward, toward the altar. Two. I cowered in my seat. Three. I looked toward the back of the church and pretended to scream. Four. We reset and did the same thing, over and over again.


Amy Jarvis is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

FICTION


Excerpt from the story Hats

by Curtis J. Graham

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Sergeant Ticker was a third battalion Kill Hat at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island. He was not authorized to speak to recruits, only to punish them creatively. During the day, he forced them to wear each other’s uniforms and fill their pockets with mud. He made them windsprint throughout the dinner hour until there were only five minutes left for eating. He denied them use of the bathroom until one of them pissed their trousers. But at night, Sergeant Ticker told stories, and the recruits listened.

He was careful never to overindulge. The moment he suspected the recruits were humoring him, feigning interest, he would deprive them for a time. He’d say they had mistaken his kindness for weakness, and he’d make them do something hot and difficult until one of them fainted. After a week or so without any stories, the recruits would send a representative to his office at the far end of the squad bay to ask for the next installment.

Ticker told his recruits the adventures of Sergeant Hayfield, a character he’d been refining since he was a Corporal. The idea for Hayfield came from a World War One recruiting poster. It pictured a square-jawed Marine with a crooked smile. His khaki shirt was sunbleached and wrinkled. He wore a canted helmet and carried a rifle made of hardwood and steel. He was extending his empty hand, inviting you inside his world. “Want Action?” it said. During his two cycles at Parris Island, Ticker had crafted a legacy for Sergeant Hayfield. After lights out, he would pace the center causeway and tell the stories he’d imagined.

“We left Sergeant Hayfield in Belleau Wood, France. The skirmish is over, an Allied victory. His platoon has fallen back to safety, and he alone has remained to fight the scattered enemies. It’s dawn now. There’s mist rising through the trees, and frost on the rocks. Hayfield stumbles through the undergrowth. He’s ditched his M1 in favor of a single shot Gewehr. Dead Germans are spread out like squirrels, and ammunition is readily available. His fingers shake from the cold as he feels their pouches and pockets for bullets and bread.”

The recruits knew better than to tell the other Hats about the stories. Ticker had promised he would punish them beyond words. Further, they would never know how the adventures ended. Near the end of each training cycle, Ticker would leave the recruits with an incomplete story. If they survived their Crucible and became Marines, they could find him on graduation day and hear the final installment. He left the offer open, but no recruit had ever come to find him.

His daughter Mindy had grown fat, and for this reason, Sergeant Ticker found her difficult to love. Mindy had grown up quickly in seven years. She had a cell phone and small friends who slept over and put makeup on each other’s faces. One morning, Ticker came home to find her lying on the couch eating Cap’n Crunch, dry and by hand. He’d just wrapped up an overnight shift that involved monitoring a suicide case, a night of pointless vigilance. Seeing Mindy, he nearly kicked over an end table. She’d been gaining weight gradually, but now her wrists were as wide as her hands. He made the decision to drive her to the base hospital. He scheduled appointments for her with pediatric nutritionists and cardiologists. It was time for a change. In the weeks to come, letters arrived in the mail, test results. Mindy had a mild condition of the pituitary. She would be monitored, but may continue to gain weight.

It was a pre-dawn schoolday, and Ticker stood at the kitchen island with an array of meats and cheeses spread across the plastic marble. He could see into the living room, where raindrops sat on the dark windowpanes. The central air kicked on overhead with the sound of mechanical breathing. He took a slice of bread and weighed it in his hand. “Goddamned Wonder Bread. White death.” A car drove by outside. Ticker watched a square of light trace across the wall, stop, and move back the way it came. The bread in his hand felt spongy and warm, like it was absorbing the imprints of his fingers. He peeled off a slice of cheese—white American, fat free—and slapped it onto the dented bread.

Mindy walked in. Her socks patted on the pale shag. “The school bus just drove past the house,” she said. Her forehead poked above the far side of the island, and all Ticker could see was her curly bangs. It reminded him of her infancy, months of sink baths and dish towel dryings. Mindy walked around the island and sat on a small plastic stool by the sink. “You gonna drive me after?” She asked.

Ticker caught a sour whiff of mayonnaise from the open jar. “Well what else would I do, make you walk?” he squirted some mustard and pressed the two halves of bread together, facing in opposite directions. For a moment, he debated switching the pieces around, making them uniform. Instead, he closed his eyes and whispered his mantra: “Marines are dying in Afghanistan.” It was the bigger picture he gave his recruits, the grand idea that both inspired excellence and swallowed small mistakes.

Ticker heard Mindy’s voice coming from behind him, a whisper. “Marines are crying in Candyland.” He turned. She was resting her chin on her fists. He handed her the bagged sandwich. “That’s not what I said,” he told her.


Curtis Graham is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

FICTION


One True Thing

By Ashley Martin

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10 p.m., Friday night.

              I’m lying in bed, binge watching Stranger Things and cheating on my diet, that I swear I will be faithful to tomorrow. Probably.

              I have settled into my independent-single-lady life in what feels like the lamest way possible. In the early days of the divorce, when I was high on heartache and repressed emotions, I somehow saw this happening differently. I think I was expecting it to feel a little more Beyonce, and a little less Liz Lemon. But it’s not glamorous or sexy, it’s just… quiet.

              I scroll through Facebook for the forty-seventh time and try to post something witty. A line cast into a crowded attention pool. No bites.

              It’s not that I’m friendless, it’s just one of those nights when everyone is busy with everyone else. I tell myself this is good. It gives me alone time; time for self-care, and self-love, and self-discovery, and selfies.

              Still, I’m considering chalking up the evening as a loss, but then my phone does something highly unusual — it rings. Not a text or Facebook notification – an actual ring. I answer to the voice of my sister, back stateside after completing an international book tour. She wasn’t supposed to be in until next week, but plans changed and she’s here now, and she wants to know if I want to go out to the bar. I jump at the chance. It’s been a year since I’ve seen her, and honestly I am dying for an escape from my own company - you know what they say about too much of a good thing.

              I throw on a push-up bra and some eyeliner, and catch myself in the mirror on the way out the door. If Single-Mom-Living-On-Tacos-and-Tequila has a look, I am nailing it. But no one ever looks at me when I’m out with her, anyway. She, the blonde, chic, jet-setter, with her blue eyes, and her size 2 apple-bottom jeans, and boots with the fur. I’m kidding about that last part - she wears Louboutin’s.

              I’m slipping on my sexiest pair of Old Navy flip-flops when my phone rings again. Expecting it to be her, my breath catches in my chest when a different but dearly familiar number flashes across the screen. I feel like someone emptied a packet of pop-rocks into my stomach; the sensation is still new and delightful.

              It wasn’t until recently that I’d realized how much I had missed, even forgotten, the kind of joy that comes from these small, surprising moments in life. Not like when your husband of 15 years shows up with his pregnant girlfriend one night and tells you he’s leaving you. I mean the kind of unexpected gift that fills you with a sense of peace and euphoria all at once; like the sunset that catches you off guard, or the spontaneous kindness of a stranger. Or when someone makes you feel worthy of love again, long after you had laid that hope to rest.

                I answer eagerly and the voice on the other end spills over the way it always does, like the smoothest Whiskey. Rich and warm. Intoxicating. A vice I have no desire to walk away from.

              You see, I am a big feeler of all the things. I don’t just wear my heart on my sleeve, I cloak myself in it. I crave sincere vulnerability, both in the giving and the taking. I find the greatest sense of fulfillment in breaking myself open wide, and pouring out unabashedly into the rare few who find their way into that inner sanctum.

              So, when I find people that I bond with on a soulular level, who too prefer to swim in the deep end of life, I dive in. Subtle is not part of my vocabulary. I will love too hard, I will connect too deeply, and I cling too tightly. But not with many. Not with most.

              In fact, I need less than one hand to count the number of people this has happened with, and so when I find them, I fight to hold on until they are severed from me by a force beyond my control. Of those I have loved this way, only my sister and this shot of Whiskey remained.

              I fear even that is on borrowed time.

              Each time we hang up the phone, it ends with a resigned admittance that this probably shouldn’t happen again. There is context and technicality to consider. We need to cool it before it gets out of hand, and someone gets burned. I know that that someone will be me.

              And yet.

              I have begun to accept the beauty and power of these moments. This walking blindly into the fire just to feel the heat again. Because they mean I am alive. They mean I have not been excommunicated from love. They show me what my life, now stripped of everything I thought it was, has become: a messy, breathtakingly beautiful experience of being an authentic human who is.

              I know it may not last, but in this moment, it is real, and it’s true.

              It’s just one true thing.

              And right now, at 10 p.m. on a Friday night, I find that’s all I need


Ashley Martin is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.