Sparks

By Laura Dennison

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You handed me the welding helmet and warned me about burns and arc flash. You told me the sparks would provide enough light to see what I was doing.

            “Keep your hands steady,” you said. I knew that was impossible, but I tried anyway. I went on to weld—in rough, wiggly lines—our initials into a piece of scrap metal. With the bulky helmet over my eyes, I couldn’t see you or anything around me. All I saw were sparks. It didn’t matter. In the beginning, that’s all we needed.

We met in the summertime on a camping trip. You were the burly electrician with the nice butt; I was the skinny, blonde girl finishing off her fourth year of college. I liked the way you wrapped the warts on your callused fingers in electrical tape, and how you replaced the two-pronged outlets in my ancient apartment—that old, red-bricked building on Main Street that we both thought was haunted. We used that place as a playground: climbed the fire escape to the third floor so we could sit and drink beers as the sun set, letting our bare feet dangle; opened the bathroom medicine cabinet to slip razorblades into the slot in the wall labeled RAZORS; explored the long, narrow crawlspaces behind the galley kitchen, wondering if we’d stumble across a century of used razorblades in the process.

            Then there was that night we crawled out from a bedroom window, climbed up to the flat part of the roof. I wrapped us up in my patchwork quilt and there we lay, drink the Barefoot wine we bought at the corner store. When packs of partygoers passed by down on the street below, we took turns tooting at them with the little bike horn we carried with us. The party girls, dressed their shimmery tops and stilettos heels, up, stared up, wide-eyed and confused, while the boys with backwards baseball caps hollered, searching for the source of the sound. We ducked down, stifling our giggles. We were untouchable.

            It felt like the right time to tell you about what happened three years prior: the breakdown, the psych ward, the lithium. I told you how surprised I was to still be here—how I felt like I was living past an expiration date.

            You also had a story. You told me about the car accident that landed you a ride in the ambulance chopper. You said that your rib lacerating your kidney was nothing compared to the injuries to your head—how you feel like a different person now and can’t remember things the way you used to. “I still feel like I’ll be dead by thirty,” you said.

            I nodded. “Me too.”

            I reached for your hand. We made our own warmth, swaddled there together in that blanket. I shut my eyes, happy we’d found each other—two humans with no futures to scare us.

*

And now three years have gone by. We’ve moved in together—a new apartment—one with modern, three-pronged outlets, no fire escape, no slits in the walls to deposit sharp objects, and nowhere to sit at night other than the beige-carpeted floors.

            We’ve stopped spontaneously driving to the beach in the winter to lay out our blankets and have the whole place to ourselves. We’ve stopped racing each other through the downtown streets to see who can run fastest without bending our knees. Once, in the beginning, we spent a whole hour laughing after you dared me to peel a banana using only my toes and I succeeded. But now you spend your spare nights in the garage working on your old truck, while I stay in the bedroom, wrapped up with the patchwork quilt and a book.

Last weekend, though, we went on a date. On our way home from the diner, we stopped to let an elderly couple cross the street. The man wore a bowler cap and clutched his partner’s elbow. She clutched a three-pronged cane and wore a tight, white perm. Each small step seemed in slow motion.

  “I hope I die before I get that old,” you whispered after they passed.

“Me too,” I said. Only I mouthed it more than spoke it, and I don’t think I meant it.

In five years we’ll be thirty. I’m too afraid to tell you that I’ve started daydreaming scenes of a life ten or twenty years from now. After we finally drove away, all I could do was stare at my interlocked hands in my lap as they grew colder. I glanced over to see your knuckles were white from gripping the steering wheel, and it made me wonder if you were merely reading off the old script—the one with no future and neither one of us in it.

*

At night, back in the new apartment, the four white walls of the bedroom make up a perfect square. It feels like we’ve explored every last inch. We lie on top of our queen-sized mattress underneath the same old quilt. There’s so much space between us now that didn’t exist before, back when we were forced to cram together on the tiny twin. I can’t even feel the heat of your body against mine. I turn toward you and you roll closer against the wall, pressing yourself deeper into the whiteness, making yourself small. I try to make sparks myself—like we once did— but it’s like rubbing two twigs together, hoping for a fire. It only works in the movies.


La Isla Nena

By Melissa Alvarado Sierra

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The amapolas fell whenever a strong breeze shook the trees, the scarlet blossoms dropping unhurried like feathers and dotting the vast green floor. My wooden house was nearby; I could see the shanty zinc roof and the white and pink facade through the trees. I lived in Barrio Pilon, a small neighborhood tucked away in the mountains of Vieques, also known as La Isla Nena, an island off the east coast of Puerto Rico. Life was painless and undemanding in what many would call the definition of paradise. Everyday, I took a nap in the jungle, on a bed of green grass sprinkled with amapolas. Pilon was unspoiled, quiet, and seductive. Eternally humid, this rural place was canopied by dense greenery in the form of bamboo, palm, and flamboyant trees. The jungle smelled of coconuts, mangoes, starfruit, and bananas. Pilon felt like a made up place, and I felt like a better person than before I moved there. A little lighter, a little bolder, a lot happier.

Melissa walking in the jungle of Vieques

Melissa walking in the jungle of Vieques

I remember sitting within the jungle with a woven basket next to me. The basket was full of fruit I had picked from the trees. I nibbled one end of a starfruit to make a small hole and then ate the pulp, seeds and all. Starfruit juice dripped from my mouth down to my clothes and I didn’t care. I was in Vieques, not in the busy city of San Juan, where I used to live. There was no right way of eating fruit in Vieques. I spent my days in the island like that—wildly eating nature’s sweets, my ears romanced by tropical sounds—mostly of the insistent coqui frogs. Ko-kee, ko-kee, went their song. Tradewinds blew from the east and the overreaching flora fanned everything below. Vieques, my sizzling Eden, was reachable by a faulty ferry or a teeny and decaying plane, which made for a slightly treacherous and vomit-inducing journey. Once there, though, all travel and life traumas faded away.

            Vieques’ beaches were tinted with cerulean and turquoise, and the sand was so white and bright it hurt my eyes. But the ocean floor on the east side was sticky with toxic phlegm and the sand of the southeast was covered in putrid radioactive waste. Undetonated bombs lied below the waters and within parts of the jungle. The air was sick and made locals sick—with cancer, immune disorders, neurological diseases. La Marina, the Navy, arrived in Vieques in 1941, settling to test bombs in La Isla Nena. It didn’t matter to them or to the local government when people in Vieques started to die because of it. They kept testing their bombs for more than sixty years.

A map of Vieques with the location of the bombs at El Fortín de Conde Mirasol Museum

A map of Vieques with the location of the bombs at El Fortín de Conde Mirasol Museum

In 2011, when I moved to Vieques, I knew little about the contamination. But neighbors told me to stop eating the fruits from the trees. They said the Navy had used depleted uranium, Agent Orange, arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, white phosphorus and napalm on Vieques. The traces were found by local scientists on the leaves, within the soil, floating in the water and in the hair of residents. I couldn’t digest something so atrocious. I searched for those allegations and found the Navy had conceded to using the heavy metals and toxic chemicals, but had denied any links to the elevated rates of disease and mortality on the island. Five million pounds of munitions were detonated between 1945 and 2003, and the Navy said it had no effect. Trying to prove otherwise is almost impossible. The Department of Interior owns the land the Navy used to bomb, consisting of two-thirds of Vieques. They restrict access, and so we are in the dark about the real state of the island’s health. They now call the bombed area a “natural reserve.”

Painting by Kayra, A local artist

Painting by Kayra, A local artist

When the doctor said I had a rare type of thyroid cancer a few years later, I immediately thought of Vieques. I had lived on the island for less than a year, but while I was there I grew increasingly sick. My neck grew bigger by the day, and a strange and dull pain became my normal. I remember the neighbors telling me to stop eating the starfruit. They said the soil was poisoned. But I was so enamored with the singular beauty of Vieques that I ignored what had happened years before. I kept eating the sweet fruits, kept bathing in the beaches, and kept breathing the salty air. Maybe I had been poisoned. Maybe I’m one more on a long list of people who claim the island’s toxicity is to blame for their health issues—that the Navy is to blame. It can’t be proven.

Viequenses believe the cleaning efforts by the Department of Interior have been inefficient. There’s also no serious interest in studying the unusually high cancer rates (27% higher than in mainland Puerto Rico). People are dying. When I flew to Vieques mere months after Hurricane Maria, I found the island to be in very bad shape, but the people were in even worse condition. Cancer patients like Laura, a bed-ridden woman in her sixties, couldn’t have access to chemotherapy and had given up on being cured. Others made the uncomfortable ferry trip to Puerto Rico to find help, but found the journey too arduous to repeat. An oncologist with a focus on natural medicine from the main island, Dr. Marcial Vega, told me he had been voluntarily traveling to Vieques for years to help cancer patients for free because no one else is doing it. There’s no support from municipal, national or federal government. People died after the hurricane, but many more had been dying from the lingering poison. Vieques and its people have been forgotten by all, even fellow Puerto Ricans. Vieques is now known as la isla enferma.

Photo of Protesters in Vieques, asking the Navy to leave the island. They left in 2003.

Photo of Protesters in Vieques, asking the Navy to leave the island. They left in 2003.

I’m still not officially cancer-free, though tests have been negative for the past three years. Being relatively healthy again is freeing, but I also have a strange mix of guilt and nostalgia when I think of Vieques. After the hurricane, I sailed to Vieques and drove to the jungle in Pilon, where I used to live. I sat on the ground, this time with no grass and no fruit trees around me. The hurricane took them. I thought about the amapolas from 2011 and how maybe paradise made me sick. I thought about the island as it is today, still sick by the man-made poison that is glued to every leaf and infused into every drop of ocean water. Hurricane Maria made sure this was not forgotten. The winds stirred the old toxins that were hiding within the soil and interred in the depths of the sea. There’s now more proof of contamination. The poison was agitated and released once again. The dirty secret just can’t stay away.


Melissa Alvarado Sierra is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Visiting Homeless Veterans

Reflection by Dana Krull

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On a chilly Monday morning at the end of October, I had the privilege of going on a ride-along with Ben, a patient advocate with Mount Carmel Medical’s Outreach team, to visit nearby homeless camps where many of our Holy Family Soup Kitchen guests live. This was my first experience and it was eye-opening and heart-wrenching. I was thankful to have Ben’s company and guidance because he knows so many local homeless people and has earned their trust and respect by bringing them all manner of support to where they live, from bus passes, to band aids, to backpacks. Like me, Ben is a former military service member who didn’t expect to be serving his fellow civilians in these kinds of circumstances — but we both consider it a blessing to be able to do so.

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Within the first half hour, I snapped this picture of one campsite among many tucked across the railroad tracks behind Holy Family Church in East Franklinton, less than a mile from the heart of the city and the Ohio Statehouse. I grew accustomed to seeing this kind of squalor in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not in the Midwest boomtown where I grew up. Minutes later at another site nearby, we met one of our regular HFSK guests, a fellow veteran who often stops by to pick up his mail. Tragic irony then hit me when we emerged from the wood line and I caught sight of the newly dedicated National Veterans Memorial and Museum. And minutes after that, as we drove up the bike path near a wooded area which city officials recently “remediated” of homeless residents due to complaints from locals, we ran into another veteran who receives daily takeaway bag meals from HFSK. He showed us a citation he had just been given late the previous night from a MetroParks ranger for failure to follow an order — he had been sitting on a wall near the site where the same ranger had previously cited him for sleeping. “I fought for this land, and what, I can’t even sleep on it?” he lamented to us.

After visiting more HFSK guests at their camps and seeing other sites around the I-670 underpasses where some of our guest volunteers reside, Ben drove us up to the Central Hilltop, my old childhood stomping grounds and now one of the most dangerous parts of Columbus. On Sullivant Avenue we picked up an 18 year old man who recently aged out of the foster care system where he had been addicted to methamphetamines and fathered a son whom he now cannot see. The young man needed help obtaining a copy of his birth certificate and Ben coordinated this through JOIN (Joint Organization for Inner-City Needs), another Catholic ministry on East Main Street, which graciously gave the man a voucher to use at the Bureau of Vital Statistics downtown. Although this young man who has been in and out of homes across the country may not have worn the uniform of our great nation, he, too, is a veteran of a lifetime full of combat. The harrowing trials he briefly described to us — which were surely only the tip of the iceberg — highlight the dire need for the restoration of stable nuclear families whose members have access to life-sustaining jobs and loving, supportive communities. America will surely fail without its families.

It occurs to me as I am writing this in the warmth and comfort of my home: I could have been this young man, were it not for the loving parents and extended family who set the conditions in childhood for me to thrive as an adult. Really, I could be any of the homeless veterans I met, were it not for the love of my wife, our families and our priest — and emergency savings in the bank — when I departed the military for good in 2017. Even under some of the most favorable circumstances, I’ve still had to do battle with anxiety, depression and other issues. So how much more would I be struggling during my transition without each of those blessings listed above? And, given all of this, why do I still hope that the left turn arrow will stay green so that I won’t have to sit next to the veteran who is often begging at a busy intersection near our home on the South Side?

I think the root, for me, is simple denial. When it comes to homelessness, the “out of sight, out of mind” approach helps me try to preserve the distinctly American illusion that I am in control of my own destiny, as well as the truly insidious (and unbiblical) notion that “God only helps those who help themselves.” But no matter how many zeroes are at the end of my net worth, when I realize how fragile my own existence is and how much faith and confidence I’ve placed in my economic or professional status instead of the Lord Jesus Christ, I am forced to come to terms with the fact that I am not in ultimate control of my life. While God certainly gives me latitude to make decisions and He allows me to reap their consequences, there are always other social and spiritual forces at work against me. Our common Enemy in this life wants to sow chaos, hopelessness, and death. But with the help of God’s Holy Spirit, the sustaining life He gives us in the Sacraments, and the mutual encouragement of those who are doing His work, we can serve our neighbors and show them the love of our Christ.


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

Seeing Monsters

By W. Leander

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Nights are terrible. Nights are the worst. This all due to your dislike of the dark, your fear of it—that slow dread that descends upon you every evening once the sun sinks, the sky purples, and you know bedtime is fast approaching.

            Your mom has long since lost her patience with you and your behavior, how you carry on, fussing and whining, scared to sleep in your own bed. Gone are the times when she’d check your room for you at night: theatrically inspecting under your bed, locking your windows, examining your closet door, verifying that it was unable to swing open on its own. Sometimes your mom even sat with you as you lay there in the dark, the two of you silently watching lights from passing cars slowly play across the ceiling. There she sat and gently rubbed your belly until you finally drifted away.  However, this now seems so long ago, so hazy and opaque, you aren’t sure if it is a real memory or just an imagined one. More wish than fact.

            Now, as often as not, if you leave your bed and run to her complaining about hearing strange noises, she’ll march you back to your room, stand there in the doorway—hands on hips—and glower at you as you climb once again into your hated bed. Instead of checking locks on windows and securing closet doors, she’ll threaten you, tell you that if you got out of that bed again, she will give you something to be scared of.  You are not a baby, she’ll say. You are a Big Boy.

            “Too old to still believe in monsters,” she says—unable to sense the monsters all around her.

            However, you know that the monsters are there, just waiting for her to leave. That’s when they will come out and show themselves. That’s when you will see their teeth.

*

Tonight, she has warned you again about getting out of bed. Tonight, it is important that you not leave your room. Because tonight she is entertaining. A friend from work. The friend is due to come over after you’re in bed. So, no, you won’t be introduced. Not tonight. Maybe next time.

            So you don’t get to see the friend arrive. But you do listen. While in bed you hear the front door open and your mom greet her friend. You hear the friend too. It is a male voice. You go through the audio files in your head but can’t place that voice, which has this gritty, lumpy quality to it, like his throat needs constant clearing.

            You listen from your bedroom. The two of them. Out there in the living room. It’s soothing, the sound of their voices, the sound of your mom’s laughter, the way their hushed murmurs complement each other. For a while it keeps the monsters at bay.

            But time passes and once again you find yourself still awake, caught in the middle of yet another endless night. And your muddled mind can’t tell whether you have slept at all or if you have been awake for hours. It is now quiet out in the living room. No more murmured voices, no more whispered laughter, and whatever protection the adult’s voices provided has been removed with their absence. Now you are sure that the shadows skimming across the walls are more than a trick of light. And you can almost hear something panting from the narrow space beneath your bed. So you try to keep your eyes open. Because though you are so tired your eyeballs are burning and itchy and your eyelids feel ten times their usual weight, you are scared to close them, sure that as soon as you do the things that have been lurking, biding their time, will begin to slither.

            And now there is another problem: Your bladder. Up until now you’ve tried not to think about the pressure there. But this insistent need is verging on painful. Finally, you detangle yourself from your covers. And in one jerky motion you leap from bed, do a little hop-skip before the thing under there can grab at your feet (which it’s been waiting to do all this time). You race to the light switch, flick it on, and drown the room in solid, rational light.

            You stand there, wide-eyed and gulping air, knowing you barely made it. The first part over, you slowly open your bedroom door and take a tentative step into the short, dark hallway—ready to fly back into your room at any moment, if need be.

            You creep along in only your red Spiderman Underoos. The plan is to leapfrog from light switch to light switch, past the living room and kitchen, until you reach the bathroom. And after you relieve yourself, you’ll follow the same path in reverse, clicking off lights, letting the darkness chase you back to bed where you’ll resume your watchful vigilance. But as you skulk into the dark a voice calls out, “What’s up, little man?”

            A sound like a whimper escapes you.

            A man is sitting in the dark. Smoking. Right there on one of your mother’s honey-colored sofas. “What are you doing up?” he asks. Then he answers his own question. “Can’t sleep, huh?” And yes, you recognize the strangely clogged voice, like something stuck in his throat still waiting to be swallowed. Your mom’s friend. He is still here. But you can’t see him clearly. You can only make out half of his frame in the ebbing light spilling from your room, the rest of him is consumed in darkness. He sits with no shirt on, jeans open at the fly, the hair on his half of visible chest a murky forest of spidery hair. One eye glints at you.

            You can smell the cigarette, see the red ember sizzle at you as he takes a drag. Your mother doesn’t smoke. She wouldn’t like this.  On the coffee table before him, among the remains of their evening—wine glasses and balled napkins and the remnants of leftover cheesecake—is a dirty saucer used for an ashtray, the crushed and broken butts lying there like discarded chicken bones.

            “Where’s Mom?” you say. And why are you sitting in the dark?

            “She’s in her room,” says the voice. A glimpse of teeth from a half-lit smile. “She’s dead to the world.” The voice chuckles at this. It’s a dirty sound you think. On the other side of the living room, past the kitchen and down the hallway, you can make out your mom’s room. The door is open, but you see only darkness. Like the mouth of a cave. 

            “You remember me, don’t you?” the voice asks. “We’ve met before. Here, go over and flip on the light.”

            But now you don’t want to flip on the light switch, don’t want to fully see the face of the voice talking to you, don’t wish to watch his form solidify in the all-too-revealing light. So you tell him that yes you remember him. And then you say, as if asking permission, “I need to go to the bathroom.”

            “All right,” the voice says. That chuckle again. “Don’t let me keep you.”

            You make your way to the bathroom, feeling uneasy—not liking the half-man sitting back there on the couch, not liking his smoking in the dark by himself, not liking his clogged voice or his glinting eye or his half-moon of a smile. You don’t like his nasty chuckle, his hairy half-chest, and especially his undone fly. The word that comes to mind is icky.

            He makes you feel icky.

            As you approach the bathroom, you see your mom’s open door. And, at last, you can see a head of soft curls spilling from the mess of blankets and pillow. Just seeing those curls (and even hearing her faint snoring) returns a kind of reality back to you, cuts through the strangeness of the last few minutes.

You enter the bathroom, close the door, click on the light. The overhead fan begins to whir. Instead of lifting the seat to pee, you turn around and sit on the toilet to do your business. Like a girl. Because for some reason you don’t want the voice out there to hear you, don’t want to share such intimacy. So you sit and listen to the fan and quietly empty yourself. When you’re done, you flush and leave the bathroom without as much as a glance at the faucet.

            Your mother’s bedroom door is now closed. You stand there for a moment and listen but can hear nothing. That closed door bothers you. You have to fight the urge to knock. Instead, you return to your room, where you shut the door, click off the light, and slide back into bed. Your room is now empty. The shadows just shadows. Nothing under your bed but dust. Still, you don’t sleep. You will yourself awake. Because she was right: You are a Big Boy now. And now you need to stay vigilant. So you listen for her, your mom. Because she is still unable to sense the monsters all around her.


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

Digging Deep

By Margaret McNellis

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Back in August of this year, a friend asked me if I could handle driving to and from New Hampshire to teach twice a week. From my home in Connecticut, the drive is 170 miles each way, which can take anywhere from two and a half to three and a half hours depending on weather, construction, and traffic. 

My initial response was, “I don’t know but I’ll figure it out.” I’d done the drive for two semesters already. But Fall 2017 only required one trip a week, and in the Spring 2018 semester, I sublet a room in a friend’s apartment for the winter so I wouldn’t have to worry about traveling that great distance in the snow. (Incidentally, the snow didn’t get really serious until I moved back home.)

This semester, Fall 2018, was different. I was teaching—not just observing—so it was more important than ever that I was there, on time, every day. And there’s been only two days I didn’t make it: once due to a tropical storm and the significant threat of trees falling because we’d had so much rain; plus, the other day, I had a fever and could barely stay awake.

On the day of the storm, I ran class remotely in an “Adobe classroom.” It was better than nothing, but it was like speaking to a wall. I couldn’t gauge my students’ reactions when we were all together as a group (though the breakout session feature was useful). The day I was sick, I sent a packet of work out to my students.

Around midterms, I came up with a better answer for my friend: “When you want something bad enough, you’ll do a lot to achieve it.” My drive, which at that time felt like running the gauntlet, was the price I was willing to pay to achieve my goal: a certificate in teaching composition. At that point, the drive was not easy; most of the roadways I take through Massachusetts were being repaved. These are also the areas with the most traffic.

There were potholes galore. People speeding and swerving and failing to use blinkers (what’s with that, anyway? It’s not like it’s a hardship).

On a recent trip, I hit a severe drop in temperature when I crossed the Connecticut-Massachusetts line, and as tire pressure does in the first cold snap of the year, mine dropped. I knew the yellow light glaring from my dash wasn’t serious; my car wasn’t pulling to one side or the other. However, the idea of driving another 110 miles on low tire pressure wasn’t appealing—especially because freezing rain fell from the sky.

I was prepared for freezing, but not freezing rain. I’d grabbed my wool coat at home because I checked the weather in New Hampshire—cold and cloudy. I’d failed to check the weather in Massachusetts, not figuring that I’d have to even get out of the car there.

I left the highway and found a gas station somewhere in Worcester. The place was packed, and through the curtains of rain, I couldn’t see the air pump, so I parked and went inside. I waited on line for ten minutes to find out where the air pump was. The second piece of information was unwelcome: “The card reader is broken, but we can change a dollar for you.”

I had the dollar; that wasn’t the problem. The problem was, like all my belongings save my keys, the dollar was in my car, which meant another wait in line. This side trip took a half hour total, which made me late for my office hour, and left me freezing and soaked as all four tires needed refilling.

On that day, I thought back to the many martial arts rank tests I’ve taken and given, black belt tests in particular. I’ve taken three and helped administer three. The way the tests are given at the dojo I attended takes about five to six hours. Sparring is always saved for last. By then, the test takers are physically and mentally exhausted. They must then defend themselves from this state of exhaustion. When taking a test, strapping on sparring gear is both a relieving and daunting moment. The test is almost over, but sparring is also when there’s the greatest chance for injury since everyone is so tired. Adrenaline spikes, and people tend to hit harder than they should for what is essentially a game of tag. Missing a block could mean a broken nose or some other comparable injury.

The day I hunched over in the freezing rain to fill my tires was like that moment right before sparring. I wasn’t done with my road-warrior days yet, but I was close. I was tired, cold, and soaked through, but finishing strong is not only something I’m capable of, but something I must do. For a moment though, at the height of my mental and physical exhaustion, there was that shred of doubt: Is this worth it?

My sensei, or teacher, in the dojo always taught us the new belt was ours for the taking. The test was the final lap in a long race, and in fact, we’d been under watchful eyes for months and years leading up to it. The test was our opportunity to prove to ourselves we have the right to that new rank.

We’re taught to dig deep, not because others expect it of us, but because we expect it of ourselves, because a black belt of any rank wouldn’t be worth having if it was easily obtained. I decided that day, as I got back on the road and blasted the heat, these trips were my tests, and these tests will make the certificate—and more important, the hours I have left with my students—worth all the more.

All told, I’ve made 23 340-round-trip-mile journeys to New Hampshire this semester. I have four more trips to make. When this term is over, I will have spent $1,000 in gasoline alone. (Admittedly, I feel awful about that carbon footprint and will try to do something to make up for it.)

My answer to my friend’s question has evolved, yet again: “I drive the distance because it adds even more value to the entire process, because it requires me to dig deep, and because when you’re this close to the finish line, you don’t slow down.”


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

Faculty Pick

Birds, Art, Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear

“Was it possible that my focus on making art, on creating tellable stories, was intercepting my ability to see broadly and tenderly and without gain?” Kyo MacLear asks in her brilliant book Birds, Art, Life: A Year of Observation. “What would it be like to give my expansive attention to the world, to the present moment, without expectations or promise of an obvious payoff?”

A novelist, essayist, and children’s author, Maclear was impelled to find answers to these questions by an existential crisis of sorts. When her father suffered two strokes, and she became consumed with caring for him and worrying about whether he would survive, she no longer had the uninterrupted blocks of time for writing she counted on, or the concentration to go with them. Burdened by a new awareness of mortality, she found herself wondering about the purpose of art and questioning the constricted vision writing seemed to demand of her. In an effort to find another way of thinking about her creative life, of thinking about life itself, she apprenticed herself to a birdwatcher and followed him around for a year of urban birdwatching in her native Toronto.

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Maclear’s guide is a musician in his thirties who shares his own anxieties about performing and cultivating a public persona as an artist. For him, the birds are a way back to an authentic, unmediated experience and an authentic self, and they become this for Maclear as well. 

I will admit that I was drawn to this book because I am completely obsessed with birdwatching myself and go out to look for birds in every kind of weather, in places that might strike the uninitiated as odd (waste water treatment plants are a favorite). But looking for birds is simply the vehicle in this book, a way to see through new eyes and to explore what makes life worthwhile. Although Maclear educates herself and the reader about birds and beautifully conveys the joy of spending time with them, Birds, Art, Life: A Year of Observation is ultimately a breathtaking series of meditations on mortality, ambition, creativity, and meaning. 

  By her own admission, Maclear “aims tiny” in this book, as she claims in one of my favorite chapters, “Smallness,” which is subtitled: “On the satisfaction of small birds and small art and the audacity of aiming tiny in an age of big ambitions.” But don’t be deceived. By focusing on the birds, she and her musician friend could find in one North American city, and by being a true observer of herself, Maclear has created a guide to the art of living a richer, more centered life.    

— Katherine Towler

 

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.

 

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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.

Ducklings - A Photo Essay

By Elodie Reed

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Khaki Campbell ducklings are, obviously, incredibly cute, but that doesn’t mean you should purchase fowl to celebrate getting over the mysterious week-long-kick-you-in-the-ass illness that spread around your newspaper office, which, oddly enough, seemed to come over everyone the day after you made that reporting trip to the bird rescue.

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But you’re riding that sudden invincible-health-high, and you’re at Tractor Supply with your mother, and the two of you have always wanted ducks, so you convince her to buy three, and you tune out the brain-voice saying THIS IS A BAD IDEA by concocting a foolproof plan: you’ll raise the ducklings in your apartment – you won’t tell your landlord, of course – and your mother will take them after two months and integrate them into her chicken coop.

 

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To house the ducklings, you dig out that old cage from when you adopted chinchillas as a kid, chinchillas who lived for so freaking long, long enough that you sort of lost interest and kind of regretted being responsible for them those last couple years before they died, somewhat conveniently, right as you left for college.

 

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In your first week as a duckling-mom, you leave the office as early as you can each day to get home to your ducklings, and after playing with them on a poop-protective blanket, feeding them, watering them, cleaning their cage and unclogging the bathroom sink full of shavings, you record in a special “duckling journal” everything about them that you love: the way their brown eyes watch you; the way they waddle with their stubby wings spread out for balance; the way they go cheep cheep because they can’t quack yet; the way they stick together like so many fuzzy-feathered magnets; even the way grey and white matter rockets out from their hind ends with a little pfffft sound.

 

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You stop journaling because the ducklings grow wicked fast and kind of take up a lot of your free time now that they’re big enough to get baths each night; you’ve also had to go back to Tractor Supply for a bigger water dispenser, and to Walmart for an extra-large Rubbermaid bin so they stop spraying shit on the walls through your chinchilla cage bars.

 

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It’s been a month, the ducklings are unprecedentedly huge and smelly, your heat lamp fell and bonked one of them on the head, and you’re somehow sick again. That’s how you guilt your mother into meeting you in the parking lot halfway between your parents’ house and your apartment, and that’s where you shove the extra-large Rubbermaid bin full of ducklings into her backseat.

 

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You visit your parents’ backyard coop a month later, which now has a kiddie pool, and you chase your full-grown ducks until you manage to get one and hold it that one time before your mother calls you a few days later with some bad news: it was raining the night before, the ducks wouldn’t come inside the coop, and in the morning, she could only find one of them, splayed out on the driveway as if dropped from a great height.


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

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.


Some of My Parts

By Lyndsay Ryor

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Stiff, silent, afraid, I lie on my back beside you as you undress me for the first time. You unfasten the button at my waist, pull down the zipper and slide my jeans down over my pudgy stomach and cellulite-dimpled thighs…

Her thighs look like cottage cheese, it’s disgusting. A woman’s voice cuts into my thoughts. My friend, Sarah, was judging another woman in the YMCA’s locker room. Because women judge as harshly, if not more harshly than men. I think she had a thigh gap. I didn’t go to the gym with her anymore after that.

               …now my carefully-shaven calves and finally my toes, gleaming with the fresh just-for-you pedicure I told myself was just-for-me. My tummy flattening jeans hit the floor…

Those stretch pants make her look like a can of biscuits that busted open at the seams, remarks Jared, the boyfriend of my friend, Jenn. I heard him say this about Steph, the Admin Assistant at the office job we all worked at. I laughed, but I thought I would look about the same in them. So would Jenn, for that matter.          

             …and so does my heart as you reach for my low-cut tank top; the one that clings nicely to my breasts, enhances cleavage, but fits more loosely around my stomach so my fat doesn’t bulge out in rolls…

Just roll her in flour and look for the wet spot, says my cousin, Jon. We were fourteen and he was talking to his creepy friend, Eugene, about the possibility of fucking the morbidly obese girl who lived in the trailer next door.

             …when I sit down. I lift up my back a little to assist, raise my arms above my head like my kids do when I help them undress.  You peel it off and it drops to the floor with my jeans. I arch my back a little as your hands slide around beneath to unclasp the underwire bra that lifts and separates my large, saggy breasts, creating an illusion of buoyancy and cleavage…

Her tits looked like tennis balls stuffed in nasty old stretched-out gym socks, says an entire chorus of men. I have heard that one many times, not referring to my own breasts, but those of some other woman whose tits failed to defy gravity and other laws of nature after pregnancy and nursing and weight gain and loss. Still I felt it.

             You remove the bra, drop it to the floor, and they sprawl out, nipples gravitating in the direction of my armpits. I try not to wince, I fail. You don’t notice or perhaps simply don’t acknowledge my discomfort; you have moved on to my lacy, black boyshort panties, chosen for how they ride up my ass, showing off my nice, round cheeks, but sit high enough to cover my stretchmark-riddled stomach…

It looks like a wrinkled up plastic grocery bag, says a voice from over two decades ago. Shane Granger, this trashy-hot skater guy I was sleeping with, wasn’t talking about me, but about some teen mom, named Regina, whom he slept with before. These are the words I hear when I try to imagine how men see my post-baby stomach.

             …and the horizontal six-inch welt beneath the flab that marks the place from which my second and third child emerged into this world.

It’s called a gunt. This voice is brought to me courtesy of an old friend and lover, Wayne, to describe the flap of extraneous skin that I did not have yet, but do now; a portmanteau of “gut and “cunt” coined by some clever asshole.

             You pull them off so very slowly, gently, and top off the pile of my armor you’ve made on the floor. This is the moment: the lights are on. Full disclosure. I wait for your reaction to my nakedness, watch your face for any number of expressions I have seen before, all variations on the same theme: disappointment and disgust. I want to say something in the way of apology or something funny to break the tension I feel, but my lips won’t move and I am holding my breath. I wonder if you wish you could put my clothes back on, like a rewind where everything moves backwards in double time until we reach the point when you first said you wanted to see me after all these years.

             You see me now. After all these years. You see how two decades have eroded the landscape of my body; replaced the smooth plains with wrinkles and creases and bulges and scars like a relief map of my life story carved into my flesh. 

             What you can’t see is how these years have italicized the script of our lovemaking. Italics to emphasize a narrative that refuses to be ignored. These are just the shallow thoughts, surface thoughts; other peoples’ voices I hear in my head. Friends, family, co-workers, strangers overheard at the gym. These phrases and others play like a cassette tape with auto-flip in my head. The one about the busted can of biscuits made me laugh because it was so apt and colorful a description, but I still hear it blaring in my head over the poppy dressing room elevator music when I try on clothes and get that “muffin top” effect of my fat spilling over the top of jeans that fit tight enough to make my ass look good. I often wish I could just grab a scalpel and excise the offending flab. Literally cut pieces off of myself so I can fit into a pair of jeans made for someone else.

            I still hear this script any time I think about my body, or when I am being undressed for the first time by someone who has fallen for my pretty face, my wit, my intelligence, my sense of humor… but has yet to see me without the smoke and mirrors of my well-chosen wardrobe. I wear dresses cut low in the cleavage, tight to the upper ribcage, but flowy beneath, as if to say look HERE, not here. Jeans with double-button waistbands for extra support to battle rolls of abdominal fat while still fitting tight to my more desirable curves. I wear T-shirts that fit snugly on my breasts, but avoid words across the chest because I hate how much of a joke it is that you can’t read them stretched over my DDs. I wear uncomfortable bras a size too small because the ones made for tits this big are always full coverage and ruin any chance of cleavage. Cleavage and a pretty face are what “allow” me to feel some semblance of physical beauty when I am carrying 50 extra pounds.

Physical shit can almost always be addressed, but a beautiful spirit you can’t manufacture.

             These are the words, your words, that first gave me a little bit of hope when I told you I was “crazy out of shape.” They were only words, typed on the keyboard of your phone into the Facebook messenger application, and of these kinds of words I have long been leery. Men have said many sweet things to me that they didn’t mean in this way because there is no eye contact, no body language to betray the lie. But I believed you, or I wanted to believe that my pretty face and big tits weren’t all you found beautiful about me. At the same time, since I take a hell of a flattering selfie, I wanted you to know that I wasn’t the same wiry hippie chick with bouncy tits you last saw almost two decades ago in Boston.


“Todd wasn’t the first, the last, or even the worst. He’s just the most vivid image, like some poster boy to validate my self-loathing.”


I remember the first time I saw you, at a Phish show in Chicago or Detroit or maybe Pennsylvania. I was walking through some hippie-infested, nitrous balloon-riddled parking garage by myself. I rounded a corner and there you were with your best friend, and we spotted each other at the same time. I just walked right up and introduced myself because you guys looked like two fellas I needed to know, and I guess you felt the same because we hung out the rest of that night and at every venue that tour, the three of us. You were both cool, but you were the finest boy I had ever seen, and I wanted you bad. I guess I almost had you, and it’s funny because we both remember kissing each other only once, but strangely I remembered kissing you in Boston, rolling around high as fuck on dope on some hotel room floor, while you remembered me kissing you at Mardi Gras. You conjured up an anecdote of my inebriated self; stepping right up to help myself to your lips and pushing this guy, Crackhead Dan, over into a trash can when he started talking smack. You don’t remember Boston, and New Orleans only stirs a foggy wisp of a memory for me. It’s like we just missed each other, I guess. You looked for me, you said, after that night, but I was gone. Well, I looked for you, too, but I didn’t find you until you popped up on Facebook almost two decades later and began laying that sweetness on me, all while I dropped subtle hints about how little I thought of myself. I was giving you an out before you were even in. It’s what I do.

             Maybe I underestimated you, but how could I not? I still hate the way I look naked, and that hatred has been reinforced by the men who came before you; the men who always came before me. Like that SoCal douchebag bassist named Todd. Plenty of men have shown disappointment in my body, but Todd is the one who keeps coming back to mind, all the sweet things he said to me when we were getting to know each other superimposed over the sweet things you’ve said to me and when you pull off my tank top, I remember his revulsion as he lifted my t-shirt to cum on my stomach… and promptly pushed it back down and came on my shirt instead. I never saw him or heard from him again after that, but the next day, some bitch posted something on his MySpace page, admonishing him for hooking up with fat chicks, to which he responded, “lol – no shit.” And that was nine years, forty pounds, and two kids ago.

             Todd wasn’t the first, the last, or even the worst. He’s just the most vivid image, like some poster boy to validate my self-loathing. He’s the reason I am searching your face for that deer-in-the-headlights look, but you give me no time to worry about that. You brush my hair away from my forehead, where it’s plastered by static cling, so I feel an electric crackle. Your blue eyes meet my brown ones and you smile, that grin of yours I love, the one that crinkles up the corners of your eyes. I exhale and the tension takes leave of my body. The breath I gulp is fresh and free of italics. I don’t wait for you to act; I pull you down for a kiss.

             You kiss me back. There’s passion in it, as if you are hungry for me, but I feel no urgency, so it seems you wish to devour me slowly. You straddle me, remove your shirt and lean down to kiss me on the forehead. Now each temple. The nose and cheeks and chin. And the throat, God the throat, where you pause for a taste of my pounding pulse, and whether it is fear or desire you taste, I don’t know. Perhaps the two are synonymous in me. You trail kisses across my collarbone and shoulders, and I shiver as the breeze from the open window touches the trail you leave. You find a nipple, kiss it, now my breastbone, now the other nipple, no mind to how far apart they lie. You kiss the beauty mark below my right breast, now down towards my tummy, a kiss for my navel and now, now you begin to kiss the places on my stomach that are puckered with iridescent, white skin, kissing all around my stomach, the places others have neglected, ignored, avoided, and I swear my blood turns to smoke in my veins as you kiss my caesarean scar and look directly into my eyes. Your message is as clear:

             “I see you, all of you, and I want you.”

             It seems like the men in my life only want certain pieces of me. They want the physical parts: tits, ass, mouth, vagina; or they want the emotional parts: understanding, comfort, friendship, loyalty – just not both types at the same time. I’m a salvage yard, where men are free to pick the parts they want and leave the rest. Like, “Hey, that chassis is in great shape, but the entire front end needs to be replaced.” Or, “I really just want those headlights.” And I allow it. I let men come at me like Doctor Fucking Frankenstein building the perfect patchwork pussy. Whether they’re looking for a mouth for their pleasure or a shoulder to cry on or hands to hold them through the heartbreak of some other, more perfect woman, I let them. I don’t know why I do. Because I am lonely, starved for affection? Is it because I hope it will evolve into something more? Or is it because I know it won’t and so then it will hurt just a little less when they leave me for someone with nicer parts?

             You caress my thighs, something I thought was just a romance novel cliché, but no, you run your hands up and down, slowly applying more and more pressure with your thumbs until I move them apart. You continue with the caresses, then they turn into kisses and then your lips and tongue find their way to the tiny center of my pleasure; one part that no one ever seems to want anything to do with unless it’s to stroke his ego. I am usually dead silent during sex, but an “Mmmmmm” escapes my lips, and you look up at me. I see the smile in your eyes and know this isn’t about your ego; my pleasure is yours. We are connected. I feel the tension leave my body all at once; my muscles relax. I can see clearly and I am present in this moment – with you. The pleasure intensifies, becomes almost unbearable. I try to push you away, but you won’t stop until my entire body shakes and erupts with my climax.  

             Never in the history of ever has anyone made this happen without explicit instructions or in less than five minutes, or even fifteen. Your skills are undeniable, but I think it’s also due to the sense of connection I feel with you, allowing me to abandon my insecurities and relax not just physically, but mentally because I believe you. I believe all the sweet words you have typed to me in these few weeks because your eyes, your face, your smile do not belie them. I believe you because you left the lights on, because you don’t look away from or skip the flawed places, because you pull me closer when others have pushed me away, and because you rest your head on my thigh and smile up at me like the cat who just swallowed the canary. I laugh when you ask me if that was good, as if you didn’t know. I run my fingers through your baby-fine hair until the trembling stops.

             When you leave the pillow of my thighs and pull off your boxers, I get ready for the next stage, because surely you’ll want your own satisfaction now, but you just curl up beside me, content to put your arm and leg over me and pull me close and squeeze me tight, and I notice now how very soft your skin is, softer than the underside of my arm, even. Soft hair, soft skin and soft, sweet words in my ear, you soothe me with security, and like Mulder from the X-Files, I want to believe. I want with all of my everything that you, once the cutest boy I had ever seen, that you, whom I never forgot over the course of two decades, that you, the best lover I have ever had, could truly love me. It seems possible, probable, even. As you hold me close, with an erection you seem in no big hurry to appease, my wandering emotions all come home to roost, and I realize that for once I know exactly how I feel.

             I have never been so scared in my life.


AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Marjorie Herrera Lewis

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Since graduating from the Mountainview MFA program, Marjorie Herrera Lewis has gone on to publish her first book, When the Men Were Gone, a World War II historical novel that is also a love letter to Marjorie’s second passion: sports. She agreed to take some time out between the heavy promotion of her new book and her position at Texas Wesleyan University, where she has recently become a member of the coaching staff to its football program, to let me ask her about her book, her background and what life is like after publication.

-W. Leander       

                      

Photo by Shane Bevel

Photo by Shane Bevel

Let’s start at the beginning, I hear that’s a very good place to start. Tell us a little about where you are from. What about your parents? Do you have any siblings?
I am the second of five children, born and raised in Santa Fe NM. My father is a retired dentist and a huge football fan of his alma mater, Northwestern University. My mother is a retired accountant, and a big fan of just about every college football team in the country When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Was it early on or did that develop later in life?My parents subscribed to two morning daily newspapers, one afternoon daily, and one weekly. I grew up reading newspapers and magazines, and that’s why I chose to be a journalist. Combine that with my love of sports, and it’s no wonder I became a sportswriter. I spent many years writing for The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. I’ve also taught journalism for many years at the college and university levels. When I discovered Tyler Wilson’s story, I set out to write a biography. I ended up becoming a novelist only because Tylene’s story was lost to time, and writing a novel became the only avenue for memorializing her story.  

What was the process like writing your novel? How much research was involved?
I spent the first three years researching Tylene’s story. Eventually, I realized the story was lost to time, so I decided to fictionalization the account in order to memorize what she, and at least three other women, I discovered, had done during such a difficult time in our country’s history. Because I had never written fiction, I enrolled in the Mountainview MFA so I could give Tylene’s legacy my best effort. 

What was your path to publication? Was it what you expected?
I am represented by a fantastic New York literary agent, Andrea Somberg. She sold the novel in 14 business days and the movie option rights within two months. The experience was nothing like I had expected. Being new to novel writing, I actually had no expectations, so this was beyond anything I could have imagined. 

So, this must be an exciting time for you. What has life been like since the publication of your book?
I have been on the go. Morrow/HarperCollins has scheduled me for book festivals, book signings, speaking engagements, print, TV, radio, and podcast interviews. It’s been busy and fantastic. 

I love the artwork, the young woman looking out off to the distance. And I know that the story takes place during World War II, but could you go a bit deeper and explain more of what the story is about?
The novel is based on a true story of a woman who coached football in Texas during World War II. It’s a story of perseverance and love. 

You went through the Mountainview MFA program. What advice would you give our current MFA candidates?
My advice is to be passionate about what you write about. Enjoy every writing day, even the difficult days.