Assignment Pick

Girls on Fire: A Novel by Robin Wasserman

Author’s Note: This sketch of SNHU faculty Robin Wasserman’s phenomenally successful first adult novel Girls on Fire didn’t start out to be a rant on the abject nonsensicality of most book reviewers, but I’m afraid it might descend into one.

First things first.

“I originally really wanted to write something that was shaped by the Satanic panic,” Robin told The Los Angeles Times in April 2017, “this moment in time when people in this country started to go kind of wild with panic about what their teenagers were getting up to.”

The publisher’s blurb takes it a click further: “On Halloween, 1991, a popular high school basketball star ventures into the woods near Battle Creek, Pennsylvania, and disappears. Three days later, he’s found with a bullet in his head and a gun in his hand—a discovery that sends tremors through this conservative community, already unnerved by growing rumors of Satanic worship in the region.”

Meanwhile, Mean Girl in Chief Nikki Drummond (Dead Boy’s girlfriend) inspires social X-ray good-girl Hannah Dexter and bad-girl Lacey Champlain to co-conspire against Drummond in ways that will ring bells with anyone who was a high school girl in the 90s. In fact, the 90s themselves are nearly a character, with routine and affectionate references to VHS tapes and grunge culture and Kurt Cobain. Lacey progressively draws Hannah (rechristened Dex) into a powerful counter-cultural vortex of sex and rebellion that forms a basis for girl-on-girl friendship that denies boys and embraces, as other reviewers often wrote, a Thelma and Louise vibe.

Never having been a high school girl in the 90s, I was as impressionable as Dex was under Lacey’s spell. Okay, yes—fiction. But just as movies suspend our disbelief, I felt Girls was a documentary of a clandestine world kept from me, like Knights Templar or algebra. Unlike my old algebra texts, though, I could hardly put Robin’s book down despite there being no explosions in it at all. It’s at turns compelling and repellent, cautionary but instructive. It’s a damned fine way to obliterate a weekend.

But those reviewers. Am I the only one who wonders where on God’s Green Earth the Kirkus people dredge up their irregular band of freelance faultfinders? “After hammering home the smallness of the town Dex and Lacey dream of escaping, Wasserman asks the reader to believe that this humdrum place could produce not one, but two, teen sociopaths—not just mean girls who go too far, but born deceivers and natural manipulators. Simultaneously overwhelming and underwhelming.”

Yeah, fiction, sis. One thousand dollars American says this person hasn’t been able to sell her own heartbreaking work of staggering genius. So tired (eye-rolling emoji).

Rant secured.

“Before we learn to love men,” Keziah Weir wrote in Elle, “we often learn to love a girl.” Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire demonstrates why that should be true.

Strongly, unequivocally recommended.

- - -

Five Stars: One for any writer facing the anxiety of a blank page; one for crafting an extraordinary narrative of depth and complexity; one for recognizable characters as alive on paper as they were in high school; one for the audacity to illuminate even fictional girls’ lives in unflinching ways; and one because this book is so much better than algebra.

— Daniel Charles Ross

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

Food for Thought

By Rane Hall


When she was an infant, I had hovered over Eve, indulging the fancy that I could see in her untroubled brow and delicate features the raw material of philosophy.  I was a literature major and since college I had taken to thinking of the biblical character of Eve in feminist terms – not as an allegory of fleshly weakness, but as the literary equivalent of our first Homo sapiens. 

In my Bible as Literature class in college, our professor projected Masaccio’s famous Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden.  In it, our first parents express their overruling despair at their fatal miscalculation.  Exiting the architecture of Eden, Adam drops his face into his hands, symbolically gesturing not only to the sweat of his brow (by which he will yield a living in this sublunar world), but also to the burden of his thought.  Eve, in contrast, uses her hands to cover her breasts and pubis. Her punishment will be to submit to her husband and to bear their children in pain. 

In the Expulsion Masaccio lays bare a powerfully reductive and determinant statement about gender in the West:  the locus of female identity is somatic; masculinity is intellectual. But, as I looked at the Masaccio projected on the oversized screen of our classroom auditorium and listened to the professor’s exegesis, a psychic subtext was emerging in my mind as a question: Was Masaccio’s vision an accurate reflection of what I was reading in Genesis? 

When I was seventeen, I persuaded the new young humanities teacher at my high school to accompany me to our campus museum, which was promoting a Yoko Ono exhibition, titled The Bronze Age.  The young teacher had a broad grin, tousled hair, and the habit of wearing romantic, blousy shirts of the sort you’d imagine Percy Shelley wearing in a Florentine café.  Before we’d crossed the threshold into the galleries, there was already the sturdy seed of attraction, the heyday in the blood, the magnetic force of the forbidden. 

The piece at the center of the gallery was a single green apple, placed atop a tall rectangular pedestal.  It was titled, Apple.  I eyed it carefully. And, when I saw that the security guard was distracted, and that the apple was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the fruit was to be desired to make one wise, I took of the apple and ate; and I also gave some to the man and he ate. 

“The eyes of the shopkeeper, other tourists, and of the decapitated alligators fastened on us as the baby’s face began to burn.  “No. I want something else.”

Nineteen years later, we begat and named our second daughter Eve. Since then, I’ve wondered many times about the magical perversity of that decision and of Eve’s disobedience.

Eve was a focused baby.  She wanted things and she knew how to get them.  And even when she didn’t know exactly what she wanted, the simple fact of her wanting was always clear as water: She would say, “I want something else.” 

When she was three, Eve had a melt-down at a souvenir shop in Sanibel called She Sells Sea Shells.  We had promised our daughters a visit to the shop before the end of our vacation.  We said: “You may each have one thing from this shop; it can’t be over $15, but other than that, choose what you like.”

This, yes.  That, no.  Oh Eve, in evil hour. 

Inside She Sells Sea Shells were deep boxes brimming with flawless versions of the same shells we and a gaggle of old ladies competed ruthlessly for at daybreak on the beaches of the peninsula. There were shell-themed mobiles and mother of pearl wind chimes; macabre lamps made from the unlucky bodies of sea urchins and puffer fish; Mod Podged accent mirrors framed in shells; macramé plant hangers inwoven with cowries; sea themed charm bracelets, and gold and silver earrings shaped like tiny sand dollars.  She Sells Sea Shells proffered an embarrassment of nautical riches of every sort, for every budget.  At a place like this, you’d be hard pressed to say that shell encrusted tchotchkes just aren’t my thing. 

At some point, though, Eve must have found the choices both over and under inclusive of her desires.  She wanted and wanted fiercely, but not of the Sea Shells that She Sold.  Not the apple murex covered jewelry box.  Not the frogs or rabbit figurines crafted from painted scallop shells and pipe cleaners.  Not the plastic floating bath toys in the shapes of alligators or rubber ducks.  Not the plush baby rattles shaped like smiling cartoon starfish.  We handed her things in sing song encouragement; she pushed them away in monotone. “No.”

  The eyes of the shopkeeper, other tourists, and of the decapitated alligators fastened on us as the baby’s face began to burn.  “No. I want something else.” 

“I want something else.” 

It was a cyclical chant, almost hypnotic in the formality of its pain.  “I want something else.”  “I want something else.” 

The shopkeeper peered over her glasses.  The taxidermy alligator faces grimaced with judgment.  Boxes of shellacked sea urchins, baby seahorses, and dried clown fish offered their dispiriting chorus.  “For this, we had to die?”

“I want something else.” “For this, we had to die?”

  On the drive back to our rented bungalow, we exhausted our parental tool kit of bribes, threats, and distractions.  Eve’s crying was so passionate, and prolonged, and unnerving that we finally just pulled over the rental car, adjusted the A.C., rolled up the windows, and waited outside, watching the child rage.  Our heads rocked in subconscious unison to the toddler’s lament: “I want something else.” “I want something else.” “I want something else.” 

Thirty minutes later, exhausted by her infantile premonition of the vanity of human wishes, Eve literally passed out. 

When I dared the young teacher to eat a Granny Smith at the Yoko Ono exhibition, I thought I had two things in balance:  contemplation and action.  On the one hand, I instantly apprehended Ono’s thesis on the level of thought.  At the same time, I accepted the essential dare of the artwork and was shifting—as only a seventeen year old can—into action.

“She wants us to eat it.”

“I don’t know.”

“What don’t you know?”

“I don’t feel right—eating it.  Destroying the piece.”

“Destroying?  We wouldn’t be destroying it.  We’d be completing it.  Why would she float an apple out here if not to recapitulate original sin?  I think we have no choice. I want to do it!” 

“But, what if that isn’t what she’s saying?  What if this is a tribute to the Beatles?  The Beatles’ label was a green apple exactly like this Granny Smith.   Apple records.  What if this is a tribute to John?”

“Well, it might be about both things.  Either way, I say we confirm our humanity as fallen beings who deceive each other, and mess up, and have sex.  That’s what she and John did.  I say we eat this!”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh my god!  This is the original question.  Do you want to scramble back to Eden like scared children or affirm our existence as Homo sapiens?  I say we fall.  We choose death!  I’m going for it.”

We placed the half eaten apple back under its spotlight on the pedestal and ran for it.  And, predictable things followed:  sex, deception, fear, shame, more sex.  A daughter named Eve. 

It doesn’t change the things that happened, but it is also true that a balding white museum guard perfect in the knowledge that a bin of bitten Granny Smiths had to be taken out of the galleries at the end of every day of The Bronze Age later reduced the boldest moves of my adolescent mating dance to a shoulder shrug:  “Got a bin full of them half-eaten apples out back.” 

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

Little White Flowers

By Brandy Vaughn

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Several years ago, a one-night rendezvous over the Thanksgiving break with a man from church I had only recently started dating led to a surprise pregnancy two weeks before Christmas. At the time, I was a single mom trying to make ends meet while going through a challenging divorce, and this “present” came at the wrong time. Still, I longed for another child, which—due to a number of recent miscarriages—lately had come to seem more and more unlikely. So I felt blessed despite my current circumstances. I wanted this baby and knew this pregnancy would be my last.      

               I told my two daughters—who were 10 and 15 at the time—and they were both very supportive and promised to help with the baby. Our excitement grew. We picked out names and wondered what the baby would be like, look like. Would I have a boy or a girl? They crowded around my belly and asked to hear the heartbeat. They asked to plan a baby shower.  The father of this new child, however, was not as happy as we were about it, but he offered his financial support just the same.


I woke up one Sunday morning several weeks into my pregnancy and knew something was wrong. The nausea and morning sickness that had plagued me at all hours of the day since the start of my pregnancy ceased altogether. It was replaced by an all too familiar uneasiness. I left for church in what felt like slow motion, expecting the worst. During service I excused myself and headed for the bathroom. There, inside a locked stall, my heart dropped. The shock of red blood on my underwear. Denial crept in. Everything would be fine, I told myself. A little bleeding was just due to stress from a quarrel with the father from the night before. I went back to my seat, thinking—praying—it would go away. It did not. The next time I went to the bathroom and checked there was more blood. Dear God.

               The emergency room doctor told me it was normal to have spotting during the first trimester of pregnancy. I bluntly counted for the doctor the number of times I’d been pregnant versus the number of children I actually had. This wasn’t my first rodeo, cowboy.

I was sent home, praying that bed rest would stop the bleeding. Prevent the inevitable. I bargained with God, pleaded my case, begged for the life of this child.

               The bleeding didn’t stop.

               My friend drove me to a different hospital emergency room the next day. I listened to the ultrasound with my breath held, waited to hear that beloved heartbeat, which I had heard only the night before. Silence saturated the room. The tech could not confirm what I already knew. They ran more tests. Checked my blood. The two of us waited. Then the doctor came in and delivered the verdict: there was no longer life beating inside me. The doctor offered his condolences and sent me home. I was told to follow up if I had not miscarried within a week. My friend called our pastor and shared the tragic news. The pastor then called the father, who said he was glad and did not care.


I laid up on the couch for a week. There was severe pain and cramping. When my loss finally happened, I was alone on the tiled bathroom floor. Tears gushed as I stared at the life that had been in my belly just moments before. I called the hospital and asked what I should do. The nurse on the phone offered no words of sympathy, or acknowledged my broken heart, but simply told me to flush the “pregnancy” down the toilet; they had no use for it. Shock. Disbelief. I could not breathe. I became hysterical. There was simply no way I could go through with flushing what I considered to be my child down the toilet. 

“We arrived at the pastor’s house, and I was deeply disappointed by what I saw. The yard, the barn, and the oak tree were all there, just as I dreamt; however, I didn’t see the grass covered with little white flowers.”

I remembered reading somewhere about a woman who had miscarried and found a way to heal herself emotionally by naming her baby and holding a funeral. I wanted that. So, my friend called our pastor for me and asked if we could hold a small funeral for my baby.

               As my friend drove me out to our pastor’s house, I fell asleep. I dreamed of a backyard with a red barn off to the side, a huge oak tree, and underneath that, a big grassy area filled with little white flowers. The dream was so vivid and real that when I woke from my nap, I thought it had already happened. I knew deep in my heart: this was the place my baby would be laid to rest.

               We arrived at the pastor’s house, and I was deeply disappointed by what I saw. The yard, the barn, and the oak tree were all there, just as I dreamt; however, I didn’t see the grass covered with little white flowers. I thought for sure they would be there. I sat on the pastor’s couch and cried. I was so filled with grief. My soul like wet cement. That was when their cat—who usually didn’t like anyone―climbed up into my lap. She licked my tears and rubbed her face to mine, a soft, grey fur purring against my closed eyelids. It was like this cat knew my heartache, understood it. And I felt her comfort.

               Later the three of us walked into the backyard to dig the small grave. The pastor went to the exact tree and spot in my dream. But, still, no little white flowers. As the shovel struck the muddy grass, my knees buckled. I went home where I cried myself to sleep.


That May, a church picnic was held at the pastor's house. I was nervous to attend because I knew I would be confronted with the pain of a loss still fresh. When I drove up the gravel driveway, the grassy area where we buried my baby not that long ago came into view. I climbed out of the car and just stared. Little white flowers had bloomed all over one section of grass under the oak tree. Just there, nowhere else on the three acres of farmland. I asked the pastor’s wife about the flowers.

               “It’s weird. They weren’t there the year before and only grew in that one spot,” she said.

               I didn’t think it was weird at all. It was the scene from my dream. And I had this extraordinary sense that this was meant to happen. I didn’t need to know why or how. I didn’t need to question. Just to know that it was. Just that. Seeing those flowers brought healing, an inner strength, restored me down to the deepest parts of my soul. I would no longer blame myself for the miscarriage. I would be okay. I picked one of those little white flowers with tears of joy. I hung my new symbol of peace from the rear-view mirror, so I would be reminded that the universe had heard me and knew my pain.

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

Assignment Pick

Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado

An absolutely stunning collection from an author whose work has appeared only in the format of short fiction. The stories in this book are horrible, beautiful, bloody, and sincere. Each story seems to embody the feminine voice with an authenticity that feels unparalleled in much of today’s fiction and thematically addresses the horror of anxieties surrounding body image, fidelity, sculpting oneself into what lovers seem to want or need, violence, desire, and so much more. The pieces do not fit into any particular genre, as far as I can tell. Instead the stories weave between romance, science fiction, magical realism, and postmodern recontextualization.


I thoroughly enjoyed this book and immediately sent to my friends and relatives links from Granta and other online journals where the stories originally appeared. Each perfectly-executed piece so seemed to speak to me, my humanity, and some aspect of the women I loved, that I wanted to share Machado's brilliance with everyone I knew. Truly a genuine collection of dream-portraits of what it means to exist.

—Garrett Zecker

Faculty Spotlight: Jo Knowles


Award-winning author and Mountainview MFA Faculty Jo Knowles has written several popular YA novels, including Lessons from a Dead Girl, Jumping Off Swings, and Read Between the Lines. Her newest book, Where The Heart Is, is set to be published in April 2019. She took time out from her hectic schedule to answer a few questions about her childhood, her career, and what motivates her.


You wrote that you grew up in a small NH town complete with all the trappings of farm life: dogs and cats, a chicken or two, horses, and a beloved pony (and here, being a city kid myself, I’m also imagining checkered tablecloths and sweating pitchers of iced tea, very-early mornings and muddy boots by the backdoor). How do you think growing up in that environment affected your outlook and your writing?


JK— When you describe it this way, my life sounds so quaint! I guess in some ways it was. But underneath that, there was a lot of financial instability. The muddy boots were not fancy ones from LL Bean but most likely hand-me-downs times three. My parents ran a restaurant when I was young and it seemed they were always working and struggling to make a go of it. Then, there were various other business ventures my dad tried that didn't always pan out. As a quiet kid who observed and absorbed just about everything, I took on the worries of the people I loved. I don't know that what appears to be a simple life ever really is.


You decided pretty early on that YA (young adult) literature was the genre that most interested you. What was it about YA you found so appealing?

JK— Of all the literature I read, I find YA the most honest. I like words that bite and challenge and tell the truth. Realistic fiction for young adults is probably the most brave I've read. I also think it changes the most lives. I know it changed mine for the better. The books I read as a teen helped me be more thoughtful, have empathy for others, think more about people outside my own small world, and consider how to live more kindly and with more purpose.

How are you able to get into the minds of teens, both male and female, so convincingly?

JK— That feels like a heady question to answer. I try hard to be honest--as honest as the books that moved me as a teen were. That's the key, I think.


Your first book, Lessons From a Dead Girl, the story about a challenging and somewhat fraught friendship, was published in 2007. How long did it take you to finish, from idea to completion, and what are some of the lessons you picked up along the way?

JK— It's been so long I'm not sure how long it took, but I'm going to guess it was several years from the start to the completion and sale. One editor who showed interested asked for revisions and provided encouragement over a two-year period, but ultimately she passed. There was a similar time table with the editor who ultimately bought the book and published it. So yes. SEVERAL years. But I learned a lot about revision in this process. I learned how to work with an editor, to process feedback in a way that kept the book "mine" even when massive changes were required.

Your books, filled with humor and pathos, explore some intense subject matters: abusive friendships, eating disorders, unwanted pregnancies, and more. How do you navigate these complex issues and distill them for your core audience of teens and pre-teens? Or is age even something you consider?

JK— I really don't think about the age of my readers. My goal is to tell a story as honestly as possible. Awful things happen to kids of all ages, yet until fairly recently, books for younger readers rarely reflected that reality. The real world is far, far more cruel than the world of fiction.

As both an established author and writing teacher, is there one mistake or area for improvement you see consistently in new writers that you would like to caution them on?

JK— I think sometimes people get ahead of themselves and get publishing on the brain before doing the necessary hard work. Like any fine craft, it can takes years to learn to write well and find your own unique voice. Subbing to agents for a six months is nothing. It's not unusual for 5-10 years to pass before a first sale! But I've seen so many students give up after sending things out for just a few months. This is a tough business and the only way to succeed is to keep working—whether that means revising and rewriting, or starting new projects while subbing out a current work. Always be writing and creating. When you need a writing break, read a ton, learn, get inspired, and get back to it.

Who are some authors who have inspired you?

JK— The most influential author in my early days was Robert Cormier. His books were achingly true. They made me feel less alone. He seemed to know and not be afraid of telling his readers what life was really like.

You’re a best-selling author, adored by young readers , so it’s obvious you’ve found your calling, but in a parallel universe somewhere, what would a Jo Knowles be doing if she had taken a different path?

JK— Haha. I love that you have such a view of my "success." I don't think I've ever seen myself that way! Someone asked me recently what the perfect life looked like and I guess I don’t really believe in perfection that way. I try instead to be grateful for the people in my life, the opportunities I have to do good work  (whether that's speaking with kids and hopefully inspiring them to be their best selves and help shape a better world for themselves, doing volunteer work, or writing stories I hope will resonate with kids who need them). I hope that in a parallel universe, I'm essentially doing the same thing, even if via a different approach.

credit: Twin State Derby/Lazy Lobo Photo

credit: Twin State Derby/Lazy Lobo Photo

Okay—and thank you for doing this—one last thing I just have to ask: Roller Derby?

JK— Yup!

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Thanks, Jo! And be sure to pick up her much-anticipated novel Where the Heart Is, on sale April 2, 2019.

Cabin 11

By Zachary Scott


It was just supposed to be a boy’s weekend: a chance for the four of us—my friend, his boyfriend, my husband and me—to hit the theme park, ride some rides, get the shit scared out of us at the haunted houses, eat crappy food, and drink a lot of cheap wine and whiskey. That’s why we rented the cabin. Number 11. A respite from the gallivanting about the park; a refuge from any onslaught of bitter cold rains that the weathermen were calling for.

               The night we were due to arrive, we stopped off at a chain restaurant attached to a travel plaza for a quiet, hastily prepared, low quality dinner, only to be overwhelmed by a massive group of uninterested parents and spoiled tweens running amuck. We paid the bill and got the hell out of there.

               “Let’s grab some soda and snacks for the weekend while we’re here,” our friend suggested. We all swung into the attached travel mart.

               He caught my eye almost from the moment we walked in: tall. And taller still, standing on a raised platform behind the counter. His smile seemed genuine, even though he looked exhausted, and the loud woman in line at the register was being a pain in the ass, complaining about anything that she could – you know the type. I meandered through the aisles, collecting the garbage that would be my diet for the weekend. I kept an eye on him, watched as he handled one person after another, outwardly just as happy to see each of them. I envied that he appeared to like his job – I had just left retail and was fucking thrilled to be rid of the hassle that is customer service. When my turn came to be rung-up, I stood at the register and was only able to mumble a “hello” to the cashier and steal quick glances. Behind his black-rimmed glasses were gentle green eyes – innocent eyes. I was putty. Inarticulate. At a loss for words – a rarity for me.

               “We’re staying at the cabins this weekend,” my friend casually said to the cashier. Apparently this was a regular coffee stop for him and the two were acquainted. “You should stop by when you get done.”

               As we walked out of the store, I swooned over the cashier to my friend— more so when he said that the cashier was gay and smart and good at his job. My friend informed me the cashier had recently been promoted, that he was actually the co-manager, second in the chain of command. I nodded, impressed. Smitten. Anxious about meeting him more properly later that night.

               Once situated in our cabin, the four of us started in on our revelry by breaking open a bottle of wine and settling down to drinking, joking, and catching up—the start of our weekend going as planned. In the morning we’d have breakfast and hit the park.

               “Let’s text him!” I announced to everyone. “Make sure he knows he has to come over.”

               We did. He did.

               By the time his shift ended and he finally arrived, I was already pretty well into the wine, and the other guys had made a dent in the whiskey. Liquid courage steeled my resolve. We were better introduced and then the five of us sat around chatting and drinking, and it wasn’t more than fifteen minutes before I sat down next to him on one of the beds and told him that I was going to make out with him before the night was over. He just smiled, said he was cool with that. Good.

               We did make out. Somewhere along the way, amid the flowing booze and flowing conversation, shirts were unbuttoned, jeans unzipped. Soon discarded clothes began piling up about the room in little mounds. Flesh and sweat. Wine and poppers. Skin. Skin. Skin. Touching and kissing and biting and all the carnal pleasures of an unbridled sexual energy. Our energies blended seamlessly, like we were supposed to be there, together, that night, that moment, naked and intertwined— connected on a level I’d only ever experienced once before.

               We spent most of that night curled up against each other – he between my husband and me – whispering all the things you’re supposed to know before fucking: Where are you from? What do you do for work? Where did you go to school? Did you ever have a pet? I had at least learned his name, KC, first. I am a class-act, after all.

               At some point, KC and I stole away to the small bunk room at the back of the cabin. There, the two of us became one…for a little while. I woke up, blurry-eyed and dry-mouthed, with my head on his chest, as grey, stormy morning light filtered through half open blinds. Rain pelted the windowpane. We were supposed to spend the day in the park. I hoped it would stop.

               We hadn’t planned on any of that happening. None of us. But it did and no one seemed unhappy about it. KC went off to work and the four of us went about our day as planned. The rains stopped for the day, but a bitter cold hung in the air. We ate shitty, fried food, drank lots of hot coffee, and knocked into innocent kids on the bumper cars. My friends got me to ride roller coasters, me screaming my head off. When the sun, hidden away by clouds all day, finally sat, we started to hit up the several haunted houses and spooky mazes scattered throughout the park, and I shrieked more than once. Vulgarities flew. I ran like there were real zombies and murderesses chasing after me. I felt alive, energized, emboldened, and I didn’t know why. I even laid in a coffin for a burial simulation on our way out of the park.

That evening, KC returned to our cabin and night two was less eventful: some wine, some snuggling, some horror movies, and a quick trip to the all-night medical cabin after I sliced my finger open trying to use a pocket knife as a bottle opener.

               The five of us parted ways the next afternoon – everyone returning to their own homes and lives. I’d recently quit my decent-paying retail job and had a lot of spare time. So after our weekend together, the three of us—KC, my husband, and I—spent weeks talking, texting, and video-chatting. When KC visited he slept in our bed. The three of us were becoming a unit of sorts – my husband and I had a boyfriend. But something in my gut told me I was the one falling the fastest, the hardest. We were in uncharted waters, without a compass, because society had taught us all that romantic relationships were meant to be in pairs.

“I still have my moments of immense sadness, where I catch myself on the verge of tears. I let them out when it’s safe.”

You should know that I tend to jump into things head-first without first checking the depths. I’m impulsive. Sometimes it works out well and enriches my life. Sometimes it fucks me over. I’ve come close to drowning more than once. I knew I was jumping in too quickly, too naively believing that a long-distance, closed triad could work just because our hearts, my heart, insisted we were falling in love, the three of us.

               And for a while, it worked. The quick trips across the state were no big deal, schedule-wise; I had tons of time. But I dropped the ball in about a dozen other areas of my life. I was broke. I was falling behind in my financial obligations, in my volunteer obligations, in my writing obligations. I was moonstruck and doe-eyed, and the world was rose-colored. I lived for it. Each visit, each text, each phone call was another hit of a drug I was hooked on.

Then I landed an amazing fulltime position doing work that really mattered and fulfilled me like no other job before. It meshed well with my work at our church. It meshed well with my teaching. Suddenly I was picking up the mess I’d made, fulfilling my adult responsibilities. That’s when we started to realize that long-distance was fucking hard. That’s when making time for trips across the state became a chore. That’s when opposite schedules meant my husband and I were asleep before KC was done with work. We had talked about him moving closer at some point, but we were still too new for that to be a rational reality. The logistics alone, even if we were at that place in the relationship, would be a nightmare to navigate.

We managed to get through the holidays. We even had a network of friends and family who knew about our relationship, who supported us and loved us, but who had cautioned against haste. I had thrown that caution to the wind, and now it came hurtling back at me, bitter and cold. Not because things were bad—we still got along well—but because the rose-colored tint had begun to fade from my glasses. I was for the first time assessing the situation as an adult, not a moonstruck teenager free to act on whims without significant repercussions. Each day that passed I came more fully to the realization that what we had wasn’t sustainable.  Not at this point in any of our lives, at least. I knew what was coming.

               It was the one time in my life when I was the first to realize that a relationship had to end. I loved him, I still do, and a part of me probably always will. He was more than a passing fancy, more than a fling, more than a chance for me to entertain my curiosities. As hideously cliché as it is, love isn’t always enough to make something work. Not in the real world. Not when we’re adults, with active, involved, busy lives. Not when two of us are at a new chapter of our lives, careers on the climb, reputations building, while the other is still figuring himself out, dealing with his own responsibilities, his own obligations and past mistakes. For weeks we barely connected, and when we did, there were often disappointing conversations about not being able to make it out more often, about how much we missed each other and hated the distance, physical and emotional. I had seen the writing on the wall and tried readying my heart, tried finding a sense of resolve.

When my husband and I finally accepted that it was time to break things off, it was me who did the breaking. I was clearly the one who had fallen the hardest, fastest, deepest—a side-effect of leaping headlong into things. And the night that it happened, KC was so upset, so insistent that we set a weekend for another visit – something that my scheduled wouldn’t allow, something that I, as the creator of my schedule, wasn’t allowing. Somehow he had ceased to be a priority. So one evening, over our video-chatting app, I dropped the ax. I am the strong one, I told myself. I am the communicator. I am the fixer. I am the take-care-of-everyone guy.  As gently as I could, I stumbled through a summary of how things had deteriorated, as if he wasn’t aware of the status of our relationship. My breath trembled, my chest tightened, my head pounded. I fumbled words. I choked back tears. You know how you start to peel off a bandage, slow at first, as it painfully pulls at your little arm hairs, and then, in frustration and pain, you just yank. That’s pretty much what it was. I struggle to find more poetic and flowery words to describe the pain, the guilt, the shame I felt as I watched him cry. I was ripping his heart apart. 

               I still have my moments of immense sadness, where I catch myself on the verge of tears. I let them out when it’s safe. I sincerely hope that one day the three of us will be able to have something – a post romantic friendship. Space is what we need now. Time to heal.

               I consider myself a very liberal person, open to most anything, and I try my best not to judge the lifestyles of others. I knew what polyamory was. I think most people have heard of it but don’t around discussing it in polite society. But the one thing about Queer Culture is that polite society has fucked us over so much for so long that we are safe engaging in these taboo situations, even if only discussing them.

Having a husband (whom I never once stopped loving or loved any less) and a boyfriend opened my mind to immense beauty and clarity. I’ve got chronic trust issues that a lot of time, therapy, prescription drugs, prayer and meditation have helped me to take a hold of; however, knowing that my husband could romantically care about another man and be intimate with him while still loving and caring for me, made me more secure in myself and my marriage than I have ever been. I became a more compassionate and empathetic partner. I learned how to listen better,  communicate better. I became a more confident and reliable friend. I became bold. I had often talked the I-don’t-care-what-people-think-or-say talk, but secretly, I had been afraid to walk the walk. Those days are behind me. Now I know that I am strong enough to live authentically, uniquely, and truly, without fear or hesitation.           

               My husband and I were not seeking out a new romantic experience. We were in a good place across every area of our life together. I do not for a second believe that the Divine tests us, but the Universe knew we needed something. I do not believe that this just happenstance. I tried to reason it away for a little while. I argued that because I had such a limited exposure to romantic relationships – I have literally been with my husband my entire adult life – I was more susceptible to falling into this trap. And then I want to throat punch myself because it wasn’t a trap. It was brief and beautiful and challenging, but it was no trap. It was no mere infatuation. It was a short, fiery romance born in cabin 11.

Assignment Pick

Heft by Liz Moore


The first of two dueling narratives found in Liz Moore’s beautiful and poignant 2012 novel, Heft, is of Arthur Opp, a former English professor who after losing his job goes into a kind of self-imposed exile by becoming a recluse and walling himself inside his childhood home. The second story is of Kel Kellor, a rising star high-school athlete and son of a former student and longtime friend to Arthur Opp. 

               These two protagonists couldn’t be more different in age and appearance. Arthur Opp has gained so much weight, isolated as he is in his inherited Brooklyn home, that he now weighs over 500 pounds. A shy and aging and heartbreakingly lonely man who communicates with people by phone or text or the occasional letter, Arthur hasn’t ventured farther than his front porch in well over a decade. The only people he now regularly sees are the delivery drivers who bring him his groceries and takeout and whatever else he may need—all the while never letting them in the house and waiting until they have deposited their deliveries and left before he even opens his front door. Kel on the other hand is a wildly popular kid at his new school—a preppy private school—far from the small apartment in Yonkers he shares with his mom. He is the star of two sports. He has attracted the attention of one of the more beautiful girls at his school as well as the attention from a scout from his favorite baseball team. 

               However, once the novel progresses and the two stories start to intertwine we begin to see the similarities of both characters. Both are suffering with similar feelings of isolation and loneliness. Both suffer from grief and regret. Yet, they are not the only outsiders in the book. Indeed, the novel is filled with lonesome, yearning characters, each of them dealing with their own tales of sorrow. 

               Written in alternating chapters of simple, beautiful prose that is honest and clear, devoid of any ostentatious language that attempts to draw attention to itself, Moore lets her characters shine. She writes characters who feel real, characters readers will both grieve with and root for. It is, of course, a cliché to say that any book will leave you “in tears" or “sad to see it end.” Yet, I can’t help but repeat these worn expressions. I didn’t want this book to end and was saddened once it finally did reach its hard-earned conclusion.



By Laura Dennison

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


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


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.


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


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.


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



By Melinda Nazario


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


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.


“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

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


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

—Jemiscoe Chambers-Black

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

Photo credit: Susan Carey

Photo credit: Susan Carey

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


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

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


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

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

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

Bathroom Confessions

By Danny Fisher


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


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.



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.