siren

Photo by Nick Jones

Associate fiction editor Ben Kinney on today’s bonus story: Zach VanZande’s short and hilarious “City Council” explores personal emergencies–those problems in our lives we might not be able to explain to others (or even to ourselves)–but which threaten to overcome us nonetheless. Throughout the story is an ever-present panic from the blare of the siren, a panic that is always too quickly replaced by gnawing curiosity.

City Council

for Spiderweb Salon, every last one of them

The city council, in a fit of anxiety and democratic governance, decided to open up the old air raid siren for public use. The general feeling was that in an emergency, there would not be time for nuance, caution. What there would be time for was a stomach-plummeting wail. The council was made up mostly of people who still watched the local news.

A button was put outside city hall under a plastic cover, along with a little placard that said “In case of emergency.” For two weeks it was talked about in the little coffee shop on the town square, and that was that. Then one night around midnight Mike Evans went out there and put thumb to button. Sharon had left him. When the cops took him away he blew a .14, so even though he was within his rights from a public nuisance standpoint, they still dinged him for drunk and disorderly.

It sort of took off after that, especially once it got out that the town ordinance was worded in a way that made sure any townsperson’s judgment of what constituted an emergency would be deemed sufficient. Everyone feels moments when they’ve had enough, when their inner life is crushing down, or maybe they’re just scared or found an odd-shaped mole on their back. And the button was there for them.

At the next monthly council meeting attendance was well above average (26 people, up from the previous month’s 4, one of which was a non-voting toddler). People wanted to know why when the siren went off. They felt they had the right to know. A revision was made to the ordinance: anyone could press the button, but afterward they had to write their reason in the logbook, which an enterprising teenager—this was the same intern who posted the town’s weekend arrest mugshots to the police department’s Facebook page every Monday—took to live tweeting.

From there, it took off. The siren would go, and we would check our phones.

Sylvia, who leaned on the button for half an hour, wrote: because of my father, who justified everything.

Artyom, who always said in his thick accent to call him Art, wrote in Russian: I am here and not here. It didn’t show up on most of our phones, which couldn’t display Cyrillic. Terry, who fancied herself a poet, said that it was all the more beautiful, our not even being able to see. Before her own blare of the siren, she wrote: I always shy away from the long shot I should most take.

Sharon, Mike’s Sharon, went up there herself one day, saying: f*ck that c*cksucker Mike Evans. She censored it herself.

When Greg Dobson passed on, we let the mourners have their turn, every day at sundown for a week. The silence would be pierced, the birds would be spooked, and we would look to the people who were still around. For most of us, the siren didn’t mean much—it was like a flag at half mast, just sort of there. But that doesn’t mean it meant nothing.

Then Billy McElroy went up there to lean on the button because his favorite TV show had been cancelled. He was a sensitive kid, a loner. Some of us called him a little shit for using the siren for something so small. Those of us who looked at his face through the coffee shop window while his thumb went white from pushing knew there was nothing small about it. There’s a pit at the middle of each of us was our thinking, and who wouldn’t lament the loss of something that made you forget about it for a minute or two?

A funny thing about when Billy went up there: he didn’t put his name, and they let him use it anyway. This broke the floodgates all the way open. Not an hour went by during daylight without the lonesome and tremulous blaring. And the logbook filled up with things:

Hope takes admitting to what you don’t have yet.

We should love each other more than we do.

For Laika, that poor cosmonaut dog who burned up on takeoff. (We suspected Art on this one, but it turned out to be a young boy doing a research paper on space for school).

This feeling I have didn’t need a reason, so neither do I.

We wanted to call some of it overblown. We even liked the pun of it. But whose heart deserves silence? What isn’t an emergency, when you get right to it?

And can you believe something was sated inside each of us when the calm would break open, when the wailing went? Can you believe the city council member who championed the idea ran for mayor and won? And that we’re happier, and a better community? That we learned to love our town, and by turn each other, a little more?

It’s okay if you don’t. Put it in the logbook. Press the button. We’ll listen for you.

Zach VandeZande is the author of Apathy and Paying Rent (Loose Teeth 2008). His work has recently appeared in Portland Review, Hot Street, Crack the Spine, and Punchnel’s, and is forthcoming in Atlas Review, decomP, Bop Dead City, Necessary Fiction, and the Adroit Journal. He is currently a PhD student of fiction at the University of North Texas.

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Taillight

Photo by haru__q

Associate fiction editor Hayley Fitz on today’s bonus story: I dig stories about perspective. That’s why we read, isn’t it? To listen to other folks spin things in a way we wouldn’t have thought up on our own? In “Be Alive,” Peter Kispert spins zombies in a way only he could. I never would’ve made the connection between zombies and meeting a boyfriend’s parents for the first time, but now I can’t pull them apart. The relationship is messy and it may take a bit of maneuvering to get comfortable, but then again, maybe it’s best not to get too comfortable around zombies.

Be Alive

We’re on our way to the city, finally, when Glen tells me the chainsaw got him this time. He was out of ammo, so he hid under the bed. “Who knew,” he says, looking out the car window at the lit night skyline, “zombies could crawl?”

Early December. The roads are still without ice, but the air is bit through with cold. My boyfriend Glen and I are driving to a dinner with his parents in Chicago, a city I loathe for its constant chill, the way you can turn a street corner and be jarred into another atmosphere. Glen once used the phrase “Melting pot” to describe the city, the place he’s from—a reminder he’s fourteen years younger than me and still not clear that everywhere is a melting pot. Some places just wear the title better than others.

“Which is crazy, right?” Glen says. “Thinking zombies. With chainsaws.”

“That is crazy,” I say. “Aren’t zombies not conscious?” I try my best to make it sound rhetorical. I can hear myself using accountant-voice, which is to say, sounding leave-me-alone bored, like I do at work.

“Exactly,” he says. “It’s crazy. Be dead or be alive—there’s nothing in between.”

There’s everything in between, I nearly say. But I detect the awkward shine it would give conversation. So I say nothing.

Here is what I’m not saying, what I learned three hours ago: My brother has been committed, finally, to the psych wing of Mass General for swallowing the bleach our mother keeps hidden behind the washer. It is like the universe is saying Deal with this. Look at this. Acknowledge this. Which is to say, I no longer care that Glen’s parents will learn I am not, in fact, twenty-six. Or that I am likely to pay for a dinner I cannot comfortably afford. This is to say my brother has now absolutely missed the part where he transitions to being self-sufficient. My mother’s words through the phone: Mark, he is never going to get there.

“I shouldn’t have lied,” I say. I rest a hand on Glen’s knee. “About my age.”

“You look thirty,” he says. And then, more sincerely, “Really.”

This is another problem: I’m in love with Glen, a love misunderstood by even many of my gay friends. Sometimes I think it hurts too much, to detect the interrogating thought of others when I’m around him. And then I imagine my life without him.

I slow for our exit, signal the turn. There is a chain of cars ahead of us, their lights blinking red. Glen starts again about a zombie that came after him with a syringe. He was running up these cement stairs, so many stairs, and the zombie was gaining on him. But it was a new release, he says. They let it out too soon, and the game had this glitch—those stairs didn’t end. He just kept running but it didn’t matter how far, and then there was the blood dripping down the screen, and there was the refund, and how unrealistic is that anyway, a zombie that can think like that, that knows what it wants and always gets it.

Peter Kispert is the editor-in-training at The Indiana Review and has worked with Electric Literature and Narrative Magazine. His stories have appeared in Tin House, The Journal, Slice Magazine, Ninth Letter, and other journals. He is finishing work on his debut collection, I Know You Know Who I Am. For more, visit www.peterkispert.com.

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cats&dogs_20

Photo by b1ue5ky

Note from Editor-in-Chief Jennifer A. Howard: Sometimes, I can be decisive. I say yes or no to short-shorts quickly, I don’t linger over which cereal to pour into my bowl in the morning, I impulse-shop snowboots like it’s my job. But choosing a new managing editor for Passages North last spring took me weeks. Knowing both Matt Weinkam and Robin McCarthy were interested in the position was like having Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck on my fantasy football roster and getting to start only one. That just doesn’t happen: you’ll never have both those guys on your team, and if somehow you do, you cannot bench either of them. Thankfully, Matt and Robin and I figured out how we could all three work together for the next two years. (They explain the system below.) Here, they interview each other, and while they never ask “How lucky is Jen to have us on her team?” know that my answer to that one would be “oh so very lucky.”

I. “The weird but exciting thing”

Robin: Do you want to start by explaining to people how this whole co-managing editor scenario at Passages North is going to play out for the next couple semesters?

Matt: Sure. So for the next two years you and I will both be sharing the responsibilities of managing editor, meaning we will both be answering emails, contacting authors, planning readings and events, and overall making sure the journal runs smoothly. We’ll both be working on the journal every semester, but we’ll alternate who’s in charge of day-to-day operations each semester.

Robin: Right, the idea being that one of us can oversee general managing editor responsibilities, but there’s a backup person for support and to head up some “extra” tasks that might otherwise languish.

Matt: This semester, you are teaching and I am the primary managing editor for Passages; next semester I will be teaching and you will hold this position. And so on.

Robin: It seems like a good way to get more done in the same amount of time. Also, we have different strengths, and it’s really nice to be able to rely on someone else for the tasks at which they are skilled and I am not. Also, we both really love talking about writing, so it is, at its heart, an exceptionally fun job for both of us. I’m excited about the process ahead.

Matt: You grew up in Maine and moved here to Upper Peninsula Michigan for graduate school. In between you’ve lived everywhere from small town Ohio to Washington DC (not to mention living on a boat for three years). Can you talk a bit about how place has influenced your writing and what you’ve learned from planting roots in such different parts of the country?

Robin: Place is always the first thing I look for, in my own writing and in what I read. If I’m trying to write something and I want it to feel different from other stuff I write, I uproot it from its place, but I always have a clear sense of where we are in my head, even if it doesn’t hit the page. But I’ve lived in places that are really about their regional identity, a big part of the way I see and understand people is by where they are from and how they feel about it. For me, Maine is home. I grew up there and left because that’s what people there do, but I went back, and I left for graduate school because this experience is important to me, but now that I’m gone I’ll spend the next few years working my way back home. I’m glad I know other places, but that’s the place I understand, and where I feel understood. There’s a lot of regional literature that comes out of New England, I was raised with it, and it’s hard for me to separate the writing associated with home from home. I like that, the way reality and fiction have merged in my memory, and it’s impossible not to feel like my writing his heavily influenced by all those voices coming out of Maine.

What about you? We’ve talked in the past about being from Ohio, and Ohio is maybe the place I’ve lived where it’s toughest to hit on what characterizes Ohio. You’re from Ohio, but you’ve also lived in China; where are your roots? Are those places you return to in writing or in real life?

Matt: It is tough to characterize Ohio, or at least it is hard for me. Some of our most famous authors make place the center of their fiction—Sherwood Anderson, Toni Morrison, Donald Ray Pollock, even William H. Gass—but Ohio isn’t as geographically or culturally distinct as Maine so the themes tend to be universalized rather than particularized.

Maybe that’s why I’ve never been drawn to write about place. Even after I returned from living for a year in China I continued setting my stories in unnamed nowhere towns. It’s not that I don’t love place-based writing, it’s just never been at the forefront of my thinking when I approach a story. I love returning to Cincinnati for the holidays and dream of living in China again but more often I’m looking ahead instead of back, planing imaginary trips to India or Argentina or the south of Spain. I like my reading to take me to places too but I’m just as content to be grounded in new language or form.

Robin: I think this is a big part of what I like about examining contemporary literature, the way that stories rooted in place, character, thought, etc. all exist at once and come at us from different voices. I have so much admiration for writers whose work is a meditation on thought, but I don’t write like that. I think a big part of writing well is being at peace with the element(s) that define(s) you. I’d much prefer to look at ten novels published this year that all take a different approach to what it means to be a story than read ten place-based novels. This is maybe not relevant anymore. I think I’m saying that I like that writers are different.

Matt: You’re right, we can’t change what we’re drawn to and for the most part we’re stuck with the skills we have. I’ve always remembered this David Means quote where he talks about how style is a maneuver around what we can’t do. I can’t do place so I try and make up for it by building surreal worlds for my characters to bounce around in.

Robin: You and I have talked about ourselves as readers; how we grew into the kinds of readers we are and what work influenced that development. How do you describe yourself as a reader, and how important is staying current with contemporary literature to you? Do you think lit mags play a role in your sense of what to read?

Matt: It’s a lot of fun to look back on your reading path and see what writers and books got you there. What I find most fascinating is the way stories and novels can change you without you even being aware. For example, I can remember being haunted by the ending of “The School” by Barthelme before I had any concept of who he was or what I was looking at. Same with “The Devil is a Busy Man” by Wallace where the narrator laments his inability to be selflessly kind towards another person. I look back on those stories now and see the styles and themes that characterize my reading interests—fabulism, dark humor, self-consciousness, explicit engagement with morality—but the first time I read them I just thought, what is this weird but exciting thing?

And I guess that’s what I’m looking for now when I read: the weird but exciting thing. It’s there in books like Speedboat, U.S.!, The Mezzanine, All Souls, Remainder, Museum of the Weird, Letters to Wendy’s, Bluets, About a Mountain, and Europeana. But in general that combination isn’t easy to find or to create. That’s why keeping up with contemporary literature is so important to me and—you’re right again—literary journals are at the forefront of that. When I flip through Conjunctions or Artifice or Noon, when I upload DIAGRAM or PANK or Smokelong each month, I know there will be pieces that will make me feel something but challenge my idea of what a story can or should be as well. That kind of stuff excites me and sends me back to the desk to write.

How about you? What reading path led you to the writer you are today? Are there touchstone texts or particular authors that form the McCarthy canon? And how would you say your tastes have changed over the years?

Robin: A large part of my decision to go to graduate school was needing smart people to tell me what to read for a while. I didn’t study English as an undergraduate, and I was out of academia for almost ten years before returning for my MFA. So I read what NPR and Terry Gross told me to, and I followed along with some online book clubs. I read a lot of popular fiction and a lot of John Steinbeck. The Best American series became really important; I read those anthologies more than journals, as well as Lee Gutkind’s Best Creative Nonfiction volumes. I worked in an independent book store for a while and that gave me a lot of access to certain kinds of markets, which directed my reading for a long time.

My interests are more diverse now, I have more access to more writers and publishers, more opinions and more people talking about reading than I did earlier in my writing life. I read more experimental stuff because that’s the flavor of the writing program I’m in. I’m happy to get pushed in that direction, the challenge is helpful and I think it makes me a more open reader. But I’d be lying if I said I don’t thumb through Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love sometimes, or reread short stories by Edward P. Jones or Mona Simpson and feel renewed and comforted by the emotional reach of traditional narrative.

As far as benchmark names that sum up what I like, I think Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar essays are their own religion. Ann Patchett. Jessamyn Ward. Roxane Gay. John Casey. Elizabeth Strout. Anthony Doerr. Joy Williams. I’m starting a long-term reader relationship with Alissa Nutting, I think. The home team is more than solid, and Maine-based writers like Monica Wood, Meredith Hall, Sarah Braunstein, Ron Currie, Jr. and Lily King have helped significantly with setting my compass.

II. “Violent stages of maturation”

Robin: Building that list really highlights a before and after for me; life outside academia and within it. You’ve been at this a lot longer than I have (academia, I mean). Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like to step out of teaching for a few semesters to head up Passages North? Do you miss your time in the classroom? How does instructing undergrad classes fuel your own craft?

Matt: Great questions. You mentioned earlier the difficulty of being at peace with the elements that define you as a writer. I think one of the elements I struggle most with accepting is my own enthusiasm for academia and for being in the college classroom. You’re not supposed to like school. You’re especially not supposed to like ivory tower intellectual bullshit. But damn if I don’t love being in a place where we get to read high-brow literature and talk about unconventional syntax and seriously discuss hetero-patriarchal power structures without apologizing for it. That’s kind of my dream.

Being out of the classroom this semester I certainly don’t miss grading but I do miss engaging with students about their reading and writing. I love working through a story or essay draft with an interested writer. I love bringing in readings that challenge us and working through our understanding of them as a class. Also, I can get so caught up in the abstractions of lit theory or the wackadoo constraints of Oulipo writers that a sea of twenty some skeptical faces becomes a useful check on my sanity. So there’s that too.

Can you talk about your own experience with teaching? I know initially you were skeptical but you seem to have taken a liking to it in the last year or so. Will you miss teaching during your time managing Passages North or are you looking forward to the break to concentrate on writing and editing?

Robin: I came to graduate school as a writer more than a teacher, but you invest yourself in your surroundings and teaching feels rewarding and some days I feel good at it. Workshopping writing in progress is just about my favorite thing, whether it’s in the comp class I teach or a graduate workshop or just me and the Passages Submittable queue. There’s something I love about asking where the writer is trying to go and brainstorming how to best close the gap between where the work is and where it’s headed. There are lots of ways to do that, and I’m looking forward to a few semesters of doing it without grading or the part of teaching that devolves into behavior management. But I’m sort of fascinated by the age group; college students are at a really interesting time in their lives, and so much of their learning is born from complete and utter chaos. I’ll miss the proximity to violent stages of maturation that teaching provides.

Matt: We’ve talked a lot about process in the last year together and I’m curious to know more about your own daily routine and how you formed it. You have a reputation around the department for being one of the most dedicated and tireless workers—what brought you to that place? Were you always a habitual writer or were there years of procrastination and insecurity?

Robin: “Procrastination and insecurity” is an interesting way of wording the question. I have always, always, always suffered insecurity. I am not the kind of writer I want to be, and all my hard work is bred from that insecurity. Procrastination is certainly there, too, but it’s less of a demon than self-doubt for me.

But in terms of your question about process, I write in the morning for a set amount of time or word count every day that it’s reasonable. I used to make myself get dressed before I wrote, I had to write in real pants, but I don’t do that anymore, I try to be more gentle with myself. But I’m not going to lie; you hear the promise of ‘time and space to write” when you’re applying for MFAs and that sounds fantastic, but I have to fight for my time much harder in school than I ever did before. And, to be clear, 85% of the time, that fighting is with myself. I limit Facebook and email with programs like Freedom and StayFocusd, and I schedule my time with friends and family. I privilege creative work over coursework. Mine is a rigid approach but rigidity has always worked well for me. And still, some of the best work comes when life forces me to disrupt that schedule.

How that process developed isn’t something I’ve thought about before. I guess, about eight years ago, I was wicked depressed. I had a corporate job and my life felt pretty empty of meaningful activity. So I set up lists of things I wanted in my days, things I could control like writing and reading and exercise and knitting and music. If I practiced each of those things every day, I didn’t feel so crushed by the missing things that I couldn’t control. I got some therapy, too, I’d hate for people to think productivity cured my heart; it didn’t. But somewhere in the process of getting happier, I established a set of successful habits that have stuck.

Okay. Next. I’ve been waiting a year to ask this question, and I’m pretty excited about it: You write about technology almost exclusively right now. You have, perhaps, the most focused and consistent obsession of any writer I know personally. How did that interest develop, and what sorts of things feed into your well of material? And seriously, how long have you been doing this amazing thing?

Matt: Yeesh. This is yet another element that defines my writing that I’m trying to come to terms with. What’s strange is I have only been writing about technology since I arrived at Northern little over a year ago. Before that I was still obsessed with form and metafiction and artifice and reality but I only wrote a single story where technology played a role at all. So this is still a relatively new phenomenon for me but one that has kind of taken over everything I write now.

As for origins, sometime during my stay in China I began to take an interest in technology criticism, perhaps because I was so fascinated by China’s great firewall and the methods they use to sensor and contain Chinese citizens online. Books like You are Not a Gadget and Consent of the Networked in particular, along with writing by extreme skeptics like Evgeny Morozov, forced me to rethink my relationship to/obsession with the internet. I could go on about this forever but, long story short, I found technology to be an interesting place to wrestle with everything from government surveillance to social media self-consciousness, drone warfare to online love affairs, corporate hegemony to the question of free will and human nature. Big stuff.

I’m not a luddite or a technophobe, nor do I think we’re headed for post-apocalyptic dystopia. Frankly I think the “is technology good or bad” question isn’t very interesting or helpful. I just sense a lot of anxiety out there in the culture about what all this stuff is doing to us. Hell, I feel a lot of anxiety about it most days in my own life. I mean, I just got a smartphone for the first time and it’s something of a mind warp. The first thing it asked me was if I wanted it to track my location at all times. All I want to do in my writing is engage with that anxiety and see how technology holds up a black glassy mirror to our human nature.

III. “The flashy stuff”

Matt: You’re currently working on a novel but I know you’ve spent most of the last decade in the world of nonfiction. Can you talk about your experience working in each genre and what it has been like to dive into a book-length fiction project after spending so long in the memoir and travel writing arenas?

Robin: This is a great question. It’s hard? It’s hard because all my models and inputs were one thing and then they became another thing. Sort of. It’s all just stories and trying to connect with people through language. I was writing a lot of nonfiction because that was a crack I could pry open, but I had so much admiration for fiction writers and I wanted to be better at it. So I started writing some fiction and studying fiction more closely. But the hardest part is probably that nonfiction was a first person endeavor for me, and I have a hard time writing first person fiction. The first person feels like the hallowed land of memoir to me, I don’t adopt it easily in fiction.

But man, making things up is the best! And writing feels a lot more satisfying to me when the truth isn’t confined by the facts. Doing both has made my fiction look more like my life, and allowed me to take more liberties with the truth in nonfiction.

Matt: Interesting. How tied to “true facts” do you feel at this point? Have you fully converted to the David Shields/John D’Agata camp of nonfiction? Is everything artifice?

Robin: Does artifice have to mean coy? It’s all manipulation, a way of driving toward the truth, and it’s carefully constructed, no matter how it’s presented. But I don’t think that’s a trick, I think that’s the tool at the storyteller’s disposal, all the way back to Aristotle. Shields and D’Agata don’t make me as angry as I think they make some people, and I’m really at ease with nonfiction that is emotionally true, or true in memory, even though I might, personally, prefer to create autobiographical fiction. “Fiction” and “nonfiction” strike me as terms that are useful in marketing, but not really for writing, at least not for me right now. Facts are super useful, though, and sometimes throwing them out the window is what saves a story.

You started off this semester with a trip to the Telluride Film Festival Student Symposium and you’re about to lead a workshop on “The Cinematography of Sentences” at Bowling Green’s Winter Wheat Festival of Writing. How does film inform your reading and writing brain? Are there other art forms that are as closely tied to language for you as film is? Is there crossover in your film interests and writing interests?

Matt: I think film informs every person’s reading and writing brain. I’m sure you’ve noticed but students in introductory writing classes don’t tell stories based on the books they’ve read, they tell stories based on the movies and TV shows they’ve seen. The language, the structure and shape, the characters and descriptions and story beats all come from film and television because they are the culturally dominant storytelling medium of our time. We can’t help but think in that language. Any of us. It’s too deep in our bones. What we can do, what I’ve been trying to think more about how to do myself, is acknowledge that influence and make it work for us.

For one thing, I’m not sure we spend enough time talking about what fiction can do that film can’t. There’s interiority and sensory detail and certain structural moves we have that film doesn’t. Yes. But we also have the benefit of a reader co-creating the story with us, and that’s an awesome tool.

But besides the differences there are always the ways film and fiction can inspire each other. When I watch movies now I like to find things I can steal and try to translate into writing: What is the writing equivalent of a long tracking shot or a shaky hand-held camera? How could you experiment with short sentences in the same way a director might experiment with quick cuts? Can you manipulate syntax and acoustics differently by thinking about how filmmakers use music and sound? Of course it’s always going to be different and lots of these little exercises might fail but as a whole I think it is better to engage with TV and film influence than it is to run from it.

Robin: That’s kind of fascinating to me, because I am definitely in the “run from it” school, but completely thoughtlessly, and when I think about it more, I think there’s a lot of cinematic influence in how I build a scene that I haven’t really investigated thoroughly. But I think we’re trying to wrap up here, right? Now that you’re a few months into working with Passages, what do you hope to see in the coming semesters?

Matt: We’ve got a number of exciting things on the way. For one we’ve been planning more events and readings. Last month, for instance, we co-hosted an outdoor reading with Midwestern Gothic that took place at Lakenenland, a one-of-a-kind junkyard sculpture park here in Marquette (rated one of the top attractions in the Upper Peninsula). You should really check out the photos if you haven’t seen or heard of it before.

Robin: And it was really cold, but fun, and it was exciting to have Passages North contributors from far away come to this strange part of the world we run a lit mag out of.

Matt: We’re also planning an off-site reading at AWP in Minneapolis featuring some of the innovative nonfiction and hybrid authors we’ve published in the past so folks should stay tuned for more details about that.

Besides events and readings we’re also looking to stretch ourselves in terms of what the journal can do in print. Our upcoming 2015 issue features full-color collage artwork by experimental filmmaker Guy Maddin. There are also a number of formally adventurous hybrid pieces in that issue that have challenged our layout editor (also fiction editor), Tim Johnston, in terms of what they’re doing on the page. That’s my favorite—publishing something so new and unusual it gives Tim a headache. And there is at least one project coming down the pipe that would require some—how should I say?—unorthodox printing techniques which I’m really excited about.

But that’s just the flashy stuff. There are plenty of changes around the office too.

Robin: Like an enthusiastic new group of readers coming in through the English grad programs at NMU, who are kind of blowing us away with their skilled reading. We’re hoping to get them set up with more book reviews, interviews, and publishing of their favorites from the submissions queue on our website. Speaking of submissions, we’ve had an uptick in numbers, which is humbling and exciting. We’ve been maintaining a really quick turn-around time so far, which we’re proud of and hoping to maintain. And we’re working on a new logo! People should keep an eye out for its unveiling sometime…later. But mostly, the big thing is that we are reading a lot of incredible writing and discussing it with sharp minds.

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Dragonfly Suicide

Photo by John Mueller

Associate poetry editor Rebecca Pelky on today’s bonus poem: I’m not going to tell you about this poem. I’m not going to dissect it to perfect breaks of lines or twist it into long spirals of metaphor. I’m not going to think it to pieces so small it defies meaning. Because this poem begs me not to, and it’s built with such care that I don’t want disappoint it. It argues with grace to be saved from solutions. Instead, we’ll let the iridescence be a reflection of nothing but color and light. We’ll navigate sound as a bat might, sending it out, waiting for its return as itself. It’s true, there are no maps in this, no net, but the water is soft in the darkness, and will catch us yet.

The French Revolution

Sometimes things are just themselves, an event
of language pursuing itself the way the hound

lost in peppergrass engages a circle, a sphere, the hot
scent of the absent. Still, one needs such excursions,

the slow boat across the pond, the ponderous
regiment of oars, turtles inherently tumbling

from their perch. One needs the incantations
of the itinerant, the offerings a moment brings, as if

they were dragonflies delighted with their own
iridescence. Expectations, conclusions, the dead-aim

explications of the world hold no water. For Christ’s sake,
the darkness wants us to be calm, to take to it the way a bat

might, faithfully coursing the unilluminated regions of its
particular suspiciousness. I must say, I am a bit tired of

answers, of the hard drawn proof of the map, the
weatherman predicting what cannot be hammered down or

the theorist always bringing me back to something
that settles him, makes him safe, but rarely

sound.

Michael David Madonick is an Associate Professor at the University of Illinois where he has been teaching creative writing for over twenty years. He has been published in Boulevard, the New England Review, The Florida Review, the Northwest Review, the New Ohio Review, and many others. His first book, Waking the Deaf Dog, was published by Avocet Press in New York, 2000. His most recent book, Bulrushes, was published by The Backwaters Press in Omaha, Nebraska, 2013.

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angry gods

Photo by deanoakley

My Muse Is Gaffay

“Some mornings, the sun looks wrong outside my window. I sit at the kitchen table shaking salt into the hairs on my arm, and a feeling shoves up in me: It’s finished. Everything went past, without me.” Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad.

I saw those lines and I was like, “Whoa.” But Egan, she didn’t care.

“As Khubchand lay dying on his cushion, Estha could see the bedroom window reflected in his smooth, purple balls. And the sky beyond. And once a bird that flew across.” Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things.

I remember where and how I was sitting when I first read those sentences. But do you think that mattered to Roy?

“Eventually, as his meat and his clothes went away into the air and his foot bones slipped their loose nooses, he relaxed into a dignified cuddle around the stake and in the hole. He had planted himself and it was a nice job.” G.K. Wuori, “Angles,” Nude in Tub.

Gobsmacked. That’s what I was. I was gobsmacked by this paragraph. But Wuori paid me no mind.

Great writing, so far as I can tell, just doesn’t care. It concerns itself with nothing except what it’s about. It cuts where a cut is needed. It is headlong, and insolent, and minerally indifferent to expectation. Writers and great writers are pleased to have their work admired, sure, same as the next freak. But let me tell you, when they’re in the act of great writing? They disdain admiration and its prospect both.

There’s a phrase for exactly this mix of boldness and indignation. I know because I’ve spent my entire professional life in New York. I could give a fuck, is what you say. Magically, instantly, the attitude is summoned. Not a rat’s ass or a good goddamn, mind, because this isn’t cotillion with Grandma. Neither a crap nor a shit. A fuck. The sure-mindedness registered is maximum.

Sometimes the writer on the bucking hump of great writing catches himself thinking “But what will They think?” For this eventuality there is but a single protocol: (1) Grab mane with one hand and, with other, ram fist in Their mouth, holding it there, elbow-deep in slick esophagus. (2) Rear back, you and your unbiddable prose, until all you see is sky.

There is a phrase for exactly this mix of indignation and boldness. I know because I grew up in Florida and went to school in Georgia. Fuck all y’all, is what you say, and instantly, magically, the sentiment is secured. Doesn’t matter if one soul or twenty, or none, loiter within earshot. Now it’s you against the world.

Have you ever seen a great actor? A truly great actor, on the stage, in the flesh? There’s a scorn that comes off her in waves and we can feel it there in the seats. She doesn’t cater, she doesn’t sneak looks to see if it’s working. She is pure venture, pure undertaking, and unavailable to anything other than the enterprise itself. There’s an implicit scorn for the audience—that’s what the fourth wall really is, it’s a wonderful scorn—because she’s due somewhere and we’re the late hour and the trees blurring past.

I haven’t mastered the secret to great writing. But I’ve written it down. Here it is.

My muse is a Frenchman, his name is Gaffay.
From him I learned how to write and what to say.
G-A-F is for Give a fuck,
F-A-Y is for Fuck all y’all.
There is no way, none, except mine is the way.

You have questions. Why don’t the middle lines rhyme? you wonder. How is it that Gaffay, a Frenchman, shows such facility with regional American slang?

The answer to these questions and others—and I think I’ve covered this—is that I could give a fuck, so fuck all y’all.

George Choundas has fiction and nonfiction appearing or forthcoming in over twenty publications including The American Reader, Los Angeles Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Mid-American Review, and Subtropics. He is the author of The Pirate Primer and a former FBI agent. He lived for four years in Marilyn Monroe’s first New York apartment; the clothes hamper, built into the wall, was original to the unit.

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Fog on the Mighty Mac

Photo by J Fleming

It seems fortuitous that Pushcart Prize nominations come due right about Thanksgiving. We’re grateful for all our contributors and readers, and thankful to get to highlight a handful today. It’s always tough choosing, but the Passages North editors have selected the following works to nominate for this year’s prize:

Carol Guess and Kelly Magee, With Fish
C.A. Schaefer, Refraction
Steven Church, Crown and Shoulder
Monica Berlin, Still, Rivers
Kwame Dawes, “Animals”
Norman Dubie, “In a Matter of Adders”

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Chalkboard Background

Photo by Karin Dalziel

Associate poetry editor Caleb Nelson on today’s bonus poem:  Liv Lansdale’s poem employs a hard-won lyrical complexity that survives in the particular. Our narrator actively remembers what feels like the only lesson from public school: conform to authority. Authority is the chalk board. Authority is measurable. There is life to be had but that life is for someone else.

Your Life is Meant for Someone Else

It’s graffiti at the public school where I first experienced speed-kissing at its most furtive. Exerting authority was clapping erasers for two minutes instead of five, back when cider came from the place next door & girls were already throwing out their lunches at ten.

Memory banks are small by necessity & not by choice. But one could get away with sincerity easy, learn about joints without asking am I a ball or a socket. Oh, heaven help Mrs. Whiteford & Ms. Carter: still out there with crayons, pondering Judy Blume.

Liv Lansdale is a reviews editor and associate director of Poets at Work and an intern at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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Minhau, o gato

Photo by Cássia Afini

PN editorial intern Willow Grosz on today’s story: At first glance, I thought I was going to hate this piece. Really. I’ve been conditioned not to take pop-culture references too seriously, and here is this story that not only references Facebook, but literally sends me off the page to check on that reference—all in the first sentence. This is perverse, I thought. And sooo gimmicky. I’m not reading any further. Fortunately, my curiosity got the better of me because McElroy doesn’t simply make these references as a form of contemporary omphaloskepsis. Look deeper, the story demands. This pastiche is mapping our limits. The limits of our social networks. The limits of our economic networks. The limits of self-soothing. And whether it’s cataloguing memes or giving a nod to postmodern literature, this story never stops nudging obsessively at the boundaries of urgent, human grief.

This Young Man’s Father Froze to Death in an Ice Storm. You Won’t Believe What Happened Next

I created my father a Facebook page. In the photo I chose for his profile picture Dad and I are reclined on a blue-and-white couch and both inconsolably smiling. It was taken in Cape May in the weeks after Mom left. I was sixteen. And Dad was, I don’t know, Dad-aged.

Using Chrome, I commented, “I’d forgotten about that trip. Look at our sunburn!” I opened Explorer and signed in as my father. “That was a rly fun trip,” he replied. Facebook suggested he start liking things. He liked Con-Air. Face-Off. The Rock. Nicolas Cage. Pink Floyd, Springsteen, and Sting. He liked Blairstown. Morristown. He liked Home Repair Tutor.

My father repaired things for a living. That’s how he died. Patching the roof of Morristown’s Bayer Pharmaceutical Plant as an ice storm glassed the night. They discovered him frozen to death, sitting cross-legged, snow crusted over his eyes and icicles gripping his nose, like Jack Torrence at the end of The Shining, a film that my father, on Facebook, didn’t like.

Once I created his page I tried to return to my life. I was twenty-six years old, a man of inconsistent employment. During the winter I shoveled snow for the elderly. They paid me in germs and butterscotch candy. My landlord, an independently wealthy sexagenarian, accepted the candy as payment. She also insisted I tidy the complex. I changed light bulbs. I dusted the parking lot. I swept cigarette butts into the street. I clubbed the occasional beehive. My life was guarded and lonely, and susceptible, I soon discovered, to the distraction my father provided.

By January he had two friends. Me and a woman named Amber-Lynn Hardi who shared links to freenlegal.com. We liked Amber-Lynn. But one day her page disappeared. Fearing his page might be considered a bot and deleted, Dad started liking more things:

Snooty cats purring on pillows. Teens gagging on cinnamon. Philosoraptor. Fist-pumping baby. The Harlem Shake and The History Channel. America. The state of New Jersey. Sports. Then, the NFL, and to specify his allegiance, The Dallas Cowboys. Finally, he liked his former high school, North Warren Regional High School (my alma mater as well).

Not thirty minutes after liking North Warren he accepted a friend request from a man named Doug Catersmythe. From 2006 to the present Doug had managed a Hertz Car Rental in Tallahassee, Florida. He lived in Tallahassee with his wife, Barbara, and his fourteen-year-old daughter, Rachel. Doug sent a message: “Jacko! where the helluv-ya been, ya old goat? glad u finally came out ur cave!” His excitement worried me. I told him that I was not Jacko, but his son. I had created the page to help me cope with the death of my father. Doug Catersmythe began typing . . . “haha jackyboy! the jackpot! ringdingdingding! class clown thru and thru. hay listen u find ur ass in the orange state u drop me a line.”

Within two weeks my father had 86 friends, including a woman named Angela Landsing, whose posts appeared in his feed more than anyone else’s. Dad’s classmates were thrilled to have found him. Though I tried to tell them, at first, what I had told Doug Catersmythe, they all reacted with stubborn, fraternal incredulity. What else could I do but pretend Dad was alive?

***
It was a warm, unprofitable winter. Few of the elderly needed their driveways shoveled. Many expired. I was behind on my rent, with neither the candy nor the means to get more. It was no surprise, then, when one afternoon my landlord clopped up to my apartment. Let me explain the clopping. She had lost both her feet to diabetes. Instead of accepting a wheelchair, she’d opted for an experimental surgery. Steel hooves had been grafted to the base of her calves. She looked like a sleep-deprived satyr. But she was satisfied with the procedure. I was too. Her hoovesteps drumming in the stairwell warned me of her impending arrival. I washed my face and heated a kettle for tea.

Once inside, she plopped down onto the folding chair in my living room. “I’m glad you’re living in squalor,” she said. “Means you’re as poor as you say.” I smiled, feeling vindicated. “Don’t get too happy,” she said. Changes were being made to the rent policy. Even if I could, somehow, come up with the butterscotch candies to cover my rent, she could no longer accept them as fungible assets. Doctors’ orders: no more candy. From now on she would only accept real money. $325 by the end of the month. She sucked down her tea and left.

I sent my father a personal message asking him what I should do. He suggested I apply for a job at the Bayer Pharmaceutical Plant where he’d been employed. He ended his sentence with ;-) , which surprised me. I didn’t know Dad had such a macabre sense of humor.

On Monday I drove to Bayer and requested an interview with Dad’s former employer. Ray was a grand and flabby man who breathed with a gruff, scraping wheeze that sounded like a rusty carnival ride slowing down. He told me the position had already been filled. I told him who I was. He asked me to shut the door.

Ray laced his hands together in front of his mouth. After a long, wheeze-riddled silence, he asked me if I believed. Believed in what, I asked. “The Lord reincarnate as man,” he said. I nodded. “Well good, because the Lord, reincarnate as man, Jesus, he . . .” Ray squirmed, his eyes darting away from me, “he preaches good will and . . . kindness. That’s it. Kindness. In addition to holy forgiveness. Have you read the sermon on the mount?” I hadn’t. “Point is,” he continued, “I live by the code of the Lord. His teachings have reconfigured my soul. And because of that, Alex, I’m going to do us both a favor.

“You know that we’re sinners? Thieves plucking fruit from the tree of eternity?” I didn’t. Did I know what the tree of eternity was? The Tree of Knowledge, I guessed. Ray laughed. “The tree is the kingdom of heaven, young man. Our souls are the fruit we have plucked.”

I nodded like, Ah yes, of course.

Ray leaned forward. His stomach pressed into the desk; hirsute flesh bulged through the slits between shirt-buttons like hairy tongues squeezing through lips. “Thanks to you,” he said, “I can atone for the sin of bureaucratic commitment: my choice to put your old man on the roof. And you, thanks to me, might walk out of here on the payroll.” He offered me a job mopping floors and scrubbing feces from toilets. On one condition: I must attend church every week. I agreed. Ray gave me directions to church, in addition to a blue button-down shirt just like his, except, instead of Ray stitched on the chest, or Jack, it read Rudy.

***
At church, Pastor Michælus taught us about the dumb lumps of flesh that were our bodies. I learned that my soul was on loan. Everything I had ever received had been given to me through divine circulation. Then we sang. Then children were asked to bathe with their clothes on. I was asked to bathe with my clothes on. I considered declining, but two pews behind me sat Ray—his crossed arms like two tangled seals—staring with fixed ultimatum. I reluctantly climbed onto the shelf over the font. Pastor Michælus was given a bucket of baseballs. The congregation cheered and whistled. When he hit the bull’s eye I splashed down into the water.

Church upset me. I wrote frantic messages to Dad expressing my doubts in the faith. He told me that these feelings were natural. Doubt is a healthy reaction to burgeoning faith. It is by no means opposed to genuine faith, he continued, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious “faith” of everyday life, the human faith which is nothing but the passive acceptance of conventional opinion.

He had become rather wise since he died, a shift I attributed not to some post-corporeal omniscience but to the confidence engendered by his army of friends. He had more than 300 friends. I only had 106. But his friendships, he assured me, were the result of mid-life nostalgia. His “friends” didn’t want friendship. They wanted tenuous proof that the past they remembered existed. He was an idea that people sought to preserve. “Does ‘people’ mean me?” I asked.

“Does my popularity bother you?” he asked.

“Those people don’t really know you,” I typed.

“Did you really know me?” he typed. I signed off.

The next morning there was a message from Dad in my inbox: Is the stress of keeping me updated worth it? What are you avoiding? I’m just an idea, your idea, an idea you could easily terminate. I deleted the message. All my life I’d wanted a stronger relationship with him. For us to share things with each other. To hear what he thought about me, if he was proud, and how he had felt when Mom left him for good. Chatting with each other on Facebook was the closest I’d come to achieving that fantasy.

***
Spring arrived. I had a job, a god, and a father. My life couldn’t get any better, I thought, which didn’t mean it couldn’t get worse.

Doug Catersmythe sent my father a message inviting him to Atlantic City to stay with him and some friends on their annual trip. With Dad they would have five: enough to splurge on a suite. But Dad was too busy. Plus, he’d never liked gambling. Doug was persistent. He posted links to Dad’s wall—A.C. on a Budget; Smart Gambling—and messaged him daily. If my father read a message but didn’t reply Doug would send another message asking why Dad was ignoring him. The harassment swayed my father. He agreed to go. I gave Doug my number, planning to make an excuse when he called, and changed my voicemail greeting to a robot reading my phone number.

In Atlantic City, Doug called my father 42 times. He left 17 messages. The following week passed uneventfully. I assumed everything had blown over. But one morning Dad opened Facebook and was greeted with a trio of notifications.

Doug Catersmythe had tagged my father in a photo of a middle finger. In his comment on the photo he accused my father of robbery. In his mind, Dad’s truancy was equivalent to stealing $400. Thinking there would be five people Doug had purchased a suite instead of a room with two doubles. Now he was out the extra money. He demanded remuneration. He demanded my father apologize. The link was shared by 12 people. It received 214 likes. I mailed Doug Catersmythe $400. But the damage was done. Dad lost 73 friends. He put his account on hold.

His absence impacted my work. I became stressed, irritable, lazy. I mopped hastily, leaving streaks of bleach-water zigged on the floor. I left scabs of feces clung to rims of the toilets. I stopped washing my armpits and ears.

Roy called me into his office. He had grown larger. There was barely any room in his office to stand. I politely squeezed around his circumference until I found a niche in the corner. His bare stomach pressed into my face.

“Complaints have been filed, Alex. Official complaints in which the most troubling boxes were checked: Slovenly, Harried, Slapdash, Uncouth. I am told that your hair is wrinkled. That your teeth are unwiped.” He coughed. A slight tremor wobbled my cheek. “Need I remind you, Alex, that a company is only as great as its lowliest scum?”

“You needn’t,” I murmured.

“Because you, Alex, are the lowliest of the scum on our payroll. You are the metonym for scum. When I think, ‘Alex McElroy,’ I think of the greenish gunk in shower drains or the fungus fur in old yogurt. Am I making myself clear?”

I tried nodding, but his stomach held my head in place. I muttered, “Mm-hmm.”

“But don’t be crestfallen. Despair, as they say, is endemic to scum. Despair is what makes scum stay scum. That is a fact, young man, but you’re in luck. Because scum, all scum, as Aristotle would say, is merely potential for shine. Do you know how to reach your potential?”

I so dearly wanted to know.

“Self,” he paused for effect, “Obliteration.” I suspect he was smiling. “Take this,” he said. A scrunched-up pamphlet slogged across his gut before finally touching my forehead. I thanked him and then wiggled my way to the exit.

The pamphlet, titled So You’ve Settled on Obliteration, was full of drastic suggestions. One should bathe six times a day and take care to scrub with steel wool. One should discard all personal items, including novelty mugs and key chains. One must burn one’s ID. One must sell one’s social security number to hackers. I threw the pamphlet away.

That evening my father reopened his Facebook account. I told him what had happened at work. He thought I’d done the right thing by discarding the pamphlet. He was proud of me. He loved me. Empty compliments. He was telling me what I wanted to hear, what I already knew, when what I wanted to know was what only he knew:

“What’s death like?” I typed.

“Death . . .” he typed. “Death is a series of tubes.”

“HA!” I typed.

He didn’t type back.

“But seriously,” I typed. “Is death that which gives meaning to life?”

He typed, “No, life is that which gives meaning to life.”

I typed, “But isn’t death, considered as a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of—”

Dad was typing . . . “What are you saying?”

I typed, “Am I wasting my life?”

He typed, “Most likely.”

“That wasn’t the answer I wanted.”

“Sry.”

I minimized Facebook. I checked my email. I checked ESPN. I jacked off into my boxers. I asked Dad how he liked being dead.

“It could be worse.”

“Are there pretty women?”

“Yes,” he typed. “There very well could be. It’s mostly light. It’s all light. And noise.” As I was typing . . . he typed, “It’s terrible.” He signed off. I posted an article on his wall—about Cape May recovering after Sandy—and then refreshed the page, hoping my father would like it. He did, eventually, like the link—but he didn’t comment. I doubt he actually liked it.

***
For the next few weeks I did what I could to transcend my scumminess. I bought new clothes. I greased my hair with the finest of unguents. I bathed in the lab’s emergency shower. I wiped my teeth with whitening wipes. Ray stopped me one morning as I was squeezing through the corridor that he occupied. He was impressed by my discipline. He offered me Dad’s old job. “More responsibility,” he bellowed. “And more pay. Much more.”

I equivocated. “I don’t know Ray. My pay already dwarfs my desires.”

“You’ll get new desires.”

“What about the man who replaced my father?”

“He will be terminated.” Ray must’ve noticed the shock on my face. “Figuratively.”

Dad wasn’t as excited as I’d hoped. “Cool,” he typed, when I told him I’d taken the job.

“You seem disappointed,” I typed.

“I always thought you’d do more than I did.”

“There’s time,” I typed.

“Not as much as you think.” Neither of us typed for a while. Had I let him down? Could I have achieved more? I had two college degrees, after all. But the diplomas had burned in a fire; my education was rash and impractical without its symbolic endorsement.

Dad was typing . . . I assumed he was going to apologize for his lackluster praise, but instead he typed, “Alex, I have a problem.” The problem was Angela Landsing—formerly Angela Stoddart, when she and my father were lovers. She’d found him through friend finder months ago and had begun sending him erotic messages. She had requested they meet up for drinks. In a moment of weakness Dad had agreed to go out with her.

“Why the hell did you do that?” I typed.

Abashed, he typed. “Because I still love her.” What a miracle! The dead still in love with the living! So, I agreed to go out with her, in place of my father. He planned to feed me lines during the date. How? I asked. He reminded me that, with my increase in pay, I could easily purchase a couple of iPhones.

***
Angela and I met at a Jazz club that resembled an opium den crossed with an Applebee’s. On stage, a man was ferociously juggling trumpets. Angela was perched at the bar.

I sat down and explained who I was. “Is this a fucking joke?” she said. “Excuse me,” I said, and checked my phone. My father typed, “Tell her it’s not a joke.” I told her it wasn’t a joke. “Then where is he?” she asked. I checked my phone. “My father’s life is in danger,” I said.

She attentively set down her martini. “Is he sick?”

“Worse,” I said, and glanced at my phone. I demurred; Dad insisted. I told her he’d witnessed a mob hit performed by the infamous Whitey Bulger.

“Who?”

“An American convicted murderer and former organized crime figure,[2][3]” I said. “And now my father’s in the Witness Protection Program.” I touchingly touched Angela’s shoulder. The tears on her face caught flickers of the lights pulsing onstage. She sucked down her martini, wiped her lips with the heel of her wrist, tossed a twenty dollar bill on the bar, and left without saying goodbye. With the change from her drink I bought a French beer that tasted like vinegar. My phone was buzzing incessantly. Dad demanded I chase after Angela. And tell her what? I asked. He told me to give her the phone. He’d fix everything. I told him he was being ridiculous. He called me a pussy. I called him a corpse.

Midway through my third beer I felt a hand on my back. Slugs of mascara slid down Angela’s cheeks. She poked me. “Facebook,” she said. “How can he have a Facebook page if he’s in hiding?”

I told her some of the truth: the Facebook page was my doing. A labor of love. But I didn’t tell her that my father was dead. Dead? Protective hiding? What’s the difference?

“So that means you read all my—”

“Yes,” I said.

She ordered another martini. “This one’s on you,” she said, “for making me come all the way down here.” We talked. She told me I looked like my father. I told her he and I were related. Her laughter was enormous and toothy. She had a fine smile: marble framed by plum-purple lips. She smelled like cherries and pine. Her breath a polite combination of olives and gin.

I stroked her hair. “You belong on the top of a Buzzfeed list,” I said. “25 Mothers Hotter than Models.”

“Stop it,” she said, in that tone of bashful flirtation. She waved away the compliment with her right hand, her left hand still tucked under her thigh.

“It’s okay,” I said, gesturing toward her left hand. There was no use hiding her husband, Ellison Landsing, and her three oblivious children. “I know.”

Angela smirked. She twisted off her rings and tossed them over her shoulder. Plop! Plop! into a flute of champagne. Monstrously drunk, Angela and I stood outside beneath the luminous breath of a streetlamp. “What now?” she asked. In my pocket I felt a storm of vibrations. I tossed my phone into the street. It was flattened by the timeliest dump truck.

We cheered and then kissed. I looked into Angela’s some-colored eyes and saw what would happen if she came back to my place. The clandestine fucking in cars. The threats from Ellison Landsing. Her divorce. Our marriage. Her decision to sever all ties with her family.

How boring, I thought. How predictable life is when we give it some thought. My father would’ve brought Angela home. Was I becoming my father? Of course! But no: I couldn’t. Nobody becomes anyone else. Each of us, I thought, is merely the diluted reiteration of those who precede us. I was nothing but the failed imitation of Jack McElroy, just as he was the failed imitation of his father, he of his father, ad infinitum, the human race a poor imitation of what may never have been; progress is a series of blunders, a march backwards into the future as we pause, on occasion, to beat one another with the oars of the past.

“Let’s go someplace else,” I whispered.

“To your place?”

I nodded.

Angela cackled. “You’re an adult now, Alex, so act like one.” We spent the rest of the night fucking like trolls at a greasy-sheeted Holiday Inn. In the morning, she was gone.

I shook out the bolus of blankets and pillows. My phone tumbled onto the carpet. I began writing my father a message asking what I should do—go after Angela, tell her off—but I paused a few letters in. His phone was shards of plastic and glass in the street. I knew that he wouldn’t respond. I love you, I typed, then deleted it. Thanks, I typed, then deleted it. I’m sorry, I typed, then deleted it. It went on this way for some time. I understand that things were hard for—I deleted it. I do feel closer now than—I deleted it. Knocks on the door. “Housekeeping,” I heard. I let them inside.

Alex McElroy’s work appears or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Diagram, Tin House, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and more work can be found here. He currently lives in Arizona, where he serves as the International Editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review.

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Nice Cold Ice Cold Milk.

Photo by Meg Nicol

Associate fiction editor Michael Giddings on today’s story: In “Mail Order Babies,” Mika Taylor asks questions about love. Where does love come from? Is it possible to chase it? Can it be manufactured, shipped, and artificially incubated in a pan of warm milk? And, seriously, what compels us to look for love in the first place? Of course we’re driven to propagate the species, but Taylor questions our assumptions about that as well. Here, we are reminded of a self-sustaining part of the soul that is often overlooked. The babies, no matter how they’re packaged, call for us to tap into a well of love that quietly rejuvenates itself, unabated by all the social pressures of the world.

Mail Order Babies

They came in a packet like pop rocks or seeds, plain brown paper and simple instructions: Add milk. Keep warm. Love. There were no pictures on the side, no happy families, no sea monkey king and queen. Smart marketing from the baby people. Yours to imagine.

She didn’t open it right away, kept it tucked in a drawer, didn’t pour the milk in the pan, left the heat lamp cold and dark in its corner, unplugged. Though she was glad she had them, she wasn’t quite ready to have them, not yet. There was still a chance of meeting someone – that eventual pair bonding that everyone seemed to expect – the love that novels and pop songs promised. That could happen still.

But it didn’t. It was probably her fault. She’d long since stopped going to bars and was too exhausted by expectation to bother with dating sites or setups. There were too many men out there who didn’t understand her, too many people period. It was probably unethical to make the babies she’d bought, burden the world with more. It was probably unethical to leave them there in their packet though too, unmothered, unconceived. Realistically, if she decided not to have them, she could send them back, recoup all but her deposit, and they would go to some other mother and be born all the same. So maybe ethics were not the issue.

The guarantee had said that while a few always sprouted, the most viable of the Foetussen was usually the one to take. There was no danger of being overwhelmed by multiples, but still she was overwhelmed by the multiple possibilities the packet contained: the specter of a bright boy with hazel eyes, skinned knees, and an ear for music like her father, the chance of a wiggling newborn who refused to sleep, wrecking her nights only to melt into her shoulder at dawn with a weight and warmth that broke her heart, or a girl so much like herself that eventually they wouldn’t be able to stand one another, fighting and cursing and loving in wretched and violent ways. It was all just too much.

So she waited, kept herself as open as she could – not so open that she talked to strangers in the park or called up the exes she found on the internet – but open nonetheless. She spent evenings at home sipping tea, reading, waiting, not looking at the packet in the drawer.

“We’re worried about you,” her parents opined.

“You’ve stopped trying.”

“Please,” they begged. “Go out. Meet someone.” They pleaded and pestered and needled and nudged until they found someone for her, a man whose parents they had talked to at a party, sharing that intimate connection of grandchildlessness. Grand childlessness.

She didn’t want to go, but somehow she found herself at a restaurant on a weeknight conversing with this stranger about the change of seasons. He had kind eyes and hair that curled in so many unexpected directions that it seemed both contained and wildly unkempt. And she actually liked the things he had to say about religion and social justice. And he actually listened when she told him about her suburban childhood. And somewhere over the third glass of wine she found herself laughing deeply in a way she hadn’t in quite some time. It was him. He was there and this was something.

When she’d first ordered the packet online, she had wondered when she would start to love her baby. She hadn’t known if it would happen when the mail finally came, or weeks later when she unwrapped and engaged the self-guiding implantation apparatus. Maybe there had to be something inside of her, growing. Or would it all start when the baby was finally birthed and in her arms, focusing for the first time on her face as she focused on its? Her biggest fear was that she could never love it, that she would be as disconnected from her child as she was from most of humanity. But now, as this newly met man smiled and joked and worked his way through dessert, she realized that the thing had already happened. The seeds had germinated, sprouted, taken root. So much so that it was not her date that she thought about, even as he touched her cheek at the end of the evening. She might see him again and that might be good, but the blooming she felt was not about him at all. Her mind had already left him behind, walked up the avenue past sodium streetlights and ducked underground at the nearest subway stop to ride the next train home. By the time she said good night, her heart was already far from that place, unlocking the door to her empty apartment, pulling the packet from its drawer, plugging in the heat lamp, pouring the milk into its pan.

Mika Taylor lives in Willimantic, Connecticut (a.k.a. Romantic Willimantic, a.k.a. Heroin Town USA, a.k.a. Thread City, a.k.a. Vulture Town) with her writer husband, PR Griffis, and Petunia von Scampers their crime-solving dog. You can read more of her work at The Kenyon Review OnlineThe CollagistTin HouseNecessary Fiction, and Guernica.

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Love

Photo by Chris

Dear Professor H.,

It’s been more than forty years since I took your Introduction to Creative Writing Class, yet I still remember that very first Tuesday morning when I sat on a squeaky metal chair, my spiral notebook with its shiny red cover open in front of me, waiting for your arrival. Every molecule of my being was quivering with excitement. I had already made up my mind that I was going to be a poet. In junior high, I’d devoured the confessional poems of Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. In high school, I’d lapped up the beat poetry of Anne Waldman and Diane di Prima. At last I was in college and it was my turn to clutch my pen in my hand, pour out my heart, and share my verse with the world.

As I chewed the tasteless plastic cap of my blue Bic pen, you strode into the room and dropped a tall stack of books onto your wooden teacher’s desk with a thud. Silently you turned to the blackboard and printed the words “Serious Pleasure” at the very top, underlined them twice and then let the white stick of chalk fall into its metal holder with a clatter. Finally you turned to face us. I noticed right away how handsome you were. You had the solid build of an athlete—a football player maybe?—the dreamy eyes of a poet, and the plump lips of a good kisser. You also had a gold wedding band on your left hand and brown Docksiders on your rather large feet. You wore khaki slacks, a white alligator shirt and a weary expression as if you already knew that we were all going to disappoint you. And if that weren’t enough, you heaved an enormous sigh to let us know that we were all hopelessly beneath you but you were stuck with us. And we were stuck with you.

If you meant to intimidate us, Professor H., you certainly succeeded. You distributed the syllabus and launched into the course requirements without once explaining the phrase “serious pleasure” which stared down at us like an angry gargoyle. My classmates shifted in their seats and I saw many of them flipping through the thick course booklet we all carried around, searching, no doubt, for another “gut course” that met on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9:15.

Eventually you stopped talking about your expectations of us in that slow Southern drawl that meandered through our New England classroom like a river and began our first lesson. “We’ll start with sonnets,” you said. The word elicited a collective groan. You remained unfazed. “Yes, you’re all going to write a sonnet,” you repeated in that honey-oozing voice. “You’ll hate me now, but you’ll thank me later.”

That night sitting in my dorm room at my tiny student desk under the burning glow of my clip-on lamp, I spent hours working on my sonnet. I wrestled with iambic pentameter. I sweated over the rhyme scheme. I fretted over the turn. I rewrote the ending couplet a hundred times. After dozens of revisions, all written by hand, I finally took my Smith Corona portable typewriter out of its peach-colored case, and typed up my poem. I had never worked so hard on anything in my life.

When our class next met, you collected our sonnets, stuffed them into a brown accordion folder, and proceeded to teach us about something called a terza rima. I listened and took notes, all the while wondering what you would say about my sonnet. Would it surprise you? Delight you? Impress you? Most of all, would it show you that I wasn’t like the other students yawning in front of you? No, like you, I was a real writer. Surely you would recognize from the fourteen lines I had just handed in that we were kindred souls.

The following Tuesday, you handed back our papers without a word. I tried to catch your eye as you approached my desk, but you were having none of it. You extended my paper upside-down, I reached for it, you moved on. I waited until you were on the other side of the room before I turned it over. I was both dismayed and relieved to see that there were no marks upon it, until my eyes reached the very bottom of the page where I saw, in a tilted, southpaw scrawl, the words “so what” written in red ink, followed by a question mark.

So what? So what? I read those two words at least 100 times, my heart hammering, my cheeks turning red as the ink you had used to write them. So what? I was absolutely crushed. Did I really have nothing to say? Was my dream of becoming a writer ridiculous? Were my parents right? Should I forget this poetry business and become the social worker, secretary, or nurse they kept urging me to be?

More than four decades have passed since you wrote “so what?” on the bottom of my sonnet, Professor H., and I have done a lot of writing during that time. But one thing I have never written is a note of thanks to you.

“You’ll hate me now but you’ll thank me later.” I never hated you, Professor H. In fact, I had a little crush on you. And though you crushed my schoolgirl heart, I want to thank you for the two red hot words you seared onto the bottom of my poem and into my brain like marks from a branding iron. Because after I licked my wounds in the privacy of my dorm room and dried my eyes (oh yes, many tears were shed) I got mad. F.U. Professor H.! How dare you write “so what?” on my sonnet and stomp on my poetic dream?

Actually, Professor H., whether you meant to or not, you did me an enormous favor. Your words lit a fire under me that blazed for the rest of the semester. I’ll show you, I thought night after night as I sat at my desk under the harsh light of that clip-on lamp shining down upon my notebook bright as a Hunter’s Moon. Your words dared me to become a better writer and I took on that challenge like a champ. I wrote and wrote and wrote, determined to accomplish the impossible task of pleasing you. The closest I came was a comment from you on the bottom of a short story: “Your fiction is better than your poetry.” Was that a compliment or an insult? To this day, I’m really not sure.

But so what? Forty years later, Professor H., I have had a change of heart. I no longer think you were being cruel to me. Actually I think you were being kind. I might even flatter myself into thinking that you did recognize the real writer sitting in front of you, nervously splitting the ends of her waist-length hair as she listened to you explaining enjambment, and decided to give her a gift: the gift of “so what?”

To this day, everything I write is put to the “so what?” test. Those two brutal and brutally honest words taught me that what I place on the page has to matter. It’s not enough for a piece to be beautifully structured or stylistically pleasing. Poems and stories have to mean something. They can’t be throwaway or inconsequential or frivolous. They have to improve the stark beauty of the blank page that they are written upon. They cannot waste the readers’ time.

And so, when I write, I take serious pleasure in making sure that every word counts. And for that, Professor H., I humbly thank you.

Lesléa Newman is the author of 65 books for readers of all ages including the novel,  The Reluctant Daughter, the short story collection, A Letter to Harvey Milk, the poetry collection, Still Life with Buddy, the children’s book, Heather Has Two Mommies, and the novel-in-verse, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. Her literary awards include poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation. A former poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts, she teaches at Spalding University’s low-residency MFA program. Her newest poetry collection,  I Carry My Mother, will be published by Headmistress Press in January 2015.

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