Ferris Wheel

Photo by Ben Grey

Associate nonfiction editor Alex Clark on today’s bonus short: Michael Hurley’s “Why We Can’t,” part ashy montage and part cyclical musing on place, mimics its subject of a creaking Ferris wheel in sentence structure, cradles us in the shadowy alleys of Pittsburgh, and sets us up for the inevitable stomach drop of losing something we didn’t know we had in the first place. 

Why We Can’t

George Ferris re-invented the wheel by stealing from Persians and making it bigger. He wanted to be a father, and fancied the notion of control through rewards; if you give them something, you can take it away. A good man, but giftless. And so: A slow, swinging ascent, not much to see here, all spokes and backs of heads, then suddenly the sky barely stitched-together, the hills way over there, the moon, Christ, can you see it, worn thin from our wonder, you could scratch it like a scab, you could push your thumbs through and peel it like an orange, you could tear it like bread. But instead, descent, you thumb the rubber chain at your waist, relax your legs’ press against the seat-floor, the tops of trees, the glowing fountain, the lights again, the line of people watching for your face, which is full of wisteria. So everything.

Wait, but younger, in a city so soaked with soot the windows turned to stone.  A city you thumb in a thriftstore. Dairy-boy turned bridge-builder, he joined lands over rivers with other men and steel, longing for those aching Pittsburgh girls, smoking rootlessly. It’s hard, here, to stay pretty; stockings ripped to ladders, a can of wine bruising their lips as they pass it around. Their cracked ankles tattooed. No one looks good drunk in daylight, but they were full of grace. Once he stood counting churchbells, caught one of their eyes and lost count. We can’t have it too long. He never had the courage to say “bridges” and “lands” and “full of grace,” and you’ll see how that goes.

So everything. Though the safety record, given the number of riders per year, is impeccable for a non-thrill ride, children routinely climb from the gondolas and fall to their deaths. It is a summer tradition, like saying goodbye and leaving. Parents ask for seatbelts, experts insist they won’t do anything. One man has named it the wiggle factor: Children don’t expect the ride to stop as passengers load and unload in the mechanical process below, panic, think they’re stuck, climb out of the belt, pull it clumsily over one shoe, then the other, then look over the side, too far, look too closely at the glowing fountain and lights below. Moths are an obvious metaphor. Frightened arms, Christ, flailing and smacking into spinning spokes. Twisting in the air like ribbon. You don’t forget seeing a thing like this.

At first from far, they thought the sky had caught fire. A round burn. This work can make you cruel; can make you research his life hoping to find he’d had a son that had fallen; not from a well-lit wheel, a boat or cliff would be fine. A train could be twisted to fit, a window or a well’s open mouth, trying to drink the sky. Because it would make a convenient parallel. You’d be surprised how many people wonder what the seats are called. Elsewhere, in Pittsburgh, and later: He never had his child. Died with his father and otherwise alone. His ashes went unclaimed, the urn turned to stone by the city by the dust by the lands he joined over rivers with steel and men and wheels. You give it so you can take it away. A glimpse and then it’s gone. So, everything. My sweet, my everything, my thank-god-for: This is why we can’t have nice things. Imagine what we’d do to them.

Michael Hurley is from Pittsburgh. His work has appeared in Sycamore Review, New Delta Review, Fourteen Hills, Spoon River Poetry Review, Mid-American Review, and is forthcoming in FIELD and Cimarron Review.  His chapbook, Wooden Boys, is available from Seven Kitchens Press.

pixelstats trackingpixel

{ 0 comments }

the blank page

Photo by Alonso Mayo

Compose Email

I want to write only in the least committed way possible, that is, in email drafts or text messages I send to myself, notes on my phone or to-do lists on medical bills, because if I open a Word document to type something, however minor, I will have to give it a title to save it and there are only so many versions of thing.docx I can save before I have to make a Thing folder and it gets a capital T and becomes something I feel beholden to; this would be ‘working’, and I have, of late, become frightened of working. Not physical work or mindless work (the kind I do at the bookstore, which allows my mind to wander in directions like: women who buy religious books seem kind but are not. Men who buy history books seem like my father, but are not, etc.), but mindful work, the work I have chosen, work for which I must use my mind to untangle thoughts that have become tangled in my mind and—and this is key—actually finish something for once in my life. The problem, at its core, is an aversion to the mechanics of Microsoft word and computers in general, which require a user to commit the writing to the computer’s memory before the writing has perhaps been fully committed to the user’s, or writer’s, memory, or heart if you like, that is, my own memory and my own heart, the latter of which is in a state of agitation, vis a vis work, and full of doubts about my ability to do it (and I ask: whose heart isn’t, from time to time, so uncertain as to be useless as an instrument of guidance?). So I write in the ‘compose’ window on Gmail, which feels work-adjacent but not worth much—the writing itself is full of exclamation points, which I would never use in the kind of writing that happens in a Word document with its own name and folder—and by this low-level commitment I am calmed. I type.

Helen Chandler is an Irish writer living in Virginia. She has an MFA in fiction from UVA, where she teaches and serves as Editor-in-Chief of Meridian magazine. She is also an Assistant Director at the Young Writers Workshop. Her work has appeared on LitHub, in The Stinging Fly magazine, and elsewhere. She is at work on a novel. Find her on twitter @chandlerhelen.

pixelstats trackingpixel

{ 0 comments }

Fog, finally

Photo by Soikkoratamo


Associate fiction editor Sarah David on today’s bonus story: L. W. Nicholson starts us with sexy braided arm hair and leads us to the mystique of the unknown. This tiny story moves quickly through imagery that leaves the reader both unsettled and dancing.

Fog People

I learned about Fog People from my cousin Cecelia—a bad seed if my mother ever saw one and only living witness to the sack of shit that was my Uncle Basil hurtling himself from the roof of Daryl “Frosty” Waterman’s grocery store the day after Christmas. One summer Cecelia showed me how to curl the long hairs on my arms with two fingernails. It was the sexiest thing a girl could do with her arm hair, she said. We criss-cross-applesauced in the grass, pinching microscopic ringlets, and Cecelia told me about those weirdoes, now long dead, in their little village a couple counties over, way up in the hills. Recluses, she whispered. Stayed in their houses each and every day, porch lights dark. They never visited each other or attended church pool parties. They had their groceries delivered to their homes and kept their blinds and curtains shut. When outsiders drove by, tiny splits in the slats could be seen, and blinking eyes would appear then vanish in the glass.

But, Cecelia reported, when the fog descended on tar-thick nights, ground to cedar, the whole of them would burst upon the streets, an explosion of music and shouts, clumsily clapping their hands in the mist like dogs catching bubbles with their mouths. Men spidered through alleyways with fiddles, and children darted between legs, blowing small horns glinting in the haze. Women danced with large wooden spools in their hands, leaving trails of silver string behind them. The strands coiled around arms and ankles, draped over shoulders in Grecian fashion. On and on the neighbors orbited—all of them together, all of them hidden—until the sun sliced the fog into wedges. Cecelia danced for me the way Fog People had, her shoulders and feet swathed in honeysuckle vines. She wagged her hips and upturned bankrupt eyes, too young to know her body that well, too old to know it so little. As I parroted her movements, I imagined them, too, moving and swaying to the string and brass, each alone in the haze, imperceptible, wrapped in threads drawing tighter and tighter till dawn.

L.W. Nicholson is a teacher and librarian in Southeast Missouri. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arkana Mag, Sundog Lit, Moon City Review, and Riprap Journal.

pixelstats trackingpixel

{ 0 comments }

Photo by Machrouh Med Sami

This week, Associate Fiction Editor Ethan Brightbill asked our staff what their writing would be if it was a genre of music.

Willow Grosz
Managing Editor
Talkeetna, Alaska

Nostalgic 90s alt-rock. Think tragic hearts in tragic blenders…

Jackson Keller
Associate Editor, Fiction
Livonia, Michigan

Overdramatic anime theme song!

Hayli Cox
Associate Editor, Nonfiction
Morenci, Michigan

Instrumenals, maybe Penguin Cafe Orchestra.

Jacqueline Boucher
Managing Editor
Juneau, Alaska

Scary orchestral music, but like, with a really sick beat?

Ashley Adams
Associate Editor Emeritus, Nonfiction
Watervliet, Michigan

Melancholic prog metal.

Ethan Brightbill
Associate Editor, Fiction
Allentown, Pennsylvania

Something like Massive Attack–eclectic, but frequently dark and atmospheric and recognizable as coming from one source despite all the variance.

E. Flores
Associate Editor, Poetry
Bowie, Maryland

Downbeat symphonic polka. Think just because.

pixelstats trackingpixel

{ 0 comments }

Honey

Photo by Dino Giordano

Co-managing editor Jacqueline Boucher on today’s bonus poem: “Bibliophobia: A Fear of Books,” like the rest of Cortney L. Charleston’s debut collection Telepathologies, is a haunting examination of generational racial trauma. Using the language of books, and the language of language itself, Charleston’s work writes the scars of a couple that can be felt generations later, heavy as a phantom limb.

Bibliophobia: Fear of Books

It was written: the alias he’s taken to like a real name.
His weight in bare skin and bones. A statement of condition

as one expects to read on eBay auctionslike new
penned next to a price for the body, but not for the head.

The head is an empty grave the rest of him will retreat to
when he reaches the end of his wits and says no mo’ suh

but for now, what rests on the ledger’s pages is
of indecipherable importance to him. The letters, simply

miniature skeletons of sequenced sounds he’s heard in his past,
harbingers of a certain death he does well to duck

by playing dumb or at least compatible to the orders
of his legal holder once the auctioneer has announced sold

and he pretends that he is not shrinking between his legs
or everywhere else. That word is a familiar one, what split him

from the woman he was not allowed to call wife within
earshot of a whip. She had been a lighter laborer, a house hand,

even learned to move her own in the figure of her name
as the young mistress of the plantation taught her to

in an illegal act of honey, but when found out, Massa licked
the ink from her fingers after forcing a sign off on her own sale.

He kept the children. Her children: conceived with him or him,
withheld in poor syntax and even poorer spirits; that whole family,

generations later, still un-graduated and having books closed
on them, each ending with them behind bars, bar coded.

Cortney Lamar Charleston is the author of Telepathologies, selected by D.A. Powell for the 2016 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. A recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, The Conversation Literary Festival and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, his poems have appeared in Beloit Poetry JournalGulf Coast, The Iowa Review, The Journal, New England Review, POETRY, River Styx, TriQuarterly and elsewhere.

pixelstats trackingpixel

{ 0 comments }

Marchi Wierson

Photo by Marchi Wierson


This year, Jenny Boully is judging Passages North’s Ray Ventre Nonfiction Prize (the contest formerly known as the Thomas J. Hruska Memorial Prize). Boully is the author of four books, most recently not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them (Tarpaulin Sky Press). Her other books include The Book of Beginnings and Endings (Sarabande Books), [one love affair]* (Tarpaulin Sky Press) and The Body: An Essay (Essay Press, first published by Slope Editions). Her chapbook of prose, Moveable Types, was released by Noemi Press and there may or may not be a rumor floating around the PN office that Boully is not a real person, but instead an essay wizard whose omniscient existence transcends simple worldly forms and structures and we are all helpless witnesses to her prose awesomeness. But that’s neither here nor there. In gearing up for contest season, PN Senior Associate Editor Michael Berry had a few questions for Boully, which we have for you here.

Passages North: What excites you about essays/hybrid work? Both with individual pieces and as a form overall?

Jenny Boully: In work that startles and surprises, it seems, to me, that what catches me off-guard, is a delightful or puzzling mimicry. How might one thing be disguised in another or hide within another? It seems as if the best of the strangest nonfictions possesses an amazing ability to morph and bend and rearrange. A work may begin as an informative treatise on one thing and very quickly nosedive into an elegy. I like to think that, whatever I am reading, I will find a startling and hidden life within, unexpected, feral, and struggling to free itself. The best hybrid work, I find, happens just like that–it suddenly take off like a swift cat. I find it exciting when a writer doesn’t have to or refuses to choose–when a writer is allowed to digress, to meddle, to stare, to let go, to turn into something else completely.

PN: What elements would make an essay a contest winner? What do you look for in “outstanding” work?

JB: I love when literary work teaches me something that I didn’t know before, when I can sense the bursting obsession of its author–an enthusiasm that simply cannot be contained. I love when essays take their time, when they aren’t rushing to get from point A to point B, when, in between the beginning and the end, there have been many pit-stops along the way. I like to feel displaced, slightly confused, unsure. I enjoy the trepidation of not knowing what the end might be. A deep emotional connection also helps, although a deep intellectual engagement does, too. More than anything, I relish sincerity. I crave the immediate, the present. I want to feel pressed against the wall as a reader. I want all of my senses engaged. Language does so much for me. I love work that relishes sounds, the way words rub and propel against each other. Images should be allowed to simply speak. I want to feel that the author has seen/lived/felt/thought something unique.

PN: What else should we and our readers know about you? And just because I almost feel obligated to ask (maybe as a fan, maybe as an editor) what’re you reading right now or what books/writers are you currently excited about?

JB: I love watching documentaries. They’re like candy to me. As soon as the little ones are asleep, I watch a film and love learning something. I’m a fiber artist. I’m obsessed with clutter and things and how to contain and minimize materialism. I read a lot of books that aren’t literature, but rather more informational–books about education and children and social concerns and cultural critiques. Literature-wise, right now, I’m reading Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. I’m very excited about the stack of Roland Barthes books my husband gave me over the holidays, books that I didn’t know existed! It truly was Christmas. Imagine that:I’m a die-hard Barthes lover, and I received four Barthes books that I had not seen before. I believe I will read those next.

pixelstats trackingpixel

{ 0 comments }

the mule of happiness

Photo by Greg Westfall

Laughter as Editor

Writing, to quote Joyce Carol Oates, is like “rolling a very dirty peanut across the floor with your nose.” Editing, sadly, is equally odious. I’ve been tempted to douse a revision with Lysol on more than one occasion. I’ve also broken a delete button.

So what can be done? How can we make editing less excruciating? And possibly more efficient? My answer: laughter. We can use humor as an editing tool, a canary in the coalmine of our fiction, a second pair of eyes (or lungs).

Once (let’s not bother how long ago) I began a story:

“The evening was black and gushing…”

My friend underlined the sentence and wrote “LOL!” I asked my friend what was so funny. He lowered his voice and said, “It was a dark and stormy night…” A lightbulb moment ensued, powered by a current of shame and humor. It dawned on me: I had begun my story with the most cliché line imaginable. I was Snoopy atop his doghouse, pawing his typewriter. I shook my head. I joined my friend’s laughter. What followed was an out-of-body experience, a moment of disassociation. Like a snake seeing its former skin and thinking: Who shed that crap? It felt good. Hack-tastic.

Was this a watershed moment? Let’s call it a watershed moment. Seriously, it did change my perspective on editing. I used to see editing as a truly solemn affair, a schlepp through a cemetery of dearly departed words (I’ve slain so many). And sure, I suppose editing will always remain a tad grave, but I’ve become convinced that adding a touch of gallows humor can make the process more tolerable and efficient. It’s simple really. Anyone can do it. It’s just a matter of consulting that most basic of human hardware, “comic sonar,” and waiting for it to beep—ha, ha, ha—at sentences and characters and plot points that threaten to sink our stories.

It might help here to step back and ask the question: what makes a sentence—or even an entire story—unintentionally funny? A friend of mine (a different one, this one has synesthesia) once told me: “Laughter can be green or red.” When she sees people laughing, she can tell if they’re laughing with her (they exhale green) or at her (they exhale red). So, keeping this distinction in mind, let’s focus on red laughter and explore why failure is funny. Our goal: in taking laughter apart and briefly studying its innards, we might, in the process, better tune our comic sonars to detect unintended hilarity and thus hone our editing skills and sweeten the overall revision process. A tall order. Onward!

There are three classic answers to the funny question. The first is “superiority”: we laugh at a sentence or a character or a plot point because we’re better than it. Our laughter is a bark that communicates: Pathetic! I can totally do better than that! The second answer is “incongruity”: we laugh because there’s a disconnect between what is and what ought to be. We read an opening line like “The evening was black and gushing” and we gag at the flagrant is/ought violation. We think to ourselves: This line should be more original, more captivating, more beautiful. The third answer is “relief”: we laugh because, well, honestly, otherwise we’d implode with anxiety. We read “The evening was black and gushing” and we suddenly feel a spike in inadequacy—I wrote that, Jesus, I wrote that—and then we laugh to stabilize cabin pressure.

What do these three theories have in common? Distance. Even a comic sigh (the “relief” theory) is a gust of wind that propels the laugh-er from the laughed-at. And when it comes to editing, nothing is more necessary than distance. So, to return to that opening line—“The sky was black and gushing”—when I eventually laughed at this line, I was giving myself permission to break up with it. It’s not you, it’s me. I’m sorry, I’m just too good for you. Callous? Sure. But let’s face it: editing implies separation. Editing is the art of divorce. Unfortunately, we too often identify with the words on the page—That’s me, oh boy, that’s my writing—when we should be thinking: Who’s this chump? [rolls up sleeves]. Oh well, time to see if they can write!

Now, you might be folding your arms at this point and saying: “I’ll laugh when I’m good and ready. I can’t force myself to laugh at my own writing…”

Granted, this is where my argument sounds counterintuitive. It might help to recall William James’ famous distinction about emotions: it’s not that we cry because we’re sad; we’re sad because we cry. Sometimes, we have to do something externally before we can do it internally. Likewise, I would argue that distance is achieved through laughter, not vice versa. So if we wish to constructively laugh at our own writing, we must first clear our throats and fake it till we make it.

Some of what I’m saying was articulated in a French accent nearly a century ago by the philosopher Henri Bergson in a brilliant little book titled Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Here, Bergson answers that age-old question: why is slipping on a banana peel so damn funny? His answer: we laugh because slipping on a banana peel is a contradiction. The person who slips on a banana peel becomes wooden, rigid, dead. And yet a human being should be dynamic, spontaneous, alive. It doesn’t take much imagination to extend this idea to writing. Our laughter during the editing process is a sign that tells us a particular sentence or character or plot point has slipped on a banana peel and died. It’s our job to help it back on its feet. Bergson was a bit of an optimist, but editing, if anything, requires the chutzpah of optimism: the conviction that our current draft can and will be better.

What’s important to note here is that laughter isn’t simply an exercise in pleasant exhalation; it’s a form of intelligent communication that (if heeded) will point us to those places in our writing which are in most need of revision.

Again, you might be folding your arms and saying: “What if I finish reading one of my drafts and I find the experience completely devoid of red laughter (not even orange chuckling)? What then?”

I would say this signals one of three things:

1)    Your current draft is immaculate.

2)    You still haven’t given yourself permission to laugh. Put differently, you’re not going through the motions. Laughter requires motions.

3)    You’re not aiming high enough. To shoot for Anne Rice and hit Stephenie Meyer is not funny; however, to shoot for Virginia Woolf and hit Stephenie Meyer is funny.

Let’s conclude with some takeaways:

  • Editing is hard work but it shouldn’t be humorless. In fact, we should let humor do some of the lifting.
  • We shouldn’t be afraid to laugh at our own writing. Laughter will not only help us to locate our ugly ducklings; it will also give us the distance needed to operate on (and, if needed, euthanize) the poor bastards.
  • If all else fails, enlist a friend. Our comic sonars rarely malfunction when directed outward.

Andrew Gretes is the author of How to Dispose of Dead Elephants (Sandstone Press, 2014). His fiction has appeared in Witness, The Pinch, SmokeLong Quarterly, and other journals. Currently, he is a doctoral student in the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. His website is http://andrewgretes.com/.

pixelstats trackingpixel

{ 0 comments }

Windmill No. 18

Editorial intern Brandon Hansen on today’s bonus essay: Christopher Citro’s essay will sweep you up and spin you around, layering you in fallen trees and home explosions and radon, just for a start. His sharp wit and careful obsession with wind effectively captures the intimate and the violent, the lovely and the tragic.

Each Breeze Began Life Somewhere As a Little Cough

They stood up and stared about them rather stupidly. It seemed not credible that all this had been done by a current of air. Mr. Thornton patted the atmosphere with his hand. When still, it was so soft, so rare….
—Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica

The first time a tornado almost killed me was in Lawrence, Kansas. Hiding in the basement of my college rental, listening to the NPR announcer provide updates of one funnel cloud on the ground just to the south of us—moving north—and another on the ground just to the west of us—moving east. Sitting there in the dust with my girlfriend and one of two of the other confused tenants, I thought, so this is how it happens. This is how someone dies because of basically wind. At one point the announcer, whose studio was nearby and also in the crosshairs of both tornadoes, actually laughed as he described how they were bearing down directly upon us. Black humor was invented in the 1960s but now it belongs to anyone.

I remember looking around me in that basement for maybe an old bathtub or something that I could turn over Sarah and me so we’d live. Sweating there in the shadows, I remember noticing some of the junk left by years of students, a brass headboard, boxes spilling clothes all dust gray. The acrid scent of damp cardboard and stale soil. I don’t remember how it ended. At some point we stood up and walked out of the basement.

About a year after I moved out, that house blew up. Gasoline from leaking tanks beneath a station across the street seeped into the basement and an errant spark set the fumes alight. Dangerous air got it eventually. The local news interviewed one tenant who was out at the bars when it happened. When he came home there was no home left. Only news crews. “It’s a surreal experience,” said Glenn Baughman, who arrived about 4 a.m. to his upstairs apartment engulfed in flames. “You can’t really go crazy. You can’t really go anything.”

*
On my basement library bookshelves, 11:44 pm, September 15, 2016:

The Complete Soulwind, Scott Morse. Never read.
Inherit the Wind, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Read long ago.
So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away, Richard Brautigan. Read and re-read.
Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954, edited by Douglas Brinkley. Read.
Wind in a Box, Terrance Hayes. Read and re-read.
Wind Song, Carl Sandburg. Never read.
High Wind in Jamaica, Richard Hughes. Read last month and immediately reread.

*
“Guests who spend the night get to sleep on the air mattress. We blow it up tipsy before bed and get light headed.” If I wrote that a year ago it would have been true. Last month we ordered a loveseat that folds out into a guest bed. The UPS guy carried the massive cardboard box on his back up our hill—bypassing the perfectly serviceable driveway—while I watched from the stoop hoping that he would not fall and die.

Assembling it later that day, my girlfriend and I found that the springs came compressed, enclosed in an airtight plastic wrapping. “Stand back,” I said, being helpful, as I pierced the clear membrane and the coils expanded and the guest bed took its first deep breath. Each time a visiting friend or family member sleeps on it, it will take another. Last Saturday we made love on it then napped. It took a few deep breaths in a row. Then it took a break for a while. When we woke we noticed the cat had curled up at our feet. That was another, a little black cat shaped breath while we were asleep, holding on to one another and breathing without thinking of breathing.

*
During the four years we lived in our last place, two cottonwoods blew down. The first collapsed sometime during the night, and I noticed it as I looked out of the kitchen sink window, tipping back a morning glass of water.

Eyes: A huge tree is lying sideways in the backyard.
Brain: Huh?
Eyes: A huge tree is lying sideways in the backyard. It looks like a tree. On its side.
Brain: Those branches are supposed to be way up in the air, not in the grass. Did I do something wrong? God, I hope not. Is that really a tree on its side?
Eyes: Yep. See?

And so on.

The landlord hired two guys to come chop it up and take it away. I set up my camera in the master bathroom and made a time-lapse movie of the guys working. Filming them from the second story window, they looked like mice, highly industrial mice with chainsaws and wheelbarrows. When they were done, they even sucked the sawdust up from the grass with a Shop-Vac. Have you ever seen a mouse vacuum a lawn? It changes you inside.

Several years later another windstorm brought down another massive cottonwood on the other side of the yard. I was standing in front of the second floor sliding doors, turned away, talking to my girlfriend when it started. At the first sound of crashing I snapped around to the glass.

Eyes: A huge tree is falling in the backyard.
Brain: What—again?
Eyes: Look. It’s still falling.
Ears: Hear that crunching sound?
Feet: Feel the house shaking under you?
Brain: What the hell’s going on?
Eyes and ears and feet: (Sighing)
Brain: I get it. A tree’s falling over. But that’s not supposed to happen. Holy smoke! A huge cottonwood just got blown down right in front of me! Is my girlfriend ok? Is my cat ok? Am I ok?

I looked back over my shoulder. Sarah was ok. From where she was sitting she couldn’t see the tree, but she could hear it and she could feel the house shake. She was looking at me with her mouth open. Our cat was standing at my feet, looking up disapprovingly, wondering when I was going to give her a cocktail shrimp.

*
Alize, Bayamo, Caju, Chinook, Cordonazo, Diablo, Foehn, Haboob, Harmattan, Libeccio, Mistral, Nor’easter, Ostro, Pampero, Passat, Santa Ana, Simoom, Sirocco, Squamish, Tramontana, Williwaw, Wreckhouse.

*
Visiting the Syracuse online newspaper to see if there are any Local Winds associated with the area, I’ve found an article about a 113-foot blade which dropped off a 200-foot tall, 187-ton windmill this last February about 45 minutes southeast from the city. The blade appears to have fallen off at about 9:30 a.m. today, and town officials think it may have been caused by a bolt failure, said Paula Douglas, Fenner town clerk. Town officials didn’t think the wind had anything to do with the incident.

The article contains a photograph of a two-arm wind turbine that should be a three-arm wind turbine. Its missing limb lying at its feet in a snowy February field, pale blue highlighted by furrows of turned earth. The two remaining blades hanging down and out like a frown, like arms reaching for what’s lost, in a Renaissance composition trying to cradle the fallen limb. A deep-frozen Madonna and Child or renewably electric Pietà. It’s the middle of September, but I can’t get that image out of my head. A good reason to take a field trip.

*
Fenner Wind Farm, Madison County, New York
Me: Could you imagine one of those arms falling off right now? It’d make my brain melt.

Sarah: It’s kind of scary just being close to one. Plus when the clouds move it makes the sky move. And it makes you feel like you’re tilting with the—

Me: You just used the word “tilt” by a windmill.

Sarah: (Singing lustily) I am I, Don Quixote, the Lord of La Mancha. My destiny calls and I go. And the wild winds of fortune will carry me onward. Oh, whither so ever they blow.

Me: (Mimicking the sound of a voice over a telephone) Uh… Hello? This is Destiny calling. Now go!

*
Blue-green algae produced our planet’s oxygen atmosphere many, many years ago. Longer than before Stevie Wonder even. Stevie Wonder was originally called Little Stevie Wonder. He was that young when he was discovered. He played the harmonica with wondrous skill and that’s why they signed him to Motown. When he blew in certain ways into a tiny organ with precise and tinier tunnels it made music, which is organized sound waves that travel on the air, enter our ears, and make us go “yeah” and “groove” and “right on” and form other vocables of pleasure in the head. If there were no air the waves would have nothing to ride. You can try the experiment. Put your hifi into a vacuum chamber. Step inside. Get someone smart to suck all the air out. Then crank up some “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” young Stevie’s 1965 hit single. Your speakers will flap but you’ll hear nothing. You’ll have to put up with this for 10-15 seconds, which is approximately how long we can live without breathing in a vacuum.

*
Some winds do have delicious names. Speak them aloud, and your breath forms heavy, curling shapes in your mouth. Simoom is one. A sirocco is a wind that pours north out of the Sahara into the Mediterranean, a Bogart film, and a Volkswagen—As fast and powerful as the desert wind it’s named after.

A foehn wind is a swift, unexpectedly warm current that forms down the lee slope of a mountain barrier. I don’t actually know what that last bit means, but I think I experienced one of these in my twenties. A girlfriend and I had traveled to a mountain in Virginia to take part in a sweat lodge ceremony. One evening as we were glowing inwardly like little flesh ovens from the effects of several hours perspiring in a dark cramped space followed by a dip in a frigid, spring-fed stream, walking through the autumn air, a sudden hot wind came humming down the slope, abruptly raising the temperature from the upper 50s to the balmy 70s. People came crawling out of their tents in the field, some nude, most with their mouths hanging open. Some started running. Some leaped around whimsically in case something mystical was happening. After a few charmed minutes the wind ceased. The temperature dropped again and we stood around under a sky full of spinning stars. We looked up at those little lights and at the distances behind the lights. The foehn wind gone. The air quiet again, invisible as always.

*
Me: The radon fan on the side of our house makes more noise than this thing. So what do people complain about having wind turbines in their area? Because, ok windmills. Anybody other than Satan’s gonna think it’s a great deal. And then you see things where people are complaining and it’s sound apparently, and also something about them messing up birds. But we’re surrounded by them now and there’s just nothing loud about it.

Sarah: And the place is not littered with dead birds.

Me: There’s cows all over on the ground but they were never airborne to begin with. There is a sound, but it isn’t a shrill, high-pitched grind or anything unpleasant. It’s kind of like a quiet wuff.

Sarah: It’s got a little hum to it. And occasionally you can hear the wind buffet. A whoosh.

Me: A whoosh over a hum. I’m with you there.

Sarah: It almost sounds like waves.

*
High above the sweat lodge, someone had hung wind chimes. They must have been over 60 feet up into the branches of a nearly leafless beech. Walking up from the forest path, I heard the sound of distant tinkling and thought, how did someone get those up there? With a crane, with an arrow and some string, maybe an unusually biddable hawk? Breezes that high are different than those at human level. The chimes made present to us on the ground what was otherwise not present. Their jangle pleasantly muffled by the distance. Which was nice.

*
Today the radon abatement guy came over to remove the testing apparatus which will tell us if the two grand we spent actually results in us having less radon in the basement. Our numbers were below the EPA action levels to begin with, but we just bought the house, we want to live it in for a long time. Lung cancer would get in the way of all this living, so it seemed worth the expense to see if we could get the numbers even lower.

As radon decays, it produces other radioactive elements called radon progeny (also known as radon daughters). Unlike the gaseous radon itself, radon daughters are solids and stick to surfaces, such as dust particles in the air. If such contaminated dust is inhaled, these particles can stick to the airways of the lung and increase the risk of developing lung cancer.

When the guy pressed the button to see the initial readout this morning the number came up 0.4. The level of radon present in the ambient air outside—what you get sitting in the grass or pulling a lawn chair into the shade or following your lover across the lawn to try to get hold of her—is apparently 0.6. So now there’s less radon in our house than there is in our backyard.

Me: (Upon hearing the news, something like) Yeah (or) Groove (or) Right on.

*
To survive a sweat lodge it helps if you get your head low to the ground. As each successive load of bonfire-heated rocks are brought in, as the leader of the ceremony sprinkles water which immediately transforms into choking steam, as dried herbs are dropped and flame into temporary stars, filling that weird, dark world with interesting scents and smoke, breathing can get a bit dicey. It helps to hold some spit on the front of your tongue, then make a kissing shape with your lips, as if you’re going to whistle but backwards, drawing the air through your saliva which cools it. You make a sort of hookah of your body so your lungs don’t singe meanwhile the rest of your body is hoping that you don’t die.

In the darkness and the hot air people pray, silently and aloud, for themselves, for family and friends, for physical and psychological healing, for whatever burdens they’ve brought with them into that sweaty little tent.

*
How radon mitigation works. Some guys come over in a white van and drill a hole or three in your foundation. They lower a plastic pipe into it and vent it outside. Outside the house, inside a plastic box, there’s a fan. The fan sucks air out from just under your basement where the invisible radioactive gas collects as it rises from shale, granite, schist in the soil. You can’t do anything about that. So relax. It’s just the way things are. They’ve even found radon on the moon.

The fan is no stronger than a vacuum cleaner, yet this is enough suction to pull the radon gas out from under the house and throw it into the sky to disperse and be somebody else’s problem. In fact before they install the permanent fan, they dig a few small holes to test how well the draw is beneath the whole foundation. They stick an ordinary Shop-Vac in the vent to provide the suction. The guy who gave us the estimate told us he wished he’d have invented the technology to do this. “It’s so simple and the man who thought of it in the 1980s is a millionaire twelve times over by now.”

“This one couple I met, they raised a whole family then checked the levels after the kids left for college. Through the roof. For fifteen hundred they could have had the gas sucked safely out before it had a chance to sit in the basement with the video games and the bunk beds. It’s too late for regrets. That’s for damn sure.”

I asked him if it was safe to hang out in the yard under where the radon chimney runs up the side of the house. “I’ll leave a few hazmat suits when we’re done in case you want to have a picnic out there.” I realized he was joking after about half a second. For half a second though I pictured Sarah and me sitting in the lawn in human Ziploc bags sipping chilled white wine, trying to enjoy ourselves under a radon cloud in our new yard.

The fan runs constantly and should last 10-15 years. There’s a slight breeze underneath our house right now. It’s pulling away danger. We can breath as much as we want and it’s okay.

*
Thing is, I don’t actually like wind chimes. It’s enough to feel it—I don’t need to hear the breeze as well, or at least the breeze doesn’t need me to give it a mouth piece. That’s what pine trees are for. Packing up this summer I couldn’t find the mouth pieces for my trumpet. Neither of them. And though I haven’t played in decades, I’m perplexed by what I thought I was doing I needed two trumpet mouthpieces but not the trumpet. Drunk people know the feeling, waking up the next afternoon wondering who they need to call and apologize to. That’s what turning 30 felt like. And since we bought this house we’ve changed some things without thinking twice, switched off that awful buzzing light outside for one. But I hadn’t the ventricles to throw out the chimes—the carved cardinal’s crimson almost weathered away. I moved them to the side of the shed, part of my brain saying to the rest of my brain, Why am I bothering to rehang these? It’s only a few bamboo tubes anyhow. The wind comes, it sounds like a very small marimba a very long way away. We’re little, in a circle in a clearing. Huge dark leaves surround us. There’s a light. We’re holding it in our upturned hands. Living long enough to gather the fragments.

*
Me: There’s a child yelling in the distance. Joyfully. There’s a lot of little butterflies floating around here. What color are they?

Sarah: Lots of colors. Some yellows and some white ones.

Me: What are they doing?

Sarah: Fartin’ around in the flowers.

*
When you blow into a fire you make it get bigger. Blowing too hard can put the fire out. You blow a candle out by separating the flame from the wick with the power coming from your two little cheeks. You’re like one of those gods or cherubs in one of those Renaissance paintings. You feel like a big shot. Trick candles have a little gunpowder woven into the wick which reignites merely from the warmth of where the fire was. Then you have to blow it out all over again. Trick candles are a novelty. People buy them to make some people confused and other people laugh. Whoopie cushions are pink rubber bladders with open valves that when left alone crimp and hold breath in. When sat upon, the crimp loosens and the breath escapes with a flatulent blat. The wind someone’s breath just before. The breath of the practical joker. Usually an uncle or someone just like an uncle. A brother in law. I can’t remember the last time I saw trick candles in action. I was a child I suppose. The last time I heard a whoopie cushion in action I was also a child. The last time I repainted a deck to protect it from the ravages of a long winter was last week.

*
When I was little I’d run into the backyard during storms to watch the trees sway, and my mom would call me—by my full name—to come down to the basement. Now that I’m big, my girlfriend calls me—by my full name—to come down to the basement during bad storms. Once in a rental without a basement, we ended up in our study closet—the one with the handle that couldn’t click shut properly—with each other, a radio, a windup flashlight, and our confused cat. The cheap wood paneling inside offering little reassurance in the event of a tornado.

As we stood pressed together, sweating in that darkness, listening to the buffeting and the radio, I held the door tightly closed with my arm. If things got really bad, it would be the storm vs. my right arm.

*
I have a failed poem from last year. At the back corner of the circle where our rental sat, the wind regularly rushed and smacked flat against our living room. In the winter, before we sealed the windows with plastic sheets, we’d see snowflakes hover above the couch. In the summer, neighbors’ trash ended up plastered against our fence. Once I found a notice of service termination for the rental next door. They owed National Grid almost five thousand dollars. How you do get to owe the electric company almost five thousand dollars? When they moved out they chose the middle of the night to do so. The sound of a U-Haul back door rolling up at two a.m. is a very specific sound.

I can’t seem to let go, to send this poem packing. When I read it, I’m back in that old house, the place from which it felt for a while like we’d never escape. The poem begins:

The wind’s rising now and if the wind
gusts hard enough to knock a tree down
on me, I want to say I wouldn’t mind.

And ends:

In the evening after supper, we clasp hands
with our mates and stroll the circle under
the swaying branches. We see fists and
biceps in the sky and take comfort from that.

The title of the poem: “Each Breeze Began Life Somewhere As a Little Cough.”

*
I hope the neighbors don’t complain. I keep taking my clothes off on the front deck at midnight or call it one a.m. I don’t leap about. I sit quietly to feel the breezes on my all-parts, the stars on my skin. The winds that rise up the slope animate the evergreens and I just can’t help myself. The new robot vacuums three times a week. You leave for work with all stray cords tucked into the shelves because it can’t handle wires. I killed a tick—or something like a tick—this morning on the underside of the glass patio table. I used one of the rocks we brought back from Lake Ontario years ago and keep around to make us think of the lake when otherwise we’d just be worrying about stuff. And I tried not to worry about everything that crawls over me in the night, everything I can’t help letting enter. At a certain point I give up and bring myself to bed where you’re already sleeping naked beneath the covers. I say bring myself as if I’m outside myself, leading my fumbling body by the hand to what’s good for me. Which is precisely what’s happening.

Christopher Citro is the author of The Maintenance of the Shimmy-Shammy (Steel Toe Books). He won the 2015 Poetry Competition at Columbia Journal, and his recent and upcoming publications include poetry in Ploughshares, Crazyhorse, The Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, Best New Poets, The Iowa Review Blog, and Poetry Northwest, and creative nonfiction in Boulevard and Colorado Review. Christopher received his MFA from Indiana University and lives in Syracuse, New York.

pixelstats trackingpixel

{ 0 comments }

Photo by Mychal Stanley

This week, Associate Fiction Editor Ethan Brightbill asked our staff what their favorite books were as children.

Ashley Adams
Associate Editor Emeritus, Nonfiction
Watervliet, Michigan

I owned almost all the Animorphs books growing up. I blame the Applegate estate for my intense love of body horror.

Willow Grosz
Managing Editor
Talkeetna, Alaska

The Secret Garden and the Dealing With Dragons series and Anne of Green Gables and anything by Robin McKinley and The Far Side and The Perilous Gard and anything by Dr. Seuss and Little Women and Fear Street and Calvin and Hobbes and any story my dad and I told each other on road trips.

Lizzie Michael
Associate Editor, Nonfiction
West Dennis, Massachusetts

My favorite piece of literature as a child was the dust jacket gag from Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography.

Jackson Keller
Associate Editor, Fiction
Livonia, Michigan

I remember reading a lot of those Goosebumps choose your own adventure books, but I can’t remember anything about them now except that one was called Attack of the Purple Peanut Butter or something. Truly a literary marvel.

Mike Berry
Associate Editor, Nonfiction
Troy, Michigan

Richard Peck’s A Long Way From Chicago and A Year Down Yonder. They both follow a young girl who visits her backwoods Grandma in the Depression-era South. A scene from one of the books where the characters make soap at home still haunts me.

Jacob Hall
Associate Editor, Fiction
Decatur, Illinois

I grew up on Narnia. It made Lev Grossman all the more rewarding.

Jacqueline Boucher
Managing Editor
Juneau, Alaska

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. & John Archambault, and Fog by Susie Gregg Fowler & Jim Fowler were incredibly important to me when I was younger. Also, I accidentally read something incredibly graphic in a James Patterson novel (Roses are Red, maybe?) when I was WAY too young to be reading something incredibly graphic in a James Patterson novel. I’m not going to say that was a favorite, but it was certainly formative, she said, putting the finishing touches on her murder monster poem thesis. That was because of my dad. …My thesis is also largely because of/for my dad, so I guess it all works out in the end.

Brenna Womer
Associate Editor, Fiction

I really liked this book my mom read to me when I was super young that showed pictures of faces expressing various emotions. There was this page with a crying baby, and whenever we got to that page I would always cry too. Eventually, my mom started trying to skip that page, but by that point I knew when it was supposed to show up, so I’d protest until she’d flip to the page so I could cry with the baby.

Jennifer A. Howard
Editor-in-Chief
Escanaba, Michigan

According to a recent decluttering session, I learned to steal from better writers by copying the story of Corduroy and his lost button into my Farrah Fawcett notebook and signing my name to it.

Liz Trueblood
Intern
Onalaska, Wisconsin

My mom read me and my sisters a series of books–The Enchanted Forest Chronicles–about a princess named Cimorene who refuses to be proper, so she runs away to live with dragons. I believe those books played a role in turning me into the angry feminist I am today

Hayli Cox
Associate Editor, Nonfiction
Morenci, Michigan

I loved my dad’s Anne McCaffrey audio book series The Dragonriders of Pern. I spent some time with Harry Potter as well as Mrs. Frisbie and the Rats of Nimh, and I remember repeatedly reading and trying to understand Watership Down at eight or nine. Before that I read a book given to me free by the humane society called Jasmine. It’s a narrative in rhyme about a kitty abandoned in an apartment when her family moved.

Sara Ryan
Associate Editor, Poetry
Miami, Florida

I was obsessed with Tamora Pierce’s The Song of the Lioness series and The Protector of the Small series. Both of them were about a girl aspiring to be a knight and pretending to be a boy as she climbed the ranks of knighthood and kicked everyone’s asses. Serious girl power. Those, and the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. Because small rodents with swords.

E. Flores
Associate Editor, Poetry
Bowie, Maryland

Animorphs or nothing.

Alexander Clark
Associate Editor, Nonfiction
Mount Pleasant, Michigan

The Fear Street novels…they were like Goosebumps but for teens (11 year olds) and they were American Horror Story Lite.

Tianli Kilpatrick
Associate Editor, Nonfiction
Massachusetts

I loved Tamora Pierce’s The Immortals series because they were about a girl who could speak with animals and shape shift into their forms. I also loved Madeleine L’Engle’s  Time Quintet (A Wrinkle in Time) for their fantasy way of addressing good vs. evil, conformity, and truth.

Krys Malcolm Belc
Associate Editor, Fiction
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Matilda! And I have the tattoo to prove it!

pixelstats trackingpixel

{ 0 comments }

Doorway

Photo by Aaron Harmon

Associate fiction editor Krys Malcolm Belc on today’s bonus fiction: In this gritty flash piece. R.M. Cooper captures the aggressive mindset of a woman living deep in a lie of her own making. Short, relentless sentences and a high-stakes encounter make for an enchanting and unsettling quick read.

Salvage

There’s nothing to eat in her trash bin. The insides are all credit card receipts and old medical bills and bank statements and a letter from her sister in Tucson. Check around back. There’s a big plastic cylinder that smells like chicken bones and soiled milk, but inside everything’s turned to dirt. Beside the cylinder are brown bags filled with similar-smelling dirt, each labeled in black permanent marker: For Garden.  There are eight bags beside the cylinder. The yard is filled with wood chips which stick to your bare feet and require no watering in the dry mountain summers. Try the front door, the back door. A light comes on when you try the window. Flop face-down in the wood chips. Take shallow breaths for twenty minutes until the light winks out. Return to the trash bin and stuff whatever papers you can manage inside your coat. Leave.

Fold down the corners of papers with account numbers. Set aside an out-of-state receipt. Call and dispute the receipt with the bank: $15.95 at a nail salon. Make threats regarding the closure of your account. Ask to speak with a manager. Make Ted, the manager, stutter. Ted is only filling in. He usually doesn’t work weekends. Play stupid. Play belligerent. Keep playing until Ted relents. Find the folded paper with an address. With a home phone number. With the last four digits of the debit card. Write down the account number Ted surrenders.

Rent an efficiency apartment. Apply for a third-party credit card. Pay rent. Buy groceries. Afford new clothes. Get an interview at a movie theater. Get a second interview at a convenience store. Get a third interview at a daycare. Say you’re happy to work for cash. Off the books is fine. Employee health insurance, yes—Obamacare. Agree: It’s killing small businesses. Say you’re only interested in the children. Bike to work, even during winter. Say it’s for the exercise. Say it’s for the environment. Avoid libraries and post offices. Pay your bills on time.

Three years pass before the husband arrives. When you answer the door he looks surprised. He tries to look around you inside your apartment. He asks if you know Laura Peters. Touch your collarbone along the seam of your robe. Say that’s your name. Let him laugh when he tells you about the estate papers listing the apartment as a second address. Pretend not to notice the word estate. His eyes are bloodshot. His chin is unshaved. He says he thought his wife was having an affair. He tries to look past you again. Laugh. Touch his shoulder. Say you grew up with a Laura Peters too. Ask if there was a pop star with that name in the seventies? An actress? Ask if she went to your high school. Ask if he and Other Laura (you’ve called her this twice by now) would like to join you for dinner. Talk about death on his terms: passed. Offer condolences: cancer is terrible, the body turning on itself, the radiation sickness, the burden on the family. Give him a minute. Give him another. Try not to look impatient when he doesn’t leave your door. You’ll want to comfort him. You’ll want to send him away. Instead, step forward. Lean into the doorjamb and let your fingers drift inside the seam of your robe. Ask if there’s anything you can do. Say you’re sure he’s been strained, felt alone for a long time. His brow will furrow. His jaw will tighten. When he tries to look around you again, move to meet his eyes. Make sure he knows there’s nobody inside but you.

R.M. Cooper’s writing has recently appeared in Berkeley Fiction Review (2014 Fiction Award recipient), Cream City Review, Denver Quarterly, Fugue, The Pinch, Portland Review, Yemassee, and elsewhere. Cooper lives with his wife in the Colorado Front Range and is the managing editor of Sequestrum.

pixelstats trackingpixel

{ 0 comments }