Call It

 

By Matthew Woodman

 

The balloon, I said, is a spontaneous autobiographical discourse, having to do with the unease I felt at your absence.” – Donald Barthelme

 

This is death.” The man reaches into his chest pocket, extracts a black balloon, places it to his lips—mouth to mouth—and begins to blow. As the latex inflates, a white skull swells and takes shape. “This is death,” the man repeats, tying the end. “Be back in twenty minutes.” We took death by the neck. Outside, sunshine and squirrels and people carrying backpacks from one corner of campus to the other.

Mark, feeling self-conscious and put on the spot, feigns nonchalance and bats the balloon with the tips of his right hand and then his left as if it were a beach volleyball. After three minutes of this back and forth, death bursts with sufficient force to exceed the speed of sound and—to the right of Mark’s temple—forms a small sonic boom. The people carrying backpacks who are not already watching Mark now turn in his direction where he, startled, stares at the torn rubber at his feet. It is now when Mark begins avoiding contractions, for example repeating to himself “I cannot” rather than the colloquial “I can’t.”

Though Greg’s balloon fails also to return intact, it does manage to keep its form longer than Mark’s. Greg cradles it, skull side out, under his arm down the hall. Greg has a girlfriend named for a country in Asia, though the spelling differs. Chyna keeps him company. Or perhaps he keeps her company, one finds these things difficult to judge. Anyway. One could argue the balloon is theirs, as in the plural possessive. They have time to stop and chat with people they know from other rooms, other schedules. When these people inquire as to the balloon, Greg informs them it’s an assignment they have to complete. They ask him what kind of class is that, and Greg agrees but continues, nonetheless, to stay on task. There is no warning before their balloon pops. It just pops.

Carla is more careful. Not that Greg was careless, but still. In the middle of the quad, a grid of booths and informational tables has been assembled along an x- and y-axis, Carla’s path the slope. A volunteer hands Carla a sticker in the form of a pink ribbon, one-and-three-quarters inches long, produced in sheets of twelve, with a self-adhesive backing. The volunteer looks at Carla’s balloon but doesn’t ask any questions, and Carla doesn’t volunteer any answers. Carla considers affixing the sticker to the balloon but chooses not to. The volunteer continues to distribute pink ribbons, and Carla continues to carry her black balloon along her twenty-minute trajectory.

Rayna takes her balloon and finds a man giving out free ice cream sundaes. Just vanilla and a dollop of chocolate fudge, but a sundae is a sundae, and a free sundae even more so. What’s with the balloon, the ice cream man asks. It’s supposed to be death, I think, Rayna replies. Huh, the ice cream man says, that’s weird. I know, right? Rayna agrees, thanks for the ice cream. Rayna is halfway through the sundae by the time she has to return, her arms full, where she began.

Kason arrives late and doesn’t get a balloon.

When the twenty minutes are up, we return to the room. The man leans against the white wall. He wouldn’t be out of place blindfolded, smoking a cigarette, hands tied behind his back.

Now what?” we ask.

That’s right,” the man confirms, “now what.”

 

Matthew Woodman teaches writing at California State University, Bakersfield and is the poetry editor for the Chilean journal Southern Pacific Review. More of his work can be found at www.matthewwoodman.com.

Tagged , ,

Age Takes a Socialist

 

By Roland Leach

 

I thought every family had one, but kids at school never mentioned a socialist aunt and uncle. Ours drove a Holden FJ, the people’s car, went to city meetings and gave out yellowing pamphlets. When they grew older they went through a phase where they talked constantly of their preferred deaths.

They refused to reach seventy, wanted a quiet bed-death, though they had never been quiet all their lives, an aneurysm or heart attack might do, but there would be no nursing home, never that dilution. Their lives had been a fight against institutions. Euthanasia became an obsession.

They spoke of Death as a greedy capitalist with a monopoly in the futures market, and they were at the battlements again, proclaiming their rights, their ownership of death.

Then it passed, some small shift in the brain, and getting up and having a cup of tea was enough, it was one-thing-at-a-time; the revolution subsided.

My uncle would have shouted and raved at this diminished self, this broken man who was not him, had he a mind to think it through. His death by dementia orchestrated by secret cabals. Aunt lived on for years in a nursing home, watching TV game shows with a boyfriend.

 

Roland Leach has three collections of poetry, the latest, My Father’s Pigs, published by Picaro Press. He is the proprietor of Sunline Press, which has published eighteen collections of poetry by Australian poets. His latest venture is Cuttlefish, a new magazine that includes art, poetry, flash fiction and short fiction.

Tagged ,

if i decide so

 

By Edyson Julio

           

A mouth is not a gun. A mouth can’t ward off punches or unwrap black hands from a throat—her mouth no less. I was defending my mother. She couldn’t defend herself, she never could. My mother needed strong arms to hit him. My mother needed weighty legs to kick him. God gave her words instead of a thick fist.

*

In exactly two days, December 4th, 1998, I’ll turn 22. If I decide so. I’ve been locked up for three years now. Last month, the 15th of November, marked my third year. Dates are sacred here: they’re indicators that the world outside hasn’t ended without saying one last goodbye. That maybe the sky is waiting for me to watch it once more, or that the rain wants to kiss my skin before the clouds dry. Sometimes I toss water from the sink into the air above me, and let it fall over my head and shoulders. If I close my eyes fast enough it feels natural, like rain. But sometimes the droplets just get stuck to the ceiling. When they drop I’ve already opened my eyes, and realized the guards outside are laughing at me.

Exactly two months ago, October 4th, they moved me into the box. They said Pablo Neruda was contraband. I passed it around and let others read it with the intentions of starting a revolution, they said. I guess love isn’t allowed behind their walls.

These walls. These walls. They’ve been learning me. Crying at me. Begging me to pull them down and get back home. But Mamí’s probably long gone. Making love to the man that ruined me. Caressing the back of his neck with her wrinkled palm. Rounding her fingertip over the bullet wound on his abdomen. So what’s left of the place I loved, other than the forks that she cooked with, or the scrub she rubbed over her face? What’s left of the place I loved, other than the walls that kept it all secret, and the pretty makeup she dusted over her lids?

*

Today, December 3, I’m going to write Mamí another letter. I don’t know where I’ll send it this time, but my faith tells me it’ll get to her. This is it, the one she’ll look for, by virtue of it being December alone. Mamí always had the best birthday parties for me. When I turned eight, she hired two clowns. At 13, we traveled on a plane and she bought me Kafka’s Metamorphosis. She read to me in that broken English. My 17th birthday was the finest. Mamí gave me fake eyelashes, and lied to the bouncer at the club. The music was loud, and old men were interested in my body. She taught me how to flirt that night. On my 19th birthday, she broke the rule—let my father come back home.

Tomorrow, December 4th, 1988, will be the third birthday without her. Just me and these walls. A sliding door keeping me from the rain. Sink/toilet. This mattress that tries to hug me at night.

   

Edyson Julio is a native of the Bronx, and a graduate of the Hunter College MFA Program in Fiction, where he was awarded a Hertog Fellowship. His writing has been featured in The Bronx Anthology and The Scofield Magazine. He currently teaches justice-involved youth at CASES, a non-profit organization, and is working on a collection of stories.

Tagged , ,

Spaceman

By Torrey Paquette

 

David and Lucinda are waiting for the bus together in the triangle below Canal Street. David looks at Lucinda who looks at Ralph, who is also waiting, checking his watch, pacing and waiting. They are all nervous, especially David and Ralph. Lucinda is less nervous by about 3 degrees, if nerves are to be measured like the temperature. Ralph is bilking his family out of millions as we speak; David, whose ethics aren’t as elastic, is also doing something wrong, but it is less wrong than what Ralph is doing. Lucinda is being a bit of a fidget, putting her hand in her purse, thumbing the bristles of her hairbrush; fingers-on-bristles calms her when she is being goosey. She is often being goosey. She stole this brush from an old friend years ago because the rigidity of the bristles lent it a certain sexual frisson, and then she lost it and had the worst time finding an adequate replacement. When she finally found it again she asked her then-husband did he remember the brush she lost a few weeks ago? No, he said and she said: Well, I found it anyway. David is asking Ralph for the time. David has a wristwatch that Ralph can see, but David is just making conversation. Ralph is giving him the time and David is thanking. They are all three hating each other. Lucinda decided when she woke up that she does not like this day. It is a pointless day. Ralph hasn’t thought about day liking or not liking for a while, mostly because of the bilking. David, the biggest in the group, is sweating and juxtaposing swear words with safe words that rhyme: cockthesock. Is it really hot or really cold? They don’t know, but it is one of these things. Ralph, who laughs at crying children, is mentally adding and subtracting and arriving at figures he likes, but, later discovering he carried a seven instead of a crucial two, will find that they are inflated. Ralph is a monster. Lucinda is opening her eyes wide and then squeezing shut and then opening like this o – o – o – o as if she repeatedly cannot believe what she is seeing but it is just a tic and she is believing everything she is seeing. David and Lucinda and Ralph know they deserve what is coming to them. They have visited zoos and wondered what the animals are thinking. They have been to towns they wish didn’t exist. They have forgotten things they promised to never forget and remembered things they never thought they would. They are wondering: is Elton John’s Rocket Man the same spaceman as David Bowie’s Major Tom? They are terrifically terrible these three; they are scared.

           

Torrey Paquette is a television producer for “Charlie Rose,” the PBS interview program. He began writing fiction while attending Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. Currently, he is working on a collection of short stories.

Tagged , , , ,

Property Listings in My Diary

By Bette Pesetsky


1. On our street

A ranch-style red brick house is typical of structures on the street. Purchased by C. Chester in 2003 this property was later described by him (personal communication) as put together by people whose previous training must have been in the construction of cardboard cartons. C. Chester’s wife Amelia called her husband a dirty sot and threw a tantrum in the developer’s office. She wanted the house, she screamed. Her husband loved her legs, her breasts, her butt, and although conscious of the fact that in time these physical features would alter, bought her the house.

2. Whose house are you?

A small, gray-blue clapboard house, built by Charles K. Luxor (1956) for his widowed mother Sonya who lived on the premises until her death five years ago. Clearly, this is the least expensive house on the street, but it has the best piece of land, a triangular lot that reduces neighbor contact. Property now owned by Clyde and Debbie Elton, noted for their white-blond hair, a hearty and athletic couple, possibly of Danish extraction. Known for his early interest in leftist politics, Clyde is now a registered Republican. A newspaper photograph of Clyde circa 1972 with raised fist and mouth open was published in the Los Angeles Times. This framed clipping hangs in the downstairs hall.

3. The rich are different

One-story brick house owned by an elderly couple either named Simmons or Simon. They keep to themselves and are the last of the street’s residents to have leaves raked from their lawn or snow shoveled from their driveway. They own a black BMW 740 and a citron silver Mercedes E320. They lock the house on January 1st and notify the Well-Bred Security Service and leave for Palm Springs. They return in the middle of April. In August the above procedure is repeated, and they depart for Maine, to return middle of September. Why people who own such expensive cars and are absent most of the year would buy a house on this street no one understands. There is no snob like one from the working classes.

4. Quiet 1

This shingle-covered house can be distinguished from its neighbors by a screened front patio installed three years ago by K. Comfort whose work permits remain pasted in the kitchen window. This is typical of owners Diane and Tom Kerry. Their five-year-old Toyota Camry still bears on its left side window the dealer’s listing of purchase price of $34,640 FOB. The Kerrys have two daughters, Mary Lee and Eileen, and a stepson, Wesley. Tom, a stocky man with early male pattern baldness, is fond of mentioning that in college he was a track star. Wife Diane rarely mentions anything. She is known for her silences.


Bette Pesetsky is the author of two story collections: ‘Stories Up to a Point’ and ‘Confessions of a Bad Girl.’ Her recent stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Oblong, Chicago Literati, Veritas Review, Helen: A Literary Magazine, Litro, The Moth, Sleet and Thrice Fiction.

Tagged ,

Slammer Squash: Back to the Source

By Ron Singer


Dr. Jerome J. Ayler
Director, Facilities & Programs
N.Y. State Department of Corrections
Building # 13 ½
27220 Washington Street
Albany NY 12224

(cc. Dr. Thomas Paine, Director of Federal Prisons)

 

Dear Dr. Ayler,

I am writing to propose an innovative and mutually beneficial use of prison yard space. The benefits to the DOC would be revenue enhancement and prisoner rehabilitation. The benefits to my two-dozen associates and myself would be a new venue for our favorite game – squash.

You are perhaps unaware that, even as the number of squash players in New York City and other metropolitan areas continues to trend upward, facilities are fast disappearing. In an era of rising rents, by converting squash courts to exercise-machine rooms, health clubs are able to exponentially enhance their cash flow.

This is why we have decided to approach the DOC. If you could see your way toward doing a minimal conversion of a prison yard in a facility near N.Y. City (e.g. Bedford Hills, Taconic, or Sing Sing), and then leasing said yard to us, we would be willing to “join” the prison, as if it were a health club. The financial details could be worked out, but generally speaking, the going rate per individual member runs to about $2,400 p.a., or a total of about $60,000. We would offer to share conversion costs.

What about inmate recreation time? There are two possible solutions. We could restrict our play to hours when prisoners are not using the yard, or work out an arrangement by which we would teach them the game. In that case, our membership fees could, perhaps, be adjusted.

As to our suitability for coaching, several of us have extensive experience. Furthermore, two in our group already know their way around the prison system, having done “time” (albeit in a federal facility). As they can attest, there are currently no squash courts in U.S. prisons, so that, during their incarceration, they were reduced to playing tennis. (To address this need, I am cc.-ing my proposal to Dr. Paine.)

“What goes around comes around.” Let me remind you that squash was invented three centuries ago in the Fleet, an English debtors’ prison. Then, as now, the high walls provided a ready-made court. (Not to mention the continuing connection between debt and incarceration.) Conversely, the game has long been associated with wealth and prestige, an association that may recommend it to your wards.

There are numerous other sources of appeal. Many squash professionals have nicknames similar to those of prisoners. For instance, two recent women champions were dubbed “Pink Panther” and “Duracell Bunny.” Among male champions have been “The Wolf,” “Hammer of Thor,” “German Tree Chopper,” “Marksman,” “Dark Prince,” and “Predator.”

Of signal relevance to my proposal is the game’s aggressiveness, sometimes compared to the behavior of real-estate operatives. (Three of our players, myself included, are brokers, including one – not me – with prison experience.) In both squash and real estate, location is everything. Squash proficiency requires domination of the center of the court, known as the “T.” (To assert such control might also be compared to being a “Wolf” in the yard.) Squash teaches maximum strategic aggressiveness within a set of strict, but bendable, rules, an essential virtue in capitalist society.

An important measure of squash fitness is the ability to “run the diagonal,” i.e. to traverse the court at the longest distance. I would respectfully suggest that a large proportion of your wards spend most of their lives running “diagonals.” Furthermore, since many prisoners are inveterate boasters, they might easily master the “boast,” a tricky shot off two walls. Other concepts and terms that would resonate are “killer drop shot” and “slam” (as in “slammer”).

Squash offers several basic emotional and physical benefits to the prison population. Known to elevate endorphins, the game is a major morale booster. At 600 calories per hour, it is also an outstanding fat burner. Or consider the problem of inmate violence. Even if this outlet for aggressive energy did not turn out to reduce the incidence of violence, injuries might reduce the capacity. For instance, tennis and golf elbow, which result from incorrect swings, are bound to weaken shiv thrusts. Regarding substance abuse, it could not but be salutary were convicts/players to switch from the cornucopia of currently popular, dangerous drugs to less harmful ones like power shakes.

Let me anticipate two or three possible objections to this proposal. Rather than reduce violence, might not squash, in fact, exacerbate it, especially between prisoners of different races and ethnic groups? To avoid this outcome, I would suggest a system of segregation. “Nativist” prisoners (often overweight), such as members of the AB (Aryan Brotherhood), could be directed to the American game, with its small court and bouncy ball; and inmates of color, to the international version (large court, dead ball).

What about the danger of “civilians’” sharing an enclosed space with violent offenders? Squash-ers already do that – with each other! Finally, you may argue, to discourage recidivism, prisons are meant to be punitive. Ha! Ask any squash player about the agonies we undergo during a single game! As we say, “No pain, no gain.” So …

UP WITH SLAMMER SQUASH!

Hoping to hear from you soon, I remain,

Respectfully yours,

Roberto “FDS” (Feather Drop Shot) Khan

 

Satire by Ron Singer (www.ronsinger.net) has previously appeared in numerous publications, including The Brooklyn Rail, defenestration, diagram, Evergreen Review, Fiction Week Literary Review, The Higgs-Weldon, The Journal of Microliterature, Mad Hatter’s Review, The Story Shack, and Word Riot. His eighth book, Uhuru Revisited: Interviews with Pro-Democracy Leaders (Africa World Press/Red Sea Press, 2015), is available in about a hundred libraries across the U.S., and beyond.

Tagged , ,

Miss Guide

By Amalia Gladhart

 

Marta can’t stand foreigners, not after those three years she lived in Portland, but she has the best English in town and speaks German, too, nearly unaccented, along with a few words of Greek. People weren’t unkind – they barely noticed her. She talks to her former roommate every week. But she got tired of it, of them. Loud voices, waving arms; earnest, stupid certainty. So much food. And now they’re here, flocks of them, since the songbird colony was discovered. Not discovered – everyone here knew about it. Announced. In the birding news, first; later in the glossy travel guides.

Birders are quiet, thank goodness, but they want their tours first thing in the morning. Bright and early, on the dot, daypacks and water bottles and sensible shoes. Still, she has her evenings free; she’s saving money. They’ll pay whatever you ask up front; she’s not living on tips.

She’s living on explanations, and while her language skills are good (they’re excellent; it’s hard not to boast) she knows next to nothing about birds. She’s making it up when they ask how many chicks in a clutch and do they mate for life and how far is the migration and how long do they live? There’s usually someone in the group who’s swallowed the field guide and is eager to provide particulars. Marta fills in any blanks, recites what she remembers from the last round. But filling in one of those blanks got her where she is now, at the edge of a waterfall (at the edge of a cliff; she won’t think about that) with a ten-year-old and his bird-crazy mother. Because she said yes, of course, when asked if swallows ever flew through the falls, did they rest behind the lacy curtain of water. Yes, of course there’s an overlook.

Maybe it’s the effect of reeling off so many facts and figures, even if half of them are false, but she’s starting to admire these little birds. Terrified, alert, a scant wingspan from the precipice, she holds her breath, feels her face turn blue, dizzy with vicarious flight. Six or seven swallows swoop and weave, their flourishes nearly balletic. Marta likes the idea so much, aerial ballet, she uses it aloud on the guests. The others wait below, sharing out their healthy snacks and triumphantly discovered local sweets.

And then, at last, they get what they came for. Not swallows in the falls. Something better. A flash of yellow, bright as sunrise, so quick Marta thinks she missed it, dreamed it, until the bird perches on an overhanging branch to sing. It’s an aria, intricate and warbled, one she’s never heard, or maybe she never listened long enough. Feathers groomed to velvet, the yellow pure and brilliant and uninterrupted, like the song. Only the beak is black, the feet. The rush of falling water offers orchestral accompaniment.

They don’t sing near their nests, Marta whispers. The bird shifts its weight to one foot. They do that to rest, Marta says. Even asleep, they lock onto a perch.

The ten-year-old is perfectly still. His mother pulls out her notebook. Highland canary, Marta says, easy as breathing. Now it doesn’t matter what the bird is called.

– Amalia Gladhart is the author of Detours (Burnside Review Press) and translator of Trafalgar (by Angélica Gorodischer) and The Potbellied Virgin and Beyond the Islands (both by Alicia Yánez Cossío). Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in Eleven Eleven, Necessary Fiction, Literal Latté, Cloudbank, Bellingham Review, Stone Canoe, and elsewhere. She lives in Oregon and blogs at amaliagladhart.com.

Tagged , ,

You Want to Know Where I Got My Sculpture of a Man, with a Chainsaw, Carving a Man with a Chainsaw?

By John Paul Carillo

 

Karl ruined his business. He had been doing well, really well, with the owls, and the bears, and the bearded tree-men, the occasional nymph—stuff that, you know, people normally carve with two-stroke 3.75 hp gasoline driven chainsaws. But then one day, about a year ago, Karl began to fail to keep abreast of the competition, and started carving the same chainsaw sculpture again and again: A man, with a chainsaw, carving a man with a chainsaw. Karl now only carves sculptures of Karl, with a chainsaw, carving a smaller sculpture of Karl with a chainsaw. His lot is full of them, “Karls Carving Karls” (and maybe a nymph or two he wasn’t able to sell before his metamorphosis into a lunatic). I know all this because I’m the only one (beside his wife) who’s ever bought one, one of the “Karls Carving Karls,” and I’ve been positioning myself to return it ever since! I’ve got it in the backyard now, “Untitled #7 (Karl Carving Karl),” and still the neighbors give me funny looks.

Okay, okay! So I am sleeping with his wife! Okay, sue me! What would you do?! The man is obsessed!!

The other day, in bed with M, I said, “What do I do? The neighbors—they gawk.” “Move it into the backyard,” she said calmly as she pinched her left nipple. “I did that already!” I screamed. “The neighbors, they still come. On stilts. They look over the fence. They throw rocks.” “Oh, Lewis,” said M, “make love to me again.” But she didn’t mean it. She just wanted me to shut my trap about “Untitled #7 (Karl Carving Karl).”

Anyway, a few days later, during lunch break (I’m an insurance salesman by day, bingo champion by night) I went down to Karl’s lot, where he was working on another sculpture, I don’t have to tell you. I kept my distance, while indicating for him to cool it with the whirling blades, ready to run if he decided instead, you know, to come running at me and lop my head off. But no, the man—and he’s got this classic look to him, with the red mustache, and always the blue and green flannel shirt—is oblivious. “Karl,” I said, as he let the machine die down, “another?” “Trying to get it right this time.” “But, Karl, they’re all the same,” and I indicated as such by pointing out all the “Karls Carving Karls” in his lot with a wave of my hand. There were nearly a hundred, just like the one I had in my backyard. Karl shook his head at me, mouthed the word “pathetic,” and, as he started his Husqvarna, I took several cautious steps backwards.

About an hour later—he’d been deep into his composition when I’d arrived—he turned the chainsaw off again, flipped his goggles to the top of his head, and stared me right in the eyes. Then he looked down, into the sculpture, where I was meant to look. I looked. My eyes opened wide: I couldn’t believe what he was showing me; I couldn’t believe what I was seeing—and I don’t know how he’d done it … He’d gotten the wooden “chainsaw blades”—the wooden representation of the chains themselves—to move, in a vaguely ovular fashion. They were spinning around and around, making a woodpecker sound—defying logic, gravity, and even proper decorum.

I tried a complaint. “The one you sold me doesn’t do that,” I whined. “Trying,” he said, “to get it right. Just trying, Lewis,” he said, and he spit a wad of tobacco onto his own boot, “to get it right,” and he looked me deep into the eyes again. I couldn’t stand it, and turned my head away.

I stopped sleeping with Karl’s wife, stayed out of his business in general, and never doubted the man’s artistic obsessions again.

And, I went home with another statue.

We keep this one in the living room.

 

– John Paul Carillo is a graduate of The Writing Seminars at The Johns Hopkins University. He has recently completed a comic novel, Bad Adjunct, and is currently working on his next novel, Real American People. An excerpt from Bad Adjunct, “America Is Not the Future,” has been published at Vol 1. Brooklyn, and his story “Little Hellhounds” was translated into French and published by 13E Note Editions of Paris. He currently teaches screenwriting at UMBC, and plays in the groups Joy on Fire and Three Red Crowns with his partner and saxophonist Anna Meadors. www.jpcarillo.com.

Tagged

Mattrus Foamus / Hippocampus

By Daniel Roy Connelly

                 

He said he’d had his problems, I replied I’d had mine too.

Yours aren’t like mine, he said. For example last week I went to buy a much-needed new mattress. The salesperson gave me permission to bounce modestly and stretch out at leisure before listing the what-he-admitted-were-steep prices. My knees ache in bed, I said (but he broke off eye contact) and to this day mattresses aren’t made with knees in mind; heads, yes, necks, yes, backs, for sure, knees, not a bit of them. It is almost a scandal. The contemporary mattress which shapes up to one-third of our lives is yet to respond to the particular contours of the underside of the knee. To the best of my knowledge, he went on, the cream of mattress designers is yet to convene in an upscale city-centre hotel to address this hardy and deficient perennial of the Mattrus Foamus. He said the salesperson regained eye contact but stared at him blankly nonetheless. To overcome this, he concluded, I sleep with a pillow under my knees or between them as I turn restlessly from one side to the other. And are you, he said, as the salesperson for your company, carrying out your duties in full representational mode, telling me your top-of-the-range showroom selection of branded single mattresses will finally meet all my knees’ needs, or am I going to buy a pair of your cheapest pillows instead?

I held up my hand to interrupt him. He stalled and I took my chance, leant in, and said that yesterday a colony of giant seahorses, genus Hippocampus, each the length of an average index finger, washed up on the beach at Scarborough. Landing after landing of hook-shaped neon bulbs effervesced under the late-night sky until the locals got word and out of bed and down to the scene with coats over their pyjamas they came. After an emergency meeting of the local council, it was decided that each family could take one flashing curio away with them – a limit strictly enforced by men in fluorescent jackets – to use as an eye-catching trinket or to make a shimmering addition to a sideboard or a mantelpiece, or to put straight on eBay, having washed the salt off first. But here’s the thing, when you wash the salt off, that’s when they all die, I told him, that’s when the seahorse lights go out. And so they did, I said, nodding dourly at his amazed face. There were no inquiries, a few column inches in the local newspapers, a couple of photographs on a Facebook page created on the beach in the moment that got 10,000 likes in 24 hours and never posted another thing.

It is safe to assume the seahorses did not wash ashore to die. But they do seem to have been mistaken for Chinese import fairy lights that had beached fully functional on Scarborough’s North Bay and which were irresistible to the human eye, so were taken home and stared at until fresh water was applied. By now, his mouth was open as if it got stuck that way in the wind. Thereafter, I continued, thousands of tiny Hippocampi were slung into wheelie bins all over town, left to rot with other biodegradables; what was then is not now. Do you not see, I said, my hands clasped together right beneath his chin, how a moment of spontaneous illumination on the North Yorkshire coast, a commune with rare creatures from the deep, a beach landing of querulous alien forms, has concluded with our desire to impress the neighbours and/or to make a fast buck, or pound, or euro? And you think you have problems, I told him, but he’d recovered by now and grimaced and reached for his knees.

             

Daniel Roy Connelly was the winner of the 2014 Fermoy International Poetry Festival Prize, a finalist in the 2015 Aesthetica Magazine Creative Writing Prize and winner of the 2015 Cuirt New Writing Prize for Poetry. Published widely online and in print, he is forthcoming in The Moth, Acumen 88 and on ‘Uncle Vanya’ in Critical Survey 28.1. He is a professor of creative writing, Shakespeare, and modern theatre at John Cabot University and The American University of Rome. www.danielroyconnelly.com

Tagged , ,

Train up a Child in the Way He Should Go

By Elias Keller

 

A mother and father sit at the kitchen table, reading a short stack of loose-leaf paper with expressions of intense scrutiny.

The father shakes his head. “He should be writing better than this.”

He’s trying, dear,” the mother replies. “He’s made a lot of progress since last year.”

Well, he’s not trying hard enough. Look: the structure is good. The prose is fluid. It’s just not there yet.”

The mother nods. “I know.”

Jonathan!” the father calls out. “Come here! Now!”

A minute later, an eight-year-old boy shuffles into the kitchen.

We want to talk to you about this story,” the father says. “Now, you have a boy and his pet alligator going to the mall and then the alligator eating people in the food court. That’s clever. Even ironic. But clever isn’t enough. Clever wears off quickly. Do you understand?”

But I just wanted to—”

The father puts his hand over the boy’s mouth. “Jonathan, no. Writers don’t explain their intentions. A good story just is. It exists on its own terms.”

Speaking gently and brushing some hair out of the boy’s eyes, the mother says: “What you have, honey, is a premise, a situation. Now you need to go deeper. Who are these characters? Who is this boy? Who is this alligator? What do they want from life and what’s blocking their way? The more you know these things, the more your premise turns into a story. Do you see what we mean, honey?”

Jonathan nods and mumbles.

But, son, fleshing out characters doesn’t mean just concocting backstories,” the father puts in. “Anyone can do that. You have to feel your characters.”

The mother murmurs in agreement. “And while we’re talking about feeling a story, sweetie, remember that you need to use all of your senses. What does the food court sound like? What does it smell like? Readers want to know these things.”

But you can’t just write, ‘The food court smelled good.’” The father raises his eyebrows. “That’s telling. You have to show. You have to make the reader smell exactly what the food court smells like.” The father hands the boy the stack of papers. “Now I want you to go upstairs and rewrite the story, and don’t come down until you’ve finished.”

What about dinner?” the boy asks.

After you’ve written this properly,” the father replies. Jonathan starts to protest, but his father holds up a hand. “Son, if you want something, you have to work for it. Now go.”

When Jonathan is gone, the father sighs. “Writers. They all think it’s enough to be clever. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let that happen to him.”

Dear, he is only eight.”

You’ve never too young to learn how to do things right. Wasn’t Mozart composing when he was five? Wasn’t Tiger Woods playing golf when he was two?”

Maybe I should just bring him a little snack,” the mother says.

Oh, come on. He’s not going to starve to death. It’s good for artists to stay a little hungry. When he’s accepting the Nobel Prize, he’ll thank us.”

A little while later Jonathan returns with another stack of papers and lays them on the table. “Can I have something to eat now?”

That depends,” the father says. He and the mother read the papers with red pens in their hands.

You’re close, sweetie,” the mother says. “But your stories have to reflect your unique perspective and experiences. They have to connect to your heart. Then the words have meaning, and import.”

What your mother means, son, is that your story has to say something about our world.” The mother whispers in her husband’s ear.

Right,” the father replies, snapping his fingers. “That’s just it.” He turns back to the boy. “What the story’s lacking, son, is a sense of the zeitgeist.”

The what?”

The zeitgeist, sweetie,” the mother says. “It’s a German word for the ‘spirit of the times.’ Good literature is like a cultural document. It tells future generations what it was like to live in a certain era.”

But it’s just a story about a boy and an alligator!”

That doesn’t matter,” the father says. “It’s not what the content is—it’s what you do with it. The greatest novels are about the simplest things. Now, do you want to be read a hundred years from now, or do you want to be an obscure hack?”

Jonathan shrugs. “Well?”

I want to be read hundreds of years from now,” the boy mumbles.

The father nods approvingly. “That a boy.”

Honey, just think deeply and compassionately about the world around you, absorb its energy, and infuse that into your story.” The mother smiles sweetly.

But not too explicitly,” the father interjects hastily. “You’re not writing an essay. The zeitgeist has to be a ubiquitous, but subtle presence in the story. Just like in real life.” He stands up and opens a door. “Now go down to the basement and revise. You won’t be distracted down there.”

The mother looks startled, but is silenced by a sharp glance from her husband, who gives a stack of blank paper to Jonathan.

But I’m hungry!”

Well, so is your alligator,” the father says. “Now use that feeling for your story. That’s what we mean by connecting to a character.”

Jonathan walks downstairs, his footsteps receding into the basement.

I think he’ll get it this time,” the father says when back at the table with his wife. “All writers struggle with false starts.”

Are you sure we’re not being too hard on him, dear?”

Of course not,” the father says, picking up a book. “Artists thrive on adversity.”

 

Elias Keller is a Philadelphia native. His short fiction has appeared in Literary Orphans, Wordhaus, Crack the Spine, Every Day Fiction, APIARY, Slush Pile, Forge, and elsewhere. He currently lives in New Orleans. www.eliaskeller.com.