Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tobin Terry

Reading Cat's Cradle at the End of the World

It was the summer of 2007 and I was working for an auto salvage yard in Akron, OH. My job was to be the first person who took inventory of a wrecked or totaled vehicle as it came in. I was required to get into the vehicle to collect information and certain parts or belongings. From time to time, I'd come across a vehicle soaked in human blood. Each vehicle had a story: A suicide car, a broken baby seat, palm crosses on the mirror, a tooth stuck in the dashboard, bullet holes and brain matter. It was depressing to say the least, an occupational pool-pah, if you will.

When Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle was assigned in one of my summer courses, I took it with me to read on my lunch break. I worked ten and twelve hour shifts practically unsupervised, so when I became so engrossed by the book, I took it with me into the yard. I found a wrecked Oldsmobile eighty-eight, maroon inside and out, with broken windows, cleared a spot in the driver's seat, leaned it back and read the book on company time. The novel's sarcastic tone provided nervous laughter where humor didn't seem to exist. I found myself whispering, "busy, busy, busy" and laughing at tragic car wrecks. No, it's not that I was laughing at them, I was laughing at the horrifying seriousness of them. Cat's Cradle was a lesson that it is okay, sometimes necessary even, to do that.

The reading experience was a spiritual one, and I'll never forget reading it, "lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who."

Monday, December 29, 2008

John Skarl


I spent most of my adolescence pretending that I was someone else. A need to transcend the mundane manifested itself through the years I spent sitting around a table role-playing with character sheets and dice. Sometimes role-playing was war in the back of the allotment. In these fictional landscapes, the possibility of death lurked like a dark bird on a highwire.

Dungeons and Dragons experienced a rebirth during the nineties. It had been admonished as a game that further disconnected people from reality, inspired violent behavior, and in some cases, caused lasting mental harm. All three of these side effects could be true for all I know, though I have firm suspicions they are not. I thank God no one forbid our role-playing. Sometimes I wonder if Dungeons and Dragons could have vented Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s psychotic behavior into a harmless, hot steam. Our misfit group certainly had violent tendencies, and our discussions, had they been broadcasted or written down, could nowadays be considered grounds for expulsion.

We played other war games. I recall the dank dirt, clingy leaves, army surplus flashlight on one hip, canteen on the other. We had plastic guns—in some cases they were metal—they were all fake, but looked dangerously real. If there happened to be any sissy orange plastic, we pried those parts off or spray-painted them black. We humped the entire woods that spanned for five or six miles behind the allotment—these same woods later became the place we learned to drink or smoke—an irreverent place.

In sixth grade, a man came in to speak to us about the Vietnam War. James Crumb was the father of one of the girls in my class. He talked about how he was drafted. He spoke of his dread but also his sense of duty. He told us his weapon was the M-60 machine gun. That was the gun Rambo held with one arm. He had my attention. He gave us real answers to our questions: “Were you scared?” “Often.” “Did you kill anyone?” “Yes.”

He brought a cardboard box full of books telling his experiences in the war. I was a sixth grader with five dollars lunch money. I decided I could afford to go hungry. Those days I remember thumbing through military equipment guides, marveling over the pictures of guns, tanks and missiles in our library. Here was a living, breathing story. Crumb carried an M-60 machine gun, which could fire 160 rounds per minute. He called it the pig because of its weight, and the pig was called on often.

I still have Pigman. Its cover is a map of Vietnam highlighting the areas Crumb fought in or traveled through. I believe the memoir was self-published because the typeset looks like Courier and there are misspellings. None of these things mattered to me. Here was a true account—truth that wasn't filtered through the news or a history book.

At one point, he described diving into a foxhole to avoid mortar fire. Many others had the same idea, and soon he was buried under soldiers seeking refuge. When the shell hit, these bodies saved his life. He described finding a mass of slaughtered Viet Cong that had been exposed to the sun for weeks and he described their efforts to clean up the bodies on the side of a jungle mountain, how their sun-rotten skin stuck to his hands, the ravenblack smoke clouds, the barrel-rolling artillery planes, how, during the tour, his own reflection grew more and more unrecognizable. It was one book I never forgot.

Robert Pope

The Golden Slave

When I was very young I read quite a bit but never really noticed it. I read all kinds of things, including Hardy Boys and a series of blue biographies in early years at school. I read indiscriminately. We had a nice illustrated hard-bound copy of John Steinbeck's The Red Pony at home which I read repeatedly. We also had The Winter of Our Discontent, My Chinese Wife, The Good Earth, Please Don't Eat the Daisies, Mister Roberts, The Human Comedy, and quite a few others I also read because they were available. I remember a book by Jim Kjelgaard called Fire Hunter, published in 1951, which excited me more than most books. I checked it out of my school library. I spent some time wandering through the public library reading science fiction books while sitting in the aisles of the stacks. One of my favorite was Martians, Go Home! by Frederic Brown. I hadn't really entered the world of great literature yet, or even the popular favorites of the day. I just read whatever caught my eye or my imagination.

One day I went into the basement of the house we lived in that year--we moved so many times I only remember it by the boxes still sitting around. Even though I recall this as happening when I turned twelve, I must have been fourteen, because the book came out in 1960. Even though I recall this as happening in the house in Virginia, it must have been Frankfurt, Germany because that's where I lived at the time. I pulled a paperback out of a box, The Golden Slave, and started reading--though it might have been a hardback. I saw the paperback years later, so I might have replaced the hardback with paper--if there was a hardback. Within the first few pages--as I recall--the Romans, I think it was, invaded and a mother dashed her infant's brains out against a rock rather than have him taken into slavery. If I am not mistaken, the golden slave went around the world he knew as the world searching for his wife, from whom he had been separated, and performing feats and tasks for kings who rewarded him, at least once--this sticks in my mind--with the lovely woman for his bed pictured on the cover.

I had never read anything like this, and it changed my notion of what a book could do. My eyes were opened. It was a book by Poul Anderson, and once I had read it the world was not the same. It was better and more awesome than it had been before, and the promise of books had grown in the afternoon it took to read it, sitting alone in our basement, on the wooden steps, among the boxes that had not been unpacked. This, I knew, was my father's book, a book he never would have told me about, and I wondered if this didn't indicate the life he lived as a military officer traveling about the world, sometimes with a family, sometimes not. The world promised more than it had ever promised. Literature opened to me as a world with at least as many dangers as the one in which I lived, and far greater rewards. I went after it more actively after this experience.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Closet


John Skarl teaches at a vocational high school, and I can't think of any better place to be teaching the kind of class on writing fiction that you can read about in his blog (address above). In his blog called The Closet, John has listed and commented on five writers who came to his class and read something they wrote and talked about writing with the students. If writing's not a vocation, John, I don't know what it is. Your students are lucky to have you and this class. Other teachers and schools ought to take notice.
..............................................Flowers for Everyone

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Faith Wally

The Summer I Stopped Drinking Grape Juice

I was laid up that summer. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t sit, I couldn’t sleep without pain. The visiting nurse people had dropped off a single bed that rolled up and down with a mechanical crank on the right side. I learned to type that summer. God, I was bored. I got my vicadin prescription refilled over the phone on the bed. My life was lived on the single visiting nurse bed in my mother’s living room. It was the summer I learned how to sleep on my back. I got a lot of phone calls that summer. On a particularly hot day the assistant district attorney called as I typed the brown fox jumps over the big moon. My boyfriend, if you could call him that, broke up with me that same day. I popped vicadin. The second time I called in my prescription they wouldn’t fill it. I think I whined and cried all day over the phone. I couldn’t toss and turn that night; I had to fall asleep on my back.

I wasn’t supposed to walk without crutches for two months; I was stumbling around without them in four weeks. Friends came over and we hung out in the backyard on the bench. We argued politics, film; they kept me in the loop. One of them was a republican. One of them was Goth-industrial. The Goth’s girlfriend had a jeep. She was blonde and plump and boring, but she had a jeep. Sometimes at night, I would spend hours on the phone with the Goth. Bill was his name. He had been in a car accident a year before that summer. We bonded.

I drank a lot of grape juice that summer, I thought it would make me live forever. I really did. I read that somewhere. On the night I threw up all the grape juice I was delirious. I threw up in the shower about ten times that night, and after each violent purple spew, hot water rolling off my head, I went back to the visiting nurse bed with the metal crank on the right side. In the morning I awoke with an anvil on my chest, a fucking hammer driving into my lungs. I tried to smoke a Marlboro light in the taxi on the way to the hospital. It was the first car I’d been in since…dawn.

Dawn on Trexel Road, two bottles of red wine in the back. My best friend is driving and her boyfriend in the passenger seat is trying to change the radio station. I sit in the back with the other guy, a funny guy from South Carolina. Trexal Road is a windy road, and we are on our way to the ledges at Virginia Kendle. There is laughter and commotion and then there is the car pulling to the left. I look calmly at incoming trees and I think for what seems like a flying spark in the face of eternity, ‘Oh. A car accident’. After that there are no thoughts, just tumbling, like the inside of a stuffed washing machine. Tumbling and darkness. I awake in a river, and the stereo is still on. It’s "She Says" by Jane’s Addiction. No one else is awake. I climb out the back, through the garbled hatchback, and when I land in the cold water that is up to my waist, I feel my legs hurt. It doesn’t matter, I am trying to pull open the driver’s side door, then the passenger’s side door. The radio is still playing. A bottle of red wine, completely intact, slowly floats down the steel blue river beside me. I stop moving and watch it bob and float. My legs hurt.

My chest hurts, and trying to inhale the Marlboro light in the taxi makes me laugh, and that hurts too. I am in the back of a cab and the world is floating by and I am scared to be in this car. My bp drops in the waiting room and this causes massive excitement, I feel like I am in a movie, very exciting. It is my second time here over the summer, and this time I stay even longer. One doctor doesn’t believe I fractured my hip, I tell him to fuck off and check the x-rays. He never comes back. The hypothermia caused the pneumonia, but that doesn’t stop the barrage of smoking lectures that week. I drag my iv out on the patio to smoke. I cry the full seven days I am there. My friends visit and give me music to listen to, but I am horribly lonely at night here.

The next week I am back in my living room, on the couch. The visiting nurse people take back the bed with the metal crank on the right. I no longer believe I will live forever; I find grape juice disgusting. I talk to the guy from South Carolina on the phone. I remember him most from the accident. He kept telling me to stop shivering as we watched our friends get cut out of the car. I can’t, I tell him. And really I can’t, it’s dawn in July and the temperature is below fifty and to this day I have no idea how long I was in the water. He tells me over the phone that his best friend will never walk again. I tell him that my best friend is going to prison.

My new friends resume their visits and we sit on the bench outside as the leaves begin to tumble down. We talk about film and politics and the republican rants about how awful Leaving LasVegas was. The pain on my left side is constant for awhile, I am conscious of walking for awhile, I am conscious of sleeping on my side. I no longer believe I will live forever. I walk now wherever I go.

Katherine Schweitzer

Her Son, His Boy

He decided he would be the morning person since she was not inclined to fall out of bed easily. “He may be your son, but he’s my boy,” he said.

It wasn’t a light decision for her to move in together with him, but it had been less easy for her to raise a child for the past five years by herself.. The child’s father had left after seeing the test strip read: “pregnant.”

“I would have taken care of you when he was born. It wouldn’t have mattered that he wasn’t mine,” he said. “I wouldn’t have left you.”

“He is your boy,” she said.

He was true to his predawn commitment. When little boy feet touched down in the adjacent room, he’d roll out from under blankets and tuck them around her. She listened to the two talking in the kitchen and smelled bacon and eggs cooking. She’d stretch, roll over and wonder why he and his ex-wife never had children. Why he had gotten .a vasectomy. They never even owned a dog, he had told her when they first started dating.

He brought the boy’s mother a tray in bed on Sunday mornings. Toast. Coffee. The other finished products of their cooking. The boy always dove on the bed and he always told him to settle down, so as not to spill his mother’s food. There would be a few seconds of silence before the tray was set on the nightstand rather than her lap. The child squirmed close to his mother and he attacked them both. Out of breath laughter took hold of all three.

Sometimes, he took the boy fishing, or to the hardware store, or out for French fries. The two of them chopped down a pine tree once. He did the cutting. The boy yelled, “Timber!” And both carried the branches to be burned later for a marshmallow roast. They built a scarecrow, fixed the vacuum, and hung Christmas lights.

He kissed the boy’s splintered fingers and bandaged his scraped knees. He made the boy a club house. He bought the boy a puppy. He put cool mud on bee stings and cuddled him on his lap until the child fell asleep, then would carry him to his bed.

“I always knew I’d have me a boy,” he told her one night. The child was asleep and they were soon to follow. He tucked his head under her arm and draped his own across her waist.

“How come you never had any kids when you were married before?”

“The ex didn’t want them.” His bristled chin scratched her shoulder.

“You were cheated,” she said. A tear slid down her temple. She pretended she had an itch.

“I know.”

“So, that’s why the vasectomy?”

“No. I got myself fixed because my wife had an abortion.”

The mother wiped her face with a corner of the sheet, but it didn’t matter.

Matt Gamertsfelder

A Good Start

When the Mclellan Dam burst, the decades of strain from holding back Lake Dopler finally proving too much for the Depression era construct, it happened over the course of perhaps fifteen minutes. The flood waters enveloped all the houses in Millersburg to their first story before anyone had a chance to utter the word ‘evacuation.’ Even so, half of the townsfolk managed to escape with their lives and impending insurance claims. God was thanked, although curiously not blamed for allowing the dam to self-destruct in the first place. The sight of the bloated and discolored corpses of drowned fathers, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, wives and neighbors, birds perching on their abdomens and feasting on their cloudy eyes, severely dampened feelings of relief at having survived, images that would writhe wretchedly behind closed eyes for years to come. Amidst the chaos, a small incident took place involving two middle aged divorced men, Pete Dow, an accountant and Artie Palowski, a sheriff’s deputy, both lifelong residents of Millersburg.

Hanging drywall in the master bedroom of the fixer-upper the men had purchased on the east end of town when the flood hit, Pete and Artie were spared death from the initial rush of loosened water that filled the lungs of virtually everyone on the first floor of any building in Millersburg. To save money, the men lived in the houses they repaired to flip for profit, and so were fortunate to have Pete’s camping gear, which included a high quality inflatable rowboat and a battery operated air pump, in the house’s attic. In the time between the initial rush and the waters rising to immerse the house’s second floor, Pete and Artie got the raft inflated and out the attic window, with them in it, before the water reached much higher than their ankles. Past sunset by this time, and the flood waters having rendered the town void of artificial light, the men spent a long and cold night sandwiched between abyssal blackness above and icy waters below.

By daybreak, Pete and Artie found themselves drifting through what had once been downtown Millersburg, which they recognized by the marble pig statue that stood atop the corporate offices of the Cornfed Meat Company, the tallest building in town, and the only one with its roof still exposed. As they drifted nearer, they heard a faint yelling and saw a man on that roof hopping frantically up and down and waving his arms. Drifting still nearer, they saw him clearly: bald and weighing easily over three hundred pounds, his fine gray Italian suit sopping wet, the man was none other than Lawrence St. Pierre, Millersburg’s most successful divorce attorney, whose services each of their respective ex-wives had retained in their divorce proceedings, leaving Pete and Artie with virtually nothing except each other. As soon as they recognized him, each knew what had to be done. They paddled to the roof’s edge.

“Thank God,” burbled Lawrence, waddling over to them. “I thought no one would---” Artie stood up. “This is called karmic retribution, you fat piece of shit,” he said, removing his standard issue Taser from his duffel bag. He aimed and fired, sending one hundred fifty thousand volts coursing through St. Pierre’s corpulent body, allowing the pulses to continue one after the other until the fat lawyer lay unconscious. They pulled on the cable until his body rested at the roof’s edge then yanked the barbs from his flesh. Arties handcuffed Lawrence’s hands behind him. “Just in case he wakes up before he’s drowned all the way,” Artie said, and Pete nodded solemnly. Artie pushed off with the paddle while Pete grasped the lawyer’s suit jacket, all three hundred plus pounds of unmitigated malice plunging into the flood waters to drown along with so many of his clients and victims alike.

“One hundred ninety-nine short or not, I’ll call that a good start,” Pete said.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Dane Esposito

My son Dane, age 8, recently entered the world of horror fiction. It's a snappy little number he wrote just before Halloween.

--Frank Esposito


In the old west there was a ghost named Eric. He was wicked, and he would suck the souls out of people. He puts them in a soul jar. A boy named Geek Am I was playing with a yo-yo. Little did he know he would die in 13 seconds! Today was Friday the 13th. SWOOP! Eric was taking Geek Am I's soul!


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Marcia Stamer


Annie's Morning
Annie Observes
Play Date
Annie’s Morning

“Got your backpack, Annie?” Dad asks as he walks into Annie’s bedroom. “Time for us to go.”

“But how come you’re taking me to school instead of Mom?”

“Annie, we’ve been over this. Over and over.” Annie’s Dad pushes his hand through the top of his hair and messes it all up. Then he has to smooth it down again. “We are going to see Mr. Wills in his office. He has to talk to us before you can go back into Miss Evers’ class.”

“Well, what will he ask us about?”

“Annie, you know what he wants to know. And for that matter, so do I. Why did you do it?”

“Do what?”

“Annie! Why did you bite Miss Evers’ bottom at school yesterday?”

Annie only frowns and clumps down the stairs in her cowgirl boots. She had decided to wear these boots when she saw rain outside her window while she was getting dressed. She picks up her backpack by the door that leads into the garage and says, “Bye, Mom! See ya later.” She doesn’t wait for her mother to respond. She thinks that’s best.

In Mr. Wills’ office, Annie sees her teacher, Miss Evers, sitting on a blue chair that looks like a square. Mr. Wills, the principal, sits behind his big brown desk, and Annie can’t even see over the top of it. But Mr. Wills stands up when Annie and her dad come in after they knock and he shakes Dad’s hand. Dad sits down and Annie climbs onto his lap. Dad gently picks Annie up and sets her into another square chair. This one’s red. Annie slumps into a corner of the chair, her cowgirl boots with the red stitching poking up straight in front of her. Annie moves her feet in front of Mr. Wills, who sit directly across from her, so that she can’t see him.

Mr. Wills sighs as he looks at Miss Evers and Dad. Then he looks at Annie.

“Well, Annie, it is time for you to tell Miss Evers why you bit her yesterday. Then you must apologize too. I am sure you know it was not right to bite her.”

Annie looks down at her feet and wiggles them back and forth like the windshield wipers on Dad’s car this morning. The room is very quiet, and Annie sees her father scooting a little in his chair before he finally says, “Annie, you must tell us what on Earth made you do this.”

“Lottie told me to.”

“There’s no Lottie my class,” says Miss Evers. She looks at Annie, and Annie thinks that her whole face has changed into another face. It’s red and stretched tight like a rubber band.

“Lottie is Annie’s pretend friend, and Annie, you cannot use Lottie as an excuse again. We have talked about this,” Dad says.

Annie thinks about telling her dad that Lottie is real and is her sing along friend, but she decides not to.

“Annie, we are waiting for you to tell us the truth,” says Mr. Wills.

Annie notices that Mr. Wills looks very angry. She slides down in her chair, stiffens her legs and crosses one leg over the other. She opens her mouth wide and looks at the ceiling.

“Annie, stop it!” yells Dad. “She does this when she doesn’t want to cooperate,” Dad tells Mr. Wills. “She tries to pretend she can’t talk and makes her body look like her sister’s. I think you know our older daughter who has cerebral palsy.”

“Umm, yes,” says Mr. Wills. “Annie, please, right now…”

Annie sits up suddenly and says, “I’ll show you.” She reaches in her backpack and takes out a DVD. She puts it on Mr. Wills’ desk. It’s a DVD of the 101 Dalmatians movie, showing one of the puppies biting Cruella DeVil’s butt as she is bent over reaching for another puppy, an ugly sneer on her face.

It looks as if Mr. Wills’ face might change into another face too, but he swipes one hand across his mouth to stop the change, then says, “Annie, you go with Miss Evers to class now. Your dad and I will talk about a punishment for you after you leave.”

Annie looks at Miss Evers and says, “I really am sorry I bit you. The puppies were the good guys, and even though you aren’t a bad guy or a cartoon, I just thought I should bite you when you bent over to help Claire with her numbers.”

Miss Evers looks a little dazed and tells Annie that they will talk some more about this later. She shakes her head and sighs, and as they walk together to Miss Evers’ kindergarten class, Annie just hopes that there won’t be any scissors there that tell her to cut her hair today.
Annie Observes

Today I showed Mom the picture I drew at school. I told her all about the sky and the swing set and the trees and the gravel and where the gravel turns to grass and where Jeffrey threw up once. She said that I am very observant. So now I am going to be observant some more.

I went outside after I had a snack of Oreos and milk, and I looked at our house. Our house has red bricks with lots of tiny lines in them. I tried to count them, but I kept messing up. I kicked the house, but that hurt my toe and made marks on my shoe. So now I’m thinking about how the brick makers put all those lines there. I think they would have to use a thread like Mom has in her sewing basket and stretch it real tight between their hands and make the lines before they put the bricks in the oven.

After awhile, I decided I did enough observing of the bricks, so I looked around for something else to observe. While I was looking all over the yard, Mom’s friend Lisa drove up our driveway. Her mini-van is red. She got out of the van, and she was wearing a green shirt and light brownish colored pants with brown shoes. I might draw this later.

I like Lisa because she doesn’t talk to me like I’m a baby. She doesn’t talk to Jolee that way either. Lots of people we know and people at the grocery store too come up and talk to Jolee like she’s some kind of baby since she’s in a wheelchair. So I always tell them she’s not a baby because she is older than me.

Also, some people who talk to Jolee and me ask what’s wrong with her or say they are sorry she’s that way. No one ever asks me what’s wrong with me, even though Dad says sometimes, “What’s wrong with you?!” when I spill my milk at dinner or throw myself on the floor when my Legos break apart. Jolee doesn’t spill her milk because she can’t hold her cup and she can’t throw herself on the floor, and Dad never asks her what is wrong with her. So why would people who don’t even know her ask her that? Don’t they know she can’t talk and answer them anyway?

I followed Lisa into the house, and observed that there’s a straight line from the front door to the back door, only the kitchen table is in the way. I told Lisa that if she moved the table in the kitchen that I could run all the way from the front door to the back door without stopping. But Mom heard me and said, “No running in the house.” Mom always says that.
Play Date

Today Sarah came over to play in the morning, and Mom said she was going to eat lunch with us and play more after that. I never had a friend eat with me, and I was so excited. Mom asked what I wanted to have for lunch, and I changed my mind a million times. Finally I decided on make-it-ourselves pizza with bagels, sauce and cheese.

I waited and waited, and finally Sarah came to my house. I was so excited that I screamed and ran around talking fast, and Mom made me sit on the couch for a minute to catch my breath and told me that I must calm down if I wanted to start playing. So I just kicked my feet back and forth for awhile while Sarah stared at me, and then we both started to giggle.

“Girls!” said Mom. “Go play quietly, now.”

We went to my bedroom and Sarah said, “Hey, what’s this?” when she saw my bookcase with books and toys on it.

“This is where I play sometimes and this is where Jolee sits.” I pointed to the yellow bean bag chair.

“Can I sit in it too?”

“Yes, but if Mom brings Jolee in, she will have to sit there because she can’t sit anywhere else.”

“Where is Jolee?”

“She’s taking a nap on Mom and Dad’s bed.”

“Why doesn’t Jolee walk?”

“I don’t know. But everyone talks too much about walking when they are around Jolee. I wish she could talk and play toys with me. I would like that more.”

“Why doesn’t she? Doesn’t she want to talk?”

“I think she does want to, but sometimes she can’t even hold up her head.”

“Oh. Well, does she have teeth?”

“Of course she does, I think. Mom brushes them, so they have to be there.”

Sarah didn’t believe me, so we tiptoed quietly into Mom and Dad’s room to look, moving like Tom and Jerry on the cartoons when they are being sneaky. Jolee was asleep on the bed, so we climbed on beside her. Her mouth was a little bit open, so we pushed her lips back. Yuck, they were slimy, and I wiped my fingers on the blanket. But there they were, real teeth.

“Count them.” Sarah commanded.

“No, you do it, it was your idea.” Then Jolee woke up and her body jumped a little bit like when someone scares you in the dark. I thought she wasn’t going to tell on us, but then she looked at me and started to cry.

Then Mom called to us and asked what we were doing. Sarah said that I wanted to show her Jolee’s teeth, so I made her come in and look.

Now I’m mad at Sarah because she blamed it on me, and I don’t want to eat lunch with her. I knew I didn’t want her to come to my house.

Some Thoughts on Teaching a Writing Course

Some time ago I discovered that assignments could teach. If I could design a writing assignment that caused a learning writer to write in scenes or to focus first on character, I could stop talking once I had described the assignment. I designed such assignments, and they taught the learning writers more in the doing than any lecture or lesson or post-story criticism could have done.

That was interesting: start from the beginning rather than the end of the act of writing. Most of my experience in class had been with workshops where we wrote stories, turned them in, and then received critical commentary, often called constructive criticism. In these critical sessions we received correction on what we had not done and congratulations on what we had done.

These sessions became an art form in themselves, capable of teaching a great deal. Some of our fellow writers even became quite proud of their ability to provide critical commentary, rightly so. For someone like me who could not be stopped--at least not right away--the commentary provided some interesting discussion of writing that might well come into play on the next thing I wrote--rarely on the piece under discussion.

We tend to continue methods and lessons we learned from our best teachers and our favorite writers. But then I asked myself, what is it I most want to teach to learning writers? What do learning writers most need to learn? I had been reading books on writing and reading stories and novels with an eye then to what learning writers most needed to learn.

For example, John Gardner, in a generous paraphrase of E.M. Forster, said that plot is more than just one damn thing after another. He also said that every writer needs to learn how to create profluence, the ability to make readers want to turn pages and keep reading. You have to find a way to interest readers. That's natural enough, and clearly something every writer ought to know in their bones if not their heads.

Could I make an assignment that taught students, in the doing, that lesson? I thought probably so, and I tried it. Gardner also said the most basic plot is that someone desires something, goes after it, and gets it or doesn't get it. This creates profluence. Once we know what the character wants, we wonder whether or not he or she will get it. By the end of the story we should probably know this or know why. Further, we should have an idea of what it means, of what kind of loss or gain is involved in the getting or losing.

Kurt Vonnegut said that every character in a novel should want something, even if it's just a glass of water--if the world is to be whole and true. Desire and frustrated desire seemed to me a significant aspect of our lives. What we want and what we'll do to get it, and what will be done to us in the getting or losing. So I thought, here's the form of an assignment: Someone (a character) wants something, goes after it, and gets it or doesn't get it.

But that didn't cover all of the possibilities. What if the character decided not to go after it, that the prize was unattainable, wasn't that a story? And in any event, wasn't it possible that such a character might attain the desired object in spite of not going after it? Why should I want any learning writer to produce exactly the same form of desire? Isn't that what makes differences in characters, the very lifeblood of fiction--or one vein in the lifeblood?

What if the character got the desired object but discovered he didn't really want it, or she had mistaken what it would mean to possess it? So here's how the assignment was shaping up, more or less: Someone wants something, goes after it or does not go after it, attains it or does not attain it, and knows or does not know that he or she has attained the object.

That began to imitate the act of fiction as Gardner describes it: choices made along the way. Character is fate. Will the character take the meatball from the offered platter or not? But there are other aspects to the writing of fiction. Let's reduce this to absurdity and say that the character, a young man, wants a saxophone that sits in the window of a music shop. How do we convey the desirability of the object, or even the obvious lack of desirability?

What comes along with the sax? The color, the shape, the musical tone, the dent in the bell, and so on. Recordings of great saxophonists, the posture of those who play the saxophone under a spotlight on the stage, the lives and excesses of the sax world. All of these are part of the desirability and dangers of the saxophone, and the writer should at least think about these threads of imagery that might be strung through the story of the man who desired a sax.

But that's not quite enough yet, because there has to be a world for this character to inhabit, someplace he lives, his pad, his room, his apartment, his home, and this will tell us something of the nature of his desire. There must be space between his home and the music shop, and in that space there must be streets and sidewalks, dogs and people, and, most of all, there must be weather. There must be somewhere sun and moon, sky and cloud, tooth and nail.

Here is the assignment so far: Someone wants something. Goes after it or does not go after it. Gets it or does not get it. Knows it or does not know it. Be aware of all of the potential imagery, visual, aural, tactile, and so on, that comes out of the desired object, whatever it is. These should recieve some attention throughout the story, as if it were a ribbon threaded through the length. Let us know through what kind of weather the character moves, and something of the world in which he lives, including sun, moon, sky. An animal should make a brief appearance.

Is this too restricting? Not at all. In fact, as Richard Hugo says in The Triggering Town, such limitations distract the conscious mind long enouigh to allow the unconscious mind (Jung's theory at the heart of the operation) free reign. While the dog is chewing on the bone, the thief gets into the house. These limits and structural columns in the fiction actually help the learning writer to shape something that looks and feels like a story, that makes the reader turn the page, and engages our apetite for suspense.

What is the benefit of this? Nothing teaches a writer how to write a good story so much as writing one. Nothing benefits a learning writer more than having the direction on the front end of the story rather than after the fact. No sense of failure can be implied or imputed. Did you do the assignment? Yes, you did. All of the elements are there, and, moreover, it sings a little in the process. And furthermore, the assignment has left no mark on the story; no reader would know from what's on the page where it began--what Eudora Welty calls the jumping off place.

The release and confidence the assignment gives the writer reaches into language. Everything is better than what the learning writer could have accomplished before he or she began. At the end, no one needs to tell the writer to develop a plot, that the story lacks shape or life. The teacher is freed to be a studio art teacher: Look here, at this bit of sky, think you could accentuate that? How can we make this a better one of those? I like the bird chirping in that tree. There is no need for criticism that makes the writer feel a failure and wonder why he tried in the first place.

And in fact less criticism encourages the writer to think for himself or herself, and encourages the writer to reach once more into the void and pull out a story. On the down side, for some, there is no lording it over the learning writer. No one has the power over the writer's work but the writer. We don't say, now that you have written a story, I will tell you what is wrong with it. We say, look how that worked? Wasn't that fine?

This is essentially the process I followed in creating assignments. Another, for example, came from stumbling on Anne Beattie's "The Burning House," which is startlingly wonderful in the creation of a single evening, essentially one scene with a few rhythmic breaks. Weather comes in the door and through the radio. The world is breaking down even as it is beautifully depicted in its nature and context. And nothing is more important for a learning writer to learn than that the basic syntax of the language of fiction is the scene.

I don't have them read the story--at least not yet. I really don't like to be leading. Instead, I tell them to write a scene that takes place indoors. Three characters are involved in some activity. One of them is related to another though you shouldn't tell us how. You should just know it. During that activity, a fourth character arrives carrying or wearing something unusual.

Throughout this scene, the flow of time should be unbroken. One character may leave the room or scene or building, but we should continue with the main character in an unbroken movement of time. Though we are indoors, you should bring in the weather outside in some natural way. You may even take the main character and one other character outdoors in the same movement of time. Use one color three times, though you may vary the word or the hue.

This accomplishes something else the Beattie story demonstrates: how to handle more than one or two characters naturally, how to get them on and off the stage. The assignment doesn't follow the Beattie story strictly, but it uses some of the basic elements. I also add that someone should say something that surprises the main character, though you shouldn't point out that the main character is surprised except through some action, gesture, or response--and it should be subtle.

The learning writer sets out to accomplish this task and in the process learns or tries out what it is to make a scene, handle characters, and move through time and space. This is what I mean by the assignment teaching the learning writer, and, again, it doesn't require that we then tell a student that he needs to show, not tell, that she needs to write in scenes. It takes us at our word and shows rather than tells what this means.

I have seen that this works and that the writing of learning writers is better when you teach with the assignment rather than post-story criticism, which may have the unintended effect of teaching learning writers that what they do well is not as important as what they don't do well. And that the act of reading is essentially looking for mistakes. This approach tells the writer what kind of object they are making beforehand, and then looks to see how it works after.

I suppose one assumption from which I work is that it is better for a writer to be confident in his abilities and imagination than hesitant--though I am sure that there are those who think every speaker should be made to stutter. I'd like the learning writer to know the shape of the thing she's making. And I think it's important for the writer to depend more on himself for judgment than on me. That's what's necessary in a later stage, when you confront the bare page and start the story, knowing now what it is, and having been introduced to the language of fiction.

That's the idea of the studio teacher, and it's a good one.

Monday, November 10, 2008


Z, Darkness
B, a boy of 17, identified as the newly hired waitress no one had met Miss A, even as she stepped onto the path on which he walked at a distance of no more than 75 yards. B wore camp-issue tan t-shirt and shorts; new employee A wore a red summer dress, her shoulders bare, her honey hair swinging free.
Inconsequential people of various sizes and ages as well as trees in full foliage were strewn about. He could not at that moment see the small beach on the North end of the Chesapeake Bay down the hill to his left, nor the sun at his back, but took as articles of faith their existence. What became arranged in his mind as the only matters of consequence were 5 yellow cabins--C, D, E, F, and G--on the left side of the path on which she progressed toward him.
He calculated that if he B ran full speed behind points C, D, E, and broke out between points F and G, he would arrive at a point on the path X through which she passed in exactly 30 seconds, and counting. B's legs flew, moving past C, D, and E, leaning into the turn immediately after F, racing toward point X where he expected to see A approaching, at which moment he would be the very first to introduce himself and win a little bit of heaven in the good old summertime.
B had predicted the rate of travel for A precisely but had incompletely imagined a space of 15 feet between F and G in which had been planted, in some past period of stability, a concrete bench H equadistant between F and G. He recognized in a flash that his diagram had become ridiculously twisted.
His right shin, designated here B prime, leaped out at the instant B recognized this error, striking the wide, gray seat of H and breaking not only the progress of the body in motion but the skin, at the very least, of B prime. So abruptly did B strike H at B prime that he spun 3 times and dropped on his back in the center of the path on which oncoming A stepped over B with simple grace and the mincing words, "Excuse me."
Recumbant B remained in the path, which he now, far too late, designated Y. The region of B prime which had struck H began to bleed profusely. In that moment he understood how frail are all the plans and deeds of man. Still, but ever so briefly, in the mind of B there glowed a vision of A's tanned thighs stepping over him before all points collapsed into Z, darkness.


Matthew Meduri
Daniel Von Holten
Matt Gammertsfelder
Christopher Bair

Forget plot & character; focus on a principle of both elements: cause & effect. This must be written in third person, though you may have an ‘I’ narrator not present in the story. In order to do this right, imagine three very specific examples of cause and effect before you even start to write, preferably not at your screen or paper. In one, include a piece of machinery of any kind—machinery in the broadest sense. In another, an animal, but don’t have the animal mangled or hurt. Consider weather in one imagined series. Clear your head of the examples and sit down to write a precise, analytical cause and effect sequence. You may have from one to three people in the story, treated as people, as bodies in stasis or motion, and not as characters. Use one color consciously, at least once. But remember, it’s a story too—of a very unusual sort—at 500 or fewer words.

Matthew Meduri

The Woman

Rain again, autumn rain. Like on the day I met that woman for the last time, the day I started feeling nervous and skeptical about him. Before she and I met, I thought I might be in love with him. We understood each other and did what we wanted. I still don’t believe that woman. How could I? I don’t even really know her. I mean really know her. All that she said, everything she told me could be a lie, an utter and miserable lie.

Why? Why do I feel skeptic? What is my reasoning?

She must be delusional, the way she talked and talked. It started out pleasant; I met her in line for coffee. Somehow our petty chitchat turned in the direction of him. Maybe I mentioned I lived with someone, him. I can’t remember, but I think she directed it. She knew him from a past life, another place.

We planned to meet for coffee again at the same place another day. This time she talked about our commonality, about plans. Then she turned dark. First, it was a subtle hint. A hint turned into a remark, and a remark became a hate filled rant. I had nothing to say until I finally could take no more and I had to leave. She apologized defensively, saying it is what I needed to know about him. She freaked me out. I left trying not to think about any of what she said to me about him. How could I? It may not even be true. It wasn’t true. At least I don’t think it is.

The rain blurs the window, but I still see his empty parking space. I want to disregard what she said but it weighs too much on me. I want to tell him also that I met her and all the terrible things she said about him. But when I look at him walking around the apartment, smiling, or talking, I notice certain qualities about him. They slightly resemble something of what she said. It’s strange—and I’m acting strange. Well, it feels that way. I think he can tell that I know something, but he won’t say it. He couldn’t be capable of what she said he did. He is too sweet.

The woman’s voice has slowly left my thoughts unpleasant and unwanted. I need to tell someone about her but when I try to call a friend, I don’t mention a thing. It isn’t true and that woman is crazy. So why am I still skeptical?

Daniel Von Holten


Jim drank the last of his breakfast Guinness as he walked over the ice. There were only two hours of daylight this time of year and he planned to watch the sunrise from his favorite bluff. Those pussies in Anchorage don’t know how good they’ve got it. The money was good though; was good. He saved enough to say he won, but he wasn’t ready to head back to the lower forty-eight. Spent most of his last pay on booze and women and the next morning was left with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue and a tumbler from the bar. That was when he came up with his plan to hike to his bluff and drink it neat from sunup to sundown. Tumbler in his pocket and Johnny between his coats, he hiked four miles of tundra.

The cold couldn’t touch him; he was wrapped in arctic layers and alcohol. The Aurora glittered off the ice and snow. The world was one big disco ball and Jim stopped for a minute to do the robot.

On his bluff, Jim pulled back the flap that covered the watch face strapped to his coat. He had half an hour; Dawn fondled Aurora and Jim thought the light show was the sexiest damn thing he’d ever seen.

He brushed some snow off a boulder and gently set Johnny down in the surviving powder. He pulled off his outer gloves and mask and brushed the ice from his hood. Hell, it was going to warm up in a few minutes anyway. He pulled the tumbler from his coat pocket, shook out a paperclip and blew away lint. For good measure, he washed it with snow. The girls in the sky were really gettin’ into it.

Fine whiskey under a sky like this, he might never get to do this sort of thing again. Since the girls had already started, Jim opened Johnny and poured a drink that steamed in the still air. He lifted the glass in a cross between a toast and a prayer before tasting the best damn whiskey in the world. He noticed the wolf between his third and fourth sip.

It was alone, injured and just a sorry lookin’ excuse for a noble animal. There were no trees on the bluff or anywhere for over a mile; this one was on its own. People say wolves wander away on their own do die; he always wondered if that was why the Eskimos shoved off their old folks. It sat in the snow a stride away, looking for the sunrise over the ocean. They sat in silence for a moment and Jim finished his glass. He poured a second.

“Rekon you and I got something in common. See if you like this.” Jim sat in the snow and set the glass as close as he could to the wolf.

Curiosity made the wolf pull itself to the glass and it tasted the whiskey. Then it began to lap at it gently. Jim took a pull from the bottle. “Damn fine place to die, but may as well have a drink or two while you wait. I won’t bug ya.”

Jim drank from the bottle and refilled the glass once before the sun came up. They both let out a sigh and Jim raised the bottle to the sun as Dawn and Aurora ran off to play on the other side of the world. Jim and the wolf gradually moved closer as the sun pulled itself from the ocean. Jim was already getting warmer, so he took off his outer coat and set it over the scrawny wolf.

“No reason you should be cold either.”

Jim felt the sun wrap arms around him. He took the last swig of Johnny and he stretched out to bath in the light. Aurora and Dawn danced behind his eyelids.

Matt Gamertfelder

Roasted Peanuts

I liked to help people. Like when I was in seventh grade, and my social studies teacher, Mr. Heeney, couldn’t say the word peanuts; it came out as ‘penis.’ The other kids would really get a laugh out of that. They’d ask, ‘Mr. Heeney, what’s your favorite snack food?’ and he’d play right into their hands, replying, ‘I love salted penis.’ Or, ‘Mr. Heeney, do you like roasted almonds or roasted peanuts better?’ and he would say, ‘Well, I’m just crazy about roasted penis.’ Or, ‘Mr. Heeney, do you think the cafeteria should sell chocolate covered pretzels or chocolate covered peanuts?’, to which his response would invariably be, ‘Well, I don’t know about you kids, but fill me up with chocolate covered penis and I’m as happy as can be.’ About halfway through the year, I got sick of hearing the stupid joke everyday, so one day I stayed after class and told Mr. Heeney what was going on. He thanked me, and said that as far as the class was concerned, he would never touch ‘penis’ again. It only took about two days before the other kids realized they couldn’t get Mr. Heeney to talk about ‘penis’ butter sandwiches anymore, and they let it go. Even though I though Ohio history and government was about as interesting as watching mold grow on stale bread, I got an A in social studies that year.

I don’t know why I kept thinking about seventh grade social studies that Sunday, but it gave me one massive craving for some peanuts. We were having a windstorm, growing in intensity all through the afternoon and into the evening, probably shattering records for wind miles per hour left and right. That’s as close as you can get to a hurricane in Northeast Ohio, which is like comparing a paper cut to a stab wound, but for people used to having the wind do nothing worse than making it kind of hard to hear on a cell phone outside, it was bad enough. Branches were being ripped out of trees like grapes pulled off the vine by a horde of illegal Mexican immigrants, but without those catchy snatches of folksongs in Spanish, and in splotches across our corner of the state Mother Nature pounded the power grid into submission. At my house the electricity flickered on again, off again, a few minutes each way for an hour or two, then just a little after six the lights went out and stayed out. Due to the weather, it may not have been the best night to go out and about town, but I didn’t have anything better to do at home than watch candles burn down to pumpkin spice and French vanilla scented little nubs. And I wanted some damn peanuts.

My journey to Wal-Mart actually went off without a hitch. Since the sun had not yet set all the way, irregular illumination from streetlights proved no obstacle, and I was genuinely proud of my fellow drivers for maintaining harmony on the roads even though every other traffic light hung dark and useless above its intersection. Power still shone brightly inside the megalithic temple of capitalism, but the Massillon Wal-Mart Super center’s parking lot was as devoid of artificial light as the primeval night.

I found the peanuts easily enough, in the snack foods aisle with the chocolate chip cookies and Ritz crackers and Wheat Thins and saltines. Call it whatever you like, serendipity or my attunement with the cosmic forces of Good or what have you, but on the way to the front of the store to check out, I walked past the hunting and sporting goods section, and I saw a man there. Pretty nondescript really, dark hair, black leather jacket, blue jeans, Nike tennis shoes. His gloves probably drew my attention more than anything else, knit gloves, blazing neon orange like the cones you drive through for the BMV maneuverability test, with tiny black rubber nodules on the palm sides for added gripping capability, hunter’s gloves. This man was a hunter, a predator, and from the way he eyed those knives, I knew he was up to no good. He made his selection, a bowie knife, eight inches long and an inch and a half wide. An associate opened the case for him and the predator walked toward the front of the store. I followed him. He bought the knife and a pack of Marlboro Lights, and after I paid for my peanuts I followed him outside, ten steps or so behind.

Well away from the storefront, he pulled a black ski mask out of his jacket pocket and removed the knife from its plastic blister card, which he threw on the ground. The wind, still howling, covered up the sound of my footfalls. No power meant no security cameras as well as no lights, and slipping the mask over his head, this predator clearly meant to find prey there in the parking lot. Then I saw his intended target: a pretty girl, early twenties, shoulder length blond hair pulled into a loose tail, wearing a gray cardigan over a red and yellow sundress, fiddling with grocery bags in the trunk of an inky blue late nineties Chevy Cavalier. The hunter readied his knife as he crept behind her, his tennis shoes seemingly replaced with cat’s paws for all the noise he made. He held the knife point at the small of her back.

“No screaming, missy, or I’ll stick you,” he said.

“Please don’t hurt me. I’ll give you anything you want,” she said, trembling with fear. The predator chuckled at that, and placed his other hand on the woman’s ass.

“You’re damn right you will, bitch. And if you do a real good job, I just might not hurt you.” His voice dripped menace like a cobra’s fangs drip venom, before it delivers the death strike.

Channeling the second string pitcher I had once been, I threw the jar of peanuts at the back of the hunter’s skull with all the force I could muster. It shattered, sending showers of honey roasted peanuts all over the asphalt, and he dropped like a stone down a well. The woman screamed, and I ran to her.

“Miss, are you alright?” I asked, putting a hand on each shoulder. That’s when she blasted me in the face with pepper spray. If the devil himself poked you in the eyes with his pitchfork, it wouldn’t hurt that much. I tripped on the peanuts and fell, joining the predator on the ground writhing in agony.

“You asshole!” she said. “He’s my boyfriend; we’re acting out my abduction and rape fantasy.” She landed a kick in my groin that made my own nuts feel pretty roasted. “You should mind your own fucking business. Come on, baby,” the woman said, helping her boyfriend off the ground, “Let’s get you home.” I’m not so big on helping people any more.

Christopher Bair

Over the Airwaves in Anchorage

I was a person before.

I was as normal as anyone else could tell. I was a newlywed, myhusband my best friend since high school. We loved the open road.Started our own company just to haul goods from Washington to Alaska.Such beauty out on these roads.

The tales you hear about the Yukon Butcher are true. Horrifying.Anyone who tells you they’re wrong just don’t want to believe that suchan animal could be human.

They’re right. They just don’t broaden their horizons.

I’m alone, if anyone’s listening. This route wears on you when you’realone. It’s unbearable, you know? Like a missing arm that tingles andwants you to itch it, but it’s just not there anymore.

Kodiak Blue to Ragdoll Express, I read you coming up. There’s apulloff in two miles. I need to hit the head, but I’m game. Meet mebehind the building and we’ll see where things go. Out.

The full moon never hides around me anymore. Even with clouds, sleet,snow, whatever nature tries to throw at me on my time to shine, Lunamakes sure I know she’s watching.

The truckers got wise and avoided night stops at the rest areas wherethe Yukon Butcher’s hit in the past. I wish I had known when I lost myhusband years ago. But I grew wise as well.

This rest area is new to me. Well lit parking lot, it appears. Butplenty of cover of darkness in the back.

The beast should appreciate the work I put into making it happy. Afterall, it helps me cope with these long journeys.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What Makes Short Short Fiction Tick?

Mike Geiger:
…What short short stories have in common is that they all have something absent, causing us to read the subtext. Since the story is so short, it forces open interpretation over the backstory. Yet a proper short short never makes us feel like we are missing something. At the end of [Pamela Painter’s] “The New Year,” the narrator takes one last picture of the ham as it floats out to the Pacific and says, “In this picture, you can’t tell which of us is missing.” We are simply left to assume what is missing.
Faith Wally:

From one Micro Short entitled “Last Supper in the Cabinet Mountains," a three paragraph long story, I found these [verbs]: read, broke, passed, poured, rummaged, dragging, smudged, leaned, starting, watched, eat, drink, ate, drank, raised, glanced, tangle, dripped, screeched, broke, understood, bleed, trickle, looked, gave, scratched, carried, wadded, buried, say, knocked, sprawled, clutching, flew. And hell, I probably missed a few...
Matt Gammertsfelder:

Functionally, I believe a short-short story is similar to a joke; both are told by one person to another for their mutual enjoyment. The ultimate success or failure of a joke depends on its punch line, the end, the culmination of the telling. Similarly, a short-short story’s effectiveness and enjoyableness depends on its final sentence. Each spends the entirety of itself building toward this conclusion, thus the conclusion is the reason for its existence.
Sharon Cebula:

These laser-cut moments are like memories, slices of time preserved in a synapse. Like borrowing a pen and suddenly remembering a childhood crush, not realizing the smell of the ink has triggered it. Linda Brewer drops us into the moment of “20/20” by leading with an assumption of lapsed time: “By the time they reached Indiana, Bill realized that Ruthie, his driving companion, was incapable of theoretical debate.” From this one sentence, we already know a great deal about the setting and the two main characters.
Rosie Heindel:

When I write short pieces, I write as though I am recording a dream. I don’t think about elements of the craft because it is all new to me. I just put down what comes out and hope that it is good. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I begin. Many times, I get sucked into my created world and get really irritated when I have to come back to reality. When I edit, I look mostly at trying to make the language sound good. I tend to have a wild pace, but I don’t do it on purpose. That’s just how they come out. I enjoy writing these pieces so much. They’re like drinking a hot cup of cocoa by the fire on a cold snowy day. They make me feel warm and gratified.
Beth Mandl:

Short short fiction has come to remind me of the core of a cabbage. When I was a kid my dad would make a Yugoslavian dish called valushkas. One of its main ingredients was cabbage and us kids would flock around his legs when he was cleaning the cabbage so we could get dibs on the core. In our years of culinary experience we had decided that the core of the cabbage was the piece de resistance and many a fight was waged over it. So why do I think short short fiction is like that core? Ok, here it goes: think of the head of cabbage as a short short fiction. It has a beginning and an end, character development and loads of backstory. Now, with each piece of cabbage that you tear away you arte making the story shorter and shorter until all you have left is the core. The best part...
Brittany Muffet:

…[Some] microfictions feature an event as the most crucial element; if characters inform scenes presented, the characters serve as dimensions of the landscape, atmosphere, or state of the on goings. In Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “Kennedy in the Barrio,” the narrator describes the implications Kennedy’s presidency had on a Puerto Rican community. The narrator recalls, “Two years and ten months later I would run to Puerto Habana on a cold Friday afternoon to find a crowd of people around a television set. Many of them, men and women both, were sobbing like children. ‘Dios mio, Dios mio,’ they kept wailing.” Not the narrator’s, but the community’s response to the president’s assassination impacts the reader. The narrator serves as a lens through which the reader views the event, much as the television is the object through which the crowd confronts a life-changing reality. In essence, the news on the television screen consumes the crowd, the narrator, and the reader alike as the images on it depict a tragedy that resists additional dialog.
Katherine Schweitzer-Carney:

Sound creates flow like water passing through a river bed. Sometimes it flows smooth between the banks. Other times it must pass over a boulder in its path, or maybe even around a downed tree. The point is water has to flow just the same and to the same place. The same end.
As writers, we must reach that same end, as well, and it is up to us individually to decide how we are getting there while keeping the flow steady.
So what’s the moral of this short-short on words? It’s simple: Each and every word must matter. If this isn’t happening, hit delete and try again.
Chris Bair:

In Heinrich Boll’s “The Laugher,” the economy in the story is that the character himself becomes both the story and the plot. How much is known about him besides the work he does and how people see him? Yet these are vital parts of the story to explain the dreadfully unfunny life of a professional laugher. There’s no reason to show examples of his laughing abilities—the story does well with its device of glancing over the types of jobs he has held as a professional laugher. There’s little reason to explore more of how the character came to be a laugher, or someone getting him to laugh on his own.
The economical nature of the story combines plot and story into the character and designs the tale around an interesting man’s profession. This would be impossible to hold in any longer work without padding the yarn with examples of his job, more of his early life and perhaps interaction with someone with a normal job on how much he really envies it, rather than simply telling the reader he does.
Jimmy Bigley:

No author is ever like any other author. We just write! Some are better at describing a certain event and yet others are better at character development, while still others are good doing both. The size of the story doesn’t really have a bearing on the depth of the tale as long as the author can restrict his language in a way that strengthens the flow of the story.

Matthew Meduri:
…There is an immediacy we are faced with given the confines of this [snapshot] approach that grounds us in the story. The plot is so small or even nonexistent that we do not necessarily read to find out what will happen next. We read to know more of the character’s thoughts and feelings. Hopefully, each one of these types of stories will give us something to consider when we are through. This calls for a theme, an idea, or an image that will linger in our minds. This is salient in the mind of the narrator as well. It allows us to possibly contemplate something of greater meaning and even call for repeated reading.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

New Story Challenge: Reverse and Back

Start to tell a story. Get into it with a paragraph or two, depending on your paragraphs, and interrupt it with a necessary background story. Tell that story. Return and finish the original incident. You do not have to announce you are telling a second story inside the first. You may blend it naturally. The limit is 500 words.


The Tailor’s Wife

An aged tailor who lived in three small rooms above his shop had what passed for most visitors as a simple life. Everyday he went downstairs to his work and a grown son at the table waiting for him. One afternoon, he saw a shadow fall across floor.

The tailor had once married and had fathered his son, for several years knowing a little of what passes here for happiness. But his wife began to lose her senses. She screamed all through the night, and eventually, into the day. Even when she slept an hour or two they heard her whimpering and whining. He and the boy had moved into another room.

One morning, working in the shop, his son tethered by an ankle to his chair, all screaming ceased. He paused. Hope kindled in his breast as silence flowed downstairs and pooled around the man and the boy, who watched his father with keen interest. But when his son had moved his mouth, he heard no sound. That evening as he led the boy upstairs to give him soup, he looked into her room to see that nothing there had changed.

The blessing of his deafness gave him peace for years, and when he saw her shadow fall across the floor, he looked up to see how she had aged. The boy looked up as well, for he now shared his father’s work. They watched in silence as she shuffled past them, out the door, without a backward glance.

A little bell gave off a ding. The door swung shut behind her.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Marcia Stamer


Someone oughta come soon. I can’t stop pacing while I wait. Back to the dining room window to look down the street, then into the front hall to listen again. I haven’t heard anything, either. No sound at all. No sounds of Mom moving around in her bedroom. Nothing. My stomach suddenly rises up like when I start the steep descent of a roller coaster while at the same time I feel a poke of pressure in my head that makes me dizzy for a moment.

I wonder how normal people live. What do normal people do after the porch light goes out on Halloween Night? Do they sigh in their fatigue after serving candy to the little kids who are too much in awe to say “Trick-or-Treat”? Are they mildly disgruntled at the bigger kids who are in such a hurry that they shove their bags and pillowcases forward for their treats, then run on without a thank you? How would I ever know about anything like that?

I did what the counselor told me to do. I called 911 when she threatened. No matter it was herself she threatened with violence, not me. The counselor told me that her threats were the way she manipulated and controlled me. When he said that, I thought about how I could never have figured that out myself.

I can’t believe that I am thinking of all this stuff when I don’t know what she’s doing in that bedroom. But it’s still quiet. I’m afraid to call to her or try to open her door. I’m afraid of what I might see. Still, there’s been no noise.

Sharon Cebula

The Beauties of Albion County

Yep, that’s really me, with Mary Ellen, a long time ago. You never met her; she died too young. We was quite a pair: the Beauties of Albion County. That was before the war, before the sickness, before yer pop was ever born. She had a real spark in her eye those days. You wouldn’t know it to look at me now, but we was hell-raisers. We ran all over the place, all hours; Nannie could never keep track of us. She’d holler and warn us about Hell. Nothin’ kep’ us home. We ran around with the boys mostly, though once in a while there’d be girls, brave ones or angry, with daddies like old man Jessup who drank too much or tried to touch ‘em. Or brothers who did. We walked the railroad tracks, sometimes all night, sometimes all the way out to Indiana, and we’d ride the B&O back, the express from Chicago. We’d hide and wait ‘til the bulls did their checkin’. Then, just as the wheels started turnin’ and there was steam to cover us, we’d run up and jump in the car. Rainny was usually first, he was fearless and stronger than the other boys. He’d give me a hand up: I was always ready to jump before the other girls, always wanted to go first like the boys. That’s prob’ly why they liked me so much: I was fast like a boy. Mary Ellen waited and helped the weaker ones afore she’d go up. One time she almost didn’t make it, had to run flat out and Rainny almost fell reaching for her pale, thin arms. I think that’s why she married him. Well, that and the baby.

It was awful watching the light go out of those big, beautiful, dark eyes. I never could bring myself to tell her the truth about Rainny and me, not even when I knew he was hittin’ her. Specially not after Johnny ran off. I think he guessed and that’s why he run off. It was such an awful mess. It was just easier to push it away as the years went by; I never really wanted think about it myself. And what good would it have done? How could I look into those scared eyes, my sister’s eyes, already fadin’, already full of loss and pain and hurt her like that? It was just a stupid, dumb mistake. I didn’t even want to, really, but he was a lot bigger’n me an’, well, how could I of stopped him?

We was so close before. And after I jus’ couldn’t really look at her the same. We had no idea how long life is, how long and hard. We took off our shoes and stockins and waited at the edge of the river while the boys skinny dipped.

That’s the only picture I have left of her now. Yesseree, we was the Beauties of Albion County.

Rosie Heindel


I got eight hours of sleep every night, back then. When I came home, ghosts didn’t follow me. I rarely got a headache. Loneliness didn’t touch me.

I remember that night Paul and I went to the U2 concert, my ultimate favorite band. He waited in line five hours and spent three hundred dollars on the tickets. On our anniversary he made me go on a scavenger hunt through the house to find them. He hid little love notes leading to the sugar canister, where he buried the tickets. I made such a mess getting them out.

We sat, stood— no jumped, hollered, rocked, sang, six rows back from the stage. About halfway through the performance Paul lost his excitement and just stood there stiff as a board. I looked at his pale face and asked him what the matter was. He feigned a smile. ‘Oh, nothing.’ I searched him for a clue. A red stream poured down his shin from a catastrophic jump into the seat in front of us. Pushing through the crowd, I nearly knocked a woman out. She would have punched me had she not noticed the blood oozing from Paul’s leg. After about twenty minutes of searching we finally found a security guard. He offered to get an ambulance, but Paul refused. The guard escorted us to our car.

Thankfully, it only took us ten minutes to drive to the hospital. I thought he would die from hemorrhaging. They got him in with surprising speed. When they cleaned the wound, he only winced once. The rest of the time he cracked jokes with the doctors. He held my hand to comfort me the entire time. We didn’t get home until four in the morning.

The next day we slept in until two, but we made love and laughed and reminisced in bed until dinnertime. After rummaging through empty cupboards, we ordered Chinese takeout. We snickered at Paul’s fortune, which read, ‘troublesome days are at hand, but happier ones are to come.’

Paul didn’t go back to get the wound checked on. He smiled and ruffled my hair when he noticed me eying it one day. ‘It’s barely a scratch,’ he said. He removed the stitches himself. When the wound swelled and turned a greenish tone, I begged him to go to the doctor. Purple, black, grey and green seeped around his lower leg. He found that he could no longer walk the way he used to. One day he passed out and his co-workers took him in to the hospital. By then the doctors couldn’t do anything about the leg.

He refused to see me when I came to visit. No one knows when he left. When the nurse made her night rounds she came upon an empty bed. I still wait for him to come home.

Mike Geiger

The Human Orphanage

when day starts to fade into yellow and god is smiling but hes frowning because thats the only thing he could be doing when he gives up there is no reason why he would other than carelessness and he knows he knows

when i first showed up here i was sad and i still am i dont think ill ever get it

the day starts to fade to orange and everything burns like fall in february and i once made a snowman out of flour

it was june and our father told me and my brothers to play outside in the snow even though it was 80 degrees outside he smelled like whiskey but he just said go play outside in the snow so we went outside and started to play tag but he came out with the punishment stick and said why arent you playing in the snow if i come back out here again then youre gonna get it even worse and i was crying but joey was brave

he went into the garage and got some flour that was sitting there and we made a snowman and our father just looked out and yelled at us that it wasnt good enough

it was the best we could do

i am a good kid ive done what i could to help people ive been good in school nice and paid attention and was always nice to animals whether they were cats or spiders even though i dont like spiders they have a right to walk around just like cats but it doesnt matter how nice i am i try to help people and help people but im not going to anymore because no one wants to help me in return they only want to take like how he took my mom when I was only 5 why would he do that i was only 5 and she was only living her life like a good person

i dont know much but i know that if i ever see him i will show him because it doesnt matter if youre a person or a cat or a spider you have a right to walk around and if you dont think so you shoudnt be in charge and someone has to tell you that because it just isnt right
the day starts to fade to red its very red but for very short

when i first showed up here i was sad and then the warden told me everyone feels this way

i didnt get it then but i get it now

and it goes purple and blue and in a matter of seconds day will stop being day

i cant know exactly when it stops being day but i know it will soon and then

then i will show him

along with everyone else here in the orphanage.

Katherine Schweitzer-Carney

Toxic Relationships

My father did as he saw fit with his daughters. Mom saw it fit to look away. She saw it fit, too, to send me off with a thirty-two year-old pedophile when I was sixteen. Since then, she’s seen it fit to blame me if I call her out on what she did and didn’t do.

I tried to make the best of it. Tried to make him love me. But he screwed the windows shut and took the knob out of the bedroom door. When it was shut, it was shut. He had a hook and latch on the outer side with a combination lock like the one I used to have on my school locker. He didn’t use this all the time though and I enjoyed the company of the dogs. But he broke the Belgian Sheepdog’s back when he got mad at me. Threw it into the wall and killed it. Some time later, when the German Shepherd died, (his favorite dog), he saved its body in an old Pinto out back until the neighbor’s started complaining of a stench. I had to help him bury its blue, bloated body.

I escaped on Tuesday, October twenty-fourth. he forgot to key lock the bolts on the front door. He stalked me for thirteen years.

I usually tell people the stalking is what ended my relationship with Tim even though it isn’t the truth. I mean, how can I possibly explain that clean vacuum lines were expected in the carpet at all times and all the dishes had to be lined up with perfect spacing like soldiers at attention? How can I explain letting Tim pimp me out for his sexual gratification then handing him any monies I made followed by him doing as he saw fit with me as well? Me, taking on my mother’s role of silence about the matter?

I don’t explain the competing stalker I obtained in the form of an alcoholic truck driver after time, either--the one with anger management issues. He was the easiest to escape. All mouth both when he said he loved me and when the other side of his personality cut loose.

So, I took up gardening. Yard work is good for the mind they say. It was true for me once I found the right antihistamine and decongestant combination. Gotta watch the bees, though. I keep an epipen shot just in case.

I told my nineteen year-old cat once that if God decided animals could start talking I’d have to shoot him because he knew too much. The boy just purred and snuggled closer to my chest, pushing his little head backward into my neck. He loves me no matter what kind of mood I’m in and I have cream for the hives and some nose spray to keep me from sneezing. I don’t mind using my inhaler, either. It’s not like he’s going to kill me.

Friday, October 24, 2008


Window Man

I never had the trouble with my heart. I had a way about me, what they call a Joe Deliver, on top of it all the time, ready to go. Made me a piece of change doing work no one had the guts for. High rise windows, never thought about it, just climbed on the scaffold, down I went. Had me a wind, meant nothing to me—solid as a rock, working the big squeegee.

Then one day, out of the blue, this sweet little breeze blowing, I don’t know what happened. I’m flying, like a piece of nothing. Don't know what happened, where I was. One minute doing my job, next spread-eagle in the air, not thinking, just this, this thing. Then bang, flat on my back! Shoots through my chest and head and legs, and I’m not breathing. What am I? All I saw: flat gray nothing, and it’s ringing, loud. I remember this bird, a dirty sea gull, flapping through the gray, like to drive you crazy. It went on and on. I remember it, if it was there or not.

But somewhere in my head, where it’s not ringing, I must have seen the scaffold blowing loose up there. I see it clear enough now, one end smashed through a window. I didn’t know who I was for a week, not that I’m complaining. I wouldn’t give a nickel to been awake. I wake up nights screaming. Not calling out or nothing, screaming. I’m there, I’m nothing. I’m floating, I’m flying, and I’m nothing, dirt in the wind. Sometimes, it’s like I died, and this here is a dream. Or I’m a ghost.

Elaine, she sleeps in the living room. She’s a good fellow to stay, I know that, drives me if I need to be driven—otherwise, the bus, like you. One minute, solid as a rock, working the squeegee, next spread-eagle in the air, like something God threw away. I can’t get over that. That’s why I come here, back here: get the head on straight. Get a little something for the head.

I got to get over that, but I’m thinking, maybe that’s not something you get over. Hit the wall before I hit the dirt, that’s what they say—can’t prove it by me. Maybe that saved me. Doc says so. I survived is what he means. Now I’ve got to deal with it—my problem in a nutshell. I don’t feel saved is what I’m saying. You can take that to the bank. See if it pays you any interest.

What I was before this happened: without this. I had none of this.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Matthew Meduri

Rope Mending in the 21st Century

Milton the rope mender had no work. It was the twenty first century and repairing rope was a thing of the past. It cost about the same for a man to replace the rope altogether than mend portions of it. He was not as fortunate as some of the other men of his trade who were hired by the government to repair rope, mostly navy based. But like them, it was all he knew. His father was a rope mender, and his father’s father was a rope mender, though both deceased. If he knew his genealogy well enough, he might trace back his ancestors to being rope makers.

Now, for Milton, it was not just a mere job but an art form and a contribution to society. He looked at rope as the final product made up of simple strands that gave it complexity much like quarks give protons or protons give atoms and so on. He was creating and sculpting something durable that would serve mankind for years to come. But given the quality of today and the synthetic materials that were cheaply mass-produced, his work was impractical. He was a tradesman with no trade, and artist with no art form.

Milton had no family. His only obligations were the rent and food. Both were difficult to manage without wages, so he put his nimble mind to work. He had several different grades of rope left to him by his father: thin and black, thick and white, and hemp.

Pull. Cut. Unravel.

His imagination directed his nimble fingers in the task of weaving and twisting the different strands of rope together. Bracelets. He made as many as the night and early morning and his body would allow, finally falling asleep atop a pile of rope ringlets.

When he woke at noon the next day, he put most of the bracelets he made into a large, cardboard box. Struggling to carry the flimsy box, Milton walked to the center of town near the bars and the small stage. He saw the Wiccan women in front of the bar selling her scented oils, charms, and jewelry and continued a little farther so not to intrude upon her territory. If she could sell what she made, so could he.

People passed Milton on the street and only few bought his bracelets. Maybe he charged too much. Seven dollars. Maybe he should say they are earth friendly. A young man with a beard and old clothes asked how much for a bracelet. Five dollars. The man asked for two and Milton said they were earth friendly.

“I have some earth friendly friends, man who would like what you’re selling. Bring yourself and your box to the field next to the old bridge. We’re having a party tonight for the meteor shower. You’ll probably sell them all.” The man said thanks and goodbye.

Milton took all the bracelets and placed them in the box. Heavier than he thought. He walked clumsily through town continually shuffling the box to get a firm grip. Cars blared loud music. Yellow. Red. Milton crossed the street. The car did not stop. Little rope ringlets scattered on the street and Milton’s body was flung thirty feet. No one could mend Milton, at least not in the twenty first century.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Rosie Heindel


“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Horne Lake Provincial Park. My name is Bill. I’ll be your guide this afternoon.” He paused, glancing at me. “This is the five hour Extreme Rappel expedition. The next ninety minute family tour meets just outside the visitor center in thirty minutes.” He looked around at the other five spelunkers, but he intended the comment for me. I stood tall and proud and jiggled my harness against my twinky layered behind. He raised his eyebrows and went on to tell us a few safety precautions.

We left for the caves. The air smelled like laundry after sitting damp in the washer for a few days mixed with pennies. Turning my head I revealed with the light on my helmet knotted stalagmites of many sizes staggered all across the floor and roof of the cool damp cave. I could feel the water gathering minerals and pulling them down to elongate the cave sculptures. Drip.

One long twisted one coming up from the floor reminded me of my old decrepit Uncle Earl. The long skinny portion at the top mushroomed just before it ended. It made me think of that strange hat he always used to wear. The beret had a funny point at the end that used to really annoy me. Just thinking about it got me irritated again. I remembered all those jokes that Uncle Earl made just before he died two years ago. Dementia is no excuse for a man to tell his beloved niece that she looked like a high-maintenance poodle mixed with a whale on acid. What’s that supposed to mean anyway? Anger burned.

I pulled out my rock hammer from my harness and smashed the head of the formation off. I stomped on it. Then I felt something warm trickling down my leg. I felt my cheeks get hot as I remembered the doctor’s advice about not allowing myself to get worked up. It’s normal for women my age to have stress related incontinence, but that didn’t ease the embarrassment. No one will notice, I hoped.

When I finished my little rampage, I looked up to see only darkness. Where did the rest of the group go? “Hello?” I shouted. “Can anybody hear me?” I stumbled forward. My heavy body felt stiff and cumbersome. Water droplets fell from the roof and rolled down my helmet. Drip.

I searched. I yelled. I cried. I pleaded. I received no answer, but the sound of water droplets falling methodically down. Drip.

I followed several passages searching, hoping. I had a few close calls. Once I unknowingly stepped onto the edge of an abyss. I lost my footing and nearly went down. I grabbed onto the fat base of a stalagmite just in time. I wished I had a rope to clip my carabineer to. I didn’t know I had so much strength, but when it’s a matter of life or splat, vigor comes out of surprising places.

Who knows how long I wandered; long enough for the flashlight on my helmet to burn out. My eyes would never see light again. I never did get used to the dark. I could feel the twinkies slowly disappearing. Uncle Earl had his revenge. I lifted my head, stuck out my tongue, and allowed the majestic stalagmites to drip their excess to satisfy my thirst. My feet became immobile. My hands grew cold. My body hardened. The minerals built up on my outstretched tongue. Drip.

Katherine Schweitzer-Carney

Cactus Carpenter

Jesus Gonzalez lived quiet in the border village of Cactus Hollow. But then again, the village was quiet and its colors were quiet--a scattering of small homes and businesses of pastel hues nestled amongst dirty white sand and parched foliage.

Jesus had worked as a carpenter there, having learned the trade from his father he told Billy Bob Mullins one day, adding that his name was pronounced “Hay-Zeus” not “Gee-zus”. His mother, Jesus told Billy Bob, “was a saint,” and that Billy Bob should always respect and love his own. That’s likely why the carpenter spent several afternoons making an oak picture frame with detailed carvings for the boy to give his mother.

A few of the townspeople thought Jesus to be a tad mentally disturbed, working with only hand tools and having no electricity running to his home which was the same building as his shop. They brushed off their reservations, though, because many in their village were poor—that and Billy Bob’s mother showed everyone the beautiful craftsmanship of the gift. It was big city art gallery in quality, not small town in a desert.

No one in Cactus Hollow knew much about, or cared as to what the INS was until the day some suit-wearing strangers showed up in their town driving a dark car. They parked outside Sheriff Gomer’s office. “We aint got no detaining facility,” some heard the sheriff tell the pair as they began walking down the road towards the carpenter’s shop. “Aint no need for that sort of stuff here. Aint nobody a problem.”

The INS strangers didn’t listen, but the rest of Cactus Hollow heard and came out into the street from homes and small shops. Dusty men and women in denim and boots along with their sandy –haired children watched as Jesus Gonzalez was awkwardly dragged from his shop in handcuffs.

“I’m Jesus! I’m Jesus!” he hollered.

“We know Mr. Gonzalez,” said one man grasping the carpenter’s elbow

“And, I’m the Virgin Mary,” said the other escort.

The carpenter planted his feet and spat at the head of the second.

“Did you see that, Mamma?” Billy Bob said. Mother and son watched from across the street. The woman didn’t respond, but stood with her eyes glued to the sky over top of Jesus Gonzalez’s shop. Dark clouds were rising.

“Go inside! Away!” the carpenter called out to the scattered townspeople. Strong winds began whipping through the street, turning tumbleweeds into weapons and they listened. The strangers jerked him forward. People ducked in buildings. And the sky opened up like a dropped sack of coins.

“What the…” one of the suited men began to ask turning towards the other. A quarter had imbedded itself deep into his skull. The other fell shortly after, copper and silver coins flecking him with shrapnel.

Coins clinked off tin roofs and pelted windows for eight minutes straight. Two inches of change and two dead men were left in the storm’s wake. Aside from this, the streets of Cactus Hollow were empty and quiet again. Billy Bob scooped up as many coins as he could, putting them in his shirt knotted up like a sack.

About Me

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I write short stories and essays. I have published over seventy stories and essays in magazines, as well as a novel, Jack's Universe, and a collection of stories, Private Acts. I grew up in a military family, so I'm not from anywhere in particular except probably Akron, where I've lived for forty years. Before I came here, I never lived anywhere longer than three years.