Ray Nessly Reviews Crossing the Lines

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As he demonstrates in his outstanding story collection, Crossing the Lines, Tony Press is a keen observer of humankind. Perhaps it’s due to the Buddhist path that he follows, but as almost all reviewers point out, in so many words, Press’s stories have heart, they reveal us for what we are, they remind us of the lessons of life. And they do so subtly, in a masterful but also entertaining way. The 32 stories range from a single page to about twelve pages in length, but most of them weigh in at about four, five pages. These are flash fictions of the compressed, short-story kind, you might say—with beginnings, middles, and ends, as opposed to stories that come and go in a flash—impressionist, employing poetic techniques. They take place mostly in the U.S. (various locations), with several in Mexico and Spain. Some take place in present day, others during the 1960s, and a few are historical.

I have many favorites in this collection. Among them: “Take Me to Your Heart,” “A Nica in Blighty,” “Always Another Straw,” “Pancakes,” “At Last,” and “Hunger.” There’s a special place in my memory though for three of these stories. In “The Viper’s Smile,” a writer on retreat in Spain finds himself trapped in his cabin with a lethally poisonous viper. Given his predicament, the first-person narrator’s tone is admiringly restrained, adding to the story’s black humor. Take the story’s understated, opening line: “With the exception of the viper on the floor, it looked to be a beautiful morning.” And without revealing too much, let’s just say the ending is deliciously open-ended, and amusingly invokes a New Yorker cartoon and the classic image of Death, hooded, with scythe.

Next, deservedly nominated for a Pushcart Prize, “Funeral Season” builds a story about life-long love and friendship that culminates with this mediation on loss:

“One tired week later, Nils sat at the kitchen table at mid-day. The apartment, once so cozily cramped, was large and empty, a shell of itself. Yes, the furniture had not changed, and yes, all Tommy’s albums remained. In truth, the sole material difference was that his clothes had been donated and his toiletries and stunning array of medicines tossed in the trash. What did ‘larger than life’ mean, Nils wondered. He had always thought it trite but the absence of Tommy was so much more than his mere corporeal self, and that self had been dissipating for months anyway. No, there was a palpable vacuum. He didn’t like that term anymore than he did ‘larger than life.’ Language. Life. Shit.”

And perhaps my favorite of all, “What the Storm Brought,” shows us the whole of a budding romance that unfolds over two years during World War I, and does so unhurriedly and vividly, in only five pages. Memorably, the opening sentence is the aphorism-worthy, “January was the month of truth but some truths were harder than others.” As the opening paragraph develops, the snow storm promised by the title arrives. I won’t spoil the O’Henry-ish twist at story’s end, but again comes snow and these lyrical sentences:

“When he took pen and ink to her thigh and scripted his name in blue, however, she clutched his hands and wanted to hold them forever. And each year after, she never failed to rejoice at the first fall of snow.”
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NesslyRay Nessly hails from Seattle and lives near San Diego with his wife and their two cats. He is forever at work on a novel: If A Machine Lands In The Forest. His writing appears in journals such as Literary Orphans, Thrice Fiction, Boston Literary Magazine, Apocrypha & Abstractions, MadHat Lit, Yellow Mama, Do Some Damage, and the Irish magazine, The Penny Dreadful.

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LITERARY ORPHANS ISSUE 29: Letter From the Editor

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Dear Orphans & Orphanettes,

As you may have noticed, Literary Orphans has two “orphans” this month. We originally thought about dedicating an issue to Bonnie Elizabeth Parker, but the more we talked about it, the more we realized that you can’t mention one of these orphans without bringing up the other. Apart, each of these orphans makes for an interesting character study, but together, these two made history.

It was 83 years ago, as of yesterday, May, 23, 2017, when Bonnie & Clyde met their demise down a sleepy stretch of Louisiana road. Six officers fired more than 130 rounds into Bonnie and Clyde’s vehicle, ending a crime spree that affected over a dozen banks, gas stations, and stores and took the lives of at least 9 police officers and civilians. Their deaths were among a handful of famous Depression Era criminals who taunted the FBI and made a living of robbing banks across the country. While Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde “Champion” Barrow were some of the most notorious public enemies of the Great Depression, it wouldn’t be until some 30+ years later that their story would enter the American lexicon as a romanticized tale of two rebellious lovers.

In 1967, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway reintroduced Bonnie and Clyde to the public by way of the silver screen. Though criticized for its glorification of violence, the film Bonnie and Clyde was a smash hit that quickly became one of the highest-grossing movies of its era. At a time when the antiwar drums were growing in response to the Vietnam war, and as a prelude to one of the most momentous displays of paranoia and distrust by a leading government official, the American public found itself wooed and courted by the wrong side of the law. A new breed of rebel, in constant flight from dark-suited G-men, stole our hearts. Those who would carve out a life for themselves, no matter how illegal or ill-fated, became our protagonists, and we sympathized with them. Bonnie and Clyde weren’t just star-crossed lovers with a violent streak; they embodied a rebellious spirit we yearned for when we felt the system had failed us.

In an era when we’re bombarded with news about our government leaders having secret meetings with Russians, it seems only fitting to look back at America’s criminal sweethearts. At a time when the National Security Agency (NSA) helps to create two major global cyber security threats, it feels only logical to question the ethics and laws of our governing bodies.

When Bonnie and Clyde were reintroduced to the American public in the late 60s, our collective rebellious spirit was on an upswing. It’s only fitting that we bring their romanticized tale back to the public eye when similar sentiments are once again reverberating through the American consciousness.

In Literary Orphans Issue 29: Bonnie & Clyde, we embrace our inner outlaws.

We’re all in this together,

Scott Waldyn

Find Literary Orphans Issue 29: Bonnie & Clyde Here. 


Scott Waldyn Reviews The City, Awake by Duncan Barlow

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It’s difficult to talk about The City, Awake by Duncan Barlow (published by Stalking Horse Press) without spoiling the mystery, but the novel is unlike any thriller I’ve read before. It’s dark, moody, and buried deep within the towering skyscrapers of a cityscape that seems larger than life, and it’s also a thoughtful exploration of the mind. In Barlow’s thriller, noir is married to a dense fog of mysticism, and with each flip of the page, one isn’t quite sure as to whether one is reading a crime novel or something more sinister and macabre. This is what makes The City, Awake compelling, as most other books that set a similar tone plant themselves firmly in one genre or the other.

The City, Awake by Duncan BarlowIt’s Barlow’s prose that makes this novel work, as his writing is sharp, concise, and poetic. He’s able to set a consistent ambiance that beckons readers to willingly take this hidden road with him. While the plot itself is an enigma, Barlow’s words are direct, making sure that there is clarity in the metaphysical ride he’s asking us to step into. This is key, as with each turn of the page, the foggy cityscape gets denser and denser.

I found myself reading The City, Awake slower than I have read other novels, taking breaks between chapters to pause and reflect. Part of the reason behind these breaks was to admire the beautiful prose, and the other part was to reflect on the dreamlike world he builds. In this world, the skyscrapers rise to no end. In this world, the lens through which we view it is constantly in soft focus.

It’s noir, but it isn’t. The City, Awake by Duncan Barlow is undefined, unique, and demands readers’ attention. As I said, I’ve never read a book quite like this before, and I probably will never see another one quite like it again. It’s truly an original experience all on its own.

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The City, Awake is available from Stalking Horse Press. Find more information here.

 Photograph in banner cited from: Joi Ito (flickr)

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Our Trip to the American Writers Museum

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We recently were given the opportunity to explore the brand new American Writers Museum in downtown Chicago! Read our write-up below.


Literary Orphans visits the American Writers MuseumIn the 1930s and 40s, Chicago was known as a major hub for publishing. From book binderies to publishing companies, this Midwestern goliath was known for producing great contributions to Literature. While the publication industry has certainly evolved much since those bygone decades, Chicago remains a city committed to creating and inspiring the next generation of writers, poets, and artists. We see it at the many festivals, like the Printers Row Lit Fest, that draw massive crowds to the city every year.

On May 16, 2017, the vision for Chicago’s future commitment to Literature came to fruition. The American Writers Museum officially opened its doors to the public, and a seven-year project achieved what 25+ visionaries have tirelessly worked to create.

The American Writers Museum is the first and only one of its kind to celebrate American Literature in all of its various forms. It’s an institution wholly dedicated to language and the guiding hand language has had in shaping our American society.

“It’s not a library,” Founding Board Member Hill Hammock says. It’s a communal resource, one with the goal “to engage and not specifically have books on the shelves.”

Housed in this museum in the heart of Chicago’s downtown are a great many exhibits meant to educate, inspire, mesmerize, and provide meaning to visitors. One of the first exhibits is a massive timeline that tethers great works in American literature to history, providing context to how society impacted Literature and vice versa. It tells our story of civilization, through both literary works and historical events. Other exhibits include the famous scroll upon which Jack Kerouac wrote his novella, On The Road, as well as rooms that feature interactive games, writer-inspired works of art, famous local authors, and of course, a writers’ room.

Literary Orphans at American Writers MuseumThe writers’ room is exciting in that it’s a designated place for visitors to sit down and reflect. There’s a story wall for hanging up completed works, and there are tools, such as pens, paper, and typewriters, for visitors to create with. Right next to the writers’ room is a lounge where visitors can pick up one of the many books on the shelves and sit down on a couch to read. This lounge also serves as a venue for readings, presentations, and other events on the museum’s already busy calendar.

What’s truly inspiring about the American Writers Museum is its unique design, as well as the way visitors interact with the various rooms. Each room brings a different feel, using state-of-the-art equipment that demands visitors approach each exhibit from different angles. To get the full experience, one really has to meditate on the presentation and explore. As Hammock said, this isn’t a library. The American Writers Museum aims to be so much more.

For more information on the American Writers Museum, please visit americanwritersmuseum.org.

James Claffey Reviews The Best Small Fictions 2016

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Eclectic, compelling, and in places uneven, The Best Small Fictions 2016 presents a wide-ranging take on flash fiction, taking the reader from the woods of Michigan to Minnesota’s I-35 on a journey through the finest short fictions of the past year. Amongst the stand-out pieces are Justin Lawrence Daugherty’s “A Thing Built to Fly is Not a Promise,” a wonderful meditation on life, death and war. Daugherty imagines Earhart alive and siren-like, searching for signs of rescue. The story surprises and delights and gives the Earhart legend a new and quirky look.

Also of note is Amir Adam’s “The Physics of Satellites,” which is another meditation on time and space, through the lens of the narrator’s Aunt Maria, who, after finding her husband “hanging like cured chorizo from the ceiling fan” takes to her bed citing arms and legs that don’t work anymore. Adam’s tight narrative structure and display of a family in crisis is remarkable.

Toh EnJoe’s microfiction (translated by David Boyd), “A Thousand and One Tongues,” is as powerful as if it were ten times as long. In a nutshell, EnJoe captures worlds and their revolutions. There’s a level of infusion to the tales of Scheherazade in Enjoe’s microfiction that gives it a distinctly original taste.

Paul Beckman’s “Healing Time” encapsulates the fissures that exist between families and how those problems that prevent openness and dialogue between siblings can ultimately backfire on the participants. The poignancy of a mother trying to heal her family’s rifts posthumously is brilliantly captured in this piece from Beckman’s book, Peek.

BSF-2016-front-187x300Robert Scotallero’s “Bug Porn” is another standout in this collection. The scene in a basement with a crushed Daddy-Long-Legs and an undressing woman is a finely-balanced flash with that hint of frisson that elevates the narrative out of the reach of the ordinary.

The secrets of a Days Inn and the impending birth of a child are the stuff of Amelia Gray’s “These are the Fables,” a well-crafted piece set in a Dunkin’ Donuts in Beaumont. Gray excels at describing the underbelly of life, and the denizens of small town America. Her ability to craft layered characters in such a tight narrative space is quite something.

One of the weaknesses of the collection is perhaps the reliance on the already anthologized work of Etgar Keret and Alberto Chimal. Both stories are already present in Norton’s recent, Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories from Around the World. Keret’s ‘The Story, Victorious I & II,” is humorous, and metafictional and Chimal’s piece, “The Waterfall,” plays with baptismal rites; they seem oddly out of place here, and their inclusion weakens the anthology’s overall impact.

Also, oddly discordant, are the two spotlight interviews at the end of the anthology. These seem extraneous to the vision of the anthology and don’t serve to enhance the collection in any meaningful manner. Nonetheless, the excellent work represented in The Best Small Fictions 2016 shines a light on the best writers of short fiction today. The table of contents reads like a who’s who of flash fiction and rightly so. These stories entertain, inform, and ultimately educate the reader in what effective and insightful flash fiction should look like. Tara Masih, the series editor, and Stuart Dybek, the guest editor, have collated a marvelous anthology that builds on the series’ first iteration, guest edited by Robert.

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bio2Pushcart Prize-nominated writer, James Claffey, hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA. His work has appeared in numerous publications and he is currently at work on a new novel. He is the author of the short fiction collection, Blood a Cold Blue, from Press 53.

Book cover image cited from Queen’s Ferry Press

Photograph in banner cited from Forest Wander (flickr)

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Scott Waldyn Reviews ‘The Messenger is Already Dead’ by Jennifer MacBain-Stephens

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If you’ve ever had the pleasure of reading Jennifer MacBain-Stephens, you’re already familiar with the dark, soothing air of serenity found within the stanzas of her poetry. Her work is very much like a walk through the woods at night, when the winds are steady and though you can’t see it, everything is moving beneath you. The air is crisp and comforting, and under the absence of light, you’re lulled into a false sense of security as deeply rooted vegetation coils slowly around your feet.
The Messenger is Already DeadJennifer MacBain-Stephens’ work is layered. It speaks to ideas, histories, and themes as much as it creates moods that you can’t help but curl yourself up into. In the collected poems within The Messenger is Already Dead, published on March 15, 2017 by Stalking Horse Press, MacBain-Stephens groups her poems perfectly to weave an intricate and multi-faceted breath that each one of us can harmonize with.

With this collection, we’re propelled forward and backward in time. In one moment, we’re reflecting on the raw power and emotion of Joan of Arc, and in the next, we’re reliving our own pop culture. Jennifer MacBain-Stephens easily blends the historical with the modern and pop cultural to create poems that feel timeless and classic. I never thought I’d read a line that referenced a “most wanted poster in a video game from 1999” right after a darkly beautiful piece about Joan of Arc and be at peace with it, but I did (and I am). The way MacBain-Stephens structures her prose, she can pluck anything from the ether and make it at home with her unique style.

It’s why The Messenger is Already Dead works. This collection of poetry isn’t really a collection at all. Each poem is a carefully arranged chapter, and one poem feeds into the next breathlessly and without skipping a beat. You could easily indulge in this collection in one sitting, or you could meditate on each chapter and let the swirling ambiance fill your lungs as you voyage from one thought to the next.

My personal favorite of the bunch is a tie between “Lustmord” and a piece simply called “Time.” “Time” has a wicked sense of humor to it, and it plays with the idea of perception using a host of pop cultural references to bring its point home. “Lustmord” is much darker, as it explores this feeling of trapping ourselves in torturous revelry. Paired together and with the rest of the pieces in this collection, these poems paint a disjointed sense of progress, as if we’ve been here before and we’ll be here again, as if the idea of time stopped long ago and we’re on a loop, switching out new props every time we choose to reenact a similar story again and again. It’s no mistake that tales of Joan of Arc are peppered throughout The Messenger is Already Dead. MacBain-Stephens wants us to look in this ether, tell her what we see.


The Messenger is Already Dead by Jennifer MacBain-Stephens is available from Stalking Horse Press.

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Photograph in banner cited from: Sebastian Wojnicki (flickr)

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Ray Nessly Reviews “Nothing but the Dead and Dying” by Ryan W. Bradley

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The people of Alaska are the subject of Ryan W. Bradley’s outstanding collection of short stories, Nothing But The Dead And Dying. The harsh environment is but another challenge for hard-working folks dealing with unfulfilling jobs, troubled relationships, illnesses, addiction, or worse, deadly violence. Bradley’s minimalist writing style pushes descriptions and scenery to the background and concentrates on the essential. As famed author Donald Ray Pollack enthusiastically observed, Bradley writes “in spare, unadorned prose reminiscent of Willy Vlautin and Raymond Carver.” (Now that is a compliment to die for.)

Nicely balanced between character-driven and plot-driven, these stories are fast-moving, and yes, they entertain. But most of all they reveal the author’s gift, which is to create painfully realistic characters. Having faced setback after setback, they are burdened with complicated, often conflicting emotions. To bring them to life and make the reader understand their inner workings, as Bradley has done, requires a writer who not only possesses the chops to find the right words—that snip of dialogue, that just-right turn of phrase—but who also completely understands human nature, and has shared some of his characters’ life experiences. (Bradley has had numerous “blue-collar” type jobs, including working on a construction crew in the Arctic Circle.)

My favorite stories in this collection are:

“The Long Grass”: A teenaged boy’s awkward first sexual experience is complicated by guilt and dread, worrying that his father will find out he accidentally killed his dog. “Julius’ father had gotten [the dog] in the divorce, the only thing he’d really fought for, giving up the custody battle as soon as Julius’ mother dangled the rights to the dog.”

“Glaciers”: Heartbreaking and beautifully told, depicts the burdens of debt and life-threatening illness on patient and caretaker alike. “Maybe she’ll bring him lunch, like she used to. Surprise him with fresh steak or ribs. Or she’ll keep driving to the places where there is no development, no dirt to move. She will find a glacier, where her skin can adopt the pale blue of the ice, still hard, refusing to melt for anyone or anything.”

“Love And Death In The Moose League”: An aging, former major league pitcher hangs onto a secret as well as what’s left of his dignity in this poignant story that has just the right touch of humor. “Patterson wound up and as he released the ball there was a pop in his shoulder…The whole stadium was silent. The ball was laying in the grass not ten feet in front of the mound. Patterson looked at it in disbelief. Even the ump was bewildered. It was a few seconds before he walked in front of the plate and called ‘ball.'”

“WEST”: This tale of mass murder at a high school switches between point of view characters to excellent effect. The story dramatizes what plausibly motivates many such shootings, and is all the more chilling and tragic because intimate details about the victims are revealed. The last few lines are not ones the reader will easily shake off.

“Morning For Night”: A portrait of infidelity, of one-night stands, in the far north. The protagonist wonders “how it will all play out in the morning. How the sunlight will move on their bodies, the tangle of sheets. Like the slope, he thinks, seeing the sun in the middle of the night, it doesn’t feel right or wrong. You just get used to it.”

“All Things Infinite”: Bradley’s homage to a mentor. A man buries his father at sea, Viking-style, in a small boat set aflame. He recalls what his old man told him once: “‘There’s no rule book for fathering, Boy-o,’ he said. ‘I did my best and you turned out all right from where I’m sitting.'”

These are not only my favorites in this collection; they are some of the best stories I’ve read in years.


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NesslyRay Nessly hails from Seattle and lives near San Diego with his wife and their two cats. He is forever at work on a novel: If A Machine Lands In The Forest. His writing appears in journals such as Literary Orphans, Thrice Fiction, Boston Literary Magazine, Apocrypha & Abstractions, MadHat Lit, Yellow Mama, Do Some Damage, and the Irish magazine, The Penny Dreadful.

Photograph in banner cited from: Edith Schreurs (flickr)

Edited by Literary Orphans

Purchase Nothing but the Dead and Dying, published by CCM

‘Pax Americana’ by Kurt Baumeister [Excerpt]

Pax Americana by Kurt Baumeister

Excerpt from Pax Americana 

Cambridge, Boston’s cross-river sister, home to Harvard, MIT, and the vast, resulting acreage of rundown real estate. Behind the wheel of a rented, blue Epic, Tuck was angling for the last space on the block, one directly in front of what looked like an old foundry. Built of red brick and ashen mortar, this was Symmetra HQ.

“That’s it?” asked Clarion, looking up from his nap.

“Must be. That’s the address.”

Darkened with pollution and faded with age the resulting shade of a building rose in four, thick, Dickensian stories. Taking up at least half its block, it dominated the squat Fifties brownstones that surrounded it. Their basements turned into Guitar Shacks, Koko Curry’s, and thrift stores masquerading as boutiques, who knew what lurked above? People? Squalor? Nothing? Whatever it was, the reality lay in the signs that defined it.

This was what had become of the post-war building boom and its architecture of triumph, and it was a sad thing to look at. Tuck never understood why they kept this stuff around, why they didn’t just tear it down and build something else. History was about preserving the past’s beauty, not maintaining some tired record of what had really happened. If he’d been running things, the entire block would have been bulldozed and rebuilt in glass—made into something shiny and splendid, something worth remembering.

“Doesn’t look much like a cutting-edge research facility.”

“Guess not,” Tuck responded, shaking the ice in his Mega-Sized Turbo-Coke from Righteous Burger.

He’d been surprised when he’d seen an RB along the highway—Here, in liberal Taxachusetts!—amazed when Clarion said they could stop and get something. Sure, Tuck hadn’t liked the fact that Clarion had refused to go in, that they’d missed out on sitting in a booth and getting an actual sermon from Timmy; but just getting to go to RB still felt like a little bit of heaven. It always did.

“In fact, it looks sort of like a—”

“Dump?” Tuck finished.

“Not exact—”


Clarion laughed. “Not that either.”

“Haunted factory?”

“I thought you guys didn’t believe in ghosts.”



“Of course I don’t believe in ghosts, Clarion. What the flip?”

Clarion quirked another smile. “I was thinking it looks like a war zone but I guess haunted factory will do, sport.”

Tuck smiled, too. He knew he was wearing Clarion down by that point. That was how Tuck’s charm worked with atheists. His good humor and jokes always got to them eventually. That was his gift. But he would have been a poor Christian to court favor and use it for nothing but personal gain.

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LITERARY ORPHANS ISSUE 28: Letter From The Editor

Read More LITERARY ORPHANS ISSUE 28: Letter From The Editor

Dear Orphans & Orphanettes,

We all know the story of Nikola Tesla. We know about the War of the Currents between Westinghouse and Edison Electric in the late 1800s. We know about Tesla’s invention of the alternating current induction motor and how alternating current enraged Thomas Edison. We know the story of an immigrant inventor who came to America, became a citizen, had a hand in developing long-lasting technologies to benefit the world, and who died penniless in a New York hotel. Tesla’s story is one that has echoed with us in various movies, documentaries, books, and monuments (most notably the statue in Niagara Falls) over the years. It’s a fascinating tale, and it’s one that we often like to romanticize as the story of an up-and-coming genius who took on the Edison empire.

This romanticized narrative, however, is very much like a pulpy noir story. Like all good noir, the bad guys don’t necessarily get their due, as they’re interwoven into the fabric of a society that is unmovable. No matter how poorly they present themselves, their bedfellows remember them fondly. In this grim society, an individual can put up the fight of a lifetime and still barely make a tear in the fabric. He can give all of himself and yet wind up penniless in a New York hotel, awaiting his final respite.

For many, 2017 began with a similar romanticized tale. More than half of a nation gawked in horror as the curtain was drawn and society was revealed to be ugly. Angry. Hate-filled. The world many of us thought we knew no longer existed, and in its place was this murky swamp others had been painstakingly trying to bring to our attention for years. Had we simply been willfully ignoring the menace woven into the fabric of our day-to-day routine?

In moments like these, we take comfort in the seedy tales of noir fiction. There’s something darkly beautiful about being able to identify with a character who is familiar with the notion of failure. Like us, this character is overwhelmed by the machine. Silenced. Put in his place. What we forget when we romanticize stories about Nikola Tesla, however, is that this genius inventor prevailed in the end. His dedication, his life’s work, and his intellect have been immortalized. With each year that passes, the stories of Tesla outweigh the stories of Edison. As time marches on, emerging companies take their name and inspiration after Tesla. What once was the narrative of a Serbian immigrant who made America his home has grown into a legend of a mythological hero whose genius was unmatched.

There are days where it may seem like we’re losing the war, but sometimes the path ahead isn’t always a step up. Like Nikola Tesla, we just need to keep at it and play the long game.


We’re all in this together,

Scott Waldyn


Read Literary Orphans Issue 28: Tesla HERE.

Airplane Lady by Kathryn Brostowitz

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It was my first real experience on an airplane. I was five years old and I had dreamed of flying since I first knew what airplanes were. Imagine, being up so high!

I sat near the window, looking up and out at the blue sky, so much closer to the clouds than I ever thought possible. My mom sat in the middle. In the aisle seat was a beautiful lady.

She wore a dark camisole, maybe a deep purple or maroon, and a long black knitted cardigan. Her hair was thicker than mine would ever be and so straight. She was quiet throughout the flight from Chicago to Detroit, and only started shuffling when the voice from the ceiling started talking to us about weather and time and landing things and how Detroit was only thirty minutes away. It seemed like so much longer.

The lady had a tiny makeup bag, much smaller than I had ever seen my mother carry. To this day, my father will ask my mom, “What is this, your makeup bag?!” every time she checks a piece of luggage.

“Oh hush!” she’ll say, hoisting one of several bags filled with countless items she surely doesn’t need onto the scale. He’ll chuckle and look around as if telepathically asking “Am I right? Am I right?!”

No, Airplane Lady’s makeup bag was not hoistable. It didn’t weigh enough. My stomached tickled and I wasn’t sure if it was the descent or my yearning to see what kind of stuff she had inside. She pulled out a tiny mirror and a little black tube with gold wrapped around the center.

“She’s going to see her boyfriend,” my mom said to me. I presume they spoke while I had been focused on looking out the window throughout the flight. I blushed at the mention of a boyfriend and the Airplane Lady smiled at us. I–always so painfully shy–was afraid she would start talking about her boyfriend to me too.

She didn’t say anything though. She just finished putting on her lipstick. It was a deep shade like her camisole, but it wasn’t sparkly like the gloss my mom wore once in a blue moon. I wondered if her boyfriend liked sparkles. I figured probably not because boyfriends are boys, and I didn’t know any boys who liked sparkles. I spent the entire descent trying not to look at Airplane Lady who was going to meet her Detroit Boyfriend after putting on her no-sparkle lipstick. I tried not to think of her or her boyfriend at all.

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So naturally, I’m still thinking about her over two decades later. I used to think about her sporadically, maybe once every two or three years. I’m trying to think if there was ever a trigger that made me think of her, but I don’t know if there was. I would just wonder every now and then how she was doing. I would wonder if she was still flying to Detroit to see her Detroit Boyfriend or if they lived together or maybe they were finally married.

I used to think of her in a context separate from myself. I would wonder what her life was like: what she did for a living, if he was respectful to her, did they ever fight, if so, about what? I’d hope that they made the long-distance work and if they did make it, who moved where? Maybe they’re somewhere in Indiana, a compromise, geographically halfway between their individual Chicago and Detroit homes.

I never talked about the fact that as I grew, I thought of her more regularly because it didn’t make sense even to me, and I always wondered “What are you doing here?” every time I found her in my mind. Now though, I have a context in which she can exist. I sit in a Blue Line train car on my way to the airport. It’s 3 a.m. and I’m scared I’ll be late for my flight to Saint Kitts to visit my own far away boyfriend. She popped into my head on the platform and she hasn’t left me alone since.

“I only had to travel 280 miles for my boyfriend. Why the hell are you going 2,200 for yours?” she said from her 1994 airplane seat while I shifted in my own on the train.

“Well because I miss him,” I said, startled by her attitude. She had seemed so kind on the plane.

“Yeah, but Jesus, this is exhausting! You’re too young to be dealing with this. There are so many men in Chicago! Why do you have to go all the way to some island?”

“I don’t want to be with someone else just because he’s close by. I’m happy.”

“Yeah, I thought the same thing. Turns out I was wrong.”

“No, I don’t want you to say that.”

“Oh…I mean, you’re right I loved my Detroit Boyfriend, and I’m so glad I stuck with him. Have fun in Saint Kitts!”

“Thank you.”

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The thought of her bothers me for the rest of the train ride. We wrestle on and off with each other about whether I am doing the right thing: If my love for him could stretch those thousands of miles. I’ve only been with him an amount of time I’m nervous to tell people, because women my age wonder why I’m subjecting myself to such a serious commitment so soon and women a generation ahead of me just smile and look at me as if they know something I don’t know, and I’m not always confident that they’re wrong. I tell Airplane Lady that our relationship absolutely can withstand the distance, and sometimes she believes me, but she’ll slowly talk herself back to questioning my confidence.

“Wouldn’t you rather have someone who could cuddle with you while you sleep?”

“No,” I say to her. “I never enjoyed cuddling before I met him. I don’t even like the word ‘cuddle.’ It reminds me of mud.”

“I never enjoyed needing to visit my Detroit Boyfriend,” she said, ignoring me. “We broke up shortly after you saw me on the plane. I had never been so relieved in my life.”

“No, please, don’t say that. That’s not how it’s supposed to happen.”

“Okay, we’re still happily together somewhere in Indiana.”
“I knew it.”

She leaves me alone throughout the rest of my travels, largely because I’m asleep for most of it. It takes a train, two planes, and 13 hours, but eventually I’m standing cotton hoodie clad in the Caribbean sun, avoiding looking at the parking lot, because she has convinced me that he’s late or has forgotten to pick me up or maybe he talked to his own Airplane Man and he convinced him not to come get me at all.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry, I’m here,” he says before I even turn around. I exhale slowly, relieved and tired of arguing with the Airplane Lady. I have to shield my eyes from the sun, but there he is, tall and toothy, smiling right in front of me for the first time in five months. I remember what he looked like the day I met him at the El stop for our first date while he was in Chicago. He was wearing a shirt that made him look like Where’s Nigerian Waldo, and one of only two pairs of shorts he owns. His smile looks the same as it did then, genuine and excited, and probably just as nervous as my own.

I’ve never wondered about what happened when the Airplane Lady finally saw her Detroit Boyfriend. Was he waiting for her at the airport the way mine is? I wonder if she was hugged the way I am, or if she felt hot in the sun like I do.

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I think of her throughout my trip. She is not on my mind every second, but she’s there hiding, ready to pop up at any moment. When my boyfriend and I lie on the beach at night, eating pizza and searching for the north star, mostly unsuccessful because we were accidentally facing south. When he introduces me to his school friends for the first time but I run out of jokes and the evening slowly fizzles into a quiet ride home. When we climb the hill that overlooks the entire island, Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, and it looks so surreal that I wonder where the water stops and sky begins, and I know there should be something in my gut telling me that this is where I’m supposed to be, standing on top of the most beautiful island with the man that I love most in the world, but the elation that starts to grow in my gut is squelched so fast because she’s right there in the middle of it telling me not to get too excited. None of the moments that I’ve spent so many years believing will be perfect are perfect at all, and I blame her for that. I blame her for constantly reminding me that romantic comedies aren’t real and fairy tales don’t come true, so he couldn’t have been serious when we skipped rocks on our second date or when we kissed at the top of the Ferris Wheel on our third. But I also give up trying to silence her, to convince her that these wonderful things really can mean something great for us, because I simply don’t know how to do it.

I try to put her away for the rest of the trip, and it works a little bit. When I wake up on my last morning there, it’s as sunny as it has been all week. I know my boyfriend is already awake, though I have my back toward him unintentionally, but that’s just how it is. I don’t feel her anywhere inside of me, but I know she isn’t gone forever.

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I wonder what happened to them, the Airplane Lady and her Detroit Boyfriend. I think about that all the time now. Her presence overwhelms me sometimes, but I wonder if maybe it’s because she was overwhelmed by the idea of settling in Indiana, or settling anywhere before she got all of her own voices out of her heart or head or gut or wherever Airplane Ladies stay.

We arrive at the airport early, and he waits with me before I go through security. We’re quiet mostly, all three of us, as we sit in the island air. The breeze blows inside the port, and for just a moment, my heart flutters a little bit, that unfamiliar feeling I think I’m supposed to get when I’m in love, and I realize she has left us just long enough for us to say goodbye.

He walks with me up the stairs and into line for security. It’s awkward, both of us aware of the eyes surrounding us as we kiss and hug and are unsure of what to say to each other, so he just says, “Let me know when you land,” and I say “I promise,” followed by quick, whispered “I love yous” and a door closed behind him.

I hold it together pretty nicely, I think. I start crying, but just a little bit. I reach into my bag for a tissue, and when I turn around, I see a young girl standing behind me in line, of course, watching me wipe my eyes.

“She just said goodbye to her boyfriend,” her mother whispers, and urges the girl to turn around and stop staring at me.

She keeps looking at me, though. I don’t mind, but her mother is clearly apologetic for the sake of my privacy. I smile at the little girl, smile at her mother, and move into the other line.

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Bio1Kathryn Brostowitz has a bachelor’s degree in journalism, and recently received an MFA in creative non-fiction writing from Roosevelt University in Chicago. When she’s not writing, she enjoys traveling, yoga, and finding new favorite things. You can read more of her late-night shower musings on Twitter at @kfBrostowitz.

Photograph in banner cited from: Ronald van der Graaf (flickr)

Edited by Literary Orphans