There is no “love” in live ball, and the noncumulative scoring gave me the sensation of turning over a new leaf after each “challenge,” which is what the live ball games were called. Like doubles without serving—a pro put the ball into play—there were up to seven of us on the court, but only four played at a time. Those who were waiting to rotate in watched the points. You got a chance to hit forehands, backhands, lots of volleys, and some overheads. Live ball was played as one continuous game with no breaks except to pick up balls when the basket was empty.
Players complained how dangerous it was to have balls all over the court while we played, but I felt right at home because as a teenager, my dad rapid-fired balls at me from the other side of the net trying to teach me tennis. I was used to navigating around obstacles.
I grew up with divorced parents—my mom took me and dad took my little brother. Much like I worked at tennis now, I’d worked hard at staying close to my dad. So when he told me I had a sister, his secret daughter, who was now 35 years old, I was devastated. He was a liar. Was I ever his favorite daughter? Did he even actually love me? Why lie for so long?
My grandfather had recently died and my dad had nothing to lose by telling the truth. At least he thought he had nothing to lose. His father would have been disappointed in him, so instead I was. Even though I knew my father was a womanizer, I took it very personally. In my mind, I had been the number one woman in my father’s life. I was only his daughter, and I knew it was wrong, but the thought of sharing his attention with this other daughter made me crazy.
It became my business to avenge my dad’s bad behavior in life on the tennis court. It didn’t make any sense, but I needed a new construct that didn’t involve basing my whole life around my father. Now I would base my whole life around the tennis court. My grandfather had built a court for his sons to learn the game—he had been a champion in college—and now the court was the only place I felt safe.
I felt isolated from what I thought was my close family. My brother and his wife had known about the daughter and had met her.
“It’s not her fault,” my brother said.
As a kid, I was asked if I wanted to play tennis. I didn’t. I found the lines of a court too confining. But now, as an adult, the lines in live ball were a source of comfort.
The lines of the court provided a clear boundary—at least compared to regular life—and I loved to call balls “out,” with a definitive tone.
Live ball sped everything up—it was caffeinated. And it made me forget. Things were far less complicated when you took the love out of them. It was the only time I was able to stay in the moment—to focus on the ball and the point being played. In the end nobody cared what the result was. I often felt confused because part of me wanted to know who won. But there were so many points, and a ball hit into the net was no big deal. I kept playing, not only because it was the only time I felt good, but also because I hoped that I could adapt the “live ball” mentality to my own life. I wanted to be able to let things go. I hoped that somehow through the “live ball” experience, I could change my personality. Mostly I was still angry and resentful. I would hit my volleys too hard and launched my forehands.
There were a lot of things in my life that couldn’t be fixed, but I could fix my forehand. Live ball was a healthy addiction because it was exercise, but like any addiction, it left me wanting more. And so I played in the morning and at night. What had started as a once-a-week thing turned into a twice-a-day thing, and I started playing at more than one court.
There was a high probability of hitting a winner off the ball the pro hit to you, and if you missed a ball, the pro fed you another one. It was a game of constant second chances, and that part was important for me because I needed to give my dad a second chance and not write him off because he blew one thing.
“Let it go,” my live ball partner said when a ball flew over my head. The words sounded good to me, like subliminal suggestion. Maybe I could.
Tamara Adelman is a former massage therapist and ironman triathlete living in Santa Monica, CA. She has a B.A. from George Washington University and a certificate in creative nonfiction from UCLA. She can be found most days looking out at the Santa Monica Bay, while writing the next story or training for the next race in ultimate pursuit of the finish line. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals.
Dear Orphans & Orphanettes,
Eventually, we all realize the special sincerity of the roles we choose to undertake. As months percolate into years, true enjoyment comes from being involved in something larger than ourselves. First joining as a reader, then associate publisher, and finally, acting as the Managing Editor of Literary Orphans Journal for the past three years, I have read and adored countless submissions wholly conceived from heartfelt contexts. And similar to all of you, I have rested on the limbs of literature as companionship. Knowing this, to warmly embrace something is sometimes a call to release it. Thus, as my role in life would have it, I must leave my role as Managing Editor of LO, but everything the journal creates and contemplates will not leave me.
As the year passes and weaves itself into the fibers of history, a question is posed—one which rarely welcomes a simple answer. Does memory or experience reflect greater on the lives we maintain?
Read more »
Other Household Toxins
Christopher Allen Talks About His Collection
Interviewed by Gay Degani
Christopher Allen’s collection, Other Household Toxins (Matter Press, 2017) embraces menace for the innocent boy, the innocent girl. In one of his stories, “A Practiced Silence,” the narrator says, “Inside, Dad worries a tangled 3D collage: three tattered ladder-back chairs, a mildewed deflated yard Santa, a hard-plastic machete. He pulls out the knife, play-cuts off my head.”
Ambiguity too: gender and relationship ambiguity, the doubt one feels about belonging to family, peers, the world in general. There are stories about gender issues with the incumbent guilt, stress, anger, and bafflement experienced by children and parents, as in “Birds in the Gate” where the main character says, “I wasn’t good at being a boy, and now I wasn’t good at being a mother either.”
Many of the pieces in this collection are what might be called experimental, absurdist, or magic realism (“The Shoes, The Girl, & Waves that Washed Them Away”) while others conform to more traditional form (“This Baring Daylight”). Some are heartbreaking, some humorous. All are beautifully written.
Gay Degani: First I’d like to ask you about theme. For me, the sense of alienation seemed to be central, how being different from “the norm” informs a main character’s sense of security and wellbeing, and how those differences manifest themselves in behavior. I’m thinking about “Dothead,” “22.0,” and “What Strangers Do,” specifically, but there are others. Can you talk about alienation and suggest other themes you feel are important in your work?
Christopher Allen: Thank you for asking such insightful questions, Gay. Alienation takes several forms in these stories. There’s a young, gay kid that I’m trying to comfort or defend in some of them, and there’s this relationship between a father and a son I’m trying to work through in a lot more. In general, the narrators who tell these stories feel alone. I’ve never really felt I belonged anywhere, and there’s even a part of me that resists any feeling of belonging. In this respect, these stories expose me—and that’s a bit scary.
There is another global theme in this collection: ambivalence towards death, maybe even a refusal to see death in its usual, tragic sort of way. Several of the stories subvert the finality of death, an easy fix with magic realism. I’d say more than half of the stories are to some extent about death. Yay.
GD: But it’s not all doom-and-gloom. There is awareness in the characters too. One of my favorite segments is from “Dothead.” The character, Andy, owns his nickname. He says, “They want you to believe it’s all your fault. But it’s not. It’s not. We’re just made this way.” Many of your stories are positive and humorous. Which is easier for you, drama or humor?
CA: Humor. I believed for a long, long time that I was a humorist. I didn’t plan to write all these depressing stories; they just came out naturally. I was going to be the next David Sedaris with one laugh-out-loud book after the other. Right now I’m in a place with my writing where I need to write about things that are dead serious. Funny is hard these days. I’m so angry and so disappointed with the world—so that’s what I have to write now, even if it’s difficult.
GD: I’ve read your novel, Conversations with S. Teri O’Type (a Satire), and it’s funny so David Sedaris had better watch out. Humor or drama, your use of language elevates your work. In “Beyond the Fences,” you write, “Ally was limping to first (the third pitch had clipped his hip). He’d never been on first before. It felt safe: plump as a tick, a communion wafer kissed with muddy cleat prints.” This statement underlines the “menace” in so many of the stories. It’s about baseball, but for me, it’s also about fear and sex. Sex is the communion of one person with another, a defining moment. “First base” suggests a first sexual experience, perhaps a kiss; first base is clean and pure, like a “communion wafer.” Can you talk about how you handle language when you are drafting a story?
CA: Thank you for explicating the imagery of frustrated sexuality in this story so spot-on, Gay. It’s difficult to layer a 250-word story with a potent metaphor for coming out. The first editor I sent this story to said something like “I don’t quite get it. It’s so cute and entertaining but then ends so abruptly in death, like it goes from silly to devastating so quickly.” But, you see, the editor did in fact understand the story perfectly. That’s exactly how coming out is for a lot of gay men. Your world pivots the second you’re outed. It feels like a death and a sudden rebirth. I was kind enough to give Ally a transcendent death after the shock of being abused on his innocent sexual journey, of being man-handled at second base, of being outed by a creepy “hetero” man while the other players look on. It is menacing and shocking and abrupt. Ally is that gay kid I keep trying to comfort and defend, maybe explain: Ally is definitely me.
But about language: No matter how short, I have to let stories develop over time. Ideas at the word and sentence levels occur to me erratically, on a mountain trail, at the gym, during a class. I’ve learned that I can’t—or it’s not in my best interest to—write a story quickly. Language needs time to expand beyond the usual. I find that my best writing happens when I allow myself to work through phrases and images organically.
A good example of this is the story “One for Rainbow.” The line about “uncrucifying the door” bumped around my head for about a year before it found its place in this story. I hike a lot in Bavaria and South Tyrol, and there are a lot of stations-of-the-cross hikes. Hiking these backwards to me was like “uncrucifying” Christ. I just had to get that idea into my writing somewhere. A lot of my drafting happens when I’m walking.
I think we’d all benefit from giving our stories a few more months to expand and mature. At SmokeLong Quarterly, we get around 5000 submissions a year as you yourself know having been an SLQ editor for years. One of the most common reasons for rejection is that the story’s idea and situation are great, but the idea lacks development or layering. “Too simply told” is a frequent comment. “Sounds like a story I’ve read a hundred times this year.” “Parts of this are good, but some fall flat.” Flash fiction doesn’t allow much room for error, so we should allow more time for it to take shape.
GD: One of the most devastating pieces in your collection is “Target Practice.” Given current events, I appreciated the way the story puts the spotlight on the problem of guns. Also there are four “German” stories that also have a political impact. Do you believe writers can bring about change and how important is that to you?
CA: I certainly believe artists can effect change. My first book, Conversations with S. Teri O’Type, was a satire on the social conditioning of gay men in the US. Attempting to change the way LGBT+ people allow themselves to be programmed by society is a big issue in my writing. We should be empowering ourselves to be strong individuals, not ghettoized grotesques of our sexuality, not stereotypes that entertain the world. I don’t want to entertain the world; I want to change it. I also want to take naps in the middle of the day, so I guess I shouldn’t let my answers wax too dramatic.
GD: You are very good with titles. They suggest, but don’t give away the surprise of the story. One that particularly worked for is “The Ground Above My Feet,” because it provides a clue to the story, but allows for that “AHA” moment all readers love. Do you find titles easy or difficult to create? Do you have any tricks to naming a story?
CA: Sadly, I have no tricks. At the moment, I have five stories submitted, one of which is submitted under three different titles because I decided after a few days that I didn’t like the first (or second) title. It’s actually a good exercise to see how the title of the piece affects the submission, I suppose. We should play more with titles. My story, “When Susan Died the First Time,” was accepted by Indiana Review after being saved from the slush pile because of the title (I was told by one of the IR editors at AWP). Titles are your calling card. That said, at SmokeLong Quarterly if we love a story but hate the title, we’ll just ask for a new title. A bad or boring title isn’t a deal-breaker—at least not for us.
GD: Last question—the relationship between parent and child is often explored in this collection. It ties in with the desire to belong. There are a few that deal with fathers and sons, but one of my favorites is “Wile E.” The comparison of the narrator with the cartoon coyote and his father to Road Runner is brilliant and underscores the ambiguity that a child often feels toward a parent. Would you call this piece experimental? I found several pieces that could fall under experimental, absurdist, and magic realism heading. Can you discuss the difference between these three kinds of writing?
CA: I’m most interested in explaining what I mean when I say I write absurdist fiction. The characters in an absurdist narrative may seek change, but don’t find it. They may look silly or indulge in pointless philosophical arguments, circular behavior, and repetitive dialogue—but they’re not just weird crazy characters doing silly shit. Absurdism asserts that there are no fixed standards of conduct that define us. An absurdist creates a world where meaningful communication fails. And nothing changes. To quote from Gordon Farrell’s book, The Power of the Playwright’s Vision: Blueprints for the Working Writer: “What defines the absurdist world is the underlying fear and anxiety of the characters—an existential terror that grows out of their meaningless isolation from the universe and from each other.” I see this as one vision among many in my writing—as contradictory as that may sound. I see this in “Falling Man,” “Providence,” and “22.0”. And I’m perfectly happy to accept elements in my fiction that subvert this. Some characters learn, but almost none of mine do. I’d like to think I’m able to learn, but I’m not that interested in presenting a narrative in which lessons are learned or characters grow.
Experimental writing is such an individual thing. What may be experimental for me might not be for you. I haven’t written anything that’s truly experimental. That’s not true. I’ve written plenty of experimental stories. They’re all in a folder on my computer—where they’ll stay.
Many of my stories fall under the category of magic realism, especially when it comes to reinterpreting and reinventing death. As strange or innovative as these stories may seem, I don’t think this type of writing is especially experimental. Magic realism injects the impossible into the everyday. I think we’ve been desensitized to this through film and fiction for quite a long time. I’m more interested in the use of surrealism to create narrative. And again, I’m not talking about crazy, weird stories; I mean dramatic surrealism: the startling juxtaposition of disparate words/objects/events, the rejection of clean and obvious metaphor, provoking imagery that attempts to transcend reality. I think this is the thread of menace you see—and I definitely see as well—that twines through these stories.
Thank you for these questions, Gay. You always ask the good ones.
Christopher Allen’s debut flash fiction collection, Other Household Toxins, is forthcoming from Matter Press. Allen’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in [PANK], Indiana Review, Juked, FRiGG, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts and others. Read his book reviews in Necessary Fiction, The Lit Pub, Fiction Southeast and others. In 2017 Allen was both a finalist (as translator) and semifinalist for The Best Small Fictions. He lives somewhere in Europe–for now–edits for SmokeLong Quarterly and is a contributing editor for The Best Small Fictions 2018.
Gay Degani is the author of a full-length collection of short stories, Rattle of Want (Pure Slush Press, 2015) and a suspense novel, What Came Before (Truth Serum Press, 2016). She’s had four flash pieces nominated for Pushcart consideration and won the 11th Glass Woman Prize. She blogs at Words in Place.
Photograph in banner cited from: Kaarina Dillabough (flickr)
Edited by Literary Orphans
Back to Life 15th Anniversary Edition: A Quickshot Review
The story begins with the violent rape of a woman by her husband. I had to put the book down for a few minutes, it was that vividly written and heart-rendingly realistic.
Lisa is the main character of the book, who falls for Marc. She is black and he is white. Italiano.
The scene is set with two extraordinarily painful divorces and the backdrop of a murder of a young black man by a mob of Italians. The violence escalates and the year is 1989.
This book is timely yet, in light of the murders which have not stopped. This book remains timely because young Black men are still at risk in the U.S.
Racism, as spelled out in the book, is still alive and well and this book serves as a stark reminder of that fact.
Ms. Coakley Thompson weaves an intricate tale with a delicacy and yet a bluntness that left me spellbound. Her wordsmithing is impeccable and the story was impossible to put down. I read it in under 24 hours.
This book serves as a testament to the power of love over hate, and as trite as it may sound, I cried at the end along with the characters.
Sexual assault is still a looming issue in our society, as well as racism, and we follow Lisa as she deals with the aftermath. The emotional wounding along with the physical.
The sexual assault of a woman by her husband, who is one who has sworn to love and protect her, under oath, is the greatest violation a woman endures, often silently, often without prosecution, as it is only in recent years that ‘marital rape’ has become a crime. It is still extremely under-reported and under-prosecuted. I say this as both a survivor and as a former advocate in the field of violence against women.
Ms. Coakley Thompson doesn’t water it down for her reader. She spells it out in black and white and has no fear of putting it all down for us. This story left me with hope and joy, which I did not expect or hope for from the beginning scene. The beginning scene gripped me and the entire book will haunt me, the pain as well as the joys, as a great work of art should. The full spectrum of color and feeling is painted in this novel and as I believe I stated earlier, it is as relevant today as it was in years past. A must read.
An Interview with Wendy Coakley-Thompson
Katie Perttunen: Back to Life is a tale from 1989 rereleased on its 15th Anniversary. What are your opinions regarding the current climate that make this book so relevant?
Wendy Coakley-Thompson: Unfortunately, race still permeates our lives institutionally and interpersonally. We’ve made much progress, particularly interpersonally, since 1989—the year in which Back to Life is set—but we still have far to go. My hope is that one day, people will read Back to Life and will think it quaint that once upon a time, people did not couple because of racial differences. Keeping hope alive…
KP: The characters Lisa and Marc struggle during their courtship, due to lack of acceptance of their racial differences from not only strangers but friends and family. Yet in the end their love for each other prevails. Do you feel this would still be an issue, if not more so, in 2017?
WCT: I think it is less of an issue now. Census data consistently shows that interracial relationships have increased in record numbers since the 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision that made interracial marriage legal. But whether or not one is involved in interracial relationships still depends on where one lives. Plus, attitudes still remain hard to change, unfortunately.
KP: Were there parts of this novel that were difficult to write?
WCT: I wouldn’t say “difficult;” “enlightening” would be a better word. I could definitely relate to some aspects of Lisa’s relationship with Barbara, her mother. Mothers and daughters tend to have conflict-filled and sometimes adversarial relationships, born of women searching for an identity separate and apart from their mothers and those mothers’ expectations of them. I do believe, though, that mothers and their daughters come to reconciliation in the end, and Barbara and Lisa are no exception.
KP: The scene where Lisa is raped is disturbing, to say the least. Would you care to share your opinion on the status of prosecution of sexual assault crimes, especially in the context of marriage? As a former advocate against violence against women, the statistic I am familiar with is that as many as 1 in 3 women, if not more, are sexually assaulted over their lifetime.
WCT: Yes. One of the issues that struck me as I’d researched the book was how few marital rapes are prosecuted. Even in states where there is no marital rape exception (and the fact that there ever was such a thing!), husbands who rape their wives were rarely prosecuted. This was the case with Bryan. I found that horrifying but not surprising, given the conservative attitudes that even some progressive men have toward marriage and a woman’s place in it.
KP: The scene where Marc and Lisa get pulled over by the police and the police threaten her in particular was disturbing as well, especially when one reads the news and sees that these abuses of power still occur, particularly to women (and men) of color. Would you care to speak to that? Marc was breaking the law by speeding, yes, but he didn’t have that fear instinct that Lisa had when it came to the police.
WCT: That scene, to me, showed the cluelessness that affluent white males tend to have regarding encounters with law enforcement. To Marc, the exchange with the police was just an annoyance that he would take up with his lawyer afterwards. Lisa, on the other hand, filtered the experience through the prism of being black and a history of blackness and the law. You’re right; Marc was speeding. However, law enforcement has typically given folks of his ilk a pass. Whereas people of color who have been innocently existing have had negative encounters with the police—some deadly, unfortunately. So, in that one scene, we see how another aspect of society views Lisa and Marc individually and its reaction to the possibility of them as a couple, based on the color of their skin.
KP: Your book raised many questions about race in the U.S. that are as relevant today as they were 15 years ago. I hate to be an ending spoiler, but love seems to be the answer for the main characters.
WCT: I immediately think of the character Tim Simon’s commentary on true love from Back to Life: “That’s [true love is] hard to come by. If you’re lucky enough to get it, you don’t question the color of the wrapping that it comes in.”
KP: I know it may sound trite, but do you believe that more books like this will open eyes and possibly hearts to someday end oppressions and violence against people of color, especially women?
WCT: God willing! I strongly believe in the power of art to change hearts, minds, and therefore the world.
KP: On to some lighter questions. What does your writing process look like?
WCT: When I read Stephen King’s On Writing, how he said he just writes without knowing how the story will end, I was amazed! That’s so not me! I tend to know the skeletal outline of a story before I actually begin to sit down and write. After that I’m quite undisciplined as a writer. Unless I’m under a deadline, I tend to hope that the Muse shows up when I sit down. Sometimes I’ve had to bend her, kicking and screaming, to my will. Sometimes, she gifts me in such abundance that I’m unable to keep up. It depends on the day.
KP: What advice would you give young and/or aspiring writers?
WCT: Persist. There’s no shortage of people out there who will tell them that their stories are not relevant. Which is bovine scatology! I read enough to see that there are stories that appeal to audiences that we never even knew existed. Which brings me to the next piece of advice: Read. Voraciously. They should also view writing as a craft that they need to work on to so that they may be better at their storytelling—like a muscle you train in order to make it stronger. Finally, be adaptable. If traditional venues are not receptive to your work, then find others that are or start your own. This is what I did with Duho Books.
KP: What was your soundtrack for writing this book? Throughout the pages you mention Nina Simone, along with others. Were those songs part of your soundtrack?
WCT: Oh yes! Nina Simone’s beautiful artistry explores race and race relations. But I just love her work, because my dad exposed me to her. Like Lisa and every girl, I imagine, I have an idealized view of my dad. The song “Back to Life” and anything else by Soul II Soul also influenced my work and helped me to slip into the late eighties zeitgeist. Back then, you couldn’t turn on the radio and not hear their music! I find that music helps me to drift back to the era about which I’m writing and becomes like another character in the story.
KP: What’s your opinion of the state of the publishing industry? Did that opinion lead you to open your own press?
WCT: I have nothing positive to say about Big Publishing. I was published by Kensington Books, but we parted ways in 2006. In 2014, after discovering that Kensington was selling eBooks of my work with[out] my expressed permission, I sued. We settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. My experience with Kensington, from signing to litigation, taught me that it is imperative to be true to yourself and your art. It also taught me that Big Publishing and I are not a good mix. I have major problems with the large-scale commoditization of art, and that’s what Big Publishing represents to me.
Primarily, though, I started Duho because I saw a terminal lack of books by, for, and about Bahamians and the Bahamas. As a person of Bahamian descent and later, specifically as a writer, I got sick of having to correct people when they’d say, “Wendy’s from Barbuda.” Or “Wendy’s from Barbados.” Or—egad!—“Wendy’s from Jamaica.” I wondered if the Bahamas had not left enough of an impression on people’s psyches to warrant enough recognition beyond being relegated to just islands beginning with the letter B. Or associated with Jamaica, the titan of the anglophone Caribbean.
KP: What does your writing space look like?
WCT: Cluttered, but I know where everything is!
KP: Who are your favorite authors and why?
WCT: There are way too many to list! The books of Sidney Sheldon truly turned me on to reading. I also love Jennifer Weiner and how she tells a story. I admire the stamina and sheer genius of Sue Grafton and her alphabetical Kinsey Millhone series of mysteries. What a way to ensure that a publisher would give you a 26-book deal!!! Elizabeth Nuñez is my favorite West Indian author.
KP: What other titles have you penned?
WCT: In addition to Back to Life (2004 Romantic Times Award nominee), I’ve written Writing While Black, Triptych, and What You Won’t Do For Love (optioned for cable television).
KP: You have opened a Boutique Press for writings of Bahamian writers. Would you care to discuss the press and what it means to give a venue for under-represented writers a platform? What’s your goal with the press? I know that other current titles include “The Lights of Home” by Marin Frederique and “My Name is Karma” by N.A. Cash.
WCT: I see Duho Books as being a vehicle for stories of us—the Bahamas and Bahamians—for the preservation for Bahamian children, as well as for the education of those with whom we share this world. I expect that Duho will grow, at a sensible rate, and share the fruits of that growth with the people who inform the stories Duho publishes. I anticipate that Duho’s future offerings will be as diverse as N.A. Cash’s paranormal story “My Name is Karma”and Marin Frederique’s “The Lights of Home,” because Bahamian culture is diverse. It melds the influences of Conchy Joes (i.e., Bahamian whites), Haitian Bahamians, Cuban Bahamians, expats, Bahamian Greeks, and Black folks from every island in the archipelago and folks from other parts of the Caribbean.
Wendy Coakley-Thompson, PhD is the President of Duho Books, which publishes fiction and nonfiction for, by, and about The Bahamas and Bahamians. She is also the author of Writing While Black, Triptych, Back to Life (2004 Romantic Times Award nominee), and What You Won’t Do For Love (optioned for cable television). An experienced journalist and blogger based in the Washington DC area, Wendy has written for Examiner.com as the DC Publishing Industry Examiner and has penned articles for Postscript’d, the Grio, and Washington Independent Review of Books. She also serves up commentary in Writing While Blog. She has co-hosted the radio show The Book Squad and earned an Associated Press/Chesapeake Award for her work as a commentator for Metro Connection on WAMU, a Washington D.C. National Public Radio affiliate. For more information, visit
Photograph in banner cited from: Egan Snow (flickr)
Edited by: Literary Orphans
Dear Orphans & Orphanettes,
We live in a world of heroes and monsters, gods and mortals, giants and mice. Five minutes on Facebook will tell us that. What that five minutes won’t tell us is that beneath the shares, the re-shares, the hot takes, the likes, and the comments lies something magical. A well that has no name — one that we can reach into and conjure up anything our hearts desire. Much like a blank page, an undeveloped roll of film, or an empty canvas, this magic is just waiting to be formed. It’s waiting for one of us to breathe life into it and give it a purpose.
Mention the name Ray Harryhausen around a group of creatives, and you’re likely to hear one of those creatives talk about how the late special effects wizard sparked their imagination. Harryhausen was a creator known for breathing life into works of art. As a stop-motion animator, he took a vague concept of a creature, reached into that ethereal well, and transformed it into a living model, one complete with personality and character traits sometimes more human than the lead actors occupying the same movie. Whether he was creating an abomination for a by-the-numbers creature feature or bringing to life mythological monsters from ancient texts, each one of Harryhausen’s creations felt relatable on some level. These creatures felt pain. They conveyed a sense of logic and reasoning. That’s what made them unique, and that’s why Harryhausen’s name continues to inspire. His creations were more than just puppetry, they were pieces of himself that had been shared with the world, inspiring a generation of audiences to do the same.
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In Conversation with Scott McClanahan
Meg Tuite: Why do we call it a mental illness when everyone has one?
Scott McClanahan: Yeah it’s funny when you go to the library and there’s whole shelves about abnormal psychology but no shelf that says normal psychology. I’ve always thought that was strange as well. Adam Phillips is one of the great writers on Freud and he always says that psychoanalysis is an art and not a science. He catches all kinds of hell because of this. Freud and Jung were poets. Not doctors in my mind. But I’ve been soothed by poets as much as doctors in this silly thing I call my life.
MT: Absolutely. I asked you before about how you got sober. You said you married a woman who was eight years sober and you replaced beer with cigarettes.
MT: Did you ever relapse?
SM: Oh gosh. I can’t stand most 12 step talk. Relapse. Recovery. It makes me feel like I’m on Oprah.
MT: I’m sorry. I get it. I don’t know how to even talk about it. I went to a 12 step program once when I first moved here and it was insane. It was a group of vets and I was one of the only girls and had to run for my car and never looked back.
SM: Oh, no worries. Yeah it’s just weird. I’m probably more addicted to soda than I have been to anything else in my life. Who knows what Aspartame or Yellow 5 has done to my body. But nobody asks you about those things. [laughs] I guess it’s weird because that character in the book is a drunk but only for story reasons.
I think I’ve made a big mistake with press for this book by talking about my own life actually.
MT: You did talk about Coors Light in the AM and now it’s been replaced by Mountain Dew and kombucha? I have this weird deal about setting a time when I start drinking, but does it really matter? It’s just a time and the time changes according to how shitty the day is or how good.
SM: Yeah for sure.
MT: Have you ever gone through a period when you couldn’t read? Or the books you picked up seemed to be dragging?
SM: Nah, not really. I’ve always ripped right through them for the most part. Maybe that was always my problem about anything. Consumption. I’ve always felt like that robot [in] the movie Short Circuit. Need more input. Need more input. I can always tell if I’m depressed if I have problems reading though.
MT: That’s a yes.
SM: I don’t know if it’s age but I don’t really deal with that anymore. Sometimes I have problems trying to pick what to read.
MT: I just read through all of your books in one solid wind and am now ripping through Juliet Escoria’s books. You both bring to the page that mix of straight-up “this is who I am” and it’s hard not to believe the written word because it’s so relatable to my life and I get that it is as well for so many others after reading some of the reviews.
SM: Yeah, but those are characters too. I don’t think Juliet is anything like her books in real life. I mean she is. But that character she writes also really exists only in those stories. It’s weird: writers and their books that way. Because now that I think of it she is exactly like them, but she’s not too, if that makes any sense.
MT: We are always trying to read the writer into the book, I know. But a truly great writer is like an actor in that we forget they are acting.
SM: Yes. Exactly. I think about this a ton. I just read Thackery’s Barry Lyndon and we have this tradition in the 19th century of trying to tell people this is true. Jane Eyre is even subtitled an autobiography.
MT: I love it and that’s the beauty of getting lost in a book when the roar of outside and all the shit we’re setting up to do goes away and it’s just the story and us. And also, as a reader, I like to find myself in a book. Do you ever do that?
SM: Yeah we all do that I think. Flaubert makes fun of readers like us in Madame Bovary. He puts readers like that just below readers who are looking for a moral. Hah. Trying to find their experience in another experience. I guess I read now for the tricks.
MT: Have you read Tristram Shandy? Another beauty that brings us in to a story within no plot and I LOVE Sterne so much for that.
SM: Yes, that’s such an AMAZING book.
MT: And how difficult to do.
SM: Do you know the story about Sterne’s head?
MT: No. But, I need to now.
SM: No one knows where his skull is now. I guess when he died we were in the midst of bodies being stolen.
MT: A phrenologist must have grabbed it. I would have.
SM: An acquaintance of his who was a doctor recognized his face on a table of stolen bodies.
MT: Don’t you wish you could study a skull by its bumps and get something from it? Did the doctor grab it?
SM: I don’t believe he did. But they picked Sterne’s skull out of a bunch of skulls and put it back with his remains. I think that’s how the story goes. Poor Larry.
MT: [laughs] Poor Larry.
SM: Picked his skull out a year or so later from the lab where the grave robbers would sell the body parts. Yeah. I love all those 18th century guys.
MT: I used to read backwards. Start with the writer, say Poe, and then find the writer he mentions the most and then move from there. It was a happy three years in Montreal in a library every day. Have you ever spent days not talking to anyone?
SM: Oh of course. That’s the best way of reading. When I was 13 I found out about writers by reading a Jim Morrison biography.
MT: I believe we have a similar background in the self-taught arena. I hated school, but loved reading what I wanted. You didn’t get an MFA, did you?
SM: No. I didn’t. Never even took a creative writing class.
MT: Now that’s true grit. I’m not as brave as you are.
SM: It’s all there in the books. All the tricks, etc. You can get a public library card and do it for free.
MT: The best place and the only place where nothing is bought or sold and you can sleep all day if you want.
SM: Juliet has an MFA though. It worked for her.
MT: Yes. It sure did. DAMN! I love the interview you two did. Did you fall in love then?
SM: No it took a little while. Gian Ditrapano doesn’t even believe you pick a writer because of the book. You pick a writer because of the heart. A good book will come out of the vibe of a person. I sort of believe that too. Like Sterne.
MT: I get that from Clarice Lispector. All of her books, though. She is what I would call a philosopher, but all great writers are. Have you read her?
SM: Yeah I like Clarice Lispector. Think the stories more than the novels. That Benjamin Moser bio is pretty good too.
MT: Or Fernando Pessoa. I did get Carrere’s books. Working on Kingdom right now.
SM: Word to the wise: Don’t smoke in bed.
MT: I love the Moser bio. [laughs] Absolutely. Shit. And her friend had the premonition and called her, but I believe her son got her out. That was amazing.
SM: Yeah I really like Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet is Morrisey’s fav book too.
MT: I love him. I keep The Book of Disquiet with me at all times. Also Bruno Schulz’ Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass.
SM: Yeah, I found Schulz from this series of Eastern European Writers that Roth helped edit. There’s a really great bio of Schulz too called The Great Heresy. I think that’s what it’s called.
MT: I have that and everything of his! Even a tattoo on my arm of him with the quote “reality is as thin as paper and betrays with all its cracks.”
SM: Oh man, that’s awesome.
MT: Have you had premonitory dreams?
SM: I don’t really believe in all that dream stuff to be honest. My grandma and my folks do though.
MT: Do you remember your dreams?
SM: Not anymore. Not really. For instance, last night I remember two dreams but that’s rare. In the first one I was at the beach with Julia and her dad and they were marking off a camping space for us to sleep. The second one I remember is this guy Kris at Talking Book. I was at a parade with him and his wife and their son took off running in traffic and I ran out and saved the kid. But they didn’t even say thank you.
MT: Dreams can be crazy amazing! I used to write them down but then had between seven and ten I remembered each night and never got any solid sleep. Well, maybe got too much REM.
SM: I like the post-modern dreams that people have. You know when a dream is meta. When you realize inside the dream that you’re dreaming.
MT: Love that. Have you flown in a dream?
SM: I’m on psych meds now so it’s more just like a nice black pit you fall into with sleep. Yeah, I fly and crash quite often.
MT: Can you control it sometimes?
SM: No. It seems like I like it. Like if I’m flying I’ll want to crash. Like I’ll will myself to fall.
MT: [laughs] I like that.
SM: I like the losing your stomach part of falling and crashing in a dream. It reminds me of roads on my way to my grandma’s. My dad was a master of speeding up and slowing down on hills to get you to lose your stomach.
MT: [laughs] Do you ever talk aloud in your sleep or walk?
SM: Yes I’ve done both. I wandered naked out of this woman’s apartment one time. And I said “fuck” in my sleep when I was in the 7th grade.
MT: [laughs] Beautiful. Where did you end up?
SM: In the hallway of her apartment building. I think I was only out there for a second. Then she came and got me.
MT: I would have loved to hear that you ended up at the Piggly Wiggly or something like that and needed to buy some licorice or tampons.
SM: No. We’d been drinking and taking pills all night and you know how that goes. When I said “fuck” in my sleep I got in trouble. My argument was [that] I was asleep but my mom said, “Well if you’re dreaming it then you’re thinking it.”
MT: Did you really live with your Grandma and Uncle Nathan?
SM: No. I mean I used to go and visit them sometimes. But no. Living with them made the story easier to tell.
MT: Great story telling. I did hospice work for a long time and had a few guys ask for me to pour booze into their feeding tubes. Did Uncle Nathan get his beer?
SM: Oh no. That wouldn’t have been allowed. It was a joke he said once though. Saying he wanted some.
SM: Yeah. He had mother issues. She was always watching him like a hawk. I don’t think he got to do much of anything he wanted to do. They were like an old married couple in many ways.
MT: Maybe I was a felon for giving the booze when they asked, but I thought if I had a feeding tube then I damn well better get what I want.
MT: You really portrayed that relationship well!
SM: I made up all that stuff for the book though. The majority of it. Their relationship is probably more interesting in the book than real life. Lots of sitting around. Lots of watching trucks passing on the road.
MT: But the beauty was in their companionship and fights. That’s how they showed their loyalty. I know many relationships like that.
SM: Oh yeah. Fights are good for books. There’s a John Ford story that if a movie is getting boring just have a stranger ride into town. Same with books. If the book is getting a bit slow just have them get in a fight.
MT: Yes. Do you still love Carrere and consider him the best or one of the best out there?
SM: I don’t think you see enough fights in fiction. Everything feels very Updike and Ford. Like people are mad but they never say it. In my experience people say it.
MT: Oh yes.
SM: I love Carrere and Javier Cercas. Sophie Calle is one of my favorites too.
MT: I’m putting them on my list.
SM: They’re showing a new path to jumbling all these forms together rather than more literary historical fiction. So tired of that shit.
MT: Have you read June Caldwell from Dublin, Ireland?
SM: No, I haven’t.
MT: Room Little Darker is kickass.
SM: Cool. I’ll check it out.
MT: Have you been listening to any new podcasts?
SM: I like this podcast. Best new literary podcast.
MT: Adding it. Thank you. Bud Smith, oh yes! I’m on it. Living inside a boiler.
SM: They’ll probably get a Nobel.
MT: Nice. Are you still thinking of doing a podcast with Juliet?
SM: Yeah, I am. I’ve just been so busy here recently. And our friend we used to live with moved to Charleston so we have some geographical issues to deal with.
MT: Do you have a publicist? Or do your publishers pay for you to travel?
SM: Yeah. Oh wait. Let me hunt up this other podcast quick. This is pretty amazing!
MT: How does all that come through?
SM: Yeah. Tyrant is good about the travel stuff. And also these book festivals are usually a good racket.
MT: The readings you mean? Nice! When are you going to read in NM? Not many come here. Would be so cool to have you and Juliet together.
SM: [laughs] I’d like to make it to NM. Usually people contact you or Fat Possum asked me where I wanted to go with this book. I’ve been kind of lazy about things though. I’m really burned out with readings. So I just did NY and Oxford, MS and Asheville, NC and the Decatur Book Fest and then next month I’m doing Chicago and St. Louis. Might try to do an LA date but that’s probably it for me.
MT: Collected Works is a great bookstore here in Santa Fe to read at and you and Juliet could stay at our house. We call it the compound. We have a 2000 square foot barn. How about music? I know I need to update my old lady music list. Any good ones?
SM: Listen to Fat White Family. Insecure Men will have an album out soon but it’s not out.
MT: Love the names. Look forward to it.
SM: Been listening to this crazy ‘60s singer Bobby Jameson. But you can only find his music on Youtube.
MT: Don’t know him, but love that you talked about Tom Jones as an artist.
SM: Yeah. You should listen to Robin Gibb’s first solo album, too.
MT: When my sister turned sixteen we chased her around the table singing “Well she’s a lady, wo wo wo wo, she’s a lady.” She’s a lesbian and beat the crap out of us later.
SM: Robin’s Reign is the name of it. [laughs] That’s funny.
MT: Spending time with you is damn fun. I can’t thank you enough for giving up the lawnmower for this back and forth.
SM: Oh, of course. It was fun. Thank you for asking me.
MT: Are you working on something now? Just a last question. I may send you some weird package again with corn nuts and Mountain Dew.
SM: Nope. Think I’ve given up writing.
MT: Bullshit. It’s in the blood, bloke.
SM: Nah. I’m done for a good long while. At least publishing. I’m sure I’ll get back to it. Writing anyway. But I’m kinda spent.
MT: Do you take periods off from writing, and then when it comes to you, get back on it in a frenzy?
SM: Yeah, sometimes. But it’s just getting to be a bit much for my nervous system to handle. Feel like I could write a really shitty historical novel if somebody gave me some more money. [laughs] So I’m just gonna step back for a bit. Maybe I’m just getting old. Don’t really have anything to say either. [laughs]
MT: You’re a storyteller! I see the podcast. A new venue for your blood.
SM: The worst thing to be in the world would be Joyce Carol Oates. That just seems like a nightmare career to have. Cranking out a book cause it’s what you do. Yeah, maybe. We’ll see.
MT: Or Stephen King.
SM: Yeah. People like money, though. I guess I do, too.
MT: And just want to end on the Bible. I tried to read that bastard over ten times and wanted to make it through from beginning to end, but you get me to numbers? Are you shitting me? SORRY! End of game. Although, I do love Job and Ecclesiastes and the new testament’s wild ride.
SM: Yeah. Numbers and Chronicles is like John Barth or Thomas Pynchon.
MT: [laughs] Thank you. Hope to meet you in real life someday. Sending Meg LOVE to you and Juliet! xoxo
SM: back atcha. Oh, and this is the best album of the past few years.
MT: On it. Thank you so much, Scott! You and Juliet always have a place to stay in Santa Fe.
SM: Thank ya. I’ll tell her.
Scott McClanahan is the author of The Sarah Book, Crapalachia, and Hill William. He lives in West Virginia.
Photograph in banner cited from: Tom Woodward (flickr)
Edited by Literary Ophans
Mom clung to the hamhocks of a smack-mouthed infantry of a man and all the kitchen utensils for over fifty years. She baked pies, cakes, cookies, casseroles, broiled chops, steaks, turkeys, and bacon while his face and ass blew out the windows, the children, the TV.
Rose-scented and silent, she cooked and heaped plates; kept family from expecting anything more than a second helping from her trembling hands and lips. Dad’s jaws were wrenches, screwdrivers, drill bits, shears, bottle-openers. They unhinged, turned, flipped, severed, chiseled through, blasted foundations, and stifled oxygen.
The daughters grew up fat with fear. Winds battered inside them every time Dad slithered into rooms grinding his sour stench into their soft folds, while Mom dissolved into the ingredients. Bent as far away from Dad until brittle enough to crack–Mom and the girls had a knack for burning and cutting the underbelly of things.
The word ‘mother’ meant tepid, undercooked, bland. Her daughters took on the flapping pages of a history that walked ahead of itself while Mom cleaned and cooked. When they were kids they slumbered in single beds with wallpaper that cascaded some kind of Disney phantasmal parade of shackles. Beds were perilous as depression. They gazed into their father’s pasty skin more often than the ceiling’s scarred indents. Gnawing and gnashing asleep, had them in braces until their teeth grew together out of one prison.
When polyp’s crowded through Dad’s colon in a buffet of stuffed mushrooms; the rectum, lungs, liver, brain, and spinal cord had already saturated through the bloodstream in one creamy, rich sauce.
Mom was unconscious in bed one month after Dad died. The daughters sat for what clocks could never decipher and listened to the dying woman’s open-mawed mouth gurgle in what sounded more like a pot simmering than words.
When the final breath steamed out of her, they witnessed the act of a body hardening into a slow freeze. Her eyes had long been fishhooked by other worlds.
The daughters picked at invisible stains, didn’t know what to do or say. They searched through the back of her closet until they discovered a turquoise dress that flared out like their mother never did. They put the dress on her, carefully moving awkward, heavy limbs. Arms flopped and contorted without protest. This dead mother of the pseudo-living was finally transported from an artifice dicing onions, scraping bowls, forking piecrust edges, rolling dough, and stuffing turkeys.
They took turns spraying her decaying body in lavender water, but her orifices were open caverns of festering ulcers and release.
They studied a moldy old photo album. The woman in the photos wore a vapid smile and hair that wrapped around her head like overcooked noodles.
The dead woman in the turquoise dress had a translucent sheen to her skin. The bruises matched her outfit, spreading precious opalesque storms up to the surface. Her veined hands folded over each other.
“Look,” said the younger daughter. “She isn’t shaking anymore.”
The older daughter studied the immobile limbs. A quake shuddered inside her.
Meg Tuite is author of a novel-in-stories, Domestic Apparition (San Francisco Bay Press), a short story collection, Bound By Blue, (Sententia Books) and won the Twin Antlers Collaborative Poetry award from (Artistically Declined Press) for her poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging, as well as four chapbooks of short fiction, flash, poetic prose, and multi-genre. She teaches at Santa Fe Community College, is a senior editor at Connotation Press and (b)OINK lit zine. Her work has been published in over 400 literary magazines and over fifteen anthologies including: Choose Wisely: 35 Women Up To No Good. She has been nominated nine times for the Pushcart Prize, won first and second place in Prick of the Spindle contest, five-time finalist at Glimmer Train, finalist of the Gertrude Stein award and Bristol Short Story Contest. She is also the editor of eight anthologies. Her blog: http://megtuite.com
Melting Man (Banner) by Christian Arthur
The Woman by Ted Taffe
The summer I was five, I had a lot to worry about. We moved into a new house when my sister was born. Two big adjustments—the house and my sister. But that wasn’t all. Every Wednesday at noon an air raid siren went off. President Eisenhower said on the radio that the siren was to help us but it scared me. I had to hold my breath the whole minute so we wouldn’t be attacked.
I’d been so happy living at Edgewater, but my parents said three kids couldn’t fit into a two-bedroom apartment. I’d loved sharing a room with my big brother, Steve. He knew lots of things, especially how to keep the night monsters away. And I had a million friends. Mother even let me walk to my friend Chi Chi’s house by myself.
All that changed at East Boston Terrace. I can’t tell you why, but it never felt like a friendly house, even though my parents loved it. “It was designed by the architect Paul Thiry. He’s called the father of architectural modernism in the Pacific Northwest, you know,” my mother told Auntie Lil, using her Queen of England voice.
In the beginning my sister was in my parents’ room. I had my own bedroom and Steve had his. I didn’t like it. During the day my wallpaper was a pretty design—bunches of flowers on a blue striped background. But at night the flowers bordering the ceiling turned into skulls and crossbones. My parents were so busy with a new baby, a new store, and a new house that I didn’t want to add to their problems. And Steve seemed so far away, even though he was in the next room. So on the nights I felt too scared to close my eyes in case one of the skulls grabbed me, I slept in the hallway.
Then there was the baby. When they first told me about it, I thought a baby in the family might be fun. Boy, was I wrong. First of all, she cried a lot. Second, I thought I’d be able to hold her and maybe feed her a bottle. After all, I’d had a lot of experience doing it with my doll, but my parents and Allie Mae wouldn’t let me near Pamela.
Allie Mae was our maid. We didn’t have much money, but on and off we had a maid because both my parents worked. They’d bought a jewelry store in downtown Seattle and worked long hours to get it going. It didn’t give them much time for anything else. Before the baby, no matter how busy she was, Allie Mae always had time for me. I remember sitting in her lap and playing with her hand. While the outside was brown, the skin of her palm was white, the lifelines darker. I’d trace those lines with my white baby fingers, feeling the softness of her skin and the sandpaper roughness of her fingertips.
But those days of cuddles were gone. Everyone forgot me unless someone said, “Shhhhh, don’t wake the baby.”
One day I decided I’d had enough. “Daddy,” I said, “I don’t like how the baby cries. It’s so noisy.”
My dad patted my head absentmindedly. “Give her a chance, Cynthia. If you still don’t like your sister, we can mail her back.”
“How would you do that?” I asked.
“We’d put her in that big mailbox at the top of the hill.”
That gave me pause. She was a pain, all right, but I didn’t want Pammy stuffed into a box.
“Okay, I’ll give her more time,” I said.
After another few weeks I knew it wasn’t going to work. “Daddy, I gave her a chance, but now I’m ready to send her back,” I said.
Daddy looked up from his newspaper. “Well, the thing is, it’s too late now. We can’t send her back—we have to keep her.”
“But you said we could.”
“I know but I can’t do anything about it now. If you’d said something sooner…”
I went to bed that night thinking life was so unfair. I was so mad, even the skulls and crossbones didn’t bother me.
I wasn’t much of an eater in those days. One night Allie Mae put a plate of pot roast, peas, and potatoes in front of me. I could only stare at it. She’d cut up the meat for me, and I finally put a piece in my mouth. I chewed the stringy chunk until it was a glob that I moved from one side of my mouth to the other. “Sugar, you be sure to eat up your roast and those peas, you hear,” she said from around the corner of the kitchen.
Swinging my legs, I chewed the beef and worried about how I’d eat the peas. I didn’t want the little pea girl to feel lonely as she slid down my throat. I decided to put five peas on my fork so the whole family could go together. Since I couldn’t stand the mushy feel of them in my mouth, I began to swallow them whole. But no matter how hard I tried, I could never swallow the meat. It seemed to grow larger until it crowded my tonsils. I spit it into my napkin when Allie Mae wasn’t looking. That worked well until she found the wadded-up napkin in the trash can in the bathroom.
“Shame on you. Why, there are starving children in China,” she said, swatting my bottom and sending me to my room.
I sat on my bed, hugging my teddy bear and sucking my thumb. Nobody loves me, I thought. Nobody cares.
The next day was Sunday. Daddy always made pancakes and little piggies on Sunday. I got up and started for the stairs. Somehow I tripped and rolled from the top to the bottom. I lay there, unhurt but stunned. Then I started to cry.
“What’s the matter?” Daddy called from the kitchen.
My brother came to look. “Oh, she fell down the stairs again,” he said. “Come on, baby, get up.” He held out a hand.
“I’m not a baby.” I ran back up the stairs to my bedroom. I got onto my bed and held my teddy tight. The Swensen girls, who lived four houses away, had told me about a girl who knew her family didn’t love her.
“She was adopted,” Linda said.
“Yeah, and they were mean to her. So she ran away,” Barbara added.
I put my thumb in my mouth. Maybe I was adopted. Everyone always asked me where I got my blue eyes because no one else in my family had them. Mommy told me to tell them I got them from the milkman. When I said it, it always got a big laugh. I didn’t know why.
Had they wanted to send me back but waited too long and had to keep me? I wondered.
“I bet that’s what happened,” I said aloud. “Just like with Pammy. They’re stuck with me.”
I sucked my thumb and thought. Then I stood up. “I better run away like that other girl. They’ll be sorry when I’m gone.”
In the wardrobe closet I took out my black and white checked case and threw some things in it. I put Teddy under my arm and carefully walked down the stairs.
At the front door I called out, “I’m running away from home.”
No one answered. With a heavy heart I opened the door and stepped outside. I walked very slowly out the front yard and past the driveway.
I was sure Mother would come out to scold me for making her nervous. “You get right back into the house this minute!” she’d say.
But no. No one came.
I kept walking, Teddy in one hand and my suitcase in the other. Halfway up the hill I started getting scared. I had no plan. Well, my plan was that someone would stop me. I wasn’t allowed to go farther than the top of the hill. And I didn’t really want to. I could get lost. Or there could be a bomb. Steve told me if Korea threw a bomb at us, he’d throw it back. But if I was alone, I wouldn’t be able to throw it back myself. What was I going to do?
I sat down on the curb and started to cry. I knew it, I thought. No one loves me. Nobody cares about me. They don’t even care if I run away. They’re probably happy I’m gone.
After a while I trudged back down the hill. I let myself into the house and climbed the stairs as quietly as I could. I didn’t want them to know I’d backed down. I unpacked my overnight case and put it away. Then I got under the covers. I held Teddy very close. It was just him and me.
When Daddy tapped on the door and came in, I turned my face into the pillow.
He sat down on my bed. “You’re having a tough time, aren’t you, Cynthie?”
I shuddered back a sob but didn’t say anything.
“Aww, sweetheart.” He began to pat my back. “Don’t cry. It’ll all work out. You’ll see.”
The next Saturday, before they left for work, Daddy took me aside. “Cynthia, Mommy and I have a real treat planned for you,” he said.
“What is it?”
“Steve is going to stay overnight at his friend’s. You know, Harvey?”
I nodded. “Uh-huh. He lives by Volunteer Park.”
“That’s right. So he’ll be at Harvey’s, and you get to go to Allie Mae’s tonight. Then tomorrow you’ll spend the whole day with her.”
“Really?” I clapped my hands together. “Can I go pack right now?”
He smoothed back my bangs. “Sure can.”
In August the sun sets late in Seattle, so even though it was after my bedtime, the sky was bright as we set off from home that night. Daddy was in the driver’s seat, Allie Mae next to him. I was in the back, practicing snapping my fingers. I’d been working on it for a while and was getting close. It was quiet in the car except for the radio playing a jazzy tune. Every once in a while, I heard Daddy murmur something to Allie Mae.
When we got to her house, it was getting dark. Daddy walked up the wooden stairs onto the porch with us, but I got to carry my suitcase by myself.
“Watch your step here,” Allie Mae said, pointing to a place where the wood was splintered. We walked around the hole to the front door. Allie Mae had her key out and she unlocked it. When we stepped inside, the air felt thick with heat.
Allie Mae turned to my father. “You go on now and don’t worry about Cynthia. She’ll be fine here.”
“Okay, but call us if you need to,” Daddy said in his worried voice.
She patted his hand. “We won’t need anything, Mr. Thal.”
Daddy smiled at her and then leaned down to me. “Now, be good and mind Allie Mae.”
I put my arms around his neck and he hugged me tight. By the time he drove off in the Chevy, Allie Mae had rolled up the Venetian blinds to let in a little light.
“Follow me and I’ll show you where the bedrooms are,” she said.
We walked down a short hallway, and she led me into a bedroom that had pink curtains and a pink bedspread.
“This was my little girl’s bedroom,” she said.
“Where’s your little girl now?”
Allie Mae began turning down the spread. “Ella moved down to Los Angeles.”
“Do you miss her?” I asked.
“I do,” she said. “I surely do.”
I moved over to where she stood and hugged her around the waist.
“You’re a sweet child,” she said.
In the morning when I opened my eyes, Allie Mae was standing right by my bed.
“I was just going to wake you up,” she said. “Breakfast is on the table and we need to hurry. Church starts at ten o’clock.”
Breakfast was delicious. Bacon and eggs and something Allie Mae called grits. I ate every bite.
Then Allie Mae took me into the bathroom to clean up. She brushed my hair one hundred strokes and bobby pinned the blue, satin bow into place. She helped me into my white dress and starched blue pinafore she’d ironed at my house. I put on my Mary Janes, which had been polished to a shine with Vaseline. Allie Mae was already dressed in a gray suit. She pinned her straw hat with the matching gray ribbon into place before she locked the door, and we started down the front stairs.
“Goodness gracious. I don’t know how we got so late,” she said, hurrying me along the sidewalk.
The church was pretty far away—at least four blocks. When we walked up the stairs and inside, the vestibule was empty. Allie Mae looked me up and down to be sure I hadn’t gotten mussed along the way. She refastened the ribbon on my head, and then she pushed open a swinging door. We walked into the church. The walls were painted white, and there was a large cross behind the pulpit in front. The service hadn’t begun yet, but most all of the people sat on benches in rows.
As we started down the aisle, one lady called out, “Allie Mae, is that your sweet little Cynthia you talk about?”
I turned to beam at her. She had on a straw hat that was twice as big as Allie Mae’s. And it had flowers all over it.
Several people stood and called out greetings as we walked by them. Many touched me on top of my head. Allie Mae smiled more than I’d ever seen her smile. We moved into an aisle just as the pastor started the service. I liked the way Allie Mae stood so straight, the strap of her pocketbook over her wrist. I liked listening to her voice when she sang the songs.
“They’re called gospels,” she whispered to me.
I managed to sit quietly for most of the service. Some of the time I practiced snapping my fingers and some of the time the choir sang. When they did, we got to stand up and clap to the music. A woman swayed her arms back and forth so I did too.
The pastor’s voice got real loud when he talked, and I scooted closer to Allie Mae. Sometimes people shouted out, “Amen! Amen!” after he said something.
“Amen,” I said, trying it out. When I got fidgety, Allie Mae slipped me a Lifesaver.
After the service Allie Mae led me to the line where people waited to greet the pastor. Several people patted my head as I came near them.
“Look at those blond curls,” a man said.
A woman who had a fur around her neck smiled at me. I leaned into Allie Mae when I saw little fox feet on the fur.
“How sweet,” the lady said.
I basked in all the attention, but soon after we’d said our hellos to the pastor, Allie Mae wanted to leave. “Let’s go,” she said, taking my hand.
As we stood on the sidewalk, she straightened my bow. “I surely didn’t like all those people patting your head,” she said.
I tilted my head back so I could see her face. “How come?”
“I just didn’t,” she said.
I knew that voice. It meant I better not ask any more questions.
Because we weren’t in a hurry, we walked home at a leisurely pace.
“Look, Allie Mae. A leaf just fell off the tree.” I pointed to the brown and green leaf floating to the ground.
She sighed. “It’ll be fall before we know it.” She sounded sad so I held her hand tighter.
When we were on Allie Mae’s block, I saw a Chevy parked in front of her house.
“Goodness gracious,” I said, “my daddy’s here.”
Allie Mae clutched my hand for a second and then let it go. “Yes, it surely looks like it.”
Up ahead the car door opened and Daddy got out.
“Daddy!” I called and ran to his open arms. He scooped me up and hugged me.
By then Allie Mae had reached us. “Hello, Mr. Thal. I thought Cynthia was staying ’til this afternoon.”
“We missed her so much, I had to come get her early,” Daddy said.
Allie Mae nodded. “I see. Well, come on in while I gather her things together.”
Daddy put me down and we followed Allie Mae into the house. Daddy and Mommy missed me, I kept thinking. They missed me!
Allie Mae helped me out of my dress and into play clothes. Then we went into her kitchen, and she packed up fried chicken and potato salad from the refrigerator. “I’ll never eat all this by myself,” she said, handing it to Daddy.
When I kissed her good-bye, I thought I saw tears in her eyes. I hugged her extra hard. She must be lonely with her own little girl so far away.
In the car I sat right next to Daddy. “Me and My Shadow” was playing on the radio and we sang along.
At a stoplight he looked over at me. “Did you have a good time?”
I nodded. “It was fun. And all the people in the church were so nice to me.”
“Of course they were,” Daddy said. “You’re a special girl.”
I smiled a smile as wide as the ocean.
“I felt Allie Mae was sad that I was leaving,” I said after a minute. “I think she misses her daughter.”
“I can understand that. Mommy and I missed you in one day,” he said.
As the light turned green, I leaned against his arm. I didn’t feel so worried now. I was going home with my daddy and I felt safe.
Cyndy Muscatel’s short stories, poetry and essays have been published in many literary journals. A former journalist and English teacher, she also writes two blogs. She teaches fiction writing and memoir in Kona, Hawaii, and is also a speaker and workshop presenter. She is writing a memoir of her years teaching in the inner city of Seattle.
Photograph in banner cited from: vanessa lollipop (flickr)
Edited by: Literary Orphans
Michelle Reale is the author of seven collections of poetry, including The Marie Curie Sequence (Dancing Girl Press, 2017) and Confini: Poems of Refugees in Sicily (forthcoming from Cervana Barva Press, 2018), as well as three books on librarianship with a fourth due out in January 2018. Much of her work focuses on Italian-American aspects of memory, narrative and immigration. Her work has been published in many journals both online and in print. She has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is an Associate Professor and Librarian at Arcadia University.
Michelle Reale’s latest collection, All These Things Were Real: Poems of Delirium Tremens, is powerful vulnerability (which I consider the same deal) with a mastery of language that Reale wraps around the struggle of a mother’s trapped son who is an alcoholic, and her attempt to make sense of their world together. It’s heartbreaking and relentless. Reale gives the reader a harrowing account of what it is to watch a son rock between the fragility of life and death. Here are some quotes from this unforgettable collection:
“When he thrashes in the narrow bed, when they forget his name, when the male nurse argues about who’s on break next, try not to gouge the glibness from their hollow frames.”
“Tug the thin gown over the bare buttocks, the spine contorted, writhing in disintegration.”
“I could wallpaper a house with receipts for Nikolai Vodka, for Rumpleminz schnapps, one you can’t detect, the other could be nothing more than assiduous oral hygiene.”
“The doctor is thin as a lemon slice…”
“My son froths a verbal manifesto…”
“I wear ICU delirium like a hairnet.”
“I step over and around her voice that splinters on the floor like glass.”
“There is a twig growing from his ear and he waits for the glue to put it back, to hold it all together.”
MT: Michelle! I am continuously blown away by the force of your being within your mesmerizing lines. Can you share what this specific collection means to you? How it relates to you as a mother?
MR: Thank you for your kind words! Actually, it was cathartic to write the poems and very difficult to read them now, in bound form. As a mother, going through this with your child, no matter how old they are, is one of the most agonizing feelings in the world. There was literally nothing I could do to help. As a woman, a mother, it reinforced what I have always felt and believed: that the world is fragile, and we, ourselves in it, even more so.
MT: I am almost positive that most families have dealt with addiction. This is a subject that we, as a collective, as a family, as a person, all relate to and struggle with. Can you share your thoughts on this?
MR: I have been that person, I am ashamed to say, who would look at someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol and think “How could their family not know?” But now, I understand all too well how it can happen. It was right in front of my face, though I failed to read all the signs of alcohol abuse. I made all sorts of excuses for his red eyes, for instance, and kept urging my son to use eye drops, etc. I used to tell people his allergies were awful. I also understand, in ways that I never, ever have before that addiction of any kind is a true disease—an awful one. In my son’s case, he told me he never wanted to drink—-it was like a ball and chain—but he knew that he risked severe withdrawal or death if he quit. He really didn’t know a way out. He fell down the steps in my home and suffered a horrible injury. After 9 hours in surgery his body went into withdrawal for which he was hospitalized for a month in ICU. It was touch and go. To see the physical torment, the hallucinations, etc was devastating, to say the least.
MT: That is heartbreaking and must have been absolutely terrifying! I know that you are living in the same house/block that you grew up in. Does that manifest in your work?
MR: I live in the same town in which I grew up in. My world is very ethnically nuanced—I guess that is a good way to put it. Very Italian-American. This is not only manifested in my writing, but in my mental and emotional worlds, too—which of course bleeds into my writing whether I realize it or not. A lot of my current work is what one of my friends called “accented,” meaning that it has a preoccupation with the Italian-American world which is warm, close, loving, connected and strong, but can also be claustrophobic, judgmental, gossipy and exclusive. The two sides of every coin, I suppose. But I have to say, that I embrace all of it.
MT: You are one of those ‘warriors of writing’, as I call them. You let the filters drop and give your reader a vivid and palpable experience through your words. What is your process as a writer? Do you have a specific time/place that you write or does it come when it does?
MR: I write every single day. EVERY SINGLE DAY. I also hate writing advice and I discard most of it. With that being said, I have an MFA and was incredibly grateful for the experience—it definitely made me a better writer, but I am very, very self-directed and single-minded: I just show up for my writing life every day and get it done. It gives me joy.
I keep a lot of notebooks. I like to say that I live by the notebook. I write in them every day, several times a day. I am highly reflective and my work has a contemplative component to it in that I sit with it for a bit and let images work through me. I despise gimmicks—and the writing world is full of them in the form of gimmicky online lit zines in which clever repartee gets in the way of just telling people plain and simply, how to submit! It comes in the form of too many readings that blunt the force of the work, or crazy antics in which writers have zany contests or do weird things on stage at readings. In fact, I am not big on readings and go to very few. I participate in even less. I don’t need to hear a writer read their work for it to have resonance with me. In fact, it sometimes ruins the work for me. My experience with poetry in particular is one on one: me and the page.
I do walking meditation on most days with my dogs Vanzetti (a little Chihuahua) and Miso (a Shih Tzu) and I might know what I want to write about and maybe I don’t. But I let the subconscious work on my thoughts. I write my ideas down in a Kelly green moleskin which is falling apart, but I am so attached to it! Sometimes a poem will come out whole, but most times it doesn’t. But it is a good feeling when things come together. I am working on two themed collections right now—something I love to do.
MT: I get this feeling that you have this huge extended family that live near each other? Is that true? And if so, how are the family gatherings? Any tension between siblings/parents/kids?
MR: Yes, it is true! I have a ton of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews etc. and we all enjoy being with each other so much. Two of my collections focused on each of my grandparents —The Legacy of the Sidelong Glance: Elegies was written about my paternal grandmother and the life of misery she led, before being diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 44 —she was dead 3 weeks later. Birds of Sicily was written as an exploration of my paternal grandfather’s life, a reluctant Sicilian immigrant who was a very dangerous and difficult (to say the least) man. My extended family holds up and supports the work 100% even if some of the things I have revealed in the writing hurts. And often it does. Most of the time I spend with others is spent with family. We all get along very well!
MT: Who are some of your “go-to writers” that inspire you when you are writing? Or are you a writer who doesn’t read while in the midst of writing a collection?
MR: Actually, I am always reading, sometimes several books at a time. My go to writer for a bedrock of truth is Adrienne Rich—whose work is so brave, so true and at times so raw, when I read her work I feel that this is what poetry was meant to be. Wislawa Zymborska, Joseph Brodsky are others that I study. I love the Eastern European aesthetic and sensibility: a bit brooding, dark and spare. As well, two Italian poets I love are Alda Merini and Patrizia Cavalli. I am drawn to them over and over again.
MT: What are your thoughts on how we, as a country, a community, can deal with mental illness and addiction?
MR: I think awareness is one way, and by that I mean educating ourselves about what addiction looks like, how to support (and not enable) someone with an addiction and make oneself aware of resources to recommend. Also, it is very important to adopt a stance of non-judgment; it is simply too easy to think that someone is beneath us in some way because they drink or are addicted to drugs. That simply isn’t the case.
MT: I have huge, huge love and admiration for librarians! My mother was a librarian and enveloped all her children in the beauty of escaping in books. When did you decide that you wanted to be a librarian?
MR: I probably over identify with being a librarian, but I love it! I have worked in libraries for literally my entire life and consider myself incredibly lucky to be in such a vibrant atmosphere every day! I am an associate professor and librarian at Arcadia University in the suburbs of Philadelphia and love my job. I think I always knew that I wanted to help people with access to information. Books are one aspect of librarianship, but there are a million others. I am so glad to be a part of a changing information landscape!
MT: Can you share a quote that really resonates with you as a human and a writer?
MR: I collect quotes and so that is such a difficult question to answer, but right now, this quote reinforces how I feel about showing up every day to write: “Ritual is power; habit is stimulant.”
MT: Can you share a poem that you LOVE!!?
MR: Adrienne Rich’s poem “Transcendental Etude” from her collection from The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems 1950-2001, (W. W. Norton) is perhaps my favorite of hers. The poem is too long to reproduce here, but my favorite stanzas are these:
No one ever told us we had to study our lives,
make of our lives a study, as if learning natural history
music, that we should begin
with the simple exercises first
and slowly go on trying
the hard ones, practicing till strength
and accuracy became one with the daring
to leap into transcendence, take the chance
of breaking down the wild arpeggio
or faulting the full sentence of the fugue.
And in fact we can’t live like that: we take on
everything at once before we’ve even begun
to read or mark time, we’re forced to begin
in the midst of the hard movement,
the one already sounding as we are born.
At most we’re allowed a few months
of simply listening to the simple
line of a woman’s voice singing a child
against her heart. Everything else is too soon,
too sudden, the wrenching-apart, that woman’s heartbeat
heard ever after from a distance
the loss of that ground-note echoing
whenever we are happy, or in despair.
Everything else seems beyond us,
we aren’t ready for it, nothing that was said
is true for us, caught naked in the argument,
the counterpoint, trying to sight read
what our fingers can’t keep up with, learn by heart
what we can’t even read. And yet
it is this we were born to. We aren’t virtuosi
or child prodigies, there are no prodigies
in this realm, only a half-blind, stubborn
cleaving to the timbre, the tones of what we are,
even when all the texts describe it differently.
MT: That is brilliant. I am also a fan of Adrienne Rich.
One more question. Tell me about the brilliant artwork of your son, David, who created the painting on your cover.
MR: David lived in New Orleans for quite a few years and he produced a lot of paintings when he was there. He painted the one on the cover about 5 years ago, just from an artistic vision. Who would have known, five years later, that that painting would adequately portray his nightmarish experience!
MT: He is so talented, like his Mom! Thank you so much, Michelle Reale, for your unending inspiration and love of life! It resonates in all of your work! LOVE!
MR: Thank you, Meg! Always a pleasure!
Purchase Michelle’s collection here
Meg Tuite‘s writing has appeared in numerous journals. She is author of two short story collections, Bound By Blue (2013) Sententia Books and Domestic Apparition (2011) San Francisco Bay Press, and five chapbooks. The latest is Lined Up Like Scars published by International Flash: Short-Short Fiction (University of Chester: UK). She won the Twin Antlers Collaborative Poetry award from Artistically Declined Press for her poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging (2014) written with Heather Fowler and Michelle Reale. She teaches at the Santa Fe Community College, lives in Santa Fe with her husband and menagerie of pets.
Photograph in banner cited from: Karl Herler (flickr)
Edited by Literary Orphans
Dear Orphans & Orphanettes,
The act of writing takes patience. It takes dedication, quietness of the mind, and an innate ability to create rhythm and voice on a blank canvas. Before one can even begin to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), the act of writing demands an indeterminate length of time where the mind can travel down any number of roads without interruption. To write, we must voyage outside of ourselves. We must hover above our earthly bodies and examine ourselves and the worlds we inhabit objectively.
In a world of ceaseless streaming, advertising, and background noise, finding the right environment for creativity can be difficult. With each object we interact with and each digital screen we glance at, we risk opening the doorway to a deluge of chatter. Buy this! Buy that! Your life is incomplete without the NEW and IMPROVED…
It’s almost like living in a horror story where supernatural voices direct every waking moment of our lives. If it’s not an advertisement whispering in our ears, it’s a strongly worded opinion piece shaming us for something we did or didn’t do. These ghostly voices encourage us to strive for something better than ourselves. They tell us we’re not good enough and that we shouldn’t be content with who we are as individuals. We need to be more. We need to be better.
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