Matt Mendez Q/A

Matt Mendez: I’d first like to thank Spencer Hyde for inviting
me to come over here. I’m so excited to be here. We’re going to do a
Q&A first and talk a little bit about MFA programs and short stories
and YA novels. We’ve got YA novelists and future YA novelists in here,
short story writers, correct? I do both, and I love both equally. I started
writing in 2004 with short stories, and that’s essentially the form that
I first starting doing and will always be, I think, my first love. I love
writing short stories, I love reading short stories. And even though I do
YA now and consider myself a YA novelist and just a novelist essentially,
I think short story writing forms a lot of what I do, and I think that,
without writing short stories, I wouldn’t be able to be a novelist or a YA
novelist. I think reading the form and writing the form teaches you such
precision, and it teaches you to concentrate on characterization and the
moment of clarity; it teaches you to focus on the character, on timing,
and just really creating surprise in such a way that it helps me to clarify
what i’m doing in the novel. It also teaches you economy. It has taught
me economy because I know when I’m reading a short story collection,
when I’m reading a short story, there are these moments of surprise
that are in short stories that are so powerful that when I’m reading a
novel, especially if it’s not the best novel, that they’re hard to come by.
Sometimes I find myself just kind of like, treading through a novel,
waiting for that kind of moment that I get in short stories all the time.
So, when I sit down to write, especially a novel, I find myself reading
more short stories because those moments of impact are on every page,
almost in every paragraph, even at the sentence level. I know that if I go
back to an MFA program, I would probably want to write a novel as part
of my thesis, but I would probably concentrate on reading short stories
and look at how short story writers are putting their work together to
kind of help me get ready to write a novel, which I think is important
for this time, for what you guys are doing, because this moment you’re
in now is a very special time for writers because you’re never going to
get this kind of opportunity again where you get to take your work
very seriously, and then other people are going to take your work very
seriously. You’re never going to get this opportunity again where you’re
going to have this group of people to read your work as thoughtfully,
as carefully, again. Because once you graduate and you move out to
the world, you’ll you have a couple of really close friends that will get
to read your work, but they’ll have jobs, they’ll have their own work,
they’ll have families and all sorts of other commitments. They’ll read
your short story, but they won’t read it with the same level of scrutiny
you would. So, right now is a really special time to concentrate on what
you’re doing. So, take that time you need while you’re working on all
your stuff now to read widely, read short stories. If you’re a poet, read
short stories. If you’re not a poet, read tons of poetry. Read creative
nonfiction. Read all sorts of stuff that you would never imagine reading.
Now is the time to do that. And also, read genre work. Read sci-fi, read
horror, read mystery, because there are all sorts of writers doing all sorts
of brilliant things that you could learn from. Now is the time to soak
up all that stuff to help you write the kind of stories you want to write
because there’s all sorts of writers doing really interesting work and all
sorts of wide genres and all, that’ll teach you, that you can learn from.

Spencer Hyde: Who wants to open up the Q&A?

Student: I have a question.

MM: Sure thing.

Student: So, I like hearing you talk about how short stories have
taught you so much about learning how to write novels because I’ve
heard a lot of people—well, sometimes I feel like in the MFA we have
people who are like, “I do short stories,” and other people say, “I do
novels.” It sounds mutually exclusive, but the real issue comes up in
workshop, that sometimes people don’t know how to give, like, short
stories aren’t sure how to give novelists feedback. If that makes sense,
I would love to hear some input on how to cross those genres because
they are different. They have a lot of similarities, but in workshop, that
looks a little bit different. I don’t know if that makes sense.

MM: It’s true. They’re different forms, so it just depends on what the
writer’s looking for as far as critique. So, if you’re critiquing the novelist,
you’re basically just critiquing the chapter. So, the chapter should kind
of conform to what a short story is doing. It should have a purpose. Is it
part of a larger whole? So, you know, they should workshop the chapter
and what the chapter is doing. A chapter should have a beginning,
middle, and an end, sort of. You know what I mean? A chapter should
have an ending where it’s going to then lead into the next chapter, so it
should have some forward momentum going into it. I think as a short
story writer, the short story should be self-contained. And I think those
are really the only two major differences. I think a chapter should still
work at a sentence level. The sentence should be exciting. They should
be tight and compact. I think a lot of novelists feel that they have more
room to breathe—a novelist should—they should be more expansive
and that they don’t have to pay attention to as much detail as a short
story necessarily has to. And I don’t necessarily believe that. I like all
my sentences to be as tight as a short story, which is probably why it
took me ten years to write the novel that I was writing. Which could
be one of the drawbacks of my approach to writing! Keep that in mind.
But you know, I like to write my novels like I write my short stories,
where I pay attention to sentence level, and I’m very in the weeds and
in the details when I write one. So, when I sit there and draft a chapter,
I would write it like I’m writing a short story. I want to make sure that
I have the characters doing something in the short story, each chapter
has its own—Spencer and I were talking earlier about creating the
fictional plot for yourself so your characters just aren’t sitting there,
chatting away at a coffee shop where nothing’s happening. So time is
passing. In the short story, your action should start with some sort of
dramatic event. So, at the beginning of the short story, something needs
to happen that sets your plot in a short story in motion. You know, a
lot of short stories seem to start this way, you know. “The day after my
father’s funeral I went and bought a fish at the pet store.” You know what
I mean? There’s always some sort of quirky thing that happens in a short
story. That’s kind of a flip example, but you know what I mean? There’s
always something that happens in a short story and it kind of starts the
fictional plot going. So, we know there’s a problem introduced, or like
an emotional problem—the death of a parent or something. Then the
character takes an action. He buys this fish. And then this fish becomes
a metaphor or whatever in the story, but then you have this thing that’s
introduced, and then the story’s kind of moving forward. And chapters
in novels kind of work the same way. Then the novel itself should have
an overarching thing that’s going on. You know, and the novel Barely
Missing Everything that I wrote, the novel begins with two boys going
to a party, and then you know, the cops come and these boys have
to make a decision, and that starts the clock in the story, and then in
the novel their characters are making decisions and their decisions
have consequences. You know, the clock is going, but that initial clock starts with the police and these boys make decisions and then there’s court dates and
other stuff that kind of has these smaller clocks inside the novel that
keeps the story moving forward so it’s not just characters hanging out
talking, even though there is a lot of hanging out and talking, but as far
as critiquing goes, each chapter should have its own unit of time just
like short stories have their own units of time, so I don’t think there is
too much difference as far as critiquing them, so the short story writer
should understand that there is a larger unit that that novels is gonna fit
into or that chapter is gonna fit into novel wise, and then you can just
kind of explain that as part of the workshop, like this fits into the larger
novel this way and this is what I’m looking at, this is what I’m looking
for is my critique. I’m not sure how your workshops are set up, if you
let the writer talk.

SH: I don’t let them, but they can ask questions after they’ve been
workshopped.

MM: I know some workshops let the writer talk a little bit and some
don’t.

Student: I was reading Barely Missing Everything, and I was so
impressed by the use of the third person point of view because I read
so much contemporary young adult, and it’s all written in first person
cause, I think, that perspective probably gives immediacy to the text,
but, even in the first basketball scene, I felt like I really knew what Juan
was thinking and what was going on. I have a hard time writing third
person and trying to get all of that, and I was wondering if you had any
advice or thoughts on writing third person that feels as immediate and
as intimate as first person.

MM: I love using third person. It’s my favorite point of view to use,
and to me it just feels like old school storytelling, let me tell you a
story, “there was a guy,” you know what I mean, it feels like campfire
storytelling to me, so that is why I love using third person, and I think
a lot of times when people use third person, if you wanna use like a real
close third person it’s just a matter of controlling psychic distance. To
use a film metaphor, whether you’re using a medium shot or a wide
shot or a real close-up shot of characters, just vary how you’re writing
that sentence. I think when you write a first draft everybody is kind
of in a medium shot when you’re writing, so everything has this one
static distance. If you do a portrait, it’s one portrait shot, and all first
drafts tend to have that one third person distance. I think the default
is to always write in first person for immediacy because you have the
“I” voice, and the “I” voice always gives you an immediacy because you
can always just default to the “I was thinking this,” “I was feeling that”
and it’s an easier way in a first draft to get like immediacy right away.
In third person, I feel I have more flexibility because I don’t have to
filter through the “I” voice to get the wider shots, I can just immediately
cut to describing and descriptions without having to filter in through
a character. So, for me, I get to use more description, I get to describe
more, I get to use more centering stuff when I’m writing third-person
than I do in first-person, because for me, in first-person, I feel it’s always
a bit more awkward, at least for me when I’m writing, to get descriptions
in and to describe the setting. I like third-person more because I get to
pull back and use like a wide view, and I get to describe mood, I get
to describe smells and sounds and textures, and then I get to zip back
in, and then later drafts get more of an interiority of what a character’s
thinking. Especially in that opening scene where you’re talking about
with Juan, where he sees his mom come clopping down the stairs—
which is kind of a closer shot—and then immediately zoom in to what
Juan’s thinking about: his mom,and how embarrassed and mortified it
is that she’s in the gym with her new boyfriend and how he feels about
everybody eyeballing his mom and being attracted to her and how that
makes him feel. And then you immediately zoom back to the actual
basketball game. So for me, third-person, you kind of have that ability
to zip back and forth and get that immediacy, and then zoom back, get
the overview of what’s actually happening, so to me it’s a more fluid way
to do that. That’s just the way I prefer to do it, where for me, first-person
feels a bit more clunky, and that’s just cuz I haven’t been able to master
first-person that way in longer pieces.

Student: I was wondering if you could recommend a few of your
favorite short stories?

MM: Oh! My favorite short story of all time is “The Lottery”—
Shirley Jackson’s. I love Shirley Jackson. I mean, that’s the one short
story that I read when I was in high school that got me really excited.
I had breakfast with Spencer this morning, and we were talking a little
bit how as a writer, when you read, you should always read for pleasure,
but when you come across a moment in a book that surprises you, you
need to underline it and circle it, make notes to yourself, then go back
and read as a writer. And when you read as a writer, you wanna see how
this magic trick got pulled. And when I first read “The Lottery, “when I
got to the end and that last line, “and then they were upon her,” is such
a chilling line. Has everyone read “The Lottery?” Go back and reread
it. It’s amazing! When I got to that last line, “and then they were upon
her,” I was so blown away. Like even just talking about it now just gives
me the chills. It’s like oh my god, they’re gonna stone that woman to
death. It’s crazy. Even now I’m having the chills thinking about it. How
does Shirley Jackson pull off that terror? There’s a whole time—ah, I
forget the name of the lady now—she is panicking during this lotto,
and everybody is aware of this horrifying thing that’s about to go on,
and they’re all kind of wishing that it’s not them, kind of passively
going along with this awful thing that’s going on, as if it’s this normal,
everyday thing, or this once-a-year thing. And you can feel the terror
slowly building, slowly building, and when she realizes that this is
going to happen to her, she looks out to everybody in her town for help,
and nobody’s going to her. And you get this feeling like it’s this noble
thing, how people would react in this situation where they’re glad it’s
not them, and they’re gonna refuse to help or else it could be them.
And it’s terrifying. You can feel this woman’s terror, and she’s all alone.
And then, you can see as you read the story that nothing’s gonna be
done to help her, and it’s just this runaway train of fear. And you know,
Shirley Jackson just slowly builds into this whole story. So I always like
to go back and read how does Shirley Jackson create that element of
fear? How does she slowly do it? And how does she get away with that
surprise at the end? Cuz I mean, you can feel the fear building, you know
the lottery is not gonna end up going well for her. And then still, at the
end it still comes off as a surprise. And to me that’s kinda the impact
a great short story has. And some of my favorite short story writers are
Dagoberto Gilb. He’s really fantastic. There’s this Jewish writer, Etgar
Keret, Israeli writer, he’s fantastic. He writes really short flash fiction,
and his stories are so inventive and creative that they’re even hard to
describe. It’s not magical realism, it’s something else. But they’re really
smart, funny, and political, and I love his short stories, his flash fiction,
which are even shorter than short stories. He just does so much in such
a small space and they’re really remarkable.

Spencer: Yeah, you wonder which one of them was a better friend at
the end of “The Lottery;” the one that picks a small rock or the big rock?

MM: Right?

Spencer: Even then it still holds pure suspense.

MM: It does. It’s such a terrifying story.

Spencer: Yes. An adult puts a rock in the hand of one of her children.

MM: Right, yeah it’s just a terrible.

Spencer: I still remember that from seventh grade, let me tell you.

MM: That’s what I’m saying. That story has such a resonance and a
staying power to it.

Spencer: I hope I didn’t ruin it for anyone.

END OF Q/A

Matt Mendez Interview

Matt Mendez, author of Twitching Heart, a collection of short stories,
and Barely Missing Everything

Inscape: We wanted to start with your latest novel, Barely Missing
Everything. How was the process of writing that? Your first compilation
came out in 2012, and your novel came out earlier this year. Were you
working on that novel for seven years? Or were you working on a couple
different things and Barely Missing Everything is what graced the table
first?

Matt: I actually started working on the novel in 2009, so it’s been
a really long process, at least for me. I guess you can say that I’m not
a prolific writer. It takes me quite a while to get something real. In
2009, I was at the Red Clay Writers Conference. One of the stories
from Twitching Heart just had been published in Pank, the literary
journal. I don’t know if you guys have ever read Pank. It’s one of my
favorite online journals. The editor there was just doing a little bit of
fact checking like any good editor would do. One of the elements of
that story was this database of Texas, where they collect the last words
of death row inmates. While I was sending her the link, I found a guy
on there who had my same exact birthday, day and year, and me, being
curious and inquisitive, I clicked on the link just to see who this man
was. You know, he was a lot like me; he was Chicano, from Texas, and
he’s from a city similar to me. That got me thinking how our lives took
alternative tracks. He ended up on death row, and I was at this writer’s
conference. The month and year he was admitted on death row were
the same month and year I graduated from college. So, I wondered how
it happened that our lives split in these two different tracks, and how we
ended up in these two stark and different places. Because for me it’s not
really about the individual choices so much as circumstance. That was
the original seed for the novel and the beginning of a long journey of
writing and researching.

Inscape: There seems to be pressure from publishers to get a novel
done really fast. If we’re not able to write an awesome book in a week,
then we are failures. But it’s good to know that things take time, you
have to do your research, your homework, and there’s no rush.

Matt: I started writing the Twitching Heart stories in 2004, and my
collection didn’t come out until 2012. It takes a while to get stories
going. I finished my MFA in 2007, and all those stories that I wrote at
the MFA program were the stories of Twitching Heart. Between 2007
and 2012 I worked on getting those stories better. It’s a long process.
Even when you’re done with your MFA, it doesn’t necessarily mean the
stories you worked on are ready to be published and made into a book.
It takes a long time to get it all ready and for you to figure out what it is
you’re trying to say or trying to write.

Inscape: Do you often run these stories by readers before they’re
published?

Matt: No. Nobody.

Inscape: Really?

Matt: Yeah. After I was done workshopping and doing an MFA
program, I pretty much kept them to myself. I think writing in a
workshop and being in an MFA is a special time. It’s the one time when
you’ll have a group of people really invested in your work. There is
really no other time quite like that. Other people are never as invested
in your work as you are. For me, writing is a one-person sport. Nobody
is going to care about your writing as much as you do, except while
you’re in a program like this because your professors are invested in
your work, your classmates are invested in your work. The same effort
you’re putting into your work, they’re putting into their work. You are
all creating this safe space, this community to write. But once you are
outside your program, you know real life has come to you. You can give
work to other people, but they have commitments, and a life, and a job,
and their own work, and that level of intensity is just not really there.
You’re the only one who’s going to have that level of commitment, just
like an athlete who golfs or plays tennis or boxes. You’re the one that
has to push yourself constantly. So, I didn’t necessarily share any of
my work with other people. It’s just me constantly minding my crap,
reading other fiction and working. I developed the tools I needed in the
MFA program to make my stories, and then I just needed to have the
confidence to turn them into publishable stories, which is always hard.

Inscape: Which is tough. You need a lot of discipline to do that.

Matt: Yeah, but it’s also a one-person thing, right?

Inscape: So, you started with short stories.

Matt: Yeah, and I still write short stories.

Inscape: Right, but what made you want to write a YA novel?

Matt: It didn’t start off necessarily as a YA novel. It just had young
protagonists. I find young characters are the most inquisitive and
vulnerable. I like the young voice, so there are a lot of young characters
in my short story collection. The way they view the world is more open
and honest, so I think writing a young adult novel was a natural next
step. When I was writing, I considered my audience carefully because
I didn’t want to write anything exploitative. When you’re writing a YA
novel, you don’t want to lend yourself to exploitation; you don’t want
to write anything that’s going to be damaging to your audience. At the
same time, you don’t want to write down to a YA audience. There’s this
perception that when you’re writing YA, you’re writing lesser and that
you’re writing something that is not literature, which is absolutely not
true. You can still write elevated fiction. I’m just not writing anything
that’s going to damage a young person while they read it, or something
that is gratuitous or exploitative.

Inscape: In regards to that, a Booklist review for Barely Missing
Everything says: “Mendez’s attention to raw detail in plot and diction
is both painful and illuminating. With its shades of social justice, this
will appeal to readers of Matt de la Peña and Jason Reynolds.” How
important is realism and honesty in your storytelling?

Matt: It’s pretty important for me. I like realistic fiction, and that’s
good company to be with. Matt de la Peña and Jason Reynolds are pretty
great writers. I write contemporary fiction —getting the world right
is important to me. I’ve been in the military for 23 years and traveled
all over the place, but for me the Southwest is home. It’s where I feel
the most comfortable, being in the border, being around my Chicano
people is where I feel the most comfortable. The Border and the
Southwest always feel mysterious to other people who’ve never been
there. They have these really weird ideas of what life is like there. Sure,
people from other countries have these weird, abstract ideas of what
Mexico is, what the DF [Distrito Federal] is. Even here in the United
States, the Southwest always feels like this foreign place to people, but
to me the Southwest is real in a vibrant way. I don’t want so much to
show other people what the Southwest is like, but I just want to write
my own cultural experience, add it to the canon of American Literature.

Inscape: Barely Missing Everything has been compared to Jason
Reynolds’ works, which portray difficult stories about racism and the
Black Lives Matter movement. Do you think your book is the YA book
for brown kids?

Matt: Yeah, I think so. Not a lot of literature is directed at brown
boys specifically. They’re an underserved group because nobody
thinks of little brown boys reading books. They’re not going to be the
target audience because they’re not going to get on Goodreads or post
Amazon reviews. Nobody targets books to them because they don’t
think that they read, but there are kids out there reading books, and
they want stories about themselves. I mean, who doesn’t want to see
themselves in books? Everybody does. You have Matt de la Peña and
then there’s a huge gap with nobody else writing books for these kids.
It’s important to have representation for these kids in high quality
books about their lives, so they can see themselves portrayed, not just
in a representative way but in thoughtful, meaningful ways. Like, “that’s
my family, my mom, my grandmother—that’s me and that’s how I feel
about things.” It’s important to them to have that part of their lives on
the page.

Inscape: Did you ever see yourself doing anything other than being
an author?

Matt: Oh I didn’t see myself being a writer at all. I was one of those
kids who didn’t grow up reading as a young person. I grew up not liking
school, not trusting school; none of the institutions I grew up with as
a kid felt trustworthy. I would walk into a school, and when I left, I’d
felt that nothing that was going on in that building had anything to do
with my life. Nothing! I mean, they taught Shakespeare, Hemingway,
and Chaucer, and they would tell me that I’d have to read and learn
this stuff in order to be successful, but I would walk outside and none
of that had anything to do with the life I was living. It wasn’t what my
parents were talking about. My dad never finished high school, and he
was doing all right. My mom finished high school and wanted to keep
going, but it was so hard to have to take the bus to community college,
and then she had two kids, three kids. I didn’t see how reading all that
was going to help me be anything—it was such a disconnect. I felt like
I was constantly being lied to by the adults in my life. It seemed like
total bullshit, honestly. If I’d had books that had to do with my life,
that they would talk about critically, it would’ve made more sense. But
those weren’t the books being taught at my school. It just seemed like a
fraud to me. I think books like mine, books like Jason Reynolds’, books
that are being published now in the YA world will connect with young
readers, and that’s why it’s vitally important to publish them.

Inscape: Is that what inspired you to write? Was it this connection
that you wanted to make?

Matt: Yeah, but it wasn’t until I was twenty-six years old and in
college before I found Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street, and
I thought, “That’s exactly what my neighborhood looks like!” When
I read that book, I wanted to read more. I wanted to be a filmmaker,
but it wasn’t until I found these books and started writing my own
stories, that I decided to write more as opposed to making films. The
only reason that I wanted to make movies was that I really idealized
Robert Rodriguez because he was making El Mariachi and Desperado.
I always loved stories, but I looked at him and thought, “Well, I can
do that.” There were no other examples growing up. I didn’t see any
other brown people making art, unless I was watching Telemundo or
movies in Spanish. I didn’t even know who Gabriel Garcia Marquez
was. They weren’t teaching him in school; they weren’t teaching Juan
Rulfo or Cortazar. They were teaching Shakespeare! I’m not slagging on
Shakespeare—Shakespeare is fine, but they weren’t teaching these great
Latin American writers who have their own huge canon. They weren’t
teaching any indigenous writers—all this huge cannon that belongs
in Southwest literature that we could have been learning. They didn’t
teach any of that stuff, which would have really helped the students in
our school and in the Southwest. It’s terrible.

Spencer Hyde: I didn’t even get into Borges until I was in college.
Late in college—amazing! It was unfortunate it didn’t happen earlier
because of all this great stuff I would have had to read.

Inscape: You talked about filmmaking. Would you like to turn one of
your stories that you’ve already done into a film?

Matt: I would like to sell it for someone else to do. I don’t think I
would want to be the one to necessarily make it.

Inscape: In Twitching Hearts Juan loves basketball and JD loves
filmmaking, so you gave your own interests to your characters.

Matt: I think all fiction writers put material from their own lives into
their fiction—Spencer?

Spencer: It’s impossible not to.

Inscape: In Twitching Hearts you mention Octavio Paz and Juan
Rulfo, but do you have any other authors that have inspired you to
write?

Matt: Oh, there are so many. I mentioned Sandra Cisneros—she is
like my patron saint of writers, and she blurbed the book to be on the
paperback, so I am eternally grateful to her for that. Dagoberto Gilb,
Roberto Bolaño, Borges, Cortazar. Eduardo Galeano! He’s one of my
favorites, and Manuel Muñoz, who’s the creative writing director at the
University of Arizona. He’s one of my favorites.

Inscape: We were doing some digging and discovered that you used
to write at Denny’s?

Matt: That’s where I wrote a lot of Barely Missing Everything.

Inscape: So while you were pounding some breakfast?

Matt: No, it was in the middle of the night. I was an aircraft mechanic
for a lot of years and my shift would start at 2:30 p.m., and I would get
off at 11:30 p.m. Then I would drive to this Denny’s cause they’re open
24 hours a day. I would write until about 1 or 2 in the morning, and
then I would go home. That was my writing routine for a few years.

Inscape: What was your meal of choice?

Matt: I would take terrible coffee and then sometimes fries,
sometimes cheese sticks until I started gaining weight from eating the
cheese sticks! So I would have to cut that out and start ordering a salad
that I would never eat. They make you order something, you can’t just
sit there.

Inscape: I got a couple more questions to wrap things up here. Is
there any advice you would give that could help less experienced writers
in the writing process?

Matt: Just read, read widely, read outside of your genre. If you write
fiction, read nonfiction, read poetry. I think poetry helps a lot with
timing, language, economy of language. If you’re a poet, read fiction
and nonfiction Just read, read, read, read, love to read—that’s the best
advice. If you want to be a great writer, you have to read.
Inscape: I think that’s something that Stephen King said: you have to
read in order to write.

Matt: I think you need to have a passion for reading in order to write
good stories. There’s so many writers doing such interesting things, that
reading helps inform your writing. If you have ever read something and
you have been moved emotionally, you will go back to that moment
where a writer made you feel something, and you ask, “How did they
do that? How did they pull this trick on me?” You never see that trick
when it’s happening. They make you feel suspense; they make you cry
or laugh, shock you with a plot twist that you didn’t see coming. But it’s
not a magic trick. They set you up all along to have that moment pay off.
It’s either sentence level or characterization or pacing; the author sets
you up for this moment that pays off. I’m a mechanic, so I’m interested
in the craft, how this writer made this wonderful moment happen. The
books I have at my house that I really love are full of highlights and
arrows and question marks. I’ll sit there and deconstruct the whole
thing and see how they did it.

Inscape: Last question—what lies ahead for Matt Mendez?

Matt: I’m working on another young adult novel and, knock on
wood, hopefully that goes well.

Inscape: Any titles or things you can throw out for us?

Matt: I’m superstitious, so I don’t like talking about it too much.

Inscape: Well, I’ll knock on wood for you.

END OF INTERVIEW

Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel Q/A

Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel, author of Fear Icons, Q&A with students
from BYU on October 11th, 2019

KLS: Thank you all for coming. I’m really excited to be here. I hope
that you will just see me as a resource. And I’m very glad there’s a baby
here. It’s going to help me feel a little more mellow, distract me a little
from my nerves. You (students) probably know this book better than
I do at this point, so I would love to hear your questions. What can I
answer for you?

Student: I’m interested to know when you started writing, why you
started writing, and when your first publication was.

KLS: The big question: how did I get here? I appreciate this question
because we often hide how many different paths you can take before
becoming a writer. I graduated from Texas Christian University a
thousand years ago with a degree in social work. I was going to be a
very helpful person in the world, and I worked at Habitat for Humanity
for about a minute (hardly at all), because I just couldn’t do it. Being in
the office was absolutely soul crushing for me. I couldn’t find a way to
be myself while also doing work that was also “helpful.” I did not feel
helpful, so, I quit that job, even though I love Habitat for Humanity,
and I started doing outdoor education for low-income, at-risk youth all
along the West Coast. I started out in Washington State, then moved to
northern California, then southern California, and did that for about
three years. Now, all the while, I was secretly writing. At night, I’m in my
room, hiding, writing novels and stories and whatever, just completely
hiding it, even from myself—not taking it seriously, not respecting that
part of who I am, because it didn’t feel important enough. What the
heck could I have to say that would matter? I continued to do outdoor
education until I burnt out, and then I moved to Missoula, Montana,
which is an incredible literary community I lived there for seven years,
and it just felt like home. There were so many people writing, just sharing
their work and connecting with each other through literature. It was
invigorating for me. But, even then, I denied it in myself. So, I enrolled in
the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies program, thinking
I could do some good for the environment. Long story short, I ended
up just taking a bunch of creative writing classes, and my professors
finally said to me, “You’re actually just writing creatively, and that’s fine.
Could you please just do that thing?” I wrote a triptych of essays about
farmers and ranchers in the Bitterroot Valley that won the Richard J.
Margolis Award, an incredibly big award for social justice journalism.
You should all look into it. It came with a fellowship at Blue Mountain
Center in New York, a month-long writing residency that changed my
life. I decided that for one year, I would write seriously, and I applied
to two programs for creative writing; one was Iowa, and I got in. From
Iowa, I went to Whitman, where I’m now a professor. So, my road was
long and winding, and a lot of it was me hiding from myself. Once I
started to take my own work seriously, that’s when I really was able to
do the things I really wanted to do. Am I doing any good? I don’t know.
That’s still a really important question, but the writing does me good, so
that feels right. At this point, I’m okay with that.

Student: Why the essay? You mentioned that you started writing
stories and novels. When and why did you switch to essaying?

KLS: That’s a good question. I had a really strange experience with
essays. Back when I was writing fiction, I applied as well to the University
of Montana’s fiction program and did not get in. I don’t know if this is
an experience that others have shared, but for me, as a woman, when
somebody tells me no, it can really shut me down and make me think
that I can’t do that thing. I actually listened to the gentlemen in the
room who told me, “No, you’re not able to do that,” and I thought, “Oh,
well I guess I can’t write fiction.” At almost the exact same time, a good
buddy of mine, Chris Dombrowski, who writes nonfiction and poetry,
handed me John D’Agata’s Next American Essay. I started to read it and
thought, “Oh, wait. This is actually what I’ve been doing all along, this
kind of ‘essaying’.” That book gave me a new way to understand what
the essay was—that it was no longer that five paragraph perfunctory
high school nightmare that I had actually been very good at. I got a 5
on the AP exam, but that kind of writing never introduced me to what
the essay could actually do. D’Agata’s book was my introduction to it,
through a friend, again, through community. At that point all the lights
went on. Everything opened up for me. That was my jam. I was in love.

Student: So, you mentioned the five-paragraph essay. I feel like most
students don’t know what a personal essay is. They’re not familiar with
the genre of creative nonfiction. It took me a really long time to wrap
my head around it, to be honest, so I’m curious, how do you introduce
your students to the genre and help them understand what an essay can
be, break these barriers of what they thought it was?

KLS: I do lots of different things, but I’ll just talk about a couple. And
it’s not just students who struggle with the term “creative nonfiction,”
right? It’s the whole world. When I first arrived at Whitman—which is
a lovely place (I have lovely colleagues; don’t let this story be indicative
of your perspective of it)—I was at a cocktail party, where all the
professors were introducing themselves, and I was so nervous, you
know, dressed up and so excited. A professor in a nice suit walked up to
me and said, “Hello, who are you? And what do you do?” I said, “Oh, I
write creative nonfiction. I’m here to teach creative nonfiction,” which
was a brand-new position at the school as well. And he goes, “Ha ha
ha! Isn’t that an oxymoron?” He turned on his heels and walked away.
I thought, “Yes, and that’s the beauty of it!” It is, in fact, an oxymoron,
and there’s this beautiful tension between that which is creative—
our imaginations, the way we perceive the world, the metaphors we
use, even our memories which are actually very creative—and the
nonfiction of our life experiences. So, I thought, “You missed it!” This
whole genre, because he had already defined it as ridiculous. I tell that
story to my students, and then we talk about the ways in which creativity
and the work of nonfiction are not separate things. That, in fact, any
time you write, you are engaging your creativity. Any time we have a
discussion, we’re engaging our creativity. The word creative is often
misused as “false” or as fiction, and then we use the word nonfiction to
try to separate our own lives from that which is false. But fiction comes
from a word that means “to shape,” and in nonfiction, we’re shaping just
the same. I guess that’s why I also prefer the word essay, which had a
long tradition even before Montaigne, where folks were thinking on the
page, trying to understand something about the experiences of their
lives, and giving words to it. For example, what are we doing right now?
You’re trying to find some words, and you’re smiling at me, and you’re
being creative as you interpret your experience. A lot of the work of
the essay is to move and be responsive, and that also is a creative act.
It doesn’t mean that we make it up, but it does mean that we’re paying
close attention and using our descriptive facilities in order to actually
name that which has happened to us. That’s creative. But I still prefer
the word “essay” because of its ability to name for me what I think this
genre can do, which is to attempt, try different ways, different forms,
but also, to weigh. That part of the etymological definition is really
interesting, what it means to weigh ideas or experience. So that’s just
one way I help my students. We also take a walk, actually the exact same
walk, and then I have them write about it. What they start to recognize
are the ways in which we can never take the same walk. The moment
they start to write about it, they’re engaging their creativity to help
them understand what walk they took. What was their journey? That is
also the work of the essayist. What’s your journey?

Student: Does your background in environmental studies influence
your work now?

KLS: The poet Camille Dungy is really right when she says that all
writing is ecological. This is especially true for me, personally. In some
of the essays, like “Liberace and the Ash Tree,” and of course, with the
horse—that horse still gives me nightmares—the environment’s very
present. My work is now turning more towards what it means to write
in the Anthropocene, toward what ways of reading and writing we
might engage now that we are in this new epoch, in which the impact
of humans is actually being recognized and named. I also studied with
writers who prioritize the environment in their writing. That was very
helpful for me and informative.

Student: Thanks for your work. I had a question about translation:
there are two areas in the collection where you talk about translation,
one in your Trump essay and then in the acknowledgements where
you say that you read through translation (as in reading is a type of
translation). I was just wondering if you could maybe explain a little bit
of that translation process as you are reading and writing.

KLS: When I’m thinking of translation, I’m thinking about the root
of the word, which is “to move across.” I’m interested in what it means to
move across boundaries that might exist for us. I am constantly living in
translation. For example, right now, I have a thought and I’m very clear
on what it is but moving that thought into language is in itself an act of
translation. We engage in that difficult and complex act every time we
write, every time we speak. I talk about this a lot with my students who
get so frustrated with themselves when they can’t write something down
very easily. “Why doesn’t it just come to me? I know what I’m thinking.”
But there is something about moving that thought onto the formalized
space of the page that can actually complicate the thought, and make us
think about our reader—whoever that is, that amorphous being, right?
All sorts of things are happening related to reception, how my idea will
be received. And that, to me, is also very much about translation. But I
think for me as a creative writer, I’m mostly thinking about the idea of
moving across. So, how am I moving across from my own perception to
another way of seeing, or another way of being? Or how am I moving
through language in order to expand on my understanding? It really
is that idea of moving across any sort of boundaries that have been
delineated as mine but not named by me. These boundaries are lines
that have been given to me or I have been told, “Those are your lines.
Those are your boundaries.” Those are the ones that I’m very interested
in exceeding—because I’m angry, right? I don’t want to be told that
that’s the limit for me. So, I’m interested in moving across those, even
translating the physical space, and what that means for myself.

Student: There’s a section at the very back of the book which
acknowledges several shadow texts that you’ve used. I’m curious about
that, how that plays into your process. Were you inspired by those texts,
or were they part of your research, or a mix of all that?

KLS: A mix of all that. I am a thief, evidently. This term, “shadow
text,” comes from the writer Maggie Nelson, who I heard talk about
shadow texts at a reading once. She said whenever she’s writing a book,
she will always keep another one on her desk that functions for her as
a shadow text, something she can turn to whenever she’s stuck or can’t
find the words or if she’s lost momentum and needs to find it again.
When she said that, I understood what I was doing in this book. A lot
of the time, these quotes would kind of just come at me in the midst
of writing. For example, the very first essay is called “Jesus.” I read a
quote in Harper’s Magazine while I was in the midst of writing “Jesus.”
(Writing Jesus sounds so strange to say.) While I was in the midst of
writing that essay, I felt stuck, but I happened upon this particular
quote and thought, “Oh, okay, that’s it!” Then I was able to weave that
quote into the text in what I hope was an effective way. That is how most
of these shadow texts functioned for me—they were discovered during
the process of writing. As I’m reading through them, very few were
initiators for the essay except for “Wild Things Are,” of course. In that
case, the shadow text was also the writing prompt that I carried with
me while writing that particular essay. What I think is really cool about
the shadow text idea is that it becomes a helpful companion during the
writing process. Even today, when I was thinking about what I wanted
to talk about with y’all in the next hour, I ended up turning to another
writer, Elena Ferrante, and reading her work and using a quote from
an interview of hers. I am always in conversation with the writers that
are beloved to me, those I consider literary kin, who are around me as
I’m writing—those who allow me to keep going, allow me to feel less
alone. They are also a source of inspiration and fuel for creativity. These
writers remind me, too, where I’m situated aesthetically. They give me a
clue as to where an essay is going and who I might want to lean on. Am
I leaning on poets for an essay? Or those who are writing articles and
critical work? It just depends, you know?

Student: I was intrigued with the formatting of some of your essays,
like in “Wild Things Are” where you’re down to a paragraph or less per
page. How much of that was your insistence as opposed to perhaps an
editor helping you format?

KLS: The great thing about Mad Creek Books is that they really
trust their authors. Essentially, I submitted this book and it won the De
Gournay prize and then I said to the editors, “I don’t think it’s done.”
And they said, “No, I think it’s done.” They had accepted the book
on its own terms, but when I said again, “I don’t think it’s done,” they
allowed me to make changes and gave me space and freedom. So, all the
formatting and form that you see here is mine. I couldn’t really tell you
why that essay in particular ended up being so fragmented except that I
really wanted to follow the shape of the original book. And that the way
in which that book was written there are some pages even where there
are no words, just images. There’s a lot of space between the prose, and
so you have a lot of space to digest all the variations of thinking that are
happening in that book. That was part of what I wanted to enact in the
brevity of the sections and also the compression of the imagery in those
sections.

Student: Along those lines of formatting the book and how
everything being situated how you wanted it to be—obviously there’s
this theme of fear throughout the essays and we see that in the title—I
was curious what the intention is behind the ordering of your essays in
this collection?

KLS: Great question. They were in a somewhat different order
when I submitted the book, but then a switch went on for me when
it was accepted for publication. I’ve talked to other writers and they
have echoed a similar experience—where the book gets picked up
and suddenly you’re like, “Oh, this is getting real.” People are actually
going to look at this. It allows you to see the work in a slightly different
way. I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but you write a draft
of something and then the second you email it to one of your readers
that you really trust you’re like, “Oh, no, no, no. I need to fix this, and
I need to change that!” Because you’re suddenly allowed to see it in
a different way, as they might see it. When this book was accepted, I
started to rethink the order of it and the trajectory, and I wanted to
really understand for myself what that trajectory was. I had a wonderful
teacher at Iowa named Susan Lohafer, who once told a student, “Print
out all of the essays in your collection, and then find a very, very big
table that feels a bit like a large dining table. Place each essay at a seat,
as if they are at dinner. And then put them in conversation with each
other during this dinner that you’re holding in your mind for them.
Who’s talking to whom? What are they saying? Who’s expanding on the
other person’s essay ideas?” That allowed me to start to map out some
resonances and see a sort of pattern. I wanted to shape the collection
as a movement from essays that felt very experiential (in which the
feeling of fear was most present) towards essays that highlighted love,
allowing that fear to ebb away. So those final essays are really radiating
around love more than the fear. But all the while, both are tethered
to each other. I’m trying to modulate the volume between the two. I
wanted to have the fear louder in the beginning. And then toward the
end, have the ideas around love and the feelings around love to be more
prominent.

Student: While I was reading, I noticed that some stories were in a
more typical form, some of them were letters, some felt like a picture
book that had no pictures, and then in “The Dalai Lama’s Sharks” I
constantly got lost because it had no formatting. How do you decide
which style fits with which essay?

KLS: That’s such a good question. It’s a question of how do form and
content come into conversation. So “Wild Things Are” resembles the
form of a children’s book. It is interesting that you say, “I felt very lost”
in the “Dalai Lama’s Sharks.” What do you notice about the form of
that particular essay? There’s no white space, no paragraph breaks, no
paragraph indentations. In fact, the whole is just one long paragraph,
and not just that, it is justified to both sides of the page. So, it’s no
wonder you feel lost. It is like a long column. That is part of the form—
it makes you feel that swirling, lost momentum of what’s happening.
And that’s very much being discussed in the essay. To be in the water,
to not know where the boundaries of your body are, to not know what’s
happening around you because it’s getting darker the deeper you go.
There’s actually less to visibly describe the deeper you go, and that’s
definitely part of what I wanted to have happen in that essay. So, what
you’re naming there is a specific relationship between form and content.
I also wanted that essay to feel very meditative. And so, the thoughts
there are intended to come as they come; you allow them to come—
this is the idea of meditation. There’s no judgement, or at least some of
the meditation that I have read about and tried to practice with great
failure, is based on the idea that you let the thoughts come, and you
don’t tell them they’re good or bad. You just let them move through
you. That’s part of what that essay is trying to accomplish—to welcome
the thoughts as they come.

Student: I noticed in your essays that you use a lot of dialogue, which
I thought really helped drive the narratives as well as make your ideas
clearer. In my own writing, I’m always very hesitant to use dialogue
unless I can remember exactly how it was said. So, my question is, how
do you conceive of dialogue in nonfiction writing, particularly in this
collection, and what role do you feel it plays?

KLS: This is a really great aesthetic and personal question, one that
you’re entering into for yourself. What’s great about the essay is that
everything is allowed. It is the great open field where we all get to make
our decisions about what works for us and what ethically resonates with
us. So, for me, part of the work of dialogue is that it is coming through
me; these are, on the whole, very personal essays that are—I hope—
showing you that everything comes through my perception. That what
I’m revealing to you is what I remember, even if that is not correct. That
being said, there are quotes from, we could call them “more famous
people,” and unless I’ve said, “I imagine,” then those were actual quotes.
So, I don’t think I really have a good answer for your question, because
I feel that as an artist I’m really open to using dialogue in ways that are
functional for the narrative that I am telling. However, if I were to write
a profile, a portrait of an individual, and that is not necessarily about me
or about my perception, then I’m going to want to stay very, very close
to those quotes and actually check them with the person before I ever
publish it. So, I have kind of different standards, even for the different
forms of essays that I’m trying to engage.

Student: Along that same line, I noticed that with the Trump essay,
you have specific dates and conversations that happened on those dates,
are those guesses, or do you keep a journal, or something else?

KLS: Concerning, the dates in “Trump”—I was taking notes while
that was happening. That essay is derived from a very active journal
that I kept, so I didn’t go completely crazy trying to process what was
happening. That event was definitely trapped in time, if you will, so I
recorded it very carefully.

Student: You use this technique of addressing people in your essays,
of writing to people, and I’m curious what the rhetorical and stylistic
effect of that move is?

KLS: What I think is interesting about the epistolary essay—I love
that word, epistolary, it’s so fancy, but it just means letters—is that you’re
addressing someone who might never actually get the letter, which is
actually called a dead letter. Or you’re addressing someone, especially if
they’re famous, who might not ever respond, probably, even if they do
get the letter. So, the question rises, “Who are you even talking to?” So,
there’s this void where the letters enter into, that I think is very linked
to fear, of not being heard, of not being able to communicate, of not
being able to use language. But, at the same time, there’s that void that
gets to live right next to, or maybe even inside of, the intimacy of a
letter. What happens the minute that I put “Dear” on the page? Dear,
x. That “Dear” immediately starts to invoke a beloved–“Come along,
dear.” There’s an intimacy that builds through that epistolary mode that
can then allow the writing to come—how do I want to say this—not
more easily, but just with more tension and nuance. I mean, if ever you
are stuck with writing, just start writing a letter to someone, especially
someone you’re angry at, right? The writing will just start coming.
Even if you’re stuck writing an essay, that’s not addressed to a person
or about a person, just start writing to someone you trust. If I’m stuck
with an essay, I might write it to my husband. “Dear Rob, here’s what
I’m thinking about. I’m really stuck on this essay—” and then, there
it goes. It will often start from there. So, part of the work of the letters
is to, I hope, create that feeling of intimacy, but also that feeling of
“This may never be responded to.” A third effect, of course, is that the
reader is sort of a voyeur, so there’s a discomfort there as well that can
be really useful in devising some tension. It creates a different kind of
tension around the communication. Should I be witnessing this? How
is this for me? An open letter, which is a letter specifically written for
the public to read, is very different from a letter that’s private. There are
entire books and theses written on the role of the letter in literature,
and I’m just touching on a few of the aspects, the ones that are most
interesting to me, and which show why I wanted to use them for the
“Dear Phoenix” letters. I actually went a little bonkers and was able to
find his address, which is way too easy to do. It’s someone who’s super
famous, but I could find him on Google maps and actually see the roof
of the house. I thought, “This is getting really weird.” I could only see
the address on the mailbox next to his, so I was going to send the letter
to his neighbor, but then I thought, “Why would I send these? What
would be the point of that?” It was just becoming very performative,
and I don’t actually want him to read them. In fact, they were letters to
me, not to him. It’s not a book about the icons I’m addressing. The icons
become the lens through which I’m able to think about “x,” whatever
that thing is. That’s really what icons are for in these letters—to give
an image that allowed for connection to that which was unintelligible.
A moment of connection with something concrete and physical, that
could lead to abstractions, and help people actually start to think about
those abstractions. Whether they work or not for you is different, but
does that answer your question?

Student: Definitely.

KLS: Letters are boss. It’s the best writing activity. I ask my students
to write letters for almost everything now, because they immediately
start to listen for themselves rather than worry about who’s going to
read them. Because they know who’s going to read them; they know
who’s going to get that letter, in their mind at least. We could write to
this lovely baby. What is this baby’s name?

Student: Ella.

KLS: Ella? Dear Ella, right? Immediately, your brain starts to open
up. You’re warm, you feel good, you’re like, oh I have space for thinking
now! This baby’s going to hear my letter. She’ll read it eventually, maybe.
What else can I answer for you?

Student: How has your writing impacted or changed your family?

KLS: My extended family—they don’t really know what I do, which
is totally fine with me. My mom was a high school English teacher for
thirty-five years, and so she’s super interested in literature. She has
definitely read my book, but she’s never said a word about it, which is
also fine. She still talks to me, so that’s great, but I don’t know what her
response was at all; she’s a very reticent person. She doesn’t talk a lot
about herself, so it’s not like it’s a surprise that she wouldn’t talk about
my book. I’ll say something that’s a little different than what you are
pointing to, which is less about the impact of the publication of a book
and more about the actual process of writing and the impact of that on
my immediate family, which includes two kids under the age of nine
and my husband, who’s also a poet and a writer.

The writing of the book has impacted me—and I explore this a little
bit in this book—because I had to make choices to take time away from
them. I’m not with them right now—right? —so I have to make these
choices to separate myself from them in order to do the work. That
has been very tricky, especially during the years when my son was very
little, when he was this age (pointing to the baby), it was the hardest
thing I have possibly ever done. And not just because I thought, “Oh,
I’m so sad, I’m leaving my baby.” Yeah, that was true, but also because
I wanted to leave my baby. If I didn’t, I was going to go bonkers. So,
having that dynamic, the tension between those two poles—which
weren’t two poles at all, they were just very nested inside each other,
these two equal desires—of wanting to be with and not wanting to be
with so I could be with myself, were very, very intertwined. And they
continue to be. It gets easier as they get older because they don’t want
to hang out with me quite as much. But it’s still a very difficult question,
and there is a different answer for every writer in how they mitigate and
deal with that. It has deeply impacted the shape of my family; you can
ask me in ten years how that worked out. I’ll ask my kids, but I know
that for myself, if I did not take the time away from my family to write
and to do things like this, I would not be who I am. And then who am
I to my kids if I am not who I am? So, at some point, I feel like I’m
forty-frickin-two years old, and I need to at least honor and respect the
person that I know myself to be at this point, while also doing my best
to be there for my family in the ways they need. But that’s a really big
tension; it’s hard to do both. I don’t know that I have found exactly the
way forward, but you just try.

Student: So, going along with your family, I loved the essays in this
book where you talked about your children. I think “San Andreas
Fault” was one of them, and “Darth Vader” at the end. What kind of
techniques or processes do you use to write about something like that,
like your children, your family, without being cliché?

KLS: Oh, yeah, that’s a good question. I think clichés are treated really
poorly in our culture. I think clichés are a portal; they’re the first draft.
I think that whenever you write a cliché, pay attention to it. Don’t let it
stay if it’s not the one you want to keep, but just notice it, and then allow
yourself to write into it. Because what are clichés except shorthand
for emotions? They allow us to very quickly move past an idea, so we
can get to the next one, which could be just as equally important. So,
especially for first drafts, don’t deny the clichés. Don’t treat them poorly,
just welcome them. And then as you’re going back through the draft,
find those clichés and pull them out, really highlight them, and then
you can think more deeply about what it is that is specific to you, what
you’re trying to say about that experience. They really are doorways,
portals. I feel the same way about mistakes in writing, like whenever
we make grammatical errors, or misspellings. Like in this book, I wrote
s-i-t-e instead of s-i-g-h-t. The editor was like, “Do you mean sight, or
do you mean site?” And I said, “Oh, I meant site.” But I didn’t—in the
beginning. I meant sight, but the meaning of site changed the essay.
Fireworks went off. My mind had a little secret that it was telling me
through the misspelling. I feel the same way about clichés and most
accidents.

END OF Q/A

The HOA

by Allie Manner

 

“We’ve been waiting for you for hours, Cynthia.” All the lights are off in the dusky house. White, hazy sun filters in through the blinds. Cynthia tilts her head to the side and carefully pulls her right hand behind her back as the front door swings shut. She fumbles for the light switch with her other hand, but nothing happens. They’ve cut the electricity. Cynthia frowns, wrinkles her lips.

         “Fine fine fine, then,” she says. She feels like admitting defeat. “I thought you weren’t gonna just show up in my house anymore.”

         Nothing. Just the silence of cut electricity and unwelcome guests. Cynthia shuffles forward, feeling for the back of the chair, swinging around and landing in it kind of gently. She’s settling in.

         Hazy, hazy light. Cigarette smoke, if the committee allowed smoking, or vaping, if The New York Times hadn’t been dragging it through the mud so much lately. They might have thought about it if not for The New York Times. They’re always reading it and listening to it and subscribing to it. Rich people and rich news. Cynthia heard that NYT reached out to personally thank this HOA for its devoted readership.

         “What do you have in your hand, Cynthia?” That’s Stan talking. He’s always the one talking.

         Cynthia shrugs, looks away. 

         “Cynthia, darling. I’m just wondering.”

         Cynthia slowly pulls her hand in front of her, peeling open her fingers. Smooshed little white blossoms. Lily-of-the-valley, all alone, like keys from off the body of a flute. They’re bell-shaped and barren looking without their copious greenery. She looks at the flowers, thumbing through them for a moment, and she looks up.

They’re sitting across from her, the three of them, behind the kitchen table. Just three feet away. Stan is slouched in the armchair, knees crossed, right forearm listing perpendicularly. His fingers are relaxed and curled. His liver spots are all lit up. Elizabeth is brooding, white floating hairs caught in the haze, her back up against the chair, looking off into the distance. She could never be bothered, but she’s never going to leave, and they all count on her so much. Rick is standing on the other side of Stan’s chair, square-footed, flat-shouldered, hanging jowls (like a basset hound) outlined as he looks directly at Cynthia. Gunning. Gunning for it. Cynthia hears the rest of them, eighty other ones, listening in the kitchen, in the bathroom, in the dining room and everywhere. Cindy, Rachel, Frank, Rick, Graham, Brooke, Amy. Cynthia looks at all of them, and each of them looks back at her. They are ghosty outlines in the dim light, with hearing aids, or, with the younger ones, freshly sprouted grandchildren and active boating lives. They want her bones, and her energy. It’s a cult with manicured lawns and nails, and she lives here because she wants to. She already knows all of this.

         Cynthia sighs, filling her body with white noise, sagging in her chair, looking at the flowers instead of Stan. She holds them up to her eyes, wondering if they knew what they had cost her. Their curly scalloped edges. She lowers her hand again, so that the flowers rest in her palm, in her lap. They look like they floated there, or crash-landed since they were a little creased and bruised.

         Stan says, “Didn’t you know?” They always did find out, with their internet forum and their casual driving and their gossipy lunch dates. “We always do find out.”

         Wincing a little, she says, “Elizabeth said you were thinking about bargaining chips? Material goods, services rendered, that sort of thing?” Cynthia is trying to wiggle out of it, and who can blame her.

         “Since when do we bargain?”

         “Tuesday. Elizabeth told me.”

         Stan looks at Elizabeth. Elizabeth shrugs. “I did tell her. We played tennis on Tuesday, and it came up.” She winks at Cynthia, who smiles. Stan shrugs a little, too, and looks back at Cynthia.

         “You don’t even play the game fair, Stanny boy,” says Cynthia. That makes Stan smile, and Cynthia smiles, too. “Stanny boy, oh Stanny boy.” Rick even relaxes his shoulders a little bit.

“But, really, let’s talk about bargaining, Stanny, Ricky, Lizzie,” says Cynthia, down to business, placing her free hand squarely on her knee, and the other hand is still holding the petals. “What do you want? What can I give?”

“For you to stop.”

“Obviously. But it’s too late. That’s why you’re here. What do you want now.”

“We want an extra kidney, or you could lead the next blood drive, or there’s the basil plant you’ve managed to keep alive,” Rick says.

“Not the basil.”

“Maybe, then, all the more reason for the basil.”

Rick sighs a little, and Stan and Elizabeth swivel to look at him. He’s not relaxed anymore. Stan sits in the chair, and everyone listens to Rick. 

“It’s not about material compensation,” Rick says. “Never your money, never the appliances. It’s that you promised you wouldn’t, Cynthia. There was an oath, there was initiation, there was paperwork. We have it all, and we were all there, and you were there.” There’s a murmur of ascent from the onlookers, who are all remembering when they were there, too.

         Cynthia stares at the flowers. She’s thinking about that paperwork, where she signed her name, about the candles and the expensive salad. She really does like the salad, and she likes Elizabeth, who is a feminist with Marxist ideas and a healthy outlook on her own sexuality, even an open marriage, Cynthia suspects. Rick always uses his truck to pull trees out if they need to be pulled out, and gives people bread on Sundays and snow cones on the Fourth of July. Stan donates to the NAACP every month, for goodness sake, and has a husband on the city council who’s always advocating for the homeless. Cynthia will miss them all. She will miss them terribly.

         “And that’s important to us,” Rick continues, gunning. “It’s all about commitment, integrity, community.” Everyone in the kitchen nods, and murmurs to each other: “Commitment, integrity, community.” 

Cynthia opens her mouth and lifts the lily-of-the-valley up and eats it. It’s very bitter between her molars and on her tongue. After she swallows, she lifts her head, gazing unfocused across at them. Stan is scowling. She can see it (his face) now that her eyes have adjusted to the lack of light and the cut electricity. Elizabeth has straightened and turned to look at Cynthia now, and is dripping in subtle disgust. The eighty in the kitchen have gone quiet, no more murmuring.

         Cynthia sighs, stands up, shoulders her way into the kitchen (through Steve and Diana and Phil) and braces her hands on either side of the sink. “It’s an HOA. It’s a Home Owners Association. A Humble Ovation, Alright? Why can’t you all eat kale, and just do that and nothing else? I get the community. But can’t it just be that and nothing else?” 

         Stan rolls his eyes.

         “Besides, lily-of-the-valley has 38 cardiac glycosides. It’s just poisonous. I’m just taking care of it for you. You can have the basil, the kidney. Not the blood drive, not the summer festival. But I guess you can have the blood itself. I guess if you can get it fast enough, and if the lily-of-the-valley doesn’t ruin it. I have no idea if it will. I know nothing about that sort of thing.”

         Stan shoots her in the head, and she falls away from the sink, the HOA members (who are sighing) in the kitchen spreading away from her, like oil and vinegar, like the Red Sea and Moses—haven’t you heard it all before? Cynthia is the dry land, Pharaoh shrieking after her like pariah he is. 

 

Twenty minutes earlier.

“If I only had a brain…” swish behead the many-headed lily-of-the-valley! “Give me liberty and give me death, sing me to sleep with your last breath…” stomp well equipped to be beheading, decapitating, thanks man, I like your boots, too.

Cynthia grins, breathing heavy, dancing a little bit. The sky is fading but still glowing, and stretching very, very long over the street and the grass.

“I am seeeeking asylum, after all.” Her eyes are hot and bright, and tiny white bell-shaped blossoms are strewn along the path behind her. She feels free in the wake. What about the HOA? The HOA will charge up to TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS just if you track mud into the neighborhood. The Home Owners Association. There’s a sign posted all about it, the aggressive, official kind that looks like speed limit signs and stop signs. What about the flowers, though? Do the flowers count. Does anything count, at this point? She stops, and turns around, and stares at the lily-of-the-valley heads. White on gray, casting shadows, very tiny. She goes back and crouches down, her knees up around her jaw, and picks up the blossoms with her left fingertips, putting them inside her right palm. She straightens, her knees aching and flooding (with blood?). It’s very tingly, very white noise. “I will save you from the HOA! I promise I will.” They hear her, she knows.

She, Cynthia, turns around again, balancing blossoms in her right hand, continues on her way home, but silently now. Eyes still hot. She turns right at the driveway, and, one foot on the grass, one foot on the sidewalk, walks up to the front door. Opens the door.

Heartbroken Man Seeks Time Machine

by Lisa Christensen

 

The sun was sinking fast in the western sky when Luke and Sari climbed the hill—their hill—to watch the day fade away. Things had been difficult on us lately, Luke thought, with the stresses of the day-to-day minutia and the toll that life takes on love. And yet, here they were, hand in hand, just as they ought to be.

He squeezed Sari’s hand tighter as a stiff wind blew past them, making her golden hair dance and sway like long, dry grass. The loose cut of her long sweater made it billow behind her.

“Cold?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” she replied, sparing a glance his way and adding a quick smile as if to prove it.

He pulled her closer, so their arms touched. He could feel the warmth of her skin through the knit of her thin sweater and the nylon of his windbreaker, and he opened his mouth to ask again if she was sure she wasn’t cold but decided against it. They wouldn’t be out here long.

“Here,” said Luke, tugging her along as he bounded up the last steps to the top of the hill. “Look at that.”

“Oh, wow,” Sari whispered. The sky was a blaze of red and orange and pink, as if someone took a swath of hues from the warmest part of the color wheel and dumped them along the horizon. A few puffy clouds drifting eastward took on swarthy tones of purple and gray, but the fading light made even their edges burn silver and gold.

Beside her, Luke watched the awe and delight brighten her eyes, saw her delicate features somehow become even more beautiful bathed in this light. He would stay here in this moment forever if he could. There were worse things than spending eternity gazing at—no, worshipping—the woman he loved. Just thinking the word made his heart pound in his chest. He hadn’t been sure when they met up earlier, but now he was. Tonight he would finally tell her.

Another stiff breeze tumbled over them. A few of the last lingering leaves on the gnarled old elm tree beside them came loose and swirled in the gust, and the tree creaked and groaned from the strain. A thick limb hung over them like a protective arm. Luke squeezed Sari’s hand again and balled the other in a tight fist in his pocket, as if tightening his grip could make him stop shaking. “Let’s sit down and watch the sunset.”

She sank down next to him, tucking her feet under her, and gave him a sidelong look. “Are you okay?”

“Fine,” he said too quickly, heart pounding so loud it almost filled his ears. “I’m fine.”

Sari paused a moment, then gave him a look of skepticism that could always cut through his bravado. “It seems like something’s on your mind.”

He looked away, then up, bracing himself on the hand not knitted with hers. To the east, the sky was fading into a dark violet, and the first few stars were starting to appear. It would be getting colder, especially if this breeze kept up. It was now or never. “You’re right,” he started, voice shaky. There was a root digging uncomfortably into his leg, but he ignored it. “I . . . Things have been kind of rough lately, haven’t they? You got that new job and I . . .” He stopped and shook his head, then forced himself to look at her, look straight into those eyes like drops of melted chocolate. “None of that really matters. Sari, I . . . I love you, Sari. I love you.”

He felt weightless, like at the top of a jump before gravity catches up, and his breath caught in his chest as he waited for her to say something. Her face was still, her mouth fixed in a small “o”, those chocolate eyes wide. Even her hair seemed to toss in slow motion in the fresh gust of wind that swept over them. “Luke,” she finally said. “I—”

There was a loud creak and a snap above them, and then a rushing sound. The next thing Luke knew, he was staring at the darkening sky above with the grass cool on his back. His head was spinning; his body numb. Then, gradually, pain swept over him, sharp and burning in his left arm and the back of his head. Something heavy and pokey was on top of him—a tree limb. It was too heavy to lift, but he was near the edge where the smaller branches tapered into twigs. With some effort, he crawled out from under it, dead wood tearing and scratching at him with every movement.

As his head cleared, panic rose. “Sari?” he called, then again, louder, more urgently. “Sari?”

Beneath the fallen limb, he spied the tail of her sweater, a flash of blue against the splintered wood.

“Sari!” he cried, scrambling over to her. His left arm hurt—maybe even broken—but he couldn’t worry about that now. The bough was thick, at least six inches across, and heavy. Beneath it lay Sari’s crumpled form, silent and still. “Sari!” he yelled, over and over and over as he pulled and tugged and pushed at the rough bark.

Later, he would find disjointed bits of recollection scattered through his memory: calling for help, of waiting an eternity for flashing lights and grim-faced people in uniforms to arrive, of being cloaked in a heavy blanket, being treated by paramedics there and then at a hospital, taken home. Later, he would regain consciousness again, like someone finally pushing record at the end of the scene, staring at a hair elastic she had once forgotten on his coffee table. Later, he would wonder if how he felt was the abyss Nietzsche had talked about.

And then, he remembered the time machine.

He had built it years ago in a fit of desperation after, well, his last relationship disintegrated. He had taken calculated risks with the causality, though in none of the dozen altered futures had he ended up with her and the causality had been far more potent than he expected. But this was different. Then, he tried changing different events at different times; now, he only had to go back a few hours, and he knew exactly what to change. More importantly, back then, that had only been a one-sided obsession; this was true love.

After his last spectacular failure in love, he had put the machine away, deep in the recesses of his closet. It was hidden in an old vacuum cleaner box behind a mound of old shoes and dirty clothes that he never moved for this specific purpose. Luke cleared them away now, digging with one hand, his other bound in a sling. It seemed he did break his arm after all. One functional arm was enough to drag the vacuum cleaner box out and remove its contents, though re-assembling the pieces was a little harder. At least he was right-handed.

The machine was built in two halves: the mobile unit, about the size and shape as a bulky wristwatch; and the much-larger stationary unit, roughly the size of the vacuum that once occupied this box. The stationary unit was the actual time machine in all the ways that mattered, but could not itself travel through time. That was the mobile unit’s role, and it allowed Luke to retain his memory of the day’s events while still taking him back to a time when they hadn’t yet happened. He wasn’t sure what happened to the pieces of the mobile unit in the past when he went back, but suspected they somehow vanished. Having both mobile units existing at the same time would break the laws of physics.

And neither piece would work without the other—without the stationary device, the mobile unit was useless, and without the mobile unit, there was no way to actually travel through time. It was a fundamental flaw in the design that Luke had identified early on but had been too busy, by his own admission, violating the laws of time and space to pay much attention to it.

Luke tightened the final screw at five minutes to midnight. It had been a little after five-thirty when he picked Sari up to go to the hill, and it had taken a while to walk there. He could do this. He could go back six hours and save Sari and change everything back to what it ought to be. Heart pounding and arm throbbing, he adjusted the settings on the machine, fastened the mobile unit to his injured wrist, and launched himself back in time.

***

The sun was fast sinking in the western sky when Luke and Sari climbed the hill, their hill, to watch the day fade away. There they were, hand in hand—skin on warm, unbroken skin—just as they ought to be. Luke’s knees went weak and his head spun, and he stumbled.

“Are you okay?” Sari asked, frowning. “We can go back.”

“No,” Luke replied, recovering. He pulled against her to right himself, noting with dull curiosity that his arm was unbroken. But that realization was overshadowed by her, whole and alive, right beside him. His eyes pricked with tears and his heart was almost drowning beneath waves of relief and mourning and disbelief and hope. “No, I’m fine. I’m great. This is—” He swallowed away a lump growing in his throat. “Everything is great.”

She gave him a sidelong look but resumed walking without saying anything. Luke squeezed Sari’s hand tighter as a stiff wind blew past them, making her golden hair dance and sway like long, dry grass. The loose cut of her long sweater made it billow behind her like a cape. Something dark enveloped the swirl of emotions inside. That wind. It was coming to steal her away from him, and time machine or no, there was nothing he could do to keep nature from following its course. All he could do was make sure she was far enough away to be safe. He pulled her closer, feeling her warmth through his windbreaker and her thin sweater, as if keeping her next to him could save her. But that was the thing that had gotten her killed, hadn’t it, being next to him at the wrong time and place? He had to think. He needed time.

“Oh, wow,” Sari whispered as they crested the hill. The blaze of reds and oranges and pinks coloring the sky in their fade from west to east and the bruised spots of clouds were no less beautiful than they were the first time he saw them, but Luke’s eyes were fixed on Sari.

He remembered admiring her beauty in this sinking, golden light before, but that seemed so long ago. So much had happened since then; he felt he’d aged years in the hours since this happened. Had he ever truly appreciated the treasure beside him? The joy on her face in the soft sunset was a work of art, her sighs a symphony. There was no price too high to stop time, to halt the planets and suns in their movements, to pause every other creature in the universe, if he could only linger here in this moment.

Another stiff breeze washed over him, breaking him from his reverie. That wind again. It swept a few of the last leaves from the gnarled old elm tree that creaked and groaned with the effort, and Luke felt cold in a way that had nothing to do with the weather. His hands trembled, and he squeezed Sari’s hand tighter and balled the other hand into a fist, shoving it deep into his jacket pocket.

Sari saw him looking at the elm and cocked her head. “Do you want to watch the sunset from under the tree?”

“No!” Luke said, too loud, too fast—her expression flickered with unease. “We should go soon. It’s getting cold.”

“Oh. Yeah, it is,” she replied, looking back at the sunset. “It’s just so beautiful, isn’t it?”

Luke’s heart was pounding again, and he remembered his mission from hours earlier. He took both her hands in his, took a large step to the side, and pulled her along, putting them out of the tree’s reach. “Sari, I want to tell you something.”

She gave him a skeptical glance but raised her brows in a silent invitation to continue.

“I know things have been rough,” Luke began slowly. How long had it been since he said those very same words on this very same hill at this very same time? “But Sari, none of that matters. You have no idea what you mean to me. I thought I knew before, but I know now with more certainty than I’ve ever known anything in my entire life. Sari…I love you.”

There was that shaky, weightless feeling again, and there again was that look on her face and the small “o” of her mouth and her hair tossed by the wind. “Luke,” she said, time moving so slowly he was sure the world ground to a halt as he waited to hear the words he never got to hear before. “I—”

Behind them, there was a loud creak and a snap above them, and then a rushing sound as the elm tree’s limb crashed to the ground. Sari whirled around and gasped. “We were just there,” she said, turning back to Luke. Her face was white and her eyes wide. “We were just there! That might have hit us!”

Luke was shaking with relief. The branch had fallen, they were clear; now all that was left was to finish this moment in the sunset on the hill and walk arm-in-arm into their future.

“That’s so crazy,” Sari said, looking behind her again. The limb, thick and rough and capable of so much destruction, was lying harmlessly on the ground with only a scattering of broken twigs around it and a handful of divots torn through the grass to show for its fall.

“You were saying?” said Luke, squeezing her hands.

“Oh,” she replied. She looked down, then slowly back up at him. “Luke, I really like you, I do. But I don’t know you well enough to say that back to you, you know?”

“No, I don’t. I don’t know.”

Sari hesitated, biting one plump lip between her perfect teeth. “What we’re doing, it’s fun, but love—” She paused on the word, as if it were hard to say. “—I’m not ready for that.”

“That’s okay,” Luke said, forcing a smile and squeezing her hands again. “We can take it slow. You don’t have to say it back yet. But I need you to know, I love you.”

“No, Luke,” Sari said, looking back at the horizon. The last rays of the sun cast shadows where she furrowed her brow. “This isn’t a ‘not now’ kind of thing. Do you understand?”

Blood was rushing to Luke’s ears, roaring above every other sound, and he was helpless to do anything but shake his head in hopeful disbelief.

“I like you, but I don’t think this is ever going to turn in to love for me,” she said, meeting his eyes again, but only briefly before casting them down. She squeezed his hands once, then dropped them and stuffed her own hands into the pockets of her jeans. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Luke heard himself saying, arms swinging leaden at his sides. “That’s fine.”

Sari looked up at him through her long lashes and gave him a sad smile. “That’s really nice of you to say. I hope it’s true. Because whatever happens, I’d like us to stay friends.” She took a deep breath and shivered. “It’s getting cold. Maybe we should go back.”

Luke nodded and watched her stroll down the hill as his brain struggled to process what he had just heard. But his emotions were quicker. “No,” he said, then repeated it louder. “No!”

If Sari heard, she didn’t stop, so Luke said it again, loud enough to hear over the rushing in his ears.

“No!” he yelled. “Don’t you walk away from me!”

Now she turned, her lips turned down into a pouting frown.

“Two months. We’ve been together two months. You’re telling me you know after two months that you could never love me?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You sure implied it.”

Sari closed her eyes and ran her tongue along her bottom lip. “It goes both ways, though, doesn’t it? You can’t possibly know me well enough after two months to know that you love me. Nobody can know anybody that well that fast. Love takes time.”

“Oh, like you would know,” Luke spat.

Sari shook her head. “And we were having such a nice time, too,” she said softly, then turned away and started walking again.

A hurricane of desperation crashed through Luke, spurring his legs into motion, and he chased after her. When he reached her, he grabbed at her blue sweater sleeve and spun her around. “Look, I’m sorry. Let’s go back, huh? Let’s just rewind five minutes and pretend I never opened my stupid mouth.”

She looked pointedly at her sleeve until he let go. “I think this was about at its end, anyway,” she said. “I’m really sorry. I hope you find someone who loves you like you want them to.”

As she walked away again, the desperation turned to rage, and he understood for the first time what people meant when they said there was a hair-thin line between love and hate. “Do you know what I did for you?” he roared. “You should be dead right now, do you know that? That branch was supposed to hit you, and you were dead. I saved you! And this is the thanks I get?”

Sari stiffened, and when she craned her head warily to look at him, her eyes were full of fear. “I don’t think you should call me again,” she said. The look lasted only a moment, and then she was walking away so swiftly she was almost jogging.

“Sari!” Luke cried. “Sari! I didn’t— I’m sorry!”

His legs burned with energy to go after her, but a calm fell over him as his brain caught up with the moment. There was an easier way to fix this. He turned instead for home, and when he got there, he found what he was looking for in the old vacuum cleaner box deep in his closet.

***

The sun was sinking fast in the western sky when Luke and Sari climbed the hill, their hill, the useless mound of dirt in the middle of a neglected city park that for some reason Luke had considered romantic. Here they were, walking hand in hand, like they were in love, like he didn’t know what she thought of him. It was all Luke could do to keep his lip from curling in disgust. A stiff wind blew past them, making Sari’s hair fly wildly around her head. He never noticed before now, but he could see dark, muddy brown roots peeking through the golden strands. A lie, just like the rest of her.

Luke squeezed his hands, his free hand balling into a fist, while the other crushing Sari’s.

“Ow,” she said, trying to yank her hand away from Luke’s vice-like grip. “That’s a little tight.”

With some effort, he loosened his grip and forced his expression into something that could be considered apologetic. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she replied, but slid her hand from his and crossed her arms. “Kind of cold, isn’t it?”

“But would you look at this,” Luke said, bounding up the last few steps to the top of the hill. He felt reinvigorated, as if all the energy he had been sapped of the last time he was here had come back doubled this time around. “Just look at that sunset.”

“Oh, wow,” Sari whispered, her eyes widening at the sight. After everything she had said to him—or that she would say to him—Luke couldn’t help but admire her. She was still lovely, even now, even with him knowing what she was going to do, and it made Luke hate her even more.

Another stiff breeze tore at them, making the old elm beside them groan and creak. Luke watched the handful of lingering leaves swirl away from its skeletal branches and swirl away. It would only be minutes now, before he made it all right. He gently brushed her arm, letting his fingertips linger and feel the heat of her skin radiate through the thin knit of her sweater. “Let’s watch it from there,” he said, nodding to the tree.

She gave him a sidelong look but didn’t resist as he tugged her towards the gnarled trunk. He took measured steps, careful to seem casual even as he watched for markers of where they had sat the last time. He was trying to correct time, but a few inches one way or another and it would leave him with a lot worse than a broken arm. There was an exposed root—that had to be where he was. He sat down abruptly and gestured for her to sit to his left. She did, but farther away than she had been the first time around.

“You can sit a little closer,” Luke suggested, patting the ground beside him.

“You could come closer to me, too,” she replied, leaning back against the trunk.

To the east, the sky was fading into a dark violet, and the first few stars were beginning to appear. Sari shivered and hugged her midsection tighter. He was running out of time. How long had the limb been? Was she still close enough for this to work?

“Are you okay?” she asked again. “You seem a little off tonight.”

Another stiff breeze blew past them, and a thrill went through Luke as he wondered if that was the gust that would do it, but the limb stayed attached to the tree. “I’m fine,” he said, tearing his gaze away from the skeletal branches above. On second thought, he could do without the broken arm. He scooted to the right as subtly as he could manage. “Just enjoying the evening.”

It wasn’t subtle enough, judging by her narrowed eyes and her brows knit in confusion. “It’s getting cold. Can we call it a night?”

“No! I mean, let’s just stay another minute.”

“I think I’m going to go home now,” she said, leaning forward to stand.

There was a loud creak and a snap, then a whoosh that puffed against Luke’s face like an echo of the gust that preceded it. Luke waited a moment, listening, but there was nothing but the rustle of the twigs in the tree and its fallen limb in the breeze. Beneath its twisted, broken branches, a tail of blue sweater fluttered. He brushed himself off, finding, pleased, that both of his arms were fine, and nudged his foot against a hand sticking out from beneath the branch. Besides the hand flopping at his push, she was silent and still.

That was so easy, he could not help but think.

Only one more thing to do. How had he acted when he called for help the first time? He couldn’t remember; that felt so long ago, and the version of him who had felt his world crumble around him because of one girl who didn’t even love him now seemed hopelessly naive. Tears? Shock?

Luke tried a little of both, and it must have been good enough for the responding authorities, because by the time the sky was fully dark, he was back at home. It felt good, flopping onto the bed. There was a feeling of justice to the night. There was the restoration of the order of things before he’d tampered with them, yes, but also a sense of recompense for what had happened when he’d given her a chance to speak. And that felt very good. If he had been a little more to the front of her, he might have even seen her look of shock and surprise as the limb crashed down.

He glanced at the closet and drummed his fingers against his chin in consideration. “What’s one more time?”

***

Hill, sunset, lies, wind, silence. Her face was still a bit obscured. Try, try again.

***

Hill, sunset, and he managed to steal a kiss that time. He got scratched up when the limb fell. Once more.

***

Hill, sunset, wind, but she stomped away, fuming, when he insisted on a kiss again. Women, he thought as the limb crashed down to the empty grass below.

***

Luke had lost count of how many times he’d gone back, how many times he’d watched the sunset fade and the tree limb fall. After the fourth time of the branch hitting its mark, he stopped calling for help and just went home to start the evening over again. The script changed only according to what he said.

This time, he was being sweet, bordering on being pathetic, having realized a few cycles before that sympathy was the key to her patience. But, truth be told, the thrill of playing this game and watching her lose was wearing thin. Maybe after this time, he would let time run its course. Maybe after this time, he would move on.

“It’s getting cold,” Sari said with a shiver, feet tucked beneath her on the hill.

If it was going to be the last time, Luke was going to relish this. “Let me warm you up,” he said, cradling her face in his hands and leaning forward for a kiss. A stiff breeze plastered his jacket to his back and whipped Sari’s hair wildly around his face as he neared hers. He had only a few more seconds to get clear before the limb fell, but he planned to make the most of it.

But Sari pulled back. “I’m sorry, Luke. Not tonight, okay?”

“I don’t understand,” Luke said, eyes wide with hurt and confusion.

She smiled at him sadly. “I don’t think you would, but that’s okay. Let’s call it a night.”

Luke gritted his teeth as she stood and brushed herself off. He just needed her to stay put for another second. “Sari, wait.”

She trotted down the hill, stopping only to look back at the creak and the snap and the crash of the branch.  She was silent, but Luke roared in pain. A long gash ran down his left arm and onto his hand, blood springing forth in a thin line of bright red where a jagged edge of the limb had caught him.

“Are you okay?” she called.

“This is your fault!” he roared at Sari as he struggled to free himself from the smaller sticks and twigs and branches.

His anger went cold and still as Sari’s body should have been as he looked at his injury again and saw the damage to the remote strapped to his wrist. The wood had sliced down with enough force to knock off the covering and tear up some of the workings within. In the last rays of sunlight, Luke spotted a flash of metal deep within the grass. Ignoring the stinging stripes of pain that lanced his face and hands, he reached for it, suppressing a thousand horrible thoughts of what would happen if he could not find and fix the remote. Without the mobile unit, there was no trying again, no going back to even the original timeline where he was heartbroken and she was dead. But his bleeding hands found only a pull tab from a soda can in the grass as the light faded into twilight.

Over the skeletal tangle of the branch, he could see Sari turn again. Her eyes met his just long enough for him to see wariness and hardness in them that had not been there before, then she turned and walked away faster than before, the tail of her long sweater fluttering behind her in the wind.

Make it Up

by Rachel Leishman

 

Maren wielded the black crayon like a paint brush.

“Thank you so much for doing this Maren. I never got around to practicing it and you’re just so good at makeup and—”

“Yeah of course! And you’ve got beautiful eyebrows, by the way.”

The women fell silent again. Maren held the tip of her tongue between her teeth and drew a bit more on one eyebrow and then the other . . . back and forth . . . She took a step back to assess her work and smiled.“Okay! You’re all done!”

Nicole turned to the mirror and blanched. Her eyebrows were two coal worms that could challenge Frida Kahlo.“Wow. Thanks, Maren!”

Maren nodded and went back to her own mirror. Nicole rapidly sifted through her makeup kit and shifted her stance so that Maren could only see her back as she applied makeup remover to a cotton ball. She had just raised it to her eyebrow when the stage manager ran in—

“Five minutes till places everyone!”

Nicole let out a shaky breath and dashed the cotton ball over both eyebrows. Some of the makeup came off, but the rest of it smeared down her eyelids.

“Break a leg everyone!” called Dylan as he left out the green room doors.

Nicole bit back a squeal and checked the clock. There were still three minutes left. She doused another cotton ball with remover and wiped the offending smudges off one eyelid. She reapplied her silver eyeshadow as one castmate after another hollered “break a leg!” “good show!” “see you out there!” Her fingers grew more and more unsteady with each wish of luck. The eyeshadow on this eye was nearly . . . fixed.

“Alright everyone! Showtime!”

Maren was the only other actor left in the green room.

“Come on Nikki, let’s—oh crap!”

Nicole had faced Maren.

“You wiped . . . ? Never mind. How long until your first entrance?”

“Two minutes maybe.” Nicole’s voice came out thin and raspy.

“What?! Grab your kit. We gotta go!” 

Nicole quickly obeyed and fought the nerves that threatened to rush up her throat. The two women slipped through the stage door just as Nicole heard her cue.

“God forbid! Where’s this girl? What, Juliet!”

Nicole froze in the wing and quietly began to hyperventilate. 

“Nikki, listen to me,” Maren whispered as she grasped Nicole’s shoulders. “You’re going to be okay. Take your kit with you onstage and give it to Clara. She’ll fix you up during the scene.”

“Juliet?” Clara’s voice was only slightly tinted with worry.

Maren gave her a firm shove and Nicole staggered onstage.

“How now, who calls?”

Gasps and murmurs rolled through the audience.

“Your mother.” Clara kept a calm face as she wrapped an arm around Nicole’s shoulders and led her across the stage.

“Madam, I am here.” Nicole slumped onto the bed, her curls falling in her face. “What is your will?”

“This is the matter.” Anna’s voice was more panicked than when they’d rehearsed. “Nurse, give leave a while. We must talk in secret.”

Clara hobbled a couple feet away, drawing a laugh from the audience.

“Nurse, come back again. I have rememb’red me, thou s’ hear our counsel. Thou knowest my daughter’s of a pretty age.”

“Faith, I can tell her age unto an hour.” Clara took her place on the bed. Nicole handed her the makeup kit and Clara held it stupidly. Nicole cleared her throat expectantly and the audience gave an awkward laugh.

She’s not fourteen.”

“I’ll lay fourteen of my teeth,” Clara rummaged through the makeup kit, “ and yet, to my teen be it spoken, I have but four”–—she couldn’t find the makeup remover—“She’s not fourteen.” So she opted for the concealer. “How long is it now to Lammas-tide?”

A fortnight and odd days.” Anna held Nicole’s curls away from her face as Clara smoothed the peach cream onto her eyelid.

“Even or odd, of all days in the year, come Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen.” Clara dusted silver onto the eyelid. “Susan and she—God rest all Christian souls!—were of an age. Well, Susan is with God. She was too good for me.” Finished, she tucked the kit under the pillow and gave Nicole’s hand a hard squeeze.

***

“For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” Dylan bowed his head in grief and the sniffling audience rose to its feet.

“Thank you so much everybody!” The audience members regained their seats. “I’m Nina, the Dramaturg for this production and we’d like to invite you to stay for a short, fifteen-minute talkback in which I’ll ask you guys a couple questions and then you can ask questions to the director or the actors and just have an open dialogue about the show.”

The cast and director slipped onto the edge of the stage and Nina began.

“Alright. As you could tell, we set our adaptation in the 50s and we were wondering if there were specific moments that worked for you guys or maybe didn’t work.Yes?”

“Well I thought the concept was great and just so well executed. The set, the costumes, the hair was fantastic. But one of my favorite parts was actually with the makeup.” The woman’s voice tightened on the last word, her eyes moist. “I just love the way that you guys addressed domestic abuse.” 

Other audience members groaned in assent and the woman began fighting sobs. “I mean Juliet comes on with this black eye, which she presumably got from her father, and then the two women don’t even address it. They just help her cover it up and you know—it was just such a great depiction of toxic gender relationships which were huge in the 50s. Yes, men against women, but also women against women as well. I mean, her mother and nurse both knew what was going on, but they just covered it up and perpetuated this vicious cycle which finally culminated in the end when Romeo and Juliet die and it was just such a powerful demonstration of how abuse hurts both genders. One woman and one man had to pay in the end. And this message is still so relevant today and”—the woman took a second to catch her breath—“I just wanted to ask the director, what inspired that?”

Brianne was dumbfounded for a full five seconds and started into, “Well yeah, you know, we were really trying to get at domestic abuse and . . . ”

And Nicole slipped into a reverie as she talked, only broken when Maren whispered “good job” and held her hand out for a fist bump.

Winter 2020

Fiction

Make It Up by Rachel Leishman
The HOA by Allie Manner
A Million Kinds of Happiness by Karina Andrew
Heartbroken Man Seeks Time Machine by Lisa Christensen

Nonfiction

Jesus the Pyromaniac by Tom Fairholm
Udong by Idongesit Ekpo
Wilson by Gillian Walch
Human Anatomy by Natalie Van Wagoner
Saturday at the Campus Chick-fil-A by Nathan Young
A F R I C A by Stefanie Shepley

Poetry

Out of Touch by Madelyn Taylor
THE WORLD IN SINHALESE by Carl Boon
THE DARK WE’VE GROWN USED TO by Carl Boon
LEXINGTON AVENUE by Carl Boon
DETROIT by Carl Boon

Interviews

Clinton Crockett Peters
Darlene Young

 

 

 

Bed(s)

by Therin Jepson

 

We would roll like spiders
in the dust of our skin
then watch Dan Rather or Cheers,
or just stare at a lovelier past
which, too close,
disappeared into dots—
much as choosing to hold you
as we fell into slumber
meant waking trapped, sticky,
in the crack between mattresses,
twenty minutes to nine,
spotted with dirt, and unborn.

Nightly Rites of a Florida Childhood #1

by Kyle Singleton

 

In Florida we eat lightning,
sitting inside our screened-in patio
the white framing black with dust and mosquitos.
We wait for static to rifle through the air
mouths open, tongue licking for a shock
to remind us all that we are still there:

iiiiiiiiiiiiiJulie in the cracked white wicker chair
iiiiiiiiiiiiichair wearing grandma’s Santa Claus blanket
iiiiiiiiiiiiilike a shawl, Tyler pressed in the back corner
iiiiiiiiiiiiihoping to Jesus we all don’t burn like the lemon tree,
iiiiiiiiiiiiimom watching through the window too afraid
iiiiiiiiiiiiiof the way a storm shouts but never whispers,
iiiiiiiiiiiiiand dad squeezing my shoulder to keep me
iiiiiiiiiiiiifrom leaning too fair out and busting through
iiiiiiiiiiiiithose flimsy screens.

Dad sighs slow about the grandeur and mysteries of God,
What a show he puts on for his children. Maybe
we should say a prayer of gratefulness. 
But I don’t have time
to pray. I am waiting for a strike to hit the basketball hoop
because the only thing that will lay me down
to peace at night is the fresh scent of fried ozone. And lord,
how well I sleep.