Interview with Douglas Shearer

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Douglas Shearer’s story “Treatment” appeared in the Winter 2015 CAREGIVERS issue of r.kv.r.y.. Songwriter Adam Haggarty called the story haunting and said he loved the dark. direct style. He interviewed the author at his recording studio near Toronto, Canada.

Adam Haggarty: Your story, “Treatment,” is fictional, but does this story draw from real life or family experiences?

Douglas Shearer: Like the narrator, my father died from cancer when I was 15 and some of the narrator’s teenage memories mirror my own. My dad had a dry sense of humor, could not sing, and he liked to gamble. I’d never heard of cancer until my father got it, but it seems these days I always know someone who is fighting it. When my father-in-law got cancer, I thought I knew what to expect. I was wrong. I felt helpless and angry. This story grew from those feelings. My narrator took on a life of his own and explored topics I hadn’t originally thought of.

I wrote this piece in first person because I needed to climb inside my character, if that makes sense. But for me, I think my best writing comes when the character becomes so developed that he/she can push me aside (so to speak) and write for themselves. The narrator eventually re-wrote the ending. This story went through several revisions before I was happy with it, and I think the first person writing gives it a certain intimacy. The result was that some of my first workshop reviewers said they would pray for me. Others said I shouldn’t be posting non-fiction in the fiction section. I had to assure them that this piece is fiction, and without giving away the story for someone who may not have read it yet, I was a little worried that I’d end up with the police at my door.

 

AH: This story is quite dark, which I like. It’s very haunting. Does this represent your style?

DS: I started writing for young children, then I wrote my first novel-length manuscript for young adults. It’s a mystery/thriller called Chasing the Dragon Snake. It deals with some dark subject matter. I’m looking for a home for it, but there are no werewolves, vampires, or witches in it, and it’s not dystopian so I may have a tough time placing it. Most of what I write now is for adults. I recently fulfilled a New Year’s Resolution of submitting twelve new short stories in twelve months. Treatment was one of those stories and after looking back at the others, I’d have to say that yes, there is a little darkness to all my stories, some more so than others. I did write a humorous story, but it was about Satan and the Grim Reaper, so a little darkness there too.

 

AH:  Who would you say was your greatest influence on the way you write?

DS: It’s funny, but until recently, I couldn’t have answered that question. When I was workshopping one of my stories, a fellow writer commented that my style felt oddly remote and referred to Edgar Allan Poe’s writing saying that he somehow managed to engage our emotions with unhinged narrators but didn’t know how he did that. I got two more reviews that mentioned Poe and as luck would have it, I found an Anthology that was looking for original Poe-like story ideas. That story, “Intimate Enemy,” has survived the first round of cuts for the anthology. I will often read Poe, and sometimes even his word choice can give me an idea.

In an introduction to a collection of short stories, Ben Bova wrote about “The Art of Plain Speech.” Bova wanted the writer to be invisible to the reader. Isaac Asimov was quoted as saying he wanted his writing to be clear. Some of his critics called his writing simplistic, yet he won all sorts of awards. I’ve read a lot from both these authors and without knowing it, they’ve influenced my style. Like you said, dark and direct. Dark like Poe, and direct like Asimov and Bova. I know that not everyone will like my style and I’m okay with that.

Treatment

AH: What is your approach to writing? Do you have scheduled writing sessions or do you jump onto the computer when you’ve got an idea running around in your head?

DS: I schedule myself to write every Saturday and Sunday morning until at least noon. On a good day, I get four hours in. If I go any longer, I’m exhausted. Sometimes I do put in more, but I know I’m going to pay for it. If I have an idea that pops into my head, I have to write it down. Whatever I’m doing, I excuse myself and go write the idea down. I have a pen and paper beside the bed for those moments when a dream inspires a story. The only problem is that sometimes when I read my notes later, they don’t make any sense to me. I have a note in my writing room (I refuse to call it an office because that sounds too much like work) that says, “Story about a homeless person living in the woods.” Unfortunately, I can’t remember what specifically I was thinking about when I wrote the note.

Normally I write at the computer, but one day this summer, I got up before anyone else, made a pot of coffee and decided to write in the back yard with pen and paper. I wrote a complete short story and entered the mess of scribbles into the computer the next day. It was a story that required very little editing and was ranked the best story for the month on the workshop I use. So maybe slowing down my mind to the speed of my pen produces good results. That story, “Hung Out to Dry,” has an ever-present ambiguity that requires the reader to make certain assumptions, which prove to be wrong, unless you read too quickly, then you will miss the whole point.

 

AH: R.kv.r.y. quarterly explores recovery: What does recovery mean to you?

DS: Recovery is the process of getting something back that you once had. It could be a lost wallet or pet, or it could mean getting back your health either physically or mentally. There is also recovery on an emotional level—getting back to a sense of calm after a loss, which can be one of the hardest things to recover from. Writing this story helped me with the recovery from loss.

Sometimes though, there are things that you simply can’t recover from, and perhaps realization and acceptance of that can be a form of recovery as well.

 

 

Adam Haggarty  is singer/songwriter/guitarist and frontman for the band Before the Curtain. He is currently writing/producing rock and pop acts in Los Angeles.

Congratulations to r.kv.r.y. contributor Leslie Pietrzyk!

leslie petrzyk

PITTSBURGH—Leslie Pietrzyk of Alexandria, Virginia, has been named the 2015 winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, one of the nation’s most prestigious awards for a book of short stories. Her manuscript, This Angel on My Chest, was selected from a field of 338 entries and will be published by the University of Pittsburgh Press later this year. The DHLP also includes a cash prize of $15,000.

Pietrzyk said, “This Angel on My Chest is a collection of unconventionally-linked stories, each about a different young woman whose husband dies suddenly and unexpectedly. Ranging from traditional stories, to lists, a quiz, a YouTube link, and even a ‘lecture’ about creative writing, the stories grasp to put into words the ways we all cope with unspeakable loss.” The collection is based on her own experience of losing her husband to a heart attack at age 37.

“There is an abundance of wit, and there are wise observations about life in these stories,” said award-winning author Jill McCorkle, this year’s final judge. “Some of these pieces are experimental, but never too experimental. I always felt firmly rooted in the emotion, startled again and again by the weight of the simplest everyday objects and situations against a backdrop of loss. A powerful and moving collection.”

According to Pietrzyk, the 16 stories examine universal issues faced at a time of loss ̶ the simple, but gut-wrenching question how will I survive this, as well as the specific concerns of a young widow: support groups, in-laws, insurance money, dating, and remarriage.

A member of the core fiction faculty in the Converse Low-Residency MFA Program in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Pietrzyk also teaches fiction in the Johns Hopkins Masters in Writing Program in Washington, DC.

Pietrzyk is the author of two novels, Pears on a Willow Tree (Avon) and A Year and a Day (William Morrow). Her short fiction and essays have appeared in many journals, including Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, The Washington Post Magazine, The Sun, and Iowa Review.  She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf and the Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for Arts in Nebraska, and the Hambidge Center in Georgia.

Recalling her reaction to winning the DHLP, Pietrzyk said, “I’m thrilled to have my work honored with this prestigious prize. This is the most personal book I’ve written, and I feel that I poured myself into it, taking many risks along the way, because the subject matter is so emotionally challenging. I think of myself as a novelist primarily, so seeing my short stories recognized is deeply gratifying.”

Bathing My 20-Year-Old Son After He Has Broken His Arm

Bathing

He mentions it first, the awkwardness, one grown man bathing another.

I have thought it, and tried not thinking it, and have quietly cursed
his wild anger breaking and destroying

even moments such as these that should be private.
It is awkward washing his hair, now grown long like mine.

I last bathed him when he was a baby,
maybe older, maybe two, when his hair was short and fair,

but this boy is not a baby, his head hard beneath my scrubbing fingers,
his back broad and strong,

he is a son becoming more man than I can ever handle.
I rinse his hair and wash the soap from his back,

say, “Here,” and toss him the washcloth.
“You can do the rest, you still have one good hand.”

It is then that he says it, not before, and I nod and grunt in agreement,
sitting on the toilet, staring at the floor, counting the tiles.

 

 

 

Cecil Sayre is a visiting lecturer for the English Department of Indiana University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Naugatuck Literary Review, Slipstream, and Southern Indiana Review.

 

 

At the Piazza, I Remember You

At the Piazza

In four years, I have not forgotten
the movement
and then the stillness.

A coffee maker gurgles its old throat
and I empty it.

The house smells like pills, bitter
in their yellowed bottles, and a full
summer in bed sheets, heavy with everything.

You played music. You jumped the curb.
You flicked penny upon penny
onto the pavement of that time-kept piazza
and fell into death as you would
a fountain, without a wish to save you.

 

 

 

Laurin Becker Macios holds an MFA from the University of New Hampshire and is the program director of Mass Poetry. Her work has recently appeared in Boxcar Poetry Review, Extracts: Daily Dose of Lit, Pif Magazine, [PANK], and elsewhere. She lives in Boston with six plants and one wicked awesome husband.

Quesasomethings

Quesasomethings

Dora stashed her snowpants and backpack on the floor under the rack full of tailored coats and fluffy scarves too long for a bicycle ride. Sweaty from her day in the anatomy lab and the bike ride through the snow, she let steam rise off before entering the room. She had left the letter from the tenure committee unopened on her desk, afraid it would spoil her weekend. Slim envelopes frightened her. But tenured or not, boyfriend or not, friend or not, she was going to party down.

A ballroom that lived up to its name only in size, the walls had no decoration, the furniture looked like it was about to fold up again, and the lighting made the inhabitants look jaundiced. In the dim light and she scanned the groups clustered around tables and at the bar. Most were pure as Ivory soap, more than 99% English or Philosophy or Sociology, except for Classics because there was only Melvin so he latched on to the English table. Not a single scientist. This would be tough, but she wanted those little cracker fish as much as any English professor, so she approached two of them at the nearest table, fashionably tall so you could tarry a bit without committing to sitting down.

“Hi Gloria, Alan, got your Christmas shopping done yet?” Unoriginal, but she had to start somewhere.

“What I do with a student who doesn’t contribute to discussion is call on him and make him squirm. It takes grit,” said Gloria, who tipped her wine glass half empty with one gulp.

“Yeah, but I can’t wait for one laggard to say something stupid, it takes up too much class time,” said Alan puffing cracker crumbs thru his beard.

She tried again. “I just give them cats to skin and they all have something to say about that.”

Gloria looked at her for the first time, and actually rolled her eyes, then turned back to Alan.

Burned that bridge, but it was her own fault. Just wish they’d take their eyes off their navels and look around once in a while. Dora had 75 nursing students in her human anatomy class, where they cut up cute little kitties instead of people, because cats are smaller and cheaper. Nurses need to know how muscles connect to bone and what it means when kidneys fail because they’ll have patients with broken bones and failing kidneys. It’s fine to discuss the symbolism of the whiteness of Moby Dick in some literature class, but you don’t need to discuss the meaning of bile. You just have to know it comes from the liver, is stored in the gall bladder, emulsifies fat and sometimes goes bad and gets stony. Dora put a handful of fish crackers in her mouth and the fake carnivory pleased her.

She’d jumped through all the hoops, but hadn’t held her tongue like good little pre-tenure profs ought to do. It bugged her that the president kept pushing for higher enrollments to keep up with increasing costs. That was like saying let’s make more babies so we can have more taxpayers. Dora had opened her big mouth at faculty meeting and actually said that. Who needs a gadfly like that around? Maybe she wouldn’t tenure herself if she was the pres.

It was just a Friday going home party, no big shakes, but she could look a little more artsy, so before approaching the next group she took out her barrette and let her hair loose. It didn’t so much fall as spring outward like a frizzy halo that made her two inches taller. This time she just smiled and listened, as a thin woman in a pencil skirt asked a shorter woman with the bosom of a Wagnerian soprano how she began her theory class.

“The basics first of course, tonic, subdominant, dominant chords, and I really want them to hear them before they start doing their own progressions, or go into the other triads.”

“Do you ever try 12 bar blues?” said Dora. “Very rich in those basic chords I hear. Hi I’m Dora, from biology.”

The pencil skirt glanced at her without smiling, but the chesty one said, “Hi Dora, I’m Loyce and this is Kendra. So you play the blues do you?” Her eyebrows raised high enough to be seen from the back row.

“Just enough to moan while I strum.” She didn’t tell them she used to teach piano lessons and had students improvise the blues for recitals. She’d already stepped on disciplinary toes tonight. Besides that was years past when her piano business held them up while the farm pulled them down. Kendra looked around the room and Loyce took a sip of her Chardonnay, but said no more. They were just waiting for her to go so they could continue their conversation.   Dora proved it by drifting off and turning to watch them start up again.

Extruded into no man’s land between the tables, she was a lone wanderer adrift like Odysseus between Scylla and Charybdis.   Why did she feel that eyes watched her when no one had taken any notice of her? Did they all know how the tenure committee voted? Sweat returned under the collar of her plain biologist shirt and she had to escape.

~

“OK, I’ll tell you my most secret thing, if you tell me yours,” Dora said to Rhonda on their way to school. “But not till recess, OK?”

Rhonda stopped at the curb to look both ways and then at Dora without the hint of a smile. “Sure, we’ll talk in the spit pit,” she said. She put a lot of “s” into it.

At recess they crept out of the clear September sunshine down the outdoor stairwell to the basement of Stolp, the old school that had only a year to go before the wrecking ball. They were the last sixth grade to go through.

The stuff between the bricks powdered out to make a dust next to the walls, but in the stairwell turned into a dirty clay in the sinking moisture that smelled like a sewer. Some kids said huge centipedes lived in the cracks between the bricks down there. Mrs. Stebbins was busy watching dodge ball around the corner, and Kyle and Lloyd hadn’t seen them or they’d race over, but maybe they wouldn’t spit on a girl anymore.

“We’ll be real blood sisters after we share our deepest secrets, that’s how it works,” said Rhonda. Dora could not see her face in the shadows, but watched her head cock to the side and fold her arms in front of her. “You go first.”

Dora started, but it didn’t seem like her own voice. “When I was in third grade this boy visited his grandma down the block and played catch with me and my brother sometimes. We thought it was cool that a sixth grader would even look at us, but there weren’t many kids his age on the block. So one day he said let’s go in the garage and play a new game, but he didn’t want Jason to come along.”

Dora was so close to Rhonda she could feel her breath on her face.

“So he tells me to take off my pants, just so he can look. And then he kind of holds my wrists and I think, OK, big deal, it’s just my body and all girls have the same thing. So I do it, and I don’t know what he would have done if I hadn’t. He took out a flashlight and looked for awhile and then we went out and he played catch with Jason, but I didn’t feel like it.”

“Wow, Dora, this is big. Did you ever tell anyone?”

“You’re the only one Rhonda, and you can see how private it really is.” Dora shook a little in the cool air and wanted the sun, but said, “Now you tell.”

But Rhonda turned and ran up the stairs, calling to Penny and Carol even before she got to ground level.

~

Something in the stale beer-tinged air hit her nostrils, an undercurrent of mildew, resident of dark damp places. Maybe that’s what had set her off down memory lane and toyed with her panic button. She’d leave with some self respect, dammit, and managed to sift back to the entrance of the ballroom, but Jane entered as Dora rummaged around for her snowpants. “What’s the matter Dora, they run out of nachos?” Dora enjoyed the feel and smell of the cool air that still clung to Jane’s woolen coat. “Why not stick around for awhile?”

“I don’t have time to be scorned, and I already got my crackers.”

“Don’t tell me you started talking about cats again, do you know how many English professors have herds of them?” She pulled her scarf off and shook her long russet hair free. Jane practiced social glue where Dora dissolved it. She should have been in communications because she did that better than anyone Dora knew, but she taught organic chemistry, the one required course that nearly all biologists dreaded. Luckily for them she was not a hard ass, and found ways to make all those endless ring compounds dance through the formulas of creation and dissolution.

Jane took Dora’s arm and turned her back into the room. No one but Jane could do that, and Dora let herself be led for a little while. “What tables haven’t you destroyed,” she said as though she was asking for a grocery list.

Dora sulked at her side.

“All of them? Well what about the bar?”

At the far end Will hunched with both elbows on the bar. He must have come in after Dora did. “C’mon, we’ll go after the lonely boy, he’ll be flattered even with cat talk,” said Jane. She plopped down on the stool next to Will. “Hi Will, have you met my friend Dora?”

He uncoiled like a snail peeling out of its shell, but still attached to it, so now Dora looked up at him. The first time she met him was at Corncob Days last July, under a pop up tent filled with tables of squat little clay bowls in earthy tones. Then as now she pictured his long body curled around the wheel as his hands shaped tiny bowls hidden by his endless fingers. What could you put in them, cups of soup? Who can survive on cups of soup? But she had picked up a bowl to feel the curve inside and out, and to see if he would notice.

He got up from his folding chair and greeted her. “I’m not sure why I make bowls so small, and everyone wonders why, I can see you do too.”

He was new to the art department, from someplace in the mountains, Montana maybe? She picked up the tiniest bowl and laid her Jackson down, so she wouldn’t have to stay. Now the bowl sat on her kitchen window sill sprouting colored toothpicks she never used. It was something to look at while she washed the dishes. In class Will would be the quiet student Gloria couldn’t wait to crucify, but then she’d repent because of the jewels that came out of his mouth. What would he say now?

“Dora, isn’t it? You were the first one to buy a bowl from me last summer.”

The heat rose again to her face. What. She was far too young for hot flashes.

“Was I really? I’m not sure what got into me. ” Foot in mouth, a social disease she’d had all her life. Jane thrust an elbow to her ribs, but Will just smiled and left space for her. Empty space with nothing to hold on to. “Sorry, I really liked, like that bowl.”

Bowl, Charybdis, Rhonda’s silhouette between her and sunlight, centipede cracks between long gone crumbling bricks. Biologists shouldn’t be scared of centipedes.

Jane gave her a little sideways hug and whispered in her ear. “That away girl, you can take it from here.” Then to both she said, “I need to get back to Alan about our committee on cross disciplinary studies, so, if you’ll excuse me,” and she floated off like a life raft out of reach to leave Dora in ever smaller circles going down.

“You know I was just about to go too, pick up curly light bulbs at Ace before they close.” She longed for the cold air outside that door.

“Yeah, they do close early, that was the hardest thing to get used to after Boulder,” said Will. “But say, I was thinking I need more than spinach dip and stubby carrots, they just make me hungrier.”

“Me too, but I’ve learned to fill up on crackers.” She felt the tug of the door like she was attached to it by a wire.

“So I was thinking, after the hardware store and all, do you want to meet at La Fiesta Burrito for burritos or quesa whatevers?”

The imaginary wire went slack and left her vibrating. And when the quivering inside her stopped she sat on the bar stool because there was nothing left to hold her up. Will sat down too and they both turned to face the bar, she with her head in her hands. This time she was glad to let the silence grow until it filled her to the brim and spilled out as tears she could not catch between her fingers.

“I’m sorry, it’s not you.”

“Glad to hear it, but it seems I brought it on.” said Will. She heard the stool creak as he shifted in her direction. It was a wonder he didn’t just escape, the way she wanted to do moments ago.

“It’s just that I have to fight all the time just to stay afloat, and there you are offering me quesa somethings and they seemed to me like some kind of Spanish life raft, so I just stopped treading and that made the waterworks come.” She never cried.

Will offered her a bar napkin, the kind they give to you with a drink, small like the bowl on her window sill. One was not enough so he grabbed a handful. Some guys would be trying to put their arm around her by now.

“I think I should answer your question, in case I wasn’t clear before,” said Dora. “Burritos are too filling but put cheese on anything and I’ll snarf it down.”

~

The cold air made crystals of the moisture in her nostrils as Dora coasted downhill on the icy sidewalks all the way to La Fiesta Burrito. She forgot the spit pit and the sallow faces and her plans to buy curly light bulbs at Ace Hardware. But something clicked in her brain and she chanted it the last few blocks to the rhythm of her wheels: dilla, dilla, dilla.

 

 

 

 

Mary Lewis has published stories in Trapeze, Valley Voice, and Frank Walsh’s Kitchen and Other Stories. She also has published in Persimmon Tree, Lost Lake Folk Opera Magazine, and Wapsipinicon Almanac. This is her second story for r.kv.r.y.. She is pursuing an MFA in fiction at Augsburg College and teaches biology at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. She helped start Badgersett Research Corporation where hazels are being developed for growers in the Midwest. She is a figure skater, and for many years taught dance and piano.

A Few Simple Questions

A Few Simple Questions

Are you okay?

I’m panting through my half run to a Biology class when two simple words bring me to a halt. It’s an 8am voicemail left by my father that I received three hours later.
Replay: “Bye, Honey”.

I call him back dying inside with every ring, ring, ring… “Hello?”

He’s alive, I think. I question him about the voicemail he doesn’t remember leaving, wondering how long he is going to last.

I was never home in high school, at least I never tried to be. I would get home as late as possible hoping the lights in my house were off. If they were off I could go to bed, I knew things were okay. But if they were on, I had to take in a breath before I opened the door. I had to hope he wasn’t upset behind that door.

I’m not going to Bio. My head droops as I can hear my father trembling for breath. There’s long pauses, and he won’t answer my probing question if he’s okay.

Are you okay? What a common question. But it’s the type no one ever wants the answer to, so you better say you’re fine in the name of trying to not look so morbid. We are a world full of questions we’re not quite sure we want answered.

 

How was your weekend?

An acquaintance who lived in my dorm was brushing her teeth next to me. She was acting as if she genuinely wanted to know what I did. You wanna know what I did?

“I drove home this weekend to see my family. I walked in the door and my dad was drunk and high off of his meds and causing a scene throwing things around the kitchen. My mom was on the couch crying while my dad grabbed a knife and started waving it around. So I said ‘Dad stop that or I’m gonna call the cops.’ So you know what he said?”

This is when I use my toothbrush as a knife to help with a visual.

“He gritted his teeth and looked me dead in the eye. He said ‘IF YOU CALL THE GOD DAMN COPS’ and he lowered his voice to a whisper, ‘I will cut my finger off.’ And he laid the knife right above his pointer finger. So I spent my Friday night in the ER.

You know as well as I did she didn’t want that answer. So instead I smiled and said “It was fine.”

 

Why are you late?

Here I am in the middle of the quad wondering how I am going to explain to my Biology professor why I didn‘t make it to class on time. Should I be blunt and give her a synopsis of the phone call, how I didn’t plan on my father calling me to say his final goodbyes? Life seems like it results in a lot of things you didn’t plan on, especially when you’re not expecting it.

A few years ago I planned to meet my friends at the movie theater at 4:00 pm. Four turned into five, triggering multiple calls and texts asking why I was late. Coincidentally my house, my room more specifically, got a four o’clock visitor: A squirrel.

My mom was running around the house screaming about the “rabid squirrel” while I was busy losing my mind on top of my bed. The little guy was hidden behind my bookcase when my Dad entered the room.

BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.

Wall debris, books, and of course massive amounts of squirrel guts exploded like the Fourth of July all over my room. I looked back to see my father’s satisfaction as he lowered his gun. Jaw dropped and tears brewing, he gave me no chance to even breathe before he made it clear who was picking up the corpse.

 

How was your Christmas?

So, what is Dad’s plan today, does he have pills or maybe knives? I frantically try to keep him on the line still thinking about getting to class and averting this crisis. I know his gun got taken away, I made sure of that.

It was Christmas Eve, Dad was plastered and had already shot our ceiling twice before what seemed like the CIA appeared to confiscate his gun. Dad was next to the Christmas tree where he had smashed a glass ornament and proceeded to hold the shard to his neck. I stood behind cops crying and watched men point guns at my father. After a few minutes of trying to sway him to put it down, I lunged towards the shard and ripped it from his fingers. As this happened, about half a dozen men toppled onto my father and me sending our Christmas tree, my childhood memories, and all of our bodies crashing to the ground.

“How was your Christmas Danielle?”
I smiled and said “It was fine.”

~

It’s 16 degrees this morning and I’m in a full sweat as my dad apologizes for being mean. I tell him he hasn’t been and I love him. I’m holding in tears because Dads crying enough for the both of us. I tell him we need to find him help and we can get through this together.

Help. Help hasn’t worked out for my dad so far. In the past year alone my father has been hospitalized over twenty times. So what do you tell someone who has already tried getting help? How do I stop a man from crying, a man who raised me to show someone my fists before ever letting them see me shed a tear? That’s Dads answer to everything, his hands (and 9 1/2 fingers).

One day after waitressing I came home to tell Dad how our neighbor had stiffed his bill to me. Dad couldn’t believe it. He threw his leather jacket and scally cap on and headed towards the front door. No one stiffs his daughter he told me. “What’re you gonna do Dad?” I’m hurrying to his side to stop him, “I’m gonna flatten his face that’s what I’m gonna do.” I grinned and let out a laugh. I hugged him, took off his hat and said “Save it for when someone breaks my heart.”

Dad is breathing heavy and has nothing else to say. “Dad promise me something” and he tells me anything. “Promise me you’ll be there when I get home?” Drawing in a breath he sighs, “I’ll leave the light on honey.”

Ten minutes late for biology, I slide into my chair. I open my book to chapter six: The Structure of the Heart. I blankly stare at the detailed illustration, knowing all too well a textbook could never explain his heart.

 

 

 

Danielle Dugan graduated from Emmanuel College with her bachelor’s in writing and literature.  While attending she enjoyed composing poetry, fiction and nonfiction pieces. The Boston native continues to further her education.

Rescue Dog

Rescue Dog

It would hurt them if I showed them how each angel was plaited
from a dead girl and a living bird.
They would ask themselves, how can a man live with so little hope?
—Rodney Jones, “Ecology of Heaven”

Tonight he’s lying by a fireplace in Iowa, loaded with steroids
and a pill for the yeast that eats skin—Ketoconazole—
from a vet at an animal clinic in Dubuque. Tough, you bet,
with trophy scars commemorating the rigors of Miami.
He argues a gulp of air into a waxworks body like it’s his last day,
rapid-breathing against a backdrop of blue-orange flame.

I call the vet. I say, “It’s clear Jupiter isn’t tolerating this treatment.”
I hate how he has to carry the rot of 21st Century America,
meals of it, in his gut. The lenses of his eyes are iron. A field guide
to quiet suffering that says, What the fuck and Duh, we die.
A dog-smile shimmies up from that time before words and meaning,
before the history that links us became all about failings.

I’m off the phone, watching him. I put in a Jim Jarmusch movie.
Stranger Than Paradise. A black-and-white indie-film.
Wouldn’t you know it, the film is about two Hungarian immigrants
and a New York pal deciding to drive from Cleveland to Miami
because as usual, in winter, Ohio is an Armageddon of snow and ice.
The surface of Lake Erie is two-toned: white, brighter white.

When I was a boy in Ohio, I never dreamed the world was like this.
ever imagined I’d have a Golden Retriever from Florida
fighting to live where the light has come unstitched from breathing,
breathing from a body, that naming a dog after a god-in-charge
isn’t enough. Jarmusch’s characters lose everything but fifty bucks
at a dog track then win that back—more—at the horse races,

as if mythologies come down to not betting on the wrong dog.
This minute, I’m aware of what love is: The mutt breathing
by the fireplace has my heart. If this shadow-body lives to see morning,
it won’t be a miracle. Just luck. And covered in Appendix A
of The Field Guide to Suffering Animals. That other good fortune
we have when whoever dispenses miracles is fresh out.

 

 

 

Roy Bentley has received fellowships from the NEA, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and the Ohio Arts Council. Poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Pleiades, Blackbird, North American Review, Prairie Schooner and elsewhere. Books include Boy in a Boat (University of Alabama, 1986), Any One Man (Bottom Dog, 1992), The Trouble with a Short Horse in Montana (White Pine, 2006), and Starlight Taxi (Lynx House 2013). He has taught creative writing throughout the Midwest and south Florida. These days, he teaches at Georgian Court University and lives in Lakewood, New Jersey with his wife Gloria.

Your New Face

Your New Face1

I’ve never been to the hospital to pray. When mom forgot her lunch, I’d deliver leftovers and a bottle of ginger ale, but she worked in the lab, behind the scenes where they’d tell bad jokes and post office stories. Intensive Care was always somewhere else in the building, a circle of hell I could avoid as long as I was good.

On my way, I keep playing the conversation in my head.

“Ojas. Honey, it’s Ginger,” she said over the phone. Even at ten in the morning, I could tell what was coming by the empty notes in her voice. “Sweetheart, Robbie’s in real bad shape.”

“Where is he? Ginger, what’d he do?”

“We’re in AtlanticCare off Pacific Avenue.” Her voice tatters into sobs. “My boy’s in ICU.”

“Oh my god.”

“He was in a bad accident, honey.” Oh my god. “Can you come here?”

“Yeah, I’m leaving now. I’ll be there in thirty minutes.”

*

I saw you just yesterday. I kicked your ass at Risk. We went to Friendly’s for lunch and whispered about our server’s ass. My mom ordered pizza for us while we played Nintendo in the evening like we were still four.

And then your girlfriend called.

“Yo, man, I’ve got to get going. Shannon wants to hit the casinos again.”

“What the hell? You’re broke, what do you do there?” You hated going to Atlantic City.

“I know, but she wants company while she sits at the blackjack table.”

“Dude, that sucks. Just dump her.”

You laughed.

“You’ve been drinking hard liquor when you go, right?”

“Oh yeah. Just sitting with her at the table affords me free Jack all night.”

“Take it easy tonight.” I warned you.

You knew I was serious. “Of course.”

“And talk to Shannon tonight. If you don’t want to go, you don’t have to. That place is poisonous, you know that.” I warned you, man.

You nodded in understanding. “I’ll talk to her when we get back.”

You always liked learning things the hard way.

*

The man at the front desk leaves the Room Number space on my visitor pass blank. Instead, he writes “3112” on the name portion, protecting me from the big, bad ICU. When I put the sticker on, the “Jan 27” stamp on the date line burns through onto my skin, branding itself into memory banks that hold birthdates and obsolete phone numbers. The man points to the elevator and says, “Third floor.”

*

I walk the intensive care unit halls, a different story in each room. The cream-toned walls tighten; my limbs look bigger. Nurses walking by flash me smiles. They know it doesn’t help and I can tell they’re ambivalent about keeping the habit.

I pause in front of 3111, next to your room. An older man lays at an incline, his head turned to the side, mouth hanging open. He’s bald with some white tufts around his temples. The light is off and the sun through the window casts the room in blue. He’s alone.

It’s too cold here to be hell. There’s hell in the waiting, the not knowing. But this place is something different altogether.

*

The light in your room is on when I come in. Hospital lighting used to be perfect for reading and casual conversation. I remember when I visited my dad in the hospital when I was a kid. He had a fever and was on steroids or something. The lighting was perfect for seeing his smile and his warm eyes. But now that it illuminates the wounds to your face, the big cut going down your eye, I curse it. I blame the lights for your scars.

Standing next to your bed, the view of Atlantic City through your window daunts me, the people walking to work, carrying on with their lives, indifferent to you. Can’t the world take a break for a minute? I entangle my fingers behind my neck and let my elbows dangle in front of my chest while I stare into your face. I’m silent mostly, watching your electric organs keep you alive.

You really look like shit, man: tracheotomy, staples in your head, dry blood hanging over your wounds, some kind of yellow pus seeping out of your left eye – what’s with that eye?

Shannon walks in and stands next to me. I turn to her and give her a crazy huge hug. Look what you’ve done. I hated her. Hands down, this is the worst girl you’ve dated. Now she’s got to sub as my best friend until you wake up?

She stares at you with me. “His seat belt didn’t lock. His face took the entire force of the impact against the steering wheel.” Holy shit. “They say every bone in his face is broken. He’s been in critical condition since he got here.”

I shake my head to stay composed. Afraid to ask about your eye, I ask, “He really can’t breathe by himself?”

“His jaw’s wired shut.”

And then we’re silent. The question on my mind burns as much as the answer in hers.

I step to the side a bit and see the bag of your piss on the ground. “Oh.” Wait. “Hold on… is there a catheter in his dick right now?”

Shannon chokes on her laugh. She’s holding back tears. “Yeah, there is.”

“That’s a damn shame.”

She waits a moment. “Bob and Ginger are in the family room getting briefed on Rob’s condition.”

“I’ll meet you there in a minute.”

She nods and walks off.

I lean over to you with my hands in my pockets and speak quietly. “Hey, Rob.” I don’t know why I expect you to move. “I’ll be back.” I almost turn away, but an afterthought hits me. “I’m not mad, okay?” How could I be? How could I possibly blame you now? “Don’t worry about a thing. We have everything on this end. You just focus on getting better.”

*

Your family’s with your surgeon when I enter the family room. He’s discussing your condition and his recommended plan of action. I take the leather seat next to your dad, who doesn’t even nod to me. He’s staring up at the doctor, who neither flinches nor startles with my presence, just continues. The light through the large window reflects against the black leather couches lining the walls and the sheen of the coffee table.

Only one piece of what the doctor says sticks. I spin it around in my head; swish it around my mouth to see how it tastes; slow it down to make sure I’m not leaving anything out. “We can’t save his left eye.” We can’t save his left eye. We. Can’t save. His. Left. Eye.

The surgeon leaves, and your mom breaks apart in my arms. In one sweeping motion, every piece of her crumbles and falls.

“Did you see him?”

“Yeah. He doesn’t look so bad; they’ll be able to fix him right up, Ging. Don’t worry about it.”

“Oj, his eye.”

“Yeah.”

Your dad stands and looks towards my direction, but not quite at me. “Have you eaten?”

“Not yet.”

“Come on, let’s get you something. The cafeteria’s just downstairs.”

*

The cafeteria looks like a small version of the one from our high school. Crappier even. No olives at the salad bar.

I see you everywhere. I pour coffee and it’s your blood in my cup; it’s your bruises on the apples.

Your parents fill me in. Seventy miles per hour – you collided first with a side rail, then you hit a parked car in a parking lot, and you rolled to a stop right in front of the big oak in the Absecon park. Your BAC was .16. Your girlfriend thinks you were stoned on your Klonopin. I’m holding on to that as an excuse for you – I want in my memories for you to have been completely out of your mind. I don’t want to believe that was really you in the car.

“I just can’t believe it, Oj.”

“I know, Ginger.”

“They say he needs major facial reconstruction surgery,” Shannon says.

My body feels cold. “Will they be able to make him look…”

Everyone is thinking the same thing. Ginger says, “They say the surgeon is very good and has a lot of experience with this.”

The worst thing about it is you just started getting handsome. You finally cut that matted hair off. Your face started clearing up of the acne that’s been festering there since you hit puberty.

Ginger tries to bring us back up. “They say there’s little reason to worry about his other eye. So he probably won’t be blind.” But there is no bright side to this. We’re in an infinite shadow.

“You know, I knew something was off the second I woke up,” Bob says. “I woke up around six or seven. Oj, it’s Sunday, a mailman’s day off, and I’m a heavy sleeper. I never wake up before nine or ten on a Sunday, and even then, it’s just to leave for church in time.”

“That’s true,” Ginger says. “But you know that, honey.”

“Well, I look out our window and see the car’s gone. At first, I thought it was stolen. I went to wake Rob up to see if he knew anything and saw that he wasn’t in bed. I woke Ginger up and told her to wait by the door for that cop. And sure enough, he came.” He scrapes his fingers along his stubble. “Now you know me, Oj, I’m a faithful man. I know God would never give us something we can’t handle and I know there’s something to be learned in all this.” His eyes drift off and I know he’s looking at a careful darkness, a new devil.

“Let’s say a prayer,” I say.

“Will you say it, Oj?” Ginger says.

“Of course.” We knot our hands together and channel the little strength we each have to each other. I can feel the movement of particles around Ginger’s trembling eyelids. “Dear lord, we come to you in this dire time, in this critical moment. Our beloved Robert Joseph Sink, jr. suffered a terrible car accident. We pray to you for the speedy recovery of our dear Robert. We pray that with your divine guidance, he will come out of this accident with a new vigor, the spirit to overcome his old habits and learn from this experience. We pray that you offer us the strength to support Rob in this time and the endurance to manage ourselves through it all. We put our lives in your hands and trust the path you’ve forged for us. In Jesus’s name we pray.” Together, under our breaths, we say “Amen.” A god would never answer my prayers. I’m no believer, and even if I was, I’m just not a likeable guy. But watching the doubt and darkness in your dad’s eyes melt away – it’s as good as god.

He smiles. “You always know what to say, Oj.”

*

I come see you before I leave, fingers behind my neck, elbows dangling. “Don’t worry about a thing, bud. You focus on getting better.” I linger and stare into your face and reacquaint myself with you. “God bless,” I say, like I believe in something.

I visit you every chance I have. I come see you in AC before I drive to Glassboro for class. I stand by your bedside with you. Always, I wear the visitor pass like a badge of honor until I come back home at the end of the day and stick it into my notepad for safekeeping.

One day, before I step in, Ginger stops and pulls me aside. “He just had his reconstructive surgery.” She’s unsatisfied.

I step in slowly. Your eyebrows are parted too far, your cheeks are too round, your jawline isn’t right – they got your face wrong. And oh, the scarring – Rob, what’d you do?

Ginger steps in. “What do you think? The swelling needs to go down, but he looks back to normal right?”

“That’s right. They did a great job,” and I put my arm around her and kiss her forehead. “I wish they would’ve shaved that fucking soul patch though.”

She stuffs her laugh into my shoulder and leaves her tears there too. She kisses my cheek and leaves.

Standing next to you, I read the labels of the products that you’re connected to. These bastards capitalize on drunk drivers and drug overdoses every god damned day. “Thank goodness,” I say.

*

The night they’re keeping you at Cooper, you start coming around. Worry lines appear on your forehead that had never been there before.

It’s just you and me. I hold your hand and your fingers tighten around mine. “Rob, it’s me.” And your worry lines fade. You can’t open your eyes because of the crust that’s been growing there. “Don’t be scared. You’re safe. You’re lying in a beautiful cabin on a mountain in Aspen” and your lips curl into a slight smile before you squeeze a weak sob out through your breathing tube. “Your jaw’s wired shut. I know it’s a pain in the ass, but it’s helping you get better.”

A nurse comes in to check on you. “Well, look who’s up. Can you try to open your eyes for me, honey?” Your eyelid shakes weakly; you can’t do it. The nurse says, “I’m going to open one of your eyes for you, nod if you can see the light.” She pries your right eye open with her fingers and shines a flashlight around it, and you struggle to nod. Your eye moves directly to me before she shuts it. I’m unsure of whether or not you saw me, but it does not matter.

“You’re not blind.”

*

It’s a speedy recovery from there. I can’t even believe it, walking into your room to see you sitting up. Your jaw’s still wired shut, so your sloppy arm movement talks for you: “Fucking hug me.”

I don’t care that you’re fragile. I hug you tightly.

You have to write in order to communicate with me. You have a notepad and a little pencil like the ones you get at a mini-golf course. They couldn’t get you an actual pencil?

You’re shaking as you write. I glance at your previous notes to see what I’ve missed. “Food. I’m so hungry;” “It fucking hurts;” “No, just food;” “Where’s Oj?” You finally finish your note. You barely write, “How do I look?”

“No different than before; ugly as hell.”

You write, “I love you.”

I nod violently to choke it all back before I can muster, “I love you too, Rob,” and then, “It’s damn good to see you up.”

You cough phlegm up through your breathing tube. Your movement becomes stale and you struggle to lift your hand to the notepad.

You write, “They have a patch over my eye.”

I look up at your parents and they won’t meet my stare. I say, “Yea, you got a catheter up your wang too.”

*

Sometimes I’ll cover my left eye and look around. You’ll have to jerk your head to the left to see that way. But you’ll adapt quickly. I’m sure there’s a Neuroplasticity for Dummies if you need help.

My own brain struggles to readjust to your new face; I still see you as you were. I remember every texture of your old face in my dreams, your smile lines, the way you squinted on a sunny day, the sharp lines of your jaw when you were smoking Reds.

***

It’s the image, the face I’ve watched grow through our eighteen years of friendship that cracked me. I was driving home from Cooper. Tail lights stretched along the wet pavement; I could smell the rain even with the windows closed.

The heaves of screams started forcing themselves out as I pulled the car over. It wasn’t that you were different, but that you’d never be the same. I slammed my forehead against the steering wheel. The car horn amplified my screaming so the world could hear “God, no” and “Why.” I clenched at the steering wheel and slammed the bottoms of my palms against it. The screams ripping through my throat sounded like Niagara fucking Falls and they may as well have been. They poured out of me. They reached their carrying capacity in my psyche and emigrated. Maybe they travelled back to the ICU.

What they do in there is a marvel, but I want to forget it exists. It’s suffering. It’s a purgatory with no promise. It’s a dying man’s last words with no one to hear them.

***

Rob, don’t take this the wrong way. Things will get back to normal and you’ll always be my best friend. But dude. I miss your old face.

 

 

 

Ojas Patel, from Egg Harbor Township, NJ, earned his B.A. in English with a concentration in Creative Writing at Rowan University. His story “Your New Face” won first place for creative non-fiction in the Denise Gess Literary Awards. He has also won contests for his poetry and critical writing in Islamic Studies, has contributed to his local newspaper, The Current, and is currently working on his first novel.

The Polarity of Incongruities

Polarity

It’s when, near the beginning of your day, your husband who has had chronic Hepatitis C for forty-five years comes home from the doctor’s and says he has been declared “virus free” after two weeks participating in a drug trial for a new medication that awaits FDA approval. You jump up and down like a small child who has just watched a magician let fly a yellow chickadee from a previously empty hand. It’s the exhilaration and disbelief of being blessed with such good fortune. It’s knowing your husband’s lease on life has been renewed, and therefore, so has yours.

Then, a couple hours later, your twenty-two-year-old daughter arrives home in tears. Earlier that morning at her boyfriend’s house, she accidentally walked into the room where the body of his grandmother was being prepared for burial. She had died from lung cancer during the night. This is the first time your daughter has seen a dead body, and she now feels what it is to know that a person and a body are two very different things.

Several hours after that your younger daughter comes home from school and opens a large envelope to find a college acceptance letter offering her a $68,000 scholarship distributed over four years. She shivers with excitement and says, “It doesn’t even matter if I get accepted to any other schools. Now I’m all set.” It’s feeling awed by her capabilities and thankful she is being offered a sound opportunity while also feeling relief that now you don’t have to worry about the storm that might come if she is rejected by her top choice colleges.

It’s washing dishes at the kitchen sink yet a few hours later in the early evening, when both your husband and older daughter are at work and your younger daughter is at gymnastics, and finally allowing yourself to break in a great heaving gust over the unexpected death of your friend Mary only one week earlier. You lean down, resting your forearms on the rim of the sink, and sob into the fading bubbles and dull gray water.

And this all happens on Valentine’s Day. The day devoted to Love, poetry, roses, and chocolate. A day rooted in the legend of a priest imprisoned for aiding the persecuted and performing secret weddings.

It’s when a week later an official looking letter arrives from a lawyer designating you as a beneficiary of Mary’s IRA and the rest of her small estate. You learn that you now have the means to send your daughter to college because even though she received a large scholarship, there will still be tuition to pay. It’s suddenly having the ability to pay down the credit card debt and get your daughter the teeth implants she needs for the two upper lateral incisors she was born without due to genetic hypodontia, a congenital condition where some babies are born without some of their permanent teeth. It’s the timing of things because oral implant surgery cannot occur until the age of eighteen when the jaw has finished growing, and your daughter is seventeen and a half.

It’s when two months later you receive an acceptance to an artist residency in Vermont and discover you have been awarded a grant, of which you are overjoyed, but you realize there is still a hefty balance to be paid for the privilege of spending four weeks writing in a private studio overlooking a river, where they house and feed you and wash your dishes and linens. It’s a fee you never could have considered paying when you applied for a full fellowship prior to the receipt of that official letter from the lawyer.

It’s when four months after that you take your daughter 2,685 miles across the country to begin her freshman year of college in a place where neither of you knows a soul. It’s the excitement, the giddiness, the nervousness, the apprehension—of saying goodbye. It’s a feeling of satisfaction and completeness that as a parent you did something right by your child because she is not afraid of adventure and trying new things; she is whole and independent with a superb brain and fierce heart. And you can’t help but feel thrilled because it’s like unfolding a map to the future, so many places to go, so many possibilities. Only it’s not a map to your future, but hers, and when it comes time to leave, all you want to do is grab her, pull her close, and hang on because you know this is that pivotal moment; once you let go, it will never be the same. Every day forward in her pursuit of autonomy, she will need you a little less. But you release her into her joy—because you have to.

It’s arriving at the artist residency a month and a half later and meeting a new community of people from all over the world and discovering that it’s possible to develop deep, meaningful relationships that bond you after just one week, and after two weeks you can’t imagine ever going back to the life in which those people had no place. It’s realizing that you made an unwilling trade: the loss of one dear friend, the woman whom you considered your god-mother, in exchange for many new friends.

It’s not walking a mile in another’s moccasins—as the old saying goes—but walking in Mary’s socks. For when you cleaned out her apartment in the days after her memorial, you took all of her “Smart Wool” socks even though they were much too big. As you wear these ill-fitting socks daily, you think about Mary: her tall and gentle grace made smooth by years of practicing yoga; how she never spoke an ill word of anyone even of those for whom others carried a mutual discontent; her effortless embodiment of acceptance and unconditional love. You think about how she never had children, how you, her best friend’s daughter, are the closest thing to what she ever knew a daughter to be. And you contemplate how this wondrous experience you are having at this artist residency, in this place of maple syrup, apple cider, and autumn leaves, is made possible by Mary’s death. This thought slices your heart to the quick because you don’t know how you can ever go on without her, this dear friend who was a fixture in your life from the day you were born on the anniversary of her birth. And you know that she would be pleased to have made this possible for you, even though it meant dying. Because that’s the kind of person she was.

The polarity of incongruities is evaluating life in this manner: between matters of the heart and matters of the pocketbook. It’s experiencing gratitude and grief—simultaneously.

 

 

 

Laurie Easter‘s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The RumpusChautauquaPrime Number Magazine, and Under the Gum Tree, among others. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and recently took on the role of Assistant Creative Nonfiction Editor forHunger Mountain: the VCFA Journal of the Arts. She lives off the grid and on the edge of wilderness in a funky, little cabin in Southern Oregon. Visit her at laurieeaster.com.

The Youngest Boy to Ever Fly to Space

The Youngest Boy

Billy Simmons, age 4, lay under his planet-covered sheets and stared at the system of neon stars on the ceiling, unable to sleep. Tomorrow he would finally be an astronaut.

Uncle Ben was there, along with Dr. Logan and her husband, the neighbors James and Donna Spitz, and many others he didn’t know. They set up a large TV.

The rocket ship, white and black with orange stripes, was at least twice Billy’s height. When Billy donned his father’s heavy-as-a-bowling-ball motorcycle helmet and boarded, his audience cheered.

He sat, buckled in, and studied all the buttons. The walkie-talkie popped, then came his father’s metallic countdown: “…3…2…1…Take Off!” The ship rumbled and shifted. Billy held his breath and reached for balance. The movement slowed and his father’s voice returned. “Captain Simmons, it’s now safe to open the viewing hatch.”

He saw Earth, no bigger than his own head, surrounded by glimmering stars. His breaths were deep and slow.

The hatch slammed shut and the ship shook again, harder. “Mayday! Prepare for emergency landing!” Billy’s chest heaved up and down; sweat collected on his forehead. “The red button!” Billy found it and pressed it and the ship was still again.

Billy stepped out. His father removed the helmet and raised Billy’s hand as if he had won a boxing match, yelling, “Hooray, Captain Simmons!” The audience erupted—clapping, whistling, stomping. They chanted “Bi-lly! Bi-lly!” Billy’s smile revealed all twenty teeth.

The next day, Billy sat shirtless on thin white crêpe paper, his legs dangling. Dr. Logan said, “The next several months will be difficult. You’re a brave boy.”

“Yesterday I flew to space,” Billy said, puffing out his chest.

“I remember. Are you ready?”

Billy nodded and slapped the examination table. “I’m ready for anything.”

 

 

 

Jonathan Levy lives in Raleigh, NC, with his wife and two dogs. He started writing fiction about a year ago. So far, the staff and readers of Boston Literary Magazine, Pure Slush, Tell Us a Story, r.kv.r.y quarterly, and Paper Tape have made him feel so grateful and lucky.