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Michael Dean Clark

March 10, 2020

Precautionary Tales

One of the strangest side-effects of fatherhood is this: I often find myself in an awkward space where memories of my own childhood injuries mingle uncomfortably with those of my children. Through the prism of memory, mine are anecdotes crafted around the humor of surviving the slings and arrows of games we can no longer play on the playground and the dangers we invented when the adults weren’t looking. Did we really cheat death as a pastime before there were video cameras and social media to document it? It sure felt like it at times.

Conversely, each time I experience the blood and bruises of my children, all I find is a mingled sense of culpability and secondhand pain that feels first and foremost like fault. As a child, I was only responsible for—though rarely with—my own choices. As an adult, my task is to help my kids discover the dual reality that they must be safe but also weather the pain life will inevitably bring or they will end up hiding from what makes that life worth living. Written out, this is such a weirdly impossible task, the finding of some balance between laughing at our pain while validating the tears it creates. And yet, it’s an expectation, one complicated by the fact that childhood injuries hurt everyone involved, not least parents.

I do wonder, though, if there is something to be learned from the laissez-faire child rearing of the 70s and 80s beyond the nostalgia-drenched memes of how much better being a kid felt in those days. Maybe there’s a way of figuring out how today’s model of childhood became so restrictive. Maybe we can see the origins of our self-fulfilling prophetic thinking that made us to create a world where our kids can’t leave the house without a GPS-enabled phone for fear of their being snatched while riding their bikes around the neighborhood.

Or, maybe we’ll discover that regardless of the era, hurt will happen no matter how padded we make the playgrounds and some of us are just more fortunate than others with the fallout when they do. Maybe parenting kids is just another frame of reference through which we experience injury. Maybe we need to learn how to better negotiate those injuries if we’re going to help our children do the same.


In the late 70s, my family lived in a double-wide, not-so-mobile home that played the part of a Jiffy Pop in the Southern California heat and was the site of my most singularly ridiculous, self-inflicted injury. Really, it’s quite insignificant, the stuff of limited spatial recognition and fuel for light-hearted family mockery in the years since; a big moment for a four-year-old that became a dinnertime story to remind me of my humanity when I’d get to feeling too good about myself.

Dad pastored a tiny desert church in a tiny desert town called Borrego Springs for those playing at home. Mom worked as a teacher’s aide and drove the school bus to bolster Dad’s salary. We didn’t have much in the way of the material, not even air conditioning, just a swamp cooler exhaling moist air into the narrow hallway running the spine of the trailer. On the hottest nights, my brother, sister, and I would lay like cord wood on the floor directly under the vent, only slightly cooler for having done so. We’d also sleep like this in the back of our enormous brown Ford Gran Torino station wagon on long nighttime car trips. Seat belts were for suckers.

What we did have was a surplus of disposable time and 70’s levels of parental supervision. A caveat: my parents weren’t at all neglectful. They were busy scraping together a living in a town that left us, really, nowhere to go. So, we roamed—a blonde-headed group of kids often assumed to be older than we were—and found ways to amuse ourselves.

By three, I was swimming in the deep end of the pool in our trailer park on my own because learning the heat stroke was my least favorite swimming lesson. Dirt clod fights were common, lasting until someone *accidentally* threw a dust-wrapped rock and *accidentally* hit another kid in the face. Some older kids made a fort out of a small pit just outside the fence line of the park by putting a sheet of plywood over the top of it. This was cool until one guy slid inside and found a snake curled up in the fort, avoiding the same sun he’d hoped to get out from under.

Speaking of snakes, a sidewinder once slithered onto the path I walked from the bus stop to the park’s back gate and chased me all the way there. At least, it felt like that to my kindergarten brain. I’m not sure I’ve ever Usain Bolted faster and I still hate snakes.

Speaking of running, a friend of ours would walk barefoot across the asphalt paths of the trailer park in the dead of summer. Actually, stroll is a better term for what she did, unaffected like her soles were asbestos-coated or layered in callouses so thick they rendered her nerve endings useless. I tried to imitate her once, only to end up sprinting from the shadow of one bush to the next, leaving pieces of skin stuck to the path until I fell into the pool and cried.

Speaking of pain and tears and indigenous desert plant life, that brings me back to my injury. If every rose had its thorn for Brett Michaels, I guess my radio ballad would focus on a metaphorical cactus and its quills. But there’s little love anywhere in this song. And, to quote White Goodman, it’s a metaphor, but it actually happened.


“The boy. He fell down.”

I turned to look at Bronwyn, the four-year-old niece of a former high school basketball player I’d coached, and stood up immediately. Her face was slack with terror and the boy she was talking about was Holden. When I looked up across the section of bleachers where they’d been playing tag, I couldn’t find him.

“Where did he fall?”

She pointed to the top corner of the stands and I was running before her arm dropped. The game—alumni players against the current team—went on behind me and the squeal of shoes against the court seemed incredibly loud. At the top row, I turned right and made my way along the cinder block wall, roughly 21 feet air.

I expected to see my son, a small-for-his-age kid given to bursts of uncoordinated daring, lying in the space between the rows. Instead, I found a hole in the bleachers just big enough for a three-and-a-half-year-old to drop through, but only if he didn’t see it coming. Because I didn’t see it coming.

I crouched down and peered into the dark space below, calling his name. I couldn’t see or hear him. He’d been swallowed whole.


They really don’t tell cautionary tales these days like they did when I was a kid. Viral hoaxes like eating detergent pods and threats of a school shooting become equally fictional product recalls and even faker congressional committee hearings. In my day, just one kid had to get brain damage from huffing rubber cement fumes or suffocate in a refrigerator while playing hide-and-go-seek and it became an after-school TV movie played at school as a “special presentation,” a “very special” episode of Emergency, and a pithily-sloganed anti-drug campaign triggering systematic mass incarceration disproportionately targeting people of color. Say what you want, but the helicopter parenting of the 70s and 80s was swift, decisive, and most likely done by the Man, man.

Conspicuously absent from those warnings, however, was one regarding the dangers of that unassuming desert porcupine, the dome-shaped cactus. Specifically, the fishhook barrel cactus—ferocactus wislizeni to serious cactus lovers—primarily found in Mexico and from Texas to Arizona. Luckily for me, at least one found the Anza Borrego desert soil outside our trailer hospitable enough to call it home.

Its name is not ironic. Layered in thick spines with a barb-like hook at the end of each, these little bastards are usually left alone by animals looking for the water cacti store inside themselves…animals with more sense than smaller me, it would seem. We had a young, dome-shaped version in our small cactus garden. Yeah, we had a garden of hostile plants. You didn’t? We also had a pet rock on the kitchen counter and a giant wooden fork and spoon hanging from the dining room wall because these things were required in the 70s, along with radar dish-shaped wicker chairs and macramé houseplant hangers. In that spirit, did you really live in the desert if you had no domesticated cacti? Our garden was surrounded by railroad ties that likely would require a warning sign for passers-by in today’s liability climate. Probably should have put one up for me too, not that I’d have paid it much attention.

For most of the time we lived in Borrego, I maintained a generally ambivalent relationship with the various cacti there. Sure, sometimes I grabbed a flat, ear-shaped piece of prickly pear (opuntia) or a spiny grenade-round bulb of jumping cholla (cylindropuntia bigelovii) and threw it at a friend. Jokes that stung were the best kind. But those moments were rare and usually ended in a spanking, so I generally chose to abide by a live and let live philosophy with all quilled plants. I wish that fishhook barrel had paid me the same courtesy.


The access panel for the bleachers wasn’t where I remembered. I coached some of the first games played in the that building, years earlier, and was sure I knew where to find it until I got to the bottom of the stands and didn’t. Add that to the list of my failures that night. The gym was almost silent by that point, the game halted, and everyone in the building forming human brackets around the middle of the stands.

“Where’s the panel?!” I shouted to no one in particular and found the answer myself in a gap in the seats 20 feet from me. I had just reached it when my best friend Will, who’d been coaching the current squad in the game, lifted Holden through the open panel and set him prone onto the closest surface. He was dazed and dissolved into tears immediately when I knelt down next to him.

“He’s ok,” Will said. “I think he’s ok.”

I looked Holden over, trying and failing to find any marks or cuts. His pupils looked ok, but I’m not that kind of doctor. His irises were dark enough that their usual difference in color—they are hazel with one greening toward sage and the other a browner shortbread—was washed out. I ruffled his brown hair to see if there were any hidden marks or softness and moved his arms and legs gently. In general, he looked ok, but he was still crying. Hard.

“What hurts?” I asked.

“My back. I hit it. And now everyone’s looking.”

I glanced up to find what felt like every eye in the building trained on us. I also saw the EMT’s pushing through the gym doors. Holden saw them too and cried harder.


The punchline: I sat on a cactus shaped, oddly, like the bowl-cut hairstyle my parents were fond of getting ours cut into. I wish there was a cooler set up. Like I was trying to ride our neighbors moped and fell into it. But falling off Dottie’s motorized bike wouldn’t happen until I was six. Maybe I’d feel better if I’d been launched onto it one of the times my eight-years-older brother made it seem like he was going to shove me into something. But Paul was gentler with me than I had any right to expect, especially given that we shared a tiny room and he was often the one who put me back into my top bunk when I’d fall out at night.

Naw. I just wasn’t paying attention. It was hot. I’d been aggressively throwing rocks out into the open desert just beyond our trailer park—excuse me, mobile estates—and was tired. As I remember the moments before touchdown, I was vacillating between getting a drink from the hose and collapsing in the mid-morning sun so I could yell for Mom to bring me one. It must have been a Saturday or late afternoon if she was there to get yelled for.

Collapse won out and I went to sit on one of the railroad ties around the garden, misjudging the distance between me, my intended seat, and my would-be assailant. I often did this as growth spurts and their accompanying spells of clumsiness were common throughout my childhood. Simpler version, I overshot and sat directly on top of that fishhook barrel cactus with all of my four-year-old weight.

The pain was searing and immediate and caused my second mistake, well, third if you count being born, which created the possibility of sitting on a cactus in the first place. In the moment, it felt like my ass was on fire and I stood straight up, tearing several of the hooked quills out of the cactus but not my skin when I did because combining two sharp edges pointing in the opposite directions is a very effective design for keeping fishhooks and cactus spines anchored in the flesh they pierce.


Heather picked up on the third ring. She was having coffee with a friend less than a mile from the gym. She was also six months pregnant.

“Holden had an accident. But the good news is he’s conscious.”

“He’s conscious? What happened? Wait, were those sirens I just heard for him?”

Fear crackled in her words. I gave her a quick summary while I held Holden’s hand and the EMTs looked him over. They were more concerned than they might normally have been because a young girl had fallen to her death from a luxury box at a Lakers game earlier that week. I tried to reassure Heather but mostly made things worse.

“I’m on my way.”

By the time she arrived, the paramedics had come to the same conclusion I had. Holden looked ok, but who knew what kind of internal injuries he might have sustained falling from a height equal to more than seven of him. They’d just finished strapping him to a back board and were discussing which hospital would be best for getting x-rays and a second opinion.

“I’m sorry. I should have watched him.”

I looked down and found my daughter next to me. It was the first I’d thought of her since the fall. She was crying, quietly, and I hugged her.

“Oh honey, this isn’t your fault.”

“I’m supposed to help.”

I hugged her again, but I felt the same futile sense of responsibility for his fall. And I’m sure she could tell I did. Not even eight years old yet, and I’d taught her to carry guilt that wasn’t really hers to pick up in the first place.

A few minutes later, an EMT pulled Heather and I aside to ask which one of us would ride with Holden in the helicopter to the hospital.

“A helicopter? Really? Why not an ambulance down the street to Whittier Presbyterian?”

“We need a pediatric trauma center. There are three: L.A. Children’s, Orange County Children’s, and King/Drew. It’ll take a couple hours to get to any of them tonight.”

He was right about the traffic. It was the night before Thanksgiving, which made every freeway a clogged artery. There wasn’t really a discussion. Heather followed his stretcher to an ambulance in front of the building and, for a mere $1,200, they were driven 300 yards to the football field where a life flight landed, scooped them up, and lifted off.

“Where are they being taken?” I asked the same EMT.


I thanked him, made a couple of brief calls to family members who were expecting us to arrive later that night, and then loaded my daughter in the van to head for a hospital known un-ironically as “Killer King,” a knot of dread in my throat.


On the list of best moments in my life, lying face down and pincushion up in warm bath water so my mother could pluck cactus quills from my body is conspicuously absent. The hurt and embarrassment merged in the way she kept shaking her head with a mixture of disapproval and lack of surprise at my finding a new and creative way to hurt myself. Every time she plucked out a quill, a shiver of pain ran up my spine and down the backs of my legs, drawing another head shake from her. At dinner that night, it hurt to sit, so I stood at the edge of the table while one of my siblings asked if I had hemorrhoids and everyone else laughed. It was the first of many jokes they’d pull out when the situation warranted, which was often if the frequency of their comments was any indicator.

The cactus, stripped slightly bald in one small section, was unmoved when I went out to look at it the next day. Within a week, I was able to laugh about it all, and in a couple more I’d moved on to only thinking of the episode with mild annoyance. Like most childhood injuries, the acuteness of the moment faded almost immediately while life presented perspective in new and unique pain. There isn’t even a scar to act as a memorial, just the story I’m the only one still telling because I’ve provided my family much better material in the years since.


When I was a young reporter just out of college, I carried a note in my wallet at all times. It read, “Under no circumstances am I to be taken to King/Drew for treatment.” As my daughter and I walked through the second set of metal detectors in the lobby of the hospital that night, I tried not to think about that note, or that County was where you went to have the wrong organ taken out or to be forgotten in a hallway while you waited for someone to come check on you. And yet, this is where they’d brought my son, whose condition was a complete unknown given the ban on cell phone use that prevented Heather from calling me.

By the time we reached the emergency room where they were treating Holden, he’d been examined, had an ultrasound that convinced him he was carrying a baby just like his mom, and was waiting for x-rays to confirm that, in fact, he had not been seriously injured in any of the many ways he might have been. A brief overview of those potential injuries avoided:

  • He fell straight down, missing every edge of a hole less than a foot wider than he was;
  • The section of steel bleacher skeleton under where he fell was the narrowest of the structure with bars on all sides creating a space about the size of the hole from fall to floor. He hit none;
  • He landed feet first without breaking a bone, tearing a ligament, or splitting his head open when he toppled over;
  • The fall was so surprising he didn’t tense up, his muscles and joints spreading the impact across his body and limiting damage to any specific place.

In essence, he dropped like a stone but landed like a pad had been placed beneath him, something so close to miraculous I often think of it that way. The kid fell 21 feet and walked away—literally—with a strained muscle in his back and a prescription for rest and painkiller. Of course, the trauma of that kind of fall isn’t always visible and can be more difficult to treat than physical pain.


If you look only at the bodily implications, these two incidents led to similar places, though only one had the potential to completely alter a life. This is why we don’t joke about Holden’s fall much, just remember the details and how thankful we are he wasn’t injured more severely. I also feel guilty. For his falling. For my failing.

Despite the fact that he was back to playing a few days after the accident, Holden was different, less sure and less quick to smile. Quieter and smaller, it seemed. Sometimes when I’d pick him up quickly, he’d stiffen against my arms and beg to be set down. I often wonder if his fall plays into the anxiety he carries to this day. Each time I do, the feeling of being unable to see him in the dark space under those bleachers wraps itself in the guilt I feel for all the ways I know I could have been a better parent for him in so many unrelated moments.

I wonder if my parents ever felt this way about my more serious mishaps as a kid. I assume they must have, but maybe not. It was a different time, after all, and parents had different scales to measure their adequacy against. Maybe someday I’ll ask. Holden’s almost 12 as I write this and when I ask him about falling, he tends to brush the subject off. But when he tells me the story, it always begins with these words:

“Do you remember when I fell?”

Those six words shift me from the self-centered act of keeping my own memories to validating some of his most important ones; to help hold present a concrete experience receding into the shadows of his past; to help him tell the story until it feels like it’s his to own. Maybe this is a part I can play in ushering him past the parts still lodged inside of him. Maybe I’m just lodging them more deeply. As a parent, I have no model for this. I’m the teller of my family’s stories and my folks were of the Walk It Off School when it came to getting hurt.

I can’t help but wonder what Holden’s story will include later in life. Will it be a key to his understanding himself or just a story he’s been told so many times he merely thinks he’s remembering it as his own? There’s really no way to know, even as these are the questions I think most parents end up asking themselves at one time or another.


Michael Dean Clark is an author of fiction, literary essays, and occasionally poetry. Most recently his work has appeared in The Jabberwock Review, The Other Journal, Pleiades, Hoosier Lit, and Angel City Review, among others. Formerly an award-winning journalist, Clark is also the co-editor of the collections Creative Writing in the Digital Age and Creative Writing Innovations (Bloomsbury Academic). Follow him on Twitter at @MDeanClark or Instagram at @mdeanclark.


Alexis Berry

March 10, 2020

Grandpa’s Chair

The house is quiet, still in the dimness. There is a single lamp standing crooked in the corner of the living room, rust building along the aged brass hinges. It does a poor job illuminating the mahogany bookshelf beside it, packed full of gardening books that have only been read once, but are honorably remembered word-for-word. The decorative plates, painted with the most articulate delicacy and patience, cast shadows from where they hang along the dark beige walls—ghosts of old pride, faded colors of blue, red, and green china. The ugly floral wallpaper on the opposite side of the room, where a great mirror framed in gold steel stares back, does nothing to compliment the disarray¾where the snagged carpet meets the split laminate of the kitchen floor. The magnet-plastered refrigerator looms just inside the doorway, accompanied by an opened bag of Werther’s Originals that sits alone on the marble countertop. Just across from them, placed on the hutch for optimal snacking, is a jar of cookies for youth who no longer come. The sight is just visible from the crackling of the TV, lit with the stern face of Perry Mason before two nearly identical chairs that clash against the wallpaper. But only one of them truly stands out.

My grandfather’s chair, a fossil of its past days—alive only in the subtle cracks in the paint of the plastic handle of the recliner, the creaks and cracks of the corroded steel beams that hold the cushions to the old bones of the frame. He sits there, rocking gently back and forth on the balls of his flat feet, smoking a pipe in a stained t-shirt and paint-splattered sweatpants. A pile of books sits on the floor beside him, where the rocking of coffee-stained suede lazily threatens to knock them over. Their titles are those of astrophysics, botany, political philosophy, renaissance art—things he reads about for mere enjoyment. His toe gently and absent-mindedly taps the front cover of the first book, facing the direction of the empty couch where I should be laying, engrossed in the epic murder mystery and swapping stories with Grandma. If he senses my absence, he doesn’t show it; his wrinkled fingers drum lightly against the worn fabric to a song I can’t remember. Why aren’t I two feet shorter, curled up in a ball beside him on the arm of that chair, in a time I never want to forget—when naps were the pinnacle of injustice, and scraped knees and park swings were all that I knew?

“She would have liked the sermon today,” he says vaguely, and Grandma coughs.

It wasn’t all that long ago.


I run around the corner—a triumphant only-child at the green age of four—when I see it sitting there. It’s still wrapped in plastic; the malodor of formaldehyde and the cheap perfume Grandma used to try and mask the scent, is strong enough to make my eyes water. The scent washes over me in drowning billows as Grandpa pulls the thin crumpled layer away, revealing the shiny brown chair hidden beneath.

I have never been more enchanted.

I drop everything—the coloring book in my hand, the cookie that I stole from the jar long before I had finished my dinner. I forgot about Grandma, who is chasing after me with the spatula for thievery of the cookie, about my dirt-ridden socks encrusted with birdseed and burrs from the garden. The chair is suddenly everything; all I want to do—all I can think about doing—is to sit in it, to feel the firm press of the stiff cushions against my back, under the scrawny knobs of my knees, the scrapes that lick my elbows. It is a new place, a new object that has the potential to be truly magical. I want to be the first one to explore it.

Grandpa catches me before I can even take the leap headfirst into the massive armchair— like all of the cartoon animals do on PBS Kids. “It has to set,” he tells me, and tells me again, just to make sure that I understand. “You have to wait until it stops smelling.”

“I like the smell,” I protest, but he shoos me away with a blast of fabric cleaner.

I manage to keep myself away for a good amount of time. I go outside and run around in a bed of tulips; I swipe more cookies from the kitchen and curl up on the couch with my finger-painted Leapfrog for my daily lesson. But before long, I am back in front of that shiny new chair, watching enviously up at Grandpa as he rocks gently back and forth.

Yet, although I recognize that he is merely enjoying what is his, I begin to devise a plan to get as close to that chair as I can—even if that means not actually sitting on it. I sneak forward, dragging my box of crayons with me; Grandpa didn’t see me. He is too engrossed in The Three Stooges, laughing heartily in the comfort of the felt cushions; his pipe drops ash with each labored breath. He doesn’t notice as I slip behind him, behind the chair, into the little shadowed space between the soft, hollow underside and the dust-flecked wooden panels of the wall. And suddenly, the outside world fades away—Grandpa, Grandma, Larry, Curly, and Moe—they are all gone.

It is just me in the shadows, alone to trace pictures through the grime, to run my fingers along the top of the suede and watch it change colors—lighter and darker with each stroke, as if I were actually painting. The poignant guff of furnishing wax and fresh ink fills my nose; it goes to my head, and I feel as though anything is possible. The space between the walls is no longer connected to reality; the rules of the real world don’t apply to me here.

It is one of the first places where I feel alive. My imagination sparks and everything becomes new, unseen and concealed in darkness and dust, yet familiar in every way that my home never is. I don’t know how long I am back there, huddled behind the towering wall of sienna suede, but by the time I leave, I can remember the space inch-by-inch—every corner, every single chip of paint, nook and cranny. I know it like the back of my hand.

Before I know it, I am not merely tracing patterns into the fabric. Without warning, I am armed; I have two crayons in each yellow hand, the bleeding colors of my mind—purple and green in the right, blue and pink in the left. Both move with erratic precision—this way and that, scribbles and scrapes with no direction, but with every guiding light. Each spiral, each twist—it means nothing, yet everything. It is a nebula of color that can never find its home in the rough edges of construction paper. Rather, it finds solace in the steep panels of the wall, where it will stay until I am no longer there to find solace in it.

It is then, when my project is all but complete, that Grandma finds me. Needless to say, she doesn’t appreciate my art.


Shh,” I whisper. I crush my brother closer to my chest; the grip of my hand over his mouth tightens. “It’ll stop soon.”

He squirms against my grip, but he’s only half my age; his meaty toddler hands are practically useless against me, and even if he did fight back, I have longer fingernails. It’s mean; I know that, but I can’t let him cry. They don’t know that we’re here, and if they find out, they will yell at us, too. We’re safe behind Grandpa’s chair, where the colorful, swirling patterns of the mural I drew four years ago still watches over us. The little patch of darkness cloaks us from view, from where Grandpa’s feet stand upon our afternoon sketches that are sprawled messily across the carpeted walkway. The thin sheets crinkle under his weight, but it is no concern of mine; it is only a manifestation of his rage. It’s his words that send my nerves into a panic.

He is yelling at Grandma, and Grandma is yelling back. I can’t make out what they are saying; I don’t really want to. Whenever it happens, for whatever reason—whether it is politics, or tennis, or Vietnam, or how many miles stand between us and the nearest Taco Bell—I duck behind the boulder of warm suede. Sometimes I grab Anden, if he’s near. I like it better when he is. Even though he never quite understands, it feels better to have him beside me. We huddle there together in an old cloud of tobacco haze, where alcohol stains live in the carpet that has long since needed to be cleaned. The soles of our feet turn black just walking across it.

Anden crouched with me a year ago, when Grandma fell in the bathroom and we couldn’t lift her up; we watched the boots of the firemen as they helped her to her own chair, with the phone we used to call 911 hidden carefully in the pocket of my sweatshirt. He sat by me when Grandpa was drinking out of those yellow aluminum can—so many cans, mountains of cans¾when just looking at him and his scruffy grey beard, walking strangely and mumbling to himself, made me cry. We would hide together with the bag of nacho cheese Doritos that Dad gave us before he dropped us off, knowing that we wouldn’t have anything to eat for dinner.

This is merely another slash on the chalkboard, another spiral of purple on the wall—a bruise.

Shh,” I hiss again when Anden tries to wiggle away.

“He’s being mean,” he jeers back.

I know Grandpa is being mean. They are both being mean. But I don’t want to listen. I don’t want to hear it. All I want to do is roll up into a ball like the armadillo I saw on Animal Planet, and block out the worldthe screaming, the drunken slurs, the bitter words that fall so boldly off tired lips, the malevolence behind aged eyes who have seen too much, too little. “Anden, hush!

“Drop dead!” I hear Grandpa curse, and the room falls silent. Nothing ever feels quite so large, quite so empty as the space between the wall and the back of his chair, and at the moment, I feel it swallow me whole. A cruel flash of insanity strikes me; not once in my life do I remember being as terrified as I am in that exact moment. A rush of adrenaline spurs me back to life; there is only one thing that I care about.

“GRANDMA!” I nearly trip over my own feet trying to get to her, scrambling toward her wide, bloodshot eyes with my arms outstretched. I fling my arms around her and latch on, horrified, petrified that she is truly about to fall to the floor and leave us behind. “Don’t go!” I sob. Her red sweater darkens with the salt of my tears. “Don’t go! Don’t go!”

It takes a long time to calm me down, sitting at the end of the couch with Grandma’s wrinkled, transparent hands resting on mine, staring hard at the intricate tendrils of thread that make up the dirt-ridden carpet. Even now, the words haunt me.

I wonder often if they were ever happy together, if they ever kissed just to kiss, or enjoyed each other in ways beyond mutual need. I think back far more often than I should to all the times when Grandma would talk about going to live in a tree and I, in the innocence of my youth, begged her to take me with her because living in a tree sounded cool. In the dead of night, in the whispers of the wind through the dark corridors of the streets, I hear her quiet voice¾softer, lighter than a featherin the back of that car, with her violet eyes low and brimming with tears that she would never shed. “Sometimes I don’t think that I’ve lived the life I wanted to have.”

Her words catch me by the throat; they make me wish that I hadn’t been so naive, that I had never left the comfort of Grandpa’s chair. They instill a new fear in me, weaved in lavender dreams and beer-battered pillowcases. It is an ache that I won’t be able to name until years later, when I realize the very same thing.


“Are you sure you want me to throw this away?” I call to my grandma. She is in the kitchen, filing old letters at the sticky dining room table that is finally free of old newspapers and ashes. I roll the candlestick across my palm, feeling the elegant curves and ridges of its silver surface; my hands would later sweat with the metallic aroma of old nickels. It is a staple of this housea favorite ornament of the hearth at Christmastime.

Her reaction surprises me. “That old candlestick? Yes. Toss it in the recycling bin.”

I raise my eyebrows at this, but do not question her. It is beyond me what my grandma wants to do with her things; my fifteen years hold no authority. So I toss it away and watch as it clatters to the bottom with an old milk carton and an empty juice box. I try not to let it bother me, the image of the fireplace without that stupid, ugly candlestick; I try not to pay any mind that my little sister, Gina, wouldn’t throw Lego blocks at it on Christmas Eve, trying to knock it off the shelf out of prepubescent deviance.

“Anything else you want me to carry out before I pull the tree out of the closet?” I ask. I swat at the sticky sensation of a spider web that somehow found its way across the bridge of my nose; going into any of these closets is the equivalent of touring catacombs in Ancient Egypt.

“Well, we have to get that chair out of here first. We’re going to try something different this year, so

“You’re getting rid of your chair?” My mind immediately flashes to her purple velvet reclinerthe one we had found at a garage sale when I was eleven. “It looks perfectly fine to me.”

My grandma raises her eyebrows, peering at me over her horn-rimmed glasses. “Not mine. Your grandfather’s,” she says.

“What?” I must have misheard her.

“Haven’t you seen it? It’s about time.”

The corners of my mouth twitch. I turn abruptly on my heel and speed back into the corral of the living room. Grandpa’s chair is still there, as it always isunmoved, with its feet so deeply grounded into the carpet, that the very idea of moving it seems an absurd offense. My first instinct is to defend it; the chair was fine just fine! There is no need to throw it away. It is a foundation of memories, of late-night stories and Because of Winn Dixie, of that terrible sickly-sweet stench of Grandpa’s pipe, of Svengoolie on Saturday night, and the Wimbledon Open in the Summer. It is tall tales, Jack and the Beanstalk, math lessons, and Russian lullabies. It is flowers, perennials, a leaning tower of books, and the rush of freedom that comes with flying high on the swing set.

Moving it would be wrong. I feel it deep in my bones, the fibers of my being that had grown here, on the arm of this chair, and in the little space behind it where I had first found myself.

I wonder . . .

I creep forward, careful to avoid Grandma’s prying eyes from the dining room, and peer into the shadowy space. It isn’t nearly as dark as I remember it being, and not nearly as large. It is a wonder that both myself and Anden were ever able to squeeze in there together, side-by-side; now, I don’t even think that I could. I crouch down, swallowing my teenage dignity, and run my fingers along the faded slashes of color that had once teemed with vibrancy. The wax ceases to be wax; it hasn’t retained its sticky texture, but has smoothly eroded into the wall itself. It no longer jumps out at me like it used to; it is merely an eye of comfort. Even the fetor had faded the ghastly, honeyed sweetness of stale tobacco, fresh soil, saltine crumbs, and Miller Lite. There are only remnants, a musty ghost of fragrances that, no matter how repulsive, remind me of home. And yet, even they cease to exist.

“How long has it been?” I murmur to myself, tracing patterns into the back of the napped finishpatterns that younger, more curious fingers had traced long before. Surely not that long.

But it has been long enough. I can no longer fit behind the chair; it is a space lost to me, a forgotten point in time that only now, years later, I see as pivotal. I can’t even remember how I had felt when I brought those crayons to the wood and started to draw; I can’t even remember why I was so enchanted with the tiny nook in the first place. It is hard to even think of holding Anden in my arms; I haven’t seen him since he left with my mother. It is lost to me¾beyond the crusty armchair, beyond my grandfather. It is a piece of me, born in a mess of sketches that littered the carpet years agoblue, green, pink, and purple.

“Have you got it?” Grandma calls. Her voice sounds older now. Thinner.

“Yeah, I got it,” I reply. It’s hard to speak.

“Just pull it out into the hall. Marley will grab it from there.”

I grip both of the arms from the front and stare dead into the place where my grandfather used to sit, his face buried in a book, his arm around my shoulder. It is a chair meant for kings, no matter how stained or worn, sewn from the finest brown suede and stuffed with cottona chair of tobacco haze, of reading glasses, and dirt-encrusted fingernails.

I rip it away from the wall and let go.


Alexis Berry is attending Columbia College Chicago with a major in Creative Writing and a minor in Professional Writing. She loves to write stories from different worlds—ranging from fantastical realms, to outer space, to the dusky streets of Chicago—wherein writing is her ultimate means of escape and reflection. Her desire is to write something worth reading, and to share it with the world.


Lisa K. Buchanan

December 16, 2019


My mother never announced having spent the day with her older daughter, but I always knew. Suddenly, my spaghetti spill was catastrophic; my loss of a gym sock, reckless; my impersonation of the school principal, unkind. Mom had a way of dropping a cheekbone onto the heel of a hand while she sat at the kitchen table, long after dinner was over. No doubt, while I was playing tetherball after school, she and her older daughter had lingered at the yarn shop and the antique store, errands I found interminable. Maybe the two of them sipped iced tea: liquid cat box. Maybe they played duets at the piano where my mother and I could only fight. “F shaaaarp!” The correction missiled from the kitchen, down the hall, and into my ear while I practiced scales. Mom had perfect pitch, but I often suspected it was her first daughter, five years older than me, calling out the note. When my mother was bored with me, I knew she was missing Pickle Puss—she who was musical and hopeful in the way our mother had been musical and hopeful; she who was freckled and photogenic in the way our mother had been, with bouncy auburn waves and coveted curves. Mom’s perfume smelled reachy on me, but when her older daughter wore it, our house was queen-scented. With her inherited cheekbones, nimble piano fingers, and even the wry humor that earned her nickname, the older daughter was our mother’s legacy to an otherwise disappointing world. Their symbiosis was absolute; it was the longing that got to them. Unlike me, the older daughter had emerged from my mother’s own womb. And unlike me, she had been still and silent and softly purple, a girl baby shrouded, a dream from which my presence could only awaken our mother, day after day, most cruelly.



Lisa K. Buchanan’s work has appeared in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology, Fourth Genre, Narrative, New Letters, and The Offing. She likes Brahms’ short waltzes, spinach with mango, Downward-Facing Dog, and breaking the Rule of Three


Kent Jacobson

December 16, 2019

I Set a Fire


I don’t know why I set the fire. I haven’t wanted to think about it since. Though I know what I joked for years afterwardWe had to find that baseball didn’t we?” Like I’d been one more dopey kid.

It was a brutal July day that summer of 1955, not far from the ocean, and a too long bike ride away from the center of our small Rhode Island mill-town. I was about to turn twelve and enter the seventh grade. There’d been a steamy haze that morning, but now the sun was out full and what air that moved came warm off the land. Nobody wanted to play baseball, nobody, especially not slow-moving Earl. “Too hot,” Earl said, “too hot,” and it was, and still I pushed him to the ballfield right across from Dr. Gongaware’s and my big house on the hill. Dad called me “a bull.”

The game I wanted to play was my game with two players (call it “catch”), a game almost as good as our regular five against five, our neighborhood too little for baseball’s usual nine on a side. I played shortstop and Earl played first, his back to the high grass that surrounded the field the Gongawares mowed for us kids.

I stood at short on the yellowing grass and faced first base as Earl got ready, the unlevel field sloping down behind me to the missing leftfielder. Was that smell honeysuckle? I waited in the hum of insects and the flash of redwing blackbirds, the smell of saltwater heavy in the air, a seagull drifting down to the backstop behind home plate. The heat. The quiet.

“Come on, Earl, let’s go. Roll me one.”

Earl was a class grade behind me though we were about the same size. He never hurried, unlike his father who worked a machine at Cottrell’s factory and was always in a rush to a new home-project: “Why are those goddamn boys never around when I need ‘em? Where’s that lazy Earl?” And despite the hurry and the anger, he’d look at me and smile: “Howya doin’ Butchy-boy?” (Butch, my family nickname). Did he hope my straight A’s would rub off on his sons?

Earl took his time, and finally rolled an easy grounder at me and I charged it in a low crouch, gloved the well-used ball, and fired a rocket back. Earl shook his gloved hand in pain.

“You have to throw that hard?”

I didn’t answer. My arm was my one baseball talent. I couldn’t hit, I wasn’t the best fielder, he’d have to stand the pain.  And even so, the problem was largerI threw wild. We’d search for the ball in the high grass for forever.

“Jesus,” he whined. “Throw straighter why don’t chu. . . .”

I’d get better. I had to. I dreamed of being as good as the Yankees’ Phil Rizzuto, or maybe just better than I’d been the day before. I had to get better to be someone, to prove that I mattered, to prove I deserved respect on the field and was more than a “brain.” Work was the way. Dad said so: “Do every job right or don’t do it at all.”

I threw over Earl’s head the fifth time and he glared like I’d made him swallow puke.

I glared back. “Why don’t you learn how to catch?”

The pain in his hand, the searching, my pushingate at Earl. We were baking in the soggy late-afternoon sun and pouring sweat, t-shirts stuck to our backs, blue jeans gummy on our thighs, BVDs grabbing at our crotches.

Find the ball, find the ball, the only ball we had, the ball we’d used the whole summer. Why’d you lose it? kids’d say. How’d you lose it? Who’s gettin’ a new one?

Not me. And definitely not Earl. He didn’t like baseball that much. Anyway, who had the money? I’d saved two years from my paper route for the Dee Fondy first basemen’s glove he was using.

Earl tromped around in the grass in his black high tops. “Where’s that stupid thing? Come ahhhhnn. Come aaaahhhhnnnn . . . .”

He couldn’t stop groaning. “We should block out areas,” I said, “cover ground a small block at a time. Ball couldn’t have gone far.”

Earl ate early and he had to go soon or his father would yell when he came home from the mill and parked the rusted Chevy in their dirt yard: “Where are those damn boys?” His father’d moved the family out here by the saltwater to get Earl and his brothers away from the reform-school kids in town. No one fooled with his father.

Earl tromped into my block again.

“Hey, get out! What’re you doing? What’s wrong with you?”

The sun beat down, the dry grass scratchy on our arms as we moved around now on our knees. We’d lose the ball and the older kids’d rag, You crapheads never do anything right. You’re lucky we let you play.

I knelt in the grass and lit a matchwhy was I carrying matches?and the fire took off in the off-shore air. The fire would burn the top of the grass and leave our ball buried below untouched, at least that’s what I hoped.

The flames spread, they flew, it was fire season, and they burned the dry brown grass all the way down to the ground. The fire’d scorch the ball and leave a black nothing, a black and brown nothing we couldn’t use, we wouldn’t use.

Earl slapped at the flames with my brand new first baseman’s mitt and I slapped with my old falling-apart infielder’s glove. Earl peeled off his clammy t-shirt and tried that. Nothing worked. Nothing. And I could see my house not far up the road. Dad ran the state forest service and wore a .32 for “those crazy sons-a-bitches” that set fires.

“Call the fire department,”I yelled, Earl’s house a good half-mile away and we didn’t have our bikes. “I’ll go get help.” Earl ran for home, and I ran for the house across the road, the Gongawares.

What would they say? We used their field with the bases and backstop, and drank from their freshwater spring, even ate apples from their trees when they weren’t looking and now I was torching their grass, their land, maybe their orchard, the blueberries, the lilacs, the rhododendrons, maybe their house . . . maybe mine.

No one outside. Was anybody even home? I pounded on the door, chest rising, chest falling, I couldn’t get breath. I pounded. No response. I pounded. The door opened, a woman my mother’s agelean, a tight jaw. Her disapproving sister would be my English teacher in September.

“Fire. We’ve got a fire.” I didn’t say why, I didn’t say how big. She turned and disappeared into the house while I stood in the open door gasping. Was she phoning for the fire trucks?

She came back with two long, wooden brooms and handed me one, and nodded in the direction of the field. I ran, my left arm thrashing about with the broom, and she ran too and said nothing, back across the road to the field, her head down and broom thrashing about like mine, skirt churning around her legs, and . . . we were at the fire.

She bent from the waist and whacked the flames with the broom, her long hair falling into her face. She whacked and I whacked. Her house might go, my house might go, our field, her field, our world, her world, and my fault, I had to do it my wayfor a game, for a ball, my bottomless wanting.

I beat the flames and she beat the flames. How did she know this would work? I could feel my arms and back, my wobbly legs, the rasp of my breathing, the broom, my eyes filled with sweat. Could we win? I lost track of time. . . .

And the fire seemed to diminish slightly, ever so slightly, grow smaller, to ease off and die away, a few flares, some last flickers.

Mrs. Gongaware and I straightened up and leaned on our brooms. A woman I didn’t know, my neighbor, side by side with her in a scorched field, and we examined our work in silence. The blackened grass, some scrub pines burned, some tiny shrubs burned. . . . But not the lilacs, not the blueberries, not the raspberries, not the goldenrod and honeysuckle, not the flowering purple and pink and white rhododendrons, not her house, her house still standing, and my house. . . . What will Dad and Mom say? And what is Mrs. Gongaware thinkingthe field, the fire, us kids. Is this the end of baseball?

I heard sirens, trucks, fire trucks, men I knew, men who knew me, Swamp Yankee volunteers my father fought fires beside. What will I say?



Kent Jacobson taught for nearly 20 years in Bard College’s Clemente Course in the Humanities, a 2015 winner of the National Humanities Medal. His nonfiction has appeared or will appear in Hobart, Under the Sun, Thread, Brown Alumni Magazine, and Northwest Review, among others. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, landscape architect Martha Lyon, and their English Setter puppy, Ben.



E. A. Farro

December 16, 2019

It Becomes a Question

A conversation with Jericho Brown


“Your interview is not happening, the interviewer is sick,” the volunteer at author check-in told Jericho Brown. His smile fell, he paused. It was the inaugural Wordplay event hosted by the Loft Literary Center to celebrate readers, writers, and great books in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Jericho is the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Harvard, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is author of three books of poetry. The most recent, The Tradition, published by Copper Canyon Press, came out in April 2019.

I had seen him that morning with an entourage of cameras in and around the shiny royal-blue Guthrie Theatre. On the four-story-high escalator, he knelt down on one leg with the fluidity of a dancer. On a couch in front of long windows with views of the Mississippi River, he rested chin to fist. Between poses, he talked to the crew, threw his head back to laugh. Just watching him made me smile. Out on the Endless Bridge that extends 178’ from the face of the building and overlooks the former mills the city built itself around, Jericho stood face upward, eyes closed, shoulder length braids swaying in a breeze coming off the river. He was beautiful. The photographer was close enough to where I was drinking coffee that I heard him sigh with what sounded like satisfaction at capturing this image on film.

After hearing that his interview was cancelled, Jericho looked up and asked, “Is there someone else who can interview me?” He was both joking and earnest.

Without thinking I stepped out from the group of volunteers in matching conference t-shirts and fanny packs. “I can.”

He smiled.

Three months before I had finished an intense job at the Minnesota State Capitol. Instead of getting the next big job, I was writing. When I found creative flow, I know I was where I needed to be, but the battle to get there was exhausting. I wrote with one hand while the other held back a giant wave of demons. I volunteered for the interview because I wanted to know what made this poet glow.

Jericho’s presence was both quiet and loud. He paused speaking on stage and before answering my questions. “Trying to tell the truth means that I have to take a second and search myself, make sure I’m saying what is really the case for me,” he told me.

When he walked into the house that served as the green room for the authors, he didn’t hesitate before approaching people. He was not taking up space, but opening up new space none of us had realized were there, spaces we felt ourselves pulled into as sparks of smiles and jokes took off into full-blown conversations between acquaintances and people meeting for the first time.

I asked what drove him to be so friendly, so welcoming. He told me his parents taught him as a young child to walk into a room and talk to every adult, to make people “feel that you are a part of them when they saw you.” Making people feel seen may have made him charming, but that wasn’t why his parents taught him this behavior. “My mom and dad really believed that it was sinful to greet people without a smile. You greet people with a smile, that is the right thing to do.”

Up on the roof deck, a chill moved over us and then lifted as the clouds shifted back and forth across the sun. We sat on wood benches that ran the perimeter of the deck, and pulled layers on over our long sleeves. Jericho sat close, leaned close, looked into my eyes. After answering a question he would say, Ya’ Know? Do you follow? Do you understand what I mean? He paused, made sure I was with him.

Jericho pulled a KIND Bar out of his gift bag. Voices from the closest stage floated up from a National Book Awards panel. He told me he loved eating junk: Doritos, Lay’s STAX sour cream and onion, white cheddar Smartfood popcorn. He followed this up by saying, “I go through these periods where I only eat very healthy and I try to do it for a twelve week period. I’ll only eat some protein and something green. I’m a big kale fan. And then for carbohydrates, I’ll have sweet potato or brown rice or quinoa.”

“When did you start eating quinoa?” I asked.

“When I moved to Atlanta.” Jericho moved from San Diego to Atlanta in 2012 where he is the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory University.

During our interview, other writers came up to greet Jericho. They paused before leaving, one offered to read him a poem later.

By this time we had known each other for less than an hour and I felt like we had everything in common. We both worked for elected officials! I only recently discovered quinoa too! We both liked plants! That this interview was happening was obviously because we were both the kind of people who said Yes!

This sense of being kindred spirits didn’t come from our chemistry, nor was it something about me in particular. It was him. It was his particular magic, a special ability to connect with others. Poets sometimes get stereotyped as quiet and withdrawn. Jericho is not just a poet on the page; he is also a performer. When he is on stage, he feels like he could, “do it forever.”

But his laughter and smiles were not performance. They were the laughter of someone who knows the sadness and joy of their own heart.

I asked where he gets his energy from, Jericho told me, “I like a lot of old school music. I like Motown from the sixties and seventies. I like to hear women, Black women in particular, singing, hollering.” He went on, “I exercise a lot. I do burpees. I do weight training. I think it’s a good idea because it gets me out of my head. You know when you are out of breath and you gotta do ten more reps?” Jericho has put out burpee challenges on Twitter where he has over 15,000 followers, pushing, encouraging, and asking people to let him know how it goes.

The Tradition came to Jericho quickly. He wrote most of the book between Thanksgiving of 2017 and Martin Luther King Jr. Day of 2018. “It was chasing me,” he said. “I couldn’t stop writing. I was actually scared I was going to die because I was writing so much.”

“I invented a new form, I cut up all the lines I had left over from poems failed going back as far as 2004. I was splicing things together, making fragments work in ways I had never made them work before.” Jericho’s new form is called the duplex. It was like listening to a scientist explained the set-up of an experiment when he explained the structure of the duplex. Put simply, it is a combination of the sonnet, the ghazal, and the blues.

The book is about tradition in our culture, exploring what it means to live in a country where we normalize rape culture, mass shootings, and police violence. It’s about tradition in our families, like planting gardens. “This is the stuff men in my family have cared about for generations just for the sake of beauty.” Jericho recently bought a house and found himself planting begonias and creeping myrtle. The book is about tradition in our daily lives, “If people see me as someone who falls in love, it might keep them from shooting me.”

Jericho juxtaposes images of black men and flowers in his poem The Tradition. The first line names flowers. Aster. Nasturtium, Delphinium. And the last line names black men killed by police. John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown. In his headshot on the back of the book, Jericho wears a bright yellow shirt that matches a garden of yellow daffodils behind him. In his iconic social media headshot, he wears a wreath of flowers, mirroring the image of the African American child painted on the cover of his newest book. By juxtaposing flowers and black men, he asks a question of the reader about what images come to mind when they think of a flower, a black child, a black man. It’s a question that creates an opportunity for examination, opens the possibility for change.

“Can poetry change the world?” I asked.

“Yeah!” He exclaimed, then went on in a quieter voice, “but, I also think its a powerful force for those who let it have power on them. You have to be exposed to it; you have to be in the position to know it. That is part of what we are doing as ambassadors of poetry. We poets are putting ourselves in a position so that if you might be interested, here we are.”

Jericho doesn’t wait for inspiration to strike; he prepares himself for it by consuming art and writing daily. He writes for two hours first thing every morning. “I set appointments with myself, and I honor them. I feel exhilarated by that fact.”

“You get to create your life,” he told me. “As soon as you realize it, it becomes a question. I get to create my life? And then you say to yourself, yes!” He laughed before saying, “You realize you are looking into a void.”

He went on, “It’s the same thing that happens when you make a poem. You are looking at a blank sheet and suddenly you have made a thing that literally changes thoughts and emotions simply by typing. Suddenly you have a trigger.” A question, like a poem, is an act of change.

His daily writing practice starts with meditation and prayer. He reads modern spiritual writers like Ernest Holmes, Marianne Williamson, and Michael Bernard Beckwith. “The spiritual part has always been there, because that is how I was raised. But, I started taking responsibility for my own spirituality at a certain point,” he explained, “and when I did, my poems got to be a lot better.” His spirituality helps him “put myself in a place of faith and trust,” this creates the space and safety for play.

Jericho’s daily appointment has many forms. “Writing sometimes means revision, sometimes means drafting, sometimes means putting up things that aren’t working. Sometimes writing doesn’t go so well. It doesn’t mean any of that. It just means reading stuff or wishing you had something. But there are two hours I dedicate to it everyday.”

I pictured him like a train going up a mountain at a steady pace then reaching the top and coming down the other side faster and faster as he neared the end of his last book.

“When a book comes out, I run behind it pretty hard for a year, which is why I am here. I say yes to everything. I try to drum up whatever I need to send the book out into the world so people know it exists.”

Jericho’s goal was to sell at least 4000 copies of The Tradition in the next three months. I asked, “Who do you want those 4000 people to be? Who do you want to buy the book?” He started listing states he had never been to.

THIS IS A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT – if you are in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Hawaii, Alaska, or Idaho, Jericho has you on his mind. He has never been to your state, and he wants to come. He will walk in, look you in the eye, and shake your hand. And if you meet him again, a year later, in different clothing and in a different place, he will remember you. He has timed how long it takes to read each poem; he is ready for whatever venue you have. The room where his parents taught him to walk in and greet everyone, it has expanded to be the entire country.

Later that afternoon Jericho spoke on a low stage with a backdrop of exposed brick. The panel was on Art & The Body with T. Fleischmann, moderated by Lisa Marie Brimmer. Jericho’s preparation was evident in his clothing; his thin peach sweater matched the color of the sky on the cover of The Tradition, and his grey-blue pants matched the color of the ocean.

The panel started with an acknowledgment that we were on stolen Indigenous land. This is something said more and more often at events in Minnesota. The statement was followed by a beat to considerstolen lands, Indigenous—and then the schedule continued. In my own head, I heard Jericho’s voice, It becomes a question. We create our own lives.

At the end of the Q&A, an older African American woman asked Jericho to read his poem about cuddling. It’s called Stand. “Cuddling is my favorite thing to do,” Jericho said with an open-mouth smile, and we all smiled back. At each line break, I was uncertain of what would come next: violence or beauty?

When he was done, he didn’t look up to see the crowd holding its breath and considering how bodies making love fit into our landscapes of crisis. He didn’t smile or laugh. The poem had taken him elsewhere, as it had taken each of us.

I had asked him earlier if poetry is a political tool, and he didn’t pause before shaking his head no. “I think every poem, I think every book, is for a single heart. When someone is reading it, it is your heart to their heart. It’s not your heart to a mass of people.”

I biked home along the beautiful Ȟaȟáwakpa Misi-ziibi Mississippi River. Cars zoomed by me on one side. On the other, trees blushed green with spring leaves along the steep riverbank. I cast questions into the void: Is it a responsibility to greet everyone when I walk into a room? What would it mean to have a culture of connection? Every room of people an opportunity to change myself, every person a poem?



E. A. Farro is a scientist and artist who spent the last seven years working in politics. She is the founder of The Nature Library, a literary art instillation in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Her publications have appeared in Rumpus, The Kenyon Review, and The Normal School, among others. She is a recipient of a 2010 Loft Literary Center Mentor Award and a 2019 Minnesota State Art Board grant.


Kathleen McGookey

November 5, 2019


In the self-checkout lane, the man ahead of us couldn’t scan his milk and eggs.  He smelled like smoke.  The clerk tried to fix the jam, but he exploded, that fucking machine!  She repeated the insult under her breath as she hurried past.  She was shorter than me and her hair needed washing.  All we’d needed was a half-pint of fudge ripple. When she returned with a manager, I watched my daughter watching the three of them, running her tongue over wires and brackets that hadn’t been in her mouth an hour ago, the familiar landscape altered, painful and strange.  


Picture of a Young Elk

It weighs nothing, this picture of a young elk tangled in a barbed wire fence in Montana.  All four legs caught up at the ankle, eyes so glazed with shock it looks dead, and I almost don’t play the video you sent.  To spare myself.  Though now my pleasure weighs something, as I listen to you tell and retell how you found a rancher with wire cutters and gloves in his truck and nearly in one motion cut the fence and spun the elk toward the open field, across which, after it staggered and shook itself, it ran until it disappeared.


We had our share of beautiful days

It was only a squirrel that dashed in front of our car, it made only the smallest thump.  My faith in uncertainty never wavers.  Last night, as I watered the roses at dusk, a hummingbird hovered near the spray, waiting to enter the shower of drops.



Kathleen McGookey has published four books of prose poems and three chapbooks, most recently Instructions for My Imposter (Press 53) and Nineteen Letters (BatCat Press). She has also published We’ll See, a book of translations of French poet Georges Godeau’s prose poems.  Her work has appeared in Copper NickelCrazyhorse, DecemberFieldGlassworks, Miramar, PloughsharesPrairie SchoonerQuiddity, and Sweet. She has received grants from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Sustainable Arts Foundation.  


Rachel McCumber

November 5, 2019

Three Essays


The Day Kylie Jenner Became the Youngest Self-Made Billionaire


“Hi. I’m calling back from
Student Counseling Services.
Is this Rachel?” I turned the
volume up on my phone
because two men next to me
on the train were talking
loudly about how Kylie Jenner
wasn’t “self-made.” I gave the
lady on the phone my informa
-tion and she told me I would
be put on the waitlist. I guess I
wasn’t the only sad, anxious
student at my school who
needed help with their mental
health. The news made my heart
sink. The last time I was waitlisted,
my mental state went from bad to
writing suicide notes. She told me
to have a good day and hung up.
The men on the train continued to
fill the otherwise silent, morning
air with their opinions. 

“Okay your copay fee for
your birth control consultation
is going to be $80, is that okay?”
The waiting room felt stale. I
knew it wasn’t Planned Parent-
hood’s fault that my insurance
charged too much, but it still
stung. It ached when I texted my
dad and asked to borrow money
and prayed we would not have
the awkward conversation about
why I needed the money.  My
phone’s notifications lit up that he
sent the money¾he always does.
Another notification in my dock
was a tweet with the Forbes article
about Kylie. My fingers burned as I
transferred money from my savings
account to my checking. I would pay
him back with my next paycheck. 

“Girl, your lipstick looks so good!
I could never pull that off, could I?”
The lady at the payment counter
was referring to the dark brown
color I had painted on my lips. I
thanked her and told her of course
she could pull it off too. She rolled
her eyes and smirked as she took
my debit card out of my shaking
hands. The fact that I worked part-
time at a makeup store somehow
came up. She asked if I had tried the
Kylie lip products and I hadn’t. They
sold them at the store I worked at,
but I refused to buy them and
help Kylie become a billionaire. At
least that’s what I told my coworkers,
when in reality, I just couldn’t afford
it. Looks like Kylie didn’t need my
help though. 

“How do you all think
consumer culture has
changed in the last 100
years?” My 1920’s history
class was always awkward
with one opinionated student
talking like a God. A biracial
girl and I were some of the
most “ethnic” people in the
class and I didn’t get her. She
often compared the plight of
being biracial nowto a black
person in the 1920’s, which I
never thought was a fair com-
parison. She started going on a
tangent about how Kylie Jenner
created an empire off lip
injections. That she marketed it
as something you could achieve
with a little lip liner. While I
agreed with her, I wondered if
anyone would have been
complaining about Kylie’s success
if she was a man. 


“Rachie! I need you to get two
people to sign up for credit cards
tonight! You up for it?”  I nodded
at my manager and ignored the
awful nickname she gave me. She
squealed as she turned on her heels
to continue watching people she
thought were stealing. It’s not
uncommon for big retail companies
to ask their customers to sign up for
a credit card, but it felt wrong and
saturated with capitalism. A middle-
aged woman came up to my register
with a few Kylie Cosmetic “Lip Kits”
in hand. Her delicate fingers threw
the $29 products on the counter. I
scanned them and informed her
about the in-store credit card. She
interrupted me before I could finish
my half-assed sales pitch and told me
she didn’t need it. Then her card got

This is so sweet. But why am
I crying? I sent this tweet to my
friends followed by a video from
my hometown. Though every
tweet on Twitter was either
trashing or praising the Jenner/
Kardashian empire that day, there
was a video on there that made me
cry. A basketball player on the team
for the university in my hometown
got a surprise visit from his mom,
who he hadn’t seen in two years
since he left the Dominican Republic.
My eyes overflowed with tears as the
six-foot tall young man sobbed in
disbelief as his mother walked down
the stairs of the empty stadium to
greet her son. I’m not a big sports
person, but it was magical to see his
mom glowing as she got to watch her
son play. Haven’t we gone over this?
Self-made: Having succeeded in life
unaided.’s twitter account sent
that message the day after. Even the
damn dictionary doesn’t think Kylie is
deserving of her title. While it was
petty, it made me laugh when I saw it
on my feed. As I walked down a stair-
well, having left class, I saw I had two
notifications. One from Chase, that my
minimum wage paycheck was directly
deposited into my account. It wasn’t
much, but it was enough to pay rent
and pay my dad back. The other one
was an email from Counseling Services.
They sent the list of available times for
an intake appointment for the following
week. I was off the waitlist and my
shoulders didn’t feel as heavy any longer. 

The day Kylie Jenner became a
billionaire seemed to be the topic on
everyone’s minds. Was it because she
came from a family of millionaires so
the term “self-made” left a bad taste in
everyone’s mouth? Or did she truly
work hard and deserve the title? Does
it really matter? I imagine on that day,
Jenner sat in her Hidden Hills mansion
with her collection of sports cars asleep
in her garage. I imagine a fresh manicure
and a set of long acrylics glued to her
nails as she holds her baby daughter in
her arms. Her child has no idea of the con-
troversy and comments her creator has
caused. Kylie pays little attention to the
explosion of notifications on her phone.
She only enjoys the company of the storm
she created. 





5 years old. Leander, TX.

I was wrapped in a beach towel sitting on the edge of the pool. I traced circles with my feet as they dangled in the cool water, and squinted to see from the bright sun while laughing at my family who swam nearby. As I looked down at the small waves I was making, I noticed how dark my legs were in comparison to the bright blue waters that surrounded them. My bright pink towel and swimsuit only seemed to amplify the contrast. I thought my legs looked like hot dogs without buns. My sister, Caitlin, called over to me, saying something about how crazy my hair looked. It was a lot thinner and curlier back then, so when it dried, I looked like a discount, brown Annie. Her smile beamed as everyone laughed at whatever she said. Like always, I ran off crying because I didn’t know how to take a joke. The laughter of my family rang in my ears as my sister tried to call me back over, so I wouldn’t go tell mom.

My brown-ish feet took me back across the hot concrete, up the deck, and into the kitchen. The inside of the house was completely dark as my eyes adjusted to the indoors. My mom saw me, “Hey lovie, what’s wrong?”

I half-blindly ran over to her and tattled on my sister. She started to laugh and contained it. “Why can’t I look more like Caitlin?” I asked between my tears.

Caitlin got the traits I envied from my dad: fair skin that was decorated with beautiful freckles and golden-brown hair, while I got more similar looks from my mom: easily tanned skin and my mom’s dark, mexican hair. My mom was angered that I complained about my looks because, I guess as far as faces go, my sister and I looked “just like her.” She sent me back outside and I went and sat in the shade, awaiting my sister’s apology that never came.


 15 years old. Lubbock, TX.

My arms started to get tired from using my friend’s mini-flat iron to straighten my hair. As I got older my hair lost most of its curl and it became so thick I had to get it thinned out every six-weeks. I was getting ready in my friend Kamryn’s bathroom while the rest of my friends sat down the hall in her room. They were discussing our most recent obsession with a new boy-band. Their laughter echoed down the hall as I yelled at them, cursing at my hair for making me take so long to get ready. Her bathroom was cluttered with all the makeup we borrowed from each other and no one bothered to clean it. The mirror contained my reflection as well as drawings of me and my friends that one of them had drawn with a dry-erase marker. I envied the doodles of my friends that had the hairstyles I wanted, but was told I couldn’t pull it off. I finished the last section and my hair looked just like all of my white friends’ hair¾pin straight.

I ran down the hall and they were all laying across Kamryn’s bed on their phones sending back and forth pictures of the boys in the band that were “our boys.” Rolling my eyes, I reached into my bag to grab my lotion. They continued to gush about the punk boys on their phone screens as I lathered up the lotion and glided it across my skin. I hated the smell of lemons, but I had mixed in lemon juice into my lotion because I had read online that lemon juice made your skin paler. Closing the lid to my lotion, I threw it back into my bag and threw myself onto the bed with my friends. They then showed me the punk band member that was “my guy.” He was really cute but didn’t look like the rest. He had dark hair, small brown eyes and olive-colored skin. The other members of the band were fair and had light colored hair with choppy fringe.

“That one is yours,” Kamryn proclaimed, like she was claiming The New World for me. I pointed out that he was the only one who wasn’t white. They laughed and said that’s why he was mine. I rolled my eyes and joined in their laughter.


19 years old. Chicago, IL.

The world was really dizzy. The girls at the party made a drink called “Jungle Juice” that I had only ever seen on Twitter and didn’t know it was a real thing. It consisted of pouring juice, fruit, and roughly 3 tons of liquor into a large container. Needless to say, I had quite a lot of it. It was a cast party for the show we had just closed earlier that night. It was an all black cast and we were all extremely proud to have sold out every night to share the story with others. I was only the set designer, so I hadn’t really had much time to get to know the cast as much as they did with each other. They all laughed at their inside jokes and broke away from the group to have their own conversations. I sat with another designer and gushed to her about how we needed to hang out. The majority of the party sat around the living room laughing and trying to explain the rules of the drinking game over the loud music playing. I was only half-listening and playing with the soft waves in my hair I had recently started to embrace.

The rules of the drinking game had been something along the lines of drinking if a statement applied to you. For example, if the statement was “whoever has been arrested” or “whoever is the youngest,” the person who that applies to would have to drink. They had started to play a few rounds of the game and I would just drink whenever they told me to. I leaned my head back on the wall behind me and started to sing the words to a Selena song that came over the speakers. I don’t know Spanish so I was probably saying the wrong words, but the music was so loud no one cared. Finally I heard one girl say my name over and over and I looked over at her and tried to make sense of what she was saying. “Rachel, you have to drink now” she yelled over the music. She told me to drink again and I laughed and obliged as I asked why I had to drink. “Because it was ‘whoever is white’” she yelled back. I tried to explain that I was only half white, but that my mom was hispanic. No one heard me over the music, so I kept drinking and we all kept playing the game.



Meditations on the Color Yellow


  1. I asked my mom what her favorite color was. She told me it was yellow. I made a noise of disgust and asked why. She said it was a happy color.

  2. My sister walked out in her satin, pink, and silver-beaded prom dress. She had decided the day before her junior prom that she was going to attend and it was the only dress she could find last minute. I was about to tell her she looked like a bottle of Pepto Bismol when she started to let all her friends in the door. I had never seen her friends wear anything but jeans and t-shirts and they filed into our living room like troops ready for battle. The girls all had on full-length gowns and I was in awe of the girl with fair skin and light brown hair with soft curls. Her dress was quite large and a pale yellow that reminded me of Belle, from Beauty and the Beast. So I was confused when I heard someone whisper under their breath that it wasn’t her color.

  3. My mom tied my hair up in the tightest ponytail¾like she always did. She yanked a brush through my hair like it wasn’t attached to a 5 year-old’s head. I coughed and coughed as she doused my hair in hairspray, and she told me to stop being so dramatic. My hands were laid on my lap and I played with the skirt of my dress to distract me from the pain. The fabric was stiff like parchment paper. It was a white and yellow plaid pattern that had little yellow flowers sewn into the hems. I knew since it was such a light color I wouldn’t be able to play outside with my cousins. As my mom finished the only hairstyle she was capable of putting my hair through, she grabbed a scrunchie off the dresser that was the same fabric as my dress and put it in my hair. 

  4. We sat around the kitchen table having breakfast and my dad yelled at our cat for trying to catch flies that landed on the cracked, yellow-painted walls.

  5. I walked barefoot down the hospital hall, clinging to the railing meant for the actual sick. My family’s car wreck didn’t do much damage to me, but my seven-year-old body was so sore it hurt to even laugh, though I wasn’t doing much of that. My Aunt Mary saw me coming from the waiting room and greeted me with a relieved sigh¾I think I might have been the first victim of the accident she saw, other than my parents. When I finally made it to the waiting room she handed me a bright yellow Wendy’s bag and told me I needed to eat something. I sat next to my cousin and he asked if I was alright, I might have said yes. Then I threw up into the Wendy’s bag. 

  6. There were baskets that were filled with things no one would normally buy at the raffle contest my neighborhood had. Everyone was putting in their tickets for the basket with candy and DVDs. I put all of mine in a soft-yellow, woven basket filled with jewelry and I won. When I brought it home, my mom kept most of the jewelry because it was “too grown up” for me and told me I could keep the basket. 

  7. My grandma drove to my school to bring an outfit for me to wear to my friend’s dad’s funeral. It was the same dress I had worn to Easter mass¾mostly black with yellow flower petals printed on the bottom half. My seventh-grade class walked from the school over to the church and filed into a pew toward the back. I had never met her dad before. It was the first time when they brought him down the aisle in a coffin. The pamphlets they handed out were a faded beige and felt like napkins. It had his picture on the front and inside there were pictures of my friend and her family. Their smiles were beaming. As they walked in after their dad, my friend and her mom had puffy red eyes and her five-year-old sister’s face was blank.

  8. My grandmother on my dad’s side was a character to say the least. Garage sales were her nirvana. The last Christmas that she was well enough to mail out presents, she boxed up random items and shipped them out to her relatives across the country. That year my mom got a fake diamond ring in a black suede box (my parents were already separated), my sister got an expired bottle of purple Listerine mouthwash, and I got a shiny, yellow piggy bank with the word “Botox” written across the side in black cursive letters. 

  9. At my confirmation I picked out a yellow lace dress to wear because I was only doing the ceremony for my mom, so I figured the dress could be for her too. Afterward, she didn’t congratulate me on letting the Holy Spirit into my soul, but how nice I looked in yellow. 

  10. My head rested on my first boyfriend’s shoulder as we sat at my best friend’s graduation party. He laughed at something I said and put his hand on my thigh, like it was a pat on the back for me saying something funny. His pale, veiny hand started to slide under the dark yellow fabric of my dress. He smirked as I allowed him to touch me, he didn’t know I just didn’t want to embarrass him by telling him to stop. 

  11. My drunk, but cute friends went around in a circle to decide on what everyone would be, if they were a color. It was unanimous that I would be yellow.