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Essays

Essays

Gary Scott

February 15, 2017

Corresponding with the Woman Who Was Not My Wife

“It’s not necessary to imagine tear drop crystals or facets multiplying light, only nine ensconced bulbs and heavy-ass bent mental,” I wrote, going off, giving too many details, sharing how the dining room chandelier came crashing down at three in the morning. The light beast pounced upon the table in the dark, wide enough to have maimed every memory of plate, fork, or wrist. You told me you hallucinate when you orgasm, that you see IMAX landscapes, meadows with wind, whales diving, “your standard Windows 95 screensaver,” adding, because what’s light without a little bit of darkness, “and sometimes post-apocalyptic cityscapes.” Oh sure, we both casually and carefully mentioned our spouses; we both started sentences with we. When you ended our correspondence, I still had one thing to tell you, though. Just this: I learned that Alexander Graham Bell thought Ahoy should be the standard greeting when answering the telephone, that it was Edison who pushed for Hello. It made me think of Lionel Richie and Adele and how much better Jerry McGuire would have been if Zellweger had said, “You had me at Ahoy.”


Gary Scott is a stay-at-home dad and writer. He’s a graduate of Western Washington University and has
been published in the Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, Slice, Bellevue Literary Review, Brevity, and
elsewhere. He lives in Bellingham, Washington.
Essays

Catherine Young

February 15, 2017

A Cup of Tea

Listen to Catherine Young read: A Cup of Tea Here:

Catherine Young Essays

Photo credit: Celeste Thahammer

I take the thick-walled porcelain cup into my hands. Words from my childhood spin inside it—Grandma’s words:

“But for the blink of an eye, you wouldn’t be here.”

The tea cup is a scrying bowl. When I peer in, memory takes me through a veil of sulfurous smoke to Pennsylvania’s anthracite country in the 1960s—a place of uncertain ground, collapsing and emptied of coal. Fires burning beneath streets; flames flickering on mountains of coal waste; sad and sick people sitting helpless in each grimy house; Grandma in her house, waiting for my visit.

A train rims the mountainside as I make my way through the cindered alley in our hollow. Above the soot-covered houses, coal cars rattle and screech. White letters on black cars pass, Erie, Erie, Lackawanna . . . All day, the trains take our coal away and come back for more.

I pass through a blackberry patch, walk along the creek and willows, and shuffle through the grasses to an empty lot. There I climb the field of rocks that jut out from the grasses like steps and pass the blooming wild apple trees to the last alley behind Grandma’s garage.

I push the unpainted gate open and step down into her yard. The arbor frame, which held the grapevine is falling down, and the coop and the dovecote are simply piles of wood. Old wooden barrels rot in the yard among the wild and untrimmed bushes and fruit trees. Over and over Dad told me about how it used to be.

“During the Great Depression, we had grapes and apples, a garden, and chickens, and even pigeons.”

“Pigeons!”

“Budacoo, budacoo,” Dad cooed deep in his throat, guttural like rolling the German r’s. “That’s the female call. Budacoo, budacoo-wonk-wonk. That’s the male. You try it.”

Grandma always tells me, “He felt so bad about killing those birds. He always had a soft heart.”

Grandma’s yard is a terrible mess, and so sad looking, but today in spring, the yard has flowers everywhere: mock orange, lilac, apple, and the bright red of quince along the fence. The gray, worn wood of the garage is hidden. Now everything seems happy.

Grandma’s house, like nearly everyone’s, has peeling paint from the coal smoke. Her back porch stands much higher than I do, and it has nothing but skeleton railings on it—nothing to keep us from slipping off. It stands above ground because our rocky hillside does not let us sink our basements in—sometimes the coal mines under us collapse and do that for us. At least in our hollow, there are no mine fires below us as there are in Minooka, but we breathe the smoke from their neighborhood anyway. At the back door, I freeze. I don’t want to turn around in case I might be sucked backward off the edge. Continue Reading

Essays

Priscilla Long

January 17, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dwelling Spaces/Urban Places

 

 

 

Immensity is within ourselves. 

—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Photo Credit: Tony Ober

Alley

Urban alleys. Urine and crime. Trash and broken glass. Dumpsters. Junkies. Syringes, needle-bent and rusted. Feral cats, pigeons, rats. Stinks and rots. Feces of unknown origin. Persons of unknown origin, curled under trash bags, drunk, or dead.

In cities like Portland, Denver, and Detroit, and in Seattle, where I live, a grassroots movement is growing toward reclaiming urban alleys. Alleys are neighborhood spaces begging to be developed as neighborhood spaces. Alleys could be comely and green. Shops could open onto alleys lined with flowerboxes. Alleys could provide walkways for pedestrians, walkways festooned with prayer flags, mobiles, or hanging gardens.

Reclaiming begins with naming. Named alleys in Seattle: Firehouse Alley, Kings Cross Alley, Canton Alley, Jazz Alley (not an alley), Ally 24, Nord Alley. A path in my small garden wends its way between fern and fence and winds under the paper birch tree. I name it Aphid Alley.

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Essays

Sherry Stratton

January 17, 2017

Skipper

First they unearth a dinner fork, twisted and filthy. Then a tiny perfume bottle, followed by a glass salt shaker, caked with dirt and corrosion. Each item, duly turned over to us, we receive with bemusement: what next? The work crew is repairing the pond they put in here a few years ago. It’s crummy weather, raw and threatening rain.

Another round of shoveling uncovers a dog ID tag. It’s rusted around the edges, and the surface is scratched, but it’s perfectly readable: Skipper— I belong to George Galos. That is not the name of the family we bought our house from, some eighteen years ago. No street address, but just the name of our small town on the next line, and the old-style state abbreviation, Ill.  On the last line, the quaint Ph. before a seven-digit number. The same exchange as ours today; we’re still pretty much a one-exchange town.

Next we’ll dig up the dog, the pond guys joke. It is not said callously, and I laugh. But I think of Slate, the cat we buried six years ago in another corner of the yard, with only a plain stone to mark the spot. Continue Reading

Essays

Mary Ann McGuigan

December 15, 2016

mary_ann_mcguigan

Out of Step

When I cut the straps off my patent leather Mary Janes, I wasn’t trying to cause trouble. I just couldn’t stand them anymore. The girls in my class wore loafers; some wore stockings already. My mother and my sisters, who took their shapely legs as a given, laughed when I asked for stockings. My legs were sticks that hung from a curveless frame. Stockings would be absurd, and they said so.

I hated those shiny shoes. They made me look even younger than I was. I had to wear them to my brother’s wedding. My thirteen-year-old sister, with her grown-up body, wore pumps and a bridesmaid’s dress. I was imprisoned in a crinoline. Making me dress this way was cruel. Eleven-year-old girls didn’t wear crinolines and straps on their shoes—even in 1960.

But I had no say in what I got to wear or be or feel and couldn’t imagine a time when that would change. Who I was or wanted didn’t matter. What mattered was figuring

out how we’d get money to eat. Wanting something for myself—even an opinion—was selfish, and my mother didn’t hesitate to point that out. I wondered if keeping me childlike served some purpose. Maybe she craved innocence.

The patent leather straps cracked within weeks, but there would be no replacing them, not until the soles had holes. So another day came, another day of looking down the rows of desks to see the loafers and the little Cuban heels the other girls wore, another day in ankle socks and Mary Janes, another day no closer to any chance of replacing them because the heels were sturdy, the soles barely worn. That night I took my mother’s sewing shears, locked myself in the bathroom, and cut off the straps, cut away at the little clasps until there was no sign of them.

From the first snip, I saw I was making things worse. Glimpses of the ragged white lining broke the flow of the shiny black trim. But it was too late to stop. I imagined repairing the damage with shoe polish or tape, but the ugly things gaped back at me, mouths wide, as if laughing, as if they knew that nothing I did could deter them from their mission of humiliating me.

Without the straps, the shoes were loose now, uneven, and they wouldn’t stay on my feet when I walked. I’d been nervous from the start about what my mother would say when she saw what I’d done, but now I was panicky, my hands trembling. I’d wrecked the shoes, purposely destroyed something she couldn’t replace, not without using money we needed for food or rent or subway fare.

I stuffed the shoes into my drawer, far back, behind some sweaters, so I never understood how she found them. She sat in the living room that night, staring out the window, down into the street, as if she’d seen these passing cars too many times before.

The shoes were on her lap, like two bruised puppies, two innocents I’d willfully harmed. She was right about me. I was selfish. There was no excuse for what I’d done.

She turned and I saw her eyes were red, her cheeks flushed. “I’ll pick you up a new pair after work tomorrow,” she said. She didn’t ask why I’d done it. I wanted to explain what it felt like to be me, the girl so unlike the others, but I had no words for what I felt, at least none that would have made sense to her. “You can stay home from school tomorrow.” Her voice was flat, no trace of anger. I’d hurt her and I couldn’t make her understand why.

I left her there, headed for her bedroom at the end of the hall. In the back of her closet on a low shelf was a large box filled with old shoes. The hand-me-down box, we called it. I dug in, pushing aside scuffed high heels and beat-up loafers, and found my sister’s Buster Browns, still molded into the shape of her feet. One of the laces was broken, but I could use some yarn for now. She’d outgrown them a long while back, but they were still too big for me. I stuffed some toilet paper into the toes, and they stayed on well enough.

In the morning, I told my mother I didn’t need new shoes and she nodded, grateful maybe, but we both understood the shoes of a child were not right for me anymore.

I wore the Buster Browns for weeks, sometimes having to curl my toes to keep them on. I rarely looked down. I learned to take small steps.


Mary Ann McGuigan’s short fiction, nominated for the 2016 Pushcart Prize and Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net 2016, has appeared in The Sun, Grist, Perigee, Prime Number, Into the Void, and other literary magazines. Her young-adult novels, one a finalist for the National Book Award, have been ranked among the best books for teens by the Junior Library Guild and the New York Public Library. Crossing Into Brooklyn, her latest novel, was published by Merit Press in 2015. To learn more about Mary Ann’s fiction, visitwww.maryannmcguigan.com.

Essays

S. Ferdowsi

December 15, 2016

 

Lesser Than

Iran

Iran

I am five.

I clasp the sleeve of my father’s coat tightly as we weave our way around the small, round tables on my first day of kindergarten. At a table towards the back, there’s a name tag with block letters I am beginning to recognize, S-A-D-A-F. My dad tells me to sit here and he leaves. I watch all the other kids file in and sit by their own name tags so I don’t have to watch my dad walk away. After every little chair has been filled, our teacher asks us one by one to say our names. Saa-daf, I say, easing into the first “a,” pronouncing it the way you would a smile. Sodoff, she says, brief, staccato. Sadaf, I say again, emphasizing the long “a.” Yes, Sodoff, she repeats incorrectly and ticks something off on her paper with her pencil. I become Sadaf at home, Sodoff in school. It is easier to be split into two people instead of insisting on being one.

 

I am eight.

I help my mom study for her citizenship test. I cut index cards into two halves. I number one side of each card 1 to 27 and on the other side, I write out the corresponding amendment, not understanding all the words, but carefully copying them all the same. Some amendments, like the one about guns and the one about cruel and unusual punishment and the one about states having power, are a sentence long and fit easily on their notecards. For the longer ones, I stop writing when I run out of the room. It feels impossible trying to make all the words fit in the small, white square.

 

I am ten.

I ask my dad to tell me the truth. Did someone in our family crash a plane into the Twin Towers? He looks ashamed of me and says no. Part of me knew that this suspicion could not be true, but I had been so overwhelmed by all the fear and paranoia around me that I had to make sure. Flooded by relief at his answer, I do not dwell too long on the look on his face. It is in this instance that I feel an inner battle rise in me. I am caught between two evils and only one may be the victor. One evil is sacrificing the integral part of me that feels attached to another country, to its cultures and customs and most importantly the family I have there. However, I feel a crushing sense of national duty that I ought to suppress my love for this forbidden country because my home country had become afraid of them. But then again, another part of me feels another sense of duty to the misjudged country, to my beloved family members who continue to be misunderstood there solely for the fact that unfounded fears radiated everywhere. I subject anyone who will listen to long-winded explanations about the importance of not conflating Iranians and Muslims, Islam and terror. I find it’s no use. I only end up embarrassing myself or getting confused by my own words. It feels like an unending battle and I surrender. I pick the evil that lets me negotiate less.

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Essays

Brenda Miller & Julie Marie Wade

October 7, 2016

wademiller

Exercise

Presidential

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson created the Presidential Physical Fitness Award, a test designed to prioritize exercise in elementary schools. Studies had shown that America’s children were getting flabby and complacent, and so the test included sit-ups, pull-ups, a softball throw, a broad jump, a 50-yard dash, and a mile run. If you scored in the 85th percentile in all categories, you received a badge your mother might sew onto your jacket.

I was eight years old in 1966, a child who really wasn’t even aware she had a body. I read a lot of books, slumped in poor posture on my bed, on the floor, in a kitchen chair, in the back seat of the car. I watched television—Dark Shadows, The Addams Family, Get Smart—lying on my stomach on the carpet, legs scissoring the air behind me. I ate lots of rye toast with peanut butter. I tap danced for a year, my legs clumsy in the heavy shoes. On the playground, I stuck to the perimeter, doing my best not to be seen, avoiding eye contact with the dodgeball, the handball, any kind of ball whatsoever.

I suppose we heard of the test and perhaps even trained for it, but I have no memory of any kind of preparation. I remember only terror: the shriek of whistles, students lined up, all of us shifting in our white tennis shoes to peer over each other’s shoulders. We strained to hear the teacher, who held a large clipboard and issued complicated instructions. We—children keenly aware of pecking orders, of the thin line between inclusion and banishment—were suddenly being asked to perform feats of endurance in full view of our peers.

This body: it hardly knew what to do with itself. My arms heeded no direction from my brain. My legs snaked out long and crooked in the harsh light of the sun. My skirt grew frantic with static electricity and clung to my thighs. My knee socks gave up the ghost. My ankles turned inward as if feigning sleep.

The broad jump: alone on the runway, sprinting knock-kneed and then pushing off hard at the line, only to tumble in the sand a foot or so from launch. The pull-up: straining at the bar, every muscle fiber threatening to break, and making not even one. Sit-ups: your partner humming with boredom while watching you contort, your face red and covered in sweat.

The body’s failure: it won’t be the last time your body is tested and found wanting. Continue Reading