Stories & Essays


"What the Universe Tells Marta"

Jet Fuel Review, Issue 12
Fall 2016

What the Universe Tells Marta

Marta always felt gloriously pissed off after her Tuesday/Thursday morning yoga class. She knew this was not the point of yoga class. It was good to inhabit the body, and Marta was supposed to be practicing the art of attentiveness. During her final arch up from the hardwood floor, she couldn’t help but notice that her arms were certainly longer, one might even use the word lithe. She felt a lovely, tiny pond of sweat center itself in the curve of her back, rest there, cooling at the base of her spine.

A woman on Marta’s right let out a deliberate sigh. She was wrapped in fabric of mustard and sage, “What is the most difficult form of yoga, do you know?

There were degrees of yoga? Marta hadn’t realized, “Not really.”

“It’s just that,” the woman said, “well, this is a little low key, don’t you think?”

Marta placed a small towel around her neck. The woman was asking her something. She ought to respond.

“I think it’s fine,” Marta slipped on her shoes and took a long drink of water, a form of goodbye. But the woman waited for her and walked Marta out to the eighth floor landing. 

“I always take the stairs,” the woman said. 

So did Marta. Everyone did, for the cardio and their glutes. But today Marta saw an old elevator and wondered why she had never noticed it before. The gilded door seemed eager and relevant, like an artifact just now discovered. Marta pressed the word             “DOWN”, turned to the woman and lied, “I must have strained something.”

“Well, I won’t be here Thursday,” the woman called out.  And then, “Too easy for me!” (in a stage whisper.)

“Goodbye then,” Marta said as she stepped aboard, “and good luck.” Inside, Marta pushed the number “1” and leaned against the thick brass rail behind her. The woman waved, Marta waved back, the solid doors closed.

The elevator car had been beautiful once. Worn scarlet brocade dressed the four walls and Marta touched one of the large covered buttons. Looking up she saw half of her face in the mirrored ceiling, spliced by the cut and design. But there she was (part of her anyway) framed by a circle of yellow lights. She didn’t look bad. The motor above the elevator car engaged. 

Marta was sure to have just enough time for a shower and coffee before beginning work, and this fact pleased her. She no longer found her routine confining. Regarding work, Marta had resolved that an average person should not expect pleasure or integrity in an average day. 

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"Blue"

Midway Journal Volume 10, Issue 1
January, 2016

Blue

The night before Blue took the number eleven bus to Central Hospital, Saint Joan of Arc visited me again and told me to give Mother’s old paisley curtains to Mrs. Duffy. The real problem with Blue has nothing to do with his brain. The real problem with Blue is that he is eight and has yet to find his true calling. No one in our house sleeps much, so Blue’s not special. It would have been a night like any other.

In the morning, Mother and Father and I were retrieving our coffee in the kitchen and hadn’t noticed Blue was gone. The telephone rang at six o’clock and Mother answered.

“Yes. I see. Of course.”

“What is it?” Father asked.

“We’ll be there in fifteen minutes,” Mother said to the phone.

Father wiped his hands on his slacks, waiting.

She told us, “It seems Blue took the bus to Central Hospital this morning and asked the volunteer at the welcome desk how a person might go about being admitted to the psychiatric ward.”

Father and I didn’t know what came next. We looked to Mother, the way we always looked to Mother. She stood there with her impressive stance.

“Well, we’re to go to the hospital,” she said. “We need to bring him home.”

Mother and Father sat beside each other in the front seats. We didn’t take drives and on the way to the hospital the back of their heads confounded me. Long ago, Mother and Father had quite a love affair. Once, Mother told me about the way Father used to try to make her favorite things—complicated endeavors like the perfect tomato bisque. The way he followed her, from city to sit-in, just to be with her. And another time, Father told me that he had fallen hard for my mother. How could he not, he said, with her heart for justice, her aversion to modern dance, her clarity of thought? I liked to imagine that I knew her then. There were polls in Alabama, organic farming, sit-ins. And we were friends. I imagined what we would have talked about when Mother still believed in fighting for the flawed and miserable world. I would pray, she would march.

 

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“A Postmortem Addendum from Mr. L.T. Bowser (1887-1969)”

Walls You Can Read, co-commissioned by The Soap Factory and TalkingImageConnection and designed by The MVA Studio.
June, 2015

With Brian Beatty, Dennis Cass, Paula Cisewski, Pat Cumbie, Chay Douangphouxay, Sarah Fox, Carla Hagen, Steve Healey, Geoff Herbach, Ben Heywood, Andrea Jenkins, Kate Kysar, Julia Klatt Singer, Jean Miriam Larson, Matt Mauch, Alison Morse, Tim Nolan, G.E. Patterson, Luke Pingel, Sun Yung Shin, Jeffrey Smieding, Saymoukda Vongsay, Stephanie Wilber Ash, and Lori Young-Williams.

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“The Story of Cha Cha McGee”

Anthology – Short Story
American Fiction v.13
New Rivers Press, 2014
 

The Story of Cha Cha McGee  [excerpt]

You may hear that it came to no good when Cha Cha McGee moved to town, but I will tell you otherwise. I still reside in the same narrow place, and though it’s been close to thirty years since I last saw Cha Cha, I still remember the first time she invited me inside. My aunt had sent me over with a blueberry pie. Cha Cha came to the door in bare feet and a yellow baby-doll negligee, two perfect round peaches where I kept my secret raisins. Her family was new, and she was one grade ahead of me in school. I had seen her there a few times, but I had no idea what Cha Cha McGee was made of yet. She just stood there, looking at me through the screen door.

“It’s Janie Jameson,” I told her.  

“Hey,” she said.

“My aunt Sarah made this for you,” I held up the pie.

“Who the hell’s that?” Cha Cha asked me.

I wasn’t used to girls swearing. And I wasn’t used to explaining anything about my family. I don’t think I ever had cause to tell anyone the story, not before Cha Cha McGee. Everyone already knew that the day before I turned eleven my parents and brother had driven off the high bridge by mistake. Cha Cha listened, and I ended with the fact that now I had to live with my aunt, Sarah Jameson.

“Oh,” she said, “well, that makes sense.”

It was such a strange response, and she was still just standing there looking at me. I thought maybe she was slow.  

“The pie’s a welcoming gift,” I said, “for your family.”

I was raised to have good manners, brought up to be kind. For so many years, even later as a woman and a lover, I thought that being kind meant doing things I didn’t want to do so as not to hurt someone else’s feelings. I wanted Cha Cha to take that pie from me so that I could go home, but she had already decided that I should stay.   

“Well, Janie Jameson,” she said, except it sounded like an accusation, “are you coming in or not?” I stepped into the McGee’s dark kitchen, stood there until Cha Cha said, “Sit down, why don’t you?”  

She placed the pie on top of my Aunt Sarah’s good cotton dishtowel, in the middle of the kitchen table. Cha Cha hadn’t even said anything about the pie yet. Not thank you, or it looks wonderful, or how nice. I wanted a witness. For someone with good sense and authority to see that pie. I wanted to teach Cha Cha something about how we did things.

“Are Mr. and Mrs. McGee around?” I asked.  

“Momma’s asleep and so are the twin babies. And Mr. McGee?” she laughed at this, “he’s already down at Reuben’s. Can you believe that?” Cha Cha laughed again, I assumed it was about mothers who slept the afternoon away, and fathers drinking hard before supper.  

The year before I might have laughed right along with her. I used to laugh like a regular girl. But at that time I was still sad and too young and hadn’t made any sense of losing my family. I could have pretended to laugh. I had learned how to do that. From the start, something about Cha Cha McGee made me want to tell the truth. So I told her that I wasn’t that particular anymore, that even a lazy mother and a drunken father sounded pretty good to me.

For the first time of many, Cha Cha McGee gave me something unexpected and completely necessary.

“Listen,” she leaned in, whispering, “he’s not my real daddy, you know. He’s not even married to my momma. And he’s not her first boyfriend like that, either. He only talks to me when he wants something. The twin boys are his own, but not me.”

“Oh,” I said.

I was both uncertain and grateful regarding what I would later come to understand as her peculiar brand of kindness. Then she put on some coffee for us, which I didn’t care for yet. But I was beginning to like her company.

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"The Way to Mercy"

Anthology – Short Story
New Stories from the Midwest
2011 from Ohio University Press · Swallow Press
Originally published in The Sun, July 2009 Issue 403

The Way to Mercy

There are three things you need to be a smelt fisherman: a net, a bucket, and your thumb. There is only one thing you need to be a cadaver, and that’s to be dead. My father and I had gone smelt fishing each spring ever since I’d turned seven. Now it was 1972, I was a boy of ten, and Richard Nixon had just been reelected president. That was also the year my mother’s lump came back. My father was a doctor, and I’d been pestering him to let me see a real dead person, but he wasn’t sure that was a good idea.

To go fishing, we’d make the drive into Chicago before dark and park on Lakeshore Drive, just south of Navy Pier. Other fishermen would already be on the shore, sitting on overturned pickle buckets, holding their nets, and drinking beer. I would carry our bucket, stuffed with the net, and my father would carry our lawn chairs, the ones we never actually used on our lawn.

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Niagra Falls

Chapbook-Short Story: “Niagara Falls”
Redbird Chapbooks
44 pages
8.5″ x 5.5″ single signature, hand sewn binding
Published October 2013

Niagara Falls  [excerpt]

In the summer of 1978, the whole family was supposed to go to Niagara Falls. Peggy Finch had started selling Mary Kay cosmetics to her friends and neighbors, and her husband Frank insisted that she keep every dollar. He called it her “pink money” because everything that Mary Kay1 sold was packaged in pink. Her husband was the owner-operator of a funeral home going back three generations, and his hobby was planning vacations for his family that never happened.

The morning before their scheduled departure, Frank explained to Peggy and the children that, once again, their travel plans had been thwarted by the unexpected. Someone, tragically, had died. He would definitely take them all to Niagara Falls next year. Or someplace even better.

But people died. That was to be expected, actually.

Peggy said, “What about Bill? He could help the Hendersons with their arrangements.”

“But they’ve used us for years, Peggy. You know I couldn’t do that to them.”

What he didn’t say: he would do this do this to them, to her, again.

It was the same story every summer when Frank planned another vacation that never materialized. Once there was supposed to be a trip to the Grand Canyon, including an overnight stay on a small dairy farm in North Dakota with lanky third cousins the children hadn’t met and Peggy recalled from a wedding long ago.  

“You can milk a real cow,” Frank had told the children.

“Don’t they use machines for that now, Frank?” Peggy had asked.

“Well these work too,” Frank said, raising his fists, tugging at imaginary teats.

There were times (used to be times) when the family felt as if they really had traveled somewhere together–the way memories and story gently accumulate to create meaning. Months before a trip, Frank conducted extensive research and composed well-informed inquiries to the Visitors’ Bureau. When a package arrived, Frank gathered the family around the kitchen table and spread brochures and pamphlets (all color and bounty) like a feast before them.

Now, Peggy waited for the children to weigh in. Tiffany was the oldest. At sixteen, the girl was almost entirely self-absorbed and the family did not expect much from her anymore.

“I don’t want to go anywhere with you people anyway. Are we done here? Can I go upstairs and use the phone?” she said, and was off.

Ceci, the baby, was under the table poking at the cat and said nothing.

Randy was nine years old, forever the boy in the middle. He spoke up, “That’s alright Dad. It’s work. It’s not your fault.”

Frank looked at her, a half-smile, as if to say: You see? Even the children understand. But this was even worse. When had they all become so resigned? When had they all grown used to routine disappointment?


1 A multi-level marketing company, geared toward homemakers and founded in 1963 by Mary Kay Ash (1918 – 2001) and based (ostensibly) upon the principle: “God first, family second, career third.” (Elizabeth Ahern. “The Benefits of Pink Think: A History of the Mary Kay Cosmetics Company in Domestic and Global Contexts.” Tempus 12.2-2011).

 

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"Good Enough"

Magazine – Essay
The Sun
July 2006 Issue 367

Good Enough  [excerpt]

What can I trust my mother to do? She will usually come when I need her. She will love my children as fiercely as I do, but in an older, less-complicated way. She will frequently enrage me. She will not always be honest with herself, or with me. But my mother can see things from far away, useful things like road signs for gasoline and food, for airports I need to find, for towns I think I have missed. And she can see things that frighten and surprise me, like betrayal before it comes, and what is happening in my heart when we are hundreds of miles apart. My vision is flawed. I am nearsighted and prefer to examine everything close up. I remember lying in the grass, observing the small world of ants and worms, closely watching a particular ant unable to lift a particular crumb. That was a long time ago, but I am still very good at noticing little things. I am still very, very good at finding mistakes. 

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"Birdie, Birdie"

Magazine – Short Story
The Threepenny Review
Issue 99, Fall 2004

Birdie, Birdie

Margie unlocked the door to the Clothes Depot every Saturday morning at six o’clock.  She had her keys, her Stanley Thermos full of black coffee, her back pillow, and her egg salad sandwich.  Some of the Laundromats were open twenty-four hours these days, but the absentee owner of the Clothes Depot had told Margie that trend would come and go.  His Laundromat was staffed by experienced individuals, such as herself, and what kind of riffraff did laundry at two o’clock in the morning anyway?

She flipped the switch and waited as the florescent lights high above her warmed-up, flickered, and then buzzed completely on.  The one farthest to the back flickered, just a little, all day long.  Regular customers avoided those machines because you couldn’t always tell your whites from your lights, and you might end-up with dingy tube socks when you were done for the day.  Margie always seemed to forget to tell the owner about the problem during their weekly telephone conversations; he spoke too quickly, and Margie mostly tried to remember to breathe.

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"When We Are Hungry: Reading & Writing as Spiritual Endeavor"

This essay first appeared in a print edition of The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies (now Confluence: The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies)

 
When We Are Hungry: Reading & Writing as Spiritual Endeavor

Dorn: Hey-a bit excitable, aren’t you? Tears in your eyes – Now, my point is this. You took your plot from the realm of abstract ideas, and quite right too, because a work of art simply must express some great idea. Nothing can be beautiful unless it is also serious. I say, you are pale.

Treplev: So you don’t think I should give up?

Dorn: No. But you must describe only the significant and eternal. 

Anton Chekhov (Safire 115-16)

We do not always understand what makes a story significant and eternal, yet we often recognize it when we read it.  The best writing changes us, and before we can protest, we emerge from the page a new creation.  Writing as art must do more than entertain because writing and reading are inherently spiritual endeavors, whether we want them to be or not.  In his essay “The Power of Stories,” Scott Russell Sanders tells us ten of the reasons we need stories.  “Stories entertain us; create community; help us to see through the eyes of other people; show us the consequences of our actions; educate our desires; help us dwell in place; help us dwell in time; help us deal with suffering, loss, and death; teach us how to be human; and acknowledge the wonder and mystery of Creation” (Sanders 115).  Sanders lends us this framework to begin to understand what makes a story writing as art.

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