Let me bake you a circus, my love ~ by K.A. Nielsen

I’ll pitch the shaggy dough right there on the field, stab my shovel in deep to scoop and turn, knead the great globby mess until it’s smooth. We’ll cover it with the circus tent—bright red and gold stripes—smell the yeast working its magic, watch it rise in the midday sun. And as the dough rises higher than high, we’ll call all our friends, tell them “Come to the circus and bring your blowtorch.” And when they all come, we’ll pull off the tent, stand small under the hill of dough. With blowtorches in hand we’ll count—one two three—then let the flames roar at the bread-to-be. I suppose we’ll need ladders to bake the top of the bread. And of course, we’ll sweat buckets, I know. But even with the blowtorches biting in our hands, we’ll smile. Our stomachs will grumble at the smell of the bread. Our eyes will hunger with the crust turning gold. And then when it’s baked, we’ll turn off the blowtorches, see what we’ve made. And though we’ll want to eat the warm circus right away, we’ll wait. We’ll shove our hands deep in our pockets as we lick our lips, until finally, finally we hear the organ playing from inside. That’s when we’ll know it’s time. The circus is ready. And you, my love, you can do the honors. I’ll hand you the saw. You’ll slice a door in the side, standing back when the steam puffs into the air. You’ll carve deep into the bread, up, over, and down, and the more that you cut, the louder the music will ring, tootling arpeggios calling us in. Then just as the door is nearly cut through, all our friends will grasp on and pull off the door, the great bready door, so warm in our hands, and with great toothy smiles we’ll eat it all up. Then as is the way with a freshly baked circus, we’ll push through the entrance to the air pocket inside. Already the circus will be in full swing. The ringmaster grinning with breadstick moustache. Pizza crust acrobats spinning and flying. The brioche bun elephants gleaming soft shiny crusts. And you and me, all our friends, the whole damn town, we’ll nestle into the soft warmth of the loaf. And as we marvel, we’ll tear off bits of bread, eating our fill. We’ll laugh at the clowns, all funfetti and frosting, cheer for the animal crackers jumping through hoops. We’ll hold our breath for the hard-crusted man as he’s launched from the cannon. And yes, I’ll watch the delights, that much is true, but the greatest marvel will be your lips stretching in wide laughter, then parting gently in gasp, then stretching wide again.

***

K.A. Nielsen (she/they) is a U.S. writer living in Sweden. Their work has appeared/is forthcoming in Fusion Fragment, The Hunger, LandLocked, Sledgehammer Lit, and elsewhere. They are on the internet: www.kanielsen.net and @_kanielsen_.

Two Questions for Anna Pembroke

We recently published Anna Pembroke’s devastating “Lovely Boys.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love the narrator’s obsession with the neighbor children here — there’s something so sweet about it, yet simultaneously a bit terrifying. As we learn, the narrator has very good reason to focus on something outside of her own home life, but do you think she is romanticizing these boys and their circumstances as, perhaps, being better than they are?

At the point we encounter the narrator in the story, I think it’s fair to say her understanding of reality has morphed substantially. She has reached a stage where the actuality of their experience is inconsequential: her perception of their existence is devoid of any objective truth but is as real (to her) as the pink light of the sky. The narrator needs this utopic perception of the boys to anchor hope and innocence, however warped, into a life which has none.

2) There are so many implications with that ending! Did the narrator do something to cause this blackout, is she in danger, will those lovely boys be okay! Here’s the real question, though — do you think the narrator will be able to extract herself from this situation? Or is she trapped?

To my mind, the narrator is trapped regardless of whether or not she can remove herself
from the physical situation. The trauma of the abuse will leave a lasting impact on her
psyche, permanently shaping the way she interacts with the world. I can only hope that her passive acceptance eventually yields to something more retaliative, but, truthfully, I doubt it will.

Lovely Boys ~ by Anna Pembroke

i

They play in their garden every evening, spilling out of the doors at six o’clock sharp. I’ve never seen young boys with such restraint. They kick their foam green ball from foot to foot, and when the rare miss comes, apologise to each other, and sprint to fetch it. I hear their tinny voices saying sorry, and decide that when I have children, I want them to be apologetic.

ii

Sometimes, the oldest pushes the youngest on a chain swing, and he doesn’t squeak ‘higher, higher’, he just sits there, legs dangling, perfectly content to leave his brother in control. Four boys and all of them impeccably behaved. I want Jim to watch, sometimes. It’s 5.58 and I’m washing up by the kitchen window, scouring pots of burnt stew with iron wool. Jim says I’m crap at cooking, and I apologise, just like those lovely boys. Look, I say, as the spring light glances off their rounded cheeks. Shut it, Jim says, pulling the tab from his can and throwing it across the kitchen. Jim doesn’t really watch, not like me.

iii

Yesterday, the one with curly hair moved an outdoor chess set to the patio all by himself. His little hands turned red with the effort, wrestling their bulky frames in fits and starts. When his brothers came out, they embraced him as a thank you. It was a real squeeze, none of that light tapping on the shoulders. One day, I’d like to teach Jim how to hug.

iv

Pink light sifts in through the open window as the match commences, and their laughter floats above my sink. I’m so caught in the smile of the youngest, a wiry six-year-old in a blue jumper, that I don’t hear Jim’s question. I realise this only when his face is inches from mine. Are you listening, he hisses. I asked you a question.

v

I often wonder whether they notice me. When I’m feeling brave, I wander along our shared fence and pretend to water the hydrangeas. I notice the minutiae of their expressions. A scrunched nose here, a bitten lip there. A robin titters from my apple tree and the blonde one steps towards the trellis. Fly away, he says. Shoo. His face is expressionless as he jogs back to the game. What a lovely boy. His parents must be so proud of their gorgeous children. The last time I saw their mother, she was unpacking brown bags from the car. I nearly hugged her. I haven’t seen her for weeks now.

vi

They finish playing at seven and I hear the cuckoo clock chirrup as they file inside. Did you remember to buy beer, Jim says. You stupid bitch, Jim says. All the lights go off next door. I extract my fingers from the yellow gloves. The power cuts out, and we’re shunted into the dark. I’m going to ask next door for some candles, Jim says. I’ll go, I reply. No, you won’t, he says.

***

Anna Pembroke (she/her) is a writer and English teacher based in London, England. Raised in South Africa and Nigeria, she taught in Malaysia for a year before beginning a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing at the Open University. She spent the Fall 2018 semester at the Aegean Center in Paros, Greece, studying creative writing and photography under Jeffrey Carson and John Pack. Her most recent publication is a poem in Messy Misfits Zine. Find her on Twitter @annaisediting.

The Serial Killer Confesses to His Daughter ~ by Paul Dickey

He sits before her like before the judge. He is an orange jumpsuit. He thinks maybe she thinks: he’s just a man, not the father I knew.  She knew what evil was before she knew it was him. Like a real dad, he wants to tell her all –  a day in 1952,  as if it began there, he still a boy helping her granddad carry the new television into the house to broadcast all things, both good and evil. He admits there were victims (pretty like her) who played pianos, owned dogs, and wrote in diaries. He can’t explain this, except to say: as a boy,  he too once did all that.  Each case presented a puzzle like a crossword at breakfast. She sees that in him. He wants her to know he is sorry his way. For a minute, she wants to wrap up a pretty daddy she knew with scotch tape and bright paper in her arms like Christmas, but this man reminds her of all the human in evil.

***

Paul Dickey won the Master Poet award from the Nebraska Arts Council. Paul Dickey’s first full length poetry manuscript They Say This is How Death Came Into the World was published by Mayapple Press in January, 2011. His poetry and flash have appeared in over 200  online and print publications. A second book, Wires Over the Homeplace was published by Pinyon Publishing in October, 2013.

Two Questions for Linda Niehoff

We recently published Linda Niehoff’s striking “Underneath Cathedral Bells.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) The sensory details! These stunning sensory details! Such a perfect balance of the told and untold here, in such a tiny story. Were you ever tempted to let this piece run longer or was it always this beautiful, bite-sized micro?

What a timely question, and thanks for the nice words! This piece started and ended as a micro. It was one of those rare, lucky moments where it seemed to come out whole. And once I had the two parts and the ending, I knew it was complete as is. However, I’ve always been curious about it, and recently I’ve started wondering about those men standing around in the yellow courtyard. So I guess up until this point, I’ve loved it as a micro. But very recently I’ve been jotting down some words on my phone – just fooling around. No idea if it will go anywhere, but exploring is my favorite part of writing.

2) I adore the turn in this story, the contrast between the first section and the second, the (again) told and untold. Do you think these narrators will tell what they have learned? Or will they keep it secret, too, like it was kept from them?

I’ll admit that I’ve had to think and think on this (and probably still will be a year from now) – which makes it the very best kind of question. I almost love the asking of it more than I love any answer I could give. It makes me want to turn it back on the reader and say, “Well? Do we keep it secret or do we tell?” But if it’s up to me alone then I think that this is the very beginning of the telling. I think for now, what they’ve learned will only come out in tiny pieces. But it’s begun.

Underneath Cathedral Bells ~ by Linda Neihoff

They tell us about the veils. About the flowers plucked from ditches before they drown in rainwater. How they’ll tremble in our hands. About the sugar on our lips and the wine that feels like swallowed starlight.

They don’t tell us about the men standing in the yellow courtyard smoking. Leaning against archways, doorways, watching. How the ghost of smoke trails through parted lips. Or when the door is closed, the shutters locked against a violet sky. How rough an unshaven cheek feels. How it burns.

***

Linda Niehoff’s short fiction has appeared in TriQuarterly, SmokeLong Quarterly, Flash Fiction Online, and elsewhere.

Two Questions for Melissa Llanes Brownlee

We recently published Melissa Llanes Brownlee’s stellar “Kona Boy Made Good.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) What I love about this story is you take this event that so many people remember and remind us of how much was lost for so many people. Do you think the narrator understood that loss at the time or is this an insight that came with age, as they look back at this moment?

I am sure the narrator was impacted by the event as a child as I am sure most people who witnessed the Challenger’s explosion were but this particular narrative lens is definitely from an adult making connections a child wouldn’t necessarily make, understanding that Onizuka General Store was actually owned by Elison’s family and how they had lost their son, so publicly and so brutally, knowing that the man talking about NASA to classes full of children from his hometown would be gone in an instant and those same children would bear witness, realizing that dreams of escape and reaching for the stars could dissipate in a matter of moments.

2) I like the contrast between the hard work of picking the coffee beans and the kindness of the astronaut’s parents, giving the narrator ice cream and kettle chips. What do you think those moments of kindness meant for this child?

I think that the child would have basked in the glow of that kindness as they shovelled ice cream on kettle chip spoons into their mouth, the salt and the vanilla mingling on their tongue, teaching them that with the bitterness of having to pick coffee for their family, there can be this kind of sweetness, too.

Kona Boy Made Good ~ by Melissa Llanes Brownlee

There’s a picture of me somewhere, wearing a space suit. My little brown bob, grown out from the last time I got ukus, dusting the metal ring around the neck hole. I couldn’t believe how heavy it was, my arms and legs swimming in puffy whiteness. My hand shot up so fast when you asked who in the class wanted to try it on, my dreams of rocket ships and space, sparkling around me. I didn’t know who you were then even though I had visited your parents’ general store in Kealakekua after every coffee picking day, my back sore from carrying a basket of coffee beans around my waist all day. No matter how fast I picked or how many baskets I filled, I was never fast enough or skillful enough, each hundred-pound bag filled by my parents, extra money for school shopping and Christmas presents. Maybe you picked coffee too? Maybe you were never chastised because your best was good enough to get you out of Kona and into space. On the day you died, I cried. In that moment, when the Challenger exploded, I saw the end of all of our dreams, Kona boy made good. And I remembered the kindness of your parents giving me a free cup of vanilla ice cream and a bag of freshly fried kettle chips, my face sweaty, my hands sticky with sap.

***

Melissa Llanes Brownlee (she/her), a native Hawaiian writer, living in Japan, has work published or forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, Reckon Review, The Hennepin Review, Cheap Pop, The Razor, Cotton Xenomorph, Lost Balloon, and Atlas + Alice. She is in Best Small Fictions 2021, Best Microfiction 2022, and Wigleaf Top 50 2022. Read Hard Skin, her short story collection, from Juventud Press. She tweets @lumchanmfa and talks story at www.melissallanesbrownlee.com.

Two Questions for Rina Palumbo

We recently published Rina Palumbo’s brilliant “Cigarette Tag.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) When I was a kid, I remember there were all kinds of tag variations — freeze tag, TV tag, shadow tag. I don’t remember this particular brand of tag, though. Is this an invention of your own or is this a kind of tag from your childhood?

Like freeze or shadow or TV, cigarette tag is a variation.  I don’t know the provenance,  but our neighborhood group of multi-aged children would just start playing the ‘cigarette’ version every once in a while.  It came to mind when I noticed a program had a warning that included “smoking” (along with nudity, violence, and language). I thought back to seeing ads for cigarettes and remembering the jingles that went with them and, more importantly, how common (almost ubiquitous) it was in my working-class neighborhood to have fathers who were heavy smokers.  The contrast between the fantasy in the ads and the reality of smoking is something I wanted to bring forward. 

2) I love this ending, how everyone wants to be the last one in cigarette tag, how everyone wants to be the last to go home. How everyone knows the lines to all the commercials. Do you think there is something of a talisman in chanting these slogans for the kids? Something that protects them?

In the closed universe of this childhood game, there is a sense of protection and maybe even safety. There is a sort of magical thinking involved. I thought of it as almost a carve-out from reality made more poignant by the fact that the buttress of this imaginary sphere is the absolute lies spun by the advertising companies in service of a toxic industry. Of course, you only see this reality as an adult, which made me, as a writer, want to elevate the delicate nature of childhood play into an art form, like a dance or a symphony.

Cigarette Tag ~ by Rina Palumbo

Everyone had a father who smoked cigarettes. Everyone had a father who smoked one, two, three, four packs a day. Everyone had a father who drank. Everyone had a father who drank one, two, three, four bottles of beer, wine, and whiskey a day. They smoked and drank. They drank and smoked. Everyone knew that fathers did these things. Everyone. Everyone had a mother who yelled. Everyone had a mother who yelled about the things we did. Everyone had a mother who yelled about the things we didn’t do. Everyone had a mother who beat them. Everyone knew that mothers did these things. Everyone. Everyone knew what the rules were. Everyone had the marks. Everyone had bruises. Everyone knew you count them up, one, two, three new ones on top of one, two, three older ones. Everyone knew who to tell things to. Everyone knew how to keep their mouth shut. Everyone.  And, in the summer, everyone played cigarette tag. Everyone. Bigger kids. Younger ones. All the kids played cigarette tag. One person was IT. IT chased everyone around and tagged them so they would be IT. The big difference was that if you wanted to be safe, you had to go down on one knee and chant the commercial for a cigarette brand. They came across the television day and night. Men on horses. People on boats. Happy and smiling and clean and as bright as a million stars. And everyone knew all the commercials. Everyone. Cigarette tag went on for hours. Eventually, everyone was IT, but everyone wanted to show off how many cigarette brands they knew. Filtered. Unfiltered. Menthol. Lights. Everyone knew them all. Rothmans. Marlboro. Kent. Player’s. Taryton. I’d rather fight than switch. Virginia Slims. You’ve come a long way, baby. Merit. Doral. Raleigh. Newport. Kool. Winston’s tastes good like a cigarette should. Pall Mall. Camel. Carlton. Vantage. Lucky Strikes. Chesterfield. You can take Salem out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of Salem. Everyone knew the magic to keep you safe from IT. Everyone knew. Everyone. As the game went on into the night, and everyone started getting called to come home, everyone wanted to be the last one. The final NOT IT in the cigarette tag game. Everyone wanted to be the last one to go home. To the mothers. To the fathers. Everyone.

***

Rina Palumbo came to writing after a career in college teaching and has published work in Survivor Lit, Beach Reads, and local magazines and journals. She is currently working on a novel and has two other long-form works in progress while continuing to write short-form fiction, creative non-fiction, and prose poetry.