Alice takes herself on a date ~ by Olivia Kingery


Alice is in love. This is a list of things she loves: a front tooth gap, a small scar on the left hand, a freckle above a top lip, the same haircut for 10 years. She bubbles up the courage to ask for a date but of course the answer is yes – Alice is in love with herself. She holds her own hand and buys yellow poppies on the corner, bringing the fragrance to her nose, running the softest parts of herself on the petals. Alice sighs. The air is hot and restaurants have opened their walls. She hears laughter and shrieking and only a little sorrow. She sees no one on a date with themselves, couples huddled together with phones in hand, some talking to one another, all furrowed brows. She ponders this while gently laying her jacket on the chair she pulls out for herself. Alice has been cheated and the cheater. She has been lost and loved and left in warm blue hues. Alice knows all love is not real love. She knows there is love for thighs and love for eyes and love for the taste of both. She knows people bend and break for hate masquerading as love, bending and breaking itself, trying to blunder to the light, trying to be the light. Alice orders champagne, toasts herself and drinks the fizz in one gulp. She orders two entrees and eats half of each, pairing steak with shrimp and a little arugula for balance, mashed potatoes every other bite. Wiping the corners of her mouth, she laughs at her own bad jokes and gets chocolate cake to go, for our treat, she teases. Alice leaves the restaurant full and high on love, on the silence of being alone. She is home by dark, humming herself a slow blues song, lights dimming with the sun.

 

***

BIO HERE

Two Questions for Meg Pokrass

We recently published Meg Pokrass’s stellar “Maternal.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I like the subtleties in the relationship between mother and daughter here — you learn so much about the characters from this one interaction. Is it hard to choose what to showcase in a piece this small?

Yes, it was hard. I tried to focus on the daughter’s sad awareness that her mother has been unable nurture her all these years since her father left, but here (in this situation) is finally able to do so. There has been a rift between these two for some time, a lack of closeness, a rupture that never healed.
Unfortunately, it took something as dramatic as being attacked for the mother’s maternal instincts to resurface and for the daughter’s empathy for her mother to resurface as well.

2) The mother makes a “dangerous chili” for the daughter. I’m curious — what makes the chili dangerous?

I’m afraid this was a bit of dark humor thrown in. My mother would make chili occasionally, and she’d always make it so hot nobody could really enjoy it. I referred to it as “dangerous chili” when she’d make it. I thought: if there is ever a story for dangerous chili to make an appearance, this is it. The chilli is a metaphor for the mother’s inability to offer sustenance her daughter can digest. 

Maternal ~ by Meg Pokrass

 

 

After I was assaulted, I spent the night at my mother’s house. She asked me what I wanted for dinner. I know this because that is what she said to me, what do you fancy? She said she made some dangerous chili, that was her mistake. I told her that it would be fine for me. I sat in two of her sturdy chairs. Both of them hurt. I stood up and looked outside at the teenage girls smiling at me from across the street. Be safe, I thought. My mother was telling me about a mystical friend named Sonja, a beautiful woman, she said, a fortune teller. At least you’re okay, she said. I was trying very hard to listen to her story about being vaguely in love with the woman. I remembered how she had once admitted she was bisexual as if she were telling me what a perfect mother she really was. This was after Dad left, around the time that my breasts grew in, before I ran away. Don’t tell me this kind of stuff, I said. Act like a parent, if you don’t mind. At the time, I remember how I felt about my body, watching it bloom from above. I resembled the kind of girl a father would be proud of. My mother was depressed during that time.

Today, she cries only because I’m safe. She says she’s making plenty more food in the kitchen. I curl up on my mother’s floor, imagine a switchblade in my hand. Would I have used it on him, would he have turned it back on me? I say, sorry about Dad. I look at her and try not to bleed on her rug. When she pulls me up, my mind is a diamond, hard and brilliant— a thing she can finally understand. I try to breathe. You have to get treated she says. I love you. I let her hold me, let her extinguish my hair.

Granny and the Butterflies ~ by Rebecca Harrison

We rode our bicycle after the butterflies. Granny in front, pedalling so hectically I worried her flimsy scarf would get caught in the spokes. ‘Not the purple ones,’ she yelled above the noise of the soft soil under the wheels, the wind in my ears, and the lambs gambolling in the fields. I looked past the flock of purple and gold butterflies that gulped up the summer sun, and I saw the nettle patch by the ditch. A butterfly the colour of moonshine on marble rested on the stinging leaves.

‘The pale butterflies will bring us home,’ she had always said to me while she knitted blankets, her needles clacking like a blundering clock. And what a home it had been, so she said: turrets so tall you could pluck feathers from gliding condors, windows so wide whole sagas shone in a single stained-glass pane. I curled under a knitted blanket beside her and sank into her smell of wool and peppermint. Glass jars crammed our shelves in place of books, blocked our windows in place of views, filled our cupboards in place of food. And in the jars, pale butterflies shone. Every evening, after our supper of carrots baked until they seeped caramel, we counted the butterflies. Then we shook daffodils, collected the pollen in a chipped china bowl, and dropped a pinch into each jar.

‘Careful,’ Granny said as we propped the tandem against the hedgerow. She hitched up the waistband of her skirt, unbuckled her satchel, and pulled out a glass jar. ‘The last one,’ she said as she handed it to me. I inched forward. ‘Hurry.’ Everything smelled of green warmth. Nettles stung my wrist, but I didn’t flinch. I lowered the jar over the butterfly. Its wings beat against the glass. ‘Now, we wait for the full moon,’ Granny said. And as we cycled back, she said, her voice as low as field mist, ‘my bedroom ceiling was a golden map and I read the names of hills and ports until I fell asleep.’

On the day of the full moon, Granny tethered a cart to our bicycle, and I filled it with the butterfly jars. ‘Careful,’ she barked. We cycled on the smoothest paths, the jars rattling in the cart, the lowering sun soft on our faces. We cycled in a silence that felt like peacefulness. And when the horizon was copper and gold and the silhouettes of geese were fast shapes in the sky, we stopped in a vast field. The hedgerows were so far away they merged into the blue dusk. I picked up one of the jars, but Granny shook her head. ‘Wait,’ she said. And when the full moon flushed the sky in fat light, we unscrewed the jars and let out the butterflies.

They flitted and swooped, the moonglow weighting them, the night brushing their wings. And then they were settling one atop each other. And they made the shape of a great castle, towers tall as winds, windows wide as seas. In the moonshine, Granny’s face was all crags and shadows, her eyes tear bright. ‘What did I tell you?’ she said, hitching up the waistband of her skirt. There was a sound like hounds chasing through autumn leaves, and then a stilted shiver passed through the butterflies, and then they were gone, and in their place, marble stretched, smooth and cool. Granny pushed the great door open and we stepped inside.

The halls smelled of crowns and legends. I could hardly feel my feet, hardly feel myself moving. Ceilings glided over us, golden and high as clouds, and I felt as if I might float up and bump my head. ‘Didn’t I tell you it was like this?’ Granny said as she wiped away my tears. I could only nod. And her laugh was soft in the gilded spaces and in the moonlight that turned red and purple and blue as it filtered through the stained glass.

I didn’t feel tired, I only felt swoopy and far away, so I didn’t feel the night passing, or the moon fading. And then there was a sound like wild poppies in summer gusts, and a ripple passed through the walls, the ceilings, the windows coloured by myths. And then the castle was just butterflies again, pale and flickering, and then they flew up into the morning skies and away across the fields. I sat on the damp grass, Granny’s arm around me, and watched them until they were gone.

***

Rebecca Harrison sneezes like Donald Duck and her best friend is a dog who can count.

Two Questions for Tom Weller

We recently published Tom Weller’s searing “Rangers.”
Here, we ask him two questions about his story:

 

1) I love the Scrap Boys — in this story and all their stories. Do you have any particular boys in mind when you write these stories, or are they more “everyman” archetypes?
In the mid 1990s, I spent two years serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Chad. Occasionally, all the Peace Corps volunteers would be invited to social events at the American Embassy in Chad. Omnipresent at these events were a group of boys. They probably ranged in age between, maybe, eight and twelve. They had to have been brothers because they looked exactly alike, just some were slightly bigger and some were slightly smaller. There might have been three of them, or there could have been four. I could never keep track because they were always swirling through these events and popping up in weird places–leaping from behind couches, scurrying out from under pool tables and on and on. These kids picked up the nickname the Rat Boys.
Fast forward to about 2016. I was drafting a story about an old man who was mourning the loss of his lover. This heartbreak was complicated by the fact that the old man had lived next door to his lover, and now, his deceased lover’s house had been sold and the backyard was suddenly always full of this group of rowdy boys. I wanted the boys to operate more like a force of nature, rather than a number of secondary characters. I wanted them to be this weird whirling dervish of boyhood. When playing with this image, I remembered the Rat Boys from the Chadian embassy. Rats Boys became Scrap Boys, and soon the Scrap Boys took on a life of their own and  became protagonists in their own series of flash stories.
In their current evolved state, I think of the Scrap Boys as every group of low-income kids left to their own devices during a long hot summer. The kids wrestling in the dirt in vacant lots, the kids always hanging out in the Dollar General and being way too loud, the kids riding three to a bike, that’s who the Scrap Boys are.
2) The ritual in this piece is almost destructive. Do you see it as a kind of deconstruction of masculinity? Or are the Scrap Boys just having a good time?
I think the Scrap Boys are having a good time in this story, but I also think they are confronting some things. I think they are experimenting with masculinity, trying on different elements they associate with masculinity and trying to imagine manhood. And while this is fun, it’s also scary. The Scrap Boys are reaching the age where they are starting to recognize how their current economic and social standing stands to impact their future possibilities. So building the fire is fun, but, at the same time, that fire may be illuminating some things that the Scrap Boys would be more comfortable ignoring.

Rangers ~ by Tom Weller

The Scrap Boys scurry among the young trees of Dead Man’s Woods, maples no thicker than baseball bats, naked and skeletal in the late fall haze.

Scrap Boy 1, Scrap Boy 2, and Scrap Boy 3, one follows another sure as night follows day. They jog the narrow trails, keep their heads down, bend at the waist as if lunging toward an invisible finish line. Crisp yellowing leaves crunch under their too-big hand-me-down sneakers. Three pairs of prepubescent jug ears, three sets of crooked teeth too broke for braces, three matching wounds in the palm of their hands, three bloods mingled, neighbors by chance, brothers by choice.

Scrap Boy 1 leads the cadence: Rangers!

Scrap Boy 2 and Scrap Boy 3 call back: Rangers!

All the way.

All the way.

Here we go.

Here we go.

It’s all they know, all they have to sing, seven words, but it’s enough. They sing them over and over and over again, fill the greying air of Dead Man’s woods with their song, their voices rising, mingling like smoke until it’s impossible to tell who is calling and who is repeating, until there is just one great Scrap Boy voice rumbling like thunder in Dead Man’s Woods.

Lengthening shadows of branches reach for the Scrap Boys, tiger stripe their skin as they run and sing to the rhythm of the lighters rattling in their pockets. So many lighters. Each Scrap Boy carries a couple. There’s a green one and a red one, two blue and a yellow. There’s one with a Metallica logo. That one is special. That one’s the best. All of them are plastic, none paid for, filched from gas station counters, relatives’ purses, and strangers’ coat pockets. The Scrap Boys know fire is free if you know where to look, if you’ve got the heart to grab it.

When the Scrap Boy commandoes reach their bunker sides ache and their throats are raw. Their song tastes like iron, like blood, but a lightness enters the Scrap Boys. Their lungs become helium balloons caged in their chests.

They throw themselves down the short hill, Scrap Boy 1, Scrap Boy 2, Scrap Boy 3, awkward somersaults, ass over tea kettle, sky giving way to dirt giving way to sky again, until they come to rest on flat earth, sweat damp and mud stained and home. Their pit is still there, a circle of stones pulled from the creek a hundred yards away, a circle of stones it took the Scrap Boys a whole afternoon to assemble at the start of summer.

They gather fuel without speaking. It’s all around them, there for the taking. Fistfuls of dry leaves, twigs that snap like matchsticks, sticks that break over Scrap Boys’ thighs and crack like a gunshot. The build looks chaotic, but it’s not. The Scrap Boys know the science. It lives in their heart.

Start small. Leaves and twigs. Lighters out. Every Scrap Boy put a flame to the kindling. Hit it together. Hit it from every angle. Use hands, use bodies, use hoodies and coats, use whatever you’ve got, whatever it takes, to block gusts of wind, to block anything that threatens to those first flames. Use mouths, use breath to feed the young flames. More leaves, more twigs. Then bigger. Sticks thick as fingers and toes. Bigger. Sticks thick as arms and legs.

The Scrap Boys sit in the dirt and watch the flames. Watch the flames flash and destroy, watch the flames dance and create. And in the pop and hiss of the flames the Scrap Boys hear the voice of the fire, hear a song. Rangers! All the way. Here we go.

The earth underneath the Scrap Boys is cold and damp, but in the heat of the flames they Scrap Boys feel their skin tightening, hardening, clay in a kiln. Like recognizes like. Each Scrap Boy, 1, 2, and 3, feels the wound in his palm tingling as the fire grows and grows.

***

Tom Weller is a former factory worker, Peace Corps volunteer,and Planned Parenthood sexuality educator. He currently teaches writing at Pennsylvania College of Technology and lives in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. His fiction has appeared most recently in Pidgeonholes, Synaesthesia, The Molotov Cocktail, and Booth. He has work forthcoming in Barrelhouse.

Two Questions for Maria Zach

We recently published Maria Zach’s cutting “Searching For a Stomach.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) The imagery in this story is so stark and powerful — it definitely gave me a shudder when I first read it. What was the inspiration for the pieces these people give up and have hidden away?

The micro as a whole was inspired by my reading of the Great Bengal Famine which happened during the British occupation of India.
When hordes of people move from one place to another due to lack of food, they have to give up almost all their physical possessions. That idea translated itself into the pieces of themselves that the people give away.

 

2) At the end, they all become earth or return to earth. This has such a mythological feel to it. Was that your intent, or was it something simpler?

Both. After the famine, large areas in the affected region returned to forest, due to large scale death and exodus of the population. But as I was writing that, it also struck me that the Earth was reclaiming that which had been taken from her. Plus, the faeries definitely add to the mythical feel.

Searching for a Stomach ~ By Maria Zach

When they stitched our lips together, not another ‘saheb’ or ‘mem-saheb’ did we have to utter, but there was nothing they could do about our noses—inhaling food, so they asked us for our stomachs—you can’t all have stomachs of your own. We took out our bones and laid them on our chest—but no, these were brown bones from brown men, brown women, brown children—what good was brown chinaware. We left, leaving the stomachs, the bones. We walked, and we walked, until some of us—turned to earth—told us to go on, but what good was it without stomachs and bones, tongues caged behind our stitched lips.

When we came back, the earth was forest. The wood folk asked for our names, each trying to find their own, until night fell. The faeries hurried into tree-trunks, urging us to join them. But try as we might, we couldn’t fit into their tiny living homes. The men came—men with brown bones still inside their brown bodies, and brown lips that had never been stitched. They didn’t have stomachs either, born of men and women who’d given up stomachs. But it mattered not when they plunged axes into our breath-like bodies, and we fell watching as the axes swung into our wood fore-fathers and they fell, and together we became earth.

***

Maria Zach is the pen name of an author who loves weird and quirky.

She lives in Kerala, a small but densely populated state squished into the southernmost corner of India. She is a dreamer, mother to a toddler, healthcare engineer, wife, whichever among these happens to be demanding her attention at any precise moment.

Two Questions for Lori Sambol Brody

We recently published Lori Sambol Brody’s searing “All the Stars.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) That first line is such a killer: ” The mountains were burning in Southern California, as they do….” It gives the reader such an immediate feeling for the narrator, those three little words, “as they do.” She seems so accepting of every circumstance she comes across in this story — is this a narrator you think would ever be really surprised?

 I agree with you — I don’t think anything could ever surprise this narrator.  She takes the circumstances all in stride – up to narrowly escaping a fire.  I think something horrible has happened to her – something that has made her empty – and she’s seeking to fill that emptiness by drifting into experiences.  I do hope, however, that at the end, having seen all the elements of the universe, that her emptiness has been filled.

 

2) I love how much is in this story: Fires, elements, celebrity sightings, desire… And yet it doesn’t seem overfull, like some stories with so many pieces might do. Was it hard for you to find that balance of just enough for this story

 I had a really hard time answering this question.  I don’t feel very purposeful in how I write a story — or even, most of the time, when I edit a story.  I don’t have any degrees in writing, so I feel like I mostly flail around in how I approach a story, or maybe it’s just flailing in how I talk about a story.

 “All the Stars” started out in a workshop as a word prompt story, one of those prompts where you need to use all of words given.  Those stories do tend to be overstuffed, as the writer tries to put every word in that she was given.  I recall that one of the words in the prompt was “peaches,” and that made it to the final edit.

 I wrote this soon after the Woolsey Fire, when my family was displaced for a week.  Right before that fire, the house of my husband’s friend burned down in a wildfire.  He had actually had a Periodic Table of Elements like the one in the story and the fire turned weird colors!  My aim here was to show the dreamlike liminal space that someone lives in when they are under evacuation during a fire, but perhaps instead evoked that horrible X-Files episode, season 2 episode 1, where Mulder tracks down vampires in a burning LA?

 All I know is that even after a fire, there’s always life bursting out.  Last spring, we hiked through one of the burn areas in Malibu Creek State Park.  Although the oak trees were blackened, the hillsides were purple with lupine.  It was an excellent year for wildflowers.

All the Stars ~ by Lori Sambol Brody

The mountains were burning in Southern California, as they do, ash falling on the hood of his Range Rover as he backed me into the door, his knee between my thighs, the music from the club muted. I’ll take you where you can see stars, he mumbled into my throat. His hair smelled of cigarettes and coconut. My car followed his red taillights west toward the Pacific. When I was a child, I played a game as my father returned me to my mother’s: there were devils in the taillights we followed, angels in the headlights coming toward us. Now, I snaked up switchbacks without guardrails, the road a thin thread between steep rock walls and dark pits. Orange limned the hills. The newscaster on KNX said that the fire was only 5% contained. His house stood alone on a hill, interconnecting glass boxes like those 3D puzzles I could never put together, with an almost-360-degree view of the Valley, Malibu, and the ocean. A thriller had been filmed here once, but I couldn’t remember the name. Smoke from the fire billowed above. As he swung open the door, he said, I’m in the voluntary evacuation zone. He swiveled a telescope in his bedroom to face east. No stars were visible. Viggo Mortenson lives there, he said. And Jason Momoa there. I squinted through the eyepiece at the twinkling lights from the stars’ houses. Ashes rained against the glass. He pressed against me, his tongue on my neck, his hands pulling up my skirt. Palms wide on the window, rocking against each other. Sometimes you feel empty and want the hollowness to be filled, even with more emptiness. Jason Momoa’s lights turned off. Helicopters strafed the sky. Afterwards, in his kitchen, he fed me cling peaches and I licked juice from his fingers. On one far wall, next to the Wolf stove, chunks of stones and other objects filled a small bookshelf. My fingers hovered over an empty bottle on the first shelf (labelled “O”), a Claddagh ring (“Ag”), a red pottery shard (“U”), a watchface with green gleaming numbers (“Ra”), a chunk of rock (“Po”). My periodic table, he said. Is this all the elements? I asked. No, some of the half-lives are too short, he said. A spotlight haloed the shelf; the objects glowed. I wanted to ingest them, to rub them on my skin. He stayed my hand. We fell asleep on the living room rug and woke only when smoke thickened the air and the walls reflected orange as if the drywall were made of fire. Firefighters pounded at the door. The flames moved toward us with the roar of a freight train. One firefighter in a respirator mask wrapped us in Mylar blankets, while the rest hung back, leaning against the side of their truck. It’s a goner, the firefighter said. Windows burst and steel twisted. I was beginning to think the puzzle could be solved. As the fire reached the kitchen, the flames turned apple green, blue, peach. Are you running a meth lab? the firefighters asked. I didn’t tell them it was all the matter in the universe.