Six Fingers ~ by Charles Rafferty

He had six fingers on each hand and played improvisational piano. The audience leaned in to hear his tinkling brook as it splashed around the fat stones of the double bass. The air at the club was dark and his hands were quick. Nobody noticed the extra digits. Later, at the after-party, a woman lingered beside his wine. She wouldn’t have put it this way, but she was weary of the five-fingered world. She wanted to hear herself say the chords that only his hands could form.

***

Charles Rafferty’s most recent collections of poems are The Smoke of Horses (BOA Editions, 2017) and Something an Atheist Might Bring Up at a Cocktail Party (Mayapple Press, 2018). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, O, Oprah Magazine, Prairie Schooner, and Ploughshares. His stories have appeared in The Southern Review and New World Writing, and his story collection is Saturday Night at Magellan’s (Fomite Press, 2013). He has won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, as well as the 2016 NANO Fiction Prize. Currently, he directs the MFA program at Albertus Magnus College and teaches at the Westport Writers’ Workshop.

Two Questions for Kayleigh Shoen

We recently published Kayleigh Shoen’s stunning “Things I’m Holding (for you).”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) One of the things I love about this piece is the specificity of it. Was it hard to choose the items the narrator has held onto, or did they come easily for you?

The nature of the things has changed a lot over time. I wrote the first version of this story in Pam Painter’s flash class at Emerson College, where we were writing a full story or often multiple stories every week. So, the first draft was very rushed, really just a list of objects I was tired of carrying in my purse for my husband.

A lot of the feedback I got on that version — both in the class and in my writing groups — reflected that readers were looking for a more dramatic relationship between the people in the story. People were saying “oh she hates him,” “they’re going to get divorced,” “she’s going to kill him” which was funny because the objects were taken from real life and I’m very happily married, really!

It’s taken me many drafts — more than you might expect for such a short story — to arrive at this mix of “things.” As I’ve changed the scope of “things,” the story has moved away from a gripe to a fictional story with specific characters.

One of the important objects to me is the chapstick, which my husband doesn’t use. To me, the chapstick is like a permission slip to write whatever I want without it being about me.

2) Those last two words, “my breath,” oh, they say so much! I love how this story ends. Did you ever have a different ending in mind?

I think that ending appeared about midway through the rewrite process when I changed the action from “carrying” to “holding.” They seem like synonyms, but to me “holding” has more of a sense of burden, and it opened up more possibilities for this character – holding back, holding her tongue, holding on… Actually, I’m still not sure I picked the best option. Except I think “holding my breath” implies that she can’t wait forever, and I like that quiet, impending doom. Every story should have a hint of doom to it.

Things I’m Holding (for You) ~ by Kayleigh Shoen

Your chapstick, cash for tolls, the parking lot slip, a pack of Trident, car keys, a bouquet of daisies, a card, your best friend’s birthday, reservations, the restaurant he likes, his wife’s name, the conversation, a light tone, a glass of water when you order another cocktail, half my fries, the cup of coffee you refuse, a pleasant tone, the waiter’s eye, a smile that says “don’t worry, everything’s fine here,” another water, napkins to wipe the drink you spilled, your arm just above your fist, conciliatory words, petals from the flowers you smashed, an apologetic tone with the manager, our jackets, the passenger side door, your accusations, your tears, a pack of Kleenex, a pack of gum, your chapstick, my breath.

***

Kayleigh Shoen’s stories have appeared in [100-Word Story], Crack the Spine, Green Briar Review and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Emerson College and teaches writing in the Boston area. You can find her tweets about dogs, writing and TV at @whowantssoup or sign up for her newsletter at kayleighshoen.substack.com.

Two Questions for Ellen Rhudy

We recently published Ellen Rhudy’s glorious “A Writer’s Guide to Fairy Tales.”
Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love stories like this, that play with tropes, that let the reader in on what the writer is doing. What made you choose “fairy tale” for this piece?
I’ve always been interested in stories that are told and retold, and I think fairy tales are especially interesting because the people within them are so often “blanks” that readers can project themselves onto. There’s so much room for writers to retell these stories and make them totally their own, like in one of my recent favorites, “The Candy Children’s Mother” by A.A. Balaskovits. Every once in a while I get excited about retelling a fairy tale, and that was actually how this piece came — I was struggling to get started and so I started writing more to myself, thinking, “okay, what are the rules I have to be following here?” And then it got away from me.

2) You skip the third rule of storytelling and move right into the fourth — I love the cleverness of this! How many rules of storytelling do you think there are and, of course, do they deserve to be followed?
Oh gosh, there are probably endless “rules” for storytelling, and because I didn’t study writing in school I feel like I’m always stumbling over ones I wasn’t aware of. In some ways I’m interested in these rules, because it can be fun to think about what our expectations are as readers, and what rules we as writers will follow or break to meet or expand those readerly expectations. One of the things I love about flash is that writers have so much freedom to abandon or break the rules; you can trust that a reader will spend five minutes with you in a piece that’s doing something new. I write a lot of longer stories, in the 5000-7000-word range, and I’ve found that in those stories I’m almost always telling the story in a linear way that probably lines up to many of the rules (again, whatever they are!) of what a short story should be, because I’m hoping this will keep a reader with me through the strange things I’m asking them to believe. I sometimes find myself amazed by writers who are able to create their own narrative rules and logic and make it work, always wondering, “How did they do that?!” All to say, I guess I think the rules were made to be broken or at the very least stretched.

 

A Writer’s Guide to Fairy Tales ~ by Ellen Rhudy


Your story has a dead woman at its center. This is the first rule of storytelling. A woman in a tower, who doesn’t yet realize she’s already died. Maybe she will never realize, and maybe her years after the escape will be just as happy as if she had been alive. Maybe she will never catch the dank sweet smell of her own decaying flesh, or find in the mirror the empty space where her face belongs. You think she will be happy.

Your story has a man – that is the second rule of storytelling. A man who wants good things for himself and better things for the woman who is calling him. Nothing is more appealing or appalling to him than a woman who cannot decide whether she would like to climb down to his unknown arms, a woman who doesn’t have likes or dislikes, loves or non-loves. Every day after he visits the woman who doesn’t know she’s dead, the man will wonder if there are other routes, ones to women who live and breathe. Or maybe he doesn’t, because this is a story and one of the best rules of storytelling is that the man doesn’t feel doubt, because he is there to act.

Here is the fourth rule of storytelling: the man and the woman fall in love immediately, before they speak, the moment they set eyes on one another. Love is a thing that can be created as quick as you can scratch its four letters on the page, and so when the woman climbs hand over hand down the fraying segments of her own braid, she is already in love with the man who waits for her with a broken comb and a hand swollen around a wretched brown thorn. I love you, she says, because this is what the man hopes for her to say, and because she knows it is what she must say. In some versions of the story he kisses her awake but in this version she is awake already, she kisses him first as though it is her choice, she waits for a spark, a glint, a sign of life to alight on her lips.

Over the nights to come the woman will lay beside him in bed, watching the close ceiling as he sleeps and trying to recall if sleep is a thing she knows. She will see her body crumpled at the base of her father’s tower, again and again and again. She will hear the damp breath of her children in the next room, the snores of her husband at her side, and know that that was not the place she lost herself, if indeed she has lost herself, if she was ever even a thing to lose. And because this is a story, this is where you can leave her – not out of spite or authorial negligence, but because it is the only place a woman could find herself, in this world you’ve made her. It is a place where she might be happy.
***
Ellen Rhudy lives in Philadelphia, where she works as an instructional designer. Her fiction has recently appeared in The Adroit Journal, cream city review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, and Monkeybicycle. You can find her at ellenrhudy.com, or on twitter @EllenRhudy. 

Two questions for Barb Ristine

We recently published Barb Ristine’s musical Boys of Summer: A Playlist.

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) I have to admit, I’m not familiar with a couple of these songs! Are they the sort of songs your narrator hears from time to time and is taken back to these moments, these boys?

 Yes, she hears these songs and she’s transported to pivotal moments in past relationships, and once she’s on that backward journey, she recalls other songs, other details. I wanted to use songs evocative of specific times and places in her life.  You probably didn’t recognize the first song—it’s by Renaissance—which takes the narrator back to college when she listened to progressive rock (do they still call it that?)

 

2) The story title is also a song title, and implies that these relationships were fleeting. Do you think there is a song (and a boy) for the narrator that has stuck?

 Her relationships don’t seem to last, or if they do, they end badly. I think the song that stays with her is “Nick of Time” because it reminds her how narrowly she escaped staying with a man who didn’t  share her dreams but had been too much of a coward (or perhaps too selfish?) to admit that to her. The song encapsulated her life at the moment when she lost her parents, and she finally realized she wanted a family. I believe she has a very different playlist for her life now.

The Boys of Summer: A Playlist ~ by Barb Ristine

Patrick (Columbus, Ohio, June 1977)

Touching Once (is so hard to keep).  You were always the Boy Scout. We fumbled and made out in basements, cars, any dark corner, but we never saw each other naked. My Catholic upbringing wrapped around me more tightly that any chastity belt. Then I went away and tasted deeper desires, danced on the edge. When you came to visit, you saw how I took off my watch and laid it on the nightstand, and you knew there was someone else. When we met in the park that summer, I held out a shopping bag of all the albums I’d borrowed, even the ones you said I could keep.

 

Brian (Avalon, New Jersey, July 1981)

Don’t You Want Me? I took a job to be near you and all that summer we screwed and fought. I saved every slight, turning them in my mind, polishing them with my insecurity. I knew you were sleeping with a married woman, but I pretended I didn’t care. Late nights I called to see if you were home. That July night at the shore, we went to a bar where we danced and I had enough beer to make me free and fearless. I whispered in your ear and you led me to your car where I tried to change your mind.

 

Miguel (Brooklyn, New York, June 1983)

Making Love Out of Nothing at All. I allowed myself to forget that it was only an affair, that you weren’t supposed to matter. When you took me home to meet your family, your abuela asked if I spoke Spanish, said she’d teach me. I wished she’d taught me the word for betrayal.

 

Daniel (Chesapeake Bay, August 1989)

Nick of Time.  You said we were complete, that children would ruin us, and I believed you. But the summer after my parents died, I realized it wasn’t enough. I wanted to sing lullabies, and I had hoped you’d change your mind. That last weekend on your boat, you revealed your secret, the decision you made long ago in a cold operating room. I whispered enough before I dove into the cool murky water and swam for shore, leaving your lies behind.

***

Barbara Buckley Ristine escaped from the law years ago, but she has no regrets. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in the Mojave River Review, Flash Flood, and Bards & Scholars Quarterly, among others. She lives with her family in northern Nevada, where she is (slowly) working on a novel.

Two Questions for C.B. Auder

We recently published C.B. Auder’s ethereal “In the Dream Version, There Are Baby Goats.” Here, we ask them two questions about their story:

 

1) This story is all a dream, but it doesn’t feel like a cheat — the emotions and the situation are so real. Do you have really vivid dreams like this, or is this all just writer’s imagination?

Thank you! And what an interesting question. As it happens, the first draft wasn’t even about dreams–this flash began as a semi-surrealistic piece that focused on learning to drive as a metaphor for a child’s distressing state of independence after a caregiver’s premature death from lung cancer. You know, light comedy.

To be honest, I’m not normally one for dream stories–I disengage pretty quickly when a narrative starts to feel random–so it was only after several drafts that it finally occurred to me key elements could be developed if the bulk of the piece became a sort of tragic fantasy. Then your terrific editing suggestions helped me cut most of that crap back out again (stone soup!) and find the right ending note.

I’m not sure what’s “normal” for dreams, but my own are extremely detailed and 3D, and I’m present from many points of view: I’m both on the ground gnashing my teeth at a conga line of nemeses, as well as regularly popping up above the multiverse in order to keep tabs on how much farther I’ve drifted from my destination. Although I’ve had some good ones lately. Diane von Fürstenberg recently sidled up to me at a cabaret show to discreetly suggest I join her design team! Isn’t that fabulous? I mean, not being a fan of the fashion industry, I had to decline–but I was bursting with pride when that alarm went off!

Getting back to the goats. This whole setting is as vivid to me as a memory, though the story is entirely fabricated (beyond the emotional truths I was capable of tapping into). The story seed came from a photo of a vintage car chuffing through Havana. One morning, as I was opening the curtains and checking out the birdbath, I thought of that green Oldsmobile and snap. The soggy catbirds disappeared and I was in a passenger’s seat headed for rolling hills filled with adorable ungulates. It was a rare moment when a story has pulled me forward, rather than my having to plod around its moat to figure out where I put the damn drawbridge.

 

2) I love how much of the natural world you bring into this story: the baby goats, the beach, the osprey. Is nature an important part of your writing?

Holy mackerel, the natural world is the single most important part of my life–and not just because I’m fond of breathing. I have always loved muck. If I were unattached and independently wealthy, I would spend all day eating gorp and rolling around in the forest with newts. I would literally never bathe. Then I’d die alone at my keyboard of dengue fever or a staph infection….
Anyway, I’m delighted to hear that you enjoyed the nature bits! As a reader and editor, I think a lot about what elements make me thrill to the stories I thrill to. I’ve noticed lately I’m becoming less intrigued by pieces that keep a tight focus on anthropocentric conflict. So, to better answer your question: Yes, I’ve been trying to steer my own writing towards linking human dramas to their larger environmental context. I’m also keen on exploring characters’ own relationships to the natural world, while still trying to avoid sailing over the cliff of Thinly-Disguised Eco-Rants. It’s tricky (particularly with so many planetary catastrophes to choose from) but I think stories that become didactic end up shutting more people out than letting them in, and that seems to me to be a recipe for solving no sustainability problems at all. I’m hoping the slightly oblique approach might keep readers engaged enough that the natural-world context I find so compelling will also filter into their lives in some subtle but meaningful way.

 

In the Dream Version, There are Baby Goats ~ by C.B. Auder

The bottle-green car rumbles through sleepy streets, chugs along the squeaky cobbles, shrieks every time my mother tries to shift it along.

“I need a cigarette,” she says. “I can’t function without a smoke.”

We reach the outskirts, the meadows, and goats come running, stumbling, to watch us cough and sputter past. “I’ll be back to pet you soon!” I promise them in my mind, and they flop their ears, For real? and show me their crooked baby teeth.

Then Mom’s going faster and faster and we’re beyond all the pastures, zooming around Stop-sign curves. We grunt up every-last furzy hill and grind and brake back down.

If I were a goat, my eyes panoramic, I would look at everything, stare down everything, until it roared with flame–until the choices were forced to claim me, make me soft and warm.

The beach is cold, a bandage-strip of seagulls wheeling around tangled clots of debris. Sanderlings hustle like doctors and nurses: scurry and poke, scurry and poke.

Mom spreads a picnic blanket and pops champagne. She fishes her old wedding flutes from a basket and pours for two. She sticks the second glass in the sand and clinks. I am dry-mouthed, thinking about what it means to feel constantly stabbed.

The bottle spent, waves arrive–liquid ice–and Mom strips to her bra and panties. She wades in, and farther in. Her aim is clear and strong and stern as a vintage stem of glass.

When she is no longer bobbing and gasping, I rise and return to the bottle-green car. I will lock her wet-wool shawl into its old-tired trunk. I will start the motor and go.

Oh, how things never work as planned. Nothing but fun, that’s how driving always seemed. Now, the wheel is larger than a liar’s moon. The gear shift is a stubborn stork.

Mom shimmers into the back seat. I gnaw my cheeks, try to breathe. My lungs fill with knives that want to leap out and slice curses into the nearest brain. But you can’t just go full craniotomy on some person’s freshly-drowned ghost. Not after they’ve just stooped to bequeath you their shit-box bottle-green car.

Mom lights a Tareyton, rolls her window down.

She’s ignoring my presence. I’m ignoring her smog.

I think: I should heave a boulder onto the Gas. Send this crap-heap off a cliff and just hitchhike up the coast.

“Don’t be an ass,” says Mom’s ghost–but she’s not even looking at me. She’s studying an anemic fringe of mountain pine. Nestled within: a scrawny osprey on a spindly heart of sticks.

Mom stubs out her spent butt. And, miraculously, doesn’t light another. She mutters, “Let’s go pet your fucking goats.”

In the dream version, I am floored: my mother finally gets love right.

The starving osprey beats its wings. It rises, then plunges towards liquid glass.

***

C.B. Auder’s writing and art have appeared in Bending Genres, Atlas + Alice, Pidgeonholes, OCCULUM, Longleaf Review, and elsewhere. Find Aud on Twitter at @ClawAndBlossom.

Some Through The Waters ~ by Marvin Shackelford

1.

My mother flashes the headlights on and off when we see the truck headed up the drive. We bounce in our seats and wave through the windshield, though in the slow rain and the overcast gray, a little fogging on the glass, I don’t know if he could see all that anyway. But he pulls to the house instead of turning toward the barn. Mother stands in the wet, tucks her hair behind her ear and explains to him that she locked the keys in the house. His red eyes turn us over a moment. He draws on a cigarette and then hands it to my mother’s grasping fingers. She takes a single drag and relinquishes it again. He runs the zipper of his coveralls to his throat and turns up the sidewalk. From an iron deckchair he boosts himself onto the lowest part of the roof. He disappears into the attic’s shaky old window, swift and smooth like he’s done this before, he knows our home that well. We wait.

 

2.

The water eats up the pavement. Mother slows us before a lost portion of highway, a dip between two pastures where the creek, or the trees of its normal banks, lies in sight across the flooded bottomland. Her old blue Crown Vic idles around us, smokes a little in the cold summer rain. The orange pump-shaped light warning of a low tank flashes on the dash.

I can still see the road, she promises. She eases us forward into the stretched, pried, flung-open jaws of Richland Creek.

Later I tell her to drive more slowly, save the fuel so we’re sure to make it to town, but she says we’ll burn it either way.

 

3.

In the sun we cast our lines out over the choppy lake and pull them back empty again and again. Once I snag a stick and loose it to the surface, panic and drop my pole thinking it’s a snake. I flee to the green, stilted house just back from the water. Everyone promises it’s nothing more than the lost limbs of a tree. They untangle the line and set me back to pulling the floater aimlessly along the bank. It happens again, another gnarled branch, and I’m just as scared. Someone shouts at me to cut it out. He leans over me, I can see his breath but not his face, and out beyond us somewhere geese and thunder call to each other across the breeze. There’s not a goddamn thing in this world to be scared of, he says, and with a jerk he rips my line free again.

 

4.

We drive down the Interstate and pull in at the rest area just across the state line. A tall rocket points skyward, and we haul a basket of food from the car to eat in its shadow. We’re not the only ones to have this idea—other families lie scattered around us. Most of them have sacks of fast-food hamburgers, buckets of fried chicken, plastic containers packed with salad or pasta. We have sandwiches wrapped in thin, slick paper and a glass dish filled with cookies. There’s almost nothing to clean up after.

We’re still between cities, but we’re closer now to Huntsville and the Arsenal and the secrets buried in their deep governmental halls. The archaic, decommissioned space missile arching overhead, painted the flat colors of an old cartoon, feels cosmopolitan. I imagine a world of them lined side-by-side, walking between them and passing in and out of them. Traveling. Nearby there’s the hulking frame of a World War II jet, but it doesn’t move me. Mother insists on a Polaroid snapshot of me in front of it after we’ve eaten.

Before we leave we walk through the Welcome Center, use the bathroom and poke at the screen of the boxy, blue-lighted computer map showing highways across the state of Alabama. While she stands comparing its digital readout against the paper map glass-mounted on the wall, I pull a thick stack of glossy brochures from their stands nearby: space and rockets, cotton, catfish, the river, civil rights, colleges, a battleship, the sea. There’s so much of the world so close it’s hard to believe. I carry it all to the door and watch out over the dimming light of the emptying lot. The wind picks up, and a few drops of water land on the windows. She checks her watch and says give it just a little longer.

***

Marvin Shackelford is author of a collection of poems, Endless Building, and a forthcoming story collection. His work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Wigleaf, Hobart and elsewhere. He resides in Southern Middle Tennessee and has no clue what he’s doing with his life, honestly.