Performance Review ~ by Kim Magowan

The woman is assessed on everything: her collegiality, her efficiency, the texture of the vegetables she cooks, her imagination, her warmth, the density of her breasts. At work, her boss reassures her that the expectation isn’t perfection. “No one is perfect,” he says. There will only be a problem if her ratings fall below 70%.

So she tries hard to please. At dinner parties, she listens carefully to the timbre of her laugh to evaluate whether it is resonant, dulcet, or braying.

The trouble is that some categories for which she is being assessed conflict. How can she contribute to the conference room discussion in a manner that is “animated” and “energetic” but avoids being “challenging”? To be “sharp” is sometimes laudable (when describing her insight) and sometimes critical (when describing a comment she made to sexist Marc Potronsky on the team-building retreat). Or with her husband, how can she both soothe and allure? And with colleagues, manifest both “groundedness” and “sparkliness”? (This last category is particularly perplexing, because when the woman imagines objects that sparkle, she thinks of tricks of light—the gleam of a gold band, the prismatic flash of a diamond’s facet).

Even simple tasks, like cooking bacon, confound her, since her daughter Eleanor prefers her bacon to be chewy, whereas her son Joey prefers it to be crispy.

And it is one morning, over a pan of bacon, that the woman’s attempts to satisfy counter-imperatives finally implode. She is standing over the pan, watching the bacon sizzle, waiting for the moment to remove Eleanor’s three strips. Then, instead of removing them, she keeps watching. The bacon transforms. It morphs from one kind of thing, a thick satin ribbon, to another thing, a strip of leather, to another thing altogether: something black and almost glassy. Obsidian perhaps. Her kitchen fills with the smell of scorched pork. The sensitive smoke alarm beeps. Her son opens the sliding glass door to the deck, shouts “Mom! What are you doing, Mom?” But though he addresses the woman, she is elsewhere, far beyond his grasp.

***

Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source (2019) was published by 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Booth, Craft Literary, The Gettysburg Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf’s Top 50. She is the Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. www.kimmagowan.com

Two Questions for Exodus Oktavia Brownlow

We recently published Exodus Oktavia Brownlow’s witty “The Terrible Darling.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) Well, you already know I’m just in love with the darling’s request for her husband to cheat: “just once, and with someone not as pretty.” That is such a great detail and it goes so perfectly with the voice here — what made you think of this specific request? I’m dying to know!
I think that line came to me because often, when someone is discovered to be a cheater, it always boils down to two questions–what do they look like and what do they do (in life)? What a person looks like often equates to how valuable they are to society. And I think with this story, since the act of cheating isn’t to really hurt the bond, but instead to strengthen it with a kind of planned-ugliness, I really wanted to ensure that this level of respect (by the wife being cheated on by someone of “lesser value”) was included, here. 


2) You always include such perfect details in your writing — I love things like “a muted snap” and the teeth that remain “white against dark-roasted coffee days.” How do you find a balance between the intimate details like that and the spareness that flash requires?
With everything that I write, it’s usually almost-always the visuals that come to me first. Visuals, and dialogue. When I write, everything plays out for me, like a movie. What I love doing when I write flash, is finding the magic in those visuals (specifically if it’s literary fiction), and showcasing them in a way that makes them as vivid as they appear in my mind. When I write flash, I usually never know that it’s going to be flash until it is. I never go into the process with the word count in mind, with how short I’ll have to be with the piece. I let myself write it all out, every detail that matters to me. When I go back, and look it all over, and I realize what sentences showcase those details the best, what words bring to life those visuals, I allow myself to exclude the others that don’t. Sometimes this is easier said than done, but it’s almost always fun–having to be disciplined in this way. 

The Terrible Darling ~ by Exodus Oktavia Brownlow

It’s usually the little death of a temporary kind of beauty, that becomes the reason for the things that go on to fully break. 

But neither one of them had grown into an ugliness over the years. 

There was just the sweetness of age touching them in the slightest way. Like, her slightly-melting cheek. Like, his small wrinkled forehead. 

Subtleties so soft they never noticed them of themselves or of each other.

In their marriage, her belly had always snapped back after the babies she birthed, and his teeth remained white against dark-roasted coffee days. 

___

The women at her office always teased her about it, about them.

Oh, you and John are so happy, just so happy.

And another coworker, Just so fucking happy! Doesn’t it scare you to be happy all the time like that?

Isn’t there something? Another asked.

Shouldn’t there be something? Another added.

And oh, honey…there’s always something. Another purred.

____

            It happened so fast, so immediately, the way she pulled herself into the sameness of others around her, because maybe it was the relationships tainted with a touch of badness that went on to outlive the others. 

John had thought that she was silly, when she asked him to cheat on her, just once, and with someone not as pretty. ‘When she told him to waste money meant for paying bills on scratch-off tickets, and impossible Powerball lotteries. ‘When, every night, at dinner, she would pour him one, two, three glasses of wine to possibly trigger addictions deeply buried inside. 

“This is crazy,” he said gently to her, he never yelled. “This is insane,” he never said she, only it, only the things that she was asking of him.

“I will crack this perfect thing,” she yelled at him with hopes of sparking a dormant anger. “I will hurt us just a little to make this more believable, to make this much more like the sameness of others before us, because this is how we save us, John. This is how this marriage can live on,” she said. “I am just the drive that you do on autopilot, John. So, good, so safe, you don’t even go on to appreciate it because of just how safe it always is.”

He was listening, not ignoring, not looking away.

“I don’t want to die in this drive. I just want us to get a little scratched up,” she pleaded. “I love this love the most. Why don’t you love this love the most like I do?” 

He started to say, still not yelling, staying instead of walking away, “Because, I love our love the most.”

____

            On the evening of their anniversary, she sat in the soft light of the restaurant’s candles, golden gleams bounced against her caramel curls, which glowed along with the honeyed hues of the present’s bow—a gift from her that he was now opening. He pulled away at both ends which fell apart with a muted snap.

In the months before, she had let it all go quiet, had let it all just be as it once had been.

So, when he opened the gift fully, where a beautiful watch from some time long ago waited, he looked at the engraved initials, but one of them was awry. He tried to put it over his wrist, but it would not fit. And she watched him struggle, struggle in all that soft, golden light, struggle in the surroundings of others who had watched from the beginning, too.

As a tear slipped down, the first one he’d ever given to her for the reasons that were right, he said— “You are a terrible darling,” he cried. “You are the worst darling that there could ever be.”

***

Exodus Oktavia Brownlow is a Blackhawk, Mississippi native whose writing aesthetic includes purposeful horror, character-driven fiction, and nonfiction writing that aims to create a healthier world for us all. She is a graduate of Mississippi Valley State University with a B.A in English, and Mississippi University for Women with a MFA in Creative Writing. Exodus is published, or has forthcoming work, with Electric-Literature, Barren Magazine, Booth, Fractured Lit, Hobart Pulp, Jellyfish Review, TriQuaterly, Chicken Soup for The Soul, and more. Exodus has a healthy adoration for the color green.

Two Questions for Sarah Freligh

We recently published Sarah Freligh’s gorgeous “All We Wanted.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) What I like best about this piece is how it evokes that job. You know the one! Where the boss was a Juanita and you’d hide in the cooler with your work friends. It’s such a nostalgic feeling! What was your job that was the most like this one?

That job would be my first waitress job, at a country club of all places. I had to learn to de-bone pickerel tableside and to carry trays of exotic drinks in fragile glasses without spilling a drop. There were stairs and a Juanita, too, the most efficient and greatest waitperson I ever worked with. Looking back, it was — like many restaurant jobs — a collegial experience, more so than any jobs I’ve had since. We set up, we served and at the end of the night, we put it back together and left it there until the next day.


2) And of course, there’s that perfect ending! The difference between the agony of being on your feet for work and the joy of dancing. Do you think the narrators know that, someday, they won’t want to dance after work? That someday they won’t have those small joys? Or are they just existing in this moment, the moment between the end of the workday and the delight of dancing?

They’re definitely living in the moment, not only because they’re young but also because that’s the nature of most restaurant jobs. You keep your head down and get through each shift, each rush, in mule mode and when it’s over, you dance.

All We Wanted ~ by Sarah Freligh

It was Juanita’s job to check each plate for a single strand of hair or, god forbid, a dead fly before we stacked them three deep on trays and carried them on our shoulders up a steep flight of stairs. Once she dropped a cigarette ash on a slab of prime rib and swiped it with a towel until you couldn’t tell what was meat and not. Had we done that, she would have given us what-for, made us stay late to scrub down the inside of the walk-in cooler. Which was fine with us. We’d sneak a six-pack in there and a bottle of vodka that we’d pass back and forth. We’d help ourselves to handfuls of fresh shrimp from a plastic can and call it dinner. We’d leave that cooler gleaming, leave it drunk, stopping long enough to shuck our shoes before heading out to dance. Eight hours on our feet and all we wanted was to dance.

***

Sarah Freligh is the author of four books, including Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis, and We, published by Harbor Editions in early 2021. Recent work has appeared in the Cincinnati Review miCRo series, SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Fractured Lit, and in the anthologies New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (Norton 2018) and Best Microfiction (2019-21). Among her awards are a 2009 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a grant from the New York State Council for the Arts.

Two Questions for Audra Kerr Brown

We recently published Audra Kerr Brown’s stunning “The Men Here.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love the playful language and imagery in this piece — the idea of these men growing from trees and then “wagon-wheeling” away after being shaken down is so fun and lovely! What was your inspiration for this story?

I had a vintage photo in my computer files. I don’t know how it got there. I don’t remember putting it there, but I would look at it from time to time, this picture of men in suits sitting in the branches of an enormous tree, and I knew I wanted to write about it. Fortunately, I took one of Sarah Freligh’s writing classes and she coaxed the story out of me. I need deadlines and gentle mentorship to get anything done, it seems.

2) That final image is such a great one, the men scattering like seeds on the wind. Do you think they ever take root? Or will they always, always roam?

They’ll always roam. And since they always roam, they won’t plant their seed and that will be the sad ending of the man trees.

The Men Here ~ by Audra Kerr Brown

The men here used to grow on trees. Gentleman tree-dwellers in tweed suits and newsboy caps, perched upon the bone-white arms of giant sycamores, supping on squirrels and birds, wheedling catfish from the river when the water ran high.  These were not unlearned men and could be heard reciting Milton from the highest limbs, performing Hamlet beneath a Hunter’s Moon.  Occasionally, a townswoman would judder the branches, shake a tree man loose. But once they were felled, the men never stayed in place again. Without roots, they wagon-wheeled across the countryside like tumbling leaves, like seeds scattered in the wind. 

***

Audra Kerr Brown lives at the end of a dirt road in Iowa. Her fiction has appeared in the Best Small Fictions, Wigleaf’s Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions list, X-R-A-Y, People Holding, Outlook Springs, and more. She is a reader at New Flash Fiction Review.

Two Questions for Yunya Yang

We recently published Yunya Yang’s cutting “The Warrior.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love the transformation here as the character changes for kendo — there is something so powerful and so pure in it. Do you think she holds on to some of this feeling when she changes back into her dress? Or is this brief moment all she gets?

I think the feeling has always been in her, just in a dormant state. I think of the dress as a disguise, something she wears to survive out there. Her armor gives her anonymity – the Men that hides her face, and the Do that hides her body – and grants her power to be anybody she wants to be. At that moment, she thinks of being born in this country, being a man, being white, but she doesn’t really want to be those things, what she wants is the power that comes with being those things, which to me is the tragedy here. At that moment it feels empowering, but it is also sad that only when she is anonymous can she feel powerful. She doesn’t feel powerful in her own skin. This, I think, is where the anger at the end comes from, that desire to turn the tables. 




2) I want to talk about how you address this idea of being “othered” so effectively! In one sentence, you let us know everything about this character, about the space she inhabits, about this country, about this world. So I guess this is less a question and more of a compliment! How did you manage to get all that into one little sentence?

Thank you! I think she is defined more by who she is not, than who she is. By the end of the story, we still don’t really know exactly what she looks like or where she is from, but we know who she is not and what she does not have. I feel in this way, she is specific enough, but can also be a universal figure – she is anybody who is an immigrant and a woman of color. The capitalization of certain words might have helped too? I started with capitalizing only the Japanese words, but then when I got to the end, it felt right to capitalize those last couple of words too, together with the Japanese ones, almost like power tugging on two opposite ends. One is power within her, the one that supports her, and the other is power from the outside, the one that oppresses her.

The Warrior ~ by Yunya Yang

When she takes off her shoes and steps into the Dojo; when she sheds her dress, the soft shell peels off her skin; when she winds a long, white band around her breasts before slipping into the Keikogi, its wide sleeves cut at her elbows; when she pulls the Hakama up her legs, tying the night-blue belt into a butterfly, tucking the wings just under her waist; when her hands reach into the Kote, the wrinkled leather cool to the touch; when she straps the Do in front of her torso, the hard and comfortable armor hugs her body like a lover; when she puts her head inside the Men, hiding her face behind the metal cage; when she wraps her gloved hands around the Shinai, the length of the sword extends before her; when she takes her stance, right foot forward, left heel lifted, the hem of her Hakama swishing on the springwood floor; she finally feels in Power. She could be Anybody — she could be Born Here, she could be a Man, she could be White, and people would be in her Mercy, for once. 

***

Yunya Yang was born and raised in Central China and moved to the US when she was eighteen. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming in Heavy Feather Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, The Los Angeles Review, among others. She lives in Chicago with her husband Chris and cat Ichiro. Find her at www.yunyayang.com and on Twitter @YangYunya.

Two Questions for Candace Hartsuyker

We recently published Candace Hartsuyker’s gorgeous “At the Sixth Grade Picnic Lunch, We Are the Last Girls Standing.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) This piece, for me, brings back all those horrifying grade school moments being the kid who didn’t fit in, the kid who was never going to fit in. And yet there’s a touch of beauty — I love that you have found beauty here! Do you think this moment will change the girls? Or do you think it is a moment they have always been expecting, always been preparing for?

I do think the girls have always been preparing for this moment. One of the reasons I chose to write this story in collective first-person was to portray the universal experience of girlhood. Whether it’s prom or getting married or being auctioned off at a picnic lunch, there are all these traditions in society that seem to put more pressure on women than men. When I was in sixth grade, my elementary school had a picnic lunch, and I remember my friend had the expectation that the day would be perfect because the boy she liked would pick her, but he didn’t, and she was devastated.


2) I love the detail in the last moments of this story, the way the girl slaps the boy ” the same way women with sharp eyebrows and shoulders pads in old movies do.” That’s such a great and vivid description! Were you thinking of any movie in particular?

I was picturing Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, which is a wonderful film noir that poses the question: how much will a mother sacrifice for her daughter? Joan Crawford is magnificent in this role; she is able to show despair one minute and steely determination the next. At the end of my story, one of the girls has a Joan Crawford moment: by slapping the boy, she has agency.