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.

Two questions for Jennifer Fliss

We recently published Jennifer Fliss’s haunting “Mirror, ca. 1550 – 1350 B.C.

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) I love how this story functions in two parts — the description of the mirror and the narrator’s reaction. Was it very hard to make the description sound authentic and “official” while still maintaining your beautiful writer’s voice?
I did a fair amount of looking around on the Met’s website, where they have so many of their items inventoried. (It’s the most amazing time-suck!) I heavily based my description on this, but I wanted it to be more personal, subjective, as if my protagonist was the archivist writing up the brief histories. What would she be thinking as she followed the rote plan for archiving? An archivist (and I’m not even sure this would be the role doing this job) is meant to be objective. What does the object look like and where is its place in history, based on science and research. They are not to tell us how we are to feel, or even what the persons who used the items must have felt. I find this connection – or really an intentional lack of connection – fascinating and ripe for fiction.

2) The sense of loss in this piece is so understated and poignant, packed into this small moment where the narrator is considering a mirror. What would she do, do you think, if she could see it in person? 

As I said before, I wanted to channel what the archivist might be thinking to access a more personal approach for my protagonist. However, my protagonist is not the archivist. She is looking at this at quite a remove, several, really. I would think my character would desperately want to touch this mirror, as if touch would afford her a glimpse of the item’s owner. Her own loss, a miscarriage, is something that women have experienced all over the world and throughout history, even thousands of years ago. And yet, perhaps in her idea for the mirror, a piece of that specific history has been saved. Something did not die; it lived on. What are the fragments that survive  death (and time)? And what do they mean to those who experience those fragments later? What would my protagonist do? My character might break through the glass to hold this mirror, perhaps stow it away, blame it on a rogue thief, and run out of the museum before the security staff sees the footage. Back at home, she would be disappointed that it doesn’t, in fact, reflect her own face. It is a failed mirror. But she would stow it in a drawer of the bureau that had been in the nursery, to take it out occasionally to stare into the non-mirror. Later, when the police arrive at her door, as they’ve discovered she was the thief, she takes the mirror out the back door and throws it in the river. She pleads hysterical. She is let off the hook. The museum has an empty shelf with the description pinned beside it for two years before they change up the exhibit.

Mirror, ca. 1550 – 1350 B.C. ~ by Jennifer Fliss

The item was cast in bronze in two pieces: the handle and the disk, the latter held the mirror. The item has been broken apart. (As if the subject of the reflection and the hand that held it are now separate.) Presumably there had been a rivet holding the two pieces, but it has eroded to a small nub. The disk is more oval than circular; there are imperfections in the shape which indicate the artifact was hand-formed. The mirror itself has been abraded to no longer reflect. It is simply something that is held up in front of one’s face. (As if to hide.) On the back of the disk, hieroglyphics are too worn down and is indecipherable. (Perhaps once a name.) The handle is in the form of a stylized papyrus plant. Research has found this represents creative female power in Egyptian mythology.

It was found in a small coffin, as if for a child.

 

She closes down the museum’s website, pushes her laptop away, stands. She wants to see it. But the catalog says it is not on view. She goes to the mirror in the hallway. Tucks an errant hair behind her ear, smiles the way she would to a child, to her child. She will be the only one to see this smile, the way she tilts her head and her eyes scrunch along the edges. Wonders if she can do it again, handle it again, wonders where and how she can pack away this mirror that has caught a mother in its reflection.

***

Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in PANK, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. She is the 2018/2019 Pen Parentis Fellow and a 2019 recipient of a Grant for Artist Project award from Artist’s Trust. Recently, her story, Hineni, was selected for inclusion in the Best Small Fictions 2019 anthology. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com.

Two Questions for Anna Gates Ha

We recently published Anna Gates Ha’s otherworldly “Sky and/or Body, Unzipped.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) I love how the narrator tries to make sense of her sister’s seizures, calling them “earthquakes,” hoping they might be catching like colds. She calls it her “job” to watch over her sister — she doesn’t seem to resent her duties. Do you think there are times when she does?

Children really do make the best metaphors and similes. When my son was two, he noticed the rain was like tears. I think I lost it.
As for resentment, up until this point, I don’t think the narrator has felt it. She has taken it upon herself to monitor her sister’s health, and she’s fantasized about taking on the sickness in order to save her sister, but she seems willing, almost desperate, to do it.
Now that I’m thinking of it, maybe there is a little power thing in there too, a little power in being a martyr for someone you love. There’s fear and sorrow, for sure, but there’s also this sense of duty, of purpose. In the end, Oona’s recovery (or perceived recovery) doesn’t come from the narrator; instead, it comes quite mysteriously. As a result, the narrator begins to see Oona as something otherworldly, and the power shifts, perhaps, from the narrator to Oona.
2) When the girls go out to find the meteor, the narrator says they know they should wake their mother, but they don’t. Children always seem to keep beautiful secrets like this from their parents, keep them private and precious. Do these two have other secrets from their mother?
Oh, I’m sure they do have a few other delicious, innocent secrets. But this feels like it might be bigger than the others. Perhaps they are breaking away from the conventional ways their mother has tried to treat Oona’s seizures, or perhaps they simply know their mother would never let them go see it. Either way, leaving the house alone and walking toward a fire is a big deal for them.

Sky and/or Body, Unzipped ~ by Anna Gates Ha

When the meteor falls, I am watching Oona breathe. Mama hasn’t said it, but I know it is my job. To watch for earthquakes inside my little sister. To catch them, to read the fault lines of her sleep twitches.

I have a washcloth, twisted and readied in my fist. I’ve seen Mama do it before, but I worry I won’t be quick enough, that something will get bitten off. That I’ll fall asleep and miss the whole thing: eyes gone in search of something behind themselves, tongue left bloody.

So when the sky cracks open, I think it is Oona, rattling the windows, shoving a boom through my insides. As if earthquakes could escape bodies, walk into other bodies.

 

Mama says they may never leave her. Mama puts little drops under Oona’s tongue, little pills down her throat, little wires in her veins.

Mama says they’re not catching, but I wish they were. The way a sneeze comes out of you like a thousand dandelion seeds, settling and sprouting and making snot-rivers in other noses, while you get better.

Mama says Oona’s earthquakes don’t work like that.

 

When the sky splits open, so do Oona’s eyes. I am ready with the washcloth, but she just sits there, looking down at her hands, her body, which are still.  Not me, she says, running her fingers over quiet limbs.

 

The field outside our window is on fire. Oona sees it first, places her palms on the pane. It is nothing big. Smaller than the campfire Mama built for us last summer. I remember the way she cradled a lichen nest, the way her breath gave life to orange light, the way she wouldn’t let us get too close.

 

We should wake up Mama, but we don’t.

We hold our breath, unlock the back door, slide it open. I follow Oona, all shadow, toward the small flames. The grass is tall enough to hide her feet, and for a moment, I am convinced that she is flying. That she is something else. That the earthquakes have left her and in their place is a wildness I do not recognize.

 

We stand above it like witches. The lit grasses burn in little curls at our toes, and the tail of the thing lingers in the sky. I throw water from a bowl, and the thing hisses. Steam licks the air.

I think about dinosaurs and craters and ash-covered skies. Choking to death. But the thing in the field is no bigger than my heart.

Oona crouches. Picks it up. It must be burning—all that friction, all that falling—but she brings it to her chest like she were its mama, like it were a part of her once, and even in the dark, I can see the pink growing on her chest, dotted and splotched, like a galaxy unzipped.

***

Anna Gates Ha earned her MFA in fiction at Saint Mary’s College of California. Her writing, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, has appeared in Harpur Palate, Watershed Review, and Literary Mama, among others.

Two questions for Kate Finegan

We recently published Kate Finegan’s stunning “Going, All Along.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) In high school, I used to know a boy on the swim team who had an indented chest. He loved to make up stories about how it got like that, but he had just been born concave. This narrator has her body change on her, become something different — and she accepts it so beautifully. Do you think her reactions would be different if she had been like this from the beginning?
I don’t think I can really speak to how she would feel if she had been born this way because in this piece, I was really interested in exploring a reaction to physical change. Some writer-friends and I were recently discussing Kim Fu’s brilliant story “Liddy, First to Fly” (published in Room 41.4), in which a girl reacts to the emergence of wings on her ankles as everyone else is going through “normal” puberty. What struck me is how she and her friends react so calmly to this development. My friends and I felt that this understated reaction is absolutely credible. You learn that your body is going to change, and then it does change, and all you can do is look on in wonder and confusion and try to figure out how to live in this new form, even as you realize that the changes aren’t affecting everyone in exactly the same way; it’s not quite as straightforward as your health teacher would have you believe! In a way, I wrote this for eleven-year-old me, who kept waiting to look like everyone else and didn’t always accept change (or lack thereof) with grace.
2) That moment at the end, where a bobolink builds its nest so close to her heart, is so beautiful! I love that the bird chooses to stay in the end. Did you ever consider having it leave?
Only very, very briefly. This entire story was built around the image of a bird nesting inside a girl’s chest; that was the spark for this piece. I wanted it to be a love letter to the girl I was, a way of reaching out through time and saying, “There there, you’re doing fine.” One of my writing teachers, Rachel Thompson, says that a key part of revision is to write a list of as many possible endings as you can think of, to decide which ending truly best serves your story’s theme. So often, the first ending that comes to mind is not the most interesting. So, I always consider alternate endings, but in this case, the only possible ending that would serve my purpose was to have the bird stay – although for how long, who knows? I don’t necessarily think of this ending as “happily ever after” but more like “happily right now,” which I’m learning can be good enough, in fiction and in life.