Two Questions for Sarah Priscus

We recently published Sarah Priscus’s powerful “Mary-Ann Shoemaker.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) This story reads so real to me — that the girls see Mary-Ann Shoemaker and focus on her eccentric behaviors instead of feeling sympathy for her. Do you think they will ever come to an understanding of Mary-Ann, or are these the kind of girls that all their lives will say “remember that weird girl from high school?”
To me, Mary-Ann Shoemaker represents the “weird other,” a person we fixate on in an attempt to make ourselves feel more normal by comparison. Because of that, the girls view her as an inside joke, a thing to gossip about, a freak to gawk at — never as a real person. The girls might grow more empathetic as they get older, just maybe not necessarily to Mary-Ann.  I imagine it would be easier emotionally for them to keep her dissociated from “realness” within their minds. That way, they never have to think about what harm they might have done by othering her.
Still, I tend to think that the girls do have some sort of sympathy for Mary-Ann, especially in the last scene. I just don’t think they’re capable of making the leap of actually reaching out to her. Parts of them want to reach out to Mary-Ann and ask if she’s okay, but her volatility and eccentricity makes them afraid of what might happen if they do.
2) And Mary-Ann herself, she’s such an interesting character. Her behavior seems both a cry for help and a warning to stay away, both at once. Do you think she might ever be able to reach out to someone without simultaneously pushing them away?
I want to believe that if Mary-Ann were in a better environment, she might find healthier, less destructive ways of expressing her pained internality. Maybe by the time she leaves school and moves away from home, she’ll feel safe and unthreatened enough to open up. I don’t imagine she’d ever be as “normal” as the girls who watch her, but maybe she could become less self-destructive.

Mary-Ann Shoemaker ~ by Sarah Priscus

We spent all of homeroom scouring the yearbook for pictures of mooners and Mary-Ann Shoemaker.

It was the last day of classes, one of those do-nothing days when all anyone wanted was to reminisce about senior pranks and under-chaperoned ski lodge trips and Mary-Ann Shoemaker stories.

Kayla asked if we remembered when Mary-Ann Shoemaker pierced her lip in the YMCA change room.

We did. Mary-Ann Shoemaker had leaned close enough to the mirror to fog it up, staring at herself through the mist, sticking a safety pin through her pouting bottom lip. It bled too much, all over her bitten-nail hands. She wiped the blood onto the speckled concrete walls, like a cave painter. She left for the swimming pool to do the butterfly-stroke in a Las Vegas t-shirt and boys’ swim shorts, leaving behind a trail of dripping blood. One drop fell into a puddle of chlorinated water, spreading across the grout, looking like what happens when you forget you’re pressing down with a fountain pen.

“Weird shit,” said Tawanna. “She’s weird as shit.” Tawanna asked if we remembered what Mary-Ann Shoemaker did on January’s Taco Tuesday.

Mary-Ann Shoemaker had walked into the cafeteria carrying a plastic knife and an army backpack. She declared that she was a militant vegan and would slash us up if we even thought about eating our tacos. Ten minutes later, she pulled two pepperoni sticks from her backpack’s front pocket. She ate them, her lips greasy and wet with non-alcoholic beer. Mr. Valleti tried to suspend her but since she wasn’t really drinking, he couldn’t.

“Well,” Kit said, picking bits of dandruff off her scalp and dropping them onto the floor, “She did get drunk. At Sadie Hawkins. Remember?”

We remembered. Mary-Ann Shoemaker had holed herself up in the custodian’s closet with seven miniature bottles of rum. When she emerged, she wobbled her way to the dance floor. She threw up on Mr. Valleti’s shoes, her vomit pink and smelling like dead things. Mr. Valleti yelled at her in the courtyard. We peeked through the crack in the gymnasium door, arguing about whether or not Mary-Ann Shoemaker was crying.

Cassie slapped her strawberry-skin legs. “Oh, God, yes! Remember when Jacob tried to kiss her after the football game? Gross. Like, beyond gross.”

Jacob smelled like Pizza Pockets and jerk-off tissues. He declared his love for Mary-Ann Shoemaker after our school lost the football game. She told him to follow her under the bleachers, and he did, mosquitos buzzing around his head. Jacob leaned towards her and when their mouths touched, she bit his tongue so hard it bled. She sauntered away, spitting onto the just-watered grass and laughing like the Disney hyenas.

“She’s psycho,” Kayla said.

Rosalie nodded like a dashboard bobblehead. “My dad is a prison psychologist,” she said, “And he says Mary-Ann Shoemaker is mentally disturbed. She hits herself. She breaks glass and cuts herself with it. Remember when she slammed her head against the mural?”

We all remembered. Mary-Ann Shoemaker whacked her face against the atrium sculpture of St. Jerome until her face looked ready to split. She kept slamming, holding her breath like she was underwater, until Mr. Valleti pulled her into his office. She cried, talking about her dad and her blood. We could hear her from the atrium. We could hear her all day long, even after we went home, even as we ate dinner, even as we watched that night’s Teen Wolf.

“Bizarre,” Kayla said. “She cleaned out her locker this morning and it looked like a freakin’ war-zone. Did you guys see?”

We had. Mary-Ann Shoemaker pulled out hot-glue popsicle sticks, cigarette cartons, dirty menstrual pads, non-alcoholic beer cans, and alcoholic beer cans. She shoved her artefacts into a black garbage bag and left it on the senior table.

Tawanna tapped her manicured finger against the window, jumping in her seat. “Wait, look! There she is. On the smoking hill. See?”

We all rushed to the window, our teacher not minding, and looked.

There was Mary-Ann Shoemaker, smoking a cigar, her mouth opening and closing, looking like she was screaming. There was Mary-Ann Shoemaker, standing all alone in the middle of the field. There was Mary-Ann Shoemaker, lonely as all hell, wondering if anyone was looking at her.

There we were, too, peering down from the third floor, our eyes forever-shocked, saying everything about her to each other, never saying anything at all to her.

***

Sarah Priscus has published short fiction and poetry in a number of journals, including Barren Magazine and Rookie Mag. She has received a 2019 Best of the Net nomination for a story published in Atlas and Alice. She writes in Ottawa, Ontario, where she attends the University of Ottawa for English and Theatre. Priscus can be found on Twitter at @sarahpriscus.

Two Questions for Amanda McLeod

We recently published Amanda McLeod’s stellar “Things We Say in the Dark.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) What I love about this piece is its construction — the “let’s say” lines hints at so much more than the story is telling us. Did you conceive of this story in this form from the beginning, or did you have to play around with it to get the voice just so?

I had read a number of stories leading up to the workshop in which this piece was created that used the same starting phrase at the beginning of each sentence, and that phrase ‘let’s say’ was one that stuck with me. I actually didn’t have to play with this much at all to get it right – what you see here is almost the first draft, with extremely minimal editing.

‘Let’s say’ was a suggested start to the story and it really made me think about all the things we hide with our words – what we say to each other isn’t always what we mean, and that depth is really at the centre of this story.

 

2) The imagery is so strong (inspired by by “Starry Night,” it would have to be!), but there is also character development in the description. Was it hard to balance those two aspects of this story?

I wanted this to be a sad love story because that’s what the painting said to me when I looked at it, and I just couldn’t see it any other way. Van Gogh’s ‘The Starry Night’ has a similar effect on me. There’s a desolate beauty in those magnificent skies. With each sentence here, I wanted to peel away a layer from this relationship and the people in it, and give you a little bit more of a glimpse at their lives and their emotional states. This was a classic ‘show, don’t tell’ piece of work — I focused on how the adjectives in the story revealed something about the narrator. I did have to think as I wrote — it came to me a sentence at a time — but finding the balance that way worked very well for me.

 

Things We Say In The Dark ~ by Amanda McLeod

Let’s say, just for one night, it won’t rain. Let’s say the stars shine down on us, like crinkled balls of tinfoil in an inky sky. Let’s say we take a walk along the foreshore, like we used to. Let’s say our fingers entwine, like a fishtail braid; and you lean into me as the wind wheeples through the trees, an eerie dirge. Let’s say the things people like us normally say, do what they normally do, when they take a midnight stroll. Let’s say the lights on the water look like glowing Greek columns, in a temple to some goddess of passion. Let’s say we’re invincible, two creatures constructed of diamond, sparkling the way your blue eyes did the first time you looked across this same path and into my own. Let’s say no to all the things we’ve said yes to that didn’t happen, to all the people who’ve asked the unforgivable time and time again, to everyone who judged us on our eventual silence. Let’s say, here in the darkness with the waves sighing as they drop gently on the sand, that in spite of it all we can still love each other.

***

Amanda McLeod is an Australian author and artist, and the Managing Editor at Animal Heart Press. Her fiction and poetry can be found in many places including Not Very Quiet, Ellipsis Zine, and Mojave He[art] Review. She loves quiet places and learning new words. Find her on Twitter @AmandaMWrites and on her website amandamcleodwrites.com

 

Two Questions for Nick Perilli

We recently published Nick Perilli’s surreal “An Ending.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story:

 

1) I love the implied weight of this story, this movie-scene ending, after ” the loss, the danger, the revenge and the lesson,” that makes it seem so much larger than it is. Do you think this couple went through the stereotypical movie chain of events before this unusual kiss, or was their story a stranger one all along?

My original intention was to make the ‘ending’ I allude to feel like a bit of a fairy tale ending, but I see a lot of movies so I’m not surprised that I unconsciously skewed it towards the bombast of film. Regardless, I do think this kiss is the very beginning of anything outside the norm in this couple’s story so far. We’re meeting them after the fade to black and after they’ve gone through all the story and character beats of your typical romantic drama movie or, yeah, maybe a light fairy tale. I think the weight of whatever they experienced is powerful for them, certainly, but probably not something that many of us looking in would find particularly interesting or original. So we enter their story just as things get truly interesting and strange for them — when their connection is tested by the very power of that connection. That’s just my take on it, though.

 

2) Speaking of their unusual kiss, really, where did you get this unusual idea? It’s so strange and creepy, and you tell it in such a beautiful way, I’m really curious where this came from!

Not to get too personal or anything, but my wife Britny and I sometimes just press noses together to show affection and one time we pretended we couldn’t pull them apart. We then had a pretty involved discussion about how we would manage to live our lives with the front our faces connected like that. This is a pretty typical conversation for us. Of course, I had to add some melancholy by bringing up the fact that our brain just ignores our noses so it might do the same to a person after a while. Scientifically, I don’t think that quite tracks. It makes for an interesting image, though, and I feel like most of my best work starts with an image I can twist that’s born from a personal connection like a conversation with my partner or something I see out of the corner of my eye while daydreaming at work.

An Ending ~ by Nick Perilli

The two kissed at the end. So enamored and in radiant love, they held on to that swell of contact until the skin on their lips and tips of their noses fused together.

They didn’t mind. After everything they’d been through to get to this moment—the loss, the danger, the revenge and the lesson—they both felt they could stand to spend the rest of their lives moving as one through the world. Arms on each other’s hips, legs shuffling between the other’s. They learned. The hardest thing to do was eat, but they figured it out.

In time, their brains sliced the other one out of their vision as irrelevant information. Like a nose, ever necessary but in the way. One could see the world beyond the other, but as much as they tried, one could no longer see the other.

Still, they know their other is there. By scent and sound and memory, yes, but more so by the stray weight at the end of their noses and the slight taste of the annual winter blood from the other’s chapped lips.

***

Nick Perilli is a writer and librarian living in Philadelphia, PA with loved ones who have yet to watch Gremlins 2 with him. Work of his has appeared in Pidgeonholes, XRAY, Maudlin House and elsewhere. He tweets @nicoloperilli and spared no expense on his very cheap website nickperilli.com.

Two Questions for Shawn McClure

We recently published Shawn McClure’s heart-breaking “To My Sister, Who Threatened to Haunt Me.

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) There’s a moment in this piece where the narrator says of her sister’s death, ” We both knew how it happened; you had been trying to tell us for years,” and there is a heaviness of guilt that permeates the story. Do you think the narrator can forgive herself? Can forgive her sister?

There is plenty of guilt threaded through this story, as well as a dose of denial. I think my narrator forgives her sister for her hostility because she understands that she is difficult, mentally ill, and perhaps estranged from the family. The narrator addresses her sister posthumously, trying to work through her own guilt. She misread all of the clues her sister left about how she felt. She had things to tell her and failed to say them. The narrator and her mother mourn the late sister together, trying to arrive in a place of love and absolution.

 

2) The imagery in this story is so powerful! I love how you connect that ephemeral, strange dream from the beginning with the ending piece, describing the late sister as a flock of birds. What does this imagery symbolize for you in this story? Does it mean the same thing for the narrator?

Aside from the fact that I adore birds scientifically, I also enjoy myths and legends involving birds. Birds appear frequently in my stories, and play an important role in my creative life.

This story came from an actual dream I had. It felt so real and foreboding, and right away I started working it into a story. I once read that starlings were conduits from the spirit world, or harbingers of death. In this case, I used the flock of birds to symbolize the soul of the narrator’s late sister.

The narrator acknowledges a certain amount of supernatural events happening around her. Yet, she remains oblivious. She never quite gets around to analyzing the dream of the birds, but I like to imagine that deep inside, she knows it was her sister saying farewell from beyond.

To My Sister, Who Threatened to Haunt Me ~ By Shawn McClure

Photograph by Shawn McClure

I had every intention of answering your angry email, the one in all caps where you called me names and promised to haunt the crap out of me. I kept trying to think of a response, but I ended up with a whole book of things I was eventually going to say, but never did.

On the day of your escape, a gentle, mad dream lingered: a flock of birds moving as one body; a cloud dispersing an undiscovered kind of rain. I couldn’t ponder the meaning of the dream for long, because the pipes burst and we had to call a plumber.

The rest of the day dragged as if through flood waters. Pinpricks of your darkness decorated the sky like black stars. I guess I knew there was something wrong.

Still, I didn’t know for sure until three days later when Mom called at an unusual hour. Small hairs stood up all over my skin when her number lit the screen. She spoke with soft bravery about the policeman who found you and how kindly he broke the news. We both knew how it happened; you had been trying to tell us for years. When I finally hung up the phone, I ran outside, through the cold, toward the mailbox to see if you had reached out one last time. The box was empty. I felt the blade of my guilt and measured its sharpness against your death.

So, I can’t tell you I wasn’t mad or that we loved the nice version of you. I call Mom every day now. She has a new habit of saying “I love you” at the end of our conversations. I know she speaks to both of us.

Together we took out the quilt you made for her so many years ago. We admired your stitches. We love the vintage fabric. We ran our fingers over the satin trim, touched the bumpy, white knots of flowers. We agreed that you were the most talented of all of us.

But I am the one who always notices signs, symbols and omens. There are tiny flowers stitched into the pocket of the quilt, along with the words ‘pride and joy’. I am the one who noticed that there is one for each sister except you. You stitched yourself out, like you never existed at all. I folded up the quilt that had the wrong number of sisters, and bit my tongue to keep my observation from Mom.

I haven’t shed tears. I am outside myself. I like to hear the things Mom remembers. We keep turning you over in our palms. We turn you this way and that, so we can watch your facets flash and dim. We look at your manic joy. We remember the little depressions. I wanted to tell you I remember that time when I was ten when you tried describe your sadness, and the time you tipped a pine log toward the light to show me the tiny green world that grew there. We look at your miracles and the flaws all at once. Sometimes I can tell that Mom is crying in the phone.

We see your pain now, we see what you were trying to say. We saw both the beauty you brought, and the damage you caused, and we tried to separate them. We saw the quiet. We felt the wind stir and pick up force. We saw the sky darken and get ready to open. We witnessed the pipes burst. We saw your last emails blinking, threatening us from our inboxes. We heard you scream into the phone and instead of slamming it down, we hung up quietly, because we were not angry.

We saw you gather yourself and disperse like a flock of birds, all noise and motion, here for a moment, and every moment after, and never truly gone.

***

Shawn McClure writes short fiction from her kitchen table in a house in NJ and sometimes publishes it on the web.

Two Questions for Kathryn Milam

We recently published Kathryn Milam’s gorgeous “Change Is Coming.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) There are only three lines of dialogue in this story: two places and “soon.” I love how much is implied in these tiny phrases! The narrator replies wordlessly — were you ever tempted to let them speak?

This story started with my musings about passion and how it can consume one’s life. Artists, writers, musicians, athletes even, all become absorbed in their work and often neglect the rest of their lives in the process. Relationships can suffer particularly. I do a lot of intricate crochet, and sometimes I look up while working on an especially lovely project, and it’s been hours since I interacted with anyone.

The subject was way too big for a story, so I turned to passion between people. I wanted to depict how the sensuous aspects of our obsessions can lure us away from the reality of the daily. The dreamy quality of the dialogue coupled with the physical details of the dinner tempts the narrator to abandon her family and her responsibilities. She follows that temptation without a word, mesmerized by it all, much as the beauty of language draws me to the page and makes me forget I’m supposed to make dinner and or have a conversation with my husband.

So, no. She couldn’t speak. The narrator is the silent partner in this scenario, weighing her options as she imagines what her world might be.

 

2) There is so much rich detail in the scene between the painter and the narrator: the description of her art, the music, the food … and then we end with this quiet image of the husband waiting at home, listening for the children. The contrast here really speaks to the narrator’s mindset! What do you think is waiting for them at home?

The real world waits for them. We can immerse ourselves in voluptuous beauty, indulge our fantasies, but in the end, the life we’ve chosen won’t go away. Will the narrator explode her family to follow this dream? Is the family, and all that entails, an anchor that prevents her from living a fully creative life as obviously she is tempted to believe? Or are her husband and children a mainstay that allows her to explore without drifting away into a seductive netherworld with its own messiness and madness? Even the artist’s life is untidy, with her hands all smudged with paint, as she freely admits. Change is coming, for sure, but what will that change mean? I’m still thinking on that.

Change is Coming ~ by Kathryn Milam

She touches your fingers across the table. Talks about her art, the way the brush veils the canvas, how paint clings to the heels of her hands, the chiaroscuro figures of women at work, children at the border. The waiter brings oysters on the half-shell, plates of veal glazed with butter and mustard, a raspberry torte to share. A young man plays contrapuntal notes on a cello, Bach’s Suite in D Minor. She says, the sea. She says, the Palamora Motor Court. She says, soon.

You smooth a curl from her brow. Outside, the harvest moon sags over tree tops. Her face gleams amber. Across town, your husband dozes in your bed, one ear cocked for the children.

***

Kathryn Milam lives in North Carolina. Her most recent stories have appeared in Appalachian Heritage Magazine, Lunate Fiction, and Flash Fiction Magazine. She’s the founder of Readings on Roslyn, a literary salon that has hosted forty writers and more than 3000 readers in her home. Her MFA is from Bennington College. Follow her on Twitter @MilamKathryn.