Monday, November 24, 2014

#149: "Where I Come From a Hushpuppy Is Not a Shoe" by R.T. Smith

~This essay was previously published in Zoetrope (2006).

     Whenever I hear the commentators on National Public Radio’s “This I Believe” series professing their admirable commitment to honor, family ties, work or poetry or the kindness of strangers, I always think, “This is all very nice and inspiring, but have these people heard of hushpuppies?”  While other splendors and necessities improve, adorn and propel the world, the hushpuppy is the sine qua non, the raison d’etre and probably the prime directive in various other languages whose irregular verbs I have never attempted to conjugate.  From my personal standpoint, the deep-fried hushpuppy ranks right up there with good health, a loving mate, rewarding work and spiritual fulfillment.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m not the kind of zealot who is blind to humanity’s other achievements.  I also believe wholeheartedly in the hand brake, the rifled muzzle, the King James Version, vasectomies, single-barrel aging and hybrid roses.  Those vital developments notwithstanding, the hushpuppy as conceived and consumed in the rural South is crux and hub and core.
     Now I’m not about to define “hushpuppy” in some partisan and proprietary way, though it is kissing cousin to a fritter, neighbor to cornbread and a far cry from a crepe.  I’m not even going to dictate how to concoct the ideal knee-knocking, unforgettable, whiplashing-scrumptious hushpuppy, other than to recommend some basic components and say that you’ve got to tickle the oil right up to about 400 degrees, which is also the temperature the mercury will register if you stick a thermometer under the tongue of most anyone in my family when their ire is aroused.  Our tribe’s tendency to run hot and express our displeasure in unruly and emphatic fashion should right away clarify a couple of things: the oral method is the only fever measurement method worth trying on us, and don’t stand between us and anything we prize or favor, especially our preferred provender.  But don’t get me wrong here; we are neither rabid nor deranged, only enthusiastic.
     My family at one time, individually and collectively, knew how to make a hushpuppy so delicious it would make you cut a buck and wing and forswear indoor sports and week-night church.  Although we would happily savor them in screen-porch fish camps – from Dowd’s Catfish on the Flint River in Georgia to the piratical Riverview Inn between Charlotte and Gastonia – it was the homemade item directly out of the deep fryer or skillet that hit the godspot.  And of course, being in such proximity to the source, you’d always snatch up the first one out of the inferno and burn your tongue; that’s a requisite step in the rite.  Try as you might to take the fire in and not receive a wound – like Isaiah himself with the smoking ember – you’d blister up and shout to Jesus and fan your mouth faster than a hummingbird’s wings.  Meanwhile, you might be consoled by the fact that there’s a little “bliss” in “blister.”  Then you’d blow on the bitten hushpuppy, shut your eyes in wonder and take another bite.  I used to marvel, given the abundance of local wonders, that no one has ever claimed to discover the face of our Savior in the features of a fresh hushpuppy, because we do not live by bread alone.  But who would delay consumption to conduct a finicky investigation?  What hushpuppy survives long enough to be thus perused and pondered?  Now you see it, now you don’t.  We may save slices of wedding cake in the freezer or gallstones in a jelly jar of formaldehyde on the mantel, but the hushpuppy enjoys less longevity than your average caddis fly.

Monday, November 17, 2014

#148: "Rockabye" by Dave Housley

~This story was previously published in Hobart: Another Literary Journal (2011).

Episode 1:
     We see Daddy on Sundays at lunch. Sometimes Wednesdays, too, from eight until nine, if Mommy lets us watch the reruns. 
     This season it's harder to get her to let us watch. Last time, Mommy didn’t care. For awhile, she even thought it was funny. In the first episode, when Daddy came walking out with his new hair and his eyes with make-up like the TV ladies, Mommy yelled "ohmygod" and almost spilled her wine and then called Aunt Lisa and shouted into the phone so much I almost couldn't hear Daddy explaining how he was looking for his real, one and only Rockin’ Rockabye Baby and how he'd have to send one sexy lady home each week, and how this time he really wanted to find love.
    Mommy thought that was the funniest part of all.
    This year, Mommy says no way are we watching. “Why would you want to watch that?” she says.
   “It’s Daddy,” I say.
    She makes that huffy sound like she thinks something is funny but really she doesn’t. “You're not old enough to watch this stuff,” she says. 
    “Old enough like Sixx?” I say, and without trying I look toward my brother’s room.
    “I shouldn’t have let you guys watch this show last year,” she says, looking at Sixx’s door and then down at the floor.
    “It's Daddy,” I say.
     Mommy makes the funny noise again, shakes her head and lights a cigarette right in the house. But she lets me watch.
     Later that night when she thinks I’m sleeping, I can hear Mommy watching Daddy in the living room.

Monday, November 3, 2014

#147: "Done" by Mark Wisniewski

~This poem was previously published in River Styx (2011).


she'd heard I had
an agent & asked me to dinner
& I ate
the dinner with
her & she'd heard I'd lived
in only one room & asked
if she could
see it & I said the couple
who owned the house with the room
forbade visitors
since they wanted to keep
their 2 small
daughters from even the sound
of what people who lived
in one room did with people willing
to visit
but it was now well
past the daughters'
bedtime & the house proved dark
the couple presumably
upstairs & I'd grown tired
of myself in the room
so I whispered "let's time our
footfalls" & soon we were
in & I closed the door
turned on the light
she stepped to my desk
read a letter
from the agent
removed her blouse
got on the bed
on her hands
& knees slid the panties
down her thighs
whispered to say she cared
only about whether I
liked it which made it harder
to like
through most of it I felt
used & sure I'd end up
homeless & when I was
done she stood
upright & dressed facing away
kissed my mouth &
tiptoed out
that agent never selling
a word of mine
those 2 daughters maybe
now married & divorced
perhaps about to learn how
it can all happen
in one room


Monday, October 20, 2014

#146: "Things My Mother Never Taught Me" by Kirsten Clodfelter

~This story originally appeared in The Iowa Review (2010)

Ally and I went through our felon-dating phase in November. My felon had served a few years for embezzling 200,000 dollars from his software company. His brown hair was starting to gray, and he kept it parted down the middle, longer in the front, like a style from a fashion magazine. He had the most perfect eyebrows I’d ever seen, beautifully shaped, with only a single stray hair between the brow and the eyelid of his right eye. I read his facial expressions solely by the way his eyebrows changed. I noticed them especially when he’d smile at me from my bed, one arm bent at the elbow and resting behind his head, watching me pull a clean T-shirt from the top drawer of my dresser. He could’ve been a model. When I told him this, he closed his eyes and said nothing for a long time. Finally, “There are disadvantages.” He picked at the loose elastic in the waistband of his boxer shorts. I didn’t know what to say. Instead, I turned on the radio. At least Ally’s had stolen a car.
            Before that it’d been surfers, brothers, just eighteen months apart. It was a disappointment, Ally and I dating two guys who were related. We wanted their childhood stories to be separate, so that she and I would have something to talk about after they left, when we sat at our plastic kitchen table eating microwaved bowls of tomato soup.
The younger one was mine. I watched the way his eyes often followed his older brother around the room. Even if it were Ally or I who was speaking, he was looking at his brother, watching for cues. I wasn’t even sure if he realized he did it. When we were all together, I’d hide my mouth with my hands so he couldn’t see the way I smiled at this. It was sweet. But his tan was better than mine. His stomach was tighter, more toned. He looked at himself a lot in the mirror, but I don’t mean to say that it was like dating a girl. He just made me feel self-conscious as he watched me pull off my gray linen pants and my black tank top.
Before summer ended and the breeze that blew in off the coast made it too cold to sit outside without a blanket or a sweatshirt at night, we gave the brothers back to the ocean. They were too distracted. Their hair was always stiff. Their sandy boards sometimes knocked things over on our porch. We liked them better when they weren’t pulling the neck strings of our white bikini tops, when they were silent and alone and facing a wall of blue and then becoming the blue itself, maneuvering the exact angle of the foot or the arm, striking a perfect balance above the shifting water.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

#145: "Nice Soft Wife" by Susannah Felts

 ~This story was previously published in The Nashville Scene as second-place winner in the 
Annual Short Fiction Contest,  (2003).

The subject is Darwin. I am the substitute. I am here to press buttons on the VCR, shush mouths, distribute and collect worksheets.
The kids are sophomores wearing jerseys in the colors of rose, ecru, or moss. You might be surprised how many males choose rose. But moss is the favorite, regardless of gender. I too would go for moss if I were required to wear a school jersey. “Ecru” sounds like an African mammal to me. The ecru dashed across the Serengeti.
            “What kinda name is that?” a male student asks me after I’ve written mine on the board. His hair is plastered to his skull with a perfumed substance, and he wears a band-aid on his neck. I know what he’s asking, but I don’t know what to tell him. It’s the name I’ve had all my life, but I know nothing of its history. The guy I live with, Dennis, thinks this is unfortunate. He suggests a trip to the library, an afternoon spent doing research. “You should know where you come from,” he says.
Dennis’s surname means “the plentiful hearth” in Old English. When he first told me this, my first thought was: Will I become A Plentiful Hearth?
            “Fairy-princess name,” I tell the student now. “What’s with the bandage?”
            “BB. Dude shot me. Want to see where it went in? Had to extract it with my ma’s tweezers.”
            “That’s okay. I’ve seen lots; they all look the same. Take your seat, the bell’s about to ring. But good use of ‘extract,” I tell him. “Extract” is number seven in this week’s Vocab 20. I know this because I subbed for Ms. Schenk’s English class yesterday.
He pumps his fists in the air.
            The bell doesn’t ring; it caws like a crow. This is crow month. Last month was pigeon. That throaty pigeon noise was hard for me to hear, sometimes, but the kids’ ears grew accustomed to it after just a few days. Then they began the mimicry. Now they are all cawing, getting the perfect gurgle to the higher-pitch beginning of the caw, until I drop a Biology book on my desk and bellow, “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!”
It’s the same in every class.
            Despite this, I am a fan of the rotating birdcall bell system.
            “What’re we doing today, Ms. Princess?” calls out the male with the pellet wound. I give him the slit-eye.

Monday, October 6, 2014

#144: "Joy to the World" by Leslie Pietrzyk

Editor’s note: Yes, I am the writer being featured this week! Forgive this self-indulgence, but I was very pleased to learn this weekend that this essay was listed in the “100 Notable Essays” section of the new edition of Best American Essays, so I thought I would put to good use my very powerful position as editor and founder of Redux.

~This essay previously appeared in PMS: poem memoir story (2013).  

            It’s mid-December, a morning of doing errands, a day like any other day, except that everything is going remarkably well:  I find a great parking spot.  The post office isn’t crowded when I arrive to mail my packages, though the man behind the counter tells me there’s been a line all morning, “until right about now.”  Find another great parking spot.  Stumble across the perfect Christmas gift for my hard-to-buy-for friend at a locally-owned boutique.  And so on.
            Last stop, the grocery store, where my luck continues, and the guy working produce locates in the back the last bag of parsnips in the building.  Parsnips are a key ingredient in the velvety-lush root vegetable soup I want to make for dinner tonight.  “Bet you’ve never seen anyone get so excited about parsnips,” I joke to him, and he laughs pleasantly.
            So things are moving along, and I’ve committed to a check-out aisle, unloading my cart onto the conveyer belt, doing my usual tidy job of it:  heavy stuff up front; frozen foods, meat, and milk grouped together; produce in one section, poisonous cleaners in another; fragile things at the end.  I’m daydreaming about the array of Christmas cookies on the covers of the food magazines, so I don’t notice the person in line ahead of me until she snaps, “I told you I can’t lift more than five pounds!  Those bags are too heavy!”
            She’s an older, stocky woman with short, frosty blonde hair and a worn, beige, padded coat that’s hanging open, unzipped.  She glares at the cashier, an African-American woman who might be called “big-boned” or maybe just “big”; she’s imposing.  I don’t recognize the cashier; this grocery store chain has been going through round after round of upheavals in management and union talks, so there are a lot of new cashiers, as well as new arrangements for getting the groceries checked out and paid for as quickly as possible.  Now there are often dedicated baggers, and today there’s a fortyish Latina woman with her hair yanked into a severe ponytail standing at the end of the lane, stuffing products into a tattered brown paper bag imprinted with the name of another grocery store. 
            The cashier says, “Excuse me?”  I have the sense that she, too, daydreams in the grocery store, flashing products across the scanner as she thinks about saxophones or new curtains or Christmas cookies, the register’s ding-ding a distant annoyance.  She holds a small carton of Egg Beaters in one hand and does not ding it through.

Monday, September 29, 2014

#143: "France in 25 Exposures" by Christiane Buuck

~This essay first appeared in Seneca Review (2005).

1. Meat
The white truck stops in the middle of the empty street. Its driver, dressed in a white plastic rain suit, leaves the engine running on the cobblestones of the rue Cler. He nods to the owner of the boucherie who has also just arrived. No words this early. The sky is still black, the lights of the Eiffel Tower extinguished. Up goes the door of the truck. Up goes the chain mail of the storefront. The owner of the boucherie props his door open with a wooden block. Inside the lights flicker and cast a sterile glow. He walks to the back, to the coolers. There is a sound like a mechanical bumblebee. A white metal arm extends from the back of the idling truck, dangling the carcass of a cow. The man in the white rain suit puts on his hood and his plastic gloves. He steps back one, two, three, four paces. Ready now. Find the focus. He lunges for the slab like a wrestler, everything throttling forward. Together they swing with the momentum, arc up like the swaying of a bell. At the crucial moment the carcass comes free of its hook. Its weight settles. He fights it, holding his balance, stumbling toward the door of the boucherie, a waltzer dancing his dead partner.