Monday, December 15, 2014

#152: "Friend to the Goddamned Community" by Charlie Boodman

~This story was first published in The Madison Review (2008). 

The neighbors’ infant is screaming again.  Something is wrong.  It’s been twenty minutes and the kid hasn’t shut the fuck up.  Your headphones are welded on and the stentorian Screamin’ Jay doesn’t dim it.    
     “Dadda… Momma… Dadda …”  In hefty moans, the voice broadcasts a woeful mantra through your open window.  You think to close it, but consider your obligations.  Why is he still crying?  And is he okay?  If you hadn’t just smoked that joint, maybe you could gauge the severity of the situation.  But you can’t.  You decide it’s your duty to get involved.  That’s you: Mr. Friend to the Goddamned Community.
You cried that way as an infant when you were scared.  Your father was always downstairs working on his H.O. model trains.  He had his headphones on, and he couldn’t hear you.  Luigi Luccarini would climb a ladder to your window and sing the theme song from The Greatest American Hero.  Luigi was retarded, but you didn’t know that.  All you knew was some lunatic with one tooth was peering through your window ranting into his feather-duster microphone while you screamed your eyes teary and nobody intervened.  From that day, the policy was:  always intervene.  

Monday, December 8, 2014

#151: Five Poems by Eric Nelson


~This poem first appeared in Cincinnati Review (2012).

Because they spend the day paying attention—
One eye looking for what they can eat,

One for what can eat them. Because they hang
With me in the yard, their clucks and coos a comfort

While I plant and they dig. Because for them
Roaches are a rare and challenging treat.

Because an egg tucked amid pine shavings in the dark
Coop is a brightness and a marvel.  Every day.

Because their eggs are not only white but also brown,
And blue, and dappled, and fit perfectly into my palm.

Because they walk like wind-up toys and run
Akilter, careening like roller-coaster cars.

Because everything we haven’t eaten tastes like them.
Because they are delicious. And their eggs are delicious.

Because they are a world of recipes: Cordon Bleu,
Kiev, Curry, Florentine, Parmigiana, Pot-pie.

Because each of the one-hundred folds in a chef’s hat
Represents a different way to cook an egg.

Because sometimes they think I am a rooster
And squat down to be mounted.

Because they are not mascots for sports teams
Even though they are fierce with their hypodermic

Beaks and their scaly feet’s claws.
Because they like to have their scaly feet rubbed.
Because after eating they use the grass like a napkin
To wipe their beaks. Because they are flappable.

Because every night they return to their coop
And every morning they walk the plank into their day.

Because like us they brood, follow a pecking order, desire
A nest egg. Because even their shit is useful.


Monday, December 1, 2014

#150: "Bandit" by Colette Sartor

~This story was previously published in Colorado Review (2009)

After Hannah scraped the decorative border from the nursery walls, she placed an ad in the university housing office. Summer break had just started, but within days someone called. Rune was her name. “Like the fortune-telling alphabet,” the girl said, her voice throaty and low. Hannah imagined thick black bangs veiling the girl’s eyes, a mouth tense with secret sorrow.
In person, there was nothing mysterious about her. She came to see the newly painted room when the neighborhood was silent and shimmering with midday heat. Clive was at a lunch meeting. Hannah kept glancing over her shoulder as she led Rune upstairs. Tucked under the girl’s arm was an orange motorcycle helmet. Her short hair was spiky, inky roots giving way to shades of red. Henna tattoos snaked from beneath her jacket and encircled her slender fingers in ornate flourishes. She was remarkably chatty, hurling questions at Hannah in a breathy contralto. How long was the walk to campus, to the nearest bank and grocery store? Could she have overnight guests? And could she pay half the rent on the first and half on the fifteenth, just until school started and her financial aid kicked in? Hannah’s head started to pound.
When they reached the room, the girl strode past her, craning her neck at the crown molding. “Female students only,” Hannah had been careful to note in the ad. No dirty boxers piled everywhere. And a female tenant felt less intimidating. At the last minute she’d dragged in a wingchair from Clive’s office and angled it by the window. A perfect study spot. Any college girl would love it.
“I guess this’ll work,” Rune said, tossing her helmet on the chair. She sat on the bed and bounced, as if testing the springs, then gazed at the wedding ring quilt, her lips curled in a half-smirk. Hannah pictured the quilt stuffed in the closet, replaced by a threadbare coverlet that smelled faintly tangy and unwashed.
Rune flopped back. “Stars and moons would be nice up there. Bishop and I had them. They glowed in the dark. We made up constellations. Cat eyes in the north, a witch’s wand in the south.” She rested her cheek on the quilt and stared at Hannah.
“Who’s Bishop?”
“My fiancĂ©. Ex-fiancĂ©.” There was the slightest hitch in her voice. She brushed her arms up and down, as if making angel’s wings in the snow. “He got the apartment. I got the scooter. He doesn’t know it yet.”
Downstairs, the front door opened. Clive’s footsteps thumped up the stairs.
“Come meet Rune,” Hannah called and stepped into the hallway.
He stopped on the landing. “Who?”
“Our new tenant.” Like that, she’d committed herself. She hadn’t meant to and wouldn’t have if not for Clive’s knee-jerk frown. She itched to give him a little shove.
“Professor Jacobs, hi.” Rune stood in the doorway, her fists balled in her jacket pockets. “I didn’t know you lived here.”
“Have we met?” he said in his lecture voice. He smiled politely.
“I was in your fall urban myths class.”
Hannah watched his expression glaze. Students passed through so quickly, he often complained, that he’d stopped trying to remember their names.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You don’t look familiar.”
Rune waved her hand dismissively. Her tattooed fingers flickered through the air like butterflies. “I sat way in back.”
He peered into the room. “Is that my chair?”
“I left the other one,” Hannah said. Clive stared at her until she looked away.
“I guess we’ll be seeing more of each other,” he said to Rune and marched down the hall. His study door clicked shut, an unfriendly, obstinate sound.

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.