Monday, December 29, 2014

Redux Is on Hiatus

“And now we welcome the new year. Full of things that have never been.”
~Rainer Maria Rilke

Not exactly the premise of Redux, where we bring previously published literary work back into the world for a new, online audience…but who can argue with Rilke?

Redux will be on hiatus until Monday, January 12, 2015  Please join us then for another year filled with wondrous and amazing poems, stories, and essays. 

Happy new year!

Monday, December 22, 2014

#153" "Knife" by Ted Chiles

~This story was previously published in Permafrost (Summer 2008).

            John woke to pain. Not an explosion but an announcement between his shoulder blades. Have I slept on something? The remote?  He tried to roll over, but the pain spread down his back and across his shoulders. 
He was on his side facing the window.  He never slept in the middle. He always slept with his back to her side of the bed. Even after she left.
John tried to roll over again, but the pain returned. He rested and then slowly turned onto his stomach and slid off the end of the bed. It hurt to stand, but he found relief with his head bowed and shoulders slumped.
He walked to the door and flipped the switch to the ceiling light. No remote or book lay on the bed. But in the middle of what would have been a chalk outline of where he normally slept, he saw a stain – red going to brown.
It was probably a boil. He walked out of the bedroom and down the hall to the bathroom, thinking that a boil had formed and purged itself during the night. He switched on the lights and raised his head to the mirror. He seemed older, having left something of himself in the bed.
John neither liked nor disliked his appearance. He thought of himself as normal, and he was normal in the way that people from the Midwest don’t have accents. He filled peoples’ expectations.
John examined his back. He expected a hole. The remains of a boil.
Instead, he saw the knife.
It had a hilt and handle of polished metal about five inches. The hilt curled back on itself. Coiled ropes of steel textured the handle and gave it a vaguely medieval look. Not a noble blade worn openly, but a villain’s weapon.
Only a little blood flowed down his back.

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.

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.

Monday, September 22, 2014

#142: "Coming of Age" by Lorine Kritzer Pergament

~This story was previously published in Bridges (2008).

Fannie Lipsky picked up her pay envelope at four forty-five. She counted her money and thought about what she might do with the nickel she usually kept before giving the envelope to her mother. Her papa and brother Oscar always went to the Havdalah service at the shul to thank God for giving them a day of rest and meditation. The Havdalah was the “great divide,” between the Sabbath and the rest of the week. For Fannie, it was also the great divide between men and women. She thought about how nice it would be to have a Shabbos day of rest herself, but the entryway sign in three languages at the Triangle Waist Factory was clear: “If you don’t show up on Saturday or Sunday, you’ve already been fired when it’s Monday.” She sighed, content with the thought that tomorrow, Sunday, was her day off, and even though she had to help her mama with the housework, that was better than going to work at the factory.
She glanced at the calendar on the wall – March 25, 1911 – only two weeks until her thirteenth birthday. She didn’t care that girls didn’t have a Bar Mitzvah service at the shul with a grand reception afterwards, like her brother Oscar had, to celebrate entry to adulthood. Fannie wanted only one thing – books.
            Back out on the floor she made sure the girls finished putting everything away properly. The eighth-floor watchman had just rung the quitting bell, and one of the girls in the cloak room started singing “Let me call you sweetheart.” Soon others joined in. “I’m in love with you...”

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

#141: "Winchester .351 High-Power Self-Loading Rifle" by Alexandra Teague

~This poem was previously published in 32 Poems (2012).

Winchester .351 High-Power Self-Loading Rifle
                    from an ad in The American Field, 1909

It was the love which the hunter has for living things,
and which he can only express by aiming his gun at them.
                                                Italo Calvino

Who doesn’t dream of a heart with all sights
attached, all moving parts enclosed? A love
that can shoot through steel? See how the cougar eyes
the bold word Winchester—its jagged rush

his body, whisker-close against the cliff, unflinching.
Already he’s prey:  his muscled legs like roots
too deep for springing; a pendulum stilling
for the chime of fate. Who wouldn’t lose

this skin for an instant of lightning—one
flash from the lightest, strongest, handsomest
repeater ever made? Who hasn’t gone
to a ledge like this and waited? The scent

on the wind that draws them:  lover or devil,
the heart reloading even as it recoils.


Monday, September 8, 2014

#140: Three Poems by Ravi Shankar


~This poem first appeared in Gulf Coast (1998).

Before Sunrise, San Francisco  

Bruno’s by sallow candlelight,
The jacketed barkeep counting
Tips from a jam jar and horseshoe
Booths burnished a bit too bright,

Yet the stained mahogany walls
And the lazy lament of Spanish
Horns from speakers huddled
In the corner speak a different

Language altogether, one that rolls
Effortlessly off the tongue and fills
The room like myrrh, a promise sent
That four walls can indeed keep out

The world, that when horns wail
For percussion and those walls
Are elegantly attired, why there
Is no need to ponder the gristle

In the Mission outside, no need
To wonder why that one left you
Or why you are always too
Late. The weight of your existence

Roughly equals the martini glass
In front of you, the thick mass
Of the past collapses into brightness
As well-lit as the dripping star

At the center of your table.
Nod. Snap your fingers. Order
Another drink. Let horns grieve,
Let the wristwatch think on sheep

Before you leave. Tonight,
The only eyes on you are two
Pimentos stuffed into olives
Bloated with vermouth and gin.


Sunday, August 31, 2014

#139: "Once Again to Zelda" by Kirk Curnutt

~This essay originally appeared in The Southern Review (2013).

In the seventies, my mother began storing paperbacks in an oval drum table kept in our basement. As an only child, I had long claimed our downstairs as my sovereignty, and I took great objection to this adult incursion into the kingdom of my toys, especially after I was issued explicit orders not to go anywhere near her books. At ten or eleven I already suffered from boring bouts of insomnia, so on nights I could neither sleep nor relax, I would sneak out of my adjoining bedroom to rifle this forbidden stack. I was curious to know what knowledge I, the son of a teacher, could possibly be prohibited from learning.
The question wasn’t long in the answering. Among the titles in my mother’s collection was Coffee, Tea, or Me?, a steamy pulp featuring swinging stewardesses; a self-help manual called The Sensuous Woman by someone so salacious she could only publish under the pseudonym “J”; and a memoir whose title deeply perplexed me because it was the exact nickname my father gave me whenever I tried to shoot baskets, one-handed, over his head: The Happy Hooker. Needless to say, I found these books equal parts enthralling and confusing.
The one that would have the greatest impact on me wasn’t read until much later. I can remember flipping through its pictures, however, because one specific image gave me nightmares. I’ve since come across that photo countless times in my research, and never without experiencing the same shock of recoil. The photograph is of a slightly stooped woman with cadaverous cheeks bundled in a fur coat staring listlessly at the camera. Her expression is forlorn and faltering, self-protectively irresolute, as if by submitting to a pose she was relinquishing something of herself she would never get back. I would need a poetry class or two to find a phrase to describe that face: ’tis the distance on the look of death.
The picture wasn’t of Emily Dickinson but of Zelda Fitzgerald. It’s not an especially famous photo, but a telling one, taken in February 1930 during a vacation to the Constantine gorge in Algeria only a few months before the breakdown that would land her in a Swiss sanitarium and thereafter render her one of the more enduring cautionary tales in American literary history. The book itself was Nancy Milford’s biography, simply titled Zelda. It recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary, and though not as controversial today as it was in 1970, it still possesses the power to polarize. In Telling Women’s Lives: The New Biography, Linda Wagner-Martin summarizes its legacy: “What struck readers in 1970 was that Milford’s story of Zelda’s life with F. Scott Fitzgerald had so often been told inaccurately. By most accounts, Zelda’s drinking and bothering of her writer husband had led to his drinking and his inability to get work done.” In contrast, “Milford enabled readers to find in her protagonist a woman that nearly everyone could identify with. Zelda’s story became its own drama,” a story of “rebelling at the prescribed roles beautiful women were made to play.”
For other scholars, however, Zelda is the source of the most pernicious canard to haunt Fitzgerald’s work—namely, that he “plagiarized” her very essence in creating the iconic character of the flapper, often stripping her letters and diaries of specific, enchanting passages. Every so often I’m invited by a reading club or academic group to dilate on this debate, and so I iron my tie and fire up the PowerPoint and do my best to be balanced. I’ve also spent many a literary conference adjudicating the argument, often unwillingly over dinner tables and bar tops where, honestly, I’d rather be exploring topics that didn’t leave me wondering if I have a life outside of work. In recent years I’ve actually grown less interested in the biography’s influence on literary studies, and more intrigued by its sway on everyday readers who sent it spiraling onto the bestseller lists.
Readers, in other words, like my mother.

Monday, August 18, 2014

#138: "To Do in the New Year" by Anna Lena Phillips

~This poem first appeared in International Poetry Review (2011).

Be ribbon. Be bone.
Be lace. Be stone.
Make a bow of yourself—no,
make of yourself a bear.
Furl fur, steer windward.
Make of yourself
a byre. Shimmer. Ray,
then bow: ends
unravel, ravel,
unfurl. Make of yourself
a curl, a funnel. Bay.
Whine. Say
soon, daffodils
will, miracle
gone before we know.
And that is how time.
And that is how.
Be still. Steal in. Stare.
Make of yourself
a string unwinding
forever, fire,
make of yourself
a halo of obstacles, make
inroads, make a solution
of sunshine, be seed.             
Cede. Be siloed.
Cease for a while, be
quilted; in creases,
fall seaward. From hulls,
rise, riled up, increase, raise up
sounds of your name
in water, make yourself
golden, yield.


Monday, August 4, 2014

#137: "Thong Panties" by Wendy Reed

~This story previously appeared in Analecta 24 (1998).

            Ed bought Vera another pair of thong panties. He took them home to her after work. Vera politely opened the pink sack stenciled with fake lace and removed the tissue paper. She unfolded it and tore the taped end.
             "Thong panties,” she said, wadding up what there was of the underwear. “How nice." She stuffed them back into the bag. 
            "Don’t you like the spots?" he asked.
            "They're right colorful."
            "Well. What about the stripes?"
            "They're right vertical," she said.
            Ed could tell she didn’t like them.
            "Well, aren't you going to model them for me?" he asked.
            "Ed, you know I have a yeast infection."
            "Oh, I forgot," he said.
            Ed hadn't really forgotten.  He was hoping a gift of lingerie would stir her up a bit.  God knows something had to.  It’d been so long since they’d had sex for one reason or another, he wasn’t sure he would remember how.  He’d thought a trip to the lingerie shop might be just the thing.
            Ed had spent nearly a whole hour in the lingerie store wandering between the maze of panty trees and panty pools trying to find something that might work.  He’d studied the steel arms of the racks where each pair hung by its own hanger and realized that these panties not only came with their own hanger, but with the highest price tags, too.  So he'd begun fishing in the overstuffed bins where the cost was a little less. Here, clear plastic flexi-glass separated the layers of panties into a panty dessert trifle: lace panties, then crotchless panties, then the truly edible layer.  Ed spent most of the hour looking at them, rubbing them between his fingers and checking the price tags. When no one was looking, he even licked one pair of the edible ones. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

#136: Two Poems by Paul Shepherd

~This poem previously appeared in Pacific Review (1994).

 She knew, she tried to hold me, she said—

If you go from this place as you are,
breaking our walls and windows
with your hard, dangling heart,
an undone mobile hung awkwardly close
to that corner you've turned to take,
            then, no—a child,
            you will tighten quick with life
            and we will cry for you long,
            long after you leave here,
a broken ornament the years glue down.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

#135: "What the End Is For" by Rasma Haidri

~This essay was previously published in in Fourth Genre: Explorations in Non-Fiction (1999).

Today I will throw out the two-inch toy Coke glass. The two halves of it fit perfectly together and could have been glued, but I’m done with gluing. It is late spring and the glass has been here since November. I remember how my mother gasped, Oh what have I done now, with unusual vulnerability as she heard the clamorous crack. I heard it too and saw her lifting her foot, afraid of further destruction. I was afraid of her falling. It’s nothing, I said. Just that little Coke glass.
That’s from Detroit, she answered, meaning from the green-lawn days I set up my toy trademark Coke dispenser on Hawthorne Avenue and waited for business. The four miniature glasses, narrow at the bottom and wide at the top, had Coca-Cola in script on the sides. With careful fingers I filled the glasses, lined them up in a row, then lifted and drank each one. Perhaps I sat on my striped canvas director’s chair, my hair pulled into the popular Alice in Wonderland look. I don’t know, but my mother would have a clear memory of watching me do this through the window of our house, as she clutched my baby brother in her thin arms.
What a shame, she said. I lifted the broken toy off the kitchen floor and told her not to worry. I would glue it. At the time I intended to. Not for the sake of my own daughter. She didn't prize the little glass, had probably not noticed the authentic logo of the world’s most popular drink. I would put it back together for the memory, my debt of preserving the past and keeping track. And to assure my mother that all damage done under her foot could be undone. I showed her how easily the two halves fit, then placed them in the corner of the kitchen window.