Wednesday, October 5, 2016

On Hiatus

Redux will be on official hiatus through mid-January 2017. At that time, we will return with a period of solicited material, and in February 2017, or thereabouts, we will be open for a period of open submissions. Please read the submission guidelines for more information—and CHECK BACK for the exact dates submissions will be open and other necessary information.

In short: DO NOT SEND WORK NOW. It will be deleted without response, and that will make us all feel sad.

In the meantime for your reading pleasure, please check out the Archives or this 200th anniversary post of popular pieces.

See you soon…and, as always, thank you for your support of Redux!

Monday, October 3, 2016

#221: "Development Girl" by Pamela Balluck

            ~This story first appeared in Western Humanities Review (1999)


Rose is worried about how to answer Mr. Fly-By-Knight Productions’ question (why did she leave her last job?) in a way that won’t make Ray look bad. She cannot say the why of the truth—Oh, we pitched a T.V. movie about a hoax to our bosses, the former quiz-show scandalers—so, she’s going to say the general truth (Fly-By-Knight may already know)—Ray lost his development deal there—euphemistically, it “expired”—but, before she can get it out, Fly-By’s next question is, “Are you wearing a bra?”
            Rose is thinking, this is some kind of a joke, right? A test to see if she has a sense of humor, or if she’s too young, too immature, flusterable, impressionable, malleable, too serious for the position, anything to comprehend this bald guy older than her dad asking her what lies between her nips and the shirt she just ironed so damn carefully for this interview. It makes her think of wasted dates she worked so hard dressing for, only to find whomever is most impressed when her clothes are crumpled on the floor.
            So, she wants to be sophisticated. She answers, yeah, she’s wearing a bra. She doesn’t want to make a big deal. And he says—“Why don’t you go in the john and change out of it? Then we’ll continue more comfortably.”
            He laughs. He shakes his head like Rose has got him wrong. “With your blouse on. Unless you think it’s appropriate without.”
            He is putting “appropriate” on her? She just sits there.
            He says, “Say I’ve got Beatty coming in, I’ve got Hamilton, I’ve got Scott—guys I want to be comfortable, you know, relaxed, when they walk through our doors, relaxed when they walk out. Doesn’t make sense to have some smart, beautiful, uptight girl, you know, first-thing-to-last in here. We need them coming back, wanting to work with us. A beautiful girl just inside our doors, outside my door, relaxed about who she is, makes a man feel all right in his skin, keeps his, you know, creative juices flowing—makes for an all-around more comfortable office experience.”
            “I just want to make sure,” Rose says. “Jess says you’re looking for a development-slash-production assistant?”
            “Am. Can see, though, Erik and me, we’ve got room for only one more in these offices— receptionist, D-Girl, secretary, P.A., dependin’ on what’s doin’. Let’s talk more about specs when you’re more yourself. That’s who I want to be talkin’ to.”
            Rose is too smart for why-don’t-you-slip-into-something-more-comfortable. But, there’s no one else to play this thing off of—the associate producer, Erik, and the woman who’s leaving (why exactly?)—they are both out to lunch. Is he kidding?
            She finds herself in this guy’s bungalow john, thinking, Jess, Ray’s wife (and agent), who set this thing up, goes way back with Fly-By, before Jess knew Ray, back to her Paramount days, and she is like an aunt to Rose, so Fly-By, Rose figures, is kind of like an uncle, or should be. Rose realizes how stupid it is to pretend she can think like that, when at twenty-three she knows better. Especially after Jess asked her to fill in as Ray’s “date” to the Western-themed S.H.A.R.E. benefit and when Jess got back into town, so-called friends told her they hated to report it but Ray was out with some young filly. He seemed pretty tight with her. Rose figures Uncle Fly-By knows he shouldn’t pull anything he doesn’t want Jess, or anyone else, to know about. Unless Rose passing this test would mean that what goes on in his office is what goes on in his office and Who-knows-who ain’t supposed to count for Who-knows-what. And that’s not okay with her, not about doing business. She knows that.
            So, why does she watch herself in the man’s bathroom mirror, tucking her blouse back into her skirt and stuffing her bra—of all things on this interview—into her purse, wondering, if this is what she has to do to qualify for this job, what would she have to do to hold on to it? She knows something about setting precedents.
            So, why—instead of heading back out to her car on the strip, or to his office with her bra still on (how would he know?)—does she return to his office, complicit with him now in her bralessness?
            Her blouse does not show her bralessness—it is not see-through or clingy—a sturdy rayon-cotton blend, short-sleeved, covered with an earth-tone jungle—but still, Fly-By says: “That’s better. I feel more comfortable with you already.”
            Now she’s as creepy as he is.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

#220: "A Sudden Mass of Starlings" by Therése Halscheid

~This essay previously appeared in The Gettysburg Review (2013).

The first day it happened, it happened that I was walking over the iron truss bridge. It was surprising what took place. A sky full of birds. It was the beginning.
When it happened it was surprising. Walking as I was: slow, pensive. It was amazing because soon as I reached the bridge – a massive flock soared overhead. The birds wore small cheery voices. And I let many things occur in that moment. I let myself think this was for me. I allowed full entry into the mystery of their coming over my head like a sign. I saw many with their wings out and some with their wings clipped to their sides and thought no matter what the wings were doing, their flight was timed with my walking out of the old woods into the open. Like pointillism, the sky was a canvas and these birds were dabs of paint. Covering the blue in black. And this went on. It went on for a half an hour I would say. The birds dotting everything. Blurring by like brush strokes. It was dusk. They were heading east, to that yellow place where new days form.
The cottage is near the iron truss bridge. It is set in a copse of trees. I have been the care-taker for several months. It was originally built for a miller in the early-1800s. On one side, a meadow stretches to where the tallest oaks rim the grounds. It is said that in spring, over a thousand daffodils flower. But it is winter, so I have not yet witnessed the meadow in bloom. Beyond the majestic oaks is a path that leads to a footbridge, which extends over the mill race, then continues to the large rock formations angling down to the Wickecheoke Creek. The name means Big Water in Native language. Big Water has ever-shifting personalities. I spend hours observing its dramatic moods. When the rains come, the creek rises instantly over tiered rocks with such force it can fracture them. The waterfalls turn loud, like Niagara. Likewise, it mellows after a day or two of sun. Silt settles. The water turns clear. Then one can see the bottom stones. Either way – gushing or lazy – the creek is ever-moving, in an undetermined manner. It winds under the iron truss bridge then curves round in front of a mill house across the dirt road. This stone house was once a saw mill, built by early settlers, dating back to the 1730s.
When Night brought morning, Morning brought another round of light. A shiny color of sun. I woke to the sound of the flock over the cottage. Singing in high pitches there are no words for. I cannot spell the noise they make. They seemed to have come from the very horizon they flew to last evening. I questioned what made them choose this place. In the alcove – which is my bedroom – are two windows set close together above the bed, like portholes of a ship only they are square, made of float glass. Wooden sashes divide the panes. I undid an iron latch and parted the one. The birds were directly above. Sweeping low, stirring the air they breathed.
And later, I caught another flawless performance. The birds returned, signaling dusk. Not a single starling missing. They came riding the wind in V shapes and snake-like formations. When they left, they left me changed – standing in a state of awe on the grounds. The world turned silent after. Dusk settled in deepening layers. Day completed itself. Sky and ground became one entire color.
               And so it was, our paths crossed two times a day – dawn and dusk, the birds and I. They started to increase in numbers. Afternoons were filled with songbirds: the yellow finch that stabbed at the feeder, bluebirds, the vibrant red cardinals that played tag with their mates. While others circled in silence over Old Mill: an occasional crow, turkey vultures or hawks.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

#219: "Xirimiri" by Diana Friedman

~ This story was previously published in New Letters (2014).

Ramón del Solar Astigarraga is a pain in the ass. If I hang my sheets one millimeter over his window he shouts to the whole neighborhood that I am blocking his light. When I pulled up a strip of carpet, he accosted me in front of the newsstand: What the hell are you doing up there? I can’t breathe from all the dust you’re generating. This man has the disposition of a rotten onion, and the last person on earth I would like to be is his son.
Not long ago I had a dream and for once, it was a good dream; I stood knee deep in a clean and clear lagoon, with dolphins at my ankles, a monkey hugging my shoulder. Not far away was a waterfall—ice blue and beautiful. Elisabeth was there. I knew by the way she’d pulled her hair back, just a few wisps hanging about, that she cared what I thought, and the feeling was divine. I was out in the world in a real way, which is how I might like to live the rest of my life.
When I woke, though, I was not in the outer world, rather, deep inside it, flattened by a hangover on my mother’s squalid couch. Outside it was misting lightly, xirimiri, mislaid droplets too weak to find their way to earth. Elisabeth was not in my arms but exactly where I left her, the 5,000 miles of sea and soil between us not even a remote measure of how far apart we were.
And me?
Same old. Plenty lost, but nothing gained in all the years I’d been gone, least of all, any idea who my father was.

Monday, September 19, 2016

#218: "The Devil Wind" by Toni Mirosevich

~This essay was previously published in Fourth Genre (2014).

A chill settles on the empty crab boxes stacked around the storage room, a chill that doesn’t so much descend as rise up from the sea below the crab fishery, up through the planks of the pier on which the fishery stands, through the cement first floor where the crab tubs hold their incarcerated. A chill that climbs the wet stairs to the storage room door, doesn’t bother to knock, comes right in, carrying with it the smell of crab and diesel and brine, to find me here, where I sit, at a makeshift desk with pen in hand, the pad of paper before me turning to pulp in all this wetness, the page on top a damp, blank screen. 
Which stays empty. Why go to the small, tight window of the page when a bigger page beckons, a large picture window right above the desk that looks out on a harbor? Why sit when you can stand and watch crab boats ferry in and out, see them head to sea empty, riding high above the harbor’s surface with their barnacled keels showing, their pants hitched up high, then watch their return in the evening, the waddling procession after a heavy meal of cod or halibut or salmon, their belt lines well below the water. If I stand I can see the Lucy or the Intrepid or the Irene B pull up to the dock right outside, see the dock’s rusty crane swing out over a boat. The roped basket at the end of the cable’s hook swings down empty like an empty string bag you take to market, only to come up full to bursting with crabs, their red arms gesturing this way and that, with so much to say.
Out past the breakwater, at the horizon, a straight blue line of sea bisects the white sky’s blank sheet. Waves scribble their cursive below the line, filling up that page. A reminder. I am supposed to be writing, working, yet have no precedent for this type of work. There’s nothing in my DNA. This isn’t the work of my father, the life-and-death life of a fishing boat captain on the wicked Bering Sea. Nor the work of my mother, her youth spent standing on her feet all day, packing tuna, before child labor laws gave the cannery owners a conscience.
People ask how I found this place. I tell them I walked out onto the pier one day and simply asked the owner of the fishery, a man named Steve, if there was any place around here where I could write. See, I told him. I grew up around boats. The smell of brine is perfume to me. The smell of twine, of diesel, perfume! I know how to lay it on thick, how to bullshit, having learned this on the docks when I was young. I know how to swear, how to say you motherfucking piece of shit with conviction.
I told Steve I had this half-baked theory: if I were near the sea again, on a dock again, maybe I’d be able to tap into that salty vein of memory, could recall tales I heard listening to the fishermen on the docks. What if, like them, you awoke each morning and looked forward to the day’s prospects, the shining possibilities of luck and work and weather? What if you could look forward to the adventure, no matter the consequences, threw caution to the wind; believed there would be wind? And all you needed to succeed? A boat. You needed a boat.
            But now that I’ve gained the perch? How to get past the window in front of me. How to get from this chair onto that sea. How to get to that life from this life. That’s the dilemma.

Monday, September 12, 2016

#217: "Home Shopping" by Casey Pycior

~This story was previously published in RE:AL - Regarding Arts & Letters (2011).
Darlene and Eddie know, as soon as the realtor turns onto the tree-lined, brick-paved street, that the house on the corner will be the one. It has to be; it’s the third and final house of the day.
The realtor, Maxine, pulls into the driveway of the renovated Victorian. The house is white, but all the trim and spindles and cornices are painted in a pattern of muted grays, blues, and greens. A large swing hangs on the wrap-around porch, and the yard is perfectly manicured with a Bradford pear just to the side of the house. “I know you’ll love this property; it’s simply perfect,” Maxine says over her shoulder to Darlene and Eddie, searching in her shoulder bag on the passenger seat for the folder with the listing. “It’s got five bedrooms—plenty of room for the kids—three baths and all new amenities. I know it’s on the top end of your budget, but…you’ve just got to see it.”
            Darlene leans across Eddie’s lap to look up at the house. This close, Eddie’s cologne is too strong. It smells piney and cheap, much too old-smelling for a man in his mid-twenties. His pants are wrinkled, too; the rest of his clothing, a dark green polo and lightweight brown sport coat, looks fine, but she can’t believe she didn’t notice his pants earlier. She quickly checks her own outfit, charcoal slacks and a white blouse, to see that everything is in place and then looks out the window at the house. It’s big and old and exactly the kind of house Darlene had always dreamed of living in. She and Eddie had worked a few big houses before, but never one so nice. She knows the people who live in these kinds of houses have to have money, so there is a good chance they’ll find what they’re looking for.
Pulling back from the window, Darlene looks at Eddie. His face is pale and his eyes—only a little bloodshot, like maybe he’s tired—dart around in their sockets. He’s fighting it, but she can tell. He rubs the side of his nose with the back of his hand, and then pushes up his sleeve and scratches his forearm, digging his fingernails into his skin, leaving it blotchy and red. This is new. Darlene reaches across and holds Eddie’s arm.
“Maxine, can we have just a moment alone to discuss the last house?” Darlene asks.
“Absolutely! Let me just go unlock the door. Take as much time as you need.”
“Great, thanks,” Darlene says and smiles. She watches Maxine walk away from the car, her wide hips swaying beneath the tight blue business suit, her permed hair stiff in the breeze. When she is far enough away, Darlene turns and glares at Eddie. “What the hell is this?”
“What?” he says and sniffs. “I’m fine. Let’s just do this and get it over with.”
“You don’t look fine. What’s with the scratching?”
“I’m fine—or no worse off than you,” he says and nods down at her hands. “Let’s go in and hope for the best.”
Darlene looks at her hands. They’re shaking. It’s only barely visible, but still. She hadn’t even noticed. She opens and closes her hands, making tight fists and releasing them. When did it get like this?
“You ready?” Eddie asks, looking directly at Darlene.
She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes as she exhales. She opens her eyes and looks at her hands resting quietly on her lap. “Ready.”

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

#216: "Thirst" by Geeta Kothari

~This essay was previously published in Fourth Genre (2006).

By the time the first small British community was established in Bombay, five of the original seven islands were already interconnected at low tide by shallow sandbanks, silted up over the years…By 1730, land reclamation, carried out under supervision of the British, had permanently united the five islands into a single mass and large earth works had been thrown up to prevent a major invasion by the sea…  Bombay, Dom Moraes

The people living on these islands were mainly fishermen.  They worshipped the Goddess Mumba Devi after whom Bombay is named.  Gradually, the shallow waters between these islands were filled so as to connect the seven islands into a large one.  India:  The Land and Its People, Swarn Khandpur

In the photo, my father stands in front of a blooming red hibiscus, framed by pink bougainvillea.  The sun bleaches the ground beneath his feet, makes the leaves of the hibiscus shine, as if they have just been polished.  Holding his arms out from his sides, my father is a bird about to take flight.  He wears gray suit pants, a short-sleeved shirt and a dark blue tie:  his idea of vacation wear.  In his left hand, he clutches a clear plastic bag that probably contains maps and brochures.  His curly black hair springs from his head in mild shock, and he smiles widely, his eyes hidden by square-framed glasses.
               Or does he?
I always thought my father was just smiling until a friend saw the photo and dubbed him “laughing man.” Of course, he was laughing, his mouth wide open, his teeth showing slightly.  He laughed more than he smiled, the smile itself a prelude to a deep belly laugh brought on by something my sister or I said or did. 
And I felt embarrassed, standing next to my friend, as if I should have known he was laughing, not smiling, should have heard the familiar guffaw.  I had been looking at the wrong thing:  the arms like wings, weighed down only by the bag in his left hand.

Although Bombay is a city that starts work late in the day, we rarely slept past six.  The screeching koyal, the incessant cawing of crows, and the tinkle of bicycle bells as people made their way to work woke us every morning at sunrise despite the closed windows and air-conditioning.  In those early hours of the morning, we often heard the pickers sifting through the garbage for plastic bottles. Above the cacophony of street noise and wildlife, I heard the early morning call to prayers, issued over a loudspeaker from the mosque down the road. The men in the alley continued to reclaim the bottles we may have discarded the night before.
“They’re looking for your bottles,” I said.  My husband, a firm believer in recycling, did not like to crush the empty Bisleri bottles we discarded.  He did not share my concerns about the way these bottles would be recycled.
Bottled water, especially in rural areas, is not trustworthy.  Recycling the empties by filling them with tap water (or worse) and resealing the cap is a small business that starts with the picker who sorts through the mounds of garbage and sells the old bottles to a middleman, who refills and distributes them as new.  My husband’s guidebook suggested that our fears about tap water, in the cities anyway, were exaggerated, that the worst we could expect from it was a “minor dose of the shits” for a couple of days.
For my father, illness was never minor.  Growing up in pre-penicillin, pre-vaccine India, he had seen people die from unexplained fevers, unidentified infections, mysterious aches that never went away.   Grandparents who died from bubonic plague, cousins who died from dehydration, brought on by a dose of amoebic dysentery.
The guidebook had no such stories.  Its pages did not talk about people like my cousin and her husband, both doctors, and their kids, who got so sick on their last visit to Bombay that they had to use IV drips.  My father assumed that we understood the seriousness of IV drips, even if we didn’t know what was in them, and that had they not been doctors, my cousin and her family would have died.  The clincher, which my father saved for last, was that they ate no outside food—that is, food prepared and sold on the street or in a restaurant—and drank only bottled water.
“Obviously,” my father said, a hint of triumph in his voice, “the water they were drinking was fake.”
To forestall the impending threat of contaminated water, my father had decided during our Zurich stopover that we would save our small water bottles and take them to India, where we would refill them at the hotel with water from bigger bottles purchased locally, their purity established by unbroken seals my father would check and recheck.  During our two days in Zurich, he amassed a large collection of 16-ounce bottles, argued when my mother suggested he leave some behind, and extolled the bottles’ virtues to my husband and me, when we talked about buying new bottles in India.  This plan so clearly assuaged his anxiety, we stopped arguing and allowed him to take charge of hydrating us.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

#215: "The Art Business" by Jeff Fleischer

~This story was previously published in Chicago Tribune Printers Row Literary Journal (2014).

"How much did you say again?" Davis Javits had heard the number perfectly clearly. He didn't doubt his hearing; it was his imagination that he mistrusted.
The heavyset man seated across from him grinned, unconsciously straightening the lapels on his obviously expensive suit. He casually leaned back in his chair, about as far as he could without tipping over. "One million, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars." He'd said it as "one-point-two-five million" the previous time, but took the question as a lack of understanding. When that second response was met with only a quiet stare, The Suit leaned his girth forward, opened his metallic briefcase, and removed a strapped-together stack of bearer bonds that totaled the quoted amount. He handed the bearer bonds to Davis, who examined them in silence for so long that The Suit half expected him to bite one to verify its validity, like a cartoon version of a nineteenth-century merchant. "Satisfied?" The Suit asked, leaning back again.
Davis Javits drew a breath and looked around his gallery. The man in the suit was the only thing inside the whole former field house that carried even a coincidental smell of success. That uninspiring reality started with Davis himself, with his thrift-store clothes, hand-me-down shoes, and generally scraggly appearance. He liked to think that his beard — a thick but untrimmed mess that didn't quite connect with his sideburns, leaving an uncomfortable gap on each side — gave him a vaguely hipster look. He also thought it was cool how his hair, which didn't grow as long as he would like and was thinning a bit in front and on the top of his dome, bunched up in the back and always seemed to have a natural bedhead look. In reality, he looked more like a newly homeless man or a college student who'd recently ceased to care, although his hygiene suggested better than either of those scenarios.
Not quite thirty, but not far from it either, Davis Javits didn't lack for work ethic. His art had been a lifelong pursuit, a hobby he'd chosen to make his career when he found he lacked the qualifications for any other appealing option. He'd gotten in on the found-object art trend long before it became overexposed, and continued to toil away at it despite a complete lack of financial reward. When he failed to find success, acclaim, or even acknowledgement in the medium, he refused to alter his basic style but doubled down on quantity. He decided he simply wasn't coming up with enough pieces, and began to work at an almost superhuman pace, producing a new work of art nearly every day.
He'd discovered his affinity for found-object art back in elementary school, when he would spend almost every recess alone, collecting sticks and rocks from the fields and fashioning them into eccentric trinkets he tried to peddle at class fundraisers or through door-to-door sales to townspeople, many too concerned about looking cheap in front of their neighbors to refuse. Until The Suit arrived, those sales for a few dollars each represented the most lucrative stretch in the art career of Davis Javits.
His gallery was an abandoned school gymnasium he'd rented back when his finances were in better shape, when he took a few thousand dollars of inheritance money his great uncle had expected him to spend toward a college education and instead invested it to fund his theoretical career. The building had seen better days, with several contradictory coats of paint visible through cracks in the wood, and more than a little rust showing on the hinges. The gallery had started out as a barn but, like many such buildings in eastern Indiana, it had been repurposed several times. It endured stints as a speakeasy, a munitions storage facility, a town hall, and ultimately as a basketball court for several area high schools before each built their own. When he learned the building's history, Davis Javits felt it fit his own extremely well. Before the small inheritance, he'd scraped by financially as a bartender at an often-empty dive, a checkout clerk at a gas station, and a greenskeeper at a third-rate golf course. The landlord didn't really use the field house anymore, and gave him a good deal. When the building's rightful owner died, Davis and his monthly rent somehow got lost in the paperwork, and he saved even more money when he decided to live there too. For three years, he'd slept on a mattress in the old visitors' locker room, using the showers there and storing his few possessions in the vacant lockers. That way he could work to the point of exhaustion anytime he wanted, then collapse for as long as he needed to recharge.
As he looked around his makeshift gallery, contemplating the magnitude of The Suit's offer, Davis Javits started to consider how much money his existing collection could bring in if a single piece was suddenly worth more than a million dollars. Every wall in the field house was lined with art. Every corner held stack upon stack of completed pieces. Every locker in the abandoned home locker room overflowed with supplies, with incomplete scraps of incomplete ideas. A good percentage of the building's square footage was filled with raw materials yet to be put to use or, more accurately, in need of repurposing. The ability to stock up with virtually no overhead was one of the advantages of practicing found-object art, so the parts of the building not visible to the public looked like a cross between a city dump and the aftermath of a small, localized hurricane. Finally, Davis thought, it had all amounted to something. Something far more financially viable than he'd ever imagined. "Thank you," he told the fat man, extending his hand. "It's a pleasure to do business with you."

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

#214: "Chenartu So Near" by Frank Light

~This essay previously appeared in Mosaic Art and Literary Journal (2014).

Editor’s note: "The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent official positions of the United States Government."

 Chenartu So Near

In that it was barely governed, lay a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Tarin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan Province, and had experienced a visit from the Governor's militia, Chenartu had more in common with Nesh, down in Kandahar Province, than it did with Chora, the district to which it belonged. Although the district capital sat only 30 kilometers to the north, the track between the two towns had become so rough by 2004 that travelers found it easier to drive into Tarin Kot and go out the other spoke. Five hours total. The District Chief made the journey once; he was in no hurry to do it again. Nor did the Americans get around to it much. Heading out of Forward Operating Base Ripley, near Tarin Kot, the one destination of military interest on the road was an outpost named Anaconda up in Khas Uruzgan District, five hours farther east. Usually they went by helicopter.
No wonder Uruzgan's governor kept asking Kabul to make Chenartu a separate district. He talked as though this were a done deal, with a new district government up and running. The little we knew of the area came from him. He labeled all his enemies, and the man had more than his share, as Taliban. Case in point, his militia would dump bodies at the police gazebo in Tarin Kot's traffic circle. Taliban, he claimed. From Chenartu, of course.
On one thing everybody agreed: the place needed attention. But the infantry battalion headquartered at Ripley was stretched thin, and its commander kept declining the Governor's pleas for joint operations – in Chenartu, or anywhere in Uruzgan. Only Special Forces operated with his militia; they kept to the western end of the province.
If any Americans were going to fill the vacuum, they would have to come, indeed should come, from the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) at Ripley. PRTs were designed to spur development, enhance security, and extend the reach of the national government. The one at Ripley had the means – a dozen armored Humvees, half of which were serviceable – and it had the manpower: commander and support staff, a four-man civil affairs team, some 20 locally-recruited guards for the team when it traveled, some 20 more to watch over the new PRT site then under construction, a handful of Afghan interpreters, three military policemen, a rifle company from the Iowa National Guard, a U.S. aid representative we'll call Kerry, and a State Department employee on his last foreign assignment: me.
So in the latter part of October, after the Afghan presidential election and before our own, an advance party from the Guard drove up for a recon. Strange, they reported, though they couldn’t say why. It just didn’t feel right. Originally we were going to stay a while; you needed some downtime to get a sense of a place. They recommended we start with a day trip. We could overnight when we knew the area better.
The commander gave the go-ahead, scheduling it for two days after Kerry and the civil affairs team returned from Chora's capital and one day after our military-police advisors and I – along with the infantry's Bravo Company – returned from Nesh. We’d start early, about daybreak. Civil affairs needed that; they had a long drive ahead of them. They were going to accompany us as far as Chenartu, and then their contingent, six vehicles in all, including their protective escort led by Farouk, a village headman from the far side of Tarin Kot, would continue on to Anaconda to wrap up projects started by their predecessors. A smaller element would take Kerry and me back to Ripley.

Monday, August 15, 2016

#213: "Young Men of Prague" by Kelly Cherry

~This story was previously published in American Letters & Commentary (1998).

Einstein and Kafka are young men. One, a former patent examiner and now a full professor, lectures on physics at the Karl-Ferdinand University in Prague; one, an insurance adjuster for the Austro-Hungarian government, sprawls in his chair at the café, a tall glass of lemonade on the table in front of him.
            One lounges in his seat, dreaming of a young actress who travels with the Yiddish Theatre Troupe; the other runs a hand through his black hair and talks enthusiastically about atoms. The atom, he says, is a kind of dream, a space in which power is compressed to a point of conversion, at which point it becomes—becomes!—possibility. It is as if, he says, the atom is a symbol of itself.
            The windows of the lecture hall have been opened wide, the shades snapped up. The pull-rings, wrapped in silk thread, can be reached only by a long stick with a hook on the end.
            Beyond the windows, tall glasses of lemonade are growing downright hot atop the glass tables of all the sidewalk cafés. Trees in thick foliage shade the broad avenue and narrow side-streets, leaves rustling like taffeta skirts.
            The sky is lovely, blue and silent.
            To the young men, the sky is everything, a dream.
            It is atomic.
            It is theatrical—posed, awaiting a cue.
            In the classroom, a young professor gestures, and tugs at his black hair almost as if he would absent-mindedly pull it out.
            At one of the outdoor cafés, a young businessman drapes himself around his chair. The lemonade is stale and sour, and his digestion delicate.
            So sweet, she is lovely, the actress, gentle and mirthful, her lips as red as blood. (Something wildly provocative about her mouth, as if she reddens her lips by biting them herself. . .)
            The two young men, too, are lovely, in their fervor and good suits, and with such good manners.
            Prague is lovely, a gold-leafed city dawdling on the far edge of the century now closing. There are so many books to be written, so many lives to be lived. So many dreams. The future is so close that for a brief moment there seems no need to hurry into it. In fact, there is a single moment when no one raises his eyes to look at it, just as a lover, sensing that the one he worships has at last arrived at the dance, chooses not to notice, attempting in this way to reclaim some of the control he has already surrendered.
            Then, somehow, it happens that everyone looks up at the same time, which is what the darling beauty wanted in the first place. She shrugs off her wrap, into the waiting hands of the servant. She descends the short, carpeted staircase into the ballroom.
            Everyone rushes toward her.


Saturday, August 6, 2016

#212: "A Memorial for Hammerhead" by Richard K. Weems

~This story was originally published in Dogwood (2003).

             Bad enough it had to be a rhino like Hammerhead, a fighter who at forty-seven could still hold down solo one of those high-yield elephant trunk hoses that sprayed gallons by the heartbeat.  We knew fighters who went down in the Towers, and they had their names carved into brass and stone, but Hammer went out in a lame-ass way and didn’t get any such remembrance.  He came off the ladder after a routine blaze at an apartment house.  He was spraying down the remains of the roof, his safety line not hooked properly.  I guess we all make mistakes, but I had a hard time feeling something other than a gyrating anger that Hammer had to go out like a granite-headed rookie and leave Meg, Danny and me to make a go of it without him.
            The fighters who came for the service had on their game faces.  They looked like they were attending a mandatory staff meeting—dutiful, but wanting clearly to be out barbecuing on a day like this.  Meg, Danny and I knew where they were coming from.  We three were the closest thing to surviving family, but no one looked to us to say anything.  We sat in the back like pewter-cast figures.  I could barely even look at Hammerhead, his hands folded over his chest as if someone were holding him down for the three-count.  The chief brought out his usual platitudes about duty, and then we were made to stare at a radio as it played “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”  Danny’s metal joints clinked rhythmically during the chorus.  When it came time to pay respects, I stayed where I was.  I could think of nothing new to say to the rat bastard.
            But Meg thought differently.  “Here we go,” she said and got up.  As she joined the line that had formed in the aisle, Danny tapped my leg with his flask.  One of the fighters in front of us, a volunteer from Hamilton Township, turned back and gave me a brief, knowing nod.  Like hell I was going to offer him any whiskey.  And I didn’t need his damn permission to get lit at a buddy’s funeral.
            When Meg’s turn came, she strode past the casket as though she just wanted to make sure it was Hammer crammed in there and not some other thick-necked slob in a dark blue uniform.  As she walked back up the aisle, she bowed her head to keep her sun-bleached curls in her face and avoid eye contact with anyone else.  When she sat down, Danny murmured, “Worse than a high fucking school graduation.”
            “Feel any better?” I said.
            Meg scratched her nose boxer-like.  “Anything to make this crap go by a little faster,” she said.
            As soon as things came to an end, the three of us made a hasty exit and manned Danny’s pickup.  I needed air and crashing waves and a wide fucking berth.  I needed beer with sea air mixed into it.  Anything to make me forget the funeral parlor smell of stale antiseptic.  Danny gunned the engine, took his arms off, and we shot out of the parking lot.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

#211: "The Same God" by Patrice Gopo

 ~This essay previously appeared in Relief  (2012).

The measure of a man is what he does with power.
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
     –Jesus Christ

The dishes stare at me, covering every available surface, piled high like acrobats balanced on one another, the aftermath of a dinner and a breakfast in a home overflowing with visitors. Dishes seem low on the list of priorities since my friend will walk down the aisle later this week, but my hands are searching for ways to help ease the stress of a busy week, searching for ways to somehow earn my keep as a visitor in this family’s house.
Here in this African nation where the overseas missionaries dedicate their lives to reaching out to the locals, I awkwardly attempt to find a comfortable place in the landscape of existence. My role is missionary, like the rest of the expatriates I know, and yet not quite like the rest, as I look, outwardly, remarkably similar to the people who call this country home. At first glance, people often mistake me for a local, but when I open my mouth to speak, the words cannot mask the truth. My unique background perfectly positions me to walk the tightrope between two worlds. Not fully outsider or insider, simply other.
In this country, in this missionary home, in this in-between life, I cautiously inquire about ways I might help my hosts. Now I stand in a kitchen that breathes chaos. Washing dishes in this house is an eminently unsatisfying task. By the time the sink empties and order returns to the shelves, the next meal beckons. But it was my desire to help my friend, coupled with long-ingrained feelings of obligation to contribute, that brought me here. Reluctantly, I plug the sink drain and set to work.
It is a solitary job, away from the main traffic of the house. In the background, my friend’s laughter mixes with the giggles of her mother and sisters. From the occasional phrases I catch, I know the conversation surrounds upcoming wedding details. I want to be there, to be a part of the conversation and the planning. I remind myself I asked for ways to help. A voice in my head whispers, But you didn’t want to be shuffled to a far-off room away from all the fun. I created the situation, but this isolation feels nonetheless unfair. If I were family, I would leave the dirty dishwater behind and join the fun. I’m not family, though, so I continue scrubbing dirty plates and flicking rice grains off pots.

Monday, July 25, 2016

#210: "Summer, 1983" by Michael Boccardo

~This poem was previously published in Cutthroat (2010).

Summer, 1983

On that last afternoon in June,
when the road still cracked
a dusty gravel whip beneath our feet
and no one could afford the luxury
of electric air, we crossed
over into our neighbor’s yard,
small bits of stone poking each
bare heel, already rubbed thick
and coarse as sandpaper. 
By the time we breathed
the perfumed thickets of dogwood
edging Bessie’s mailbox,
my mother’s toes glinted with mica,
ten shimmering minnows
wiggling in blades of sun-stroked grass. 
Back then she was proud of her legs,
and wore nothing but tee-shirts and cutoffs,
denim sheared by a dull kitchen knife,
the threads floating like spider silk
around her thighs.  My brother and I trailed
behind, arms spiraling, embroiled in a battle
of plastic sacks, heavy with squash  
and zucchini plucked from our father’s garden,
too busy being boys to notice
anything wrong until the hiss
of coiled newspapers, a week’s worth,
skidded towards opposite corners
of the front porch.  When mother vanished,
a blurred shape behind the rattle of a screen door, 
we knew better than to move,
our shadows like drawn umbrellas, rigid
as we stood in currents of clover ankle-deep.
I was too young to understand
death then, but learned the ways it fooled
the world into living, how
it carried us back to where the day
began, hands gloved in soil, the sun
thirsty against our backs as we loosened
vines of tomatoes, bright bulbs dangling
like tangles of strung lights.  That night,
no one slept.  Thermometers simmered
above eighty while stars gathered
in clusters of condensation, 
windows gaping like the hooded eyes
of insomniacs.  In the kitchen,
mother busied herself until dawn,
slicing and canning.  With every glass jar
she cradled onto a pantry shelf,
her dress flared, each leg
clinging to the dark fabric
then swinging in a slow arc,
like the dome of a bell tolling the hour.

Monday, July 18, 2016

#209: Eydie Gorme Was a Little Spanish Girl by Diane Lefer

~This story was previously published in Platte Valley Review (Spring 2010).

There was no more romance in LA and they’d kept her for hours and she’d never been a patient person–never! and her hands hurt, swelling in the plastic cuffs. Who were all these people? A man she couldn’t see somewhere in the back said, “They’re taking us to Guantánamo!” People laughed.
“I went to Havana,” she said, “back when everyone went,” but now it was different and no one answered and the bus was parked outside the police station and there she’d sat since they transferred her from the back seat of the black and white and left her with her bags on her lap.
A cop came up the steps.
 “Officer! What is this delay?”
“No room at the inn,” he said, “not till they process through some felonies.”
“Officer!” Helga usually spoke the plain, blunt, even vulgar English words, but in such official company, guns, uniforms and all, how could she put it? “I must make water,” she said. “Now.”
He ignored her but then the woman came, name on the badge--Ortiz and Ortiz said “I’m not supposed to,” then nosed clippers between the plastic and her skin and cut her free. Before Helga could say thank you, Ortiz did. “Thank you for what you’re doing.”
“You are most welcome,” Helga said.
 “Those people deserve a union,” said Ortiz. “They should have had one years ago,” and so Helga realized the thanks had not been meant for her.
“Leave your personal items,” said Ortiz like a flight attendant and led her inside the building and to a door and unlocked it. More than a dozen women there. The ladies room, always the same.
“What are you waiting for?” said Ortiz.
For the toilet was not in use. There it was, stainless steel, in the middle of the room. The indignity of it. But the birds make do with a fountain or a dirty puddle, she thought. So: Down with the panties, the first use of her freed hands. Then, no soap, no paper towels, just a sink.
“This is not sanitary!” she said and someone said “Careful!” but too late. She turned on the faucet and like a fire hose, a hydrant, cold water shot full force across the room. Helga was soaked.

Monday, July 11, 2016

#208: "The Paris Catacombs" by Adrienne Ross Scanlan

~This essay was originally published under “Adrienne Ross” in
 you are here: the journal of creative geography (2008).

1 Place Denfert-Rochereau’s doors are black. Printed there in block letters are the words: “Entrée Des Catacombes” (Entrance to the Catacombs.)  It is mid-day.  I am hungry.  I buy a chocolate croissant from the boulangerie across the street and nibble it as I enter the ossuary’s doors, pay 5 Euros, and take my place in the line of tourists walking past warning signs (“Le chiens ne sont pas admis” / Dogs are not allowed), past historical photographs of the centuries-old quarries being transformed into catacombs, past video cameras, and down the spiral staircase to the bone yard beneath the streets of Paris’ Latin Quarter.  I am far from home, alone in a city of stones and strange words. 
In the world above, years ago, I was searching for merlins, peregrines, eagles along western Washington’s Bow Edison Road when I found a dead deer in the knee-high, roadside grass.  Her nose was ebony, her tawny fur was coarse with dirt and gravel, her legs were arced for flight as she must have been before being hit by a car.  She was gutted open.  Rain pooled pink with blood.  Her ribs were intact: bone sentinels standing guard over heart, lungs, intestines long after the battle was lost.
We walk down a tight, curling staircase, down, down, down, its steps worn grey stone. For a time, we can hear the whistles and sirens from the street.  We are 20 or so meters underground.  Where are we? Where am I? Where is my lover or my friends, all half a world away?  We come to a dark and narrow, stone walled passageway.  Stones crunch under footsteps.  The electric hum of sparse light bulbs, the chitchat of tourists, a girl’s high-pitched “Daddy?” echo as we walk.  In the underground air is a smell too clean for death.  We walk. The passageway turns through darkness. We walk past cells barred by metal grates, past a half-eaten apple, past a fire extinguisher.  We walk into a gallery where there are shadows, stone columns, and a stone floor, a white plastic lawn chair with an open novel on its seat, and a guard wearing sneakers, a blue rain parka, and a red baseball cap.  Signs on columns read: “Arrete!  C’est ici l’empire de la morte.  Vous etes invite a ne rien toucher, et a ne pas fumer dans l’ossuarie.” (Stop! This is the empire of the dead.  You are asked to not touch and to not smoke in the ossuary.)

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

#207: A Translation and a Poem by John Oliver Simon

~This poem was previously published in Cider Press Review (2010).


La joven
en la mesa se pregunta

Si la luz
de la vela es suficiente:

La sombra
de su vaso le responde

Con un sí
que se parece al viento.

—Alberto Blanco
(Mexico, 1951)


The girl
at the table asks herself

If the light
of the candle is enough:

The shadow
of her glass replies

With a yes
that resembles the wind.

—Translated by John Oliver Simon


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

#206: "Stroller" by Nancy Geyer

~ This essay was first published in Alaska Quarterly Review (2007).

            She’s standing on the bridge that spans Six Mile Creek, where the flats on the city’s south side begin. I see her from a block’s distance, milling about the steel guardrail, hands free of the baby stroller a few feet away. The stroller looks skeletal from behind, thinly padded and with few embellishments or conveniences. Its thin canopy is stretched forward against an absent sun.
You probably can’t buy those new anymore, I think to myself, to the extent I’m thinking about it at all.
It’s well into November, and after having coffee in town I’m walking home along Cayuga Street—past Sam’s Wine & Spirits, past the public library and the APlus, where you can refuel with gas or candy, past the Holiday Inn and its faint piped-out music. The Inn faces the new municipal parking garage where once, from the sidewalk, I mistook a security camera pointed down the glass-enclosed stairwell for a telescope aimed at the hills. For this is where my mind begins to loosen up, where purpose yields to possibility now that the errands are done and my civic persona has receded a bit—sensing, without being conscious of it, that I’m no longer likely to run into anyone I know, if there's anyone to run into.
            “It certainly is cold this morning!” the woman says, turning toward me when I reach the bridge. She’s wearing a white quilted ski jacket that makes her seem bold.
            “It certainly is,” I respond, passing briskly by because of it. I dip my head toward the carriage, though, the corners of my mouth beginning to pull up.
            Nothing, not even a doll.
            “Where’s the baby,” I almost blurt before I catch myself. The question is almost pure reflex, but I’m afraid it will come out sounding meddlesome—or, worse, accusatory. And so I continue silently on, barely breaking my stride.

Monday, June 20, 2016

#205: "Transit Info" by James Reed

~This story previously appeared in Apalachee Quarterly (1996).

The passenger in back bothers no one.  He is quiet and polite.  “Good evening,” he says as his ticket slides down the chute.  “Thank you,” as the door hisses open.  The driver notices him only because he favors two separate stops some eighteen blocks apart and because often he walks.  She sees him forty or fifty feet from his destination, the steak house corner with the big Cadillacs and Lincolns and the vans unloading families in the lot.  This is a total of thirty-six blocks from his point of origin, undoubtedly his job.  It must take him half or three-quarters of an hour.  She herself would never travel such a distance on foot, but she is portly and given to short breaths after two flights of steps.  A sixteen would fit her except through the hips.  A seamstress friend, whose girl she watches between shifts when the child gets home from school, alters her dresses and is discreet enough to cut out the labels.  She knows the styles the driver likes and buys them on sale and then is reimbursed.  The rest is considered an exchange.
Arlis is a pure-bred genius with a Singer machine, and handwork doesn’t trouble her in the least, but she is unable to curb the driver’s appetite for sweets.  Any bonbon proves irresistible.  It’s not as if she craves candy or schemes for it.  A large refillable of diet lasts the whole day’s driving, and she only nibbles at some fruit or has a small sandwich with Venetia in the afternoons, but let her see a Hershey bar or a Whitman Sampler box, and her money practically flies out of her billfold.  She’ll have part of it unwrapped and in her mouth before she starts the car.  And once opened, it will not last the night.  “Its life expectancy is nil,” she tells Arlis.  Just last night she watched Jimmy Stewart fly across the ocean in some rickety tent-flap plane, and as the screaming Frenchmen carried him away on their shoulders, she wiped her fingers of their last trace of chocolate.  It’s not the wanting it that infects her, but the having it.  That’s why she could not take a job like Candy Boy’s, which is not his real name but what she calls him.  When she sees him the words just appear in her head.  Candy Boy.  They’re there before she can say, “Hello.”
He rides that last run, usually sits behind Manny, and is a touch overweight but hardly so you’d notice.  Really he’s just soft.  Outside his job, she doubts he does much.  She suspects he lives with his mother and is not the type to’ve moved back in despite the grey in his hair she’d bet money his mother cuts.  Every couple of weeks, it just looks lopsided, usually on Wednesdays.  That makes it Tuesday nights that he comes home in his black pants and red knit shirt, both wrinkled, baggy, and ready for the wash, and sits in the chair dead center in the kitchen.  She ties a sheet around his neck and clips and buzzes until her squint through the humid air steaming with pots of boiling cabbage tells her, this will do.  Then she sweeps up the lank curls while he washes for dinner.  And changes.  She cannot abide the stink of sour ball flavorings on his clothes.  And he showers to take it off his skin.  It must be good and hot or she will not serve him at her table.