Elephant in the City by Nora Nadjarian

It happened as I was crossing over and I saw it, him, right in the middle of the street, blocking the traffic.

A woman stood in front, and everyone watched in horror at first, because she might get trampled, the elephant might stampede and she might die. But none of that happened in the next few minutes. The woman touched his thick skin with her hands, and she wept and wept, as if she’d found the one precious thing in life which she’d lost, and more traffic stopped and people stared. No beeping of horns, just complete silence. No panic, just calmness. There’s this one word: serendipity. If she hadn’t gone shopping that day, they wouldn’t have met. If he hadn’t escaped, she would never have found him. If the cars hadn’t stopped, I wouldn’t have looked. If the woman hadn’t wept this story might not have been written. Think of it as a kind of sequence, luck in slow motion, people escaping their lives for a few minutes in order to find what they’re looking for.

The woman would not move, and neither did the elephant. I wrote a love story. It happened.

© Nora Nadjarian

Calder Lorenz | CR Stories Interview

NS: You have a knack for endings. Is this something you aim for in your writing? I was especially intrigued by Buffalo Park, fabulous ending for a short fiction piece.
• • •
The short answer is yes. Definitely. Endings are elusive as all hell but endlessly satisfying once you nail them down. It is what you leave your readers with, your offering. I like writing that leaves you with questions. That literally has you turn the page to find the absence of print. That keeps your mind in motion, immersed with the characters long after it is all said and done. I like endings that do not falsify and contradict the very world they inhabit, like our history books and our social narratives tend to do. Endings can be redeeming or comforting or even happy but they do not work unless they stay true to their framework. I think all too often writers believe that they must save us from having to experience complexity and the raw emotion of uncertainty. As if we would crumble under the weight of a story that doesn’t have the characters rescued from their environment. And, damn it, I think readers should do a bit of work.
Buffalo Park was one of those rare stories where I knew the ending before anything else, and yet, the final sentence was only written after I had edited it about ten times. Meaning, I understood the mechanics of where she physically would end up but the imagery had to be drawn out over a period of time. I guess, the key to a good ending, from a drafting standpoint is revision, revision, revision. Knowing when to step off the stage.
NS: What plans, hopes, dreams do you have for your writing?
On a very basic level I’m planning to complete my novel sometime in this century or the next and then follow it up with a book of short fiction. In terms of hopes and dreams: well, I don’t know about you but I’d love to have my work banned. I mean, Jesus, what more can you ask for? Then again, Harry Potter has been banned in parts of this country so at least for the moment, in America, the bar is not very high.
Of course, enjoyed and respected would be nice as well.
But I also hope to keep improving and evolving and learning. Over time I’ve learned a tough lesson about storytelling. I learned that if I wanted to change the world on a literal level, well then, I would have to create change through my actions outside of my fiction. I grew frustrated because I had very clear intentions for the stories I wrote and yet my characters refused to cooperate and conform to my will. I had become a dictator of sorts. I was so concerned with the distribution of my own opinions and sociopolitical views that I lost sight of my characters and what they needed in order to be fully realized and sound on the page. I thought that I needed to have all the answers and yet I had removed the process of discovery, which is such an integral part of why I write in the first place.

It’s something along the lines of what Milan Kundera once said: “I invent stories, confront one with another, and by this means I ask questions. The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything.”
I’d say that that is pretty sound advice.
NS: Genre and form that you enjoy the most?
I’ve never been that concerned with genre. I’m pretty sure that a great read can exist in the realm of magical realism or fantasy. Although I would say one of those is much more prone to disappointment, but I’ll leave that for you to decide.
Form is something I spend more time with. I am a huge fan of short fiction of any size or shape. I always love to read long fiction that reads like short fiction. That’s probably why I love story cycles. They work like a Fatih Akin film. Story cycles are character heavy and many times you are dropped in the midst of action that precludes the past and future. You begin somewhere with a level of disorientation. As each chapter builds, the list of characters grows and time can shift through past, present, and future. At times you may feel disconnected. However, there is always a current raging through each section, an arc, and in the end the plot unfolds so that by the final page you realize that you have been privy to a complete and satisfying narrative, perhaps at times dysfunctional but interwoven and complex.
NS: Authors that have influenced you? I felt a tinge of Marquez, less florid, but no less romantic.
Marquez is a lofty compliment and certainly, without a doubt, a writer I’ve learned from and love.
It’s hard to say without going into a long big old list: my short fiction influences come from Nadine Gordimer, Raymond Carver, and Eduardo Galeano. But where would I be without James Baldwin, John Kennedy Toole and Edwidge Danticat? Every few months it seems I discover a new writer, and I say to myself, how could I have missed this? I think I’m influenced by what strikes me at the moment as impossible to put down, as invaluable. And then I try to figure out how that writer elicited such a powerful emotion or response within me.
I truly believe that the more diverse you are as a reader the stronger your own writing will become. But I believe just as strongly in the power of satire; and its ability to elicit laughter. I gravitate towards writers with a trenchant sense of humor, especially when they wrestle with topics that tend to overwhelm and puzzle us all.
I’ve also had the pleasure of learning from one of the writers featured here on Curly Red Stories, Joshua Mohr, and I would include him as an invaluable source of knowledge and invention and laughter.
NS: Are you a painter as well? Your fiction has strong visual elements in it.
I’m the son of a painter. I grew up around art in various forms. There was never a shortage of paint and canvas and drawing material in my house. And I think it is safe to say that I was influenced by the power of visual creativity. In almost every case I cannot write a scene unless it plays out in my head. I have to be able to visualize my characters and the settings they will act within. 

At one point, when we lived in Ohio our house was filled with very large paintings. The entire collection of these paintings was one narrative divided between I believe twelve framed pieces. These paintings were not your everyday farmhouse with a blue sky and birds or whatever. They were huge subversive collages with text and in one case a giant nude man who was in the act of crushing a city beneath his feet. When we first arrived his penis was the talk of our very small town but in the end my house was the place to be, where everyone hung out. It may have been the only place in that part of town where you would see a three hundred pound football player seated and lounging casually under what he thought he feared the most. Perhaps, unknowingly, that is where I learned about the power of choosing just the right image.

NS: Anything else you want to add?

This was fun. I appreciate that you took the time to ask me questions.

••• You are very welcome! NIYA

Buffalo Park by Calder Lorenz

The church bells have settled back down and it’s a struggle for her to keep up with a flock of emaciated white streaks as they slide against the intense light of the day’s blue sky.

‘Miss, Miss,’ a man calls. ‘Did you ring for this cab?’

‘It wasn’t me,’ she says, squinting into the car’s interior.

This man, with his unbuttoned shirt, gold chain sunken into his grey chest hair, frowns and shakes his head.

‘I doubt I can help you,’ she says. ‘I lost my sunglasses and it hurts my eyes to speak with you.’  Her hand in her purse.

‘That’s not my problem,’ the man says, as his thin mustache dances like a pelvis, perfectly in time with the rhythm of Italian disco.

She thinks, I should walk down this cement hill and buy a cheap pair of shades.

‘Toronto is hot in July,’ the cabbie says. ‘There’s a strike there, miss. Trash piled up in the parks.  Hidden in the jungle gyms. Can you imagine?’

She can’t.  Rolls down her window a few more inches.

He bounces slightly in his seat to the radio.  He’s emphatic in the mirror.  Encourages her to smile.  To dance with him.  Horns sound.  The car jolts; then stops in the face of a red bloated intersection.

A free ride is a free ride, she thinks, not fully convinced.  In this battered bathroom she keeps on her toes.  She drops the cab driver’s personal card into the bowl and sits down.

How it must feel to be washed down with the water into the dark!

She recognizes it instantly, a decent band of white powder.  She will have to touch the muddied floor, rank from early drinkers.  This little score is caught in a filthy pool beside a black trashcan with its crumbled and streaked brown paper in full bloom.

Is that blood?

This feeling, this feeling is a going away party and you don’t want to leave but you know you will leave and never, ever, see most of them again.  This is where she questions whether she has gone too far?  Where she thinks, no, I’m just getting started and I need a cold drink and I need to leave the bathroom because someone is knocking, angry, needing to piss.

There are three of them and one of her.  They smoke.  She smokes.  They have many many friends in this city.  There is food, enough for many many people, but there is only the three of them and the one of her.  She chews and chews and chews, scanning the open plain for a restroom.

A girl holds her hand.  They’ve made a hand sandwich.  The girl’s black shirt is loose and free and her jeans are folded neatly at the knees.  She says, ‘Buffalo live here.’

Now their fingers are locked into the chain link fence.  She’s with this girl that shaves the sides of her scalp, Linda.  Two of the buffalo stroll like woolly brown clouds across the splotched patches of dead grass.

She remembers Wyoming and her father and the buffalo there in that time.  She had stayed in the car, laughed at him for being so excited about cows with big shoulders.  They laughed for a long time about cows with big shoulders.

She thinks, in those parks the people stop for the buffalo; the buffalo manage the roaming.  There, in front of her, are the caged buffalo of Golden Gate Park.

Linda says, ‘Here comes the fog,’ she says, ‘I wish I had a coat like the buffalo,’ she says, ‘I could stay with them all night,’ as a small calf plods over to a shoddy corral.

Once again, there are three of them and one of her.

It’s her turn to catch and then throw a disc but she walks, wordless, out of the circle, towards a small trail that leads out of the grass heavy picnic area.

Now, she’s in the cement avenues that smell of oceanic salt.  She waits on a washed out corner.  One empty train heads to the ocean, the other heads to the city.  She thinks: there have been too many days just like this.

She turns the key that opens a thick gate and then turns another key that opens a heavy door to a garage, which leads to the room she rents.  They do not speak the same language, her and her neighbors, but they share barren and dull white walls.  Their carpets are beige and bleached.  They nod at her, a flashing screen as their backdrop; and she drifts into her room.

She thinks there have been too many days just like this.

She sits on the empty floor.

Tomorrow, she thinks, tomorrow when the sun breaks the clouds into thin strips, when the buffalo walk to the far end of their cage; when the fog crawls back on top of this city, then she will go back to who she was.

February Rain by Calder Lorenz

She’d left her lunch shift without her tips and called him from a red pay phone on Parker Street, a tumbledown replica of a once cherished London style phone box. Inside the box there were delicate militant patches of grass that had broken through the concrete. The splintered door to the booth was without its protective glass and now her socks were stuck to her skin as the demented February rain huddled her up against a few panels of un-smashed glass. 

The phone picked up on the first ring. 

Terra Jean heard heavy breathing.  The other side sniffled.  Coughed. 

“I’ve thought about it,” she said. “I know that you want her. But so do I.”

There was silence on the other end.  A lowered punk song she had once liked scorched along in the background.  Her earring dug into her neck.  “You can’t keep her,” she said. “You just can’t.”

“No worries,” he said. “That mutt shit on my floor.”

“Benny,” she asked. “What are you doing?”

“I pay the bills,” he said. “It’s my apartment and all that.”

The operator’s voice declared itself with stern and disruptive instructions.  She dropped in another quarter and then Benny returned, coughing, hurting her.     

“…his phone is all that’s left,” he said, his voice strained.

“Then she went with him?”

“I imagine she didn’t have much of a choice.”

The rain surged against the glass.  Each tap harder and more impatient. 

She could’ve cried right there with the wind spitting against her bare knees, but there was a bearded man watching her.  He wore a flopped down fishing hat and smoked a swollen limp joint as he stood on the sidewalk under a molded awning.  

“I’m getting pissed on,” she said.  

“I wouldn’t feel bad,” Benny said. “You’re not the only one. About an hour ago, two big angels with golden necklaces and rotten teeth practically kicked in my door.”

“When will it end?” she asked.

“Sometime in late June, like always.”

He hung up on her and she watched as the man outside of the phone box slugged into the slick oiled street.  In the distance, north of the raised city condos, bloated cheerless clouds herded themselves into the concrete carved mountainside of North Vancouver.

Benny lived in a small two bedroom flat atop a jazz bar that sold ground meat and poutine.  He rented out his other room to musicians, poets, and often times, Americans.  Despite the rain and fog and the frigid temperature that seemed to crystallize in her marrow, the bar’s garage door sat open to the sidewalk.  Thick smoke from the grill drifted into the street. 

Terra Jean leaned against the end of a long unfinished bar.

“Carmine,” she called. “Are you back there?”

Carmine walked out from the back kitchen.  He carried a plastic bin filled with tomatoes and onions and peppers.  His long apron stained from casing sausage.  He kept his back to her and began to chop onions on the service bar.

“What’re we drinking today,” he asked in a soft voice.

“I need your help,” she said. 

Carmine dropped the knife and then grabbed a bottle from the cabinet at his feet.  He put two shot glasses on the bar in front of her.  The glasses were smudged from his filthy fingers.  The onions strong and present and consuming in the cold pressed air.  

“I never liked him,” Carmine said, his eyes welled up and wet in the corners. 

He swallowed.  Wiped his mouth.  Filled her glass and then returned to the kitchen with the empty bin.

She picked up the glass.  The whiskey bit into her tongue.  It rolled down her throat, as diminished droplets continued to fall from her hair onto the surface of the worn wooden floor.  The puddles stretching and shivering as Terra Jean poured herself another.   

Killing Time by Zach Wyner

At 10:30 AM the doorbell rang.  Faye noted the time, thirty minutes to kill before she’d have to start getting ready for her appointment.  She stubbed out her cigarette and there followed a knock.  She got up from her desk, breezed down the hall in her sweat shorts and tee and opened the door.  The heat smacked her cheeks.  She shielded her eyes from the glare, smelled the baking asphalt.  Before her stood the same thickly built UPS man as always, betraying no hint of recognition.

“Morning,” he said, thrusting a clipboard at her, a shoebox-sized package tucked under his left armpit.

“They said it’s going to be over a hundred again today,” she said, as she signed.  She handed the clipboard back.  He nodded and scanned the paperwork.  “Must get hot in that van.  That is… well, I assume you have no air-conditioning.”

He lowered his eyes to hers, black like his hair.  He tilted his head the right, peering behind her into the empty house.

“Yeah,” he said.  “I guess.”

“Can I get you anything?” she said.  “A glass of water?  A Diet Coke?”

“No tips,” he said.

“Oh, just a glass of water,” she said.  “I’d say that hardly qualifies.”

He pursed his lips and glanced at his watch.

“Okay,” he said.  “One glass of water.  I’ve got…”

“A busy day ahead,” she said.  “Of course you do.  One glass of water, coming up.”

Faye stepped aside.  He crossed the threshold, and stopped, scanning the hallway, the staircase, the living room.  The scent of his suntan lotion saturated the recycled air.  She closed the door behind him as he swiped perspiration from his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt.

“Where do you want this?” he said.

“Follow me,” she said, leading him down the hall towards the kitchen.  His keys jangled on a chain.  She could feel his warmth, his bulk, his breath on her back.  He possessed a solidity that made her feel positively frail, as though the blow of the air-conditioning might lift her off her feet and usher her up the chimney.  She entered the kitchen and opened the cupboard.  She nodded at the granite-topped island.

“Right there’s fine,” she said.

He put the package down, turned around and leaned back, placing his palms on the granite where he would leave behind moist semi-circles.
“Nice kitchen,” he said.  “Looks brand new.”
Faye smiled.  She filled a glass with water from the filter.
“Here you go,” she said.

“Thanks.”  Their fingers brushed as he took the glass.  She watched his gaze slide down her body and come to rest on her bare legs.  A moth in her belly beat its wings.  He raised his eyes to hers and she held them there.  He took long gulps.  He let out a satisfied, “ahhh,” and handed her the empty glass.

“Guess I better shove off,” he said, not moving.

“You’re sure you wouldn’t like anything else?” she asked.

“Lots of deliveries,” he said.  “It’s only gonna get hotter.”

“Of course,” she said, turning her back on him to rinse the glass.  “The Dog Days,” she said.  “So to speak.”

“Yeah.  Yeah, right.” he said.  “What are those again?”

“Excuse me?” she said.

“The Dog Days, I never did…”

Faye chuckled.  She placed the glass on the dish rack.

“They’re the hot ones,” she said.  She faced the UPS man, his furrowed brow.  He scratched his head.  “Anyways,” she said, looking at the floor.

“Right,” he said.  “Back to work.”  He walked out of the room, keys jangling, boots clumping the hardwood.

“Have a nice day,” she called.  He grunted and the door closed behind him.  She discovered the index finger of her right hand tracing circles around the lump.  How long it had been there she could not say.  The clock on the kitchen wall read 10:40.

She looked at the package, addressed to her husband.  She withdrew a knife from the butcher’s block and ran it through the packing tape, liberating the scent of fresh leather.  My shoes, she thought, with mild surprise.  She had forgotten that she used his credit card to pay for them.  She withdrew them and sat on a stool.  They were cross trainers, hideous, all intersecting lines and clashing colors.  She laced them up and slipped them on.  She had planned to cut down on smoking, get back in shape.  She had thought that with a pair of running shoes she might finally try doing some laps around the lake; nothing too ambitious, a few miles a day.  Running on concrete was hard on her knees, but she couldn’t stand treadmills, couldn’t imagine a more joyless activity.

She paced the hallway.  Back and forth, rubber soles squeaking while her toes wiggled, making certain they had adequate space.  She grabbed her keys and burst through the front door into the raging heat.  She sprinted up the empty sidewalk, past the row of roasting cars, daggers of sunlight reflecting off their windshields.  Sprinklers watering modest, green lawns left a fine mist on her bare legs.  She hit the corner and turned around, sprinting back, harder this time.  Knees up, fists pumping, she flew past her house, running out of her hair, her lungs, her lump.  She reached the corner and doubled over, pressing her palms into her knees.  A weight like an elephant sat on her chest.  The air was thick.  It felt like she was sucking it in through a straw.

Wavy, Blue Lines by Zach Wyner

I’m babysitting my five-year-old niece today, my sister Suzanne’s daughter, Ellie.  I’m back home for the week, staying here because Sis has a house now (whop-dee-freggin-do) and she thought that it’d be easier than staying with the folks.  Besides, she said, it’ll give you a chance to spend some quality time with Ellie.  Like Ellie and I need to catch up.  Like she has something to say about anything besides boogers and ponies.

Anyway, Ellie and I are sitting at the kitchen table because that’s where the TV is.  The kitchen.  Apparently it would kill them to put one in the living room with the suede couch.  Sis and her hubby are out socializing with other people with kids, and I’m thinking I’m a sucker, and no wonder she was so eager for me to stay here.  Ellie’s working on some drawing and I’m half watching TV because the game is on and half talking to the kid because I don’t want her to tell her mom that I watched TV the whole time she was gone. 

Just so we’re clear, Ellie doesn’t give two shits about me.  She’s completely off in her own world.  But I start to feel guilty anyway, like I ought to make an effort to find out what she’s into, so I take a closer look.  Ellie isn’t much of an artist; I can’t tell if I’m looking at flowers or a flock of birds or what.  All I can make out are some wavy, blue lines so I’m like, “Is blue your favorite color?”
         “This is turquoise,” she says.

“Well,” I say.  “Aren’t you a smart one?”  Ellie stops drawing, picks her face up from the paper and rolls her eyes.  No bullshit.  Then she goes back to her drawing and the game comes back from the commercial, and I’m left with this tingle in my belly like you get when you make a joke in a crowd of people and no one laughs.  The tingle lingers.  And I don’t even realize I’m staring until she looks up and stares back, her little five-year-old wheels turning.  I feel naked.  If a grown person looked at me this way I’d have to consider punching them in the face. 

“It’s not polite to stare,” she says. 

“I’m sorry,” I stammer.  I can’t believe this.  My niece thinks I’m an asshole.  Now I need a strategy.  I’ve got to get her back on my side.  Not because I can’t stand not being liked, but because I’m her uncle after all, and because I know what it’s like to grow up in this family, and it’s important for her to know that she’s got an ally.  I take a closer look at her drawing.  It’s not as bad as I thought.  The wavy, blue lines are more like small arcs converging in the center of the page like a tornado.   

“I really like your design,” I say, slowly, the way people do when they want to impress upon you how truthful they’re being.

She scrutinizes me.  I’m leaning forward, stroking my chin, studying this thing like it’s not just a child’s doodle, like it’s got some deeper meaning.  She tilts her head to the side and scrunches up her eyebrows and her nose like she smells something rotten.  

“That’s not a design,” she says.  “That’s dog.”

The naked feeling vanishes.  I smile.  I lean back in my seat.

“Oh!” I say.  “I love dogs.  My favorite kind’s a Boxer.  What’s yours?”

She exhales and shakes her head side to side. 

“No,” she says.  “Not dog.  God.”

I scrunch up my eyebrows and my nose.  I open my mouth to speak but I have no words.  In desperation, I almost ask her what her favorite kind of god is. 

“Oh,” I say.  “Can I?”

“Here.”  She puts the paper in my outstretched hands.  I look hard.  Suddenly it’s real important that I see something besides wavy, blue lines.

Scrapper by Niya Sisk

My two neighbors cut their grasses together, the same day, the same hour every week. I sneeze and think of water, the olympic size pool I’ll swim in later. It’s my respite; the large body of water that flushes the fuzzy little ants of worry into the wavy folds behind me. There is a knock at the door.

One of the neighbors, well… I gave him two dollars to a few weeks back. Today he asks for seven. His story is always the same, “his kids aren’t home, he needs his medication.” My other neighbor  said to me last week, “Oh him. Didn’t anyone tell you? He’s a gambler. We’ve all been hit up. You’re just new blood.” Perhaps he took advantage like this early, never stopped, and now into his sixties he runs the same red sentences over and over, and cuts the same grass over and over, while telling himself the story that gives him hope. He has a game in his life he doesn’t quit.

Sunday morning 8:29, the church bells ring from in the Catholic church a block away. People shingle the streets—their cars, shiny and glued together like a centipede. They put their road rage aside for this. They walk in a sort of dazed, space economical way—making room for one another in foot traffic. They are open-mouthed inspiration receiving, patent-leathered shoe people. They are scrapping for something to feed their souls the clear eyes of a child, the heart of a dog, and smiles that are fundamentally natural. Scrapping for band-aides for their blistered feet, caused by hard shoes that are worn only on Sundays. They want something white, pillowy, soft skinned that leans into their goodness. Something they imagine can be absorbed into their bodies, in the prism of the stained glass church windows—something, God gives. This church has a progressive God, a man God, a Lone Ranger God who will take everyone home. Everyone, that is, who scraps and sacrifices; everyone who gives their name to him.

In this neighborhood this is no secret.

I pick up the swimming equipment and water resistant backpack with all my gear and head out to the car. The streets are filled with green–fluorescent light. The dogs bark, the chubby cat rolls down the gardened, bulky, sinewy yards full of sunflower and Irises.

As I open the car door a squirrel drops walnut shards on my head. I look up at the king of the scrapper world. It looks at me, challengingly, like, yeah, what are you going to do about it? The squirrels have the most fun here in the neighborhood. They don’t go to church, they aren’t working for progressive ideals filled with inherent contradiction, they make a profession of taking advantage of us humans—they laugh at us. They are always chomping like otters on something; corn husks, sunflower seeds, roasted almonds from Wild Oats Food store provided by amused, gullible humans. They look at you blankly, like what do you have for me today— like it’s expected, like it’s the best thing you could do with your useless human life; to be taken advantage of by the neighborhood’s fat squirrels. They weigh nothing, give you nothing and expect everything. We give it to them.

I drive to the pool and see the neighbors having an all neighbors yard sale to save the trees. Neil Young plays from one of the houses, windows open wide. There falls a dusty rain; so light it can barely be felt. I stop to give them five dollars to help keep the woolen tree tops going. I cheer for the fluorescent green, that like the stain glass windows in the church, give me a sense that god is everywhere. Someone asks for my email address. The homeowners, they need volunteers. “Speak! Help us!” they say”, a large market is moving into the neighborhood. Save us from the cars.”

The water. I enter it and I’m grateful for it’s stubborn, pushy resistance. Something to push into. Something already collected, that moves when I move. I see something shiny on the bottom of the pool. I think maybe it’s the citron earring I lost last week. My ears fill with a stinging pressure as I scrape and scrap at the bottom. Is there something here that the water has saved for me for a whole week? Something preserved, unmoored, untouched that is mine, there, at the bottom of the dark blue? The silver candy bar wrapper buoys up as my weight moves the water. I rush up to the top to get air and sneeze immediately.

A man asks me if I would time-share my goggles, “take turns?” he asks.

Here, sure, you can have them, they are yours. I think this is what I will say. This is what I would normally say. I think of those squirrels in their selfish joy. No community to make, no trees to save, nothing to do but eat, eat, eat. The water is my food. I reach for the goggles to give to him because it’s the right thing to do. And then before I know it, I push the goggles back on my face and dive back into the water—into the deep promising sound of no sound at the bottom of the pool.

Raphael Cushnir

NS. As an author of applied humanics (sorry, bad habit of making up words) was this book a welcome freedom for the wild, wise Raphael to write in essay, philosophic form?

RAPHAEL: Yes! I was able to blend my artistic self with my teacher self, playing more with metaphor, turns of phrase, full circles, and intuitive leaps and bounds rather than having everything follow a more step by step path.

NS. Which essay is your favorite and why? Is there one in there titled: Dado?

RAPHAEL: Today, right now, I think Fairy Matching is my favorite, maybe because it stars by stepdaughter.

NS. What readers often wonder is, how did this author get here, writing book after book, supporting his family as a full time writer. Is there any snippet of this story you share?

RAPHAEL: If you took all the working hours, including not just the outlining and writing and rewriting but also the marketing and promotion and just generally keeping on top of things and staying in touch with those interested in my work, it’s probably a 60 hour a week, minimum wage gig. Not meaning to be a downer, just a truth teller. I love it, but I’d also love some more breathing room and less work. I intend it…and hopefully here it comes!

NS. Your life is very full now as a father and writer. Do your children help you write in odd inspiring ways?

RAPHAEL: Yes, in the sense that they always provide great material, and reinforce my curiosity by making everything new again as they experience it for the first time. Plus, they always think they know what they want, and what’s what, which is ridiculous, so it helps me stay hip to my own ridiculousness.

NS. Tell us a little about what is now and what is next in your career.

RAPHAEL: I honestly can’t tell. Part of me is ready to write another movie. Another part wants to work the Internet to full effect. Another is a little panicked about the economy and just spins. But I’m also ready for some breathing room and less work. I intend it…and here it comes!

NS. Anything else you’d like to say?

RAPHAEL: Thanks, Niya, from one fairy cockroach to another.

Fairy Matching by Raphael Cushnir

The Japanese are wizards at serenity. Think of the tea ceremony and Zen rock gardens. What these placid products of Japan have in common is a high degree of order. Every element fits in its perfect place, and doing so harmonizes with every other element. There’s lots of space, too. The sips of tea come with such deliberateness that each moment of repose, before and after, feels as important as the activity itself. The rake creates its graceful sand patterns as if following invisible, previously etched grooves.

All this serenity is critical for the Japanese because the rest of their society is so frenetic. They live crammed together on teeming islands. Their cities overwhelm the senses with a neon-drenched cacophony. You might say that the meditative aspects of Japan are an attempt to bring balance to a lifestyle that would otherwise be totally out of balance. And this begs the question – what would a lifestyle look like that was serene by its very nature?

In contrast to Japan’s extremes, consider the long, steady life of a redwood tree. A redwood can live for over 2,000 years and grow almost 400 feet tall. With leaves high above the forest floor, it’s relatively impervious to the otherwise deadly ravages of insects, fire, and flood. It just grows and grows, serenely, a little at a time over a long stretch of time.

Yet, a redwood tree is profoundly limited in its adaptive capacity. It can only live on one small stretch of earth. It can only produce one type of leaf and grow in only one direction. If its environment becomes inhospitable, a redwood is literally stuck in the mud, unable to pick up and travel to friendlier surroundings. Therefore, while inspiring to behold, this mighty tree doesn’t offer us much instruction for serene survival amid today’s fast, furious, unprecedented change.

But my niece does. Beatrix is about to turn seven, and she’s an ace at the card game Concentration. She doesn’t play with the usual deck. Instead, she uses one that features pairs of fairies. There are flower fairies, midnight fairies, river fairies – twenty duos in all. Beatrix calls this game Fairy Matching, and she beats me at it every time.

With uncanny accuracy, Beatrix keeps track of which fairy goes with which. She doesn’t just remember but also intuits. You may think I’m deluded by pride but I swear it’s true: I’ve seen Beatrix successfully select four sets of fairies in a row without ever having seen them turned over beforehand.

How does she do it? I’m not sure. But clearly, she has an uncanny knack for knowing what belongs together, and also when. She doesn’t just turn on this supra-rational skill haphazardly. She saves it for those rare moments when I seem to be mounting a challenge, when I might for once actually win.

Now what can Beatrix’s fairy matching teach us about serenity? The same thing, more or less, that was taught by Ecclesiastes. “There is a time for every purpose under heaven.” You to heed each moment’s call.
And how the call comes… most of the time, it’s through energy.

Energy, the kind of subtle, intuitive flow I’m referring to, is a controversial subject prone to lots of grandiose claims and confusion. Yet every one of us has a “sixth sense” and has felt it countless times. Whether we heeded it is another matter. Beatrix heeds her sixth sense continuously because she hasn’t yet been talked out of it.

Heeding your own sixth sense in relation to the call of the moment means recognizing whatever energy is present. While there are endless types of energy, most of us encounter just a handful each day. There’s to-do list energy, for instance, when suddenly you notice an increased ability to “take care of business.” There’s also communication energy, when suddenly it’s right to talk things over. In addition there’s contemplation energy, playful energy, and even house cleaning energy.

When we align ourselves with the energy of the moment, our capacity to thrive increases by leaps and bounds. When we disregard that energy, and try to accomplish something out of synch, it becomes as difficult as it is unpleasant.

I bet you already know this. Haven’t you forced yourself to clean house at least once when housecleaning energy was nowhere to be found? The chores were grueling and seemingly endless, right? But how about when you cleaned house with recognition that Now is the time to clean! Didn’t everything go quickly and smoothly, as if the wind were at your back?

Every once in a while, the demands of everyday life make it impossible to match our actions with the energies we perceive. Our kids suddenly need us when it’s time to relax, for example. Or, we get a clear message to nurture ourselves right before a big work deadline. At those times, tuning in, we realize that the wind can’t be at our sails, and that resisting that truth would only amount to misreading the entirety of the moment.

More often, though, we don’t actually have to misalign with the energy that’s present but do so anyway because it doesn’t fit our plans. We try to impose our will on the moment, in spite of our sixth sense, due to plain old stubbornness. We want what we want when we want it. And the cost of that stubbornness is – by now it should be obvious – our serenity.

Every moment, fortunately, provides a new opportunity to get that serenity back. The fastest, most efficient way is to tune in, and then match that moment’s specific purpose under heaven. Once you do, it’s not just wind that appears at your back. Sometimes it’s also fairies.

From the upcoming book, Surfing Your Inner Sea: Essential Lessons for Lasting Serenity, Chronicle Books, August, 2009. This copyrighted material may not be reprinted without prior written consent.

Cockroach Wisdom by Raphael Cushnir

Toward the end of the Eighties, my body stopped working. After what seemed like an ordinary bout of the flu, I never fully recovered. For many hours each day I was beset by staggering fatigue. My previously iron stomach, for no apparent reason, became an unpredictable minefield.

Searching for an explanation, I went to the doctor. And then another doctor. And then another. Over and over I heard the same verdict – there’s nothing wrong with you. But clearly there was something wrong with me, psychosomatic or otherwise, and I needed guidance in how to address it. This need sent me on a deluxe tour of complementary medicine, from its well-respected center to the diciest of its fringes.

Wherever I went, a new culprit for my malady was revealed. Sometimes it was a virus, such as Epstein Barr. Other times it was a syndrome, like Leaky Gut. Most often it was labeled an “imbalance.” Usually there was a test administered to prove the imbalance, and this seeming clarity would always uplift me. But then my spirits would just as quickly plummet, as soon as the recommended treatment provided absolutely no relief.

After months on this medical sojourn, with symptoms still as mysterious as they were unrelenting, I withdrew. No more doctors, mainstream or alternative. No more prescriptions, pharmaceutical or herbal. I vowed to get to the bottom of the mystery myself, and began by process of elimination. Everything that might be stressing my system had to go, starting with the likeliest suspects. That meant alcohol, sugar, wheat, dairy – pretty much all the good stuff. When that didn’t help I began avoiding possibly noxious environments. The mall, for instance, was suspect for its sensory overload. Even air and water were off-limits, unless sufficiently filtered.

Soon I grew brittle and high-strung. Waiters were quickly annoyed at my endless questions – “How was it cooked? Was there something else on the grill? Any pre-packaged sauces?” I stuck to my conviction, however, and gained support from others in the same predicament. We saw ourselves as canaries in a coal mine, as early warning systems of a world befouled.

While certainly understandable, the way I dealt with this medical crisis in its first years didn’t increase my wellness or earn me much serenity. What I gained in control I lost in freedom. This is similar to the way many people approach their own challenges, and not just those about illness. First they identify threats to their peace of mind – “I can’t be around my mother.” “Politics depress me.” “My spirit just sinks in a big city.” Then they plot their retreat. Which isn’t wrong, to be sure, but it always comes at a price.

And that brings us to the lowly cockroach. A cockroach may hide, but it never retreats. The cockroach’s motto is “Adapt!” It finds ways to survive, to thrive even, in just about any environment. Remember that the old adage that cockroaches will be the only species to make it through nuclear war? I don’t know if it’s true, and I certainly won’t be around to find out, but just the possibility is instructive.

Uneasy with my self-imposed moratorium on everything, I began to think about the schooling a cockroach might impart. I imagined it would look up at with me with pity, but at the same wag its antennae as if to say, “You oughta know better.” And then, the real sermon would begin.

“The opposite of serene, you silly human, is finicky. What good is well being in a sterile bubble? I mean c’mon, I’d rather swig Raid. If you’re so good at surfing your emotions, why can’t you do the same with the outside world? Don’t demonize that cheeseburger; evolve a new stomach for it. Don’t flee from that toxic waste; light your house with its glow!”

As you can see, cockroach wisdom only goes so far. Had I cavalierly pursued many of the things that caused me the most systemic stress, my condition surely would have deteriorated. Likewise, if all of us sought to do a million years of evolving in one lifetime, we’d quickly perish.

Still, over the years that followed I took the gist of cockroach wisdom to heart. While accepting the limitations I’d been dealt, I also kept testing and updating them. In other words, if sugar made my symptoms worse in February, I downed a small bite of cake in March. Sometimes I was met with a setback, and sometimes I was freed to indulge. Sometimes I had to update in backwards fashion, meaning that a new license to dig in would later get revoked. No matter what, however, the whole experiment was always worthwhile. It allowed me a life at the edge of my capacity, rather than one needlessly diminished.

I realized that just as serenity doesn’t require any particular pace, it doesn’t prefer a monastery either. Or a cave. Or anything else that sets us apart from our surroundings.

If we succumb to the tempests around us, and don’t consistently seek the greatest possible shelter in each moment, there’s no question that our serenity will fade. But if we don’t keep updating our requirements for well being, and learn to live as well as possible within the tempests, we’ll never find the eye of any storm.

Today, my fatigue persists. So does my shaky stomach. No cause has ever been identified and every day offers me new inner and outer waves to surf. While riding those waves, I never stop wishing for better health. But I never get out of the water either.

From the upcoming book, Surfing Your Inner Sea: Essential Lessons for Lasting Serenity, Chronicle Books, August, 2009. This copyrighted material may not be reprinted without prior written consent.

What Water Can’t Wash Away by Laurie Cannady

The fire hydrant shot water onto the street with the force of a tidal wave.  A long, black boy with a small curve in his back and arms that seemed, like stringy noodles,  to stretch past his knees, braved the savage force with a square board fashioned out of the top of a broken coffee table.  He meticulously slid the board under the jutting water, forcing the wave into the air to be released into millions of water droplets, dangling like icicles dripping onto the sidewalk.  Like a maestro conducting a symphony, he lifted the board, entreating the notes of water to rise higher and with a flick of his wrist, he lowered the board, allowing them to shoot onto the ground like the last melody of an aria.  As he stood behind the hydrant, straddling it like a wild horse, the water sprayed into his smiling face.  The muscles of his stringy arms, jumped up and down in excitement, allowing the crisp cold of the water to tattoo small lakes and rivers into his skin. 

The many children of Lincoln Park gathered around the front of the hydrant, moving as if in a tribal dance, thanking the weather gods for the end of a long drought.  With their hands outstretched to the sky, and their faces upturned to the once offending sun, they lapped up droplets of water that rained down on them, oblivious to the fact that their own parents, and maybe even grandparents had generations ago participated in this same ritual. 

Laurie sat with her son Dereck in her car, peering out at the celebration, remembering her own role in the dance. On most summer mornings during her childhood, she’d sit shoulder-to-shoulder with Mary and Tom-Tom, her little sister and brother, waiting for some brave soul to walk out of his home with a wrench as long as her thigh and unveil  summer relief.   After the traditional check for the police and one or two threats from the oldest villagers, villagers who as children had participated in this same ritual, the black knight in cut-off shorts and a white tank top shirt, would place the large wrench on the hydrant and jump, forcing all of his weight onto the stubborn cap until there was a pop and a sizzling sound escaping the hole. 

Laurie, with Mary and Tom-Tom would vault off of the porch into the street, grabbing at feathers of water until they were immersed in it, sheltered by the wall of coolness.  They’d hold hands and do-si-do around the beads of hydration.  Laurie and Mary would twirl like African ballerinas, their legs jutting up to the air and their hair dancing a small jig of its own.  They’d do this until they couldn’t anymore.  Even if the bottoms of their feet and the palms of their hands had wrinkled to the point that they resembled an old man of ninety years old, they, like all of the other park children, stayed on that street, under the shelter of the water, until the fire department came to shut off the valve. 

Dereck enviously watched the children taking turns running through the wall of pseudo waves.  He laughed as pretty girls who were wearing their project best, were forced into the water by their boyfriends or brothers.  Even they laughed as the water washed away the hours of work that they’d paid for at the local beauty salon.  He wanted to join them, to prove to his mother that he could be one of them, that he could be like she once was.  He leaned toward her, with almond eyes, pleading for a chance, a chance to carve his own way, to journey through the same dark roads that she had traveled, roads that had placed her right where she was in that moment.  His tongue turned and turned in his mouth, searching for the words that would free him and free her.  As soon as he’d grasped a line that he thought would sing of liberation, self-doubt set the words afire, weakness began to bite at his skin, and surrender muzzled him.  He retreated in his seat, a battle fought and lost within himself. 

She had also wanted to join them, to let down her guard, to grab her son’s hand and let the water pour on them together, uniting them despite the differences of a generation.  She wanted him to know that part of her life that had been illegal, but also innocent and beautiful.   She wanted the strength that she had implanted in him to bow within his body, to arc him into action and move him into his rightful place, alongside his peers, alongside young princes.  In that moment she needed to touch him with her words to allow their sentences to discover each other and eventually link together like the hands of new lovers.  She imagined herself communicating with him as she had when he was a baby, holding him high above her head, watching the toothless smile spread across his face, saying with eyes what they could not say with words.  With a heaviness that pushed her heart into her stomach, she knew that she’d have to set him free, to watch him move from baby to boy to man to king.  To allow him to put into practice all of the lessons that she had poured from her soul into his soul.

But, she was not ready yet.   She stopped short of beginning that dialogue, beginning that dance.  With the beauty of her past that she wanted to gift him, came something entirely different, something guttural.  She couldn’t be certain that he would be able differentiate between the two.   So they sat and they watched as the moment, the possibility of that moment journeyed alongside the curb and down the drain, like the history attached to the water spouting out of the hydrant.

Museum of Life by Laurie Cannady

“We can’t be here much longer,” she leaned over to roll up the passenger seat window, even though Dereck was sitting in the seat.

“ Why Ma,” he asks, “I like it here.” She knew why. It was nothing like Avis, Pennsylvania, where the entire neighborhood tucked itself into bed at 7:00 in the evening. Here, the sun going down was like a rooster calling to its minions, signaling that the day had just begun. “Can’t we just stay the night here with Aunt Tricia? I’ve been having so much fun hanging out with my cousins.”

“No,” she quickly responded. She knew that she didn’t belong there anymore and she hoped he’d realize that he would never belong there as well. She didn’t want him infected with the comfort that had cursed many Park inhabitants into a life of poverty. Dereck looked at her with disappointment, with doubt in his eyes, while she eyed the group of guys littering the front of the corner store. She wasn’t sure if the smoke floating from their lips was from the cold Virginia air or the joint that they were passing around their circle. She settled on the latter.

She and Dereck sat there, waiting for Tricia to come out of the house with a plate of food from the funeral. If Laurie could have stomached another round of McDonald’s on the way back to the Renaissance Hotel, she would have left and taken her chances on Mickey D’s, but she was jonesing for the ham, collards, and deviled eggs that each of her family members had put pieces of themselves in as they prepared for Aunt Ella’s repasse. She might have also felt safer in the house with the rest of her family, but she didn’t dare leave her car unattended, for fear that she’d return and it would no longer be there. She began to grow impatient with her surroundings. Things that she hadn’t feared when she was thirteen, like running the streets of the Park alone at 3 a.m. or hanging in front of the same corner store that she was now surveying , frightened her, causing her to sweat profusely, gluing her body to the leather seat of her Lexus.

She spied a man walking in front of her car. His hands were hidden snuggly in his pockets, and he wore a bubble of a coat that gave the allusion of a hot air balloon. Her heart jumped into her throat. She quickly hit the automatic locks on the door, grabbed a hold of her cell phone and began dialing Tricia’s number. “What’s wrong, Ma? “ Dereck asked, searching her face for an answer. He followed her eyes to the man that she was peering at. “Come on, Ma. The man is just walking to his house. See, he’s not trying to bother us.” Dereck’s right, she thought to herself. That man wasn’t concerned with them, but that didn’t mean that the next one wouldn’t be. She was ready to leave, food or no food.

She gazed at the big oak with branches that towered over her former roof, waving stoically in the winter wind. She’d often sat in her bedroom window, looking out at that tree, wondering what strife it had seen in its years in the park. She’d sometimes mock it because it was stuck, rooted there and she was determined that she would not be. She now stared at its limbs through her sunroof. Each one was familiar and had seen her life in ways that she’d just as soon forget. They’d spied when she’d gotten into a fight with April in 88’ and had barely escaped with only a bruised ego. They’d witnessed her kissing Sanford for the first time on the porch and had promised that she’d be with him forever. They’d seen her as she waited at the bus stop on a cool wintry morning and peered at the gutter holding remnants of Jermaine Mills’ brain after he was shot and killed in 1989. They’d seen all of these things and she didn’t want them to see anymore. She didn’t want them peering into her son in the way that they’d peered into her. She didn’t want him to have to look through the veil of their leaves in order to see the world, the real world that was filled with success stories born out of broken cycles of dysfunction.

So, she silently sat in that car and she didn’t tell Dereck why they couldn’t stay there. She feared her warnings would have the opposite effect. She didn’t tell him that she believed their car would be stripped by the time that they woke up the next morning because they had out of state plates and all outsiders were fair game. She didn’t tell him that she’d seen someone’s blood, some mother’s child gunned down right where their car sat on that winter night. She didn’t tell him that her biggest fear was that he would choose the allure and excitement of the park over the ordered and privileged world that she had crafted for him, thereby mending the cycle of dysfunction right where she thought she had broken it beyond repair. She just sat in the car along with her son and watched the night walkers of the park as if she were a spectator in a museum of her former life.

A Little Fictional Heat by Niya Cristine

She owned a restaurant in the desert that had copper kites pinned to the walls like flies to dried up lemonade. There were other things too that filled the room. Couples sat at low-lit tables and three chefs had the same hairdo; stiff little Mohican waves that curl at the tip.

She’d been here longer than she expected. She’d purchased the restaurant, a home, and a pure bred Irish Setter. She bit her nails and soaked her feet every night after work.

What had she left behind for the high altitude and ancient, dying Junipers?

The south wall of the restaurant turned a silvery claret while a woman having dinner put her wedding ring down on the table in front of the man across from her. He held the empty finger and massaged it; his expression, slightly bored but tender.

In the kitchen, she prepped the powdered milk for the next day and picked out a fallen black hair. The silky powder slid down the bowl like a ski bum’s dream. The smell… that wanting to be real and whole smell, the silky texture of the powder; how it looked like it could be something its not.

She asked chef number 2 to finish the milk and took Jake, the Setter for a walk in time with the closing desert light. A scrawny fox dashed into the sage brush as Jake bumbled out the back door of the kitchen. Sounds began to unwrap her thoughts like unopened cans.

Her husband waited for her in the yellow Chevy.

The woman from the restaurant walked towards her car. Jake ran to her, excited and familiar. She stood in between the Chevy, Jake, the woman and watched in slow motion as the woman repeated a gesture she had known for how long? weeks? days? months?, and touched Jake’s muzzle. He licked her hand.

The lake was almost invisible with so much dust and moving panoramas of clouds–sky drama. It was hard for her to hold still; to see it. But she stared with hope hearing the reassuring tinkle of burro bells nearby. Her husband approached now. She let the noise of his guilt fall past her ears to the prickly pear cactus as she’d asked him for the keys.

She called Jake, not looking at the woman. They got into the beat up Chevy and drove. The mesas to the right of her reached towards the distance; the fluted clefts the color of indigo, vermillion, the surfaces as orange as Jake’s coat. They drove until the grey cliffs and speckled sage consumed her in a delicate but intense invitation.

It won’t be long now.

Joshua Mohr

NS. How old are you, what is your shoe size and did you battle acne in high school or younger? Just kidding.

JOSH: You said “just kidding” about this question, but I’ll happily answer it. I’m 32. My shoe size is 12. And no, I didn’t battle acne, but I did have a late growth spurt, so my freshman year of high school, I was 5’1″ with a size 12 shoe. I looked like I had massive clown feet for my height, something beyond ridiculous, another classification entirely in which teenage boys and girls are sent to occupy planet earth from a distant orb of awkwardness. Plus, I usually had Twix bar stuck in my braces. Rough look, rough times. Thank Christ I finally grew.

NS. The title of your book, and a bit about what moved you to write it, and when it will be out.

JOSH: The title of my novel is “Some Things that Meant the World to Me.” It’s due out June 1st of this year (that’s 2009 depending on how many bong hits you’ve had). The book’s ideas started from several tendrils that I assumed would be independent short stories. Over the course of a few months, maybe six or seven, I noticed a similar personality driving all of the narratives, which meant
a) I was inadvertently using the same voice in every piece I was completing
b) These seemingly sovereign pieces were connected, even if only on a germ level in my brain or
c) I’m a complete hack who was writing the same story over and over, incapable of producing work that had any uniqueness whatsoever.

A and C both seemed like terrible options to choose, simply due to their inherent indictments, so I ran with the idea of stitching these different threads into a larger fabric. I knew I wanted to have the protagonist’s inner-child show up in his life and tell him to burn down their childhood home. And I wanted the novel’s flashbacks to render a broken home in a compelling way so I decided to literally break the house: its rooms drifting away from one another like the separating continents. Once I put these two components together, once I understood how odd and surreal and contorted the novel’s “rules” and space-time would be, that was when I really found my point of entry.

NS. In ‘Our Skies’ you bump up against the outlines of repression and cultural crunching and conditioning in a fascinating way. The character is literally imploding into song. Is this type of tension something that recurs in your characters in other works? Or mostly in your flash fiction?

JOSH: Repression interests me a lot. I like to play with characterization through innuendo and inference. This may be apocryphal, but someone told me that Paul Bowles said that all good stories are detective stories. I really believe that to be true. Bowles isn’t saying that all books should have main characters with two-day stubble and drinking problems who chain-smoke as they unravel mysteries. He’s advocating, at least in my interpretation, for turning the reader into the detective, for immersing the reader into a world in which she/he will have to decode the clues, unearth the secrets and preoccupations of the characters–reader not only as detective but also archaeologist.

This leaves a lot of space for repression to be an integral part of that process. What a character doesn’t say, or doesn’t let her/himself think about, these become humongous indicators into their nature: these can heavily influence a reader’s understanding of who the character is. It certainly isn’t a paradigm of psychological realism, but there is space for an affinity to develop between reader and character, a space that is vital not only in flash fiction, but all genres. I don’t like it when writers dauntingly explicate why characters are doing the things they are doing. I, as a reader, like to put the pieces together on my own; I like writers who follow Bowles’ advice and trust their readers enough that they’ll succeed in configuring the “bread crumbs” in a thoughtful way.

As for cultural crunching and conditioning, office ecosystems both mesmerize and terrify me. I’ve had weird corporate jobs over the years. Of course, I either quit or get fired after a couple of months, but there would always be people who’d been there for years, tolerating or anesthetized to the oppression, the ennui, the anonymity that can rear itself in office-culture. “Our Skies” was an exploration of what might happen if someone who wasn’t in a particularly satiating point in his life lost this job and felt the need to retaliate. I never had the sense, as I was drafting the piece, that the character knew exactly what he was trying to get back at. It was more a vacillating, delusional angst, which made his revenge scenario really fun to write.

I do think this kind of tension recurs in my work: the disillusionment and malaise of 21st century tedium. In this case, it was a corporate scenario. In the novel, it’s the collision of past and present, the way dormant emotion can still be volatile, unconsciously squealing directions and steering our lives. I enjoy examining people struggling with emptiness, nakedness; it’s people lacking purpose or feeling fettered by a certain status quo they never aspired toward but rather occupy out of habit or stagnancy or obligation.

NS. I notice you play in the realm of imagination and language quite comfortably. I want to know more. When a piece comes to you are aware of the impulses leading it or you?

JOSH: Imagination… isn’t that what it’s all about? If writers are trying to elicit emotional responses in total strangers… if I’m trying to make a man in Tuscaloosa or a woman from Seattle feel something–whether it’s pathos or joy–there are only so many emotions to choose from. Writers are recycling these emotions, which puts an exponential pressure on individual authors to find new images, new metaphors to say things other writers have already commented upon. This can be precarious, almost atrophying if you dwell on it too long. It’s been my experience that it’s best to force a few pages out, even bad pages, usually bad pages at first, and then hone and sculpt from there: sift for the image that can render anger or ambivalence in an exciting, totally original way. We have to select the image to modify the story’s emotional stakes.

I have the attention span of a weimaraner on crystal meth, so for me, one of the struggles is to keep my stories or novels in scenes with unusual, often unpredictable scenarios unfurling. I like to put my readers in visceral and macabre scenes, never for shock value, always leading toward a thoughtful conclusion, what Margaret Atwood called the “unexpected inevitable.” And hopefully I’ll tell a wild story along the way.

NS. You teach a lot of classes. What are you teaching and where? Do you have a favorite?

JOSH: I teach at the Writing Salon in San Francisco. I run a Sunday night fiction workshop, which is really fun. Always a great group of people. Most of the time we focus on student work, but if I see similar issues creeping through multiple submissions, I’ll do mini-lectures. But more often than not, the emphasis stays on students’ stories and peer feedback. We laugh a lot in those classes. I always teach from the vantage point of revision, the idea, as William Gass astutely said, that a rough draft is just the words that will lead you to the right words. Once you accept that rough drafts are by definition crappy, I think there’s a liberty in that. You give yourself the space to renovate stories that have problems.

Also, through the Salon, I teach classes geared more toward honing specific aspects of story telling. For example, starting in February, I’m teaching a 5-week course just on dialogue, which I employ congenitally in my own work. I’m really excited to see the synergy that develops in there.

I teach an Intro to Fiction class through UC Berkeley’s ASUC studios. These are 6-week courses, and we tackle a different element of story telling each session. It’s a nice way to “get your feet wet” if this odd, fiction thingie interests you.

NS. On language… how you pack it in, its mesmerizing and affects my sense of time in the piece. You speed up time and you slow it down in ‘Our Skies’. It reminds me of Tobias Wolff, ‘Bullet in the Brain’ — which you brought to my attention in the writing class I took with you. Is Tobias in the top five favorite writers of yours? And has his work been an influence?

JOSH: I think anyone who loves American short fiction has a place in her/his heart for Tobias Wolff. He’s a master story teller, one of the original dirty realists. I go back to his stories and study them when I feel my plots are convoluted or I’m trying to describe something in too complicated a way. I admire his pared down prose, his humor, the way he carries his imagery through from a story’s beginning to its conclusion; really, though, it’s his mustache that I most admire. If I stopped shaving today, it would take me 30 years to grow something that facially hegemonic. It’s really wonderful.

Specifically in terms of “Our Skies”, yes, I enjoy rushing through certain situations and then suddenly making things more syrupy, delaying gratification over paragraphs, maybe pages. Plot drives flash fiction, but so does character, and it’s the intangible balance between these two elements that makes exciting micro-fiction. All fiction, really. It’s putting the right character in the correct sequence of events and vice versa; if either is off the piece won’t work. But in flash, a writer doesn’t have the necessary space to delve into psyche and history.
These details must be compressed, which is where innuendo can be so powerful. It’s where imagery has to address the emotional stakes of the character. In a sense, the imagery facilitates the reader’s experience, as it chips away the paint and reveals what’s underneath.

And who knows? Maybe someday, I’ll have a kick ass mustache of my own.

Our Skies by Joshua Mohr

No one knows what you’re doing. You, a rogue cater-waiter who none of the guests see slip away even though twenty minutes earlier they all begged you for free glasses of champagne or apple martinis or cosmopolitans, the entire bar tab paid for by an ad agency that six months earlier you’d worked for and had been wrongfully terminated on a bunk allegation of coming to the office under the influence of alcohol, a charge totally bogus, but what, were you going to sue a billion dollar corporation? Could you really exact your revenge against their Ivy League lawyers whose assholes smelled like cappuccinos?

It hadn’t been booze that affected your job to such a shimmering detriment, but music. Music you never knew existed. Music that dwelled in the binary code you helped maintain and manicure and nurture as a programmer in the company’s IT department. You never expected to find song in that ocean of ones and zeroes, but on a Thursday morning it shared its voices with you, whispering spirituals through your computer’s speakers; that first morning you looked all around, wondering if other workers heard it too, but they didn’t. They in fact heard no music coming from their computers, didn’t hear the songs secreting from the speakers in four-part harmonies, a cappella, songs that sounded as if they came from a southern Baptist church, somewhere in rural Arkansas, some time in the nineteenth century, an entire congregation clapping their hands on the downbeats, swaying with the spirit of their piety.

You alone heard these songs, and the longer you listened to the plangent lyrics, you cried, right there at your desk, you wailed because the songs seemed to say that life didn’t have to be so lonely, and you kept asking, “How? How can things get better?” and your coworkers walked by and stared and you saw their mouths moving in conspiratorial whispers and before you knew it, your boss had called you into his office.

He made a speech about the way your sick days vanished in the first quarter, and the way your peers found you unapproachable, defensive, sometimes mean, the way you never seemed interested in your primary responsibility of overseeing the agency’s intranet site. He told you that the whole office knew you had a drinking problem, and then he seemed baffled by the mass of your failures, scratching the stubble on his cheeks, before saying, “You’re fired.” “I didn’t know anything was wrong,” you said. “You didn’t?” he asked. “Life can be like that. Everything’s okay and then the sky starts falling.”

You tried to explain the music seeping from your computer, that machine that ached in its c: drive, tried to explain the concerts of uncanny precision and passion, but your boss didn’t want to listen, and you said, “The music is a miracle,” and he said, “You’re drunk. Go home,” and every day for the last six months, since they fired you for no good reason, you’ve searched everywhere to find that music again.

You’ve tried to recreate the exact scenario from that cathartic Thursday morning: drinking single-malt scotch the second you got out of bed to forget she’ll never let you come home, drinking single-malt scotch on your drive into work, scotch out of the same coffee cup you used at the office, the mug with the ad agency’s name splattered on its side in a streaky cursive. You’ve duplicated these details with precision, though you’ve done them at home, no longer welcome in an office you helped build from the ground up. You’ve replicated every thread of minutia and then stuck your ear to your home computer, listening and pleading, trying to coax concerts that never came, and the longer you went without hearing the songs, the longer the agency deprived you of the music, an inevitability mounted regarding your plot for revenge.

Like this: like tonight: you feeling ready to take your boss’ advice and make the sky fall: you posing as a cater-waiter at their company Christmas party, actually growing a moustache and wearing dark-rimmed glasses and dying your blonde hair pitch-black to disguise yourself as a stranger, to conceal your malice in a blue-collar façade; you distributing spirits, stationed off to one side of the room, keeping the guests well imbibed, and then you skulk out the door, abandoning your post so you can scale the humungous pine tree that’s planted in the courtyard in front of the building. It’s decorated like a Christmas tree during December.

The first branches of the tree don’t start until about eight feet up its shaft so you have to jump and do an awkward pull-up, finally swinging your legs over that first branch, shimmying, slowly at first and then getting comfortable, winding up to the top. Two corporate zombies, a man and a woman, come out front for cigarettes and seduction. You hear the man say, “My wife’s skiing in Purgatory for the weekend,” and she says, “How are you going to pass the time?” and he asks, “Any suggestions?”

You’re finally here: at the top of the sixty foot tree, poised to throw ornaments, to heave red and green globes at these enemies as if it’s raining glass bullets, and you let two fly, not trying to hit them yet, but warning shots—why hadn’t your wife given you any warning shots, why didn’t you deserve the naked courtesy of notice?—and the ornaments smash into the courtyard, fifteen feet from the zombies’ positions. They jump. The woman drops her champagne flute, splintering, and the man says, “What’s happening?” and you yell down at them, “That’s life. One minute everything’s fine and then Wham! The sky starts falling!”

More people run out of the building to see the fracas, a blaze of commotion slithering its way through the crowd, tangling itself around the courtyard like a starving python. Panic. Fear. You love watching the workers scatter, churning around like a startled marching band, and they’re right where you want them. Every last one. Each employee who didn’t hear your music. Each of them that let you go without second thought. They’ll be taught what you already know: our skies fall, our lives fall, and there’s nothing we can do except gobble multivitamins and wait for calamity.

You take three more ornaments and pitch it at the wiggling clog of people and say, “This is life!” and then you throw another at them and say, “These are our lives!” and you throw another armful of ornaments and say, “Our skies rain shit and these are our lives! These are our tiny lives!”

Time loses its math, sheds its codes. Some people in the crowd look up, open-mouthed, gasping, looking at you or at the glass orbs gaining speed, plummeting toward their faces, while others look down and cover their heads with their hands; strangely, no one flees, all frozen and baffled and addicted to witnessing the conclusion of your air raid, but you, you actually close your eyes, close them so you can listen to the shattering ornaments morph into four-part harmonies and hands clapping as if you were there, in that dusty church, because beauty can rise from something ugly, and only then can the silence shave its sins away as if they’re ancient skin.

I Dream in RGB. I Fear in Grayscale by Mark Gurvis

Click. Click – again. Click – and again. Wait…click.
The walls are never going to assume a new pose. Concrete is so awfully gray.
Go on, walk out…click. Another vantage point. Click. It’s under-exposed.
Click – caught something – 1/125th of a second. No exposure compensation. No morality meter.

In 1906 the certainty incinerated. In its place the great City arose again. This time we will withstand an 8.0; at what price exactly?
The business travelers arrive. They bunk down in the rooming house of cells. It’s a comfortable jail. They can’t open the windows, so they have to breathe the conditioned air. They become conditioned. Humans are so adaptable, they can survive almost anywhere.
Even in downtown America.

Click. The fog and clouds make a mockery of your slab-sided edifices.
A leaderless society just got a leader.

I go to the orange bridge. The air has shifted. It’s colder now, and blowing from the north. F-7.1 at 2 seconds, ISO 800, 70 mm. The sky is moonless. The stars streak across my sensor, as the bridge glows in sulfuric light. The red beacon shines atop one shoulder. Open panels in the superstructure attempt to frame the cosmos. What elegant folly.
My tripod is carbon-fiber. But the wind is stiffer. Long exposures suffer from the buffeting. My brain is beginning to freeze. Tail-lights and head lights merge into streams across the span.

The small towns just to north of the Gate each slowly descend into the suburban horizon the farther Alaska bound one ventures. One of them, around an old mill, has shed its frontier and hippy pasts to become trophy wife-ville. Its studied quaintness begs the question of rot beneath. One of my $475 an hour lawyers lives there.
I can’t find the objects of my derision in the hills of the old mill town. I leave empty handed, I believe. Maybe in the contact sheets, the edits, something will stand out? Or not.

Boston, twenty degrees. It’s January. On our way to the Garden in a late 1980’s BMW with a huge back seat. My colleague Chris and his glasses, framed by the oversized rear door window, stared through the partly steamed glass at the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge. It was a photograph. Ushered into the private corporate boxes, without a glance at my big equipment pack on my back, fifteen pounds of camera and lenses, a flash. I kept thinking I could have a scope and sharpshooter’s rifle. No one would have known. In the box, comments about my zoom lens – was I compensating? Of course I was. For my insecurity about what I was doing. Why was I now taking seven hundred shots of pituitary cases stuffing a ball through a hoop? I got one photograph. Not a good ratio.

Back in the hills of my City. There’s a vista I love, I wanted to capture it at the school on Parnassus. I wanted to anthropomorphize the towers that rear themselves above the mundane-ness that rolls to the ocean. Arched eyebrows of windows of a medical building appeared to stare into the sunset and the great ocean. The feline head of de Young’s latest incarnation seemed more human than pet. It is a post-modern Sphinx—An homage to the ancients? Her flat crown cut a line across the headlands. And the sky allows wispy clouds to frame it all.

A mother in a hat, red shirt, with two children trapped in a rolling contraption. She knelt down, and together they peer at the view through the railing at the edge.
Click. The same image—A photograph of the unconsciously imprisoned. Another woman in the coffee shop with one seat of the view that she occupies noticed me. A businesswoman from a small town on the eastern edge of our conurbation – she said she envied me. She used to do street reportage in the City, years ago. I told her she is doing her email at the best seat in the City. The sadness behind her eyes frightened me.

The actress I love, Kate Winslet, is in two movies. I see her strong performances through my new eyes. F-2.0, ISO 25,600. High Definition. Full frame. Cinematography is fascinating, but fraught with risk. Poor continuity, average set design, lousy makeup.

Me? I am a one-person visual department; watching, searching, fearing…and on occasion capturing a fraction of a second of Truth.

edited by niya sisk

Salmon Becomes Them by Kathy Powell

I am chiseled by the plane of your brow. The pattern of your features and line are simple, elemental. Provocative, haunting and familiar like a well loved ghost story told in winter in the musky cedar long house.
• • •
Meat hung low, a fire burning small and mindlessly tended. Children are gathered sleepy and helter-skelter on planks one tear up from the fire pits. Aunties and brothers busy over berries and hides but comforted knowing word for word the story that will come again from the grandmother’s own personal weaving of the Salmon Boy story.

Generations of winter tellings about when he will be swallowed by Salmon and the promise Salmon makes that the people can always sleep well knowing the lost boy will return each Fall and Spring bringing the Salmon for his people to fish and dry. Children are crumpled in the laps of the older ones. The littlest ones are asleep before the Salmon Boy returns. They swim among silver sided Salmon in their dreams, strong and plentiful enough for there grandchildren’s grandchildren.

Salmon swim up through our lodges, up in the rafters in rows. They swim through the waters dappled with fallen leaves, keeping us safe from snow hunger. And then again, they swim again into Spring waters, carrying us with them into silvery summers.

Salmon swim and dive in people’s dreams spawning stories in bellies to come out of our grandmother’s mouths. The stories call the children back to bellies of the Salmon, bewitching them so that they will always know they are Salmon people and crave the Salmon to spawn around, through and among them and become them again and again until they become Salmon and Salmon becomes them.

edited by niya sisk

Ice Bar by Niya Cristine

It’s cold.
The hair on the back of my neck stands up in a feeble attempt to function as an insulating fur. From this place, from the blue ice the blood is busy in everyone trying to constrict and create heat.
And from here… the brain fuses with more than alcohol.

• • •
I try not to look at the burly man to my left with the blue lips and a three-inch mustache. He orders his fourth whiskey and moves closer. He laughs at my melancholy like it was a flat thing–a dead animal to strip of its fur. Why be melancholic when you can float your thoughts on whiskey in a blue ice bar?

As he talks about his skill as a hunter on the ice, I set my gaze on the long, shiny, carved ice table to his right. It looks high class. It looks like its surface is made of Italian marble. He tells me stories of cutting up animals. I love animals. I can’t hear him, I invent my own story as he talks. As he talks and talks.
—He throws me on that table like he’s doing me a favor. He throws his fur cape down under me a little too late. He makes my ass blue with his weight—smiling like a pirate inventing his own rules. But his rebellion tires me. I take my cold feet to his heavy belly and push him away—
All of this passes through me in an instant; these away games. Its cold. And people are drunk, they are saying things that cold and whiskey make possible.

Suddenly, the woman next to me turns and asks why I am here. She has dark, thick, straight hair and three freckles on her nose. She’s wearing a camisole, a heavy navy colored sweatshirt, a short skirt and tall furry boots. I hang my gaze on her boots. What’s with the fur in this place? It’s not like everyone lives in igloos and relies on animals for their beds. This isn’t pre-civilization. This is full of the elite who, over a Cigarello and anchovies say to their friends: ‘I did it. I went ice picking—it was glassy, it was blue, I saw a fish frozen into the ice, I almost hit it with my pick.’

I look her up and down in an obvious way. I’m here to set fire to old debris in my life. I’m here…I say… to buy boots like yours and ask someone like you to hike with me in the mist.
I want to feel scared and new again.

Lyssa Tall Anolik

NS. I’ve noticed in your writing such acute attention to detail, to the physical world, there is a sensuous quality in your writing. What do you feel pulls you towards this detail, what is evoked for you?

LYSSA: I worked as a park ranger and taught environmental education for ten years before I began to write “seriously.” As a naturalist, I learned to acutely observe and notice the smallest details in the physical world–the shapes and venation patterns of leaves and insect wings, the texture of tree bark, animal tracks in mud and snow. This ability seems to have spilled over into the rest of my life.

NS. Recently, you injured your right wrist and you can’t type with this hand without a lot of pain. What has left handed writing affected for you? Have you noticed a difference in style or content?

LYSSA: Only the words that absolutely must find their way onto the page make it out of my pen. The resulting work is much more concise and possesses an uncluttered, razor’s edge clarity that my previous writing did not. The thoughts are coming from the right side of my brain, so it’s as if I’m channeling a subconscious language. Here’s one of my favorite left-handed lines: “Only in this clean and holy light will we recognize the stranger in ourselves.”

NS. What compels you to write?

LYSSA: The desire to surprise and delight myself, to discover, to play. I believe I’m a little piece of the universe trying to figure itself out through an outpouring of creative expression.

NS. What do you dream of as a writer for your work?

LYSSA: That other little pieces of the universe will be surprised, delighted, and discover something new as they read my work.

Camouflage by Kate Adams

A free hour between meetings is reason enough to leave campus, to chase coffee and errands. The suburban streets have settled into the lull between lunch and the first lap in the long story of rush hour. On the raw edge of the new big box strip, there’s no one but me, slowing to make the turn, and a man standing at the corner, looking right through my windshield as I approach. He doesn’t have a windshield: he has a cardboard sign and my eyes graze it so quickly that if a detective later, investigating a crime, were to ask me, all I could offer would be guesses, the usual suspects: “homeless”? “please help”? “god bless”?

But there is no crime here, just a middle-aged woman slowing to turn, a short haired man wearing camouflage pants and a khaki
t-shirt and his dun-colored sign. And because we need to make stories as much as detectives need answers, mine begins spooling out behind my forehead: about a veteran, a tour in Iraq, maybe two, which is why he has lost his place here, because he was sent there. He is behind me now (rear-view, ephemera, red light), but I am still imagining him waking up this morning to pull on those pants purposefully, camouflage part of his presentation, soldiering and sacrifice the brand he gives to his product, which is the cardboard sign. He was holding it gut-high; he was standing on the side of the road, claiming the no-man’s land between the clean sidewalk and the dirt median, strawberry fields, horizon. Farm workers in the far distance bend to their small wheeled carts in the low rows of red fruit, dots near the highway.

The light changes and I go on, spooling, riffing: camouflage. IEDs. Don’t forget to buy stamps. On the evening news, this war’s signature wound is traumatic brain injury. First stamps, then Starbucks: SBUX on the NYSE. We Make Money the Old-Fashioned Way: We Earn It. Talk to Chuck: Charles Schwab. The best money-launderers endure, day after decade, punctuating the news bites with ads that fibrillate between high fustiness and low familiarity, pinstripes or plain folks.

To talk with him I would have had to pull off the road, roll down the far window, and invite his upper body into the cabin. To give him money I would have had to unfasten my seat belt, lift up my ass to fish out my wallet, and riffle. Instead I’m fingering my turn signal and negotiating my next move, perfectly upright and alert, my mind twittering in a clutter of news and arrogance and also perfectly useless questions. The policed can rarely afford the truth.

At the post office, the sun is benign, I leave my car comfortably paused between parallel painted lines, there’s very little wind, and inside I join the queue with my envelopes, before and behind my fellow executioners busy with our days stretching out toward our individual evenings, defining our territories by answering our cell phones and cleaning our guns and polishing our swords of casual inattention.

God on Vacation by Lyssa Tall Anolik

God decides to take a vacation. Not a long one, just some down time to sit on a beach somewhere on the planet Earth that he created several billion years ago. He always fancied Jamaica. He can blend in there, because the locals are so relaxed. He’s been there a number of times before, and they always recognize him, but they don’t make a big deal.

“Hey, Mon,” they say. “Welcome back. How ’bout something tall and fruity?” God nods appreciatively. He settles into a lounge chair on the white sand beach and watches the aqua-blue water lap against the sloped beach. He congratulates himself on water and white sand, sun and palm trees—all good. And fruity cocktails; even better. Sure, there’s lots of poverty and war and famine, and with global warming on the rise, there will be progressively more water and less land, but there’s nothing he can do about that. These earthlings are going to have to clean up their own mess. But the problem continues to nag him in the back of his mind.

God sighs. His cocktail arrives and he takes a long sip then twirls the pink paper umbrella. He enjoys coming to earth and taking corporeal form. Sometimes he appears as a woman. Sometimes a bird or animal. That’s when he/she/it is working under cover, to suss out how things are going. He does this on other worlds he’s created, too. But sometimes he gets confused, forgets which planet he’s on, and shows up as a bug-eyed alien on earth and scares people. He always regrets these mistakes for the panic they cause. As the Prime Creative Force in the universe, though, he’s entitled to a few blunders, because as anyone can see, his job is enormous.

He feels relieved, though, when he reminds himself that he’s not the only supernatural being to make such mistakes. Every millennia or so, he attends a conference of other prime creative beings from other universes. They get together and compare notes for ideas and inspiration. They form a kind of support group for one another to handle those instances when things go badly.

His turn to host the next conference is coming up. He thinks Jamaica would make a great meeting spot. Maybe he can get some advice about global warming.

Alzheimers by Lyssa Tall Anolik

Violet says, “No.”
I say, “Yes.”
The second hand on the plastic Garfield clock above the china cabinet ticks and inches forward. Violet doesn’t remember buying the clock at a garage sale in Woodburn last summer. We’re sitting at her kitchen table, and I’ve been working on her for ten minutes now, trying to get her to come out to the garden with me. The fresh air would invigorate her, and I want her to see the yellow heads of the daffodils that she doesn’t remember planting.
Again, she says, “No.”
“Why not?” I ask.
“That’s not an answer.”
“Is to.”
“We’re not in grade school anymore,” I tell her. Sometimes I get impatient. I can’t help it.
She says, “So?”
I say nothing. Garfield continues to tick away the seconds. Violet sits across from me, her hair tied into a neat silver bun and her hands folded primly on the table in front of her. She sits up straight and looks directly into my eyes, without blinking. I fidget and can’t seem to find a comfortable position on my hard vinyl chair.
I try a new tack: “Ok, listen. There’s a black-eyed junco outside, and a squirrel. They’re both fighting over the same feeder. The squirrel has figured out that if he hangs upside down on the branch from his toes, he can reach the hole in the feeder. But the junco keeps flying in and stealing the sunflower seeds, which makes the squirrel hysterical. He’s trying to protect his hoard, while keeping his balance.”
Violet thinks for a moment, then laughs.
“Would you like to go outside and see?” I offer.
“Yes,” she says. My hunched shoulders relax, and we get up to go.
This is how it often goes with Violet. She gets stuck in “No.” She doesn’t really mean it. It’s just that it’s the only action that feels safe anymore, since the illness started scrambling her neurons, causing her to forget things. I guess saying “no” to everything makes her feel in control of something. I have to trick her into saying “yes.” She has a soft spot for animals, so that’s always a good place to start.
Tomorrow we’ll go to the zoo. She’ll say, “No.” But I’ll tell her how the giraffes just had a baby and it’s still wobbly and making mewing and snorting noises. It may not be true, but it will get her to “Yes,” and then when we get there, she won’t remember about the giraffes anyway. But she’ll point and laugh at the penguins, monkeys, and lemurs, even if the memories disappear by the next morning.
I often wonder what it must be like, not to have a past or a future. What would it feel like if I could live only in this moment I’m in? Violet and I watch the squirrels every day. I’ve seen them before a hundred times, but today is always her first time. She giggles like we’re in grade school again.

My Brother Buddy by Verna Wilder

The day two nuns in a station wagon ran over my brother Buddy, I had been rollerblading along East Cliff Drive wondering why I never fell in love with appropriate women. I fell in love with fun women, mind you, interesting and even exciting women, but not with women who could make a commitment for more than about five minutes, and I was well into version 176 of this thought, which ought to give you a clue how much I thought about this and to what incredibly stupid depths, and I remember rolling over to the fence along the cliff and just hanging there when the ambulance passed, having no idea my brother Buddy was in there, with a broken leg and such a scrape on his forehead and along his cheek that you can still see the bloodstains in the handicap parking space outside Lucky’s Supermarket, and I guess in a way he was lucky, since the nuns didn’t see him at all and the only thing that saved him from being completely run over was the bag boy who bumped a full grocery cart into the side of the driver’s door of the station wagon to get the driving nun’s attention, and so Buddy was only run over a little bit, even though he still tells the story to anyone who’ll listen about how he was almost killed, only he leaves out the part about how he was bent down tying his shoe right there in the parking lot like there wouldn’t be cars backing out for god’s sake, and my  mother says she still gets palpitations when she remembers that cool-as-a-watermelon voice on the phone asking her if she had a son named Richard, which he hates, and which is why we’ve always called him Buddy, like that’s not a better name for a dog than a boy.

So anyway, I was rollerblading along East Cliff Drive scolding myself when Buddy was being run over, but after I found out about Buddy, it didn’t seem to matter so much about the way I choose women, so I think about that day and how clear the sky was and how my feet seemed to find the smoothest part of the pavement so that I hardly had to think about where I was going or what I was doing, and I remember skating around this big blond guy in a wet suit and how it was like a dance the way he stepped to one side and I did a step-over on my blades and the sun glinted off the front door of the Pleasure Point Quick Stop so that the day, except for Buddy getting run over, was perfect.

Ben Garlow

NS:  Do you, or did you have formal training in writing?

BG:  No. Well in college my minor was in English. Can’t you tell?

NS: What about language inspires you?

BG: The first time my mom yelled, “time to eat”, and the most important question in the English language, “how do you like it?” It’s gotten me through many awkward situations.

NS: When did you start to write about things that mattered to you?

BG: When I learned how to create my hard-ons. That’s to say that I began to write poetry to young women I was interested in. Of course they loved the attention but had no idea what I was trying to say. Then I met a woman who understood, and didn’t laugh. She was my first love, and eternally so.

NS: Do you write everyday?

BG: That’s like asking me, “do you like pain everyday?”

NS: Writing is painful for you?

BG: I consider it unkempt activity

NS: Name some authors that inspire or you feel a kinship with.

BG: John Steinbeck, Richard Brautigan, and Jim Harrison, my literary troika. Also a beautiful redhead turned me onto Sherman Alexie, the best short story writer around today.

NS: No women writers?

BG: Is my gender showing? Beryl Markham wrote one book, “West with the night” a masterpiece, and not arguably so. Plus I’m a tadpole; please be gentle with me.

NS: Thank you for taking these questions seriously, and your responses.

BG: My pleasure. But let me ask you one question. Are you the reincarnation of C.S. Price the painter?

Jon Boy by Niya Cristine

His name was Jon. And he looked like John Boy from the Walton’s. Our first date was a walk in my neighborhood in Mill Valley Ca. It was a beautiful day, everything smelled alive and his stringy blonde hair looked like that of a 7 year old. I was jealous because my hair was pool worn and straight iron worn. I also didn’t know if Jon could win me over with his masculinity, he looked so…well, John Boyish.
I decided as we walked, why not test him out a bit? It was the late 90’s, I was in the most confident time of my life as a woman. lots of flirting, lots of floundering and not caring.

So, I said to him, “It’s sad really…” he looked at me curiously.
“Well, how boys are taught the 1, 2, 3 method of seduction with a girl. When they grow into men they usually keep it up.”
“Oh, pleez…tell me more, this ought to be good” he chortled at me.

“1. Get close enough to the girl to hold her hand.
2. If you get that close, take it a step further and put your arm around her. If you’re lucky she won’t notice, but you still accomplished something.
3. Go for the kiss. Get your tongue in there or she’ll think you’re gay.”

He laughed and did exactly what I wanted I him to do… he kissed me. “3.” He said while pulling me to him in such a forceful, sexy way that even John Boy Walton would’ve taken note.
It was a good kiss. Good enough for me to accept a date with him two nights later.

He took me to a raw foods restaurant in San Francisco. The waiter seated us on cushions on the floor near the window. Everything was cold. The food, the floor, even the waiter looked skinny and cold. And his skin Vampire-ish pale, marble sheen to it. It gave raw food new meaning to think of the waiter as a Vampire. But Jon was a major vegan. He couldn’t even smell meat without wanting to puke. I didn’t know this previously. But as it turned out, I didn’t know Jack about Jon. In fact, if Jon’s name were Jack I wouldn’t have been surprised by the end of this night.
By the time the Licorice tea came I was craving a Martini in a big way. Jon was talking pridefully about the mother of his child, his ex-wife. How he left her when she was pregnant with his son because he realized her body type was never something he liked. He scratched his crotch a lot as he told this story. To this day I don’t know why–guilty crotch syndrome maybe. Anyway, he moved to another state and got a skinny girlfriend. I asked him to describe his ex-wife’s body type. “Voluptuous, athletic.” He said as he slurped the seaweed into his mouth. “But that’s me, that’s my body type.” I said incredulous. “Yeah, you aren’t my body type either.” “Are you whacked?” I said, eyeing the skinny waiter because he was starting to look really good to me.
Jon laughed and kept eating. He was pleased with himself for some reason. We were quiet for what seemed like an hour, as we ate. The sounds of cars passing got louder. I felt colder. I wanted to go home. But Jon had more to say. The night morphed into something more like a circus act of the soul—something darkly amusing and creepy at the same time.
He smiled and pulled his stringy hair to the side. He eyed my cleavage. “My current girlfriend runs a whorehouse in Mill Valley.” He said casually. I stared blankly at the floor and realized we were the only ones in this restaurant. He wanted to eat at 6 p.m., which I thought was pretty early. He probably had plans after this with the whorehouse mistress.
“You may know her…” I put my hand up in his face to stop. “You know, I have this essay to write on hobo language, a design paper for…”
I trailed off. The waiter came by. “Check please.” I said a little too enthusiastically. And he looked at me pitifully. I wondered how many women Jon had brought here. Not that I cared in the way I should have with someone I was attracted to until now. I wished a cab home didn’t cost a hundred dollars; that I was rich enough not to care. But this wasn’t the case.

As I closed the passenger’s side of his funky white van, he said “I’m sorry, I’m so ashamed of the male conditioning I carry in my being. I try to cleanse. I eat…”
“Raw food” I interjected. “Well. I eat well. I try to learn and grow…”
“I was just wondering if you could start the van. I really need to go home.” I said anxiously. But he didn’t. He talked for 10 minutes straight about this issue and that issue and all the issues with him and his whorehouse 1099 woman. What a consulting gig, I thought sullenly. Finally, I said, “I’m just not into you, I’m not interested. Please take me home.” He laughed. He looked at me stunned. He said, “Now that! I just don’t believe. When I look in the mirror, I want to DO me.”
I went to my happy place at this point. I needed to calm down before I gave opened my mouth again. I needed to be effective. I thought about my bed, my own bed, how good it would be to get in it ALONE. I gave him a long, thorough look and said: “Then, THAT’S all you need! All you need is YOU! Now take me home.” I demanded. This time I glared at him until he relented. I hoped he got the message I would kick his skinny little ass if he didn’t step on it. He did.

In the morning I cuddled with my white coyote dog. I opened my bedroom window to hear the sounds of the creek going by I called my best girlfriend and told her the story over morning coffee. We laughed really hard.

What was I thinking? Clearly I wasn’t thinking at all. I would like to say that the next time I did. That I did think. But no, charm over seeing was a theme for a few more years.

Submitted December 27th 2008 : Come to your senses day stories.

Milk Run in Idaho by Ben Garlow

Trying to get to West Yellowstone for work, I caught a train on a milk run out of Twin Falls up to Rexburg, Idaho; riding with the rail men in the wooden caboose, a pot belly stove fired up with coal to take the chill off the 5 a.m. morning. About every two to three miles the train would stop where dirt roads crossed the tracks, and we would drop off 10 gallon, mushroom-top, metal milk jugs weighing about 80 pounds each, and pick up the empties. I never saw anybody, but helping out paid for my train ride.

From Rexburg it was about a ½ hour bus ride up to West Yellowstone, but today there were no buses running. Sitting at the train station mulling over my situation I noticed a green and white Chevy going up the street to its end, turns around, comes back to the station, and in a swirl of dust goes back up the street again. I’ve never seen a car pacing back and forth; I motion it to stop, and it does.
Approaching the drivers side the window rolls down, and a young man, about my age, is sitting behind the wheel.
“Nice car, yours?”
“I saw ya driving around, and wondered if you’d drive me up to West Yellowstone. I’ll buy the gas and a six pack. That’s if you want to, and you’re not doing anything else?”
“Sure. Nothing better to do, my mom just died.”
The ride was long and silent. Some days there’s nothing better to do than putting some miles on the pain to wear it out.

Excerpt from “Pistol whipped and left for dead in Idaho. A comedy of two acts.” Ben Garlow 2008 copyright

Illustration by Niya Sisk

Short Shorts…(words, not lingerie folks!) by Ben Garlow

Dr. Paine, His Bagpipe and Neil Young
Years ago, when I was living on Neil Young’s Broken Arrow ranch, he turned me onto a San Francisco dentist, Dr. Rodney Paine. To relax me, and I assume his other patients, he would play his bagpipe before administering his special cocktail of narcotics into my receptive body. Later in our relationship he would come out to the ranch, and walk the hills at sunset playing his bagpipe. Soon after, his office was closed down, and he disappeared.

Excerpt from “Short tidbits, long memories” Ben Garlow 2008 copyright

John Steinbeck and Otter
Years ago I was on a literary pilgrimage to visit the areas my hero, John Steinbeck, wrote about. It was early morning, misty and cool, as I sat, legs dangling from the wharf called Cannery Row. I spotted, below me, an otter swimming on its back. On its stomach was an abalone shell, and he beat it rhythmically with a sharp stone.
“Why are you doing that?” I called down.
“Because communication is the responsibility of the sender”, came the otterish reply.
I swear to gawd this really happened. Everything, and everybody is a freakin guru.

Excerpt from “Short tidbits, long memories” Ben Garlow 2008 copyright

Blue Moon by Verna Wilder

In the middle of the night she enters the grocery store from the dark parking lot, blinking the light from her eyes, her lids coming down slowly, leaving grocery images on the backside of her eyelids:  red Quaker Oats bins with the smiling man in the black hat, apples mounded to pyramids, coffee cans green and red like Christmas, detergent boxes in a chorus line of cleanliness.  Then she opens her eyes, opens her coat slowly, button by button, as if for a lover who will take her with gentle, loving licks.  She pulls a cart from its ugly coupling, slings her worn grey purse into the child carrier, and wobbles past the produce, squeezing and pinching and palming the fruit, raising an apple to her face to breathe in a Washington state summer with her family in 1952.  In those days everybody liked Ike and her parents danced together at their own party to “Picnic,” her favorite song, and she dreamt taffeta-skirted dreams in the bottom bunk, her little brother muttering in his sleep in the bed above her.  She puts the apple back precisely, her fingers lingering over its red smoothness before she walks on, pushing the cart ahead of her.  The bananas are greenly ripe, firm and fragrant, breakfast size.  She hefts a bunch, pulls two fine ones from the stem, and lays them carefully in the bottom of the cart.  She hums to the murky music coming from the speakers she never can see.  Blue Moon.

The Last Road by Verna Wilder

I am 16 and driving fast down a long, straight stretch of road leading from one nowhere to another, the road an abandoned ribbon of gradual dips and rises, trees crowding in from either side, a strip of night sky illuminated by moonlight, and I can see how, at this time of night, and at this speed, and with the wind rushing past like a huge loping animal, I can see how the Trans Am leapt the road and flew like a fast-pitch baseball right through the buckeye tree, then cottonwood and ash, the car leaping and rolling long after Bobby Lee has been flung from the flying steel, long after his neck snapped and his wide eyes saw moonlight and leaves and then nothing at all, the car flipping, tires thrown wild, bent fender and broken window glass, tail light and hub caps, the disco music thumping, radio intact long past Bobby Lee’s ability to hear it.

Bobby Lee, cousin of the first kiss, the kiss of beer and cigarettes. Now I drive this highway fast and sober, no music to mourn this anniversary.

“Don’t you go out there,” Mother said to me after fried chicken and creamed corn, the six of us kids and Mother and Daddy all eating in silence, no one saying Bobby Lee’s name, no one saying, “One year ago this minute he was not yet dead,” but me thinking with every bite that one year ago this minute we had not yet fought about his drinking, which he wouldn’t quit, and my virginity, which I intended to keep.

Now I am driving fast down Bobby Lee’s last road after backing out of the driveway, tires spitting gravel, Mother running after the car screaming at me not to go, just as I had run after Bobby Lee’s tricked-out Trans Am, screaming at him not to go, and now with the broken trees overgrown again and reaching for me as I pass, I know exactly where Bobby Lee’s car went off the road, and I know as I slow my car on this ribbon road that there was no accident here, just Bobby Lee taking his left hand off of the steering wheel, maybe holding that hand out the car window as I’ve seen him do so many times, to let the rush of air pull the hand down and up and down again, and then his beer hand twitching the steering wheel before the decision could be unmade. I know this as sure as I know Bobby Lee, and I slow, pull over, and park on the scarred earth where Bobby Lee’s car took flight.

4 Pound Boyfriend by Niya C. Sisk

I have this rabbit. He thinks he’s my boyfriend. He weighs 4 lbs.
When I had a male friend over last week, I tried to introduce the two of them. Dakota, the rabbit put his right ear over his eye.
My friend said, “I guess male bonding is out of the question.”

The other day I put my yoga mat out. As I leaned over to do downward dog, Dakota, just a few feet away on his green blanket hiked his little butt up in the air and stretched his little buff colored front paws forward as far as they would go in the same position. He looked at me out of the corner of eye as he gave a yawn, like, “Is this all you got?”

“No way! You’ve got to be joking.” I decided this didn’t happen, and then lay down for a spinal twist. He, flopped his body down, rolled side to side and stopped in the middle on his back. His ears flopped and splayed out on the floor, he gave me a good stare.

Bunny Yoga? No way. I wanted something normal so I called a friend. “My rabbit just joined me in a little yoga on the floor”.
My friend laughed like friends do when they pretend you didn’t really say anything.

The next morning I went to let him out of his cage. The minute he saw me, he did another downward dog and then scratched at the cage door to be let out to his pen for his morning activities. “Don’t you want a girlfriend your own size?” I said, with a slightly fearful plead in my voice. “She’ll be there always, you won’t have to wait like this. She’ll lick your nose and stare at you for hours. You’ll still be ‘Big Boss’ I promise. He put his ear over his right eye so he didn’t have to look at me while I made such a ridiculous suggestion. Rabbits are all about dignity and respect.

Well, and…territory.

The other day, he was freezing me out like I was the scum of the earth. So, I started playing with my hair, pretending to groom myself. In rabbit language, this means “lighten up.” And he did. He came running over to me, laid down flat and looked at me like “Aren’t I the most handsome, macho, adorable man you’ve ever seen your life?” And I relented with an irresistible sigh.

Sometimes, I think–well, what about me? So, I lay on the ground. I sang him a Spanish song. He looked at me like I’d lost my mind and then chewed on my hair.

So I decided I’m getting him a girlfriend. I have a life to lead, work to do. I have relaxing to do. I HAVE FINDING MY OWN KIND TO DO. And, no offense to him but I like bigger guys.

I have to do something! I really do before I start doing bunny yoga, wasting a good man’s time with me, or putting my hair over my eyes when I don’t like what you’re saying to me.

author: niya cristine sisk. all rights reserved