After the Gazebo by Jen Knox


She felt it in her toes that morning, dread that she would shove into ivory heels and dance on beneath heavy clouds. He felt a surge of adrenaline that he thought must accompany every man on his wedding day.

Everything had been set in motion four months ago, when they adopted a pug that had been abandoned in a nearby apartment complex. They were unsure they’d have the time to devote to the puppy, but the pug’s bunched face and little square body seemed perfect. It would be a responsibility test, a sort of trial run before they had children.

The pug had dermatitis between his folds, which cost money to correct, as did his shots and medications. It was enough to tear a small hole in their new car fund; they had to reevaluate the year and model. The lesser car they picked had good reviews, and the salesman—when he realized they weren’t the best negotiators and had told him exactly what their real budget was—said it was more durable than a lot of the newer ones. The couple’s fate was sealed when she drove the car off the lot, when he inserted the CD he’d brought along. “Ocean Breathes Salty” began the soundtrack.


They decided on a name for their puppy after reading that the strange little forehead wrinkle pugs share is referred to as a prince mark because it resembles the Chinese symbol for prince. They took Prince on lazy walks after work, allowed him to watch Animal Planet, and each snuck him treats when the other was not watching.

They made resolutions often. Both wanted to be somewhere else, but were unsure exactly where. They lived near his family but far from hers, so they often spoke of moving somewhere in the middle. Her sister would call late at night, upset about her husband being out late. She longed to be there to comfort, to watch bad movies, make orange cinnamon rolls and tell her sister she deserved better.

The day of the wedding, they awoke five hours and twenty minutes before they had to be at the meeting center by the gazebo. Their wedding would be outside, in a park where they first met. Both had been joggers.

It would be a small ceremony. She would wear her mother’s ivory dress, still a touch tight around the hips. He would wear his OSU pin on his slant-striped gray tie. She would pick up her mother and sister from the hotel. Just fewer than forty people would surround them as they took their vows at Abaline Park at 2PM.

Prince had a habit of jumping up and down before treat time, after walk time, and this always made her giggle; her giggling made her fiancé want her. It was wedding day morning. She laughed at his pitched pants and serious stare when she walked out of the kitchen. With only hours remaining, he rushed her, he moved his fingers along her belly beneath her shirt, he led her to their bedroom where they would forget the world for almost an hour.

When they remembered the world, they became frantic. They rushed around, kissed goodbye. She took the car. Her mother, an artist, presented her with a black and white painting of Prince. She laughed, loved it. Her sister worked hard to laugh with then explained her husband couldn’t attend due to work. It had been last minute. The sisters embraced.

Prince refused to wear the doggie tux, so she clipped the bow-tie to his collar. She hoped that he remembered to pack the treats and collapsible water dish. His father was picking him up. His mother was in a wheel chair after having reconstructive foot surgery a few weeks back. She was a loud, beautiful woman. Her three grown children, husband-to-be included, had blinged out her chair while she was in surgery, so that she now called it her throne.

The gazebo was perfect. Nothing was overdone. The couple didn’t see each other until vows. The sky was overcast but with no threat of rain. Clouds framed them in pictures.

The couple kissed. Prince jumped up and down at the dance. His mother danced in her chair. Her mother sketched the children’s faces. Her father smoked cigars with his father as they talked about drone strikes then football then cigars.


The recall notice hadn’t reached them because they’d forgotten to write the apartment number on the paperwork; his email had filtered the e-copy to junk. The recall notice concerned hyper acceleration and asked that all owners of the make/model and year bring the car in for a free check. The parents would become angry and file a lawsuit. It would be a large suit, and they would become quite rich.

His mother’s foot would heal, and she would walk with only a slight limp to the two graves that sat alongside the back of the yard by an old, abandoned house. The families would gather here on the anniversary of the couple’s wedding, and they would sob and laugh and smoke cigars.

They would discuss the circumstance of death and fate, everything that had to line up. The family was rich, so incredibly rich, but it didn’t matter. The money did not reconcile how the SUV had swerved and their breaks had given way, sending their small car spinning into the median strip.

It was instantaneous for him. It was drawn out for her. She had that brief window, a chance to say goodbye. She’d told her sister that she knew, somehow, that she had thought it was just cold feet.

The sister divorced, became pregnant after a fling. Prince would live with her and rest his wrinkly head on her belly as he listened to her daydream about finding love. He would comfort her when she came home with child and was unable to sleep.

Prince would mind the child and growl at men the sister would bring home. Until his final years, Prince would be there for her, but he would never jump up and down. Instead, he would spend his every night at the door, waiting, unable to believe in fate.



“After the Gazebo” was originally published in ARDOR.

The Prize at the End of This by Jen Knox

Bucket List Perspective

Coworkers laugh it off from the safety of their cubicles, call out easy answers: cockroaches, death, heights, death, public speaking, death, and not death but dying. I shrug and say nothing in particular scares me most, so probably death, yeah, probably that.

I am brushing my teeth, and the answer taps me on the shoulder. I am jogging, and the answer rests on my feet like weights I must lift again and again. I know it will remain until addressed, haunt me until spoken, but I run faster and concentrate on my burning quads.

I set out to make a list—a sort of bucket list. As I begin writing, however, I think of Diana. Then I think The Voice is on, and I should go watch that. I set out to write another day and realize I should call someone about something that suddenly seems important. The answer, meanwhile, is now inside of everything: my husband’s snoring, my worry over the week’s unanswered emails, and the bills that keep my life routine.


There were three of us and three words. I listened quietly as Diana repeated the same question. She read the three words a dozen times, and every time she read them they took on more meaning. We sat in a small circle, writing with only one rule: don’t lift the pen from the page. We usually did three rounds, and this was the second. Ordinarily, my words tumbled out, but this day they clogged somewhere between brain and hand. I tried to shake them loose, but I could only look at Diana’s pen. It moved swiftly across the page. My answer sat atop my pen, but I could only write about not being able to write.

Diana had survived many rounds of chemotherapy and a hematopoietic stem cell transplant since being diagnosed with Leukemia. She elected to read again, spoke of death as burden, asked the same question with the same three words: “Am I next?”

She breathed slowly, spoke with no urgency or fear, but her words lodged beneath my skin, shook my blood. I relaxed when she smiled at me because I always relaxed when she smiled. I could hear the dull hum of my apartment and the faint clicks of my husband on the computer in the other room.

“Didn’t mean to bring down the room,” she said, chuckling. Her multi-colored scarf, vivid flowers, framed her yellowing complexion but more, her warm green eyes and perfect heart-shaped face. She nudged me, woke me up.


I had been stuck in my own head, a student not yet restricted to routine but eager to get there. I’d felt slower than most, not quick to pick up materials, not quick to make and keep friends. Self-consciousness and distrust had blurred my view, so I was harsh toward people, toward life, but Diana offered another kind word for every cold shoulder. A friend had made me.


Diana once told me that there is a place in our bodies, at the back of our hips, where bone marrow and blood stem cells collect. She started practicing yoga to, she said, release the vitality. The hips are nourishing but when released, they can heal. As more time passed, however, Diana stopped asking if she was next. By the time my friend passed away, it was merciful of life to release its grip.


The question—what scares you most?—cannot be unasked. I sit to write a sort of bucket list, sure that what scares me most is not to live to the fullest. For the first time since that writing practice so many years before, my words clog. I do not move. Pen cannot leave paper.

I figure this much out: The prize at the end of life is variable, so a list means nothing. I write about not being able to write. What scares me most? I write. Is it dying? Is it dying without having taken risks, without having learned to own mistakes, without learning to smile at life—at the joys and the absurd—the way my friend did, and to  love people who are not yet ready to be loved?

I write. Absence taps me on the shoulder, but I think of Diana. She puts her arms around my rigid self. She shakes me awake.

Nathan Alling Long | CR Stories Interview

Niya C. Sisk interviews writer Nathan Alling Long.


N.S. Two things that strike me immediately as I read your pieces, “In China” and “Flies,” is your range with unifying elements and stylistic efficiency. “Flies,” for instance, was humorous while not one word too many to convey the twists and turns of action and emotion in that scene. Do you aim to hit us right between the eyes with truth in the subtle crafting of elements or do you just have a very sharp editor’s knife?

Nathan: I’m not sure, though I think my writing process is really like everyone else’s, a bit of inspiration on the first draft, and a willingness to go over it with a comb.  I’ve come to believe though that I owe my writing practice largely to being dyslexic. Several writers are, such as my literary hero, Samuel Delany, and Richard Ford, who commented once that the pleasure of this disability was that a sentence always looked different each time one came across it—it never entirely settled on the page.  For me, it meant getting used to spending hours rewriting papers in college to make them passible; from that, I got comfortable with the idea of revision.

N.S.  The tension you create in the piece, “In China” is stunning. The detail in the breath patterns of the dying person. The heartbreaking loneliness expressed in the comfort of bad news. And again, the efficiency of words. Volumes are spoken. I would imagine flash fiction is your first art. Is that true?

Nathan: I suppose it’s true, in the sense that my flash publications outnumber my longer stories five to one.  Perhaps the more appropriate way to say it is that I struggle at getting any of the other forms right.  I worked on a novel for almost five years, but it was too large of a thing for me to get my brain around.  It was like carrying fifteen bags of groceries at once; something kept slipping out of my grasp and spilling all over the place.  I also have about a dozen long stories I’m working with at the moment, some of which I’ve worked on for ten years.  I don’t give up on them, but they seem to grow as slowly as children—they might well be eighteen or older before they finally seem ready to leave the house.

But flash I think of more as an experiment, a thing I do for fun.  That takes the pressure off; it invites me to play, since, if I fail, the consequences are smaller.  My computer is a big workshop, with all kinds of failed projects.   If I have fifty flash pieces published, I have twice as many that will never see the light of day.

N.S.  Who are your influences? Are they writers mostly? Or are there other artists, thinkers, people who have helped shape your writing style and motivations?

Nathan: I love what arists and musicians do for my writing.  Really, anytime I’m in the presence of an amazing artist or scholar, even at a lecture or reading, I walk away inspired to write.
That said, I have to thank the English Department at the University of Maryland, where I earned my BA years ago.  The authors I read there have really stay with me, particularly the European writers– Graham Greene, Elizabeth Bowen, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Franz Kafka, Margaret Duras, Virginia Woolf, Herman Hesse, and Rainer Rilke.  On this side of the Herring pond, I’d say Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, James Baldwin, Michael Cunningham, Jonathan Lethem, Ron Carleson, and Antonya Nelson.  My favorite living writer is probably Haruki Murakami.
N.S. You are already very accomplished, but what do you think about as your ideal life as a writer? Your hopes and dreams?

Nathan: I always wanted to be a writer, but was too intimidated.  In college, I took one creative writing class, but I stopped because my writing was full of technical flaws, as well as other issues.  Then someone told me that if you write seriously for ten years, you’ll start publishing. You mean it’s only a matter of trying for a long time? I thought.   It was a relief.  And so I wrote, while doing other things, and eventually got into an MFA, and started getting published.  I kept writing and published, but I’m a slow writer.  Perhaps that’s why flash is good for me as well.  Anyhow, now I have enough material for a collection of stories, a collection of flash, and a collection of essays.  My goal is to get at least one of these books out in the world.  I’m more interested in a good-natured press than a big named one.  And the one thing I have is patience.

N.S. What’s in the works now?

Nathan: Just working on fine tuning those three collections, really.  That, and raising my story children.

N.S. CR Stories is so thrilled to have your talent. Strong prose with layers of flavored truth, like a great Pinot is my experience of your work. But why CR? And, what about the theme: Paper, drew you in?

Nathan: I always look over a journal before submitting.  I really loved the layout and the range of writers, old and new, and the attention you gave to each—allowing us to experience two pieces, to read their bio, and then to learn more with the interviews.  It was also a plus that CR accepted previously published stories, which few journals do.


I’m always fascinated by paper, the way it waits patient and still for words to come to it (not like a curser and a bright computer screen), the way it can hold secrets, the way it can be crumpled or burnt.  I was talking to some young writing students the other day about postal mail, trying to convince them of how lovely it is to get a real letter, to hold it, to look at the stamp and the handwriting, and then open it.  Even the act of deciphering someone’s handwriting adds to the slow pleasure of reading a postal letter, as does holding a piece of paper that was once in the author’s hands, esp if they are far across the world, or no longer living. Paper holds all that in a way an email or text can’t.  I think that’s why many readers appreciate signed copies of books: the maker of the book actually touched the copy you own.

N.S. Thank you for the interview Nathan. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Nathan: Thank you for such generous question !  Nothing more to say; I’ve probably said too much already.

N.S. Nah, never!

Spring flashes out it’s paper prose with Nathan Alling Long

nathan-paper-blogpostPaper! What a crazy and amazing invention. Could you imagine us with a hammer and hundred of iron letters on our writing desks and large slabs of stone? Ah, suddenly… thinking of paper makes me feel I’ve lost a gazillion pounds and Shakespeare is whispering sonnets in my ear. Thank you paper, I love you!

Though paper was invented in 105 AD in China, our featured writer, Nathan Alling Long’s richly layered story “In China” is far from the invention of paper. The piece invents in other surprising ways. With paper as a witness to treacheries outside, it acts as unifying element of grief on the human level. This is a beautiful story. “In China” excerpt: 

Every day I read the paper, looking for such disasters—new piles of bodies found in Rwanda, an earthquake in Chiapas, a derailed train outside Copenhagen.  The worst news always makes me feel a little better, always lessens this feeling that I’m the only one with loss.

In his storyFliesI get a visceral thrill—a good physical dose of the power of paper. And, the symbolic gestures are something to consider. A short excerpt to give you a taste:

I have to say, I get pretty damn good at knocking these things off the wall. The real pleasure is hearing them land on the floor like tiny bits of paper, a faint sound, like a fallen angel. Killing is not so bad in tiny amounts, it strikes me now, and I wonder if I might be able to kill a person this way, one gram at a time. What if these flies are really one body, just broken up into tiny soldiers?

CR Stories is proud to present Nathan’s talent for the Spring showcase. Did we get other flashes for the paper theme? Yes, we did. But Nathan’s work captured the CR Stories spirit of richly layered prose using paper as a unifying element. So Nathan steals the spring show. Enjoy his work. Stay tuned for the interview next week!

Your curly red editor and founder, Niya.

Flies by Nathan Alling Long

Fly on Paper

Flies. Lots of them. All over the table, in my coffee floating, landing on my arms and legs, buzzing around like a hundred toy planes.

I’m trying to enjoy my breakfast, but I feel like King Kong. So I roll up the newspaper and start swatting them, until one lands on my plate.

Then I cover my plate and coffee, put away the butter, jam, and bread, and go back to swatting. Thwack, thwack, thwack.

I have to say, I get pretty damn good at knocking these things off the wall. The real pleasure is hearing them land on the floor like tiny bits of paper, a faint sound, like a fallen angel. Killing is not so bad in tiny amounts, it strikes me now, and I wonder if I might be able to kill a person this way, one gram at a time. What if these flies are really one body, just broken up into tiny soldiers? A horrible thought—and it’s a good thing they don’t reassemble anything human. I don’t think I could take it, trying to slice down a fly man, not before my first cup of coffee at least, not before my toast.

I keep swatting ‘til there’s just a few clever ones left: they fly around the fan blades and only land on the ceiling. I turn the fan on, and they scatter. Then one by one I knock them off, until there’s just one pesky fly left.

That’s when Judy comes into the kitchen and asks me what I’m doing. “Swatting flies?” she asks, then laughs.

“Yes, swatting flies,” I say, not amused. This is serious work—man’s work, really, the taking of life. A pool of adrenaline has welled within me, and I feel myself now a man of considerable tactical skill.

“My grandmother used to catch them like this,” Judy says, snatching her hand once into the air.

“Good for her,” I say, “but that would take too long.” I look at Judy’s hand, still sealed shut. Then I look around the room and recognize that the last fly is gone. I know it has miraculously found itself in her palm of her hand. And sure enough, she walks over to the window, opens it up, and lets the insect fly away.

“How did you do that?” I ask, feeling a bit incredulous, and a bit wounded.

“Your hand just has to be in the right place at the right time,” she says.

“Huh,” I say, and sit back down, uncovering my coffee and toast.

Judy gets out things to make her breakfast: tea and cereal. I wait as she makes her meal then takes it into the den, humming.

Finally, I sit down and take a sip of my coffee. It’s cold. I unfold the newspaper, but now it’s dotted with blood.  I can hear them outside, tapping on the window screen, as though dying to get in.


Previously published in Monkeybicycle