Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"You Should Have Built Tall, You Should Have Built Wide" By Jenny Holden

I am leaving now. This is in spite of many things. The early sun by the food slab which warms my carapace, so that were anyone to touch me they would recoil. The tender exposure of my neck which I rest sometimes on the ground, hearing bird noise. The likely acquaintance of fools and spiders, out there. Practicalities: the grass which tickles where I have not flattened it, and the fence, my whole world. It is taller than me, but not much. If I wait a little, I will have some movement. I think up, up, and manipulate the air, tread it beneath me. You think I move like a wind-up drunkard, with risible precision, but you are wrong. It is deliberate. I show consideration in all things. Your seas are full of mavericks without shells and I wouldn't be a wheeling bird for all your world. I have toes, and they make contact with wood. We make an unnatural triangle. Pointing upwards I see the sky for the first time, though I am not young. It is close over my head, and empty of its rain. I used to shelter under the lip of the fence, but now I balance on top, tipping this way and that like scales, my stupid legs dangling either side. A piece of kit, the inner workings of machinery; no one should witness this. I am ridiculous to you, but not to myself. The technical sketches, a few bits of ply – you built me a Heath Robinson shambles to live in. Your god, meanwhile, stuck me in a nutshell, and riles me to this day. I side with you, with your can-do attitude. You feed me dandelion leaves; I eat them from your hand; this looks like camaraderie. I'd bite you if I could, instead I clamp my dinosaur jaws about your two fingers. You feel my tongue. We are at an impasse. When you are gone I still feel those fingers in my mouth, though they have transformed into half a cucumber slice, which goes down wetly. I am a layman's idea of indecision, pedalling air. There is a moment of catastrophe. Like all things, it passes. A new phase moves into position, and sticks: I am on new concrete. I leave my boxed life behind me; you can burn your planks and buy a mutt. I find it difficult to walk – a siren, the sound of brakes. I will rest a moment here, in my own darkness. If I could, I'd smash you; if only you knew.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

“Mango Deck” by Matthew Dexter

The old waiter arrived from Veracruz yesterday, yet already found the southernmost tip of Baja California an orgy in the sand, though normally this wouldn’t faze him, but the level of degradation of women and children was more than he had anticipated. Sure he expected fleshy coeds bearing pierced nipples, but changing bathing suits with frat boys in shallow waves was too much. The waiter was Catholic, but no prude. Taking it too far, he can’t help but watch as the parties expose their naked flesh while open-throating Dos Equis and offering lap dances to old vaqueros. You can see the erections rising exponentially with the warm water being sprayed on the women. The most nimble coeds get down on their palms and walk the backwards wheelbarrow into saggy crotches, grinding against the abdomens of tourists and local degenerates.

“Somos Mexicanos cabrón,” the horny man on stage tells his amigo, “how lucky are we?”

The waiter watches, polishes the cracked face of his Mexican skull watch--a gift from his son; at first the father would not wear the reloj because he was ashamed of the child’s involvement with the Los Zetas drug cartel. The boy rose through the ranks quickly as capos were systematically assassinated by Mexican military following orders from President Felipe Calderón. That’s when the son started sending lavish presents, stacks of money and the old man began to pray to the patron “generous bandit” narco-saint Jesús Malverde, hoping the “angel of the poor” could protect his boy.

“Do you want to show us the twins?” the MC says. “Who wants to see the twins?”

The waiter donated everything to some of his favorite churches, took a pilgrimage to Malverde's shrine, walking along the railroad in Culiacán, praying to Santa Muerte roadside altars in Sinaloa, lighting religious candles in front of skeletal figures. All in all, the old man kept nothing but the final diamond cranium timepiece, leaving the hopeful father to work at the café until he opened the bamboo door of his two-room palapa hut one morning to find a dusty Louis Vuitton suitcase containing his son’s decapitated head.

“Viva México!” says the man on the microphone.

Naked gringos are spinning in circles with their noses attached to a totem poll embedded in the sand at water’s edge. A dozen times they spin, drink a shot of tequila and pound two Tecates before running back up the beach toward the Mango Deck.

Bikini-clad tourists serpentine then collapse. They rise and fall, rise and fall. Is this all we are, the waiter wonders, waves of the moon and winks of the stars, nothing more than tits and ass and alcohol and illicit drugs?

“Can we have one of those buckets of beers--Dos Equis and Sol together?” a college boy asks.

“Two of ‘em,” his lady friend says.

“Sí, amigos,” the old man says.

The waiter trudges across the sand up the wooden steps of the Deck where he places his order. The grains in his sweaty socks were once rocks, millions of years ago they were part of an ethereal mountain; well before the Americans consumed sixty percent of the world’s illicit drugs and dozens of thousands of young Mexicans were murdered. The waiter watches the diamond skulls glow in the sun as he carries the buckets. Chopped and melted ice falls on his worn-out Nikes.

“Wow man,” the punk at his other table says as the waiter loads the buckets into their stands and cracks opens a couple Dos Equis with the rusty bottle opener attached to his apron, “where’d ya get that watch?”

The old waiter’s English is not great, but he understands, receives complements on the watch every day. He lights a smoke for the girl and watches a young woman flash her boobs. Another girl exposes her vagina, but the MC tries to block the view.

“Hey, hey,” he says, “This is a family affair.”

The old waiter can see the lips and obstinate little hairs surfacing on the mons pubis. The woman must maintain her landing strip every morning like a delicate flower. The lips are pink, not purpled, and don’t hang out like his wife’s.

“My son gave it to me,” the man says.

The tourists raise their brows and nod their heads in approval. Few notice the crack in the corner of the boy’s skull where the old man slammed it against a stone after shedding tears. The man keeps a strand of hair in his wallet, buried the head in the backyard behind the house: a small four-by-four space where the rooster shits and dogs piss; more excrement graveyard than lawn.

“Muy bueno amigo,” the punk says with the accent only drunks and morons try to use in foreign countries.

“Si amigo,” the waiter says.

The waiter watches as the naked coed dances beneath a manmade waterfall. The MC is holding the strap of her bikini bottom, struggling like a man walking a wild Rottweiler to raise it above her landing strip. Whether in a dormitory or desert, it must grow.

“Come on Minnesota, show it.”

A wave crashes and water rises to the tables, sweeps away a few plastic chairs and a beach umbrella. The old waiter can only watch the younger servers chase inanimate objects as paper napkins cartwheel across the sand into the sea. The waiter watches the red XX on the green sunshade as it’s sucked into the labyrinthine vortex that took his son.

“Viva México!” says the MC.

For some reason the waiter removes his shoes, but he does not stop there. He takes off his socks and sits in the sand and then begins to disrobe until he sits in his underpants. There’s a hole in the front, his tables watch as the pendulum shakes. The young men retrieve the seats; plant the umbrella back into the wet sand. The napkins are sucked beneath the currents to dissolve or sink into the corral for schools of small tropical fish to ingest.

“Bikini contest begins in five minutes,” the MC says.

Only the waiter’s tables can see him, lodged between their plastic orgies. An old woman with decrepit lungs looks on in horror, cracks something in her esophagus as she takes another drag of her Marlboro as an inquisitive pelican lands on the man’s head and all snort and cackle as the waiter’s testes are set free to descend themselves into the shaded golden sand.

“Que onda compa?” says Big Johnson; the three hundred pound sombrero-totting tequila man with the shoulder holster full of shot glasses.

Whistle between his lips, Big Johnson draws his water pistol and begins shooting Don Julio at the waiter’s face. The old waiter spreads his lips and chases the tequila with his tongue. It drips down his cheeks, burns his eyes, spectators stand, forming an atavistic semicircle. The shot girl approaches and the waiter takes two vials of colorful liquor from the test-tube rack hanging from her neck, swallows one and snorts the other up his left nostril. He grabs four Jell-O shots from the other girl and fills his cheeks with them. As tradition has it the girls blow their whistles and mash his face against their breasts.

“Yeah man,” says the punk.

The waiter takes two Dos Equis from the bucket and pounds them. He rises with the help of some half-naked natives in this strange new paradise. More shots, more breasts, purple and pink nipples this time, and he bites them. Close enough to count ectopic sebaceous glands on glossy edge of oral mucosa, Montgomery's tubercles around their areolas, when things take a turn for the worst.

They chase him into the waves and watch as the waiter’s wrinkled ass fades into the current. His watch is all they can see as it bounces sunbeams against their intoxicated faces and the pelican chases the man farther away from shore.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

“I’ve Meant It Sincerely” by Nathan Schiller

My original plan was to share something I was working on about the anxiety of giving readings, typical stuff, how your hands shake even if you’re not nervous; how weird it is when people are staring at you; how when you walk to the microphone people always glance at what you’re holding and get secretly pissed off if it’s more than a few papers because all they want is to listen to you not embarrass yourself as quickly as possible; and how readings are pretty much bullshit anyway because people are only there to see if you look like the guy they’d been picturing, which is my favorite author’s observation and certainly not one that applies to a writer no one has ever heard of.

Then I had this whole bit about how if you’re bad in a mundane way, as opposed to bad in an awe-inspiring “Holy shit that avalanche is amazing but gonna kill us” way, the people in the audience will tune you out and start thinking about all the dull things in their own lives, like if they should start going to the gym before work, until they snap back into the moment and find themselves annoyed that they’ve used their free time to attend something they weren’t forced to attend, and then sympathetic to the person who’s not quite delivering the literary experience, and then clapping because everyone else is. The other angle here is that if you’re halfway decent, the people in the audience will be so compelled by your reading that they’ll start to feel fuzzy with the ideals of art and beauty, and then they’ll zone out to the wonderful things they’re doing in their own lives, and suddenly the reading’s over and they’ve missed everything you said.

Anyway, I was going to write about all that stuff, but then I realized that I could probably summarize it in a couple of sentences and get on with the reading, which would have worked out, had I not run into a series of problems.

I’ve been writing stories since preschool, but two weeks ago, while sifting through the “Stories” folder on my laptop, I realized that most of the stories I’d written were unworthy of out-loud reading because of their inability to convey their significance when being heard as opposed to being read. For instance, let’s say that the first draft of your 450-page novel contains a number of set pieces that multiple objective readers have corroborated as, quote, “funny,” and that the material actually takes place in the neighborhood in which you’re reading, meaning that there is a better-than-not chance that your audience will be able to connect and engage with your novel in the way that corporate conference coordinators dream of their employees connecting and engaging with the spring retreat’s keynote speaker. But while on the surface your set piece would appear to be prime reading material, you know deep down that there is no way that any audience in any location would be able to digest its entertainment value if not familiar with the novel’s basic components of characters, plot, tone, and so forth.

And on top of that, let’s say that recently you’ve been studying Tolstoy and understanding his existential philosophy in a way that no one else who has ever read him has, a theory that contends that existence boils down to the moments in which we literally come face-to-face with life. If you were this person—and I’m not saying that this person is me—you would know for a fact that if you ever tried to convince yourself that audiences would respond to your novel’s set piece, the phrase “All happy families are alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” would pound away in your head, reminding you that your situation is sort of like the ones in the MC Escher calendar above your desk: you can’t be happy without being different from everybody else, but if you’re different from everybody else, you’re destined to be unhappy. In other words, if you play to the Park Slope crowd with a funny Park Slope scene from a funny Park Slope novel, everyone goes home delighted, boasting to their friends what a funny Park Slope story I heard at Park Slope reading! and that’s all you are, just a funny, dumb writer.

The realization that I had already written the perfect story but could not use it was rather depressing. What I felt I had to do, then, was give in to the writers who get off on the type of stories that render a mood and show a character’s texture and illuminate the complexities of the human condition. (And the most frustrating thing about these writers, I’d like to note as an aside, is how they consistently label the greatest short-story writer of all-time a “shower,” when in reality he was most effective at convincing you that having an affair with a lady with a little dog might be problematic simply by telling you, verbatim, that having an affair with a lady with a little dog might be problematic.) But anyway, just because it has always been impossible for you to, in a 1,200-word third-person narrative featuring a sympathetic character, uncover the strong verbs and sparse language that convey the greatest amount of heartbreak and yearning and suffering in the shortest amount of space, doesn’t mean that people want to hear your pathetic whining about how all your stories are 25 pages of telling what happened, and that one of these stories is actually called “What Happened.”

Now, I embarrass easily, and I’m weirded out by people who smile too much, that’s one reason I always wished I could wear a mask, but I have no shame in contradicting myself by disclosing that my laptop’s “Story” folder was in fact filled with dozens of drafts of these stupid little stories. I used to spent a lot of afternoons like this recent one: I sat at my desk in sweatpants typing nonsense, then I abandoned the nonsense, wrote new nonsense, deleted the new nonsense, and stared out the window at kids digging dirt in a backyard until I became inspired, at which point I began to parlay the nonsense into something presentable, which is how I ended up with a story called, “Short Stories Involving Snickers Bars That Attempted to Illuminate Something About the Human Condition and Pretty Much Failed.” A day after that afternoon, having realized that this story failed in every way, I conceived the witty idea of reading the failed story about three failed stories in the context of an ironic story about a failed writer who is afraid of pretty much everything.

To accomplish this, the first thing I was thinking I would need to do, would be to imagine that kind of a character, since in my real life I’m not afraid of anything, and the second thing would be to write the story solely for an audience. Unfortunately, even though by then I had accepted that my audience really was probably only interested in the low-grade pleasure of me not embarrassing myself, I started wondering if even that presumption wasn’t cynical enough. What would I do if my audience would tune me out simply because it thought that I had a stupid face, or thought that my posture and clothes and voice made it obvious that I was an insincere asshole? Or—and I think this is probably the worst-case scenario—what if the audience would absorb everything I had to say, really enjoy the material, and yet still call bluff on my shtick? I was, as they say, back at square one.

I know that by now you’re probably aware of the convenience with which I’ve avoided admitting that if I were capable of writing something universally good I never would have gotten into this predicament, but just hear me out. I knew I had to change; I knew I could no longer sit at my desk and think up good writing. What I needed to do was engage with the world. That week I carried a pen and pad in the back pocket of my jeans and wrote down every interesting thing I heard or saw, and it just so happened that the day before the reading, I witnessed three such moments. In a bagel shop a guy behind me was telling his friend about another friend who quit law school, moved to LA, and started dating a porn star. On the subway I saw an innocent guy get punched in the face by a crazy person, then watched as everyone (including myself) made a face that showed how relieved they were to not be the victim. And then in the afternoon, while crossing the street with a bunch of private school kids, I overheard two guys trying to convince a girl to come over Friday night to drink vodka and talk philosophy. So there: sex, violence, and alcohol. I had my material.

Well, the fact that what you have been listening to has absolutely nothing to do with any of these situations tells you how the rest of that day played out. As I wrote into the night, I couldn’t get an old Peter and the Wolf tune out of my head, which reminded me that Prokofiev had written his story, the music and the text, in just four days.

Sometime after three in the morning I realized that I had been looking through my window for a very long time. A block away, on the elevated tracks, a train passed through the station, rattling my apartment. Dozens of people got off, and in the middle of them was a man holding a briefcase and wearing a mask. Before he filed down the stairs, he paused and faced me. Without taking my eyes off him, I shoved open my window and stepped up to the sill. Behind the station were lights, those of my city, and between me and them, and between me and the ground, and me and the sky, and me and myself, I could feel an immense space. The man did not move an inch, and neither did I, and we continued to stare at each other until a quiet voice urged me down.

Suddenly, I had purpose, and for the next three hours I wrote the easiest story: my autobiography. This effort produced many pages, and from them I’ve extracted nine sentences. These are direct quotations.

• 1. “I cannot sleep more than five hours a night.”

• 2. “The simple tasks of life that are necessary to undertake have always seemed like an encroachment on my need for complete silence.”

• 3. “The multiple loving relationships I’ve had with women have never amounted to pure happiness because of my inability to accept the fact, as they have, that we love for selfish reasons.”

• 4. “I have never taken drugs or alcohol because I am under the illusion that my mind is inherently altered.”

• 5. “I can keep a secret until the very end.”

• 6. “Regardless of what you think, I, like my good friend Franz Kafka, spend much of my day laughing.”

• 7. “The best moments in life are those where we are happy for absolutely no reason whatsoever and know it.”

• 8. “The only thing I’ve never been afraid of is looking into someone else’s eyes and speaking directly to them because of how uncomfortable it makes them.”

• 9. “I’ve started my story about six or seven times, maybe even ten—so many I can no longer decipher what it is.”

I must say, in speaking these sentences, I am reminded of my favorite musician, the Russian pianist and composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff. If you listen to the only recording he made of his Third Concerto, one of the greatest and most difficult piano pieces in existence, you will notice that he cuts some of the most beautiful melodies and ignores many of his own notations—for instance, he’ll slow down where the score says to speed up. Despite being one of the greatest piano players of the 20th Century, Rachmaninoff was a terribly insecure and nervous performer. But he was also a vengeful performer, so conscious of what he perceived as his audience’s apathy that for every cough or sneeze he heard, he would skip one passage. Can you even imagine what he would have done had there’d been cell phones going off?

I bring him up to demonstrate that if you so-to-speak read between the lines, which I know is difficult when you’re not actually reading, you’ll see that even though I was unable to write a story for tonight, I managed to fit everything I wanted into these fifteen minutes. And what do I want to convey? I think it has something to do with trying to explain how difficult it is to show that what constitutes a person is 1% everything we know about them and 99% everything we’ll never know.

Thank you for listening, and just know that whatever I’ve said, I’ve meant it sincerely.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"Me and Jack" by Sarah Leslie

We were the only two who could ever get into your head. Jack convinced you I manipulated you. But all he ever did was flush away reason and stir up a rage.

It was never easy to pick between the two of us. You and Jack went way back. You were long time friends who practically grew up together. I, on the other hand, only recently walked into your life.

It was rare for me to have you all to myself. You always insisted on having Jack come along. We shared you equally in the beginning, but it didn’t take long for you to pick Jack over me.

Tonight is nothing out of the norm. I’m on the sidelines, watching you and Jack roll on and on together. “Babe, what are you doing? Don’t go to bed yet,” you slur as I’m leaving the room, waving Jack’s arm in the air like he’d just won a big race.

I wave you off and leave on my own. Because by the end of the night you’ll run out of JD and I’ll still be there picking up what remains.

For What It's Worth

So yeah, if anyone is even counting a few days ago we reached our one year anniversary! I know, exciting right? 52 weeks ago I never thought this thing would still be going strong but it is and I want to thank all of the talented writers whose amazing work has made this all possible. So, thanks.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"Courtship: Five Micros" by Sheldon Lee Compton

The Old Roses

The old roses came from Ma Trent. The velvet rose I can't remember, but it's a rare one. Maybe he brought it the day he first came to visit with the silly hat, the day my brother said he seemed nice for a guy with big ears.

Tell Me About Her Hazel Eyes

They changed the way you know eyes that color will. Blue, green, blue, green. And it all depended on things like the sunlight or a cold room. Brown even, sometimes. Not often, though. Brown depended on my doing something stupid, and I'm a quick study.


Four children are left. One is dead. He could not be any more dead. And he made it through the war only to come back and die alone in a strange room. But they remember him the day he left for Korea. "You see this hand? This hand and the rest of me will look the same the next time you see me." That's what the fifth, the second oldest, said before he left for overseas. And she still sees him the day he came back, his hair cut perfect so that every black strand curved across his head like a halo bending in the darkness.

Like a Fairy Tale

He's a nice guy for somebody with big ears and that dandy hat sitting on his head like a rooster. She tossed a soapy dish towel at him. Don't say things like that, Son. But he was nice and the hat was a bad one. Maybe their first morning together it would call them awake and then just flop away forever after.

In the Dark

Poppy called me his baby and it embarrassed me then, but now I can see how sweet it was for him to do that. So we'd go to the porch for privacy and have coffee. Out there with him, my dress pulled tight at my knees, we couldn't see too far from the porch, it being well past dusk and full dark. But neither of us tried very hard, either. And good for us, knowing now everything yet out of sight.