An Observer in My Own Life

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz

June 20 was my half-birthday. I took my kids to the park, bought some yarn, and nearly died.

A reaction to an 800 milligram tablet of ibuprofen sent me to the hospital via ambulance. I’d taken ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, etc.) for years. I’d taken pills out of the same bottle for two or three weeks following a bout of shingles. An aggravated rotator cuff injury had me reaching for the medicine that day. I was lucky that my doctor husband was home when the anaphylactic reaction happened since within minutes I couldn’t communicate, stand, or open my eyes. He knew what was happening and called 911.

My brain had to tell my body what to do. Not in an absent “lungs inhale” way but in a “breathe, breathe, don’t rest, breathe” kind of way. It started to scold me and remind me of things I needed to do: important things like raising my children and small ones like washing my hair. Somewhere in there was “publish those books,” less important than my kids but on that end of the spectrum.

On my way to the hospital, my brain kept me as alert as possible, “talking” to me about little nonsense things. One of them was “you can use this in a story.” Then I began thinking about how I might be able to work the situation into the Nano from last year.

Once I exhausted that possibility, my brain came up with, “So how are you going to blog this?” As the ambulance rumbled along, I started mentally outlining the episode for a blog entry. I decided on a starting point for the story and filed away the details I wanted to include. The medicine kicked in and all the work I did had kept me sufficiently stimulated. I opened my eyes to see the stainless steel interior of the ambulance. I began taking notes—again, for possible use in a story.

When it was almost time for me to leave the emergency room a few hours later, a patient was given the bed on the other side of the curtain to my left. The nurse asked him what happened to bring him in. “I got drunk and fell down.” The nurse said, “Does that happen a lot?” The patient replied, “Oh I get drunk a lot. I fall down a lot too. I’m a drunk.” Meanwhile, I was thinking about the dialogue exchange and the story that could be built around it.

Even when I was as close to becoming one with The Force as I’ve ever been (knock wood), I was writing. More accurately, I was functioning as a writer. There’s something in the way we’re wired that makes us natural observers, even in our own lives. What others might see as detachment or shyness is the writer gathering information: story ideas, dialogue, setting details and so forth.

When I made some T-shirts for Toasted Cheese to sell at Café Press, I paraphrased Garrison Keillor’s famous quote “Nothing bad ever happens to a writer. It’s all material.” I bought one of those shirts a few years ago and I’m wearing it in my official photo on our masthead (even though you can’t see the sentiment). When Stephen King was hit by a car in 1999, he used his recuperative time to finish On Writing. He also used the accident and its aftermath as material in On Writing and as inspiration for Lisey’s Story and his “Dark Tower” series. I don’t know yet how I’ll use my experience in fiction but I do know that I will.

As I wrote this editorial, I realized that I had gone into “reporter mode,” as I call it. Having been a reporter, I sometimes find it easier to create distance between myself and the story, even if it’s a story with which I’m directly involved. When I ran it past a fellow editor for her thoughts, she also pinpointed the distance I’d inserted into this piece. For weeks, I worked on trying to make the story more personal and immediate and it just wasn’t happening. I was about to walk away from it and say, “This is the final draft” when it occurred to me that the distance is evident because it’s so close to me. I feel like I need to have that cushion to make the experience bearable. I know it will surface in a place where I can manipulate it and examine it as an outsider to the event—in fiction.


E-mail: baker[at]

One Too Many

Best of the Boards
Katelyn Kiley

Went up one too many flights of stairs this evening,
opened the door and realized my apartment was a floor below—
thinking too much, again—it always happens like that.
Today, because as I climbed the stairs, it smelled like marijuana—
2100 bucks a month, you’d think this kind of thing could be avoided,
but if my upstairs neighbors are any indication,
it can’t. I went up once to ask about the sudden slam
that shook the ceiling—wrestling, they said—bong on the coffee table,
the smell unmistakable—if I could get rid of them, I would.

College boys are useless, I know because you are one
and I’m starting to think I know you better than I know myself.
I don’t even know what I’m trying to say here, except
getting out of your car feels like crying, like that one exhale
before the inhale then the sob—I don’t know why—only minutes
ago your hand was in my hair and your forehead against mine
with those brown eyes looking and those lips saying—well,
the same thing they always say—of course I love you—and I always believe
in the way one believes in something that is sure to end,
like peering over the end a cliff, our love. The worst part:
as easily as I can see a drop like a California coastline,
also I can see a horizon expanding into forever: the morning paper,
kisses on the forehead before heading off to work, Christmas cookies,
anniversary presents, babies with your dark hair and my full lips
and one of our noses—it doesn’t matter whose—all of this seems possible
as a pile of crumpled tissues and my own T-shirts to sleep in.

Probably you have smoked marijuana in a stairwell, this is what I think
as I round the corner past the door that leads to my floor, and keep
climbing higher, not knowing—this discontent, until I walk out and see
I will never get home this way—so I laugh, and turn, retrace my steps
back down—it still smells like marijuana, I still wonder who did it—
but it’s late and that information, like statistics on the evening news,
either means something or nothing at all—it’s late
and you love me which shouldn’t stop me from sleeping.

E-mail: kmk8d[at]

A Brief Meeting

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Chelsea Heath

The first time she met her father, she was 24 years old.

Most of the things she had heard about him while growing up were negative. She always wondered why he wasn’t interested in her, why he didn’t seem to care. Despite all of this, she didn’t let it ruin or direct her life, and had grown into a fairly well-adjusted adult.

She finally met him less than a month before he died of cancer. She received a call from her older brother, who shared the same dad, and he explained that they had been looking for her for a long time, and that she should come visit them in North Carolina as soon as she could because their dad was sick with cancer and was dying.

It has taken awhile for her to process all of the emotions related to that meeting. They just had a couple of days together. After a lifetime of wondering and thinking about each other, it culminated in one weekend, and that was all they had.

To some this may seem tragic, but she was thankful. Through the experience, she met her brother, sister-in-law, two nephews, and her step-mom, and also gained the knowledge that her dad did love and miss her, and that he was proud of her. That was all she had needed. She also gained something else from the trip—one perfect memory—a ride on a motorcycle on a clear, beautiful day in North Carolina.


It was during this brief moment in her life when time stopped and she was able to experience true joy, in the most unlikely of places. Past and present came together; she felt as though God had handed her a special gift to work through the varying emotions of happiness, grief, and confusion related to the journey.

Her mom made the trip with her, since she would be meeting these people for the first time that she could remember. It would turn out, on top of everything else, to be a great bonding experience for the two of them. They made the flight all the way from Oregon to North Carolina and were picked up at the airport by her brother and his wife. Her mom was a little shocked at first to see how much he looked like his father had at a younger age, when she had been married to him and had given birth to his child.

Driving up to the house, tension began to mount. The girl was excited and nervous all at once. She wasn’t sure what to expect or how to feel or act. She entered the house, and as she turned the corner to go into the living room, she saw a small man sitting in an armchair. He looked somewhat like pictures she had seen, but he was older and gray and had the tired look that cancer patients usually wear. At that moment, as her eyes traveled to his face, she finally knew what it felt like to look into someone’s face and see her own eyes staring back at her. That’s what looking at her dad was like, and it was glorious. She had never really felt like she looked very much like anyone in her family, and now she knew why. It was because she looked just like him. She wondered how it must have been for her mom all those years, looking at her daughter and also seeing someone who had caused her so much pain.

While they were visiting, she went out on a motorcycle ride with her brother. Motorcycles were very important to her dad and brother, and when her mom and dad had been together, riding them was something they had done a lot of. Although her dad was too sick to ride a motorcycle anymore, she would be able to go for a ride with her brother.

They pulled out on the motorcycle, the sunshine on their faces, her arms around his waist, and both clad in leather. All of these things were so new to her, yet oddly comforting. She looked back and saw her mom and her dad waving from the porch, together for a brief time again, in spite of the pain it might be causing them both, and she knew they were doing it for her. It felt good. It was something she had doubted she would ever see.

She turned forward, focusing on the ride, while trying to burn the image of her parents standing together into her mind to keep there forever. As they drove, reality meshed with daydream and she felt all at once like a girl with her brother, a girl with her dad at long last, and also how her mom must have felt with her dad at one point—young and happy and in love, no matter how fleeting. She experienced splendid, indescribable emotions on this ride. No words were exchanged during this time, but none were needed. She felt full of joy—long moments of contented, beautiful wonder. She knew she would never forget this rush of feelings and realizations, and she thanked God for them.

On the trip home from North Carolina, she mused about the events that had taken place in the past couple of days. She was filled with awe—she had never seen this coming, and had never known or thought it would turn out like it did, better than she could have imagined. Of course the circumstances were difficult, but it was a wonderful trip—full of love and life, even with all of the sorrow over the years lost and her dad’s current sickness. She was surprised to find so much life under such circumstances. It was truly amazing, such a blessing. She knew now that her dad, however imperfect he might have been, loved her, had always loved her, and that he was proud of her. That was all she had ever wanted. It was hard, but very much worth it, and she looked to the future knowing that God would sustain her and her new family, whom she loved, through the tough times ahead. She had finally gotten to see her parents together, hear about some of their memories with each other, and see that there was still love between the two of them.

Her dad passed away about a month later, just before her next planned visit.

She was thankful that she was able to meet him at least once, and she held dear the love that stretched over the decades, over circumstances, over the miles, and for the forgiveness that was present that made that love possible. Those are the things that make life worth living. They make it hard, too, but worth it. It is what gives us strength and character. She can see that very clearly now, and she can feel it in the tears that occasionally run down her cheeks when she thinks about her dad. They cloud her eyes, but not her vision. They only make the seeing all the more worthwhile and special.

“I am 26 years old. I grew up in California and currently live in Portland, Oregon with my husband, Nate, and our Chihuahua puppy, Rex. I graduated from Cascade Christian College in Portland, Oregon. I currently work as a Sales Administrator. I am also a notary public, and enjoy freelance writing in my spare time. I love the outdoors, traveling, reading, and good wine.” E-mail: chelsheath[at]

Richie in the Leaves

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Joe Kraus

The frame is too big; it pinches the photo so that you feel as if you’re missing parts of the image. That may be why it strikes me as it does—that sense of incompleteness, that sense of some important aspect of it lying outside the frame.

The details that come to me most forcefully are the reds and yellows of the late-summer leaves falling on Richie’s head and his dark, thick eyelashes as he closes his eyes to the swirl around him. He is laughing, I think, laughing and clutching at the too many leaves that the camera has caught suspended in air.


You can’t know this from seeing the photo itself, but the leaves remind me of my childhood home. I recognize them as coming from the now vine-choked maple at the top of the yard, closer to the next door neighbors’ than to our house. With his eyes closed and in his infancy, Richie can’t know how much those leaves speak of my “roots,” of the boundaries of my own childhood in that house.

What’s missing from the photograph—and I feel it acutely every time I look at it—is my father, dead almost two years at the time. My son, my father, they never met in my waking hours, and yet somehow this picture brings them together for me. I named the one for the other, in keeping with Jewish custom and because it fit; the one life beginning just as the other ended.

There’s a circle here, I suppose, one that the leaves nearly describe, but one that I recognize as broken, too. Gerard Manley Hopkins tells us that the falling leaves remind us that “sorrows springs are the same,” that autumn’s single, somber note tells us of our death, our own end.

I can handle death and ending, I think, though maybe that’s just the confidence of a man who believes he has decades remaining. What I can’t handle so readily, what angers and comforts me in the photograph, is the idea of the loneliness that end implies. I know the burden of being all that links my father to my son. The one tugs me toward colored leaves, spent and careening in their final flight. The other reminds me of a wonder in the world around us too great to look at straightaway. There are too many stories to remember, too many promises to keep.

“I am an associate professor of English at the University of Scranton and the co-author of An Accidental Anarchist (Academy Chicago 2000). My work has appeared in The American Scholar, Callaloo, The Centennial Review, Riverteeth, MELUS, and elsewhere, and I was awarded a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Poetry Prize in 2004.” E-mail: Krausj2[at]

Being Queen

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Dena Riggs Hein

The summer I turned seven, my grandfather finally gave me permission to explore the storage room attached to his garage.

An odd menagerie of things found their way into this space where one thing piled on top of the other. Bookshelves lined the walls to hold early sets of Encyclopedia Britannica. But in front of most volumes, Avon cologne bottles sat three rows deep. Trinkets and souvenirs from Japan, Hawaii, the Canary Islands, and lots of other places, occupied nooks and crannies—obviously tossed without thought into any open spot. A Barbie-sized doll in a hula outfit stood on her head next to a Statue of Liberty clock on its side—cracked down the middle, stopping time.

The sofa held a mountain of clothing while the chairs bowed at the weight of car parts. An antique dental chair sat in the far east corner. My imagination convinced me such disorganization must house treasures in the same way the cluttered Ante Chamber of King Tut’s tomb revealed gold statues and amulets of vibrant colors. On every visit I crept inside hoping to unearth something my grandfather would let me take home.

I discovered the dusty wooden frame on a shelf high above a rack of silk dresses. I teetered on the edge of a marble coffee table in order to reach. With photo in hand, I wiped away a film of dust from the glass and immediately felt captivated by the girls in the dresses, especially the pretty one with the thin fingers covering her mouth.


I tucked the frame into my shorts to climb out of the room, then ran up the sidewalk.

“Who is this girl?” I asked my grandfather.

He took the frame from my hand, cradling it while he smiled. In a near-whisper he said, “What a beauty that girl of mine.” He lingered on the image then shifted his eyes to meet mine. “You don’t know?” He seemed surprised.

I shook my head, feeling as if I’d let him down by not knowing.

“She never told you?”

I shook my head again.

“Is she too pro-choice, too women’s lib to tell you she was pretty and popular?”

I shrugged. I had no idea what he meant.

“Take this home,” he said. “Show it to your mother because it’s her story to tell.”


Bounding through the front door I smelled garlic, but I was too excited about the picture to care about spaghetti for dinner. “Recognize this?” I asked. I held up the dusty frame and waited for her reaction as she turned from a boiling pot of red sauce.

She screamed in delight, “Give me that!” She snagged the picture from my hands to hold it close to her own body. “I haven’t seen this picture in years. Where did you find it?”

“The boys’ room at Grandma and Grandpa’s, but up high on a shelf. Grandpa says you’re too women’s lib to admit you were pretty and popular.”

My mother rolled her eyes. “Grandpa wouldn’t know women’s lib if it hit him in the face.”

My mother leaned toward the sink. She grabbed a clean towel and carefully wiped away the dust. I watched her long thin fingers work at the corners of the glass then move across it—gently rubbing at each girl.

“Look at Patsy Brown,” she said softly. “The last time I saw her was at Tex Johnson’s graduation party. How many years has that been now?”

She looked up to the ceiling as if to count, but quickly looked back down at the photo. “Patsy was a sweet girl, but that Suzie Bixler was meaner than a snake and oh so jealous.”

Lost in memories, girlish again, she bantered, “Suzie hated it when I won the queen title. She was a cheerleader and back in those days there was an unwritten rule that the cheerleaders won the queen contests. I wasn’t a cheerleader, but I certainly wasn’t the underdog!” She laughed at herself. “I think that hateful Suzie told Ronnie Mitford I was pregnant. I will never forget that because everything rested on a good reputation.”

She was silent for a second then erupted, “Typical!! Suzie’s got a hold of my arm as if she’s happy or something!”

As she talked, I stared. I examined her with a critical eye—starting with her hair neatly knotted at the base of her neck, moving to the profile of her face and then on down her body—wondering how I failed to notice. Her cropped, coiffed hair had grown out, but there under the veil of my mother was the queen in the photo.

Despite her hippie long hair or her Dr. Scholl’s wooden sandals she wore with jeans and a peace T-shirt, despite her liberal politics and her grassroots activism, despite her efforts to shed the queen personae, by 1971 she was still the prettiest one carrying the ERA sign. She didn’t want to be the beauty, but everything about her betrayed her efforts to blend into the crowd. Something about her dark eyes and long lashes always set her apart from other women. She turned heads in the grocery store. The manager of the bank always left his office to greet her. Construction workers whistled.

My mother let out a sigh—a complicated exhalation where I imagined good memories mixed with things better left in storage.

“You can have this if you want it.” She extended the frame to me then turned back to the sauce.


I set the photo on the desk in my room. At seven years old, a teddy bear held it in its lap. At nine years old I used it as a bookend for my Nancy Drew collection and by twelve years old I had started to accumulate pictures of my own friends.

The summer I turned fifteen I found her yearbooks and an envelope full of newspaper clippings.

Her name and photo appeared in the society section almost weekly. One clipping read, “Students of the class of 1961 at Warren Central High School cast their votes for Senior Class Queen just three days ago. Looking for the girl that most personifies their school, Student Council President Bob Smith said, “We want our class queen to be a girl that is carefree, pretty, friendly, and popular.” Janice Croucher took the crown. Runners-up included Patsy Brown, Suzie Bixler, and Sue Ellen Smith.” And then the photo—my photo—my mother captured hiding behind her hands; surrounded by girls who forced a look of support for the only non-cheerleader on the court. The photo felt more captivating than ever before.

Upon entering my room with a stack of swimsuits and a pile of clean laundry, she caught me holding the picture.

“You still have that old thing?” my mother teased.

“I bet being queen was the best thing in the whole world,” I speculated with a wide smile.

“I have to admit, it made me happy. Being queen was fun, but at the end of the summer when the class of 61 went separate ways the moment ended. Being queen is not real life.”

“But you could have been an actress or a model. Why didn’t you?”

“Well, there was Vietnam and Bobby Kennedy,” she paused in serious reflection. “After Bobby Kennedy died I felt the world needed leaders more than it needed queens and actresses. Nobody with a brain or an inkling for politics wanted to be beautiful in 1968, besides I’d just had you and you made me happier than being queen.”

She smiled at me. She moved closer to look over my shoulder then took the frame from my hand. She stared at the girls one by one. Patsy Brown at the far right, Sue Ellen Smith in the middle, then Suzie Bixler, the jealous cheerleader with a hand on her arm and her eyes closed. I watched her eyes move to her own image.

“Being popular in high school doesn’t last forever.” She sat the photo on the desk and started to walk away.

“Tell me about it anyway,” I called to her.

She perched tentatively on the edge of my bed, but as she revealed details she became more comfortable and eventually we both huddled together amidst pillows. Our tanned legs sat side by side. As the June breeze blew through the room, we giggled like friends at a slumber party. Bit by bit she spilled about high school, acting class, and Patricia Stevens.


The Patricia Stevens Finishing School was located downtown on the third floor of an office building just three storefronts from the L.S. Ayres department store. Mrs. Stevens trained her girls in proper posture—“Roll shoulders back! Extend chin slightly forward, now walk, placing one foot in front of the other.”

Sometimes the girls sat at desks with phones that didn’t plug into anything—positioned only for practice. She observed, then snapped, “Sit up!” “Cross at the ankle!” “Knees together!”

She emphasized the importance of coiffed hair and arched eyebrows; talked of fitted clothing and appropriate smiles, “never show too many teeth or squint your eyes too tight.” From her carpeted space above the main street below, Patricia Stevens readied some girls for the workforce, but mostly specialized in beauty pageants and dabbled in the up and coming field of fashion modeling. In 1957, my mother paid twenty cents every Saturday for a round-trip bus fare.

It had been my grandmother’s idea. She learned about Patricia Stevens in an advertisement posted at the beauty supply store. Every Monday her shop was closed, so every Monday my grandfather drove her to pick up her color and permanent solutions for the week. My grandmother made a mental note that finishing school for her daughter might be good for her business—the beauty shop she ran out of her basement. But putting her fourteen-year-old girl on the public bus might not pass her husband’s idea of what women (and especially girls) should and should not do. Her own business put pressure on my grandfather’s patriarchal views, but Shirl’s Curls made quite a profit, so his disdain for her entrepreneurial efforts remained under his breath. With that in mind, my grandmother felt confident my grandfather would embrace opportunity for his daughter. She felt confident he would understand Patricia Stevens might land my mother a decent-paying phone job in a law office after high school or maybe even a sales position at L.S. Ayres.

Somehow it all came to be. My mother was excited about everything but the bus.

“Why can’t you drop me off like all the other girls?” she asked.

But Saturdays, the basement bustled from morning till night and my grandfather took the responsibility of watching over my young uncles—nearly school-age boys with a propensity to find trouble without a watchful eye on them.

The bus was the only way. My mother knew this, but she hated that bus none the less. The decrepit odor of exhaust as the bus accelerated after each stop made her stomach lurch. The plastic seats stuck to her no matter what the temperature outside, usually wrinkling her skirt, which made Mrs. Stevens frown. Then there was the matter of sitting alone that made her nervous. She avoided eye contact with fellow travelers by keeping her head turned and eyes focused on the passing landscape outside the window—from neighborhood after neighborhood to rows of shops and finally to the taller buildings of the city.

Despite the occasional wrinkled skirt, graduation from Patricia Stevens landed my mother a scholarship at the Civic Theatre.

“Acting classes!” she yelled one afternoon. “I’m going to be a Hollywood actress! I’ve been awarded free acting classes!”

At thirty-five cents a week my mother took a transfer at the downtown station, rode the North Michigan line to 38th Street then walked the six blocks to Cold Spring Road. On stage, with shoulders back and chin slightly forward, she impressed the staff enough to extend her scholarship through the spring. By summer my grandparents agreed to pay her tuition. Hollywood actresses made much more money than downtown phone girls, so my grandfather looked at my mother’s independence as a good investment.

Besides, he adored her. He couldn’t get over the perfect symmetry of her face; the pure white of her teeth that like piano keys set perfectly aligned. Although not tall (only an inch or two over five feet) her proportions—from slender shoulders to dainty feet—also sat exactly right.

“The next Elizabeth Taylor, I tell you!” my grandfather swore to his friends.


Pleased with Patricia Stevens and my mother’s success with acting, my grandmother squirreled tips in a coffee can. On Mondays when my grandfather took her to the beauty supply store she used her secret cash to buy astringent and moisturizer—products the other girls at Warren Central High School couldn’t buy at the local drugstore. My grandmother purchased powders and tinted creams used by the theatre artists.

My mother blushed her cheekbones with a pale pink powder—a matte finish that didn’t look like make-up—rather a natural flush. While the other girls only wore Bonne Bell clear gloss on their lips, my mother added her own concoction of apricot cream underneath. Her lips immediately plumped. She lined her eyes with a black pencil, but the tip was so fine the color blended into her lashes just like a magazine girl. She walked the halls one foot in front of the other, shoulders back, chin slightly forward. She didn’t need to be a cheerleader to catch attention.

In the beginning, she drank it in and courted the popularity. I’ve seen notes from boys with names like Teddy Crouch, William Albright, Graham Bateman, or Jimmy Campbell. “Wanna get a coke?” “You probably already have a date, but…?” “Do I have a chance?” “Our country club has this dinner…?”

But as notes passed in the halls she noticed a growing coldness from her girlfriends. Painfully, she learned the two faces of friendship—how envy started rumors. Patricia Stevens made a point of maintaining reputation, so when Bill Wallace asked my mother to go steady she accepted. He gave her his class ring which she wrapped with angora yarn to keep it from sliding off her slender finger. The ring saved her from gossip until the Spring Fling Dance when the court for queen was announced.

That night she wore a taffeta dress that tiered in all the right places in pure yellow that matched the daffodil theme and the crate paper decorations strewn across the gymnasium walls. Rumors bounced from the ceiling as some speculated the dress was planned—that she expected to win—that her popularity had gone to her head.

No one knew the dress was purely coincidental. No one knew my grandmother had run out of secret cash. No one knew my mother, in tears, took her only choice: she rode the bus to the civic theatre earlier that afternoon. With special permission, she borrowed from the costume closet. The yellow dress was the only one that fit without alterations.

When her named was called, she pulled her hands to her face. She expressed genuine surprise and gratefulness behind those fingers. She hugged her court—the girls she would leave at the wall—then walked to the center of the gym where Bill took her arm and held her steady as last year’s queen Marlene Settles crowned her and kissed her pink cheek.


My grandfather was right—the story of the picture was not his to tell. Nor is it mine. But the temptation to take her place—to climb over the borders of time, through the frame of the photo, in order to pretend I am her—the petite girl with the creamy complexion and the perfectly arched eyebrows—is irresistible. To imagine the adrenaline that must have pumped through her veins when her name boomed from the public address system excites me. To pretend I possess the beauty or that I acquired the popularity of a school queen fulfills something in me my own complexion and eyebrows never seemed to secure.

I’ve pored over the pages of the yearbooks, studied the photos, memorized names, and read all her messages. I know her story better than she knows it herself. I look at the snapshot of my mother in 1961 with those delicate fingers over her mouth and my mind clicks to a small paragraph of curly handwriting on the back page of her senior yearbook—the upper left corner: “You’re one of the girls I guess everyone remembers for everything. You have the looks, personality, and friendly nature that no one will forget. Love Ya, Karen ’61.”

Maybe that’s the obsession of being queen. Who wouldn’t want to be the one whom no one will forget? And what if that not forgetting part meant you were pretty and everyone in the whole school liked you so much they voted you to be their queen? What if?

So, it’s not my story, but just in case my name ever booms from a loudspeaker or a crown is ever placed on my head, I hope her story reminds me to properly cover my mouth in humble acceptance.

Author’s note: I have changed the names of my mother’s classmates.


“By day I play kickball, paint rocks, and take long bike rides alongside my kids. By night I do dishes alongside my husband then bang the keyboard while two cats purr at my feet. I’m a wife, a mother, a writer and an idea machine. And thanks to my beauty queen mom, I can also add princess to my list. I can be reached at d.hein[at]”

Little Mother

Billiard’s Pick
Amber Cook

My mother’s wedding ring taps the steering wheel in time to the dull melodic strains filtering through the speakers. One tap, two tap, three taps and I want to throw myself from the window.

“I always loved this song. It’s so… springy.”

Springy. I ignore her and focus my attention on the sidewalk flying by outside. Girls with pink book bags and light-up sneakers walk in pairs, skipping over cracks and laughing so loudly I can hear the noise over my mother’s incessant tapping. One stands aside from the rest, a science book pressed against her developing chest. It flattens the barely visible lumps I know are behind it and my heart strains. She is me, a younger me, and I want to scoop her up and tell her everything will be all right. I’m one of them, or I was, once. I don’t know anymore. Maybe I’m just a shell of what they are and what I used to be.

Tap, tap, tap.

My mother, she sings. God help me. As if the tapping weren’t enough to bear. In time to the music her foot presses the accelerator and the bags and blinking shoes turn into a melded blur of white and pink and light. My stomach turns and I have to look away.

“You’re carsick. I told you to stop looking out that window.”

She knows. A creep of panic flutters through my stomach. No, she can’t know. She repeats the same statement every time we get into the car. I cover my legs with my coat and pull down the visor mirror to check out my reflection. No sign of green or water retention. We’re safe.

She’s watching me and it feels like she’s been doing it since the day I was born. The checklist is being covered in her mind, I know, as her eyes dart from one inch of my body to the next.

Shirt— no profanity or visible cleavage.


Skirt— knee length and of a reasonable tightness.


Teeth and hair— brushed and combed.


If she could lift up my skirt and measure my underwear for full coverage, she would. She is the imperial involved mother. No foul language or g-strings shall pass by the maternal walking radar in Bill Blass flats. Her ultimate pride comes in knowing every aspect of her children’s lives and balking at the lack of parental skills in the mothers around her. At least once per newscast, she will raise her voice loudly and proclaim if the carjackers and drug dealers had been under her raising they would have been at home in bed instead of warming a jail cell on block C.

Tap, tap, tap. It’s a case of tragic irony, I guess.

I feel suddenly naked beneath her stare and pull my coat a little higher. Coats shield everything. They hide what needs hiding and cover up those little stains that can ruin a day. Today, it will cover my stain, and maybe tomorrow too. After that, words will have to be said that I don’t want to say and she doesn’t want to hear. But, until then, I will live in my silence and she in her happy bliss and together we’ll both be content for at least a day or two.

She sings again. Her voice fills the SUV like water and I close my eyes for a moment to listen. She sounds like fuzzy wool sweaters and denim straight leg jeans. I tug my coat a little higher.

I’m the good girl, or the bad girl, or maybe a little somewhere in between. I have good intentions that sometimes don’t pan out and good morals that ultimately get compromised here and there. It doesn’t make me a bad person, but that doesn’t stop the guilt from seeping in. My resistance is just a little too thin, or lax, maybe. She would call it a case of “severely impaired judgment,” but it doesn’t sound right to me. Judgment had nothing to do with it, though it will now. It just won’t be my judgment she’ll have to worry about.

The song changes and the rhythm of the wedding bands slow down a beat or two. I resist the urge to turn my head to the passenger window and stare out the front one instead. White paint lines rush toward us then shoot beneath our feet and disappear in the rearview. We rush ahead and she’s pressing the accelerator a little harder. Life comes too fast, too soon, and with too much reality and I just can’t handle it. Again, my stomach turns and I close my eyes and rest my head against the seat.

“Life goes on…” My mother chirps like a bird.

I can’t breathe. The seatbelt is tight against my chest and it’s leaving a red imprint in my skin. It’s binding, cutting off my air. I pull it away and breathe deeply in, out. That’s better. Beside me, a car passes by with a child’s face pressed into disfigurement against the backseat window. He sticks his tongue against it, making moist swirls and ripples on the glass. Such innocence. There could be any number of deadly germs breeding on that window and there’s no telling how many fingers have touched it, but he doesn’t care. He is a man living in the moment and after his tongue leaves the glass it will probably find some dirty fingers to wrap itself around. It’s all in a days work for him, and I feel a surge of envy twist my insides. I want that kind of innocence. I want it back. It left so quickly, and I never even noticed it gone. No one told me it happened like that, without any sign or warning.

It was supposed to be the epitomizing moment of my life, my awakening, like some sort of Jackie Collins-narrated sexual enlightenment. I would journey from childhood to high heels and big breasts in one defining moment and my whole world would be changed for the better.

What a disappointment.

Things have changed, but not for the better, and I certainly don’t feel any different. Except, perhaps, a little more regretful than I was last week. I’m not a woman, and if I am I don’t know it. Maybe I’m a woman in a child’s body or the other way around. I don’t know anything anymore.

“Sing with me, Stephanie. You have such a beautiful voice.”

I ignore her. The light ahead changes from green to red with no in-between and my mother slams on the brakes with every ounce of force in her lead foot. My stomach turns again and this time there’s no stopping the party. In a flurry of fingers my seatbelt is flying against the door, which I fling open wide. Next breath I’m leaning over the wet pavement spilling a Cheerio and English muffin cocktail into a drain gutter. The sight makes my stomach turn again and I have to close my eyes. I spit twice, cough, and crawl back into the SUV before the light turns green. I don’t want to open my eyes because I know what I’ll see. But I do, anyway, and I was right. My mother stares at me with shocked curiosity and blinks three times slow.

“Are you feeling all right?”

I wipe my mouth with the sleeve of my jacket. “I’m fine. Much better now.”

She stares a moment longer. “All right.”

There will be more questions later, and probably a doctor’s appointment. God, help me.

The light turns green and we’re on our way again. I glance at her and pull the coat over my torso again. She’ll know soon enough. For now, there’s a parent teacher meeting and I failed my last history exam. She puts on the turn signal and turns carefully into the school parking lot. I sigh. Here we are. Two little mothers.

She’ll know soon enough.

“I am twenty one and currently unpublished, though I am actively seeking outlets to change that. I live in Nashville, TN and I’m an executive assistant by day, though eventually I would love to write full time.” E-mail: lilmsambernic[at]

Three Poems

Beaver’s Pick
C.P. Dotson


This week the birds began to fluff
their feathers; now beaked bulbs
line our balcony,
noisy brown holiday lights.

Inside, on page 143, another Romanov
is snuffed out and an English ambassador,
in a letter to his mum, ridicules the barbarian prince.
(Watch for a bottle of vodka by the next post, he tells her.)

I stare at four boxed toasters in a boxcar row
on the living room floor: GE, Black & Decker,
Avant Elite, Kenmore. We’ll exchange three
for board games or a Swiffer. The Kenmore
has bagel-wide slots.
The atomic clock on a shelf above
has lost its signal again, time and date.

It shows a seven o’clock
in four years, when we’ll have a home with a garden and time
to sit in our backyard swing.
My mother has made her home
this year in Haifa. She sends us handmade jewelry,
pictures of the new boyfriend and his son
in militia garb, letters streaked with good advice
(Baking soda and peroxide will take some yellow
from your teeth.) and arrogant apologies:

for the rarity of phone calls (she’s just so busy
with Chaim and their baby Pekinese),

for the wedding she just couldn’t make.

I take the shrink wrap off Yahtzee, set up the game
in the living room floor while my husband
heats apple cider and Red Hots on the stove. We plan: lime
and avocado trees, a small spice garden.
The birds peck and chase each other—the Romanov spirit
alive and thriving. We’ll keep the Kenmore.


Photo View

It was a picture of me I found,
one of thousands in our years together
taken on some filthy side street—
this one in Seoul or Daegu,
clear from the Hangul on the sign behind me
above a green pharmacy cross
and the young man,
master of the inscrutable Korean stare.

He’s watching me. He sees the curve of my neck,
my head turned to where he can barely not see
my face. I think I am beautiful from that angle.
I check to make sure.
I don’t remember him. Possibly, I never noticed him
at all, but here he is, years ago, watching me and I
can’t tell what he’s thinking.

I don’t remember the day or what I thought
when the flash went off. I don’t remember
ever owning that shirt or smiling with such exasperation.
It might be a picture of someone else
except that my face is behind the expression,
my foreigner eyes and the scar beside my mouth
that you never asked about.

The young man isn’t looking into the camera,
as others on the street do
with their God-these-tourists faces.
They don’t know that we lived there,
worked there, searched twenty stores
for sliced cheese there. They don’t
know that we loved the city, and that I cried
more when I left than when I left the States,
that I was what I had always felt anyway:
the foreigner.

You would laugh if you saw my attempts
to make bibimbap in my American kitchen. The neighbors
don’t talk to me during the fall,
kimchi-making season,
and when I say hello, they glare obvious American glares.
They aren’t impressed by my beautiful angle.



He sheds his clothes birthing-style, stripping and thrusting
shirt, pants, shorts into an oblong nest beside the hamper,
then falls on the bed. All this world of progress,
and beds still creak like straining bridges,
over hills and dry riverbeds.

It’s not boredom in his expression as her clothes
pile across the arm of the feather-print chair, but it’s not
the interest of their first night, too hurried to hear
the springs, just thirst and mildly awkward satiation. After,
he saw the unevenness of her breasts. Early love is its own season.

Then the scraping together of bodies, the human smells,
(the staff meeting, the weekend chores) the rattle of the bedside table,
the endless endless creaking, rough against smooth against soft
against heat. A trace of voice in the sigh she knows
like the sound of cars on the street, like the tick
before the alarm clock buzzes, like bread bouncing from the toaster’s womb.
That is when he looks at her

as though she exists as much as his recliner, his PC games, his grill,
his favorite pair of winter socks. That is when she is nineteen
and he is too nervous to give her the lilies in his hand. That
is when she doesn’t care that he lets the laundry and dishes and bills
pile up. She is his and in him and of him.

He will roll away before she’s ready. He’ll pull on shorts,
get a soda from the fridge’s bottom shelf. He won’t notice
that she hasn’t moved, that she is lying still enough
to silence the springs, imagining them boring up
through the Egyptian cotton sheets.

She lies still, feeling the heat of him evaporate from her skin.

“I recently received my M.A. in English Literature, and I have one previous publication in a paying market. My short story, “Karma,” was published in Sam’s Dot Publishing’s Cover of Darkness in April 2007.” E-mail: chazley.dotson[at]

The Real Love

Creative Nonfiction
Byron J. Flitsch

It was the year Tara Lipinski, the ice skater, won the world championship and when Ellen’s sitcom character came out of the closet. It was the summer Princess Diana died in a car crash. And it was the summer I found the love of my life.

His name was Eric Stricklin and I wanted his tongue in my mouth.

That’s not supposed to sound as disgusting as it does. It’s supposed to sound like poetry. Because, that’s what Eric, my 25-year-old piano teacher did to my fifteen-year-old closeted gay kid mind. Made me think in poetry or in lyrics.

More importantly, though, Eric played music. And that summer he taught me music. He taught me many other things, too.

It all started when my mom had forced me into another summer activity.

“You need a hobby, Byron,” she said carrying in a pile of folded T-shirts fresh from the clothesline. “You’re not spending three months reading indoors.”

Reading in my bedroom was the only way to stay sane and pretend I wasn’t in a small town in Wisconsin.

“I’m signing you up for lessons.”

“No,” I said back. I had no interest after the trumpet incident of 1995. I was paging through a new Christopher Pike book I had just bought at a garage sale while lying on my unmade bed.

“Piano it is,” my mom said. As she left, she closed my bedroom door and the full-length mirror that was hidden behind my door showed a shocked expression on my round naïve face. My wavy unmanaged brown hair said it all: I was a mess.

And so I freaked. Because she was serious. Two days later we were in the family’s black Topaz on the way to my first lesson. I futzed with the radio while I imagined my teacher, an old woman wearing a pink muumuu—you know, like Mrs. Roper from Three’s Company—who had millions of cats and potted plants.

As we pulled up to a neighborhood a block from the lake, where all the stylish and rich residents of my small town in Wisconsin lived, I noticed the giant modern house—like something from Dwell magazine, with floor-to-ceiling windows. It was too cool for Wisconsin.

“I gotta go pick your brother up from summer school,” my mom said to me as I got out of the car. “I’ll see you in an hour.”

“You’re not coming in?” I yelled back but she didn’t answer because she was already halfway down the road.

“Hello there!” yelled a voice from the front door.

Through the tall trees in the well-maintained front yard a man who looked like Tom Cruise circa Top Gun leaned in the doorframe. He styled his short black hair carelessly like a model who just rolled out of bed. His thick eyebrows were perfectly shaped without ever being plucked. His eyes were green, that chartreuse color from the ’70s—bright and glowing. He had a jaw that was chiseled like a block of cheese and a perfect body under his preppy attire. Instantly, nothing was around me and I heard music, piano music.

“You’re… you’re a guy…” I said, stuttering over my words while walking towards him.

“Yup. Been a guy for twenty-five years of my life. You sound surprised.”

I didn’t tell him that I thought he was going to be this old bag that smelled like onions.

“I’m Eric,” he said as he welcomed me in.

I said nothing. When I stepped into the foyer and slipped off my tennis shoes, I immediately could smell the scent of orange, like burning scented candles—the heat of orange. The foyer led to the hall that had an entirely dark hardwood floor. Spaced perfectly on the walls, black and white photographs in matted black frames. And as I followed Eric I looked at each photo.

One had a close-up of Eric posing with Stevie Wonder. The frame next to it had Eric playing piano with a bright spotlight highlighting him—like an angel. The last frame was of Eric—kissing. The man had his nose smooshed against Eric’s cheek. Eric was giggling. It looked like they were somewhere tropical. My stomach dropped. It was the first time I’d ever seen a picture of two men kissing. I thought I actually had a chance with this guy! I mean, yeah, what fifteen-year-old guy doesn’t think about a lil’ some’n some’n every second he can?

“Oh, yeah, that was my partner. Yup. He’s an ass,” Eric said.

I turned my head, the sun from the hall windows lit him like a painting. His green eyes pushed in to mine and he smiled.

“Cool!” I said.

And it was the exact moment where I knew we clicked. Not like, “We’re made for each other.” But like a way you just know you get someone. You both come from the same place.

Finally, at the end of the hallway, I realized how intriguing Eric’s place truly was. He had turned his dining room into a music room. Windows touched both the ground and loft ceilings. And the summer light made every color vibrate—red paintings on the walls and stark white vases on dark furniture. In the center of the large open room was a giant black grand piano.

“Please, have a seat,” Eric motioned his hand towards the piano, as if he was saying voila. “Ready to learn something?” he asked, pulling out a thin paperback book with a little kid learning how to play a piano and an old woman as his teacher on the cover.

I smiled, thankful that Eric and I were nothing like that.

That first class Eric taught me the A chord. The C chord. And the E chord.

“Give me your hand,” he would say. I would limply bring it to his and he would hold it in his strong fingers, forming the chords in his fingers, and then rest them on their proper places on the piano. And sometimes he would brush his fingernail against the sensitive part of my palm.

The following week he taught me “Hot Cross Buns” using some of the notes he taught me the week before. This time I came prepared. I had dressed in my favorite bright blue polo that my mom said brought out my eyes. I only wore it for important occasions and when my mom dropped me off, she was impressed that I wanted to make such a great impression on my teacher who she hadn’t met yet.

“Excellent work!” Eric said to me. “Your second lesson and you already look like a prodigy.” Eric put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it like a coach would when he was excited about a scored goal. I imagined Eric letting me lean my head on his shoulder while he taught me “When the Saints Go Marching In.” He would let me close my eyes while he’d play the music and then he would tell me about his day and we would do things that people in love do—what I had learned from TV one-hour dramas—tell each other how great we were and then plan out our futures.

The third lesson I came with cologne I had gotten for my birthday. CK One. I had only the good shit and I knew I put the perfect amount on because when Eric said, “Wow, I really like that cologne. It smells very grown up,” I could hear in his voice he was impressed. When he started to teach me “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” I imagined him asking if I would like to come another day in the week. Like on a Friday. He would invite me to eat dinner—something French—because that’s the language of love. Then he would pour me a glass of sparkling grape juice—because the man respected my underage status—and play me “Ave Maria”—one of my favorite songs, and tell me that I should move in so we could play piano all the time. We would play in our pajamas with the scent of pancakes cooking in the kitchen. We would play in our robes. We would play for our friends who would love the dinner parties we’d throw—ones with expensive silverware on a giant wood dining table.

He talked about his life, too. Not just the famous people he met, but about his partner who he had been with for five years before they split up because Eric had discovered he was a drug user. Or the stories of all the drag queens he had met while living in Soho. Or even the best pop music that no one should ever be shy of no matter what kind of a musician you were. Like Madonna.

Every week I went back to his house ready to prove to him that I had practiced on the little lap keyboard my mom had bought me when she discovered how into piano I was.

“I’m just so impressed that you are sticking to this!” my innocent mom would say every time she caught me trying to memorize key chords.

But in my mind, I just thought of Eric and I playing together. I imagined every detail of each lesson I had so far. Our hips touching on the black piano bench, the way he smelled like oranges and mint, and how the stubble on his chin grew perfectly straight when I would stare at his perfect skin while he closed his eyes to sing a high note.

“I wrote this one last week. Wanna hear it?” Eric said, squinting at me, nervous to expose it at my following week’s lesson.

“You write music?” I swooned.

“Yah. Went to school for it.”

And then he played. A song that I imagined was titled “For You, Byron.” I continued to imagine he and I leaning on the piano, me with a cocktail in my hand. I imagined him singing words he made up just for me (“Byron, you’re the cutest boy in the universe. Byron, what I feel for you is not a curse. Byron, I think you have the best hair. Byron, you’re so cute I’ve got to stare.”) and me smiling then blushing and then walking over to him and sitting on the bench and leaning my head on his shoulder. Nothing else would come between us and our piano.

“So, what do you think?” he snapped me out of my daydream. Eric was looking for approval from me. He needed me to tell him it was great. Which of course it was because it was from him.

“Great… amazing… I loved it…” But all I could think about was the way his eyes sparkled when I told him I loved it and how he patted me on the head to thank me for my kind words.

Summer lessons continued to fly by and my crush became stronger. Every time he would put his hands on mine to teach me chords, chills made the hairs on my neck stand. Every time he would laugh and playfully punch me in the shoulder, I would imagine him hugging me to make up for it.

And then school started.

I had three college prep classes and worked for the school newspaper, so my schedule was hard enough. My mom told me that if I wanted the college classes, I would have to give up something. Piano was getting hard to practice with all the homework. I made the decision to let music, and Eric, go.

“It’s okay. Maybe next summer,” he said as he looked me straight in the eyes. It wasn’t a look he had ever given me the entire fifteen lessons I had had with him. It was the look of contemplation. The glossy glare someone gives when they are trying to figure out how to follow through on what they are imagining.

“Eric… I’m really sorry…” and then as I was about to finish my apology Eric kissed me on the cheek. He pushed his lips onto the side of my face and left them there for a good three seconds. It was long enough to feel an inhale and an exhale of his breath on my skin. It was long enough to close my eyes and smell how close he was to me. It was long enough for me to sigh from the center of my chest. It was long enough for me to contemplate whether I should turn my face and align my lips to his.

But it was short enough that it was done as quickly as it started.

He pulled his body away and his face turned instantly cold. I could see his cheeks harden and his eyes squint.

“You should leave.”

“Well… can we hang out sometimes…”?

“You should leave.”

He walked behind the piano, sat at the bench, and started playing a piece without saying goodbye, without walking me down the long hall to the door. He did not close the door behind me.

And as I waited on the front step of his house for mom to pick me up, I could hear the remnants of notes coming out of the piano as I started to cry. He had broken my heart.

And it wasn’t until ten years later when I was home visiting my parents, sipping on a latte at a coffee place waiting for a good friend to meet me, when I stumbled on an article about a local musician.

The article read something like: “Eric Stricklen’s eight-year battle with HIV never stopped him from succeeding in his many accomplishments. He produced records with jazz musicians in the Wisconsin area.” He taught at college level and even toured with a singer I never heard of. But I couldn’t get the three letters out of my head: H.I.V. And then the final sentence quoted was by a man who was cited as his life partner, “Eric’s death is only a reminder of his life and the people he changed while living it.”

I was angry. How could this guy, who made me believe that you will survive no matter what obstacles are in front of you, die? How could he have died? How could the guy that made me swoon at every single word not be alive anymore? How could I have never tried to get hold of him again? How could that disease take another great person off this Earth?

I wanted to cry, but the swooshing of the milk steamer and the crowded room made it hard, so instead I thought of the last song Eric tried to teach me before the end of my classes with him. You know the song by John Lennon…”Real Love.” This time, though, I imagined him singing the lyrics to me, now, at age twenty-five, the same exact age he was when I first met him.

I imagined Eric, older now, even with a bit of gray hair, but still looking as healthy as he did the day I met him—a more distinguished Tom Cruise, you know, without the crazy. It would be sunny and the music room would be filled with bright summer light. It would feel like that perfect day you had that one time, any perfect day, where you didn’t want it to end because you knew no day would be as perfect as that day.

I’d be leaning against the black piano in his giant house watching his lips form the notes he was singing, his fingers following along on the white keys like a dancer’s memorized steps. He would open his eyes to wink at me. My 25-year-old self would smile back at him while he hit the high notes and my 25-year-old self would melt every time he’d sing the word love.

Because in my mind, that is who he will always be—healthy, alive, talented—and my first real love.

Byron Flitsch is a writer and performer living in Chicago, IL. He is an active company member of Serendipity Theatre, which produces 2nd Story—a monthly hybrid of storytelling and music event. He’s also read and performed at R.U.I, Around the Coyote, and Homolatte. He’s been published in New City Magazine, No Touching Magazine, N.O.T.A., and UR Chicago. Lastly, he is a creative writing teacher for a non-profit program called After School Matters. Properly stalking Byron would involve visiting his website Email: Byron[at]

Stupid Girl

Creative Nonfiction
Gretchen Clark

It’s dim in here, except for those orange suggestions of light trapped in red votives on the tables. You are early, so you get ready for the rush. You double-knot your Reeboks, pull your hair back, put on lipstick, and make sure all your pens work. At eleven the lounge opens and customers start to come in.

Honey is what they call you. They don’t care what your name is even though it’s spelled out for them and pinned to your chest. You come when they wave. Or whistle. You are an indoor gardener but foul people not pretty flowers bloom in here. No matter what is given to them they always need more, hotter, faster from you. A steady stream of gin-and-tonics waters them. Makes them grow wild.

Their cigarette smoke burns your eyes but you keep serving and smiling because they give you tips. Because you need these tips. Need them to help pay the rent, to buy Kool-Aid and ramen noodles, to put gas in a ’78 Celica, to pass along to your boyfriend so he can buy cigarettes and Bud Light, to reward yourself with a 99¢ Wet n Wild nail polish. Whether it’s crumpled or wet from being stuck under a water glass, you take the money. The bills curl into a green snail in your pocket.

Twice a week you pull a double shift. At night you work under the boss’s wife, Dolly. This Dolly has buck teeth, a bad perm, and a waxy pink coat of lipstick circling her pout. She speaks to you in fluent Vietnamese and broken English. To get your attention she snaps her fingers or clucks her tongue at you. It’s confusing trying to decipher her body language and her foreign tongue. Mistakes happen. Ketchup doesn’t get to the couple at table four. Coffee goes cold. Plates of steak fries and patty melts congeal under heat lamps. And this pisses Dolly off. Makes her scream at you during dinner rush. In your native tongue she calls you “stupid girl.” These words electrify you because you secretly fear she may be right. The credits testifying to your academic inadequacies scroll down the screen in your head:

You flunked kindergarten.

You were placed in private speech therapy lessons in the fourth grade because you could not verbally express yourself.

Ds and Fs decorated your high school report cards. In the lowest 10% of your graduating class, you slip—barely—out the doors of your high school.

You take entrance exams for community college. Your scores are below average. You are placed in remedial English and math courses. You feel defeated and quit before the first semester is over.

Dolly’s words also trip a different switch in your consciousness. They make you realize that this restaurant is becoming your grave. You have to dig yourself out of its darkness before the words of a Dolly become true.

You quit. Get a job as a receptionist at a doctor’s office. You work all day and go to community college at night, eating Snickers bars and drinking large cups of coffee for dinner to stay awake. It takes years for enough credits to add up so you can apply to a real college.

You only apply to one, a private Catholic university. Kids who go there come from wealthy families, have above average SATs and 4.0 GPAs, went to private high schools, know Latin and God. You know nothing, but want to learn everything.

By mistake, luck, or pity someone lets you in.

You find yourself in another dim room. This time a couple overhead lights cast a low yellow glow over the desks. You are early, so you take a seat in the back. You unzip your backpack, pull out your notebook, open up your book, review the material, and make sure all your pencils are sharp. The class is large. The professor doesn’t remember your name when you comment on the art history slide projected behind him. Your hand cramps from all the writing.

It takes three years in dark lecture halls, endless hours in the bowels of the university library, and lonely nights when you don’t go to bed before 3:00 A.M. to get to the end.

You emerge from the dimness at last. The light. The sun. It’s bright, blinding. You sit and wait, sweating under the black gown in the heat for hours just to hear it. Finally. It’s your turn. As you cross the stage and take the college diploma, your name blares through the loud speakers for all to hear:

You stupid girl. You did it.

“I hold a B.A. in English and co-teach a Lyric Essay course online at My work has appeared in Flashquake, Blood Lotus, Hip Mama, Foliate Oak and other publications.” E-mail: prettylizard_2000[at]


Jacob Strunk

Goddamn, the fire was hot. Still, despite its being July, despite the balmy night, he liked it there. Beside the fire. It didn’t feel 75 degrees out here, though he knew it was, though he could see the kids were perfectly comfortable in shorts and T-shirts, running circles in the yard. No, it felt cold. He felt cold. But here by the fire, here it was warm. His face, his hands, his chest, he let the heat sink in there, let it trace its way through him, feeling fingers of it reaching from chest to lung to spine, up his arms. His back, facing away from the fire, facing the house full of people—family—tingled with cold.

But the fire fought it, pushed it back.

Jackson drained the last few drops from his bottle, scraped his fingernails against the raised pattern of glue exposed when he had peeled off the label. Leinie’s Red. His favorite. Sweet, but not too sweety. Hoppy, dark. Familiar. He picked up the stick next to him, carefully stripped of offshoots and bark, slid the bottle’s mouth over the end. His hand gripped the leather wrapped and tied around one end and extended the bottle into the fire, pushed it in deep. A few embers shot up as if startled awake, then disappeared. Jackson pushed again, driving the bottle into the bottom of the firepit, then retracted the stick, satisfied. He lifted the lid of the styrofoam cooler next to him, pulled out another Leinienkugel.

In the fire, the bottle glowed red.

Jackson doesn’t find him. He wishes he had, but it is Michael, the neighbor kid, who finds him. Jackson is in the kitchen, standing at the counter, cleaning four rainbow trout. They aren’t fresh, at least not caught that day, but he pulled them out of the freezer that morning to let them thaw in the sink. He peels away the white butcher paper in which he’d wrapped them earlier in the summer. When he is sure they are thawed, he sharpens his filet knife and begins doing what he’s done perhaps a thousand times before, the way his grandfather taught him 40 years earlier.

He pushes the knife down behind the gills, forces through.

When the front door opens, Jackson doesn’t even look up. He hears the awkward clump of teenage sneakers come up behind him. He feels Michael edge in close, peer around Jackson’s shoulder to study the procedure. Snap. Slice. On to the next. Michael says, Thanks for dinner. Jackson says, Don’t thank me yet. Then Michael says something Jackson can’t remember or doesn’t hear and clump clump clump, untied shoes back through the kitchen, up the stairs. Jackson works the knife along the spine, then deftly spins the filet and frees the skin in one stroke.

Just like his grandfather taught him when he was a boy.

Onto the second fish when he hears a scream. Not his kid’s, no, Michael’s. Clump clump back down the stairs, too fast, he knows, and Jackson leaves the knife where it is, stuck there between skin and flesh, halfway between tail and fin. Jackson meets Michael at the foot of the stairs. Michael, out of breath and crying. Michael, shaking. Michael, curling into himself like the boy he is, far from the man he’ll be, the man he tries to show everyone with flexed muscles, with arm wrestling, with cocky challenges. Michael, shaking, crying. And Jackson ascends the stairs, knowing somewhere already what he’ll find, knowing and, yes, in a way already trying to accept it. Top of the stairs, to the left, down the hall. He glimpses into his kid’s room as he passes, but already knows to keep going. Bathroom, end of the hall. His kid. In the tub. Clothes still on. So much blood. So much blood.

Slice, onto the next.

Jackson flicked the bottle cap into the fire. It hit a log, one of the bigger ones, and bounced out, landing at his feet. He didn’t pick it up, instead pushed it with his toe as close to the fire as he can get it, then flicked it the rest of the way. It landed near that last bottle he pushed in, the bottle now buckled in on itself, sinking slowly into the bottom of the pit. Jackson heard someone walking up behind him. Knew—in that way of knowing—who it was. He upended the beer, drank as much as he could before his sister appeared next to him, emerging from the shadows. He managed to get most of it down, but not all. Collette made a face. Collette had been making this face as long as Jackson could remember. When she was displeased with something, Collette would scrunch up her nose, her upper lip following, and look down its ridge.

Like she had seen a dead baby, but had seen many before.

Jackson looked up at her, at her dead baby face, and tried to smile. Collette sat next to him, put her arm around his shoulders as she would when he was a baby. How are you, she asked. He told her he was fine. Are you drunk, she asked. He told her he was not. But was working on it. Collette squeezed his shoulder with her hand, then wrapped her arms around herself. Jackson watched, thinking he understood the way she pulled her arms tight against her chest, spread them out to cover as much of her body as possible. To protect it. He asked if she was cold.

No, she was hot. The fire was hot.

It’s Jackson who calls his wife. He calls his wife before Michael’s mother, before he dials 911. He knows he will not get through to her, that she is in a class, but he leaves a message with the desk girl. He does not say why he is calling, just would she please knock on the door, go into his wife’s class, and tell her to come home. Now. Something has happened. He does not say any more.

He doesn’t need to.

Michael’s mother, Nancy, comes right over from down the street. She tends to her boy, hugging him, drawing him in close. Jackson watches, knowing it’s not just for the boy. Nancy offers to stay, to send Michael home and stay here until his wife arrives, until the fire department or the police or whoever, so he doesn’t have to be alone. He says no, thank you, she should take Michael home. She should talk to him and hold him close. Jackson says Michael needs it. Jackson says they should leave. Jackson sees them to the door, then climbs the stairs again, slowly this time. Down the hall. To the bathroom at the end, closing the door behind him.

The fish will have to be thrown out later that night, warm, thawed, and sticky.

Collette kissed his cheek and stood. You should come up, she said. To the house. They’re here for you, she said, as much as they are for him. Jackson looked over his shoulder, feeling the cold on his face as he turned away from the fire. He saw his wife, his parents through the kitchen window. He saw Collette’s husband in a chair on the deck, a beer next to him, holding their daughter’s small hands, her small feet on top of his. Jackson watched as she danced, following her father’s movements. Jackson looked back at Collette and said he knew. Jackson grabbed the stick again, carefully balanced his bottle on the end, pushed it into the fire. He watched the last few swallows of beer slosh around at the bottom as the bottle settled into place in the bed of embers. Be careful, Collette said.

Jackson told her he wanted to hear it boil.

She squeezed his shoulder again and turned back to the house. He opened the cooler. He opened another bottle. He drank and he shivered against the cold only he could feel. He heard kids shouting behind him. Nieces and nephews, much younger than his son had been. He heard Collette approach the house, heard her say something to her husband. He heard her open the patio door and step inside, heard for a brief moment the sound of his wife’s voice, too. Jackson drank his beer. He flicked the bottle cap into the embers. He watched the logs shift as the fire ate away at them from below. He let the beer sit in his mouth for a few seconds before each swallow. Sweet, but not too sweet. His favorite. And when it was gone, he picked up the stick and slipped the bottle’s mouth over the end.

He’d collect the glass in the morning, once it had cooled.

“My fiction and films have been covered by Film Threat, Fangoria and The Horror Channel, among others. My film Valhalla was a finalist for the Student Academy Awards. A Shadow Before Sunrise took home ‘Best Film Noir’ at the New York International Independent Film Festival. Said Warren Etheredge, founder of The Warren Report: ‘Strunk conveys tragic, yet simple sorrows shrouded in undeniable beauty.’ And said Richard Horan, author of Goose Music and Life in the Rainbow: ‘He cannot help but move people.’ You can find further information about my work at” E-mail: jacob[at]