The conclusion to “Standing Deadwood” by Thomas M. Atkinson from issue 294.3-4

“STANDING DEADWOOD” originally appeared in issue 294.3-4, May-Aug 2009. The first half of Thomas M. Atkinson’s short story “Standing Deadwood” was featured yesterday June 6, 2015.


After work, I stopped by on the way home to visit Gwen’s mother Jeri, who lives in a little stick-built house under a two hundred year old standing dead oak just waiting for the right gust of wind. Once Amber found a perfect arrowhead in the broken knot of a windfall branch, grown over and over again each spring, rising higher and higher. Jeri owns Miss Jerolee’s Trims ‘n Tans and most people call her Miss Jerolee whether she’s working or not. She was nursing a cup of coffee at her dinette and she looked like she’d been painted with the powder off of those cheese curls Amber likes so much. Last year she fell asleep with a chemical whitening tray clamped between her teeth, and for months and months, until her cigarettes could stake another claim, it was like she had a light bulb turned on in her mouth every time she smiled.

I said, “Is your tanning bed giving you trouble?”

She held out an orange arm and said, “’Bronze Goddess.’ You spray it on. It’s
what the stars wear to the Golden Globes.”

I said, “And I thought there was something wrong with our TV”

She said, “I got it off the eBay.”

I said, “You talk to her today?”

She licked her thumb and worried a spot on her arm. She said, “Honey, she don’t
call me no more. Not unless she needs cash.”

I said, “You give her any?”

She said, “Not since she broke in the shop. And I didn’t mean to then.”
She lit up a menthol and rubbed the filter end against her teeth until it squeaked.

I said, “I drug her home again last night.”


I’d tracked her out east of town, to a trailer home back a gravel road so washed out that my shingle hatchet kept sliding up underneath the pedals and back again. An old woman on oxygen was asleep on the couch and a lady was selling loose gemstones on the Shopping Channel. Gwen was in the back bedroom in the dark, laid out side by side on the floor with a high school boy like they were dead. They were both dressed and his hand, slim and soft, was on top of hers as light as a feather. She’d sighed and whispered, “Tell me again.” Then I stepped between them and put my boot through the Sheetrock above his head. I stomped all the furniture to match sticks and didn’t stop until Gwen got in the way of the vanity, crawling for the light of the open door. The boy balled up in one corner covering his head with his hands, and I pissed three beers down his back before I drug her out to the truck.

Jeri said, “Smoking that makes her crazy, Honey. It’s poison.”

I said, “I tore up a trailer. Pissed on some kid.”

She shook her head and blew smoke out of her nose.
I said, “Wasn’t his fault.”

And she said, “No, but not yours neither. She’s my flesh and blood, but God help
me, you’ve served your time.”

I said, “But she’s my baby.”

She said, “She’s my baby once too. You got another baby to worry about.”

At the door, I said, “Jeri, when are you going to let me fell this tree?”
She said, “If you cut it down now, how’ll the insurance buy me a new house?”

I looked up and said, “That’s not much of a plan, Jeri. You might just get
squashed like a bug.”

She said, “Next time your sister brings her down, come by the shop and Kim’ll do
her free.” Kim is the Korean girl who works for Jeri, and she paints tiny unicorns on Amber’s nails that look like they’re running from one to the next.

I stopped by Wendy’s and picked up a Frosty milkshake because that’s about the only thing Gwen can keep down anymore. There was a doe in the yard when I got home, and we stared at each other until I turned off the engine and she bolted through the pines. Gwen was still sleeping and the whole room smelled of rotting teeth. I untapped the oven mitts from her hands and rubbed at the adhesive caught in the fine hairs of her wrists. When she stretched you could see my boot laces in the big bruise coming up on her ribs. She smiled at me like a sleepy child, like she used to, like the last two years were a dream she’d already forgotten, and said, “Baby, be careful at work today.”

I said, “I will. You want some Frosty?”

She rolled on to her side and said, “No, I’m just going to catnap until Amber gets up for school.”

Sometimes she forgets. I said, “Give her this.” I kissed her palm and wrapped her fingers tight around it and now she’s fast asleep. It’s what I used to do.


I go out for a breath of air and set the Frosty down just outside the back door. Three beers from now I’ll be too drunk to drive to Akron, too drunk to run without thinking about where I might be running, too drunk to find my pistol hidden up in the rafters of the tool shed. But I won’t be too drunk to sit in the dark and watch him lick ice cream off his little black hands. And with any luck, I won’t be too drunk to throw my hatchet through the screen door, at the night full of starlight gathered in the green behind his eyes.

Thomas M. Atkinson is an author and playwright. His new novel, Tiki Man, was named one of four finalists in the 2014 Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest. His new collection of linked stories, Standing Deadwood, which includes “Standing Deadwood,” has been selected as a finalist in the 2014 Spokane Prize for Fiction (Willow Springs Editions) and the 2014 St. Lawrence Book Award for Fiction (Black Lawrence Press). “Ruint Horse” was just named 1st Runner-up for the 2014 Chris O’Malley Prize for Fiction at The Madison Review and will appear in the Spring 2015 issue. His short story, “Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills,” published in The Sun magazine, was twice nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize, and is taught in English 11 & 12 AP courses in San Diego, California. “Ruint Horse” and “Red, White & Blue,” were finalists for Tampa Review’s 2013 and 2014 Danahy Fiction Prize. His short play, Dancing Turtle, was one of six winners of the 2013 38th Annual Samuel French Off Off Broadway Festival, and appears in an anthology of the same name. He has won numerous awards for both fiction and drama, including five Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards. His short fiction has appeared in The Sun, The Madison Review, The North American Review, The Indiana Review, Tampa Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, The Moon, City Beat, Clifton, and Electron Press Magazine. A new print edition of his first novel, Strobe Life, is now available. He and his wife live in Ohio and have two sons.


Can Books Fly? by John Smolens

truckAs a kid, I had a recurring dream that now seems Dali-esque. What I recall is images, grossly out of shape, out of proportion, and in odd relation to one another. There was always the truck, an eighteen-wheeler. One moment I was inside the dark, cavernous trailer, while the next moment I was outside the truck and it was small, like my own toy trucks. The only “human” image I recall in this dream was a thumb. (Freudians just shut up and go away.) And there were other images, things gleaned from childhood, a life of being small, a life of crawling and toddling on the floor, a life of looking up: a chair, a coffee table, curtains that extended from the floor to an incredibly high ceiling. But the most vivid image in this dream was the book. Periodically, it would fly overhead, spine skyward, pages flapping in the languid fashion of a bird with a substantial wing span. We are defined by questions, I suspect, and as a result of this dream a question that has been central to my existence all these years is Can books fly?


Sometimes we say, when sales are brisk, books “fly off the shelf,” but with the demise of brick and mortar book stores, the simple, pleasurable act of entering a book store, perusing its shelves, not in search of a specific title necessarily, but just looking, has all but disappeared. Used to be that when visiting a new town or city, you’d keep your eye out for book stores. A good book store in an unfamiliar town was a haven of contemplative quiet which smelled of paper, the quality stuff in a new hardback, mingling with the brittle, yellowed pulpy stuff you’d find in used paperbacks with cracked spines. Very often the pleasure of being in a book store was not knowing what you were looking for, but hoping that, because you were in a book store, the exact right book would reveal itself to you and leap—or fly—off the shelf into your waiting hands. Call it a leap of faith.

When books aren’t being bought and sold, they’re often given away. (Or purloined, if you heeded Abbie Hoffman’s advice regarding his book entitled Steal This Book.) Books are loaned, lent, thrust into your hands by a fanatic with Rasputin eyes, proclaiming, You must read this!” A few days ago I was on Plum Island, which is north of Boston, and I stopped at an establishment that had a sign in the window which read Beer Wine Help Wanted (no ordinary sign, this might be, for some, a philosophy, or a mantra). I discovered that though the establishment was closed someone had put a cardboard box outside the door with Free Books writ large on the side in black Marks-a-Lot. I sorted, I sifted: lots of Clive Cussler; several romance novels, which from the cover art might be classified as Bodice Ripper Lite. But then I found it—or them. Toward the bottom of the carton were two copies of The Great Gatsby. Both paperbacks in excellent condition; both sporting the famous original cover art featuring the sad yellow eyes (the pupils gimleting naked nubile women) peering out from the tear-stained deep blue field above what might be a carnival or city lights. Though over the years I have had several copies of Fitzgerald’s novel, I took one copy from the carton, because you can never have enough copies of Gatsby; you can never read it enough times. It’s a book from which one can’t help selecting sentences that resonate far beyond Gatsby and the world of East and West Egg:

“Conduct may be founded on hard rock or the wet marshes but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on.”

“To a certain temperament the situation might have seemed intriguing—my own instinct was to telephone immediately for the police.”

“Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart.”

And though the novel’s concluding sentence is justifiably one of the most memorable in our literature, it is the first line that sets Nick Carraway’s narrative in motion with such grace and conviction:

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”

Like the book I found in that carton, his father’s advice, offered in the next paragraph, was free.


Books are often associated with freedom; a book that is given, whether it’s a gift or is left in a box marked Free Books, is a unique expression of freedom. When they’re banned, when they’re burned, our sense of a just freedom is not only compromised but threatened. In recent years, there has been a tendency for people to place what are often called Little Free Libraries outside their homes. According to Conor Friedersdorf, who wrote about this phenomenon in The Atlantic, these “Give one, take one” Little Free Libraries began in Wisconsin in 2009, when a man established one outside his house in honor of his deceased mother, an avid reader, and the notion has since spread throughout the country. Some Little Free Libraries are compact architectural gems, sporting shingled roofs and handsome glass doors, which make it easier to peruse titles without exposing the books to inclement weather. Leaving books outside of one’s house is a matter of freedom of expression, yet there are people who, in the thrall of civic-minded idiocy, take exception to such exchanges. In many communities they have registered complaints with the local constabulary, citing building code violations and zoning laws. Friedersdorf continues that there’s a certain type of American who is determined to regulate every last aspect of community life. Due to selection bias, they are overrepresented among local politicians and bureaucrats. And so they have power, despite their small-mindedness, inflexibility, and lack of common sense so extreme that they’ve taken to cracking down on Little Free Libraries, of all things.


Somewhere inside every avid reader resides an unremitting, unrepentant dreamer, one who knows that books can fly, one who knows that the fate of free books will not be determined by impassioned letters to the editor or incensed diatribes at community zoning board meetings. Such dreamers know that the solution is in the air. Rather than stacking volumes in a cardboard box or some weekender’s building project, we need only to stand in the front yard and hurl books skyward, allowing them to glide and wheel and circle overhead, always just within reach of innocent, unsuspecting passersby.

John Smolens short story “The End of the World” appeared in the North American Review (Winter 2013). His new novel Wolf’s Mouth will be published spring 2016.

First Illustration Link
Second Illustration Link

Third and fourth illustration by: Gigi Rose Gray, an illustrator born and raised in New York City where she received her BFA in illustration from Parsons New School for Design. She now resides in sunny Los Angeles. Her works are inspired by the grace and elegance of women, mid-century design, french renaissance interiors, the colors olive green and mustard yellow, dreams, cypress trees, Greco-Roman art, and nostalgia. 

History Several Millennia in the Making: Writing about the Boxing Day Tsunami by Amanda Morris


The 2004 massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami in the Indian Ocean topped the charts as one of the deadliest natural disasters ever recorded. What grabbed my attention was not the heartbreaking aftermath, but the unbelievably long buildup to the event. As a science writer, I regularly meet with scientists and engineers who are doing fascinating work. Several years ago, I spoke with an Earth scientist who had measured the size of the earthquake that caused the tsunami. In order to help me better understand it, he showed me a computer simulation of events that occurred nearly 200 million years ago.

The events eased into motion when a sleeping supercontinent named Gondwana began to shake awake. After having been settled at the bottom of the Earth near Antarctica for millennia, its subcontinents started to pull against their sutures. A hot rock mantle plume pushed up against the Earth’s crust, its bulbous head piercing through the overlying rock. The intrusion formed a fissure between what is the current-day India landmass and the rest of Gondwana. The crack deepened into a canyon and then a gulf so wide that India pulled away and floated freely. The liberated landmass budged northward, 20 centimeters per year through the Tethys Ocean.

tsunami12_04Moving at glacial pace, the slow-floating zeppelin shoved everything out of its way during its travel before being halted by the Burma Plate in the northern hemisphere. With nowhere to go, the Indian Plate slid and settled beneath the Burma Plate. The dipping plate created a trench in the seabed, 25,344-feet deep. At the bottom of this trench, ancient fungus chomped on carbon in millions-of-years-old mud. Long, bony fish stood upright on their fins, waiting for movement in the abyss to scoop up prey. The Indian Plate pushed deeper everyday, creeping farther beneath the Burma plate, creeping at a rate of growing fingernails. It creeped like this for 50 million years. The continents crunched together, crinkling at the interface like rumpled tin foil. The bedrock raised up and the edges of the landmasses folded over onto themselves, growing into mountains. The peaks grew two inches per year, its tallest one becoming Mount Everest.

The tension of these two plates grinding together eventually became more friction and pressure than the Earth could handle. On December 29, 2004, over the course of several minutes, the Indian Plate slipped, charging beneath the overriding Burma Plate. The sea floor jolted upward by several meters, displacing 30 cubic kilometers of water to trigger the tsunami. It amazed me that an event, several millennia in the making, could suddenly rupture and forever change the Earth’s surface within a matter of minutes.


When writing about the events that occurred directly after the earthquake, I wanted to convey the sensation that a lot of actions were happening at once. I chose to overwrite the text, in order to help give that feeling. After the tsunami hits land, I implemented off-rhymes and assonance to help pull the reader through the somewhat dense text. I wanted to make the sentences a little slippery, to pull the readers frictionlessly through the action, propelling them forward, hurtling toward the end result.

Through climate change, deforestation, draining rivers, reef destruction, and farming, humans are steadily altering the face of the planet and its atmosphere. But some alterations are rooted in a history deeper than humans. Some events were fated long before a word such as “fate” existed. Some events are unavoidable. The 2004 earthquake and tsunami were written into a destiny that we have been inescapably hurtling toward for millennia.

Amanda Morris is a science writer in Chicago. She received a master’s degree in creative writing from Northwestern University, where she previously served as managing editor of TriQuarterly. She also has a bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Illinois. Her work can be found in TriQuarterly, CenterPiece magazine, Northwestern Engineering magazine, LiveScience, the website for the National Science Foundation, and elsewhere. She lives with her handsome husband Mark, who is also a writer, and their deliciously fat cat Oliver, who cannot write but wishes he could.

Pictures are linked to their online credentials.

“The Wait” by Nick Kolakowski from issue 300.2


New York City never sleeps, but late at night it pauses to take a breath. Deep underground, on the subway platforms, the floods of people empty out; those who remain keep their distance from one another, for safety. You stand and wait for the next train to arrive, your ears straining for its rising rumble, your teeth gritting with frustration as the minutes creep past.

At that low ebb, the repair-work begins in earnest. You see it first as a white flicker at the edge of your vision, which resolves into a flashlight beam bobbing down the black throat of the nearest tunnel: subway workers checking the lines for wear and tear. Sometimes they emerge into the station, climbing onto the platform to await the train that will carry them to the next point on their shift. And it’s not just repairs; with each passing day, the urban miners drill a little further into the bedrock beneath our feet, creating the routes that (the mayor promises) will ease the crushing crowds, the delays, the collective irritation.

It takes a lot of effort to keep the great metal heart of the subway system beating at roughly the right tempo. With each passing year, though, it seems that tempo becomes more and more arrhythmic. The trains take longer to arrive, or never appear at all. Sometimes they stall in mid-tunnel, under the river, sparking your latent claustrophobia. The best way I’ve found to get through the daily commute is to adopt a certain Zen attitude, and bring a book.


One night, as the M train crawled its way through Manhattan’s arteries, I glanced up from my copy of Philip Levine’s poems (Detroit crumbling majestically, line by measured line) to see a pair of grimy boots float past the window, at eye level. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to that exterior dimness, to realize that I was looking at a worker standing on the narrow concrete walkway that runs the length of some subway tunnels. I couldn’t see his face; but at that moment, separated by a smeared pane of glass, I wondered about his thoughts. Does spending most of your life in the dark, sharing the tight space with steel leviathans that could crush you in an instant, create its own Zen? Or does it just wear you down?

I reflected on the titanic effort necessary to keep these hundreds of miles of track alive, and the toll that takes on the human body: the broken bones, the weakened knees, the sooty lungs, the long shifts, the fearful prospect of death by fire or electricity. There’s a price in blood and spirit for the frameworks that support us, and it’s largely paid outside of our sight. That was the kernel of “Sandhog,” my poem, although it didn’t emerge fully formed; I made a point of tinkering with its structure every time my train stalled for a lengthy period of time, as a sort of ritual to goad the system into moving again. I like to think the writing made me more empathetic—and less frustrated—about the wait

Nick Kolakowski’s fiction and poetry has appeared in the North American Review, The Evergreen Review, McSweeney’s, Carrier Pigeon, Shotgun Honey, Crack the Spine, and The Adirondack Review. He is also the author of How to Become an Intellectual, a book of comedic nonfiction. He lives in New York City, where by day he writes about science and technology for a number of publications.

Illustrations by: Anthony Tremmaglia, an Ottawa-based illustrator, artist, and educator. His clients include WIRED, Scientific American, Smart Money, HOW, and San Francisco Weekly. Anthony is featured in issues 299.1, Winter 2014 & 299.4, Fall 2014 and his most recent work (featured above) in upcoming 300.2, Spring 2015. Find more of Anthony’s work at

What Is Said by Hope Wabuke

On June 16, 1944, George Stinney, a fourteen-year-old black boy, was executed by the state of South Carolina for the murder of two white girls. George was so short he had to carry a Bible to use as a booster seat when sitting in the electric chair. He was so young the death mask would not fit his face. He took five full minutes to die, the mask slipping off to show his eyes melting, his body convulsing.

There was no evidence that George had committed the murders. There were no actual witnesses to the murders—in fact, George had an alibi for the whole day in question. The “confession,” which George denied having made and which had not been recorded or written down, was the fabrication of three white police officers. But after a single day trial, an all-white male jury returned a conviction and death sentence for the fourteen-year-old boy in less than twenty minutes. George’s family had been run out of town by its white citizens so that he did not even have the comfort of his mother’s arms in the days he was imprisoned before his one day trial and ensuing execution.


A few days ago, on December 17, 2014, the state of South Carolina overturned this conviction as wrongful and unjust.

On November 22, 2014, Tamir Rice, a young twelve-year-old black boy was playing in the park in Cleveland, Ohio. Police arrived and immediately opened fire on Tamir. In the minutes that the twelve-year-old boy was bleeding out onto the pavement, the shooting officers did not deign to attempt CPR and save his life. Tamir Rice died at the hospital a few hours later.

One cannot avoid the similarities in the cases of George and Tamir. Both black boys, both executed by the state without cause. One was given the farce of a “trial,” the other was not. We have regressed it seems, from allowing even that when it comes to black boys.

Tamir Rice’s shooting happened two days before a grand jury decided not to indict another white police officer for shooting another unarmed black boy named Mike Brown six times. I couldn’t process it. I understand this is what is called shock. I was numb. The only conscious thought I had was to love my two-year-old baby boy, love every minute with him because I did not know how many days until he, too, could be shot down to contain the “threat of his skin;” Aiyana Jones, a black girl, was seven and also unarmed when white police officers, again uncharged, shot and killed her.

That day of Tamir’s death, I heard the echo of June Jordan in my head saying that “self-love is the most revolutionary act.” My baby boy is the best part of myself. I would spend the day with him, loving him. I would take him to the park and his favorite places. That would be my protest.

We took baby boy’s buckets and shovels with us, and like magnets, a small group of boys flocked to us in the sandbox.  They looked so young, with their knocking knees and beautiful afros; I thought they were seven years old. “Are you in second grade?” I asked them. “No,” they told me, “we are in seventh.”

I did the math in my head and realized they were twelve. I remembered twelve was the age Tamir Rice was when he was shot. “Twelve,” I repeated. “Twelve.” They did not know why I started to cry. But they looked so young. They looked like babies. I was seeing their blooded brains and stomachs, bleeding out onto the playground.  Twelve, with a gun, shot down.


All that day I had moments of sudden tears, not crying, just water slipping out from my eyes.

In April, 2014, Cliven Bundy and a group of middle aged white men drew guns and yelled threats at federal agents and police officers. ‘I’ve got a clear shot at four,” one of Cliven Bundy’s men is reported as threatening.

Stated Assistant Sheriff Lombard: “They pointed weapons.” And: “we were outgunned and outmanned.” But Bundy and his men, unlike the unarmed black children, were not shot dead, or even arrested.

It is, you see, about unequal application of force and justice depending upon race. It is about police brutality and racial profiling.

Darren Wilson, the white cop who killed Mike Brown called him a “hulk,” a “demon.” A witness called him a nigger. This is how they see us. Not as human. It has been documented by psychological studies that black children are seen as more criminal and not as young as white children are perceived, and the police act with increased violence accordingly when facing black children.

When I was a young girl of color growing up in Los Angeles, California, I wanted to become a writer to help end the virulent racism and sexism I had experienced, beginning when a white classmate called me “nigger” and pushed me off the swings in second grade. But now, as a black mother of a black boy, the systematic, often state sanctioned acts of violence by white men upon black bodies have become realer to me than they have ever been.  Trayvon Martin, Aiyana Jones, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, John Crawford, Akai GurleyMike BrownTamir Rice. The list is endless. I realized that the only way I would be able to keep my son safe would be to use my writing to help make the world a safer place for black boys walking.

They call you a “political writer” then, as if that were a bad word. But everything is political. “Political” is only given a negative connotation when it is thrown at people of color for writing about our experience of living.


“How many of us have been told not to write about race? That, just by writing about your experience in the world as a black person your book is ‘too political’ and will not sell?” I asked my peers at the Junot Diaz’s Voices of Our Nations Arts Fellowship a year ago and nearly all of my brothers and sisters of color raised their hands.

I know I will be told this again and again—as does nearly every writer of color. It is said in workshop as critique, by those in the industry as dismissal. But that doesn’t matter because there are more important things. There are some things that need to be said. There are some moments in history when, if you are a writer and been gifted with this uncanny ability to observe and make meaning in harmonious forms, you have a responsibility to look. To bear witness. As Junot Diaz said at VONA: “those of us who have been systematically erased or marginalized throughout history have a right, a responsibility, to speak for those of us who now cannot.”

aslan and mommyHope Wabuke is a California based mom and writer. Her poetry appears or is forthcoming  in the North American Review, Kalyani Magazine, Fjords Literary Journal, Potluck Magazine, Ruminate Magazine, Literary Mama, Weave Magazine, Cease Cows, Split This Rock and joINT Literary. Her essays and criticism have been featured in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, Gawker, The Root, Ms. Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, The Daily Beast and Kirkus Reviews. She has received grants and fellowships from The New York Times, VONA Voices and the Barbara Deming Foundation. Follow Hope on Twitter @HopeWabuke. Hope is featured in issue 300.1, Winter 2015.

Illustrations by  Clay Rodery, an illustrator who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Clay’s illustrations have been featured in the North American Review, most recently in issue 299.4, Fall 2014.

Reading for Otherness by Eric Torgersen

Ann and I were staying at a VRBO apartment on the edge of Austin, visiting our daughter, when I picked from the bookshelf there, mildly curious, a paperback copy of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore; I remembered having read a review when it first appeared. The title had caught my attention, and kept it even after I realized that there was no direct relation (but a powerful indirect one) to the author of The Trial. Kafka is the chosen alias of the fifteen-year-old Japanese runaway central character, to hide his identity, and also the name of a figure in a picture painted before he was born. But the world of the novel is one in which a man might well turn into a man-sized beetle—or, as in Murakami’s storySamsa in Love,” vice-versa.

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I don’t normally read in long sessions; my eyes tire from an old muscle imbalance, surgically corrected long ago, but returning as I age. I had only a few days—active ones, with visits to Barton Springs or excursions in the Hill Country planned—to read Kafka on the Shore unless I meant to just take it, or find a copy at home to finish with. But I couldn’t put it down. And I had no idea why. I had gone off science fiction and fantasy, cold turkey, in high school, after James Agee’s A Death in the Family changed my reading life, and in Kafka on the Shore there was a man (or creature) with the name and appearance of Johnnie Walker (of whiskey fame), who must gather and kill cats, cut out their hearts, and eat them, still beating, in order to make of their souls some kind of flute, which would give him enormous power to do evil. Got that? Murakami, often touted for the Nobel, is internationally famous, but I knew nothing about him. I knew I wasn’t reading genre fantasy or sci-fi, but what the hell was I reading? I had, and still have, no category for it. But I was determined to finish the book before we left, and with the help of some indulgence from Ann and Elizabeth, I did.

When I got home, I went looking for more, and read it just as eagerly. I’ve read all the Murakami novels in the university library with an intense absorption that I don’t experience anywhere else. Since childhood, no book has ever had me so on edge, so desperately concerned for the fate of the central characters, so relieved by their survival, as 1Q84, his latest at this writing. Re-reading Kafka on the Shore three or four years later, for this essay, I’ve found that I could remember almost nothing of it, and read it even more hungrily than the first time, eager to find out (again) what happens. There is some pleasure in this, and probably some escape in the sense that all reading takes us out of the moment and the place in which we’re reading, but neither pleasure nor escape names the experience. And though I still read mostly what I hope will serve my writing, Murakami is as far from it as any reading I can imagine.

And this, I’ve concluded, is the point: that I turn to Murakami for his sheer and utter otherness. I don’t mean the otherness of Japanese culture, of which I’m ignorant; Murakami and his characters have international and urban sensibilities, and the novels, though they take place in Japan among Japanese characters, are studded with European and American referents. What has drawn me in is a literary otherness particular to Murakami: He is the one writer of whom I can say that I have really no idea what he thinks he’s doing, or why, and I like it that way. If there is some genre I’m unaware of that puts him into a context, links him to other writers or makes ordinary sense of him, I don’t want to know. In Kafka’s strange fate there’s an explicit parallel to the fate of Oedipus, but going down that path would only lead me to familiar territory, and that’s the last thing I want.

It may be that for those of us who write—especially if we teach literature or writing and risk talking them to death—only something so completely other that we wouldn’t think of putting it to work on the syllabus or in our reading minds could free us to immerse ourselves in it and be there—in the book—now. Perhaps it’s a special kind of meditation, emptying the reading mind of its ulterior motives. It won’t give us ideas for the next story or novel we try to write, but I’m convinced that it’s good for the self that does the writing. Maybe it returns us to what we felt as kids reading books like Treasure Island, when our worlds were still very small, and everything we read for pleasure was rich and strange.

Eric Torgersen has published six books and chapbooks of poetry, two of fiction, and a full-length study of Rainer Maria Rilke and Paula Modersohn-Becker. He also translates German poetry, especially that of Rainer Maria Rilke and Nicolas Born. He has a BA in German Literature from Cornell University; after two years in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, he earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Iowa. He retired in the spring of 2008 after 38 years of teaching writing at Central Michigan University. He lives in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan with his wife, the quilt artist Ann Kowaleski. He’s available for workshops and readings. Eric is featured in issue 294.3-4, May-August 2009.

avatarIllustration by: Kimberly Ellen Hall. She likes to tell stories with pictures. Sometimes they are small stories and sometimes they are big. She is an illustrator & designer trained at Central St. Martins in London, and she has worked for all kinds of companies and individuals. You can see her work on

Throwback Saturday featuring Melissa Stein with “Our Campaign for Her World” from issue 295.2


Melissa Stein‘s poem, “Our Campaign for Her World” was a Finalist for the James Hearst Poetry Prize in issue 295.2, Spring 2010.

Our Campaign for Her World

I’m aching my way up back road, the long steep
low-gear bit that kills me every time,

when a red car goes by, slow, the driver
turning his head then moving on.

I’m not much nearer the top
when he comes by again and stops

and mumbles something . . . college . . .
Sweet Briar? “Yep, right across the highway,”

I reply, though who could be on this excuse
for a road and not a know where the college is—

in a town that is the college—
is beyond me. He drives off and his words

go up and down with the pedals until it’s clear
he’d asked me if I went to college there. Maybe

he’s some wealthy daddy champing at the bit
to scold the campus cops for letting its well-bred girls

so far off rein? Maybe. I coast past spindly brambles
bent beneath wild blackberries’ promise,

ditches spiked with thistle, padded in pink clover
blossom. On both sides, towering crazy and triumphant,

kudzu topiary bathes in golden light. I stop to watch
a stopped train chug beneath the wooden bridge

—each time I cross this bridge I wish for trains—
and in the heat, the cadence of the interrupted

train, I hear a gravel-scrape beside me
and it’s his red Chevrolet. I get a good eyeful:

moustached and balding, maybe 50, so fat he’s melting
into the seat of his red Chevrolet.

After a long moment he drawls
you wanna make you some money? Continue reading

Distant Yet Personal by Julia Lynn Rubin from issue 299.4

Throughout middle school, I was bullied by multiple people. The bullying wasn’t physical in nature, but emotional and social, which perhaps made it all the more traumatizing. Even today, at age twenty-four, I still feel its lasting effects in my most vulnerable moments. I tried to capture that intensity, pain, and hyper self-awareness in “Like Snowflakes,” a story that is at once distant from my own specific memories yet intimately personal—and intimately adolescent.


Writing has always been a way for me to contain and eradicate pain and trauma, while also honoring the associated feelings and experiences. My characters are purposefully morally vague and contradictory and confusing because I think people are often morally vague and contradictory and confusing.

This story came rather naturally to me; I wrote with an intimate intensity as well as a purposeful detachment from my characters, not always fully understanding them and their motives, but always accepting them.

Julia Lynn Rubin is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and has written for a variety of digital publications, including The Content Strategist and Wetpaint Entertainment. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, where she is working on her first novel. She will be featured in the upcoming 299.4 Fall 2014 issue of the North American Review.

This illustration accompanied “Like Snowflakes” in the 299.4 print issue of the North American Review. The artist, Catherine Byun, is a freelance illustrator based in San Francisco. She spends her time drawing, watching movies, and hiking around California.

Gloria L. Huang on her story “Ordinary Things” from issue 299.4

“Write what you know” must be one of the earliest writing clichés in my memory. Presumably I dismissed this advice out of hand, which would explain my dim recollections of a nine-year-old self penning dramatic stories involving kidnappings, abandoned children, sudden blindness—none of which, I am happy to report, could fall under the category of “what I know.”

Over the years, somewhere in my written life, things changed. More and more, my experiences became the seeds from which my stories were born, whether the experience was significant or mundane, personal or secondhand. I began to find it easiest to start from within a memory or a feeling, and spin outwards from there. By the time I was finished writing, however, the story bore only a fun-house resemblance to myself. Speckled pieces of my life were scattered across the words, but twisted into something different, unrecognizable. It was the ultimate game of “what if,” played to conclusion in my written world.

“Ordinary Things” rises from this method of writing. Having a baby threw my life—not to mention my writing career—into deep, unfathomable chaos. I found it difficult to write about anything else. And let’s be honest, for a while I found it difficult to write at all. Just as children grow and change, so did my life and my stories. I started writing “Ordinary Things” one day when the country was gripped in the aftermath of another mass shooting, and I dared to imagine the terror that someone trapped in that situation would feel. This imagining shed new light over my entire life, and I realized that what I would miss most of all, what I’d be most afraid of losing, would be the little things—the tiny moments that flit by without fanfare, that make up your life in the end.

Ordinary things - pic

The narrative of “Ordinary Things” is split between more personal musings on the choices involved in having a family, framed against a hypothetical consideration of the paralyzing fear someone might experience if trapped in a grocery store with an unidentified shooter. The merging of these two lines of writing was somewhat accidental, for the former grew naturally as I explored the latter. The story that emerged captured more than my attempt to understand an unthinkable, terrifying experience. It also constituted my written acceptance of a life, both real and written, that had transformed irreversibly. Though I might miss the freedom of life and writing enjoyed by my past self, I know now that there is beauty in the ordinary things.

Gloria - blog

Gloria L. Huang is a freelance writer. She received her B.A. with Honors and Distinction in English Literature from Stanford University. Her fiction has been accepted for publication in literary journals including The Threepenny Review, Arts & Letters, Gargoyle Magazine, The Antigonish Review, and Skive Magazine. She is currently working on her first novel.




This illustration also accompanied “Ordinary Things” in our print issue.  The artist, Anthony Tremmaglia is an Ottawa-based illustrator, artist, and educator. His clients include WIRED, Scientific American, Smart Money, HOW, and San Francisco Weekly. Anthony is featured in issues 299.1, Winter 2014 & 299.4, Fall 2014.

The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project by Kim Bridgford

I am a believer in community, and I am a believer in magic.  Both of these beliefs have come true through The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project.

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In 2006 I founded Mezzo Cammin,, the online formalist journal by women, after participating in a 2005 seminar on forgotten women poets at the West Chester University Poetry Conference.  The title Mezzo Cammin, which means “middle path,” seemed fitting, coming by way of Dante, then Longfellow, then Judith Moffett, who allowed us to publish her poem “Mezzo Cammin” in the first issue.  Women poets were well on their way on the journey.  As Moffett emphasizes, “The grass is green here too.” Continue reading

Writing Short Stories in Bulgaria by Zdravka Evtimova



In Bulgaria, every street is a short story, especially in the small towns where people know each other. In this case, it is not only the face of the boy you see. You see his mother who is in debt, but she has already thought of a way to pay it off: she plants and grows “good luck gourds.” – These are as small as plums, and you sell them to tourists for 2 Euros a piece. You too can buy a good luck gourd, then pierce it with a thin sharp knife and put inside it a wish you’ve scribbled on a scrap of paper. In a year, a novel will grow out of this scrap of paper. Continue reading