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.


House_in_the_Woods

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.”

TraarbaraGruzŝoseo

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.

Raccoons_600p

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.

A Special Saturday featuring “STANDING DEADWOOD” by Thomas M. Atkinson from 294.3-4

Thomas M. Atkinson’s short story “Standing Deadwood” was featured in issue 294.3/4, spring/summer 2009. This is the first half of the story and the conclusion will be posted tomorrow, Sunday June 7, 2015.

“STANDING DEADWOOD”

The raccoon took a crap in my truck last night. Inside the cab, in the cup-holder. I was still a little bleary this morning and my coffee thermos wouldn’t sit straight so I kept trying to push it down. That’s how my day started. That and a sore knee. He must have dropped down out of the pine and pushed in the cardboard I had over the busted rear window. I can’t remember what Gwen threw to break that out. Back when she still had the strength to throw stuff and hadn’t pawned everything in the house worth throwing.

racoon

Some night if I can stay awake long enough, I’m going to put out a can of Super Seafood Supper cat-food and when he’s fat and happy and licking out the bottom of the  can, I’ll shoot that little fucker right through his eye, just so he knows it was me. Skin him out and hang his carcass in a tree to warn off his buddies. I’m starting to believe the house was built on sacred ground, cursed by a great Ohio chief like Cornstalk, right before one of my wife’s relatives cut off his nut-sack for a tobacco pouch. I don’t know what else would explain everything going insane, even the animals. My great grandmother was Shawnee, and claimed an unbroken bloodline back to Black Wolf, who
raided up and down the Big Sandy and Tug Fork, down into Virginia and crossing the big
river up into this part of Ohio, killing the men and babies, stealing the women, and
trading the children to faraway tribes. But besides black hair thick as fishing line, which I
passed on to my daughter, and being a sorry, sloppy, and cheap drunk, I don’t see it when
I look in the mirror. That’s why I can’t ever catch him, because by my third beer I’m
either drooling on the sofa or I’m out on a tear chasing down Gwen.

racoon2

This time last year I got the ladder to clean the leaves and needles out of the gutters. Blocked gutters in the winter can cause ice dams and do all kinds of damage. I was a roofer for seventeen years right out of high school, back before the Mexicans started doing it for free, and I got nothing to show for it except bad knees and a shingle hatchet under the seat of my truck that slides out if I brake too hard. Now I work at the
discount tire place over on Route 4. Down the whole length of gutter on the east side of the house, every six inches, like he had a tape measure, were little piles of raccoon turds. Not piles that had been on the roof and got washed in by the rain, but direct deposits. In the quiet hours of the night, a raccoon is climbing on my roof just so he can hang his fat ass off and crap in my gutter. I don’t know why. There’s a square hole in the front porch where there used to be a rail post and he likes to go in there too. Last August he took a dump in the swimming pool of Amber’s Barbie Wee Three Friends Splash Splash Splash Play set and chewed off the little blue plastic umbrella. She and the Wee Three Friends were already living with my sister up outside Akron by then so we both didn’t have to watch her mom go bat-shit crazy every couple of days. She asks about it every time I call,
and if she doesn’t forget about it soon I’ll have to get my mother-in-law to find a used one on the eBay to send her for Christmas.

When I got to work Billy was already out in the service truck and Grimace was
climbing up out of the pit from underneath an old BMW.

He said, “Hey, Chief.” But it didn’t really sound any more like Chief this morning
than it did any other morning. Billy named him Grimace after that purple thing in the old
McDonald’s commercials. A few years back, the batch of meth he was cooking blew up
in his face, so like the original, he has no ears or nose to speak of and what’s left of his
lips are pulled back so tight he has a hard time closing them around words or food. Every
morning his senile mother paints eyebrows on the angry purple skin and he lets her
because it was her house that got burned to the ground. They change a little each day and
sometimes it can take hours to put your finger on just what mood he looks like he’s in.
But not today.

I said, “Concerned. You look concerned.”
Grimace said, “Really?”

He’s not big on mirrors and each morning it’s up to me to let him know how it
turned out. He thought a moment and said, “Yeah, I am. But I wonder how she knows?”

More often than not, Ma Grimace’s work with the eyeliner pencil seems to
capture what’s going on behind the hillbilly Botox.

I said, “Mothers know these things.” And there was a time that I believed that,
back before Gwen left Amber alone with only a cigarette smoldering in the shag carpet to
keep her company.

Grimace worked his chin against the pull of scar tissue and said, “They’s holding
a driver’s side caliper for me over at the Beemer store. Hey, you know the difference
‘tween a BMW and a porcupine?”

Speed_bump_on_Work_Channel_Road

Counting Billy, I’d heard it at least twice for every BMW we’d ever put tires on, but it was so painful to watch him get out “porcupine” that I just said, “Seems like I’ve
heard this one.”

He said, “Porcupine has the pricks on the outside.”

Grimace’s laugh would scare Christ down off the cross.

He said, “If you go get it for me, I’ll fix that flat that’s waiting on you. Billy don’t
have to know.”

Billy likes Grimace to take care of his own work, even if that means a customer
lounge full of staring strangers on his way to a parts counter. Me, I don’t mind helping
him out.

I said, “Is that it?”
He said, “That’s it, Chief.”

On the way to the BMW dealer, I could hear a song in my head like the bandit
raccoon had returned the ghost of my stolen CD player. It was “Chief,” by a singer named
Patty Griffin. I used to like it, liked it so much I bought the CD for Gwen, called “1,000
Kisses,” and gave it to her on Valentine’s Day. At first, Gwen and Amber would sing and
dance around the kitchen. Then Gwen started listening to it over and over, just that one
song, and she’d sing along with the part about dreaming and flying and laughing “way up
high” as loud as she could. And hour after hour, day after day, that’ll wear on you. I came
home from work one cold October day and Amber was sitting up in a pine, in a little
pony t-shirt and stocking feet because freezing to death seemed better than another four
hours three minutes at a time. I went in the house and snapped “1,000 Kisses” into a
thousand pieces and that was the last time I’ve heard it anywhere except inside my own
head. For a while I tried to remember the lyrics, like maybe there was a riddle hidden in
there somewhere, but all I could ever hear was the part Gwen sang.

But nobody but Grimace ever called me “Chief,” and I can’t remember now
whether I first liked the song because he called me that, or if the name came later, in one
of those twists you won’t ever figure out. I could ask him, like I could buy another “1,000
Kisses,” but either one would make the answer disappear like summer fog. Better that it’s
out there and I never find it than have it gone forever.

fog

Two crows were picking over scraps of fur in the turn lane in front of the BMW
dealer, and they hopped out of the way at the very last moment. The parts counter is
inside their “courtesy bay,” a long, double-wide garage with doors at each end, tiled walls
and a spotless floor. The customers drive in one end to drop their cars off for service, and
even though the “customer care team” wears white shop-coats that make them look like
doctors, the first thing they do is cover the seats in plastic and put paper mats down under
the pedals. The best you can hope for at Discount Tire is a complimentary ass inspection,
when we show each other the seat of our pants to check for any obvious globs of grease.

While I was waiting for the parts guy to get off the phone, I watched a blond in a
black sedan. She’d pulled in a few minutes before and was checking her hair in the
rear view mirror while she talked on her cell phone. She had a good ten years on Gwen,
but she had the kind of money that works like polishing compound because she was lean
and tan and buffed to a soft glow. And she sure didn’t have an addiction piling extra
years on her wasted body. Maybe she might make herself puke after a big meal at the
club, but she didn’t have sores on her arms that she scratched bloody in her sleep or death
on her breath.

Two mechanics in blue shop-coats yelled, “Close the doors! Close the doors!”
The one in front had three feet of two-by-four over one shoulder and the other one
followed at arms length with a flashlight and they both stepped like Elmer Fudd hunting.

The one in back yelled, “We got him now!”

The parts guy hung up the phone and customers and salesmen crowded in to
watch and all of the employees were wearing white or blue. The blond closed her phone
and dabbed at the corner of her open mouth with her pinkie. She opened her door and put
out a black high heel and a length of calf as hard and smooth and polished as a furniture
leg.

The parts guy said, “Ma’am, you might want to stay in your car a minute. We’ve
got a little bit of a situation here.”

She closed her door and I turned and said, “You got a caliper for Discount Tire?
A guy called on it.”

He looked at my mesh-back cap and said, “Look alive there, Slick. We got a
sewer rat running around big as a ‘coon.”

And I said, “And we got a shitbox beemer clogging up our alignment pit.”
A girl screamed and someone yelled, “There he goes!” and out of the corner of
my eye I caught something a foot long and rust colored disappearing under the sedan.
Flashlight knelt down behind the car and after a quick look said, “Shit, he’s got up in her
undercarriage.”

The parts guy said, “That don’t sound good.”

Two-by-four said, “Rock the car. Bounce it and I’ll get him when he drops
down.”

Flashlight looked at exactly how close he’d have to stand to bounce the car, and
quietly said, “Fuck that.”

One of the salesmen yelled, “Get her to pull up and brake hard. That’ll fix him.”

Two-by-four yelled at her and made big motions with his bat and when she
cracked her window open just an inch, like maybe he might be crazy, he still yelled like
she was way across the river. When she pulled up and stopped, the rat dropped down and
ran, ran without thinking about where he might be running. I turned on my heels and
drew back, and just before he reached me, the toe of my boot was there to meet him. My
sore knee twinged and he sailed over the black sedan, dead before he hit the tile wall. It
went quiet for a moment, then the salesman threw up both arms like a football ref and
yelled, “And it’s good!”

Flashlight and Two-by-four worked their way around to the other side of the car
and Two-by-four poked at it a couple of times. I was watching her and she was watching
me, and I don’t know why, but I took off my cap. Two-by-four opened her door, and she
turned, wool skirt on leather, and paused with her ankles crossed. She looked at me, past
the greasy jeans and the hard hands, and bowed. Not a big bow, from the waist, but a
slow dip of the neck and head, lowering her eyes for just a breath.

She said, “Thank you.”
And Two-by-four said, “You’re welcome.”
But I don’t think she was talking to him.

Flashlight walked up to me and said, in a voice filled with hurt, “You didn’t have
to kill him.”

When I got back to the garage, Billy and Grimace were in the grubby little office
with their heads together listening at the phone. Billy turned it back to his ear and said,
“Yeah, he just come in the door. So why do suppose the turd herding rats are all over at
your shop?…Well, you know what they say, ‘Fuck the best, die like the rest.’”

Billy hung up and smiled.
I said, “It’s ‘fuck with the best,’ not ‘fuck the best.’”
Billy said, “Is it?”

Grimace looked at me with an eyebrow smeared sad by the phone and said,
“Dang, Chief.”


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.

Come back Sunday June 7, 2015 for the conclusion of “Standing Deadwood”.

Two Poems from a Dream of Anna Akhmatova by Jacqueline Marcus

6-4.1Sort of a strange experience on the writing of these two poems. I was an avid reader of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry, but it’s been years since I’ve read her work. The other night I had a dream about her: I was in a dark café—probably the Stray Dog, a name that always stuck with me in the biography, where Russian poets would meet and read their poems. Akhmatova stood up on the stage. I was trying desperately to make out the words of the poem, but I couldn’t hear her. The only thing I could hear was the sound, the tone of her voice that was like a very sad cello. And her eyes, I remember her eyes—those huge, mournful eyes. I could vaguely remember the dream when I woke up at 4 am And then I sat down and wrote these two poems. Both were written in less than ten minutes. I didn’t touch a word.

Abandonment

Bent on the weather of distraction,
I watched the blackbirds from the large framed window
make their way to the northern sea for the last time.
I don’t know why I was feeling the need to go with them,
or why the rain spelled the music of elsewhere,
or if the moon signaled its lost joy, like a child’s drawing
that had been left in a box of memories. All I know
is that the time had come for the end of summer.
A cold sun pressed its palm against the pane of glass
as if my heart would shatter—
so many pieces of impossible nights, a splash of leaves, perhaps,
in a field of elegant trees…

There was no point.

There was only the sound of a lifetime,
diminished. It drifts across the sea and a million stars.

It has no destination.

You come to me, dear soul, in the middle of this winter,
stubborn as a fierce storm.

What exactly do you expect from me night after night?
You follow me like an abandoned dog.

Crimes against Humanity

In the awkward moment of farewells,
small talk, coffee, the clatter of silverware at the café,
we left our signatures beneath the prose of endearments.
The train muttered the sound of towns with its gray whistle and scarves,
a cold wind embraced the warmth of the fire.
No one could have guessed by now how the country had changed.
We were strangers passing through centuries of farms,
cobblestone streets and mothers hurrying with their children,
bargaining prices for fish, cabbage and flour for bread…
The train sang through fields of wheat. Each time
it entered the tunnel of years,
it was a new dawn.
I got off, and stepped down to the platform.

I could tell you what I saw through the steamy windows:
the faces of the young, the faces of the old—

and the long, dolorous smoke of what we’ve done to one another.


Jacqueline Marcus is the editor of Forpoetry.com and EnvironmentalPress.com.  She is a contributing guest writer for Buzzflash at Truthout.org.  She is the author of Close to the Shore by Michigan State University Press. Her e-book, Man Cannot Live on Oil, Alone: Time to end our dependency on oil before it ends us, is available at Kindle Books. She taught philosophy for twenty years at Cuesta College, San Luis Obispo, California. Her essays, “The Beauty of Sadness: An Essential Human Emotion Exiled in a War Society”, “Neruda”, and “How Nazism Shaped US War Policies: Thousands of SS War Criminals Recruited to the U.S. by CIA-Pentagon after WWII” appeared in the North American Review blog. Her new collection of poems, Summer Rains, has been accepted for publication at Iris Press.  


Illustration by Eric Piatkowski. Eric was raised in Arizona, and after a few years of working in theater, he switched gears and studied illustration at the Pratt Institute. Now in Des Moines, he splits his time between drawing, drawing, and more drawing. Give him a call, he just might be the perfect man for the job. Prints of artwork are available through Etsy at Eric Piatkowski Art. The illustration above is titled “Adrift” for a story in issue 299.2, Spring 2014.

Throwback Thursday featuring Andrea Potos from issue 289.2

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Andrea Potos’s poem, “Each Self” won the James Hearst Poetry Prize in 2004. Her poem is featured in issue 289.2, Spring 2004.

Notes from the author: As my daughter is now on the verge of leaving for college far away from home, I reflect again on what she inspired in me when I wrote this poem years ago:  all the invisible, infinitesimal, yet totally inescapable changes that propel us forward, willingly or not,  into new lives.

view-earth-from-space-hd-desktop-wallpaper-widescreen-high-earth-from-space-hd-wallpaper-iphone-free-download-android-desktop-3d-nasa-moving-animated

Each Self

My six-year-old daughter stares into the purpling
copper sky and names it dusk, a just-learned word
she is happy to declare, comparing it to evening
and afternoon. We talk of how the Earth turns away
from the sun each night,
a motion so encompassing,
our bodies cannot know it.
I don’t tell her how the child
part of me still disbelieves it – that this globe
actually spins while we breathe, while my daughter
changes invisibly before my eyes,

her infant body submerged inside her
with her toddler waddle and her four-year-old skip,
each swallowed within the other
like the nesting dolls she keeps
on her new desk, each self
perfectly preserved, forsaken
for the one that must come after.


Andrea Potos is the author of six poetry collections, including An Ink Like Early Twilight  (Salmon Poetry, 2015), We Lit the Lamps Ourselves (Salmon Poetry, 2012), and Yaya’s Cloth  (Iris Press, 2007).  She has twice been the recipient of an Outstanding Achievement Award in Poetry from the Wisconsin Library Association, and her works appear widely in print and online.  She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her daughter (on the verge of leaving), her husband, and her cockapoo Penny.


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Why I Do This by Eric Barnes

In one of the best rejection letters I’ve ever gotten, an agent told me recently, I honestly don’t have a clue who’d be a viable publisher for this.

A line like that is a condemnation of sorts. In 2015, this agent goes on to declare, there is no market for the kind of literary fiction I am trying to write.

That she said this about a manuscript I spent nearly three years writing means I should feel some heavy mix of defeat and depression. Hopelessness and hatred.

TEMPLATEbadidea2+copy

I don’t feel that.

I should. I really should.

But I don’t.

I’ve been doing this for a very long time now—this being the seemingly endless act of sending queries to agents and short stories to editors and manuscripts to book publishers and in return receiving, far more often than not, rejections that vary from the generic to the cruel to the inane to the insightful.

In the fray of all of this rejection, I can say that I’ve had some successes. Two novels published. Nearly thirty short stories in journals and magazines. Agents of note who signed me on and agents unknown who nonetheless committed everything they could to my writing.

None of it, though, has been what I want. I’ve never been reviewed in The New York Times. Never published a story in The New Yorker. Never made more than a token amount of money.

I know writers who’d kill for the successes—such as they are—that I’ve had. I should, in that sense, accept and be happy with what I have done.

But this is a cruel business, where moments of achievement are either very rare or very fleeting or are shared only with yourself, alone in the dark or well-lit room where you work.

My first short story was published more than twenty years ago. My first novel was published more than fifteen years after I committed to writing seriously. Two novels I’ve written have gone unpublished, rejected by publishing houses of every possible size.

The time has gone by more quickly than I can honestly calculate.

subserv

Why do I do this?

Two different agents that signed me up then left me in limbo for years before giving up on my writing after a mere handful of rejections. I never read more than the first fifty pages, one agent admitted after sending me a letter that said he was, immediately, dropping me from his list.

And he—like the other agent who kept my manuscript for nearly three years and finally wrote to say he’d sent it to just six editors during that time, who said this while also dropping me from his list—was a big name agent. An agent whose writers you know very well. An agent who, if you are a writer and he offered to represent you, you’d say without the slightest hesitation, Yes, of course, do whatever you want, take as much time as you need. Yes. Please, yes. I’ll be having a celebratory drink in the bar, yes and yes, this is it, the one. Yes.

Yes.

Why do I do this?

The number of rejections of short stories I’ve written totals far more than one thousand.

One thousand No’s. Some stories rejected fifty or sixty times before they were published. Other stories still out there. Other stories given up on, filed away in a folder where they will stay from now on. An inbox—and prior to that a physical mailbox—filled with form letter dismissals.

The number of rejections I’ve received from agents totals in the hundreds—plus the one I just received while typing this post.

Why do I do this?

The answer is longer than I can possibly explain. The answer, in truth, is something I’ve never fully articulated to myself.

clearing2

There’s ego. That’s part of it. If a writer tells you otherwise, you ought to be skeptical.

I keep writing because The Millions called my second novel remarkable.

I keep writing because a short story of mine was later picked up in one of the Best American series.

I keep writing because after more than a decade of being rejected by the North American Review, they suddenly said yes to one of my short stories.

Because Steve Almond published a short story of mine, telling me—nearly one hundred years ago, as we talked via landline between South Carolina and my first kitchen in Memphis—I told my students this is how you fucking want to fucking write.

Because a friend of one of my wife’s best friends had one of his friends in San Francisco hand him a copy of my first novel and say, Dude, you need to read this book.

(That he said dude only made my joy that much greater.)

Ego. Exposure. The knowledge that there are—finally, actually, maybe, always—people out there who’ve read the words I’ve spent so much time and energy stringing together.

Maybe that’s why the “email” from the agent telling me, in effect, there is no publisher for my new novel didn’t depress me more. She had some kind words for what I’d written – just a few, but they were kind and they accurately captured the intent of what I had written. The agent called me talented, said my work is inventive, compared the manuscript to Kafka as she described it as a dystopian, surreal fable of sorts.

All of that made me happy. All of it, I think, is true.

Or maybe, sadly, I’m just that desperate for praise. Token praise, probably, meant simply to soften the blow of rejection.

But also I think I liked that agent’s email because it was honest. The business of publishing, she has in effect said, does not have a place for me.

Maybe it should.

But it doesn’t.

That much, at this point, is painfully clear.

Ours is not an industry that is big on fiction as social commentary, she wrote, except when cloaked in the [guise] of a commercial novel.

There’s a formula behind this, a multi-layered puzzle maybe, or a maze of rooms and hallways and doorways to navigate.

Whatever the analogy, I’ve yet to solve it.

So I keep chasing agents for my work and publishers for my novels and editors for my stories. Another big name agent has asked to see my new novel. An agent who’s interested seems to be up and coming in the industry. There’s a Canadian agent who might be a gateway to a better, less commercial, more artistically accepting publishing landscape (but who, it turns out, would reject me while I was still writing this post).

Why do I do this?

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It’s a thought that haunts me every day. Every time I sit down to write. Every time I receive another rejection of any sort.

But then I tell myself there are other Canadian agents.

I tell myself there are good books published all the time.

I tell myself the story, the novel, the paragraph I’ve just finished is certainly the best I have ever written in my life.

I tell myself there are people who have enjoyed the things I have published and who will want to read more of what I write.

If only I can find a way to get the words in front of them.


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Eric Barnes is the author of the novels Shimmer, an IndieNext Pick from Unbridled Books, and Something Pretty, Something Beautiful from Outpost19, which The Millions called a “remarkable book … where cars are freedom, stories are everything, and home is thick with ghosts. ”

Additionally, Eric has published nearly thirty short stories in publications such as North American Review, Prairie Schooner, The Literary Review, Best American Mystery Stories, and more.

Eric is publisher of newspapers in Memphis and Nashville that cover business, politics and most things in between. Additionally, he hosts and co-produces a local news talk show on public television. In the past, Eric was a reporter and editor in Connecticut and New York. Years ago he drove a forklift in Tacoma, Washington, and then Kenai, Alaska, worked construction on Puget Sound, and, many years ago, graduated from the MFA writing program at Columbia University. Eric’s story “One Day, One Week, An Hour” appears in issue 298.2, Spring 2013.

More at www.ericbarnes.net and on Twitter at @ericbarnes2.


ldNX3rfo (2)Illustrations by: Rob Dobi is an editorial illustrator from CT.

“For the past decade I have been designing merchandise for the biggest bands in the world, photographing the decaying ruins of the northeast, working on his t-shirt brand Fullbleed, co-running the apparel design community at Mintees and poking fun at hipster stereotypes.  Lately my focus has been on editorial illustration, providing media outlets with meaningful work similar to the style I have been honing in the music industry for the past ten years. I have a BFA in illustration from RISD and currently reside in Connecticut with my wife Christina and dog Buddy.”

“Throwback Thursday” featuring Annie Dillard by Amanda Husak

Weasel of Memories 

In light of our Bicentennial Creative Writing and Literature Conference June 11-13, 2015, I’d like to introduce a piece from one of our very own contributors, Annie Dillard. Annie is best known for her narrative prose in fiction and nonfiction

Her pieceFive Sketchesexplores the notions of religion, behavior, and the perception of self. This piece is featured in the North American Review Vol. 260, No. 2, Summer, 1975. Dillard also published “At Home with Gastropods,” Vol. 263, No. 1, Spring, 1978. (Below is the original piece “Five Sketches” which was published in 1975.)

Dillard’s honest narrative and memoir won her the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) and An American Child (1984).

ottawadetDillard’s personal essay “Living Like Weasels” found its way into my nonfiction class this semester. This was the first time I had read any of her work. I was captivated by the way Dillard developed scene and held the reader’s attention with her simple language over her encounter with nothing other than a weasel. Her description of the way weasels slaughter their prey by “either splitting the jugular vein at the throat or crunching the brain at the base of the skull,” came alive. The weasel does not seem to release its grip.

I first encountered a real weasel when I was eleven. A family friend had given us four adult yellow and black ducks to accompany the other animals on my family’s farm.  We had only had them for a week when a midnight visitor squeezed its way into one of the holes of the old building the ducks were temporarily housed in. When my father awoke the next morning to check them, he found not a single survivor. My father warned me not to look. I snuck open the door anyway to find the chewed and bloody necks of four ducks.

However, Dillard’s essay is not just about weasels. It’s also about not letting go. About finding something to sink our teeth into. To gnaw on just for a bit. It’s about your deceased grandmother’s cubic zirconia ring or that coveted Boston Celtics jersey you can not seem to let go. It’s about attachment. It’s realizing your current life is partially married to the things of the past. As Dillard writes, life is about either living in necessity or in choice. We can’t help but become like the weasel—holding on to what we think will sustain us but only leaves us searching for more. Therefore, our whole lives become shaped upon what changes us and what we change ourselves. Are we more like the weasel or what the weasel latches onto? Do we cling to things, like I do to my grandmother’s ring? Are we okay with giving that jersey away to someone who claims to be an even bigger fan?

insideWhat parts of our past are we going to divorce and let go of? What parts are we going to marry and remarry again and again? If it were up to me, I’d divorce my thumb from that cubic zirconia ring. I’d get rid of the physical proof that seems to weigh me down. Instead I’d travel back in time and remarry that memory of my grandma showing me her jewelry collection. That is where the true beauty lies. So marry your memories. Remarry them again and again.

Annie Dillard’s writing appeared in the North American Review in 1975, the year she won the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction. In both “Five Sketches” and “Living Like Weasels,” she reveals much larger truths than what the reader finds explicitly on the page. I hope you, as future readers of Dillard’s insightful work, can appreciate the same.

Below is the original piece “Five Sketches” which was published in 1975, Vol. 260, number 2. 

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Amanda Husak is a volunteer for the North American Review and is earning her undergraduate in English Education at the University of Northern Iowa. Amanda’s work has been published in the 2014 issue of Timber Creek Collections.


Illustrations are by Anthony Tremmaglia. HE is an Ottawa-based illustrator, artist, and educator. His clients include WIRED, Scientific American, Smart Money, HOW, and San Francisco Weekly.


Coincedently, it is also Annie Dilliard‘s birthday today and we here at the North American Review would like to wish Annie a very, merry, Happy Birthday. Thank you again for your contribution and becoming apart of our editioral family.

On Aging by Maceo J. Whitaker

basketball-dreams1-1024x731For the second straight night, I had a basketball dream. I was playing in the Final Four. In my dream, I scored a basket for the second straight game. Just one basket in each. A statistician might note my crisp 2.0 PPG average—not exactly Hall of Fame numbers.

Scoring in the Final Four is a delightful dream (especially when compared with my recurring zombie-gator apocalypse dream) but a decidedly modest one.

Some people achieve impressive feats in their dreams. My wife, for example, flies whenever she wants in her dreams. Why must my ceiling be one field goal per game?

Why couldn’t I hit a game-winning buzzer beater to spoil Kentucky’s undefeated season?

Why couldn’t I dunk over Jahlil Okafor?

In my younger days, I’d have been the tournament MVP; now, I’m happy to earn a spot in the box score.

I guess time humbles us even in our dreams.

On Sunday, I ran my first half-marathon. It was the “Fallen Comrades Run at the United States Military Academy. West Point. Featuring views of the Hudson River, the Hudson Highlands, and the historic campus, the scenery was beautiful. Each mile marker commemorated a fallen soldier.

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I finished, but my leg bothered me throughout the race. By the tenth mile, my balky knee failed me. Unable even to jog, I limped the final three miles. My early-morning euphoria had worn off completely.

When younger, I never had knee pain.

Aging sucks.

My poem in this issue of the North American Review features a woman named Althea. I don’t believe in breaking down my poems for others, but I’ll say that some people* found the poem sad. And perhaps it is.

The titular character’s best days are behind her, but she has lived a long life. This poem merely attempts to capture one late moment of it.

Our words all too often fall short of evoking true poignancy.

On Sunday, feeling sorry for myself, I hobbled to the twelfth mile marker. As I approached, I saw a woman cheering runners on, encouraging them before they embarked on their final mile. She stood next to the mile marker, which honored a young man who sacrificed his life for our country.

I realized she was the fallen soldier’s mother. Our eyes locked, we thanked each other, and my heart grew heavy. Needless to say, I felt foolish for bemoaning my knee’s misfortune.

Aging sucks, true, but aging is also a gift.

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Althea lived a long life, a life with an inevitable end. Yet, we must be content with the miracle that we experience moments at all, even when they involve frivolities such as running, writing poems, or making wide-open layups in dreams.

If you read “Althea,” feel free to listen to Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five play “Gut Bucket Blues”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MgxQQk1vadw

* It’s proper etiquette to force all of your friends and acquaintances to stop whatever they’re doing to read your published work immediately, right?

Recommended Poems by Maceo J. Whitaker

I love sharing poetry. In February, I wrote a guest post for Tahoma Literary Review with links to some of my favorite poems. Here are four more poems I’ve enjoyed recently:

“Dinosaurs in the Hood,” by Danez Smith

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/249154

Powerful, energetic, humorous—this will be one of your favorite poems.

“Dear 2Pac,” by Jonathan Moody

http://www.thecommononline.org/dear-2pac

A poem about Tupac’s lasting effect on how we live and imagine.

“In Two Seconds,” by Mark Doty

http://aprweb.org/poems/in-two-seconds

A moving tribute to Tamir Rice by the Whitman devotee.

“Fix,” by Alice Fulton

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/04/poetry-alice-fulton-fix/39669/

This poem was first published in The Atlantic in 2000. I love lines like “count cricket beats to tell the temp, count / my breaths from here to Zen.” Fulton’s new book, Barely Composed, is a wonderful read that I recommend highly.


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Maceo J. Whitaker’s poems appear this spring in The Pinch, PANK, The Florida Review, The Paterson Literary Review, and Juked (online). Maceo’s poem “Althea” is featured in issue 300.2, Spring 2015

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United States Military Academy, West Pointe Image Link
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At Home in the Pauses by Brian Fitch

I’ve been thinking lately about fiction and nonfiction, how they can merge and separate until one becomes the other.  Especially I’ve been thinking about the technique of pause in nonfiction, a liberal stepping outside, pausing the narrative, to pursue a possibly fictional what if this had happened?

NAR_testimony Clay Rodery

Fiction writing has as one of its compelling qualities the possibility of being real.  When the narrative is paused, fiction and nonfiction can become intermixed as a writer finds herself or himself stepping back from fiction to the real, to actual stories, the unembellished past.  When the edges of imagination become too thin to keep a writer aloft, s/he can just let go.  What really happened may provide a sort of reorientation.  When the writer’s imagination is recharged by the real, or at least the remembered real, another pause to follow a fictional path will present itself.

After enough years, these pauses can become quite lengthy and take on the appearance of actual story.  In other words, the pause may become the story and the return to the nonfiction frame may become the fiction.

Rust

Once the paused fiction has become the dominant narrative, the next step is another pause from the now functioning narrative to a newer fiction – a pause within a pause, within a pause and so forth.  If you live long enough, you may find yourself far from the original home with no maps back, even if you want them.  Another question might be who would want them, but that is for another discussion.  Making the attempt to find your way forward in these new narratives will keep you writing and attempting to answer the questions who am I? and/or how did I get here?  Whether or not you can answer these questions does not matter.  You are writing fiction, the pauses are infinite, and the converted narrative may very well be the superior one.


Brian Fitch lives in western Wisconsin with his wife the poet Jennifer Brantley and their cat Moxie.  His fiction or poetry has appeared in North American Review, Prairie Schooner, Sewanee Review, Helsinki Quarterly, Ars Interpres, Bark, and others. Brian appears in issue 296.3, Summer 2011 as well as the current issue 300.2 with his story “Nothing Is Always the Same”.


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 issues 298.4, 299.1, 299.3 and the most recently is in issue 299.4, Fall 2014 and most recently 300.2, Spring 2015.

My Daughter Asked Me Once To Write Her a Poem by John Guzlowski

Otherworldly Grounds: Page 1When she was about nine years old, my daughter Lillian asked me to write a poem about her. I told her I would try.

She had seen me writing poems since she was a toddler, and she had heard me give poetry readings, and she had seen journals with my poems in them.  She knew I could write poems, and she really wanted me to write her a poem.

So I tried and tried.  I thought that I could write her a poem about how she was my angel.  That seemed simple enough.  I would start out with the line “I never called you angel.”  Or maybe that would be the title.  Then the poem would go on and on about how even though I had never called her “angel” or any of the other dozens or hundreds of endearing things (honey, sunshine, mouse, sugar, etc.) parents called their kids, she was still my angel.  You get the picture.  It should have been easy.

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But it wasn’t.  I tried over the course of about a decade to write that poem and failed over and over.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t write about her.  I couldn’t write about anyone I was really close to.  I couldn’t write about my wife either.  And this is an ongoing problem.  Even though my wife and I will have been married for forty years this April 4th, I have never ever written her a poem.  In the thousands of poems I’ve written, there is no “Ode to Linda.”  There isn’t even a single poem that indirectly mentions her!  If I could Google all of my poems, the search engine would come up “No Results.”  Nothing about how much I love her.  Nothing about the color of her hair or her smile.  Nothing about the way she’s made my life perfect in ways I could never have imagined.  Nothing like that at all.

Some future literary critic (if there are still literary critics in the future) looking over all my writing would have to conclude that I was either unmarried or divorced or unhappily married, and that’s why there aren’t any references to my wife and only one reference to my daughter Lillian, the poem “Advice to My Daughter, A Sonnet” that recently appeared in the North American Review.

So why haven’t I written more about my wife and my daughter?  For that matter, why haven’t I written about myself?  In all my forty-some years of writing poetry, why haven’t I written about them or me?

The answer is probably pretty simple, and I probably should have gotten around to spelling it out sooner, and I apologize for not having done so. Here’s why I can’t write about my wife or my daughter or me:

I’m overwhelmed by the story of my parents.  They are the only people I seem capable of writing anything about.  Let me explain.

The Battle of Imphal

My parents were two Polish Catholic farm kids who were taken to Germany as slave laborers during World War II.  My dad was captured in a round up in his village in 1941, and he spent the next four years in Buchenwald concentration camp.  My mom was captured in 1942 after seeing her mother and her sister and her sister’s baby killed by German soldiers.  My mom spent the next two and a half years in various concentration camps in Germany.  Like about 12,000,000 other people, my mom and dad were put to hard labor working in German factories and on German farms to support the German war effort.  My parents were starved, beaten, and brutalized.  My dad saw friends castrated and hanged.  My mom saw guards cut a woman’s breasts off with a bayonet.  She saw babies thrown in the air and shot to death.

I’ve written four books of poems about my parents, and a fifth called Wooden Trunk from Buchenwald is coming out next year.

When I sit down to write a poem, it’s their voices that come to me.  I can hear my mother telling me about the day the Germans came to her house in the woods west of Lvov.  I can hear my dad telling me about standing at a barbed wire fence and day after day watching the slow collapse of men starving to death.

LILA

When I was still teaching creative writing, back before I retired ten years ago, I used to tell my students to find a muse and listen to her.   They would always think I was joking.  Nobody believes in muses, they would say.  Muses were just some kind of ancient Greek convention, something Homer thought up.  But I wasn’t joking.

I really think my parents are my muse.


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John Guzlowski’s creative writing has appeared in Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, Ontario Review, North American Review, Salon.Com, Rattle, Atlanta Review, and elsewhere.  His poems about his parents’ experiences as slave laborers in Nazi Germany appear in his books Lightning and Ashes and Third Winter of War: Buchenwald.  His critical essays on contemporary Polish, Jewish, and American novelists have been featured in Modern Fiction Studies, Shofar, Polish Review, and other journals.  His novel Road of Bones, about two German lovers separated by war, is forthcoming from Cervena Barva Press.  Of Guzlowski’s writing, Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz said, “He has an astonishing ability for grasping reality.”


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 issues 298.4, 299.1, 299.3 and the most recently is in issue 299.4, Fall 2014 and most recently 300.2, Spring 2015.

Why We Need Description by Wes Ward

Most of us have two eyes. And with those two eyes we see things that others see. But
because my eyes are different from yours and hers and his, nothing we see can ever be seen the
same way.

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To make matters worse, when we try to communicate what we see, the reality we try to capture is never accurate. It can’t be. It’s impossible to see something and communicate exactly what we see because the words we use to describe an image are just, well, words. Take the human hand for example. I can describe a hand by using words like smooth, soft, stubby-fingered, calloused, etc., but those words are merely labels—intangible labels—that we try to apply to something in the physical world.

So there you are, trying to describe an object or a scene or a feeling with words that have
no physical existence in a physical world. You’re bound to fail. And if that’s not foggy enough,
in walks someone else to try to do the same thing, describe that object or scene or feeling. But
wait. Your eyes are different and, therefore, you will see things differently. Your impossible
mission just got worse.

rodery

The secret to descriptive writing is that there is no secret. You can only hope to capture a
fraction of the reality you experience. We do that with sensory details, describing the physical
world (sometimes figuratively), while relying on dominant impressions, those invisible vibes
we get from a particular experience. We want the reader to see what we see, taste what we taste,
hear what we hear, etc. So we rely on the words we’ve learned throughout life to convey those
sensory details: His boots crunched through the snow is a lot different than He walked through the
snow. In the former, I see “boots” and I hear “crunching”—two details that second sentence
lacks. Again, this helps the reader get a better idea of what you see and what you are trying to
make him or her see. Consider this sentence about eating: We inhaled our cereal, knowing we would be late for school once again. The figurative “inhaled” (unless the cereal was actually breathed in) expresses the speed at which the cereal was eaten, but it doesn’t descriptively paint the picture, like this: We shoveled the cereal into our mouths and, without swallowing, inhaled the next bite with a continuous spoon-to-bowl-to-mouth motion. Only the sense of sight is used here, but at least a clearer picture is provided with the description of the physical action in the second sentence.

Journey by Moonlight

Be careful. It’s possible to describe too much. Your reader doesn’t need to see, hear, or
touch everything you do. The doorknob to your apartment doesn’t need to be described as a
smooth, brass knob, cold to the touch. Just open the door, please. And The way the wheels of the car slipped across the loose gravel isn’t necessary either, unless a description of that scene is absolutely significant to the purpose of your writing (a car crash, perhaps). Once, a student of mine wrote a personal essay about visiting his mom in the hospital after she was diagnosed with cancer. In the essay, he filled an entire paragraph about the floral design on a box of tissues in the hospital room. Because he couldn’t bear to look at his mom, he focused on the looping green vines and the curling tips of the white flowers—a typical decorative box of tissues but a significant object in this particular setting.

The bottom line is to make connections. As a writer, you want to connect to your reader. After all, it’s the primary purpose of writing: I have something to say and I want you to hear it. The more carefully and meaningfully we communicate with our words, the better connection we
make. We’ll never be able to know exactly what someone else sees and how he or she sees it. (Is
that dress on the Internet white and gold or blue and black?) But thanks to descriptive writing,
we can make valid attempts to communicate and connect with our readers, even if we fail to
depict, with words, the reality our senses perceive.


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Wes Ward earned his MA in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. His poetry has appeared in The North American Review, Sewanee Theological Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, Philadelphia Stories and other publications. He was a finalist for the Bridport Prize in the UK. Wes teaches high school English and lives with his wife and two children in Pennsylvania. Wes appeared in issue 297.4, Fall 2012.


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 issues 298.4, 299.1, 299.3 and the most recently is in issue 299.4, Fall 2014.

Black Lines by David Hellerstein

There are a few constants in the many years since I have been trying to write seriously. One, of course, is the struggle to find a time to write, which has varied over my years in college, medical school, residency training, and practice as a physician. Despite massive changes in technology—moving from spiral-bound notebooks to an electric typewriter to a primitive IBM PC with two floppy disk drives to various cranky Compacs, Gateways, and Dells, and finally to my current sleek MacBook Air—I’ve always been able to find some time to put my thoughts into words. Perhaps a few minutes here and there, perhaps hours fitting into my hospital day, the time and mental space have somehow emerged regardless of current circumstances. And somehow, over the years, this has resulted in an accumulation of essays (many have appeared over the years in the North American Review), stories, articles, books, and these days, blogs and postings too.

Something equally constant in my life has been water. Since high school, I have been a serious swimmer. My pools have changed from one year to the next, in some strange way parallel to the changes in my writing media.

swimming_blue_orange copy_800I began, naked, thrown into a chilly pool with other five-year-old boys at a strict summer camp. I must have emerged with a love of water. I swam in Ys and JCCs.  I swam in lakes in Maine and northern Ontario.  I swam in dozens of pools. There was the narrow two-lane public pool in North Beach, San Francisco, where I could look out on old Italian men playing bocce. There was a beautiful pool on a plateau below the just-captured Golan Heights, at the kibbutz where I spent a summer picking apples and chasing Israeli girls. Then, most spectacular of all, there was a gleaming turquoise fifty-meter outdoor pool on the Stanford University campus with a grassy bank along one side, where I’d sit after doing my mile, either reading Gray’s Anatomy or short stories by my graduate fiction writing workshop classmate Tobias Wolff.  A few years later, there was a grim Midtown Manhattan pool with sulfuric-yellow water and fearsome denizens of the shattered locker rooms. And then, the fiercely competitive pool at the 92nd Street Y, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, with slow, medium, and fast lanes, where you needed to choose your spot carefully and keep up the pace at risk of getting kicked in the eye. Continue reading