After Charlottesville: Readings for Racial Justice

As my readers are probably aware from the national news, a few hundred white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen and their fellow travelers held a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA this weekend to protest the removal of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s statue from a nearby park. The New York Times has the summary of events. One of the racist movement’s supporters drove his car into the crowd of anti-fascist counter-protesters, killing a young woman named Heather Heyer. Violent clashes claimed two other lives and injured 34 people. “President” Trump issued a weaselly statement condemning “violence on many sides” but did not single out the white nationalists, who happen to represent a loyal part of his voter base.

The rally was protected by a large police contingent who have been criticized for not doing more to prevent the violence. As Jia Tolentino wrote in her New Yorker piece “Charlottesville and the Effort to Downplay Racism in America”, “the spectacle succeeded in proving the ongoing reality of white supremacy in America…Black demonstrators protesting the murder of teen-agers are met with tanks and riot gear; white demonstrators protesting the unpopularity of Nazi and Confederate ideology are met with politesse.” Tolentino’s depiction of the genteel pretense of post-racial liberalism at Charlottesville’s University of Virginia reminds me of the fictitious Winchester University in the sharply funny Netflix series Dear White People. Watch it and learn.

We white liberals are belatedly waking up to the reality of the other America that black people have lived in for centuries. It’s a privilege to be surprised that this kind of violent hatred has never gone away. As Columbia Journalism professor Jelani Cobb said on Twitter, “The biggest indictment of the way we teach American history is that people can look at Charlottesville and say “This is not who we are.'” The best remedial education is to immerse one’s self in stories by and about African-Americans. For me personally, one year as a judicial clerk, reading real-life cases of minority New Yorkers’ encounters with the police and public housing authorities, was worth seven years of critical theory in college and grad school.

With that in mind, let me offer a few literary works from the Winning Writers contest archives that will move you and teach you something about race relations (if you’re white) or hopefully validate your experience (if you’re not).

Winfred Cook’s novel Uncle Otto won first prize for literary fiction in our 2016 North Street Book Prize. In the tradition of Alex Haley’s Roots and Queen, Cook uses research about his forebears as raw material for dramatizing a representative story of racial oppression, migration, and economic mobility during the first decades of the 20th century. The novel covers the “Great Migration” of African-Americans from the rural South during the period around World War I; the emergence of, and resistance to, the black middle class in the North during the 1920s; and the cultural upheavals of the Prohibition era. I’m looking forward to reading Cook’s new book, Wayfarers, a Civil War era interracial gay romance.

Geoff Griffin’s essay “Hey White Guy!” from the 2007 Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest is a humorous look at the social awkwardness of unlearning prejudice and privilege. Accustomed to his whiteness being un-coded, unmentioned, Griffin has a moment of realization about the unequal ways he notices race. Another runner-up from the 2009 contest, Sally Hermsdorfer’s “In the Colored Waiting Room”, depicts a white pharmacist in 1950s Memphis who finds a clever way to silence opponents of his integrated practice. It’s both entertaining and instructive about effective allyship. In “Trayvon”, first-prize nonfiction winner for 2015 Madeline Baars describes the odds against black boys and the persistence of hope in a poor New Orleans neighborhood where she was a clinic worker.

Myron L. Stokes won the 2012 Margaret Reid Poetry Contest for Traditional Verse (subsequently combined with our Tom Howard Poetry Contest) with “For My Ancestors”, a lyrical and passionate ode to forebears who endured slavery: “Their bludgeoned dreams bled of a time/when their children’s children could chase the stars,/learn behind ivy walls…”

In our Sports Literary Contest, which ran from 2012-14, A.A. Singh took a runner-up prize with his essay “Team Sports”, exploring the intersections of his Indian, Trinidadian, Canadian and American identities: “if America doesn’t want me after I’ve learned how to ride a bike here, after I’ve given it my first day of school—after I’ve driven my first car, drank my first beer, moaned in bed with my first hangover, experienced my first love, kiss, and heartbreak—if America doesn’t want me, what country does?”

Reflections by Donal Mahoney: “The First of the Year”

At this time of year, you may be contemplating New Year’s resolutions to finish writing projects and send out more work to publishers. This true-life vignette by a regular contributor to Reiter’s Block is both timely and a poignant reminder that our creative egos are not the center of everyone’s universe. Spinning storylines from small details is great between the pages of a book, but sometimes this aspect of our minds makes us miss what’s really happening in a relationship.

The First of the Year

by Donal Mahoney

Anyone who has had poetry published by an editor over the years has a relationship with that editor whether one knows it or not.

Sometimes the relationship is lukewarm, other times bordering on friendship, occasionally deep. Over time, writer and the editor notice mannerisms in each other that are often never discussed since these insights have nothing to do with the work and time may be important to one or both. That’s happened to me with editors over the years but never with such impact as happened in an incident that occurred not long ago.

This editor has accepted my work on a regular basis and has kept his distance, a safe place to be for anyone dealing with writers, most of whom know how good they are. Every once in awhile, however, he would tell me that my writing reminded him of some author I had never read. I had always heard of the authors, some of them alive, others recently dead, all very good writers by the standards of this era. He would usually recommend a book or two by each author that he would say I should read. This was the only time he would border on the imperative. Otherwise he would sound as if he had been reading The New Yorker since birth.

This kind of response from an otherwise detached but intelligent editor is invigorating. To be compared to a good writer one has never read has a double benefit: One must be writing some things well. And one must not be subliminally plagiarizing the style of the author mentioned since he has never read him or her.

In the last couple of months, however, this meticulous editor hasn’t published a new issue, something he has done every month in the years since I first encountered his site. I had no idea what might be the matter. Stranger still, I had heard nothing from him and he was always one to respond.

I began thinking that maybe his failure to write might have had something to do with the last two pieces I had sent him. The content of both would be politically incorrect in his eyes but not in mine. I sent the pieces because it’s good at times to get a reaction from someone whose taste you admire but who may not agree with you on the issues of the day or on the bigger issues of life.

Not hearing from him on the controversial pieces, I decided to send him a short story and a poem I thought he would like. Not too hot, not too cold, perhaps just right. Maybe he needed copy. Maybe for some odd reason submissions to his site were down.

A week later he wrote back and apologized for the delay in getting back to me. He said he liked the work I had just sent, did not mention the controversial pieces, and added that he would be putting his site on hiatus till “after the first of the year.” Then he said, almost as a casual afterword, that he could not recall if he had told me that he has Stage 4 cancer. The email ended on that note.

No, he had not told me that tremulous fact and I mentioned that in my reply. I took a chance and said that if he ever simply wanted to sound off about something, I’d be happy to hear from him. I knew nothing about him or his life so I might be a safe place, I thought, for him to air whatever goes through the mind of someone with Stage 4 cancer.

So far he has not written back.

It will be hard waiting for the “after” that I hope comes “after the first of the year.”

Flash Fiction by Donal Mahoney: “Big Thanksgiving Snow”

The first snow of the winter is blanketing our Western Massachusetts region today, the day before Thanksgiving, which makes this a perfect time to post this short-short story by Reiter’s Block contributor Donal Mahoney. Enjoy, and drive safely.

Big Thanksgiving Snow

by Donal Mahoney


“Sometimes Jesus walked around with a big staff, just like me,” Mrs. Day says to herself as she looks at the frayed picture on her kitchen wall just above the little kitchen table. She cut that picture out of a magazine 50 years ago when she subscribed to Life and Look and Colliers magazines.

“Jesus doesn’t need that staff,” Mrs. Day tells herself. “It was a sunny day in Jericho, the article said. I’ll bet He used that staff to go up in the hills to pray. The Bible says He often left the apostles behind to go away and pray. I’d have kept an eye on Him if I was there.”

At 80 Mrs. Day is legally blind with one good leg. She has a staff of her own to help her walk to stores and then back to her little house. The staff is at least a foot taller than she is. It was a gift from a dead neighbor who was handy with tools and liked to carve and whittle. Mrs. Day needs that staff this Thanksgiving Day as she makes her way through drifts of snow, an unusual amount for this first big winter holiday.

With nothing in the fridge except old bread and prunes, Mrs. Day hopes to find a diner open. Even Jack in the Box is closed for Thanksgiving so there will be no coffee with a Breakfast Jack to go but Mrs. Day has time today to find a place that is open. And she knows that place will probably be Vijay’s Diner, where she’s a customer on days when every other place is closed.

Vijay came to the United States long ago when Mumbai was still Bombay. He cooks for everyone every day of the year, whatever God they worship or ignore. He makes fine Indian dishes for customers who emigrated from India as he did. And he makes fine American cuisine for people from the neighborhood, most of whom have yet to adjust to Indian dishes and their redolent spices.

“I have a nice turkey leg, Mrs. Day, if you’d like that,” he says, but all she wants is coffee, two sugars and a muffin to go.

“I’m on a diet,” she tells him.

Vijay puts her items in a small brown bag and adds a free candy bar, a Baby Ruth bar, a big one, for later tonight. Mrs. Day will be angry when she gets home and finds it but that’s okay. She can’t come out at night to look for something to eat. It’s tough enough for her to get around in sunlight.

Vijay waits for Mrs. Day to dig in her big purse and put all of her change on the counter. Then they count aloud together each coin that he picks up one at a time. Finally they agree he has the right amount even though Mrs. Day has trouble seeing the coins. Usually she can tell which are which by the feel of them. Now Vijay smiles at Mrs. Day, his customer on the holidays only.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Mrs. Day,” he says. “I hope you’ll come again. We’ll have leg of lamb on Christmas. And ham and yams on New Year’s Eve. I’ll make you a nice big sandwich. I know you’ll like it. You can skip the diet for one day.”

Poetry by Thom Adams: “eternal questions for a birthday bash”

I first encountered the writer Thom Adams when I critiqued his philosophical poem “Entropy Road” for the Winning Writers newsletter in 2008. He recently shared some other poems with me, one of which moved me so much that I asked to reprint it here. (Trigger warning for suicide.) Visit Thom’s website for more verse, both serious and light, and articles on contemporary issues.

eternal questions for a birthday bash

who walked those final steps with you,
or danced your darkest hour?
who steadied you or tied your knot;
did you grimly smile, or weep
when the rope went taut?

what moment tipped the balance
of your dire choice?
yesterday, when you looked
happy as you bathed our only child,
or later when your words and eyes assured me
that you trusted… but you lied?

when did the painful reality occur
that no longer is no more and forever,
and latent regrets are not nearly enough?
wasn’t the love you felt for your suckling baby
enough testimony to us mortals
that god lives, but only for the living?

where did your magic meet its pleasant rest?
on a windy breeze that never stops,
or in a flash of light that seared memory clean,
or in a tiny box of lead?
or, does it spread and blend your lovely scent
in a contented whiff of… universal swirl?

why not just live life’s ups and ills
as if choices weren’t limited but that you
   had been cheated?
while others said their jealous prayers
with hopes of only being as lucky.
did your fearless conspirators fan their
   scary flames?
did demons laugh, or cross their fingers toward
   your twisted end?

how is it for you today… considering our son
   turns three?
but pees and wakes me in tortured sweat,
buries watered eyes and sobs till hurt subsists.
how nice to think of mama’s touch, yet feel only
   daddy’s calloused grip.
while he waits to watch the window’s evening
knowing the “what might have been” will never
   be…. for him.

MUST I ask again… or has your tidy damage also
   done you in?
is there something better nothing worse than live?
is something gained or lost again?
was it a silent whimper, or a screaming grin?
can you tell me why or what’s at stake?

… as I light three little candles on love’s birthday cake.

A Faith That Makes Space for Mourning

Just this morning in church I was thinking about the Middle Ages, how their artwork was full of death, real death with grinning skulls and rotting flesh, and how this is considered the era in Western history when Christian belief was most alive and all-pervasive. How many of us who walked through the door this morning literally believe the words on the banner over our heads: “Christ is Risen”? Do I believe it? And by “literally” I mean “in a way that robs death of its power”. For me that also means “historically true”. For you it may not. But either way, that’s the job that “Christ is Risen” has to do.

I’m reading this absorbing, brilliant, painful novel called Swimming, by Nicola Keegan, which I found through this excerpt in Narrative Magazine. It’s about an Olympic gold medalist swimmer whose competitive drive is fundamentally an escape from her oppressive consciousness of death, triggered by family losses in her childhood and her mother’s subsequent spiral into housebound depression. Replace swimming with academic achievement and you have my life story. As I near the book’s end, I keep wondering why the heroine is proceeding down the very modern track of turning to therapy rather than religion when talent fails her and she has to face her long-buried feelings. Unlike my largely secular childhood, this fictional girl was immersed in Midwestern Catholic-school culture and has great respect and affection for the nuns who mentored her. Yet that framework proves powerless to help her or her family surmount their despair when confronted with mortality. Why?

Maybe it’s because modern Christianity doesn’t depict death enough. The church doesn’t spend enough time on the shadow side, allowing sorrow and pain to have their say, not prematurely silenced by happy endings. (If I ran the world, I’d have a second Lent halfway through Pentecost. Do we really need 29 weeks of ordinary time, people?) Those who are still angry and grieving may feel that the only way to validate their feelings is to reject the faith.

Later today I found some of these sentiments echoed in Robert Gross’s paranormal gay romance story “Dark Lapis“, published in the online journal Wilde Oats. Reiter’s Block readers may recall his poem “Poor Souls” reprinted here last month. The plague that passes through his fictional Renaissance city is reminiscent of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s-1990s, and the younger generation’s tendency to dismiss it as old history even though new infection rates remain high. It also reminded me of post-9/11 New York City and the shallow slogans (“Fight back! Go shopping!”) that were supposed to return a stricken populace to business as usual.

From “Dark Lapis”:

…The city was returning to its weddings and babies, lawsuits and public executions, and the anomalies were generally spoken of with a sigh, a shake of the head, a pious reference to the long-term costs of the pestilence, and an abrupt change of topic. But Magnus was drawn to anomalies. Though he would not admit it to anyone, he distrusted the return of the city to normalcy just as much as he was horrified by the return of spring. He preferred the fog, the darkness, the lapis lazuli ring on his finger. The incised griffin turned inward toward his palm, caressed with a thumb.

The cruel fact was Magnus missed the pestilence. He could scarcely contemplate the immensity of this truth to himself, nor could he communicate it to others. To think of it was like holding a hot poker to your flesh, but there it was-the truth-and it rarely left him. Not that he was anything like the mad monks who raved on the street corners at the height of the pestilence, relishing how the Scourge of God had smitten the sinners. Not that he wished another human soul a moment’s suffering. But he was not yet willing to put it out of his mind as the others seemed to have done, and he walked at night searching for proof that it had not yet lapsed completely into forgetfulness.

The city had marshaled its efforts behind recovery; religion had become reasonable, gentle, and omnipresent. Services were watercolor washes of music and flowers, and the ministers wore white as if they were officiating at weddings. The goal, their flock had been admonished, had been to persevere and in time forget the bad memories and continue with only the good. As if, Magnus thought, the horror were the flesh, the final memory the skeleton, and time were decomposition. He found this offensive. How could he ever forget the worst that had happened? The boils. The vomiting. Fever and ravings. The remedies as violent as the pestilence, which never worked for long if at all. Later he found it loathsome. What good was memory that was so skittish and indulgent, so afraid of pain that it locked the door and boarded it over?

Those days had been a light so unspeakably brilliant you could neither open your eyes to it nor close your eyes tightly enough to keep it out. Even with your eyes shut you were blinded by it. It was so intense that only in retrospect could you take in its excruciating vibrancy. The change, the loss, the revelation; the multiple obliterations of them, of everything. The vividness of one minute corner of existence until it threatened to set you and the whole universe ablaze or tear you open like a knife ripping through canvas. And now nothing had that. Not even the spring blossoms could match it.

Martin Steele: “The Girls in the Tree”

Winning Writers subscriber Martin Steele has kindly permitted me to reprint this piece, which won a Very Highly Commended award in the 2010 Tom Howard/John H. Reid Poetry Contest. (Winning Writers assists with entry handling and promotion for this contest; read the latest winners here.) Born in South Africa and currently a resident of Florida, Martin is a prolific author of poetry and flash fiction characterized by lush imagery and surreal plot twists. “The Girls in the Tree” especially appealed to me because I’m writing a novel-in-progress about a fashion photographer, who would have loved to take part in the scene below.

The Girls in the Tree

The tree that the girls are on is bare because all the bark has been eaten by the elephants.

The crystal orange rays splice the painful hanging branches. Each girl a blushing pink purple petal.
The lithe soft figures blend with the orange and paleness of the earth below.

The watch clicks the minutes on the resting ‘roused sun. The colors whispers secrets onto my eyelids. My canvas tent breathes heavy morning dew. The blended apricot starkness strikes the lens of my camera like an orphaned hyacinth. The proud acacia silhouette kisses the brightening sky. Now at six in the morning the air is an aphrodisiac and my loins stirs to the low sounds of jungle beasts far, far away.

Today I will use all my male skills like a helpful circus trainer, my leica my assistant. Photographing tabloid pieces for fashion shoots is a task as trying as like feeding lions with bare hands.

The girls, the models for the lingerie shoot arrived last night. They will endure 6 hours of patient pain in the acacia tree.
My eye is on the acacia tree I have chosen on this savannah plain gradually maturing to azure. The umbrella shaped top will help with snippets of shade as will the few scant leaves left uneaten. Now as the orange gradually fades to yellow the girls in the branches of the trees smile, squirm, stretch and loll as my shutter heats up from ten hundred frames.

I have chosen this tree with bare bark eaten by elephants.

“What are those girls doing next to the beautiful elephants?”

My elephant returns soon to face his tree. The thick, broad pillar like legs and high grey back reach near to the intersection of bare tree trunk and branches stretching like Lycra. The massive head is beautiful and lotus like ears twist and fan the air. Hooflike nails are not manicured as the girls’ and the grey skin loose and lightly furrowed like chapped hands is tough and reads like a symbol of wisdom. He will never forget this scene ever as he saunters from soft wet grasses.

The skin is hairless and his slender tail is like a tuft of hair on a rabbit’s bottom.

The skin of the girls is pink and tight and soft imaging against purple panties and pink peignoirs. The faces are alive with the passion of posing. As the elephant lifts his trunk to the umbrella topped tree he recognizes a faint sweet fragrance. and will soon emit a trumpet noise when blowing through his nostrils. The girls sigh to Mozart and Chopin as the music is dreamed into their ears.

The sky has almost lost its orangeness. My elephant looks up to the nest of girls enhancing the form of branch shapes, stretches his trunk as in a goodbye salute then ambles off to loneliness and no home in particular.

My shooting is over. The girls are assisted down from the now lonely acacia.

There are smiles and excitement in the red of their cheeks and the silent sighs of their blushes. The bare skins tighten on their model figures as the hazy elephant shadow and his loose grey skin hushes Westwards.

The photos are eye piercing. I am excited.

“Mixing model beauty with African beast is a step in a young life’s excitement. There is even blood on the Polaroid.”

Everything is now packed away. The girls are dressed in jeans and sweaters and bright shirts. The pink foundation wear shows through the garment transparency.

“The last thing left is the beauty of women.”

Book Notes: Francine Witte, “Cold June”

The men and women who populate Cold June, Francine Witte’s new flash fiction chapbook, don’t have much time. They do desperate, magical, outrageous things to bridge the all-too-ordinary distances between them, the indifference of lovers and the clumsiness of communication. The rare happy marriage can almost survive the world’s end, it seems, whereas for many others, even a trip to outer space won’t rekindle the fire. This chapbook won the 2010 Thomas A. Wilhelmus Award from RopeWalk Press.

Visit Francine’s website to find out about her other poetry and fiction collections. She kindly shares two stories from Cold June below.


Eunice felt worthless, and so she put her arm up for auction on EBay. That way, she could find out her compartmental value, at least. She imagined there must be someone who would need an arm or want or an arm or anyway, not mind an arm. But to be safe, she would keep the arm attached until she had a bidder.

She asked her friend, Hank, to take the picture.

“The arm is still on you,” he said, a bit stupidly. Hank was balloony and humid and was always popping the buttons off his shirts. This really annoyed Eunice, and she kept meaning to end their friendship, but that would leave her with no one.

“Well,” Eunice said, “take the picture anyway, and we can always crop out the non-arm part of me.” Then, she dressed up the arm in tinkly bracelets and painted on a fake tattoo. She turned on the lamp, knelt at the foot of the bed, and sprawled the arm across a glittery, puffed-up pillow. That’s when she looked at Hank’s face, the drool on his mouth corners, the need in his eyes. “I’ve never seen anything more lovely,” he stammered. “It’s like a Cleopatra snake or something.”

“Would you like to place a bid?” Eunice cooed, undulating the arm in the small moon of light from the bedroom lamp.

“I’ll do even better,” Hank said. “I’d like to marry that arm.”

Eunice thought for a moment, imagining the two of them at the altar, Hank in a tux, wobbly man-penguin, and the arm next to him on the floor in bridal white.

“Of course, I’d need the rest of you to keep the arm from leaving me in the middle of the night.”

Eunice looked at Hank, who was looking at her arm in a way he had never looked at any other part of her. But still, it was something. And when Hank leaned over to kiss the arm, and popped every single one of his buttons, somehow it didn’t bother Eunice all that much anymore.


The Way the Vase Got Broken

Was the cat. First, he did his little purr thing, followed by his sinewy arch thing. This was all topped off by his jump thing and then that, was just that.

My wife is one of those women who could live without a vase, but not without a cat, so she didn’t yell in his guilty, Cheshire face.

Sometimes, I’m sure she likes the cat more than she likes me. I know I could never get away with breaking her vase just like that. And I’m also pretty sure that if somehow, this cat were a human cat and not a cat cat, she would divorce me and marry him.

But, in the end, we get along fine, with the cat, but no vase. Though on Valentine’s Day, when I bring her roses, she accuses me of trying to make the cat look bad.

Online Literary Roundup: Wag’s Review, Gemini Magazine, DIAGRAM

From time to time I like to highlight memorable work from some of my favorite online literary journals. In addition to the ones featured below, I regularly read Anderbo, Narrative Magazine, DMQ Review, and The Pedestal Magazine. Scoff all you will at the iPad/iPhone cult, but I’m in love with mine because they allow me to catch up on these journals without wasting work time at my desktop.

Wag’s Revue issue #6 , “Truthiness”, features fictional, nonfictional, and metafictional musings on the blurry line between fact and…everything else. One person’s assault on authorial credibility is another person’s mixed-genre innovation. Sometimes they’re the same person. With Stephen Colbert, you’re never quite sure. The man who coined “truthiness” speaks with editor Will Guzzardi about how things become true because we believe them. “My performance of myself, I think, testifies to the omnipresence of art, inasmuch as the artistic gesture ultimately comes down to an intrusion into semblance—exposing, in its brute state, the gap of the real.” Yes, that’s Colbert–or is it Guzzardi inventing what Colbert might say, if he deigned to be interviewed? Does it matter?

Other intriguing readings in this issue include an essay on the nonexistent Hiroshima poet Araki Yasusada, and Tony Tulathimutte’s story “The Man Who Wasn’t Male“, whose protagonist’s solution to the burden of performing masculinity has its own bloody, twisted logic. (Is “nonexistent” really the right word for a poet whose biography is fictitious, but whose work genuinely exists, though written by another? Read the essay and decide.)


Hallie Rundle’s “Asphalt Sky “, the winner of Gemini Magazine ‘s latest fiction contest, is an affecting story narrated by a girl who works for an escort service, as she seeks genuine understanding of the people she meets in a profession that depends on disconnection and illusion. The runner-up stories are also good reads.


In DIAGRAM issue 10.3 , Emma Ramey interviews Miss Peach, the trippy but fierce protagonist of Catie Rosemurgy’s new poetry collection The Stranger Manual. I enjoyed Rosemurgy’s earlier collection My Favorite Apocalypse and will have to pick up this volume very soon. Other useful or ornamental features in this issue include diagrams of “Antecedents of The Wasteland” and “How to Hit Back at Dive Bombers”, and Amy Marcott’s “Flying the Coop“, a story about Alzheimer’s caregivers that’s written as a discussion thread on a fictitious online message board.

Wisdom (?) from Miss Peach:

“There have only ever been two kinds of poetry: narrative and lyric. And some other kind that is sort of lyric but in a new way that sounds like a breakdown but doesn’t lead to the hospital because that’s a narrative. I say, don’t worry: narrative and lyric hate each other, but like the rest of us they share a house and make babies. They buy one another the perfect gifts.”

“To find something beautiful one must have no idea what it is.”

“Call me optimistic, but I believe that inside every girl is someone who is not a girl but who looks like one and laughs.”

Online Literary Roundup: Stories by Chad Simpson, Renee Thompson, Steve MacKinnon

Time once again to share some good reads I’ve discovered in online literary journals. Two are short-shorts, a form that’s well-suited to reading on the web, and one is a satisfying longer piece of historical fiction.

Chad Simpson’s “Phantoms“, from the new issue of Freight Stories, offers a surprising and beautiful perspective on the phenomenon of phantom limb sensation in amputees. I know, that doesn’t sound like a feel-good topic, but watch what he does with it.

Renee Thompson’s “Farallon“, a recent Story of the Week from Narrative Magazine, is a quietly compelling tale of redemption. Set in the 19th century, its main character is a criminal who’s been exiled to a rocky island to harvest gulls’ eggs. The reader, like the protagonist, may initially despair that anything meaningful could happen to a man marooned in this bare environment. Thompson solves this dilemma in a skillful and heart-tugging way.

Finally, Steve MacKinnon’s “Read Me One“, from The Pedestal Magazine, puts two men in a booth in a diner, one reading love letters to the other. This brief meditation on the nature of intimacy, and its failures, is never what you’d expect.

Sharla Benson: “The Shower”

The online literary journal Gemini Magazine has just released its February issue. Their short fiction contest, with a top prize of $1,000, will be accepting entries through May 1, for the ridiculously cheap fee of $4 per story, any length. So far my favorite piece in this issue is Sharla Benson’s “The Shower”, in which a young African-American woman pays the price of estrangement from her childhood friends when she tries to assimilate into white middle-class society:

“What you mean you ain’t going? You betta go!”

Diane paced back and forth while squeezing the phone so
tight her palm began to sweat. If only she had the ability
to hang up on her mother she would have pushed end that
very second. But she knew better.

“Now you known Cora all your life, and you’ll get to see
Madison,” her mother added with a softer tone. “I’m sure
she’ll be there too.”

Diane sighed. If that point was supposed to persuade her
to go, then she was still trying to find a valid excuse as to
why she shouldn’t. She loved Cora and Madison. As little
girls and teenagers they’d spent many Saturday hours in
Mrs. Mary’s beauty shop reading old Jet, Ebony and Black
Hair magazines, laughing and gossiping under the harsh
heat of the dryers while waiting to have their kinks
straightened with a steaming hot comb.

“Ahh! You burned my ear!” Diane would always yell when it
was her turn.

“Dat’s just the heat,” Mrs. Mary would reply sharply. “Keep

The three of them shared their dreams of the perfect man,
the number of children and the type of house they wanted,
believing that they would be best friends forever to see it
all happen for one another. But, people change and one
day playing a good game of hide and seek or house with
your baby dolls isn’t the only thing friends argue about.

“Ya’ll grew up on the same street,” Diane heard her mother
continue. “And that poor chile—it’s been Cora’s cross to
bear to have her womb strong enough to hold babies. But
now the good Lord has finally blessed her with one. So,
you will be goin’ to her baby shower. You hear me girl?”

She heard her loud and clear. But she also heard the even
louder voice in her head telling her that she did not want
to see Madison. What had transpired between the three of
them the last time they were together had not been pretty.

“Danisha! Are you listen’ to me?”

“Huh? Yes ma’am.” The call of the name she had laid to
rest a long time ago brought her back to the present. Very
few people still called her by her given name and that was
the way she preferred it.

Read the rest here. I also recommend xTx’s flash fiction “(Not) My Fairy Self“.