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“.

Racelle Rosett: “Levi”

This unique and memorable short story by Racelle Rosett won the 2008 Moment-Karma Short Fiction Contest. Now open for entries, this contest
offers a top prize of $1,000 for unpublished short fiction with Jewish
content. The 2010 deadline is December 31.

Rosett’s brilliantly offbeat young narrator, who sounds like he has an autism spectrum disorder (though it’s never spelled out), finds unexpected connections between Jewish tradition, yoga practice, and popular culture, as he tries to orient himself in a violent and overstimulating world.

There are 72 disturbing images on the way to my school. Saw I, Saw II, Two and Half Men. There is a billboard for jeans in which no one is wearing clothes. I don’t know why there isn’t a law about this. In another billboard there was a picture of a woman with a plastic tube up her nose. Her eyes were red and bruised underneath. My mother gasped and called the billboard company, CBS Outdoor, right from her car. My friend Gabriel’s mother called, too, and I guess about a hundred or so other mothers, because the next day in the LA Times there was an article saying the billboards were coming down. On Highland, they had the tube-in-the-nose billboard three times, so that even if I were very fast and looked down at my shoes, when I looked up again it was there three more times and another hundred or so times in my mind the rest of the day. Good morning tube-in-her-nose take out your pencils tube-in-her-nose today we’re going to learn tube-in-her-nose, tube-in-her-nose, tube-in-her-nose. Underneath the picture was the word torture, like what they did at Abu Ghraib, the prison in Iraq, because George Bush told them to. I hate George Bush most of all. My doctor, who is a cognitive therapist, who is six feet six inches tall and looks like Jon Heder, but more handsome (my mother says), told me to use thought-stopping techniques when this happens. He told me to imagine a stop sign crashing down into my brain, which is a disturbing image all by itself. I am identified highly gifted. My mother says that being gifted doesn’t mean that the gift is yours, it means that the gift is for the world and it is given through you, that you are chosen to carry the gift. Sometimes I feel like I have a giant chicken on my back.

Read the rest here.

Online Poetry Roundup: Wordgathering and Others

This past week at Reiter’s Block has been heavy on reprints, hasn’t it? Well, you all already know what I think about everything. And when you figure it out, could you please tell me?

From time to time I like to share links to my favorite online journals and poetry sites. One of the very best is Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry.  Published quarterly, Wordgathering features poetry, essays, book reviews and artwork by disabled authors and/or about the intersection of disability and literature. The blurb for their upcoming workshop at the AWP 2010 conference in Denver is a good summary of their mission:

This panel will discuss how the poetry of disability seeks to tackle and refigure traditional discourses of the disabled around an interrogation of “normalcy” and of the notions of beauty and function that have been so foundational to Western culture and aesthetics. The panel will focus on poetic strategies, including the subversion of historical discourses and the decentering of the subject through which a range of disabled poets have sought to address these issues.

Highlights of the December 2009 issue include Paul Kahn’s essay “The Deepening Fog (Part 2)”, about how his perspective as a disabled person helps him advocate for his parents in the nursing home; a review of Zimbabwean poet Tendai Mwanaka’s new collection; Rebecca Foust’s poems about her autistic son, which find beauty in what the world calls errors and mutations, without negating her maternal pain and anger; and other poems by Michael Basile and my friend Ellen LaFleche.

The Dirty Napkin is a literary journal whose content is available online for subscribers only ($16 per year). However, in each issue they feature a cover poem that can be read on the site. Their latest offering, an untitled poem from Simon Perchik, is a free-associative meditation on impermanence and beauty. Read and listen to the audio version here.

The Pedestal Magazine, edited by poet and songwriter John Amen, celebrates its ninth anniversary this month with Issue #55. The theme for this issue was speculative flash fiction. Notable contributors include Jane Yolen and Liz Argall. I also can’t resist poems about dolls, the creepier the better. Check out “The Doll After Play” by Rebecca Cross.

Kelcey Parker: “Lent”

This wise and affecting story from Image Journal explores how love sometimes manifests itself through the least obvious choices:

LENT SHOULD BE in the summer that she might make use of the hotel pool, bandaged up outside like an open wound. She never had a pool. She had a cat but her cat is dead. Buried in leftover snow behind the garage until the ground softens. It would be nice to swim in a pool. But then she remembers: I am Jesus in the desert! No swimming allowed.

I am giving you up, she told her family. For Lent.

What was hers anymore that she could give up? That no one else could use without permission, take without asking, even wear, now that the oldest was a teen and her size? Answer: the cat. The found feral cat from college, from before all of them and during all of them, tucked into the right angle of her armpit every night. But after they started arriving every couple of years, the cat (may she rest in peace) was no longer her greatest joy. They were.
You are my greatest joy, she said. And so, she addressed the question marks around the dinner table, you see what a sacrifice this is.

Of course they didn’t believe her. They never really knew how to read her. She complained of being an old lady one day and ran around making snow angels the next. She occasionally referred to them jokingly as parasites, but cried every time she read The Giving Tree. This Lent thing was obviously a joke. Except it wasn’t. She’d been doing research, Googling “Lent,” Googling “lenten sacrifice,” Googling “hotel reservations.” Here, she said, producing a receipt. She’d printed it off of Travelocity and scratched out the hotel name and address but not the city, which was the same one they lived in. You’re going to stay right here in town, they said, mockingly. I’m not giving up my whole life, she said. Just you.

Read the whole thing here.

Online Literary Roundup: Stickman Review, The Post Office Poems

There’s no shortage of great contemporary writing online. Here are two sites I just discovered today:

Stickman Review, a biannual online literary journal edited by Anthony Brown, publishes memorable literary prose, poetry, and artwork. Their latest issue, Vol. 8 No. 2, features a powerful story by Leah Erickson. “Judy Garland” depicts the relationship between a pre-teen boy and his troubled, fragile mother, as they wait amid a crowd of fans at Grand Central Station for the movie star to arrive for the premiere of “The Wizard of Oz”. Erickson captures the psychological darkness and interiority of adolescence, with a sexual subtext that is never made crudely explicit, as the boy, like his fellow Americans on the cusp of World War II, struggles to distinguish hopeful fantasy from dangerous mania.

Other fine entries in this issue include poems by Gale Acuff and Jackie Bartley.

The Post Office Poems blog is an interactive, ongoing poetry project highlighting Fall City, Washington, and the Snoqualmie Valley, written by an anonymous author and posted weekly on the bulletin board at the Fall City Post Office.
The author explains:

The idea for the Post Office Poems began with a simple posting of a poem on the bulletin board at the Fall City Post Office on October 6, 2009 by an anonymous poet. Everyone in town has a post office box, there is no delivery within the city as it is pretty much out in the boonies, “rural”. When you pick up your mail after hours you enter the back door which is always unlocked. To the left on the wall is a large bulletin board with a typical assortment of small notices for rentals, items for sale, upcoming events and business cards. Once you read these, the next time you come in the reading selection becomes pretty boring. There is nothing else on the walls, though I’ve noticed lately as you come in the door the wind has blown a large handful of brilliant orange, red, yellow and brown leaves across the floor.

Thus an idea was born to enliven the lobby experience for townsfolk. Once a week a poem is posted on the board. The first was called “Four Feathers from Fall City”, it was posted on a Tuesday night about 9:30 pm with three white tacks, on a sheet of white typing paper. When I had just pushed in the last tack I heard a car pull up. I looked out the door and there was a cop car just outside. Was I breaking some unknown Postal Service rule or federal bulletin board law? As I walked out the door, an officer in full uniform walked in and said, “Hello there, how are you?”

I said, “Hello, fine thank you.” and nervously left. I wanted the poems to be anonymous. When people of Fall City read them, I want the poem and it’s images to be exerienced and enjoyed. This project is interactive. A piece of plain white paper, a poem, the quiet lobby, and then whatever happens next in the reading, the feelings of the reader, etc. will be a discovery. Something new. A gift.

I was particularly moved by the entry “Seven Pigeons and the White Angel”, a tribute to a young man who drowned in the river. The author handles a potentially sentimental subject with subtle yet deep emotion and a gift for describing the sublime landscape of the Northwest. 

Scott Russell Sanders: “Under the Influence”

In this unflinching and eloquent essay, first published in Harper’s in 1989, Scott Russell Sanders recalls his late father’s long descent into alcoholism and how it affected his family. His reflections will resonate with anyone who grew up with an addicted or mentally ill parent.

…I am forty-four, and I know full well now that my father was an alcoholic, a man consumed by disease rather than by disappointment. What had seemed to me a private grief is in fact, of course, a public scourge. In the United States alone, some ten or fifteen million people share his ailment, and behind the doors they slam in fury or disgrace, countless other children tremble. I comfort myself with such knowledge, holding it against the throb of memory like an ice pack against a bruise. Other people have keener sources of grief – poverty, racism, rape, war. I do not wish to compete to determine who has suffered most. I am only trying to understand the corrosive mixture of helplessness, responsibility, and shame that I learned to feel as the son of an alcoholic. I realize now that I did not cause my father’s illness, nor could I have cured it. Yet for all this grownup knowledge, I am still ten years old, my own son’s age, and as that boy I struggle in guilt and confusion to save my father from pain.

Consider a few of our synonyms for drunk: tipsy, tight, pickled, soused, and plowed; stoned and stewed, lubricated and inebriated, juiced and sluiced; three sheets to the wind, in your cups, out of your mind, under the table; lit up, tanked up, wiped out; besotted, blotto, bombed, and buzzed; plastered, polluted, putrefied; loaded or looped, boozy, woozy, fuddled, or smashed; crocked and shit-faced, corked and pissed, snockered and sloshed.

It is a mostly humorous lexicon, as the lore that deals with drunks–in jokes and cartoons, in plays, films, and television skits–is largely comic. Aunt Matilda nips elderberry wine from the sideboard and burps politely during supper. Uncle Fred slouches to the table glassy-eyed, wearing a lampshade for a hat and murmuring, “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.” Inspired by cocktails, Mrs. Somebody recounts the events of her day in a fuzzy dialect, while Mr. Somebody nibbles her ear and croons a bawdy song. On the sofa with Boyfriend, Daughter Somebody giggles, licking gin from her lips, and loosens the bows in her hair. Junior knocks back some brews with his chums at the Leopard Lounge and stumbles home to the wrong house, wonders foggily why he cannot locate his pajamas, and crawls naked into bed with the ugliest girl in school. The family dog slurps from a neglected martini and wobbles to the nursery, where he vomits in Baby’s shoe.

It is all great fun. But if in the audience you notice a few laughing faces turn grim when the drunk lurches onstage, don’t be surprised, for these are the children of alcoholics. Over the grinning mask of Dionysus, the leering face of Bacchus, these children cannot help seeing the bloated features of their own parents. Instead of laughing, they wince, they mourn. Instead of celebrating the drunk as one freed from constraints, they pity him as one enslaved. They refuse to believe “in vino veritas”, having seen their befuddled parents skid away from truth toward folly and oblivion. And so these children bite their lips until the lush staggers into the wings.

My father, when drunk, was neither funny nor honest; he was pathetic, frightening, deceitful. There seemed to be a leak in him somewhere, and he poured in booze to keep from draining dry. Like a torture victim who refuses to squeal, he would never admit that he had touched a drop, not even in his last year, when he seemed to be dissolving in alcohol before our very eyes. I never knew him to lie about anything, ever, except about this one ruinous fact. Drowsy, clumsy, unable to fix a bicycle tire, balance a grocery sack, or walk across a room, he was stripped of his true self by drink. In a matter of minutes, the contents of a bottle could transform a brave man into a coward, a buddy into a bully, a gifted athlete and skilled carpenter and shrewd businessman into a bumbler. No dictionary of synonyms for drunk would soften the anguish of watching our prince turn into a frog.

Father’s drinking became the family secret. While growing up, we children never breathed a word of it beyond the four walls of our house. To this day, my brother and sister rarely mention it, and then only when I press them. I did not confess the ugly, bewildering fact to my wife until his wavering and slurred speech forced me to. Recently, on the seventh anniversary of my father’s death, I asked my mother if she ever spoke of his drinking to friends. “No, no, never,” she replied hastily. “I couldn’t bear for anyone to know.”

The secret bores under the skin, gets in the blood, into the bone, and stays there. Long after you have supposedly been cured of malaria, the fever can flare up, the tremors can shake you. So it is with the fevers of shame. You swallow the bitter quinine of knowledge, and you learn to feel pity and compassion toward the drinker. Yet the shame lingers and, because of it, anger.

Read the entire piece on the LifeRing website, an online support network for people in recovery.

Hat tip to the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing e-newsletter for this link. The next festival will be held in April 2010. Sanders is one of the featured speakers. I attended in 2006 and recommend it with one-and-a-half thumbs up. On the plus side, I experienced the prophetic power of the Holy Spirit during Walter Wangerin Jr.’s closing address and emerged with a new ability to write literary fiction. On the minus side, the food is terrible and the campus layout is very confusing. So if you go, rent a car and pack lots of beef jerky, and prepare to change your life.

Literary Journal Roundup: Gemini Magazine, DIAGRAM, and More

As my attention span fades along with the light of summer days, I’m appreciating the brevity and variety that a good literary journal can offer. Here are some of the publications I’ve been enjoying this season:

Naugatuck River Review‘s summer 2009 issue is stuffed with good narrative poetry on themes including fathers and sons, aging, class and race, romance, miscarriages, Mexico, horses, D-Day flashbacks, and what happens when you’re in a bar with a woman who sees God. Read the issue from beginning to end because editor Lori Desrosiers has structured it like a narrative, with one theme segueing into the next. If you’re in Western Massachusetts this Tuesday night, come to the NRR authors’ reading at Spoken Word in Greenfield.

Think you know all there is to know about Huck Finn? The Missouri Review‘s summer 2009 issue includes a provocative essay by Andrew Levy, arguing that Twain’s book is not primarily about race but about our culture’s myths and fears concerning adolescent boys.

Issue #9 of Chroma, the UK-based queer literary journal, features a sestina by Judith Barrington, a hilarious and sad essay by trans-man Simon Croft about passing at a family funeral, and cover art by photographer Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin.

The most terrifying story ever written appears in Barrelhouse Issue #7. Critics may disagree about which one this is. Matt Williamson’s “Sacrament”, a war-on-terror dystopia that makes Guantanamo look tame, is vying for supremacy with Matt Bell’s “BeautyForever”, a George Saunders-esque tale of love in the time of pharmaceuticals.

Finally, two online prose offerings for your free instant gratification. Gemini Magazine is a newly launched e-zine that publishes flash fiction, short stories, poetry, and drama. So far, my favorite piece in the September issue is Mary J. Daley’s “Wayward Conception”, a lingering, beautifully textured story about a young mother overwhelmed by the choices she’s made:

Stacy forgot about the baby, concentrating solely on the sunlight thatreflected off the stainless steel pot between her feet. The contrast of itsshine against the dull and worn porch steps had lulled her into a void,where her baby, so new and minuscule within her, slipped from herthoughts entirely and blissfully.

A plastic bag of green beans almost a quarter full sat beside her cup of milkytea. The beginning of a burn crept across her bare shoulders as she tookher time, cutting delicately, pressing green skin between thumb and knifeblade. She found this unhurried quiet elegant and she willed herself tostretch it out, to forget the stuffy heat of the house, the needs of thechildren and for one blessed moment the coming baby.

The rattling motor of Tommy’s black Ford broke apart her short-lived escapeand she raised her head, shielding her eyes from the onslaught of sunshineas he pulled into the gravel driveway. As he slid his big frame from the cab,she lowered her sight to his work boots. They came towards her crunchingloudly on the small white rocks.

“You’re home early?” she asked, squinting her green eyes, trying to avoidthe sun’s spillage around him.

“I have a job at the church and I need my safety harness.”

He jogged up the steps two at a time, disappearing into the porch just toreappear a minute later with the harness in his huge hands. He smelled ofpaint and turpentine.

“Does it pay?” she asked.

He nodded, pausing beside her for a second to consider what else he mightrequire. She waited, looking at his hands that held the belt, his short nails,the yellow stains of nicotine between index and middle finger, the ampleblue veins running beneath the skin.

“Did you finish up at Emily’s?”

“Almost. She’s not happy with the color in the dining room, but she’s willingto live with it for a few days to see if it grows on her.” He gingerly steppedover the teacup, not looking at his wife.

“God Tommy, I need to get groceries. She didn’t pay you, did she?” Stacysighed knowing full well Emily wouldn’t part with a dime until she wascompletely and whole-heartedly satisfied with the job.

“I’ll have it finished by Monday.”

“What are you doing at the church?”

He stopped at the truck, one hand reaching for the handle. She could seethe self-importance subtly emerge. After seven years of marriage she knewthe signs: shoulders pulled back ever so slightly, the first traces of red alongthe indentations of his neck, the minute lowering of voice as he answered.“The lights in the cross need to be replaced but Joe hurt his back. I said Iwould do it. Shouldn’t be too long.”

She gaped at him, wide eyed, mouth opened as he climbed back up into thetruck. Raising her voice over the sound of the ignition trying to turn over,she called. “Tommy, you’re not telling me you’re going to climb to the verytop of that steeple?”

“What? Are you saying I can’t?” He leaned slightly out the side windowwhile he gave the truck a chance to rest before turning the ignition overagain.

She shook her head and said, “No, just that it’s dangerous! Isn’t?”

“Should be easy to figure it all out once I’m up there.” He flashed a smilewhen the motor started. Tommy had a prominent chin and tiny eyes and asthe years went by it was only his confident smile that kept him from crossingthe line into unappealing. He turned his head to check for non-existenttraffic, backed the truck from the yard and was gone.

Fool, she thought as she tossed a bean into the pot. Just like Tommy andhis constant display of bravado to take that job, leaving Emily to mull overher walls and her to worry about what to do for meals. God she hoped hefell.

Read the rest here.

For something completely different, check out the experimental poetry and prose journal DIAGRAM, Issue 9.4. Highlights include Rhoads Stevens’ “Who Does What to Whom”, a bizarre Punch-and-Judy show personifying various phrases in a quote from Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures, “a book that’s never been read while a patient waits for a barium enema.”

New Fiction Online: Furuness, Patterson, Yanique

The Internet is full of great short fiction, both in literary webzines and on the websites of traditional print journals. Below are links to a few stories I’ve recently enjoyed.

Freight Stories is a relatively new online journal of literary fiction that publishes good work in a clean, easy-to-read format. I’m working my way through Issue #5 and wanted to recommend two pieces published there.

Bryan Furuness’ “Portrait of Lucifer as a Young Man” is a short magical-realist piece that generates, so to speak, sympathy for the devil–maintaining a delicate balance between tenderness and menace:

Lucifer’s father was a portrait painter for hire. If you mailed him a photograph and a check for four hundred dollars, he would paint your likeness in dark, smoky oils. Not a bad deal for a vintage ego trip and the surest way to make new money look old. It was the nineteen-eighties. His business boomed.

He wasn’t the world’s greatest portrait painter, truth be told, but his clients didn’t complain, and he loved the work. Loved it so much, in fact, that when he was finished with paying jobs for the day, he liked to paint Hoosiers of guttering fame—men like Hoagy Carmichael or Booth Tarkington, men whose names rang a faint bell, but you weren’t sure why, though you thought they might have pitched for the Cubs or served in your grandfather’s platoon.

The idea behind these unpaid portraits was to revive some of the subjects’ former fame, but since no museum or gallery had commissioned them (or would accept them, even as donations), they ended up lining the living room wall in rows, a jury box of befuddled uncles.

Growing up, Lucifer thought portraits were ridiculous, and that his father’s clients were shallow and stupid. But around the time of his twelfth birthday, curiosity began to gnaw at him. If his father could make a grain dealer look like a university president, how dignified would Lucifer look in oil?

Victoria Patterson’s “The First and Second Time” takes an unflinching look at the sexual awakening of a teenage girl who is struggling to cope with her parents’ divorce:

…Rosie had once been Daddy’s little princess. Before the divorce, her father had slept in the guest room on the foldout sofa bed. Above the sofa was a crudely drawn picture of ice skaters. Her room was next to this room, and often her father would climb into her bed, on top of her beige silk comforter.

He would fall asleep easily. She never got accustomed to having her father’s adult-size body in her bed, and she would not sleep. It made her feel weird, as if she was the wife and not the daughter, but she would let him stay because she knew he was desperately lonely.

She would become hyper-aware of his breathing, the way it would develop into a snore, counting the seconds between her breaths and his long breaths. She would try to time her breaths to his, but she could not.

He had hair on his arms; his lips parted when he fell asleep; a scar divided his left eyebrow; his mustache brushed against his top lip; his face relaxed. Eventually, he would stir and turn, curling into a fetal position. She would move her body if his arm or leg touched.

Always, he would wake, startled by one of his more resonant snores, or for no predictable reason. She would pretend to be asleep. She didn’t want him to feel guilty about keeping her awake.

Sometimes, smelling of moist sleep, his lips would touch her cheek, his mustache brushing against her skin. He always returned to the sofa bed. She would feel relief when he left, although she would curl into the warm spot his body had created on her bed, and finally drift to sleep.

Boston Review is a well-regarded magazine of poetry and progressive politics which offers several annual contests. A lot of their content is available online. Tiphanie Yanique’s lush and haunting story “How to Escape from a Leper Colony” won their 13th annual short story contest in 2006. It’s the title story of her new collection, coming in 2010 from Graywolf Press.

…When I left Trinidad for Chacachacare it was 1939 and I was only 14. I came for two reasons. The first was to bury my father, who had lived there for three years and had just died. The second was because I had become a leper. It was in my arm. The same arm my mother held as she walked me to the dock and left me there. Her cotton sari swishing the ground as she ran back to the main street, to catch a bus that would take the whole day to get her back to San Fernando, way down in South. I thought of her sitting in the bus for hours, her face against the glass, the hole in her nose empty because she had sold the gold to buy me a used sari and a bag of sweets as a gift for my new caretakers.

I also sat that whole day. I was waiting for the nuns to come get me. I pretended I could hear the sounds of the junction that the driver had dropped us off at. It wasn’t Port-of-Spain, but it was the biggest, loudest place I had ever been to. It was like a wedding in my village with all the food laid out for me to stare at. Men crowded around a small stand that sold raw oysters. They dipped the shells in hot pepper sauce before slurping the meat down their throats. Women reached up for brightly colored buckets and brooms that hung on display. My mother and I rushed by, avoiding getting close to people.

During our long walk, the busy road turned into a dusty path. And then we were walking along a wood dock with the sea beneath us. My mother sat me down with my legs hanging over the side and pointed to the small mound many miles out into the ocean. That would be my new home, she told me, where the nuns would take me in and bless me with the sacrament of confirmation when I was older. She did not say, if I lived to be older. Instead she kissed me on the mouth and made me promise not to eat the sweets. And she left. And then it was so quiet, with only the waves and the breeze as sounds of life, that I closed my eyes and pretended that I was back in the junction, eating oysters in pepper sauce, putting them in my mouth with my good hand.

My arm was wrapped and in a sling. Even in my mind I could not forget how my elbow was hurting me in a funny way that wasn’t about pain. Even alone on the dock I was too afraid to touch it, to give that arm the healing power of the other one. It is a dangerous thing when a girl is afraid to touch her own body. I was afraid to touch places on me that weren’t even private. And I was going to die for it. Die for having those places.

Maureen Sherbondy: “Vanishing Sarah”

This piece first appeared in the Knoxville Writers’ Guild Anthology, Low Explosions: Writings on the Body. Maureen Sherbondy’s collection of short stories and flash fiction, The Slow Vanishing, will be published this fall by Main Street Rag. Visit their New Releases page to buy this book at a pre-order discount price of $9 (normally $13.95). MSR has also published two of Maureen’s poetry chapbooks, After the Fairy Tale and Praying at Coffee Shops.

Vanishing Sarah

Bit by bit, Sarah vanished. It began slowly — a swatch of fingertip tugged off. Everyone wanted something: her five children, her corporate husband, the in-laws, the neighbors, her two terriers, the PTA, her four younger sisters, the church parishioners. They were the takers, and she was the giver; this is the way it had always been. She barely noticed the initial throb of missing fingertip. The dull pain was interrupted by the disappearance of the small toe on her left foot, removed by her husband. Then, an ounce of flesh above her hip, which, really, she didn’t mind, as there had been so much extra flesh since that fourth pregnancy. The removal of flesh was like being gnawed by a very large rat. Chomp chomp. First she swatted the hand of the taker, a PTA parent this time; then she accepted this loss and waved goodbye as the ounce of flesh floated out the open window.

Phones rang endlessly with additional requests: to bake two dozen cupcakes for the school bake sale, volunteer for the book fair, organize the church charity talent show. Then the takers became ruthless. They descended, a swarm of hands and teeth. A finger, wearing her wedding band, floated away from the four-bedroom brick house, and then a large toe left the suburban cul-de-sac. Her slightly bulbous nose sprayed with tiny freckles drifted into the sky, a loss which made smelling the burning cupcakes difficult. She saw twenty freckles in the night sky lit up like red stars.

At night, achy, feeling scattered and lost, she closed her eyes (still intact, she had covered those with palms, no fingers) trying to find a dream where only givers lived. But, piece-by-piece even dreams parted.

When the children and husband and in-laws and PTA and church parishioners searched for Sarah, to ask just one last little favor, all that remained was a stain — a perfumed outline of who she had been.

DIAGRAM Essay Winner Matthew Glenwood: “John Henry’s Tracks”

Online multimedia journal DIAGRAM, edited by poet Ander Monson, is a uniquely satisfying blend of the surreal, the philosophical, and the darkly humorous. In addition to original poetry and prose, they feature offbeat and obscure images from specialized texts, hence the journal’s name. Ever wondered about the proper proportions of a love seat? Do you know everything you ought to know about the appurtenances of perpendicular drinking? Perhaps you need ideas for unusual leg positions. DIAGRAM has it all.

On a more serious note, Matthew Glenwood, the winner of their most recent Hybrid Essay Contest, offers the rhetorical masterpiece “John Henry’s Tracks”, a passionate piece of writing that draws connections between the famous folk song, plasma-selling, Hurricane Katrina, and the dehumanization of the poor. Sample:

John Henry was a mighty man,
Born with a ten-pound hammer in his hand.
—”John Henry”*

Some dirt-diggers in the Holy Land claimed to have found the bones of Jesus and his family. Jesus’ son, too. We’ll probably never know for sure if those were the holy bones or not. That kind of news could prove ungentle to dreamers. Like finding the remains of Amelia Earhart under her front porch steps, or the skeleton of a baby bird beneath its nest. We would hope for a wider arc to the hero’s journey than bones at the starting point. It could be called bad news if Jesus, the alleged foreman of Heaven, left bones behind. News that says nobody’s going very far.

But it wouldn’t be the whole truth. There is somewhere to go.

We can go sell our plasma for fifty American dollars a week.

The journey to the Biolife Plasma Center in Marquette, Michigan came easy for me. I just had to follow an abandoned train track for a few blocks. The track met the edge of the woods along the shore of Lake Superior; rabbit, chipmunk and deer crisscrossed it as beasties would any ready made trail, for there were no tracks left on that line. The rattle of my mountain bike startled ducks from the shallow waters of the ditch alongside. In winter, the flat, open space doubled as a cross country ski trail. You might say everything ran on that track except for rails.

The region, too poor to have a reason to run its trains, pulled up many of its train tracks, and commerce that way moved at the speed of wild grass. The poverty of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is probably why the plasma company came to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. That and the local college students, the reliably poor. As any farmer with a bad back could tell you, the easiest of tall crops to harvest is one that stoops to meet the hand of the harvester.

At the plasma center, technicians tap into the natural resource of your veins. The process takes, at most, a couple hours, and you’re paid for it. It’s easy money, and couldn’t come much easier; all you have to do is exist. The plasma company calls itself a “donation center”, but really it is a selling center. Poor people coming to sell the one possession they unquestionably own: the materials of their being. Take away those materials and the world would have no more poor.

Our folk songs say that John Henry could drive steel harder and faster than any man. The job of a steel driver was to pound holes in rock by hammering a long metal drill held and rotated by another man known as a shaker. Dynamite was then dropped into those holes—tunnels blasted into mountain stone. Steel driving was done for the mean benefit of the train companies laying track across the nation. In other versions of the song, steel driving was intermixed with pounding spike into the rail lines.

One day a salesman brought a new steam-driven drill to the line. John Henry, fearing for his job and for the jobs of his fellow rail workers, challenged the machine to a contest. John Henry declared to his captain:

Lord, a man aint nothin’ but a man
But before I let that steam-drill beat me down
I’m gonna die with a hammer in my hand

John Henry won. But after beating the machine, he suffered a heart attack and died. That’s to say, he could do no more work for the train company.

Like Jesus, no one can prove the John Henry of legend. Some stories say he was an ex-slave working for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway during the Reconstruction days of the South, following the Civil War. People disagree on where, and if, the events of the song took place. One man thinks the contest of hammers happened in Talcott, West Virgina. But everybody knows that you’ve got to bite the coins that come out of Talcott.

About twenty years ago, a man in my hometown got caught in one of the big machines of the mining company. A rock crusher, if I remember right. He was the father of a classmate. I ought to have attended the funeral, but didn’t. In those high school days I was discovering the books of the American Transcendentalists: Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau. “Transcendentalism” was a big word to me at the time. The idea of it is that you can ride your porch swing to the truth of all flowers. The notion sounds sound to me, still. But, being young, I felt as if I had inherited a mansion up in the blue air; as if everything wrong were, with an idea, suddenly right.

The daughter of the killed miner, my classmate, needed some consoling, but I was too shy, too awkward at social graces, to be one of the people to give it. I had no consoling to give. Her father was a good man of Finnish descent; he left behind a large family. The family had a new lesson to learn about the worst of all possible outcomes. As for me, I had my books which said spirit dances with matter.

Much of my life has passed since those books. Those Yankee writers of old are truer to me now than when I was young, and it’s likely that I need them more now. But an idea isn’t much true unless we are willing to wear its dirt. A frog of ugly sits at the center of true, and his appetite is Void.

Rather than the gift of a mansion in the sky, transcendence now seems to me a lifetime of lonely carpentry. Carpentry on a house nobody can see. And that house won’t shelter from the rain, but make us wetter. Those who ply this trade might not finish even the front steps before the cold evening comes on, before the closing whistle blows. Maybe no one completes the house called Idealism— built, as it is, on the foundation that is the suffering of the world. The hammer is usually abandoned with much work left to do; it hums only a little while with the vibrations of the last nail driven, until stillness takes it.

Had the good miner’s death happened today, I would’ve gone to the funeral. The fact about our portion of transcendence is that some of us get flattened in rock crushers. The fact is that there is blood on the machine.

And in the machine.

Sometimes the crashing waves of Lake Superior, powered by strong winds, sounded like a train through my apartment window. But, in the city of Marquette, the only real locomotion taking place was the centrifugal force of the Autoapheresis-C machine (made by the Baxter corporation) separating plasma from blood. The word “apheresis” is Greek for “take away”.

Read the rest here. Read another piece by this author in DIAGRAM 1.6.