In February, we announced our Winter Writing Contest. The theme? "Unrepentant." We wanted pieces about shamelessness, moxie, brass, nerve. The writing community delivered! We received a proverbial mail basket full of strong submissions. From among them, our judges, David Biespiel (poetry) and Greg Robillard (prose), selected six winning entries - two short stories, two essays, and two poems - as well as three runners up. Without further ado, here they are! The winning pieces and their authors appear below.
Steven Aguilu is a family physician who (and he hesitates for his patients to learn this) always scored the highest on the English sections of his standardized tests. He started writing again about 15 years ago and currently has four novels in the works, including a high-tech genomics thriller called ‘LUCK,’ a fly-fishing novel, and a fly-fishing Christmas picture book. He is a member of Write on the River, a writing group in Wenatchee, WA and wrote a ‘wanna-be author’ blog for their newsletter for a couple of years. Love, in the shape of his lovely wife, Peggy, brought him to Portland in 2015. He has two sons and is an avid fly fisherman, symphonic percussionist and rock drummer.
CATCHING SUDDEN MICE
There he goes. He’s got that same look that the others get when they can’t stand to look at the twitches anymore…when they’ve heard enough of the words.
The shrink needs words…words like gesticulation, palalia, compulsion, sequestration. I went to the library when they started using those words on me. Why didn’t he test me with those words? Gesticulation…twitches, Palalia…rant, Compulsion…urge, Sequestration…loneliness. He gets paid for them. I have to live them.
Other people need big words like dissimulate, musca domestica, subterfuge, fasten, instead of plant, fly, trick, button. I don’t. Big words are meaningless, like dull arrows…they bounce off. Little words are sharp…they go deep, you can feel them down in your guts.
The shrink is playing word games with me.
“Tree.” he says.
“Plant!” I say.
“Michael! Young man, stop it… now!”
That’s the way it always ends up. So I try not to use words at all. I write things down or else I just look at people…but not girls. That doesn’t work. You have to talk to them. But when I talk to them, I get nervous.
And if I get nervous, the twitching starts. At first they think I’m bold, winking at them. Then I see it in their eyes too. And when I get really nervous, the words come out, all by themselves, jumping off my tongue, sudden… like mice out of a hot oven. And girls don’t like sudden mice.
So last week I was ready. I had a plan. I saw her the first day of school, six months ago. Just moved from Folsom, California. Eyes like the Arizona sky, dusty blue…hair like honey…that’s a good word, a sweet word.
And she saw me too, kept looking. And then I saw them telling her. And she looked away and didn’t look back, except for those eye-corner looks. But after that, I could see the blue eyes, every day, every hour, every night.
That’s why I had to have a plan. And since girls like words, I knew she would like mine. So I wrote some down. And I used my words, even read them to her from a piece of paper hidden in my hand, so they wouldn’t come out all wrong…when I was nervous.
But people don’t hear things right, always. Maybe she was nervous, or maybe I mumbled the other words, maybe I read it wrong because of the blinking. All she told Mr. Harris was that I said I was going to trick her into letting me un-button my fly and plant myself in her.
I dropped the paper and tried to run but Mr. Harris caught me. When he took me to the office, I let him have it with all the four letter words I could think of. I didn’t have to say those things. Cuss-words are not my words. I only have four words. But I got away with it. He thought it was the Tourette’s.
But it was okay. When he took me away, I saw she had the paper in her hand. She was looking at me again, steady and straight on, with my words in her blue eyes:
The trick in love, my love,
Is to plant the seed of passion with passion’s first look
To dare ones fingers past the first button
And to let the heart fly into the hot candle flame of love, love, love…
Well… maybe I have five words now.
Craig Foster is an editor who has had one (1) short story published in Box, run a social commentary folio called The Door Is A Jar, and created the online architecture and design magazine Peer. These publications no longer exist and he realizes the claims therefore beggar belief. Thankfully, he is not a proud man.
THE RIGHT TOOL
Gyp woke up, which he took as a sign.
Earlier, he’d nailed one hand to the floor in a fit of manufactured despair and misappropriated identity, realizing a few seconds and screams later that he’d be unable to complete the self-crucifixion gag so long as where he held the length of pipe he’d used as a hammer was also where the second nail needed to go. If someone walked through the door, they’d just see an apelike O trying to pull its hand off the floor and not the humanlike T he’d envisioned laying on the floor face up in an all-white jumpsuit. So, he’d stopped struggling, slowly rolled onto his back, closed his eyes, concentrated on the pinch between nail head and floor, screamed once more, then used his meditation teacher’s technique for shifting to another time and place. Transformed by this trip, Gyp had risen to his knees, grabbed a pen, and scrawled try this one – swinging jesus southpaw giant on his wrist, just where the blood trailed away from the pinned palm.
Satisfied, he’d gone ahead and passed out.
The studio smelled of varnish and waste. Paintings gathered dust and bugs. Years of sloppy encaustic work left the floor splattered with beeswax, making a lumpy matte carpet over low-grade plywood. Someone practiced cello above, a musical saw cut through from below. The light was good. So was the heater. Too good. Couldn’t keep it on long for fear of melting the more fragile pieces. All of this had been right and fine for some time.
But with just a few days to go, Gyp had spent more time staring at the two pieces he’d made for the Home Remedies group show at NINEONE1 Cooperative Arts than working on the required third one. Rejection had been the norm of late, with galleries citing format and use of media as the issues. So, he’d turned his back on painting to try his hand at mixed media. Found objects repurposed. Bought objects depurposed. He’d made lists of names for potential works and had a vague idea that everything he created could be viewed as a household tool. For the right household.
He’d even concocted stories surrounding each piece. One involved a person with dissociative identity disorder who’d tried to eliminate seemingly unwanted personalities by using a device made specifically for her to that end. Another spun around a man who couldn’t keep secrets and thus spoke them into a crude vessel he’d fashioned, but which had begun to split from the strain.
Desperation replaced inspiration, so the makeshift hammer and nails had come out to provide a bit of relief.
The studio might be the problem. Toxic. Stagnant. Gyp needed to catch a spark through a change of scenery. He considered the pipe he still held in his good hand and the idea hit him: he would plant his two pieces at the local hardware store and see what reaction they got. In the process, he might just figure out what to do for a third work.
He wedged an open edge of the pipe between the nail head and fleshy mess and yelled as loud as he could to drown out in advance the pain he was sure would hit. He hadn’t counted on doing such a good job of securing himself to the floor, however, and it took several efforts to achieve detachment. Blood pooled. The cello droned.
With any good plan you need accomplices, and his were a pair of baby monitors he’d picked up some years before with a view to catching his roommate talking by phone on the sly with Gyp’s girlfriend at the time. The ploy was successful, so at least one cause of anxiety was gone now, although coming up with the rent on his own since then had been tricky. He trusted these plastic partners and planned to use them to hear reactions to his pieces as they happened on one side of the store while he perused stock elsewhere. With no change of clothes handy, he undid the jumpsuit with his good hand, tucked the receiving monitor into his underwear, then zipped back up. Gyp shoved the transmitter and his two gallery pieces into a koala backpack he’d found at the park. The excitement of the store idea had momentarily erased all pain, and he only now thought to wrap his hand with an oily rag before striking out.
Trailing drops of blood along the way, Gyp pushed through the front door of the hardware store, tripping a bell and then himself as the doormat flipped up and sent him toward a rack of discounted shovels. A teen in a grease-streaked shop apron briefly raised her eyes from the checkout station, then returned to using the edge of the counter to tear paper into small strips to the beat of workout music that squeaked from an emergency crank radio. Gyp picked up a shovel and turned it over in his hands, feigning interest and hoping that being relatively still would deflect attention from the noisy entrance. However, finding that nobody was noticing at all began to aggravate him, especially given the amount of blood he was spreading to the handle. He stuck the blade of the shovel into an adjacent bag of compost. The teen coughed and ripped more paper.
Gyp paced a few aisles, determining which section of the store deserved to show off his particular brand of tools and scanning for potentially complementary or ironic pairings with his pieces. Ultimately, he placed them on a shelf displaying megaphones and slid the transmitting monitor well behind them. Realizing he needed to give his pieces some legitimacy as store items, Gyp stole a marker and some labels, on which he wrote down the tools’ names and prices (Voices Degenerator: $314.159265; Secrets Retainer: $411.00), affixing these to the shelf. On the off-chance that someone who appreciated art would recognize his work for what it truly was, he reached into the backpack and pulled out a couple of business cards, which read simply Gyp Rosen on one side and Tourist on the other. He placed these somewhat behind each of the pieces and wandered off to a point in the store that kept him just close enough to the tools to let the monitors do their work.
It took a good 15 minutes, and Gyp was dripping a fair amount of blood by this time. He cinched the rag a bit tighter, wiped his hands off on the front of the jumpsuit, and put a foot over the pool collecting on the floor. He started reading product labels just loud enough to attract Big Walt, the store’s owner, who looked him up and down and asked, Do you need help?
Gyp’s response was snuffed by a great plaid donkey of a man who’d been shadowing Walt through the store and now patted his shoulder to ask, What the hell’s this voices generator?
Walt looked at the confused mess of materials that the man held, excused himself from Gyp and said, Speak English, Norm.
Gyp took his advantage.
Yeah, that can’t be right. I mean, it would make sense if it was a voices degenerator, but a voices generator would be weird.
Well, our buyer always knows what he’s doing, said Walt. If people want generators, that’s what we sell them.
No, see, this is a voices degenerator, Gyp explained. Better stores have them, so I’m not surprised you’ve got this in stock.
Norm considered this. What do you use them for? It just looks like a fancy hand mirror with a junky piece of plywood where the mirror should be. The handle’s all cut up. Nails everywhere.
Pretty sure it’s for helping schizophrenics get rid of their extra personalities, said Gyp.
Well, hell, I have no idea why that would be here, said Walt. Outside old Norm here, we don’t usually get fruitcakes in until just before Christmas.
Warming to his role, Gyp asked, If you’ve got voices degenerators, you probably also have secrets retainers. Where do you keep those?
Walt stared at a point between his eyes and said, I don’t think I got that right. What kind of containers?
Well, do you have bullhorns? Secrets retainers are usually in the same general area.
If you mean megaphones, then yes. Walt cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted across the store, Angie, do we have any secrets retainers over by the Finex Megasonics? He winked at Norm and chuckled. Within a few seconds came the reply, We’ve just got one left, which simultaneously shot across the ceiling and exited Gyp’s crotch as a tinny gasp. Walt turned and stared at him. Sliding one boot ahead of the other, he planted himself firmly in the middle of the aisle and asked, Why is my wife’s voice coming out of your pants?
Norm offered, If you’re hearing double, Walt, maybe you should use this degenerator thing to help fix that.
Walt gave him a long, hard stare. Gyp used the distraction to pivot and turn off the speaker through the suit’s fabric, spotting a boy in a soccer uniform who’d skipped into the aisle from the opposite end, honking through a kazoo.
And that was that. A moment of clarity. Gyp now had an idea for a third piece, which he figured he might call a prodigy protector. As Walt explained to Norm the difference between generators and degenerates, Gyp, growing more faint, imagined this third tool and the story surrounding it.
Turning back toward Walt, he said, I think I need some latex gloves, ready-mix cement, and duct tape.
You think? asked Walt. What’s your project?
Well, I’ve got a 13-year-old girl in mind, Gyp mused, drifting into a reverie as his body grew weaker and he became more lightheaded. Walt took a closer look at the man before him, now saw the blood for what it was, the strange message written on the wrist, took in the child’s backpack for the first time, and noted the glazed look in Gyp’s eyes. His face turned to borscht.
I don’t believe we can help you. Walt fingered the box cutter attached to his belt.
Gyp wobbled, uncomprehending. Nothing looked right but it all felt perfect. He looked up at a flickering fluorescent ceiling light and his stigmata seemed to buzz with energy. He lifted his arm to touch the light, and the rag fell off.
Walt made a move toward him, but Gyp managed to just edge out of the way, snatch the voices degenerator from Norm’s hand, then stumble through the store shouting into it, He is Rosen! He is Rosen!
Overweight and up in years, Walt had trouble keeping pace but managed to tackle Gyp just as he grabbed for the secrets retainer, the two of them going down in a heap and Gyp’s tools breaking to bits.
As they waited for the police, Walt tallied the damage and determined that, whatever Gyp might be, he owed him $725.159265 in lost goods plus untold additional medical expenses.
Gyp smiled, having sold his pieces. In the moment before it all went black, he considered changing the back of his business card to read Participant. This was the show they would remember him for, and one day he’d be back.
Joanna Rose has published stories, essays, poems, reviews, and a novel called Little Miss Strange (Algonquin), as well as other pieces that don't fall into any of those categories. Her work appeared most recently in Cream City Review, CloudBank, Oregon Humanities, and in the anthology The Night, and the Rain, and the River (Forest Avenue Press). She is currently in the Atheneum Poetry program at the Attic. With her teaching partner Stevan Allred she co-hosts the Pinewood Table prose critique group. She has dogs, and would usually rather be at the beach. She sometimes hangs out at www.joannarose.xyz
WHY PEOPLE KEEP COMMEMORATIVE PLATES
I have a box of ten Avon Award Plates, each emblazoned with heraldic gold numerals commemorating the years when my Aunt Mimi was Garden State Avon Lady of the Year. Dear Aunt Mimi, who gave me my first bottle of nail polish, when I was ten, a pale pink shade called Buttons 'n Bows, and taught me to how use it and not paint my cuticles. Aunt Mimi and Uncle Jim were the mysterious aunt and uncle with no kids, who had dinner parties, and wall-to-wall white carpets.
This box itself is pale lilac, with worn corners, and it smells slightly musty, because it was in their basement for a long time, until Uncle Jim died. Aunt Mimi sold the house then, the house that was always the same whenever we visited from whatever flat, beige, midwest place my parents had dragged us off to. The white carpet, the lavender bedroom, oil paintings, a silver chandelier in the dining room. Glamorous Aunt Mimi, from whom I believe I inherited my own love of purple. Everyone knew she loved all shades of purple. There were purple armchairs, one of which sat by the escritoire in the entry way (Aunt Mimi had an escritoire), and was reserved for her little dog, Skippy. Our dogs were not allowed on the furniture.
One night when I was about five I was in the living room alone for some reason. We were not allowed in the living room. The table lamps' muted light angled onto polished end tables: a purple glass ashtray the size of a dinner plate and a smooth silver cigarette box on one; on another a small black bird made of stone, and a book with a plain dark leather cover closed on a white ribbon marker, with gold letters on the spine and its pages deckled gold. The grown up sound of ice in small glasses and the murmur of talk floated from the patio. Lavender satin throw pillows on the flowered sofa were propped like notecards, and I picked one up, small, not like a real pillow, with a square black button in its center. It smelled of Aunt Mimi's Topaz perfume. I put it back and it was no longer a neat perfect square of lavender, but seemed crooked in the wrong way. They would know. (I would have to simply say it was not me.) The purple drapes hung in dark folds ceiling to floor, and I stroked my hand down the velvet. Then I took off my T-shirt and laid it carefully on the white carpet, because, after all, one was neat in Aunt Mimi's house, and pulled the drape out and around me, the velvet shivering over my shoulders, my chest, my stomach, my back, until I was behind it completely. The light didn't show through at all, and the smell there, by Uncle Jim's leather chair, was his pipe. The Thomas clock on the sideboard ticked.
A hand reached in and yanked me out by my arm.
My mother: What the hell are you doing?
Most of what I did embarrassed my mother, and I usually ended up ashamed of myself, but not that time, because from behind her came Aunt Mimi's cackling laugh.
Widowed, she moved to a retirement place called Monroe Village down by Princeton, and said, Just put that box of Avon plates there, in that closet, the closet in the tiny apartment, which had white carpeting, and a silver etagere (an etagere, not a shelf) for her purple glass figurines.
I took the lilac-colored box home when she died. I carried it on the plane in my carry-on. I set it in a sad corner of my basement office, which was tiled with lavender and gray tiles, the walls a muted rosy gray. I spent years alone down there writing my first novel, about a little girl whose mother didn't love her.
Finally I had to sell that house, after twenty years. My dog was buried in the back yard under the white dogwood. The lavender star magnolia I'd planted had grown two stories tall. I spent six months selling books, giving winter coats to Goodwill, finding long-lost single earrings. I finally threw away a broken blue teapot that had been a wedding present. (It was still in the box.) And I discovered certain facts of life: empty picture frames breed in the attic, while flower vases prefer linen closets.
I packed up my basement office last. I wrapped the lilac-colored box of plates in a purple wool shawl I wore when I was the flower-cart girl outside Lippman's Dept Store downtown. I packed it in a bigger box along with a small oil painting of a rose from a studio which has been a wine bar, a shoe store and a real estate office since the artist there, who was my secret lover once upon a time, ran away one night and burned all his other oil paintings on the beach.
My husband, watching my life turn into neat stacks of boxes, said, "I can't believe you're moving those plates, but I guess you couldn't sell them, who would want them," and I said, "Fuck you," for the only time in twenty-nine years of marriage.
NIKKI SCHULAK writes and performs comedy about bodies and relationships. Her work has been published in numerous journals and websites, most recently at Full Grown People. Her essay “On Not Seeing Whales” (Bellevue Literary Review) was chosen as a Notable Selection in Best American Essays 2013. Over the years, she has taken many classes at the Attic (from Marc Acito, David Biespiel, Merridawn Duckler, Martha Geis, Karen Karbo and Elizabeth Rusch). She currently writes at The Pinewood Table with Joanna Rose and Stevan Allred. Nikki's latest tattoo is an ampersand because she wants to have her cake and eat it, too.
In the late eighties – this was many years before I’d ever considered taking Prozac – I spent an academic year in England. I had gotten fit, and very slim, because I was rowing crew. In the spring, when the final trimester ended, I went to Paris to hang out with my best friend, Penny. She’d done the alternative program our college offered, the one where instead of taking classes, you just go to France and get matched with a French lover. It was a great year for her. She still has the accent.
But when I went to Paris to be with Penny, and her lover, I was only there for two weeks when I broke down in tears and called my mother, who heard the panic in my voice and told me to come home. The problem was, of course, I could not stop eating. I just couldn’t stop. Everything tasted so good after a year in England, the croissants and the baguettes and the cheese, and I … I couldn’t stop. By the time I packed up, the only piece of clothing that still fit was a loose Laura Ashley jumper.
Recently, I heard an interview on public radio with a woman who had a new book called, “How to Talk to Your Clutter.” You start with your clothes. You take each item out of your closet and ask it, “Do you bring me joy?” My friend Alessandra the Yoga Teacher said, “Nikki, don’t be silly, joy comes from within.” And this is so true … when you are thin.
After having a heart to heart with all my clothes, I ended up keeping only a few black dresses, my Spanx, and my flannel nightgowns. And then, since the conversations with my clothes had gone so well, I decided to have a similar conversation with my pounds. I called a meeting and I said, “Listen up. We’re going to live more simply. We’re going to walk more, and drink less, and we’re going to eat kale salad. Together we’re going to be the New Nikki.”
Some of the pounds, the newish ones, the ones who hadn’t been around that long and didn’t know me that well, looked nervous. The old pounds rolled their eyes and laughed, the really old pounds just kept on playing Candy Crush. They didn’t even look up.
One of the biggest reasons I went on Prozac was to pull myself together for a family trip we took three years ago. It was a heritage tour for my kids; we travelled to Vietnam with other adoptive families to make cultural connections, and also to meet my son’s entire extended birth family.
I was pretty depressed back then, and also, I had always been a high-maintenance traveler. I struggled with irrational fears about death, and missed connections. So I started on Prozac and the first thing that happened, surprisingly, was that I lost a lot of weight. And then, in quick succession, I dyed the grey out of my hair, I started wearing thongs instead of briefs, and – I found this really awesome pair of pants.
The packet of information from the travel agency stated, “When engaging in adoption travel in a developing country, remember, this is not a fashion contest.” So I’d gone shopping at the Columbia Sportswear Outlet and I found this pair of pants that looked amazing on me, they were lightweight and quick-drying with built-in InsectBlockerTM and they were 65% off the marked price, and they made my ass look like a heart – so much like a heart that I bought two pairs. And I went to Vietnam equipped with my great pants, and my Prozac, and the anti-malarial medications, and Benadryl for my kids, and Ambien for me, and of course, a large bottle of fiber supplement capsules.
That first day when we all met in the hotel lobby in Ho Chi Minh City, it was very emotional as we began to bond with all these families, and met everybody’s children, and I looked so casually stylish.
Those pants are one of the articles of clothing that I talked to recently.
“Do you bring me joy?” I asked them.
“We used to bring you a lot of joy,” they said.
“Yeah,” I said. “When you fit.”
“And whose problem is that?” they asked snidely.
I held up the bag that was going to Goodwill for the pants to see. Then they changed their tune.
“Hey,” they pleaded. “We have a history. Doesn’t that count?”
“No,” I said. “Not in the new regime.”
Right after I started the Prozac, and before going to Vietnam, I planned a family camping trip – thinking it would be the perfect test to see if I was on the right dose – because I enjoy camping about as much as cleaning the grout in my shower. I’d done some research and found this place on the Olympic Peninsula that offered a site where the tent is already set up, and the fire is ready to light, and there’s a bathroom in the house – because the campsite is really just in the backyard of this nice Bed and Breakfast.
This might sound suspiciously like glamping, but it wasn’t, and this is why – after the campfire and the s’mores we snuggled up in our sleeping bags in our cozy tent and turned off the flashlights. My son said, “It smells like cat pee in here.” And I immediately contradicted him. “No. No it doesn’t,” I said. But it did. It smelled like cat pee.
Now, I have made a lot of animal mistakes in my life, like when I brought the second parrot home to keep the first parrot company – that was a big mistake. At the time of the campout, we had a cat at home that peed on everything. This cat peed on the heating registers, and in the kitchen sink. We took her to a naturopathic vet, and then to a real vet, and then to a cat behaviorist and then to a cat psychic. Nothing worked.
That night in the tent, when my kids were begging me to move us into the Bed and Breakfast, and my husband was snoring, I had an epiphany: I had to find a new home for the cat, even though it was my daughter’s cat, and she loved that cat, and that cat slept with her every night. And that was the actual moment I knew I was on the right dose and ready to go to Vietnam.
After I posted an ad on Craigslist in the “My cat pees on things do you want her?” section and we found her a nice home in the country, I replaced the heat registers, and got rid of most of the rugs and furniture she’d peed on, except this one brown leather couch because it was the couch my father died on. This was almost 20 years ago, but you know how it goes with sentimental attachment.
I am able to do things on Prozac that I couldn’t do before like: The Naked Bike Ride, and when I visited Martha’s Vineyard I jumped off a bridge into shark-infested waters, and when I quit the PTA. Prozac gives me clarity and courage. It gave me the boost I needed to have an affair, and the gall to come out to my husband about it. When I told Penny, she said (in her little French accent), “You cannot do that! An affair is … well, I guess an affair is okay. But one does not tell her husband!”
But I did tell him. I said, “Honey, I love you, and I’m having an affair. I’ve never been happier, I don’t want to stop, and I don’t want a divorce. I think you should find a girlfriend.”
So after a while, he did.
And now we have what most of our friends, and our therapists, and a few of our relatives call “a high-functioning open marriage.” We’d had a normal marriage before – full of love, and cluttered with frustrations.
My husband and I have been together for 22 years. We are presently having the best sex of our lives. Just not with each other.
I celebrated the changes in my life by getting a tattoo on my wrist. It’s the chemical formula for Prozac – actually, it’s the generic equivalent, because my insurance doesn’t cover name brands. “It’s so permanent,” my sister said. “What if the honeymoon ends? What if the Prozac stops working and you’re stuck with the tattoo?”
The guy who gave me this tattoo said, “Tattoos aren’t permanent – they only last as long as a human life.”
When the tattoo was still scabby, the cashier at Trader Joe’s asked me about it and when I told him what it was, he gave me a bouquet of flowers. At parent teacher conferences, the chemistry teacher asked me if I was a chemist, and I told her no – and then we got into one of those interesting conversations about depression that I never used to have with strangers. And when I took my daughter in to have her impacted wisdom teeth pulled, the oral surgeon saw my tattoo and got super excited. He told me that he was part of a group of oral surgeons who all take pictures of their patients’ tattoos and then they get together once a month and share.
I sat down on the brown leather couch. “We need to talk,” I said, squeezing the armrest.
“I know,” said the couch. “I’ve been waiting.”
We were quiet together.
“Your father died on me,” it said kindly, “and I know you spent some money refurbishing me .. after the cat.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Try $2500.”
“Whoa,” the couch said.
I sighed and lay back.
“Listen,” said the couch. “There’s not necessarily a positive correlation between the sentimental attachment you feel for an object, and the joy it brings you. This is a mistake a lot of people make.”
“Have you been reading that clutter book?” I asked.
“I brought your father joy,” the couch said, “and he wasn’t even on Prozac.”
“Of course, that was when you smelled like leather.”
When my husband saw me talking to the couch, he said, “Alright, Nikki, it’s time. Call someone to take it to the dump.” And I said, “No, I’ll put it on Craigslist in the “My father died on it do you want it?” section.”
I had a friend who tried to sell his bed on Craigslist and no one was interested. Then he changed the ad to explain that he and his wife had been having fertility problems, and after they got this bed, boom, boom, boom they conceived 3 children. Just like that, the bed sold for more than the asking price.
The brown couch went in less than an hour.
Everybody loves a story.
Linnea Wortham Harper writes poems from McKinney Slough on the Oregon Coast, where she is also an innkeeper, gardener, bird-watcher, and occasional kayaker. Before she was a poet, she was a social worker, and before she was a social worker, she was a poet. Her greatest literary achievement until now was introducing W.H. Auden to the poetry of A.A. Milne when she was five. She is active in Waldport’s Tuesday Writers, where she unapologetically annoys fellow writers by referring to herself in the third person as the Slough’s Who Poet Laureate.
Style Sheet for match.com
Linnea Wortham Harper
How much do you want to know?
I have lived on snark and fumes
so long my ferrous nature
ignites with a single spark
and a true arrow flies.
These are ancient methods.
Words fling a mighty fire.
The wounded are seared,
weary of showing up early,
and dead ahead of schedule.
These days the damaged
are often saved, grateful for
scars, those numb pink erasers
marking the portals
of our deliverance.
I am seeking something whole
to make of this wreckage and ash.
I want a cat for the hearth
and a winter garden.
I want root soup.
I should tell you now
only some of this is true.
Even so, perhaps
I could come to love you.
Tricia Knoll is a Portland poet who is grateful to the Attic and David Biespiel for the Atheneum program and the Poetry Workshop. Her poetry now appears in more than 100 journals and anthologies. Her chapbook Urban Wild focuses on human interactions with wildlife in urban habitat. Ocean's Laughter (2016) combines lyric and eco-poetry to view change over time in a small Oregon north coast town, Manzanita. Website: triciaknoll.com
What I’m Famous For
I’m famous for pie dough,
light rolled at the edge.
Peach, apple, and the mincemeat
my brother dutifully eats
because I say it is his favorite.
I’m famous for certainties
about who does not know what for, when
or which channel the stream will choose
after the next flood. I can point a direction
so squarely one way that others nod
rather than go rounds to disagree with me.
I can outlast anyone on a hula hoop.
I’m famous for sending postcards.
I write on the back of the images the world
offers, a panorama down the Columbia River Gorge
or the lithograph of a girl fleeing a courtroom crowd
to net a butterfly before it scoots out an open window.
Who else sends handwritten snippets of poems
to the man who tiptoes into my yard to steal a ripe tomato,
or the naturalist who wrote an obit for a wolf named Romeo?
I say I keep a clean house; what I mean is that my garden
has no weeds, nothing invasive choking out the good will of foamflower.
I do not count clots of dog hair that catch on the corner of the tansu,
or the sheets that have gone a week or two too long since washing.
I mean pure and simply that my clean house is a garden
I invite you into. Curl through my paths, relish moss on recycled bricks,
wonder why no bat has moved into the bat house. I offer rose verbena tea.
I am famous for being too serious,
which means gullible when you live with jokers
who make goofy puns or tell hoodwinking stories and pull a straight face
as if sincerity and honesty live on one weighted side of a duplicitous coin.
I have written my elegy. I encourage you to do the same.
There is no knowing what people will say
if you don’t say it first.
Gail Lehrman was born and raised in New York City, where she studied English Literature and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. In addition to writing, she studied acting and singing, becoming a founding member of a successful off-off-Broadway theater collective that produced original works of comedy and drama. After teaching for several years, Gail did a professional 180, becoming a technical writer and computer programmer. In 1997 Gail moved with her family to Portland, where she discovered the beauties of the Columbia River Gorge and the virtues of fleece. Gail is honored here for her short story, "Encounters 1: Jose."
ENCOUNTERS 1: JOSE
“An actor’s instrument is his heart. He must be unafraid to open himself up to his own strongest feelings.”
Jose was standing at the far end of a huge, sunlit rehearsal loft in upper Manhattan. The room was filled with hopefuls. It was the first meeting of a new theater lab that Jose was organizing. He was to be the artistic director. My friend Serafina brought me. She had met Jose at a party and he suggested she join. She insisted that I should come along with her.
“He’s brilliant,” she gushed. “I can just feel it.”
I was hesitant to go uninvited, but Jose was welcoming. He hugged Serafina, and took my hand in both of his, saying that, if Serafina recommended me, he was sure I’d fit in.
I’d been attending acting classes for a few years now. I knew I was no great talent but I hoped that, if I studied hard, I could learn enough to hook into the off-off Broadway world, or maybe join a high-class theater group. I’d hit all the standard starting points: HB Studios, Playwright’s Horizons, even a Meisner class. They’d been thrilling. But I was ready to move to the next level.
“An actor uses his own experience to move into his character,” Jose say was saying. “You cannot portray an emotion that you can’t find within yourself. If it is not real to you, it will not be real to your audience. Your job, as an actor, is to delve into the deepest part of your being. My job, as your teacher, is to guide you to your most profound self.”
People were listening in rapt attention. The young woman next to me was writing down every word verbatim.
Jose was in his late fifties, tall and handsome. He wore a fitted, black leather jacket over his tee shirt and jeans over brown boots. His head was shaven bald and waxed to a shine.
“You must be fearless in your vulnerability. I know this can be frightening, but you must open your most tender spots. Trust me to have a hand at your back. I will not let you fall. I have guided many young actors like you on such a journey. Trust me to sustain you.”
Suddenly a woman from far in the back shouted, “Hey, do you know how to say fuck you in California?”
All eyes shot to her as she stood. She was tall, stick thin, dressed in black. She panned the room, smiling.
“Do you know how to say fuck you in California?”
Her eyes shot directly to Jose and her jaw set hard. “Trust me.”
Then she shouldered her large black purse and, heels click-clacking on the wood floor, she was out the door.
Jose’s face turned a livid crimson. He ran to the door and hauled it open.
“Marlene!” Jose shouted down the stairs. “Marlene! What the fuck do you think you’re doing? You get your ass back here! You don’t do this to me! Not to me!”
He paused, waiting to hear the sound of her return. It didn’t come. He slammed the door and swiveled to face the class.
“You think you know what’s going on, don’t you?” he snarled. “What the hell do you know? You can’t begin to imagine what just happened here. “
He glared at us, shoulders hunched, fists clenched.
“Do you think I can be demeaned by some snarky ex-lover? Do you think this project can be high jacked by a stupid, no talent bitch?”
He was practically frothing at the mouth.
“I offered her a journey into the bottomless pit of human feelings. But she was too cowardly to follow. She’ll never be anything but a third rate extra on some television sound stage.“
He turned his back on us and slammed his fist into the wall. No one moved. You could hear the molecules hanging in the air.
A minute passed. Then two. Then three. We watched Jose’s shoulder drop gradually back into place. His breathing settled. His fists unclenched. He pressed both palms against the wall. Then he turned to face us.
“Scene!” he said, and smiled, throwing his hands in the air.
It was as if the whole room drew in one breath. People looked around at each other and then back to Jose.
He continued to smile. “That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we mean by commitment to an emotion. Work with me and that is what you will be able to do when you are done with this lab.”
The ice in the room melted. Everyone twittered as people shuffled their positions, moving around in their seats. There was a hint of laughter. One or two people even clapped.
“Wasn’t that amazing?” Serafina whispered.
I hesitated. “Yeah, one way or another.”
You learn to be skeptical fast in New York. There was something in the way he had greeted us at the door, massaging Serafina‘s shoulder as he hugged her, something in his heat and the extra beat he took when he shook my hand. I was eager. I was hungry to work. But I never went back to his lab.
Joseph W. Patterson resides in a shack, on the haunted plains of Kansas, with a dog that bites people. He enjoys the heat, moon flowers, ferrets, and his exclusive writing club. His works can be found at MicroHorror, Lurid Lit, Psycopomp, The New Flesh, and 9 Tales From Elsewhere. Also in print with In fabula-Divnos, Reflux, Pill Hill Press Daily Frights, and Dark Gothic Magazine. Join him on twitter @JosephWPatterso, and follow him to the Perimeter. Joe is honored here for his short story, "Kitty Meow Meow."
KITTY MEOW MEOW
Joseph W. Patterson
Kitty Meow Meow lay upon the window sill dreaming of hot sands, and even hotter suns. She was fine with this, even though the heat was a tad bit uncomfortable, she felt at home in this place. A dust devil whipped up in front of her. Twisting, turning, flinging particles of sand in her direction. She watched the fine grains land all around her, and a few struck her in the face. It was a minor annoyance, one she was willing to tolerate, because she was content in the sand, but then it began to wail. And it blew her helplessly into the unknown.
Kitty Meow Meow awoke on the cool hardwood floor, and realized that the wailing dust devil of her dream, was nothing more than the crying baby in her man-servant’s room. This had to be dealt with. She strolled into his room, jumped upon his chest, and kneaded him awake. He yawned, stroked Kitty Meow Meow, picked her up and placed her on his mate. While he attended to the baby, his mate awoke, sneezed, and knocked Kitty Meow Meow to the floor.
This was a regular occurrence, the mate sneezing and knocking Kitty Meow Meow to the floor. Rather it be the table, a chair, and even her man-servant, his mate would sneeze and knock her to the floor. She knew his mate did not like her, but that didn’t concern Kitty Meow Meow, because she didn’t like her either. Given the chance, Kitty Meow Meow would take the mate’s breath and blow it to the sands, but she knew her man-servant was fond of her. She cleaned herself as her man-servant and his mate dressed themselves and the baby, arguing the whole time. The man-servant’s mate pointed at Kitty Meow Meow, and left the room. When they finally left the house, Kitty Meow Meow rolled all over the mate’s pillow and checked the water bowl. The water hadn’t been changed. This disappointed her, so she went out of the cat door to drink out of the bird feeder.
The day was good, and so was the hunting. Kitty Meow Meow killed three mice, two birds, a rabbit, and a lizard. She killed all of her victims in the mate’s flower garden. It was a nice place to lay in waiting, concealed amongst the tall, numerous flowers. Nothing could see her when she was crouched in the garden, and everything that entered became a victim. The lizard she thought was dead, moved from beneath her paw, so she gave it a bite to the neck. She thought about giving it to her man-servant for his services, but she knew his mate would toss it in the alley if she discovered it. Kitty Meow Meow pondered the situation between her and her man-servant’s mate as the sun moved across the sky, casting shadows over her and the flower garden. This was the mate’s garden, she hunted in. The more she thought about it, the more it disturbed her that the mate had a hand in her hunting. She didn’t need this garden to hunt, because she was the ultimate predator. She could hunt and kill anywhere, so she bit the tops off the flowers and shit in the fine, soft soil.
Kitty Meow Meow stepped through the cat door with the lizard in her mouth. She decided that her man-servant did deserve a treat every now and then, even though he’d been lacking in his duties. As she walked to the bedroom, it dawned on her that ever since his mate moved into the house, his attention toward Kitty Meow Meow waned. It had gotten worse after they brought the baby home. She didn’t mind though. She’d much rather spend time alone napping on the window sill, or hunting outside. It did irritate her that her man-servant was serving others. She changed her mind about giving him a gift, so she left it under the bed. Then she went to the closet, and pissed in the mate’s slipper.
The evening nap was difficult for Kitty Meow Meow because of the yelling. Doors slammed, things were broken, and the baby cried. The mate came towards her, stomping, crying, face contorted into hate. She picked up Kitty Meow Meow by her neck and tail, heading for the door, sneezing uncontrollably. Kitty Meow Meow warned her with a hiss, and when she wasn’t released, she gave her a scratch on the wrist. The mate screamed and dropped her. Kitty Meow Meow landed on her feet, arched her back, and hissed again. The mate attempted to kick her, but she was far too slow. Kitty Meow Meow easily avoided her foot, and countered with two quick swipes of her paw. The mate had had enough. She gathered a few things, crying all the while, and left out of the front door. Kitty Meow Meow watched her leave from the window sill, as she cleaned herself. She gave her paws a little extra attention. They were bloody.
The mate didn’t come back that night, the baby slept content in its crib, and the man-servant drank and broke more things. Kitty Meow Meow avoided him while he was in his rage. And when his fury mellowed, and his cries changed into sobs, Kitty Meow Meow rubbed against his leg until he picked her up and embraced her. She allowed this because she was tired and needed to sleep. They fell asleep together and the moon watched over them through the window.
Kitty Meow Meow awoke to the sound of the baby. It wasn’t crying, but it was about to. She could tell. She looked at her man-servant and he did not stir. She tried kneading him awake, but his slumber was deep. The baby let out a wail, quieted, and wailed again. Kitty Meow Meow desperately needed to sleep, so she jumped into the baby’s crib, and sat upon its chest. She glared at the baby, and the baby began to cry. Kitty Meow Meow started taking its breath. Slowly at first, and when it quieted, and its face started turning blue, Kitty Meow Meow took everything its little lungs had to offer. Now that it was finally quiet, Kitty Meow Meow slept next to her man-servant, and dreamt of hot sands, and even hotter suns.
Teri Rowe graduated from PSU in 2011 with a degree in Arts and Letters and a minor in Writing. She submitted a personal essay and was a recipient of the Marilyn Folkestad Undergraduate Scholarship and the 46th Annual Kellogg Award for the PSU Department of English in 2010. She loves memoir and non-fiction and is currently working on a piece about her large, colorful and screwy family. She is honored here for her non-fiction piece, "Hold On."
When I was six years old I was taken from the flat dusty town of my birth and the care of my parents for the first time. Even a half century later details of that trip are so etched in my mind that when I write about them I feel as though I’m right there in my aunt’s 1960 Volkswagen bus. My older brothers, George and Robert are in front with her and I am behind them. My younger brother, John is asleep in back. I look over my shoulder longing to trade places with him because Aunt Catherine’s two German Shepards are at my feet panting and getting the legs of my jeans wet. It’s late afternoon as we turn off the highway onto a dirt road.
The mountain is close on our right and on the left, a stream runs beside the road, winding through the pine and aspen. I am enthralled by the stream and the trees and the crisp fragrant air. As we near the bottom of a slope, we stop. I look out the front and see a puddle where the road and stream meet. My aunt says she has to go fast or she’ll get stuck. I hold onto the seat in front as we cross and then the VW begins climbing, twisting one way and then another maneuvering around sharp curves. The warm milk I drank earlier threatens to come back up.
When we reach level ground Aunt Catherine pulls over, “Let’s get some watercress for dinner.” she says and then adds, “Don’t wake John.” I have trouble opening the sliding door so I crawl over the front seat to get out. Everyone is already crouching over the stream by the time I run up. “Here, taste this,” my aunt says, handing me a green leaf. “It’s full of vitamins and chlorophyll.” As I reach for the watercress my bare leg brushes against another plant and I cry out. George examines the plant responsible and decides it’s ant weed. Robert chirps, “Tonight it’ll feel like ants are crawling all over you.” My aunt puts the watercress in her coat pocket and after looking at the red dots on my calf, reaches into the stream for a little mud. “This should help,” she says spreading it on me. “The soil around here has healing properties.”
We hear the car horn and return to find John sitting in front. Aunt Catherine puts him next to me and we drive a few minutes more before George yells, “There it is!” We turn onto a primitive road and stop to fill holes with rocks before we can go any further. After a few hundred feet, we are in a gravel driveway bordered on one side by aspen trees. Their heart shaped leaves tinkle nervously against one another at the slightest waft of air. Names and initials stand out in black relief on their pale skin. At their feet dry leaves crackle when we open our doors and stand up. The mountain air feels good so we linger in the yard a while before we open the cabin door and enter a small room with bunk beds. The odor of mice makes me wince and wrinkle my nose.
George and Robert begin arguing over the ownership of little green army men on the bottom bunk so I go into the next room where wobbly chairs surround a table. One cupboard is full of canned goods and the other contains chipped plates and glasses covered with dish towels to keep the mice off. A dim, hazy mirror hangs above the sink and resting on a shelf below it are hairpins and a tube of red lipstick. My aunt kneels next to a black cast iron stove and starts placing logs in it. She hasn’t removed the canvas hat her dark curly hair is tucked into. Before long she has a fire going and throws a thick steak into a pan. The sounds and aromas of burning wood and cooking meat fill the room.
Aunt Catherine instructs us to set the table and then plops the seared piece of meat onto a plate. It is swimming in bloody juice and when she cuts it into five portions it doesn’t look cooked at all. John says he can’t eat it. “You lose most of the nutrients if you cook it too long,” she says. I sit down at the table with the others while my aunt goes out to the car and brings in the milk she bought at a farm along the way. She fills five glasses. It’s warm and smells funny. I’m accustomed to eating things I don’t like because the nuns at school make us ‘clean our plates’ but this meal seems insurmountable.
I manage to gag some of it down and then take my plate to the sink and tell my aunt I have to go to the bathroom. She says, “I want to see your bowel movement before you flush. That goes for all of you. When you use the toilet here, call me before you flush. If you don’t have a B.M. you can choose whether you get suppositories or an enema.” When John asks what a “nemena” is the older boys snicker. Later while I wait for my aunt to come in the bathroom and approve the contents of the toilet I hear her telling the boys to sit down to pee. “I don’t want you holding your organ in your hand.” she says.
At bedtime, John and I follow Aunt Catherine to her room. The twin beds are piled with colorful quilts and wool blankets. She opens a cedar chest and pulls out sheets for the bunk beds and leaves the room. While she’s gone I look at old army jackets and khaki trousers hanging from nails on the wall and the kerosene lamp swinging from a piece of baling wire. John’s freckled face glows in its amber light. When I stand on the bed and touch the lamp it makes our shadows dance and we giggle as we put our pajamas on. During the night I wake to sounds of John’s crying. In the dim light I see Aunt Catherine rub his face in a dark spot on the bed. She says, “I’ll train you not to do that again.”
My older brothers and I explore the yard around the cabin the next morning. John is inside with our aunt having an enema. I draw my finger along black etchings on the aspen and find our two older sisters’ initials. George looks to see that Robert is playing fetch with the dogs and then leads me to an old gold mine. It looks like a hill with a barn door on it. I step forward but he yanks me back. “It could cave in. She’ll spank you if you go near it.” Just then we hear the rustling of footsteps in the leaves and turn to see Robert coming toward us. We race back to the cabin and don’t answer when he asks what we were doing.
After lunch we hike to the stream carrying two heavy pie tins. As we walk, the dogs constantly run ahead, drink and then circle back to check on us. Once there, we take turns scooping up black dirt and water and then swirling it around to see if there’s any gold. Robert finds a piece of something shiny but it’s only mica. When we get tired of ‘panning for gold’ our aunt pulls four cans of beer out of her backpack. “Beer is loaded with B vitamins and digestive enzymes,” she says. John and I take turns drinking out of a can while making sour faces. When we’re finished she pulls a pistol out of her backpack and George and Robert take turns shooting the beer cans off logs. I try it once and then give the gun back with shaking hands, my ears ringing. The sun is going behind the mountain when they run out of bullets and we head back to the cabin. My aunt carries John who has fallen asleep. When I stop to catch my breath for the third time she tells me I’m puny and should eat more meat.
The next afternoon I cover the dishes with towels again. George and Robert spoon ashes from the stove into a coffee can and dump it behind the cabin. We put the dogs in the back of the VW and tie our luggage to the roof. Once on the paved highway, I doze off and then wake to my aunt’s frantic announcement that we are running out of gas. She points to the gas gauge and it’s on empty. She instructs us to pray the rosary out loud so God will take pity and help us reach the next town. John is standing next to me and we are clutching the seats in front, our eyes wide. We pray fervently almost shouting, “Hail Mary full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Bless-ed art thou among women and bless-ed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” After several repetitions of this prayer, I notice George’s lips are moving but he doesn’t seem very engaged. I want to hear if he’s really praying so I shove John out of the way to get closer. Just then the engine starts coughing and sputtering. We’re coasting to a stop. I pray harder as frightening images of walking along the highway in the dark fill my mind. My aunt reaches down and miraculously the engine comes back to life. George rolls his eyes and leans toward me, “There are two gas tanks,” he whispers, “and she just switched to the full one.
When we enter our town, instead of taking us home my aunt heads south east toward her place. George starts to object but is silenced by a stony look. Aunt Catherine tells us to wait in her living room while she makes a phone call. “Can you believe it?” she says, coming out. “We need to go back to the mountains. I forgot something.” Immediately and in unison my brothers and I begin sobbing. I drop to the floor next to John and can’t control the strange sounds I’m making. My aunt says, “You kids are weak. You have no stamina!” We get back into the car and she doesn’t speak again until we are in our driveway and my dad comes out of the house. She asks him if Virginia (my mom) is feeling any better.
Over the years, as my mother’s health disintegrated, there were many trips with my aunt and one or more of my eight siblings. Once we travelled by train to Mexico City. My aunt said we would stay at Our Lady of Guadalupe convent. As we sat in the glass observation car at the rear of the train marveling over a splendid view she told me I was to share a twin bed with her that night and that tarantulas might come out of cracks in the walls and crawl on us. We also travelled to Rome, Venice and Budapest but mostly we returned to the mountains and after each trip I was always eager to get home, away from her and her constant dialogue about the workings and shortcomings of my body.
This first trip to my aunt’s cabin was pivotal to my formative years. I discovered there were places on Earth very different from the dry plains of Eastern New Mexico. Amid mountain streams and meadows and trees I experienced the kind of peace and wonder that only exquisite nature can evoke but it was accompanied by a deep anxiety. I longed to twirl in the sun, to laugh and run and play but something told me it wasn’t safe to attract attention. Instead I began withdrawing and warily protecting myself.