Masi-America

Pig Park” by Claudia Guadalupe Martinez

 

“I thought myself into a circle-or maybe a knot–like a dog chasing it’s tail. I arrived at an impasse. Like I said, even if things didn’t work out, at the very least my friends and I would get to spend our last summer together. It was something like my last meal or–since I’m the Cinderella of crumbs–having a fairy godmother grant me one last wish.”

Claudia Guadalupe Martinez, of El Paso, Texas, has written a lovely summer story about the hardships of a failing town just outside of Chicago, and the families trying to keep it alive after its economic downturn.

After the lard company left Pig Park, many of its inhabitants left with it. The high school shut down, businesses lost customers, and everything seemed to be going wrong until the last man making money offered up a way to save Pig Park. “A pyramid is little more than simple geometry. Two triangles here, two triangles there. I can lead the construction project,” he said and waved his hand. The grown-ups huddled together. Colonel Franco had hit on it with fewer words: a crazy plan had to be better than no plan at all. They were desperate enough that they decided every girl and boy would report to the park to help Colonel Franco with the construction.”

If you’re thinking that manual labor is not the way you’d want to spend your summer, you wouldn’t be alone. But for Martinez’s protagonist, Masi Burciaga, it was the perfect excuse to get out of her family’s bakery and into the sun with her best friend, Josephina. Unfortunately for Masi, Colonel Franco moves all the girls inside temporarily to write letters telling government officials all about Pig Park and La Gran Piramide. Masi, unsure of how to ask complete strangers for their attention and money, writes dozens of drafts before deciding on the two brilliant sentences that she thinks will save her town:

“So a bunch of us want to hang out, build a pyramid in the middle of Pig Park and save our neighborhood. Are you in?”

Pig Park is an incredibly relatable story that deals with everything from boys to divorce, baking to disease, in the eyes of a fifteen-year- old girl one summer where everyone seems to be getting the short end of the stick. Martinez does a fantastic job bringing up all of the beautiful, tiny, everyday details like burnt toast and melted chapstick to relieve the reader of the intense topic of a failing economy and its stressful repercussions within individual families. Pig Park is a great read with a great message about appreciation and rolling with the punches.

“Are we going to be okay?” I looked at my dad. My dad couldn’t give a simple answer to my question because he was hopeful. He was willing to gamble, but it wasn’t just up to him or my mom or me. Our entire neighborhood was on the line. The Nowaks, the Sanchezes, the Fernandezes, the Sustaitas, the Wongs and everyone else had as much of a stake in this. One thing was clear. This wasn’t MesoAmerica. MasaAmerica maybe. Or even MasiAmerica.”

 

By Kathleen Johnson

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An Interview with Samantha Dunn

Question: What is your main goal or intention you hope to achieve through your writing?

Samantha Dunn: One, to make a living. I’ve survived by the pen. There’s a certain amount of professionalism I have to maintain to keep a roof over my head. But really, that’s a complicated answer for me. I think it can be broken down to wanting to connect with someone other than myself, to break the illusion that I exist solely on my own. There’s an intense loneliness everyone walks around with, but for writers it’s exacerbated. Truly, there’s a sense of putting that voice out into the universe and seeing if it hits anyone, to see if there’s something there. And also to witness others. We are unique entities and we exist in a certain place in time. How many worlds exist in a person? One type of mixture might have happened in 1972 and then again today, but they do not have the same experiences. Our lives are these incredible spinning orbits. What is real, for me, is to witness experience.

Q: How do you feel you have been successful in achieving this goal in your writing?

S: Most days, I do not feel that successful. Like every writer I battle the Who cares? Oh my God what am I doing with my life reaction. I know that, having done this for a while, people have read my works. I have been the recipient of many letters and communications that say to me, very directly, “I’ve read this, and it mattered to me. Thank you for writing this.” Or sometimes they will say, “You suck. You are so stupid. I can’t believe you still breathe air. Who publishes you?” Even that is engagement. If I can piss you off that much,  it means I’ve provoked something. Yay. We’re alive, we’re in discussion. We’re in communication. My big claim to fame, kind of jokingly, is there’s a store called “Title 9,” (which is all women’s sports and fitness wear up in Seattle), and at one point,  they had one of my quotes from my book on their bag. And I thought “Wow! Somebody’s reading.” It is funny. As writers, we are not glamorous. The paparazzi is not stalking us. I was at a faculty dinner one time for the New York State Summer Writers’ Institute, and we, the entire faculty, were walking down the street. In this group was Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Ondaatje, Russell Banks, William Kennedy. Basically, what I am telling is that I was the slacker in this group; I was the one who had not won the Pulitzer Prize. We were walking down the street and no one was even looking sideways at us. And I thought, “Wow, in Hollywood, if the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer were walking down the street everyone would be like ‘Woah!’” But, some of the most exalted writers in American literature were walking down the street unperturbed. That’s it. That’s the life of a writer. We are alone a lot. Yet, somehow, the message in the bottle does reach another shore. I don’t know how, but it does.

Q: How did it affect you (or your writing) when people would respond to your work, positively or negatively?

S: Great question. Luckily, a great many of my friends are truly famous. For good or bad, that has not occurred to me yet, even with the amount of attention I have received. I was in People Magazine once. The book was panned. It had my picture and then a lot of bad stuff was said about me and it really froze me for a while because I thought, “Wow, I’m stupid. People are just gonna make fun of this.” But, then, on the opposite end, I did get those letters that said, “This meant so much to me,” and I thought, “You know what. You just have to talk to your people.” Screw all the others. Fuck all of y’all. Just talk to the people for whom it matters. When I start to get into that mindset of “My writing is about me talking to you,” then I am able to maintain that intimacy with that reader. The more I am able to maintain that intimacy, the more relaxed and productive I am.

Q: Were there any events which prompted you to become a writer?

S: Yes, I can give you a little anecdote. When I was in elementary school I won a Campfire Girls’ National competition. I wrote a poem on what freedom is and I was the 2nd prize winner. I was like “Oh! Writer, this is what it is.” But it’s also a much bigger story than that. My mother was a single mom and always very busy and she loved to read. Culturally, her family was working class Irish. They were all storytellers. If I have to psychoanalyze myself, it was me thinking, ‘How can I get her attention?’ I wanted that validation. Her reading something was profound for me. That had a deep impression. It was the thing we did. We told jokes and stories. It was always very lively in my house.

Q: What inspired you to start teaching?

S: There was no reason for me except to seek human contact. I was living the dream. I didn’t have to get out of my pajamas for shit. Yet, there was no way for me to connect on a regular daily basis. My friend, Les Plesko, a very dear friend and a brilliant novelist, taught at the UCLA Writers’ program. He said “Sam, you should just teach a class. It’ll get you out on Tuesdays.” That was why I did it initially. I had no other reason to be around people. But, I loved it. It is like my religion, my church, giving my life resonance and meaning. God, what privilege is that? To be a part in other writers’ journeys to discover their own voice; that’s an incredible privilege. I love it–I don’t teach for the money, honey [laughs].

Q: What inspires you to write fiction? And what inspires you to write nonfiction?

S: I really do believe they’re different, fiction and nonfiction. The muscles we put in are different. I think for fiction, the stories arrive. Nonfiction, for me, has to be circumscribed by fact. It’s what happened. It’s me making meaning about what happened; insight done beautifully. It is the thing that kind of holds the world together. With fiction, the stories arrive on currents. Out of scenes, physical experience, taken off on their own. I wrote a short story called “The Tortilla Construction Handbook” that ran in a journal called Black Clock. That story arrived with a voice in my head, a young guy kind of talking. He was talking about tortillas. It was like a rant on tortillas! I sat around and waited for more of that to reveal itself. It’s like dreaming. You just wait for it to reveal itself to you. It arrives in a different way. I don’t have much time for fiction, because fiction comes out of silence, which is not the case for me right now.  Memoirs are the most powerful thing we can do for ourselves and others. No safety net. It’s you trying to make meaning out of what’s going on.

Q: Was there an event that prompted you to write your novel, Failing Paris?

S: The anger at a girl in my workshop class who wrote a story romanticizing Paris. It’s not all puppies and Luxembourg! It’s sexism and racism! The most beautiful and yet the most debase. It’s all of these things at once. It exploded from me, This is how it is.

Q: Do you think your writing is empowering for young women, especially your nonfiction article “My Not-So-Bikini-Body”?

S: I hope it is, but you can’t write hoping to inspire. You can just witness your own experience. David Walcott says, “A writer’s job is to state the condition.” Hopefully, you as the reader will find meaning in it for yourself. I can’t hope for a message. I’m just telling you what it is to be like in this body.

Q: Have you ever felt that there is a lack of female representation in famous, frequented literature?

S: Fuck yeah! If you look at most of the award winners, they are guys! Dudes! Hello! Even this year, Kirkus did a list of “The Most Important Books of 2014.” One of them was written by a woman. If I throw a rock, I hit 15 incredible female writers. There’s still a long conversation to be had about where the female writers are. That’s why people like Cheryl Strayed, whose success has been phenomenal with the book Wild, are really important. That’s a book about a woman going into the woods, not because she had a bad romance—I mean, sure, she went through a divorce. But, it was really about the death of her mother and about the incredible grief she suffered. It was her on a journey of transformation, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. It doesn’t terminate with her being swept off her feet by some handsome stranger.  It terminates with her on her own two feet. And the success of that book has been astronomical. I cannot underestimate the importance of that. It is huge. Cheryl’s story hit the vein, but there are amazing stories like this written by women all the time. That’s not to take away stories written by our brothers. It’s not. But, for so many centuries we were not even allowed to write and that still hangs over our heads, culturally and personally.

Q: Who are some female writers that have left their mark upon your work?

S: For better or for worse, Kate Braverman, because she was my first “bad mother.” But, also, when I read Virginia Woolf in college, she kind of blew the top of my head off. I did not know anyone could create a sentence like that. I did not know you could be so intensely personal. Same with Anaïs Nin. I read her, and her sexuality and writing so honestly about what was happening to her, my God! It was an access of freedom that I never knew. Also, Judith Krantz, who was a crass commercial best seller. I read her books when I was fifteen and it was the book, Scruples, a supermarket paperback. But, the heroine was defining her own life and doing her own thing and becoming a millionaire on her own! She was leaving men broken-hearted, she was not being left broken hearted, and I found real power in that. And also, I must say, from college on, Joan Didion has been my Alpha and Omega. I met her once at a reading and I was that geeky girl with fifteen of her books. I had nothing to say when I got up there, and she very politely signed my books while I stood there like a dummy. It was a huge moment for me. She really is the one writer I think I would most like to emulate.

Q: Could you describe your writing process? How do you pace yourself when writing longer pieces and how do you plan them out?

S: Before becoming a mother, I would write everyday.  The morning is the most fruitful for me. I would usually write from about seven o’clock in the morning to around nine o’clock, then throw myself back onto my bed to go to sleep. Then I would get up, write for a couple more hours, and be done for the day. I couldn’t do anything else. So, about four hours of solid writing was the most I could ever get. But then as the projects really start to take shape, really form where you’re almost at the end, it really becomes this all encompassing thing. I would sleep with my laptop, I kid you not. But now, I have a son and a husband. It’s hard. I cannot be precious about my writing at all anymore. I have to write whenever I get the time. Now, if I don’t write between 8:30 and 1:00, it’s just not gonna get done. Because then my son will get home and chaos ensues. There is no space in my brain. There is no space in my life. There is no physical way for me to get to the space I need to. I mean, I have an office that is in a separate building from my house, but it’s still on the property, so they know where to find me, and they do. When I really need to write, I will write in my car.

Q: You discuss intense personal stories in your memoirs and essays. A lot of writers find it difficult to write non-fiction because it is hard to open up about your experiences. Do you have any advice for that dilemma?

S: That’s huge. Because there is this thing of, “Don’t tell.” The rule breaking in the family: you cannot tell. It’s sometimes not explicitly said but you know it. So, I would say don’t force yourself into anything. Just keep writing. Just know, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, it’s stemming from someplace important. If you are crying when you’re writing, it’s important. You have to say to yourself, What the fuck. I don’t care. That’s the space you need to be in, that emotional space.

Q: Did you ever feel a sense of uncomfortability as you were writing?

S: Yeah. A lot. Really uncomfortable. Like, Wow. I’m afraid. I don’t know what people are gonna think about this. When my novel went into Kindle, it went into a whole other audience—before it was just in this literary community with people who had read Sylvia Plath. Then it went into this world where people are like, “I’m vegan and I’m anti-abortion. I can’t read this.” Like, what? Or people would say, “Wow. This is really depressing.” Yes, it is depressing. The hateful reactions were kind of my nightmare when I was writing that book, but now it doesn’t matter to me. People who don’t get it are not my people. Because I know the work matters. I have heard from the people for whom it matters. Not all the people but, I know that it matters to some. More importantly, I know that it mattered to me to express it. It’s not autobiography, but it does describe my experience, my emotional experience, and, more than that, it describes what I know is the emotional experience of other women. And that’s important to have out there. Good, bad, or indifferent. Happy, sad, or whatever you want to call it. I believe it is important.

Q: How do you balance talking about the subject and inputting your own opinions on the subject? Do you ever add in other people’s emotions or opinions?

S: Yes. You have to. A writer’s job is to have empathy. I have to, as much as I find it difficult, find empathy for those people in front of Planned Parenthood protesting. That’s our job as artists. For Failing Paris, I really wanted to get into that complexity of choice. Why couldn’t that woman be a mother? Why couldn’t she be there? I wanted to explore all of that in all the ways I could. That deep sense of mourning. The idea for me is how can I create empathy, no matter where it is in the story.

 

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Curiosity Killed the Coroner

On stage, NELLIE, a dead woman in her early twenties, is lying on an examination table covered, all except for her face, by a white sheet. The sheet acts as a dress, not coming off when she sits up, which she will do in the play. There is a table about 5-10 feet away that mirrors hers. It is empty and the light over it is off. NELLIE is made up to look very dead and cold. She does not appear mutilated; just embalmed. The man standing over her- CALVIN- is a coroner in his early fifties. He looks tired and bored. He is holding a clipboard. Next to him is a tray on wheels that holds his clean dissection tools. There is a spotlight focused on him the whole time. It partially shines on NELLIE and when she is “alive”, she gets her own spotlight. CALVIN’s light does not turn off until the end. CALVIN is looking at the clipboard, walking over to the examination table. He squints his eyes at the name on the clipboard, thinking he recognizes it.

CALVIN
Ellie?

CALVIN looks up at the corpse, scared. He lifts up the sheet, sees the woman, and looks back at the clipboard, relaxing at her face and the name it says.

CALVIN (CONT)
Oh, no. Nellie.

He starts paraphrasing what’s written on the page on his clipboard, shaking his head at what it says. He is reading from behind the table.

CALVIN
Nellie. Hm. (beat) Died from a heroin overdose at only twenty-three. Parties, drugs, sex; you probably thought you had everything. Too bad you died so young.

He leans in to start the autopsy while saying this. NELLIE’s eyes pop open. She sits up on the table as her light turns on, almost as if she has been pretending to be asleep and listening to CALVIN without his knowing. She is energetic and happy. She looks at CALVIN and starts talking while she adjusts to hang her feet off the side of the examination table. As soon as she sits up and starts talking, CALVIN jumps back, stumbling over his tray and letting out a yelp, startled by her charisma and the fact that she’s talking. He raises an eyebrow and his eyes widen when she addresses him by name.

NELLIE
Oh, it’s been loads of fun, Doctor Calvin. (Sitting up) It sucks that you didn’t take the chance to party when you were young. You’re right: the drugs and the sex are awesome. And with crazy friends, it’s even better.

She says this with an almost sly smile. He looks at her, incredulous, and is unable to say anything. NELLIE waits for a response and, when CALVIN is finally able to talk (after 5-10 seconds of silence), he stutters.

CALVIN
Uh- But you’re-

NELLIE smiles, laughing at CALVIN.

NELLIE
Yeah, I know. I’m dead.

CALVIN
(Stuttering) How-?

NELLIE cuts him off. She pretends not to understand what he’s talking about.

NELLIE
How did die? Ha. Let’s just say the heroin was free and leave it at that.

CALVIN
Wha-? No, I mean how are you talking?

She rolls her eyes, speaking as if she’s stating the obvious.

NELLIE
It’s your imagination, Calvin. No living friends, remember? When people get too lonely, they create imaginary friends.

He is confused at first, then offended. He stands up straight again, adjusting to the situation.

CALVIN
Wha- Hey! I have friends!

NELLIE
You do now.

She smiles, laughing at him as he realizes that what she’s saying is true. He looks away, growing more depressed at the realization.

CALVIN
Aside from you, I mean.

NELLIE
I don’t recall any.

CALVIN
Well, I have…

He pauses to think.

CALVIN (CONT)
Oh. I guess you’re right.

NELLIE laughs again. He looks back at her, narrowing his eyes.

CALVIN (CONT)
Well, what about your friends?

NELLIE
What about them?

Crosses around the table to down-stage right.

CALVIN
It’s just that you were saying how great your life was. Why did you give it all up just for some free heroin?

NELLIE
I don’t know. I got crazy. I had a good time! You can’t live your whole life without risk; risk promises excitement.

CALVIN looks at her skeptically.

CALVIN
Don’t be so sure.

NELLIE
Why do you say?

CALVIN does a sort of body scan and looks at his coroner’s report.

CALVIN
Well, it says here you were 23. That’s a pretty young age to die. I’ve avoided high risk practically all my life and my clock’s still tickin’ at 52 years old.

She stands up and walks towards him, stage right. He walks away, stage left.

NELLIE
Okay, sure. So you’re still alive. But it’s not worth it.

NELLIE gets up and approaches CALVIN. He tries to walk behind the table upstage right, but she blocks him. He tries instead to walk downstage but she grabs him.

CALVIN
What do you mean?

NELLIE puts her arm around him, but he rejects it, trying to move away from her. She takes control by moving closer to him and keeping him in place.

NELLIE
Oh, please. I bet you never have any fun. Your life is so boring that you actually had to imagine a friend for some entertainment.

CALVIN
My life is not boring.

NELLIE
Oh? What kinds of things do you do for enjoyment, then?

CALVIN smirks and looks at NELLIE’s torso.

CALVIN
You don’t want to know.

NELLIE shrugs.

NELLIE
I’m curious. Tell me anyways.

CALVIN
If you’re sure…

NELLIE looks at him expectantly.

CALVIN (CONT)
(Slightly ashamed) Alright. Sometimes I reorganize peoples’ organs in order of importance.

NELLIE’s eyes go really wide and she leans back a little bit in shock. She steps back.

NELLIE
You do what?

CALVIN
I told you you didn’t want to know. It’s relaxing, though.

CALVIN goes to the front of the table.

CALVIN
(Reassuringly) And I put them back afterwards. Plus, you’re the corpse in the situation, so I’m pretty normal compared to you.

NELLIE gets defensive, leaning forward.

NELLIE
Hey, you’re talking to me.

CALVIN
(Darkly) Touché.

Angry and pointing a stern finger at CALVIN.

NELLIE
(Approaching CALVIN)You’re fucking weird, man. You need to get a life.

CALVIN
You think it’s so great to live like you did?

NELLIE
Yes!

CALVIN
But it ends so fast!

NELLIE
So? At least I had fun!

CALVIN looks slightly annoyed.

CALVIN
Even if it were better to take the kind of risks you did, what would I do for fun? I’m an old man for god’s sake.

NELLIE sits on the end of the table.

NELLIE
(Laughing) Well, I guess it can be a bit hard to have fun if you’re just hanging around… (looks at him weird) and cutting up… dead people all day, especially since it looks like you’ll be joining them yourself pretty soon.

She smiles at her joke. CALVIN glares at her.

CALVIN
Watch it.

NELLIE
Oh, I don’t know. Don’t just focus on work all the time. It’s depressing lurking around a big pile of bodies 24/7. It’s going to get to you. Hell, it already has! You’re talking to a dead drug-addict. Go out and meet living people. Have fun. Form real relationships with functioning life forms.

She spots the wedding ring he still wears and motions to it with her hand. She becomes more encouraging and hopeful.

NELLIE (CONT)
Oh, or take your wife to dinner or go on a date with her or something.

CALVIN sits on the end of the table with NELLIE, twisting his ring around. He talks quieter.

CALVIN
I can’t do that.

NELLIE
Sure you can. It would be healthy to go out with your family.

CALVIN
Do you have any other suggestions?

NELLIE
If it’s because you’re not on good terms, this could be a chance to make it better. Maybe you’re at work too often or-

CALVIN
(Sparsely) They’re dead.

NELLIE slouches a little more.

NELLIE
(Sadly) Oh.

CALVIN
Three weeks ago. (beat) My two daughters were with my wife, Ellie… (beat)They were on a plane to visit her parents on the West coast. They’re big on holidays. I had to stay for work; it’s always a bit busier around Halloween.

NELLIE cautiously scoots closer to CALVIN and lays a hand on his shoulder.

NELLIE
I’m sorry. I didn’t know.

CALVIN
It’s fine. You’re probably the part of my imagination I kept that detail from.

NELLIE
Yeah…

CALVIN
So, any other recommendations on how a lonely old guy can have fun?

CALVIN gets up and crosses to stage left. He chuckles a little, trying to use humor to cover up his pain. It’s awkward for a few moments.NELLIE is grateful for the change of topic. She responds as if their conversation hasn’t just happened.

NELLIE
(Excitedly) Well, you could try meeting new people. (beat) Go to parties! Maybe you can find a girlfriend or-

CALVIN
You want me to replace my wife? And then die from overdosing with some skank, right? That’s how I’m supposed enjoy life? By screwing it up? I’ve seen tons of people like you, dead and alive. You’re all the same. You’re given a good life and then you waste it. You don’t appreciate the people you have, or you just don’t get close to anyone. My family isn’t something I can replace. Maybe you had disposable friends- an expendable life- but…

She cuts him off.

NELLIE
(Defensively) Hey, I enjoyed my life.

CALVIN
Did you?

NELLIE
Yes, I did!

CALVIN
Well… don’t you miss it?

CALVIN turns away while she’s talking, not wanting to listen to her criticize the way he lives.

NELLIE
That’s the whole point! I lived a life that I could miss. I don’t miss my beating heart; I miss the way I lived while it was still beating. At least my life was worth something to me.

CALVIN snaps his head at her and glares, resenting what she has just said.

CALVIN
What is that supposed to mean?

NELLIE
You don’t have any meaningful relationships anymore, you don’t know anyone, nobody knows you, you haven’t done anything with your life other than dissect people… You’re worthless without your family. There’s no point in living now that they’re gone.

CALVIN
(Quietly angry) Shut up.

NELLIE (CONT)
You don’t make a difference to anyone anymore.

CALVIN
Stop it!

NELLIE
It’s not worth living! You’re better off dead! It’s not worth living!

CALVIN yells at NELLIE, shoving her. As he slams his fist down and yells, NELLIE passes out again, going back to her dead state. He checks her pulse.

CALVIN
You’re wrong!

CALVIN is shaking from anger by this point, but now he’s alone in a silent room with a corpse, where he has time to contemplate what NELLIE has said. He backs away slowly from the table and talks to the audience.

CALVIN
(Slowly) It’s not worth living. (Beat)

CALVIN backs towards the other table, running into it and sitting down. He takes his ring off.

CALVIN
It’s not worth living.

He lays down on the table. Nellie’s light turns off at the same time the light over the table CALVIN is now laying on turns on. Lights out.

END OF PLAY

 

By Hannah Phillips

 

Art by Greg Ballenger

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Sorry

You come from transient men.
Men who join the priesthood without warning
and run away to Florida and sell houses that weren’t theirs
but you come from women who are solid.
Women who fold their arms and
stare at you like Washington stared at the Delaware
like you are just something to be crossed
women you don’t talk back to
who stop at the grocery store after a funeral
who sew their own clothes and
keep leftovers for months to be stewed on some anxious winter evening
Women who tell you who you are
leaving you with the feeling
that you did something wrong.
All the recanting in the world
could not repent for the sin
of trying to correct them.
You are starting to look like your mother
Your features are carved by the same hand
Your nose is the same bridge; your eyes are the same river
Your fingers are the same half-closed drawbridges.
One day she notices your shorn hair
and your bare eyes and she says
Are you trying to turn yourself into a boy?
She says you have grown sullen, rebellious, dishonest.
But she does not see how the bones of your face
have grown strong as her own.
All of your apologies are backward glances
they are checking for monsters in the dark
they are stockpiling canned corn
they are knitting a suit of armor out of steel wool
they are whispering in the darkness
          so quietly
          so still
          your voice trembles, a fawn that does not know how to return to the forest
I will write down all your apologies
inscribe them in ebony ink and encircle them in gold leaf
bind them with red leather and velvet.
I’ll deliver them by hand to your mother’s feet,
so that she will know how you love her.
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The Not So Wild Girls

Mary Stewart Atwell. Wild Girls.  2012. 273 pages. $17.84. ISBN: 978145168327.

Mary Stewart Atwell has left behind her usual short stories to write her first novel, Wild Girls. In this novel, Swan River County has nothing to offer for Kate Riordan to stay after graduation: all she wants is to flee from her dysfunctional family, her good-for-nothing friends, broken relationships with a couple of boys, and what she’s most afraid of—the wild girls.

Some people consider them a legend, characters from superstitious stories, but Kate knows better: teenage girls suddenly go mad, as if possessed, and destroy everything in their path, from buildings to lives, committing the most atrocious murders. Kate refuses to become one of them, doing everything in her power to avoid getting stuck in Swan River for the rest of her life as all the surviving wild girls do when they return to their normal selves. Even when Kate tries to avoid becoming a wild girl, one frustrating thing about these mysterious beings is that nobody knows the reason why they turn into serial killers or how to avoid it. At the beginning of the story, Kate witnesses the transformation of a wild girl, and, from that moment, the reader’s perspective changes.

“He prowled among them, and Rosa reached out to caress his shoulder. As if on cue, they circled him, their black robes hiding him from sight. I hears one scream, guttural and rattling, as if he were choking. The wild girls were screaming too, and streams of blood blackened by moonlight ran from under their robes spilling over the edge of the stage.” (Wild Girls, pg. 242)

Atwell does a great job of show-don’t-tell, making the reading flow easily for us and drawing us in to continue the reading. The flaws, wants, needs, and characters’ personalities are very unique, making the story unpredictable and therefore making it even more interesting to read. Even though it’s a story about a teenager with all her friend/boyfriend/family problems, Atwell doesn’t make her problems fall into clichés but transforms them into bigger problems that put Kate in danger.

As gripping as it sounds, as one goes through the pages, the idea and concern about the wild girls gets lost because we don’t hear from them as often as we would expect. Well, nicely played Mary Atwell, because she let our guard down and then we have this spectacularly macabre twist of events that make your hands shake while reading. As I read, I found that the perspective I had of this story before I started reading it changed. It sounded like an exciting thriller about girls going wild and the role of a teenager trying to avoid joining them. It turned out to be a powerful story, but maybe one missing the nail-biting suspense of the best thrillers. Wild Girls is indeed a unique story, with original characters and a very good plot, undoubtedly making it a worthy read.

 

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The Enchanted Family Forest


Visual art by Brent Terry. 

A man in the throes of middle age sat at his study going over his bank reports. Every note told him the same story: too much output, not enough input. There was enough to last ten years if the man dug himself a very big hole, maybe fifteen. The man picked up a fountain pen and bled the ink onto the yellow paper he had used to tabulate his financial ruin.

 

     “I can’t believe he’s missed another dinner!” Greg explodes in a whisper to his wife, Cheri, in their kitchen. The family has just gotten back from dinner in town.

     “I know, but.”

     “But what? What’s his excuse?”

     “But what did you expect? Did you really think he was coming this time?” Cheri asks, setting ten birthday candles on a cake too big for eight people who were filled with expensive pasta. There will be leftover cake, and Cheri reminds Greg, “It’s been nearly a year. If he was going to show he would have months ago.”

     Greg roughly plants four wine glasses on the old serving tray he hates. The tray has a nineteen fifties style Coca-Cola Ad painted onto the metal. Cheri loves it. She picks up the tray while Greg grabs the red and white from the fridge. They don’t need two bottles of wine for four people. Wine doesn’t pair with children’s birthday cake, but they don’t drink beer. Greg trails behind his wife into the living room with his dripping bottles and a corkscrew, a birthday present from his mom right before she died at sixty-four. Cheri sets her metal tray on her Pottery Barn coffee table and asks everyone what they want.

     “Don’t forget you have to drive me home,” Cheri’s mother, Delilah, laughingly warns her husband, Mike. She glances at Cheri and stops jabbing, “I’ll have the red tonight dear.” Mike asks for the same but, after a surreptitious look from his wife, changes his order to the milder white wine.

     Two years ago Mike was driving home from an outdoor music show Delilah dragged him to, and he fell asleep at the wheel for what he swore “could not have been more than five seconds.” Delilah threw a fit that effectively startled Mike’s eyes open. Now Delilah strictly monitors how he drinks in her company.

     Greg and Caroline, Delilah’s other daughter, are poured red. Cheri doesn’t have any. She only drinks white, and she refuses to drink the “hippy wine” her sister brought.

     Cheri asks her son, Jason, with a large smile, “Okay, cake or presents first?” It’s hard to tell if Cheri is faking the large smile. She doesn’t blink enough, but there aren’t any children around to notice, besides Jason and his younger cousin, Lulu.

     Jason laughs as he chases after Lulu. He yells, “Cake!” over his shoulder as the cousins playfully run into the largely lived-in family room.

     The kids have to put up with these unfailingly frequent family dinners and have learned to mostly ignore them. Jason’s real birthday party will be with his friends playing laser tag, and at least they have each other for escaping their parents’ purple teeth parties (a name Lulu gave these sorts of events after a secretly viewed rerun of Cougar Town).

     Cheri disappears into the kitchen as Greg dims the dining room lights. This is their signal for cake time. Caroline pulls her video camera out of an over-sized red purse that is propped up against the couch, while everyone moves into the dining room. Cheri calls out from the kitchen, “Is everyone ready?” And Delilah yells for Jason and Lulu to come get to the dining room.

     When everyone is settled, with Jason at the head of the solid mahogany table, Cheri walks through swinging doors holding the lit up cake. Jason cringes when he sees the candles. He is getting sick of trying to blow out novelty candles that have to be thrown in his water glass to be extinguished. Jason is a little insulted that his parents thought he wouldn’t recognize the candles after years of dirtied water.

     Cheri and Greg worry a lot. It happens with only children. Carcinogens in plastics, violent video games, not being socialized enough, too much socialization, brain development: Should he play with toys marked in his age range? Toys above? Will that shatter his confidence?, his school teachers – qualifications and temperaments, healthy cafeteria lunches, the right friends, family time, pesticides. Their most recent worry is Richard, Jason’s grandfather. When Richard stopped calling and stopping by after his wife died Cheri and Greg worried. They worried how this would affect Jason’s emotional development: the sudden loss of two grandparents. Greg worried about what Jason would do when it came time to build that family tree in school. Cheri worried how Greg’s reaction would affect Jason.

     Jason doesn’t like how much his parents worry. Sometimes it’s okay, not too big a deal, like the constant quiet hum of classical music that runs through the house and their insistence that Jason wears his bike helmet, a problem simply solved by taking his helmet off once out of his parents’ sight. Other things make Jason feel smothered, make his skin itch, like the time he couldn’t go to the school’s end-of-the-year party because there was a trampoline and “Your third cousin twice removed broke his elbow on one of those.”

     Between mouthfuls of coffee and hash browns the next morning Greg makes an announcement, “I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I’m gonna go see him.”

     Cheri, who had given him one of her knowing looks right around “thinking about this for a while”, doesn’t like this idea. “Why all of this right now? Where is this even coming from?”

     “Where is this coming from? He just missed his own grandson’s tenth birthday! I just kept thinking about him and thinking and thinking. I was just sitting around here for almost half a year now acting like this helpless, pathetic victim.”

     “You didn’t do anything because it won’t be good for you, or any of us. He stopped coming by. He made it clear he didn’t want to be bothered when he stopped answering your calls and, hello, changed his number.” Cheri hates how Greg can’t let things or people go and how, as soon as an idea comes to him, he has to jump and see it all the way through.

     Greg grabs his coat off its wooden hook and leaves Cheri in the kitchen as she warns him, “You’re picking a scab!”

     Cheri huffs when she hears the garage door slam. Jason is sleeping in, enjoying his first Sunday as a ten-year-old. Cheri goes into his room to wake him up for breakfast.

     Greg boils on the way to his family home. He actually doesn’t know if his father still lives there, but the thought never occurs to Greg that he might not. To Greg, the house that is now a fifteen minute drive away is the only place in the world for his father.

     “It’s open,” Richard calls in response to the obtrusive doorknocker’s obnoxious sound. Richard hates the noise the doorknocker made. It is made of iron and in the shape of a lion’s head with serious teeth. His late wife, Clarice, picked it out.

     Richard is sitting in an over-stuffed chair in his sunlit family room when Greg storms in like Dr. H. H. Holmes’ tax collector. Richard sets his newspaper on a nearby side table as Greg begins, “Look, I know that you don’t want me here, you’ve made that clear enough, and maybe, for you, it’s just fine to seclude yourself and ignore your family. And maybe you are too good for us; I can’t walk into any restaurant in town and just say, Put it on my tab, and I can’t take Jason on the kinds of trips you took us on. But I couldn’t live with myself anymore knowing I never stood up to you. See, first, I thought that it was just because Mom died, and you wanted some time to grieve. After about two months and zero contact I should’ve gotten the hint, but yesterday I realized that I’d been lying to myself.” Greg pauses to take a breath and lets out a mouthful of air. Seeing how close he is to Richard now, Greg backs away. “I bet you don’t even know what yesterday was.”

     “It was Jason’s birthday dinner, seeing as his birthday was last Wednesday,” Richard calmly replies in his familiar voice.

     Greg is thrown off for a moment, but he quickly moves on and continues, “If you know, why didn’t you come?”

     Richard opens his mouth to respond, attempting to push himself up in the chair to sit up straighter.

     “No, I don’t care. I don’t want to hear what you have to say. I am here, so I can talk. It’s been too long for that. What I really want to say,” and then he repeats, “what I really want to say.” Greg’s mouth hangs open until he snaps it shut.

     “If there’s something you really want to say, you should say it,” Richard nudges in a way that reminds Greg of the time when he was eight and Richard bought the wrong detergent and Greg broke out in hives.

     “You’ve lost touch. All that talk when I was younger about how important family is, and when you’re dealing with Mom’s death you don’t bother coming to us? You just decide that doesn’t apply to you anymore and you hide? I lost my mother just like you lost your wife. Did you think I wouldn’t understand? Well, I don’t understand now, and I’m not here for an explanation. I’m just here so that you know that what you did has consequences and repercussions and.” Greg’s palms have begun to sweat, and he wipes them off on his pants.

     “And?” Richard rests his temple against his fist.

     “And I won’t bother you ever again. I just hope that one day, when you’re sitting in your big house reading your newspaper or lighting cigars with money or whatever it is that you do, that one day everything will hit you, and you’ll know that it’ll be too late. You’ll know that your family isn’t there for you anymore,” Greg finishes, red in the face and out of breath. He feels a wave of relief wash over him and crisply walks out of the house he grew up in.

     “Good-bye,” Richard says to his son, who didn’t notice his father’s complexion or how thin he’d gotten. With shaky hands full of protruding veins, Richard returns to his daily saver but can’t stop staring at the food stamps hiding underneath it.

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