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Monday, September 26, 2011

Fiction #28

The new issue is here, #28, and it consists of two stories:
Submissions now open for #29.

Fiction #28: Kate Millar

Thurston Pyle

by Kate Millar

Thurston Pyle loses his thumb when he's three years old. Sucks it clean off. He deposits the shriveled digit into his mother's lap, like the loneliest thumbs up of approval in the world. "What did I tell you about sucking your thumb," his mother is quick to admonish, but, unbeknownst to Thurston, remains rather shaken. Thumbs don't simply fall off, after all. She takes Thurston to the doctor and he's diagnosed with a rare condition. "Like leprosy but not," the doctor says with a shrug. "Best keep him indoors." Heeding the doctor's advice, Thurston's mother keeps her son indoors at all times and, after witnessing him stub his foot and lose three cherry pink toes as a result, decides that little Thurston would be best off in a wheelchair.

Thurston hates his wheelchair. The loudness of its whir makes it impossible for him to sneak up on his mother and share a laugh together. But the chair's controls remind him of a joystick and it's like he's the hero of his own private video game. Sometimes he even makes sound effects when he wheels through the house, blipping and bleeping to himself. To maneuver the chair, he cups the fleshy part of his palm around the joystick; using his fingers is too risky and he only has one thumb left, his mother reminds him.

Thurston's favourite place to sit is near the window of his new ground-floor bedroom, which overlooks a grassy knoll of oak trees and a swing-set for the neighbourhood kids. He looks at the children playing, and he looks at the sun which shines back at him like a half-eaten lemon drop. The sight of the grass and the trees makes little Thurston's heart swell and when he sees the wind tip the branches and bathe the leaves in coolness, Thurston sways in his wheelchair, hypnotized, as if feeling the breeze through the walls of the house himself. This swaying costs young Thurston a rib bone, which breaks off from the ribcage and rattles in his torso like a maraca. Too absorbed with the scene out the window, Thurston hardly notices.

When Thurston Pyle turns eighteen, he ditches the wheelchair and leaves home.

"This is a mistake," his mother says to him, hysterical.

"I'm grown up now Mum," he tells her with a kiss on the cheek. He moves to the city and immediately loses a hand pushing through the subway turnstile—his left hand, which falls plumb off at the wrist. But Thurston's intoxicated by the strange soupy air of public transit and the gathered mass of people in the subway car, each with somewhere different to go, and it's like the most chaotic magic he's ever known. He finds a small bachelor flat and gets a job answering complaint letters for a soft drink company. He takes pride in his work and is good at what he does. Thurston meets a girl named Jessica and he takes her for a picnic under the stars. "I've always wanted to do this," he tells her. Jessica kisses him and she smells like oranges, and then Thurston Pyle has sex for the first (and, unfortunately, final) time.

What was his mother so worried about? He's happy, has many friends, and shrugs off any and all minor mishaps, like the time his ears fall off at a rock concert, or when he loses his tongue after an adventure with Korean barbeque. When he's thirty he meets a woman named Debbie, and Debbie takes Thurston swing-dancing because it's her passion. She leads tongueless, earless Thurston around the dance floor and, mid lindy-hop, Thurston's arm comes off at the shoulder socket into Debbie's hand. But Thurston's so happy to be wearing saddle shoes and lindy-hopping with Debbie that he doesn't really mind, and then he decides that he loves swing dancing and then he decides that he loves Debbie and within a year they are married. They are happy together.

For his sixtieth birthday, Thurston Pyle goes sky-diving. The timing seems right. He lost his dear mother the year prior, so he no longer has to worry about her worrying about him. And Debbie has never been disturbed by Thurston's flights of fancy. "I always admire your vim," she tells her husband. The sky-diving instructor had been reticent to allow a one-armed, one-legged senior citizen to jump (Thurston having lost a leg in his forties on a boating excursion to the Keys), but Thurston's eyes and cheeks are so buoyed with anticipation that the instructor is eventually persuaded. Thurston kisses his wife and boards the airplane.

Thurston ascends. He gazes out the window contentedly, the white corpulent clouds still so far above him and the field and farmhouses hazy below. And then the sky-diving instructor tells him it's time to jump and Thurston Pyle flies out of the airplane without a moment's hesitation, caught up in the raptures of open sky that envelope every inch of his body.

His stomach is the first to become detached. Thurston is thrilled to feel the organ flip-flopping and freefalling inside his abdominal cavity. His nose snaps off next and his head fills with a rush of cold splintery air. His collarbone grinds inward to press against his spinal cord, and then his eyes dislodge, rolling into the back of his cranium like marbles clinking in a glass bowl. His kneecaps shimmy up his legs into his pelvis and Thurston giggles at the sensation. But his favourite part, his absolute favourite, is the rush of wind that he feels on the two remaining fingers of his one remaining hand. A rush of wind like a blanket. And then his arm flies off, fist over shoulder, and then his leg and then Thurston's head and torso keep tumbling, falling, as Thurston weeps with ecstasy.

By the time Thurston Pyle finds land, his skin and bones have all fallen away and there's nothing more to him than a mass of gelatinous liquid that splats across the landing strip with terrific force. But then the liquid oozes back together, gathering its gooey molecules until it forms a perfect puddle. Debbie collects the puddle and puts it in a jar.

"I've always loved his vim," she tells the sky-diving instructor, with tears in her eyes. She hugs the jar tightly to her chest. The puddle gleams in the sunlight.


Kate Millar's work is forthcoming in Event and Paper Darts and she is currently at work on her first collection of short stories. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Fiction #28: Jéanpaul Ferro

Impression, Nightfall

by Jéanpaul Ferro

Elijah Ransom stood at the edge of his family compound along the bluffs and dunes of Matunuck, R.I. He stared up at this bow of cable television wire hanging loosely between two poles that he was about to splice into, not to steal it, mind you, but to “share” a cable feed that was already being paid for by Clifford Brown his next door neighbor right across the street.

Elijah had known the Brown family for several decades. Clifford Brown was a Narragansett Indian who his people called Lightfoot, because he used to run track barefoot back in high school. The name of the village, Matunuck, was also an Indian name, meaning “look out,” as the Narragansett Indian tribe once kept their summer encampment along these coastal plains before they sold it all to the colonists in 1657 as a part of the Pettaquamscutt purchase.

If Elijah had something to sell on that warm Sunday afternoon in May he would have sold it already. Times had been tough in Rhode Island. The 2008 financial crisis on Wall Street had trickled all the way down to Main Street now. Unemployment hovered in the double-digits, Americans were getting laid off left and right, and everyone, including Elijah, had clinched up their buttocks and wallets and no one was spending a dime that they had.

All of this totally sunk Elijah’s lawn and care service. Nobody cares about lawns and gardens in a recession. In the early Bush years his self-made business had soared to the point where he had to hire twelve employees simply to keep pace. Now his business was down to just him and his new wife, Brooklyn, who he had taught to use a John Deere X300 overnight so they could both go out on the weekend and do those two extra school lawns he had scrounged up from an old buddy of his who was now on the South Kingstown school committee.

For as long as he could remember, Elijah thought of himself as a self-made man. He had waited until he was 53 to get married, chasing his lifelong dream of being a pro golfer until old age, a really pretty girl twenty years his junior, and the reality of his golf handicap all caught up with him almost exactly at the same moment.

Now he was standing there on a ladder, his balding head sweating in the sun as he spliced into his neighbor’s cable line, because he could only afford electricity or cable, one or the other, but not both.

And as he was cutting into the cable and then hooking it up to the wire connected to all the houses on the property where he lived, Elijah looked back across the emerald lawns of his family compound only a stone’s throw from Matunuck Beach. His mother and father, Juliet and Hester, had left their three children five houses on over twenty-six prime acres of coastal Rhode Island land. His brother, Joe, had the small yellow house everyone called Little Beaver. His sister, Maggie, had Big Beaver, which to this day still drew out a laugh out of everyone in the family. He and Brooklyn and their newborn daughter, Paloma, had the small blue house that had no name. The large summer house and the gray cottage next door were the ones they rented out all summer to those New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania types who summered along the gold coast of Rhode Island between May and August of each year.

Of course, it nagged at him that he lived in his house for free, got free heat by burning the wood he had to cut himself for the wood stove, and still drove that twenty year old Volvo with the 356,847 miles on it, and yet he still had to go and tap into his neighbor’s cable so he and the rest of his family could watch a couple of hours of nightly television.

When he returned back to his little blue house he smiled as he went walking past Brooklyn who was outback taking the clothes off the laundry line. After knowing Elijah for over five years now she certainly had learned which battles to pick with him.

“Are you done with your little cable television fiasco?” she asked, taking her whites off the clothes line that the May sun had already warmed dry.

Elijah wiped the sweat off of his half-bald head and nodded a guilty grin. “Hey, I’m off the grid,” he joked. “Haven’t paid income taxes in twelve years. Have no driver’s license. And the Federal government doesn’t even know I exist anymore. So a non-existent person can’t be watching someone else’s cable, right?”

Brooklyn took a deep breath, wiped some of her long brown hair out of her face, and gave Elijah this dour look where her eyes cinched tight and her lips pursed together out of annoyance. He knew that she expected him to help raise their daughter, Paloma, right, making sure she would be someone who grew up to pay her taxes, paid her fifty bucks to get her license renewed every five years, and had a steady job so she would never have to relay on any man, or anyone else for that matter, unless that was something she decided to do.

Elijah saw the frustration on his wife’s face. He felt guilty right then. Brooklyn, who ironically was born in the Bronx, a 32-year old brunette with green eyes and a diploma from New York University, had been working double-time at her photography job, filming weddings, graduations, and anniversary parties all over southern New England, and then she would come home and take care of Paloma and then help her husband with his business on the weekends on top of that.

He went over, kissed her gently on the top of her brunette hair, and held her against him as her weary head fell against his chest as though she had to listen to his heart to make sure that he was okay.

He leaned back and held her face with both of his hands. “My heart’s fine. He said. I haven’t touched a cookie or a chip in three months. I’ve been taking my medication. And the doc said at my last visit that my heart was functioning up to sixty-percent now.”

Brooklyn’s green eyes stared at him as though she couldn’t help but be worried. She had married him knowing that he had this severe heart problem. But now every time she looked at her daughter, Paloma, and she witnessed the same blue eyes of Elijah on her sweet and delicate face, she worried whether or not her little girl was going to know the man who had the same beautiful blue eyes as her, a man that her mother had fallen in love with the very first day she met him down at the 84 High Street bar and restaurant in Westerly.

“I know,” she told him. “You’ve been doing great.” Her hand rubbed against Elijah’s heart. “Especially for you.” She said this last part with a bit of a smirk on her face.

“Hey, what does that mean? Especially for you?”

Brooklyn gathered up her whites in the antique wooden box, the one that once housed wine grapes from the vineyard down the street, and she smirked all the way back to the house as Elijah stood there with this silly grin stuck to his face.

Elijah chased her inside, gave her a good whack on the rear end right in the middle of the living room, kissed little Paloma who was sleeping beautifully in her Baby Bouncer inside her bedroom, grabbed his white golf bag full of clubs, and then went to hug Brooklyn goodbye as he passed her going the other way toward the front door.

She dropped the wooden bin of clothes on the couch and gave him a long, endearing hug goodbye.

He kissed her gently on the lips and gave her that charming smile he always had. “Don’t worry,” he told her, “this ain’t the last time you’re gonna see me. I’m too much of a pain in your rear end to go and die on you.”

He laughed as he slapped her on the butt again, dragged his white golf bag over to the doorway, where on his way out he always gave this photograph of the two of them, taken on the beach in South Africa during their honeymoon with Table Mountain in the background, a little touch, like the way Notre Dame football players touch the “Play Like a Champion Today” sign on their way out of the tunnel right before a game.

Brooklyn stood there now in the quiet living room of their little blue house. She walked over, made sure Paloma was sleeping okay, and then collapsed onto the couch next to the clothes she had put down. She listened as Elijah’s Volvo drove down the claim shell driveway and then quietly disappeared into the hush down the road until there was only the calm wind and the sound of the breaking waves off on the beach not far away.

The next thing she knew she was in New Haven Hospital in the critical care unit where Elijah lie on a perfectly pristine and white hospital bed with tubes and wires going into his mouth, nose, and arms every which way.

“He was without oxygen for over thirty minutes,” the gray haired female doctor told her quite gravely. Her name was Eugena Peverley and she had this look of concern on her cracked old face as she spoke. “We never know how these patients are going to respond. He could be fine. Or he could never wake up.”

Brooklyn nervously held a sobbing Paloma as her husband’s brother and sister, Joe and Maggie, looked on through the glass of the room from outside.

“And what about his heart?” Brooklyn asked.

She watched as the gray haired doctor’s eyes turned and stared off at the wall for a second before returning straight back at her intense and concerned looking green eyes.

“He could not have been taking his medication,” the doctor told her. “His heart is down to functioning at only sixteen percent. It’s a miracle he’s even alive at this point.”

Brooklyn looked down at her young daughter who was quieting now. She kissed Paloma on her head, that was somewhat still barren of the dark hair that she could see was still coming in, and she leaned her up against her chest feeling that perhaps it would only be the two of them going forward.

For the next two weeks Brooklyn had Joe and Maggie take turns watching Paloma back in Rhode Island while she slept curled up with a blanket and pillow that a kind, old German nurse had given her so she could sleep next to her husband’s bed curled up on the floor.

On the first day of the third week she stood there next to Elijah’s bed when with her own eyes she watched as he took a deep breath and opened his half-startled eyes.

He looked right in her eyes.

“Who are you?” he asked her.

There was this blank expression on his face like he was someone else.

“You’re wife—” she said somewhat confused.

A blond haired nurse she had never met before came rushing in, pulled her outside, where she had to wait for an hour as all these doctors and nurses and hospital folks walked in and out of Elijah’s room with these astonished looks on their faces as though they were all witnessing something they had only read about in text books.

When Doctor Peverley arrived and took Brooklyn aside she almost couldn’t fathom what she was told.

“He has no memory of you or your daughter,” Doctor Peverley told her with this determined look on her face. “We’re in a real bind,” she was told now. “If we try to operate on his heart now he might not ever regain his memory. Anesthesia can really have an effect on memory loss, especially existing memory loss due to trauma. It’s a Catch-22.”

“But I can’t live if the person I have isn’t Elijah,” Brooklyn tried to tell her. “What should I do?”

Doctor Peverley got this compassionate look on her face. “Only you can decide that.”

Later that same evening, Brooklyn talked it over with Joe and Maggie and they all decided as a family to let Elijah try and regain some of his memory before they tried to perform open heart surgery.

The next week Brooklyn sat beside her husband on his bed and patiently tried to make him remember. She showed him photographs of them together; places that he would have known by heart. She brought in one of his golf clubs one day; a piece of sod he had stolen from Fenway Park once that he planted in their front yard. He wouldn’t even let anyone walk near that patch of grass.

But Elijah lie there in bed with this angry look on his face like all these people who kept visiting him and the brunette constantly sitting beside him there by his bed were all annoying the hell out of him.

“Is that my wife?” he said, as he pointed at this attractive blond walking by right outside his room.

“No. I’m you’re wife,” Brooklyn told him, storming out of the room, losing her patience and composure for the first time since her husband had the heart attack.

By the next day she had to convince Elijah that he was a man and not a woman. “It’s obvious why I’m here in the hospital,” he told Brooklyn with this very I-got-it-figured-out look on his face.

“Oh, yeah,” she said, sort of getting a laugh out of his antics now. “Why are you here Elijah?”

He stared down at his somewhat bloated stomach that was all swollen from all the drugs, beta blockers, and bad hospital food they had been giving him.

“I’m pregnant!” he yelled out loud.

Brooklyn’s hand went up to her mouth and she began to laugh. “You think you’re pregnant?” she asked. “But Elijah, you’re a man.”

“If I were a man I’d think I’d know about it.”

Brooklyn took a deep breath, patiently walked over to his bed, lifted up her husband’s hospital gown, and nodded for him to look down between his own legs.

“Oh, Jesus,” he said. “Now that’s a problem.”

Brooklyn rushed in and kissed him gently on the cheek, leaning onto his bed and beginning to softly cry as this stranger in her husband’s body awkwardly held her and let her cry even though she could tell by the look on his face that he, she, whoever it was in there, had no idea who she was from anyone else in the world.

The next morning she came in holding that photograph of her and Elijah on the beach in South Africa while they had been on their honeymoon.

She walked straight into his hospital room, sat down beside him on the bed, and placed the photograph right onto his lap.

Elijah stared down at it with this suspicious look on his exhausted face. His blue eyes moved from side to side as he looked at himself and Brooklyn in that photograph.

Suddenly he looked up and uttered: “Brooklyn?”

She watched as his soul literally began to fly back into his eyes. She threw her arms around Elijah and cried for the next twenty minutes as he kept wiping the tears out of her eyes and asking her over and over: “What happened? Why am I here?”

That night she drove the long distance back up Route 95 from New Haven to Matunuck. With Paloma fast asleep by her side she slept right through the entire night for the first time since her husband had walked out the door and she found him in critical condition at the hospital later that evening.

When she arrived back at New Haven Hospital the next morning she rushed into Elijah’s room only to find an empty bed that was perfectly made like her husband had never been there.

She ran out into the hall and she overheard one nurse say, “Oh, Lord, didn’t someone tell her first? Someone downstairs should have told her.”

The next few days were a complete blur to Brooklyn.

She sat on a chair in front of a hole on her husband’s property with his coffin already in the ground. In her arms sat the photograph of her and Elijah in South Africa on their honeymoon. All his friends and family and high school buddies and girl friends and customers and the mail man and the Brown’s next door and just about everyone Elijah ever knew, all stood there in line; and one by one they began to take this brand new silver shovel that his older brother, Joe, had bought down at the Home Depot earlier that day and they each threw one shovel full of dirt onto his grave.

There was a beautiful grayish-black mockingbird dancing on a branch of laurel that sang throughout the afternoon service, which seemingly got truncated by a musician they hired to play “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes. After his performance so many guests were overcome by grief that many of them had to leave.

Later that evening, Brooklyn, Joe, and Maggie all stood there by Elijah’s grave. There was this cloudy starlight trailing across the sky from the Milky Way as Brooklyn took one final shovelful of dirt and cast if over Elijah’s plot. She heard Paloma begin to cry back at the house as she was being watched by her mother, Elena, who had flown in from Iowa two days earlier.

Brooklyn looked at Joe and Maggie and then the three of them began to hug each other.

“He loved you,” Maggie said, weeping for the first time since it all happened.

“I’ll look after you. You always have me to look after you,” Joe kept telling her as though he needed to tell her this as many times as it took for her to believe him.

Brooklyn wiped the tears from her eyes, stood back from her brother and sister-in-law, and looked back at the grave that she knew was completely illegal to have on the property, but she had allowed it to be put there, because Elijah had always told her quite clearly that he wanted to be buried on his families’ property near the ocean if anything ever happened to him.

“See,” Brooklyn said talking to the grave as though Elijah were still alive. “One last time you got to poke ‘em in the eye,” she said; and then she collapsed, Joe and Maggie helping her back up to the house, where she didn’t wake up for another two days.

The following summer was this blur of blue torturous skies and world events that never touched Brooklyn’s mind.

There was Elijah’s death, a $250k hospital bill for which she had no insurance, this realization that Elijah had no life insurance either, and she didn’t know how to run his old business by herself. There were these people questioning her thought process on knowingly marrying someone who was ill. And then there was this realization that she was going to have to raise a child on her own now.

The candy colored blossoms of August soon turned into these dark reds, yellows, and grays of autumn, which in turn changed into the skeleton trees that stood there amid the tall winter snows of Rhode Island.

Soon the pain in Brooklyn’s heart turned to rage. This eventually turned into great sadness until one day the following spring, not long after Paloma said “da-da” after seeing her father’s picture on the refrigerator, she said, yes, to a date with a boy for the first time since Elijah had died.

His name was Robert Ridgeway, but everyone called him Bobby. He was a professional fisherman out of Galilee, but he had gone to Emerson College, studied Shakespeare, and he had this infinite love for photography exactly the way Brooklyn did. Tom Chambers was even his favorite photographer exactly like her.

Two months into their courtship Brooklyn and Bobby sat there in her living room on a hot summer night, drinking some sangria that she had chocked full of oranges rinds, lemons, peaches, and honey. They had spent the day at Green Hill Beach; and with their bright tanned faces and glowing eyes and their stomachs full of claim cakes, Brooklyn began to relax, lying backwards onto Bobby who was sitting there perfectly quiet with her now.

When she stared up into his dark brown eyes that looked as though they would never hurt her, she leaned her torso up, the outline of her breasts slightly touching against his chest as she hesitated for a second and then kissed him for the very first time.

She smiled when she saw the elated and surprised look that came to his face.

“I can’t believe you just did that,” he said.

“See, I’m full of surprises.”

When she sat up and began to caress his day old beard with her hand she was surprised by the look on his delighted, shocked, and bewildered face.

“Aren’t you happy I kissed you?”

As Brooklyn slid off of him his hands fell onto his lap.

“No. No. I mean— We’ve said goodnight twenty times and never kissed. I reconciled myself that you’d do it when you were ready.”

His face began to nod toward the photograph of Elijah and Brooklyn on their honeymoon along the beach in South Africa that was still hanging over by the front door.

“Oh,” she said.

She immediately felt terrible.

Brooklyn quickly went over and took the photograph off the wall. She rushed with it into her bedroom, and when she came back out she stood there next to the couch looking very proud of herself.

He surprised her though by getting up, going right by where she stood, and over to the threshold of her bedroom door.

She stood there feeling terribly embarrassed now.

“You put the photograph up on your bedroom wall?” he asked.

Her hands nervously slid down into the front pockets of her jeans. Her shoulders shrugged. These tense lines came up into her forehead as her mouth suddenly became dry.

“Yes,” she said. “I put it where my photograph of the Old Man and the Mountain used to be. Look— Bobby— I’m really sorry.”

When she looked at him his face didn’t look upset at all. But then he said: “You’d take it down if we were married, right?”

Brooklyn stood there silent as her eyes opened wide. She knew Elijah would always be a part of her. She couldn’t just stand there and pretend that she had exorcized him out of her DNA and that she had no feelings for him at all like all those old feelings could simply evaporate on command. It was as though she was suppose to take his memory and put it down in the cellar with the dust, the old records, the daguerreotypes, and the pain that was still there in her heart that no one else wanted to look at anymore.

“I don’t know,” she said quite honestly.

Bobby politely nodded like he understood. He went over and kissed her on the cheek, hugged her for a long time, and then told her that he would call her in the morning.

She went outside and watched as his old pickup truck drove away down the clamshell driveway and off into the darkness of the rest of the night.

Exactly one year went by.

People like to say, Time heals all wounds, but this is utter nonsense. What really happens is that the living who are left behind by the departed simply begin to fill their lives up with these other objects, these other routines, these prescriptions for the pain they can’t get rid of: nights out on the town, having kids, building homes, and pushing the years gathering up behind them like waves as far back as they can push them.

Moving forward and keeping busy seemed to be the thing that helped Brooklyn the most. She came to an agreement with the hospital in New Haven that as long as she paid something down, even twenty dollars a month, on her enormous hospital bill that they would not come after her through the courts. Social security began to send Paloma social security benefits in order to help stabilize the family. Brooklyn worked as hard as she had ever worked in her photography business until one day she came home and Bobby was waiting there down along her long driveway in front of the little blue house that she used to live in with Elijah.

He got down on one knee, proposed, and two weeks later they eloped in Niagara Falls, New York.

When they returned after a week long honeymoon, Bobby worked something out with Joe and Maggie so that he and Brooklyn would pay them some sort of rent—he just didn’t feel right living in their brother’s old house without paying them something. He brought in some of his own furniture and they repainted the entire inside of the house the very first day they returned from Niagara Falls. Not once did he ever mention to Brooklyn that she should take down that photograph of her and Elijah that was still hanging there on the bedroom wall.

He was being so sweet about it all. It even got to the point where he insisted on painting around the photograph when he went to paint the new egg-white hue over the faded white that had been there before.

It was right before they were going to go to bed, Bobby looking exhausted from all the hard work he had done around the house that day, that Brooklyn began to change into her nightclothes, shorts and a T-shirt, having already kissed Paloma goodnight in the other room, when she looked over at Bobby already lying there in bed; and she went over to the old photograph of her and Elijah still hanging there on the wall, and she quietly took it down, walking over to her closet and carefully tucking it under some old boxes of shoes that she had never worn.

The moonlight came through the bedroom window in these illustrious whites and grays as Brooklyn turned down the bedroom light and walked over and slid into the arms of Bobby who almost immediately fell asleep from fatigue. She held her arms around him tight and knew that she was luckier than most who had lost someone, and she prayed to God that night to make her never forget Elijah no matter what happened in the future.

She lie there in bed watching the moon glow twist and turn like body parts moving on the wall every time the wind would move the branches of the spruce and cedar that were right outside the bedroom window. Brooklyn exhaled, expecting this transcendent moment when the pain would stop. But the longer she lie there, staring up at the faded spot on the wall where that photograph used to hang, its old outline a different shade of white than in the rest of the room, the more she began to realize that the lack of loneliness that she had just traded in for all the other problems that are the grist of life left her with nothing to trade after that.

She thought about this for a long time that night, watching the shadows of the tree branches waver back and forth on the walls as though it were Elijah finally saying goodbye. And then she closed her eyes and fell asleep and forced herself to dream of something else.


An 8-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Jéanpaul Ferro’s work has appeared on National Public Radio, Contemporary American Voices, Columbia Review, Emerson Review, Connecticut Review, Portland Monthly, Arts & Understanding Magazine, The Providence Journal, Saltsburg Review, Hawaii Review, and others. He is the author of All The Good Promises (Plowman Press, 1994), Becoming X (BlazeVox Books, 2008), You Know Too Much About Flying Saucers (Thumbscrew Press, 2009), Hemispheres (Maverick Duck Press, 2009) Essendo Morti – Being Dead (Goldfish Press, 2009), nominated for the 2010 Griffin Prize in Poetry; and Jazz (Honest Publishing, 2011), nominated for both the 2012 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize and the 2012 Griffin Prize in Poetry. He is represented by the Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency. Website: * E-mail:

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Interview: Tim Conley

Tim Conley's latest short story collection is Nothing Could Be Further (Emmerson Street Press, 2011).

His website is

The title to your new short story collection, NOTHING COULD BE FURTHER, completes itself subliminally with "from the truth." I read this as a kind of affirmation of fiction as fiction (i.e., as an art that doesn't tie back to a grounded "reality" or "truth"). And the stories are fabulous and fable-like (i.e., excellent and take place in a world similar but distinct from our own). So the question is something like, how would you describe your approach to the short story? Or what is your interest in creating other worlds?

The title phrase could also be concluded “from my mind,” and in both cases the disavowal might seem a little suspicious, a little absurd (I think of the White Knight praising Alice for having such good eyesight so as to see “nothing”). Fragmented in this way, though, the phrase has a wistful sort of half-promise or expectation to it: “nothing could be just up ahead.” Whatever that might mean.

I’m not at all suggesting that fiction has no connection to reality, if by “reality” (a word Nabokov rightly said must always be kept in quotation marks) we understand this to be a perceptible phenomenon. Put another way, I don’t hold that imagination and perception are irreconcilable – on the contrary, I think that we are most deceived when we suppose we behold the world without any imagination involved in that process. Fiction, then, ought not to be understood as a surmounting of or escape from reality, but a retuning of it, however fine or subtle or radical or ridiculous.

There is a prison escape story in the book that I guess could be read as a kind of meditation on this question of “escapism.”

The decorum of the royal court is a recurring theme in these stories. This seems both a throw-back to, to be most obvious, Shakespeare, but also a way to query the way language influences and even controls human relationships. These stories are both funny and intricate (and delightfully beyond television; what I mean is their focus on language is arguably beyond the over-simplified image, beyond what the camera can capture). Their courtliness is also charming. I'd like to hear something from you on this subject, but I'm having trouble putting that into a question. As a professor of English Literature, I wonder if you despair for the indecorous incivility that is CNN, The Toronto Star, et al, and what passes for what's left of the public square?

That’s an unexpected question, or more accurately a series of questions, and I’ll take them in reverse order to try to end where you began.

The first answer is a yes and no. Yes, there is good reason to be alarmed at the state of public discourse, for there’s plenty of discourse but less and less meaningful public involvement. The public square has been replaced by shopping malls, an entirely privatized commercial space that apes civic virtues and seems to deceive many on that score. The state of publishing is so bad that I despair to go into detail, but basically the general narrowing of aesthetic experimentation reflects the shrinking concentration of publishers, who because they have more at stake and want to maximize profit with every enterprise, are ever more averse to risk.

But as for decorum, no, that doesn’t much concern me. Sure, when I scan the “comments” to online news articles and see the reactionary, semi-literate barkings of jackals, it’s a temptation to get depressed, but again, look at how meaningless that forum is. Nothing one says in such places about, say, such and such a government initiative is going to affect the government, which knows full well that it doesn’t have to listen to anybody when it isn’t an election year (if then). Imagine a load of people squeezed into a tight cell, where every movement puts somebody’s elbow into somebody else’s back and everyone is stepping on everyone else. If in this writhing mass one voice were to call out for some decorum, please, the best that might be hoped for is some unifying laughter. The problem is the cell, but it is easy for the prisoners to forget that or assume they can do nothing about that and instead vent their frustrations on one another.

Writers, like anybody else, can either accept the cell as the given world (natural, just, unchangeable), which can in effect mean ignoring it or, worse, praising it, or else they can try to measure and even challenge that confinement. The best writers, the ones that are most important to us, open up the room and enrich the discussion about how to open it up even more.

I hadn’t really thought of the “courtly” element in NCBF, but I can see what you mean about at least a couple of stories in there. I guess I’m attracted to different discursive forms and like to sample and explore them. In some ways the book might be a jukebox of idioms.

What's a recent short story you've read that reminded you why short stories are the greatest genre on earth? What was it about the story that set off fireworks?

Greatest genre on earth? Surely not; and besides, that sort of braggadocio is precisely what short fiction doesn’t do; it is precisely not a giant claim or sweeping statement (on the other hand, the novel is especially given to these gestures). And I’m not sure I have a favourite genre, and would prefer to see genres dissolved wherever possible. When people refer to my work as “short stories,” I try to smile and tell myself that they must know what they’re talking about, but that doesn’t mean I have to be comfortable with it.

Take something like James Kelman’s “Remember Young Cecil.” Besides being note-perfect in its intonations, it is a marvellous snapshot of billiards-at-the-pub culture, in its way as much a straight documentary of a side of Scottish male life, with all of its jostling anxieties and pleasures, as it is an invention. And I, as a reader, don’t have to choose between the two. That’s exciting.

So I may be praising short fiction for –when it’s at its best– not being a definite genre at all.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Interview: Zsuzsi Gartner

Zsuzsi Gartner's latest collection is Better Living Through Plastic Explosives (Penguin, 2011). It is nominated for the ScotiaBank Giller Prize.

Her website is

What's a recent short story you've read that reminded you why short stories are the greatest genre on earth? What was it about the story that set off fireworks?

I should confess, at the risk of annoying my YOSS buddies, that I’m not genre-ist. Although I write short fiction and have a stake in making sure story collections aren’t viewed as a kind of warm-up act for the all-mighty novel, I read pretty catholically in every genre (save memoir – so many self-examined lives, so little time!).

And I love genre-bending enterprises (like Michael Turner’s American Whiskey Bar, and Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, meta-fiction, mock docs etc).

But a great short story “(half-puppet show, half-mugging,” as American short-fiction maestro Lorrie Moore has put it) can achieve the intensity and specificity of language of the best poetry while satisfying our primitive hunger for narrative.

So, at its best, dammit, yes, you’re right, it is the greatest genre on earth! A great short story’s canvas might be small, but it can contain the universe.

(Some indelible ones: “Love and Hydrogen” by Jim Shepard, “Like Life” and “People Like That are the Only People Here” by Lorrie Moore, “The Falls” and “Comm Comm” by George Saunders, “Boys” and “Demonology” by Rick Moody, “The Girl with Curious Hair” by David Foster Wallace, “The Divinity Gene” by Matthew Trafford, “The Aurochs” by Lee Henderson, and “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” by Wells Tower.)

Each of these is sui generis, exists now & forever as a three-dimensional object in my world, each lights the alphabet on fire while taking me on a journey into the human heart (of darkness in some cases), as well as letting the big old world in, rather than pushing it away and diving for cover. What they also have in common is an urgency that you don’t often find in novels and non-fiction or even most short stories.

“The Lizard Man of Lee County,” by U.S. writer Nicola Mason (first published in 1998), was an exciting new discovery this summer. It’s a deliriously funny, moving, and urgent take on a family fissuring during a day-trip to a swamp. It made me laugh and then broke my heart. That’s what I look for in a story. It was simultaneously entertaining and serious; larky with the lurk of menace in the white space and in the trees at the edge of the protagonist’s psyche. Another thing I value in a great story. And. Every. Single. Word. Counted. (Here’s a link to first page.) As far as I can tell, she’s not published a collection, but there’s a new story kicking around called “Cancer Party” that I’m trying to track down.

I wanted to also ask you about satire. Virtually all of the reviewers refer to you as a satirist, but I'm not sure many people really know what that means these days. Are you a satirist? If so, what does that mean to you?

Great question! I’ve been thinking a lot about (and thought a lot about this while writing Better Living) what it means to be a satirist in today’s self-satirizing world. Satire, at least the way I try to practice it -- the dark-humoured, take few prisoners kind -- is not mockery or mere parody, but a hard look at our society’s foibles and cruelties under the microscope while electro-magnifying 50x or 1500x. Besides magnification, it involves reversals and formerly unfathomable juxtapositionings. And you have to be wary of both sacred cows (I initially typed “scared cows” which could be true!) and of shooting fish in a barrel. (I think it’d be tough for someone resolutely leftwing or rightwing to be an honest satirist.) It’s a kind of very satisfying truth-telling, but I strive to celebrate language and narrative as well, otherwise I might as well be simply writing angry letters to the editor.

And because any day of the week you can randomly open the newspaper or troll about on-line and discover better stuff than you could’ve made up (Vatican-endorsed Confession App, anyone?), lions lying down with lambs, satire has become that much harder. I’ve taken to setting stories slightly in the future and/or introducing other-worldly elements in order to up the ante and stay ahead of the news. I try hard to create a universe of complete verisimilitude to ground the more “unreal” aspects of my fiction. And at the heart of every story, there’s a very human struggle for understanding.

What’s interesting to me is that on TV there’s brilliantly written satire that has large followings (The Simpsons and The Daily Show will serve as prime examples), yet readers (who you’d assume are among those audiences) have a difficulty recognizing and dealing with satire on the page. (Maybe the lack of visuals?!) First of all, you have to be able to read the double (sometimes triple) nuances or meanings embedded in almost every line when reading satire just to recognize that’s what it is. You have to read slant, rather than taking everything at face value. And, most importantly, you have to have a deviant sense of humour.

Although my stories are satirical, some more than others, satire is not all I aim for. Hyperrealism might be a better definition. (Your colleague Nathaniel G. Moore mentioned the terms “old future,” and “lucid hilarity” which I like, so maybe “the lucid hilarity of the old future”?!) I’m deadly serious about certain topics that are important to me (questioning the commonplace that faith/belief have to stand in opposition to science, for example), and I’m not sending up my protagonists but puzzling and burning and bleeding alongside them.

David Foster Wallace and J.G. Ballard are the two writers I think about most as precursors to the type of writing you do. First, is there anyone else you'd like to mention, specifically short story writers. Second, how's my aim? I would love to hear you expand on the influence of DFW and Mr. Ballard any day, any time of the week.

Rick Moody, Will Self, George Saunders, and yes, the dear, late DFW, as well as Lorrie Moore, Elise Levine, and Barbara Gowdy, and another late, great writer, Donald Barthelme, are all short fiction influences. Moody, Self and Saunders, and sometimes DFW, would be classified as having written actual satire, but I’ve learned from them all. To be daring, to bleed on the page, to make a mess, to up the volume, to regard a sentence as capable of containing a world, to maintain a sense of mystery, to not be afraid to be ferocious or funny or decapitating. To not forget that a story is about its language. To not forget the sense of urgency that should be brought to short fiction, to bear in mind the necessity.

Your aim is spot on with regard to DFW: his story collection, The Girl with Curious Hair, changed the way I thought short fiction should/could be written. The run-on sentences, odd syntax, ultra-contemporary subject matter, use of real, living people. The crazy variety of voices and styles. The derring-do: He ends the title story like this: “And here’s what I did.” He is the godfather. Ballard is a much more recent discovery. I loved The Drowned World (read after I wrote “Summer of the Flesh Eater” and was thrilled to discover the devolutionary symbiosis there), but haven’t read too much other of his fiction—yet. I read a few books of his essays and interviews while working on editing Darwin’s Bastards, so that’s maybe the influence you’re seeing. I’m curious to know more.

Moody, Self, Saunders, and two another faves, Jonathan Lethem and William Gibson, have all written dystopian and/or S-F stories and novels, or S-F-tinged, so that’s all leaked in though various cracks where the lights gets in, as Cohen sings. And I’m looking forward to my first China Mieville novel that I’ve just bought. Another big recent influence has been the YA Steam Punk novels I’ve been reading with my son (almost 12, but we love a good, shared bookish adventure). There’s some absolutely remarkable stuff out there. (Happy to provide a reading list). And movies: District 9, Moon, Let the Right One In, and can’t what to see Contagion.

Interview: Jessica Westhead

Jessica Westhead's recent short story collection is And Also Sharks (Cormorant, 2011). See also her website:

What's a recent short story you've read that reminded you why short stories are the greatest genre on earth? What was it about the story that set off fireworks?

That would be Greg Kearney's story "What to Wear" in his collection Pretty (Exile, 2011). There's a string of dialogue that had me laughing out loud, and then re-reading it because it was so much fun, and then I giddily read it to my husband when he asked what I was laughing about. In the scene, a middle-aged, HIV-positive gay man (the "I"), who's been deformed by the side effects of protease inhibitors, is being driven to dinner by his distracted sister:

"I'm so happy for you," I say. "Do you enjoy it? The personal training?"

"I love it! It's freaky how much I love it. Sometimes I just catch myself and I'm like, 'do you have any idea of how fulfilled you are?' And I totally don't. Because I'm just so happy."

"That is so great. Where are we going?"

"It's--FUCK OFF!" She slams on the brakes.

"What is it?" I say.

"That asshole is following too close behind me! Umm. Tammy's."


"The place I'm taking you. Is called Tammy's. It's on the Danforth. It's a--oh, what do you call it?"


"No. It's like a café, but like they have in Europe? You know..."

"A pizzeria?"

"No! Shut up! What is the fucking word I'm trying to think of? Bee--"


"Bistro! Shit! Thank you! Bistro."

There's so much going on in this seemingly simple exchange. And so much energy! The way the dialogue zips along between the two characters, the speed of the car, the way the conversation gets away from the protagonist, his sister's out-of-control all reflects how the protagonist's life (and appearance) has veered out of his control--it's all there.

There's hardly any narrative in this scene but I can picture it exactly, I'm right there with them. Kearney has a great ear for dialogue--he's got it down, and it's unique to his writing, as well. The way he captures his characters' slightly mannered ways of speaking is brilliant and hilarious.

The whole collection grabbed and delighted me this way. I loved it, and now I want to read more of his work.

Cats or dogs? Why?

My favourite is cats that act like dogs. You get all the neatness and quietness of cats, minus their sneakiness and plus canine friendliness. The ultimate would be a dog-like cat that was a kitten forever. Kittens are the best. Also, it would be furless but with the ILLUSION of fur. Bingo--no shedding or hairball puking.

Work-life balance is usually framed as work-time versus family-time, but for writers it can be work-work versus writing-work. Your short stories often take work-life as the subject (or at least framework) of the story. Is there something in particularly interesting (or absurd) about work-life that engages your imagination? Can you integrate examples from your book into your answer ....

I've worked at a ton of 9 to 5 office jobs (the majority of them as a temp). Always there was the eerily familiar atmosphere--the fluorescent lighting, the cubicle mazes, the photocopier room, the receptionist's desk, the kitchenette. And that surface civility that everyone has with each other, but underneath it, the whole place is seething with barely contained resentments and jealousies and ambitions and hopeless complacency.

It's an artificial environment with all these written and unwritten codes of conduct that have to be navigated, where alliances are formed and enemies are made. There's the thrilling freedom of the lunch break or the smoke break or the walk break, and the eager counting-down-the-days anticipation of the weekend or the week-long vacation. Then afterwards, trading wistful stories about how the weekend or the vacation went.

There is so much great (and absurd) stuff in all that!

One element that my office-themed stories have in common is the sense of being trapped. In "Our Many-Splendoured Humanity," a woman is constantly being corned in her cubicle by her boss, Lee-Ann. In "We Are All About Wendy Now," a dying employee can't even escape her co-workers in the hospital. It's funny, because only four of the 14 stories in And Also Sharks are office-themed, but lots of reference has been made to the office content. I think that's because it's something that resonates with a lot of people.

Interview: Rebecca Rosenblum

See more at Rebecca's blog/website:

Tell us a bit about your new book?

My new book is called The Big Dream and it's coming out from Biblioasis.

Here's what I wrote when asked by my publisher for a cover blurb (they didn't use this exactly, but pretty close):

The Big Dream is a collection of interweaving short stories about life at the offices of Dream Inc., a lifestyle-magazine publisher. In these stories, the Dream staff struggle to do 'and keep' their jobs in a tough market, but they're also trying to have friends, to be good parents and good children, to answer the phone and fix the photocopier and be happy. The Big Dream is a book about how life doesn't stop on company time. Sometimes the 'dream job' and dream life that's supposed to come with it don't pan out, but in The Big Dream the joys and sorrows and sandwiches of waking life are more than enough to sustain us. This is a book not about jobs, but about the people who do them.

How is it similar/different/changed from your first?

Once was a gathering of the best short stories I had written up until that point; the connections between them were incidental, though certainly present. Whereas The Big Dream was a capital-B Book almost from the get-go. TBD has a definite arc and structure (at least in my mind). There were certain things I wanted to accomplish in one story that took me several others to build to. And on a more logistical level, I wrote the stories all together, over just over 2 years, so it all came out of one period in my life and writing, as opposed to the Once stories that came from a bunch of different points.

What's a recent short story you've read that reminded you why short stories are the greatest genre on earth? What was it about the story that set off fireworks?

Well, J. J. Steinfeld's "Outliving Hitler" is pretty amazing--subtle, strange, sad, and funny. But lately my big interest is in how those aforementioned capital-B Books of short stories work, and the book that contains "Outliving Hitler" has a lot to do with the individual story's success.

The book, called Would You Hide Me? has a number of stories dealing with characters who survived the Holocaust, or whose parents did. As you might imagine, most of those are pretty wrenching--well-written, honest, sometimes even funny, but very tough reading.

When you get to "Outliving Hitler," which I would consider a warm story, and gently hopeful, it feels like this perfect grace note, and the joy I felt reading it seemed earned, you know?

The interesting thing about short story collections is that, no matter how well the individual piece is working, it also has to make sense in terms of the book as a whole. Would You Hide Me? is a masterful collection, and though "Outliving Hitler" is my favourite piece in it, I know the whole collection contributed to that.

What's your ideal vacation? Why?

I'm not a huge vacationer--I don't really chill out at the beach or in the woods...ever. I have a lot of very far-flung friends, and I like to spend any extra time I have trying to see them. I went to England this summer and saw a friend who was living in London, and that was great--and that also means I made it to England for the first time at age 33, so it was more than revelatory. Now a number of my university friends are in the states--DC, Michigan, upstate New York, so nothing too far away. I just have to get some free time (easier said than done) and make a plan to go. I miss them.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Submissions - Closed

Fiction writers take note:

TDR is on a long-term hiatus. We are not accepting submissions.

We wish you all the best with your writing.

September 2018