Pubs, Summer 2016

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The new issue of Cold Mountain Review, which includes my story “Forage,” has just gone live. 

A “mountain story” inspired by morel-hunting on Cold Mountain in North Carolina, for a mountain journal, out of Appalachian State, in Boone:

Clare looks at the slant of the rusty tin roof and the white paint that peels in strips from the siding. The house is the same sort of place that usually sits at the edge of somebody’s grandparents’ land, about to fall back into scrap, jammed, from the scarred pine floor to the 12-foot ceilings, with stored bales of hay: the old place. Whenever there is a newer one, it’s a ranch-style set a little farther back from the road or backed up to a cowpond. Propane tank tethered close; the well out front turned into a planter. They drove past half a dozen like that just on the way here.

Pubs, Spring 2016 Edition

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The new issue of Shenandoah, which includes my story “The Fossil Record,” has just gone live.

The working title for “The Fossil Record” was “The Nanny’s Tale,” and I guess that just about covers it:

The Davenport’s beautiful house is filled with beautiful art.  Art Molly loves to look on. So for a while, the stage before this stage, she supposes, she tried to convince herself that was reason enough to stay with the job, reason enough to be happy — the slant of light on the gleaming wooden floors and the quiet, and the milky bubble at the corner of Odette’s mouth whenever she falls asleep clutching a bottle.  Which she is not supposed to do, or Molly to allow, because it’ll be bad for the teeth Odette doesn’t actually have yet.  The fact is that there are bold still-lifes hung everywhere, even the kitchen, oil paint on canvas, such an orgy of art that Molly can hardly comprehend it.  She begins to run a sponge over the marble countertop.   How much longer can she rationalize what she’s doing?  She needs to go back to school, so she can get her education certificate, so she can teach art to preschoolers, at least until the next downturn, when such positions will once again be cut.

The Cup of Summer

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… I am drunk

on the words of summer:

Brandywine, Celeste, Anise Swallowtail, Cloudless Sulfur.

My poem “Surfeit” has just gone live at Flyway, an online journal that takes as its mission “publishing [work] that explores the many complicated facets of the word environment – at once rural, urban, and suburban – and its social and political implications.”

****

Literary writing, as we all know, is a labor of love.  What gets discussed even less  often is  the arguably larger labor of love that working at a literary magazine might be.

Twenty years ago, I sat the very back of a room at a hotel in Pittsburgh during the annual AWP conference and listened to a panel of editors discuss the plight of what were then called the “little” (usually university-affiliated) literary magazines.  People didn’t subscribe!  Heck, who knew if anybody even read them!

Things sounded awfully grim. Somebody may have even stood up and wondered if there was a point.  Why bother?  Besides, wouldn’t people be buying the little magazines  if they published things people wanted to read?

Well, twenty years on down the pike, we can look to the (precarious) health of both the magazine and newspaper publishing industries for at least a partial answer to that question.

Which is:  uh, no.  The world is full of worthy things for which we have little interest in forking over money.

The little magazines might be a bulwark against the idea that the marketplace is the final arbiter of literary taste.  I’m biased, of course, but I can’t help that that’s a good thing. It has been a pleasure  to have had my writing read, thoughtfully edited and published this summer in Flyway,  Front Porch Journal and Michigan Quarterly Review — beautiful journals all.

 

Pubs, A Little Bit Later Summer Edition

The new Front Porch Journal, which includes my story “Bubble,” is out and on the virtual stands.

Among other things, “Bubble” is about — what else? — real estate:

Take me, the house calls as soon as they climb out of the car and stand on the cracked sidewalk in front of it. Martin looks over at Sheila.  Surely she hears it. But she’s just propping one foot against the broken carriage block at the curb.   She stoops over to tie her shoelace.

I was built upon buttons and shards of bone, the house whispers to him.  But in the summer these thorny vines will bear roses.

Vines creep over the lip of its porch. In a month or so, there might—or might not—be roses. The front yard is a tangle of brown stalks. Bushes have swallowed the chain-link fence that surrounds it. Sheila steps up onto the porch, stopping to shield her eyes and press her cheek against the dirty glass set into the front door.

Pubs, Late Summer Edition

Everything was named for something it used to be, something it no longer was. This was supposed to be ironic or funny; on a good night, Kyle could spin it as both. Clad in requisite waitperson black, wrapped waist-to-ankle in his spotless bistro apron, he knew he had talent. To be good-looking! To be self-deprecating! To know when to engage in conversation and when to stand back from a table with arms clasped behind his back in the professional waiter’s attentive stance! All these things took skill, even if it was a skill three-fourths of the world preferred not to notice.

…from “The Latch,” Summer 2014, Michigan Quarterly Review.

 

Home.

Back in the early aughts, soon after I returned to Georgia after spending a decade elsewhere, I wrote a personal essay  in which I referred glancingly to the fact that I lived in “intown Atlanta.”  The editor  of the publication struck the word “intown” from that description.  To her, Atlanta was just Atlanta.

Me, I’ve lived here long enough  now that I split hairs.  There’s metro Atlanta, which probably encompasses the top third of Georgia these days.  And then there’s OTP (Outside the Perimeter), which refers to everything outside I-285 .  That’s probably where your cousin lives, or the person who was a friend of a friend who got married in 1994.  No, I haven’t ever met them.  In fact, I might actually live 30 miles from them, since I live  ITP (Inside the Perimeter).

And then there’s intown Atlanta, which, in my idiosyncratic definition, refers to six or seven very specific neighborhoods inside the perimeter that blossomed 1890- 1930.

And then there’s southeast Atlanta, that quadrant of Atlanta located south of I-2o, more grit than grits,  where I’ve lived for over sixteen years, where I’ve occasionally been part of a guerrilla band of neighbors that paints over graffiti on vacant storefronts.

This summer,  I’ve had the opportunity to read proof for a couple of stories of mine that will be published over the next few months. Both of those stories are Georgia stories, a state of affairs that  surprised me when I read them over.  How did I get here?  I never planned to inhabit this patch of writerly dirt!  (This shows a pretty willful disregard for facts; just what did I think I was going to write about instead?)

Each of these stories is set in Atlanta, the City too Busy to Hate — the city I have for much of my life loved to hate.  They’re both set, more specifically, in a gentrifying neighborhood in a sort of fictional-but-resembling-the-real southeast Atlanta.

One, “Bubble,” will be out some time this month in Front Porch Journal:

What they’re doing strikes him as oddly like shopping. It is shopping, of course, but sometimes it seems like a particular kind of purchase, one he’s more used to. It’s almost as if the two of them are pushing a shopping cart together down broad, well-stocked aisles. They’re searching for particular brands promising certain things.

Sheila won’t ever find a shampoo that makes her hair as shiny as the hair of the TV models who tout it, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to stop hunting, The house they are looking for is just up the road. When they find it, it’ll be perfect.

“There’s a For Sale sign,” she says. “Up there. Do you see it?”

Once upon a time, watching her select shampoo was the most intimacy he could imagine.

The second, “The Latch,” is forthcoming this month as well, in Michigan Quarterly Review:

The neighborhood had changed so much, hadn’t it? she continued, once she had twisted back and was staring again out the window. Her movement had sobered her up or loosened her tongue, Kyle wasn’t sure which. The previous owners had taken that house down to the studs. She waved a hand. Before that, it had been a crack house. How long had he said he’d  lived around here?

“I stripped at least seven layers of paint off every single piece of woodwork in the house when we first bought it,” she continued. “With dental picks. Seven layers. One of them was magenta.”

Because Kyle lived in a house where the trim in the bathroom had been painted gold by Melinda, he could believe this.  He murmured politely, the same way he agreed with customers at the restaurant, who looked at its brick walls and exposed ductwork and sometimes made the same sort of observations. That the neighborhood had changed; that they themselves had lived there long enough to be a part of its transformation. As if the fact that they were spending twenty-five bucks on an organic roasted chicken breast sitting in a pool of balsamic vinegar reduction somehow proved they had had a hand in any of the changes they were pointing out; as if any of those changes were germane to anything that actually mattered in the long run.

***

Daily, as part of my Atlanta life, I get in my car and drive north, across I-20.

Better,  people who live in southeast Atlanta say when they talk about what lies on the other side of that overpass.  Better schools, better grocery stores, better services, better streets, better restaurants.  Folks in this neck of the woods are always talking about pulling up stakes  for those greener pastures.

Daily, I get in my car and drive across I-20, past this sign:  Image

***

Middle age may very well be  the recognition that in the end you have to settle somewhere.  Have to choose something. Even not choosing becomes, in the end, a kind of choice.

Eventually we each of us  find a patch of land to call our own.

I never expected to, but I live sixty-some odd miles from the place where I started first grade.

And sixth grade.

Sixty-some odd miles from where  I graduated from high school.

And from college.

During my footloose twenties, whenever I lived elsewhere, my heart turned over every single spring, because I missed the exuberance of spring here.

This particular patch of dirt!

In some ways I know it like the backs of my hands.

It is my phantom limb, my ball-and-chain, the setting for my stories.

Topic: Bookstores — Do We Really Need ‘Em?

Let’s face it: every writer is, at heart, a reader. Because of that, every writer probably has a Bookstore Story. This is one of mine.

The summer after I graduated from college, way way  back in 1988,  I believed  I could best prep myself  for the looming future by:

1.   sitting on a ratty sofa on the front porch of a ratty duplex in Athens, GA, listening  to “Born to Run” at the highest volume possible.

and by

2.   holding a yard sale in the front yard of said ratty duplex to unload what thrift store possessions I could.

By that August, believing myself to now be adequately prepared for post-collegiate life, I loaded the possessions I had left into my car and headed west, destination Austin.

It had not occurred to me that Austin, being itself a college town, already had a whole slew of recent college graduates of its own to fill the sorts of jobs I imagined I’d apply for once I got there.  Or that all those graduates, with their local references and transcripts to boot, might have a leg up on me.

I arrived in Austin, found a junky duplex similar to the one I’d just said good-bye to (although this one was smaller, cost more and had an actual junkie living in the other half of it, because this was the Big City, after all). I unpacked my car and found the nearest grocery store.  As I stood in the check-out line, a well-meaning Good Samaritan warned me about the neighborhood’s serial rapist.  If nothing else, I should sleep with my windows shut at night.

The ratty duplex had no air-conditioning.  It was August.

I came home and unpacked my bag of groceries.  I promised myself that come Monday morning (it was Saturday), I’d knuckle down and find a job. But until then, I had to figure out a way to avoid thinking about what I might’ve gotten myself into.  I decided to spend the afternoon at Barton Springs, the renowned swimming hole that in some ways might be the truest heart of Austin.  And on my way there, I promised myself, I’d buy a paperback  to read, the greatest comfort —  and most indulgent luxury —  I could think of.

Way back in those dark ages, there was still an independent bookstore on the Drag, that street that borders UT campus (hard to believe it now, but there may have actually been two or three). After a coffee at the cafe next door, I pushed open the door of Garner and Smith Booksellers, which is of course long, long,  gone.

I remember Garner and Smith as long and narrow, wooden-floored, shelved floor-to-ceiling with books.  It was the first bookstore I’d been in that had a bookstore cat (he weighed close to 20 pounds and it was the most senior sales clerk’s job to feed him). It contained a large  Literary Theory section.  What was that?  I’d majored in Journalism;  I hadn’t the foggiest.  The fiction section was in an alcove at the very back of the store, where there was a wing-backed chair.

Money was tight; though I was not adult by any real definition of the word, I was still mature enough to realize I had very little business squandering any of the money I’d spent all summer earning and squirreling away on a book.  The one I picked had better be… the best one I could possibly find.

I must have been there for hours.  I studied every single book in the fiction section, methodically, walking from shelf to shelf. After much deliberation, I whittled down my selection.  First to three books, then to one.  (It was Braided Lives by Marge Piercy, which seems an odd choice to me now). I brought it to the front and set it carefully on the counter.

It felt like my life hung in the balance.  If I’d picked the wrong book, if it was unreadable, how on earth was I going to get through the weekend?  I knew no one.  I was going to have to sleep in that ratty duplex with the windows shut!  Within twelve hours the junkie next door was going to initiate his habit of knocking on my door wanting to use my phone!

The guy behind the counter was longhaired, goatee’d.  He looked like the sort of person  I imagined understood Literary Theory (I ‘d come to learn that he in fact did).  He rang up my purchase, pushed it back across the counter.

— Need a job? he asked.  We’re hiring.  

I could have kissed him.

*****

So  in part that’s why I’ll be “hand-selling” books at Bound to Be Read Books on Saturday, November 3o, from 2:00 – 5:00 as part of Indies First and Small Business Saturday.

Because, like, I owe  them.

Thanks, indies!

If you’re in Atlanta this Saturday, come on down and say hi.

Pubs, Sultry Summer Edition

The Summer 2013 issue of The Massachusetts Review, which includes my story “Plenty” is out and on the metaphorical stands.  You can subscribe here.

“Plenty” might be suitable for the season, which around here, we just call  “Thick of Farmer’s Market” (we also call it steamy-hot):

All those years ago, when the guy with the guitar at the blueberry farm had handed back her change, his fingers had been stained up to the first knuckle with blueberry juice. And then, on the drive home, she and John had had their first real argument — over how easy or hard it might be, to defer one’s student loans, or wear faded overalls, or be a gentleman farmer.

The next morning, she had cooked down the berries while John was at work, with a recipe she’d kept when she cleaned out her grandmother’s house, spidery handwriting on a stained index card.  She tilted it on the counter and set to work.  Eva’s Blueberry Jam,  it proclaimed, and in the right-hand margin: the best Edward says he ever tasted!  Who was Eva?  Edward?  The house filled up with the smell of hot sugar, like a fairground.

An aside:  last weekend’s Blackberry-Lime Jam  was just made for research’s sake, of course.

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And while we’re on the subject of art and craft, and magazines, when my poem “Cucumbers” was published in Ruminate this past spring, I received a year’s subscription to it.  I just got the Summer 2013 issue.

It’s gorgeous, both in form and content.

Print, in case you haven’t heard, is pretty close to dead.  Who needs ink, when we’ve got bits and bytes and vapor?  The wisps of words we have do the job just fine.

I’d argue otherwise. I’d like to, in fact, put in a vote for things that are tactile — for  process.

I won’t lie:  I love the convenient jolt I get whenever I click away from the work I’m doing to read… whatever.  (To be honest, usually it’s the neighborhood listserv, which no one in their right mind would call either  art or craft).  I can waste an hour or so letting my mouse rove from here to there and back again with the best of them.

It’s so easy, for us to consume.  Words and opinions, in this particular case.  We eat them up.  We chew them up and spit them out.  And we hardly ever even have to pay for them! When we have gotten so good at attaching ourselves to the I.V. of communication,  what point is there in something as old-fashioned as print and paper?

But there might be something to be said — for the shrink-wrapped magazine that arrives unexpectedly on a sultry summer afternoon.  For one thing, its arrival in the mailbox helps keep the U.S. Postal Service afloat.   For another, the unpredictability of its arrival might actually be a sort  of gift.

We can summon up so much, and so quickly!  We get exactly what we want.  The second that we want it.

So maybe it’s good for us  — to occasionally be surprised.  Even if it’s by something as mundane as a magazine.

The day my copy of the latest Ruminate arrived, I stood at the curb and reached into my mailbox.  The neighbor’s hickory tree has already started tossing down a few harbinger nuts, hints of cooler weather to come.  The street was quiet, quiet.  Sealed off.  I tossed the mail onto  the front seat of the car and backed out of the driveway and Younger Girleen and I headed off, to the orthodontist.

This time last week, she and I were headed farther afield.  To Western NC to pick up her older sister at camp.

On the way we stopped, as we have the past couple of years, to pick berries at a  farm perched at the top of a slant-sided hill. South Carolina tableland, I suppose you’d call the area, the littlest toe of the foothills of the Blue Ridge.  The real hills, or their bulky outlines, hang on the horizon like a bank of clouds.  We pick a gallon of blackberries from looping canes; another of  rabbit-eye Blues.

And then I lug them into our hotel room that night, and out again the next morning.  After Big Sister has been picked up, and hugged, and we are headed homeward, we discuss:  a crumble this year?  A pie?  Should we just eat them by the handful?

There was enough for all those things.  There was, in fact, plenty.  

Last Sunday afternoon, I brought glass jars to a boil in a black-speckled canner purchased at the local hardware store that, a year or so after the Big Box went in two miles away, gave up the ghost and went under.

Thinking all the while.  Of this, of that, of the way an 11-year-old’s legs magically lengthen when you aren’t there to see that 11-year-old for two weeks.

Thinking also of the water required to sterilize a half-dozen jelly jars, the natural gas required to heat it, and the jar of jelly to be had at Kroger down the street.  What does it cost?  Two, three dollars?

I am a fool.

Every morning when we pull out  our newly-minted jam and smear it onto slabs of toast, I admire its distillation of that afternoon, when I picked berries with my eight-year-old, and a hawk wheeled overhead, and I was lost in process.  

Our fingers touched every single berry in this jam!  Younger Girleen points out.

At the orthodontist, I sat in the waiting area while her titanium spring dental appliance was adjusted, magazine on lap. Fingers happy with the heft of the paper pages, the crisp ink, the middle section of reproduced paintings by an artist I’d never before known to seek out.

A fool, yes, but such a happy one, on certain sultry summer days.

Pubs, Cusp of Summer Edition

The latest issue of Crazyhorse, which contains my story “The Snow Queen,” is out.  You can get single copies and subscriptions on their website.

“The Snow Queen” is the second published story of a set I’ve been working on, all of them about a character named Simone, some of them set in Madison, WI.*  It gets cold there.  What better to read as your summer gets underway than a story set in deepest, darkest Midwestern winter?

A snippet:

On the other side of the windshield lies the landscape Simone has lived with her whole life: comfortable, rounded hills, an occasional barn nestled down in the curve between them. Houses set into fields like pictures from books, except where manure smears the old snow. She holds herself upright to keep from leaning into the passenger-side window of the Gremlin, where a greasy circle from someone else’s head has been pressed across the glass at chin height. What Jeremy intends is — she doesn’t know. Is it illegal? She hopes so, suspects it isn’t, just ill-advised. 

*The first of the “simone stories,” “Atomic,” came out in Freight Stories last year. Not all these stories are set in the early ’80s, but these two are.