An Interview with Greg Barth by Rusty Barnes

gregbarth

I know how important Selena’s Appalachian background is important to her and to the story. Does that follow for you personally? How did you decide how much background was enough?

 

It does follow for me personally. First of all, I was born and raised in Southwest Virginia, the part of Virginia that is neatly tucked between Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia. It’s really the only upbringing I know. My father and both grandfathers were coal miners, and I had a great uncle who was both a coal miner and a moonshiner (consumer and distributor anyway; I don’t think he was a producer). My grandmothers and mother outlived my grandfathers and father, not because they were sheltered (far from it) but because they were the toughest in the family. There was a feminine strength in our family. A resilience and toughness that I identified with. Selena’s upbringing is not atypical of what I have seen and experienced.

 

Growing up, we cut our teeth on coon hounds, corn whiskey, and shotguns. Marijuana was the middle-school import for the youth of my generation, probably our most distinct form of rebellion besides metal rock. The difference between male and female, drunk and sober, good and evil, heaven and hell, were all defined at a young age. Poverty was an ever-present reality. Drug abuse and the destruction of the pride and fortitude of the nuclear family were present in Appalachia in my generation in a unique way. Violence was the heritage of Vietnam of my father’s generation and WWII of my grandfathers’. But there is a strength to the Appalachian family–a bond, if you will–that is not present in the same way in other parts of the country.

 

I felt that Appalachia was the appropriate background for Selena, as it was the place that would provide her with the strength and fortitude that would prevent her from giving up when all was lost. That is the thing that is unique for those from Appalachia–you can lose everything in a day, but you will not give up, you will fight to survive, you will not roll over and die, you will rise again. Selena is a young woman who, whether she knows it or not, feels inferior to the normal cast of society. She feels this way because of her lack of education and her humble upbringing. She has done what she has had to do to survive, but a part of her cannot stand the things she has done. She will not give up and die when the going gets brutally tough, yet she has a self-loathing nature that drives her to alcoholism and self destruction. It is these dichotomies and contradictions that are daily present for those of us raised in the lower-class grit of the Appalachian foothills:  It’s a blend of shame and pride. It’s the tension between freedom and the southern concept of sin.

 

This was not the experience for 100% of my generation, but–for some of us, those who lived daily on the cusp of financial ruin, looking forward to their allotment of welfare cheese and a hot shower when the electric bill could be paid and the lights turned back on–it was. Selena’s experience was uniquely female, and mine male, but that shouldn’t matter to the reader. How vulnerable you feel coming out of that experience into the world at large is just how vulnerable you feel. I remember those girls at the high-school dances in the 10th grade that would catch rides home with coal-truck drivers on they highway at night.They were real people. They were good people. It was just normal for us. Selena is someone I could relate to.

 

There’s a tradition of strong women in Appalachian fiction. How would you like the book to be read, as part of that tradition or a pushback against it? Let’s face it, there are many potential Selenas around, but not many of them get written about or discussed.

 

Easily the best (and toughest) question I’ve been asked to date. For the record, let’s call it a pushback. Sometimes it’s hard for me to distinguish between an Ozarkan, or Southern, or Appalachian character. For example, Ree Dolly of Winter’s Bone is Ozarkan, but how is she different from the characters of Larry Brown or Flannery O’Connor or even William Faulkner? While I would never compare my crude scribblings to the great work of Daniel Woodrell, I think the contrast of characters tells us something about the pushback referred to in your question. To me, Ree is the epitome of the poverty-stricken Southern/Appalachian/Ozarkan heroine. She’s strong, she is passionate about her quest, and she’s not as innocent as other characters (such as Larry Brown’s Fay). Ree has a moral compass that points north when surrounded by a bunch of south-bounders. But Selena is not that. Something right and good with Ree is lacking with Selena.

 

What distinguishes Selena is her amoral nature, her strong bent toward self-destruction, and her willingness to do most anything. She is a young woman who fled home at a young age (the details of which are yet to be revealed in the second novel) and has had to do what is unpleasant and necessary to survive. She has self-medicated to the point that she can semi-function in society, but always on the brink of destruction. The violence that she suffers early in the novel  brutally pushes her over that brink, but it is her strength of spirit that enables her to survive and do the nasty things that are necessary to set matters right. I feel that Selena goes to a length that is not represented often in Appalachian literature, but it is her uniquely Appalachian feminine strength that enables her to survive in circumstances that pride or weakness would lead the rest of us to give up and die.

 

I don’t think that anyone would claim Selena as the paragon of feminist noir, or even the ideal, strong female protagonist of crime fiction. But for those of us who were raised at the very bottom of the proud, strong, self-sufficient, corn-liquored, reefer-smoked, death-metal bottom-rung of Appalachian society–both proud and ashamed at the same time, she just might be our anti-heroine and someone we’d like to share a drink with some day.

 

We’re talking background here. A couple more questions. Which crime writers, past and current, did you look to for inspiration while writing Selena?

 

I wrote about Selena for almost an entire year–about 1,000 unedited manuscript pages–so there are a few people that influenced the later portions that I had not read at the beginning. From the start, Stieg Larsson was an influence. I enjoyed his character, Lisbeth Salander very much and craved more of that vulnerable yet strong female protagonist.

 

Richard Stark was an early influence. His distilled, non-flowery prose style was appealing to me (as I felt myself too much of an amateur to write those long Southern sentences that just drip adjectives and adverbs and have commas sprouting up all over the place). I also liked the amoral nature of Stark’s character, Parker. Parker was a guy that cut his own path in the world. He did things his way and by his own code. This caused him some trouble now and again, which is why we have so many novels we can read about Parker–his trouble created the stories.

 

Another influence would be Carol Clover’s non-fiction work titled Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. I would go so far as to say that Clover’s book is a must-read for anyone out there that is interested in gender concerns in violent films. Especially if that person is a writer. You could also say that the first 100 pages of Selena owe a bit of a debt to films such as Death Wish from 1974 and I Spit on Your Grave from 1978. I’m not necessarily recommending either movie, but I was consciously thinking of them and the impression they left on me as I was writing the first book.

 

During the writing of Selena I read Mike Monson’s What Happens in Reno and The Scent of New Death. While those didn’t influence the idea of Selena, the edginess and on-stage brutality of Mike’s books encouraged me to let the story be as bold as it wanted to be. Mike is very straightforward with the violence in his novels. That is something I appreciate as it gives me some validation of my own work to see others doing this. I’ve also recently discovered Vicki Hendricks. I was finished writing Selena, Diesel Therapy, and Suicide Lounge by the time I read Hendricks’ Miami Purity. Part of me wishes I had read that one earlier. I think some scenes in the novels might have been a bit more explicit if I had. Vicki’s heroines are perfect in my estimation.

 

How do you feel about the camaraderie and interaction between crime writers on the internet and off? It seems to me to be pretty inclusive and largely–in public anyway–free of the status-seeking status quo.

Selena2 (1)

I think the camaraderie is great in the Crime Noir community. You won’t encounter much snobbish intellectualism there. We share something in common that forms a connection that you just don’t have with anyone else. I recently had the pleasure of attending Noir at the Bar in Durham, NC along with Eryk Pruitt, David Terrenoire, Steve Weddle, Geraud Staton, and S.A. Crosby. I can’t remember the last time I had as much fun. There was no status seeking in that group. I can honestly say that Noir writers for the most part are good people that have good intentions and want to do good things. Fortunately they write about a different kind of people.

 

The online community is much the same in my experience particularly among the small press and independent publishers. But writers are just like everyone else, and it depends on what you are looking for. If you are confident in yourself and not seeking constant validation, have a few ounces of humility, and recognize that everyone has a bad day now and again, you are going to thrive in this online community. Just like everyone else, writers have strong opinions on things and cliques form–some don’t care for the self-pubs, some don’t like amazon, some hate the big 5 and James Patterson, etc. Right now there seems to be a lot of bashing going on with E.L. James. Now I’ve never read anything by E. L. James, but I know people who would say those are the best books they’ve ever read. Some people love them. I’m at a point in my life where I am comfortable not judging others over a lot of things that I would have in the past. If E. L. James wants to write it and people buy it and even like it enough to show back up for the second and third installment, then why should I care? I’m happy she’s doing what she loves and that other people enjoy it. When I write something, I’m not thinking of it as anything important or long-lasting, I just want to entertain the hell out of myself while I am writing it. If it’s fun to write, I hope it is fun to read. So that’s just an example of something I disagree with others on, but that doesn’t mean that i’m going to flame out on Facebook and unfriend people, etc. I’m sure E. L. James can take care of herself, this will pass, and I’ll disagree about something else tomorrow.

 

So I guess what I am saying is, the online crime writing community is a great place to be. I love it there. But we are people too and getting along with others online is much like getting along with others in real life. You just have to let people be who they are and give them some space. I don’t like judging others if they are not hurting someone, or taking offense, or have a burning need to force others to agree with me. So I just don’t. I’m kind of hard to offend anyway.

 

How did Selena come about? I know she’s someone you’ve been writing about for some time (now that I know there are sequels). What compels you about her story?

 

First I should say that I have a long commute each day. I spend well over an hour on the road five days per week. I do my writing in my head in the car, daydreaming, listening to music. I find that certain songs inspire me and help me get into the heads of my characters. So Selena may have a playlist of songs that help me channel her. If I’m in Ragus mode, those are very different songs. Before bed each night, I write the scene that entertained me that day. Then when I go to bed, I think of the overall plot of the book and future scenes as I go to sleep. When I spend a lot of time writing, and I’m really in the zone, it’s not unusual for me to dream at night as one of my characters.

 

Now, what does that have to do with how Selena came about? It’s simple. I can hear her voice so well in my head and with such great clarity, I can sit down and start writing as her with almost no effort. I know what she’s going to do in most situations, and it’s usually something most of us would be unwilling to do. It’s not often that she surprises me, but there were a couple of times. When I wrote those scenes, I remember thinking, “Okay, that’s on you, Selena. That one’s going to come back to haunt you, but I get why you did it.”

 

Where did it start? I began to think of Selena first when I was reading the Jack Taylor novels by Ken Bruen. Taylor is a unique character. He’s kind of like Matthew Scudder except Scudder’s got stronger principles. I read several of Bruen’s early Taylor novels in one big binge. I began to wonder if that kind of character could work as a female. Now Taylor is Irish, middle aged, and washed up. Selena is none of those, but I think what inspired me from Taylor carries over, and that’s a bit of regret, self-loathing, but also a stubbornness about making things right.

 

Then at some point, I was toying with the idea of writing a story about a guy (actually Carl, the protagonist from my short story Bona Fide Jobs) who was trying to make a getaway in his girlfriend’s car. Only the car had a device installed that would not let you start it if you had been drinking. In the story, Carl would be unable to get the car started and bad things would happen to him. The thing is, I never wrote that. I wrote instead about a woman in a similar situation. Since it was a woman, I wanted to write it in first person. I’m not a fan of violence against women just for the sake of it. If this character was going to be beaten, the audience was not going to be doing the beating. The audience was going to get beaten right along with her and from her perspective. It was supposed to be a short story, but I heard her voice in a strong way during the daily commute. I discovered that writing a female protagonist meant that I could write about someone who acted out of emotion. An emotional killer doesn’t care about evidence. To an emotional killer, it revenge is personal. It’s visceral. Selena felt it all. She did not start out as a cold-blooded killer. Killing was the only thing she could do to deal with the pain and emotion and discontent she felt after her attack.

 

What compels me to write about her is what I think of as the spirit of her character. Life has dealt her a bad hand, but she is playing every single card for all its worth. She makes the best life that she can. She self-medicates. She seeks physical pleasure. She is willing to do the nasty things required for her to claw out an existence in the underbelly of society. She will go to extremes that are discomfiting for the reader. There is nothing personal with Selena, she puts it all on the page regardless of whether polite society thinks it should be there or not. She maintains a positive attitude, never gives up, is the victim of her own desperate decisions, and cannot just pretend everything is okay when she has been wronged. It’s this complex mix of good and harmful traits that makes her who she is. One thing I have learned about Selena is that I can put her in the worst possible situation, with no support (Prince Charming never comes to her rescue), no deus ex machina, and she will find a way to get out of that situation using only what she can find at hand. Now I am talking about her like she is an actual person. She is not. She is not based on anyone I’ve ever known, but her voice in my head is a channel I can tune in with little effort. I wish all characters were so easy.

 

When you wrote Selena, did you imagine there’d be another two books in here (there are two sequels, right?) How did you know?

 

Not at the beginning, I didn’t. But by the time I had finished the portion contained in volume one, I knew there would be two more. Those two are written and loaded up for release in the months to come from All Due Respect Books. I wrote them straight through with no break. The next two titles are Diesel Therapy and Suicide Lounge.

 

How I knew has a lot to do with how I write in general. When I am putting together ideas for a novel, I need at least a couple of things. First I want to have a character that I am interested in enough to spend a good 12 weeks with. When I am writing, I am thinking about my character during my long daily commute and while drifting off at night, and that is in addition to the time spent writing. But I also need three or four compelling scenes. These scenes might be major plot points that form the story for me as I write toward them. Or they may be small scenes that are unexpected or reveal something I like about the character. In some instances it may be nothing more than a line. For example, the excitement that was the impetus for the third volume involving Selena (Suicide Lounge) started with a single sentence. Now, Suicide Lounge is still pending final edits, but that line in the raw was “It was a week after my Demerol overdose that I moved into the apartment above the Red Light Lounge.” If you know anything about this woman named Selena, you know that line is pregnant with electricity–at least it was for me. When that line popped into my head, I knew there was a novel’s worth of material in there.

 

So, to make a long story short, by the time I had finished Selena, my mind was brimming with character growth ideas, scenes, lines, etc. I knew where the story was going to go, and I was excited about how I would get her there. For Selena, the hurdles get higher, and–as the author, I must say–there are times that she surprises even me.

 

You answered this partly with the Appalachian question, but I’m interested still. What is it in your background that makes this story writeable for you?

 

I spent my first 18 years of life in a world that was dying. It wasn’t evident early on, but as I grew into my teen years, I could not ignore the decay. It was a time of broken families, self-medication with alcohol, lay-offs from coal mining jobs, abject poverty, and contentment rather than justified desperation. Quite simply, we were in decline. My grandfather once told me that God put coal down in the ground so that young men could find work and earn a living and raise their families. He said that with sincerity, and I never questioned him on it. That’s who he was, you understand? And you don’t question that. But I grew up knowing a lot of young men that couldn’t earn a consistent living by digging coal.

 

When the Clinchfield Railroad cut through the Appalachians, a way of life was invented. Mineral rights were sold, mountaintops were stripped off, and the men dug coal. It was dangerous, back-breaking work. The families who lived in the coal camps and paid in script to use at the company store were exploited, pure and simple. But it put food on the table. Poor families were raised on this. Lyndon Johnson created programs and sent teachers into this area for the betterment of its inhabitants. It made a difference. But this was a way of life that was in steep decline when I came along. You’ve heard the old song “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore”? Well, I grew up along the Clinch River, and I saw those rusted out coal cars sitting unused every day. Lyndon Johnson was long out of office, and the best I had were high-school teachers that were committed to exposing me to the world outside of the one I was born into. The L&N most certainly did not stop there anymore.

 

The tension that drove me away from Appalachia was that which rose between a kind, loving father who was content with things as they were and my discontentment with the lack of opportunity in the area. That and my youthful passion for what was possible. What does teenage angst look like in that world? There were many days that I walked through the kudzu covered forest by our home and reminded myself that I did not need to think about suicide, because the day was coming that I would turn 18 and would be able to leave. I left Appalachia when I was 18 years old. I didn’t go far, just to the edges, but I went to a world of more opportunity.

 

Does this mean that I am critical of Appalachia and the way of life there? Not at all. It is not a bad place. It is a place to be proud of. I don’t even think that my life was typical of everyone’s raised in that geographical area. My experience wasn’t unique, but it wasn’t exclusive either. My world offered coal mining (which was dying) and little else. I love the area and believe the people are the salt of the Earth. I’ve lived my adult life along the edges of Appalachia in part because of the deep ties that I have with the region.

 

Selena is a grown woman on the small urban edges of Appalachia when we meet her. She has not come to complete terms with her upbringing and who she is. She placates this pain with an almost hedonistic level of freedom and self-fulfillment through pleasure. She has also developed a toughness and a knack for doing the unpleasant things that she has to do to get by. The only thing that holds her back is a feeling of inferiority, a feeling that she is not good enough, that she did not start from the same place as others. This sense of humility that gives her a kinship with those below working class. She feels at home with people who make the gutter their home. I often describe Selena as someone who is “living the dream” when we first meet her, and I believe that. But she is living her dream, probably not yours.

 

Am I saying that I, as the writer of this, feel as diminutive as a tiny, petite woman from Appalachia who did not graduate high school and who feels at home in the gutter because deep down inside she thinks of herself as trash? No, not quite. I am educated and have achieved a certain level of professional success. But I understand it, and have felt it, and know how hard it is to overcome. And I know some people who are still there today and chose to never pull out of it.

 

Do not overlook the fact that Selena has a determined resilience, a strength to survive and overcome anything. That is not present in everyone. Where does she get that? From her upbringing. And just maybe mine.

 

You learn a lot more about Selena’s Appalachian background in the next book titled Diesel Therapy. That title carries a lot of connotations for many of us who have been at the bottom. It carries meaning for those in the federal prison system. It also has meaning for those of us that grew up in the hills where they dug coal and shipped it out in coal trucks. We breathed those diesel fumes daily. Diesel Therapy speaks of something ghastly and unpleasant…but also necessary. For those Selena readers that want to return for a second trip with this free-spirited woman, I look forward to seeing you there. It won’t all be pleasant, but Selena is always a force to be reckoned with. Everyone can be broken, but some people you shouldn’t break.

 
What would Selena’s music playlist look like? Does she rock the iPOD or the traditional cd route or is she a vinyl junkie?

 

We only get a couple of chapters’ worth of glimpse into Selena’s “normal” life in the novel. But already we know a couple of things. We see that she deals with cash and that she certain recreational activities that keeps the cash flowing into and out of her hands at a fast clip. Her money goes toward her habits, so she doesn’t have much of a collection. But we also see that she likes music and can draw some conclusions about here taste. The fact that she shows interest in a CD case for The Teaches of Peaches is a good indicator that she’s a CD woman and likes the music that she hears in the clubs.

 

Selena’s playlist looks nothing like mine. She’s drawn to a female pop singers. She’s into P!nk, Miley, Lady Gaga, Madonna, etc.

 

It might be interesting to also comment on the playlist I use to get into Selena mode when I am writing about her. That playlist would be:

 

“Victim of Circumstance” Joan Jett

“ACDC” Joan Jett

“Dirty Deeds” Joan Jett

“Reputation” Joan Jett

“Pretty Vacant” Joan Jett

“Handyman” Joan Jett

“Star Star” Joan Jett

“You Call Me a Bitch Like It’s a Bad Thing” Halestorm

“HIt Me Like a Man” The Pretty Reckless

“Ray of Light” Madonna

“Pretty Vegas” INXS

“Bad Girlfriend” Theory of a Dead Man

“Every Day is a Winding Road” Sheryl Crowe

“4×4” Miley Cyrus

“Something In Your Mouth” Nickleback

“Safe in New York City” ACDC

 

Hands down, the one song that makes me want to write something about Selena every single time I hear it is Joan Jett’s “Victim of Circumstance”.

 

What would you like people to know about this book or Selena herself that no one but you knows?

 

There is a scene in Selena where she feels a strong yearning for something that she cannot identify. She drinks, smokes weed, and scratches every itch that she can think of to satisfy the need. She gets so stoned that the world around her takes on the blurred edges of a Post Impressionistic style painting, the yellows bleeding into the blues. She attributes this to a Pablo Picasso painting. Eventually she understands that the craving she feels is the strong desire to murder the men that hurt her. What’s wrong with that scene? Picasso was not one off the Post Impressionists. In fact the painting that Selena was thinking of in that hyper intoxicated state was Starry Night over the Rhone by Vincent Van Gogh. She makes the same mistake inside Jack Jefferson’s apartment. She attributes the prints on his wall as Picasso’s. She does this yet again in an upcoming novel titled Suicide Lounge.

 

Now, whether this says something about Selena’s uneducated taste in art and her intoxicated state of mind at the time, or says more about author’s state of mind when he wrote these scenes and looked up at the prints hanging on his own walls I will leave up to the reader to decide.

 

 

Nights in Paradise, fiction by Rusty Barnes

 

 

Before Paradise

 

Like Krakatoa—Kilauea—Vesuvius—Mr. McGurk said as he turned to Helen, his lips like red rash. He dropped to his knees. Every rumble of my intestines is for you. Please say that you will have me and we will make calderas together under the stony light. Helen paused, her blaze-orange vest flapping in the breeze as she directed traffic into and out of the Topsfield Fair parking lot. Sorry, she coughed. I just don’t burn for you like that.

 

The Last Night in Paradise

 

Mrs. McGurk found the newspaper floating in the forsythia, late again. That little shit of a delivery boy. She’d get him this time. She loaded her shotgun with her dearest unspoken wishes, made a plate of lemon cookies for afterward and waited. About four a.m. he showed up and she shot at him, but missed. He lay on her front porch like an asthmatic baby, mouth opening and closing. That’s right, she said. Suffer. The news is important.

 

On Another Night in Paradise

 

Helen McGurk rose and prepared a lovely rare roast beef for her husband’s dinner. She rubbed in salt and pepper with her bare hands, shelled peas, and boiled some potatoes into paste. Mr. McGurk came through the door around five, said hi honey in his sweet voice, only to find her on the table, legs spread, roast toppled, peas scattered, potatoes in her hair.

 

Drive me like a stolen car, baby, she said.

 

He appreciated her sudden candor.

 

~~~

 

Rusty Barnes, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, has published three books of poems and three books of fiction, including the flash fiction collection Breaking it Down and the novel Reckoning. His work has appeared in over two hundred journals and anthologies, among them Post Road, Change Seven, Red Rock Review, Barn Owl Review, and Interstice. He is sole proprietor of Fried Chicken and Coffee, a blogazine of rural and Appalachian literature and concerns.

Thefts, flash fiction by Andrew Stancek

 

The first time Lojzik brought home a stolen apple, his father thrashed him with a belt – then devoured the whole thing, including stem and pips.  Lojzik had hoped his father would share.  The empty bottle of borovicka meant that come Monday they’d be short of rent money again. His friend Duro said stealing was a piece of cake, but Lojzik had a sweat bead on his eyebrow when he darted in for the snatch and was convinced a burly policeman was about to pounce. A year ago the kitchen counter was heaped with apples, Lojzik helped Mom peel and the smell of cinnamon and cloves in the strudel filled the flat for a week.

The next day Lojzik squeezed through the legs of the lined-up customers, grabbed two apples and ran.  A piece of one stuck in his throat, but the tart taste was heaven.  He placed the other on the coffee table for his father and from the wedding picture hanging above the sofa, Mom nodded and mouthed, “You’re a good boy, Lojzik.” She’d told him to look after his father, that he’d be the responsible one now.  Only four potatoes were left in the storeroom and one was beginning to rot.  The box of birdseed was three quarters full and Lojzik figured if parrots survive on it, it wouldn’t kill them either. Father let Rah-rah fly out the window weeks ago and before his father gave away the cage, Lojzik put a single green feather into his treasure box next to the pen-knife.

Father didn’t come home again at night and Lojzik ate the potato he’d boiled and father’s apple as well.  He knew he could go to the basement flat and play Black Peter with Duro but Mrs. Sevcik’s baby cried all the time and the five of them crammed in the flat probably didn’t even get a potato.

Lojzik put on his father’s pants with the paint splashes.  He rolled up the bottoms, folded the middle around his waist and with the belt looped, they were a perfect fit.  Once he got home, father was sure to tell him a good joke he’d heard in the pub. Maybe even a Janosik tale.  The flat grew dark but Lojzik didn’t turn on the lights.  He burrowed into his father’s bed and cleared his throat.  The voice that came out of his mouth was deep and resonant. After Janosik had given the villagers a bag of gold coins plundered from the Baron’s carriage, he called all his friends to the feast table.

Lojzik stared at the door.  When it opened and Janosik walked in, arm in arm with his father, he waved.

 

~~~

 

Andrew Stancek grew up in Bratislava and saw tanks rolling through its streets.  He claims direct descent from Janosik, the Slovak Robin Hood.  That may be a tall tale.  In the world of reality he writes, dreams and entertains Muses in southwestern Ontario.  His work has appeared in Tin House online, Every Day Fiction, fwriction, Necessary Fiction, Pure Slush, Prime Number Magazine, r.kv.r.y, Camroc Press Review and Blue Five Notebook, among many other publications.  He’s been a winner in the Flash Fiction Chronicles and Gemini Fiction Magazine contests and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The novels and short story collections are nearing completion.

Today I Am This Boring Apocalypse Posing For Hustler: Notes on new books by xTx, Brandi Wells, and Andrea Kneeland by Brian Alan Ellis

 

Today I am a book reviewer.

 

Today I am picturing the mysterious author of this book to look like a tattooed vegan straightedge hardcore chick because of the two x’s she uses in her penname.

 

Today, if the literary scene were a slammin’ mosh pit, xTx would be commanding that shit using windmills and crazy roundhouse kicks.

 

Today I Am a Book is a collection of darkly comic vignettes (flash fictions/prose poems) highlighting wives, farmers, short order cooks, genies, hunchbacks, basketball coaches, babysitters, failures, lions, time machines, and shitty tattoos, written by the phantom queen of darkly comic vignettes (flash fictions/prose poems) highlighting…

 

Today I Am a Book is like the music video for Van Halen’s “Right Now,” except it makes sense, and it’s funny for the right reasons, and it isn’t as preachy.

 

Today there is a whore:

 

I wasn’t a whore two weeks ago. Only since this meteor business. Only in the past 5 days.

 

Today there is a meat cutter:

 

There is so much meat in the world, and every day I am so sad to be cutting it.

 

Today there is a bulimic:

 

The last thing I ate was my back fat. I paid a young neighbor, a young man, to come over my house and slice it off of me. He’d done similar before. He brought the belt again. He brought the knife. He helped me into the tub. He was quick.

 

Today there is a burglar:

 

The best thing I ever burgled was your mom.

 

Today there is a missing ten year old:

 

New kids keep coming and coming. Nothing is clean anymore. It is never quiet. I can’t get warm. I am always hungry. Even when I’m sleeping. I can’t stop rocking now. My hands around my knees. Back and forth, back and forth. And even though it scares me I can’t stop. It’s the only thing that feels good.

 

 

Today I am an xTx fan.

 

Today I totally recommend this book.

 

Today you should listen to me.

 

Today I might be onto something.

 

*

 

Without arms she cannot drag herself to work. Without arms she cannot drag herself anywhere. We will stay here together in the house we’ve grown accustomed to with its floral couch and claw foot tub. We have made a home for ourselves and she will respect that.

 

“Like if Donald Barthelme had been hired to transcribe Jeffrey Dahmer’s wet dreams for Lars Von Trier,” which is how Blake Butler described this book of miniature, beautifully-wrought nightmares and “screamscapes” (sorry, couldn’t resist), where the love theme is dissected and spread out on a picnic table; its many subversions—madness, possession, jealousy, betrayal—mutilated and/or physically transformed (yeah, that works).

 

This Boring Apocalypse is like The Notebook meets Re-Animator.

 

But only almost.

 

Only not at all.

 

Really, it’s a sadistically imaginative child playing house then burning down the house.

 

It’s very funny.

 

And scary.

 

I make a fort that looks like tortured people. I have always been good with tortured people. It is my talent…. When I go into the house of strangers and torture them, I expect a thank you, and a mint, and a sweater, because it has been cold lately and torture is tiring work and I do not like to be cold. I do not deserve to feel uncomfortable, because I have a skill and this skill should earn me something. It should matter.

 

How about: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Grime?

 

How about: If This Boring Apocalypse were a Depeche Mode song, it would be “Master and Servant”?

 

We search for lemons and I grow tired of her desires, but this is the way with most relationships, so we continue our search.

 

Both cruelly adventurous and psychologically in deep shit, This Boring Apocalypse is unlike most books you’re likely to experience, and Brandi Wells is some kind of disgusting, clever genius.

 

Mad respect.

 

*

 

Andrea Kneeland’s How to Pose for Hustler begins with the best opening paragraph I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading:

 

I realize with certainty that my husband is an asshole about three years into the marriage, while I am delirious with a flu-born fever, freezing beneath cold yellow sweated through bed sheets, bones shaking like cage mice. Instead of going to the store to get me Nyquil, he forces my legs into the harness of a strap-on, sits on top of me and fucks himself while I try not to die.

 

“The Difference Between,” a story about an aging woman who flees an abusive marriage to live with college-age kids and who drinks wine and gets stoned and then loses her job before gradually losing her remaining inhibitions, is a real beauty, and it sets the tone for this punch-packed collection of mini juggernauts, many of which deal with women coming to grips with loneliness, depression, and sexual abuse.

 

I need a certain amount of misogyny in my life if I am to be happy.

 

Kneeland takes us on an uncompromising funhouse ride of damaged women attractions: mistresses; self-destructive party girls; females who begrudgingly text naked pictures of themselves to their porno-obsessed boyfriends; teenaged goths who fool around in churches; suicidal lesbians coping inside treatment facilities; strippers; bulimics; tragedy fetishists who hoard bad relationships as though they were family photo albums.

 

Susan, for example, is the only one who can see her own talent at all, which is to make herself fit unobstructively into any one person’s life. To fold herself up neatly like a piece of paper, to let herself be torn, crumpled, origamied into any shape necessary. She is the only one who knows that she’s being folded.

 

There is nothing overtly feminist about Kneeland’s writing, nor does it invoke man-hating sentiments; it is too open, too deep, to be pigeon-holed as such.

 

Kneeland writes with cold, honest clarity.

 

She brings her characters’ hopes, faults, and fears to the surface.

 

She lets them bleed.

 

How to Pose for Hustler is a stunner.

 

No doubt one of the boldest and best books you’ll read this year, or any.

 

Promise.

 

*

 

These books are now available through Civil Coping Mechanisms.

 

~~~

 

Brian Alan Ellis is the author of King Shit and Something Good, Something Bad, Something Dirty. His writing has appeared in Juked, Crossed Out, Zygote in My Coffee, Monkeybicycle, DOGZPLOT, Conte, Sundog Lit, Connotation Press, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, HTMLGIANT, That Lit Site, Diverse Voices Quarterly, The Heavy Contortionists, flashquake, Out of the Gutter, Spittoon, Spry, NAP, Electric Literature, The Next Best Book Blog, Entropy, Revolution John, The Round Up Writer’s Zine, Gravel, and Atticus Review, among other places. He does windmills and crazy roundhouse kicks in Tallahassee, Florida.

The Man Who Is Drawing My Next Tattoo: An Interview with Robert Gipe by David Joy

RobertGipe
photo by Joseph Jones

Robert Gipe is one of those people that everyone else is always talking about, someone that all your friends keep telling you, “Oh, you’re going to love him! You just have to meet him.” These things seldom pan out, at least for someone as skeptical and jaded toward humanity as me, but Gipe foots the bill. He’s a man after my own heart and flat out one of the most talented people I’ve ever encountered.

 

I first became familiar with his work through the serializations of his novelTrampoline in the pages of Still: The Journal, which if you haven’t read them that would be a fine place to start. I remember thinking immediately that there was something entirely unique about his work. Mark Twain said, “There is no such thing as a new idea,” and for the most part I think he’s right, but then again, he never met Gipe.

 

So when I was asked by Ohio University Press to blurb Trampoline (due out March 2015), it wasn’t anything I had to consider. I was frothing at the mouth to get my hands on that manuscript. The loose pages arrived not long before a flight I had to take to Tacoma, Washington and I took that novel along and read it in one delicious bite on the trip out, only to read it again down the road to savor just how brilliant it was. I immediately knew that I was reading something that needed a tremendous stage.

 

I sent off my blurb along with a lengthy email to Gipe’s editor, an email explaining that the narrator Dawn Jewell reminded me of Holden Caulfield except for the fact that she would’ve flat out whooped Holden’s ass. A few months later I read the other blurbs that came in on the novel—blurbs from George Singleton and Silas House and Ann Pancake and Gurney Norman and Darnell Arnoult and Pam Duncan—and there was one string that tied many of those blurbs together. Almost everyone connected Dawn to some blend of Holden Caulfield and True Grit’sMattie Ross. The bottom line is she’s just that memorable. So if you take no other recommendation this year, take this one: read Robert Gipe’s Trampoline. I think it’s the best debut to come out of Appalachia in many moons.

 

Buy Trampoline here.

 

 

David Joy: Dawn Jewell is one of the most memorable narrators I’ve ever read. Her voice is authentic and filled with a gritty honesty, and the bottom line is she’s just a young woman who will absolutely take no shit, something too seldom created on the page and rarely done well. So where did the voice of Dawn Jewell come from?

 

Robert Gipe: Like Dawn, I live in the coalfields of east Kentucky. Things have always been rough here. Making a living has always been a grind—subsistence farming, hunting, logging, coal mining, and worse than all that—not much of anything going on economically. There hasn’t been a lot of time for self-pity, and Dawn is heir to that. I’m not saying nobody here gets to feeling sorry for themselves, or gives up, but I think the real story is how many don’t. I work at a community college in Harlan County, and I hear Dawn every day—young women striving, figuring how to stay themselves but get smarter, grow into their potential, and make a living—all while dealing with life challenges that would have reduced me to tears when I was their age. A big motivation in writing the book was to amplify that voice, in all its feistiness, despair, hope, humor, and anger. Dawn is also heir to a love of language, of good talk. I try to put that in her voice, but trying to stick as much as possible to words I’ve heard people here say. Dawn aint no MFA. She don’t need one. She got hers on the streets. Or the creeks anyway.

 

DJ: “Dawn ain’t no MFA,” sums it up quite nicely, and I think that’s one of the reasons she’s so strong is just that beautiful honesty about her. I remember one of the lines I was taken by so early on was in the first few pages where she’s stuffing her face with M&Ms and it reads, “I was eating M&Ms straight out of a pound bag, about to make myself sick. They weren’t normal M&Ms. They were the color of the characters in a cartoon movie that hadn’t done any good and the bags ended up at Big Lots, large and cheap and just this side of safe to eat.” That may sound really funny to folks, but when I read that I thought, “Shit, he gets it.” You get the people that I’m most interested by, the people that I come from. That authenticity is a beautiful thing, and I think that’s at the heart of what you do so well.

 

Speaking of authenticity, for folks who aren’t familiar with your work, you illustrate this novel. And let me preface this discussion by saying this is in no way a graphic novel, nor do I think it is intended to be. It is literary fiction at its finest with interwoven illustration that becomes inseparable from the prose. That being said, this is kind of a two part question: 1) I’m fascinated by the figure on Dawn’s t-shirt on the front of the novel. Is that based on anything in particular, or just an abstraction? and, 2) How did you come to mix mediums the way that you do in your fiction? Is this something you’ve always done?

 

Trampoline

 

RG: The figure on the front of Dawn’s t-shirt is a veiled reference to the figure of Mary in Titian’s painting “The Assumption,” which figures in the novel a couple times. The reason the reference is veiled is I can’t draw that well.

 

I probably would have done a graphic novel if I had the patience or talent. I have bottomless admiration for the work of people like Alison Bechdel, Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman. But it’s too dang hard to work at their level. And I like more words in the mix. I was also interested in oral storytelling. So I found that having Dawn speak throughout the book in cartoons was a way to scratch my graphic itch and remind the reader that the narrator is, for the most part, speaking, not writing. Of course, none of those qualities are absolute—there are a few things no one would say aloud. I was just going for a feel, trying to put some stuff in play for the reader to fool around with.

 

Here’s that painting. I liked it cause it kind of looks like Mary is on a trampoline and all those hairy men, disciples I guess, are spotters.

 

TheAssumption

 

DJ: I certainly wouldn’t say you “can’t draw that well.” Your work has always come off to me as having a sort of folk art simplicity, something like Howard Finster or RA Miller, where simplified line work composes subjects rich with complexity. That being said, do you start with images in mind or do you find your way to these images as you write? Do you get to a place where the image presents itself, or is that there in the beginning with you then building toward that image?

 

RG: I’m not sure if this answers your question, but I was worried I couldn’t pull off all those drawings, because I have trouble making a character look the same drawing after drawing. I’ve seen documentaries where Charles Schulz draws Charlie Brown and it is so effortless and perfect, Charlie Brown after Charlie Brown. It is as beautiful a thing as I’ve ever seen. I weep with awe and envy every time I see it. I drew all those pictures in Trampoline on graph paper, trying to get some consistency, and because I saw Chris Ware does that, but by the end, I was just sitting in bars drawing them as fast as I could, getting my folk art on. Now that I think about it, maybe the sitting in bars affected the consistency of the product. Probably not.

 

DJ: I think the consistency of the illustrations work well in the novel, but typically, I think, artists are seeing things and critiquing things in their own work that the audience can’t see. All of that to say, I love the work you did. Switching gears a bit, there are two issues that arise in this novel that I’d like to spend some time discussing. Let’s talk first about the drug culture that exists within the narrative, particularly that which Dawn witnesses as a result of her mother. I think often times Appalachia is portrayed as a drug-infested region, primarily as a result of poor media exposure. Nevertheless, the prevalence of drugs and crime and violence are things that those of us who live in the region can’t deny. Rather than question why this is incorporated into the novel or question what that might say about the region, what I’m interested in is how that culture comes to affect the dreams and aspirations of those born into it. Specifically, how do you think Dawn’s mother comes to shape her daughter’s views on the world, and is this something you see as indicative of growing up in poverty?

 

RG: With Dawn, I was interested in putting a character between two facts of life in the coalfields: A lot of people fall into substance abuse, and there are a lot of people willing to fight for justice—environmental, social, political—with slim hopes of winning any substantial material victories. As somebody who has been an activist, and been around activists, I was interested in how that way of being in the world affects the children growing up in it. The fight for justice in the coalfields has been hard on the people leading the fight. Hard on their families, hard on their having any kind of “normal” life. It makes it easy to see why people give up trying to change things. It’s hard. So Dawn is inspired by her grandmother’s fight to save Blue Bear Mountain, but she also wishes she didn’t have to fight all the time. Then when her mom is having trouble dealing with her own pain—triggered mostly by the death of her husband, which resulted from unsafe working conditions at his place of employ—a justice issue—Dawn finds no peaceful, normal life there either. And she is left largely to fend for herself. If one gets caught up in a world like this, my hope is it makes it harder for people outside that world to think people’s choices absurd. And for people who live in a similar world, I hope the book communicates an understanding of how complicated thriving in such a world can be.

 

DJ: Not only does your work communicate an understanding of that struggle, your work does something that to me is of the utmost importance, it does justice to the people born into this circumstance. These are not caricatures and these are not cliches, and when you’re dealing with the type of circumstantial complexity that is illuminated in this novel, that type of honesty is what the work hinges on. The door of this novel couldn’t be caved with a battering ram.

 

So now, getting back to the second major issue I wanted to talk about, and you’ve already gotten there a bit in this last answer, but lets talk about the environmental warzone that is Eastern Kentucky coal country. I was having this conversation recently about how hard it is to define Appalachia because it’s just so vast geographically and one of the things that I always think about is how different where I live is from a place like Kentucky. If you were to ask most people what is the biggest environmental issue facing Appalachia they would probably say mountaintop removal and coal mining, things that thankfully aren’t a reality where I live in Western North Carolina. Our biggest environmental issue is undoubtedly unrestricted land development. In a lot of ways, that is our coal mining. So assuming that someone doesn’t know anything about that issue, talk a little bit about the role coal mining plays in the area of Kentucky you’re writing about. What does it mean for the land and the heritage of that land, and what does it mean for the people who grow up in it?

 

RG: Coal mining has had over a hundred year run in eastern Kentucky. Our landscape was once a plateau, which has been eroded over the eons. Before that, over the millennia, it alternated between shallow seas and forest. The forests fell into the rising seas, and over time compressed into coal. I share that geologic yarn so outsiders know we don’t have high peaks here. We only have one or two mountains that rise above all the others, and from one of them, Pine Mountain, you can see the whole plateau sprawled out before you like a frozen sea. The other thing to glean from the geology is that our geologic past lies in level layers. One generally doesn’t have to go down to get coal here. One cuts into the mountain from the side and digs out the coal, or one blows the top off the mountain to get at the layer or layers of coal beneath. That’s the other thing: most mountains that contain coal contain multiple layers, between layers of stone and clay like icing in a layer cake.

 

Corporate interests bought up the mineral rights and the land in the late nineteenth century. Around 75% of the land here is owned by outsiders, corporate interests. The railroad came shortly after the land titles were secured. There were some people here before that, a few thousand, making a living as subsistence farmers, whiskey makers, politicians, etc. After the railroad came, the mines opened, and because mining at that time was very labor intensive, people came pouring in to the company-built mine camps. The first thirty years of coal here was a rough and tumble time. The usual boomtown antics, crazy cycles of manic coal production followed by long dead times, high levels of workplace death and injury, and intense conflict between labor and management leading to labor union organizing, strikes, and violence galore.

 

With the help of Roosevelt and the Democrats, the union, the United Mine Workers of America, came to represent most of the miners around here. But that was short-lived. Mine mechanization and the advent of strip mining reduced the need for miners radically. That led to a massive outmigration from eastern Kentucky, and a descent into poverty for many that remained. But the coal industry thundered on. The amount of coal coming out of this place did not diminish and in many cases increased all the way to the last few years. Coal mining didn’t disappear, but most of the work did.

 

Delbert, Dawn’s dad got into mining in the 80s. By that time, the unions were about done in Eastern Kentucky. Delbert worked in a highly mechanized underground mine, but by his time, much of the coal was being mined by using strip mining techniques. Underground mining creates its own environmental problems, but strip mining is very disruptive to the local environment. Water gets polluted by runoff from the mine sites. Some of nature’s most complex forests are destroyed hundreds of square miles a year, and the blasting used to open up strip mines shakes houses from their foundations. All that’s in Trampoline.

 

The effect on the people of all this is as varied as the people. Some people get rich. Some people are solidly middle class working as coal miners—but even they have to deal with chronic layoffs and a future more uncertain than that of most middle-class Americans. Some people have the pride that comes from doing a difficult, dangerous job and doing it well. A lot of people are injured. And a lot of people don’t/can’t find work in a community where the dominance of one industry has made it difficult for others to set up shop. And of course, the other looming presence in this community is the federal government. When the bottom started dropping out in the 1950s and things just got worse in the early 60s Kennedy and Johnson ran for president on promises to help the poor in Appalachia. And this area was solidly Democratic, from the days when Roosevelt backed the UMWA. And so in the 60s, federal anti-poverty money came pouring in here—food stamps, black lung benefits, Head Start, a variety of other offices and agencies designed to help people survive and that define work for many here now—started during this period.

 

And so that’s the way we careened along into the time period of Trampoline, the principal action of which takes places in 1998 and 1999, right at the cusp of the prescription drug abuse nightmare. OxyContin makes the scene in the last chapters of Trampoline, and it is a central presence in Trampoline’s sequel, which I’m working on now.

 

DJ: That answer brings us to, perhaps, the best news of this entire interview, which is that all of us readers have more Dawn Jewell to look forward to! That being said, tell us a little bit about your process and also what direction you’re moving with this new novel?

 

RG: The new novel takes up in 2004, during the full flower of the OxyContin epidemic in Canard County. I hate to say too much before the first novel has been out a while, but the setting is the same. The families are the same. The new one is in first person. There are multiple narrators. One is a man who makes his living working in people’s yards, among other things. His name, like the novel’s, is Weedeater. I expect to draw. Themes include the relevance of art, the futility of love, the possibility of saving somebody, and the importance of proper oil-gas ratios. As far as process goes, a character gets narrator status when I figure out how to draw them. I planned to publish Trampoline as a bunch of zines, appearing serially, before fate intervened. I like writing that way, thinking of the chapters as episodes, working towards cliffhangers and ending chapters in the middle of something or on the brink of something. I’d like to say I’m inspired by Dickens, but it probably has more to do with the two-part episodes of the old Batman TV series. In any event, that’s how I’m approaching the writing of Weedeater.

 

I took an extended novel workshop with Darnell Arnoult back around 2010. I met with a cohort every three months for eighteen months, and Darnell drove us all to a first draft of our novels. It was an excellent experience. I recommend it highly. Carrie Mullins was in there with me, and the novel she worked on with Darnell is coming out on Old Cove at the end of the year. One of the exercises Darnell had us do is name every novel we would ever write, dream out our whole writing careers. I went three novels deep. Their titles are Trampoline, Weedeater, andPop. That’s been a very helpful thing to have. Now that I have the titles, I just have to figure out what the story would be in a novel named that. I like working backwards from prompts. I’m too old to think about side projects. If somebody asks me to write something short, or something on a theme, I figure out some way to write something that will both meet the request and work in the novel I’m working on at the time. Everything gets recycled. I like to keep my literary carbon footprint small.

 

DJ: I think I speak for everyone who knows and loves your work when I say that all of us can’t wait to meet Weedeater, and, as you say, more importantly to learn the proper oil-to-gas ratio that makes that son-of-a-bitch run.

 

With all the important stuff out of the way, it’s time we move into the five question lightning round. You must answer with the very first thing that pops into your head whether looking back afterward it’s an answer you want to stand behind or not. I do this because, as you know, I’m an ass, and because, as you also know, I love you dearly. GO!

 

LIGHTNING ROUND:

 

DJ: What is the one song that defines Trampoline?

RG: “Nervous Breakdown” by Black Flag, especially when coupled with the Whiskeytown version. Also, “Shut Up” by Savages. Dawn is crazy about them.

 

 

DJ: What wrestling move would Dawn Jewell use to finish Holden Caulfield?

RG: Suplex.

 

DJ: If you were a drag queen what would be your stage name?

RG: Roberta Gipe. Got to own it.

 

DJ: As a Kentucky insider, what’s the best bourbon ever produced?

RG: Elmer T. Lee. RIP

 

DJ: If you were asked to give my eulogy in one sentence what would it be?

RG: “He didn’t leave one drop of liquor behind.”

 

Thanks so much for your time, Robert. I can’t wait to see what the world thinks ofTrampoline, and to see the future of Canard County. All the love I can muster, my friend.

Shinebone, fiction by Andrew Gray Siegrist

Shinebone tucked hawk feathers into the laces of his boots and lit a cigarette. He had been scared of snakes ever since he’d seen his brother’s arm swell up from a cotton mouth bite when they were kids. He thought if they smelled a hawk coming they’d stay coiled up in their holes. It was early morning, before dawn. He stood on his porch listening. It was the hour of silence. He smoked down to the filter and flicked the butt into a lidless Styrofoam cooler that was in the yard. It was half full of month-old rain and bloated cigarette butts. Shinebone knew the grass beneath it was dead. Shinebone and Darcy both smoked Marlboros. Shinebone only smoked Reds, and would joke that he must have been a lousy parent to raise a boy that smoked 27s. But Darcy was dead and Shinebone knew there were a couple 27s somewhere in the cooler, and couldn’t bring himself to clean it out.

He stepped off the porch and headed toward the woods. He wanted a drink, felt the thirst calling to him, promising that old comfort he used to know so well. Not today, he told himself. Even in the dark he could make out the short-cut path that led to the neighbor’s trailer. The woods were quiet around him. Birds still sleeping. Possums and coons done savaging for the night. When he got to the dry creek bed he stopped. He knelt and gathered a handful of silt dust. Millions of years of rock and animal bone crumbled to sediment. Darcy’d told him that. As a kid, Darcy had kept a box of fossil stones beneath his bed. Shinebone would take him down to the creek to hunt for them. Darcy would flip the stones and check their bellies for the outline of ancient shells. Shinebone taught Darcy how to lift the rock in case there was a snake underneath it. You always lift the edge of the rock that is farthest from you, keeping the rock between you and whatever is sleeping beneath it. In high school Darcy said he was going to leave the mountain and go to college to study geology, but he dropped out after his junior year and never left the mountain. Never will.

Shinebone wiped his hands clean on his pant leg and crossed the creek bed. Day was beginning to burn at the horizon, an ember light slowly warming. Shinebone bent at the neighbor’s mailbox and picked up some driveway gravel. He circled to the back of a hard-worn trailer and tossed a rock gently against the boy’s window.

Shinebone’s brother had told him about a woman at the foot of the mountain that caused miracles by praying to God and floating candles downriver, out toward the sea. When they released Darcy from Brushy Mountain, Shinebone started paying a neighbor boy ten dollars a couple times a week to climb an old oak tree and burn candles in the highest branches. Shinebone hadn’t prayed in fifty years, figured there was no use starting now. God didn’t keep an ear open for people that’d done the things Shinebone had done. But he burned those candles anyway, always at dawn, and hoped his son would straighten out, hoped for a miracle.

After three rocks the boy slid his window open and gestured with his hand for Shinebone to wait a second. A moment later the trailer door opened and the boy came out carrying his boots. He sat down on a cinder-block step with chipped-off corners, and laced up his boots.

“When’s your daddy getting out?” Shinebone said.

“They got him up for parole in eighteen months.”

“My boy was in there for a bit.”

“He out now?”

Shinebone nodded. He had never talked to the boy about Darcy, never told him why he burnt those candles. Ten dollars to climb and keep quiet, Shinebone had told him the first morning. He couldn’t have explained it anyhow. Burning candles to keep his grown son safe. Didn’t make any sense, not even to him. But he had to do something, and he had kept at it with a parent’s patience.

The boy stood up. “Where’s the candles?” he said.

“We ain’t going down there no more,” Shinebone said.

“Then what’d you get me up for?”

Shinebone reached into his pocket and handed the boy five twenty-dollar bills, tightly folded.

“What’s this?” the boy said.

Shinebone tossed the gravel he was still holding back into the driveway. “I’ll be around from time to time,” he said. “To check up on you.”

The boy and Shinebone both looked at the fold of money, then back at each other.

“I won’t waste my money if I hear you’ve been finding trouble,” Shinebone said.

The boy put the money in his pocket.

“All right then,” Shinebone said, turning to leave.

“Thank you,” the boy called out.

Shinebone kept walking.

The last time Shinebone saw Darcy, Darcy had come by looking for money. Shinebone told him he couldn’t help him. Darcy said he had figured as much, but had to check anyway. He only stayed long enough to finish a beer he’d brought with him and a cigarette. It was almost dusk. No stars visible yet, but a sliver of crescent moon. Darcy got in his truck and rolled the window down.
“Ever heard the Grundy County mating call?” Darcy asked as he pulled a pill bottle from his breast pocket.
Shinebone tried to force a smile but couldn’t. He sipped his coffee. Darcy had been telling the same joke since he got out of prison. Shinebone wanted to tell Darcy to flush those damn pills and straighten up, but Darcy knew all the old stories about his father, about the drugs and drinking, the arrests and the fights. Shinebone had lived like Hell burned inside him when he was Darcy’s age. Darcy wouldn’t listen to a word of advice from Shinebone’s mouth. Shinebone wished Darcy would hide those bottles from him at least, like he used to do. But since he’d been out he’d treated Shinebone more like a friend and less like a father. Even called him Shine like everyone else did.

Darcy shook the pill bottle. The pills clattered loudly against the plastic. “Grundy County mating call,” he shouted. He laughed and put the truck in gear.
That bottle sounded more like a rattler to Shinebone.

When he got home from the neighbor’s, it was full morning. His yard was wet with dew. He stood outside, not wanting to go in. Today he was supposed to identify the body. Opening the back door would put him one step closer. He stood and listened to the morning birds test their sleepy voices. Dogs barked at truck engines starting. Shinebone went inside.

He buttoned up his shirt from the bottom, misaligned the holes and the buttons and had to start over. He fumbled at his tie, and when he finally tied it right it didn’t even reach his belly button. Shinebone looked at himself in the mirror, his sleeves came down to his knuckles, pant legs touched the floor. He felt that old thirst inside him telling him to take a sip, just one, and feel all of this start to ease away. Two sips and it’ll all feel okay. He walked into the kitchen and took the jar of corn liquor from beneath the sink. He’d kept a jar there for the last twenty years, and never taken a sip. When he felt that thirst he’d take out the jar and feel the weight of it, just to know he could sip if he needed to. He held it up to the light and slapped it. High-proof bubbles formed on the surface. Not today, he thought.

In his truck, Shinebone turned on the radio and listened to the weather. Rain was predicted to come in after midnight. He turned the radio off and rolled down his window. He felt the wind strong against his palm. He thought of Darcy coming home from first grade with plans to catch fish with a kite. They had learned in school that clouds are made from water sucked up from rivers and lakes and seas. Darcy’s face lit up when he told this to Shinebone.

“There must be a thousand fish up there,” he said. “Just like the ones we caught in Uncle Fez’s lake.”

Darcy spent the rest of the afternoon tying rusty fish hooks to the kite’s string and trying to fly it high enough to make a catch. When the wind died down the kite got caught in a tree limb and Darcy threw rocks at it until the sun went down.

Shinebone parked in front of the coroner’s office and turned off the engine. He lit a cigarette. He tried to take the whole thing down in one long draw, but he started coughing spit all over the steering wheel. A mother and son passed by on the sidewalk. Shinebone tried to hold a hand up to tell them he was okay, but they hurried by and averted their eyes. He wasn’t okay, they could see that. He tossed the cigarette into the parking lot and went to the door. He saw his reflection in the dark glass. He’d forgotten to comb his hair. The knot of his tie was crooked. His suit was too big. The skin beneath his eyes was wrinkled and drooping. He went inside.

They led Shinebone into a room bright with a light so white it seemed almost blue. The stainless steel countertops were clean and empty. The floor made squeaking sound beneath his shoes. All the drawers were shut, cabinet doors closed. Everything had been put away, everything except for Darcy.

A man whose name he had forgotten led him by the elbow to the side of a table. Darcy was covered by a sheet.

“Are you ready?” the coroner said.

Shinebone nodded.

The man pulled the sheet down just enough to reveal Darcy’s face and the tops of his shoulders. His eyes were closed. His skin was pale and cold, as if a light had been switched off behind it. His hair dark brown and just long enough for it to be worn messy. Shinebone noted the scar that separated Darcy’s eyebrow. He remembered the cut was too close to the optical nerve, so the doctor couldn’t give Darcy a numbing shot. Darcy was eleven years old, had slipped in the bathtub and split is eyebrow in two. The doctor strapped him to the table in something like a straightjacket to keep him still. Shinebone held his hand as the doctor sewed his eyebrow shut. Darcy didn’t even squeeze. Shinebone had wished he had, wished he had sqeezed hard just so Shinebone could share some of the pain.

Shinebone wanted to cover his son’s body back up and carry it out. Darcy wouldn’t have wanted to be in there, he didn’t like places like this, so neat and orderly. Darcy liked weeds that came up through the sidewalk, kitchen sinks full of dishes, jeans with holes at the knees. Shinebone wondered if he still had the strength to sling Darcy over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. When Darcy was little Shinebone would call out, “Bedtime for Bonzo” every night before bed. Darcy would run around the living room begging for thirty more minutes. When Shinebone caught him he’d shout out, “Sack of potatoes” and sling Darcy over his shoulder, carrying him to bed.

“Would you like a moment?” the coroner asked.

“No,” Shinebone said. I’d like a drink, he thought. He felt that old thirst inside him promising to make everything better. Just a couple sips and this pain will start to loosen.

The coroner covered Darcy’s face and handed Shinebone a one-gallon Ziploc bag. “Everything that was on him,” the man said.

Shinebone took the bag without going through its contents. He signed some papers and left the building. He breathed deep, relieved to be outside. He could go home now and hold the bottle, give the thirst the chance to change his mind, uncap it and descend back into it all. He started his truck and drove home. Not today, he told himself, not today.

Shinebone took off the suit and laid it on the bed. He stood looking at it, knowing the next time he wore a suit he would be laying in his own casket. He got a wire hanger from the closet and hung the suit on the nail he’d half-driven into the bathroom door. He’d been hanging things from that nail since before Darcy was born. Twenty-seven years, and it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

In the kitchen Shinebone put on a pot of coffee and waited. Through the window above the sink he watched the sun struggle to keep the world alight. Only a sliver of sun still visible above the tree line. When his coffee was ready he took it to the porch and lit a cigarette. He smoked it down and listened to the paper sizzle when he took a deep drag. When he finished he flicked it into the cooler and heard the sound of the ember tip hiss as it hit the water, all its heat gone in an instant. He set his coffee down, unsipped, and walked to the cooler. The water was murky and crowded with cigarettes and a few dead leaves. An insect floated belly up, legs kicking for something to grab onto. Shinebone wondered if Darcy had fought, had kicked and struggled to grab onto something as life slipped him, but with so many pills in his stomach he’d probably just fallen asleep.

Shinebone tipped the cooler over with the toe of his boot. The water spread across the yard and pooled, only for a second, before soaking into the ground. Soggy cigarette butts littered the grass. The insect righted itself and scampered away. Shinebone went to the garage and came back with a shovel and a rake. He carefully dug up a clump of grass and set it aside. Daylight was no longer on the horizon, but he could still make out the cigarette against the dark blanket of grass. He dug two shovelfuls of dirt from the hole and raked all the cigarette butts into it. He filled the hole with dirt and returned the grass clump, tamping it down with the heel of his boot. He imagined what noises could be heard underground. Blind creatures tunneling their way through the darkness, scratching roots as the passed. Footprints from the above ground world, like slow rolling thunder.

Shinebone unwound the garden hose and washed the cooler out, cleaned it as good as he could but the nicotine had soaked in deep. He placed it back where it had been. He knew what he was going to do now. He was going to leave it there, let it fill back up with rain. But this time he would keep it clean. No more cigarette butts. He would buy a goldfish net and skim the water each morning. The stain would always remain, but unable to bleed back into the water. The water would be clean. He would watch storm clouds come in slow and unleash water that had evaporated from rivers and oceans halfway across the world. He would drink coffee on the porch, watching the cooler fill, watching till the water rose up and spilled over the edges.

Shinebone returned to the kitchen and took the liquor jar from beneath the sink. He uncapped it and breathed in the fumes. The scent burnt his throat, made his eyes threaten to water. Not today, he told himself. He took the jar into the yard and set it where he knew the sun would find it when day returned. He left the cap off. Let it mix with rain, he thought, let it dry up in the sun.

Shinebone took the lid back inside and threw it away. This was the first time in his life that he was living in a dry house. From that moment on when he felt the thirst tightening its fist around his organs, threatening to rip the life out of him, he’d kneel at the cooler and drink the storm water. Handful after handful of clean water scooped from a tarnished cooler, until his belly was tight. But tonight the cooler was empty, tonight he would sit on the porch and wait for the rain.

# # #

Andrew Gray Siegrist is a graduate student at the University of New Orleans. He is  from Nashville, Tennessee.

Someplace Else, poetry by Heather Sullivan

 

I’m walking around the hotel pool at 10pm,
hoping that the kids are deep enough in sleep
to not wake up when we giggle trip our way
back into the room at whatever ungodly hour
my husband decides that this late night foray
into titty watching can finally draw to a close.
Alternating from his towel to the shallow end,
he imagines I’m lost in my cock-watching search,
but chubby Midwestern phalluses snapped tight
in Speedos long overdue for Goodwill do nothing for me.
Deciding to call his bluff, I go back into the water,
And he retreats to the deep end, where
I can’t follow – my long known tendency to stone –
He’s chasing the appearance of Shangri-La,
but in all reality it is the walking personification
of hepatitis C. He still flirts like he’s nineteen.

~~~

 

Heather Sullivan has appeared or has work forthcoming in Corium Magazine, Busted Dharma and Chiron Review.  She lives in Revere, MA with her family and a small herd of cats.

A Proper Party, flash fiction by Kathy Fish

 

The mother stands at the kitchen counter assembling hors d’oeuvres for her daughter’s graduation party. She slathers peanut butter into the canals of the celery sticks, positions raisins on top. She makes maybe forty-five of these until it occurs to her that she may have enough. She watches the little tv and tries to think of what other foods her daughter liked. The county is under a tornado watch until 6:00 p.m.

Her brother and his husband walk in, holding bunches of balloons. The balloons are black with CONGRATS GRAD on them in gold.

“What a great idea,” the mother says, as they release the balloons and allow them to roam free. “I’m making food.”

Her brother says, “I could use a drink.” So the mother pours her brother and his husband good, strong gin and tonics.

Her brother’s husband opens the sliding door and steps out onto the deck. “The sky’s green,” he says.

“Tornado watch. Hold on, they’ve upgraded it to a warning,” the mother says.

She wonders how many will show up. A few had called to say they couldn’t come but that they would be thinking of her.

Her brother sits on the stool at the counter and slurps his drink. “Can I help with anything?”

“Do you think fish sticks are a weird thing to serve at a party? Fish sticks and salsa?”

“Yes. Definitely,” he says.

A gust of cold wind blows through the house. The balloons mingle and dance. A door slams shut. A small vase of daisies topples and spills over the counter. Breathing heavily, the woman hustles about closing windows. Her brother cleans up the daisies as his husband comes back in shivering.

“Oh my,” the mother says. “Now what?” She wanders into the family room and sits on the sofa. She has made a display on the mantel there. Photographs, her daughter’s awards, a drawing of a cat and a rooster from the third grade. Her brother and his husband follow the mother and sit on either side of her. The tornado sirens wail.

“I love that sound,” her brother’s husband says. He takes the mother’s hand. “We should go down to the basement.”

“He’s right dear,” her brother says. Nobody moves. The windows judder.

“But I made a cake,” the mother says.

“We can celebrate another time. We can celebrate any time we want,” her brother says. “You know she wouldn’t mind.”

The balloons skirt along the ceiling, their strings dangling. The mother stands and gathers a few of them.

“We can take these down to the basement. I have a radio down there. You two can carry the food.”

It’s an old house and the basement has a cement floor and some boxes of old things, the daughter’s things, and not much else. The lights flicker and the mother’s brother lights some candles just before the power goes out completely. Outside they hear a roaring sound. The mother’s worried about the batteries in the radio but they turn it on and it works. Her brother’s husband tunes in to the local station but it’s just the Emergency Broadcast System and not the cool jazz they were hoping for so he switches it off again.

“We could sing,” the mother says. The roaring gets louder.

“Come here,” her brother says. They sit on the floor together and he wraps her in his arms. His husband kneels and wraps his arms around them both.

The tornado sounds like an approaching locomotive. Upstairs, crashing, a window breaking.

“I wanted a proper party,” she says.

Her brother and his husband squeeze her tight.

The house goes still again. The balloons settle into their places. The candles burn steadily. The three of them untangle themselves. The brother wants to go upstairs, check the damage, but the woman says, “No, I’m not ready yet.” So they eat the celery and the fish sticks. And when they finish, they cut the cake and eat that, too.

 

~~~

 

Kathy Fish’s stories are forthcoming or have appeared in The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), Slice, Guernica, Indiana Review and various other journals and anthologies. She is the author of three collections of short fiction: Together We Can Bury It (The Lit Pub, 2013), Wild Life (Matter Press, 2012), and a chapbook in A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness (Rose Metal Press, 2008). She has recently joined the faculty of the Mile High MFA at Regis University in Denver where she will be teaching flash fiction.

Bully-Boy, flash fiction by Paul Beckman

 

 

I loved pushing kids around when I was in junior high and high school. Sure, taking their lunch or lunch money was fun but making them cry too—that was the best. I seem to have been born with muscles and strength and no conscience.

My father stopped trying to discipline me when I was twelve. I pushed him around because he yelled at me so he left the house and returned with his brother and the two of them gave me an ass whipping.

They paid for it. I got them separately; my uncle with a two by four that had his arm in a sling for a couple of months and my father sneaking up on him with a tire iron, hack saw or kitchen knife and watching the fear in his eyes when I coughed so he’d turn around and see me. I didn’t have to lay a hand on him in order to do what I damn well pleased.

I became a professional wrestler at eighteen—was considered a phenom but after two years they dropped my contract when I wouldn’t play ball, if you know what I mean. I wasn’t going to let some moke beat me every time I was told to hit the canvas. Instead I beserked out and broke something on my opponent—usually an elbow or knee.

One day I was sitting in a bar and a college football playeR I’d pushed around in high school came over to me. “You don’t look so tough. Still feeling your Wheaties, bully boy?” Even though I had no doubt I could take the jerk, I didn’t want to chance putting another challenger in a wheelchair so I left without finished my beer, his taunts following me out the door like silent farts on an escalator.

I married had a couple of kids and had to work and support them. While I don’t enjoy whacking someone I’m not bothered by it either. I’m good at it. One or two every couple of months and I live a pretty comfortable life. I don’t carry or own a weapon other than an old cop’s leather sap and a length of 50# fishing line garrote. Most of the time I walk up to someone and twist their neck till it snaps or push them in front of a train or toss them off an overpass.

My eldest son’s been getting mouthy with his mother so she asked me to have a talk with him. I caught up to him at home just after his high school football practice and before dinner and I laid out the rules about what he can and can’t say or do as long as he’s living off my dime and to my surprise he took it well, didn’t argue or anything but when I turned to walk into the house he smacked me across my back with his Louisville Slugger and told me I should consider this time a simple warning.

 

~~~

The Organ Donor, fiction by Tom Leins

 

 

The first time I met Adrian Strange he was carrying a meat-axe.

It was never my intention to hospitalise his step-brother – things just got out of hand…

*

“I’m sorry, Mr Rey, have I arrived at a bad time?”

The man is prune-skinned, with long, creaking limbs. His voice sounds like blood sloshing around in a rusty bucket.

“Is there any other kind?”

He laughs sourly, abruptly.

“My name is Delaney. I’ve been told you can help me.”

I shrug. Maybe. Things must already be pretty bad for him to come and see me.

He passes me a photo. It’s a glamour shot. A teenage girl. I can see a hint of pubic curl beneath her underwear. I adjust my seating position to take a better look, but my ribs still ache from yesterday’s beating, and I slump back into my patched-up swivel chair instead.

“Your daughter?”

“Don’t be obscene – what kind of man hands out pornographic photographs of his own daughter?! Loretta is my wife.”

I nod, like it makes sense.

“For reasons I would rather not go into with a stranger, she requires a new kidney. I would like to hire you to obtain a healthy kidney for me, Mr Rey.”

I shake my head.

“Sorry, Delaney – not interested. I don’t know what you have heard about me, but I’m not into that kind of shit.”

His claw-like, liver-spotted hand dips into his jacket pocket and brings out a wedge of cash the size of a house-brick.

My palms feel sweaty just looking at the money. I scratch irritably at the lumpy ridge of scar tissue on my left arm.

He nudges it across the scarred wooden desk with a yellowed finger.

“Wrong answer, Mr Rey. Try again.”

*

The north-easterly breeze carries the dead fish-stink of Paignton Harbour into the town centre. I turn up my collar and keep my head down. I generally try not to make eye contact with too many people on Winner Street: my life is a horror-show already, and I don’t need any more aggravation.

In recent years, my back story has degenerated into a cautionary tale, and while I have done bad things to bad people on a regular basis, my good deeds are far less memorable.

The procurement of human organs has never been particularly high on my list of saleable skills, and when I flicked through my shabby mental rolodex I came up sadly short.

The only medical professional I know is a disgraced gynaecologist named Marwood. He was struck off years ago, and now he drinks coffee liqueur for breakfast. I doubt he could find his dick after a drinking binge, let alone locate a spare kidney. Regardless, he represents the best chance I have of getting hold of Delaney’s fat stack of money.

*

The man who opens the door has a grey, sunken face and crooked little brown teeth. His hairpiece is two shades lighter than the rest of his hair. Fuck. He’s uglier than East Paignton in winter.

“Good morning, Marwood.”

He steps aside clumsily, and I walk down the dingy corridor into his kitchen. Second-hand daylight seeps through the gaps in the blinds. I place a fresh bottle of Tesco own-brand liqueur on the table.

“Breakfast. The most important meal of the day.”

His eyes gleam when he sees the label, and his trembling hands reach for the booze.

I snatch it away, abruptly.

“Talk first, drink later, Marwood.”

He visibly deflates. Shrinking beneath his ludicrous hairpiece.

“I need to locate a kidney at short notice. I have a buyer lined up, and he is willing to pay big. Enough to keep you in coffee liqueur for a whole year, at least.”

He looks up, curious. I’ve piqued his interest.

“Let me make some calls. I know a man. Very talented surgeon. Lax moral code. Dubious associates.”

“Thank you.”

I relinquish the bottle, and he grins, woozily.

As I stand up to leave he gestures to a nearly-empty bottle on the sideboard.

“There must be something in the water, son. You are my second visitor of the day, and I’m usually about as popular as a turd in a Jacuzzi…”

*

Paignton Yards.

The sun is an orange blur on the horizon. I sip from my hip-flask as it slowly sinks into the sea. The hip-flask was an anniversary present from my ex-wife, Alouette. We didn’t make it to a second anniversary.

The stink of burnt animal fat lingers horribly in the air. There is no breeze up here, just rancid sky.

I seem to spend half my life trudging between these warehouses, peering behind corrugated sheeting and greasy plastic curtains, seeing the worst that this town has to offer.

I’m loitering outside the building that Marwood directed me to, stamping my feet to try and keep warm.

I’m dazzled by full-beam headlights as a transit van rumbles across the rutted concrete towards me. The van grinds to a halt.

I shield my eyes from the devastating glare as two silhouettes shuffle towards me. I hold my hands up, unthreateningly. The larger of the two men clubs me across the face. I bring my arm up to protect myself, but he beats me like a fucking drum. I feel my wrist crack, and drop to my knees. Then everything goes blank.

*

When I come round, I’m sat on raw concrete, handcuffed to a rusted steel pipe. The building looks abandoned. A rat the size of a cat glares at me from two feet away. I reach for my nose. It doesn’t just feel broken, it feels shattered.

“Bite his windpipe out, Adrian.”

Gareth Greene’s nostrils are flared. His piss-coloured eyes glow with fury. He’s a no-mark, a bottom-feeder – a henchman to the Strange brothers.  His skin still smells charred, and large strips of his prison-inked flesh look red-raw. He is wearing mouldy-looking dungarees and clutching a billy-club.

Adrian Strange fondles his meat-axe lovingly. He used to do strong-arm work for Remy Cornish, back when Remy was still a man to be feared. Someone once told me that Adrian was mentally defective, but undeniably effective. I always hoped I would never have to find out.

He pushes his sellotaped National Health glasses up his nose and walks towards me, limping slightly in mismatched orthopaedic shoes.

“Herman needs a kidney, Mr Rey. He got burned up pretty bad in that explosion.”

His breath feels hot and vile on my cheek.

“He asked me to take one of yours.”

I laugh, in spite of myself. Those dumb motherfuckers handcuffed me to the pipe by my busted wrist. I’ve still got skin in this game.

I slowly start to reach for the pig-knife in my boot, laughing all the while.

One blade, two men: I fancy my chances.

One way or another, it’s going to be an interesting evening.

 

~~~