Weekly Featured Essay
Stephen Beckwith, writing about his essay “A Memory of Smoke” said: “Looking back is a joy-filled experience, particularly because memory has a way of sanding off the rough edges. I would not want the world to slip backward into some imaginary bucolic era. The present, and the future hold great promise, as all children of Gene Roddenberry must believe. There are certainly challenges, but that’s where storytellers bring value to the human experience, we illuminate how we got here, and experiment with ideas on how to get better at being human.”
by Stephen Beckwith
From the street, my neighborhood was the perfect post-war collection of starter homes. Boxy ranch houses and faux Cap Cods constructed on large lots among the old growth oaks and sassafras. All fifty-six houses were built in the six years between 1948 and 1954.
Horsebrook Creek ran along the back of our property on the west side of the street. Beyond the creek westward was a land of woods, fallow fields, abandoned orchards, meadows, swamps, ponds, railroad tracks and, farther west, the town’s airport runways. Beyond the airport the woods and farmland ran unbroken for sixty miles.
This was not Christopher Robin’s tame Hundred Acre Wood populated with sweet, befuddled English countryside creatures. In the winter this was the Yukon, in the spring a muddy battlefield in France. In summer we would dam up the creek and go swimming like Huck and Tom. And in the fall, from just after the start of school, until the first snowfall around Thanksgiving, ‘across the crick’ was a forbidden world of pheasant and deer, and red-hatted hunters.
I first began to explore these wild lands when I was six, and these fields and woods became my principal reality. Family, home, chores, these were all illusionary when compared to time spent atop old fruit trees aiming wormy apples at fat grey squirrels. My buddies and I would dig foxholes deep into the soft black peat bog and we would lob hand-grenade-shaped quinces at each other.
by Gary Fincke
We were Sputnik children, the designated smart ones who had been accelerated in science and math since seventh grade, but by May,1963, we were impatient seniors bored with high school. In Southeast Asia, the United States had begun posting military advisors for a war that was so obscure none of us would ever fight, not nineteen bright boys (and two brilliant girls) taking advanced, progressive physics. Not the shortstop on our advanced physics class softball team, the Coriolis Force, who called in our scores to the Pittsburgh Press each time we beat the faculty, the French Club, or even the rest of the senior class minus those who played varsity baseball.
In Problems of Democracy, the map for world policies showed a large blue French Indochina where Miss Ward had hand-painted Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, both North and South. “Maps,” she said, “must last ten years before replacement; this one is two years overdue,” and we snickered like we had when she’d altered Africa as if countries were as temporary as high school.
A Taste of Freedom
by Jay Bush
James held tight onto ropes I’d added as makeshift Oh Shit! handles while we drifted around a corner in my first car, a 1980 Honda Civic—which had been dubbed “The Nasty” by friends and family. In desperation for my first set of wheels, I bought The Nasty from James—who dressed and acted like a bad hybrid of Hunter Thompson and Neo, from The Matrix—for four hundred dollars and an ounce of weed. The exterior of the Civic, when I bought it, was rust covered sky-blue with black rims. I never was one for a sky-blue car and black rims didn’t fit my Toontown-esque idea of life. I decked out The Nasty with some adornments and new paint. A few cans of neon blue for the body; blaze orange for the doors; canary yellow for the tires and rims and, with the addition of a bowling trophy (stolen from the local high school) as a hood ornament, the outside of the car was as flashy as a Jr. high girl’s Bedazzled purse. The car was ready to take bored kids from point A—wherever that may be—to points B, C, D, and back to A where they can rest quietly after a full day of … yikes, did we actually do that?
by Barbara Altamirano
You could call it the first time I could have cheated on my husband. You could call it a bad idea. Or you could call it being a good friend. It’s all a matter of perspective, I guess.
Carrie dragged me to the Halloween party that night. The party was thrown by Eric, her former boyfriend’s roommate. What would I do at that kind of party? Although not a college party, Eric was single with mostly single guy friends. I feared a Jim Belushi style drunk-fest where Carrie would disappear with some guy and I’d be stuck in a corner, alone, drinking out of a stove pot because they’d run out of cups. I didn’t want to go. I was married for God’s sake.
I knew I’d be alone because I wasn’t going to do something I’d regret. I might have married young, but I was devoted to my husband. But what would these bachelors do with me, the only married girl in a sea of drunks? All the usual alternatives would be out of the question.
This is Afghanistan
by J. Malcolm Garcia
My colleague, Zabiullah Fazly, picks me up at Kabul International Airport and drives me to the Park Palace, a guest house, near downtown. Stuck in traffic, I adjust the calendar on my watch to accommodate the nine-and-a-half-hour time difference between my Chicago home and here: August 28, 2015. Smoke from kabob grills cloud the sidewalk and young people group together to take selfies as elderly man trudge past them hauling carts of wood. It’s hard to believe the country has been at war for decades. I have worked as a reporter in Afghanistan since 2001. On this trip, an editor with Latterly Magazine has asked me to write about the rise in violence that has resulted in at least 5,000 civilian casualties. The government, riven by corruption and political rivalries, appears unable to confront it.
I first hired Zabiullah as my translator in 2010. He has a lean face and dark, black hair. He talks in a low voice and likes to wear jeans and polo shirts, and he carries two cell phones he uses to text constantly. He fills each moment of his day with activity, aware his life could be cut short in an instant. At thirty-three, Zabiullah has lived two years longer than his father, who died in 1995, killed by a stray bullet during Afghanistan’s civil war. Zabiullah himself almost died from shrapnel that pierced his neck.
by Kelsie Shaw
She left me on a Tuesday, three years after we met, one year after I realized I loved her. We weren’t together, though, not romantically anyway. Still, this felt like a breakup. I sat across from Rhiannon at a table at The Spot Cafe and stared at the small chai latte cooling in my hands while she told me she didn’t want to talk to me anymore. I was too needy. I drained her. She needed space. I sobbed louder than I ever have in public, loud enough to catch glimpses of strangers peering at me from behind their laptop screens. She said we’d cross paths again someday, but I haven’t seen her since.
We were friends in high school; we tried to remain friends in college. When I think about Rhiannon, I have to remind myself that she was never my lover, that we were never anything beyond two young women who enjoyed each other’s company. We were close, emotionally: We could talk about almost anything—my depression, her father’s death, our mutual anxiety about our futures. But Rhiannon and I were never close physically, no matter how much I wished we were. Sex, love, and romance were the only topics we would never discuss: If she mentioned a boyfriend, an ex, or merely hinted at a sexual experience, my face would get hot; I’d squirm in my seat. I never found out if she identified as straight, or bi, or something else, not that I could answer that question for myself; I don’t think I wanted to know. When she pointed out my awkwardness, I told her that my family never discussed intimacy (which was true), and that I just wasn’t as comfortable with sexuality as she was. I could never admit that I wanted her to want those things with me.
Alabama for Beginners
by Jean Ryan
Receptionists, store clerks, civil servants—many people here call me Miss Jean. Surnames are largely ignored, as if they are only a nuisance, something that gets in the way. They also use “Ma’am” and “Sir” for punctuation, a habit I’ve already picked up, courtesy being contagious.
The women, old and young, employ all sorts of endearments: Hon, Baby, Sugar, Darlin. The first time I ordered a sandwich at the local Subway, the girl behind the counter buckled my knees with kindness. The fact that she was brutally overweight and not blessed with movie star beauty made her benevolence all the more touching. Courtesy seems reflexive here, a trait bequeathed at birth.
Four months ago, my wife and I moved from Napa Valley to coastal Alabama (we are originally from states in the east and traveled west for more breathing room). Many of our friends worried about how we would fare in a red state, particularly as a couple.
Other People’s Music
by Cynthia Aarons
To the backdrop of Regan’s echoing words Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall—I took piano lessons. When no one was looking, my favorite thing to play instead of practicing was Animal from Sesame Street (if he played piano) and Don Music, the frustrated composer. I dramatized Don Music’s cries when he couldn’t remember the next note and the screeches of elation when he played like a concert pianist. Or I played “Thunderstorm,” every novice’s best number. I started with a gentle rain tickling the upper register of the highest octaves, then as “Animal,” cascading down into a violent, formidable nightmare of the booming keys, a roar that would be the perfect soundtrack to any mansion murder. It was in these moments that I was a messenger of a distant music that I alone was privileged to hear and transmit. Eighty-eight keys produce a million variations of twelve notes. I could feel the power of the keys stretched out before me, realizing that any melody could be played by any ambidextrous child. The piano teaches children that anything in the world is possible.
Turkey on the Strip
by Susan Eve Haar
There are many appeals to Las Vegas aside from my brother—my youngest, at a California college, will not come east; we all have a taste for sleaze; a few of us like to gamble; and we have a super discount suite in the best new hotel in town, courtesy of my kids’ pal Dan, a dropout from the Cornell School of Hotel Management. The suite is a triumph, glittery and luxurious, and the price is certainly right.
Everything is spanking new. The side-tables are classics designed by Eames. They look like giant chess pieces, flat-topped pawns or de-crenellated castles. The muted greens of rug and fabric suggest an oasis suspended over the strip that unspools outside the gigantic living room window. There’s a bar lined with modern Danish glassware and sparkling light fixtures, suspended circles hung with cut-crystal balls that refract and reflect the light. Bits of rainbow ready for the Cinderella’s ball. I desire them. I feel the itch to pilfer. I stand on a chair and reach up, de-looping one of the crystal drops that cluster on the fixture, attached only by a delicate wire. It’s easy, really. Like so many illicit acts, I slide right into it. Holding the crystal in my palm, I feel the weight of it. I admire its many facets and its secretive translucence that pretends to show all but refracts into abstraction. Listen, it is a beautiful object. I hop down and carry it into the next room to show my kids, who are lolling on majestic beds.
The Granny, the Grocer and the Cobbler
The phone roused me near midnight, and I pulled back the covers and stumbled toward it. I’d hardly managed a hoarse hello when my mother’s voice rushed at me from the other side of the Atlantic, wide awake and seemingly oblivious to the five-hour time difference.
I could tell from her voice everything was fine. More than fine, it seemed.
“How’s the trip?” I asked as I climbed back into bed and propped a pillow between my back and the knobby brass headboard.
“Great,” she yelled. “We’re having a grand time. We’re in a pub.”
Mom was shouting, no doubt because of the noise around her, but also because she was unaccustomed to speaking to me from so far away. Mostly, I think she was yelling because she was—uncharacteristically—a bit tipsy. I pictured her always-pink cheeks flushed a shade deeper. I imagined the comical scene in a dark, smoky pub as she and Dad had figured out how to place an international call.
My parents had been gone for more than a week. I’d been tracing their itinerary on a map on my dining-room table: Shannon to Galway, Mayo to Sligo, and now Derry, in Northern Ireland. They’d been planning this trip for months, dreaming it for years. All their parents were born in Ireland and emigrated to America. Each couple had met in Philadelphia, made their lives in that city, and never once went back to where they were from.
MORE RECENT WORK: Like what you’ve been reading? All the fine essays published throughout the history of the magazine can be accessed via the contributors/archives page.
Winter/Spring: Volume 7, Issue 1 New Issue Released!
Twenty-two essays from Volume 7, Issue 1.
New Anthology Released
We are pleased to announce publication of our new anthology Encounters, which features fifteen eclectic essays originally appearing in bioStories magazine, all focused on some of those chance encounters that can transform our lives.
Issue Reviewed at NewPages
Appreciation goes out to Katy Haas at NewPages for taking time to review the Winter/Spring 2016 Issue.