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Weekly Featured Essay

J. Malcolm Garcia takes us inside Afghanistan and into Afghani lives in 2015, a country he has been covering as a freelance journalist since 2001.

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.

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Rhiannon

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A Story Is Born

by Susan Lynn Solomon.

Before I speak of the odd things that happened in my house, I must explain how I first encountered the spirit.

A number of years ago I was the in-house lawyer at a small company in Niagara Falls. Charlie Ganim, my employer, also owned a bed and breakfast in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a small Canadian town across the river from where I lived. A block off Queen Street, the house stood two stories above an ancient brick foundation. Yellow clapboard with brown shutters and trim, the Blake House was one of many inns dotting that quaint historic town. That ancient brick foundation was set in place soon after the town was set afire by American forces during the War of 1812. Zackery Myerson laid the foundation on the site where a retreating British officer was killed. He built what today might be considered a small cottage on that plot of land and established a bakery in it. Over the years subsequent owners extended the cottage, and in 1859 Horace Blake purchased the building as a residence for his aging mother. Since then, the house became the residence of at least ten different families before Charlie purchased it in 2003 and turned it into an inn.

I’ve described the history of the Blake House, because its age had given a ghost ample time to take up residence there. At least, that was the legend attached to the house.

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Disappearance

by Patrick Dobson

I hoped the day would remain overcast. A winter day with a crystalline sky set my teeth on edge and a peculiar tension gripped my insides. If the sky cleared, I’d grow frazzled. The hard-edged light of the season scraped hard against my nerves. My thoughts raced. Sometimes the stress was so great I wanted to vanish . . . zip, gone.

I don’t easily deal with this peculiar malady sitting still. The return of night or of clouds and freezing rain and snow would settle me again. Something about the nuances of darkness was calming, reassuring. In the meantime, work always helped. The adrenaline and repetitive nature of hard labor soothed my agitated soul and quieted my fitful mind. Once my head cleared and my heart steadied, labor’s balms got right to the spiritual mark. I could ignore the noise of a clear winter day and put my head down and do my job, get home, and hide from the light.

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The Last Olympian

by Karen O’Neil

On the evening that my mother died alone in her Chicago apartment just short of her 100th birthday, I was 1000 miles away in Austin, Texas, standing in line with my husband and our eight-year-old grandson, Peter, waiting for Rick Riordan to autograph the very latest in his Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. This was a moment

Peter had been anticipating for months. He had carefully instructed me the night before to get to Book People as early as I could to secure a prime place in line for the evening event. “Believe me, Grandma,” he had said earnestly. “You’ve got to go early. You don’t know how many people will be there. Go at 8:00. Go as soon as you wake up. You’ll get a much better spot.”

But on a sunny May morning, I had not fully heeded Peter’s instructions. First, I stopped along the way to have coffee at an outdoor café. I did the Times crossword (an easy Tuesday), and then I put in a quick call to my mother, basking in a pace of life that made such leisure possible. Dawdling in the morning was a heretofore forbidden treat, the first course in what felt to my husband and me like a feast of retirement—beautiful weather, beautiful grandchildren, enough work to be interesting, but not enough to be stressful. We were there for the semester while Bob taught a course at the University of Texas Law School, a long-awaited and highly prized shared adventure.

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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.