1429283316376There’s a lot of motherhood in your collection. Why?

Writing and motherhood rolled in on the same thunder, flashed with the same white electric. I’d just finished grad school and I read Louise Erdrich’s memoir and her babies slept in their baskets while she wrote. I was jolted awake by motherhood, and it seemed to me that the world was too.

Motherhood was also a foreign land. It amazed me, and I wanted to describe everything I saw. The pressure to write was acute, and because my days were bounded, insular, but with this exalted view, that tension intensified.

But then I ventured outside, and the air still echoed from the thunderstorm, but let’s say my mother was there, my mother-in-law, my grandmothers—there were women and children everywhere—and it turned out that what I was seeing was at once universal and personal.

Cover_LifeisShortArtisShorterIntroduction

Short Stuff

Bobs, tempers, college rejection letters, kinds of love, postcards, nicknames, baby carrots, myopia, life flashing before eyes, gummy bears, the loser’s straw, Capri pants, charge on this phone battery, a moment on the lips (forever on the hips), caprice, velvet chokers, six months to live, penne, some dog tails, how long I’ve known you though it feels like a lifetime, even a complicated dive, tree stumps, a shot of tequila, breaking a bone, a temp job, bobby socks, when you’re having fun, a sucker punch, going straight to video, outgrown shoes, a travel toothbrush, just missing the basket, quickies, some penises, lard-based desserts, catnaps, staccato tonguing, a sugar rush, timeouts, Tom Cruise, a stint, brusque people, stubble, the “I’m sorry” in proportion to the offense, fig season, grammatical contractions, bunny hills, ice cream headaches, dachshunds, –ribs, –stops, –hands, –changed, … but sweet.

Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, At-risk (University of Georgia Press) by Amina Gautier is a heartbreaking, eye opening, and endearing collection of stories that focus on African-American children in turmoil. Fathers leave, or if they stay, fall apart—addictions and failure all around them. Mothers ignore, or distance themselves, pushing their own agendas. Brothers and sisters either die in the street or get out by whatever means is necessary. And somewhere in the shadows of these events sit the boys and girls who try to make sense of it all—and try to survive it, unscarred.

Winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, Little Sinners and Other Stories (University of Nebraska Press) by Karen Brown is a collection of tales set primarily in the supposed domestic bliss of quiet, suburban life. But these tales are anything but mundane and conservative: they reach out into the shadows and chipped sidewalks that surround these cookie cutter lives that fall apart all around us. Death and betrayal, loneliness and desperation, dreams dissolved and love left cold on the doorsteps of our everyday existence—these are the stories we are given.

The apocalypse comes in many forms. Oh sure, there is acid rain and there is drought, the crops dry up and the world moves on, but what happens when you’re alone with your wife or husband? Nature takes over, as it always does, and always will. And what becomes of the children? In Matt Bell’s haunting portrayal of twenty-six moments in the afterbirth of a world gone wrong, Cataclysm Baby (Mudluscious Press), we get to see how those days and nights roll on, when the waters are poisoned and furtive slick flesh seeks out a moment of passionate respite in many a dark and restless night.

Meg Tuite’s novel, Domestic Apparition, challenges the strictures of the novelistic form. One could qualify it as a “novel in stories” or even call it a collection of stories, but by the end of reading it, its cohesiveness and narrative pull firmly place it in the land of the novel, albeit a unique one, both in structure and content—one that perhaps only a small press would publish (and by saying that, I’m applauding small presses everywhere).

Matty Byloos is an internationally recognized painter, the renowned publisher and editor of Smalldoggies Magazine and Press, and the author of Pushcart Prize nominee Don’t Smell the Floss: a unique and experimental collection of short stories written through a male stream of consciousness.

First Contact

By Rob Williams

Essay

Her name was Nedelia. She was a skinny, shy Hispanic girl, with enormous glasses (just like me) and a faint mustache whispering across her upper lip (very much unlike me—but more about that in a second). In my memory, she is always wearing a light blue skirt, knee-high white socks and a white blouse. She looks lovely, although I never would have said that about her at the time.

Later, we’ll study this day in history class. Books will have been written, documentaries made, references in political speeches and scientific research. It’ll be like April 4 or September 11; our first steps on the moon, the Challenger Explosion, Hurricane Katrina; everyone remembers exactly what they were doing the moment it happened.

Small town living is always the same, whether it’s in Arkansas, Idaho, or Missouri. Built on the backs of linked story collections like Winesboro, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson and Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock, Volt (Graywolf Press) by Alan Heathcock follows the lives of a handful of lost souls, tragedy washing over them like a great flood, people with names like Winslow, and Jorgen, and Vernon. In the fictional town of Krafton, we see what people do when living out in the woods, close to nature. When there’s nothing to do, they make their own fun, picking fights over nothing, running through cornfields, tipping over cows. In a small town, everybody knows everybody, and gets in their business, sometimes to help, and sometimes to enable their own survival.

Words Save Me

By Mark Sutz

Writing

You begin by finding solace in the written word.  How the letters fall one after another, then the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, the stories, the complete attempt by someone you have met only on this sheet, a paper wall between time, sometimes epic, centuries-long chunks of time, a substantial wall yet so membranous you can smell the streets of London in 1840 when you’re twelve with a bellyful of creamed tuna made by a housekeeper named Maxine in Scottsdale in 1980.

You continue your affair with the written word every day of your life, the thrill never waning, even when the sharp teeth of suicide threaten you every few years, you stave it off with the rote, delicious phrases that are your religion, your own private way to order the world, those words that draw you up from the abyss like some thread from the past and settle you, if only temporarily.  In those moments, repeating just five or ten words that someone wrote down once in the perfect order in a room six thousand miles away are enough to make you feel your blood bump along in your fingers and feet, your proof of life the salt from the tears you lick from the lonely corners of your mouth.  You are able to fall asleep, panic averted by words.

You muddle through bad times, trying times, and enjoy the moments when the black cloud abandons you for a few days or weeks or months, your affair with the written word enough to lift yourself out of bed and move forward.

You start laying down your own words, the ineptitude of your perfect, complete, pristine thought apparent when you reread the sentence or story and it is exactly the same feeling you get after you masturbate – why did I do this?  Silly, silly.

You implement daily the pen, pencil, typewriter and lay down hundreds of thousands of words over decades, not a single string of them what your mind’s eye saw in a flash.

You send a friend a story once, for no reason other than to know that one person out there will sit back with your words for a few minutes, up there, deep in your head.

You don’t hear anything from your friend, not even a potentially withering crtitique.  Silence.  You stop sending your words to friends, content that you’ve even found a few through life, no need to annoy them into avoidance.

You submit your words to people you don’t know who run entities that purport to publish stories sent in by people just like you.  You do this a thousand times.  Then a thousand more.   Occasionally, very rarely, you feel like you’re giving them a winning lottery ticket, if only the recipient would scratch off the coating and see what is underneath.  But they don’t.  They toss it aside, another losing ticket.  You hear: nothing.

You perceive faint echoes in the dark.  Always sounding like a wheezy, impatient, “No.”

You cement your self-image to this small word, these two letters carrying more weight than the text of a doorstopper of a novel.

You firmly believe this thing you use to order pizza or communicate with a neighbor about his overflowing garbage can is not a thing you really have any business trying to make your own.  Your pizza is often not what you ordered and your neighbor’s garbage still stinks, year after year.  Language doesn’t seem to work for you.

But you continue, through it all – you must, no choice.

You become certain that this activity of yours is as useful as a ‘61 Silverstream is to a death row inmate. Maybe less.  Then you write about this death row inmate and how his life would be if the guilty party was finally discovered, confessed and assuaged his guilt when he could no longer sleep.

You have another story, another prism, the only success that matters that you somehow got this man out of prison and onto an open highway, the next stop unmapped, unknown.

Cellrunner

By Nicholas Belardes

Writing

I am a cellrunner. There’s no doubting my obsession and ability to plug in as I head out on a city bus to write and steal juice from the bent steel city.

Resembling a modern day sci-fi novel sub-character with my spiky mini faux hawk and buggy black square glasses, I look out the bus window into the urban juiced-up decay. I tighten my backpack and the laces of my dirty petroleum shoes. I’m hungry to step off.

The bus brakes wheeze. Neon surrounds the projects. Billboards light piles of bricks and bottles. Casinos shine on dirty streets and faces of addicts whose cheeks turn yellow in street corner lamplight. I can see it all as I step off the bus and fumble for the writer’s equivalent of a laser blaster converted to look like a suped-up .357. At least that’s what I imagine as I pull my iPhone out of a black pocket in my Vans backpack and text blast, forming paragraphs that don’t originate from pen and ink or a laptop.

My only problem? Battery power. Cell juice. I’m down to sixty-seven percent as my fingers work the touchscreen.

But like some old addict once told me who sat with steely eyes and neon rims: “Seek the juice and you will find it.”

No need to write and write until your cell battery drains. You’ve got to be obsessed with recharging, always have an eye along the gutters of the horizon line for a place to chargeto cellrun if you have to.

Go ahead. Stand plugged in and write like a madman while you’re taking juice. Electricity burns into your phone.

God knows I need it.

I take a walk down a melting city sidewalk, enter an outdoor mall with big fancy facades and valet parking and immediately scan for outlets. I find them on treescoiled and tied to the bases, hidden behind mall planters and along the walls where light-up signs should be plugged in. I see them in moviehouses where stand-up video games or neon-glowing kiosks used to stand. They’re obvious in most Starbucks, and hidden in some. They’re in casinos and fast-food joints, along strip mall walls and by stages in parksif you can pry a lid and get to the holy juice. Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, they’re right under your ass. Just look beneath your chair wherever you are.

I’m a writer and this is what I do: I take a bus or a long walk out into the juiced-up urbanscape. I have a cord and plug in my pocket. I have confidence and anxiety that in a world where batteries fail and diminish almost as soon as you charge them, I can juice up to one-hundred percent, fingers whizzing across the touch screen.

And then it’s magic, right? Words form. Paragraphs. Storylines. Characters. This mobility allows me my own inner escape velocity where I’m strapped into an iPhone rocket that soars where writers with cumbersome laptops have wet dreams of being free.

It’s no different than what Matt Baldwin wants to do: bust out some memoir for The Nervous Breakdown from an iPhone App. Probably from the top of a mountain. Or while harpooning the great white novel with a cellphone in his teeth. I tried and failed. But Matt hasn’t given up: “Yeah I’m going to email Brad and Greg about it. See what they say. Would be awesome if we could input directly.”

I can take my device to rocky crags on the seawall in Dana Point, where one slip is a smashed leg between tons of boulders. I tap out a novel chapter and watch the surf send maddening swells that smash fishermen against rocks. I sit by a Ferris Wheel in an upscale mall, plugged in if I have to, or walk down Las Vegas Boulevard and tap out a novel, knowing I can duck into a casino and maybe stand around in the lobby, connected to the very same juice that’s sucking money from drugged up slot junkies. They can’t get away from spinning video screens where even Trekkies pay homage to virtual Bones.

Laptop junkies are like cellrunners of a minor variety, sitting in libraries, airports, coffeehouses, restaurants, and car washeswherever they can get a free hotspotand surf the net and write their caffeine-buzzed B-movie scripts and novels. They can play World of Warcraft and eat a scone.

But they’re confined, and more addicted to pseudo-social environments and fancy paperboard cup holders with green logos. They want to check in on Foursquare, and Yelp about the barista, and gulp away their Saturday mornings before smoking out over lunch saying, “I wrote my novel today while some pretentious yuppie soccer mom gossiped about her kid’s perfect teeth and bloodlines. It was a bitch.”

A true cellrunner can take to the streets with an iPhone, a cord and a plot.

A true cellrunner doesn’t need anything but to get out of the house, to write on the go, and shove that cellphone in his pocket and look for the next outlet.

More juice, please.

He can walk and write and look up at jets and clouds and type a novel while walking down stairs and slipping in a doorway. People will think you’re texting your girlfriend that you don’t have. But you just keep writing.

I became a cellrunner in Las Vegas, starting in those very same Starbucks, sitting like another lonely writer masturbating to my own shitty prose along with twenty other desperate men in the same emo-run coffeehouse on Rainbow Boulevard that’s just like the emo-run coffeehouse on your street. I couldn’t write on my Samsung Instinct. Sure, I always wanted it charged. But I wasn’t cellrunning by any stretch of the word.

When I got my iPhone that all began to change. I wasn’t writing on my phone yet. Just texts and emails and worthless Facebook updates. But I immediately got obsessed with finding places to charge my phone.

My epiphany began on a lonely day at the movies.

I’d just seen some forgettable flicks at The Orleans where I moviehopped and sat texting as Jake Gyllenhaal forgettably swashbuckled his way through CGI Persia of the ancient world. I left the theater and spotted an outlet by a wooden bench. I didn’t think twice and jammed my plug into the wall, attached my phone, and sat there juicing up where some old Ms. Pacman game probably once sat sucking electricity like some kind of energy whore.

Afterward, I juiced up wherever I could. My sonnenreise was just as acidic and energy filled as a land of lemon blossoms. But this meant a new kind of fragrant awakening: real mobility and an addiction to seeking out juice when cell power reads only thirty fucking percent. Gotta keep it up. Gotta juice up. Gotta find the outlets when you can, where you can, and stay mobile and keep writing. In Las Vegas, Bakersfield, Irvine, Laguna Hills, Huntington Beach. And in Dana Point, where I asked a man who carried plastic bags filled with worldly goods if I could juice up under his seat in McDonalds.

He gave me a look of wonder then said, “Sure. I was just leavin’.”

“The worker said it’s the only outlet, man.”

“Oh yeah. That is the only one, guy.”

He looked like he hadn’t bathed in three years. But somehow he knew about the secret juice beneath his chair. He glanced at his friends and they all stepped into the coastal fog hovering outside the door.

I got on my hands and knees on the dirty floor, plugged in and started to write. When I was juiced up I continued to tap right into the fog and out toward the sea.

*NOTE: This piece and my last two posts have been written entirely on an iPhone.

In the wake of a conversation that left my partner feeling funny, we’ve started a gossip jar. He struggled to articulate not precisely shame, not exactly sheepishness, and not really guilt. More like a creeping sense that he’d caught himself gossiping about a person there was no need to talk about. The jar, he figured, would serve as a deterrent against trading inappropriate information and as a punitive measure when he slipped up: a flat rate of one dollar per character, per story. Recounting something overheard in line at the fruit market would cost a buck, while a long and detailed vignette casting a wide net over no fewer than five co-workers and incorporating judgments about their collective assholery, and which rambles on and on through dinner and into dessert might tap out at $10.

Jumpers

By Nicholas Belardes

Memoir

I saw the horrific billboard on Las Vegas Boulevard and instantly pushed it out of my mind.

Riding with John, we drove past, in slow motion. I couldn’t bring myself to mention it. Who could? It was far easier to bring up the porn billboard with the girl on it holding a cupcake saying, “Wanna taste my muffin?”

“Absolutely incredible billboard,” John had said staring up at the cartoon version of a bald cupcake.

Now I was walking toward the Sahara Hotel. Couldn’t get a ride from work. I could handle the walk I told myself. Just had to get over the freeway. Only now I was lost, headed north on Western, having cut under the freeway, past a Metro Police vehicle that pulled into the dirt behind me, just to check me out.

Hoping for a street to slice past the girly joints to Industrial, I had no such luck. I was stuck on an hours-long walk, just to traverse a freeway, and ended up on Wyoming Street and having to double back down Industrial, southward, and into a neighborhood of streets as ugly and lonely as any American island of lost streets could ever get.

Trying for a shortcut somewhere along the way, I took a walk down a sidestreet only to end up circling through past a gym as boxers in full gloves jogged past. They glared like they wished I was twenty years younger. Fresh sparring meat. I ducked tail and pushed back out to the main thoroughfare to search for a way through to the Sahara Hotel, which I hadn’t been able to see since first looking at it from right across the freeway. Now my only landmark was the Stratosphere Tower. And even that I found was now far to the southeast. From where I was originally it stood north and a bit eastward.

I took a long look down West New York Avenue and thought to hell with that. Looked like an endless string of drug deals going down in the dusty dank of the sweaty summer street. I plodded onward to West St. Louis Avenue and found a lonely long walk past a transient in pigtails leaning on a fence. She gave me the eye like she wanted more than a Shirley Temple and a fix of street crack.

I left her to her stares and eventually came up to lines of decrepit apartments, the kind you would find in any small desert town, with clothes strewn over rod-iron balconies, and mamba and cumbias blasting through open windows. Outside, there were kids toys, smoking red-eyed Mexicans in trucker’s caps, and the smell of greasy refried beans made from fresh pintos. Ahh, I told myself, I’d found the dens of the housekeepers, dishwashers and drug dealers of the finest hotels on the Strip.

When I got to Fairfield Avenue I made a right and looked up at the awful towering machinery of the Stratosphere Hotel. Its gargantuan height pushes over the broken industrial cityscape like a rocket ready to blast off into some Eighties-themed casino space station. There, I imagine heavy metal Earth hits rule, and guys Like Reno Romero shred to Alpha Centauri interstellar activists whose pointy ears bleed from amp feedback as they protest the cancellation of intra-celestial Dio tributes.

I walked down Fairfield along the back edge of the tower and kicked up dust as I crossed a gravel lot. In the near distance I saw another row of apartments. Their balconies faced the tower, and pot-bellied men, down to their last greedy nickel, eyed me and the tower through drunken eyes, as if we both held some kind of secrets they considered pulling a gun to find the answers to.

As I passed there was a scream. A long howling scream. One that was both terrifying and death defying at the same time. I’d heard a few in the distance, but this was closer, and I found it odd as I eyed the men on the balcony watch me suddenly look up at the jumper falling in full sprawl from the dizzying heights of the tower.

I rounded a corner, still within eyeshot of the derelict apartment behind the tower, and walked on a cracked sidewalk that looked like it hadn’t been repaired for sixty years. Just across the street was a bright green strip of grass. That surrounded a brand new condo that jutted upward into a shiny steel tower. A woman walked nervously on the grass as her little white Maltese sniffed around prudishly. I sensed the woman knew it was dusk, about the time those pot-bellied men creep from their rusted balconies, looking for wallets to lift and little dogs to kidnap and sell for easy Sports Book cash.

Soon I found my tired way to Sahara Avenue. A security guard on a bicycle pedaled past, heading toward the freeway overpass that I tried to find a shortcut around. Maybe he worked at the Palace Station, or some girly joint along the way.

I crossed Las Vegas Boulevard and was nearing a McDonalds when I heard a faint scream and saw a young couple looking up. The girl held a pink camera that surely couldn’t capture the person leaping off the edge of the tower.

“Would you?” I asked the man as I passed.

He looked at me with red eyes that could barely focus from a face of sunburnt skin. His hair was a greasy mess. “Already have,” he said.

I continued past, thinking of the terrible billboards advertising JUMPERS, and knowing full well, that some idiots on 9/11 would be up there, pretending they were in some virtual reality where nothing but smoke and flames would determine their final path through life, a long leap into the acrid air.

*NOTE: This piece was written entirely on an iPhone.

Image by Nick Belardes

Isaiah seemed more serious than usual when he returned. He slid his lanky frame into his chair and nodded at us. It had only been a few days, but everyone was happy to have him back. “Working in small groups” was always more fun when Isaiah was there. I remained quiet, hoping to be ignored. As one of only a handful of white kids in the whole school, I knew that one wrong word could lead to an onslaught of “cracker” and “honky” comments. I squinted at the huge green chalkboard in the distance and tried to make sense of the white slashes Mrs. McMillan had made across the landscape. There were too many erasure clouds.

“Where’ve you been?” Montrell asked Isaiah, punching him in the arm. High-strung even for an 11-year-old, Montrell’s eyes were practically bugging out of his head.

Isaiah, who was two years older than the rest of us, smiled coolly and folded his arms across his chest: “Man, you guys don’t even want to know.”

“What’re you sick or something?” Montrell slid his chair back with alarm: “Shit, you probably got crabs!” But he was only kidding. We were all were terrified of crabs. I wasn’t really sure what “crabs” meant in this context, but I knew it was something awful. Like cooties, it seemed to me — girls were often accused of having them — but much, much worse.

Hell no!” Isaiah said, pushing his desk at Montrell, who was laughing uncontrollably at his own joke. Isaiah wasn’t interested in horsing around. He lowered his voice and addressed the group — me, Montrell and three other boys. “I’m not sick. But I did go to the hospital on Sunday. I’m not supposed to tell anyone what happened. It was some really bad shit and I’m not supposed to talk about it. The doctors didn’t even know what to do.”

Montrell’s eyes retreated back into their sockets. We all grew very quiet. He had our total attention.

“What happened?” We all wanted to know.

“You guys can’t tell this to anyone. I’m not even supposed to talk about it. I had to go to the hospital because … I coughed up a nut.”

Montrell and the other boys gaped at him. I felt confused — and embarrassed because I didn’t understand.

“Because I’ve been fucking the babysitter too much,” Isaiah said, lowering his voice. “Every time she comes over, we get busy. My mom’s been going out a lot lately, so the babysitter keeps coming over, and every time, she wants to bone. But if you do it too much, that’s what happens. You can cough up a nut.”

“What! Man, you can’t do it too much,” Montrell objected. He had a weird look on his face, like he couldn’t tell if he was supposed to be laughing or what.

“Trust me, you can.” Isaiah looked incredibly serious. “That’s what happens. I coughed up one of my nuts, and I held it there in my hand, bleeding — I could see the veins and everything. That shit was pulsing. It had a heartbeat.”

“You … held … your … nut … in … your …hand?”

Isaiah nodded gravely.

I had a limited understanding of anatomy, and only the vaguest ideas about sex, but still, this didn’t seem possible. Suddenly, there were a thousand questions flying at once.

“You coughed it up?”

“Your nut?”

“It had a heartbeat?”

“The babysitter?”

Montrell looked really upset. “But they’re connected to the rest of your body,” he said. “There’s like a cord there. Some string or some shit.” He groped around at his own crotch, alarmed. “They can’t come out!”

“Listen,” Isaiah said calmly: “You guys are virgins anyway. You don’t even know how to nut.” He looked at me. “Have you ever even nutted in your life?”

In fact, I hadn’t ever “nutted” in my life. It sounded scary. The other guys were always boasting about “busting” their nuts. I didn’t understand what they meant. I knew you could “bust a nut” over and over again — apparently they all loved it — so the busted nuts had to grow back. Or maybe they didn’t bust entirely. I had no idea. In any case, it sounded horrible. I kept quiet and looked down at my hands. The back of my neck felt hot.

I’m not a virgin!” Montrell said defensively. “And at least I don’t need a babysitter. My mom knows I can take care of myself.”

“Yes, you are.” Isaiah smirked at him. “You all are. Besides, she’s not my babysitter. She babysits my little brother. I’m just there when she comes over. He watches TV and we go in the back and get busy. Except we were doing it too much.” He shrugged. “Someday you guys will see. If you ever do get a girl, you might cough up a nut.”

“Yeah right. So what happened to your nut then, huh? Now you only got one?” Montrell looked at Isaiah incredulously.

“Hell no! The doctor put it back in. You think I’d come back to school with only one nut? That’d be some pussy shit.”