Perfect for driving, workout, or relaxed listening.
Coming of age while helping a nephew.
“I ain’t going to stand for it,” Mama said. She said this often.
She held a small dead human about as long as an ear of corn. Even though the head was too big, the hands too small, you could tell it might have been somebody.
“Push down,” Mama said.
My sister moaned. With a gush of blood the afterbirth slid onto the bed. Her skin was white as wood ash.
“I don’t feel good,” she said.
“Shut up, Pearl Anne,” Mama said. “Shut up and grow up.”
“You’re acting like a two-year-old.”
“I’m going to throw up,” Pearl Anne said.
I wasn’t feeling so hot either.
A girl and boy in love challenge diverse cultural values.
William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Awards Semi-Finalist (2012).
Peter Pisano failed computer science and Russian literature at the state university, credits he needed to graduate, so he took courses at Hunchett College in Ohio in the summer of ’06. He lived on campus but often took his meals in the only restaurant–the Whispering Maiden–in the small town of Raspier, which had two cross streets and no traffic lights and was juxtaposed to the campus entrance like the cap on an acorn. On many days, especially on weekends, the Amish set up a table or two on the grassy central island on the main street to display food and furniture they made for sale. Usually a buggy or a wagon was parked nearby, the horse tethered to a parking meter or a tree. One evening, Peter saw a lone girl sitting next to a table with baked goods. His meal had been more tasteless than usual, and he had eaten little. He wanted desert.
The girl wore a grey ankle-length wool dress and a white hairnet/bonnet that covered her head and that tied under her chin so that only wispy dark strands of hair showed above her brow. She looked down and away as he approached.
Sacrificing a child to survive.
We left our two snowmobiles, crossed a frozen river that I knew wouldn’t carry the vehicles with my brother-in-law Errol weighing 340 stripped and riding his twelve year-old stepson, Sean, my sister’s kid by her first husband. I led the way shouldering my Winchester 70, Sean with a 22 rifle, his legs spread wide trying to keep in my snowshoe tracks, and Errol with a Savage 110.
We checked traps. Two snares were empty and one of the spring loaders had a small hind leg in the clamp claws but something had ripped off the body.
“Coyote did it,” Errol said.
“Bigger than that,” I said.
We began to circle back to the rigs. Sean’s 22 discharged.
“I’m hit” Errol moaned to scare the kid.
Sean started to cry. He didn’t think good and had no schooling.
Errol slapped him on the back of the head. “Grow up,” he said. “I was joking.”
Sean stood. “Bear,” he said pointing to the edge of the clearing. The sun was low and the shadows long over the snow cover, and the trees in the forest seemed welded together.
A black piano player infiltrates the KKK in the cultural wars of the seventies.
William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Awards Semifinalist (2011), Semi-Finalist (2012).
In the seventies, in rural Maryland just outside Washington, DC, The Black Mountain Boys, an all white band, had a regular gig at this all-white truck stop and hired Big Gene—a black piano player–who had an eleven-inch thumb-to-pinky stretch that whacked out tenths like octaves. Big Gene played boogie like Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons and could walk down into infinity of R&B with a left hand transplanted from Professor Longhair and James Booker. Sid, the fiddle player band-manger, saw Big Gene as a savior for the diminishing popularity of his country repetoire. “Play the book,” he said to Gene, “but make it sound like they’ll want to shake their bootie.” On Big Gene’s first night, the truck stop owner approach Sid as they were setting up.
“Who the fuck is that?” the owner said to Sid.
Big Gene did not look up.
“Piano player,” Sid said.
A desperate wife demands justice.
Finalist in the William Faulkner: William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition.
In 1963, on an American base in France, Amy Withers loaded her husband’s hair-trigger automatic pistol, called the military police, wrapped her newborn baby in a hand-knitted beige afghan with a purple border, and waited at the front window of her common place bungalow. The policeman arrived, parked his car near the curb, and walked toward the house. She opened the front window from above and shot four rounds into the air.
The policeman backed away. “We got a call . . .”
“I called,” Amy yelled. “I want the commander.”
The policeman swore. “You need a shrink,” he mumbled.
“I heard that, you creep.” She shot another round into the air
A store manager befriends an employee.Listen (25:14)
This will never work out,” Mr. Rich said sitting behind his metal desk, his thick arms crossed on his massive chest. On the wall were photos of him with his high school football team, with golf clubs and friends, on a family ski trip to Colorado, at the helm of a sloop with all six children and under full sail on Penobscot Bay, and a large print of him at the wheel of his vintage-fifties, two-seater, red convertible.
“You aren’t worth a damn at hiring, anyway,” he said to me.
Even after sixteen years as manager of his independent grocery store, I could never remember a compliment from Mr. Rich. He was a hard-line employer who thought the best management strategy was never being pleased with any employee. I’d learned to ignore him whenever possible.
“He’d just be a cart boy,” I argued.
A mother drives her handicapped son to be institutionalized.
"Put your glasses on," Margaret said to her son. He touched his neck wet with sweat and wiped his hand on his tee shirt. The back window was down a few inches for ventilation and gave a steady breathy growl at highway speeds.
"The glasses, Ben."
He picked up the thick lenses from the seat and with a couple of missed tries, pulled down the temple straps over his head.
"We’ll play a game, Ben," she said. "You want to play a game?"
"Play game," he said. She passed an eighteen-wheeler leaving plenty of room when she tucked back into the slow lane. The sun was mid morning and wavy lines of invisible heat from the road were already distorting the view. Ben rocked back and forth; she let him go on for a while.
"Can you see the clouds?" she asked. There was a line of cars slowed in the fast lane . . . and bumper to bumper. She kept a good distance to let them sort it out. Ben stopped rocking and was shaking his head from side to side.
"Look up," she said. "In the sky. Clouds are in the sky, Ben. Next to where God lives."
"God live," he said. He strained against the seat belt to lean forward and look up through the windshield.
"Can you see them?"
"See them," he said.
"Well, we’ll find one and we’ll name it. Tell what it is. There are all sorts of things up in the sky."
"I do good," he said.
"Of course you will."
"I do good," he said again.
A nursing assistant takes a wrong turn in patient care.
Presented at Kenyon College and at Zoetrope Belize Workshop.
My name is Agnes Swaggert and I work in this nursing home for next to nothing. I do good things for old folks like Mr. Wiggins who has been with us for two months. He lost his hair to radiation, his eyesight to Cadillacs, and his voice to a trach. He moans non-stop, drools and spits, shits five times a day so the sheets got to be changed. I don’t think he ever sleeps.
I go to sit for a moment at the nurses’ station, put my arms on the counter. I got scars on my right arm, and I set to thinking, as I often do when I feel like this.
A dinner party goes awry.Listen (25:18)
In college, I had been attracted to my roommate, Peter Townsend. But after fifteen years of marriage to Amanda, my thoughts of Peter had faded, until I heard a rumor that he would interview for Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University where I was a professor of botany. I called to invite him to our house for a dinner while he was in town. I told Amanda.
“Goddamn it, Tony. I don’t like him.”
“You could try,” I said. There were a few minutes at my twentieth college reunion when I thought Amanda could never get enough of Peter.
“You made a move. He turned you down,” I said.
“I’ve never ‘made a move’ on any man.”
When is a life not worth saving?
His sweet troubled son, alone in his room; he and his wife sitting downstairs irritated by the bass thrust of the loud music coming from the second floor. They knew he had taken drugs, taken him to a psychiatrist, paid for the Prozac that insurance didn’t cover; but they didn’t know that he had taken a loaded shotgun from the locked cabinet, a gun that he put with the stock on the floor and while sitting on the bed placed the barrels under his chin and pushed down on the trigger.
After the explosion they were quickly inside the room. The gun had fallen to the floor. His son had fallen to one side; his face gone: the lower jaw blown away, a few upper teeth haphazardly clinging to flesh. Nose and lower lids gone, the deflated eyeballs wrinkled like a fallen soufflé. His son’s legs, then his arms, went into spasms; he was alive but without air.
A young girl comes of age when her father is charged with murder.
My Auntie Caroline drove my dead mother’s plum red van on the way to the courthouse. Aaron, my older brother by two years but not quite as tall as me, sat unstrapped on the passenger side in what my mother used to call the death seat; Patsy, my seven-year-old younger sister, and I were in the back. We were dressed up to go to Dad’s arraignment, but no one was exactly clear on what an arraignment was, except maybe Auntie.
The van was soooo warm; Auntie had set the temperature knob in the red. We didn’t know about our dad, and I was afraid to talk about him–or anything–until I started sweating.
“It’s hot back here, Auntie,” I said.
A scam artist does good.
Finalist in the 2007 William Faulkner Creative Writing Competition.
I was sleeping in this mission after being discharged from the psych ward at DC General and some hophead stole my cash from my veteran’s disability checks that had piled up while I was so rudely and unjustly incarcerated. So I dropped by my best buddy Arthur who lived in two, side-tilted Dumpsters at the edge of inner Washington, DC.
“You got any cash?” I asked.
“I want to visit my mother.”
“She write to you?”
“Not yet. But she needs me. Came to me when I was inside.”
A Catholic priest confronts lust.
The wind gust between the walkway and the airplane door chilled Father Ryan as he waited for Bishop Henley to move into the cabin. Father Ryan’s hand swept across his rustled thick head of light brown hair as the flight attendant smiled and turned to open a can of tomato juice in the galley.
Inside, the cabin was warm and humid. The Bishop pushed ahead for his assigned window seat in first class.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like the aisle, sir?” Father Ryan said with a touch of sincere sympathy for the bishop’s large frame in cramped circumstances; but there was more than a little sarcasm too. The Bishop liked to look down with a divine sweep of gaze over his ecumenical territory as they took off, a move Father Ryan described often to the delight of all who knew the bishop.
The Bishop did not answer. Being around Father Ryan had consistently engulfed him in an intense resentful smoldering. The Bishop thanked God for this duty of taking father Ryan from Boston to his new parish in Idaho, and he pushed aside any guilt of being delighted to never have to speak to Father Ryan again, except maybe at conferences. Being rid of this priest gave him hopeful expectations of a tranquil future. After much prayer, the Bishop believed that his dislike for Father Ryan was not just their personality clashes, but an appropriate distaste for his loose, too-friendly demeanor with the parishioners. That, the Bishop was sure, had been the source of the complaint too, from a young married women, whom the Bishop did not trust but could not ignore. During the Bishop’s interview with the complaintant, she had been unable to hide surprise and pleasure—and a touch of mischievousness–in her eyes at the moment when the Bishop expected anger and accusation. She did not claim assault, or even touching. “Suggestive” she said. “He hinted,” she had added. Was she a prevaricator? Probably. But with all the recent sex scandals among the clergy, he could not let this explode. He’d seen enough of danger in his thirty-five years of service to the Lord to know when it lurked.
A determined mother protects her deformed child from the destructive sympathies of family and society.Listen (31:37)
In 1959, a week after her seventeenth birthday, Catherine missed her period in February, and then in March. By late April she was not sleeping well and most of her waking hours were spoiled by nausea and hating everything she ate. Her mother Agnes made an emergency appointment with Dr. Crowder.
“Stay here,” Dr. Crowder said to Catherine before he left the exam room. The receptionist had brought Agnes into his private office where she sat in the wing chair for consultations.
“She’s pregnant,” he said.
Agnes’ face paled with the accusation. “She’s a child,” she said.
Two women with declining allure fight for supremacy for the men in their lives.
William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Awards Semifinalist (2011), Short-list finalist (2012).
Most of the lawn-party guests at the country club were Jean’s friends from childhood, and we knew from her brittle greeting and fixed smile that she was upset. My God. Most of us would have been weeping behind a locked bathroom door. She welcomed us alone–although the invitations read “Hosts: Jean and Tim”—without a word about Tim’s whereabouts. We knew the essential: Tim hadn’t returned from a surgical meeting in south Florida. We were curious. Who was he with? What did Jean know? But she looked too fragile and we’d been friends too long for me to ask.
Near the open-air bar my distant cousin, Patrick, talked to three women. He was one of Tim’s surgical partners for twenty-five years. I waved and pointed to a giant oak where we might have some privacy.
A mother grieves her former boyfriend and sees her daughter in a new light.
William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Awards Finalist (2010), Semi-Finalist (2012).
Tuesday, the old cardboard shipping box with UPS tracking labels left outside Sarah Tanner’s door by the building manager came from Florida. Masking tape fortified the torn edges and black-marker blotted out the original California wine company logo and on the top were coffee-stained partial circles from coffee-cup rims. She briefly worried the box might be a threat; she was afraid of everything lately after her divorce. She cut the carelessly applied transparent tape that sealed the top; she folded back the flaps. She rummaged items from a camping trip: a backpack, water bottles, a toilet kit, extra hiking socks. Every item evoked memories of her fervent, secret affair with Peter Musconi more than twenty-five years ago.
In the bottom of the box was a business envelope with no markings, the flap sealed with Scotch tape. She opened it. A white-gold engagement ring dropped to the floor.
A top three finalist in William Faulkner:William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition 2008Listen (28:22)
Didi sits on a three-legged stool on the stage in a sideshow tent. It’s the third show of the night. She listens to the barker, Captain Withers, as he gathers a new crowd outside. “Didi, the Dynamic Dwarf! The doll of the midway!”
On stage, Didi is hidden behind the wooden façade of a miniature house with a hinged door and two fake windows and an angled roofline bent on each side of the peak. The tent air is hot and stuffy, and sweat trickles from her armpit down her side. She wonders if it is due to nerves or the weather.
“This tiny morsel – born of ancient royal heritage – is the reincarnation of Cleopatra, an Egyptian goddess. The smallest woman in the world. Thirty-two inches low. You will see every detail, of God’s amazing work. Right here, tonight, gentlemen, and for two nights only.”
Losing a wife to keep a secret.
It is 1941. Isaac the Jew and Rebecca, his wife of twenty years, stand in line at the checkpoint between Germany and Switzerland for three hours before they reach the barrier.
“Passports,” the guard says in German. Isaac hands over his documents.
“You are from . . . ?”
“Born in Munich,” Isaac says.
“You are going to Zurich?”
“No, no. To Basel. I must meet my brother’s daughter now orphaned. She is alone and will be waiting at the train station. Friends have sent her.”
“You, woman,” the guard says, “where are your papers?”
Rebecca does not look up from her frantic search in her bag. “I cannot find them,” she says. She has slipped into her native Polish.
“She will find them,” Isaac says.
“Go to the back of the line,” the guard says. “Next.”
Isaac grabs Rebecca’s arm and takes her to the side.
“Incompetent,” he whispers.
“I thought they were here,” she pleads. “Maybe you have them.”
Miracles emerge in the chaos of the French revolution.
The hands of the faith healer probed the lump on Jean-Luc’s mother’s neck. Stone hard it was and fixed like a burl on a log.
“She will need strained carrot and turnip broth fortified with smushed, dried eucalyptus root,” the faith healer said to the father staring at her rigid with concern.
The mother’s eyes burned with owl intensity, brimming with much fear but little hope. The father’s eyes were glazed and opaque, hiding the memories of this dear wife, Charlotte, mother of his two sons, core of the family, whose once lovely hands were now calloused from her work as a seamstress, and her once warm heart had turned cold as winter with age.
A trucker breaks his rule about hitchhikers to discover evil in someone he comes to care about.
My one unbreakable rule was never pick up a hitchhiker. And never at night. But at the far edge of the headlights this girl showed up in the breakdown lane near mile marker 381, kind of humped over as if she didn’t even know I was bearing down on her . . . not like a hooker who’d be standing straight with her hand waving shoulder-high and her head tilted like a come-on . . . or some hidden robber’s decoy girl waving with both arms like the ship was sinking. I slowed with no thought of stopping. She stumbled into the slow lane and crumpled to the ground; I swerved left to keep from killing her. I checked the mirrors, black except the yellow glow-dots of my running lights. I pulled onto the breakdown lane, put on flashers, climbed down, and walked back to her. I didn’t see no movement in the darkness of roadside pine forest.
Two couples on tour find new meaning in their lives after the theft of a precious necklace.
William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Awards Finalist (2011), Finalist (2012).
On our first night in New Delhi, Helen and I ate dinner in our hotel with our new acquaintances, Betsy and Anwar—from Birmingham, Alabama where Anwar practiced orthopedic surgery and she kept house.
“You two married?” Betsy asked Helen and me.
“We live together,” Helen said. She didn’t want to explain we lived together most of the time in my cramped condominium facing Lake Ontario, but that she still had her house from her divorce where she spent time during the week.
“Well, I declare,” mooned Betsy. “An arrangement.”
“A little more than that,” Helen said, bristling.
With canny insight, Betsy had cut open the conflict between Helen and me, conflict we had not planned to share with strangers on an Asian tour.
Discovering love in Mississippi when there’s nothing left at the bottom of the bucket.
My life at twenty-one was never in tune–like a D-string on an antique Gibson with a peg that wouldn’t hold–and I’m walking up this two lane side road about ten miles West of Canton and North of Jackson where I have just come from. Haven’t seen a car in maybe an hour, the straps of my pack digging into my shoulders, the sun burning my eyes because I lost my shades leaning over a riverbank to fill my water jug, and dragging the guitar case cause it’s just too heavy to lift off the ground. Pure shit. But I got to make it work. I’m flat broke.
About half a mile down the road I see this man on a bike peddling like to die and holding straight on the faded centerline. I flag him down and drop my backpack. He stops the bike, straddling the bar and breathing hard.
An associate professor learns more from his student than he expected.Listen (24:23)
Associate Professor William Possum was looking for student Denise Witherspoon, this attractive, slightly overweight, moderately intelligent woman who was destroying his class. Denise had caused five angry letters, two dropouts, and a formal complaint that said she “made an evening of anticipated learning a dreadful experience.”
And it had gone farther than the classroom. Possum’s mentor and department chair, Alice Cherry, had made it clear she was “damn tired” of the “deteriorating” situation.
“She’s impossible,” Possum had countered, and he described Denise’s undeserved pride and unjust criticism of her fellow students.
A convict fails to charm his last chance at love.
Winner 2006 Sandhills Writers Competition.
On Christmas Day my second year in prison for murder, my mother stopped coming to visit. She doesn’t call and I can’t get in touch with her. In August, she missed my twenty-fifth birthday. A couple months later my sister came and said, “Mother doesn’t want to think about it anymore. Try to understand.” I did try.
Eventually my sister quit coming; she had a lot on her mind with her van full of kids–and no husband. So I go a year with no visitors and when I get dragged to administration to face an assistant to the warden, I was half-crazy.
An associate professor learns more from his student than he expected.
After a six-hour drive north from Toronto, John Hampton arrived at the family home of his departed wife, Grace, and her daughter Candy, both dead six days. The house was dark. His sister-in-law, Ruth, greeted him in a nightgown and robe, and knee-length woolen socks. She led him toward an attic room. He hadn’t seen her in more than four years.
“Henrietta’s in the bedroom attached to yours. You’ll have to share the loo. You know her, don’t you? Candy’s roommate?”
“I don’t think so. I didn’t see Candy often.”
“Oh, you’d remember. Tall, slim girl. Round face. Crystal-blue eyes. Black hair cut in a pageboy. Unusual, so you can’t forget.”
“Is she nice?”
Stonecutter’s son falls hopelessly in love with a client.
I was thirteen, never in love, and yearning to leave home when a red, two-seated convertible drove up to our gate. The driver’s door opened and a girl of twenty-two with a perfectly shaped light-skinned body emerged in a see-through dress that showed almost everything and I imagined the rest.
My father, a tall imposing figure of a black man with bulging muscles from carving statues and grave markers for the dearly departed, tried not to look. He felt strange around women, I assumed because my mother had left when I was two. He never talked about her or much of anything, and we lived alone on a twelve-acre plot of half swamp property where I suffered his long silences broken only by the sharp blows of a hammer driving a metal chisel into stone.
A victim of the slave trade escapes.
Antoine lit a cigarette with the lighter from the dash of the twenty-seven year-old 1976 Lincoln Continental and leaned forward with both forearms on the steering wheel. Harry beat out a rhythm on the dash with both hands—BOOM chee CHEE—di di BOOM; and he sang a song of lost love. Antoine liked the tune, liked the way his cousin could make it flow.
Antoine watched the green two-story frame house across the street from where they were parked on a side street in Gretna. The image of the thin child Suchin, the eleven year old Chinese girl, materialized in the dark narrow alley between the houses, the blurred outline of a man blocking the alley behind her.
A finalist in the 2008 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative writing competition.
Amanda Goings parked her station wagon in the unpaved drive to her mother’s two story white clapboard house with green trim and a pitched roof that had kept snows from long Maine winters collecting and crushing the Goings family. The curtains parted on a window to the right of the door. The interior lights were turned off and it was too dark see, but she waved to let her mother know she’d be back in a few minutes to take her to the luncheon. The curtain fell back in place.
She walked fifty yards to the stone wall at the edge of the property, her rubber-soled shoes unsteady on the sheets of wet leaves under the maples and the walnut tree. She came to a ragged break that had been there since her childhood. For thirty-two years, the wall was the divider between the Goings family’s property and the neighboring property recently purchased by her father.
A grandmother helps her grandson maneuver in the custody battle of his parents.>
One summer when I was eight the dead flies were so thick on Grandma’s porch that Mom swept them into piles and shoveled them into large plastic trash bags. “They’re a danger. Think of the disease,” Mom said.
It was our once a year visit to Grandma. The flies arrived one at a time at first.
“I didn’t invite them,” said Grandma.
“They’re here for some reason. Flies are attracted to something,” Mom said.
“Well, it’s not that I’m dirty.”
Grandma went into her workroom at the back of the house to weave throw rugs on her antique loom–whish, whish, bang, squeak, squeak. Whish, whish, bang, squeak, squeak. Mom stayed in the kitchen scrubbing sinks and floors with Lysol. “Your grandmother is mean and stubborn,” she said.
I thought it was Mom who was mean and stubborn, not letting me spend my summer time with Dad in Alaska, but I didn’t say so.
Grandma lived in Calliope, NY, a four-hour train ride from New York through farming country. Grandma’s house was just out of town near the river at the edge of a bog. From my bedroom window I looked out on the two-thousand-acre farm owned by Obadiah Waddle whose wife had died. He had a few dairy cows, lots of laying chickens, and grew mostly cash crops like soybeans. He never said much but he let me ride with him on his tractor and taught me to milk a cow. Grandma frequently took him tuna fish casseroles covered with crushed Ritz crackers in a Pyrex bowl to heat up in the oven. Sometimes she stayed to share dinner with Mr. Waddle almost until bedtime, while Mom and me ate alone.
Grandma thought we were only as good as the food we put in our stomachs. She fed me meats and sweets to make me grow and keep me pleasant. For Mom, Grandma cooked brussels sprouts, beans, acorn squash and fried baloney with pickle relish.