The question twisted my guts, triggering an uncontrollable urge to pee.
10,000 applicants for one scholarship to the world’s most prestigious university. If not me, a life mining coal like dad, both granddads, four great granddads. Grades made the first cut. Board scores the second. Extra-curriculars the third. Interview, the fourth. Now the essay. 100 finalists. One winner. No runners up, no honorable mentions. 99 losers. Other scholarships? Too much coal dust under my fingernails, in my lungs, in my DNA.
My bladder felt like a pressure cooker without a safety valve.
Found an answer online: One to map the bulb to Euclidian space, one to compute the covariant. 99 other laptops glowed with the same answer. Fiendish, allowing us to use our laptops. I wracked my brain.
None because we don’t have electricity. Too third worldish.
My bladder felt volcanic, lava ready to spew forth.
An infinite number to debate whether light bulbs existed. Too philosophical.
I hailed the proctor. I begged.
No bathroom breaks.
Four, one to propose to change the bulb, one to obstruct the change, two to debate whether it needed changing. Too Congressional.
I Googled Edison. Light bulb jokes hadn’t been invented yet.
Two, one to change the bulb, one to replace it with the original bulb for reasons of editorial clarity. Too New Yorkerish.
I squeezed my legs together, squirming in agony.
A dude closed his laptop, handed in his blue book, departed with middle finger raised in triumph.
Two, one to change the bulb, one to write a song of nostalgia about the original bulb. Too folklorish.
A second person, a third, a dozen, the room emptied. My bladder wished it could as well. I loosened my belt to lessen the pressure. A minute or two of relief.
Buridan’s Ass, the philosophy anecdote from college days. Unable to decide whether to change the bulb or not, the mule stood paralyzed in the dark. Too paradoxical.
I was alone with the proctor who tapped his wristwatch with impatience. My underpants dampened. In pain, I scrawled words in my blue book, hurled it at the proctor, raced to the men’s room, my pee arcing into the distant urinal, a perfect one color rainbow.
None, I had scribbled. Light bulbs don’t wear diapers.
I won the scholarship.
Liss whose first novel was published in July, 2020 is a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee, a nominee for the storySouth Million Writers Award, and a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Prize sponsored by University of Georgia Press, the St. Lawrence Book Award sponsored by Black Lawrence Press, and the Bakeless Prize sponsored by Breadloaf Writers’ Conference and Middlebury College. He has published more than 50 short stories. He has received numerous awards and other forms of recognition for individual short stories including The Florida Review Editor’s Award for Fiction; James Still Prize for Short Fiction sponsored by Wind; Midnight Sun Award for Fiction sponsored by Permafrost; Third prize in the Arthur Edelstein Prize for Short Fiction; Finalist for the Raymond Carver Award for Short Fiction sponsored by Carve Magazine; and Honorable Mention in the New Letters Literary Award for Fiction and the Glimmer Train June, 2014 Fiction Open. Liss has also been published in The Saturday Evening Post, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, The South Dakota Review, The South Carolina Review, Dogwood, The Worcester Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal. He earned a BA from Amherst College, Amherst, MA; a JD from Columbia University School of Law, New York, NY; and an MFA from Emerson College, Boston, MA. He was the recipient of a Grant-in-Aid in Literature from the St. Botolph Club Foundation, Boston, MA where he leads a workshop in writing fiction.
I slow the car when I spot the wind turbines, their majestic arms swooping in circles, chopping the unrelenting summer heat. Miles of blades work at smooth paces, but a few sit unmoving, broken or tired. You enjoyed this stretch of the drive best.
It’s 7 o’clock in the morning when I leave Chicago after this dream I have about you, or maybe it’s a memory. We were on our second date, drinking mugs of beer at the Rathskeller. You told me your middle name was Lee, your grandfather’s name— my middle name too, spelled the same. We joked it would be our firstborn’s too. How old were we? Almost 30, because I felt my life was just a pile of the same shit, and I loathed being older. I didn’t tell you that I had been darkening my hair since I was 20 to cover the gray.
“Thirty’s not old,” you said. “A hundred is old, and most of them are happier than us.”
“Doesn’t mean they aren’t disappointed about something.”
“Sure,” you said, raising your glass, a smirk reaching your mouth. “Here’s to disappointments.” The look in your eye was clear— you would be the optimistic one.
I must have made the three-hour drive down I-65 ten times before you graduated and moved into my studio apartment on Hermitage. You approved of the exposed brick wall and free laundry in the basement and complained about the faulty windows that allowed that chill into our space. I hated the glow from the television when you stayed up late, and you made fun of me for leaving empty beer cans upside down in the sink when the recycling bin was in the cabinet underneath.
“I never do anything right.”
“You picked me,” you said.
That was our life for eight months.
I go to Noblesville, where your parents still live, my nerves uneven because it’s been a while. The sun hides behind the one big cloud in the sky when I park the car, my hands cool when I remove them from the steering wheel.
It had happened fast, faster, when I allow myself to remember correctly. Within three months, one whole season, your face changed from oval to triangle, skin covering bones. The leaves of the oak trees were already orange and yellow that day at the lake when we saw all those well-dressed people, a handsome group, celebrating. We guessed a wedding or a memorial.
“Or maybe they’re just happy,” you said, recognizing it. Pops of light, vessels that held meaning, moved upward, closer to something we hadn’t discussed yet.
The newly-cut grass stuffs my nose when I sit next to the headstone. The fake flower wreath, one I’m sure your mom left, is limp.
I say out loud: “You asked, ‘You think people get married in heaven?’”
Yes, I thought, knowing that’s what I should have told you.
Lesley Stanley is a writer living and working in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She received her M.A. in Creative Writing from Wayne State University in Detroit in 2016.
From the top of the Bull Street library’s rooftop, compressors groan, and pneumatic tools bang and whine and almost drown out the workmen’s crisscrossing commands.
Those guys are, undoubtedly, among the crews Cara has seen throw lunch scraps out their truck windows. On sultry mornings
her Black Russian Terrier, Piper, will rush for nothing except the chicken bits. Gray bones camouflaged on stained concrete. Some Piper will swallow before Cara can get on her knees to wrestle the splinter-dangers from between his slimy cheeks and deflecting tongue. He’ll dance and gulp; Cara will get slobbered;
Savannahians in starched outfits may saunter by and stare.
Piper curls over to shit on the library plaza’s coarse tiles. Cara waits.
The sun glares. Perspiration dribbles beneath her sleeveless shirt and shorts. The half-year she’s lived in Savannah, Cara has come to accept she drips;
she doesn’t dew like the local ladies’ claim.
Though Piper, with his knotty fur, must suffer worse. Cara reaches to rub his head, halts:
she shouldn’t distract.
The silence makes her squint toward the top of the library. Men backlit in haloed hardhats stand along the makeshift pine rail.
“Lemme lick ya lollipop legs,” someone shouts and incites crass laughter.
“I’ll never dump you,” shouts another.
Piper bobs his rear:
“I’ll sue your company,” Cara yells at the workers,
louder than they.
The driver of a Porsche cabriolet that passes just then shoots her a side-glance. His red tie flutters.
“For fucking harassment,” she yells, harder yet, cheeks burning.
The lip of men
drops back out of sight.
She collects Piper’s shit with a biodegradable bag.
Why couldn’t they just have tossed a bone?
Pernille AEgidius Dake
Pernille AEgidius Dake was a finalist for Glimmer Train Press 2014 New Writer Award as well as December’s 2015 Curt Johnson Prose Award and has been published in Skirt!, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Dime Show Review, Glassworks Magazine, and is forthcoming in Adelaide and Typehouse Literary Magazine. She is an MFA Candidate in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
The café’s lights hung from black cords, so bright they smeared my retinas, magnifying my shadow whose distorted magnitude I hoped represented my future.
Maybe I blinded myself more than the lights did?
Their reflections in the café’s glass frontage created false impressions of dotting glass on the other side of the road. As I was writing a story about perceptual delusions, I placed the lighting distortions into the story.
Caffeine, therapeutic like writing, enhanced such associations. Well-constructed literature reveals architectural clarity, the timber pillars supporting the café’s ceiling symbolising the sturdy bones of fine writing. The pillars’ rectangularity suggested solidity, their dark grains, galaxies in light-brown space, symbolising images that writers use to deepen reality.
Seeing those images indicated I was in good form, as I visualised what I had to describe, appropriate sounds heard, adequate smells conceived, creation comforting.
A nearby woman’s laugh resembled a violinist stroking where a violin’s strings rise at the bridge. Struck by my “originality” that laugh entered the story.
The spiral-galaxy grains sat in pronged flares of wood darker than the engulfing light brown, cosmic images enriching the sturdy structure as symbols should.
The waiter’s hair resembled silver felt against his subcontinent skin. He picked up my coffee cup. A coffee stain on the cup’s interior resembled a flying vampire, a good logo, I thought, for a sports club. (He played for The Vampires).
The waiter smiled and said: “Another struggling writer, I see.”
His self-satisfied glee clanged my ego. I imagined a bronzed, muscular figure smashing a hanging iron plate with a mallet.
“No,” I snapped. “I’m famous in my country.”
His smug smile melted.
“Do you mind telling me your name?” he asked.
“Zdenek Troska,” I replied.
I didn’t want him looking up my real name. I was once told I looked like Zdenek Troska, whoever Zdenek Troska was.
“Oh,” the waiter said, “sorry. You speak English with an English accent.”
“Like Tom Stoppard. And Madeleine Albright has got an American accent,” I said, creating Czech confusion, alliteration suiting my ego’s bitter purposes.
He returned to the bar embarrassed; but he had been right. I was a nobody. But he couldn’t have known that objectively.
His comments, used as a “distorted perception,” strengthened my story.
When he was in the kitchen, I fled, leaving a tip, my shadow much smaller outside.
I never returned to that café. My ego would not allow that. But the lie it caused made the story about distortions publishable, discomfort producing creation, a tribute to pleasure from unconscious masochism.
Kim has worked for NGO’s in Greece, Kosovo, Iraq, Palestine and Macedonia. He likes to take risks to get the experience required for writing. He likes painting, art, bull-fighting, photography and architecture, which might explain why this Australian lives in Madrid. Although he wouldn’t say no to living in a Swiss ski resort or a French chateau. 181 of his stories have been accepted by 106 different magazines.
The Windex was disappearing at Hunky Mike’s Sports Pub. Gallons each week. Ever since the Skin-Melting Bacteria had flown in from Peru on the beaks of white pigeons, we were obligated to perform rigorous cleaning routines. Most people held their pints with latex-gloves, but the occasional Hunky Mike insisted on riding bareback. We disinfected extra hard for those guys. Those guys thought their skin couldn’t be melted. Oh, but it could! We’d seen the flesh fall off the face of the Hunkiest of Mikes. After, we’d have to shut the whole pub down for two weeks—no tips.
Windex was not on the CDC-approved list of cleaners, but we used it anyway because Fred loved the smell. Fred was the Boss. He was an alcoholic. He’d worked in restaurants his whole life. It was an occupational hazard. Sometimes Fred forgot to put on his gloves—because he was drunk. We’d all watched in horror as he went to touch some un-sanitized surface with his bare skin. Fred! We’d shout. Hey, Fred! The Bacteria! Then he’d look at us like, what bacteria? until his memory got jogged and he started crying.
Fred’s wife divorced him a couple of years ago after he smashed his Corolla into a tree while their son was in the backseat. The son drinks his meals through a straw now. Fred’ll be paying back medical bills for eternity. Before the Bacteria, Fred’s ex-wife used to wheel the son into Hunky Mike’s. They’d sit at a table by the window and she’d spoon-feed him mashed potatoes while she drank a glass of Chardonnay. When the son saw Fred, he called him Daddy. Those nights, Fred got blitzed.
It was Marcy the Prep Cook who found Fred that morning. The night before he’d had a run-in with a glove-less Hunky Mike who’d called Fred a Loser. Fred took stuff like that to heart. Marcy said Fred was passed out in the mop closet, an open gallon of Windex in his lap, the blue stuff dribbled all over him. Marcy said when he woke up, she’d had to pry the bottle out of his hands. He kept trying to drink it, she said. He kept on saying, I just want to be streak-free.
When the white pigeons first appeared, we thought they were doves. We thought we were entering some new epoch of peace and calm. That people were going to start loving each other. That we were going to stop spewing smoke into the ozone. That we were going to stop killing each other and everything else. Now, government gunmen crouch in the corners, and the birds get sniped. Not just the pigeons—the doves too. You can see them out there, falling mid-flight, white smudges in the blue sky.
Elizabeth is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Her previous work has appeared in The Forge Literary Magazine, CHEAP POP, Bodega, CRAFT, Fiction Writers Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia with her daughter Ruby.
You have just appeared beneath my office door arch, crunching the remnants of a cherry Jolly Rancher with your even, professionally whitened teeth and bearing your usual dissonance: senior partner swagger and practiced “aw shucks” expression. I have greeted you with a cheerful (but not overly familiar) “Hi Brad. What can I do for you?”
Here’s what will happen next. You will say, “Hey, did you see that e-mail about the trivia game?” I will look at you blankly, pretending that I hadn’t opened it an hour ago and envisioned this entire conversation going down immediately thereafter. I will say, “No, I must have missed it; I’ve been working on a brief that’s due tomorrow.” You will say, “No worries. I’ll give you the rundown. We’re asking folks to participate in a trivia game night next Thursday. We’re going to film it and put it up on Facebook and the firm website. It’ll be catnip for potential summer associates. We’ll look like the ‘cool’ firm. Hell, we are the ‘cool’ firm.”
I will say, “I’m terrible at trivia,” which will be a true statement. You will say, “Oh, that doesn’t matter. It’s all in good fun.” I will demur further and say, “Oh, I really don’t think I look great on camera; besides, I’m shy about stuff like that.” You, not wanting to risk a harassment suit, will not comment on whether I look great on camera, and will only say, “The best way to overcome shyness is to get yourself out there!” I will say, “Have you asked Adam? He lives for this sort of thing. He even looks like Ken Jennings.” You will say, “Not to take anything away from Adam, but we need you, Lakeisha Simpson,” and give me a winning smile.
Upon hearing my name, my expression will morph from neutral to beaming. I will say, “Well, in that case, sign me up!” You will say, “I knew I could count on you, Lakeisha.” You will turn around, whistling, and head directly to the office of Tom Cheng, the only Asian associate. Dionne, my secretary, will have heard the entire conversation and shake her head in sympathy. I will consider sending Tom a “heads up” e-mail. I will not follow through. I will crave a Jolly Rancher.
I will tell myself that I should join a circus as a sideshow attraction because I’m a magician; didn’t I just read your mind? Not to mention contortionist; didn’t I squeeze myself into that tiny box you built for me? And don’t forget fire-breather; if all my rage escapes my incandescent lungs and rushes past my large, lush lips in a molten exhale, my laptop will be incinerated. (Ever the pragmatist, I will keep my mouth closed–after all, I still have a brief due tomorrow.)
As for you, there are other positions available. I know you fancy yourself as ringmaster, although you are far better suited as clown. Whatever works. Let’s join the circus together.
Colette Parris is a Caribbean-American graduate of Harvard College (where she received a bachelor’s degree in English) and Harvard Law School. An attorney by day, she recently returned to her literary roots after a long hiatus. Her flash fiction can be found in Lunch Ticket. She lives in Westchester County, New York with her husband and daughter.