Bez & Co- January 2021 Issue

Table of Contents:

Introduction • Daniel R. Jones

Poetry-

Little Brown Radio • Don Thompson
Mid-Trib • Don Thompson
Flies • Don Thompson
Mt. Jurupa • Matthew J. Andrews
Nameless • Matthew J. Andrews
TRIBALISMS [2] • Gerard Sarnat
Touch Me With Light • Tammy Boehm
Send Me • Annelies Zijderveld
Humility • Stephen Lang
Falling to Pieces • Fabrice B. Poussin
Super Stars • Fabrice B. Poussin

Photography-
Every Day at Dusk • Fabrice B. Poussin
Fear • Fabrice B. Poussin
Lady in White • Fabrice B. Poussin

Fiction-
Choral Society • DT Richards
These Things Happen • C.A. McKenzie

Introduction

At long last, here is the inaugural issue of Bez & Co, a literary journal with the aim of promoting Christ-honoring prose, poetry, and artwork. The submitted pieces have far exceeded my expectations, and I’m grateful for such a wealth of poignant creative pieces.

While I read through this issue as a whole, I looked for some sort of continuity that ran throughout which might serve as a theme. And while it’s impossible to find a common denominator in every short story, poem, or photograph, it seemed that there was a standout from one piece to the next: the concept of solitude.

In a way, it’s fitting. We’re on the heels (or in the throes?) of a global pandemic that has left many of us quarantined for months on end. Some have lost family members and friends. Others have lost their source of income. The feeling of solitude is ubiquitous—and so is the feeling of loneliness.

I’m reminded that in Psalms, God reminds us that he “sets the lonely in families.” I’ve seen this concept play out over the past year, as well. My church family has gotten creative in their attempts to stay connected, using video hangouts, text message check-ins, and socially-distanced home visits. Jesus has promised to be with us always, and by proxy, the body of Christ is delivering on that same goal.

I hope that this issue is a sort of respite for you. Amidst the solitude and loneliness that you might be feeling this time of year, these pieces of art remind us that we are connected despite the vicissitudes of our feelings from day to day. We’re never truly alone. Take solace in the fact that the Lord will never leave you nor forsake you.

-Daniel R. Jones, Managing Editor of Bez & Co.

Little Brown Radio

Little brown radio with naugahyde hide, Bakelite knobs and carcinogenic red-tipped dial.  Vacuum tubes glowing not quite into shadowed corners where who knows how many imps hid.

Altar on which I warmed midnight crackers, born again and again into the church of sleeplessness—a cradle insomniac.

Listening in the dark.

Not to Wolfman Jack’s doo-wop liturgy, but to half-mad Southern Baptists with their retro Elizabethan cadences and vowels bent like blue notes.  Sowing seed all night in the stony ground of the air.

Little brown radio, tune me in.

Let me hear again that unimaginably distant station—a faint signal that reaches through time, audible despite satanic static.  Let me hear that calming, uncrackled voice that somehow knows my name.

-Don Thompson

Mid-Trib

Clouds mill around, waiting for a wind that never comes.  They have a desperate, bus stop demeanor.

But in fact, not much has changed.

Sometimes TV news automatons lose it and talk gibberish with their jaws out of sync.  Finally, they make sense.

Choppers throb us awake at sunrise dropping paper money in parking lots like bales of hay for animals starving in a Serengeti drought.  Everyone has pockets full.  Worthless.

And the Emperor, stripped of his nakedness, has put on sack cloth and begs, holding up a scrawled cardboard sign: Will Reign for Food.

-Don Thompson

Flies

Not even Grünewald’s crucifixion includes the flies, that mob looting Christ’s wounds.  Some things paint refuses to do.

John stood there: He knew.  But if the Holy Spirit nudged him, he nevertheless left them out.

Blood made it into scripture, of course, acidic excretions and shreds of flesh, but not the flies pasted to Christ’s eyelids or crawling on his lips when he said, “Father forgive them…”

The flies?  The flies too.

What do we think?  That scarlet ribbons and a few beads of sweat like diamonds would suffice?  That Christ hanging there like roadkill on a fence wouldn’t draw flies from the open sewers of Jerusalem?

-Don Thompson

Don Thompson

Don Thompson has been publishing poetry for over fifty years, including a dozen or so books and chapbooks.  For more info and links to publishers, visit his website at www.don-e-thompson.com.

Mt. Jurupa

Near the summit, above the smog
this mountain wears like a sash,
a technicolor Jesus is painted
on a granite canvass, his arms expanded
in welcome to weary pilgrims,
in presentation of the land below:
a vast spread of concrete scars,
hazy square plots, tiny men
grained like sand: His kingdom,
His children, His sermon crying out
from the stones, perforating my silence.

– Matthew J. Andrews

Nameless

“He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.” – Mark 1:34

My own eyes see it:
the man convulsing in the dirt,
the steady finger, pointed and firm,
the two connected like lightning
and a charred, leafless tree.

But the hush is deafening, the absence 
of a name fills the page – 
a placid lake devoid of footprints,
a mountain shrouded in dervishing clouds.

Why must the wrists always 
glisten with blood but the man
never show his face?

Why are the words
written only in dirt,

smeared by every wayward breeze?

-Matthew J. Andrews

Matthew J. Andrews
Based in Modesto, California, Matthew J. Andrews is a private investigator and writer whose poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in SojournersRed Rock ReviewThe DewdropJewish Literary JournalAmethyst ReviewBraided Way MagazineThe North American Anglican, and Spirit Fire Review, among others.

TRIBALISMS [2]

i. Pedicured Nomad Is An Abrahamic Island tanka*

Christ, like some sort of 
weird transfigured Bedouin, 
you can almost hear  
this wandering Jew’s pitty 
pat of infidelity.

ii. Abrahamic Teases tanka*

— RIP Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (1207-1273)

Ancient favorite game,
Who Would You Most Like To Meet?,
for decades I’d say,
Jewish bros LCohen, Dylan
— now Sufi mystic poet.

-Gerard Sarnat

Gerard Sarnat

Gerard Sarnat won San Francisco Poetry’s 2020 Contest, the Poetry in the Arts First Place Award plus the Dorfman Prize, and has been nominated for a handful of recent Pushcarts plus Best of the Net Awards. Gerry is widely published in academic-related journals (e.g., Universities of Chicago/ Maine/ San Francisco/Toronto, Stanford, Oberlin, Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Pomona, Johns Hopkins, Wesleyan, Penn, Dartmouth, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Baltimore) plus national (e.g., Gargoyle, Main Street Rag, New Delta Review, Northampton Poetry Review, Peauxdunque Review, MiPOesias, American Journal Of Poetry, Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library Literary Journal, South Broadway Press, Parhelion, Clementine, pamplemousse, Red Wheelbarrow, Deluge, Poetry Quarterly, poetica, Tipton Journal, Hypnopomp, Free State Review, Poetry Circle, Buddhist Poetry Review, Poets And War, Thank You For Your Service Anthology, Wordpeace, Lowestoft Chronicle,  2020 International Human Rights Art Festival, Cliterature, Qommunicate, Indolent Books, Snapdragon, Pandemonium Press, Boston Literary Magazine, Montana Mouthful, Arkansas Review, Texas Review, San Antonio Review, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, Brooklyn Review, pacificREVIEW, San Francisco Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, Fiction Southeast and The New York Times) and international publications (e.g., Review Berlin, London Reader, Voices Israel, Foreign Lit, New Ulster, Oslo’s Griffel, Transnational, Southbank, Wellington Street Review, Rome’s Lotus-Eaters, Nigeria’s Libretto). He’s authored the collections Homeless Chronicles: From Abraham to Burning Man (2010), Disputes (2012), 17s (2014), Melting the Ice King (2016). Gerry is a physician who’s built and staffed clinics for the marginalized as well as a Stanford professor and healthcare CEO. Currently he is devoting energy/ resources to deal with climate change justice. Gerry’s been married since 1969 with three kids plus six grandsons, and is looking forward to future granddaughters.

Touch Me With Light 

Are you with me
at the cusp of the torrent? 
Gray skies ragged 
and the hungered earth 
beneath my tread worn feet. 
My veneration sanguine,
etched in weathered stone 
as the birds of the air 
snatch your sustenance from 
my blistered tongue.
Bring me to my knees,
scrabbling at the door 
that never opens.
I can see past my imagination 
to eternity, 
and I am but damp breath
panting for you in the gathering storm 
Time is a finite line.
Destiny, a place where the promise 
of your arms surrounding 
my fractured soul  
is the transient fragrance 
of crushed petals that bleed out 
through my clenched fists
token moments can’t sustain.
I need you now 
to touch me with light 
again. 

-Tammy Boehm

Tammy Boehm

Tammy Boehm is a poet, novelist and short-story writer living on the “third coast,” a.k.a. western Michigan. She is passionate about writers, worship music, and probably needs an
intervention for her genealogy addiction. She’s been married since 1990 and has two grown sons (both married) and one grandchild who lives in the desert southwest.

Send Me

Who lit the match that burned the bush, leaping 
flames no extinguisher can catch 

Where did they go, driven out this time by 
fire. Be ever seeing but not 

perceiving. Do the words flatten or fly, 
their hands on the wheel to turn round, 

they think, they see what they want, their eyes closed 
to seed scattered on the path, then 

trampled. Seed strangled in the clutch of thorns.
Fields white, workers few, stalks smoking, 

daggered trunks, seed choking. Still, seed for birds,
Seed strewn on soil parched, pocked with rocks 

Sun scorched. Shallow roots from fleeing again
So, who can look at wings hiding 

feet and face flying and not think monster 
If a coal touched their lips, they’d burn 

Who would say Send me into blazing fire 

– Annelies Zijderveld

Annelies Zijderveld

Annelies Zijderveld is an Oakland-based writer whose poetry appears or is forthcoming in Ethel Zine, the Racket Reading Series Quarantine Journal, and Alexandria Quarterly. She is a contributing editor for Harpy Hybrid Review. She holds an MFA in poetry from New England College and a BA in Journalism from Southern Methodist University. Find her online at anneliesz.com.

Humility

I threw my father’s gold-filled pouch,
Proud in rage, upon the dust,
By the sandals of the stubborn priest,
Whose shabby, crumbling Umbrian church,

In praise of the sainted, silverless twin-
Physician to the Syrian poor-
I would, in time, and sweat repair
By hand, stone by beggared stone;

But first, emerging, on bare feet
I cross the bones around my cave
Tenderly, thus, escape my grave,
Past dainties foes would have me eat,

To disdain my tainted clothes for justice,
Stand naked before God and man,
Bereft of every vestment, chain,
Let and hindrance to true service;

Then to the Mount of the god of thieves,
To meditate, to find the words
For a sermon to my brethren birds
And courage to covenant with wolves.

Through the Sultan’s fire I pass
Unscathed, to witness to your truth,
I kiss the leper on his mouth 
And scold the sovereign for excess.

I never shrank from your command
But now must slip my enemies’ snare,
Escape alone, as David’s prayer
Slips from my bleeding hand.

October 3rd, 2020- 796 years later               

-Stephen Lang

Stephen Lang

Though from Scotland originally, Steve has travelled widely, especially in Africa, and currently lives in El Salvador with his family.  Steve’s poem, “Raphael” has been nominated by Ariel Chart for the 2020 Pushcart Prize. ‘Plum Tree Tavern’, Grand Little Things’, Oddball Magazine and ‘Indian Periodical’ have also published work from Steve’s new collection, Cuarentena, and poems have also been accepted for future publication at ‘Founder’s Favourites’ and ‘Bez & Co’.

Falling to Pieces

She saw another cell crash into loud oblivion
spoke of a filament fading to a shade of gray
sensed that any moment a roof might collapse.

She remembered words born from dust
burnt to floating ashes in mid-winter hours
and the frigid air of what is certain to come.

Quiet into the late hours of another dream
statue atop peaks lost in ghostly fogs
she may not take another step for fear of change.

Aware of the constant quakes below the oceans
it might be prudent for her to appear a fixture
for soon scars will deepen and reach to the core.

A mirror stands in the middle of her alcove
but she dares not let her reflection pose
the blue marble of her flesh more threatening. 

As if of the hand of Rodin her eyes in the dark
she ponders the weight of stone upon her breast
and the impending collapse of her futile matter.

Fabrice Poussin

Super Stars 

She was famous and she died
In a movie everyone tried to see.

He was an idol on a road to eternity
When he crashed onto the future.

Tabloids screamed names at the deli
And I stood in a daze before the M&M’s

Fabrice Poussin

Every Day at Dusk by Fabrice Poussin
Fear by Fabrice Poussin
Lady in White by Fabrice Poussin

Fabrice B. Poussin

Fabrice Poussin teaches French and English at Shorter University. Author of novels and poetry, his work has appeared in Kestrel, Symposium, The Chimes, and many other magazines. His photography has been published in The Front Porch Review, the San Pedro River Review as well as other publications.  

Choral Society

Douglas took my pause for breath as an invitation to stand up. I had to hold the rest of my sentence. I shot a glare in Corrin’s direction. The top of his head glistened oily and red. A drop of perspiration dangled off his fleshy jaw. He glared back at me.

D’andrée, on the other side of Corrin, as wiry as he was stout, allowed herself a sigh of exasperation. She had smeared her writing pad blue with lines from her pen. Her lips were so tightly pursed they had turned purple.

Douglas walked over to the credenza that took up the whole right wall of his office. It had a single hotplate on which rested a clear-glass pot of tea. A backlight filtered through a glass cylinder in the center of the pot. The swirling tealeaves looked as if they were alive in a miniature fish tank.

He took his time to prepare his mug–an industrial mug, the same color as an old factory machine–with milk and sugar, before he poured the tea into it. The delicacy with which he poured made the mug seem an almost sacrilegious vessel.

We kept our silence, so the only sound in the room was the simple click and swish of the milk, sugar and tea. Those sounds, even then, seemed strangely prescient.

As Douglas turned back to us, Corrin opened his mouth to get a jump on me. One glance from Douglas silenced him. D’andrée leaned back in her chair and smiled, until she saw me doing the same.

I knew what Corrin was going to say. My brain kept piling up responses like leaves in autumn. Of course we needed to account for audit regulations from the moment we chose our data structure. The cost in space was not an issue.

Douglas walked back to his desk. He sat down and leaned back in his tall leather chair, the mug between his hands at breast level. Its rising plume condensed in little drops on his chin.

His pose was straight from the movies, someone acting the role of a thoughtful executive, yet that cliché, so deliberately Douglas, allowed me to unclench my fists.

Why do I care? I asked myself. It’s not the end of the world if we don’t keep the old modification timestamps in the client record.

Another part of me responded: Yes, it is the end of the world.

Meanwhile Douglas placed his mug on his coaster, causing a sound somewhere between a thump and a click. The sound combined with the background hum of the office’s air-conditioning and the wet scrape of D’andrée’s pen to plunge me into a very strange vision.

I was no longer in the office. I was in the sanctuary of St Bartholomew’s on Regent and it was the previous Saturday. We were in a church because our usual community center hall was booked. We sat in the sanctuary’s choir stalls, two long rows, tenors and baritones facing sopranos and altos. Reverend Smalley stood to my left, between the altar and us. The same sounds had just happened.

“I apologize,” he was in the middle of saying, “for holding principle above compassion. Compassion should always come first.” Someone rustled in the choir stall. A pen scraped.

Once connected, the vision and the meeting moved forward together. I could not rewind to find out why Reverend Smalley had said what he had said. Douglas began to talk. Reverend Smalley tapped his conductor’s wand.

Douglas spoke with a lassitude approaching an American drawl, yet still in a cross-Atlantic accent. We all knew what he was about to do: he would recount his understanding of the problem, in his own glib way, and then propose a solution. We knew from experience we couldn’t break in, and especially we couldn’t try to fix any misconceptions he had developed.

I listened with only half an ear, as, in my vision, we were now singing most difficult section of Hubert’s “At round earth’s imagined corners”. I tapped my fingers together, out of sight, to remember where to breathe.

I could see clearly, in that double vision, how different the Coral Society environment was to this. Not that Reverend Smalley’s words couldn’t apply—I saw immediately I lacked the business equivalent of compassion for Corrin’s way of data structuring.

No. It was the “I apologize” part, spoken in Reverend Smalley’s cultured, peaceful voice. I didn’t have any way in this world to say “I apologize”, without Corrin taking it the wrong way. And by taking it the wrong way I meant stomping all over me in front of our CEO.

Douglas finished his formal recap and segued to his proposed solution. Corrin and I always found Douglas’s solutions amusing. They had a kind of simplicity born from his lack of appreciation for the boundaries of our world. They more often than not missed the point completely. But he was our CEO. So we practiced our ingenuity to fit our needs and practices into whatever strange tapestry he had created.

“So, Mallory,” Douglas said, when he had finished, “what’s your take on that little compromise?”

I paused and considered my words carefully. I wanted to get across the essence of Reverend Smalley’s attitude and have Corrin understand it.

“Your approach is legitimate,” I said. “Sometimes we have to consider things other than the principles of audit recovery. It wouldn’t be the best solution from my point of view to do what you’re suggesting”—although at that moment I couldn’t remember even vaguely what that was—“but I’m pretty sure I can figure out how to trace back mods when audit time rolls around.”

There. I had said what I felt was right and good. Corrin could disagree if he wanted to. He could miss my point. D’andrée could say what she wanted in the coffee room. But I had reconciled the two worlds.

DT Richards

DT Richards

DT Richards is the writing name of a Canadian writer currently living and working in Singapore, where he teaches game design and programming. His Christian fiction has been published online on his own website dtrichards.wordpress.com, and included in magazines such as Heart of Flesh and Ancient Paths, as well as the upcoming anthology “This Present Former Glory”.

These Things Happen

It was years before I told anyone this story. Even then, I didn’t tell it because I was proud of it. I told it because I was slightly drunk. 

We were sitting around a campfire, passing around a three-dollar bottle of whiskey. I watched the flames slide along the dry wood, listening to the crackling of blackened limbs regressing into embers and coals. The wood burnt quickly, turning black almost as soon as it touched the flame. It made us wonder how long it had been since it rained.

Luke picked up a broken branch beside the fire. “Don’t burn that one,” I said. There was a beetle burrowed in the log, large and black. One whose exoskeleton shone like gunmetal. We had seen it when it was still daylight. Michael watched it dig itself in directly under the bark. I broke into the rotten wood with my pocket knife. We tried to pick it up by getting it to grasp onto a twig, but when we touched it, it made a noise like a far-off bird call. A tiny sounding scream. I was fairly sure the beetle was still inside, and I thought that somehow I would be able to hear it over the fire—I was worried it would scream when the heat reached the point of being unbearable, when the beetle felt its insides heat up and its exoskeleton crack with the pressure from its swelling body.

Luke looked at me like he knew it was the scream I was worried about, but like that was the only thing I was worried about. Hearing the tangible evocation of pain. Bringing pain out of the abstract and making it real, but not the life connected with it. That life seemed to be allowed to remain nonexistent—as if he had that power. Not allowing life to come into existence by merely refusing to acknowledge it. As if pain wasn’t something that was avoidable, but life was. Or maybe he thought the two were inseparably connected—each life, a tiny scream that may or may not be heard over the flames around it. 

The fire reflected off of Luke’s glasses, centered over the black of his pupils. The flames were repeated flawlessly in miniature in Luke’s eyes, and something about that made me think that I was right. That he thought life and pain were inseparable. He tossed a different log into the fire and the image was gone, the air swelling with light and cinders that turned to ash before they reached the ground.

I picked up the plastic bottle that was at my feet and took a drink, the harsh and cheap whiskey flowing down my throat. I tossed the bottle to Michael. “Did I ever tell you about the time I got arrested, Luke?”

He shook his head and held out his hand for the bottle.

“It was probably six years ago. Before I knew you. And I’m only telling you this because I know you won’t tell anybody.” Luke nodded. “I’m serious,” I said. I watched the fire glinting off his glasses long enough for his smile to drop away.

*******

We were blackout-drunk when we left the bar. Some of this I remember and some I’ve pieced together from what other people told me about that night. Some of this is pure guesswork. I’m not totally sure which parts are true and which are speculation anymore. I’ve gone over this night in my head thousands of times, and now it’s just all one thing—one disjointed detail after another. I’m surprised I remember any of it, honestly.

We were drunk and belligerent. We walked out of The Red Cow and up the stairs to the sidewalk. The Red Cow was a bar that was located beneath another restaurant—closed now. There were these square wooden columns scattered around the room that made the place feel cramped even when it wasn’t busy, but honestly, that was part of its allure. That cramped feeling combined with the ubiquitous haze of tobacco and underground location made it feel like an old jazz club sometimes. That night it felt like a basement.

We took our time going up the narrow stairs. James was in front of me with his arms outstretched, holding onto both handrails. I watched red paint chips fall from his large hands as they slid up the rails. James was tall and heavily built. His size and his short beard made him look older than me, even though we were only nineteen.

The late night air was full and humid—hard to breathe. The sidewalk was crooked with alcohol. We were trying our hardest not to look drunk.

It was a Tuesday, so the streets were mostly empty at this time of night. The red, white, and blue banners from last week’s parade were still hanging on the light poles, swaying in the warm breeze. Across the street, two guys started yelling. We turned to see what was going on and saw that they had stopped walking. They were looking directly at us and yelling. They looked about our age, maybe in their early twenties, but smaller than us. Scrawny.

I couldn’t understand what they were saying. James couldn’t either, but he didn’t care. He started yelling back. I found myself yelling, calling them over to tell us whatever they were saying to our faces. They crossed the street, screaming at us the whole time. The smaller of the two guys walked up to James and pushed him. The other guy came at me. I guess he hit me because the next thing I remember is getting up from the ground.

The guy that had pushed James was lying on the ground, and there was blood on his shirt. It spread slowly outward in a circle, painting a bull’s-eye on his white, collared shirt. James had a slight smile on his face that slipped into a pale and blank stare. His lips parted in the middle and his eyelids drooped down across his pupils. It looked like his last drink was catching up to him.

The guy that hit me was looking down at his friend. “He has alcohol poisoning,” he said. “We have to take him to the hospital.”

“I have alcohol poisoning,” his friend said. It sounded convincing coming from him. The blood shone wet in the yellow glow of the streetlight.

“Come on. Help me carry him. He has alcohol poisoning.” The more they said it, the more sense it made. We had to get him to the hospital because he had alcohol poisoning. I reached down and put his arm over my shoulder. Luke picked up his other arm, and his friend picked up his legs. My shoulder was warm and damp.

He was light. We carried him a couple blocks to the nearest house. His friend set his legs down while he knocked on the door, leaving him standing, supported between me and James. It was probably three in the morning at this point, so it was a while before we got an answer. The friend kept knocking, alternately beating the heavy wood of the front door and ringing the doorbell. A middle-age woman in a nightgown answered the door.

3 a.m. and she opens her door to three drunk guys holding up another drunk guy bleeding from the chest. That must have been the last thing she was expecting.

“We need to get him to the hospital. Call an ambulance,” the friend said. She must have called the cops too, because they showed up first. They put the three of us in handcuffs and drove us to the police station. James and the guy who punched me were in one car, and I was in the back of another. I didn’t see either of them again for the rest of the night.

The holding cell was small and dirty and had a toilet in the corner. I laid down and dozed for a while, trying to sleep off some of the booze. I thought they might be more lenient on an underage drinking charge if I were at least close to sober by the time they talked to me again. But I was still very drunk when they woke me up.

They took me to an interrogation room. I sat there for a while, staring at the cup of water in front of me. I didn’t see how they needed to question me for underage drinking. I thought they were trying to make an example of me or something.

A cop walked in. “How did you know George Conley?”

“Who?”

“George Conley, the kid who’s dead.”

“What?” I looked at him blankly. They were just screwing with me. They knew I was still drunk and just wanted to scare me. “I don’t know any dead kid.”

He pulled a picture out of a folder and set it down in front of me. “You don’t know him? You were with him three hours ago. Tell me you don’t know him!”

“I don’t know him. That jerk picked a fight with me and James.”

“Well, that jerk is dead and your buddy James is going to prison for murder.” I started laughing, thinking how ridiculous it was to try to scare me like this.

The cop walked out and left me alone. I stared ahead at the blank walls until he came back. “You’re being charged for accessory to murder.” Something in his tone this time made me worried that he was serious. He was.

He told me that James had stabbed George Conley in the chest and that the knife had hit his heart. He told me that carrying George was the worst thing we could have done for him and that he was dead by the time they reached the hospital.

He wanted me to testify—to sign a statement saying that I had seen James stab him. He told me they would drop the charges of accessory to murder if I signed it. They put me back in the holding cell for a couple hours, letting me think it over.

A man was sitting on the toilet in the corner, leaning forward, his elbows resting on his knees. He watched me as I walked in and started talking to me. I didn’t look at him. When I tried I just ended up looking at the jeans around his ankles and the dingy white underwear inside.

He stood and pulled his pants up, walking towards me. He continued talking, telling me that he was being charged with robbery. “You look young. What are you in for?”

I told him what had happened earlier that night, and he started laughing. 

“Boy,” he said, “you’re going to prison. Even I don’t believe you!”

*******

A grasshopper bigger than my thumb jumped out of the darkness and into the fire pit. He shoved his head into the white ash and tried to dig in, but stopped moving. I was quiet as I watched the grasshopper’s belly swell with the heat, wondering if it would pop.

“So what happened?” Luke asked.

“Oh, well, when they took me back to the interrogation room, I told them I didn’t see James stab him, and I wasn’t going to lie about it. Anyway, they eventually let me go, and James only got five to seven months in prison. But it turns out this guy that got stabbed was some politician’s kid. The family could have pushed for a longer sentence, but they knew their son was kind of wild and he was known to start fights. So, even they thought it was an accident or that it was probably their son’s fault to some extent. James basically got charged with a misdemeanor for murdering this guy.

“But still, that guy died. And it’s one of those things you think about afterwards and wonder if you could have prevented it. Like, what if we hadn’t carried him? Maybe he wouldn’t have died if we hadn’t carried him. But I don’t know. You can’t think about that too much. I mean, he had a lot of alcohol in his system so he was bleeding out pretty quickly anyway. There probably wasn’t anything we could do about it…I don’t know. I guess these things just happen sometimes.” 

The fire was dying down. I picked up the rotten log beside the fire and set it on the embers. It lit quickly, and I watched the flames surround the log. I looked for where I had cut away the bark amidst the flame and asked Michael to pass me the whiskey. I listened to the fire, waiting, hearing nothing.

-C.A. McKenzie

Performance Review (Flash Fiction)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

Rick Townsend shifted uneasily in an office chair as his supervisor eyed a stack of papers.

“Generally speaking, Rick, this is a good report. You’ve got a knack for logistics. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Warehouse Manager with such an intuitive grasp on efficiency and decision-making.”

He tossed his stack of papers down and removed his bifocals. Rick’s jaw clenched.

“Of course, there was that stack of pallets knocked over by your forklift driver last month.” 

A pause.

“But hey, we’re all human.”

Rick swallowed hard. He inhaled deeply and let the algorithm work it out for him.

If (sentence proceeded by laughter) then (joke)
Else (not joke)
End If
      If (intonation on last syllable is raised) then (question)
      Else (not question)
     
End If
          If (English Idiom detected) then (not literal.)
         
End If
               Searching Language>English>Idioms and Colloquialisms>North American…

Rick nodded. 

“We are,” he said. “That we are.”

****************

(As a reminder, I’m currently on the lookout for short stories and flash fiction variety done well. Literary Fiction, SciFi, Fantasy; you name it. If you think your story might fit the bill, check out the submission guidelines and send it my way)

Code 10-39 (Flash Fiction)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

It was 1:27 a.m. when I awoke to a knock on our front door.

“Wasn’t Kaylee’s curfew midnight?” I asked my husband as I rose and peered through the blinds.

Two policemen wearing navy-blue peaked caps stood on our doorstep.

“It’s the police!” I told my husband.

“Are their hats on or off?” he asked, now sitting upright in the bed.

“Now what does that have to do with anything?” I asked.

But by the time I opened the front door, their hats were off.

Don’t phone it in

Students of history may be familiar with the famous (or perhaps, infamous) perfectionism of Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under the Nixon and Ford administrations. Politics aside, there is an illustrative story of his uncompromising standards during the late sixties:

Winston Lord, the Ambassador to China at the time, was tasked with writing a speech for Kissinger. Kissinger, a gifted speechwriter himself, had exacting standards for those who served under him.

The story is told that Winston Lord brought the first draft of the speech to Kissinger one evening for his feedback and approval. The next morning, Kissinger called him back and asked, “Is this the best you can do?”

Lord thought it over. He thought he’d done his best. He answered, “I’ll try again.”

A second time, he tinkered with his speech and brought it back to him after a few days had passed. And again, Kissinger asked him, “Is this the best you can do?”

Lord was shaken up, but stated he could do better.

The process continued for eight drafts. Each time, Kissinger resolutely asked, “Is this the best you can do?” After the ninth draft, Lord finally responded, indignantly, “I know it’s the best I can do! Not a word can be improved upon!”

Henry Kissinger looked on Winston Lord and replied, “In that case, now I’ll read it.”


Maybe this story made you smile. Or maybe it made you cringe at the unrelenting perfectionism showed by Kissinger. In any event, I believe there’s a takeaway for each of us, as artists, from this anecdote.

They say that artists are perfectionists by nature. I didn’t get that gene.

The first time I read this story, I felt a sort of conviction related to my writing. True, I’m not delivering important, policy-shaping speeches to heads of state…but how often do I just “phone it in” when I’m working on a new piece of writing? If I’m being honest with myself, it happens more often than I’d like.

Steven Pressfield makes a great case for rugged self-discipline when it comes to writing in his book The War of Art. If you’re struggling with writer’s block, I highly recommend it to start winning “your inner creative battles,” as he puts it.

That book (and this post) is not for everyone. Some writers edit and revise their pieces to ribbons. Some artists trash their seventeenth version of a painting before tearing their hair out. But if you’re like me and you sometimes struggle to “give it your all,” I hope this blogpost acts as the kick in the pants that you need.

Talking Shop: Five Reasons Madeleine L’Engle’s ‘YA Books’ Succeeded

Those with even a cursory knowledge of my literary preferences will recall my fondness for the late Madeleine L’Engle

My first brush with L’Engle came when I picked up a beat-up paperback copy of A Wrinkle in Time in fourth grade. At that time, L’Engle’s books expanded my consciousness, creating in me a yearning for more–spiritually, creatively, and academically.

C.S. Lewis once credited the acclaimed Scottish author George MacDonald with “baptizing his imagination.” Throughout my childhood, L’Engle had a similar effect on me. I felt so indebted to Madeleine L’Engle for her numinous, soul-searching prose, that I named my only daughter “Madeleine.”

A week or so ago, I decided to pick up a book by L’Engle which I haven’t previously read. The book is titled The Arm of the Starfish. I was hesitant, because the book is filed squarely in the “Young Adult” section of the library. 

I’ll admit my bias. I tend to dislike most books that can be categorized as “YA.” for reasons that will soon be apparent. In short, I find most books in the genre lacking–both in substance and in any modicum of literary merit.
It’s an established fact that L’Engle hated when critics panned her work as “juvenile.” She famously quipped, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

Still, I approached the book with a little trepidation. I didn’t want to return to an author that I cherished so deeply for so many years and become ultimately disappointed that I’d outgrown her. I feared being disillusioned.

Ultimately, out of respect for L’Engle’s perspective, and her phenomenal track-record in my reading history, I decided to give this YA-novel a chance. 
What I found, to my relief, was a tightly-knit, cosmopolitan spy-novel that did anything but disappoint me. 

As I set the book down, I reflected a little on why L’Engle’s YA worked where so many others have failed. How is it that her books stood up, not only to the test of time, but also to the test of the audience aging?

I came up with the following five reasons:

1.She never shied away from “grown-up” topics.

In The Arm of the Starfish alone, L’Engle deftly navigates topics as complex as nationalism, the thalidomide disaster of the late 50s and early 60s, the Spanish Inquisition, and deep-seated theological issues. 

In the hands of a less capable writer, such a diverse survey of topics would quickly turn glib and disingenuous. L’Engle manages to explore these topics with aplomb, always rejecting an easy explanation.

2.Conversely, she didn’t resort to shock tactics. 

Without slinging mud at any particular authors, “YA lit” (writ large) often acts as a taxonomy on “edgy” or “controversial” subjects, such as teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, etc. 

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with addressing any of these topics for a younger audience, it’s often handled in a clumsy way, detracting from any real message and instead promoting controversial content for the sake of controversy. 

L’Engle’s doesn’t shy away from pushing the envelope, but it never feels contentious for the sheer purpose of bolstering sales.

3. She whetted the appetite of her readers.

Madeliene L’Engle was a walking, talking Liberal Arts education. Her works are replete with allusions to science, medicine, history, philosophy, mythology, linguistics, literature, theology, art, and music. 

In The Arm of the Starfish, L’Engle alludes (among other things) to the Tallis Canon, Jackson Pollack, and the Greek myth of Diana and the Golden Apples. She utilizes Robert Frost’s poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” as both a secret-code and a theme interwoven throughout the book. The subject-matter of the book delves into the topic of marine-biology: both real and speculative.

In every instance mentioned above, regardless of the topic, L’Engle instills in her readers the desire to learn more. Inspiring your audience to dig deeper into the humanities is a hallmark of great literature.

4. She never condescended to her readers. 

L’Engle had an impressive command of language, and she didn’t let the fact that she was writing for a young audience dissuade her from putting it to use. In The Arm of the Starfish alone, she writes in four languages: English, conversational Spanish, tidbits of Portuguese, and Koine Greek. 

Most of the words and sentences she employed can be understood through context clues, but in some examples (such as the “Phos Hilaron” hymn in the original Greek,) she requires her readers to do a little research outside of the pages of her own work to uncover the meaning and origins of the text. 

L’Engle never felt the need to “dumb down” her vocabulary on account of her younger audience, either. She used words like “echinoderms,” “anagogical,” “desultorily,” and “porcine.” 

She gave her younger readers the benefit of the doubt: if they didn’t know a word, they could look it up in a dictionary.

5. She weaves all of the above nimbly into a well-told story.  

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, all of the above points are wrapped up into a well-plotted, breezy narrative. The net effect of reading one of her novels is that you ruminate deeply while simultaneously enjoying a great-read. Or, as she puts it while alluding to Frost, “your avocation and vocation become one.”

In so doing, L’Engle crafts dense, imaginative, sprawling concepts into tightly-packed, well-resolved stories. Regardless, even, if her books include the “YA” moniker. 

Learning Not to Dance

Stepping from the dance floor, she asked me, who taught you to dance?

Who taught me to dance? No one, per se. No formal lessons, no wealth of experience to draw on. Truth is, you have to start dancing before you know how. You do know how, really.

What makes you sway when your song comes on, completely involuntarily, like it’s some function of your autonomic nervous systems, as innate as a pulse? You’d sync your heartbeat itself with the snare and hi-hats if it didn’t mean cardiac arrest for you.

Where’d you learn to syncopate your steps with your earbuds in—your left foot hitting the ground each time the bass drum strikes; your right foot when the tom is hit? No one taught you that. It’s intrinsic.

When it’s 72 and June and you’re cruising in your aught-two Malibu, why is it you roll the windows down, even though your A.C. works just fine? When you go to the grocery store, what makes you roll through the aisles using your shopping-cart like a scooter, despite being in your mid-twenties, relegating your day off to crossing out errands and picking up paper-towels?

Why is it that your affinity for sidewalk-chalk and swing sets never goes away, fully? Why, on cross-country drives, do you look at the tree line with a strange sense of yearning- to get off the grid and become drastically human?

How do you justify giving the guy by the side of the road fifty-cents bus fare? You know he’s scrounging just enough to buy a Forty.

Who, what, where, when, why, how did you learn to dance?

Though it’s a truth we so often forget, we, as Anglos, the chief offenders—you don’t learn to dance, sister.

You learn not to.

Errant Thoughts

My muse didn’t stop by my house today. She couldn’t work up the motivation, because her muse didn’t visit her. Turns out, my whole creative process is predicated on one muse inspiring another muse inspiring another muse, and now my lack of creative output makes sense.

Still, I have a responsibility to put some ink on the page, irrespective of quality. Because, as it were–

They do not serve who stand and wait, if those who stand could’ve served.

Mindfulness Meditation for Prewriting

“He said when things were really going well, we should be sure to notice it.”
-Kurt Vonnegut

Lately, I’ve been on a mindfulness meditation kick.

A simple 10-15-minute morning practice has refocused and grounded me, combating depression, alleviating anxiety, and allowing me to live in the moment. I’m absolutely sold on its manifest usefulness.

But in addition to its improvement to my mental health, I’ve found that it’s a powerful tool to wield for artists. In fact, I’d venture to say, it may even be our most powerful prewriting exercise.

Hear me out.

How many times have you sat down with your notebook or word-processor and instantaneously became distracted by the worries of the day?

How will a certain bill get paid? My lower back aches. I wonder if I remembered to lock my car door? That comment my boss made earlier in the day—what did he mean by that?

This inner chatter is what some mindfulness meditation experts call “monkey mind:” a constant dialogue in which your brain seeks to analyze and fix problems that don’t truly have the potential to be fixed, currently. To use a computer analogy, our brain has a few “windows” open in the background, and it’s constantly trying to work out problems subconsciously for you.

It’s no surprise that this invasive chatter fills our thoughts when we sit down to write. Today, people are so preoccupied throughout each minute that we rarely have time to sit quietly with ourselves. If the 30-minute block of time that you’ve scheduled for writing is your only alone time in your day, it’s likely that your brain will utilize it to attempt to solve those nagging problems that crop up throughout the day. It happens for the same reason that your brain keeps you up at night when you try to sleep: your brain wants to tie up all the little loose ends, bringing closure to the problems you encountered throughout your day.

The problem is that it’s easier to sit and worry for 30 minutes than it is to write. Soon enough, your timer goes off and you’re more frazzled than when you sat down. What’s worse: you’re still staring at a blank white page.

So how does mindfulness meditation help this problem?

If you want to write from a blank slate, you’ll need to quiet down your brain so you can focus on the task at hand. Meditation grounds your mind. It helps you to see your thoughts as transient ideas passing through your consciousness, and helps you to dissociate your thoughts from your consciousness itself.

We’ve bored our neural pathways deep. We need a blunt instrument to till the ground of our consciousness—to weed the garden of the passé, banal ideas. Only once we’ve weeded our consciousness can we begin to sow new thoughts and words.

I challenge you with this simple task: try mindfulness meditation for 10-15-minutes prior to writing. I think you’ll be astounded by the results.

Talking Shop: Tone and Voice

(“Talking Shop” is an ongoing series on the craft of creative writing.)

I’ve talked a little about David Shields’ seminal book Reality Hunger in a past post. Today I want to respond to another quotation from that same book. Here’s a statement quoted in his chapter about flash fiction:

“Even as they’re exploring extremely serious and complex material, short-short writers frequently use a certain mock modesty to give the work a tossed-off tone and disarm the reader. The reader thinks he’s reading a diary entry, when in fact it’s a lyric essay or prose poem.”

Shields goes on to cite examples, one of which being “Morning News” by Jerome Stern

Although I certainly agree with Shields that this “mock modesty” is common in flash fiction, I’m unsure that it’s fair to say that microfiction utilizes this technique across the board.

This does, however, bring up the topic of tone in flash fiction. As writers, we have to ensure we don’t confuse our tone with our literary voice. One of the best ways to ensure we don’t confuse the two is by having a proper definition of each term.

Tone is the writer’s attitude toward his subject, his audience or himself. One can have a sarcastic tone. One can be flippant or somber or self-reflecting or abrasive. All of these are examples of a writer’s tone in a particular piece.

Literary voice, on the other hand, is the distinctive style a writer has. Hemingway was known for his concise style. It made him have a distinct voice. Douglas Adams is known for his humorous approach to science fiction. F. Scott Fitzgerald is known for his flowery prose.

So how can we confuse tone and literary voice? Well, left unchecked, our stories can all share the same tone, and run the risk of becoming formulaic. For example, I love using irony in my microfictions. But If I’m not careful, I will use it in all my stories, and pretty soon they’ll all read in a very predictable manner.

Have you ever enjoyed the first track of an album, only to find that each subsequent song sounded exactly the same? As writers, we have to ensure we vary our tone from piece to piece while maintaining our distinct voice.

How do you find this at play in your writing? Do you gravitate toward a certain tone in your work? If so, how do you avoid falling into a rut? What makes your literary voice distinctly you?