In 2003, I was accepted into the Southampton – Long Island University Master of Fine Arts program. Based on my fiction portfolio, I was offered a small scholarship of $1000 a semester. I’d attended the 2002 Southampton’s Writer’s Conference and fell in love with the program. A writer’s life was for me, it seemed.
But, I turned it down. I didn’t attend any MFA program. Instead, I shacked up with my boyfriend of five years, moved from our hometown in Ohio to Chapel Hill, North Carolina and got a job at Borders Books as a Cafe Supervisor. We didn’t know anyone in North Carolina. We had no prospects. All we had was the belief that it would work out – we never even considered that it wouldn’t.
When we first arrived in North Carolina, Michael and I did a weird thing. We printed up copies of our resumes, put on our nice traveling sales-people dress clothes and starting walking around business parks. We passed out our resumes to over 80 places. It took us over three days to run out of resumes. The very last place was a little office in Cary. We didn’t know what they did. We didn’t care. Michael was in I.T. and I was marketing myself as an administrative expert with strong communication experience (which, was a total crock. In college, I’d been a writing intern at the American Red Cross and I was desperately trying to parlay that into something useful.)
A man answered the door and led us inside. It was after 5pm and he was, apparently, the only person left in the office. He looked over our resumes, asked us if we were a package deal. We both answered emphatically in the negative. Turns out this particular office was a technical writing firm. They were always looking for writers but I didn’t really have the necessary experience. They’d been toying around with the idea of adding an I.T. person, however. He took our resumes and sent us on our way.
Time passed and nothing seemed to come of it. We’d worked through a lot of dead leads like that. Michael got a job at Home Depot. I bounced around different Borders book stores in the area – my nagging sense of ambition never let me rest too long. In retail, if you want to succeed and you aren’t too busy getting stoned by the dumpster, you can rise up through the ranks pretty quickly. I did. And, then, Michael got a call from that little office in Cary. He was hired on as their I.T. person. We were thrilled – the people were great to him and it was our first sign of success.
By the time 2004 rolled around, I was a manager (still in training) at the Waldenbooks at Crabtree Valley Mall. But, at Christmas time, they told us our store was closing. It was my first indication that the entire company was about to quietly collapse. Michael had been offered a new position in the I.T. department in local government and was leaving the technical writing firm. We’d become friends with the director and she did something that really rarely happens: she gave me a shot.
I don’t think I really deserved it back then. I was a fiction writer and not the least bit technically minded. I was brought on as a Junior Technical Writer. I felt successful for the first time. Michael and I bought a house. We got married. I was promoted to Senior Technical Writer. I started to deserve the shot she’d given me.
Michael and I bought some land way out in the boonies. We saved up our money and finally built our dream house. I was promoted to Project Manager at the technical writing firm.
When you are a writer, it nags at you. You can’t really give it up for long. I toyed with it – writing things but never sharing them. I’d do NaNoWriMo in November and then throw the novel away. When I was younger, it was my whole identity and I’d turned my back on it. Getting back into it is like getting back into running after an injury – it clanks and hurts. It is awkward and hard. In the beginning, there are more bad days than good days. It can be discouraging.
I become friends with another writer, Molly Schoeman, who is the epitome of kindness and support. She encouraged me to keep going.
I started taking continuing education writing classes at Central Carolina Community College. I was lucky to be grouped with a really amazing teacher and a group of fellow writers that took the craft really seriously. There is a real pressure to show up and not suck when you are surrounded by people that are truly good at what you want to do. It is said that if you want to get better at something, surround yourself with people that are better than you. If you have enough ambition, it can work. I’m still working that out.
I’ve started submitting stories to literary journals and I am just now beginning to see some success. I decided to take it seriously. No more shrugging and blowing it off. When people ask me what I do, I’m going to say I’m a writer, because I am. No more qualifying it with “technical” because that’s a cop out. If I don’t take it seriously, why should you?
I think about that MFA program and wonder what would have happened if I’d accepted my spot. I might not be married to Michael. I might not live in my pretty house in the woods. I might be even further in debt with student loans than I am now. I might be a barista at a coffee shop, somewhere. Or, a bookseller at another book store. I might have found success because I’d taken the craft seriously at a younger age. I don’t know, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. I don’t regret it. When you are a writer – or a singer, a painter, a woodworker – you don’t have a choice. You’ll do it in secret or you’ll do it on the weekends. You’ll tie your whole self up in it. You’ll shy away from it because even the idea of failure will hurt too much to try. But, hopefully and eventually, you’ll start to take it seriously again.
Written in prolepsis, this novella tells the story of Kelly Kelleher, a young woman who meets a US Senator at a friend’s Fourth of July party. Only known as “The Senator,” a thinly veiled version of Ted Kennedy, Kelly finds herself in his car on the way to a romantic interlude. Kelly is an analogue for Mary Jo Kopechne, the woman at the heart of the Chappaquiddick Scandal (See http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/incident-on-chappaquiddick-island). A car accident thrusts the potential lovers into a swamp, into the titular black water. The Senator breaks free. Kelly is left trapped in the car as the water rises.
The first time I read this book, I was in eleventh grade. It was on our required reading list. Forgive my momentary melodrama but this book changed my life. I am so thankful for my eleventh grade English teacher for assigning this book. I’ve probably read it 15 times since then (to be fair, that was a long time ago).
I have always been a reader. I read all the normal kid stuff and a lot of inappropriate adult stuff at a young age. It was something I shared with my mother and sister. We passed books around the house and even though we are now far apart, we still tend to do it. Reading Black Water made me realize, perhaps for the very first time, that fiction was a serious art form. It has the power to illuminate swampy marshes. Truth becomes invention.
The themes in the novella are profound:
A younger woman trusting an older, charismatic man
Violation of that trust
The heart of American politics
The process of death
The operation of femininity
The inner workings of a scandal
All told in 154 pages.
When I am in need of inspiration, I’ll find myself grabbing a copy of Black Water and opening it at random. It was, in fact, the basis for my short story, Boys of the Way Back. Some chapters are only a paragraph long – I’ll read it like I would read a poem. Lots or repetition and syntax. Lush imagery. All read between the lines.
I’ve recommended this book to a lot of people and its been pretty polarizing: they either absolutely love it or absolutely hate it. I will always fall in with the former.
In high school, I was on the school newspaper. I was a writer, and later an editor, of The Camel Tracks at Campbell County High School in Gillette, Wyoming. We later changed the name to The Humphrey Herald, and as far as I know, its still called that to this day. I was a hard hitting journalist – publishing such awe inspiring pieces as Valentine’s Day: The Darker Meaning and The Great Simpson Debate Continues. Oh, 1995, I miss you in a lot of weird ways.
I’ve always loved writing fiction. In ninth grade, I spent an entire year in math class writing a romance novel in a black and white composition book. It was pretty slutty for a ninth grade girl afraid of boys. It was full of supernatural elements, damsel-in-distress-like situations, an impossibly sexy overbearing man and the one woman that could change him. Every month, I would go to the book store and buy those monthly Harlequin serial romances. I would devour them. It really sort of messed me up on a very basic fundamental level. My husband would agree.
I wrote a story in my tenth grade English class called ‘Cancer of the Soul’. I was very proud of this piece – so proud that I pushed for it to be published in my journalism class, despite the fact that it was:
Here is the basic breakdown of the story: Narrator, told in the first person, is sexually abused by her father. Narrator is terrified, believes nothing could be worse than the nightly visits of her deviant father. Until that one fateful night when her father bypasses her door and moves down the hall. To her little sister’s bedroom. EPIC REVEAL! So heartbreaking! And poignant!
Good stuff, right? A little dark for a tenth grade English class, maybe. A little dark for a school newspaper. But, I was good. I was ready. It was published. We spent the requisite time developing the layouts of the pages on our old Macintosh desktops in Journalism class – white space was a real problem back then. We sent it off to the printers. It came back and was distributed to the student body. Not one single person ever said anything to me about my story. In hindsight, I see that we neglected to tell the reader that it was fiction. I certainly hope that was obvious. My father probably hoped that, as well.
I brought an issue home and gave it to my parents, completely oblivious to how it might make them feel. My father is a quiet Midwestern Guy – spends a lot of time in his garage. I remember him calling me out to that garage to talk after he read my story. I didn’t recognize that he was confused. I didn’t see that he could be hurt.
Let me clarify: my father is wonderful. He was a little scary when I was younger – in that way that all great fathers are. He was good and kind and always thought the best of us. Even when we didn’t deserve it. So, for him to read this story must have come as a real shock. Also, I don’t have a little sister. (My mom does have a brand new puppy that she treats like a child, but that is the closest I’ve gotten.)
As he worked at his bench in the garage, he asked me about my story.
“Where did you come up with that?” he asked me, never once looking up at me.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “What do you think?”
“Things are ok with you?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I responded. Why wasn’t he telling me how great he thought my story was?
“Ok, go help your Mom with dishes.”
It happens in quiet ways – writers start to pull from real life experiences and oftentimes, our loved ones are the victims. And, sometimes, fiction is just fiction. It gets messy though. People get hurt. But, as a writer, no one in your life is safe. I didn’t learn that until I was older, when I could look back and see what my writing could do to my loved ones. Its a lesson I still violate to this day. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I will probably never stop doing it. I don’t know how else to do this.
People read fiction and they want to read into it – if I write a story about a woman killing her husband, I’m dissatisfied with my marriage. If I write a story about an alcoholic, I have a drinking problem. Not true. Look for the smaller moments. The quiet moments. That’s where I am. You might be there, too.
How innapropriate was the comic beneath my story!? I had nothing to do with that one!
The picture of Bailey, my mother’s favored daughter-dog, was taken by my mother: Nancy J. Downing
I wrote this several years ago after hearing about the death of a beloved professor of mine in 2008. I think everyone must have a favorite teacher in their life – it doesn’t matter what age they come along. I’ve been fortunate to have several in my life but the most colorful was Dr. Olaf Prufer. He was a little mean, a lot scary and simply brilliant. I don’t think I appreciated his influence half as much as I should have at the time.
This isn’t fiction but it definitely illustrates a profound influence on me and the fiction I write.
Even before his death in 2008, Dr. Olaf Prufer was a legend at Kent State. Certainly, anyone lucky enough to have taken one of his anthro courses has at least one “Prufer Story” to tell to the freshman coming in. “He screamed at me in class!” “He was a nazi!” “He has a cat named fuckknuckles!” And yes, all of those things were true. Sort of – his father was one of Hitler’s ambassadors when Prufer was young – he himself was not a nazi. I had twelve classes with Dr. Prufer while at Kent State and I have no shortage of Prufer stories. I am saddened to hear of his passing because I know that every Prufer Story is now a thing of history – just one more anecdote detailing a larger legend that will be passed around Lowry Hall.
He hated Intro classes and freshman, as a principle. He delighted in scaring them. While most other Intro to Anthropology or Archaeology profs would walk that fine line between evolution and creationism, Dr. Prufer busted over the line and told everyone standing on the wrong side of it to fuck off. His vocabulary was huge but he delighted in using the harshest of the four letter variety, especially amongst those that were easily intimidated.
He had a thick white beard and a deeply crinkled face – the kind you only get after a long hard road in open sun. He was short in stature and bent heavily at the shoulders, as if gravity had an especially hard impact on his person. He always wore the same 70’s style blue running shoes with Velcro and his pants bagged low on his frame.
As with a lot of KSU Anthro senior level courses, we never had a text book or worksheets. We had Dr. Prufer, sitting up front, telling us his stories. He always had an index card in hand when he entered the classroom but there were usually only three or four undecipherable words written. From that, he could talk for hours (and oftentimes, he did just that). I learned more from him about archaeology than I did from any other professor. Because he had not only dug in the dirt, this man KNEW all the dirt – he knew all the sordid back stories you never hear about academics: Margaret Mead, Hallam Movius, Owen Lovejoy, and many others.
In our “Native Peoples of North America” class, he told us early on that we would have no research paper, no huge tests, no traditional homework – we only had to show up every single day and listen to his stories. When it came time for the mid-term, he told us “don’t worry – it will be a puff test.” On the day – my very last test before leaving for Christmas break – he waltzed in, dropped a 20 page essay test on our laps, grinned and said, “Merry Christmas, you little fuckers.” And then he merrily waltzed back out again. It took me almost three and a half hours to finish that test and I cursed him the entire time. But I had shown up every single day. I had listened to his stories. I got an A on that test.
In our “Culture Conflict” class, I had to write a 30 page research paper on the conflict in the Falklands and present it to the entire class. I was extremely nervous and I think he sensed it. Before I began, he pulled me aside, and gave me a piece of hard candy. He patted me on the back and told me to “stop pissing around”. He had such a deep Bavarian accent. When another student began arguing with me over my thesis, Dr. Prufer sat back and watched with a huge grin on his face. The only time he’d interrupt was to tell us to, “stick to the facts.” I left that class pissed off and red faced but I was exhilarated. I had learned in a way that wasn’t taught elsewhere. Culture conflict, indeed.
He once kidnapped me on an elevator while I was doing some field work for him – undergrads were allowed to help out every so often and our task that day was to sort through human bones that had been in storage so that they could be reclaimed and given back for burial. As I was taking a break from the morgue (where grad students had JUST dissected a gorilla earlier in the day), he led me into a dark back room and began showing me schematics of a mass grave site.It was the Libben site, in Ottawa County, Ohio – his last great professional offering. I sat with him for two hours as he explained the site to me. During that conversation, he wasn’t crass or harsh. He didn’t curse at me. He seemed vulnerable to me then – a teacher that desperately wanted to teach his student. I desperately wanted to learn.
During the May Day riots that Kent State has become known for (protesting? No. Drinking? In 2000, yes.) he told us about the first and biggest riot to occur at Kent State. How students had been killed on May 4, 1970. How the place was in chaos and property was being destroyed. How the campus was crawling with police and national guardsmen. And how Dr. Prufer had an illegal hand gun in his brief case that day and smuggled it off campus with some of his grad students. It was always about the unofficial back story with Dr. Prufer.
I was lucky to have him as a teacher. We were all lucky – all of us with our Prufer stories. He will be missed.
The Ohio Archaeological Council’s Obit of Dr. Prufer: http://goo.gl/hH6Vz
We sit on the patio, the table drenched in white linen. I press the pads of my fingers into the cushion of my chair and I sit up straight. The furniture is wicker, but not old creaky wicker like at my Grandmother’s house, broken and bleached gray in the sun. This is new, all natural wickerwork. The sun is setting, casting a rosy hue against the clear water of Meredith’s infinity pool. Her staff quietly slips around us to light the tiki torches.
I’ve had two glasses of Krug Grand Cuvee with fresh raspberries at the bottom of my glass. Each time I take a drink, I try to grab one with my tongue. But, the berries slip from my lips and teeth, dancing on bubbles just out of my reach. My laughter is too harsh, too loud, like broken crystal against the stamped concrete beneath my feet. Sabine rests a hand on my arm, a quiet warning.
“You have no class,” Meredith says to me and I feel myself sinking – drowning in all that white linen and champagne. Blood is in the water and the sharks crowd near. Sabine is watching me, chin tilted up high, eyes shifted to mine. The table stretches out like a piece of the salt water taffy we used to buy in the summers in Cedar Point. All the women stop talking and wait.
My first thought? My first inappropriate thought? “I want.” It is a line of barbed wire that my bark has grown around. This thought, this need cannot be separated from my pulpy flesh. To cut the barbs away would kill me at this point. I want. I want more than I have. I was born with the wanting.
I want more than some little shitty farmhouse in West Virginia. More than Chapter 7 whispers spread out in some suburban nightmare. More than tiny faces covered in grape jelly, lips smacking for messy kisses.
My second thought? “How does she know?” How does Meredith know how to hone the point of her spear so finely? How does she know to shoot at my heel?
I look at Meredith who stares back at me with a defiance born on fine Egyptian cotton. I’m smart, I think. I’m beautiful in ways that other girls in Beckley were not. My slyness, my clever brain, pretty pond water green eyes – these are the very definition of me. I believe it, I believe it, I do. I’ve had to.
And, what defines Meredith? Her fake tits? Her new nose? Or, maybe its those bulges beneath her silver Dior gown suggesting all that liposuction to come. I’ve been places where sequins and sparkly eye shadows don’t recommend elegance, they proffer dark stages and horny truckers parked right off Interstate 77.
Sabine, too, is waiting for my response. Her eyes, like the stilted lilt of her voice, are very Dutch. Those eyes are a clear lake on a summer day. Inviting, but you can still drown here. Enter at your own Risk. No lifeguard on duty. She has sponsored me here, amongst these fine ladies. My reflection is in her waters. Her husband, my husband, brothers born of Hermes ties. I belong here, I belong here, I do. I will. I swear it.
“What is class?” Sabine says as she sets her champagne flute down. “In one so beautiful? In one so young?”
Meredith throws her head back and laughs. Her hair, a sly mink sliding down over her shoulders. She nods at Sabine. “It’s everything, darling.”
All the kids in the neighborhood would come together, in silence and black clothes, just as dusk was settling in. Together, they’d cry out, “One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock…”
A child, the first unlucky ghost, would run and hide. “Four o’clock, five o’clock, six o’clock…”
The bravest boy would begin to inch away from the safety zone. Amanda’s play set with the tire swing and shiny metal slide was always safety. With her hand touching the twisted waxed rope, the tire swing bumping into her hip, no ghost could ever touch her. At the count of twelve o’clock, their small nervy voices would cry out as one, “Midnight. Pray we see no ghosts tonight!”
The search for the damned would begin. A ghost-child would emerge from a shadowy hiding spot and give chase. Screams and the tinkling of laughter would ring out across carefully manicured lawns.
Jessica was Amanda’s best friend. They were born in the same hospital near Ardsley Park, in the same month of the same year. They lived side by side on the same street and shared the same love of banana pudding and vanilla wafers. Jessica was the dark to Amanda’s light, with thick mouse brown hair pulled back in a tight pony tail. Amanda’s blond locks were wild and streaked with sweat.
Amanda had the play set with the always-popular tire swing but Jessica’s yard was the biggest. The two lots together were the perfect summer backdrop for moonlit games of Ghost in the Graveyard.
That last evening – the night before Jessica vanished, her body evaporating into nothingness – she and Amanda walked side by side in the dark. Amanda’s eyes played across the shadows, searching for movement in the inky corners of porches. Joey Martin was the ghost and he was the best at it – he was never the ghost for very long. He was an older boy, too old, almost, to be playing with them still. Jessica grabbed hold of Amanda’s arm as they silently picked their way across the open expanse of grass. Joey’s little sister, Samantha, was still waiting, wide eyed, with her little hand against the smooth metal of the slide. Other neighborhood kids, already in the midst of the game, stretched out to the boundary lines.
“We stay together, Jessie,” Amanda whispered.
“We always stay together,” Jessica replied in a hushed tone. It was a promise, a low chant of safety and security. “We’ll always stay together.”
Amanda and Jeremy walked down Oglethorpe Street. One hand gripped the strap of her camera to steady it from bouncing against her chest. The other hand brushed against Jeremy’s but when he tried to grab it, she moved it just out of reach.
“Who is Juliette Low?” Jeremy asked her, pointing to the marker on the side of the road declaring the huge white mansion in front of them as a site on the historical registry.
“She was the founder of the Girl Scouts of America.”
“Hmm…were you ever a girl scout?” he asked his tone only slightly lecherous. “Did you go door to door in a cute little green skirt and sell your cookies?”
“No,” Amanda replied and smirked at him. “There was a group of girls in the neighborhood that were girl scouts but we hated them. Besides, green isn’t really my color.”
“What?” she asked, puzzled.
“You said ‘but we hated them’. Were you a part of some delinquent cookie hating gang? Who hates Girl Scouts?”
Amanda opened her mouth to respond but hesitated. It was said that Savannah was built on her dead – thousands of graves lingering just below the cobblestone streets and manicured parks. Amanda felt that she, too, had been built by the dead. But, she never talked about Jessie with anyone. She ran her hand idly down Jeremy’s arm and began to lead him up Bull Street to Wright Square.
Finally, she answered, “My best friend when I was little was a girl named Jessica. Her parents live in the house right next door to mine – the blue one?”
He nodded. “So, does Jessica still live around here?” Amanda smiled sadly, shook her head and looked away.
“I think I’ll get some pictures over here,” she told him and crossed the street into the park square.
“You’re the award winning photographer,” he joked. “But, I thought you said you couldn’t work in Savannah?”
She had driven down the N3 in South Africa, snapping shots of shanty towns and happy tourists eating Bunny Chow on the coast of Durban. She’d traveled across Europe with a backpack, her camera and little else. She’d sat in a steam powered boat on the Ben Hai River in Vietnam, skirting along the edge of North and South. In every one of those places, she had searched within the shadows, looking for Jessica.
It had been so easy to become an artist growing up in Savannah. The city practically begs it’s young to pick up a brush, throw some clay, haiku, haiku, haiku. Amanda loved capturing broken moments, those seconds in people’s lives when their fissures begin to grow. She was drawn to the vulnerability and to the notion that she had the power to stop time. But, she’d never allowed herself to work in Savannah, afraid that within the click of the shutter, she’d find Jessie waiting for her – hidden in the background like an abandoned vista.
She walked away from Jeremy and approached two old men sitting beneath the shade of a giant Oak tree. Spanish moss dripped down from the branches. After a quick conversation, she lifted her camera.
As she framed her shot, she caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of her eye. Jessica stood near the President street entrance, never grown, still wearing the frilly white skirt and blue shirt she’d had on the day she’d disappeared.
Amanda blinked. Sun light filtered through the trees and blinded her for a moment. When she looked again, Jessica was gone and in her place was a normal, living girl, the sun refracting bright against her dark hair.
These ghosts are unnecessary, Jessie, she thought and the girl turned to her and smiled. Give me one day. One day to be happy, to be free of you. The wind picked up for a moment, skating through the fallen leaves that littered the sidewalk and dancing against Amanda’s skin. We always stay together, it whispered.
The last thing I remember, before the incident, was laying in bed with Kayla. The house was so quiet. Kayla’s hair hung over her face like brown paint dripping down a blank canvas. She hovered over me, my bicep wrapped tight with her old brown leather belt, and she whispered, “You have to find what you love, Mathew.” The needle slid into my vein. My arm felt like cold concrete, hanging limp, as I tried to pump my fist. “Find what you love,” she repeated. “And let it kill you.”
I’ve heard of aliens – traveling through electricity, through out the entire power grid – right into people’s homes and stealing them away. I think that might have happened to me. I think that’s why I am the way I am. Who knows. Maybe that is how I ended up on that roof, with the sandy shingles cutting into my bare feet.
The guy, the one they said I assaulted, was yelling up at me and all I could see were smudges of stars. I slipped. I landed on top of him hard. I knocked him to the ground. He grabbed me, took hold of my arm and tried to hold me down. And, then time flashed again and I was inside the house. It smelled like garlic, burnt and pungent. The television was on the ground, smashed into several pieces. I had the dirt canister from the vacuum cleaner in my hand, dirt particles were spinning out around me – into the universe, falling like soft snow. I wanted to taste it. I wanted to feel it in my mouth.
Three booms erupted around me, bounced around the room like a sonic blast. I fell to the rug. I was making snow angels. I was sinking into the ground, melting like a piece of hard candy left in the summer sun. I had found what I loved. It wasn’t Kayla, it wasn’t even her collection of needles and hot spoons. It was that moment of pure energy, when I tapped into the power grid.