Friday, February 27, 2015

Looking for Shelter - Backstory
by Lisa Levine

He entered my life Godlike on another summer night in Tucson. His smile lit me up like an electric eel. An electric eel God. Unloosed, rootless, he worked as a strip-club cook. I admired his freedom from the fishbowl windows of the resort where I served spinet tomatoes and poured nineteen-dollar water. I wanted to start over, working myself lead tired, sober in an intoxicated world.

He wanted, I think, to win money—lottery money, casino money, quick, magical money—but most of the time he ended up with a string of arrests in towns he would try to never visit again. We met in the neighborhood, where His mother lived a few blocks away from me passed out on a dirty mattress the one time I saw her. He said she was drunk. He didn’t say anything about the four hardback library books stacked on her redolent kitchen counter, but he did act as if she had raised him to be a good man, somehow between the shelter and the street. I knew he was a good man because he looked me in the eyes the first time he made love to me. Tom Waits sang in the back of my mind. Women falling out of windows in expensive clothes.

I yearned to become pregnant, wanting to bind him to my body, electrocute myself alive. Instead and soon he left for Montana or San Francisco or Eugene or one of the million and ten cool-sounding places wanderers go after they win your heart, the one they never wanted to win.

I ran away. I found Him. We made love in rented rooms, hourly rooms, my fingernails skidding along the windowsills of sobriety. I had a job, briefly, in a wine shop. I never slept outside. I parsed out $20 for hostel rooms. I slept on a couch or two. How long would I have had to stay in that place to claim homelessness as my story? Homeless. Grimly bohemian. I was both. I was neither, but there were nights that drew lines.

Memory-transcript of a phone call to an old friend:

I’m sitting down on the street.
Where are you?
Below Market somewhere.
Is there somewhere you can go? Just get the room. Spend the money.

Thanks to her voice I never found out whether, on my own, I would have stood up.

I left town, left town, left town.

I got over him. Ugly over. By sleeping with too many men, men from whom I wanted nothing. I pretended to want their love but I sought solace instead in money, stability, working my way up front-line management jobs no one else wanted. I leased apartments to the downtrodden, and when I had to, I evicted strangers like Him to retain my position, saving every paycheck until one day the shadows of that story, the one I could never claim as mine, receded. I was no longer one of them anymore.

Still and for years I met him in hotel rooms once every few months—until an unforgivable rumor rear-hooked me with primitive teeth and I deleted the real Him from my life. At the same time he was becoming a story. I gave it a title, “The Narrow Bed,” and in my mind our love looked like Van Gough’s bed, dizzy and skinny and faded and beautiful. It looked like the hostel where he lived when he didn’t live on the street, a dreary cinderblock Paradise.


Years later, Bird’s Thumb published “Shelter,” the final version of the story that would become my grip on paradise, the story of a life I adopted for a while and then handed back to people like Him. The story was never mine to begin with. The story is mine. Lumping the word story with the word mine is useless. It is life. Life is a story and stories are Gods. They light up, electric, blazing trails in the distant dark before crashing to a fallen place the eye that spied them will never, ever find again.

Don’t go looking for stories, He would say. Look for Gods.

Lisa Levine likes to read topographic maps. She writes landscape adventure stories and teaches full-time at Pima Community College. Editors Sahar Mustafah and Anita Dellaria nominated her fiction for a 2015 Pushcart Prize, and Bird's Thumb, Cutbank, Kore Press, Edible Baja Arizona, Sonora Review, Zocalo, The Sierra Vista Herald, France Today and The Not For Tourists Guides have published her prose.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Only Way Out Is Deeper In

"The only way out," he said grandly, "when you've outed yourself that badly, is deeper in."

We were at the table by this time, soaking up the booze with Sonoran poutine: Tater Tots smothered in cheddar cheese, gooped with tomatoes, bell pepper, onion, salsa and Cholula hot sauce.

I was ready for the food, for I'd arrived ravenous. Doff the coat, eyeball the munchies, restrain yourself only long enough to put the gløgg on to warm.

I popped an olive in my mouth, moaned, closed my eyes and crunched.

"Stuffed, mmmm, I love olives." I swallowed and reached for another. "Blanched almonds?"

"That would be whole cloves," said the "ex-pat" writer from Iceland. We were all writers here. "Garlic cloves."

Larissa's a complete gem, the kind of woman I'm glad to know if only annually. I want her to like me. I want to be like her. Her wit and wowzer power. (Is that a thing?) A Fulbright scholar who, when her career in coupons dried up, took to teaching English to toddlers. She mangles their words and they mangle hers. They laugh. She laughs. Perhaps laughter is the language we all understand.

"Don't worry," said her partner, filling up the dish with more little garlic bombs, "we've all had lots!"

Thus started a night that grew deeply and inappropriately more wonderful, as we killed the Scandinavian mulled wine and started in on the frozen margaritas rimmed with Icelandic sea salt, and washed it all down with beer.

We locked ourselves out of the oven ("That'd be the cleaning cycle"), and ogled the latest Tucson firefighter calendar, well oiled men thrusting their hips and wielding their hoses.

We discussed the big faux pas of life -- like when you meet a casual friend at a pub in England during your romantic vacation layover and you one-up the conversation with "I gave my fiancée chlamydia!"

"He needed to go deeper," said Mark. He'd be orating next on the intersection of film and literature. The kind of listener-dependent talk that elicits eye-rolls or drool.

"It's the rule of three: I gave my girlfriend chlamydia! And I gave my cat herpes, poor fellow, but I saved the clap for dear old grandma!"

We were all pretty stoked. It was funny.

"The only way out is deeper in," I texted myself so I'd remember.

And then, thinking about it later, about how we deal with embarrassments, with discomfort, with current challenges and past traumas, with discouragements and setbacks and train-wreck failures . . . Do you hear the whispertruth inside the laughter? . . . Go deeper in. Lean in. Feel it, don't run from it. Let it wax terrible. Let it wax absurd. See it from all its sides. From inside. Take a mouthful of it, sharp and bitter. Swallow.

Then you'll know. You are strong. It can't crush you. The way out it is in and through.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

On the House - Backstory
by Leigh Madrid

I look out windows. If I stare or am still too long, nostalgia gnaws at my wrists, at my collarbone. I wish for snow, pray to forget.

I said to you once, Dormancy is the slumber nearest death. It was winter. We were young then, high, in love of a sort. I said, I wonder, in the spring, do trees recall the cold?

Dormant slumber. I’ve known it twice.

The first time from the sickness that came for me not long after my daughter’s birth. I felt off, but that was to be expected. Called a miracle, childbirth diminishes the body. I didn’t go to the doctor. Wasn’t it all in my head?

I was infected. Then hospitalized, emergency surgery. Mom, Dad—take the baby. You… you were too busy. You apologized via text.

Before, I never cried.

Later, daughter’s first word. Mama. That same day you wrapped your hands around my neck to squeeze and squeeze.

Hovering above, I felt serene. Only after would I be troubled by the vision of bulging eyes, slackening arms, baby slipping, slipping to the floor.

World a blur, I ran with baby pressed tight between breasts. She laughed as I pulled the closet door shut behind us.

Mama. Mama. Mama.

You are gone now.

After much restructuring, my life is stable. Calm and quiet, twin balms of healing.

Late at night, old wounds tend to ache, and new scars to itch.

The steadfast routine that keeps a toddler pleasant leaves me yearning. For what? For who I was before you? For something forgotten, or that never was?

Am I sleeping still? Life is too quiet.

I look out windows.

I see dive bars. Bad lighting. Vodka tonics—extra lime. Stranger’s winks. Tequila shots. I can taste the acrid throatburn of cigarettes as I drag past the filter. Overflowing ashtrays and knotted cherry stems.

These days I drink at the kitchen table. A glass of wine. Light beer. Coffee with just a splash of something. I haven’t smoked in a decade. I miss having something to do with my hands.

I look out windows. The forever sunshine doesn’t suit me.

It never snows here. Every few years something resembling snow will drift down. Lasting only long enough to snap a shot of saguaros dusted white. It isn’t the kind that sticks, lending whimsy to winter before turning to slush. It doesn't melt. It evaporates. Not real snow at all.

I tell myself stories about different kinds of deserts, of people carrying a bit of hope tucked inside otherwise empty pockets. I write.

Leigh Madrid lives North of Tucson. She shares a home with her toddler, an antisocial cat, and the occasional scorpion. Inspiration from snowy daydreams and a fondness for dive bars fuel much of her writing.

From the author: I pitched “On the House” to my writing group as “an Irish bar story set in South Dakota.” Later an editor with an Irish surname asked to publish it. I don’t believe in signs…or maybe I do. Either way, I’m very excited for my story to appear in Literary Orphans.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Re: How to Submit to Literary Journals: Withdrawing Your Piece

"Not withdrawing your piece is unprofessional, rude, and amateurish behavior unbecoming of a writer."

I received a question about this strong statement from last week's post.

A reader asked:
"Any idea why [not withdrawing is unprofessional, etc.]? ...Sounds like writers lose a ton of negotiating power for no reason but that tradition has set social niceties in stone. Like... When you're interviewing for a job, [you ask] for a couple weeks to decide. Because if they call you and accept the day before your next interview instead of the day after, that shouldn't have such a disproportionate effect on your future.... Is there a similar waiting period for journal submissions?"
The short answer is YES. Writers do have negotiating power.

If you get an offer, you're not required to answer immediately. This is true for querying agents, submitting directly to publishers or for subbing to literary journals.

What's the proper waiting period? A week is appropriate in all these cases. (There are a few exceptions, like weekly e-zines, where the turnover is too fast for a week's waiting period.)

Asking for one week gives you time to decide whether you will be satisfied having your work handled by the publishing professional in question.

In the meantime, it is appropriate and encouraged to send out "heads-up" emails -- not to every agent or editor you queried. Only send to those whom you might prefer.

The heads-up email:
  • Explains you received an offer of publication/representation (no need to mention from whom)
  • Invites a response to your submission by [deadline], after which time you will make a decision

Withdrawing your piece

Don't withdraw
  • If you have sent a heads-up email, don't formally withdraw your piece. The ball is in their court. If they decline to respond, that's their business and they know the consequences of not doing so.
Do withdraw
  • If you decide immediately to accept an offer, send a formal withdrawal note.
  • If you did not send out a heads-up email, send a formal withdrawal note.

How to withdraw? A simple email will suffice. If using an online submission manager, add a quick note, like this one:
"Dear [editor/agent], Please withdraw [title] from your submission queue, as I have placed it elsewhere for [publication/representation]. Thank you."

In summary, when your work is on submission...

If you accept publication/representation and fail to loop in the other contenders, you are wasting their time. Reading through subs is a lot of work. If they read and accept yours, only to find it's been placed elsewhere, it's unlikely they'll want to reach out to you again.

Leaving an editor or agent out of the loop reflects poorly on you as a publishing team player.

This is the way the industry works. Yes, it may place the burden of effort disproportionately on writers. But until a new industry rises, er, out of the ashes, this is the game we've agreed to play.


What experiences have you had communicating your waiting periods and withdrawals to editors/agents? What kind of responses have you received from heads-up emails?

In your opinion, what might be a better way this system could work?

~ Lora