Backstory (Archive)

A Spark in the Fire 

Backstory: A Spark in the Fire showcases creative nonfiction by newer writers whose seed story is forthcoming or has recently appeared on the web. Backstories that live here may be read for their own sake. But when paired with their seed story, they reveal the pulse of the world where that seed grew. They will parallel, tangent, augment, undercut, rationalize, complicate, magnify, or otherwise speak to the titular literary work.

If you'd like to share the inspiration that sparked your publication, please inquire! Guidelines.

Looking for Shelter by Lisa Levine (February 27, 2015)
On the House by Leigh Madrid (November 25, 2014)
Reentry Meditation by Lora Rivera (April 16, 2008)

Looking for Shelter

by Lisa Levine

February 27, 2015

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.
February 27, 2015

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On the House

by Leigh Madrid

November 25, 2014

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.

November 25, 2014

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Summer 2014

by Lora Rivera

June 28, 2014

"There are memories around which your soul circles, a vulture in a vortex..."  Song of Longing

First, an image:
From "Bike Ride Along the Rillito River"
Photo credit: Tory (Pax

A muggy, late-summer day, sun striking sand crystals in the dry Arizona wash, giving off memories of white Florida beaches. Sun sparkling on discarded aluminum cans, glass bottles, wisps of candy wrappers. Familiar smells - Banana Boat chemical sweetness and sticky, dehydrated mouth. An underpass in shadow. A cushion, an empty black bean can, lingering whiff of cigarettes.


I'd just picked up a pair of whiskey glassesa rather special set of 10th anniversaries once proliferated by a dive bar on 4th. The bar itself is special, an actual dive bar, a friend told me, not a fake one. Where the best scotch is under ten bucks a shot, and they pour you three fingers because it's been pre-cut with water. Leather bar stools worn and knicked by idle, anxious, wanting hands, by pocket knives and ragged chain wallets, by the zipper pockets of skintight jeans worn by women in platforms and bling who've forgotten to close the door on the fashion of yore.

Where the men all smoke and leer and don't take "no" for an answer.

But that's not so strange.

I was heading to a man's house just then, who wouldn't hear my "no." Maybe I'd said it too quietly. Maybe I hadn't meant it. Maybe, I'd really meant "yes." After all, I was en route with the tumblers, along with a bottle of good scotch. Cost me two weeks' worth of groceries, more than the occasional eighth.

I'd met him a year earlier, climbing. I actually have a picture on my phone of him with my -ex, the three of us roped and harnessed and helmeted. I'd thought him sexy, with his tall solidness and easy laugh and wild, curly hair.

He climbed with grace. It made me wonder what he was like in bed.

A year later, the -ex a memory, I asked him over. We spent the day in shadow, curtains drawn, in the company of high-end whiskey and clean sheets and under them, playing, sharing stories, sharing ourselves.

It's easy to share with someone you've predetermined only to fuck, to care for, but nothing else.

I fell into the familiar romance of it. We met parents, watched re-runs, did laundry together, cooked, smoked, climbed, played in the park, adopted a dogall at breakneck speed. Both of us, I think, seeing the other only with one eye.

The other eye stared into the distance, out into the bleak past, thinking of what had been.

He'd told me how when he broke up with her, he'd been up on the mountain. How in the pre-dawn, sleepless dark, stars as witness, he free-solo'ed his project routeno rope, no harness, no helmet. Courting Death. Good morning. You aren't such a stranger, after all. Death, whose great gift is relief from the stuff of living.

My heart hurt, hearing him tell how he'd crawled out from the tent and zombied to the rock and begun to ascend with such clarity of purpose.

It hurt because I'd felt it, too -- and in bed, in the moments after the storm of passion, and before sleeping, I felt it again.

That night, we drank together from those special glasses, an homage to the simpler things.

And the next day, I ran past my familiar haunt and paused in the shade cast by the underpass, emotional boundaries cellophane-thin. I felt like I could feel everything, like I could empathize with anyoneI knew pain, didn't I? Didn't I know yours, then? You, whose name I do not know? You, by whose threadbare cushion I thought to leave money or food . . . or a red rose?

So the story came unraveling on the keyboard, and I realized how little I truly knewyou, perhaps, least of all.


Pantano Wash near 22nd St.
(c) 2010 by Karen Funk Blocher. Used with permission.

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Reentry Meditation

by Lora Rivera

April 16, 2014

What the Editor-in-Chief of Black Heart Magazine didn't know when she decided to publish "Reentry Meditation" this April, was the identity of the woman in the last line.

For months, I'd been dropping canyons with two friends who, including myself, made up a love triangle after the fashion of bad formula romanceachingly, heart-breakingly bad.

A recap:

Girl A likes Guy B, but Guy B likes Girl C, who's friends with Girl A and uninterested in Guy B, because she's really in love with Guy D!

I'm Girl A, by the way.

Now let's plop these characters into the most beautiful, dangerous, intimate of adventures together for days at a time. We go deep into the wild placesthe hidden growing sanctuaries where only beasts and gods live.

We share food, water, shelter. Blood mingles, sweat pours and dampens shirts and chonies, bras come off, freeing bodies that work and play and laugh and smell together. These are the beautiful, sharp-edged moments. I listen to their voices dancefor I can't see them ahead of me around the bend in the river. The sun beats down. The creek is a glass snake, mottled with the deep green of the bank and the clear water sky. There is a rock in my shoe.

I come to these places with them because this is my home, and they are my companions. We work well together. He knows best the harsh embrace of this land. We've cultivated our own respect for it. She is brave, handsome, tall, and strong, with a smile like a moon crescent, white-radiant. No wonder he loves her.

When we cross the river and start the trail back, mosquito-stung and drowsy, I know I will not return to the Gila Wilderness with these two. I can't look at him without the pain of knowing.

I want to despise her. She doesn't love him, either.

I turn and take in the towers of crumbling cliffs through which we've traveled, the tangle of green summer growth. I see her hop the last of the river stones. The ash from last night's fire like a tattoo on the backs of her legs. She is a dark angel.

Grim, we face the city, and brace ourselves for reentry.



Click here to read "Reentry Meditation" in Black Heart Magazine.

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