The following selections are from four of the 22 stories in The Night, and the Rain, and the River, releasing tomorrow from Forest Avenue Press. The anthology is edited by Liz Prato, who says of the collection’s tales, “They were all about longing to belong. To another’s heart, to family, to oneself. Which is perfectly in line with the visions of the press—as well as my personal ideals: that we are all part of this beautiful bigger entity and can help each other along the way. I hope that’s what these stories do. I hope they help other people feel less alone.”
Excerpted from “Surely” by Scott Sparling, who has won a bunch of awards and writes in a treehouse.
I lived in my head once. I didn’t like it very much. We’re talking Pre-Charles here. Gorrf, my sometimes boyfriend back then, was a supposedly hotshot guitar player because who isn’t? But his band was actually halfway decent, which only means they sucked fractionally less than a lot of bands and lasted a day or two longer before going down the drain.
Back in prehistoric one-and-a-half years ago, Gorrf had two big dreams. To build a practice space for his band behind a rental house his dad owned, and to get inside my pants.
Gorrf was the kind of dude who planned his work and worked his plan. Despite the crazy name.
When the practice space was done, he took me over there. Behold, he said, as we stepped inside. Gorrf’s Enchanted Musical Paradise and Private Love Nest.
To me it was just an enlarged playhouse, but I didn’t say so. What had him all jacked up was the shape.
The walls aren’t parallel! he proclaimed. Like that was a marvel to be pondered at great length. To me it sounded like a flaw. Like, what else would you expect if you gave Gorrf a hammer and let him loose.
So what, I said. I didn’t care about the walls. I was checking out the futon, covered with a furry throw thing from the Maximum-Cheese aisle of the closest man-cave store. The futon was the reason he’d driven me over there, so naturally we had to pretend it wasn’t.
Gorrf was still twirling and gaping at the purposely fucked-up walls.
It’s so the sound waves can’t bounce around and run into each other and get all smashed up, he said. He stroked the straw-colored beard that made him look like a loser in the Confederate Army, or like the model for a whisk broom. There was lust in the way he tugged it. Non-parallel walls are essential for making beautiful music, he said.
I looked back and forth a bunch of times but couldn’t see it. Finally I just took his word that the angles were off. Like I said, I’d have been more surprised if they weren’t.
The walls inside my head, on the other hand, formed a perfect square. Everything I thought echoed and ricocheted, coming back at me in negative angles. Will Gorrf stop seeing Sandy if I conquer my resistance and finally do it with him? Or maybe if I don’t sleep with him, he’ll respect me more and finally see Sandy as the Licensed and Bonded Slut-o-matic that she is. Sex or no sex? Caution or full speed ahead? Condom or trust Gorrf? Now or never?
Excerpted from “No Choice at All” by Sage Cohen, who also wins awards, and writes like a poet, because that’s what poets do.
Tommy holds his guitar high, over his heart, and moves through my life in 4/4 time. I don’t know how tall he is, but if I tilt my head back I can kiss his neck right up under his chin. We meet during the days, because I work from home and he works at night. If I am not available he makes me available. Gets under my desk and between my legs while I am on a conference call. I click the mute button. My throat is the neck of his guitar—pouring music where he presses. He strums his tongue right through me.
To make it clear he isn’t my boyfriend, Tommy declares that I shouldn’t expect him to change my car tires. But I know he’ll do anything I ask. I never ask.
Tommy knows how to please an audience almost as well as he knows how to please a woman. He has a charm and humor that most people confuse for kindness. It is never safe to assume an artist is anything like his art. Who is Tommy when he isn’t on stage? When he isn’t in my bed? I have no idea.
I met Tommy when I went to collect my coat from Matt’s place. The truth is, I invented the coat because I wanted a reason to see Matt again. But he was out. A bleach-blond guy in a peeled-down wetsuit—the bass player from Matt’s band—let me in. The make-believe coat was nowhere to be found, and I ended up sitting cross-legged on the floor in a see-through dress in a circle of rumpled guys passing around a bong: the rest of the band.
I had stumbled upon these guys the night before when I had wandered into the Full Moon Saloon with my notebook, in my pajamas, intending to free write while my just-dismissed boyfriend was at home throwing his belongings into his truck. Tommy, who could easily be confused for a Harley-Davidson gang leader, was the rhythm guitar player. His voice a shock of terra cotta. Matt played lead guitar. When he saw that I found my notebook more interesting than his band, he set out to compete with the free writing. And he won.
Tired of waiting for Matt to materialize in this haze of astonished men, I stood up and Tommy walked me out. As I released the front door he took my hand, pulled me into his chest, and kissed me. Hard. I took that kiss all the way in. I ran to my car without looking back.
Excerpted from “The World, the Flesh, and the Devil” by Christi Krug, a widely distributed writer for and of all seasons, genres, and audiences.
When I was eleven, I tore my Luke Skywalker poster into bits because the visiting preacher told us Star Wars was Satanic. At thirteen, I hunkered alone on Halloween night in an unlit house, listening to a radio preacher list the head-rolling, blood-boiling, devil-worshipping implications of October 31. At twenty, I married without having gone on a single date, thus avoiding that enemy, the world. “I understand about threats,” I said.
But if he knew the facts, there was no way he would want me teaching his little girl and boy. My first act of defiance had been keeping the tithe of one month’s salary, one year ago. My husband, Patrick, went through the roof. That was the beginning of the end.
My daughter, Sarah, was trying to make sense of it.
Mommy, how come you don’t go to church anymore?
Daddy says if you went to church, we could all live together again.
Mr. Mayhew shelved his chin on a folded hand. His shoulders were strong right angles, from an era when self-examination was not necessary. Farmers worked their land; wives their kitchens. A man paid the bills, protecting you from the world. So you could take care of your child.
The only thing that mattered now was Sarah.
Mr. Mayhew shook his head, sending movement through sleek brown hair. He resettled on his hand. “Explain what you mean by fantasies.”
Steam from microwave macaroni and cheese was wafting from the next door lunch room, tickling my dry throat. “No fantasies. I encourage——imaginativeness is all.”
There were footsteps, chatter, and the scrape of chairs as students filed out of the classrooms into the arms of their parents. Mr. Mayhew glanced at the clock. Light from the window showed a hint of beard. It might be soft, then again, bristly. Patrick never could grow a beard.
“I want to see their schoolwork,” he said carefully and a little loudly, the way people do when you don’t speak their language. “But you need to understand my priorities. My wife and I are bringing up our children to believe the Truth. No fairy tales. No fabrications.”
I shuffled through wrinkled papers.
“And this Christmas, I will not tolerate the mention of Santa Claus.”
Finding what I was looking for, I thrust at him Ruth Mayhew’s story, “A Day at the Zoo.”
“Today we will take a trip,” announced Papa. And presently they all went to the zoo. “The girafs are so tall!” exclaimed Henry. “Would you like an ice cream?” declared Mama kindly. And they all had ice cream. “I’m scared of the snake!” Polly cried angshusly. “That is because he is the most subtil of all the animals that God created,” said Papa wisely. Soon it was time to hurry home so they didn’t miss their Bible reading time. “Thank you for taking us to the zoo,” said Polly and Henry together.
Luke Mayhew had written about his father’s stamp collection, and the most remarkable thing was his handwriting at eleven: hard and infantile, in pencil so dark that the paper was pocked with tiny holes.
“Your children are very good writers.” I could now add lying to my sins.
Mr. Mayhew’s expression did not change. He spread the papers on the desktop, smoothing them flat. The rustling of his clothes lifted the scents of clover and rain.
I wondered, did he and his wife enjoy sex? Was that allowed in his denomination?
A muscle tensed along Mr. Mayhew’s lean, tanned jaw. I stood and walked to the white board. I wiped a clearing in the crowded ink with the flat of my fist. I wrote: Imagination is more important than knowledge. ——Einstein.
“God’s gift to us,” I said.
Of course I was really talking about sex.
There was a drop of moisture on Mr. Mayhew’s pale bottom lip, just above his pefect chin. For the moment I felt the dread of sitting in church, convinced the preacher could read my mind. I tugged down my skimpy pink angora sweater.
For sure, this man saw me as a lost, worldly woman. He saw me as clueless.
How could I explain this wasn’t the whole picture? All my life, I’d followed the rules. I had taught Sunday School classes that rivaled any sermon.
“Without imagination, we wouldn’t be able to create any kind of life for our children,” I said, my voice getting stronger. “How could we teach them to believe in the future?” Even if that future meant divorced parents. Living on Top Ramen. Having a mother who was no longer accepted in church. “How could we show our children how to give, to imagine God’s blessings, to hope for miracles?”
He stared, nostrils narrowed.
The principal had been similarly unimpressed with my philosophies. A few parents have voiced concern over the books you are reading to your class. He’d nodded, ample paunch hidden by his enormous oak desk. He formed the words with mobile, chunky lips. Remember the population we serve. You must respect their beliefs.
Excerpted from “Left Right Wrong” by Domi Shoemaker, a card-carrying member of Tom Spanbauer’s Dangerous Writing group.
Sitting in the front not-driver’s seat of the car. Just Mom and me. The sky-blue, green-on-the-inside car. The sky matched the car’s outside, but inside the car it felt like rain.
This was just a few weeks after Dad had moved out. Mom said Dad had already taken everything. I guess when you think everything is what you don’t have any more, there’s always more something to be took.
That day, the sky-blue sky day, Dad was taking the car to give to his new wife.
Dad’s new wife, my mom’s old best friend.
Dad’s new wife, my old best friend’s mom.
Dad’s new family, my old best friend’s mom, and Mom’s old best friend with Dad’s new baby on the way.
I didn’t know it was the last time for me and Mom and sky-blue car. Dad had been gone since the Fourth of July. Just before my fourth birthday. Fireworks everywhere. Baby was supposed to come at Christmas.
Dad said he needed the car so New Wife could get groceries for New Family. We needed to get groceries, too. Mom, me, and my three brothers, Ron Jon, Nate, and Blake. Dad’s old family. Except Ron Jon didn’t need groceries on account of he died before he was ever born. But he was still family. I wondered if Ron Jon would stay with us or be in Dad’s new family. Maybe both, since he didn’t take up no room.
Seemed like our one car needing was more than his new family’s two car needing with just them three. Even counting Ron Jon, and even with one more baby coming, you’d think they would have been okay with just their one car. Besides Dad’s new baby wasn’t around yet, and who was to say it’d make it here alive? Even if it did, it’d take up less room than me.
Car needing didn’t have a whole lot to do with car keeping.
Me and Mom, we were best friends. I cried when she cried, but never in the same room. So she didn’t know. I wasn’t supposed to know, either. Not about the wads of blacked-up mascara toilet paper in the bathroom garbage. Or the soggy and singed Kleenex in the glass ashtray on her nightstand. Or the scrap of napkin poking out of her bra when she came to tuck me in.
My brothers said stop blubbering, but that just made me cry more.
Mom was driving. Me, four, in the front not-driver’s seat. My hand palms were open looking at each other, and me looking back and forth between them and Mom. Mom in her pink frost lipstick. Her dyed black hair pulled back tight. Her curly black miniature wig bobby-pinned to the crown of her head. The wig called a Topper, strapped in with Mom’s favorite scarf. Mom called it a Silky. We always liked to name things. I was trying to remember my hands’ names.
Right hand was easy.
“Right,” I said.
Looking at other hand, nothing.
I started over. You always go with what you know first, and the rest will come along.
“Right,” I said.
Usually if I concentrated hard enough and asked real nice, just about anything would tell me its name once I had learnt it. I had learnt hand names at Sunday School, but this one wasn’t about to give.
“Mom,” I said and held out the hand whose name is Right. “If this one is my right,” I held the other hand out. “Is this one my wrong?”
Mom laughed and laughed and didn’t stop laughing until her laugh was all run out. Then she pulled the car over next to the curb. Kept the engine on. Wasn’t much traffic and we just sat there for a minute. Mom’s hands on the steering wheel.
She reached over and wrapped her hand around the hand whose name I couldn’t remember. “No, silly,” Mom said. “This one’s not Wrong.”
Mom’s voice so TV-mom soft. Soft like I hadn’t ever heard.
“That one over there,” she said. “That one is your right hand . . .”
She was smiling the way she does when just one side of her mouth lifts up and she is not quite finished with the sentence, but I interrupted anyway.
“Mom, I know this one’s name,” I said, holding Right up in front of my face.
“Ah, yes,” Mom said. “I guess you do, Miss Smarty Pants.” She held on to Other hand and squeezed. “This one’s name is Left.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Left.”
Then Mom, she turned sideways toward me in the front seat that is the driver’s seat. I turned sideways to face her. Her pink frost lipstick, green and gold eye shadow sparkling beneath the outline of drawn on eyebrows, and dark pink powder she put on her cheeks. I wanted the whole world to be colored in just like her.
Mom brought Right and Left together in her hands.
“Right, hand you color with,” Mom said. “And Left, the one that helps Right. Just like you help me.” Mom pulled Left and Right up to her face, one on either side, and held them there. Closed her eyes.
“Left,” I said again. “Like Dad left.”
Losses that shape lives . . . Do any of these excerpts remind you of similarly themed stories or books? If so, what qualities do they share? Which voice/s do you find most resonant? Why?