Month: February 2019

Room for Improvement

by Heather Bourbeau

Our therapist had suggested note cards that reminded us why we were together. They started off as small Post-its left on the toaster, “You make me laugh when I drink milk” or “Your taste in furniture has always been divine”. Soon the exercise became a game, a MadLibs for partners. “When I think of your _______, I _________.” Or my favorite, “I first noticed your ______ when we were _______ in the ____________.” We recycled that one for weeks. Various fill-ins included “bank account, shoplifting, Hamptons” and “bad Finnish accent, cruising the straights, bathroom line at Disneyworld.” The sillier the response, the more I fell in love. I might not have been engaged in the chase anymore, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy a good game. That was until our therapist, whom we tried to dump unsuccessfully, gave us comment cards. We knew she was trying to become a brand, and who could fault her, but the “Room for Improvement” made us see what we missed, why we’d drifted into too stark a relief. Then he left the love letter we now have framed above the bed. “I first noticed your ____capacity to improve___ when we were ____doing naked yoga____ in the ___room that once was reserved for therapy. Don’t change. Love.”

Heather Bourbeau’s fiction and poetry have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Cleaver, Eleven Eleven, Francis Ford Coppola Winery’s Chalkboard, Open City, The Stockholm Review of Literature, and the anthologies Nothing Short Of 100: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story and America, We Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience (Sixteen Rivers Press). She has written in Madagascar, read in Tunisia, worked in Liberia, and wonders where she will explore next.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Room for Improvement”?

I wanted to explore if MadLibs, which encourages the absurd, could be a way for two people not only to laugh, but also to appreciate one another. Also, there’s a nod to my friend Ann, with whom I once pretended to be Finnish and in a garage rock band.

Hole in My Head

by Jeff Friedman

There’s a hole in my head the size of a half dollar—and who knows how deep? The surgeon advised me to leave the wound open, because, she said, it would heal faster, but it’s already been two years. When I go out, birds plunge at my bright dome. I swing my arms to keep them away, but some still land and dip their beaks into the hole as if searching for insects or worms. Something must scare them because they take off quickly. I clean out the hole with a damp piece of cloth and find leaves, stray hairs, pebbles, coins, blessings and aphorisms. For a while I wore a large bandage over the hole, but then my head would swell as if it were filling up with fluid. When I’d slowly remove the bandage, thoughts shot out and showered through the air like glitter. Always, a few broken thoughts would be stuck to the bandage. Each day, I stare into the mirror and hold a mirror over my head to get a good look inside the hole. I see some creature deep below, turning over to show its orange belly, and numerous clichés bobbing near the surface. When I shift the mirror, my head disappears, and only the hole remains.


Jeff Friedman’s seventh book of poems, Floating Tales, was published by Plume Editions/MadHat Press in fall 2017. Friedman’s poems, mini stories and translations have appeared in American Poetry Review, Poetry, New England Review,Poetry International, Plume, Hotel Amerika, New World Writing, Flashfiction.net, New England Review, Fictional International, New Flash Fiction Review, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Flash Fiction Funny, Flash NonFiction Funny, Agni Online, The New Republic and numerous other literary magazines. He has received numerous awards and prizes including a National Endowment Literature Translation Fellowship in 2016 and two individual Artist Grants from New Hampshire Arts Council.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Hole in My Head”?

The day after the fall term began at the small state college where I teach, I had surgery to remove a cancerous growth from the top of my head. The surgeon left a hole a little larger than the size of a quarter, in the shape of a small volcano crater. A surgeon with great confidence, she had initially offered to do the surgery while I was in class if I would agree to remain seated and also sign a waiver of liability. As a dedicated professor, I considered allowing her to do this, but then rejected the idea because I was worried that some of the more sheltered freshmen wouldn’t appreciate the real-life experience and might take it out on me in my evaluations. I filled the hole in with liquid silicone and covered that with a little liquid paper, and then topped it all off with my purple cap that is also bug resistant. Unfortunately, despite silicone’s resistance to heat, the whole damn thing melted leaving me with a gooey mess under my hat. Next, I sanded it down and painted the hole flesh tone and again covered it with a hat, but it buckled, and I was again left with my small crater. I considered placing a fancy marble in the hole and going hatless, but I was too insecure. Day after day, I wore a purple hat to class. After a few weeks, the students began clamoring for me to take the hat off. At first I said “no,” but then it dawned on me there was a buck to be made. So one overcast Wednesday in New Hampshire, I settled into my easy chair in front of the class and told the students that for 20 bucks apiece, each could take off my hat and stare straight into the hole in my skull, that if they looked deeply they might even find the key to getting an “A” in the course. I never anticipated so many of them not only buying into it, but coming back as many as ten times—200 bucks. I continued this for rest of the term and for once, I actually got paid a decent salary for teaching. I would continue this same money-making venture next term, but the hole closed up, and the scar is barely visible. I wrote “A Hole in My Head,” because I knew no one would believe the story of how I really dealt with the hole in my head.

A Rug of Velvet Elephants

by Marge Simon

We had this together: firefly light on summer evenings, and a tailless dog that never smiled. You claimed he took his job too seriously. He was mostly mine, would come when I called, greet me at the door with such joy. Things you barely noticed. Once, in a rain of stones to end an argument, you had him put down.

We pass a man with bright velvet rugs from Mexico draped across his van. Let’s buy one, you say. I want to stand on elephants, you say. When we find a place to turn around, the van of velvet elephants is gone.

So many wooden conversations. Did we ever talk about the same thing? You look at me with wine dark eyes. There’s moisture on your upper lip, Inge’s dark haired lady on the lounge in a golden frame. So like you, out of reach like the paintings cordoned off at museums.

I know the way your tongue touches your teeth when you smile. You bring me strawberries in a yellow bowl, telling and showing. Have a margarita, you say. But I know all I’ll taste is the salty rim of an empty glass.

Marge Simon lives in Ocala, Florida and serves on the HWA Board of Trustees. She has been awarded the Bram Stoker Award, Rhysling Award, the Elgin, Dwarf Stars and Strange Horizons Readers’ Award. Marge’s poems and stories have appeared in Pedestal Magazine, Asimov’s, Silver Blade, Bete Noire, New Myths, Daily Science Fiction. Her stories also appear in anthologies such as Tales of the Lake 5, Chiral Mad 4, You, Human and The Beauty of Death, to name a few. She attends the ICFA annually as a guest poet/writer and is on the board of the Speculative Literary Foundation.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “A Rug of Velvet Elephants”?

I’m delighted you like my little fiction. It has been sitting in my files for a over a decade as a piece I never felt was finished. It began as a trivial poem after driving by a van with – yes, velvet rugs of elephants and tigers, etc. These were abundantly displayed in Tijuana, back in the 70’s, and I’m sure they are today. Anyway, I always felt my poem was a thought unfinished until recently when I accidentally found it again. This time I fleshed it out into a flash from the p.o.v. of a sad man, stuck in a loveless marriage. His wife epitomizes the shallow, controlling kind of woman a man can’t escape from. At least, we get the feeling he isn’t going anywhere. For some odd reason, I tend to write about people in sad or hopeless situations – perhaps because I was in one myself for 15 years until I remarried the right man for me in 2001.

CNF: The Rialto Market

by Emanuele Pettener

The Rialto Market, in Venice, is located along the Canal Grande at the foot of the famous bridge. It pulses with life, it is a sensory experience for tourists to enjoy: long counters of fruits, a continuous bustling of people and voices, the husking of vegetables, the beeping of scales, the cry of a child. The Rialto Market ebbs and flows in a rhythm that it’s developed over centuries, its own frantic calm. The merchants don’t shout, the pigeons keep watch, the customers move slowly and study things closely, they lose themselves in a mosaic of color—yellow apples from Canada, black cherries from Verona, red sundried tomatoes from the south, orange oranges from Sicily—as they breathe in the smell of basil and sage, of fennel and wet earth, of peaches and melon. A group of black boys in blue coveralls move boxes of fruit, a dove grazes on cast-off artichoke leaves on the masegni, huge ships move along the Canal Grande to load and unload their cargo as tourists move along it to take pictures. Then, on ink-stained ice, enormous cuttlefish with white and gray stripes lay alongside Atlantic octopi, anchovies and sardines with their dark backs and silver bellies, deep pink cuts of swordfish, ivory colored Peter’s fish filets and the bronze ones of African perch. In one of the steel compartments, there are the little sea snails that Venetians love to boil, season with garlic, and suck out of their shells as an appetizer. On the ground a seagull is playing with a salmon head and from a balcony, on the other side of the canal, a spectator sips a prosecco and takes notes.

[Translated from Italian by Zachary Scalzo]


Emanuele Pettener was born in Venice, Italy, and has lived in the United States since 2000. He teaches Italian language and literature at Florida Atlantic University. In Italy, he is the author of three novels and a critical essay on the American author John Fante. In the United States, his collection of short-stories A Season in Florida, translated by Thomas de Angelis, has been published by Bordighera press (New York) in 2014.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “The Rialto Market”?

At the Rialto market many people take a lot of pictures with their phones, others shoot videos, someone paints. That’s normal and nobody cares, but when I went there to take notes (of colors, of names, of splendiferous details) Venetian merchants were suspicious, squeezing their eyes at me: “What are you writing about?”, “Just taking notes”, “Why?”, “Planning a novel, Murder at the Rialto Market”. They didn’t like it, they didn’t believe me. So I bribed them, I bought a lot of apples, a pound of cherries, two figs, one seabass. Still, they didn’t like me. It was a consolation realizing that writing is still considered a suspicious activity.

Like Magic

by Sue Mell

It seemed delightful at first, the magician making the rounds on the 6th floor of the rehabilitation center where my mom was recovering from a fall. Then it grew to be a bit much—his acting as though this were his own personal stage, and not a room shared by four elderly women on Medicare. He liked making a big fuss with the privacy curtains: whoosh, whoosh, alakazam, and all that. But Mrs. Uriga complained, claiming this stirred up the dust, despite the floor being waxed and polished, the surfaces wiped down with pungent cleansers, at inconvenient times nearly every day. Miss Cho was the one in need of a nebulizer for congestion in her lungs, and it didn’t bother her—though, like the rest of us, Mrs. Uriga’s loud and constant complaining did.

“Too bad he can’t make her disappear,” I muttered the hundredth time The Amazing Rodney, as he called himself, was pulling Ensure pudding cups out of a ratty—and seemingly bottomless—top hat. Rodney was his middle name, he confessed to me apropos of nothing, and when I next looked up Mrs. Uriga wasn’t there, just a slight dent in the cotton blanket where she’d lain. “Put her back,” I said, appalled. “And stay away from my mom, you little freak.”

“What’s that?” said my mom, stirring from the nap allotted by a dose of Percocet.

“Nothing,” I said, leaning forward slightly to block her view. “You just rest.” She closed her eyes and I widened mine, pointed across the room, and mouthed the words, Put. Her. Back.

With a suit-yourself shrug, The Amazing drew the curtain around Mrs. Uriga’s bed and a moment later her nasal carping resumed.

“This used to be a nice place—I was here years ago, visiting my friend—but now it’s all gone to shit, you know what I’m saying? Can you watch what you’re doing with that wand? Slowly—Jesus! You’ll stir up the dust.”

He swept the curtain aside and took a deep bow, one last pudding cup plopping from his hat to the floor.

“Aw, crap,” he said, as I gave him a waggish round of applause.

“What is that?” said Mrs. Uriga. “Is that mustard? Mustard on the floor?”

I tipped my chair back. “Butterscotch, I believe.”



She tugged at the tails of the magician’s tux. “What’d she say? She broke her watch?”

The Amazing did not look at either of us, though I thought I heard the smallest sigh as he used an unending string of colorful scarves to mop pudding from the floor.


Sue Mell holds an MFA from The Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and several of her stories have appeared in Narrative Magazine.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Like Magic”?

Last January, my 88-year-old mom fell down the stairs in her home and spent 3 1/2 months in a skilled nursing facility recovering from multiple fractures. I spent 4-5 days a week there, keeping her company and boosting her often failing morale. In early Feb, I took a terrific online flash fiction workshop with Kathy Fish. After the workshop ended, I recycled the prompts to generate more new work. The one that led to “Like Magic” called for writing a less than 500-word piece in which you took a commonplace setting—a bar, a restaurant, a hospital room—and inserted an unexpected detail. At the time, my mom was fairly depressed and still in a lot of pain. When one of her 3 quiet roommates was sent back to the hospital, her bed was filled with a woman who was extremely hard of hearing but had no hearing aid and, because of what I now understand to be mid-stage dementia, was unbearably loud, repetitive, and crass—often to the point of lewdness. Sad for 200, as a social worker I know says. I wanted—I needed—to make something at least a little bit funny out of all of that.

The Housecoat

by Kevin McLellan

Younger, in the photo, her almond-eyes
and Venus flytrap eyelashes—now older
her thinning skin, the scabs on her arms
she picks, some just come off, others bleed,
and she dabs them with a Kleenex,
puts it in her pockets with the others.

Kevin McLellan is the author of Hemispheres (Fact-Simile Editions, forthcoming), Ornitheology (The Word Works), [box] (Letter [r] Press), Tributary (Barrow Street), and Round Trip (Seven Kitchens). He won Gival Press’ Oscar Wilde Award and the Third Coast Poetry Prize, and his writing appears in numerous journals. Kevin lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “The Housecoat”?

The poem, “The Housecoat” combines two non-fictions to create a fiction. I noticed a young woman in a drugstore chain with the longest eyelashes I had ever seen, seemingly real, which were accentuated with mascara and they looked like venus flytrap hairs. The older woman in the poem is my fraternal grandmother who, near the end of her life, attempted to use guilt to emotionally trap me for not visiting her often enough. She always wore a housecoat with used Kleenex in the pockets—an inescapable image, at least for me.


by Jennifer Wortman

She played in front of their little house with the basement where her dad made bullets with a levered press he let her pull when her mom wasn’t home. The day before, her mom had taken her to Columbus to buy her sandals the color of soft pretzels, their soles like caramel, sweet pieces of the mall strapped to her feet. She waded them through the clover-flecked grass.

This was life: her feet sunk in green, the sun’s hand on her back, her mom inside, humming. Then: Toe. Pain. Bee.

The neighbor woman came running and scooped her up, delivering her at the door into her mom’s arms. This, too, was life: pain comes, and people who love you act fast and lift you.

Her mom removed the stinger and applied paste to the welt. Together they sat in the big brown chair, her mom stroking her hair as light drained from the walls.

Her dad came home. He’d bought another gun. Her mom stood, yelling, her lips twisting like pipe cleaners. Her dad poked his finger at her mom’s face. The louder her mom got the softer he spoke. But his eyes shot hate.

The sting still hurt and her whole foot felt strange. Who could she tell? This also was life: the flight to her room, the long wait for calm. But now she had the throb of her foot, the redness, the burn. New friends. Even after her foot healed, the feeling stuck with her: the shocking betrayal of everything good, the wound aflame, a warmth she’d return to, and summon, for the rest of her days.

Jennifer Wortman is the author of This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love., a story collection forthcoming from Split Lip Press in spring of 2019. Her fiction, essays, and poetry appear in Glimmer Train, Normal School, DIAGRAM, The Collagist, SmokeLong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, The Collapsar, Juked, and elsewhere. She is an associate fiction editor at Colorado Review and an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Find more at jenniferwortman.com.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Bee”?

I took a class from the great Steve Almond, who suggested we list moments in our life we couldn’t forget and write from there. My first bee sting made the top of the list. I also vividly remember my second bee sting, my third, and my fourth. I hate bees with a passion, which is another way of saying they scare me. When I hear reports that they are dying out, despite my understanding of the terrible implications, a part of me cheers.

“Bee,” while not strictly autobiographical, is more autobiographical than most of what I write. I used to help my dad make bullets in our basement. And my mother hated guns as much as my father loved them, so lots of family fun ensued. 

CNF: Spinning

by Paul Crenshaw

We were sitting on the front porch drinking wine when the couple came sneaking down the street. They were a young couple, mid-20s maybe, and they were both looking around and laughing a little, at each other, and at, I would later realize, what they were doing.

Our neighbors across the street were moving, and they had set some of their stuff on the curb for people to pick through. I would say this is a Midwestern sensibility except I’ve seen it everywhere: the hope someone will take what we can no longer keep, the recycling of household items we can’t bring ourselves to throw away. I had recently moved, and given away most of my things, or left them on the curb for someone else to have: my daughters’ way-too-small-now bicycles, a bonsai tree I had trained for 10 years, a guitar I had outgrown. Bookshelves that had once housed my own work, the desk at which I had written more words than I know what do with, the couch where my ex-wife and I watched movies until we were too tired to go to bed. The bunk beds we bought for our tiny daughters when we moved into that house, the books and games we’d collected over the years, the houseplants and clothes hangers, the mementos and memories. I never thought my marriage would end, and giving away everything seemed like giving away the last 20 years, so I wanted, in the way we all want to have a use in the world, for someone else to find value in what I had once owned.

The couple, it seemed, had spied a set of hula-hoops there on the curb, and were coming back—as night set in and the wine started to do its work and the world seemed fine—to get them. They passed through the shadows of the trees and the man waded through the containers of kitchenware and boxes of paperback books, and grabbed the hoops.

Beside me, J. took my hand. We haven’t lived together long. We’re middle-aged now, and sit on the porch some nights drinking wine and watching the world through the windows of our eyes, but I first met her in third grade. We graduated high school, then lost each other for 25 years, but had come together again after both our lives had fallen apart. She lost her husband, and I had divorced, and somehow we ended up together watching a couple much younger than we were taking hula-hoops from a house where people were moving, headed on to the next part of their lives.

They were still laughing, and the dark was coming down like it sometimes does, so I said, in the still air of Midwest America on a fine summer evening, “Let’s see it,” and the couple started hula-hooping right there on the sidewalk. The man made two rotations. The woman made maybe four. Neither of them knew what they were doing, the same as all of us, all of the time, but we clapped and cheered and the man made a thumbs up and the woman bowed, and they went on into the coming night.

As they went, I imagined them passing the hula-hoops down to their children. Or maybe they only wanted to be reminded what it was like to be children again, to find joy in spinning, in seeing themselves back at the same spot after rotating so long they weren’t sure where they would end up. A small celebration that life is a circle. What we give away, we keep.

Paul Crenshaw’s essay collection This One Will Hurt You is forthcoming from The Ohio State University Press. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Oxford American, Glimmer Train, and Brevity, among others.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Spinning”?

A friend of mine—shout out to Kirsten Clodfelter—posted on social media about her daughter calling a hula hoop a “hoop doop,” and I responded with the story of seeing a young couple grabbing two hula hoops from the curb. Kirsten is a kind and encouraging writer, and asked if I were going to write an essay about it, which, if you’ll pardon the terrible pun, got the story spinning. So I owe lots of gratitude to Kirsten and her daughter’s “hoop doop,” which still makes me smile.


Check out the write-up of the journal in The Writer.

Matter Press recently released titles from Meg Boscov, Abby Frucht, Robert McBrearty, Tori Bond, Kathy Fish, and Christopher Allen. Click here.

Matter Press is now offering private flash fiction workshops and critiques of flash fiction collections here.


Poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction/prose poetry submissions are now open. The reading period for standard submissions closes again December 15, 2023. Submit here.


11/27 • Michael Mark
12/04 • Helen Beer
12/11 • Rachel Rodman
12/18 • Betsy Robinson
12/25 • Trish Hopkinson
12/31 • Kim Chinquee
01/01 • Jill Michelle