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Month: March 2021

One Day, Lucy Cannot Find Her Head

by Francine Witte

 

Normally, she would try to think where she left it. But now she cannot.

This isn’t completely unexpected.

Men don’t like smart women, her mother had warned.

Men only want your body, her father had warned.

Women don’t look good in hats
, her sister had warned.

Meanwhile the head part of Lucy is right there in the kitchen. Lucy had been in the middle of a cookie recipe. The head was filled with ingredient words like whisk and nutmeg, and Lucy was getting overwhelmed. The kitchen was hot and Lucy left the babbling head on the counter while she walked in the other room to cool off.

After a while, the head was sweat on its forehead, hoarse from calling and calling to earless Lucy. Lucy, who was now bumping into everything as she wandered the apartment like a stupid Roomba.

Finally, the head gives up, deciding, like only a head can do, that it is the main part of Lucy, after all. That’s where all the memories are, the appointments, and the knowledge of long division. The head takes a deep sigh breath. Happy now, it closes its eyes.

Meanwhile, the rest of Lucy, the arms and legs and heart of her land inevitably in the kitchen. If this part of Lucy could think, it would reason that it is the most important part what with all the getting to places and digestion and such.

But since it can’t, since it’s no more now than headless Lucy, it lies its bruised and tired self down on the kitchen linoleum, wrapping her arms around herself, her chest rising into the humid air.

 

Francine Witte’s poetry and fiction have appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Mid-American Review, Passages North, New Micro, Best Microfiction, and Best Small Fiction. Her latest books are Dressed All Wrong for This (Blue Light Press,) The Way of the Wind (AdHoc fiction,) and (The Theory of Flesh.) She is flash fiction editor of FLASH BOULEVARD and South Florida Poetry Journal. She lives in NYC.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “One Day, Lucy Cannot Find Her Head”?

How many times can you walk into a room and forget what you came in for? Well, I actually don’t even remember that number. Ha. But I thought of that old adage my mother used to throw at me all the time, y’know when I forgot to pick up bread like she asked me – she’s say, you’d forget your head if it wasn’t attached. I thought of this one day — who remembers why – but it occurred to me that the literal action of this expression might make an interesting story. What if someone actually did forget their head. What would be the sightsmelltouchtastefeel of such a moment? I happened to be in a workshop led by Meg Pokrass and Kathryn Kulpa, two writers I hugely admire. I can’t remember the exact prompt but it must have fit with this thought and voila – the story was born. Now what was the question, again?

CNF: One-Butt Kitchen

by Jennifer Furner

 

[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of the “Topical” series, with each piece solely submitted to and chosen by the Final Reader Pietra Dunmore.]

 

My friend once referred to her kitchen as a “two-butt” kitchen, the classic ’60s ranch square kitchen, where if someone is opening the oven door, their butt will inevitably bump the butt of whoever is standing at the sink.

We have that kind of kitchen. But in my opinion, there is only room for one butt.

If someone has the fridge door open, I have to wait until they close it before I can enter the dining room. If someone is throwing something away, I have to wait until they move before I can put away the pan I just washed. I am in a constant clumsy dance with my family whenever there is more than one person in the kitchen.

With my husband working from home and my 4-year-old out of preschool for the last year because of the pandemic, we perform that clumsy dance at least three times a day, more if someone wants a snack while I’m loading the dishwasher.

On some days, this clumsy dance, this bumping into each other saps the last of my patience. It’s one thing to see each other all day long. It’s entirely another to be physically blocked by the people you’re seeing all day long.

Before Covid, it wasn’t a one-butt kitchen. We had a much smoother flow, a better rhythm. It was easier to stay out of each other’s way. My daughter was smaller, lighter; I’d let her sit on the counter, content to eat some cheese while she watched me bounce around our small square kitchen. After meals, only one of us would clean up while the other entertained her in the living room.

Now my husband and I both lunge for the empty dinner plates, wanting to claim cleanup so the other will go entertain our daughter in the living room, neither of us relenting. Our daughter, who won’t stand to be excluded, lays in the middle of the kitchen floor for attention.

It’s too many butts.

Covid cases and deaths are dwindling, though, and millions of people have already been vaccinated. Our daughter will be 5 years old this summer, ready for kindergarten, and I hold out hope that schools will be open and operating with much less restriction.

On days when I’m on the brink of breaking, when I’ve bumped into bodies too many times, I think of the not-so-distant future, where I watch my child board the bus, where my husband backs out of the driveway, headed for his office, and I’m left alone in the kitchen, waving, smiling, giggling, my butt the only butt in our one-butt kitchen.

 

Jennifer Furner has essays in the anthologies of Art in the Time of Covid-19 and A Teenager’s Guide to Feminism. She has been published in HuffPost Personal, Motherwell, Folks, among others. She lives in Grand Rapids, MI, with her husband and daughter. For more of her writing, visit her website jenniferfurner.com.

 

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

When I sat down to write this piece, I actually had in mind a call for a submission with the theme of Valentine’s Day during Covid. I first imagined how my husband used to come home from work, entering the house through the kitchen, so that was where my daughter and I would greet him with hugs and kisses. Of course, that hasn’t happened for over a year now, so I started to write about how our relationship with the kitchen has changed. After I had written a good portion of it, I realized the piece wasn’t the least bit romantic and disregarded that original call. But I liked what I already had and kept with it. I’m so happy the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts liked how it ended up!

My Baby

by Sacha Bissonnette

 

[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of the “Topical” series, with each piece solely submitted to and chosen by the Final Reader Pietra Dunmore.]

 

Watching him silently rearranging the strawberries in his cereal I worry he’s still got it in him. That seething, unbound rage that sits in his eyes. They can flash bright white, like phosphorus. I try not to stare at my own baby, my own flesh and blood when it happens. When he senses my concern, my judgment, he gets uncomfortable and grows angrier. We’re finally settling in, we made it this far but I worry that my baby might threaten it all again.

I warned the police not to come in a few times. I yelled through the door, not to come for his father, not here, not in front of our baby. They didn’t listen, they so rarely do. There wasn’t a weapon in the house, but in a way there was.

I tell myself that my child was protecting us, that he did it out of love for his family and not out of hate for them. I’m still trying to teach him that there’s a fine line between the two. But when they put their knees to our backs, pressing us into the cold kitchen tiles, it was over for them.

My baby held them there, suspended, dangling like marionettes. He controlled their strings. His eyes all white and locked in, his face covered in a web of bulging veins and broken blood vessels. And that horrid shriek, and the flash. The four men smashed into the ceiling, and then fell to little pieces on the floor.

In the motel that night, I showered with my baby and held him close, against my undamaged black skin. I watched as their blood dripped from our bodies and eased into the drain. I felt the cleansing of the hot spray on the back of my neck.

 

Sacha John Bissonnette is a Trinidadian, French Canadian poet and short story writer living in Ottawa. His work has appeared in Wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, Litro UK, Cease, Cows, The Maine Review, and elsewhere. He is nominated for Best Small Fictions. He is working on a short fiction anthology with the help of a Canada Council for the Arts grant.  He loves film and tweets @sjohnb9

 

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

I wrote an entire 4000 thousand word origin story about a child’s reaction to the racist world around him, based on the histories of his two parents, but it wasn’t working. It had too many pieces and loose ends and was overly ambitious, I think. So I decided to cut it down completely, to almost a skeleton of the original story, keeping the beginning and end paragraphs and writing in a related middle.
 

Nail Polish

by Sarah Everett

 

[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of the “Topical” series, with each piece solely submitted to and chosen by the Final Reader Pietra Dunmore.]

 

Nothing has the power to hypnotize me more than a bottle of candy apple nail polish. I stare at the vials, suffused with vibrant wild flowers and the colorful feathers of exotic birds – my eyes glittering from the florescent lights that illuminate the cosmetics counter. Being in their presence is like catching that ever-elusive rainbow, and it never fails to mesmerize my eight-year-old brain.

I suspect it’s the reason my mother favors this checkout lane, even though I pretend not to understand that. While she tries to pacify the cashier, I ogle the polymers and lie about overhearing each derogatory insult thrown at me when probed about it later.

“It happened again, today.” My mother dumps our groceries on the kitchen counter, squashing a loaf of pumpernickel in the process. The wrinkles in her forehead deepen when she scrunches her nose, each line a scar earned from the trenches of motherhood.

My father casts his eyes in my direction before saying, “lower your voice Mina. We don’t want the neighbors to overhear.” He purses his lips while my mother clicks her tongue. She twirls around and whips out a paring knife, cutting into an onion to disguise her tears.

My father sighs and places his gnarled hand on her shoulder. It’s just as twisted and bent as our wooden paneling – the same as his back, his feet, and his legs. He pretends his bone-shattering career isn’t the cause of his mangled body, and I pretend I’m not the reason he can’t find a better job. “Perhaps it’s time to move again.”

My mother spins around, brandishing the cooking utensil like a cutlass. She opens her mouth to expunge an argument, but a knock at the door interrupts her. “Can’t they leave us alone for one night?” she yells.

My father shushes her and shoos me into the adjacent room. The walls are as thin as cardboard, though; and despite his efforts, I overhear everything.

“No one would blame you if you tried again.” I envision the dark-haired man lurking beneath our eve – the same one that comes here every night like clockwork. He is short and thin, with a crooked nose that’s been broken more times than I can count. “After we destroy her paperwork,” he says. “No one will know she ever existed. The one-child edict won’t apply to you anymore.”

“We’re not interested,” my father snarls.

“Think of your country. She’ll never be able to hold a job. Never marry. She’ll be a burden on society until the day she dies.”

A pause. A long lapse in sound that is gut-wrenching. In this silence, I lower my eyes to the two deformed stumps I have in place of hands and wonder why people hate me for them. I’m just as intelligent as any other eight-year-old. I eat the same food and dress the same way. The only thing I can’t do is dip my fingers in a bottle of nail polish because…well…I have no nails to paint. My dark thoughts swirl inside my head like a raging sea, ready to drown me, until a sharp bark banishes them.

“You won’t be able to protect her forever. Eventually, you’ll have to surrender her.”

The door slams and our house flinches. A teacup sitting too close to the table’s edge takes a plunge and shatters into dust. My father stomps back into the kitchen, his waxen face flushed purple with rage.

“Why do people want me gone?” My voice is pitchy like a squeaky desk drawer and it draws my parents to me.

“They just don’t understand you,” my mother says, unable to hide her tears this time. “People have always been wary of those that aren’t like themselves. It’s not your fault.”

“Your mother’s right. You just have to–”

Another knock disturbs our conversation and my ears perk up. The men only ever come once a night, so I’m interested to see who is at the door. My father doesn’t share my curiosity. He approaches the threshold cautiously, latching the chain lock before prying the wood open a crack. “Yes?”

The twisted lumber explodes inward and strikes my father’s face with a sickening crunch. He stumbles backwards as a woman overtakes the entryway and points a long, metal tube at the center of my chest. “I’m sick of you hiding her.” She pulls the trigger and another explosion makes my ears zing.

I don’t recoil because I don’t understand why my father looks so pale. He punches the woman square in the eye and she hits the ground the same time my mother does. A few grey hairs escape her bun and obscure the haunting smile on her lips. Below her, a pool of red stains the carpet, like someone spilt an entire bottle of candy apple nail polish.

 

Sarah Everett is an aspiring author who’s recently appeared in The Bookends Review, Castabout Art & Lit, and the Dead Mule School for Southern Literature. If she isn’t chained to her computer (either writing or drawing) she’s seeking inspiration in the woods or watching a good movie with her disgruntled cat.

 

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

Like all my stories, “Nail Polish” arose from a deep desire to process societal norms against my spiritual beliefs, especially in the areas where the two contradict each other. This story deals with persecution. The main characters oppression due to her disability represents hatred towards others despite all of us being made in the image of God. I originally planned to give it a happy ending, but after several revisions, I decided all my attempts sounded too forced and retracted from the ideas I was wrestling with.

Slipped

by Sarah Swandell

 

[Editor’s Note: Click on the triptych below to view it at full size.]

 

 

Sarah Swandell is a writer, singer/songwriter, and pastor, now on family leave to care for her toddler daughter. Her work has appeared in The Christian Century, 100 Word Story, and Ruminate.

 

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

The piece is all true. For the longest time the dissection at the end felt like my deepest secret. I guess it doesn’t feel as scary to share anymore. There’s a phrase, “morbid curiosity,” for a reason. I’m grateful my husband didn’t judge me for anything that happened during that time (or if he did, he’s better at keeping things from me than I from him). He chose a magnolia leaf for the tissue to rest on, a real sign of tenderness, as we examined it before the burial.

Like Father Like Son

by Oreoluwa Oladimeji

 

[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of the “Topical” series, with each piece solely submitted to and chosen by the Final Reader Pietra Dunmore.]

 

Killing my mother was my first crime. I came with my legs first, and in so doing sucked the life force from my mother, whose frantic cries I was told will remain etched in the minds of those who had been there to witness it. For this crime, I was punished. Starved, ignored, abused. For this crime, I received no love from the ones who had witnessed my mother’s pain.

My father is a faceless man. I have no pictures, no memories, no visions of him. A faceless man I have never met, will probably never know. But I have heard stories of him from those who witnessed my mother’s pain. And in their stories, I garner that I am paying for my father’s crime as well.

I know it’s his face they see in mine when they turn me away. I know it’s his voice they hear when I cry out in agony, his terror they remember when they spit into the sand in disgust. In their traumatized minds, it’s the year 2002 again. It’s December, the month of cheer and giving.

The ones who witnessed my mother’s pain are transported back to that year, that month, transfixed in the living room, enclosed by the insurmountable walls of Gbagada Estate, vulnerable regardless to the attacks of outsiders.

The robbers are pounding hard at their door, threatening to break it down. They scurry in different directions as the robbers burst in like thunder, ordering everyone to lie on the ground. No talking. No whimpering. No pleading.

The robbers’ guttural voices causes fear to trickle through their limbs as they lie on the concrete floor one by one, like broom sticks placed individually against warm earth. Urine spills down their legs as dirty boots parade the living room, narrowly missing their heads.

A whimper escapes someone’s lips as the man in the dirty boots rams the gun against another’s skull. The whimper becomes a seizured, spasmed shake as the man scans the room, searching for the culprit.

He sees my mother’s cheek, tears cascading down her flesh. Rosy, supple flesh which he runs his hand over, urging her to stand.

Perhaps, it’s my mother’s frantic cries they hear when I call out to them, her screams as the man in the dirty boots shoved her into her bedroom and took from her, fear and panic thickening in their bellies as the man’s men patrolled the living room and the main gate.

Twenty minutes was all it took, they said. Twenty minutes to take from them and my mother. Pride, jewelry, dignity, bags of rice and beans. My father’s blood zings through my veins. It was all the confirmation they needed that I was guilty. That I took from my mother just like my father had taken from her.

It broke her, the rape. They said my coming was the last straw, the nail that sealed her coffin shut. And that’s why I’m being punished, why I will never be deserving of their love, why their hatred is all I will ever know.

Because I took from them and I am still taking. Just like my father did.

 

Oreoluwa Oladimeji is an MPH student at Drexel University. Originally from Nigeria, she obtained her bachelor’s degree in Biology (pre-medicine) from The Lincoln University of Pennsylvania. When she isn’t dealing with the familiar rigor of school work, she enjoys penning down her thoughts in the form of stories. She will be starting medical school this fall and is in the process of choosing a school. She has been published in African Writer Magazine and was a semifinalist in the Tulip Tree New Writers Story Contest. Her work is forthcoming in the Kalahari Review and The Meadow.

 

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

“Like Father Like Son” came to me while working on a short story centered on jungle justice in Nigeria and the implications of this practice. The main character in “Like Father Like Son” is a minor character that will show up in that story. However, I wondered what it might look and feel like to explore things from this character’s point of view with a focus on the circumstances surrounding his birth. Since the short story on jungle justice only shows a snippet of his life (which is essentially the character’s demise later on), I thought it would be interesting to explore elements of his childhood (something that isn’t evident in the short story on jungle justice)and get some exposure on his family and background. Another interesting thing to note is that the robbery scene in “Like Father Like Son” was inspired by an actual robbery that took place during my childhood. Since my recollection of this incident was quite fuzzy, I relied on my late mother’s account of this incident and used elements of her tales such as my uncle being hit in the head with a gun by one of the robbers to drive the plot for the story. Although aspects of the story such as the rape are fictional, my mother’s stories were very instrumental in creating the plot for this story.

CNF: The Old Lady

by Tracy Lum

 

[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of the “Topical” series, with each piece solely submitted to and chosen by the Final Reader Pietra Dunmore.]

 

It isn’t just the fear of facing the grim stillness of death that stops me at the threshold of the viewing room in the bilingual funeral parlor. “Grandchildren?” asks a besuited man, the hint of Chinese accent unmistakable. I hesitate. “Sort of?” I want to say. Before I can, my parents nod, and he bobbypins a button-sized yarn flower first to my hair and then my sister’s, then hands one to my brother. Mourning symbols, reserved for family. “This way,” he says, pointing toward the open casket, which gleams under the overhead lights, inescapable.

That we’re grandchildren is a technicality we don’t bother explaining as we make our way to the second row of Lucite chairs, where the air is stale and thick with the scent of incense. Technically, the woman at rest in front of us is my dad’s niece, the daughter of his half-sister, but on paper, since she and her husband officially adopted him over sixty years ago, allowing him to emigrate from Hong Kong to America, he is their son. The generational branches of our family tree have crisscrossed and confused me my entire thirty years, but one thing was always clear: we are family, but only peripherally.

The morning after she passed, my dad received the news by text. “The old lady is gone,” he announced to my mom and me, his face neutral, stating facts. She was always the old lady, never mother. My siblings and I called her Pau Pau, meaning grandma, out of simplicity, but to her, we were ambient, distantly related children who appeared at holiday banquets. She raised my dad as a ward, not a beloved son, and so we accepted the hierarchy of blood relations, took our second-tier position to mean that because the coronavirus pandemic enforced a strict guest limit for the funeral, we wouldn’t make the cut.

The besuited man taps the microphone at the podium, speaks in a rehearsed, melodic Cantonese. There’s a ritual offering fire burning behind a grate in the corner. Smoking incense sticks poking out of ceramic pots. A wreathed portrait printed with her name in both English and the Chinese characters I can’t read. I look everywhere until my eyes fall on her, and then I can’t look away.

All the time I knew the old lady, she had white hair the texture of cotton candy and a distinctive way of speaking Cantonese I couldn’t understand. Our relationship was wordless hugs of greeting and farewell. Mugs of tea I brought as she leaned on her cane to settle into the blue-striped armchair in our living room at Christmas. Thank you’s whenever she pressed a red lai see into my hands. “I kind of forgot we were her grandchildren,” my sister whispers from behind her mask, and I nod my agreement.

The incense sticks are still glowing orange when the man calls up all the grandchildren for the privilege of paying respect. When he motions to us to join, my brother, my sister, and I exchange confused glances: it is a more active role than we expect. We take our places beside our distant cousins. “Both hands,” the man says, as he grabs a handful of incense, whose tips turn to ash as wisps of smoke curl around us. I press my thumbs together and take two. “Now bow three times,” he says, turning toward the casket, chin down, back straight. We follow his lead. There is an enviable precision to his bowing—down-up, down-up, down-up—no arch, no hesitation. He has done this countless times before.

We sit down as soon as we can, unwilling to bear the stolen mantle, but we, now the grandchildren we never were during her life, are not done. In our nuclear family unit, we kneel on tasseled floor pillows and accept small china cups of water. We clumsily bow again in unison, down-up, down-up, down-up, and as we do, I wonder how she’d feel about my siblings and I co-opting familial closeness in her honor. We return the cups and sit again until, together, we approach the casket for our final goodbyes. I had been afraid to look, to witness the unsettling, irreversible absence, but up close, all I see in spite of the technicalities is peace in the grandma to whom we owe our last name and existence in America. I bow my head and stroke the satin lining of the coffin three times, hoping she understands the gratitude I could never truly express.

 

Tracy Lum is a writer and software engineer based in Brooklyn, NY. Her writing has appeared in Bustle, Hello Giggles, and Little Old Lady Comedy. You can find more of her work at tracylum.com.

 

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

While drafting this piece, I was very fixated on the discomfort of attending a funeral during a global pandemic, but in later revisions, I discovered that the family relationships felt more compelling to write about. So, although some of my family members wore not only masks, but also face shields, goggles, and gloves during the funeral, mentioning it in the essay seemed to detract from the focus. 

News

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.

Submissions

Poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction/prose poetry submissions are now OPEN. The reading period for standard submissions closes June 15, 2021. Topical Thursdays’ submissions are open year-round. Submit here.

Upcoming

05/10 • Barbara Diehl
05/11 • Frankly Ajaye
05/13 • Omer Berkman
05/15 • Brett Biebel
05/17 • Deanna Baringer
05/21 • Mary Kuna
05/24 • Mike Itaya
05/27 • Elizabeth Edelgass
05/31 • Kayla Pongrac
06/03 • TBD
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06/28 • TBD
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