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Month: December 2021

Chimney Swift

by Matt Barrett

When the third chickadee lay dead in my neighbor’s yard, Mr. Jenkins tucked a steak knife in his pocket, greeted a cat in our cul-de-sac, and stabbed it in its belly. After that, he was known as the cat killer. People steered clear of him. Supposedly he’d done it while Mrs. G rolled a trash bin to the end of her driveway. My father said Mr. Jenkins opened the lid and dumped the cat’s body inside, even as Mrs. G held the handle.

The next time Mr. Jenkins found a dead bird in his yard, he placed traps on his back porch with bits of food and water to lure the cats inside. The ones he caught howled all through the night. We figured that was a warning to those who let their cats roam free. Like he was saying, You can let them out, but I’m the warden now.

One day he found an injured chimney swift on the curb outside his home. I ran over to see it for myself. Its broken wing had a speck of blood where the bone jutted from its shoulder. Mr. Jenkins tried to soothe it, his hand on the bird’s back. Its chest swelled, its eyes darted. From up close, its eyes were not just black.

Was there hope, I wanted to know.

Hope?

Mr. Jenkins didn’t seem to understand the word. “Hope?” he asked, turning it over on his tongue. “Hope?” Like a bug had flown in his mouth and he wanted to spit it out.

He laid the bird in a shoebox and placed it in the shade. It was best if the box stayed dark, he said. So the bird might feel at peace.

I didn’t like the sound of that—at peace. Peace was what we said to comfort ourselves when our Border Collie died. Or when my grandfather, sick in the hospital, held my hand and said he’d found his peace.

His peace. Well, I hoped to God I’d never find mine.

“You know where chimney swifts go in the winter?” Mr. Jenkins asked. I didn’t. “The Amazon,” he said. “Ecuador, Peru, Brazil. They fly down there and come back here. For what?”

I pulled the cloth aside just enough to see its face. Its head kind of looked like a racoon—dark feathers rounding the eyes, a little white along its chin.

Mr. Jenkins knelt beside me to look inside. “Some kid like you was probably down there watching it fly.”

I could picture him, too. Some kid like me in Peru and some kid like me in Brazil, watching this same chimney swift dart through the sky, scooping up insects.

I told my mother about the boy in Peru, who’d wait in his yard for the chimney swifts to return. I hadn’t thought of it like that until I said it aloud: the birds returning to him. That there was no leaving really, just a settling in. An at home there and an at home here.

The world’s a small place, but the wings of a bird are smaller. The speck of blood where its bone split, a single red dot on its feathers—probably less blood than a finger prick. And still it flew all this way, with just these little drops inside, with just these little bones.

In the shade of Mr. Jenkins’ yard, I sat and waited with the quiet understanding I could not sit and wait forever.

 

Matt Barrett’s stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, The Forge, Pithead Chapel, the minnesota review, River Teeth, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA in Fiction from UNC-Greensboro and teaches creative writing at Gettysburg College. He tweets @MBarrettWriter.

 

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

The original version, which I wrote a little over a year ago, was about twice as long as this—the narrator’s brother was a central figure in the piece and took up a little too much space on the page. When I stepped away from this story for several months, I realized he took the focus away from what really mattered: these beautiful little birds that travel each year from places like my home all the way down to the Amazon. Once I removed the brother, the rest of the story fell into place. It was more focused and exciting to read, and while the brother may live on in future pieces I write, his greatest contribution was stepping aside for the real story to unfold.

Completes, I

by Richard Kostelantz

 

 

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Honoring two Jewish comedians: Mel Brooks (1926-) and Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). These are what the title says they are–complete thoughts or complete fictions, as well as thoughts that might be fictions and fictions that might be thoughts. One writing goal for me has been creating within only a single sentence complete thoughts and stories that are sometimes funny, other times profound–sometimes fanciful and other times true.

CNF: Running Out of Time

by Ken Malatesta

 

[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.]

Ask even the angstiest teenager 20 or 30 years ago what they wanted to be and it was something concrete. A business person, a doctor, a fireman.  Ask today, and it’s a YouTuber, a gamer, or the latest social media incarnation, a Tik Tokker .

I have never seen a Tik Tok video, but I tolerate its presence, joke about it and tease my students about it. But when I read in The Atlantic that Tik Tokker, Charli DiAmelio wanted to buy her sister Dixie a pair of $32,000 shoes, I wanted to vomit. I can’t say I was surprised. The Kardashians flaunted their opulence and insipidity for a decade during Charli and her peers’ formative years. But is anyone else terrified? That an entire generation’s aspirations dead-end at shoes.

As a teacher who peddles literature at the low low cost of a free public education I don’t stand a chance.

Some would argue that Tik Tok and the like are merely kids being kids. Creating their own world and language. Dancing. Didn’t Elvis scandalize the country and corrupt America’s youth? Elvis’ hip shaking is tame by today’s standards, and most of Tik Tok’s hand jive copycat dances are harmless or so I have heard (As a teacher and parent I would never deign to cross the threshold into the teenage world). But you lost me at  $32,000 shoes.

When I visited Graceland  25 years ago, it was only evolving into the absurd commercial pilgrimage it is today. But I was struck by the relative modesty of the biggest star in the world’s house. I’ve seen bigger swimming pools in the Chicago suburb where I teach. The whole thing could probably fit neatly inside the bathroom of Donald Trump’s gilded penthouse.

So what? You might say. Try teaching a bunch of teenagers that there is value in words and literature and goodness beyond material things when the instant fame carrot dangles, or sits rather in the palm of their hand every second of their waking hours.

I can’t fault a kid for having lofty aspirations, but what happens to our culture and our value system if everyone pursues a career making dance videos? Where will the next doctors, lawyers, and yes artists come from? This is an extreme scenario, of course. Someone will wake up and realize that all that dancing is hard on your knees and even the Tik Tok generation will grow old and may develop heart problems. But the pandemic has driven America’s youth even further into themselves, and  may push our value system into the abyss. This is comparable to the one in a million hopes of professional sports stardom so prevalent in the 90’s and early aughts, particularly with inner city youth. But the youTube and Tik Tok trend is more widespread and more alluring because most Tik Tokkers start in the confines of their bedrooms. Chinese spying be damned!

The confines are what bother me. Sure, these teenagers will hang up their dancing shoes (or arms?) and emerge as the next generation of adults, and there is no returning from the cultural and entertainment fragmentation the internet has spawned, but I worry about the long term effects. Yes it has allowed more opportunities and more mediums beyond the traditional Hollywood track, but what does normalizing $32,000 shoes do to a teenager’s perception?  I may be beating a dead horse, but this is the equivalent of many Americans’ annual income. Elvis loved his belt buckles, jumpsuits, and badges, but I don’t think even he could condone 5 figures for a pair of shoes. Celebrities have always been opulent, what bothers me is how easily someone like D’Amelio can become profligate. Won’t her proverbial fifteen minutes be up sometime next week?  Or ten minutes from now? But then that is the dream. A few minutes of renown. It’s the shoes that bother me. Not everyone is gonna make it on Tik Tok. Just like most won’t make it in Hollywood or the NBA, but as long as everyone keeps angling for a slice of that pie people will be distracted enough not to revolt or aspire to something more noble and worthwhile, or at the least practical. They don’t know there’s not enough pie to go around. There never was.

How can schools and parents compete with a medium that promises instant riches? Write an analytical essay about mortality and biblical allusions in contemporary narratives, or film a forty second video of yourself dancing the most recent trend? Which would a teenager choose? The internet, video games, and social media have already decimated attention spans, but the promise of monetizing a hobby is social media’s version of the Lottery. Why bother with school, let alone value it? Students do, but increasingly for all the wrong reasons. Students are being spoon fed corporate stratagems and legitimate philosophies cannibalized into modern business lingo:  “mindfulness”, “growth mindset” (a lesser version of Nietszche), and the worst of the bunch “executive functioning”, along with so much more  psycho babble George Orwell is rolling in his grave. Contemporary education’s aim is to cultivate automatons.To administrators and politicians, children are numbers. Data to be crunched. Info scraps to be fed to the tech behemoth. It’s no wonder kids have turned to Tik Tok and the like as a ticket out. They just don’t realize it’s all the same train.

And time is running out. As an English teacher and a humanities promoter I feel like I am their last opportunity for truth, the last line of defense against the onslaught of illusions sold on the internet. Solomon doesn’t mention Tik Tok in Ecclesiastes, but his wisdom on the nature of chance seems too applicable to the nature of internet fame- “…nor yet favor to men of skill.”

Maybe this isn’t the end of the world. Or is it? With the pandemic dragging on, young people are slipping further and further into virtual worlds. Will we ever return to reality? What will the world look like a generation or two from now? Are we doomed to zombified populace Tik Toking their way to the apocalypse? We owe our children and ourselves more than that.

 

 

Ken Malatesta is a teacher. 0riginally from Chicago, he now lives in Skokie, Illinois. His work has appeared in Goat’s Milk Magazine, Fatherly, and The Hopper.

 

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

As for surprising or fascinating details about the essay’s origins, I suppose it derives from teaching and watching the gradual and then sudden shift in the perceived value (or lack thereof) of an education. Last year amidst the chaos of the pandemic and zoom teaching, a student asked, “Mr. Mal what do you have against TiK Tok?” We were in the midst of an argumentative essay unit and I had just read the article about Charli DiAmelio, so I told the student that I would answer her question in essay form. “Running out of Time” was the result. I wrote it in real time along side students who were writing their own essays and used it as a teaching tool (on a variety of levels- one student expressed a deep fear after reading. Not my intent, but I do hope it gets young people to think a bit). Needless to say, I am concerned for the sudden shift in our value system- the increasing emphasis on the superficial and the illusion of the easy way out as opposed to the beauty of a challenge and the things that give life meaning.

Teresa Smashed Up the Car Yesterday

by Stephen Page

 

[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.]

 

Teresa smashed up the car yesterday. She was on her way to the dentist while I was out walking. Apparently, as she told me the story later, she had brought a travel thermos full of hot tea with her and when she tipped it to sip, the lid, which she had failed to screw on properly, fell off, and a copious amount of hot tea cascaded over her breasts and chest. Her left hand, which was on the steering wheel, involuntarily jerked, and our beautiful, white Tetra Sa veered sharply left, crossing the yellow divider, crossing the oncoming lane (thank goodness no traffic was in that other lane), and drove at 40 MPH into a cement electric-line pole. The airbags opened where, after the seatbelts locked onto her hurtling-forward body and her head continued forward, smacked her face and scrunched a few of her neck vertebrae. She did not feel any pain as the police arrived and she mumbled what had happened to her. Our beautiful, white, luxurious, smooth running, dependable, 4 x 4, which is seven years old but in impeccable condition and has very few kilometers on the speedometer, was crumpled, the front bumper snapped off and flung meters away into the mud.

When I arrived home from the continual sea-view, tree, and shrub lined walk (under a steady drizzle) around the neighborhood near our apartment, Mateo, a balding kind man, the male member of our apartment’s maintenance couple, informed me there was a neighborhood electricity black out. I shrugged and thought it was because of the weather, the winds and rain. So, wet and chilled from my walk, I took a cold shower in the dribbles that dripped out of the shower head (the water pump being electric). I turned up the heater in my office to raise my body temperature, dressed, and finished up a bit of work on a short story I had started earlier that morning, shivering while sipping some hot coffee from a thermos prepared hours before, and after the coffee, some hot yerba mate, that thermos of water also luckily prepared hours before, thank goodness.

Later, when Teresa returned to the apartment, around lunch time, she told me the story of how the accident happened, how the police took the report, how our friend who worked in the Punta Delfín Inmobiliaria came to her rescue to help her call a tow truck and have the car towed to the front of the Inmobiliaria. She then began to complain of chest pains, spinal pain, headache, and of a large bruise had covered an apple-sized swelling on her left forearm near her wrist. I assumed the pain was in the chest from the seatbelt, and the spinal pain was from her head hurtling forward after her body was halted by the belt, the bruising on her wrist as it folded when her thumb stayed hooked on the steering wheel. We called a few doctors in succession who all concurred with my diagnosis, even though I did not state mine before theirs, and while I gave her aspirin and iced down the swelling on her forearm, each doctor in turn reassured her it was not necessary for her to come into the office, especially now with the coronavirus scare and the doctor’s office waiting area either filled with mask wearing patients waiting for a checkup or ill from symptoms like asphyxiation, nausea, loss of equilibrium, skin rashes, and anxiety. I prepared another plastic bag full of ice, helped her to bed, and sat next to her holding her unhurt hand as she called a hundred friends and family on her cell phone to repeat the details of the accident over and over. She at one point dropped the phone while she was listening to someone’s response and dropped off to sleep. I took the ice off her wrist, pulled the blanket up to cover her body, picked up the phone, turned it off, and plugged it into the charger. I then went to the kitchen to prepare some impromptu form of lunch from the leftovers in the fridge.

It turns out that the cement pole Teresa hit and knocked over, severing the electric lines, was right in front of a house that was owned by the widow and inheritor of the now-deceased ex-General who ran the newspapers in Orotina, the man who tortured Teresa in the dissenters section of prison and made Teresa sign over her shares of the newspapers that she had inherited from her husband who mysteriously died in a helicopter crash just as the last military junta took power.

Glossary
Punta Delfín: A fictional point of land that protrudes into the sea, literally translated to Dolphin Point.

Inmobiliaria: Real estate office.

yerba: Variation of the word hierba, or herb. The loose-leaf tea also called yerba-mate made from the leaves of the yerba tree.

 

When Stephen Page is not writing, reading, spending time with his spouse, communing with nature, or walking his dog, he is making noise with his electric bass. He loves accidentally on purpose losing his cell phone and dog-earing pages in books. He is part Apache, part Shawnee, part Mexican, part English, part Scottish, and part Irish. He graduated from Columbia U (magna cum laude & writing honors) and Bennington College, has 4 books of poems published–along with dozens of short stories, singular poems, essays, and literary criticisms. He is the recipient of The Jess Cloud Memorial Prize, a Writer-in-Residence from the Montana Artists Refuge, a Full Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center, an Imagination Grant from Cleveland State University, a First Place Prize in Poetry from Bravura Magazine, and an Arvon Foundation Ltd. Grant.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Teresa Smashed Up the Car Yesterday”?

The origin is purely fictional. I received the idea shortly after the pandemic began and I was sitting at my writing desk early one morning. My wife had just left to run some errands, and I, being worried about her safety and health, thought, “What if this happened? Oh, gosh, I hope not. What if she were someone else, like . . .” I wrote it and rewrote it at least 5 times, moving events around, adding and deleting details for dramatic impact. Then I printed it out edited it with a red pen, typed in the corrections, and repeated that process around 10 times. The fun of writing is that it can be a bit like sculpting from a block of marble, the final beautiful statue revealed not after knocking off the big chunks, but after much fine chipping and sanding.

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 closed. The reading period for standard submissions opens again September 15, 2022. Submit here.

Upcoming

08/01 • Christina Cook
08/08 • Kim Chinquee
08/15 • Michael Czyzniejewski
08/22 • Len Kuntz
08/29 • Thaddeus Rutkowski
09/05 • Candice May
09/12 • Bonnie Jo Campbell
09/19 • TBD