Feral

By Jeremiah Blane Kniola

From behind a thicket of perennial grass, seventeen-year-old Rosalyn Fowler eyes a rabbit as he hops towards her snare. A notched stake holds a sapling bent in place; the bark splintered at the curve from the tension of the angle. Stems are piled carefully into a teepee on the opposite side of the looped twine; food to draw the rabbit’s attention. 

Beneath her breath, Rosalyn encourages him forward, praying the snare doesn’t accidentally set off and scare him away. The rabbits big, maybe four pounds, with spotted brown-white fur and long ears sticking up from its head. More meat than Rosalyn has eaten since she arrived at the dunes a month ago. As he hops closer, the rabbit unknowingly slips his head through the noose, but pauses momentarily, as if instinct has warned him of danger. “Come on, don’t stand there,” Rosalyn mumbles beneath her breath. 

 As she leans forward a branch pops beneath her boot. The rabbit jumps, tugs the knotted twine, and untethers the young tree. The slender trunk catapults back to its natural vertical position, jerks the twine skyward, and jolts the rabbit off his feet, the snap of his neck echoing in the silence. For a moment, his fluffy body swings back and forth, legs kicking the air in a last-ditch effort to hop to safety, before finally running out of nerve. 

Rosalyn unties the noose, carries the rabbit by his ears to a clearing in the dunes, and checks the fur for ticks. Once she’s satisfied there are none, she carves two u-shaped cuts around the ankles with her knife—a slightly dull blade with a curved wood handle she stole from her dad—digs her finger beneath the flaps, and tugs off the hide like a parent removing a child’s coat. Fluffs of fur stick to the bloody meat, but Rosalyn’s too impatient to care. Hunger rips through her like a gut shot. Four days have passed since she’s eaten anything but mast. She builds a fire from sedge grass, hacks the meat from the bone, and quarters it into tiny bite-size pieces to roast on a stick. The sulfurous stink of burnt fur does nothing to discourage Rosalyn’s appetite. She keeps her eyes and ears peeled for movement; the smoke liable to attract the rangers’ attention.  

Once she’s eaten her fill, Rosalyn relaxes against a log, and watches the sky change from blue to a peach color as the sun lowers behind the cool waters of Lake Michigan. Her dad would’ve been proud of her today. She wishes he could’ve seen her snag that rabbit. He would’ve given her a high-five and said, “That’s my girl.” On the other hand, her mom would’ve scorned her for dirtying her fingernails and clothes. “You don’t want people thinking you’re a hillbilly,” she’d say. Rosalyn didn’t think that was in all together bad thing to be, but her mom was always concerned what others thought about the family, even if what they said was true.  

Every summer, Rosalyn’s folks took the family camping at the dunes. They said it was beneficial for her and her siblings to connect with nature, get them out of the house and away from the TV, but the truth was a free vacation was all they could afford, her folks stuck in a financial rut from which they could never climb their way out. Mom spent those weekends sitting around the camp, reading her magazines and complaining about the heat and the bugs, while Dad—who grew up around these parts—trained his offspring how to live off the land. They ate by campfire, slept in tents, and learned survival tactics such as how to purify water, forage for edible plants, hunt and fish. Rosalyn always looked forward to those trips, counting down the winter months, impatient to return to, what she considered was, her place of origin. 

When she was seven, Rosalyn jumped at the opportunity to gut a steelhead her dad had caught while fishing off of the East Arm of Little Calumet. He teased her that he didn’t want her hurling breakfast at the sight of blood and tried handed over the duty to her older brothers. Back then, Rosalyn was scrawny and soft-spoken, the runt of the litter, but she picked up the knife and demanded he show her where to cut. Astonished by Rosalyn’s candor, her dad instructed her to insert the tip of the knife beneath the fish’s tail and cut along the belly toward the gills. Rosalyn sliced that steelhead open as easily as a loaf of bread and didn’t flinch a millimeter when blood squirted on her wrist. Her dad spread the abdominal cavity and offered her a spoon to clean out the guts, but Rosalyn stared directly in his eyes and dug her hands into its stomach and pulled out its entrails.  

Rosalyn often reflects on those summers while scavenging for driftwood in the evenings. The wood floats listlessly in the lake, pushed forward by the waves, until it finally washes ashore, where it collects in piles and becomes homes for seabirds. As she walks along the shore, Rosalyn selects a few small pieces then collapses onto the sand and carves little figurines out of the scraps with her knife. 

She enjoys the concentration of the work, the attention to detail, but it’s the silence of the dunes she enjoys the most. The silence has always soothed her. 

* * *

From morning until evening, Rosalyn trounces along the spider web of trails weaving through the hurst of Black Savannahs, across the Mesic sands of the Hoosier Prairie, around the boggy marshlands, and over the windswept dunes, scouting for food. Hunger is always foremost on her mind, gnawing at her from the moment she wakes until she falls asleep. She tries spearing fish in the lake and stealing eggs from nests and sets snares for animals whenever she comes across feeding areas. But hunting proves harder than her dad made it look when she was a girl. Of course, he had more weapons than a dull knife and his wits. What she wouldn’t give for a fishing pole or rifle? Most of the time she has to settle for a pocketful of mast she picks from shrubs or digs from the ground. To preserve her rations, she dehydrates the fruits and plants on rocks where there is plenty of sunlight. Sometimes she loses her rations to pesky predators. 

Late on a cool night in September, Rosalyn awakes to a critter scavenging outside her tent. She opens the flap to a possum stuffing his furry gray belly on some mushrooms she’d planned to soak in hot water for broth the following morning. She sneaks up behind him, but when he hears her footsteps, he hisses and cowers over the loot, eyes like tiny white flames in the darkness. Rosalyn shakes a stick and in a gruff voice orders him to “shoo!” When that doesn’t work, she pokes him in the hind with the pointy end. He drops to his side and lies motionless as if stabbed through the heart. Watching him play dead, Rosalyn feels sorry for the poor critter. She leaves him her rations and from her tent watches as he eats until she falls back to sleep. 

Whenever she encounters hikers, Rosalyn tries to blend in, but people tend to take notice. Hard to look normal when there’s two-week dirt in your tangled hair and you smell rank like something rotten. Normally nobody says anything directly to her, but Rosalyn hears their whispered judgments, feels their stares, sees their disgust. She fears one of these days someone is going to report her, which is why she always on the move. Staying in one place too long is dangerous and she avoids the camp sites at all costs. Though the scent of cooking meat from the campfires draws her close, and she’s tempted to rummage through the coolers and trash bins, she knows if the Rangers catch her they’ll take her in for trespassing. 

One afternoon, a young family stumbles upon her pissing behind a bush. The mom hides the kids’ eyes while her and the dad divert their attention elsewhere. Once Rosalyn has hiked up her pants the dad lectures her on decency. “They have laws against that,” he says. He asks about her folks and looks around as if he expects to find them in the vicinity. Ignoring the parents, Rosalyn pulls a totem in the shape of a fish from her knapsack and offers it to the kids. The mom pulls them away as if Rosalyn’s diseased. The dad warns her that there’ll be trouble if she touches his children. Raising her arms, Rosalyn tells the family she meant no harm then runs off into the woods before they can shout for help. Once she’s far enough away, Rosalyn slouches against a Black Oak and peels away a hunk of bark, feeling the difference between the tree’s rough exterior and its soft inside, watching for any sign the family followed.

Often when she’s lying in her tent, Rosalyn thinks about her family. She wonders if her folks regret throwing her out. Do her siblings ask when she’s coming home, or do they just fight over who gets her stuff? Have her parents been searching for her these last few months? Did they report her missing? She imagines them speaking with the police, faces marked by tears as they plead for her safe return. They probably called every number listed in her phone and checked her texts and messages. Drove around every street in town and knocked on the neighbors’ doors and searched for her at Fox Lake and Winding Creek Park. They may have even searched for her at the dunes. But Rosalyn is careful to cover her tracks. Far as she’s concerned, they never need to find her, but that doesn’t stop her from missing them. After all she put them through can she blame them if they forgot about her altogether?  

* * *

All through high school, Rosalyn was in trouble. She could recite the policy book from memory and describe the principal’s office down to the number of pens in his mesh cup, the monthly tasks listed on the calendar, and the degrees and awards displayed on his walls. Rosalyn had a habit of mouthing off to teachers. She didn’t understand how they expected her to sit inside a class all day in those tight desks, listening to them babble endlessly about things that didn’t matter. She could read and write and pitch a tent and kill a rabbit. What else did she need to know? She wasn’t above challenging boys to fights or telling girls her opinion of them. Her temper as unpredictable as a spooked deer. She got the reputation as someone to steer clear from, which was fine by her; she was never much good at talking with people anyway. 

Her mom demanded Rosalyn cool her attitude or she was going to force her to go to La Lumiere, the local Catholic boarding school, and let the nuns straighten her out, but Rosalyn understood this as an empty threat, her parents couldn’t afford the tuition, and so she continued doing whatever she pleased. Rosalyn’s reckless disobedience spawned many heated arguments. If there was one thing her mom despised—and there were many—it was disrespect. She told Rosalyn constantly she didn’t have to love her, but she’d be damned if any of her children didn’t respect her. Sadly, she didn’t realize that not a one of them did. 

Her dad, on the other hand, tried reasoning with her. After the fighting settled, he’d come to Rosalyn’s room and plead with her to first apologize to her mom then promise to do better in school. He was worried she was going to fail, or worse. All he expected of her was to obtain her diploma. It wasn’t too much to ask for. Was it? Rosalyn would lie and say it wasn’t but knew as soon as she returned to school it wouldn’t take long before she got into trouble again. 

Then her sophomore year, Rosalyn got expelled for breaking Brad Hullinger’s nose. She’d leapt on him in the vocational hall outside metals class, pinned his arms beneath her knees, and drove her fist into his nose turned crooked. By the time the shop teachers dragged her off, the front of Brad’s shirt was covered in blood and two purple half-moons had risen beneath his eyes. 

 Rosalyn had to wait in the principal’s office for her folks to fetch her, knuckles swelled to the size of chestnuts and a tiny compression in the shape of a tooth marking her ring finger. They had to pay Brad’s medical bills and drive to his parents’ house to apologize for their daughter’s behavior. The entire ride home, Rosalyn had to listen to her mom break into hysterics. She couldn’t believe her own daughter was capable of such violence. As if she’d raised a savage. Her dad didn’t have the same visceral reaction. Actually, he said nothing at all, but he didn’t have to, she could sense his disappointment by the way he refused to look at her. They grounded Rosalyn to her room for the remainder of the grading period. At sixteen she’d drop out of school and acquired her GED. Would it have changed their mind if she’d told them why she’d attacked that asshole Brad Hullinger? What would they have said if they learned he’d texted nude photos of her to his friends with the word “Slut” typed in capital letters? But then she’d have to admit she was fucking him in his car out at Winding Creek Park sometimes after school.    

Occasionally, Rosalyn walks to a rusty pay phone, the only one she knows of in the entire area, outside the log cabin style building of the Visitor’s Center. She only goes here early in the mornings when no one is around, stashing her rucksack inside a log about fifteen feet off of the trail. When she grabs the handset, the plastic crackles around the exposed earpiece where someone bashed it against the dented top of the kiosk. She pulls her only quarter from her backpack pouch, a quarter she’s carried ever since she found it on the beach, and runs her thumb along the ridged edges smoothed with sand. She drops it in the slot where it lands with a clank and is greeted with the steady buzz of a dial tone. She presses her folk’s digits, but pushes the squeaky release lever the moment the phone starts ringing, catching the quarter as it rolls out of the scratched metal slot of the coin drop. 

She wonders what would happen if she talked to her folks. How would she feel if she heard her their voices? Would it be so bad? 

“Do you need some assistance, miss?” a woman says from behind her.

Rosalyn snaps out of her thoughts and turns her head to find a ranger leaning against a wood pillar. She’s dressed in the standard uniform: green khakis, gray buttoned shirt, and a wide-brimmed felt hat that shades her round, moon face. Her bangs fall over the left side in a swooping wave. A toothpick twirls between her teeth. The Ranger doesn’t look in the best shape. Rosalyn guesses she could outrun her in a foot race, but the firearm holstered to her tactical belt gives her pause. She decides to play it cool. 

“I was just calling my boyfriend. My folks don’t allow me to bring my cellphone on camping trips.”

“Your family staying at the Mather or Douglas site?” the ranger points with her toothpick in opposite directions. 

“The one by the RV dump.”

The ranger pulls her toothpick from her mouth and shakes it to make a point. “Tell your folks to rent a spot at the Douglas next time. It’s quieter and closer to the hiking trails.” 

Rosalyn smiles. “I’ll let them know. Well, I should be getting back. My folks worry if I’m gone too long.”

“You and your folks need anything be sure to ask for me, Carla Coons.” 

“I’ll be sure to mention that,” Rosalyn replies. 

The ranger sticks the toothpick back between her teeth and tips her hat. “Take it easy now.” 

Ambling down the path toward the State Park Road, Rosalyn waits until she’s out of sight of the Visitor’s Center, grabs her rucksack from the log, then dashes off the trail into the woods.

 * * * 

The sun has barely peeked above the horizon when Rosalyn strips out of her clothing and steps nude into the cold waters of an interdunal pond. She shivers in the early autumn breeze, wraps her arms tightly around her chest, and rubs the goosebumps prickling her tan skin, the light fuzz on her arms and legs standing to attention. A thin film of mud spreads around her as the water laps the sand from her body.  She hardly recognizes the rippled reflection staring back at her. 

The primitive diet has trimmed the fat from her body, her ribs sticking out above her concave stomach. Hours spent in the sun has tanned her rawboned features the color and texture of beef jerky and hair grows in places where she’d shaved before. Not that Rosalyn has ever been pretty. As an adolescent she sprouted to a respectable 5’9 but remained flat and straight in the wrong places. She inherited her dad’s lean cheekbones, angular jaw, thick eyebrows and her mom’s beak-like nose. Her voice deepened, but it wasn’t the sexy deep of movie stars, more like a toad’s throaty rasp. Unable to look at her reflection any longer, Rosalyn dunks her head beneath the surface and runs her fingers through her butchered scalp. 

Floating in circles on her back, she watches the rays of light glistening through the branches and listens to the waves murmuring their aquatic songs. Rosalyn reaches down and rests her palm against the soft patch between her legs.Thinks about when she used to sneak out at night to have sex with immature boys in their cars at the park down the street, their eagerness to be pleased, their ravenous appetites and swollen erections rubbing against the inside of their pants. She thinks about the blankets spread across their backseats camouflaging the stains and crumbs and dog hair. The bedding area, she thought of it. Rosalyn would order the boys to lie on their backs and close their eyes before removing their pants. She didn’t like it when they watched and would stop if she caught them peeking. She’d take them in her hands. Take them in her mouth. Take them grunting and bucking and sweating. She was aroused by how easy they were to tame, though she didn’t derive any pleasure from the exchange. It wasn’t the attention she craved. Nor the intimacy. It was the silence afterwards. The moment when they were lying next to her and the only sound was the boys’ heavy breathing.  

Rosalyn dries in the grass before putting on her clothes. When she emerges from the tree line, clothes stuck to her damp skin, she comes upon two rangers rifling through her tent. She’s careful not to step on any twigs or make a sound. She ducks behind a royal fern and brushes a space between the fronds. The woman she’d spoken to at the payphone, Carla Coons, kneels inside the zipper flap and tosses her things—clothes, canteen, cooking pot, first aid kit, sleeping bag—outside while chewing her toothpick to splinters. The other ranger, a burly cave dweller of a man, pokes her stuff with a stick to inspect for contraband. Carla Coons asks if he found anything. 

 He shakes his head. “Looks like some weekenders wanted to have a bonfire and brewskies without paying the campground fees?” 

Carla Coons slides the skinning knife out of Rosalyn’s shoes. “Squatter. From the blood on the blade I’d say she caught herself a little breakfast recently.” 

 “How do you know it’s a her?” 

 She shows him a package of tampons. “Intuition.” 

 “You sure she’s still around?”

Carla Coons takes a couple steps toward where Rosalyn is hiding, and for a moment, Rosalyn freezes, afraid the ranger has spotted her. She curses her misfortune. She shouldn’t have been so careless. 

 “Unless she’s decided to abandon everything.”

  The other ranger hocks a loogie. “What do we do?” 

 Carla Coons swirls her toothpick in her mouth. “Bring the jeep around. We’ll load up this stuff and lock it in the station. You never know, she might get desperate enough to come around for it.”

 As Rosalyn watches them cart her stuff away, she thinks about everything she’s lost. Her family. Her home. Her dignity. Some might even say her sanity. She reaches into her pocket, feels the smooth ridges of the quarter, and is thankful she hasn’t lost everything. 

* * * 

Temperatures drops a dramatic forty degrees over the next few weeks, as they only can in a Midwest fall. Frost greets Rosalyn where she sleeps in the morning, covering her in a thin icy layer. Some nights she’s lucky to get any rest with the cold, shivering and gritting her teeth against the biting winds that blow hard off of Lake Michigan, her clothes too worn to protect her from the weather. Building a fire has become an arduous task. It rains frequently and without matches Rosalyn struggles to spark a flame. She has yet to master the trick of rubbing two sticks together.  

 Since the rangers stumbled onto her tent, Rosalyn has taken every precaution to limit her exposure. This is increasingly difficult due to the leaves beginning to shed. She hunts at night when she thinks no one is around, but the lack of visibility mixed with the shortage of food has left her desperate. Birds have begun to migrate and there’s less evidence of other animals. There are still fish, but they’re harder to catch, her hands and feet numb in the frigid waters. And since the rangers stole her knife, Rosalyn has no tool in which to skin or cut her meat. She has to use a stick or sharp rock. This leaves her foraging for mast—walnuts, persimmons, chickweed—that grows in the cold seasons. But without proper sustenance, Rosalyn feels fatigued and irritable. Desperation pushes her to scavenge the trash bins in the campsites when no one is around. 

  On a late afternoon, Rosalyn is scarfing down a half-eaten Nestle bar when dark clouds sweep in out of the west. Powerful winds rattle the trees and knock branches in her path as she searches for shelter. Rain pummels her head, soaks her to the bone, and washes the ground beneath her feet. She slips several times, the ground splashing her in mud. By the time she reaches the bathhouse by the public beach she’s drenched from head to toe and bleeding from scratches on her face and arms. She hangs her clothes to dry on the urinal walls, kicks the stall doors and curses her bad luck. She slumps onto the linoleum floor and waits there the rest of the afternoon for the storm to settle. 

A month before she ran away, Rosalyn’s dad procured her a job as a warehouse stocker at Lowes. For eight hours a day, she drove a forklift, unloaded inbound freight, organized product on shelves, and reviewed shipping paperwork. The job wasn’t terribly exciting, but it kept her busy. For the most part, she got along with her supervisors and co-workers. She kept to herself and didn’t complain and performed her duties satisfactorily. She scraped enough money together to buy her a beater with tons of miles and a loud muffler. She cut her hair to a respectable chin length, bathed daily, and even occasionally wore makeup, though she never felt comfortable with it on, as if she were camouflaging her true nature. 

Her parents checked in on her though they’d pretend to be shopping, curious to know how she was getting along. They were proud that she’d turned things around. Also relieved to have the extra income she paid in rent. Rosalyn pretended she was happy but couldn’t deny that deep down inside she craved something more. Something she couldn’t explain. Maybe she lacked imagination, but she couldn’t picture a career at Lowes as her life. The moment she decided to leave she knew she wasn’t going to miss it.

 Long after the moon has risen and the chill has set in, Rosalyn manages to blindly stumble her way to the Visitor’s Center. She knows it’s stupid coming here late night. Carla Coons could be waiting for her. There’s a single blueish bulb glowing in the building, but otherwise the place is dark and appears empty. Just to be certain, Rosalyn circles the perimeter, keeping low behind some underbrush, and when she sees no one, tests the front doors and finds they’re locked. She tiptoes over to the payphone. Her hand trembles as she lifts the receiver. The dial tone crackles in her ear. Hesitating, she fingers the quarter while arguing with herself whether to go forward with the call. Finally, Rosalyn drops the coin in the slot, leans her head against the kiosk and rest her eyes. With each ring, she considers hanging up. She hasn’t thought about what to say if her parents answered. 

 Her mom picks up, sounding groggy. Rosalyn listens to her say “hello” several times. Her mom’s pitch rises in annoyance when Rosalyn doesn’t respond. A tone Rosalyn loathes for its superiority. She hears her dad in the background asking who it is. Rosalyn recognizes the concern in his voice and she almost calls out to him. “I can hear you breathing, creeper,” her mom’s contempt reaches across the line. Rosalyn slams the phone down on the cradle. 

 The last time they’d spoke they’d fought over Rosalyn walking out on her job. Neither of her parents understood how she could make such a brash decision, considering the financial burdens they faced, and she had no way of explaining it to them. Her dad begged her to ask for her job back. Her mom told her if she didn’t want to work to pack a bag and move out. She wasn’t going to take care of a bum. Rosalyn expected her dad to come to the rescue, talk some sense into her mom, but he just walked out to the front porch to smoke a cigarette. Along with her siblings, her folks watched as Rosalyn packed her stuff into her car. None of her family said goodbye. None of them waved. None of them could even look at her. 

 As she drove away, headlights illuminating the country road, Rosalyn had no idea where she was going. All she knew was she finally felt free. 

* * *

For days, Rosalyn lumbers around the trails of the dunes, cold, hungry, and weary, searching for a warm place to sleep and something to snuff her hunger. Beneath the overcast sky, the leaves have changed color and fallen to the clay colored ground, stripping the park of its former beauty. Rosalyn can’t ignore her own filthy stench. Her tattered clothes and knotted hair reek of wilted plants. She can only guess what she looks like. Every mile or so, she needs to stop and rest, tell herself the fatigue doesn’t mean anything. She begs her stomach to shut up. With its pangs and rumblings, it sounds like her mother. 

One evening, Rosalyn stumbles upon the Douglas campground. The campers have long gone. Only remnants of their presence remain: a pile of salt-and-pepper ash burned cold in a firepit. Rosalyn pulls a half-scorched piece of paper, a receipt from Wal-Mart. The campers had bought hot dogs and burgers and potato salad. The rest she couldn’t read, but she could imagine them with their little outdoor picnic, carrying their supplies for a few days of relaxation in the wilderness. While scrounging for wood, Rosalyn comes upon a sleeping bag draped over the twigged skeleton of an eastern redbud. It’s pretty clean for being out here for several weeks. No filthier than her anyway. It looks like the one she used to own, blue on the outside, checkered on the inside. She unzips it, knocks out the leaves and dead bugs then curls inside to watch the sunset over the treetops and listen to the silence until she falls asleep.  

Rosalyn awakes to Carla Coons nudging her with the tip of her boot. “Mighty brisk to be out here snoozing,” she says. Carla sits across from Rosalyn on the stones of the firepit, pulls a toothpick out of a package, and points with the tip to the sleeping bag.  “Thought you might want that back.” Rosalyn snuggles deeper inside it. “I have the rest of your stuff at the station. I had a feeling you might make it out this way at some point. I have to admit you took longer than expected. I looked all over you, but you’re a tough rascal to catch. What are you doing out here anyway?”

Rosalyn wishes she knew. 

“Oh, come now. You’ve got to give me something. What do you say we have a nice chat? Between girls.” 

“You got anything to eat?”

Carla digs through her coat pockets, produces a chocolate flavored protein bar, and hands it over. Rosalyn tears the wrapper with her teeth and takes two huge bites. The mushy brownie is the best thing she’s tasted in months. 

 “You running away from something?” Carla asks. 

 Rosalyn takes another bite of the bar, swallows.  

 “So you just decided one day to live out in the wilderness?”

 “I don’t understand why that’s so unbelievable.”

 Carla Coons bites down on her toothpick. “Because honey, it’s not every day a girl decides to be homeless.”

 “I’m not homeless. This is my home.” She motions at the woods. 

 “Mmm-hmm. Now I’m not passing judgement, but you know this is a state park. You have no legal right to live on these grounds.” 

 Rosalyn finishes the protein bar, tosses the wrapper in the firepit, and licks her fingers. “I’m not bothering anyone.” 

“Be that as it may, we have laws against soliciting on state owned land.”

 “Then why haven’t you kicked me out yet?”

 Carla sucks on her toothpick. “Teens are always camping in the dunes during the summer. No one says much if they don’t cause any hassle. But if you’re planning on staying any longer then we have a problem.” 

  “Are you saying I have to leave?”

 Carla Coons shrugs in her jacket. “Listen, I’m not going to pretend I know what you’re going through, but living out here in the dunes isn’t the solution. A person can get hurt. Trust me, I know.”

 “A person can get hurt no matter where they are.” 

“Can’t disagree with you there,” Carla chuckles. “Be that as it may, my guess is you’re underage, and it’s my duty to get you back safely to wherever you belong.” 

 Standing, Carla Coons dusts sand from her ass and tells Rosalyn to come along. She can wait at the ranger’s station and enjoy a nice cup of freshly brewed coffee while waiting for her parents to come get her. 

 Rosalyn considers running, but where would she go. And she can’t deny how much she’d love a hot meal and a warm bed. She begins to cry. She doesn’t understand why, but something has broken the dam inside her and released a flood of emotion. Before she knows it, her body is shaking, racked by a hurt so deep she can’t say where it originated from. 

 Carla comes down on a knee and rubs her back. Promises is everything is going to be okay. Rosalyn lies her head in Carla’s lap and they stay that way for a while. The two of them listening to the bird calls as the sun rises in the sky.  

 As Rosalyn follows Carla toward the ranger’s station she listens for the silence. She remembers the evening when she first saw the dunes rising above the tree line. She stopped the car on the shoulder of a gravel road off Highway 12, killed the ignition, retrieved the title from the glove compartment, and climbed out into the steamy heat to burn it along with other things from her past: license, social security card, a discount voucher to Applebees. She remembers climbing the dune, forcing herself to keep moving despite the sand sliding beneath her, threatening to throw her backwards. Twice she lost her footing and tumbled a good ways down, the sand ingraining in her clothes and hair and mouth. She’d had to collect some of the things had fallen out of her backpack before continuing upward. By the time she crested the dune she was completely out of breath. 

 She remembers shrugging off her gear and collapsing onto the sand. In front of her, miles of beach spread along the blue waters of Lake Michigan. She lied back, closed her eyes, and listened to the silence. The silence she may never hear again. 

About the Author: Jeremiah Blane Kniola lives in Chicago with his wife and pets, but is originally from a small town in Indiana, similar to the setting where his fiction takes place. In 2020, he graduated from UIC with a Bachelor’s in English at the age of 43. Throughout his life he’s worked as a Law Office Clerk, English Teacher, Railroad Steward, Construction Worker, and Restaurant Manager. His fiction has appeared in Hobart, Literary Orphans, Dogzplot, Lover’s Eye Press, among others. He enjoys baseball, jazz, and gin martinis. 

Looking the Part

By Kevin Finnerty

            Nick never paid much attention to the clothes people wore until he met Dana. He cared a little about his own attire, but just a little.   

            Dana managed a boutique clothing shop in the North Loop in Minneapolis. A hip store in a hipster neighborhood. The sort of place where patrons only checked the price after they’d already made the decision to purchase the item. 

            Nick lived in the neighborhood that had been called the Warehouse District for a long time after the warehouses along the Mississippi River had disappeared, only to be quickly re-branded once urban living came back in vogue and the neighborhood offered upscale opportunities to those who worked downtown, less than a mile away.

            Nick and Dana spoke for the first time after he walked into the boutique without any intention of buying, or even pretending to buy, clothes. He’d lived in the city for two years without entering a serious romantic relationship, as he’d discovered Minnesota Nice did not mean warm or inviting. He’d met Dana’s eyes on at least a dozen occasions when passing Fine Threads on his way home from work before he decided to find out if she viewed him as anything more than a potential customer.  

            “How can I help you?” 

            Dana’s question took him aback. He’d planned his approach in advance, but it had not included her initiating the conversation.

            “Do you always wear a suit?”

            Nick thought he could handle the second question at least. “Four days a week.  Five if I have to go to court or meet with a client on Fridays.”

            “What do you otherwise wear on Fridays?”

            “Business casual. Emphasis on the business part.”

            “Most people aren’t so constrained.”

            “What about the military?” 

            “The military, sure.” Dana showed her full teeth as she smiled this time, revealing to Nick the difference between the pleasing smile she’d previously offered and the natural one she now displayed. “What about weekends? Holidays? Vacations?”

            Nick looked down at his clothes — suit, tie, dress shoes — as if they would provide him the answer. “Whatever I want, I guess.”

            Nick left Fine Threads ten minutes later without making a purchase, but he had Dana’s phone number and a thought he’d never previously considered: Most people aren’t so constrained.

            As he walked about his city in the days that followed, Nick paid more attention to the attire of those around him and discovered that even in its corporate center most people took advantage of their freedom.  People wore jeans, both of the designer and second-hand variety, and everything in-between; shirts, collared and pressed, as well as those torn that exposed the wearer’s flesh; sneakers, loafers, boots, sandals, sometimes no shoes at all.  He saw Ts that gave him information about the individual’s favorite band, school, or sports team.  He even saw one guy in his early twenties, hair a little long, but otherwise clean-cut, clean shaven, whose shirt said I’m that guy.

            Nick imagined the slogan would have been profound had the wearer been a philosophy major making an existential statement. The sort of person whose voice mail would have said: “I was going to say ‘I’m not here’ but that may have started a debate that would have been impossible to end. So please just leave a message and I’ll try to get back to you.”

            Nick thought the dude on the street looked too happy to have been a philosophy major, but he was sure the guy wanted to convey some message.    

            “Most people do,” Dana told him on their first date. “You buy top brands at full price, you’re telling the world you want the best, can afford it, and want others to know it. You purchase knock-offs, you want to pretend you’re a member of the first group and hope people can’t tell the difference.”  

            The couple sat at an outdoor patio at a restaurant just across the river in the neighborhood named Northeast but pronounced “Nordeast” by its residents.  

            “What do mine say?”

            “You buy functional clothes and shop middle-of-the-road department stores for items you can afford that you hope won’t offend anyone.” She used air quotes around “shop.” “Nothing wrong with that. I’m with you, right? I wouldn’t have given you my number if you’d worn sweats or sandals when you came into the shop, no matter how good looking you might have been.  That would have told me you valued your own comfort above everything else. Like women who wear yoga pants 90% of the time.”

            Nick wasn’t sure what to make of Dana’s attire and was afraid to ask. He’d noticed at work she wore lots of black or white or black and white. Sharp, professional clothes that would have been beyond her price point but for her employee discount and her employer’s expectations.

            On their first date, Dana wore a striped blouse, solid short skirt, and a red fedora. Nick soon understood she liked to mix-and-match and frequently combined one item that was fairly expensive, another that was dirt cheap, and a third somewhere in-between, but it would be some time before he’d be able to consistently tell which was which.

            Nick better grasped the message she wanted to send on their second date. She wore a Zach Parisee jersey when she greeted him in the doorway to her apartment. They’d made plans to attend a Wild game after he learned, like most in the State of Hockey, Dana was an avid fan on the sport.   

            “No jersey for you?” 

            “I didn’t want to risk it.” Nick had elected to take her to the game when the Wild were facing off against his hometown team, the Flyers.

            She patted him on the shoulder. “That doesn’t happen here. I was at a game last year where we all got serenaded by a bunch of Canadiens fans when Montreal ran us out of the building. Five solid minutes of Ole, ole, ole. Most Minnesotans politely left the arena.”

            “That wouldn’t happen in Philly. Not without a fight.”

            Nick sat quietly through the first period even though the Flyers were the only team to score. After the second goal, Dana leaned into him. “Go ahead and cheer. You know you want to.”

            Nick told himself he would the next time Philly lit the lamp, but as soon as he did so, a Flyer defenseman caught an edge giving a Wild forward an unimpeded path to the goalie. One deke and it was 2-1.

            Dana jumped to her feet. Seconds later she looked down at Nick as if she knew what had happened. Had it been her plan all along?

            Nick wondered if not getting to his feet when the home team scored was just as telling as applauding when good things happened to the visitors. The Flyers scored next, but the Wild scored last during the shootout. Dana left the arena twice as happy as Nick because her team garnered two points and his only one.

            “You look good in those jeans,” Dana said as they reached his car after the game.

            Nick smiled at the compliment but wondered what it was about the jeans she liked during the ride to her apartment. All his pairs were different. Also, did the sole compliment about his jeans imply she didn’t like the shirt or shoes he wore?

            Nick paused when he parked the car outside her apartment, waiting to see if she would abruptly exit or invite him inside. She did neither.

            He turned and stared. She smiled. He leaned across believing it was time for their first kiss.

            Dana moved a third of the way towards him but slipped the kiss and embraced him instead. Nick felt both of her hands on his back, rubbing against his new flannel shirt.

            “You smell good.” She had her chin resting against his shoulder.

            “So do you.”

            Nick couldn’t smell anything. He believed his spinning thoughts must have impaired his senses.

            “I hope we’ll do this again.”

            “We’ll have to go to Philly. They play there later this year.”

            She pulled away. “Slow down, Bud.”

            He prepared to apologize, or tell her that wasn’t what he’d meant, but before he could say the words, she said goodnight and left. He turned around and looked through the rear windshield hoping she’d glance back. She didn’t.

            On their third date, Nick entered Fine Threads while Dana was in the process of closing the shop just after seven on a Friday night. He’d come directly from work wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and maroon tie after spending the day in a deposition until it ended shortly before five.

            Mentally drained from paying attention to every word being said for almost seven hours, Nick considered coming home to change and relax or, alternatively, going out with some colleagues for a drink or two during happy hour. Instead, he stayed at work until 6:45.

            “You should have gone.  Or were you scared of showing Drunk Nick to me too early in the relationship?”

            Nick happily pocketed the last word she said. “I didn’t think about that. I just didn’t want to break with tradition. If staying later on a Friday keeps me out of the office on the weekend, it’s worth it. If I have to come in no matter how late I stay, I might as well take off early on Friday.”

            “So your weekend’s free?”

            “Didn’t say that. Just don’t have to go in the next couple of days.”

            Nick and Dana left the boutique and walked west along Washington towards a popular pasta restaurant that had recently opened in the neighborhood. The place had an industrial feel with its dark brick and wood and exposed ventilation tubes running overhead. Tables were situated close to one another, so guests often had to lean across theirs to be heard. When their server arrived, he bent at the knees and squatted to communicate better with them.

            They ordered one item to be shared from each of the categories on the menu, which included antipasto, bruschetta, dry pasta, fresh pasta, and a meat from the “Secondi” listing. The dishes began to arrive in no particular order from a seemingly endless supply of waitstaff dressed in white shirts and aprons, all of whom (women included) sported a tie. The constant motion ensured guests never waited long.

            Like Dana and Nick, most patrons were in their twenties or thirties. Urban dwellers whose form of relaxation consisted of additional activity, not rest.

            Nick considered the night a huge success until he lost control of the last piece of veal pappardelle and it skated from the plate onto his lap and left him with a stain on his pants.

            “Guess I’ll add visiting dry cleaners to my To Do list for tomorrow.”

            “Give ‘em to me as soon as we get back to your place.”  

            Nick and Dana stopped going on dates. They were dating. She took him clothes shopping, meaning they went to a store together, and she pulled items off the rack, handed them to Nick and told him to try them on.

            “You need more color. And tighter fitting clothes. At least for your free time.”

            Who was he to disagree with the expert in this area? Especially when more than once a person in the street, at a restaurant, or in a store had approached them and said they made a lovely couple.  

            “Tall and blonde, tall and dark,” one middle-aged woman said as she passed their table in the cafe in which Nickand Dana were breakfasting.

            “I wouldn’t think that behavior to be very Minnesotan. Too outspoken.”

            “It’s about you, not me. I’m just like everybody else here.”

            Nick knew Minnesotan women were taller and fairer of skin than the average woman on the east coast, but Dana was far from the norm. She stood eye-to-eye with him when she wore heels, and was far prettier and more lithe than most of those of Scandinavian extraction.

            He looked forward to the opportunity to present her to his world. To show them what she thought of him.

            He soon had his chance when Nick’s firm held its annual meeting in Minneapolis. Lawyers from around the world gathered to attend to company business, to place faces to names they only knew electronically, and to socialize.

            The closing dinner, officially coined The Gala but universally called The Prom by those of Nick’s stature, was a black-tie affair to which lawyers were allowed to invite a guest. Nick invited Dana so he would not have to go stag for the third consecutive year.  

            “Do you own a tuxedo?”

            “I’ll rent one.”

            “You should think about buying.”

            “If I become partner, I will.”

            “Owning one might help you make partner.”

            Nick did not heed Dana’s advice. He thought owning a tuxedo would constitute a commitment he was not ready to make.  

            He entered the converted railway station where The Gala was held wearing a rental once more. For the first time, he paid attention to what others wore.  

            He thought he looked okay. Maybe his tux wasn’t the nicest, but it fit him better than many of the men who were overweight or otherwise out of shape. Formal clothes did them no favors.

            “Except showing they care.” Dana whispered in Nick’s ear after most of the other members of their table — Nick’s coworkers and their guests — had risen to get a drink or head for the dance floor. Mainly the former.  

            “Maybe that’s the opposite of what I want to say.” He saw Dana frown. “At work at least, not with you.”

            “You’re with me here. And you should care, even if you weren’t.”

            “You’re right,” he said, uncertain if he believed himself, “next year I’ll get my own.”

            Nick stood and held out his hand to escort Dana to the dance floor. As she got to her feet, he felt for the first time — not just that evening but the first time in his life — perhaps she was out of his league. At least he believed those who watched him lead Dana, dressed in an off-the-shoulder, black silk dress, would think that. Or that she was banking on him making partner someday.

            Nick wondered that himself, at least until she conceded something to him, or to herself, after the first dance, when she removed her shoes and became slightly shorter than him once more.

            She dropped her shoes just beyond the dance floor’s boundary. “It’s easier this way.”

            They danced for a half hour in a rather unlawyerly way, which is not to say they danced provocatively or even eccentrically. Just that danced. Period. Which meant they made themselves and their appearances open to observation and comment.

            For once, Nick didn’t care.

            When they tired, Nick took her hand and escorted her to one of the bars that had been established in each of the corners of the room for the evening. He left Dana to get in line for free booze. A few minutes later, he found her in a conversation with a partner at his firm. Or the guest of a partner anyway.   

            “We went to high school together.”

            “You guys were really kicking it.” To the extent her sun-soaked skin hadn’t sufficiently aged the woman, her formal white gown did the trick. Nick thought there was no way she could have been a classmate of Dana’s, especially as she was accompanied by a man two decades older than him.

            “You guys having fun?” The partner wore a big smile as he grabbed his date’s shoulders. 

            “Yes, Sir.” Nick took a large sip from his glass.

            “I hope I’m not overdressed.” Dana’s former classmate tilted her head back after closely studying Dana’s appearance.

            “Nonsense.  No such thing. So what do you do, Dana?”

            “I manage a boutique in the North Loop.”

            “See,” the partner said as if Dean and Nick wouldn’t hear, “she’s all about clothes.  You’re with me.”

            Nick wasn’t sure whether he or Dana was the primary intended target of the partner’s jab. In either case, it bothered him.

            Nick pretended it didn’t when he smiled and told the partner he wanted to mingle. He pretended it didn’t when he got another drink and he and Dana found his friends near another makeshift bar. He pretended it didn’t when he and Dana took a taxi to his place an hour later. He pretended it didn’t when they went to bed that night.

            In the morning while they sat at the small round table in his condo drinking coffee, Nick could no longer pretend.  He introduced a non-sequitur into their otherwise banal conversation.

            “Are clothes really that important?”

            Dana offered him a smile he hadn’t previously seen. It wasn’t the smile of the store manager staring at a potential customer. Nor was it the smile of a woman attracted to a potential mate. It was the smile that a person smiles to herself when she expects someone to act in a certain way — a way she wishes the person wouldn’t act — and then sees the person conform to the expected behavior.

            “Happiness is. If I do my job right, I’m helping make other people happy.”

            “For how long?”

            “For a while. That’s something, right? Do you make people happy doing whatever you do?”

            “Not often. Sometimes with a big win perhaps, but most of the time my client is still upset getting a huge bill. And forget about the other side.” Nick stared into his almost empty mug. “Plaintiffs’ attorneys make their clients happy with large verdicts or settlements. Even corporate attorneys do when they make deals.”

            “Why don’t you become one of them?”

            “Not in my nature, I guess.”

            Dana asked Nick to take her home shortly thereafter. He wondered if she’d ever return. They hadn’t ever had a fight before, and he wasn’t even sure if they’d just had one, but there was something about her request. As if she were implying there wasn’t any point if he was going to completely devalue her. 

            On his way home, Nick wondered why he’d sabotaged the relationship. He didn’t agree with the partner and certainly didn’t like him. How was it that other people could influence his behavior in a negative way, even when he knew (or should have known) the person who was influencing him could care less about him while the person against whom he was going to act did?

            Nick knew he needed to apologize but didn’t know what to say, so he avoided saying anything. He thought about what he should do, what he could do, a lot the next day, but didn’t actually do anything.

            Dana knocked on his door Sunday evening. She held a rectangular box in both arms in front of her.

            “I was going to give this to you for Christmas.”

            He stared at the box but didn’t take it. He thought doing so might amount to conceding he was no longer eligible for the grand prize and was merely accepting his parting consolation gift.  

            “So why don’t you?”

            She shrugged.

            “I was hoping you would consider going with me to see my family around the holidays.”

            Nick hadn’t actually ever considered that. Not yet. It seemed too soon. But at that moment he thought he might as well launch a Hail Mary.

            Dana’s somber mood disappeared. Her voice assumed a lighter tone. “Do you think we’re ready?”

            “I wouldn’t have asked you if I didn’t.”

            “I don’t know.”

            Dana looked behind her as if she wanted to leave. Or perhaps to see if she were being observed. Nick occupied one of only three units on the third floor of his building, so there never was any traffic.

            “I’m sorry, I’m an idiot sometimes.”

            Dana thrust her hands into the pockets of her peacoat. “Everybody is.”

            Nick’s parents lived, by choice, in a tiny town in Oregon, far from all major airports, so he and Dana had to rent a car at PDX and then spend more time driving than flying. After six hours on the road, they puled into a grass driveway off a dirt road.  

            From the outside, the placed looked more like a cabin than a house. Wooden construction home hidden by trees.  

            Dana grabbed Nick’s hand when he got out of the car. “So is this going to be like going back in time?”

            “Not at all. Going to Philly is going back in time. This place, these people, it’s like being transported to an alternate universe.”

            Nick’s sister greeted them at the door. She wore old, stained jeans and a frayed sweater, the sort of clothes Nick’s family called “comfortable,” but which he knew Dana thought were not even good enough to be donated to goodwill.

            “Keily, your uncle Nick is here.”

            Ellyn’s daughter raised her hand with a smartphone in it but didn’t move until ordered to do so by her mother.

            “Just eleven and already at the stage where she just does her own thing.”

            The tween wore a flare dress with horizontal blue and white stripes, but she was not the same girl Nick had last seen a year ago. The formerly ever-engaging child now studied her smart phone as if it, and it alone, contained all the answers to the universe.

            “So how you like Tacoma?”

            “Boring.”

            “Did you recently move there?” Dana directed her question to Keily, but Ellyn answered.

            “Six months. The same time the divorce became final. We used to live in Redmond.”

            “Wish we still did.” Keily spoke to her device.

            “No, you don’t, Little One.”

            Keily retrieved her earphones from her pocket and returned to the couch.    

            “Everybody always used to tell me I married well. Corporate executive. Fine home, car, family. I now see Mom and Dad got it right when they left that world and Philly behind and moved to the middle of nowhere.”

            “What made them leave Philly?”

            “They found a tumor near my brain.” Nick’s mother did not hide her scar. The way she wore her hair intentionally pulled away from that side of her head emphasized it. “Hi, I’m Gloria, this is Joe.”

            Dana shook their hands and Nick briefly hugged his parents before pushing past them. “Let’s go inside.”

            The quintet joined Keily in the living room. Ellyn tapped her daughter’s legs so she would remove her earphones.  

            “I’ve heard this story a million times.” The youth answered with more volume than necessary but complied with her mother’s request.

            “How you know what we’re going to talk about?”

            “Because she knows Mom and Dad always share it first,” Nick said.

            Joe grabbed his wife’s hands. “It answers the question that’s on newcomers’ minds right away so we can all get past that. Am I right?”

            Dana nodded. “You moved out here because of your wife’s medical condition?”

            “Not exactly. We stayed in Philly for my surgeries, chemo, and radiation. It’s just the corporations for whom we’d worked for decades could have cared less.”

            “They did at the start,” Ellyn said.

            “Some of the people did,” Gloria corrected.

            Joe shook his head in disgust. “But with all the time off from work and the enormous medical expenses, they soon hated us.”

            “And I couldn’t do my job as I once could. Lost some processing ability.”

            “You … you seem fine.”

            “Thanks. I’m fine.  Used to be better than fine but that’s okay.”

            “Mom was brilliant,” Nick said.  He felt himself redden for having used the past tense.

            “So what happened, if I can ask?”

            “I got out of my suit and put on a nighty. We had some help for a while, then insurance stopped paying for that. We churned through our savings. Joe eventually left one set of work clothes for another because he had so much cleanup duty.”

            “We did what we had to do.” Joe took his wife’s hand. “We were told 5% chance she’d last more than a year. It’s been seven.”

            “So we told our kids maybe we’d given them bad advice. We’d placed such a high priority on achievement, but at the end of the day, that didn’t matter much.”

            Nick placed his leg atop his opposite knee. “Of course, if you didn’t have jobs that provided quality health care and allowed you to accumulate savings over the years, who knows what would have happened?”

            Joe reached out and smacked his son’s foot. “We probably would have moved in with you.”

            “You’ve got a point, Sweetie. We’re not saying stop doing what you do and live in the woods like us. We’re just saying keep your eyes open about the path you’re on at all times.”

            “The one you put us on?”

            “Touche.” Joe looked at his wife. “That’s the problem with raising smart kids. They can fire back every time.”

            “So how’d you end up out here?”  

            “We got in our car and drove west,” Joe said. “Once we hit Utah, we looked at each other and I asked, ‘north, south or straight ahead?’  Gloria said ‘how about northwest?’”

            “When we got here, we needed gas. While we were stretching our legs and filling up, we looked at each other and said ‘why not?’”

            “Just like that?”

            “Yep, best decision we ever made.” Gloria and Joe hugged, and their matching gray sweatshirts blended so much they almost appeared to be one person. “We never went back.”

            Later, it would seem as if it was all inevitable. It wasn’t quite like that when life proceeded forward.

            Nick pondered his possible professional and personal courses. He wondered what hats he should wear or whether he should wear one at all.

            Dana seemed more certain, save for the time she appeared in his doorway that Sunday evening, presumably to end it.

            One couldn’t have happened without the other, but just because Dana agreed to slip into a wedding dress didn’t require them to work together. Sure, she’d proposed the union not long after he did, but she hadn’t conditioned her acceptance. Even a non-transactional attorney like Nick noticed that.

            No, it was a second proposal during that period in which they’d told the world they would marry but before the actual ceremony. She raised the idea to him at brunch shortly after they’d finished making waffles or French toast, both of them wearing robes and slippers on a Sunday morning.

            “What would you say if I said I think we should buy a store?”

            “I’d ask what kind of store.”

            “You’d really have to ask?”

            “I suppose not.”          

            “But I’d have to know what you’d say.”

            “You don’t know?”

            “No.”

            “Neither do I.”

            He said yes on their honeymoon. While they held each other and kicked their legs in eight feet of water in the Atlantic. She wore a one-piece because he’d taught her while a bikini was fine for lounging at the pool, or even one of ‘Sota’s 10,000 lakes, it didn’t fare so well if one intended to spend the day body surfing.

            After they returned home, they kept their plans secret, or at least unknown to their employers, until they found the right location and arranged for financing. Then they gave notice and stepped off the curb into oncoming traffic.

            They ran Eclectic separately but together. Dana bought and sold. Nick hired and fired. She kept abreast of fashion trends, and he monitored governmental regulations.    

            She wore the sort of clothes that perfectly fit the theme of the store. He wore business casual clothes with a slighter greater emphasis on the casual part of the equation. On the first day, he wore the argyle sweater she’d given him as a present on their first Christmas together. As time passed, instead of her seeking his approval concerning his wardrobe, he made the initial selections and simply sought her confirmation. Sometime later, even this last step proved unnecessary.  

About the Author: Kevin Finnerty earned his MFA at Columbia College Chicago.  His stories have appeared in Eclectica Magazine, The Muleskinner Journal, Portage Magazine, Variety Pack, The Westchester Review, and other journals.

Wasted Years

By Sheldon Birnie

I used to party fuckin hard, but now I’m old and lame.

One time, up on the reserve by Winfield there, my foot got busted when this wild man from the Kootenays come flying outta the pit and stomped right on it, trying to keep himself upright. I was kneeling down, slamming whisky from the bottle and making eyes at the young lady I was smitten with at the time. We’d been drinking beer all day, hadn’t eaten nothing but a couple powerful pills. Yet when the bone snapped, it was a white hot expressway of pain from toes to the center of my skull. Dulled the feeling but couldn’t kill it with joint after joint until I caught a ride into town in the back of a pickup truck, cold winter wind relentless. Don’t think I stopped shivering for days. 

Those were grimy, greasy days, boy. The local legend whose family’s house this all went down at held punk rock and metal shows there all the time. Played there a couple times myself, splattered blood all over the walls. Bands would set up in the dining room, volume cranked, and shake the foundation. Beer bottle graveyard spilling from the sink all over the counters and onto the kitchen floor, air thick with cigarette and dope smoke, ripe with BO and cat piss.

That wasn’t the first nor the last time I fucked myself up good partying. Ripped ligaments, countless bruises, scrapes, and scars. A concussion or two. Cracked my patella walking down the street with my hands jammed deep in my pockets, drunk, like a half-bright child. Any dummy could have picked out the pattern there, but I kept at it for well over a decade. Those golden, wasted years.

Another time at that same house, New Year’s Eve, I opened the front door just as some young drunk punk rolled down the stairs, out the door. I don’t remember anything else from that evening other than we were on mushrooms and somehow I drove me and my buddies home, but I’ll never forget that tumbling punk rolling down the hill into the woods below while all his friends howled like hyenas from the foyer.

Buddy whose house that was got sober, I’m told. Others from that scene are dead, or otherwise drifted away, forgotten, or still plugging away in tattered denim and well worn leather. Some of us have kids and have jobs and all that shit we thought was bullshit back when we were young. I’d like to say the memories live on. But they don’t. Most of them are burnt out, fuckin faded even now. Not unlike the stick and poke tattoo that gal I fancied, the one I was drinking whisky with that time I broke my foot, gave me coming down off an acid trip on a separate occasion. It all meant something, once. But now it’s hard to explain.

About the Author: Sheldon Birnie is a writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada who can be found online @badguybirnie

Oracle

By David Wright

About the Author: David Wright’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Image, Ecotone, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Hobart, among others. His latest poetry collection is Local Talent (Purple Flag/Virtual Artists Collective, 2019). A past recipient of an Illinois Arts Council fellowship, he lives in west central Illinois where he teaches American literature and creative writing at Monmouth College. He can be found on Twitter @sweatervestboy.

State And Local History

By Mikey Swanberg

About the Author: Mikey Swanberg is the author of On Earth As It Is (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2021), Good Grief (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2019), Zen and the Art of Bicycle Delivery (Rabbit Catastrophe Press).
He holds an MFA from the University of Wisconsin – Madison & lives in Chicago.

Rust Belt Femme: A Conversation with Raechel Anne Jolie

Interview Conducted by Brianna Di Monda

Raechel Anne Jolie grew up in northeast Ohio with her mom before receiving her PhD from the University of Minnesota and going on to publish her memoir, Rust Belt Femme. The book was a winner of the Independent Publisher Book Award in LGBTQ Nonfiction and an NPR Favorite Book of 2020. Her story covers her experience growing up in poverty with her single mother after her father is hit by a car. She navigates permanently altered relationships with her parents, grandparents, friend, and boyfriends, and finally finds a home in queer pop culture and the local punk scene. Jolie kindly agreed to an interview about her memoir, and together we discussed witchcraft, male care, code-switching, and common perceptions of so-called “white trash.”

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Brianna Di Monda: You wrote your memoir after getting your PhD from the University of Minnesota. Why the pivot? What drew you to writing a memoir after working in academia for so long? Had you written personal essays or creative nonfiction—or just journaled—before?

Raechel Anne Jolie: Why the pivot: One reason is that many people with PhDs were pushed out of academia in any sustainable way. I had short-term contract positions and never landed that secure, full-time position, which is increasingly rare in academia. So part of it was not having a stable job. Although I continued to adjunct, part of the deal in academia is that everything you write is academic research. It dawned on me that I wasn’t getting paid to research in the way that, in theory, professors have a salary and research is part of that. So I thought, “Why am I wasting time?”

I was a creative writer since I was a kid. This actually didn’t make it in the book, but I used to have a notebook that I would write stories in. My creative nonfiction really developed through LiveJournal and online blogging. I realized that I enjoyed writing about myself by bringing in theory. When I decided not to keep doing academic writing that I don’t enjoy, I just let myself start writing this book instead.

BD: Did you have journals and old writing that you pulled from and compiled into the book?

RAJ: I had tons of journals. My mom, as you read, moved around a lot, so I think my personal journals probably exist in a storage facility somewhere or a friend’s basement, but I didn’t have a ton of access to those. I do have photographic memories of some of those journal pages, so I definitely drew on very concrete memories of pages. But as I write at the beginning of the book, the memoir is my version of my memory.

BD: That’s an incredible testament to your memory. I also read in your interview with Hippocampus that you cast a spell to get your book accepted by Belt Publishing. And I noticed aspects of witchcraft in your memoir. You say the lightning bugs on Tinkers Creek were your “first foray into witchcraft” (when you were five) and that they were “sacrificed in rituals some nights.” I was wondering: What was your practice as a kid? When did you develop it? If I may ask, what is your practice now? And how has witchcraft shaped your writing?

RAJ: I definitely wouldn’t have identified it as witchcraft as a small child. That was a retrospective label. But so much of my early relationship to magic was my relationship to nature. And that’s something I’ve been able to make the connection to much more clearly in my adult life, especially when I actually learned the elements of Paganism. I lived with the seasons in these material, worshipful ways. So much of that was just being a rural kid who felt spirits in trees and pretended mixing bowls were cauldrons.

My mom was also a horror buff, so I grew up on scary movies and had witches and magic and fantasy in my life. And then being lucky enough to be a teenager in the 90s, witchiness blended with dark lipstick and combat boots, like in The Craft. So 90s pop culture allowed me to have elements of witchcraft even though I didn’t identify as a witch. It was only much later in my life—my late 20s, early 30s—that I really opened up more to spirituality.

After getting involved with activism work, I didn’t think I had a need for spirituality, because the activism I was involved in was very secular. But then I felt pulled to spirituality, partly because I was half-developing a yoga practice and I was like, “Well, I really like the spiritual elements of this, but it’s not my culture, so I should look into my ancestral roots.” And there was Paganism. And it felt super intuitive. 

My practice now is everything from honoring moon cycles and setting intentions to casting very specific spells. (The spell I set to get my book published by Belt had a jar of honey with mantras written on a piece of paper inside and a particular crystal on top.) I also continue to be in tune with nature and celebrate certain Pagan holidays. Or I light a particular candle before I start writing. I don’t do that on normal workdays. Bringing that intention helps with the magic and writing.

BD: Absolutely. I ask because I’ve similarly gotten into witchcraft and am realizing how this attunement with nature I had as a kid and this interest in astrology and candles and stones has been a throughline in my life. My mom kept this stone collection I had as a kid and I found them recently and recognized them as stones used in witchcraft.

You say your mom got sober “seemingly overnight” after your dad was hit by a car. That she did it because, quite simply, she “knew she had to raise [you].” It seems like your mom put a lot into raising you as a single parent, even if you also acknowledge that she wasn’t always perfect. I’m wondering: How did her strength (or maybe even her mistakes) influence your understanding of womanhood or motherhood?

RAJ: In so many ways. I’m not a mother, and this is actually shifted from the book, but although I still very much identify as femme, I have less identification with the word “woman.” I added “they” to my pronouns. (I’m feeling grateful for young people for their more expansive categories.) So I’ll respond to the question with both not being a mom and not identifying with capital “W” “Womanhood.”  That said, I think my mother helped me understand femininity in a way that was much more expansive and obviously defied any sort of traditional, normative stereotype that women are docile or weak. I got the opposite example of that. 

I will also say, and I kind of hesitate because my sweet, dear mom still hasn’t read the book. I say this with all the love in the world, but she sacrificed a lot for me. Almost her whole self. And I do think that was not healthy for her. I got a lot of love. What I didn’t get was examples of how to set boundaries. I expected a lot from relationships as a demonstration of love. I expected selflessness, which isn’t fair. I am grateful that I was loved so fully and she gave so much to me, but I feel regret for her because it was a sacrificial kind of love.

BD: Yeah, in putting so much care into making sure you were okay and you got the attention you needed after the accident, it almost went too far for her sake. I understand that. In contrast to my last question, you call the “men who took care of things” during the first four years of your life the “heroes.” You acknowledge, “I’m not supposed to say this, but this was what I needed and this was what I lost.” Why do you say you’re not supposed to say this? What framework are you confronting by acknowledging the need for men (or maybe masculinity)—in addition to women (or femininity)—to support you?

RAJ: The reason I’m not supposed to say it is because I’m a feminist studies professor and a queer person. It’s the recognition of the role that men played in my life, as well as my attraction to butch and men-identified people. My attraction to a particular kind of masculinity. I love this question and it’s a hard question. I am looking forward to the day when masculinity and femininity can express themselves, regardless of what you were assigned at birth. But I also think we can find value in what we would traditionally assign as masculine energy and feminine energy, even if those categories are still problematic regardless of somebody’s “sex.”Given my upbringing, I’m okay with the fact that I would like a partner who knows cars because I don’t know cars. That’s a traditionally masculine thing that, to me, is not problematic because we’re not all good at everything. That’s not to say that a masculine person needs to like cars, or that they can’t cook, or whatever. I’m not trying to put people into boxes. But I do think there’s a version of caretaking that appeals to me in ways that some people would say is problematic, but that’s just how my femme shows. I’m curious what you think about that. What comes up for you with that sort of theme?

BD: I think it balances your narrative of not wanting your partner to be selflessly devoted to you—that doesn’t mean you don’t want care. You lost your dad. And that made you realize how much his support meant something. And there is a lack when he’s not there. For you to say you don’t need these men in your life is to say, maybe, that nothing changed when your dad left, which wouldn’t be true and wouldn’t be honoring his memory.

RAJ: That’s beautiful. That’s true though. And I believe that patriarchy harms men just as much as it does all the other genders. Because men aren’t allowed to be vulnerable and emotional. But that doesn’t mean that we have to throw what we consider masculine under the bus. I think there are some beautiful traits in masculinity. Butch women are such a beautiful example of a community that’s demonstrated how chivalry and toughness can be gentle and loving.

BD: I think this also segues well into the next question I have, which asks about this tension between male care and toxic masculinity in your book. There’s a devastating moment where Jack (your boyfriend at the time) meets your abuser and says he wants to kill him. The two of you cry together and you realize you’d been wanting that feeling: “that a man made [you] feel like he wanted to protect [you].” You say you unpack this want in “therapy, in journals, with tarot decks.” You say you come to terms with this want. Why is it okay to want male care? And what did you learn in unpacking? With all these questions about masculinity, I ask because I feel like it’s such a common dynamic people seek in their relationships without ever confronting what it means.

RAJ: It’s obviously a privilege, first of all, to go to therapy. But I think everybody, regardless of class or race or anything else, is in their heads about themselves navel-gazing. It’s just that the memoirists put that on display. And I think it’s important to bring awareness and attention to our choices in relationships—and that doesn’t have to just be in romantic relationships. As much as, for example, Instagram pop psychology is problematic sometimes, I’m glad that it’s a space for people to talk about trauma and feelings. It’s good for us to be mindful in relationships because we are all bringing a lot of shit to them. In a world of sexual violence and emotional abuse, and just all of these horrible relationship dynamics that exist, for me to say that I like being loved by masculine energy feels not bad.

BD: I think that all makes sense. I think you’re making this clear distinction between toxic masculinity and male care. And where you find a home is in acknowledging the importance of male care and not ignoring a kind of masculine care that anyone can emit.

Then, when your first boyfriend breaks up with you and cries in the car, you say you’re “grateful to know the tenderness that existed in this sixteen-year-old boy. That the root of these boys is not toxic masculinity, but rather a limited number of places where they can be free—to feel, to be vulnerable, to say this hurts and I’m sorry.” This is a big theme in the book: redeeming people who have inflicted pain (you sympathize with his tears even as he breaks up with you). You seem profoundly capable of recognizing the multiplicity in people and forgiving them for their worst deeds. Would you say that’s accurate? Is this book, in a way, a redemption story for your exes and your family, your mom, and maybe even yourself?

RAJ: That’s such a sweet question. I do think I am extremely forgiving, sometimes to a fault. I think that has been the case my whole life. I’ve never had a revenge streak. My forgiveness or compassion, with an understanding of the other person’s pain or the root cause of the situation, is intentional. First of all as a prison abolitionist, for example, but also as a person who identifies as an anarchist and a radical. The definition of radical is “the root” of something. So looking at the root cause of harm, to me, reveals that the people who cause harm are victims almost all the time of another situation themselves. That articulation comes through an explicitly intentional political lens.

To bring witchy stuff back into it, I actually have a friend who is a beautiful astrologer and tarot reader who says that people with a lot of Pisces in their chart have this particular trait of being extremely compassionate and nonjudgmental and understanding and forgiving. And I have a lot of Pisces in my chart. I think that’s also part of it. It never crossed my mind to not write about people compassionately. That just felt intuitive. I don’t know that I realized it, but of course I wanted to say that there are reasons for everybody’s choices. I hope that I gave that context.

BD: I loved your description of grieving after your first break up, of playing Fiona Apple on repeat, journaling, crying in your room. You acknowledge a self-awareness in these actions: You relished your “ability to understand what Fiona [was] singing . . . dreaming of how many more loves [you] will have and how terrible and perfect it will be to lose them too.” I loved this description because I think a lot of people share this melodramatic experience growing up. Do you think these actions—mourning over a lost love with delicious self-indulgence—are part of the teenage initiation into adulthood? Why was this important to include in your memoir?

RAJ: I recently went through a breakup with the person who, in my book, I refer to as my present tense partner. We separated after eight years. So a very long, difficult, grown-up breakup, much more shattering than this teenage one. But I thought about that line about how I loved pain. And I really love that less as an adult. The stakes are a lot higher in a separation that happens when you’re in your 30s. 

Sharing your life with somebody is huge, and there is something beautiful in that. Thankfully the separation was mutual. I mean, it was devastating, but not ugly in any way. To answer the question: I guess it’s a teenage thing, but I don’t know. I’ve had really earth-shattering breakups in my 20s as well. And then the most recent one. And of course, the “’I’ll never find anybody again” feeling when you’re 15 is hilarious. But there’s something in me that wants to answer this question by saying it’s the same. It is a teenage thing, but it’s also an adult thing. But yeah, I do think like a first breakup is a life experience that pushes you further into adulthood.

BD: Yeah, it’s a coming of age moment, but maybe we never get over it. I guess what sounded so unique to teenagehood was how you specifically talked about how you relished your ability to understand heartbreak. Maybe there’s like an ego to heartbreak as a teenager.

In the memoir, you say “white trash” is the term we use in the U.S. for “failed” white people, and that our common understanding is “white trash” tends to vote red. You complicate this narrative by showing that queer people can be supported in this community and that there are left-leaning people in the Rust Belt. Was giving a voice to this side of whiteness intentional when you set out to write the memoir?

RAJ: It was definitely intentional. I started writing the memoir the summer before Trump got elected, so that discourse about Trump voters was already in the media. Something that’s important for me to clarify is that the intention wasn’t to say that not all white people are bad. I still identify as an activist. I’m certainly thinking about how to make the world better. I hope my writing gives people this “aha” moment—especially well-intentioned liberals who should talk to “white trash” Trump voters—to not be so snobby about people who are marginalized by the things that I claim to care about. 

My goal was really to illuminate the commonality of oppression. I’m certainly not saying that poor white folks and poor people of color, or people of color in general, are the same, but just that the economically disenfranchised includes people of all races. And there can be space for solidarity, whether that’s for white folks, queer people, people of color, or whatever the case may be. There is room for that. And I want to tell those stories because I think we would have a much more robust movement against repression if more people realized how much we all have in common.

BD: You’ve said in an interview with Autostraddle that you code switch no matter where you are. At what point did this begin, and why? Was it only once you went to college, or did you find yourself code-switching between the Cleveland subculture with Ben (another ex-boyfriend) and home even in your teens?

RAJ: I love that specific question at the end because the answer is yes. Code-switching is something that I’ve really done my whole life. I’ve always been in punk and activist spaces, and then also have very normie friends So there’s a lot of managing what I would or wouldn’t say in certain spaces. I think I’m over the fact that in normie spaces I’m often the only person with tattoos or not married with children (which brings in the queerness aspect). 

I don’t really talk to my super radical friends about the pop culture I consume. It’s very low stakes, but code-switching is something I very much have existed between my normie and queer friends. And then the class thing. At this point, it feels pretty easy because I’ve been navigating it so much. I think I’m not ever in super-rich spaces, but I behave a little differently in family space. I think I’m a little more self-conscious about how I look, especially around my partner’s parents. I’m suddenly embarrassed by my cheap acrylic nails and tattoos, but not enough to do anything about it. 

BD: It doesn’t mean you’re changing who you are, but you are aware of how you look and come across.

RAJ: Yeah. And code-switching is definitely a term that’s been most utilized by people of color who have to navigate much more high-stakes environments than I ever have. Whether it’s code-switching or microaggressions, there’s extra mental energy and labor that people have to do when they’re not taken as “normal” in particular spaces. I don’t want to complain about it too much because I feel like I have it pretty easy, but it is something that exists in my life.

BD: Ok, my final question: You talk about media you consumed before you went on to realize you were queer. You citeBroken Hearts Club, Jeffrey, Kissing Jessica Stein, and But I’m a Cheerleader as some of the movies you watched with your mom growing upDo you have any other recommendations for young queers today discovering their identity, that maybe weren’t around when you were growing up in the 90s, or that you happened to discover later in life?

RAJ: I love this question because I love pop culture. There’s one movie I always gush about when I have the opportunity. It’s called Appropriate Behavior. Desiree Akhavan is the writer and director. She’s an Iranian-American bisexual woman who made this beautiful indie movie about a queer woman in New York City. You see her through one long relationship and a couple of shorter relationships, and it’s just so evident that a queer person made the movie. It’s like, this person knows what it’s like to go to the dive lesbian bar after pride, and not the big tourist gay bar or whatever. She’s just so in the know. I love that movie and I think it’s not super well known because it’s an indie movie. 

Another is To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! – Julie Newmar. It’s one of the best gay movies of all time, and I think underappreciated by younger generations. It’s technically about drag queens, but they would really be read today as trans women.

I also want to say that growing up, the AIDS crisis was still, I mean, a crisis. One of my best friends in college was diagnosed with HIV at the time and it felt like a death sentence. He’s alive and thriving today, thankfully. It was pretty pressing, but I certainly didn’t grow up in the gay mens’ community in New York, where, for example, there were funerals every week. That was not my culture. But so much of queer culture today owes so much to that period of time. There’s a documentary called United in Anger: A History of ACT UP. It’s some of the most important queer histories out there. It offers a lot for us to think about, especially with COVID, and how we take care of each other in a health crisis. It’s about movement building and love and sex and desire in our politics. So that’s my elder queer homework.

About the Interviewer and Interviewee:

Raechel Anne Jolie (she/they) is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Rust Belt Femme, which was the winner of the Independent Publisher Book Award in LGBTQ Nonfiction, an NPR Favorite Book of 2020, and a runner-up for the Heartland Bookseller’s Award.

Brianna Di Monda (she/her) is a contributing editor for Cleveland Review of Books. Her fiction and criticism have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Chicago Review of Books, and Worms Magazine.

Deer

By Kelli Lage

Author Bio: Bio: Kelli Lage is earning her degree in Secondary English Education and works as a substitute teacher. She is a poetry reader for Bracken Magazine. Awards: Special Award for First-time Entrant, 2020, Iowa Poetry Association. Website: www.KelliLage.com.

The Rapture of Petrach County in Three Parts

By Zoe Yohn

I. 

            They met each week at Daylite Donuts and when that closed, they made the pilgrimage to The Over Easy. The diner wouldn’t be around much longer, either, but when the inevitable happened, there would always be the McDonald’s out near the interstate. 

            – You hear about Peltz’s alien? 

            – Bullcrap. What the hell are you talkin’ about? 

            – Said he found it in the dirt out behind the house. He’s calling it God. 

            – He ain’t. God? Really? 

            – It don’t matter what he’s calling it, he didn’t find shit out there.  

            They shook their heads, rubbed their palms across their eyes, still greasy with the exhaustion of a lifetime. Someone gestured for Debbie, for more coffee. 

            Dale Peltz used to join for hash browns and eggs, but he was a mean bastard. It was a blessing, they agreed, when Dale got sick, because he quit the diner when driving got too sore on his gut. He’d started to stink by then anyway, unwashed skin ripe with odors that weren’t polite to name.

            – Swears he did. And whatever it is, he says it’s going to bring the farm back. He told you that, didn’t he, Jim?

            – Yep. 

            – Like hell. He must be on some new medication, pain management. I had a cousin who gone the same way, near the end. Just lost it. 

            They were quiet for a minute. 

            – That farm is nothing but a weed patch. Won’t even grow stone. 

            – He was a damn idiot not to sell. 

            – Still can. Last plot north of town, and he’s got that good access road. Sensyus offered him a fortune for it. 

            – They’ll get it in the end, anyway.

            – He’s got more dirt than sense. 

             – A fortune. For a plot of piss-poor land not fit for a feedlot. And he still won’t let it go. 

            They’d all sold years back, before the Sensyus announcement, before something like Sensyus even existed, when the factory farms had come in. Petrarch County was wiped clean for pennies. They traded their farms for homes in town. Then, town was gutted and after a few years, so were their savings. Their family land was long gone, too, turned to corn and soy for feedlots, sucking the nourishment from the dirt. Dale Peltz was the only one who held out.  

            – Dale wouldn’t know what to do with money like that, anyway. 

            – That farm’s the only place that can take the smell of ‘im. Stench would kill us all if he moved to town. The man is a walking biohazard. 

            – He can’t move his ass two miles down from that shack. What’s the point of selling? 

            Truth was, no one wanted Peltz to sell. They wanted him to die on that sandbar. He’d been too slow, but they’d been too quick, biting at the first offer that came. They watched as their land was parceled off and cashed the checks. Only a crystal ball could have predicted the arrival of Sensyus to the county, just a few years later, with its multibillion-dollar plans, handing out thick wads of techno cash that should have been theirs by right. It was their land, after all, and the only thing worse than missing payday would be to see Dale Peltz cash in. 

            – A coffee can. That’s what he told Jim, isn’t that right, Jim? That’s where he’s keepin’ it, God or the alien or whatever the hell it is – in a goddamn empty Folger’s can. 

            – Yep. That’s what he said. 

            – Shit. 

            – You seen it, Jim? The alien?

            – Nope. Just know what he told me. 

            – There isn’t no alien, just a foolish old bastard with too much time. 

            They shook their heads. They didn’t like to think about if it was luck or smarts that kept them sane, because they worried they didn’t have much of either, really.

            – Didn’t you offer to buy him out, Jim? Before you sold to QualityFoods?

            – Yep. 

            A low, collective whistle sounded across the table, rippling paper napkins. 

            – Shit.

            – Your land and his. Shoot. That’d be some money now, wouldn’t it?

            – Sure would.  

            – Well, it won’t be long. Sensyus will get it. He ain’t looking good, is he, Jim?

            – Nope. 

            The diner air was heavy with bacon fat. They could feel it on their tongues long after their plates were cleared. It took acid to cut grease like that. Clogged the arteries, mottled the heart. None of them were getting any younger. 

            – Peltz is the last of it. One damn farm between now and the future. Won’t be long. 

            – What is it again? 5G something? 

            – Somethin’ like that. 

            – All that’ll give you cancer. Or autism. Saw it on Facebook. My sister-in-law’s kid, somethin’ isn’t right there and it’s the 5G. 

            –  Yep. 

            Their faces, stale with stubble, all orbited towards the clock hanging above the griddle. Their days were shorter without the rhythm of the land. Pink sunrise to lavender sunset, the scent of freshly turned soil and manure. It’d been a clockwork they’d set their bones to. That was gone, and now their eyes seared beneath neon hot cell phone screens. 

            – Well. It’s a shame anyhow. 

            – About Dale?

            – About Jim’s land. 

            – Sure as shit is. 

            – … wonder if Sensyus will pay for deconsecrating the Peltz farm?

            They laughed. 

II. 

            It was the dowsing rods that found Him. They found everything good in his dirt. Dale just got to dig it up. 

            – Water and blood son. That’s what his grandpa had told him. There’s water and blood in this dirt, you just have to find a feel for it. 

            His grandpa taught him how to use the rods, the right way to hold them and wander the land, paying attention to the slightest tremor in the metal. But there was more to it than that. Even now, laying in the dark on his back – because the lumps in his gut hurt like a son-of-a-bitch – a hum rang down Dale’s fingertips. He could feel copper, cool and smooth in his palms, the pathway of dirt-knowing that ran taut as electrified fishing wire from the rods to his wrists. There was a vein of something rich with moisture was trapped beneath the crust of his earth, waiting.

            Folks in town didn’t think there was anything worth saving on his land. They were idiots, clogged and stupid with methamphetamine and WiFi, or foreigners, who didn’t know the land from the sky. Dale did, though. He held out, he believed. His tongue lapped across his gums and came away tart and metallic. Blood. Blood in the dirt, blood in his mouth, but it would be alright now. 

            Dale had been reared on the land. When he was a boy, the breeze rippled his blood, as it did the wheat in the fields. His fingers and toes froze along with dirt after the first frost. The boys in town thought he’d be better off selling, but they didn’t know worth from value. 

            He shifted to his side and groaned. The bed was rank with sweat, his sheets long yellow. If he had a wife, or some kids, they’d’ve told him to get his stomach looked at years back, when his belly first began to ache and the clods were only pebble-size. They’d expanded over the years. By the time he made the trip to the specialist, the doctors didn’t know if he’d fit in the cat scan machine. A nurse tried keep quiet on the phone to the Denver Zoo, asking if he might squeeze into the machine that scanned large mammals, but he heard. They got him in the hospital machine eventually, and all that just to tell him it was too late to operate.

            Dale took a deep, painful breath in and hauled himself upright. He didn’t turn the lights on. The house was quiet, empty. Padding along the hallway, stretching longer than it ever had before, he palmed the wall to keep upright. Sweat pooled in the folds around his neck. 

            Not long, now. In the kitchen, he reached for the top cabinet and took down the coffee canister where his daddy used to keep folded bills and the keys to the tractor. Not long for him, but forever for the farm. 

            Dale opened the lid and was flooded with the glory of his Savior.

III. 

            The Sensyus CEO was ready to rip it out of the ground, but the lead contractor was a Christian. He knew a miracle when he saw one, he said.  

            The CEO threatened him, told the contractor he could either clear it out or lose a crew and a paycheck. The contractor still refused. It was too late by then, anyway, because the news vans had turned up for the groundbreaking. The contractor, weeping on his knees, was a better image for TV than the Sensyus CEO and his golden shovel.

            The air was metallic, a crisp April morning suddenly close and dense, like a late-summer thunderstorm was boiling across the plains. The folks in town felt it, too. They showed up in clusters, not long behind the news vans, some for the groundbreaking, some unsure of why they were there at all, except to say they’d felt they had to be. Something drew them from their homes and out to the old Peltz place. 

            By mid-morning, the access road was backed up all the way to the northern edges of town. Cars by the dozen, caked in dirt, were stitched tail-to-nose along the road, trucks, cop cars, mini-vans bursting with impatient children. Even the meth chefs found a spark for the rusted-out hunks-of-junk usually cemented to the cookhouse front lawn and joined the parade.

            Rumors began to circulate that the National Guard would have to be called in. No one had ever seen so many people in one place in Petrarch County, not during the County Fair, not during the Octoberfest parade. They must have come from the surrounding Counties – Adams; Burlow; Monart. And maybe even further because there were cars arriving that were city-clean, gleaming and free of dust. 

            On the edges of the Peltz land, clusters of people waited for something to happen. Mothers perched on car bumpers and breastfed their children, high school boys jeered and jumped around, increasingly frenzied as the day baked hotter and heavier. Some folks were praying, rosaries knotted through their knuckles, and others wanted stupid and slow in long, looping circles of their own. 

            A barricade of bodies formed around the site where the ground was supposed to have been broken, surging outwards and circling the Sensyus construction trailer. The crowd heaved against it; meaty shoulders packed to metal rocking violently. Hiding inside, the CEO tried to keep his balance. Legal was in his ear, real-timing a plan of action. 

            – Monica, sorry, can you – can you just, repeat that? No, I can’t – it’s too – there are what, four thousand hicks out there fucking screaming, I just – e-mail it to me, okay? And the ‘copter? Is it on the way?

            The crowd grew thicker, the sun bore onto the earth and baked it dry. Dust haze hung in the air, obscuring the densest depths of the group. It churned against itself, spitting folks out hard onto the dirt before they tried to dig back in again. Law enforcement couldn’t find the way through to the center. Rumors flew like hot oil. Antifa, a bomb, alien spaceship crash. The CIA and FBI were on their way, Air Force stealth planes had been seen circling the south field. 

            By mid-afternoon, the construction trailer and two news vans had been toppled and set alight. There was no sign of the Sensyus CEO. Not a hundred feet from where his abandoned golden shovel lay, a throng of wailing women in prairie garb flung themselves to the ground and clawed dirt into their mouths. Holy men of all sects – priests, reverends, bishops, rabbis, imams, Tibetan monks and more – circled the earth, chanting reverently in their own prayerful tongues. The National Guard hadn’t been able to tear through the order of nuns holding ground over the furthest reaches of the site and in their absence, a handmade infantry marched through the thickets of bodies, semi-automatics resting on their shoulders. They were the guardians, they told the crowds, the protectorate of the land. 

            Meanwhile, the lead contractor had never risen from the ground. The knees of his pants had worn as soft as wet paper, ready to tear. The muscles in his back spasmed and ached, knotted, refusing to unravel. Touring this same spot the night before, surveying the emptiness before it was to be ripped up and churned for the future, his boots had kicked dust from the bald earth, at the nothing before him. 

            And now, from the ash where even the heartiest high-plains grasses had refused to grow, bloomed a pomegranate tree, as rich, ripe and heavy with fruit as it had been in the Garden.  

About the Author: Originally from the Nebraskan plains, Zoe Yohn is a writer based in Dublin, Ireland. She holds an MA in Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama from University College Dublin. She has published short fiction in The Honest Ulsterman and her short story “Language Barriers” was long listed for the 2021 Exeter Story Prize. Zoe lives with her husband in Dublin, and is currently working on a novel.

The Great Plains

By Jennifer Walker

Author Bio: Jennifer Walker started her writing adventures as a child composing short stories. As she matured, she wrote poetry and novels. Her poetry collection, Prairie Girl, was selected as a 2022 Finalist for The Birdy Poetry Prize by Meadowlark Press. Jennifer is married and a proud mother of three boys. Her other roles include being a high school English teacher and a farmer’s daughter. Jennifer has lived all over the American Midwest before​ finding her way back to her home state of Kansas.

An Interview with Daren Dean

Interview Conducted by Shaun McMichael

Grit lit Novelist, Daren Dean, opens up about his new novel This Vale of Tears (Cowboy Jamboree (CJ) Press; October, 2021), a torrential tragicomedy of manners, miracles, and mortal wounds.

Cuckolded scofflaw Troy Scofield kicks off This Vale of Tears’s torrential tragicomedy when he kills old Bobby Lee Phelps, the lover of his wild-thing wife, Alisha. Troy’s prison release seven years later rekindles the brooding enmity between the pugnacious Scofield and Phelps families who because of their similarities are destined to conflict. Both rural Missouri clans mirror each other’s dire money trouble, generational curses, and cults of patriarchy alive and well in the novel’s 1970 epoch. “Old wounds ran deep. A shared genealogy spooled behind them but was powerless to heal the rift. The men…liked to think of themselves as figures of some grand tragedy and knowing all along that their own flaws of character would eventually bring them low” (60). The liquor-pickled men carouse and pick fights while their women leave, cling, or manipulate in ways that unintentionally double their misery. For example, young Raelyn Phelps flees her family’s abusive confines just to run into Troy. The two entangle in a star-crossed love affair further enflaming already combustible Phelps and Scofield patriarchs. I spoke with Daren Dean about his process writing This Vale…

Shaun Anthony McMichael (SAM): What was your entry point into this novel?

Daren Dean (DD): I wrote This Vale… a while ago and over a long stretch of time. I would have loved to start publishing this stuff when I was thirty-five instead of in my forties and fifties, but it wasn’t ready. But what I remember is that for “This Vale…” I wanted strong-structured sentences that flowed like Cormac McCarthy and William Gay’s style of writing. 

In terms of the story, I had this idea of writing about a deeply troubled character like Troy Scofield meeting a much younger character like Raelyn Phelps and about how she affects him. Then I wrote the first chapter, which operates as a kind of prologue. I didn’t call it a prologue though because of the immediacy and impact it possesses. After I wrote it, I wondered how I was going to keep up with that intensity and pace. The way I tried to achieve that relentless pacing was to cut out all the boring parts, which has always been a goal of mine. At the same time, I didn’t want to overwhelm a reader. As the chapters go along, some of them are more languid as certain dynamics take more time to develop.

SM: Let’s talk some more about Troy: “Everyone knew or had heard of Troy Scofield, he wasn’t a real person anymore in their minds, he was an evil spirit haunting the backroads of the past. An evil man who belonged in a tomb” (255). 

Troy is a rage-filled, entitled mess, yet a reader can’t take their eyes off him. We’re compelled to him the way women are. At outset, Troy appears as a bad seed. But as the narrative unfolds, we see he’s a seed trying to grow in a shallow cowpie. This brings me to the topic of likability. Tell me about what draws you to depicting characters whose unlikeable qualities may turn the average reader away.

DD: I knew I was never going to be the kind of writer who writes to a market. That’s just not who my role models were. Let’s take Flannery O’Connor. You would be hard pressed to think of a single likable character in her prose, yet you still want to read about them. The matter of likability just isn’t something I think about. I wanted Troy to read like a real person whose life is fucked up from the beginning. I wanted to show his progression. 

I grew up around people like Troy—people with good qualities and bad. Let’s take my step-father, a truck driver and a local charmer. Though he and my mom weren’t married that long, I loved the guy. He was great with kids. He was always carrying around a Reader’s Digest to improve his vocabulary. Occasionally, he’d throw out new words at you, only he’d use them in a way that wouldn’t make total sense. Like when we were bickering, he’d argue, “well, that’s immaterial!” And I would scratch my head wondering what he meant. So in my first published novel, Beyond the Pale (2015; Fiction Southeast Press), I give that quirk to my main antagonist, Vaughn so he’s not just a relentless evil.

Or let’s take one of my great aunts who passed away a few years ago. She was always exasperated, saying “Oh my god, all you kids do is mess around!” Whenever I would see her, she would look at me and say “Haven’t seen you for a while. Don’t you love me anymore?!?” When I first brought my wife by her house, I said it to my aunt first, trying to get her goat. “Auntie, haven’t seen you for a while. Don’t you love me anymore?!?” But then she said, “Oh, shoot. I’m the old lady. You come see me!”

I like using little details like these in my fiction, giving mixed qualities to my characters.

To go back to Troy, he isn’t Hitler, but he’s never going to join the Chamber of Commerce. I wouldn’t even say he’s in the middle. He’s just a regular person. And when you get right down to it, we’re all just regular people.

SAM: Troy makes the most sense in the context of his environment: Fairmount, a town in Kingdom County, Missouri. Tell me more about the setting.

DD: Fairmont is fictional, though based somewhat on Fulton and a few other small towns that I grew up around and where my mom and dad still live, separately. These towns were established by Southerners, which is funny because I don’t consider myself Southern exactly.  My fictional county “Kingdom County” comes from The Kingdom of Callaway County. Around the Civil War, citizens of this county tried to remain neutral and succeeded officially from the United States. But as with a lot of places that tried to remain neutral during the Civil War, the towns in The Kingdom of Callaway got taken advantage of; both sides hated them. I write about that in The Black Harvest (2020; CJ Press).

Like a lot of writers who write about their hometowns, I write about these places to gleefully expose their underbellies. Though I’m aware that people from the place may get mad because my novels aren’t PR pieces about how wonderful the towns are and how great the Soybean Festival is, etc.….

SAM: While plot convention necessitates foreboding tones to some degree, I felt a profound sense of ominousness throughout this novel. Even after the climax’s catastrophe, in the denouement, a reader feels that the real storm has yet to break. To what extent did the disturbing nature of our contemporary times fuel this sense of foreboding that floods the novel?

DD: Not so much. The story takes place in the ’60s and ’70s. I grew up in those times and it wasn’t hard to write about those feelings from back then. As a kid, I remember not understanding exactly what was going on or why people were saying what they said. I didn’t know what my future was going to be. So it seemed natural to try to capture that experience. 

SAM: This is a language driven work as much as it is character driven. For these characters, bottle openers are “church keys”; to be armed to the teeth is to be “loaded for bear”. You’re a college professor. Tell me how you keep your ear low enough to the ground to maintain authenticity?

DD: You pay attention to the language, the cadence, and the diction of the people around you. Of course, many of the people who were adults in the ’60s and ’70s don’t speak in the same way anymore; they’ve been exposed to more things and have become more ‘sophisticated’. But in writing this novel, I wanted to remember how people spoke back then. So again, I turned to memories of my great aunt. She still spoke the way she had when she was young. We were out driving down a gravel road to visit some of my cousins and she said, “When I drive through here of a night, I have to watch out for deer and the like.” And, like an idiot, I said how interesting I thought that was, “of a night”. But she just thought I was making fun of her. I love to capture things like that and put them in my fiction. When someone says something in a natural way from the heart, I pay attention. 

SAM: The intertextuality with music is enjoyable in This Vale…. Thank you for sharing your soundtrack for the novel on Spotify (https://open.spotify.com/playlist/58qZpSttC27ZEbF7rD4oSA#login), which makes a wonderful companion for the novel. In addition to musical artists, I hear the following literary artists’ voices in This Vale…: O’Connor, Faulkner, and McCarthy. Who were you listening to when you wrote it?

DD: Two early influences come to mind. Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) was a book that felt really close to my life. I could really understand it in a tangential sort of way. 

In the ’90s, I read Flannery O’Conner for the first time. She’s not a writer they introduce you to in high school because she’s so subversive. I remembered thinking, who has been hiding Flannery O’Connor from me? And I read everything she wrote. Wise Blood (1952) had a particular impact on me. I had a strange childhood—four or five childhoods really. Part of my growing up was with my aunt and uncle. My uncle was a holy-roller, lay-preacher who spoke in tongues and did the laying-on of hands. When I was about eight years old, they asked me what I was going to be when I grew up. At the time, I had this weird obsession with Elvis, so I said I was going to be a singer. They were very irate. “No,” they said. “You’re going to be a preacher and serve God!” We didn’t just read the Bible. Biblical language was your whole life. You memorized it. You had to do citations of it. I went to this little Christian school where you had to recite whole chapters. I memorized 2 Corinthians 13, the love chapter, in the King James, of course, because as they’d say, “if the King James was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for you!”

So when I read Wise Blood and Hazel Motes came along with his Church of Christ without Christ… It hit me hard. After I finished it, I knew I had to start writing again, that it was my true calling.

Everybody said it was crazy and that I couldn’t do it. It’s funny. Now that I have these degrees and am a professor, suddenly everyone comments on how I’m so intelligent. But I don’t remember anyone saying that when I started. They told me to pull my head out of my ass.

A few years after reading O’Connor, I came across Mississippi writer Larry Brown, who became another big influence. I’m nothing like Larry Brown, but his characters really spoke to me. I could really understand them. And I thought I could work in that school of writing.

There are writers I read now just for language. Let’s take Barry Hannah, a master of the non-sequitur. He has this great short story called “Ride Fly, Penetrate Loiter” (1983) about these guys hanging around a gas station. They see this beautiful, well-dressed woman and the guys start speaking Shakespearean. With a turn of phrase, Barry Hannah can pivot genres. He’s a genius with language. Reading Barry Hannah or others like him, I get emotional and have to share it with somebody or exclaim “can you believe they wrote that?” When I was younger, I used to read everything, but now, if a writer doesn’t move me that way, I don’t want to read them.

SAM: A reader can’t help but be dazzled by well-limned scenes in your work rendered with fugue-like detail. How do you go about composing a scene?

DD: The secret I’ve learned to writing isn’t much of a secret. It just takes a long time to develop, and you can only progress so far beyond a certain point unless you grasp it. Madison Smartt Bell writes about it in his Narrative Design(Norton, 2000); Robert Olen Butler devotes his book From Where You Dream (Grove, 2006) to it. What the secret is, is what they’re talking about: writing from your subconscious.

Some writing teachers say you brainstorm, then outline. But when I try to write an outline, as soon as I really get into a scene, the outline is no good anymore. If you’re writing well, you’re writing from the unconscious mind, from where you dream, as Butler says.

Since we were kids, we’ve been getting in trouble for daydreaming. “You’ve got to work harder,” they’ve said. “You’ve got to diagram some sentences. That will be good for you.” But as a writer, none of that will help you unless you have great ideas. How many ways can you polish a turd? It might be grammatically correct, and your sixth-grade teacher would love it, but it could still suck.

So how do you write from the subconscious? You get distracted a lot by everyday life: taking out the garbage; telling your kids to do their homework; helping your wife with something; dealing with a student plagiarizing… All those things detract from being able to  get your head in the right place. You have to do those things, but they do detract from being able to dream your stories. Of course, those daily happenings can also enhance your stories. I find that inspiration usually doesn’t happen when you sit down and say “Okay, now I’m going to write.” You might be in the shower and suddenly, a scene starts happening and you’ve got to get out of the shower and write it down or it will be gone forever. So when you’re washing dishes and inspiration happens, if you can maintain that state of mind, that’s where you can start. 

SAM: I found that the most gut-wrenching scenes in This Vale… were those in which an adult tries to fill up a child’s need for love with good manners. Yet one of your epigraphs is a quote from William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932): “Perhaps they were right in putting love into books,” he thought quietly. “Perhaps it could not live anywhere else”. Tell me about the love you put in this book? To phrase the question another way, how/why is it loving to write a book depicting such tragically unloved characters who act out in unlovable ways? 

DD: To me, what fiction is all about is expressing the things that go unexpressed. Even if we love people and they love us, the words ‘I love you’ are inadequate most of the time and we hurt each other. Even with the best intentions, we don’t communicate well. I don’t propose how to fix this in my fiction. I’m trying to capture it. My aesthetic is not to teach moral lessons. That’s what I admire about Cormac McCarthy. He states what happens and you see the story unfold. But he doesn’t tell you how you should feel about it. It’s frustrating because you sometimes want him to. But for me, it goes back to the Bible. If you read the stories in Genesis, there’s very little ethical commentary on what happens. Much like literary fiction, it happens, and you’re left to ponder what it means. Life tends to be that way. I don’t want to give a sermon and tell people what to think. Not to argue with John Gardener too much; there’s a responsibility you have as a writer. But it’s not to tell the reader what to think or how to live.

SAM: There’s a Romeo and Juliet comparison with Troy and Raelyn’s relationship. Indeed, the Phelps vs. Scofield dynamic alludes to the Capulets-vs-Montague tension. Was that in your mind at all when constructing the narrative?

DD: It wasn’t really in my mind when I was writing it. But I was talking to a reporter who did a review of the book and in trying to think of a way to explain the novel to an average person I remarked that it was a hillbilly Romeo and Juliet story. 

SAM: The strongest thematic tie for me between your work and the Shakespeare play is actually in how ineffectual the older generations are in helping the younger generation. Take this quote for example: 

“Walker Scofield (Troy’s grandfather) was crazy and the inheritance he had passed on to his kids and heirs was that each had their own brand of peculiar to contend with” (295). Along with generational curses, This Vale… depicts vicious cycles: sexually-charged relationships imploding and rebirthing anew; the toxic relationship between alcohol and masculinity; neglected children who beget children they then neglect. What inspired these vicious cycles? 

DD: It’s been observation and thinking through what I’ve seen in my family and other people’s families.

Parents now want to help their kids and they try so hard to cocoon and protect them from all the negative experiences that it also can hinder your growth as a person. I’ve been guilty of that as much as anyone. I’ve tried so hard to protect my kids, I worry if they’ll have the necessary grit to make it through truly bad times when mom and dad aren’t there. I’m sure they will, but I can remember growing up and seeing the complete opposite.

During the time that This Vale… is set, it was a different generation. When I was a kid, adults had more of a WC Fields approach to parenting, like “go away, kid. Ya bothering me!” kind of thing. A parent’s attitude back then was, “I’m doing my thing here, you go do your thing over there”. My parents’ generation was all about doing your own thing and making yourself happy. My mom was married five times. My dad was married three times. People were trying to find themselves. That’s what you used to hear all the time. 

And they had it tough. My dad told me a story about how his mom got remarried to this really big jerk. The guy was huge, but he also horded food from the kids. The ice man would come once a week and stick a brick of ice in the icebox. The Iceman Cometh, right? Well this guy would stash food in the icebox and not share any of it with my dad or his brother. And they were hungry. So one day they made a plan to wake up early and gorge themselves on the food and attack their stepfather when he came down after them. And that’s what they did. They attacked their stepfather and felled him to the ground. His mom screamed “you’re killing him”. My dad said, “Well, he’s been trying to kill me for years!” He realized after that that he couldn’t stay there anymore and ran out of the house. He was twelve years old. He moved around with different family members until he joined the army because he could get paid and get his three-square meals without having to asking somebody if he could sleep in the backseat of their car. 

As for my mom, she was only seven years old when her mom died in childbirth.

These are the situations I want to capture in my stories set back in time.

SAM: Though the novel ends in tragedy for some of the characters, one of your middle-aged characters has a somewhat surprising repentant turn around by the end of this novel. If there’s a glimmer of hope in the ending, it’s for this middle-aged character. How did you decide to have this shift happen?

DD: I wanted to show that he had changed over time too. He’s not a perfect character. But I wanted to show this man in the position of acknowledging his own failings as a father while preserving what there is left to preserve. I see this play out a lot with parents who had it hard and were really stern with their kids. But then, when they have grandchildren, they spoil them. I didn’t want the story to just end in death. Sure, you’re the main character in your story, but when you’re gone, life goes on. And that’s the rebirth. 

Daren Dean’s next novel Roads is forthcoming from Cowboy Jamboree (CJ) Press in 2023.

About the Interviewer: Shaun Anthony McMichael is the editor of two collections of poetry by youth affected by trauma, mental illness, and instability: The Shadow Beside Me (2020) and The Story of My Heart (June 2021). Over 40 of his short stories and essays have appeared in literary magazines, online and in print, such as The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row, Carrier Pigeon, Litro, Existere, Nude Bruce, and others. Shaun’s book reviews and author interviews can be found on PopMatters, an online arts and culture magazine.