online magazine for short, good writing

Month: August, 2012

5 First Lines, from 5 Things You Should Read

by a contributor

from Melissa Swantkowski, author of What It Has to Do With Really, Is My Lunch:

  1. “It happened in the late and forlorn period of complete disruption, at the time of the liquidation of our business.” Bruno Schulz’s “Father’s Last Escape” in which Father, dying and not for the first time, becomes a crustacean and torments the family with his anatomy and his presence. He explores the world from his new perspective. Mother boils him into a grey, but not yet lifeless lump. But the family cannot eat him. Read this because my description is topical and because really no description of this story can do it justice.
  2. “My name is Ruth.” Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping was published in 1980. I first read it in 2010. I have read it twice, so far, and it’s quite possible, I will read it twenty more times, or until I have it memorized or have otherwise internalized or dissected the magic in Robinson’s language. I am okay with this, whether it be hyperbole or insanity.
  3. “This is the season when the wasps come back,” begins Kevin Prufer’s collection The Finger Bone (the poem is called “Pastoral”, but my favorite poem is “Terrible Love.” Especially the section “my poor skin/is brailled over with stings…”).
  4. ‘Tell me a story,’ the bearded man sitting on my living-room sofa commands,” from Suddenly, a Knock at the Door, Etgar Keret. In fact, I’d recommend reading all of Etgar Keret. Especially “The Hollow Men” which appears in the collection Missing Kissenger and though very short, will crawl inside of you and take up a novel-sized space.
  5. Herta Muller opens The Land of Green Plums with “When we don’t speak, said Edgar, we become unbearable, and when we do, we make fools of ourselves.” Knowing next to nothing of Ceaucescu’s dictatorship, and literally nothing of the German minority in Romania at this time, I came to this novel via a friend. Had my grasp on history been tighter, I still would have felt plunged into the deep, but Muller created a gauzy, dreamlike landscape relying on repeated imagistic language – “only a belt, a window, a nut, and rope,” death as a sack – the meaning of which is slowly revealed as the novel progresses.

What It Has to Do With Really, Is My Lunch

by a contributor

Melissa Swantkowski

At my mother’s, Luke and I smile over hands of cards. When our feet touch under the table, we speak through them. Most of the contact we have is to further communicate our unhappiness, but when we’re with my mother, it’s as though there is comfort in the heaviness of hers, outweighing ours. We are fixable our socked feet seem to say, but she is sick and slowly losing herself.


On the train, Luke clips his nails. Half moons shoot to the floor where I cover them with my shoe. “You’re a slob,” I tell him.

Across the aisle, a man inserts a long pinky finger into his ear canal and wipes what he finds there on the seat beside him. Luke holds out the clippers. “Put these in your bag, will you?” he asks.

A man further down the car picks at the cuticle around his big toe. His feet are fitted into yellow flip flops, the same cheap, drug-store kind my mother used to wear to water her plants. He brings his thumb to his mouth and gnaws the skin there, then spits into his palm.

Sitting next to a stranger could be worse, and if I stand or ask Luke to let me pass he will say, “What? What now?”


Without agreeing on it out loud, Luke and I walk through my mother’s dry garden and into her house as different versions of ourselves.

Kindness comes easily there. We each fill a role: Luke fetching beers from the basement, my mother microwaving things and encouraging us to eat, me smiling, washing dishes, dealing seven cards over and over until it’s time to go.

When we leave she gives us a blessing: “She’s watching, you’re safe,” my mother says, talking about god, or herself.


When I consider my life, I can divide it in half, and that is the half that is make believe.


If my life has become a series of things I force myself not to do and things I don’t let myself do, I can sort it into two columns drawn on my notepad. But then I make the columns into a box, adding squares because there are also the things I have no choice but to do and the things that are required of me. There are things that pile up on top of me and those that I can’t control. There aren’t exact words for this, so I don’t write any. I scribble more lines, erase everything, reducing the rubber to dust, and fold the paper as small as the paper will allow, then shove it between the seat and the window.


My mother will call me late at night to say that she’s lonely.

“You’ve forgotten about me,” she’ll say.

“How is that true if we’re talking now,” I’ll say.

“It just is.”

“I’m glad you called.”

“I know, but I don’t like it. I hate it,” she’ll keep going, her voice whiny, like a child’s.

“We were just there. We just saw you. Didn’t we have fun?”

“You don’t know anything about me.” She will go silent after this and then it will be my voice growing needy and small.

“Mom, I love you. It’ll be okay. Mom? Mama? I can come back soon. Sunday. Tomorrow.”

“I can’t remember what you look like.”

“Get the photo album and find me, I’m there.”

“You’re not in it,” she’ll say.

“Well, it’s not like I’ve disappeared,” I’ll tell her.


“Maybe if you weren’t so much alike,” Luke says, “it would be easier for you to understand her.”

He opens a book. Presses his knee against mine. Which is to say, I don’t want to end up with your mother. I cross my legs in the opposite direction, which is to say, these are all things I know. I’m not blaming her. He grabs my kneecap, which is to say, relax you’re getting worked up and pulsing there under his hand, I am saying please understand me.

“It’s not her fault,” he says finally, turning a page.


It doesn’t always have to do with Luke. This will be easier to write about. Maybe I can get into it that way. For example, if what I wanted for lunch was a tuna sandwich with pickles and hot sauce, I wouldn’t eat it. Having this sandwich would ruin my breath, so I’d eat ham and cheese instead.

I hate ham and cheese. I hate how ham, when left to its own devices grows slimy in the refrigerator and that the only cheese Luke and I can agree on is tasteless and yellow. Why don’t I eat this sandwich for dinner or as a snack the moment I get home? Why instead, do I sit at my desk smelling what everyone else is eating, feeling sorry for myself? Why do I have to make everything so fucking complicated.

It’s in me to be this woman who brings liverwurst and onions on rye and brushes her teeth in the bathroom with a travel toothbrush. I want to find her and give her permission to floss in public. I want to say fuck it, not brush for a week and let my teeth grow furry and thick with plaque; to be toothless and fearsome and grin wildly at children. What I mean is that there is a dry-wheat ham and cheese hovering over me. That I am trapped. That Luke doesn’t even like hot sauce.

I rehearse things to say to him in my head. Clip your nails anywhere but here. Let’s get a sandwich. I already am my mother. We are ruining each other. I will go down the same way she is, slowing forgetting everything and hurting you with the things I do remember. I’d rather you smash each of your fingers with a hammer so the whole nail falls off and I don’t ever have to see them again. I never really wanted to lose my teeth. That was just something I said.

Melissa Swantkowski lives in New York. You can find her here:

See Melissa’s 5 Things You Should Read in our ongoing contributors’ series.

This Week in Words – Aug 25

by Treehouse Editors

compiled by Rachel Bondurant

I’m just finishing up my undergrad, so this Q & A between The New York Times and the editors of the Norton Anthology of English Literature seemed like a relevant read. The editors did not disappoint. Point of fact: I still have the first literature anthology I was assigned in college (though I regret to say, it is not the Norton Anthology). The reason I included this today is M. H. Abrams’s answer to the question: Why study literature? He responded: “Ha – Why live? Life without literature is a life reduced to penury.” Damn straight, sir.

In a few weeks, Brooklyn will be overrun with book nerds, while I am overrun with envy. The Brooklyn Book Festival will be held September 17-23 and feature a myriad of writers from Salman Rushdie to Malcolm Gladwell and Mary Higgins Clark (of whom I am a huge fan). The organizers anticipate around 40,000 attendees and I, tragically, will not be one of them. Maybe next year.

Did you know you can place a wager on who will win the Nobel Prize in Literature? I’m serious: It’s lumped right in there with football and horse racing. In case you’re curious, it’s 10 to 1 odds on Haruki Murakami, who wrote 1Q84.

Oh brother. This is happening, really happening. Fair warning – the use of “words” like lolz and ridic in my presence will only lead to gratuitous violence.

Last WIW for August. I hate to admit it, but summer is coming to an end. Celebrate the start of a new semester (if that’s your thing) with a Daily Show mash-up of lit-related jokes.

5 Things I’m Reading Now

by a contributor

from Mark Jackley, author of Last Dance at the Sunset Grille
and The Telephone Line Sags:

  1. City of Bohane, Kevin Barry. Yummiest novel I’ve read in a long time. Street fashion + dystopia + gang wars + the Irish tongue. Tarantino meets James Joyce? Dunno, but I really dug it. Barry writes his pasty white ass off. I didn’t really care how the story ended, I just wanted to hear him keep talking.
  2. Wild, Cheryl Strayed. This memoir tracks the author’s fall from well, just about everything, after her fortyish mother’s death from cancer. Picking herself up from smack and nihilistic sex, she decides to solo hike most of the Pacific Crest Trail. As you can guess, the internal journey was just as harrowing.
  3. How to Make a Bird with Two Hands, Mike White. A collection of lovely and surprising little poems, for instance:
    miles from
    anywhere, NV

    head down

    on his back

    but the moon

  4. Bottom of the Thirty-Third, Dan Barry. So, I recently saw the Red Sox at Fenway Park–first time in over 30 years. The next morning in Cambridge, I bought this book and the next one I’ll mention, finishing it on the train back to DC a day later. Bottom of Thirty-Third is the true story of the longest professional baseball game ever played. More interestingly, it explores the hopes and dreams of the players, managers and everyone involved, including Cal Ripken Jr. and Wade Boggs, though it’s the lesser knowns, the almost-made-it’s, who pitch camp in your heart.
  5. Baseball Haiku, Cor Van Den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura, editors. Because:
    rainy night
    a hole in the radio
    where a ballgame should be
             – Ed Markowski
    the bartender’s head
    Game 7

             – Dan McCullough

The Telephone Line Sags

by a contributor

Mark Jackley

Black smile
for every message like
“Your mother is now at peace”

For every stunned recipient
whose mouth still tastes like cardboard

Whose limbs buzz with grief,
for the planetary silence
after hanging up
and shuffling the mail

Big sloppy grin
for any bird that ever
wavered in the wind
and let go

Mark Jackley is the author of several chapbooks, most recently Every Green Word (Finishing Line Press), and a full-length collection, There Will Be Silence While You Wait (Plain View Press). His poems have appeared in Sugar House Review, Pebble Lake Review, Crate, 10×3 Plus and other journals. He lives in Sterling, VA.

See Mark’s list of 5 Things You Should Read in our ongoing contributors’ series.
See also Mark’s other poem, Last Dance at the Sunset Grille.

Last Dance at the Sunset Grille

by a contributor

Mark Jackley

When they closed the bar after 20 some years
I danced with tie-dyed Millie,
I danced with women I didn’t know,
I danced with men accidentally,
I danced with the sweetest rueful grin
for my erotic ambition,
how it would toss its tangled net
over the beer-stained tables,
spilling out to the parking lot,
into old Toyotas,
the backs of Fords and Subarus,
I danced with a toad I saw,
his countenance grave as Sitting Bull
who also seemed to know
in time the fly would come to him,
but I never felt that way,
I’d always slide back into the bar
unable to stop my restless
toes from tapping, though
I could never dance a lick.

Mark Jackley is the author of several chapbooks, most recently Every Green Word (Finishing Line Press), and a full-length collection, There Will Be Silence While You Wait (Plain View Press). His poems have appeared in Sugar House Review, Pebble Lake Review, Crate, 10×3 Plus and other journals. He lives in Sterling, VA.

See also: The Telephone Line Sags.

This Week in Words – Aug 18

by Treehouse Editors

compiled by Rachel Bondurant

Treehouse contributor Brandi Wells (author of “Domesticity”) made the real news this week: CNN. She and some friends took themselves on The Southern Summer Comfort Book Tour (say that three times fast) of the “dirty south” with a little help from small press promoters like The Lit Pub and Vouched Books – and whiskey.

As much as I’d like to, I can’t seem to get on board with podcasts. I can’t keep my brain focused on listening and doing whatever it is I should be doing while I’m listening. But if you like podcasts, The Wall Street Journal has some solid suggestions for the best ones out there about books, authors, writing, and the like.

William Gass surprises everyone by publishing a book for the iPad. It’s a $4.99, 15,000-word essay meant to be read alongside photos by Michael Eastman. This article in The New York Times includes a bit of an interview with Mr. Gass addressing his previously staunch position against the Internet, and how his opinion seems to have evolved – a little. Frankly, I think he comes off as a bit of a curmudgeon, but it only makes me like him the better for it.

I love Jack Handey. The New Yorker and I have that in common. Here’s why.