Busan

A couple of weekends ago we took the train to Busan. Our friend Sarah organized a get together with a group of Kuwait friends. We met at the beach. The kids spent the afternoon in the sand and water. We talked and laughed. The next morning I walked to a Starbucks and sat looking out at the sea. I miss the Gulf in Kuwait. I wrote about that. I wrote about how simple it was to sit next to friends I haven’t sat next to in years. That weekend was essential: I needed to know there is a place in Korea that gives me the Gulf, and I learned again how perfect it is that we remind one another who we were, or who we are, with stories, sharing memory.

Back in Seoul, I drafted a thousand words quickly. I let the draft sit a week. Today I took thirty minutes to halve the piece. The idea is to work swiftly. Develop editing intuition.

In my notebook I am turning over the idea of friends gathering after years. I will likely pull together an essay about that afternoon gathering on the beach because there was a moment when Angela remembered us and I saw how she saw me, and I thought that is such a gift, to remember one another to each other. (I wonder who I am, if composed from the memories of others). I may also work that beach afternoon into a fiction piece.

Below, the revised excerpt (447 words) and the quick draft (1006 words). Thirty of thirty-nine.


We took the train to Busan for the beach. I told my husband that we should spend a Saturday in Busan, just to find a place away from Seoul, a place easy enough to get to by train. Thirty minutes into our trip south, the countryside and smaller cities passing by, Justin said, Good idea, dear. And a few hours later, walking down a side street in Haeundae, I decided Busan is our second place in Korea: we turned a corner and there was the beach, a long run of sand, the sea.

The week before, I laid on my osteopath’s table while he manipulated, coaxed my body into alignment. I began seeing Dr. Joseph after a running injury. My left side was weak, arch to hip. Progress is incremental but my body is more balanced now, stronger, and Dr. Joseph tells me I need to run again. It is like I must teach my body it is healed. At that appointment, Dr. Joseph asked, What is your emotion? 

I miss the Gulf in Kuwait. I miss our Friday walks along the corniche, the kids biking ahead, pausing at playgrounds to climb, jump. I miss the wind and choppy water, the heat shimmer on stone, the occasional and welcome gray day. I miss the palms and grassy spaces families settled, spreading blankets and unpacking carafes of tea, the kids running out from these hubs, and back again for a juice or ice cream money or an afternoon nap. The pace of our walks along the Gulf was only unhurried. 

Our bodies are so much water. Our bodies respond to the presence of water. Dr. Joseph pressed one palm at my back, the other on my hamstring, and held. He said, You should go to the sea. The water calms. I know this from the Gulf, its undulation a meditation. I am finite. I am finite but God is more than sea and sky. 

I did not grow up near an ocean. I grew up with lakes of the midwest. Quiet, mirror surfaces at dawn. Lake Michigan was the wildest water I knew and at oceans after I recognized the belly pull to be near a body I could not contain. I do not need to surf or sail, but only be near the sea. And so at Busan. There was a ledge, a small leap down to the sand. I sat. I rolled my neck, turned my face to the sun. Claire crouched next to me. Mom, she said, We have to come back here. Grant was already at the tide line. Claire jumped to the sand and I watched her return to the sea too.


First Draft

We took the train to Busan for the beach, and to visit with friends. To visit with friends at the beach. I wanted both when I told my husband we should go spend a Saturday in Busan, just to find a place away from Seoul, a place easy enough to get to by train since we do not own a car. We like not owning a car, but for two years we’ve been hemmed in by the subway system. Thirty minutes into our trip south, the countryside and smaller cities passing by, Justin and I decided we should do this again. And a few hours later, checked into our hotel and walking down a side street in Haeundae I thought how this could be our second place in Korea. We could belong here too. We could take the train on a Friday afternoon, sleep, wake up and walk to the beach. 

I miss the Gulf. I miss our lazy Friday or Saturday walks along the corniche, the kids biking or rollerblading ahead, pausing at the playgrounds to climb and jump. I miss the wind and choppy water, the heat shimmer on stone, the occasional and welcome gray day. I miss the palms and wide grassy spaces families would settle, spreading blankets and unpacking carafes of tea. I miss the kids running out from these hubs, and back again for a juice or ice cream money or an afternoon nap. The pace of our walks along the Gulf was only slow. 

Busan is more relaxed than Seoul. I heard this from Koreans and expats. We turned off the side street and there was the beach, a long run of sand, the sea. The water relaxes Busan. My osteopath told me to go to the sea, to be near the water. Our bodies are so much water. Our bodies respond to the presence of water. The water calms us. I know this from the Gulf, its undulation a meditation. I am finite, and this is a reassuring truth. I am finite but God is more than the sea and sky. 

I did not grow up near an ocean. I grew up with lakes of the midwest, swimming the width of one at summer camp. Lake Michigan was the wildest water I knew and at oceans after I recognized the belly pull to be near a body I could not contain. I do not need to surf or sail, but only sit, be near the sea. And so at Busan. There was a ledge, a leap down to the sand, and I sat. Claire crouched next to me. Mom, she said, We have to come back here. 

Our friends arrived. The day was warm, bright. All week was cold, they said, We had rain. We sat in a line on the ledge, talking about the years in Korea, or remembering Kuwait, naming old friends and where they were now. Our kids and the Nelson kids reacquainted themselves and chased after one another, built a sand city below the tide line, looked for crabs, collected shells and thought they found a shark egg. We filled in the years. Iain and Angela’s child was a toddler when I last saw him. There were two children whom I hadn’t met before, belonging to a couple who moved to Brazil after Kuwait, and then to their hometown in Canada. Why did you leave? I asked Scotty. He laughed. Years of dinner conversations about when we should move abroad again, he said. So they sold their house. We’re international now, he said. Sarah set out snacks on the ledge, and Justin went to the GS25 for beers, and the sky moved to early evening.

For a time I sat next to Angela. I remember going to your apartment, she said, And setting Jameson down in a little chair. Grant was there. I remember your baking, she said, and asked if I still bake. In Kuwait I baked bread, cakes, bars, cookies and carried plates to neighbors. I once spent eight hours baking a single cake, whisking salted caramel and remaking the ganache, whipping buttercream that didn’t break. But I don’t bake often now. It was odd to sit on a beach in Busan and remember that in Kuwait I sifted powdered sugar and fine almond meal half a dozen times before folding the ingredients into macaron batter. Remember me back to me. When I think of Angela there are a handful of vignettes I keep, but one I go to first, of an evening I stopped at her apartment because I thought of her, due soon. We stood in the arc of the open door. She kept a hand at her belly. I’m ready, she said, or, I am so ready. Her son was born the next day, and at his doljanchi a year later, I watched him lean forward, reaching for his future. 

Later at dinner, Christy looked at our four children drawing together. Look at them, she said, and I did. Two years is not so long. We ordered hommos, tabbouleh, fattoush, kebab, shawarma, curries, Lebanese bread and naan. We ordered what we missed from Kuwait.

Before we parted that night, Christy said, You know what Elsie remembered about Claire? She remembered a kitty cat game they played. Claire would be the mama cat with all her kittens. I looked at Elsie, two years taller with more of her father’s expression on her face now. The kitty game, I said, I remember the kitty game! When would I have remembered the kitty game if Elsie had not remembered it first? How good to be with people who give us our stories. We said goodbye, promised to meet again, and soon. The next day we met the Love family at the same beach and I thought again how long and short the time apart is, how easily we can slip into conversation again, how simple our kids are about reestablishing a dynamic. We spot the easy change. We recognize the core of friendship.

56 Words

Over the summer two things happened. First I wanted to quit trying. Like quit quit. Trying was getting me nowhere. And then in August, a turn. New impatience to move on, be okay again. This was a relief, the furious impatience. Reckon the circumstance. Reckon the heart.

(I want to rage, really. I have this desire to scream, to be out with all the anger, hurt and fear. I want to rage until peace settles my body).

Recently a friend called me on seeing only myself in a certain situation. And he was right. I saw my frustration, my dissatisfaction. I could not think beyond my own want rooted in insecurity. The past year (longer) I have struggled to accept loss forever, yes, but also to accept those good things I hold. But along the way I discounted how who I am where I am affects those nearest me, so inside of my suffering that I could lack empathy for others.

A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with my son that made me think about how my kids experience – I don’t know how to talk about this. I can articulate how depression works for me, what my body and mind feel like. But I wonder at what it means for my daughter and son to see their mother as frail or sad or apathetic or afraid or angry, what it means for them to watch me work out the mess of my mind, hold slim hope, keep a faith that looks like letting go.


You know how I am sometimes sad – a question or statement. A late afternoon when I sit with my son. We lean together on the couch, look ahead. A lot of the times, he says. Earlier I cried, and he knows. For a year I’ve wept. It is a lot. He is right. We wait. Hold.


Twenty-nine of thirty-nine. Fifty-six words. From an old exercise: tell a story in ten sentences. First sentence has ten words, second has nine words, and so on. The last sentence is a single word.

Right To Be Forgotten

This year I have been thinking about memory. This is the first year I have noticed what I don’t remember, when my daughter or son brings up a place we visited, or when I flip through a years old notebook and read a conversation I could not have called up without the script before me. A friend talked about the unwillingness of social media to allow forgetting, putting before us our own names and stories that seem lived by another, or far away. Memory is a gift, but so is forgetting.

Shortly after reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, I listened to Radiolab’s “Right to be Forgotten” podcast about journalists in Cleveland, Ohio trying to decided who has that right, in their online paper. Listen to the piece. Before the episode was over I had an idea for a flash fiction piece. While I had fun writing this, the issue is very un-fun for a lot people.


Dear Sir or Madam:
I am nobody’s girlfriend

Dear Sir or Madam:
I haven’t been anyone’s girlfriend for over a decade.

Dear Editorial Board:
This afternoon my daughter

This afternoon my twelve year old daughter came home from school and asked why I dated a drug dealer before I married Daddy. I must have looked like I was going to throw up because she put a hand on my arm and leaned close to say, “It’s going to be okay, Mom. Take a breath. There you go.” And then she gave my arm a squeeze and pat. She is a delight, she is. What is not a delight is that my seventh grader knows her mother

knows her mommy

I dated one of the Midwest’s more industrious criminal minds for about six months in 2006. That is really all that is relevant here. I dated Marco Linney. I asked my daughter how she learned this. “We thought it’d be fun to google our parents,” she said. I asked if she won. She did. Everyone else’s mom knew better than to get involved with a man who carried three phones and a Blackberry. 

Really I had no idea what Marco was up to. He was a gentleman. He picked me up from class on Friday afternoons and drove me to the spa for a standing appointment I still miss. This is the spa through which he distributed gobs of opioids, yes. While I was getting a paraffin dip or a hot stone massage or a seaweed facial, Marco was behind a curtain down the hall doling out tidy bundles of pills and powders. I sat for approximately fifty thousand hours of police interviews but my only time on the witness stand was to confirm my many spa appointments, compliments of Marco, and to add that I did not witness anything nefarious. Which is true. And which also gave way to public public speculation that I was either in on it or so dumb I shouldn’t breed. (Never read the comments, even a decade later).

After the trial my cousin gave me a box set of The Wire seasons one through three. If my parents had had an HBO subscription I would have either avoided this episode completely or been knowingly complicit (and so so rich, living unfettered on an island the IRS cannot touch). 

There is one photo of me in the courtroom. I glowed with the rose cheeks and lips of the soon martyred.

My point is this: After the trial I met my husband who is my husband partly because of the aforementioned twelve year old daughter. I kept my name because his is worse. I was in this fog of new (very young) motherhood. And then we gave the girl a sibling, and then I returned to school to finish my degree, and the entire time Marco was far away. I really only think of him when I dab on a mask that never exfoliates as much as promised, or when I paint my own nails, and I do neither very often.

Three years ago I applied for thirteen jobs and no one called for an interview. I think I know why now. But I didn’t chase anything because I got pregnant with the littlest one (surprise!) and reentered that new motherhood fog. But last month I woke up one night and made a plan. I found thirteen new jobs (I like the number) and drafted cover letters. By the time the kids were up for school, I was ready to email prospective employers a robust cover letter and thin resume. I channeled the hope of Oprah. 

The hope of Oprah will be no help to me. I googled myself (first time for everything) and the top results are articles published in the online edition of your paper and its syndicates. Members of the Editorial Board, I am formally and desperately requesting you remove my name and photo from any article referencing Marco Linney or the Rox Pharmaceutical scandal. Please also remove my name and photo from the lifestyle article chronicling “hot crime sidekicks.” That should not even be a thing. 

I cannot say the pain and anguish caused by the decade plus of my name publicly linked with Marco Linney. I really have no idea the cost. At least twenty-six possible interviews, and very likely one nix on the neighborhood counsel run I attempted during the infancy of the littlest one when I was dying for a reason to leave the couch once every two weeks. But now that I know the specter of my poor relationship choice (poor only in hindsight: as stated, Marco was a gentleman) will dog me

Please. Sincerely,
Emily G–


Twenty-eight of thirty-nine. 788 words.

Drive Search

I am now going back through old drafts I started this year but haven’t posted yet. This summer I started a First Sentence Second Sentence exercise – the idea was to generate a first sentence to pair with five different second sentences, and then to write a story from each. I drafted three of the five, only typing two of the three. The one lost to my notebook(s) I want to find again because I liked the alternative space I created, a world whose best currency is a good secret.

Here are the first and second sentences from the exercise:

  • Her own family secret was not enough. Already there were too many novels or memoirs about illegitimate children. See below.
  • Her own family secrets were not enough. Diane needed a better currency. Started in notebook(s).
  • Her own family secret was not enough. Her grandparents insisted Diane could have learned that detail about the Ford truck from a newspaper and hollered her down from the porch that she was lying, and what did she want anyway? Modified first sentence after the story became something different.
  • Her own family secrets were not enough. Diane made grave rubbings of the entire Czewalski corner of the cemetery and spent hours in the public library squinting at the tiny print of period newspapers until she found the story about an axe down a well. 
  • When her own family secrets were not enough, Diane stole mine. Now I gotta answer questions all day from people like you who email or call or won’t leave until I answer the door. 

And now, the untitled (are we surprised?) twenty-seven of thirty-nine, at 989 words:


Her own family secret was not enough. Already there were too many novels or memoirs about illegitimate children. And it wasn’t like Diane’s great-grandmother had an affair with a mobster or movie star. Evelyn loved a migrant worker. It was the Dust Bowl. Diane opened her laptop and began typing what she could remember, that the boy was raised as Evelyn’s younger brother but the secret slipped on the eve of her wedding. And even then, there was no scandal. She married and her husband proposed her son join them in their new life and that was it. They moved to a farming town on the Wisconsin Illinois border. Diane closed her laptop. That was not a novel. She pecked a message to her friends, to meet for dinner and bring a family secret. 

I need new material, she said, when drinks were served. Drew chewed his thumbnail. Really, Diane said, I can’t do another Abigail book. Please. Abigail Raider was a series Diane started during her junior year of college. It was going to be a trilogy. Then she tacked on a fourth book because the copies kept selling and she wanted to go to Hawaii. But the thought of a fifth book brought on mild panic. She didn’t want to be just that kind of author, writing a character to death, writing in a genre she’d only tried on as a lark. But now she knew young adult fantasy and girls wrote gobs of fanfiction and school librarians asked her to speak and Diane hid in fear: she’d accidentally gotten good at peridwarves, sniggledragons, swampy meadows, fairy genealogy, and exasperated teenage sexual tension. Book four gave her readers the kiss they’d all been waiting for. Please, Diane said again.

Angie took a sip of her wine. You asked for family secrets, she said, I’ve got one. My father robbed a bank when he was seventeen. He was high. He was also a judge’s kid, got community service. Expunged record.

Diane took a small notebook from her bag. Can you say that again?
No. And don’t tell anyone. Angie took another sip of wine.
The point is I need a story. I could take that and make a novel. It’s exactly what I’m looking for! 
I get a split, Angie said.
Fine.
In writing. Angie waited a moment before smiling. Kidding. Just, really no one can know that’s my dad.

Of course. Diane scribbled what she could remember. Drew raised his hand. I’ve got something, he said, My uncle hanged himself. Diane waited. That’s it? she asked. That’s enough to start a story, Drew said. Diane made a note. Quinn said, Drew’s right. You need a nudge. You don’t need an outline. You’re the writer, you do the work. Quinn glanced at Drew and he winked.

Wait, Diane said, What’s that mean, you’re the writer? You write. 
Nothing, Quinn said, Just the figure it out part. That’s the point. 
It’s the reward of being a writer, you figuring it all out, Angie said. 
Drew shrugged. 
I mean, what’s wrong with what you’ve got going on? Angie asked.
It’s not what I want to write, Diane said.
But it pays.
It pays.
You got a tan. Drew raised his glass and they drank. 
Just don’t whinge, Quinn said, about how successful your dystopian romance weird underworld books are. 
But they aren’t what I want to write anymore.
Then don’t. Quinn opened the menu. I’m starving. 

They ordered. Diane listened to her friends talk about their work. As an office temp, an elementary school teacher, and an IT worker. In university she and Quinn studied English together and both submitted manuscripts to a contest the year Abigail got picked up for publication. What sells, she remembered asking Quinn. Harry Potter. Twilight. True crime. Romance. Yes, romance. Fantasy. And when Diane said she’d write that, Quinn double-dog-dared her and Abigail Raider took a shadow shape. Now Diane wondered if she’d betrayed the genre by beginning her work with skepticism and, worse, condescension, and if her readers would hate her for abandoning Abigail and Teo at the start of their love story and in the middle of Tallyway’s attack on the peridwarves. But when she and Quinn imagined being writers they had brains full of Flannery O’Connor, Hemingway, Joyce, dead writers and alive, serious writers who won awards and gave commencement speeches. Diane ate her burger without tasting the mustard and onion. Quinn was still writing. She sent pieces to obscure online magazines. All of her work was difficult to read but good. Diane took a drink of water and a waitress materialized to refill the sip. Drew was laughing at something Angie said and Quinn picked fries off Drew’s plate and Diane thought she could get up from the table, walk out the door and not be missed. 

Hey, Quinn said. She snapped her fingers across the table. Hey!
Diane shook her head, blinked.
Something in your drink? You look gone.
I’m fine, Diane said. She looked at Angie who liked Abigail, who dressed as Abigail for Halloween once. I think, Diane said, I think I’ll do a fifth book. Tie up the loose ends. 

Angie clapped. Drew raised his glass. Quinn nodded like she’d been expecting Diane’s conclusion. You did it right, Quinn said, Abigail sells. Diane shrugged. She said, After the fifth book, I want to try something else. But first Diane wanted to go to Abigail with a kind heart. First she wanted to visit a few schools, read the fan fiction. First she wanted to be sure she lived in the genre she wanted to move away from. Diane let her shoulders relax. She smiled. Quinn returned her smile. You can do this, Quinn said, and to Angie, I like that story about your dad. I might steal it. Angie laughed. Then Drew asked Quinn about her family secret and the night out was like any other.

Ms. Avery’s Serial

Likely the last of this I will post, though I will continue to write the story. So twenty-six of thirty-nine with 1714 words (624 new).


On her drive to Colorado, Jennifer stopped a night in Nebraska. She went through a McDonald’s drive thru and watched half an episode of CSI Miami before turning off the television. The motel was near the interstate. There was the hum of traffic, even that late, and the sounds of a family just arriving two or three doors down, and a ringing in her ears brought on, she guessed, but driving at ninety with the windows rolled down and the radio cranked. She remembered to call her mom. Later, signing the lease in Denver, and then the teaching contract, seeing Pete for an evening that closed with a handshake, spending a Sunday night meal prepping for the week, purchasing a coral cardigan from a shop her mom liked, deciding that she would be Ms. Avery even if she married (someone, someday) – later, Jennifer would feel like an adult but that night in the motel she considered driving back to Wisconsin. Her job was gone. Her classroom was already someone else’s. The last week of school she told her students she was moving west, like it was an adventure, and she wrote her personal email on the board, promised to write back, thanked them for such a great year of learning together. The news traveled through the grades and her former students stopped by to write their emails on slips of paper Jennifer tucked into a manila envelope. In Nebraska Jennifer was afraid she would not be as loved ever again. 

But she was loved again, by childlike eleven and twelve year olds who wrote fantastical stories or single sentences in the course of two hours, who played Bananagrams, who brought tamales to share. A dozen of her Wisconsin students emailed that first year, and fewer in the second year, and then it was only Vanessa sending out a line every year or two as she graduated university, married, had a baby, surpassing Jennifer who dated occasionally and thought her students were babies enough. Vanessa continued to address Jennifer as Ms. Avery, though Jennifer signed her replies with Best, Jennifer. Best, but far away. 

Vanessa’s emails were mostly bright, a little gossipy, returning Jennifer to names and situations she would otherwise forget. I went to the five year reunion at Riley Lake which was a mistake, Vanessa wrote, because Bethie came up to me when I was talking to Del like she thought I was coming on to him. I’m only telling you this Ms. Avery because you were there when I broke up with him. And now I’m engaged so I showed Bethie the ring and she said out of nowhere that her and Del slept together while he was dating me. Jennifer read that email during a lull at the cafe one morning. She remembered Bethie at the high school commencement practice, rolling her eyes at the partners, glaring when Vanessa laughed at something Del said. And after the ceremony when all the families gathered in the foyer, spilled onto the school’s lawn, when Jennifer moved from student to student to wish the best, shake hands, offer brief side hugs, she found Del and Bethie standing together, Bethie wearing heels she tottered on and a brown lipstick. Stunning, Jennifer said, and Bethie smirked. So Vanessa’s emails were like a rope that went slack for a time but snapped tight to connect Jennifer again to this other time. She was surprised by what Vanessa would confess, maybe a holdover from the journal practice Jennifer instilled in each class, the permission to write anything. Jennifer wrote back a congratulations on the engagement, and observed Vanessa was the exact age she’d been when she moved to Cross Plains to teach her first class ever.

Ms. Avery’s Serial

At university I had a professor who shared that he drafted maybe three hundred words a day on whatever was his current work in progress. I remember thinking that was so little. But there is an advantage to manageable, steady drafting.

I like to think of my writing practice as all inclusive. But while my writing practice may include drafts or ideas, the majority of that tiny cursive is readying me to write the pieces I want to write. So I may write a thousand words of observation, prayer, worry, repetitive thought, fragmented ideas or plans before netting two hundred words to keep. When I get the chance to rip through two thousand words on a draft, awesome. I love it. It’s rare.

Most days, if I’m working on a project, I manage five hundred or less (usually less) words, a doable pace that keeps me interested in but not overwhelmed by the narrative, giving me time between drafting to think about what to write next. Some of that thinking lands in my notebook as questions or lists until I am ready to focus on the work again. When I draft like this, the piece can feel like blocks. I draft the part of the narrative I am thinking about, which isn’t always the part that will come next in a finished piece.


I don’t know what happened, Vanessa wrote, I didn’t see Del much since I moved to Eau Claire but he and Bethie were married for five years and after they were married she still called me sometimes to tell me to stay out of their lives but I was always okay that they were together. Jennifer closed her eyes. Read that sentence aloud, Van, she would have said in the classroom. Vanessa would have hooked her feet around the chair legs of her desk and read aloud. I don’t know what happened. I didn’t – I haven’t seen Del much since moving to Eau Claire but – no, that’s the sentence. 

Jennifer moved to Denver, but not into Pete’s apartment. She interviewed with three schools and took a part-time position co-teaching sixth grade language arts at a charter school, and picked up early morning shifts at a coffee shop in her neighborhood. She learned enough Spanish to talk a little with her students’ parents but mostly communicated with the kids’ older siblings or social workers. There was a pleasant split between her morning and afternoon. The morning was steady, fast, and steady again, and Jennifer learned the usual orders of a couple dozen regulars within the first two weeks. Her hands and feet were always moving and she needed a good stretch before biking to the yellow brick rectangle that housed the charter school. But once there, the day was like sitting at a kitchen table, the administrators keen to nurture students, casual about test scores, trusting teachers to set the pace of their curriculum. Jennifer’s co-teacher was Karl, a man in his fifties who drank chamomile tea no matter the time. That first year at the school he invited Jennifer to join him for a weekend of making the space work, as he said, and they drove around to thrift stores looking for lamps, coffee tables and cheap, clean couches. When they found three hammocks, Karl said it was a good thing he had a concrete drill in the garage. 


Still twenty-six of thirty-nine, 339 new words for 1090 total.

Ms. Avery’s Serial

Still twenty-six of thirty-nine, with 751 words so far (328 new today). Not much to show for two hours of note form drafting. I’m working out the story of Del and Bethie. But I can’t put that together yet. I need to stay with Jennifer rather than stray from her point of view.


Jennifer left Cross Plains to follow her ex-boyfriend to Denver. In college half their friends talked about heading west for the climbing or the mountains, and Jennifer wondered if this yearn for adventure was a trickle down doubt in Norwegian and German family lines who hadn’t pressed west a hundred and fifty years earlier. After graduation, Jennifer and Pete, like most of their friends, took the first jobs offered in Wisconsin, Minnesota or Illinois. But after three years in Cross Plains Pete quit his job, packed his hatchback to the roof, and left. If I have to do another winter here, he said, and shuddered. It was August, the start of Jennifer’s fourth school year with the district, and she’d just arrived back to their apartment after the first day of inservice. I can’t just leave! she said. She pointed at the flowers in a vase on the kitchen table. I thought – I thought you were proposing, she said. Pete shrugged. They were fifty percent off at the grocery store, he said, Sorry. 

Even so, they parted amicably. That winter Jennifer was probably as depressed as Pete had been the previous winter, seeing only the churches, bars and snowmobile trails. At school she was bright and continued to stay late to help student council run the concession stand at basketball games or wrestling matches. She revamped curriculum, attended professional development courses. She wrote college recommendation letters for the seniors who had continued to drop by her room through their sophomore and junior years. My babies! she had teased Vanessa and Del when they asked her for letters. At home Jennifer went to bed within an hour of locking the door. Finally she called Pete to ask did he mind if she joined him? By the fourth quarter when Vanessa came to her after school crying because Del broke up with her, Jennifer was starting to guess why most teachers quit during their first five years in the profession.

Making More Work, But The Best Kind

Today is my first Flash Five story. The cheapest way to knock out five pieces, remember? I biked to Shinsegae this morning, sat with an iced latte and a blank page. Yesterday I was subbing in a grade four classroom and during the writing workshop a boy sat near me on the floor, spinning in a tight circle and whispering to me that he didn’t know what to write. Just start writing, I whispered back, and your mind will give you a story. I thought of that kid this morning. I wrote through two pages before starting a story. And one (long) paragraph in I realized it isn’t a flash fiction piece and I wasn’t going to unravel the characters in an hour. So I’m interrupting Flash Five before it’s begun and will instead post this untitled start serially for the next couple of days.


One of Jennifer’s former students emailed her about the murder. Vanessa Ridge neé Speth, a student in her freshman English class who was now a nutritionist and last emailed to announce the birth of a son, a year or two ago. Vanessa – all of her first freshmen – were now older than Jennifer had been when she moved to Cross Plains to begin her teaching career. The first year of teaching is supposed to be a nightmare but hers was not. She stayed late nearly every day, wrote lengthy responses to even banal notebook entries, cajoled Jeremiah to write one more paragraph, found audiobooks for Amber, decorated her classroom with literary quotes and twinkle lights, bought floor pillows and beanbags for Reading Fridays, stocked her class library with YA bestsellers and graphic novels. She let students bring their lunches to her room, spent one prep period taking on a study hall. Jennifer adored the need of her kids. She kept granola bars and crackers in a filing cabinet, half pints of milk in her mini dorm fridge. She listened to hour long recounts of family drama, and placed a hand on the shoulder of a student near or in tears, sat across many of those same confessing students in the counselor’s office as next steps were determined. (Her boyfriend called these kids her rescue project, and so what if they were?) Other students, like Vanessa who thought to email her a decade after that freshman English class, were bright with hope, excited to be in high school, arriving the first day wearing unscuffed shoes and toting backpacks full of clean spiral notebooks. These were the students who revived a dead socratic seminar, remembered to MLA format their essays, and returned books with an expectation to discuss what Jennifer thought too, before asking for another recommendation. Jennifer loved doling out, and her kids gave in return: cookies baked over the weekend, an invitation to a quinceañera, nods in the hall or calls out at a football game – Ms. Avery! Ms. Avery! Over here! – with introductions to parents (who never replied to her class updates emails), handwritten notes delivered in person the day before summer break, and later, hugs and ecstatic smiles at graduation. Jennifer stayed in Cross Plains four years to see Vanessa and her class graduate. Rereading the email, Jennifer remembered now that Del was Vanessa’s processional partner, and that the woman who would murder him was then only a girl named Bethie who was partnered with Jeremiah, and following a few paces back.


Twenty-six of thirty-nine. 423 word start!

Dropping It

Last week I started reading a book I wanted to like. I read the first page, the fragments a good turn from the long, winding sentences of the previous book. But I couldn’t find the place. I read the second chapter, a new narrator, the chapters trading voices, but then came two chapters of the same voice, and neither voice was well enough distinguished except by their individual thoughts – no defining stylistic choices, only that the man had this work, the woman had this thought. I have been reading widely lately, reading to examine what I might do as a writer too. But I still quit the book, picked up another I read in three days – a plural narrator, something I try occasionally but haven’t figure out.

My ThirtyNine Stories project ends in two months. I have fifteen pieces to write. Yesterday I thought about looking up the parameters I set and decided against the reminder: there is something, I am certain, about ten thousand word stories (as in more than one) and I haven’t put one together. There are stories I am mapping, but not for this project. In February I decided to apply to MFA programs but wasn’t ready to slam together a portfolio in three weeks so I have only just applied to begin next semester. I am not yet accepted. But deciding to pursue an MFA and thinking about my writing from a more professional perspective, and a conversation with an old friend this summer has made me more protective of some of my work. Which means that some of my better, recent work is only mine right now.

Yet I will post a thirty-ninth story in early November. Last week I thought about how to make that happen. I am always making up some writing assignment for myself so two ideas came fast: Five Flash and Snapshots. Five Flash is the cheapest way I can think of to knock out five pieces: starting next Saturday I’ll post one story a day for five days. To prep I’ll write first sentences, maybe second sentences. Snapshots comes from writing practice I did a couple of weeks ago when I thought about the little green house my family rented after we returned to Wisconsin from Italy. For the practice of writing place and period, I want to write about three of my childhood places.

Back to dropping it. The piece I’m posting below is a start I’ll likely never finish. I was thinking about Bonnie and Clyde. I was thinking about grandparents robbing banks to pay their granddaughter’s college tuition. They have to get caught. The sprees they got away with in their youth are just not possible in a world of GPS, surveillance, web sleuths. I still like the idea but am dropping it for now. I held it for a fun minute though.


Her grandfather hollered down from the porch that she was lying, and what did she want anyway? I’m not lying, Diane yelled back, And I only came out here to tell you I saw it on TV! Her grandfather, who kept the pantry stocked with peanut M&Ms for her, who remembered her half birthday with a twenty dollar bill, who called her sweetpea even though she was nearly twenty years old, her grandfather took a shade of red and hollered she best be on her way. Next to him, her grandmother leaned over the porch rail like she might leap, leaning like the forward motion might propel them all to a better understanding. Diane took a step back, reaching for her bike, pushing off and pedaling as furiously away from the old farmhouse as she had, minutes before, pedaled toward the same. Near the road, Diane turned to look over her shoulder. Her grandmother with both hands, palms flat, on her grandfather’s chest, face tilted up. Her grandfather with rare, unkind strength, hands at his sides. It was their truck Diane saw in the corner frame of surveillance footage from the bank. The truck that pulled flatbed floats in the homecoming, Fourth of July, and Dairy Days parades, the truck that stopped at empty four way intersections, the truck that rarely tipped past fifty-seven miles an hour even on a flat stretch of county highway. 

Diane was at Abigail’s when the news came on, the two girls microwaving popcorn to celebrate the summer home after a freshman year away to different UW campuses. At breaks during the year they had met to do this too, make popcorn and talk. About classmates who dropped at semester or broke up or got pregnant, about classes and what a bitch all that reading is now, how a C may as well be an A at university, about newly acquired or considered piercings or tattoos, about sending nudes once, about drinking beer versus vodka, about still going to mass. Diane hadn’t shed the strictures of her upbringing but the ties were loosening and Abigail’s stories were a peek at what sophomore year might contain. Diane was wary though. Her mother was manic depressive and Diane was raised in two homes during her middle and high school years, after her father fled, her mother’s small, high ceilinged apartment in an old brick building on the square, housed above the small, nearly extinguished town paper, and her maternal grandparents’ sprawling acreage two miles outside of town, the bordering fields leased out to other farmers now. Diane had started the summer at her mother’s apartment in town, selfishly because her mother was less attentive and Diane liked the freedom of hours she’d discovered at university. Her mother, at the moment Diane saw the news story in Abigail’s house, had no idea where Diane was, and couldn’t remember seeing her daughter the day before either.  

It was her grandfather’s truck. Diane recognized the decal on the back window. An unusual, unique decal, the reporter said. Stick figures of a man, woman, girl and four cats. The decal, enlarged and enhanced, and the make and model of the truck was featured on local newscasts across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. Investigators were fairly certain this exact truck was at the scenes of bank robberies in the three states, the earliest seven years before when the truck was new off the lot. The microwave dinged but neither Diane nor Abigail moved to retrieve the bag. Both girls had drifted from the kitchen to the living room and stood numb before the gigantic flatscreen as the female anchor held her grave expression before a commercial cut in. Oh my God, Abigail said and pulled her phone from the back pocket of her jean shorts, thumb typing a search. Oh my God, Diane, it’s Papa and Nana. Look. She held out her phone and Diane looked at the silhouette of her grandparents sitting in the Ford truck at an Illinois toll booth. Police seek to identify suspects in tristate robberies. If you have information call. Investigators crossed state lines to piece together elaborate pattern of robberies. Diane put a hand to her mouth. The microwave dinged again and this time Diane moved, running out to the driveway where she’d parked her bike, hopping on, shoving off to race to Papa and Nana’s.

Papa and Nana didn’t believe in television, and that’s how they explained it when Diane asked could they please get a TV, at least for weekends. They did believe in internet though, even when it was molasses dial up. But even when they couldn’t get an internet contract without a cable contract, Papa and Nana resisted buying a television, compromising at watching the occasional movie on Diane’s laptop set on the coffee table. So when Diane arrived at her grandparents’ farmhouse, they hadn’t seen the news story about their truck, the link to half a dozen (or more) robberies, the decals everyone would now look for (the decals the whole town would know immediately, without the picture proof). You rob banks! Diane yelled before she’d even parked her bike. Banks! Her Papa and Nana  were on the porch with the cats, as they were most summer evenings.


Twenty-five of thirty-nine. 877 words.

He Sat Across From Me

An essay from Starbucks. Sit long enough and an essay comes along, I suppose. As I drafted this I thought about tense. I kept the conversation past but I use present tense at points. I like writing conversations in present – that’s why I decided to write this one in past, for the practice, and to see what it feels like after.


This young man sat across from me. He asked, as he pulled the chair from the table, and I nodded as he sat, folded and unfolded his arms across his chest, dropped his hands to his lap. He looked at me directly and said he liked my hair. He thought my hair was beautiful. My husband thinks my hair is beautiful. He tells me he loves the color. The day this young man sat across from me I wore my hair down. Maybe it can be beautiful. This young man introduced himself with an English name, Sean. I asked why he came over to me. 

You look interesting, he said, And a little – cute. 

On the table between us was my notebook and a novel I was reading and my iced latte. If Sean dipped his head he could have sipped from my straw. I moved the glass closer to me. I said thank you. Then I looked at him. Smooth skin, sparse whiskers at his chin and cheeks. A good haircut. Slender arms, tapered fingers. How old are you, I asked. 

How old do you think I am?
I’m not playing that game.
He told me he is over twenty. I said, Well, I am much older.
That doesn’t bother me. 

I rested my elbows on the table so he could see my rings and he nodded at my hand. What is the story of that ring, he asked.
The story is I’m married, I said.
He nodded. Are you a teacher here?
I nodded.
Where? At an international school?
Yes, at an international school. When I said the name of the school he knew it, knew people who went there. I asked about his schooling, what he was studying now.
What Trump learned before he became president.
I played nice. Business?
Sean nodded.
What kind of business are you interested in? Like, do you want to manage a business, start your own? What will you do?
I want to be like Elon Musk. I want to work with space travel.

He was disappointed when I told him he is the second young man in as many months here who has expressed interest in working with space travel. The first was a graduate I talked with about his future plans, for an alumni post on the school website. Sean, I wanted to say, get over it. A lot of boys want to build a rocket or fund a rocket or ride in a rocket. Sean, I wanted to say, I am being respectful to you but this whole conversation will go nowhere and you’ll walk away feeling a little dumb. Not because I make you feel dumb but because you’ll realize you just spun a fantasy into halting conversation. Sean, I wanted to say, I am not mean enough to tell you to fuck off.

Really, what were my plans for the fifteen minutes he sat across from me? I was midway through a dark thought. I had already regretted wearing eyeliner and mascara when I hadn’t brought a make-up bag for touch ups. Before Sean sat across from me I pulled a long breath through my nose and told myself not to cry, just get through the day without crying in public. Later, in bed with my husband, I said that if an older man had sat across from me, I might have been flattered. Instead I wondered if this was a joke, or a dare. The Starbucks was full of students, clustered around an open text or gossiping or snapping photos of their drinks. 

Sean rubbed his chin. It is only fair I ask you how old you are, he said, since you asked me.
I’m thirty-eight.
You don’t look thirty-eight.

I wanted to say, I feel thirty-eight. I do not feel twenty-nine or twenty-five, or any other elastic age. I feel very thirty-eight. I may be exactly halfway through my life, I wanted to say, or nearer to dead than that. But Sean did not betray surprise. He repeated that age did not matter to him. 

When I was twenty I started running again after a year or so of eating Chinese take out and drinking beer. One of my first runs was eight miles and I nearly threw up. I just made myself keep running around the lake eight loops. When I was twenty I was a double major in English and history, with a minor in writing, but I’d drop the history major two or three classes short, swapped for education methods courses. When I was twenty I started going to the Lincoln Hills juvenile correction facility to lead poetry writing workshops with troubled, criminal boys who were not allowed to say last names. When I was twenty I thought I would write poetry forever. 

I am writing poetry forever. I think how to write all of this, and before I string a sentence, I float in phrases and dashes, poetry enough.

I waited for Sean to decide our conversation was through. He asked how I liked it in Seoul. He asked what I thought of the culture. We talked about school. I said that I taught in South America and the Middle East before, and that people are people. I said I liked it here. We talked about the pressure people feel here, the students to earn a grade, the parents to raise whatever kind of child, the professional expectations. I wondered if Sean thought about failing at his space venture. I wondered if failure could be trend here. Fail forward. Fail fast, fail often. But I did not ask. I did not feel like extending our conversation. Instead I wanted to return to my own dark thought, or read the novel still open between Sean and me.

As abruptly as Sean sat down, he stood. He thanked me for my time. I said it was nice to meet him and wished him a good rest of the day. He took the stairs up and after his legs were gone from view I stared at the space he’d just been, the empty chair. I wanted to turn to ask the young women nearby did they see that, hear that? What was that? I was thinking about failure or flattery and couldn’t concentrate on the novel. The day was hot but I wasn’t out in it. When I was twenty there was a man at least ten years older than me. He smelled like cigarettes and read my poetry. We sat next to one another and if he ever guessed I wanted to taste the cigarettes on his tongue he was too kind to say.


Twenty-three of thirty-nine. 1111 words!