Saturday, January 24, 2015

A Question of Time

Last year I finished a novel called The Ballad of Two Sisters. I have been submitting it to contests and small presses, and though there have been no takers yet, initial reactions have been positive. This is what I remember about writing the novel: I sat down every morning and I wrote and it was not difficult to live in that world with those people. I wrote steadily and happily. The characters were extensions of myself; I knew them intimately and could see their lives from birth to death.

It has never been my business to let characters die, but in this novel, one of the characters dies. I spent days writing around his death until I realized the problem with it: I could not let him die alone. I loved him too much. He hung on growing sicker until I came to that realization. Finally, I put his wife in the room with him. She held his hand. He died. I cried as though I had lost a beloved.

Now that the novel has been finished for several months and my first collection of short stories, Six Months in the Midwest, has been edited, published, and promoted, I decided to go back to the short story, which has been my favorite form since I was a child. With a sense of relief, I imagined getting back into my normal writing routine. Most mornings I wake up, exercise, read, then drink tea and write. I looked forward to the linear progression of storytelling, to doing the thing that has always made me feel best about myself: making something.

But more often than not in these past few months, I find excuses not to write or not to finish what I am writing. I have never experienced such acute blankness when staring at a computer screen or a notebook page. Everything comes out in vignettes or scenes and as much as I try, I cannot seem to find the roads that lead these fragments to one another. This is the dark side of the short story, one that I seem to have forgotten about in the year or more I worked almost exclusively on the novel.

Since these troubles began, I have been trying to diagnose the problem. Have I simply lost my ability to work in this form? What is it that I have forgotten? I put myself on a diet of books that I thought would help, eclectic of course, since I always find reading in different genres to be best. I have been reading William Trevor, Cormac McCarthy, Jim Moore, Nikki Finney. In other words, I’m eating healthy food, I’m exercising, so why am I ill?

Yesterday I had a tooth pulled out, a large molar that had already been treated with a root canal and crowned. It had become reinfected six years after healing. This morning I ate real food again – a scrambled egg with spinach and cheese and half of a grapefruit. While I was cooking this food just for myself, something I do with a strange and secret pleasure, I came back to the central problem. What I thought of was this: it is a question of time. Like the body taking its time to heal, so it is with letting go of past work and starting new. Here I am now with Rusty and Eli and Matthew and Bud and Elaine and Pauline and Stephanie who all live in a small Wisconsin river town, a town that now is locked in winter. People do not go out much. They nod at each other but do not stop to talk. And so Rusty and Eli and Matthew and Bud and Elaine and Pauline and Stephanie are still strangers to me. I do not know them yet, cannot know them yet. I am learning about them in fits and starts, our encounters like conversations at a cocktail party where stories are exchanged in the haze of wine and beer. I have seen only the parts of their lives that they have allowed me to see thus far; there is still mining to be done. I cannot assume anything about them for I may be wrong. I cannot push them too hard for they may fall silent.

Like a healing wound, like most everything else, it is simply a question of time.

Friday, November 21, 2014

These Dreams Go On When I Close My Eyes


In the muscle of the dream, I was in my bedroom in a storm. The wind was blowing so hard that I had to hold my bed sheets so I would not be flung away. My mother was there. I called to her, and we clung to each other, weighing each other down to the floor by my dresser.

Then I was outside, and the ground was flooded. Water was pushing me around. But there was something good about it--something like being on the edge. You wrote me a letter, and I was reading it. It said, "Family, we need it, all of us." The sun was setting behind those words, and I could see the outline of trees against the strata of hues.

I tried writing you back. I used italics and lower case letters, "dear tanner," I wrote. But then the words sloshed away, and for a second I thought of a message in a bottle. I imagined, with confidence, that no matter what, you would find it, somehow.



I'm walking down Schultz Road in the dark. I've lost my glasses. I see nothing, and so I fall down. I barely miss getting hit by cars. I'm looking for someone, her, and I think I will find her on the other side of the next railroad bridge, if only I can make it that far.


I'm in high school. A girl I know commits mass murder while I cower in a locker room bathroom stall. I tell no one. I am seized by profound guilt. I hide out in an upstairs apartment with a bed on the floor, clothes strewn all around.


I am walking through a mall in Ireland. It's warm and alight with Christmas. There are cookies, pies, cakes. "I don't have much to feed people," an old woman at one of the stores tells me. I laugh. She's never been to America.


A fleet of planes cuts the night sky. They form a flock of lights just above the high, shifting clouds. We run down the driveway chasing them as though they are something that could be caught. Then it is there suddenly, low like a floating jewel: the rocket ship. I scream at you not to get so close, but you run toward it anyway in your haphazard child way. In a horrid flash, the engines light, sending scorch behind them. The rocket rushes forward, higher, until it stops, and then begins plummeting to earth. It crashes into the house and yard below--our house, our yard--which are sent to flame.

Then it is midday, as though someone has turned on stage lights. I scream, I scream: "Mom! Mom!" But there is nothing save brambles and the field behind our house and my black horse, which is dying. I am running toward the neighbor's when finally I hear you again, my sister, so small a voice. But it is not you I see. It is my father who runs toward me, his hands blackened, his face 20 years younger than it is in truth. "Baby!" he screams. "Baby!" And in a rush, I'm in his arms the way I have been so many times before: grateful, safe.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Ballad of Two Sisters, Chapter 1: The End

The Ballad of Two Sisters

In the basement of the Bells & Stone Funeral Home where the dead were staged, the mortician pushed play on his portable CD player and stared at the picture he had been given of Helen and Stella. He paused for a second, listening to the music. No, it wasn’t right. Billie Holiday wasn’t right—not the husk of her voice, nor the heartache imbued in every phrase. It was Ella they needed—the brightness, perfectly pitched. He went back to the player and changed the CD. Then, fingertips at the very edges, he examined the photo first directly under the florescent light of the preparation room and next in the glow that radiated around it. He held it so close to his face that he thought he could see the individual strands of the women’s perfectly coiffed hair and then far enough away from his face so that Helen and Stella looked like women he had gazed upon only from across crowded rooms or crowded streets. In the photo, the women were standing in front of a glass-doored china cabinet full of plates, bric-a-brac, decorative spoons. Their arms were intertwined, their neutral colored slacks and flowered blouses neatly pressed. A point of light shone between them, the nearly invisible shadow of their photographer behind it. As the music played on, the mortician held the photo against his chest for a moment, trying to forget what he had seen and then looking at it again searching for something yet unseen. This time, when he looked again, it was the way Helen’s head leaned just slightly toward Stella he saw. You dear women, he thought, you wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

The sisters, ages 90 and 92 respectively, had died on the same day.

By the time he thoroughly examined the picture, the CD was half over, so he restarted it and began his work, regarding each of the women as he would have his own sisters. It was how he treated all his clients. He started the process of setting their features, placing a modesty cloth over the gray hair of their sexes and avoiding eye contact with their breasts as much as he could without affecting the quality of his work. He hummed while massaging and flexing their arms and legs to eliminate rigor mortis. Occasionally, like any doctor or dentist would during a procedure, he paused to ask each woman how she was doing. Are you comfortable? Can I do anything to make this better? He asked, pausing for a response he knew wouldn’t come. But still, it made him feel better to ask.

After remembering how Helen’s head had leaned toward her older sister, he was careful to handle her gently, for he could sense she was the more fragile of the two women. Several times as her blood was being replaced by embalming fluid, he rubbed the top of her head as if to say It’s almost over, sweetheart. As for Stella, he imagined she would have suffered through the process sighing occasionally but perhaps cracking a one-liner here and there at his expense. He chuckled a few times imagining the mortician jokes she probably knew, the picture of her face flush in his mind. Hours later when he found her tattoo while grooming her—a blur of lines and colors on her wrinkled torso—he rubbed a thick lotion on it, which made it grow bright and defined. It is a great tattoo, Stella. He thought.

Finally, it was time to bring the sisters’ faces to life. This, perhaps, was his favorite part of preparing the decedents: whereas they had been lifeless canvases, when the work with his palette was done, they were vivified, the dimensions of life restored to them. He was a masterful painter, a constant critic of color. Never did he use shades of lipstick or blush straight out of the package; rather, each was blended so that no two people ever wore the exact same shade. It was the least he could do for them, this final act. For Helen, he used subdued light pinks—she was paler than Stella, and the picture showed that in life her cheeks were rosy, a quality that belied her age. For Stella, he used deeper tones, tones tinged with orange, which complimented her olive skin. Based on their skin tones, it was hard to believe they were sisters, but after he had vivified them, he could see it: the ineffable quality they shared. As the final notes of Ella played, he rolled his chair back to the edge of the room and propped his elbows against the green Formica counter top. Did I do well, ladies? He asked.

That evening, as the mortician and funeral director looked on, the small number of the sisters’ family members who were still alive said the usual things, slanting the women’s lives into unadulterated sunlight. It all seemed so orchestrated to the mortician that somehow he felt he had gotten to know Helen and Stella more in the hours since they had slipped out of their family’s life and into his than the family ever had.

“They were good aunts, good friends, good…well, good people,” an old man said, while staring at note cards. He cleared his throat and shuffled them, clearly having lost his place. “And,” he stammered, “And…we were all a damn sight lucky to know them,” he continued, fumbling through the rest of his speech, his tone strained. After, he shook his head and took his seat next to a gray-haired woman who, in a consolatory gesture, ran her manicured nails across the back of his neck.

As the mortician watched, he began to pace. He did not know why he even bothered to watch the funerals anymore. Every one of them was a worse incarnation of the last. They were full of disingenuousness, devoid of actual emotion. There was no howl. There was no desperation. And he done all this work only to give families, friends, and lovers the opportunity to howl loud and long, to crawl on their knees and beg god and the devil to stop the endless game and give them back their dead, for all people who faced death believed in the dichotomy of good and evil and that somehow Jehovah or Beelzebub was watching over them, silently judging their worthiness to be given back what they had lost.

“It’s not right,” he mumbled.

“What?” The funeral director said, appearing behind him.

“I said it’s not right,” he said louder.


“It isn’t. I feel like I know those women better than they do. These people aren’t even saying anything worthwhile.”

“What did I tell you? If you keep getting this—this agitated, you can’t come up here anymore. Understand?”

“You don’t understand, do you?”

“What don’t I understand?” The funeral director led him by the arm around the corner and out of the guests’ line of sight.

“It’s just a show. Practiced to the point that it’s tone deaf.”

“It’s supposed to be a show.”

“But no one up there is being honest. No one is telling the truth.”
The funeral director positioned himself so that he stood between the mortician and the funeral. “How many times are we going to go through this before you have to get another job?”

“As many times as it takes for you to understand my point.”

“Listen—you know what I know about you. Do we have to have the conversation?”
The mortician ran a hand through his hair and looked down at his feet. It was the same conversation he had in Florida, in Texas, in Georgia, in Mississippi. The reason he had moved north was to escape those conversations, which were a steel wreckage consuming so much space in his mind that it had taken all the self-control he could summon just to present himself as a new mortician in Illinois.

“I do excellent work,” he had said in his interview at Bells & Stone. “I treat them like my own family.”

“That’s what your references said about you,” the funeral director replied. “But they also seemed to have some concerns about your level of involvement with the families. I share those concerns as well.”

The mortician’s jaw tensed. “Concerns?” But he knew the concerns well. He could still picture that last funeral in Florida: a wife coffined in her wedding dress, a Rembrandt of vivification. Her husband, dry-eyed, wore a white t-shirt with yellowed arm pits and liquor on his breath. Their children were weeping raw, completely true in grief. The young girl had wrapped her arms around herself and was rocking back and forth with each new wave of sob. The boy stared at the floor, continually running his hands down the length of his khaki-covered thighs. Quit crying, the husband had said. Just quit your crying. It won’t do you any good. Ain’t going to bring her back. She’s gone. The husband thought just the three of them were in the room, but he had failed to realize that the mortician, anger rising, was behind him. Watching the man stealing his children’s right to grieve, to partake in a necessary ritual infuriated the mortician. The theft endangered the children, for how would they move on if they did not first purge themselves of all that darkness? It won’t do you any good. The husband growled. You hear me? After he said it, raising his voice to an intolerable volume, the mortician was upon him. To this day, the mortician did not clearly remember what had happened, just that he and the man were suddenly outside the room alone, and the man was on the ground, and…

“Did you hear what I just said?” The funeral director snapped.

“Yes. I heard you.”

“Do you like your job, son?”

The funeral director was always calling him son, although the mortician, age 35, wasn’t sure the funeral director was actually old enough to be his father.

“Listen, I know you like your job, son. You do too good of a job not to like it. You want to keep it? Then you need to let go. You deal with the dead. I deal with the living. That was our agreement when I hired you.”

“Right,” the mortician muttered, sequestering every last thread of his anger. “Right,” he repeated. Then he turned and walked away from the funeral director, from Stella and Helen and the funeral, but he walked slowly, listening to the final speech get quieter and quieter until he was downstairs in the preparation room again. He took a deep breath, the sound of his own breathing the only noise, the room, devoid of the two sisters, as quiet and insulated as a tomb.

Friday, January 4, 2013

I Woke Thinking Backwards

At 2:30 am today, I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking of 946 W. MacArthur #36, my first apartment, a one-bedroom with beige walls and a galley kitchen, living room windows that looked out onto the Bollinger Soccer Fields, where children sweated and bled, where parents cheered and consoled. I thought of my bedroom, its quilt made of fabric given to me by Lydia, an old family friend long dead. And I thought of my IBM laptop, my first computer, the one that I spent long nights with, drunk on beer and poetry, smoking cigarettes by open windows in the middle of winter. I wrote then with little worry. I was not thinking of publishing. I was not thinking of building an academic career or what it would take to make one. I was thinking only of recent experiences—all so novel and revelatory—and of the end of the line, the end of the page. I was in and out of love with boys and men and with the men and women who wrote of love between people. I was in love with the power and beauty of punk rock, with the unifying principle of DIY, the heat and sweat of basements and electric guitars. On my first record player, a Magnavox Solid State, I listened to both Ella Fitzgerald and Minor Threat. And there was dancing, of course. And fighting, too. And then there was the making up, the manufacture of love. And there was the sense that life was only kinetic energy, its trajectory yet to be mapped. I was merely a humble cartographer with the sun in my eyes. There was a boyfriend who ran his truck in the winter with his dog in the back seat so he could stay just a little longer. At 946 W. MacArthur #36, there was always just a little longer, a little longer because there was still only onward. Even when it burned.

In her collection Life On Mars, Tracy K. Smith writes:

"…Would you go then,
Even for a few nights, into that other life where you
And that first she loved, blind to the future once, and happy?

Would I put on my coat and return to the kitchen where my
Mother and father sat waiting, dinner keeping warm on the stove?
Bowie will never die. Nothing will come for him in his sleep
Or charging through his veins. And he’ll never grow old,
Just like the woman you lost, who will always be dark-haired

And flush-faced, running toward an electronic screen
That clocks the minutes, the miles left to go. Just like the life
In which I’m forever a child looking out my window at the night sky
Thinking one day I’ll touch the world with bare hands
Even if it burns."

Even if it burned again as it used to then, I would go back, if only for a few days because the one thought that lured me back to sleep was, “It’s been a good life. So far, yes, it’s been a good life.”

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Links to My Work

If you are interested in reading more of my work, you can find my stories in these places:

"The In-Between Girl"

"The Newlyweds"

"The Last Supper"

"Nobody Moves in Winter"

"The Bearded Woman of Inis Mor"

"The Tourist"

"I Live Among Immigrants"

Additionally, my work has been anthologized in these great anthologies:

Available here:

The Rattlesnake Valley Sampler
Available here:

Open to Interpretation: Intimate Landscape
Available here:

Any correspondence can be sent to


Monday, July 30, 2012

Why I Write Sad Stories

On 1st Avenue and 28th Street in Minneapolis, a house catches fire. Fire trucks arrive in a blur of lights and a wail of sirens. Flames cut the early morning sky. Sweat gathers on the lip of the neighborhood. Smoke fills its nostrils. Neighbors in their housecoats and slippers watch from living room windows and front yards. Children, woken from their dreams, point at the flames, vibrate with terrible excitement. Firefighters battle the flames from outside and walk into the fire to save those who can be saved. They rescue one person from inside the house and then another. They pull two people from the second story window.

But by the time they rescue Jenny, it's too late.


My stories have been called bleak, brutal, depressing. And I have been asked why I write such sad stories.

I have a one-word answer: Jenny.

I write sad stories because of ghosts, ghosts of the living and of the dead. I write sad stories to give a voice to ghosts and to give a voice to those who live with the ghosts of their dead and of their former lovers, estranged children, chances not taken, aborted dreams. I write sad stories because they are the adhesive that binds people and ghosts. I write sad stories because the stories themselves are my ghosts that, as Edna O'Brien writes, "are like dogs that bark intermittently in the night."

Moreover, sad stories prepare us for futures we are too brittle to imagine or too ignorant to recognize as possible. They allow us to experience death and loss and desperation with only a modicum of real pain. They are precursors to seasons we have not yet lived.

I write sad stories because I want to live in the past, present, and future simultaneously.


On a perfect July morning, I am walking down 1st Avenue in Minneapolis. In front of a burned out 2 and 1/2 story house near 28th street, an empty mailbox gapes like an open mouth, it's red flag 90 degrees in the air. Mylar balloons tied to the fence bob in the breeze. Affixed to the gate is a red sign that reads, Hi Jenny, All students at Magic Beauty School miss you! On the front stairs at the foot of the gate, a plate of spring rolls sits untouched among bouquets of red roses and white chrysanthemums. An open bottle of water and a can of juice wait among burning candles and incense. And in the middle of these funereal offerings is a picture of Jenny, of beautiful olive-skinned, black-haired Jenny.

The air still smells of fire.

I close my eyes, I breathe in deeply, I breathe in until past the smell of charred wood, I think I can ascertain the scent that was uniquely hers, one which will slowly fade out of existence as the last of her things absorb the other scents around them.

I leave a dandelion between two candles that will burn for her until their wicks are spent. Then, I walk home on my strong, good legs, the breeze whipping my hair all around me, a new ghost whispering in my ear.

At home, I will work on writing another sad story--a story where there aren't neat explanations, a story where calculations and probabilities all prove incorrect.

And Jenny, my beautiful olive-skinned, black-haired Jenny, this new story, a story where in the space of one night the whole world trembles into darkness, this is the story I am writing for you.

Friday, September 18, 2009



Whenever I think of something waning, I think of Gertrude by Hermann Hesse. The last line of the book reads, “…I hear my youth like a wonderful song which now sounds more harmonious than it did in reality, and even sweeter.” And here we are now, summer slipping away on the soft sounds of lost daylight. And perhaps the months past seem sweeter, more perfect than they actually were. They undoubtedly will when we find ourselves again in the standstill of winter because summers in the Midwest are units of time onto themselves; years within years. They are seasons bigger than seasons, their importance measured in the negative, the degrees that flank them. As this one ends, I have begun to reflect on all I’ve done.

I’ve had an itch this summer, a drive.
Maybe it’s because I knew at its close I’d be 29.
So, I made a conscious decision: to live like so.
Heart as sail,ballast, rudder, bow.
Rowdy. Indulgent to excess (Italicized portion from “Loose Woman” by Sandra

I traveled to Eau Claire, Menomonie, Madison, New York (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island), Colorado via South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Iowa. I, an agnostic feminist, became ordained. In Eau Claire, I married a dear friend to the boy she loves most. And there was power in that, the words “I now pronounce you…” coming from my little red mouth, an appropriation of religious power to a female, ex-Jehovah Witness, unbeliever. I attended the annual Great Taste of the Midwest in Madison and drank delicious microbrews. Afterwards, at the Sirloin Strip, I sang karaoke, specifically “Fist City,” with my best friend. I ate free pizzas with purchased pints, and then drank whiskey at the Buttermilk in New York. I rode the Staten Island ferry while drinking a 40 oz bottle of Blanca Carta. Then, on Staten Island, I ate a delicious onion bagel in the rain. In Colorado, I lost my breath. I crossed the Continental Divide and touched a glacier. I went to the Bar Bar and saw the People of the city, the ones whose stories are verses of wrinkle and missing teeth. I cried. I ate too much, drank too much, thought too much, loved too much, walked too much, rode bike too much, slept too much. In short, I lived and lived and lived until I was exhausted. And it was worth it, all of it, the money spent, the time spent, everything.
I repeatedly think of something my dear friend Mark told me long ago. He said that the people we sometimes think of as “loose” are the people who milk life for all it’s worth. Would I classify myself, as Cisneros did in her perfect poem, a “loose woman,” because I made a decision to live this way? No, that would not be the appropriate term. Something deeper, something hungrier, something where the coordinates of fear and beauty meet, a word for living that constitutes courage, if only recently found.

Or perhaps there is no word: perhaps that’s just milking summer for all its worth.