“Chicago” by Kathy Fish, published in Wigleaf

Chicago is a flash piece narrated from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old whose observations circle around the creepy acknowledgment in the first line: “He kissed his daughter like a lover in the dark hallway at her bedroom door.”

And then the situation: the narrator is visiting her boyfriend’s house. The couple is lying on the couch, covered by an afghan, while the narrator’s boyfriend’s fingers “were inside [her] jeans.” The mother, father, and sister are in the living room next to the couple, and they’re all watching Happy Days, though the irony of that television title is lost on them, or at least the narrator, whose family is falling apart.

But you haven’t forgotten the first line, have you? I haven’t either, and the narrator hasn’t because she returns to this detail again and again. The sheer tragedy of it; of the narrator’s boyfriend’s sister (who is fifteen) instructed to go to bed at 8:15, halfway through Happy Days, and the father kissing her in the hallway. How many fifteen-year-olds are instructed to go to bed at 8:15? Of course that’s the least of the sister’s worries. Our worries.

Still, there are other things happening: discussions about travel, backstory which features a funeral and a fist through a window. And objects (spoons) that represent an important role in this brief, powerful story.

On a personal note, I’ve never read a story that refers to the Amana Colonies, but I’ve been there, and I’ve eaten that family style dining to which the narrator refers, where they bring you massive plates of potatoes and meat, and whatever else northern Europeans chow on. But in my family, there were always too many people at the table, and even the large platters never felt like enough to satisfy our cravings.

Fortunately that’s not the case with Fish’s story. There’s plenty here, and she does us the courtesy of trusting us with just the right information. We’re in the hands of a master storyteller, and she doles out just enough detail. Not too much. Just enough.

Check it out here. And more about Kathy Fish here.

“Hill of Hell” by Laura van den Berg published in Virginia Quarterly Review

A haunting and delicately written story about family, secrets, and how quickly life passes. Check it out here: “Hill of Hell” by Laura van den Berg published in 2019.

The story starts in a rather mundane way: two friends reunite after a three year absence. The one friend, a professor, invites the narrator to give a lecture at the college where he teaches. Afterward, they drink, they converse, they ride the train together. Nothing extraordinary, except at one point we learn of the narrator’s recent pregnancy resulting in a still born birth. That, and, “Our marriage is on borrowed time,” the narrator tells her friend. A moment later, in the same conversation, we learn of the narrator’s friend’s philosophy of “the big alone” which allows us a short cut into the friend’s world view: in the end, we have no one, nothing. All the while, thoughout the train ride, we glimpse specific moments and physical details: a sweaty brow, a memory of Ikea, a dream, the conductor brandishing a photo of his child, a bottle of wine, a newspaper.

The next section moves us forward in time: “Six months after my friend and I rode the train together, I left my husband. Some years later, I remarried. My friend was invited to the wedding, but he was too ill to attend. He sent me a note of congratulations and that was the last time I heard from him before he died. In my second marriage, I was the one who lobbied for a child and when I gave birth to a daughter…”

Say what? In five brief sentences, we witness divorce, remarriage, death, and birth. Perhaps the most ambitious set of lines in all of fiction?

What follows is a rendering of two parents and their daughter and the evolution of their relationship through tears and hardships. The narrator even acknowledges: “It pains me to say that our daughter was, from the moment of her birth, a difficult human being.”

I’ve often wondered what constitutes “a difficult human.” After all, aren’t we all in our own ways difficult? Even those who attempt pleasantries at all costs have their difficulties. Perhaps they’re the most difficult of all, at least on the surface.

In any case, we move from the scene on the train to an overview of the narrator’s daughter who has lived a life mostly away from her parents, in part due to her substance abuse. The daughter has kept a cool distance all these years until she is forced into a situation otherwise. And the parents will eventually learn more about their daughter through the interactions with their daughter’s friends and acquaintances. What they learn about her isn’t all terrible or painful.

Note here, I haven’t mentioned a word about how this piece ends. This is intentional.

Instead, let me say this: at its core, perhaps this is a story about the secrets we keep, and how those secrets inform decisions for which others might not understand, not least the people from whom we’ve shielded this precious information. Perhaps this is also a story about how the most essential or influential parts of our past lives, however tightly we might attempt to hold or suppress, will always find a way to surface.

Laura van den Berg is the author of the novels Find Me (FSG, 2016) and The Third Hotel (FSG, 2018). She is also the author of two story collections, The Isle of Youth (FSG, 2013) and I Hold a Wolf by the Ears (FSG, 2021).

Review of “Heat Dome” by Kaitlyn Teer, published in Electric Lit

A gripping and haunting story about parenting, climate change, and community.

I was at first amused by the heat of this story. Right now, I can look out any window of my house, garage, barn, office building, grocery store, and see nothing but snow. True, it is warming up, but the sun here pales in comparison to the unrelenting heat pumped out of this story. What started off as amusement instantly turned to torture (not the story itself — which is great — just the heat. Oh my, the heat!).

The story is told in a collective “we” or first person plural, which is mightily attractive to a person who admires everything he can’t do himself. I appreciate this POV on so many levels not least for the inclusive burden of suffering each of these women is having to deal with — for some reason it makes it all the more brutal when the sun is slowly burning away any ounce of sanity held by any of these women. Even so, they’re trying: “slicing fruit,” “[wiping] the backs of our necks with dishtowels,” “[buying] popsicles.” All while trying to calm themselves and their families.

“Meteorologists call it a once-in-a-millennia heat wave.” This reminds me of when my hometown of Cedar Rapids had something like three “hundred-year floods” in a matter of twenty years. Did I mention I just watched the film “Don’t Look Up”? If people don’t listen to the science, then maybe a screaming scientist like Jack Dawson or Katniss Everdeen? Maybe Hollywood’s the answer, though I have my doubts.

The heat and its effects in “Heat Dome” are simply unrelenting. This story is a crash course in applying pressure to a character or characters until they break and something happens. The only reprieve arrives in beautiful descriptions of the landscape: “…the old two-lane highway down the coast…. curves along sandstone cliffs that slope to the shore.” Later, “we descend a trail through red cedar, fir, and madrona.” If nature isn’t your thing, the narrator offers a more communal answer to the suffering: “We are sweaty, but together.”

At least we’re sipping wine and dining together, they acknowledge at the end of “Don’t Look Up.” Never mind the comet. It might not even be real.

Or maybe I shouldn’t be so flippant about this communal suffering (at least we’re in it together!). The first person plural, after all, is a collection of mothers or mothers-to-be who find solace in these together-moments. The heat and misery of dealing with themselves and their families literally drives them to the ocean for a reprieve. They can’t handle it anymore. They have to leave. They lament that this is “their new normal.” And since there’s not much else to do, besides float in the ocean (and wait for the comet to hit Earth!), they decide to do so with a sense of togetherness. Of “[holding] hands to keep from drifting apart.” Because if we’re all going to hell, we may as well enter the flames together.

Check out the story here.

Kaitlyn Teer’s lyric essays have received prizes from Fourth Genre and Prairie Schooner. Her essay “Drawing A Breath” was a notable for the 2017 Best American Essays anthology and was anthologized in Beautiful Flesh: A Body of Essays (CSU Center for Literary Publishing, 2017). Other work has appeared in Entropy, Redivider, Sweet, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. She is a regular contributor to the Ploughshares blog and is at work on a flash collection about parenting and the climate crisis.

Review of “Pagans” by Rick Bass, published in his 2006 collection The Lives of Rocks

I realize the tardiness of this post fifteen years late, and later still my finding of Rick Bass’s stories, but does it really matter? I still re-read Lorrie Moore’s and Amy Hempel’s early work with the jaw-dropping awe it inspires and I imagine I’ll do the same now with Bass. This realization, this discovery, is what led me to write about the opening story of Bass’s collection. I’m not even halfway through the book (I’m reading the collection for the first time), but I wanted to make mention of “Pagans” because of its unique point-of-view and rumination on memory and choices, and the sheer unbelievability of who we are and where we are thirty years after an indelible high school experience.

The story, rich in details, features the lives of Richard, Kirby, and Annie. Richard and Kirby are best friends and Annie, a grade younger, finds herself in the middle of their adventures. Their adventures take them to what is essentially an environmental disaster area — a polluted river where they explore “junked cars, twisted steel scrap, rusting slag-heaped refrigerators,” dead animals, and more.

The environmental degradation of this area outside Houston is secondary to the relational dynamics between the three, but this isn’t a typical love story. We find out in the first paragraph that this is a “less common variation on that ancient story” because Annie ultimately doesn’t choose either boy with whom to spend her life. Instead, “she [chose] a third, and lived happily ever after.” The beginning of the story is built on a too-common ending of the fairy tale we’re all used to reading (…and they lived happily ever after.). And thank God for Bass’s deviation which isn’t at all a deviation in real life.

And so what do we do with these relationships of our past? How do we learn from and reflect on them with the meaning they deserve without anchoring ourselves to the sinking ship of nostalgia? This essentially is what Bass is exploring. “Even now, Richard thinks [he and Annie] missed each other by a hair’s breadth, that some sort of fate was deflected… He thinks it might have been one of the closest misses in the history of the world.” All told as a matter-of-fact and without any hint of regret.

Put the relationships aside for a moment and imagine all the micro, last-minute choices we’ve made that have now impacted our lives in profound ways. How grateful for that decision to turn left. Or to take an improv class. Or to go on that date. Or to plant an apple tree. Or to visit mother. Or to take a vacation. Or to cook Thai curry for the first time. The list goes on forever, but I think we can all look back at these moments — small or otherwise — that have shaped who we are today. How fortunate, or not, we might feel in light of those decisions. This is not profound stuff, necessarily, it’s simply life. But I think this is why I liked “Pagans” so well. Bass immerses us so fully in the lives of these three characters that their cares and concerns and ruminations on choice and memory become as meaningful to us as they are to Richard who, by the end of the story, “marvels… at all the paths they did not take.”

Review of “Mouse House” by Amelia Brown, published in Four Way Review

We meet all relevant characters in the first section: our first-person narrator along with her boyfriend, Eddie, and Eddie’s mother (Susan). We’re also introduced to a mouse along with the home in which this story takes place. It’s Susan’s home located in sprawling bucolic Maine where everything is quaint and perfect and people keep tea times (and probably tee times). We’re also “two hours north of [the couple’s] cluttered apartment in Boston” where they probably don’t attend open houses just to see “decorated parlors” and “underground entertainment systems” which is Susan’s idea of an ideal afternoon.

The story deftly juxtaposes the narrator’s modest upbringing (with the “broken-down Mazda…in the backyard”) and Eddie’s mother’s tea time expectations (not that the two are mutually exclusive). And this alone would be a compelling story full of conflict and compelling situations between the three characters, but the event that propels this piece forward is a game of cat and mouse. Remember that pesky mouse we meet upon arrival from cramped Boston to sprawling Maine? Susan says, “…something has to be done about this mouse.” Susan is not keen on keeping company with rodents, but instead of using a traditional mousetrap, the narrator convinces them to use a live-catch trap. The next morning Susan fetches a “box trap” so the narrator won’t “feel guilty.”

With this goal of catching the mouse, a series of extraordinary—though bizarre—events take place. I won’t mention any of them to you. They’re just too good to name on this page, and so you’ll have to read them for yourself. A small clue: the events in question show in clear detail how out of touch with reality the potential future mother-in-law has become.

This is a fascinating story. I couldn’t stop reading.

Amelia Brown’s essays and reviews have been published at the Masters Review, CRAFT Literary, Full Stop, and the Ploughshares blog. She lives and writes in Boston.