Thursday, May 31, 2012

Review McHugh's After the Apocalypse

After the Apocalypse, stories by Maureen McHugh. A Small Beer Press, 2011. $16

These excellent stories are mostly set during and after various apocalyptic events – a zombie invasion, an epidemic of bird flu, etc. – but even though she is dealing with the apocalypse, these aren’t the same old stories about the end of the world. The one zombie story, for example, opens the book: “The Naturalist” is more a character study than a slasher film. The narrator is a prisoner who’s been exiled to a kind of ghetto that happens to be full of zombies. The humans have aligned themselves in various groups (much like in our more familiar idea of prison) and the narrator navigates his way through these alignments. He’s also curious about the zombies and takes every opportunity to study them. It’s a horror story; the main character is more terrifying than any supernatural monster, but McHugh tones down the zombie elements in favor of exploring the evil in mankind, which makes quite a satisfying story. The final story in the collection, the title story, follows a mother and daughter through a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by a mysterious virus. Again, this is a somewhat familiar scenario (though I’d say these two are the closest to ‘familiar’ McHugh’s stories come) but McHugh doesn’t focus so much on the survival of humanity, the rebuilding of society, or the stuff we usually see in these types of stories; she focuses on the characters, a mother who is fed up with her helpless daughter and is looking for a way out. She could just as well be a waitress in some truck stop as one of the few survivors in the country, and just because society has collapsed doesn’t mean people are going to suddenly morally polarize into caricatures of good and evil, which is one lesson McHugh tries to impart.

Many of these stories could easily become true – they’re quite close to the present day. Economic collapse. The rise of artificial intelligence – not as a sentient overlord, but as something akin to an animal acting on instinct. Some are more farfetched – one concerns people who can fly and are experiencing some weird compulsion to fly to France. (Also, I’d say, the least successful story in the collection.) No matter whether the ‘apocalypse’ changes the world immediately or simply sends it down a certain path, these characters must continue to eat and sleep and follow their desires. The unsettling thing about these stories isn’t the fear that these catastrophes might happen, but the truth revealed about the human weaknesses of many of McHugh’s characters. In the end, her characters are human.

-CL Bledsoe

Monday, May 28, 2012

Man's Best Friend, a screenplay

This is a short screenplay I wrote several years ago from a dream I had. The newsreel format was part of the dream, and pretty much everything in it is taken from the dream, though I expanded it a bit. A greatly truncated version of this will be published in Skive. Since I'm not likely to really do anything with this, I thought I'd post it. Blogger messed up the formatting, but it should be readable.

Man's Best Friend

RIP 1994 - 2104

Today the world mourns the death of Charles Cotton, famed geneticist –


The feel is that of grainy, old fashioned WW2 era newsreel footage. CHARLES COTTON, a balding, kindly seeming man stands with a group of scientists in white lab coats in a laboratory setting. Cotton holds a strange, dog-like animal with humanoid features and mannerisms curled in his arms like a pet. This is a MAN'S BEST FRIEND(MBF). It looks like a cross between a small child and a hound dog, with droopy skin, long limbs and huge, exaggerated eyes. The other scientists hold stethoscopes and various monitoring equipment, and are eagerly examining the creature. They seem impressed and congratulatory of Cotton, as though he has just made a break through.

Generous philanthropist –


The same, grainy feel. Cotton stands with giant scissors poised to cut the ribbon for the opening of a new park. Gathered around him are many more MBFs. These look more advanced than the earlier one, more humanoid, but still with dog features. They still have huge eyes and droopy skin, but these stand upright and carry themselves more confidently. They all stand with mouths open, panting and excited. A light flashes and Cotton cuts the ribbon.

A true American hero.


The same grainy newsreel feel. Cotton shakes hands with the president. Instead of secret service men, MBFs surround the men. They sniff Cotton, making sure he is a friend.


The feel is that of low quality, sixties era home movies. A young Cotton plays in water sprinklers with his dog in front of their house.

Charles Cotton was born of humble beginnings in the ending days of the twenty first century. But even then his best friend was a canine.


Home movie feel once more. An older Cotton sits in class, being lectured to by a teacher. Cotton is obviously bored and surrounded by bored kids.

A mediocre student, Cotton said of school, that his favorite part was leaving.


Home movie feel again. Cotton sits at the kitchen table, eating. His mother and father sit with him. Cotton feeds scraps to the dog under the table.

But tragedy struck this idyllic life—


The feel is that of a black and white 16 mm film. A young Cotton, slightly older than previous, stands beside a grave as two coffins are lowered into the ground. His dog is with him.

Cotton's life was forever to change in the years that followed. He was sent to live with his Aunt, a loving woman who would always remain unable to break through to the boy.


AUNT ROSE sits in a chair. She is impossibly old and withered. She speaks with a weak voice that once would have been shrill.

Charles was always an intelligent boy. But he didn't do well in school. He was too smart. Smarter than the teachers. He had trouble making friends, but he was very loyal. He was hard to get close to, but once you did, he'd never leave your side. I always thought the other children were missing out, not being his friend. But he never let it bother him. He spent all of his time with his dog, Toby. Making up adventures. I knew, from the first moment he came to live with us, that there was something about him. I always made sure to encourage him in his studies, and try to instill in him a sense that there were more possibilities in the world.

Cotton, older, sits in a chair. A similar dog to the one shown earlier, perhaps a descendant, is sitting in his lap.

Uncle Jim and Aunt Rose were always good to me. If it wasn't for Aunt Rose, I wouldn't have done well enough in school to even get into college.


The feel is that of grainy, old fashioned WW2 era newsreel footage. Cotton stands on a stage at graduation, dressed in a gown, at the head of a line of other students. He takes his diploma and shakes the man's hand, then turns and waves.

I had a real breakthrough in college. It was a whole new world full of opportunity. You have to remember, this was back in the teens. There was an air of change and prosperity. People dreamed big back then.

Cotton with his dog, again.

I had been working with Dr. Stromburger, in genetics at Cal Tech. It was a pretty unpopular field at the time. But a scientist can't read the headlines. We can only focus on the work. And one day, it hit me.

A group of scientists stand around a small robot, taking notes.

Robotics was the big field at the time, that and nanotechnology, and I thought why not do what they were trying to do, but with genetics?


A young boy, similar to the young Cotton, is playing in front of a similar house. But instead of his parents, he is playing with an MBF. The boy throws a stick, the MBF retrieves it, and throws it for the boy, who retrieves it, etc.

And so, Man's Best Friends were born.

A group of children play in the park, watched over by several Man's Best Friends.

They were smarter than canis lupus familiaris, stronger than homo sapiens. They were loyal, dependable.

An MBF, dressed as a cop, writes a ticket.

They could do the tedious things that no one else wanted to do, and never complain.

An MBF mows the lawn.

But as with all new things, uncertainty marred this incredible creation.

An EXPERT sits. S/he is nondescript, giving the appearance of credibility.

They seemed like a good idea, if you didn't think about it too much. What you had with these MBF's, was a cheap
labor force, okay? But taking into account the already skyrocketing unemployment rates, well, it was like pouring gasoline into a powder keg.

A mob of people rioting, breaking store windows, and generally being violent.

A mob is gathered around two MBF's who hang limply from a tree, lynched. The mob cheers.

People got pretty crazy over them. The religious groups especially. These are the same people who shot abortion doctors.


A PREACHER rants vehemently.

Charles Cotton is an abomination before God. He has taken the gift of life, the gift of knowledge, and perverted the will of God.

The most unexpected thing that happened—


A wedding. The groom, smiling, lifts the bride's veil, revealing her to be an MBF.

-was when this guy, I believe it was in Minnesota, tried to marry an MBF. Good thing we made them sterile.

Back to Cotton being interviewed with his dog.

I have to admit, that one never occurred to me before.

Squads of MBF's march in formation.

The most disturbing thing to me about it all, was when the government stepped in and took over control of the MBF's. If there were one thing I could change, it would be that.

An EXPERT is being interviewed. S/he is also nondescript but gives the appearance of authority.

One thing that the government did do, that a lot of people didn't agree with, well, it was a choice between two evils. They took these creatures, who were basically slaves, and made them literally slaves. So you saw soldiers, cops, all sorts of jobs disappearing. At very least when they were still in the private sector, okay? They weren't serving a really useful purpose. They were baby sitters, or playmates for children, or basically smart pets. But when the government came in, we had some real problems. And this is where a lot of the resentment that's been directed at the MBF's is really coming from. You know, it's just like the steam engine, or the car, or the computer; when any new technology comes onto the scene and revolutionizes
things, there's going to be a period of adjustment. That's what we're seeing now.

Cotton sits and pets his dog.

It wasn't so much a question of equal rights, as there being no rights at all. I never meant for them to be slaves, or to be used for war, or anything like that. I just wanted people to have friends.

Return to first shot. The feel is that of grainy, old fashioned WW2 era newsreel footage. Cotton stands once more with a group of scientists in white lab coats, in a laboratory setting. Cotton holds the prototype MBF curled in his arms like a baby. The shot freezes on the MBF.

Charles Cotton labored to the end of his life to bring about equal rights for his creations. He battled public opinion, governmental resistance, and health problems to make huge strides for equality. But whatever your feelings about Man's Best Friends, Charles Cotton truly left this world a different place.


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Guest Blog by Nathan Leslie

One word: Kei$ha. What the literary world needs right now are writers with dollar signs in their names. Or something. I mean, I want a dollar sign in my name. Since a student once unknowingly referred to me as Prof. Leslie Nielson, I’ve been pondering Ne$tle as a possible version of this moniker. It smacks of chocolate sauce and money or chocolate covered money or money to buy lots of chocolate—all good associations for a writer to cultivate! People like chocolaty money. Thus, perhaps this would mean more sales. Chocolate could become my shtick.

“Earnest.” That’s a good word to describe many of the literary goings-on these days. We wring our hands about the state of literature (fiction, poetry, fill in the blank). We fret so about the lack of readers. We tremble at the thought of a bookless future. Even the “ironic” writers are, beneath the POMO games, earnest.

Whither the literary Lady Gaga? Lady Didion? Lady Oates? I’m not sure how a meat dress would come across in an AWP panel, but it would be an improvement upon the usual mustard yellow sun-dress, henna, Birkenstocks and collection of tasteful hipster piercings and ankle tats. We need a writer with a name like Madonna—one word, something in-your-face and heretical.

We can do better; we can advance our “success” (however one might measure these things). What we need is more swagger, not more fretting. As a group, writers tend to be self-effacing, solitary types. We shy away from the limelight. We retreat into our zones of comfort. Let’s consider the music industry as a better model—a model that not only has swagger but builds upon a certain tongue-in-cheekness that the literary world often lacks.

Brass tacks: at this juncture in literary history most writers are writing for friends and family and other writers. It’s become a closed circle. The sooner we admit this brute fact, the better off we’ll be. This has been the case in the plastic arts for decades. Let’s not wallow in denial.

Speaking of hipsters: another route we could go in getting our swag on would involve using the Indie rock model. Here monosyllabic plays best—Beck, Feist, Smog. You want a name which you can’t easily forget. I’m personally obsessed with the name “Smog.” I had the pleasure of seeing him—real name Bill Callahan—in a Washington D.C. dive last summer. He recently dropped the Smog tag and went with Bill Callahan—decidedly less catchy. So there is a void in the ironic/hipster name department which some lucky writer could fill. May I suggest “Detritus”? It has all that grimy authenticity, without the L.A. connotations. If you want to go nautical this-and-that, “Jetsam” would also be an adequate substitute.

My point is this: the literary world needs some buzz, something else to add excitement to a fast-aging medium aside from David Foster Wallacy footnotes, excess profanity, and pinot-grigio-and-brie-heavy readings spurring on scintillating rounds of Words with Friends (but little exchange of literary book matter).

In the 50s Time would feature articles on Mailer or Roth or Updike. Back in the day mass media paid attention to what writers did, deemed us “important.” Now we are far less important than the latest World of Warcraft rip-off. When I started my writing career I never thought I’d be outdone by videogames. Back in the day publishers were awash in money and bookstores were plentiful. Now—I kid you not—the best bookstore in my zip code is Goodwill (they have two bookshelves of used books). Now writers have to be their own P.R. department. So 99.9% of writers are not making money; not successful; not on the cultural radar. Might as well have some fun at least.

Feel free to contact me with alternate moniker possibilities—with or without dollar signs. Until then, don’t pay attention to Amazon sales rankings (lest you become an online gambling addict—see Ted “Hella” Heller’s latest novel for allusion).

* * *

Nathan Leslie’s six books of fiction include Madre, Believers and Drivers. He is also the author of Night Sweat, a poetry collection. His first novel will be published by Atticus Books later this year. His short stories, essays and poems have appeared in many literary magazines including Boulevard, Shenandoah, North American Review, and Cimarron Review. He was series editor for The Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for five years. His website is

Monday, May 21, 2012

More Farming Poems

Afternoon Walk*

I found them in the shade
of an old oak. The cow

on its belly, moaning, tried
to lift its weight on one leg, but slipped

in the mud, the leaves,
and its own blood which stained

the valley floor. My father, alone, red
as that blood, too focused to even

cuss anymore, murmured
soothing words as he struggled

to secure a harness impossibly
around the shoulders of the calf still

halfway inside its mother. A tractor (also red)
idled on the other end of the harness.

He pulled the harness himself, one foot
on the cow's behind, the calf

struggling, my father frantic
until he saw me. "The tractor!"

he yelled. I moved, never mind
the fear, the blood, never mind
that I couldn't drive it.

He barked orders, steering me
with his words as though
I were an engine, my arms, the gear-shift,

my feet, the peddles. I eased
forward, watching him, both feet
on the cow, his whole body pulling

as I kept the wheel straight. The calf
moved; the cow lowered its head

as though concentrating on a difficult problem. The calf
squeezed out and, suddenly free, landed

on my father, who fell to the ground, laughing,
dragged by the harness which jerked forward

as the tractor lurched
into the oak and stalled out.

*Originally appeared in Barnwood Poetry Journal


We sat in line,
a dozen trucks
in front, a dozen behind,
all grey or faded
green, the colors
of dust, rust, time.
Rice chaff filled our lungs,
covered our clothes, our faces;
we could hardly tell brown
from pink. All of us swarthy,

My brother's arm, thick
as oak, thrown
over the window
sill of the truck door, his
cap pushed back.
I reached up, lifted
my new Riceland cap
my father had given me the day
before and smoothed
my hair, as I'd seen my father do,
trying to look

We moved up the line,
grumbling. Beside us,
beyond us, the sky
stretched blue, the land
stretched green, all rice
fields, all flooded
as though we were Noahs
in our arcs waiting
for the

My brother fiddled
with the radio, found only
country, switched it off, tapped
his fingers twice and turned it back on.
"Old piece of shit," he said.
"Piece of crap," I said.

We pulled up,
got out. My brother went in. I stood
aside, seeing for the first time
the concrete dryers towering,
the color of old bone, the tallest
things in the world.

My brother came out, ash faced,
a wad in his hand he hid
quickly, ashamed.
"Wait all fucking day for four and a half,"
he said and pulled
up to dump the load
while I practiced

On the ride back
to the field, we topped out
at forty, listened to more
country music,
watched the land slide
by like clouds. I was learning
to complain, learning
impatience with the enthusiasm
of a dog chasing a stick.
"Time is money," Dad said often.
"Idle hands are the devil's playthings."

My uncle in the combine
met us and we waited
while the radio twanged.
"Come on, now," I said, pleased
to be the first to complain.
My brother scowled
and said nothing.

Then back
to the line, all of us,
trying to remember not
to look up at those concrete towers,
out at those fields; keeping our eyes
forward, sullen, down;
to wait, to wait, to wait.

*originally appeared in the Arkansas Review

When I was a boy, I heard roaches sing.
It only happened at night, after Mom became sick
and went back to St. Louis. Dad was drunk. Everyday
I came in from the rice fields,
too sweaty to sleep but too tired not to,
pressed my cheek to the wall beside the bed
because it was cool,
and they were in there, singing.

This was different from in the fields. I’d heard mosquitoes,
but never roaches, sing. I listened and forgot
the water moccasins stroking my leg like fingers
as they swam past, the shovel dribbling mud down my back
like a heavy breeze, the dull gray levies
that stretched out before me that day
and would the next,
the weight of my father’s tired muscles
as we dragged him from his truck to bed,
the quiet of the house since Mom was gone;
I forgot it all, and listened to them sing.

In the mornings, I woke, staggered
into the dusty light of my father’s truck
and tucked the memory of my nights away,
under the hard slap of the sun,
and the drunken jokes of farmers that didn’t make any sense.
I sank into the mud of those fields
and into myself, waiting

until night came;
when I would crawl into bed,
press my face against the wall
and listen.

*Originally appeared in Nimrod and Story South. "Roaches" was also the winner of the Blue Collar Review's Working People's Poetry Contest.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Review of Rupert Wondolowski's The Origin of Paranoia as a Heated Mole Suit

The Origin of Paranoia as a Heated Mole Suit, poems by Rupert Wondolowski. Baltimore: Publishing Genius Press, 2008.

I met Rupert Wondolowski at a reading in Baltimore hosted by Artichoke Haircut, a local literary journal which hosts amazing readings. (Seriously. Kazoo solos. Sex with octopi. People taking their clothes off without even putting it in the context of a Matthew McConaughey vehicle). This night, Publishing Genius Press was featured. Wondolowski read with Joseph Young (author of Easter Rabbit, a flash collection I blurbed a couple years ago.) Wondolowski blew me away. His poems balanced absurdity with hard-hitting truth. Someone once asked me why I write some of my more absurd pieces, and the only answer I had was that they are more real than most of my straight realist pieces. There’s an oft overused saying that writers ‘lie their way to the truth’ and, in a similar vein, absurdist writers ‘stand their way to the poof.’ Wondolowski brings to mind a line by John S. Hall from “It’s Saturday”: “Sense cannot be made. It must be sensed. And I, for one, am incensed by all this complacency.”

There’s so much humor in these poems, it’s hard to pick out one piece to focus on. A good start is “Steve Fischer Continues,” a poem about the pulp writer of I Wake Up Screaming, and many other pulp books. Wondolowski lampoons the melodrama so often seen in this type of writing while simultaneously paying homage to a master of the genre: “I wake screaming./I scream scratching the dog’s belly in bed,/ scream seeing the third pillow has fallen to the dusty floor.” (lines 1-3).

And what is a heated mole suit? Obviously, it’s uncomfortable and awkwardly unattractive. And if one were wearing it, others would probably react strangely, leading to paranoia. I can’t help but think Wondolowski is talking about the body, the meat suit. In the title poem, Wondolowski waxes melancholic about his childhood (or at least of a child-like narrator): “It’s the loneliest Halloween ever, Charlie Brown. I’m packing my bags for the Patsy Cline Institute for the Emotionally Disabled as chunks of nations are being swallowed or washed away like mashed bananas in a baby’s cereal bowl.” (12-16). Towards the end of the poem, as the narrator sits in his mole suit, he has “an epiphany. All I want is some flatbed truck resonance, a slightly burned picnic table, a clean giddy life of grass stains.” He yearns to return to a more innocent time when he wasn’t concerned about global war, self-image, and the horrors of the world.

The reason that Wondolowski’s poems work isn’t just that they’re funny, or full of pop culture references, or so strange that they instantly invite consideration; plenty of poets are filling their poems with these things these days, juxtaposing Papa Smurf with drug dealers. To be honest, that’s not that difficult to do. The reason Wondolowski’s poems stand out is that there’s something inside the mole suit. And that IS difficult. Wondolowski’s narrator feels like he’s in a mole suit and mocks himself and also mocks that mockery. This is complex stuff and human but Wondolowski refuses to let it sink to the level of melodrama without getting in a few good laughs first. It’s rare for me to find a poet or writer whose work I truly admire, but I admire what Wondolowski’s doing here. His language and imagery are startling, fresh, and insightful. As a matter of fact, before I wrote this review, I ordered his other books. I can’t wait to read them.

-CL Bledsoe

Monday, May 14, 2012

Farming Poems

Big John*

Big John always wanted to piss
in the catfish vat. “How would you like it,”
I said, “if you had to eat piss?” He was six
or seven years my junior and listened to me
ever since his father’s heart gave out on him
and left the boy in a trailer full of hens.
He decided to climb inside the drainage pipe
waiting to be put in the ground under the road
above his house and have me push him
all the way down the steep pasture hill.
He wouldn’t come out afterwards
because he’d covered himself with vomit
and couldn’t stop crying while I laughed
and asked, “Why did you do that?”
We’d take turns running over fresh cow piles
with his Dad’s lawnmower, splattering
offal in perfect rays across the grass
trying to hit each other’s legs. This was before
he started stealing, married his half
sister, abandoned his child, and started cooking
meth: back when he was just slow and petulant
cousin John, who Dad had to keep chasing off
from the farm. I caught him once, over the summer,
emptying himself into a dry vat. Dad and them
would scrub it good in the fall when fish season
started up, so there wasn’t much harm,
and by the time I came around the corner,
the stream was already flowing. I watched him
lift the stream up to his mouth, pause then again.
He saw the look on my face, shrugged,
and said, “It ain’t the worst thing.”

*originally appeared in Naugatuck River Review

Blackberry Bushes at the Silo

Harvest time reminded our boy minds
that there was death
or at least dismemberment at the silos.

Trucks burped thunder as they sat impatiently
while their loads of rice
were augured out
into the steep concrete-lined pit
in front of the silos.
A screw in the bottom churned the grain,
sucked it into the silos with a shuffling sound
like sand trying to whistle.
We breathed in chaff and dust,
waiting for our fathers to go for another load.

Then, quick as thieves, we laid
a rain-warped and splintered board
across the pit.
Some kid had fallen in years ago,
and the screw
wrenched his arm right off,
crushed his legs,
squashed him almost to death
because he didn't listen:
they told us this story
with the same lips
they used to kiss us goodnight..
We might never have set up that balance beam,
if they hadn't added history to the mix.

The object was to stand in the middle of the board
while the older boys kicked the ends,
sending waves across the plank.
We had to ride it like a log roll.
It would be hours before they came back
to empty their trucks.
Time enough to dig the bodies out.

This day, Justin, runt son of an old drunk
who hung around the farm and got in the way
of work watched me cross halfway,
watched the boys thump the plank, sending me surfing,
saw me fall to my knees and crawl back to safety,
while the older ones laughed.

They turned to Justin, all teeth and tansgums,
and he cut and ran between two silos.
We chased him, threateninging
to lock him in with the rats,
to be chewed to death so while he suffocated
as the silo filled with grain.

We caught him tripped- up in the corpse of an old fence,
struggling to untangle his clothes and skin
from the rusted, barbed wire.
He grinned at us, reached up slowly,
offered us a black-fisted handful of blackberries
from the bush doing it's damnedest to strangle
the old fenceg rowing beside his head.

Grinning like skulls,
the smaller boys snatched the berries up,
and smacked loud in time to the thud of fists
teaching poor Justin's bones.

*originally appeared in Clackamas Literary Review

Dear Cow,*

I'm sorry I shot you with my second-hand
rifle when I was twelve. I hated you
because you were my father's, and he'd cussed me
the night before. The rifle, I hated the same.
He only gave it to me because he thought
I was a nancy-boy and didn't know how to kill. I thought
he was right. My father said cows
have thick hides and you were so far away.
I heard you moaning before they found you, bleeding out.
It hurt me. Not as much as I hurt you, I know.

*originally appeared in Tipton Poetry Journal

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Review of Barry Graham's National Virginity Pledge

The National Virginity Pledge: short stories and other lies, by Barry Graham. Portland: Another Sky Press, 2009.

Barry Graham is the editor of Dogzplot, an online journal known for publishing great flash fiction. I’ve had work in Dogzplot once or twice, so I was intrigued to discover a collection of stories by the editor. Also, what a great title.

The stories in Virginity Pledge are dark portraits of jaded, lost souls: gamblers, dreamers, losers who hold on to something to see them through. That ‘something’ might be ‘the big win’ from gambling, it might be a loved one, or it might be something more personal. In “Cats and Dogs; Like Rain” the narrator has a dream-killing father who opposes his son’s plans to go to college. The son holds on to cats which are the offspring of kittens who survived a tragedy the narrator witnessed. He’s simply biding time until he can get out, while the cats multiply. “Late October” is a glimpse into a failing couple stuck in traffic after an accident. Jake is unconcerned about the accident and wants to go get lunch, but his significant other, who is unnamed, can’t let it go. She gets out of the car and walks over to see the victims, and instead finds deer – the cause of the wreck – which she tends to while Jake continues on his way to Arby’s or Burger King.

These characters are lost souls at least partly because of their surroundings – the people around them are, to put it lightly, scum. From Jake in the story mentioned above who’s more concerned about tasteless fast food than the lives of others, to men and women who break others hearts, steal, and lie for no good reasons. Graham’s characters are – or at least once were – moral beings who’ve been tainted by the iniquities around them. They’re trying to find a path through the moral wasteland of 20-something America. They’re homeless, drug-addicts, immigrants – people on the fringes. Some of them are moral characters desperately trying to maintain morality while surrounded by evil. When they reach out to help others, invariably they’re punished for it, and when they seek help from others, they get little in return other than being taken advantage of.

The title of the book refers a pseudo-Christian movement in which young people pledge ‘no sex before marriage’ as part of the Christian Right’s piss-poor attempts at on-sex education. The fact is that these kids rarely live up to their pledge, substituting other forms of sex for traditional intercourse. Graham uses this idea as a platform to take on hypocritical middle class values in America – his characters lack moral direction because morality has become linked with ineffectual, hypocritical, unrealistic political distractors. Instead of focusing on love, self-respect and respect for others, and true morality, the message to kids is abstinence, which has been shown by every legitimate study to never work. But it sounds good to people who can’t be bothered to think about it.

Graham’s stories are hard-hitting, dark, at times dealing with difficult subject matter. Some of the stories are linked, dealing with the same characters, and certain themes, locations, and other smaller things recur, linking them together. Graham’s writing is clean and crisp. His stories are readable, trimmed down with no wasted words. I’m looking forward to reading more of his work.

-CL Bledsoe

Monday, May 07, 2012

The Cow Graveyard, a short story

The Cow Graveyard*
CL Bledsoe

The road was made of pale dust and potholes with a pitiful trace of gravel covering. It was so dry that Matthew could see the little cloud of dust Justin's tennis shoes raised as he ran, carrying the rifle. Matthew watched him from the edge of the dirt parking lot of an old aluminum shed by the road. The shed was a makeshift headquarters for Matthew's father's farm, which meant that people used it to drink in and socialize, among other things. His father was inside with Justin's father, doing just that. The door to the shed was closed, and showed no signs of opening any time soon, but Matthew still worried.

"What if we get caught?" Matthew called out. Justin crossed the road towards the barn, and didn't answer. “Hey, come back!”

“Come on.” Justin waved for him to follow.

“We‘ll get in trouble. I knew I shouldn’t have told you that gun was there, I knew you'd get me in trouble.”

“You sound like my sister.”

Matthew broke into a run and caught up to Justin at the gate in front of the barn.

“He’s gonna notice it’s gone,” Matthew panted.

Justin climbed up the gate and straddled it, looking down at Matthew. “He’s too busy bull shitting to notice if he was on fire, come on.” He hopped down the other side, into the barnyard.

“If he sees it’s gone, he’s gonna whoop both of us,” Matthew said. Justin spun around.

“Hell, ain’t nobody gonna whoop me, I’m eleven years old.” He stared Matthew down through the gate. When Matthew hesitated, he added. "Whenever you come over to my place, I let you play with my stuff, don't I?"

"Yeah, but..."

"Next time you come over, I'll let you shoot my shotgun."

Matthew's eyes went nervously back to his father's truck in the parking lot, then to the door of the shed.

"You can borrow it. For the weekend."

Matthew eyed him. "Really?"

"Yeah. I might have to stay the night at your place or something, for my dad, but you can borrow it all weekend. And I'll even give you ten shells."


"Hell yeah. Ten."

Matthew climbed slowly up the gate. "Can't get any traction in these boots," he said. He swung one foot over the top, looking down at Justin’s smiling face before hopping down with an “Oomph.”

The barnyard was like a battlefield, years of cows' hooves stomping through its mud had turned it into a barren wasteland full of holes that nothing could grow in. The boys made slow progress through it, and were soon panting and muddy.

They rested for a moment on the firmer ground inside the barn. Then Justin darted forward, and Matthew followed.

"Don't you have anything cool around here to shoot?" Justin asked.

“Just cows. But don't shoot them. One time,” Matthew said, “I was watching my dad and my uncle round up cows for their vaccinations, and they had these long gloves,” Justin stopped at the edge of the barn and turned as Matthew continued. “And my uncle Shug put one on. And it went all the way to his elbow,” Matthew mimicked the motion, running his palm across his arm, “and then he stuck his hand up this cow’s butt.”

“Damn,” Justin said, laughing. “That’s sick.”

“Yeah, my uncle is a weird guy. He calls his truck Darla.”

“Why does he do that?”

“I don’t know, he says it’s because he spends more time with his truck than he does his wife, so he calls it Darla.”

“That’s fucking stupid.” There was a barbed wire fence behind the barn. Justin ran to it and stuck one foot clumsily on a strand of wire and tested his weight on it.

“Like this,” Matthew said. He pulled one strand of barbed wire up to make a space for Justin to climb through. Justin bent over and stepped through, carefully tucking the gun under the wire. “Hold it for me,“ Matthew said, stepping through.

They followed a narrow dirt trail worn into the grass by cattle. It led across a couple of acres of pasture to a pecan tree. The tree had grown around a rusted barbed wire fence, which stuck out awkwardly. The boys could hear a cow braying somewhere ahead of them.

“My sister always tries to pet the cows,“ Matthew said. “She sneaks up on them, but they always run away.“

“That’s because your sister stinks.“

“You stink.”

They shimmied through the fence, and stepped out onto a levee that dropped off to a stock pond. The pecan tree's limbs stretched over the bluish green water of the pond.

“Maybe he'll think one of the customers stole it," Matthew said. "The gun."

Justin didn't answer. Across the pond, they could see waterspouts shooting up into the air and falling back into the pond with a continuous hard slapping sound.

“What are those?” Justin asked.

“Oxygenators. They put air in the water so the fish can breathe.”

“Fish don’t breathe, they’re underwater, dumb ass.” Justin raised the rifle, aimed at a small dark mass floating near the shore, and fired. The gun broke the silence of the pond. Matthew looked around nervously.

“Turtle,” Justin yelled, “I got him too.” Matthew saw a dark shape floating in a pool of blood. “Snapper.” He handed the gun to Matthew and ran up the side of the levee to the oak tree, retrieved a stick, then ran back down to Matthew. He carefully stepped to the edge of the water, and poked the stick behind the turtle.

"Stick it in its mouth," Matthew said. "It's got a trigger in its mouth, if you touch it, it'll bite down."

"I know." Justin poked the stick in the turtle's mouth and let out a little cry when its jaws clamped down on the stick. He pulled the dead thing onto the bank. “Big one too,” he said. He poked the turtle with his foot.

“Wow,” Matthew said, studying it. Justin took the rifle back from him. For a second, Matthew realized he could've taken it back to his father, but that moment was gone.

"Stinks here. What’s back here?” Justin said, edging along the bank.

“Nothing,” Matthew said. “We’d have to climb another fence, but on the other side of the pond, there’s a wild blueberry bush, if the birds haven’t eaten them all.”

“I’m tired of climbing fences,” Justin said. “What’s up there?” He said, pointing toward a hill to their right.

“Nothing, just the Johnson place after a while.”

Justin broke into a run in the direction of the Johnson's place. “But they’re good blueberries,“ Matthew called, then ran after him.

The boys jogged up a steep hill. From the top they could see across a valley which spread between them littered with bones. A thorn tree squatted near one end of the valley. It was barely taller than Matthew was. There were tufts of cattle hair hanging from some of the thorns where cattle had scratched themselves against the tree.

"Devil’s Walking Stick," Matthew said. "Look." He pointed the hair out to Justin.

"Dumb cows."

"They do it on purpose. Like a back-scratcher."

Justin looked at him. “How’d all the bones get here?”

“My dad drags them here when they‘ve died and laid out so long they rotted, but I think some of them come here anyway, when they get sick. It's a graveyard”

Justin looked at the bones, spread across the valley floor like branches of a fallen tree, “Bet that’s what stinks.” Justin raised the rifle to his shoulder, aimed at a skull lying at the bottom of the hill and fired. Matthew winced. Justin started down the hill, into the graveyard, then turned back with a, “Come on.” Matthew followed quietly.

They couldn’t feel the wind down in the valley.

“Stink’s worse down here,” Justin said.

Matthew went down on one knee in front of the skull. “Bull,“ he muttered. His eyes traced the remains of its blunt horns.

“Fuck!” Justin yelled.

Matthew looked up and saw Justin on the other side of the thorn tree, staring at something. He broke into a run. As he passed the tree, he brushed against one of its thorns. He let out a, “Hey!” And dodged away from it. Justin was looking at a cow. It was lying on its side with its back against the bottom of a hill. It was watching Justin and let out a pitiful moan as it saw Matthew.

“What’s wrong with it?” Justin asked.

“Don’t know.” The cow thrashed its head wildly and mooed again. There was a thick line of mucus hanging from one of its nostrils. “Maybe it’s got a cold.” The cow propped itself up on its front legs and struggled to stand, but its back legs appeared useless.

Matthew approached the cow and saw that the grass around its rear was stained with blood. Two tiny legs stuck out from its backside. Matthew stared at it. “Oh my God.”

Matthew pulled his eyes away from the cow. He studied the grass on the hill above it. Then looked back towards the way they’d come. “It must’ve,” the cow interrupted him with a plaintive moan. He glanced back at it, then quickly turned away. “It must be trying to...give birth. Sometimes calves get stuck and it can kill the mother.” They listened quietly as the cow struggled to stand. “Man, the blood,” Matthew said. “We have to do something.” He looked at the cow. Its wild eyes locked into his. “We have to get my dad. He can pull the calf. He’ll get the tractor and save it.”

“It's fucking dead,” Justin said quietly.

“Yeah, but the cow.”

“It's fucking dead too, it just don’t know it yet.” Justin was studying the cow.

“Well, Dad will know what to do.”

Justin looked at him. “It’s done for, man, only one thing to do for it.”

Matthew studied him. The cow moaned again. Matthew shuddered. “But, my dad will get mad.”

“No, he won’t, look at it.”

Matthew turned towards the cow. It was panting and had curled its front legs under it to lie on the ground again. Justin walked towards it. The cow’s eyes went from Matthew to Justin.

“Wait,” Matthew said.

“It’s hurting.”

Matthew looked at him.

Justin raised the rifle. The cow mewled, flaring its nostrils and batting its head from side to side.

“Get up close to it,” Matthew said. “Make sure you don’t miss.“

“I won’t miss. I can get a perfect score on Duck Hunt."

“Get right up on it.” Justin stepped forward.

“Damn it stinks.” Justin raised the rifle to the cow’s head. The cow screamed and tried to drag itself away again. Its tail was swabbing a trail of blood from side to side. It let out another scream, and dragged itself a few inches forward.

“Try to do it with one shot, you’re too far away.”

“Shut up!“ Justin screamed. He turned away from the cow and glared at Matthew, letting the barrel of the rifle touch the grass. “Stop telling me what to do, you don’t know anything, you‘re just a stupid fucking redneck.”

“You’re dragging the gun on the ground.”

The cow screamed again and Justin flinched, still staring at Matthew, then he threw the gun down and walked back towards the thorn tree. “It’s your stupid cow,” he said.

“I’ll do it, then,“ Matthew picked up the rifle. He walked up to the cow. She turned her head away from him, reached her front hooves out, dug them into the ground and tried to drag herself away.

“Shush, ” he said. He reached towards her to brush her cheek. The cow jerked away. Matthew lifted his hand and cooed, then tried to caress her cheek again. “Hush now, Girl, everything’s going to be all right.” The cow stared at him out of one wild eye. He raised the rifle to her ear, angling down. The cow batted at the rifle with her head. Matthew jerked the rifle away, then aimed again. His eyes moved from the cow’s ear to the one wild eye. He cocked the hammer. “Shush,” he said and squeezed the trigger. The shot echoed through the valley. The cow’s head dropped to the ground with a thud. Matthew stared at it. He carefully bent down to the cow’s nostrils. He held his hand in front of them, and felt nothing. He straightened up, turned, and took two steps towards the back of the cow, stepping over its legs. The calf didn't move. He turned to Justin. The boy was staring at the dead cow with a look like he'd just been slapped. It was almost funny. Matthew shouldered the rifle and walked past him, back the way they’d come, past the thorn tree and up the hill. After a moment, Justin followed.

* * *

*Originally appeared in Natural Bridge

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Review of Eamon Loingsigh's Love and Maladies.

Love and Maladies, poems by Eamon Loingsigh. Eamon Loingsigh’s poems remind me of the poems I wrote when I was a late teen/early 20-something. They’re passionate, angry, proud, wise, idealistic, but at their core, they reveal the betrayal of the poet by a world that refuses to behave rationally and for its own best interest. Loingsigh’s poems are a kind of dirge for this innocence: the innocent who believed people were basically good, basically kind, and who believed in beauty but instead found selfishness, betrayal, and ugliness. Loingsigh’s anger isn’t a lashing out, though; it’s anger born of disappointment. Loingsigh wants people to be better than they are, but along with that, he knows that they can be better. Idealism is a tough one because idealists always end up disappointed, often tragically so, but in their hearts, they know people can change, so they keep trying. I’m not going to go any further with this. One could accuse idealists of being selfish, self-absorbed, judgmental, unrealistic, whatever, but the fact is that without idealists, man would still be in the moral caves. It’s idealists like Martin Luther King, Ghandi, the Dali Lama, etc. etc. who pull us from being the apes we are towards the angels we long to be. In Loingsigh’s short collection, he shifts from formal poetry to song lyrics to free verse. His imagery is often jarring (many references to vaginas, for example) and his topics are almost always intended to give pause. Loingsigh writes of the plight of the poor and working class. At times, he relies on familiar imagery and phrasing, but Loingsigh’s poems are definitely meant to be heard more than read. One of my favorite poems in the collection is “A Thousand Years” which describes a future in which America is remembered for its “rise and fall in a single paragraph” (line 2). It’s a dystopian future in which banks are able to excommunicate, a future in which the things we truly value (though don’t necessarily admit to valuing) have been extended to their logical end: or, let’s be honest, is Loingsigh talking about a dystopian future or the dystopian present? -CL Bledsoe