Mississippi Stories

The full text of this essay is not currently available online.

In the Mississippi Delta it goes like this: Memphis with its blue lights; Highway 49 a lonesome road of cypress swamps and Tuesday-night juke joints; the river, in all kinds of brown and foaming glory, stepping gracefully down to meet you somewhere south of Vicksburg.

One Step

The full text of this essay is not currently available online.

I’m nine, I’m thirteen, I’m twenty-two and a football’s sailing over my head as I run full out, a step ahead of the guy behind me, my arms stretched to their limit.  When the ball descends between my arms, my hands press just enough of it to grip it and pull it to me as I keep running, all the way over the goal line….the point is, I ran.  Like you.  I jumped, stretched, danced, did everything a body does, and more than many.  In a world where I was the smallest boy, and by a lot, I kept up.

Sam Shepard's Master Class in Playwriting

The full text of this feature is available view the PDF link below.

Cherry Lane Theater, in Manhattan’s West Village, is not located on Cherry Lane at all, but on Commercce Lane (nowhere near the Financial District of Lower Manhattan).  It’s a venerable theater company that has been around for years, not very big, nowhere near broadway, tucked in a corner on one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in New York: an urban paradise.

Sam Shepard’s Master Class in Playwriting (Issue 30.2)

Tired Eyes

The full text of this poem is not currently available online.

Bloom School

The year I became a summertime blonde,
I moved through air thick as mink, lingered
most evenings at Bloom School.

 

I turned slowly on the lowest swing, let dirt
slip and fall between the soft peninsulas of my toes
while waiting to be cured by the salty taste of boys.

 

Barefoot, my breasts warmed by the triangular sail
of a fruit-colored halter top, I fingered the strap marks
hours in the sun had left on my body like a petroglyph.

 

During the slowness of dusk, one of the boys would coax me
toward blackberry thickets which rambled on and on
about the eroticism of their tight, green fruits.

 

The sharp tang locked inside each chartreuse bite
was enough to stain my sense of the sensual
with desire. All summer long, I lay beneath

 

those pea-sized constellations, touching the berries, one
by one, while my body shaped itself into a bowl
deep enough to hold all that might perish,

 

like fruit in dreamy heat. One boy tore off
the strip of rawhide I kept tied
around my ankle and called a bat scare

 

as though it were an exotic scrap of lingerie.
He slipped it between my teeth, warded off
sounds murmured from within, sounds elongated

 

by his touch, low and vibrating, like the altos
in the church choir who took me beyond the feminine.
Suddenly, I saw a bat flurry about.

 

I watched while it scoured the twilit sky
of its dark, edible particles. My ears felt warm,
tongued almost by the bat’s silken motion

 

and not by the boy whose hands went underneath the top
of the lime green bikini which held my breasts
like heavy suggestions. I, too, wanted to pilot

 

by invisible bands of sound and retreat into darkness
and nuance, shadow-shifting shyness
and movement akin to perfect pitch.

 

Haunted by bat cry, by the warbling presence of this night—
christened creature, my flesh sounded out
its deepest sense while engulfed

 

by all the erotic is engrossed in. Touched
and taught, I drifted into blossom—
eerie, wanting, far from free.

from "East of Carthage"

[This poem was featured as a Poem of the Week, March 3, 2009.]

“East of Carthage: 9”

Southwest of here is Apuleius’s hometown, his inescapable

destination having spent his inheritance on travel and studies.

“Lacking the poverty of the rich,” he’d splurged, a month-long trip

to the Olympic games; and openhanded, he gifted his mentors

their daughters’ dowries. Few return to Madaura once gone,

 

and when heading back shamefaced like him, they’d do as he did,

taking the longest route hoping the journey would never end.

Here in Sabratha, the widow hooked him, or he let her reel him,

and that’s how that sordid business happily ended as it began.

I look out toward Madaura, my back to the theater and the latrines,

 

Madaura, birthplace of Augustine, site of his first schooling-

little Augustine holding a satchel of scrolls, a loaf of bread for the teacher,

awakened by his mother, his tiny feet cold in tiny sandals,

his stomach warm with a barley porridge my grandmother used to make,

forced to slurp it, sweetened with a spoon of honey from the Atlas,

 

a sprinkling of cinnamon (they were that well off)

and crushed almonds from the family farm.

If the world is that sweet and warm, if it is that mothering,

why then this perpetual scene of separation,

this turning-out into the cold toward something he knew he’d love?

 

He lets go of the neighbors’ boy’s hand warming his own.

He refuses the warm porridge forever, renounces his mother’s embrace.

It only lasted a month, this partial answer, later to be pursued

elsewhere, because even then everyone here knew

that the sweet oranges they grew housed the bitterest seeds,

 

that piety is its own reward, while belief only darkens

and deepens like the sea before them, a place

meant for those seeking life other than on this dry earth.

That’s why prophets had been welcomed here, calmly,

because God was like rain and they like the saplings

 

drawing heat from another imperfection, and from the soil

which knows only the first verse to the sky’s rainless hymn.

And that’s why Africa’s tallest minaret looms unfinished,

visible from the next town over, and for fifty leagues from the sea if

it were turned into a lighthouse for the ships that no longer come.

 

The merchant who built it, money made from smuggling

subsidized goods to Carthage and used Renaults from Rotterdam,

ran out of money, could not afford the mosque that was to stand

next to it, leaving its gray concrete bleaching in the sun.

There’s enough history here to enable anyone to finish the thought.

 

It’s useless then to track the fate of these travelers;

some, without life jackets, had never learned how to swim.

Why not let them live in text as they do in life?-they’ve lived

without words for so long-why not release them

from the pen’s anchor and let them drift to their completion?

 

Poetry Feature: Tracy Jo Barnwell

Featuring the poems:

  • The Doctor Provides His Initial Impressions
  • Robert Is Here
  • Night City Sunflower
  • New Year’s Eve Sonnet From A Fire Escape

Poetry Feature: K.A. Hays

Featuring the poems:

  • I’d Say God
  • So the Moths Come Slaloming out of Hollow Trees
  • Dear Apocalypse
  • The churchbells in Malé are ringing, possibly ushering out
  • And I Don’t Believe the View from Here

Quichè Lessons

The full text of this story is available via the PDF link below.

On Saturday, S’is visited Maximon and gave him a cigar, a pint of liquor–Quezalteco–and a tart of blackberries.  The cigar and Quetzalteco were Maximon’s usual gifts, but berry tart was not.  The tart was his wife’s idea.

“Quichè Lessons” by Molly McNett

Featured as an Editor’s Pick, October 14, 2008:

“Quichè Lessons” was a piece that was discovered by a first-semester intern here at The Missouri Reviewthrough our thousands of mail and online submissions. This keen eye for good writing is one of the many reasons why we at TMR pride ourselves on maintaining a high quality internship where interns are selected through a vigorous screening process for their ability to pick out and discern writing that is acceptable for publication, backing up their decisions with close analysis of the works in consideration. Molly McNett’s work was chosen to receive the Peden Prize for this year’s best fiction piece featured in The Missouri Review. She will be honored with a reception on Monday, October 20th at 6:00 PM in Columbia, Missouri.

Below is a short interview our intern Nick Woodbury conducted with McNett about her work, followed by a link to download a PDF of “Quichè Lessons.”

Nick: “Quichè Lessons” was your second story published in The Missouri Review. “Bactine” was published ten years prior to that, in 1997. How had you changed as a writer in that ten-year period?

Molly: I would say changing as a person, getting older, makes as much of a difference in being a writer as the practice of writing or the development of writing style.  I had two children.  I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  I moved from the city to the country, to my grandparents’ former house. These things changed what I did and thought about, so my writing changed with them.

By the way, I’m very fond of The Missouri Review.  “Bactine” was one of the first stories I ever wrote, and The Missouri Review was one of the first places I sent it.  So I thought, “This is what writing is like. I guess you write something and then someone will want to publish it. This is going to be easy!”  Needless to say, it wasn’t quite that simple. . . .

Nick: Your piece Quichè Lessons”, a story about the cultural misunderstandings between an impoverished, Guatemalan language tutor attempting to provide for his family and a curious American student desiring to gain knowledge of a foreign language, was published in TMR in 2007.  In “Quichè Lessons” you beautifully explore the facets of S’is’s life outside of his interaction with the American student. What was your inspiration for the details of his life-his family, his wife, his perspective? Were these things imagined, or were they inspired by real people?

Molly: I spent a summer in Guatemala.  My husband was studying Spanish, and I was interested in linguistics at the time, so I was trying to learn a Mayan language.  I tell the story from the point of view of my language teacher.  Of course, I made up a lot of details, though I traveled in Guatemala a bit and tried to make educated guesses.  I suppose I was troubled by the same things all Westerners are troubled by when we stay in Third World countries: the power we find ourselves with, which we haven’t done anything to deserve.  For me, writing from a Mayan’s point of view helped me to try to imagine his experience of teaching me, and to help me understand his life more fully.

Nick: You recently won the 2008 John Simmons Short Fiction Award for your collection One Dog Happy. Tell us a little bit about the collection. How long did it take you to put together all of the stories? What types of challenges did you come across in your attempts to get published?

Molly: It took ten years to write them. That’s a long time for a few stories, really.  I was not sure for a long time if they were going to make a collection.  I spent the time in between either not writing or writing nonfiction,  But I learned more about what I wanted to write in these stories.  There are things in them that I wouldn’t write now.  That’s a common experience for writers, I think. I had given up on a story collection, because sometimes a publishing agent would want to see what I had, and then the question of a novel would come up.  They would say things like, “These stories are fine, and maybe if you have a novel . . .” and so on.  Because of that, I thought I’d better write a novel, but I had nothing, no idea for one.  I wrote a lot of essays during that time, as I got more confused about writing fiction and what I wanted to say with it, what it was supposed to do, and so on.  So yes, there were challenges, but mostly it was the cultivation of patience.

Nick: In One Dog Happy, you have such a wide variety of characters: two neglected daughters, a minister’s house sitter and a divorced father, to name a few. What did you do to unify their very different experiences and perspectives?

Molly: I never thought consciously about this.  I think there are some themes in this collection, but they arise the way things will when you juxtapose anything: almost on their own.  For a long time I was interested in that point at which an adolescent begins to see him or herself and begins to really realize what kind of a world he or she has to enter.  I thought there must be a “moment,” and one should be able to dramatize it somehow.  Anyway, I tried to get at that “moment” in several of these stories. I was also attracted to anything bizarre and grotesque, sometimes for its own sake, I’ll admit, although I’m not attracted as much anymore.

Nick: Belief, and attempting to find hope, appear to be strong themes in all of the pieces in the collection, and this belief is even present in the piece “Quichè Lessons” that was published here at TMR. What draws you towards that theme? How do you see belief carried out in your own life?

Molly: My sister is a Christian.  I am not, but I’m very close to her. There’s a line in the story “Catalog Sales” where the main character, Tammy, says, “When you have a sister, what happens to her happens to you.”  It’s like that for us.  I’d like to understand her faith, and I respect it because I love her.  That’s all.  So some of these stories have characters who doubt or who believe or who wonder about it.  I can’t write these as well as I could if I were someone who knew the Bible or who practiced Christianity in a real way.

Nick:  If you had to choose a favorite piece from the collection, what would it be and why?

Molly: “Ozzie the Burro.” It’s an epistolary story about an e-mail dating exchange.  You only read the woman’s e-mails to the man.  I have a feeling it wouldn’t be anyone else’s favorite story, but I just like the character who writes the e-mail,  and some of it makes me laugh.

Nick: What writing projects are you currently working on?

Molly: I have something in the hopper.  Will I jinx it if I tell you about it?  I’ll just say that one day I realized that my husband is so funny that everything he says should be written down.  It’s a shame that I’m the only one who can hear what he comes up with, since we’re pretty isolated out here where I live. That feeling about my husband caused me to start saving up some of his better lines, and soon there was a character who spoke them, and so on.  But we’ll see where that leads.

Hum

The full text of this story is not currently available online.

We could hear it from any point in the house–upstairs, downstairs, even the garage.  From the kitchen the sound was faint, like the upswing of a snore with no silent intervals in between: all intake of breath, no release.