Meet Our Contributors: Q&A with Seth Tucker

Seth Brady Tucker’s fiction has recently appeared in December, Iowa Review, Shenandoah, and elsewhere, and his poetry and fiction have won awards over the years. He runs the Longleaf Writers Conference in Florida and teaches creative writing to engineers at the top-ranked Colorado School of Mines.

Tucker’s short story, “The Court of Tar and Oil,” appeared in LPR’s Winter Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Q: I notice you’re from Wyoming. Have you ever been to Worland? My mother’s maiden name is Worland and apparently, we have some sort of family connection to the place.

What I know about Worland: there was a fight nearly every time we played them in basketball. Tough team from a tough town—all elbows and inner-city play way out there in the flat expanse of the desert plains. Their basketball court ended at a wall with a thin pad on it, and you knew you were going to get driven into it at some point in the game.

Q: The image in my mind that I have of Wyoming I got from Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces. Have you read that book? How does it correspond to your own experience?

The beauty of Wyoming is wild and terrific in the literal meaning of the word terrific; it is wide open, wind-swept, frightful, but also remarkable for some of the most rugged and lovely terrain on the planet. I was lucky to grow up in the little hamlet town of Lander, next to the Wind River Range, and most of my youth was spent working our ranch or working the mountains with my father, who was a hunting guide in the Winds for many years (and who knows about as much about those mountains as anyone alive). It made being a child tough, but I also have some rare and cherished memories of winding our way up those mountains on horseback. I haven’t read Ehrlich’s work, but Annie Prouix is a transplant to Wyoming and does a fairly good job of writing about life up there, but I have to assume that Ehrlich likely writes about how big and bright the sky is, how far one can see into the distance, the shadows of mountains always just on the horizon, the slow progression of the highways as you make your way to them; it is what I love about Wyoming–this hint of the unknown and wild and dangerous.

Q: I realize the Longleaf Writers Conference is just a week away. What’s the origin story of this conference?

This is our fifth year, and for three of those years Matt Bondurant and I have funded scholarships and fellowships for emerging poets and writers. We started with just Matt and I as faculty, then slowly started to build, bringing in writers like Andre Dubus III, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, Antonya Nelson, Rebecca Makkai, David James Poissant, Chris Offutt, Jen Percy, Anton DiSclafani, and many other authors who were awarded financial aid. We are proud of the support we give our attendees, and have helped a number of them go on to publish books. We partner with Ole Miss for a couple scholarships as well, and this year we are bringing Beth Anne Fennelly and Tom Franklin and Jill McCorkle, with the help of our other partner, the Cultural Arts Alliance of South Walton. We built this conference to be small and intimate in a way that the big conferences can be overwhelming and isolating; we want beginners to feel as comfortable there as those with long histories in the workshop or academia; we bring the best writers we can who also happen to be generous and enthusiastic teachers and writers; to sum up: we write hard and beach hard. You should come next year!

Q: Are writers’ conferences something that should be on my radar as a young writer? Should I be going to things like this?

Absolutely—this is the networking of the job of being a writer—the sooner you start, the sooner you get that big break everyone wants and needs. My only regret is not going to these conferences while in grad school.

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Meet Our Contributors: Q&A with J. A. Bernstein

J. A. Bernstein’s forthcoming novel, Rachel’s Tomb (New Issues 2019), won the AWP Award Series, Hackney, and Knut House Prizes, and his forthcoming story collection, Stick-Light (Eyewear 2019), was a finalist for the Robert C. Jones and Beverly Prizes. His work has appeared in Shenandoah, Boston Review, Kenyon Review Online, Tampa Review, Tin House (web), Chicago Quarterly Review, and other journals, and won Crab Orchard Review’s John Gunyon Prize in Nonfiction. A Chicago-native, he is the fiction editor of Tikkun and, starting this August, an assistant professor in the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Bernstein’s nonfiction piece, “The Works,” was published in LPR’s Winter Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Q: You told me that, “like a lot of writers,” you’d prefer not to discuss your own writing. Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?

My sense is that a piece of creative writing should be able to stand on its own. That doesn’t mean context or intention are unimportant, or that criticism shouldn’t exist (well, it depends on who’s writing it). I’m also not averse to discussing craft. But my instinct is that if an author needs to start explaining her work, or clarifying it for readers, then the work itself probably needs revisiting.

Q: What happens when somebody “doesn’t get” something you’ve written?

In an ideal world, I’d have them shipped to Siberia.

Q: What do you see as the relationship between literature and advocacy?

This is a great question—and please excuse my pert response to the last one. This is also a question that I’m sure I, and virtually any writer who’s alive today, ponder continually. Let me simply say this: when I was in graduate school, I remember a literature professor I admired, Terrence Whalen, telling a group of students that Melville’s politics were inscrutable. “Let that be a lesson to all you creative writers,” he joked. And I think there was truth in that. The best works of art, regardless of their commitment, seem to evade scrutiny or any quick encapsulation.

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Winter Issue 2018: Introducing Daien Guo

Daien Guo is a writer based in Washington, DC. Little Patuxent Review is delighted to present her first published piece of fiction, “A Bathroom Renovation,” in our Winter 2018 issue (available for purchase at this link).

In a recent blog post for LPR, Alan King writes, “It’s exciting when the list of contributors for a publication I’m in is a reunion of sorts.” We expect the literary world will be reading more of Guo’s fiction in the future and look forward to more of the reunions King describes.

Guo will read her work at LPR’s annual reading at The Writer’s Center on Saturday, March 17 from 2:00 – 4:00 PM. More information about the annual reading, which will feature multiple artists from our Winter 2018 issue, is available at this link.

 

 

 

From Our Current Issue: Q&A with Jessica Van Devanter

Little Patuxent Review just released its Winter Issue (available for purchase at this link). Each week we’ll highlight some of the content from this issue. For this week, we’re looking at Jessica Van Devanter’s short story, “Bolo Tie.”

Van Devanter is an emerging writer living in San Diego, California. She is currently enrolled in the creative writing program at University of California San Diego Extension, working toward a Professional Certificate in Creative Writing. In addition to LPR, her stories have been published in Gone Lawn Journal and The Ocotillo Review.

Van Devanter was among many of our readers who traveled long distances for our launch in Columbia, Maryland two weeks ago. We don’t take that for granted and are very grateful. We look forward to reading more of Van Devanter’s fiction in the future.

Q: What a trip the bolo tie takes you and us on in this story. Can you describe your writing process a bit?

The process of writing “Bolo Tie” was not so different from the experience of the main character. I was feeling hemmed in, and looking in my closet. My Grandpa actually did have a bolo tie, though not like the one described in the story. I was imagining it, imagining wearing it. I was laying on my bed and watching the ceiling fan, and the fantasy began to spin out in front of me and before I could lose myself in it I thought “I have to write this down!”

Q: Why did you decide to come to Maryland for the LPR launch?

When I received the email from editor Steven Leyva that “Bolo Tie” had been accepted for publication, he also invited me to the launch party. When I had finished my celebratory flailing and cheering, I took another look at the LPR website and was impressed by the professionalism and strong cohesive vision that came across. I knew I wanted to meet these people, and I was not wrong. The LPR is an impressive publication because it is made up of impressive people. The warmth and creative spirit that filled the room during the reading were the likes of which I will not forget.

Q: What was it like for you to give the reading?

The LPR launch was my first reading for a publication, and to say I was nervous might be an understatement. But once Stephen Leyva and Susan Hobby took the podium, I was glad I came. They gave an air of comfort and familiarity that told me I was in the right place. What more could a burgeoning writer ask for than a group of encouraging and inspiring artists with smiles and infectious laughter?

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Hailey Foglio: We Are All Here

Hailey Foglio was one of the contributors in our Summer 2017 Issue. She has graciously allowed us to reprint her short story here.

Hailey Foglio

We Are All Here

“I wish someone would write something important on these.” Val runs his gloved fingers along crooked shapes carved into the bark of an oak tree. Kat + Mike Brian 4ever. A heart with an arrow through it, a date underneath: 6/12/13. Delicate edges flake off and drift down, landing on the frozen dirt at our feet.

“Something like what?”

“Poetry.” Val rotates around the tree, sliding in and out of view, his fingers dancing wide against the white bark, searching for meaning. His breath freezes in the air and expands around him like a fog. “A manifesto. A math equation. A suicide note. Anything.” He stops, sees something a few trees away, and I follow him.

The word “HERE,” etched into a nearby birch, grows from the base of the tree to my chest, the letters wrapping around the trunk. I knock the toe of my boot against the angles of the vowels. “WAS” stretches from my chest to two feet past my head, and “I” extends far above me. Val reaches his arm toward the letter and slides his fingers into the empty space of it. The wood is damp with winter, but Val’s coat snags on dried-out bark as he moves his hand along the vertical carving. I WAS HERE. Nothing else. No crowding of other people’s initials between the letters, no pictures stamped along the letters’ edges. Just this. Untouched. I WAS HERE.

I take a few steps away, crane my neck. “How do you think he got all the way up there?” I imagine a giant stepping through these woods, slow and quiet, slouching to keep his head below the canopy, to avoid detection. His knife is a broken rock, and though his hands are huge and inelegant, fists that could crush entire houses, his fingers are dainty when he holds the rock, when he carves the letters. I imagine him lying on his belly, feet kicked up and swaying behind him, gusts of wind shaking the trees and freeing loose leaves from tired branches, as he carves the final word.

Val shrugs. “Probably a ladder.”

He traces his thumb back and forth along the lowest curve of the “S” and says nothing. I watch the muscles in his jaw clench, then unclench, over and over, eyes set on the tree bark before him and nothing else. He gets like this sometimes. Quiet.

“So does this count?”

Val startles at my voice. “What?”

“As something important?”

He drops his hand from the tree, takes a few steps back to meet me, and stares up. “No.”

“No?”

He zips his fleece, burying the bottom of his chin in the fabric. “No.” He starts walking toward the edge of the woods, trying to locate the spot where we came in.

“Well, why not?”

He turns, eyes on me. “We are all here, Helen.” I only notice his accent when he says my name, an extra syllable sneaking in at the end. Helen-ah. “This isn’t news.”

__I have an old name. Helen Taft. Helen Keller. Helen of Troy. Old names. People with stories. I don’t have any stories.

“Helen?” The officer ducks his head to meet my gaze. “Are you listening?”

My dad shifts on the couch beside me. The officer sits in my dad’s recliner, a pen in his right hand, a small notepad in the other. A second officer stands behind the recliner, stone-faced and staring.

“I’m listening.”

“When was the last time that you saw Valentyn Kozlovsky?”

This is the third time the police have been to my house, the fifth questioning in total. They’re trying to figure out what it is I’m lying about. In fact, there are one-and-a-half lies.

At this point, I don’t have to think before I speak. “One month and three days ago.”

“Where did you last see him?”

“Outside the woods.”

“Which woods?” There are a lot of woods in this part of Wisconsin.

“The ones by the park.”

“Which park?” There are also a lot of parks.

“Fairfield Park.”

“What was he doing there?”

“Walking.”

“Where to?”

“Nowhere in particular.”

“Did you walk home together?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“He went back.”

“Why?”

“He said he dropped something.”

“Dropped what?”

“His wallet.”

“And then what happened?”

“And then he went back for it.”

“Nothing else?”

“Nothing else.” This is the half lie.

 

I followed Val out of the woods that night, the one with the tree the giant carved. If we talked about anything while we walked, I don’t remember it. Chitchat about the weather, maybe, or about chemistry homework, or maybe winter break.

And then he stopped. “Helen.” Helen-ah.

I turned. “Yeah?”

I don’t know what he’d meant to say when he stopped, but what he said wasn’t what he intended. I know this because I know him. Knew him. I could anticipate him, could hear his laugh coming before the punch line, could see his eyes roll even before Rebecca Johanssen opened her mouth in the hallway. I saw all these things inside him, each one, all the time. And he’d meant to say something else that night, something hard, maybe, because his mouth was crooked and his eyes were set, and I’ll never know what that thing was.

“I think I dropped my wallet in the woods.”

“Your wallet?”

A pause. “Yeah.”

“Well, let’s go back for it.” I took a few steps toward the trees. There is no entrance, no right way to get to the heart of the thing. You just have to walk in and keep walking until you find what you’re looking for.

“That’s okay. I can go alone.”

I laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous, Val. Let’s just get it and get out. The sun’s going down, and it’s already cold.” Wisconsin favors those who know how not to die of exposure, and wandering around the woods after sundown is tempting fate.

“It’s fine.” His voice was louder then. Firm. Then soft, like a whisper. “What do you think is on the other side of the woods?”

I shrugged. “More woods, I guess. It probably goes for miles.”

“Yeah.” Val nodded, adjusted his hat. “You should get home.”

“Val—”

“Helen.” Helen-ah. “Go home.”

I thought he was trying to protect me, from frostbite or freezing to death. I turned from the woods and walked to him, unraveling my buffalo plaid scarf from my neck. I unzipped his fleece.

“Don’t—”

I silenced him with a look. He sighed. I wrapped my scarf around him, tucking the ends down against his chest. I heard my dad’s voice: Always protect your chest. Keep it warm. Keep your heart pumping.

“Protect your heart.” I pulled shut the zipper of his fleece, the teeth pressed tight against my scarf. I took off my gloves, thin ones, the kind you can get for cheap at Walgreens. I pulled off each of his, replaced them with mine which were smaller but did the job just the same, then squeezed his own back over top. I pulled his hat down over his ears. “Don’t get lost. Call me when you’re home.”

I stepped back and Val grabbed my hand. “I love you.” He said that sometimes. He never smiled when he said it. It always felt like goodbye but never was.

“I love you, too.”

He dropped my hand, took a few steps back, and turned toward the woods. He paused at the edge of the trees and stared into the coming darkness for so long I thought he’d changed his mind, until he threw me a final glance and stepped in.

I began to walk away, but was struck by the silence. This time of year, every step sounds like ice shattering, but there was nothing. Val wasn’t walking. I waited, and I waited, and I waited, and decided to go back. One step toward where I last saw him and the forest started shaking, loud, like something slamming against several tree trunks all at once, tiny icicles and frosted branches breaking off and clattering against the frozen ground. Then footsteps like stomping, pounding the forest floor, disappearing into the distance. Val was running.

“Do you know anyone who might have held a grudge against Valentyn?”

“No.”

“Boys at school or anything?”

“No.”

“And you’ve known him for how long?”

“Twelve years.” His family moved in across the street when I was five and he was six. We were too shy to want to be friends, but our parents insisted on play dates. His family came from Ukraine, “the bad part,” he always said. He taught me some Ukrainian phrases, I helped him with his English. By grade school, we refused to be apart.

“After all that time, you don’t have any idea what might have happened to him?”

“No.”

“Did he talk about running away?”

“No.” But then again, he didn’t have to. I could see it on him, the way he stopped paying attention in class, the way he stopped talking to his parents, the way he stared at the sky and the stars and the moon, like there was something waiting up there for him, expectant. While I was studying on the floor of his bedroom, he was in bed reading. Vonnegut or Bukowski or Murakami.

“What are you doing?” I would ask, and he would sigh in response.

“I’m bored, Helen.”

“Stop reading, then.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“Well, what do you mean?”

He’d look at me for a long time and then smile, join me on the floor and never explain.

“Did he seem suicidal?”

I can’t help but roll my eyes any time this question is asked. “No.”

“And you’ve had no contact with him whatsoever since his disappearance?”

“None at all.” This is the big lie.

Val had only been gone for a week when I found the package on my bed, the window thrown open, the cold gusting in, making the curtains dance. It was wrapped in a brown paper bag from Woodman’s, a grocery store, the way we used to cover our textbooks for school. My name was scrawled across the paper in thick capital letters. A small sketch of a tree sprouted out from the top right peak of the “N.”

I let my backpack fall to the carpet and ripped the wrapping from the package. Inside, a box. Inside that, my scarf and my gloves, the ones from that day. I pulled them out and a slip of paper fluttered onto my yellow and white checkered bedspread. The note was seven lines long.

Helen,
I’m beginning to understand.
I was here.
And so were you.
Don’t forget.
Yours,
Val.

Nothing else.

It was colder that day than the day Val disappeared. I put on long johns, a pair of thick pants, a long-sleeved shirt, a sweater over that, my scarf, my gloves, a coat on top, a hat to finish it off. I ran through the park, too cold for kids to be on the playground, and stormed into the woods. As soon as I was in, I remembered the shaking trees, the pounding feet, Val in the distance. I ran until I made it to the birch trees, the ones with the words, the names, the initials, the giant declaration I WAS HERE.

I don’t know what I expected to find. I searched the trees for new markings, a sign from Val, his name, a date, but it would have been something important—poetry, a manifesto, a math equation, a suicide note, anything—but there was nothing. Nothing changed. Nothing added. Nothing missing.

I sat on the ground, knowing it would be a matter of minutes before the frost melted and seeped through my pants. I leaned my back against the I WAS HERE tree. And maybe he had been. But he wasn’t anymore. I’ve never felt more alone than being surrounded by a hundred names and dates and doodles and nothing of Val.

By the time I got home, I was tired. Confused. The trees had broken me. I didn’t understand Val’s letter, but I couldn’t show it to anyone. That felt like betrayal. I slid it inside an old history notebook, put that in the box beside my scarf and gloves, put the box in an old duffle bag, put the duffle bag in my closet, all the way at the back, and covered it with clothes I don’t wear anymore.

“So what do you think happened to him?”

I am sick of these questions. “I think he walked into the woods and never came back out.”

The officer nods. The one behind him sticks his hands in his pockets. My dad sighs.

“That’s it for now. You’ll let us know if you hear from him.” It’s not a question, but a demand.

“Yeah.”

__Six months after Val disappeared, Cody Brigand asks me to the senior picnic, the swanky outdoor dinner hosted by the school board and the last huzzah before high school graduation. He tells me there will be food and a lake and games and a Ferris wheel.

He rubs a nervous hand over his recent buzz cut. “It’s really more of a carnival.”

I tell him no. I tell him I have plans. Which is both true and not.

The night of picnic, I put on a dress I bought at Goodwill, brush my hair, step into a pair of old Mary Janes. My dad stops me as I’m leaving the house.

“You look beautiful.” He smiles but not all the way. I think he knows where I’m going, that it’s not to the picnic, but I can’t be sure.

I used to sneak into Val’s room all the time. He kept the ladder propped up against the side of his house, guiding me to the window. This started in middle school and continued for years after. Eventually, I stopped using the front door altogether and entered solely through the window, whether I needed to or not. For a long time, his mom was surprised to see me when she opened his bedroom door, but she was never upset. She knew about the ladder, and we knew she knew, and she let him keep it there.

Tonight, though, the ladder is gone. I search around for it, find it behind the shed at the back of their property. I haul it to Val’s side of the house, unfold the legs, and place it in its rightful spot, careful not to let it slam against the siding.

I climb up, hear the familiar groan of wood on wood as I lift the window, and crawl into his room. It’s different than I remember, and not at all how he left it. I’m positive of this. There are no dirty clothes sprawled across the floor, no blankets kicked down to the bottom of the bed, no drooping corners on any of his posters. I open his drawers to find that his clothes are folded, put away neatly, unwrinkled and untouched. I examine the bed, the corners of the sheets tucked just so, the top of the blanket folded down. I inspect the posters, now framed, not a fingerprint to be seen on the glass. I think I can understand why his parents did this. A matter of trapping a moment in time, trapping a person in time. An exercise in preservation. But this isn’t him.

I open the middle drawer of his dresser, pull out the t-shirts, unfold each and drop them randomly around the room. I dig out a pair of pants for good measure. I take his blanket off his bed, ball it up between my arms, and drop it at the foot of the mattress. I remove a frame from the wall, the one with a poster of a Ukrainian metal bed, open the back, and slide the poster out. I let it fall in the corner of the room, which is at least closer to how it would have looked. I do this all in the nearest thing to silence that I can. When I’m done, I stand back and examine my handiwork. It still doesn’t look right. I pull more clothes out of drawers, yank down the sheets, take all the frames down and lean them against the walls. And still, I can’t replicate the way it had been, the Val-ness of it all. Him and his smells and his sounds and his mess. Everything is here but not. He is here. But not.

When I’m too tired to continue, I stop, sit down in the middle of the room on top of all his shirts, and cry. It’s the first time I’ve done this. Because I thought he’d come back. But I am alone in his room in a dress that pinches my skin, and he should’ve been here by now. A thin shaft of light expands beside me, and I see Val’s mom in the doorway. The hall light casts shadows against her cheeks, her eyes, and she is ghostly. If she’s surprised to see me, she masks it. I watch her eyes dart from the laundry to the bedding to the frames. I open my mouth to explain and to apologize, but she stops me.

“Okay.” This is all she says.

“I’m sorry.” The words are so quiet that I’m mouthing them more than saying them.

She nods, closes the door. Again: “Okay.”

She doesn’t tell me to leave, and so I don’t. I climb onto the bed, and I cry, and I try to keep quiet. I imagine Val at his desk, bent over an algebra textbook, humming or grinding his teeth, depending on how confident he feels in his answers. I imagine him standing at the window, asking “window open or closed?” He knew I was particular about those kinds of things. I imagine him on the bed next to me, arms crossed over his stomach, staring at the ceiling, pensive. I lie down like that now.

He might have said, “How big is the world?”

And I might have said, “As big as we want it to be.”

“And also as small?”

“And also as small.”

He might have paused there. “You’re a smart girl, Helen.” Helen-ah.

We might have laughed.

An hour passes, then two. Val’s mom doesn’t come back. I put the Ukrainian poster back in the frame and hang all the frames back on the walls. I wipe them with one of Val’s shirts to remove any trace of my fingerprint smudges. I make Val’s bed, perfect, the sheets all tucked in, the top of the blanket folded down, the pillows placed symmetrically on top. I pick up all of Val’s clothes, fold them, put them back in his drawers. When I leave, I don’t know when I’m coming back or if I’m coming back. I close the window behind me, fold up the ladder, and store it back behind the shed. Everything is different.

I sleep late the next morning, and when I wake, I’m still exhausted. My dad isn’t home. I get dressed—jeans, a shirt, a sweater, a pocket knife I swipe from my dad’s end table—and walk to the woods. There’s no right way to get to the heart of the thing. I pick a relatively clear space and walk in, knowing as soon as I do that this will be the last time I go in these woods. I find my way to the birch tree. By now, other people have come, left initials, crowded the giant I AM HERE tree with pointless, unimportant things. I walk until I find a blank birch. It’s small, but I am not a giant; my letters will fit. I take the knife from my pocket and press it into the tree, bark flaking and dropping, wood bits curling and spiraling away. I am slow and patient while I work, and I think about Val and his letter. That he was here. That I was here. And I still can’t make any sense of it except to say

WE
ARE
ALL
HERE

I step back from my carving.

We are all here. This isn’t news, I know. But it’s important.

BIO:

Hailey Foglio hails from the state of West Virginia, where she passes the time writing, hiking, camping, and art-making. She has previously been published in The Opiate, The Bangalore Review, and The Oddville Press, among others.

NOTE: If you enjoyed this story, please check out LPR’s Summer Issue 2017. Order copies here (Note that annual subscriptions are available online as well.)

Pushcart Prize Nominee: Daniel Hudon

Along with publishing emerging writers, one of the public roles and great pleasures of an independent, small literary journal is to nominate individual poems, essays, and stories for awards like the Pushcart Prize. This is one more way to say “thank you,” to the hard working writers, without whom LPR wouldn’t exist. These nominations also require renewed attention to the craft and presence of the pieces LPR publishes, and often that attention is rewarded with renewed joy.

Possibly Showing Tonight at the Quantum Theater:
*colon is part of original title

You want to go to the theater tonight because it’s a random Tuesday in May and you’ve heard that the Quantum Theater will be presenting one of all possible plays. What are the chances of seeing Molière, you wonder, it’s been so long, or Chekhov? Maybe some little-known Scandinavian drama or an ancient Greek tragedy? In some universe tonight, they’re presenting Beckett—could it be yours?

You pick up the phone and for a moment you think about calling all possible women with a phone number, women whose numbers you don’t even have but are out there at the other end of the phone line, oblivious to your momentary dialing dilemma. Women who you’ve seen at the grocery store or while out jogging. The sexy Russian woman you met at tango class who always wears the spiked heels, even to the practica, the woman in the strapless black dress you saw at the concert last week but who you didn’t have the nerve to strike up a conversation with at intermission, Grace, who you met at the bookstore, the cinephile you sat next to at the Godard film last weekend who, with much more subtext than context, gave a breathless interpretation of the penultimate scene involving a man and a woman, women you used to know who percolated into your mind, the girls from your school days now all grown up, some happily, some miserably, many who wouldn’t know what to make of a phone call from you for a random theater invitation.

You dial. It’s busy. You dial another. This time there’s no answer, not even a voicemail pickup. You try again. Finally, she picks up. It takes you a moment to connect her voice to the number you dialed to the image of her face to your idea of where she could possibly be in her apartment on her cordless. Is it really Erica, who hosted the crazy birthday party last month? You’re impressed by the warmth of her voice; she sounds poised, something you find terribly attractive—a calm self-confidence that, try as you might, you can’t achieve for yourself. You tell her about the play. She seems interested but wants more details. You fear she takes your information reticence as game playing, or worse, a sign that you lack the very quality of intelligence that she finds attractive. Perhaps she’s not the spontaneous type. Maybe she needs a more reliable indicator of the possible outcomes—she could be the fastidious sort who needs to know exactly how things are going to proceed, what the parameters are, the trajectory of start middle finish for the evening. You imagine endless honest talks that suffocate the relationship in a vast cloud of verbosity.

Sometimes you just have to take a chance, you say, as much to yourself as to her.

This seems to resonate with her and she agrees to come with you. Because the Quantum Theater is small—in the past some have described it as microscopic—you recommend getting there early to improve your chances of getting one of the few seats.

That sounds logical, she says.

The time might be a problem, you explain, because, being uncertain, there’s a small but nonzero chance the play has already started. In fact, you can’t rule out the possibility that the actors have taken their bows, the curtain has come down, and the audience has long since drifted back out into the downtown streets, their minds infused with existential angst and emotional bravura.

I see, she says.

Fine with me, she says.

Oh, she says.

But that’s unlikely, you say.

Okay, she says.

She doesn’t sound reassured.

She laughs.

You suggest picking her up at seven, parking randomly in the theater district and hoping for the best.

She likes the sound of that sort of optimism and gives you her address. You hang up the phone and pace about the room. Such luck, you think. Your mind fills with possibilities: theater, dessert, coffee, her place . . . ; or, theater, drinks, your place . . . ; theater, tea, detailed deconstruction of third act, intellectual sparring, kiss-on-the-cheek, home; or, theater, hot chocolate, awkward silences, car, unexpected and unbelievably good sex; or theater, subscription to entire series, vacation together in Costa Rica, spontaneous wedding in Vegas, two angelic kids, inspiration for best-selling novel, philanthropy, death with a smile on your face, public holiday for grieving; or, alas, theater, headache, just friends, home early.

You shower and get dressed. You whip up a stir fry with chicken, carrots, shitake mushrooms, and asparagus over a tasty bed of rice. God, you’re good. You put on loud music to pump yourself up. You imagine the sort of comfortable, thoughtful conversation that you’ve been missing recently. She has a voice you could get used to. You shovel down the last two bites, put the dish in the sink, and do a few twirls around the living room in case she wants to go dancing later. Good idea, you think: theater, drinks, dancing, closer dancing, even closer dancing, she sleeps over even though it’s a week night, and hot, steamy sex in the morning.

You go to the bathroom. You clip your nostril hairs and adjust the collar of your shirt. You dash out the door.

All possible routes to her place converge into the route with the fewest turns, despite the unpredictable traffic. You park and ring her door. As far as you can tell, she lives in any of the apartments inside because you see no light go off and hear no particular door close. You wonder if you’ll be privy to this information later.

She looks lovely, even prettier than you remember. As planned, you park randomly, walk to the theater, and line up at the ticket window. Ticket pricing is random. You ask for two tickets and the woman behind the glass asks for an astonishing amount of money. You ask if they are good seats. She tells you that all seats are treated the same. You open your wallet and see that all possible amounts of cash collapse into a random amount. Fortunately, it is enough. You count out the exact amount and hand it to her. She hands you the tickets. You give one to Suzanne and join the queue of people waiting for the house to open.

Have you been to the theater lately? you ask her.

No, she says.

Yes, she says.

I don’t remember, she says.

Oh, really, you say. You must be busy.

Oh, I see, you say. What did you see?

Oh, well, it must not have been very dramatic then.

You’re tickled with the timing. In a moment, one of the doors opens and people begin filing into the theater in an orderly fashion. The queue moves a few feet and—just as you begin to trudge forward—that door closes and the door next to it opens. As if nothing has happened, people continue filing in. From what you can tell by standing on your toes, they take the seats directly beyond the doors.

You are about to say something about the seating to Maggie, who, in the steady progression of the queue, has slipped in behind you, when you see the first door swing open again. Both doors are now open and the queue presses forward. You aim for the door on the left but, as you approach, the door on the right seems more tempting. Out of the corner of your eye, you notice Rachel moving independently of you, targeting the right-hand door. You feel you should take her hand but it’s both too soon and too late—theatergoers crowd up from behind and suddenly you’re pushed through. Buoyed along, disoriented, it’s like you surged through both doors at once and met your alter ego on the other side. You feel vast, like you contain multitudes, too much to be confined to a mere theater seat. You could take up a whole row, an entire section.

Instead, down near the front, you spy a pair of seats that are perfect.

Where is Julia? She was right behind you. There, you see her, two sections over, on the far side of the theater where she has already thrown her coat over a couple of seats. You wave to her, point to your prime location, and when she comes over you take her hand so that she doesn’t disappear again. You take your seats.

Well, that was chaotic, you say.

Yes, she says, squeezing your hand.

And strange, she says.

I didn’t notice, she says.

Around you the theater fills up, though slowly, as if no one really knows the time the play will start and they tentatively take their seats as if to try their luck for half an hour and see if it starts and if not, maybe they will find some little French café for a bite to eat and come back in an hour or so.

You ask Samantha, What time do you think it is? You explain: some people try to imagine what breed of dog or animal other people look like; your game is guessing the time. It’s amazing how often you can come within five minutes of the correct time when you have no real cues; it’s just some random time of the day.

But as soon as you say it you fear two things: either she thinks you’re bored or, worse, boring.

I have no idea, she says.

7:42 and a half, she says.

Why? Do you think we missed it? she asks.

I never wear a watch, she says.

Why don’t you just ask that basset hound over there? she says.

Oh, I see, she says, trying not to laugh.

She bursts out laughing at something you hope is truly funny and not truly pathetic.

You look at her, wait for her to say something.

Do you know any more sophisticated games? she says.

My game is to imagine what sort of face a man makes when he comes—but not necessarily inside me, she says, adding the last bit after a dramatic pause.

What happens when you win? she says, or lose?

And which breed of dog do you think I resemble? she says, taking care not to blow smoke in your face, though she’s not smoking.

Is this your idea of foreplay? she says with a wink.

Shouldn’t we be betting on what the play’s going to be? she says.

Considering that space is already occupied, time is the only unknown at the moment, she says, relatively speaking.

I should caution you, she says. I’m a sore loser.

Oh, look, she says, it’s starting.

Much to your surprise, the curtain rises.

A country road. A tree. Evening.

Elsinore castle. The platform of the watch.

A street in Venice.

Galileo’s sparsely furnished study.

A room painted yellow.

A streetcar.

In front of the palace of Oedipus at Thebes.

Daytime. The stage of a theater.

I can’t see. Let’s have a little light please . . .

        Yes sir, yes, at once.

        Come along! Come along! Second act of Mixing It Up.

Is this a rehearsal? she whispers.

This looks like one of those detestable postmodern plays, she whispers.

What’s going on? she whispers.

Six Characters in Search of an Author! she whispers; I should have bet you.

Much dialogue. Characters come and go. Gesticulations, laughter, weeping, some shouting.

The curtain falls.

She smiles at you.

She squeezes your arm.

She puts on her coat so slowly that you help her.

She stands up without looking at you.

Good choice, she says.

Did you like it? you ask.

Are you kidding? she says; I loved it!

It was interesting, she says.

Parts of it, she says.

It’s one of my favorite plays, she says.

How could you not? she says.

Only one exit door is open but the audience exits in an orderly fashion. Outside, the crowd disperses all directions into the streets, and in no time the street is full of cars unable to get anywhere. You’re glad that parking randomly gave you some distance from the theater.

Where should we go? you ask.

She smiles alluringly.

You know, she says, I don’t really go to bars, so you can just pick one.

I’ve got the play at home, she says; why don’t you come over and we can reread parts of it?

Things appear promising. You park randomly in front of her building and go inside with her. Natalie puts on some music and brings out two glasses of wine and a tray of cheese and crackers. You look at her books and CDs. You find a collection of Pirandello’s plays on the shelf. You admire the view out her front window.

You flip through the book and quote from the play: We have no reality beyond the illusion, you must not count overmuch on your reality as you feel it today, since, like that of yesterday, it may prove an illusion for you tomorrow. 

Subtle, she says, aren’t we?

And just what is our present illusion? she says.

Oh, she purrs, I love illusions.

She sits on the couch and you sit down near her. With every new slice of cheese, you reposition yourself slightly closer to her on the couch. Laughter ensues. And silence. Boldly, you kiss her. She seems happy to be kissed. You kiss her again and let your hands caress her neck and shoulders, her arms, all over. She moans. It’s nice. You nibble on her neck, her jaw. Your heart beats harder, her breath deepens. Then, you stop and pull back. She looks at you quizzically. You hesitate, then lean forward and whisper that you prefer to stop at foreplay because then you can enjoy the superposition of all possible future positions.

She pulls back and looks at you.

Super-what? she says.

Is that some kind of joke? she says.

You can’t be serious, she laughs.

What’s the matter? Don’t you know how to satisfy a woman? she says.

Sorry, she says, it’s not the superposition that matters but the probability of the various end states and, at the moment, yours isn’t looking so good.

Hey, she says, don’t pull that macroscopic quantum shit on me!

Well, she says, why don’t you call me again some other random Tuesday and we’ll take it from there.

Nice try, Schrödinger, she says; your illusion just collapsed into my reality.

You know she could say anything. She smiles, keeps you in suspense. So, she says finally, shall we have a game of Scrabble?

At last, you think, someone who gets you.

About the author: Daniel Hudon, originally from Canada, teaches astronomy, physics, math, and writing at various colleges in Boston. He has new work appearing or coming up in Canary, Toad, Dark Matter, and The Chattahoochee Review. He is the 2011 winner of the Tiferet Nonfiction Prize. Some of his writing links can be found at people.bu.edu/hudon. He lives in Boston. This work originally appeared in Little Patuxent Review’s Winter 2014 Science issue.

Concerning Craft: Mary Jo LoBello Jerome

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Mary Jo LoBello Jerome

Mary Jo LoBello Jerome

Please meet Mary LoBello Jerome. Mary Jo’s fiction has appeared in Short Story and Center magazines. She currently teaches college writing in New Jersey and is working on new poetry and short fiction. She lives in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

We published her short story “Dermis” in our Winter 2014 Science issue. She read her story at our launch event, so be on the lookout for a video when they become available. (The video is now available. Please find it below.)

Mary Jo shared these insights about her approach to the work with the title “Thinking On Skin”:

I’d been working on the story “Dermis” for a while because I was intrigued with the idea of skin as a metaphor. I knew a chemist who worked in a lab on skin samples, and she was frustrated with her job for reasons related to her career such as salary and advancement, not the emotional or harassment issues, real or imagined, that disturbed my character Mary Ann. And once I had that weirdly pleasing image – of a young troubled woman in a lab coat looking at skin – well, that’s a fertile Petri dish of narrative possibilities.

Skin. We mostly don’t think of it until it gets irritated, the same way we don’t think of our hearts pumping or the neurons firing in our brains when we taste a piece of cake. But once we slow down enough to observe anything closely, so many beautiful and frightening and perplexing questions arise. Scientists know this. So do poets and writers. For a while, I was obsessively thinking about and looking at skin. Two early discoveries: One of the fastest ways to isolate yourself at a cocktail party is to move in close during conversations to study pores or beauty marks. And, if you’re squeamish, don’t ever Google images of skin diseases.

But the role of skin as a permeable shield was the most powerful aspect of questions that kept popping up for me. I allowed the character Mary Ann to voice those thoughts from a scientist’s perspective full of awe about the miraculous biological organ we’ve evolved. Skin breathes and absorbs nutrients while protecting us from the most dastardly, pervasive and invasive little microbes on the planet. But a shield that is so permeable or easily damaged? There’s an oxymoron for you.

Further questions fell in line pretty readily as I was discovering the story while writing. What are the other shields we put up to protect us emotionally? What if one of those emotional shields isn’t as strong as we would like it to be? How does someone protect herself or create barriers between her inner world and the “real” world? In the story, I purposely left ambiguous the motives of the secondary character, Dev, the supervisor who is infatuated with Mary Ann. The serious problem of sexual harassment in the workplace is a question most women must grabble with. As a writer and a feminist, I challenged myself to set the story as fully as possible in the workplace, where our private selves – for both men and women – are necessarily concealed and protected while we get on with the practical duties we are assigned. Later, the story moves to a short scene in a mundane, public mall — another edifice that seems a natural spot these modern days to protect or lose our selves among the crowds. Sadly, we know how easily assailed these places really are. (Tragically, there was a mall shooting just one mile away from the LPR reading on the day of the issue’s launch.)

This is not to suggest that these narrative steps occurred with purpose at first. Writing is a messy process. I wrote scenes, which I revised out, that followed Mary Ann to her apartment and explored her love and family life. To paraphrase Gardner, I cut those scenes that distracted from the dream world I was conjuring. It didn’t matter in the end what her relationship was with her mother or that she did or did not have a serious love relationship in her past. The reader didn’t need to get that far under the character’s skin to believe and feel the conflict. Focusing on setting gave the story structure, and when I revised, I tried to develop the details of place to support the emotional pull without, I hope, overdoing the metaphor.

When LPR announced its science issue, this story seemed a good fit. I’m a little disappointed, however, that I didn’t have access to the recently publicized research about skin microbes. A recent story in the NY Times detailed the micro-biome of helpful ammonia-eating bacteria that live on our skin and feast on some of the odor-causing bugs that populate our extraordinary – and in my case increasingly wrinkled – natural wrapping. What interesting narrative turns could have evolved if either of the main characters in my story were just a little bit smelly? Would there have been face licking? These new scientific findings may yet cause a narrative itch that needs scratching.

Note: If you enjoyed Mary Jo’s story and want to read more poetry and prose from our Science issue, you can purchase copies of that issue and others online.