Read an Excerpt from K.L. Cook’s Essay “Las Vegas Transcendentalists” in AJ’s Gallery 2015 ON SALE NOWPosted: June 24, 2015
From K.L. Cook’s Essay “Las Vegas Transcendentalists”
There are times in our lives when we are ripe for transformation.
The job looked simple enough. The “boys” brought towels to the guests, took their drink or snack orders, rubbed suntan lotion on their backs. Most of the sunbathers were older women, wearing one-piecers and straw hats and big sunglasses, fruity umbrella drinks in hand. A few bikinied women flipped themselves regularly like hamburgers on a grill. The cash, sometimes fives and tens, changed hands, the “boys” palming the cash easily, slipping the bills in cocktail glasses behind the bar, the money adding up, even in the few minutes I was there. My father suggested that fortunes might be made at this job, that the bigger the winnings, the larger the tips. “I know valets who make as much as lawyers and shrinks,” he said.
I felt a familiar sense of inadequacy about my tall, skinny, relatively hairless frame. The pool boys were all in their twenties, their faces and chests stubbled, sideburns fluffing their jawbones, wearing Hawaiian trunks and white Caesar’s Palace T-shirts, laughing raunchily at the bar with a pretty bartender. This pool wasn’t very large or deep, and it was hard to imagine having to rescue anyone the way I had earnestly practiced in my YMCA classes. I tried to imagine myself doing what these men were doing; it didn’t seem hard. I’d been a motivational speaker at six, telling inspirational stories to lure people into my parents’ cosmetics pyramid scheme, a “breast batterer” at a fast-food chicken place at fourteen, a movie projectionist at a non-union theatre at fifteen, a barback at a country and western nightclub at sixteen, and I had for the past year made and scooped ice cream and built sandwiches at a Swensen’s. Everywhere I’d worked, I’d been among the youngest there, usually too young, and that had never made much of a difference. But this was Las Vegas. This was Caesar’s Palace. A small fish in a too large pond—or pool.
From Corrina Carter’s “In the Foaling Barn,” 2015 Fiction Finalist
Robert Palton, who lived several miles from Live Oak Road and was eight when Mrs. Burns’ mare died, was among the children who had visited her regularly. He first became conscious of death while staring into the pit at her ruptured forehead. Unable to temper the unnaturalness of the figure sprawled on the bottom of the ditch with memories of an animal that, in life, had made him long for her pink tongue to sweep sugar from his palms, he began to associate horses with mortality. While his peers either existed in an uncritical state that did not allow for morbid concerns or feared conventional harbingers of death—reapers clad in hoods that augmented their facelessness and angels washed in an artificial glow—Robert dreaded the appearance of an equine ghost. It was gray, like Mrs. Burns’ mare. The boy imagined that everyone saw it before he or she died. It materialized in a field of threadbare grass, gazing directly at its victim. Unlike the tropical fish Robert had observed in the home of his pet obsessed neighbors, the Halsteds, which tapered into vertical footballs when viewed head-on, the horse fattened as it faced forward. It was not noble or fierce, but a beast worn by labor, its muzzle hanging between the raggedy balls of its knees, its ears pinned so neatly that they disappeared into the ridge of its neck. Even the white-lashed eyes were flat with apathy. Sometimes when Robert was woken by an illusion of falling during the night, it seemed that his bed had transformed into rolling vistas of horse’s hair, growing forever, doubling back to wrap him in silver filaments, as if he were a silkworm struggling to burst from his pupal casing.
Read an Excerpt from Justin Chrestman’s “Astronaut House,” Winner of the 2015 Annual Award in FictionPosted: June 20, 2015
From “Astronaut House” by Justin Chrestman of Houston, TX, 2015 National Fiction Winner
Then suddenly it was like the world had stopped its spinning and left us going forward and I could hear the tires catching against the road gripping for grim life. The seatbelt held me like a strong arm as the cigarette flew from Bonnie’s mouth and exploded in sparks against the windshield. Nash had stopped right in the center of the highway. He unbuckled and got out of the car and stood in the road. He lifted up his pant leg and I saw a gun holstered to his ankle.
Bonnie looked out the rear window searching probably for the lights of the car that would at any minute come over the horizon and crash us into oblivion. Her long hands grabbed at her belly as though the baby might at any minute fly forward and out and away from her forever.
You’re doomed, Nash said. But he wasn’t talking to us. He aimed his pistol into the night. I expected to hear a loud bang but when he pulled the trigger there was just a whisper of sound. It looked real but it was only an air gun.
About this time Bonnie began to curse. Low words spoken so close they all wrecked into each other and became one big four letter pile up. Nash ran up the road and picked something up.
Before he got back in the car he threw the dead jackrabbit next to me in the back seat. It had a little bald spot on its head where the pellet must have hit. One of its legs twitched a bit but it was pretty dead.
Bonnie’s curses became louder.
It couldn’t be helped, Nash said. Nature is my sworn enemy.
Creative Nonfiction Finalist Michael Palmer of Lubbock, TX : What Else:”
“I lived in a tiny basement apartment in Orem, Utah with one roommate. The place was enough of a shithole that even my rosy vision, enhanced by the excitement of living away from home for the first time, wouldn’t allow me to spin it as anything else. It had stained, maroon carpet, and the “walls” that made up our two “bedrooms” were flimsy beige dividers, similar to the cubicle dividers at Western Wats. We shared a bathroom; it looked like there had once been a medicine cabinet in there, but it had been ripped from the wall. Otherwise there was a loosely secured sink and an old bathtub with a showerhead that had been installed by hobbits.
The upstairs of the house was rented by a group of four guys who were in a Christian (“NOT Mormon”) metal band called Adjacent to the Lord. They practiced in the garage, and when they would play, the cereal bowls on our coffee table would shake and vibrate, Godzilla-style.
My roommate was a transgendered woman named Erin. We’d grown up together, and when we first signed the lease, she still publicly identified as a man and went by Chris.
One night, drinking coffee at the Village Inn up the street, just as the caffeine fidgeting started and I thought we were ready to leave a tip and walk back home, she asked me if I’d ever heard of gender dysphoria.
The answer was no, but since the question wasn’t about our usual topics of girls, possible road trips, or hypotheticals about who would win in a fight, I didn’t even say that. Sensing something was coming, I just looked at my speckled mug half full of coffee. In the two am diner light, the coffee looked like grease. I stirred, as if that was a response.
First Place Winner in Creative Nonfiction: “The Particulars” by Rosemary Jones of Seattle, WA:
One summer when he had gone mad with drink and despair, he found me in my flat on a long straight city road where the smell of trucks replaced the smell of hops. I complained of an aching back. He cupped his hands around my skin without touching me. Heat pulsed from his palms, as if he knew how to heal everyone except himself.
I am not where I should be with all this. He liked giving presents. He gave me a small wooden box I don’t have anymore. He gave me a large pewter Celtic brooch when I was about to leave overseas—to be married, as it turned out. Later he sent me a care package of tea tree oil and eucalyptus oil. Two Australian essentials. I still have the bottles, it takes more than a decade to use them. I didn’t give him presents. I listened. I did not listen enough. I am sorry, sorry, ever sorry. Before I left, I mentioned I hoped to have a child. Heavens, he said, you need to run up and down hills for that. He was being helpful, funny, full of kindness. He had stopped drinking, cold turkey, a new permanence. And a lonely one. In the end, my husband and I found our children in a different way, there was no need to run up and down hills or gullies. Back in my old world, I met him with one of them in tow. She was as tiny as a present. We went out to lunch. Asian fusion. He asked if I’d like a glass of wine. I declined. I didn’t want him to be tempted, but I needn’t have worried. He sniffed wine with his mates, he said, but never drank it. I ordered dessert, and that pleased him. We should have done this again, but in the future that was to come, we—not him—had another child. When we visited, we were always taking them in and out of grandparents’ gates, balancing our irregular, double-hemisphered boat. For years I did not contact him. I had my own particulars. I forgot about his.
Order Alligator Juniper 2015 here.
Alligator Juniper’s Managing/Prose Editor, Skye Anicca, explores mystery and the muse with Peter Turchi ,”one of the country’s foremost thinkers on the art of writing” as described by the Houston Chronicle.
Turchi is the author of five books and the co-editor of three anthologies. His stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Story, The Alaska Quarterly Review, Puerto del Sol, and The Colorado Review, among other journals. He has received Washington College’s Sophie Kerr Prize, an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award, North Carolina’s Sir Walter Raleigh Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
In this dialogue, published in AJ 2015, we invite readers to learn more about this incredible educator and writer.
SA: Clearly, you are invested in the teaching of creative writing, though in your most recent book, A Muse and A Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic, you’ve also written that “unlike a magical illusion, some of the most powerful effects of a story, poem, or novel actually do transcend rational explanation. Discussions of the writer’s craft, of conscious decisions, can take us only so far.” You also write that artistic “vision” cannot be taught, but it can be “cultivated.” How can the discussion-based workshop model support artistic mystery and the cultivation of vision?
PT: That’s a wonderful question. Madison Smartt Bell has written that workshops often become a fault-finding mechanism; consciously or not, participants (including the workshop leader) feel they haven’t done their job until they’ve found something “wrong” in the work up for discussion. More generally, many people, including Flannery O’Connor, have noted that workshops often encourage conformity to a conservative aesthetic, a familiar-looking story. It’s just as common to hear writers say, “If this story/novel by Alice Munro/Franz Kafka/Aimee Bender/Vladimir Nabokov had been submitted to a workshop, it would have been torn apart.”
So how do we avoid those pitfalls? We can try, always, to recognize the intention of the work on its own terms. We need to resist the impulse to turn a tractor into a Porsche, or vice versa. We can recognize what’s most interesting or intriguing in the draft, even if it seems unconventional, incomplete, or not yet fully persuasive. We should keep in mind that much of the poetry and fiction we most admire contains mysterious, even inexplicable elements . . .
SA: Your newest book points out that authors must distance themselves from their personal experiences in order to write about them effectively. Most writers have experienced the challenge of this deceptively simple advice. A Muse and A Maze offers strategies on how to do this, primarily directed at fictionalizing externals in order to preserve emotional power while allowing for distance. The book also imparts the following philosophical advice, applicable to all genres: our internal gaze must be intense, “as if we were foreign, like a scientist looking through a microscope at his own blood.” What does this aspect of the process look like for you—in addition to distancing exercises, what ways do you facilitate your ability to see yourself simultaneously inside and out? Are there some experiences from which you are unable to distance yourself enough to tell the story?
PT: While changing details of a person, event, or setting can help create distance between something from life and whatever it becomes on the page, most often the voice and tone I choose are enough to get me started shaping and re-imagining the material. Any event or response can be depicted in countless ways; as soon as I choose a perspective, I start to see the event differently, start to imagine its possibilities . . .
To read the rest of this incredible interview, please subscribe to Alligator Juniper.