On Stepping Down as Guernica’s Fiction Editor

I started at Guernica almost 16 years ago—16 years this July. It’s time for me to step down as its founding fiction editor.

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Guernica was about a year and a half old when I began at the site. It was a passion project founded by Michael Archer and a group of other freelance writers. It started as a reading series at a (now defunct) bar called Guernica in the East Village.

I started out as the nonfiction editor, but after I got some fiction writing awards, I was asked to create a fiction page. In those early days, I had to solicit writers, and I went to about four to five readings a week to get to know still more writers. I made myself get into social media to find even more writers.

There’s a long list of writers who first appeared in Guernica fiction, had an early career boost, or went on to win major awards. Readers showed up gradually and then in droves.

The managing editors were the unsung heroes who ensured the whole thing held together. The standouts were Tiffany Fung, who was there when I began. Everything had to be created out of the air back then, but Tiffany held it together. Co-founder Elizabeth Onusko then put the site on a regular schedule and called us out when we slacked. The site owes so much to our managing editors.

I have many friends from Guernica. However, Erica Wright and Katherine Dykstra are two standouts. We made it a point always to amplify each other at meetings, and I learned a great deal from them. For me, that era of Guernica—when we three sat next to each other at staff meetings in some random midtown law office—is the best.

I owe a lot to fiction editor Autumn Watts. She managed the readers and discovered many writers in the unsolicited pile. She also is an astute and careful editor. Without her, I’d have fallen many times. She also helped me out when I had a concussion and had difficulty reading and editing. Guernica fiction owes her everything.

But now it’s time to move on. I’m going to work on my stuff. I’ll have to send my things to editors I don’t know. I’ll have to remind myself to slough off rejection and to keep submitting. I’ll have to look to other new opportunities and experiences because life is just too damned short not to. Wish me luck.

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Look Me Up: Moving to Portland, OR

So I don’t bury the lede: I’m moving to Portland, Oregon and will be living there, starting in August. I will be working remotely.

Why do we make big decisions, though: Aren’t they always both inchoate and complex? I’ve been in New York City since I was graduated from college. I had my first real job here and made my lifelong friends in New York City, too. I came to New York to be a playwright, then went for my MFA at Columbia for screenwriting and directing. I paid for college and grad school myself. I worked on films and was on the staff of several consumer magazines. Mostly, I was broke.

But New York—or to be specific, downtown Manhattan—allowed me to be whatever I wanted. I lived in the East Village and watched the area go from a seeming bomb site to something shiny, perhaps a bit plastic, but still vibrant. I’ve been here long enough to see local kids who once played in the streets, now rush off to work. I still think the East Village has an unkillable life force.

But I grew up moving around, and people should never forget that about me. I was born in Korea and spent my childhood in Japan; my father was a diplomat. I wasn’t Japanese, but I felt as though I was from there. We moved every few years in Japan, and so did my friends. Then my family moved to Brooklyn, where we lived on Second Street, off Prospect Park.

I learned how to ride an adult bike in Prospect Park. I had a sled and went down that hill kids still ride down when it snows. The carousel there is the first one I ever rode. The little blonde girl whose name I can’t remember who lived across the street is the first girl I really liked. She helped me sell popsicles on our stoop.

We had the whole row house—even a library! —and in many ways, I still think of that building as my home. But then I moved again, to a small town in South Carolina to live with my grandparents, and then to Charleston where I was on Queen Street, near Logan after my parent’s divorce. Then to Ashley and Cannon, on to many dumpster-fire apartments in Boston. I also lived in some other places in-between—places that only sort of count, because I was there too briefly. I’ve moved at least 45 times my mother says, and I went to 18 different schools. New York was something of a relief after so much.

The point: I came here because I didn’t belong anywhere. New York is for people who don’t belong, and Manhattan is the Island of Misfit Toys. But I don’t really feel like a misfit anymore and I want to have a bigger place, a balcony that has a view of Mt. Hood, and a sunroom/office for work-writing and a tiny, windowed room for fiction writing. I also want a guest room and a bedroom where I can close the door and have no electronic screens at all.

Maybe I love New York too much. I can walk around and reel off trivia about many, most of the Manhattan blocks. If I’ve walked around with you and didn’t point out that that’s where seltzer water was invented, believe me in my head, I thought it. Portland won’t have that effect on me, and that will be a relief.

I’ll think of New York City often, probably like how I think of Charleston: When I’m feeling excitable and wanting to calm down, in my mind, I try to walk down Queen Street in Charleston, and I make myself remember every detail. Wasn’t there a tree there? What about that old house next to the grocery store that used to be called Burbage’s? I make myself remember every detail until I allow my mind to take another step. I’ll probably do that with Manhattan—after all, I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else.

I had terrible jobs in New York. I was a waiter in a glorified sweatshop called Maritza on West 72nd. I worked at an employment agency that had no clients. I had a boss who showed up at my door, drunk on wine coolers, who told me I was sexy. I had another boss at a famous media company who was truly psychotic and prone to fits and rages. I remember that time she went into the wellness room, shut the door, and screamed. Every October 6th I celebrate leaving that company by giving myself an expensive present and cursing her name. I invite you to give yourself an expensive present on October 6 and curse the psychos, too.

I almost got married, here. I had regrettable romances and even once broke up in the storming rain, with her shouting, You’re my diary! You can’t break up with me, you’re my diary! That was a terrible night, on the corner of 7th and A. I’m not sure why neither one of us had an umbrella or why it had to happen in the rain, but we were 24, and I suppose it was in the script.

There were also the clubs: The Michael Todd Room at Palladium, Area, MK, the Pyramid, Body and Soul in the basement of the bar next door to CBGB, Kit Kat Club, Wah-Wah Hut, and warehouse parties at Orange. There were also shows at CBGB and elsewhere where I saw Sonic Youth, Big Black, Wire, the Butthole Surfers, the Circle Jerks, Flipper, Bad Brains, Nick Cave, Johnny Cash, Swans, the Cure, New Order, the New Pornographers, Aretha Franklin, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Aimee Mann, Manu Chau, and many more.

I saw the celebrities on the street, here—and because I’ve been here forever, they were iconic: Greta Garbo taking a walk on East 86th the year she died. Audrey Hepburn in Macy’s, Jackie Onassis shopping in the UES. And the fancy parties! I got in a lengthy conversation with David Byrne about My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. I fought for the last slice of pizza with Eddie Izzard. My girlfriend got hit on by Iggy Pop. At film school, I met Willam Goldman and Jane Goodall and Robert Wise. And I hung out with childhood idol Micky Dolenz of the Monkees.

But mostly, there were the friends. Increasingly, I had to go to Brooklyn (the giant sucking sound out of Manhattan is accurate). There are so many people who I only know from literary parties. When I ran into them at parties, everything was better. We talked in some corner about personal things, not books or our careers. That kind of friend knows a lot of secrets about me. Many of them were also kind to me when I was unemployed and struggling in the awful years following 2008.

The city amazes me because of the unexpected. If you go on a long bike ride, you could end up somewhere with houses on stilts over a creek. There are eagles in upper Manhattan. I saw a red-tailed hawk swoop down and grab a squirrel and gnaw on it in Washington Square Park. You have chance encounters, like the one I think about while riding my bike: His name was Boozer and he was African American.

He wanted to ride with me so he could feel what it was like to be on a bike going fast, without police harassment. I gave him my phone number and told him to call so we could race down the streets of Far Rockaway again, but never called.

I’ll be in a touristy area of Portland because it reminds me of the West Village, the Alphabet District, a few blocks from Powell’s. The apartment I bought reminds me of something I’d see on the Upper West Side—theatrically old and a bit pompous. It’s not very “Portland,” in the raising-chickens-in-the-backyard sense. But the area has the density of Charleston. I feel like I understand this combination of the two cities that haunt me the most.

Look for me there starting in August. If you live in Portland, please look me up. I could always use more friends.

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Maybe Biden Did Just Fine?

Of course, while watching the debate, I thought of things that Biden needed to say. When Trump talked about Russia, I wanted Biden to ask about the $400 million mystery loan that was probably filtered to him through Deutsche Bank via Putin.

When Trump talked about Biden’s son, I wanted Biden to mention Cult 45’s kids feeding at the trough—and making millions while doing it.

But today, while writing an article, I listened to myself in an interview with one of my subjects: During the call, I didn’t get even the most basic points my subject was saying. I didn’t ask the right follow-ups, either. My subject repeated himself and interrupted me, obviously thinking he was talking to an idiot. We got what we needed, but it was no thanks to me. So while writing the article, I yelled at my computer screen. Which… I know. Can you backseat drive yourself?

I’ve interviewed hundreds of people—literally hundreds. And every time I listen to the recordings, I think: Who is that idiot asking those stupid questions? With that in mind, I now think Biden did fine. He missed some jabs. But I don’t think he needed to jab.

He needed to appear sane.

That’s all. Just sane.

Had he jabbed at Cult 45, he may have outraged that middling, on-the-fence voter who is starved for a candidate with politesse. So, maybe what we saw was the best performance possible. These debates aren’t aimed at any of us who have already made a decision. They are rallying cries, sure. But mostly they are aimed at the wobbly voter—our goal is to encourage that wobbly voter to either vote for Biden or if they are lean-Republican to be so repulsed by Trump to not bother to vote for him—by simply not showing up. I think Biden succeeded there.

He was the kindly bland old man who asks us what we learned in school today and then gives us old candy from another era—maybe Mary Jane or Heath Bar. We sniff at the candy, try it, and wonder how people got by in that earlier era. Then we decide that old man is a whole lot better than that addled, drunk uncle raging in the backyard. Why is our drunk uncle yelling at the swing set? Who knows. Let’s lock the back door and pretend we’re not home.

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9/11: The Wrong People Are Praised in Our Society

The first time I saw the smoke was from the 21st floor of the Conde Nast building in Times Square—a dot of black and gray, far down the island.

We evacuated our building because it was the tallest one in Times Square. I saw the collapse on the screens outside ABC News Broadcast Plaza: Peter Jennings said, Oh my god.
And that was that.

Walking home, I remember a teenage girl posing for a camera. She was smiling while behind her was panic. A man with a shower radio stood on the street as the news played. Around him was a crowd, listening.

I saw a suburban-style minivan stuffed with firefighters—it was so cramped, its sliding door was open and firefighters were hanging onto the side of it while that baby-blue minivan headed into the smoke and ash.

I remember the fire truck from Massapequa—for hours, it must have barreled its way through Long Island’s always-choked roads to Ground Zero.

Later, I saw a firefighter, exhausted, standing in front of the firehouse down the block from me. His face was covered in white ash and he was crying, his tears combining with the ash in rivulets. That station lost six men.

I remember the ironworkers who cleaned up the twisted, smoking mess for weeks afterward, only to get damaged lungs (My former live-in GF’s brother-in-law was in that stinking hellhole. He knows his life was stolen from him. His health never recovered).

That day doesn’t make me think of the highly paid, so-called knowledge workers like me. We were useless. I also don’t think of our leaders who wore suits and waved the American flag while standing on an emblematic — but safe and telegenic — part of the so-called Pile.
Normally we ignore the service personnel, but when that shit went down, those people headed into the fire while the rest of us got out.

We stood around and cried. We called our exes and long-lost friends and everyone we could think of and it really mattered who called and who didn’t. We mourned the ones who died. I ended up hugging a woman I barely knew in an office hallway because someone close to her had died. We all greeted each other, “Is everyone ok?”

There were flyers everywhere that headlined, MISSING. Beneath the MISSING headline, there was usually a photo, a name. Sometimes there was a prayer or a statement of love. That missing person went into the World Trade Center that morning and hadn’t been found. I recognized a woman on one of those MISSING flyers. I’d met her at a birthday party. She had been in the final rounds of becoming a doctor.

I saw many other people hugging and crying. In the subway. At work. On the sidewalks. I watched street cleaners wash down Wall Street in the most loving way possible the night before they opened the area to those who didn’t live downtown, the rest of America.
Cabbies weren’t rude. We were all acting our best like kids in school on the first day of class. We were trying to behave because we were useless: The people who mattered were the ones we had previously ignored: the firefighters, the ironworkers.

A few years ago while on a century ride, I was in a serious bike accident. An FDNY EMT showed up within minutes and held my head in place to keep me from damaging myself further. Others strapped me into the gurney and made jokes to keep me calm. I forget what the jokes were, but I remember compassion. They sopped up the blood as I bled over a bike path on Rockaway Beach (a kid cut me off, I swerved on the sand and fell on my face and wrist and shoulders. I got a concussion from hitting the sidewalk with my forehead, despite the helmet). At the major trauma center at Brookdale Hospital, the PA, the physician’s assistant, pulled the many, many grains of sand, bit by bit from my face and body. Another worked on my broken wrist.

To keep me calm, the PA told me she did something called West Coast Swing dancing. She told me this while picking out each grain of sand, one by one. She said, yes, her people don’t like the East Coast swing dancers. They don’t shoot each other, though; they just say impolite things. Because they’re nerds.

An hour later while I was still on the gurney, my face shredded and swollen, the PA sighed. An eight-month-old boy was being admitted, his face chewed by a Doberman that someone had allowed to roam the streets.

The scene was intense: the baby screamed. The parents screamed. The baby bled. I heard the distraught cop who helped bring in the baby ask someone if the baby was blinded for life.

They rolled me out of the room to give the baby and her family privacy. The nurse said, That poor baby. I asked her if she hated her job, but she said no, of course not: I get to help that baby.

The wrong people are praised in our society.

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The Thing About New York City . . .

You’ll always run into someone who will tell you it was better just before you got here. Since you got here, it’s just not as good—it’s now a mall. It’s now a ghost town. You should have seen it a year or two before you got here, though.

Saying that is ridiculous. Like New York needs anyone’s approval. New York City doesn’t care about any of us. It’s just there like the Grand Canyon is there. You can visit. You can live here. You can leave. As far as New York City is concerned, it doesn’t matter what you choose to do—this city isn’t yours and it never was.

Before my time here, while the Bronx burned, the Yankees were also in the Bronx, winning the World Series. Woody Allen was in Manhattan making movies that never mentioned baseball or the Bronx. New York carried on. It just didn’t care. And new people still kept coming.

New York City has a waiting list. Those who are on the waiting list need the city to get cheap enough for them to come here. That was me, decades ago.

The city was repairing itself by the time I arrived, but it was still a mess. The dark streets were terrifying. I was in a subway car once: As the doors shut, I saw blood splattered all over subway car walls from a gunshot wound. A homeless guy once set fire to his feet in the doorway of my apartment building. I was mugged at knifepoint. None of these things was particularly unusual then. I loved living here, though: Everywhere else was just a suburb.

If the city continues to falter it’ll attract the waiting list. Those people will come, eventually replacing both you and me. The city will move on—and not to bruise your ego, it won’t remember us.

New York City is hurting, but so is America. New York City is always the tip of the spear—when there’s money to be made, we make more of it here. When the country is a dumpster fire, this city burns. Leaving New York doesn’t make you a failure. Staying doesn’t make you a success. Find your own reasons to live where you want—it’s not a problem for New York City to solve. It just doesn’t care.

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Brooklyn Book Festival Panel: Aftershock

On the face of it, the name of my Brooklyn Book Festival panel was a bit grim: Aftershock: Putting Pieces Together Following Family Disaster, but the session ended up being fun, packed, and fascinating. Description, below. The room was packed.

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Speaking at the 2019 Slice Literary Writers’ Conference

Slice Literary Writers' Conference

I’m speaking at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference in a panel on magazines: How they’re managed and run, and how they will likely be managed in the future.

Personally, I think digital sites will make stories more visual. I’m not sure that’s a good thing, but I still think that’s the way it will go. At Guernica, where I’m a senior editor, I think it’s important for the magazine to stay at the edge of modernity. But as a nonprofit, it’s also our responsibility to make sure there is a space for long-form text.

But more of that at the conference.

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Alexa Marketing. This is Something Wholly New

The experience involved 11,000 lines of script, more than 60 storylines and 36 actors… Participants spent an average of 14 minutes in “The Maze” and the game garnered more than 500 million earned media impressions.

To promote the second season of Westworld, 360i re-created a choose-your-own-adventure experience for Alexa. Of course, Westworld being about the creepy side of tech made this a natural fit.

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Strategy first. Everything Else Follows

“Don’t let tactics interfere with strategy.”

Mark Ritson on Brand Management is how I think when I’m doing my job. I learned how to do it through trial and error. Glad I’m doing it the way it’s taught.

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Now on LitHub: That Time I Met and Interviewed Donald Trump—and Worked for Him

I interviewed Donald Trump—not about his fortune or his various ambitions, but about his relationship with Tiger Woods. This was when I was (sigh) managing editor of his magazine, Trump Style.

More on that on Literary Hub.

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Robert Indiana: Create New Spaces and Communities that Allow You to Create New Art.

When I was about 12, I went to an artist talk given by Robert Indiana (RIP) in Charleston, SC. Like everyone at the talk, I was there to see the man who’d created the LOVE sculpture that was so famous, posters of it were on sale in Woolworth’s, just down the street.

For many of us in Charleston, Robert Indiana was the first artist any of us had ever seen. It was like visiting the zoo and looking at a giraffe. But he was normal and not at all glistening and exotic. He shambled about on the stage and his manner was familiar, like one of my grade school teachers—the ones who taught English or history. He showed us slides. They were pictures of his studio in the SoHo neighborhood of New York. Other slides were of his latest works. He tried to explain them—what art was, and what it meant to be an artist.

He didn’t want to talk about LOVE, though. But the crowd wanted to talk about LOVE. So he talked about LOVE, and how it had become too famous for its own good. Artists shouldn’t seek fame, he said. Just do good work. That, and don’t move to New York—he’d been lucky enough to move to New York when it was cheap, in the 1950s. It had become too expensive, he said. Instead, do this: Create new spaces and communities that allow you to create new art.

He didn’t want to talk about LOVE, though. But the crowd wanted to talk about LOVE. So he talked about LOVE, and how it had become too famous for its own good. Artists shouldn’t seek fame, he said. Just do good work. That, and don’t move to New York—he’d been lucky enough to move to New York when it was cheap, in the 1950s. It had become too expensive, he said. Instead, do this: Create new spaces and communities that allow you to create new art.

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My Lost Stories

I’d completely forgotten that a lot of my fiction is located on this site.

There’s some stuff there that’s now lost—the magazines went out of business. Stories like this one:

The Town Secrets

by Meakin Armstrong

Grace works at Minot’s Drug Store. She stands at the register, beneath a giant wall clock hanging above her like a full moon. All around are little sealed packages promising so much and everything is so white and clean. When people look in the window to find out the time, they can see her in an air-cooled, sparkling place.

Grace discovers town secrets here: Mrs. Morningstar is having “female trouble.” Mr. Johnston buys prepackaged enemas. Honey Hinnant’s father, the pastor of Venice Springs Methodist, just bought a hernia truss. She enjoys the delicate horror: does Mr. Hinnant preach while he’s wearing the truss?

Then Grace can feel his approach.

He was in the back by the toothpaste, but now he’s coming close.

She knows when Mr. Wagner is near. Is that a sign? Knowing when someone is near? Mr. Wagner smiles—toothpaste, deodorant, toothpicks, plus tax, $2.13. Mr. John Wagner. Beautiful black hair that curls like a movie star. Rock Hudson? He owns the feed store down the block. He’d lived in Charleston and only came back to take over after his father had died. His eyes glitter more than other eyes do

How old is he anyway? 35? Maybe 40? Old—but in a good and sophisticated way. Everyone says he’s good-natured and generous, Mr. John-just-like-a-movie-star-Wagner.

“Remember when I used to give you a bag of boiled peanuts every time your dad was over to the store? Seems like yesterday anymore, don’t it?”

Grace has already mastered the customer-service smile. “Of course, Mr. Wagner.” She gives him his change, three quarters, one dime, two pennies, and a receipt. While she’s giving him his change, her nails scrape at his palm. He’s watching her while she gives him his change.

He fishes out the pennies from his palm and then bounces them on the counter. With his index finger, he pushes them towards her. “You need to come by. Could use a pretty girl in there. Usually just me and a bunch of homely types not prone to good conversation. Appalling, the level of talk going on in a feed store.”

“All right, Mr. Wagner.” They smile. She looks at the floor. He squints at the full-moon clock and makes a pretense of setting his watch. The few seconds feel like minutes. The little bells attached to the front door clang and while he holds the door, he says, “Just call me John from now on, all right Grace?”

“Okay.” Then: “John.”

“John it is.” He smiles and points his index finger at her just like Uncle Sam and he wants her for the U.S. Army: “See you around, cupcake.”

After work, Grace finds many reasons to pass John’s store. She walks in for a visit, but only for minutes at a time. Whenever she’s in that store, she can’t breathe. She worries about what would happen if she were to sputter or shout or to run away. What would it be like if she—right then and there—were to take off all of her clothes. What would happen?

She goes in. John is at his usual place, leaning against the back wall. Around him are the farmers he calls “boll weevils.” Mixed in are a few “lounge lizards”—men in shiny department-store suits. It’s dark and damp. The place has many corners with people who watch her.

Grace turns to leave after a half-hello. Those weedy weevils and smirky lizards are witnesses. They see it when he pats her on the butt by way of good-bye. They hear her blurt out an “oh!”

The weevils chuckle. A lizard says, “see you now, Grace.” The lizard has a sweaty smile.

One Friday after choir practice, he’s by himself. The bottles of whiskey and beer are out, but the place is empty.

“Well… Grace.” There’s a certain sadness about the eyes.

His eyes—what color are his eyes? Are they black?

“Everything all right?”

“Just fine, shuge.”

“Well… Okay.” Already she’s running out of subjects, lost. The silence, the gaps, and the dizziness—it’s here again. Again, too, she’s lost in observations: He’s left-handed, which makes him somehow vulnerable. His hand has a sort-of shake, a tremor, and his forearm: is that a tattoo?

“What’s it like?”

“What’s what like?”

“Drinking. You know, beer.”

“Why, okay I guess. Not very ladylike.”

“Can I try?”

He has it. That certain Brand X. A movie-star smile. It is a tattoo— yes—an anchor. Was he in the Navy?

“Can’t say as I think it’d hurt anybody, but your daddy….”

Or is he more like Errol Flynn? The young Errol Flynn, before all the women and sex and drinking. Is he like Errol Flynn? Mysterious how he looks a little different every time. Did he have a girl in every port like Errol Flynn?

“Maybe I should go.”

“Pretty quick visit, don’t you think?” His eyes—now they’re blue “Brightens up my day, you coming by.”

She smiles and stumbles a little bit toward the door and laughs just so slightly.

“No strangers in Venice Springs.”


“Town’s too small. So don’t be a stranger. Okay? After all, can’t keep coming in for toothpaste every ten minutes just to talk at you.”

What would it be like, to be in those arms? Still, she heads for the door. She reaches for the knob, then remembers Honey Hinnant’s advice: When you don’t know what to say, just pretend you’re Bette Davis.

“Just half a glass. A girl’s got to experiment.”

After a few whiskeys, everything floats nicely. Somehow, he kisses her. His rough skin is like sandpaper across her face. He smells of cigarettes. She laughs: Grace is a tee-totaling Methodist now drinking alcohol in the back of a feed store with Mr. Wagner. John locks up for privacy. He pulls out another bottle.

“Were you in the Navy?”

“Merchant Marine. Saw the world from the side of a ship. During the war, I worked the convoys. Dangerous stuff. U-boats.” He rubs at the anchor tattoo.

“Did it hurt?”


She points at the tattoo. “That.”

He smiles.

Grace keeps on drinking. Then she pees in the dirty little bathroom with manly smells. It’s a man’s room with pictures of Vargas girls pinned to its walls. Dizzy, her head spins. It then runs together: She’s on a cot. It’s in the backroom and John says, “Let me take these off.”

Time passes, until sick, groaning, and naked and under a single sheet, she wakes up.

The cot, the room: an unwashed little window looks onto the back. Weeds the size of bushes grow there and lost among the weeds is a rusted-out tractor.

John Wagner is sitting at the foot of the bed. He’s naked. He’s holding his head in his arms.

“You need to be anywhere?”

“What time is it?”

“About five. You been here from about one or thereabouts. Didn’t you have school?”

She can’t hear him. This is a lot to take—a naked man at the foot of some strange and squeaky bed. Muscular with black chest hair. What about the rest of him?

“Shuge, school?”

The bed: did it squeak like this?

“You all right?”

“School’s out. It’s summer.” Her stomach is in a tumble.

He’s beautiful. He’s naked but he’s naked in a way not at all like the boys she’d seen before. He lies down next to her. She’s under the sheet and he looks at her with what must be a smirk. “Your daddy—is he expecting you for dinner?”

Then a flash of memory: him on top of her.

And then she has another: His head is down there and he’s doing something she’d never heard about; and she’s saying things, screaming things, and he puts it by her mouth and she turns away, but then it’s in her mouth, until there is only the smell and the taste.

Grace pulls the sheet over herself. The bed—did it make noises? Was there really only just this one sheet and this filthy mattress? “I guess maybe I should go.” She gets up quickly and scrambles around the floor for her clothes: her panties are balled up and inside out. And she’s naked. In front of John Wagner, she’s naked. She makes herself as small as she can while she struggles to put on her underwear.

The walls: they’re yellow, and the paint is peeling. A warm breeze comes through the little window. Who left a tractor to the weeds?

His pants—she’s standing on them. She jumps away. Her own work pants—part of a work uniform Mr. Minot says makes her look sleek and pharmacy-scientific, like she’s from the future—are in the corner.

As she lifts her leg to put on her pants, she can feel a roll of fat forming at her waist. He must see it. She can see him at the side of her eye, looking at her with that smirk. She thinks: He’s laughing at me. Her eyes dart everywhere—the window and the tractor, the peeling paint, the brand of shirt he wears, and then she looks right at him.

He’s not wearing a smirk at all. He’s scared.

Was this where they all took their girls? Was this where those farmers and those shiny-suited men would take their girls and get them drunk?

He’s scared and peripherally, she notices his burned-dark face against his pale chest. She can see the line where he’d worn an undershirt while working in the sun. And there’s a deep line on his forehead, a cavernous line straight across, like a scar. He’s scared and maybe he’s not some movie star at all. Maybe he’s just watching her because he’s scared. He’s scared of her father, Hezekiah Shortly.

She sees the way her breasts fall when she leans down to pick up her bra; they must look ridiculous. She cups them into her bra and soon, she’s dressed. He’s still on the bed and he’s naked, barely covered by the only sheet on the mattress and she can see the outlines of his thing: It’s small and shriveled like the burned-out end of a cigrarette.


“You’re not sore or anything, right?”


“You’ll still come by?”

She looks at him confused. Bette Davis, Bette Davis.

“I like talking at you.”

She lets her eyes glide over his body, hidden under the sheet. When this man was young he must have been so handsome.

As if she knew was what going through her mind, he shrugs.

Then outside and it’s daylight and everything is like it always has been.

It’s blistering-bright. People are following-through on whatever their agendas are. It’s strange; these people—all of them—are going on with their lives and it’s got nothing to do with what’s just happened. Nothing: nothing is going on; nothing at all is going on that has anything at all to do with Grace.

It’s crowded and hot, even though according to the drug store wall clock it’s 5:15. All around, there’s the too-bright sun and the bright colors that make up downtown: the greens of the grocery store signs and the reds-and-whites of the five-and-ten. There’s the searing blare of reflected light on the shop windows. All of this is mixed in with the blues and pinks of the floral dresses of the ladies shopping before they rush home, late, to fix their meals.

She sees her brother loafing across the street, friendless and eating a Popsicle. He’s dawdling and aimless, just outside of Poodle’s. Strange, seeing Merrill out of context, and not at the dinner table or at the house. Is this how others see him too— tic-filled and too-tall?

“Merrill!” She crosses the street. Suddenly he’s nervous like he’s just been caught.

“Where you been? They been looking for you,” he says. Merrill’s Popsicle is melting onto the street. His arms, Grace notices, seem independent of him; they jerk and flutter in little spurts. The Popsicle melts down his hand.

“Better watch that.”

He sucks at it and licks his hand. “What happened?”

Grace realizes that Merrill is here a shadow of their father’s anger. In Merrill’s distraction, she sees the coming fireworks.

“Nothing. Just lost track, it being half-day and all. They mad, Mom and Dad?”

“Dad yelled. We got meatloaf. I left because I wanted to get me a Popsicle before the store done closed.”

Done closed. She hates her brother’s redneck pretensions.

“They mad?”

“You know. Dad. Et. Cetera. Blah blah.”

They walk home together. For Grace the mental image of her father grows. She looks at Merrill as he struggles with the Popsicle. He’s trying to get it all before it falls in icy cherry chunks onto the street. Merrill is a favorite of Dad’s. A tinge of jealousy courses through her—what’s so special about this boy with a melting Popsicle? Merrill sucks at it and makes slurping sounds as a chunk falls to the street.


They’re at the corner and before they turn she sneaks a glance at John Wagner’s store. From this distance, it looks so small and shambly. The town itself seems smaller, too. This town, she thinks: pathetic. From this distance, she can see his store windows clearly, but they appear dark from here. She just knows he’s at those windows, watching. His eyes are on her.

Just then she notices her blouse is awry. She adjusts it and pats down her hair. She’s going to be okay, she tells herself; she’s going to be fine; everything will be okay. Again she looks back at the shop. She tells herself it’s so small and far away—even just two blocks away, it’s so small. Its windows are dark but she can see him; he must be there.

A little too brightly Grace says, “my Lord, it’s warm” and soon they’re at their house. Their lawn is green, so green, greener than any others in town. Little stones painted white are at the edging. The bushes are neatly trimmed. They come in under the carport and her house is reflecting heat, but it looks so inviting nonetheless. She knows tonight there’ll be the humidity and sticky night heat. She’ll stick to the sheets. Tonight she’ll read her book and she will look out at the stars as she lies in bed. She’ll situate herself as close to the fan as possible and she’ll pretend as she always does, that the fan is bringing her cool breezes from somewhere exotic, where such winds originate.

Other stories by Meakin Armstrong
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Guernica and Best American Short Stories

A Guernica story by was just selected for Best American Short Stories, edited by Roxane Gay. So pleased. Read it here:

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My Grandmother the Flirt

My grandmother was a Southern woman who dropped out of school to raise her four brothers and sisters when her parents died. I’m vague on the details, but life was hard. She got the kids off the farm near McClellanville, SC, and moved to Charleston.

She worked the cosmetics counter at the old Kerrison’s department store. She then became a star at Elizabeth Arden, when Arden was just starting out (”Miss Arden was a lovely woman”). My grandmother traveled to New York. She dated many men (”Men are like streetcars—another one will be around in 5 minutes”). She turned down a South American millionaire to marry my scrappy (and frankly sexy), grandfather.

From what understand, it was a pickup on Lee Street. He said hello to her on the sidewalk a few times. She said hello back. He asked her out, and that was that. Goodbye, South American millionaire.

She raised me when my parents were in Japan, working on the marriage, which ended in divorce. She kept a bottle of sherry by the water heater. She kept a bottle of Coke back there, too—because—well, that wasn’t any of your business, that’s why.

She was far from rich, but to the end of her life, she used only Elizabeth Arden products and she was perhaps the best-dressed person in Ehrhardt, SC where my grandfather worked after he had to sell his company, the old Cream Crest Dairy (now, Charleston’s West End Dairy).

Tuesdays were for herself. She often took a bus from Ehrhardt to see her friends at Kerrison’s or to catch a movie at the Riviera. She left her bags at a store called Hunley’s, where Mr. Hunley did a bit of flirting with her. I saw it, and as a ten-year-old, I learned something. But none of this was my business. She was quite clear about that.

She was famous for her sauerkraut, which I never tried because I hated the idea of sauerkraut. As a substitute, she gave me beets in a jar and she led me to believe they were made from scratch. They weren’t. That photo is of her recipe on how to commit fraud.

She laughed when I found out, a few decades later. Then told me about that man who was flirting with her—”He has a lot of Brand X.”

Her name was Leona Brunson Henderson. She was quite a bit more than “my grandmother.”

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Guns and Funerals

Fresh from getting my Columbia MFA, I was broke and in need of quick cash. I accepted a gig as a proofreader and editor of funeral brochures in Brooklyn. The company, located in a rambling warehouse off Gowanus Canal, was a death-industry behemoth: It sold religious cards, gravestone markers, custom funeral tents, a magazine called Jewish Funeral Director, and some kind of special “no-smell” embalming fluid.

I was there for the funeral brochures, those pamphlets with the Order of Service. I sat in a warehouse room and looked at copy all day. Others photoshopped photos of the recently deceased—sometimes, those photos were taken from employee ID cards, because that old man who died had no recent pictures. We were considered the high-end for these kinds of brochures. The brochures were usually for those who had died outside of the church—their families wanted a religious funeral but didn’t have any religion they could claim. So they rented a preacher, often the same preacher, a man with the last name of Ford, who seemed to preside over 4-5 funerals a day. The orders of service were almost always the same: Rev Ford read the same Bible verses and the group sang the same songs, 4-5 times a day, every day.

Many of the services were for African Americans who had been shot, only a night or two before. Sometimes, I’d read the police accounts of the crime before I’d read the copy for the funeral brochure: this kid sold crack, the police said. This other one was a gangbanger. That kid who ended up separated into three trash bags? He was a blight to the community. Then I read the copy for the cards: It was never written well; it was never evocative of the life just lost, “He is among the stars,” some grandmother wrote. “He was the light of my life,” wrote another. I was told to just run the copy as the person wrote it; don’t interview the grandmother and write something better, just clean up her words and use AP Style in my edits.

But there’s this: Words are what we use to understand the pain of others. Without that, we see the weeping on TV of these kids shot by the latest mad gunman. We are left with the spectacle of inchoate pain. And then we move on, because that pain is too big for any of us to understand. And then we simplify the stories: That was a good kid who was accepted to college. She liked music. When she entered a room, that room lit up. Or in my case, that kid? That kid was a gangbanger who was still “among the stars” for some grandmother, somewhere.

I quit the job after a couple of weeks—I guess I was just a tourist. But something stayed with me: We’re in this together, and we all so much more than what we can say. Those kids who died in the shooting: They were more than we can say and they were murdered by a society that refuses to see that. If they’d understood, this would not have happened.

Instead of their safety, we thought only of ourselves and our “right” to have a gun. So we watch parents as they cry. And Florida’s version of Rev. Ford is still showing up for work.

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