1:1 - Erin Justice

Posted on: July 31, 2014

interviewed by Dot Dannenberg
Over the next few weeks, 1:1000 will take you behind the scenes with our core writing and editorial team. We'll show you more about what makes these writers tick (or maybe twitch).

First up is Erin Justice (just Justice, please), a twenty-something who loves words and books and has a weakness for chips and salsa. But around here, she's better known as the writer behind Pennybacker, Hail Caesar..., Hoodoo, Sanctuary, and this week's Famine.

1:1000: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

ERIN JUSTICE: My parents were great bedtime readers and storytellers, and growing up in the South I was exposed to an amazing folklore tradition. I grew up with stories all around me, and I could usually be found with a book in hand. In high school, I started writing more than reading. When I was fifteen, I decided I would be a novelist. When I was eighteen, I decided I abhorred Northwestern's English department. I stopped writing for years, because in college you're supposed to "find yourself." It took me years to realize that I pretty much had that figured out in high school, and I'm still trying to reconcile the self-made me with, well, me. And for better or worse, I'm a big ole word nerd who wants to write.

1:1000: What writing projects are you working on now?

EJ: I've written one full manuscript - I started it in high school, so it's kind of a hot mess. It helped me figure out my bad writing habits, and my strengths and weaknesses. I'm working on another manuscript right now - a good one, I hope - that's set in the same world, a couple of generations after the first one. I don't want to give too many details, but I'm describing it as a post-apocalyptic/fantasy mash-up. I've also been working on a couple of short stories - one for fun, one for submission. Most of the day-to-day stuff happens over at my blog, and I have some pretty fun projects planned for the rest of the year. I was working on a novella, but it got too cumbersome and felt forced, so I've tabled it.

1:1000: Where do you do most of your writing, and do you have a writing routine?

EJ: I do most of my writing at home, though I have been known to bang out a few hundred words at the Starbucks near work. My fiance and I are lucky to have more house than we need (right now), so I claimed the smallest room as a home office. I try to keep to a routine, but it shifts with every major change in my life. The biggest one of late has been a (much needed) recommitment to my health, and trying to figure out how a workout fits into my day - and where that leaves writing. My goal is to have my home office and routine squared away by the end of August.

1:1000: This may be a challenge for as much as you read, but what's the last thing you read that blew your mind?

EJ: Ha. Probably Monica Byrne's The Girl in the Road. It's my favorite book so far this year. I finished it a few weeks ago and have been telling everyone to check it out. It's so immersive and so deep - as soon as I finished it, I wanted to reread it from the beginning, just to try and unpack more of it. It explore themes of identity, gender, sexuality, perception, and religion. And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head! It's very Margaret Atwood (can that be a thing now?).

1:1000: For 1:1000, you've written about everything from lesbians on spring break to a plague that wipes out humanity to Hurricane Katrina. What are some of the sources of your inspiration?

EJ: I had a wonderful childhood. I think I need to say that right off the bat, because there's a dark streak (or you know, a total blackout) in a lot of what I write. I get inspired by music - I love listening to musical scores, and I'll often intentionally select soundtracks that channel the tone I want to capture. Other times I get lost in music, and I end up dreaming up characters. I also just write what I want to write. That sounds very dumb and basic, but it really can be a useful starting point. If I can identify a theme or mood, the characters usually take over. And sometimes the end result is better than what I planned! "Tequila Sunrise" started as a love story, but originally between Cheyenne and - gasp - Adrian. Obviously, that didn't work. The writing told me that, and so did Cheyenne, in her own fictional character way.

1:1000: What's your approach to engaging with a photo and sticking within the limits of the 1,000-word form?

EJ: I treat my story as a snapshot of a character's life. I'm trying to capture a piece of someone (or a shared relationship), and I only have a 1,000 words to make it meaningful. You can reduce someone in a 1,000 words - or you can give them a significant, resonating story...I think I'm more successful with some pieces than with others.

1:1000: You've described your writing as having "a touch of whimsy and darkness, skating on the edge between magic and madness: fanciful and yet feral." I've heard this sort of writing described as "genre bending"--what appeals to you about writing between these lines?

EJ: Ha! Well, the "fanciful and yet feral" line is something I got from Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child. I read that book on a ski trip and decided it was the perfect way to describe the dark, fantastical tone and concepts in most of my writing. I know this is kind of a cop-out to this answer, but what appeals to me is that this is voice I've found. It took me years to find it (and accept it), but I guess genre bending is who I am as a writer. And I think we're seeing more and more of that, on a larger scale - books that are YA, but also dystopian and sci-fi and in turn, horror. Fantasy that blends into biography or epic poetry. When my parents grew up, "creative non-fiction" wasn't a thing, but now you have to have something lyrical and captivating if you want to be successful (and heard). I guess we're all just trying to be our own storytellers.

1:1000: You, maybe more than anyone else I know, live an entirely immersive literary life. You write stories for 1:1000 and your own blog, Manuscripts & Marginalia. You seem to be constantly reading and reviewing books. And you even have time to write about makeup and clothing box subscriptions hauls each month. On top of this, you have your lengthier writing projects, and you still have time to keep your facebook wall flowing with links to the best craft articles on the web. TEACH US YOUR BLACK MAGIC. How can we lowly mortals be as prolific and engaged as you are?

EJ: Well, part of it just that I have this weird space in my life right now. I'm in between education programs right now (I want to get my MFA, because of course I do). I don't have kids (I've noticed this is when many parents go "ohhhhh!"). As far as tangible takeaways - I listen to audiobooks as I'm driving (my daily commute is ninety minutes total) or doing chores. I have an Audible account and I increased the Narration speed. That's been a big factor in how many books I finish during the year. I also started using Klout, which gives me an option to schedule Facebook/Twitter posts. I tend to check RSS feeds early in the morning, at lunch, and in the evening, so it helps me avoid a social media blitzkrieg. I also tend to approach anything as an exercise in voice. The downside is that I think I've started to lose some of my own touch. If you read my blog, you'd get the impression that I'm a fashionista who can hold her own at Sephora. The reality is I live in comfortable shirts and jeans, and my makeup routine usually consists of me poking myself in the eye with something black and smudgy. I don't want to 180-degree overhaul my blog, but I will be making some very deliberate content/tone changes soon so RealMe can talk over #Me.

1:1000: How do you manage to balance your day job with the work you really want to be doing?

EJ: Sometimes well and sometimes poorly. At times it isn't so much a balance as it is a teeter-totter. I do set boundaries. If I have an idea at work, I jot it down. I force myself to take my break to capture words that won't leave me alone. I also leave the building if I want to write during the day. Staying in the office is begging to be interrupted or just plain blocked. Self-motivation and pep talks work, too. There are days when I have to remind myself that I'm blessed to have a stable job, benefits, and a (fairly) regular 40-hour/week schedule. My day job is a safety net, which can be a good and bad thing. I try to focus on the good as much as I can. One thing I didn't think of until now - I work with curriculum at a university. I don't see students every single day, but I have to understand students' learning styles and motivations. I think about students a lot in my job, and all the opportunities they have is another source of motivation for me. I'm also inspired by the number of graduate students who choose to dedicate time and energy into a deliberate choice and effort to change their lives. I don't want to be my own biggest limitation or missed opportunity.

1:1000: What sayings or mantras are you living by lately?

EJ: Lately? That's a good caveat. I could go with "be a fountain, not a drain," because I want to inspire others. Or I could say "collect moments not things" because I'm trying to focus on the now rather than the objective materialistic representation of the now. I could go with "We have always fought," which is the title of Kameron Hurley's Hugo-nominated blog post about women being people with agency. Or I could say <insert hip phrase from pop culture reference> because <hip things the youth say on the interwebz>. But really, after browsing my Pinterest inspiration board for too long, I'm just gonna have to go with the last sentence from the final Calvin & Hobbes strip: "It's a magical world, Hobbes, ol' buddy...let's go exploring!" The world is a limitless, wonderful place, and I don't want to forget that.


Posted on: July 29, 2014

Neither of them knows how to start. They have been together for ten minutes without exchanging words, and the silence between them grates against Lily’s nerves. She takes another sip of her coffee and looks away. She can’t be the one to start; it would imply —what, exactly? Fault? Desire?

It’s his fault, though. His desire.

“I didn’t mean — ” Lily begins.

“I know,” Nora whispers from across the table. Her concealer has begun to crease, and Lily notices how dark the circles are, how puffy the skin looks.

“Oh,” Lily doesn’t know what else to say. She thought this would be the bulk of the conversation, all her energy and intensity deflected to defend her honor. Lily isn’t sure why they’ve met anymore, what they have to talk about other than what happened.

“You can’t help it,” Nora says. Her voice is stronger, but emotional omission remains. She’s detached, robotic, brainwashed. Christ.

“How are you?” Lily asks, surprised by how genuine the words sound.

“Fine,” Nora says. She still hasn’t met Lily’s eyes.

Nora, who could disarm anyone with a glance, has found new power in restraint and distance. The old Nora would know this, would use it, sharpen it to a fine point. This Nora has no idea.

“Nora,” Lily says, “please tell me what you’re thinking.”

“It’s not the first time. Maybe the first time it wasn’t reciprocated, though. Maybe the first time in our house. Maybe.” Nora says.

“It never went that f— ” Lily says.

“Because I walked in, Lily. It never went that far because I ended it for him. ‘Wasn’t reciprocated’ is a coward’s way of saying my husband tried to rape you. I know what I saw.”

Daniel had cornered Lily in the master bedroom, one hand planted firmly on her left breast and the other approaching her thighs. Lily’s eyes had been wide and scared when she looked up and saw Nora, champagne glass in hand.

Daniel played it off like he’d tripped when he was trying to help Lily find the bathroom.

Nora and Daniel had lived in the house for eight years. Lily knew where the damn bathroom was.

“I won’t tell anyone, Nora. I won’t say a word. Not to the press, or our friends, or —” Lily can’t say the rest.

“I know you won’t,” Nora says. “I’ve thought about this for a long time. Longer than I should have. Long enough to where it makes sense, to where it’s the only thing that makes sense. I need to ask for a favor.”

Lily knows this world. There are things Nora can’t do, mostly innocuous, because they are political statements. Make any choice and it’s a political statement now. It’s the careful world Nora navigates daily, and Lily doesn’t envy her for it.

Lily nods. As Nora speaks, she feels like their own personal Pandora’s box has been opened and laid before them.

Nora’s asking Lily to devote herself to something base and distasteful. And for what? Nora throws around “commitment to her constituents” and “obligation to the legislative docket.”

Nora isn’t charismatic or special enough to guarantee anything. Constituents would love another bureaucrat. No one needs Nora’s vote, and their district is a solid, unwavering blue on CNN’s election coverage.

Nora asks because she’s proud and loves power more than family values, and Lily agrees because for Nora, she will do anything.

“Tomorrow, then,” Lily says, and Nora nods her assent.

Both women’s eyes fill with tears. When they say goodbye, they embrace.

Each woman tries to give the other strength.

Each woman comes up wanting.

Daniel’s studio is in the middle of the orchard, an oblong stretch of brush that once produced wild berries and tiny sweet apples. It is where Daniel comes when he wants to think and create, sketching the impossible worlds that have made him moderately famous. His book covers guarantee sales.

Lily didn’t sleep. She’s thought about what she will say to him since she left Starbucks. A tongue-lashing about how she’s only doing this for Nora. A diatribe about consent. A sad plea that his liaisons would destroy his wife’s political career.

Daniel’s hair has begun to gray, and for a moment Lily feels pity for the aging Adonis.

It comes to her then, how she will play this. Lily always wanted to be an actress, but she never quite got over the stimuli: blinding house lights, cameras that begged for eye contact. The affair will be her stage, her set.

If it’s obvious she’s doing this for Nora, he’ll feel the forgery, and his desire will wane. He’ll get smarter about hiding it from Nora, and dumber about hiding it from anyone else.

Lily is safe for all of them, but Daniel has to want it. He has to desire her, each day’s lust eclipsing the last. She has to coax that from him.

And instead of her tirades and begging, she walks into the studio and unbuttons her blouse. She doesn’t trust herself to speak, worried the truth will find its way out: My sister asked me to sleep with you.

Lily doesn’t desire him. She disassociates, lets her body find a rhythm. Her back arches. Her hips move with his. They are one, and she would feel sick to her stomach were it not for her fervent belief that this repays her big sister: Nora, who took the punches meant for Lily and their mother. Nora, who testified against their own dad.

Nora, champion of abused women.

When it is over, she rolls up from the floor. Years of yoga make the motion languid and smooth.

Outside the studio, two deer wander into the orchard. Lily watches them take nimble, timid steps. Fur stretches over ribcages. They starve together, even as they nibble patches of grass and the dried husks of fruit once ripe.

Daniel touches her calf, desire reignited. He wears a smarmy grin. Gravity does him no favors, excess skin drooping.

Lily does not want to frighten the deer.

Written by: Erin Justice
Photograph by: Chris Boyles

Go Deep

Posted on: July 24, 2014

“It was a perfect spiral,” Lenny said, reenacting the throw on his back from the chaise lounge. “It just landed in the wrong hands.”

Lenny let his plastered arm drop to the cushion with a thud that sounded like pig skin crashing into a receiver’s chest.

“And that’s why you drove your truck into a ditch?” asked Dr. Emanuel.

“No, that was the beer,” Lenny explained.

“The tests would beg to differ,” Dr. Emanuel countered.

“What tests?”

Dr. Emanuel pinched the screen of his iPad and turned it towards Lenny.

“The doctors tested your blood. Your BAC was .00,” Dr. Emanuel said, pointing to the results on the tablet.

“Well, I was in that ditch for awhile,” Lenny noted. “Maybe it worked itself out of my system?”

Dr. Emanuel made a few more finger swipes on his device and handed it to Lenny.

“According to the police report, a witness called 9-1-1 the moment you were ejected from your vehicle. You were emitted to the ER within 28 minutes.”

“So?” Lenny said, handing the tablet back to Dr. Emanuel.

“So, there’s no way your blood level could’ve dropped from DUI to nothing in less than thirty minutes.”

“Maybe it was one of the other drugs?”

“No other drugs were found in your system,” Dr. Emanuel stated, no longer bothering to pull up Lenny’s charts.

“Maybe I was roofied?” Lenny suggest.

“Although odorless and flavorless, Rohypnol can still be detected in your system. Which in your case, it was not.”

Lenny sat up and looked Dr. Emanuel in the eyes.

“What are you getting at, Doc?”

“The root of your problems.”

Lenny laid back down and stared at the textured ceiling that reminded him of painted turf in an end zone.

“My only problem is that goddamned throw that cost me a goddamned championship,” Lenny argued.

“That certainly is a problem,” said Dr. Emanuel, “but it’s not your only problem.”

“Well no-fucking-shit.” Lenny said, waving his cast arm towards the doctor.

“That’s two problems,” said Dr. Emanuel, “but I bet we can find more.”

“Heeere we go,” Lenny moaned. “Time to delve into my daddy issues.”

“Who said anything about your father?” Dr. Emanuel asked.

“Give me a break, Doc. You seem to have my entire life on that goddamned tablet.”

“Guilty,” Dr. Emanuel admitted, throwing up his hands. “But then again, so are you.”

“Of what?”

“Of lying to me.”

“About what?”

“About your real problems.”

“Fine, guilty,” Lenny said, throwing up his arms to mock Dr. Emanuel. “I guess growing up around a self-destructive sociopath sticks with you.”

“And in you,” said Dr. Emanuel.

“In you?”

“Don’t you see a little bit of your father in you?”

“Yeah, every time I look in a mirror.”

“You know that’s not what I mean.”

“I am NOTHING like my dad,” Lenny said, standing up from the chair and inflating his chest.

“Are you going to hit me, Lenny?” Dr. Emanuel asked, more intrigued than intimidated.


“Then why are you standing over me like a territorial gorilla?”

Lenny turned away from Dr. Emanuel and began taking a lap around the office.

“I don’t know?” Lenny responded in stride.

“What makes you think your father was a self-destructive sociopath, Lenny?” Dr. Emanuel asked.

“My old therapist told me so.”

“Did he or she ever meet him?”

“No, she didn’t.”

“Then how could she diagnose him?”

“Well, the self-destructive part is kind of a no brainer.”

“How so?”

“Ask his liver.”

Dr. Emanuel’s eyes widened as he dragged his finger across the tablet.

“So your dad was a drinker?”

“That’s putting it mildly.”

“Is that why you don’t drink?”

“It certainly helps.”

Dr. Emanuel paused to take a quick note and continued.

“What about the sociopath thing, Lenny? Where did your therapist get that?”

“Where do I start?”

“Where did you start with her?”

“Probably his funeral,” Lenny said, retaking his seat on the chaise lounge.

“What was it about his funeral that stood out to you?

“No one came.”

“No one?”

“Nope, aside from a few family members.”

“Was your dad a secluded man?”

“Not at all. He was constantly trying to get other people’s attention, especially women.”

“When would he do this?

“Grocery stores. Restaurants. My peewee football games.”

Dr. Emanuel readied his iPad for a treasure trove of insights.

“What happened there?”

“Not my games, as far as he was concerned.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean he was too busy flirting with all the moms to even know what number I was wearing.”

“Were your parents divorced?”

“NO! My mom would be sitting right next to him, and he’d still turn and talk to Ms. Calvin’s big fake tits.”

“Did your mom say anything?”

“Hell no. That man could do no wrong in her eyes.”

“Why’s that?”

“He used to be a dumb jock; she was his secret admirer; and it wasn’t until everyone else they knew went to college that they, ‘fell in love,’ as she tells it.”

“Ah ha,” Dr. Emanuel said, pressing his finger against the tablet so hard he almost cracked the screen. “Let me guess, your dad was a quarterback?”

“You’re brilliant, Doc,” Lenny answered.

“A high-school-championship quarterback?”

“Can’t get one past you.”

“And you’re angry that you’re not?”

“Are you a psychic?”

“And THAT is why you drove your truck into a ditch.”


Dr. Emanuel’s grin vanished and his finger stopped moving.



“Are you lying to me again, Lenny?”


“But you said you were disappointed about the loss?”

“Of course!”

“But not disappointed enough to harm yourself?”


“Then why would you harm yourself?”

“My mom.”

“Your mom?”


“What did she do?”

“It’s something she said.”


“After the game.”

“What did she say?”

“You remind me of your father.”

Dr. Emanuel rested the tablet on his lap and looked at Lenny.

“And that’s why you drove your truck into a ditch.”

Lenny’s eyes welled up with tears as he lifted his arms above his head.


Written by: Mark Killian
Photograph by: Omar Sanders

What the Factory Makes

Posted on: July 22, 2014

We last checked in with our hero during “The Memory Assassin.” 
Read that one first. This is Part II of his tale.

What the factory makes is Time®. At least, that’s what Frankenstein tells me before he takes a, I’m going to swallow this bitch whole, bite of his ham sandwich.

Frankenstein is not his real name. Obviously. His mother used to call him that because, as the youngest of eight (count em’, eight) boys, she said he was, “an amalgam of noses, lips, eyes, comebacks, excuses, hobbies, fears, and preferences; each in some way borrowed from the brothers that came before you.”

Most of the time he just goes by Frank.

“What the factory makes is Time®,” says Frank. “Trademarked.”

“That’s dumb,” I immediately reply.

“Well,” says Frank, mouth most full of ham and cheese, “It very well may be dumb, but you will have to take that up with the manufacturers. Or maybe the marketing department. Either way, it’s not like I’m just making this shit up.

“You cannot make time,” I say. “Time is not a tangible thing. You can’t make time, break time, stretch time, fuck time, paint time, or punch time.”

Frank shakes a scolding finger at me. “Au contraire, my friend,” he says. “Do you see that building over yonder?”

He points to the white building across the river; its outline delineated by the blue sky, so blue it looks artificial. Must be something in the atmosphere. Same deal as the harvest moon.

“That building,” Frank continues, “makes Time®.”

“Trademarked,” I say.

Frank nods and begins digging into his lunchbox. He retrieves Zebra Cakes.

I demand Frank explain himself.

“It’s a little blue pill that erases stuff. Their slogan is: Time® heals all wounds. It’s basically a legal roofie, but way more legit.”


“Why would you take it?” he asks.


He shrugs his shoulders. “Do something shitty. Favorite pet turtle dies. Girlfriend breaks your heart. Whatever. One little blue pill and you’re good to go.”

“That’s it?” I ask.

Frank shakes his head.

“No, the whole thing’s reactionary,” he says.


“Huh?” Frank confused. Frank no smart.

“Nevermind,” I reply. “It was a joke. What do you mean it’s reactionary?”

“Oh, they just have to implant this chip-thing under your skin on the inside of your wrist. It doesn’t work without the chip.”

I choke on my ham sandwich when he tells me this.

“Get the fuck out,” I say. “A chip? What kind of chip?”

Frank shrugs again. “I dunno. A computer chip thingy. Time® doesn’t work without it. It’s no big deal. Everybody does it.”

He says the last two sentences like he’s making excuses.

“What’s in it?” I ask.

“The chip?” says Frank. He’s drinking apple juice out of a box via straw. By the sound of it, the tank is running on empty.

“Shit, man. I dunno,” he says. “Science?”

He giggles at his own terrible joke, and it dawns on me that Frank is an idiot.

“So, explain this process to me,” I say. “You have something alien, of unknown origin, inserted into your body? And then you take a blue pill, also alien: origin unknown? Then you forget stuff?”

Frank does fish-face (lips, pursed), nods his head, and says, “Yeah… pretty much. Hey, that’d make a pretty good movie title, no?”

He fans his fingers wide and swipes the air across his face like he’s dropping the curtain on a movie marquee in his imagination.

“Alien…” dramatic pause. “Origin Unknown.”

“You should write the screenplay,” I volunteer.

“Man, I don’t know,” replies Frank. “I have an issue with like, the continuity of the universe, you know what I mean? There’s been so many movies and comics and shit. It’s like, Do you just forget that Alien vs. Predator ever happ…

“So when did you do this, Frankenstein?” I interrupt. “Did it work? What happened?”

“Sure, it worked,” he replies.

“What did you forget?”

“Bro,” he says, “That’s the poi…”

“Right,” I interrupt again. “And you feel totally normal now?”

Frank pats his belly like a fat man who’s no longer hungry. “Fit as a fucking fiddle,” he says.

“No side effects?” I ask.

“Look at me,” he says. “I’m great.”

He pauses before he continues speaking, and looks at me with a scrunched forehead. It looks painful for Frankenstein to experience deep thoughts.

“What’s the deal, man?” he asks. “What do you want to forget?”

I open my mouth to reply but am interrupted by the long, sorrowful sound of a horn. It sounds very much like an Australian didgeridoo and/or the alpine horn used in the Ricola cough drop commercials.

Frankenstein snaps to attention.
“Welp,” he says. “Gotta go. I guess lunch break is over.”

He stands up and extends his hand to shake.

“Pleasure to meet you,” he says.

For whatever reason, I have not described his attire until now. He is all white. White t-shirt, white jeans with no belt, white socks, and white shoes that look suspiciously K-Swiss.

Frankenstein and I shake hands and he starts down the grassy hill to the bridge that crosses the river that acts as a moat for the castle that is the factory.

Immediately, I notice that we are not alone. There are hundreds of men and women making their way down the hill. They are all dressed in identical white. Like heavenly ants they bottleneck at the bridge before making their way into the factory buttressed by that blue, blue sky.

“Frank!” I yell. “Why are you all wearing white?”

Sometimes, athletes pinch their jerseys above their nipples and shake them out when they do something good. It’s a sign of pride. Frank turns to me and does this with his white shirt.

“This?” he shouts back to me. “This is just standard issue uniform. Pretty rad, right?”

Written by: Logan Theissen
Photograph by: Matt Crump

Salt on the Rim

Posted on: July 17, 2014

Continued from Tequila Sunrise

“You need to get out of bed,” Lori throws a granola bar by her feet, “and you need to eat something.”

“What’s the point?” Whitney says. Her voice is rough. When she rubs her eyes it feels like sandpaper. She wants to cry, but the tears won’t come.

There aren’t any left.

Lori sits, crossing her legs. Whitney feels like she is being inspected, surveyed. Lori’s round face registers worry and fear.

Whitney has only seen Lori embrace her mother and ex-boyfriend. She loathes physical contact, flinches when someone touches her, and makes it a point to distance herself in crowds. When Lori clasps Whitney’s thin, clammy hand, it is a precious gift: a reminder that love and compassion still exist.

After Whitney showers, she discovers Lori still in their dorm room. She flips through Wired, looking disinterested and bored.

“I’m taking you to breakfast. We don’t have to talk about anything, but I think you might want to,” Lori says without looking up, “and I’m here to listen to anything you want to tell me.”

Whitney nods and offers a half-smile. Lori is missing her favorite class right now, something about theoretical math where boys made bedroom eyes at her until they found out she was their intellectual superior. Such a turn-off.

Clad in black American Apparel leggings and an oversized hoodie, legs jittering under the table because she is so nervous (and maybe because of the strong coffee), Whitney spills everything. She picks at her veggie omelet, but devours half of the pancakes they’re sharing. Their favorite diner is deserted because it’s a Tuesday morning, and Whitney feels safe to tell the story.

“She said she isn’t sure she wants to be in a relationship anymore,” Whitney begins, “and I was so floored by it. Who says that?”

“It’s bullshit,” Lori agrees, taking a swig of coffee.

“It is bullshit. One day you love me, and the next you want to go out and fuck without a care?”

Lori chokes on her coffee, the laugh bubbling over the cup in the form of hot caffeine-laced spit. Whitney begins to giggle, and when the waitress comes over to refill their mugs she eyes the two of them and hands them some extra napkins without a word. Lori mops up the spill on her side and Whitney dabs at the droplets that made it to her part of the booth.

For almost two minutes, she does not think about her now ex-girlfriend.

That afternoon, Lori insists that she cleanse herself of the last relationship.

“Destroy any trace of her,” Lori says. She swears it helps, and holds out a trash bag.

It’s easier than Whitney thought it would be. Most of it is in her top desk drawer: pictures and ticket stubs, miscellaneous mementos of blossoming love. Whitney throws them all away, but not the lesson: love grows, and sometimes dies.

Her hand lingers against the last item: a white envelope. She opens it and sees the dried remnants of flowers, color fading to sepia tones like an old photograph.

“Is that ‒ money?” Lori asks. There are crisp bills in the envelope, too.

“Three hundred bucks,” Whitney sighs.

“I didn’t think she was that, erm, financially well-off?” Lori tries her best to not sound judgmental or bitchy. “Did she give you three hundred dollars?”

“It’s mine,” Whitney looks away. “These are the flowers she gave me on our six-month anniversary. I saved up enough cash so she could come with us for spring break. It was gonna be a surprise.

“Do you think ‒ maybe if she knew ‒ ”

“No,” Lori’s voice is firm and a shade angry. “No, absolutely not. You do not need to pay someone to be your girlfriend. Not a girl who once referred to you as ‘her little Mulan,’ which is easily one of the most racist things I’ve ever heard. Not a girl who can’t see how wonderful you are, who doesn’t love you or even like you enough to know she wants to be with you. She is a stupid, ignorant twat who will only weigh you down.”

Whitney picks the flowers out of the envelope and throws them in the bag.

Lori insists Whitney spend the money on herself. A treat. A new beginning. Anything that could be construed as absolute self-indulgence. Whitney considers getting another tattoo, but doesn’t feel like exposing herself to unnecessary pain. She keeps the money tucked away until she can decide.

The day before their flight, she realizes what she wants.

She sits down and places the envelope on the counter. The mirror reflects a maudlin girl with a silver glitter headband, flakes of which have fallen onto her long, shiny black hair like twinkling stars.

“That’s three hundred dollars. Give me whatever you’d like.”

The stylist nods. He asks a few questions about her typical style and daily routine. Since Whitney’s doing research over the summer, she doesn’t need something that can transition to what the stylist sarcastically calls the “corporate cut.”

“Too many econ majors come in here,” he moans, “‘Oh, give me something really edgy ‒ like bangs, but really subtle bangs.’”

“What are subtle bangs?” Whitney asks.

“Face-framing layers,” the stylist responds.

The cut he gives her isn’t subtle. It is edgy ‒ a short, choppy thing that strays into rebel territory when he colors it a bold lipstick red.

“I can’t get over it,” Lori gushes. They’re catching dinner before the flight, perched at the bar at the airport Chili’s.

“Ladies?” The bartender places two napkins in front of them.

“Chips and salsa,” Lori chirps.

“Two margaritas, on the rocks, salt on the rim,” Whitney catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror and grins.

Written by: Erin Justice
Photograph by: Vrinda Agrawal

One In One Out

Posted on: July 15, 2014

“I hate this stupid, stupid policy,” Karen said. She pushed herself away from the desk and stood up. “It’s just not fair that we have to wait for someone to die just so we can have a baby.”

“I know, babe,” Todd said. “I know.”

All their lives, Todd and Karen had been in favor of the policy, genuinely believing in its purpose. But now that they were ready to have a child of their own, and they’d begun feeling the pangs of biological drive and government pulling at each other in opposite directions.

When Todd and Karen first decided they wanted to become pregnant, they made a list of family members whose health was failing - or, they hoped, would be failing in the near future. At the top of their list was Todd’s great uncle, Paul. He’d recently broken his second hip, which, as a coworker told him, “Once the second hip goes, it’s only a matter of time.” Todd didn’t know if this was true or not, but added him to the list anyway. Karen’s cousin, Carly, also made the list. She was eleven and battling a rare form of cancer whose survival rate teetered just over six percent. “If Carly’s parents agree,” Karen said. “Chances are we could get pregnant before Christmas!” She let out a small squeal and clapped her hands in excitement.

Approaching anyone about his death wasn’t an easy conversation to have, especially since it was about bringing another life into the world. To help, Karen and Todd ordered almost every book on the topic they could get their hands on. Each night after work they huddled over the books highlighting various sections and carefully scrawling notes in the margins. It reminded them of all the times they’d spent in the library at college studying together.

By the time they spoke with Paul, he had already signed a Life Contract with Todd’s cousin. “How could he do that?” Karen cried. “He knew we have been trying to have a baby for awhile now.”

When they approached Carly’s family, the conversation ended in a barrage of tears and Carly’s father telling Todd and Karen to never contact them again. The books had warned them of such reactions:

Coming to terms with a loved one’s nearing death is a difficult process. Prepare for the possibility of strained familial relationships. If family members do accept, expect them to resent your child once it’s born, as it may remind them of their departed loved one. This is especially true if the person who passed away was particularly young.

“What if we talk to friends?” Karen said. She grew more desperate and was even willing to risk sabotaging relationships. The books said this was also normal.

“Maybe we take out a loan and go talk to an Arrangement Agency?” Todd suggested.

“You know we can’t afford one of those!” Karen said. “They’re for the rich. If we took out a loan, we’d spend the rest of our lives paying it off.”

They also placed their names on lists at neighboring hospitals, which were for people who passed away but didn’t have ties to anyone else in the world, family or otherwise. One had better odds at winning the lottery than getting a Life Contract through a hospital.

“So what do we do now?” Karen asked.

“We could take out an ad in the local newspaper and negotiate a contract that way?” Todd said. “We have a little bit of money we could set aside.”

“But that’s about as promising as the hospital route. People would rather go through the Arrangement Agencies than newspaper ads.”

“I don’t know what other options we have, unless we try nursing homes, but I don’t want to go to prison for that.” Some people had become so desperate they would pose as family members of people suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia in order to trick them into signing a contract. It was highly illegal.

“I guess that settles it, then. We’ll put an ad in the paper.”

Each time Karen tapped at the keys on her laptop, she immediately pressed backspace until she was staring at a blank page again. After an hour and numerous false starts, she asked Todd for help.

“Have you looked at the book?” Todd asked.

“Yeah, but all of their examples make me want to vomit. And besides, if we just copy what they’ve written, our ad will never stand out, because that’s what pretty much everyone does.”

“I’ve got an idea.” Todd said. “Let me type.” He scooted up to the computer and typed:

Dying wife desperately trying to become mother to carry on family name. Serious inquires only.

Todd and Karen were surprised at the number of responses they received the following week. They felt a little guilty at first, but justified it by telling themselves that their ad hadn’t been a complete lie. Technically speaking, Karen was dying. She had been on the path to death since the day she was born, just like everyone else on the planet. And she did want a baby before it happened. By the time they had signed their Life Contract, the guilt had disappeared completely.

According to her doctors, Karen’s pregnancy was textbook. She was healthy, the baby was healthy, and the expecting mother and father were brimming with excitement and fear all wrapped in one. But during the delivery things went terribly wrong. The umbilical cord had gotten wrapped around the baby’s neck, and Karen’s body wasn’t strong enough to endure the doctor’s attempt to save her child. Both mother and child died before they ever got to feel each others embrace.

After the funeral, people waited a week before they began inquiring about the two new Life Contracts available, but the calls were too much to for the heartbroken husband and father to handle. As the phone rang in the background, Todd sat down to write one last ad:

Free: Three Life Contracts. 318 Roosevelt Drive. No need to knock. The door will be open. First come, first serve.

Written by: Michael Williams
Photograph by: Sophie Stuart

Wasted Youth

Posted on: July 10, 2014

I have a disease that some might call a curse. I have never met anyone else with my particular affliction so it must be rather unique. That being said, I have not met everyone, so perhaps it’s not as special as I think. But instead of beating around the bush, I’m going to try my best to explain it in a simple and easily understood manner.

In a way, my physical appearance is not my own. I can choose which clothes to wear, but I cannot control their level of wear. I can choose to cut my hair, but I cannot choose its length and I cannot control its neatness. I am a product of other people’s actions, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. We are all a product of other people’s actions to one degree or another.

I apologize for being so vague, but it’s a difficult proposition to get someone to buy into. I have to walk my way slowly into the pool, instead of jumping right in. The best I can try for is simple and pure honesty. In the most basic terms, I am a mirror to youth’s actions. Does that make sense? Probably not. To be honest, I don’t understand it myself. I see the what, but never the why. And it’s not just youth’s actions either. It just so happens that they are the ones that inflict the most damage.

My physical appearance is linked to the humanity of the society that I am a part of. If you’re familiar with the tale of Dorian Gray then you’re aware of the tenuous link between physical appearance and moral behavior. In the classic novel by Wilde, the protagonist stays young and beautiful while his portrait accumulates his sins and other despicable behaviors. The portrait shows the true nature of the monster.

My condition is in some ways the opposite. My physical appearance has been broken and twisted for years now, and will only continue to get worse as people’s behavior toward me slides further into contempt. I once met a child who asked why I was so ugly. When I tried to explain my situation, he could not grasp it. So I had to simplify as best I knew how. I had to discard my own pity, and tell this innocent child what exactly was “wrong” with me.

“Every time someone is mean to me,” I began, “I get uglier.”

The boy dipped his head to the side, a weak neck, as if he was examining a painting.

“People must always be mean to you,” he said.

I nodded. I wanted to tell this boy about my pain. I wanted to tell him how it all began. The reason was unknown then and it is unknown now. I wanted to tell the boy that I was once young and beautiful, and that I treated people poorly. I was lost in my own vanity and one night in a storm, a man came to my door for assistance. Like any fairy tale, I turned him away. Fairy tales are for children. In the nights following, the process began. Harsh words took on a new meaning. My hair began to fall out and my face began to stretch. I became ghoulish almost over night, and that was only the beginning. Lastly, I wanted to tell the boy about my fear and anger in the early days, but how a resignation and beauty fell upon the whole thing. A sort of irony that can only be laughed at.

But the mother pulled the boy away from me before I could say anything. As she dragged him down the sidewalk he kept looking at me, and I at him. She glanced back frightfully, and I don’t blame her. A beggar, a vagabond, a drunk (though I haven’t had a drink in years), a hobo; you would be best advised to stay away.

That brings us to the present. That brings us to the nasty powers of youth. That brings us to the tears I shed as they danced on the ashes of my Oklahoma xanadu.

The house, my home, had been abandoned for some time. I was born in Oklahoma and I made my way back there, north of the city. The land was polka-dotted with houses and suburban compounds. There was a grid of roads running north, south, east, and west with stop signs at all mile intersections. But if you went a bit further north, where the pavement ended and the road fell into disrepair and dirt, nearly a mile off the road surrounded by felled mesquite trees and overgrown high grass, piles of dead things home to snakes and rats, you’d find my lodgings.

The youth in the area, boys in cowboy hats impressing pretty young girls with their courage and cockiness, found the house. Many Friday and Saturday nights, I would sit in the underbrush and watch them break the windows, rip up the floors, piss on the walls; all by the faint light of their cell phones. Sometimes they would come in with spray paint and graffiti the walls that still stood. The roof caved in one year after a rain so I could always see the stars at night, which was an unexpected gift.

And then, on a summer night, they burned her down simply because they could. Because they were young and why not? They wanted to see her burn. How could they know what it meant to someone like me? Why would they care?

I was lucky to get out of there at all, and managed to escape just in time and take up my usual view in the trees. I shed tears as they laughed, drunk on booze. And then the fire took over faster than I would have thought possible, faster than they thought possible, and before they knew what they had done they had escaped and left her torched and burning.

I fell asleep not caring if the flames overtook me in the night. I had practiced as much patience as I knew how, but I was done with all that. I had enough viciousness for a lifetime and wanted no more.

In the morning, the fireman must have thought I was dead. When he rolled me over and looked upon my face, he must have thought I was burned. But the fire had not done me in, and they loaded me into a truck to take me to the hospital, and that is where I tell you my tale now, from a bed in a white room covered in bandages. The doctors come, but they don’t know what to say, so they simply hold me here. Out of sight, out of mind.

As they drove me away, I glanced out the truck window for one last look at the remains of the house, all gray and smoking.

“Thank God no one was hurt,” said the fireman to no one in particular.

I wanted to reply, but had nothing left to say. He was very young and couldn’t have heard me anyway.

Written by: Logan Theissen
Photograph by: Anna Westbury


Posted on: July 8, 2014

An introduction to the Anna stories ( 1 • 2  • 3  • 4 5 ).

Eun-ju was sixteen years old when the spirit sickness came. Grandmother called for Haneul, the town priestess, to confirm her fear. Grandmother sat in the corner of the room with legs folded beneath her and fists clenched in her lap as Haneul’s hands passed over Eun-ju’s feverish body like reeds in the wind.

“She is chosen,” the priestess said with finality.

Grandmother took the weight of her words on her shoulders and dropped her chin to her chest, brows knit in thought.

“The sickness will end only if she chooses the spirits in return,” Haneul continued.

Eun-ju whimpered beneath the sheet, eyes peering into eternity through slits, lashes wet with sweat and tears. She would have to choose between a life riddled with sickness and misfortune, or that of a priestess living on the fringes of society, doomed to answer every beck and call of the spirit world.

Grandmother moved to her side, running her hand over Eun-ju’s forehead, the same hand that lit the incense of their home altar each morning and night, the hand that traced the palms of curious neighbors who hoped for good readings. Though Grandmother had recited the Heart Sutra thousands of times over the course of her life, her piety would not help now. The spirits demanded her granddaughter’s allegiance for the sake of the town, at the cost of her autonomy.

Eun-ju was only thirteen months old when Father’s mistress left her in Grandmother’s care, never to be seen again. Father would not accept Eun-ju into his household, for she was illegitimate, and would betray his honor. And so his own mother took Eun-ju into her home on the island, raising her in the way of Buddha, offering rice and flowers in the temple in exchange for her granddaughter’s health and success.

From age four, Grandmother would watch Eun-ju sit on her heels in the garden outside, speaking to no one underneath the trees. Her granddaughter would look up into some imaginary face, nodding as she listened to some discourse that Grandmother could not perceive. She knew even then that the spirits needed Eun-ju to complete their unfinished business, to communicate with their loved ones who remained in the living realm. The hungry ghosts sailed through samsara, pulling at the tails of living souls, never meeting nirvana’s shore.

A few days before the sickness came, Eun-ju came home with flushed cheeks and an aura of shame. Grandmother glanced up from her vat of salt-soaked cabbage, listening to her granddaughter stomp about the house.

“Who is he?” Grandmother asked.

“A man! A stupid man, Grandma! He spoke to me as if he had some power over me! As if he could tell me what I can and cannot do!”

Grandmother hid her amusement well, wiping her hands on the front of her apron and walking into the main living space. Eun-ju sat on the floor, picking at pilling balls of lint on her socks.

“Why was he ordering you around?”

“How should I know?”


Grandmother only addressed Eun-ju by “granddaughter” when she was being unruly.

“It was the baker. He caught me telling fortunes.”

“Eun-ju, you must not,” Grandmother began.

“I don’t care. Mi-young was being a bitch, so I just told her what was coming to her.”

The back of Eun-ju’s calves stung from Grandmother’s beating with a rice paddle, but were imperceivable as the fever and tremors settled upon her sleep over the course of the next few days.

“Grandmother,” the priestess said. “She must choose now what her path will be.”

“No,” Eun-ju whispered.

Grandmother peered down into her granddaughter’s face, proud that she would not submit to the demands of the spirit realm, but fearful of the consequences she would suffer.

“Eun-ju,” Haneul began. “You do not understand how special the spirits see you. You offend them.”

Eun-ju sat up, matching Haneul’s glare and said, “I don’t give a shit. I don’t take orders from anyone, man or ghost.”

“Then the sickness will creep into your heart and you will never find rest. The spirits will prey upon your children for your disobedience. They, too, will feel the sickness and be forced to choose,” Haneul stated.

Gate, gate, paragate, parasemgate bodhi-svaha,” Eun-ju chanted. “So be it.”

The priestess pursed her lips, turning to Grandmother who remained quiet, but physically matched her granddaughter’s ferocity.

“Thank you, priestess, for your trouble,” Grandmother said.

Haneul left with disdain, slamming the door shut and stomping down the front steps. Eun-ju leaned back against the couch, inspecting part of the sheet with her fingertips as she chewed on her bottom lip. The color seeped back into her cheeks, but they both knew her heart would struggle now. Her blood was laced with death and would pulse with the groans of angry spectres.

“Eun-ju, you have made a very serious decision.”

“I saw her, Grandma,” Eun-ju whispered.

“Saw who?”

“My daughter. I saw her behind my eyes, but ahead of me.”

Grandmother pulled her words into her heart, placing her hands over Eun-ju’s.

“She was far away from here, and so was I. She was alone, though I was with her. Grandma, I had to say no. If I didn’t, the spirits would not be able to find her where she will be. The path of my betrayal will guide them to her.”

“Why have you done this? Why would you wish this on her?”

Eun-ju met her Grandmother’s eyes and sighed.

“Because she will be kinder than me. She will help where I cannot.”

Grandmother took Eun-ju into her arms, cradling her head against her chest. She stroked and kissed her hair, feeling the sutra ebb and flow through her veins in petition for her granddaughter, and now her great granddaughter whom she will not know. Gate, gate, paragate, parasemgate bodhi-svaha. Gone, gone, gone beyond, completely gone beyond, awakened. Eun-ju used it as a retort, but now it must be armor.

“Did she tell you her name?” Grandmother asked.

“Anna. Her name is Anna.”

Written by: Natasha Akery
Photograph by: Erin Notarthomas

When Hammers Swing

Posted on: July 3, 2014

If you happened to need a detailed map of the Lunder’s backyard and the woods surrounding it, all you would have to do is ask their youngest son, Jeremy. He was meticulous, exploring every iota of land within a quarter-mile radius behind their home. Jeremy was a gypsy when it came to his outside adventures, never playing in one location for more than a few days.

Jeremy’s current obsession was an abandoned set of railroad tracks situated behind his house. To an adult, it looked like an eyesore, because it was where people living in the country came to illegally dump unwanted household appliances. But to Jeremy it was a world of possibilities: shoes that would let him jump like a grasshopper, a flying bicycle, a refrigerator that would teleport him to other planets. The things he imagined himself inventing!

During his first trip, he surveyed the area, bouncing from the rusted-out stove to a refrigerator that sat askew, just like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. A few feet over laid a microwave and a window AC unit. There were more treasures littered all over the place, of course. These were merely the highlights of the inventory.

Jeremy didn’t know if it was intentional or not, but these appliances were arranged as though they sat in some sort of invisible kitchen. Was it possible there were people who lived in this area and at night they came out and plugged the appliances into the trees to cook delicious feasts for themselves and their opossum neighbors? The thoughts that crossed Jeremy’s mind!

Today was Jeremy’s third trip to the abandoned railroad tracks. This time he remembered to bring a hammer. He intended to use it to pry apart old railroad ties so he could capture a lizard hiding inside. His success was limited. Even though he was able to wedge the claw of the hammer into one of the many grooves, his little arms weren’t strong enough to pry the old wood apart. He stuck to the low-hanging fruit and split apart the little slivers at the top, but it was useless; that wasn’t where the lizards hung out. And if he did manage to get lucky and spot one, there was no point in chasing after it. The suckers were fast, darting off and juking wildly to the left or right just when Jeremy thought he had one cornered.

Frustrated and growing bored of lizard hunting, Jeremy decided to dissect some of the kitchen appliances. He’d long forgotten his story about the people who lived in the woods and how they might need a working stove or refrigerator later that evening. A hammer in the hand of a little boy will forever trump the needs of invisible strangers.

There wasn’t much damage he could inflict on the stove, other than a few dents and dings on its rusty side panels. It was the same frustrating story for the refrigerator. He managed to work over the microwave a little, but it was stubborn. The window on its door wasn’t glass, but some sort of plastic Jeremy classified as indestructible.

As Jeremy wondered if he should have brought a screwdriver instead of a hammer, he spotted a TV off in the distance. It was the mother lode of discoveries, the kind of score every eight-year-old boy wielding a hammer hopes to find. It had a humongous glass screen, and Jeremy was determined to find out what was on the other side.

He sized up the TV as though it were a boxing opponent and took a swing at the glass. Despite being a direct hit, the hammer bounced off the screen as if it were made of rubber, almost causing Jeremy to drop it. He took another swing and got the same result. After several more swings, a crack appeared, but it was so thin it could almost have been mistaken for a strand of hair. So far, the TV was turning out to be as much of a disappointment as all the other appliances. In Jeremy’s mind, it should have only taken one blow for the entire thing to shatter the way a window does after Jean-Claude Van Damme roundhouses a bad guy through it. Maybe I should have brought Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jeremy sniggered to himself.

After five minutes of working the TV over with the hammer, Jeremy decided to take a break. The tube was close to breaking, but he was sweating and out of breath. After a few moments, an imaginary steam whistle sounded and Jeremy slapped his hands on his thighs, picked up his hammer and stood up. “Alright boys! Back to work!” he said to himself.

With two more swings, Jeremy managed to bust open the TV’s screen. It didn’t shatter and fall as one broken sheet like he’d wanted. The hole he made was only the size of a nickel. The success hadn’t been gratuitous, but it was a success, and he would take it. As he chipped away at the hole, it quickly turned into an opening the size of a coffee can. He gathered all the strength he had and swung as hard as he could. He hoped he would be able to shatter at least one half of the remaining glass, but instead, he completely missed and the hammer plunged right into the hole he’d already made. As it did, the top of his thumb caught on a piece of the jagged glass which gouged out a chunk of his flesh. He was amazed at how little such a wound actually hurt.

At first, the blood slowly worked its way out of the spot the flesh had been only moments prior. It was like a snake sleepily emerging from a hole until it began pouring out and painting his suntanned hand. The sudden appearance of so much blood opened Jeremy’s eyes: the small wound hurt more than anything he had ever experienced before. As he frantically pedaled back home to his mom, somewhere near a TV with a broken screen, laid a hammer forgotten to the rest of the world.

Written by: Michael Williams
Photograph by: Anna Westbury

Tending to What Matters

Posted on: July 1, 2014

My heart drops. The words coming out of my father’s mouth make sense, or rather, would make sense if they were coming from anyone else. But from him, they are blasphemy.

I glance over at him, digesting what he just said, trying to form a response and it hits me how much he has changed. Gone is the stoic, granite face I’ve always known, replaced by a gaunt, wrinkled old man.

“Xeriscape?” The word is sharp and prickly as it rolls off my tongue. I try to lace my voice with confusion, with disdain, anything to cover up the quiver that is trying to expose my fear. “You want to xeriscape the yard?”

We are sitting on his front step, sipping glasses of iced tea, watching as the heat rises off the street and blurs the distant Tucson skyline. I look around me at the well-coiffed grass. Lush and luxuriant and impossibly green, it is the type of lawn you only see on landscaping brochures. But there has been no photoshopping here; just hours of meticulous, painstaking labor.

“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it for awhile. Change is good. It keeps you young.”

He turns away from me because he is lying. Worse yet, he knows that I know he is lying--but this is what we do, this is how we communicate. We talk without talking, beating around the bush, or I guess in this case, the entire yard.

“And it’s better for the environment, too, uses a lot less water.”

This is utter bullshit; my father’s environmental ideology skews hard right. In his lifelong quest for the perfect yard, nothing was sacred, certainly not the ecosystem. Fertilizers, pesticides, ignoring city-mandated water rationing; whatever it took to have the best lawn in town, he did it, consequences to Mother Nature be damned.

I nod my head and pat him on the back.

“I gotta go, Dad. I’ve got to mow my own yard today, too. I’ll see you later, okay?”

“Alright, Jack.” He hesitates, like he wants to say something else. Instead, he shuffles into the air conditioned house. “See you later.”


My wife is in the kitchen unpacking groceries when I get home. I grab a beer from the six-pack she just pulled from the shopping bag. Bitter and lukewarm, it does nothing to soothe my jangled nerves.

“Hi honey, how are your parents?” she asks.

“Mom seems good. Dad’s given up on life.” I take another long drink from my beer.


“My dad wants to rip up his entire fucking yard and put in a bunch of fucking cacti.”

“And that means he has given up on life?”

“Don’t you realize how fucking crazy that is? He loves his lawn more than most people love their children.”

“Yeah, but now you have to help him take care of it. Maybe he doesn’t want to be a burden. He’s a proud man.”

“It’s not a problem. I don’t mind helping him.”

“Did you tell him that?”

“Well, no…” I drain the last of the tepid beer and reach for another. Before I can open it my wife takes it from my hand and replaces it with a cold one from the fridge.

“That’s what I figured.” She walks out of the kitchen. “Jesus, I wish you two would learn to talk about your feelings.”


The gravel parking lot of the farmstand/greenhouse is populated mostly with Subaru Foresters and Toyota Priuses. I back my Dodge Ram into one of the last parking spots and we survey the scene. The people milling about are certainly not the big-box home improvement store demographic that we are used to.

“I didn’t know there were so many shades of khaki,” my father says, as he takes in the crowd.

He’s right. The place is crawling with aging hippie/yuppies, all clad in Birkenstocks and draped in various shades of light brown, happily carrying succulents of differing shapes and sizes back to their fuel-efficient cars.

We sit in silence and I glance in the side mirror and notice, really notice, that my dad is not the only one who has aged. My hair has become more salt, less pepper, and the lines around my eyes have deepened. I guess you can fuck over Mother Nature, but you can’t beat Father Time .

“You know Dad, you don’t have to do this. I don’t mind helping you with your yard at all.”

“Yeah, but you’re a busy man. You’ve got your own life, and your own lawn.”

“Dad,” my voice wavers as I put my hand on his arm, “I love helping you. It… it gives me a chance to hang out with you.”

He stares out the side window and clears his throat.

When he turns back to look at me, his eyes are moist. He takes a deep breath and gives my hand a squeeze. “That heart attack scared me. It made me realize that I might not have much time left.”

“Dad, don’t say that.” I can’t bring myself to look at him.

“It’s true, and sometimes you just have to face the truth. I don’t know when and I don’t know how, but I got old, Jack. I’m seventy-eight years old.” The number sinks in and he lets out a sigh. “Man, seventy-eight. Do you know how old Pop was when he died?”

“He was in his sixties wasn’t he?” I can barely speak.

“Sixty-three. And my mom was seventy-one.”

“People are living a lot longer these days Dad, and you’re in better shape than a lot of men half your age.”

“Yeah, but good shape or not, once your ticker starts to go...” he puts his hand on his chest, I see fear in his eyes.

We sit in silence, watching the people come and go. I fixate on a young father, walking with two kids, one holding each hand, a look of pure bliss on his face.

“I’ve never really contemplated life without you,” I whisper, both to him and myself.

He takes another deep breath.

“Well, I’m not gone yet, am I? And I’m not giving up. I’ve still got some living to do. I want to take your mom to Hawaii, go camping with you and Sara and the kids, hell, I might even give skydiving a whirl.”

He looks over at me and smiles.

“But I’ll tell you one thing, and it’s the truth, I’m pretty fucking sick of mowing the lawn. Come on, let’s go look at some cacti.”

Written by: Ben Cook
Photograph by: Daniel Vidal

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