While we cherish all the stories and articles we are profoundly grateful to publish each year at Across The Margin, we are thrilled to present a look at some of our favorites of the year, and an excerpt from each to wet your whistle…
“In Transit” by Phebe Jewell
“I didn’t make the rules of reincarnation. I just keep living my lives, hoping for the best.” A short story that ponders if change is the only lasting truth…
This time, I come back as a tree. Not some venerable oak planted a hundred years ago, nor a sacred banyan under which a prince could sit for days and reach enlightenment, but a spindly street tree on Rainier Avenue South always in desperate need of water. Don’t assume my size and location had anything to do with my previous life. No one asked what I wanted to be. There was no form to fill out. Animal or human. Male or female. One second I was alive as whoever or whatever I was in my previous life. The next, a third of my body was rooted in earth, searching for water far below street level. READ MORE!
“Privileged Access” by Alan Swyer
A businesswoman turns to a documentarian to reveal the truth of her all too stigmatized profession….
After what felt like forever, though in truth it was barely six weeks, Steve Ross sensed the possibility of a breakthrough when an attorney friend arranged for him to meet a stylish Chinese woman named Crystal.
“Why do you want help?” Crystal asked in lightly-accented English as Steve joined her in a quiet booth at an Italian restaurant in Pasadena.
“I make documentaries,” Steve replied, mentioning that his recent efforts dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the diabetes epidemic, baseball, and the judicial system.
“But why my kind of business?”
“Because like other subjects I’ve tackled, I bet there’s a world of difference between what people think and what’s actually true. But since you agreed to meet, can I ask why?” READ MORE!
“Cardinal Hollow” by Hugh Blanton
A work of fiction about a good ole boy, not long for this world, that speaks to the encounters in life that might seem insignificant in the moment, yet their affect lingers…
Their divorce was a bigger failure than their marriage, so Tony and Leasea thought it would be a good idea to have an even bigger wedding party their second time around. Fifteen Harley-Davidson motorcycles roared into Cardinal Hollow for a wedding that started at noon and went on until midnight. Most of us hollow residents were reluctant guests and kept as much distance as we could between ourselves and Tony’s biker friends without appearing unfriendly, but most hollow residents also left soon after the bolo tie-wearing preacher pronounced Tony and Leasea man and wife. I stayed around, can of warming Budweiser in hand, watching the party in mild amusement. Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, and other southern rock bands blasted from Tony’s enormous stereo speakers set out in the front yard, and the bride, in her denim mini-skirt and cowboy boots, danced with the guests. Their two kids, Jonah, seven, and Zeke, five, chased each other around the yard with water guns. When it came time for the bride-and-groom’s dance, Leasea’s head rested in Tony’s chest, but her eyes kept drifting to Chet, the man she’d left Tony for a little over a year prior. Chet, with his red bandana tied in a kerchief over his crew-cut, returned surreptitious glances between draws on his Winston and gulps of Coors, one arm around the shoulders of his present “old lady.” Tony feigned obliviousness and I wondered if this second marriage was just as doomed as the first. READ MORE!
“His Balls” by Carol Murphy
A man consumed with an addictive hobby, a concerned wife, and a thief on the prowl: A short story that clearly displays the true cost of obsession…
A medium statured, gruff, and burly man, Ed was known on the local public golf links as “someone you didn’t want to mess with.” He would routinely tell his family stories about the incidents in which he got in men’s faces when they tried to play through or did not follow the rules. His daughter would laugh hysterically, his son would smile, while his wife would just sigh. Ed loved the rules of golf, even as many odd ones as there were, and considered those who did not precisely follow them as cheaters. He never trusted those people again. READ MORE!
“Sanctuary” by Gary Duehr
“But once he left the university, it all floated out of reach like a dream he couldn’t quite remember.” In the twilight of existence, a man warmly ponders life, naive to the fact he might not be long for it…
Overhead, gusts of wind were thrashing the tops of the spindly oaks. The dull roar sounded like the ocean. Sinclair zipped up his jacket. He wasn’t ready for fall yet. Up ahead the path forked, the blue Long Walk Trail to the left, yellow Pond Trail to the right. He decided to stay on the Long Walk that looped around the preserve’s perimeter. The name amused him, making him think of Mao’s Long March, the retreat from Nationalist forces in the ’30s.
Sinclair supposed at seventy-four he was on his own long walk, just retired from teaching at Brown. He’d driven up to see his daughter and her eleven-month-old in Ipswich, on Boston’s North Shore. On Route 1A, he’d pulled over in the lot of the Wildlife Sanctuary to look at the GPS on his phone. He pulled a slip of paper from his wallet to check his daughter’s address, placing his glasses on the dash to read the handwriting up close. He felt shaky for a moment but let it go. On a whim he decided to clear his head with a short walk. The trail map showed paths that intertwined on a peninsula jutting out into the Great Meadow. As he strode off, he’d felt his usual overconfidence surge through his chest. READ MORE!
“Time To Disappear” by Stephanie Daich
In “Time to Disappear,” Romario specializes in helping his clients vanish, until a suspicious client with a secret changes everything…
“I need you to make me disappear.” The stranger hoovered in way too close. I looked past him, leaning to my right trying to ignore him. He shouldn’t intrude upon my summer escape on Encinitas Beach.
A salty breeze passed over. I sipped my mimosa with the sweet citrus bubbling in my mouth. How dare he disturb me.
“What’s it to me?” I watched a miniature poodle barking while still not giving the intruder the benefit of eye contact. The poodle chased the waves, only to retreat when they rolled in too closely.
The man rubbed his chin and shaded the rising eastern sun from his eyes.
“I come with the referral of Randolph.” READ MORE!
“Mount Olympus” by Rimma Kranet
The fall of Communism offers an immigrant a space in time to heed their calling, that of a caregiver. A short story that ultimately asks: Who is it that helps the helpers?…
Jerry knew that he would be out of a job before the day was over. He stood with his hands behind his back, dressed in a dark suit and a new silk tie that hung loose around his neck. Michael’s wife had given it to him as a gift.
He was out of place amongst all of the unfamiliar faces that were swollen by the passing of time and smoothed over with the crafty needles of Botox. After all, this was not his relative to mourn. He was merely there to do his duty; declining the invitation would have been disrespectful. His tall frame with wide shoulders and muscular back stood out from the rest of the guests who, with the exception of the immediate family, were at least ten years his senior. He was restless and wished that he could make small talk with someone, but although everyone spoke his native tongue, nobody approached him. READ MORE!
“Weapons Free” by Jeremy Stelzner
“I had a feeling Jack didn’t read the New Yorker. I had a feeling that he didn’t listen to jazz either.” A story of a young couple who meet a mysterious, gift-bearing, neighbor after moving from Harlem, New York to Harlem, Montana…
I’d never held a gun before we moved out west. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d ever even seen one when Annie and I were back east other than on television. You see, running with gangs or driving out of town all decked out in camo to go shooting at a range, well those are social circles in which I’m more of a square. In fact, I don’t fit into many circles anymore. Maybe it’s because the folks in town know about how it all went down. They don’t know what to say to me and I can’t say I blame them. I wouldn’t know what to say to someone who went through what I did either.
But there was a time, a time before. A time when people seemed to genuinely enjoy my company. At parties, with a drink in my hand I could have a group of strangers hanging on my every word. I had opinions on independent movies and New Yorker articles and obscure underground hip-hop artists. Hell, sometimes I’d even have opinions on New Yorker articles reviewing independent movies about obscure underground hip-hop artists. If I’m being honest, I was never the life of the party, but I wasn’t the death of it either. Not then. READ MORE!
“The Tough Get Sushi” by Amy Marques
Amid dystopian summers of orange suns and hazy pink skies, a seemingly dormant spark finds a way to once again ignite…
Everyone knows that California is the best place in the world to live. If you don’t mind wildfires, earthquakes, and rattlesnakes, that is. There might be the odd bear or mountain lion, but only the serious hikers seem to run into those, and Andy liked to stick close to home.
Staying home was harder than it used to be. Andy once thought of go-bags as the dust-collecting depository of flashlights and clothes too old to be worn and too sentimental to be donated. At least that’s what it had been like when he was growing up. But every year the wildfires seemed to grow bigger and nearer until summers had become a dystopia of orange suns and hazy pink skies. READ MORE!
“Shave and a Haircut” by Alan Swyer
The hunt for one of the most important resources in one’s life — a good barber — leads a fledgling screenwriter to befriend some of Los Angeles’ most influential power players…
When I first arrived in Southern California, I was confronted by two unfamiliar cultures. First was Los Angeles itself, meaning that in addition to palm trees, strip malls, and left turns on red lights, I had entered a world where day and night people with no visible means of support populated gyms, coffee shops, and Pilates studios, plus more yoga classes than Mumbai. Compounding my sense of estrangement was the alternate universe known as the movie business, where as a fledgling screenwriter I quickly had to learn about development deals, the difference between an option and a sale, that a “Yes” was nowhere near as definitive as a “Yes-yes,” and that there was no such thing as a bad meeting — just an absence of follow-through, which meant that the second only to a “Yes-yes” was a rapid “No,” which at least provided clarity plus the impetus to move on. READ MORE!
“One Brick Missing” by Chris Parent
“People are the bricks of the institution.” A short story about how a crisis can yield clarity. How rejection can offer an opportunity for renewal and to prompt us to say the things we think but keep within us…
The news came as a curt text for which my wife later apologized. Denied. My daughter, Madeline, had been rejected by her dream school, the same college my wife and I had attended, Notre Dame.
The message was gracious and even referenced how difficult this was considering that Madeline was a legacy. But it was still a paragraph, and essentially said eighteen years of dreams, late night study sessions, SAT prep work, and countless hours of extra-curricular activities came down to not being good enough. And that was it. Final answer.
It is hard to judge the impetus for another’s grief. I have experienced the loss of a parent, a friend, and countless pets. I know what sadness feels like. And there is no feeling of grief like seeing your child suffer. It is a gut-wrenching feeling of helplessness. Those at work did not understand the complexity of the pain. Words of encouragement (“Hey there are other places. She’ll get in elsewhere.”) fell on deaf ears. For me, there was only one Notre Dame. Others took a different tack (“So does that mean you’re not going to root for the football team this year?”), to which my response was less cordial. Throughout your life you want to tell your children that they can do anything and be anything, and that they should dream big. In the back of your mind though you know that lives are filled with more rejection than success and that coping with adversity is the greatest tool you can have in your personal workshop. READ MORE!
“Trump and Our Paradise Lost” by Arthur Hoyle
“The criminal underworld, in all its pathology of violence and cruelty, is our world unmasked.” What must we do in order to make America respectable again, and regain some semblance of the paradise we enjoyed under a functioning, if imperfect, Democracy?
The main question now hanging in the air for the American people is whether our former president, Donald Trump, will be prosecuted as a criminal by the United States government for his attempt to overturn the result of a legally conducted election that he failed to win.
Most of us who are familiar with the details of this drama are pretty certain that Trump is guilty of sedition. But will our government be capable of asserting that this brazen political power play, carried out in plain view of the public, is in fact the behavior of a criminal? The question implies interesting parallels between the dynamics of our political system, based as they are on the competing interests of power groups seeking dominance, and the dynamics of the criminal underworld, whose methods and goals differ in degree but not in kind from the operations of our government. READ MORE!
“Signs” by Matthew Fort
A short story wherein a son attempts to find meaning in his relationship with his mother, a woman who drew relevance from even the most trivial occurrences in life…
My mother believed everything was a sign from God. Good or bad, God transmitted messages — invisible to the rest of us — that she received and decoded. When my father checked out of our family two weeks before I turned thirteen, mother said God had spared us from father’s alcoholism. My sister and I assumed it was a sign that our father had grown tired of hearing about the signs. Or, when my sister dropped out of pre-law at the University of Minnesota to read palms in a used bookstore in Dinkytown, mother said it was a sign that her prodigal daughter would have to feed the pigs before returning home to a welcoming feast. When my ex-wife left me for some jackass she found at her gym, mother read this as another good sign. READ MORE!
“Your Brain on Pause” by David Raney
An article which thoughtfully explores how freeing one’s mind to make room for spontaneous thought can lead to wondrous results…
Everyone knows the virtual world has turned us all into kittens batting at a laser pointer. Or, to switch “pet”aphors, neuroscientist Erman Misirlisoy asserts that our attention is “scattered across the multiple forms of distracting media in our lives” until “we end up like dogs on a leash…dragged one way, dragged another.” My dog is approximately the size of a Volkswagen, so it’s an open question who’s being dragged. But the point stands.
Our attention span, in any case, no longer outperforms a goldfish’s. In 2000 the average stood at twelve seconds, three longer than Dory’s, but by 2015 that had dropped to eight. Desk workers in 2004 spent about three minutes looking at each screen, and ten years later it was under a minute, meaning we now switch tasks hundreds of times a day. READ MORE!
Happy New Year to All!