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…
“Ricky and I” by Alan Swyer
“How the fuck did we wind up doing what we do?” A lifelong friendship laid bare; the story of a journey through the years with one of America’s most storied magicians…
A week after my oldest friend’s death, I got a call from an enterprising journalist.
“Several people have told me,” she began, “that you knew Ricky Jay in ways no one else did. True? And if so, why?”
“Found anyone else,” I inquired, “who attended his Bar Mitzvah, wedding, and memorial service?”
“That’s some trifecta!” she exclaimed. Then she asked if, back when Ricky and I were kids, I had any clue that he would not only become America’s greatest magician, but also an author, actor, and historian, as well as the master at debunking cons, hoaxes, and scams.
“You bet,” I stated, stating what she wanted to hear before regaling her with anecdotes. I spoke about Ricky’s adoration of his amateur magician grandfather, who became his first mentor. Next his early appearances on a local television show called “The Magic Clown.” Then his frequent visits to Lou Tannen’s Magic Shop on 34th Street in Manhattan. Finally, his lessons from a prestidigitator known as Slydini.
“Death Is The Price of Admission” by Audrey Levitin
“I prayed for more time, I prayed to be released from the terror I felt.” A story about coming to term with death’s inevitability that drives home the fact that time is life’s most precious commodity..
When my son Josh was six years old, he asked me about death. It was bedtime and we were reading Good Night Moon, cuddling among his stuffed animals and Yankees’ paraphernalia.
He asked, “Mommy, does everyone die?”
“Will grandma die?”
“Will my teachers die?”
“Will you and daddy die?”
I thought he was taking the somber news remarkably well.
“Feminine Mystique: How Betty Friedan and Maggie Doherty Upended The World” by Claire Wilcox
An essay that acts as an ode to the empowering, feminist masterpieces penned by Betty Friedan and Maggie Doherty…
On a longer-than-usual, post-pandemic, three-week trip to my childhood home in a suburb of Minneapolis, I finally dove into The Feminine Mystique, a 1963 bestseller by Betty Friedan. I’m embarrassed to say it was the first book I’d read about feminism, and I was already 48.
I emerged onto the familiar lawn-lined street just after dawn my first morning there and returned a happy wave from the next-door neighbor Nancy, planting lilies. It was early spring, and the world was waking up from a long freeze. The avian orchestra of honks and quacks and chirps from the nearby swamp was deafening. I wondered if the noise would make it hard to concentrate on this book that I had committed to listen to on Audible and considered just jogging in silence, then called that thought for what it was — an excuse — and plugged my earbuds in.
A woman the same age as my mom had recommended I buy the classic feminist book a while back, and I had done so, on impulse. But it had sat in my queue for months. I knew it was going to be about the dissatisfaction of women in the 1950s and 60s, and I worried it would feel passé. The truth was, I thought sexism was more a problem for the history books, and feminism mostly irrelevant in my subculture, at least.
“Lifeway Christian” by Lauren Saxon
“Lifeway Christian Store was exactly what we expected it to be — white and too-well lit, as if the only purpose of its brightness was to expose flaws and sins.” A work of flash fiction that acts as an ode to grief, and to queerness..
To be honest, neither one of us should have been driving. Drunk, not from alcohol, but from grief. We wore it like goggles. Dark sunglasses, warping reality and clouding our thoughts. We should not have been driving. But because She was dead and we refused to let Her be forgotten, refused to talk about Her in the past tense, we planned a vigil.
Jo’s car is named Stella. It’s an old Ford Taurus, maroon red, littered with dents and scratches. So old that the aux cord can only be played through the cassette opening in the dashboard. On the way there, Jo drove. We played country music, not because either one of us liked it, but because She did. Does. Jo and I had both spent too many hours tortured by Her off-key singing. Too many hours groaning as She cranked the latest Keith Urban and Kelly Clarkson, windows down. The windows were always down. With Her arm dangling out of the car, drumming away. So that’s what we did. On the way to pick up our candle order. Hundreds of candles. The real ones, long and slender. The fake ones, short and circular.
“You’re Pity Isn’t Welcome Here” by Drew Dotson
“I wished everyone knew how precious life was.” A deeply affecting recounting of a life lived with cystic fibrosis…
There’s something you should know.
I have cystic fibrosis.
But don’t feel sorry for me.
As a kid, I kept my illness under wraps. I worried other children might fear me because I was different. I also couldn’t bear the thought of being categorized as sick or deficient in some way. But most of all, I preferred to live in a pity-free zone.
I didn’t want my classmates to know I was supposed to die young. In western culture, even adults struggle to acknowledge and discuss death, much less explain it to children. If my peers understood I wouldn’t be their best friend forever, would they still invite me to birthday parties and sleepovers?
“Saudade” by Natalie Nee
A short story inspired by the thought-provoking question: Is it better to see someone for who they are or for who you know they can be? A work with longing, fondness, and nostalgia all wrapped in one…
The red life oozed from me, from us, every drip a reminder that a lie, once spoken, never remained white. Sirens raced toward me, screaming their way through the winding mountain pass. I turned my head to the water, mesmerized by the growing rings on the glassy surface, disturbed by this intruder; a visceral reminder that mistruths, even uttered with good intent, caused ripples of destruction to everything they touched. Once tainted, we can never go back.
“Sweetheart, have you seen the news?” Neil asked me as he scooped his gourmet beans into the machine, his back facing me. He started each day with his coffee in hand. Black, one Stevia. Routine. My life could be boiled down to that single, ordinary word and I hated it.
And just like that, I was thinking about him again. His hands, calloused with his love for writing the old fashioned way, twisting in my shirt to pull me to his lips. I relished the tiny scratches made when he would fiddle with the gold ring on my left hand, abrasive like the bittersweet smile and dash of disappointment staring back at me. Or maybe it was judgement. Those pleading eyes that said he no longer wanted to be kept a secret. When he finally vocalized those facial expressions, I ended things. Although it was the right thing to do, I couldn’t help but relive those days where I was anything but predictable.
“The Invitation” by Carolynn Kingyens
“But in losing myself, I gained a conscience, and was able to finally feel other people’s pain for the first time in my life.” A work of fiction that argues sometimes we can’t change without first being destroyed…
Have you decided to go?” Tim asked a naked Abby, who had her back turned as he reclined upright beside her in bed, trying to make pleasant conversation with a woman he was secretly shagging from the university where they’d both worked, she as a professor of Women’s Literature and he, the Dean of Students.
“I haven’t decided yet,” replied a miffed Abby.
Her distant body language conveyed that she was troubled about something other than the invitation. Abby was three years deep into this work affair, and felt like a hamster running aimlessly on its fixed wheel, going nowhere — fast. At the end of the day, he’d still go back to his harpy, materialistic wife and bratty teenage daughter, whom he promised to leave as soon as their only child went off to college.
“When He Calls” by Cameron L. Mitchell
A gripping work of fiction where a series of phone calls boils over into a risky obsession…
The children had been put to bed, her husband was watching the sports roundup in the den, and she’d just poured herself a glass of red wine to relax before calling it a night when the phone rang. “Hello,” she said, “Roberts residence.” No one responded, though she could hear the distinct sound of someone breathing. “Hello?” she tried again. “Anyone there?” Just as she was about to hang up, the person on the other end started clearing their throat.
“Don’t hang up,” he said in a gravelly voice.
“Who is this?”
“I’m going to wrap my hands around your throat and squeeze until you die,” he recited, slowly. It was a man’s voice, though she could be sure of nothing else. Startled by his threat, she didn’t know what to say. You there?” he whispered frantically, breathing loudly in her ear.
“The Leonardo Rose” by Matias Travieso-Diaz
A work of fiction that imagines an unlikely romance that bloomed in occupied Poland during WWII…
The insistent rapping on the church door awakened Stras. Disoriented, he rubbed sleep from his eyes and picked up the clock off the night table. Four-thirty a.m. He had not overslept.
Grumpily, he put on his robe and shuffled to the front door. “The church is closed! Please return after seven, and may the love of Jesus be with you,” he said loudly, trying to sound welcoming despite his annoyance.
The rapping became more urgent, and was accompanied by a shrill outcry.
“Please let me in! They’re following me!”
Stras was about to reply dismissively again, but detected mounting fear in the outcries. He uttered a sigh and turned the key on the inside lock, opening the door just a few inches. “What is…” he began formulating a question, but the image of the visitor made words dry out in his mouth.
“Bodies & Spirit” by Will Hagle
“Sometimes when I close my eyes and it’s there, my heart and lungs both stop working. Like I die a little more death every night.” A short story wherein fear-induced insomnia forces one to consider their relationship with death…
An angel, or God, or something, hovered over me. Over our actual bed. And I was about to die.”
This is what I tell Henrietta when she asks if I remember what happened last night.
“Well you woke up screaming again and then you grabbed me.”
That wasn’t a grab, I think, but a gentle touch. The ghost, or spirit, was going to grab me. And not gently.