We Carry Smoke and Paper

by Melody S. Gee

A week after my oldest daughter was born, I asked my mom if she wanted to come out for the baby’s one-month celebration. Having only heard about this ceremony, since I neither had one myself nor ever attended one, I asked her, “You know that red egg party for babies? Do you want to do that?” My mom agreed and she and my dad traveled from LA to St. Louis.

My daughter was one month and three days old. She was covered in baby acne, still learning to nurse, and sleeping in forty-five-minute stretches. My mom arrived at my home armed with a printout of a website’s directions on how to conduct a Chinese red egg ceremony. It was written in English. I wondered if she had called her sister, Auntie May, who was eighteen years older and grandmother of twelve. Auntie May was who we called for traditional recipes or instructions on how to set out ancestor offerings correctly on our mantle, who loaded our car with fuzzy melons only she could grow to taste like their childhood.(More …)

Aren’t There Any Beautiful Things in Your Own Country?

by Melissa Matthewson

after Susan Sontag

In which she answered (1977): “Yes. No. Fewer.” [note]Susan Sontag, from “Unguided Tour”[/note]
In which I answer (2018): “Yes. No. Also, fewer.”

I want to think there are/were beautiful things in the country I grew up: in the chaparral hills of California, at the border of two countries, where a line on the map draws a curtain between the US and Mexico.
If you go, you should take foot if you can, though horses could be adventurous, cars more likely.
Is it still there?
But not for long.
When you arrive, take off into the hills with heart and fortitude.
Were you happy there?
I lived for the auburn-haired boys who played baseball and came from the east, and the mountains. Nature as it was then. (More …)


by Rochelle Smith

John Coltrane is my father. The jazz saxophonist, yes, who many say was the greatest musician of the twentieth century. I’ve known this all my life. Or that’s not true, not all my life, really only since I first heard his music, which was in college. Before that, I’d always wondered who my father was. My first boyfriend, Brian, used to sneak recording equipment into the library in his messenger bag and bootleg jazz albums onto cassettes. He would play them for me later, and that’s where I heard them all: Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk and Lester Young and Charles Mingus and Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon and Coleman Hawkins and Max Roach. (Why do jazz musicians have such interstellar names? Who else that you know has had the last name Mingus? The first name Thelonious?  The middle name Sphere?  Uncle Ornette, Uncle Thelonious, that nice Mr. Strayhorn who drives the school bus.)  And my father. My mother was the last woman he made love to before he died in the summer of 1967. He was her first, her only for years to come. Let me tell you about him. He was born in a crook of the southern end of North Carolina, in a town called Hamlet. He was raised Methodist. He loved to roller skate as a boy. He joined the Navy at the age of nineteen and became a sailor. He had three other children, all boys: John, Ravi, and Oran. (More …)

Notes on a Day Job, or, How to Be an Adjunct Professor

by Sayantani Dasgupta

1. When I was eighteen, the most boring professor in the world taught me American history. She was a scholar, yes, laden with more degrees than the earth has tectonic plates, but an inspiring teacher, that she was not. At the designated hour every day, she entered our classroom, sheathed in yet another handwoven sari, in colors as vibrant as fire and cinnamon. She glanced around the room giving us all the benefit of her gaze, and I suspect, the time to admire her exquisite taste in wardrobe and hand-forged silver jewelry. She set down her purse, seated herself and took attendance. And then she opened her notebook and began to read. For fifty minutes, thrice a week, our classroom saturated with the sing-song quality of her voice, interspersed with the furious scratching from pens that truly cared and those that only pretended. Our hands got a reprieve when one of the front benchers asked her a question. But the moment she delivered the answer, she returned to her notebook—drawn by some umbilical attachment that only she understood—and the space between our ears plugged up again with the droning static of her voice. I glanced at my watch, at the clock above her head, at the pages of my own notebook, where lived the newest doodle of her face with a foghorn for a mouth. The window next to my seat shimmered the pristine lawn outside and whispered enticing words such as “freedom” and “independence,” and I vowed, for the millionth time, to never become a college professor.(More …)

Last Time in Bangkok

by Grace Loh Prasad

The immediate family members were invited into the small, doorless room, covered floor-to-ceiling in bright blue tiles. The only decoration was a high, small alcove displaying a crucifix and a simple bouquet. This was not how I expected to see my brother, lying on a platform covered up to his chest in a white sheet, wearing a dark blue suit. His arms were straight by his side and his hands looked dark and unnaturally big. Makeup disguised his yellowed skin, and he was clean-shaven. He was still wearing his glasses, and his eyes were shut in peaceful repose. His face had been gaunt in the photos my uncle took in the hospital the previous week, and my husband had commented on how handsome Ted looked with more chiseled features. But today his cheeks were plumped up again, and I wondered if that was the embalmer’s craft, trying to make the deceased look as much as possible like his portrait, like the stocky, muscular man everyone remembered.

(More …)

Gary, Still

by Peg Daniels

Friday, 2 p.m.

“His spinal cord’s severed,” the voice on the phone says. “They helicoptered him to Emergency in Birmingham.”

My legs crumple, and I land on my butt. I’m in Panera Bread, behind the order counter, on their phone. Moments ago, I joined my writing group for our weekly meeting, and Jamie handed me a phone number. The hospital called the restaurant, seeking me. Gary’s been in a car accident, Jamie said. She and the two other members of my group sit in a booth ten feet away, oblivious to the words I’m hearing. (More …)

Excerpt from Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History

by Camille Dungy

In Anchorage, the director of 49 Writers lent me a hat she’d gotten in Nome. It would keep me warm as I traveled farther north. Sealskin on the outside plus a beaver-pelt lining meant hardly any cold got in. Ropes of stiff yarn ending in fur pom-poms brought the earflaps nearly to my chin. When we finally do get to the AC, an Iñupiaq woman selling colorful handmade parkas (at six hundred dollars, I won’t buy one, though I will be sorely tempted) will ask to look at the hat. Upon inspecting its craftsmanship, she will compliment the maker. I won’t admit it is just mine on loan. I like the idea of someone thinking such a fine, warm hat belongs to me. Wearing the right hat for Barrow helps me feel less out of place. (More …)

Channeling Scarlett O’Hara

by Lucille Sutton

I follow my fifth-grade classmates, single file, down several flights of narrow, wooden stairs into a dimly lit room, yellowed with age. As we crowd together, waiting for our eyes to adjust, no one speaks, but everyone is searching. And then we see it: On a small table, beneath thick protective glass, lies Jefferson Davis’ death mask.

Our teacher, Mrs. Griswold, tells us in hurried whispers to, “Line up. Pay your respects.” We take our time, merging together, until we are single file, our eyes focused on the mask. The weighted heaviness of his features is horrifying and fascinating: The large peanut-shaped nostrils and high bridge of his nose, the hollow cheeks, and long thin lips turned down at the corners. Pennies cover the eyeholes. I stare and stare at this mask until the features blur. And then right before my eyes, the beloved Confederate President transforms into the Union President. It is an optical illusion, created by the pennies. The mask now belongs to Abraham Lincoln: same nose, same cheeks, same mouth. Completely different person. It is Lincoln’s final victory over Davis. Now you see him, now you don’t.(More …)


by Lisa Knopp

On the edge of a flowerbed in the University of Nebraska’s Yeutter Garden, a man in a chartreuse vest studies a map, flips through a three-ring binder containing photographs of plants, glances at the map again. Then he pulls from a rack what looks like a weirdly proportioned golf club or dental mirror. He drives the sharp end of the club into the ground on the outer edge of a clump of cranberry-pink blooms past their prime. When he steps back, I see that the plaque atop the stake bears names: “Heartleaf-Bergenia/Bergenia cordifolia.” I consider these words. Because the edges of the large, leathery leaves are rolled in, I can’t see if they’re heart-shaped. Bergenia. Probably the name of a botanist who studied this plant. Is that with a hard or soft g? If it’s the former, I’ll see reddish stems as assertively lifting the wilted blossoms above the leaves. But if it’s the latter, I’ll see the stems as gently supporting the blossoms. If I hadn’t known the name of this plant, I might have just glanced at the flowers and moved on, without noticing the leaves or stalks, without searching for the right name for the color of the petals, without considering the connections between the name and the named. (More …)

Comings and Goings

by Donna Miscolta

I. The Church

Uncle Dondey has died. For real this time.

We had grieved in advance of his passing thanks to my highly excitable aunt, or rather, one of my highly excitable aunts (a certain level of hysteria thrums in the veins of this generation of women in our family). My aunts, Magdalena and Rosalva, and my mother Dolores are three of Dondey’s five sisters. They live within shrieking distance of each other—two and a half miles at the most—though they do use the telephone to share and sigh over life’s latest woes and to leap frantically to conclusions.

When Dondey, suffering from emphysema and a medley of collateral ailments, asked for a priest, Magdalena assumed the worst and soon the family, spread across dozens of area codes and multiple time zones, wept at the dreaded news. It turned out though that it was confession he wanted—only that. Not last rites. Not yet.

But here we are a month later. We’ve come from the Florida panhandle, the Gulf coast of Texas, the Arizona desert and from up and down the West Coast from Orange County to grey Seattle. We’re gathered in front of the little white church just off Cesar Chavez Parkway in the Barrio Logan district of San Diego. Our Lady of Guadalupe Church sits below Interstate 5, which bisected the barrio when its cement pylons were erected in the early sixties. Later the community would rise up and claim a disputed piece of real estate beneath the freeway, planting grass and painting murals and calling it Chicano Park, though a Yahoo map still labels it Bay Bridge Park. It’s from this park that another series of pylons rise west across the water to the luxury condos of Coronado.

Here at Our Lady of Guadalupe, all but one of the regularly scheduled masses is given in Spanish. Today, our mass will be in English, because the Spanish in our family has dwindled to only the most basic and essential words, the most common, the stereotypical. We know food words and exclamatory words, we know name-calling and nasty anatomical words, we know words of greeting and goodbye.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is the church where my uncle was baptized, where he made his First Communion, and where he is welcomed back after all these years. In our large and far-flung family, there are among us lapsed Catholics, faux Catholics, part-time Catholics, half-hearted Catholics, hypocritical Catholics, hopelessly strayed-and-never-to-return Catholics (me) and unwilling Catholics (my daughters who were surreptitiously flicked with holy water in a do-it-yourself baptism by my mother). My uncle was a come-as-you-are Catholic, showing up for God even when the gleam in his eye or the grin pulling at his mouth suggested his mind might be elsewhere.

The April morning is sunny but brisk, and we’re almost cozy in our black clothes.

Dondey’s son, John, stands with the other pallbearers, their gloved white hands like those of mimes or magicians, but without the nimble gestures or amazing quicker-than-the eye tricks. Guests greet Barbara, Dondey’s partner of the last twenty years, and then make their way into the church. But we, the rest of the family—Dondey’s sisters, nieces, nephews, great nieces, great nephews—remain outside.

The funeral director is trying to organize us, to shepherd us into the church, but we are an unwieldy bunch that can’t be sorted out or winnowed down.

“Who’s the immediate family?” he asks.

“All of us,” someone says.

He looks at us, a minor mob, and shrugs. “Follow behind the casket,” he tells us. As if we would do otherwise.

Inside, every pew is filled. There are no hymns, just an organ playing church music as we deliver Uncle Dondey to the altar.

II. The Cemetery

At La Vista Cemetery, the sun is almost directly above us, pushing down on our shoulders, burning through the black of our clothes. Along one side of the knobby hill an honor guard stands at ease—quite at ease. They’re a ragged bunch with scraggly beards and graying ponytails under red berets, no crispness to their posture. Aging vatos in fatigues.

I hear my sister say, “Hey, I saw those viejos at another funeral.”

The vatos raise their rifles and blast out three rounds and the hollow plunk of shell casings on the hard grass is somehow more stirring than the crack of the gunfire.

Music plays from a boom box—Mexican love songs, Sin Ti and Voy a Apagar La Luz and then it switches to Suavecito. Who could forget that song? The soothing, yearning vocals, the whispery percussion, the easy la la lyrics. It was all so suavecito.

When the song came out in 1972, Dondey was tending bar at Big Al’s, his muscles flexing as he splashed tequila into shot glasses. He was a partier, a smooth dancer, a womanizer. He called women babes and chicks and made my feminist ears burn. He hunted deer and elk with special dispensation on the nearby res. He hooked large-mouth bass from a rusty boat on the Lower Otay. And Dondey cooked—simmered big pots of menudo, sizzled to perfect doneness carne asada, set albóndigas to bubble in homemade salsa. He cooked nearly to the end, coughing, absent his dentures, leaning on his aluminum walker and ever mindful of the handwritten note that Barbara taped above the stove: “Dondey, Do Not Cook Wearing Your Oxygen!”

When the last la la’s of the song fade, people start to leave. Rosalva, my eighty-six-year-old aunt wobbles across the grass on heels, a niece or nephew always within range should she topple in any direction. Later in the car, she complains about the uneven ground at cemeteries, the perils it poses to innocent mourners. “I was walking just like …” she pauses, searching for a proper analogy. “I was walking just like a little old lady,” she says.

I pat her knee. I watch her change out of her heels into soft black moccasins. The flesh on her tiny bird legs is crinkly as tissue paper and I wonder if there will be a sound if I touch her skin.

III. The VFW Hall

At the VFW Hall, we sit down to frijoles, arroz, chilequiles, chile verde, pollo asado (all the foods within our vocabulary), a gooey fruit salad, and a table full of sweets, including the donuts my uncle loved from the hole-in-the-wall shop on Euclid Avenue—a corner spattered with pigeon poop and pock-marked by bullets.

We eat until the food is gone, our black clothes suddenly tight. We talk until the lone mariachi croons the last of his songs, none of which was heard above our table chatter, some of it about Dondey, but the rest of it about ourselves, our hectic lives, our complaints and disorders, of impending hip replacements, cures for irregularity, prescriptions for insomnia. We’re exhausted and we push back our chairs.

My cousin John is silhouetted against the west-facing door, his black shirt, black pants, black jacket absorbing the mid-afternoon sun. He looks like the Mexican Mafia. “You look good,” I tell him. I mean it. He’s a bad-ass Chicano Blues Brother. He wears an Apolo Ohno soul patch on his chin. His waist-length hair is frayed at the ends. He could use a trim, a little conditioner. But no, that would ruin the effect.

We line up to have our picture taken with him before we exit. Some have to be on the road to L.A. or the Bay Area. Others will fly to destinations farther north or eastward. One cousin will stay an extra day and install a new shower fixture for my Aunt Rosalva. She wants the kind with pulsating pressure.

My aunts and my mother need to be driven home for naps. The VFW hall is nearly empty, but still we linger a bit, look around, afraid we have forgotten something. Then finally, slowly, we scatter.


by Lois Ruskai Melina

To find a star garnet:

First, drive to the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. Alternatively, go to India.

You will need to bring a shovel, a bucket, heavy plastic bags, and an eighteen-inch square made of two-by-fours with a quarter-inch screen stretched over one open side.

Take a child, too. A ten-year-old is best. A seven-year-old may get bored and start throwing rocks. (More …)

The Road to Nowhere

by W. Scott Olsen


Today, I am not in a hurry.

There is no race.  No deadline.  No urgent press that compels me forward.  No one is waiting.  No one depends upon news I might bring.

There is just this road in front of me.  Two lanes, one leading north and one leading south.  They head down a prairie hill and then over a rise.  Fields on both sides.  There are clouds on the horizon, but here, at the intersection of I-94 and US Highway 83 in eastern North Dakota, at the Cenex gas station where I’ve stopped to buy gas and coffee, the morning is bright and warm. (More …)


by Mary Quade

Loja, Ecuador

The chickens hang in a row, a hook through each left leg, some legs with scaly yellow feet still attached, some ending at the drumstick. Some of the attached feet are only semi-attached, cut through the joint so that they dangle, fatty soles waving. Some chickens, split open along the belly, expose the ovaries’ bright sacs of yolks, the nascent eggs inside the birds waiting for whites and shells. Others remain mostly whole, bumpy skin buttery; fatty tails over cave-like holes leading to hollow bellies. Beneath these curtains of chickens, white tile counters covered in steel trays with more chickens and parts of chickens. Behind the chickens, women in aprons, selling chickens, their booths festooned with fuzzy green garland lingering from Christmas. One woman points to the orange cluster of yolks, tells me, “Pollo bonito. Con huevos.” I understand this. I can say “pollo.” But I can’t say much else. The words, las palabras, nestled and slippery in my brain.(More …)

Pull and Drag

by Artress Bethany White

 “I have to confess that my own aquatic skills came about through a mix of parental responsibility and federal desegregation.”

I rarely see any African Americans swimming in my gym pool in Knoxville, Tennessee. I always imagine that other members of the gym are amazed to see me doing laps. Most of them probably believe that black people can’t swim and I’m just a cultural anomaly. I say this because just recently I caught another article in the news about the high number of African Americans who acknowledge not being able to swim—a number much higher than other racial groups on national average. My gut twisted when I read it in that way that most people experience when they realize they have risen above a statistic but know that this does not make the statistic incorrect. I have to confess that my own aquatic skills came about through a mix of parental responsibility and federal desegregation.(More …)


by Karen Babine

The secret to chicken soup is to start with a chicken—a whole one, three to four pounds. Chicken soup is a pot of deliberate attention, a thing that contains everything that you and the chicken have to give, so if you have a heavy Dutch oven, maybe a vintage Le Creuset you found at the thrift store that is the color of faded sunshine and that you have named Estelle for no good reason other than the pot needed a name, use it.(More …)

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Interrupted

by Karen Houppert

Sometimes the rending apart of parent and child is abrupt, sometimes gradual.

Always, it is painful.

In my family, it happens with dogged, painful insistence at age thirteen. Thirteen is the beginning of the end. It was the last year I spent with my father. It is the age my son is now.

What is it about thirteen, I wonder. I study him. (More …)

Soul Singing

by Robert Wrigley

In the autumn of 1973, I had a stack of poetry books checked out from the library at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where I would complete a BA in English the following summer. The stack of books (all of them those familiar slender volumes) was about seven times the height of the meager pile of poetry books I actually owned. This pained me. I was enamored, enraptured, and swept away by poetry. (More …)

Collide with Me

by Jen Hirt

Since moving to a city, I have had a thing for the full moon. How it waits behind buildings like a spy. I learn the espionage of streetlights, headlights, the tease of stark beacons on planes. I mess with my camera and patrol the dark like a captain of capturing what’s splendid. Full moon photos from the high rise. From beneath the bike path’s leafy oaks. Caught between phone lines. (More …)


by Brently Johnson

Just outside the dwarfed door to the racquetball court he asks me, “Do you have protective eye gear?”

Adam, chesty and Bavarian in build, a colleague at the small university where we both teach, keeps his hair buzzed short and clean, and is in top physical shape. He sets down his bag designed specifically for the game: (More …)