Bold

By Alison Morse

When I was a baby, peering through the plastic mesh of my playpen, I wanted to be daring, to race around the world as fast as Mighty Mouse. But walking was too scary. That split second when neither foot completely met the ground was too much for me to bear.

Then I turned three and finally learned to waddle around my neighborhood in Queens, New York. But in reoccurring dreams, I flew over the Brooklyn-Queens expressway, and solved murder mysteries involving the Flintstones and bloody zombies.

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Young Alison Dreamt of Solving Mysteries

One afternoon in first grade, soft-as-a-toy-bear Miss O’Hara stood in front of our classroom and mutated into a growling grizzly. “I will not have you doodling and fidgeting in class, talking out of turn, or going to the bathroom in your pants,” she shouted. Then she pointed to the corner by the blackboard. “Stand up there, and don’t move until I say so.”

Sweating and trembling, I walked toward the corner.

“What are you doing?” asked Henry Pita, trailing behind me.

“Alison Morse, please sit down,” ordered Miss O’Hara, her powdered face scrunched up like a dried apple. “I was talking to Henry.”

I was relieved and sorry not be the class delinquent. But I had made Miss O’Hara angry. How could I make it up to her?

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Patch of Crocuses

On the way home from school I passed yard after tiny yard of early spring flowers. The prettiest ones, a patch of gold-as-Twinkies crocuses, belonged to neighbors I didn’t know.  The next morning, I dug about a dozen out of the ground with my bare hands, bulbs and all, and brought them to Miss O’Hara. A gift.

She barely smiled. “Thank you, honey. But you really shouldn’t dig up the bulbs attached to your flowers. Now they won’t grow back.”

I had stolen and killed the neighbor’s crocuses. I was an idiot. But the hot-eared-heart-thumping-tickle-of-shame was kind of fun. I had been daring.

Over the years, I tried to improve my skills as a thief, stealing bubble gum, Snickers bars, and bags of Doritos from the local candy store. I even kept a box of Girl Scout Thin Mints instead of delivering it to a neighbor. But compared to the female Robin Hoods and super-powered goddesses that I drew all over my notebooks at school, I failed to be much of an adventurer.

My dad, a graphic designer, took me to Manhattan museums every Saturday, an event that began to make me antsy after I turned thirteen. During a Saturday visit to a Picasso show at the Museum of Modern Art, we had our usual Picasso discussion: which paintings were classically cubist; which were influenced by Matisse; and why some paintings were more “successful” than others. Afterwards, we ate our ritual sandwiches at the museum cafeteria. I wondered how to make the experience more of a surprise.

The water at our table came in a minimalist, mid-century-modern glass carafe. When my dad went to the bathroom, I poured the last of the water out of it, dried it with a napkin, and stuffed it the pocket of my down jacket. Surprise bubbled through me. I was about to get away with something big.

We passed the guards. They didn’t look up. We walked out of the museum’s revolving doors. ImageNo alarms. I followed my dad into the subway, amazed at my success.

Inside the F train, I took out the carafe to show my dad.

“What’s that?”

“Don’t you remember?” I told him.

“It’s a little small for a carafe. Maybe we can use it for a bud vase.”

He was obviously not impressed. What would I have to do, steal Meret Oppenheim’s fur cup from the permanent collection, or take Picasso’s “Young Ladies of Avignon” off the wall?  To steal a work of art, I would need much better technical skills—and a driver’s license.

While I brooded, my dad fell asleep. His snore was as loud as the subway’s rattle, as loud as his shouting voice—a voice he used during one of our first visits to the Museum of Modern Art. I was four, and fascinated by some bronze people with skinny, melting bodies, made by an artist named Giacometti. They were the Walking Dead; art zombies both bumpy and smooth when I touched their stomachs.

A loud alarm went off and two museum guards ran up to me, yelling. My father yelled at me too, almost as loudly as the alarm. The guards threw us out.

As the train chugged home to Queens, I pondered the logic behind Giacometti and the carafe. Was petty theft not as daring as touching sculpture? Did breaking rules count more when you didn’t know you were breaking them? Whatever the logic was, I was pretty sure that daring had something to do with art, and maybe theft too.

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Alison Morse‘s poetry and prose have been published in Natural Bridge,Water~StoneRhinoOpium Magazine, The Potomac, and a bunch of other journals. She won the 2012 Tiferet Fiction Prize. For twenty years she animated everything from cigarettes and glass shards to Barbie doing aerobics on the beach in Cancun. Now she teaches and runs TalkingImageConnection, an organization that brings together writers, contemporary visual artists and new audiences.

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Assault on Fort Stupid

By Paul D. Dickinson

Many of the things in my life that  have turned out to be stupid– started out as being cool– in fact there is a fine line between what is cool and what is stupid. My entire life is full of stupid moves– I call it a well rounded education.

  Hey! This could be a fort!
Hey! This could be a fort!

When  I was about 15, me and my friends built a fort,  And like a good skateboarding ramp, all forts need to be made out of lumber stolen from a construction site. When you are 15 you will run down a busy street with a huge sheet of plywood. We felt protected by some sort of Amnesty– we were building a fort, after all.   We built   said structure on a vacant ravine in the middle of inner city St. Paul. This wasn’t that long ago, really, but it was indeed before they attempted to put condos   on every inch of God’s green earth. So there were vacant lots and ravines that, like the plywood, we considered our  birthright. So we built this fort right into the side of a  hill– it was part  Hobbit home and part machine gun nest. It was cool. We need a place to stash all Playboys we found with the  covers removed in the  7-11 dumpster on Grand Ave,  as well as other precious treasures of   teenage boys including knives and cigarettes.

The thing about building a fort, and this explains why people jump Snake River Canyon with a Motorcycle or climb Mount Everest- once the fort is done, you  have to do something else. So we got some rope, the same way we got the plywood, and built a system  of commando style links between a few trees- we would shimmy like Rambo between the trees – that was cool. Then we started firing model rockets with the nose cones glued on– out of the ravine, down into the houses and traffic below. To protect ourselves from retaliation,  we built Burmese style tiger traps in the side of the hill- so anyone unfamiliar with our elaborate secret path ,  running up the hill to get us might fall in one of these pits- that was cool.

   All these rockets should've been enough.
All these rockets should’ve been enough.

But it was stupid when Bobby O’ Niell  brought his mom’s 45 Automatic down to the fort. Now, at first it was cool , because nothing is cooler than a gun. But the jackass had some blanks in the gun-which really  made no sense, his mom was a real estate agent, not an actress in action films!  Well,  he starts shooting it off- and it was as loud as hell!!  We began to argue. Bobby  just kept firing the damn thing. It seemed like a good time to leave either by foot, or elaborate commando rope network. But I didn’t, because I was stupid.

All the Kung Fu movies I had been watching did not prepare me for happened next–an overweight but intrepid St. Paul Cop, gun drawn, had run up the hill, somehow dodged all of our death traps- and before I knew it, I was lying in the dirt, face down  and handcuffed- not cool. I got lucky–  Since Bobby was older and had the gun, they brought  him to jail– but this cop actually brought me home- where a fate worse than jail awaited me from my parents. But they were not there- It was my lovely Grandma that lived with us– She really sweet talked the cop, made all sorts of promises.  When the  Cop left- she looked at me, with  the most severe look I’ve ever seen on a human being and said “No more Fort”. Cool.

    Sunny day in Fort Stupid.
Sunny day in Fort Stupid.

Paul D. Dickinson is a Minnesota poet with many books, a film about him, and he is the co-host of the famous Riot Act Reading Series, which is generally run out of the Turf. He also fronts the band Frances Gumm.

Eyes Wide Shut

By Evan Kingston

When I was a four, I was fairly certain I slept with my eyes open.

After my mom tucked me in, turned out the lamp, and switched on the nightlight, I’d stare at the ceiling and imagine adventures until the warm shadows up there turned to dreams.  The next day, I never remembered closing my eyes during the transition, nor did I register opening them to the sunlight on my way back to waking life; it seemed to me that whatever I’d dreamed during the night had played across my open eyes like the sort of vision that strikes a prophet blind to the lies of this world.

My Eyes, Oh Yes, They Are Open.

My Eyes, Oh Yes, They Are Open.

Even though most of my visions weren’t about much more than doing coloring books with cavemen, I bragged about how I slept to friends and family.  I think I must have felt it made me seem more mature, as my urge to keep my eyes open as long as possible stemmed from a desire for later bed times.

But more than anything, I think it made me feel unique.  “I know how most people sleep,” I assured my mom when she got tired of humoring my claims.  “I’ve seen you fall asleep on the couch before.  But I’m different; I dream a special way.”

When she finally threatened she was going to come in my room before her bedtime to get a polaroid of me in the act, I almost backed down.  I think part of me was already starting to realize I wasn’t special at all—except for in that same, boring way that every kid in my kindergarten class was special.  But another part of me, the part of me that dreamed with his eyes open, was sure that I had powers like no one else.

In can’t recall exactly what I said to her, but I must not have conceded, because I very clearly remember being confronted over my bowl of C3PO’s the next morning with a snapshot of myself sleeping, eyes shut tight while drool dripped from my open mouth.

       The truth is in your face.

The truth is in your face.

But that and the various corrections that came after—like when I quit drawing comics in the sixth grade because someone told me I “couldn’t draw”—don’t intrigue me as much as all the times since that I’ve listened to that voice inside of me.   Why do I still believe it after it’s been proven wrong so many times?

Even now, it’s part of what gets me writing a new story when the last one failed to change the world and there are more practical matters to worry about: part of me still knows, despite so much evidence to the contrary, that I am the only one who can dream like this.

IWSek3

This is happening, okay?

For example, as I write this, I know there’s no way I would have talked to my mom this way, but I can’t help imagining 5-year old me challenging her as she turned out the light, “Take a picture of me?  Sure. Whatever.  Just make sure the flash doesn’t interrupt my dreams.”

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Evan Kingston is at work on his second novel. He is the fiction editor at Red Bird Chapbooks and publishes The Oldest Jokes in the World blog.

If only the Stupid weren’t me…

By Gae Polisner

I’m really a good girl and always have been. My teenaged days of naughty behavior and experimentation were limited in scope, and mostly saved till I left my parents’ home and ventured off to college in Boston.

But there was that one time. . .

Let me just start out by saying, I hate smoking. Hate with a capital H-A-T-E, hate!!! Like that, all separated by hyphens and/or followed by too many exclamation marks.

Smoking is stupid and horrible and will kill you, not to mention make your breath stink. Ew.

So, I’d like to tell you that I never held a cigarette in my hands. Ever.

Never, ever, ever in my life.

In fact, I’m ashamed of this story and it’s all Herbach’s fault that I’m telling you.

So, here’s what happened.

It is 1980.

IWSgae1

and, yes, that is me, circa 1980 on my Uncle’s Porche.

My friend Susan and I are at the movies, my parents having dropped us off on their way out to some plans of their own for the evening, and Susan’s parents being on pick up duty.

My parents are in a rush to get where they’re going, so we’re early, and hanging around until it’s finally time to get our popcorn and take our seats.

The lights go out and the movie starts. Oh yes, I remember completely: The Blues Brothers.

IWSgae2Classic Aykroyd and Belushi.

Susan lights up and (I’m sorry. Now, oh man, how I am so sorry!) passes it to me.

Then she lights up her own.

And, yes, call it gross AND crazy, these were the days of that you could still smoke in the theater!

I take a nice long drag, and another. It feels cool and hip and rebellious. We are two teen sophisticates out on the town, in the private, dark suave of the movies.

Another drag. We are independent.

And, another. We are grown-ups.

And, another.

IWSgae3We. Are. Cool.

There’s a tap on my shoulder.

A friend? A guy I’ve been crushing on?

I turn around.

My mother is standing there, glaring.

Now mind you – and yes, this may be an aside and a total attempt to pass the buck and take the onus off of me – but it’s my mother’s fault I am smoking. When I was little, she smoked and we and my father, a physician, had to work hard and tirelessly to get her to quit. Of course, this was back in the Mad Men days, before they knew the horrors, when it was still de rigueur. Still my sister and I threw endless, academy-award caliber temper tantrums, risked my mother’s constant wrath as we flushed fistfuls of her smokes down the toilet. Eventually, she capitulated. Sure, she’d still sneak one now and again, but we knew in our house it was wrong and bad, and worse that my father would kill me if he knew.

So, back to that cool, hip moment in the theatre, my mother standing there, glaring at me.

I looked up at her, fear in my eyes.

I looked at the cigarette in my hand.

I looked back at her, then back at the cigarette in my hand.

And here is what I said.

“It’s not mine. I’m holding it for Susan.”

Now, I must preface this by telling you that I was an honors student, a Regents scholar, and, I swear, not dumb. And yet, those were the words I came up with: “It’s not mine. I’m holding it for Susan.”

Genius.

My mother’s eyes went from my hand, to Susan’s hand which, yes, still held its own cigarette.

“She smokes two at once?” my mother asked.

Sheer genius, I tell you. Sheer genius.

Suffice it to say, I refused to backpedal or come clean. I stood my ground. I never went back on that STUPID story. Not to this day.

In fact, I’m still standing by it now.

If you’re reading, Mom, it wasn’t mine. I swear.

It was Susan’s.

And, Susan was clearly with Stupid that day.

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Gae Polisner is the author of The Pull of Gravity (fsg, now out in paperback from Square Fish!) and The Summer of Letting Go, spring 2014, Algonquin Young Readers. When she’s not writing, she’s a practicing attorney/divorce mediator, and when she’s not doing that or watching her two awesome boys do their stuff, she can be found in water — the pool off-season, or the open waters of the Long Island Sound spring through fall. Last summer she swam her first five-mile swim and is still waiting for her wetsuit to turn her into a superhero.

King Lab

By Jill Bernard

Most of my youth I went to Oakton Elementary School, a regular little school in Evanston IL.  My mom had put me on the list to get into Martin Luther King Jr Laboratory School.  My mother will be very saddened by this story, because she really did try to do the best thing for me.  You are for sure supposed to send your kid to the amazing creative magnet school.  I finally got in for fourth grade, which turns out to be four years too late if you want to have a place with your peers.  They were as clique as can be.  It seemed like everyone was either really smart or really rich and I was neither.  I was spacey with braces.  I wore hand-me-down Wranglers and plaid shirts from my brothers or homemade dresses, both of which were equally unacceptable.  One day a little boy named Phillip said, “I have 47 Polo shirts, how many do you have?”  And I said, “Um, I have one JC Penney Fox.”  Not the same thing, you guys.   There was already a Jill, there had been since kindergarten.  I was “no, the other Jill” on the off-chance someone needed to refer to me.

Wranglers.

Wranglers.

You know when you take a Standardized Test?  Martin Luther Jr King Laboratory School students are some of the kids on which the test is standardized.  We took so many tests, the Iowa Basic, the California Basic, all kinds of Basics.  I didn’t really mind that part.  They let me go to some kind of art class because they had a vague sense that I was gifted.  That was pretty okay.  The math classes were the worst part of my day.  There was a thing where you had to pass a timed math test.  It was two sides of a page of math problems that you had to complete in five minutes to move on to the next level.  The first test was all addition, the second multiplication; I assume there were more past that, division probably.  Most kids could knock it out in a few tries.  I don’t really work well when there’s a time crunch.  It only paralyzed me. It took me all of fourth grade to do the addition one, that’s all of fourth grade sitting by myself in a hallway trying to do a timed math test.  Then it took me all of fifth grade to do the multiplication one.  It was the last chance, the last week, and I almost got it.  I almost finished the test.  But I didn’t, and I burst into tears in the hallway outside the Maserati room.  (Did I mention that we were grouped into sections that each had the name of a car?  Yeah, I don’t really know why. I never felt like a Maserati.  They didn’t have a Pinto room, or a Festiva room, but whatever.)

No Pinto

No Pinto

For a minute, I almost had a group of friends.  There were girls who got together at lunchtime to braid hair.  It was great, you didn’t have to go outside and endure playground misery, you could just sit and braid hair and talk about stuff at a big round table in the Maserati room.  The braiding club was a little salvation.  But then one day in the hallway, one of my braiding club friends said, “You’re a racist.”  I said, “What?” or something equally intelligent.  “You’re a racist, we don’t like you anymore.”  After that day I was not welcome in the braiding club, and it was back to the playground.

I don’t remember what I had said or done to piss the girl off.  I didn’t at the time grasp the nature of my offense.  I don’t even remember her name, or the name of anyone at Martin Jr Luther King Laboratory School except Phillip the snotty kid and the primary Jill.  But that is how I learned about racism.  Suddenly the colors of everyone’s skin drew my attention. At that moment I was able to look back and realize my third grade teacher at Oakton Elementary, the wonderful and kindly Mrs. Hill, was black.  So was the Santa Claus at Oakton – Mr. Edwards, the janitor in a jolly suit and beard. My birthday buddy, Marshall, from Kindergarten with Mrs. Whale, was black.  I hadn’t ever thought about it before. I was too dunderheaded to know that was a thing.  Back at Oakton I once lost my shoelaces from the shoes I was wearing, I was an unlikely candidate to notice anything so nuanced as racial relations.  Please don’t think I am accusing the braiding club of reverse racism.  My whiteness was an excuse.  I’m quite sure they excluded me because I was an enormous dork.

My favorite part about Jr Martin Luther King Laboratory School was the assemblies, because we got to sing.  There was a great Stevie Wonder song we got to sing for MLK’s birthday, but the best song of all was:

Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on till victory is won.

That’s how I felt, sitting in the hallway staring at a math quiz, and on the bus the day I wasn’t in the braiding club anymore.  I marched on.  I marched on, although victory was never quite won.

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Jill Bernard has been performing with ComedySportz-Twin Cities since 1993. Her one-woman improv piece, Drum Machine, has been featured at Improv-A-Go-Go, the Chicago Improv Festival, the Toronto Improv Jamboree, the Miami Improv Festival, Philadelphia ‘s Female Funny Fest, and the ComedySportz National Tournament. She is the receipient of the 2005 Chicago Improv Festival Avery Schrieber Ambassador of Improv Award.

Shorn Free

By Arlaina Tibensky

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Tibensky: Had to do something

I was a fourteen-year-old freshman. My parents were about to get divorced and my dad just moved out of the house. It was a bad time, no one was paying attention to me. I had to do: something.

I wore a cheap leather motorcycle jacket onto which my artist uncle had painted a giant white skull with side flourishes of red and blue roses. This was not enough.

I wrote Sylvia Plath poetry on white tights with a black Sharpie “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” and wore them to school under my uniform skirt. This was not enough.

I was heavily and exclusively making out with the closest thing my suburban Chicago Catholic Co-Ed College Prep high school had to Sid Vicious. This was not enough.

I listened to the Dead Kennedys, KMFDM, the Cure, The Violent Femmes, and Soft Cell non-stop. This helped, but still, it was not enough.

All the while, I insisted I was the opposite of cliché. I was original, angry, too intense for this beige world. I wore safety pins in my ears and dog collars around my neck. I dyed my hair black and was on the honor roll. No one in the history of teenagerdom had ever had such ridiculous parents as mine. I was a one-of-a-kind rebel and no one had ever been fourteen like this before. No one knew how I felt, but no one was asking.

Besides, my boyfriend was going to fall crazy in love with not only the depths of me but also my outlandish and up-yours behavior. I was his Nancy Spungen. I thought about it. I chose a day to do it. It was only hair. And I knew better than to shave it  all  off.  I was no Sinead O’Connor.

But what was I really? I felt like a smear of a girl, like nothing defined me. I floated from my divorcing parents house to high school and back again in a depressed haze. I wondered what love meant and forever and family and what was the stupid point if we were all going to die an anonymous nothing anyway?

I rode my bike through miles of forest preserves to my sullen boyfriend’s house where we’d make out in his attic bedroom until our mouths were so raw they burned if we ate potato chips. We drank his mother’s lemon Crystal Light and watched his treasured VHS of Gary Oldham’s Sid and Nancy over and over again until he told me I had to go, because I was annoying him. I rode home through the woods in the dark, thinking of ways to make myself feel better, different, stronger. Like someone else.

I don’t remember where I got them exactly, but the clippers were electric and heavy like something that belonged on a 1950s Cadillac. After school on a weekday, no one was home, just the ghost of my parents’ marriage slipping around the corners and my constant shadow of white-hot ennui.

I started at the nape, pulling the machine down in small nibbling swipes. An inch more. An inch more. It felt so good it was hard to stop. Where there was once hair there was now none. The scalp beneath was brand new, pale and soft as baby skin. As I lifted the black hanks with one hand and shaved with the other, I thought of Siouxie Sioux, Robert Smith, Joy Division. Rebellion. Catharsis. Becoming.

I had never tried so hard before to make my insides match my outside. Finished, my hands shook when I pulled the plug from the wall. I took a deep breath and looked in the mirror.

Oh dear God.

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Louise Brooks!

My look was going to be Louise Brooks slash Winston from 1984 slash existential post-modern Weimar Germany meets Echo and the Bunnymen fierce. I was going to look exactly like what I thought I was supposed to look like, tough, dangerous, awesome, worthy of attention.

I looked like Emo Phillips.

But fat.

With thick black eyeliner and red lipstick.

And three chins.

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EMO.

Although I was depressed before, at least I didn’t feel hideous. Now, not only was I still a confused mess but I also looked like La Grange Park’s answer to Divine.  I felt obvious, greasy, fraudulent. The worst version of myself possible.  Barrettes, gel, a bowler hat- nothing made a dent in the ugly.  The only thing that gave me comfort was running my fingers over the newly revealed skin, the new bump of a birthmark I hadn’t known was there, as I wept for an hour on top of my bedspread.

When my mother got home she asked if there had been a lice outbreak at school. She was furious and blond, a grown and heart-broken flower child of the 1960s. What had I done? Why didn’t I talk with her? How could she help? Did this have something to do with the divorce? My boyfriend? I couldn’t answer her because there were no answers.

“It just needs to grow,” she said. “Give it time,” she said.

And she was right.

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Arlaina Tibensky is the world’s oldest teenager.  She is the author of  AND THEN THINGS FALL APART a novel about how Sylvia Plath and an old typewriter usher a reluctant virgin through the worst summer of her freaking life.  Some of her short stories have appeared in One Story, The Madison Review, and Inkwell. A recent New York Foundation for the Arts grant recipient, she lives in New York City with her husband and sons and face paints in her spare time.  Follow her, if you dare, on Twitter @ArlainaT.