By Deborah Keenan

My best friend from age zero, Kristine, had a step-great-grandmother who lived in a doll hospital in a little farm town in western Minnesota.  The step-great-grandmother told Kristine’s mother that Kristine and I could take a little vacation there the summer we were both eleven. We could stay in the old farmhouse that belonged to the second cousin of the step-great-grandmother; we could stay on the second floor of the farmhouse and the family that farmed the land(not the second cousin) would “keep an eye on us.”

And so our mothers told us we could pack our clothes and food supplies in suitcases our dads didn’t use anymore, so we did—packed matching blouse and short sets, socks, tennis shoes, bathing suits, a towel each, our favorite crackers, pasta, three jars of spaghetti sauce, peanut butter, 6 bottles of real coke, and our moms put us on the IWS_GH_DKGreyhound bus and waved as the bus pulled away from the St. Paul station.

There was no one to meet us when we arrived, a brilliant July day, so we walked to Kristine’s step-great-grandmother’s doll hospital at the end of Main Street, but she wasn’t there, so we asked a neighbor how to get to the farmhouse (we had that address and the name of the family written on a piece of paper) and they told us and we started walking.  When we arrived, the man who ran the farm took us upstairs, showed us how the oven worked, how to turn on the gas burners, and left.

Were we exhausted?  I see us trudging down the highway, two miles in the bright sun, carrying our fathers’ suitcases.  I see us setting up our little vacation home, setting out the pasta and sauce, realizing we would have to walk back to town to buy milk if we wanted cereal in the morning, putting our books on the nightstands on either side of the sagging double bed, staring out the windows at the endless rows of corn, the stand of trees at the end of the driveway. I see how completely at ease we were in that freedom.  After we made the space our little home, we walked back to town, spent our allowances on milk and treats, walked back, lit the gas burners, boiled all the pasta that we had, heated the sauce, ate dinner at a little card table, and went to bed when the sun went down.

So many small towns had public swimming pools.  Oh, America, what has happened to you?  We left the next morning for the pool, our swim suits on under our little outfits, our towels folded over our arms.  The pool lives in memory—vast, blue, chlorinated within an inch of our lives, the high diving board, the middle-sized diving board, the baby diving board, a Goldilocks kind of logic that worked for us.  Of course we swam all day. Of IWS_SP_DKcourse we were in heaven.

Kristine finally said we had to go to her step-great-grandmother’s place and find her, so we pulled on our clothes over our wet bathing suits, walked to the edge of town, pounded on the door, and the step-great-grandmother opened the door, remembered who Kristine was, seemed completely startled to find us there, took us into her doll hospital where we stared at headless dolls, and doll heads without bodies, at tiny stands where doll heads were perched next to boxes of real hair from the local beauty parlor ready for her step-great-grandmother to turn into wigs for the dolls.  There were racks of thread, and needles of every size, and hundreds of dolls who were doing ok and more that were broken, slumped and resting on every surface of the house.  There were rows of porcelain legs, arms, hands; there were tiny tiny teeth to glue back into doll mouths, there were tiny and not tiny outfits on hundreds of miniature hangers.

She gave us a cookie each, and some water, and thanked us for coming.  So we walked back to the farmhouse, ate more spaghetti out of the pot we had left on the stove from the night before, started opening all the closets and cupboards and drawers in our little home, and found, to our great delight and bewilderment, a stash of about a hundred true romance and raunchy detective comic books.  We were such innocents.  The picture of us, taken with Santa when we were five, could have stood for the girls we were then, at eleven.  We started reading and the world shifted a little, then more.  We spread the comics out all over the floor. We read fast, then slow, then we stopped, saying we had to save some for the next day. And so we stopped, our dreams stunned and out of any context we knew, because of what we had seen and read.

Our third and last day we walked to the pool again.  We swam, we dove from the highest diving board,  and then the sky turned gray, then black, then green, a life guard blew a whistle, the other children raced for their homes, and we left the pool, stopped to buy ice cream for our final night of vacation, and began the walk down the highway.  The rain came in torrents, lightning dazzled, thunder exploded.  We were beyond wet, we couldn’t stop laughing. Two cars stopped, one after the other, offering us rides, aghast, I think, at us, how young we were, alone in the storm.  Our mothers had told us never take a ride from strangers, so we turned down their offers.  Another half mile, and we knew enough to be more afraid of the storm than any stranger. A pick-up truck stopped, the man ordered us into the back of his truck, and we obeyed.  At the farmhouse we waved good bye to him in the pounding rain, then ran inside.  Oh, we were so happy, so untouched, so fabulously wet, and then dry, and then into pajamas, and then more spaghetti, still sitting on the stove, day three, then more of those racy, scary, amazing comic books, with plots IWS_CK3_DKwe had never imagined, with women in dresses we assumed we would never wear, with men pressing women up against walls of houses, and trees in forests, and kissing them in such ferocious ways I am left wondering about these artists.

In the morning our mothers arrived to pick us up.  Why didn’t they have us come home on the bus?  I have no answer.  They were happy, looked around the farm, thanked the family for looking out for us  (insert many exclamation points here!!!, since neither spoke to us after our arrival) and Kristine and I, raised right by these two strong women, had our place so clean, the comic book stash so well hidden, the giant vat of spaghetti thrown away, the pots clean, the bed made, our suitcases packed—we knew how to do all of this.

Why were we allowed to have private lives?  Why this freedom?  Why no sense of danger?  Why no calls to check on us?  But check on us with who?  And again, oh, the bliss and beauty of privacy, of making our own way, our wisdom, our stupidity, our competence, our joy.


Deborah Keenan is a poet and visual artist living in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She is the author of several collections, including Good Heart, Happiness, and Willow RoomGreen Door. She is a great maker of collages and is a professor in the Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University. FInd more about Deborah at deborahkeenan.com.


A Prairie Skateland Prison

By Sara Aase

With apologies to Sarah Anderson, wherever she may be…

It was 1980 and I was 10, part of a caravan of kids barreling 35 miles west from Barnesville, Minnesota all the way to Skateland. The drive was a familiar commute, Fargo being the home of West Acres Mall and other North Dakotan destinations bigger than a Red Owl grocery or Ben Franklin drug store. That empty stretch of I-94 was so flat it always shimmered, as hypnotic as moving water, squat buildings popping up from the horizon occasionally like bobbers. Then the majestic expanse of sea that was the Skateland parking lot appeared on the horizon, dwarfing the shabby building behind it. The noise of those crammed beside me in the station wagon broke over me like waves as all of us together spied our destination.IWS_SA_SL

I was as excited as everyone else. Of course I wanted to skate, to feel the moment when wobbling eased into confident strides. Once I could coax some momentum from my wheels, the rhythmic clunk would travel upup  up through my legs to the beat of Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls.” There would be roller-rink wind in my face, music in my limbs. Except that, being slower, quieter, and clumsier than your average kid, I dreaded the obstacles standing between me and bliss: The crush from the parking lot, to the door, to the skate rental desk, where I knew I would find myself last in line. I wished myself onto the roller floor, magically – not from the car, but all the way back – straight from my living room sofa, upholstered in a loud aquamarine floral pattern, where I had most recently been ensconced with an apple and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

To an introvert, other people are hell. Of course, nobody tells a kid that. I only knew I wanted the same things as other kids, but just couldn’t seem to do them the same way. My friends skipped, darted, and hurtled around me, standing still, a prisoner inside my own head as I struggled with what to do next. My 10-year-old self responded to the anxiety this caused by rushing, which of course made things worse. On this Saturday, as I fumbled with the laces of my stiff brown ankle skates, heat crept up my neck as my younger sister Laura eased onto the floor. “Hurry,” I thought. “Hurry” was what everyone was always telling me, the word like the flick of a riding crop, a fresh prick of panic. So “hurry” was what I told myself now, automatically, even though there was no actual competition onto the skating floor. “Hurry,” I thought, because even though nobody else noticed my struggle, I did, as if watching myself in a movie. “Hurry,” I thought, for no other reason than to try to escape myself.

I pushed myself gingerly from the bench just as birthday girl Sarah Anderson bumped her wheels over the edge of the carpet strip, her normally pink cheeks flushed to neon. Sarah was my frenemy, though I didn’t have that word to help sort out the confusing feelings of fidelity and enmity she inspired. She was my doppelganger – another pastor’s kid living just down the block, our churches facing off across the street from each other. Blonde to my brunette, Sarah with an ‘h’ to my plain ‘a,’ she was a year younger than me but anxious to show her superiority. By way of introduction, after my family moved to town, she had knocked down my snowman. Later one summer whhhen she tooled past me on her bike, I ditched my training wheels immediately, even though I had to use a tree to stop. Here she was, beating me again.

IWS_SA_SMAs I flailed blindly out from the bench, my skate caught on something. I looked down to see my tennis shoes still lolling on the floor. I couldn’t believe it. What were my shoes doing there?! Where were they supposed to be? Looking up, I saw, for the first time, the wall of lockers around the corner and well back from the skating floor. How would I make it over there with both hands full? What if I fell? The expanse of carpet between me and the lockers seemed as long as a football field. I pictured myself picking my way over now, hanging onto benches and pinball machines, my awkward moves broadcasting to every kid in Skateland what it was suddenly so clear I had done wrong — not storing my shoes before donning my skates. Duh.

Horrified by this realization, my brain started to fog over with the absurdity of my situation. I couldn’t just leave my shoes here – someone would steal them, of course. Any 10-year-old knows that. Why was I such an idiot? Tears pricked behind my eyelids and I flopped hopelessly down next to my stupid shoes. Then I noticed the bench’s metal bar, screwed into the floor. Ah-ha. I wiped my eyes, grabbed my shoes and tied them furiously to the bar, making sure to double- and triple-knot them.

As I joined my group on the floor at last, my adrenaline subsided and my shame slowly faded to a feeling of smug triumph. For two hours, gliding around the floor, I could pretend I was just another kid, having fun at a roller skating birthday party. Not just any kid, in fact, but a super-secret extra-smart kid, whose superior intelligence would one day be revealed to the world. I may have been the last one on the roller rink, but I bet I’d be the first one out at the end. In fact, as I gained speed, I imagined my friends crowded around me back on the carpet, admiring my handiwork. “I’m tying my shoes up next time, too,” they would say. While my imagination floated, giving me a warm buzz, a cold, reptilian part of my brain whispered that I had to make sure nobody actually saw what I had done. Deep down, it stored my bumbling truth — that I wasn’t just like everybody else.

Then, it was time to go.

As you can guess, my trial at the foot of the bench went exactly as before, in reverse, as I discovered to my increasing panic that I couldn’t undo the knots in my shoelaces. I could feel people rushing down the carpet behind me as I pulled with all my might. “Wait!” I shouted in my head, too stubborn to yell, desperate to fix myself. No matter — a microphone blaring out commands for the hokey pokey would have drowned me out. Crouched on the floor, nobody could see me.IWS_SA_SN

As the crush of kids reversed itself out the door into the parking lot, I could feel myself being left. It wasn’t a sudden hush, of course, in a noisy roller rink – just that eerie sense you get when you know your people have gone, as if your souls are somehow connected, like an electrical current. I rushed out into the parking lot – no longer a promising seascape, now just a cracked expanse of asphalt. Too big. Too empty. Except for the prairie wind, which hit me with full force, like an ever present bully. Yes, it said, pushing into me. They’ve gone.

They were my people. No matter how much I felt I didn’t fit in, I still needed them. But I hadn’t let them know that. Now they were gone without me, and it was all my fault.

After I told a grownup that I needed to use the phone, I sat back down on my bench. There was nothing to do now but wait, alone. As my thoughts drifted back to Tom, Becky, and Huck, the sounds around me faded away. My fingers traced the double-knotted loops of my shoelaces, and tugged.


Sara Aase is a writer living in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in Paper Darts, Minnesota Monthly, Mpls/St. Paul, Utne Reader, and other publications.

The Tickastrophe

By Alicia Catt

When I was 23, I took a few months off from life to hitchhike around the country and sleep in questionable abandoned buildings. I did a lot of stupid things in those months. I ate psilocybin mushrooms and explored a (thankfully) empty bear cave. I got giardia from drinking river water and pooped forty times in four days. I half-climbed, half-jumped off a roof to evade the cops and ended up with a staph-infected gash in my knee that left me barely able to walk. I took up playing the djembe.

None of these things are as stupid as the story I am about to tell you.

After being homeless had begun to lose its appeal, I moved back to Minneapolis and immediately shacked up with Robert—a tall, gentle alcoholic who didn’t mind my aggressive body odor or my neglected rat’s nest of dreadlocks. Robert worked at a bar, and I—because I was too flighty to keep a job—stayed at home, biting my nails and smoking cigarettes, and waited for him to come home at night. He was usually drunk. WHY DO YOU DRINK SO MUCH, I’d whine, as I emptied bottles of schnapps into my mouth. WHY DON’T YOU LOVE ME MORE, I’d scream, locking myself in the bathroom and kicking holes in the walls. I’M GOING TO LEAVE YOU, I’d sob, PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME. And later, without fail, we’d have incredible drunken make-up sex.

It was, all things considered, one of my most stable relationships.

Now, you should know: Robert’s family did not like me. It wasn’t their fault. I was insufferable. Robert was close to his relatives in a way I didn’t understand, in a way I hated. His domineering older sister and her husband lived a block away from us. When they invited us over—that is to say, invited Robert over and grudgingly accepted that his crazy girlfriend would come too—I would sit on their couch, eyes stuck in an overdramatic roll, miserable. YOUR SISTER IS A BITCH, I’d hiss at Robert when she was Imagebarely out of earshot. He would just shrug. I couldn’t comprehend why anyone would want to see their family as often as he saw his, especially when most of that time was spent watching his sister’s favorite show, Grey’s Anatomy. She only allowed us to talk during commercial breaks.

A winter passed like this, and spring came, then summer. I missed travelling and wrote melodramatic poetry about mistaking car alarms for bird songs. Robert’s sister had begun explicitly asking him not to bring me over. I felt him slipping away from me, and so I did what any reasonable girl would do in order to re-wrangle her man: I gave him an ultimatum. Either we get rid of the apartment, leave Minneapolis, and head out on the road together, or we were so over.

Guess which option he picked?

Soon, I was packing our knapsacks for the journey and teasing Robert’s long, thinning hair into dreadlocks. I told him they looked sexy. They looked terrible, like some winged creature had had the runs on his head and decorated the mess with gaudy plastic beads. Our plan was to hitchhike to Duluth first, Robert’s hometown, so that he could say goodbye to his parents. I conceded to this on the condition that we head to California straightaway afterwards and not look back for at least a year. A year, I figured, would be enough time to make him see the truth: that I was the only woman he needed in his life. No sister. No mother. Just me—All Ali, All The Time.

The two-and-a-half hour trip to Duluth took us a full eight hours by hitch. We stood on on-ramps in the soggy June heat, thumbs outstretched.

Didn't look like this.

Didn’t look like this.

Our backpack straps cut into our shoulders. I’M TOO HOT, I screeched, my bare calves brushing against the scratchy, unmowed roadside grass. Robert reminded me calmly that this was my idea, and so I proceeded to ignore him for the next two hours, sniffing back tears and scuffing my boots sullenly in the dirt.

Twenty miles outside of Duluth, in tiny Carlton, MN, there’s a casino with a shuttle bus that runs hourly to downtown Duluth and back. One of our rides was headed to the casino, and we figured we’d stop there, use the restrooms, and hop the bus into Duluth like the lawless rockstars we thought we were.

But it did not happen exactly like that.

In the casino bathroom, I pulled down my shorts. There, clinging to the inside of my upper right thigh like a mountain climber to a cliff, was a tick—tiny, brown, unassuming, calmly sucking my crotch blood. And there, on my upper left thigh, was another one.

At this point, there are two things you should know about me.

One: in all of my time hitchhiking and sleeping under bridges and in the woods, I had never once found a tick on my person.

Two: I have lived my entire life with an irrational fear of insects—the kind of fear that prompts hyperventilation and ridiculous panic attacks. Because, if you haven’t figured it out yet, 23-year-old me could be considered something of a lunatic.

I pulled up my shorts and rushed out of the bathroom, moaning quietly to myself in order not to alert casino security. I met Robert outside the main entrance, where he was doing what he did best: smoking a cigarette with a dead-fish look in his eyes. Just as I was semi-calmly alerting him to my predicament, I felt something scuttling up the small of my back. And that’s when I completely lost my shit.



AUUUUUUGH, I screamed, hopping around and swatting uselessly at my body with my hands. GET THEM OFF GET THEM OFF, I blubbered, sprinting back and forth in front of the casino as if the ticks were a swarm of bees that I could somehow outrun. (This was my mistake.)

Robert grabbed my arm to hold me still, then motioned for me to turn around. He lifted the back of my shirt and saw the tick had already sunk itself into my skin. So my valiant and disgustingly dreadlocked white knight flicked open his pocketknife, used it to pry the insect off me, flicked the knife closed, and slipped it back into his pocket. (This was his mistake.)

We waited for the shuttle bus for what seemed like hours as I became more and more agitated, feeling dozens of real or imaginary ticks crawling on my body. I writhed. I moaned. I got in Robert’s face and called him an idiot for making us come to Duluth in the first place. He just silently stared at me—then, past me, out into the casino parking lot.

Ali, he said.

SHUT UP, I yelled.

Ali, he said, his voice cracking. What’s happening?

I followed his gaze and saw that a squadron of police cars, and at least ten uniformed officers, had quietly surrounded us. And every single one was pointing a gun at our heads.

SIR, STEP AWAY FROM HER, one cop shouted.

GET ON THE GROUND, shouted another.

DO IT NOW, shouted another.

My heart dripped into my shoes. We lay face-down on the hot pavement while a drug dog sniffed through our backpacks. Still, I couldn’t stop squirming—I could feel ticks feasting on my armpits.

The police handcuffed us and led us to separate areas of the casino parking lot for questioning. Apparently, one cop told me, a casino visitor had seen Robert pull out his pocketknife and thought that he was assaulting me with it.

NO NO NO, I bawled, horrified at the misunderstanding. I shook my leg and tried to explain that there was a tick crawling up my leg as I spoke. LOOK FOR YOURSELF, I said. He didn’t look.

Robert and I were stuffed into separate squad cars to wait while the cops ran our ID checks. Finally, one cop pulled me out and uncuffed me, and told me I was free to go. My boyfriend, however, was not. It turned out that, although the cops were willing to forgive the mix-up, they were not willing to forgive an old bench warrant that Robert had for unpaid parking tickets. They were taking him to the county jail. I was welcome to bail him out, of course—if I had $800. (I had $100 to my name.)

It all worked out in the end, sort of. I called Robert’s sister, who screamed at me. I called his mother, who screamed at me in a slightly nicer voice, then came to bail Robert out of jail. Robert spent the rest of the night pulling a dozen engorged ticks off naked, hysterical me. We broke up after his family staged an intervention for him and convinced him I was a bad influence. I’m not sure they ever found out that he went to jail for his parking tickets, and not actually because of me at all, but I have a feeling they wouldn’t have been too interested in technicalities.

The morals of the story, of course, are as follows: Never brandish a knife at a casino. Never trust a woman with dreadlocks, or a woman who wants to give you dreadlocks. And always use a good DEET-based insect repellent.


Alicia Catt is an MFA candidate at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Pinch, 1966, Pithead Chapel, The Citron Review, and elsewhere.

The Arsonist Flasher

By Jason Quinn Malott

I remember finding a book of my father’s matches when I was about four years old and setting my parent’s bed on fire. They were outside washing the car and thought it was cute the first time I toddled out to the front porch and said “Fire.” After I said it again they decided to investigate. Thankfully, the mattress was flame retardant, so only a dinner plate sized patch had burned before they threw a glass of water on it. They kept that mattress for the rest of their marriage and would occasionally call me into the room to remind me of




After my sister was born, I developed a penchant for elaborate stories. The most stunning one happened because I was bored, naked, and in possession of a green magic marker. I drew a line of dots up the inside of both thighs to my groin, then a line of dots up my arms and on each side of my ribcage. Where ever I thought bolts would go if I were a robot. If only it had stopped there, but no. I then dressed and went out to play with the boys and girls in my neighborhood.  When I told them I was a robot, they demanded proof, so, I led them behind a tree in our front yard and showed them my green bolts.

It’s the only time anyone has ever gasped in amazement when I’ve dropped my pants, and may be the reason my love-life has been so spotty.

In the second grade I sprang a crush on a girl named Carla Eichman. She had curly blonde hair and dimples and wore those giant, late 70‘s, plastic framed glasses that made everyone look like owls. I was eight and sure I’d found “The One.”

We went to the same Lutheran church in Dodge City, KS, and from the second grade until the end of eighth grade we saw each other six out of seven days during the school year.  I had a recurring dream we were married and lived in a tiny village under the church pews. We had a kid who set our bed on fire and showed the neighbors his penis.

And, of course, at least once a year for the next seven years, I asked her to be my girlfriend and each time she’d tell me she didn’t think it was a good idea, or that she didn’t want to ruin our friendship, or that opposites didn’t work out.

One colloquial definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result. By that measure, when it came to Carla, I was insane, and she knew it. On Valentine’s Day, 1981, I crammed 23 Looney Tunes cards into an envelope and had to wait all day to give them to her. The quick and furtive exchange happened in the hall as IWS_Sroborschool let out. Without a word, I thrust my little package of Bugs and Daffy and Elmer festooned cards into her hand. . .and then ran away.

In between the doomed efforts to get her to “go with me” I tried to ignore her. After all, I had crushes on other girls. It was like a hobby, or practice.  There was Natalie, Stephanie, Cherity, Sarah, Rachel, Heather, Becky, Kristen and Jennifer. Lots more. I even agreed to go with a girl I only talked to on the phone, named Penelope, but who turned out to be these guys, Jim and Jeff, who thought it was a practical joke.

Anyway, my Carla affliction was evident to everyone, especially the grown-ups at church. If Carla was in the same room, my infatu-crush blazed like a lighthouse on a foggy night. So, when it came time for the Christmas pageant our fifth grade year, they thought it would be cute for us to be Mary and Joseph. Carla played her part well, kept her eyes lovingly transfixed on the manger and the plastic baby Jesus. I, however, couldn’t stop staring at her, hoping she would see it as a sign from God, like I did.

We started confirmation classes in the eighth grade, which meant we saw each other on Wednesday nights for our midweek catechism classes on top of school and Sunday services. Also, everything assumed a particular desperation when my parents decided we were moving to Wichita, KS. I was going to lose her forever if I didn’t do something. Problem was, I had no idea what to do until it was too late and, even then, it wasn’t a very good idea.

At the last school dance of the year, I passive-aggressively refused to take no for an answer.

“Come on,” I pleaded. “It’s the last dance and then we’ll probably never see each other again. Just one dance.”

“I still don’t think it would be a good idea,” she said.

And so we stood there staring at each other through the last slow song. You’d think I’d remember what the damn song was, but I don’t. It might have been something by Journey, or maybe Chicago. When the song ended and the dance was over, she slipped away in the crowd.

After the school year ended and before we packed up the moving van, I wrote her a letter. Told her I loved her. I didn’t expect a response, but when I got one there was a brief moment of hope – right before I started reading it. Her letter rehashed every reason she’d given for turning me down; opposites didn’t work, she didn’t think of me that way, it would ruin our friendship, etc. Then she told me to keep my faith in God and take care of my soul because “If we never see each other again, I’d kinda like to see you in heaven.”

It was that hedge, “kinda,” that finally broke the spell. I decided that if she wasn’t sure she wanted to see me in heaven then, well, I didn’t need to humiliate myself by being there. I’m not saying she was the reason I gave up Christianity, but it was the first catalyst to my departure. The dubious honor of killing my faith goes to the combination of an aborted suicide attempt and an apocalyptic, tongue-speaking Methodist youth group leader who hated heavy metal, claimed to know the date the world would end, and secretly harbored so much rage at girls he snapped off the trigger on my battery operated water gun while shooting it at the cute girl who lured me into the group.

I could write a memoir on all the stupid things I’ve done because of girls. All of it, oddly, some variation of setting things on fire or inappropriately flashing my junk.


Bio: Jason Quinn Malott earned his BA in Creative Writing from Kansas State University and his MFA in Writing and Poetics from Naropa University. His novel, The Evolution of Shadows was published in 2009 by Unbridled Books and was a November 2009 Indie Next pick and a 2010 Kansas Notable Book. He is a co-founder of the fledgling literary and arts website Eunoia Solstice (http://eunoiasolstice.com) and host of The Outrider Podcast (https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-outrider-podcast/id707526920?mt=2).