short stories

Songs, Stories, and Spirits: Melting Pot

Welcome to Songs, Stories, and Spirits. We’ll be jamming unwanted opinions on good music, good stories, and good booze down your ears, eyes, and throats on a weekly basis. We hope you enjoy. And if you don’t, there is a comment section below that we more than welcome you to ignore! Cheers!

Song: “When First Unto This Country” by Crooked Still

Daniel Ford: Fridays call for rollicking Americana. This rendition of “When First Unto This Country,” performed by Crooked Still, has been on repeat since my interview with author Taylor Brown. Who doesn’t like a tune about horse thieving, tortured love affairs, and early American angst? It’s a damn good thing we figured out our immigration policies because we’d have a lot more songs with lyrics like:

They beat me and they banged me
And they fed me on dry beans
'Til I wished to my own soul
I'd never been a thief

Most likely, any music crafted today based on our current political and cultural situation would feature Donald Trump screaming on a continuous loop. And, sadly, it would win a Grammy…

But don’t be glum! It’s Friday! If you’re like me, you’re going to enjoy this tune and then binge-listen to the rest of Crooked Still’s work. You won’t be disappointed!

Story: “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story” by Molly Antopol

Daniel: I have a soft spot for family yarns. I based an entire novel on my personal history, so I gravitate to those tales that have a messy family dynamic at their cores.

That’s one of the reasons why I’m such a big fan of Molly Antopol. Her short story collection The UnAmericans explored Cold War-era East European politics and Jewish American liberalism, while also featuring themes based on the author’s family history.

Also, in light of the turbulent 2016 Presidential campaign, it’s worth revisiting what Antopol told me during our interview earlier this year:

I was really interested in thinking about this notion of “Un-American-ness” for these characters—dissidents and academics, banned artists and writers—who risked their lives for their politics in their mother countries and are then forced to reinvent their identities in the United States, a country where they’re treated as anything but American.

Those issues are further discussed in Antopol’s harrowing, 2015 O. Henry Prize-winning short story.   

“My Grandmother Tells Me This Story”

Some say the story begins in Europe, and your mother would no doubt interrupt and say it begins in New York, but that’s just because she can’t imagine the world before she entered it. And yes, I know you think it begins specifically in Belarus, because that’s what your grandfather tells you. I’ve heard him describing those black sedans speeding down Pinsker Street. I’ve been married to the man almost sixty years and know how he is with you—he makes every word sound like a secret. But he wasn’t even there. He was with his youth group by then and even though I was there I don’t remember being scared. Even when they knocked on our door, I didn’t know what was happening. Even when they dragged us outside with our overstuffed suitcases spilling into the street, shouting through megaphones to walk in the road with the livestock, I still didn’t know. I was thirteen.

The story really starts in the sewers.

Read the rest of the story on Econtone Magazine.

Spirit: Long Island Iced Tea

Stephanie Schaefer: I don’t think I’ve had a sip of a Long Island Iced Tea since I was 21, and there’s probably a good reason for that. One could call it a “melting pot” of a liquor because it's made with nearly every alcohol under the sun including tequila, vodka, light rum, triple sec, and gin. I wish I could tell you a fun anecdote about drinking the concoction, but let’s face it; nights featuring Long Island Iced Teas don't exactly result in vivid memories. Also, let’s not forget the time Writer’s Bone contributor Matt DiVenere said Long Island Iced Teas best defined his writing style.

FULL SONGS, STORIES, AND SPIRITS ARCHIVE

Songs, Stories, and Spirits: Homesick

Welcome to Songs, Stories, and Spirits. We’ll be jamming unwanted opinions on good music, good stories, and good booze down your ears, eyes, and throats on a weekly basis. We hope you enjoy. And if you don’t, there is a comment section below that we more than welcome you to ignore! Cheers!

Song: “Washington Square” by Counting Crows

Robert Masiello: Okay, so Counting Crows may not have been the most important band spawned in the 1990s, but they certainly weren't the worst. Their 2008 release “Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings” was a somewhat bizarre piece, with the album's brawny Gil Norton-produced first half ("Saturday Nights") segueing into a more subdued, folkier second half ("Sunday Mornings"). The record's latter side kicks off with "Washington Square," a delicately plucked lament with rather thoughtful lyrical details. Frontman Adam Duritz's weary vocals were tailor-made for this kind of thing. He ruminates on the passage of time and feeling lost in a new city. There's nothing groundbreaking going on here, but it's just all so goddamn lovely, right down to the requisite harmonica solo. And if you've ever felt a feeling ever, good luck not getting emotionally clobbered by the chorus:

"I love like a fountain / and it left me with nothing / just memories of walking through Washington Square"

Story: “The Guesthouse” by Kirsten Valdez Quade

Daniel Ford: This past April I devoured Kirsten Valdez Quade’s “Night at the Fiestas” in nearly one sitting. Publisher’s Weekly called the short story collection “an emotional tour de force,” and it couldn’t be more on the nose. Packed with family drama, characters at the end of their ropes, and set in the rugged, literary fertile Southwest, “Night at the Fiestas” is an essential read for anyone who loves a well-crafted short story.

In my interview with the author, I asked what themes she wanted to tackle. She answered,

“I find myself writing about family and the little betrayals that can occur between parents and children, brothers and sisters. The family is such fertile terrain for fiction, because there’s shared history there, such intimacy and love, and yet our families are forced on us. No one knows quite how to push our buttons like our family members, and small gestures can take on huge resonances.”

The idea of “home” is rarely uncomplicated and stirs emotions in all of us that can boil over given the right circumstances. Jeff, the main character in “The Guesthouse,” is pained by the death of his grandmother, but can’t simply bask in the nostalgia of her home because his degenerate father has taken up residence in her guesthouse. While Jeff toggles between sadness and anger, there is also a far amount of humor in the story. It goes to show you that even when home isn’t what you remembered it to be, there are still stories you can find worth telling.   

The Guesthouse

Jeff stands with his sister in their grandmother’s kitchen, still in his funeral clothes, but barefoot now. He heard the stroke had been painless and decisive, yet, judging from the state of the house, his grandmother had clearly been in decline even before the clot wedged itself into that tight corridor in her brain. She was always tidy, but the place looks awful: the floor is sticky and grainy, the sink full and on the stove smelly water stagnates in an egg pan. In the cupboard beneath the sink, there is a leak. The wood is buckled and soft, stinking of spores and damp garbage. He thought his grandmother was doing fine, and his obliviousness pains him.

“Why didn’t you tell me things had gotten this bad? Didn’t you ever check up on her?”

“Excuse me?” says Brooke. “Are you blaming me for Grandma dying?”

“Of course not,” Jeff says, although he is.

Pick up a copy of “Night of the Fiestas” to read the rest!

Spirit: Sombrero

Daniel: Alabama’s Christmas album played from a beat up CD player. Every Christmas light in the room glowed soft white against the dark night outside. I lounged on my parent’s couch awaiting orders from my mother, who was cutting, folding, and taping wrapping paper onto awkwardly boxy presents. Our cat Whitey (#RIP) meandered happily around the scraps of colored paper and curlicue ribbons littering the floor.

Everything felt like Christmas, but, goddamn, my mother and I were freakin’ glum.

The gift wrapping had seemed like drudgery from the moment I hauled her supplies up from the cellar. I had fought with the aging card table’s stiff leg joints. My two other brothers were nowhere to be found. My mother and I had barely said two words to each other. There had been more holiday spirit on the Metro North train I took to get home.

Finally, my mother, being the smart woman that she is, ordered me to the kitchen.

“Go make me a fucking drink,” she said.

(Editor’s note: She probably didn’t use “fucking,” but she’ll appreciate my artistic license).

Booze. Of course that’s what was missing. I walked into the kitchen and surveyed my parent’s liquor cabinet. My mother isn’t much of a drinker, so I wasn’t sure what I could make her that wouldn’t cause her to end up on the floor.

“What’s in a Sombrero?” I asked, sticking my head back into the living room.

“Just dump some eggnog and Kahlua into a glass,” she replied as her shears vociferously sliced through another large sheet of paper.

“You got it.”

That’s precisely what I did. No measuring cups. No mercy.

Roughly 15 minutes later, the booze washed away all remnants of our Scrooge-like selves. We laughed heartily over family memories, cracked jokes about each other back and forth (lovingly, of course), and we finished the gift wrapping done in half the time it usually took us.

Whenever I think of “home for the holidays,” I think about getting my mother drunk on Sombreros. According to my father, she only has them now if I make them. She claims his are too weak.

I’m rarely home for the wrapping festivities now, but I’m sure my mother would have a drink waiting for me if I showed up to help. More likely, she’ll be hand me a bottle of Kahlua and tell me to get to work. Like the good son I am, I’d oblige.

No measuring cups. No mercy.

FULL SONGS, STORIES, AND SPIRITS ARCHIVE

Songs, Stories, and Spirits: Monsters

Welcome to Songs, Stories, and Spirits. We’ll be jamming unwanted opinions on good music, good stories, and good booze down your ears, eyes, and throats on a weekly basis. We hope you enjoy. And if you don’t, there is a comment section below that we more than welcome you to ignore! Cheers!

Song: “Monsters” by Electric President

Robert Masiello: Electric President fell off the radar rather abruptly in 2010, without much commotion. Their brief discography remains criminally underrated, despite an appearance on “The OC” soundtrack way back in the Paleozoic era. Sounding like a darker, dreamier version of The Postal Service, Electric President’s wistful brand of electronica found the perfect middle-ground between catchy and surreal. "Monsters," the opening track from their best album (2008's “Sleep Well”), weaves a haunting narrative that deftly balances darkness and light. Maybe it's a song about battling society's ills. Maybe it's about struggling with the monsters within ourselves. Perhaps it just describes a fever dream. Whatever the case, let Electric President's lush, spooky atmospherics wash over you this Friday the 13th.

Story: “Monsters” by Scott Cheshire

Photo credit: PB Elskamp

Photo credit: PB Elskamp

Daniel Ford: Author Scott Cheshire has mastered the art of dropping readers into an instantly recognizable world. His debut novel, High as the Horses’ Bridles, embeds you in places like Queens, N.Y., California, and even 19th century Kentucky so deeply it feels as if you’re smoking a cigarette on a street corner watching the plot unfold. If Cheshire only accomplished that, he’d be a fine writer, however, he does something else that makes him an intriguing scribe to follow. I heard him do a reading at Queens College at the beginning of the year and he said something that stayed with me. He mentioned that because of his upbringing (which you can read about in my interview with him), he came to the writing profession late and feels as if he’s missed out on the “normal” route an author might take. Cheshire said that he doesn’t have time to mess around with linear plots or paper-thin characters that might sell more books. He wants to grapple with “big questions” and use his talent to tell complex stories in the vein of Don DeLillo and Paul Auster. I didn’t know who the hell those guys were before becoming friends with Cheshire, but now that I’ve read them, I know they’re two tough fucking acts to live up to. However, a writer like Cheshire just might be up to the challenge.

While you wait for him to publish his next novel, read his haunting short story “Monsters,” recently published by Catapult. Then drop him a line and tell him to hurry the hell up with his second book!

“Monsters”

Peyton walked into the dark hotel room, closed the door behind her, and set her briefcase on the floor. Standing in the shadows, by the bed, was her father.

He sat down and said, “How’s your mother?”

She didn’t like the question, because if he really wanted to know, he’d go visit and see for himself.

She noted the topography of the room. A large television sitting on a wooden desk. A chair. A mirror. The bed was neatly made, and she expected nothing less. Her bed back home was the same. She was a lot more like him than she cared to admit.

Read the rest on Catapult.

Spirit: The Drunken Cookie Monster

Daniel: Enough darkness! It’s Friday! By some miracle of Google, this video came up while I was searching for monster-related cocktails. I wouldn’t suggest actually making it because you’ll be drunk and develop diabetes instantly. Cheers!

Songs, Stories, and Spirits: Up All Night

Photo courtesy of  Cristina Cianci

Photo courtesy of Cristina Cianci

Welcome to Songs, Stories, and Spirits. We’ll be jamming unwanted opinions on good music, good stories, and good booze down your ears, eyes, and throats on a weekly basis. We hope you enjoy. And if you don’t, there is a comment section below that we more than welcome you to ignore! Cheers!

Songs: “Late in the Evening” by Paul Simon and Beethoven’s “9th Symphony”

Daniel Ford: Paul Simon’s “Late in the Evening,” has been on my writing playlist for as long as I can remember. Along with Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” it perfectly encapsulates what it means to write late into the night fueled by passion, caffeine, or other drugs. In particular, this stretch of lyrics gets my typing fingers moving briskly across the keyboard:

And when I came back to the room/Everybody just seemed to move/And I turned my amp up loud and I began to play/And it was late in the evening/And I blew that room away

That’s how you should be writing at any time of day, never mind in the wee small hours of the morning. You’re not writing to be “okay.” You’re not writing material that’s “good enough” to get published. You’re crafting a story for greatness, and anything less than that isn’t worthy enough for an all night binge. You should be able to heat up your coffee with the heat and fire flaming out of your ideas.

Shawn Vestal, author of the short story collection “Godforsaken Idaho” and one of our early interviews, gave us some advice that’s perfect for the insomniac writer: “Work hard. Do not wait around for inspiration—inspiration comes more often when you’re working than when you’re waiting.”

Sean Tuohy: If you’re up all night you don’t need lyrics. You need epic scores. No words. Something that matches the mood.

Story: “Professor Sea Gull” by Joseph Mitchell

Daniel: There was no better chronicler of New York City’s seedy late shift during the 1930s and 1940s than The New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell. A former editor gave me a compilation of his work a couple of years ago as a Christmas gift and I’ve been slowly reading it ever since in order to savor each tale.  

One of Mitchell’s most well known profile is “Professor Sea Gull,” which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1942 and features an “emancipated little man” named Joe Gould. Gould is a vagabond “tormented by what he calls ‘the three H’s’—homelessness, hunger, and hangovers.” The Yankee “night wanderer“ that haunted New York City’s bars, diners, and subways also penned an epic oral history that Mitchell described as “a great hodgepodge and kitchen madden of hearsay, a repository of jabber, an omnium-gatherum of bushwa, gab, palaver, hogwash, flapdoddle, and malarkey.” Pft, what writer hasn’t heard that from a literary agent or editor?

Perhaps my favorite part of the feature is Mitchell describing what fuels Gould:

“He tells people that he lives on ‘air, self-esteem, cigarette butts, cowboy coffee, fried-egg sandwiches, and ketchup.’ Cowboy coffee, he says, is strong coffee drunk black without sugar. ‘I’ve lost my taste for good coffee,’ he says. ‘I much prefer the kind that sooner or later, if you keep drinking it, your hands will begin to shake and the whites of your eyes will turn yellow.’”

Needless to say, Gould is my spirit animal.

I wasn’t able to find the entire feature online, but you can read it if you subscribe to The New Yorker. It would be well worth it for just this story alone.

Spirit: Irish Coffee

Dave Pezza: Coffee is an elixir for mortals. Hot or cold, morning or night, coffee allows one to accept and occasionally thrive during the ungodly sober hours. But let’s be honest with ourselves; coffee lacks one fundamental element that would make the ultimate power in the universe: booze. But somewhere in Ireland centuries ago, a forgotten hero invented the mother of all drinks, the Irish Coffee. Today we live in a world of endless Instagram and Pinterest concoctions of drinks and foods and all manner of palatable Frankenstein monsters. The alcoholic coffee, though, remains one of God’s simplest and most enjoyable creations.

My personal favorite among this glorious genre is the Irish Crème Coffee. Simply pour your favorite brand of coffee (I personally prefer Dunkin Donuts Dark Roast; it’s a perfect medium coffee with just enough flavor that never overpowers) and instead of adding your usual regiment cream, milk, sugar, or nothing (if you’re a tasteless anhedonic dweeb and drink your coffee black) add Bailey’s Irish Cream. It complements the coffee surprisingly well and, for those of us who like a little pick-me-up before or during work, is not noticeable on the breath or in the cup. Enjoy, and wake up responsibly.  

FULL SONGS, STORIES, AND SPIRITS ARCHIVE