Flash in the Pan

Art All the Time

Category: Non-fiction

D-Day

by Hilary B. Bisenieks

I try to talk to my dad most days, even if it’s just to say hi and make sure that he’s doing ok, since I’m three thousand miles away from him.  He’s hard to talk to sometimes.  It happens.

He wasn’t born here.  He grew up in Riga, Latvia, during the War.  He says that he remembers June 14th, 1941—the undesirables being herded onto trains by the Bolsheviks.  He didn’t know much about the Western Front of the war until D-Day.  The Eastern Front was right on his doorstep.

During the War, we were allied with the Soviets, so it became easy to ignore the things that the Bolsheviks were doing.  It wasn’t the Holocaust, but it wasn’t great either.

Nobody much thinks about the Baltic States.  Latvians had to fight on both sides, for the Soviets because they were forced to, for the Germans in the hope that maybe after the war, their homeland would regain its independence.

When my father and grandmother left Riga in 1944, they were passed by thousands of German soldiers going the other way.  They got out in time, but they were hardly safe.  They lives in displaced citizen camps in Austria.  In Vienna, they were bombed by the Americans during the day and by the British at night.  My grandmother made something like a living having to clean toilets for Nazi officers.  They lost everything except the clothes on their backs during an air-raid.

I’m sure my father would still recognize the sound of a Lancaster bomber or a B-17 flying overhead.  Some things you never forget.

Things you never forget.

Forget.

American’s are very good at simplifying complex things to try to understand them.  People are very good at simplifying complex things to try to understand them.  If I walked down to the heart of Dimond right now and asked someone what the War was about, they’d say the Nazis and the Holocaust or the Japanese and Pearl Harbor.  Those are fairly understandable.  I don’t think most people could find Latvia on a map of the world.  I don’t think most people know it exists.

With the Cold War, the Soviets became enemies, but we weren’t concerned with what they’d done to create their Glorious Union; we were afraid they’d nuke us off the map before we could shoot back.

My father was in this country by then.  He grew up in Ann Arbor, an outsider, ausländer, as he had been in the Austrian countryside in the winter of 1944, where the German school children threw snowballs at him.  He discovered science fiction and fantasy, all the worlds he could escape into.

But he didn’t forget.

He can’t.

We shouldn’t, either.

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I Am

by Samantha Capps

She says we’re off balance. He says I’m insecure. He questions what I said to the library patron on the phone. She’s says I’m amazing. They tell me they’re so happy for me. He ignores me. She questions me.

I don’t know who I am. I’ve spent my whole life listening to other people’s voices.

I am…

23 years old. 5 foot 8 inches. Over 160 pounds for the first time since before college. Near-sighted. Left-handed. Female.

I double majored in college. I have a perfect verbal GRE score. Five semesters on the Dean’s List. 3.89 GPA.

I work at a library. I’m going to library school in the fall. I think I want to research information seeking behaviors, but I don’t really know.

I’m getting published in The Sun. I’ve been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. I want to win a Pulitzer one day.

I’m mentally ill. Bipolar. Four hospitalization. One suicide attempt. Self-harm scars on my right leg. Compulsive skin picker. Binge eater. OCD obsessions. I take Effexor, Abilify, and Neurontin. Former binge drinker. Recovering codependent.

I’m in pain. My left ankle is in chronic pain. I have vulvodynia. My vagina hurts for no reason. I do physical therapy for this and it is slowly helping.

My father was an opioid addict. My mother had post-partum depression.

I have amazing friends.

I’ve been told I’m needy.

I’ve slept with five men. Kissed seven men and one woman.

I’m backpacking Europe this summer. I’m excited and terrified.

I struggle to feel secure.

I have something to say.

I’m a human being like everyone else.

I feel a lot of shame about myself, but finally I can look to myself in the mirror and see that I’m beautiful.

I’m Samantha.

Hope (Untitled)

by Hilary B. Bisenieks

Hope comes from behind, from the dark corners of our minds, as a surprise when things feel hopeless.  Hope is a surprise.  Its light blinds me, showing me more clearly the darkness all around, making me gasp, making my eyes water–no, of course I’m not tearing up.  Hope does not wait for your permission.  It is not going to sit patiently by until I tire of my bad mood–it does not have time for self-indulgence.

Hope is the second half of a public radio interview when I’m late for work: stressed, engine revving longer before I change up.  I must step back, mentally, because hope is here, reminding me that the world isn’t doomed.  Hope plays the longest game, and it might be a year, five, ten, a lifetime before you see how the pieces are falling into place, and once you see that, you can look back and finally notice the patterns that you couldn’t see at the time.  Hope is the forest, growing one tree at a time, breathing out new life, previous oxygen, absorbing the carbon dioxide, for hope could not live without a bit of negativity.  Hope acknowledges change, effects it even when you think that it’s lost, that you are hope-less, devoid of any potential for change, and when you look away, when you bury your head in your hands, it strikes: surprise!

Hope.

Pretty Fucking Good

by Samantha Capps

So I’m lying on my back on the back end of my car, my legs dangling off the trunk, my head on the back window, and I’ve changed out of my dress pants from work and into a pair of short-shorts so I can feel the breeze against my legs, the breeze that’s full of the newness of fall, and beside me is an empty bowl out of which, minutes ago, I ate pasta with pesto and zucchini, a meal I cooked for myself, which is unusual for me, lazy-eater me, and as I lie there, staring upwards, watching birds frolick in the air, the neighbors come home, first the Asian lady a few apartments over who tries to talk to me sometimes even though I can never really understand what she’s saying through her accent, and then the Hispanic family to the left of my apartment, a woman with two kids and now I think her sister is staying there with her kid, and all of them are always yelling and laughing and playing in Spanish, and I remember how last night they were outside, and the kids had found a stray cat and were talking to it and playing with it and begging theirs moms to let them keep it, and the argument switched back and forth from Spanish to English to Spanish again so many times I lost track of it, and so I sit up and wave to them and see everything around me, my car with the side-mirrors held on with duct tape, the apartment that’s kind of dingy, paint peeling from the red front door, but otherwise a nice, cozy spot, and plants out front, the plants I planted, which I had never done before, plant plants, and there’s a vegetable growing and I don’t what it is because the seeds were a gift from a friend who didn’t tell me what they were, and even though my world feels broken and my body hurts and my brain won’t stop thinking about people that I can’t figure out and my life, which I also can’t figure out, and all the math I need to study and how I still need to wash to dishes and the big FACT DU JOUR, which is “Oh my god, I have no idea what I’m doing,” I think that maybe this moment right now is pretty fucking good.

Let Me Tell You a Story

by Hilary B. Bisenieks

Back when I was young–well, younger than I am today–and the biggest publication credit I had to my name was a piece in my high school lit-mag, back when I first realized that I wanted to Write, I wrote a story.  Compared to my more recent work, it wasn’t much, but it was the first story I’d written of which I was proud.  I thought it was pretty good.  Not only that, but other people thought it was pretty good.  So good, they told me I should try to get it published.

Back in the mid-80’s, back before I was born, my father worked for Amazing Science Fiction.  The head editor at Amazing was a man named George Scithers.  During my early childhood, George lived a few blocks away from us in West Philadelphia.  My dad would take me to George’s house when he went to pick up manuscripts that he was proofreading for George, and I would marvel at all the books and the old-fashioned phone on the wall and the huge desk that dominated George’s study.  George would call me “Sprout,” and toss my hair, and then he and my dad would talk books for a little while.

Later, George took the reins at Weird Tales, a magazine which I revered, even though I had read very little of its recent publication run.  I knew the name because it had helped make a name for Lovecraft and others back in the 20’s.  I knew that I wanted to get published there.

So I polished up my story, found a big envelope, and sent my manuscript to Weird Tales.  By this point, George was living in Maryland, and that’s where Weird Tales was being published from, otherwise I mights have been tempted to walk the MS over myself and stick it in the mail slot of that house on Larchwood Street.  And then I waited.

And I waited.

And one afternoon, there was a phone call.  Not to my cell phone, the number of which I had put on the MS, but on the house phone.  It was George.  He told me that he’d read my story.  He was a great man for many reasons, but one certainly was that he’d read anything by anyone, regardless of whether he’d heard of them.  Of course it didn’t hurt that he’d seen me grow up.

He told me that he thought my story was “damn good.”  His words.  For real.  Then he took half an hour to tell me how it could be an even better story.

So I sent a revision.  And he sent back a marked up copy, telling me in no uncertain words what needed changing.

By the time I sent my next revision, there had been an editorial shakeup at the magazine, and George wasn’t there to give his time to a young, unheard-of writer like me anymore.  Several years later, I heard that he’d died.  I was sad.  I’m still a bit sad.  Sad that George didn’t get to see any of my stories published.  Sad that I lost my first writing mentor.  Sad that the sf/f community lost someone so amazing.

And today I’m sad that, after another change in leadership, Weird Tales has betrayed the trust of its readers and betrayed the vision that George, and Ann VanderMeer after him, worked towards to promote good, chilling, dark, beautiful weird fiction.

You Are Finite

by Samantha Capps

So I’ve started drinking coffee again. I had previously been coffee-free for over a year (excluding that week I spent working at New York Fashion Week, during which I drank more cups of Startbucks coffee than the sum total I had ever drank before or will ever drink again), but last Saturday, when I arrived at my second part-time job expecting to get off at five or six only to be told I would working until eight or nine and I realized that Yes, I will be working over 50 hours this week, I immediately sat down at the bar, ordered a turkey sandwich, fried Oreos, and a big ol’ cup of coffee before my work shift started.

This bothers me, because I like not drinking coffee, not because of the taste (I drink my coffee black and enjoy it very much, actually), but because I dislike being dependent on caffeine for energy. I want to cultivate a lifestyle where my sleep and diet are enough to get me through the day awake and lively, and that when I am tired, well, that’s a perfectly healthy sign that I should sleep. But with two part-time jobs, sleep and healthy food had taken the backseat to WORK, and I found myself once again jolted by into awake-ness by a good, hot cup of joe.

I thought maybe Saturday would be an exception, that next week I would be better and wouldn’t need the caffeine. But as I type this, with my eyes drooping even though I got nine hours of sleep last night and a six-hour work shift looming in the future, I know that when I sit down at the bar and eat a sandwich before starting work, I will once again order a cup of coffee.

Here is the greatest tragedy of my life: there simply is not enough time, among other resources, to do everything I want to do. I want to work so I can make money and afford things, I want to read an ever-growing list of books, I want to write every day to perfect my craft, I want to go for a daily run, I want cook healthy meals for myself, I want to maintain healthy friendships, I want to start new friendships, I want to keep my house clean, I want to keep my car in good shape, I want to sleep eight hours every night, I want to journal every day, I want to travel, I want to stay in touch with people who live far away, I want to watch every movie that has at least a 75% approval score on Rotten Tomatoes, I want to practice my French language skills and become fluent, I want to start up a Free Conversation table in Charlotte, I want to bake, I want to start a garden, I want to have fun and play with dogs and play on swing sets and go swimming and laugh and get drunk and have a good time with the people I love and care about, but there simply isn’t time to do all of these things and do them well.

I am highly introverted and need a lot of rest and downtime at home. I am a slow reader. I get tired easily. I have a chronic ankle injury that prevents me from being as active as I want to be. I am sensitive person who sometimes is simply feeling melancholy and just wants to stay at home and not accomplish anything. I am not a “GO GO GO GO GO GO” type. I find myself, at the end of the day, contemplating not everything I accomplished (working at two jobs, doing the laundry, taking out the trash, writing 300 words of an essay, sending five e-mails, have a good conversation with my dad) but everything I didn’t do (still haven’t finished that book of short stories by Flannery O’Connor, still need to finish making the sign for the Free Conversation table, forgot to do the dishes, room is a mess, car needs an oil change, haven’t spoken to What’s-Her-Name in months, didn’t read the article Dad sent me), and I go to bed feeling dissatisfied with myself and wake up exhausted because I’ve been working a lot and eating too much sugar and carbs and goddammit give me a cup of coffee!

Though my desires are infinite, I myself am finite. The energy I have and the time I take up and the space I live in is finite. And so is everyone else. By choosing to put our time and energy into one thing, we inevitably take it away from another. This is why we can only have so many close friends, why we get tired, why we get hungry, why we strive to accomplish things by working against the upper bound of our potential.

What I need is not caffeine, but the wisdom to choose what is best worth the use of my limited resources.

(I’m still getting that coffee when I go to work, though.)

Forgiveness

by Hilary B. Bisenieks

I hold grudges.  It is as human as error–we let people get under our skin, whether we want to or not.  Still, I try not to.  Something about that dislike festers inside me.  I’ve had people leave on me before I could forgive them–people I love, who I don’t want to hold anything against.

Then there are the others: those people who I somehow love to hate.  Maybe they’ve forgotten me.  Maybe if we met again they’d apologize or think that we’re cool now because that was high school or middle school.  They’re the people you watch from afar, maybe on Facebook, just waiting for the day that their whole world crashes down around their ears.  Then you will feel that there is some justice in the world.

When I lost my job, I was depressed.  I was also angry.  My boss told me there’d be no work for a week or so while he moved into new digs.  He told me he’d call.  A week later, I started wondering about how I was going to get my next paycheck.  I went by the old shop, then the new one.  Both were empty, their windows showing only “For Rent” signs.  I was furious.  I swore. I railed against my former boss to anyone who would listen.  “That chickenshit little bastard,” I would say.  “He never called, never said anything.  He took my wheels.  Probably sold them by now.”

I tried to find him, tried to call, tried Facebook, even sent a message to his girlfriend.  Nothing.

Then, last weekend, I got a reply.  He was sorry.  He felt bad for dropping off the face of the earth.  His girlfriend told me that she’d tried to text me, but it must not have gotten through.  My boss still had my wheel set.  He was trying to make up my final paycheck.  He was sorry.

What do you do when everything you thought about a man gets turned on its head?

I’m not ready to forgive, quite yet, but if any of what I said about my boss gets back to him, I’m sorry.

The Lobster

by Samantha Capps

It’s just another day at my first post-college job. I work at the meat counter at a grocery store down the street from my father’s house, where I am currently living, and now that I have finished putting out all the meat and fish in the display cases, it is time for me to clean out all the storage bins that the dead fish sleep in overnight. It is during this time at work when I become the most introspective, and if I am not careful, it is easy for me to slip in thinking-about-regrets mode or thinking-about-how-I’ve-messed-up-recently mode or thinking-about-things-I-want-but-can’t-have mode. Today my mind focuses on that last one. I think about how I want a more fulfilling job that doesn’t require me to come home spelling like raw meat everyday and where I don’t often have to stay an hour later than I was scheduled to work, about people I wish didn’t live so far away, about people who didn’t live far away but who I wish would see me differently or treat me better or that I had the strength to apologize to.

After some time, I become frustrated with this way of thinking. Okay, so I don’t have everything I want. Who the hell does? I do have a job, which many people don’t. Later this afternoon, I am starting my second part-time job, which means I’ll be busy as hell but I’ll be making money so that maybe soon I won’t have to live in my father’s house. I do have plenty of amazing and wonderful friends, even if they are far away. I try to change my thinking, to focus not on what I don’t have or how I wish I wasn’t here right now doing the dishes. I tell myself that wonderful things await me in the future, maybe not big or amazing things, but things that will make me smile, and what I need to do is simply accept the frustrations and enjoy these joys when they happen.

“Excuse me.”

I turn and another grocery worker is standing at the counter.

“Have you ever done a Kid Store before?” she asks and points behind her, to where a gaggle of preschoolers is gathered around the bakery counter with their mothers.

“Uh, no,” I say.

“Well, all you have to do is take one of the lobsters out of the tank and let the kids pet it.”

“Um, I haven’t actually taken one out before, but I’ll give it a try.”

The lobster live at floor-level underneath the fish display. I like the lobsters. When I’m feeling overwhelmed at work, I sometimes take a minute to simply watch them bobbing about in the water, unaware of their impending deaths, but perfectly content if possibly confused about where the hell the ocean went.

I’ve watched my coworkers grab a lobster before, but I’ve never done it myself. I slide the lid to the tank back and stick in the pole that somehow makes it easier to grab the things. One of the lobsters start attacking the pole but because his claws are rubber-banded together, he can only bump them against the pole futilely. I manage to pull him part way out of the tank, then I grab him around the middle, and I can’t help but smile. He twists about in my hands but isn’t strong enough to break free. His black eyes move around independently from each other, and he kicks his legs as if searching for solid ground.

I set him on my arm and take him out onto the grocery store floor to let the kids pet him. The giggle and stroke his back, and I think, “This is pretty nice. I am glad to be here right now, with the this absurd, doomed crustacean on my arm, surrounding by children who are still innocent enough to be amazed by a grocery store.”

The lobster moves less as time goes by. He needs to go back to the tank. When I try to take him off my arm, he wraps his legs around me as if hesitant to leave my warmth, and I have to pry him off. I slip him back in the tank, and for a second I think I kept him out too long because he just sits there lopsided, unmoving. Then he regains himself, sets himself upright, and wanders off to go frolick with the other lobsters, and in that moment, I am simply content and grateful to have brought some smiles to those kids’ faces and very, very glad that, this time at least, I did not have to send the lobster to his death.

Thank You, Madeline

by Robin Criscuolo

I am grateful to be a babysitter.

How many of the books we know, love, and read aloud over and over to the children in our lives began when a child, wrapped in blankets and ready for bed said to a grownup friend, “Tell me a story?”

I have begun a new manuscpript in that exact way.

My evening with Madeline began with much goofery and tickling and farting and giggling. About ten minutes before bedtime, she tried to convince me of watching a movie, but I refused and instead we began reading The Adventures of Tintin, Tintin in America. Part way through, we transitioned from rug to bed. We pulled the covers up and propped the book on my chest, our heads together as we followed Tintin and Snowy from one peril to the next. When it really was truly past her bedtime (I hope her parents don’t read this. I regularly keep her up past sleeping time because I can’t put down the story we are sharing.), closed the book and turned off the light. I began rubbing her back; our bedtime tradition.

“Tell me a story,” she says.

“Okay. On what topic?” Last time I had told her a personal story that blended my mother’s childhood and mine and the story of how I grew up with horses.

“The twelve dancing princesses.”

I know this is a well known children’s fairy tale and I have even read it, but it never stuck with me.

“I dont really know that one.”

“That’s okay. Just make one up.”

“It can be anything as long as there are twelve dancing princesses?” I ask.

“Yes.”

“Okay.”

So I closed my eyes and told her my story of the twelve dancing princesses. It blended my childhood longing to take ballet and my sister’s experience with stage fright, with complete fiction and characters and details that appealed to me in the moment. And I really liked it. So did she.

“That was better than the real story,” she murmered before drifting off.

On the way home, I retold it to my cell phone’s voice recorder.

Now I am well on my way through a first draft of a story that I actually feel has some merit and potential. The working title is The Twelve Dancing Princesss. That being said, it is nothing like the story you probably recall by that title.

I am grateful to be a babysitter.

Recently, a father paid me $40 simply for bringing his son, Noah, home after school. I was free to go once the boy was delivered, since some teenage cousins were at the house, but I stayed for two hours, playing a card game, and then reading from Falling Up, a book of Shel Silverstein’s poems. Noah picked the poems he wanted to hear based on the ink illustrations of each. Noah is five and so alive and present. During the card game which he had never played before, he caught on fast and was clearly stratagizing to defeat his opponents. When I read to him, he cuddled into my side, and though at first he was distracted by the flashing screen of the televison the teen cousins were watching, after a few poems, his gaze hardly strayed from the pages and I could feel his body relax.

I’m grateful for how, as writers, our influnences pile up, from past reading experiences from our childhood, to present day incounters with written words. For me the written word and physical experience are inextricable. I get viscerally excited when discussing and workshopping picture books. I find that I write better if I first move my body, whether running or making fire by friction. Most of my shared reading and storytelling experiences are also times of shared physical contact with children, cuddling on a sofa or rubbing my eight-year-old friends back as she requests “Tell me a story.”

Here I am the next morning, typing furiously, trying to capture the dynamic of last night’s story before it flits away from me.

I am grateful to be a babysitter.

Sam Contemplates Shoplifting

by Samantha Capps

The local ToysRUs store, the one I had visited as a child, the one where I bought my purple translucent GameBoy Color and my first Pokemon card cartridge, was having a moving sale: every toy in the store at least 40% off. One of my newest obsessions since moving back home and having access to television was the Cartoon Network show Adventure Time, and my desire to buy some Adventure Time toys for dirt cheap won out over my increasingly anti-consumerism attitude, so I recruited a friend to go check out the sale with me.

We scoured every aisle of the store. Among all the Barbie dolls and Bratz dolls, I found one Adventure Time toy, a doll of one of the main characters from the show. He was in a good condition but with no tag, and once I noticed this details, an idea came to me.

“There’s no tag,” I said to my friend. “I could just, you know, slip it in my bag, and no one would know, and no one could prove I stole it.”

I expected him to be offended or scold me, but instead, he surveyed the aisle in search of security cameras.

“Looks clear. It’s up to you.”

I have never been much of a rebel. Four years of Catholic school drilled a strict moral code into me that had thus far proved indelible against seven years of agnosticism (with a few years of atheism mixed in). I was the girl who never broke the rules, who asked a lot of questions just to make sure I wasn’t breaking any rules, whom others sometimes feared to be a snitch. A coworker in college called me a goody-two-shoes one day for my insistence that we not exaggerate the hours we worked on a project for our time cards.

“What does that even mean, really?” I asked him while denying my goody-two-shoes status.

“It means you keep your shoes clean just because you’re supposed to.” Maybe I was a goody-two-shoes.

But this wasn’t just breaking the rules. This was breaking the law. College had broken me of my avoidance of victim-less crimes, though it took me until my junior year of college to final indulge in a bit of underage drinking. I had always thought that as a good girl, I would avoiding the many tragedies of more rebellious acquaintances, but in college someone told me that most of the alcoholics he knew didn’t start drinking until they turned twenty-one, and during my final semester of college, three months after my twenty-first birthday, as I lay drunk and crying on my friend’s floor, it occurred to me that maybe that guy had been right and that my years of sobriety had only prepared me for a lifetime of drunken suffering.

But in that case, I was only hurting myself. By stealing, I was taking something that belong to someone else. That someone else happened to be a ToysRUs store. Did ToysRUs really deserve that level of respect from me? They probably employed countless underage workers in China to make toys just like the one in my hand that I wanted so desperately. By paying money for this toy, I was contributing to a corrupt capitalist system. But if I really wanted to avoid capitalism, I wouldn’t have gone to ToysRUs in the first place.

I thought of a friend, who, as I drove us to the YMCA weeks earlier, had criticized me for stopping at a red light when there was obviously no one else at the intersection.

“It’s stupid!” he declared, and I couldn’t figure out who I wanted to punch in the face more: him or my inability to accept that maybe he was right and that stopping at a red light at an empty intersection is the epitome of my sheep-like “moral” behaviors.

I wanted to steal the toy to prove him wrong, to show him that I could break the rules. But breaking a rule simply because it’s a rule struck me as just as blind and sheep-like as following the rule. In that case, paying for the toy would be the true rebellion, an affirmation that I am more than a petty rebel. I’ll save for my rule-breaking for things that matter, not for material gain or a few extra seconds on a drive to the gym.

I decided to pay for the toy. It took the cashier five minutes to look up the toy on a computer and find the price for me. It wasn’t until after we left the store that I glanced at the receipt and discovered that she had charged me for the wrong toy, one that was probably more expensive than the one I actually had. I was tempted to think that the universe was punishing me (another remnant of Catholic school. I no longer believe in a God with the power to punish sins, but whenever things go wrong, I can’t help but think it’s a form of punishment from above). I had made the wrong decision.

Then I remembered that the toy I bought, the one that was in great condition and that I still only had paid five bucks for, was the only one in the entire store and was exactly what I had been looking for. I make countless decisions every day, some of which are more morally respectable than others (unless you want to go into the Nietzschean concept of morality, but that’s for another day, dear reader), and regardless of whether I made the right choice by not shoplifting, in the end I had gotten what I wanted, and my friend had gotten what he wanted (a Nerf gun and camo-colored bullets), and maybe we were contributing to a corrupt capitalist system and blindly following the rules of our Christian upbringings, but for now we were satisfied and that’s kind of all that really mattered.