Insecure Dusk

“Hey! Do you work at Happy’s?”

My knees bounced, chin persistently pressed against my chest barely heaving. The purple visor concealed my blush, but the black cardigan was too iconic.

***

“You’re a natural beauty,” he said, as I snuck him the cup from McDonald’s that I filled with Dr. Pepper. He and his friend. James and Austin. This was two weeks prior. They spoke to me as my father would have drunk from a dirty glass, cursing a shortage of real alcohol. I’ve had few problems attracting men, though snaring genuine intrigue’s long been hard.

“My boss doesn’t think so,” I looked to my gravy-stained apron, placing my hands in pockets, handling cash though I was told this was “gross for a waitress to do.” The police officer had a word with the manager, who told him I was new to food service. “‘Stay in school’ is what you tell her, my friend. She won’t stand a chance anywhere else. There will always be a need for college professors.”

I retold the exchange to Julie and Lane, both of them shaking their heads, giving me a hug, announcing “I’d never marry someone if he did that on a date.” And many a ring we saw declined. Always after six in the early dusk. Eleven hours more. I walked, cleaned, squirted whipped cream, ladled ranch dressing, and told dirty jokes until five in the morning. Usually.

James and Austin strangely didn’t ask for chicken fried steak. Though James caressed my contaminated palms, asked me to sit down, and smiled as I made small talk about friends I knew who paid off their debts by pole dancing. The couple I served five feet away promptly rose, leaving me nothing.

“Say, the Smithson Motel just down the street’s open twenty-four hours. We’re staying there tonight. A business trip.” Austin was the one who never spoke.

“I’m here until five.” I remembered the teacher who waited for her salad at the bar. “What would we do anyway?”

“Eh, we were just gonna kick it with some chicks. Would be nice if you’d join us. Got some Malibu rum in a cooler. Let me write you the room on this receipt.”

“Sir, I’m afraid I can’t.” Howard slid a bowl of drenched lettuce down the aisle from the kitchen. I hurried to make my delivery. Then I returned to a Sharpie scrawl, dark as the sky I could see through the bullet hole lodged above the two young men in their loafing.

“Your number, here.” An arrow beneath, a line etched an ant’s worth from the bottom of the receipt. Reading men was always hard.

I blinked, trying to make up a number as I already fabricated a good twelve. I gave them a code, and James brought his phone to make the call. Just to make sure I knew how to reach him.

“I, please. Guys, I really can’t—”

“No worries! We’ll pick you up at five. The motel’s down the street.”

“I, look. Are you like this with every waitress?”

Jason crossed his arms, spread his legs to reveal his inner thighs stained with what I wanted to think was soy sauce or maple syrup. I didn’t inquire.

“Sweetie, you’re a special girl. An intelligent one. Not many girls just take a seat and talk to the patrons the way you do. It’s not that they’re snooty or anything. It’s just, they lack the capacity.”

“Excuse me?”

“Honey, what I mean to say is when we hook up with girls, we prefer them to be intelligent. Look, we didn’t buy dinner. But we’ll tip you well. I promise.”

“Give me a minute.”

I rarely blushed, and this time, blanched. My face with its dry patches, resembling a waxing moon, its craters void of life. My shortcomings often revolved around crafting a polite declination. It’s something I still can’t do.

I spoke to the manager who told me of the police offer’s dissatisfaction with my skills.

“Consuela, all men are dogs.”

“Of course,” I picked at a hangnail.

Josue looked on as the boss walked over to where James sipped from his not-from-Happy’s cup. Josue was aware of the jaunty exchange but washed our dishes to the mantra of equal opportunity. “Women, they’re not infants,” he’d say, pointing at me to reiterate that really, I should know better.

Austin glared without a word. Jason tipped his hat my way. “Don’t be so presumptuous,” he greasily cooed.

“Ah, no shame.” Josue patted my shoulder. “But look, they left you a tip!”

At their emptied booth laid the smeared request. And a dollar. His phone number crassly added, whining like a dog confined for retaliatory defecation.

“Don’t be insecure,” Josue pointed his lips. “Don’t be giving it away, just because a guy says you’re pretty.”

“I don’t.”

“But so many do, Consuela. Just the other night, some girl got raped by a man she ran into on the bus.” The waitstaff only called me Consuela as I resembled a character in some eighties movie. A mousy girl with academic promise, working in her father’s restaurant all through dusk, forsaking homework that was due the morning after.

“I’ve learned not to talk to men on the bus.”

“And so you used David as your reference to work here.” David, I met at a bus stop. His tip book convinced me to try waiting tables. Wipe away vomit, lie about life, pretend to be the girlfriend of a rich old man. Albeit in a fashion laughable.

Barely concealed by the purple hat, I glanced at James to see blackened scabs. An altercation, or crystal meth. I continued with my presumptions. He skimmed through the Classifieds, looking for work.

***

“No, I can’t say I work there.”

“Oh, okay. Just, you look familiar.” He looked out the window, into the fog of one a.m., when no cars passed. The bus driver called for me to get off, as I lugged my bag of newspapers. My second job when Happy’s gave me a break from long evenings.

I ran with all I had, from imaginary predators.

Connie Undone, my first novel, officially comes out on March 1st. But you can pre-order it on Amazon for $18.99. If you’d like a pre-ordered, signed copy, Venmo me at KristineBrown1918, and for a limited time, I’ll send you a paperback for $12, if you’re a U.S. resident. If you’re outside of the United States and would like a copy, let me know, and we’ll work something out. I’ve decided to challenge myself by writing a poem for the first 250 purchasers of Connie Undone. I’ll write the poem on the subject of your choice. Include the subject along with your mailing information if you are buying a copy from me. If you prefer to buy books on Amazon, just send me a screenshot as proof of purchase, and I’ll get started on your poem!

March Publications

Hello, all! I hope you are well. I thought I might share this month’s publications, for anyone interested in reading them.

Ghost City Review published “Unstrung Pearls” at the beginning of March. Find it here.

Soft Cartel offers a fantastic assortment of short stories, poetry, and artwork. “Atún” is a prose piece about a cat, childhood, loss, and communal complacency. Read it here.

Maudlin House features another short story, “Unchanged Melodies.” I wrote this piece a few years ago. It is somewhat autobiographical, and is based on my childhood experiences living overseas on a military base. Much of the story is drawn from my memories of a classmate with autism who was often ridiculed, feared, and generally misunderstood by those around him. Check it out here.

Thank you so much for your readership and support. Gradually, I’ll be concentrating on more short fiction, with a focus on color and emotional acuity.

Have a good day,

Kristine

New Story in Queen Mob’s Teahouse

Hello all,

I wanted to let you know that I have a short story featured in Queen Mob’s Teahouse. It is titled “The Conditional Gift,” and was written in late 2016. You can give it a read here. I suggest listening to alt-J’s “Something Good,” while you’re at it. A big thanks to Jessica Sequeira, who currently serves as fiction editor. I highly recommend her novel, A Furious Oyster, particularly if you are a fan of Pablo Neruda.

I can’t thank you all enough for your continued support of my writing. I’m glad to have grown familiar with just how invigoratingly addictive creative exploration can be.

– Kristine

Simply Extraordinary – Misfortune and Strife in Steven Baird’s Ordinary Handsome

ordinaryhandsomeiiI first read Ordinary Handsome a little more than a year ago. Admittedly, I felt quite overwhelmed upon finishing the book, giving it a second, third, and fourth read. Not only did the book leave me breathing deeply, scouting for the aroma of old black tea, the imprisoning honesty of spilled liquor, salty dried blood staining dusty fabric, and the freshness of limes that serve disturbingly more than just a culinary purpose. Steven Baird’s novel demanded my full attention, and even though I was absolutely absorbed each time I read it in around five hours, I didn’t quite know what to make of it. His writing is exquisite, the subject matter is temporally relevant, and there are characters to both pity and loathe. Ordinary Handsome, in its grit and precision, tells of extraordinary misfortune and strife.

Baird illustrates the backdrop poetically. As we walk through the streets of Handsome, Oklahoma, it’s accepted that this is a town from someone’s childhood, or a town only heard of through family storytelling. The gravel scrapes beneath our feet, sweat rolls down our foreheads as we watch farmers toil to barely last the year, and we catch ourselves gagging, perhaps flinching, as we pass the bar owned by Henry Wasson, a simple man with a precocious son and memories that both comfort and haunt. In narrating the hardships of the townspeople, Wasson’s dilemmas, and the impact of his deeds on those around him, Baird clearly deliberates, word by word. While he abandons quotation marks, it is simple to discern who says what, and what was committed by whom. Perhaps Baird does this to further accentuate the bareness of an impoverished, dying town. Perhaps Baird does this to call for our attention, to read and re-read. The story, though structurally fragmented, comes together. But one has to watch for every reed to weave that compact basket.

Most impressive are the contrasts presented throughout the story. A bar packed with regulars and full glasses that actually faces financial collapse. The hint of a bra spotted on a young girl during a date years ago, a young man eventually choosing a bra that the girl will wear in her coffin. A boy who toys with grapes “like a kitten,” though his actions and father are far from innocent. The undeniable presence of families, however incomplete. While women make brief appearances throughout the story, there lacks a maternal element. Ultimately, we witness the struggles, codependency, and eventual severance of ties between fathers and their lone sons. Especially striking is the presence of a mathematics museum in a town that seems to forsake intellectuality. We have a father who manages a bar, who can’t comprehend the meaning of integers, and a son who seeks comfort in numbers and their certainty. While Handsome, Oklahoma appears dry, rusted, and cyclically unambitious, horrific crimes transpire. The darkness of such deeds is inarguable, though the consequences that follow are so numerous that the thought of what only could happen drives a man to madness.

Ordinary Handsome is more than an account of poverty, alcoholism, and damage rooted in human imperfection. It is a psychological thriller, a coming-of-age story, a dramatic read that one could adapt to an accessible play or film. Read it in the rain, twilight, or heat. Read it several times if the story perplexes you. Steven Baird has crafted more than a lush narrative, but moreover, a warning of the harm we all could inflict under desperation’s duress.

Ordinary Handsome is available on Amazon, via Kindle.

this that they call mania

energy,
I don’t know you.
But I’m caught
grappling with excess
and stressors floating
in a plastic cup,

slices of strawberry,
and the pinch of limes.
But is it enough
to wake me up?
The elevator mirror
laughs autopilot at every commuter,

while nickels drop
in a trashcan
where eager orange peels
pantomime and smile
beneath the sunlight
out of time.

melatonin,
mistook for the thing
that paints rainbows
and syntactic breadth,
may, in proper acknowledgement,
drift to save us all.

*Cat No. 37 of the 500 Cats Project

Swiftly Paced Intricacy – Oak and Mist by Helen Jones

Available on Amazon via Kindle or paperback.

Available on Amazon via Kindle and paperback.

Admittedly, I’m not what you’d call extremely well-read. That being said, aside from the first installment of The Lord of the Rings series, and the Harry Potter books that I’ve rarely ever re-read, I have hardly read any fantasy. Perhaps it’s all too intimidating, with its multiple worlds, factions, alliances, alter-egos, and allusions to mythology and other things I find elaborately rich. While I’ve intended to, I’ve never really given attention to the YA genre. It takes a skilled and enthusiastic writer to draw me into such works, and with Oak and Mist, Helen Jones does the job.

We see predestination’s lingering hold as Alma faces a tall order. Ambeth, a world outside the familiar, is threatened by an imbalance between Light and Dark. One does not choose the faction he is born into, and ultimately, one is not granted volition to shift, even in the unlikely presence of a desire to do so. Caleb, Alma’s friend, makes this clear as he dissuades her emotions for a boy from the wrong end of the spectrum.

Jones presents a world that I found highly believable, intricate though uncomplicated. Ambeth is lush with pleasantries, elegant party wear, a hierarchy and party scenes that warmly remind me of the Royal Diaries series. Alma, quiet though brave and resolute, reminded me so much of my younger self, overly impressed with the outwardly beautiful and concerned of other’s perceptions. She’s like a snow globe; you can sense when something unsettles her, whether it regards the dangerous, the lustful, or simply, the possibility that she has wounded a friend, however lacking the intention to. Her friendship with Caleb is something most of us have had, along with exasperating conversations about whether That Guy is worth dating.

While I found descriptions of Alma’s infatuation to be gratuitous and sweetly tedious to read, I was impressed with Jones’s integration of the conventional human world with that of contentious Ambeth. The idea of hybrid individuals and half-siblings isn’t new, though I appreciated the dialogue regarding acceptance of one’s blood, and awareness of one world over another. At several points throughout the novel, what appear to be gaps are eventually sealed. The story itself is considerably fast-paced to where one may not acknowledge that something is amiss. However, upon this realization, readers can appreciate that few things mentioned in Oak and Mist could be dismissed as trivial.

Oak and Mist details what I’d expect in the YA genre: formative relationships, both romantic and platonic, familial bonds, and reconciliation between how one would like things to be and how things actually are. Events and relationships are presented so cohesively to where the book could well stand on its own, though the detail in thoughts, interactions, and transferrals between Ambeth and the world in which we readers live leaves much to be predicted and returned to. Delightfully, Oak and Mist is just the first book of the Ambeth Chronicles, as Ms. Jones has just finished its followup, No Quarter. I anticipate the second book to be just as enjoyable.

With all being said, I should really give some genres more of a solid read.

Small Town Friendships and Unconscionable Doings – Pete Deakon’s Buried Within

Pete Deakon’s second novel, Buried Within, is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

Not everything is alright in America’s humble Midwest.

I’ve only been to Missouri for three days, at most. One day in Springfield, two in St. Louis. While I remember the weather being muckier than desired, walking from the botanical garden in an inadequate poncho, the people continued to grin.

In Buried Within, Pete Deakon illustrates just how the fond, playful winsome conflicts with the dreary, the two eventually coalescing as the horrific transpires.

“I’m here for you if you need it,” a friend offers in tragedy’s chill. But of course, the person facing loss may brood, in his own special way. Some understand, others are spooked. Maybe he’s not sad enough. Maybe he’s too angry. Perhaps, a bit obsessed. Crazed. They’ll still continue to talk about him, meaning well, though not immune to plasticized gossip and sentimental recollections of some romantic movie.

Mark, he’s a romantic. An awkward one who Deakon endows with calculative flair. Like The Divorce and Doom of Simon Pastor, Buried Within holds tight to the logical, each character’s thoughts, mannerisms, and relationships presented with the accessibility of a well-written instruction manual. But the steps you follow to assemble the cabinet, they’re written with heart and integrity.

Here is just an example of dry humor by which I was charmed:

“Like most men, Adam and John were not attorneys and they certainly made decisions that proved them to be hypocrites to their own lofty notions of morality, but still they held these notions.”

Of course, attorneys aren’t perfect people, and everyone, in a series however prolonged or brief, repeats the same mistakes. This is a human flaw, and while imperfection can embarrass and disappoint, Deakon describes everyday follies with a bluntness and dialogue that not only has one chuckling, but reassures readers that maybe, even through the appallingly unpredictable, things will be okay.

The thrill of courtship, the drabs of marriage, the challenge of keeping the flame at a flicker. Couples and partnership are key players in Buried Within, helping to establish the backdrop of a quiet town and steady friendships. Mark and Rebecca are great for each other. The girl, young and lively, shivers in her modesty, though comfort is found in the sheer stability of quiet, awkward Mark. Again, no one is perfect, but upon finding out, most would “tsk” and pry. So Mark and Rebecca keep to themselves for much of their married lives.

Before, things were better. Wholesome memories of a budding love that makes me think of that movie with a young Reese Witherspoon. Man in the Moon.

In time, Mark unravels. We see the petals of a vibrant rose gradually fall. Insecurity, infertility, the bureaucracy of adoption. Work. Because love doesn’t pay the bills, though you’d think it makes hardships easier to bear.

Mark gets struck with a hardship. Brought on by a different kind of awkward.

Deakon writes about the interpersonal in very personal ways. Again, I’ll emphasize that he’s quite technical, something I can’t deduce too often in the span of a short novel. The chapters read like vignettes, Norman Rockwell paintings that hang on the same wall, but don’t necessarily depict the same thing, like dogs or the ocean, hotdogs and cottages. We begin at the present, roll in the past, proceed to the present again. The woods, a car, a bowling alley. A garage. The trunk of a car. Deakon doesn’t concentrate too much on building a bridge from scene to scene, but they all fit tightly. More so, we appreciate detail in thoughts and dialogue.

But one thing I wish the author could have done more is drill more detail in those more unpleasant scenes.

In general, we tend to be more comfortable reading about atrocity than seeing it. Given the freedom of imagination, it makes a lot of sense. While Deakon did well with his fine brushstrokes the first half of the novel, I felt things grew curt towards the end. Know that the writing is always straightforward. But with actions we associate with high coverage trials, I was hoping for more exploration. The content itself is unsettling, though I wanted something more graphic.

However, this may be the point of it all. Contrasts are everywhere. The conventional versus the old-fashioned, the young and the old, the masculine and the effeminate. Pay attention to what Rebecca says about Mark’s dad, the perks Rebecca hopes for at work when she hits her thirties, the way Mark’s friends laugh at him because he uses the word “tendrils.”

By the way, I’ve never actually heard a man use the word “tendrils” in person.

So while I initially felt I was walking through some lush forest beneath some starry, lovelorn sky (and I do like to feel this way every once in a while), it seemed like I suddenly found myself in a pale tundra, with poison ivy here and there. Jarring and out of place.

But then again, maybe this was the goal Deakon aimed for.

The quirky and the creepy. The grieving and the vengeful. These, among a handful of other attributes, harbor similarities but diverge at a certain point. A fork in the road, or a fine line. The demarcation isn’t as harsh as the water of romance and the oil of postmarital boredom, but it’s there to be noticed. A point for reflection.

Despite its occasional brusqueness, Buried Within left me with thoughts whole and absorbed in our own flaws. The things we hold most dear, and things that really, anyone is capable of accomplishing when we lose our grasp on what we loved.

Serendipity, Altruism, and Sociopathy – The Beauty in “This is a Book”


Serendipity is often defined as a happening of chance, purveyor of help, good fortune, smiles. Serendipitous phenomena may beckon joy in times of despair, alleviate need in the midst of hardship, and quite possibly, restore faith in humanity. Quinn Farstride, town eccentric, arrives when most needed. No one knows how he pays his bills, keeps up with school, nor buys a home. Not a geographic coordinate can ever be determined for where he presently roams. Apparently, Quinn is a miracle worker. But is he altruistic?

In A Narcissist Writes Letters, to Himself, E.I. Wong has posted a draft of a mesmerizing novella. Transferred onto MS Word, single-spaced, the text comes out to 70 pages, feasibly read in two to three hours. But it is to be read again, firstly for its depth in themes to involve human relationships and the psychological, and secondly for the intricacy Wong’s writing imbues in character development and ambiguity. Is Q.F. a narcissist? Schizoid, a sociopath? A disorganized schizophrenic, as he initially proclaims? Soundness of mind aside, I wondered, “Did he really donate his kidney, blood, and marrow out of sheer kindness, or were they tickets to immortality? If they are simply tickets, should I be disappointed? Should I be mad?”

Dr. James Thatcher, professor of anthropology, writes a letter to his daughter, Melanie. Dr. Thatcher is a man who hates to lie, and on his deathbed, writes a letter to Melanie relaying a secret kept for eight years. As his son Todd faces renal failure, a gaunt ghost from Melanie’s childhood makes a university visit. Awkward, yet forceful, Quinn Farstride insists that he donates his kidney, already wielding test results that determine a plausible compatibility. Otherwise, little brother Arthur would donate, but doing so would jeopardize his journey in competitive football.

Quinn tells Dr. Thatcher he is losing his mind, and by donating, aims to preserve a functional aspect of his personhood before descending into madness. The mannerisms, speech, and uncanny knowledge of family affairs are all too unnerving. Predictably, Quinn fades, undetectable and absent to thank. After the donation, Dr. Thatcher ventures to find Quinn, speaking with his wife, consulting with mental health specialists, and finally, speaking with a Dr. Paysinger, the administrator at the hospital where Todd received treatment. Her disclosures captivate and intrigue, providing a detailed sketch of the vanishing oddball.

Emily, Dr. Paysinger’s daughter, has always been strange. In retrospect, Quinn’s mentorship only cultivated her peculiarities. Emily is sickly, needing blood transfusions to the extent that reserves have been drained at the hospital. Of course, Quinn has just the right type O negative blood to be a donor. Like the case of the Thatchers, Quinn coerces Dr. Paysinger into allowing him to repeatedly give blood to her daughter. Despite his frailty, donations continue, until the time of her transplant. The prospect of Quinn not needing to visit proves so distressing that ultimately, he vanishes from Emily’s life. At this point, erasure is a trend, a trademark end of Quinn’s interpersonal relationships.

But why does Quinn act, think, and commit to the feats that he does? Because he’s weird. This is a gross oversimplification. The goal of the narrator, and perhaps of readers, is to determine motives. What drove Quinn to give his blood, his time, his knowledge to an ever precocious young girl, and donate his kidney to the brother of a childhood friend with whom interactions were scarce? Quinn professes his love for Melanie. We know he hasn’t gotten over her, as his wife is a redheaded replica. Why does Dr. Thatcher take all this time to rediscover a strange bird who has already shown he can’t be found? Hell, Quinn doesn’t even want a “Thank you.” His ultimate request reads:

“I would like my last sane act to be a noble one. I would like myself, as I can perceive now, to be immortalized in this deed, so that in the future, when I am lost, I have a definite idea of the man I truly am; the man who I will try to uphold against my own illness.”

While Quinn’s desire is understandable, is it altruistic? He wants to preserve a sense of self. Of course that’s self-serving. But it doesn’t detract from the magic of his deeds, his resilience to the wear and tear of medical giving, the ability to self-sustain in the face of meager supply. Quinn is pretty weird. And impressive. He teaches martial arts to a young girl as a hands-on lesson in physics. A creative guy, though exasperating.

An exchange with Emily Paysinger gives Thatcher greater closure. The severance her mother describes was not permanent, for Emily visits Quinn after the kidney donation. Again, he disappears, despite the operation leaving him debilitated. Several lines shook me. Emily remarks,

“It wasn’t until I went to visit him in recovery that I realized that he had been…grooming me for some sort of purpose.”

Eventually, Emily receives a seven-paged letter from Quinn. More text that eerily resonates:

“He called me his ‘little catalyst for change.’ He wrote that I was to finish the ‘projects’ that he no longer could, and wrote me a list of instructions on how to complete each ‘equation.’ Quinn called the list a sort of training manual for what I was supposed to do and become.”

Bluntly, I admit that I thought to myself, “What a frickin’ narcissist!” Did Quinn write these equations, the framework for all these projects? What if he didn’t? And what kind of change was Quinn hoping to actualize?

Another of Quinn’s rarely explicit desires, and thoughts:

“‘It is my wish that you become a paragon of goodness. I see within you that potential to become something greater than the caliber of individuals that fill our world. You, my little angel, can be a creator and perpetuator of goodness and light…This is not a charge, or a demand I set upon you, but an acknowledgement from one friend to another, of the perfection I know you are capable of, and a design, a path, a way to that unified state.'”

Quinn seems to express a disappointment in the people around him. So does Melanie. In the beginning of Dr. Thatcher’s letter, he recalls her commenting, “‘Love isn’t real.'” But the letter aims to dispel this notion.

A dysfunction in personality seems to be a recurring topic of interest concerning Quinn’s character. I found him too deliberate and composed to legitimately suffer from the complexities of disorganized schizophrenia. He is written as a man who thinks, deliberates, inculcates. He reveals himself to be former thief, a rebel scornful of contemporary conventions, traveling yuppies, the ignorant layperson, organized religion. He is the quiet child in the corner of one of your college classes, never speaking his mind, though his facial expressions and mannerisms reveal all you need to know that something’s amiss. Something is brewing that chills, potentially harms without conscience. You’ve met “The Sociopath Next Door.”

And while it is dictated that sociopaths cannot feel, and indeed lack a moral framework, I refuse to think his interactions with Emily were purely self-serving. He taught her things of utility, and the end results of his doings, and her completion of the “projects” were good. Beneficial. Improved the lives of many. This seems too descriptive of utilitarianism. While the popular philosophy embraces maximization of good for all involved, altruism stipulates that good is spread to all except the actor, or “creator and perpetuator of goodness.”

Does Quinn benefit from any of his doings? It’s a topic for solid debate. Melanie, the love of his life, gives him the confidence to adopt a new perspective and disown his former ways. Emily, his adoring student, absorbs all the wisdom he wishes to teach, continuing his grand projects. But even if the projects perpetuate good, it seems that Quinn prefers not to be thanked, or even acknowledged. While the benefits he gleans are up for questioning, we know that he is gone. Regardless, miracles are made, within the story and craftsmanship alike.