The Annotated Lease by Katherine Zlabek


I want to introduce the camera’s eye immediately. Let there be no question that I am watching from a distance. I am adamant that this new woman not be made uncomfortable, that she stays, largely, out of this. Allow her to be the undisturbed point I write around. She looks, from what I can tell, like Selma Blair, a dark pageboy and pale skin. She takes her time with her questions, her thinking. She defers to her partner from time to time, to ask him about the placement of a table, a lamp, though she would be living here on her own. I don’t want to make much of her at all, except to draw the parallel between us. She is in my space, I was once her—asked her same questions, nodded of course as my landlord offered anecdote and definition.

At the core of this is a lease. Services provided, rules agreed to—the look around the room and the sigh of resigning oneself to living far beneath the bounds of not only the imagination, but of expectation and comfort, and often enough, beneath the bounds of dignity. 

The lease: a set of boundaries for which a person is willing to pay. Boundaries of space and time and effort. These boundaries vary by state and landlord. For Sterling, which is not this landlord’s real name, the line between one thing and the other bled. He owned the place. I rented the place. Who owned the atmosphere? Whose peace of mind should be preserved? The boundary between doing good and wrongdoing is nothing but terms twisted into barbed wire. So many feral gestures, unchecked deeds, pass through. A person who feels he can do what he wants and then does it. Is he an American success story, or an ass—a freethinker, or a criminal? He is all of these, of course. And let me pause to spread these labels liberally, including many, including myself. 

In response to Sterling’s lease, I bought a Canary—a small, unassuming security camera. It could hide in a row of books, or pass for a speaker. For the last year, I have known when lightening struck outside the window, when the floodlight was switched on, when a mouse or a bat had been on top of my writing desk, when Sterling brought strangers in during the day or the night, when Sterling let workers in, when the dust coating my belongings was asbestos, when he sat down and broke into my router. I knew what Sterling thought of my decorating, what Sterling thought about me. 

The Canary switched on when he brought this woman and her partner in to look at the apartment. I was leaving the university. She was joining the university. This was a rare occasion—perhaps the one occasion—when he told me he would enter. It made me proud, that he seemed to have learned to write, to call, ahead of time—first, two weeks, then a week, a day in advance—without my saying a thing. There was once a two-month span during the winter when I didn’t see him at all, heard no comment on my legs, no guesses about my sex life, didn’t hear him whistling into the doorway and up the staircase. During this time, I asked my neighbor whether he was still alive. He still cashes the rent, doesn’t he? For months, friends had been insisting I report him to the police. For what? Suspicions about cameras, petty Internet theft, trespassing, making me uncomfortable with his encompassing presence? Unless it was with my looks, my body language, I said nothing to him. Meaning, I did not say stop. Meaning, I tried to laugh at his jokes, but would more often sigh and look away, to where I’d been trying to go before he caught me in the hallway, the yard. When he stood outside my door at night and said, Are you in there?, no knock was necessary. He owns the door and holds the keys.



There’s a pause in the text as I consider whether to go on, and how. The division in my thinking is the division between past and present.


He hasn’t said or done anything any other man hasn’t said or done. A paraphrase from the news. They ask a woman in a Midwestern bar about a 2016 presidential candidate. She is a brunette in leather. She looks like my cousin. I think, That’s true. Then, Get out of there. I want to tell her to leave that bar, that town. There are other ways to live, I want to say, ways of living where this is not true.  


On the other hand, there is this piece I won’t write. It’s titled, “Trump Impersonations.” In it, I would detail all of the times a man who identifies as a progressive idealist, etc. has complained about America’s surge in misogyny, etc. since the 2016 election, lampooned the victor, discussed ways to counter the rhetoric—and then dealt it. 


One man asks the other, Can she handle it? The other man says she can. The first man tells the woman he’s saved her a seat. Right here: he waggles his tongue between his fingers. 


Or switch out both the characters and the actions—One liberal asks the other, one student asks the other, one teammate asks the other, one of her friends asks the other, one of his coworkers asks the other. What does the question mean: Can he/she/they handle it, whatever it is, and what if it is violent? 


I used to handle it very well. In my rural hometown, handling it was a necessary social grace. There is a triangle shaded light to dark and the triangle is made of three points: Continued Existence, Refusal to Weep, Ability to Find Charm. Handling it finds a space within those points. Handling it exists on a spectrum. Sometimes, it is flirtation. In the right circumstances, it can be a compliment. This is so rare, it can’t go unquestioned.


For instance, at sixteen, I stood in a high school gym after a basketball game. Someone older than me by five or six years told friends he’d like to pound me—a phrase I’ve modified to sound more genteel, less vulgar. (Am I asserting control over the story, or am I afraid to claim the rhetoric? Am I censoring him—now a dear friend, and one of my oldest—for his sake? And if so, how many times have I done this with how many others? In truth, we sometimes laugh about this moment, and that is the only way we think of it. But even this gives me pause now. At what, exactly, are we laughing—our youth? Or the way I’d been conditioned to respond, how “girlish” I was then?) When his words worked around the gym, I blushed. What a compliment, I thought. I can remember the striped sweater I wore that night—cable knit and thick. I had worried it was unflattering. 


It is a joke, it is a compliment, it is locker room banter, it is something neither of us wants to have associated with us anymore, because it is not a joke, a compliment, or banter. And what right do I have, someone who once responded genuinely to—who welcomed—tasteless remarks from a then-stranger (and from others, many times over, until, as one man said, I broke), what right do I have to be angry when my landlord talks about my legs and trespasses on his own property? 


At a dinner with a writer visiting the university, we begin to talk about Sterling. The department chair says, “Why didn’t you tell me? I could have taken care of it.”

I say, “I’m from the Midwest. I can deal with it. He just doesn’t understand the things he does.”

The chair says, “Spoken like a true victim.”


Let me pause to say there isn’t paper enough to list what occupies the darkest corner of the triangle, especially as its color bleeds into the lightest corner. There is no fixed point at which suggestion becomes threat, where threat becomes violation. They exist in a state of becoming.


For months, Sterling did not make me angry. But I was poised to be enraged. 


I began to watch footage from my Canary whenever I was out. There were entrances that weren’t being reported, for which I didn’t get notifications. Perhaps this was due to lighting, or Sterling moving too slowly. I began to look for violations beyond the obvious. I began to look for something that felt worse than discomfort and wariness. Many times after I left the apartment, the Canary reported that he came in five to ten minutes after I had exited. How closely was I being monitored, I wondered, and how? Did he knock before he entered, or did he simply tell the door he was coming in? 


I did not tell many people about Sterling, but the few I did tell were certain the apartment was filled with cameras. A female friend told me that I was enabling Sterling, that I was complicit in a larger narrative of abuse. My brother-in-law told me that if I didn’t report Sterling to the police, I was subjecting a long line of women—Sterling rents to only women—to whatever it is I have been subjected to, and likely worse. 


(Is my searching what bothers me? The fact that I was perched, in one of the oldest metaphors, for my prey? Would it bother me more or less if I knew my camera was the only camera in the apartment—that I was the only one watching every move? Sometimes, it seemed Sterling called only to chat. To tell me he had just finished doing squats in the makeshift basement gym below, or to wish me happy holidays. He told me, twice, that he had put his dog down—same dog, two tellings. Will you allow this behavior to be both endearing and bizarre?)


With each new notification from the Canary, my goodwill was struck down.  


At the end of my year as visiting faculty, over drinks, I tell the department chair that it had not been a good year for me to be there. 

The chair says, “She really wanted that place.” He is talking about my apartment, and about the woman who had come to look at it, the one who might look like Selma Blair. 


I want to move into the idea of wanting. That year, I wanted to leave. The idea was vague and urgent. 


The Canary recorded a bat swooping through my apartment and I returned days later ready to bag it. Instead, I opened the screen door to find the bat dead, wrapped in its own wings. It had crawled under my apartment door, along the hallway, down a curving staircase, and under a door, only to die at the screen. The bat had also wanted to leave.


I followed suit. I was tired of looking for cameras and Sterling’s hallway whistling, but I did not want to be any particular place. I left on weekends and existed elsewhere. Spent my time. The wanting to leave the apartment bled into the town, the university. I began to read Sterling into most male motives. I threw the majority of that year’s life into the trash. I regret much of that throwing. 


I have always been compelled to perform, as though the performance’s end was a desire. The performance (eagerness, helpfulness) has landed me in relationships, activities, cities that I had not wanted. Was this, too, part of handling it? Was the impulse to act related to want or to prevention? To desire or the fear of retaliation? Perhaps, even, the fear of indifference, of being treated indifferently? And what happens when the impulse vanishes? When the self is at odds with the life it has built, with the life it has told itself?  


Over the phone, I tell a friend I’ve made too much of this situation. She doesn’t know what I’m talking about. Then I remember that many people don’t know. I was afraid Sterling would overhear me talking about him. 


I sat in my office at the university when my phone chirped with a notification from the Canary. I watched Sterling show the apartment to this woman and to her partner. Sterling called my office when she left. He mentioned this woman was joining the English department. I shook. I rushed down the hall. I told the department chair to warn her off. Off what? I wondered as I spoke. 

“Or just let her know,” I said. “She might be fine with it.”

“Most people aren’t fine with being recorded.”

“I just don’t know if that’s happening. It could all be fine. It really hasn’t been that bad.” I said some of this out loud and some in my head as I made my way back down the hall. I had been going to the chair’s office a lot. I needed input, assistance on a situation, and he had rounded up the university’s forces to help. A male student had developed an obsession with a female student. The obsession had taken to disrupting the class in loud, extravagant bursts. At the time, it was not clear that the bursts were part of an obsession. There were also emails, and out-of-class activities—discovered much later. It started with general nervousness from the male student, and what I assumed were long bathroom breaks. In the end, it was recommended that the female student finish her classwork independently. For the rest of the term, the class said exclusively kind things to the male student and offered little critique of his work. This meant I interrupted his monologues, which were often vague and off-topic and always passionate, very gently. The students behaved this way automatically, as if a switch had been flipped. You should be reading this and thinking that it is backwards. That this is recommended behavior for a hostage situation, and not a classroom. And not an apartment. And still. Some reactions are automatic. 


The chair knocks on my door. During the worst of it, he offers to come to class with me. 

I never take him up on this. Instead, in class, I keep his number and the number for campus security on speed dial, and keep my phone in my pocket.


I cannot help myself—I still take a healthy delight on being complimented while wearing a striped shirt. 


Sterling’s Final Sentiments

1) “I’ll miss you. If you need a recommendation, put me down. I’ll tell them about all the loud sex parties you had, all the nights with multiple partners.”


2) “That woman, she was strange. I’m really pretty glad she didn’t move in. She wanted to know which rooms the sun hit and when. Fussy stuff. When I bring someone in, I want it to be easy. I don’t want it to be a whole lot of work. You’ve been great. Really easy. I’m gonna miss you.” 





1. I’ll start with the petty: the spelling, the grammar, the incorrect dates, etc. I was not sure whether it would ever hold up in court. I asked him if he didn’t want to at least correct the spelling of my name. He said it was fine. The DMV wouldn’t accept it for a number of reasons, which led to other complications. He told me many times that he was unable to spell because he had once been a lifeguard. 

While a lifeguard, he used flag semaphore—a way of spelling words across long distances. He had abbreviated too much. And no one wore pants around that town, beach town—then or now. When would I learn that? I don’t remember whether he told the woman this when she visited, or not. He brought it up with me following most written communication. I have kept no tape from her visit. 

2. Keeping the premises in good order. I did what I could. The bathroom walls were made of an old cardboard variant that must have once looked like veined marble, but now looked like old cheese. A previous tenant had dyed her hair, and there were splatters of brown dye surrounding the sink. The kitchen walls, which were papered with pineapples and Christmas wreaths, had what looked like fist holes in them, and I covered these with a calendar and a set of drapes. I knew I could not have people over unless they had known me during other times. Meaning, I had one guest. There were two dark burn circles on the counter from someone setting down a pan. The woman noticed these and Sterling acted as though he had not seen them before. (As I watched, I dared him to go through my cupboards to find a pan that matched the rings.) He called me a real pig, and then laughed. I still don’t know whether or not this was a joke, but I know it should have been. 


3. He kept a gym down there. Olympic-style rings and a bench press. He often invited me to use it. 

4. It seemed he used the hallways for his own storage, or for things left behind by other tenants. Outside my door, there was a microwave and a desk. On the staircase to my left were brooms, bleach, paint rollers, buckets, and so on. Whoever went up there had to pick through a medley of home improvement goods. There were two staircases that reached my apartment, and the other was repainted while I lived there. I avoided it so that, each night, I wouldn’t have to see that someone had left the door unlocked and open. One night, the police came in that way, knocked on my apartment door, and asked whether I had stolen a car. 

5. The security deposit was returned with no problems, and with nine cents interest. He gave a reference while I looked for a new place to live. 

6. No pets were allowed, but residents often had pets. When I had my visitor, Sterling allowed him to bring his dog. I asked each time, and got it in writing. Selma Blair planned to get two dogs. “Do you know how to take care of them?” Sterling asked. “What kind do you want to get? Have you thought of getting smaller dogs? Do you know they’re a big responsibility?” I thought again of the gray space between the things he said and the things he wrote in the lease. How the gray space turns the renter into a child, saying please for so many things. 

7. Another: Houseguests are not permitted. The woman gestured to her partner and asked Sterling, “But would it be possible to have others visit occasionally? Could, say, he visit me?” I had asked the same thing. Hearing this woman echo the same question the same way—tentative, almost oversweet—the eldest von Trapp child asking for a taste of champagne—the thought of this intelligent woman signing her social and sex life over to Sterling. If the questions about the dog were not enough, this question was. Sterling said, “Of course he can visit sometimes, but if he gives me any trouble, I can take care of him.”

8. The right to enter at any time. I had asked him if this meant what it said. I have in writing from him that it didn’t, doesn’t. And yet. It is possible—it is perhaps the case—that I signed my privacy away. That his trespassing was not trespassing. Do emails count as legal amendments? Text messages and conversations? Would the lease cover the many other people who walked through unannounced, with or without Sterling, doing things in rooms the Canary couldn’t see? I don’t remember whether this woman asked him about this. I think perhaps she did, and that he said, “If the windows are open when the heat is on, I’ll come in. That’s it.” And that she likely said, “Yes, of course.” Do I want to call this a trick or a lie? Or does he just not know any better? And, how could I not know any better? 



Katherine Zlabek’s work has appeared in Boulevard, The Kenyon Review and The Literary Review, as well as other journals. In 2012, she won an AWP Intro Journals Award. Ricochet Editions published her chapbook, LET THE RIVERS CLAP THEIR HANDS in 2015. Her novel-in-stories LOVE ME, AND THE WORLD IS MINE has been a finalist in a number of competitions, including the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award. She earned her MFA from Western Michigan University and her PhD from the University of Cincinnati, where she was a Taft Dissertation Fellow. 


Talk Academic to Me: An Essay in Subtexts - DENISE DUHAMEL & Julie Marie Wade

“If you get to dragons, you’ve gone too far.”

Perhaps you misunderstood.  When I encouraged you to write what you know, I didn’t mean Tell me what’s popular on Primetime.  While True Blood was in its heyday, I couldn’t turn a page without tripping over hipster vamps in skinny jeans, bar fights that ended with sex on pool tables, fangs—so many fangs.  I wanted to write in my bloodiest ink on all your margins: Vampires suck!  Which, of course, they do.  Then, The Walking Dead.  Still, The Walking Dead.  They’re zombies—yes, I know.  But your rules are slightly different.  Your zombies only eat the feet of the living, and your Rick is named Wizard Man, and your Michonne is named Aura, and Wizard Man’s son loses an ear instead of an eye.  When I told you it’s important to be passionate about your subject matter, I didn’t mean Get high watching HBO and rewrite your favorite scenes from Game of Thrones.  I will read about your dead grandmothers, all right?  I will read about how you and your dog share a telepathic connection, OK?  I will even read about your first heartbreak in eighth grade and how you still obsess about him, check his Facebook page at least ten times a day, then list his status updates verbatim to push your word count that much closer to the minimum.  But these goddamned dragons: how can we vanquish them once and for all?  


“Self-publishing is the new Yale Review.

Why should I wait for a gatekeeper to open the gate?  Walt Whitman self-published, and now it’s my turn.  Editors just don’t get me—just like they didn’t get Walt.   When I was a musician, I made my own CD to give to deejays and radio stations.  In fact, here you go, Professor.  Here is a CD of my band, a gift for you because you have been so encouraging.  But you are old, from another generation, with a press ready to publish your next volume.  And—as I wrote in my student evaluation—you are way too hung up on spelling and grammar.  The people who like my work write in abbreviations and emojis.  When I was in the band, I had to depend on the drummer and guitarists.  But, with my writing, I can strike out on my own!  I am going to print copies of my book, put boxes of them in my Toyota’s trunk, and travel the country to read in bookstores, barber shops, bars, even street corners.  People really need to know what I have to say.  And when my book catches on, I’ll get to keep all the proceeds.  Why should I split the profit with a press?  I’m like Prince—he left his label.  I’m like Snowqueen’s Icedragon (aka E.L. James). Maybe my book will be made into a movie like Fifty Shades of Grey.  I’m not saying you’re a snob, exactly, but it’s like that joke you always tell in class.  A freshman at Yale walks up to a professor and asks, “Where’s the library at?”  The professor says, “Young man, here at the Ivy Leagues, we don’t end our sentences in prepositions.”  And the freshman says, “Let me rephrase that.  Where’s the library at, asshole?”


“Does this Ph.D. program make me look fat?”

It’s like I’m picturing myself in all these scholarly classes, where we’re not just writing our own stuff but we’re writing about all this other stuff that other people wrote, and I can feel my ass expanding in my chair.  It’s like I’m sitting on a cushion, but it’s not a cushion anymore; it’s my own ass going double decker underneath me.  Now don’t get me wrong; I really want to learn more about the tradition I’m working in, and you know, jobs!  Plus, it would be cool to have people call me “Doctor.”  Like at restaurants or on airplanes, I bet I could get a much better seat, but then that’s more sitting in a chair, you know, and something about it makes me feel—bloated, like I need to do a my-words-only cleanse.  Get back to basics. See if I can still kick my leg over my head. Because we’re not just talking about the Freshman Fifteen here, which you could get off with a treadmill three times a week and a switch to Zima Light.  We’re talking about four, five, six years of my life.  That could be like three dress sizes.  I have this friend—no lie—and she was getting a double-doctorate—one in law and one in literature.  She started perming her hair because she said her face didn’t look as full if her hair was really big, and also she had this idea that she didn’t have to comb it anymore if it was curly.  Way wrong.  By the time she took her comprehensive exams, she was basically living in a housecoat and a pair of slippers my grandmother wouldn’t be caught dead in—and she’s dead.  And we were all like, Lauren, my God, why is everything in your closet covered in cat hair and ink stains, and more importantly, why is everything in your closet a sarong?  Higher learning is one thing, and I want to do it, I really really do, because I know smart is sexy, and I mean, what are my options with a Master’s degree and no actual work experience? When I think about that life, working every day in relative isolation to master some obscure aspect of an already overpopulated field—I think I could be happy, at least some of the time.  So why in all my dreams do I have cankles?


“Talk academic to me.”

Your assessment is so fine I could stay up all night refining rubrics with you.  We’d drink tea from oversized NPR mugs—not using the grips, though—oh, no. We’d clasp that warm ceramic with both hands, gaze owl-eyed at each other in the wan fluorescent light. Somewhere, in the distance, the whine of an errant copy machine, a printer, faintly smoking, jammed.  Later, we’d hash out the faculty meeting agenda like a couple of fool kids—two speckled composition books splayed open on the desk, but only one Microsoft Surface shared between us.  Forget the minutes from last time; I want hours of languid evaluation with you.  Let’s make every bullet point a paragraph at least: state, restate, then summarize the statement.  Recursion feels so right, doesn’t it?  Let’s worry away the line between excellent and very good until our categories collapse, breathless, into a single outstanding.  I love the way you write to-do lists on your hands, and when your palms sweat, you leave ink-smears everywhere.  I love the way your office door is so smothered with fliers it looks like a car left too long in a Publix parking lot.  I love, most of all, the way your lanyard jingles around your neck with its 500 keys.  That’s the melody I long for as you wander through the halls, checking your mail, calling Tech Support about another computer snafu.  And when I finally catch sight of you, satchel and all, I cry out for your superior lexicon, and again for your white-hot perspicacity.   


“I didn’t want you to understand it.”

The thing is, I’m all about ambiguity and vagueness.  If I wanted to make a point, I’d write a speech.  I like keeping you ill at ease—doesn’t that make me smarter?  I could tell you what I’m thinking if I wanted to, but I don’t want to.  Do people understand Ulysses first read?  Just think of me as the modern-day James Joyce.  I am one big footnote—and the more I talk, the more I keep putting my footnote in my mouth.  I’m a writer, not a talker.  Think of me as a sullen abstract painter, but with language instead.  Think of my poem as a word salad, or, better yet, a box of Legos strewn strategically throughout the toy box that is my mind.  I knew you’d like my mind’s toy box.  I can rattle off metaphors and similes all day, but that’s not the way I approach my art.  I prefer abstractions—Love, Death, Soul, Fear—preferably with capital letters, the way poets wrote in the old days.  If you don’t understand my poem, I don’t understand how you could give me a C.


“I thought this seminar was attendance-optional.”

So, I wasn’t in class the day you discussed the attendance policy, and I missed the start of the other class when you asked if we had any questions about it. I also took a long break that day you reviewed how to calculate our final grades. And I know you said we can email you at any time throughout the term or come to your office hours, but I just didn’t want to disturb you. I’m courteous like that.  I wish I didn’t even have to email you now, but final grades just posted, and I don’t understand how I could have failed. I did most of the work, and you said one of my poems had “a lot of potential.” In your note on my midterm, you mentioned that I was going to fail the class if I missed any more meetings, but I did only miss three more after that, and I had very good reasons—first, a pre-planned trip to Ohio to see my boyfriend; then, my parents came to town unexpectedly so I had to clean up; and the last one was hangover-related and really couldn't be helped. Believe me, you wouldn’t have wanted me there. I really like you, Professor, and I feel like I learned plenty only coming half the time. But now I’m going to have to take the whole class over again and pay more money and maybe even go on academic probation. I know you’re probably going to say it was all in the syllabus or why didn’t I mention any of this before finals week, but I had to leave the exam period early because it was the only time Kim at Pretty Nails Plus could squeeze me in.  And besides, you smile so much I didn’t think you’d be such a hard-ass about this one little thing.


“Retention is the new black.”

We get more money from the state if you can keep them here.  We get more money from the state if you can get them out in four years.  How can we help students feel welcome?  Can you take them to lunch?  Text them encouraging quotations about education?  About life?  Our students work dead-end jobs.  Our students are parents.  Our students are poor and hungry.  You, on the other hand, have a job with us.  You are lucky.  You, like customer service reps, are a student’s first contact.  We need you to be bright and encouraging, but also make sure students pass our assessment tests.  We need you to be warrior mentors.  We need you in your office giving each student line-by-line feedback.  We need you to understand when our students are late, when they can’t come at all.  We need you to teach them even when they aren’t there.  You’ll figure it out.  You’re an educator after all!  We so appreciate all your hard work, but you’ll have to work even harder for this institution to survive.  I will be out of the office today engaged in best practices, schmoozing with the trustees.


“But it’s a poem, so anything goes.”

Metrics, schmetrics.  Forms—traditional or invented—are boring.  I think writing down poems at all might be too constraining for me.  I like free-styling, saying whatever comes into my head.  Then, my poem floats away like a ghost balloon.  I’m all for impermanence.  Mortality is real.  A poem in the Norton Anthology?  Hey famous writer, good for you, but you’re still dead.  I say live and let live.  I am up for anything.  Though, honestly, workshop is dumb.  It’s just a bunch of opinions volleyed back and forth.  Who can truly judge?  Not me.  Not my classmates.  Not editors.  And certainly not my professor.  If you ask me, she takes poetry way too seriously.  I told her to “get a life,” and she told me my phrasing was cliché.  I like clichés.  I like typos and tiny fonts.  I even like handwritten poems (which she won’t accept), so you can see the personality of the writer.  I know a thing or two about handwriting analysis, and my prof’s comments are written in wacky script.  In addition to contradicting herself—her students can’t write by hand, but she can—I would say she’s probably borderline or agoraphobic.  When I told her on the last day of class that in poetry “anything goes,” I thought her goofy head would explode.


“Concrete nouns are a trigger for me.”

It’s not just that I love love and fear fear—though I do. It’s not that I’m annoyed by life’s little inconveniences and turned on by anyone with obvious sex appeal—though that’s all true, too. The thing is, I have actually been clinically tested, and it turns out I have a verifiable, medically recognizable condition: an aversion to showing details. I have a picture of the paperwork on my phone. Do you want to see it? The thing is, ideas aren’t a problem for me because they’re just in my head, you know. But, when you start asking us to write down all those people and places and things, it gets a little too real for someone as sensitive as me. Like that day you had us draw a concrete noun out of a hat and try to describe it in words. I got “fire truck,” and I could picture how it was red and shiny like an apple, which made me remember the time I choked on an apple slice in third grade. You told us to write down whatever we saw in our mind’s eye—“follow the thread from one concrete noun to the next.” But I felt like I was choking all over again, so I couldn’t do it. My therapist says I don’t have to. Concrete nouns are just too dangerous. In fact, I was on a waitlist to get a service dog, but since they’re so real, too, and I could turn out to be allergic or get bitten or not like the way the dog smelled, my therapist nixed that. She told me when I get anxious, I should visualize walking Hope instead.


“Make 12 simultaneous submissions and call me next year.”

Yes, Fellow Writer, I do know what it’s like.  I’ve been discouraged, too—weeks and months, years sometimes, of solitary work without reward.  Always, the rejection letters seem to come at once, stuck in the mail slot’s throat or clogging your inbox like hair in a drain.  How they startle with their vague barbs—We appreciate what you sent, but we won’t be publishing it—not to mention their misleading sentiments—While we don’t want this under any circumstances, do you have something else just like it that you could send for consideration right away?  So, yes, Fellow Writer, I feel you.  In fact, I’m already steeping a pot of empathy tea, keeping it warm in my best commiseration cozy.  That’s when you say it, like the trick-or-treater who gives up before nightfall because the house next door wouldn’t give him a full-sized Hershey bar: “I only submitted once, and it was devastating.  I don’t think I can go through that again.”  Are you seriously sniffling right now, Fellow Writer, while you recount how you bought exactly one stamp, uploaded precisely one file, because you knew Ploughshares was going to love your story, and you never imagined what you would do if they passed?  Tell me this: Were you always picked first for every team?  Did you earn an A+ on every test, a blue ribbon in every race?  Are all your medals made of gold?  Because if that’s the case, I think you better buy a lottery ticket at the corner store, and while you wait to cash in, contemplate a different career.  This is you throwing in that barely used towel, damp at the corners from a few virgin-rejection tears?  Well, this is me—3000 rejections strong—pouring out that tea and uncorking a bottle of something stronger.


“URGENT! Sort of.”

We need your report by tomorrow at 5 p.m. though we will not read it until next year, long after you’ve forgotten you submitted it.  We need your W-9 before we can direct deposit your paycheck into your account.  Please allow six months for processing.  We know you need that W-2 to file for your taxes, but legally we have three more days before we must provide one to you, and we can ask for an extension.  The dean will be here shortly—she is running late, or perhaps she forgot about you entirely.  Let me check her book.  She’s at lunch right now, and she enjoys a cocktail and dessert.  It’s not in your interest to hurry her. Hurry up, then wait is the bumper sticker on her Volvo. 


“Why would I buy the book if I can get the e-book for free?”

And why would I bother buying any book at all?  One—they are heavy and weigh down my satchel, so I look like a hunchback.  Two—I am not used to reading anything on a dull flat paper.  I like scrolling rather than flipping a page.  Books don’t light up the way my screen does, so how am I supposed to read in the dark?  I’ve heard stories about kids under their bedcovers with flashlights, but that sounds so awkward.  Maybe the flashlight/forbidden book tales are apocryphal?  Three—I can pretty much get anything I want through Google Books.  It’s like the library used to be in the olden days.  And four—anything half decent will be made into a movie or Netflix series, won’t it?  I don’t mind paying for HBO or HULU.  Have you seen The Handmaid’s Tale?  It’s so great!  The dystopian government burns all the books, which is supposed to be scary.  But scarier, I think, is when they cut off the Internet.  I mean, then there’s no way to even know how hot it is outside.


“Keep your eyes on the Pulitzer Prize.”

When I was in sixth grade, I decided I wanted to be famous.  I was horrible at sports.  I had a tinny singing voice.  I couldn’t remember my lines for the school play, so acting was out.  I was a so-so watercolorist.  I was afraid of microscopes and Petri dishes, so a scientific discovery was nowhere in my future.  I loved to eat, so no modeling for me.  I went to the library and flipped through the Guinness Book of World Records, hoping to find a singular way I could excel and shine.  It was there in the stacks that I saw a “Pulitzer Prize” sticker on Collected Poems by James Wright.  I loved prizes, and I loved the word Pulitzer, which sounded like Wurlitzer.  I also loved jukeboxes, the big gold W in a diamond shape at the base.  I even loved Lilly Pulitzer clothes, though I couldn’t’ afford them.  So I decided to write every day until I could get someone to read what I’d written.  Until I could get an editor and a publisher.  Until I could write my self-deprecating poems, exploiting all my flaws, secretly hoping I would write a book the Pulitzer Prize Committee would cite as perfection.


“If you are still reading this, you were born before 1984.”

Have you written a check in the last six months?  Endorsed a check?  Do you know what a check is?  Have you ever gone inside a bank and stood in line between the velvet ropes, fiddled with the pens at the counter on their leashes of little beads?  What about the post office?  Have you ever been there?  Do you know where to print your address and the address of your parcel’s recipient?  Do you know the price of a stamp?  Have you ever sent a postcard?  Did you know there are different, less expensive stamps for those?  Circle any words on this list you recognize: deposit slip    land line   Steno pad    pencil pouch   Rand McNally road atlas  Can you read cursive?  Can you write cursive?  Have you ever gotten newsprint on your hands?  Have you ever used chalk to write on a board or draw on the sidewalk?  Have you ever watched a movie all the way through without sending a text or Googling one of the actors?  Do you subscribe to any magazines that come in the mail?  Do you know where your mailbox is?  Didn’t the landlord give you a little copper key when you moved in?  Do you remember rolling down the car window with a handle?  Do you remember turning a key to unlock the car door?  Can you change channels on your television without a remote control?  Do you only watch television on your laptop now?  Do you not have a laptop anymore because iPads are sleeker, lighter, easier to carry?  Have you ever found your way anywhere without a GPS?  When was your last paper cut?  When was the last time you held a book in your hands, felt its hard spine, touched the raised print on its cover?  If you are finished with this survey, please place it in the enclosed SASE.  (Do you know what SASE stands for?  Are you looking it up on your phone right now?)



Collaborative Bio: Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade have published collaborative essays in many literary journals, including Arts & Letters, The Bellingham Review, The Cincinnati ReviewThe CommonFourth Genre, Green Mountains Review, The Louisville Review, Nimrod, No Tokens, PoemMemoirStory, Prairie SchoonerQuarter After Eight, So to Speak, Story Quarterly, and Tupelo Quarterly.  Their first co-authored book, The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose, is forthcoming in March 2018 from Wild Patience Books.  They both teach in the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami.


Winner of the 2016 Pinch Literary Nonfiction Contest. For information about how to enter 2017 Pinch Literary Contest,click here.


I am a Myrtle Beach, South Carolina-based writer. I graduated with my M.A. in Writing from Coastal Carolina University in 2015, with a concentration in Creative Nonfiction and Literary Editing. My work has appeared in The Truth About the Fact: International Journal of Literary Nonfiction. 





“Electroshock” offers voice to three women who have undergone medically induced seizures: Polly, a 75-year-old housewife; Anita, a 52-year-old minister; and Barbara, a 44-year-old nurse. Their intimate testimonies interrogate the physical, emotional, and psychological complexities of electroshock therapy (ECT). Is electroshock an antidepressant or a form of violence against women? 

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Bought Words: On Product Placement in Fiction - Christopher Linforth

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about money and writing. Namely: the inverse relationship between one and the other. Since I published my debut short-story collection last year, the large pay-checks have been noticeably absent. This was no surprise. With all the anecdotes I had heard from colleagues and friends, I didn’t plan for my book to add to my 401(k). Quite the opposite, in fact. I received a small advance, a handful of good reviews and was longlisted for one prestigious award. Not too bad. 

But more money would have been nice. 

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The Cosmology of Humpty Dumpty - J.G. McClure

Note the poem’s nightmarish opening: this uncanny character—at once everyman and no-man, perhaps an egg though this is never stated—sits upon a wall. Where is this wall? How did Dumpty come to be sitting upon it? Surrounding this proclamation we see no answers, merely the barren whiteness of the page.

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Do Stars Welcome Us Into Their Realms? - Dana D'Amico

Imagine, if you can, one single, stranded molecule in space –not even a pinpoint in the darkness.  In the whole of the universe, a molecule is truly an island to itself, its nearest neighbor some ten million molecular body-lengths away. If it were a person on Earth heading east from San Diego, it would not see another person until New York, and these two friends might then hike, swim, and wade their way to Denmark before finding anyone else. That is how isolated it is, this thing you cannot quite imagine: a solitary something vanished into a sea of nothing.

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Grazing Patterns - Kendra Atleework

It’s mid-June in California, and the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada spread for miles under a pelt of yellow grass. Bristly invasive weeds fill the stomachs of the sheep but provide little nutrition. This summer there is drought, the most extreme in one hundred and fifty years, perhaps longer. The weeds that cover these hills are all that remain for the shepherd to feed his flock after a dry winter, when the germinating rains came late and meager and not much new grass grew.

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Superman Dam Fool - Randal O'Wain

My mother and I were driving downtown so that I could re-enroll in Junior High after an arrest and suspension. It was a humid Memphis spring, and two men leaned against the sidewall of a liquor store sharing a bottle wrapped in brown paper. Painted on the wall behind them, the words SUPERMAN DAM FOOL covered the length of brickwork, each letter composed uncertainly as if by a different hand.

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My Murderer's Futon - Sarah Viren

"Robert Durst is not a murderer, legally speaking. He is a billion-dollar real estate heir who in 2000 went missing from his New York apartment. He arrived in Galveston some time later disguised, albeit poorly, as a mute woman named Dorothy Ciner. Rather than talk, they say, he would write down messages on a piece of paper.

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Pins and Needles - Janet Buttenwieser

"Mornings before work, she performs the routine: validate the parking garage ticket at the front desk. Enter the dimly-lit ultrasound room. Clothes off, gown on, open in the back. Jelly on the wand, the wand inserted by the kind or peppy or indifferent nurse. The Wife’s reproductive system displayed on the screen, the doctor measuring follicles, pleased with her progress."

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At the Setia Darma Museum of Masks and Puppetry - Angela Woodward

"Ongoing nausea even three weeks after my return. Got so sick of my own company. Every time I looked up, a little golden bird flitted by, or an azure butterfly landed on my foot. After not having heard from him for all that time, a short note, a kind of affirming prayer. Very little to put in the journal, she wrote, as the days are all the same. Across the river, white herons followed the farmer around, lifting and flapping down again as he moved along the row."


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The Hummingbird Wives - Spencer Hyde

"Marinda was one of those wives. Her name is scrolled in beautiful gilt-embedded gold cursive across the front of the book in the bottom right-hand corner. The first time I opened it I saw that there were numerous markings in the book, all in red pencil. The markings cut deep into the old leaflet pages, the weight of Marinda’s veined, snowy hands sinking into the pencil and page, weighted down by her obsession with certain passages. I imagine her hands so heavy that at times they almost dropped through the book, through the table, and through the oak floor below."

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