Some Thoughts on the Fickleness of Publishing

Some Thoughts on the Fickleness of Publishing

By Carla Spataro, Editorial Director, Philadelphia Stories & PS Books

Every year I have the honor of choosing the finalists for the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction. I’ve been doing this as long as we’ve been running the contest, and despite the fact that it always seems to fall during my vacation, it’s something that I always look forward to. If nothing else, it is a purposeful reminder of how capricious the publishing process is.

I usually get a lengthy list of stories to read. Sometimes it’s as few as 60, this year there were 130 semi-finalists, plus the additional 25 that I screened in the first round. What’s important for writers to remember is that in these kinds of situations, the reader is not looking to give you the benefit of the doubt. They’re looking for reasons to reject you. Nothing makes me happier than to open a story that is not formatted as required. I get to reject that piece without having to read it at all. There were 14 such stories this year. Were they any good? I don’t know. I didn’t read them.

I know there are authors out there that think these kinds of things don’t matter, that an editor, or agent, or contest judge will make an exception for them, because their work is so good. I think most of us wish we had that kind of time to be generous, but when I have two weeks to pick 10 stories, and I have 130 of them to read, I’m looking for any reason to tick them off my list. Most of the stories were rejected because they failed to engage me on the first page. Many of them felt like a story I had read before, or there were grammar mistakes, or poor punctuation. Others tried to cram too much up front, while others were thinly veiled (or at least felt like) fictionalized versions of author’s childhood, full of wistful nostalgia, but not much else.

One thing I want to make very clear. There were more than 10 stories that I could have sent to our judge, Dan Chaon. The finalist list changed several times and there were a few stories that I immediately fell in love with. Stories that are so odd, or fresh, or beautifully written, (usually all three) I’m sure the judge will choose them as winners. Then there is another, much larger group that I can’t quite make up my mind about. Then I start to look at the list as a group. This year there were a lot of stories about teenaged girls coming of age somehow—all in painfully odd, fresh, beautifully written ways. They had to be, since this is not necessarily the kind of story that I gravitate toward. Perhaps my attraction reflected the current political and social environment that we’re all slogging our way through these days. Who knows? But I asked myself, do I really want to send Dan a whole list of stories like this? What about these other stories? They’re really good too! So, I made some adjustments and included the 10 stories you see listed here. Two of those stories ended up in the winner’s column. But there’s no reason to believe the others might not have, too.

The longer I do this, from both sides, as an editor and a writer, the more I understand that what really counts is perseverance—believing in your work enough to keep sending it out. You never know when something you’ve written will strike just the right chord with an editor.

I hope that you enjoy reading this year’s winners as much as I did. One author had two stories make the cut—a first for us. And another first was a husband and wife both making the final batch. Here are few comments from our judge Dan Chaon about each of the winning stories:

  1. “Leslie” is a lovely and understated story that reminded me a bit of the great Ann Beattie.  I was struck by the intriguing dramatic premise, and impressed by the finely calibrated, vivid scenes.  There’s a tenderness in the characterization, a generosity of spirit that moved me.


  1. “Sugar Mountain” The complex, dark power struggle between two step-sisters is beautifully rendered, and the author does a wonderful job imbuing even the most quotidian scenes with a sinister tension.


  1. “Windmills, the Boys” This strange, haunting gothic piece is made particularly memorable by its unique, poetic language and quirky use of point of view.


2018 FINALISTS (No particular order)

The Hibernators 

Jaime Netzer

Austin, TX


Work On Your Personality and 

Faceless Styrofoam Heads 

Holly Pekowsky

New York, NY
The Burning of New London 

Brendan Egan

Midland, TX


Kiss Me Honey and Let’s Go to the Show 

Mojie Crigler

Cambridge, MA



Ilene Raymond Rush

Elkins Park, PA


Stick a Needle 

James Pihakis

North Adams, MA



Your Lucky Life

Your Lucky Life

By Ken Fifer


In your sailor hat and peacoat, you cross

the asphalt and see what you thought

was your home is an old wooden boat.

You stand on the prow and what was

a black locust turns out to be your Jacob’s ladder.

When you climb down you think

you’re in Washington Crossing State Park,

but really you’re on your own porch in Raubsville,

thanking Pat for the tuna on rye.

So you lean back, sip your Schlitz, look at the river,

shift your chair among the nine white pillars

which apart from being ornamental

hold up the second floor and roof.

It’s as if whatever comes your way

leaves your footprints. When the locusts hunch over,

when the noisy green maples dig in to grow

bored and restless along the pointless Delaware,

when the paint of banisters peels from your palms,

when the birds leave no tracks at all

you think they all must be your countrymen.

And when moles tunnel under your home,

smacking their lips, wrinkling broad noses,

cleaning their glasses, with the river this close

they must all be your relatives. Each time

you bite into your sandwich you know

the pleasure and pain of harvested grain

in silos where the light goes down.

You can taste the gaff in your cheek,

the fishy vicissitudes, the last moments

of tuna roused from the deep

which fit so exactly into your mouth.


Ken Fifer’s poems have appeared in Barrow Street, Ploughshares, The Literary Review, and other journals. His most recent poetry book is After Fire (March Street Press). He has a Ph.D. in English from The University of Michigan and has taught at Penn State (Berks) and DeSales University. He lives in Center Valley, Pennsylvania, with his wife Elizabeth, four dogs, two cats, and assorted other creatures.



When I Look Like My Father It Makes My Mother Cry

When I Look Like My Father It Makes My Mother Cry

By Lorraine Rice


I give up on wrestling my hair

into a limp, submissive, dead-straight

existence, tell my mother—Just

cut it all off, trying to get back

to the beginning, in the straight-backed chair

waiting for my mother

who’d been the one to fix my hair, wanting

her to see it never was

broken. Feet bare, sweat-stuck

to newspaper spread under the chair—

how many times, how

many, have I watched her cut

my father’s hair? Him

in the same chair, a frayed

towel-cape over shoulders and chest,

his ankles an X on the spot where

Dagwood blows his top over

Blondie’s new hat. Her over him,

cheeks caved in, brow ridged, the concentration

of years on her face, sharp

metal shears in hand. My parents always uneasy

sharing space and seeing them

close is bewitching and bewildering—

their fragile intimacy severed

by the cold crisp chastisement of scissors

as my hair falls in black puffy clouds. Confused

coils, soft and intricate, beg to be caught

again and again and holding them

begs a reckoning—Me?

Not me? In the straight-backed chair

while my mother cuts my hair, in the full bloom

heat of summer she freezes

then puts a mirror in my hand—

You look just like your father,

and because her eyes are damp

for once, I do not argue.


Lorraine Rice holds an MFA from the The Writer’s Foundry at St. Joseph’s College, NY. Her work has appeared on Literary Mama and in the anthology Who’s Your Mama: The Unsung Voices of Women and Mothers (Soft Skull Press, 2009). She lives in Philadelphia with her family.



By Robyn Campbell


On her 63rd birthday, Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to survive a barrel ride over Niagara Falls. When asked, she later said, “I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces, than make another trip over the Fall.”


In darkness, the descent.

You hold tight, fists

clenched and pray

for a good swift end.


As a child you opened

your eyes at night and trained

yourself to see

God, gave

a face to the thing

you loved most.


Is he here now

in the water’s electric

hum, in the

prickling beneath your



And then you feel the change. Something

nameless is pulled

out slowly from the middle of

your chest; it’s like an exorcism.

The care is gone, and the

worry—that old need to make

the future manifest

turns to breath and is exhaled.


From far away, you

hear it: “the

woman is alive.”


Born and raised in Eastern Pennsylvania, Robyn Campbell has been writing since before she can remember. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Apiary, Stirring, and 1932 Quarterly, among others. Her time is split between writing, playing drums, fleeing to the mountains, and editing Semiperfect Press. She lives and works in Philadelphia.

In the Morning

In the Morning

By Robyn Campbell


two bodies resting

two bodies at rest, faces to the light,

all internal movement like plants

a floral type of narcissism


or, maybe they are not like plants

they could be like fish

faintly oiled, slick skin



you say you think

death looks like life inverted

it is a turning

i say then that a poem inverted

looks something like truth


laid bare, as we are


picked nearly clean

marks left by the million

little teeth that time attracts


Born and raised in Eastern Pennsylvania, Robyn Campbell has been writing since before she can remember. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Apiary, Stirring, and 1932 Quarterly, among others. Her time is split between writing, playing drums, fleeing to the mountains, and editing Semiperfect Press. She lives and works in Philadelphia.

When the Music Ends

When the Music Ends

By Barbara Daniels


Years after your death a magazine

emailed: “We want you back, Viola.”

Today, a little morning rain. You told me

before you met Dad you walked sedately

past the bank where he worked, turned

the corner, took off your shoes, and ran.

Why he married you: that blazing hair.

When I looked like an egg, no eyebrows,

no lashes, some people laughed at me.

Just last night a waitress said, “Sorry, sir,”

mistaking my tousled hair and androgynous

shirt. My streaming service wrote me:

“When your music ends, we will continue

to play music you should like.” Hair

doesn’t grow in the grave, but it should,

shouldn’t it? As you were dying, your friend

said, “You have the best hair in the building.”

Still red in your ninety-ninth year. When I die,

my atoms could leap into fingers and feet.

I might be somebody’s shining hair. It’s raining,

but softly. Mahler’s third symphony plays.


Barbara Daniels’s Rose Fever was published by WordTech Press and her chapbooks Moon Kitchen, Black Sails and Quinn & Marie by Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press. She received three Individual Artist Fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and earned an MFA in poetry at Vermont College.

Boris the Cockatoo

Boris the Cockatoo

By Barbara Daniels


I whistle when I drive my car—”Hava

Nagila,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,”

songs my friend Jackie’s cockatoo calms to,

bobs his head as I bob mine and reaches

for me with his clawed foot. It’s 18 years

since I carried tampons. I keep a photo

of myself without eyebrows. Thin, I was very

thin. I lifted my soft red hat to show off

my baldness. My inner organs slumped

together where tumors large as grapefruits

crowded me. Of course Lazarus loved death.

It was dark there. Cool. He didn’t have to

buy clothes or plan what to eat. There was

no weather. No boat to mend. No sisters

who would never marry. He held a round

piece of felt he made into hats: a monkey’s

jingling cap, doctor’s homburg, black hat

of a rich man oiled and shining. Shake

the felt! Presto, a hat covers his closed

and dreaming eyes. So far I’ve hit and

killed a meadowlark and a pheasant, both

in refuges they might have thought safe.

I ran over a basketball while its owner stood

stricken at the side of the street. I’m a blaring

calliope strapped to the back of a gilded truck,

whistling till my mouth hurts. When I see Boris

at Jackie’s house, I look straight into him—

unblinking eye, curved beak, offered claw.


Barbara Daniels’s Rose Fever was published by WordTech Press and her chapbooks Moon Kitchen, Black Sails and Quinn & Marie by Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press. She received three Individual Artist Fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and earned an MFA in poetry at Vermont College.


Benjamin Franklin Was Right

Benjamin Franklin Was Right

By Kasey Edison


Pure as stars swimming through wet winter sky,

swallowing the cold until indistinguishable

like fish of the deep swallowing their young.


Say something to me. But don’t say life is set

like marrow in bone, that the dead inside each of us

strain at our skins to get out.


Tell me, isn’t this also life:

clouds squeezing pearls of light on the cold ground

so they scatter like bits of glass?


Kasey Edison has been published in The Broadkill Review and The Mississippi Review. She is currently a manager at a large financial institution outside of Philadelphia, where she lives with her husband and dog.



Clarion Street


Clarion Street

By Nancy Farrell

It was mid-summer, 1972, when I was 12 years old, that my parents sold our small row home on Clarion Street in South Philadelphia. They bought a finer row home in a suburban development dubbed Briarcliff, which rested in the Delaware County town of Glenolden. My father, Charles, was excited to own his first garage, while my mother, Violet, looked forward to the neighbors being less close at hand, albeit only a tad less. With the South Philadelphia and Briarcliff agreements of sale both signed, the clock began to tick toward our last day as South Philadelphians. That day would arrive in October, 1972.

My father had been struggling to keep his home goods business afloat. Progress was not on his side. My father’s customers were the housewives of South Philadelphia, but their numbers were dwindling. It was the dawn of the shopping mall. The drapery that my father stored in his car and carried into houses could not compete with the variety at Sears, Roebuck and Company. In 1972, the remaining housewives continued to open their doors to my father, but it was because he was a sociable, homegrown fellow. They desired coffee and conversation with him, but his home goods, not so much.

Undeniably, it was my mother’s office job at the Bell Telephone Company that enabled our move to Briarcliff. The job was a 20-minute walk from Clarion Street, and something she accomplished in sensible heels and strictly on time. The residue of my mother’s stern upbringing gave rise to her handling stacks of Bell Telephone Company paperwork with speed and competency.

Once the news of our upcoming move spread, I was forced to fathom the unfathomable. I laid in bed at night as one realization after another turned my stomach. Clarion Street would never host another of our holidays. The aroma of my mother’s spaghetti and meatballs, cooked each Sunday after Mass at the Annunciation BVM Church, would fade from the kitchen. The days of the overhang outside our back door sheltering my bike were numbered.

Life began to shift, as my mother collected ideas for modern decorating from Good Housekeeping magazine. Briarcliff would be her chance to start fresh. Meanwhile, my father declared that Briarcliff would be cleaner and safer than South Philadelphia. I felt insulted on behalf of our home, as I watched one room after another turn to dust and echo. Briarcliff-worthy knick-knacks were boxed up, while unworthy ones were placed in the trash.

The most troubling part of the move was the inescapable loss of my Clarion Street friends. There was my closest pal, Bridget, with whom I shared a birth year and every juvenile notion, such as whether a song she made up, “Little Brown Jug,” might someday be recorded by The Monkees. With her perpetual pixie hairdo, Bridget had a pureness of heart epitomized by her habit of chalking “I’m sorry, let’s make up” on the sidewalk outside my house following our rare spats.

And then there was Brenda, who was the same age as Bridget and me. Brenda was pretty and being hip came as naturally to her as breathing. When the bullies from around the corner turned up, Brenda remained unfazed. Always with a bottle of Coca Cola in hand, Brenda liked to deliberately spill dribbles onto the street, simply for kicks. Bridget and I occasionally hitched ourselves to Brenda’s hijinks because it was exciting, but we typically favored the comfort and trust of our twosome.

There was Anthony, as well. He was one year older, and our informal leader on Clarion Street. He wore his hair long and he had a drum set in his basement, where he played Led Zeppelin songs. Bridget and I found Anthony charming, even though his rock star persona was undercut by his family’s laundry, which continually drooped on a clothesline above his drum space. We believed we had a love triangle parallel to Betty, Veronica, and Archie in the Archie comic books that we purchased at Bertolino’s Pharmacy.

My last summer on Clarion Street passed much like the prior ones. We roller skated, played tag, twirled hula hoops, and told spooky stories, all the while devouring cones of ice cream from the Mr. Softee Truck and Broadway Licorice Rolls from Jean’s Grocery Store. We fell into bed at night sticky with sweat and sugar, confident that all of those things would be within reach again when the sun came up.

The gang knew that my family’s house had been sold, but this turn of events was unfamiliar. All of us had only ever lived on Clarion Street. I longed to confess my heartbreak, but instead talked up the spacious MacDade Mall/Eric Movie Theater complex located near Briarcliff. What I should have announced was that nothing could top Clarion Street. There was the Mummer’s Parade that took place every January 1st just two blocks away, and it wasn’t just the lively music and magical costumes that made the parade extraordinary. It was the neighborhood families who opened their doors in welcome to all, offering escarole soup and crumb buns. Our parents lost track of us on New Year’s Day, but never worried about our being cold, hungry, or safe.

There was also the 37-foot statue of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, that sat atop Philadelphia’s City Hall, which was visible, opportunely, from the flat rooftop outside my bedroom. And then there was the lunch counter at nearby Woolworth’s, where the price of an ice cream sundae was determined by whichever balloon a customer chose from the day’s balloon assortment. The balloons dangled colorfully above the lunch counter and contained within each was a slip of paper that was a price tag. When a balloon was chosen by an ice cream sundae customer and then popped, the treat’s price was revealed.

In October, 1972, when my family’s last day on Clarion Street landed, I felt a helplessness equal to the weight of the moving truck that rested in my line of sight. My friends watched curbside, while I leaned on our wrought-iron railing, as our forest green sofa and television were carried out sideways and stowed. I knew that my parents intended to comfort me, but were busy with last minute tasks. There were closets to be checked one final time, and keys to be collected.

With the last of our possessions amassed in the moving truck, the metal door was slammed down and the tarnished latch secured. This was my family’s cue to climb into our blue Rambler Ambassador and to begin following the moving truck to Briarcliff. I rolled down my back-seat window, and my friends peeked in to wave goodbye. I sat in the car, stricken, and closed my eyes, as our car proceeded to the corner of Clarion Street. To lessen the ache, I pretended that we were headed instead to our yearly vacation at the Lamp Post Motel in Wildwood, something I treasured. “It will be okay,” my mother said from the front seat.

And my mother’s prediction was true. Time passed, and I did gradually become accustomed to the suburbs, and to the new friends and happenings that filled my days in Briarcliff. There were stumbles, to be sure, like when I was stung on my forehead by a bumble bee as I walked to my first day at Our Lady of Fatima School. Or when my mother signed us up at the Glenolden Swim Club, where I sat glued to the pool’s ledge, filled with the terror of a non-swimmer. And then there was the ill-fated, week-long Girl Scouts camping trip I took to Sunset Hill, when I was commanded by the leader to wear a wash cloth bobby pinned to the top of my head because I had neglected to pack a hat.

Despite those missteps, I grew to accept that dipping my toes in creeks and fishing for minnows at Glenolden Park were reasonably worthwhile pastimes. And I developed a great affection for the group of Briarcliff girls who took me in. We moseyed to the MacDade Mall, where we shared pizza at Italian Delight and bought David Bowie albums at Wee Three Records.

But my memories of Clarion Street never fell away completely. One of my first visits to the block as a grownup was on a date to The Victor Cafe, an eatery that borders Clarion Street, where the servers are budding opera singers. The date was with the Briarcliff man that I would one day marry. He walked patiently alongside me down Clarion Street, past my old house, which then featured dark red awnings and a polished front entrance. Just as I had done back on moving day in 1972, I paused and closed my eyes, and I felt a tenderness borne of nostalgia, and a melancholy borne of a spell forever gone. Impulsively, I decided to ring the doorbell of my old house. Perhaps the current owner would be sympathetic to my story, I thought, and I could take a peek inside, but no one answered the door.

A decade later, I revisited Clarion Street, this time with my young daughters in tow. I held their hands, as I told them about pushing doll coaches with Bridget down the sidewalk. I told them about Brenda and her penchant for mischief. I pointed out the house where Anthony played his drums.

The friends I left on Clarion Street had never been far from my thoughts as the ensuing years rolled from one to the next. About a year after my family’s move, Bridget became a boarding school student at the Charles E. Ellis School in Newtown Square, an institution for fatherless daughters. My mother dropped me off at the school to visit Bridget one brisk, Sunday afternoon. Bridget and I strolled through fallen leaves to a nearby McDonalds, where we caught up, and where we realized that our bond had not waned. Afterward, as I sat in Bridget’s dormitory room, I worried that she might be lonely, but the opposite was true. She revealed that she was comfortable at the boarding school, and that the other girls were nice. Living at the Charles E. Ellis School was a continuous sleepover party, Bridget disclosed.

Thereafter, despite spans of time when we unintentionally overlooked one another, and when the tides swept Bridget in one direction and me in another, our relationship endured. When Bridget was married in 1981, I was by her side, and when it was my turn in 1984, she was by mine.

Brenda’s family also moved away from Clarion Street. They bought a home in Springfield just four miles from my family’s. At the time, my father and Brenda’s father, Ray, developed a companionship. They were Delaware County transplants who, in spending time together, found a way to hold on to a bit of South Philadelphia. As a result, Brenda and I saw one another from time to time, and she spoke of Springfield contentedly. A decade later, I would coincidentally acquire work at the same Center City law firm where Brenda’s sister worked, which circumstance renewed our families’ link.

With an expanding Internet at our disposal, Bridget and I, then in our 40s, decided it was high time that we discovered what had become of Anthony. Utilizing social media, we discovered that Anthony was a professional drummer in a band called Splashing Violet, and in another known as The Flip-N-Mickeys. We wasted no time in messaging Anthony, and he wasted no time in agreeing to meet us.

On a balmy, early spring evening, Bridget, Anthony and I had our reunion at the Triangle Tavern in South Philadelphia. Open since 1933, the Triangle Tavern, with its Italian grandmother-style cuisine, had prevailed despite several bouts of new ownership and an assortment of renovations. I parked my car outside the Triangle Tavern, and I kept an eye out for Bridget, as it dawned on me that Bridget and I had chosen the ideal place to meet. After all, what was our relationship, if not something that had prevailed despite many years and many changes?

Anthony was inside when Bridget and I entered. His back was to the door, but when he heard us, he leapt from his seat. He hugged Bridget and me in a warmhearted way that belied our lost decades. Anthony, who had remained boyish in appearance, wore a black t-shirt and jeans indicative of his career, and his hair still rested past his shoulders,

Over pizza and beer, we kicked around memories of the 1960s and early 1970s. Anthony recounted the innumerable times we had been scolded by our elderly Clarion Street neighbors for misdeeds as small as dripping ice cream onto the pavement, or as big as bumping a parked car on our bikes. And we nodded in agreement over the incomparable thrill of the Whip Truck Ride that passed through our neighborhood in summertime.

Afterward, as I walked to my car, I thought about what I would say if I could speak to that girl who had sat, stricken, in the blue Rambler Ambassador in 1972. I would tell her that hurdles and teary nights spent over her diary lie ahead, but that in time her self-confidence would grow, and like the South Philadelphia knick-knacks her parents once deemed worthy or unworthy, she would discover what to hold on to and what to let go.

Present day Clarion Street thrives in the revitalized Passyunk Square district. My small row home, purchased by my parents in the late 1950s for $5,500, would sell today for over $300,000 at current market prices. The former mom-and-pop grocery stores are now trendy businesses, and The Victor Cafe is a Philadelphia tourist destination. Still, when I visit, I recognize the kids outside. They do not notice me as they play with their Barbie dolls and their Nerf Super Soakers. I sigh, and then I smile, and I know it’s time to go.


Nancy Farrell is a lifelong writer with a focus on autobiographical works. She spends most of her free time with family, including a darling rescue mutt. The library is her favorite place. She works as a legal assistant in Media, PA.

Windmills, The Boys (third place winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)


 Windmills, the Boys

A Short Story

By Laura Farnsworth

The boys drown in the pond on Myrtle Dag’s property. Windmills, the two of them, arms and rocks and driftwood and pinecones painting the water with rings and diagrams and dusk, and then the postures of dare, pulleys for shoulders, rope for arms, run farther and throw farther, hoot and shout and leap, catch the rock, the pinecone, farther, and still farther. Dive to save the boy who takes the dare.

Windmills, the boys, arms and arms and arms. And then.

And then nothing.

Myrtle sets her binoculars on the drainboard.

Percolator, decaf, two lumps. She peels potatoes for supper, leaves them cold in the sink. Rain titters overhead, becomes heedless applause, and then fists. Denial, anger. Rifles of lightning.  Sobs.

And then nothing more.

Myrtle signals the dog to her bed. She stands there, at the kitchen window, until well after dark.

Sheriff’s car. Lights, a wet ribbon up the dirt road, toward the boys’ mother, her house, her wondering kitchen table. Good boys have fried chicken for dinner, milk at bedtime, oatmeal at sunrise, before the school bus. Good boys, smart boys. Once, a teacher drew a red line through a spelling word on her Jack’s paper. Boy. Buoy. Float, boy. Float.

Myrtle puts the binoculars in a casserole dish in the cabinet. She fills her mug, sits at the kitchen table, watches the dog sleep. She lets her head set itself down upon the Mount Rushmore placemat, turning what has been witnessed today sideways.

The pond stirs beneath its bed sheet.

Lou paws a dream in which she is a puppy again.

Then, all sides of the sky, an envelope full of pink.

Myrtle scrambles an egg for herself. For the dog, some leftover squash, the last of the cottage cheese. Lou goes out the side door and does what she needs to between the rosebush and Jack’s old swing set, her piss pooling neon atop the mud.

Binoculars, Myrtle holds them to the window. Down the dirt road come the searchers. Hounds, the kind with very long ears. Something flagging from an officer’s hand, a child’s pajamas, scents of sleep and toast and morning cartoons. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You; Myrtle always liked that one, the giddy sameness every Saturday, ghouls, pancakes, chores.

Doorbell. She puts the binoculars behind the cookie jar.

Ma’am. Mrs. Dag, is it?

A deputy. He sweeps his hat clockwise, sets it on the porch hook where Roy’s always hung. Shoulders poking at the fabric of his uniform, forehead smooth as piecrust. Fidgeting on her sofa, where to put his hips, his elbows. The dog sits her chin on top of his knee, lets out a long, patient breath. He wears the mirrored kind of sunglasses. She could reach for them and wipe away the smudges with her shirt, hand them back. He folds them into his pocket. He looks about twenty-five. Her Jack would be twenty-eight.

Mrs. Dag, ma’am. You were home yesterday. Afternoon and evening.

Well, she was, yes.

We’re looking for some missing children. Brothers. The deputy shows her a photograph. Birthday party, chocolate ice cream.

You must know them. The family. Questions without marks.

She has watched the boys with their mother. Walking, with tote bags, kites, sometimes a Frisbee. Down the dirt road towards town, and then back up again. The mother launching kites upward, handing over the spool, yelling run, run, the boys’ bodies leaving earth for moments at a time.

A proper asking: did you see the boys yesterday?

Will it help to answer this question, Myrtle. She tells herself this the way a person would address a child when the answer is a foregone negative, when there is no other acceptable response. No, it would not help a thing, the worst thing that can happen to boys has already happened, done and over, and eventually they will be found looking nothing like their mother’s memories of them and is that not better than telling a man with a notepad what she has seen in this life.

Would she tell him about windmills, and how she set her binoculars on the drainboard.

Well, then. Myrtle Dag, he writes in his notepad. No.

If you think of something.  You can call.

Well, then.

The boys’ mother will be sitting on a kitchen chair telling a notepad every truth. Good boys, walking to the churchyard to climb trees, letting them have a little freedom, be home by dark. No, they never get lost. Yes, they always come back. Weeping, skin of her nostrils crude, snagged hair in the prongs of her unwedding ring. Or maybe she is on the sofa, knitted afghan smelling of cheese and sweat and modeling clay, her eyes spread round like gravy. We’ll find them, someone will say, they will be just fine. The mother will try very hard not to scream at this.

There will be things said in town. Those boys running loose all the time. Late for school. Often absent from church. Probably, she tipped herself back onto the sofa, closed her eyes a spell, and then they were gone. Going it alone, you know, can’t be easy, but still. People examining cause and effect, wanting their own contentments guaranteed.

The boys’ father left awhile back, Myrtle heard, moved away. Boise, maybe. Spokane. Someone will have called him, he’ll be on an airplane, coming to help, to look, asking the flight attendant for orange juice because the boys always liked it and because he doesn’t know what else to ask for.

They all have names. Myrtle cannot recall a single one.

She fills the coffee pot with suds to soak away its brown tidemarks. She wipes a cobweb from the window.

The deputy’s hounds call out, and the searchers change slant.  Myrtle lifts her binoculars. Some cross the dirt road into a potato field, the backs of them dominos in a line. More of them now, townspeople in caps, work boots. Women, too, other mothers, blue jeans, windbreakers, setting up card tables along the road with water jugs and juice and muffins, on a Saturday, after a storm, because two boys are gone, just gone.

The deputy accepts a cup of water.

Then: a car in the gravel drive. Janet, from town. Myrtle sets the binoculars in the fridge.

Myrtle, hiya, sorry to just drop in and all, but the phones are all out, did you know? I suppose you’ve heard what they’re up to out there, I see those boys all the time when I head up to your place. Made me think of your Jack and your Roy and all, and I’m sorry for mentioning it, but Myrtle. Can’t help it, you know? And I wondered if you’ll be needing any groceries, I can swing back by later. Nothing? That’s fine, hon, hope you didn’t get too wet last night, our sump pump’s goin’ like runaway horses. Make it harder, I suspect, the scents washed away and all. For the hounds, I mean. Okay, Myrtle, take care of that hip, and bye now.

Her Jack.

Jack, who was a boy.

Myrtle who was a mother.

Stuck in Myrtle’s head at the age of nine, homemade buzz cut, like a kitten to pet him, stuck there because he was still hers then, stuck there because he was still happy, tree swings, quail’s nests. Hay bales, horseshoeing, helping her with canning, apples peeled in one curling serpent’s tongue. Chasing after sheep on his pony. A road trip once, just Myrtle and Jack, South Dakota. A sack of donuts powdering the air between them. Hank Williams, hamburgers. No worries at all about love, no wondering: is there any other kind except mother and son.

Boy Jack swung at baseballs from the apex of a dirt diamond, Myrtle tucking her hands between her thighs and the bleachers, pinching her knuckles numb in a sort of prayer: connect connect connect. Once, it worked: the violence of wood on leather, red stitches wincing as they went airborne, away from a mother tipsy with pride, a father who willed the ball into the second baseman’s glove.

Roy stood his son in the field to practice batting that night until he crumpled.

Myrtle plastered Jack’s shoulders with salve and Epsom salts.

You cannot make him into something resembling a man with that nonsense. That is what Roy said to her. Why does a boy need to resemble a man, and doesn’t that come along soon enough in this life.  That is how she answered him.

Who would Myrtle Dag be without a boy to fix?

A boy that does not become a man is a useless effort. Roy’s final word on the subject. Roy, who has never sat up all night in the rocking chair, loving away an earache. Roy, who put newborn lambs next to the skin of his own chest. Farmer, father. Rancher, reaper.

No more ballgames after that. No more Junior Mechanics meetings, 4-H competitions, marksmanship meets. She bought Jack a puppy, named her Lou, showed him how to rub the felt of her belly until she snored, demonstrated housebreaking and the rites of obedience until he shrugged. He learned to drive, and they never did ride together anywhere again.

Then Jack turned seventeen, sideburns on a sapling, stabbing at his meat until blood turned the potatoes pink, eyes plain and blank and chrome. Churning up the north hill, after dinner, down to the club of cottonwoods by the stream.

Where are you going, boy?  He never answered that.

Myrtle didn’t have to follow far, just up to the old smokehouse. The tiny, west-facing window. Binoculars. Her son. And that Ricky. A miner’s kid, trouble, shoplifting, smoking. Talk of him in town. Another kind of love, a starving, seething tussle, denim jackets and ball caps and birch-white legs, not the love of a man and his wife, but something else. She went to the smokehouse once, and understood. And then twice, and she no longer did.

She loved her son just the same as always, like a boy, her boy, but that was the wrong thing to do, reaching out to smooth his hair, put a biscuit on his plate. Jack hurled back at Myrtle hunks of her love, because he wasn’t a boy now.

That day, that night:

Roy gave Jack a hard time about not putting the hay in the barn before supper and Jack spun a kitchen chair across the room and through a window, Roy, in that chewed-up way of his, asked her: do we have a problem here, and Myrtle had shaken her head no. Because to say yes would be giving life and a name to a thing that was better off not living under the steepled roof of Roy’s mind.

Jack ran off after he threw the chair. The smokehouse, follow him, she wanted to, to be sure he was fine, just angry, just young. Jack, Ricky, bodies like books, bodies like blades. No, Myrtle, the man you’ve named Jack needs to run. She stayed back and dealt with all the broken things.

Roy drove away to count lambs in the back pasture. Evening watch.


Doorbell. The young deputy again, dark birds of sweat on his uniform.

Bloodhounds seem to have a scent, along the broken fence and toward the pond. We’ll need to go over your property. Before it storms, Mrs. Dag. Urgent, as you can see.

Yes, Myrtle can see. She beckons the dog, bends to breathe the cornbread smell of her ears.

What’s her name? The deputy smiles.

Lou. She was my son’s.

Mrs. Dag? Are you all right?

The pond. It is hollow. It is full.


The night her family broke:

Myrtle heard two shots, perhaps a third. Roy’s rifle. She knew the cough of its discharge, the following echo. Dusk. Coyotes. He’d be warning them off. Myrtle picked up the puppy and shut her in the bedroom, away from the shards of their evening.  She swept the shatters into piles, the piles into islands, the islands into continents. When Roy came back to get a thermos of coffee, before the overnight watch, she would try to describe for him the terrain that was their son.

Dark arrived. Roy had not.  Neither had Jack. Myrtle unclothed herself of expectation. The boy needed to come home of his own mind. She turned down the bedding, ordered the lock to a position of welcome. Well, come.

For Roy she filled a sack, swellings of meatloaf between bread, a taste of it dropped for Lou, red beet relish in a jar, to see him through overnight watch. She hung this on the porch hook for him to find. For Jack she left an oatmeal cookie on a napkin near his pillow. She made up the sofa with a sheet, a feather pillow, a cotton blanket, just in case. In case of lost boys.  She found Roy’s brandy, the bottle inside his old boot at the back of the closet, for the worst nights, the longest deliveries, and wet her coffee cup.

Over the busted window she taped great white incisors of poster board, Jack’s old science projects: kill cabbage worm larvae with lye soap and vinegar, one percent iodine solution on squash beetles, graphs and sketches and the teacher’s remarks in red, points subtracted for penmanship.

Then Myrtle and the puppy stirred, settled, slept to the sound of thunder closing doors, rain stewing up a fog for morning, and nothing else.

Myrtle sometimes allows this account of events to be truth.


The men are searching Myrtle’s property. The hounds wear stockings made of mud.

Fracturing without regard, the skies. The sheriff’s deputy and the local men back away from lightning above the pond. One of the men wraps his arms around the boys’ mother, dragging her to the safety of Myrtle’s porch. She kicks, her heels blunting the man’s knees and shins.

The hounds are ordered to the patrol car. The searcher team and the boys’ father lean themselves against the house, beneath the overhang. Myrtle fills the percolator. Offer comfort, she could. She dumps it into the sink.

Water rises to the level of the kitchen door.

The deputy knocks. Mrs. Dag, please.

How simple it would be to save them all.

Mrs. Dag? Please, we need a blanket for the boys’ mother. Soaked to the bone, do you have some tea, set her here on the sofa, let’s get the fireplace going. Equipment on the way, drain the pond, footprints at the edge, only clues, almost erased, no sign of them elsewhere, fearing the worst. The boys.

Swallowed. In the pond, too many truths.

You are very kind, Mrs. Dag. To let us disrupt things this way.

The mother is a fallen tree. She has the smallest hands, Mandy, so much smaller than Myrtle’s.

Mandy. The name of a young mother whose boys are gone.

Myrtle could tell her things about that. About making ready, watching out windows.  About beds unslept, toast unmade. Sweatshirts unwarmed by the arms inside of them, the ribs, the sweat.  How a woman bags the shirts and the boots and the Superman sheets for the church charity. Then leaves the bag in her trunk. Then stops going to church. Then stops going anywhere.

The pond. What does a boy come to believe when the water’s surface is out of reach? Calling out to the algae. Drifting, into the innards of tractors, astonished rubber tires. Does it seem hopeless? Myrtle allows these questions, answers herself that dying must offer something gentler.

She sits down near Mandy on the sofa. Tucks the afghan tighter around her shaking limbs. Lou offers the comfort of her fur.


Myrtle knows the story of a man with a rifle coming upon his son in the woods. The son grappling with a boy the father has seen around town, their denim jackets and Wranglers and work boots and briefs discarded, their skin dirtied by the tumbling-away sun. The man, seeing a problem that cannot be reconciled otherwise, raises his rifle. The boy from town slants toward his jacket, his own weapon in its pocket.

Two shots, three.

The man, the boy, the son. Letting go their redness onto sand and rocks and the bones of trees. The mother hearing, seeing, knowing, from the smokehouse, kneeling down and retching.

This true story she knows becomes about the Dag family, a speckled old filmstrip, a war.

Roy’s truck at the side of the road, door aghast.

Myrtle running, shoeless, to the trees.

Help me, Myrtle, help. Get the boy in the truck. Get his legs.

Help me.

Ricky is not Ricky any longer, the bare whole of him small and wrong and limp in her hands. Roy is not Roy, his shoulder joint showing itself, a peeled spud. Jack is shaking. She wraps him in old towels, the lambing rags from the truck. He can’t see her, something wrong with his eyes, he can’t, is she there, mother, and shush, she tells him, these things can be fixed, we will get this fixed, and yes, I am here. I will fix you.

Ricky and Jack, in the back of the truck, spread out on the old mattress that is for lambs and calves. Roy at the wheel, Roy, the father of a ruined boy, a boy he ruined, speeding away, the door handle snapping at her wrist, before she can jump in the truck and tell him to take highway fourteen to Sheridan, paved all the way, hospital, Jack is allergic to aspirin, gives him hives, sleepwalks sometimes, likes to be sung to when there’s thunder, can’t abide cold feet.

Myrtle runs after them, down the dirt road. Blood in the spaces between her toes.  She was screaming. She must have been.

The truck slows. He’s remembered her, Roy has, that she is the one who mends things, the blisters, the frostbite, the barbed wire stuck through flesh. In reverse now, she can catch him, catch right up and jump in the back and watch over those boys all the way to Sheridan, but the truck swings wide, punching her off her feet, and onto the knothole of her hip.

Roy arrows his truck through the fence at the edge of the Dag’s property, sundering clover and early red sedge, staggering over dead timber. Myrtle sees one arm rise from the back and fall back down. Jack. The truck finds the pond, spitting mud behind, gagging on gravel and moss and the pale ooze of carp. The pond is a swallowing thing.

Myrtle crawls. The slowness of a baby. The urgency of its young mother.  She crawls to the pond until mud takes her wrists, her shins, her knees: stop, you see, there is nothing to be done. There is nothing to save. There is nothing to fix.

This is sometimes the case with stories that are true.

She could tell Mandy about the pond holding her in its teeth that day, until the rain began, and for a long time after.


Laura Farnsworth is a Denver-based writer, artist, and gardener. Her work appears in The Progenitor and Aquifer, and she was recently awarded the Meek Prize for short fiction by The Florida Review. She is currently at work on a story collection exploring the humanity hidden within seemingly incomprehensible behaviors.