Sugar Mountain (second place winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)


Sugar Mountain

By Stacy Austin Egan

When we first moved to Bellaire, my mom thought that my soon-to-be stepsister Brooke and I were eating “healthy” to get “bridesmaid ready.” Brooke crossed off the days until our parents’ wedding on a kitten calendar that hung in the kitchen. She did this because it endeared her to my mother.

My mom met Brooke’s dad on eHarmony. Compatibility matching didn’t fail them; they’ve been married for years, but no algorithm had matched Brooke and me. I knew I was supposed to feel sorry for Brooke because her mom died of breast cancer three years before, but she was so manipulative that, at fourteen, there was only so much sympathy I could muster.

“It’s not anorexia or bulimia,” Brooke said by way of introducing her idea to me. “It’s very effective.”

Even though I’d only lived with Brooke for a few weeks, I knew from weekend visits that she was a person whose suggestions were prophecies. My mom ended the lease on our townhouse in Austin early to move to Houston the second my school year was over because “Brooke needs some time to adjust,” and I had to share a room with Brooke, even though the house had bedrooms to spare, because Brooke thinks “sharing will bring us closer.”

Brooke was less than two years older but acted as if this necessitated that she make all our decisions, so I knew I was in trouble when she recited the diet like a menu: A cup of raisin bran with skim milk for breakfast, a low-fat turkey sandwich with a piece of fruit for lunch, a granola bar for a snack, and yogurt and oatmeal for dinner.

“That’s crazy,” I said. We were lying out on floats next to the edge of the pool. Brooke had snuck a beer from the cooler and was splashing herself with water occasionally to stay cool.

“No, it’s not,” Brooke said, “my mom did it all the time.”

Brooke mentioned her mother often: never around my mom though. She was waiting for me to say something about my father, but I was too embarrassed to tell her that we had no relationship, that he’d once told my mother he didn’t believe I was his.

“I’m only a four,” I said. I took a sip of beer only because I wanted her to see that I wasn’t afraid to.

Brooke swept her dark blonde hair into her hand, pulled it over the back of her float, and leaned her head back so the perfectly straight ends brushed the concrete. “I guess you think those uniforms are more forgiving than I do” she retorted. That was another thing Brooke was getting her way on: her dad had already pulled the strings to get me in at the Episcopal High School, and I was going to have to sit through church services on Wednesdays and wear an itchy polo daily. “Besides,” Brooke added, lowering her Lilly Pulitzer sunglasses, “Haven’t you ever heard of vanity sizes?”

Brooke has always been one of those girls who constantly dangles her approval so it’s closely in reach but never actually grasped, but back then, I thought her games were winnable.

“I guess we can do it,” I said, “If you really want to.”

Though I pretended that I didn’t need Brooke to like me, we both knew it wasn’t true. Brooke had already given me some of her clothes, negotiated an allowance for me with her father, and taken me to get my hair colored “the right kind of brunette.” She’d told me whom to avoid (our neighbors, the Davidson twins, seniors at the Episcopal school, were “creepy and awful”) and how to stay on her father’s good side (“make good grades, make your bed, and don’t wear make-up”). Her help came with conditions, but I’d make a show of weighing my options.

“That’s what I like about you,” Brooke said. She smiled her Crest-whitening strip grin. I’d have the same one by summer’s end.

My mom came out on the patio, and Brooke crunched the can of beer into the float’s cup-holder.

“You girls look so cute,” my mom said, holding her phone out to get a grainy picture.

My mom was adjusting well to life in Bellaire. She’d left her job as a nurse at St. David’s and wouldn’t be looking for a new position. Not working or worrying about bills anymore made her look even younger, and recently, we were asked if we were sisters. Brooke’s dad, Joel, was almost fifty.

My mom brought us a picture from Martha Stewart Weddings of champagne colored bridesmaid dresses in silk chiffon and told us she’d booked a fitting for the next day. If she smelled the beer on our breaths, she didn’t say anything, and she skipped her usual lecture on sunscreen too, though we were already pink, and it was clear we’d soon burn.


Brooke said we were eating 1,200 calories a day, but I was skeptical. I was reading for AP English and started with Madame Bovary, which I had to put down constantly; my mind was always on food. For two people that hardly ate, we talked about food a lot.

“What would you give for a Dairy Queen Blizzard?” I would ask.

Brooke would correct me: “The only milkshake I care about are the ones at Avalon Diner.”

It was in this way that I quickly learned that everything about my past life (walking with friends to the 7-Eleven for Slurpees, riding bikes to I Luv Video, and watching movies in garages) was irrelevant history. None of the kids here rode bikes: they were chauffeured from country club to club sports, and they didn’t rent movies: they watched The Sopranos or The Wire.

We’d list various indignities we’d willingly suffer (going to school without a bra, court ordered trash pick-up) for an Avalon milkshake before settling on the same 110-calorie granola bar from the day before.

Joel had Neil Young’s Live Rust on vinyl, and we’d play “Sugar Mountain” on his Audiofile turntable and dance around his pool table. It became a joke, and one of us would break into the chorus when we craved food: “Oh to live on sugar mountain, with the barkers and the colored balloons, you can’t be twenty on sugar mountain.” We’d sing twenty like it was an absurdly old age and argue about what a barker was.

The diet brought us closer, the way I’d imagined real hunger does: a joining born of desperation. Brooke would run her thin fingers over my ribs, counting the new definition. I sometimes wanted to quit, but I told myself as soon as our parents were married, it’d be over. Brooke’s attention fed me in ways food didn’t. She could be viciously demanding. Bathroom products had to be lined up by height; she’d once opened her window to throw my book outside because my reading light was “poisoning her.” But I’d forgive these trespasses to be treated like a favorite doll. I was lonely and homesick, and I’d imagined that Brooke was too: that we were each other’s consolation prize.

A few weeks into our diet, we were playing volleyball in the pool outside. I was horrible at volleyball and hated the bruises it left on my arms, but Brooke claimed playing on the intramural team would elevate my social status exceptionally. I served, and Brooke leapt from the water and hit the ball over the fence into the Davidson’s yard.

“Nice job” I said, climbing the pool ladder.

“What are you doing?” Brooke asked. She rested her arms on the ledge of the pool, her face suddenly angry.

I hesitated, trying to figure out what I had done. “Getting our ball,” I said, squeezing the water out of my hair. Brooke had taken to fixing it in a French braid daily.

“It’s gone,” Brooke said shaking her head. “Forget it.”

“I’ll be right back,” I said, slipping on my flip-flops.

Brooke inhaled like she’d stepped on glass. “Samantha,” she said, one of the only times she’d used my full name, “it’s gone.”

“Why?” I said. “We can’t abandon Wilson, right?” Brooke always acts as though everything is replaceable, a Bellaire mentality I’ve never adopted.

Brooke didn’t laugh. “Don’t worry about it,” she said, wrapping a towel around herself. When the ball showed up on the doorstep later, she looked sick, and she didn’t finish her oatmeal or yogurt.


In July, six weeks into our diet, I woke up feeling my hipbones jutting into the mattress. Brooke huddled on the end of her bed, her knees pulled to her chest. She was just sitting there, staring straight ahead.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I forgot that you live here,” she said.

I stretched my thinned arms and yawned. “Only for a month and a half.”

I climbed out of bed, cleaned my face with the Clarisonic Brooke swore by, and retreated to the kitchen to get our Raisin Bran.

“I’m late,” I said, handing Brooke her cereal.

“Hm?” Brooke said. She insisted we eat our cereal with baby spoons. It was comical to watch.

“My period,” I said.

“Oh, that’s good.”

“Amenorrhea is not good,” I said. “And I’m losing my boobs. Do you see this?” I lifted my shirt to show my gaping bra.

“I don’t even want boobs,” Brooke said. “Everyone thinks they’re so great.”

“This isn’t healthy,” I said.

“Just because your mom was a nurse, you think you know everything,” Brooke said. She took insanely long pauses between bites: she made eating a bowl of cereal a half-hour ordeal. I’d secretly poured myself a cup and a half of Raisin Bran.

My mom knocked on the door. “We all have a fitting in an hour,” she said.

“Only 32 days to go!” Brooke said cheerfully. I thought of her cloying kitten calendar.

Our parents picked the only Saturday at the country club that wasn’t booked for the summer. August in Houston is miserably muggy, but my mom acted like the school year was a necessary deadline: as if we all needed to be related before she could attend the teacher meet and greet or sign-up for volunteer committees.

After Brooke heard my mom on the stairs, she said, “Look, you aren’t pregnant, so don’t worry about it.”

“My mom is a nurse,” I said. “Technically.”

“Okay, whatever,” Brooke said. She pulled on her skirt without unzipping it.


I knew it was bad for us, but there was a secret joy I felt when Lenora, the seamstress at Winnie Couture, bitched about having to take in both of our dresses. It wasn’t being skinny that I cared about: it was that Brooke and I were allied. Every inch gone was a pledge of sorts: that this hungered suffering together was better than any pleasure we could feel alone.

“Girls, should I be worried?” my mom said in the car. She still had her old Jeep Cherokee with its Dairy Queen stains and Lake Travis smell. This was before Joel bought the Lexus as a wedding present. I watched the towing company take the Cherokee, the last remnant of our old lives, while they were on their honeymoon in Cinque Terre.

“About what?” Brooke asked sweetly. She always rode shotgun.

“Lenora thinks this diet is a bit out of control,” my mom said.

“We’re just so excited for the wedding,” Brooke said. “You want to go get ice cream, Sam?”

The deception felt too easy. I wanted my mom to see through our attempt, but she accepted Brooke’s easy explanation and seemed reassured when Brooke wrapped an arm around her in line.

I ordered a cone of my favorite flavor, mint chocolate chip, and kept Brooke in my peripheral vision as I ate.

My mom talked most of the time. Her stories used to be about what was happening at the hospital: avoidable tragedies, grieving families, the doctors that she preferred to work with and why. Our conversations that day were about her tennis and golf lessons and how the Davidsons bred their dog and were expecting a litter of Golden Retrievers.

“I wish we could have a puppy,” I said.

“What do you think your dad would say?” my mom asked Brooke.

Brooke laughed. “He’s not a dog person.”

The truth was Brooke wasn’t a dog person. I tried to imagine a puppy in her room chewing on one of her Tory Burch sandals.

My mom changed the subject to how Mrs. Davidson thought Brooke and I should join swim team next year with the twins.

“I don’t like races,” Brooke said. “They give me anxiety.”

“She doesn’t like the Davidson twins either,” I said. Then, unsure, I shot Brooke an apologetic look.

“I thought you were friends,” my mom said.

“Kind of,” Brooke said. She chewed the last piece of her chocolate chip cookie dough. “But I have Sam now anyway.”

I felt a twinge of pride in having been preferred.

Brooke continued, stealing a bite of my mom’s ice cream for show. “It’s not that we’re not friends, it’s just that we’re not friends, you know?”

“Sometimes you grow away from people,” my mom said. It made me nervous to wonder what relationships she had replaced in her life and anxious that I’d done the same to my friends back home. I wondered about that kind of dissolving: whether it was fast like the first time you put on jeans after summer to find them too big or drawn out like your swimsuit bottoms slowly becoming too loose until you feared being exposed.

Brooke decided we should skip the bread on our turkey sandwiches at lunch. “That way,” she said, “we cut eighty calories.”

“Oh, to live on sugar mountain,” I sang.

Brooke joined in and reiterated that a barker had nothing to do with dogs.


When Brooke’s dad traveled, my mom had Tuesday dinners with Mrs. Davidson and the Junior League. The week before the wedding, Brooke and I were curled up on the couch. She was watching HBO, and I was reading Wuthering Heights, when she said, “You know they want a baby, right?”

“Cathy and Heathcliff?” I asked, thinking Brooke was spoiling the plot; she did that sometimes and then would pretend she “thought you’d already read that part.”

“Our parents,” Brooke said, “want a baaaaby together,” she drew out the word as if I’d never heard it.

“No, they don’t.” I said. “My mom doesn’t,” I added, less sure.

Brooke took my hand and led me to the master bathroom. “Come look,” she said. She opened the cabinet under one of the sinks and pointed to a box of pregnancy tests and something else. “See?” she said triumphantly.

“That doesn’t mean anything,” I said, examining a purple box that proudly claimed to identify twice the number of fertile days.

“You have to try when you’re thirty-seven,” Brooke said. “These tell you when to have sex.”

“Why would they want that?” I said, sitting on the edge of the tub. I felt suddenly hot: the idea of sharing my mom with a newborn was infuriating.

“This is what people do,” Brooke said, tracing her finger down my spine.

Looking around the bathroom, I realized how little of my mother I recognized in it. She used to own a couple of shades of Covergirl lipstick and some Maybelline foundation, but now the counter was littered with M.A.C. eye-shadows, highlighters, lip and brow pencils, and several jars of creams that claimed to fix wrinkles and dark spots, problems she didn’t even have.

“She didn’t say anything to me,” I said.

Brooke, already bored with my disbelief, flipped through one of the magazines my mom had left on the tub. She stopped on an article “19 Reasons He Won’t Tell You What He’s Thinking.”

I felt my stomach rumble for want of mac and cheese; the idea of eating oatmeal again was nauseating.

“I think the Davidson’s dog had puppies,” Brooke said. “I bet if you go over there, they’ll show you. That might cheer you up.”

“I thought you hated them.”

“Just because you go doesn’t mean I have to,” Brooke said, though this was the first time all summer she’d suggested we should do anything apart. She picked up my mother’s hairbrush and started to brush my hair, tangled from dried pool water.

“We can’t have one anyway.” I let her pull my entire head back as she combed.

“I bet if I asked my dad, he’d say yes,” Brooke said in a singsong voice; she moved a hair tie from her wrist and held it in her mouth, concentrating as she braided.

When she was done, we headed to the kitchen. “Can’t we eat something different?” I whined.

Brooke squeezed my waist. “I bet you can almost fit into Abercrombie Kids.”

I could hardly eat my yogurt. I kept thinking about my mom and wondering if she hadn’t found time to tell me or if she had just picked up tests on a whim while shopping for bananas and hearts of palm.

“Are you going next door?” Brooke pushed.

“Can’t you come with me?”

“I thought you loved puppies,” Brooke said. She stirred her strawberry yogurt into her banana-nut oatmeal. She had this absurd idea that food had fewer calories if it was cold.


I stood alone at the door, poised to knock but unsure of what to say; I’d spoken four words (“nice to meet you”) to the twins since moving in.

The twin that answered wore a green polo shirt and khaki shorts and seemed too ordinary for Brooke to despise.

“I was wondering if I could see your puppies,” I said.

He smirked, his dark eyes looking me over. “See what?” he said.

I felt myself turning red and took a step back.

He held out his hand. “I’m Caleb. You’re Sam, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry. I just moved in a couple of months ago.”

“The puppies are in the pool house,” he said. I followed him past the formal dining room and various living areas. The Davidson’s home was much like Brooke’s, but with more televisions; flat screens blended into the walls. In the kitchen, a woman was washing dishes.

“That’s Lucy,” Caleb said. I waved awkwardly, not sure if I was supposed to keep with the spirit of formal introductions.

I doubted Mrs. Davidson ever set foot in the pool house: Maxim spreads of curvaceous women were taped to the walls, an unmade full-sized bed sat in the corner, sheets covered with crumbs and ashes, a two-foot bong stood in the middle of the floor next to the dog crate, and the whole room smelled like weed.

“Sorry for the mess,” Caleb said. From the bed, his brother, Mark, barely looked up from his laptop to acknowledge me.

“What are their names?” I asked, kneeling next to the crate.

“This one’s Roger,” Caleb said, handing me a warm ball of fluff with ears and paws too big for his body. “And that’s Timber, Asher, and—where’s Marshmallow?”

“I have him,” Mark said, holding up a puppy in his right hand.

“Those are…funny,” I said sitting cross-legged on the floor.

“People never keep the names anyway,” Caleb said, sitting next to me.

“Did you find a home for all of them?” I asked. I held Roger in my lap, stroking his head. Not bothering to open his eyes, he moved his chin so it sank over my knee.

“Only Timber and Asher,” Caleb said, pulling the wrestling puppies off one another.

“Aren’t you Brooke’s sister?” Mark asked from the bed.

“Yeah,” I said. “Well—in two weeks.” This was the start of it: my belonging to Brooke.

“Where’s Brooke?” Mark asked.

I told him she was at home. Roger sighed and shifted in my lap. “His ears are so soft,” I said.

“Does she know you’re here?” Mark asked. Caleb looked at him incredulously. I shifted to my side, pushing my knees tightly together.

“Yeah,” I said, more to the puppy than to Caleb or Mark. “She’s right next door.”

“You wanna smoke?” Caleb said, resting his hand on my shoulder. His fingers slipped under my tank top, rubbing the strap of my bra.

“I should go,” I said. I didn’t want to leave Roger, but I put him back gently.

Holding my breath, I found my own way back to the front door. On the way out, Lucy called to me: “Chica, cuidado! ¡El piso esta mojado!” At the time, I’d thought this was a reprimanding, but later, it occurred to me that she’d given me a warning: one that I hadn’t heeded.


That night, I waited until Brooke was asleep and went down to my mom’s room. Since she was alone, I didn’t bother knocking. I climbed into her king size bed; the feel of linen sheets was so different from her flannel ones we’d bought on sale at Target. The bed still smelled like Joel’s cologne. No matter how nice he was to me, it was still an imposition to share her.

“Mom,” I said, shaking her gently. “I need to talk you.” I took a deep breath and tried to keep my voice from breaking. “Why didn’t you tell me that you and Joel wanted to have a baby?”

My mom pursed her lips. “I don’t know why you think that, sweetie.”

I went into the bathroom to show her what I’d found, but the boxes of tests were gone. I was having a hunger headache, and on top of it felt equal parts rage and relief.

“I guess I misunderstood something Brooke said,” I told my mom. I wanted to march upstairs and scream at her that I knew she was a liar, but instead, I snuggled under the covers.

My mom rolled over to face me and tuck my hair behind my ear. “What did Brooke say?”

I yawned, forcing myself to act casually. “She was on the phone. I guess she was talking about some TV show.”

I thought about Brooke waking up alone and wondered if it would seem different than awakening to me, a slowly disappearing girl. It wasn’t enough for her to wither my body; Brooke wanted to chip away at every relationship I had until I was only hers. I curled into a ball and held my knees to my chest, and it was reassuring to find myself still there.


The next day, at our final fitting, Lenora stuck her turning tool down the back of each of our zipped dresses and pulled to show my mother the extra inch.

“Everyone loses weight in the summer,” Brooke said. I could tell she expected me to agree, but I only stood in front of the mirror. Since I couldn’t explode with my mother around, I punished Brooke with silence.

“I’m sorry, Lenora,” my mom said, obviously flustered. “I promise it’s vitamins and family dinners from now on.”

At dinner that night, we picked at our organic Whole Foods chicken, even though it was the best chicken I’d ever tasted. Joel was home, and Brooke, as usual, dominated the conversation, talking to take the focus off eating.

I spent the evening in the living room, reading. I overheard my mom in the kitchen arguing with Joel. He got defensive, deflecting back to his line that “change was very stressful for Brooke.” I half wanted to never eat again, so my mom would worry about me, but I knew if I ate a few Oreos, it would piss Brooke off royally.

“Sam, sweetie,” Joel said as I pulled apart my Oreos. “You think Brooke’s okay, don’t you?”

“Sure,” I said, liking both my newfound ability to please him and the way my mother shook her head and left the room.

I planned to wait until Brooke was asleep to go upstairs, but at 11:30, she was still wide-awake and stretched out on her bed, feet hooked over the end.

“Hey,” Brooke said, casually.

“Unless you’re going to apologize for lying, don’t even bother talking to me” I said. Brooke looked at me bewildered. “I know that you made that baby stuff up.”

“I was just joking,” she tried.

“Really funny,” I said sarcastically. I went to brush my teeth, but Brooke followed me.

“Don’t be mad at me,” she said. She looked with horror at the remnants of Oreo that I’d spit out when brushing my teeth. “What did you do?”

In my mind, it’d been a perfect rebellion, but now, I couldn’t explain what I wanted it to mean.

Brooke grabbed my arm and dragged me to the toilet. “Get rid of it,” she demanded.

“Tell me the truth,” I countered. Relinquishing control of my body was the only thing I’d learned to trade for leverage with Brooke.

Brooke showed me how to use the end of my toothbrush to make myself gag. There was a stinging in my throat and nostrils. I wanted to push Brooke against the wall or to rush, crying, into the arms of my mom or even Joel.

Brooke watched until it was gone, flushed, and then said, “I bought that stuff, and I put it there.”

The admission of guilt wasn’t satisfying. “Why?” I pressed, hoping for remorse. I didn’t understand it then: that Brooke would spend her life trying to impose on others all the grief she couldn’t expel.

Brooke only shrugged.

“You know what,” I said, leaning against the counter. “You don’t get permission to be an asshole just because your mom died. I haven’t had a dad ever, and I’m not manipulating everyone all the time.”

Brooke retreated to the bedroom and turned off the lights. I re-brushed my teeth, put on my pajamas, and lay in bed, too angry to sleep but too tired to argue.

Brooke didn’t say anything, but then she whispered, “You know how sometimes on the weekend, you wake up, and you kind of want to get out of bed, but there’s not a reason you have to, and you just can’t make yourself?

I closed my eyes, imagining it, but I didn’t say anything. Asking for details felt too much like forgiveness.

“I felt heavy like that all the time,” Brooke said. “Even when I was walking around.”

When I couldn’t find a job after I finished college, and my first serious boyfriend and I failed to make a post-graduation relationship work, I remembered Brooke’s description of depression, and it was like finally understanding drug use innuendos in a song you’d spent your childhood thinking was about falling in love and going to a dance.

“I want to tell you something, Sam, but you have to swear: you can’t tell anyone.”

I debated ignoring her, but I was curious. “Whatever,” I said. I turned, facing her and hugged a pillow to my flat chest.

“When I was really bad, one of the Davidson twins had sex with me.”

“What do you mean?” I said. I turned on my reading light. Sex, as seen on HBO, was usually about an exchange of power, so the act seemed beneath Brooke who always automatically got her way.

Brooke pushed her hair behind her ear. “We were in the pool house. I thought I’d feel better if I smoked, so I took a hit.”

You smoked pot?”

“I felt like it would help.”

“Did it?”

“No, it really hurt,” she whispered.

“The smoke?”

“The sex.” She paused.

I didn’t know the right thing to say. “Who was it?” I asked, moving to the end of her bed.

“I don’t know.” Brooke flipped to her stomach and pressed her forehead into her elbow. “I didn’t stop him because I thought maybe it would change something. He kind of pulled my hair the whole time.”

I thought about the bed covered in ashes and crumbs, the pictures from Maxim on the walls. “Did you tell someone?” I asked. I thought of Lucy. “Was anyone home?”

“Their dad is, like, so mean to them, Sam.” She had her face in the pillow.

“Why did you let me go over there?” I said. The anger in my voice surprised both of us.

“Nothing would’ve happened,” she said.

I felt frozen on her bed thinking about how she’d braided my hair before I’d gone to the Davidsons.

She was crying; she grabbed for me and pulled me to her, our first hug outside of one-second side ones on end of weekend visits. I felt her shoulder blades as she shook and knew mine were identical the way that bone pushed hard against skin.

“When did this happen?” I asked.

“Two Octobers ago,” she said quietly.

She looked past me, but I forced eye contact. “You sent me over there by myself,” I said incredulously.

Brooke grabbed her hairbrush from the nightstand. For a moment, I thought she was going to hit me. She must’ve seen me flinch. “I made you safe,” she said. “Stand up, and I’ll show you.” She used the end of her brush to measure the gap between my thighs. “See? You aren’t want they want now.”

I thought about Caleb’s hand on my bra strap. “I don’t think it works that way.”

Brooke walked to her window, which overlooked her pool and the Davidsons’ and the pool house too. Both were eerie with emptiness, and the fence between seemed too short from above. “They’ll be at college in a year,” Brooke offered.

“I’m not going to keep starving myself until then.”

Brooke started humming “Sugar Mountain,” but this time it wasn’t funny.

I noticed she’d been gripping the hairbrush firmly, and I gently took it from her. “Whatever happened to you—” I wanted to name it, but I didn’t have the word. “It wasn’t because of how you looked.”

“I made us safe, Sam,” she said like she wanted to believe it but couldn’t.

I nodded, even though I knew it wasn’t true.


There’s a photo from the wedding that my mom loves. Our parents had it printed on a large Canvas. It’s Brooke and I in those strapless bridesmaid dresses, the color of Rosé. We are back to back, and, like mirror images of one another, our shoulders formed hard angles rather than rounded curves, and our collarbones were more noticeable than our pearls. We were on the golf course at the country club; the sun setting behind us was that August orange-red.

The photo that is Joel’s favorite is on his desk in a silver frame. The photographer had pulled us away after dinner. I’d eaten my first full meal in months while Brooke had picked at her dinner salad. In the photo, Brooke is leaning in to whisper, a hand cupped over her mouth, to tell me we were getting a puppy: a wedding gift from her father. My gaze is off to the side of the frame, but my smile is genuine and smudged with frosting from a piece of wedding cake I’d just eaten. “He’ll be a barker,” I’d joked, and that had set us both off giggling, bent and gasping for air. Though we were fourteen and sixteen, we look much younger in that one: carefree, weightless.

Sometimes I find one of those prints in a deserted drawer, and I stop to contemplate it. What’s missing from the image makes it better than memory. From Brooke’s open grin, she looks un-phased and forever fed. My eyes glisten with tears from laughter and reflect back only Brooke and that sunset, and there is nothing or no one to tell what we’ve already had to leave behind.


Stacy Austin Egan holds an MFA from McNeese State University. Her fiction chapbook, You Could Stop it Here, was released by PANK Books this spring. Her fiction appears in PANK Magazine, Driftwood Press, The New Plains Review, The MacGuffin, WomenArts Quarterly Journal, and Black Fox Literary Magazine. She lives in west Texas with her husband, Brendan, and their daughter. She teaches literature and writing at Midland College.  

Leslie (first place winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)



By Lauren Green

Michael leans over to flick off the heat, catching a whiff of Rick’s half-eaten apple in the cup holder. He had thought the fling with Rick would last maybe a night or two, a week at most. Fifteen months later, they are driving home to see Michael’s ex-wife, Leslie, who is throwing herself an end-of-life party.

In the passenger seat, Rick extends his arms overhead and spells out O-H-I-O, not for the first time this trip. Michael knows that Ohio means little to Rick, who has spent all twenty-four years of his life in New York City, where Michael met him at a tacky Chelsea bar called Rawhide.

“Did you know there’s a river here that’s flammable?” Michael asks.


“The Cuyahoga. It’s so full of pollutants, it once caught fire. Literally.”

Rick snorts, the way he does whenever he finds something either amusing or lame. Which category his latest fact falls into, Michael is unsure. He sets his gaze ahead into the dark once more, where a sliver of moon lances through the lacy canopy of sycamores that line the roadside.

Leslie had been sick once before, long ago. She had revealed this to Michael on an early date—how she spent her fourteenth year propped-up in bed, teaching herself card tricks from a paper booklet while doctors pumped her body full of poison. By the end of summer, the whites of her eyes were tinted blue, like sky reflected in a corner of windshield, and she could levitate the queen of spades.

And now she is dying. Second cancer—that’s what she called it on the phone. Not a recurrence but a separate entity altogether. Michael was in his office at the YMCA when she rang. As her voice floated toward him, he imagined her in their old kitchen, worrying the landline cord into a coil between her fingers, crossing one shea-buttered ankle over the other.

“Come,” she said. “I mean, if you want. If you still love me—” she said, but she did not finish the sentence.

The end-of-life celebration seemed somber and hellish to Michael, who possessed no desire to return to his former existence. “It’s not exactly like she’s ever been the life of the party,” he grumbled to Rick. Life of the party. The words were like tinfoil against his teeth.

But Rick insisted he go, and offered to accompany him, most likely in the hopes of purloining some medical cannabis. So it was decided.

Michael casts a sidelong gaze to the passenger seat. A deep red scar vitiates Rick’s cheek where he cut himself shaving this morning. “Arizona,” Michael says.

He gestures to the license plate of the white semi-trailer looming like a cloud in the distance. “Arizona.”

“Oh, nice catch.”

Rick drapes his jacket over himself like a cloak, wriggles it up to his chin. His head lolls to one side. Blue-black twilight peeks through the lines on the window glass where he’s fingernailed away the frost. “It’s so boring here,” he says, his voice husky with sleep.

“Ah, my sweet city boy. Welcome to most of America,” Michael answers. He waits for the reward of Rick’s quick snort, which does not come.

Nighttime bounds across the highway and far into the plains. Darkness spreads over the soybean fields and hoods the silver Camry. Michael’s thoughts drift to Leslie. Leslie in bed, late at night, waiting for him to come home. Leslie tracing shapes on the driveway with a twig, because she cannot bear to watch him pull away.

A car streams around them, blaring its horn, and he swerves back into the right lane. Beady red taillights glare out at him from ahead. “Maryland,” he reads. “Did we already get that one?”

He glances over at Rick, who has lapsed into sleep. Outside, wintry currents howl. Michael reaches over, turns up the heat, and tries again to think of her.


The rules to Leslie’s party, which she emailed out to her twenty-five or so guests, are simple:

  1. No using the words death or cancer or, god forbid, tragedy.
  2. No cell phones. (Photographs are O.K.)
  3. Obviously I don’t expect this to be the most uplifting event of your lives, but try to indulge me with a smile if you can. (Though if/when I need to cry, please do not judge me.)


The roads grow more familiar. Michael spots the Sunoco station he and Leslie used to frequent each time they drove to the airport, the mossy bog they would meander around when spring fever spiked, the convention center where he got down on his knees for a man whose name he didn’t know.

He nearly misses the turn onto his own block, the one he took every day for twenty-two years. He passes the Claffeys, the Morgans, the Haberfields, slowing as he approaches the stone-and-stucco house that once belonged to the Fletchers. A “For Sale” sign gnashes its long white fangs into the overgrown yard.

The Fletchers, a young Waspy couple, had moved onto the block eight years ago. With their incongruous Ivy League airs and tinted Range Rover, they were instantly the subject of town gossip. Both boasted mystifyingly perpetual tans, which they emphasized by dressing exclusively in country-club pastels. They had one child, a flaxen-haired toddler named Jacob. Michael and Leslie sometimes watched Jacob through the window as he raced his Tonka steel cement mixer up and down the drive.

“Why isn’t anyone out there with him?” Leslie would ask. “Someone should be watching.”

One day, Mr. Fletcher strapped Jacob into his car seat and drove to the reservoir on the outskirts of town, where teenagers ventured in the gauzy days of July to get lucky. The reservoir was two miles long and sixty feet deep—lightless and shimmering as a water moccasin. Later, the skid marks would indicate that Mr. Fletcher didn’t even brake—he drove full speed ahead into the water, which swallowed the car in several large gulps, down into the belly of that glimmering black.

For nights after the tragedy, Rachel Fletcher’s wails kept Michael and Leslie up at night. When they passed by her in the supermarket, her grief seemed otherworldly. Her eyes shifted frantically in their sockets, as if her pupils were an etch-a-sketch trying to erase what they’d seen.

Her name became shorthand for any pain too great to bear. When Leslie’s father died of heart disease: Rachel Fletcher. When Michael was laid off: Rachel Fletcher. On that final day, when his car was packed, and he drove away, watching Leslie grow smaller in the rearview: Rachel Fletcher, Rachel Fletcher, Rachel Fletcher.

Rick rubs the sleep from his eyes. “This it?” he asks, taking in the abandoned house.

“No,” Michael says. “Next one.”

The house looks smaller than he remembers as it materializes behind a scrim of trees. A single light glows firefly-yellow through the kitchen window. “Maybe you should stay here,” he says.

Rick shrugs. “It’s not like she doesn’t know I’m coming.”

“Right, but—”

Rick squeezes Michael’s thigh. “It’ll be fine.”

Into the nettled gulley behind the yard Michael stares, waiting for his headlights to catch on a pair of gleaming eyes or the scales of a leaping fish. He is considering restarting the car and checking into a motel when Leslie appears backlit in the doorway, a pilled cardigan sashed loosely around her middle.

“Hey, stranger,” she calls.

Crisp air. A breeze carting the smell of rainwater across the drive. Leslie waits on the landing, grinning with what Michael imagines to be painkiller-induced joy. He walks to her and wraps her in a hug. She is all bone beneath his fingertips. With her mouth still nuzzled into his neck, he shyly cups the back of her wigged head.

Footsteps behind him, and he pulls away. “This is—”

“Rick.” Leslie extends her hand. “So nice to meet you. Come in. Ignore the mess. I’m trying to get everything set for tomorrow.”

She ushers them into the kitchen. Moonlight has pooled on the ground beneath the French patio doors. Michael’s eyes flicker to the frames on the wall—Leslie riding the Raptor at Cedar Point, arms thrust into the air; Leslie at her nephew’s wedding, face dewy and wide. He tries to reconcile the woman in the photographs with the one before him now, her pallid skin impressed with a filigree of purple veins.

“Long drive?” she asks, collapsing into a cushioned chair. She rubs the back of her palm against her forehead, smudging one penciled-in eyebrow. “Can I get either of you a drink?”

“I’ll take a soda,” Rick says.

“Pop,” Michael reflexively corrects. “I’ll get it.”

He pads to the pantry. The shelves are stocked for tomorrow’s party with foods the Leslie of his memories would be loath to purchase: chips, candy, soda, beer. Michael fingers the plastic rigging between the cans. Leslie used to complain the rings were an environmental hazard, liable to pollute the Atlantic, strangle its precious sea turtles. What should she care for oceans now?

He takes a few breaths to fortify himself before striding out, a false smile plastered across his face. In the kitchen, Rick stands bathed in the refrigerator’s planetary light, wielding a bulbous head of ginger.

“It’s for me,” Leslie explains.

Michael cocks his head. His wife is gone, but here is this woman sitting in his wife’s chair, wrapped in his wife’s freckled skin, wearing the same kind and weary mask.

“Soda?” Rick asks.

Michael tosses him the can and clocks the snap of the tab, the hiss of the fizz. He has forgotten how eerie suburban silence can be. Rick tips back his head and allows the liquid to stream out. With alarming strength, he crushes the can in one fist and sets its flattened body down on the marble countertop.

“Do you need help setting anything up for tomorrow?” Michael asks Leslie.

“Mmm,” she says, “I think I’ve got it under control. My mom’s been staying here, so she did most of the setup. I just need to finalize my outfit.”

“Can we see it?” Rick asks.

Leslie pauses a moment, then labors to her feet. “Sure. Just give me a minute. I’m slow going up.”

She shuffles across the hardwood floor. Michael waits for the mouth of the hallway to devour her before shooting Rick a reproving look.

What?” he says. “Chill.”

Michael shakes his head, trying to slough off the annoyance that has come over him. “Here. Let me show you the rest of the house.”

He leads the way from the kitchen, flicking on lights as he goes. In the dining room, he is overcome by the urge to yank open every drawer, catalogue each article she will leave behind. He spots her favorite vase on the topmost shelf of the china cabinet. The vase is turnip-shaped and gray; the romantic color of a drizzly Paris, Leslie used to say, though she had never been there. Michael grips it by the neck and uses his shirtsleeve to swab dust from around the rim. He positions it in the center of the dining room table.

“Look at this!” Rick calls from the living room, where Leslie’s mother has arranged a semi-circle of folding chairs. Streamers festoon every surface. Rick stands before a bridge table set off to one side, studying the objects arrayed on its surface. A sign scrawled in Leslie’s trembling hand reads: DON’T BE SHY! HELP YOURSELF.

Michael runs his fingers over the keepsakes: Leslie’s porcelain hand-mirror; her camera; a set of earthenware bowls; a watercolor of a rose with her initials in the corner. He is about to turn away when he catches sight of a familiar glass bottle, dangling from a silver chain. The bottle is the size of his thumb and filled with pink sand from the beach in Greece where he and Leslie spent their honeymoon.

He pinches the chain and lifts it into the air. The coral granules tumble from one side to the other. He had gifted Leslie the necklace on their third anniversary. He closes his fist around the glass and worms it into his pocket. Sensing Rick’s eyes on him, he looks up. They stare at each other, soundless and unmoving.

Just then, the patter of Leslie’s footfalls jolts them. “Where did you boys run off to?” she calls, and the kettle in the kitchen begins to sing.


Michael remembers little from the honeymoon. Only the tract of sky at sunset—febrile, the color of a skinned tangerine. The sizzle of his feet against alleyways once strode upon by emperors. A donkey clopping up the cliffside stairs, suitcases adorning his back. He remembers the day he walked down to the beach alone. Leslie, sick with sun fatigue, had headed back to the villa early.

Even now, he can picture the tanned face of the young man folding umbrellas on the sand. Flushed cheeks, vacant brown eyes. Hardly more than a boy. He can recall the precise weight of the drachma banknote which he slipped beneath the man’s belt before gesturing lewdly to his own crotch. The man said the word in Greek. And then he took Michael into his mouth. Brown eyes, vacantly upturned, registering Michael’s pleasure with each movement—how those eyes would torment Michael every day for the next twenty-two years.

When it was done, Michael sat down in a web-strap beach chair and regarded the man with the disdain he reserved for the people who reminded him of his most monstrous self. The man finished folding his umbrellas and hurried back up the path, whistling.


When Michael and Rick reenter the kitchen, the room is dark. In the silvery moonlight, Leslie’s edges are feathered, as though she’s been done in crayon. She stands, arms crossed, wearing a red silk gown that Michael recognizes. Years ago, she had shown him a picture of it in a magazine. They’d squabbled over its price. I just want to feel beautiful, she had said.

Why hadn’t that been enough?

“Can one of you get my zipper?” she asks, walking toward them. She lifts the synthetic hair away from her neck. Rick tugs the zipper up its track, his hand hovering at the clasp.

She spins around. “What do you think?”

Rick lets out a long, slow whistle of approval.

Leslie scans Michael’s face. “It’ll be better with makeup,” she says.

The walls of his throat swell. He fights to level his eyes on hers. She suddenly feels both very large to him and very far away, like a city glimpsed through an airplane window. “You look ravishing,” he says.

He has the desire to offer something more, but every word that comes to mind seems trite. They stand in silence until, at last, Rick clears his throat.

“It’s late,” he says. “I’m gonna turn in.”

Leslie nods. “I’ve set you up in the guest room, just up the stairs, first door on the left.”

“Cool, thanks.”

Rick swings his backpack over one shoulder and slinks toward the staircase. He has a dancer’s physique, his slim hips swaying to the tempo of unheard music. After a few moments, Michael and Leslie tilt their heads up toward the ceiling, where they hear Rick moving about in the room above.

“He seems nice,” Leslie says. She crosses to the sink to put away the dishes, humming to herself a tune that is more breath than music, impossible for Michael to place.

“I’ll get those,” he says.

“They’re already done.”

She shuts the cupboard and wipes her hands on a balding rag. “So, what’s he getting out of this?”

Michael opens his mouth, closes it. He thinks of Rick, of his youth, his boundless energy, the rainbow-pride flag in his apartment that hangs in place of a window curtain. He thinks of the night they first met. Michael had worn a too-tight paisley shirt, which pulled between his shoulder blades. Uncanny taxidermy fixtures jutted out from the wooden pillars overhead. Shot glasses sweated on the ebony bar. Rick stood in the center of the room, pretending to rope the mechanical bull with an invisible lasso. Watching him, Michael felt a judder within and placed a hand over his heart; he had forgotten what this muscle could do. Later, they kissed beneath the bristled snout of a boar, whose marble eyes kept vigil over the crowd. Rick tasted of pizza. In a faint Colombian accent, he asked, Top or bottom, Cowboy?

Recalling the line, Michael feels the tips of his ears burn. At the start, he had liked how both he and Rick were, in their own ways, beginners, and how Rick, at twenty-four, had never known a single person who’d died, not even a grandparent. He liked how Rick called him Mi corazón—my heart.

Michael is about to perform some artful version of this story (he will leave out the mechanical bull), when he notices that Leslie’s hand has paled on the countertop. The fabric around her middle dimples into shadow as she doubles over.

“Hey, hey.” He rushes forward and pries up her fingers one at a time. She yields to his touch as though she is boneless, made of water. “I’ve got you,” he says, cinching a firm arm around her waist.


For so long, the cheating had seemed almost too easy. Leslie never questioned why Michael decided to take up piano as an antidote to middle-age malaise (nor why he insisted on biweekly lessons with Jonathan Claffey, the neighbors’ son). She never questioned the stained underwear that she found beside the gulley, which Michael said must have belonged to one of the hooligans who egged the Fletcher house. Only once did she inquire why Michael had grown so distant at night, and whether he might consider seeing a specialist for his “problem”.

Perhaps he could have kept the charade up indefinitely had he and Leslie not run into one of his ex-lovers at the Cinemark—a striking man of Irish stock, whose fair skin blushed as Leslie introduced herself as Michael’s wife. “I didn’t realize,” the man said. And Michael surprised himself by smiling, soused with sudden relief at discovering his lie had reached its miserable conclusion.

He and Leslie did not view the movie. Instead, they walked solemnly out to the car. Popcorn grease lingered on their fingers and in their clothes, a smell that struck Michael as deceptively warm and comforting. “I wish you’d thought about me,” Leslie said, “the position this puts me in. I feel like my entire life, my entire life—”

He waited, braced, but she did not go on. At the stoplight, he turned to face her, his throat gummed with excuses. The expression that met him was blank, cordial—the expression one might give to an elevator attendant after providing their floor number. How had she managed to so swiftly squirrel away whatever intimacy lay at her surface?
The light turned green. So tremendous was the shock of the moment, even the power of instinct could not compel Michael to drive on.

“What do you want me to tell people?” she demanded.


“I mean, do you want me to tell the truth, or what?”

He sieved through the simple kindness of her question, hoping to catch something sharp lurking in its depths. “Tell them whatever you want,” he said scornfully, tears pricking his eyes. This was what he’d wanted all along, he told himself. Leslie laced her fingers with his over the gearshift, her tender grip conveying the magnitude of her love. Michael did not know how a person could be so good.


Upstairs, Michael lays Leslie down on the bed they once shared. She does not sink into the mattress so much as lie with her back carefully touching it, the two surfaces adjacent but wholly discrete. A vanilla candle masks a rotten odor that reminds him of Rick’s apple, still sitting in the cup holder. On the bedroom carpet, Leslie’s slippers have impressed a trail of tiny circles, like pawprints in snow.

“Will you get the light?” she asks.

He does. In the darkness, he fumbles to the bed, sits at its edge with his head hung and his hands clasped in his lap. He hears Leslie’s effortful breathing behind him. “Do you need me to get you anything?” he asks.

She runs her hand over the space beside her, smoothing the wrinkled sheets. “Lie down, will you?”

He climbs into bed, careful not to pull the silk of her dress. His body commas around hers. She is smaller than he remembers. The warmth that radiates through her back is shocking. For a moment he wonders if the doctors have it wrong, if she is not near death at all.

“Wait,” she says. “Shut your eyes.”


“Are they closed?”


The mattress shifts. Michael hears a faint rustling and the clacking of bobby pins against the nightstand. He imagines Leslie’s buzzed head like that of a baby chick’s, frosted in down.

She sidles closer to him. With strained delicacy, her fingers trace the curve of his chin. The touch tickles, and he wills himself not to draw back. “Your beard,” she says. “It’s silver now.” She stalls, then slowly leans in to kiss him. Her lips are chapped, ridged with flaking skin. Pulling away, she nestles her head into his chest.

Just then, Michael hears the floorboards creak and glances up, startled. A shadowy figure stands in the half-lit doorway. Rick. He spins and makes a hasty retreat.

“I should go,” Michael says.

“Wait.” Leslie prayers her hands beneath her head. “Stay.”

Michael furtively reaches up and pats his beard, as if trying to recollect her touch. Groggily, he rolls from the bed. “Give me a minute.”

He plods down the hallway. The light in the guest room is on. His mind fills with a vignette of Rick repacking his toiletry case, sliding his feet into his loafers, readying himself to leave. He imagines placing a hand on Rick’s chest to stop him, explaining the gossamer-thread sort of love that sprouts in the corners of a marriage, where neither party thinks to look. Why can’t I love you both? he hears himself beginning. And then Rick’s telltale snort, a shove; Rick saying Michael is nothing but a foolish, dirty old man.

In abject supplication, Michael opens the door. He is surprised to spot Rick at the window, hands balled into the pockets of his jeans. “What are you doing?” he asks.


Michael strolls over to him, so they are mere inches apart. Rick is a head taller, at least, and more muscular. Panic constricts Michael’s chest, as it does when he walks past someone on the street he knows could hurt him.

“How is she?” Rick asks. He is standing so close, Michael can make out the golden flecks in his wrinkleless eyes, the scar on his chin where he scratched at a chicken pock as a boy.

Michael purses his lips. He waits, trusting that Rick will uncover the answer he cannot provide.

Rick nods and gestures to the window. “Look.”

The first thing Michael catches is his own vivid reflection, projected on the glass. Approaching dawn has lacquered the world beyond pink. Clouds scud across the lightening sky. Rime cloaks the winterweed. A birds’ nest rests precariously in a tree.

Rick takes hold of Michael’s hand. Gently, he guides him back to the door. Michael remembers how, as a child, his father used to walk him to the bus stop at the end of the road each morning, where the other St. Jude’s boys constellated in their woolen gray uniforms.

Rick gives Michael’s hand a hard squeeze. “Go. She needs you now.”


The morning Michael set to leave Ohio, exactly two years before Leslie phoned his office at the YMCA, he paused in the kitchen by the French doors, wondering how he got here. Just yesterday, it seemed, he was a teenager inching his pinky along the veneered church pew toward the pinky of the boy beside him, his lips moving around the words to “How Great Thou Art”. The next thing he knew, he was at the altar, peering into Leslie’s eyes, and then, in a blink, he found himself middle-aged, with back pains and a mortgage and a problematic hairline. The years were glued together, and he could not unstick them.

The previous evening, Leslie had sunk down to their bedroom floor, wanting to know if it was her fault. He asked why it needed to be anyone’s fault. But she was hurt and looking for somewhere to set down her blame. So he said, “No, it’s me. I should have told you sooner. I was embarrassed, I guess.”

“You guess,” she repeated numbly.

They did not kiss, but they apologized, each saying, Sorry, I’m sorry, over and over, until the words lost their meaning. She cried, and maybe he did too, though in his memory he hadn’t. In his memory, he held her, and she sobbed into his shirt, and then it was morning, the house quiet and drenched with sun. Michael saw the kitchen as though for the first time, and imagined what it would be like without him here.

Leslie entered in her dressing gown. “Are you ready?”

Out to the car they stumbled, with Michael lugging the last of his boxes. He loaded them into the trunk while Leslie stood to the side. She wanted to witness his departure for herself, she said. Otherwise she might wake up in the middle of the night, expecting him to return.

“I’ll see you,” he called, as if he were setting out for the supermarket. At the end of the drive, he turned back and gave a final wave.

Exit signs studded the highway. At each one he thought about pulling off, returning home. He drove and drove, until the world stopped looking like a place he knew. He drove until his body ached and he couldn’t see straight. Then he parked the Camry on a corner in Queens, where the whir of cars travelling in and out of the city lullabied him to sleep.


When Michael returns to the bedroom, Leslie is asleep. He crawls beside her, watches her papery lashes flutter as she drifts in and out of dream. As he lies there, he feels something dig into his back. He reaches beneath him, and his fingertips land on the smooth edge of the sand bottle. He turns it over. The pink grains stream from one end to the other, as if keeping time in an hourglass. He sets the bottle on the nightstand, beside Leslie’s wig.

She stirs. “Everything all right?”

“Yes. Go back to sleep.”

She curls her legs beneath her. Her eyes are wet and shining, her teeth chattering.

“Are you in pain?’ he asks.

“A little. The hospice nurse will be here in the morning.”

His stomach churns. “How bad is it?”

The room is quiet, save for Leslie’s wheezing. Michael waits, wondering if she’s fallen back asleep. But then, at last, the corners of her lips curl. She does not say it, but the words hang in the space between them: Rachel Fletcher.

She yawns. “Wake me if I fall asleep, all right? I want to watch the sunrise.”


“I wish it were summer.”

“We can pretend.”

With a sigh, she reaches over and clings to his sleeve. “Thanks for coming.”

“Of course,” he says, aware of her pulse beneath his fingertips, steady but faint. As the sky above them fills with light, the window blinds parse the sun into ribbons that fall goldenly across the sheets. “I wouldn’t miss it.”

Lauren Green currently lives in Austin, Texas, where she is a fiction fellow at UT’s Michener Center for Writers. Her fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and Conjunctions, among others. She recently graduated from Columbia University, where she was awarded the Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts.


Interview: Steve Almond

Steve Almond pic

Steve Almond, the author of nine books of fiction and nonfiction, and a slew of DIY books with varied subjects, served as the final judge of Philadelphia Stories’ 2011 Marguerite McGlinn national fiction contest and was keynote speaker for that year’s Push to Publish conference.  The prolific Almond describes himself many different ways: ‘troublemaker’ and ‘American freak’ on his website; ‘heartbroken lefty’ and ‘failed novelist’ in lectures and conversations. His self-branding suggests a writer determined to chart his own path – and a look at his ever-growing oeuvre confirms the suspicion. Those familiar only with Almond’s prize-winning short story collections, God Bless America and The Evil B.B. Chow, might not realize the breadth of his work, which ranges from the exquisitely literary to the overtly political and profane. His publishers have included big profit-makers and small indies, among them Random House, Algonquin, Grove Press, Mariner Books, Melville House, Lookout Books and now, for Bad Stories, Red Hen Press, a stellar not-for-profit indie based in Pasadena.

In the early years of his career, he originated an advice column called Dear Sugar for Stephen Elliott’s The Rumpus.  He handed it off a few years later to his friend Cheryl Strayed.  This was before the monumental success of her memoir Wild.  Almond and Strayed, ‘great pals,’ have since created the ‘radically empathic’ podcast Dear Sugars and, based upon it, The Sweet Spot column in the New York Times.  Connecting this work to his other writing, Almond says, “When we tell bad stories, we get bad outcomes, whether in our personal or political life.”

Almond, one of three sons of two psychiatrists, grew up in northern California but moved east for college (Wesleyan) and has stayed east ever since. These days he lives just outside Boston with his wife, the writer Erin Almond, and their three young children. He insists he has never had a master plan for his career. “I’m just trying to tell the truth about the stuff that matters to me the most deeply,” he said. “Most days I think of myself as a failed novelist. But it’s probably more accurate, and merciful, to say that I’m a short story writer who avoids writing novels by chasing his obsessions.

He recently answered a few questions for Philadelphia Stories:

PS: What compelled you to write Bad Stories instead of a million other things you could write have written about after Against Football?

SA: I come from a family that has always been politically active. My grandparents were members of the Communist Party. My parents were activists in the civil rights and peace movements. I was raised to believe that we have a moral duty to fight for social justice. Literature does that work, by enlarging our moral imaginations. But the 2016 election revealed a darkness in this country that terrified and confused me, and it was one that I had to try to understand before I could move on. In that sense, I really didn’t choose to write Bad Stories. The book chose me.

PS: What have you learned during your cross-country tour in support of the book?

SA: Mostly that citizens of good faith are much less interested in how we got into this mess and much more fixated on the question, “Who’s going to save us?” My response is to say, as gently as I can, “Hey, stop expecting other people to save us. The point of the book is that we’re going to have to save us.” I wrote the book so people would understand the forces that led to the 2016 election, and thereby feel less confused and distressed. But we’re living in an historical moment where the news cycle is so full of corruption and cruelty that people are in this state of perpetual distress and exhaustion. What’s really happening is a struggle of faith. People need to recognize that the fate of American democracy depends on them becoming active as citizens, giving time and money and passion to candidates and causes devoted to social and electoral justice. That requires people to shoulder the burden of hope, to believe they can make a difference.

PS: What has given you hope since the book’s publication?

SA: The idea that some Americans have responded by refusing to lose faith, and by converting their anguish into action. I’m thinking of the teachers in Arizona and West Virginia and Oklahoma who organized and demanded a livable wage. And the teenagers in Parkland who stood up and demanded that politicians be held accountable for supporting the gun lobby. And the huge numbers of citizens who have become more politically active, whether by running for office or simply getting off their couches and taking action.

PS: Which of the bad stories has continued to play out most vividly since the book’s publication?

SA: The bad story that the Cold War Is Over and We Won, I guess. It’s become obvious that Putin controls our president, inasmuch as our president can be controlled. Putin saw that America was vulnerable to bad stories. He saw that our democracy was fundamentally much weaker than we ever realized. Our media was so driven by profit that they could be enlisted to act as his press agents in smearing Clinton, that right wing media would also spread his propaganda, and that Americans were so apathetic that barely half of them would bother to vote. This is putting aside the revelations of attempted collusion and criminal conduct. Putin could see that Americans had grown lazy and disinterested, that millions had been indoctrinated by propaganda, that they would vote for a demagogue out of blind tribal loyalty and/or misogyny and/or racial resentment and/or gullibility. He saw the American empire as far more vulnerable than we did. He was right. That should trouble us more than the collusion itself.

PS: What can concerned readers of your book do to make things better?  What should they read or listen to?

SA: I’d recommend changing your media diet, both for your mental health and so that you’re not supporting those programs that convert news into entertainment. Support organizations such as ProPublica and the New Yorker that do in-depth reporting on what the current administration is doing to place corporate interests above human interests. Stop watching the shows that feature pundits yelling at each other and focus on the voices that help connect the dots between corrupt business and corrupt government. And more than anything, take some kind of action rather than simply complaining to like-minded folk. For me, this has meant doing house readings and fundraising workshops. There’s no shortage, in terms of what we can do. And we should, because our kids and grandkids will want to know what we did.


Julia MacDonnell (Chang) has lived many lives, among them, urban homesteader, circus performer, modern dancer, waitress, anti-war activist, newspaper reporter, college professor, and ‘gluer’ of velvet boxes on a production line in a rosary bead factory. MacDonnell’s second novel, Mimi Malloy, At Last!, was published by Picador in 2014, and chosen as an Indie Next selection by the A.B.A.  It was released in paperback in 2015. Her first novel, A Year of Favor, was published by William Morrow & Co.  Her stories and essays have appeared in Ruminate, Alaska Quarterly Review, North Dakota Quarterly and many other publications. She is the former nonfiction editor of Philadelphia Stories.









Book Review: Steve Almond, “Bad Stories”

Steve Almond pic

Book Review:

Steve Almond, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to our Country

By Julia MacDonnell

My urgent advice to anyone who, like me, was stunned, outraged and disoriented by the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president:  Read Steve Almond’s “Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to our Country.”

Bad Stories, a slim paperback published by Red Hen Press, is a page-turner for the politically engaged and/or the dazed and confused.  It offers no solace for our current civic climate, a country riven by discord, with a corrupt plutocrat and apparent sexual predator (just grab ‘em by the…) occupying the Oval Office. Instead Almond illuminates, with uncommon skill, wit and pungent language, the dark forces in our culture, that, with the precision of a homing device, made all but inevitable the election of a man with “the heart of an autocrat and the mind of a gorilla.”

The titular bad stories, sixteen of them, are, in Almond’s telling, cultural narratives most Americans accept as true.  For example, that the United States is a representative democracy or that economic anguish fueled Trumpism. That the Cold War is over and we won, and, echoing loudest from coast to coast in the fall of 2016, nobody would vote for a guy like that!

Almond, the author of three collections of short stories and several books of nonfiction, says that telling stories is what he does best.  Hence his focus here on the stories that he believes have gotten us into so much trouble, stories we’ve been telling ourselves and stories that, unchallenged, mass media have been telling us for decades.  These ‘bad stories,’ Almond demonstrates, have lately been amped to cacophonous levels but are rarely reflected upon, or their consequences considered.  In this book, Almond reflects upon their flaws and considers possible corrections.

Bad Story #3, Our Grievances Matter More Than Our Vulnerabilities, offers a nuanced argument, a keynote for the book.  In it Almond describes Trump as a protest candidate who considers traditional politics ‘bullshit.’  He posits that Trump’s base, (generally considered white, male and working class) enflamed by his campaign rhetoric, failed to vote for candidates whose policies might have made possible the job programs, health benefits and housing support they needed to make their lives better. Instead, in anger, they voted against their ‘curdled perceptions of government’ for a man who, so far, has given them nothing except the chance to make noise at rowdy rallies where they get to rail against Fake News and other ‘elites.’

Adding to the horror, feeding it, is the fact that so many Americans don’t vote.  Almond offers the familiar stunning data:  three million more people voted for Hilary Clinton than for Trump – but only 60 percent of Americans bothered to vote at all.  He calls such civic apathy the ‘dark matter’ in a nation ‘overrun by bitter partisanship.’ He argues, convincingly to me, that such apathy is a form of privilege, the privilege of negligence ‘that arises in a population insulated from foreign threat and domestic hardship.’  Learning about the policy proposals of candidates and then voting, he posits, are essential responsibilities for those who value democracy and fear our slide toward fascism.

Almond, who began his career as a newspaper reporter, first in El Paso and then in Miami, is especially perceptive when discussing the role of news media, the so-called Fourth Estate, in the rise of Trumpism.  Highlighting cable news, Almond asserts that Trump “became a front-runner because he was treated as a front-runner.”

In story #6, What Amuses Us Can’t Hurt Us, Almond says he wasn’t able to have a serious discussion with friends and acquaintances about the 2016 campaign because “they didn’t take the election seriously.” Almond resurrects Neil Postman’s 1985 screed Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business to show that however damaging the Trump presidency has been to our country, it has, for many, been irresistibly entertaining.  That’s why Trump’s version of reality show politics has been a boon for profit-driven news media.  He quotes Les Moonves, chief executive of CBS, telling a conference sponsored by Morgan Stanley that the Trump candidacy, “might not be good for America” but “the money is rolling in” and it’s “fun.”  (Since the publication of Bad Stories, and following accusations of sexual misconduct by a dozen women, Moonves has stepped down from CBS.)

In #13, There is No Such Thing as Fair and Balanced, Almond deciphers how the dismantling of the Fairness Doctrine during the Reagan administration gave rise to right wing talk radio, the bailiwick of conspiracy theorists and demagogues. The Fairness Doctrine, instituted by the FCC in 1949, required holders of broadcast licenses to offer ‘honest, equitable, and balanced’ coverage of all controversial material.  In other words, broadcasters had to tell both sides of the story.  But Reagan’s FCC revoked the doctrine, claiming it harmed the public interest because it violated the free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.  (Befuddling, to say the least.)  From that moment on, in a rightward lurch, the airwaves resounded with the dark visions and loud voices of Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and others.  While these so-called truth tellers only garbled it, they stoked the grievances of their legions of listeners, and made themselves wealthy and politically powerful.  Trump, an early Savage listener, is known to be a huge fan.  Hannity now serves as an unofficial presidential advisor.

Like the best essayists, Almond has a well-stocked mind.  He deploys it shrewdly in Bad Stories, pulling from his brain shelf works of philosophy, sociology, political science and literature to buttress his points.  Among the novels whose words and themes are finely woven through his arguments are Moby Dick, Slaughterhouse Five, Fahrenheit 451, Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby, and The Grapes of Wrath.  This weaving offers a heartening look at the important stories classic literature has to tell us.  If only we paid attention.

Almond also presents, for our examination and amusement, his own failed if prescient novel featuring as protagonist a character named Bucky Dent.  Dent was ‘a hedonistic right wing demagogue’ whose code of conduct included ‘manic self-promotion, gluttony, screen addiction, sexual predation and casual racism.’ His attempted novel, Almond says, was inspired by his concerns about the Tea Party’s fundamentalism.  But it failed, he writes, because he fell out of love with his own creation and because his early readers found Dent too ‘cruel and cartoonish’ to be believed.

Almond calls Bad Stories ‘a rhetorical panic room.’  I don’t disagree but it is much more than that.  It’s an enthralling examination of our disastrous current politics, replete with Almond’s impressive research as well as his signature wit and vibrant language.  Moreover, Bad Stories, as it delves into Almond’s personal history, and his self-described failure as a reporter – his editors always wanted ‘indictments’ whereas as he wanted to find out ‘what it meant to be human’ –can also be read as the evolution of an important American writer, one who eschews the role of pundit.  Instead, Almond has chosen to become an interlocutor of the culture, one who hopes with his ideas and his words to generate conversations and maybe to prompt action. The role of interlocutor is what links Almond’s fiction with his nonfiction with his podcasts with his teaching and with all of his other work.  Always he is seeking to answer a single question:  What does it mean to be human?

By the time I closed Bad Stories for the second time, having underlined and highlighted its pages almost into oblivion, hope glimmered on the horizon. I understood better than I ever had why and how we’ve arrived in this broken place and what I, Citizen Me, solo voter, have to do to get the humanistic democracy I need and want.

Julia MacDonnell (Chang) has lived many lives, among them, urban homesteader, circus performer, modern dancer, waitress, anti-war activist, newspaper reporter, college professor, and ‘gluer’ of velvet boxes on a production line in a rosary bead factory. MacDonnell’s second novel, Mimi Malloy, At Last!, was published by Picador in 2014, and chosen as an Indie Next selection by the A.B.A.  It was released in paperback in 2015. Her first novel, A Year of Favor, was published by William Morrow & Co.  Her stories and essays have appeared in Ruminate, Alaska Quarterly Review, North Dakota Quarterly and many other publications. She is the former nonfiction editor of Philadelphia Stories.