Richard Farrell, the creative nonfiction editor of upstreet magazine, opens the 2013 issue with a short essay about a boy who finds unexpected treasure: “Sea levels rise dramatically . . . Thousands of stones have washed up and cover the beach, as if the sea’s reliquary has emptied its contents at the child’s feet.” The stories, essays, and poems in this issue are like the stones found on Farrell’s beach: polished and smooth to the touch.
“Everything is Negotiable” by KC Kirkley is a story about a father facing a strange crisis in his kitchen: “It looked at first as if someone had left a small black wire on the ground. It had that pointless, meandering look of a discarded thing. A thin black line lying across the tile of the kitchen.” Over time, this black line grows and widens until there is a gaping hole in the floor leading down all the way into the dark earth. The narrator and his family react to this hole as if it were a broken window or a clogged sink—annoying, but not out of the ordinary. The absurdity of this situation is like Kafka visiting the suburbs (without any oversized vermin), but also reveals cracks in the narrator’s personal life:
Having a crack or a hole in your house says something about you, like you don’t have your shit together if your home is gashed deep like ours was. What kind of a man allows such a thing in his own home? On the other hand, I was attracted to the hole, in a way. Its unknown depth was captivating, its pungence a reminder of my creatureliness.
Sarah Scoles presents a short story about the struggles of youth in “This is a Very Cool Thing We’re Doing.” Parents can be extremely embarrassing in the eyes of their children, such as our narrator’s mother: “During my fifth-grade year at Stenstrom Elementary, home of The Stallions, my mother dressed up as the school’s mascot on Fridays.” Our narrator is already an outcast in her school. Her good grades earn her the title of Hall Monitor and she imagines her classmates want to be just like her. The reality, though, is far different: “Unfortunately, what actually happened was that I said, ‘Please don’t throw your trash on the sidewalk,’ and they said, ‘What, are you a bitch or something?” When our narrator discovers that her mother is the mascot, she is assigned to guard her for a school event. It is not something she is looking forward to: “No one respects the authority of ten-year-olds, especially when ten-year-olds are me, and I can’t even stop them from throwing their Airhead candy wrappers on the ground, so how am I supposed to stop them from hurting my mother?” Our heroic Hall Monitor struggles against bullies and her own desire to appear cool in front of her classmates. Scoles does a great job writing from the point of view of a child and the central conflict near the end is intense and had my heart racing.
There is a rich selection of creative nonfiction in this issue, but my personal favorite is Bruce Cohen’s “(Closed) American Barber Shop.” Cohen writes about a barber who served his family for so long that he became a kind of mythical figure in their lives:
Bruce Lyons was the type of barber who refused to cut your hair to your specifications until you earned the right . . . If you were unfamiliar with the unspoken rules of his shop and meticulously described the type of hairstyle you wanted . . . he would simply stare you down then politely tell you to go fuck yourself, go somewhere else.
The description of Mr. Lyon’s place of business is fantastic; Cohen transforms the building into a secondary character that is just as rugged and colorful as the owner:
The barber shop contained a rusty barber pole that no longer spun, dusty bottles of Lucky Tiger, an entire shelf of archaic straight-edge razors, and an exposed kerosene powered heater that one of my sons touched and burned his fingers on, leaving a scar, which would not be permitted in any modern inspection.
Cohen and his sons got their hair cut at Lyon’s shop for decades until the man died of a heart attack. Not only does the author feel like his family lost a close friend, but also that the country lost a piece of its heart:
. . . the end of an era had whizzed by, that childhood had vanished, and that America was changing. The Mom and Pop establishments were locking their doors and putting up everything-must-go signs. We were being zipped through life with fast food and conveyor-belt haircuts in malls, drive-in mastectomies, online banking and internet dating. The human element of life seemed to be dismantling right in front of our eyes.
This is a great story that deserves to be read out loud in front of a crowd, perhaps even to your personal barber, so you can hear the laughter and sighs of the passing of an era.
Bill Zavatsky’s poem “In the Cloak Room” tells a story about a boy’s eerie memory from his sixth grade Catholic school. The speaker asks his teacher to be excused to the Cloak Room to grab something, which “wasn’t really a room at all, but a huge closet / filled with hooks and darkness.” The mood of the poem grows even darker when the boy enters the cloak room, seized by a strange urge:
standing in the dark among the coats and jackets
that hung like so many disembodied children,
all slightly hunchbacked. I clawed the air,
making my most horrible monster face,
my gestures timed to parody the shrieking of the nun.
The sharp criticism of organized religion is familiar ground to walk on, but the uniquely dark setting and atmosphere makes the poem a pleasure to read.
This issue of upstreet is solid with plenty of strong writing. After reading this, you may be tempted to keep it like one of those polished stones in Farrell’s essays and wait for the next wave of stones to roll in from this literary ocean.