Something Published: “Harlequin Pattern”

In December 2022, Hive Avenue Literary Journal published my short story “Harlequin Pattern.” The story appears on page 262, which can be reached by scrolling down.

Milan and me in the fall of 2019

I dedicated the story to Milan Kovacovic, a kind mentor who gave me feedback on the story. Milan passed away in 2020. I miss him and think of him often. Milan said my story was “a fine piece of satire.”

Milan wrote a thought-provoking and beautiful memoir called Ma’s Dictionary: Straddling the Social Class Divide about his life in France and the U.S. He wrote lovingly about his primary-school teacher, Madam Mercier and her importance in shaping his life. He wrote about his movement between the social classes in France and his emigration to the U.S. When I met him, he was translating his book into French. His book is still available on Amazon.

Something Published: “How to Keep a House”

My short story “How to Keep a House” was published by Rathalla Review in their fall issue. To read the story click here and download the PDF. My story is on page 26.

I want to thank Felicia Schneiderhan, a wonderful and kind teacher, and Lake Superior Writers. In January 2021, I wrote the rough draft for “How to Keep a House” in a class called “Rules of Engagement” with Felicia, which was sponsored by Lake Superior Writers. We had to decide on five rules for our story before we started writing it. After we started writing, we could bend or change our rules if something wasn’t working. At first, having a set of rules before I had a real story idea was frustrating. Then it morphed into a creative process that I embraced. I began to like my characters and their story, so I kept revising. For an interesting take on this process read “The Power of Constraints to Unlock Creativity” by Amy Goldmacher on Brevity Blog.

I also want to thank Kim Suhr and Red Oak Writing. The final revisions I made on “How to Keep a House” were after attending a Red Oak Writing Round Table. Kim Suhr, the director of Red Oak, led the Round Table writing group. After receiving some excellent feedback from her and the other writers in the group, I revised my story once more. It was at this point that I felt my story was truly finished. I submitted it to Rathalla Review, and they accepted it a few months later. For information on Red Oak Writing Round Tables click here. To learn more about Kim Suhr, who is an amazing writer and a supportive mentor, click here.

Finally, I want to thank the editors at Rathalla Review for publishing my story and for their enthusiastic words about it.

Just so you know, I submitted “How to Clean a House” twenty-one times over the course of a year and a half before it was accepted. It’s hard being rejected so many times. But I think about when I was in gym class, and always the last one chosen to be on a team. It smarted, but I learned that eventually someone had to pick me, and then I’d get to play! I loved gym, even if I wasn’t the best athlete.

Something Published: “Women’s Choices”

Persimmon Tree published my flash essay “Women’s Choices” in the Short Takes section of their winter edition. The Short Takes theme for the winter publication is Resistance and Resilience. All the selected poems, artwork, essays, fiction, and music reflect that theme.

To read the rest of “Women’s Choices” click here: Short Takes: Resistance and Resilience. You will need to scroll down about halfway through the selections.

Something Published: “Fritz Warms Up Our New Neighbors”

[This essay was published in Red Cedar Review, Volume XXIV in the fall of 2022. Red Cedar Review is published by the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire through its Barron County Campus. It’s a print- only journal, and its editors and staff consider art, prose, and poetry from northern Wisconsin residents. I decided to post this essay in honor of Thanksgiving because when I reflect on my childhood, I’m very thankful for our old farmhouse and our wonderful neighbors.]

The Old Farmhouse, late 1960s or early 70s

Wrapped in thin white clapboard, the two-story farmhouse built in 1907 was 57 years old when my parents, my two sisters, and I came to live there in October 1964. It looked older to my five-year-old mind, much older, in the way a person of thirty or forty seems very old to a small child. My parents sold their duplex in Milwaukee where rows of houses sat a handshake apart, fronted by sidewalks and busy streets lined with parked cars. They moved their dysfunctional marriage and children to a country road with a smattering of houses fronted by rural mailboxes and a narrow road, on which no one parked. From age five to seventeen, I lived there with my parents, two sisters, and a brother, born in 1967.

A week after we moved into our farmhouse, a knock rattled the front door that opened into our large kitchen, the kind where a farmer’s wife could cook a hearty meal to feed her husband, their children, and the farmhands all in one shift. Mom was working in the kitchen while my sisters and I played on the floor. She was twenty-four. Her face, scrubbed clean of makeup and her chestnut-brown hair pulled up into a pony tail, made her look far too young to be the mother of three small girls. She gave birth to me, the oldest, when she was eighteen.

Mom opened the old wooden door and on the other side of a modern aluminum screen door stood John Giese, Sr., whom we’d soon come to refer to as “Old Man Giese,” distinguishing him from his son, John Giese, Jr.

The Giese barn

Old Man Giese stood on our front stoop, clutching two dead chickens by their feet, one in each hand. He and his three grown children, John Jr., Mildred, and Leona, lived across the street in a white farmhouse as ordinary as ours. But the Giese farmhouse, surrounded by fields to be planted and harvested; by cows and chickens to be fed and tended; by cherry trees, blackberry bushes, and current bushes bearing fruit to be picked and preserved, appeared grand. Our farmhouse, surrounded by two acres of mowed grass then acres of overgrown farmland, looked tired. Giese’s bright red barn stood proud in contrast to our barn layered with various shades of washed out red, which made it appear mostly pink.

“Ma’am,” began the old gentleman, for although he wore a frayed cap and shabby blue denim overalls, he exuded a dignity the two dead chickens and his working clothes couldn’t erase. Old Man Giese was the first real farmer I ever met. My previous knowledge of farmers came from watching Mr. Green Jeans on Capitan Kangaroo, and in my five-year-old mind, Old Man Giese was the opposite of Mr. Green Jeans in every way.

Mom, a city girl, gawked at his welcoming gift of two dead chickens. She knew nothing about cleaning them.

Fritz sitting by our pinkish-colored barn, early 1970s, a couple of years before he passed away

“Your dog,” Old Man Giese continued, “killed my chickens.”

Fritz, our six-year-old German shepherd, lay on the family room floor and made no move to join the conversation.

“I’m so sorry,” Mom said. “Can I pay you for the chickens?”

“No, just keep the dog off my farm, ma’am.” Old Man Giese put his back to us. A lifeless chicken in each hand, he descended our front stairs and returned to his farm. He never called on us again, and a few years later he, too, would be dead, gone to join his wife who died before we arrived.

Mom, relieved she wouldn’t have to clean chickens but mortified Fritz might have killed them, shut the door and strode into the family room. “No chickens,” she yelled at Fritz. “Never again.” He understood and stayed away from the Giese farm, but he still ran loose, up and down the country roads, chasing female dogs in heat.

That evening at dinner, she told Dad, “At first I thought the chickens were an apology for his cows chomping on our lawn the morning after we moved in.” But the chickens had been an indictment, not an apology.

In our new neighborhood, Fritz had committed the first faux pas, setting the standard by which my family’s behavior could be explained. When my parents fought in the middle of warm summer nights, their shouts crawling in and out of open windows, the neighbors could say, What do you expect? Their dog kills chickens. When my sisters and I threw apples at passing cars, but the parents of two older, well-behaved children, from down the road got a visit from the police, their parents could say, They can’t control their dog either. When Dad sped down the country road or set off cherry bombs in our yard, the neighbors could say, What do you expect from a man who lets his dog ignore good-neighbor etiquette?

Our existence in the neighborhood was like a hoppy beer—an acquired taste. Some people come to love the taste of hops, but others can’t force it past their taste buds. Most of the families up and down our sparsely populated road came to accept us, and we were welcomed into their homes and yards. Only two families never warmed to us, not bad considering our parents’ occasional nocturnal fights, dad’s shenanigans, and our string of dogs that never stayed home.

Dad, despite his bad-boy-James-Dean manner, was handsome and charming. An excellent mechanic, he was always willing to lend a hand to neighbors and offer them a beer. Mom was hard-working and friendly, and if she borrowed a cup of sugar or a roll of toilet paper, she always repaid her debt. My siblings and I stopped throwing apples at cars, and we behaved ourselves so no one had to call the police on us again. We were polite or Mom would’ve walloped us or grounded us for life, depending on the prevailing winds of her mood that day. Most of the neighbors decided we were okay.

And the Gieses? They didn’t hold Fritz’s chicken incident against us. After all, their cows had grazed in our front yard the day after we’d moved in. Old Man Giese and his son fixed their fence, and the cows stayed home. Fritz defied fences, but he obeyed Mom’s command and stayed out of their yard and away from the chickens, easy for him because they didn’t own dogs. To prove there were no hard feelings, when my siblings and I were old enough to cross the road, the Gieses gave us an open invitation to play in their yard, to eat fruit from specific trees and bushes, and to cross their fields in winter to ice skate on the frozen river running through their property.

None of Old Man Giese’s children had youngsters of their own. Looking back, I believe they enjoyed seeing us run through their yard, roll down the hill by their barn, and eat the fruit they grew. I believe they smiled when they heard our voices on the winter wind, echoing through the trees as we skated on the frozen waters just behind their fields. And I wonder what they thought, when as a teenager, I sat on a large tree stump near the barn and talked to their cows, who gathered by the fence, eager for gossip about my teenage troubles.

[I want to thank the editors and staff of Red Cedar Review for selecting my essay for their Fall 2022 issue. The ending of this essay is slightly different from the version that appears in their 2022 issue. I added the last two sentences because I felt the ending was too abrupt. As a writer, I often see ways to improve something I’ve written, even after it has gone to press.]

Something Published: “Gossip and Dinner”

Bullshit Lit published my flash fiction story “Gossip and Dinner.”

It’s a fun literary website that publishes short works of fiction and poetry. Their pitch to writers: “Send us up to six pieces of your finest bullshit. This can be poetry, prose, art, fiction, whatever.” Bullshit Lit wants the type of writing other editors “will reject hands down.” I had the perfect piece. I didn’t expect Bullshit Lit to accept “Gossip and Dinner” but such fun to have a place to submit it!

Sometimes editors specifically state in their guidelines that they don’t want stories like “Gossip and Dinner.” So after I finished the story, I buried it in a file, deep inside my computer, hiding it from editors. I’d explain why, but if I did, it would be a spoiler. (Don’t worry–the story won’t make you blush or cry.)

But Bullshit Lit wants a writer’s “finest bullshit,” so I submitted, never believing my story would get accepted, Still, I was happy to finally have a place to send it, along with a humorous cover letter. This was the most fun I’ve ever had writing a cover letter:

Dear Ms. Bennett:

Attached is my 801-word short story “Gossip and Dinner.” It’s an unpublished story. Heck, it’s a never-been-submitted story. It’s so bullshit that I will understand if it’s rejected. However, I’m so grateful that I can submit it to Bullshit Lit. I was inspired to write “Gossip and Dinner” after my daughter-in-law uttered the phrase, “Ziva is such a cat.” Because I love my daughter-in-law, I’ve refrained from purging this story from my files. The concept for this story was brilliant in my head, but on paper it’s bird crap. But I love that I can actually submit it somewhere without feeling too much shame! Thanks for being there.

If you think I wrote bullshit too many times in this blog, it’s because I’m getting away with swearing! I had my mouth washed out with soap when I was about eight for saying shit, so I’m having a wicked good time repeating the name of the literary website.


[After Bullshit Lit accepted my flash fiction piece, I signed up to receive notifications when they publish new stories. So, far “Millie and Me” is my favorite. You can read it by clicking here. You can read my story by clicking here.]

The Dummy Never Showed Up

[This essay received an honorable mention in the Wisconsin Writers Association’s 2022 Jade Ring Contest. To read the works of other winners, see the links after the essay.]

Charlie broke my heart in 1971. Dressed in a top hat and tuxedo, and well-groomed with manicured nails and combed hair, he was debonair, even if his monocle made him look a bit stuffy. Always ready with a smart comeback, a smooth put-down, or a drop of wisdom, he was witty, candid, and self-assured. Charlie was a dummy, but I wanted him anyway.

The big problem—he was unavailable. Like all desirable men, he was taken. Women everywhere had lined up to have a chance with him. Seems like everyone wanted a wise-cracking fella who was perpetually dressed for the opera.

My mother broke the news to me. “Honey, I have to talk to you about your Christmas list.” I was twelve, so we had long ago stopped calling it “my letter to Santa.”

“I’ve looked everywhere.” Her voice shrunk as she spoke. “I can’t find a Charlie McCarthy doll.” She asked me to think of something else to add to my list. I did, but I don’t recall what it was. I could’ve asked for a hand puppet, but that would’ve been like having to settle for Eddie Haskell after hoping to date Donny Osmond. There was no substitute for Charlie.

I wanted to be a ventriloquist. I was going to be famous. I was going to be a star. And I couldn’t do it without Charlie. My daydream about becoming a celebrated ventriloquist was another chapter in my someday-I’ll-be-a-famous-singer-actor-or-dancer book of fantasies. I spent hours singing with Doris Day, Petula Clark, Dionne Warwick, and Barbara Streisand, pretending to be them. Sometimes I sang along with Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., or Trini Lopez, pretending they had recognized me—a famous singer—in the audience and called me up on stage to sing with them. The exuberant audience, unable to contain their cheers and thunderous clapping, would rise to their feet moments before we had finished our duet.

Sometimes, I’d lay on the floral velour couch in the living room, the most elegant space in our farmhouse, and imagine myself a great actor giving spellbinding performances on stage or film. Or I would be Cyd Charisse, dancing, defying Newton’s laws of motion, giving men whiplash. When I wasn’t doing my famous talent stuff, I would travel to exotic places, win awards, and marry a leading man or a velvet-voiced crooner.

With Charlie I would’ve been more than a ventriloquist—I would’ve been funny! The see-saw, back-and-forth humorous banter between Charlie and Edgar Bergen captivated me. Bergen said things that came out of Charlie’s mouth. Through Charlie, Bergen insulted people and everyone laughed at Charlie. Through Charlie, Bergen flirted with women and everyone thought Charlie was adorable. Charlie sassed Edgar, his elder, and never got whapped alongside the head. My twelve-year-old mind found this setup very attractive. But reflecting on it now, I don’t think my mother would’ve whapped Charlie alongside his head.

After I learned Charlie wouldn’t be helping me on my way to ventriloquism fame, I crawled in the closet under the stairs. I sat with a box of hats, mittens, and scarves. I inhaled a mixture of musty wool and dust while tears rained down my cheeks. Charlie would never sit with me on the floral velour couch. I wouldn’t toss my voice into his throat. I wouldn’t watch our reflections in the mirrored wall as we practiced talking to each other. We might have sung along with Sinatra or Streisand, the three of us making harmony.

I was crushed. I was heartbroken. I was an overly-dramatic twelve-year-old. Oscar worthy, no doubt.

I’d like to say that I pined for Charlie and that Christmas Day was hollow without him and that I asked for him for my birthday in March. But I did none of that. I was over him before Christmas. I don’t remember what I got instead of Charlie, but it was the next best thing, and I’m sure I was happy with it. I ate my mom’s good cooking. I played board games with my sisters and cousins. And I read my new Nancy Drew mystery before I drifted off to sleep that night.

If Charlie hadn’t stood me up, truth is, I would’ve dumped him. Within a month or so, he would’ve been tucked away in my closet, along with my fantasies of winning an Oscar or a Grammy. I hope all the Charlies found better homes.

I never became a famous singer, dancer, or actor. I can’t carry a tune. I have no sense of rhythm. And in seventh grade, I learned I had terrible stage fright.

Funny, when I was twelve, I never imagined myself as a famous writer. I started writing after I retired, so I’m too old for silly fantasies now. But if I were twelve, I would win a Pulitzer Prize, I would make Oprah’s reading list every other year, and the New Yorker would call me and beg for one of my short stories.

[All the winners of the 2022 Jade Ring Contest can be read in the online Creative Wisconsin Magazine, along with other essays, poetry, and articles. If you wish to purchase a copy of the Wisconsin Writers Association Anthology 2022: Jade Ring and Youth Writing Contest, click here.]