“Leo’s Bomb” by Sheldon Costa

In my quest to read a quality short story every day, I came across “Leo’s Bomb,” by Sheldon Costa in the Georgia Review. You can read it here. It is a story about an introverted artist that makes his living off of doing portraits for tourists in the street. While he is trying to capture the essence of a pet chihuahua a customer is holding on her lap, a bomb goes off. The rest of the story is the artist trying to deal with the aftermath by not dealing with it all.

I enjoy writing that makes reading effortless. When I have to re-read the same page three times because my mind keeps wandering off, reading becomes a chore. Many of the Pushcart Prize short stories I’ve read lately are tedious reads like that, but I push on to the end because they are supposed to be worth it, like getting in those 5 servings of vegetables everyday. Sometimes they are, but more often they aren’t worth the struggle.

“Leo’s Bomb” is an effortless read. When I first came across it, I thought, “oh great” another story about a terrorist attack, but Costa gives it a fresh angle. It instantly pulls you in and doesn’t let go until the end. It is a poignant existential look at the human condition and the need for connection. Costa writes his characters beautifully without pretention. Even the peripheral characters fill up the page, although they are given only a few paragraphs. The themes rise naturally yet still surprise with clarity. The ending resonates and satisfies. One of my favorites so far. I hope you will give it a read. Here is one of my favorite parts. 

Leo has always enjoyed sketching strangers. Back in art school, when his peers were experimenting with materials—compiling abstract pieces out of their childhood toys or building environmental screeds from plastic bottlecaps dragged out of birds’ intestines—he had spent hours drawing nothing but portraits. It was an excuse to stare at people for as long as he liked, to occupy space with another person without the exhausting responsibility of carrying on a conversation.

When he arced his pencil over paper, capturing the swoop and curve of a stranger’s jawbones in as few lines as possible, it felt less like drawing and more like sculpting. Less about adding things and more about taking them away—removing the impediments that stood between him and the person’s real face. Looking past the sagging jowls, the eyes pickled by sleepless nights and caffeine, the teeth yellowed by refined sugars, down to whatever was hiding behind the face. He liked to imagine that each person he drew had an essential self that only he could see, a shimmering and delicate thing curled up within.

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The Secret Life of Pearls

 

It sits inside the soft dipped U of her throat:

“something white” pried loose from the mouth

of the Australian South Sea and

hung on a gold chain.

 

The alarm of clinking glasses

forces another kiss.

My mother whispers from behind her place card.

Can you imagine how much all this cost?

I drink my champagne

and  imagine the hidden tree fort,

a game for only a girl and a boy,

that He,

(and later she)

insisted all children play.

 

My mother leads a conga line

of  sisters, uncles, nephews and nieces.

She finds Him at the end

closes the circle,

clasps hands to hips.

 

I imagine it expelled onto the white tablecloth,

amongst the origami napkins, the sugared almonds.

I imagine it glistening on the fine bone china,

The thirteen years of nacre.

I imagine the cost.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone

 

Today, I read a short story that made me utter, “Damn that was good” at the end. I love finding strong voices that are completely unlike my own style in a setting I know nothing about. 

Eli Cranor’s, “Don’t Know Tough” the 2018 Miller Audio Prize Runner-up for The Missouri Review and won The Robert Watson Literary Prize in The Greensboro Review. 

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Cranor was a football coach for a small highschool in the Ozarks. He writes:

During that time, I came face to face with the desperate lives of some of my most at-risk players. These are the boys I picked up before school, took home after practice, bearing witness to the scars and the pain they fought so hard to hide.

He drew on those experiences in writing “Don’t Know Tough” and the result is a story of a kid so real you want to go out and find him, talk to him, tell him things won’t always be this way.

The audio of Cranor reading “Don’t Know Tough” brings new layers and angles to a story that is already rich and well rounded. Cranor uses dialect perfectly to immerse you completely into Billy’s world, which is as violent and unpredictable as it is heartbreaking.

Still feel the burn on my neck. Told Coach it was a ringworm this morning when he pick me up, but it ain’t. It a cigarette, or at least what a lit cigarette do when it stuck in your neck. Just stared at Him when He did it. No way I was gonna let Him see me hurt, no way. Bit a hole through the side of my cheek, swallowed blood, and just stared at Him. Tasted blood all day.

Tasted it while I sat in Ms. Miller’s class, woke up in algebra tasting it. Drank milk from a cardboard box at lunch and still, I tasted it. But now it eighth period football. Coach already got the boys lined up on either side of the fifty, a crease in between, a small space for running and tackling, for pain.

Which brings me to my comfort zone. I don’t normally use dialect in writing. If I do it is with a light brush because I find it distracts from the story, yet Cranor is able to use dialect to bring the story to life and saturate it with color.

The main character in the story, Billy, refers to his mother’s boyfriend as “Him.” The reader never even is told his real name, a very effective tool to show the reader how Billy feels about “Him” without having to say anything else.

Now for the comfort zone part. A good exercise for writing is to take a story in a style completely unfamiliar and write your own version of it with your own characters and plot. Pay attention to sentence structure, patterns and tone. A good exercise using “Don’t Know Tough” would be to write a scene using dialect in the first person point of view, focusing on using it to bring the scene to life, to immerse the reader into the character’s world instead of distracting from the story, which is often a problem for many writers with dialect. Forcing yourself to pay attention to elements and style you are unfamiliar with is like working out muscles you normally don’t use. You’ll be sore after but stronger the next time you put pen to page. It’s all about adding tools to the arsenal. 

 

 

 

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You Write What You Read

 

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My goal this year is to read a good short story every day. I firmly believe the quality of your writing is only as good as the stories you read. The brain is a machine and when you read, it is filing away unique sentence structures, unexpected metaphors and vivd descriptions for later. When you sit down to write, your brain will auto-suggest whatever is on file. If you only read crap, your library will be scanty and filled with cliches. The more quality literature you read, the larger the arsenal at your dispoal.

 

I started going through Pushcart Prize and stumbled upon this gem by Tina Louise Blevins called, “God of The Ducks” from Gettysburg Review, Autumn 2012. Luckily, you can read it online Here.

Not often does a short story make me laugh or cry, rarely does it do both. The characters are so fleshy and familiar, they seem like relatives. Blevins has that rare ability of  telling  a story about normal people going through everyday circumstances to reveal poignant truths about mortality and ultimate meaning.

“God of the Ducks” was the only work Blevins ever published. At 29 years old, shortly after finishing her MFA, she died. Definitely, a loss to the literary world.

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The Happiest Place on Earth

 

 

As my college friends and I hit our forties, an alarming theme has surfaced. Spouses leaving, many times for a younger model. My friends,  who have beeen married almost a century, suddenly lose their spouse without a warning, as if taken in a car accident, or by a stranger, or a sudden violent act of nature. But why? Why would somebody with a loving spouse and children living in suburbian utopia get up one day and leave? What kind of inner turmoil and conflict goes on inside somebody’s head that leads them to walk away from what they spent close to a century building?

I watch them on social media, taking selfies with their new improved companion models in exotic locations. I also watch my friends who are left behind, struggling to stay above the waterline, to find new jobs, new identities, new meaning in the face of their loss.

I wanted to explore the idea of meaning, happiness, value in life and the lengths people will go to in order to feel alive, even if it means destroying everything and everybody around them in order to attain it. I couldn’t think of  a better place for this to play out than Disney World, where protecting “the magic” from being spoiled translates into millions of dollars every year.

I am a big fan of Flannery O’Connor, and I won’t deny that the ending wasn’t inspired by Enoch in “Wiseblood.”

I put together this 60 second video, reading some of it. Hope you enjoy it. Please select highest HD when viewing.

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Bird’s Nest Soup

 

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I’m being featured in the literary spotlight on Woven Tale Press.

Bird’s Nest Soup was a difficult story to write. I based it off friends’ experiences. Some were daughters, others were mothers. All were hard to listen to.

You can read it Here

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“Bird’s Nest Soup”

My story, “Bird’s Nest Soup,” was just published in The Woven Tale Press literary journal.

Sandra Tyler is an amazing editor and I am honored they accepted my work for publication. You can read it  Here on page 9.

 

Please consider subscribing (it’s free) to this great journal.

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