Issue #251: Natalie Serber’s “Children Are Magic”

Our new issue was acquired and edited by our laser-eyed  contributing editor Will Allison. Here he is to make the introduction. — PR

The story in our latest issue, Natalie Serber’s “Children Are Magic,” chronicles a day in the life of Barrett Lee-Cooperman, a stay-at-home mom in a well-to-do California beach town. It’s a busy day. First, Barrett must get her four daughters off to school, including her youngest, River, who ends up going to preschool naked. Barrett must feed her chickens and her pig, Esmerelda, a Mother’s Day gift from her short, slight, pale, balding, OB-GYN husband, Martin. She must ascertain the owner of a racy bra she finds dangling from the pole beans in her garden. She must stop by the dry cleaners, feed store, liquor store, and a board meeting at the Homeless Garden Project. She must mediate Martin’s flirtation with Rowena, their young, blond nanny with toe cleavage. She must have sex with Martin in a position she’s not wild about. She must attend to her own needs. She must pick up River, who insists, in front of her preschool teacher, that Barrett isn’t her “real mommy.” She must welcome another pig—a guinea pig—into the family. She must host a dinner party for her cooking-group friends, some of whom she finds intimidating. At dinner, she must relive the teenage memory of being sexually assaulted by a musician in a nightclub bathroom. Then she must endure the late-night wrath of her oldest daughter, Sheila, while drunk. And those are just some of the highlights. Suffice it to say, “Children Are Magic” is brimming with enough life and love and humor to fill a novel, but it never feels too full, thanks to Serber’s confident storytelling and delectable prose. I was hooked from the opening line to the last. In fact, the first time I finished this story, I immediately turned back to the beginning and dove in again, hungry to spend more time with these characters. I hope you’ll feel the same.

Issue #250: Matthew Lansburgh’s “Latvian Angel”

Our new issue was procured by contributing editor Will Allison. Here’s Will to introduce you to “Latvian Angel.” — PR

I’ve always been a sucker for stories in which characters write letters to each other. As a literary device, the epistle is deceptively simple. Letters are a form of first-person narration, allowing characters to bypass a story’s principal narrator and speak for themselves. The catch—the interesting part—is that letter writers tend to be unreliable first-person narrators, misrepresenting themselves in order to influence the letter’s recipient.

The letters in our latest issue, Matthew Lansburgh’s “Latvian Angel,” offer a fun case in point. Klara Ozols is a poor Latvian villager, born with wings on her back, who seeks a better life by advertising herself as a mail-order bride. Ezra Vogel is a lonely Long Island accountant in search of a wife. When Ezra answers Klara’s ad, the two strike up a long-distance correspondence full of cagey spin. Will Klara’s letters convince Ezra that she is the woman of his dreams? Will Ezra’s letters convince Klara that he is the wealthy, handsome, kind suitor he claims to be?

If you’ve read Lansburgh’s terrific debut, Outside Is the Ocean, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, then you know his stories offer up a delicious blend of humor, love, and sexuality, with sympathetic characters often undone by their own wayward desires. “Latvian Angel” is no exception. We’re excited to finally showcase Lansburgh’s first-rate storytelling and sparkling prose in the pages of One Story.

To read an interview with the author, please visit our website.

Issue #249: Uche Okonkwo’s “Our Belgian Wife”

Contributing Editor Will Allison acquired and edited our latest issue, Uche Okonkwo’s “Our Belgian Wife,” so the pleasure of introducing it goes to him. The floor is yours, Mr. Allison! –PR

The story in our latest issue hit home for me as a parent. My sixteen-year-old daughter and I are currently negotiating the fraught dance that is a child’s transition to independence. My daughter is already very much her own person, but the impulse is still there for me to meddle in her affairs, to try to solve her problems and fix her mistakes.

The Nigerian mothers in Uche Okonkwo’s “Our Belgian Wife” suffer from the same misguided impulse. Marigold, an impoverished widow, only wants what’s best for her daughter, Udoka, and Marigold’s friend Agatha only wants what’s best for her estranged expatriate son, Uzor. So the two mothers conspire to arrange a marriage between their children.

Never mind that Udoka and Uzor are young adults, capable of managing their own affairs. Never mind that they don’t know each other. Never mind that Udoka is busy pursing a college degree. And never mind that she is already engaged to Enyinna, a devoted but poor shopkeeper. As I watched the mothers’ meddling spiral out of control, I was reminded of times I’ve tried to engineer good outcomes for my own daughter when all she wanted was for me to butt out. And I was reminded that things rarely went as I planned. I can only hope that I will have learned my lesson by the time my daughter is Udoka’s age. In the meantime, I invite you to join me in appreciating the humor and heartbreak that Okonkwo’s all-too-human characters wreak upon each other, and in welcoming a strong and distinctive new voice to our pages.

To read an interview with Uche Okonkwo, visit the stories section on our website.

Issue #247: Christopher Santantasio’s “Persistence”

Our new issue was selected and edited by contributing editor Will Allison. Take it away, Will! — PR

The first time I read “Persistence,” by Christopher Santantasio, I was reminded of one of my favorite novels, William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, in which the narrator is guilt-ridden over his failure to help a childhood friend fifty years earlier. As a reader, I have rarely encountered such a profound sense of regret on the page, and as a writer, I continue to be inspired by it.

Maxie, the narrator of “Persistence,” is haunted by a similarly powerful guilt. In 1960, when Maxie was twelve, her mother died, and she moved with her father to a small town in upstate New York. Maxie’s life in Clyde’s Creek was not a happy one. The only bright spots were the piano lessons she received from her teacher and time spent with her sole friend, Honey.

Honey’s life was no picnic either. As Maxie came to learn, Honey suffered severe abuse at the hands of her domineering older brother, Hubert. And as the only person who knew Honey’s secret, Maxie was the only person who could help. However, exposing Honey’s secret threatened to upend Maxie’s life as well. Suffice it to say that the choices Maxie made failed Honey entirely.

Like the narrator of So Long, See You Tomorrow, Maxie understands that her childhood actions were driven not by malice or heartlessness so much as by fear, confusion, and a child’s limited understanding of the world. Even so, Maxie struggles to come to terms with her behavior. In reading about this struggle, I found myself haunted by some of my own childhood mistakes, and I bet you will too. I also hope you’ll agree that Santantasio, despite being new on the literary scene, captures Maxie’s guilt with a sensitivity and depth that would make William Maxwell proud.

To read an interview with the author, visit the “Persistence” page on our website.

Issue #239: Eric McMillan’s We Go Together

This month’s story comes to us via contributing editor Will Allison, so I’m turning the bridge over to him for the introductions. Take the com, Will! — PR

I was first drawn to Eric McMillan’s “We Go Together” by the story’s setting—a U.S. army base, 1996, near the Korean Demilitarized Zone—and by the author’s résumé, which includes ten years of military service in Bosnia, Korea, and Iraq. I was hoping the story might inform my understanding of present-day tensions between the United States and North Korea, which it did. But it turns out the story’s chief mission is much broader: an exploration of race relations within the U.S. Army.

“During the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq,” says McMillan, “I was assigned to a battalion support platoon. Most of those soldiers were African-American, eighteen- to twenty-year-olds. I was a white, twenty-four-year-old college kid in a position of power. If that scenario sounds inherently problematic to you, it is. But in the army, you’re not supposed to act like it is.”

Though “We Go Together” is set in Korea, McMillan draws heavily upon his experience in Iraq. The story’s central relationship involves Lieutenant Woods, a white officer assigned to transform a motley, mostly black platoon, and Sergeant Burrell, a respected black section leader who chafes at Woods’s by-the-book leadership style. When crisis befalls the platoon, the two men’s capacity to work together is put to a high-stakes test.

Along the way, the story mines the inherent tension between the army’s ethos of meritocracy and its reluctance to acknowledge institutional racism. There’s also a lot of fascinating army-speak, which is its own kind of poetry. We hope you enjoy McMillan’s ear for language—and his story—as much as we did.

You can read our Q&A with the author here.

Issue #236: Guerrilla Marketing by Sanjay Agnihotri

Our last issue of 2017 comes from one of our debut authors, discovered by contributing editor Will Allison, so I’m turning the helm over to Will to introduce you to “Guerrilla Marketing.” Make it so, Will! –PR

Representations of South Asians in American culture have come a long way since Apu, the Kwik-E-Mart clerk on The Simpsons, first manned the cash register in 1990. Back then, there were few Indians in American fiction, film, or TV; they were usually relegated to supporting roles; and they tended to be convenience store workers, taxi drivers, or doctors. Today, however, actors of Indian descent—from Mindy Kaling and Priyanka Chopra to Aziz Ansari and Dev Patel—can be seen in a range of prominent, non-stereotypical, starring roles, and fiction writers such as Akhil Sharma, Kiran Desai, and Jhumpa Lahiri have reached a broad audience with their books.

Even so, I’d never encountered an Indian character quite like Vikram, the protagonist of Sanjay Agnihotri’s first published story, “Guerrilla Marketing.” Vikram is a 57-year-old former accountant from Baroda, India, who is struggling to survive as an immigrant worker in Parsippany, New Jersey. In American culture, the sort of suffering and exploitation Vikram endures is perhaps more commonly associated with undocumented workers from Mexico and South America—but in the case of Vikram and his peers, the exploitation comes not at the hands of white Americans but from other Indian immigrants who are higher up the food chain.

As Agnihotri acknowledges in his author interview, it’s a troubling story that risks sentimentality. Luckily for us readers, Agnihotri resisted the temptation to portray Vikram as a noble, suffering immigrant. Instead, Vikram is more of a sad sack, a guy with his own raft of bad habits, delusions, prejudices, misguided ambitions, and conflicting desires. In other words, he’s a real person on the page. We are excited to present another One Story debut, and we hope you find Vikram and his story as unforgettable as we did.

Issue #234: The Crazies by Maud Streep

This month’s story, “The Crazies,” was found and edited by contributing editor Will Allison, so I’m happily turning the steering wheel over to him to guide us in. — PR

As many a cowboy ballad can tell you, the halo glow of new love never lasts. Sometimes it simmers down with age; sometimes it flames into something else; and sometimes it just flickers out. It’s one of those lessons we all learn sooner or later.

Even so, when I read “The Crazies” by Maud Streep, I couldn’t help but be charmed by the halo glow of its early pages. The narrator, a recent Yale grad, heads to Montana, takes a job at a Wild West tourist attraction, and falls in love with a cowboy named Jake. Their marriage is a happy whirlwind of cheap beer, sex, optimism, and simple, carefree living.

But halfway through the story, the couple’s happiness turns to anguish. At the risk of giving away too much: something terrible happens on an elk hunting trip in The Crazy Mountains, and the narrator and Jake may or may not be responsible. How each of them deals with this possibility will determine whether their love endures, or whether it flickers out.

“The Crazies” is wise about life and relationships in ways one would expect from a veteran storyteller. As it happens, though, this is Maud Streep’s first published story. We are very pleased to present One Story’s second debut of 2017, and we hope you are as crazy about “The Crazies” as we are.

Visit the One Story website to read our Q&A with the author.

Issue #231: Please Give Me One Good Reason Not to Hate You by Shawn Vestal

“I arrived in Bozeman after the place that came after Animas, was thinking I would stay forever—thinking I would finally stop what I’ve been doing and be someone, thinking this place was really me.” So says Benny, the semi-likable sleazeball who narrates Shawn Vestal’s brilliant new story “Please Give Me One Good Reason Not to Hate You.”

The thing is, Benny isn’t really his name. “Benny” is just the latest in a string of identities he has fashioned as a small-time scam artist crisscrossing the American West. Also, it’s not just the scams that keep Benny on the move. It’s people—his overpowering need to be among them and apart from them. You might say Benny is alternately addicted to and allergic to his fellow man. It’s an internal tug-of-war that so far has guaranteed him a life of perpetual unfulfillment.

But Bozeman—beautiful Bozeman, Montana—is going to be different. Bozeman is the place, Benny comes to believe, where he’ll finally settle down, fit in, and take a chance on normal human happiness. To that end, despite being out of shape and hopelessly un-outdoorsy, Benny accepts an invitation to go on a four-day, forty-four-mile mountain hike with a quartet of hip thirty-somethings—including his sort-of ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend.

If that sounds like a bad idea, you’re right, especially given Benny’s gift for self-sabotage. It doesn’t help that he’s a liar, a criminal, and a misanthrope. But whether you end up rooting for Benny or against him, we think you’ll agree that his story is one of the funniest, most compelling, and most daringly original works to grace our pages. Be sure to visit our website to read an interview with the author.

Issue #228: The Third Birdhouse by John Biguenet

One of the many things I admire about our new issue is the way it sweeps through time with the subtly of a light breeze. The narrative voice is subtle, as well — subdued, even, and remarkably commanding. Contributing Editor Will Allison brings us “The Third Birdhouse,” so the honor of introducing if is his. — PR

In one of the Old Testament’s more unsettling tales, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. The devout Abraham takes Isaac to a mountaintop, builds an altar, and binds his son to it. Just as Abraham raises his knife, though, an angel intervenes. “Now I know you fear God,” the angel says, “because you have not withheld from me your only son.” Abraham ends up killing a ram instead, and as a reward for his obedience, God blesses Abraham’s family.

Things don’t work out quite so well for Abraham in “The Third Birdhouse,” John Biguenet’s contemporary retelling of Isaac’s life: it’s not okay in twentieth-century Brooklyn to try to murder your son with a hatchet, even if you think God told you to. But things do work out for the narrator, who—like the biblical Isaac—goes on to lead a long and prosperous life, with twin sons of his own.

The question is what kind of dad this modern Isaac will be, given the poor role model of Abraham. Isaac’s big test comes when his younger son, Jacob, swindles his twin brother out of his inheritance, just like in the Bible. How will Isaac respond? Raise the hatchet? Bury the hatchet? Hatch a compromise? His solution surprised me, and it’s one I’m still grappling with, which is partly why I love this story: like all good literature, it challenges the reader, posing questions rather than answering them.

John Biguenet, on the other hand, was more than happy to answer our questions. Be sure to check out his author interview to learn how birdhouses found their way into this retelling of Isaac’s story and to get John’s distinctive take on the reading habits of Donald Trump.

Issue #224: Optimistic People by Chris Drangle

There are many layers to Chris Drangle’s “Optimistic People,” including the layer of earth one of the characters is buried under as the story opens. Contributing Editor Will Allison lassoed this twisted, hair-raising work of fiction, so I’m happy to let him make the introductions. Enjoy!-PR

This month we’re excited to bring you one of the most shocking, suspenseful short stories ever to cross One Story’s submission desk: “Optimistic People,” by Chris Drangle. Set in rural Virginia, “Optimistic People” is the tale of two teenagers on their first date. Warren and Soleil have plans to meet up in the woods to watch the sunset. Warren is well meaning but dim; as Soleil puts it, “There was a thin line between being good and being a moron, and he straddled it.” Soleil is the new, weird girl in town, her parents having fled Washington D.C. to escape a congressional staff assistant turned stalker.

The teens’ plans go awry when Soleil runs out of gas en route to the meetup. Meanwhile, Warren stumbles upon two men burying a mysterious something in the woods. Minutes later, we meet friendly, disheveled Tom, whose prayers are answered when Warren unearths the pine box in which Tom has been buried alive.

I’m guessing you’ve never encountered a character quite like Tom. (If there’s such a thing as your typical buried-alive guy, this guy is definitely not it.) I won’t spoil the plot by revealing more, but you should know that a man being buried alive is not this story’s most chilling plot twist. That comes later, and it unfolds in a fictional slow motion that will have you turning pages with a delicious sense of dread.

Chris Drangle is still new on the literary scene, having published just a handful of stories, but we look forward to seeing a lot more of his work. You can get to know him in our online Q&A, where Chris discusses techniques of suspense, his fondness for story titles, and the importance of figuring out why the junebug collapses.