This is one of those small press books
probably desktop-published, with two staples holding about 47 pages together, cover/cover art incredibly simple yet effective, the pages sticking out, poorly cut…something you might pass up in a bookstore where a handful of copies were probably left by the author on consignment.
If you look inside, you’ll find an impressive list of acknowledgements in literary journals and online publications. Always a good sign: serious writer-at-work here. Especially the asterisk noting: “nominated for a Pushcart Prize.” (I’m still old-fashioned enough in the literary game to know that this stuff matters—or should, in a day, a time of ‘anybodycanwriteanythingandpublish it (print-by-demand) andbeawriter. Maybe.
I don’t think so. But, I’m a minority of one.
The table of contents is long (many of the pieces short) and the stories are printed (very readable) on a yellowish parchment-kind of paper. There’s nothing subtle going on here. We’re talking rock-bottom basic small press publishing. The kind many of us grew up on. And still practice. (I happen to love this kind of stuff—when there’s a real, practicing writer to be found on the pages.) Though this column/blog/essay/online missive of mine is called POETRY DISPATCH, occasionally I take exception to the exclusiveness, especially in regard to short stories like these by Francine Witte—who knows very well that a good story is poetry.
When I’m reading a book I might write about (be it a book of poems, stories, essays…chapters of a novel…) I usually mark/make note of as many as six or more pieces that I particularly like…that I feel capture the essence of the book I wish to share with readers. When I finished reading Francine’s book, I was surprised to discover that I had marked all thirty-eight stories in her collection. I don’t know this woman. But I delight in her talent. She makes me laugh, she makes me think and feel what she knows to be important in life.
Her short bio at the end of the books states that she writes poetry, fiction, and plays and has previously published a chapbook of poems: “The Magic in the Streets.” She lives in New York, teaches high school English, and you can find her at her website: frangirl.com
Final note: this book is only $5. I’d buy $25 worth of Francine Witte’s stories at least–to give as gifts, pass on to friends, hold on to for safe-keeping. What better investment in a writer, a small press?
Next Thing She Knew
it was spring. Still no sign of David. David of the stay right there. David of the nothing’s wrong. David of the I need time to wander. And so he wandered. Stories about him came back to her over casual chats. Know-it-all said / told you so. Gossipy said I saw him with Christine. Spiteful simply smiled, good.
Spring kept hanging around with its leafy, canopy thing. Flowers and buds and such. She felt she ought to look. All this rebirth screaming please have hope. Then she’d go home to see if the phone had moved. If a call from David had somehow grown into her answering machine.
Next thing she knew, it was summer. Frosty lemonade. Air conditioner hum. Christine agrees to meet her for drinks. Comes in smiling. “Well, hello, Marie. Longtime.” Kiss, kiss. Christine tries to tuck in the cloud of David Loves Me, but it just keeps popping up out of the menu.
“Christine” she finally says. “You realize that instead of sitting here, we could be at the beach. If you would just let go, if you would just give me back my life, we could sit and hear the ocean’s roar.”
Christine nods and says, “yes, we could.” She nods again. “We could, but we’re not going to.”
Next thing she knew, it was fall. Crackle and pumpkins and crunch. Thoughts of a new and better life poked her awake each morning. She started to think possible, possible. She learned again to match her shoes.
Of course, that’s when David came back. Mumbled something about this and that. She only half-listened. Christine was just—and you’re the only—. David hung around and fed her sweet, juicy apples. Soon she heard everything.
Next, of course, winter. She began to hear nothing. Not the snow heaving the roof, not her friends tip-toeing out other life. One night, she thought she heard David whisper Christine in his sleep. She started to listen. Then she stopped.
Next thing she knew, it was spring.
My Husband’s Mistress
Once a month, we meet for lunch. She orders watercress and Melba toast. She must stay small and sexual. Me, I order fat, drippy burgers and lusty chocolate pie. I order so many plates, I have to arrange them on the table like numbers on a clock.
“Your husband calls me every night,” she says, her ribs poking through her dress.
I take a long, savoring bite from my 3 o’clock plate, a deep doughy biscuit, silky with butter. “I know,” I tell her, “if you’d go away, maybe he’d make love to me.”
She swishes a lemon wedge around in her skinny water glass and tells me about the sex they have, how he swirls his tongue into every place he can taste her. That’s when it’s gone too far, and I aim my 5 o’clock pot roast at her and she flinches like I pointed a gun.
Which I only did that first time I found her number in my husband’s guilty cell phone. I called her and said I was the power company, and we had to come over to check her line. When I got to her floozy apartment, she was sitting at her vanity, perfume bottles and cold cream jars. Didn’t even scream when she saw my gun, just asked if she could fix her face, so she’d look decent for the cops. I thought of her lying there, glamour dead, and that’s when I asked her to lunch.
Thought it would be much more fun, the two of us, meeting like this once a month, the both of us bringing our hunger.
Your apartment goes dark. No explanation. You think about candles and fuses and phones. You call to your husband, your goldfish, the neighbor upstairs.
This is an ink dark, the kind that sandwiches the universe. You begin to hunt. Your hand lands on a transistor radio. Static and low battery when you turn it on. You should know better. This isn’t your first time stranded in the dark.
Where is your husband anyway? Sitting on the sofa last time you looked. But that was either just now or last November.
As you move through the dark, your thigh bangs the sofa. A bruise that will bloom in two days, and you won’t know what happened. You continue to move. You knock over the table. Glass crash as the goldfish bowl explodes on the floor. You bend over to hear the tiny goldfish ‘scream.
The neighbor upstairs has gone silent. No footsteps creaking the wood. No television hum. You think of your own dead appliances. Your frozen food softening, your microwave, unhurried, at last.
Five minutes in the dark. You realize all that you’ve lost.
Suddenly, the lights come on again.
The Romance Of Sadness
One day, she fell in love with the sadness. Unlike the man who had given it to her, the sadness would stay with her long into the night and never leave. If the sadness did leave, there would be more sadness. And that was good.
Soon, she found herself unwilling to leave the house without it. Wait, she would say to her friends, I need extra time to put on my sadness. At restaurants, she would give the sadness its own chair.
It all worked out quite well. The sadness dulled her eyes and matted her hair. It took up so much of her time that she forgot to pay her bills and soon, her phone was shut off. At the office, she became impossible to watch.
After a while, she started to type at home for strangers. A neighbor hired her for a long, weepy novel and offered to pay her quite well. She refused to accept anything above the cost of her meager needs fearing that abundance might bring her happiness. And, anyway, by now, she had learned to do with so much less.
One day, the woman went to the mailbox, and there was a letter from the man. He wanted to come back to her and un-give the sadness. She looked up and noticed the sun for the first time since the man left. She felt hope begin to fill her with its fat, kicky feet. She was aware of the feet because hope had run from her so many times. She looked again at the sun and tore the letter into bits.
Later that night, in bed, she curled herself into a tight, little comma. She remembered as many things as she needed to until a sweet, salty tear rolled down to her thirsty tongue.
Some of you have asked what it will look like when you are dead. Let me demonstrate by lying down on this cold, slabby marble. Pretend my chest isn’t moving with breath. Pretend my closed eyelids don’t flutter.
You might wonder why I am lying on my back. You might wonder why no one is ever buried on their side, curled up like a fetus. After all, they are just a baby now in the afterlife. As you can see, the symbolism would be too obvious.
Remember, someone will be by to put makeup on you. Rouge your cheeks, slick back your hair. Some of you will actually look better than you do right now.
The good thing about dying is that you won’t have to think anymore. No one will blame you for your bad decisions. No one will ask you where you put the remote.
When news of your death gets outs, someone will shed a tear for you. Someone else will say they saw you last week. Think about the people who will make casseroles for your poor, hungry family. Think of how good you would feel.
Think about everyone you ever knew and what they will be doing when they hear about your accident, overdose, heart attack. They will all have the exact same thought. They will all shake their heads and think they could have been nicer to you. They will probably be right.
from THE WIND TWIRLS EVERYTHING, Stories by Francine Witte, (2007), Bone World Publishing, 3700 County Route 24,Russell, New York 13684, $5.
Book version (incl. shipment cost world-wide)