Creative Nonfiction

“Four by Eight”

An excerpt from Quarterly West 78, 2013:


In Ashby Cemetery, a small, wooded graveyard nestled among the backroads of southern Indiana, a hand-painted sign hangs on the side of a rusty, corrugate-roofed shelter. For many years, this sign holds my grandpa’s name, address, phone number, and a few words telling visitors to contact him for donation information, or to simply mail him a check for upkeep of the grounds. As the cemetery trustee, he sits with my grandma in folding lawn chairs beneath the shelter for long hours each Decoration Day weekend, collecting pocket change and a few large bills from locals and out-of-staters returning to lay wreaths or florets at the markers of their ancestors. In some cases, the deceased are remembered as loved ones departed too soon, while in others, they’re only names carved in granite or limestone, long dead before the birth of their descendants. My grandpa keeps Ashby Cemetery mowed, raked, and generally tended for twenty years, and when he dies, we bury him beneath a scraggly white oak on the south end of the property.

A few years after his funeral, I find myself in Ashby Cemetery again. My dad has assumed the caretaking duties, and his name and contact information have been painted over my grandpa’s on the sign. A priority of my dad’s reign as trustee will be to map the graveyard, one plot at a time. People are still being buried here, and my dad would prefer not to drop them on top of an existing tenant. On a muggy July day, we pull into the gravel drive with ratty clothes, wide-brimmed boonie hats, and thermoses of ice water. The air is damp with summer humidity and the oaks and spruces sing with a chorus of insects. The rattle of coal trucks is faint on distant highways.

(You can find the full essay on Quarterly West’s website.)


“Marking Time”

An excerpt from Red Wheelbarrow 9, 2008:

I get my first tattoo on a gray March afternoon in Nottingham, England.  I’m living in a restored Victorian manor for my junior year of college and my future fiancée and I have decided to do the unthinkable.  We tell all of our friends that we’re getting inked, but few of them believe us.  We fidget in our uncomfortable seats as the train passes Sherwood Forest.  I’m glad we’re doing it together.

It’ll be a cheap tattoo, small, above my right ankle where it can be hidden by socks.  I don’t want my grandfather to know about it.  My older brother has a tattoo from his stint in the Navy, but on his arm, bold, from a GN’R album.  I want to play it safe, have the fun without the fallout.  My girlfriend wants a butterfly on her foot.  Later that night, she’ll get a too-late email from her sister suggesting that a tattoo is a good idea, but that she shouldn’t get something stupid like a butterfly.

Nottingham is a surprisingly small town, and the shop is just off the main square, near a green-bronze statue of Robin Hood.  Inside, it’s dirty, but I assume such things are typical.  Besides, I tell myself that getting a tattoo in a seedy English backroom is somehow more authentic.  The artist’s name is Harry and he speaks with a Midlands accent thick enough to hide most of his words from my American ears.  He says things like “roight” and “mate,” and suggests that my design is “puny.”  I’m embarrassed by this, but also amazed that I’m there with him, a small-town Indiana boy in a Nottingham tattoo parlor.  The world seems bigger than usual—even bigger than when we landed on the Heathrow tarmac two months earlier.  It’s opening up before me as I spend my dad’s money on something he won’t approve of.

(To read more of this essay, pick up the journal here.)


“Bringing Up the Markers”

An excerpt from Concho River Review 22.1, Spring 2008:

In Oakland City, Indiana, there’s a scrubby patch of grass called Wirth Park, which isn’t really much of a park at all.  There’s a picnic shelter for family reunions, a swing set with a seat or two missing, and a rusty jungle gym.  There’s also a bright red train caboose parked on a concrete slab.  Weeds grow around its base, and its iron wheels are frozen with oxidation.  A passerby might think it sprung from the ground ages ago in this exact spot.  The interior is submarine-like, covered with thick painted coats of gunmetal gray.  Cobwebs and wasps nests clutter the corners of its cracked windows, and a picnic table is bolted in the middle of the floor.  In the summer, its interior reaches about 5,000 degrees Kelvin, and in the spring and fall, its floor buckles passively under runoff from its neglected roof.  Children who brave the wasps and the heat litter it with Yoohoo bottles and Nike prints.

Fifty miles away in the town of Rockport sits the Red Caboose Restaurant – a mom-and-pop diner that plays off the gimmick of having customer seating in an old rail car attached to the main building.  The hallway between them is a chunk of prefab housing.  It’s air-conditioned, with dark hardwood paneling and short carpet – the kind you’d find in a corporate building or the dentist’s office.  The walls are decorated with yellowing pictures of local railroads.  Families dine on spaghetti or cheeseburgers, while truckers stop for a steak before crossing the Ohio River.

We frequent these expropriated contraptions for the same reason we visit the dinosaur section of the museum.  From our childhoods, we’ve imagined them in their natural state, a symbol of a life less humdrum.  They represent freedom, adventure, danger.  But like those T-Rex skeletons, by the time we can sidle up next to them, they’re only dim afterimages – symbols at best, propped-up corpses at worst.  We may coincide with them for a short time, while we scarf down burritos or watch the kids play hide-and-seek, but in doing so, we make them as ordinary as we are.

(To read more of this essay, pick up the journal here.)



An excerpt from Sycamore Review 20.2, Summer/Fall 2008:

If we boil survival down to the bare biological necessities, it doesn’t take much to keep a human being going.  Sure, we like shelter and companionship and an occasional trip to Disneyland, but on the most basic level, there’s really not a whole lot to it.  Blood must pump relatively uninterrupted through the circulatory system, our antibodies need free reign against any sly ailment that slips through our defenses, and oxygen and a little sleep don’t hurt either.  Round these out with some food and water, and we’re looking at a pretty healthy existence.

When we look at these necessities, it’s worth noting that, for the most part, the body isn’t too interested in leaving its maintenance up to the conscious whims of its sole inhabitant.  Try as we may, without extraordinary measures we can’t stop our blood from coursing through our veins or our antibodies from fighting the good fight.  We can be slightly more active in our refusal to breathe or sleep, but only for a matter of minutes or days, respectively.  The sole exception to this rather perspicacious natural programming is the requirement that we feed ourselves.  It’s the Achilles’ heel of our survival, in the sense that our own bodies can’t make us do it.

(To read more of this essay, pick up the journal here.)

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