The Write Off 

Tagging words and wrestling for sentences with the winners of City Weekly’s Third Annual Literary Issue

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The birds don’t do it. The bees don’t do it. But humans, or more simply people, do it. We’re talking about writing, folks. Of all the species in the great animal kingdom, people are unique in that we communicate with the written word. We’re also the only species of animal that makes love face-to-face. But that’s another story—possibly even another special issue.

Words have always held a special place in the human heart. We talk about the word of God becoming flesh. We talk about the word failing us. (They are, after all, only words.) We talk about words that hurt or offend. We talk about words that heal, words that reveal a special emotion to us we’ve never felt or experienced before.

With a mere 26 letters in the alphabet, it’s amazing how many ways they can be arranged into words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, volumes, histories and lives. Just try to imagine a world without books and the printed word. Could it, in fact, be hell?

Now in its third year, City Weekly’s literary issue is our own humble attempt to get the larger Utah community huddled around all the warmth and wisdom that the poem, short story and essay can generate. We’re happy to say that this issue draws better work every year. We’re happy to strain our wrists opening all the submissions. We love sorting the grain from the chaff. Given the sheer volume of entries with each passing year, that’s a lot of chaff. But let’s talk about the grain.

Sure, there’s nothing new about railing against materialism. But you’ve got to love a writer who can rail against it with enough flair to rewrite a Bible verse into corporate scripture. Rex Strother’s “Bring Me the Head of Tommy Hilfiger” is the only kind of essay we ever want to read—it informs as it entertains. Many people try to turn everyday surroundings into poetry. Most fail. Christopher Leibow’s “Mineral Sea” succeeds through a beguiling mix of odd rhythms and tightly contained symbolism. It might even have you looking at the Great Salt Lake through an entirely different lens the next time you cruise I-80 East. And perhaps the most difficult aspect of fiction writing is the creation of characters whose emotions stir empathy from the reader. As the title character of Larry Menlove’s “Hero” endures his 15 minutes of fame, we experience his fantasy recreation of the incident, and wish along with him that the circumstances had been different.

So good reading to you. And why not submit some words of your own the next time our literary issue comes around? We’d love to hear from you.

About the judges:

Poetry judge Maureen Clark is currently working on an MFA in poetry at the University of Utah. She is the past president of Writers @ Work and past editor of Ellipsis: Literature and Art. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Petroglyph, Ellipsis, Puerto del Sol, Prairie Schooner and Spoon River Poetry Review.

Essay judge Ben Fulton is associate editor of City Weekly and the recipient of several journalism awards.

Fiction judge Andrea Malouf is editor of Salt Lake magazine, current president of Writers @ Work, and writes for a local information design firm. Her work has appeared in Catalyst magazine, City Weekly and the Park City Journal. She holds an M.A. in English and spends her free time writing fiction.

Essay judge Christopher Smart is the editor of City Weekly, a former reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune, and the recipient of several journalism awards.

Fiction judge Jason Matthew Smith is associate editor of Salt Lake magazine and a frequent contributor to literary magazines including The Paunsagunt Review, Amelia and Reflections. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories.

Bring Me the Head of Tommy Hilfiger

A bit ago, I got an e-mail and maybe you got it too. The text—down at the bottom, below a thicket of forwarded e-mail addresses—went something like this:

Mobil and Exxon are artificially increasing gas prices. Let’s all boycott them and not buy their gas and then they’ll decrease gas prices. Who do they think they are? Love, an Economics Professor who says this stuff is true (and a second one who read what the first one wrote and said “Yeah.”)

Oh, and send this on to every goofy-ass person in your address book RIGHT NOW.

Which they do.

The exact nature of the suggested boycott was delightfully vague as to timing, duration and details generally. By the time I’d received the message from the fifth person I knew, each at a different end of the country, I decided the text was cleverly started by the gas companies themselves, to let people blow off steam without arriving at any actual action—particularly any action that might lead to not purchasing gasoline.

Because to me, the real problem isn’t the price of gas. I think there’s a darker demon lurking in this message: the inference is that it is our God-given right to be consumer capitalists (Exxon 3:16, “And the Lord did give Man dominion over the arctic oil fields and He heard not the cries of the petroleum-drenched waterfowl”). All that gasoline was meant to be ours, the e-mail suggested—it was only the price that was out of whack.

The latest statistics I read (Was it in Harpers? Was it in Utne? As long as it was printed in soy ink, I suppose) indicated that if the entire world consumed at the rate the U.S. did (everything from natural resources—your gasoline—to consumer goods), it would take three Earths to supply it. So, if we just use wind power, make everything out of industrial hemp, and buy smaller … nope, you know what, we still only have the one Earth.

This is more than just a matter of finding a “kinder, gentler” way to motor around and power our hair dryers. Because changing the form of energy (short of fusion innovation) doesn’t change the problem that we are being marketed the idea of “having” as happiness. These e-mail warriors are up-in-arms that their gasoline is a third the price people in Europe are paying, but hardly spark a neuron to realize they drive two blocks to go to the store.

Our houses are too big, our cars are too big (not to mention that they get worse gas mileage, on average, than they did in 1993—at least Nader pointed that out before he disappeared), our closets are too big, our TVs are too big—and our reliance on them is misleading us into believing things are values.

And then, once we’ve placed all our esteem in what we own, the media plays a second dirty trick on us. The following year, they market what we just bought as “obsolete” because it’s not the newest widget (in 2002, the “in” color will be Titanium, the headlamps are a sporty octagonal shape, and trunk air bags are de riguer—quick, trade in that lease).

Don’t look now, but they don’t want to do it—they had to do it. We all want a growing economy, right? We want corporations to maximize profits, right? We want the Dao (sorry, completely wrong word), the Dow to be “Biggie-Sized,” don’t we? Well then, that 1998 Subaru Legacy with an absolutely insane 45,000 miles on it must go back to the dealer.

What you need now is the Ford 2002 Prepostera—with 12 cylinders, built-in cell phone subwoofer and a rack of Disney movies. And yes, it comes in both Titanium and Harp Seal White. (Never seen a harp seal? We can direct you to an e-commerce website that will sell you a picture book.)

I know—I’m out of my head. I’ll be beaten with the conch shell, I’ll be voted off This Island Earth. I’m one of those “conservationists” (Don’t point, honey, he can’t help it. Help Mommy pick out a Disney merchandise delivery device—I mean, “movie”—on her Palm Pilot). I’m looking around the little house I own and there’s me and my girlfriend—and you know, one bathroom will be enough (you guessed it, we sometimes have to take turns). Whew, I just saved myself from making a host of decisions regarding guest towels.

No, I’m not hopped up on industrial hemp. I’m just not in a hurry to be crowned King of the Landfill. Maybe most people resist “conserving” because it reminds them of “dieting”—the horrible “giving up of.” What we need to do, however, is learn not to want this indulgent, selfish crap in the first place. Because I know a lot of people, each with their clutch of “latest, happening” things, and they’re not deep down happy. You know why? Because next year, the 2003 Ford Incomprehensia hits the glossy magazines, and my friends are out of style again.

We’ve got to stop “buying” the idea of buying. Next time you’ve got the urge to buy something, think—can I get it second hand? Do I already have one I can fix up? Do I NEED this really? Or am I a sucker for 50,000 swingin’ Gap commercials downloaded into my Survivor-soaked brain?

Yes, we do have to resist the juggernaut of society when we make these decisions (hell, you pretty much buck popular culture if you THINK at all) and that is difficult. But it can be done.

So next time you go to the store, try walking—which, as a nice side effect, will screw Mobil and Exxon.

But did you really need to go to the store in the first place? s

by Rex Strother

Life in the Slow Lane

Afraid to peek at my watch, I hurry my pace. The tea gurgles out from my plastic mug as I scan 7th East. He hasn’t come yet. I slow down, unbutton my jean jacket and twist the lid to let the steam eke from my tea unto the half sun-lit sidewalk. I wait.

He always tips his gigantic thermos at me, when he opens the bus door, as if sharing a caffeine bond. I raise my mug and smile, thinking it best not known that I drink only herbal. Surfing to the middle of the bus, I always go to the left side, an aisle seat, so as to not encourage others to sit and talk to me. This is my personal time, I declare to myself, time to read or write before the workday begins.

But it never works. It did for the first two days, but then Michael, the plaid-pant striped-shirt Jesus look-alike, began sliding into the seat in front of me and staring until I close my book and ask him how he is. We always talk about the office tensions and damn-the-man politics at the mind-numbing 24-hour phone service where he works. I can no longer be anonymous anymore. There are patterns to my life that other people share. There’s the misplaced jolly farmer, the X-man runner who reads out loud, the male leg-shaver, and Jamie, the girl who works at Smith’s and doesn’t realize that those nametags can be removed. I’ve thought about trying to shake things up, to establish my me-time as an unrecognizable face. There’s always the option of catching the earlier bus every couple of days, or biking the whole way to work. When I realize that this translates into less sleep or being sweaty all day, I reconsider.

Slowly, I have learned to accept that so many people now include my face as part of their daily routine. The two Mexican women in black and white checkered pants do. They crochet white lacy doilies on the bus and leave fresh fruit with our bearded driver as they leave. We share the same stop. At first they would quietly converse in Spanish while waiting for the walk-sign. Soon this turned into a “hello” to me, a “goodbye,” and, eventually, “have a good day.” The full-sentence exchange only started when I asked them a question in Spanish and their eyes lit up with surprise. Now, as we wait for the light, we talk about Lupita’s Sunday visits to church and Isabel’s two kids. They offer me Mexican cookies and warn me to never get married.

There are others on the bus, however, one-timers with broken-down cars or angry boyfriends, who appear and sit anxiously for the right moment to tug on the “next-stop” wire and collect the proper change. There was once a short-haired woman, who sat wrapped around the metal bars of the seat to her front. I couldn’t help but fear we might soon see her expunge a lung with all her hacking and coughing going on. She cleared her throat and seemed to speak through her nose, in that blared assuming tone that correlates foreigners with the hearing impaired.

“DO … YOU … SPEAK … ENGLISH?” She bellowed across the seats.

Lupita glanced at Isabel and whispered something under her breath.

“Yes,” she nodded, and turned her bright hair bobbles away again.

“HOW … MUCH … DOES … IT … COST?” She glanced over at the fare-collection booth.

The question morphed rapidly into a series concerning Lupita’s separated marriage and what all people from Mexico are like. Lupita was being patient, Isabel was trying to ignore.

“WHAT IS YOUR NAME?” she inquired.

Lupita responded, “Maria.”

“I KNEW IT!” the woman cried. “I KNEW YOUR NAME WAS MARIA. I JUST KNEW IT. WHAT A BEAU-TI-FUL NAME.” She gagged and choked and coughed as she tugged on the line and the bus spit her out. Lupita and Isabel resumed talking and together we got off at the next stop. I couldn’t decide who was worse off, the ignoramus or the object of such narrow thought. “Hasta Manana” we shout as we head our own ways, until tomorrow, another trek via bus.

I spend many a morning and afternoon in the slow lane, riding the bus from here to there and back again. Walking home from my stop, mid-thunderstorm without a raincoat, I often curse aloud for not owning a car. But for the most part this motor-less lifestyle is growing on me. With this means of travel, there is no escape; the world forces me to interact, to not just watch, but see. I cannot be the faceless face I had considered so appealing at first. Life in the slow lane is where lessons abound, where I detect bits and pieces of me reflected in the others around. Life in the slow lane; the pace is becoming just right. s

by Jaime Bard

Tuesday I started out as usual, taking a last swig of water, locking my car, and tying my key with my shoelace, snug against my shoe. It was spring, and despite the balmy temperatures I was sinking in old snow the minute I left the parking area. No matter. I sank down and a little back for each step forward, but I plodded along anyway. My breaths evened out; I sank into a rhythm. My thoughts wandered. I began to feel light and agile, racing around the corners, skipping over slushy puddles, my strides hardly ever even as I work my feet around the rocks and roots jutting out on the trail. My muscles loosened up and didn’t complain at all about what I asked them to do. They were used to it. I think they even loved it.

Then I stood at the trail’s end. I looked out over the Salt Lake Valley below and onto the expanse of the lake beyond. Where I stood was a dry, sage and grass covered hillside several hundred feet above the suburbs of Millcreek below. A million years ago the waters of Lake Bonneville would have been lapping at my feet. Fifteen years ago I stood on the spot several times, on my first hikes with Mom and our little puppy Abby. Six years ago I walked this trail to this point with JW, my bestest childhood friend, the day before I left for college. Four years ago I stood here with tears in my eyes just hours after we put dear Abby to sleep. This trail has known my presence over 15 years and as it has seen me change and grow, I have watched the Salt Lake Valley change and grow from this point, suburbs creeping up the hillside and swelling southward.

But yet, the feeling remains. What in my entire life could be more dependable than the feelings of comfort and inspiration that the trails of the Wasatch have always provided me? Why is it that after a summer rafting in Jackson Hole, a semester abroad in Kenya, or a season in the Colorado backcountry, I still get the best feeling in the world just returning to my Wasatch to experience these same trails once again?

My friends share my wonder about these magical Wasatch trails. Like me, they are Salt Lake originals who grew up skiing, hiking and biking in these mountains; but eagerly flew the nest as soon as they’d turned 18, determined to get out and see the world, and swearing they’d never return to Salt Lake again. At that age we were all afflicted with a mix of the grass-is-greener syndrome and an unquenchable idealism that the wholesome and overwhelmingly religious culture of Salt Lake City only perpetuated and ignited. But these days we were all here, here on these Wasatch trails, drawn back to Salt Lake after years of seeing the world. Red-faced and out of breath from our runs, we’d profess our love of the Wasatch, despite our pleasant memories of places we’d traveled to or lived in like Nepal, New Zealand, Boulder, Colorado, and Glacier National Park.

With these companions, or often alone, I take to these trails daily whenever I am in Salt Lake, and this is my meditation. During these times, the Wasatch discloses a few of its secrets to me: like the way the jagged ridgeline east of Mount Olympus looks when its rock begins to show through the melting snow; or the way the thunderstorms sound when they hit the edge of the Wasatch and are forced inwards and upwards in the canyon; or the look of surprise on another morning runner’s face at seeing another soul out at an early hour on the trail.

The trails have healing power. My slow, steady plod up a steep trail can grind away at my negative thoughts. Staring at the rocks and dust in front of me hypnotizes me, and the struggles of my daily life sink from my head down into my thighs and are burned up for energy. In this way, I wear myself down, my body and my mind, and when I begin to gain elevation on the trail, the panorama of ridgelines and gulches and peaks and canyons suddenly appears in my peripheral vision and urges me to look up. A feeling something like vertigo inevitably strikes me, and I pause, wondering at the enormity of the landscape. My head, now clear, begins to fill with thoughts that match the landscape in their breadth and scope: enormous, imaginative, exciting. They build and swell, one right after the other, about my life, my career, my relationships, love, spirituality … Running down, I am sometimes so filled with elation that I spread out my arms and lean into the turns, pretending I am flying!

I’m convinced these mountains don’t just run out of secrets to reveal. I am convinced that their magic will live on. And through every joyous and tumultuous stage I go through in my life, I will always be able to depend on the feeling I get from my meditations on Wasatch trails. s

by Sarah Richey

The Cello

I sit staring into the mirror. I turn on the water again, feeling it in hot waves as it reaches my toes. It moves up my ankles to the nerve in my back. I stare down at my feet. I gently reach into the water, moving my fingers back and forth.

His fingers are arthritic, the bones crooked, and the skin fleshy. He reaches down to pick up his faded yellow cello. He places it carefully between his legs, while lifting his eyes to look around the room.

He studies his distorted fingers as he places them on the fingerboard. He adjusts his index finger, moving it to the correct spot.

I cross my arms and look around the office as he adjusts in his chair. His office is small, without windows. It’s at the end of the music faculty department hall. His door is just opposite the glass doors through which yellow, red and orange leaves cover the cement.

He catches me looking at the photo of the woman on his filing cabinet.

I lost her six years ago. She was sick with the cancer. I told her to forget what they said and eat the goddamn pizza. Enjoy something for once.

The floor is black. It does not reflect the hot blue and red lights radiating onto it. A few of the chairs in the room are filled with students, pens in hand, papers balanced on slightly raised knees. Most of the chairs are empty.

He begins to play the introduction to the Beethoven quartet. The other three sit, clutching their smaller instruments to their chests. They study the floor as if waiting for the prayer to end.

You need to be kind to that 2-year-old inside of you. That part of us is always inside. It doesn’t ever grow up and gets hurt easily.

The air tastes humid and stale. I close my eyes. I feel my hands go numb except for the spots where moistness evaporates from my palms. The bow trembles in my fingers.

I take a sharp breath, contracting the muscles in my lower abdomen. My shoulders round.

You were the worst one.

He hunches further into his cello. He moves his eyes from the page black with notes to his fingers.

There was a lot of money in engineering. I was good at it. The math was no problem. It came easy to me. Did I ever tell you about the airplane propellers that I designed? Someone designed the same thing 10 years later. He shakes his head as if he had known all along. Made millions.

I knew I could never be great. I didn’t have the talent.

A bad note. Damn fingers. Another.

My father whittled away on the cello after work. Taught himself how to make instruments—violins, cellos, basses. He glances toward the open black case against which his yellow cello rests. That was his first try at a cello.

The cello has lost most of its shiny finish. It is a dull colored wood, which contrasts with the deep, shiny ebony f-holes, fingerboard and pegs.

The cello usually stays in its case. I don’t have the energy anymore.

His wavy hair is stationary as his body jerks in anguish.

I look at my reflection in the mirror. The white walls of the bathroom outline my face. The fluorescent light makes me squint. The worn red hand towel hangs clumsy and tattered against the white walls of the bathroom. I gently move my big toes, creating tiny ripples in the water.

I cup a handful of water, sliding it up my shin. I spread my fingers, letting the water run through. I pull my wet fingers from the roots of my hair to the ends. My head jerks back with the strands.

I don’t play much anymore. s

by Aimee Larson


He’d had barely enough time to get out of his soiled clothes—wet from the lake he’d jumped in to clean himself off—when the reporters arrived. He told them he liked his job, told them it was all right if other people might think it was a gross occupation; he liked it because he was outside and in the mountains most of the time. When they asked him what he would do next he told them that he didn’t care much for publicity, that he was a simple man, that he just wanted to perform his job in the right manner in which he had for the last fifteen years. Fifteen years? They asked him if he’d ever happened across anything quite like this in his fifteen years, and he told them no. Just no. Like that. No. The reporters mulled around Grant scratching their chins, expecting more, demanding more, noting in their notebooks his still wet hair and fresh Forest Service clothes. Grant had nothing more to offer them.

The articles started popping up all across the country, picked up on the news wires. The story was the third report on CNN Headline News for eight half-hour rotations from 6:00 p.m. EST until 10:00 p.m. EST. The President’s visit to Russia bumped the story to fourth at 10:30 p.m. EST. It ran dry sometime in the wee darkness of the morning. It got a fleeting mention on Good Morning America. It was reported that the baby was doing well and a search had been launched for the mother. Diane Sawyer shook her head when the newsreader sent the show’s control back to her so she could introduce the next feature: “How to Hang Valuables in your House.”

At first the phone calls Grant got at home were of good cheer, well wishers, those who admired his bravery, his act of selfless heroism, but the calls started to take a different tone once it was generally agreed upon that Grant was somewhat eccentric. “Good natured to a fault,” Grant’s mother called him.

Grant lived with his mother. Just the two of them. Of course, Grant was gone on the job most of the day during the summer. Sometimes Grant was gone for weeks at a time, depending on the assignment. One year he was stationed in the Ashley Forest. He spent the whole summer there in a staff cabin. This particular summer he was working for the Uinta Forest Service—mostly at the lakes campground just up Payson Canyon. Not far from his home in Spanish Fork. Spanish Fork was typically quiet, sleepy, safe.

One caller said, “I bet you dropped that baby down in there yourself, didn’t you. Freak.” Grant said no into the phone, which by then was buzzing with the dial tone that sounded like a bee stuck in a glass of water. Another caller asked if he liked swimming in a shit pool. Another said, “I bet you got a ten on your swan dive.” To all these he just said no, or huh? or what? Grant didn’t really understand that these callers were harassing him. He just answered the phone and listened because his mother had grown tired of handing the phone receiver over to him. The phone calls didn’t last long. A few days after it happened they stopped completely.

Grant started fantasizing about the incident. Incident was how he had begun to associate it in his mind. His mother had called it that and it stuck. Each time he fantasized he imagined the incident laying itself out a little bit differently.

His last and favorite version is the one where he had just pushed the big hose into the opening in the ground next to the pit out-house and was on his way back to the Forest Service tank truck to hoist the lever up on the pump when he hears the cries. He investigates the crying, thinking it might be a raccoon or, yes, maybe even a child left unattended in the bushes, because the crying is not really coming from the toilet this time. And so that’s the way it is. The child is behind the big gray trunk of an Engelmann spruce next to the restroom. The newborn is in a white wicker bassinet. He has a blue blanket the color of robin’s egg tucked up under his armpits. His tiny red face is kinked and tight from crying. His fists are spinning around, stopping, spinning around, stopping. Grant can smell the forest, its piney uncertainties, as he looks around for the parents of this little one. That’s when he sees the piece of paper pinned to the baby’s jumper. He bends down and looks at it like he’s shoplifting and afraid to just steal the candy. When he does take it, he steps back a ways and unfolds the paper. He reads the note twice, three times:

Our son is good. We love him.

We can’t take care of him.

Please give him a good home.

In this fantasy, Grant doesn’t have to go in the restroom and look in the hole or get down on his backside and brace his shoulders against the cinderblock wall and kick over the toilet pedestal so he can fit; and the flies don’t swarm up out of the hole momentarily blocking out the cries of the baby down there. In this fantasy the world is a bright place where the sun shines down yellow, and the robins flap flap from limb to limb, and chipmunks scurry with that shrill chatter that seems both unnatural and also the very life call of nature itself. In this fantasy an infant boy’s hair is downy and dry and smells of baby powder as Grant comforts him bounce bounce on his shoulder and thinks about the note and answers over and over, “Yes. I will. Yes. I will.” s

by Larry Menlove

The Pigeons

On the far end of the piazza, under the shadow of an umbrella, sat a couple. The woman drank coffee and stared at a newspaper. The man sat impatiently, ignoring the newspaper and coffee before him, crossing his legs. He coughed loudly and glanced at the woman. But she sat quietly. He looked at her blue eyes that stared at the page before her, but they were not moving. The man opened his paper loudly, shook it, and pretended to read, occasionally glancing at the woman.

The man stared at the piazza. He watched the pigeons fly from the rooftop to the street. He cleared his throat, looking at the woman.

“The damn pigeons aren’t good for anything. If I had my way I would get some kids out here with pellet guns to take care of things.”

The woman said nothing. The man snapped his paper closed.

“Are you listening to me?” he said.

“What’s there to listen to?”

“I’m just trying to make some conversation. Weren’t we supposed to talk more? Isn’t that our problem—we don’t talk enough?”

“I just don’t have anything to say.”

“Can’t we say something instead of sitting here like two strangers?”

Well, what do you want me to say?” The woman set her newspaper down. “Should we talk about the pigeons again? Should we talk about how they make a mess of everything? No, let’s talk about something else. Let’s talk about other people’s problems, like suicide. Does that get your attention? Do you want to laugh now? Is that curiously funny?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about the train station.”

“Is that what this is about? Yesterday? It’s always this, isn’t it, Kat? I was curious …”

“Why did you do it, Dave? Why did you have to keep asking questions like some 10-year-old boy who should know better? Didn’t you see the look on that man’s face? He didn’t want to talk about it.”

“Kat, it was just some simple questions and that’s all. I wasn’t trying to be malicious. I was just curious. Why is that so bad?”

The woman’s eyes narrowed.

“Are you that dense, Dave? Questions about how often someone steps in front of a train, and how the body looks. If it explodes from the impact or gets thrown. Can’t you see that it’s too much? And why do you have to laugh about it as if it were so amusing?”

The man pounded his fist on the metal table.

“I’m not going to have this conversation, again, because it’s always the same thing. Always the same damn thing a

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