5 First Lines, from *5 Things* You Should Read by Melissa Swantkowski

1.      “It happened in the late and forlorn period of complete disruption, at the time of the liquidation of our business.” Bruno Schulz’s “Father’s Last Escape” in which Father, dying and not for the first time, becomes a crustacean and torments the family with his anatomy and his presence. He explores the world from his new perspective. Mother boils him into a grey, but not yet lifeless lump. But the family cannot eat him. Read this because my description is topical and because really no description of this story can do it justice. 

2.      “My name is Ruth.” Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping was published in 1980. I first read it in 2010. I have read it twice, so far, and it’s quite possible, I will read it twenty more times, or until I have it memorized or have otherwise internalized or dissected the magic in Robinson’s language. I am okay with this, whether it be hyperbole or insanity.

3.      “This is the season when the wasps come back,” begins Kevin Prufer’s collectionThe Finger Bone (the poem is called “Pastoral”, but my favorite poem is “Terrible Love.” Especially the section “my poor skin/is brailled over with stings…”).

4.      ‘Tell me a story,’ the bearded man sitting on my living-room sofa commands,” from Suddenly, a Knock at the Door, Etgar Keret. In fact, I’d recommend reading all of Etgar Keret. Especially “The Hollow Men” which appears in the collectionMissing Kissenger and though very short, will crawl inside of you and take up a novel-sized space.

5.      Herta Muller opens The Land of Green Plums with “When we don’t speak, said Edgar, we become unbearable, and when we do, we make fools of ourselves.” Knowing next to nothing of Ceaucescu’s dictatorship, and literally nothing of the German minority in Romania at this time, I came to this novel via a friend. Had my grasp on history been tighter, I still would have felt plunged into the deep, but Muller created a gauzy, dreamlike landscape relying on repeated imagistic language – “only a belt, a window, a nut, and rope,” death as a sack – the meaning of which is slowly revealed as the novel progresses.

*Five Things is a feature of Treehouse Magazine where this post appeared in 2012, along with my story, "What It Has to Do With Really, Is My Lunch."

Uncle Ed's Sayins by Melissa Swantkowski

How Uncle Ed Can Talk Anybody Outta Doin' Something Stupid

Bless your heart.

Quit dancin' around like you got chiggers in your britches now and tell Uncle Ed the truth.

You're bein' bout as useful as tits on a tractor.

I'm just saying. Bless your lil...Ain't no shame in a woman cryin'.

You know I live by a man cain't afford but two beers deserves a third. Go run down that cooler and fetch me one 'for I listen to your nonsense.

Shug, you could ruin a two car funeral with that frown. Pop one 'em open.

Whad I tell you last time? If bullfrogs had wings they wouldn't bump asses when they jumped.

Bless that heart. Blessit. You all off kilter. Put both oars in the water and row, now.

The sun cain't shine on the dog's tail all the time.

Well, hon, I'm just saying. He's uglier than a mud fence.

I'm just gonna say, you gotta watch out. You lie like a no-legged dog.

I done said already I can smell it worse than two cats fightin'.

I'm not sayin nothin at all 'cept if I's the one fell in a bucket a titties wouldn't be me coming out sucking my thumb.

Bless your heart, I don't mean nothing by that. You gotta let your get skin thicker than a chicken on a nest a water moccasins you wanna get anywhere good.

That boy ain't got nothing but a thumpin' gizzard for heart. You ask your mama what a gizzard good for.

Like I told your sister, you gotta skin a snake 'for you can get to the meat.

Now listen up. Just 'cause you put two kids the oven don't make 'em buiscuts.

That's right. Go'on. Bless your heart. No difference tween you and me 'cept god's love.

 

Recovered Notes from An Only Childhood by Melissa Swantkowski

Guess Who? It's always Mom, Dad, or Imaginary Little Brother. 

Games to play alone: Rubik's Cube, jump-rope, lone wolf in big back yard 

Always in the middle, always Monkey, still looking at the sky.

Games to stop playing by myself: Monopoly

No bruises from dodgeball! 

Still hiding...

Guess who always wins at H-O-R-S-E. 

Marco? 

Gave Chicken Pox back to myself. Mom said this was impossible. Points to evidence of Real Imaginary Little Brother.

Marco? 

Games to seriously STOP playing alone: Jenga, Twister, War. 

...Marco? 

 

 

How To Fall in Love by Melissa Swantkowski

 How to Fall in Love

Touching is a human thing. I don’t mean touching like with your boyfriend or with your mother when her uterine cancer comes back even though she doesn’t have a uterus anymore because they took it out the last time. That can happen, you know. Microscopic cells can be left behind and after weeks or months or even years can wake up and grow again into the pelvis or around the intestines. This is generally very bad.

 

What I mean is the touching that happens in a museum where there are “Please Do Not Touch” signs in bold print all over and your touching happens in between two of them. You are touching something like a Renaissance painting or an ancient stone column without even realizing it. Sometimes no one notices your touching, not even the guards. Or sometimes, the only people that notice are other museum goers who are just glad they are not the ones doing the touching. Sometimes everyone notices your touching and you are asked to leave.

Or the green and purple cabbages that grow outside fancy buildings. These are not the kind of cabbages grown on farms and sold to grocery stores, but cabbages grown just to look at. But if you didn’t know that, and you walked by, you might touch their leaves or even try to pick one. Especially if you were hungry.

 

What I mean is the touching that happens before you even know it.

 

In the emergency room, they sometimes have to take your temperature. They do this with a thin piece of glass in your rear end. Sometimes the nurse will ask if you want to insert it yourself, but listen to me, it is much more comfortable to just lie there and think about other things. One thing that is really nice to think about is the Zen Progression Alarm Clock(TM). That is, an alarm clock with a mini gong that gently wakes you from sleep instead of beeping like a regular digital alarm, or playing an annoying song like a cell phone or blasting news into your ear like a clock-radio or ringing like one of those old-fashioned round clocks with the bells on top. How it works is, you set it for ten minutes before you really have to get up and the gong goes off at specific time intervals until finally it is gonging continuously. I don’t have the intervals memorized, but if you looked in the Information and Instruction Manual that comes with the Zen Progression Alarm Clock(TM), you could find out.

 

The best thing about the Progression Alarm Clock(TM) is that the mini gong and the digital clock are both inside a real wood box and when you close it, you would never know that it is an alarm clock. This makes people surprised when they open it or receive it as a gift. And the box is made of such nice wood that people always want to touch it when they come in your room.

Another time when it’s good to think about the Progression Alarm Clock(TM) is when they have to look into your throat. They do this with a long rubber tube, but the catch is, they have to put it in your nose. I try to tell them it makes more sense to look in your mouth with a flashlight and that I could even bring one from home because my dad has about fifteen different kinds. He even has one that policemen use when they are out on the streets, which means it is very heavy, large and powerful. But if that is not the right kind, he has a very small one that can fit in your shirt pocket. I can also open my mouth extremely wide.

 

I have never seen a commercial for the Progression Alarm Clock(TM), but I am always on the lookout, because I would be perfect to act in one, or even read a script on the radio. Once I see a commercial for the Progression Alarm Clock(TM) I am going to tape myself in the same format and send in the tape and hope they hire me. I don’t want to do this in advance in case they are one of those companies whose CEO or founder has decided not to spend money on advertising and just rely on word of mouth or something.

Rehearsing in your head for your career in commercials can pass a lot of time. I already know what I would say: “The Progression Alarm Clock(TM) gets me up to get where I have to go. I am never late! After ten invigorating minutes of progressive awakening, I stretch and smile and am ready for the day! Every single day!” This part would be me, but in a voiceover. And then the commercial would show me sleeping in bed and the gonging and stretching and smiling and getting up to do yoga and drink cashew nut milk and eat goji berries for breakfast because that is what the Zen eat.

 

Another thing that happens in the emergency room is that they put you on ice. If you have ever been to a grocery store that has a fish counter, you know what I mean. This is one reason I would rather not be in the emergency room. If you opened your eyes really wide and smooshed your lips together, you would look like a fish on all that ice except they use blue ice packs instead of real crushed ice. Sometimes I open my eyes very wide and make my lips into a kissy face but most people don’t understand what I am doing and only ask if I am OK. What I don’t understand is how all these really smart people can miss something so obvious. Don’t they ever make fish faces at their kids or their dogs?

But then I think about how once I read that the most searched question on Google is “What is love?” and how that must mean that millions and millions of people in the world, even the really smart ones who know which needle goes where and not to pick the purple cabbages still might not know what love means. There is even a page that shows you that “What is love?” is the most searched question so that all the people who don’t know what love means won’t have to feel bad. I have considered making a dating service for all these people so they can meet and not feel alone and maybe even teach each other what love is. Plus no one would be embarrassed because that part would have been taken care of at the beginning when they signed up. I think being in the same place can be a very important learning experience.

Once I told this to someone who came into my room and she told me it was a little too ambitious for someone my age. I made a note in my head to include her in the dating service because she seemed like someone who might have searched “What is love?” because she seemed to be very good at checking charts and my temperature, but didn’t seem to understand how important it was for me to be ambitious.

The second thing people search a lot is “What is life?” This is another one of those things you can think about when you need to be some place else besides where you are. I like to think about how many people had to search “What is life?” for it to be the second most popular question and that also means how many people go about living and don’t know why. Once I told this to my friend and she started to cry and said I was morbid, but I think that is only because she didn’t understand. If that was true, I would think, “What is death?” I like to think about all these millions of people at their keyboards, thinking to themselves, “What a good day at the office, now I wonder, What is life all about? I better ask Google.” Sometimes they are young like me with ponytails or else grandmotherly types with cats and crocheted afghans on their laps or even dads waiting for dinner to be ready.

I tried to look up “How to kiss,” but decided before I even hit enter that it was pointless because what can a computer screen actually teach you. You might think that means I am naïve, but it’s not like I don’t already know all about porn, it’s just not what I need. And I already know it is another one of those things that people might say is a little too ambitious for me, so that limits who I can ask.

So besides the commercial for the Progression Alarm Clock(TM), I am on the lookout for someone to teach me how to kiss. I have a friend who is a little older than me who had her first kiss in a closet and said it was mostly teeth and afterwards she was very concerned that she would have to go to the dentist. Luckily, she is OK. She says not to worry, it will happen. But if you ask me, that sounds just like what you would say if it already happened to you. 

 

"How to Fall in Love" first appeared online for American Short Fiction in August 2009. 

If All Your Bad Dates Happened on the Same Night by Melissa Swantkowski

Date invites you to a lounge. He says: You should dress up. It’s that kind of place. I'll be in my designer jeans because when I dress nice I act less pervy.

You ask: What is a lounge? No one will tell me?

Date cancels date via text just minutes after date is scheduled to begin. Then Date shows up. When questioned, says: Shit, cancelled the wrong one of you.

Date hides teased and permed blond hair under hat until drinks have been ordered but not paid for. Unleashes it in slo-mo: hat off, deep neck roll, hair toss, smile. 

Date says: I have to pee. The last girl who went out with me left when I went to bathroom. Can we neck before I go?

Oblige.

Look longingly at the revolving door when Date takes verb "to neck" literally.

Date details recent shoulder injury. Date details daily diet. Date details five year plan. Includes you.

Invent old hockey injury. Invent lesbian leaning future. Describe your last period for sake of conversation. Detail.

Date asserts that teased and permed blond hair is the best thing going for him. Date says: This hair is the one thing that will never change.

You say: But surely you have a job? An apartment? A nagging sense of guilt over the repeated teasing of your follicles? 

Date picks fight about appetizers over appetizers. Pounds fist on table, says, "I like to make sure a girl can hold her own." 

Find long crimpy blond hair in drink. Find long crimpy blond hair on table. Find long crimpy blond hair in teeth three weeks later.  

Date sneaks bottle of whiskey into the movie theater. Finishes it during previews. Hands over empty bottle.

Self-soothe with the fumes.

Date avoids pickles as general rule. Reveal that you are made of salt and/or brine.

Date buys dessert to share, opens messenger bag to show a toothbrush, asks you to take his virginity.

Date trips on uneven sidewalk, cracks both front teeth on the curb.

As Date recovers dignity, collect white specks of tooth to blow into wind like dandelion fluff.

Date says: This is as good a time as any for me to invite you to Queens to meet my Beta fish.

You say: What is a lounge. No one will tell me.