Delmarva Review: “Dark vs. Darker” by Leslie Pietrzyk

As a writing teacher, I may be overly fond of my own pronouncements. Here’s how to write, I proclaim to the fiction workshop, sharing lessons I learned from teachers and craft books and from my experience hacking through the thicket of works-in-progress. Here’s what you must do.

Some students take my advice; others ignore me. My role’s limited: I can only tell them what I know, and the rest—rather, most of it—is up to them. I pass teacherly judgment on the artfulness of their work, but I don’t judge these beginning writers by wondering who will “make it” and who won’t. I was no big deal in my graduate program, and whether I’ve “made it” or not, at least I’ve published some books, which was the goal of my life from first grade, when I first learned that stories were written by real people.

One pronouncement is on the first day of class, as we’re getting comfortable as a group. I announce that no one knows everything about writing, that we’re all learning. I pause, my gaze sweeping the table in encouragement. “I’m still learning too,” I add. My voice hovers between friendly and benevolent as my eyes meet theirs in shy admission that we’re all in it together. I say, “I love your questions and challenges. I love a class that makes me think.”

I do. Of course I do. Yet I trust this gaze reminds them that even so, I’m smarter, and I’m in charge, and let’s please not forget that, okay?

I’m lucky that in the graduate programs where I teach most of my students want to learn from me, so in the weeks ahead, I’m confident our workshop will overflow with challenging questions my repertoire of pronouncements will address.

My favorite pronouncement—and the bedrock of all I believe superlative writing to be—is my belief that the writer must dive into the dark place to find the best, truest material. This premise is hardly my own invention: Anne Lamott’s classic, Bird by Bird, notes, “The great writers keep writing about the cold dark place within.” And, in Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood writes, “Where is the story? The story is in the dark.” My favorite metaphor for this journey within is the myth of Orpheus, the poet/musician who travelled deep into the underworld hoping to recover his dead wife and bring her back into the light. If I didn’t discover “the dark place” from Atwood, I certainly picked up the metaphor there. In my workshop, the “dark place” theory typically emerges early, when we discuss student work that is accomplished but lacking urgency, and the phrase “the dark place” becomes part of our shared vocabulary. “This scene isn’t working,” someone will complain, “I don’t think the writer has gone to the dark place.”

If I’m lucky, a moment arises during workshop—honestly, I finagle this moment myself—where it’s natural to launch my rant on the “dark place,” citing Orpheus as I proclaim that all stories have been told so what we have is the telling, these unique voices, drawing upon our individual knowledge and pain and deep experience; I declare that readers yearn for what they’ve never heard before, something only YOU can bring to the page, that story you don’t dare tell, that thing you want left secret, that hard and true darkness that you can—must—dredge up from the underworld.

I love this speech!

I love the recklessness of it, and the audacity. I love throwing down this gauntlet. I love that what I’m advocating sounds true and imperative. I love the keyboard clicks as my students race to catch the magic of my words; I love that the class sees me riled, that even if they think I’m full of horseshit, at least I’m entertaining.

Honestly, and I shouldn’t say so, I would love to be videoed during this speech because I would love to watch my crazed and loony passion even as I would cringe and never utter another word. I love that when I’m rolling out this rant no one dares question my authority.

I especially love that last bit because I was a big fraud. The “dark place” is fucking scary, and once you’re down there, who knows what you’ll uncover or how you’ll escape. The trick of the Orpheus myth is that he returned from the underworld, living to tell the tale. “As the best authorities have it, easy to go there, but hard to come back; and then you must write it all down on a stone,” Atwood wrote. It’s called the DARK PLACE, not the sunny-let’s-eat-ice-cream-and-chitchat place. It’s where we hide family secrets, deepest fears, and every ounce of shame. That place, the place where the guts to type, “I was a big fraud,” came from. And this: I couldn’t even admit I was a big fraud.

Oh, I’m a hundred percent right; the best writing comes from the dark place. As a teacher, I’ve got to tell them that. But as a writer, I know we don’t muck down there all the time. I mean, there are funny books, and skillful stories that don’t require guts splayed on paper, and practiced writers learn to distract readers with style! Intellect! Tricks! All sorts of glittery baubles work, or seem to, keeping the writer safely distant from the dark place while getting published.

For several years, I had been in a different sort of dark place, the one where every other writer in America had a new book being rave-reviewed and winning A Major Award. I had written a beautiful novel that had been rejected by every publisher in America. This was actually the second novel in a row I had written to be rejected by every publisher in America. The notes from my agent were getting brief. Because I’d focused on writing novels, I didn’t have many short stories to send around for a possible hit of lit journal publication, and anyway, the short stories I did have had been rejected by every literary journal in America. My favorite things about my writing life then were leading workshops, making pronouncements about writing, and watching students improve under my sharp eye. I can still teach, I thought, at least there’s that.

I wondered if that might be enough. I had published two books and one had been reviewed in the New York Times. Wasn’t that what first grade me wanted? Weren’t my books in the library (rather, hadn’t they been, before getting dumped for books people wanted to check out)? Could I be happy guiding the next generation, reading my name in the acknowledgements of their books? Might that be more than enough? If what I cared about was ART, must it be MY art?

I mentioned my thoughts to one person only, a poet immersed in bad writer’s block who hadn’t written for ages, also a writing teacher. The question felt sacrilegious to me, and as I was fumbling my way to a complete sentence, he interrupted: “I know what you’re thinking, and no. That’s what I thought, oh, teaching will save me! Oh, future generations! And no. No. No, no, no.” His eyes seared mine, or that’s how I remember it as he enunciated: “I will tell you right now. It is not enough.” If the Devil popped in looking to exchange his soul for one perfect sonnet, he’d say yes. As would I.

I could create a new career by changing my name, genre, age, and Gmail.

I could take up web design.

During this time, I met a genial and chatty student I’ll call Dale, starting his first semester of the low-res MFA where I teach. He was a former baseball player, and I love baseball, so we talked about that, and he was an open-minded reader, so we talked about books. Maybe because he came from a sports background he had a noticeable respect for the authority of the teacher-coach, and I gravitate to students who seem eager to learn (no surprise, I guess). I was assigned as his mentor this first semester, which in a low-res program, I secretly call the ice-bath semester, when the shock of being back in school combines with the cold reality of how far one’s own writing must inch forward to be able to glimpse the hem of the masterworks being studied. Dale survived the ice-bath semester, and though I didn’t mentor him again until his final semester, we became friends in this small, tight-knit program. He was one of those guys with a million questions— about writing and books, follow-ups on the lectures and readings—and he and I talked often outside the workshop. He truly wanted to learn. Sometimes so many questions can become annoying, but I was never annoyed. Perhaps I was flattered—to him, what I said about writing mattered; he wasn’t bothered that every writer in America had a novel out and my last novel had been published eight years ago, which is practically ten years, which is a decade, which is forever. I could teach him, I thought, Dale for sure would slide my name in the acknowledgements and would double-check the spelling.

It was the last night of the 2012 summer residency on campus, after ten long days crammed with workshops, lectures, readings, and late nights. All of us had just finished an emotional dinner watching our beloved graduates cross the stage and shake hands with the director; boxed wine and cheap beer flowed; various students were plunking and twanging guitars, with songs ranging from Johnny Cash to AC/DC, making it impossible to feel settled in a groove. I was weepy. I had to pack and drive eight hours in the morning. I didn’t want to go home and face the stories I was writing that might be a book or might be nothing, and that either way weren’t getting published and weren’t a novel I could show my agent.

Dale came over. The room was set like a crummy wedding reception, with large round tables of ten and cheap folding chairs, and a swirl of multiple conversations meant it was possible to speak privately despite the crowd. I may have had several glasses of red wine. I felt maudlin, watching students graduate, about to forge on without me, all their shiny promise ahead. Surely, being in South Carolina, it was hot and sticky, and even inside, everyone’s skin slicked with sweat. The disorganized guitars clattered on.

Dale asked what I’d be doing over the summer, and I said something like, “Writing stories that no one wants to read for a book no one wants to publish.”

He laughed but immediately figured out there wasn’t a joke. “Umm,” he said.

“Yep,” I said. “Just part of the writing life, the part they don’t tell you about,” though I meant, the part I don’t tell you about. I, the teacher. Time to learn!

He passed along some thoughtful comments about what an amazing writer I was and how he was sure I was wrong and that sort of thing: feel-better compliments that didn’t make me feel better.

I responded sort of like this: “I’m old [not that I ever revealed exactly how old], and my novels weren’t best-sellers or movies, and I wrote two books I couldn’t sell, and no one reads anyway.” I didn’t even bring up the part about every other writer winning A Major Award. Let that be part of the surprise ahead. I may have whined out something like, “There’s a different way of writing now. When I was in school, it was minimalists and ‘the New Yorker story’ and now it’s meta-this and vampires in literary stuff.”

The thing about athletes who play team sports is that they tend to be very optimistic. They also tend to persevere. Perhaps I sounded like any discouraged batter in a slump or bonehead infielder who just watched the ball roll through his legs. Anyway, my bitter remarks triggered an instinct in Dale, and he launched into a pep talk. I enjoyed being told how great I was, how inspiring my winter workshop had been, how this-and-that, words I couldn’t believe but that seemed pleasant drifting past. This went on maybe until I finished the wine in my glass.

Then he said, “Well,” and sucked in a deep breath. I braced for one of his questions. A whoosh of air, and then this: “Would you say those books you didn’t publish went to the dark place?”

“No,” I said, suddenly knowing they didn’t.
“What about the new stories you’re working on?” he asked. “No,” I said, suddenly knowing that they could. “But they could,” I said. “I guess.”
I slopped more cheap wine into my plastic go-cup. I sipped.

Warm as spit.
“They could,” he repeated.
“Yes,” I whispered.
“Aren’t you always telling us—?”
“Yes,” I said.
I felt the point had been made. Perfectly.
Apparently, he was a better teacher than I had understood because he said, “You told me last semester when we worked together that I wasn’t writing from the dark place. And now you need to do the same thing. How about we have a contest, the two of us, to see who writes the darkest story. We’ll swap next semester, at winter residency.”
The tepid wine filled me. It didn’t seem dignified to enter into a writing contest with a student. Or responsible. I glanced around to pinpoint the director of the program, whether he could possibly overhear this conversation. He was with the guitarists. Then I realized the contest was actually with myself. I suspect Dale already knew this. Dale is a smart guy, and I suspect he understood the gift he offered me.

I shook his hand. “You’re on.” Dark vs. Darker, we called it, and because we were sports fans, he came up with the Test at the Crest, since the winter residency would be held at the Pinecrest Inn. We were Ali and Foreman. He even sent me a T-shirt.

During the fall, we exchanged a few emails, with some smack talk and encouragement. At one point, he told me he had written 1500 words in one day, and I responded, “I love this pressure! 1500 words in a day is great, esp. since those dark words are often harder to squeeze out. I’ve been revising away, deleting all references to sweet rainbows and puppies.”

What’s funny is that the “dark” story in this instance wasn’t at all hard for me to squeeze out, unless you consider that it took a lifetime. But I scribbled the first draft at a coffee shop, atypically writing by hand, in a single swoop that brought me to tears at the end as I shook cramps from my fingers. This story heaved me right to the dark place.

It’s a story about my first husband, who died of an unexpected heart attack when he was 37, and, as it turns out, all the stories I wrote for this new book were about him. After my conversation with Dale, I solidified my assignment; each story in the collection would contain one hard true thing from the terrible experience of losing my husband. I would write as if I were learning how and take crazy chances with form. I would write as if this were the last book in me, as if I would get no more chances to speak. I would write as if I didn’t give a fuck about the dark place, as if nothing scared me, not dying, not oblivion, not indifference. My dark story was the first I wrote this way.

I revised my dark story. I read it out loud. My writing group made helpful suggestions. I would never say a story I wrote was perfect, and if “making it” means publication, this story didn’t: not one of the sixteen literary journals I submitted to wanted it. Another lesson: sometimes publication is irrelevant.

On December 20, I sent an email to Dale: “I am all in on the dark story–planning to read it at my [faculty] reading. Yikes. Looking forward to seeing what you’ve written–bring along a copy.”

On the night of my reading, I stood at the podium, staring at a blur of students and faculty. I chose to be the first of the two readers so I wouldn’t chicken out, not that I had a back-up plan or another story to read. I was all in. I had gone to the dark place, and part of the journey is surviving to tell the tale.
I read my introduction, which, control freak that I am, I always write out: “I love how the students I meet here at Converse inspire me in countless ways, whether it’s through hearing about challenges in their lives, or witnessing their dedication to learning the craft, or asking me hard and interesting questions about writing, or, sometimes, just being really good at giving an old- fashioned pep talk at exactly the right time. My reading tonight is dedicated to those students, and to one in particular.”

I looked right at Dale, sitting halfway back.

I read my dark, darker, darkest story, the one plucked from the silent depths of my life, those sentences I thought I could never write. I did not cry, though other people did. I read each word, and when I was done, the room looked the same and I was still standing.

Is it bragging to call that reading a knockout? Or is it simply speaking the truth? Muhammad Ali would not feel a need to be delicate, so let me say that it is the truth.

Afterwards, in the flurry of congratulations and book-signing that follows any reading, I waited for Dale, who wove his way to me. We hugged, and he handed me the folded sheaf of papers of his story, which was a fine and brave and dark story, one I was proud of him for writing. I wish I remember what he said to me that night. I wish it was easy for me to find the story he gave me— which is tucked in a box of important papers—and the note he wrote on top, conceding “defeat.”
Of course, there was no winning and no losing. There were grand writing pronouncements, there was the drudge of real writing, and then there was magic: writing made better by finding a good teacher. There is a name in my acknowledgements page to let him know exactly this.

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of This Angel on My Chest, a collection of linked short stories, awarded the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and published by University of Pittsburgh Press. Her historical novel Reversing the River was serialized by the literary app Great Jones Street. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Gettysburg Review, Hudson Review, and Washingtonian.

Delmarva Review publishes compelling new prose and poetry from authors within the region and beyond. In it’s eleventh year, the nonprofit literary journal is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For information and book copies, visit:

Delmarva Review: After Phillis Wheatley Sailed To England by E. Ethelbert Miller

After Phillis Wheatley Sailed
To England

Master took me into town
where the big boats dock.
I stopped loading the wagon
and stared at the water.
The horizon had a familiar
glow. I touched my skin
and remembered chains.

An elder in the square
was weeping. He said we
could only return home
after the invention of the
airplane. Is this true, Phillis?

Until then, must we stand
in the middle of fields
with our arms open?

Editor’s Note: Phillis Wheatley is known as the first published African-American female poet. She was shipped to America as a slave. Her poetry collection was published in London in 1773.

E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist whose poetry has been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, German, Norwegian, Tamil, and Arabic. Emery and Henry College awarded him an honorary Doctor of Literature degree in 1996. He is a frequent guest on National Public Radio and co-editor of Poet Lore magazine. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Delmarva Review publishes compelling new poetry, fiction and nonfiction from writers within the region and beyond. In it’s eleventh year, the nonprofit literary journal is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For information and copies, visit:

Delmarva Review: Pentecost By James Keegan

Editor Notes: In the latest addition of the Spy’s partnership with the Delmarva Review, we share James Keegan’s poem “Pentecost.” The Pushcart Board of Contributing Editors recently nominated the poem for The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses 2018 edition.

Pentecost for G.S.

They had eaten their breakfast with him
in an old diner car up on blocks beside the tracks
it used to run on— that is not historically accurate
but it is true.

It was winter, a patchy ice lacing
the corners, darkening with soot, clouds level and hard.
The coffee was strong and hot, the eggs greasy,
over easy, delicious.
They ate what they could afford and smoked and listened to
him dismantle their lives— he tore them down
like abandoned buildings, he tore them down like tenements
and raised wildflowers in the rubble of their hearts.

He told them everything
the world told them was important
was wedded to the death of what they could be.
He told them that forever from then
their lives would be hard and their voices heard,
believed, resented, silenced,
spread and twisted and commandeered.
He told them the hardest truth:
that it is not now, that it is not
tomorrow, that it is not ever too late to
become what you have learned to teach
yourself you cannot be.

Outside the diner
the January wind howled down the cinder block
canyons, foreshadowing the emptied kingdoms
of their hearts, foretelling the grief and loneliness,
the salt despair of his absence, the ice morning
of the future when they would shake themselves
awake, step onto the cold floorboards of their heartbeats,
shrug on the tattered hats and Goodwill overcoats of their souls
and try to imagine themselves back into life,
when all those griddle hot words that wafted
around them like coffee steaming and the coarse bite
of home-rolled smokes, when all the words that had been
like saying grace at Thanksgiving around a loaded
farmhouse board, when all those words had flown
like gray doves before the winds of winter, or huddled
like lost hobos and boozers under some blasted trestle,
aching for enough trash to burn into a bad lie of warmth,
enough bourbon to spark the blood or bury the brain.

They would dig their hands down in their hopeless pockets,
wrap their coats tight around their blasted ribs, duck
their hat brims to the skid of slicing snow and shuffle in their
sorry shoes to the same diner, where the white letters on a
red scream of sign would tell them they could not go anywhere
but on—that what they needed was not there.

They will stand, they know it, in the grainy light
and find themselves somehow together again, and somehow
whole and able-bodied. They will not know what they know
already then, they will not foresee what is beginning. One
will hand out smokes he had reserved for himself. Another
will cup his lighter flame fluttering but holding as other
hands join to feel and protect it. One
by one they will light themselves into communion. One
will blow out a stream of smoke that will be
whisked away down the deserted street and he
will look at them all and he will say first,

And it is pain. And it is relief
from pain. And it is the start of a pain they
had never imagined possible, despite what
they had lost, despite what each of them had seen with his own

James Keegan is a writer, teacher and actor. Published in the current Delmarva Review, his writing has also appeared in Poet Lore, Southern Poetry Review, The Gettysburg Review, and The Best of Small Fictions of 2015. He is associate professor of English and theater at the University of Delaware.

Delmarva Review publishes compelling new poetry, fiction and nonfiction from writers within the region and beyond. In its eleventh year, the nonprofit literary journal is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For information and copies, visit here

Delmarva Review: On the Hard by Lisa Lynn Biggar

Editor Notes: In the latest addition of the Spy’s partnership with the Delmarva Review, we share Lisa Lynn Diggar’s fictional short story of two “stockers and pickers” from the Chesapeake’s Amazon distribution center who lead lonely lives shaped from past alcohol addiction problems. While the future always holds some hope of improvement from the past, there is never certainty for the future.

There are stockers, pickers and packers at the Amazon Distribution Center. Brandy’s a stocker, finding room wherever he can for cart after cart of items, cramming bags of cat treats between lubricants, hair spray by garden hoses; there’s no rhyme or reason to the process—just stack and code for the younger pickers, who scurry like mice from one end of the two-story warehouse to the other, over five football fields in length.

Brandy prides himself in fitting the shelves like a puzzle; he’s found that he’s rather ingenious at filling up empty space. At 65 he isn’t all that fast, but he’s efficient, so the supervisors pretty much leave him alone. And he likes that—the freedom. It’s not like being on the water, but it gives him time to think. Sometimes he thinks of elaborate plans for winning his ex-wife back, but they all require time and money that he no longer has. It does occur to him on occasion that he might look for another woman—after all it’s been nearly 10 years—but what does he have to offer? A boat on the hard? And not much hard on himself these days. He hasn’t slept with anyone since Sar left him.

In the break room, he sees the pickers massaging their feet, changing out gel soles in their tennis shoes. When he first started working there, as seasonal help, Brandy would say hello to them in passing, but they’d brush passed him as if he were invisible— much like the way Sar treats him when he runs into her and her new boyfriend at the AA meetings in Dover. There are plenty of AA meetings in Kent County, Maryland, where he lives on his 36-foot wooden sloop, ‘Caillou,’ but he’ll take any chance he can get to run into Sar.

He works the day shift, going in at seven, getting off at five, then going home, opening a can of something for dinner, then settling in for a long night of counting the stars, or reading a mystery book, but mostly pining for his lovely Sar and their wild days on the horse farm.

Brandy started working the day shift at Amazon in mid-November, but, now, after Thanksgiving, they’re bringing in more and more teams of seasonal stockers and pickers. He begins to recognize the ones that’ll make it and the ones that’ll last only a day or so, maybe a week. On this particular day, the first week in December, he notices one of the new woman pickers, her body slender, girlish. She’s deliberate in her choices, taking time to exam each item before throwing it in her cart, as if she were shopping for herself.

He walks over to where she’s picking a bag of plastic figurines—fairies he sees as he gets closer. He smiles slightly, hiding the graying part of his upper front crown, a remnant of his fighting days. “Your first day?” he asks, removing one of his ear plugs, the noise from the conveyor belts deafening.

She looks him over, then takes out one of her earplugs. He repeats the question. “Yeah,” she says. “On my own.”

“It gets easier,” he says. “Once you get the system down.”

She nods, her eyes blue as the bay, but her face etched with weariness, probably in her late forties, early fifties.
“Well, maybe I’ll see you in the break room,” he says. She nods, looking down at her picking list and moving on.

The next day he runs into “blue eyes” in the break room. She’s sitting alone in a corner under the fluorescent lights, drinking a can of Pepsi, a blue bandana over her short dark hair, her nylon work gloves still on. He walks over to her table, asks if he can join her.

“Sure,” she shrugs.

“How’s your second day going?” he asks, sitting across from her at the small round table.

“They want me to go faster,” she says.

“They want us all to go faster.” He takes the lid off his cup of coffee, steam opening his pores. “They forget we’re not machines.” He takes a sip of coffee, burning his tongue, then introduces himself to her.

“Rita,” she says.

He smiles, says, “Lovely Rita meter maid” in his best British accent.

She gives him a partial smile, the left side of her mouth turned upwards. “My parents loved the Beatles—that’s about all they listened to.”

“I only listen to the oldies.”

“Sometimes I put on a country station,” she says, taking another sip of her Pepsi. “I love country music, but I’m afraid of wearing out my battery.”

“Batteries are cheap.”

“I mean my car battery—I live in my car,” she says lowering her voice.

Brandy leans in. “Can’t you find a room to rent?”
“I don’t have any references,” she says. “This place didn’t ask for any.”

“No,” Brandy says, tapping a beat on the side of his plastic cup. “They’re desperate.” He takes another sip, the coffee cooled down a bit, their ten-minute break nearly over. His boat can sleep four comfortably—a queen size bed in the aft bedroom, the captain’s quarters where he sleeps, and a v-berth in the forecabin, ahead of the bathroom. “Hey,” he says. “I’ve got room on my boat. It’s just me.”

“You live on a boat?”

“Yeah,” he says. “But it needs a lot of work before I can get it back in the water.” He gives her the basic layout and dimensions, assures her of her privacy in the forecabin.

She looks him over, seeming to calculate the odds that he’s not a serial killer, then takes another swig of her Pepsi. “I don’t have much money,” she says.

“No rent—we’ll just split the groceries.”

“You don’t even know me.”

“It’s not gonna get any warmer this winter—I have a propane heater on the boat.”

She adjusts her bandana, covering her forehead, her dark eyebrows accentuating her leery eyes. “Okay,” she says, “But don’t ask for any favors.”

“No strings attached,” Brandy says, wondering what he’s got himself into. “Meet me out front in the lobby at five—you can follow me to the boat.”

She nods, then gets up, tosses her can in the recycling bin.

No references, Brandy thinks, while stocking the rest of the day, wondering what that could imply. No family? Friends? At least he still has a few high school friends around here he can count on—and then there’s Matt over at the flower farm, a young guy who feels sorry for him, brings him bags of food now and then when he’s out of work—PB & J, bread, cans of tuna. . . Brandy pulls weeds over there in the summer, Matt’s wife Gloria, a pretty young thing, the two of them seemingly soul mates. But who ever knows? He thought he and Sar would last forever.

At five he waits for Rita at the front entrance where all the security checks are. To get in or out of the place you have to pass through them, empty your pockets. He sees Rita passing through a check at the far-end. Just a pair of red mittens in the pockets of her worn, long brown coat that seems to swallow her up. No wallet. No identity. Again, he wonders what he’s got himself into, but he waves to her, and she waves back, a gesture that straightens his posture, lightens his heart.

She walks over to him. “Thought you might’ve changed your mind,” she says.

“I’m a man of my word,” he says, wishing that had always been true.

Rita follows Brandy back to the boat in her beat-up old Ford station wagon, the back brimming with, he assumes, everything she owns. It’s a throw-back with wood panel doors. A real beauty in its day, like, he imagines, Rita was. He looks in his rear-view mirror, still trying to determine her age, her bandana now replaced by a red wool cap. They say you can tell a woman’s age by her hands, but he has yet to see them without the mandatory work gloves on—and now the mittens. He has a feeling she’s younger than she looks, maybe early forties, but he’s never been good with ages. Seems to him some people just reach an age and stick with it, while others go from young to old overnight—like him.

There was a time he could have nearly any girl that he wanted in Kent County, but now when he looks in the mirror it’s a sad state of affairs—not much left of his golden blonde hair, and the bags are heavy under his still green, but faded, eyes. He’s kept himself in pretty good shape though—not buff like he used to be, but about the right weight for his 5’10” frame.
Brandy gives Rita the grand tour of Caillou, his fastidiousness serving him well with this unanticipated guest—the small kitchen spotless, the cedar floors freshly polished, the small forward bathroom squeaky clean. She says she’s never been on a boat before, just a raft on a river, close to where she grew up in Arkansas.

“What brought you here?” he asks.

She shrugs. “I just kept driving.”

He laughs. “Welcome to the end of the earth.”

“Suits me,” she says.

He shows her the v-berth, pulls out fresh sheets from a closet, places them on the bed. “You should be more than comfortable here,” he says, fluffing the pillow.

“I won’t be staying long,” she says, taking off her hat and mittens. “Just till I find another place.”

“Without references?”

She looks away.
“No family back in Arkansas?
She shakes her head.

“I just have my drunken brother left. I never see him now that

I’m sober and broke. I used to sell pharmaceuticals to doctors. Made a fortune, but partied it all away—including my wife.” He pats the hull of Caillou. “At least I still have this girl.”
“You have any kids?”

He shakes his head. “Sar and I never got around to that.”

“Me neither,” she says, looking out the rectangular window in the hull. “But sometimes I dream about it and it seems so real— like there’s a life inside me.”

Brandy nods. Sar was pregnant once. It turned things around for them for a short time—both of them quit drinking. He bought her peanut butter, ice cream, deviled eggs. . . The only thing that made her nauseous was fried onions. But then she miscarried.

“Hey, you hungry?” He asks Rita.


They share a dinner of mac and cheese from the box with a can of tuna mixed in. Brandy tells her all about the horse farm he used to own with Sar, how she’d ride the horses in different equestrian events. The blue and red ribbons filled the walls of the barn.

“I had this stubborn pony once,” Rita says, the nails on her left hand chewed down, just a few brown spots. It’s still hard to fathom her age, but his best guess now is mid-forties. “It would stop in the middle of the path and refuse to go any further. Once he tried to jump a stone wall for the first time with me on its back. I threw myself off and never got back on.”

Brandy laughs, picks up their cleaned plates, puts them in the small sink.

“Mind if I have a cigarette?” she asks.
He gestures towards the hatch. “Up on deck.”

He joins her on deck, the stars putting on their show. Orion to the south. Dippers to the north. “I quit smoking when I quit drinking,” he says. “Almost eight years now.”

She exhales, looking lost again in her baggy coat. “Smoking helps calms my nerves.”

“It’s almost Christmas,” he says, leaning against the railing, his boat dry-docked at a low-end marina on the Sassafras River. “I always get my ex-wife a sweater. She never wears them.”

“How do you know?”

“Because she doesn’t want anything to do with me.”

“Then why do you keep buying her sweaters?”

He shakes his head slowly. “I don’t know. Habit I guess.” He barely recognizes Sar now. After she left him, she quit drinking, went back to school, her gait more rigid now, fixed—but she’ll always be that wind-swept, sun-kissed girl in his mind.

“You have a radio?” Rita asks.


“What’s that?”

“All boats are required to have one on the water—like a walky-talky for the water. Keeps you in touch with the coast guard and other boaters.”

“Do you know them? The other boaters?”

“Some of them, but they don’t really respond if you’re on the hard.”
Rita blows out smoke. “I get that.”

She crushes the last of her cigarette on the side railing. “What about your phone? Can you play music on your phone?”

“Yeah,” he says. “I like the sixties station.”

“You ever listen to country?” she asks.
“Sometimes.” He takes his phone out from his back pocket, finds Slacker radio, a country station. “This one says best of classic country.”

“That’ll work.”

He clicks on it and its Patsy Cline singing “Walking After Midnight.”

Rita starts moving to the music, rolling her shoulders and hips. There’s an older couple that he rarely sees docked in their houseboat up-a-ways, but it feels like it’s just him and Rita out here now, all alone in the world.

“I lived in Nashville for a while,” she says. “I was trying to make it big.”

“You sing?”

“Used to,” she says. “But now I just listen.”

“How come?”

“It’s just easier that way.”

Brandy nods. He’s gone for days, sometimes weeks, without speaking a word. Just staying on his boat, listening to the sounds of nature around him—the frogs, the geese, the screech of a lone heron that makes him feel like he’s in the land that time forgot.
“Shit. My feet are killing me,” Rita says, leaning against the railing now. “Think I’ll hit the hay. You have an alarm clock?”
“Yeah,” he says. “I’ll get you up.”

“Thanks,” she calls, climbing back down the hatch.

For a while Brandy stays on deck, staring at the lambent light on the water, wondering if he could ever be happy again. Since he’s been sober, a feeling of contentment often washes over him, that nagging need no longer there, but the sadness keeps creeping back—so much empty space in his life. He holds on to that flickering light as long as possible before heading to bed.

The next morning Brandy fries a few eggs with Swiss cheese, slaps them on toast—one sandwich for himself and one for Rita. They eat them on the way to Amazon, in his pick-up truck, deciding it makes more sense to ride in together, a thermos of coffee to share between them.

“What does ‘Caillou’ mean?” she asks.

“It’s a French word for a pebble or stone.”

“Strange name for a boat,” she says, biting into her sandwich. “Stone’s sink.”

“I know, but it’s bad luck to change the name of a boat.”

Rita looks out her side window, frost hovering over the barren fields. “Maybe that’s why I keep running into bad luck,” she says quietly.

“Why’s that?”

“My name,” she says. “I keep changing my name.”

“It’s not Rita?”

She shakes her head.
“What about your parents? The Beatles?”
“I made that up.”

Brandy takes a sip of coffee from his to-go mug, swallowing and digesting this new bit of information. “So what else have you made up?”

“Does it matter?” she asks, still staring out the window.

“Well how the hell can anyone get to know you?”

“Maybe I don’t want them to,” she says, looking over at him.

They drive along in silence for a few minutes, Brandy considering his options. He could pull over and ask her to get out, end this whole thing, whatever it is, right now. But he feels a certain responsibility for her that he can’t explain.

“Well, I’m willing to try,” he finally says, pulling into the zoo of the Amazon parking lot, people frantically searching for a parking spot. “I’ll drop you off at the entrance—looks like I’m going to have to hike it.” He pulls up to the front steel doors, a crowd of workers rushing inside.

“See you on break,” she says, climbing out of the truck and closing the door.

Brandy sets his mind on filling up space, but all he can think about now is Rita—or whatever her name is. In the mysteries, he reads there are clues along the way, so that little by little all is revealed. But maybe it doesn’t matter who Rita was. Maybe it’s just who she is now. One day at a time. He has his one day off tomorrow—Wednesday, this week. Maybe he’ll buy Chinese for himself and Rita tonight.

He crams bags of cough drops into a crevice between garden hoses and dildos—the randomness of it all strangely comforting to him.

It’s mind-blowing that everything on earth is in this building. Everything that one could possibly need—except love. He scans the items, then looks around for Rita. He didn’t see her on his first or second break, hasn’t seen her all day. He wonders now if she jumped ship, or got fired; maybe she didn’t pick up the pace. Even though they’re desperate in here it’s all about control, and Rita doesn’t seem like the type to be controlled—at least not anymore.

At five he passes through security check, scans the crowd for Rita, some leaving, some coming on for second shift, but no sight of her in her red hat. He waits a while, then goes outside, looking for her in the parking lot, and there he sees her waving to him by his truck, on the other end of the lot, her red mittens high in the air, flagging him down. He smiles.

“Didn’t see you all day,” he says, when he reaches her. “What happened?”

“They fired me,” she says, smoking a cigarette.

“How come?”
“I stole a frickin’ candy bar. Didn’t think anyone would notice.”

“Shit, Rita.”

“I slipped it in my pocket—I was gonna eat it on break.”

“They could’ve had you thrown in jail.”

“Wouldn’t’ve been the first time,” she says, blowing out smoke.

Brandy opens his truck door with his remote key. “How concerned should I be?” he asks, before unlocking her door.

Rita drops the butt of her cigarette, steps on it. “I’m not going to rob you,” she says.

“I’m not worried about that,” he says, unlocking her door. “It’s not money or stuff I’m worried about anymore.” The only thing he cares about is his boat, and she’d have a hell of a time stealing it on the hard. He climbs in the driver’s seat.

She picks up the butt, puts it in her pocket, climbs in the truck.

“So, what did you do?” he asks. “Steal a loaf of bread?”

“Actually,” she says, putting on her seat belt, “I robbed a bank.”

The parking lot from the change of shifts is chaos again. Police cars flashing, directing traffic. He slowly backs out of his spot. “So, you robbed a bank,” he says, facetiously.

She nods. “$2,500.00 ⎯I used a water pistol under my sweatshirt.”

“A water pistol.”

“I didn’t want to hurt anyone.”

“Of course not,” he says, merging into an outgoing line. He breaks at the intersection, waiting for the cop to tell him to turn.

“Bruce wanted us to be like Bonnie and Clyde, but I wouldn’t touch a real gun. That’s the one thing he couldn’t get me to do. I told him if I had a gun he’d be dead.”

The cop waves Brandy on. He didn’t believe her for a minute at first, but now he’s beginning to wonder. He makes the turn and they head for the traffic light. Brandy stops on red. “When did you get out?”

“It’s been just over a year—I was on parole.”

He waits for the light to turn green.
“Well I’m not one to judge,” Brandy says, accelerating.

“How ‘bout we get something special to eat tonight. Celebrate your freedom.”

They stop for Chinese, order a quart of moo goo gai-pan and two orders of shrimp toast, then buy a bottle of non-alcoholic sparkling pink champagne at the liquor store next door. The grocery store next to the liquor store has little Christmas trees out front, boat size, for $15. It’s more than Brandy can afford to spend, but the hell with it he thinks. He tells Rita to pick one out. “We can put it in a bucket with some water,” he says.

“Do you have decorations?”

He shakes his head. “My ex-wife took all of those.”

“I know how to make paper snowflakes,” she says. “And we can cut out a star.”

“I have computer paper we can use,” he says.

Back in the car, Brandy asks Rita how long she was in for. “Three years,” she says, cracking her window, then lighting a cigarette. “My lawyer used the Patty Hearst defense, said I was coerced. Bruce got more time; he had a record, but I think he’s out now, and I know he’s looking for me. That’s why I gotta keep running.”

Brandy tells her she’s safe with him. He has a small pistol that he keeps under his mattress that he’s never had to use, but he’s sure that he could if he had to.

“No one’s ever safe,” she says.

“You don’t believe in guardian angels?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t believe in anything.”

“No higher power?”

“For fifteen years it was Bruce.”

“I mean spiritual.”

She shakes her head again. “I’m on my own.”

They are quiet the rest of the way to the boat, the lights on the road fractured from Brandy’s cataracts. He keeps his eyes open for deer. It’s that time of year where they dart out from seemingly nowhere, the glow of their eyes the only warning sign.

Brandy heats up the moo goo gai-pan on his propane stove in the small kitchen. He put the small pine tree in a wash bucket by the stairs leading up to the deck. Rita pops the bottle of fake champagne. “I could never drink around Bruce,” she says. “I had to stay on my guard. Plus, he drank enough for both of us.” She pours two glasses.

“A toast,” Brandy says. “To your freedom.”

Rita takes a sip of the pink bubbly. “Sometimes I wish I was still in prison,” she says, sitting down at the small table in the galley. “Maybe that’s why I stole the candy bar.”

Brandy serves up the moo goo gai-pan, putting two triangles of shrimp toast on each plate, then sits down across from her. “That’s not a life in there,” he says.

“You ever been in?”

“A couple over-nighters for DUIs.”
“I wasn’t safe in there either, but at least I was away from Bruce.” She takes a bite of the chicken, chewing slowly. “I’m afraid if he finds me, I’ll go back to him.”

Brandy puts his fork down. “Rita, you’re not alone here.”

“I can’t stay here without a job.”

“You’ll find something else.”

“I need to learn how to take care of myself.”

“You know what?” Brandy says, clicking Slacker on his phone and putting on the classic country station. “Why don’t we talk about all this tomorrow. Let’s back burner it and just enjoy this night. We’re celebrating, remember?” He picks up his glass and they toast again, Hank Williams singing “Hey Good Lookin’.”

Rita gives him a full smile, her teeth stained, but relatively straight. “Okay,” she says.

It’s been a long, long time since Brandy’s danced. And he’s never danced sober before. But Rita said, “Just follow my lead,” and now he’s shaking his hips and spinning her around like he’s Fred Astaire. “Hello Mary Lou, Goodbye Heart. . .”

Rita starts singing along now, her voice raspy, but the notes strong, dead-on.

“Dang girl,” Brandy says, giving her a spin. “You can sing!”

“It’s been a while,” she says, sitting down, catching her breath, then starts into a coughing fit. Brandy gets her a glass of water.

“Thanks,” she says, taking a big gulp. “Think I need a cigarette.”

Out on deck the stars are bright in the new moon sky. Rita has on her big brown coat, her red hat. “Which one is that?” she asks, pointing to the brightest star in the sky with her cigarette.

“That’s Polaris, the North Star,” he says. “The one the wisemen followed to find the baby Jesus. At last they say it was that one. But it could have been any star gone nova.”

“What’s nova?”

“It means ‘new star’, ’cause when a star goes nova it explodes and gets brighter— people can see it with the naked eye then. It’s like the birth of a star.”

Rita nods her head slowly. “I like that,” she says.

“You ever seen a sextant?” Brandy asks her.

“A what?” Rita asks, raising her dark eyebrows.

“It’s a navigational tool,” Brandy quickly explains. “Let me get mine. I’ll show you.”

Brandy goes back down the hatch, gets his sextant from an overhead compartment, then climbs back out on deck. Rita is smoking the last of her cigarette, her head tilted back, blowing out smoke like the starlets in the old black and white movies. “So before computers and cell phones this baby and a reliable watch were used to navigate on the water,” Brandy says, showing her the triangular instrument.

“You can find where you are by determining your latitude and longitude,” he says, drawing lines in the air, and then using two fingers to show the intersection of the two. “To determine your latitude, you point the sextant to the horizon and then sight a bright, fixed object in the sky—we’ll use Polaris.” He hands her the instrument, aligning it with the horizon, then tells her to look in the scope and sight Polaris. “Now press the clamp to release the index bar, and bring Polaris down to the horizon.” She moves the bar slowly down, then says okay. “Now we’ll read the angle. 32 degrees,” he says. Go ahead and release the clamp. Now we just need to look at 32 degrees latitude on my charts,” he says, “and boom we have our latitude line.”

They go back down in the cabin and Brandy lays out his navigational charts on the table, points out 32 degrees latitude. “Here we are,” he says, “anywhere along this line. You have to know your longitude point to determine your exact location. And that’s a bit trickier, takes some math, but it has to do with Greenwich Mean Time,” he says, pointing to the central longitude line on the map. “That’s where the watch comes into play. You can tell your longitude based on how far you are from this line and what time it is in that zone. “Here we are,” he says, pointing to their location point on the Sassafras River.

“I could’ve used this lesson years ago,” Rita says. “I went off-course and still haven’t found my way back.”
“Maybe you have now,” Brandy says, taking her hands, pressing them together.

She looks him in the eyes, then looks away. “I’m no fixed star.”

“We’re all moving through time,” he says. “We’d better get that tree decorated before Christmas passes us by. I’ll get some paper and scissors.”

Rita shows Brandy how to fold the paper again and again into a small triangle. “Now cut a straight line across the bottom. And then cut straight and curvy lines into the fold,” she says, working her scissors like a pro. She opens her paper to magically reveal a snowflake.

“We had Christmas trees in prison,” she says. “These were the decorations.”

Brandy works his scissors with less finesse, but the final result is just as dazzling.

They make several more, and then Rita folds and cuts another sheet of paper until she constructs a perfect star. “A star is born!” she exclaims, and then places it on top of the tree. They stand back to admire their work

“We should put our fortunes on it,” Brandy says. He gets their fortune cookies off the counter. Rita opens hers: “It could be better, but it’s good enough,” she laughs.

Brandy opens his and reads, “Two days from now, tomorrow will be yesterday.”

They place their fortunes on the tree, and then Brandy takes out his phone, goes to Slacker, finds a Christmas station. He clicks on it: “Oh holy night, the stars are brightly shining . . .” They sit down at the table and listen, both of them as still as can be, staring at the tree.

“Let me just hold you tonight,” Brandy says when the song is over. “Let me just hold you while you sleep. Keep you safe in my arms.”
She looks up at him, her red hat just above her wary eyes. “Just sleep?”

“Just sleep,” he says. “Let me rock you to sleep.”

She lets him lead her to his bed in the captain’s quarters, where they lie down still dressed under the covers. She rolls over and Brandy turns off the light on the nightstand. He rolls over beside her, tells her goodnight, then puts his arm around her, only the screech of an occasional heron piercing the silence of the darkness, her breath getting heavier as she falls asleep. And lying there, awake, Brandy is acutely aware that he will return to this point in time over and over again, letting the past fall away, and the future bring whatever it may.

Lisa Lynn Biggar received her MFA in Fiction from Vermont College and is writing a short story cycle set on the eastern shore of Maryland. In addition to Delmarva Review, her short fiction has appeared in numerous other literary journals. She teaches English at Chesapeake College and is the fiction editor for Little Patuxent Review. In her spare time, she co-owns and operates a cut flower farm on the eastern shore of Maryland with her husband and four cats.

Delmarva Review publishes outstanding new poetry, fiction and nonfiction from writers within the region and beyond. In it’s tenth year, the nonprofit literary journal is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For information and copies, visit:

Delmarva Review: The Man Who had Luck By David Bergman

The Man Who had Luck
By David Bergman

He wasn’t a survivor, just someone who hadn’t died,
and only then because of his stealth and stubbornness.

And luck. How much luck he’d rather not say
but others, far greedier and more scheming,

did not live to see the end of the war.
On his Atlantic crossing, he took

another chance and wed a fellow prisoner
for the simple reason that he knew

he’d never find words to explain
what he had gone through or live

with any woman who hadn’t herself
done whatever it took not to die.

Theirs was a marriage of many silences
in which they shared without a word

the otherwise unspeakable.
They passed the unsaid between them

like a worm-holed leaf of cabbage,
that would save them from the language-hunger

they feared would be their end.
It was not an unhappy union.

She was as discrete and bold as he was,
Luck stayed with them. It turned out Auschwitz

was better than an MBA from Harvard
for learning how to squeeze a profit

out of the least liquid investment or find
opportunity in the most unpromising place.

They grew fat and rich
and, with difficulty, had a daughter

whose hair was spun from gold, whose laughter
tinkled like silver shekels, and whose skin

was as smooth as an unmarked page of the Torah.
She grew up with a daring that delighted him,

a willingness to try almost anything.
She married several husbands

on the off chance one would be a winner.
Several pregnancies ended in miscarriage.

Still, she kept trying. And when he got the call
from Vegas asking if he would cover her debts,

he did not hesitate a moment to wire
everything the mobster asked for.

Nor did he call in his chips when she failed
at first to learn the intricate quadrille

of the twelve-step programs
meant to curb her appetite for chance.

He figured that his daughter had inherited this addiction
from her parents who had both gambled with death

and won or at least fought it to a temporary draw,
for now his wife was too sick to leave her bed.

Gambling was a recessive trait that in
certain environments gave Darwinian advantage.

What had placed him among the fittest,
condemned his daughter to the mentally ill.

But he too knew the lethal joy of beating the odds,
and the absolute indifference to defeat,

how icy nerves can set your skin on fire,
and how no loss is too great as long

as it leaves you standing. He remained
hopeful even on his last visit

to the quiet sanatorium she liked best
for its high-stakes air of intervention.

Her bone-colored face had been reduced
to a nearly blank cube on which her eyes,

once so bright and challenging, stared out—
two small dots that always came up craps.

Maryland poet David Bergman is the author of four books of poetry, the latest Fortunate Light (Midsummer’s Night, 2015). He won the George Elliston Poetry Prize for Cracking the Code (Ohio State). His latest book is a critical study, The Poetry of Disturbance (Cambridge 2016).

“The Man Who Had Luck” was published in the 2017 edition of Delmarva Review, a literary journal discovering outstanding new poetry, fiction and nonfiction from writers within the region and beyond. In it’s tenth year, the nonprofit Review is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For information and copies, please visit:

Delmarva Review: Nursing 101 by Margaret Adams

It was getting easier, touching strangers. Still, I hovered for a moment in the doorway of the hospital room, pausing before jumping into the pool of their personal space.

It continued to amaze me, after two months, how willing the sick were to let themselves be touched. Their abdomens palpated, their gums examined; the undersides of their feet inspected, repositioned, unwrapped and rewrapped in socks. I’m just going to check your capillary refill, you said, and then they let you pinch and prod them, quiet, supplicant. It felt so intrusive to even ask, and then shocking to gain such easy entry. May I take your blood pressure now? If it’s alright with you, I’d like to listen to your lungs.

The navy blue school uniform scrubs, embroidered at the shoulder with the name and seal of my nursing school, were the same shade as those the nurses wore at this hospi- tal. Between that and the stethoscope draped proprietarily around my neck, it was hard for the patients to know that I was a student. When I’d purchased those scrubs, their pressed and professional folds had impressed me with their aura of importance; I had tried them on at home in the eve- ning, turning and admiring my reflection. Once inside the hospital, though, on my first clinical rotation, I wished for something less assuming. Colorful cartoon scrubs, the kind of thing that patients automatically took less seriously. Too often patients asked me questions, trustingly, as if I would know the correct answers for them right away.

The hospital has its own noisy, constant cadence. The rhythm is marked by beeping IVs, thrumming respirators, shouted questions to the hard of hearing and hollered announcements across the nurses’ station. It’s constantly in the nurses neither sit, nor eat, nor step out to use the bathroom. It’s not a place where a nursing student, uncertain of herself, can wait, poised at a doorway, for too long.

I walked into the room. “Hello, Mrs. Douglas,” I said. “How are you feeling? Can I get you anything?” And, with her open eye contact and assent, I laid my hands on her wrist, carefully curving my fingers around the line of her pulse. She turned her head towards my shoulder and sighed as I counted the surges of blood beating through her fragile, small-boned arm, watching the movement of her breath in her chest. One, two, three, four…

A first-semester nursing student knows few things. We cannot administer medication, or yet be counted upon to make assessments on our own. What we can do is give bed baths, change beds, hold hands and steady elbows; we can listen, take vitals, and we can try not to get in the way. I was learning, slowly, to get beyond my own self-absorption and my preoccupation with what these ill people, the patients I was here to help, thought of me. The constant worry and consideration—Can they tell how uncomfortable, how new I am? Am I irritating them? None of it really mattered. No one cared who I was, whether or not I looked or acted like what they expected, if my hand shook or fumbled with the washcloths. They just cared about getting clean, about feeling better. A task I would have thought myself incapable of—brushing an old woman’s teeth—was accomplished when the reality of her need surmounted my awkwardness. It was humbling to do it, and horrifying to realize how such actions were carried out every day, roughly, by people hardened to it by routine.

I was halfway through administering my second bed bath ever when my patient, a woman whose body was swollen beyond recognition and covered with open sores, began to cry. “Have I hurt you?” I asked, horrified. “Are you okay?”

“No, sweetheart,” she said. “It’s just that no one has taken the time to give me this thorough of a bath in weeks.”

On our breaks, we students talk about what we’ve been allowed to do, or what interesting procedures we’ve seen. We mark our time here by how tough our stomachs get, by how many IVs we’ve been permitted to change. We talk a little about the people, about the fact that now, as students, we have the time to do things for patients that we will never
have time to do as professionals, but not that much.

“How was your clinical?” classmates assigned to other hospitals asked me. “Did you get to see anything cool?”

I talked to a senile woman’s stuffed animal for her, I thought. I put water in a dish for it so it wouldn’t get thirsty. She was grateful. “Fine,” I said instead. “I saw a stage 4wound…you could see the bone.”

On mornings when I have clinical I get up at 4:30, giving me a full hour to drink my coffee before going in to the hospital. I need that time to wake up, to get on my A-game before walking into this other world where the macabre is embraced intellectually and where the iron gates of intimacy are as malleable as tinfoil. I meet my carpool on the pre- dawn corner of my city street and arrive at the hospital just in time for morning report.

“Who has bed 142? Find me when you’re ready for the hand-off. Jane? I’ve got bed 147. Is that my coffee?”

The night shift briefs the day shift RNs on how things have gone during the night. Bed 143 is refusing to eat anything…bed 145 is overdue for her medication, I didn’t get to it in time. They speak of the patients by number, rather than name, identifying them in the corners of their notes with abbreviations: J.D., 87 y/o WF.

I was assigned Mr. Jones that day. An easy, interesting patient, my instructor told me, an elderly man with heart problems who didn’t throw things or swear. I read the front pages of his chart through twice, quickly, before going to introduce myself.

He was missing a large piece of his face, from the left side of his upper lip towards his nose, disappearing under a large, frayed bandage that covered a four-inch swath below his eyes. The bandage was old and ratty-looking; dried blood crusted around its edges. He held a napkin spotted with fresh blood up to it thoughtfully, dabbing at it. I smiled my brightest, most winning smile and made a hasty retreat.

“What? His face is half gone? She didn’t tell us that during the morning report. Oh, the skin cancer surgery he had done before the angina started. Well, let’s go in and have a look.” My preceptor Jen, a tall, sturdy woman with intri- cate braids woven around her head, gave a low whistle as she examined his bandages. “What happened here?” she asked.

“I’ve been picking at it,” he said, matter-of-factly.

“You really shouldn’t do that. We’re going to have to put you in mittens,” she said.

“Yes. I know.”

“How long ago was your surgery?” she asked, scanning his chart.

“Last week,” he said.

“It says here you had this surgery over the summer,” she said. “Can you tell me what month it is, Mr. Jones?”

“July.” “Do you remember Thanksgiving?”


“It’s December, Mr. Jones.” She snapped a pair of gloves on and began inspecting his bandage with careful fingers. “Can you tell me how long this has been bleeding?” she asked.

“Um…no…an hour? I’m not sure,” he said.

“Okay. I’m going to go get some new gauze to help fix this up a little. I’ll be right back.”

Alone in the room with him, I felt that familiar sense of being at a loss. He held up the blood spotted napkin, looking at it with a perplexed expression on his face. “Is this a
clock?” he asked me.

“No,” I said. “It’s a napkin.”

“Oh. I was hoping it would have the time on it so I could tell her how long I had been bleeding.”

Jen came back in with the gauze, putting on a fresh pair of gloves, and I busied myself with my own pair. “Here, Meg,” she said. “Hold this.” I handed her supplies and stead- ied his chin for her as she reworked his bandage. “I’m going to put mittens on you if you can’t stop picking at this,” she said.

“You’d better,” he said, placidly. “I like picking at it.”

A young man in a transport team polo shirt with thin wrists and a spotty face stuck his head in the door. “Almost ready, Jen?” he asked.

“Yep, he’ll be ready to go in a minute.”

“Is that my dad?” Mr. Jones asked. “My father is coming to see me today.”

“No,” the nurse said. “That’s the transport team, getting ready to take you down the hall for that test today. Do you remember?”

“Oh,” he said. “Well, if my parents come in while I’m gone, please tell them I’ll be back soon. They’re coming to visit me today.”

“How old are your parents?” she asked, giving him a considering look. I glanced at his birth date again on the chart and read May 24, 1925.

“He’s 80, I think…and she’s 82,” he replied.

“Well. Breakfast should be here when you come back,” she told him. “We’ll see you soon.”

I stripped off of my gloves the way I’d been taught to, balling the first one up into the second one like a package, and washed my hands for the full 30 seconds before sweep- ing the extra gauze off of the counter and stuffing it into my pockets.

This wasn’t the work that I had decided to go to nursing school to do. I wanted to be abroad, helping with the International Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, tending to refugees in desert field camps. I wanted to be in the rural recesses of the U.S., delivering primary care to migrant workers in the fields and to children in the mountains of Appalachia. I was on track to become a Nurse Practitioner, a job granted a greater measure of autonomy and respect than the RNs who run the hospital ever received for their pains. Still, I knew I needed to learn this: needed to spend my time in the trenches, in the blue-collar, work-a-day world of medications, IVs, of calling doctors by their last names and nurses by their firsts. I had wanted a trade, the capability of learned hands, and this was the apprenticeship, the oil-changing days that come before craftsmanship. But I hated the hospital, hated the disease we spread and the discord we encouraged, the assembly-line feel of being part of a big-box health dispensary.

Our preceptors made a production of granting us a lunch break, refusing our offers to bring food back from the cafeteria for them. “I’ll eat something in an hour or two,” they insisted, making sure that we knew that they were lying.

I step out of the smells of latex and iodine and into the cold December air to call my mother.

“How’s it going?” she asks.

“Okay,” I say.


“One of my patients thinks that his parents are coming to visit him today. He’s really looking forward to it. He’s in his 80s and there’s no way they’re still alive.”


“He keeps saying that they’re coming to see him soon.” “Maybe they are…just, from the other side.”

“Wow. Thanks, Mom, for making this even grimmer than it already is.”

“It’s not grim. It’s…I mean, everyone wants their parents at the end of their lives.”

“Yeah. I just don’t know what to say. The nurse is just avoiding engaging with it. I don’t want to tell him that they’re dead, but I don’t want to lie to him, either.”

“Does it matter?”

“I don’t know. Would it matter to you?”

“I don’t know.”

The names of illnesses, the rounds of medication, are still a foreign world to me: GERD, synthroid, albuminemia. Diverticulitis. It sounds like the Spanish verb for enjoying oneself, divertir, a relic of the world of my previous degree in Hispanic language and culture. Divierto, diviertes, diver- timos, diverticulitis. Except that all I do know about diverticulitis is that it isn’t fun.

The patients are subject and object, listened to and talked at. Compassion sits on one side of a perfectly balanced scale, with sleep, coffee, food, and workload on the other—the needs of the nurses, stretched to the limits by an institution which is necessarily economically driven, not the needs of their patients, define the extent of care.

“I feel like a waitress,” one nurse confessed to me.

“I feel like Atlas,” says another. “With a whole hospital on my shoulders.”

I’m a half-hour from the end of my shift when an alarm breaks through the usual cacophony of bells and shouts. Someone has called a Code Blue. I freeze, panicking, and then remember my instructor’s words about what I should do in an emergency and flatten myself against the wall. More nurses and doctors than I have seen all day boil out and into the hall. “Grab the crash cart,” one yells. “Bed 143, no pulse, no respirations.” Security runs past me, open- ing the elevator doors and holding them open so that the pa- tient, if resuscitated, can be rushed immediately to intensive care. The madness coalesces around the patient’s room and I hear the unmistakable sounds of two-person CPR, accompanied by the inevitable crack of breaking ribs.

It’s over quickly—the patient is packed neatly into the metal square of the elevator, accompanied by three sweaty but otherwise calm-looking RNs. I feel like the sudden reminder of what is happening here has swept my feet out from under me. We’re serving medicine, not burgers. We’re trafficking in lives. The cause of pit stains under my arms, a brief adrenaline rush, was someone else’s everything. Knowing that can’t be thrown in the laundry and washed away. It can’t be comprehended. I hope that I don’t get used to it, but I can’t deny that getting used to it might be the only way I will get by here.

I go into see Mr. Jones one last time before I leave the unit for the day. Fresh bandages cover the hole in the middle of his face, still bloody on the edges but less frayed. “Can I get you anything?” I ask.

“Could you bring me some water?”

“Sure.” I grab a fresh cup and a straw, open the tap, and watch as the clear liquid fills the Styrofoam container. I place it on the tray by his hand and he brings it to his mouth. Just enough of his lip is missing that the suction of mouth around straw is incomplete, and the straw rattles with each suck.

Here,” I say, taking the cup and cutting out part of the lid to make it an improvised sippy-cup instead. He nods with approval, drinking deeply before leaning back against his pillows.

“My parents are coming to see me this afternoon,” he says.

I pause, and then smile. “They must love you an awful lot,” I say simply.

“Yes…they do.”

I closed the door behind me.

Margaret Adams’s “Nursing 101” was published in Volume 4 of the Delmarva Review when she was a student in the Johns Hopkins University nursing and public health program. She is now a family nurse practitioner in Seattle, WA. A former columnist for The Bangor Daily News and a Pushcart Prize nominee, her essays and fiction have also appeared in The Portland Review, Baltimore Review, Bellingham Review, and Pinch.

The Delmarva Review is a nonprofit literary journal in partnership with the Spy that publishes compelling new poetry, fiction and nonfiction from writers within the region and beyond. It will celebrate its Tenth Anniversary edition in November. The Review is supported by individual contributions, the Eastern Shore Writers Association, and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For more information, please visit:

Delmarva Review: Grief by Daniel Ford

Grief goes unrewarded. We make death masks

of chalk dust, stuff our living selves into

hollow trees. A circling owl rips the seams

made of our lips and eyelids and returns

the thread to the spool with a simple cry.

It is not enough that we grieve among

heat sinks and cooling pools thickly carpeted

and layered with muted woods and tarnished brass

handles on drawers forever closed, no piles

of papers or skittering batteries,

push-pins, no heirloom spoons or silver-hafted

carving knives. No detritus of human lives.

Daniel M. Ford is a poet, novelist and teacher from Maryland. As a poet, his work has appeared in Soundings Review, Phoebe, Floorboard Review, The Cossack, Vending Machine Press, and the Delmarva Review. His first novel, Ordination: Book I of the Paladin Trilogy was published in 2016 (Santa Fe Writer’s Project). He can be found at or on twitter @soundingline.

The Delmarva Review, a nonprofit literary journal, publishes compelling new poetry, fiction and nonfiction from writers within the region and beyond. The Review celebrates its Tenth Anniversary edition in November. It is supported by individual contributions, the Eastern Shore Writers Association, and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For more information, please visit:


Delmarva Review: After the Houseguests Leave By Sue Ellen Thompson

I unmake the guestroom bed and let
the washing machine twist the sheets
into heavy coils of dampness. I erase
all evidence of breakfast, scour the sink,
and sweep the drive clear of all the leaves
that twirled so frantically in the wake
of their departure. Pressing memories
of dinner from the table cloth, I think

of how it was before they came⎯
the house a vault of quiet on the quiet street⎯
and before that, of the summer day
I found my mother twisted in a sheet,
wondering why her fever had returned to visit.
There was an even earlier day:
I was a guest in my parents’ house,

before I came to stay. Rising from her chair
at dinner, my mother pressed one hand
to the vault beneath her ribcage. The leaves
of unease stirred in me. The day before,
I’d dozed beneath a dome of trees, listening
as the girlish breeze of a neighbor’s child
twirled among the ghosts of laundry.

Sue Ellen Thompson, of Oxford, MD, is the first “featured writer” in the Delmarva Review. These poems are from a collection in the journal’s first edition, in 2008 edition. Among her published works, a fifth book of poems, THEY, was published in 2014. She has been an instructor at The Writer’s Center, in Bethesda, since 2007, and has previously taught at Middlebury College, Binghamton University, the University of Delaware, and Central Connecticut State University. She received the 2010 Maryland Author Award from the Maryland Library Association.

The Delmarva Review is a nonprofit literary journal publishing compelling new poetry, fiction and nonfiction from writers within the region and beyond. It will celebrate its Tenth Anniversary edition in November. The Review is supported
by the Eastern Shore Writers Association, private contributions, and a grantfrom the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts
Council. For more information, please visit here.

Delmarva Review: Clues to John Barth’s Genius: Jimmies, Jazz, and Scheherazade by John Lewis

John Barth wanted to be a jazz musician. He played drums in a combo—with his twin sister, Jill, on piano—that gigged around Cambridge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and after high school graduation in 1947, he high-tailed it to New York City to study at Juilliard. “It was an absolutely clear and unambiguous experience to learn that what I had hoped was a pre-professional talent was, instead, a pretty good amateur flair,” he told me, over crab cakes at Easton’s Tidewater Inn. “This was the big band era, and I was studying orchestration. I was a drummer, but I didn’t want to spend my life on the road. Being an arranger sounded more respectable.”

Barth had hoped to emulate Billy Strayhorn and Pete Rugolo, his heroes. “But I knew from the first week at Juilliard that the young woman on my left and the young man on my right were going to be the professional musicians of their generation,” he recalled, “and I was going to have to look for something else to do.”

Barth actually has the angular and craggy appearance of a jazz musician, a look that’s accentuated by a closely clipped, white beard and the occasional beret atop his bald pate. But his personality is infused with professorial confidence and sharp wit, a testament to his rapport with the fiction muse he tapped after transferring to Johns Hopkins and finding “something else to do.”

“It was the opposite of what happened at Juilliard,” he said. “When I stumbled into fiction, I had the unequivocal feeling that this was my true calling: all I had to do was learn it from scratch.”

Barth felt the Cambridge education system left him largely unschooled. In fact, he has said “nothing since kindergarten prepared me for [college]” and noted that, despite being on the academic track in high school, his career counseling amounted to a 10-minute talk with the phys ed teacher.

I’ve heard folks question how a “backwater” like Dorchester County produced such a keen intellect, and—if you ignore the inherent snobbery of such a comment and consider Barth’s claim that his formal education was lacking—it is a mystery. Lord knows what it was like between the Depression and World War II, when Barth called Cambridge home. But he obviously got something vital from the Shore that informed his writing and worldview. And, it turns out it was

the perfect incubator for an autodidact with a pen- chant for brilliant meandering. In fact, meandering is something of a refined art in that part of the world, and it’s key to getting at the essence of Barth’s particular type of genius.

Meandering permeates just about everything in Dorchester County—from the unhurried and digressive conversations taking place on the street and in country stores to the flatness of the landscape itself, which is characterized by its tangle of curving roads and bending shoreline intersected by cuts and creeks and other bodies of water that rise and fall with the moon.

Coupled with the flatness, such undulating and fluid geography is endlessly fascinating, though it can be downright disorienting, and it’s no wonder Barth had to look beyond the horizon to his “navigation stars” for direction. Barth told me he considers Scheherazade—the female storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights—one of his “principal navigation stars.”

“With her life ever on the line, only as good as her next piece, Scheherazade remains for me the most piquant emblem of the storyteller’s lot,” says Barth.

These days, Barth, whose noted books include The Sot-Weed Factor, The Tidewater Tales, Giles Goat Boy, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, and the Scheherazade- inspired The Book of Ten Nights and a Night: Eleven Stories, is now a navigation star in his own right. He gets mentioned in the same breath as Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov, and James Joyce and is considered one of the greatest figures in world literature. He’s swooped in and out of the mainstream, won the National Book Award (for Chimera in 1973), and influenced the likes of David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Lethem. He’s actually achieved adjective status— Barth-ian, or Barth-like is synonymous with intelligent, metafictive, postmodern literature.

Thinking a map might be useful in navigating around Barth’s hometown, I was in luck: the Cambridge library has put together a Barth walking tour. With commentary from the author himself, a map directs pilgrims to sites of interest, which include his boyhood home on Aurora Street, his grandparents’ house on the corner of Maryland Avenue, and, according to Barth’s comments, “East Cambridge Elementary school, where I once got paddled for writing a naughty poem about our teacher, my introduction to the pleasures and pains of authorship.”

The tour leads down to the river—again, in Barth’s words—“The Choptank rivershore at Aurora Street’s foot, where we kids [including my twin sister, Jill] played year-round, and the Route 50 bridge nearby, where we swam and dived among summer sea nettles.”

More than a baptism, Barth equates his immersion in these waters with life itself. “I never tire of remembering that the salinity of these waters is about the same as that of the amniotic sea that we all first swam in,” he told the Dorchester County Friends of the Library during a 2005 talk. A copy of Barth’s text is on file there.

At the riverfront—which is still accessible, although you’ll have to maneuver around a hospital that’s been built in the intervening years—it’s easy to see what captivated Barth and fired his imagination. From this spot, small waves approach from the horizon to lap against a shoreline that stretches out on both sides. Looking up, you’ll see the Choptank River Bridge leading north to Baltimore and Washington. Looking down, you’ll find teeming life at your feet, an entire ecosystem just below the surface: minnows, patches of sea grasses, jellyfish, and the occasional blue crab.

The Maryland blue crab remains a potent symbol of the region, and it flourished in the bay’s brackish waters when Barth was a boy. In the summertime, the Choptank’s waters were teeming with hard crabs, soft crabs, and peelers— jimmies (males) and sooks (females) alike—scurrying sideways across the river bottom. They not only caught Barth’s eye, they subtly influenced his approach to writing. In fact, Barth tells me he comes at subjects sideways, “as blue crabs incline to do.”

Here, the crab becomes symbolic of postmodern literature, with regards to crafting Barth-ian metafiction in which the storyteller moves sideways through streams of information to systematically and subtly change perspective along a narrative bend. That’s the way Barth thinks, writes, and speaks.

In conversation, he can sound downright annotated, as I learned during lunch. When discussing novellas, for instance, Barth noted, “The market for them is gone.” He added commentary, “an interesting form that was popular from the time it was invented,” along with when (the 18th-century), where (Germany), and who popularized it (Goethe). He opined that it is “a lovely narrative space.”

He then playfully defined a novella as “a work of fiction too long to sell to a magazine and too short to sell to a book publisher.”

And finally, he offered advice: “When you perpetrate one, you usually need to add on a few short stories [in order to sell it].”

An Eastern Shore native would recognize, if not the subject matter, the measured pacing and wry tone of such comments. It’s the same sort of discursive storytelling that’s been going on for generations around potbellied stoves, across shop counters, and on docks and wharves throughout Dorchester. Barth relishes being that sort of meandering storyteller, (not so) plain and (not so) simple.

The locals say he got the storytelling gene from his father, Whitey. At the house where he wrote his first novel, The Floating Opera—it’s part of the walking tour— the current owner was out sweeping the sidewalk when I visited. At the mention of the Barth name, he lit up. “He was a natural storyteller, the best you ever heard,” he said, leaning on his broom. “He was extremely erudite.”

But this guy wasn’t talking about John Barth, who’s known as “Jack” around town; he was talking about Whitey. “If Jack could write as well as his father talked, he’d really be doing something,” he added. “It seems like Jack takes ten pages to tell something that could be told in one.” He set the broom aside and lauded Whitey’s storytelling prowess, noting that he had owned a popular soda fountain, called Whitey’s Candyland, on Race Street. Although the building has been torn down, the location is noted on the walking tour, and Barth recalls that it’s “where we all occasionally helped out but mostly hung out.”

Hanging out, he was exposed to storytelling as a lively and witty art courtesy of Whitey, who also served as judge of the Orphans Court for 44 years, worked with the volunteer fire company, was a devoted American Legion member, and was an in-demand after-dinner speaker at functions throughout the county. “By comparison to his life,” Barth has written, “my own (literary and academic) seems almost reclusively detached, its radius much wider but its roots far less deep.”

Where Whitey burrowed, his son scuttled.

Besides passing along the storytelling gene, Whitey helped expose his son to popular and modernist fiction. Barth devoured the paperbacks his father stocked at the shop, and it was there that he first encountered books by Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and H.P. Lovecraft, along with William Faulkner’s Sanctuary and John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer.

He’d go on to devour books in the Hopkins library, where he shelved classics as a part time job and spent countless hours browsing the stacks and discovering the vastness and diversity of world literature. Like his Cambridge days, it left an indelible mark on his body of work. “If you happen to be a refugee from the Dorchester County tide marshes, as I was and remain,” Barth once told a Washington College audience, “and particularly if you aspire to keep one foot at least ankle deep back in your native bog while the other foot traipses through the wider world, it is well to have such an off-the-cart smorgasbord under your belt, for ballast.”

Barth returned to Cambridge for the unveiling of a historic marker honoring him, and, perhaps most tellingly, he’s set his last few books on the Shore.

His 2008 book, The Development, was comprised of nine related stories set in an Eastern Shore retirement community where “a failed old fart fictionist” (Barth’s words) named George Irving Newett lives. G.I. Newett. You can practically hear Whitey chuckling at that one.

Barth tells me, via email, that his forthcoming book features Newett as its narrator: “The novel’s full title is Every Third Thought: A Novel in Five Seasons. Title borrowed from Prospero’s remark in Shakespeare’s Tempest, of course (`Every third thought shall be my grave’); subtitle from the five seasons of the story’s present action (First Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer, Last Fall) and the corresponding `seasons’ of the narrator’s life.

“After an accidental trip-and-fall head-bang while [Newett and his wife] are touring Shakespeare’s house in Stratford-Upon-Avon, he experiences a series of five seasonal dreams/visions/hallucinations/whatever that trigger recollections of his boyhood, young manhood, maturity, and later age in `Bridgetown’ and adjacent `Stratford,’ in `Avon County’ on MD’s Eastern Shore.”

Barth, now 81 years old (in 2011), seems intent on coming home, again and again. When asked if this will be his last novel, he writes that “time will tell. Since its completion, I’ve written no further fiction.”

But Barth says he has started writing a piece about his years as a jazz musician— presumably doing so while keeping one foot at least ankle deep in his native bog.

John Lewis is editor at large at Baltimore magazine and teaches writing in the Curatorial Practice MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art. This story was published in Volume 4 of the Delmarva Review, in 2011. His work has appeared in The Oxford American, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post Magazine, and many other publications. He lives in Cambridge, MD with his wife and two children.

The Delmarva Review is a nonprofit literary journal publishing compelling new poetry, fiction and nonfiction from writers within the region and beyond. It will celebrate its Tenth Anniversary edition in November. The Review is supported by the Eastern Shore Writers Association, private contributions, and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For more information, please visit:

Delmarva Review: Poems on Gilbert Byron and Maple Leaves by Kelley K. Malone


Toward the end, you wanted to take my picture.

Your eyes, blue under a milky veil, turned in my direction.
I took your hand, light and dry, and we made our way
out the groaning door you had built generations before,
out into the woods shrouding your cabin, out with Old House Cove

cupping the creek of San Domingo, shimmering in the sun behind.

Was it I who clung to the sleeve of your sweater, stumbling over roots elbowing up from the earth?

I gave you the camera and backed away.

Dear, where are you?

Light streaked down the tall oaks and stout pine, Light filtered through the crouching dogwoods offering delicate plates of white petals.

Gilbert, over here!

Standing firm amidst the splashing light,
you aimed at the center of the sound of your name and shot.

Later I told you the pictures were lovely—
one, a partial sky eclipsed by thumb,
one, a floor of dry leaves restless as bones,
one, I wore an explosion of light in the midst of something black.

On all, I signed my name on the back. I did not know what else to do.


I admire the dignity of the maple leaves,
lifting their green palms to the sky in summer sun
and turning silver backs to the north wind
and bowing down to the earth in rain without moaning or pouting or expecting reward for being
what they were born to be.

And in the fall when the coolness comes and the life blood of the leaves retreats down the trunk
through roots burrowed
deep into the bosom
of the earth
and the leaves
blush and curl
and crumble

they do not
as I might
break down
into despair rather,
in breaking down
they feed the hungry ground

breaking down
they feed the hungry ground.

Kelley K. Malone has devoted her career to working for people with disabilities on Maryland’s mid-shore in the not-for-profit sector and has served as an elected official on the Easton Town Council. She has one son, Michael, a bachelor’s degree from Salisbury University in Secondary Education and an executive MBA from Loyola University. She writes in rare moments of free time.

The Delmarva Review is a nonprofit literary journal publishing compelling new poetry, fiction and nonfiction from writers within the region and beyond. About sixty percent are from the Delmarva and Chesapeake Bay area. The journal is supported by the Eastern Shore Writers Association, private contributions, and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For more information, please visit: