Rooftop Inspiration

Charles Israel, Jr.

Charles Israel, Jr.

Wherever our work as writers comes from, I’m just happy that it comes. And I wanted to share my inspiration for my flash fiction, “Ask a Crow.” It started as a poem, based on two things I saw on a rooftop, a crow and a coffee cup. The crow I understood, but a coffee cup? Which lead to a better question, what else doesn’t belong on a roof? From somewhere in my imagination, the bow from a double bass showed up. The bow changed the piece from a poem to a story. Because that bow had to be tossed by someone and tossed no doubt in either joy or anger. Here follows a love story.


Ask a Crow

It used to be her favorite cologne, so I splash some on. I look out the bathroom window, across Division Street. The building across the street has a huge, flat rooftop that takes up too much of my vista. On the rooftop, a wooden water tank. And there, under it, lies the bow for an upright bass. Also, there’s a coffee cup turned cistern, from which a crow bobs and drinks.

The cologne’s extracted from a small, alpine flower—speick. A smell that penetrates. As a punishment during the dark ages, they’d lock people in barns where they were hanging speick flowers to dry. After release, the person could be still be identified as guilty, for weeks—by the smell. Chief crimes for the speick barn were the theft of cattle or sheep, and also adultery.

From the only other room in our apartment, the big room with its one big window, I hear her: Are you going to leave me like this? Are you going to leave me like this? Like the chorus of some old soul tune, one with the verses understood. She’s standing on the window sill, a hand and a foot in each corner.

She turns her head. Her face has folded in on itself, like origami. I grab her by the waist. With my face pressed into her back, I hear her breathing, hard. Wait a minute, she says, Is that my bow?

She jumps down to check the bass case for her bow. I’d felt bad the second I released it. But then, as it sailed over the street, turning end over end, I heard its music. Like the first time I heard her play music: there, at her spring orchestra rehearsal, me the only one in the audience. She sounded so beautiful: I fell in love. Thief and adulterer, she says, all rolled into one.

I jump onto the window sill and go spread-eagled. Like a paratrooper at the jump-door, I turn my hands inside out, my fingers pointing toward Division. I’m set, ready to fly over. Ready to ask the crow: What do I do now? What have I done? How do I get her back? Can I get her back?  But he unfolds his wings and flies off, the bow in his beak.

MASTER PERSONAL ESSAYS WITH CHARLES: Be guided—step by step—through the process of writing personal essays. Write a complete essay using prompts, freewriting exercises, feedback, and revision. In this class, you can share your work with others. You may also elect to receive written feedback from the instructor.  (New this spring, you’ll have the option to add a detailed critique of your writing for an additional fee. Details will be sent after you register.) This class meets on three Tuesdays, May 11, 18 & 25, 6-7:30 p.m. More info

ABOUT CHARLES: Charles Israel, Jr., teaches creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte. His poetry chapbook, Stacking Weather, was published by Amsterdam PressHe’s also had poems and stories in Crazyhorse, Field, The Cortland Review, The Adirondack Review, Nimrod International Journal, Pembroke Magazine, Zone 3, Journal of the American Medical Association, and North Carolina Literary Review. He likes to read ancient epic poetry and contemporary creative nonfiction about voyages and journeys, sports and war. He lives in Charlotte with his wife, Leslie.

Paper Love

Dear Writer,

I’m writing to you from my well-worn sofa (where else?) a year to the day when our Lost Year began. Or do I mean Loss Year? So often these days, words elude me.

Outside it’s spring again, which I forget until I stare out the window and find sunny forsythia and daffodils and dogwoods bumpy with buds. A year ago, the rapturous blooms and birdsong clashed with wailing sirens, empty streets and skies, masked breath, families grieving through screens. Lovely turned to lonely.

I hope you’ve been writing. This last year (let’s be real: the last five), I’ve found it hard to devote myself to the page because I was afraid if I looked away from the world, it might disappear. Or I would. It’s as if I fell into a hole, and all I could do was stare up and wait for the pinpoint of light to widen and show me the way out. Or maybe it’s that the rage and sorrow tore a hole in me. I can feel it expand and contract, like a pupil, or an aperture, or the phases of the moon.

I have found some solace these months, as I know many others have, through writing letters. As in the old-timey, pen-and-ink, stamped-and-mailed kind. I wrote to friends from the solitude of my back porch and got back radiant, hilarious epistles on handmade cards, festooned in the margins and smudged by palms. I touched the ink, the paper grains where their fingers had been. Contact.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that I also have been reading a lot of epistolary fiction—Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ “Belles Lettres,” Amy Hempel’s Tumble Home, parts of Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Claire Vaye Watkins’ “The Last Thing We Need,” Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and Yasunari Kawabata’s “Canaries.” I can’t get enough these naked exchanges, how the narrator seems to vanish and we slip through the seams, suddenly in the characters’ most intimate realms, where they confide, confess, dodge, plead, snipe, yearn. What a wondrous sleight of hand: I’m convinced I’m reading letters when in fact these are smuggled stories, lies that tell the truth. As Griffin tells Sabine, “How strange to have a paper love.”

Bryn Chancellor

Bryn Chancellor

By the time you read this, dear Writer, the trees and bushes will be in mad bloom, transforming into new states of being. It occurs to me as I write this, reaching out to you across the void, that I wish the same for us.

Not hole. Hope.



LEARN THE ART OF THE EPISTOLARY FORM: Fiction writers have had a long and lovely affair with the epistolary form, a.k.a. stories and novels in which documents as varied as letters, diaries, emails, news clippings, transcripts, texts, posts, or tweets govern the narrative or parts of it. Whether written from a single point of view or as an exchange among characters, the letter form can create a brilliant sense of intimacy, voice, and realism. The trick: we’re not actually writing a letter but a story, so we have to find sneaky methods for characterization, setting, dialogue, exposition, and movement. Together we’ll read and discuss some contemporary epistolary examples and then explore letters in our own work through brief prompts and take-home exercises. More info

ABOUT BRYN: Bryn Chancellor is the author of the novel Sycamore, a Southwest Book of the Year, and the story collection When Are You Coming Home?, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. A native of California raised in Arizona and transplanted to the South, she is a grateful recipient of fellowships from the North Carolina, Alabama, and Arizona arts councils and the Poets and Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award. She is associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Terrestrial, Baby

What you say after making love to your wife can crash-and-burn
a marriage—or save it. Count what I said last night as a crash-and-burn.

We had just made love for the first time in a long time. We were
just rolling around our bedroom, laughing like we had the whole world
to roll around on. About five minutes later, I go and say I don’t feel
nothing. Yeah, you heard it here. All Sharon has said since: Take out
the garbage. Do you think you can rehang the front door, the one
you busted last month? Maria needs Huggies, and Me and Maria
will be spending the next month at my mother’s. Her mother lives
in Maryland, two states to the north. Merry-damn-land, which it ain’t.

I used to think love would save me from all the sad and tore-up feelings
I’d always had about the world. So I put everything into me and Sharon.
We’ve got our sweet one-year-old, Maria. We’ve got this little A-frame
we built ourselves at the north edge of the Combahee Swamp. We’ve got
12 years of marriage, the last two real messed up. We’ve got love getting
smaller in the rearview. From the get-go, I tried to tuck the Milky Way
inside us because I wanted us to last all and forever.

I’m on my nightly run through the Combahee Swamp. About every night
for the last two months. Sharon thinks I’m seeing someone. I’m not seeing
nobody but myself. Just driving my ‘71 Bug, checking what’s out here.
Most nights there’s not even another car. Nothing except the red eyes
of some critter—a possum by the road or an owl way up in a cypress.
For a second, they’re in your headlights, and then they turn away.

Tonight’s run is to Swaim’s Taxidermy, Taxes Done, and Everything Store
for something for Sharon. White wine? Flowers? Some of those fashion
magazines she likes? Some Chinese incense, the type she burns after a fatty? What?

I reach up and rub the rootbag that’s hanging from the mirror.
The bag’s about half the size of your fist. Mulviney, the black rootwoman,
fixed it up for me. Painted the suede leather this fluorescent green color.
Inside are snips of mine and her hair, some crushed lavender, a dried-up
clasper off a hammerhead, the wax cast off Sharon’s wedding ring.

The color of Love, Mulviney said. I think it was just the only color
she had left. She’s got a place in the southern tip of Combahee Swamp,
where two dirt roads make a crossroads. Always makes me feel cold,
a dirt crossroads in the middle of nowhere. Her place’s got no running water,
just a woodstove, some books piled in a corner, a new off-road bicycle
leaning against the front of her cabin, a jug of fluorescent paint on the porch.
The paint’s already cracking off the bag and dropping little bits of it
all over the dash and floormats—they pick up whatever light there is.

The thing is Patience, Mulviney said. But patience is like waiting for Jesus
to show up, just for you, and then he doesn’t say anything. Because you’re scared
of a mute Jesus, you don’t say anything. And quick as he comes, he goes.

I cut off my Bug’s headlights, so I’m steering by the full moon coming
right off the yellow centerlines. Feels like you’re a kid coming home
from the beach. Parents’ voices soft up front, you lying on the backseat,
staring out the rear window, and the moon follows you over the mountains
and down into the valleys. You believe that the moon’s yoked to you.
You believe in some kind of good life coming your way.

Mulviney said, Count your blessings, count on what you got now, count
on the terrestrial, baby. I go to count up these stories about me
and Sharon being in love, but they’ve snuck off. I’ve looked for them
everywhere: in my glove compartment, under our waterbed, in the jeans
I wore back when I used to have them, under Sharon’s eyelids.

There’s enough light coming through the moonroof (I cut it out by hand
with my acetylene torch) so I can read the speedometer. The needle’s
swung around to 60. Too damn fast, what with all the curves and no shoulder
out here. Just a two-foot drop-off into black water that’s full of cypress knees
and water moccasins too thick to squeeze through a tailpipe.

You don’t even know what you got. Yeah, I do. I’ve got some old
love song about me and Sharon through me, but a mouth
that can’t sing it. I’ve got this road ahead of—and behind—me, cutting
across the belly of the swamp. I’ve got this one night about
to bust apart on me, like all the stars decided to drop at once.

Charles Israel, Jr., teaches creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte. His poetry chapbook, Stacking Weather, was published by Amsterdam Press. He’s also had poems and stories in Field, The Cortland Review, Crazyhorse, Nimrod International Journal, Zone 3, Pembroke Magazine, Eleven Eleven, Journal of the American Medical Association, Waccamaw Journal, Loud Zoo, and North Carolina Literary Review. He also likes playing tennis and urban bike riding.