The Uglier Side of Academia

Image by Laura Collins Britton,
Image by Laura Collins Britton,

“The price one pays for pursuing any profession, or calling, is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.” -James Baldwin

This quote came across my Twitter feed today.

(It was a RT by someone I follow of a tweet by someone I don’t know, so I’m preserving her privacy and not linking to her it here—I don’t link to people without permission. Let me send out a thank you to the person who passed this tweet through my timeline today.)

I’ve been in academia for 11 years. If you count my master’s program, when I had to fend off bizarre antics by two different male professors, and law school, when my favorite professor was denied tenure for being a woman (don’t make me fight you about this one), even longer.

The point is, I’ve pursued this profession for the first half of my professional life, give or take. And I can see that this profession is really ugly. But I’m wondering, today, is academia any uglier than any other profession? Or do I just see it’s ugly side because I am intimate with academia? And does everyone see academia’s ugly side?


Is it possible for a tenure-track/tenured person at an R1 to jamble along and never ever see the ugliness of academia the way we NTTs do? For it to actually not be ugly for them at all?

Like the dude who lives on Park Ave., and the homelessness and hunger and desperation and poverty are invisible to him? (I don’t like overly dramatic comparisons as a rule, but just picture the dude getting in his town car for his trip down to Goldman and never looking up from his Blackberry.)

Recently, a super-tenured dude in my division asked one of my NTT colleagues just how much we made—because he had no idea.

(I know how much super-tenured dude makes, because it is public record and because I took that public data and created a spreadsheet to compare salaries by race and sex. I enjoy staring ugliness in its ugly face.)

We he learned what we make, he dropped an f-bomb out of shock, or so I’ve heard. My Park Ave. Professor just had never thought about it. That’s his privilege.

So I think that perhaps NTTs (and others, like women who get denied tenure for not being masculine enough yes that happened and others who are so wildly underrepresented you wonder how we all survive in the academic world at all) get an even uglier side of academia, actually.

Because we have to think about it. We’re forced to stare ugliness in the face every day. And it ain’t pretty.

Sorry for the gloom. Perhaps some cheer tomorrow.

So I Wrote This Thing About Rape…

Image by Laura Collins Britton
Image by Laura Collins Britton,

Back in April of this year, I posted a short-short story (that I’d originally published in a lit journal back in 2008) as a “Prelude” to another project that I was working on. The short story tells a first-person narrative of being raped.

Sidebar: A cliche topic for a short story? perhaps, but only because rape happens every fucking five minutes, enough to make telling a rape narrative a cliche. #Rapeculture anyone?

I followed up that post with another, in which I explained the context of the short story, and why I chose to post it on my blog—because I planned on reporting the rape to UNC now, in 2014, many, many years later:

I was raped in Chapel Hill, just off campus, by a student of UNC-Chapel Hill. And UNC-Chapel Hill at that time was doing a terrible job dealing with rape in its community, and continued to do so until March of 2013, when it was slapped with a gigantic federal investigation.

I’m curious to know, though: What will happen when I try to report? How will it go? Has a professor ever reported to campus sexual assault services before?

This might be hilarious and awful at the same time.

So then I thought, why not pitch this story rather than writing it for my blog? So I did. I pitched it to my favorite kicks-ass-and-lets-you-use-swears-woman-centered-magazine The Toast, and the editor told me to run with it.

Let’s say “running with it” equaled getting my ass kicked, but I finally went through the reporting process and wrote the piece. I actually scheduled a date on my planner called “Reporting Day.” Reporting Day was a terrible day.

I was a wreck for about a week after. I was jumpy and had jitters, so I just kept telling everyone that I’d had too much coffee, which is an easy lie, since I regularly have too much coffee. I drink too much coffee on such a regular basis that my regular coffee shop has standing orders to only pour me half-caf.

The point is, for those of you who actually can remember April, and you want to read the results of Reporting Day, head on over to the Toast and check it out. Many thanks to Nicole Cliffe and the rest of the team over there for publishing it (and for paying their authors since I’m basically unemployed now).

For those of you who would like to read the short story that is loosely based on the events that led to the piece in the The Toast, here it is.

[You’ll notice I don’t allow comments on my blog. It’s good to be Queen. But I’m happy to chat with you on Twitter so long as you aren’t a jerk. I have a No Jerks Clause in the Constitution of the nation-state that I am Queen of.]

Big News

View inside of a jet cockpit at night, with tight focus on the controls.
Image by Aureliy,

I have some big news.

My favorite higher education publication, The Chronicle of Higher Education Vitae, which is never behind a paywall (#openaccess, y’all), has picked up these blog posts as a new column for their publication.

Thus: The Freelance Academic Blog will now be the Freelance Academic Column at Vitae.

Thanks, folks, for reading this blog, and head on over to Vitae to read more. Vitae will provide the added benefit of allowing comments on my columns (which, for many reasons, I never have allowed here  ;) )

See y’all around.

Epiphanies and Bending Reality

Image by Prawny,
Image by Prawny,

This post recounts my epiphany of the week, courtesy of my friend Sara who gives me all of my epiphanies. (For those of you who already live the way I’m about to describe, please don’t judge me.)

The epiphany happened at lunch with Sara when she spoke some “words” to me. Usually, my brain processes words. Words are a thing my brain can “do,” you know? But, as she was speaking, I kept saying, “What?” “What?” “Huh?” and she kept repeating herself in new and different ways, and her palm was twitching like she wanted to bop my head (okay maybe I’m imagining the palm part Sara, but you have to admit you really were wanting to or at least you were wondering if maybe the beer was affecting me more than it should have).

The point is, I was very resistant to the epiphany at first. I LITERALLY (in the literal meaning of the word) could not process the words Sara was saying to me.

But Sara stuck with me until the epiphany occurred, and all was well. No bopping.

The Conversation

Just recently, a law school sent me a recruitment email for a tenured position in a cool city across the country. At first I was excited to receive the email. But then I realized I couldn’t have this job because it is located far away and my family can’t move, and anyways I don’t want to move. [1]

I told all of this to Sara, and she said, Did you tell them you don’t want to move?

I said, No.

She said, Why not?

I said, Because.

She said, Why not?

I said, Because.

She said, Why not words words I can’t understand words words I can’t understand.

I said, ???????????

And then I had the epiphany.

The Epiphany 

Sara said something like, Why don’t you ask them to make the job into something that you DO want?

I couldn’t understand how that would even be possible. I said some nonsense about distance-learning and ABA standards blergity-blerg. In retrospect, I suffered from a major failure of creativity.

For those of us living alternative-academic, post-academic, and freelance lives, we don’t have set tracks to follow. Our tracks are, by necessity, set by our own creativity. They literally (there’s that word again) are what we make them.

When we’re confronted with a job offer or a gig that isn’t quite right, instead of turning it down outright (like I did), we have to make it right—through negotiation or other tactics. We have to ask our counterparts to reconfigure what they’re asking us to do so that we no longer have any of the worries/issues/etc. that are holding us back.

But—and this is the hard part—we often have to do so in such a way that is so far off the track that no one would ever think of it. So, the burden of creativity on us is really high.

An Example

My friend is a dermatologist. She said “no” to a last minute AWESOME interview with a major TV station in New York because she wanted to spend a rare afternoon with her kids. The interview wouldn’t have taken long, but arranging childcare and interrupting her day with them would have been too difficult.

Plus, the TV people needed her RIGHT THEN. (Welcome to television, apparently. Not that I would know anything about that.)

When she told me about her dilemma, later, and asked me for advice, I drew on my new epiphany. I told her this: You could have said, “Yes, awesome. Love to. You have an intern to watch my kids for 30 minutes, right?”

She was like, “THAT’S BRILLIANT. They would never have thought of that, so I have to think of it for them.”

I felt so smart. (Sara, you make me SO SMART.)

Yes, the burden of creativity lies on those of us who take alternate tracks. But we have more power than we think to bend reality in our favor. We just have to start asking.

If you need help coming up with creative solutions, you aren’t alone, either. Reach out to your freelance academic colleagues on Twitter or blogs; hire a coach. It’s likely you aren’t the first one to face the particular challenge that you are facing. Ask for some creative brainstorming help.

“I need to bend reality a little bit today. Anyone feel like helping me?”

Answer: Absolutely.

- – – – -

[1] There’s a forthcoming post about the other reasons why a job on the tenure-track is probably not right for me any more. I think I’ve been ruined, in the good, old-fashioned meaning of the term.

#ArticleRemix & Escaping the Double Bind

White daisies against a bright blue sky
Image by pippalou,

Suggested Reading: “What’s the Point of Academic Publishing” by Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) for Chronicle Vitae.

Suggested Watching: Adjunct Action‘s Conversation with Rebecca Schuman (@pankisseskafka) (along with host Sean Michael Morris and panelists Lee Skallerup, Joe Fruscione, and me).

I. No More Adjunct Heroism, No More Academic Publishing

Earlier this year I was at a critical moment in my academic career: I’d spent 11 years searching for a tenure-track job and then just gave up. I decided had better ways to spend my time and money than on the academic job search.

Essential to being on the perpetual academic job search is publishing as many articles as one can in academic journals and edited collections. The job search also requires presenting at as many prestigious professional conferences as possible. For the past few years, I’ve been running myself into the ground.

I’ve also been missing milestones: my eldest kid lost his first tooth just this past weekend while I was off giving a talk at a conference. I got to chat with him about it on FaceTime.

Protip: It’s not the same.

To use Rebecca Schuman’s term from her recent Adjunct Action Conversation, I was playing the “adjunct hero” (not a term of praise) hoping that my tenured colleagues would grant me membership in the tenure-track club. Now, I know THAT is never going to happen. I know because I finally asked the person in charge this past February.

I have one more academic article that I have committed to write, due this October, and then, as far as I can see into the future (which, as we all know, is not very far), I’m done. I do not plan on writing any more “traditional” academic articles.

I’m kind of beside myself with joy after making this decision.

II. The Publishing Double Bind & the #ArticleRemix

With this context in mind, I reread Sarah Kendzior’s Chronicle Vitae article on academic publishing this morning, and this paragraph particularly resonated:

With the odds of finding a tenure-track job against them, graduate students are told to plan for a backup career, while simultaneously being told to publish jargon-filled research in paywalled journals. Scholars who bet on that insular system find themselves stranded when that system fails them, as it does most. Appeasing academics means alienating alternatives.

Academics on the tenure track are stuck in a double bind: (1) Make yourself attractive to a field where you are unlikely to find work by publishing articles that are hard to locate, read, and understand. Or: (2) Make yourself attractive to fields outside of academia by publishing your work in an accessible fashion (easy to locate and easy to read)—but making yourself seem un-academic as a result.

Accessibility on both the readability front and actually getting-your-hands-on-it front are equally important, as Sarah pointed out. So much academic writing is hidden behind paywalls. And then, when you finally can download an article, the knowledge it contains is hidden behind field-specific jargon (some of which is completely unnecessary for the making of meaning).

This lack of accessibility means that often no one outside of a narrow field can put to use the important ideas that many, if not most, scholars are developing today. And yet, embracing this lack of accessibility is required in order to be taken seriously as a scholar.

After reading Sarah’s piece again this morning, I tweeted what I’m sure is not an utterly original idea (if only because there are no original ideas)—but it was an epiphany at least to me:

Liana Silva Ford (@lianamsilvaford) and Kelly J. Baker (@kelly_j_baker) hopped into the discussion, and the #articleremix was born.

So here’s the challenge, #ArticleRemixers: Take your amazing scholarly work, and write about it in on your blog or on a guest post on another blog. Avoid jargon. Keep it short. Make it meaningful to people outside your field. Show us how we can use your ideas to make the world a better place, even in a small way. Then tweet a link to the post using the hashtag #articleremix (and @me so I know you did it and can boost your work).

But first, make your original article publicly accessible on an open-access repository and link to the original article in your blog post.

Here’s how.

III. Open-Access Repositories as Paywall Work-Arounds

Today’s conversation reminded me of another one I had on Twitter with Karen Gregory (@claudiakincaid – Mixed-Up Files FTW) back in April. She and I chatted on Twitter about the pros and cons of “publishing” her dissertation online via Proquest.

Simply put, it seems that new Ph.D.’s face another double bind: if you want your dissertation research available for others to read, you have to hand over rights to Proquest to publish it. Or something like that.

Indeed, part problem was that the rights situation was very confusing.

Tweets by Karen and Katie about feeling confused by Proquest

So Karen and I started talking about free public repositories that provide ways for scholars to share their work without a paywall and retain full rights to their work at the same time. These repositories are springing up all over the place.

The one I’ve been using the longest is the Social Science Research Network ( Although you create an account in order to upload your work, the account doesn’t cost you anything. Plus, you can search for articles—and download them—without logging in. The articles you upload are indexed on Google Scholar, making it easier for the wider world to find your stuff.

There are newer (and nicer looking) public repositories now, including,, and BEPress’s SelectedWorks (here’s mine). The Google Scholar indexing means that your work is easier to find by independent scholars and by others, such as journalists, who may be looking for experts such as you.

Warning: #Fancy publishers such as Taylor and Francis get really freaked out when you put a PDF of your own articles up on SSRN or other repositories and will send you angry emails to take them down. They’ll email SSRN too, and force SSRN to take them down.

This is very annoying.

Here’s the deal: You have the right to make your work publicly available in two ways, even when your work is published by #fancytaylorandfrancis.

(1) You can upload the PDF of the actual journal article to your own website along with some canned language they require you to use. (Check out the paragraph that begins “Author Posting” on my web page here for an example.)

(2) You have a right to post on a public repository (and on all the public repositories) a PDF of your own creation of an “author’s version” of the article—say, the final Word doc that you submitted for publication.

Get your work out there. Take control of it. Make it available. Then, once it is all out there, write your #articleremix and link it to the downloads. Sweet.

IV. What’s the Point

After thinking about #articleremix and repositories and the meaning of academic publishing this afternoon, it seems to me that my doctoral program did a really great job training me to be an expert in an area of study—but not a really great job training me to share this expertise with the world outside of academia.

And if we experts can’t share our expertise, then what’s the point of being experts?

After all this grumbling, I should say that I might return to academic writing eventually. Currently, writing for more public fora, such as smart online venues, is satisfying my need to investigate and put those investigations into words. But—if I can find meaning in academic work beyond the silly hope I used to hold for a tenure-track job, then perhaps I can bring myself to publish again.

After all, as Sarah K. writes at the end of her Vitae article, scholarship for the purpose of gaining an academic job—one you may likely never get, given the odds—means that all of your scholarly work might leave you feeling empty (as I feel). But:

When you orient your scholarship toward its obvious yet overlooked purpose—furthering human knowledge—its value does not need to be determined by others, because the value lies in the work itself. This is what counts.

Freelance Academic Manifesto

White rope on a black background, about to split apart
Image by imelenchon,

So, what does it mean to be a freelance academic? From my first post on this topic:

To be a Freelance Academic is to recognize this bifurcation that we contingent professors face, and then to try to mend it.

So, on the note of “mending,” here are some new rules to live by that I dreamed up (and stole, erm, borrowed) for this new paradigm that I’m exploring. This is an incomplete list. [1] I thought the list might help others, so I’m sharing it here.

As we’re all figuring out together in the #altac, #postac, and #adjunct communities online, there are changes that one needs to make to leave behind dead-end traditional academia and move toward freelance academia.

Update, 8 September 2014:

I have some good news. My favorite higher education publication, The Chronicle of Higher Education Vitae, which is never behind a paywall (#openaccess FTW), has picked up these blog posts as a new column for their publication. Thus: The Freelance Academic Blog will now be the Freelance Academic Column at Vitae.

The first post for the column will be this post, “The Freelance Academic Manifesto,” updated and expanded and generally far more awesome. I’ll link to the column right here when it comes out, which will be soon.

Thanks, folks, for reading this blog, and head on over to Vitae, which will provide the added benefit of allowing comments on my columns (which, for many reasons, I never have allowed here ;) ).

Update, 11 November 2014:

The column was published on 31 October 2014 (auspicious!) and you can access it here!


On New Leaves and Networking

A view under stony arched bridge over a narrow paved road.
Image by Jorgeyu,

It’s been over a month since I posted last, but I refuse to fall into that overdone genre, the blog apologia.

Instead I will give a brief update on the first month of living and working as a freelance academic.

By way of overview, I can tell you that this first month has been awesome in one particular way: the community of adjuncts, post-academics, alternative academics, and writers that I have joined (read: barged in on) have reached out their collective (often virtual) hands to help me create a freelance life.

What a wonderful change.

One of the aspects of academia that I dislike most, that I find most baffling (and that will likely reveal me to be palpably naive) is the tendency of mainstream academics to hoard their treasure, whatever it is. Connections, courses, cash—academics don’t like to share. The spotlight is always only big enough for one. [1]

And we wonder why higher ed is falling apart. No one in there can work as a team.

My point is, as Robert L. Oprisko observed recently, when you’re not a mainstream academic, on the tenure track or with connections to the limelight, you have to work as a team. And no folks are better at working as a team than #postacs, #altacs, and #adjuncts.

Good lord I’m so happy to be working with these people. [2]

Here’s where these connections have led me in just four weeks.

The first edition of my new regular column is coming out today in Chronicle Vitae. (Chronicle Vitae is, in columnist Jacqui Shine‘s words, The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “scrappy kid sister & therefore the best.”) I have a current columnist’s generous referral to her editor to thank, in part, for my current job there.

And I’m now part of a fiction writer’s network led by my friend and brilliant novelist Ann Garvin. (Go buy her latest novel, The Dog Year. It just came out last week.) It feels so great to be part of a writing community again, and I have Ann and others’ generosity to thank for inviting me in. (You can check out some of my narrative writing here.)

And I’m now working on an edited collection for a trade press (as any #postac will tell you: no more writing for free), and a guest column for Inside Higher Education. All of this courtesy of #postac and #altac networking, often via Twitter.

Yes, networking. A word with strange and sometimes ugly connotations. But don’t you think, in our new virtual age, we can strip the word of its sleaziness and imbue it with what it has given me these last few weeks? A community, and hope?

– – – – –

[1] There are some exceptions that I have encountered, and they are my dear friends. I’m silently nodding to you here, and you know who you are.

[2] By “these people,” I’m referring to, in no particular order, and in an admittedly incomplete fashion, Kelly J. Baker, Joe FruscioneElizabeth Keenan, and many others.

What Does It Mean to Be a Freelance Academic?

A green, shadowed forest, sunlit from the right.
Image by iceman0,

Those who’ve actually been reading this blog for a while (not that there’s been much to read until recently) might have noticed dramatic changes in the last couple of weeks:

– I changed the website design from one that was basically an online CV for an academic to one that is, well, not.

– I gave the website a title: The Freelance Academic.

– I started blogging a lot more. More importantly, I started blogging about more important things.

These changes might not sound like much, but for those of us who are or were #adjuncts and #contingent academics (like @readywriting, @professorF74, @kelly_j_baker, @claudiakincaid), they are a big deal.

I’ve dumped my online academic identity and claimed one as a freelancer—even while very much maintaining a contingent post at a university. And, on the blog, I’ve stepped outside of the boundaries of acceptable academic discourse to engage in what one of my doctoral advisors called “fist-waving.” (He wasn’t using that phrase as a compliment.) In short, I’m creating distance.

I’m creating distance because the problem with being in academia is


Let me start over.

I’m creating distance because one of the many problems with being in academia is that you cannot see the proverbial forest for the trees. As Rebecca Schuman (@pankisseskafka) has accurately put it (many times), academia suffers from a “cult-mentality” that is hard to see until you step away from it. 

(By the way, even the stalwart Schuman (yes you are stalwart) frets in the face of freelancing. I’m feeling WAY better about my own fretting.)

So, to create some distance from academia, I made some changes to my online identity. And then this week I made a big change to my real-life one. I asked for a year of unpaid leave from work, and they granted my request. (And I am grateful, truly.)

For a variety of personal and professional reasons, I needed to step away from my contingent teaching job. (The personal reasons will stay personal.) But the professional reasons are very much tied up in being contingent. As I’ve stepped away, I’ve discovered something important.

Here’s the deal:

When you’re a contingent academic, you are bifurcated into two professional beings. Half of you is carved down into the being the university insists you become. But then there is the remainder of you, what’s left, the parts that the university doesn’t want. Often, those parts are the very best of you. What do you do with the leftovers? Squelch them down? Let them wither? 

This bifurcation played out for me like this: There was the Katie who worked at my contingent teaching job, working 50-60 hours per week course planning, curriculum designing, lesson writing, student conferencing, and grading. I worked and worked and worked, hoping that I wouldn’t actually feel bifurcated at all. I hoped I could fool myself.

It didn’t work.

So then there was the Katie who worked on the side seeking to complete the teaching/research intellectual circle. (There was no space in my contingent job description for the research and writing, unlike for my tenured/tenure-track counterparts.) So I squeezed in writing on the side, in the evenings, on the weekends. I wrote novels (two), poetry, short stories (even published some), articles (published so many! no one cared), conference presentations, and a monograph (unpublished).

I felt like I had a split personality. Like I worked three jobs. Like I was a terrible fucking mother. Enter the surprise personal crisis and my request for leave. And here I am.

To be a Freelance Academic is to recognize this bifurcation that we contingent professors face, and then to try to mend it. Yes, I do work for a university as a contingent professor. But I also write and research. No part of me will be squelched or allowed to wither.

But I’m not working 100-hour weeks, either. Because my goals have shifted.

Indeed, the biggest change required to become a Freelance Academic is to recognize that, in the words of a dear friend from grad school, They’re never going to let you in the club. I don’t think her words need spelling out—if they do, PM me on Twitter, and I’ll explain.

April is . . . [not what I expected]

Dried brown seedpods on icy limbs, evoking the possibility of new life even in the middle of winter.
Photo by Rosevita,

Many of you read my previous post, in which I posted a short story published back in 2008 (by the fabulous Bayou Magazine@bayoumagazine). I didn’t say in the previous post, but I’m sure many of you intuited, that the story is based on a true event. Pretty much everything after the first three paragraphs happened to me when I was a doctoral student just as written.

Well, of course those things happened to me. Rape is so common. Commonplace. Ordinary. Unexceptional. #duh [1]

Rape is commonplace until you try to prove to someone else that rape happened. That’s the sickening conundrum all rape victims find themselves in. We know rape happens all the time. And we know there’s nothing we can do about it—about what happened to us, or about what might happened to others (or us, again) in the future. Because the burden of proof lies and forever will lie on the victim.

And I knew all about burdens of proof back when I was raped. Because back when I was raped, when I was a doctoral student, I was also something else: a lawyer.

So no, I did not report this rape to anyone at the time. I told three people. (Well, and then the whole world in a short story, but that doesn’t really count.)

But here’s the thing.

I was raped in Chapel Hill, just off campus, by a student of UNC-Chapel Hill. And UNC-Chapel Hill at that time was doing a terrible job dealing with rape in its community, and continued to do so until March of 2013, when it was slapped with a gigantic federal investigation.

Now UNC is, apparently, trying to do better.

Now, weirdly, I’m a professor at the university where a student raped me and where other students are, right now, being raped and still don’t feel safe reporting being raped. [2]

All of what I’ve described has been on my mind this past week. And then I received an email this morning from UNC’s new Chancellor, with a wildly apropos first pair of words:

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a time set aside across the nation to educate our communities about the impact of sexual and gender-based harassment and violence and to promote prevention. Since arriving in July, I have been impressed by the transformative nature of Carolina’s focus and the depth of engagement on student welfare and campus safety. Many students, faculty and staff have created a month full of activities, and there are more to come. I know we all appreciate and will benefit from their efforts.

April is. Yes, we know.

So here’s what I’m thinking: I want to report that I was raped years ago by a UNC-Chapel Hill student. I want my number on the University’s books. I want my rape counted. I want to be a statistic added to the other statistics from that year. [3]

I know many years have passed. But it happened, it happened here, and it should matter.

I’m curious to know, though: What will happen when I try to report? How will it go? Has a professor ever reported to campus sexual assault services before?

This might be hilarious and awful at the same time.

Naturally I will let you know.

[1] And of course it’s scary to talk about being raped in a wildly public forum. But if @cjprender, @steenfox, @zerlinamaxwell, and all the other brave women I know can do it, then I can too.

[2] I’m using the term “rape” all over this blog post. The term is accurate. But Universities really don’t like it. You won’t find “rape” anywhere in UNC’s student conduct policy.

[3] Updated, per a recent conversation on Twitter: I’m not going to report to the police, even thought I could, because N.C. has no statute of limitations for felonies. (What? That’s crazy! Yes, I know.)

Just Going to Leave This Here: A Blogging Prelude

Photograph of bird flying against a backdrop of a blue sky with a haze of clouds. The bird is in shadow.
Image by Poxy,

I published this piece of flash fiction in the literary magazine Bayou years ago (Issue 49 from 2008, if you are keeping count). I don’t write much short fiction or poetry any more, just keep tooling away on a couple of novels and dreaming dreams about them like many of us bloggers out here.

I’m seeding my next blog post (perhaps posts) by re-publishing this short story here. Enjoy.

Why Birds Have Wings

She is out with her brother, her brother who knows her. And her brother’s Friend who knows her too. They are all friends. She drinks and she likes to drink. She is good at drinking and not seeming to be drinking especially around her brother, who doesn’t like it when she drinks. Her brother’s Friend is nice, has always been nice to her, and he’s handsome, and a doctor. Her mother would like it if she married a doctor, she thinks, while they sit together in the tall chairs at the bar, drinking. They listen to the music and watch the people dancing. She likes to dance but knows she is too drunk to dance now, she wouldn’t dance well, so she sits instead, and listens to the Friend talk about the work he does, about saving people. He is a saver, she thinks, a saver, safe.

It’s getting late. The lights are brighter now inside and it is very dark, outside. This means it will be time to go soon. The Friend stands up, steps close to her seat, leans near her, tells her things, that she is beautiful. Beautiful, she thinks, to a man who can have many beautiful things. He puts his hands on her shoulders and squeezes. Her muscles shift shape to fit the shape of his hands, the hands that save people.

They are outside the bar now. Like magic. She doesn’t remember how they got there—she and her brother and the Friend. On the sidewalk that tilts toward the street like toward a rushing river. She holds the arm of the Friend and he supports her. She can’t stand on her own, she’s so drunk, but she pretends she wants to hold on to him, for the pleasure. She smiles at her brother. She reassures her brother. Her brother loves her, she knows. So she smiles and reassures and tells him she’s fine and he believes her. Of course he believes her. She could convince anyone, for a moment on a sidewalk. She convinces her brother that she wants to spend the night at the Friend’s house. She trusts the Friend. Her brother trusts him. Why shouldn’t she. He is a Friend. A saver. With good hands, magic hands.

It is a sliver of a moment until they arrive at his apartment. Until he is shaking her shoulder telling her to wake because they have arrived. When she wakes, she speaks but she can’t speak. Her voice has been stolen and replaced by garbled words that aren’t hers. She thinks these words are funny, and laughs as the Friend lifts her from the car. He tells her to be quiet. She tries to say she is sorry, so sorry, but the words fly away like birds.

He carries her inside, dragging her feet across the cement sidewalk, over the metal rim of the sliding glass door. When she feels the carpet under her feet, she considers falling down there and sleeping, knowing the softness will feel like goodness, and she can sleep there. She tries to ask the Friend if she can sleep on the carpet, but he tells her to be quiet, quiet, because his brother is sleeping. The Friend’s voice is sharper now, like the rattling of a cage. She stops laughing.

He helps her up the stairs to his room. She sees his bed. She is delighted and falls on it, lying on her side, pulling her knees to her belly, shutting her eyes, dreaming of sleeping. The Friend disappears into the bathroom. She wonders if he will come back but doesn’t care. She is so sleepy and only cares about sleep.

Then he is back and he is on her and he kisses her. She kisses him. She understands kissing. Kissing is nice. He lies on top of her. She can’t move her arms because her arms are like her words, no longer hers, garbled, uncontrolled. He pulls her up, holds her with one hand, one fist gripped around her arm, and with the other pulls off her shirt in one motion, then pulls her bra without unclipping it. The tightness of the bra catches on her arms and shoulders but the Friend keeps pulling until it is off of her, until it is gone. He drops her back onto the bed and she falls, falls, until the bed catches her. Now, she cannot shut her eyes, sleep has slipped from her like everything. He stands and removes his shirt, his pants, his everything. He pulls at her pants until the button slips loose, then yanks them from her feet. Her legs are garbled. He reaches for her panties. Her brain turns red. Red red red. She knows, despite this draining, what to do, to say. Magic. Magic words. She moves her muddled arms her mangled fingers to her hips, grabs hold to the edges of her panties, hangs on when the Friend would pull. No, she says. No. No. The only word she knows. The magic word. She holds on and speaks one word.

The Friend grabs her shoulder, squeezes, and turns her over, presses her stomach and face into the blanket, the hard mattress. She doesn’t let go of her panties. The Friend slips a finger under the lace edge of her panties between her legs and pulls aside the slender piece of fabric, pulls it aside the distance of two fingers or perhaps the distance of an ocean, and shoves himself inside.

She dies then.

She wakes three hours later to the chirping of birds.

She thinks of her brother first, as she slips out of the Friend’s apartment into bright light.

She tells no one. Because she no longer believes in the magic of words.


You can download the PDF of the short story if you’re interested. Also, you should visit Bayou’s truly gorgeous website (@bayoumagazine).