CutBank 87

     Autumn 2017




Demolition Plan
Fiction by Jillian Merrifield [read an excerpt...]

Winner: Montana Prize in Nonfiction by Ruby Hansen Murray [read the essay...]

Notes for the Next God
Poetry by Joseph J. Capista 

Winner: Montana Prize in Fiction by Stefani Nellen [read the story...]

Fire Signs
Nonfiction by Brooke Wonders [read an excerpt...]

When I Say I Miss the Drugs 
Winner: Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry by Zackary Medlin [read the poem...]

re: floridian guesthouse gem—furnished! 
Fiction by Emily Jace McLaughlin [read an excerpt...]

Laughter & Forgetting 
Nonfiction by Jalina Mhyana [read an excerpt...]

Leave it to Me 
Poetry by Charlie D’Eve 

Fiction by Steven Lang [read an excerpt...]

Mother, Mother, Ocean 
Nonfiction by Bryce Emley [read an excerpt...]

American Quartet 
Poetry by Abby Minor 

Masthead 87

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Nonfiction Editors
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Skylar Salvatore,
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Zack Rybak

April 18th by David Miles Lusk
Digital manipulation by CutBank

Jillian Merrifield | Fiction

Demolition Plan 


"You look nice today,” Rowan says when he gets a good look at me. I’m in the kitchen, slicing baby peppers pole to pole, and to be fair I’m dressed much nicer than I need to be for cooking, and to be fair I also don’t probably need to have my hair in long dragging beachy waves for this, but I think we’ve also gotten to the point in our relationship when he’s just used to my hair being around his food. Our relationship stretches out in my head like a galaxy and I have no idea when in that empty expanse it became okay, but I’m pretty sure it did. I wish there had been a signpost.

“Thanks,” I say. I don’t want to give it too much attention. Being dressed up to stay home shouldn’t be a thing we talk about. I’m embarrassed by it.

“Did you go into the office today?”

“It’s not an office. And no. Worked from home.” I slip the knife into the crunching structure of the peppers and feel them bleed a bit on me. “I think I get more done at home when I don’t have to listen to people clipping their nails in the next cube over.”

He shrugs. “That’s a rite of passage though. If you don’t hear people clipping their toenails at work, what will you have to commiserate over with the rest of us?”

My necklace itches my neck. Rowan is walking around the breakfast bar. He’ll hug me. It will make me feel squirmy. It goes down the way I expect, my arms trapped by my sides and my eyes on the walls, which also seem too close. We’re off balance and I’m still holding the knife, careful not to slide it into him. He’s saying that he understands why I didn’t follow our routine today, but that I need to try again tomorrow. If he says it with a hug, I can’t get defensive.

“Did you go to the grocery store?”

I shake my head. He’s not looking. He’s already way down the hall, might as well be over a horizon. “Did you get the mail?” I yell after him. He didn’t—I know he didn’t because it’s not here in front of me, but I know if I ask he’ll go get it for me and I won’t have to walk down two flights of stairs and smell our neighbor’s cigarettes.

•  •  •

Rowan makes us whiskey sours after dinner and we curl up on the couch with the laptop to cruise Craigslist, not routine but agreed upon. We’re quiet, thinly clothed, comfortable—he clicks, I read over his shoulder. There’s something crunchy in the buttons of his mouse—I hear it break a bit with every click.

“Some people are really racist,” I say after a while.

He nods. We move on. We find a few ads that are interesting enough to both of us, which we know without really even talking.

“Do you want to email, or should I?”


“Why me?”

“Because I’ll be nervous about checking my email for days.”

“I will too.”

“But you don’t have to check your email for work. I do. I can’t not.”

“We don’t have to do this. If you’re not into it. If it’s causing you anxiety.”

“I want to do it. I just need you to help me.”

He writes the email. I copyedit. He presses send and then, riding the buzz of anticipation and alcohol, catches my eye, gauges carefully, slips his fingers into my hair, slides to my scalp, grips. I burn bright. No need to say anything.


Brooke Wonders | Nonfiction

Fire Signs


MY BOYFRIEND ROB loved the parched desert state of his  childhood. I love Arizona too, but love isn’t water, or the red streak of aerial flame retardant, or a morning without wind. In 2005, the year Rob killed himself, 66,000 wildfires immolated over 8 million acres of land in the United States. In Arizona alone, we survived four thousand out-of-control fires.

On our first date, Rob and I drove to Oak Creek Brewery in Sedona, AZ. Yo-yoing our way down switchbacks from mountainous Flagstaff into the valley, we passed a fire-warning sign with color-coded threat levels: yellow for moderate, orange for elevated, and red for high. He was 28; I was 22. He carried a gun and a degree in criminal justice; I carried a pocket notebook and a degree in creative writing. In the dryness of a late September heat wave, June’s monsoons nothing but the memory of petrichor, I know before the sign comes fully into view that the arrow points red.

Rob’s pack of American Spirits sits on the console between us. He nods at the sign as we blur by: “I don’t smoke and drive,” he says. “Fucking idiots keep burning down the forest.” Implied: and I’m no idiot. I don’t smoke yet, but I will. I don’t love him yet, but I will. Nothing has yet caught fire in this lush valley, but it will. We round a switchback, and the arrow and its warning disappear from our rearview mirror.


 I grew up in Flagstaff, AZ, a town built on volcanic rock. Rob grew up in Payson, a town built on the rim of a plateau—the Mogollon Rim, southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. When Rob first told me his plan, it went like this: “When my dad’s dead and my mom finally goes, I’m going up on the Rim to the edge of the world. I’m going to watch one last sunrise, and then I’m going to shoot myself in the head.” He failed to execute the particulars, but succeeded in the main: Sunrise. Gun. The end of the world.

In the summer, I bag pine needles and hacksaw low-hanging tree limbs, moving brush and branches away from our house. The most recent fire threatened my grandmother’s home. Her neighbors wet down their shingled roof with a garden hose. On the Internet, I follow the weather, watching wind speeds rise and fall: 30 miles per hour is too high. Flames love strong wind; it’s how they trap firefighters. People die by the unexpected, when shifting winds turn deadly. A popular summer activity in Flagstaff: getting up on someone’s rooftop with beer, beach towels, and binoculars to watch the latest disaster. It’s terribly beautiful when the planes drop fire retardant on a burn. The orange flames like jaws full of bloody teeth opening wide as the plane dives to loose a powdery fog on the inferno licking up from below.

Soon after Sedona, Rob took me to Payson to meet his parents. Frogs lined the walkway leading up to the front door. Large, small; plastic, ceramic; green, brown, hot pink and bright red; posed sitting with legs folded beneath, or poised mid-leap; a veritable Biblical plague. “Welcome!” said his mother. “Sorry about all these. I don’t know who started it; someone gave me one once, and now everyone buys them for me.” She ushered us in. The living room: also frog decor. The blanket hanging over the couch featured an appliqued amphibian. Frogs dangled from the brass light fixtures. Rob shook his head, hugged his mother, did not bring her a frog. Should I have brought a frog? “It was funny at first but I’m sick of them,” his mother confided.

Spadefoot frogs inhabit much of Arizona, especially Mogollon Rim country. Like all southwestern frog species, they are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Along with rapid groundwater depletion, climate change’s most devastating effects on the region include the increased incidence and severity of forest fires.

Rob had bleached his black-brown hair blonde for Halloween; he’d be dressing up as Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  I’d dyed my hair fire-engine red, as I was cast as Columbia in a benefit performance of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, all proceeds going to the community theater where we’d met. “Ketchup and Mustard,” his father joked. “Get a load of these two. Which one’s the bad influence?” 

His mother’s name is Nancy, same as my mother. His father’s name was Don, like the verb. On the drive from Flagstaff to Payson, Rob railed against his dad, an artist who couldn’t pay the bills, yet had insisted Nancy quit her nursing job in order to raise kids. Now, Don suffered severe health complications from diabetes, and Nancy served as his full-time nurse. “Watch what Dad eats,” Rob told me. “He’ll want to take us out to dinner even though he can’t afford it, and then he’ll order a steak and every carb on the menu. I’m amazed he’s not dead yet.” Don would outlive his son by only six months.


Emily Jace McLaughlin | Fiction

re: floridian guesthouse gem—furnished!


To the Landlord:

You may have felt my presence from your sidewalk, checking out the guesthouse property. I love when the seasons change in Miami. Lizards lose chlorophyll instead of trees.

In these photos of your guesthouse, I noticed a needle abandoned on the bathroom counter. I mistook it for a wrinkle in the screen and zoomed in. There it was, pure as a wedding invitation in the mailbox. I thought perhaps this needle was left by your previous tenant, the type of “right tenant (no college students)” for your “right price (wink).” Even though I am in college, I am still your right tenant. I am sure. I’m familiar with the going rates. Plus, as a full-time working student, I live at my desk. I barely exist.

I have taken some liberties here to include proof of car loan payments, two references and a voluntary sample of my English essay. I am never ashamed to take my application to the next level.  I’ve never had anything to lose.

About the car loan payments and writing sample: I am paying off a used Saab. In English Composition, I wrote a paper about my Saab. The professor spent a full period rationalizing not only why she was assigning this paper, but why she was employed by a community college. Personal narratives, she called the papers. The exercise: to view the people in your life as characters. Form hypotheses, imagine what that person-character was secretly feeling. I raised my hand. “When you make assumptions, you make an A-S-S of yourself, get it?” I said. The professor chewed her gum once more, said, “It’s fine. Whatever,” all, like, grow the F up, but now that I recount the look, it was an expression of concern.

Anyway, where is this chick going with this? you’re probably thinking. I’ve clipped an excerpt to help you hypothesize about the “right tenant” behind this response to your ad:


English Composition Personal Narrative


I did not speak to my dad in high school. He left me with my mother. I got her into rehab where all she had to worry about was what visitors would come more than once, for me to sneak her shampoo bottles and mouthwash, so she could suck out the alcohol. I was supposed to stay with my brother Rusty, but preferred staying in my mom’s house without her. Only when I was alone drinking could I think clearly about whether I, also, was an alcoholic. It only occurred to me to wonder this because Rusty had said alcoholics are the people at the party complaining they aren’t drunk enough and can drive everyone else home.

That brownnose in class said you go to jail for having a beer cracked in the car. I told her, “It’s all about the number in your blood, not the number of open cans.” I’d remembered that from a D.A.R.E. skit, acted out to Bridge Over Troubled Water.

I never resented my circumstances. I kept sight of the one favor I had to cash in: my dad’s new condo address for in-state tuition at Florida International University. FIU was the only place that accepted me, and I had to get out of my town, and fast.



Jalina Mhyana | Nonfiction

Laughter & Forgetting


“Then it came, real laughter, total laughter, taking us into
its immense tide. Bursts of repeated, rushing, unleashed
laughter, magnificent laughter, sumptuous and mad...
And we laugh out laughter to the infinity of laughter...
O laughter!”

- Milan Kundera

Laughter and forgetting are such gifts for the melancholic. Being in the present, no past no future. That cocksure zone of forgetting. But you can’t dunk your head in the River Lethe or tickle yourself with wit. There’s no masturbating a funny bone. Memories are etched at a cellular level, stubborn as mussels. So I copy Kundera and force it, faking it till I make it; mimicking joy until it comes in waves and I can’t hold it back.

I want to tell you how I do it. I’m writing this with a pink pen that has seven speeds. Laughter’s equal, a little wand that summons the here and now. My wrist’s calligraphy is invisible under the blankets, invisible ink on my skin. My wrist hovers above a hip. Panties rolled around my shins. Sole against sole, thighs splayed in a diamond shape. This is my page. I’m writing myself toward that hedonist’s wonderland, the heady intoxication of a spent body.

I undress my mind after I undress my body; have to undress the years, starting at five years old. Decades to disrobe. Distractions to discard.

Losing myself petal by petal. Pluck, pluck. Blown seed head, strip tease.

The Victorians called it a “little death,” and like any death, my life passes before my eyes. My sexual life flies by in the time it takes to come; I replay decades against my will, a film reel that never snaps, little sunspots in the corners when the reel changes from continent to continent, age to age. Static and scratches in memory like an LP; the holes in the narrative pop and make these fantasies mine, and well-loved, the celluloid lengths hissing.

I go back to when I was younger, when it all started, stripping the nesting dolls of my growing body and rubbing each of them before I can be here now, rubbing my grown-up self. It’s awful foreplay, but I can’t avoid it. I rub my sex that’s hairless, then hairy, then hairless again when I started waxing. I’m a pedophile watching my prepubescent body masturbate.

First I rub myself awkwardly, not knowing I have a clitoris. Climaxes are out of the blue at this stage, as if I’ve taken a step off the edge of the known world. Dragons nip at my fingers. Soon I can fall off the edge of the known world any time I wish. I can hunt the dragons a dozen different ways with star charts and astrolabes, stretch my labia back to reveal new lands.

Each time I come I fall farther. I fall through every orgasm I’ve ever had to get to the next one, the newest one. I know the edge of the world like the back of my hand; it is the back of my hand, blurred between my legs.

I grow thirty years younger, then grow older again, in the life of a AA battery. I can replay my life five times, give or take, before the vibrations weaken to the point where I could shake my dildo faster manually, with my wrist. Like a coke can before the spritz, beads of sugar on the sheets.

I keep my masturbation toy in a vintage pearl clutch, a lot like the Granta magazine cover with a pink purse opened like labia. My clutch is embellished with pearls, and inside, a pinky-sized vibrating dildo. Pearls fall from the clutch when I open and close it. Tiny pearls stuck between the floorboards. It looks like I’ve broken a choker and pearls have fallen to my feet. Each pearl is a climax, a blindness, a way of forgetting. My purse is threadbare, maybe a couple hundred pearls left. Girls are born with all their eggs inside of them already, like moons. They open and close themselves and the pearls slip off the skin till they can’t remember anything at all.

I go back to the beginning.


Steven Lang | Fiction



Snack food—don’t serve anything but snack food. That is what her    intuition had told her. She remembered having read something once about avoiding utensils on first dates. Or maybe it was just her neurosis about the sound of fork tines grating across a man’s teeth. She had not mentioned being easily irritated in her online profile. Still, the very idea of a dinner date (her first in months) had so nauseated her all day that a full meal was out of the question. It would be snacks and only snacks for her date with Leonard.

She lit four candles and set one in each corner of the carpeted ice fishing house. She had arranged it all beforehand based on a still life photo she had once seen by Henri Cartier-Bresson, although in the photo the candles were not lit, and they might have been oil lamps, and it might have been by another photographer (her memory of it was possibly a pastiche, and it may have been an etching), but she nodded to herself in approval anyway. Leonard was a photographer. An artist. And as an artist he would appreciate her efforts. And that appreciation, not the precision of her memory, is what mattered. Yet the inherent irony (“Candlelight” was the name of the online dating site where Jamie had found Leonard—was this indeed irony?) provided her with at least one clever line she could deliver to Leonard if the moment was right. Leonard had checked “sense of humor” in his profile, and so had Jamie.

At this moment, Leonard was in his car in front of Jamie’s house double-checking all of his camera gear. Jamie had requested that he bring his best equipment. He owned what was almost certainly the only medium-format digital camera in the otherwise pleasant but digitally-challenged northern Minnesota town of Bemidji, unless there was a similar camera he didn’t know about at the university, one used strictly for technical purposes, such as at the end of a telescope or in a medical imaging lab. But Leonard was an artist, not a technician. And he was successful. Nearly every graduation photo, engagement picture, and wedding portrait in town bore his watermark. He was peerless for a very large radius, hundreds of miles. Most of those miles were farms and lakes, it was true, but nevertheless it was an area large enough to be seen from outer space.

Lenses, filters, batteries, flash—everything looked to be in order. Leonard zipped his camera bag closed and, per Jamie’s instructions, made his way across her snowy front yard, around the back of the house, and down the hill toward the frozen lake. From the front, Jamie’s house was nothing special—a modest, white brick house with a faux-Mediterranean facade that had seen better days. But around back it cascaded down the hill, three full stories with two large decks and stairs zigzagging up and down like an old walk-up tenement. Leonard glanced back at the house towering behind him. He believed he had noted it once years ago during a boating excursion on Lake Bemidji. He turned his attention to the lake, and spotted the icehouse not far from the shore. Week-old snow broke in crusty chunks with Leonard’s every step. Across the lake, the lights of whizzing, whirring snowmobiles shone like fireflies. The aurora borealis could be seen in the clear evening sky. He felt more alive than he had in months, if not years.  Inside the icehouse, Jamie was pouring handfuls of cashews and Craisins into a series of small tin cups. The blue-enamel-with-white-spots kind of tin cups. They were not vintage but they were adorable. There was no way she was going to blow this. No way, because Leonard was special. Granted, from a purely physical perspective, he was not all that attractive. But he had huge biceps, which he proudly displayed in his Candlelight profile photo. Jamie quickly reminded herself that it wasn’t Leonard’s biceps that made him special. It was his photography. He wasn’t Cartier-Bresson good, but he was good. People knew his work, and not just in Bemidji. He had an online presence, the search-engine-optimized kind with thousands of followers and millions of hits. Jamie was a follower prior to finding him on Candlelight, the Northland’s Premier Dating Site for Curious Adults. And from the moment she had clicked on his profile photo (which was immediately after she saw his bulging right bicep) she was sure that he was the one.

Jamie was thin and fit, though pale with a somewhat ruddy complexion that she hid beneath a layer of expensive makeup. She was nearsighted and wore oversized, thick-rimmed tortoiseshell glasses. She was not especially tall, but most of her height was in her legs. In fact, when she was a teen, she had learned to do the splits and she often did so across a piano bench when practicing scales. Her hair was naturally blond, but she augmented its lustrous sheen with artificial highlights. Her eyebrows were preternaturally arched, like two ancient petroglyphs carved above icy blue eyes.

Jamie knew Leonard would have no trouble finding his way, since the icehouse was so near to the shore behind her house, a house that was, in her informed opinion, the nicest on Lake Bemidji. She had lived in it since she was a child. She would share this tidbit with Leonard if it came up in conversation. But she would not tell him that her father had carried her up the stairs every night when she was young—every night, that is, until the night he died alone out on the ice, drunk after a fight with her mother. She would not tell him she had run out onto the ice the next morning, barefoot, searching for her father, only to find him frozen stiff.

After the candles and snacks were all set, she sat down on the old Coleman cooler that had belonged to her father. A beer would be nice, she thought, but it would be best to wait. She was relieved when a moment later a knock came at the door. She stood up. “Hello?”

“It’s Leonard.”

I know, she thought. He might have said something more creative. Something like, “Land Shark.” Or maybe, “Guess who?” And not, simply, “It’s Leonard,” which made no sense. “I’m Leonard” would make sense.

“Come in, Leonard.”

Leonard pushed himself into the door, which by design opened outward. Jamie waited for him to realize his mistake. When he finally pulled the door open and stepped inside, she stared at him and said nothing. Leonard exhaled audibly, perhaps, Jamie thought, at the sight of the candles and cups of nuts and berries as well as her black bra showing through her white lambswool sweater. She was sure it was showing, even in this light, but it wouldn’t hurt to check. She looked down. Seeing not much more than dim gray fuzz, she looked back up. Leonard’s neck appeared to have a tic. Maybe he had a muscle injury, or a neurological problem. Or, Jamie thought, perhaps the tic was a sign that he hadn’t taken anything for his nerves, as she had, and that was both encouraging and depressing. She felt in her own jaw that she was tense as well, but believed that the prescription tranquilizer was already subduing her nerves effectively, and perhaps it was.

“I made snacks.” Jamie gestured toward the tin cups.

“Nice. I brought a bottle of wine.”

“Oh jeez,” Jamie shook her head. “I don’t have a corkscrew out here.”

“No problem. I know a trick.”

“Hum.” Jamie wondered if wine mixed with tranquilizer might not be a good combination, or at least not yet. Leonard was closer now and Jamie could see his biceps bulging beneath his navy peacoat. She fixated for a moment. Not too long, but long enough that she felt the tranquilizer at work. Leonard stood stiffly, and didn’t appear to be impressed by the candles. She wondered for a moment if she had made a mistake.



Bryce Emley | Nonfiction

Mother, Mother, Ocean


“You are the kind of guy who always hopes for a miracle
at the last minute.”

- Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City


It’s 11 a.m. You were driving until 4 a.m., but you’re here now and awake.

Reusable containers holding variously palatable foods are crowding the counters. The counters are usually clean, vacant, as you recall. None of the containers are your mother’s.

You recognize what these things often signify.

You eat cake.

•    •  •

Your mother’s hospital room seems alive. There is beeping and pulse and mechanical hum. There are tubes.

When you speak into her ear she nods, pants “Okay” with the abruptness of the breathless. This seems the only word she can say.

You tell her things you’ve never said to her, things you want to be sure she knows. Everyone is saying it’s important that you do this, though it seems like something people do in direr circumstances than you are convinced these are.

By afternoon, she doesn’t nod or pant “Okay” when you speak to her.

•    •  •

Your father tells you and your sisters that your mother never told him her cancer had come back. Brynne tells him that he went to chemo treatments with her, that this is the third time it has come back. He says he didn’t know. 

When you were four, blood flooded your father’s brain, so you assume the two of them must be talking about different things. This happens sometimes, because of the flooding. It sounds like water when he speaks.

•    •  •

After your mother’s first diagnosis in 2008, your sisters began researching holistics. Brooke tells you that grief and the lungs are connected. People with other internalized emotions—hatred and resentment, for example— tend to have issues with other organs—the pancreas, for example. 

There has been much grief in your mother’s life, but when Brooke talks about grief and your mother’s lungs, she means your father.

•    •  •

Fluid on the lungs is a term you’ve heard them use—the doctors, your sisters. It isn’t the cancer that concerns people, but this.

No one tells you what the fluid is. What you know is that there’s a flood inside her chest, that when she takes a breath you can feel it bubble beneath her ribs, that every time she breathes it sounds like drowning.

•    •  •

When people visit, they want to know what happened. You recite a timeline you didn’t participate in, pieced together from Brynne and your father: Monday she was fine; Tuesday she was sick; Wednesday she was too weak to text Brynne about being sick; Thursday the doctor sent her to the ICU; Friday she ate breakfast, her first meal in three days.

Saturday, you are here.

•    •  •

Aunt Esther calls your mother’s phone. You hold it up to your mother’s ear, check for silences on the other end. It sounds like prayer.

You blink and there’s a dampness. It feels foreign, sudden, the way rain does when the sun is out. There aren’t many occasions one must do things like this.

•    •  •

“She’s a fighter. I mean if anyone can get through this…”

“I know.”

 “Just, the things she’s been through. Beau and your dad and work, and this on top of it.”


 “…She was such an inspiration to Kerri, back when—when we were going through some things. She would tell me how just being around your mom, she got so much strength from her.”

“Thank you.”

 “You know, I want you to know your dad wasn’t—you were too young to know him before, but when I was starting out, I’d be up in front of the class, nervous as hell, and he’d check in and fire off jokes to the kids, ask if I needed anything. He was always joking. Always willing to help.”


“I just wanted you to know—”

•    •  •

Her arms thrash wildly, as if she’s swimming. If you don’t hold them down she pulls at her oxygen mask and its tubes and makes noises that sound like pleas. You hold her arms down. The oxygen continues. The swimming stops. When you release, she starts thrashing again and continues until you hold her down or until the nurse returns with Dilaudid.

You spend much of the day holding your mother.

•    •  •

“She is guh, she’s guh person, good people.” Your father says variations of these phrases over and over until you only know what he’s saying because you’ve just heard the words as words and not as the wash of sounds they become in his mouth.

•    •  •

You spend the night in the room with your mother. You sleep in a fauxleather chair that doesn’t so much recline as tilt. You sleep through the nurses turning your mother hourly. You sleep through the loud young night shift nurse with the large body and wild beard talking at your mother. You sleep through sunrise and shift change. You can’t be sure all of these things happened, but it’s likely.

 It exhausts you to simply exist here, even for a night, even with your full and empty lungs.