by C Dylan Bassett

I talk to you on the phone...

from Some Futuristic Afternoons

I talk to you on the phone for an hour then remember you’re dead. One cloud, one moon. A butterfly behind a curtain. Does loneliness make one more beautiful or less? In my un-dream you’re walking away, etc. If you keep walking, you’ll reach the sea. Soon you reach the sea. Things will get darker before they get totally black. Your jacket is black, your hair.

C Dylan Bassett is the author of three forthcoming chapbooks, Some Futuristic Afternoons (Strange Cage, 2014), Lake Story (Thrush Press, 2014), and One Continuous Window (Mouthfeel Press, 2014). His poems are featured/forthcoming in Cincinnati Review, CutBank, Diagram, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Pleiades, Verse Daily and elsewhere. He attends the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

by C Dylan Bassett

We're all waiting for the sex doll...

from Some Futuristic Afternoons

We’re all waiting for the sex doll to arrive. I have my regrets, forgetting to wave goodbye. I knew the hospital room was vacant but I knocked anyway. Death prevents the dead from being understood but not from getting in bed. The mime points at the wind. Wanting to understand is a bad habit. A tunafish sandwich laced with hooks.

C Dylan Bassett is the author of three forthcoming chapbooks, Some Futuristic Afternoons (Strange Cage, 2014), Lake Story (Thrush Press, 2014), and One Continuous Window (Mouthfeel Press, 2014). His poems are featured/forthcoming in Cincinnati Review, CutBank, Diagram, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Pleiades, Verse Daily and elsewhere. He attends the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

by Quinn White

The Feast

I was your wife for Halloween.

I wore a wig of spitting firecrackers,

packed a sandcastle to my chest,

lacquered my stomach with honey,

wrapped my hips in sliced fruit,

twined alphabets down my legs.

I knew your bedroom closet

bulged with vacuum cleaners

stomaching the dust

you sucked from stars.

You knew I was a risk.

I walked a lady’s coat upstairs,

lifted a vacuum, ran outside—

almost to the forest. You caught me

dizzy in the lemongrass, a cracked filter

in my lap like a honeycomb

throbbing with silver bees.

Quinn White is the author of My Moustache (Dancing Girl Press, 2013) and Orienteering (Origami Poems Project, 2013). Her work appears in or is forthcoming from journals such as Gargoyle, Sixth Finch, Weave Magazine, Word Riot, and Bayou Magazine.

by John Gibbs

The Bear Room

We are going to be rich.

We are going to live out

the rest of our lives

without glass or wood.

The lawn is pecking

at the crows' feet.

A car fumes, and we load

our bodies in. 

Gathered below a television

at a talky bar countertop,

this happening

carries beyond our reasoning.

We want the fight

to be about us. We want

to hit back with the bottle

from behind.

This is it, another

evening full of vice

in the bear room.

We have money to buy

things and a gun pressed

up against our heads.

Originally from the Midwest, John Gibbs is currently pursuing his MFA at the University of San Francisco, where he is the Managing Editor of Switchback ( He is a former intern at 826 Valencia, a nonprofit organization located in San Francisco's Mission District dedicated to supporting the writing skills of students ages six to eighteen.

by John Gibbs

The Word Unmade Flesh

It's beginning to happen,

a new head settles atop the body,

telephones rarely ring

in our pockets anymore.

In the presence of my destroyer

I arrange myself calmly.

We collapse the marketplace

in a cart of acorn squash

the size of children's heads. A lone

vendor builds himself a memoir

about the changing cost of fruit,

makes a private investment in truth.

In the presence of my constructor

I hold myself dimly.

I lean forward again. I wait

for my muscles to be brought

to me. I save all my large ideas

for a moment already past.

Originally from the Midwest, John Gibbs is currently pursuing his MFA at the University of San Francisco, where he is the Managing Editor of Switchback ( He is a former intern at 826 Valencia, a nonprofit organization located in San Francisco's Mission District dedicated to supporting the writing skills of students ages six to eighteen.

by Jac Jemc

Hammer, Damper

Before they took him in, he'd made a ritual of pressing his ear to the side of the upright piano as his mother played. Loud and buzzy notes wrote odes within him until she'd warn him away.

Now, in the dark of the night, made light with red blinks and glowing screens and the light from the hall, he watches his parents sleep in the chair and the cot beside him, and he is not old enough to think, “How serious could it be?” He waves his hands trying to vanish them, like he saw in the magic show. He imagines walking out of this place on a tightrope, and emerging on the other side of the wall to much applause. When the sun appears in his window at 5 a.m., he flourishes his palms again. He wonders at how fine he feels.

The father falls for the dark wood laminate, telling people it's a fine room they're living out of these days. The child tinkers with the blood in the tubing when his parents are preoccupied with the doctor. He can make the deep red stop and start with just a pinch. His imagination is shaped by where he is; he dreams himself a nurse, a doctor. Even when he imagines blaring on a trumpet, he is holding the nebulizer, blowing sour notes sweet. His IV becomes the ripcord on this parachute as he envisions telling his coach, “Maybe we should turn back,” before jumping toward the center of the earth. His childhood is possessed by this place. Tangles of days swirl back and forward and none of them can recognize the present, but they resolve to smile: sad smiles and weary smiles and mesmerized smiles when the doctor brings news that says, “Improvement has come in the form of staying the same.”

Each night abounds with the invisible impossible. What if the child fell from bed, and none of the bells laughed their cruel laugh? The parents bring in a radio, to keep the child's ears filled with the same piano mazurkas and polkas he loved, but the child misses the vibrations most of all, feeling all the small violences of the hammers dancing on the wires just inches from his face.

The parents' wingspans grow smaller. Their car hasn't been touched in days.

“That noisy sun. Tell it to shut up,” the boy says, in the afternoon, his eyes squinting, and the parents squelch their scolding and close the blinds. They miss the way the light warms their core and mourn the cacophony of life outside the window, but they keep telling themselves, “It is not the skin of our teeth.”

The child mouths gibberish much of the afternoon, drifting into a kind of stupor, anesthetic shooing or beckoning. The mother reads to the child even after he has fallen asleep: “A fox remembers easily.” She pauses on this, stranded.

The children who are well enough put on a play. It takes weeks to prepare. It makes the father's tears ceiling within his eyes each time he thinks of it. The parents take their son to see it, but the play is about a garden, and the garden is just off stage. It drives the mother into a fit by the end of the show, knowing that off stage there is no garden at all. She tells the director, “I would have folded colored tissue. I would have pinched together fabric scraps so these children could have had a real garden.” Some of the kids overhear her and look around confused. They do not know what might have been.

Grandmother visits and she is full up of laughter and so soft to hug. Grandmother gives charming warnings for the future and the parents look away, convinced of what is not to come. They hold the point of view of each visitor in their mouths, until it becomes soggy and they spit it out. They have come to vie for the insoluble. They have made up a new way to survive knowing what they know. They no longer hesitate or whisper or experience anticipation. They used to shimmer with restlessness, and now they blink largo.

The father read that animals that breathe more slowly—pythons, elephants, tortoises—live longer. The family begins losing sleep in the attempt to breathe more and more slowly, and so even their breath becomes strange to them. They slow their heart rates by 75 percent. They hibernate awake.

The parents read to the child about everything in the hopes of telling him the one thing he needs to know. “Breathing is one of the few things we can both control and not about our bodies. That means, it happens without our thinking about it, but we can also think about it and change the way it happens.”

The child is familiar with things that he can't stop, so he listens carefully.

The father reports, “Conscious breathing is found in many forms of meditation and exercise and performance: yoga, swimming, vocal training, the playing of musical instruments. You can change your unconscious efforts slowly.” The mother caresses the back of the child's head and says, “Unconscious breathing starts back here in your brainstem.”

The child, trying to wrap around this information, asks, “So I could stop my breath? I could end?”

The parents look at each other nervously, want to run to another room and punch each other’s lights out for thinking this was a good idea. And yet, what they find in each other’s eyes is the realization that it is a privilege to live so closely to this pocket of wonder they call their son.

The father says, “No. A person cannot just voluntarily stop breathing. Your reflexes would cause you to breathe or you would lose consciousness and your body would breathe for you.”

The mother changes the subject quickly, “Hippocrates thought you could determine a person's health by their breath.”

When the doctor comes in with his brain full of news and his mouth full of reassurance, the child begins to cry and his color begins to change, but no one notices for they're all torn apart by the prognosis. The child falls off into a forced sleep, the pain having stopped his breath. The parents are weeping all the more loudly, so they don't notice one missing voice, one absent pattern of inhales and exhales. The doctor notices the child's color only after he has already stranded himself in a faint.

The doctor uses complex words there are easier translations for: cyanosis, syncope, hypoxia, postictal. There is so much that the child's body needs energy for that is not this education.

The child wakes an hour later with more tears. He can remember all of it. He wishes for forgetting. He asks them to turn the sun away.

When they all fall down into sleep again, the nurses arrive in fleets, carefully watching over the family, keeping the hushed, unspoken ritual of vigilance. The elders wake before the child, feeling negligent and whispering their wishes for rescue as if hidden by dark branches.

The flame of the child is dying out. Words spread quickly as they make their way down to the valley of the cafeteria. The parents torch themselves with coffee, uttering on the view from every window. The mother hisses and spits, and with time, they begin to compose themselves with the tenderness necessary to return to the child. They hike back up the floors, calibrating their proximity.

In the gentle breeze of monitors and ventilation comes a knock at the door, almost impossible to hear. And again, topsy-turvy news. And again, the mother misunderstanding herself. And again, the contemplation of the little stamp of outside world beyond the glass that is all theirs in this awful place. And again, new arrivals of cheery flowers. The summoning is happening all too quickly. What little potential they thought was theirs is rioting.

The loud will soon perish for the quiet. The mother will croon out the happiest songs, transubstantiated to doleful lullabies. She will think of the nest she's formed in the left ventricle of her heart just for the child. The child will grow lighter than an inflatable beach ball. The mother will squeeze him to her chest, afraid he might be carried away.

“There is time for one more story,” she tells him, and she squeezes herself on the bed beside him as the child drifts away in the current. In his dream, a voice tells the child to be wary of walking down the chalk path, for fear of brushing it away. “Like breadcrumbs,” says the voice, “be fearful of erasure.” The child refuses the fear and leans into the wind. He is a glowing magnificence. He reflects everything. The sun cups him so pointedly that even his eyelids don't hide the light. Those around him can hear his breath curving in coils of alarm, but the child has been rendered graceful.

As people get older, their lives pass at an ever-dizzying pace. People close themselves off with certainty. People laugh less and less. But when death snarls so close and hungry behind a young child, the child, in all his slow motion time and openness, might invite the wolf in. There is room for new kinds of friendship and new shapes for hope.

For everyone else, the end is full of fervor and calamity. The parents try to flex reality. They try to stretch life a little longer, like the moon in the morning. But then pressure. But then sitting down to play a piano with keys arranged backwards. Impossible anger. Radiant denial. Resounding disorder. Time will teach the way, but first everything will have to be unlearned. The hammers will hug the strings; the strings will shake free.

Jac Jemc lives in Chicago. Her story collection False Bingo will be released in 2019 and her novel Total Work of Art will be published in 2021, both from FSG. Her novel The Grip of It was released from FSG Originals (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) in August 2017, receiving starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and Library Journal, and recommended in Entertainment Weekly, O: The Oprah Magazine, Marie Claire, Esquire, W, and Nylon. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming from Guernica, LA Review of Books, Crazyhorse, The Southwest Review, Paper Darts, Puerto Del Sol, and Storyquarterly, among others. Jemc is also the author of My Only Wife (Dzanc Books), named a finalist for the 2013 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and winner of the Paula Anderson Book Award; A Different Bed Every Time (Dzanc Books), named one of Amazon's Best Story Collections of 2014; and a chapbook of stories, These Strangers She'd Invited In (Greying Ghost Press). Jac received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has completed residencies at the Oberpfälzer Künstlerhaus, Hald: The Danish Center for Writers and Translators, Ragdale, the Vermont Studio Center, Thicket, and VCCA. She has been the recipient of two Illinois Arts Council Professional Development Grants. She teaches English and creative writing. Find her at

by Colum McCann

Colum McCann in conversation with Melissa Swantkowski

A note from prose editor Melissa Swantkowski: 

I first came across Narrative 4 not because of its goals of social change, but because its founders had collected over one hundred stories online—all with the same title—from so many of my favorite writers. But to say that learning of the venture’s loftier ambitions was merely a bonus isn’t accurate either. It’s encouraging, even thrilling, to think of storytelling as our most universal currency and the exchange of experience as an action with real power to change the way we view and exist in the world.

Via “Fearless Hope through Radical Empathy,” a phrase coined to describe the transformative nature of sharing stories and creating a space for diverse stories to be told, worldwide, Narrative 4 is a committed group of authors and activists devoted to social change through the exchange of stories. The website goes further to explain that “The key to transformation lies in the sharing; when you hear someone else’s story deeply enough to inhabit it and re-tell it as if you have lived it, you become “the other” and see the world through her eyes.”

I had the pleasure of emailing with co-founder and chair Colum McCann to learn more about the narrative of Narrative 4—the origins of this collaborative venture, who it’s for, where it’s going, and how exactly they got 106 writers to write and donate a story with the title “How to Be a Man.”

In addition to this interview, I’m excited to present the full text of Colum McCann’s version of “How to Be a Man.” For access to the rest of the project and 105 more stories, please visit

Bodega: What was the inspiration for Narrative 4? Was there one specific incident, or something you encountered that made you think this was a community the world needed?

Colum McCann: I’ve always wanted to do something beyond the words on the page.  To use the writing to engage more on a ground level.  To be an activist, I suppose.  I’ve been involved in a number of literary ventures down through the years, great organizations like PEN and Fighting Words, but I also wanted to be at the core of something new.  

I was never quite sure what that might be, until June of 2012, when  a group of literary minds and social justice advocates got together—under the guidance of Lisa Consiglio—for five days in Colorado.  There was Luis Urrea, Terry Tempest Williams, Reza Aslan, Andy Sean Greer, Dave Wroblewski, Assaf Gavron, Darrell Bourque, Toby Wolff, Firoozeh Dumas, Ron Rash, Ishmael Beah and others.  I tell you, it was an unprecedented meeting.  Lisa had been working in non-profit in Aspen for many years, but her vision was bigger than Aspen alone.  The group got around a big table.  I was a bit of a curmudgeon to be honest.  I didn’t want to talk about stories … I wanted to create stories.  I didn’t quite know why I was there, even though I was supposed to be chairing the board.  But bit by bit this incredible group reeled me in. Amazing. We stirred up a stew of ideas about stories and story-telling, and how we use stories to change the world.  Big questions.  “What is the highest aim of story-telling?” “How can we harness that energy to transform our society?” “What capacity does literature have to articulate and sustain a vision of enlightened leadership?”  We had in the back of our minds an idea of story-exchange for youngsters, but we weren’t sure what shape that would take.  

Together, we became a community of inquirers.  We encouraged each other to think more deeply and broadly about the challenges we face as writers and activists. It was an adventure in the imagination: it took place over a week but we are all still together almost a year later—and we have an incredible non-profit to prove it.  The week together allowed us to consider the human predicament.  And also to acquire new ways to think about our work.


The result was Narrative 4.  Our desire to create a narrative for social change is based on the belief that we must see the world, and ourselves, differently through the exchange of stories, primarily for young people.  Kids from Belfast, kids from Chicago.  Get them together.  Let them walk in one another’s shoes—almost literally.  By telling the stories, not of themselves, but of others.  The core philosophy is: You step into my shoes, I step into yours.  You take responsibility for my life, I take precious care of yours.  Stories are the engine of who we are.  They are a mighty weapon.  Like kids, we must treat them with respect.  

We have a wonderful system in place to help kids through this process —it’s intimate and literary and personal all at once.  And we have a way in which we go about it, quietly and with great respect.  Eventually we would like to have the idea of “radical empathy” working in the school system.  We’re already working on a really carefully thought-out curriculum. 

Bodega:  Who is Narrative 4 created for? Writers? Readers? Teenagers that attend the story exchanges? All of the above? The casual reader who clicks a link on your twitter feed, or a kid in rural North Dakota who finds a story that matches his experience?

 Colum McCann:
Everyone. There is not a person who might not, potentially, benefit from the ability to exchange her story. That’s a bold statement but I think it’s true.  The rich kid on the hill. The poor kid on the street corner. The vet that just got home. The politician who sent the vet to war. The executive who pays the wages and the guy cleaning the kitchen.  It isn’t just about “conflict resolution” or people who have been marginalized. I’d like to see Jewish kids hanging out with Haitian kids and exchanging their stories.  Or kids from Gaza going to the wealthy suburbs of Dublin.  And starting a sort of global awareness for the need for peace.  To step into the shoes of others in order to be able to step back into our own.  We need organizations like N4 to help us toward that peace we so desire.  I have enormous admiration for all these literary organisations that are doing things in the world—like 826 Valencia for instance.  Dave Eggers.  There’s nobody quite like him.  We hope to learn and champion that sort of work.

Bodega:  What does the 4 mean?

Colum McCann: Well “Narrative For” isn’t as catchy, and N4 caught on faster than we expected.  Narrative for Peace.  Narrative for Change.  Narrative for Chicago.  Narrative for Gaza.  Lisa Consiglio came up with the name, and it took off. It’s an organization “for” everyone and the N4 works well—for me it’s especially good, since the N4 road runs from Dublin out to the west of Ireland, so it brings me home. The idea is that our story is “for” everyone. And the world “narrative” is a bit more sophisticated and ancient than “story.” It’s more than the story. It’s the life behind the story and how it fits into a global narrative, for everyone else to share.

Bodega: Where did the theme “How to Be a Man” come from? Did you find it challenging to write for your own prompt?

Colum McCann: It’s amazing what sounds easy after a few jars. Tyler Cabot from Esquire magazine suggested it one night when we were talking about where we could take Narrative 4.  He had an upcoming issue themed “How to Be a Man.”  We thought we could get a few writers to donate a story to the cause, but somehow that wasn’t bold enough. We decided we wanted 80 writers to donate an original piece of fiction in honor of Esquire’s 80th anniversary. Absurd. Then we started to ask. And a few weeks later we had stories from Ian McEwan, Edna O’Brien, Ben Fountain, Michael Cunningham, Amy Bloom, Roddy Doyle, Geoff Dyer, Rawi Hage, Etgar Keret, Joe O’Connor, Ron Rash, Monique Truong, Tiphanie Yanique, Adam Haslett, Rabih Alameddine, Sasha Hemon, Joe Henry and countless others…some of the stories were eighty words long, some were 800 and it ended up being the most exciting literary venture of the year, or in fact any year.

Esquire stepped up to the plate and they built a website for us. They got us off the ground. They helped us connect with writers around the globe.  It was a nod to the fact that we are all in this together .. that we all want to see this work…a step towards global empathy and decency.  The centerpiece of the launch of Narrative 4 ended up being the website, a clean, cool site where we sold a total of 106—106!!—stories for $5.  We ended up making thousands of dollars. Esquire ran a sizeable excerpt in their June issue to promote the website and Narrative 4.  The only catch was that each story had to be titled HOW TO BE A MAN, which was the theme for Esquire’s June issue. The authors could run with that title as far as they wanted and in whatever direction they chose. (And yes, we hope to do an anthology called HOW TO BE A WOMAN with a different partner magazine next year.)

Bodega: Have you experienced anything new or unexpected in regards to storytelling (either the process or the value or even just a confirmation of the way that sharing stories deeply connects us as human beings) in the founding of Narrative 4?

Colum McCann: In early 2013, I got a letter that shook my soul out.  Lee Keylock, a teacher at Sandy Hook High School, wrote and asked if I would mind if he used “Let the Great World Spin” to talk to the kids about grief, recovery, trauma and healing.  He was searching for a novel that would touch on these things in the aftermath of the massacre that had occurred in the school just down the road.  These were the brother and sisters and neighbours of the kids that had been killed.  It was one of the most deeply felt moments of my life.  It seemed to validate so much of what I have been hearing and saying about literature for years: that we can use stories to make sense of beauty and grief both.  

So I visited the school this April and sat with those kids. And they said things: “My brother was killed”, and “I used to babysit for the six year-old who was shot”—all these incredible things.  I was terrified to talk, because what could I say?  What could I teach them? But in the end I didn’t teach them anything at all—they taught me.  They were the ones who talked about morality. They were the ones who talked about light. They were the ones who talked about trying to find a little bit of brightness in the dark. And the fact that this teacher recognized that literature makes itself available to open up the world is to me a stunning thing. It was one of the most defining moments of my literary career.  It was a difficult experience, but profoundly touching. 

And we know there’s plenty of other areas where that same grief is apparent.  The south side of Chicago.  West Belfast.  Bradford.  Bethlehem.  What happens when these kids know the grief of others?  The world expands.  We grow more deeply empathetic.

Bodega:  As part of the mission of understanding “the other” there is a great paragraph on the blog explaining “Radical Empathy”:

If I can hear your story deeply enough to retell that story—and you can do the same for me—then we see the world through each other’s eyes.  We inhabit each other’s vision and are forever changed.

This made me curious about the possible link between the mission of Narrative 4 and your own work which often hinges on historical occurrences and explores overlapping perspectives, deepening our understanding of history by humanizing it. Were you drawn to the mission of spreading Radical Empathy because of your creative work?

Colum McCann:
“Never again will a single story be told as if it were the only one.”  That’s a John Berger quote I learned long ago and I’ve said now a million times over.  The ability to see from a variety of angles is crucial to the modern experience.  We cannot understand “otherness” if we don’t make an attempt to step into someone else’s shoes.  The more we choose to see, the more we will see.  

And also, what is truth?  It can’t be singular.  It is far more complicated and necessary than that. Truth must, in essence, be made up from a variety of truths.  We put them together and weigh them up.  And so stories are our greatest democracy.  Our most original one.  Our most necessary one.  Can’t live without them.  The world is impossible without our stories about it. 

Bodega: New online literary journals get flak for being, well, just that—new online literary journals that are trying to stand out when the world is saturated with similarly-intended publications. What’s your honest opinion about them? What purpose do you think they serve, and is it a necessary one?

Colum McCann: Another voice.  Why not?  If I get through to one person … if one person gives a few bob to Narrative 4, or gets involved, through this interview, then that’s good enough isn’t it?  

Just like another literary magazine, people could roll their eyes at Narrative 4 and say ‘Oh God, another nonprofit that wants to change the world. Here we go again.” But we know we have something special here and it’s becoming a movement, not “just” another organisation. I suppose I should throw the question right back—what’s wrong with trying to stand out when the world is saturated with this that and the other? Clearly the world is ready for a better this that and the other. So if BODEGA is the thing that makes us sit up a little straighter and pay more attention to literature and the world in general, I’m in. Go for it. It isn’t up to me to say it’s necessary. And if I tell you that Narrative 4 is necessary, that will only go so far. It’s up to us to prove the necessity of what we do. To make it part of the fabric. To show that it all unravels without us.

  What’s next for Narrative 4? Are there any opportunities for other people in the literary world to get involved and help your mission? Colum McCann: We’re building from the ground up now.  It will take about a year or so for us to really know where we’re going, but we have all sorts of people on our side.  

Everyone’s welcome.  It may take some time but we’d like to see kids getting together from all over the world—a million stories exchanged between kids from a hundred countries, why not?  There’s no reason to think we can’t do it along with all the people who are willing to get onboard.  This organization knows no boundaries. We acknowledge history and geography and politics and race and religion but more than anything we acknowledge our stories and our ability for empathy. And everyone has a story. So everyone belongs and we are building a global volunteer database that is borderless. We are on the ground in Chicago right now but soon we will be all over the world and yes, we need you.  And your story.  Go to our website.  Just sign on.  I think eventually this will become a powerful community of intent.   

Read Colum McCann’s story “How to Be a Man,” originally published in Narrative 4, by clicking here.

Thanks to Lisa Consiglio for her help in getting this interview together. Lisa Consiglio is executive director and cofounder of Narrative 4.

Colum McCann was born in Ireland in 1965. He is the author of six novels and two collections of stories. He has been the recipient of many international honours, including the National Book Award, the International Dublin Impac Prize, a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from the French government, election to the Irish arts academy, several European awards, the 2010 Best Foreign Novel Award in China, and an Oscar nomination. His work has been published in over 35 languages. He lives in New York with his wife, Allison, and their three children. He teaches at the MFA program at Hunter College.

by Colum McCann

How to Be a Man

Man the fuck up.  Give me back my dead girl.  That’s all I’m asking.  I sit here every day, staring out.  Got a front porch.  Got a metal chair.  I don’t get drunk and I don’t stay sober.  I aint keen on getting high.  I just sit here, thinking backwards.  It’s a long way home.  I watched her coffin get carried through the church.  They played the saxaphone the length of Tupelo, turned the corner and went down Burgundy.  I didn’t want no folded flag.  I didn’t want no military taps.  I aint saying I was the best, but I weren’t the worst either.  She was mine.  Blood and eyelid.  I used to give her baths.  She sat down in the little bitty bit of water.  I scrubbed her back.  She said, Auntie.  All childy about the soap in her eye.  I put her hair in braids.  She say, Quit tugging.  She a mouthy little bitch sometimes.  I say, Listen to me.  She says, No.  Thirteen, she’s out climbing trees.  Fourteen, she’s running with the boys.  Fifteen, she driving along Urquhart.  When the hurricane came, she went out and stole a popcorn maker.  A popcorn maker!  Only thing left on the shelves.  Never even used it, not once.  Left it sitting on the kitchen counter. She say, Fuck this shit, I’m bored.  Eighteen, she walked out the door.  She sent letters back.  Fort Hood.  Kandahar.  She manned the fuck up.  That’s what she did.  Cleaned her rifle.  Shined her boots.  Walked out under the starry shot-up night.  A landmine, what it was.  She flew out through the windshield.  That shit bulletproofed supposedly.  She out in the middle of nowhere.  When she hit she skidded along the dust.  She lying in a patch of ground like she been slapped from the sky.  Just orphaned out there.  Steering wheel beside her.  Black and round in the dust.  Bits and pieces of tire.  Metal twisted.  Sunning down hard yellow.  She already lost her leg.  Everyone else dead round her.  Bits and pieces.  She better off quick dead herself.  She hear a truck coming.  She’s hoping it’s a helicopter with a shot of morphine.  Or maybe that shadow will be a stretcher.  Maybe that moaning belongs to a guitar.  But that aint no flower of dust.  That aint no recognizable shoe.  They stand there with their gun barrels pointing down.  She stared up at them.  She said, Shoot me.  They took their turns instead.  They manned up. 

(Once on Royal I saw a flatbacker in a station wagon with a sign on the top that said $10, a line round the corner to Montegut, waiting, she was spread out wide in the back of the car, I guess they were manning the fuck up then too).

Floods is the word they use, but they should call it something else, like remembering maybe. The Seargent came knocking on my door.  Up the steps past the watermark.  Ma’am, he says.  I already knew it, gut instinct.  He sits there.  Ma’am this, Ma’am that, Ma’am the other.  He says, Ma’am you mind if we turn off the television?  And I says, Don’t matter none to me.  So I turn it off.  We sit there.  That’s what we do.  He’s looking at her photo.  She’s gone dolphin.  Swimming in my eyes.  Your niece did this.  Your niece did that.  I’m just staring at him.  Listerning to him from the bottom of the sea.  I drifted out to the kitchen.  Slid my slippers along the dry floor.  I put on the popcorn maker.  Plugged it in.  I hit the button.  The corn goes pop pop pop.  I wait.  It blooms out all white and fluffy.  He’s still talking at me, but I’m in the kitchen just listening to that pop pop popping.  He says Ma’am, can you hear me?  And I say, Yes, sir I can hear you.  And I’m thinking, man or woman, it don’t matter, you get blown in the air, you aint gonna come down any fuller.  

Bodega would like to thank Colum McCann and Narrative4 for letting us reprint this story. Please visit to read the rest of the “How to Be a Man” stories and to learn more about the project.

Colum McCann was born in Ireland in 1965. He is the author of six novels and two collections of stories. He has been the recipient of many international honours, including the National Book Award, the International Dublin Impac Prize, a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from the French government, election to the Irish arts academy, several European awards, the 2010 Best Foreign Novel Award in China, and an Oscar nomination. His work has been published in over 35 languages. He lives in New York with his wife, Allison, and their three children. He teaches at the MFA program at Hunter College.