American Goddess

Loud as usual, glamorous and intimidating as ever, she waltzed in. Light and agile, she carried herself like a carbon-fibre MP5. Fall sunshine ricocheted off her warm oak chassis and blued-steel skin. Still, she had a certain sawed-off double-barreledness.

“Call me Bella. Heard you wanted an interview.” She shed her trench coat, revealing a long, smooth body that mixed business with pleasure. “Here I am. At your service: everybody’s beautiful scary girlfriend, everybody’s helpful generous mom, and everybody’s crazy old aunt. Near as your nightstand. Far as Fallujah.”

She rifled her pockets. Gunpowder scented the air. Out came a Marlboro, already lit.

Lock & Load: Armed Fiction. You’re the editors. I’m the subject. So here’s the deal: I call the shots. You return fire.” She pantomimed chambering a round. “Ready, aim — ”

Bella: You’ve called me a literary muse. Are you just sucking up, like everyone entranced by my power and danger?

Editors: We respect you, but we fear you, too. After you took over our gun stories, we learned that you’ve gotten the drop on lots of writers. Fatal misfires caused by chucking a shotgun into a pickup on the first page, or pulling a surprise pistol from under the pillow on the last, littered the landscape. Writers need sharp eyes and steady hands to control you.

Bella: Oh, control! I’ve gotta be free. Don’t listen to that nonsense Chekhov’s supposed to have said. Well, some guy who said Chekhov said the gun has to go off. Chekhov didn’t follow that so-called rule himself. So you realize I’m worldwide?

Eds: We admire your foreign work. But American writers have always been your biggest fans. We’ve kept you busy since Rip Van Winkle took his shotgun to the Kaatskill forests.

Bella: (Preens herself. Chain-lights another.) Ah, wilderness! Twain’s, Faulkner’s, good old Ernest’s. Whose woods these are is mine, right?

Eds: Fiction explores the places people get lost. In Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “Family Reunion,” Michigan’s woods are home to a young girl whose need for family clashes with deep injury.

City life, too, offers wilderness, though—in John Edgar Wideman’s electrifying “Tommy,” a careless moment in urban Pittsburgh takes one life and sends another on the run. In Rick DeMarinis’s hilarious “The Handgun,” the absurd stress of a barking dog nudges a marriage over the edge.

The suburbs have their own dark precincts, as a returning vet learns in Jim Tomlinson’s “The Accomplished Son.” So do the wide-open spaces in Annie Proulx’s “A Lonely Coast,” where the harsh life of single women in smalltown Wyoming drives them to desperate measures.

Bella: (Leans back.) As you may know, I settled Michigan. I won the West. I own the whole country. Annie Proulx understood that years ago, when she called America a “violent, gun-handling country.” Isn’t that great?

(Exhales toward ceiling.) She’s not the only one who knows what to do with me. Lots more gals are gunslingers now. In the old days, I never hung around with women.

Eds: You’ve let people think so. Playing on the boys’ team got you more exposure. But gals gave you good ink: Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, even Virginia Woolf, wrote some of your juiciest roles.

Bella: To say nothing of Emily Dickinson’s loaded gun. You turned up some real Annie Oakleys, including yourselves. How’d you do it?

Eds: After our gun stories were published, we got interested. Pinckney Benedict, who wrote “Mercy,” the wonderful closing story in Lock & Load, said, “If you’re an American writer, sooner or later, a gun will appear in one of your stories.”

The wide range of fiction we read for Lock & Load proved him right. We read stories by America’s most distinguished writers. We secured a residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts to read the many more we received in answer to our nationwide call.

Bella: You mean you studied? Boring!

Eds: Studying you was arresting. You own every scene you’re in. Your range as object and metaphor is breathtaking. As leading lady, cameo, understudy, or stage manager, you dazzle and transfix. You highlight action, electrify description, illuminate understory, and raise the stakes immeasurably.

Bella: (Basks.) Aw, thanks. Nobody’s called me arresting since Wyatt Earp. And nobody’s ever made a whole book about me. And so beautifully produced.

Eds: Thank the University of New Mexico Press; we do. They gave us great guidance on a major undertaking. Besides choosing and editing the stories, we secured rights, checked facts and spelling, maintained consistent style, conferred with contributors, negotiated the contract, and planned marketing and publicity.

Bella: Sounds like hard work. But of course I’m worth it: Lock & Load finally gave me my due! All the other anthologies where I appear are about war and hunting. I’m sick of bit parts in foxholes and deer blinds.

Eds: We knew there was more to you than that. You’re not just national, Bella, you’re permanently timely.

Bella: Timeless, you mean. Why’d you include stories about the future?

Eds: We didn’t want to limit you. The future’s wide open.

Bella: (Grins.) Not when I’m in play. You’re right, though, Americans love me! I’m everywhere — in language, news, music, movies,TV — so visible I’m invisible. I arm your dreams and haunt your imaginations.

You’re fickle, though. When I make terrible news, you can’t talk about me. A girl wants to be appreciated.

Eds: That’s your deepest secret: you’re lonely. That’s why you take stories hostage.

Bella: (Laughs bitterly.) No comment. Last question—you knew I’d take a shot at this one: What’s your stand on gun rights?

Eds: Lock & Load was never political. It still isn’t. Because you aren’t. We built Lock & Load to explore America. We built Lock & Load to foster a deeper discussion about you — your value, your danger, your meaning.

Bella: Oh, come on! What have stories got to do with real life?

Eds: You blazed the way to nationhood. You took and gave land and life, you trespassed and defended. You reflect our culture. Lock & Load reflects you.

Bella: Reflect? Sight’s my thing, not insight.

We’re done here. (Shrugs into coat.)

Wait. (Pulls Lock & Load from pocket.) Sign this. “With love,” please, ladies — you owe me! In fact, don’t you think my copy should be a freebie?

Eds: Small press, tight budget. And you haven’t helped. On Lock & Load’s pub date, the world heard tragic news from Las Vegas. You said it yourself: after these terrible events, nobody wants to talk about you. Or think about you.

Except American writers.

You’re welcome.

# # # #

Images ©Mary Mazziotti

Virginia writers Deirdra McAfee (New School MFA, fiction ’04) and BettyJoyce Nash (Queens University MFA, fiction ’11) originated, organized, edited, and saw Lock & Load: Armed Fiction into print. McAfee’s work has appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Shenandoah, The Georgia Review, and elsewhere. Nash’s work has appeared in NDQ, Broad River Review, and elsewhere; she won the 2015 F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story Prize.


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