The Washington, D.C. region celebrates a rich literary past that bolsters a thriving literary present. Home to dozens of reading series and festivals, small presses, independent bookstores and creative writing programs, the DMV nurtures a literary scene that is both homegrown and internationally acclaimed. But this presence doesn’t mean there isn’t work to do to elevate the literary arts in our city. What does a writer look like? Who decides which works become a part of the canon? How can we support local writers so they can sustain a living in the District? Whose voices are being drowned out, and how can we amplify them?
Dozens of would-be Shakespeares are walking our streets, and odds are they aren’t all old British men. Now more than ever, it is vital that we make space for diverse and emerging voices in the literary arts – voices that tell the whole story of our moment in time. Indeed, one of the most important jobs a writer has is to hold a mirror to society, to help us reflect on who and what we are and, more importantly, who we want to be.
When District Fray’s outgoing deputy editor Trent Johnson (we’ll miss you, Trent!) reached out to The Inner Loop with the idea for a writing contest, our response was a resounding “Yes!” While The Inner Loop traditionally builds platforms for community engagement with writers off the page, the opportunity to publish local writers in a magazine outside of the traditional literary realm fits well with our mission to transform the written word into a shared experience. We were thrilled to have the honor of reading nearly 50 submissions in fiction, nonfiction and poetry, and ever grateful for award-winning author Rion Amilcar Scott’s generous participation as judge.
Of the three winning entries that appear here, J. Indigo Eriksen’s short fiction gives a glimpse of life through the eyes of a ghost; Whitney Ayres Kenerly’s essay reminds us that we don’t always know ourselves, or others, as well as we think; and Kelsey Frenkiel’s poem touches on the (dis)connection between mind and body. In short, what these pieces share is an unexpected view of the world – and we can never be exposed to too many of those. So please readers, read on.
Words by fiction winner J. Indigo Eriksen
He was surprised to find that he was still thought of by the living, having turned his flesh to ectoplasm sometime last week while on a trip to the former Soviet Bloc with his parents. It was so easy to decide. A simple choice of not choosing. First, he didn’t respond to the woman serving coffee.
“Would you like more, sir?” she asked in fluid yet accented English.
He sat there, quiet, non-responsive. Vaguely corpselike. She repeated her question, growing more stressed each time. She switched to French, Spanish, German, Italian. Breaking her own rule, she asked him in Russian. Frantic now and as a last-ditch effort, she asked in Romanian. Still silence. She filled his cup, muttered a rainbow of curses, and went to prepare a cappuccino for the woman writing at the corner table, who did respond.
Is it so easy, he wondered, to disappear? He thought of his parents showering back at the hotel. Wondered if they’d be able to order a cab or an Uber to the airport in the morning. F–k it, he thought, they’re adults. And so he began to shift from epidermis to a hazy space where a man’s body had been.
He didn’t anticipate the temperature change, his body becoming chilled like how he felt in the early summer after kayaking – dragging the boats up the riverbank before the late summer months when Virginia heat lasted through the night. He hadn’t realized he would be stranded here. Ghosts can’t cross water, except in the memories of those they leave behind. But the most unexpected part was the tugging.
He couldn’t sleep and therefore couldn’t wake up, but there was this sense of, not quite rest, but somnambulance. This was how he spent his late nights and early, early mornings. Wandering the fog space streets of Bucharest, roaming alongside the stray dogs who knew the Metro routes. Following them, as he had little else to do, he learned the trains.
It was on a train to Ceaușescu’s palace that he felt the first one. A gentle pull on his shoulder. He forgot he wasn’t human. Habit being strongly ingrained in the muscle of his memory, he turned around, expecting to see a lost tourist or maybe a lonely old man hankering for conversation, but there was nothing. Just the empty seats of a train. Sometime later it was like a tug, like a piece of string tied to a child’s loose tooth. It did not feel pleasing. Later still, it became a tearing. Like a black-and-white film he’d seen in high school, a memory long forgotten of a man tied to the mast of a ship slowly being tortured by his captors. A long metal rod with sharpened, curved blade extended high to the man, slicing into his flesh. This tearing off of skin that wasn’t skin but the memory of skin struck him as a quite peculiar feeling, as well as awful. Nevertheless, he persisted in his ghost world of smoky grey dawns.
Time became irrelevant because what does a ghost care for news of inverted yield curves and retirement planning? Eventually the pulls and tugs and tears connected themselves to images, which manifested first as ambiguous pixels and spattered pigment. The ghost’s internalized Rorschach inkblot smears found their way through the neurons of his memory and he saw faces like long-entombed photographs. He wandered the catacombs of his remembering, saw his brother at 19 drinking cheap whiskey from the bottle, brawling in the yard. His sister, an infant he held underwater in the pool, experimenting with the length of her breath. His mother neither asleep nor awake under a pink, flowered comforter, where the years of her depression locked her after he left for college.
At some point, it was winter. He realized the pulling and tearing, the tugs as he came to call them, were people remembering him. Pragmatically, he understood this made sense, he could disappear himself but he couldn’t remove the pasts he had shared with them. And so he existed until, predictably, the tugs lessened. He interpreted this as their forgetting. Possibly their deaths. From time to time, he’d be jerked out of his meanderings by a swift and violent tug. This must be my sister, he thought, whose quick descent into Alzheimer’s had turned the synapses of her brain into an electric dancing storm. But these too ceased. It was a summertime day and the ghost was walking along the banks of the Dâmbovița when he realized they were gone now. The past became driftwood, like memory like water.
J. Indigo Eriksen teaches writing at Northern Virginia Community College. Her creative work has appeared in The Northern Virginia Review, Scratching Against the Fabric, Endlessly Rocking and TYCA-SE Journal. She was awarded the 2019 Mary Roberts Rinehart prize in nonfiction from GMU. Eriksen is a dedicated whiskey drinker.
Words by poetry winner Kelsey Frenkiel
Today, I wrenched my head free from my vertebrae.
It rolled once across the pen-scratched desk.
I cracked it open like a pumpkin and parceled out the injured seeds.
Kelsey Frenkiel is a Program Manager at the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), where she provides support for a wide range of research and consulting projects in sustainable tourism. Frenkiel is also a freelance travel writer and enjoys hiking, voting, traveling, thrifting and visiting historical sites in her spare time.
Confronting My Partial Deafness at Trader Joe’s
Words by nonfiction winner Whitney Ayres Kenerly
In this pandemic, masks are everywhere. They help prevent the spread of Covid-19, flatten the curve, and are worn out of consideration for the vulnerable. They also make it impossible for me to communicate.
I am deaf in my right ear. My hearing disability was discovered during a routine test my kindergarten year. The test was the first thing I had ever failed. I come from the South where girls are supposed to be perfect, pure. I grew up in a family where defects were meant to be concealed, never celebrated. So, I learned to cope.
I never learned ASL. I watched a documentary about a school for the deaf that included a cafeteria scene. It was just like any other cafeteria, with teens at tables vigorously talking, trying to cram as much socializing as possible into their precious lunch period. Except it was all happening in silence. It terrified me.
Aside from the need to turn my head a little to the left when talking to someone in a crowded bar, I could pretend I was normal. I could get by in the world as well as anyone else.
Until the masks came.
I’m used to a certain level of hyperawareness. I worry someone might think I’m being rude or intentionally ignoring them when they are trying to ask me a question from my right side. In a world where every stranger’s body is turned into a potential deadly disease vector, the tension dial is turned to 11.
I was standing in line to enter the Old Town Alexandria Trader Joe’s, trying to follow all the new protocols for grocery shopping while 6 feet apart. Everyone was wearing a mask.
Everyone was standing still. No one was talking. An employee started walking beside our line and I careened my head to hear the announcement.
“We are mmmmphrm urmph mmm outside bags mmphrm,” he said.
What? The mask was muffling his words. I searched his face, but could only see where his eyes were looking. He looked at me.
“Mmmphr can’t bring PHRMMM in.”
It took a few seconds for my brain to catch up and piece together what I had heard.
There was something we weren’t allowed to do. Bags. Inside. I looked down at the grocery bags I had brought and nodded my head back at him before returning them to my car.
Once I was in the store, I became even more alert. My eyes shot across every wall and aisle looking for instructions. Trying to maintain a distance of six feet apart, I kept turning my head so much, checking that no one was beside or behind me, that I looked like a paranoid owl.
Finally, I made it to the checkout line. I was relieved when the cashier raised her arm high to summon me over to the register, but as I pulled up my cart, I heard her say something with a level or urgency that concerned me.
“Mmmphrm mmm phrmmm mmm?”
I froze. I had not caught a single word of that.
“MMMPHRM MMMMM PHRRMMMM MMMM?!?”
I shook my head. My heart felt like it was thrusting into my throat as I looked around for a sign of what was happening. Then, I turned back over my right shoulder and saw. A man was standing behind me, frowning, waiting with his cart in the aisle I had accidentally blocked.
I managed to hold back the tears until I left. I wasn’t upset with the store or the staff or the masks. I was crying because, for the first time, I had to acknowledge how much I had always depended on reading lips. I had to acknowledge that there was nothing more than a thin piece of fabric between me living what I had thought was a normal life, and me losing my autonomy. For the first time I had to admit to myself how severe my hearing loss is. I had to acknowledge I had a disability.
I feared this new world could be dangerous. Without being able to sign in ASL, something I now regret refusing to learn, I needed a way to at least let people know I needed a little help. I searched Etsy and found someone who creates colorful buttons that aim to “make the invisible visible.” I ordered three: “I am deaf in my right ear,” “Hearing impaired,” and “I am hard of hearing.”
I proudly wear my buttons when I go out in public now. I’ve been touched by how kind people have been when they see them – how willing strangers are to help explain things with gestures. I feel seen. But before I could let my partial deafness be visible to the world, I had to see it for myself.
Whitney Ayres Kenerly is a writer and music critic who lives near Washington, D.C. She received her M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from The New School. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health, C-Biz Magazine, C-VILLE Weekly and INDY Week, and can be found at www.whitneyayreskenerly.com.
The Inner Loop is a literary reading series and network for creative writers in the Washington, D.C. metro area. The organization aims to create a space for both emerging and established writers to connect with their community, and transform the written word into a shared experience through the act of reading aloud. Founded in 2014, The Inner Loop is a nonprofit organization driven by a love of writing, the joy of hearing people read their work and a desire to make the work of local writers more accessible to their community. This is accomplished through four core programs including a monthly reading series, an annual summer writing residency, The Inner Loop Radio podcast and biannual retreats, as well as additional special projects and collaborations ongoing throughout the year. Learn more about The Inner Loop at www.theinnerlooplit.org and follow guest judge Rion Amilcar Scott on Twitter and Instagram @reeamilcarscott.
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