by Courtney McDermott
At the Chickasaw Motel, three generations of the McGuinness clan are led by their elderly and overbearing patriarch. Only little Riley, “the smartest f-ing kid”, is spared the brunt of Grandpa McGuinness’s cruelty; ironically, it is his encouragement that provides her with a way out.
OFF THE MAIN HIGHWAY of Chickasaw, resting in front of a backdrop of soybean fields and an auto parts garage blackened by the touch of an old fire, lies a motel with eight rooms.
I’m not here for a room. I’m not a stranger to the town. The Chickasaw Motel is where I grew up with Grandpa McGuinness and the rest of the clan. I guess it would’ve once been called my home, but only in name, not in definition.
It doesn’t live up to my mind’s memory. Maybe it’s because the paint on the shutters is peeling and the roof has caved in or because the four southern rooms have been turned into apartments and the building next door was torn down. Or maybe I’m not really seeing it because too many memories cloud my mind.
I sit down on the front stoop of the motel entrance, watching the occasional car go by. The highway used to be busy, a few years ago. Before the bypass was built. Back then, we all lived here: Grandpa and Grandma, Papa and Mom, Morgan, Uncle Chet, and me. Yeah, it seems like a long time ago.
THE MOTEL WAS BUILT in the sixties, when the only thing on Grandpa McGuinness’ mind was not the war or drugs or the feminist movement—though that worried him a bit—but how to make money when his business was just taking off and he was $10,000 in debt.
Grandpa McGuinness was the sort of businessman who would charm you with a clever joke about the current president, shake your hand firmly, and wink at you as though you were sharing a funny secret. He could put anyone at ease. Though he was a tough haggler, he was always honest. When it came to business, he never cheated anyone in his life.
“That’s the difference between me and them English bastards,” he would tell me. “Never trust an Orangeman.” Grandpa McGuinness was always giving advice like that—advice that only applied to some old-world beliefs. I remember the first thing he told me by way of advice. “You’re not too young to be reciting the rosary every night. Every good Catholic should do it. Sacrifice every once in a while—that’s the key.”
“The key to what?” I asked.
Grandpa McGuinness didn’t answer. He just nodded, a cigarette cradled between his lips. At times like that, my papa would sit silently by, smoking and coughing, watching my grandpa and me.
Grandpa McGuinness and Grandma Eva had nine children. I suppose that made Grandpa McGuinness the child expert, though they hadn’t had much luck. One died when she was four months old, and I don’t even know her name. Ian and Thomas were declared MIAs during Vietnam, at which time Grandpa McGuinness decided to start over and moved across town to buy the motel.
The other six had been slight disappointments. Cari died in a tractor accident before too much was expected of him, and the four eldest left the McGuinness clan to do the sorts of things that Grandpa McGuinness disapproved of. Mary Elizabeth married a Protestant minister; Brian moved to New York to become an actor; Chet left home only to come back; and Kathleen joined the circus. That left the youngest—my papa, Shay—to be Grandpa’s protégé.
Not fit for the big cities or college, Papa stayed on with the motel. He started his own business in foreign auto parts in the backyard.
My sister, Morgan, and I were the third generation to live in the motel. Grandpa McGuinness and Papa had converted two of the motel’s rooms into living quarters and added a kitchen and a bedroom off the back for Papa and Heather, my mom.
I never minded the suffocating size of my home, not until I was eleven and I brought home Jamey Schwickerath. The next day, she went back to school telling everyone that “Riley McGuinness is one step up from trailer trash. The only difference is her trailer has a basement.”
Everything in our home was worn and suffering. The tile in the bathroom was missing, and the sink dripped to the beat of an Irish pub song. The carpet of our living room was thin and speckled brown, like leaves fallen on the ground in autumn. If I pulled really hard on threadbare patches, the carpet would tear and Mom would scold me.
There was a time when the stray cat that we took in, Muriel, had fleas, and then Morgan and I got fleas. I prayed to Jesus that no one at school would find out. It was miserable sitting in class trying not to scratch the red bumps, but eventually I gave in and had to rub my ankles together to relieve some of the itch. Mom bought the special red shampoo for our hair and burned the rug from our bedroom.
On days like that, Mom would go to her bedroom and cry.
“I never wanted to live like this!” she would sob into her pillow, as Morgan and I eavesdropped from the other side of the door. I didn’t know who she was talking to, but Morgan was pretty sure it was God.
about the author
from the library
This Is a Love Crime
by Lee Kvern
Marta is a human resources employee at a grocery store chain. She moves through the days passively, always taking the path of least resistance, until a case at work - that of a hijab-wearing woman, in defiance of a strict no-hats policy - awakens her to the injustices of her own life.
“This Is a Love Crime by Lee Kvern is a cunning and intensely human look at one of the central issues of our time. It negotiates the space between belief, racism, liberty, and sexuality with curiosity and compassion.”
— Todd Babiak, bestselling author of Toby: A Man and The Garneau Block
“Lee Kvern paints with a scalpel. With characteristic unflinching honesty, she peels the relationship between Marta and Corbin back to quivering nerves in This Is a Love Crime and juxtaposes it against veiled assumptions about cultural oppression. The narrative leaps crackle with energy and empathy. When I read Kvern’s stories, I’m seduced by exquisite detail and—love or loathe them—left with the scent of her characters long after the last page.”
— Betty Jane Hegerat, author of Delivery and The Boy
“In This Is a Love Crime, Lee Kvern uses the intricately drawn characters of Corbin and Marta to explore the charged topics of ethnicity and Western modes of submission and control. Written in Kvern’s distinctive, poetic, and multi-layered style, the story leaves us with warm insight into all the characters—and challenges our hearts and preconceptions.”
— Barb Howard, author of Whipstock, Notes for Monday, and The Dewpoint Show
When I'm Old, When I'm Grey
by Andrew Wilmot
After an unexpected malfunction, the technology which enables humanity to cross vast distances has separated an interstellar traveler from the love of her life — not in space, but in time. Now, while her companions remain in stasis, she must endure the loneliness of the journey until the moment her lover wakes.
Winner of the 2015 Friends of Merril Short Story Contest, When I'm Old, When I'm Grey imagines the strange — and strangely familiar — forms that fear and longing can take, as we venture forth into the unknown of the future.
Laws of Flight
by Darren Greer
An imaginative and resonant work of speculative literature from ReLit Award-winning author Darren Greer. Twin brothers, born on an oppressive family farm, discover a miraculous way to escape the dreariness of their lives, charting a course that promises equal measures of wonder and heartbreak.
If You Waited Here, You Would
See Almost Everything
by Danny Goodman
After Ray collapses on the sidewalk outside a New York coffee shop, the bittersweet vagaries of his long marriage come into focus, one heartbeat at a time. From his new vantage point, flat on his back, all their conflicts are laid out against a canvas of sky, contrasting miscommunications and infidelities against something slower, steadier, and ultimately much vaster than he ever realized.
by Dave Margoshes
Decades ago, when bands like the Everly Brothers rode the airwaves and vacancy signs shone like beacons in the night, a young man gets his first taste of love, loss, and the ethereal satisfaction that comes with knowing that the world is turning and life is being lived.
The Last Judgment
by Maria Meindl
Charlotte is on the cusp of adolescence, and her world is being turned upside down. Unable to turn to her distant mother or absent father, she searches for guidance on the streets of downtown Toronto—and discovers God (or some version of Him) in the gutter.
“The Last Judgment is a story that penetrates into the heart of childhood sadness. Charlotte is without tools to fix what is broken, except for the incredible force of her will. The connections she makes between religion, parental failure, sexuality, and love make perfect sense because they are told in her bell-clear voice. This story is warm and tragic and, at moments, grimly funny.”
— Rebecca Rosenblum, author of Once and Road Trips
Trigger Finger Blues
by Chad Pelley
Marcel, a sensitive sniper, knew his life was missing something. But he didn't know what until he set his crosshairs on it: Violet Caine. A ginger-headed lover of Thai food, wanted dead simply because her brother messed with the wrong bike gang. It's a story of redemption coming too late, and the ways happenstance can turn a warm man cold. Then warm again. Whether fate wrote his troubled life, or he wrote it himself, he wants Violet Caine to be the end of it - be it figuratively or literally.
Was More Here
by Danny Goodman
In New York City, Ben smokes too much and sleeps with women as a way to deaden his insecurities. With every indiscretion, he fights off adulthood for one more day, until the return of an ex-lover leaves him unsure of everything. Ben’s best friend, Josh, struggles to find the good in his marriage to Maddie, even as he searches for a way to keep from losing her. Ben’s neighbor, Mrs. Aguilera, looks to make peace with those she has already lost. Gripping tightly to one another like the oddest of families, Ben and his friends embody the place in which they live: a city where everything combines, with a touch of perfect madness, into something more than the sum of its parts.
“I love this story because it’s just plain good. The characters are broken and unsure, but the love they have for each other and the humor that carries them along is genuine and lovely to behold. This story made me laugh even while it was hitting me in the gut, and I’d like nothing more than to sit down and drink a beer with everyone in it. Mr. Goodman, thank you for rocking my literary waffle.”
— Lish McBride, author of Hold Me Closer, Necromancer