Beautiful Ashes: Madison Smartt Bell


Presented by Jen Michalski, for PANK. For a description of this guest series, click here


“Fall on Me”


Rewind: the blocks and steel and window frames roll up from the belly of their collapse.  They reassemble, fall in place.  There it is: so simply, easily, reordered and resolved.  The bloom of flame is reabsorbed into the building.  The fire unburns.  Thumb down tighter on the button.  Pull the poisoned barb of the plane’s hooked turn.  See the plane sucked backward, off the screen.  Away, unthought-of.  Unimagined.  Thumb down tighter.  The day hums backward.  The towers lift their empty faces into the blue sky of the dawn.

Gerald Ryder rockets upward in the elevator, cradling a paper sack with coffee, light and sweet, a poppy seed muffin he shouldn’t eat, should have bought bran.  From the other hand dangles a slimline briefcase containing Palm Pilot, cell phone, CD-player he takes to the gym before work.  Still a burn in his arms now, from the rowing machine, and he’s still sweating lightly, through the oxford cloth of his striped shirt.  Half-blind to the other passengers in the box, he nods to one or two or he knows, not looking at them.  Someone’s yakking, a pair of women, the dominant voice grating and shrill I told her if she’s just going to let him get away with— Ryder shuts it off, repeating his mantra, silently behind dulled eyes, we’re going up up up up up we’re going straight up to the top because this is the moment when the acceleration of the elevator gives that thought its power, and with that lightness, looseness underfoot and in his legs Ryder always thinks of the last bit of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where the elevator blasts right out the top of the building and sails away into the wild blue; sometimes he wonders what a therapist would say to that if he was fool enough to waste the money or had the time to visit a therapist.  Never happen.  Now a lurch of the stomach and the lightness rising to his head as the elevator slows and stops.  The doors open.  Ninety-ninth floor. Continue reading

Beautiful Ashes: Shelley Puhak


Presented by Jen Michalski, for PANK. For a description of this guest series, click here



Arthur, on the History of Anxiety

which starts with the river and you who were lured
and we who languished, who took no
chances, said I’m not going to try

to float across on that and so survived.
Where the Patapsco is bridged with steel,
you launch that raft and someone else

paddles back through storm’s
pooled light. One who wades
through daylight, reciting:

Hard rock of the piedmont begat tidewater
plains, widgeon grass and wild rice. Begat
mill and merchant prince, sailing vessel and

steamer, begat things like sock garters and
high silk hats. Begat what runs alongside:

the snort of the steel horse and the huff
of the mother, ever-steeled, who begat
galloping heart and EKG machine.


O, the authority of rivers and
the awful wall of us—mast and sail,

mortar and rust—pushing back.
And who is left to clean it all up? we

who took no chances, and so survived
to pick through your slough —cast-iron

skillet, rocking horse head, ’67 Thunderbird
manifold, blue-glass chaff, electric typewriter

keys, garnet rosary beads, and the mill
workers’ stone homes, brick by tumbled brick. Continue reading

Beautiful Ashes: Elise Levine

Presented by Jen Michalski, for PANK. For a description of this guest series, click here.

“Public Storage Available Now”

Inside the Queen’s Little Queen® — butter, a toy syringe. Her tender tissues burn as if bee-stung. Spread wider — the Queen lofts three Cheerios in the candlelight. Clot of red thread spirited from the Dowager’s tin sewing kit. A darning needle — the Queen’s Little Queen® bites back a gasp — blackened under a match’s sizzle then mon dieu withdrawn at the last second. Her thighs quake. Chub. Big baby at nearly thirteen. La petite ami since forever. All service. Stocked and restocked — a yellow button now for the Queen’s granny in the nuthouse. Errant dad, his newest hot-shit-in-waiting, their squelchy contortions accomplished to great fanfare in a downtown love-pad — why not this jumbo plug of orange-flavored Bonne Bell lip gloss? Holy merde. Above, cut-out mirrors from Versailles flare, camels and albino elephants from National G sway from safety pins affixed to the bed-sheet canopied along the ceiling. Rubies flicker. An armoire’s carvings of toucans and vines dip and swoop, monkeys chatter like teeth, rumors of an interior inlaid with tiny and tinier white ivory drawers, stuffed. La reine’s dominion laid in by the fistful, the pound. In one of those drawers, a Queen’s Little Queen® — all cunt. Continue reading

Beautiful Ashes: Dario DiBattista

Presented by Jen Michalski, for PANK. For a description of this guest series, click here.
“On Selling the Past”

I’ve only stared down a rifle once. A Chinese model SKS, equipped with a fold out bayonet. Not that it mattered with the originally Soviet-designed weapon, but it looked clean enough. No doubt, when the trigger was pulled, the cycle of operations of firing would perform as intended, and my life would end.

Time stopped as I glanced into the black hole of the barrel: that warped darkness no one knows until they come upon it; the shadow area that’s unexplainable in the physical world; the place of the moment of no return.

I knew because I had armed it, the chamber of the assault rifle was locked and loaded, ready to go. Just one bullet. One shot, one kill. I tried to stare at the tip of the 7.62 mm bullet encased in the brass shell, but I couldn’t see down into the barrel that far. Still clutching the hand guards, I raised the weapon to point it directly at my skull. I wondered if I could use this killing instrument to blow out the images of the pain I didn’t want anymore. When I pulled the trigger with my toe, would they splatter behind me like scenes from a projector screen?

Would the vindictive scowl of the woman who shredded my heart smile onto the white wall of my apartment bedroom? Would the images of flag-draped coffins and the ghosts of my murdered friends salute the red and white stripes? Would the EMTs be able to watch the blackout memories of a year of self-destruction arrange themselves as rows of liquor bottles like Arlington headstones glistening against a scarlet sunset?

Or would my memories stick like putty, pasted in place only as globs of spongy brain matter with cascading blood leaking down to the carpet?

Would anyone care either way? No one, I guessed, would want to see the inside of my head.

But I pressed the cold metal against my forehead anyway.


A bunch of my friends and I all joined the Marine Corps after high school. Many of them have since become cops. Apparently it’s the only civilian job that equates to the experiences of military service. I’ve asked them and several other law enforcement officers in Maryland about the proper way to travel with a rifle, and none of them have seemed to know exactly what the law forbids. So I slammed my rifle – wrapped inside a fifty-five-gallon trash bag – into the large trunk of my overused and under-repaired Lincoln as I prepared to go.

It was a bright sunny day in July when I entered my vehicle and followed my GPS to Bel Air Gun Supply and Pawn off of Route 1 in northeastern Maryland. Before closing the trunk and leaving, I had walked the gun out in the oppressive daylight, in full view of a cul-de-sac of judgmental luxury townhomes (I was living cheaply in a friend’s basement). I was headed out to sell off the memento of my almost self-murder.

I could not afford to raise my fuel costs by using the AC, so I lowered all the windows as I sped along towards the shop. An unceasing whistle of wind that was being funneled into the trunk, screeched like a boiling teapot. I turned loud music even louder and nervously rolled my fingers along the steering wheel. Sweat pooled under my armpits and lower back. The digital thermometer on my dashboard read 108 degrees. No, that couldn’t be right.

I had gambled big this summer. With the semester over and the rest of my writing program living it up at a conference in Florence – a trip, despite its connections to my Italian heritage, I might never be able to afford – I had to find work. No school meant no student loans or G.I. Bill living stipends showing up in my mailbox as fat monthly checks. I had betted that I could make a living as an artist, prostituting my struggles, making art of the trauma of life after war, for a nonprofit website called Not Alone.

Yes, they said, we have been wanting to work with you more! What ideas do you have? Upon my suggestions, I made them a documentary and created a magazine for returning veteran college students. But the freelancing money wasn’t really enough. And it didn’t show up in time for my bills.

I had already sold my elliptical machine to pay for rent this month. And now the utilities were due.

So I drove ahead on my mission: on selling the past.


It was a random online photo of my ex, Lauren (a comment she left on a friend’s Myspace page that showed her new look), that had brought me to this moment. Damn her beauty. Firey red hair like the sun dipping into a sea. The face of a polish princess: digitally-enhanced in its beauty, a stunning attractiveness both devastating and unobtainable. Her image already haunted me everywhere I went, so I tried to banish her from my mind and not look at old photos. But this picture on my PC stood out like a muzzle flash in the dead of night. It called to me as the siren of my suicide. Damn my failures. Fuck my deficiencies. I locked the door as my roommate drank alone and numbed her mind with late-night cartoons in the living room, the TV screen flashing against her darkened form.

I had met Lauren at Chili’s in between my deployments to Iraq. Ours was an age-old restaurant tale: the hot young hostess and the edgy waiter.

Our romance sparked quickly. I would take her home from work sometimes and park my car along quiet forest-side roads. We’d hop in the backseat and grab and grope each other. She liked to bite my shoulders and claw my back. Against my sexual motions, she’d arch her back like some glorious roman monument, our wild breathing syncopating the passion. Concealed by a smokescreen of condensation, she’d curl into me when we’d finish. I would stare at her and she would stare at me and we would say nothing. With her head in my chest, rising with my pulse, my arms around her, I felt as blessed as the richest king.

When I went back to Iraq a few months after meeting her, she wrote me daily and drew me pictures. She scribbled hearts under her name and marked the envelopes with lipstick. I loved her then and she loved me. But when I returned home I became an ugly person – filled with rage and sorrow, prone to excessive self-medication. I had morphed into a manic man I couldn’t control. I scared her away, and she hated me for it still.

Lauren used to dye her hair red for me because I called her my cinnamon girl. Now, I believed, she had only changed her hair back to that color to spite me. She did it to show me how happy and confident she was. To brag about her beauty. To make me feel hideous. To cause me to feel chest-aching guilt and regret. To impress upon me the notion of self-murder.

Just quit, you pathetic motherfucker. You’re worthless.

If just a photo of her could ruin me, how could I ever hope to live for any future? I’d have more moments like this one: a content and daily self-destruction punctuated by moments of thundering despair. She’d appear again somehow. She always did. Usually in my dreams.

If I didn’t pull the trigger, I knew I would have to later.

Do it, you piece of shit. Do it.


I parked in front of the small shop on a narrow strip along the main road. Construction leftovers decorated the open area adjacent to the store: pallets of cinder blocks, wood scraps, and piles of thin gravel. I popped open the trunk and grabbed my rifle. The procedures for going inside were somewhat complicated: stand in front of the caged door and hold the buzzer – wait – then pull the door hard.

Upon entering, I observed the store’s selection out of curiosity. Because of the Corps, I’ll always have an affinity and fondness for things that can kill. Minus a small table of random football memorabilia – a signed helmet by Ravens’ linebacker Ray Lewis, and other football gear – it seemed like a typical gun store: deer heads and other taxidermied animals on the wood support beams; cardboard boxes overflowing with holsters and ammo belts; rows of rifles along the walls behind a long display case of hundreds of pistols. Dozens of bumper stickers stuck on a large gray cabinet. One was emblazoned with the Eagle Globe and Anchor of the United States Marines. In bold, black letters it declared: “To err is human. To forgive is divine. Neither is Marine Corps policy.”

“Can I help you?” asked a short blonde woman in her mid-forties behind the counter. She wore light jeans and a tight blue t-shirt, a pistol attached to a cartridge belt looped around her waist. She looked like the kind of girl who could out-drink you and, while still wasted, shoot a gnat’s ass from two hundred meters away.

I placed the trash bag on the counter. “Yes, please. I want to sell my rifle,” I replied, pulling it out of the plastic. “A Chinese SKS.”

“You don’t see many of those models; where’d you get it?”

I just wanted to get rid of the fucking thing. “Another store in Parkville. Long ago.”

“How much you want for it?”

“One hundred,” I replied quickly, as I had thought about that number for the entire trip.

“Give me a sec, hon,” she said, grabbing the rifle to inspect it. “I think we can do that.”

I waited for a long time. She broke down the rifle partially and shone a light through the barrel. And she traced a finger along the inside of the chamber.

“I haven’t taken care of it, but I know those things really don’t need to be clean,” I said anxiously as she methodically checked the weapon. Marine Corps lore is filled with stories of this same kind of rifle working without jamming in Vietnam after lying in the mud or being buried for years. We were taught to respect the enemy’s weapons.

“Eighty bucks,” she said suddenly.

I had hoped to have enough for a week or two of Taco Bell bargains. But, my share of the utilities was seventy-five dollars. “Done,” I replied, happy to get anything. I detached the tan-colored sling, which was the same one I used for my M16 rifle in Iraq.

“I got too many of these damn things,” she said about the type of rifle, “but I like the bayonet,” she finished. Unlike the easily found Yugoslavia models of SKS, the Chinese SKS was unique because of its triangle-shaped blade that causes a wound that is meant to be infectious and hard to patch up.

I wondered how many rifles she purchased that had been used in death, or were once primed for the moment of the kill.

I was at the bottom again, this time financially. But thankfully I could now sustain myself for one more month. I had at least one more month to try to reach my dreams.

I didn’t shoot because I had seen at my friend’s funeral a year earlier what a war death can do to a mom. I stared into her vacant eyes that were devoid of feeling and tried to express an appropriate sympathy for the passing of her son. But there was no comfort for her. And there was no comfort for me.

I thought about how my mother would look at my funeral. In the black hole of the end of my rifle’s barrel, all I could see was her face, wearing a darker torment I reasoned, than my broken heart and poor mental health. They say nothing is worse than burying your kids.
I didn’t shoot but that didn’t mean that I was well. I decided I still wanted to die, but I would let the war do it for me. Several months later, I was stricken with mono and strongly encouraged not to deploy a third time. I thought it was God making things clear for me.

Not uh, buddy. I still have work for you.

Though I would sell it too in pursuit of my dream if it had any value, I still keep the bullet. It’s stashed in a jar of objects that make up the story of my life. Inside it is a keepsake from every job I’ve ever worked, a note a girl gave me in high school, a volunteer wristband from every folk festival I’ve ever attended, a map of the Appalachian Trail, my old dog tags still wrapped in tape so they didn’t clink together while on patrol, other secret things. I want to show this jar to the woman I will marry one day.

I will want to show her how important my life is when measured against the bullet.

Dario DiBattista’s work has been featured in The Washingtonian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Connecticut Review, and many other places. Additionally, he’s been profiled in The New York Times and other places, and has been a commentator on National Public Radio. His editing projects include 20 Something Magazine, O-Dark-Thirty, and jmww. He’s seeking publication of his books Go Now, You Are Forgiven: A Memoir of Love, War, and Coming Home and The Contagion: A Novel.

Beautiful Ashes: C.L. Bledsoe

Presented by Jen Michalski, for PANK. For a description of this guest series, click here.

“Wrong Turn in Hard Times”

July 3

OMG you won’t believe this, diary, but Luke tied Daddy up in the shed and tried to eat his liver. Again! He waited till Daddy fell asleep (I think Luke put something in his water cause Daddy said he wouldn’t sleep again until we were back home) and dragged him out to the shed. He was sharpening his knife when Papa Gumbo came and let Daddy out. Boy was Papa Gumbo sore. He whipped Luke till his back was all bloody. (I saw it! Euw!!). The whole time, Daddy was trying to tell him to stop, and he finally did. Daddy said boys will be boys. I still think Luke is kind of weird.

July 4

Mary Bob came and let me out of the cage so I could play dollies with her. It’s weird how she doesn’t talk, but she makes these noises sometimes that sound like she’s talking. And she can talk to the dog. And I’m pretty sure squirrels. Daddy said it’s because she was locked up and never went to school, even though she’s old now. He said I shouldn’t make fun of her for being different. There but for the grace of God, whatever that means. I think it’s kind of cool how she can growl and whine and bark at the dog and it will do stuff. And the squirrels. She convinced a squirrel to bring us some nuts. They were a lot better than the food we usually eat, which I’m pretty sure is made from the dead bodies in the cemetery next door. Dad says I shouldn’t jump to conclusions like that. He said he used to live in a neighborhood where there was a Chinese restaurant and people always said there weren’t any stray animals in the neighborhood, but that was because there were really good animal control people. But I found a finger bone in my sandwich yesterday. There was a ring on it with an inscription that said, “Love Everlasting, Barbara.” I asked Daddy, and he said we don’t have a cousin Barbara. Continue reading

Beautiful Ashes: Travis Kurowski

Presented by Jen Michalski, for PANK. For a description of this guest series, click here.

Three Poems
by Travis Kurowski

Amid the chaos, there comes a costume 
        Lines taken from famous superhero comics 

as you all know, I’ve been working on a synthetic man, a man so fast that he not only outraced his shadow

                                           this secret base in the magic sphere, the young lady behind the rubber mask in her silent, invisible plane where once there was so much sound

                  this deserted barn should do nicely. I’ll set my robot control pilot and let down the ladder. Activate the Aura of Negativism! Apply your protective helmet! You see, I was trapped in a ship’s hull not long ago. It drove me mad

                                                                                                              meanwhile, in the chambers of the enchantress: the parachutist fires point-blank, the astonished men enter to find a surprisingly modern laboratory, the fortress of doom rises

                   something went wrong with my figuring. Who are these people? Where did they come from? I wonder if Captain America has problems like

                                                                    and these are but two of Earth’s possible futures: a towering skyscraper becomes empty, a highly-concentrated light beam strikes

             don’t hurt me and I’ll make everything clear: The figure is a wall of fire. This devil is done for. This is a horse of a different color. Cosmic rays mutated four American adventurers. Into your battle suit, Captain! I am The

                                                                                                       when Vanessa wakes, you begin Continue reading

Beautiful Ashes: Michael Landweber

Presented by Jen Michalski, for PANK. For a description of this guest series, click here.


Shhhh. Hush now.

The child’s laughter echoes from the kitchen, down the hallway and into the bathroom where Marjorie stands. She grips the edge of the sink and stares at herself in the mirror. The bags under her eyes are fresh; they come and go. The rest never changes.

Please stop laughing.

But the squealing grows louder. That is Kylie, Marjorie’s granddaughter, the girl that she first met about an hour ago. Her grandson, Timothy, is making his sister laugh.

Quiet. Before he hears.

The edge of the sink is sharp. The metal digs into her left hand clenched around it. Her right hand doesn’t have the strength to hold on, hasn’t for years. Marjorie long ago trained herself to pick important things up with her left hand.

This house is cold. Industrial. This sink, large and steel, looks like a place you might wash the blood off your arms.

Marjorie sucks in a short, sharp breath when he knocks on the door. She doesn’t flinch. Not visibly.

“Mom?” Richard knocks twice more. She hears the door handle rattle. Marjorie always locks doors when she’s allowed to. “Are you OK?” Continue reading

Beautiful Ashes: Liz Hazen


Presented by Jen Michalski, for PANK. For a description of this guest series, click here.
Four Poems
~by Liz Hazen

Chaos Theory

You’d think disorder, anarchy, but chaotic
systems twist into something like control:
patterns algorithmic, self-replicating,

infinite. All it takes for things to turn
is a blip, a shift minute as the flutter of wings,
the opening of a door, a telephone

unanswered, the clap of voices shouting Wait!
My rage comes out of nowhere— the glass explodes
when it hits the wall, as physics says it must,

but who knew I was capable of this?
I wake each day to an alarm. Each night
I watch the neon time tick by. A person

can disappear from this equation, swift
as the click of a pawnshop trigger. The effect
is vast as tectonic shifts, mountains spewing

ash clouds, a newborn’s blue-faced breath, but how
can we isolate the cause of his departure?
Chaos gives us endless bifurcations,

the path of time from next to next, no chance
of turning back. Instabilities overwhelm
the earth: addiction, population growth,

disease, storms, earthquakes, infidelities,
and a simple pendulum with its routine
tick-tock, tick-tock. Even this sorry heart,

aperiodic after all, pounds wildly
at entrances, exits, the memory of his touch,
try as it will to keep a steady beat. Continue reading

Beautiful Ashes: Jen Grow

Presented by Jen Michalski for [PANK]

“Lawrence Loves Somebody on Pratt Street”
~by Jen Grow

When I come to the door, Aunt Gloria’s got her rosary in one hand, thumbing through it like she’s shelling beans. She says she saw it on the T.V. about Lawrence’s unit. “They been hit over there in that big sand pit,” she says. Then she wipes at her eyes with a tissue. She rocks forward in her chair for momentum and leans all her weight on her cane to lift herself up. She hobbles over to the T.V.

“Aunt Gloria, don’t you get up. Make JJ switch the channel for you. He’s sitting right there.”

Aunt Gloria don’t say nothing. She changes the channel and waits for the next news to say something different. She wants the first news to be a mistake. I stand there in the doorway and watch the news with her. We don’t speculate much out loud but inside I know we’re both wondering about Lawrence and if he’s still alive. But we’re quiet with JJ in the room. JJ sits in the corner on the floor looking at his car magazines and telling stories to hisself. He can’t read except a few words and his mind’s not right on account of huffin shoe polish when he was little. Now he’s thirty-six but that don’t mean nothing. Continue reading

[GUEST SERIES]: Beautiful Ashes


Jen Michalski is author of the novel The Tide King, winner of the 2012 Big Moose Prize. She is the author of two collections of fiction, From Here and Close Encounters, and a collection of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now. In 2013 she was named one of “50 Women to Watch” by The Baltimore Sun and won a “Best of Baltimore” for Best Writer from Baltimore Magazine. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww and host of The Starts Here! Reading Series and the biannual Lit Show. She lives in Baltimore, MD

“Beautiful Ashes,” An Introduction by Jen Michalski


The new year is always a time of renewal, but February to me always feels like the dark before the dawn– the salt- and snow-stained streets, pale and stark trees and skies like Wyeth paintings. There is a bareness of life, an aching loss of hope, a string of sleepless nights, and yet, there is beauty in its skeletal symmetry, its promise of rebirth. Beautiful ashes, from which the phoenix will rise. Continue reading