Under the Gum Tree is proud to announce 2016's Pushcart Prize nominations. The Pushcart Prize is an American literary prize published by Pushcart Press that honors the best pieces published in small presses over the previous year. Magazine and small book press editors are invited to submit up to six works they have featured. For us here at Under the Gum Tree, we're delighted to nominate these talented authors: Dorian Fox, Ira Sukrungruang, Matt Young, Sarah Wells, Stephen D. Gutierrez, and Rebekah Taussig. Read below for excerpts from the nominations.
1. "The Other First" by Dorian Fox (January 2016)
When I think of my first kiss, I usually imagine the dark, huge, carpeted rec room of Orchard Hill Church in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, where dances for middle schoolers were often held. I imagine the voice of Whitney Houston, belting the earth-shaking notes of 'I Will Always Love You' over the sound system while dozens of couples swayed awkwardly in the flicker of green laser lights. And I imagine Courtney Dover, my first girlfriend, who was generous enough to let me press my open mouth on hers and swirl my tongue around for twenty seconds.
That first kiss story is my go-to narrative, the story I've told, in some form, to anyone who's asked over the years. But it's not entirely true. The first time I felt another person's mouth on mine, who was not related to me, happened when I was ten years old, not thirteen. The person was my next-door neighbor, Nathan.
Nathan was one year older than me. We became friends shortly after my family moved from Chicago to Pittsburgh, midway through the summer before I started third grade. I don’t remember the circumstances of meeting him, but it must have occurred sometime in those first sticky-humid months, while I was still acclimating to our beige colonial with the blue shutters and smaller backyard, and the new difficult terrain around it, straining against my bike pedals on the hilly streets of our suburban development. Chicago had been flat, and it would be weeks before I could manage the steeper hills without hopping off to push.
2. "The Animatronic Dog" by Ira Sukrungruang (April 2016)
Rover seems real to me the way real dogs were real. I wanted to pet his animatronic head, made out of synthetic hair. I wanted to snuggle against his animatronic side, feel the thrum of gears that made him work. I wanted to sniff his animatronic breath, which carried the scent of oil. Rover, even without life, even if programmed to do the same thing for decades, was an example of family stability, and family stability, though I did not know it then, was what mattered most to me.
A strange thought came to me: What if my mother and father could be on display, too, that we could be robots and last forever?
Here is my mother sporting a beehive hairdo and a pastel housedress, and my father in a pink golfing polo and brown slacks. Here is my mother sewing Thai dresses under the Buddha in our living room, and my father putting at a masking tape X on the teal carpet. And here is me, their chubby son, glasses like petri dishes, sliding down the stairs in a laundry basket, and the glorious sound I would make, the shrill screech of happiness, the sudden rush of air that tousles his soft hair. We would travel reincarnated lifetimes: a Thai family in the Wild West, my mother driving the horses, my father with a holstered revolver protecting our livestock; a family in Siam before the fall of Sukhothai, my father standing strong against the Burmese, my mother crying for the safety of his life; a family witnessing the blessing of the real Gotama Buddha under the weighty branches of a Bodhi tree - we would be birds nested in the top branch.
3. "The Body is Not a Coffin" by Sarah Wells (April 2016)
We talk about "the future" and "our plans" since this last miscarriage two weeks ago. I had heard the heartbeat, saw the seed on the ultrasound screen, returned to the doctor in Akron who frowned and said he was sorry, he knows how much we've been through. It is the sixth time I have known I was pregnant, the fourth time we have miscarried. "I don't know if we will try again," I said. "This is getting hard. My husband is tired of this, tired of seeing me like this, tired of feeling like this."
But I'm not ready to say enough. These are our discussions and our separate inner monologues, as if we have any say in what comes from this womb, what will be birthed, what will die. As if my decisions mean anything at all. But they do. I am ready to risk pouring out my heart, like lavender oil in a pot, before Him, ready to risk hope in the face of possible grief, possible disappointment. It means healing and embalming and cleansing and preparing and protecting, it is casting my bread upon the waters. Is it audacious to believe that this God cares deeply about me? But I believe anyway, in a loving, compassionate, patient, merciful, just, mysterious, powerful God of the universe and God of this dining room. He is the Spirit embodied in my daughter preparing for the baby's return with spoons. He is ever-present and hears the prayers of our daughter for her long-gone dog, for the grandfather she never met, for the baby in heaven, and I hear these prayers and my spirit cracks and heals, cracks and heals. He is the God who remembered Rachel, heard her and opened her womb. I don't know what that means, but I feel the verbs: remember, hear, open.
4. "Equal and Opposite" by Matt Young (July 2016)
An explosive detonates, because that is what explosives do. That is is the explosive's SOP. Step one: Explosive is built. Step two: Explosive is placed. Step three: Explosive is detonated.
There is little damage to our lead truck, which has triggered the explosive - a blown-out tire, some scorching of the steel armor. The explosive was placed too far off the road. We'll learn later that even small blasts needle into our brains, cause slight compoundable concussive incidents. We never blame the blast - that is only what blasts do.
People are inside their homes, have shuttered their businesses. Only an hour ago the shops were open and bustling, people swept from dust and dirt, children sold kerosene like we once sold lemonade.
Our trucks halt, because after a blast that is what we've been trained to do. That is our SOP. If a vehicle can push through a kill zone, it does. If it is disabled it stays put and the subsequent trucks disperse to a stand-off distance, obtain situational awareness and casualty reports, and assess the situation.
A group of men meerkat in the distance and we stare them down with tiger eyes behind bulletproof windows. Charlie, next to me, repeats over and over in his Oklahoma drawl, "Motherfuckers," which comes out, "Muhfuckers." The rest of us say nothing, and when the relay comes over the radio that everyone is five by five we rocket open the doors and pursue the meerkat men, because that is what tigers do.
5. "Spiritual Direction" by Stephen D. Gutierrez (October 2016)
Just above her head on the green wall, an office green with a soothing yellow undertone, a nuclear bomb explodes. The telltale gray mushroom forms and dissolves in an instant. I am not on drugs. I don't take heavy meds. It's a common image in my head nowadays. I fear the world community has forgotten the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and are ready to accept nuclear as feasible. 'I think without prayer we would have been dead a long time ago.'
"Well, how about that?" she says. She's a hero. I consider her and all the varied religious who have prayed for peace over the past six decades the saviors of the world, the ones who have generated the energy to prevent horrible accidents and miscalculations in the war rooms of the Soviet Union and United States and China. I am nuts about energy . It's the single proof of religion I have - that flow you enter almost casually when you let go and trust, have faith, believe - surrender to fate - and indisputably know it is at work for you; that flow with its many odd occurrences and synchronicities baffling the odds makers, disproving the the proponents of randomness. It doesn't need arguing to establish itself as real. It is real. It is mighty. It is awesome. It is scary.
"Are you afraid of death?" I ask her.
"No, I'm not, Steve," she says. Death is so simple, so natural. I've seen so much of it. It's nothing to be afraid of. It's life you've got to watch out for." Her eyes twinkle.
6. "Reupholstered" by Rebekah Taussig (October 2016)
When Lydia asks me in the coffee shop if she can pray for me, her smile steady and sweet, my head explodes with the word 'no.' No. No. No, no, no, I do not want you to pray for my healing. As if my story's resolution won't arrive until I move from place to place with legs instead of wheels? Lydia can see the effects of childhood cancer on my incapacitated legs, but she can't peer behind my ribcage and scan the self-inflicted battle-wounds lining my insides, accumulated over decades of self-loathing for my differences and deformities. Surely she couldn't imagine the planet of energy it required to build a sturdy sense of wholeness - to let myself be seen gripping the side of my car as I drag my legs across the pavement to put gas in the tank, to allow my partner to watch me prop my torso against the sink as I try to balance well enough to floss my teeth, to hold onto affection for my strange and twisted story - a story that doesn't need walking legs or proportioned limbs to find resolution. I grip onto my sense of self so tightly, and my hand slips so easily.
Lydia is taking a risk with me - reaching out into a world of strangers with an attempt at what she must see as kindness. I share that desire to connect. I can even recognize in this moment that she does not intend to make me feel embarassed or inadequate. But in a room full of all kinds of bodies, she has singled me out as the Defective, herself as the Pipeline to My Restoration. "Oh, no thanks," I say. "I don't think I am comfortable with that."