“A Life to Spare”: AQ14 Short Fiction from Andra Roventa

“A Life to Spare” by Andra Roventa


Berthold Pfeiffer bit savagely against the inside of his cheek to keep from grimacing at the sight before him. Dozens of corpses lay strewn in the filthy, rat-infested gutters of Dresden, many of them fresh and still saturated with blood and smeared guts. Pairs of glassy, vacant eyes watched him with accusing looks, silently screaming at him to divulge why they had been thrown into the street like used garbage. Try as he might, Berthold was unable to tear his gaze away from the pile of once-breathing, once-walking Jews that were now no more than slabs of bullet-filled meat.

Some of them were alive merely ten minutes ago, he thought in bewilderment, eyeing a bearded rabbi whose mouth was still agape, rigid and distorted. He must have died screaming. The 21-year-old S.S. officer shuddered, finally averting his eyes from that haunting, empty stare the deceased rabbi managed to give him.

A portly, bald commander cleared his throat as he watched two remaining officers drag what seemed to be the last body from the demolished apartment complex the S.S. men were loitering against. The German duo dumped the lifeless body of a teenage boy onto the rest before turning to salute their commanding officer.

“Is that all of them, then?” the rotund, elderly commander known as Jorgen Fitzgerald, inquired in a voice laden with irritation. It looked like he had other business elsewhere, and this “menial” task was not one of them.

One of the Germans who had discarded the final Jew gave a half-assed shrug. “You know these Jews, Herr Fitzgerald. Sneaky little devils. There might be a couple here and there hiding about—under the floorboards, behind a secret stairwell. You can never be too sure with them.”

The fat commander gave a snort, nodding in agreement. “Disgusting vermin, the lot of them.” He bent his rhino-like head to rest on his decorated breast, pondering for a moment. “Right, then. I’m late for a dinner party as it is. Someone needs to run through the perimeters to make sure we’ve taken care of every last one of them. I don’t want any runaways or it’s going to look messy on my part.”

He clasped his hands against his bulging belly, scrutinizing the ten-or-so soldiers that encircled him. Fitzgerald scanned each of them before narrowing his beady eyes on Berthold. The latter bristled but kept his surprise in check.

“Pfeiffer. You’ve been quiet today, boy. I don’t recall you doing much when we stormed the complex,” Fitzgerald barked at the blond man, furrowing his brow in contemplation. “Give me your rifle.” His fingers, which looked more like fat sausages than digits, impatiently wiggled as he reached out for the weapon his subordinate had strapped to his shoulder.

Continue reading ““A Life to Spare”: AQ14 Short Fiction from Andra Roventa”

AQ 2014 Featured Student Writing: “Burnt Toast”, nonfiction by Rachel Plotkin

Flour danced around the kitchen, painting it white, as scents swam around my five-year-old pigtails strategically maneuvered into a mustache against my top lip. The house creaked each time the wind carried over from the Volga, sending the gooseberry bushes whistling against the wooden shed. My grandmother was meticulous, each fist precisely kneading the dough before pinching at the goop and flopping it onto a pan. Her eyes would never leave mine; her hands worked on their own as she told stories I wouldn’t remember, my mind too focused on the masterwork occurring before me.

Что ты готовишь?”
“Подожди, маленькая. Подожди.”
“Но бабушка…”
“Перестань. Еда будет готовa скоро.”

When she was done, she would throw the dought into the oven and shoo me away to the garden while she cleaned. My greedy hands picked at berries, bare feet running me through each aisle of fruit as I all but forgot about the pies inside. Cherries stained my dress, hiked up to my belly into a cloth bowl to carry them indoors. The kitchen, warm from the oven’s flames, always full of baked goods, greeted me with new smells as I dropped the cherries into a bowl. Hopping onto a counter, white flour residue still hiding its surface, I’d grab hold of a pie and my grandmother would laugh and clap her hands. “моя маленькая! Ешьте много,” she’d say. My little one! There’s plenty.

Watching my mother cook was like watching a general prep for war. She matched her mother’s love of cooking with a duteous need for perfection. As I watched her, I was careful not to make any unnecessary noise. It was a more serious occasion than baking with my grandmother. On those days, the sun crept in from between the shades and cast golden stripes on the counter where she worked, the bustle of New York outside drowned out by the sounds of her knife against the cutting board. I was motionless, my knees tucked against my chest as I watched her efficient transformation of simple ingredients, the kitchen filling with their aroma. The apartment, always sterile and uncomfortably cold, felt like home with a quick lift of a pot cover. When the oven door opened up, smells flooded the rooms: lasagna, matzo ball soup, fish (which made my nose crinkle, every time) and cakes, plus endless desserts that were nipped and picked at before they had a chance to cool down. Every night, no matter how tired or angry she was, she’d whisk away at something and I’d curl up to watch, trying to keep as much of that version of her with me as I could.

“Welcome to Casie’s cooking show!”

My sister claps her hands together and flails her arms toward an imaginary camera, giggling and grinning as she pulls fallen strands of hair behind her ear. Her tiny fingers point to each ingredient, describing it in the most matter of fact way, as if cooking an omelet is revolutionary. Egg splashes onto the granite and she goes on mixing, dropping sliced baby tomatoes into a yellow milky goo and then sprinkling cheese and basil on top of it all. Her approach is neither meticulous nor precise. She doesn’t measure or think about the end product; she mixes with gusto and looks constantly at me as I roll a fist in the air as if holding an old Super 8 in my hands, capturing each moment of her Food Network debut.

“And now my assistant, Tata, will help me use the stove.” She waves frantically for me to come over and with an exhausted motion I slowly put down the heavy imaginary camera and bow to the applauding audience. She manages to go to commercial only seconds after I start.

When he cooks I find myself in the doorway, bottle of beer in hand, picking at the paper label. The fan sprays my hair against my shoulders. I’d put it up in a ponytail if he didn’t like it so much when it was down. He’ll stop mixing to kiss me and I’ll feign annoyance, complain that the food will burn, smirk when he finally pulls away. He cooks to make me smile, when I’m stressed from a bad day or just because he knows I like watching him. Bites of food sizzle in the pit of my stomach, making my toes curl when I steal mouthfuls too hot for my tongue. He laughs, shaking his head while I pout; distracting him becomes my goal. I rest my chin on his back, my lips at the nape of his neck, and wrap my arms around him. Suddenly, it’s no longer about the food.

A glass of merlot in hand, I relax into my kitchen. Spices shake with each opening of a cabinet door, like the sound of maracas echoing through the bare walls. Little attention is given to the rest of the space but the kitchen is painstakingly organized. I am careful to place complementary scents together—rich lavenders and vanillas, sweet enough to make your teeth sting—wishing for the kitchen to always hold the smell of home. Sprawled onto my countertop, head dipped back to finish off the last drop of wine I mix the melting chocolate with my free hand, leg warmed by the stove’s heat. No one watches. No one sits in anticipation. There is no one there trying to capture the secret to culinary success. There is no show. It’s just me and my store-bought cherries, dripping with bittersweet dark chocolate as they cool on waxed paper and my memories float through the warm, sweet air.


Rachel Plotkin, originally from New York City, is a Senior English: Creative Writing major at DePaul University. Her favorite book, at the moment, is Gabriel García Márquez’s ‘Memories of My Melancholy Whores’. In her free time, when not writing, Rachel enjoys visiting Chicago’s theater scene and dancing like no one is watching.

Make Way for Crook & Folly!

1781986_258806777613870_1160874302_nAfter more than three decades as Threshold, DePaul’s art and literary magazine has a new name, and they want you to submit your best creative work for consideration in their upcoming issue!

DePaul’s newly christened Crook & Folly is soliciting your original works of Fiction, Creative Nonfiction, Poetry, and Dramatic Literature.

Pieces of Fiction and Creative Nonfiction should be 5000 words or less. Submitters to the poetry genre should include 1 to 3 original poems in a single document, and works of Dramatic Literature can include screenplays or short plays of up to 15 pages.

And finally, please keep in mind the following submission guidelines:

  • Your name should NOT appear on the submission.
  • Only one submission per genre is permitted, with the exception of poetry.
  • Pieces may be excerpts from a longer work as long as they stand on their own.
  • Include a SEPARATE contact page that includes your name (first and last), intended genre of your submission, title(s) of your submission, and your email address and phone number.

Send your submissions to crookandfolly@gmail.com by Monday, February 24th at 11:59 PM. The subject line should indicate the genre of your submission. Crook & Folly’s talented group of editors cannot wait to read what you have to offer!

Are you hankering for more Crook & Folly? Head over to their new Facebook page and spread the word!

Undergraduates: venture UNDERGROUND with us!

The leaves are falling, the air is crisp, and everywhere you go here on campus you hear the familiar sound of students flipping through syllabi and wondering just how they are going to finish all that work before finals roll around….

ID-100148176Ah, yes, the Autumn quarter is in full swing, and here at The Underground that can only mean one thing–it’s time to put together our undergraduate writing staff for the 2013-2014 academic year. If you are an undergraduate English major, minor, or are just interested in all things literary, then we want you on our team!

As a staff member for The Underground, you will get the chance to….

  • Cover English department events, visiting author readings, conferences, and other literary goings-on here at DePaul and across Chicagoland
  • Review new books, films, and music that would be of interest to DePaul English majors and other students interested in writing, literature, and the humanities
  • Interview faculty, alumni, and persons of interest for featured profiles
  • Have your writing featured on our popular newsletter/blog
  • Gain some valuable experience creating written content for the web and working under deadlines
  • Network with other students interested in the field of English

Interested students should contact editor Melissa Culbertson at Mculber1@depaul.edu by October 1. Please include a short application letter describing your qualifications, writing experience, interests, an idea of what kind of time commitment you will be willing to put in as a part of our staff, and, very importantly, your vision for The Underground. 

New staff members will be notified via email by Friday, October 4. We look forward to an exciting year!

October 2012, WWQ-BNR

What We Quote, But Never Read: October 2012

A monthly column that reviews the classics, the novels we scholars love to reference and quote, but never bother to read. Yes, those novels like Moby DickLes Miserables, and anything by Tolstoy. Yet, this column is not just about reviewing the classics, but relating them to our modern, youth culture, and proving how an old favorite is just as influential and relevant as anything fresh from the New York Times Bestseller’s list. With a new review per month, be reintroduced to the old school side of the literary spectrum and discover why it truly was the “best of times and the worst of times.”

THE FIFTH CHILD by DORIS LESSING

Every day we search for aspects of our lives, of ourselves, that make us stand out. A difference that sets us just an inch above others— if only for a moment. That makes us extraordinary.

The main couple of Doris Lessing’s novel – David and Harriet – are not like everyone else in that. They both find a type of confidence in their normality, and do not care how other people look down on them for being outdated, or obscure. When they find each other, they think that have found that dream situation that we all – whether consciously or subconsciously – look for. Two people alike in manner and mind who are given the chance to have an absolutely ideal life together. Yet, one thing that David and Harriet come to realize – even in their fog of perfection – is that ideal is just that…an idea.

Lessing’s set for this social tragedy is an almost obscenely large, old house that Harriet and David immediately set their hearts for, even though it is more like a four story Holiday Inn than a starter home for newlyweds. Yet, to them it is just another necessary piece to their puzzle that forms the picture of family. In their eyes, it is a house built for having children – and an uncompromisingly large amount of them.

The one thing their families can truly agree on is the sheer unreasonableness of their plan to produce more children than they can care for, in a house they can’t afford, and still maintain a sense of happiness and fulfillment through it all.

They call them selfish, brazen, and irresponsible. However, no one stops them, and why would they? They manage to bring together two conflicting social backgrounds: David, born into a divorced home with an upper-class father and an academic mother, and Harriet, one of three daughters of a solemn widow and a middle-class worker. These two warring sides are so awed by Harriet and David’s immovable will to be happy that they can’t help but be drawn to it—out of curiosity if nothing else. As Lessing herself writes, this house and the family that grew in it was “what they could not achieve themselves.”  And, they were just waiting for it to either succeed or fail.

Within six years, following their code of confidence in self and unwavering will, Harriet and David turned this ridiculous house into a home; a home which is filled with four perfect, blue-eyed children, the ever constant presence of family, and happiness.

Then, Harriet finds herself once again pregnant with a fifth child.

Even Harriet and David – the optimists of the family unit – are thrown by the sudden development. Even they are in need of some sort of a break. The family is concerned, of course, but once again, there is that curiosity. Would there be a new addition every Christmas, or every Easter? Would Harriet and David’s dream grow until even Casa Famiglia could not contain it? It was a long running joke. People placed bets. In truth, their fifth child would prove to be the conclusion of their comedy, and the start of their tragedy.

His name is Ben and he was a phenomenon from his very conception. After six years of uneventful pregnancies, Harriet is suddenly in constant pain, harboring a fetus that seems to be physically fighting to be born. It even moves her to induce labor, something she abhors. Harriet is desperate for some sort of help, but no one – especially the medical professionals – is willing to see Ben as anything more than a difficult pregnancy. It was her decision to have more children, right? Any card could be drawn. Even David was hesitant to raise concern.

This is the beginning of Harriet’s personal nightmare that often afflicts mothers—a  loneliness that cannot be lifted no matter how many loving family members gather around the worn kitchen table. From that moment on, Ben became her child—her problem.

Ben’s birth is much like his life: “he came out fighting the world.” With the visage of a troll and the body of a small wrestler, no person defines him as normal, but they won’t dare verbalize anything else.

He is utterly aware, yet he will not cry, he rather roar. His skin is more yellow than pale. He looks Harriet directly in the eye without any sign of adoration or love, more like malice. He diverts around crawling and goes straight to walking. He has an unexpected strength. He ignores his siblings and parents alike. He is “extraordinary… [as in] absolutely not ordinary.” People are bewildered.

It is not until Ben’s deliberate actions lead to his older brother’s sprained arm, and two small animals dead that the family’s bewilderment turns to fear. Even when Ben attempts to assimilate himself into “the norm,” he inspires discomfort. The family gatherings that had once filled the monumental home begin to drift further and further away. People cancel visits deciding to stay home for Christmas. The perfect children build a society amongst themselves, growing more and more distant from their parents, particularly their mother.

For the first time, the house not only looks, but feels empty. Harriet and David can only watch as one boy manages to disperse six years of work in mere months by doing nothing more than being himself…whatever that is.

The horror of Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child is not in Ben himself, but what he represents. That constant unknown factor that lingers beg the questions: What is truly normal? Is it something that can last only in happiness? Is it fragile enough to be shattered and never brought back together? Does it exist at all?

Ben is not the manifestation of evil, or is possessed by a demon, or any of the normal ideas of horror. He is simply different. He is “normal for what he is…but…not normal for what they are.” He is the realization of a truth that Harriet and David did not understand until they stood amongst a crowd and felt utterly isolated. More often than not, it is what makes us normal that makes us extraordinary and what makes us different that makes us outcasts.

About the Writer:
Avery Cunningham is from Jackson, Tennessee, and a sophomore at DePaul majoring in English with a Literary Concentration.

English Studies at Large


Information from 2013 ESAL Conference PDF:

Call for Papers:
“The novel” in English Studies
New or novel ideas have influenced all facets of English Studies. Over time, these ideas have sparked movements, changed the direction of research in the field, and—sometimes—simply been forgotten. From the genre of the novel and its developments in literary studies to the process movement in composition and from the development of cultural studies to the coining of new words, the areas of English Studies—literature and culture, rhetoric and composition, and language and linguistics—have all been influenced by novel ideas over time.

The third annual English Studies at Large (ESAL) Conference invites undergraduate students to submit proposals for 15-minute presentations in individual or panel form. Individual proposals should include a first page with your name, school affiliation, title of your presentation, technology needs, a brief (100 word) biography, and a contact e-mail address and a second page with a 250-word abstract of your proposed presentation with no identifying information. Panel proposals should include a title for the panel and presenter information for three presenters on the first page and abstracts for each presenter without identifying information on successive pages.

Proposals should be electronically submitted via e-mail to EnglishStudiesAtLarge@gmail.com. The deadline for proposal submission is December 17, 2012.

The 2013 ESAL Conference will be held on Saturday, February 9, 2013 in Stevenson Hall at Illinois State University in Normal, IL.

If you have questions or would like further information, please contact Megan Gregory at magrego@ilstu.edu or Gretchen Frank at gmfrank@ilstu.edu or visit the conference website at http://englishstudiesatlarge.wordpress.com/.

Co-sponsored by Sigma Tau Delta and the Illinois State University English Department.