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First-Place Winner - 2017 Fiction Contest
Mudstone illustration

This was something Joy Frisk told us one August night around a campfire on a bluff overlooking the boathouse. Joy Frisk was high. Pain meds, most likely. Once in an unguarded moment she confessed torrents of pain and wept. The noble Viking, she called her Vicodin. The scalloped brain-surgery scar on the side of her head glowed moist in the firelight. We were going to tell ghost stories. Bloody-hand-on-the-car-windshield ghost stories. Joy Frisk said, “No, there’s something about ghost stories that infuriates me. There need be no fear of death.” Her eyes rolled back into her head like slot-machine emoji. “Not because I believe in an afterlife,” she said. “Not because I believe I’ll be greeted in the clouds by distant generations of annoying relatives.”

“The enamel on our teeth is durable enough for hundreds of years of use,” said Joy Frisk. “Flesh is a laggard,” she told us. “We can harness the human and we can surpass the human. The post-human will be the most human of all.”

“We’re halfway there,” says Monica Vitti to Alain Delon in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film L’Eclisse. Of course they’re in the middle of a city crosswalk in Rome. Middle of a courtship ritual. But more importantly: “Potentiality unfolding,” said Joy Frisk. “We’re half-realized. Each of us. As human beings. As a species.”

The final minutes of L’Eclisse are a montage of city life devoid of Monica Vitti and Alain Delon. The lovers erased. Joy Frisk described the phenomenon in remarks she made following a sparsely attended screening of L’Eclisse in the Mudstone Cinémathèque: “That which precedes us proceeds without us. Our absence will save us. This is how we arrive at love.”

Mudstone was constructed and christened as a Northwoods fishing resort outside of Hayward, Wisconsin, in mid-20th century America. Original structures remain. Weathered clapboard lodge building. Dining hall. Conference room (now the Cinémathèque). Kitchen. Second-floor staff quarters. Six mildewy cabins randomly arranged throughout the woods. All in all, neither imposing nor haunted. The seldom-mowed ryegrass lawn of the lodge slopes gracefully for an acre and a half and reaches finitude at the shoreline. Mudstone Lake is modest in dimension—five leisurely motorboat minutes across in the Alumacraft four-seater—and seasonal squalls on the waters are childlike in their timidity.

For Joy Frisk, who sometimes saw herself as a spiritual heir to the fabled Desert Mothers of early Syrian Christianity, the lush Thoreauvian Northwoods of Wisconsin were a distraction rather than an inspiration. Allergies afflicted Joy Frisk spring, summer, fall, winter. She once remarked, “Nature is best experienced behind fine mesh mosquito netting and a surgical-grade respirator mask.”

Joy Frisk and her husband, the late Soren Frisk, took on Mudstone’s debt and meager assets from the late Soren Frisk’s great-uncle and great-aunt, the late Gabe Frisk and his wife, Oleanna Frisk.

Joy Frisk and her husband, the late Soren Frisk, drove Mudstone further into debt.

Lumber was imported at exorbitant cost rather than locally sourced for Joy Frisk’s all-season insulated tree house therapy-den in the branches of a towering oak behind the lodge. Next was the money-pit conversion of the resort’s former conference room into a fifty-seat movie theater, aka the Cinémathèque. The professional-quality DLP projector was the size of a mini-fridge and rated at an exceedingly bright 40,000 lumens. Speaker towers and subwoofers were powered by a bank of seven-channel 3,000-watt Marantz receivers.

The top-notch digital projection and sound system might have attracted paying customers from neighboring towns had not Joy Frisk’s predilection for what she called “unadorned cinema”—in particular, Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s three-hour and twenty-minute depiction of middle-class household routine slowly disrupted by repressed sexual degradation, Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles—left local audiences baffled at first and then bored out of their skulls.

 “Worse than watching paint dry,” said fifty-five-year-old Jeanne Dielman attendee Wynton Oakley, hardware-store manager from nearby Tempest. “It was buying paint. It was mixing paint. It was buying paint supplies and a few impulse purchases, I don’t know, light bulbs, say, or some potting soil. It was stopping at the gas station on the way home. It was driving home. It was changing into paint clothes. It was putting down drop cloths. It was opening paint. It was pouring paint. It was rolling paint. Then. Then it was watching paint dry.”

More comprehensible, if equally ignored by area filmgoers, was Joy Frisk’s admiration for the documentary Into Great Silence and its quietist Carthusian monks going about their real-time daily monastic lives.

Only once—disastrously—did Joy Frisk seek common ground with audiences by screening Freaky Friday, the 2003 mother-daughter body-switch comedy starring Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis. “The self is porous,” Joy Frisk suggested as a mindful prompt before showing the film to a robust crowd comprising everyone staying then at Mudstone—a solid half-dozen at the time—and assorted townies and rural families with teens or younger. A boisterous drive-in theater crowd, in other words, thoroughly disrespectful of the Cinémathèque’s retractable loungers. The Cinémathèque’s vegan concession stand—unsalted pan-seared corn nuts, roasted chickpeas, and an assortment of freeze-dried fruits and vegetables—was ignored. Milk Duds, Junior Mints, gas-station slushies, and hot dogs were smuggled in by indulgent parents. Chocolate smears and soda residue were left embedded in seat cushions and carpeting like radioactive waste.

We were sitting around the dining hall after dinner one cool September evening. Five of us huddled near the wood-burning stove. Oleanna Frisk, Mudstone’s chef of long standing (meant all too literally in one respect, as she was on her feet much of the day), prepared garlic flatbread and stuffed green peppers filled with sriracha-infused tofu and sunflower seeds. A meal guaranteed to rigorously flush sinuses and bowels like a high-powered colonic. We were laughing, the coffee was as strong as the sriracha, and we were bullshitting about the late Matt Jardine. Though, of course, it was the late Matt Jardine whom we eulogized as a bullshitter. The late Matt Jardine used to say, “You must learn to mythologize yourself because it’s unlikely that anyone else will do it for you—or, worse, they’ll get it wrong.” 

Amidst general good humor, we began mythologizing the late Matt Jardine in a postmortem game of the Minister’s Cat. “The late Matt Jardine was awkward.” “The late Matt Jardine was bewitched.” “The late Matt Jardine was confused.” “The late Matt Jardine was demonic.” “The late Matt Jardine was erratic.” “The late Matt Jardine flouted Mudstone’s Rules of Absence.”   

I knew the late Matt Jardine. Witnessed the dredging of his bloated corpse from Mudstone Lake.

When the late Gabe Frisk—Oleanna Frisk’s husband—passed away, Mudstone transitioned overnight from a bankrupt fishing resort to a bankrupt spiritual retreat.

Oleanna Frisk long ago renounced her membership in the Church of Sweden over what she perceived as profanation. Oleanna Frisk believed Joy Frisk’s soul was lost and ungovernable. Oleanna Frisk believed there was much to condemn in Joy Frisk’s misguided Rules of Absence. Nor did they bond over the deaths, three years apart, of their respective husbands, the late Gabe Frisk and the late Gabe Frisk’s great-nephew, the late Soren Frisk. Moreover, you have to marinate the bejesus out of tofu to arrive at something edible. Also a fact: The chokladbollar cookies that triggered the late Gabe Frisk’s heart attack were prepared by the late Gabe Frisk himself. Fist-sized cannonballs of chilled butter and oats. Cold press espresso. Cocoa powder. Pearl sugar. And—always a choking hazard with the late Gabe Frisk—shredded coconut. Scabs of dough flaking from his lips and fingertips like a leper’s leavings.

Anyone who’s been on blood pressure medication, then off blood pressure medication (most likely from being fed up with pills of any kind and a reliance on them), and back on blood pressure medication, knows the drill: “back on” blood pressure meds is the only place to be if you want to stay alive. Hypertension is mania. As if the body were producing its own meth. No doctor needs to point this out. Joy Frisk said to me in a tree house therapy-den session: “Listen, Earl. Only someone who’s experienced mania knows the desperate desire to recapture it once it’s gone. You get your blood pressure under control and then you find yourself mistaking the metabolic slowdown for depression. Hence your desire to get off the meds and find ways to rev up your system once again.”

Lord, I accomplished so much when I ditched the blood pressure meds.

I figured this out in my capacity as a building contractor. Took on projects with an exuberance that seems superhuman in recollection. I almost bought a town. Saukfield, a rural exurb twenty miles east of Madison, was hollowed out in the crash of the late aughts. Main Street properties, some in foreclosure, offered at enormous bargains. A meeting with the chamber of commerce and both local banks was a sea of raised eyebrows when I said I wanted to purchase and renovate twenty shuttered Main Street storefronts—that is, two-thirds of Saukfield’s downtown—and nurture new business enterprises. I pounced. And then I crashed. But not before winning election and briefly serving as Saukfield’s village board president.

There were some stroke-like symptoms along the way. A divorce. My grown sons refused an opportunity to join me as partners in Earl Conklin Contracting. The economic recovery was sluggish. The Peeping Tom behavior started in earnest after the second bankruptcy. But give me a break. What’s to see in Saukfield’s midnight windows besides the spaceship glow of HDTV?

Saukfield villagers voted me out of office in a recall election.

Lois Pettigrew was at Mudstone to clear her head for writing a novel. Joy Frisk suggested to Lois Pettigrew that writer’s block is a useful tool if embraced for what Joy Frisk called its “palette-cleansing absence.”

The crack about the late Matt Jardine flouting Mudstone’s Rules of Absence came from Lois Pettigrew, who was staying in the cabin adjacent to the late Matt Jardine's, and with whom it’s believed the late Matt Jardine shared a love affair. Certainly something threatened the late Matt Jardine’s marriage and brought the late Matt Jardine’s wife, Teri Feldspar-Jardine, gunning the Grand Cherokee from Madison to Mudstone to “rescue”—Lois Pettigrew’s word—her husband. Teri Feldspar-Jardine brought along their daughter, Valerie Jardine-Mikkelson, and Valerie Jardine-Mikkelson’s husband, Cyrus Mikkelson, a Mound, Minnesota, metalworker.

There was shouting that day in the Mudstone parking lot.

The late Matt Jardine held his ground.

The late Matt Jardine’s family departed.

And, I remember now. Joy Frisk said to Lois Pettigrew, “By accusing the late Matt Jardine of flouting Mudstone’s Rules of Absence, you are similarly rending the fabric of absence.” Lois Pettigrew said, “Is absence a fabric?” “Let’s not belabor the metaphor, Lois,” said Joy Frisk.

The Mudstone Rules of Absence were pointedly just a title, below which was nothing.

Joy Frisk called the death of her husband, the late Soren Frisk, “repressed absence.”

The late Matt Jardine was at Mudstone to conquer the plaque psoriasis that raged across his body in varying degrees of retreat and attack throughout the year.

The late Matt Jardine read in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs that Steve Jobs used fasts and vegan dietary restrictions as a means of inducing enlightened states of consciousness.

The late Matt Jardine’s years as an insurance claims adjuster were unfulfilling.

 “Gnawing emptiness,” said Joy Frisk, “should not be confused for absence, which never gnaws.”

The late Matt Jardine’s wife, Teri Feldspar-Jardine, an actuarial analyst for the City of Madison, flipped when the late Matt Jardine quit his job with American Family Insurance. The late Matt Jardine first quit meat and saturated fats. Quit smoking. Teri Feldspar-Jardine was a smoker. Teri Feldspar-Jardine was a carnivore.

Accidental drowning was the coroner’s ruling, notwithstanding Teri Feldspar-Jardine’s threatened lawsuit. The late Matt Jardine was on retreat in a shallow grotto on the far side of Mudstone Lake. The late Matt Jardine wasn’t on Mudstone property. His journal jottings, left behind in the grotto, were simple words, single words. “Filament” was the last word. Faint pencil on waterlogged journal paper. “Filament” made little sense to anyone. Joy Frisk suggested that the word might be “firmament.” When a digital image of the final journal page was enlarged and projected on the Cinémathèque movie screen, Joy Frisk said, “Now it looks like ‘filament’ again.”

Lois Pettigrew’s nightmares were of aloneness. A bottomless aloneness, as aloneness so often is. It was terrifying. It became a waking nightmare. 

When she was with the late Matt Jardine, for instance.

“You’ll miss me when I’m gone,” said the late Matt Jardine.

“Let’s find out,” said Lois Pettigrew. “I’ll close my eyes and count to ten.”

Lois Pettigrew sought out Joy Frisk and asked her to clarify, if she could, the manner in which aloneness could be transformed into something like grace. Or novel-writing. Lois Pettigrew was convinced such a transformation was a summer asphalt mirage shimmering unobtainable in the infinite distance. For Lois Pettigrew, the worst aspect of her aloneness was that she couldn’t choose otherwise, that she, in fact, desired aloneness while at the same time feeling horribly desolate when she seemingly clutched it, hugged it close to her. Too much, she was convinced, like a death rattle rather than a creative flowering.

“Never equate absence with devastation,” said Joy Frisk.

The late Matt Jardine felt insulted twice over. First, for not being invited to participate in Joy Frisk’s tree house therapy-den session with Lois Pettigrew. “Maybe she’d like to hear my side of the story,” he said to Lois Pettigrew.

“This isn’t couples therapy,” said Lois Pettigrew.

And, second, “I don’t get it,” said the late Matt Jardine. “How does spending time with me cause you to feel more alone than when you’re actually alone?”

 “If I were a movie shrink,” Joy Frisk began in a tree house therapy-den session with Lois Pettigrew, “I might say something like this: ‘Your sense of aloneness is not a separation from others, whether the separation is desired or not. It is instead at root a separation from your own self. You are alienated from yourself.’ That’s what I would say if I were counseling Meg Tilly in Agnes of God. Melodrama is like caffeine. What I’m saying is that absence has no room for anything but absence.”

“So I should cut back on the Diet Pepsi and the NoDoz?”

“Locate your absence.” 

“Here’s absence for you,” said Lois Pettigrew. “My husband back home in Janesville cheats too often for me to any longer give a shit. And Matt Jardine wants me sick with love. This isn’t some Carson McCullers fever dream. And I love Carson McCullers, don’t get me wrong. I wrote my Masters thesis on Reflections in a Golden Eye. The Major’s wife, crazed with jealousy, slicing off her nipples with garden shears? Me, personally? If garden shears were to be involved at all, make no mistake, they’d be pointed at my husband’s nuts, or Matt Jardine’s nuts, before I’d point them anywhere near my nipples.”

“But the buried source of the Major’s wife’s self-mutilation was a baby she’d lost in childbirth. It wasn’t her husband’s infidelity.”

“Of course. But not exclusively.”

“How about a screening next month?” said Joy Frisk.

“A breast exam?” said Lois Pettigrew. 

“A screening of Reflections in a Golden Eye. Marlon Brando. Elizabeth Taylor. Directed by John Huston. Julie Harris as the Major’s wife. The Major capably played by the underrated Brian Keith.”

“The movie isn’t very good,” said Lois Pettigrew. “Brando’s okay.”

In 1967 John Huston wanted Reflections in a Golden Eye released not in Technicolor but in an eerie sepia tone. 

 “Like watching the movie through a jar of Oleanna Frisk’s apple cider vinegar,” said Joy Frisk. 

 “Matt Jardine is what we used to call ‘clingy,’ “ said Lois Pettigrew. 

 “We spent one night together,” said Lois Pettigrew.

Earl Conklin tried to recall observing anything between Lois Pettigrew and the late Matt Jardine that signaled desire. We all know the signs, thought Earl Conklin. 

It was a juice fast of some endurance that culminated in the late Matt Jardine filling a backpack with four gallons of purified Piggly Wiggly drinking water and biking to the far side of Mudstone Lake to a grotto that butted the water’s edge. Mudstoners who knew him have since speculated that the true inspiration was Lois Pettigrew, who encouraged the late Matt Jardine to read—did he really read the whole damn book?—Gustave Flaubert’s eccentric encomium to the font of Christian monasticism, The Temptation of St. Anthony.

At first, the late Matt Jardine wondered if Lois Pettigrew’s gesture was on the order of cheap theatrics. The late Matt Jardine knew St. Anthony of the Desert as the shingles saint: Patron Saint of Skin Disorders. The late Matt Jardine remembered the St. Anthony of the Desert laminated prayer cards mailed to their home at seemingly coordinated times from members of his wife’s Feldspar Catholic clan. Teri Feldspar-Jardine’s family hubs clustered in Green Bay, Milwaukee, and Madison. Though lapsed, Teri Feldspar-Jardine was deeply woven, whether she liked it or not, into the holy skein of things. Totems and plastic statuary collecting dust, inviting dust. Votive candles. Laminated prayer cards. Easier to just accept them. Easiest of all to re-gift the St. Anthony of the Desert laminated prayer cards whenever one or another of Teri Feldspar-Jardine’s nine siblings crossed at intervals into their fifties and got hit with shingles.

The late Matt Jardine blushed. Was Lois Pettigrew presenting The Temptation of St. Anthony to him as a gift? She did wrap the book, more or less, in a tightly tucked white plastic bag with the Piggly Wiggly logo marginally obscured. The Temptation of St. Anthony was simply on loan from the Mudstone library. Lois Pettigrew, it turned out, had a grad school lit-crit bug up her butt about Gustave Flaubert’s misunderstood masterpiece.

“Fuck Madame Bovary,” said Lois Pettigrew, more than once, and at least once in the dining hall within earshot of pretty much everyone. “Bovary is mere shadow play,” she said. “Its light filtered and repressed. Dimmed, as naturalism so often is. Devoid of spiritual anguish. The Temptation, by contrast, is unrepressed. Unfiltered.”

“Unplugged?” said the late Matt Jardine. 

“Michel Foucault called The Temptation the ‘coal’ from which all of Flaubert’s works are smelted.” 

“Really? Smelted? What does that even mean?”

There were times, the stillest of times, the quietest, when Joy Frisk’s most absent thoughts inadvertently filled with memories of her husband, the late Soren Frisk. Joy Frisk remembered their move to the woods and taking ownership of Mudstone. Cancer in remission. The relocation from Chicago met with strong resistance from her doctor, Reese Malamud, and from her aromatherapist, Connie Boone. 

The late Soren Frisk painted the walls of Joy Frisk’s tree house therapy-den a shade of white that Joy Frisk called Ingmar Bergman white. With dove grey trim. The late Soren Frisk painted the walls of the Cinémathèque a subliminal shade of mud, the color, said Joy Frisk, of “absence recollected in repose.”  

During his final days, the late Soren Frisk lived with a tank of oxygen lashed to the back of his wheelchair. 

“Absence it ain’t,” said the late Soren Frisk. “Seems instead like a lot of add-ons.”

And then he was gone.

 “John Huston directed The Dead on oxygen and in a wheelchair,” said Joy Frisk at the late Soren Frisk’s Mudstone memorial service. “Soren Frisk defied the dead on oxygen and in a wheelchair.”

“Defined?” asked someone, sotto voce

“Defiled?” asked another.

 “Addictions and obsessions are self-perpetuating in a recognizable—comfortable—pattern,” said Joy Frisk in February when winter depression (SAD was a common Mudstone disorder) took hold among many who were staying there. “Absence is the alien god.”

“Please, no,” said Lois Pettigrew. “I know where you’re going with this. I mean, we’re all pretty well familiar with the books with which you’ve personally—with extreme prejudice—stocked the Mudstone library. Elaine Pagels. Hans Jonas. Too much Gnosticism, too little to meet our anxieties with anything but a kind of regal darkness. No, thanks.”

On those Wednesday evenings during the summer when Lois Pettigrew and the late Matt Jardine were together at Mudstone, they would sometimes ride with Joy Frisk in her rough-running Volvo to the Creamery Grill in Tempest. Joy Frisk had a fortune-telling gig as the Veiled Seer. 

It usually worked like this: Joy Frisk would announce mid-afternoon on a Wednesday that she was visiting her chiropractor thirty miles away in Tempest, a community close enough to Hayward to share in its nightlife and tourism. Joy Frisk would casually dispense a couple of discount coupons for dinner and a show at the Creamery Grill. Lois Pettigrew and the late Matt Jardine thought, Why not? It would be a night out. Lois Pettigrew and the late Matt Jardine were initially on the same page in discouraging any thought of the evening as a “date.” Nor was much privacy or intimacy afforded them. At 8:00 pm the Creamery Grill house lights dimmed and the Veiled Seer took to the small raised stage. The Veiled Seer’s job was to warm up the crowd before the folksingers and the oldies cover bands.

There was the time the Veiled Seer pointed a lacy-gloved finger at Lois Pettigrew and the late Matt Jardine. Like a metronome needle sweeping back and forth between the two of them. The Veiled Seer said, “This relationship is toxic.” 

Rude laughter erupted from the Creamery Grill crowd. 

A lemon wedge hit the late Matt Jardine in the face.

Shouldn’t a restaurant with a name like the Creamery Grill serve a seafood chowder rich with dairy cream instead of their decidedly more austere broth-like seafood chowder? You can see right through this. Soup is not chowder. Pimento and celery are not seafood. This was a topic of dinner conversation between Lois Pettigrew and the late Matt Jardine.  

“From our lips—” said the late Matt Jardine, soup spoon sluicing with not much of anything.

“—to God’s crushing indifference,” said Lois Pettigrew.

They shared idiot grins. 

Lois Pettigrew and the late Matt Jardine honestly couldn’t swear that Joy Frisk was the Veiled Seer on each of the three occasions that they attended the show. The Veiled Seer was thoroughly wrapped in ghostly white linen from head to toe. One Wednesday night the Veiled Seer answered every question with, “I predict you will continue to enjoy our two-for-one drink special.”   

Joy Frisk detoxed from Vicodin the week that the late Matt Jardine biked the lake trail to the grotto across the water from Mudstone. Secluded in the tree house therapy-den, Joy Frisk vaped hash oil and flushed her system with raw fruit juice and Metamucil.

St. Anthony of the Desert emerges intact from his battle with demons of self-doubt, of distraction, of psychic sabotage. Imagined by Gustave Flaubert as an IMAX hallucination of rapacious pagan gods and violent worldly excess giving way to Christian austerity. Rather than traumatized and depleted by the experience, St. Anthony of the Desert radiates giddy health and well-being. An object lesson in giving others permission to likewise seek the path of solitude. That is, navigating difficult separations from spouses, children, relatives, friends, business associates and creditors.

I was otherwise preoccupied, dosing myself once again with blood pressure beta-blockers when the late Matt Jardine biked to the far side of Mudstone Lake. It made sense to go back on the meds while the late Matt Jardine was off-site. I’d worked myself into knots shadowing Lois Pettigrew and the late Matt Jardine for signs of desire. We all know the signs. 

 “Care—or, rather, optimization—of the self is post-human,” Joy Frisk told us around a spectral winter campfire. “Self-monitoring of vital signs is a trillion-dollar tech industry. There’s a lesson here: Let us burrow into our cells.” 

“Cells?” said the late Matt Jardine.

“Or cells?” said Lois Pettigrew.

“Sales?” said Earl Conklin.

Joy Frisk told us that the late Soren Frisk’s cremation ashes were converted into a small memorial diamond at a cost of five thousand dollars. As a consequence, said Joy Frisk, she was as good as broke. The five-thousand-dollar memorial diamond had a market value of less than three hundred dollars.

The late Matt Jardine locked eyes with Lois Pettigrew across campfire flames.

Lois Pettigrew was forceful in calling it a night. But it seemed to Earl Conklin that while Lois Pettigrew and the late Matt Jardine exited the clearing separately a few moments apart, they were nevertheless distinctly in sync. A dance of feigned resistance and disinterest masking deep inward agitation. Or what some might call desire, thought Earl Conklin. We all know the signs.

 “The way to insure writing becomes essential to your life,” said Joy Frisk to Lois Pettigrew, “is to sanctify the process.” 

The late Matt Jardine wanted an escape from plaque psoriasis. Purification. The late Matt Jardine wanted to lose his skin. What is the reverse of stigmata? Something, like fasting, that melts flesh like candle wax rather than defacing or mutilating it. He’d read somewhere, Googled it: psoriasis is skin working overtime.   

Earl Conklin was convinced that desire was consuming the late Matt Jardine like a wasting disease. Burning out the rheostat. We all know the signs.  

 “I suppose, yes, it was a signal,” said Lois Pettigrew. 

“Locking eyes,” said Joy Frisk.

“Yes,” said Lois Pettigrew. 

“Locked eyes. Fixation. Idolatry.”

“Really just a cue.”

“To skidoo?” 

“To screw,” said Lois Pettigrew. “We were outside in February around an ineffectual campfire. You were talking about Soren Frisk’s cremation ashes. Matt Jardine and I said our goodnights individually and then met up back at his cabin. Earl Conklin was spying on us again. We hid beneath blankets.”

“Absence requires resolve,” said Joy Frisk.

Joy Frisk was off Vicodin.

Joy Frisk was back to feeling her bones abrading.

Joy Frisk was back to grinding her teeth.

 “Since you aren’t working on the book you thought you came here to write,” said Joy Frisk, “I’d like you to help me write my next book.” 

Joy Frisk’s earlier book, her first book, was a cancer memoir titled I Should Be Dead. Earl Conklin was profoundly moved by a paperback copy of I Should Be Dead that he browsed in an Eau Claire gas-station convenience store. Copies of I Should Be Dead, both new and used, are available for loan or purchase in the Mudstone library.

Lois Pettigrew was genuinely surprised when Joy Frisk asked for her assistance on a book project.

 Joy Frisk said she wished to clear her head of what had become a flood of memories or sense impressions haunting her absence-trained mind.

The late Soren Frisk tumbled fifteen feet to the ground while reinforcing the tree house therapy-den deck railing after a rain. The late Soren Frisk’s workbench broke his fall. Broke his back. Punctured a lung.

“The process protects us,” said Joy Frisk. “But it also limits our access to absence.”

 “Precision and harmony are the key.”

“The key to what?”

“Swedish woodworking.”

“Fine. Is that your opening? Your preface?”

“Swedish woodworking isn’t just wooden shoes.”

“Of course not. Who really thinks otherwise? I wasn’t at all thinking wooden shoes. I don’t think your readers will think wooden shoes.” 

“Clogs, actually.”

“I’m done.”

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Bob Wake lives in Cambridge. He is the first-place winner of the 2017 Wisconsin People & Ideas Fiction Contest. Wake's short stories have appeared in Rosebud Magazine, The Madison Review, Madison Magazine, and, previously, in Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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