Plain China

Nonfiction

The Aesthetics of Uncertainty

Sam Sherman · University of Pennsylvania

The story of contemporary art over the past fifty years has in large part been the story of the reassertion of the world as the subject of art.

928 Romeo

Conrad Gregory · American River College

I was sneaky and I was in love. I was old enough to have a crappy job and some spending money, but young enough to live without sleep. Night after night, I would tiptoe out of my mother's house after calling a taxi.

The Delicate Root

Sameet Dhillon · Boston College

In the kitchen, Manprit chopped a yellow onion into long, thin strands. She pushed the pile off the cutting board and into a bowl with her knife, and started on the next one. She felt the tears slide down her cheeks and settle beneath her chin. The onions, somehow, after all these years, still caught her by surprise.

Sonora

Molly Kigin · University of Iowa

The Sonoran desert is beyond reason. More than anything else, it is a scene stolen from the apocalypse: tan, craggy rock blooming with poisonous scrub; red dirt that is discernable from rock only in color; laugh lines of wire running parallel to whip scars of asphalt. Short fernlike trees look as ancient as red oaks. Palm trees serve as the only sign of burgeoning civilization, nailed to the ground and cemented there in volcanic rock. They are the only species in the area that remains visibly invasive—now, even we Americans look like we belong here, like we didn’t steal this land from other people.

Falling in Love With the Red Priest

Amanda Pekar · Prescott College

“I don’t like Bach,” I complained, lowering my bow. I was fourteen and feeling contrary.

Signs

Alexandra Burns · Skidmore College

The first time I saw him I had just turned fourteen and the way he used swear words and carried his backpack on one shoulder was how I knew he was older. He called his friends by their last names and his teachers by their first names and they said the teachers didn’t care and he always looked like he just got up and I knew he hadn’t but I let myself think he had.

The Fire Rises

Clare Boerigter · Grinnell College · Honorable Mention in Nonfiction

My father was an Eagle Scout when being an Eagle Scout meant something. When I was young, he taught me the proper way to build a campfire, and also about Houdini, and the way Houdini died. My father told me that if I fell asleep near running water dragonflies would come and sew my eyelids shut. For nightmares, he once offered aspirin.

First Aid

Noah Pisner · Harvard University

I have in my hands a textbook on post-atomic birth defects in Japan. The Effects of Ionizing Radiation From the Atomic Bomb on the Bodies of Japanese Children by R.W. Miller, M.D., University of California Press, 1968, is a volume that I cannot, in good sense, recommend. In black-and-white photographs, it portrays many variations of our species’ form.

Spider Lady

Brittany Barbour · Virginia Commonwealth University · Honorable Mention in Nonfiction

We warned Joe not to go knocking on her door. “You gon’ getchoself stuck,” we told him. “Just stay out here and play with us.” He wouldn’t listen. It was too late, anyway. His nostrils were far too wide, his curiosity far too piqued. “Aww, come on, it can’t be that bad. I’m just gon’ introduce myself.” They called her Spider Lady. She lived at the end of the block—a dead end where only trouble makers and trouble seekers go—in a floor-level apartment with purple and green curtains. Yes, she wanted everyone to know where she lived.

Browsing History: Nostalgia and Immigrant Angst

Hadas Binyamini · Oberlin College

I recently realized that whenever I want to express anything real, I always imagine two giant, striped, plastic Men of Straw, looming above me. One Strawman politely, passive-aggressively, asks me to shut up, to silence my oppressive voice. To neutralize my history and make space for marginalized narratives. My grandparents’ experience got too much airtime already, and now it’s just an annoying horn, a passé excuse for the occupation. No one buys it anymore, this sentimentalized victimization of the Jewish people.

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The Aesthetics of Uncertainty

Sam Sherman · University of Pennsylvania

The story of contemporary art over the past fifty years has in large part been the story of the reassertion of the world as the subject of art.

928 Romeo

Conrad Gregory · American River College

I was sneaky and I was in love. I was old enough to have a crappy job and some spending money, but young enough to live without sleep. Night after night, I would tiptoe out of my mother's house after calling a taxi.

The Delicate Root

Sameet Dhillon · Boston College

In the kitchen, Manprit chopped a yellow onion into long, thin strands. She pushed the pile off the cutting board and into a bowl with her knife, and started on the next one. She felt the tears slide down her cheeks and settle beneath her chin. The onions, somehow, after all these years, still caught her by surprise.

Sonora

Molly Kigin · University of Iowa

The Sonoran desert is beyond reason. More than anything else, it is a scene stolen from the apocalypse: tan, craggy rock blooming with poisonous scrub; red dirt that is discernable from rock only in color; laugh lines of wire running parallel to whip scars of asphalt. Short fernlike trees look as ancient as red oaks. Palm trees serve as the only sign of burgeoning civilization, nailed to the ground and cemented there in volcanic rock. They are the only species in the area that remains visibly invasive—now, even we Americans look like we belong here, like we didn’t steal this land from other people.

Falling in Love With the Red Priest

Amanda Pekar · Prescott College

“I don’t like Bach,” I complained, lowering my bow. I was fourteen and feeling contrary.

Signs

Alexandra Burns · Skidmore College

The first time I saw him I had just turned fourteen and the way he used swear words and carried his backpack on one shoulder was how I knew he was older. He called his friends by their last names and his teachers by their first names and they said the teachers didn’t care and he always looked like he just got up and I knew he hadn’t but I let myself think he had.

The Fire Rises

Clare Boerigter · Grinnell College · Honorable Mention in Nonfiction

My father was an Eagle Scout when being an Eagle Scout meant something. When I was young, he taught me the proper way to build a campfire, and also about Houdini, and the way Houdini died. My father told me that if I fell asleep near running water dragonflies would come and sew my eyelids shut. For nightmares, he once offered aspirin.

First Aid

Noah Pisner · Harvard University

I have in my hands a textbook on post-atomic birth defects in Japan. The Effects of Ionizing Radiation From the Atomic Bomb on the Bodies of Japanese Children by R.W. Miller, M.D., University of California Press, 1968, is a volume that I cannot, in good sense, recommend. In black-and-white photographs, it portrays many variations of our species’ form.

Spider Lady

Brittany Barbour · Virginia Commonwealth University · Honorable Mention in Nonfiction

We warned Joe not to go knocking on her door. “You gon’ getchoself stuck,” we told him. “Just stay out here and play with us.” He wouldn’t listen. It was too late, anyway. His nostrils were far too wide, his curiosity far too piqued. “Aww, come on, it can’t be that bad. I’m just gon’ introduce myself.” They called her Spider Lady. She lived at the end of the block—a dead end where only trouble makers and trouble seekers go—in a floor-level apartment with purple and green curtains. Yes, she wanted everyone to know where she lived.

Browsing History: Nostalgia and Immigrant Angst

Hadas Binyamini · Oberlin College

I recently realized that whenever I want to express anything real, I always imagine two giant, striped, plastic Men of Straw, looming above me. One Strawman politely, passive-aggressively, asks me to shut up, to silence my oppressive voice. To neutralize my history and make space for marginalized narratives. My grandparents’ experience got too much airtime already, and now it’s just an annoying horn, a passé excuse for the occupation. No one buys it anymore, this sentimentalized victimization of the Jewish people.

Permanence

Alyssa Moore · Susquehanna University

Mike holds me in a position called “hands,” which means he’s tossed me up by the waist and is holding my feet in his hands at shoulder level. “Press up,” he says, shifting from foot to foot to get a better grip, “in one, two—” and he dips his knees and extends his arms all the way up. I pull my feet together tight as he transfers my weight to just his right hand. Pull in from my core, lift up with my shoulders. The balance is the easy part; when there’s only one person underneath you, there’s no choice but to work in tandem: If I lean an inch to the left, Mike takes three steps over to adjust.

In Memoriam

Victoria Baena · Harvard University

The front page of the website for artist Alisdair Hopwood’s False Memory Archive, on exhibition at London’s Freud Museum last year, declares: “WE NEED FALSE MEMORIES.” One could interpret this phrase in one of two ways: the utilitarian—the collective is in need of false memories for its project; or the more abstract—we human beings rely somehow upon a fabricated notion of the past.

Side by Side

WIll Anderson · Bard College

Since I can remember, Riley has gone through phases. He loved the Ninja Turtles. Then Star Wars. Then the CIA. Then Larry McMurtry. Each topic seemed more than a phase—they consumed his speech, his actions, and his thought. It was hard to imagine him ever leaving one behind.

For the Hollow Bones

Kris Mackenzie · Columbia College Chicago · Nonfiction Prize Winner

I spent the summer following my nineteenth birthday compiling a list of acceptable ways to kill myself. Option 1. Hang yourself, only do it dressed as Spider-Man. Option 1. Hang yourself, only do it dressed in nothing but a Ronald Reagan mask and a pair of in-line roller skates.

Last Rites

Faye Yan Zhang · Harvard College

After Grandfather died, he waited in line for one year. His ashes, piled inside a lacquered box, sat among the ashes of others in a cold concrete bunker nestled in the Chinese countryside. Each box bore a tiny black-and-white engraving of the deceased. The owner of the bunker kept track of burials by scrawling the deceased’s name and date of death on the lids.

The Rapture

Lauren Brownlee Copper · Elon University

The cheap, plastic rocking horse was bleached to a pale blue by the sun, with a sticker smile that was slowly peeling off. The saddle grew out of the plastic back, and was the same faded shade as the horse’s coat. The horse had been donated to the church by some unknown worshipper, and was already well loved by the time it landed in the Sunday school nursery.

24 Trials

Warner James Wood · Harvard University

The incident reported below took place on July 1, 2011, at 11:41 p.m. in Blue Ridge, Georgia. Jim Callihan has been indicted with charges of vehicular homicide, among others. His trial is set for spring 2014. Names have been changed out of sensitivity to the family.

What We Inherit

David Banks · Elon University

I ask Tommy, out of the blue, how his dad lost his finger—I know he’s told me before in the fifteen or so years we’ve been friends, but I can’t quite remember the story. I send him a text message and he doesn’t respond for a while. The wait makes me
 imagine the possible ways a boy can accidentally dismember himself. For some reason I dwell upon kitchen knives—a blender, maybe—though I’m not confident I’m on the right track. Turns out, he was six years old and fiddling with a bike chain when the kid on the bike started pedaling. I read this and think it sounds worse than I had pretended to remember. My eyes dart away from the phone, as if the image were on the screen.

On the Soliloquies of Madmen

Jeva Lange · Bennington College

For years I slept with a bible beneath my pillow and dreamt of a loathsome god. I remember this in 2014, in a movie theater in Brooklyn. It comes to me all at once, as memories do—and I am startled. Why remember my faith now, after I have called myself faithless for so long? It has been a decade or more since I pressed creases into my cheeks with the corner of that holy text.

How to Cook Guilt-Free Orange Roughy

Richard DiCiccio · Virginia Commonwealth University

Consider the orange roughy. Native to the waters of New Zealand and Australia, this placid fish’s bulging eyes and hardy, tough jowl may scare off children if their noses are pressed up against the cold glass of the National Aquarium, but don’t let the roughy’s blunt expression put you off your appetite. The orange roughy is a versatile fish with a mild flavor that is highly adaptive to a delightful array of recipes and seasonings. The roughy can survive just about any cooking method, and—best of all—the smooth, pearly white meat of this deep-sea delicacy is naturally low in fat. Roughy can even serve as a healthy substitute for any lean meat. Regardless of how you choose to serve it, we here at FoodHub.com guarantee that you can head to bed after dinner with no regrets.

Staying Power

Justin Bostian · Columbia College Chicago · Honorable Mention in Fiction

It was always the same, walking into the large, wide open sanctuary. Hundreds and hundreds of seats, padded green cloth atop stark metal frames interlocked to form the most modern version of the pew, something to keep a congregation comfortable. Before the newest renovations, before the multi-million dollar construction of a white building that sat on the hill, echoing Zion, before the patronage was large enough to provide a steady income for the pastor and his family, there were real pews.

Short

Nicolette Ward · University of Iowa

I invented the humblebrag when I was nine years old, although you’ll never hear me talking about it. “J.J.—my hairdresser—J.J.,” I clarified at the lunch table, with a chuckle I hoped would suggest that I was both embarrassed and better than they were, “says that I have natural highlights. It’s like, what does that even mean?” It meant I had sleek blonde hair that shone prismatic in the warm Nebraska wind. The Springsteen song practically wrote itself. It meant brushes and combs, scrunchies, barrettes, pigtails, ponytails, braids. It meant others patting my head as though they could not help themselves. It meant there would always be a place to hide.

The Bath

Michelle Doughty · Rice University

The master bathroom is an over-focused picture of mirrors, marble, and silver. I am naked under its harsh lights. My arms and legs are coarse and tan against the soft white of my belly and groin. My blonde hair is as pale as my skin, my teeth as white as the corners of my eyes. I am seven years old.

The Hive

Abby Hess · Susquehanna College

My cousin shows me how to capture a firefly and hold it against the ground, two fingers splaying out its wings like a butterfly about to be dissected. She takes a twig and scrapes out the glowing abdomen, takes all its glow away and it stays lit up on the end of the twig like a wand—a green, pulsing light. She twirls it in the air in front of me and I watch the light stay for a while, a tail behind her strokes. She catches another firefly between her cupped hands and gives it to me. Now there are two lightless fireflies on their backs on the driveway lying next to one another, hollow and black, flinging their legs into the air until they both stop moving altogether.

On Dust, Endless Libido, and My Grandfather's Fingers

Danie Shokoohi · University of Iowa

“Do you want me to go in with you?” He’s such a beautiful boy. His ancestors tended desert flowers, while yours were drunk on God and wine in the rose garden. Dark hair, sand-darkened skin, crescent-moon eyes. And he loves you. But he’s not a boy, he’s a man.

The Fairly Quiet Hour

E.L. Deleo · Prescott College · Honorable Mention in Fiction

There is a liquid line between those who are called sane and those who are not. The night I am committed to this hospital, the intake woman leaves me waiting alone on a bench in a hall before beeping her way out through automatic locking doors. Feeling a confused mixture of boredom and terror, I watch normal-seeming adolescent girls approach the large desk to my right.

The Story

Rebecca James · Susquehanna College

I am woozy. We’re walking around his frat house and I’m so drunk my skin feels hot. He’s wearing a sweatshirt, a blue zip-up, and I’m wearing a sailor girl dress of my roommate’s, thin pin stripes. It’s a Friday night, a lifting of school induced stress, and we have nothing better to do. We came to visit my roommate’s friend. I’ve never had Mad Dog before and every room tastes like orange.

Love Like That

Kate MacMullin · Brown University

It is perhaps the most perplexing hairstyle I have ever seen. The braid containing his waist-length hair has been plaited with an incontestably artful hand. It is immaculate. Spectacular. There are no whisper filaments struggling to break free, not one of the three sections indelicately thicker than the rest: perfect. Perhaps the tie-dye slip of a thing that he is holding hands with is the one who has done it, using her hands again and again, hand-in-hand, hand-over-hand, adoringly braiding his hair in the freezing stillness of the post-alarm morning.

I Want to Be Polly

Kit Peterson · SUNY Rockland

I was a bean-like nothing in my mother’s womb, silently waiting to embrace the divinity of violence. Early into her pregnancy my mother filled an empty bathtub with about two inches of blood. I wanted her hemorrhage for my own, even then. The day I was born, there was a record-breaking storm, accidental deaths in the paper. I felt the cold cutting through my mother’s stomach as she trod through the icy hospital parking lot, barbs of snowfall and wind chill aimed at the both of us.

Helpless

William Lambert · University of Connecticut

Jimmy swerved into a tree. Drunk. I fix a pot of coffee. “He’s an idiot. An idiot with a broken arm,” my mother says, shaking her head with a brief, caustic laugh, “He blew a two-point-oh, Billy, can you believe it?” Poor woman, I think, suppressing a smirk at my mother’s manic dyslexia. With sadistic amusement I imagine her answering the door—grumbling all the while in fear that my stepfather would be woken up by the racket—before learning that Jimmy had been rushed to the hospital.

A Dictionary

Nicole Lynn Redinski · Susquehanna University

words (English): Units of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation that function as a principal carrier of meaning. Language learning begins in the womb, and an eavesdropping baby can start picking up language once hearing is developed, at around seven months. Newborns can already comprehend speech patterns—which essentially means that ever since I was born, I’ve been taking in words, their meanings and values.

Concatenation, n.

Keziah Weir · Bard College

A man in Australia named Charles Bliss published a three-volume work of what he hoped would become a universal sign language. War and destruction, he believed, come from the misuse and degradation of words. People take real, good words and repurpose them to excuse and promote abominable acts. People are reduced to non-lives. Numbers. Things.

Arsenic Possibilities

Aleah Goldin · University of Pittsburgh

I paid 20 dollars for a box of blueberries. I never ate them. They sat in a cupboard for a week, until Susan pitched them in the garbage at 4 a.m. She said she could smell them in her dreams. The smell could have been the black mold growing in the bathroom. The mold looked just like the cap Mama’s Boy had been wearing the first day I meet him. It grew above the shower spout. I didn’t rinse the shampoo out of my hair when I saw it. The thought of Mama’s Boy made me wrap myself in a towel, rock back and forth, eat six Kit-Kat bars from the medicine cabinet, and bite my lip until it bled juice.

Jump

Anders Nienstaedt · St. Olaf College · Nonfiction Prize Winner

The New Yorker runs the article my sophomore year in college. The days are getting shorter, and my right knee is moving like it has a loose bolt in it somewhere. The muscles of my right leg have atrophied back up toward my hip because I’ve been limping, and I’ve been limping because I pushed a knee sprain until it became something else. These things are circular. You hurt, then you hurt from the limp.

Smiling At Serious Things: An Evening With Dave King

Robert O'Connell · Grinnell College

Drummer and bandleader Dave King mouths the word “poem” to his bandmates, indicating “You Can’t Spell ‘Poem in Concrete’”—another clumsily named King original—and the song begins. Guitarist Erik Fratzke strums major chords, bassist Adam Linz thumps along in step, and King ticks a plain, straight-eighth beat, culminating in a staple of his style, a stick smacked against the snare on the final quarter note before the melody arrives that doesn’t bounce back but is held there against the skin, smothering the sound. When tenor saxophonist Brandon Wozniak’s lilting melody begins, King leans back and slaps at his instruments with measured abandon.

Dario the Impressario

Olivia Auerbach · Bennington College

In the heart of Chianti lies Panzano, a small, charmingly antiquated, unquestionably Tuscan village. One of the inhabitants of Panzano is Dario Cecchini, the most famous butcher in Italy and, arguably, the world. His store, Antica Macelleria Cecchini, lies to the right of the cobblestone square and is a culinary Mecca for anyone with a penchant for meat. Dario has been a close friend of my family ever since my parents bought a home near Panzano. He always greets each one of us with a lung-collapsing hug and never forgets to kiss my father right on the lips.

Alphahomega

Rich Hoyt · Boston College

As children, we worshipped Home, wild and reckless. Armed with markers and crayons, we scribbled manic hieroglyphs on its canvas walls. Relished the soft, flowing pressure of our graffiti.

Dissection

Dana Diehl · Susquehanna University · Nonfiction Prize Winner

When you peel back the skin of the dead lab rat, it’s like stripping the rind of an orange. You can smell the preservation chemicals, a sweet, over-ripe-fruit smell, and it stings the back of your nose.

Consumed

Scott Griffin · University of South Florida

Beau, who lives on my couch, attempts to step out of my car and into waves of heat dancing in the dirt parking lot in front of our duplex. Closer in size to a bear than a man, he has to fight to climb up and out of my mother’s old red Dodge Intrepid with the yellow racing stripe down the side. He shades his eyes from the summer sun and looks at me through the windshield with impatient eyebrows. We’re home early from the diner where we work. He gives up on me while I’m still rolling up the windows and sticking to the driver seat.

World Peace Hotel

Georgina Parfitt · Harvard University

I thought I would have something on her, this nun. I thought that being out in the world, spending my time not with my eyes closed, wearing pants, watching television, would give me something that she didn’t have. But now she’s coming slowly down the hall and I’m smiling already, far too soon, giving myself away. And now breathe out all negative thoughts in the aspect of thick black smoke, out into the sky, where they will disappear, never to return again.

Trapping

Kim Stoll · Susquehanna University · Honorable Mention in Nonfiction

When I was a child, my dad always walked with a cane. He had a few of them, but the one I can picture most distinctly had a bronze dog head on top. The decorative head gave it some heft, making it the cane of choice when he went to check traps with my brother. I’m not sure when I asked how they killed the foxes they found in their traps, but at some point my dad must have explained, in his quick, harsh voice. He beat the foxes to death with his cane. Shooting them would have ruined the fur.

Field Notes on Hair

Vicki Yang · Columbia College Chicago

After the brain thing1 the world became divided; there were those who knew the truth about my illness, and those who knew the easy-to-swallow version I personally lubricated for them. As much as I tried to prevent it, there was the cleavage of my life’s short timeline into two separate but unequal segments: before the brain thing, when I possessed coveted big-name qualities like Radicalism and Bright-Eyed Naïveté, and after the brain thing, when I lost a little bit of those things, and also, for several months, a lot of hair.

Fat

Amber Eastman (August Lah) · Emerson College

Last night I had a dream that I was fat. More than fat: crouched on the bathroom floor of my old high school, flesh hanging heavy and pendulous. Gravity ached. Deeper and twist.

Grown-Ups

Laura Hitt · Prescott College

The snow sticks lightly to the road in a pleasant way, shrinking the lanes to wet tire tracks in a delicate white landscape. This is western Massachusetts in February, quaint as pastoral England. Snowy fields, classy coffee shops, large estates. Barebones deciduous trees line the roads like patronizing forefathers. Zoë sits in the passenger seat, her baby strapped into the elaborate car seat behind us. She turns to engage him in baby banter as he squirms. “He gets fussy in the car seat,” she says.

Brother

Antonia Angress · Brown University · Honorable Mention in Nonfiction

My mother wakes me in the night. “What? It’s late here.” I try not to sound mean, but I can tell I do. I will apologize later. My mother’s voice is tinny and garbled and distant. She tells me that my brother has tried to kill himself. I note that she says “your brother” and not “David” or “Dave” or “Davie,” as though he is a stranger that only I am related to.

Williams of the Dog Days

Clare Boerigter · Grinnell College

His beard is coming in red. I can’t see the stubble any longer, his face beginning to lose its subtleties. We determine not to look at each other. Or night determines for us. Bill Williams, the mountain overlooking, the mountain hanging, is prefaced by four lesser peaks. Ours is not the least, not the lowest; although ridged by telephone poles—a far running wood-and-wire spine—it is possibly the ugliest.

Actually, I'm Jewish

Seth Winger · Stanford University

Actually, I’m Jewish. It’s a phrase I’m used to saying, for one reason or another. What are you doing for Christmas? Actually, I’m Jewish. (Subtext: going to a Chinese restaurant.) Why are you dressed in a suit and walking away from class on the first day of the quarter? Actually, I’m Jewish. (Subtext: going to shul for Rosh Hashanah, and then probably to a Chinese restaurant.)

The Glasses

Katherine Bove · Emerson College

I was nine years old when I got my first pair of glasses. They were round and thick and wire-framed. When I remember that day, I’m not particularly struck by the way the optometrist’s office smelled (dry, like Kleenex), or by the way the uneven nubs on the periscope-like eye-checker dug red ovals into the bridge of my nose. Instead, all I can clearly remember is sitting on the swing back home, after the appointment, and my Yiayiá leaning over the flowerbeds.