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Spiral Staircases, or It Pays to Reread

Spiral Staircases, or It Pays to Reread

Up in the mountains a man wrote a novel. It was set by the sea, about a woman who wrote plays, mostly about poets. The novel focused on one play in particular, about a fine young poet who, as a side-gig of sorts, cooked dreams down by the harbor and sold them for two bits, or a smile, whichever came first.

It was a catastrophe!! The novel, the play, the dream cooking, the works!!

It was as if the whole sleepy harbor town had conspired against the dream chef. Rather than the usual sunshine and sweet nights indicated by his time-tested recipes, there was rain and rain and more rain. Instead of peaceful vistas and blue skies, there were dark, eerie corners, Gothic creaks and groans, spiral staircases and shadows for the shadows. In short, the sleepy harbor town became the stuff of Victorian Penny Dreadfuls, and locals were gathering their pitch forks.

There was nothing left to do but flee the now dark and dreary town, which, of course, broke the poor playwright’s heart. Losing her poet made her lose her way, and she quit writing plays and quit the novel, which flummoxed the novelist, whose agent fired him the next morning.

“But why, Q? I can find other material! And I will!!”

“Forget about it, D. Metafiction is dead. It died with Borges.”



Donal Mahoney: New Short Fiction

Donal Mahoney: New Short Fiction

Doing Laundry on a Farm in the Fifties


Grandma Gretchen’s in her rocker and she has something to say.

She tells a visitor, a young man from the city, if he plans to write a book about life on a farm in the Fifties, he likely has a lot to learn. She knows about that life because she was there. She says he needs to know about the little things as well as the big things if the book is going to be accurate.

For example, she says for him to understand that culture, he needs to know how laundry was done back then. This was before electric washers and dryers became popular. And he needs to understand why some farm wives today still use a ringer washer to do their laundry, usually on a Monday if the weather is nice.

The visitor agrees. So as he and Grandma sip strong coffee and nibble on scones from yesterday, Grandma starts to rock faster and begins a long tutorial.

The young man begins to feel he’s back in law school and should be taking notes but he had no reason to bring a notebook. He thought he was just visiting an older lady still living in her old farmhouse, a widow cared for by her adult children.

Colors and whites, Grandma explains, are always washed separately. Undies are washed separately as well. Sheets and towels are washed by themselves as are the men’s clothes.

“Men’s clothes are the filthiest thing on laundry day on any farm,” Grandma says, “especially the overalls.

“Believe me, young man, overalls are always washed alone. It’s a task no farm wife enjoys.”

In good weather, she says the whites are the first to be hung out to dry.

The clothesline is strung between two trees or from a tree to a hook on the house. As long as the line is not under where birds might perch, everything’s okay.

“Between two trees is prettier,” she says, “and a clothesline should look pretty.”

Warming to her task, Grandma goes on to explain that clothespins join all of the wash together except for bras which are hung by a single strap.

“A good wind and bras will kick,” she says, “like the Rockettes.”

The young man wonders how she knows about the Rockettes. He was told that Grandma’s sole exposure to the media over the years has been a Gospel music station on an old RCA console radio stationed not far from her rocking chair.

She goes on to point out that if it starts to rain and the clothes are nearly dry, the farm wife dashes out and rushes the clothes into the house.

“Even if he’s in the house at the time, her husband isn’t any help,” she says. “On a farm men have their tasks and women have theirs.”

Grandma admits she’s heard that some younger men today may help out in ways they would never have done back in the Fifties. That’s a big surprise, she says, if it’s true.

Then she mentions something the young man had been told by one of her daughters: Grandma and her husband, Carl, had seven kids. Carl took care of the farm and Grandma took care of the kids.

“Seven kids are a lot of work,” she says, “but Carl had 20 cows to milk every morning and 100 hogs to slop and eggs to gather in the hen house. I’d rather take care of Carl and seven kids.”

Grandma finishes her tutorial by telling the visitor that although she wishes him well, she doesn’t know how a man from the city can write a book about farm life in the Fifties.

“You weren’t there,” she tells him with all the kindness and wonder she can muster.

He tells her all he can do is try and maybe with her help something good will come of it.

She tells him he better let her read what he writes before it’s printed. She says she just got new bifocals.

The young man says she will be the first to read it.

And then he reaches for another day-old scone.



Donal Mahoney


Copyright© 2017 by Donal Mahoney. All Rights Reserved.


Donal Mahoney lives in St, Louis, Missouri. He has had work published in various publications in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Some of his work can be found at


The Letter

The Letter

Response to a Letter Recently Received

Fiction by Donal Mahoney


Dear Margaret,

Your life as explained in your letter recently received is very difficult to read. It’s been 40 years since we last saw each other or talked. Most of your problems I knew nothing about. Bits and pieces I somehow became aware of over the years. One of your brothers or sisters may have mentioned something they had heard at Christmas or on Father’s Day, but they were as much in the dark as I was. We didn’t know where you were.

The cancer, of course, runs on my side of the family since it was colonic cancer that killed my mother at age 59. Years ago, long before you indicate that you were diagnosed with cancer, I tried, through one or more of your siblings, to get the word out to all the children of their need for colonoscopies on a regular basis. I am now due for another colonoscopy. I have one every two years. So far, the cancer has skipped me and, as you indicate, it has struck you. Your aunt has shown no signs of cancer either so perhaps it is going to skip our generation. It isn’t fair, I know.

I don’t know how to comment specifically on all the problems you mention in your letter. I know I hurt your feelings (and more) at a time of great difficulty in your life and mine. I have no excuse to offer other than I reacted to a set of circumstances at the time that I found intolerable and in so doing hurt many people, most importantly you and the other children. They seem to have recovered, to the degree that anyone can, and lead what appear to be normal lives. They have children and seem to be happily married.

The old snapshot you sent of me was taken in 1969 while I was staying as a guest at a seminary in Illinois, shortly after your mother asked me to move out. I was working at the newspaper at the time but was fired after I lost my ability to speak to my co-workers. I was able to write and edit but I was sufficiently in shock over the break-up that I could not talk. It took awhile to find another job.

It took a lot longer, however, to recover from finding out that your mother had fallen in love with a priest. Doctors didn’t know much about post-partum depression back in the Sixties and she seemed normal to me. But with five kids around the house, and the oldest six, there wasn’t much time for diagnosing one another’s illnesses. Keeping up with the kids was the big job.

I met the priest eventually, and he said that he had himself transferred to another Church when he found out how she felt about him. He pulled out a stack of her old letters wrapped in a rubber band. They had not been opened, and he said that he had not been in touch with her after his transfer. He said he thought about going to her wake but figured that would just add to the gossip, decades old as it might be. I believe him, Margaret. He knew nothing about the depression and, I suspect, simply tried to counsel her. In the process she responded overwhelmingly to his kindness. A priest is not a psychologist or psychiatrist so detecting something that subtle would have been tougher for him than it would have been for me. No one talked about post-partum depression back then. Parents have bad days. I had no idea how bad off she was.

I feel very sad hearing about your difficulties. And I’m sorry that I wasn’t there to support you as a father when they began. But from a distance, I’ve thought of you often. I have prayed for you and your siblings every day since returning to the Church a few years back and will continue to do so.

I retired in 2005 and returned to the practice of Catholicism in January, 2008. I remarried eventually and my wife converted to Catholicism a few years later as did her mother shortly before she died. They both converted without any prompting from me. In fact, I hadn’t been to Mass in 40 years. I wasn’t angry with the Church and I still believed in God and the Church, but all the carousing I did after breaking up with your mother and before I remarried stifled what little spirituality I might have had. Coming back to the Church has changed me, though, for the better along with retirement. But I’m still far from perfect.

I’d be happy to hear from you at any time, and I’d try my best to respond in a way that would cause you no pain. If I have said anything here that causes you pain, or if I do so in the future, blame it on my ignorance about specific situations in your life and the cumulative toll life has taken on both of us.

Feel free to ask any questions or to air past grievances and I’ll do my best to provide an honest answer. If you ever feel like coming to visit, just let me know. There’s plenty of room in the house in case you have a husband and/or children.

Much love,



Copyright©2016, by Donal Mahoney. All Rights Reserved.

Donal Mahoney, a product of Chicago, lives in exile now in St. Louis, Missouri. His fiction and poetry have appeared in various publications, including The Wisconsin Review, The Kansas Quarterly, The South Carolina Review, The Christian Science Monitor, The Chicago Tribune and Commonweal. Some of his online work can be found at




Purity, by Jonathan Franzen

I’m about 300 pages into Franzen’s new novel, Purity, and it’s truly hit its stride. It started out a little slowly for me, and I think he did too much telling, rather than showing, but readerly patience has paid off. At this point, and especially after his brilliant, almost ecstatic description of Pip’s sojourn in Bolivia, it’s more than clear that Franzen can build a compelling case for his world, its multiplicity of emotions, motives, betrayals and jealousies, and especially the internal twists and turns of his characters’ minds.

Even after 300 pages, it’s difficult to summarize the plot. But it’s basically the story of a young woman’s search for the father she never knew, and the search for metaphorical daughters by four slightly less central characters, two men and two women. Franzen’s larger context is our present day, with flashbacks to East Germany right before the Wall came down and its aftermath. The Internet, the Age of Leaks, Assange, Snowden, political and corporate malfeasance, ground the story in a larger reality. But it is the creation of a complex, forever interesting female lead that drives the story.

Pip — her given name is Purity, which she sees as a ridiculous burden — is young, smart, strong and at times vulnerable to the machinations of older men. And they to her. Because Pip also doesn’t seem to realize how deeply attractive she is to people who have lived life for a bit — male or female. Her self-image is generally too low to understand this, and Franzen suggests that her lack of popularity with people her own age affects her self-image almost to the point of neuroses. Older people want to be her, be with her. Young people her own age don’t get her and seem put off by her darkness and quick and frequent sarcasm.

Will write more about the book once I’ve finished it.




We have new poetry, fiction and a screenplay this month at Spinozablue. Donal Mahoney brings us the first two, while Charles Tarlton brings us the last.

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Speaking of film, Martin Scorcese pens a wonderful essay in the latest New York Review of Books, entitled The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema.”

A short excerpt:

“Or consider the famous Stargate sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s monumental 2001: A Space Odyssey. Narrative, abstraction, speed, movement, stillness, life, death—they’re all up there. Again we find ourselves back at that mystical urge—to explore, to create movement, to go faster and faster, and maybe find some kind of peace at the heart of it, a state of pure being.

But the cinema we’re talking about here—Edison, the Lumière brothers, Méliès, Porter, all the way through Griffith and on to Kubrick—that’s really almost gone. It’s been overwhelmed by moving images coming at us all the time and absolutely everywhere, even faster than the visions coming at the astronaut in the Kubrick picture. And we have no choice but to treat all these moving images coming at us as a language. We need to be able to understand what we’re seeing and find the tools to sort it all out.

We certainly agree now that verbal literacy is necessary. But a couple of thousand years ago, Socrates actually disagreed. His argument was almost identical to the arguments of people today who object to the Internet, who think that it’s a sorry replacement for real research in a library. In the dialogue with Phaedrus, Socrates worries that writing and reading will actually lead to the student not truly knowing—that once people stop memorizing and start writing and reading, they’re in danger of cultivating the mere appearance of wisdom rather than the real thing.”


I just finished rereading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, the first book in the trilogy. I had forgotten how concise and spare it was, how Asimov never wastes a single word. It’s something I aspire to in my own work, the latest being a first attempt at a Sci Fi novel. Spareness and brevity not for the sake of it, not to be a part of some minimalist school, but to capture the moment quickly, lyrically, muscularly and then move on.

In Foundation, Asimov utilizes a theme that seems almost universal — something that fits quite well when your book deals with galactic empires. Death and reformation. The dissolution and rebirth of empires fascinates, and it can be done going backward in time or forward. The idea of succession to a crown, or to a vision — scientific, ethical, religious — is tremendously appealing. Adhering to a dream that has its roots generations or centuries or even thousands of years before provokes the imagination and adds a wide array of colors to life and our musings. To live for something, especially when that something persists through time, across the ages, adds an intensity and complexity that resonates and provides the ground for successful art. It’s perhaps the closest we get to a sense of immortality, and may be the chief reason for the appeal of such book series as The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire).

Logically enough, to match the persistence of the story across time and space, we have a series of many books, or dozens of television episodes based on those books, so the reader and the viewer stay with the characters, themes and visions across their own sense of time, albeit compressed. It is a wonder of the human mind that we can make sense of this, this radical distortion of time and space, and desire more of it.

We face time, head on, in a way unlike any other animal — as far as we know. No other animal faces its own mortality, or perceives the passage of time, which is why no other animal creates art or religion, the two greatest gifts and results of that confrontation. The idea of working toward a greater future, based upon the preservation of something beautiful and brilliant from the past, its extension, its expansion, can make it at least a little easier to cope with the knowledge of our guaranteed demise.


Donal Mahoney: The Deli on Granville

Donal Mahoney: The Deli on Granville

Patsy Foley Was Roly-Poly in 1947


It may have been the devil himself who prompted the kids in my schoolyard back in 1947 to chant “Patsy Foley’s roly-poly from eating too much ravioli.”

At first, no one could remember who started the chant. Patsy, a sweet and ample child, was in the third grade. As happenstance would have it, I was in that same third grade, infamous already as the only boy wearing spectacles in our class. After I got the glasses, I had three schoolyard fights in three days to prove to Larry Moore, Billy Gallagher and Fred Ham that I hadn’t changed a bit. You would think I would have forgotten their names by now. Not a chance. I didn’t like being messed with in third grade.

Since the chant would often begin and gather volume during recess, the nuns who ran the school eventually heard it and did their best to put a stop to it. This was a time when nuns, God bless them, were empowered by parents to swat the butts of little miscreants if any of them interrupted the educational process. Despite their voluminous habits, the nuns were adept at administering discipline, let me tell you, as my butt, on more than one occasion, could attest.

Now, 65 years later, when the chant pops into my mind, I begin to wonder what prompted me to say it. Early on, I certainly loved to hear the sound of words bouncing off each other–as if words were pool balls scattered by a cue. Later on I would use words to earn a living. They were the only tools I was any good with.

As I remember it now, the chant started one day after a school practice in church involving Gregorian chant. Some of the other kids later alleged that they had heard me, of all people, on the way back to class, chanting “Patsy Foley’s roly-poly from eating too much ravioli.”

I probably had some idea of the problem my chant might cause. But I loved the sound of it too much to stop.

If Dick Clark had been on American Bandstand back in 1947, he might have said the chant had “a nice beat” to it, but kids weren’t dancing much in 1947. World War II had just ended and school was a serious matter. Even kids who didn’t like books usually tried their best.

Since I was only in third grade, one might think that I might have had some emotional or mental problem that caused me to chant that phrase over and over. That could be. If a child did something like that today, he or she might be examined for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Maybe I had something like that. But in my mind the reason I chanted about Patsy Foley is that I liked the sound. It didn’t hurt that my father was always saying things at home that had a bit of a turn to them. I remember how I used to enjoy the cadence of what he said and repeating it when he wasn’t around. He used words differently than other fathers in the neighborhood and he delivered them in a melodic Irish brogue.

My mother, who was bereft of verbal rhythm, would sometimes ask my father a serious question when he was fresh home from a hard day’s work, climbing alley poles as an electrician. Usually her question would pertain to some family matter that she had been fretting about all day. And my father, sitting on a chair in our little kitchen while stripping off his gear, might say in response, “And what would Mary Supple say to that?”

It’s a shame that over the years my mother, sister and I never found out who Mary Supple was because her name was frequently invoked. Nor did we ever find out who John Godley was, either, even though my father would sometimes substitute John Godley for Mary Supple in that same response. He never said these things in anger, although he did have a terrific temper. He could erupt at any time and you didn’t want to get in the way of the lava.

At other times, when my father was asked a question by my mother at an inconvenient time, he might look her in the eye and say, “Ten thousand Swedes ran through the weeds chased by one Norwegian,” a line that did not originate with him but was one that he repeated with a special flair. The words certainly sounded good to me, whatever they meant. We didn’t know any Swedes or Norwegians and had no idea if there might be some conflict going on between them. True, World War II had just ended but we didn’t think the Swedes and Norwegians had been actively involved.

Sometimes my mother on a Sunday morning would ask my father if he was going to get dressed for church. He might have been taking a sip of his fifth cup of tea at the time. He wouldn’t get angry but he sometimes would lean back and sonorously intone one of the many Burma Shave billboard slogans that dotted highways in that era: “Whiskers tough old Adam had ’em. Does your husband have whiskers like Adam, Madam?” I liked the sound of that slogan as well. Today, it still pops into my mind during arid moments. And as my wife will attest, she has heard it frequently over the years.

I think it’s pretty easy to see, then, why I, as a third-grader, instead of concentrating on multiplication and division, preferred to chant “Patsy Foley’s roly-poly from eating too much ravioli.” I am glad, however, that the nuns took it upon themselves to discipline me and did not call my parents instead. After all, my father was paying tuition to send me to that fine school to get a good education. He did not send me there to engage in tom-foolery, a pursuit that he, of course, would have known nothing about even if his legacy among relatives said otherwise.

Besides, in my mind, no nun, no matter how mountainous she may have been, was a match for my father. He had been a boxer after he had emigrated to America from Ireland, a relocation occasioned by the British army after they had imprisoned him as a young man for activities in the Irish Republican Army. My mother said he loved boxing and had won eight straight matches before “some big black guy” broke his nose. After that, he never boxed again, she said, because he “didn’t want to lose his good looks.” He was a handsome man indeed, despite a nose that looked as though at any moment it might call geese to fly lower.

Years later, some neighbor ladies at a block party made some nice comments to my mother about my father’s appearance. When she came home, she told my sister what they had said and forewarned her that “handsome is as handsome does.” In many ways, that’s quite true, even though that line didn’t originate with my mother. Come to think of it, though, I like the sound of that line as well and might have chanted it more than once had I heard it in third grade.



The Deli On Granville


I lived in the attic back then,
and late those evenings I had to study
and couldn’t afford to go drinking
I’d run down to the deli and buy

bagels and smoked lox.
I’d watch the lame son
wrap each item in white paper
while his father, coughing at the register,

pointed to the cans on the wall
and screamed, “Serve yourself! Serve yourself!”
I’d grab a tin of baked beans and he’d smile.
Now, years later, I return to the deli

and find that it’s closed.
The sign on the door confirms
what everyone else already knows:
There has been a death in the family.


— by Donal Mahoney


Copyright© 2013, by Donal Mahoney. All Rights Reserved.


Nominated for Best of the Net and Pushcart prizes, Donal Mahoney lives in St. Louis, Missouri. He has worked as an edi­tor for The Chicago Sun-​​Times, Loyola University Press and Washington University in St. Louis. He has had poetry and fic­tion pub­lished in var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Some of his work can be found at



The Artist’s Choice

The Artist’s Choice

Guernica, by Pablo Picasso. 1937


For July, we have new flash fiction from Rebecca Lee, and new poetry from Joseph Robert.

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Having finished And the Show Went On, by Alan Riding, I was struck by several things. First of all, the obvious. When your nation is overrun by a foreign power, and you’ve lost control of your own country, do you continue to try to publish your work, paint your paintings, make movies, put on plays, give concerts, etc. etc.? Or do you go into hiding, withhold your art from the public? Or just leave the country? Are you really an artist if you don’t make art? And if your identity is tied completely to your art, to making it, to being what you make, do you, in a sense, commit suicide by going silent?

In France, many artists during the occupation chose to split the difference. They would continue to make their art, but they wouldn’t collaborate. Others felt that wasn’t enough. They had to turn their art toward the cause of resistance, or engage in actual battle. The book details the many intellectual résistants who chose that road. Some paid for that choice with their lives. Others barely survived the war, stuck in prison. Still others collaborated with the Germans and the Vichy government and paid the price after the war. There was a purge after liberation that presented moral and ethical dilemmas of its own.

Alan Riding makes the point that artists and intellectuals often were treated far worse after the war than business titans who had greater influence on the fortunes of the French. Wherein artistic collaborators were shot, imprisoned or banned from their livelihoods, it was extremely rare that heads of corporations, industrial titans, or owners of publishing houses suffered for their sins.

Of course, no one knew this back in 1940, when it all started. They couldn’t make their decisions based upon the liberation happening in 1944. No one knew, really, who would end up on top, though they certainly made educated guesses and placed their bets. Still, it’s a worthwhile exercise to imagine what we would have done in their shoes. Do your own political leanings come into play? Would you act based on your philosophical principles, or take it to a much more elemental level? Survival.

My own political and philosophical beliefs put me in direct opposition to the occupiers. I’m a staunch lefty, an egalitarian, a believer in real democracy. They were hard-right and against all the things I love and respect. But courage must come from somewhere else as well. It’s something that transcends politics, philosophy, or any abstract intellectual grounding. In any existential dilemma, something much deeper and more primal is at stake and the head can only act as a guide. It can only take you so far. The dilemma takes place outside your head, with blood, physical pain, misery and death all in the picture. The final word is left for your innermost being. Some call it the soul.


Summer’s Eve

Summer’s Eve

June brings us poetry by Neil Ellman and a short story by Donal Mahoney. Summer is around the corner. Will there be dancing in the streets?

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And the Show Went On, by Alan Riding. 2011

Reading a fascinating book about Occupied Paris. Alan Riding’s And the Show Went On. About 110 pages into it. He tells the story of heroism and collaboration in France, the Resistance, the complicit Vichy government, the attempt to flee the horrors of the Third Reich.

For me, World War II was always the last just war. Before it and since that time, wars have been overwhelmingly unnecessary, wars of choice, wars of conquest and the protection of markets. Wars that essentially had no reason for being, other than greed, avarice, the expansion of power or the exploitation of trumped up threats.

World War II was the real thing. Things really did stand in the balance. There really was a world before it and a totally different world after it, if the world had not gotten together to battle the Nazi and Fascist threat.

And how did artists, dancers, musicians, writers and actors react? Alan Riding’s book captures their moment, their dilemma, their choices. Josephine Baker comes away as a hero. Maurice Chevalier, so far, a collaborator and possibly a traitor to his nation. But perhaps the most fascinating and bravest of the men in Riding’s story to this point is the American, Varian Fry, who went to France hoping to rescue at least 200 artists, writers and musicians and ended up saving the lives of more than 2,000.

The rest of the book should delve into the Resistance in more detail, talk about Beckett, Malraux, Camus, Sartre and Beauvoir, among others. But for now, it’s in the second year after the invasion and occupation. Paris is back in business. But it’s never going to be the same.


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