Fiction Award: "Potboiler" by Laura Madeline Wiseman 


....Second person is a doorway into a character’s complexity of thought, their motivations and desire, why they turn away from something or ignore it, and why they focus their attention on one thing or another. 

Laura Madeline Wiseman 

Laura Madeline Wiseman teaches English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is the author of five chapbooks of poetry, including Branding Girls (Finishing Line Press, 2011).



from Spittoon 1.2 



Again with the move. Again you’ve boxed up your shelves of text books, your bathroom of pads, deodorant, ibuprofen. Again your stained mattress crowds the flat carpet and butts the walls of your mom’s apartment. The vinyl blinds teeth the floor with streetlight. You’ve entered your mom’s tomb. Still she breathes. Hotdogs boil in a pan of water on the stove. A roach scurries into the corner behind the coffeemaker. Still the TV flickers before her glazed pupils as she smokes. Still when she shuffles to the stove and stabs an aluminum fork into the processes meat, her toes crack.



Through the thin apartment walls, the TV murmurs at you. You read a novel. You write to a dead friend who dropped out of school to marry and birth two sons. The eldest squished kittens until something, their guts maybe, something creamy, churned from the corners of their mouths. You think of heras you glance from the corner of aluminum foil you’ve peeled back from the one window of the room. You examine the night. Twelve cars with flat tires and rusted roofs stud the parking lot. Six times you’ve caught teens fumbling on graffitied stairwells open to the stars. Three times you’ve heard a scream, a crash, a Please stop, but always your mom has done nothing. And you, your mom’s eldest, pressed your thumbs hard into your ears and waited for the noise to work itself out and die.


turning point

In the morning your two adult sisters arrive at the apartment. They share the other bedroom. You three whisper together, lifting artifacts: a box of expired crackers, a dustpan of bugs, a pipe with a film of resin, black and warm. You say, She’s crazy. I’ve got to get out of here, though you’ve just arrived, again. Your sisters nod and help you plot. I’ve got a suitcase, says one.  I’ve got a ticket for a bus, says the other, but they both freeze and flatten their mouths as your mom shuffles into the kitchen for coffee. They exit to their room. You small talk with her as the soaps parade and commercials recommend dreams. For every one hundred words you offer, she gives you ten.Then you return to your square of foil, the handwritten letter to your dead friend folded over and a novel with an ending you will anticipate by page thirty-three.

A Note from Laura Madeline Wiseman: 

When I started graduate school, I was admitted as both a prose and a poetry writer, but as my tenure progressed I made a decision to focus on the craft of poetry. It wasn’t that I stopped writing prose, but poetry was where I focused my attention, and yet, there would be moments—especially during break or when I was a writer-in-residence somewhere—I would be focusing on line breaks or the way a sentence unfolds across a stanza and suddenly feel possessed to write something that felt like prose. “Potboiler” was one of those pieces, a piece that overtakes the writer, that overtook me, that demanded I write the first draft of it from start to finish, that I follow the pulse of the narrative until the last word.

“Potboiler” is in second person. I’m a little in love with second person, with the rhythm and sound of the word “you” and the way it lets the reader inside the head of the speaker. Second person is a doorway into a character’s complexity of thought, their motivations and desire, why they turn away from something or ignore it, and why they focus their attention on one thing or another.

“Potboiler” is forthcoming in my chapbook The Puppet Wife (Pudding House Publications). 


falling action

Your sisters go. Your sisters arrive. The scratchy pitch of them leaks in whispers through the walls. You try to remain hidden, but your mom gives you the phone. You call in take-out orders: five dollar large pizzas, egg rolls that ooze yellow drops of oil, diet cola, lots of ice. You’re never hungry. Not even the one lone hotdog floating in its pan of water in the fridge tempts you. A skin on the pan’s water ripples when you open the door. Other than the hotdog, the fridge contains black nail polish (your sisters’), a half-gallon of skim milk (your mom’s), and a novel (yours).



You move in. You move out. This goes on and on for years. Each time you arrive with your mattress, your sisters snigger. They wear chicer boots, more tattoos spiral down their arms, backs, and thighs, another piercing appears in their ears, lips, and tongues. You hear someone moan though the thin walls. Sometimes the moans are singular, a tenor or alto. Sometimes there are a multitude of voices. You imagine a city choir rounding their mattress on the floor and your sisters there with their black eyes and thin ankles swaying with the motion. You do not bring people into your mom apartment. You do not even consider masturbation. Often you dream of the dead friend who accompanies you on walks through the back doors of a stage in a massive auditorium. A half dozen kittens trail behind you. Some with broken tails, some with much worse.



On your birthday, you enter your room to find a warm pistol in the middle of your blue and white flowered comforter. You’ve just delivered to your mom a diet cola, lots of ice, a king sized candy bar, and a plastic baggie of something else. The foil on your window has been folded back and taped shut. The pages of your note are scattered like fish on the floor. A novel rests on your pillow. The author is unknown to you. The language isn’t romantic. You nudge the gun with a finger and realize with a lurch, the gun has always been there. Always it has waited for a moment like this to glint in the hallway light from the crack of your bedroom door. You pick it up, but find not a gun, but a kitten with something at the side of its mouth. You place it on the pillow and peel open a new corner of foil. You see lovers on stairs. You listen to the murmur of the TV, to the crack of your mom’s toes, and to your sisters’ moans. You pick up a pen to finish the note to your long dead friend.



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