Mary Helen Stefaniak

A Different Plain:
Contemporary Nebraska Fiction Writers

Ed. by Ladette Randolph
With an introduction by Mary Pipher

"You'll feel you know these writers because they tell stories as the neighbors do----complete with sometimes explicit details that make us squirm in our comfy worlds. As a whole, they all illuminate our Midwest, helping us make sense of this complicated corner of paradise we call home."—Midwest Living

From “Believing Marina,” by Mary Helen Stefaniak, included in A Different Plain:

I met Marina Zoltar on a Greyhound bus out of Chicago, a Saturday night bus so crowded that young men in baseball caps and nylon jackets colorful as flags were sharing seats with children in fuzzy sleepers who looked like stuffed animals in their mothers’ laps. I was on my way home to Davenport from Milwaukee, where I traveled once a month to get my scalp shot up with cortisone because my hair was falling out. Marina Zoltar was sitting in the aisle seat, third from the front, when I changed buses in Chicago: a woman about my mother’s age, well-padded, with a round face and the kind of milky skin that made you want to ask her what she used. I don’t know what it was about me—my snazzy fedora?—that made her pluck at my sleeve as I sidled down the aisle. She had a bad leg, she said, with the barest trace of some place far from Chicago in her speech, and offered me the window seat beside her. “Miss,” she called me.

I hesitated. The last thing I needed on my way home from Dr. Borkowski’s office in Milwaukee was a three-hour stint as designated listener while someone like Marina Zoltar talked herself into existence the way people do, especially on Greyhound buses. My first choice would have been the empty seat behind hers, next to a little girl with long braids and big glasses, only her head visible above a plaid cocoon of blankets, but the minute I looked at her, the little girl fell over sideways to take up both seats, her eyes squeezed shut. Marina Zoltar shifted her knees obligingly to one side.

As soon as I sat down, even before the aisle lights dimmed and the gears started grinding in reverse, she began to talk. She tapped the side of her face and told me this was the cheekbone that was broken when a mugger, having knocked her to the ground and stolen her purse, had stomped on her face for good measure. It was the fourth time she’d been mugged, she said. She’d lost three good leather handbags with important documents inside (she did translations, she said, for lawyers, journalists, government agencies) before she wised up and began to carry a cheap vinyl purse like the one in her lap. “My money and ID? They’re here.” She patted her breast, then lowered her voice. “The police say to carry some kind of bag, too, or else they know you got it somewhere on you.”

She didn’t want me to get the wrong idea about her. She wore the big flowered scarf around her shoulders, three flannel shirts, and not one but two dresses, she confessed, lifting up the hem of a black and white check to reveal the paisley underneath, “in case it gets freezing cold on the bus, you see. Last month it was so freezing everybody complained. Listen,” she said. “Feel.” She leaned across me to pass her hand over the vents along the bottom of the window. She smelled like cooking, oregano maybe, a little garlic. “Does that feel like heat to you?” She told me she owned three houses—one in Chicago, one in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and one in Des Moines, Iowa. She, Marina Zoltar, occupied the second floor of her Chicago property, and she visited the other two every month to clean or garden or see to repairs, and to collect the rent in person. She leaned toward me a little, holding on to the purse in her lap. “If they know you’re absentee,” she said, “they wreck the place on principle.”

Selected Works

Novel
A hidden history of the South emerges when a worldly teacher leads Threestep, GA, to reinvent itself, setting in motion events that lead to triumph and tragedy for a black teenager who happens to be the smartest person in Piedmont County, Georgia.
Hilarious and moving, a masterful debut novel about a Milwaukee immigrant family's secret history.
Short Fiction
"Every story I have ever written is in some sense an argument with Flannery O'Connor, as well as a tribute to her. This story happens to be the only one that mentions her by name."
Short stories by Nebraska writers edited by Ladette Randolph, with an introduction by Mary Pipher
Fiction (short stories)
In these nine stories, “the familiar world is both funnier and sadder than it seems.”
--Kalamazoo Gazette
Creative Non-Fiction
A rich and comprehensive collection of literary writings about the Midwest.