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Fourteen Shakes the Baby

    ... a short story first published               in The Cincinnati Review

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The Cincinnati Review has been awfully good to me and this story.  I wrote about the worst night of a young girl's life, on a day that started with a sense of empowerment and then broke her like an egg.  It's one of those stories we rip right out of our hearts, that we write for ourselves without real thought of publication.  But Michael Griffith and Nicola Mason of The Cincinnati Review saw in Fourteen what I did, and they took such good care of her.  When Electric Literature asked for something for their "Recommended Reading" feature (a reprint section in America's premier online magazine), Nicola and Michael gave them "Fourteen," and Michael wrote a wonderful introduction.  Thanks to all of these good people, including Lucie Shelly, for giving my poor little girl two great homes and a lot of support!

Here's what the very generous Michael Griffith, Fiction Editor of The Cincinnati Review, wrote about the story for its reprint on Electric literature:


Susann Cokal’s “Fourteen Shakes the Baby” compels me through its pages in a way that’s both profoundly uncomfortable and unlike my usual mode of reading. Last night, for instance, poling through this brief piece of perhaps four thousand words took five sittings — or, rather, unsittings, since again and again I found myself wandering the house in a fever of empathetic anguish.

It’s a raw, harrowing story: A young girl is out with friends at a southern California beach, meets some surfers, shares an illicit and thrilling beer, says yes to their invitation to a party — and then discovers, in ways increasingly horrifying, what the young men there take and take and take that yes to mean: “Her spine is a chain of sore, swollen eggs, her lips are sore though they haven’t been kissed.”

Once these men complete their metamorphosis of her from girl into prop, plaything, mere receptacle, no one notices her anymore: not her humanity, not her age, not her ever-deteriorating physical and emotional state. It’s a story one can’t look at directly for long — but can’t look away from, either, without feeling devastatingly implicated; without being yet another friend who’s abandoned her not only to her fate, but to her forlorn and awful sense that “what they’ve done to her . . . is what she’s done to herself.”

Cokal’s nimble narration combines deep sympathy with an unsparing eye. It insists that if a writer contemplating such pain is to be compassionate, she must not flinch — and it challenges the reader to do the same. And so last night, as in each of my previous readings, I set the story down, walked into another room, washed a dish, sectioned a grapefruit for my daughter, all the while trying to keep these realms, the fictive daughter on the filthy linoleum floor and the real one hungry in front of the TV, separate, separate, SEPARATE. And then, forced back by Fourteen’s terrible vulnerability, her mangled innocence, I picked up the story again, returned to her side, and found myself at the moment when the invitation on the beach has been extended but not yet accepted:

The winter light poured over them, and the beer made their tongues tingle and their bellies flop. They said they didn’t know, they’d have to get home by eleven or maybe twelve, their parents would freak . . .

The blond guy said, C’mon. What are you afraid of?

They giggled again, clutching each other and denting their cold cans of beer. They were brave, these girls. They were a little bit tipsy and very ready to see what was next.

“Fourteen Shakes the Baby” is the kind of story that dares — defies — one to quit it. I can’t. I don’t think you’ll be able to, either.

Michael Griffith
Fiction Editor, The Cincinnati Review

And here is an excerpt from the story itself.  Warning:  This is not the feel-good read of 2017.


The first one is not so bad, hurts, grinding on the sticky floor with the others watching. He and she are drunk. Everyone else is drunk too, all the guys standing around and watching, all the girls in the other rooms.

Something bangs. It’s a cabinet door. It’s her head against the cabinet door.

The other girls are in other rooms, clothes on, trying to get attention from these men with their bleached and brittle hair, their ski sweaters, though December is mild in San Diego. Surfers wear ski sweaters when they’re not in the water, isn’t that weird? The wool scratches her chest as he bangs both her and the cabinet. He said her tits were too beautiful to leave in a bra. He called her babe. He likes the way they wiggle and shake as he rocks her. They hurt; they’re still growing, covered in streaky red stretchmarks that will turn white as she gets older. Poor breasts. She is both proud of and nervous about them. They feel better in her little black bra, cradled like eggs in a carton, but the bra is in her armpits and her hands are pressed against the cabinet, trying to protect her head.

At least he doesn’t take long, it’s over in less than five minutes. Minute minute minute minute minute, and done. The radio barely got through one song. He’s gone, and she can roll to her side and free her backbone from the cruel floor. Someone tosses her a roll of paper towels. It takes another minute to realize what she’s supposed to do .... 


These moments determine who a girl is. A girl decides who she is at these moments. How she acts afterward....


Please read the full story in The Cincinnati Review or on Electric Literature.  And hug a fourteen-year-old today--gently.



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