Three Poems

Navigating wind in the chest

I walked the path between two solstices
with a swarm of angels
a flock of insects, miniature jaguars
and the rattle of day still reverberating.
Those seminal forces
luring me to the honeycomb
where the hummingbird and winter cicada whirred.
Navigating toward high seas
dad and mom
are two coasts
glued on the scorched edge of the map.

I wonder what language I will speak
++++++++++++++++ion my deathbed.

 

Flock of one

…your sheep that were wont to be so meek and tame, and so small eaters, now,
as I heard say, be become so great devourers and so wild, that they eat up, and
swallow down the very men themselves.
Thomas More, Utopia

It was so white. Freshly shorn
seemed as if they had removed
++++++++++++cottony clouds
and about a foot of him had fallen
defeated           by its own weight.

In his view
a lake               surrounded by reeds
++++++a body of water
embedded in the gentle hand of evening.

But they came, mostly women.
No one                        noticed
when the fluffy tail grew a stinger
the bleating tongue split in two
++++++and the snowy fur
began to grow scales
between misty tangles of hair.

No one                        noticed.

 

Letter to Khaled

Khaled, I carry your people on my back like a stone. Will we be condemned to this long climb, Sisyphus of red pearls encased in their box, you inside me like marrow in bone, fire in the sun, silver in the moon? And sand from all the world’s hourglasses would not be enough to cover the dead in Gaza cemeteries.

Khaled, if only I had beautiful enough words, and an angel to whip me with his quill, words as luminous as dawn, caress, petal, quetzal feathers, so the stone might roll off my back, plummeting lead that sinks to the dregs where your dead have ended up.

prose_section_divider

Navegación viento de pecho

Recorrí el camino entre dos solsticios
con un enjambre de ángeles,
una parvada de insectos, jaguares en miniatura,
y la sonaja del día que no ha dejado de tañer.
Aquellas fueron fuerzas seminales
para atraerme hacia el panal
donde zumbaría el colibrí y la cigarra de invierno.
Navegación hacia alta mar,
papá y mamá
son dos litorales
pegados en la orilla chamuscada del mapa.

Me pregunto qué idioma hablaré
++++++++++++++++ien mi lecho de muerte.

 

Rebaño de un solo miembro

Los corderos que tan mansos y dóciles acostumbraban
ser y de tan poco apetito, dícenme ahora que se han
convertido en  devoradores tan grandes y feroces que
se  tragan y engullen incluso a los propios hombres.
Tomás Moro, Utopía

Era tan blanco. Recién trasquilado,
parecía como si le hubieran quitado
+++++++++++inubes algodonosas,
y hubiesen caído a un palmo de él,
vencidas            por su propio peso.

En la mirada tenía
un lago             rodeado de juncos,
++++++un cuerpo de agua
incrustado en la mano dulce del atardecer.

Pero llegaron, la mayoría mujeres.
Nadie                       se dio cuenta
cuando la cola espumosa desarrolló un aguijón,
la lengua que balaba se partió en dos,
++++++++iy el pelambre nevado
empezó a cultivar escamas
entre marañas de pelos neblinosos.

Nadie                      se dio cuenta.

 

Carta a Khaled

Khaled, llevo tu pueblo a cuestas como una piedra. ¿Seremos acaso condenados a este largo ascenso, Sísifos de perlas rojas encerradas en su caja, tú en mí como la médula al hueso, el fuego al sol, la plata a la luna? Y todos los relojes de arena del mundo no alcanzarían a cubrir los muertos en los cementerios de Gaza.

Khaled, quisiera palabras tan hermosas, y el ángel me latiguea con su cálamo, palabras tan luminosas como alba, caricia, pétalo, pluma de quetzal, y la piedra rueda de mi espalda, plomo que se hunde en picada hasta la hez donde tus muertos han ido a parar.

Translator’s Note

Robert Bly’s eight stages of translation is a fair representation of my general technical approach to translating a poem. However, before I begin translating, I like to read as much work by the poet as possible—even if I am translating a single poem. If the poet also writes essays or prose, I like to marinate with those as well. I like to build a personal relationship with the poet. I’ve been told that translating poets long dead is safer because you don’t have to fear them hating the translation, but I enjoy building a relationship with a living, breathing (and often under-represented) poet. I don’t know the mechanism, nor can I provide any empirical evidence as to how it makes me a more effective translator, but listening to the way a poet speaks, how she forms logic or expresses passion, knowing how she likes her coffee, etc. all help form a poetic intuition unique to her work. Of course, with poets who have already passed, you can do research, listen to recordings, etc., but that artery for feedback won’t be there to nourish you. What intrigues me about Françoise’s work is how it reflects her background in and love for the biological sciences and natural history. Given my B.A. in Environmental Science, it isn’t surprising that Françoise’s work speaks to me, but studying how she draws upon these inspirations helps me contemplate new ways to do so in my own work. I appreciate how Françoise shares her success with me. For example, she recently shared that she had taken my English translations of her poems to a literary festival and workshop in China where they were explored in a common language. Hearing that the work I have done has helped her challenge borders and boundaries too—that is empowerment. I like that this process allows us to empower each other as artists and women. Approaching translation with gratitude and amazement is also essential—after all, becoming part of another artist’s process is an inimitable experience and privilege. Discussing with a poet her intentions and choices is such an intimate way of learning about poetry and language. And isn’t that why translation is such a good investment? I’ve had peers and colleagues ask why I spend as much time on my translations as I do on my own work. The two are interconnected—the immersion into someone else’s mind and expression influences my ability to express myself and benefits my work. It’s miraculous how another artist’s poetic nuances, once experienced and analyzed and savored, become part of my own poetic DNA. I am grateful for every opportunity to translate because not only do I build relationships with new members of my ever-increasing poet-family, but also, translation provides an ideal occasion to produce work that both crosses and questions boundaries of language, culture, and politics. And beyond the intellectualism and gifts of translation, I very simply find translating poems to be fun (think syllable Sudoku for the language-obsessed) and meditative.

Françoise RoyFrançoise Roy was born in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada, in 1959. She has a Master’s degree in Geography with a Certificate in Latin American Studies (B.S., University of Maryland; M.A., University of Florida; as well as a Certificate in Translation from English to Spanish (O.M.T., 2000)). She has worked as a free-lance interpreter and translator, and as an editor, apart from having been a French and English teacher. She has also given writing workshops. In 1997, she was awarded the National Literary Translation Award in Poetry (INBA, Mexico). In 2007, she was awarded the Jacqueline Déry-Mochon Award for her novel Si tu traversais le seuil (L’instant même, Quebec City, 2005). That same year, she also won the Alonso Vidal National Poetry Award in Mexico. She has published one novel in Spanish and one in French, a book of short stories, one plaquette and eight poetry books, most in Spanish, two of them being bilingual (Spanish-French). She has translated close to fifty books, mostly in poetry. In 2002, she co-founded Tragaluz, a monthly art and culture magazine, where she worked as an editor until it ceased to exist in 2007. She lives in Guadalajara, Mexico.

 

Amanda FullerAmanda Fuller is a native San Diegan who has circumnavigated the earth via ship. She is a poet, translator, and co-founding editor at Locked Horn Press who currently teaches at San Diego State University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry International, Serving House, San Diego Poetry Annual, BlazeVOX, Fugue, and elsewhere.

 

Anne Ursu, Author

Anne Ursu

Photo: John W. Ursu

I recently spoke with Anne Ursu, who has written both adult and young adult novels. She lives in Minneapolis and teaches at Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children, which is a low-residency program.

Ursu is the author of five middle grade fantasies as well as two novels for adults. Her most recent book, The Real Boy, won the Horace Mann Upstanders Award and was on the longlist for the 2013 National Book Award. Breadcrumbs, a contemporary retelling of “The Snow Queen,” was named one of the best books of 2011 by Publishers Weekly, Amazon.com, School Library Journal, Bulletin for Center of Children’s Books, and the Chicago Public Library. She is also the recipient of the 2013-2014 McKnight Fellowship in Children’s Literature.

Lisa Trahan: What inspired you to become a writer? Have you always wanted to write or is it something you discovered you wanted to do later on in life?

Anne Ursu: I read a ton when I was a kid. I loved books so much that it seemed natural to me that the next step would be making them. And I think I had an identity as a writer in my school—in seventh grade, we had a scary story competition and I won, and I remember feeling like I only won because I was considered the writer in my grade, not because the story was that good. So, clearly, I’d already mastered the internalized self-loathing that comes with being a writer.

LT: Your novels are written for the middle grades. How did you choose this age group versus younger children or teen fiction?

AU: I started by writing two adult books. It sounds odd, but it didn’t occur to me really that writing children’s books was something you could actually do. But a friend of mine published a middle grade book, and that made it seem possible. And then I read Harry Potter. I loved those books so much and it put me back in touch with all the books I loved as a kid. And then I read a lot that had come out in the last few years and I thought, “I want to do this!” And I never looked back.

I feel like you have a lot of freedom in kids books to play around. It seems you have so much more freedom to switch narrators, use magic, play with structure, and just play around with reality and time. Kids completely expect the world to be more than they understand so when you present them with something unfamiliar it doesn’t bother them at all. So to me it’s a very freeing place to write in.

The middle grade age is such an important age, when you’re trying to figure out what the world is really made of. And that’s a real theme in middle grade fiction, which gives you a lot to write about—especially in fantasy. I would love to write picture books, but I’m not good at it. Picture books are a lot like poems—you need to have such control, such technique, such density. They are very very hard.

LT: I read your book The Shadow Thieves and I felt it addressed a lot of issues and as an adult I really enjoyed it. I didn’t feel like it talked down to kids at all.

I don’t sit down and think, “I’m writing for a child now. What does the child need to hear? What’s appropriate?”

AU: I don’t sit down and think, “I’m writing for a child now. What does the child need to hear? What’s appropriate?” For me when I sit down to write a middle grade book, I think about the kid at the center of the story who needs a character journey, begins in a place where they have to grow, the events of the book will make them grow, and that specifically makes the book appealing to a child reader. And I feel a lot of freedom. But I never ever think I have to simplify anything.

LT: Why did you choose Greek mythology for your series, The Cronus Chronicles?

AU: I loved myths as a kid and when it came time to sit down and write a fantasy, that’s what came out. When the book came out I discovered kids weren’t reading myths in school anymore. But thanks to Rick Riordan and his massively bestselling Percy Jackson series, they now all know the myths. Not because of school, but because they are the books that kids want to read. I just did it because I liked it.

Ursu_CronosImmortalFire_book_coverLT: Speaking of Percy Jackson, you tweeted about The New Yorker and their criticism of children reading Percy Jackson.

AU: We as a society always have to have this conversation about popular literature versus literary fiction; we don’t talk as much about “here’s a shelf of literary fiction and here’s a shelf of genre fiction.” I mean fantasy can be literary, or not, and kids read all kinds of things. And now our intelligentsia has realized that criticizing adult popular fiction makes them sound kind of like out-of-touch elitist jerks, and so they’re moving to YA, which apparently everyone can denigrate.

I was enraged that the New Yorker picked these books, in particular because Rick Riordan was a seventh-grade teacher, he’s really concerned about reluctant readers, and he made a whole career out of writing books that will start kids reading. And then they keep reading. The New Yorker article offered no evidence, just snobbish speculation that by reading commercial books, kids will be somehow ruined for other books. A friend wrote a response to this essay by pulling out all this actual research about kids and reading; it shows that all it takes is the hook book, the one book they love, and it gets them reading for a lifetime.

But mostly it was so offensive because parents who read the article might not know any better, they want their kids to be smart and good readers, and now they’re thinking, “Are these books bad somehow?” And then the kid who needs that book to get hooked on reading doesn’t get this book—and these books have gotten approximately a jillion kids to get into reading.

I also have a particular problem with the snobbery towards fantasy and I think she was displaying a good deal of it there. She’s saying these books are myths, pretend,  fantasy,  gods and monsters—when in fact this genre allows you to deal with very serious and very epic themes, about personal responsibility, about social hierarchy and structure, and dismantling societies and the like. Fantasy is very serious business.

The peculiar thing about being in children’s books is listening to the way people outside of it talk about it, and most of the time, they don’t know anything about the field. You see all this stuff about teen books where people are just spouting off all over the place about how these books are ruining America, and they’ve only heard of three teen books. It’s frustrating because I don’t want the conversations that grown up people are having amongst themselves at their erudite cocktail parties to affect the way that kids get books. That’s why we’re all here—to help kids get books. And for me, particularly, having found kid readers to be much hungrier and intellectually curious, creative, and open, than adult readers, it gets me going a little.

LT: I won’t mention John Grisham then (regarding his comments defending a friend of his who was arrested for child pornography).

AU: An interesting thing about 99.5% percent of people who write for children is that they love children. J.K. Rowling loves kids and she’s out there and she’s interacting with them and answering her fan mail, and you feel that Grisham wouldn’t have said any of those things if he really cared about children, and I don’t exactly feel like his books came from a sincere desire to interact with kids. I have nothing against highly commercial books, but I have a lot of trouble with profiting off kids when you don’t give a damn about them.

LT: I’m not sure how much you know about Antioch University and our focus on social justice, and the social responsibility we all have through our art, and representing writing and art as a whole, but when you have a famous writer who makes those comments, it casts a negative light on all of us. We as artists have to take responsibility for what we represent.

AU: I think that’s exactly right. When you are writing for children and teenagers, and when you are an artist in the world, it is important to think about what your place is in this world and what your place is in the broader literary conversation, no matter what you’re writing. You believe the art form matters. You believe this interaction between writer and reader matters, in everything you do and everything you put out there, and when you write for children you hope that somewhere in there you are advocating for children—even if it’s just by giving a crap about them. I love Antioch for that. I think a lot of times in writing programs we can get so internalized because it is our art and our work. But it’s so important to see outside yourself. I love that Antioch teaches that being an artist is about community and the world, and that’s a conversation we have in writing for children a lot, too.

LT: We have been focusing a lot on diversity, racial and otherwise, and how to include people with disabilities, or who don’t just look like us. And I know your novel, The Real Boy, deals with a boy who has autism and even in The Cronus Chronicles, Zee is half black and his grandmother is Malawian, so how important is it for us as writers to bring in characters who are different and not necessarily like typical kids, into children’s literature?

AU: Well, I think we need to expand our notion of what a typical kid is. The white, able-bodied, neurotypical child is the minority—but in children’s books that’s the overwhelming majority. And that’s a huge problem; we’re not serving kids, any kids, and that includes those who see themselves in books all the time.

I wrote the character of Zee to honor my own cousin, who is biracial and his father is Malawian. At the time, I didn’t know anything about the crisis in representation. A few years later when I started to write Breadcrumbs, kids publishing had just gone through a series of conflicts over whitewashed covers. I was spending a lot of time on the internet reading things (instead of writing my book) and so I discovered the broader ongoing conversation about the unbearable whiteness of fantasy, and how kids who aren’t white never get to see themselves as heroes, and then my Cronus Chronicles started showing up on lists of diverse fantasy. And on one hand I was really happy to have written a character on these all-too-short lists. On the other, the realization that there’s such a paucity of diverse characters in children’s literature that Zee, who is the secondary protagonist, showed up on these lists, kind of broke my heart. Then I read a heart-wrenching essay by a teenage girl about what it was like to walk into a bookstore and never see herself on any covers.

So as I was starting this book, I just couldn’t bear adding to the immense list of fantasies that don’t star kids of color. So Hazel, the protagonist, became adopted from India. And my publisher put her right there on the cover, happily.

I think things are going to get better, at long long last. There is a group of amazing authors who began an organization called We Need Diverse Books, and they’ve just raised a few hundred thousand dollars to do all kinds of amazing things. This is the most important conversation in kids books right now. It has been for decades, but social media has allowed the conversation to amplify, and people to organize.

I think the most important thing we can do is attract as many diverse voices to the field as we can.

I think the most important thing we can do is attract as many diverse voices to the field as we can, and then promote their books as loudly as we can. I’m so happy people are talking about it, and I think it’s actually been really good for the community practically. So many great things are happening for writers to think about their role in the broader community.

Ursu_Breadcrumbs_book_coverLT: I see the discussion come up a lot about writing one’s ethnicity, and non-white writers say, “Just because I’m Chinese, why do I always have to write about Chinese people?” And then we have white writers who say, “How can I write from the Chinese POV if I’m not Chinese?” And then you have racism and reverse racism, but the whole point of writing is to explore. I think we get a lot of criticism for trying to write outside of who we are, as both diverse and non-diverse authors.

AU: Of course, there’s a huge power differential in those cases, and for people of color to question whether white people have a right to tell their stories is a whole different issue than writers of color getting boxed in. And I think if you’re white it’s really important to listen to this argument and try to understand everything behind it. And if you make the choice to go ahead, to be really cognizant to take a lot of care.  Listen, and do work, and understand the ways this can go wrong. And I don’t think this work ever ends.

I feel like I’ve learned so much this year. Authors have been talking about clichés and tropes, and some of them I knew, but some I didn’t. When we create we have no idea why our minds reach for certain things, and sometimes it’s because we’ve been fed clichés our whole lives. You don’t know what you don’t know. And now so much information is out there for you.

LT: Like in The Hunger Games, when people were upset to find out Rue was black, when she lived in the South, and I think it was implied fairly well, but people see what they want to see when they read.

AU: That was awful. To me, the real problem with those movies, racially, is that there is no way our dystopian future is going to look that way. There’s no way it’s as white as it is—unless something really cataclysmic happened to people of color, in which case you’d think it would have come up at some point. In the movies the black people are mostly in one district and then almost everyone else is white, and that’s so offensive and absurd. And when we erase people of color from movies, as we keep doing, that allows the racism we saw with Rue.

But in literature we’ve created this very white world—to an absurd extent in fantasy and sci fi. This is how the literature has been for so long that it’s easy for white writers to make a kneejerk mistake and perpetuate all that whiteness—and it takes a step to think past that and to think about the world as it actually is, or, in speculative fiction, how it could be. Which is another reason this conversation is so important. My Real Boy is a fantasy that takes place on a fictional island, and I realized when I was crafting the world that it would be so easy to just make them all white without thinking, and I didn’t have to do that. Everyone on the island is of color, and I’m really embarrassed to say it never would have occurred to me to do that if people weren’t pointing this stuff out.

LT: Are you working on any new projects?

AU: Sort of. I’m very slow. I write really quickly but then I take a long time in between books, so I’m kind of at the point where I’m trying to put something together, but it’s hard and frustrating and I need to kind of get to the point of absolute self-loathing before something comes to me. I keep thinking that I can’t possibly get any more self-loathing than I am right now, but apparently there’s still more to go. It’s been about two years between every book so I’m almost at that point.

LT: What is your writing style? Do you have a set routine?

AU: Well, I used to before I had a child. I would just sit down and write, and I’d write all day, every day, until the book was done and then put it down and give it to readers, and then revise, and go on like that. But now, nothing like that is possible. As much as I try to have a routine, it just doesn’t work, so my challenge is to try to figure out how to fit everything in, and carve out that time for writing, in addition to teaching and taking care of my kid. Somehow being a mom of a young child and being a writer aren’t that compatible.

LT: Do you have any advice you would give writers who are interested in writing Young Adult or middle grade fiction?

AU: Yes, I would just say read a ton. Read in the field, read widely, and figure out what it is that creates a spark in you and why. What do you love? What kind of stories do you want to tell? And I guess, don’t think it’s different. While the characters are of a specific age, I don’t think the writing is that different. You tell a story that you want to tell, the way you want to tell it. If you read enough you’ll see there’s no formula. I imagine at Antioch writers are interested in pushing boundaries and experimenting with form. That’s what pushes everything forward in children’s literature and YA literature. Kids are hungry readers and they want to read something that’s new and then they want to read something that’s incredibly familiar, and they want to read both books fifty times, and that’s what is so great.

LT: I know you said you read Harry Potter. Are there any other books you are reading right now or middle grade books that are particularly your favorites or that you’re looking forward to?

AU: There’s a book coming out in the spring that I want to throw it in the face of anyone who says YA literature is facile—Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby. The language is wonderful, you just want to roll around in it. And it’s really complicated and innovative, and shows what this lit can do. And while we’re on this theme, I just finished a book called The Bone Dragon, a harrowing story of a girl who’s gone through some brutal abuse and now she’s part of a new family. The language allows for magic in a really interesting way, and the author plays with the idea of what’s real and what isn’t—and if you insist on strict realism, you don’t get those kinds of stories. People in the greater world think YA only comprises the blockbuster books—dystopians, vampires, and John Green. But just as in adult fiction, there are all kinds of books for kids and teens.

LT: With these books and with your own writing, you seem to focus more on the magic side of things. Is that your preference or where you find yourself, or do you just love magic?

AU: I came from the theater and playwriting, and the program I studied at taught us to think outside the realistic formula of mainstream American theater. In theater, you can do whatever you want once you stop thinking representationally. You can mess with time and narration and reality—whatever you need to do to tell your story in the best way possible using that medium. You don’t hide the theatricality—you use it. And stories are the same way—we’re not limited by anything but our imagination. I think fantasy allows us to explore more about the human condition. I do read a lot of realistic fiction as well—I like a good story, and also I think it’s really important for fantasy writers to read realistic fiction and really study how the character journey works. But I am drawn to magic. I like magic. Why tell stories if you can’t have magic?

LT: What is your most rewarding experience or what do you love best about writing for middle grades?

AU: Oh, you go to a school visit and the kids are so happy, they’re so excited to meet an author. They’re so excited to talk to you and ask questions. We hear so much about the child reader and what they do and don’t like—gender is a huge issue in middle grade and we keep perpetuating this idea that boys don’t read and girls do, and boys will never read a book with a girl on the cover, etc. etc. etc. And you go and meet kids and realize they are just really hungry for stories, and it’s usually adults placing limits on them. I think so much of our conversation on kids and reading devalues the kids themselves. But then you meet them—the reader on the other end of the book—and they’re so wonderful, and you are very happy you had a story to give them. They deserve our stories.

Lisa TrahanMs. Trahan is an MFA student at Antioch University in Los Angeles. In 2004 she traded the chilly coast of the Atlantic for the friendlier shores of the Pacific. She plays and watches soccer, when not writing about the crazy events viewed from her windows.

No Voy a Forget

No Voy a Forget

Mi amor, espero que
Yo recuerde the way
You sound with three
Buttons undone, tu voz
Baja, cariñosa.
Will I remember the feel
De tu nombre the first time
I wrapped my lips around it?
When I made the exception
To my rule that yo sólo
Me casaría con un hombre
Si sabía cocinar
So I could marry you?
No quiero olvidar pues
I will sear into my memory
El sabor de tus besitos
And the way you held my tears
El día que murío Joan.
Cuando yo soy una mujer
Vieja y cascarrabias, I will
Remember watching ducks with you,
Los noches cuando me hacía
Cosquillas to wake me,
Your face of untameable ardiente love.

Author’s Note

“No Voy a Forget” is my very first bilingual poem. I didn’t set out to write bilingual poetry in the beginning, it was more of a happy accident. I set out to write a love poem, and I hated the result. I had a few Spanish phrases rolling around in my head so I threw them in as an experiment and it turned out well.

I love the rhythm and pace of Spanish, and I love how it dances with the rhythm of English. Spanish quickens the pace of the whole poem, like in the lines “To my rule that yo sólo / Me casaría con un hombre / Si sabía cocinar.” The natural cadence of Spanish is much faster than English and it is especially evident in this section of the poem leading up to a shift. On the other hand, in some places the English slows the pace of the poem down, emphasizing certain words’ significance. This is important in the beginning to set the mood with the words “the way / You sound with three / Buttons undone” and to emphasize the determination in the line “I will sear into my memory.”

I tend to follow the path of the poem when deciding which words should be in which language based on what sounds the best and which words in which language pack the most punch and convey the most meaning. I also consider how quickly I want the poem to move. I try to have enough lines in English to make sure readers can understand the overall tone and subject of the poem, but my main goal is more for readers and listeners to engage in the music of the languages.

Recently, my work has focused in on exploring the dance of the two languages in combination, often embracing more Spanish than English and Latin American cultural themes as well as my own everyday life.

Chelsea RisleyChelsea Risley is pursuing a BA in English Creative Writing and Spanish at Berry College. She won the Southern Women Writers Student Writing Contest in Poetry in 2012 and her work has appeared in Berry College’s literary magazine. She currently lives in Rome, Georgia with her husband.

Coiffure / Hair-do, Deficit Spending, Pouf Tossed Salad

Coiffure / Hair-do

The beautiful American word hair-do
lacks the élan of the French word coiffure.
Hair-do is flat-footed & matter-of-fact.
It does what it says it does; Americans adore that.

I could run hairstylist up the flagpole as a word
to salute—that’s as Cadillac as our idiom gets.
But Cadillac looks suspiciously French—about
as Yank as Yangtze or American as freedom fries.

The strange but beautiful French word pouf,
if given two o’s, stands for fag in British slang.
Also note that in pouf—when said by the French—
lurks the inimitable Ouf! of Gallic lips pursed to rue

gauche American gaffes—like the war in Iraq . . .
Gaffes which my mom tried not to make, studying
French in Paris that summer and shopping every day,
quite patriotically, at Les Galeries Lafayette.

At the beauty salon near L’Opéra, they couldn’t
get her beehive quite right. Your air-dew, Madame,
eet iz not verry moderne! they said with hauteur.

Air-dew?—That’s the beautiful American word for my mother.

 

Deficit Spending

Chasing luxury is buying a trompe l’œil eternal life:
Like that set of miniature Parisian landmarks done as jewelry—
minus the burning banlieues, street barricades
or mounds of dog poop. These fantasy gems

are meant to distract. They’re perfect for
the economic downturn, when fine things are so cher
that only someone as rich as the Duchesse of Windsor
could purchase the Palais Royal made of amethyst.

Deficit spending demands caution: if you have to
check the dollar-to-euro exchange rate,
this kind of luxury is beyond you & forget it.
If you do take leave of your senses, buy

the cheapest bauble—the one spelling out Á Bas l’État!
Or, go ahead & get that citrine fleur-de-lis, or that
“Let Them Eat Cake” necklace of marquise diamonds.
Wear it to the Hotel Ritz in honor of the late Princess Diana.

Or blow all you’ve got and get the ring inspired by Notre Dame’s
rose windows, remembering how Marie Antoinette gave her
hand-me-down gowns to the priests there.
Then say a (guilty) prayer, like my mother in Paris—

modest of means, but still shopping: “You’ll have to
forgive me,” she wrote to my father. In Vogue, she read
that “women have been spending their last sou
here for hundreds of years!” It made her feel less alone.

 

Pouf Tossed Salad

Its body is of Bibb & frisée lettuces

garnished with pearl onions, Crimini

mushrooms & julienned carrots.

A craze for simple food

began when the ladies-in-waiting

saw the queen trying a new régime

ridiculously lean of meat.

Cornucopious display of bio- 

logique got tossed with tomatoes

and the house piss-&-vinaigrette.

I’ll never wear anything but vegetables

again! one duchesse said, catching sight

of the pouf Salade Composée.

It’s better to have vegetables in

the puff-pastry of one’s headdress

than to be dull as a turnip at table,

or pea-brained as a trophy queen.

Author’s Note

I was monolingual until I took French in college to fulfill a language requirement. My mother had gone on a kick to have me learn French when I was about 10, but I hated it and must have been a pill about it because her campaign didn’t last very long. Then I took a trip around Europe the summer I finished college. My first stop was Paris, and though I’d had a year of French, hearing it spoken on the street as a living language was a coup de foudre, but what I fell in love with was a language.

I returned to Paris and took classes at the Alliance Française. In order to ramp up my learning curve, I decided to speak only French as much as possible and even to make myself think in French. This intensive, mental effort grooved the French I practiced so deeply into me that sometimes French words actually came to mind and mouth before the English.

Even when I was back in the U.S., French appeared most insistently when I wrote. Sometimes my prose got so studded with French that it read like “Coiffure / Hair-do.” This effectively limited my potential readership to French-English bilinguals, but I’d made friends who’d also studied in Paris, and a kind of idiopathic, belle-lettriste franglais became our lingua franca. It was perhaps just a snooty way of setting ourselves apart, but it also kept that immersive cultural and linguistic experience of cultureand language-learning alive for us.

A few years later, I returned to Paris with my mother. This time she was the one studying at the Alliance Française, as recounted in the poem. Watching her tangle with the language, I finally really understood that what I’d thought of as English is, yes, “suspiciously French”—even if a twang-mangled, excessively dipthonged and diffidently ungendered French.

I think that once someone who’s monolingual becomes conscious of all the different linguistic ways to skin un chat, the more French (and German and Arabic and Spanish and Iroquois, etc.) one finds in one’s English. It’s a decentering experience that can’t come soon enough for those of us who haven’t been compelled by colonialism, migration, geography, or violence to know that our way of saying and doing things isn’t the alpha and omega of anything. Being even serviceably bilingual provides mind-altering new lexicons, tastes, and tonal registers. It puts two sides on every coin. Bilingual, one has more real and faux amis; more poetries, more worlds in which to think.

Coco OwenCoco Owen is a stay-at-home poet in Los Angeles. She has published in the Antioch Review, 1913, The Journal, Rio Grande Review, and CutBank, among other venues. She also has a mini-chapbook with Binge Press and has been a finalist in several recent book contests. Owen serves on the board of independent publisher Les Figues Press in Los Angeles and more of her work can be found at: www.cocoowenphd.com.

Papeles / Papers

Papeles

No tengo papeles.

Así, tengo papeles
En el carro en la silla.
En la casa en la mesa
En el cuarto en la cama.

Papeles de la corte,
Papeles del avogado,
Papeles del estado,
Papeles de la migra.

Papeles que me notan,
Papeles que me representan,
Papeles que me llaman y
Papeles que me dicen ir.

¡Tantos papeles tengo yo!
Una fábrica de papeles,
Un bosque de papeles,
Un montón de papeles, sólo porque

No tengo papeles.

 

Papers

I don’t have papers.

And so I have papers
In the car on the seat,
In the house on the table,
In the bedroom on the bed.

Papers from the court,
Papers from the lawyer,
Papers from the state,
Papers from la migra.

Papers that take note of me,
Papers that represent me,
Papers that summon me and
Papers that tell me to go.

So many papers!
A factory of papers,
A forest of papers,
A mountain of papers, just because

I don’t have papers.

Author’s Note

I live in two languages. As a bicultural individual, I go between Spanish and English all the time.

This particular poem was written after unsuccessful attempts to keep a friend from being deported. I was amazed at how much red tape surrounded his life, and “Papeles” emerged from that observation. I wrote “Papers,” the English version of the poem, shortly after completing “Papeles.”

I have read these poems many times at literary and community events. I think it’s important for people to hear the beautiful language of an ever-growing part of the US population, and to hear about the harmfulness of US immigration policies.

Mariana McDonaldmariana mcdonald’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including poetry in The Anthology of Southern Poets: Georgia, Les Femmes Folles, Fables of the Eco-future, Southern Women’s Review, Sugar Mule, and El Boletín Nacional; and fiction in Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers, and So to Speak.

My Goal on the Page

This week’s post is by poet and guest blogger Adrian Ernesto Cepeda.

Although some might disagree, in my mind, sports and poetry are synonymous. There was nothing like Magic Johnson making a behind-the-back bounce pass during the heyday of Lakers ‘Showtime’ or seeing David Beckham perfectly bend a free kick into a goal. As a writer, I take my cues and work ethic not only from famous scribes and poets, but also from the highest caliber of athletes. Only the best train and practice every day to become the greatest in their sport. I take this into consideration every time I sit in my writing chair. To me, working on drafts is equivalent to a basketball player shooting hoops for practice. I know some drafts are not going to be perfect, just like not every shot is going to go through the net, but that doesn’t mean I don’t shoot the ball. My creative mindset has been inspired by my love of sports. My passion on the page is equal to an athlete’s passion on the field and court.

Being a poet who’s often lazy, though, I’ve had to find creative ways to motivate myself to write. What works for me, as a sports fan, are rewards. If there’s a game on TV, I have to work for the match I want to watch. Before the game starts, I write. Sometimes I am so into my poems that I keep writing—and by the time I look at the TV the game is half over. There will always be another game, but if I neglect the muse, there may not be another poem. Writing always wins out in the end.

Of all sports, futbol is my absolute favorite. Even my wife realizes soccer is my love and my mistress. I always say she knows where to find me: in front of the TV set, dressed in my favorite team’s kit, ready for the romance on the field to begin with a whistle and a sensual kick of the ball.

This summer I read one of the best books ever written about my favorite sport: Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow. This author knows how it feels to be in love with this beautiful game. No one has ever described a score in soccer so perfectly and eloquently as Galeano does in Soccer in Sun and Shadow:

“The goal is soccer’s orgasm. And like orgasms, goals have become less frequent occurrences in modern life.”

I can relate to Galeano’s description. I remember watching this year’s World Cup. My wife can attest: when John Brooks scored in the 80th minute of the match for the United States, I yelled out the loudest barbaric yawp. Our neighbors could’ve sworn we were having sex in our apartment. Since goals are a rarity in huge international matches, to experience a win is sometimes like climaxing in bed.

Soccer is a fever. Once the common sports fan catches it, s/he can never extinguish the passionate love for this beautiful game. No one has ever described the joy of watching soccer like Eduardo Galeano:

“The excitement unleashed whenever the white bullet makes the net ripple might appear mysterious or crazy, but remember, the miracle does not happen often. The goal, even if it be a little one, is always a gooooooooooooooooooooooooooooal in the throat of the commentators. A “do” sung from the chest that […] breaks free of the earth and flies through the air.”

Some of you are probably wondering why sports—and more specifically soccer—are my creative motivations. As a poet, the passionate concentration these players exude on the grassy pitch mirrors the dedication I experience when writing poems.  I want to work as hard as these athletes do in their sport. A victory for me is feeling that aura of exhaustion after finishing a poem, like the perspiration an athlete feels after the final whistle. It’s more than a game to me. In my mind, to be the best in your own field, whether it be in soccer, painting, or writing, you must give your craft that same devotion. My own goal will shine like trophies. They are collected between lines on my page.

 

APTOPIX Brazil Soccer WCup Ghana US

photo by Ricardo Mazalan—AP

Weird Gelatinous Things

Baby, let’s not go to the place where you and your other lover go. That place is ugly. Let me take you to the reservoir instead. We’ll go in the middle of the week, in the middle of a drought, the worst one in decades. When we get there we will be alone.

The water will be low, and you’ll barely be able to see it, coiled shallowly in the mountains’ crease. From the empty parking lot, we will be able to see the trucks and boat trailers turning around, defeated. A big white man will pass us, going the opposite direction, carrying a tiny red cooler. We will have to walk down the deserted, thunderstruck boat ramp, and in the noon sun it will feel like miles. I will carry the ice chest, fretting it from one hand to the other. It will be so worth it.

The long, high banks of the reservoir will look like a crater, a scar. They will be a quarter mile of dried, deeply cracked clay stretching from the tree line to the water’s edge. We will never have seen anything so fractured, so broken before. Because the reservoir is manmade, the grey skeletons of trees killed during the initial flooding will be visible; will surround us as we walk toward the beach. This drought is no joke, we will say, approving of the dramatic evidence. California is so fucked, we will say, laughing and crazed. You will see how excited we are, you and I, to be surrounded by this place of aftermath, this landscape that we fantasize about, post-apocalyptic, charming, and strange. Like us, like us, we’ll say.

At first we will feel the fears: What if we are found out? What if someone comes and they know we are gay and alone? But in the silence of the mid-afternoon, these fears will fade, I will take off my shirt and you will grow to love the abnormal glamor of the landscape. We will be animals then, wallowing in mud, stretched out, lazy. We will feel beautiful in this forsaken place. I’ll make us a shade structure from branches, and it will delight you. You will pee in the water, and the thought of Californians from Fresno to Monterey unwittingly drinking the piss of transexuals will delight me to no end.

I will notice something that looks like a plastic bag draped over a sunken branch. I won’t mention it to you. When we go swimming, our feet, our legs will be swallowed by twenty inches of wet clay and muck. The water will be perfect and deep enough to swim. It will be an aquamarine color, but slightly off, slightly grey. As we begin to swim you will see the thing too and ask,

“What is that?”

We will tread water beside the half submerged tree, poking gently at a clear mass of solid, gelatinous matter. Jellyfish-like, it will be motionless, something scarcely zoological, arguably botanical, covered in a leopard’s spots. We will begin to notice that the queer gelatinous sacks are everywhere, hanging from trees and rock outcroppings. You will say, that hanging there, they look like lingerie. You will brush against one underwater and ask,

“Was that you?”

We will laugh.

“This would be the perfect opening to a horror movie,” you will say, “But then I guess we would have to die.”

I will be sitting much lower in the water than you, and will have to lift my chin to say,

“Can it turn out that we are the monsters in the end?”

It will seem especially unearthly then, the place, the emptiness, the temperateness against our skin. You’ll want to race me across the water. Lithe and muscled in your flowered suit, you will swim much faster than me.

The breeze will dry us while we eat cold figs, and we’ll see wildlife, an eagle, a heron. We will hear the occasional blip of fishes, and every once in a while an army helicopter will fly by heavily, a sick bee. You will lift an empty Coors can to my ear like a seashell, and I will hear the lisp of wind in pines. I’ll point out the footprints of birds, children, and coyotes hardened into the clay. The grass will be the color of bread and the mud will be the color of ash. We will rub this mud on ourselves because, really, it’s as if we’re at a spa. We will make sculptures. Over and over, we will marvel at being the only two people there, and, secretly, I will relish this more so than you. You will be my scarcity. And I will squirm with the desire to possess, like other Californians, the little that remains.

In the afternoon it will be in the high 90’s but an elephantine cloud will pass overhead and giant droplets will fall for about five minutes. I will practice questions:

   What if this squall

   What if this drought

   What if we

   What if weird gelatinous things

The wind will change direction. The sun will not.

Migueltzinta SolisMigueltzinta Cah Mai Solís Pino was raised in Mexico and California. He has been a woman, a man, and the queer sum of these things. He earned his B.A. from The Evergreen State College in Interdisciplinary Studies. His work has appeared in Midnight Breakfast, PANK, and Apogee, and he is a VONA/Voices 2014 alumnus. He is also a visual/performance artist.

How He Leaves You

This is how he leaves you. Door pulled quietly closed, last glimpse of a weathered leather bag and brown hair matted to the back of his head. You sit on the couch in a pair of running shorts—knees up, legs crossed, heels tucked underneath you. He doesn’t look back.

That night you drink orange juice and vodka and write letters to him, one after another. Some of them you fold into thirds, tuck into envelopes, and stamp with two stamps each before putting them in your desk drawer. Twelve letters until your roommate comes home and pulls away your pen and drink and makes you take a shower as she unbuckles her velvet heels. It’s three thirty in the morning.

The water is too hot and the steam is suffocating. You kneel by the drain, noticing the mold creep across the grout. The monsoon has turned Bombay green and grey and things grow in every crevice of the city. You wonder, as the water pelts your still-plaited hair, as the rain slams relentlessly into the window, if you are crying or just silently screaming.

 *     *     *

He leaves you on a Sunday in June and on Monday you are back at the office checking every e-mail he has sent you in the last two years, watching the signature switch from Best to Kisses to Love.

There’s a drawer of birthday cards and notes that were taped to the inside of your bag on weekday mornings. And underneath, on a crumpled piece of yellow pad paper, is the first letter he ever wrote you and slipped into your purse when you boarded a train to Delhi. You sat in the doorway of your sleeper car that morning, reading his tiny blue scrawl, peeling up words at the corner to look for hidden messages.

I’ll think of you, he wrote. I’ll think of you when I run down Marine Drive, slowing down by the bench where I kissed you for the first time, cutting off your laugh and getting my fingers stuck in your uncombed hair.

The letter looks different under the fluorescent lights, without Indian Railway cars chugging along the Madhya Pradesh countryside. His scratched out words look careless, not spontaneous. The middle paragraph, you realize, was more for himself than you. You fold the letter into a perfect square, slip it back into the drawer and wave off coworkers when they offer you a ride home.

Weaving back through the crooked, cobblestone streets you are so close to the sea that your jeans are damp with salty spray. For a second you lean over the fence and watch the rough grey water and breathe into the empty pit of your stomach until you almost feel full.

*     *     *

August days are long, the nights longer, and in the morning, when sleep finally comes, you stay awake by watching the rain fall on the street where a man peddles flowers for a nearby temple on Pali Hill. An imam calls namaz over the mosque speakers next door. Bells ring at St. Andrews church. There is faith everywhere but your dark bedroom, where light bulbs flicker on and off. Some days you walk the length of your bed, back and forth, raising your hands up to the ceiling as if to throw a question at whatever exists beyond the fan.

Kanika still says, Good Morning, still brings you a cup of chai she makes with all milk and no water. But she is growing restless and you are letting the dust settle in your room, turning your feet black and your books musty. The silk curtains have faded from orange to peach. And when she asks you for rent money it takes you the entire day to find your checkbook.

He owes you money, you remember. Not just a little, but for a flight ticket to Goa because he missed a train. For at least a dozen dinners when he forgot his wallet. For the time his card got declined when he was buying his sister a present. He always said it was the American bank account, but none of the other white guys from his office had the same problem.

You wonder what he would do if you called him right now, asking for the exact amount you penciled in your budget notebook.  But then there’s the chance that you would have to hear his voice and not just the echo of last words.

*     *     *

That voice haunts you. It’s the sound men make when they stop caring. When they no longer notice your long eyelashes and tiny hands. Or the way you say the word water so delicately without the twang of his American South. Wotah, wotah, he used to practice out loud, lying next to you with sweat dripping off his brow. He could never get used to the heat—antsy and frustrated through each Indian summer, complaining when you didn’t want to turn on the air conditioning.

Now that voice keeps you up at night, convinced that he is watching his ex-girlfriend wake up in Brooklyn, his hand on her creamy, perfect white skin, relieved that he no longer has to look at your pockmarked back or the stretch marks where your thighs meet your hips. He used to call them your tiger stripes when you tried to cover them with the palms of your hands in the early days of discovering each other’s bodies. But you both knew they were just scars.

That night you walk into Kanika’s room and leave your phone on her nightstand and tell her to keep it for the week. But she puts it back on your dresser the next day—insisting your mother will call her to find out where you are.

Your mother does call. She calls in the morning and the evening and sometimes at night because she knows the break in your voice. When she asks about Nick you say he flew back to America—that you haven’t heard from him in a while.

Such a nice boy, she says, and you are suddenly furious that he ever stepped foot in your home, corrupting the sacred space where your mother does her surya namaskars each morning, where your father makes ginger tea. You remember how Nick said, I love ghar ka kanna, and charmed everyone by eating yogurt rice with his hands like you taught him. But when you were alone in the room he complained that the food was too heavy, complained that the dessert gave him indigestion.

You wondered that weekend if you loved him but he was already there in your childhood room, reading you lines from your third grade diary and kissing you, it seemed, whenever you wanted to ask him a question. By the end of the night your parents insisted on dropping him off at Pune Station with a bag of sweets and snacks.

He’s not a nice boy, you say into the receiver, and wish for your mother’s cool, strong hands on your forehead. She doesn’t say anything more. When you hang up you don’t miss him, or the chords he strummed each night on the guitar, or his thin pink lips, or his attempt to say your name the right way, with a soft th and a long o. There is anger where the longing used to be, and you put all of your letters and his letters into a plastic bag and walk all the way to the dumpster before you turn back and toss it under your bed.

*     *     *

He leaves you with the start of the rains but it isn’t until the sun dries off the roads that you don’t think of him when you brush your teeth every morning.

You take the train home for Diwali in October and notice some extra space between your ribs, between your brows, in the vertebrae of your neck. Your body has released him and you find yourself in tears because you remember what it was like before his scribbles filled the margins of the story you were writing when he showed up. Before he wooed you with his guitar and his dollars and the way he high-fived the bai who cleaned his house.

When you reach the station you are suddenly so hungry that you buy a huge chocolate bar and eat the entire thing in the taxi on the way to your house, hardly noticing the firecrackers that explode dangerously close to the car, or the driver’s curses.

At home you and your mother spend hours creating rangoli patterns in the driveway—drawing careful lotuses and mango leaves with colored powder and placing tiny, illuminated diyas amid the designs. By the time night falls and the guests start to come, your hands are rainbow-stained and your nails lined with red.

You light lamps until there is no dark spot left in the house.

A_Rao_HeadshotAnkita Rao is an American journalist currently based in India, where she writes about health, education, and worldwide inequality. Her articles and photographs have been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, and Quartz, among others.

 Before moving to India she covered health care disparities and policy at Kaiser Health News, a non-profit news service that regularly serves the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and NPR. At the height of the Obamacare debate, she wrote features and breaking news about how the health law impacts the people most vulnerable to poor access, from coal miners in rural West Virginia to the homeless in Washington, D.C.

Ankita is originally from Tampa, Florida. She attended the University of Florida, where she studied Journalism, Religion, and Creative Writing. She is also an alumnus of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

I call the suicide hotline

The man on the other line calls me doll
speaks in exclamations: don’t do it
you crazy fool! Someone loves you out there!

I’ve spilled a beer on my lap
and sit in wet jeans with a blanket
at my feet. Outside it’s like I always
imagined it would be – a dark and dreamy
fog arranged delicately over the yard
like I’m in my own Lifetime movie,
beer cans scattered over my coffee table.
Sometimes I have all the fight
in the world, I think, but don’t say
because all I really want
is for this man to call me doll
so I can imagine his voice
coming out of a soft boy mouth.
Mostly, he just says he understands
and I ask him if he knows what it’s like
to drink two-day old coffee over lipstick stains,
to drag a road-sign with your mother’s
maiden name out of the ground, only to leave it
on your front porch in the rain,
if he knows what gravel feels like
stuck in your palms.
I can hear paper shuffling,
phones ringing – he’s very busy,
I realize, and I’m very drunk
and I don’t even sound like I’m in danger.
Sometimes, I tell him, I just want
to get drunk alone and watch Braveheart
but tonight I just want to hear
someone say my name
and sound like they know
who I am

Mary Stone

Mary Stone is the author of the poetry collections One Last Cigarette and Mythology of Touch. Her chapbook, The Dopamine Letters, was published in 2014 by Hyacinth Girl Press. She currently lives and teaches in St. Joseph, MO, where she co-edits Stone Highway Review, serves as a poetry editor for Sundress Publications, and coordinates the First Thursdays Open Mic Reading Series.

 

Weighing the Rain: Archival Pigment Prints

I Love You, I Hate You, Don’t Leave

My therapist says it’s normal for people to touch themselves. Ew, not like that. I mean, not sexually. She says it’s not weird, and that feels like the permission slip I need to do it whenever I can. I touch my knobby knees. I never feel like they point in the right direction. I poke my thighs and watch the skin jiggle until I get up to my hipbones. They jut right out. My dad says hugging me is no fun, it’s like he’s getting stabbed in the gut. I wrap my middle finger and thumb around my wrist and go up my arm like that until my fingers no longer touch. I can go almost up to my elbow. Part of me wants to be able to go past my elbow, but I’ve always had big arms. I avoid my stomach. It’s this vast and kind of unruly white space that never seems to do what I want it to do. My boobs…I have no boobs. My dad has bigger boobs than I do, which is kind of embarrassing for both of us in my opinion.

“Hannah!”

That’s my dad, roaring at me from the bottom of the stairs, as usual. It’s my sister’s thirtieth birthday, so we’re going to the fanciest steakhouse in town. I whined and complained already, but there’s no getting out of it. I checked out the restaurant’s menu ahead of time and wrote down the salad I want with all the things I want them to take off of it.

“Hannah Banana!”

You know those childhood nicknames that never seem to crawl away and die like they should?

“I’m coming!”

“I don’t hear you moving!”

“That’s because I’m like a cat in the night!”

I’m pretty light on my feet, and I’m proud of that. My dad’s weight announces his presence wherever he goes.

“Hey, Miss Cat in the Night! Get down here.”

That’s my sister, Jen. Oh no, that means…

“Auntie Banana! Auntie Banana!”

The brats, I mean, my nephews are here. They refuse to call me Aunt Hannah like dignified children would. They can’t even say Banana like five year olds should. It’s baNAnnnA.

I take my time going down the stairs. I stop by the table in the hallway. It’s an antique Dad inherited from some old aunt. It’s heavy, made of real solid wood with cherubs lining the legs. There’s an open envelope lying on the top. We’re not supposed to put anything on that table, so I pick it up to move it downstairs. Then, I notice it’s from Dad’s doctor. I move back down the hall toward my room and pull out the test results inside. Dad’s cholesterol is still high. No surprise there. But his glucose is slightly elevated too. Does this mean Dad has diabetes? My chest hurts. After a couple more shouts of “Auntie Banana,” I put the envelope back and head downstairs.

It seems kind of unfair that life, or at least adolescence, is about getting away from my parents, but the older I get, the more I seem to carry them along.

When I meet my family at the bottom of the stairs, I notice my sister looks older. I guess single motherhood can do that to a person. Other than the whole looking old thing, my sister could be my twin. We have the same long reddish-blonde hair and brown eyes. We’re the same height, about average. And we both have our father’s cheeks and our mother’s nose and hips. No matter how much the rest of me shrinks, I can’t seem to get rid of my father’s cheeks or my mother’s hips. It seems kind of unfair that life, or at least adolescence, is about getting away from my parents, but the older I get, the more I seem to carry them along.

“That’s a nice skirt. A little short though, don’t you think, Dad?” Jen turns to him.

Dad shrugs.

“Happy Birthday,” I say as I hug her. She grunts when my hip hits her side.

“Geez, Han. Good thing we’re going to the steakhouse. You need to put some meat on those bones. That’s the goal, right?”

That’s actually not the goal of treatment, or at least not the only goal. But Jen doesn’t get that. And pointing out the hip bones? So not necessary.

I gently run a finger along the side of her face. “Those wrinkles, babe, you really should do something about them.”

I turn away from her real quick before I see her hurt look and I start to feel bad. But I end up turning right into my father’s glare. His dirty looks never last long though. He’s basically Santa Claus. Round face, huge cheeks, overflowing girth, fat legs, and black boots. He’s always wearing black boots. He almost went to Scotland in college but couldn’t afford the trip. Ever since then, he’s collected kilts. Half his closet—what used to be Mom’s half—is full of kilts. Dress kilts, casual kilts, hunting kilts, camping kilts, dancing kilts. The only reason he’s not wearing a kilt this night is because my sister forbids it. He wears them “regimental style.” That’s code for commando. My sister doesn’t want her kids getting the wrong idea. Can’t say I blame her.

I do all the laundry for both Dad and me. He wouldn’t know what to do with fabric softener if the directions kissed him on the lips. And I’ve never seen underwear in his hamper… I try not to think about that too hard.

Dad hugs me. Whoever came up with the term “bear hug” must have been hugged by my father at some point. His hugs are tight and overpowering. It’s like he’s trying to fill me with love from the outside in. “I love you,” he says. But I hear: Fighting makes me uncomfortable.

When he pulls away, one look at Jen’s face tells me she got a similar hug, probably longer and harder, since it’s her birthday, so I shouldn’t complain.

“Let’s go!” He says, looking from me to Jen and back at me. “To the car!”

The boys, Mark and Matthew, run out the front door to Dad’s truck. “Han, you and Jen can ride together. I’ll take the boys.”

It’s a punishment, I know. I try to think of a way to smooth things over with my sister. We walk side by side, our arms almost touching. I look down and wonder exactly how much bigger her arm is than mine. When I first look at it, I think hers is twice as big, but when I look for a little longer, it’s like my arm starts to grow until I can’t really tell a difference. I just stop looking.

“I’ve always wanted to go to this steakhouse. At some point, I’m going to have to get some man to take me there on a date because I would like to actually have a drink there. They get their beer from local breweries.”

This is the first time we’ve celebrated Jen’s birthday since Mom died almost a year ago, so I’m trying to be polite. We each responded to my mom’s death in a different way. Jen got all control freaky. She’s never broken a rule, not even jay-walked. Her kids are out of control and her ex-husband is out of control, but I think that’s because she tries so hard to control them. Rebellious buggers. Dad got overly affectionate, like smothering us with love. I guess the opposite would be worse. But once you hear “I love you” a thousand times a day, it starts sounding like “I need you” or “Don’t leave me.”

And me? I got skinny. I got skinny to the point that I was passing out. And then, there was an incident at a breakfast fundraiser thing at school. I threw all the bacon into a dumpster and set it on fire. The school made my father force me into treatment. That’s where I learned bacon is a trigger food, but I don’t tell anyone that because, really, who in the real world has trigger foods?

Food killed my mother. No, wait, I’m not supposed to say that. Therapist’s “orders.” Food didn’t kill my mother. Her lack of self-control around food did. I’m not supposed to say that either, but it’s true.

Here’s the party line: my mother died from complications from diabetes involving her kidneys. She was on dialysis for three years before kidney failure tragically took her life.

Here’s my line: my mother ate herself to death. She got type 2 diabetes even without being at high risk because her eating was out of control. The diabetes destroyed her body.

Mom died less than a year ago, and she was sick for years before that. I can only remember her as a sick, fat person.

When we get to the steakhouse, I can smell grease and fat from the parking lot. Okay, I don’t really know if you can smell fat, but whatever they are cooking with smells disgusting.

When we get out of the car, Dad is sniffing the air. “Smell that, honey? Smell that? That’s what heaven smells like.”

I roll my eyes.

“I love you,” he says. What he means is: don’t act up.

Once we are sitting at the table, Mark and Matthew start fighting over the crayons for their menus. Jen manages to ignore them for a full five minutes before separating the pile of crayons into two separate camps. I’m glad she said something because I was about to snap on both boys.

I never open my menu. But I can’t help but notice the food that goes by our table: a double helping of mashed potatoes, broccoli with a slab of butter in the middle, rare steaks, huge steaks, steak strips. My chest starts to constrict. I can’t eat here. Whatever they cook will surely be dripping with butter and other unnecessary calories that could kill me.

“What are you going to get?” Jen asks. I’m thankful. Her question pulls me out of my head and reminds me that I have a plan.

“A salad,” I reply.

“Just a salad? Why don’t you try one of the small steaks?”

“No thanks.” I rummage in my purse looking for a piece of gum. Chewing calms me down.

“Oh come on, Han. It’s my birthday. We’re all getting steak. One steak isn’t going to kill you.”

Jen never went to the family meetings I had in the treatment center. She didn’t learn that she isn’t supposed to push me. Dad figures as long as I’m eating something, everything is fine and there’s no need to adjust anyone else’s behavior.

“I’m getting a salad.”

“But what about this steak right here. It’s in thin strips on top of a bed of cooked spinach. Doesn’t that sound healthy and yummy?”

I groan, look around, and spot our waitress just in time. She is one of those goody-two-shoes types who is probably only sixteen and already working to save up for college. I can just tell. The way her hair is pulled back in a high ponytail with a scrunchie. I didn’t even know they still made scrunchies. Her fingernails are all painted the same pale pink. Who paints all their fingernails the same color anymore, other than old people?

She gave us the usual spiel: “Hi, my name is Amber and I’ll be your server today. What can I get for you?” Her ponytail pops after every word, like it’s adding punctuation. She places a basket of breadsticks on the table. Each of the boys grabs two before anyone can say something. I smile and wish they will eat all of them before anyone can ask me if I want one.

I order their Garden Salad Supreme without the potatoes, the meat, the dried cranberries, the croutons, the fried onions, and with the dressing on the side. Jen glares at me. She and Dad order the special of the day: a twelve ounce steak with two sides. Jen chooses broccoli and mashed potatoes. Dad chooses two baked potatoes.

“I’d like both of those loaded, please.” Dad puts all our menus in a pile.

“Loaded?” The waitress puckers her lips out.

“Yes. With bacon, sour cream, chives, cheddar cheese, and maybe a little bit of onion.”

“Oh. We don’t have bacon.” I can’t take my eyes off of her ponytail. It has a mind of its own.

“What do you mean you don’t have bacon?” Dad asks. He asks it a little loudly in my opinion. But Jen doesn’t seem to mind. He laughs a little, like the waitress is playing a mean joke on him. “You mean you don’t usually put bacon on the baked potatoes. That’s okay, dear. Make it a special order.”

“No, sir, I mean we don’t actually have bacon in this restaurant.”

“At all?”

“Dad, please calm down. Or at least quiet down,” Jen says.

See? I told you he was being loud.

“Fine.” He folds his arms over his Santa belly and stares at the waitress. “Do you at least have sour cream and butter?”

“Yes, sir, we do. I’ll make sure I bring that out with your baked potato.”

Dad turns his attention to the twins, his way of avoiding his anger. Or, more likely, his way of avoiding the judgment of his daughters.

“Do you want a breadstick?” Jen asks.

“No, thank you.” I reply. My back stiffens, preparing for the fight to come.

She bristles but decides not to push it. I exhale.

She turns to me with this bounce like we’re best friends. “So, Han, what’s going on in your life?”

“What do you mean?” I’m not doing the best friend bounce.

“I mean, what’s going on in the world of Hannah?”

Was that actually meant to be a more specific question? “Nothing much. School.”

“It’s your senior year, isn’t it? Are you still making up credits?”

I can’t believe she’s bringing this up. I had to take a couple months off of school in the beginning of the year, half a year after Mom died, because of the bacon incident and the passing out. That’s when the therapist came in with her Marching Orders for Food and Life. She doesn’t like it when I call them that. But I think that’s just too bad for her. I “graduated” from treatment three months ago.

“I was never making up credits, Jen. I still completed my homework while I was out of school. Took tests and everything.”

“How’d you do that if you weren’t in school? Like if no one was teaching you?”

“I taught myself the stuff,” I mumbled. It wasn’t really something I liked to admit. I really like school. But from October through January, I didn’t need teachers to understand the work.

Jen just nods. This is why I hate telling people this stuff. It’s like suddenly people have nothing to say. But she had plenty to say when she thought I was struggling to keep up. Like just because I spent a couple months in “treatment,” I’m supposed to be broken.

“You look good,” Jen says after a moment.

I want to ask her her motivations. But socially competent people aren’t supposed to do that. I smile and pretend I’m not suspicious.

I wonder why she says it. Is she fishing for a compliment? Trying to get me to say, “oh thanks, you look good too”? Or is she confused by my eating habits? Does she think all I want is to look a certain way so somehow validating that I “look good” will make me want to eat? I want to ask her her motivations. But socially competent people aren’t supposed to do that. I smile and pretend I’m not suspicious.

“Thanks.” I say it even though I don’t mean it.

The waitress comes back with our food. When she places Dad’s steak in front of him with two large baked potatoes on either side of the meat, Dad gets to his feet.

“I’ll be back.”

I figure he’s going to the bathroom, and so I don’t look up from the salad I’m poking when he comes back.

“Dad, seriously?” Jen says.

My head snaps up, and my mouth drops open. I actually can’t keep my lips together. “What are you doing?” I know I’m loud. I know it. And the look on Jen’s face confirms it.

But you have to understand: my father came back into the restaurant with a chilled pack of bacon.

“Did you seriously go to the store?”

“I had it in my truck.” He grins, and I know he’s proud of himself. I can’t believe it. He rips the packet open and takes out seven strips of bacon. He starts ripping the bacon into pieces and mushing it into his potatoes.

My lip curls to the left. My hands start to tingle with anxiety and frustration. Bacon, seriously? What is he thinking? Is he trying to be like—

A picture forms. Mom on the couch. Her swollen ankles propped up on an ottoman.

And I am cuddled next to her on the couch while we watched some Disney movie. I had missed most of the movie because I had to get stuff for Mom. She couldn’t move around well by that point. I had just gotten her a glass of water and some gorilla in the movie was complaining about something. Before that, I got her a magazine and cookies. Before that, it was ice cream. Before that, it was her pills and a Coke.

Finally, the oven beeped. “Can you get that for me, baby?”

I was nine years old at the time, and that night for dinner, it was just me and Mom. Dad was still at work, and Jen was doing school stuff. We were having thirty-two wieners wrapped in bacon. I had prepared them myself. I took out two plates. On one plate, I set aside five small wieners for me. The rest was for Mom.

When I think back now about watching her eat all that bacon, it makes my stomach turn. I watch Dad basically doing the same thing, going everywhere with bacon in his truck, like he can’t be separated from it for a single moment. And I’m the unhealthy one?

Doesn’t he know that bacon is what landed me in treatment to begin with? Doesn’t he know that I hate it? Oh wait. I shake my head. He doesn’t know. I didn’t tell him that. And Dad’s not the kind of guy to pick up on subtle hints or clues. He has to be told stuff directly. What I told him when I left treatment three months ago is that I couldn’t be better, that I’ve been cured. I didn’t actually think he would believe me. I grunt and cross my arms over my chest. My whole family is clueless, and I’ve lost my appetite.

Dad winks and says, “I love you.” What I hear is: calm down.

I don’t say anything for the rest of the dinner. You may not believe this, but I really did try to think of something to say. I don’t want to be a drag at my sister’s birthday dinner. I mean, it’s kind of pathetic that she was spending her birthday with me and Dad instead of friends or a husband. I don’t want to make her feel any worse. Plus, she’s thirty. I’m trying to be nice, but can’t get the image of Mom and the bacon out of my head.

Dad finishes the whole pack of bacon while he and Jen sit and talk. Jen doesn’t seem bothered by it at all.

When I get home, I go straight to my room. Dad and Jen stay and talk long after Mark and Matthew fall asleep. I hear their voices murmuring and every so often Dad tries not to laugh too loud and fails. On my bed, I touch my arms, squeezing from wrist to shoulder. I reach down. I think I have longer than average arms. My fingers grab my toes and then the balls of my feet. I lean back and rest my hands on my thighs until the house is silent. I realize my hands are touching my body, but I don’t feel my body. I’m here but not here.

Then, I do something I haven’t done since before “treatment.” I tiptoe downstairs with a notebook and pen ready in my hands. I take inventory of all the food in the house, except the spices. I can’t explain why, but the spices don’t seem important. There’s nothing out of the ordinary—chicken breast, frozen broccoli, canned soup, canned peas. The list goes on and on and is three pages long by the time I’m done, and notice something’s missing.

I creep out to the garage. I know Dad has an extra freezer out here, but this is his man space, so I’m rarely in it. He’s changed it around since the last time I brought him a beer during a football game. The television is larger and flatter than before. The couch is leather and there are two overstuffed recliners, also leather. The freezer is all the way in the corner. I stare at it from across the room. I can’t tell you how I know, but I know what I’m looking for is in it.

But even though I know what I know, I’m not prepared for what I see. Every shelf, from the top to the bottom, is filled with bacon. Boxes and boxes of bacon, like he bought it in bulk from one of those discount-buy-in-bulk stores. I don’t move for a while.

I stop thinking. My therapist says this happens sometimes. People stop thinking and just end up feeling all their feelings. My feelings push me closer to the freezer. My feelings push me to grab a box off of the top shelf. My feelings prompt me to open the box and stick a whole pack in Dad’s personal microwave. Once it’s thawed, I double check to make sure it’s really ready. And then I start.

*     *     *

By the time the sun comes up, I feel nothing. That’s not true. There’s a mild tingling in my toe. I’m on the leather couch, surrounded by boxes of bacon. The freezer is about half empty. I shove another three slices in my mouth at once and chew slowly.

To say food is complicated would be an understatement. In this moment, I want my father to understand that I will sacrifice myself to keep him around. I can’t lose another parent. Not any time soon.

I’m surprised I’m not nauseous. Or maybe I am, and I just don’t know it yet? I lean back against the couch, and that’s when I see the picture of Mom. She’s on the beach, her toes buried in the sand, a white cover-up shrouds her body from her shoulders to her knees. She’s smiling at the camera. My mom had a pretty face. She was the only one in the family with blue eyes, and they were a deep blue, like jewels. Her round, high cheekbones naturally had a rosy tint, so she never needed blush. Her skin was clear, smooth, and radiant. It used to make me mad when people would say that, you know? Like that’s what you say about fat people: she has a pretty face. But in my mom’s case, it was true. She did have a pretty face.

I remember that day at the beach. Even though it hurt, she rolled around in the sand with us for hours. We made a sand castle that was actually big enough for me to sit in and pretend to be a princess. She would always tell me she loved me. And it didn’t sound like anything else.

I open my eyes.

“What did you do?” Dad bellows.

“I am saving you.”

“What?”

“You’re diabetic.”

“No, sweetheart. That was Mom.” He looks at me in confusion.

“But the test?” I open my eyes again and try to sit up, but I can’t. It’s like I’m stuck.

“How much did she eat?”

Oh great, Jen is here. I can tell from her tone that she’s judging me and feeling a little superior. I’m too tired to argue even in my head.

Then, the pain sets in. I start to moan. The stabbing begins, it travels from one side to the other and back again. Then it moves to my belly button and stays there, stabbing, over and over.

“We’ve got to get her to the hospital.” I don’t know who says it. I close my eyes, wishing that my body wouldn’t be my body for a little while longer.

The next hour is a bumpy one. I bump in my dad’s arms as he carries me to the car. I bump in the car as we travel over speed tables. I bump on the raised yellow thingies when they wheel me into the emergency room. I bump as they push the gurney down the hallway. After all the bumps, when it’s quiet, my body leaves again. Peace.

When I open my eyes, I feel empty. Or more accurately, I feel emptied out. My mouth feels funny. I reach up and rub against it. When I pull my hand away, it’s covered in black stuff. Charcoal. They must have pumped my stomach. Dad is sitting in the chair across from me, tossing something in his mouth but I can’t tell what it is. He’s wearing his comfy kilt. They are his equivalent of comfy sweatpants.

My voice croaks, whatever they gave me makes my throat hurt. “I love you.” But I mean: don’t leave me.

Jasmine EvansJasmine Evans is a writer and curriculum designer from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is earning her MFA in Creative Writing at Mills College. Her short stories have appeared in The Copperfield ReviewHeater, and Bread for God’s Children. When she’s not working on a story or article, she loves to browse used bookstores for gems and play with her cat, Yuki.

The Walls Are Too Blank, The Holes Are Too Deep

As my father did with me and Tobias, I took my family camping. When I told Roberta that it was time to prepare to lose one of our sons, she walked into our bedroom and packed. Her eyes were pooled with tears, but she didn’t cry.

“Roberta,” I said, shutting the door behind me.

“Please don’t,” she said. Her lips were quivering, and her entire body was flimsy as she folded clothes and rolled socks into one another, as though someone had removed her bones. She wouldn’t look at me.

“You knew this would happen eventually,” I said.

She dropped a shirt into the open suitcase. “How can you be so calm?”

I swallowed and exhaled. “Because someone has to be.”

Roberta refused to answer Tommy and Jason’s questions as she dropped their backpacks and sleeping bags in the trunk. The boys followed her back and forth up the driveway and wore looks of fright and confusion, disturbing expressions on the faces of seventeen and fifteen-year-old boys. I knew that even adolescents can feel tension when it rises up and seeps into all parts of a house, because I’d felt the same thing when my mother began moving like some spectral shell of herself after my father told me and Tobias with no warning that we were going camping. It had sounded like any other announcement of a family trip, but the hollow look in my mother’s eyes, the hushed whispers coming from my parents’ bedroom, and the way she wouldn’t look me in the eye as she filled our battered cooler all twisted my stomach and told me that the gloomy air around her was about more than going into the woods together.

The car was silent: Tommy and Jason didn’t whisper dirty jokes they thought their mother and I couldn’t make out; Roberta wasn’t humming along to the radio; even the air didn’t seem to be whistling through the cracked windows. I hated that silence, and I gripped the steering wheel hard enough that my hands hurt, but I ignored the pain because it wasn’t real pain. It was nothing like what was to come.

I looked back at my sons through the rearview mirror. They were each looking out their respective windows, glancing back at one another every now and then. Eventually their youth broke through the thick dread hanging in the car and they started whispering to one another and hitting each other in the arm every few minutes. But Roberta kept staring forward, unable or unwilling to look me in the eye. I knew she was feeling a mixture of rage and sorrow. Even though I’d assured her no one would die—at least not now, not today—perhaps she didn’t believe me, and I couldn’t, didn’t, blame her for that. Perhaps she’d forgotten, but how could she? How could my wife of twenty years forget the secret I’d told her years ago, only days after I’d first told her I loved her, after I knew that I would marry her one day? How could she forget that her son was going to get sick, that his body would fall apart, and that no doctor, no specialist or scientist or anyone in the world would be able to do anything about it?

The car was silent: Tommy and Jason didn’t whisper dirty jokes they thought their mother and I couldn’t make out; Roberta wasn’t humming along to the radio; even the air didn’t seem to be whistling through the cracked windows.

Perhaps she hated that it was going to start somewhere that held such vivid memories, ones filled with laughter and warmth, even the mishaps, like when Tommy was nine and nearly fell into the campfire, coming out with only a sprained wrist and a first degree burn on his right hand that healed quickly, leaving behind a quarter-sized blemish on the knuckles of his ring and pinky fingers.

But I had to do it there. The first rule: it needs to be somewhere familiar.

*    *     *

My father gave me a small ledger when he told me. The foremost rule, he said, more important than where you do it, even, is that no one else, not even your wife, ever reads this book. He tapped it and then held it out to me. Only you and your son, he said, can ever see it, can ever know what it says.

When I first looked through it, I half expected the letters inside to transform into words that would spell out, step-by-step and word-by-word, exactly what I should say—what I could say—to my own son. What I should feel when I sat him down and told him our family’s secret. How I could begin to understand and accept the truths of our family’s wretched legacy, and how I could make my son do the same. But what I found was paragraph after paragraph of vague directives, threadbare advice, and blunt, angry rules. Rules without explanation. Predictions—accurate ones—without consolations. Things that would happen to your brother—“your,” the book said, that vague, malleable word, “your,” impersonal and wide enough to apply to me, my father, my son, my ancestors, my descendents. A word that represented the hollowness, the uselessness, of having clouded answers. Letters that would never numb the pain of guilt that hangs on “your” shoulders, heavier when you know that, really, none of this is your fault. But if not you, then who? Who else can carry that burden?

When I first read the book, I threw it across my bedroom before I was finished. I knocked over a family photograph, shattered the glass in the frame. I thought about burning the book, watching our family’s curse disappear into the sky as nothing more than ash. These dreams left me drenched in sweat and out of breath.

No one in my family has ever known why these rules exist, or why this thing happens, but, as my father told me, we know they must be followed, or the consequences are worse: instead of losing one son, he said when he first told me, one hand still gripping the book, the other gripping my knee, you’ll lose both. I’ll lose both. His smile was thin and limp, one that I would see for the rest of my life when I looked into a mirror.

You must wait until your elder son—you will have two (and this you will not control)—has been seventeen for three weeks. You must take both of them somewhere familiar, somewhere they can be at ease, without explanation or warning. Send the one son off, then explain things to the other. You may take your wife, but you do not have to. This, of all things, is the one flexibility you possess.

So I took Roberta, because I needed her. But afterward I wished that I had not.

*    *     *

Tommy and Jason pitched our tents on opposite sides of the fire pit, and I watched Roberta set out the boys’ things in the smaller green one. Neither of them asked if she needed help or said they could do it themselves, even though they’d been doing so for years. They watched their mother unfurl the sleeping bags, smoothing out the crinkles and bumps as though her hand were an iron, and fluff the pillows she’d stuffed into the trunk of the car. She sniffled audibly, coughing a few times. I wanted to be angry at her somehow, feel ire at her for making it clear that this wasn’t a normal camping trip, but I couldn’t. She was, I realized, doing her best to fake a sense of calmness, but the pain she was feeling was breaking through, cracking the steady exterior she hadn’t had time to practice or perfect. I looked at my sons: Tommy had his arms crossed, and I could tell he wanted to ask what was going on, as if he could smell something amiss tainting the air like rotten fruit. Jason looked up toward Tommy, waiting for his cues, always walking in the shadow of his older brother.

When I tried to bring up collecting some wood to make a fire, Roberta’s forehead wrinkled like a stormy sky and she waved the idea away, suggesting we eat some of the sandwiches she’d packed first. Tommy and Jason warily agreed, taking them out of their plastic baggies as if they half-suspected they were poisoned. The air buzzed with mosquitoes and the thick paste of discomfort. We sat on logs, Roberta with Tommy, Jason and I opposite them. Sitting next to him, I realized just how tall he’d gotten, almost as tall as Tommy was, his golden legs dusted with tiny blond hairs that shimmered in the setting sun splayed out in front of him like long, lean yard sticks.

I felt an immense sadness, and couldn’t look at him, not at any of them, so I stared toward the sun as it disappeared, spackling the ground with the light that shone through the holes between the trees.

*    *     *

Both sons will come home from the woods, of course. You don’t have to actually do either of them any direct harm, but you know that they will both be damaged. The hurt may not appear yet, no bruises, no limps, no wincing external pain, but you know it is there, because you feel it, too. You feel it every day, have for the last twenty-five years, but it feels sharper, more acute, when you first step through your front door when you return home. The son who doesn’t know will shrug off the strange, strained trip, his teenage hormones distracting him from the quilt of sadness strumming through the car on the drive home. You will look at the other son’s face, drooping and pale, through the rearview mirror on the way home, knowing what he is feeling and thinking because you have thought and felt it, too.

While you are out there, though, you must have the conversation. Wait until the one son is far off, out of earshot, and then explain as much as you can to the one sitting next to you, the one trying to look away from you even when you tell him you’re being serious. Be prepared for the disbelief and doubt, then the wonderment, the questions about how and why and where it comes from. You must simply tell him, a sick understanding of his anger and confusion toiling through your stomach, that no, you don’t know where it comes from. You can’t explain it. No one has, for as long as you can remember. Be ready, after you’ve quietly berated him, to see the hollow look on his face, the one you’ll be able to discern through the darkness. He will ask how you can be so calm, so unwavering and blunt. Be ready for the plaintive sigh you’ll hear peep through his lips despite the overwhelming sound of crickets humming through the trees.

When it’s all over and you are home, you’ll find him staring at the wall regularly, when he’s not looking at his brother for signs that it’s started, that is. Any time his brother coughs or complains of a headache he’ll worry, so much that sometimes he’ll get sick too, or be unable to sleep, his eyes bleary and his eyelids puffy as he eats breakfast before school. Your wife will roll away from you at night, and you’ll look up at the ceiling, awash in the silent loneliness that has followed you for so many years. And when your doomed son has to stay home from school sick, your wife and other boy will cry while you must be steady, clench your jaw, and tell them in quick whispers that no, this isn’t it. It hasn’t started yet, because it’s too early. He still has time.

You must accept your teenage son’s flimsy excuses for his tears, ignore the sucking of snot as he inhales, trying to compose himself. You must do so because you are putting him through a hellish thing, forcing him to be aware of but unable to say anything about what awaits his brother. You have gone through it as well, because you were the chosen son, chosen by nothing but your birth, and you understand what he feels, the gloomy tremor in his bones, the wondering: Why me? Why him? Why my brother? The what can I do? The knowing that the answer is nothing. I can do nothing. The worst answer. The answer that eats at you, the stagnant answer, the not-your-fault that drills into your bones with searing pain.

There are two other rules with unknown origins that no one dares defy: no one can explain why it must happen, or how. And no one may go seeking answers. Trying to understand this thing, this curse, this dark mark that follows the shadows of your family endlessly, will only cause illness, cutting, eating pain, to spring up in you, too, where it does not belong.

*    *     *

I finally separated the boys. Roberta insisted we hike to a familiar outcropping of rocks a little less than a mile from our campsite to watch the sun set, its light pooling over the tops of trees we could see stretched out below. As we hiked there, the boys leading the way and me at the rear, Roberta kept herself between them and me. Enough sun was splotching through the tree trunks that I could see the bitter look on her face whenever she looked back at me, the almost taunt in her empty smile, the conviction that she would somehow stop the inevitable from happening.

We finally reached the tableau of rock, a long slate of clay-colored stone that looked like a barren plain, beyond which the forest dropped off. Leaning out, I could see the tops of trees below me, the highway a few miles away, a little stone river cutting a winding path through the swath of branches. For a while we stood in a row. I put my arm around Roberta’s waist and squeezed her hip, but when she turned her head just so, enough that I could see the skewering look in her eyes, I dropped my arm to my side. No one spoke as the sun crept down until Tommy announced that he needed to pee and walked off.

I turned to look at Roberta, who took my hand, squeezing it as hard as she could; I didn’t let the pain she was causing cross my face.

“Jason,” I said. “I need to talk to you.”

His fifteen-year-old eyes were filled with light from the sun, which glossed them over so I couldn’t quite see the look on his face. Roberta started crying, but she shuffled in the direction Tommy had gone. I knew she would keep him busy. Despite her hatred, her indignation, her resistance, she knew that losing one, years from now, was better than losing both, something neither of us would ever say, knowing it wouldn’t fix anything or make what was happening any better. She must have felt the betrayer, the Brutus stabbing Tommy in the small of his back, slowly drizzling his blood out over the years to come. My hands trembled again, and I wrapped them up together.

“Yeah, Dad?” Jason said. His voice had started getting deep, lower in pitch than my own.

I took a deep breath and then, as the sun disappeared and night fell over the woods, I told him our family’s legacy.

*    *     *

When you are alone with him, you must hand him the book and begin to explain what you’ve kept hidden from everyone else in your life. You must tell your son that, for as long as anyone can remember, each generation in your family bears two sons, exactly two sons, but that one of them must be sacrificed for the sake of the other. You don’t know why. No one knows why, and it isn’t worth wondering why, because wondering—why him and not you, or why either of you, or why any of it—does no good. It just leaves you raw and scared. Weak. Crumbled. Tired.

Be prepared to snuff out interruptions, to tell your son to please not ask questions now because there is little time to explain. You will feel guilty for your tone, and you will let that guilt seep into you, getting clogged up in the rest of the self-hatred that is stacked up inside you. Then tell him as quickly as you can: he’ll need to read the book on his own and keep it secret, but that for now, you can tell him that his brother is going to get very sick in a few years, and that no one will be able to fix him. That he must get sick so that you do not, and if you tell him about this then you, too, will grow ill, and you know all of this because you’ve been told by your father, who was the younger brother, just like you are. Just like your son is.

Your son will cut in, point out that you don’t have a brother, and then you will tell him the whole story, that your brother does exist, in a hospital not far from your home, that yes, his mother does know but couldn’t say anything, because if the elder son ever finds out about his predecessors it will all fall apart and the illness will spread.

You will stare at him when you’re done explaining, when he tries to come up with loopholes, ways to help his brother, and you must smile sadly and tell him you know, that you thought the same things, that all of his solutions will result in both of them getting sick, and you, and your father, if he is still alive, as well. He will be quiet then, as night falls and the woods come alive with buzzing insects and a howling predator or two. You will dwell on this quiet. The silence from both of you will come from shock and pain, a hurt deeper than you will ever be able to put into words. Shortly thereafter your wife and elder son will reappear, him laughing at some joke he’s just made, she quietly staring through the burgeoning darkness, trying to catch your eyes. You will avoid her gaze.

Your son will stare at his hands, folded in his lap. You’ll put a hand on his knee and nod because he’s already hidden the book away in his back pocket. You’ll feel a queasiness because you won’t have had a chance to tell him about the guilt, to tell him that it’s normal and that he must expect it. His brother may get sick, but he, too, will be plagued, not by some mysterious, invisible poison coursing through his bones, but by a cloud of guilt that will follow him for the rest of his days.

But you needn’t worry about failing to communicate this. You know he will discover it quickly.

*    *     *

The only sounds in the hospital room were the blipping of a heart monitor and the soft whoosh of a ventilator; the only light came from a few fluorescent bulbs buzzing down a harsh, too-bright light that made the white, blank walls even bleaker. I stepped forward and rested my hands on the cold metal bedrail. Up close, I could see the bumps and veins of his skull, his head bare like a cue ball. His mouth was open, a gaping dark hole, ventilator tube poking out on the left side like an oversized straw. The plastic mask across his upper lip was a stark, rigid mustache.

“Hello, Tobias,” I said. I reached down and grabbed his palm. The skin of his hand was smoother than I expected. An IV needle was embedded in the back of it, leading up into a maze of plastic tubes connected to various bags and machines surrounding him like candles around a statue.

He looked, by and large, like a normal person in a normal coma. Except in the eyes. You had to look close, bend down and really look, to see that something wasn’t quite right behind those sealed eyelids. Not only did he lack eyelashes—those, too, had fluttered off in the days before his final collapse—but the curve of the skin covering his eyes wasn’t as it should be. Instead of curving outward, over the pupils and irises, Tobias’s eyelids curved inward, as though they were made of putty and someone had pushed the soft dough in with an index finger. His eyes had begun to retreat.

It was almost over for him. The final rule: the eyes retreat last. When the holes where they belong get too deep, too deep for eyes to exist there any longer, you’ll know he is in his final days.

“I told Jason, Tobias.” I squeezed his hand and stared at him. I didn’t expect any response, of course. My voice sounded too loud. “I told him. He knows about you. He knows everything.”

I hadn’t asked Jason if he wanted to meet his uncle. He didn’t need to see what would happen; he was afraid enough. He hadn’t spoken much the rest of the night, opting to lie in his sleeping bag, staring at the curved ceiling. When Tommy had asked him what was wrong, he’d rolled away from his brother and said he had a stomachache. We’d left the next morning. I tried to catch his gaze in the mirror as we drove, but he refused to look at me. I didn’t blame him, or Roberta. They would both turn from me in their anger, and I had accepted long ago that they would do so.

I held Tobias’ hand, staring at his face, the wrinkles on his forehead, his crooked nose, the cleft in his chin. I wondered how I would remember that face, the bumps of his cheekbones, the expansive space of his forehead. When he was gone for good and I would have nowhere to come back to if I needed to know what he looked like, what would I do? Where would I go? I’d had to remove all photographs of him, just in case. There would be no remembering. There would be no funeral. I gripped his hand tighter, trying to memorize the bumps of his bones.

“I told him. He knows about you. He knows everything.”

I couldn’t help but imagine Tommy, and I saw him growing up, his hair receding, the pains in his bones, his athletic build shrinking like some wilting flower unable to find water.

Tobias had decayed. It started with his hair, falling out in clumps in the shower, at the dinner table, when he went running in the evening after work. Then his teeth, his fingernails, his leg hair. It all fell away as though anything that could was jumping ship. I knew, the day he told me that he lost a tooth while eating a banana, that this was it. His skin had become smooth and blank, a wasteland, a pale desert. The tips of his fingers hurt, he said, when he pressed the buttons on the TV remote.

Something deep inside him was poisoning the rest.

He was at my house when the worst of it happened. He’d been staying with me for a while, before Roberta and I married, before Tommy and Jason were even a thought. He couldn’t live on his own anymore; Tobias had grown weak, his skin dry and cracked, his bones poking against the flesh at his elbows. His kneecaps looked like the rims of soda cans. He fell over in my living room, looking at a photograph of the two of us when we were kids, before any of it began. When I couldn’t wake him up, I knew the coma had come. I knew then that he’d finally paid the price for both of us. He never left the hospital after the ambulance carted him away.

I avoided looking at Tobias’ eyes, those sunken craters of ashy flesh. I couldn’t let myself picture Tommy’s own murky blue eyes swallowing themselves up, shrinking into little marbles as they retreated back toward his brain, leaving behind holes that one could fill with pennies.

I tried to picture Tobias’ face when he was still awake, when he was still really him, alive and full. I tried to see his eyes, wishing that I could see them, sharp and alive and happy. Conjure up some memory, I told myself, willed myself, commanded. Know what he looked like when he was happy, damn it, when you were happy, when everything was still alright, before you had this, this thing, this load on your arms that you didn’t ask for and you can’t cast off.

I shut my eyes, squeezing them tight. Colors burst through the blackness, fireworks that were dull, like everything was dull. Like Jason’s smile was dull. Like Roberta’s skin, and hips, and tears, her smile. I screamed to myself to remember Tobias’ eyes. I wished, I imagined, I cried. Tears started to fall, and, in that room, alone with the brother I’d had no choice but to abandon, I cried, hoping I could remember his eyes. Such a small thing, please, please, to hold on to, to let in. But no matter what, the sticky pool of my family’s curse blocked my way. An expansive, gray mass, a thing that will always plague us. I tried to see Tobias’ eyes, but I just couldn’t. I couldn’t remember what color they’d been.

J. Baumann HeadshotJoe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Tulane Review, Willow Review, Hawai’i Review, SNReview, Lindenwood Review, and many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks. He teaches composition, creative writing, and literature at St. Charles Community College.

The Water Understands

My eyes adjusted to the Monday morning light peeking through our bedroom curtains and I looked at Jen, my wife, who stood by the side of the bed, the goddess of patience. My checklist started as I prepared to meet my son, our firstborn. Pre-packed bags of baby supplies: already in the car. Car seat: two in the car, just in case. Full tank of gas: the hospital is 5.17 miles from our house.

I noticed Jen’s side of the bed was covered with amniotic fluid. In the birthing classes we attended, nurses told us Hollywood had dramatized this occurrence so much that many women believe they will experience a “gush,” although this was a rarity. Around a gallon of water accumulates in the uterus during human gestation, but most women just leak once the amniotic membrane ruptures. Jen didn’t leak; she gushed, then leaked.

Jen was prepping herself for the ride and stay at the hospital when she stopped in the living room.

“What are you doing?” she wanted to know. I stood at the kitchen sink washing the dishes. I ran water over a plate to get flaky mustard and dried cheesecake off and then loaded it in the dishwasher to be scoured by high temperature water.

“Oh, yeah,” I said, and we got in the car.

On the drive Jen told me, “When my water broke, I just held him. This little guy and I were the only two people in the world who knew he existed.” And it was true. And it was beautiful. And her speech was much more poetic.

I dropped Jen off at the hospital’s front door. I had never seen her looking as gorgeous as she did holding her belly walking into the hospital. Not on the day we first met, not on the day we married. I found a spot in the garage and parked. Looking around the car again for any forgotten supplies, I shouldered the bags we had stashed in the backseat several weeks prior. Then, I noticed the passenger seat covered in water.

*     *     *

Civilization well;

Individual Americans use 176 gallons of water per day; African families, five.

It wets my foot, but prettily,

I met Jen at a University Writing Center where we both served terms as graduate assistants. Lucky for me, I am accident prone. I broke my leg (bone 22% water) after a friend of mine’s beer-fueled wedding reception. Beer ranges from 90-97% water, but that other 3% is what made me get into a fight with one of my best friends at three in the morning. So, I walked back—crutched back—into work at the WC the following Monday. Jen just smiled, shook her head.

Later that week Jen said, “Hey, you want to hang out sometime?” We were both graduate students in English so we used phrases like “hang out.”

She drove over to my house and we ordered some pizza, talked about my disdain for Virginia Woolf and her love of South African literature, typical nerdy English-lover type conversation. We were through three bottles of wine (75-90% water) before the ten o’clock news came on. Tom Smiley told us about the weekend weather forecast as Jen excused herself, stepping onto the front porch. I hobbled to the bathroom and struggled to urinate (95% water) while on crutches.

When I returned to the living room, Jen still wasn’t back inside, so I looked out the screen door to see where she went. I thought she was gone, just left, tired of my ramblings. She was lying in a fetal position on the AstroTurf-covered porch, crimson-tainted pizza crust spewed down the three steps that led up to her mouth. I asked her if she was okay.

“Grebrrrgaba,” she said.

I crutched to the side of my house where I hooked the hose nozzle onto my crutch handle, turned the water on, and then crutched back to the front porch. “Go sit inside,” I told her.

She stumbled in and fell onto the couch. I hosed her vomit into the street using ten gallons of water per minute for about five minutes.

It chills my life, but wittily,

*     *     *

Aristotle dubbed Thales of Miletus the first philosopher. Thales’ cosmology differed from his predecessors because he attempted to explain the universe, the earth, mankind without relying on mythology or religion. He wanted to use sciencey-type stuff, and Thales believed the originating principle, where all beings sprang from, was water. Science today, 2560 years after Thales, proves the majority of organic compounds are carbon based, like you and me, 20% carbon. But, we are predominantly water, over 60%.

It is not disconcerted,

*     *     *

“Oh, sweetheart,” the nurse told Jen, “you’ll keep leaking like that until the baby comes, and then you’ll leak for a while after.”

And she did. She leaked and leaked. After we were admitted in the Women’s Evaluation Unit at the hospital, we were transferred to a labor and delivery room where Jen leaked some more. The doctor told us the baby would be in our arms within twenty-four hours. The next few hours were waiting interspersed with the screaming (5% water vapor), sweating (98% water), and crying (98% water) that precede birth.

“Oh, sweetheart,” the nurse told Jen, “you’ll keep leaking like that until the baby comes, and then you’ll leak for a while after.”

“Do you feel like pushing?”

Nurse one adjusted the bed to the birthing position. A second nurse came in. I knew the baby was getting close if the hospital was sending in reinforcements. Within fifteen minutes, medical professionals were entering the room at the rate of one per minute. Jen was laboring hard. More nurses. Making some progress. Residents. Getting closer. More residents. More leaking. Jen had a cheering squad, and she was working very hard. I love you, Jen…

*     *     *

It is not broken-hearted:

I almost lost Jen. We went on a float trip to a spot where her family had been going for the previous five years, the Niangua River. There were no kids around; this was an adult float. When we arrived at our campsite there was a twenty-foot sailing ship made of cardboard sitting next to the fire: plank, oars, mast, all of it, all cardboard, all built by her family. This campground had a theme contest every year and we were pirates.

I quoted Twain, “Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.”

Everyone “Arrrrred” agreement. The family had placed second the previous three years in the theme contest and this year they were going to win.

We floated down the river the next day after very little sleep, and I got separated from the group. I floated along at the river’s pace, drinking and drinking. I slurred with a few people and had a lot of laughs, not worried about catching up to the group since our float ended at the camp site. When it started getting dark I started getting a bit concerned, because floating down an unknown waterway in the dark is not safe for a drunken accident-prone asshole. Moving water is ruthless. Grand Canyon.

I made it back to camp after dark, a few hours after everybody else, with the help of a boy scout paddling a canoe. I sea-legged up the river bank to the campsite. When I got there everyone stared, then Jen started screaming. She was worried. I scared her. I was a grown man and needed to start behaving as such.

I didn’t want to hear that. I wanted to laugh by the fire and drink, so Jen’s well-meaning concerns got convoluted in my alcohol-addled brain. I picked up our assembled tent and stuffed it into the back of our minivan without removing a tent pole or our supplies. The poles just snapped and what wouldn’t fit, I cut with my pocket knife to make it fit, cutting myself deeply across three fingers. I heard the ice in the cooler slosh out as I pushed, then I heard the air mattress pop.

Security showed up to scatter the other campers who had formed a circle around our campsite to watch. I told Jen I was driving home, but security advised me they had already called the police and they thought I should just sleep. I sat in the front seat of our van and steamed until I passed out. Jen cried the whole time I threw my tantrum, and I am lucky she stayed with me. The majority of my conduct was later relayed to me because I didn’t remember much. I do remember it was the first time I had grilled cabbage (93% water). Jen’s family didn’t win the theme contest that year despite the effort they put into the ship. It was the first time they didn’t place.

*     *     *

Well used, it decketh joy,

The Proposal:

“Hey, you want to go to Shane Co.?” I asked Jen.

“Why?”

“Get a ring. Get married or something?”

Romantic shit.

We decided on a destination wedding: Jamaica.

The water in Jamaica is a blue that makes a person living near the Mississippi River appreciate water for its beauty rather than just its transportation potential. But, it is deadly. Less than one percent of the water on the planet is potable. 98% is saltwater.

Since Jamaicans can’t drink the brine, they drink rum, just like pirates. After our too-long flight from middle-America to paradise, we had a three-hour bus ride to the resort. I remember going up and down sparsely populated hillsides where we saw more goats than people. One-car-wide dirt roads winding through the tropical green of the foliage. Shacks pieced together with scrap metal, each piece a different color, a crumbling rainbow of poverty.

Halfway to the resort we stopped at a seaside store and had a few Red Stripes. Then, when we got to the resort, the bar was free, all-inclusive. I ordered a beer before we checked in. We had to be on the island two days before we could get married, and several of my high-school/college buddies made the trip with us.

I walked with a few of my friends, dubbed the “Brew Crew” in high school, to the bar where the bartender mixed an island specialty in small glasses. As she poured the syrup from a gallon jug into our glasses, I said, “Can you mix me up a gallon of that?”

“Ya, mon.”

Jen cried most of the first night as I carried my gallon jug up and down the beach. I made what should have been the best experience of our lives miserable for Jen. She wanted to relax and have fun; I wanted to keep up with my bachelor friends. I was scared of getting married, of losing my independence, of being responsible to another person, of choosing a life-long partner. So I drank and Jen cried. Somehow, she agreed to marry me two days later.

So I drank and Jen cried. Somehow, she agreed to marry me two days later.

*     *     *

Adorneth, doubleth joy:

Sometimes when a mommy loves a daddy, despite daddy’s shortcomings, flaws, and lack of maturity…

Sperm cells make up 2-5% of human ejaculate, accompanied by citric acid, acid phosphatase, calcium, sodium, zinc, potassium, protein-splitting enzymes, fructose and fibrolysin, but 90% is water. The sperms’ goal, their only goal, is to reach the egg (85% water).

“How long do you think I have to lay here?” Jen asked.

“It’s already done,” I told her. “You’re going to have my son nine months from now.” And she did.

 

Ill used, it will destroy,

In perfect time and measure

I’m a boob man. I love me some boobies. Pregnancy boobies are even better because they not only embiggen, but they also glow the glow I assume angels exude. The fascination men have with breasts is primal. We look for a mate who can nourish our children and for some reason we think bigger is better, like a car’s motor, or a paycheck, or a…although size has no impact on milk production. Milk is sweat; it comes from modified sweat glands called mammary glands. Boob sweat however, contains nutrient proteins, non-protein nitrogen compounds, lipids, oligosaccharides, vitamins, minerals, hormones, enzymes, growth factors, and protective agents. It is 90% water.

I am proud of my wife for numerous reasons. She has great boobs. She is a published writer. She is a respected, tenured professor. She is funny, smart, happy, honest, and a great mother. One of the things I am most proud of her for is breastfeeding my son. I don’t think there is an argument that says breast milk is a bad idea.

So why am I proud of my wife for doing something every woman should be doing? It is hard. It is hard to get a newborn to latch on for the first time and the fiftieth time. It is hard to dedicate hours a day to feeding your child or pumping the milk from your breasts. It is hard to wake up every two hours to feed a crying baby. It is hard to keep breastfeeding when formula can be shaken in a bottle with water. It is hard. But, Jen persevered as her eyes blackened. She breastfed our son for over a year, even after he started growing teeth (4-22% water, depending on part). Baby teeth are hard, and they’re sharp, a nipple in a bear trap.

*     *     *

With a face of golden pleasure

Elegantly destroy.

(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

When Max showed up, he was accompanied by water, and I began my new adventure with water. Max started as a single cell composed of water that joined with another cell composed of water, in water. Then he lived in water for nine months, and escaped his prison with the help of water. Water became more plentiful after Max’s arrival. On the outside, he cried, urinated, defecated, projectile vomited, all water. How many extra loads of laundry do you do with a newborn? Dishes? Baths, pools, sprinklers?

One day when Max asks me where babies come from, I’ll tell him exactly what Thales would have told him. We come from the water.

Ean BevelEan Bevel lives with his wife in St. Louis, but dreams of living on the road. When he is not chasing his toddler or teaching English classes or swinging a hammer, he puts pen to page. His work often contains the grotesque and/or magical realism. He began collecting rejections a few years ago, then completed his MFA in writing, and continues to collect rejections. His fiction has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Literary Orphans, and Bareback Magazine. His CNF has appeared in Lunch Ticket.  

Dear Masha (to the one I once called Peanut):

Have you eaten today? I doubt
you’d answer. Still, I ask, hoping you open
your mouth, that this letter reminds you
how I peeled grapefruit on my bedspread,
and you pecked, in the way of your fascination
with birds and the daintier things, the fruit’s
pink flesh right out of my palms, admiring
the thinness of my wrists. You said my hands
would forever carry the scent, bitterly
citrus, remember? Can you still smell them
across three thousand miles and three years
of not speaking since I started eating again?
It hasn’t been easy you know, to let myself
feel hunger, to feed it the way we never did,
to linger in the taste of peanut butter, recalling
the flavor, yours: the first time I felt another’s
tongue in my mouth, the desire to swallow it
whole, (restraint was it?) to keep from biting down,
and your collarbone, so worn, it stunned me:
your mouth then, was all I ate for days.

Replete now, would you still touch, still recognize
this body? Even at rest, your fingers softly pressed
would fall, would fold into hips and stomach,
unable to find the bones we were so fond of
reaching down to once. What would you make
of all this flesh? No need my dear, stay hollow
as you’ve been, and I will bear its weight for you,
but if you ever come, I’ll show you where
I’ve grown, show too where there is room
for you to perch, or even build your nest,
though knowing you, you’ll only leave a plume
against my chest, then fly away, starving and weightless:
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++iyour mouth, open.

Julia Kolchinsky DasbachJulia Kolchinsky Dasbach emigrated as a Jewish refugee from Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine in 1993. She holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Oregon and is in the University of Pennsylvania’s Comparative Literature Ph.D. program. Julia’s poetry has appeared in Green Mountains Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Guernica, and Nashville Review, among other journals. Her manuscript, The Bear Who Ate the Stars, won Split Lip Magazine‘s Uppercut Chapbook Award, and can be purchased from Split Lip Press. Julia is also the Editor-in-Chief of Construction Magazine. Find out more by visiting her website.

Joyful Canvases: Mixed Media

The Magic Hour

The man who had been nicknamed The Count wanted to know if I was a painter.

“Not really,” I said. But I could see why he would think that. I was standing in the middle of the alley holding a heavy painter’s brush and looking down on a row of dusty cans of Benjamin-Moore blue, and Sherman-Williams yellow among others. I had just finished covering the graffiti scrawled across the back of my dad’s garage the day before. But the white paint over the stucco wall seemed too clean for the alley. It needed to be scarred.

“Paint me. I am handsome, yes?” The Count said, then offered a wide grin. He placed the two plastic bags he had been carrying down, and struck a pose pointing one foot slightly forward, then put his right hand on his hip. He thrust his rounded chin out and cast his eyes toward the sky. Even in our worn down alley, where weeds sprouted from cracks in the asphalt, he reminded me of oil paintings of Napoleon, or George Washington.

“I don’t paint people,” I told him. “I just thought I would add some color.”

For almost two years since he moved into the neighborhood, The Count always dressed in a midnight blue, three piece suit. On colder days, he would wear a black wool cloak draped over his shoulders. A black felt beret always covered his head, and a long, thick, graying ponytail hung down the back of his neck. The Count always carried bulging plastic bags that dangled from his gloved hands. The bags came from the Walgreens nearby on San Fernando Road. Neighbors in the area had nicknamed him The Count not only because of the way he dressed but also because his eye teeth were long. He was like Count-Chocula in real life. The very sight of him coming down the alley made boys turn their bikes and skateboards around toward the opposite end.

The Count lived in a converted garage behind a house that belonged to an older woman I knew only as Mama Sarkis. She was at least 90 years old and she ate a lot of yogurt with diced Persian cucumbers. People said that’s likely what kept her strong and healthy enough to maintain a house and guest room on her own. The entrance to The Count’s room faced the alley and he had a clear view of the back of my dad’s garage from a small window just to the right of his door. Sometimes, boys dared each other to bang hard on the wall of his home hoping to catch a glimpse of The Count’s room before they ran. But The Count would open then shut the door quick, leaving most kids to imagine a coffin, candelabras, and cobwebs. I had watched him a few times from my bedroom window which also faced the alley. He always kept his eyes down and never spoke to anyone, which is why I wondered if The Count was experiencing a late case of spring fever. He seemed giddy as he struck a pose in the alley and his voice was nothing like I had imagined. It was kind of gravely, like that of a man who needed to clear the phlegm from the back of his throat. He spoke with an accent similar to my dad’s. He pulled a long, thin cigarette away from his full lips and smiled, exposing his yellowed eye teeth.

“That’s OK, my dear. You paint what you like,” he said, as cigarette smoke flowed from his nostrils.

“I don’t know what that is yet,” I said.

Before he paused to speak with me, I had been staring at the back of my dad’s garage for about a half hour, kind of hypnotized. They say if you look straight into a white wall long enough, you’ll get that way, like you’re stoned or stuck in a day dream.

“You have no school?” he asked. I was surprised.

I thought of The Count as someone everyone else watched, but who never gathered information on us.

“It’s summer break,” I said. “I’m supposed to be at a special arts and photography program in San Francisco, but my dad wouldn’t let me go.”

I’m not sure why I told him that, but I was still so mad at my dad that I think I had to complain.

“Photography? Will you take my picture?” he asked.

“No. I can’t,” I replied. I was trying to be nice, but I was annoyed.

“What kind of pictures do you like to take?” he asked.

“I want to be a photojournalist,” I told him. “But I probably won’t be.”

The Count had been standing in the sun while we talked. He placed the cigarette back between his lips, picked up the plastic bags he brought with him, and walked across the alley to stand under a rusted awning that hung above the door of his home. He stayed there for a moment, then changed his mind. He placed his bags on the ground again. He found an abandoned shopping cart nearby, pushed it over to the shade, then tilted it so that it sat on its side, its wheels suspended and twirling around. Before sitting on the cart, he lifted the tails of his suit, then folded his hands in his lap and looked up at me.

“I really can’t.”

“You do your best,” he said.

I kept going, every now and then turning around to memorize pieces of The Count’s face—the shadow under his bottom lip, slightly over the meat of his chin.

I turned my back to him and opened a few cans of paint. I poured drops the size of pancakes into my mixing tin. I played with the colors for a while, blending white with yellow, and adding some brown. I created a dark beige, then lightened it up again with white, and tapped in some red. What I made was a pretty good skin tone. I held my breath as I gripped the brush with the new color and began to dab it over the white stucco, feeling the hairs move over the tiny bumps of the wall. Little by little, dabs came together and I created a giant oval shape as tall and wide as I could reach, then brought my brush back to my mixing tin, caught some brown and a little black. I kept going, every now and then turning around to memorize pieces of The Count’s face—the shadow under his bottom lip, slightly over the meat of his chin. I grabbed more black for his thick, arched eyebrows. I started to feel good. I lightened the color for the nostrils set at an angle from his jaw line. I dipped my brush in again and found some red to create melon, the color for his generous lips. I ignored his teeth that jutted out. I took more brown and black for the shade of darkness under his eyes. His eyes. I hadn’t looked.

“You OK?” My mom had been standing in the alley watching, her arms crossed over her chest. She used her eyes to point at the man on the cart.

“Yeah, I’m just painting The Cou…our neighbor.”

My mom turned toward him for a moment. I knew she wasn’t afraid of him, but she didn’t expect to see me hanging out with a stranger. She kept her arms crossed, and I blushed with shame as she spoke to me in Spanish, asking if I really was OK, as if The Count was holding me hostage.

“My mom asked if you would like some water,” I lied to The Count.

“No. No, thank you,” he replied bashfully. As my mom walked away, she looked back, but I pretended not to see her. I didn’t want The Count to feel as if we were gossiping about him through our stares.

“Your mama is Spanish?” The Count asked.

“She’s Cuban,” I said as I painted.

“Ah, I visited Cuba once. Muy boe-nee-toe!” the Count said in his best Spanish. “I once sat in the place where Hemingway used to drink.”

“Really?”

“Yes…your father…Cuban too?”

“No. He’s Middle Eastern,” I said.

I felt the tips of my ears burn. For a moment, I wanted to put the brush down and walk away. Instead, I dabbed faster, harder, the anger resurfacing as I thought of my dad.

“From where?”

“From Iraq” I said. “He’s Assyrian.”

“Syrian? Me too! I am Armenian from Syria,” he said.

I kept on painting. I was going to let it go as I usually did because I hated everything about this conversation. I was angry that people kept asking me if I was part of a terrorist group. But I felt I had to correct him because I also was tired of not existing.

“No, he’s Assyrian. Uh-Syrian,” I said, then I paused to give him a chance to tell me he didn’t know what that was, or that Assyrians were a prehistoric race long gone as one librarian once said to me, or that there was no “Assyria” on any map according to my sixth grade teacher, or that a people without a country, who were scattered across the world, were as good as nobodies, as my dad always said after drinking two cans of beer.

When I told my aunt once I felt invisible, she nodded in understanding.

“We are a people who are the color of wet sand and hearts filled with sorrow,” she said. “To be one of us is to be forgotten by the world.”

But The Count’s expression changed.

“Ah, yeah, yeah…Ashouri,” he said with glee. “We call them Ah-ShOOR-ee. They are a very ancient people, once very good warriors. I knew an Ashouri once. He was my friend. We built big buildings together in Damascus. When I see your father, I will tell him, hello my Ashouri friend!”

I turned toward him and I noticed The Count was looking down. I could tell his mind was somewhere in Damascus, maybe even remembering the Assyrian.

“Were you an architect?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I built houses for dignitaries and generals. Mansions with many rooms and fountains in the gardens. They threw parties for me. I wore this suit…”

He had kept his hands folded on his lap the whole afternoon. His closed lips formed a slight smile, but I could tell he was choking on sadness.

“I came here because of the war,” he said. “My wife cried all the time in Syria. When we came here, I found no work. They told me I needed to go to school again to be an architect. I once built palaces. But here they won’t even let me build a garage. I wanted to go back to Syria, but my wife told me she wanted to be free. She took my daughter and went to San Jose. Now she lives with another man.”

A car passed through the alley as he spoke, forcing me to move my paint cans back and forth, but I continued to dab and add color. As The Count remembered his former life, I realized I hadn’t looked at anyone or anything in weeks the way I looked at him while I painted. I suppose there are worse things than to be an artist who isn’t allowed to see. When I was invited to attend a free summer program for young artists in San Francisco, I told my friend Anita, who warned me during lunchtime that I should forget about it.

“You won’t go,” she said, before she bit into a pita bread, feta cheese, and tomato sandwich.

“Your dad is too overprotective. Our parents don’t go for that shit.”

So I was ready to defy her and my dad. He was unimpressed when I told him I had earned a spot in the class. I had always sketched and painted. I started taking candid photos for the yearbook last year and I asked my teacher to help me apply to the program.

“Why do you want to go so far?” my dad asked, when I looked at maps on the Internet, eager to learn everything about San Francisco.

“You’re crazy,” he argued. “You have a house, a bed, and food. You’re 14-years-old. Everything you need is here.”

Yes, I was 14. But I didn’t care about boys or beer or the black tar heroin my classmates bought in the parking lot of the strip mall we called the tar pits. I didn’t spend hours at salons straightening my thick, dark brown hair, or waxing my eyebrows until they were perfect black strips across my forehead. I just wanted to go. So much so, that during algebra and history classes my leg shook up and down like a jack hammer under my desk. I twirled my pen around my fingers like I had seen drummers do in those music videos from the 1980s my mom liked to watch. I sketched in my notebook the girls who sat next to me or else the back of boys’ heads. My teachers complained that I was restless. But I was as focused as anyone could be. I wanted what I wanted and the only one in my way was my dad, who didn’t appreciate that I didn’t give him any trouble.

“I have to go!” I had yelled at him the day I was set to leave. Why couldn’t he understand that I needed to travel, to be in the world, to see it inside out, to capture people in motion, people living. I never asked for much, I told him. This is who I wanted to become. But he wanted me home, to sit and wait out my desires in the tiny Glendale home where I grew up, in a neighborhood packed with small houses and apartments where the pretty Armenian and Middle Eastern girls rarely ventured out and only met boys at church. He wanted the neighbors to know I wasn’t wild hearted, or that I had left because my family was bad to me.

“We are so few,” my dad had said with calm. “A family that is split apart is nothing.”

But I walked away anyway that day toward the bus stop with my backpack slung on my shoulder. I knew if I took bus No. 92 on San Fernando Road, I would get to Union Station in downtown L.A. There, I would buy a train ticket with the money I saved to San Francisco. I also knew as I walked away that I shouldn’t have looked back. But I did. There he was, standing on the corner of Irving Avenue and Glenwood Road where I used to wait for him to return home from work. He looked wounded, and even from where I stood, I could see his hazel eyes watered.

I was not as brave as I had imagined myself to be all those months before summer started, when I lay on my bed to stare at the dozens of pictures I had torn out of old National Geographic magazines that the library didn’t want anymore. In my mind, I was Margaret Bourke-White, documenting wars or else finding the remaining Assyrians in the mountains of Iraq my father told me about. I imagined I would be like Graciela Iturbide, discovering villages where roofs sagged under sun and dust. I would arrive into cities filled with people with expressions that revealed anguish or pleasure. I thought of myself walking through towns, cool and friendly and laughing as children pointed and stroked the camera around my neck. I even made up conversations I would have with locals while I drew them in my sketch book. They would invite me into their homes, offer me black tea and baklava. The photographs I would take would be featured on the covers of those same magazines I memorized. I wanted to make each man or woman I met a somebody to the world.

But he had always gotten his way. My father, who wasn’t even a very tall man, whose people had no country, whose language was almost dead, could hurt me with a few words and then silence. Even as I sat inside Union Station, a train ticket in my hand, his stare pulled me back. I stayed there only an hour before I took the No. 92 bus back home. It was too hard to hurt him. The Count was right: Assyrians were good warriors.

The first week into the summer I didn’t talk to my friends. I just kept to myself, and slept almost all day on top of the new, lilac colored comforter my mom bought for me because she thought it would make me happy. I listened as trains passed on tracks only two blocks away, their horns blowing loud as they sped by. I tried to imagine all the places where they stopped. My hands started shaking during the second week while I was unpacking the clothes from my backpack. My dad had come home from work, from the factory where he assembled airplane seats, and found me sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor. I rocked back and forth and cried. My legs felt weak even though I wasn’t standing.

“Why are you crying?” he asked. “No one has died. Come and have dinner.”

But I felt like he was killing me inside and my mom understood. She had seen the way my foot shook under the kitchen table, how I popped chewing gum into my mouth, then threw it away and took another. In the meantime, dust began to gather between the lever and shutter speed dial on a classic Pentax K-1000 I had bought at a second-hand shop a few blocks from my house. I told my mom that if I couldn’t use it the way I wanted, there was no point in having it at all. She never was the type to listen to my dramatic proclamations. Instead, she had noticed the graffiti on the back of the garage and asked my dad if I could paint over it. I heard my dad tell my mom that the alley was no place for a girl. I knew he was imagining me getting dragged into a garage or beaten and robbed by tweekers. But my mother insisted. She said she would buy the paints for me herself. They argued like that for a while until she came into my room, winked, and gave me the thumbs up.

Both she and I knew there was little danger in the alley. The Count was like the neighborhood stray cat that chased away the mice. Only a few neighborhood boys had chosen to gather further down the mouth of the alley to smoke bidis or play kick ball with giant avocados that had fallen into the alley from an overflowing backyard tree. It was obvious many feared The Count because whomever spray painted on my dad’s garage was in too much of a hurry and wrote “Fuk d cops.” As I worked and tried to forget how I gave up and gave in to the familiarity of home, the dabs of colorful paint came together and the Count’s face began to surface from the stucco. But my arm began to hurt and I stopped.

“How can I know what to look for if I’m not allowed to go out there to see?” I said aloud to the wall.

“Nothing out there is different than it is here,” The Count replied.

I turned to him and he had stood up and lit a cigarette.

“But it is,” I said.

“You can find battlefields of suffering anywhere,” he said. “You can find the people you imagine in faraway places right around the corner. Everything and everyone you need is right here.”

I threw my brush down hard, and some melon-colored paint splattered onto my sneakers and the cuffs of my jeans. A drop hit the painting, right on The Count’s cheek.

“Maybe your wife left you because you didn’t let her live,” I said before I could stop. The words shot out of my mouth like a rock in the hand of a neighborhood bully who pelted anyone who came in his field of vision. The Count gave me a long look, then turned his back. He pulled a set of keys from his pocket, picked up his two plastic bags and walked to the door of his apartment.

I remember learning that it was the time of day known to photographers as the magic hour, when the sun dips below the horizon and there’s a gold tone to the sky, making the sharp edges of buildings look soft or the lines around the eyes or lips seem harmless.

“Wait here,” The Count said. What I told him just kind of hung over the alley along with the smell of my mom’s fried plantains from my house and the Persian kabobs on barbecues from neighbors’ backyards. Even though it was still light out, it was getting late. I remember learning that it was the time of day known to photographers as the magic hour, when the sun dips below the horizon and there’s a gold tone to the sky, making the sharp edges of buildings look soft or the lines around the eyes or lips seem harmless. The Count opened the door to his room. I froze, thinking that maybe he was going to get a knife or a gun. After a few minutes passed, I took a deep breath and walked toward the open door. As I got close, I felt cool air come from the darkness.

“Hello?” I said into the darkness. “I’m sorry.”

I tried to keep my eyes down in respect, but I couldn’t. I looked inside and saw dozens of boxes lined neatly against the walls, piled from floor to ceiling. The Count had disappeared into a maze of cardboard, so I dipped my head inside further. The boxes were all new. Each one contained some kind of small appliance, like a toaster oven or a clock radio and those mini-grills on special at the drug store. There was a blow dryer, a curling iron, a coffee maker, and Corningware dishes, all still in boxes. The Count emerged suddenly. He offered me a fresh, damp towel for my hands, but without a smile.

“Thank you,” I said, not looking at him. “You have a lot of things. Do you sell them?”

The Count ignored the question for a moment, then looked up at the mural of his face.

“I have no house and I have no wife,” he said. “All I have is a few clothes and this suit, and many things for my daughter who is getting married.”

I kept wiping my hands, wondering if he was a hoarder of some sort.

“Do you ever get scared someone will come and rob you?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “No one comes here.”

“Don’t you ever think of moving to a bigger place? It’s too small for you and your things. You deserve better than to live in this…hole.”

The Count shook his head, then smiled at me, his eye teeth resting on his full lower lip.

“My dear, we come out of a hole when we are born,” he said. “They put us in a hole when we die. If you have no one to love and no one loves you, you may as well live in a hole too.”

He disappeared back inside his home and closed the door. I stood there with the towel, waiting for him. I felt as if I had ruined our time together. I turned toward my painting. The sky began to darken. An alley light flickered on and I saw my father standing close by looking at the giant face. My dad had told me a story once about how his father had bought him a pencil for his first day of school. But when his father discovered that my dad used the pencil to sketch soldiers and racecars into his notebook, my grandfather yanked it from his hands. He slapped my dad across his forehead, and yelled that the pencil was only for school. I remember asking my dad how much that pencil had cost, if it was a fancy one that had to be refilled with lead.

“No, it wasn’t fancy,” my dad had said. “It cost only a penny.”

I asked him why my grandpa had gotten so angry.

“I think he was afraid,” my dad had said. “He was afraid of what I could do with that pencil. He was afraid my dreams would take me away from him.”

As I thought about that story, my dad studied my painting of The Count. He pointed out that there were no eyes. I told him I wanted to finish it into the night and just as he was about to argue, The Count opened his door slightly and peeked outside.

“Shlama Ashoury my friend!” The Count said. He laughed a little as he tried to greet my dad with the few Assyrian words he knew. My father went toward him, but with some caution.

“Barev, barev,” my dad said in the Armenian language.

The two men shook hands and stumbled around with each other’s languages for a few seconds until they settled on Arabic. I listened to them speak as I moved my brush to add strokes of highlights and shadows. Finally, I was ready. I read in an art magazine that people think it’s the color of the eyes that reveal the soul, but really, it’s the skin around them that tells you more; the droop of the lids, the fragile lines etched at the corners, the crease between the brows. And then it is the color that comes through, the light green, like that of sun-nourished spring leaves, surrounded by a hint of caramel brown.

“Soon, it is my daughter’s wedding day,” the Count told my father in English. “I have many presents to give her, but she does not want these things from me. I am nobody to her.”

My father spoke to him in Arabic again and I didn’t understand what they were discussing, only that it sounded as if they were arguing and my dad kept shaking his head.

The Count then sighed heavily and I turned to see that my dad nodded and the men shook hands again. The Count then closed the door.

“That looks good,” my dad said turning to me. “Come inside and eat.”

All night I thought of my painting, of what I could do better, where to add light to the iris, how much more depth I could give The Count’s beret. I fell asleep to the sound of the train’s horns blowing long and loud down on San Fernando Road.

In the morning, I dressed and went to inspect my work. The paint had almost dried and it seemed to me that the colors had dulled. It was early and I didn’t want to knock on The Count’s door. So I spent part of the day dabbing more color to add texture. I was still angry at my dad, but I also felt sad I had nothing to look forward to in the summer. In two months, I’d be starting high school and that made me wonder if I would change and leave all my dreams of going to faraway places behind. I wondered if my dad was going to win. I left my painting to look for finishing spray inside my dad’s garage, and when I came back to The Count’s image, I found three neighborhood women had gathered around and were speaking in Armenian. I knew they were all widows, because they all wore black. And they all wore their gray hair in buns.

“I am sorry. My English no good,” one said to me. “But it’s very good picture. Very good.” Another pointed a wrinkled finger at me.

“You come tomorrow and paint us. We three are friends since little girls.” She then pointed toward her house and told me they would wait for me there. I looked up the alley and imagined the back of each garage with images of the neighborhood.

As I went to tell my mom what had happened, I knocked on The Count’s door,   excited about my news. It was late afternoon, but there was no answer.

“I’m worried,” I told my mom later.

“Maybe he sat outside in the sun too long and he’s tired,” my mom said. “Try again tomorrow.”

The next day I set up my paints and brushes ready to paint the three friends, but I couldn’t start. I went to see if The Count was home. I needed to ask him his name at least, something I was ashamed of not doing sooner. I knocked hard on his door. Nothing. So I turned the knob. The door opened. I hesitated when I felt the cool air on my face.

There was a smell of Pine Sol. I took a few steps into the maze of boxes until I reached a tiny twin bed. It was neatly made up with a pretty lilac comforter. My Raggedy Ann doll sat on a pillow and next to the doll was my camera. The space between the wind lever and shutter speed dial had been cleaned. Raggedy Ann held a note in her hands. The words were written in cursive.

“My dear,” the note began. “Me and your father talked. These things are yours to keep or sell. This place is yours to come and go for the summer. I was a nobody, but you made me into a somebody. Be patient. Listen. See the world with both eyes open even when you look through your camera lens. I promise, one day you will feel like you are part of the world. You will be a somebody. Your friend, William. The Count.”

Susan AbramSusan Abram is a reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News where she covers issues relating to public health, homelessness, and human trafficking. She was previously a reporter in Connecticut, where her series of stories about the lives of day laborers earned her an award from the Society of Professional Journalists. Her short stories and nonfiction work have appeared in T/Our magazine and WriteGirl: Nothing Held Back.

Intention

Pittsburgh Center for Complementary Health and Healing, one Sunday morning in late spring. My feet, immersed in a mineral bath of mint and lavender. Candlelight reflects off the vanilla walls; Native American flute music floats to my ears. Rebekah, the therapist, sits across from me, her chestnut hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. This isn’t the usual spa massage; this involves energy work as well. Our seven major chakras are the energy centers in our bodies; if one or more chakras are blocked, we can feel physical and emotional effects. I’ve been feeling something lately, somehow out-of-sorts, and want to see if this work can help.

“Shauna, do you have an intention for our session?” Rebekah’s voice, liquid like a stream.

Intention. The word slams into me like it’s foreign to my brain. Some days I operate automatically, doing what needs done, not keeping myself open to my intention.

“It’s okay if you don’t. But if you do, I’ll put it with my own.”

*     *     *

intention [in-ten-shuhn] noun 1. an act or instance of determining mentally upon some action or result. 2. the end or object intended; purpose. 3. meaning or significance. 4. the person or thing meant to benefit from a prayer or religious offering.

*     *     *

A framed photo sits on my office desk. It’s from Andy Bloxham’s first exhibit at West Virginia Wesleyan College, soon after he was hired as an art professor. Denise, one of my coworkers, had walked across campus to the Sleeth Art Gallery with me so we could check out his work.

“Shauna. This one’s you,” Denise said. She walked several feet ahead of me. I walked over to her and viewed the piece of art.

The colors: tan, cream, sepia. The greens: green-yellow, tropical rain forest, spring green, sage. Touches of dandelion and apricot, mahogany and maize. Colors of the earth. No electric lime or cotton candy or ultra red or razzmatazz like in a Crayola box.

The right half of the photo captures a female facing away from the camera. A teenaged girl? A woman? We see only her left leg from mid-thigh down. She wears a gauzy dress, soiled with grey-brown mud, not a spot of whiteness left. Her youthful shin and ankle are bare and tanned with random splatters of dried earth. Syrup-thick mud immerses her foot, water pools around it. The grass beyond the puddle bursts bright with a sunburnt yellow tint.

The left half of the photo shows a male’s right hand. The bed of his thumbnail alternates flesh-pink and white from gripping a Polaroid photo of the same scene. It’s panned out, giving us a little more perspective. We see the girl from the shoulder blades down: pale arms, small waist, slight curve of her hips. The grass: darker, softer, lush. And beyond: a thicket of trees, forest green, a hint of sunlight coming forth. In this snapshot, the dress is white, pristine. No specks of mud. Her shins are clean. She is pure.

“Wow.” After a moment, “I think I’ll buy it.” And so I did, and it became mine after a couple of weeks, after the exhibition was dismantled. I could take it home, but I don’t. Most of the time, it blends in with the everydayness of my office, but when I look up and see it, I am moved, just as I was upon first sight.

*     *     *

Most mornings, when the alarm sounds, I lie in bed for a moment. God, thank you for this day. Thank you for keeping us through the night. Help me to treat others with love today, especially when it’s hard. My silent, sleepy meditation upon awakening. My base intention. I manage this one pretty well. I struggle with other intentions: practice temperance and moderation. Be satisfied with what I have. In my mind, this is different than gratefulness. I am grateful for what I have, but often want more. More affection. More joy. More wildness. My intention should be: Be satisfied.

*     *     *

A tattoo decorates the inside of my left wrist. The word “intention,” inked in black typewriter font, nestles between a red outline of a lotus blossom. The lotus is a central image in meditation practice, in chakra work.

*     *     *

Sunday mornings of my childhood: sitting at the kitchen table with a plate of soft-boiled eggs, bacon, buttered toast. Pa-Paw, listening to the Florida Boys singing “Daddy Sang Bass” on television. He sits in his spot on the couch, where he’d sat the night before listening to Roy Clark on Hee Haw. Ma-Maw, telling me to hurry, so she could get my hair brushed. I was the only one who went to church. Usually, Volkswagen Charlie picked me up along with two or three other North Charleston neighborhood kids who needed a ride.

The best part of the morning? Choosing my dress. Most of my them hit a couple of inches above the knee, most had Peter Pan collars, most had some sort of floral pattern in those early elementary school years during the mid-seventies. In the summers, I wore white sandals and bare legs that showed my knees—knobby and usually bruised and skinned up. In the winters, I wore black patent leather Mary Janes and tights. I got to wear pantyhose and felt very grown up on special occasions like Easter.

One thing was for certain: I wasn’t to get my dresses dirty. Volkswagen Charlie dropped me off and I threw open the back kitchen door. “Change into play clothes,” Ma-Maw directed, even before asking me if I’d put my fifty cents in the offering plate or asking about the Sunday School lesson, never turning to face me as she turned the chicken sizzling in the skillet.

As much as I loved dressing up for Sunday School, I couldn’t wait to change into play clothes. I wasn’t allowed to go outside until I did. I could never seem to play—really play, that lost-to-the-joy play—without getting dirty. I loved turning over rocks and finding earthworms and potato bugs. I loved painting dream houses on my easel. I loved climbing into our backyard tree and sitting.

It’s tough to make discoveries without getting dirty.

*     *     *

I look at Andy’s dirty girl/clean girl photograph on my desk and ask myself which image I find most appealing. I know the correct answer, the expected answer. Clean, of course. Pure and pristine. I don’t know that it’s my honest answer, but I also don’t know that it’s not.

Does an artist rely on the viewer to create her own intention, her own interpretation, or does the artist attempt to force his intention upon the viewer? What was Andy’s intention for the photograph?

*     *     *

In the flickering glow of the treatment room, Rebekah and I continue talking. The footbath cools but still soothes. I’m semi-reclined in a billowy cream chair, feeling like I’m snuggled against the chest of a large, loving grandmother.

“Do you have any spiritual practices?” she asks. Her brown eyes scan my face.

“Prayer. Reading and writing. I’ve become more interested in meditation the past few months. I wouldn’t call it a practice yet. I’ve burned incense and have a meditation cushion.”

She smiles. “What do you do for relaxation?”

“Read. Soak in the tub. Drink wine, probably too much. I don’t exercise much.”

“Do you want that to change, or is that where you are right now?” Her hands rest in her lap. I covet her calmness.

“My intention is…to feel more balanced.” The fingers of my left hand stroke the ones on the right. “Relaxation, for sure. But I feel out of sorts and I’m curious to see if energy work can help.”

“Good.” Rebekah leans slightly forward, her knees coming closer to mine. “You have an open mind, which makes a big difference. Everyone’s experience is unique. You may have visions, see lights. I don’t want you to be afraid. Some people feel very little, but either way, enjoy the massage.” She stands up and creaks open the door. “I’ll leave so you can get prepared. I’ll knock before entering.”

As I undress, I say a quick prayer: “Let’s work together on this.” I slide onto the table, pull up the blanket, close my eyes. The warmth of the flute strokes me, encourages me to still myself.

*     *     *

Meditation therapist Yogi Cameron says on his website, “Though it is positive to want to have good intentions over bad ones, the most relevant quality we can assign to an intention when building a spiritual practice is whether or not it is beneficial to us.” He continues, “The final step of setting a beneficial intention is, quite simply, to decide to pursue a practice with the purpose of attaining greater contentment from within instead of seeking gratification from your surroundings.” I struggle with this, impatient, wondering if I will ever attain it, like I wonder about other aspects of my faith, thinking maybe hearing that still, quiet voice is something only certain people get gifted, like a melodious voice or powerful throwing arm or mathematical acuity. What if I can’t still my soul, if I can’t enter within? I know that’s not entirely true—I hear the voice when I’m in water, when I am transported by music, when words lift off the page. Those seem like gifts presented, though. It’s not me setting an intention to find these quick bits of bone-shaking joy; they happen. I am not in control of them. My friend Mary, who leads a “Writing Through the Chakras” retreat deep in the tree-lined soul of a Virginia valley, gets impatient with my impatience. “You’re trying too hard,” she says.

*     *     *

I polled my friends on Facebook one evening. I told them I was meditating on the word “intention” and asked them for meanings and examples.

My friend John referenced, “The road to Hell is paved with good intention.”

“And what do you take that to mean?” I pushed.

“Oh I suppose in terms of that phrase that many of the greatest tragedies, failures, even horrible things people have done in the world could have begun as the best intention,” he typed back. “Things like: I want to be a leader—I want to give glory to God—could have become things like I became a despot, I killed in the name of God—who knows? Intention can probably come from such a pure and honest place. Of course, I guess there can be bad intentions too!”

My brother, Brandon, said it was a determination to take action and used an example about God. Nancy eloquently described her intentional parenting practice, writing that her “end goal in a nut shell, is: ‘love God, love others.’” April said intention was wish, feeling, direction, resolve. Danielle and my Aunt Debbi offered input, and the thread ended with Bob typing, “God bless you and yours” to Nancy, and she responding with “Thank you, and God bless you as well.” Two people who have never met.

Is it a coincidence that the majority of examples mentioned God?

*     *     *

It could have been my imagination, but during our energy session I swear that when Rebekah held her hands over my heart, I saw golden light. An eye mask covered my closed eyes, so I couldn’t see, except that I could. Rebekah wasn’t touching me, but I felt the heat of her hands over my heart, which felt like it wanted to levitate into her hands. My body wanted to float, hover only on energy, Rebekah’s and mine. This lasted just a moment or so.

A couple of minutes later, she held her hands over my womb. I sensed her there, but I didn’t have much of a reaction. I didn’t see color. I meant to ask Rebekah later if this meant my sacral chakra was blocked. The emotional issues related to this energy center include a sense of abundance, well-being, pleasure, sexuality.

The only other spot I had strong sensation was on my forehead where Rebekah placed warmed crystals along my third-eye chakra. I think having my eyes closed intensified the heat. Odd feeling, like the stones were imbedding themselves in my flesh. No. More like melting. Not painful, just not ordinary. Later, Rebekah told me she’d felt the strength of my heart chakra and that I could take the light with me into my private meditations.

If only it were that easy.

I forgot to ask about my sacral chakra.

*     *     *

I sent Andy a Facebook message and asked him the title of the photo and what his intention was.

“The title is…I believe…Polaroid #4. The intention was from my niece wanting to jump in the puddle, so I spent the time with the Polaroid capturing the past, the clean stages, and used the frozen history in the ‘present’ with the digital shots. Just as a way to juxtapose.”

I was a little disappointed in his answer. “Polaroid #4”? I wanted the intention to be deeper, more spiritual. I realize that the artist wasn’t forcing his intention upon me. Instead, I wanted to make his answer conform to my intention. I wanted him to send a big message about dirty girl/clean girl, about sin and redemption. I wanted his art to do something different than what he intended. I wanted him to create an experience for me. An impossible task.

*     *     *

Is one state of being better than the other; is it better to be clean than dirty? Isn’t that what we’re taught, that we need to be washed white as snow? That dirty equals sin? But isn’t it true that some people who portray themselves as clean hide the dirtiest hands? And isn’t it true that Jesus didn’t hang out in the sterilized synagogue, but instead, sought out those who were dirty? And when He showed them warmth and light, that He didn’t expect them to sit still in their Sunday best, that He hoped they would get a little dirty helping others, connecting with others? Wasn’t that his intention? His prayer? His offering?

I think I do okay with my intention of looking out for others, offering up my time, talents, money, prayers, voice. My continuing struggle is settling on an intention for myself, with diving deep into my inner waters.

*     *     *

Am I afraid of the truth that I am both the clean girl and the dirty girl? I don’t want to be pigeonholed into Freud’s Madonna-whore complex, either a saint or a sex object. We like things to be “either/or.” Either I’m Christian or I’m against God. Either I’m straight-laced or I’m loose. Either I’m quiet or I’m a raging storm. Either I write from my body or from my brain. I am not that simple. None of us are. At least we’re not intended to be.

Shauna JonesShauna Hambrick Jones is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College’s low-residency MFA program. She lives in Buckhannon, WV and respectfully reminds people that WV is its own state, not part of VA any longer. Her favorite spots to read are in or near bodies of water: baths, rivers, lakes, and oceans.

 

 

The Wife of Michael Cleary

The day before the party, Valerie asked her boyfriend Andrew to buy her a book.

Actually, that’s not how it happened. It was Andrew who volunteered to get Valerie a book, and in the end he bought her two.

“I know tomorrow’s going to be hard for you,” he said. “Is there anything I can get for you? Just a little thing to pep you up a bit?”

That’s how he remembered that moment, his phone cradled against his shoulder as he pulled out of the Stop-N-Shop parking lot (he’d forgotten mustard and paper plates, both of which he was supposed to bring to the party). But what he actually said was: please let me get you something that will make you feel better.

Valerie, though she didn’t seem like it at times, was a sensible girl, sensible enough to know that nothing Andrew bought her would make her feel better. Andrew knew this, and asked anyway.

“Just please come,” she said. Her voice trilled weakly as she stopped. Andrew could tell from her tone that she was eaten up with fear that for some reason—a flash flood or a mudslide, or a more mundane car accident—he wouldn’t come to the party. Her voice contained a profusion of disasters.

“Val, come on.” He wasn’t supposed to be on his phone while driving, and as a cop car lazed past him he stuffed the phone into his crotch. He shouldn’t have called her Val—he only called her that when he was mad at her, which wasn’t often, and he wasn’t mad at her now. He was mad at himself. Not for the mustard and the plates, that would come later. He was a bit stupefied by his uselessness; he always thought of himself as a resourceful, bootstraps type, thought that he could fix what needed fixing like it was an economics problem set, but he couldn’t help Valerie and that frosted him.

“Please, Valerie,” he said when the cop car was safely out of sight. “It would make me feel better, anyway. How about a book?” Andrew was always buying Valerie books, after a lucky guess led to him to a volume of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats as a six-month anniversary gift. Valerie’s euphoric reaction led to more books for more occasions: The Works of Edmund Spenser for Valentine’s Day, Sotheby’s Tour Through Parts of Wales for her birthday. Andrew had a vision in his mind of a wedding present, something extravagant and rare. The collected writings of somebody or other. Gilt pages, an embossed title page with gold lettering. He would have to do a little more research. Of course, he couldn’t tell Valerie this, especially now. Any talk of the future made her fold up into a sharply creased little packet, unopenable even to the most skillful fingers.

He could almost hear her biting her lip through the phone. That was her nervous habit, one of many. Andrew sometimes marveled that she hadn’t chewed right through it, that he couldn’t see her bottom teeth when she closed her mouth.

“A book would be nice,” she said finally.

“I’ll bring you two,” Andrew declared, feeling manful and tough for a moment. “I can stop at that used bookshop you like, the one that Mandy’s cousin owns?”

Valerie sighed. She was also sensible enough to know that there was no point in arguing with Andrew, or at least that was why Andrew thought she was sighing. “All right,” she said. “Just—make sure you’re here. I won’t be able to do this without you.”

The next morning, Andrew set out for Valerie’s house in Masonville with a little package of books next to him on the front seat. The mustard and the plates, which he had remembered as soon as he pulled into his driveway and had returned to Stop-N-Shop to buy, sat on the floor in the back. The morning had begun with a spiritless, clammy spring rain, but by the time Andrew turned south onto Route 63 the sun had burned away the early murk and the blacktop gleamed, slick as sealskin.

Andrew’s parents lived in Ashford, about forty-five minutes from Valerie’s house; he was home on Easter break, technically, though no one in his family celebrated Easter. He and Valerie hadn’t met—and he had never given Masonville much thought—until they both went to college in Rochester and he saw her the winter of freshman year, the first day of second semester. They were in the basement of the cafeteria, which had been a bar before the school half-heartedly turned it into a coffee shop. Andrew never went down there, if he could help it—the place still smelled like stale beer when the air conditioning wasn’t on, and it was too dingy a room for studying. His engineering textbooks could be dreary enough as it was. But Valerie liked it. She told him that it was empty and quiet, quieter than the library on most days, and she liked to pretend that she was hidden away inside the bowels of an ancient monastery where no one could find her. Andrew would discover that Valerie liked the idea of entombment, but not until much later.

It was her fingers that had pulled him in—not literally, although he probably wouldn’t have resisted if they had. He couldn’t remember why he had gone to the coffee shop that day—caffeine to get him through the afternoon? Some kind of premonition?—but nevertheless he was there, with a chewy bagel pocked with burn marks and a café au lait. From where he was sitting, he couldn’t see her face or her yellow-white hair (though he would, eventually, when he craned his head around to get a better look at her, like a schoolboy who had just realized he could be interested in the alien creature girl); he could only see two delicate arms in a pale pink sweater, and two long hands, hairless, with arched fingers that bent gracefully at the knuckle and delicate, square nails. They moved elegantly, quickly, folding and unfolding like crane legs over the keys of her laptop. He had never been so taken in by someone’s fingers. He thought about how it would feel to put his mouth on them, and then he was mortified at himself, though not enough not to ask her name and sit down with her. It was his only moment of competence with the opposite sex, ever, and Valerie wasn’t any better; she was his first girlfriend, and he was her first too.

That was three-and-a-half years ago. He had never quite become used to her delicacy, her smallness, could never quite shake the instinct to protect her, whether or not she wanted it—or needed it. The first time they had sex, following some poorly proportioned vodka cranberries about a month after the day in the coffee shop, he was afraid he would crush her; she finally had to wrap her slender fingers around his wrists and pull him down on top of her, crimson with impatience.

*     *     *

There wasn’t much to the village of Masonville: two parallel roads, a school, a motorcycle shop, a dry goods store run by a family of Mennonites, and no less than four pizza parlors. Valerie’s family lived on the village’s only dead-end street, three doors down from an abandoned paper mill that sagged under the snow and the wind in winter, and wilted under the brutal sun in summer. The village had recently torn up the railroad that used to connect the paper mill with the Buffalo and Rochester markets. The railroad ties stood stacked across the street from Valerie’s house in a perfect cube, like an ancient monument whose sacred purposes were guessed at but not known. A fairy mound. A phrase Andrew had learned from Valerie, from some book of mythical places she had, or perhaps it was a calendar, one of the page-a-day ones with Celtic knots and foggy seascapes, she had hundreds of those. She was forever teaching him things; though she would never say it, Andrew knew that she resented, on some level, his ironclad belief that the world was fundamentally understandable through physics and mathematics, that little messes could be put right and lumpy edges smoothed out. The only time Valerie had been even slightly interested in Andrew’s work was during his class on Boundary Value Problems. She saw rough and wild borderlands, fens and swamps and things. Boundaries of a more romantic sort. Andrew didn’t have the heart to explain differential equations and Dirichlet’s principle to her.

Andrew parked his car along the road; most of the other guests had already arrived. The party was conveniently timed to celebrate a lot of things at once: Easter, Valerie’s impending college graduation, her father’s 60th birthday, Mother’s Day. It didn’t make any sense, Valerie’s mother said, to have a separate party for each of them, it was so hard to get the cousins to come up from Utica in the first place and as long as they were here you might as well do it all at once. Mrs. Garret met Andrew when he reached the mailbox and said these things to him while she took his plastic bag; someone was already asking after the mustard, as if they couldn’t just wait a damn minute, the food wasn’t even ready yet, she said.

“But thank you for this, dear.” She unscrewed the top of the mustard and took the seal off with her teeth.

Whenever he looked at Mrs. Garret, Andrew couldn’t help but think of nutmeg. There was no reason for it, really, but nevertheless. Her dark brown hair curled in a bob near her chin, her skin tanned to leather, a khaki skirt tightly belted a bit too short. She was round in a pleasant way, with full calves and a nice rack and a tiny waist, almost the opposite of Valerie, who was thin and boyish to the extreme, neutered almost. Valerie wasn’t like either of her parents. Her father was bulbous and pink with popped blood vessels; tufts of brownish hair stuck out over his ears like an ostrich. He worked as a construction consultant, ripping the asbestos out of people’s houses, and he was as broad and boxy as his wife was round and sultry. Valerie had two older brothers too, both of them beefy and calloused like their father, with buzz cuts to boot. The older one, Mike, was in the army, flying a helicopter in Afghanistan. The younger one, Matt—though Andrew had trouble telling them apart sometimes, because of the buzz cuts—worked for his father, fighting the asbestos. Andrew often thanked his stars that he wasn’t a philosophy major or something equally pathetic—the Garret men respected engineering.

Valerie was the imp of the family, the changeling. That was another word Andrew had learned from her—before Valerie, he had never stopped to think about whether or not trolls would steal your baby if it wasn’t baptized, or whether a small, sickly child in an otherwise healthy family could be of fairy stock. She told him stories when they lay in bed, unable to fall asleep because of the heat, of people who were so convinced their child was a fairy hundreds of years old, sent to do them mischief, that they would hang the wretch over the fire or leave him out on piles of manure in the winter. It drew out their magic, or at least that was the theory.

“They believed sometimes that the child was just a piece of wood, ‘a fetch’ they called it, that had been enchanted,” Valerie said. She ran her fingers up and down Andrew’s stomach, which he suddenly wished was more defined. “The spell upon the wood caused the child to appear to sicken and die, so the family would never guess that their real child was taken. They would assume it died under their care, and then bury it. When it was buried, it would turn back into wood. There were no bones.”

“But there were no real changelings, right?” Andrew asked. “So there had to be bones, somewhere. Maybe they just weren’t fully formed yet, so they disintegrated.”

Valerie sighed, her usual sigh when Andrew completely missed the point. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand this time; he willfully misunderstood. It was too gloomy, thinking about those poor superstitious people, wearing clothes made of burlap, always covered in dirt from picking rutabagas or whatever peasants did in the old days, roasting their babies alive on spits. Coming up with excuses as to why their children starved to death when there wasn’t enough to eat. That’s what most of those stories were, anyway, just a way to explain the hideousness of human suffering.

“But there were no real changelings, right?” Andrew asked. “So there had to be bones, somewhere. Maybe they just weren’t fully formed yet, so they disintegrated.”

“There was comfort in it,” Valerie said after a moment.

“In what?”

“In magic.” She shifted her weight so that she no longer touched Andrew’s sticky side, and stared up at the ceiling. “What a terrible thing, to have to bury a child. If your child was dying, or you were dying, wouldn’t you rather think it was because of the fairies?”

*     *     *

She was wearing blue. It was her color; it suited her, though her eyes were green. There was something about that blue, robin’s egg and sky and forget-me-not, and her yellow-white hair. Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps it had something to do with the color wheel, Andrew was never good with that stuff. Every time he saw her wearing that blue, he imagined she was a provincial milkmaid, gathering flowers on a French hill. Untainted.

“It’s not a good time to tell them.” Her face was flushed pink and sweat had formed on her upper lip. She actually wrung her hands, like a nurse in a World War II movie at the bedside of her wounded soldier-fiancé. “There’s already been a fire on the grill, and the Utica cousins are fighting. Everyone’s angry.”

Andrew had been afraid of this, that she would back out. “You’ve got to tell them, hon.”

“I could let the doctor call and tell them. Right now he hasn’t because of confidentiality laws.”

“Would you want to hear news like that from someone else?”

She bit her lip. His insides shook to see her like that, so afraid. He didn’t want to feel like he was yelling at her. “No, of course not,” she said. “It’s just—complicated.”

“Come on,” he said, “let’s go inside and you can open your presents.” He held out his bundle, wrapped in brown paper and twine. He had chosen this combination himself in the bookstore, hoping it looked earthy or woodsy or something like that. Intriguing, at any rate. He knew she would be less excited if he gave them to her in a gift bag.

They took an obligatory walk around the house to the backyard, to greet everyone and be seen before they ducked inside. Mr. Garret waved them over to the grill with a burly hand. Though his wife was by far the better cook of the two, he always insisted that she put him in charge of the grill, lest his man-pride be dented; the burgers and hot dogs, and the occasional Italian sausages were usually blackened on the edges and undercooked in the middle.

“Nice to see you, Andrew,” Mr. Garret said, taking Andrew’s hand and crushing it. He paused to yell at one of the littler Utica cousins, who was chasing around his brother with the seed spreader. “Your mother’s family,” he said to Valerie. “I don’t know why we even invite them.” She smiled tremulously at him and he melted, wrapping his arm around her and kissing the top of her head. Andrew knew that feeling; when Valerie gave him that little smile, he felt like sap was running down his front, warm and gummy. Though he supposed her father felt something different.

“My little queen bean,” he said. “You’re not going to leave your old man alone with them, right? You’re always going to be here with me?”

The breath hitched in the back of Andrew’s throat.

What a terrible thing, to have to bury a child.

“No, of course not,” Valerie said in a small voice. “I’ll always be here.”

Andrew would like to say he wrapped his arm around her, comforted her somehow, took her hand at least, but he didn’t. He stood rooted in place, gawky and arms akimbo (another one of Valerie’s favorite words). She shivered and looked down.

“You’re going to have to fight me for her,” Mr. Garret said, waving the grill tongs at Andrew like a sword.

“The sausages are burning, Mr. Garret,” Andrew said finally. To Valerie he said: “We should probably go inside.”

These weren’t connected thoughts, but they worked well enough as an excuse. Mr. Garret turned to focus on putting out the fire, and Valerie and Andrew slipped away. As they turned back towards the house, Andrew glanced at the road over his shoulder. The stack of railroad ties stood solid and black in the distance, a portent of grave happenings, a somber warning.

Andrew wished that they were telling Valerie’s parents that she was pregnant. How much gentler that would be, for them. She would graduate college in time, with a degree, he could put off grad school for a few years and get a job to support them. A good job, engineers earn good salaries. It would be hard but it would be bearable. He would take the brunt of it, from the Buzz Cut Brothers. You knocked her up? they would say. You knocked up our baby sister? Knocked up, as if he had punched her around. As if he would ever be violent with her.

It was a wild daydream, of course, a fantasy that would make most twenty-one-year-olds shrivel up with dread. What Valerie was actually telling her parents had nothing to do with Andrew. She had to tell them that she was sick, which they knew, or at least they knew part of it. She had had pneumonia in March, right around spring break, so bad she had wound up in the hospital. Andrew had stayed in Rochester for break, bringing her things to read, amusing her, sneaking in some chocolate. He hadn’t had any plans, anyway—he couldn’t afford to go anywhere worth going. And it wasn’t so bad—pneumonia was unfortunate, but at least the doctors had caught it early. Caught it, like the infection was a hog running rampant, scaring the chickens and knocking over fences that someone needed to jump on and tie. A wild thing that could be controlled. But at least they could treat it, and Valerie could come home after her lungs were clear. She hadn’t even missed class, which would have bothered her.

This was as much as her family knew, that she had been in the hospital for a little and then gotten better. What they didn’t know was that she had continued going back for tests. The doctors were concerned. That was the word they used, concerned. The nurses took a liking to Valerie when she was in the hospital, it was hard not to, she was so otherworldly, such a sprite. They liked to whisper about her in the hallway, when they thought Andrew couldn’t hear. So sad, the rest of her life, they said. She’ll never be able to have kids. Life expectancy of fifty years, if that. Such a shame. This was only after they finally diagnosed her, of course—at first they thought it was lung cancer, and that was terrifying enough. Valerie couldn’t sleep; she spent nights in Andrew’s room, lying stiff as a starched sheet in his arms, her green eyes wide and wet.

Cystic fibrosis had come out of left field, or at least it had for Andrew. He thought that was something that only babies got. Valerie was in her twenties. She had hosts of other health problems to worry about in the near future, possible disorders which she could start exhibiting signs of now, but she should have been past CF. That was all Andrew could think about the first few days after she told him. He couldn’t have been much help, he realized later; he was too befuddled, in too much shock. He still was now, in a way. She continued going in for tests and treatment, without telling her parents. When the bill came for the services, Valerie told them that it was follow-up for her pneumonia, and the insurance company paid for most of it anyway. She assured her parents that she was better, and they had no reason not to believe her. For the first few weeks when she kept the news from everyone, even Andrew, and he hadn’t expected a thing.

The doctor sat her down at the beginning of April and told her that her siblings should be tested, because they were at risk too. Even if they hadn’t exhibited signs yet, they could have CF, lurking somewhere like an eyeless monster, ready to strike. Ready to sting. Especially, the doctor said, your brother in the armed forces. He was the most at risk, because there was nowhere to get CF treatment in the Afghan mountains.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Andrew said, as they sat across from one another in the hospital cafeteria. The more time Valerie spent in the hospital, whether for tests or consultations or anything, the more Andrew ate. He had a piece of lasagna, two breadsticks, a bowl of scalloped potatoes, green beans and corn, and a brownie on the tray in front of him. Valerie had only tea.

“It will crush them,” she said quietly. “I should be the one taking care of them when they get old.”

“You might live long enough for them to find some cure.” Andrew didn’t know who would find it—he assumed there were scientists, somewhere, working on it, fiddling with pipettes full of liquid, or growing yeast in petri dishes, or doing whatever pharmaceutical researchers did. He knew his answer didn’t touch what was so upsetting Valerie, and he didn’t know how to get there.

“It will crush them,” she said quietly. “I should be the one taking care of them when they get old.”

“Yes, that’s true.” Valerie rubbed the outside of her teacup, massaging the hot porcelain like she was trying to break it apart in her hands. Crack it open and read the omens written there. It was as good a way as any, Andrew thought, to work through this problem. It was better than anything he had suggested. Maybe there was comfort in it.

*     *     *

The Garrets’ living room was the ugliest room Andrew had ever seen, worse than some of the apartments he had lived in during college. He had a hard time believing that Valerie’s saucy mama would let a room in her house remain decorated in such a way, but in the almost four years he had known Valerie, barely anything about the room had changed. The same faded lace curtains hung in front of the windows, the same garish pink floral couches stood in front of the outdated TV, the same mottled brown carpet, not shag but something close, displayed dubious stains from bygone years underneath his feet. Someone had arranged a collection of ceramic figurines on a shelf above the TV—Andrew remembered Valerie once saying that they belonged to her grandmother—but they were too tacky to be worth much. Andrew always felt sticky when he left the room, like there had been tape on his skin that left a residue behind after it was removed.

Valerie sat down on one of the detestable sofas and Andrew set the bundle of books in her hands. She breathed in and out, as if steeling herself for something sad, something trying. The first book she opened was The Victorian Book of Plants and Flowers. That was a stretch on Andrew’s part; he had held it in his hands for close to fifteen minutes before finally deciding to buy it. What had sold him on it was the dark violet ribbon slid in between the book’s creased pages, to mark the reader’s place. That was something Valerie would appreciate. It looked old and ethereal, a little enigmatic, just like her. Of course now he felt like an idiot, sitting next to her in the cramped living room as the smell of the grill wafted in from the backyard. The lace drapes, the barbecue, the ugly brown carpet—these were concrete things, real things, parts of her life that were tangible, or at least more tangible than a book about plants. He couldn’t imagine what her parents would think, when they stared down at this ridiculous collection of drawings, lovingly but somewhat uselessly captioned in calligraphy. Agapanthus africanus, the Lily of the Nile. La Ville de Bruxelles, a necessity for any rosarium.

“Open the next one,” he said, a little breathlessly. Was he sweating? How stupid it all was. It wasn’t like the next book was going to be any better. He had tried to get closer to what he knew Valerie liked with the second one—a book of Norwegian folktales in a new translation. She was the one who had taught him that there were different kinds of fairy tales. He had assumed there was one version of a story that had existed forever, and that everyone more or less knew it if they watched the Disney movie. But apparently there were lots of different kinds of stories—the original source material, which in most cases had been lost, and then the accounts by Europeans going out into the hinterland and “discovering” the stories, which Europeans seemed to think they did a lot. And then a lot of the tales were adjusted for children, and given morals, and most of the gore was taken out—the ogre mothers-in-law, the rampant cannibalism. Then there were knock-offs and rewrites and retellings, and the movies, which was where Andrew came upon them first.

“Didn’t anyone read to you when you were little?” Valerie had asked, her green eyes wide with what could have been pity. Of course someone had read to Andrew. His parents were great believers in the Power of Education. But he remembered the Berenstein Bears and Clifford, none of the grisly stories of boys being roasted and eaten and girls dancing to death that Valerie treasured so much. He thought of his mother, overworked and always dieting, sitting down on his bed with her bathrobe plastered to her and her make-up removed so her eyes puffed up like bread dough, reading to him from the Brothers Grimm. It wouldn’t have happened. He liked Thomas the Train books, and Sesame Street. No one had ever told him about changelings, until Valerie.

“They’re beautiful, Andrew, both of them,” she said. He had never felt more helpless.

She held on to the flower book; the book of fairy tales ended up on the floor. Andrew knew it made sense, somehow; he had been wrong earlier, flowers were real things, they could be planted in the earth, and afterward you could see the remains of the dirt on the creases of your palms. She ran her fingers along the corners of the book, her long, lovely sylph’s fingers—sylph, yet another one of Valerie’s words—and pressed down on the cover so hard the tips of her fingers turned white. Andrew was seized with the urge—seized, like his walls were overrun by a foreign desire, invaded—to take her hands and kiss them, to crush the palms to his lips and run the fingers in and out of his mouth.

A distraction, merely. There wasn’t anything substantive he could do anymore, besides make her forget sometimes. That’s what the books had been too, a diversion, like magazines at the dentist’s office to take your mind off the wait. Taking your mind off. He imagined drilling into her head, cutting off the top of her cranium and lifting the pulsing pink mass underneath it out. In a way, they were also a bribe. Giving a dog a treat when it fetches a stick.

“I’m glad you like them,” he said finally.

A pause. Actually, several long pauses strung together with little sighs as Valerie looked at the floor.

“You know,” she said quietly, “it wasn’t just the simple people, the medieval cowherds and ignorant swains who believed the fairy stories. As late as the nineteenth century, there were incidents. An Irishman killed his wife because he thought she was a changeling. In front of witnesses. He didn’t even go to jail.”

A pause. Actually, several long pauses strung together with little sighs as Valerie looked at the floor.

“Come on, Val, you know that’s not—”

“There was a children’s rhyme about it.” Valerie hugged The Victorian Book of Plants and Flowers against her chest. “Are you a witch, or are you a fairy? Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?” A hysterical, shrieking laugh bubbled up from her throat and burst into the room. She clapped a hand over her mouth. The sound vanished into the air as soon as it was emitted—and yet it hung there, tangled in the drapes and soaking into the ratty carpet, bouncing off the figurines. It was a big, ugly blister of sound. To Andrew, that horrible, horrible screech was now indelibly lodged into his gut, and would be forever.

“Baby, what’s the matter?” Mr. Garret stood in the doorway. Behind him, Mrs. Garret held a tray of hotdog buns.

“Valerie?” said Mrs. Garret.

Andrew thought about taking her hand then, but he didn’t want to feel how badly she was trembling. He sat apart from her, his hands on his lap, while she, the fairy child, shrank before his eyes, shrank and shrank until she would leave no bones to bury.

C. Moran HeadshotCaitlin Keefe Moran has written for The Iowa ReviewPost Road, Pleiades, and The Toast. She graduated from Boston College and now lives in New York City.

 

Dysthymia

you are the bell,
and I am the tongue of the bell, ringing you
—Billy Collins, “Japan”

There are days I have been cast
(down) in bronze.
Gloom pervades me like patina.
I am the bells of Mary-le-Bow, long (fallen) silent,
mute, tongueless, hollowed out.

The claws of my dead dog clatter on the floor.
Even when I turn into the sunlight,
my shadow stretches in front of me,
and I can only step into the darkness.

Elizabeth YalkutElizabeth Yalkut is a writer in New York City, who graduated from Emma Willard School and Barnard College, Columbia University. Her poetry has been nominated for the 2014 Best of the Net Award and has most recently appeared in Spry Literary Journal and East Jasmine Review. She can be found on the web at elizabethyalkut.com.

The View from Room 128

No amount of pleading or pain meds could stop Mr. Villanueva from yowling like a depressed cat at night. After his roommate threatened to sue the hospital for emotional distress, the nurses decided that Mr. Villanueva deserved a private room. From that came my first candy striper assignment to convert Room 128, which stored pumps, IVs, and lots of other fancy get-well equipment. When the novelty of my tasks wore off, I made a game out of seeing how close the pump stands could get to the service elevator after one good shove down the empty hall, and whistled while hauling the empty shelving to the basement. I didn’t think annoying the nurses a little was that big a deal, until one of them pulled me aside.

Her badge said Maya, a name that complemented her doughy body and velvet-black eyes while underscoring the sharpness of her words. “How would you feel, Haylee, about having to spend your sick days alone in a closet?”

“But how will he know it’s a closet after I convert it?” I countered.

“Normal rooms have windows.”

“Yeah, but there’s nothing to see besides a parking lot and a cornfield.”

“You’ve got a lot to learn, child. How do you know if the sun’s up or down without a window?”

I hesitated, unsure if she wanted an answer or an apology for something I didn’t think was my fault. “Why are we moving him then?”

“Construction of the long-term care wing has been postponed ‘til the state thaws the funding or the Browns win the Super Bowl, whichever comes first.” Maya frowned. “Paying patients get priority.”

“Is that legal?”

Maya shushed me. “That’s not the kind of thing you yell out in a hospital.”

“I wasn’t yelling—”

“All the same. Just work a lot quieter, child. Please.”

After I finished cleaning out Room 128, I stood in there for a long while, imagining myself bedridden. The room felt smaller than before, like an empty shoebox. The longer I stared, the more I saw the shelves I just removed; faint smoky lines striped the white walls like an old prison uniform. I wondered if all the studying needed to become a doctor would be worth all the money my father seemed to think I’d want.

Over dinner that night, I told my father about Mr. Villanueva’s new room and asked what I should do.

“Damn straight that ain’t fair,” he said. “Being the only hospital in town don’t give them the right to do whatever. That man’s family should file a complaint.”

“He doesn’t seem to have a family. Or, at least, no one visits him.”

“That’s a shame.”

“Yeah, I know. The nurses say Mr. Villanueva doesn’t have any insurance either.”

“Aha, now I see the crook in the river.” My father’s face hardened with a sudden fierceness. “Don’t you waste your mind worrying about him. You just worry about you. I’ll bet the closet he’s getting is cleaner than any hospital room back where he snuck over from.”

I flinched, still not used to the anger that often engulfed him since the factory shutdown. My father wasn’t good at being idle, not even after six months of practice.

You’d better listen to me, Haylee, and soak up as much Spanish as you can before you graduate and get the hell out of here.

“You’d better listen to me, Haylee, and soak up as much Spanish as you can before you graduate and get the hell out of here. Everything’s cheaper in Costa Rica, so that’s where the world’s moving to. ’Cause the quality inspection’s always better when it’s cheaper.” He snorted and took a swig of his beer. “Guess you can go there if you’re still dead set on being a starving artist. Live off the coconuts or bananas or whatever grows free on the trees.”

I started to point out that my portrait of him won first prize at the last county fair, but he whooped at the television. The Browns had scored a winning touchdown against the Steelers, and a rare smile from my father filled the kitchen. He didn’t need to hear any more about my problems when he’d momentarily forgotten his own.

*     *     *

A few days later, the hospital pronounced Room 128 inhabitable and Mr. Villanueva disappeared inside it. The nurses kept saying how he was much more manageable during the night shift, and I gathered that they liked his new distance from their station. During the evenings I volunteered, whenever his room number lit up on the switchboard, they took their time answering him. Although he called them all the time, he rarely asked for anything other than ice cream, something they allowed him only once a day. It didn’t surprise me when he finally went on a hunger strike about a week after his move. But I couldn’t believe what Maya wanted to do about it.

“Haylee’s nice and young enough to be his daughter,” she said to the other nurses, “and he hasn’t had a chance to not like her yet. Let her try to feed him tomorrow.”

I didn’t want to do it. Taking water and Jell-O to cooperative patients was one thing, while trying to stick a spoonful of mashed potatoes in Mr. Villanueva’s mouth was another. How could I deal with a stranger’s anger when I wanted to hide from my father’s? Still, I couldn’t say no when it seemed that everyone else had already given up on him.

That Saturday, I brought Mr. Villanueva his breakfast. His room was dim except for the bright glare of the local news on the television, the only decoration on the otherwise naked white walls. While I set up his food tray and a chair for myself near his bed, he glanced at me with disinterest before shifting his gaze back to the nothingness on his right. Where a window might normally be.

“The sky’s so cloudy, it looks like evening already,” I said. “It’s supposed to rain all day.”

He looked at me fully and—though he appeared doubtful of my weather report—I felt encouraged. I realized then that he wasn’t as old as I originally thought. His brown face carried heavy bags under his eyes but no wrinkles, and gray dusted the black hair above his ears. Almost every part of him, from his nose to his shoulders, sloped down as though burdened by a weight I couldn’t see. Ignoring his gauntness, I put him in his late thirties or early forties, around my father’s age.

I filled his fork with scrambled eggs. “Can I help you eat?”

He turned away before I could even lift the fork.

“You’ll get sicker if you don’t eat something besides ice cream.”

His cracked lips thinned into a tight line of resistance.

“Mr. Villanueva? Please eat.”

Without meeting my eyes, he shook his head. I offered the melon slices and toast from his plate, but he refused all of it. He even snubbed the apple juice I brought him because he rebuffed the milk that came with his meal. After an hour of gridlock, I trudged back to the nurses’ station thinking that was the end of it. I didn’t like failing, but I disliked rejection even more.

“Least he didn’t splatter the walls,” Maya said, laughing. The others agreed and decided that I should try to feed Mr. Villanueva again, in spite of my open dismay. Frustrated, I took twice as long of a morning break, but no one seemed to notice.

When I failed to persuade Mr. Villanueva to eat lunch, the nurses punished us both by sending me to Room 128 with his dinner. By then I decided that my time in there shouldn’t be a total letdown. I found the television remote and began channel surfing for something decent to watch while he ignored me.

Por favor, stop!”

I dropped the remote, shocked by the weak rasp of his voice.

“Go back, miss. Two channels, I think.”

I did as he asked, and landed on a Spanish-speaking game show. He sat up straighter, and my father’s warning came back to me.

Me llamo, Haylee.” I paused, internally slamming my accent and translating a plea for him to eat. “Puedas comer, por favor?”

He studied me for a moment, the corners of his mouth twitching indecisively. “You learning Spanish in school?”

“Yes—I mean, sí. At least until it gets cancelled at the end of the year.”

“You are lucky. I did not learn English until I came here for work. These”—he held out calloused, trembling hands—“were stronger then. On my father’s farm in Nicaragua, I could hold many, many sugarcane stalks together and then break them with my hands. But three weeks ago, I am trying to break a wall in a house much, much older than me, and the hammer falls from my hand. Then I fall to the floor in pain.” He caressed the plain, gold band on his ring finger. “My wife fell in love with my strength. I am happy she is too far away to see me like this.”

“Doesn’t she know you’re sick?”

“Not yet. I will tell her if I cannot send her money next month.”

“But what if you’re dead before then? And she never finds out what happened to you?” I blinked hard, horrified at how my thoughts escaped so easily. His face didn’t reflect my discomfort though, so after a moment I tried to explain myself. “My dad didn’t let me visit my mother in the hospital because he thought seeing her sick would give me nightmares. But I wouldn’t have cared what she looked like. I just hate that I had less time with her.”

“I have not seen my wife or sons in five years. It would be better for them to stay there than to waste money coming here.”

“Well, maybe you could go visit them when you’re better. Just one plane ticket can’t be that bad if you buy it on sale.”

His eyes dropped, and suddenly I realized the unspoken truth; he couldn’t fly home, not unless he never wanted to work here again. Before I could think of a way to apologize, he plucked the rye bread and the milk from his tray.

“Just this today,” he said. “Please take everything else away.”

I shuffled back to the nurses’ station, uncertain of whether I had made things better or worse. I told Maya what Mr. Villanueva took from the tray, and started to confess how I offended him, but she cut me off.

“Hey ladies,” she sang out, drawing the attention of the other nurses nearby, “Room 128 is eating! And we owe it all to our sweet Haylee!”

They rewarded me with a standing ovation, and then bombarded me with questions about how I did it. Their enthusiasm convinced me I had done good, so I announced a confident diagnosis of loneliness. By the time I finished my shift, I floated on pride.

That night, my father rolled his eyes when I bragged about my success.

“When you were little, Haylee, you’d eat black-eyed peas like there was no tomorrow when your mama fixed them. All the time, you’d clean your plate of those peas. But after she died, you wouldn’t touch them and I couldn’t figure out why. I kept scratching my head, thinking there must’ve been some secret ingredient I was missing. Then I noticed the dug up dirt in your mama’s snake plant pot.” He tapped his fingers on the kitchen table with a bittersweet expression. “You’d been squirreling those peas in your cheeks and then burying them.”

I crossed my arms in defiance. “So, you don’t believe he really ate.”

“You see him put any of it in his mouth?”

“But why would he lie?”

“Why’d you lie to your mama?”

I saw where my father was going and I hated that pessimistic place. “Why would a sick man care what a 16-year-old candy striper thinks of him?”

“He probably doesn’t. But you had to report to the nurses, didn’t you?”

“Of course. That’s my job. So what?”

“So maybe he thinks good behavior will get him what he really wants.”

“And what would that be?”

“Just wait and see, Haylee.”

*     *     *

It twisted me to think he possibly fooled me, that I might need to accept any part of the worldview thrown in my face at home.

The next morning while my father attended church, I went to the hospital, praying on the drive over that my patient would prove him wrong. I knew I wasn’t a doctor, but my mind carried a similar burden of responsibility. It twisted me to think he possibly fooled me, that I might need to accept any part of the worldview thrown in my face at home.

I hurried to Room 128, but stopped short in the doorway. My patient moaned and twisted in bed as Maya loomed over him. Her clenched fist crinkled a clear plastic bag with a tube coiled inside.

“Come now, Mr. V, nobody’s hurting you,” she said. “Least, not yet. That’s why you and I are having this little discussion, to remind you that you agreed to let us do what’s best for you when you checked yourself in here.”

“But I eat,” he cried.

“Your protein levels say otherwise. And what good do you think that’s gonna do your ailing kidneys?”

“I eat bread. Ask Señorita Haylee.”

“Then where’d the bread in your pillowcase come from?”

“I eat different bread just yesterday. Pregúntale! Go ask Señorita Haylee.”

“Mr. V, don’t you go pulling that child into this mess with any more lies. Lying won’t get you out of this room any more than refusing to eat. And like I already told you, if you don’t start putting food in your mouth with your own two hands, you’re going to force us—for your own good—to put this tube up your nose—”

“No.”

“—down your throat—”

“No!”

“—and into your belly.”

I ran out of the hospital, gagging and clutching my own gut. A few feet from the bus stop, I lost the cereal I ate for breakfast. Like a ringing in my ears, his wails trailed after me, pleading for mercy.

*     *     *

That night, the crickets kept me awake and worrying about poor Mr. Villanueva. Because I failed him, he would fail his wife. A feeling of uselessness overcame me as I sank deeper and deeper into my bed, until the mattress towered like a wall around my body and then engulfed me like a monstrous marshmallow. I woke shivering but sweaty.

With the nightmare raw on my nerves, I climbed out of bed and used the glow of my laptop screen to drive away the darkness in my bedroom. I searched the Internet for pictures of Nicaraguan sugarcane farms, wanting a glimpse of what Mr. Villanueva left behind. What I found opened my eyes to what he must really want, something inadvertently taken away from him. I grabbed my sketchbook and pencils, overwhelmed by the urge to draw a landscape both foreign and surprisingly familiar.

Before dawn broke, I headed down to the basement, where my easel and oil paints waited near the window, and began translating my graphite picture into one full of color. Reds, browns, and blacks formed the fertile earth; sugarcane stalks grew tall in greens, olives, and yellows. I cast the sun in a pool of oranges, pinks, purples, and my own shade of crimson. As the field sprouted to life beneath my brushes and fingers, so did my sense of purpose. I didn’t stop painting until the basement stairs creaked under my father’s feet.

“You better get ready for school,” he said. “Your alarm’s been ringing for a good twenty minutes. Do you realize there’s green paint all in your—Haylee, what’s this?” He stood behind me, peering at the wet canvas.

“What’s it look like?” I asked.

“The cornfield behind the hospital.” His brow wrinkled as he studied it more. “I take that back. Everything looks wilder, more alive. Like the leaves are trying to eat that path you put in the middle. It ain’t corn, is it?”

“No.”

“What is it then?”

“My imagination, mostly.”

“Do you want to hang it in the living room?”

“Thanks, Dad, but…” I hesitated, afraid to spoil his opinion of my work if I told him the whole story. “Somebody at the hospital asked me to paint this for them.”

“That’s too bad. I would’ve liked to keep this one.”

“I could make another for you.”

He nodded slowly. “I’ll let you borrow it back for the county fair then.”

*     *     *

I hung the painting where a window should be, and then waited for Mr. Villanueva to return from his tests. At first I sat in the only chair in Room 128, working off my anxiousness with bobbing knees. A while later, I moved to a spot at the nurses’ station where I could both keep busy and discretely peer down the hallway at all the elevator traffic.

By the time my shift ended, so had the heady anticipation I brought with me to the hospital that morning. Instead, I worried that all the time I spent painting and planning the best way to sneak my gift into the hospital would be for nothing. Someone would take down the picture before Mr. Villanueva could see it.

As I trudged down the hall to leave, I noticed a low whine, like the slow stroking of a violin string that needed tuning, coming from Room 128. The sound became more melodious as I drew closer. Peering inside the room, I saw Mr. Villanueva propped up in his bed and singing to my painting. His face shone wet in the lamplight. Embarrassed that I interrupted such a private moment, I started to walk away but he locked eyes with me.

“You make this?”

“Yes,” I whispered, stepping just inside the doorway. “It’s supposed to be your father’s sugarcane farm.”

“So it is. I can see the sun setting with the same beautiful colors I remember. I miss walking in the field with my wife while she laughs at my singing. In the other room, I could pretend the corn outside was sugarcane and that my wife can hear me sing. I wanted to tell the nurses, but…how could they understand?” His gaze stretched past me, possibly returning to the home he missed, before coming back to me with a nostalgic smile. “Gracias, for my window.”

I nodded, unable to speak around the lump in my throat.

“You look too sad, Señorita Haylee. Please sit, and let me sing for you.”

Although I didn’t understand any of the words, I loved the way his voice trembled like a leaf rustling in the wind. I remember it every time I see a cornfield. Or taste something sweet.

Danielle BurnetteDanielle Burnette—an engineer by day, a writer by night—lives with her husband and children in northern California. Her first contemporary Young Adult novel, The Spanish Club, was published in the summer of 2014. Between penning more works of short fiction, she is currently editing her second novel. Visit her at www.danielleburnette.com.

Anatomy Lab

I.

You may find it emotionally difficult
to dissect signifiers of personhood
,
says the anatomy professor,
meaning these knuckles, these nails
still with dirt underneath them,
this stiff hand I hold as I trim
away skin to the tendons beneath,
thin ropes that, puppet-like, pull
up each finger. Their names
flexor digitorum profundus
abductor pollicis brevis

sound like a prayer counted off
on a rosary. The bodies’ palms
are all frozen open, their arms
stuck in extension as if
they are asking for something.

II.

You can’t just reach in
like an Aztec
, says
the anatomy professor,
gesturing where to cut
the cadaver. I break into
the body, pick the lock
of the ribs, take the clavicle off
like a necklace. Lifting
the lid of the chest wall,
light illuminates the muscles
between ribs—stained glass
sinew into which the music
of the organ rose, lub dub
lub dub
. I clip the pericardium,
pulmonary trunk & veins,
aorta, vena cavas, until
the gush of formaldehyde
subsides and I can touch
the primal valentine,
not offered up for love,
but sacrifice.

III.

Guess he didn’t make any films,
says the anatomy professor,
our cadaver poorly endowed
and ravaged by cancer.
We’re instructed to fillet
the tight skin of his penis,
peel it back like a glove
to reveal the sponge
of its center, deep dorsal vein,
dorsal nerves, and urethra.
The shaft that someone
once hungered to touch,
to fill themselves with,
now sallow & bloodless
& halved by a scalpel.
But his hair strikes me hardest,
a soft mat of curls
dark and thick as my lover’s,
whose body I return home to hold
and will not, cannot let go.

Celeste LipskeCeleste Lipkes’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Rattle, Smartish Pace, The Bellevue Literary Review, SAND, Labletter, Measure, Unsplendid, and elsewhere. She received her MFA from the University of Virginia and is currently pursuing an MD at Virginia Commonwealth University. Visit her on the web at www.celestelipkes.com.

Wander, Lost

Step

The physical therapist, who comes to evaluate my son, is thrilled with our upstate New York property. A short, steep hill moves from our front porch into a brief, undulating yard and from there to a former cornfield now thick with swamp grass and milkweed. The yard itself is overrun with crabgrass, dandelions, broad-leaf plantains, and mock strawberries dangling tiny yellow flowers. My husband mows a narrow path through the field, which in later years our son and then our daughter will call the “nature trail.” Both the yard and the trail are ungroomed and bumpy, full of hillocks and hidden woodchuck holes and, in spring and early summer, soft with a sucking squishiness that betrays their former existence as wetlands.

“These are great uneven surfaces,” the physical therapist says. My son, who was originally evaluated for speech therapy just before his second birthday, has also qualified for physical therapy through the Early Intervention program due to his low muscle tone and delay in walking. When the program coordinators recite the litany of his delays (at two it was gross motor, fine motor, speech, and sensory issues; they got more specific and somehow less relevant as he got older), I mentally wave them off. He was born seven weeks early, through emergency Caesarean when I came down with HELLP Syndrome and my blood platelet levels crashed below thirty billion per liter, leading my liver close to failure. After his birth he spent a month in the NICU, prone to bradycardia and sleep apnea and struggling to breathe when two pneumothoraxes prevented his lungs from expanding. Whatever delays he had, I figured he’d earned them.

The therapist comes to our house twice a week for half an hour, getting my son to stand at his little table, bend down to pick up small toys, step over objects; she trains him to walk instead of crawl up the stairs, and to alternate left foot-right foot by holding his dominant foot down so he can’t use it every time. She teaches him to use the banister, and to stand on a wobbly pillow while playing at a table.

Most days, though, we go outside. There is nothing better than him staggering over all these little hills and bumps and tufts of grass, which, the therapist tells me enthusiastically, will feed rapidly into his strength and stability.

I have no idea what she’s so excited about, and my ignorance betrays the privilege of having grown up poor in a poor Montana town. My childhood memories are all underpinned by the motion of walking, whether up a mountain or to school or the playground or the ice skating rink or my friends’ houses, walking and running during long summer days or crunching across the frozen sidewalks in winter’s nose-biting cold, zipped into coats that were never quite warm enough. I rarely got a ride even to the far side of town.

The physical therapist mentions other babies she sees, packed into small apartments in dangerous neighborhoods, with families too poor to buy diapers, much less dream of one day living in a house with a yard. She and the occupational therapist mention in passing research linking extensive crawling to later reading skills, or walking on uneven surfaces to complex neurological development, and I still don’t understand why our wild field means so much to her.

I didn’t get it until four years later on my daughter’s first day of preschool at a local nature museum, a place I love because the kids go hiking every day in all kinds of weather and learn to care for animals in a classroom with just the right level of chaotic messiness.

At the parents’ orientation the museum director told us of a school group they’d hosted over the summer, who’d come up from New York City. “We actually had some trouble because some of these kids couldn’t go hiking.” She pointed to the wide lawn that sloped toward the fields and goose pond fronting the nearly two hundred acres of forest and hills owned by the museum. The lawn is more groomed than ours—thicker clover and fewer thistles—but still uneven and hilly. “They had never walked off of pavement before,” she said. “It was really hard for them. For the first hour they had to just get used to walking on the lawn.” Later, the director of the preschool program tells me that this is a problem they’ve had with preschoolers before, who can’t walk on the hills, have to adapt to the paths. Some of them have trouble simply stepping over toys in the classroom. One three-year-old started out the year tackling every hill on his hands and knees, his brain and feet never having developed the coordination to navigate such uncivilized terrain.

This small strange thing, the treading of uneven ground, which has defined human motion for millions of years and is so cognitively intense it’s almost impossible to teach a robot to do it, is suddenly becoming, along with so many other things we used to take for granted like clean air and clean water, the sole province of those who can afford to live in the country or leave the city.

 

*     *     *

Roam

My father’s Russian accent is still thick after over thirty years as an American, and he still forgets his articles—a, an, the, which don’t exist in Russian. “My friend Pyotr—Petya—and I, we walked all canals, all over bridges, talking about art and literature and girls,” he tells me. “We walked for hours, all day.” We’re looking out over the embankment of the wide Neva, toward the four-hundred-foot gold spire of the Peter and Paul Fortress built by Peter the Great. In later years my father will tell me other stories, of hanging out with gypsies by the incongruous blue mosque in his neighborhood, of Stalin’s anti-Jewish paranoia and how the other kids used to tell my father they were sorry he had to die, he seemed decent enough; but when I first get to know his country, his city, his memories are full of walks and friends and standing in ubiquitous lines for sausages or fruit or bread. The Leningrad he grew up in, now revolved back to its original name of St. Petersburg, barely exists anymore, preserved only in private spaces like his brother’s apartment, where my uncle and aunt serve up preserved mushrooms they’d gathered in northern woods the previous summer, and meat in aspic, and skinned potatoes in dill, talking long into the night over tea and dishes of sticky-sweet varenye jam. A Lexus dealership recently opened up next to the building where my father and his siblings were raised in a one-bedroom apartment.

I am in St. Petersburg for a two-week writing conference, a last fling with ambition before my husband and I have children. In the evenings I eat with my relatives and watch the World Cup soccer tournament. Three days a week I attend writing workshops and readings, coming back later in the weird pink midnight light of midsummer to drink vodka with the visiting writers.

But mostly I walk for hours. St. Petersburg is hot in the summer, with inversion-heavy air that makes breathing difficult and seems to press blood vessels against the skin; my feet and hands feel puffy, my entire body swollen, as if the blood itself is straining outward for more oxygen, but still I walk.

My stride extends over canals, across the Neva River, out to the edges of poplar-covered islands carpeted in uncut grass and wild chamomile, where women’s flower-print dresses and jarring piped music remind me of the Soviet Union I barely knew.

Even growing up in my small Montana town I could never walk like this, up and down over rivers and through neighborhoods and parkland for as long as the day lasted. My hometown petered out quickly into a single highway with little shoulder and farmland embraced by miles of barbed wire. In those days, freedom was found in driving, racing west or north, off toward new frontiers. Getting out meant getting in the car.

By the time I leave St. Petersburg, I am addicted to walking. I spent my childhood and teenage years hiking the Rockies, but in this, in being able to step out my own front door and walk for hours, I’ve found a new passion, a new way to be and move through my life that feels real and awake and alert and present. Essays tumble out fully formed and a novel begins to take shape; I pen long letters to my husband and carry index cards to write down ideas that seem to fall on me like snowflakes.

I understand why my father used to lope all over the canals and islands with his friend Petya, discussing girls and art and their latest smuggled Beatles album and the forbidden Solzhenitsyn manuscript their families might have read in secret the night before. Walking makes freedom more than an illusion. During my two weeks in St. Petersburg, thoughts and conversations shift and move as if my mind were thawing, a river constantly breaking up ice jams.

And my back has stopped hurting.

 

*     *     *

Halt

The pain started somewhere in the middle and slightly to the left, between my shoulder blades, when I was thirteen. I told the doctor it felt like one of my muscles was snagged on something, a term I use again over twenty years later to describe similar discomfort near the bottom of my ribcage, decidedly to the right of my spine. Snagged. The sensation reminds me of fishing in my early years, the long days of bored annoyance as my mother cast her endless flies, and the frustration when, invariably, my own worm-strung hook got tangled in a river’s log—also called snags in our peculiar regional lingo—or in the weeds at the bottom of a lake. My chiropractor tells me this pain is a rib slightly out of place and he pops it back. The snagged feeling is lessened but not gone.

The words I use to describe the pain that started long ago in my back, and which spread over the years up and down my spine, into my neck, through my shoulders and around my hips, reaching down to grip my ankles and cause occasional cramping in my fingers, reflect a life in constriction that makes my body something like a foreign country I am always exploring but in which I never attain the comfort of a native: the snags, two, one near my scapula and the other buried in the dorsal muscles; the frozen curve of pinatus, where a heavy diaper bag often hangs, connecting to the tight, locked knot on the right side of my neck. The teres major behind each shoulder smolders, radiating to the bursius and deltoids and partway down the biceps, like the deep, intense heat of a campfire burned down to coals so bright they make you wince, when you know it’s hot enough to tuck the baking potatoes, wrapped in tinfoil and poked with a knife so they won’t explode, under the char-black wood.

The psoas just under my hipbones is beyond pain; tightened and seized like a screw gone into a bolt so tight it’s lost its thread and will never come out without bolt cutters. That pain, more of a bothersome limitation, which I try in vain to alleviate now and then by lying sideways on a small ball of wood, is distinct from the newer stabbing and wrenching that goes on in my lower back. That one makes me think of gleeful little devils illustrating Dante, poking pitchforks into my lumbar vertebrae. The devils become more active when my three-year-old daughter narrows her eyes at me and screeches in protest at some rule or request. Lying down seems like it should help but doesn’t, although sleeping on the floor for a few nights sometimes does.

Some days I wake up and my entire body feels like it’s on fire.

The chiropractor, the best of the three I’ve been to over the years, provides some relief. The rolfer, a specialist in intense, painful massage that goes beyond deep tissue and promises what’s called “structural integration,” puts his considerable strength and all his weight into muscles and connective tissue to attempt digging out deep-seated, long-buried problems both physical and emotional. He’s good at digging. But afterwards the pains start to poke out again, a familiar forest of small animals tentatively shifting their noses to see if winter has gone yet.

I’ve tried several physical therapists, a variety of massages with more practitioners than I can count, a woman in Russia who doesn’t so much massage as beat the body black and blue, years of yoga, which made me more limber but didn’t shift the pain and sometimes inflamed my sciatic nerve; I’ve tried ice packs, heat packs, a variety of anti-inflammatory supplements, stopping drinking, starting drinking, cutting out supposed dietary irritants such as gluten or dairy, and a therapeutic book that promised these types of pains were purely emotional and psychological and I could get rid of them by writing down all my problems.

Nothing provides reprieve except one: being in a place where I can step out the door and walk, unfettered, for as long as I want.

 

*     *     *

Stray

My husband, our two kids, and I are in Montana for my younger sister’s wedding. Being here makes me horribly homesick. I miss the mountains, the air, hiking, huckleberries. My family.

We’re staying at a Super 8 a mile’s walk from downtown. The town, which my parents had moved us to when I was in high school, is a tourist destination with a lake and a ski mountain and miles of sidewalks and cycling trails that make it the poster child for walkable communities. But for the first few days our four-year-old son insists on riding in the apple-green double stroller with his one-year-old sister. Walking makes him tired, he says, and I remember the physical therapist’s diagnosis of low muscle tone.

Where we live in upstate New York the kids can’t walk anywhere, even with an adult. The four acres of former cornfield and uneven yard that the physical therapist once praised stop at a country road with no shoulder. The road is marked as a thirty-mile-per-hour zone but commuters usually drive closer to fifty. My family’s life is defined by a strict set of time-as-distance problems, with our house anchoring a web of physical and educational needs: grocery store, a twenty-minute drive; playground, fifteen; library and preschool, both twenty-one but it’s twelve from one to the other; coffee shop, twenty-two; dentist, thirty-five; pediatrician, seventeen; swimming lessons, thirty, all on roads with little or no shoulder. The bookstore is across the street from the grocery store, but it takes five minutes to drive from one to the other because the street has five busy lanes and no crosswalk.

The post office, a mile down our road, is the only destination I think of in terms of distance instead of minutes. Nothing here is walkable unless you’re an adventurous and nimble adult who has all day and can leap out of the way when a texting driver isn’t paying attention.

Walking as a way to get places, as a form of transport, both an innate human activity and what should be an inalienable right, is foreign to my children. Once they got old enough to move, without being carried, beyond the bounds of our wildflower-rich property, walking, the most basic physical expression of freedom and an activity with a long history as a wellspring of creativity and the ideal exercise was closed to them.

There is this idea that self-help books and guides on creativity and life-hacking often like to promote: that the energy you put into the universe determines what you get back. “The secret,” it’s sometimes called, or “the law of attraction.” Whenever someone mentions it, I get unreasonably angry. I think of a kind vegetarian friend whose house was foreclosed on after she went through several bouts of unemployment, two knee surgeries, and the death of her father. Last year she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I think of my hard-working younger sister, who treats others generously and still strives to achieve her ambitions amid mounting debt contracted through waves of health problems: the gastrointestinal sensitivity that no one has ever been able to explain, but which abates if she avoids all processed foods and any meat that’s been treated with growth hormones; the string of allergies that came on her suddenly after a year of college in California’s Central Valley, where industrial agricultural pollution makes its air some of the worst in the country.

I think of when my son was in preschool, and his asthma inhaler was not the only one tucked into a cubby with a comfort toy, blanket, and nut-free snack.

Invert the word “energy” into something measurable, and my son’s inhaler, prescribed after two terrifying asthma-driven hospital stays, is reflective of exactly that hokey self-help concept. “Energy” encompasses coal plants, mountaintop-removal mining, fracking wastewater, smog-choked cities, all the fossil fuels being burned with almost manic speed and intensity. As we foul the air, our children strain to breathe, reaping what we have sown with the energy we are putting into the universe.

The fact that my son’s lungs struggled when he was born seems almost a footnote. I used to exchange stories with the other parents of sitting upright in bed; our toddlers slumped against our chests all night long while they slept between the coughing that seized their small bodies. The humidifiers, trips to the pulmonologist, shifting dosages of Singulair and Flovent. Trading nebulizer tactics and futile attempts at some magical diet change that removed dairy or gluten or soy.

But we live ten miles from one of New York’s oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants (children living near any fuel-powered plant are already 11% more likely to have asthma), and our entire valley, rolling bucolically green along the Hudson River, is the recipient of significant pollution drift from the Midwest. Our county broadcasts regular air quality warning days throughout the summer, when the elderly and kids like my son are warned not to play outside and even I find breathing laborious.

They also can’t walk anywhere. It’s safer to drive, with air filtration on, setting up an ever-tightening spiral of fossil fuel use, of waste and dirtier air, more closed doors, more driving because fear of a child’s asthma attack will always outweigh concerns over contributions to global warming and smog.

My children are becoming two of billions who might never know how to create a life where walking is a pleasure, an inspiration, a way of life, or even a choice.

 

*     *     *

Rove

After five days in Montana, my son perked up and scorned the stroller. He walked the mile between the hotel and downtown every day, often racing ahead and then back to where my husband and I were ambling, his baby sister sleeping. He complained that we were too slow. He jumped more, learned to swim. The ever-present cast of gray shadows disappeared from under his eyes.

Both the kids whined that car rides were boring, that it made their bottoms tired to sit down and buckle up. I remembered what fractious, intense babies they’d both been, with fierce emotions and easily overloaded senses, and how taking them for a walk on the “nature trail” used to calm them instantly. Now, as we walked through our days, my back pain abated and my neck unfroze and I sympathized with them.

When we came back to New York our first errand was to restock on groceries. It was ninety-six degrees outside. I called the kids to get their shoes on and go to the car. My son sighed before he opened his door. “Can’t we walk there?” After I persuaded him, resisting, into his booster, I folded my spine into my own seat, the position so familiar that the pains inhabiting my body raced out to greet the lumbar support and the head rest like old friends, and I started to cry.

Even growing up under Stalin, assuming they avoided being shot or sent to the gulag, people like my father were free to roam, the mind encouraged in movement by the feet. But my children and I are denied that freedom, like so many Americans living where sidewalks do not exist but busy roads abound.

 

*     *     *

Drift

My back pain responds to rigidity. Its pinches and twinges and twists are a guide to frustrations and anger, repeated litanies in my head, years-old arguments, rotting and yet solidified. The newest pain in the lumbar region stabs ever more vigorously when my kids are driving me crazy. It makes me feel weak, without a core, like I’m a rag doll only capable of responding to their neverending needs and yelling a lot. One of the older pains, at the very top of the spine where my skull is cradled by the atlas bone, tightens and throbs at the mention of any number of phrases that I categorize as doublethink: clean coal, carbon scrubbing, carbon sequestration, safe nuclear waste disposal, energy sector jobs, grow the economy, containment pools.

There is no release for these pains, or the maddening hamster wheel-like thoughts behind them, except when I travel somewhere or drive to a nearby town where I can walk. If I get to walk for long enough, a couple of hours instead of twenty minutes, I realize how unbending my ideas have become, patterns of thought crystallized into firm immobility.

And I wonder now if the inability to walk exacerbates our inability to solve society-wide problems. Many of us, those who don’t live in a small town or compact city with good public transport, exist in this same cramped life and routine, our bodies constantly folded and still, moving only from house to car to work to car to house, to big box store in between, a kid’s outdoor sport if we’re fortunate (if he doesn’t have asthma or the air is acceptable that day). Living in our widespread homes and transporting ourselves via car, we can choose whom to associate with, what opinions we listen to, whom we say hello to, what we believe, exactly how far we’ll go to meet someone coming from the other direction, or how far we won’t.

As our freedom to walk becomes ever more constrained, as air quality and housing developments and busy roads force us to spend more time in our homes and cars, we might lose even the words of movement that reflect every land-tethered animal’s most basic motion. Ramble, meander, rove, roam, wander, deviate, digress—will they slip into disuse, become arcane ideas? As we forget that they ever applied to our physical bodies, to our ability to get from here to there or from here to nowhere in particular, will our minds lose the ability to do the same? What happens to our ideas and bodies when neither can wander aimlessly, get stuck in the mud, backtrack, reconsider, keep moving until we find ourselves in a place beyond our knowledge?

What happens in the mind of a developing child whose feet and brain have never worked in conjunction to traverse uneven ground, or unfamiliar soil?

A chiropractor I used to see mentioned that the problem areas of my back and neck reminded him of wringing a dishrag, and I laughed because I’d used the same description before when complaining of the pains. My back, with its frozen patterns of numbness and pain, feels like a river that’s been straightened and reinforced with concrete, exploding every now and then in an anger of floodwaters but never again allowed to meander. My mind has begun to feel the same.

 

*     *     *

Wander

“Where are you going tomorrow?” asks my Aunt Galya over dinner, before I head back to the city center for a poetry reading followed by vodka or sweet wine at the bar that had become the writing conference’s unofficial hangout.

“Krestovsky Islands.” I’ve been scouring the edges of my Lonely Planet guide to St. Petersburg for more places to walk. The Krestovsky Islands, farther than I’d gone before, are a cluster of three leisure islands tucked behind the Petrograd district and connected to St. Petersburg by footbridges and the metro.

My Uncle Tolya comes with me. We stroll by the statue of Pushkin, erected in the woodland where, supposedly, the poet’s fatal duel took place. After three hours on foot we are looking out toward the Gulf of Finland. Tolya shows me where he and my father used to ice skate and attend soccer matches, and tells stories of teenage escapades with his friends. They, too, used to walk for hours.

Tolya’s pace is brisk and picks up as we near home. Already well into his seventies, he’s spent a lifetime with his feet on these paths, snapping branches on the well-worn route from their apartment building to the metro. We take the route back, past late-blooming Japanese lilacs, busy streets, trash-strewn courtyards, to the tall jasmine bush that’s always grown by the front door of their building. Up six flights of cement stairs, the stairwell smelling—as it seems to in all these Soviet-era apartment blocks—of freshly sliced cucumber.

Galya has prepared bowls of clear bullion, a plate of sliced tomatoes from her garden, and a pot of waxy potatoes with dill. She’s nearly eighty years old and still goes to work every day as an electrical engineer. So does Tolya, a control systems engineer. They both retired once, didn’t see much point in it, and when their offices asked them back they went, walking every day to the metro and off to work at the other end, then past the market in the evening, hoping that day’s potatoes were decent. Usually they cook dinner together and I don’t know where they get all this energy. I’m thirty-one and want a nap; my calf muscles jump around like a nervous cat. Galya ladles small scoops of preserved mushrooms out of a jar and my mouth waters. She knows how much I love them, how my sisters and I would, if our manners allowed us, eat every tiny mushroom in her kitchen like ravening hobbits.

I tell her I wish I could come with them, one summer, when they go up to the forest near the northern sea for a month to fish and garden, eat berries and gather mushrooms.

“Mushrooms?” she says. Gribi? I love how “mushroom” in Russian sounds so earthy.

My cousin Anna, their daughter the mathematician, is there. She tells me they hike for eleven hours to collect these mushrooms. Galya looks at me doubtfully.

“I don’t think you can walk that far,” she says.

 

*     *     *

Lost

On our most recent trip to Montana, I noticed a new bumper sticker everywhere. The popular one when I was in high school and Montana was just being discovered by wealthier Californians looking for vacation homes said, “Welcome to Montana. Now go home.” It was an improvement over my mother’s idea, only half a joke: “Gut shoot ’em at the border.”

This one is shaped like the state, all in forest green, the color evoking pleasantly the sense of space and wilderness, the physical freedom found in places like the million-plus-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness, preserved far away from cars, where you can tramp trails for days or weeks moved by nothing but your own two feet and an erect spine. I wish my kids could grow up knowing that life, but would settle for them knowing they could walk to the library, to the farmers market, to play with a friend, to anywhere at all, that the roads were designed for their roaming bodies and the air always clean enough to safely breathe. Every year I take them from our house where they slump tired in car seats, and watch them perk up like thirsty plants among the hills and paths that my feet know as home. The truth, like all clichés, sounds silly when spoken aloud: we are kinder with one another, more patient, sleep better, hug more, laugh more. My back twitches in unfamiliar ways, but the pain, for the most part, sleeps dormant.

“Get Lost,” says the new bumper sticker. I wish I could. I wish we all could.

Antonia MalchikAntonia Malchik has written about education, parenting, identity, environment, and travel for STIR JournalCreative NonfictionBrain, Child, and the Jabberwock Review, among many other publications, and has essays forthcoming from Orion and The Washington Post. A former IT journalist, she is a regular essay contributor to Full Grown People.

 

 

Dad Died

When I was little, Dad would get into the car and say, “Let’s get lost.”

“OK,” I’d shout. “Let’s get lost.”

At each intersection he’d ask, “Which way?” until we didn’t know where we were anymore.

“Look,” I’d tell Mom when we banged into the breakfast room later. “Dad bought me a diary with a lock and key,” or “We threw stones in a river from the bridge.”

*     *     *

“Dad died,” my sister said over the phone, crying. “Dad just died.”

I walked out to tell the guests at our picnic table. “My dad just died,” I said.

I didn’t leave right away. What was the hurry? Dad had died. It was over. I sat for a few minutes with my husband and friends. We made a toast to him. I listened to the wind rustling the maple leaves and the guy mowing his lawn across the street and the blood rustling around in my ears. August. It was August.

Then I left to travel the 53 miles from our house, across the Tappan Zee Bridge and up the winding road to my childhood home, to Mom and Dad’s.

“Do you want me to go with you?” my husband asked.

“No.” I wanted to be alone to cross the Hudson River, to go from when my dad had been alive to the rest of my life.

I drove carefully, mulling over the sentence, “Dad died.”

Dad died. So many ds. Were they plosives? I moved my lips and said it out loud. “Dad died,” and the ds made bursts of air like small, gentle explosions from a cannon filled with confetti. Yes, plosives. Dad died—the d’s soft as pillows, just t’s really, wrapped up in spider webs. Dad died. He died.

Dad. A palindrome—he would have loved that. Dad died. Such a compact sentence—subject, verb, period. A sentence I had never said before that would be true forever now. Dad died.

*     *     *

Dad had been hoping to die since before the nursing home, and why not? He was unable to stand or walk, unable to feed himself, unable to read. For the final few months, the first thing he’d say upon waking in the morning was, “Oh shit, I’m still alive.” No kidding.

He had a dream. “I was trying to sign the check but no one would give me a pen.”

“Sign the check?” I’d ask.

“A check to let me die.”

“Oh, how frustrating.”

“Horrible,” he said. “Just horrible.”

While Dad was in the nursing home, I worried about him being safe. I pitied him this rotten ending. At night I’d wonder if he was scared or lonely. I didn’t want to be there with him, but I didn’t want to be anywhere else—there was not a moment’s peace for anyone who loved him.

Still, his death was a surprise. When one’s father dies, it’s always a surprise.

*     *     *

As I inched up to the tollbooth on the Tappan Zee Bridge, I wanted to tell the toll collector what had happened. Shouldn’t he know? Shouldn’t people be told that everything had changed? I wanted to hand him my five singles and say, “Dad died,” look into his eyes for a moment and then drive off, having delivered the sad news.

Instead I was robotic. “Thank you,” I said. He took my money without looking up.

*     *     *

The youngest of four kids, I was the neurotic one. An insomniac by seven years old, I would fill my bed with books so that when I awoke in the night to a silent house I’d have company. One night, as I lay working my way through Harriet the Spy (a book Dad had bought me for a nickel at a yard sale), there was a tap on the door. “Are you awake?” Dad whispered.

“Yes,” I whispered back. “Come in.”

He opened the door. “I couldn’t sleep,” he had a haggard look on his face. He was an insomniac too, and a reader, and neurotic. “I saw your light on. Want a cheese sandwich?”

We crept downstairs and sat together at the kitchen table in our pajamas, eating cheese sandwiches, two friends who had found one another in the massive, lonely ocean of insomnia.

Later, as the sky was going from black to dark blue, I climbed into my bed, turned the light off, and fell asleep, the crumbling, five-cent copy of Harriet in my sweaty hand.

*     *     *

When he had still been mostly well, we liked to carry our lunch into Bryant Park and sit under the plane trees with strangers. We’d listen to the live piano music. He was a New Yorker, Dad was, but he couldn’t walk far anymore, couldn’t remember simple things, like where his coat was, so we would take the elevator down and cross 40th Street right into the park, like it was ours, like it was filled with our guests. He’d smile at the music. He’d reach for my arm and say, “Isn’t this magic?”

People die slowly, I understood much later. They don’t die in an instant like they do in the movies. It happens in the most infinitesimal steps—in tiny, imperceptible stages. He was beginning to die even then, although I only realized it afterwards.

*     *     *

He stopped making much sense in the final months, the line between reality and hallucinations blurring. “There’s a man in a field,” he said to me one day. “He’s standing with his legs apart, his hands on his hips. He’s shouting.”

“Is he friendly?” I asked.

“Oh yes. He’s shouting for me to come with him.” He closed his eyes and I thought he might be falling asleep. Then, in a thin, wobbly voice, he began to sing without opening his eyes, stanza after stanza after stanza of a song I’d never heard.

I kept still. If I interrupted, he’d lose his train of thought.

I felt the sun beating down on our clasped-together hands.

“I can’t remember the rest,” he said and we opened our eyes. “Why are you crying?” he asked. He mimicked my expression of sorrow because it was what lay in front of him, knitting his eyebrows together like mine, his eyes tearing-up.

“Nothing’s wrong, Dad. It’s just nice to hear you sing.”

He began to pick imaginary threads from his shirt and hand them to me.  I took a few and then told him, “You can drop the rest on the floor. The nurses will sweep them up.”

“That wouldn’t be right,” he said, “to throw them on the floor for someone else to clean.”

*     *     *

After the Tappan Zee Bridge, I took back roads the rest of the way; roads Dad and I had biked once. I felt like my heart was wrapped in a thousand blankets beating somewhere outside of my body.

I knew that the moment one’s father died was something a kid owned. It was mine. I owned his death. I was aware, from somewhere outside of myself, that I was in the middle of a rite of passage, something whose effect I would only later understand, and only maybe, even then.

I drove past neighbors’ houses, but those neighbors hadn’t lived in those houses for decades: Mrs. Whitfield’s house, the Rowells, the Giovincos, the Sloans. Everyone I knew was gone. People I didn’t know lived there now. I turned on the radio and then turned it off. Everything but my heartbeat distracted me.

*     *     *

He hadn’t always been perfect. I had hated him for saying mean things to my sister when she was trying to learn her multiplication tables. He was bossy and moody and unpredictable, but later on he asked me over and over again to forgive him. By then I had my own life, and he had mellowed and I wasn’t mad at him anymore. We were friends by the time he began to apologize.

A few weeks before he died, I told him, “I think about you here and I hope you’re ok. I think of you all the time.” He sat there a minute. I couldn’t tell if he had understood me.

He leaned forward the tiny bit that he was able. “It’s time,” he said, “for you to stop thinking about me.”

“I don’t want to stop thinking about you,” I said.

“I should have been dead a long time ago. It’s time you stopped thinking about me now.” He nodded and closed his eyes. I knew he was right. I needed to stay in the land of the living. He was going one place, and I was going someplace else.

*     *     *

I drove in second gear past the nature center where we used to sing Christmas carols with neighbors. That memory hurt, like it was a kite tied to my ribcage, tugging at me, pulling me backwards toward a suffocating nostalgia.

I drove along Spring Valley. The road was so narrow that the August vines seemed to be reaching for my car, trying to yank me into the past.

I turned up the road to Mom and Dad’s house, which I realized was now just Mom’s. As I neared it, the feeling of being pulled back and back by the vines and the kite in the strong wind of the August afternoon intensified.

Dad died, I thought, and my desire to be a child again welled up with such force that I felt the kite string strain and then snap, the freed kite lofting up and up into the windy blue sky. The vines seemed to retract as I pulled into Mom’s driveway, feeling myself re-enter my body. I turned off the car and sat there, thinking about getting lost with Dad decades earlier. Getting lost then had not been scary. Getting lost, if handled correctly, could be a good thing.

N. West MossN. West Moss is a MacDowell fellow. Her work has appeared in The New York TimesMemoir JournalHospital Drive, and elsewhere. She was awarded gold medals recently from the Faulkner-Wisdom Contest for her fiction and nonfiction work. Her first novel, set in New Orleans in 1878, is under agent consideration, as is her collection of short stories, set in Bryant Park in New York City. She is currently working on a YA novel. “Dad Died” is her attempt to convey all that went through her mind in the single hour following her father’s death.

Dayenu

The rabbi hands me the shovel, instructing me to invert its bowl before scooping the first mound of earth onto my father’s grave. This is the custom, he explains. To honor our loved one’s memory, we must demonstrate our reluctance to perform this obligatory task. With an upside-down shovel, the rabbi says, his free hand patting my shoulder, you cannot hurry.

There’s nothing I’d like more than to get this over with. I’ve never had much patience for the Torah. I am more at home in a deli than in a synagogue, so I think about food. The shovel, as a giant spoon. I remember my father’s dinner plate, how he’d always save his favorite thing for last. Family meals were object lessons in perseverance, fortitude, denial. Dad would not permit himself his beloved mashed potatoes until they sat alone on his plate, the buttery, fluffy white mountain the sole survivor, outlasting lukewarm meatloaf and limp green beans.

Dad is a human garbage disposal, my mother and sister and I joked, watching him peer into the refrigerator to retrieve expired containers of sour cream and salad dressing—not to throw away, but to ladle atop his meal. Paper breakfast napkins were turned inside out and reappeared at dinner, stale bread became croutons for his salad, the last dribble of sour milk was poured over his cereal or into his coffee where it would curdle. While we helped ourselves to seconds, Dad waited to refill his own plate, weighing the odds that a scrap or two might be left behind.

Two years ago in the spring, my father pushed himself away from my table, hands laced over his belly, saying he’d had enough to eat. We had just finished our Passover Seder, one of Judaism’s most symbol-laden meals. We dipped vegetables in salt water that represented the tears of Jewish slaves. We ate matzo, unleavened bread meant to remind us of the Jews’ hurried escape from Egypt. We used the tips of our pinky fingers to spill red wine onto our plates, one drop for each of the ten plagues visited upon the Pharaoh. We concluded dinner with the song Dayenu. Dayenu, loosely translated from Hebrew as “Enough,” gave thanks for the many triumphs permitting the Jewish exodus. At the end of every verse, we sang a round of “Dayenu, Dayenu” signifying that each of the many miracles, on its own, would have been sufficient. Dayenu, our Passover Haggadah text said, was about more than praising God. It was a song that examined the status-quo mentality of always wanting more. Instead, the chorus urged us, raise your voices in gratitude for what you have.

Dad patted his midsection, saying he’d had enough matzo ball soup, enough brisket, enough potatoes. It was the first year he had turned over the role of conducting our family Seder to my husband. My father’s old Haggadah was stuffed with Post-Its and newspaper articles. His Seders were full of digressions referencing everything from the Talmud to the L.A. Times. Each piece of notepaper or newspaper pulled from its pages meant another few minutes tacked onto the Seder run time. Growing up, my sister and I flipped through our Haggadahs under the table, counting down the number of pages we’d have to endure, pressing the books against our bellies to stifle the rumblings until we got to the long-awaited line of boldface, italicized type directing Seder participants to eat the “Festive Meal.” The two of us had never gone more than a handful of hours between meals in our entire lives. Nevertheless, at our Seders, we cupped a hand, whispering into each other’s ears, I hope Dad hurries up, I’m starving.

My husband’s Haggadah had Post-Its, too—indicating the sections and paragraphs we could skip. Our children, who hadn’t received a formal Jewish education and were being raised in a non-religious household, were happier, and Dad didn’t seem to mind. My father was tired lately. He had become quieter. None of us knew that a tumor had been growing inside his stomach for months. If Dad felt something was wrong, he didn’t let on. Instead, he joked. “Dayenu!” he grinned. It didn’t occur to us that his hand might be pressing down to still hunger or pain. A hand on the belly meant Dad was full, and that was that. We’d never questioned why Dad didn’t take a last helping before asking whether everyone else had already had enough. We’d never argued with him when he said he’d be happy to scrape the layer of mold off the top of the old cream cheese for his bagel. The new package, he’d say, is meant for you. That was the kind of guy Dad was. Why would Passover be different?

My father was as cautious and measured with the information he offered up about his childhood as he was with the portions he took onto his plate. There was one story, though, that he told again and again. It was 1944, and Dad was eight years old. His father was dead, his mother had been deported to a concentration camp, and he was in hiding with his aunt and uncle, living in the basement of the Swedish Embassy in Budapest with several other families. One day, a bomb ripped through a nearby building. Plaster rained down from the ceiling in jagged chunks. No one was hurt. Most important, my father said, someone had thought to cover the pot of cabbage soup simmering on the stove. Because of that, the food was salvageable. “We were lucky,” Dad said. “So very lucky and thankful. We got to eat that day.”

The Nazis didn’t manage to kill my father. Many years later, Dad’s own body let him down, in revolt against itself. Cancer, alarming in its ordinariness and stealth, was an indiscriminate and efficient assassin. The morning my father died, on a borrowed hospital bed in my childhood bedroom, his robust body was whittled down to not much more than the essence of a body, to the idea of one, to mottled skin stretched over brittle bone. I thought of my grandmother, dead at forty from typhus contracted in Dachau, as I held Dad’s hand one last time. With its papery skin and feeble pulse, it was so delicate and insubstantial I felt as though he might float away if I let go.

On a hill at Mount Sinai cemetery, overlooking the Holocaust memorial, I’m holding a shovel instead of my father’s hand. It weighs five pounds, then ten pounds, then one hundred pounds, then one thousand. I scoop the dirt, hearing the hollow thud as it hits my father’s casket, and pass the shovel to my mother and sister. Beside us, a line of my male cousins assembles, suit jackets off, shirtsleeves rolled up against the punishing 101° August heat. One by one, they perform the ceremonial burial, shovel bowl-side up, flipping it back over to finish the job. Brows dripping, temples throbbing, forearms rippling, backs hunched over in shirts turning translucent with sweat, they move an enormous mountain of displaced soil back into the grave. No one speaks. The pine box holding my father’s body is obscured and the thuds become muffled. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, dirt atop more dirt. My father would be embarrassed by their exertions. I can hear him urging: please, please don’t go to all of this trouble. Don’t wear yourselves out on account of me.

Back at my house, platters from Canter’s Delicatessen await the mourners. There are pinwheels of roast beef and corned beef and pastrami, Swiss cheese and cheddar cheese and muenster. There are containers of pickles and pepperoncini and olives, coleslaw and potato salad, mustard and mayonnaise and Thousand Island dressing. There are baskets of rye bread and challah and rolls, plates brimming with chocolate chip and cinnamon rugelach and rainbow sprinkle cookies. There is coffee, regular and decaf. The excess suddenly makes me nauseated with shame. I picture my father standing at the end of the buffet, last in the long line of people winding out of my kitchen into the living room, where the early birds already sit in folding chairs, balancing sagging paper plates atop their knees. My father waits patiently, content with maybe half a pastrami and cheese sandwich, one pickle spear, a tablespoon each of potato salad and coleslaw, a broken cookie. At his own Jewish funeral, where a shortage of food would be inconceivable, Dad still wants to make sure there is enough for everyone else.

Once the guests are gone, I wander through each room, picking up a crumpled napkin here, a coffee cup and a nibbled quarter of sandwich there, sweeping cookie crumbs off a card table into my cupped hand. But I can only busy myself for so long. Back in the kitchen, the silence becomes a roaring in my ears that makes me dizzy. I double over the sink and weep, enough tears to fill cups of saltwater lining dozens of Seder tables. When I lift my head, I picture my father standing right beside me. Wouldn’t you know it, he’s retrieving the used plastic forks and knives from the trash. He wipes each one with a soapy sponge and rinses them off in the sink. As he dries them with a dishtowel, he tells me they’ll come in handy when I pack his grandchildren’s school lunches. He divides up the leftover lunchmeat and cheeses, asking to borrow a black felt-tipped Sharpie so he can carefully label each Ziploc bag before stowing it in my freezer. Maybe you can have a picnic, he says. Or another dinner, for a rainy day. Sweetheart, he continues, because that is what my father has called me my whole life, don’t let any of this delicious food go to waste.

No, Rabbi, I am not eager. I have not had anywhere near enough.

Melinda BlumMelinda Gordon Blum’s essays have appeared in the Los Angeles TimesLive Wire, and The Sun magazine’s “Readers Write.” A lifelong Californian, she lives in Hollywood with her husband, two sons, and two cats. Her favorite Twilight Zone episode is “Time Enough At Last,” about an avid bookworm who, along with his books, survives an apocalypse—only to break his reading glasses.

Requiem for a Marriage

“To James, In Requiem,” the wedding present ditty reads.

I open a yellowed envelope and find it tucked in a “Wedding Congratulations” card dated April 10, 1948, signed by twenty-seven people. My father’s coworkers at his engineering firm perhaps? None of the names seem familiar. A lavender orchid decorates the front of the card, with this verse inside:

+++++++Today’s congratulations

+++++++Carry with them, too,

+++++++The very best of wishes,

+++++++For years of joy for you!

It’s something my mother wants me to have, apparently, one of the few cards included in a haphazard stack of old photos she pressed on me the last time I visited her in North Carolina. A confused jumble, some in envelopes that are blank or mislabeled.

Alone in her apartment she pores over old boxes of memorabilia, reshuffling and sorting them according to some system only she can understand. A day later she’ll tell me that they’ve been moved, though the housekeeper wasn’t there, or that a box is empty that was full before. Sometimes she reads old cards to me on the phone, touched by the preprinted sentiments on Hallmark birthday cards and valentines my father sent her long ago. Probably she will tell me this wedding card was stolen, a few months from now.

She is often confused. She calls the management of her Independent Living complex to report that two brown jackets have been stolen. That a black blouse that isn’t hers has mysteriously appeared in her closet, and what should she do with it? That her nursing pin, which she’s forgotten that she gave me for safekeeping last year, is missing from her jewelry box. That someone has substituted a different pair of binoculars for her husband’s. “I’ve never seen these before,” she tells me. “I can’t find your father’s binoculars anywhere.”

My father died five years ago, making the title of the sixty-year-old mock “Requiem” somewhat startling. The rollicking rhymes are typewritten on a sheet of white business paper, folded in half and then in half again to fit inside the wedding card. They were probably composed by some wag at the office and read aloud at the wedding reception. Or maybe my parents chuckled over them in private when they opened their gifts after the honeymoon. It’s nineteen-forties humor—the carefree male has relinquished his freedom and suffered a kind of death by capitulating to the demands of marriage:

+++++++That Jim, to whom all the maidens looked,

+++++++For rescue from the shelf

+++++++Should go and get himself be-hooked

+++++++Is a sad commentary on himself.

*     *     *

They met in the hospital, where my father was recuperating from a hernia operation. My mother Peggy was still a teenager, a lively, pretty, and somewhat giddy young nurse. Nine years her senior, Jim was a staid engineer, bookish and antisocial. She always said he was handsome, a cross between Clark Gable and Tyrone Power. She thought it was glamorous to be dating an older man. Shortly after they started seeing each other, he left on an extended voyage to India and the Middle East to earn his engineering license as a machinist. That was exotic too, getting postcards from Calcutta and Port Said. “Missing you!”

They met in the hospital, where my father was recuperating from a hernia operation.

When they finally married, he was thirty, she was twenty-one. Their age difference isn’t apparent in their formal wedding portrait. She is regal in a flowing satin dress with seed pearls stitched around a scalloped neckline. Serious and proud, he stands erect beside her in full tails and pinstriped trousers. My mother was 5’9”, my father not much taller. I don’t know if she was wearing flats, but I know that she did when they were dating. She looks very beautiful, her brown hair in waves, her expression serene. He is indeed very handsome, his hair jet black, his face pale. There is a solemn purity in their expressions as they look forward to their unknown future together.

*     *     *

She gave up her nursing job when she became pregnant. By the standards of the day, she’d made it. “All of the other nurses were jealous,” she told me. She was married to a prosperous professional; they’d decorated their Jersey City apartment in daring modern style, with freeform orange glass ashtrays, a tailored studio bed with abstract figured upholstery in browns and yellows, and Dufy and Picasso reproductions on the walls. She was surrounded by wedding presents, and Jim was always buying her modern copper jewelry.

There wasn’t a lot to do, though. She wasn’t keen on housekeeping. She liked a good gossip but all her friends were busy at the hospital. When their baby girl was born she had her hands full. “I’ve got my hands full,” she told the grocer. “Our new baby is a handful,” she told the dry cleaner. Motherhood wasn’t what she’d hoped it would be. The baby shrieked all day long, and while she knew it was just colic, there were days she thought it would drive her mad.

+++++++However, inasmuch as he

+++++++Has dashed their hopes thus down the drain,

+++++++The only compensation we

+++++++Can offer for the ball and chain

+++++++Is this carving set…

It was hard to say who was more bound by the ball and chain. Jim was still free to work and move around in the world, while she was confined to the house and a squalling infant. Jim took over child care in the evenings, walking the baby back and forth, back and forth in their tiny living room, but life just wasn’t all that much fun any more.

He seemed bent on changing everything about her that had attracted him to begin with, criticizing her loquacious high spirits, suggesting that she read more, learn more about modern art and music. He recommended a more severe hairstyle, with her hair pulled away from her face. They were saving to buy a house, and went out less. He’d never liked to dance the way she had anyway. It was her idea to start a penny budget, recording each day’s expenses on a notepad, and then transferring them to leather binders for financial projections. It was something to do. Her mother had warned her that maintaining household finances was going to be difficult. “You’re not going to be able to spend all your salary on clothes anymore.” Managing their money made her feel grownup.

+++++++Is this carving set, ostensibly

+++++++For cutting meat—but could

+++++++Be used, to set him free

+++++++If things by any chance should?

Always prone to denial and self-deception, she would have told herself she was happy. She just thought it would be different. That’s all.

*     *     * 

Soon enough they moved to the suburbs, another child on the way, and she became a suburban housewife and mother in the PTA. For a while she enjoyed the domestic flurry, trading recipes, cooking pot roasts and meat loafs, and tuna casseroles. Bent over a Singer sewing machine in the upstairs master bedroom, she produced two seersucker nightgowns for her daughter, and a red felt skating skirt, complete with appliques of Santa and his sleigh and reindeer. She and three of the other first grade mothers did a high-spirited can-can at the PTA talent show that they rehearsed for many weeks before the event. They were giddy with laughter.

Always prone to denial and self-deception, she would have told herself she was happy. She just thought it would be different. That’s all.

But the other mothers were busy with their own children and households, and she was often lonely during the day, spending afternoons watching soap operas on TV, waiting for Jim to come home from work in the city. “General Hospital” was her favorite. She left the TV on all day—“for company,” she said.

Evenings, after his long commute, Jim was increasingly impatient with her need for conversation, preferring to settle in with a scotch and the Wall Street Journal.

“I’m reading, Peggy. Can’t you see I’m reading?”

She drank a martini, and then a second, and couldn’t seem to refrain from interrupting him. “Jim? Oh, never mind.”

She worked on a book of crossword puzzles, started up again. “Joan called today. You won’t believe what Harriet is spending on their new living room set.”

“Peg, I’ve been working all day. Can’t I have a little peace?”

+++++++The cocktail set, will also help

+++++++When with potent spirit filled,

+++++++To recapture that carefree self

+++++++Now relinquished and willed.

She never felt like cooking or cleaning any more. She’d discovered that exertion gave her hives. Complaining of allergies, chronic colds, and fatigue, she began to spend her days in bed. The drapes were always drawn while she napped and watched the soaps. Her children tiptoed into the house after school, their voices hushed. When Jim got home from work, she pulled a housedress on over her nightgown and settled downstairs on the living room couch with a martini and cigarette to complain about her day.

“I just don’t have any pep today. I don’t understand it. Of course I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night.”

“I’ve got a doctor’s appointment for Thursday. We’re going to try a specialist. I think I’m allergic to something, and Dr. Williams does too.”

He never questioned her multiplying ailments, but they fought about her talking, they fought about who was going to make dinner.

“You know I get hives from the hot stove,” she said.

More often than not, he threw down the newspaper in disgust and strode into the kitchen to improvise a meal.

Sometimes he didn’t, and she announced, “It’s do-it-yourself night, kids!”

Tensions escalated when the children became teenagers. Their son rebelled against his father’s authoritarian control by flunking his classes. Their daughter mouthed off about her mother’s hypochondria, her father’s politics, American imperialism, and life in suburbia.

Jim retreated in angry disappointment from all of them.

For a while after the children left for college, Peggy emerged from the bedroom and developed her own social life, playing bridge in the evenings, earning a Life Master certificate in duplicate bridge tournaments. Jim declined to play bridge, or to engage in any activities she excelled at. They continued to bicker, and soon her lethargy and chronic illnesses returned. Both children moved thousands of miles away when they married. They rarely came home, and their parents never traveled to see them.

*     *     *

The first time my husband visited my parents, he was astonished. “It’s like a war zone.” My father had taken over the food shopping and cooking completely after his retirement and became enraged when my mother peeked into the kitchen. “It’s under control, Peg,” he said, banging pots and slamming cabinet doors. At the dinner table, he was angry when she interrupted him. She fumed when he rebuked her. They fought about what to have for dessert. About the correct way to load the dishwasher. About our plans for the next day. There were no victors in their skirmishes, the product of decades of simmering tension and sniping.

It was hard to explain to my husband why they stayed with each other. It was nothing like his large extended family, where squabbles were short-lived and everyone was always gossiping and giving advice. Maybe there is no explanation.

The times. Their Catholic upbringings. My father’s strong sense of duty. The energy my mother had invested in her self-diagnoses and self-delusions. Inertia. Familiarity. Fear of being alone. Habit.

*     *     *

Now that my father has died, my mother looks back at their marriage as years of uninterrupted joy. She frets about all that’s been lost. The missing objects they shared have taken on exaggerated sentimental value. The carving set. The martini shaker and glasses. “We had cocktails every night,” she says, proud of their sophistication, forgetting the discord. The silver pitcher that she wrapped tightly in cellophane after their wedding and never used. The pewter chandelier that hung over the dining table in their house in New Jersey. “It was just lovely. Remember that chandelier? I was surprised neither of you kids wanted to take it when we moved.” The ceramic ducks they bought on their trip to Spain. “You haven’t seen the ducks, have you?” she asks every time we visit, though her rooms are overflowing with boxes of knickknacks that have never been unpacked.

Now that my father has died, my mother looks back at their marriage as years of uninterrupted joy. She frets about all that’s been lost.

She sorts through mementoes and scrapbooks of their life together, lost in nostalgia for the fictional marriage she has created. Eyes narrowed in concentration, she shuffles stacks of old greeting cards that she pulls out of their envelopes and strains to read with her bifocals. She mouths the verses out loud, setting her favorite cards aside so she can repeat the ritual again a week later.

“The man was a saint, a real saint,” she likes to say, shaking her head in rueful regret at his passing. Her requiem for James.

*     *     *

I write scenes of my parents’ life together, holding snippets up to the light, selecting, rewriting, rearranging. I choose some to keep, others to toss back into my box of jumbled memories to look at later. Do I see through a glass darkly when I reveal the unhappiness of their union? Was there something I didn’t hear, under the prolonged cacophony of their disputes? A requiem is an act of remembrance for the repose of the souls of the dead, yet remembrance doesn’t always bring repose, for the dead or the living. I search for insight as I create my own fictions of the past, I look for resolution, but sometimes I think I’m no closer to understanding what kept my parents together, or why our family fell apart.

“Peg, could you please just be quiet? Can’t you see I’m trying to read?”

“I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night.”

Jacqueline DoyleJacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches at California State University, East Bay. She has published creative nonfiction in South Dakota Review, Southern Indiana ReviewNinth Letter online, and Southern Humanities Review, and fiction in Lunch Ticket, Confrontation, Tampa Review online, and elsewhere. She was recently nominated for a Pushcart by South Loop Review, and also has a Notable Essay listed in Best American Essays 2013. Find her online at www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle

Come Spring & Articulation

[flash fiction]

Come Spring

A teaching job plucked us from the city, planted us gingerly in a town literally surrounded by corn. We bought a small house, two bedrooms, one bath because it was compact, updated and affordable. It would not require my attention. My wife was consumed in great gulps by the baby, and I was peering into and trying to fit within academia’s dollhouse. The yard was huge, magnified further by the fact we’d never had one. My wife murmured in her dreams to children not yet conceived, children inventing new ways to injure themselves in the great green expanse. She wanted six babies, and was in the thick, heavy cream and honey daze of easy motherhood. Our second baby would snap her out of this, keep her awake for days, miserable until the sixteenth specialist diagnosed our son, Max, unhappy Max. But this was when Trina was an infant, sleeping, and my wife plump and smelling of yeast, sleeping beside her. My loaves of bread, I’d whisper, kissing my wife awake. I was prepping spring courses when I began thinking of a garden, perhaps raised beds, but soon it was gargantuan and too overgrown for my skull, its near wilderness demanding ground, purchase in real life. I had never grown anything beyond a bean sprout in fourth grade science; the bean wrapped in a wet paper towel within the green house of a plastic freezer bag. Soon, I found myself trolling the Internet, then cordoning off half of the yard, renting a tiller, staying up until dawn choosing heirloom seeds from the stack of catalogs in the bathroom. I spaced fruit trees in the front yard, already drunk as a bee on their imagined canopies and harvests; plums and pears and apples and cherries. I imagined six children hanging from their knees, their chins always sticky, then clambering to the top of the trees—to the branches that bent, scrambling for the last wet handfuls of cherries. Now, I spend most of my life waiting to return to the place I grew out of my imagination. The place I wore the knees out of my jeans and forgot myself, half convinced I could disappear in the raveled vines of green beans, happily go to my death in the dappled dark where the slenderest, bite tender beans are. After Max, I had a vasectomy. It was a decision made jointly in voices that strained under the weight of exhaustion. It was only when I was planting the last garden, Max a baby that cried unlike any baby the parenting books described and never slept, never slept, never slept, it was only when pushing the seeds down into the soil did I think of it differently, did I think of my own seed, rendered dead. In the deciding, my wife so skin pressed by the writhing Max that she couldn’t bare a touch that required any more of her, it seemed a pruning—clipping with finality the heaviest branches so they would not fell from the trunk. But afterward, my fingers in the dirt, it seemed a death. We suffer our own winters. Yet, even in autumn or dead December, the garden lives as surely as it did in thick August. It takes root in the base of my skull, then sprouts and tendrils until come spring I am lovelorn and homesick with wanting. But by the time final grades are in mid-May, my wife needs a rest, and Max, Max requires constant care and attention. Tending to. There is no time to garden, although I would surely choose the garden, if I had a choice. Max sits upon my knee, his head cocked like a wren, listening to something I can’t hear. He doesn’t have the words yet to articulate whatever it is that tortures him so. What can he do? He wails. I imagine the sounds he makes as living, growing, wild language. Language that can’t be tamed in measured rows. Language that bears no discernible harvest.

prose_section_divider

Articulation

I was a delicate child, susceptible to illness, and this worsened when I turned ten, after my father’s suicide. My mother was frail too, and so pale I could map the veins at her neck and wrists. I was old enough to know some things and not others, but when I explained, as my mother tucked me in, that father stood in the darkest corner each evening as we listened to the radio, simply watching, as still as a lamp post and glowering in the way he had, she gasped hard enough that I knew sobbing galloped behind. The next morning when I woke, a suitcase sat resolutely by the door and Fritz, my mother’s friend, drove me three hours to Aunt Betsy’s farm. It was 1939. Mother could not bear good-bye.

It was truly Uncle Douglas’ farm, but everyone knew he lived in his office, reading and writing, smoking and drinking, and Betsy ran the farm. Where my mother was pale and slight, blonde hair and gray eyes, Betsy was windburned and loud with large hips and copper frizz that frothed about her head and shoulders and turned up in her meals. Her body was tall and wide, hard in places, soft in others, and she seemed to live within her body in the same way Uncle Douglas lived within his office. Her bosom was enormous. Later, in my studies, I would see images of fertility figures and think of Betsy. She was lusty all about, and not in a dirty way, but in a way that made some uncomfortable. Some people couldn’t look her vitality head-on.

I was given one chore. At the end of each day I was to walk out with the shepherding dogs and bring in the sheep. They were a pack, and I had never seen animals move as one, then scatter like starlings, only to bring in the sheep. My job, really, was to watch them and take wonder in their way, and to come to understand that they were known to one another, these four dogs, in a way I was not known to any one and in a way that I did not know any other living person. The dogs seemed to like when I buried my face in their necks, or gently pulled the brambles from their long coats. They turned with great inquisitive looks when I whistled. They turned in the same instant, with similar faces, their wet noses glistening in that deep blue dusk. When the sheep were in, I would see Aunt Betsy’s face in the kitchen window, and it would halve itself in a smile, meant just for me.

They could not have children. Betsy had lost three, early on in her pregnancies, during that first decade of my life. She absorbed loss like a wall, at least in the telling of it to me. She’d point to the cows and chickens, the pigs, and say that nature was that way, rougher on some than others, but it never felt a judgment to Betsy, just a fact. Just the way it was. “We’re all animals,” she said, and she expected us to take a moment of silence before each meal, considering what had been given and given up, so we could eat. At home, my mother had said grace, each word clipped like a toenail, so the prayer sounded like a bullion cube of dissatisfaction. Betsy once told me, “Words are good, when you need them. But silence, silence is a room to carry with you. Some things you know without words. Some things you can’t put words to.” I would watch the dogs corral the sheep and I would consider my father, what he could not say, and what I could not say now to my mother. Silence with Betsy was a room made of windows, the radiance a buttery balm. With my mother, silence was a root cellar at the end of winter.

I remember most the light of that summer, whether it was light being born as dawn set upon us, or the light of the honeyed July moon, so pregnant seeming, I imagined six small moons nursing at that moon’s teats like the barn kittens. And in late August’s evenings, the corn drying, it fell pink and golden across fields like silk. In the course of the summer, I had become strong and brown. Betsy had cut my hair in a pageboy and my legs were scratched and bruised from coming to know the woods. My neck wore the beads of bug bites. I cast off shoes, and my soles were callused.

Betsy did not tuck me in. She crawled into bed with me, and read each night until my eyes closed. She let me fall asleep to the cadence of her chest rising and falling, her hair sticking to my bath fresh cheek. Some love cannot be articulated.

And one September morning, I watched the dust kick up in a gravel cloud before the car materialized as if from a vapor. I could make out Fritz’s profile, and beside him, mother in her hat, one hand holding it in place. The dogs barked and gathered at my heels as I ran to the house. Perhaps I always knew my mother would return for me. Perhaps I didn’t. I was ten, and did not know what a child I still was—what I still did not have words for.

Panting in the kitchen doorway, it was clear Betsy knew, and the knowing had collapsed something in her. She sat at the table in a man’s shirt, unbuttoned so I could see where her cleavage began. I begged, on my knees, at her feet, to let me stay. Then she reached for me. I could hear Fritz knocking, the thin voice of my mother calling out, but I had buried my face in Betsy’s neck. She was cradling me like a baby. Betsy was crooning, “Hush, my child.”

B. Harroun HeadshotBarbara Harroun teaches composition and creative writing at Western Illinois University. Her work has previously appeared in the Sycamore Review, issues of Another Chicago Magazine, issues of Bird’s Thumb, Prairie Gold: Anthology of the American Heartland, Requited Journal, Festival Writer, Red Wolf Journal, and Catch & Release. It is forthcoming in I-70 Review, Sugared Water, Per Contra, The Riveter Review, Pea River Journal, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, Mud Season Review, bioStory, The Lake, Emerge Literary Journal, Sediments Literary-Arts Journal, and San Gabriel Valley Poetry Quarterly. Her favorite creative endeavors are her awesome kids, Annaleigh and Jack.

 

The Big Bang: Digital Photography

The Uninvited Guest

The trees were clustered so thickly now that Mischa could no longer pretend she wasn’t lost. She’d had to slow to a walk, too, not that it mattered much. When you’re not sure where you’re headed, a walk will get you there just as well as a run will.

She looked down at her Garmin. It’d been about half an hour since she’d left the trail, a little under three miles if you prefer to judge by distance rather than time. Mischa always did, for any run outside a meet. That about summed up her cross country philosophy: long, easy runs during training, but come race day it was run like wildfire and never look back.

Leaving the trail had been the right thing to do at the time, Mischa knew that. Even with the Mace she always carried in her pack, it was never smart to approach a bear if you didn’t have to. And there’d been four on the trail. Three cubs and an adult.

Detouring around the animals had seemed easy enough at the time. Head east for five minutes, south for five minutes, and west for five minutes, and she’d be right back on track, theoretically. The only problem was that she’d now been moving west, or what she thought was west, for a good twenty and hadn’t hit the trail again. She couldn’t be more than a mile or two away as the crow flies, but her chances of actually making it there were about as good as the chances of a limo pulling up and whisking her off to Hollywood.

The bramble on the forest floor had already done a pretty impressive job of scraping up her legs. She paused for a moment, wondering if it’d be smarter to try and find her own way home or to wait for someone to come find her.

She’d left her dad a note on the fridge like she always did before she went for a run by herself. “Gone running,” it said. “If I’m not back by 7, call the police!!” She’d drawn a winky face after the last word, but the idea didn’t seem so funny anymore.

The trouble was, she didn’t even know when her father would be back to see the note. He’d told her he would be going out to dinner with a friend, but Mischa knew, despite the different excuses he gave her every week, that Tuesday nights were reserved for his AA meetings. The funny thing was that she was actually really proud of him for going, and would have been able to tell him so if she wasn’t afraid of shattering the image of himself he’d erected for her. She figured he lied about his problem to protect her; he’d been doing a lot of that since the death of her mom six years before.

Mischa’s stomach growled and she ripped open the top of her last energy gel, sucking the red goo down her throat and tucking the wrapper back in her pack. She started moving again, figuring she would keep on going at least until the sun set in another half hour or so.

The effort it took for Mischa to make her way through the trees and underbrush had thus far kept her concentration away from the rising lump of panic in her throat, but she was so focused on the ground in front of her that she almost missed the trail of smoke rising from the trees to her left.

If her eyes had stayed on the path beneath her feet, things may have turned out very differently that evening. She lifted her gaze at just the right instant (or the wrong instant, depending on who you are and how you choose to see things), however, so the next moments found her stumbling through the trees into the company of a very amiable looking log cabin.

A soft light blushed through the windows on either side of the front door, which was painted a dull red that contrasted pleasantly with the soft tan color of the structure. A cloud of white-gray smoke puffed out of the chimney, making its way humbly into the vastness of the Massachusetts sky.

Mischa advanced to the front door, heart beating more quickly than usual. She never felt totally at ease meeting strangers, but doing so when she looked, for lack of a better string of words, like something the cat dragged in was high on the list of activities in which she preferred not to partake. She allowed herself one deep, steadying breath, then lifted a fist and knocked four times on the red front door.

Nothing. She waited half a minute and knocked again. Still nothing. Was it possible that nobody was home?

There was no keyhole in the doorknob, no lock that she could see. Much as she hated to be impolite, Mischa decided it might not be too terrible to enter the cabin uninvited. If they had a landline, she could call her dad and tell him what was going on. She would, at the very least, be safe from the creatures that roamed the woods at night.

She twisted the knob and pressed the door open an inch. A ray of light drifted through the crack, illuminating a sliver of the now-dark forest floor.

“Is anyone home? Hello? Okay, well, I’m, um, I’m coming in now.” There was no real way she could have been sure that there was no one there, but she was sure all the same. She pressed the door the rest of the way open.

The inside of the cabin reminded her of a childhood trip she had taken with her parents to Lake Tahoe shortly before her mother died. What had she been then, ten? Eleven? They’d stayed at a cozy place just like this, and gotten up with the sun each morning to ski on the beautiful frosty slopes. Mischa had been a terrible skier, but her mother and father stayed all day with her on the easiest run, not once showing any disappointment that she couldn’t quite get the hang of it.

The cabin seemed bigger from the inside than from the outside. The light that had spilled out into the forest emanated from the roaring fire in the grate beneath the mantle, as well as five or six pretty kerosene lamps scattered on tables throughout the living room. A number of leather bound volumes filled the bookshelf near the front door, and there was an ornately carved chess set standing between the easy chairs facing the fire. Most wonderfully, the rich smell of beef stew wafted from the kitchen to Mischa’s nose.

The stew rested in a delicate china bowl on top of the small dining table, surrounded by elegant place settings that suggested someone had been interrupted just before taking the first bite. Either that or the meal had been placed on the table especially for her.

Not wanting to spoil anyone’s dinner, Mischa began to search the few lone cabinets beneath the kitchen counter for something to quiet her indignant stomach. There were two large burlap sacks in the first cupboard, one marked “FLOUR” in large letters and the other “SUGAR.” She moved to the next and found another mostly full burlap sack (“RICE”).

Peeking out from behind the bag of rice was a small window just above ground level. Strange place for a window, Mischa thought. Won’t get much light in the room through a cupboard. Stranger still were the metal bars lining the window from the inside, so rusty that some of them looked just about dissolved into nothing.

After considering briefly if it would be possible to digest a handful of uncooked rice, Mischa took a seat in front of the bowl of stew. Hands fumbling in her lap, she told herself that its proprietor would want her to eat it rather than sit there and go hungry. She picked up the spoon and brought a mouthful to her lips.

The stew was delicious. With the first spoonful, the warmth of the stuff passed through her throat and seemingly all the way down to her toes, which tingled in gratitude after being subjected to the forlorn chill of the forest. She set the spoon back on the table and brought the bowl to her lips, tipping the contents into her mouth and gulping quickly until nothing remained.

As she swallowed the last mouthful, she heard a hand on the doorknob. She rose hastily, readying herself to hurl apology after apology at the stranger whose home she had invaded.

As she swallowed the last mouthful, she heard a hand on the doorknob.

The boy who entered the cabin couldn’t have been more than a year or two older than Mischa, but there was a striking quality in his handsome face that suggested otherwise, the quiet sophistication that only comes from seeing much of the world or perhaps from having it unwittingly thrust upon you.

“I’m so sorry for barging in here like this, oh my gosh, I got lost in the woods and I saw your cabin and I just thought I should see if anyone was home, because I really need some help, and it was getting so dark, but no one was there and it was dark and I was so scared, and I, um, let myself in.” She said most of this very quickly.

He set down the buckets of water he was carrying in each hand.

“Sure have a lot to say, don’t you?” He smiled, sweeping a lock of light brown hair from his forehead.

“I’m Mischa, by the way. I think I ate your dinner,” she answered, still nervous but encouraged by his initial reaction.

“Teddy,” he replied. “So are you okay? Apart from being lost?” His eyes dropped to the scrapes on her legs.

“Oh yeah, those are nothing. Do you have a phone I could borrow?”

She thought she saw a darkness flit through his eyes at the question, but he answered amiably enough.

“No phones here, I’m afraid. No electricity either. Why don’t you take some water and clean your legs up in the washroom?”

“Thank you so much, but I know my dad’s probably getting worried. Is there any way you could point me back to the trail?”

“The path is only a mile west of here, but it’s not safe out there at night for a girl to go wandering on her own. How about you wash up and then we’ll figure out what to do with you?”

The question sounded more to Mischa like an order, but his expression remained friendly.

He shrugged off his traveling coat and Mischa saw that he was wearing a pair of brown trousers and a loose white tunic. A bit peculiar, like he had just been filming a scene from The Three Musketeers. But he didn’t offer an explanation, and she didn’t ask for one.

“The washroom’s through the bedroom, and you can use the rags on the shelf.”

He handed her the bucket and she carried it to the washroom as instructed. In the dim light afforded by the single small kerosene lamp, she dipped a rag in the bucket and washed her cuts.

On her way back to the living room, she noticed a simple blue-gray gown laying on the sleigh bed. It was there before, Mischa thought. I just didn’t notice it when I came in.

“Why aren’t you wearing the dress?” he asked as she reentered the living room, corners of his mouth turned down. “I picked it out especially for you.”

“Thank you so much for everything, seriously, but I really have to go. My dad’s gotta be freaking out by now and I’ve already taken advantage of your…hospitality,” she finished, edging toward the front door.

When she saw that he wasn’t going to try to stop her, she relaxed.

“Really, Teddy, thank you so much for everything,” she said, twisting the doorknob with her right hand. But when she pushed, nothing.

“What’s wrong with the door? How do you unlock it?” she asked.

“There is no lock,” he answered.

She moved to the closest window and shoved.

“No lock there either.”

“But then how am I supposed to leave? How did you get out?”

“I come and go as I please. This is my house.”

“You don’t mean…I’m not stuck here, am I? There has to be a way out.”

“There is a way out. But I think you ought to stay.”

“Teddy, please let me go. I really need to go,” she said, feeling the burning in her throat that always appeared just before a hot flood of tears.

His face darkened. “If you really want to leave, you’ll find the way. If not, I think you’ll find it’s not as bad here as you fear it might be.”

Mischa moved to the rest of the windows in the room, trying each even though she knew they wouldn’t give. He stood watching her with his arms crossed, an expression of patient indulgence on his face. Once done, she tried the windows in the bedroom and even the one in the bathroom, which looked too small to climb through even if it did end up being the only way out (it didn’t).

When she returned to the living room, he was exactly as she’d left him.

“Satisfied?” he asked.

“Of course not,” Mischa answered.

“Can I offer you something more to eat?” He waved his left hand in the direction of the kitchen table and a number of dishes materialized on its surface. There was more beef stew, a pot of something that looked like dumplings, a steaming mug of hot chocolate, and a ramekin of delicious looking crème brûlée.

Her silence was answer enough.

“Very well,” he said with a sigh, clearing the table with another lazy wave of his hand.

A noise from outside drew Mischa to the window and she saw a group of people approaching, yelling and combing the area with their flashlights. Leading the group was her father, beating back the greenery with a frantic determination.

Mischa screamed his name and threw her fists against the glass, sure that she was only moments away from being rescued. But her father paused just on the other side of the window, looking almost directly at her, and there was no recognition in his eyes.

“Mischa!” he yelled again. His voice was strong but the tears coursing down his cheeks were not.

Despite her continued pounding, her father and the others soon disappeared back into the trees. She turned her back to the wall and slumped to the floor, cheeks streaming with silent tears of her own.

“We don’t exist to them, you know,” Teddy said.

“Please, can’t you let me go? Can’t you please just let me go?” she asked.

“You’ll be happy here, with me.” There was no remorse in the words. “Unless, of course, you persist with these silly requests to leave. Then you may find yourself very unhappy indeed.”

They stayed in that position for some time, Mischa sobbing quietly against the wall and Teddy watching her closely. Finally, he spoke.

“Would you like to play a game?” he asked, gesturing to the chess set.

Again, her silence was answer enough.

“Suit yourself,” he said. “But you will come sit by the fire, in any case. You look a mess there on the floor.”

Mischa obeyed, dropping into one of the twin easy chairs as he did the same in the other. The fire crackled cheerfully in the grate and she sat watching it, captivated by the dancing flames.

He said there’s a way out, and I don’t think he was lying, Mischa thought. What am I supposed to do, take an axe to the walls? I tried the door, I tried all the windows…

She had an idea.

“I do want to play a game, but I’m terrible at chess. Have you heard of hide and seek?” she asked.

“Yes, of course,” he answered, excited by her sudden interest. “Which do you want to do, hide or seek?”

“I’ll hide first,” she said. “But you have to count in the washroom so I know you’re not cheating. To 30 at least, so I have enough time.” She put forth her best attempt at a genuine smile.

“Okay,” he said, smiling back. “But I’m going to find you.”

But her father paused just on the other side of the window, looking almost directly at her, and there was no recognition in his eyes.

As soon as she heard the door shut, she grabbed the Mace out of her pack and opened the kitchen cupboard, moving the bag of rice aside as quietly as she could. It had to be the place. No other reason for a window in a cupboard, especially a barred one.

Placing her feet on either side of the window, she grabbed a rusty bar with both hands and yanked. It gave easier than she expected, and she moved on to the next. Only the last one refused to be pulled, but she wouldn’t be able to fit through the window unless she found a way to detach it.

“Ready or not, here I come,” Teddy yelled. She heard him open the door and begin searching the bedroom. How long until he realized she hadn’t chosen a spot there?

Heart beating with the ferocity of a speeding bullet, she drew back her leg and kicked hard at the bar with her heel. It disconnected from above the window with a clang.

“I heard you in there,” he said. “I’m coming for you!”

When Teddy entered the room, there was a moment in which he and Mischa simply stared at each other, motionless as statues. She saw a surprise in his eyes verging almost on a stupid innocence, and for that second she wondered how he came to be here, what had made him this way. But almost as soon as the look appeared, it was replaced by a flash of fury and he charged forward at her from the doorway.

Ready for the confrontation, Mischa grabbed the can of Mace and released a torrent into his face. He reeled, screeching and clutching at his eyes, and she turned back to the window.

She unfastened the latch and pushed on the glass, swinging the window open into the cool night air and diving through the newly created opening in the wall. It was much too small to get through easily, and too high from the ground to use her knees for leverage after her top half was through the opening.

She dug her hands into the forest floor and twisted her hips, inching the tops of her legs forward. Just as she was creating enough momentum to slide the rest of the way through, a pair of hands seized her legs just above each knee.

Teddy yanked and she was pulled backward, throwing her arms out to the sides of the house in an attempt to keep some of the ground she had gained. He yelled something at her, but the words blended together as a single guttural roar.

With her very last bit of determination, Mischa kicked back at him, hard. Her feet connected with his chest and he fell, releasing his grip. She scrambled through the opening, bruising nearly every square inch of her torso and legs but feeling not even a fragment of pain.

Once she was through, she pushed to her feet and took a few unsteady steps away from the house before looking back to see if Teddy was in pursuit. But when she turned, he was nowhere to be seen, and the house was no longer itself at all.

One of the cabin’s walls looked almost burned to bits, and every window she could see, including the one from which she had just escaped, were lined with broken glass. The front door hung askew on its hinges, red paint peeling like skin after a bad sunburn. The entire place lied in ruins, as if it hadn’t been inhabited in years.

Miranda FreemanMiranda Freeman writes short stories, novels, and odes to her miniature Australian shepherd. She earned her B.A. in Linguistics and English from UCLA in 2012, and now attends graduate school in Boston. When she’s not writing or coming to terms with the barbaric East Coast winters, she’s usually abusing her Keurig privileges. You can visit her online at mirandafreeman.com.

Days After

            July 14, 2013 (Not Guilty)

The rally is not the mourning I need. A Protestor wears a new gray, leopard-print hoodie, carries tropical flavor Skittles, 99-cent honey-iced tea. Black boy—still dead. White Man richer, free, alive. Tall White Guy with the Socialist T-shirt is the master of ceremonies, a stale hype man for revolution. White Girl with Dreads and a Djembe talk about body politics and the new laws trying to tag the walls of wombs. Older White Man in Denim Vest with Spray-Painted Peace Sign brought his tambourine and his solidarity stickers. Young Black Youth with Kinki Twist is the closest I come to the realest I sought. She is hurt. She is angry. She is heartbroken. For an instant, I let it be true. A black boy was killed. His murderer is free. I am not surprised.

Today, White Lady at the rally cries holding a picture of that pretty dead boy on the TV. Tomorrow, she sees 6’2’’ black man walking towards her and crosses the street. There is a new moon tonight, and it looks like nothing is in the sky at all. But the moon is there, big and bright as ever, but even I have become so good at giving no glory to things that blend in with the night.

On the way to my car, within a block of the rally, I see: Black Woman my mother’s age drooling on her breast and her stained cotton dress; Black Man sweating in long-sleeve denim suit who could be my father asks me for change; White Couples Behind Glass eating clams, scallops with sautéed onions, talking about the grandkids.

 

            November 3, 2013 (Did you hear about that girl? She was asking for help.)

Fear, that’s a word. Rage, that’s one too. As is sorrow. As is murder. As is black and that one has several meanings. Sick is a word. Hollow is a word too. What use do I have for them any more? I don’t want to write. I want to burn. I want to burn everything. But I don’t want to live in castles of ash. I barely want to live (but I must—but who is to say I get to?).

I don’t want to talk about hope. I’ll hope next week. As of now, there is no just thing anywhere. I have trouble believing in the mercy of God, but I am ever aware of his creations and how we uncreate so easily.

And if I was unmade tomorrow, would my murderer walk free? Better question: what color would he be? Don’t tell me it doesn’t matter, it always has. If I, tomorrow, was a memory, would my name be more than shapeless smoke from blunts lit in my honor? Would my trial be quiet or cause a wildfire? Would the case set a precedent or continue a pattern? I don’t want to protest anymore. I want to weep. I want the whole world to take a day to grieve, but I know there are people celebrating somewhere. I want to turn off all the noise everywhere. There are some days even music isn’t welcome. I want to hold every black boy in the world. I want my house to change into my mother’s hands. I want nothing more than nothing. I don’t want to write, but how can I not? I’ve taught myself to write to survive. I’ve been taught that I am not guaranteed to survive.

 

            October 12th, 2014 (Ferguson, October)

I’m smoking on my couch and I’m not doing enough. I’m washing the peaches and I’m not doing enough. I’m screaming a man’s man and I’m not doing enough. I’m trying to figure out when I can get to the beach this week and I’m not doing enough. I wanted to be in Ferguson this weekend and I didn’t. I’m not sure how far rage would take me and I know what I’m capable of. I’m not scared of police and I know my luck. I’m scared of police and I know it’s mutual. I don’t own a gun and I shouldn’t. I know where my grandmother keeps hers and I get it in the will. I will throw it in the river and under my bed. Another boy on the news and I haven’t learned his name yet. Another boy and it’s barely news. A new one and it’s already old. I’m eating yogurt and I’m not doing enough. I wonder if the white girls across from me are thinking about black life, guilt, and I know they’re not. I don’t know his name and it matters. It matters—the boy’s name and the fact that I must know it. I’m thinking about the privilege of asking questions. I’m thinking about whiteness and how it becomes you. I’m thinking about how blackness and how you can call it heirloom or hand-me-down. I’m thinking about my sister thinking about Raven-Symone. I’m thinking about the girl on the news and I’m bringing it up too late. I’m thinking about the girl and what was the last one’s name? I’m thinking about them. All of them. I’m thinking about the news-less girls. I’m thinking about the boys who didn’t deserve it. I’m thinking we might have different standards for innocence. I’m thinking about prisons and how many there are. I’m thinking about jumpsuits made of bad cotton. I’m thinking about this has got to be a dream. I’m thinking this whole thing is someone’s dream. I’m thinking about a dark bird’s sleep. I’m thinking about closing all the windows and locking the door. I’m never going outside again and I want to run to the ocean. I’m American and don’t want to be anything else and I hate that. I’m so damn American. I hit the streets. I change the channel. I tweet about it. I think about it a lot. I sleep about seven hours a night. I get weekends off.

Danez SmithDanez Smith is the winner of a 2014 Ruth Lilly & Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from Poetry Magazine/The Poetry Foundation. He is also the recipient of fellowships from the McKnight Foundation, Cave Canem, VONA, & elsewhere. Danez is the author of [insert] Boy (YesYes Books, 2014) & the chapbook hands on ya knees (Penmanship books, 2013). He was featured in The Academy of American Poets’ Emerging Poets Series by Patricia Smith. Danez is a founding member of the multi-genre, multicultural Dark Noise Collective. His writing has appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, Beloit Poetry Journal, Kinfolks, & elsewhere. He placed second at the 2014 Individual World Poetry Slam, is the reigning 2-time Rustbelt Individual Champion & was on 2014 Championship Team Sad Boy Supper Club. In 2014, he was the Festival Director for the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam. He holds a BA from UW-Madison where he was a First Wave Urban Arts Scholar. He was born in St. Paul, MN.